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Lovers--and other demons

The dark side of amour


Demon lovers--or those merely once removed--factored into most of the major openings last week. The one exception? Deep Dish's Holiday, which neatly inverted the proposition.

Johnny, the loner boyfriend, is not the satanic one in Philip Barry's toothsome, unapologetic 1928 jazz-age soap opera. Hell begins at home instead, which is the main reason certain family members are trying to vacate the premises with dispatch.

Not that that's the easiest thing to do when one's a member of the fabulously wealthy Seaton clan. The only one who actually seems happy from all that old money and blue blood is father Edward, a man who apparently manages his family like he does his board of directors.

No wonder fiancee Julia wants a wedding--within a month--while educated and eccentric sister Linda is looking into getting her passport renewed. Meanwhile brother Ned is also permanently relocating, it seems--to the inside of a bottle of gin.

The 1938 George Kukor film with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant was billed as a romantic comedy, but director Tony Lea understandably plays a bit more even hand in this production. For one thing, an alcoholic can't be played for the same laughs he would have gotten 70 years ago. For another, we invest more in the characters and situation when we can actually feel the bite of golden handcuffs, the leash of conscience and the overweening sense of cold entitlement that drives the different characters.

We get all these in this production--and still wind up with laughs to spare. Perfect-pitch casting puts Scotty Cherryholmes as icy father Edward, while David Berberian believably caresses brother Ned's bruised psyche. As things progress, Tracey Phillips catches the family chill as Julia.

John Allore is likable as a Johnny who's naive to society and business, but given the occasional excesses of Barry's script, at times he seems on the verge of singing The Internationale. Katja Hill constructs the most complex character on stage as sister Linda--even if she was throwing away too many of Barry's memorable wisecracks on opening night. Memorable support came from Timothy Cole and Katie Flaherty as those insufferable social climbers, the Crams--and from Kevin Ferguson and Collette Rutherford as true friends Nick and Susan Potter. Full credit goes as well to Rob Hamilton's magic set and Judy Chang's historic costumes.

Playwright Michael Smith's news flash arrives just over four-and-a-half centuries too late for the original cast, and two centuries past due for Goethe. Still, here it is, for what it's worth:

Doctor Faustus was a chump. A pigeon. A strictly bush-league magus (or old-school magician, to you) who could no more tame a demon than he could subdue his frazzy, offbeat hair.

I mean, come on: If you can't impress a class of freshmen, how exactly do you intend to bind a prince of darkness to your will--or a princess, for that matter?

But Faust , when we first encounter him in this Shakespeare and Originals production, is already a burned-out academician who's bombing with the undergrads, a has-been who should be seriously considering retirement options and extra bran, not trucking about with the principalities of the air, the earth and Them What Live Below.

Still, rubes to carnival will go--a point reinforced by Steve Tell's colorful projections at Faust's opening, appropriately set to Rufus Wainwright's disenchanted midway anthem, "Oh What A World."

And marks will always make an unwise bargain. It's what they're there for. Faust wants knowledge, and will sell his soul to get it. Only after paying the steepest tuition in recorded history does he prove a recalcitrant student at best.

Clearly, there's no shortage of imagination or craft in the direction, acting and design of this production. Robert Stromberg's sets, which filled the front part of Pittsboro's Chatham Mill last weekend, ably ranged from concrete to abstract. Director Jay O'Berski and Donovan Zimmerman's shadow puppets advanced the plot, but the ones we actually saw were an uneven mix. Sound montages spliced sometimes ironic, sometimes pithy songs from Nina Simone, Nick Cave and the aforementioned Mr. Wainwright with sacred choral music and atmospheric noise by Rick Lonon.

Tom Marriott made the title role all we've mentioned above, while Lissa Brennan crafted a Mephistopheles whose brusque tour guide/life coach guise doesn't always mask the contempt of the carny. Flynt Burton's waiflike Margaret falls--eternally, it seems--for a Faust himself suckered into a seduction through Mephisto-phelean aphrodisiacs. Byron Jennings II, Michael O'Foghludha and Lance Waycaster provide notable support as well.

But is Smith's script a distillation of Goethe, or a simplification of it instead? It represents Part One of Goethe's text as the whole, for starters. And this Faust clearly never begins to constitute a match for his friend from Down Under. His internal resources decimated, it's obvious once Faust signs that bargain with Mephistopheles he's, well, toast. Apparently he hasn't the wit to realize what the audience does, early on--that the demon doesn't begin to honor her part of the deal.

Crafting so one-sided a relationship between the two sacrifices a lot of the dramatic possibilities in the process. We're left wondering, did Faust never learn anything in the downward spiral that constitutes but the first part of his tale? Did Goethe actually spend years of his life on this big a chump--and if so, why? Or in telling Goethe's tale--but only from the demon's point of view, it seems--is something crucial still lost in this translation?

A demon lover of decidedly different stripe confronts us in Eye of God, which closed at Peace College April 24. The only reason this one ever stops beating his Bible is to give his new bride the same treatment.

No sooner is Jack, a jailhouse convert, released from an Oklahoma prison than he goes to find Ainsley, a girl who's struck up a pen-pal relationship with him. We meet both when they first meet, in a diner in Ainsley's dusty, dead-end town, and from the start we're meant to be impressed with just how bad an idea this is going to be. Ainsley may be a high school graduate, but she's clearly still a child whose battered hopes for something better lie with a less than perfect stranger. Jack has to hope a freshly-minted faith and a clutch of letters can somehow patch over a violent past and make a basis for a future.

Tim Blake Nelson's script bears much of the awful choreography of a car crash captured in slow-motion. The sickening certainty of what's to come only intensifies as our guide, the sheriff, reassembles events in aftermath. Still, we cannot look away. Director Hope Hynes' seamless sense of scene and segue keeps us in this ride long after it's entered the kill zone.

This is true, despite uneven work at times onstage. While Roman Pearah is bulletproof, of course, as smooth-talking Jack, Kathryn Fuller's work as Ainsley convinces--even as it leaves questions about the performer's range for another day. Sam Mohar conveys the sullenness of teenager Tom but is not always intelligible, and Gina Kelly doesn't convince as aging waitress Dorothy. Meanwhile, Jordan Smith brings his signature credibility to a sheriff who wonders if God's love is always murderous.

It's curious that playwright Brad Fraser's Poor Superman isn't nearly as vast or dark an enterprise as Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, which truly challenged regional theater and theater-goers four years ago. Where Remains seemed freshly ripped from headlines--among other things--this Superman seems more of a certain time by comparison: one decade ago, despite its placement after the events from the earlier play.

After surviving Remains, central character David finds himself in Calgary, a noted gay visual artist in the midst of a dry spell. And no inspiration's coming from his entourage: roommate Shannon, a pre-op transvestite who's also HIV-positive, or Kryla, a wry gal pal who's a columnist for the local paper.

His solution? Start life as a waiter again--incognito--in the hopes of meeting new inspirations (and possible lovers) in the process.

In so doing he collides with Matt and Violet, a recently relocated husband and wife team who've just opened a new cafe. David knows more about restauranting than both combined--and more about sexuality than the increasingly inquisitive Matt. Yet what David doesn't know about his own heart provides the dark zone at the center of this work.

Glen Matthews makes David the human pinball in this mystery game, supported by a strong quartet. Kareem Nemley is never less than charming as Shannon, while Carole Marcotte returns at last to regional stages as the acerbic Kryla. Betsy Henderson ably defines the shrill Violet, while Zach Thomas believably navigates uncharted waters as Matt. Strongly recommended. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings
OTHER NOTABLE OPENINGS: Hedda Gabler, Triad Stage, Tuesday-Sunday through May 16, $32-$10, (336) 272-0160; The Leopard's Tale, Ballethnic Dance Company, Reynolds Theater, Friday-Saturday April 30-May 1, $15-$8, 684-4444; Oliver, Broadway Series South, BTI Center, through Sunday, May 2, $19.50-$59.50, 834-4000; The Phantom Tollbooth, N.C. Kids Theater, PSI Theater, Thurday-Sunday, April 30-May 2, $9-$7, 544-0714.

**** Luminosity, Playmakers Rep--Playwright Nick Stafford asks what is our relationship--and responsibility--to the past when he probes the murky racial past of an affluent white English family of social activists. After Debra, a black adopted daughter, discovers that the family's Quaker patriarch grew rich from the slave trade, her search for truth leads through three different generations. What each does with race profoundly influences the family's future. As Stafford repeatedly shifts between generations, director David Hammond all but superimposes one upon the other at times, telescoping time in an English "physic garden" of medicinal herbs and plants, and underlining the blood ties all have with the same earth. The instinct confuses things though when scenes inside a South African jeweler's shop appear to take place, like the rest of the play, outdoors.

While Stafford's attitude towards history recalls Robert Penn Warren in places, the outcome of his character's inquiry is more redemptive. Debra's ultimate questions, "If we are ethical, what should we do? ... What should we say to each other? How should we be?" spark a conversation just beginning at play's end. (Tuesday-Sunday through May 1. $32-$10. 962-7529.)

*** The Sunshine Boys, Temple Theater--Two old vaudevillians who can't stand each other are asked to reunite for a TV show in this par-for-the-course 1986 Neil Simon comedy. Martin Thompson, Barbette Hunter and Jessica Willson do well in supporting roles, while rewarding regional veterans John Murphy and Bob Barr perfect the slow burn and the wisecrack as their characters struggle to rehearse a vintage sketch without killing one another. Their work almost makes up for the oddly dispiriting comic payoff Simon's script comes up with when showtime rolls around. (Thursday-Sunday, through May 9. $18-$10. 774-4155.)

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