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Margo Veil
stars
UNCW Cultural Arts Building
4/26-29; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
$10-12 • www.etix.com

UNCW’s theatre department finishes up their season with contemporary playwright Len Jenkin’s “Margo Veil.” It’s a fast ride through multiple genres of film, theatre, contemporary fiction and metaphysical questions. It begins with fog and a classic film-noir Sam Spade-style curtain speech, allowing the audience the first clues of an evening which will be characterized be exquisite attention to detail.

In the tradition of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” and Charles Ludlam’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” “Margo Veil” is designed as an ensemble production; the actors playing multiple roles that, among other things, illustrate an illusive search for self, identity and role within society. In the beginning we meet femme fatale Margo Veil (Tori Keaton), a small-town girl who got her big acting break and bombed. She’s guided—or taunted—through the show by a narrator, played by Maria Katsadouros.

She heads home on a train escorting a corpse, and things get strange. She commits murder—or does she? She hops into different bodies at the instigation of Arthur Vine (Matt Styers), the narcissist playwright with whom she’s been sleeping. The plot takes us to a Lithuanian carnival, a double death scene in a stage magic show, multiple murders and a radio evangelistic choir that must be seen to be believed. It all combines in a fanastical swirl of elements reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and much of David Lynch’s oeuvre. Much like the relationship option on Facebook: “It’s Complicated.”

Ultimately, “Margo Veil” is a phenomenal show to choose for university theatre because it’s an ensemble show in every sense of its meaning; simply, it would not work if there wasn’t cooperation onstage. Also, it is fundamentally about questions which define us as humans: Who are we? Are we determined by our environment? People’s perceptions of us? How much control do we really have over our fate? What is our responsibility to others—and where does that end? What is the value of human connection? College is really the time when we begin to search actively for such answers—a search that hopefully changes and evolves as we age rather than ends.

The performances in “Margo Veil” are all very good. Notably, Haley Alber’s depiction of a blind Lithuanian peasant is quite convincing and without being insulting. Her frailty yet resilience really comes through beautifully.

Chris Cantrell somehow manages to be cast with some of the best physical comedy and sight gags in the script. He has more fun onstage than might be legal. From his Bo Diddley lip-synching cowboy to Dwayne, a stepson we never want to have in charge of our fate, to a foolish American lost and clothing-less in Lithuania, he rakes in the audience’s joy. It is infectious.

Cynthia Grassi’s Professor Ahriman is the most lovely revenge to socially awkward intellectuals. One might think she’s had a lot of material to draw upon from studying her own professors. However, she builds the character in realism even though in a ridiculous way that offers painfully honest insight into things that make the human psyche tick—sometimes with little provocation.

I missed getting to see Alex Holland as Mark Cohen in “Rent”; consequently, I had never seen him sing or dance. In this show, he runs the gamut from a smarmy theatrical agent (is there any other kind?), who really gave me the creeps, to a judge, murderer and even church choir member. He’s got quite a range and he’s really a delightful dancer.

Which brings me to the church choir led by Rev. Ford (Quinten Johnson), a man who obviously appreciates the subtleties of Al Green’s entire career (including his current incarnation as a preacher in Memphis), alongside the utility of Jimmy Swaggart’s methods. He plays several over-the-top parts, too: Besides the reverend, he is Mortmain the Magician, master of illusions and highly stylized storytelling. The dictum to the actor, “your body is your instrument,” has not been lost on Johnson, who uses every level of space available to transform a simple story into a stylized performance by a traveling storyteller. It feels part P.T. Barnum, part Comedia dell’Arte, with a flourish of David Copperfield.

I always look forward to UNCW productions because of their design elements. Scenic designer Gregg Buck creates a truly multi-media experience, as the scenery gets projected onto the stage. Much of it active film footage, it moves and shifts as the show progresses and is as much a part of the message and the performance as the actors. Guest lighting designer Kia Rogers’ work is seamless; it is so beautiful. Subtle would be the best way to describe it. She has one in particular, special down-stage center—a triangle (accentuating the three bodies that Margo Veil will inhabit) which slowly changes colors, disappears and reappears throughout the course of the show. It doesn’t have to be overt and stark; it makes a stronger impression with its nuance. Rogers is a UNCW alum currently working as a designer in New York City. Outside of the opportunity to work with someone of her caliber, it must be an inspiring experience for the students to work with a graduate from the same program, who has encountered professional success. Rogers’ kind and generous nature lends itself to a natural mentoring attitude, and hopefully some of the design and production students are taking advantage of the opportunity.

For a fascinating evening of theatre, and with a talented young cast, “Margo Veil” is a winner.

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