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WAITING FOR GODOT

at the Matrix Theatre

Reviewed by Rob Kendt

There are plays, and then there's Waiting for Godot. It can be done as a play, and director Andrew J. Robinson's new production at the Matrix Theatre is nothing if not an intelligently mounted great play. But at its weirdest, windiest heights, Beckett's unruly 1952 masterpiece is so much more-an intellectual vaudeville, a clown tragedy, a piece of music stuck in a strangely familiar groove, an epic poem and an epic prank-and this Matrix Godot reaches those levels, as well. On the strength of Robinson's undistracted vision and not one but two ideal and tirelessly creative casts (as is the doubled-up Matrix way), this is the sort of definitive, deeply faithful staging of an over-analyzed classic that sandblasts away any academic encrustation even as it bears up to nearly scholarly scrutiny itself.

Robinson and his eight extraordinary actors play it "straight"-which in the case of Godot is inevitably, gloriously crooked. They bring its queer, gamboling slapstick, its perverse wisdom, its amnesiac comic rhythms, its sinister suggestions, and its moving helplessness to full theatrical life. An outwardly uneventful play full of absurd feints and turns, small betrayals and dubious victories, it is charged here with an almost unbearable urgency-unbearable, apropos Beckett, precisely because the play's antagonists, in life as in the theatre, are boredom, pain, repetition, forgetfulness, insignificance. This is a play, and a production, that conjures wrenching drama out of the comic absence of drama.

Under J. Kent Inasy's witty lighting, on Victoria Profitt's deftly rendered middle-of-nowhere set-less like a pure void than an evocatively banal, faintly Old West setting, like a Krazy Kat strip or a Roadrunner backdrop-the knockabout vagrants Vladimir (Gregory Itzin, David Dukes) and Estragon (Robin Gammell, John Vickery) bicker and fret the evenings away, left to their own desperate devices of diversion except for a pair of visits by the blowhard Pozzo (Granville Van Dusen, Tony Amendola) and his wizened slave Lucky (Alastair Duncan, JD Cullum), as well as an opaque message from a small boy (Willie Itzin, Will Rothhaar).

The actors are all seasoned and well cast enough to seem both iconic and in-our-face, evoking acting traditions from burlesque to the Method without ever seeming a jumble. In the central role of the hope-damaged Vladimir, Itzin and Dukes contrast in both physical and intellectual approach-Itzin's is engagingly bipolar, a sad-sack control freak, while Dukes' is a well-meaning coward for whom thought is visible strain. With the childlike but wary tramp Estragon, the differences are more shaded: Gammell is more simple and pathetic, Vickery more prickly and petulant. As Pozzo, Van Dusen is an otherworldly vision of uncomprehending brutality, dusted lightly with civilization (kudos here to Maggie Morgan's all-around flawless costumes), while Amendola declaims him as a bitter dandy who's less frightening than simply unpleasant. Duncan plays Lucky as a strange, sad, pent-up beast, while Cullum gives the put-upon menial a bird-like alertness and turns Lucky's famous unpunctuated monologue into an aria of emphatic nonsense.

Perhaps most startling about the experience of this Godot is how instantly recognizable the world of the play is. But from where? From Sennett comedies or Bu˜uel phantasms? From dreams? From our (tread lightly, now) collective unconscious? This is the kind of universal, quasi-religious space Godot occupies. And the fraught antics of this spare, soulful, queasily funny production measure, with unflinching theatrical precision, how much can be done when there's nothing to be done.

"Waiting for Godot," presented by Joseph Stern at the Matrix Theatre Company, 7657 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Feb. 3-Apr. 30. $15-27.50. (323) 852-1445.

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FURIOUS BLOOD

at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse

Reviewed by Charlene Baldridge

Electra becomes her: Greek tragedy proves excellent fodder for Kelly Stuart in her droll feminist comedy, Furious Blood, now in its world premeire at Sledgehammer Theatre. This is not just another epic play about an epic saga: Distilled to two and a half hours, tales by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles become a lucid comedy with a sassy modern tone.

And under the incisive direction of Sledgehammer artistic director Kirsten Brandt, it makes for the most entertaining comedy of the year. David Weiner has created a metallic, piece-of-art set, replete with a stair-step "mountain" and "on high" metal sculptures inhabited by three snide Furies (Allison Riley, Janet Hayatshahi, and Elizabeth O'Hara Yager). David Lee Cuthbert provides the lighting design and Xavier Leonard the sound. Body parts are by Dan Uebel.

Clytemnestra, portrayed in a sub-section titled "Aulus" by Jessa Watson, is enraged when her rigid militaristic husband Agamemnon (Tim West) sacrifices their innocent daughter Iphigenia (Melissa Tan) in exchange for good winds to blow his armies to Troy. There, Agamemnon's brother Menalaus (Walter Murray) hopes to rescue his abducted wife, Helen (not a character). Buff Tom Papitto provides a clueless Achilles. Incipient hero in Troy, he becomes the women's cardboard hero, brandishing a pistol that is never fired.

In the section "Agamemnon come home, all is forgiven," the impossible, adolescent Electra is played by Kate Reynolds, and in the ensuing "Electra, wrathful little bitch," she is portrayed in full-blown butch style by the versatile Melissa Supera, who also plays Cassandra and sings a pop tune capitalizing on the subsequent tragedies.

Now played by Jill Drexler, Electra's mature, alcoholic, and overtly lusty mother, Clytemnestra, affects Nancy Reagan rags (grand costumes throughout by Mary Larson) and takes cousin Aegisthus (the excellent Edward Wylie) as a lover during Daddy's 10-year absence. Clytemnestra exiles her understandably angry son, Orestes (Walter Murray), further angering Electra. Soon after Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon, Orestes returns disguised as a mellow surfer dude, marvelously portrayed by Walter Murray.

After Orestes slays Clytemnestra with the same axe she used to dispatch Agamemnon, Electra and Orestes go to Apollo's penthouse to evade the Furies. Clad in gold paint, a fig leaf, and a red silk robe, West, whose performance as Agamemnon is one of his best, seems to relish playing God as well.

Athena, the goddess of wisdom, is portrayed by a puppet, with voiceover by Apollo, underlining the idea that even when women are goddesses, men still pull the strings. The play's final image of the two Clytemnestrae, ritually arrayed with unprintable signs on their chests, is affecting. Perhaps there is no end to bloodshed and revenge. All we need do is look around us.

"Furious Blood," presented by the Sledgehammer Theatre at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse, 1620 Sixth Ave., Downtown San Diego. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Feb. 13-Mar. 12. $15-18. (619) 544-1484.

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PUDD'NHEAD WILSON

at the Falcon Theatre

Reviewed by Polly Warfield

Mark Twain and Meryl Friedman owe each other a debt of gratitude. And for our part we are beholden to both for the extraordinarily pertinent, provocative, and enjoyable evening of theatre their collaboration provides. As new executive producer of Garry Marshall's elegant Falcon Theatre, Friedman fires an opening salvo that's a wake-up call, while rescuing Twain's all-but-forgotten, politically incorrect classic from undeserved neglect. Friedman's achievement is remarkable. She wrote this sinewy, stageworthy adaptation of Twain's knotty novel and directed it with theatrical savvy and her own original spin, while retaining the flavor and intent of the original. She also wrote words and music for the gospel songs that complement the work so beautifully.

An ever-attentive, ever-present narrator, well played by Gary L. Rowland, performs the function of a Greek chorus. Which is appropriate, since there are surprising echoes of classic Greek tragedy in Twain's plain-spoken work of folksy Americana. It's something of a shocker in its blatant, matter-of-fact observation of racism and cruelty-expect to hear the "n" word more casually and frequently used than you might wish. It was Friedman's considered stroke of bravado to cast her work entirely with African-American actors, playing pre-Civil War white slave owners and small town citizens as well as their black slaves and underlings. It takes the curse off the words while pointing up the injustice; inasmuch as these are subtle and humorous actors, it also provides extra depth, dimension, and ironic bite.

"Some stories are meant to be written," the narrator observes at the start. "Other stories are meant to be told." This is a whale of a tale well told. It's engrossing from the outset, when a shy, nerdy stranger comes to a Missouri town in 1830 and, because of an eccentric remark, earns the name Pudd'nhead from the townsfolk. Played to perfection by Joshua Wolf Coleman, Pudd'nhead is prim, precise, and natty in plaid vest, bow tie, gold watch chain. He has a peculiar compulsion to collect fingerprints, which turns out to be a very good thing. Low-key throughout most of the play, Coleman comes through later with flying colors when it counts.

Tom (Gerald C. Rivers), on the other hand, is an unregenerate bad apple-thief, bully, ingrate, and worse. The play's startling premise is that (so we're told) blonde, blue-eyed, white-skinned Tom is actually "black" Chambers, son of fiery, brave Roxy, heartbreakingly played by Kim Leigh Smith. Roxy is only 1/16th African, but that's enough to make her "black" and a slave. We must suspend disbelief to accept that Chambers resembles the son of Roxy's slavemaster (Zaid Farid) so exactly that she can switch infants and get away with it. Before it's over, false Tom has sold his mother down the river, literally. But thanks to Pudd'nhead's prediliction for "decorating panes of glass with greasy fingertips," Tom's evil will not go unpunished.

The excellent, enthusiastic ensemble cast includes rousing gospel singer Vickilyn Reynolds, a round-faced love as Aunt Patsy and also as Mrs. Pratt, sister of kindly, ill-fated Judge Driscoll, Tom's supposed uncle. Farid is especially effective as a bombastic Prosecutor. Tony Stovall wears a funny hat and gets in comic licks as the town Constable. Poor disinherited Chambers, the "real" white Tom, is mistreated by all and played with a sweet spirit by Dwight R. Williams. Curtis C. and Dwight R. Williams are exotic visitors, Italian twins and noblemen, Luigi and Angelo.

The set by Marcos Alvarez is simple and suggestive of woodlands and totem poles, with a decorative rectangular window on the sky upstage center. Peter Gottlieb lights with appropriately bosky and dusky hues, and Laura Brody's costumes have whimsical character of their own.

Our gratitude, then, to Twain, to Friedman, and to this wholehearted cast for an unusual, exciting theatre experience. And thanks certainly to Garry Marshall for parlaying some of his television and movie success so generously and elegantly to the service of live theatre.

"Pudd'nhead Wilson," presented by and at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3:30 p.m. Feb. 11-Apr. 2. $22-30. (818) 955-8101.

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THE ROAD TO MECCA

at the Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner

Athol Fugard calls his work "theatre of defiance," dealing primarily with the inadequacy of race relations and the intolerance of man for his neighbor, particularly in his homeland of South Africa. His work is better known abroad than at home, where he has been ostracized for his outspoken point of view. The Road to Mecca is a stunning exploration of his protest against the cult of society vs. the individual and the suppression of personal freedom in the face of mediocrity.

Miss Helen (Priscilla Pointer), a character based on the real-life reclusive artist Helen Martins, has long been disrespected as a mad woman, a "witch artist" who creates blasphemous clay monsters in her backyard and lights her little cottage in the desert with mirrors, colored glass, and dozens of twinkling candles. When Elsa Barlow (Jacqueline Schultz) shows up unexpectedly, and in a bad temper, having driven eight hours from her home in Capetown, the flicker of friendly candles is momentarily extinguished as the two deeply troubled women-79-year-old Helen and 35-year-old Elsa-pierce each other's soul armor to reach the core of their mutual friendship and trust.

At the heart of the story is the attempt of Marius Byleveld (Robert Symonds), the local dominie (pastor), to move Miss Helen, in her own best interest, from her cottage to a nearby home for the aged, where she will be fed and cared for-and, incidentally, removed as the embarrassment she has become to the small-minded churchgoers of New Bethesda.

Through a magical weaving of numerous intriguing threads, Fugard's lyrical, blazingly honest play exposes the heart of the innermost darkness of three disparate people, and lights the tapers that illuminate it with wit and wisdom and eloquent lucidity. Under Stephen Sachs' elegant and sentient direction, the players are brilliant. Pointer reaches for, and finds, a wondrous simplicity that informs the devastation of her anguish, moving from charming eccentricity and nurturing artist to a lost child seeking a sheltering womb, to eventual triumph as she explains her Mecca, toward which all her sculptures march. Schultz, Pointer's daughter in the wonderful Fighting Over Beverley (1997), is a kind of heart-daughter here-strong, luminescent, and very, very real. Symonds, in the less flashy role of the not-quite-sure-if-he's-a-good-man-or-a-devil Byleveld, is a towering presence, outwardly restrained as a good church man but seething inwardly with unrequited passions.

John Patrick's set is masterly, as is Kathi O'Donohue's exquisite lighting of it. The Fountain Theatre strikes again!

"The Road to Mecca," presented by and at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Feb. 18-Apr. 2. $18-22. (323) 663-1525.

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THE PUPPETMASTER OF LODZ

at the El Portal Center for the Arts

Reviewed by Richard Scaffidi

The war is not over for Finkelbaum. There was a time when he was a joyful puppeteer. There was a time when he was a hopeful man of faith and family. Then there came a time of horror, a time of Holocaust. Joy, hope, and faith would turn to ashes in a mass grave. Or possibly for Finkelbaum the tiniest spark still lives, albeit trapped in his delusion that the Nazi war is actually still raging. This pathetic belief drives him to remain stubbornly barricaded within a wretched Berlin apartment, in 1950, alone except for the puppets he has created in order to pass the years re-creating scenes from his own life, as if he might find a way to change the story.

This is the gist of Gilles Segal's intriguing, affecting drama (translated by Sarah O'Connor), which the durable Actors Alley company has chosen to launch its 94-seat Circle Theatre, part of the splendid new El Portal Center for the Arts. Certainly it is a brave contrast to the "safer" Over the River and Through the Woods, which was selected to inaugurate the 394-seat Mainstage Theatre last month.

The Puppetmaster of Lodz provides a promising precedent for the smaller space. The play's intimacy is served admirably upon a thrust stage (here boasting an intricate set by Richard Scully) that places every audience member within three rows of the action. And considering that most of the action is a potent and heartfelt near-monologue by Joe Garcia, it is well worth such a close look. He receives clean, measured direction by Jeremiah Morris, as well as textured acting support from Carol Sigurdson as the curious landlady, Tony C. Burton as a sensitive old friend, and Henry LeBlanc in several successively provocative roles. Yet mostly The Puppetmaster is a tour de force opportunity for Garcia, and he commits to it with unflinching energy and honesty.

Way to go, Actors Alley. Now that you've got that long-awaited facility, be sure to sustain it-and us-by continuing this apparent commitment to presenting challenging, worthwhile material.

"The Puppetmaster of Lodz," produced by and at the El Portal Center/Actors Alley at the Circle Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Feb. 11-Mar. 12. $20. (818) 508-4200.

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CHOKECHERRY

at the Ivy Substation

Reviewed by Scott Proudfit

As Pinter petered out in the '80s, many critics felt that the end of High Modernist playwriting was at hand. Seemingly more literary than presentational, these writers-who in contemporary terms traced their origins back to Beckett, but can really go all the way back to the Greek tragedians-incorporated poetic text with a strong awareness of meter and diction, and, as opposed to low artists (say, TV sitcom writers or magazine columnists), forced audiences to work harder to understand the meaning behind the words. In addition, most high modernists were unafraid of using personal symbolism in their works, regardless of the audience's comprehension of it (in terms of poets, Yeats is an apt example).

But the "language playwrights" of recent years have extended the high modernist tradition. Among their ranks are Mac Wellman, Suzan-Lori Parks, and, of course, Erik Ehn, whose intricate and compelling new play Chokecherry is being presented by Bottom's Dream.

The knee-jerk reaction for many audience members to this type of high-minded material is that the playwright doesn't care about them: The characters utter obscure and ornate phrases which don't connect with the average listener. Or the work may seem pretentious to some degree, because it deals with everyday situations in a rarified way. For example, a character in Chokecherry trying to describe his feelings toward a woman at the end of their relationship may say something like, "Here is a flower, flower unfolding. Here is the black stone angel. Here is the story told cold so our breath shows. Here is the past in the middle of the night. As I was, angel. Take me as I was."

Yet most will find that upon closer examination Ehn and his fellow playwrights not only care a great deal about their audiences, they respect them, as well-much more so, one could argue, than your average musical producer. It's not such a bad thing to have to work hard in the audience. In fact, it's refreshing. And when one feels that the players are working just as hard as they are, as in Chokecherry, the experience can be quite fulfilling.

This play, simply enough, examines the end of a relationship between an actress, Nola (Bonita Friedericy), and a teacher, Bram (Mitchell Gossett). The dramatic crux of the piece, though, centers on Nola's relationship with a disabled 12-year-old student, Bea, and Nola's desire to protect her. (In addition, in the course of things, Bea and Nola happen to slip down into the Lake of Sorrows, under Devil's Tower, South Dakota, where Bram attempts to rescue them-but that is almost incidental.)

Friedericy and Gossett have gotten their minds and mouths around Ehn's words, and in doing so have kept the connection between the emotion and the poetry very much alive. Their compelling performances (as well as Jennifer Griffin's, who adds atmosphere, commentary, and plot definition as the Singer) concentrate on human relationships and prevent us from distancing ourselves defensively from the work or relaxing back in our seats for a poetry reading. Ehn's play emerges, then, as a compelling piece of theatre, occasionally frustrating, momentarily still coldly distant (even with the performers' fine work), but by and large smart, interesting, involving, original, and worth the work.

Credit director James Martin with never allowing the text to drift off into the cosmos; credit set and lighting designer Susan Gratch with a vision that combines the playroom with the mythic, a mini art exhibit of found objects calling to mind childhood memories and metallic nightmares; credit John Zalewski's always apropos sound design, which creates the Lake of Sorrows, the urban bedroom, and the voice of Bea (a Stephen Hawking-like computer drone, electronically manipulated from Friedericy's voice during her dialogues with the child).

But primarily credit the players of Bottom's Dream, for whom Ehn expressly wrote this piece. They make the language of this language playwright live and breathe. And that's what it's all about.

"Chokecherry," presented by Bottom's Dream at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19-Mar. 19. $15. (310) 281-9517.

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ELEANOR: HER SECRET JOURNEY

at the Marines Memorial Theatre

Reviewed by Judy Richter

The Eleanor Roosevelt who tends to live in memory today is the First Lady who became an outspoken humanitarian, especially after the death of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1945. The Eleanor Roosevelt seen in Rhoda Lerman's one-woman play, Eleanor: Her Secret Journey, is a lonely, betrayed young wife beset by self-doubt, but some life-transforming experiences set her on the path toward posterity. Jean Stapleton portrays this remarkable woman in an absorbing 90-minute, intermissionless production directed by John Tillinger.

Lerman frames the work as a memory play that begins and ends in 1945, as Eleanor receives a call from President Harry Truman asking her to be a delegate to the fledgling United Nations. Her thoughts take her back to 1918, when she was 34: She and Franklin have been married 13 years and have five children. Although she still loves him, she is deeply wounded by his philandering, especially with "my excessively social secretary," Lucy Mercer. Because of their aristocratic social status, the children, and his career-he was assistant secretary of the Navy at the time-they decide to remain married.

The narrative continues through 1922. The most profound experience came shortly after the end of World War I, when Franklin had to go to France on business and took Eleanor with him. There she learned the horrible human cost of war, both in the loss of life under brutal conditions and in the devastation facing the survivors. She speaks vividly of the haunted, desperate women she saw in Paris and the traumatized English major assigned to be her escort. Another memorable scene describes their return to the United States on a troop ship with Gen. Pershing and hundreds of soldiers. As the ship sailed into the New York harbor, it was greeted by thousands of cheering people, bands, and Red Cross volunteers delivering doughnuts. Although one would expect the returning soldiers and nurses to be elated, some were overcome by despair and threw themselves overboard. They couldn't see themselves as heroes, for they knew what had happened on the battlefields.

While in Paris, she also had a conversation with eminent statesman Bernard Baruch, who spoke in philosophical terms about how the lead within her could be transformed to silver. In a metaphorical sense, that's eventually what happened as she evolved into her own person while remaining loyal to her husband throughout his political career.

Despite stumbling on a few lines, Stapleton proves a fascinating storyteller who captivates the audience with her portrayal. Wearing a softly draping dress and complementary sweater in neutral tones (costume by Noel Taylor), Stapleton gracefully moves about the simply furnished set as lighting helps define changes in locale. (Ron Nash is credited as production supervisor.) Classical music, primarily Mozart, aids the transitions (sound design by Aural Fixation).

"Eleanor: Her Secret Journey," presented by Charles H. Duggan Presents at the Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., San Francisco. Feb. 12-Mar. 5. (877) 771-6900.

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NUNSENSE

at Civic Light Opera, Seattle

Reviewed by David-Edward Hughes

Most authors can only dream of the kind of success Dan Goggin has had with Nunsense, the campy, long-running, sequel-spawning Off-Broadway musical about the Little Sisters of Hoboken putting on a show to cover the cost of burying several members of their order who died of food poisoning. Goggin's book, music, and lyrics are about as substantial as cheap fast food, but in the hands of director/choreographer Richard Gray and an ideal cast, CLO's Nunsense goes down very agreeably.

Gray's take on the show transplants the sister's order from Hoboken to Lake City, the Seattle suburb where the CLO is located, and throws in a few Northwest references to substantiate this, but otherwise it's Nunsense as usual. Mother Superior (veteran Seattle standup Peggy Platt), her sardonic sidekick sister Mary Hubert (Bonnie Wilson), streetwise Sister Robert Anne (Kathy Henson), quirky Sister Mary Amnesia (Carolyn Magoon), and aspiring ballet dancer Sister Mary Leo (Melissa Fleck) pull out all the stops to fill the convent's coffers. Sister Robert Anne's quest to be elevated from understudy to soloist and Sister Amnesia's desire to regain her memory are the major plot threads, and a final twist regarding Amnesia makes the sisters beneficiaries of a sweepstakes prize that sets the sisters up in style (and sadly set Goggin about writing progressively less entertaining sequels).

Gray understands that this ain't Sondheim, and sets a snappy pace, stages some kitschy choreography, and lets his powerhouse performers do their stuff. Platt, one of the Northwest's funniest comic talents, is a perfect Rev. Mother, particularly knocking the crowd out in a sequence in which she runs afoul of a bottle of poppers, and gets as wasted as Lucy did on vitametavegamin. The lanky Wilson is a perfect physical and comic contrast to Platt, pairing admirably with her on "Just a Coupla Sisters," and really wailing on the show-closing "Holier Than Thou" gospel number.

Henson is a vocal and comic dynamo as the determined understudy Robert Anne, whether mounting a bike for a Wicked Witch of the West moment, selling the brassy "I Just Want To Be a Star," or imbuing her character with some pathos in a number in which she reflects on the path that lead her to her calling. Magoon is an adorable kewpie-doll as Sister Amnesia, and has her own standout vocal on "I Could've Gone to Nashville." Fleck, a newcomer to area stages, holds her own in every way as balletic Sister Mary Leo. Together the actresses make a fine ensemble, and no one is ever guilty of undue upstaging.

Musical direction by Julie Young is rock-solid, particularly her work with the singers, and her small combo serves the score's needs well. Steve Johnson's set design is most attractive and amusing, a convincing convent hall stage, turned into a set for a middle school production of Grease!, which the sisters appropriate for their opus, though Devin Preston's lighting now and then leaves some of the ladies in the dark.

"Nunsense," at Civic Light Opera, 11051 34th Avenue N.E., Seattle. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m. $16-20. Feb. 10-Mar. 4. (206) 363-2809.

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CRAZY FOR YOU

at Plummer Auditorium

Reviewed by Terri Roberts

It was the moment every actor and stage manager dreads. During an Act Two set change in the Fullerton CLO's spiffy production of Crazy for You last week, a line connected to one of the large set pieces snapped and the change could not be made. The curtain came down, the house lights rose to half, and an announcement was made. About 15 minutes later the problem was solved and the show continued as if nothing had happened.

It would have been easy for the cast to get flustered and lose focus for the remainder of the act. But they didn't. These guys and gals were real troupers and they performed admirably. In best showbiz tradition, the show did go on.

Crazy for You is probably better equipped than most productions to deal with just such a crisis. With its fabulous Gershwin score, Ken Ludwig's light, frothy book, and let's-put-on-a-show plot line, the interruption caused nary a ripple in either the simple plot or emotional arc of the story. In fact, it left much of the audience thinking the breakdown was scripted. Not until musical director Lee Kreter began leading the orchestra in the overture did the realization sink in.

The 1992 Tony winner for Best Musical, Crazy for You is based on the 1930 musical Girl Crazy, and incorporates songs from that and other Gershwin shows-classics like "Embraceable You," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "I Got Rhythm," and "Someone To Watch Over Me." With such gorgeous music to enjoy, the audience never seemed to mind the delay. The story revolves around wannabe Broadway hoofer Bobby Childs (sprightly David Brannen), unhappily working in his wealthy mother's bank and unhappily engaged to Irene (the terrific Bets Malone), a haughty New York socialite. When Bobby's mom (D.D. Calhoun) sends him to Dead Rock, Nevada, to foreclose on the town's tiny little Gaiety Theatre, Bobby, natch, falls instantly in love with Polly Baker (feisty Leanna Polk), co-owner of the Gaiety. Desperate to follow his own dancin' dreams, Bobby vows to help Polly save the theatre. So he convinces her to-what else?-let him put on a show.

There are, of course, the requisite romantic mishaps and predictable plot complications that accompany such featherweight backstagers. But plot and character development are not the strengths of this type of show, so a light directorial touch and keen sense of style are needed to make them work. Outside of the somewhat lumbering and overly busy set changes, director/choreographer Don Ward successfully accomplishes both. Ward also replicates Susan Stroman's inventive, Tony-winning choreography, which includes girls swinging on pick axes, and guys dancing on sheets of corrugated tin roofing.

"Crazy for You," presented by the Fullerton Civic Light Opera at Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Feb. 18-Mar. 5. $15-36. (714) 879-1732.

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STATE FAIR

at Sierra Repertory Theatre

Reviewed by Barry Wisdom

While there are definitely "great" things about Sierra Repertory Theatre's production of State Fair-including rousing ensemble numbers, wonderful production values, and more than a few stunning lead performances-it falls short of being a blue-ribbon entry. But being red is definitely better than being dead-especially since the Gold Country company does accomplish its primary objective of spinning an old-fashioned musical comedy as sweet and big as the cotton candy handed out on designer William John Auperlee's nostalgia-inspiring midway.

Billed as the "New All-American Family Musical" when it debuted in 1995, State Fair actually started out as an early 20th-century novel before being turned into a 1933 film. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein entered the picture when they musicalized it for the 1945 movie starring Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Dick Haymes, and Vivian Blaine-their only collaboration specifically for the big screen. Playwrights Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli's stage adaptation is essentially faithful to the 1945 film version: The farming Frake clan-father Abel (Ken Stark), mother Melissa (Laurie Stevens), daughter Margy (Gisela Powell), and son Wayne (Robert David May)-are seeking a variety of awards and diversions on their annual trip to the Iowa State Fair. It's 1946 and their post-war hopes are high: Abel wants a first-place ribbon for his prize pig, Melissa wants the same for her mincemeat, and Margy and Wayne would like tickets to the Tunnel of Love.

It's a bumpy ride for the sibs, however, as Margy falls for jaded, ambitious newspaper reporter Pat Gilbert (Michael Vodde), while Wayne goes gaga for a touring Big Band singer named Emily Arden (Laura-Jean Goodman). While there's a happy ending, getting there is a stop-and-go affair of alternatingly exceeded and failed expectations.

John Jay Espino's musical direction and arrangement of the pre-recorded score is perhaps the greatest disappointment of the production. The synth-heavy, artificial sound does a great disservice to Rodgers' rich smorgasbord of music, from the Oscar-winning "It Might as Well Be Spring" to "When I Go Out Walkin' With My Baby" (an Oklahoma! leftover) to "The Man I Used to Be" (from Pipe Dream).

A strained or flu-infected throat sounds like the reason for Goodman's disappointing vocal performances as the chanteuse with a past, but it's simple inexperience to blame for May's lackluster turn as the wide-eyed Wayne. More distracting than his inconsistent belt, however, is his habit of mouthing along to the words of songs being sung by others.

Among those who do grab the brass ring is Stark as the terminally genial Abel, whose outlook and voice are as sunny as an Iowa summer. His only misstep (and director Frank H. Latson is equally guilty on this point) is a rather coarse slap on Stevens' backside as a means of teasing wife Melissa. It isn't funny, just crude.

Powell and Vodde also show off impressive turns as triple threats, though Espino's scoring seemed to demand a register below the mezzo-soprano's comfort zone on a few numbers. Supporting standouts include Gary Holman as the crooked Hoop-La barker, young Eva M. Oliver as the love-struck Violet, and the deliriously funny Ty Smith as the intoxicated food judge Heppenstahl.

Scott Viets' choreography captures all the motion and energy of the midway and is especially effective in the large-scale numbers, which are exceptionally well performed by the 35-plus ensemble.

"State Fair," presented by the Sierra Repertory Theatre at the SRT East Sonora Stage, 13891 Highway 108, Sonora. Thurs.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Feb. 5-Mar. 19. $12-17. (209) 532-3120.

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BRONTˆ

at the Magic Theatre

Reviewed by Matthew Surrence

San Francisco actor/playwright John O'Keefe's obsession with the Bront" sisters-which so far has resulted in six plays about them-was triggered 10 years ago, after he watched film versions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Someone familiar with O'Keefe's solo masterpiece, Shimmer, might see similarities between that play's two reform school boys, who construct their own private language, and the perfervid imaginings of the brilliant Bront" siblings. Dragged by their stern parson father (Robert Parnell) to a remote Yorkshire town, Charlotte (N. Alexander Storm), Anne (Sarah Overman), Emily (Natasha Kelly), and their brother, Branwell (Andrew Hurteau), spend their days entertaining themselves with eerie stories and poems befitting a motherless brood living on the edge of a graveyard.

But despite all the drama of the Bront"s' tragic lives, all the intensity the spirited actors display, and all the onstage activity director Barbara Damashek churns up in this two-act, two-hour-and-40-minute world premiere production, the Bront"s remain at a remove, as if they were being observed from the wrong end of a telescope. Part of the problem is Mikiko Uesagi's set: Comprised mostly of charcoal platforms, it fails effectively to convey either the muddy, wind-whipped moors behind the Bront"s' home or the sprawling graveyard in front of it.

But the main problem is that even though O'Keefe has thoroughly researched his characters, and has put appropriately overheated locutions in their mouths, he hasn't yet found the way to make them and their story come to compelling life.

The play opens with Parnell, in costume designer Todd Roeherman's double-notched lapel jacket, recounting in an unintelligibly authentic accent the story of the sisters' ancestry, to illustrate how "short lives and sweet tongues" ran in the family. In a muddled silhouette behind a curtain, the "four genii," as Branwell terms them, appear on horseback. They then burst forth, the girls prancing about in petticoats, playing with wooden soldiers, marching around the graveyard, carrying long twigs to attack spirits of their ancestors. "Dark is the mansion of the dead," they chant, until they are silenced by a gliding, spectral vision of their mother (Elizabeth Fighera), garbed in white gown and veil.

When careers as governesses don't pan out, and financial pressures caused by their father's impending blindness and Branwell's carousing and drinking encroach upon the Bront"s, Storm's callous but pallid Charlotte urges her sisters to take up the pen for publication. That choice is particularly odious to Kelly's tart Emily, who declares, "When I write, I write for myself, not for strangers." Anne's literary success finds no equivalent in the romantic arena, where she rejects a charming suitor (the appealing, Hugh Grant-like Michael Eliopoulos): "He is pretty, but I am not."

Occasionally, one of Damashek's stage pictures strikes a chord, such as the sweet moment when the three sisters imagine they see three suns, with designer Steven B. Mannshardt's frequently dim palette spreading into vivid light. But most of the time in Bront", O'Keefe and Damashek fail to bring this remarkable family out of the shadows of literary history.

"Bront"," presented by and at the Magic Theatre, Bldg. D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Blvd., San Francisco. Wed.-Sat. 8:30 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m. Feb. 18-Mar. 5. $15-30. (415) 441-8822.

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SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR

at the Sacramento Theatre Company

Reviewed by Barry Wisdom

Frank Condon has proven himself to be an excellent chemist time and again during his tenure as head of River Stage. But Condon's casting formulas, which he has mixed to such potent perfection at home, are without their usual fizz in the Sacramento Theatre Company's disappointingly flat production of Bernard Slade's Same Time, Next Year.

Greg Alexander and Elisabeth Nunziato, to whom Condon rightfully refers in the program notes as "two of Sacramento's finest actors," seem like surefire choices to play George and Doris, the happily married adulterers who make a pact to reunite at the same Mendocino inn each year for as long as they both shall live. But not only do they not seem right for each other, they don't seem well matched to their respective roles.

No matter what year Doris happens to leap into, the luminescent Nunziato radiates glamour and intelligence-fueled confidence. From body language to wardrobe, she simply doesn't give the impression that her Doris ever dropped out of high school to share a two-bedroom Oakland apartment with three children and a husband who bowls.

Equally out of place is the lumpy, potato-faced Alexander. So effective in his comic character pieces cross-town at the B Street Theatre, here he is far from the picture of upwardly mobile success that the well-educated East Coast CPA would seem to demand.

Part of the blame goes to costumer Clare Henkel, who consistently makes Doris look like a million bucks (even in her bell-bottom jeans and fringed leather vest), while keeping George a schlump until late in the play. Part of that is to highlight George's transformation from Stevenson liberal to Goldwater conservative during the course of the two-hander, but his early ensembles veer too far into Archie and Jughead territory. If only Alexander and Nunziato could trade body types...

But the problems here extend beyond the cosmetic. There's a line late in Act Two when George refers to having dropped out of both "the whole status trip" and his "former emotionalism." Emotionalism? Since the start of the play to this point, 20 years have passed without it appearing that George's pulse ever broke 72 beats per minute. It's almost as false a line as when Doris refers to "respect" when it comes to her relationship with husband Harry. In this case, the fault lies with Slade. Granted, both she and George have had almost 30 years to rationalize their affair, but it doesn't take the self-righteousness of a Dr. Laura to recognize hypocrisy of that magnitude.

To their credit, Nunziato and Alexander are both quick, responsive actors who make the decades traveled in Same Time, Next Year pass pleasantly-just not passionately.

"Same Time, Next Year," presented by the Sacramento Theatre Company at STC's Stage Two, 1419 H St., Sacramento. Tues. 6:30 p.m., Wed. 12:30 & 6:30 p.m., Thurs.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Feb.1-Apr. 9. $13-32. (888) 478-2849.

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THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

at the Berkeley City Club

Reviewed by Judy Richter

It's easy to have fun with William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. After all, the Bard sets up a comical premise with two sets of long-separated identical twins who wind up in the same city and undergo a series of adventures based on mistaken identities. The trick, though, is to trust the material and not get carried away with a concept. Danny Scheie oversteps that boundary in the production he directs for Aurora Theatre Company, in the company's first Shakespearean production.

Since Aurora plays in a small space with the audience seated on three sides of the playing area, a large cast is generally out of the question. Scheie pares the cast to seven actors and a musician by having them play multiple roles of both genders, a fairly common technique. He goes a step farther, though, by casting a woman, Susannah Schulman, as both Antipholuses, and a man, Brad DePlanche, as both Dromios. He then adopts an overly broad playing style, yet confines at least half of the action to a narrow platform backed by red curtains.

He also repeats stage business until it becomes stale. When the two Dromios encounter each other, for example, DePlanche stands behind one section of the curtain, which snaps open one way to reveal Dromio of Ephesus with a Southern accent, then snaps the other way to reveal Dromio of Syracuse with a New York accent and glasses. The same technique is used for other actors who play multiple roles and appear in the same scene. Apparently the audience is supposed to be amused, but the main impression is that the actors have to work awfully hard for a few chuckles at best.

Another impression is that the talents of some good actors are going to waste. DePlanche has a flair for comedy, and Schulman does well in her portrayal of Antipholus of Ephesus as a bit of a rube and Antipholus of Syracuse as more worldly with a trace of the cad. Joan Mankin, who has distinguished herself in the past, seems out of her element in her various male roles. Even usually reliable pianist Scrumbly Koldewyn falters in spots, missing notes in the familiar tunes that accompany some of the action.

The final impression is that the other actors don't seem comfortable with Shakespearean language. They include Brian Yates Sharber and Adam Gavzer, who play both men and women; as well as Susan Marie Brecht and Johanna Falls, who play only Adriana and Luciana, respectively.

Allison Connor's 1920s costumes add a nice touch, but Richard Olmsted's scenic and lighting designs seem one-dimensional, especially the consistently bright lighting.

"The Comedy of Errors," presented by Aurora Theatre Company at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Feb. 17-Mar. 19. $28. (510) 843-4822.

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THE BOY FRIEND

at the Actors Forum Theatre

Reviewed by Les Spindle

If The Boy Friend, Sandy Wilson's 1954 pastiche of Roaring '20s musicals, was noted solely as the show that first brought 19-year-old Brit Julie Andrews across the ocean, it would earn a distinguished place in Broadway history. But-driven by Wilson's ebullient score-it is also a disarming musical confection. Yet this seldom-revived show is deceptively difficult to pull off, requiring a perfection of stylization from a triple-threat cast equally proficient in acting, singing, and dancing. With few exceptions, Actors Forum's earnest but lumbering revival is lucky when its performers can muster up even one of the three requirements.

From the outset, it's clear that the requisite precision of execution is AWOL. A recorded cast album-rather than a live performance-is inexplicably used for the overture, and at the performance attended, the sound engineer was slow with the stop button, allowing the first few bars of the opening song to be heard before the feeble live piano accompaniment took over. In the big "Riviera" number, a chorus from the cast album is heard while the actors mouth the lyrics, in the hollow manner of a drag show or a dubbed movie musical. Incorporating these portions of the splendid recording is a huge mistake, because they merely underline the company's far inferior accompaniment and singing.

Wilson's slight but captivating book, set at Madame Dubonnet's finishing school for young girls near Nice, revolves around demure young Polly (Kathryn D. Ball), who finds love at first sight with penniless delivery boy Tony (Chett Gunhus), hiding the fact that she is filthy rich. Standing out among the mostly ineffectual ensemble are the amusing characterizations of Toby Berenson as the eccentric Dubonnet and Brad Slocum as her amour-to-be Percival (Polly's fussbudget father).

In the poignant ingenue role that launched Andrews' stardom, statuesque Ball boasts a capable soprano voice, but is neither chronologically nor temperamentally suited to play shrinking violet Polly. As her flame, Gunhus displays sincerity and charm but lacks musical skills. Debi Bain has her moments as the flirtatious Maisie, but Gregory Gast as her suitor Bobby is hopelessly wooden. The production is further marred by British and French dialects that run the gamut from nonexistent to stop-and-start to barely acceptable.

As if Wilson's jewel box of a show needed tinkering, director/choreographer Tommy Finnan III drags out the evening by adding superfluous elements: a warbling narrator (Champagne Powell), an enjoyable but overlong scene-change tap routine by Bobby Barron, and an audience-participation act by mind readers Falkenstein and Willard that brings the narrative flow of this book musical to a screeching halt.

One could go on grousing about such elements as the sometimes tacky sets (uncredited) and John Grant's problematic lighting, but suffice it to say that the evening misses the designation of "stylish" by a mega-mile. Lyrics in the lilting title song indicate life without a boy friend is "devoid of all charms." Sadly, the same thing can be said about this unfortunate endeavor.

"The Boy Friend," presented by and at the Actors Forum Theatre, 10655 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. Sun. 3 p.m. Feb. 11-indefinite. $20. (818) 506-0600.

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ROSALBA AND THE LLAVEROS FAMILY

at the Los Angeles Theatre Center

Reviewed by Adelina Anthony

The comedy Rosalba and the Llaveros Family by Emilio Carbadillo is nothing short of tragic, because it falls into the pernicious category Peter Brooks so aptly calls "Deadly Theatre." First, the play is so predictable that by intermission we know exactly how it is going to end. Second, Margarita Galban's direction has no sense of storytelling, rhythm, or staging. Finally, the actors are primed for the punchline-and nothing else.

Truth of character is practically non-existent in this production, with the exception of Bertha Holguin's Chole, a nasty, bossy sister of Felipe (Antonio Nesme), the suitor. The other characters have only flashes of playing objectives and understanding their character's arc. There is a sense that true talent lies under this "idea of characters" that is presently onstage. But as directed, the ensemble is overacting and melodramatic.

Some problems with the acting originate with the performers, like Gema M. Sandoval in the lead role of Rosalba and Ana Rey as Rita. Both actors over-enunciate and telegraph their lines to the audience as if we were a group of first graders. Also, Rey has an annoying screech throughout the play which only reminds us of the bad telenovela acting for which we Latinos get stereotyped. And poor Lisa Schirmer as the crazy aunt Nativitas is trapped in playing a condition, because we don't see how her character truly functions in the play. In the second act, especially, Nativitas is a random distraction.

Distraction seems to be Galban's technique. Even the set design (Estela Scarlata), although expensive, is not dynamic and is rarely exploited for levels. The ground plan poses a problem: A huge gulf is created downstage, since the actors are kept in an area upstage left for most of the show. If they prettied up the stage with some folk dancing or nicely painted sets, perhaps we wouldn't notice the lack of guidance in this production.

If the show were billed as children's theatre, perhaps many of these theatrical sins could be forgiven. It is disheartening that one of the nation's most established Latino playhouses is doing such old-fashioned and stereotypical work. I am the first to cheer for working Latino talent, but the last to applaud work which does not move forward. It just proves that noble intentions do not make good theatre. I wouldn't even call it "safe"-indeed, it is dangerous to the development of challenging work in our community.

"Rosalba and the Llaveros Family," presented by the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Downtown Los Angeles. Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sat. & Sun. 3 p.m. Feb. 11-Mar. 5. $ 20. (323) 225-4044.

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ASCENSION

at the Complex

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

It's only February and this is already the third time I've sunk into my theatre seat muttering, "OK, this is it-this is as bad as it can possibly get." Having unwittingly become a connoisseur of the wretched, I knew what I was in for. My tender companion, however, lacked the battle scars to endure. "It's like water torture!" she screamed as I drove her home during the intermission. And another name is crossed off the ever-shortening list of people willing to attend theatre with me.

Adam Wilhite shares writing credit with Kristine Jacquin on this, but it appears that Ms. Jacquin was too busy to read any of the drafts, as the result plays as a total male fantasy. When you see a man's name as writer, director, and lead, you can bet that within the reality of the play he is irresistibly, totally hot. A drifter, Caleb (Wilhite), arrives at the farm of Sarah (Claudine Gueniot) and Audre (Elena Thomatos), and their committed lesbian relationship lasts about three more seconds. Audre's problem, you see, is that she's creatively blocked. She has a totally subsidized lifestyle living with her former professor in the middle of the woods, and the two of them sit around and read and discuss literature endlessly but, darn it, she can't seem to write. To paraphrase Freud, what the hell does this woman want?

For a while it looks as if what she wants is the experience-rich if benefit-free existence of Caleb. And who wouldn't? The character of Sarah, never all that strongly delineated in the first place, becomes a cipher once boy toy arrives.

Rather than chew on the scenery (and there is a great deal of it; Wilhite again), this group of actors has chosen to dine on the text, swallowing it in small gulps and leaving very little of it for the audience to hear. This is probably all for the best, as what I did hear occasionally was so unlike human speech ("...leaves me with rippling, reflective images of thought") that I realized I was best left out of the conversation. When characters aren't mumbling, they're prone to staring off into space and murmuring, "Um..." This rather desultory approach also shows up in the lighting (yes, Wilhite), which is liable to come up on an empty set more often than not.

I don't know for whose benefit the show has been mounted-certainly not the people sitting in the house. It should, however, be some sort of misdemeanor to present something so egregious that attendees swear off theatre forever.

"Ascension," presented by Adam Wilhite at the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sun. 8 p.m. Feb. 10-Mar. 19. $15. (310) 753-5003.

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