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Byron Woods

We're history?

Playwrights regularly find inspiration in the past. Holinshed's Chronicles provided the basis for Shakespeare's historical plays. And though Joan of Arc has inspired playwrights from George Bernard Shaw to lesbian feminist Carolyn Gage, their radically different takes indicate what we'll call the malleability of history. It isn't a recent phenomenon: Holinshed's bias conveniently favored Shakespeare's Tudor monarch and patrons.

Filmgoers know the phrase "based on a true story" is both come-on and caveat, acknowledging that artists take artistic license with their historical inspirations.

What's equally intriguing are the differing demands audiences make of "historical" dramas. Sometimes we want improbably comic speculations on famous characters and events--as in Steve Martin's Picasso & Einstein at the Lapin Agile and Tom Stoppard's Travesties.

But, as Mel Gibson and the producers of The Reagans have learned, audiences can make other demands of "historical" work.

It's not just a matter of factuality. Perhaps we want artists to respect the people they represent, or, at least, respect them as much as we do. Beyond a point it seems a famous figure's history isn't theirs alone. It's ours. At least, we act as if it is.

And we tend to resent others taking liberty with our property--our icons most definitely included.

That may be the dividing line between Silver River and The Gardens of Frau Hess, both of which opened last week.

Romulus Linney's point of departure in Silver River is an anonymous, handwritten journal he found decades ago. Linney clearly admits inventing a different world from the one in that book, letting his characters take off in his imagination.

None of this disturbs us--nor, arguably, should it. If Linney's tale is a fiction, it faithfully represents the verities of a lonely, intelligent woman who turns to a diary, somewhere in the American Midwest a century ago, when there was absolutely no one else to talk to. Even if she does not faithfully represent one woman, we believe Linney still keeps faith with many women in that period.

At times this production gives the vertiginous experience of living fast-forward through another person's elliptical writings about her life. If the final sections read a bit idealized, Christine Morris' solo interpretation still rings true.

But close on the heels of Via Dolorosa and The Chosen, two recent examinations of Jewish religion, culture and history, comes The Gardens of Frau Hess, the latest and least successful of such efforts.

Since nothing else is known about the Nazi war camp prisoner Rudolph Hess' wife had as a gardener at the end of World War II, playwright Milton Marcus speculates that he was a Jewish atheist, riddled with self-loathing, and that he and Frau Hess fell into increasingly psychosexual cat-and-mousery.

Marcus' intentions and those in this production may have been golden. But this first-time playwright's ludicrous excesses, the predictable "revelations" of the script, and the exaggerated characterizations in this production plunge us ever deeper into soap opera. By the end, this degraded spectacle has effectively reduced a Holocaust tale to an implausible sex melodrama, a Mandingo of sorts transposed to wartime Germany. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings

A Balanchine Celebration II, Carolina Ballet, BTI Center, Thu-Sun, Feb. 12-29, $59-$5, 719-0900; The House of Yes, Lab! Theater, Kenan Theater, UNC, Feb. 20-24, Free; How I Got Over, Hayti Heritage Center, Feb. 19, 7 p.m., Free, 683-1709; Josh Kornbluth: Love and Taxes, Sheafer Theater, Feb. 19-20, $20, 684-4444; Lace: Thread Dance & Friends, PSI Theater, Feb. 21, $9-$7, 949-0849.

**** The Rocker, Theatre in the Park--As mentioned in last week's A&E Spotlight (whose headline got the venue wrong--our apologies), regional playwright Adrienne Pender reconsiders King Lear when three sisters struggle to deal with an emotionally distant father recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's Syndrome. His final attempt to manipulate them with a multimillion-dollar pre-death bequest tests their relationships. Further tests await when each must care for him in their homes.

Pender's sensitive script illuminates how these people became who they are. No Shakespearean photocopy, it humanizes sisters and father without finding an easy villain.

Director D. Anthony Pender clearly hasn't shorted character development in this brisk work. We clearly read the tangle of family dynamics in the subtleties of Donna Rossi Youngblood's performance as oldest sister Ginny, Jennifer Joyner's middle sister Rachel and Mariette Booth as the rebellious Delia. Jack Hall's fine as father Owen. Also notable was Jason Weeks' supporting work as Ginny's husband, Al.

A compelling family drama. Recommended. (Thu-Sun, through Feb. 29, $18-$12, 831-6058.)

*** Via Dolorosa, Deep Dish Theater--British playwright David Hare's earnest, prismatic report on his 1997 visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories attempts to shape his travel observations and conversations--with community leaders, theater people, politicians, citizens, civil servants--into an outsider's account of the divisions within Israeli and Palestinian communities, as well as those between them.

Yes, but is it theater? David zumBrunnen faithfully underplayed the relatively flat introductory passages of this one-man show on opening night. But what began as a grim public address slowly warmed into something more theatrical and humane, inhabiting Hare's talks with others, including a late-night walk with a worried West Bank settler.

Though plays usually try to present a coherent picture of a world, this mosaic of views must remain frustratingly incomplete--limited by the unconsulted and by still unfolding developments. Toward the end, Hare repeatedly, plaintively asks, "What is the way forward?" Few answers--and no consensus--emerge.

But is he reaching for synthesis in the problematic close--or merely abandoning the question in fatigue, forsaking the titled way of pain for English domesticity after one trip to the Middle East fails to reveal The Answer? Either way, images slip haphazardly through Hare's grasp at the end, as the overarching insight eludes him and us. It's an incomplete conclusion to a not entirely successful fusion of theater, political analysis and journalism. (Thu-Sun, through Feb. 28. $14-$10. 968-1515.)

1/2* Morning's at Seven, Raleigh Little Theater--Over six of RLT's most distinguished actors combined still can't redeem director Haskell Fitz-Simons' irritatingly reductive casting and character choices or the leaden pacing that led to walkouts when we saw it. (Wed-Sun, through Feb. 22. $19-$5. 821-3111.)

(Zero Stars) Measure for Measure, Peace Theater--Director Kenny Gannon's promising opening montage introduced inmates in an insane asylum. Then we never saw them again.

Taking their place were acting students apparently unversed in vocal production and character (not caricature) development, indiscriminately mixed with talented guest actors who seem not to have been directed so much as merely let off leash. They and their director ultimately contributed to a sloppy, self-indulgent--and poorly thought-out--farcical resetting of Shakespeare in a Southern mental institution.

Going by appearances, Gannon abdicated coherence--and several directorial responsibilities--at this madhouse door. While beginners flailed beyond their depth, carpet-chewing histrionics, slasher-film outtakes and a pointless karaoke tribute to the musical Hair demonstrated the extremes the guest experts were capable of. None of these made this lengthy mess more believable, dramatically effective or entertaining.

If Gannon had actually wanted to engage issues involving sex, politics and morality, this was the right script to do it with. In Shakespeare's world, a morally zealous civic administration sentences Claudio to death for having sex before marriage.

But believable characters must be put in believable jeopardy to engage these issues, which never happens here. We don't buy the authority or menace of Jay O'Berski's Duke or those he leaves in charge. Inconsistency means Sonya Drum's padded cell is not a place of forced confinement--not when folks regularly walk out when they please. Claudio's counterfeit dilemma is paralleled by the utter falsity of Angelo's attraction to a wooden Isabella. We don't buy any of these characters or their world.

Why do lab technicians, nurses and orderlies--or students and actors borrowing their uniforms--oversee torture and order civil servants to execute inmates? Maybe it's unreal, the program notes suggest. But adding the question of reality to the issues above muddies any other point Gannon might have wanted to make.

A director doesn't get to abandon character development, consistency and logic in a madhouse. If anything, the opposite is usually the case: The altered sense of an altered world usually requires more care in its creation and reinforcement, as opposed to this slapdash approach. Here, the sleep of reason just makes bad theater--and the weakest work we've seen in years at Peace. (Closes Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m., $10-$5, 508-2051.)

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