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New this week: A Streetcar Named Desire; Dinner with Friends

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A Streetcar Named Desire

Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
Common Ground Theatre
Through July 7

(Left to right) Sophie Eisdorfer, Lucius Robinson and Nicole Farmer in A Streetcar Named Desire - PHOTO BY JASON FAGG
  • Photo by Jason Fagg
  • (Left to right) Sophie Eisdorfer, Lucius Robinson and Nicole Farmer in A Streetcar Named Desire

Which is more absurd, I wonder: Reframing Tennessee Williams' classic as a cross between an inverse Pleasantville and the lurid zombie movie oeuvre (think a little George Romero, a little Wes Craven, with some Ed Wood to season)? Or placing the mottled concoction square in the middle of Little Green Pig's "German Season"?

One thing's for certain: When Blanche DuBois (Nicole Farmer) shows up in a smart pale blue and white number—one Edith Head might have fashioned for Vera Miles in the 1950s—to meet a sister Stella (Gigi DeLizza) dressed in a torn Misfits T-shirt, two-inch black heels, pink fishnets and little else besides, someone's done some serious drugs. Or time travel. Or both.

To be honest, one of the reasons we stay plugged in to such a deliberately schismatic production concept is to see how long director Jay O'Berski can possibly keep the wheels on. For after Blanche has been taken up by that errant Oklahoma twister—wait, wrong movie—she finds her 1947 self deposited in the shabby digs of a post-Katrina couple in New Orleans. Stanley's tasteful nudes bedeck the walls—alongside a calendar with the epithet "Fuck Frank Gehry" scrawled across the bottom. The centerpiece in the living room? A partially rebuilt race car engine. Thank God there's plenty of booze atop the fridge.

Actually, the device lasts longer than we might expect. Stella and Blanche's schism plays out pretty believably, particularly when both are coming at sex from different sides of the generational divide—or the century. O'Berski's cultural updates are clever: Instead of playing poker, the boys gather for martial arts practice and Fight Club, with not entirely predictable results. Dana Marks' band, The Napoleonic Code, renders a serviceable, live soundtrack, including Tom Waits' "Invitation to the Blues" and Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You."

Which brings us, I suppose, to the zombies. Yes, zombies. Mental note for the future: Never say "No—they wouldn't dare" at a LGP show.

But giving away too much of the game here seems unfun and unfair. (Still, public credit should be given to Sophie Eisdorfer—and her costumier—along with Danny Bischoff for eerie moments throughout.)

So cut to the chase: Purists should pass this by—or preferably take it as a walk on the wild side. It's safe to say we'll never see Tennessee Williams staged quite this way again. Expect full frontal nudity—if that drives you nearer or farther away. And give my due respects, a bottle of Barbancourt rum and a Cohiba Siglo VI to Baron Samedi. We will meet again. —Byron Woods


Dinner with Friends
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy
Through July 1

"You never know what couples are like when they're alone." So says Chris Chappell, playing the role of Gabe in Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy's production of Donald Margulies's Dinner with Friends. The play is about what happens when the lives that exist behind closed doors come out into public view.

Gabe and his wife Karen (Jeri Lynn Schulke) are an established, loving couple forced to face the tumultuous divorce of their close friends and playmates, Beth and Tom (Katja Hill and Michael Brocki).

When the convenience of the two couple's long friendship is disintegrated by the split, each character's hidden, selfish reasons for indulging in the friendship become clearer. Gabe tells Tom, "I thought we were in this together, for life," to which Tom replies, "I'll still be there. Just not with Beth." To Karen and Gabe, the divorce of their friends "feels like a death," and the friendship between the couples begin to fade.

Dinner with Friends works hard to resonate with the audience, and succeeds. Watching it, you feel your own insecurities and "what if?" questions tickle the bottom of your mind. The dialogue is natural and realistic, though sometimes the delivery in this production feels forced. Chappell, in particular, does a good job avoiding this tendency, and strongly delivers the astute lines of his character. Schulke and Chappell work well together and portray Karen and Gabe as the loving couple the play calls for, which also helps offset the weak chemistry between Hill and Brocki.

Dinner with Friends is like any good dinner: The first scene whets the palette while vulnerabilities and admitted mistakes cleanse the palette. The couples' respective handling of the divorce is the main course, and the scattered advice serves as dessert. —Megan Stein


Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Kenan Theater, UNC-CH
Through July 1

I really wish I only had to talk about the design and adaptation of Rob Hamilton's new show. On those levels, his version of Dai Sijie's enchanting 2000 novel is basically unassailable. Indeed, many have justifiably respected Hamilton's talents for years now in regional productions with StreetSigns, Wordshed, Manbites Dog and Deep Dish Theater.

True to form, nothing disappoints with the costumes, the set, the puppets that we see, or the music that we hear. Audience members knew the pitfalls of the prideful village Headman, Four-Eyes, the noodgy fellow student exile, and Four-Eyes' Mother as much on sight, from Hamilton's amusing mask work and costuming, as from the substantive work of esteemed actors Mariette Booth, John Paul Middlesworth and Philip van Lidth de Jeude. Audience members gasped at the shimmering visage of the Air and Fire Elementals, graciously and silently embodied by Mara Thomas and Sage Keene.

The main difficulty with this production comes in how the more fantastical parts of Hamilton's vision fit into the grittier realities of Dai's novel that he also tries to convey. Why don't the Air Elemental, the narrating sow (given a tastefully catty reading at points by Danielle Koppel), or the Four Sorcerers who come to heal Luo have more credence, more weight, more place on stage? Perhaps because the other characters on stage don't sufficiently give them these things either.

Only the Seamstress' dog (Koppel as well) and the vengeful—and risible—spirit of the buffalo, who plagues Four-Eyes with tummy troubles after he's been sacrificed and eaten, gets much notice by anyone in Luo's world. Too many of the rest too often seem invisible. Brief exceptions come in a snowfall and an idyllic—and fateful—river scene.

But, for whatever reason, the ideologically preoccupied villagers aren't sufficiently haunted by their ghostly guests—and hosts. It doesn't seem a world where they're allowed to be. Would that they were. —Byron Woods

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