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JAILS, HOSPITALS + HIP-HOP

at the Actors' Gang Theatre

Reviewed by Scott Proudfit

It's not surprising that the son of a speech pathologist would have a unique respect for words. What is surprising is that with his ever-increasing circle of experience, Danny Hoch has not lost his native tongue‹or, rather, tongues.

Jail, Hospitals + Hip-Hop is all about the power of words. Each of Hoch's "marginalized" characters, from a Cuban trinkets vendor to a Puerto Rican teenager in physical rehab, spin out their views in fascinatingly legitimate idioms. Within two minutes, you realize how colorless and uniform is most of the TV and film dialogue you hear, and how this bland econo-language has also been adopted by most of today's theatre.

At the root of Hoch's current multiple-personality incarnation is the fate of hip-hop, a now-endangered form of music and expression which once stood in opposition to the system, before being homogenized, pasteurized, and consumed. Rather than railing against the Hollywood spin doctors and co-opters who undoubtedly made up a large portion of his audience on opening night, Hoch presented the show as a challenge to young people not to buy into the corporate MTV misrepresentation of hip-hop, not to abandon the original ideal of finding new avenues of expression afforded by the power and poetry of language, and above all not to become cynical in the face of the entertainment industrial complex.

How many young people he reached that evening is hard to say, but what Hoch did accomplish is to show everyone in the audience, regardless of their background, age, and career, that great art‹not in the hang-on-the-wall but in the living, breathing sense‹can be produced when you stay true to yourself. Odd that such a message would come from a man who can so easily transform himself into others, but that's the beauty of Hoch at work. He can see the truth as easily through the borrowed eyes of others as through his own.

With so much "message," you might assume the show is preachy. On the contrary, though Hoch may have the fire and the facility with phrases of a fire-and-brimstone revivalist, his medium is most often humor. From a teenage "gangsta" in rural Montana to a T-shirt salesman betrayed by the capitalist system he was taught to love, Hoch paints in rich, funny detail‹a small brush on a large canvas.

Go see Jails, Hospitals + Hip-Hop, and, as Hoch suggests, bring some young people with you. At the very least they'll enjoy a great night of vital theatre; at best they might actually hear something true to their experience. Wouldn't that be unique?

"Jails, Hospitals + Hip-Hop," presented by Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum and Caseroc Productions in association with the Actors' Gang at the Actors' Gang Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Nov. 11-Dec. 13. (213) 628-2772.

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THE DEMENTED SLAVE OF LOVE

at the McCadden Place Theatre

Reviewed by Polly Warfield

Robert Harders' play, which was developed in the Los Angeles Playwrights' Group, has the good fortune to be presented under the auspices of Jon Lawrence Rivera's Playwrights' Arena, Lori Zimmerman, and Fabulous Monsters, and to be directed in auteur mode by Monsters mentor Robert A. Prior, who also designed its set, gorgeous costumes, bizarre makeup, and, in addition, plays its balletic, acrobatic Jinn‹no ordinary genie but an "ifrit."

According to the playwright (who obviously researched the matter), ifrits are the most powerful of Jinn, and here we have two of them. Prior's ifrit, Dahnash, is accompanied by a partner, Maymunah (Diane Robinson), and they're ordered by the Almighty to go find two perfect human beings. As enacted by Tim Bennett, the Almighty is a natty chap who much resembles Truman Capote and is subject to fits of despair. Perhaps two perfect humans will make him feel better about the job he's doing.

The perfect pair are perfect strangers to each other. But‹such is the nature of fantasy and fable‹they are discovered entwined together in sleep. They awaken to find themselves instantly in love. And why not? Prince Kamar and Princess Emina, portrayed by Gabriel Romero and Candace Reid‹both arrayed in glistening, diaphanous robes of starlight and moonbeam‹are paragons of physical perfection. Maymunah, poor ifrit, is instantly smitten at sight of Kamar. To give the fable the complication and conflict it needs, Dahnash suddenly finds himself enamored of Maymunah, who detests him. We have here not one but several demented slaves of love.

The extraordinary Bennett Schneider‹who was in at the Monsters' beginning with its first show, The Maids, enacted a memorable Alice in Wonderland in last year's Project: Alice, and who made an indelible impression as Jesus at this year's L.A. Weekly awards show‹appears here as Prince Kamar's bitter brother Arno. Schneider has a singularly provocative presence, at once sly and shy, fragile and formidable, a darting, iridescent dragonfly with a sting. Bill Callaway acquits himself with distinction as a philosophical and melancholy merchant with whom Schneider at last finds fatherly comfort and refuge. The handsome Romero transforms recognizably into a rather endearing monkey when Prior's ifrit casts a spell. Reid's lovely princess remains exquisite to behold, however anguished. Robinson's girl ifrit, unlucky in love, generous in spirit, is a true heroine and‹outr makeup regardless‹truly beautiful.

Others include Richard Fox as Emina's father, the King, and Richard Gallegos as his advisor. Anthony Taylor, Galina Zaytseva, and Victoria Byers are a Man and Two Women in Black. Prior's splendid costumes were constructed of rich fabrics by his mother, Marlyn Moore, his aunt Gladys Yeater, and actress Zaytseva. Most of the haunting Middle Eastern music was composed by Prior's cousin, sound designer Andrew Yeater, and performed by a bare-chested John Lacques at an exotic variety of percussion instruments within a niche high in the wall. Lighting designer was Plume Buigues.

A footnote from the files: In a review of Chekhov's The Seagull in early 1982 at what was then known as the Richmond Shepard Theatre, one wrote: "Robert Prior is a perceptive and talented young director." It was Prior's first professional outing; he was 18. It is gratifying 16 years later to find his promise fulfilled with his Monsters, who have become a tight, multi-talented ensemble. Their artistic and technical prowess continues to develop; they speak with unusual clarity and precision; they move like dancers, and their commitment speaks for itself.

"The Demented Slave of Love," presented by Playwrights' Arena, Lori Zimmerman, and Fabulous Monsters at the McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood. Nov. 7-Dec. 20. (323) 960-7756.

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NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODY

at the Movie Tech Studio

Reviewed by Les Spindle

Amid the hype that frequently surrounds Los Angeles' high-profile theatre offerings, it's easy to overlook the buried treasures that are sometimes hidden in inconspicuous places. It would be a shame if such a fate befell the K-C Repertory Company's riveting production of Charles Gordone's compelling drama No Place To Be Somebody. In a tiny performance space in an off-the-beaten-path industrial block in mid-Hollywood, director Lincoln Kilpatrick and a superlative company are creating theatrical magic.

Gordone's Pulitzer-winning play is at once an amusing slice-of-life portrait of several wayward souls inhabiting a Greenwich Village neighborhood dive, and at the same time a hard-hitting crime drama set against a background of double-edged racial intolerance. In Kilpatrick's sensitive and insightful production, Gordone's superb 1969 work is not so much a period piece as a startlingly resonant depiction of still-pertinent social issues.

The focal character is Johnny (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), a black bar owner and former small-time hood who has never really discarded his criminal leanings, and is hoping to carry out a personal vendetta against a hypocritical white judge (Michael Ross-Verona). Johnny's obsession with race is exemplified by his employment of Shanty (Jeff Scrivner), a white would-be musician who strongly relates to the black culture, and Johnny's light-skinned black pal Gabe (Jerry Dixon), an aspiring actor.

In addition to rendering a masterful portrayal as the ex-con Sweets, Johnny's crafty former mentor, Kilpatrick guides the electrifying ensemble through a series of finely honed, naturalistic characterizations. As the fast-talking antihero Johnny, Derricks-Carroll mesmerizes, while Dixon's voice-of-reason Gabe eloquently provides the necessary anchor. Marla Jeanette Rubinoff is heartbreaking as Johnny's emotionally abused white girlfriend, who turns tricks and forfeits the proceeds to Johnny, and Patricia Forte is equally empathetic as a beaten-down but more resilient waitress. William Lampley is chilling as Johnny's slimy former accomplice. Scrivner is amusing as the none-too-bright but volatile Shanty. Skillful portrayals in smaller roles are delivered by Michell Trotter, Hilliard Guess, Alissia Miller, and Ross-Verona, among others. (Some roles are double-cast.)

J.R. Ripley's finely detailed set is a marvel of verisimilitude. Stephanie Haynes has assembled credible costumes, and the facility's limited lighting capabilities are effectively employed. This No Place is undoubtedly a place even the most discriminating theatregoers will want to be.

"No Place To Be Somebody," presented by K-C Repertory Company at the Movie Tech Studio, 832 N. Seward St., Hollywood. Sept. 25-Nov. 29. (323) 467-7545.

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DIVORÇONS

at Pacific Resident Theatre

Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner

Not much seems to have changed over the past 100 years when it comes to the institution of marriage. In Victorien Sardou and Emile de Najac's fantasy comedy, which takes place on the eve of the passage of the first divorce law, the state of marriage is beneath contempt, certainly in the eyes of those embroiled in it. Flirting and cheating, deception, and betrayal of one's vows, according to the French versions of the "well made play," of which Sardou was the primary disciple, were the only way to go.

In the frivolous piece of farcical fluff Divorcons, translated as "Let's get a divorce," Henri des Prunelles (Steve Vinovich) bucks the social trend by wanting to keep his lovely, giddy wife, Cyprienne (Reamy Hall), even though she hankers after the ridiculous Adhemar (Michael Crider), a simpering fop. By applying a delicious scheme of reverse psychology, the about-to-be-cuckolded Henri manages to trick Cyprienne into falling in love with him all over again, at the same time exposing Adhemar as a foolish, whimpering sycophant. The play is about fun, not reality, which gave George Bernard Shaw a platform for his rant against such "brutally, callously, barbarously immoral" plays which afforded no insights, just sensationalism.

Surprisingly, however, under Caroline McWilliams' scattily joyful direction, and with the superb playing of the truly amazing Vinovich in the performance of the year, and the beautiful and engaging Hall, aided and abetted by a great comedy ensemble, there is meaning in this madness‹even a moral, if you insist on looking for one; something about the grass not always being greener on the other side of the fence, or be careful what you wish for. But this fast-paced, screamingly funny farce doesn't need any morals to give it theatrical credibility; it's completely silly, desperately funny, hysterically overwrought, and magnificently played.

Colleen Kelly, as the requisitely endowed French maid; William Lithgow as good friend Clavignac; Howard Shangraw as a devastatingly funny maitre'd, with his Keystone waiters, Dennis Madden and Jaxon Duff Gwillim; Lawrence Arancio as a Police officer; Mary Van Arsdel as a disapproving matron, and Jennifer Taub as a perky widow with some unfulfilled desires are luscious icing on a richly sinful cake. Norman Scott's set design is splendid, assisted by Shangraw's scene-change choreography. Helping everything work so well are Kathi O'Donohue's lighting design and Audrey Eisner's costumes.

"Divor‡ons," presented by and at Pacific Resident Theatre, 705 1/2 Venice Blvd., Venice. Nov. 7-Dec. 20. (323) 660-8587.

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THE JOB

at the Hudson Guild

Reviewed by Paul Birchall

You know you're just a certain type of guy if, after spending your life as a dead-end thug and con man, you go to a temp agency‹and they send you out to be a murderous paid assassin. Shem Bitterman's deliciously stark black comedy at first seems a simple high-concept piece‹a man trying to go straight is lured back into a life of crime and vice‹but, as his layered plot unfolds, Bitterman eloquently fleshes out the minimalist storyline with provocative riffs on desire, betrayal, cynicism, and ultimately the nature of forgiveness itself.

Former boxer and con man thug Frank (Barry Cullison), desperate to go straight, agrees to accept any job, no matter how base, from the agency run by shark-like corporate suit John (Robert Cicchini). John promptly sends Frank out to strangle depressed engineer Martin (Daniel Nathan Spector), who can't figure any other way to provide for his family other than having himself knocked off for the insurance cash.

But Frank has an unexpected burst of conscience and "sub-contracts" the assignment to Jim (Jack Stehlin), a former con pal of Frank's who now makes money as a ranting street preacher. Several double-crosses complicate what should be a straightforward murder-for-hire assignment.

Bitterman's play, which owes a hefty debt to film noir, is a refreshingly creepy comic piece which offers a series of tight, hilarious, and personality-rich performances. The piece also archly examines the downright thin dividing line between the respectability of the ruling class and the scumminess of the underworld. The drama is marred by a somewhat unconvincing redemptive note sounded in the final scenes, but most of the production's writing is darkly assured.

Cullison's slow-talking, ursine Frank seems sweet and innocent‹but there's a sense of instinctively evil cunning and seaminess lurking beneath this childlike personality. In his flamboyant, powerfully ironic turn as the archtypically Satanic street preacher, Stehlin offers his usual highly sophisticated performance, full of astonishing energy and intensity.

"The Job," presented by Circus Theatricals at the Hudson Guild, 6543 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Nov. 7-Dec. 19. (323) 660-8587.

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PATIENCE

at [Inside] the Ford

Reviewed by Anne Louise Bannon

Opera, schmopera. Forget aesthete appreciation of divinely executed, melodic storytelling. The Anteus Company's production of Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride, Gilbert and Sullivan's sendup of the Aesthetic Movement (a.k.a. the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), is a good, old-fashioned gut-busting knee slapper. Director Maryedith Burrell has seen to it that the show's finer Victorian sensibilities are still intact. Bawdying up that era seldom works well. Nonetheless, it's darned funny.

You don't have to know about the Aesthetic Movement to get Patience‹after all, artistic snobbery and pretentions are with us always (can you say performance art?). Still, during the overture, there's a little slide show that graphically explains the Pre-Raphaelites. Then John H. Binkley's set of corrugated cardboard is pulled back to form the setting.

The story, what little there is of it, is pretty basic: The local young ladies are head over heels in love with poet Reginald Bunthorne (Jeremy Lawrence), the resident aesthete, much to the dismay of the local army officers. Bunthorne has his eye on the milkmaid Patience (Emily Chase), who wants no truck with love because the young women in love are so unhappy. This changes when she runs into the simply perfect Archibald Grosvenor (John Apicella), who loves her.

Unfortunately, to love Grosvenor and keep him all to herself would be too selfish for the poor Patience, so she must refuse his love. In the meantime, the maidens have transferred their affections to Grosvenor, to Bunthorne's dismay. This is all resolved in the incredibly contrived yet somehow wonderful way most Gilbert and Sullivan shows are.

The vocal performances are strong across the board. Anne Gee Byrd, as the older Lady Jane, makes much of losing her looks in her hysterical solo. As for Chase, well, it's just wonderful to hear real soprano singing for a change. Lawrence is delightfully smarmy; better yet is his ridiculous costume, designed (with all the others) by Margaretrose. Musical director Jan Powell accompanies the cast on piano without missing a beat, in spite of numerous page turns (I just had to look to see how he did it.)

All in all, after much debate internal, Patience is fun to see.

"Patience," presented by the Antaeus Company at [Inside] the Ford, the lower level of the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. Nov. 7-Dec. 20. (323) 660-8587.

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PERICLES

at the McClatchy Mainstage

Reviewed by Barry Wisdom

Job had nothing on Pericles, prince and protagonist of the Shakespearean comedy of the same name now playing on the McClatchy Mainstage at Sacramento Theatre Company. Of course, we're not talking strict genre definitions here: Being that this noble by birth finds himself at various times in the middle of an incestuous triangle, a wanted man, the sole survivor of a shipwreck, and a widower with a newborn daughter (later stolen and sold into prostitution), it's hard to see Pericles as anything but a tragedy. But there is that happy ending and, at least in Shakespeare, all's well that ends well.

But there's much more than the joyous resolution to be happy about in STC's humor-infused production. Chief among these is Bob Devin Jones as the besieged Prince of Tyre. As Pericles, Jones defines grace under fire and exudes a positive attitude Tony Robbins would be proud of. Regally underplayed, Jones' Pericles is content to weather the storms that continue to toss him (figuratively and literally) throughout his life with a minimum of anger and histrionics.

Also good in her lead roles (each of the eight cast members save Jones has several parts) is Alexander Storm, who alternately plays Pericles' wife, Thaisa, as well as his daughter Marina's "godmother" Dionyza. Her two-faced, four-eyed Dionyza (love the cat's-eye-frame glasses) provides some of the evening's much-needed laughs, as does Elizabeth Carter as Lychorida, Bawd, and Diana. Also responsible for classic shtick is Peter Mohrmann as the quintessential bordello lackey.

Newly appointed artistic associate Gary Armagnac makes a notable directorial debut here. His and scenic designer Chuck O'Connor's sparse vision for the set works well, though the stormy seas scenes look a little hokey, what with cast members slyly but deliberately grabbing and swinging a hanging "lantern" to give the impression of windswept waves.

Pericles is clearly set in a number of mythical lands, presumably along the Mediterranean, though David Zyla's stylish white and cream-colored costumes would suggest old-money New Orleans, or maybe 1960s Miami Beach chic. These costumes are the only nods to contemporary life, though. The language is intact, and thanks to an enthused, expressive cast, not as impenetrable as many may recall from high school.

"Pericles," presented by the Sacramento Theatre Company at the McClatchy Mainstage, 1419 H. St., Sacramento. Nov. 3-Dec. 6. (916) 443-6722.

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CLEAN

at the Celebration Theatre

Reviewed by Michael Jordan

Religiously homophobic Kiko has two sons. The younger 10-year-old has fallen in love but not consummated his relationship with a Catholic priest. Kiko's third wife refuses to have sex with him, but instead loves a drag queen. Kiko is not happy.

Through a multitude of brief scenes, Edwin Sanchez's play creatively explores the relationship between shame and faith in a boy who cannot find a way to escape feeling dirty. Sanchez places smart, poignant words in the mouths of these people, who are all trapped by their beliefs and not allowed to know what they want. One collision of these violent extremes creates a fiercely protective older brother who can grant an innocent fraternal kiss but otherwise believes that "God invented love to punish people."

Jon Lawrence Rivera's direction allows clever humor to speckle the tense drama. He also shows great skill in the imaginative layering of powerful images. These characters' passions combine with an artistically elegant design to achieve a strong play.

Adult actor Marcos Padilla quite convincingly portrays the preteen lover, Gustavito, aging from 10 to 15 years old. He skillfully mines the script for charming smiles and sincere despair. Lovely Michelle Bonilla plays the default wife, Mercy, whose husband only married her after siring boys by both her sisters. Bonilla's true talent resonates in graceful honesty and a genuine connection with other actors. In the role of the troubled clergyman, Ken Roht succeeds with a riskily understated and extremely natural approach. Handsome Michael Gabriel Goodfriend fires intensity into the mix as the vicious older brother, who tries to understand a world in which he cannot be satisfied.

As the outrageous cross-dresser, Joshua Wolf Coleman organically fosters emotion, though he stiffly stumbles in the timing of the text's sharp witticisms, extinguishing some necessary comic relief. In the horrifyingly cruel role of Kiko, Ernesto Miyares plays valiantly and accurately, but lacks a requisite imposing physical presence. In the Celebration Theatre tradition, Seanne Farmer's simple but versatile set neatly and inventively shifts between the nearly infinite locations.

"Clean," presented by and at the Celebration Theatre, 7051 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Nov. 4-Dec. 17. (310) 289-2999.

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A DOLL'S HOUSE

at the Robert Pickering Studio Theatre

Reviewed by Terri Roberts

Lies, deceit, blackmail, manipulation‹ah, what a woman won't do for the love of a man. Henrik Ibsen wrote brilliantly about this in his 1879 masterpiece, A Doll's House. But he also stunned 19th-century audiences with a surprising twist-to-the-left ending that defied the social conventions of the time with the single slamming of a door.

Now L.A. Rep has mounted an effective small stage production of this theatre classic, directed by Eric Almquist, as the second offering in its new Hollywood Blvd. home. Abby Craden, recently seen as the crafty Abigail in the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum's impassioned production of The Crucible, here shows a softer side of desperation as Nora, the sweet, childlike wife of a struggling lawyer who makes a shocking self-discovery after her husband finds out she secretly indebted herself to finance a trip to Italy. (No matter that the voyage was therapeutic and necessary to saving his own life.) Craden brings a youthful, eager-to-please joy to Nora in the beginning, which gradually deteriorates as she begins to realize the full effect on her spirit and soul of both her own covert actions and her husband's smug superiority.

Brendan Ford is her righteous husband, Torvald Helmer, who is leaving his law practice to begin a financially rewarding position as manager of a bank. Torvald is a man of strong, unyielding moral convictions, which Ford plays with a firm hand. But Torvald also loves Nora, and we see the devotion between the two.

Central to Nora's secret deception is the unsavory Nils Krogstad (Michael Krawic), from whom she borrows the money. The sharp-featured Krawic appeals as the conflicted Krogstad, a man desperate to redeem himself but who finds blackmailing Nora the only remedy. Adding to the mix is Mrs. Linde (a sturdy Elizabeth Reilly) as Nora's friend and confidante (with a few tricks up her own sleeve), and the Helmers' close friend, Dr. Rank (a fine Thomas Kopache), who confides to Nora a few secrets of his own.

For the most part, Doug Spesert's costumes befit the time period (the exception being the blouse in Nora's masquerade party costume, which looked a bit too modern), as does Alicia Maccarone's set (though the obviously fake Christmas tree is distracting). There were some opening-night glitches in the execution of Dan Weingarten's lighting design. A Doll's House is a traditional three-act show that runs nearly three hours long (with two intermissions), but after nearly 120 years, it still has much to say about the bounds of society and marriage. Ah, what a woman won't learn from the love of a man.

"A Doll's House," presented by the Los Angeles Repertory Company at the Robert Pickering Studio Theatre, 6560 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Nov. 6-Dec. 12. (323) 782-5565.

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THE POSSIBILITIES

at the Next Stage

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

Though first presented in 1988, British playwright Howard Barker's collection of 10 vignettes about love, war, betrayal, and sacrifice, The Possibilities, provides a chillingly prescient portrait of what would happen several years later in the Balkans. A new company, foolsFURY, makes a largely auspicious debut in the Bay Area with Barker's work, under the direction of Ben Yalom.

The great innovation of Yalom's staging is that, when not actually in the scene, the actors assume various postures of either relaxation or intent observation. The eight actors also enter as one amorphous organism, and it soon becomes clear that each has a silent "character" to play between scenes, moving with comic efficiency in striking and setting props and furniture.

The pieces themselves vary greatly in originality; I had the definite sensation of having seen some of them before, although I know I could not have done so. The best of the pieces deal with the ambiguities of living a "normal" life in abnormal times. In the opening vignette, a family of besieged Turkish rugmakers continues to work on their latest rug, even using wool dyed red from the blood of their butchered horse, as the Christians close in. "I've not dropped one stitch for fear or history," the patriarch of the family (Todd Parmley) proudly declares. In the next scene, a young wife (Tessa Koning-Martinez) opens her door to a group claiming that one of their number is badly injured, only to find that she has let in terrorists who will murder her husband. "I will die because you were so ordinary," he says in bitter reproach.

Not all the pieces concern warfare; in the second half, a young woman (Koning-Martinez again) is taken to task by a prim interviewer (Tessa Zugmeyer) for exposing her ankles to men. This piece crosses over from the more overtly Brechtian nature of Barker's work into something akin to Pinter. And the highlight of the evening occurs, fittingly enough, at the halfway point; right before intermission, Todd Parmley delivers a bravura turn as an embittered bookseller on the lam from both the thought police and would-be buyers he deems insufficiently pure to enjoy his wares.

While the entire cast does generally fine work (despite some occasional enunciation problems), there are some questionable doublings in Yalom's casting. Timothy Hull plays both a torturer and a lieutenant sent to conquer a village with the same tone of underplayed menace; while Hull's work is solid, I really would like to have seen what Parmley might have done with the part. Linda Ayres-Frederick shines as an older woman of the revolution engaged in passionate Socratic argument with a decadent prostitute (Janis DeLucia), but she too feels under-used. Koning-Martinez makes the strongest impression among the women, handling both comic absurdity and despair with equal intensity.

Still, despite lags and repetition in the subject matter, there is much here that is absorbing. And Yalom's inventive staging between scenes, abetted by Elizabeth Mead's simple but functional plywood furnishings and John A. Garafalo's adept lighting (never an easy task, given the Next Stage's cathedral ceilings and too-high grid), and especially by Todd Barker's wonderfully evocative percussion accompaniment, saves the production from that deadly lull between scenes. I'll look forward to the next offering from foolsFURY.

"The Possibilities," presented by foolsFURY at the Next Stage (Trinity Episcopalian Church, Gough at Bush), San Francisco. Nov. 13-Dec. 6. (415) 863-6200.

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ORGASMO ADULTO ESCAPES FROM THE ZOO

at the Marsh and at

the Exit Theatre

Reviewed by Matthew Surrence

Rarely do theatre audiences have an opportunity to view two different productions of the same work running concurrently. That opportunity can be had at two small black-box theatres in San Francisco now through Nov. 21, with two accomplished actresses taking somewhat different, and varyingly successful, approaches to evenings of monologues written by last year's Nobel Prize literature winner, Dario Fo, and his wife and frequent collaborator, Franca Rame.

The versions of the material performed by the two actresses, Shelley Mitchell and Francesca Fanti, are not entirely identical. Both open their shows with "A Woman Alone," a dated, Ruth Draper-like monologue that reeks of knee-jerk man-bashing attitudes that might have been refreshing in Italy in 1977, but are hoary and boring today. The piece is delivered (ostensibly to a neighbor) by a middle-aged Italian housewife, locked in her home by her husband and growing angrier by the minute, as she is forced to contend with phone calls from her husband and an obscene caller, as well as the advances of a peeping tom, her wheelchair-bound brother-in-law, and her young American lover. Mitchell performs the entire 50-minute monologue; Fanti does a 30-minute cutting.

Both actresses begin the piece dancing, Mitchell to dreamy music that turns into rock 'n' roll, Fanti to disco. As directed by Criss Cassell, Mitchell, in a long, pretty red nightgown, loads her stage with props: an ironing board, iron, shirt, laundry basket, telephone, rifle‹even a bandaged dummy in a wheelchair that, disconcertingly, is meant to serve as her brother-in-law. To Fanti, who uses a disco ball to send light floating around the theatre, less is more: She just comes on dancing (with the ironing board as a too-cute partner) in a skimpy coral nightgown and white-lace dressing gown, eschewing all other props on her threadbare stage but a pistol.

While both actresses are obviously skilled and personally engaging, these monologue choices have the whiff of self-congratulatory showcase, and both actresses (Mitchell a lot, Fanti a little) slip into performance tics that abet that unfortunate quality. While neither actress manages to make her character's chilling leap to murderess convincing, Fanti's characterization proves to be more multi-dimensional than Mitchell's.

Her pretty face framed by a spray of tight chestnut curls, Mitchell has an easy, agreeable humor that she tosses off with a sly, self-knowing, Daisy Fuentes-like shrug. But that mirthful quality undermines her characterization because it never gives way to anything deeper, giving her character an unattractively narcissistic and inappropriately self-satisfied bearing. Each moment, such as the short karate chop she delivers to her own throat when she complains, "I feel blocked," is meticulously conceived but ultimately empty.

The more daring Fanti's performance is less carefully crafted‹one might even call it sloppier-but is actually more successful than Mitchell's because, in director Michael Michetti's production, co-directed by Susan Boulanger, Fanti's more varied choices bring deeper, richer dimensions to this hapless housewife. Shifting from a self-deprecating giggle to enraged cursing at her husband and all the other men who plague her, such as the peeping tom she calls a "son of a binocularist," Fanti's almost bipolar exuberance-leading-to-desperation unearths more of the character's emotional reality than Mitchell's smirking does. Screwing up her Mimi Rogers-meets-Andie MacDowell face into a sunny, gamine squint not unlike that of Giulietta Masina, Fanti veers from intense, breathy whispers to coquettish self-deprecation. Her broad, sweeping gestures, in contrast to Mitchell's small and specific ones, conjure the discomfort of a fish thrashing around desperately on a hook, an effective metaphor for a woman trapped in an intolerably confounding domestic prison.

Although Mitchell costumes herself extensively in her second piece, "The Freak Mommy," she gives her circa-1970 Communist housewife essentially the same characterization she does her first, and subsequent characters. In this monologue, Mitchell again plays up qualities of confidence and self-possession, barely concealing a palpable greed for laughs, particularly when she sings.

Fanti demonstrates more range than Mitchell in her other monologues. In "Monologue of a Whore in a Lunatic Asylum," the best piece in either show, Fanti creates a truly pitiable character. In her penultimate piece, the whiny and frazzled "Waking Up," Fanti laudably shows herself more willing to make herself look unattractive than Mitchell, in a hairnet, black glasses, striped sweater and skirt, socks and slippers.

But neither actress demonstrates much acumen in picking material: These strident, old-hat monologues do more to give self-conscious actresses an opportunity to mime sex with comic grotesqueness and display themselves as ostensible objects of desire than they do to illuminate the human condition.

"Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo" (performed by Shelley Mitchell), presented by and at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco. Nov. 6-21. (415) 389-6429. And "Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo" (performed by Francesca Fanti), presented by and at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Aug. 28-Nov. 29. (415) 826-5750.

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LONELY PLANET

at Santa Monica Place

Reviewed by Edward Shapiro

The theatrical landscape of the early and mid-1980s was dotted with plays that dissected the AIDS epidemic. Many of them, like As Is and The Normal Heart, sought to educate within the framework of the narrative. Others, like Safe Sex, were closer to cathartic expressions of writers coping with the devastation of the disease. When the '90s hit, drug therapies changed the face of AIDS significantly. HIV didn't necessarily equal death, and people's social circles were no longer instantaneously decimated. AIDS plays therefore became, in a very short amount of time, somewhat dated and of a period. Some, like the former two, manage to remain compelling; they are a window on a very specific moment in our cultural history. Others, unfortunately, are quite simply no longer relevant. Though written in 1994, Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet falls into the latter category.

Lonely Planet tells the story of Jody, the proprietor of a map shop so overwrought with fear and sorrow at the loss of his peers that he cannot leave his store. He prefers, instead, to keep company with his maps, worlds which he understands and can control. Carl is the friend whose primary mission is to free Jody from his self-imposed prison and bring him back to life. What they have in common, it seems, is friendship with the same 30 people who have died within a six-month period. While the exchanges between the characters are compelling enough (although somewhat bizarre), the world has changed so dramatically that the sense that these two people wouldn't be today is inescapable. AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, so watching a character break down in fear of testing, for example, simply doesn't have the power it once did. Dietz further muddies the waters by loading his play with so much symbolism that it buckles under the weight.

The production is further hurt by Matthew R. August's direction. He's allowed his actors indulgent moments of emotion which overwhelm the dialogue. And, though this production was produced on a shoestring, he's denied the play one of its key physical elements: The presence of a multitude of chairs is absolutely integral to the plot and provides Dietz's most powerful visual.

August has chosen to represent them with drawings on the walls, but the play without them is sort of like Cats without the costumes. Producer Jonathan Winn has miscast himself as Jody. The tragedy of Jody's existence is that his fear has cut him off from the world. Since Winn comes off as an absolute hermit, it's hard to believe his Jody ever knew 30 people to begin with. Rather than creating conflict, his seclusion seems perfectly natural. As Carl, David Polcyn fares better, but his performance is all over the place, making the relationship between the two seem less than likely.

It's difficult to criticize this production of Lonely Planet because it's a benefit for AIDS Services Foundation and Homestead Hospice and Shelter. But great intentions are not enough to make this incarnation vital in 1998.

"Lonely Planet," presented by Laughing Willows Productions at Santa Monica Place, Third Street Promenade, third floor community room. Nov. 5-29. (888) 386-8497.

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CLUB DISCO

at Hollywood Moguls

Reviewed by Polly Warfield

Disco is not dead‹nor will it be, so long as these Brooklyn guys and gals hang out weekends at Nick's neighborhood nitery, where the glitter ball twirls over a murky dance floor churning with kinetic bodies, where Italian brio mingles in heady blend with Jewish moxie‹and where strangers find warm welcome. Swagger and bravado notwithstanding, with so many Italians and Jews around, warmth will prevail.

Nothing much happens here, though something always seems about to. If a guy pulls a gun in anger, another will calm him down. If physical conflict is about to break out, a big bear hug and many macho slaps on the back will end it. It's all very Saturday Night Fever, all very‹Bensonhurst. It's interactive theatre, à la the genre's expert, Amy Lord Blumsack (Tony n' Tina's Wedding, Grandma Sylvia's Funeral). Here she is assisted by co-writers actress Ellen Gerstein and Gary Blumsack, Amy's husband and artistic director of the Hudson Theatre.

He also directs the piece, and all three co-creators are members of the cast. Gary enacts Jerry the Jew, mob emissary sent to keep an eye on business. Amy is Gina Beggio, Nick's niece. (She's so cute when she pouts.) Gerstein is fashion designer Angie. Her past dalliance with Nick seems to have produced peppy Petie (Darryl Armbruster). Among several causes for celebration this Friday night is Petie's newly won scholarship to NYU. Another is the disco's 30th anniversary. Yet another is Nick's momentous announcement that he is about to wed a foxy blonde in leopard-print palazzo pants (Deena Charles). Nick, played by Eddie Zammit, wearing a pale suit, burgundy shirt, lots of gold chains, and a sporty little goatee, may be John Travolta grown older. The bohemian-looking chap in a velvet artist's tam is Swag (Joseph D. Reitman), the disk jockey. Sammy, Prince of Disco (Jonathan Yaker), Gina's boyfriend, is some mean dancer.

These are a few of the 21 energetic cast members, most of whom chew gum and dance with equal gusto. Someone is having a birthday, a troublemaker is ejected, there's a fashion show, four lovely ladies in skin-tight metallic gowns and sequined boas make like the Supremes. There's a wet T-shirt contest, a bare torso contest. Pizza is served. Have a drink. Dance some more. Engage an actor in conversation, and you'll find he's got his character's back story down pat.

Gene Anthony Ray, of Fame fame, choreographed the non-stop dances that propel the sprawling, free-form entertainment. It's the kind of show people return to again and again. Strictly speaking, it's not exactly theatre. But if this ain't slice-of-life, what is?

"Club Disco," presented by and at Hollywood Moguls, 1650 Schrader Blvd., Hollywood. Oct. 2-Dec. 18. (310) 289-2999.

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LES PRECIEUSES RIDICULES

at the Globe Playhouse

Reviewed by Anne Louise Bannon

Every now and then, you hit a performance at which you suspect the actors are just having a bad night. Then again, there were enough awkward pauses in the reviewed performance of Euro-Theatre's production of this Moli're classic that it leads me to believe there are deeper problems in the production as a whole. All the elements of farce are there, but everything is just off enough that the production is flatter than a day-old crepe.

In Pr cieuses, Moli're skewers the over-inflated pretensions of the wealthy in the form of a couple of girls from the provinces with delusions of grandeur. Fed up, two jilted suitors send their servants dressed up as noblemen to court the girls and humiliate them.

The interesting thing about Euro-Theatre's approach is that this classic is performed in French Wednesday through Friday, and in English on Saturday and Sunday‹by the same actors (with one exception). Jean-Louis Darville (who also plays fed-up suitor La Grange) directs a cast that is mostly French. I saw the English version, and almost every actor at every entrance fumbled for lines. I got the sense that they were trying to remember what bleeding language they were speaking, throwing rhythm and pacing right out the fen'tre.

This occurred particularly in the case of Alexis Sontag's Mascarille. As the first of the imposter noblemen, it is Mascarille's pretentious courting of the two young ladies that is the centerpiece of the play. Sontag hits all the right notes and takes everything properly over the top. Still, he, like the rest of the cast, is just a beat off, completely deflating his performance.

Pat Tonnema's costumes are wonderful, and historically accurate enough not to distract. With minimal lights and setting, clearly the group is going for maximum impact with its budget, and it makes a big difference. This is a group that appreciates and understands its heritage and what a gift it is. Now if they can just get the right spark of freshness into their performances.

"Les Pr cieuses Ridicules," presented by Euro-Theatre at the Globe Playhouse, 1107 N. Kings Rd., W. Hollywood. Nov. 4-Dec. 13. (323) 933-5664.

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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

at the Lankershim Arts Center

Reviewed by J. Brenna Guthrie

Oscar Wilde subtitled this delightful comedy "a Trivial Comedy for Serious People," and rightly so. Wilde, so known for his wit, has created a comedy of manners to rival Sheridan before him or Coward after in its skewering of the starched attitudes of the English upper-class. Not only is the play rife with Wilde's trademark hysterical bon mots, but his slight story about two men who pretend to be Ernest Worthing to woo the women they love ultimately has more substance than at first appears. It's too bad this production by the Road Theatre Company can't admit to the same.

Director Linda de Vries should have kept a tighter rein on her cast, as the company of eight tends to overact across the board. Andy Hirsch as Algernon plays the material like an episode of Friends instead of the light farce it is. Jody Fasanella has for some unknown reason chosen to play Miss Prism with a horribly pronounced limp that seems to take up more of her thought pattern than any lines she may be uttering. The appearances of Kerr Lordigyan as both butlers and Carl Johnson as the Rev. Chasuble garner more audience laughs than anything they say.

Kelly Warren has some fine moments as Lady Bracknell when she's not over-reacting to the situation, but Nancy Kaine takes herself entirely too seriously in the roles of Bracknell's daughter Gwendolen (not to mention looking entirely too close in age to Warren to be her daughter). Only Paul Savas and Eleanor Zeddies as John Worthing and his ward Cecily Cardew are able to keep the mugging to a minimum and create characters worthy of the material.

De Vries has done a fine job of incorporating the action into Desma Murphy's rich set (actually designed for the Road's mainstage show, Tainted Blood). Even the scene changes have a playful manner quite befitting the piece. And Moira Moore dresses the actors in flattering period costumes, although Nancee Waterhouse's hair and makeup design is remarkably distracting. In some ways, this faltering production can be seen as a tribute to the brilliance of Wilde's writing, in that even it cannot dull the playwright's wit.

"The Importance of Being Earnest," presented by the Road Theatre Company at the Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Oct. 28-Dec. 10. (818) 377-2002.

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TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA

at the Excalibur Theatre

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

Rajan Dosaj's lusty, masculine style of direction obscures many things, including the text, in this occasionally staged tale of man's inconstancy in the face of woman's fidelity. The lights come up on a swordsman (Tim Storms) engaged in solo bare-chested swashbuckling, not only setting the tone of playfully combatant machismo but presaging much, much more swordplay, practically between every scene in the first act. It's all for show, though, and carries the inherent drama of wrestling puppies. Similarly, after about 30 seconds, the wish that someone would separate the participants is overwhelming. The actors ‹and since they practically all do it, I can only assume it was by instruction and not inspiration‹let nary a phrase pass without some accompanying broad and demonstrative gesture. This makes for a performance style large enough to convey in a hangar.

Only two characters vary: The winsome Sylvia is played by Jane Longenecker as a straightforward girl who speaks evenly and feels no need to embellish her words. That she also looks like a very young Donna Reed lends credibility to a character that might have come off as annoyingly perfect. And Thurio (Brett Elliott), ostensible albeit unlikely secondary suitor to Sylvia, initially appears to have wandered in from a Restoration play down the hall. The pale makeup, the velvet costume, the posturing... it simply doesn't work in this testosterone-rich production. The rest of the characters soldier on, sawing the air too much and splitting the ears of the groundlings.

There is a delightful comic turn by Sonia Keshishian, an actress with nary a line in the evening. Though her supernumerary role in the first act is invisible, she plays an outlaw in the second act that had me in tears. It was as if Lucy Ricardo had gotten off the boat in Pirates of the Caribbean and decided to foist herself off as a buccaneer.

Jude Lucas' set has the look of a rather charming, if crudely executed, diorama, which works quite well with what's happening in front of it. Sugano takes credit for the distractingly horrible wigs.

"Two Gentlemen of Verona," presented by and at the Excalibur Theatre Company, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Nov. 6-Dec. 19. (818) 761-0312.

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MY THREE ANGELS

at Sierra Repertory Theatre's East Sonora Stage

Reviewed by Barry Wisdom

Multiple homicide, heartbreak, and greed‹all under a sweltering sky. It must be Christmas.

On paper, Sierra Repertory Theatre's choice of My Three Angels as its East Sonora holiday production seems like a godsend‹a refreshingly wicked departure from such traditional fare as Dickens' A Christmas Carol (in all of its increasingly insufferable incarnations.) But director Dennis Jones has unfortunately instructed his cast to wrap Sam and Bella Spewack's dialogue in French accents. I say unfortunately, because zis French, she is‹how you say?‹fried. Combined with lackluster pacing, non-specific lighting, and a script so anemic in the hearty laugh department you might think the Spewacks were hemophiliacs, these Angels deliver a truly disappointing Christmas present.

It's the day before Christmas in French Guiana, circa 1910, and three convicts (Neil Flint Worden, Van Gordon, Benjamin Loverin) are on a work detail repairing the roof of the town's general store. But what truly worries store owner Felix Ducotel (Ty Smith) are the holes in his slipshod accounting when he learns his investor, Henri Trochard (Doug Brennan), and Trochard's nephew, Paul (Matthew Powell), are about to arrive from their native France for an impromptu audit. To complicate matters, Marie Louise believes Paul, with whom she has had a liaison, is coming with nuptials in mind‹an assumption we soon learn is as false as the accents sported by some of the under-rehearsed cast.

While I suppose it's admirable for Jones to want to present the play's dialogue with an authentic geographic feel (as he has with his marvelously detailed bamboo-heavy set), the lack of consistency among the company is annoying. Even those cast members who are most successful in putting a French twist on the proceedings‹Lynne Pickett, Rebecca Prescott, Gordon, and Smith (who served as the production's dialectician)‹are occasionally hard to understand.

While the show would undoubtedly be better sans accents, it's hard to gauge how much, since I found them so distracting it was hard to concentrate on the performances. (I think some of the cast had the same problem). Gordon's accent, perhaps the most exaggerated, is also the most entertaining in its jovial gutturalness. He is the show's standout, and does a nice job with both the comedy and the drama of the situation‹especially in his scenes with Prescott, whose bubbly effervescence as the crazy-in-love Marie Louise was one of the opening night's sole sources of energy. Others fare less well, particularly Worden and Powell. Worden's lead role as the convicts' spokesman, coupled with his rocky accent, make for a long three acts.

Though billed as a holiday farce, the show is quite dark. But the drama that's intertwined here with the jocularity suffers from the lack of intimacy achieved in the expanse of Jones' set.

"My Three Angels," presented by Sierra Repertory Theatre at SRT's East Sonora Stage, 13891 Highway 108, Sonora. Nov. 6-Dec. 13. (209) 532-3120.

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