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And They're Off

Triangle theater companies get the season started with a six-pack of unusual programming

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There'll be theater news enough to raise a few eyebrows when The Independent's two official Fall Season Previews hit the streets starting Sept. 11. The only problem is, the regional theater season actually begins in earnest this weekend, with major productions simultaneously opening in Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh and Sanford. All told, there's a six-pack of shows to be reckoned with in the coming weeks, as a diverse crew including Manbites Dog, Deep Dish, Open Door and Temple Theater kick things off with something besides the usual programming.

And if alternatives start a new season best, it augurs well that the first show on the season's first night comes from our favorite anarchists at Paperhand Puppet Intervention. Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman's imaginative, colorful, multi-story papier-mâché puppets have been advancing their theater of political and environmental activism for years, in this region and beyond. Since the '90s, they've seen action at Haw River, and a series of major political protests in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

Granted, on occasion their work has won few points for subtlety, but at their best Burger and Zimmerman's work fuse poetry, myth and allegory to probe the natural and man-made forces that influence our lives. Listen to the Sky, their latest, promises to do the same, as a collection of gourd-heads--that's us--attempt to adjust to a changing world while ancient stars sing creation into being.

Doubly auspicious for a season's opening week is an African-American theater work by a company outside of the very small handful of regional groups devoted to the genre. Deep Dish Theater Company starts their new season with A Lesson Before Dying, Romulus Linney's adaptation of the 1993 Ernest Gaines novel selected for Oprah's Book Club in 1997. Lesson chronicles one teacher's imperfect attempts to help Jefferson, an unjustly condemned man, find the humanity and dignity stripped from him in a Louisiana murder trial in 1948. It also examines the dilemma of Grant, a teacher for whom accepting the possibilities of a college education has also meant abandoning the people who made it possible. Torn between a sense of duty and the desire to escape, a character unsure of how to be a man must teach another one to do so in the last minutes of his life. Paul Frellick directs Lennardo DeLaine, Torrey Lawrence and the seasoned Etheldreda Guion, starting Thursday night.

Further new developments. We haven't always looked to Temple Theater for regional musical theater premieres. But they get underway with I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, by all accounts a sparkling collection of songs and scenes devoted, in the show's own words, to "society's most neglected special-interest group: hopeful heterosexuals." The New York Times has called it "Seinfeld set to music," and after seven years it's still running Off Broadway, a stint long enough to make it the longest running musical revue in history. Locally, Jerry Sipp puts Debra Gillingham, Greg Hohn, William G. Stutts and Donna Shannon through those changes, starting Thursday night.

We close with two tales of bad breaks and the people who made them into something else. C. Glen Matthews learned that adrenalin made an effective short-term anesthesia when he broke his wrist in two places during his Thursday night performance in the last week of Raleigh Ensemble Players' production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Director Heather Willcox remembers seeing him fall during "Exquisite Corpse," about 20 minutes before the show's end. "He finished the show, and the first thing he said when he got off was 'Get me some ice,'" she says. Still, neither the ensuing hospital trip nor an arm cast kept him off stage the following night. "It was insane. We worked through some moments with the cape and the microphone, and Glen gave two of the most incredible performances I've ever seen: very focused, very strong," Willcox says. "On Tylenol, nothing else."

And you can say what you like about New World Stage's Hookin' for Jesus--God knows, I have--but still, the online journals of their first conquest of Edinburgh's Fringe Festival have made for some truly interesting reading. At

http://www.newworldstage.org/db_connection/journals/view_journals.asp, Scott Pardue, Jeanette Oswald and Jessica Horstman have managed to assess, with unusual frankness, an assortment of bum steers, slim houses, and their own tactical errors. In the process, they've shared with regional audiences (including theater companies still weighing their chances) a storehouse of experiences, some more painful than others. Pardue's entries on "Our First Big Problem," "Reviews," "Becoming Professionals" and "Battling for Attention" are of interest, as are both of Oswald's essays. Taken together, they document a small company's passage from innocence to experience, and give a serviceable map to those who'd follow in their footsteps. If this group has any sense, they've already started work on a Spalding Gray-like chronicle of their trip. I, for one, would pay to see it. EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at byron@indy week.com.

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