Has it really been four seasons since Carmen-Maria Mandley's Bare Theatre last refreshed audiences in the Triangle? Her company's 2001 renditions of Coriolanus and Much Ado About Nothing reintroduced clarity and precision to a playwright more frequently burlesqued than interpreted at the time. In paring back most of the trimmings, Mandley's decidedly spare, "bare" aesthetic actually refocused actors and audiences both on acting Shakespeare's text. Her characters never slipped into the iambic trance so frequently observed when artists have learned the lines but not their meanings. The result: a showcase worthy of a constellation of up-and-coming artists, leavened by a handful of the older guard on stage.
So our expectations were high when we learned of this company's return, even though its just-created Rogue division featured even younger artists than those we'd witnessed four years before, ranging from the teens to the early 20s.
While we expected--and saw--actors solid on their subtexts, we weren't prepared for the accomplishments we saw in costume design given the bareness of earlier work. Jeremy Clos, assistant Sarah Schmitt, stitchers Krissina Newcomb and Lydia Wagner, and mask designer Megan Day visibly enhanced a number of characters. Two examples from many: A filigreed waistcoat (following a burlap prisoner's vest) complemented Elijah Vick's villainous Aaron, while a severe black body-length suit helped Jesse Gephart visually reference F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu in the title role. The one miscalculation in this show? What appears to be a bathrobe garbing Jarrod Swart's Bassianus.
If anything, Mandley's flair for distinctive stage imagery has intensified. From the eerie initial moments when the ensemble breathes in unison, in darkness, we're taken by scenes that seem as painted or choreographed as much as they are directed. While minions hold her down, a ghastly Titus gently holds the head of the prisoner, Goth queen Tamora (Anna Gettles), as her offspring are dispatched offstage. Principals deliver lines from wooden platforms--as other actors tilt and move them--in a metaphor for the ever-shifting circumstances of the play. The only time this seems to slip is in a final banquet scene staged too starkly to fully convey what should be culminating horrors.
I'm probably most apprehensive to write about the acting in this production. While I saw notable work in each of the roles mentioned above and others besides, by evening's end this was clearly a student group still challenged by the emotional bandwidth of this play. As monstrosities mounted, the group as a whole grew increasingly shrill, habituating to the highest vocal octaves, speed and decibel ranges--choices all that ultimately cut the authority of characters and scenes. A problem this systemic speaks more to the direction than execution by fledgling artists, who should not be faulted. Critics have found this difficulty in Mandley's earlier work. In Titus it bears mentioning again.
All in all, surprising strengths--and work still to be done--were both clearly on display in this production.
While the theater community catches its breath before the new season kicks off in August and September, look for a flurry of fundraisers, one-shots and experiments. InDecision Theater performance improv returns to Common Ground Theater this Friday at 8 p.m. The following night, Flying Machine affects a gangster air for their season bash featuring radio comedian Kevin Silva and singer Randa McNamara, Saturday at Common Ground at 7 p.m. Their program flyer promises "high-class eats, plenty of hooch" and a raffle. Tix are $10; call 594-1140.
And Actors Comedy Lab's Nancy Rich relocates Oscar Wilde's most famous comedy to Charleston, S.C., in the 1920s in her adaptation, Importance of Bein' Earnest. Catch the staged reading of the new script--free--Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Raleigh City Museum. More details: 832-5261.
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.