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Arts & Entertainment Preview - May 1998

Dance and Theater
B Y   N A N C Y   D A L V A   &   J O H N   I S T E L

It Takes Two

Amanda McKerrow
as Giselle

A susceptible young woman. Her devoted mother. A powerful man whose ring is worn by a similarly powerful woman. Fascinated and horrified bystanders. A whistle blower. And, hot on the trail, a prosecutor backed by a like-minded team. Washington, D.C., circa winter of 1998? No, the ever-popular ballet Giselle, circa 1841. In this work -- the very epitome of the Romantic movement in dance -- the eponymous heroine is a gullible village girl; her worried mother is named Berthe; the powerful man is Albrecht, Duke of Silesia (disguised for a time as a commoner); his intended is the well-dressed Bathilde; the vengeful whistle blower, a gamekeeper, is one Hilarion. The prosecutor is the scary Myrtha, whose night-of-the-living-dead attendants can hound a man to death. The book, by Vernoy de Saint-Georges, Théophile Gautier, and Jean Coralli, is one that -- despite a very much of-its-day perfume -- has been set and reset over the years, with artistic directors transporting Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli's choreography to various times and climes (including the Dance Theatre of Harlem's ingenious Creole versions). The best Giselles cleave to tradition, providing a frame for the juicy lead roles. Among the most celebrated twosomes were Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch (whose offstage romance spiced up the on-stage proceedings); Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev (her mad scene was a delicate unraveling horrific in its detail); and Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn (the most romantic of ballerinas and the most noble of classicists). This month and next in New York, American Ballet Theatre offers no fewer than six pairings from its current starry roster (May 21-23 and June 16-18 at the Metropolitan Opera House; 212-362-6000). Tomorrow's legends will depend on the dancers of today: McKerrow and Malakhov; Ferri and Bocca; Ananiashvili and Graffin; Kent and Carreño; Tuttle and Corella; Jaffe and Stiefel. What fun it would be to see them all; this is a story in which the casting tells the tale. --N.D.

From Sitcom Mom to a Woman of Scorn

Phylicia Rashad
tackles Medea

For Kenny Leon, the artistic director of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Company, casting Phylicia Rashad as Medea was as American as, well, Mom and apple pie. Yes, the princess of Colchis murders her kids in Euripides' tragedy; and no, Rashad, best known for the years she spent playing Clair Huxtable opposite Bill Cosby on TV, wouldn't be considered typecasting. But Leon believes it's a natural way to make Medea relevant for the Media Age. "If everybody's Mom -- which is how Phylicia is known from television -- can kill her kids, what does that say about our society?" he asks. Since taking over the Alliance, in 1990, Leon has raised national awareness of the company while diversifying its offerings: he premiered the Tony Award-winning The Last Night of Ballyhoo, produced most of August Wilson's plays, and stages an annual Christmas Carol whose Ghost of Christmas Present wears dreadlocks and a kilt. Little surprise, then, that Leon's Medea (May 7-June 13; 404-733-5000) focuses on the regal couple's cultural clash to highlight the acrimony in Jason and Medea's matrimony. "Because of the world Medea was leaving and the world she was entering, which was Jason's world, I thought they should look different visually and culturally," Leon says. "It was important to me that Medea be black and Jason be white." There's no doubt in Leon's mind that Rashad has the chops for one of the theater's most demanding roles: "Most people don't know she was trained for the stage at Howard University. Phylicia has the talent to play an extreme range of characters." --J.I.

The Playwright at the Helm

The Captain's Tiger

As a playwright, Athol Fugard has always proved to be a master landscape artist. For most of the past forty years his keenly honed works have explored the blood knot tying his characters to the tragic terrain of his homeland -- South Africa. Written by a white man under apartheid, Fugard's plays offered audiences their first chance to see blacks and whites interact, linked by his lyrical dialogue. While the setting often shifted, from the coffee shop in "Master Harold" . . . and the boys to the carnival entryway in Playland, his focus on his country's inner, moral peaks and valleys never wavered. Since the fall of apartheid Fugard has been sketching interior landscapes in wistful memory plays. In The Captain's Tiger, which receives its U.S. premiere at the McCarter Theatre, in Princeton, New Jersey, this month (May 5-24; 609-683-8000), Fugard clearly senses enough peace in the political scenery to write more personally. It's his second post-apartheid play produced in the United States, and as with Valley Song, the first, Fugard directs and acts in it. But if Valley Song explored the future, through a young black teen who wants to be a famous singer, The Captain's Tiger looks back, to trace this writer's beginnings as a twenty-year-old steward on a merchant-marine ship. Fugard plays a figure called "The Author" as well, giving the play its overly introspective patches. But few writers have earned the right to indulge such meanderings into memory; Fugard remains an enlightening tour guide to his country's soul. --J.I.

Nancy Dalva is the author of Dance Ink: Photographs.

John Istel is a senior editor at Stagebill.

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