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Tech toyland?

RLT takes Spitfire Grill out for a spin. Also, Paperhand's eerie modern dance and Agora Players' Twelfth Night

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New tech toys walked hand in hand with theatrical difficulties of longer duration through The Spitfire Grill, Raleigh Little Theatre's season opener last weekend. A new stage turntable proved a limited blessing when rudiments of characterization and music still weren't entirely squared away last Saturday night, in a production whose ticket prices probe the highest levels of non-union theater in this region.

But after James Valcq and Fred Alley's sketchy exposition dumped heroine Percy in little Gideon, Wis., we were off to the races--literally--as Rick Young's run-down diner of a set twisted to the side, disclosing the dining room, before turning more to usher us through the kitchen, and then spinning us outside again. And then some, repeatedly. Think of some lucky child who's found a Lionel train set under the Christmas tree and you've got the idea--particularly since the on-stage locomotions weren't all strictly necessary.

Staci Sabarski had the right edge for an ex-con trying to go straight, though her singing high notes proved treacherous. Still, when non-cook Percy had to take over kitchen duties, the result was the hilarious song "Out of the Frying Pan."

But Brett Wilson as Sheriff Joe was inappropriately directed to wipe out a lifetime of reservations in a single line of "This Wide Woods," and Sabarski's chemistry remained speculative with him and a stiff Elanah Sykes as Shelby. While we bought Sykes' relationship with Don Smith's blowhard husband Caleb, their Act 2 moment of domestic violence rang false.

Throughout, Rose Martin remained rock solid as the irascible Hannah, and Anne Butman delighted as small-town gossip Effy.

But could the money invested in this theatrical Lazy Susan have enhanced instead the thin sound and wobbly upper strings of Lori McLelland and Diane Petteway's orchestra, a septet that only sounded half its size?

We also have to note that RLT designers still seem in learning mode. How else to explain unsightly wires snaking from overhead to an incongruous metal pipe jutting from center stage to electrify the set's light fixtures? Or the creaks, groans and whirs of the moving stage, which obscured sung and spoken lines?

A padded score made this sentimental script, taken from the movie of the same name, seem overlong.

Several times this summer I spied Paperhand Puppet Intervention co-founder Donovan Zimmerman in the audience at the American Dance Festival. Having seen "Morphos," the most intriguing section of the new show Garden of the Wild , I now see what he gained from the experience. Though no through line connected the concert's sections, and some of Garden's sequences (including its opening) seemed thinner than last year's Wood, Stone, Fire & Bone, "Morphos" extended Miroto Martinus' mask work at the festival's end into interesting territory. Six puppeteers dressed from crown to feet in stretchy black stocking fabric began the work seated, their backs turned to us, with white masks strapped to the backs of their heads.

In no time, the altered, almost spidery choreography suggested strange aliens, as performers reoriented the masks (and creatures) to have faces on the top of their heads. Then they extended the masks to the end of their arms, introducing us to beings with incredibly long necks.

Yes, children (and adults) will enjoy the incredibly colorful menagerie that populates the other sections of this offering. And it's good to see this troupe reengage politically, with a lengthy last environmental work, and a pointed metaphor, "Hog Wild," in the midst.

But the monochrome "Morphos" suggests the most fascinating surface, only scratched in this outing. Will we come to think of Zimmerman as a choreographer as well as a puppeteer? Let's find out.

Add a place at the table; another good director has moved to the area. I refer to julia hundt , whose Agora Players distinguished itself with Twelfth Night last weekend on the green at Chapel Hill's Southern Village. I don't want to oversell this work, since this mixed cast includes novices with seasoned names that regional theater-goers will recognize. But if Hundt's achievements with first-timers deserves recognition--and they do--the level of work she gets from others demands attention.

Dante Walker, who'd been stereotyped by local directors as a military heavy, finds a dramatically extended emotional range here as a festive Feste, the fool. Bravo. Kendall Riliegh fully animates Maria, the trickster maid who foils Carroll Credle, at the top of his game here as Malvolio. Kate Slattery impresses here on our first meeting as Viola, the hapless woman who cross-dresses as Cesario to serve Orsino. And though costumier Rebecca Bratten over-relies on microgestures, she ably inhabits the hard-to-get Olivia.

Not a perfect night of Shakespeare, but subtexts throughout were solid, and the high points made a happy evening under the stars. Recommended.

E-mail Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com.

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