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The grate, outdoors

The ups and downs of teatro al fresco

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The cheery whistle of a steam locomotive. The full-throated brraappp! of a motorcyclist getting the hell out of Dodge. A police siren, shortly after that. Eighteen-wheelers downshifting. Most of all, a fusillade of hasty footsteps on plywood, amplified by pressure-zone microphones.

Shakespeare had few of these things in mind, of course, when he wrote Romeo & Juliet. But at Live Wire Theater's brave stand last Saturday, their irregular reoccurrence--save the Pullen Park locomotive, whose regular interruptions at least kept faithful time--proved one thing at least: They demonstrated how thoroughly spoiled we've become to outdoor drama sat Chapel Hill's Forest Theater, Raleigh Little Theater's Amphi-theater and Snow Camp's historical redoubt.

In theory, teatro al fresco should demonstrate how little true theater demands: good actors, an empty space and an attentive audience. But by the end of Live Wire's initial Pullen Park excursion, a few other items proved equally essential.

Start with sunblock and water, since trees provided shelter only to the far-left corner of the audience. Patrons there were later ambushed when the sun descended behind the actors on the opposite side of the field--although people throughout the audience were seen squinting and shielding their eyes. So don't forget the shades.

When it comes to uninterrupted peace and quiet, the fourth commodity in short supply, you're largely at the mercy of three things: motorists on Western Boulevard, which lies immediately behind the stage; the engineer who pulls the whistle on the choo-choo, and, ironically, the performance itself.

That's due to the unwise technical choice director Scott Franco made in this production: placing a series of pressure-zone microphones directly on the plywood platforms that constitute his and Joe Brack's set. While such mics can be effective at picking up nearby voices, they are unfortunately excellent, in this case, at amplifying every footstep anywhere near them. That's why the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble uses them in their concerts--and why they were the wrong solution here.

Since solutions imply problems, the one most likely implicated here involved having inexperienced actors--or actors inexperienced outdoors--physically and vocally project to fill an outside space, even in scenes of intimacy.

So a director decides to use mics to amplify the performance--so the players don't have to learn how to do it physically for themselves. In that case you have to equally amplify all portions of the stage, or individually mike every actor.

But since pressure-zone mikes don't do that, a choice designed to simplify things instead makes matters more complex. Actors have to use gesture and voice to amplify themselves in certain parts of the stage. In other places, they have to pull in--while looking out for dead zones where they have to go back up.

Instead of performing in one familiar economy of expression, the actors must repeatedly switch back and forth between two opposing ones. Since they are frequently in motion, they're constantly having to assess their proximity to mics, and modulate between styles--broad when away from the mics, internal when approaching them. It must be a fairly schizophrenic experience.

For the audience, the uneven results involved enjoying the flamboyant work of Joe Brack in the role of Mercutio, and admiring Sarah Kocz and Phil Crone as they nimbly navigated both set and acting styles. But we repeatedly struggled to hear other actors, including leads Kendall Riliegh as Juliet and Walter Herz Ronceros, who tended to blurt his lines as Romeo.

A cast of clearly mixed abilities and experience navigated the shifting space as best they could. Tommy Hoang added savor to Tybalt, while beginner Jazz Undy did little with the role of Paris.

Which brings us to the other curiously short commodity on the Live Wire stage: parents. Crone and Karen Sault were pressed into duty as both Lords and Ladies Capulet and Montague, with the director relying on a simple change of sash to reduce the inevitable confusion between the couples.

Still, we must congratulate Franco for what is, without doubt, the most chilling graveside scene in any production of Romeo & Juliet I have ever seen.

It likely answers, for all time, the question of what Hitchcock might have done if he'd directed the lovers' double suicide. This, alone, almost makes up for all the difficulties encountered getting there.

Just be sure to take your shades and sunblock. EndBlock

Next week: Our first five-star production takes the show on the road--to the hometown of a man recently pardoned from Death Row. Join us, won't you?

Reviews & openings
NOTABLE OPENINGS:
Turandot, Opera Company of North Carolina, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Friday-Sunday, May 23, $66-$22, 831-6060; Holocaust Cantata (Songs from the Camps), Choral Society of Durham Chamber Choir, Judea Reform Congregation, Durham, Saturday, May 22, $10, 489-7062.

REVIEWS:

*** Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Raleigh Little Theatre--True confessions up front: This was my first exposure to the songs of Jacques Brel--and I found I really didn't care for the majority of them. In all likelihood this means I'm not the best person in the world to ask about the merits of this 1967 musical. Much like Smokey Joe's Cafe (which RLT also produces next month), Jacques Brel is a plotless two-act collection of songs by the mid-century French chansonnier, illustrated to varying degrees (at times with wit) by a quartet of singers.

I can, however, testify that Heather Powell, Don R. Smith and Olive McKrell were in particularly fine voice, with somewhat weaker vocal work and acting from a young Alan Seales, and that Julie Florin's four-piece orchestra was exuberant during Brel's more raucous celebrations and satires--and occasionally tentative in their interpretations of his darker themes, which formed a significant amount of this production.

I did appreciate the gentle phrasing of "The Desperate Ones," a pretty song about something not pretty at all, and the similarly artistic schism present in "Timid Frieda" and "Old Folks." Where these and other songs like "Alone" and "Marieke" devoted to a jaded world-weariness hit a contemporary emotional--and political--nerve, others, like "My Death," struck me at times as merely maudlin.

Between these meditations, Brel ascended the absurdist's merry-go-round, in delightful send-ups like "Madeleine," "Brussels" and "The Middle Class."

Still, at the end of this, my first encounter with Brel, I was left wondering about the impact of these songs in the original French--and how much was lost in the translation.

Though some critics might say shows like this should make the case for a songwriter, musical tastes are such an individual affair that I'm not convinced this argument holds water. The best I can say for Jacques Brel is that a previously cultivated love for Brel may well be required to get the most out of this work. As things stand, there were enough glimmers in what I saw that made me wish I'd had one. (Thursday-Sunday through May 30. $15-$11. 821-3111.)

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