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A FAIRY TALE

at the Actors' Gang Theater

Reviewed by Scott Proudfit

Once upon a time, two of the most talented and outrageous performers in the L.A. theatre scene combined forces to take on an exploration of queer culture through the deconstruction of two age-old fairy tales, "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Ugly Duckling." Under the benevolent guidance of director Tracy Young, whose magical powers are unrivaled on Southland stages, these two intrepid travelers fearlessly delved into the tangled woods of child abuse, adolescent angst, and self-discovery, and emerged skipping and singing (showtunes, natch) in what may prove to be the most entertaining and intelligent show of 1999.

Like said Germanic forest into which the pudgy Hansel and Gretel are ruthlessly abandoned, this is one of the densest and thorniest 90 minutes of theatre imaginable, but the brilliantly arch Chris Wells and achingly sweet Daniel T. Parker have the energy and heart for the journey.

The frame for the two stories, offered in brief interludes between the story-theatre sections, is the backstage drama between the two "fairies" (essentially two struggling actors with a past) performing the tales. These snippets capture the delightfully hilarious chemistry between Wells and Parker, which permeates the rest of the show regardless which character they're assaying or which wig they've slapped on.

Wells' character is a little more successful, and he lets it be known-he shops at Pottery Barn, he's just finished a musical tour starring Bea Arthur, he's had some bonding done, etc. Parker's sad sack character, meanwhile, is enviously encouraging, with an undercurrent of anger. "Wow, that's great" is his mantra in response to his partner's smugness.

But as the evening proceeds, we learn that there's more going on between these two than comparing their resum size, shall we say. Both are much more than they appear-Parker's persona not merely a victim, Wells' not just an ego. This process of peeling back characters' protective layers is the primary action of this piece, as Wells and Parker really attempt to get to the heart of growing up "queer." And it can get bloody.

This is not merely a campy send-up of classic caricatures, though that's where it starts. (Gretel is really Greg, longing for all the things little girls enjoy; the stepmother is a chilling Mommie Dearest; the Ugly Duckling is a frustrated geek, cast out by the cool kids at school, acting out his sexual longing voyeuristically.) But beyond these initial transformations-this "queering" of the text-Parker and Wells reveal the deeper pain and truth behind each of these send-ups. It makes for an evening that's riotously funny, but also scary, and ultimately very moving.

To try to map out the brilliantly multi-linear and musical plot (practically the entire piece is scored playfully) would take too long, but here are two favorite moments: Wells as one of the brothers Grimm, his wiry black beard quivering as he shouts in his ridiculous Teutonic accent (and I paraphrase), "But enough of zis bullshit, let's get back to vhat really matters: killing little children!" And Parker's monologue as the awkward duckling, Carlos, describing his travails and personal triumph over the cruel taunts of his peers on the daily bus ride.

Like Carlos, who ultimately overcomes the abuse-though he'll always carry the pain-Parker and Wells make it through the woods, and the show ends on an up, albeit occasionally ironic, note, with a medley of showtunes which alone is worth the price of admission.

Robert A. Prior's set design is as frightfully playful and complex as the show itself-a tangled, silvery web of spooky toys, twisted branches, and winged troll cherubs. Like the rest of the show, the brilliance is in the detail. The set alone could stand as a work of art, a postmodern commentary on childhood fears and longings-Edward Gorey meets F.A.O. Schwartz.

Director Young proves herself yet again the master of physical staging. Hansel and Gretel's slow-motion escape out of the witch's front door as smoke plumes out, filling the theatre, is a ballet; Hansel's metered placement of a spiral of rocks to mark his way home, a minuet. Yet Young also manages to contain the creative energy of the two talents, and keeps the story from busting at the seams. This is her greatest skill.

Much more than Grimm and smarter than camp, this is a fairy tale destined to be a favorite for years to come.

"A Fairy Tale," presented by the Actors' Gang and Pearl Productions at the Actors' Gang Theater, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sun. 8 p.m. Oct. 9-30. $12-15. (323) 655-8587.

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SPIKE HEELS

at the Victory Theatre

Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner

Manners make the man, they say. In Spike Heels, they make the woman, too. Theresa Rebeck's delightfully fresh play is like a sip of sparkling champagne after a steady diet of city water.

Poor Georgie (Heidi Mokrycki) can't seem to get it right. A lovable urchin pulled by her hair from the gutter by Andrew (John Demita), a modern-day Prof. Higgins, Georgie is still anything but polished. She's learned to type since Andrew got her a job with his lawyer friend, Edward (Tim Conlon); she's learned how to dress the part. She's even learned how to carry on a conversation without over-employing her favorite four-letter word. What she still has to learn is that the upper-crusty Boston Back Bay types who have taken over her life, despite their education and snooty veneers, share many of the qualities of snakes and rats.

When Edward threatens to rape her and Andrew can't outright say he didn't give him implied permission, Georgie forgets all her new-found manners and blows the roof off the madhouse she thought she wanted to move into. In a couple of hilarious evenings, we find out a lot more than we want to know about the upright Andrew, who's taken it on himself to educate Georgie; the sleazy Edward, to whom Andrew has handed his refurbished "property"; Andrew's jilted girlfriend, Lydia (Angela Perry) who, it turns out, has also sampled Edward's legal briefs, and Georgie herself.

Stunning performances from all four actors, directed with great flair and fun by Steve Muscarella, make this a gem of a show: funny, touching, crazy, unpredictable, and as insightful as it is entertaining. Mokrycki is enchanting, from her sewer mouth to her fuck-me red heels. Conlon is Mr. Charm, sporting his repulsively sexy veneer with great savor. Demita and Perry are obviously made for each other, handling less flashy roles with confidence. Playwright Rebeck, sampled earlier in Rebeck Revisited and reported on here, continues to be an exciting voice in the theatrical gender wars.

Timothy Ford Hannon's set design is meticulous in its ambiance, both of Andrew's writer's lair and Georgie's trashy digs, and well-decorated by Jeff McLaughlin's lighting and Jaci Rohr's costumes.

"Spike Heels," presented by and at the Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Oct. 15-Dec. 12. $18-20. (818) 841-5421.

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MARRY ME A LITTLE

at Celebration Theatre

Reviewed by Scott Proudfit

One of the goals of Celebration Theatre's new artistic director Richard Israel is to expand his audience beyond the niche of hardcore fans of shows like Naked Boys Singing. If he continues to offer productions as classy, groundbreaking, and professional as Marry Me a Little under director Randy Brenner, that should be no problem.

Midway through this fabulous two-man revue of Sondheim almost-rans, I found myself missing Manhattan. At first I thought it was because the show is set in an NYC apartment house, and set there stylishly thanks to Michael Kamper's evocative sound and Larry Sousa's sleek and colorful urban apartment-overlapping domiciles of two men who, though a floor divides them, are both coping with very similar lonely Saturday nights. Then I realized it wasn't only the setting that was making me reminiscent, it was that-thanks to the talent of actors Craig Curtis and Steve Gideon and the polished feel of this delightful piece-I felt like I was sitting in an Off-Broadway theatre again.

Much has been made of Sondheim officially allowing for the first time a gender change with a show, making this a same-sex revue rather than a man-and-woman duo. But this hardly comes to mind during the evening because the material seems so natural and comfortable to these two performers. Steve Gideon as Man #1 has an edgy, Michael Rupert quality, equal parts sexy and funny. He particularly shines in the bouncy but soulful "Happily Ever After," a number cut from Company, which he performs while folding his laundry. What an exciting night at home!

Craig Curtis as Man #2 offers a more mature and tempered quality which recalls a younger Robert Westenberg. His winner for the night is the best song in the revue, the title tune, "Marry Me a Little." Curtis' interpretation, performed with little movement-a wise decision by director Brenner-is simple and beautiful, a heartbreaking revelation of a man ready for love but only on his own terms.

That's not to say that every number is a gem in this male-male interpretation. "The Boys of Summer," formerly "The Girls of Summer" from a show by the same name, doesn't exactly ignite fireworks. And "Uptown, Downtown," cut from Follies, about a woman who wants it all, is still pretty insubstantial, though Gideon knows how to sell it. But the problem of both of these songs lies in the material. After all, this is the revue which also contains the banal "Pour Le Sport," from the best forgotten The Last Resort. Not even Sondheim is infallible.

More importantly, however, the majority of numbers are Sondheim at his best, or at least his very good, which is better than most composers' best. And the way Brenner and cast have shaped the slight story, including some lovely choreography between the two men who inhabit the same space through most the show, actually offers a more satisfying arc than the original Craig Lucas/Norman Ren collaboration.

And it's in the duets that the show really takes off, particularly "All Things Bright and Beautiful" and "It Wasn't Meant To Happen," two achingly painful songs cut from Follies which are mini-shows unto themselves in terms of emotional journey and characterization. (And we would be remiss not to mention Kevin Parcher's excellent timing in his piano accompaniment of these and all other numbers.)

For Sondheim aficionados, this production is a must. For all others, it's a challenge worth taking. As this show proves, the new Celebraiton has a lot to celebrate.

"Marry Me a Little," presented by and at Celebration Theatre, 7051 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Oct. 15-Dec. 5. $21-26. (310) 289-2999.

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TRUST

at the Eureka Theatre

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

Perhaps the most remarkable things about Gary Mitchell's play, set in a working-class housing estate just outside of Belfast, is how seldom the words Catholic and Protestant ever come up-especially since its backdrop is the shadowy world of the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), one of the many Protestant paramilitary groups determined to keep Northern Ireland under British rule.

But Mitchell's biting and well-written piece, now receiving its American premiere as the season opener for Eureka, isn't meant to be a recitation of "the Troubles" from a Protestant perspective. Though Mitchell is a Protestant and still lives in the huge Rathcoole housing estate where his play is set, his concern is more with how an environment built on violence inevitably catches up with the innocent and the guilty; indeed, no one in his play is either wholly one or the other, which is why the title virtue is in such short supply among these characters.

Geordie McKnight (Jonathan Haugen) is a district commander for the UDA whose teenage son, Jake (Johnny Sanders), has been fighting an array of mysterious headaches. Jake's mother Margaret (Mhari Sandoval) finds out that the boy is being bullied by a group of teen thugs. When Geordie and his friend/lieutenant Artty (Dan Hiatt) fail to intervene (aside from taking Jake out to a pub for drinking and advice on how to impress one's mates and women), Margaret enlists the help of jittery ex-con Treavor (Clive Worsley) to rough up the boys. The private trials of the McKnight clan become messily entwined with Geordie's plot to buy arms for the UDA from the British Army, via disgruntled soldier Vincent (Calum Grant), who's egged on by his avaricious vixen of a girlfriend, Julie (Sarah Overman).

As directed by Amy Glazer, this production manages to enthrall and entertain. Despite the grim subject matter, Mitchell knows his characters well, and their foibles are often as much a source of humor as disaster. The first act, at nearly two hours, does take a while to find its legs (though I can't say I was ever bored or uninvolved), but the swift and tense second act brings home the unvarnished truths about the nature of revenge at the heart of Mitchell's play.

In a uniformly solid cast, Haugen delivers an astonishing turn as the quietly menacing, slightly bemused Geordie. He only raises his voice once in the entire show-and it's chillingly effective. Sandoval is a powerhouse as a mother lion determined to protect her cub, and Sanders brings a pitiful quality of fear and confusion to his embattled teenager. Hiatt plays Artty with a hilarious blend of bumbling ineptitude and swaggering macho self-regard (which reaches its comic height in the pub scene), while Worsley plays the not-so-bright Treavor with an unsettling twitchiness that underscores how much his 13 years in prison for UDA activities have cost him. Grant and Overman's dysfunctional couple add the final noxious ingredients to this stew of vengeance and greed.

Yet Mitchell's triumph as a playwright is the empathy he has for these characters. These are obviously people he knows well, and though he may condemn their actions, he understands what drives them on. By play's end, we see clearly what the characters in Trust are just beginning to learn: If you're bent on giving others what you think they deserve, you only stand to lose everything you've got.

"Trust," presented by and at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Wed.-Thurs. 8 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 8:30 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Oct. 13-Nov. 14. $25-30. (415) 788-7469.

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SOMETHING IN HIS GENES

at the Other Space at the Santa Monica Playhouse

Reviewed by Richard Scaffidi

Happily musing upon this Juliette Marshall comic monologue, one could say that it's a show which offers a lot of nothing: no set, no supporting cast, no costume changes, no anguished introspection, no horrific confessions, no burning social cause. Not even an intermission...

Ah, but what does happen is that Marshall and director Mark W. Travis (a master of the solo genre) perform a little theatrical alchemy. They transform all those "negatives" into a thoroughly positive evening. In one fast and funny hour, the lovable and lively Marshall simply acts out for our amusement her colorful and happy true odyssey of falling in love when she least expected it. Bouncing freely about the stage (Marshall has a clear case of happy feet) and directly addressing the audience, it's like she's cheerfully insisting that we share in her joy, whimsy, and wonder. And for the most part we do, because even though the show is thematically scant, its lack of profundity is countered by its carefree heart and by the effervescence of its kooky star.

Marshall's uninhibited physicality and her more subtle vocal skill combine to vividly depict the highly contrasting central characters in this romance, namely herself-hyperactive, emotionally volcanic, and a bit bratty-and her eventual husband, who is steady, indulgent, and apparently as mellow as a man can be without herbal assistance. They are truly attractive opposites, and a good bet to keep life fun, surprising, and satisfying-much like this charming play. And that's not nothing.

"Something in His Genes," presented by TalentWave and Judy Arnold Productions at the Other Space at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. Thurs. 8 p.m. Aug. 5-Nov. 18. $10. (323) 665-8587.

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BLACKBIRD

at the Eclipse Theatre

Reviewed by Paul Birchall

On first hearing the basic concept for director Phil Lantis' bizarre adaptation of Euripides' ancient tragedy The Bacchae-which sets it, with gleeful perversity, in 1969, within the environs of Charlie Manson's cult maniac-filled ranch-you may expect a dramatic disaster of lame conceits and bizarre, pointless metaphors.

Yet Lantis' idiosyncratic, oddly compelling production is instead creepy, unpredictable, and surprisingly innovative. While eschewing many of the "Greek Theatre 101" thematic clich s of voyeurism and indecent curiosity directors of the play usually hone in on, Lantis chooses to stage the drama as a ritual enacted by the Manson girls to please their master, who, in a loopy, steadfastly deranged way could actually be a reincarnation of Dionysius.

When the audience enters the theatre, we find several sweet-looking, innocent, and giggly young women wearing the peasant blouses, tie-dye, and bell-bottom jeans of 1970s hippies. They're all playing little childish games. It would be charming but for the hirsute and disturbingly intense Charles Manson surrogate (Douglas Von Nessen) keeping them under his thrall, eyes a-bugging and smirk a-leering, from a throne placed upstage.

At Manson's command the "family" commences a stylized presentation of Euripides' drama, with various culty-looking "sisters" portraying all the parts. The story of young prince Pentheus (Bronwyn Hynan), who battles original party dude Dionysius (Nessen as the Manson surrogate in the role himself) but winds up having his head ripped off by his own mother (Nancy Lantis), possesses additional relevence in director Lantis' clever play-within-a-play staging.

Lantis' evocation of an evil cult atmosphere is striking and harrowing. It's also a fresh take, to see the The Bacchae presented as a manifestation of a maniac's lunacy. The genuinely unnerving juxtaposition of fresh faces with undercurrents of mania seem eerily perfect when placed within the original Greek drama.

That said, the production of Eurpides' text itself is somewhat less engaging than the outer play, with performances that feel recitative rather than dramatic. Still, we're constantly aware that we're supposed to think the show is being performed by the Manson girls, not professional actors, which lends the performances an intriguing additional thematic layer. Hynan's stiff and ultimately unhinged Pentheus is amusingly prissy, while Nancy Lantis' tortured turn as Agave is poignantly touching.

In the twin roles of Dionysius and Charlie, Nessen couldn't be more frightening-and the evening's final moment, a raving monologue written by the real Manson himself, will not fail to shock and disturb on a basic level. If this is what the Greeks meant by catharsis, they were onto something.

"Blackbird," presented by and at the Eclipse Theatre, W. Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. Oct. 15-Dec. 18. $12. (818) 247-2884.

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LEMONADE

at the Alley Theatre

Reviewed by Holly Hildebrand

Do you like your lemonade sweet or tart? That's one of the questions Eve Ensler asks in her new play, Lemonade, which manages to serve up both tastes in its world premiere at Houston's Alley Theatre.

Quirky and funny, intriguing and upsetting, Lemonade also asks lots of questions about love, acceptance, reality, fantasy, forgiveness, and abuse. It doesn't answer all of them satisfactorily, but that it makes you think about them is an accomplishment in itself.

The story focuses on Alice, a lonely woman who one day finds a strange man sitting at her kitchen table. Instead of becoming alarmed, Alice calmly asks him a few questions that he cannot answer, then serves him lemonade. The man, who comes to be known as Bernard, remembers nothing of his past-or at least he says he doesn't. No matter: Alice accepts him for what she thinks or hopes he is, and lets him stay.

Her daughter, a bulimic lawyer named Jane, is not nearly as accommodating. Jane's lust for the truth leads to desperate acts and a shocking revelation, at least as far as everybody but Alice is concerned.

One of the best things about this odd little play is its language. Ensler, currently performing her acclaimed The Vagina Monologues in New York, creates images like nobody else; when Alice confesses that she has killed flocks of birds, for instance, she speaks of the "beak chips" that litter her driveway. While recounting a surreal dream in another scene, Alice talks about "getting directions from a woman with no tongue" and describes Bernard's legs as being thin as "golf clubs."

Another very good thing about this production is the cast. Lisa Richards, last seen in Houston as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, portrays Alice with both an aching vulnerability and an unsettling fierceness. In his Alley debut, Stephen Mendillo creates a Bernard who is both appealing and scary. As Jane, Sherri Parker Lee evokes pity and sympathy, and Jason Douglas shows much presence as a cop.

David Wheeler's brisk direction is nicely complemented by Kevin Rigdon's dramatic lighting. The simple yet effective set is by Richard Hoover, who won a Tony for his scenic design in Not About Nightingales.

While Lemonade left me with a feeling that something was still missing, I left the theatre glad to have seen what is there already.

"Lemonade," presented by and at the Alley Theatre on its Neuhaus Arena Stage, 615 Texas Ave., Houston, Tex. Tues.-Thurs. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8-Nov. 7. $37-42. (713) 228-8421.

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FLIPZOIDS

at the Sweetooth Theatre

Reviewed by Charlene Baldridge

Produced by San Diego's Asian American Repertory Theatre, Ralph B. Pe˜a's fragile and poetic Flipzoids takes place amid scenic designer Carrie Sefcik's beautifully conceived seaside environment, evocative of the eternal ocean, sand, and sky.

The coastline is that of Orange County. Here, an old and mystical uprooted Filipina named Ayling (a lovely, authentic performance by Emelita Carlos-Moll) passes her days, making ceremonies on the shore, knowing the sea also touches the shores of her long-lost home. But there is no one to listen to Ayling's stories anymore, and she embarrasses her daughter, Vangie (Cherry Lorenzana), by clinging to the old, "weird" ways.

Vangie is a nursing-school graduate, bent on improving her English knowledge and pronunciation so she may fully assimilate. She has brought Ayling to California hoping to improve the old woman's life, and now she doesn't know what to do with her. Despite Lorenzana's best efforts, the character comes across as petulant and self-involved.

Transplanted to the U.S. when he was a young boy, the hip, Filipino-American youth, Redford (Andy Lowe), has his own stories to tell, mostly to men in the stalls at what he calls "the barracks," a public toilet on the beach. No one listens to him, either.

When Ayling and Redford meet and interact, transformations occur. Their scenes are the most cohesive in a play that unfolds in fragments. The poetic imagery of the storytelling sometimes flies too far, too fast. The playwright drops occasional clunkers-dramatic pronouncements that could have been softened by more sensitive directorial set-ups.

Mitchell Simkovsy is the lighting designer; Y also provides the sound design, and Fwamay Sullivan the costumes. Like Chay Yew's Wonderland, currently at the La Jolla Playhouse, this haunting little piece concerns the Asian-American immigrant experience using an economy of language, and provides yet another angle from which to glimpse the cost of assimilation. Pe˜a allows the sadness to seep into our bones.

"Flipzoids," presented by the San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre at the Sweetooth Theatre, Maryland Hotel, 630 F Street, downtown San Diego. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Oct. 15-Nov. 7. $9-12. (619) 544-9079.

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THE ANGELS OF LEMNOS

at the Road Theatre Company

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

It's rare that you leave the theatre whistling the direction, but that is the case with director Ken Sawyer's beautiful work with a script that only benefits from it. Indeed, Jim Henry's play is one of those earnest pieces that much too quickly becomes an exercise in semiotics for the audience, in that our willingness to invest the energy in viewing every thing onstage as Something More Than It Seems is directly proportional to how much you'll glean from the text. Heavy directorial guidance is appreciated in this case.

Nathan Spandrel (Todd Buteaux), a disturbed but goodhearted lad, finds himself on the streets on a cold winter night (of course it's winter), where he shares the company of the homeless and finds a baby so shockingly low-maintenance it could be nothing but a Big Lesson. (And could somebody explain to me why groups of the chronically homeless are deemed to have some sort of special insight by virtue of their marginalization? Poverty is such a precious gift? Please. It starts to look like condescension to the one group not likely to darken the box office.)

Director Ken Sawyer manages to take the whole self-infatuated mess and make it sing. He gives the production a flow and vitality that makes it possible for you to almost make it to the car before you ask yourself, What was that? The staging is most inventive and at times looks like dance. The actual dance moment (staged by David Burnham) is refreshing, especially since it's late enough in the show that you're not likely to ask where it came from.

Sawyer pulls some excellent performances out of his cast, keeping Buteaux from becoming overly precious in his simpleton innocence (though at times he comes close), while allowing Joe Hart free rein to ground the production with his solid performance as the homeless sage Gertie Colter. Liz Herron also lends dignity as Nathan's mother, succeeding in not being overwhelmed by the awesome responsibility of being All Things Maternal.

Desma Murphy's alleyway set is probably the best of its kind I've seen (and there are a lot of them about lately), while the lights of David Flad and sound of Wav Magic manage to be both gritty and otherworldly as the situation requires. Surely you didn't think you'd get out without a glimpse of heaven and hell, now did you? The evening ends in the certain hope of a better future despite all evidence to the contrary, a belief we could probably all stand to have reinforced.

"The Angels of Lemnos," presented by and at the Road Theatre Company in the Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Sept. 24-Nov. 14. (818) 759-3382.

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A VAMPIRE REFLECTS

at the Ventura Court Theatre

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

Halloween is that annual opportunity to indulge in things that are cheap, fun, and disposable, in this case theatre. A bobby soxer (Casie Fox as Mattie), a vampire (Anthony De Longis as Count Zescu), and exploding bats (varies by performance) are the construction paper-thin framework upon which Frank Semerano hangs his script, a delightfully shameless effort that will go as low as it needs to for a laugh. The overplotting (we haven't the space) only adds to the sense of the ridiculous.

To approach such a text with anything approximating subtlety would be madness, so Vaughn Armstrong doesn't allow his cast anywhere near it. De Longis sinks his fangs into huge chunks of the really, really crappy scenery (by Ivonski), but there's set-gnawing enough to go around. There seems to be an intramural contest to see who can achieve the most wretchedly artificial accent of the evening. The jury remains out.

The play is billed as "a comedy with music," and wisely so. To call it a musical would place too great a burden on Gary Stockdale's tunes and lyrics (additional lyrics by the playwright). The only one that stays with me is Mattie's plaintive ballad, "My Vampire," a song for anyone who has ever had to explain away a mate of dubious value.

De Longis manages to be both swoony and comical, while Fox plays her part like Lolita on speed. There's a hilarious performance by Dan Payne as Col. Puddlepont, the army man in charge of the detonating bats project. Points are also given to Payne for carrying off a red peignoir and a cigar simultaneously. Joy Ellison makes a delightful Mrs. Puddlepont, the flibbertigibbet who finds a title-to-be as seductive as a rank. Miguel Marcott and Alex Cobo boldly essay the mad scientist/sidekick roles (oops, jury's back-and it's Marcott by a warped diphthong), and Chris Edsey (running a very close second) is the undercover reporter trying to break the whole sordid mess wide open.

You just have to go with it. Any show that would willingly include the following exchange-"Take a seat." "Oh, no, we have plenty at home"-has to be appreciated for what it is. And what could be more appropriate to the season than a dark room full of groaning people?

"A Vampire Reflects," presented by Vaughn Armstrong and Gary Savona at the Ventura Court Theatre, 12417 Ventura Court, Studio City. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23-Oct. 31. $10. (818) 763-0245.

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THE 2nd ANNUAL ORIGINAL ONE-ACT FESTIVAL

at the Stella Adler Theatre

Reviewed by Terri Roberts

There is a sense of earnestness common to the four original one-acts being presented at the Stella Adler Studio. Still, while each script has its problems (most notably weak endings in the first three), there are laughs to be had along the way.

First up is The Amazing Pazanos, written and directed by Bernardo Gigliotti. Fiery Annette (Susan Vinciotti) and loud-mouth Joey (Gary O'Brien) Pazano, a husband-and-wife ventriloquist team, fight over what to do when their favorite dummy, Tommy (Jack Rodgers), disappears. Annette wants to use second-stringer Ben (Ernie Sanchez), but Joey goes hysterical at the thought. He's so connected to Tommy that his communication skills practically vanish without him (which strains the marriage as well as the act). Rodgers and Sanchez are appropriately stiff-limbed and vacant-eyed as the dummies, but don't get to do much. Gigliotti's surprise ending is only slightly so, and needs some fine tuning to make it really work.

Louis Felder wrote and directed Trumps, the story of a wealthy man named Austin (Don Short), who's trying to talk his wife, Camille (Danielle Boudreau), a wannabe actress, into attending another humiliating family Christmas dinner. But Camille's reluctance to spend the evening with her antagonistic mother-in-law turns to Lucy Ricardo-ish scheming when Austin lets it slip that the other dinner guests are a couple of prospective backers for a new show. While Felder's premise is problematic (for starters, a backers' audition at a family Christmas dinner?), but it gives the perky Boudreau a chance for great fun with her role as the conniving Camille.

The longest of the quartet, Lambies, was written by Timothy McNeil and directed by Alan Gelfant. Robert (McNeil) is a shy, nerdy math teacher smitten with the sexually-repressed-but-hungering Candy (Eleanor Comegys) who teases him, then uses her fundamentalist beliefs to keep him at bay and to test the strength of his love and his newfound religious convictions. Comegys does the best she can with Candy, who's more caricature than actual character. Her struggle with opposing desires is, unfortunately, rice paper-thin and played entirely for laughs. McNeil, however, is delightful and utterly believable as the vulnerable puppy dog Robert, though his script could benefit from some subtler shadings and a red editor's pen.

Finally, there's Offsides, written, directed by, and starring Dennis Safren and Dan W. Davis as a pair of typical guy's guys-beer-belching, sideline-swearing football fans, each with a secret they're desperate to share but cannot. Though Offsides goes overboard at times with the macho man routine, of all four plays it offers the most unexpected twist and a strong, clean ending that's surprisingly poignant. And it makes a solid ending to an uneven but occasionally amusing evening of shorts.

"The 2nd Annual Original One-Act Festival," presented by and at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd (2nd Floor), Hollywood. Tues.-Wed. 8 p.m. Oct. 12-Nov. 17. $5. (323) 465-4446.

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THE DYING GAUL

at Stages Repertory Theatre

Reviewed by Holly Hildebrand

There is much to praise in the production of The Dying Gaul at Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston. For one, great care has been lavished on the set, designed by Kirk Markley and effectively evoking the interiors of 1990s California. Director Rob Bundy has coaxed fine performances from all his actors. And an inventive element of the scenic design-lighted graphics with binary code-emphasizes the play's one ephemeral character, the Internet.

But none of these good qualities can solve the many problems inherent in Craig Lucas' tale of Hollywood corruption. Murky and muddled, confused and confusing, The Dying Gaul trudges along to an unsatisfying ending so filled with unanswered questions and so devoid of clues that trying to figure out what anything meant-or indeed, what even happened-seems a hopeless and fruitless exercise.

One of the main problems is Lucas' focus on the online world for a big part of his plot. He sets his play in 1995, when the Internet was just exploding. Elaine, wife of the crass Hollywood producer Jeffrey, logs onto an online chatroom in an effort to discover what's going on between her husband and a young screenwriter, Robert. Wonder of wonders, Robert just happens to be in this particular chatroom when Elaine is, so we are treated to interminable scenes of two characters typing away at their laptops as they recite aloud what they're writing. At one point, Elaine even pretends to be the spirit of Robert's dead lover, Malcolm, communicating from the great beyond. Robert's acceptance of this strains credulity, but, hey-what's a play about AIDS without an angel?

The scenes that don't involve typing, however, are interesting to watch. Making his Stages debut, Peter Kybart displays great stage presence as Jeffrey and livens up the proceedings whenever he appears. The excellent Connie Cooper imbues Elaine with a touching vulnerability, and Jonathan McVay effectively conveys the confusion, loneliness, and longing of Robert. Robert Leeds is quite good in the small role of the psychiatrist Dr. Foss.

Yet even the best performances can't fix a script as shot through with holes as this. Lucas seems to think he can fix all the questions about his characters' motivations by dredging up Buddhist quotations. But his instant karma never got me.

"The Dying Gaul," presented by and at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, Houston, Tex. Wed.-Thurs. 7:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Oct. 15-Nov. 7. $26-37. (713) 527-8243.

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WAIT UNTIL DARK

at the La Habra Depot Theatre

Reviewed by Kristina Mannion

Heavily dependent on its ability to chillingly heighten our awareness of sight and sound, Frederick Knott's Wait Until Dark requires an atmosphere that constantly bubbles with fear and suspicion to successfully convey its layered plot. Set entirely in a small Greenwich Village basement apartment, this psychological thriller is best experienced when it's awash with sly undercurrents of anxiety, for both the audience and its vulnerable heroine-a recently blinded woman who must use her own wits to outmaneuver an elaborate con by three criminals when they suspect she's got a valuable possession they desperately want.

In 1967, the popular movie based on Knott's play, distinguished by Audrey Hepburn's captivating performance, easily translated the tension and suspense of this tightly crafted work onto film. Building the same kind of controlled, gripping ambience onstage, however, seems to be a more difficult undertaking, at least on the evidence of this La Habra Depot Theatre production.

Here, though we witness a fine, straightforward enactment of the script's clever mystery, the thrilling unease that should accompany Knott's work is too mild, and the sense of hair-raising foreboding is never fully realized. Hampered by Christian Wolf's overly subdued direction and a trio of criminals who are somewhat less than menacing, this staging only moderately achieves the play's trademark crescendo of panic, leading to its famously spine-tingling climax. This is unfortunate, for this final scene-which finds our heroine, Susy Hendrix, cunningly battling a cold-blooded killer mostly in the dark-is actually executed quite well here. Preying upon our natural fear of darkness, and using furtive sound and movement to commendable effect, this ultimate scene offers an exceptionally harrowing conclusion, which makes it all the more noticeable that the scenes leading up to it are missing an essential tone of ominous edginess.

Despite satisfactory performances all around, part of the failure to create a truly tangible atmosphere of apprehension is due to the uneven chemistry of the three villains of this piece: soft-spoken Mike Talman (Michael M. Miller), his nervous-looking sidekick Sgt. Carlino (David Van Patten), and heartless psychopath Harry Roat Jr. (Christopher Spencer), who coerces the other two into conning their way into Susy's confidence. Unfortunately, the combination of these three characters is just not as convincingly threatening as it could be. While Miller and Van Patten are often appropriately understated in portraying the delinquent duo roped into Roat's scheme, they are also alternately too light-handed in their approach, which leaves us with little insight into the interesting and varied motives that make their criminal minds tick.

On the other hand, Spencer's portrayal of Roat, though earnest to a fault, is too much of a one-note caricature. Played with an affected delivery that's reminiscent of John Malkovich's familiar quiet menace but which doesn't quite match that actor's finesse, Spencer's Roat unfortunately isn't as sinister as we'd like-except in the notable climax, where he does succeed in providing a few moments of terror in his deadly pursuit of Susy.

In contrast, Stephanie Wohlfeil-Watson balances out this production with a more consistently rewarding performance as the fresh-faced, spirited Susy. Credibly playing the part of a blind person and infusing her character with a believable mixture of trepidation and brazen courage, she offers the best-realized portrayal in this staging. Often it's her studied facial expressions and carefully choreographed body movements-both of which constantly remind us of Susy's vulnerability-that keep us attuned to the action and keep us involved until those last scuffling moments in the dark, when she shows her mettle in a final terrifying denouement.

"Wait Until Dark," produced by Chris Montgomery at the La Habra Depot Theatre, 311 S. Euclid St., La Habra. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m. Oct. 15-Nov. 6. $10-12. (562) 905-9708.

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DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN

at the Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Brad Schreiber

Rob Becker is the John Gray of standup comedy. In fact, in the opening video prior to his performance, we see books with titles like Men Who Hate Themselves and the Women Who Couldn't Agree More. Using the, er, timeless music of Paula Abdul's "Opposites Attract," he has a montage showing his normal wife contrasting Becker sniffing through a laundry basket for clothes which don't smell too bad, pouring too much lighter fluid on the barbecue, etc.

The slow-talking, moon-faced, sloppily dressed Becker is a most genial host for these wry if familiar observations. He taps into female resentment of testosterone by posing such questions as, "The penis: sex organ or birth defect?" And his "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" theme pokes fun at the foibles of both sexes throughout, even eliciting laughter on points we have heard over and over again.

Undoubtedly, the universality of Caveman led it to be the longest-running solo show in Broadway history, with 702 performances at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Becker has performed it in other countries and even in front of 2,000 members of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists in Toronto.

I hope it helped a lot of screwed-up couples, because it doesn't do much for the rest of us. Becker's delivery is far too laconic for a one-man show, his diction is muddy, even with a wireless mike. And his claim of studying anthropology, prehistory, psychology, sociology, and mythology, while perhaps true, has little bearing on his pleasant but simple routine.

And it must be said: This is more standup than theatre, with brief dalliances with lighting changes and a supposed interchange with a caveman serving as the "dramatic throughline" of the work. The 45-and-over crowd I saw the show with never seemed to tire of Becker's mundane observations, which were at their best in exploring the subtext of male language: ""Dickhead' means you're my friend and "buttwipe' means I missed you."

Becker opens and closes on the subject of men being "assholes," and it piques one's interest to wonder how much more interesting the sociology might have been if the show was called "Men Are Assholes, Women Are Bitches." But then, it probably wouldn't have filled the Helen Hayes Theatre for two and a half years.

"Defending the Caveman," presented by Broadway L.A. at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 5 & 8 p.m., Sun. 3 & 7 p.m. Oct. 12-24. $27.50-44.50. (213) 365-3500.

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TALLULAH AND TENNESSEE

at Theatre West

Reviewed by Les Spindle

It sounds absolutely fan-tabulous: a dramatization of the 1960s career-slump period for two of showbiz's most colorful icons, hedonistic playwright Tennessee Williams and bon vivant actress Tallulah Bankhead, as interpreted by gifted female impressionist Jim Bailey. How could it possibly go wrong? In Theatre West's shaky premiere production of writer/director Charles Rome Smith's even shakier semi-biographical play Tallulah and Tennessee, the answer is: step by painful step.

Smith clearly intended something darker and more reflective than what unfolds before us, though ribald humor is an intrinsic part of any play attempting to capture Bankhead's outrageous personality. For this narcissistic bitch goddess, spouting irreverent bon mots came as naturally as guzzling booze and bed-hopping. When hearing that the film version of a Williams play she acted in (The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore) will star Taylor and Burton and is to be renamed Boom!, she says it sounds like an elephant fart. And when Bankhead hears that "Bette Fucking Davis" will topline the film version of The Little Foxes, another of her stage vehicles, she threatens to "pull every hair out of her moustache."

Bailey has fun with the wry witticisms and does a reasonably good job in mimicking Bankhead's foghorn voice and cackling laugh, but his hairdo, makeup, and mannerisms constantly bespeak his most famous impression, Streisand. A worse problem-not necessarily Bailey's fault-is the difficulty of trying to reconcile the inescapably comical image of a statuesque man in drag with Smith's half-hearted attempts to elicit bona-fide angst.

Even less effective is George Tovar's second-rate-burlesque take on Tennessee, hampered by the most godawful attempt at a Southern dialect this side of acting school. With one exception-Betty Garrett's charming turn as feisty actress Estelle Winwood-the supporting cast fares no better. Kevin Symons has intermittently effective moments as Bankhead's reluctant boy-toy assistant but by and large is quite stiff. Likewise, Lon Murphy as the cheeky former assistant and Geoffrey Alan Ross as Williams' flavor-of-the-week concubine give self-conscious performances. Leonard Ross appears briefly as the ghostly presence of Bankhead's deceased father.

Lines about Bankhead's career ups and downs unintentionally drive home the flaws in Smith's own enterprise. When the characters speak of Bankhead's flubbing of lines onstage, the under-rehearsed quality of Smith's erratically paced production provides a ready example. And when Williams scolds Bankhead for camping it up in his serious-intended drama Milk Train, we can't help but reflect on the schizophrenic effort before us, what with its awkward vacillations between burlesque and tragicomedy. As Tallulah would have proclaimed, "Get a grip, dah-ling."

"Tallulah and Tennessee," presented by John Gallogly and Suzzy London at Theatre West, 3333 Caheunga Blvd. West, Los Angeles. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sat. 4 p.m., Sun. 3 & 7 p.m. Oct. 14-Nov. 7. $15. (888) 551-9378.

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LAST SUMMER AT BLUEFISH COVE

at the Attic Theatre Centre

Reviewed by Adelina Anthony

Twenty years later, the award-winning Last Summer at Bluefish Cove by Jane Chambers is still a relevant and strong personal story about Lil, a lesbian dying of cancer in the prime of her life. Unfortunately, some very weak acting, miscast roles, and molasses-paced direction damage this particular revival of L.A.'s most successful lesbian play.

The play starts with a little too much mugging from Lily Mercer as Lil. She's got the requisite fishing pole that provides a perfect phallic symbol, so director David Colwell would have done well to reel her back in just a tad. After all, she is the only person onstage when the play starts; unlike the fish she's trying to bait, the audience is not swimming back to the Atlantic. Eventually, Mercer settles more naturally into her role, especially in the more dramatic situations. Still, moments in which she is clearly playing to the audience or making sitcom-ish acting choices do creep up throughout her performance.

But Mercer is far from committing the worst acting atrocities onstage. The supporting cast of Lil's close-knit lesbian friends is fraught with false notes, especially in the roles of Annie (Joanie Jensen), Rae (Penelope Witt) and Rita (Courtney Waite). There is way too much sing-song in the voices. Jensen in particular never has a believable moment; aside from not connecting with her lines, she should have been instructed by Colwell to cut the funny faces.

The most credible performance here is given by Kristina Hayes as Eva, the lone straight woman in this summer hideaway for lesbians. She conveys a delicate innocence and fragile sense of herself throughout, though she doesn't quite grasp the sensuality that overtakes any woman who is sincerely curious about exploring lesbianism.

Another drawback is that Hayes looks too young for this role; the same can be said of Waite as Rita. I point this out only because when the childish character of Donna (Kimerlee Curyl) walks on stage, we're not affected by the supposedly huge age disparity between Donna and her lover Sue (Harlene Marshall). If most of the couples onstage look like they're cradle-robbing, the poignance of this particular storyline is weakened.

The production values of the piece work well to create a cozy and warm environment. But the sound design, which is uncredited, is way too cheesy and melodramatic at times. Like the acting, sometimes it works, and often it doesn't.

Ultimately, the show feels too tepid, as if the sensuality has been watered-down for heterosexual audiences. We don't sense the vibes that would be radiating from these characters if they were really in love with each other. Colwell has a good eye for staging, but he's missed the emotional punch of the piece. I'm not talking about the tear-jerking moments we expect, but the more truthful ones like the lust, jealousies, and bitter rivalries. We don't call it dyke drama for nothing.

"Last Summer at Bluefish Cove," presented by the Attic Theatre Centre, 6562 1/2 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Oct. 14-Nov. 28. $20. (323) 469-3786 x4.

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