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Byron Woods 

Don't tune out talks

It's ironic, but the title of Ola Rotimi's fascinating dark comedy, Holding Talks, could be doing to the current production by Duke Institute of the Arts exactly what the phrase does when it's uttered on the evening news--diffusing interest, turning people off.

The newspaper's always riddled with the words. On Monday morning, Rumsfeld was set to hold talks with Iraqi coalition and military leaders. Taiwan offered to hold talks with China. Energy companies and labor unions hold talks in Australia.

The eyes just glaze over, don't they? And not without reason.

Intuitively we know that these words, like many in the realm of diplomacy, are strategically masking more than they reveal. The lesson? If you want to hide--and, presumably, neutralize--the most violent of differences, use the most neutral of phrases. Instead of arguing, exchange views. And never grab for power. Not when you can hold talks instead.

Which is why it would be foolish to miss these talks in particular. Nigerian playwright Rotimi uses absurd comedy to expose the lies of euphemism and rhetoric. In this potent metaphor, a client in a barbershop prevents any assistance to a man having a heart attack--until talks have been held.

Rotimi's son, Kole Heyward-Rotimi, first mounted an amateur production last September. When Institute director Kathy Silbiger saw the production, she recognized the same promise we saw in the script, and proposed this weekend's professional run. And regional interest in this playwright continues to develop: Manbites Dog Theater hosts Rotimi's Man Talk Woman Talk, Mar.10-14.

Once dance at Peace College was the jazzy affair pictured. But Peace College Dance Company honors its past in this weekend's 20th Anniversary Concert by looking forward--with a program of all new works by former faculty, students and company guests. Former artistic director Tiffany Rhynard returns from Ohio State with two works Bebe Miller has invited her to stage in New York this spring, and Christal Brown steps back in from her time with Urban Bush Women and Bill T. Jones to push company dancers outside the comfort zone in Knowing the Difference. The 5Chick crew toasts modern marriage with Cellophane Bride and current artistic director Beth Wright debuts a work based on Teri Tempest Williams' unsettling meditation on natural femininity, Undressing the Bear.

Finally, attention must be paid whenever anyone tries to put the words of Howard Zinn, the thought-provoking author of A People's History of the United States, on stage. Zinn's a playwright as well: His Emma was about the life of Emma Goldman, and Marx in Soho, a one-man show that Chapel Hill audiences will see this Sunday, Feb. 29, gives the labor theorist a chance to clear his name. Brian Jones has toured the country playing Marx, who has here negotiated his way back from the Not-So-Great Beyond--to the Soho neighborhood of New York, not the Soho of his London home. So sorry. Other understandings--about culture, commerce and history--will be challenged as well. One show only, Sunday afternoon at 4:30 p.m., at UNC's Hanes Art Center. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings
Cold Kill, New World Stage, Carrboro ArtsCenter, Thu-Sun, through Mar. 6, $10-$8, 929-2787; Even Exchange Dance Theater, Fundraiser/Preview, Saturday, Feb. 28, 7 pm, Winter Potpourri Performance, Sunday, Feb. 29, 2 p.m., Arts Together, 114 St. Mary St., Raleigh, 828-2377; Hansel & Gretel, Capital Opera of Raleigh, Jones Auditorium, Meredith College, Fri-Sun, Feb. 27-29, $15-$12, Free w/Meredith ID, 760-2840; A School for Scandal, NCSU University Theater, Stewart Theater, Wed-Sun, Feb. 25-29, $14-$6, 515-1100; The Subject Was Roses, Playmakers Rep, Tue-Sun, through Mar. 21, $40-$10, 962-7529; Sylvia, Lab! Theater, Playmakers Theater, UNC, Friday, Sun-Tue, Feb. 27,29-Mar. 2, Free.

**** The Rocker, Theatre in the Park--Regional playwright Adrienne Pender reconsiders King Lear when three sisters struggle to deal with a domineering, emotionally distant father recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's Syndrome. His final attempt to manipulate them with a multimillion-dollar pre-death bequest tests their relationships, and further tests await when each must care for him in their own homes. Pender's sensitive script shows us how these people became who they are; no Shakespearean photocopy, it humanizes sisters and father without finding an easy villain.

D. Anthony Pender's brisk direction clearly hasn't shorted character development. We read the tangle of family dynamics in the subtleties of Donna Rossi Youngblood's performance as oldest sister Ginny, Jennifer Joyner's middle sister Rachel and Mariette Booth as the rebellious Delia. Jack Hall's fine as father Owen, and Jason Weeks was notable in the supporting role of Ginny's husband, Al. A compelling family drama. (Thu-Sun, through Feb. 29. $18-$12. 831-6058.)

***1/2 Silver River, Manbites Dog Theater--Anyone who's ever snuck a peek inside a sibling's diary (or a close friend's email inbox, for that matter)--and learned something crucial in the process--knows that tang of voyeurism mixed with revelation: "I shouldn't be reading this, but now at least I understand." Silver River marks the third time in the last 40 years that playwright Romulus Linney has searched for an effective literary or theatrical analog to an experience he must have had when he first turned the pages of a woman's handwritten, anonymous journal from the 1800s, decades ago in an antique bookshop.

His efforts in this one-person show are frequently fascinating, but still not entirely successful. Actor Christine Morris announces the date, and then narrates each day's entry, relating the joys and sorrows of a lonely, intelligent woman, somewhere in the American Midwest.

Morris is a fine actor, who takes the singular difficulties of the script well in hand. Still, in the journal's shortest and most cryptic pages, the condensed nature of this fast-forward through a woman's life nearly inspires vertigo.

Where a reader would have ample time to let an elliptic four or five word entry--and the rest of the empty page--resonate and unfold, theater usually cannot wait three to five minutes to let the words sink in. The flaw here is probably not in Jeff Storer's direction or Morris' acting. More likely it's an implicit difficulty in translating a read experience into a staged one.

Even so, a woman with absolutely no one else to talk to emerges here, to comfort and to educate herself. This chronicle of temperance anticipates the dawn of suffrage, as our narrator slowly empowers herself, by herself. If the final sections still read a little rosy, the journey getting there most assuredly does not. Morris' performance embodies Linney's words with authority. Recommended. (Wed-Sat, through Feb. 28. $15-$10. 682-3343.)

*** Via Dolorosa, Deep Dish Theater--British playwright David Hare's earnest, prismatic report on his 1997 visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories attempts to shape his travel observations and conversations--with community leaders, theater people, politicians, citizens, civil servants--into an outsider's account of the divisions within Israeli and Palestinian communities, as well as those between them.

Yes, but is it theater? David zumBrunnen faithfully underplayed the relatively flat introductory passages of this one-man show on opening night. But what began as little more than a grim public address slowly warmed into something more theatrical and humane, inhabiting Hare's talks with others, including a late-night walk with a worried West Bank settler.

Plays usually try to present a coherent picture of a world, but this mosaic of views must remain frustratingly incomplete--limited by the unconsulted and by still unfolding developments. Toward the end, Hare repeatedly, plaintively asks, "What is the way forward?" Few answers--and no consensus--emerge.

Is he reaching for synthesis in the problematic close--or merely abandoning the question in fatigue, forsaking the titled way of pain for English domesticity after one trip to the Middle East fails to reveal The Answer? Either way, images slip haphazardly through his grasp at the end, as the overarching insight eludes him and us. It's an incomplete conclusion to a not entirely successful fusion of theater, political analysis and journalism. (Thu-Sat, through Feb. 28. $14-$10. 968-1515.)

** The Gardens of Frau Hess, Raleigh Ensemble Players--Stage artists who speculate on life during the Holocaust should do so with sensitivity and taste. Nothing else is known about the Nazi war camp prisoner Rudolph Hess's wife had as a gardener, but first-time playwright Milton Marcus' best conjecture is that he was a Jewish atheist riddled with self-loathing, and that he and Frau Hess ultimately lived out an implausibly shared sadomasochistic domination fantasy.

Marcus apparently wants to say that self-denial leads to self-eclipse, and that cultural differences cannot be erased from within or without. But the melodramatic excesses of his script, the predictability of his character's "revelations," and the exaggerated characterizations in this production plunge us ever deeper into soap opera. By the end, this ludicrous spectacle has effectively reduced a Holocaust tale to an unseemly sex melodrama, a Mandingo of sorts, transposed to wartime Germany. (Thu-Sat, through Feb. 28. $15-$10. 832-9607.)

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