The REDBIRD Flies Tonight from the ArtsCenter Stage

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Two years ago, Dorrie Casey, who’s done pretty much everything else in theatre, decided her next adventure would be a festival of new plays. Add producer to her credits, please, because starting tonight, five new plays by North Carolinians will debut at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. Heavily underwritten by Casey and produced by her and Jeri Lynn Schulke, the artistic director of ArtsCenter Stage, REDBIRD promises to be as showy as its name, with the five works premiering over two opening nights. It’s a significant milestone for non-university theatre here.

Tonight’s first first night will include Michael A. Smith’s adaptation of Nancy Peacock‘s first novel, Life Without Water. Peacock is my contemporary (Chapel Hill High School Class of 1972) and the world she imagined in her book resonated strongly with me–and with Tom Marriott, who directs. He too has lived without water. “The play is very, very moving for me,” he said, “and to have Marcia Edmundson and Jane Allen Wilson—!” Here he threw up his hands and grinned with the delight of working with these two splendid women. Marriott’s been making theatre in the Triangle area since 1969, “poor theatre,” as he says, and has been a crucial instigator in the birth and growth of the “not-PlayMakers theatre scene” currently thriving here. This is an ideal situation for the birth of a new play: everyone involved knows everyone else’s art and can also bring intensely local knowledge to this work. The newest member of the team is Joseph Amodei, who’s doing the multimedia. The photographer Catharine Carter is another longtime Chatham County person, and for the backdrop imagery she has photographed the house Nancy Peacock lived in back in the day.

Also on tonight’s bill is the ineffable Jane Holding, who has adapted a story from her friend Allan Gurganus’s recent Local Souls. Holding and Gurganus have been friends since 1969, and share similar eastern North Carolina backgrounds. Part of their friendship involves reading to each other, so Holding knew Gurganus’ characters and their stories long before the book was published, and knows their language and their rhythms deep in her soul (Holding collaborated with Gurganus on the stage adaptation of his Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All). Holding will embody Jean, mother of Caitlin, for whom Jean put herself in the background. But in Saints Have Mothers,  Jean’s back up front. Holding has told me that this story was important to her, as “more than anything, I wanted to be a good mother.” The insightful Tamara Kissane directs. Of course, Holding and Kissane have previous theatre connections, too–Kissane played Holding’s daughter in Little Green Pig’s fantastic all-female Richie.

Just to prove that ALL the excellent writers in the state do not live in the Triangle, Greensboro will be well-represented in the third piece on tonight’s bill, Linnaeus Forgets. The short story’s by my hero Fred Chappell; the adaptation by Marianne Gingher and Debby Seabrooke. Lenore Field, Greg Hohn, who also directs, and the indefatigueable Tom Marriott will act (and waltz), and Jimmy Magoo will handle the puppets.

On the 14th, the second opening night will feature another new work by Howard L. Craft, whose Freight was such a smashing success in January (it will receive a New York production this summer). Craft has adapted from historian David Cecelski’s book for The Fire of Freedom, and the character Abraham Galloway will be played by Jade Arnold. Chaunesti Webb directs.

The REDBIRD’S fifth work is Property, by Dana Coen, director of the UNC-CH Writing for the Stage and Screen program, and examines outsiders’ and locals’ relationships with the land and “sustainability.” Coen directs Alex Thompson, Melanie Rio and Brandon Rafalson.

REDBIRD has a design team, too, studded with well-known local names. The whole damn shebang is stage-managed by the amazing Emma Nadeau. “She’s the hub of the spinning wheel,” said Jeri Lynn Schulke. Maybe if we stomp our feet, she’ll come out at the end with her accordion.

REDBIRD runs two weekends only! with the shows in rolling repertory. Check http://www.artscenterlive.org for which is when, and get your tickets.

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Leviathan’s 21st century AMADEUS at Common Ground Theatre

John Jimerson as Salieri in Leviathan's production of AMADEUS. Photo: Jaybird O'Berski.

John Jimerson as Salieri in Leviathan’s production of AMADEUS. Photo: Jaybird O’Berski.

The very considerable local theatrical talent in Durham is in a constant state of flux with groups forming or re-forming for specific purposes from the same pool of players, designers and managers, who vagabond from stage to stage. Well-known local actor John Jimerson is now also managing director of Leviathan Theatre Company, and his company is currently presenting Peter Shaffer’s 1979 Amadeus, with Jimerson in the role of Antonio Salieri. As edited and staged by Leviathan and director Jaybird O’Berski, the play digs into some of art’s difficult realities even as it explores the fraught relations between two men struggling for success in 18th-century musical Vienna.

Poor Salieri, a Catholic who thinks he’s made a deal with God, is happy with his life as a court composer–until the spoiled, obscene young genius Amadeus Mozart blazes into town, and Salieri knows himself as a mediocre hack. He is, however, a hack with some power, and he thwarts Mozart at every turn while pretending to be his friend. Mozart, half-mad and alone, dies at 35 while writing his great Requiem; Salieri lives long with his guilt. Shaffer has taken some liberties with the the lives of these men. His story is not altogether about them, but uses them to expatiate on the disjunct between moral behavior and output of artistic greatness, and on the relationship between passion and art. It’s about the power of jealousy and the meanness of power; and, perhaps, about the fruitlessness of dealmaking with any god that would stoop to such a thing. Jimerson does a good job with both the man and the philosophizing, especially with the core speech about realizing the paucity of his work in relation to Mozart’s. In a number of places, he and O’Berski have placed the emphasis so that one is steered toward the big ideas and away from the bathos and comedy.

Mozart is played here by Jade Arnold, who sports thick white make-up, a surprising wig, and body-covering costumes (excellent costuming by Chelsea Kurtzman). Arnold has been impressive in previous shows, but here in full whiteface disguised as a white man behaving badly, he is astonishing. Whether the full disguise is to credit, or director O’Berski, or simply the natural growth of an actor, I don’t know, but Arnold just kicks it out here, abandoning previously observed mannerisms and tricks of timing to produce a fresh and heart-churning interpretation of this role. Naturally, considering the creative parties involved, he has to do some fairly ridiculous stuff on stage and make it matter. Prime example here is his straight-faced singing of  a reconciliation song with his wife Costanze (Molly Forlines, voluptuous and nasty) derived from such a song in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro–but done here like an alt-country duet. The singing was delightful, and the cognitive dissonance at the sight, even better.

Jade Arnold as Mozart in Leviathan's AMADEUS, at Common Ground Theatre. Photo: Jaybird O'Berski.

Jade Arnold as Mozart in Leviathan’s AMADEUS, at Common Ground Theatre through April 12. Photo: Jaybird O’Berski.

The rest of the cast is strong. Tony Perucci is completely fabulous as Kasier Joseph II–so languid in his power and petulance, and so weighted by the enormity of his antler crown that he can barely move. Trevor Johnson, Liam O’Neill and Laurie Wolf each make an indelible impression as the counts and barons of the court. Salieri is attended by two “venticelli” played with mystery and alacrity by Caitlin Wells and Carly Prentiss Jones. Their make-up is particularly strong.

The visual aspects of this production take it far out of the ordinary. The extensive use of bold make-up and overstated wigs, sometimes augmented with intriguing masks by newcomer Wil Deedler, in combination with Kurtzman’s high-impact costuming, makes any set superfluous. The back wall of the small stage space at Common Ground Theatre has been removed to allow us to peer into the backstage murk, and to see the ladder Tony Perucci, as the Kaiser, must negotiate between his aerie and the stage floor. Other than that, there are a few props and chairs, and R.S. Buck’s smart lighting. The only technical deficiency is the sound. It is always difficult to hear in that space when it is undressed, but on the 29th there was some kind of feedback issue with some of the miked sound, and the equipment available to play Mozart’s music was inadequate to the task. However, when the actors spoke unmiked, they were all very clear, and used their voices to strong emotional effect.

I squeezed into the show by the skin of my teeth last Saturday–it sold out. I expect word-of-mouth will make tickets scarce for the remainder of the run (through April 12), so make reservations before going out to Common Ground for this imaginative revival of a multi-layered play.

 

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