Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman
Stillwater Theatre
Meredith College
Through Sept. 30

One of the quirkier choices for the Nobel Prize in literature, Dario Fo had difficulty obtaining visas to the United States during the mid-1980s. Perhaps as a result, his work was once considered the forbidden fruit of American theater. Today in Raleigh, far from Fo’s European battlegrounds, we’re able to enjoy Fo’s work for its very real and timely satirical pleasures. Still, there is a tinge of apprehension and recklessness underlying any Fo production, including Stillwater Theatre’s production of Fo’s Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman.

Set in Elizabethan England, the play revolves around the queen, played by a fresh-faced Laura Jernigan, and the impending rebellion of her lover, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. We find Queen Bess reacting to this impending crisis by morphing from an enraged lunatic cursing at the help to a withered female trying to enlarge her breasts.

In the queen’s world, she alone is the victim and the warrior, defending her sovereignty by relying on a bevy of spies and witch doctors to help her maintain the illusion of control. Most of the action takes place in the Queen’s boudoir, with Elizabeth calling on her police chief Edgerton (Zach Thomas), chambermaid Molly (Maureen Price) and the hilarious Mama Za Za (David Klionsky), a beautician who dispenses organic treatments, to give her advice.

In delivering this nearly three-hour-long farce, Jernigan and her supporting cast give the audience a nod and wink. Are we really talking about the Elizabethan age? Or are we poking fun at our own irrational leaders? Fo intended his play to evoke a radical reaction from his audience; Stillwater certainly has modern-day politics on its mind that lurk like dirty thoughts in the darkened corners of Elizabeth’s bed chamber. But this element is often overshadowed by the overt silliness of the play that stifles the script’s most radical intentions. Still, this production contains sufficient ballast of political subversion, making it a worthwhile and timely production. Kathy Justice

The Belle of Amherst
Find the Light Repertory Company
Parrish Street Studios
Through Oct. 21

For the premiere show in their space on Parrish Street in Durham, Find the Light Repertory Company chose the Tony-winning play The Belle of Amherst. Playwright William Luce, who wrote this popular show three decades ago, skillfully uses Dickinson’s letters and poetry to fill the gaps in our knowledge of her veiled, angular existence.

Luce made the show a one-woman play, creating a theatrical experience entirely from Dickinson’s point of view, one that begins when Dickinson is 53 and works narratively through flashbacks of her life until returning the audience to the present and continuing to the twilight of her death two years later. The audience is left with unease as Dickinson’s often whimsical adoption of other characters’ points of view leads to questions about the truth of her words. At the same time, this tactic and the play’s singular set builds an intimate cove in Dickinson’s mind where audiences can visit with her in magical fashion. Dickinson says, “To find that phosphorescence, the light within, is the genius behind poetry.” The play affords audiences this opportunityto discover the light within Dickinson.

The play’s strengths and challenges set the bar high for Find the Light, and at Friday night’s opening show Artistic Director Gennaro D’Onofrio welcomed a small audience to their new space. Regrettably, this performance of The Belle of Amherst was less than exemplary.

Sheila Outhwaite took the stage as Emily Dickinson (which, unfortunately, was spelled “Dickerson” in the program) and began boldly but seemed at times to suffer from nerves, occasionally stumbling over her lines. These moments were juxtaposed with glimpses of a strong portrayal of Dickinson, when Outhwaite skillfully vacillated between the girlish exuberance of Dickinson’s stymied youth and the matronly mannerisms of the aging poet. The play is undeniably strong, and Outhwaite offered intervals of talent and craft that seemingly foreshadow better performances. Still, Find the Light has some work on the horizon before it can become one of the Triangle’s dramatic hot spots. Megan Stein

Burning Coal
Pittmann Auditorium, St. Mary’s School
Through Sept. 30

The characterizations at the center of this Burning Coal season opener, in Pittman Auditorium at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, are as spare as the rest of its minimalist production concept. On a stage empty except for three rows of chairs where actors sit at its perimeter, director Jerome Davis attempts to reduce everything in this show to the essentials.

But Davis seems to have removed too much, particularly in the title role, played by Brian McManamon. Intellectually impressive but emotionally suspect, one thing we learn from this experiment is this: When a work’s epic dimensions are so reduced, and nothing takes their place, the results are less than epic as well. Byron Woods