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Old Pagan Songs

Rhodes dances at Lughnasa; Noises Off : a little off at U of M.

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Simply said, the period between now and mid-January is as good a time as any for the serious theaterhound to experiment a bit and check out the emerging talent on stage at Rhodes College and the University of Memphis. Both theater departments have been doing exciting, precocious, nearly professional work of late, though neither seems to have their very best foot forward at the moment.

Rhodes' McCoy Theatre production of Dancing at Lughnasa is only missing one thing: maturity. Although the young actors -- aided by Rhodes alum Pete Montgomery -- do excellent, credible work, this particular piece screams out for actors with a bit more water under the bridge.

Brian Friel's semi-autobiographical memory play may be a poetical account of life in Northern Ireland during the 1930s, but its plot and characters resonate strongly with the most celebrated literature of the American South. Just as William Faulkner created his Yoknapatawpha County and peopled it with Southern Gothic archetypes, Friel has conjured up the hardscrabble landscapes of Ballybeg and filled them with hand-me-down characters direct from John Millington Synge. Dancing at Lughnasa is a fractured tale of fractured lives witnessed through the eyes of a child who, raised by a gaggle of poor spinster sisters, is both privy to and sheltered from the heartbreak all around him.

"If you knew your prayers as well as you know those old pagan songs," says Kate, a pious Christian scold to Maggie, her most lighthearted sister. This throwaway line is the thesis around which Dancing at Lughnasa is built. It's a play about resonance and about people who are desperately seeking the dark, primitive place where the distinctions between the sacred and secular fall away; where lives may be led in a more natural state.

The play's various subplots include Uncle Jack, a Christian missionary in Africa who assimilated with his tribe, went native, was deemed physically and mentally unstable, and shipped back to Ireland. There's sister Chris, falling back in love with the charmingly superstitious father of her bastard son. Simple, fragile Rose bursts with unfulfilled sexual desire, while she and the industrious Aggie eke out a living knitting one pair of gloves after another. All of these characters are captured onstage at Rhodes, though not as vibrantly as they might have been with an older, more experienced cast. Nevertheless, when Alicia Queen (Maggie) streaks her face with flour and goes shrieking out of the house to dance, we're offered a sneak peek at the play's full potential.

Director Jerre Dye has done consistently excellent work with Voices of the South, but his approach to Dancing at Lughnasa seems a bit overly reverent to the material. Although the play's lilting narration makes it overly precious at times, this is a show that crescendos with a group of women dancing like witches around the mutilated carcass of a chicken. There's plenty of room to cut loose.

Through November 19th

If dying is easy and comedy is hard, then farce is damn near impossible and the chances of dying on stage are sky-high. If you're doing a metafarce all about the trials and tribulations of staging a farce, the odds against success increase exponentially. The U of M's ambitious staging of Michael Frayn's backstage comedy Noises Off never quite falls down, and that may very well be the problem.

Director Stephen Hancock is an aficionado of fast-paced, door-slamming, slapstick tomfoolery, and he's packed plenty of it into his latest endeavor. But Noises Off isn't just about getting stuck to a plate of sardines or being caught in your knickers, it's also about the impossible personalities one encounters in the theater, and in the end, personality is where this production comes up short.

Michael J.P. Framer is an absolute joy as the terrified and tyrannical director Lloyd Dallas, and Hancock has discovered every ounce of comic potential in the character of Brooke ("the worst actress in the world") Ashton, alternately played by Ann Marie Gideon and Jade E. Hobbs. It seems as though the rest of the cast was on the verge of breaking through but -- like the characters they play -- were distracted by the accents, the words, the doors, the sardines. You get the picture.

Through November 18th

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