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Toil and Trouble

The chaos marking a graceless transition in Forest Theatre Festival management is reflected in its opening night performance


A recent update from the United Kingdom: The Scotsman, billed as "Scotland's national newspaper," praised Wordshed Productions' performance of Crash Diet and Other Sins at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in its Aug. 8 edition.

But by its description in its three-out-of-five-star review, The Scotsman saw a significantly different show than the one that played locally at the end of July. Apparently the company enlisted some expert help between its latest domestic showing and its first foreign export.

UNC-Chapel Hill professor Paul Ferguson's trademark rendition of the poem "The Mountain Whippoorwill," a Chapel Hill no-show, was first singled out for praise. It's a crowd-pleaser, one he was performing years before Wordshed came into being. Ferguson's wife, New York actress and producer Andrea Powell, was equally missing down here but was lauded in Scotland for her work in an unnamed selection.

At least both saw their entire names in print. Company co-founders Matthew Spangler and Sarah Whalen were mentioned, by their last names only, in the online Scotsman review ( /reviews.cfm?id=858862002) that termed the show a "mighty fine four-course taster of country-America," but criticized the "familiar story" of Crash Diet.

Still, Wordshed's showing offered fresh, independent proof that world-class talent does perform in our region, even though it doesn't always take its strongest work to market. It also begged a pointed question: If this show managed an unsurprising three out of five stars, what reception would the truly world-class work in their striking adaptations of Thomas Wolfe's The Lost Boy or Hemingway's Men and Women have gotten on the streets of Edinburgh?

Half a world away, both artistically and geographically, Chapel Hill's Forest Theatre Festival opened last Thursday night with an uneven new company performing a similarly uneven new adaptation of Molière.

Judging from the outside, chaos ruled a graceless transition in festival management from Jimmy and Mardi Magoo's wideAwake Theater Company--itself the last gasp of that once-fabled group of Michigan expatriates, The Somnambulist Project--to One Song Productions, the fledgling brainchild of Daniel Elam, a drama student at Chapel Hill High School.

Up until the week before opening night there had been little indication that there would actually be a festival this year. The first concrete evidence of it was a handwritten press release that materialized a week before opening night, with skeletal details on one show out of three--the new Irreverence Theater Company's production of Tartuffe. The Web site cited in that release had no information about the 2002 season until show week. Just as puzzling, a mid-July press release from Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman's Paperhand Puppet Intervention on their upcoming work, Listen to the Sky, made no mention of the festival it now closes.

Multiple phone calls finally confirmed that three companies would perform through mid-September in playwright Paul Green's beloved outdoor theater on the edge of the UNC campus. After Irreverence opened Tartuffe last weekend, this week an equally unknown One Song would open a new musical based on, of all things, the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh. Next weekend, Paperhand Puppet Intervention opens Listen to the Sky.

Though the festival runs through mid-September, bewildering gaps in programming place performances on the Thursday and Sunday of the week before it closes (Aug. 5-8), but leaves empty stages on what should be its biggest nights, Friday and Saturday. Darkness similarly shrouds the Saturday night of its closing weekend (Aug. 12-15), with performances on Thursday, Friday and Sunday nights.


hose hoping that this festival's act would be more together on-stage than off were disappointed by Thursday night's opening of Tartuffe. To brand this production as high school theatrics is to snub a number of regional programs including Durham's Riverside or Raleigh's Enloe High School, whose work at times has equaled--if not surpassed--the quality of work we've seen at venues like Manbites Dog Theater or Raleigh Ensemble Players.

This initial offering from the optimistically named Irreverence Theater Company does not rise to such levels. Though moments of ingenuity are seen on stage in this well-intentioned production, its far more frequent episodes of static staging and insufficient wit limit this Restoration comedy. The creaking iambic pentameter of the translation affords some amusement, but the comic potential of having the audience guess which words complete a surfeit of cheesy rhymes largely goes untapped.

The particularly uneven, under-developed characterizations cripple director Ken Wolpert's production, as vivid stock characters suffer from amateurish construction. Lisa Klein briefly gives savor to the production as the dour Madame Pernelle, and Donald Radcliffe Shenton makes a competent Orgon. Jim Krist's bluster is welcome as Cleante, while Susannah Kemple's ditsy devotion to young swain Rajesh Bangdiwala is a rare source of refreshment.

But Daniel Elam's particularly wooden work as Damis, Orgon's son, does not bode well for his directorial debut this week in Gilgamesh. And Oliver Vest's decidedly fey take on the title character seems repeatedly poised to dismiss his tasteless victims with a well-placed snap of the fingers. Though a gay Tartuffe is an intriguing thought, it still remains one well beyond the courage of this production.

In Molière's inverted world, Dorine is the wise and thoroughly outspoken housemaid who must save the house of foolish nobleman Orgon. Kathleena Yow's performance gives enough to make us wonder what she, and the rest of this crew, would have accomplished under better direction.

While Forest Theatre Festival works have always been a checkered affair, those who had hoped a change in management might presage a change in the quality of the performances must keep hoping. Thus far, decided mediocrity on-stage and off has opened this season with a resounding thud. EndBlock

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