One thing’s certain: Ariel Dorfman got full value from actors Priscilla Lopez and Tom Hewitt during last weekend’s three-day run of Purgatorio. After all, staged readings like this, complete with blocking, lights and set, are difficult enough without the playwright literally rewriting the ground beneath you: cutting or adding pages of lines without warning each day of the run. But then, such things are workshops heir to. Their goal is to develop the playwright’s script as much as possible in limited time–a mandate Dorfman clearly took to heart as he substantially sharpened his psychological and metaphysical drama over the weekend. It was fascinating to be a witness as a show changed so much–and all but unanimously for the better–between the two performances I caught.

Either audience might be astonished to learn that Dorfman had cut a full half-hour out of the script in two days’ time, dropping Friday night’s two-hour running time to just over 90 minutes by Sunday afternoon. Even as Hewitt and Lopez occasionally hit the understandable speed-bumps in a shifting text, still on Sunday there was a sense that a trimmer and more crisply defined Purgatorio had taken a major step toward its final form.

Dorfman plays his cards close to the chest throughout the intermissionless work. At the outset, a woman is being interrogated by a man in a white lab coat–a man who has just brought a dagger into the room. He calmly reassures her that she’s supposed to use the dagger to try to escape.

Slowly we realize we’re witnessing no counterintelligence goon squad mind games, perhaps from back in Pinochet’s day in Chile. Instead, an obscure, enlightened celestial therapist is attempting to help an unnamed woman deal with the sins she committed on earth, for her own benefit.


As biographical clues slowly filter in, we finally realize the woman is Medea, from classic Greek myth. A flashback subsequently reveals that her therapist/inquisitor is her once-husband Jason. Ironically for a pair that so fundamentally defined infidelity and the wholesale–and literal–rending of the family unit, the two must now depend on one another if either has any hope of leaving Purgatory.

Actually, they must do much more than that: They must redeem each other.

It’s not the easiest gig. Particularly when you factor in the lies that each are told by their allegedly elevated hosts.

For Dorfman’s script examines not only the ways repentance can be faked or simulated. It also possibly enacts what happens when absolution is counterfeit as well.

This Purgatory, as it turns out, is a remarkably fallible place. It’s minions make more than enough mistakes to raise suspicions about the dominion’s true name.

In the flashback, a cocky, self-assured Jason performs his penance with sufficient polish and charm for the camera and his nameless female interrogator, telling both what they want to hear. In both performances, his most self-serving lines got audible groans from the audience.

At this recital’s end, Jason’s inquisitor informs him he’s been promoted. He’ll wear the lab coat; he’ll intervene with his ex-wife. If she repents, both may leave. If not, then neither will. He will continue healing himself as he helps her heal.

The difficulty? The love and therapeutic discourse in both initial scene and flashback evaporates as Jason visibly devolves from avenging angel to prosecuting attorney, and then to something worse.

Ultimately, he forces her to beg his forgiveness in the most abusive and degrading language. Since when does an enlightened being call a patient “bitch”? Though they’ve been play-acting up to this point, it seems evident: Jason isn’t acting anymore. Clearly, all the “progress” he made in therapy has been undone.

Medea is being ground underfoot, forced to repent for the sins of another. Understandably, she rebels and refuses to apologize. One must conclude the final interrogation does not measure Medea’s failure–it’s Jason’s fall instead. And yet he remains the elevated one, in control at the end.

It’s a turn of events that almost makes one wonder if any feminist would be allowed to exit Purgatory.

It’s commendable that Dorfman wants to orient his characters toward a final reconciliation. But at the end both don’t share equal parts of the burden.

Plus a new injustice has just been committed: A woman’s been forced to beg a man to forgive her for a crime he committed. He’s told her she can’t leave imprisonment until she does. And the presiding authority in Purgatory–the playwright–has given little notice that it was wrong to do so.

But Purgatory shifts–and this Purgatorio changed considerably over three days’ time. With such strong developments thus far, we commend the playwright and team to meaningful discoveries yet to come.

Sarah Corrin noticed the serendipitous scheduling last fall: Three regional companies were doing shows by modern African-American playwrights. At the same time. “All of them were contemporary,” she recalls, “but vastly different in terms of content and the style of theater being done.”

Raleigh Ensemble Players was staging an environmental theater production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus , a controversial biography based on Sara Baartman’s 19th-century odyssey from South African obscurity to the European freak show circuit. Playmakers Repertory Company’s Yellowman “had everything to do with storytelling,” she recalled, with two actors playing all parts, examining differences in color within the African-American community. Meanwhile, Corrin’s own Raleigh Little Theatre contemplated a traditional staging on a conventional set–of the unconventional play Blue. “Instead of focusing on issues like racism, Blue’s about what it’s like growing up in a family,” she observed. “Everyone, regardless of race, can identify with the situation–and that, in and of itself, is revolutionary.”

The scheduling of the shows seemed like a good opportunity for a survey of current African-American theater.

So Corrin made a few phone calls.

As a result, Playmakers Rep, Raleigh Ensemble Players and Raleigh Little Theater are collaborating, for the first time ever, on a three-night joint symposium at their venues.

Patrons get to see all three shows–at a 30-percent discount. Plus, they’ll participate in special pre-show seminars.

The move has gotten the attention of the professional community. “It is an extraordinarily rare and wonderful thing when a major regional theater, a smaller, edgier professional company and a community-based theater organization come together in this kind of collaboration,” notes Terry Milner, executive director for the N.C. Theatre Conference. “It demonstrates the serious commitment to African-American theater and diversity these companies possess.”

The first night in the series comes this Friday, Feb. 11, when Raleigh Ensemble Players screens Zola Maseko’s award-winning documentary The Life and Times of Sara Baartman: The Hottentot Venus before that evening’s performance of Venus.

Sunday, Feb. 20, Raleigh Little Theatre sponsors a pre-show lecture on “Contemporary Black Theatre” before their matinee of Blue.

Thursday, March 17, Playmakers Rep will consider “Color-Consciousness in the African-American Community” prior to that night’s Yellowman.

The discounted package rate–$40 for all shows and seminars–is good for those three performances only. Season ticket holders wishing to participate will also get the same symposium discount at the other venues. To book the package, call Raleigh Little Theater at 821-3111.

Speaking of contemporary African-American playwrights, Durham’s Howard Craft sees a fully staged version of The Wise Ones, his award-winning account of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s 1964 experiences in Alabama, this weekend at N.C. Central. And Duke Performances has just booked solo actor/monologist/force of nature Sarah Jones in Waking the American Dream for Reynolds Theater on Feb. 28. Tix are only $10–and Duke students get in free.

But showing now in Greensboro is Triad Stage’s North Star, a gripping but uneven memoir of one woman’s childhood experiences in the Civil Rights movement in North Carolina. After a present-day altercation between her, her young daughter and a racist cabbie, central character Aurelia frantically sifts through the past. Has there been any real change since her childhood? Is there hope? And how can she shelter her child from such hatred?

Gloria Bond Clunie’s script is most vivid when it evokes the characters of Aurelia’s childhood home: stern but loving mother Kate (Kelly Taffe), strong yet gentle father Manson (Miller Lucky Jr.) and mischievous childhood playmate Willie Joe.

Equally vivid in this production are the activists they work with when a crisis strikes before the end of act one. Clunie doesn’t gloss over intergenerational schisms in the Civil Rights movement when college student Franklin (Peterson Townsend) locks horns with old-school activists Hawkins (a memorable Allie Woods) and Reverend Blake (movingly acted and sung by Junious Leak).

If our audience felt rattled when that group showed two children what non-violence training was really like, the hatred in the later re-enactment of a lunch counter sit-in truly singed us.

Still, even with these strengths, there are noticeable difficulties. Clunie’s unstable central character seems all but totally evicted from the present, too unmoored in time, space and current situation. The central metaphor incorporated in the show’s title may work poetically, but it grinds logically when a character repeatedly insists that there is no North Star.

Finally, this professional production confronts the dilemma in which a child actor as a leading character hasn’t fully developed the necessary bandwidth for the role. The result in North Star: a major performance noticeably more appropriate for community or children’s theater than a union stage.

All are factors that unfortunately qualify the success of this frequently sharp memoir.

****Copenhagen , Playmakers Rep–The intellectual–and ethical–riddle at the center of Michael Frayn’s brainy, Tony Award-winning script suggests that the fate of the world hung on how atomic physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr fundamentally misinterpreted each other in a brief conversation one September afternoon in 1941.

The world knows this much: Heisenberg, then head of Germany’s atomic energy program, visited his mentor in occupied Denmark at great personal risk. The two talked in private, for less than 10 minutes. In subsequent years, they never agreed on what exactly happened when they spoke.

Frayn shows three sides of a secret by play’s end. You can nearly feel the world tilt along with shifting points of view when Heisenberg relives a completely coherent version of the conversation–and then Bohr shows how differently the same words are received. Then things shift yet again when Bohr’s wife, Margrethe, shares her vantage point.

Todd Weeks’ crisp, chilly Heisenberg has clearly retreated to the cool room of the intellect, while the warmer Greg Thornton and Nicole Orth-Pallavicini remain divided at points by individual perspective–and loss. (Tuesday-Sunday, through Feb. 13. $32-$10. 962-PLAY.)

****Falling in Like , Temple Theatre–Playwright Jerry Sipp’s sparkling new show-biz satire toys with the conventions of backstage farce and romantic comedy. Leading man Frank helps Abbie go from intern to ingenue when the leading lady pops a kneecap in rehearsal. But there’s a hint of Vonnegut in the works when the consummate professional onstage (and offensive recluse when off) fends off Abbie’s increasingly insistent attempts to get to know him.

Regional newcomer Fred Nash is perfect as the enigmatic Frank, the obscure object of desire of all females assembled, and Morgan Grace Jarrett is unsinkable as Abbie. In unusually vivid supporting roles, Nan Stephenson’s the memorably profane stage manager, Lynda Clark’s a vampy showbiz barracuda and J. Chachula serves well as a neurotic playwright.

After a lifetime in the theater, Sipp clearly knows and loves his subjects. Their dialogue fairly crackles with wit and theatrical in-jokes. The show’s a must-see for theater people–and a delight for the rest of us. Sipp must be considering an agent to submit this work for national competitions and publication: It’s ready. (Thursday-Sunday, through Feb. 13. $18-$10. 774-4155.)

Byron Woods can be reached at