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The road(s) of excess

Too much is still too much



Maybe it was that last time you squared off against a bottle of cheap tequila in a fight to the finish. Or perhaps it was that open half-gallon of ultra-premium ice cream instead: triple chocolate fudge, with a calorie count somewhere in the low five figures. To hell with the consequences, you said, as you deliberately nose-dived into the abyss.

Yes, it all seemed like a good idea at the time. But that razor's edge between delightful excess and its wretched counterpart began to dull after the first couple of hits. By night's end you learned that, for all of Blake's gifts as a mystic, he was still a poor cartographer: The road of excess led directly to the lavatory, long before it got anywhere near the palace of wisdom.

Cautionary words for the week in which at least two productions demonstrated once again that too much of a good thing is exactly that: too much.

Servant of Two Masters , Peace College's modern day lampoon on a theme by 18th-century Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni, should be taken with a grain of salt--but only if a slice of lime and a designated driver are also standing by. This frequently funny, occasionally inspired fusillade of woeful puns, low Italian caricatures and shrill sketch comedy regularly made an extended Chuck Jones-era Looney Tune out of a contemporary of Moliere. Director Kenny Gannon's unmistakable stand-in for Bugs Bunny occupied the title role: Kathryn Fuller, a young actor with limited training but already more than a glimmer of comic talent.

But whoever thought the world actually needed two more iterations of the "please don't call me Shirley" gag didn't realize this two and a half hour marathon still needed the weakest half of it weeded out on opening night. True, uncredited additions to the text included a delightfully unhinged take on Rossini's "La donna e mobile" about the requirements to get into Peace--a number that will certifiably never make it into any recruiting video from that estimable institution.

Still, this production inadvertently demonstrates the reason those cartoon classics of yore each ran less than 10 minutes long. The comic geniuses knew when to quit: As much as anything their work remains, even at its wildest, a tribute to masterful editing and economy.

By comparison, this ungainly comic dirigible slowly loses altitude while browbeating the audience into submission. With radically uneven material and acting to boot, Servant is the second recent show at Peace where the majority of student actors never had to present characters with much internal integrity, coherence or depth.

Thus the hangover, well underway long before the after-show drinks were served.

Long Leaf Opera's The tempest , which closed Sunday, Oct. 3, fell prey to the same malady that plagued Burning Coal's 2002 production of Juno and the Paycock: self-inflicted expectations that ultimately sabotaged their enterprise.

Hopes all but audibly ratcheted upward throughout artistic director Randolph Umberger's effusive curtain speech on opening night, which promised "the most beautiful single third act I have ever heard in my life," "angels in the room" and "costumes worthy of the Bolshoi."

And much of what followed was noteworthy. The shadings in the second-act fantasia based on the passage "Be not afeared, the isle is full of voices" were delicate, delicious. The third act was strong, with a procession of goddesses providing the evening's most memorable vocal music and a wedding sequence whose stage-wide cascade of multicolored petals constituted a coup de theatre.

But--and there's always a "but" with Long Leaf Opera--we cannot fully credit a production with the difficulties in tuning and orchestral tone we repeatedly experienced during the evening. Nor can we ignore the robust soprano of goddess Anna Kirby, whose third-act aria underlined the noticeable thinness of Teresa Winner Blume's voice preceding in the role of Miranda. Bill McMurray made a magisterial magus of Prospero, most moving in a third-act renunciation of the books of magic.

But this production baffles us most when it all but made Ariel the centerpiece of its story. In part, this is due to Lee Hoiby and Mark Shulgasser's libretto and score, which gave the character repeated prominence throughout three acts. This included an extended, flashy and wordless arietta in act two which did little to advance the action or elevate the musical aesthetic already achieved.

But Umberger's decision to constantly spotlight Ariel--even when she was silent and other soloists sang their leads in the relative obscurity of a dimly lit stage--unfortunately trumped her winged costume that appeared to be made of tinsel and tie-dye. Designer Maria Savitsky's excessive creation made Elizabeth Grayson seem more like a shipwrecked Vegas showgirl who rarely left the stage than an organic, elemental spirit of the island.

That, along with Hoiby and Shulgasser's tendency to belabor too many aspects of Shakespeare's text, made for a too-long three-hour work, one whose uneven orchestra could have been more adequately populated and rehearsed, and whose vocalists could have been more judiciously cast.

If Mark Jeffrey Miller and Melissa Lozoff are doing their job right, you should be most uncomfortable. For their part, the Saturday night audience positively squirmed, particularly at the point-blank range director Rachel Klem had cannily placed them in the Ghost & Spice production of Oleanna at downtown Durham's Wellness Partners in the Arts.

David Mamet's elliptical verbal duel between two characters--Miller's nascent college professor up for tenure and Lozoff's brittle, unstable undergrad miserably failing a class in Education--pits the agendas of political correctness against the sexual politics at the dawn of the 1990s.

By the start of Mamet's suspenseful work, the rhetorical floorboards have already clearly given way between teacher John and student Carol. Both stand at the splintered edges of their mistaken assumptions concerning a common language. Both, to varying degrees, arguably represent victims of deconstructionism, a useful but far too easily abused school of thought from the period, which argued that the foundations of simple discourse were fundamentally destabilized, and that the definitions of common terms and regular language should not be trusted or agreed upon.

After we witness their unsuccessful initial conference, Carol lodges a complaint of sexual abuse against John. Since we have witnessed what came before, part of our work as an audience is to determine if the stated offense actually occurred. When that accusation is later termed "rape," we are further asked to examine the power structure present between the two--and to aver whether or not the terms (and ensuing penalties) are appropriate.

Is Mamet's work anti-feminist? Does it call instead for a renewed ethics in academic and inter-gender communication, one which respects the intrinsic weight of loaded terms? Is the truth somewhere between the two in this controversial work?

You'll have to work the answers out for yourself. What's laudable is the integrity with which director Klem, Miller and Lozoff present this war of words. The debate is presented on an even plane. After, we all have to decide what to make of it. Strongly recommended--and with the very limited seating for this engagement (30 seats per performance), reservations are going to be a must.

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