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The settlement 

A heaping Dish of Moliere

Of course, everybody settles. Sooner or later. The only questions left are where they settle--and for what. That's what Alceste is in revolt against at the start of Moliere's The Misanthrope. It's more than enough to place him in a long line of passionate (and temporary) one-man revolutionists whose ranks have included Albert Camus' Caligula, Johnny Rotten and at least one fundamentalist mass-murderer or two.

It's telling that when such protagonists confront that philosophic monstrosity, the Absurd--the realization that while we can clearly imagine perfection, we can never fully realize it on Earth--the whole crew winds up embodying it instead.

But what concludes as tragedy in the world of Camus--and low-grade pop-culture notoriety in the extended denouement of Mr. Lydon (check out rendered farce in Moliere's saucy world.

After the hypocrisies of life at court sicken him against all forms of social subterfuge, Alceste resolves to leave human company behind, forever, in his opening argument with mentor Philinte. Their war of words is interrupted when the foppish Oronte unwisely demands Alceste's true opinion of a poem he just wrote. After critically tearing it to shreds, Alceste proceeds to visit his prospective love, Celimene, and inform her of his less-than-strategic retreat. He demands that she choose him as her only love and join him in ascetic bliss--an order that a witty woman who's quite deft at verbal swordplay is likely to decline.

In this useful opener to Deep Dish Theater's fourth season at Chapel Hill's University Mall, Roman Pearah is redirected as Alceste to the comic extremities we last witnessed him in in Deep Dish's Arms and the Man. John Murphy sails perhaps too steady a course as the stoic Philinte who weathers all slings by the impetuous young critic. In Judy Chang's costumery, Katja Hill increasingly takes on the aspect of a character out of Edward Gorey in the role of Celimene.

This crew is ably supported by memorable turns from Nicole Farmer as Celimene's catty rival, Arsinoe, and Jack Prather as the ridiculous Oronte. Nicole Quenelle brings understatement to Eliante, Celimene's cousin, while Tommy Van Hoang and Thomas King please as attendant fops Acaste and Clitandre.

Moliere's social criticism is sharp, but it ultimately remembers that the joke's on us. Recommended.

****Wood, Stone, Fire & Bone (Paperhand Puppet Intervention)--Director Donovan Zimmerman and fellow puppetmaster Jan Burger create a ring of beautifully designed and painted multi-story puppets representing water, air, stone, green vegetation and wood to tell an imaginative, gentle tale of planetary evolution. The number of the elementals is increased when Air gives birth to a child, Fire, who spends time learning from a phalanx of animals and from his elders' ways.

It's tempting to describe all the animals and entities Fire meets in exquisite detail. But since surprise is closely wedded to delight in this production, we'll praise the menagerie in general, and Tori Ralston's curiously designed marionettes.

Shadow puppets further the story of evolution and the chain of life, and a fabulous bird hugs an entire audience before it takes flight. A white heron, or the Japanese crane of peace?

The six-person band provided much of the evening's magic. Claudia Lopez and Jimmy Magoo's wordless vocals soared over Zimmerman and Stephen Levitin's percussion and Wells Gordon's upright bass. Piquant punctuation from Jil Christensen's accordion leavened the physical comedy onstage.

The result: a treat, and one the whole family will enjoy. Grab a picnic and a blanket and catch it while you can. (Friday-Sunday, through Sept. 12. $7-$10.

***Pump Boys and Dinettes (Raleigh Little Theatre)--Call this musical tribute to those good ol' boys and girls down Highway 57 at that fill-em-up station and diner across the road an unapologetic one-way road trip to nostalgia, with a potent enough mix of vintage country rock, torch, show tunes and blues. But then call to make sure they've fixed the sound troubles that kept losing Kenny Roby's lead guitar and burying the backing--and lead--vocals at times the night we saw it.

Rose Martin and Sandi Sullivan's work on "Tips" and the Pump Boys' "Fisherman's Prayer" and "Catfish" were fine, along with their signature theme. In fact, the original score has only one clunker: the maudlin "Sister," whose lyrics need a decade of estrangement to fund it, not a momentary (and thoroughly contrived) disagreement. For the rest, if you can actually hear 'em, you'll probably head home happy. (Wednesday-Sunday, through Sept. 5. $18-$12. 821-3111.)

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