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Three experiments yield mixed results



We speak of experiments in theater as if every performance were not one. Yet all shows, from humblest to grandiose, from cynical to most sincere, begin in much the same way. An artist asks the question, "What would happen if you tried that, now, on a stage?" Theme, technique and the human form are utilized to craft a speculation, and the hypothesis turns into a production. The public performance constitutes its proof.

For all that, we know some productions dare much more than others do. A "safe" show asks nothing more from its cast than a reiteration of what is already known, and nothing of its audiences besides a hefty ticket price—plus two hours that they will never see again.

Happily, the number of regional companies devoting entire seasons to the safe has dwindled on my watch. Yes, poorly taxidermied warhorses are still trundled slowly downstage in several local venues before being dumped into the playgoers' laps. But for each of these grotesques, other companies and artists investigate unconventional stories, unanswered aesthetic questions and untested changes in the relationships between image, word and narrative—and between performers and the audience.

Since such works are regularly scattered across the season, it's noteworthy when several intriguing ones show up at the same time on the local stage. If you're into the experimental, there are three shows you need to see this week—particularly since all will close by Sunday.

Even the least successful of these experiments, Manbites Dog Theater's an oak tree, is still an interesting—and nervy—departure from the basics of artistic process: a two-person show in which one actor deliberately isn't shown the script before the start of the performance.

Trace of Arc, the inaugural production by Free Association Theatre Ensemble being staged in a bookstore in Chapel Hill's Southern Village, is interested in resetting both the boundaries of the stage and the borders of our conversation with what's occurring there. Though they're ambitious goals enough all by themselves, this curious comedy seeks to reset our terms of engagement in several civic conversations as well.

And Katja Hill's Cornucopia of Me takes what already is in some ways the ultimate theatrical dare, the autobiographical one-person show, and fashions something even more audacious: a live performance that uses music, her own prerecorded voice and (believe it or not) mime, in a captivating work whose final effect appears to be a thoroughly postmodern take on—of all things—silent films. This you've gotta see.

An Oak Tree

Manbites Dog Theater
Through March 24

Master of the revels: Dana Marks as a hypnotist in Manbites Dog's an oak tree. - PHOTO BY TYCHO ANOMALY

How long can playwright Tim Crouch keep aloft the theatrical tightwire act that comes when one of two people on stage has ever seen his lines? Long enough to prematurely congratulate himself one too many times for a work he doesn't entirely pull off in the end. Under Jeff Storer's direction of Manbites Dog's an oak tree, Dana Marks feeds a different actor every night their lines in mid-scene by way of microphone and wireless earplugs or a set of handy clipboards. The night we saw it, Scott Robertson ably played the father of a young girl, seeking help from Marks' character, a stage hypnotist who had killed her in an auto accident the year before.

Crouch's script arguably inquires into the difference between hypnotism and transubstantiation—imbuing inanimate objects with the souls of others—before, that is, an insufficiently metatheatrical text descends into patently fake actor chat and gratuitous faux-critique and honorifics. Crouch tries to explore the metaphors of history and theater as hypnosis, but an abrupt and all-but-tacked-on ending abandons the pursuit—and the show—apparently in mid-thought.

Trace of Arc

Free Association Theatre Ensemble
Market Street Books & Maps
Chapel Hill
Through March 24

Early on, actor Lamont Reed gives us the first clue we're in for an unconventional night in Trace of Arc. His character, who's been seated in the audience, walks on stage to suggest a few improvements to the play in progress. By night's end, this enigmatic stand-in critic has urged Collin Beck's Tracy, a stocker in a small-town grocery store, to civic martyrdom—but without explaining all the fine print along the way. So who's really the angel: He, or Bonnie Perron's sweet and sour cynic, Jackie, whose learned helplessness makes the score she knows irrelevant?

Though Ali Smith's script veers between true metatheater and ham-handed jibes at consumer culture, it leaves critics—and the rest of us—with more than sufficient food for thought. Lisa Klein and Donnis Collins round out a notably strong cast, under Julya Mirro's nimble direction.

Cornucopia of Me

Manbites Dog Theater
March 23, 10 p.m.

Someone give Norma Desmond the news. After the advent of the talkies, the faded silent movie star bragged to gumshoe Joe Gillis in the film noir classic, Sunset Boulevard, "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces."

Rumor verified: Katja Hill has both. After stacking the theatrical deck of Cornucopia of Me against herself two or three times over—an autobiographical solo show, in mime?—she comes out swinging, ably mocking a cavalcade of unsuitable day jobs a rising actor has to take. Though her equally unconventional costume, a black unitard with matching headpiece, took many by surprise at Friday's opening, the choice made sense soon enough: It effectively foregrounded Hill's most expressive face, done up in clown white with cocked black eyebrows.

As her prerecorded voice (which needed more calibration at points to allow for audience laughs) related harrowing incidents from fast-food emporiums, a strip club and less dubious forms of customer service, the actor's gestures and finely nuanced facial expressions satirized workaday horrors, between brief, doe-eyed takes to simulate an employee's soulful concern. It wasn't until I'd written the names of Ida Lupino, Clara Bow and Clara Young in my notes that it hit me: In Cornucopia, Hill has managed to update that most postmodern of genres, autobiographical self-performance, by somehow fusing it with a film genre or two whose peaks had come between 50 to 75 years before.

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