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Haunting the House

Chills in theaters this week, while a Duke playwright poses human action figures


Gretchen Wright (on swing) as the Demiurge in House of Desires. In rear: Heather Collins (left) and Julie Berger. On steps: Brittany Duck and Aaron Marco. - PHOTO BY LES TODD
  • Photo by Les Todd
  • Gretchen Wright (on swing) as the Demiurge in House of Desires. In rear: Heather Collins (left) and Julie Berger. On steps: Brittany Duck and Aaron Marco.

Once more it is the week of certain magic. Potent words, when spoken well, will have the power to conjure men and women from thin air; to merge two times and places into one; to animate and draw the long dead near so we may hear and love and dance with them again.

Halloween? Well, yes, I suppose it is that, too. But it also is a week in which good theater's abroad. Whole worlds lie just beyond those lobbies. And much waits to be learned there. In the comforts of the dark.

Director Rafael Lopez-Barrantes obviously knows how good literature casts its spell. At the opening of his vivid House of Desires, a circle of proud lovers, servants, kinsmen and friends slip out from what appears to be stage-sized sheets of parchment to promenade and play upon the pages of the playwright's manuscript itself.

The conceit isn't abetted only by Amir Ofek's set and flamboyant costumes. An added character called the demiurge--a fantastical representation of enigmatic author Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz herself--reinforces matters as well. In that role, Gretchen Wright depicts a sprightly creator, one delighted with her creations. She writes and draws--and dances and swims--among the words on the Reynolds Theater stage: scribbling in details at times on the skin of characters like Doña Ana (Nina Bergelson), eavesdropping with astonishment upon their scandalous conversations at others.

It's a stance that seems to parallel the position of de la Cruz--perhaps, indeed, to a fault. One of the great intellectuals of 17th-century Mexico, she still chose to view life from the vantage of a convent in colonial Mexico City. As a close friend of the ruling family, she had no small access to high culture. But as a Hieronymite nun, the views on desire and passion presented here seem to have been taken at some distance. Catherine Boyle's wordy adaptation underlines this intellectual aspect as estranged from the baser realities of the subject.

Of course, much of this distance can be attributed to the limitations of the comedia of her time. Still, to present eyes, the demiurge repeatedly seems a woman with a very vivid imagination--but one who is playing more with paper dolls or cultural action figures than fully developed characters. Lopez-Barrantes captures her delight in posing them this way, and then that. It remains unclear, though, to what degree she can be said to transcend them.

House of Desires
Duke Theater Studies
Through Oct. 29

Encouraging results from last weekend's staged reading of Oldest Living Confederate Widow: Her Confession, the new adaptation of Allan Gurganus' best-selling novel: This work in progress already has something the 2003 Broadway run lacked—a compelling reason for the character to tell the story. If some of the hinges in the adaptation by Gurganus and Jane Holding still need oiling, Quinn Hawkesworth's solo performance, unsurprisingly, is a definite keeper. And if the show is already this strong now, we expect even more from its first full production in the 2007 Theater of the American South Festival next May in Wilson, and a subsequent run at Burning Coal in Raleigh in the fall of 2007.

Theatergoers seeking live chills this week have four short-run options. Those who would witness the tender mercies of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror should see Danton's Death when Gregory Kable directs the UNC Department of Dramatic Art presentation in Kenan Theater, Thursday through Monday ($5, www.unc.edu/depts/drama).

Our capsule review below notes Little Green Pig presents chills of a different order, in their itinerant stagings of Brian Friel's Faith Healer--plus they've added an additional evening and space to their eccentric tour. Thursday night they're at Hillsborough's Leland Little Auction House (at 246 S. Nash St.); Friday finds them next door to the Durham Arts Council, in the building at 108 Morris St. Both shows are at 8 p.m. Sunday, they're in downtown Raleigh, for a 7 p.m. showing at the Urban Design Center in the Alexander Building, at 133 Fayetteville St. ($12, www.littlegreenpig.com).

Bare Theatre relies on a host of Raleigh friends to present Macbeth Thursday through Sunday at Durham's Common Ground Theatre ($15-$7, 594-1140). And UNC's Company Carolina, who've been on-again/off-again in recent showings, will present their version of Pink Floyd's The Wall, Thursday through Monday, outdoors, in the Forest Theatre on Country Club Drive ($12-$5, ccreservations@unc.edu). Bundle up.


The Curious Savage, Peace College--Within the first five minutes you know John Patrick's dated 1950 insane asylum comedy hearkens back to an age when on-stage lunatics (like Harvey, its contemporary) were always amusing. Still, under Kenny Gannon's direction, Deb Gillingham mounts a winning defense of gentle eccentricity in the title role, as the matriarch to a conniving brood scheming to wrest control of the Savage estate from mother's hands. (Through Oct. 28)

Faith Healer, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern--As an itinerant performer traveling villages throughout the United Kingdom, Francis Hardy, the title character, is a remarkably faithless faith healer, a man tortured for years by the unpredictable nature of the rare--but real--miraculous occurrences at his hands. Brian Friel's compelling script anticipates the structure of his later Molly Sweeney, which Playmakers Rep staged in 1997, as three characters ultimately reveal different sides of the same secret. Director Dana Marks' discerning work with actor Michael O'Foghludha makes Hardy a twisted, bitter man in search of a miracle all his own, while Nicole Farmer's tragic reading of Hardy's companion, Grace, explores the sharpest needs a faithless man cannot fill. Jay O'Berski's comic take on eccentric manager Teddy leavens the drama with humor. (Through Oct. 29)

1/2 The Underpants, Playmakers Repertory Company--We're baffled: Why did Playmakers chose this truly mediocre sex farce for its mainstage season opener while minimizing I Am My Own Wife and Closer in recent company and department productions? Why did it needlessly reiterate a show Raleigh's Actors Comedy Lab staged just last year? Marion Williams' multi-level fun-house of a set is diverting, but even with Gene Saks' direction, Winslow Corbett's insubstantial take on the owner of the titled unmentionables does not improve on Morissa Nagel's more vexed--and grounded--interpretation from last July. Toothsome supporting work by Ray Dooley and Jeffrey Blair Cornell doesn't redeem a plot that can be reduced to a single, off-color punch line--or a production without a compelling reason to be in Paul Green Theatre. (Through Oct. 29)

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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