Whodunit? Or whydoit? | Byron Woods | Indy Week
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Whodunit? Or whydoit? 

Theater isn't necessarily a summer thing

In one week, Team Kennedy showed us How It's Done with its impressive pocket musical at BTI (before Kenny Gannon had to prove if the third time--since 1996--really is the charm with Ellen Byron's Graceland). The week before and after, regional, community and university-based companies let their hair down and just indulged.

Just a wee bit more than was useful, in the final reckoning.

Word to the practice: The sloppy season is apparently upon us. Summer, when our best thoughts are out on Ocracoke, and just why the $%?! are we spending this much time in a cold, dark room?

God, I hate playing the heavy. Still, fun's fun, business is business--and in theater, you ignore either at your peril.

We now turn--reluctantly--to the lessons of the week.

1. Sorry. We don't care how much they loved it in the mountains.

Crossroads , the truly disappointing season closer at Temple Theatre, couldn't be more transparent an exercise in Southern Mass Taste if it had the words tattooed on both rumps.

When it comes to theater, geography may well be destiny to a large extent. No one seriously expects Sanford's Temple Theater to produce Marat/Sade anytime in the near future. But most Temple productions in recent years haven't pandered as nakedly to those apparently all-important, down-home sensibilities as playwright Robert Inman's truly mediocre musical. His workmanlike score and pedestrian lyrics demonstrate imagination exactly once--in a witty, wise, second act number, "Falling in Love in a Song." The song's not-too-sentimental lyrics make fun of the romantic and show-biz clichés that the rest of Inman's script ironically milks for the remainder of the work--presumably until a sufficiently rural audience moos.

For the main, the entirely predictable occurs when a train wreck deposits a wild-west show on the outskirts of a very small Southern community in 1914. Its single-sided inhabitants, who are nearly as generic as the place name (Cross Roads, N.C.), include a high-minded widow who's the moral center of her family, an ingénue--and true innocent--who wants to shake things up with the fervor only one who's truly never tasted sin is capable of, a busybody switchboard operator with a roving eye, a grandfather who's a hellfire and brimstone preacher (until the subject of cowboys is introduced), and a universally beloved, if itinerant, black servant who's been befriended--as an equal--by this amazingly right-thinking group of people.

Yep, sounds like my North Carolina's history, all right.

A commendable Heather Patterson-King does her best to lend this cardboard and white bread put-on some credibility as the mother, Miss Eva.

2. What do you do when a character who's a "bad actor" in a play within a play steps out--and doesn't get any better?

A Month of Mysteries at N.C. State's Univerity Theatre: The Butler Did It is a pretty funny send up of whodunit conventions--with a few well-known improprieties from the theater thrown in for bad measure. We almost died laughing when Jim Sullivan and Linh Schladweiler's hydraulic eyebrows epitomized melodrama in a sappy opening scene. Then the scene broke, and we learned that some of the bad actors on stage weren't actually acting all that much.

OK, that's exaggerating just a bit. But in places it was hard to tell that, when you got right down to it, our potential mirth at simulated theatrical misbehavior was repeatedly sabotaged by--well, theatrical misbehavior. Actors repeatedly going up on their lines, simple characterization elements slipping like so many wax mustaches; in a word, sloppiness. The act is usually more together at N.C. State--not to mention most other houses in the region.

Things fared better for Appointment with Death , Agatha Christie's too predictable little potboiler. Marilee Spell gratifyingly dug into the pure evil of the dominating mother-as-prison-matron, Mrs. Boynton, while her quartet of doomed little children each explored their own little niche of Hell. Meghan Witzke convinced me she should never handle sharp objects as troubled Ginervra, while Collette Rutherford channeled someone out of Edward Gorey as the pale Nadine. JoAnne Dickinson, clearly having a better night than the one I spied in Butler, was delightful as British blowhard Lady Westholme. Fred Gorelick seemed a bit over the top in the accent department as Dr. Theodore Gerard, but Joel Horton and Kendall Rileigh appeared to be having considerable fun as Raymond Boynton and his thankfully insistent love interest, Sarah King.

Derrick Ivey conveys the right degree of earnest desperation as Alex, the little man caught in the web of a Dragon Lady who actually comes off more like a spider, trapping him in her psychological web in Robert Daseler's dispiriting little play. Greg Paul, meanwhile, fairly oozes with the boozy camaraderie and overconfidence of best friend (and philanderer) Paul; we've all seen his type, too.

But the women--believe it or not--have a rougher time in this tribute to female horribleness. Alisha Wolf is given little to work with as the naive Nan. Cynthia de Miranda demonstrates considerable growth as an actor since last we saw her several years ago--but still has growth ahead of her to fully embody Margo, the title character. We buy the repulsion that's actually this character's come-hither, and the passion when she winds Ivey's Alex in her threads; bravo. Now to make doubly sure that the behavioral pathways don't become ruts instead in her anger and more obscure, manipulative passages. Keep growing.

Byron Woods can be reached at byron@indyweek.com.

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