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WHAT THE BUTLER SAW

at A Noise Within

Reviewed by Richard Scaffidi

A Noise Within isn't just on a roll, they're on a juggernaut. No sooner does the young company mount a 1998 season that hauls in a whopping eight L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards (including two of the three top production honors) than they launch their current season with an impressive Oedipus the King as their first stab at classical Greek drama (see review below). Now they've really done it. Staking out newer and wider turf, ANW has come up with just about the wildest contrast to Sophoclean tragedy possible: Joe Orton's hypermodern farce, What the Butler Saw. It is brilliant.

Uproariously perverse, this is one show A Noise Within won't be presenting to local school children. What with the cross-dressing, incest, nudity, gunplay, etc.‹albeit all of it twisted into a gloriously comical shape‹What the Butler Saw figures to avert some of the usual Glendale matinee crowd. All the better to clear seats for those who might have been avoiding ANW, thinking it too "highbrow," but who should now flock from all over town to see the funniest, edgiest, most crisply executed Orton play we've ever seen.

Director Sabin Epstein applies all his classical upbringing to the service of clarifying conflicts and climaxes, as well as generating impeccable timing and depth of character from his similarly trained cast. The action may be frenetic or just plain wacky, and the relationships within the play warped to nightmarish exaggeration, but the performances are nonetheless fulfilled and committed. Ibsen it ain't (thank God), but each portrayal in What the Butler Saw is inventive, detailed, vivid‹and funny as hell.

At the center of this outrageous storm is the delicious pinpoint performance of Mark Bramhall as Dr. Prentice, a psychiatrist out to seduce a thoroughly na™ve secretarial applicant (Jill Hill). Madcappery breaks out immediately and irreversibly as Dr. Prentice is nearly caught in the act by a rapid succession of colorful plot complicaters. These include Dr. Prentice's equally unfaithful wife (Michael Learned), her blackmailer stud (J. Todd Adams), a medical board investigator (William Dennis Hunt), and a police sergeant (Richard Soto).

The eccentricities of these characters defy civil description, just as their progressively wild behavior sometimes defies gravity. Let's just say that the gloriously talented Ms. Learned never had this much lusty fun playing Mrs. Walton on TV all those homespun years. And William Dennis Hunt, as the officious Dr. Rance, is a nonstop laugh riot, taking to new comic heights a character so full of it that he may burst most unpleasantly at any moment. Which is not to slight the mighty comedic contributions tendered by Adams, Soto, and the ever-versatile Hill. All are splendid, with and without their clothing.

Still, the funniest of them all is, rightfully, playwright Orton. What the Butler Saw was his last play before being murdered in 1967 at age 34, and after seeing such a sterling production as this one, we can actually understand how some have likened Orton to Oscar Wilde. The social satire in his dialogue is certainly Wildean. Consider: "Have you taken up transvestism? I had no idea our marriage teetered on the brink of fashion." Or, "There are two sexes. The unpalatable truth must be faced. Your attempts at a merger can end only in heartbreak."

Wilde was more literate, but certainly Orton rivaled the master for sheer theatrical mischief and for having a wanton, lacerating view of authority and tradition. Who'd have though a "classical" company would be able to express that perspective so perfectly?

"What the Butler Saw," presented by and at A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Mar. 19-May 15. (818) 546-1924.

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FALL OFF NIGHT

at the Open Fist Theatre

Reviewed by Les Spindle

In its dazzling premiere production, Allison Gregory's surrealistic dark comedy Fall Off Night artfully melds the enigmatic edginess of Franz Kafka with the offbeat whimsy of Lewis Carroll. Rather than venturing through a looking glass, the play's focal character Heidi (Anastasia Martino) finds herself thrust into a bizarre journey through the intimidating netherworld of nocturnal Los Angeles. But on a more profound level, her spiritual odyssey propels her through the circuitous byways of moral dilemma and social responsibility. Director Sal Romeo parlays this richly intelligent piece into a crackling evening of smart and sassy theatre.

Romeo's most impressive achievement is his masterful creation of a paradoxical ambience that is both starkly realistic and frighteningly nightmarish. These days, environmental staging is used so frequently that it sometimes registers as a gimmicky clich . But in this case, surrounding the auditorium with the gritty sights, sounds, and peculiar specimens of humanity to be found in the desolate urban ghettos after dark is essential in giving this material the requisite punch.

The evening starts with the sound of offstage street altercations as the audience filters in, and as the play begins and progresses, the action encircles the spectators from all directions. Peter Hyde eschews a conventional set in favor of an asphalt floor spanning the entire auditorium, a beat-up clunker of an automobile that really runs, and selected cheesy set pieces such as bus stop benches that serve as symbols of the urban landscape. Martin George's marvelously creative costumes and props add to the triumphantly depicted milieu, as do Clayton Tripp's idiosyncratic lighting design and the sublime sound effects of Rachel Anderson and Angela Backman.

Martino eloquently leads the exemplary ensemble, portraying Heidi as an ophthamologist photographer whose own vision becomes unfocused (both literally and figuratively) after she witnesses a violent crime and fails to intervene. Other sharp and amusing characterizations come from Marnie Crosseu as an eccentric eye patient, a hilariously deadpan Anastasia Basil as Heidi's cynical co-worker, and William Salyers as a demented white-collar worker. Members of the large cast effectively essay multiple roles, with recurring characters popping up at unexpected moments.

Gregory has an unerring ear for the cadences of street-smart dialogue and an astute vision of the volatile dynamics of Los Angeles' mean streets. The risk-taking philosophy of the adventurous Open Fist company provides the perfect venue for this multi-layered, off-center comedy, which was originally commissioned, then rejected, by the South Coast Repertory. Costa Mesa's loss is Hollywood's gain.

"Fall Off Night," presented by and at the Open Fist Theatre, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Mar. 5-Apr. 10. (323) 882-6912.

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THE CHERRY ORCHARD

at the Interact Theatre Company

Reviewed by Polly Warfield

This luminous presentation of Chekhov's last masterwork, completed only months before his death in 1904, is Interact Theatre Company's loving homage to the second greatest playwright who ever lived (Shakespeare being No. 1). In a fresh, faithful, and inspired new translation by Russian scholar Allison Comins-Richmond, it is a triumphant culmination.

This is thrilling theatre, and a triumph all around: Joel Swetow's sensitive, nuanced direction; ensemble perfection by actors living and breathing their roles; Bradley Kaye's leaf-dappled sun-and-shade lighting to evoke the evanescent glory of the titular orchard; Gregg Coffin's mood-setting original music, of which more would be welcome; Shon LeBlanc's beautiful, meticulously rendered period costumes, and, since sound is always an integral and powerful presence in Chekhov's plays, special praise for Ron Wyand's sound design, from the nostalgic wail of a steam locomotive's whistle and slip-clop of horses' hooves signaling a significant arrival at play's opening, to their reprise at play's end to signal an even more meaningful departure.

As always with Chekhov, tears verge on laughter, laughter on tears. His Russians suffer so gracefully, so wholeheartedly, and they make the most of it. They are blessed (or cursed) with Russian soul. When Michele Farr, as gracious, womanly Mme. Ranyevskaya, rhapsodizes about past happiness, her dark eyes glow like precious jewels. (We're dismayed to learn she is stubbornly determined to return to her no-good sponging lover in Paris.) Francois Giroday as her brother Leonid is an elegant patrician to the manner born, a charmer.

As the ebullient but practical Lopakhin, parvenu descendant of serfs now on a fast track to wealth and power, Joel Anderson is compelling, personable, and altogether satisfactory. Lopakhin buys the estate and will subdivide it, chopping down the cherry trees to build summer cottages, which he had urged Ranyevskaya to do for her own good. He tried to help her; she wouldn't listen. He's effusive and waves his arms a lot, but a good fellow. Varya, the lady's eldest daughter, played by Christal Lockwood, is in love with him; they should marry, but he can't bring himself to propose.

Likewise, little will come of romance between younger daughter Anya (Marisol Novak) and Pytor (Jay Karnes), a lanky, strangely attractive and appealing student. Pytor, though indecisive, is a noble young man; there should be more like him.

Marilyn McIntyre as the wonderfully eccentric governess Charlotta is skilled at legerdemain and ventriloquism. Lovelorn Dunyasha (Sione Owen), a peasant who wants to be a lady, is trifled with, scorned, and probably pregnant by caddish opportunist Yasha, played by James Calvert. James Harper's stout, colorful, and impecunious landowner Pishchik is always borrowing money. James Gleason is humorously pathetic as an accident-prone retainer they call "23 disasters." Neil Vipond is an actor's object lesson as Leonid's solicitous old valet Firs, who could break your heart. Alan Naggar and Robert Zeigler complete the cast. Except for that bounder Yasha, and despite (or because of) their frailties and foibles, they are all lovable.

In the play's final magnificent and wrenching scene, poor old Firs lies on the floor, alone in the empty house. All is silence save for the sound of the axe felling the richly laden cherry trees.

"The Cherry Orchard," produced by Christina Carlisi for and at Interact Theatre Company, 11855 Hart St, N. Hollywood. Mar. 20-May 2. (818) 773-7862.

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PLAY STRINDBERG

at South Coast Repertory

Reviewed by George Weinberg-Harter

In the introduction to her 1960 translation of August Strindberg's The Dance of Death (1901), Elizabeth Sprigge compares the play to Ionesco's "grotesque and wildly funny tragedies" and suggests it could be profitably trimmed and modernized with an "Ionesco touch." Or, if not Ionesco, why not his Swiss absurdist ally, Friedrich Durrenmatt, for the job? Play Strindberg, now in a tightly timed and terribly funny production at SCR, is in fact Durrenmatt's 1968 rewrite of the dour Swede's drama about the miserable 25-year marriage of Edgar and Alice.

Durrenmatt's compact revision‹which is thoroughgoing, while retaining the same characters and the basic shape of Strindberg's story‹offers a telling contrast between 19th- and 20th-century attitudes. The complexities and ambivalences of Strindberg's original script‹his disillusioned Romanticism and highly conflicted feelings about women, typical of the era‹are completely swept away in favor of a no-holds-barred battle of the sexes. Indeed, Durrenmatt has, with a thumb in the eye of subtlety, divided the play into a series of prize fight rounds, introduced by bells. If The Dance of Death is a bitter battle in a love/hate relationship, Play Strindberg is a bare-knuckle brawl of pure enmity and loathing. And with the newer version's heightened absurdity, it's more like the difference between a serious boxing match and a professional wrestling charade.

But of course, the seeds of absurdity were there to begin with. The foolish dance itself, which Edgar insists on performing at the risk of a stroke, is, in both plays, specified to be done to the goofy music of "The Entry of the Boyars" (instead of the more grotesque and obvious "Danse Macabre," which Strindberg had at first intended). Hal Landon Jr., in the role, does Edgar's stupid dance proud, with all the silly, eccentric gracelessness the music suggests. Indeed, Landon is absurd comic perfection as this pathetic martinet of a failed artillery officer (still only Captain in middle age), barking out his lines like drill instructions, collapsing over and over into an appalling, tongue-lolling heap, only to unexpectedly revive again, with a jerk of his neck and a turkey-gobble, as if nothing had happened.

Equal partners in this production's efficient triple ensemble are the redoubtable Martha McFarland as a feisty, aggressive Alice, and Don Took, amusingly bemused as Kurt, the visiting cousin who becomes a foil and not-so-innocent bystander in the marital fireworks. (All three are SCR veterans, and Landon and Took are reprising the same roles they played here before in a 1973 production.) Hope Alexander directs with a swift, stylized pace that fittingly gives the play the brutal hilarity of a Punch and Judy show. Durrenmatt may have excised most of Strindberg's depths and ambiguities, but he clearly made a very funny play of what was left.

Angela Balogh Calin furnished the good-looking thrust-stage scenic design; Alex Jaeger designed the period costumes; Lonnie Rafael Alcarez did the lighting, and the sound is the work of Max Kinberg.

"Play Strindberg," presented by South Coast Repertory on its Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Mar. 12-Apr. 11. (714) 708-5555.

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OEDIPUS THE KING

at A Noise Within

Reviewed by Richard Scaffidi

In the beginning, there was Oedipus the King.

Anyone who studies theatre‹or who even just likes it‹should know this play is the most towering landmark in Western dramatic literature. Its themes have influenced every succeeding generation of playwrights, as well as 24 centuries of poetry, philosophy, politics, and social science. So hugely impactful is Oedipus Rex that it has become nearly as mythic as the primal tale it depicts. And so imposing are all such historical and literary footnotes attached to the Sophocles masterpiece that even the best theatres of our day shrink from the attempt to produce it.

Ah, but A Noise Within has become Southern California's premier classical company (in barely a handful of years) not because the group is easily intimidated but because they are ambitious, brave, diligent, organized‹and talented. Smartly opting for Kenneth Cavander's streamlined, accessible translation, director Art Manke and company have pulled off an Oedipus that is respectful enough for scholars yet thrilling enough or the rest of us. Manke presents 80 nonstop minutes of bold, articulate storytelling, spiced with aptly bloody spectacle, ultimately penetrating us with all those soaring themes of destiny, humility, guilt, and catharsis.

Centering it all is a stalwart yet nicely contemporary portrayal of Oedipus by Robertson Dean. We can see in Dean's characterization the intelligent, proud, and volatile hero who abruptly became king of Thebes, never realizing that the throne and widowed queen he took fell his way because he had himself killed the prior king‹and that this king and queen (now wife) were actually his parents.

This horrific truth unfolds at Oedipus' own insistence‹so that he may save his people from terrible blights brought on by the unknown sins of the young king. Therein Sophocles devised one of the most marvelous plot constructions of all time: Oedipus as the consummate detective driven to find and punish a murderer‹who turns out to be himself. The evidence is systematically and inexorably revealed, largely through a series of vivid monologues: first by Jill Hill as the reluctant ancient soothsayer Teiresias, next by Mitchell Edmonds as a well-meaning but devastating messenger, then by Apollo Dukakis as a shepherd who ironically thought he had rescued the infant Oedipus from his fate.

When all is exposed, the inevitable purging commences with the suicide of Queen Jocasta (a fine study in denial by Lorna Raver). The grisly details of her death and Oedipus' subsequent self-mutilation are told in another strong monologue‹a particularly wrenching one performed by Gail Shapiro. In cold contrast is Rod Menzies as Creon, the chilling, brutally rational king-to-be, dutifully unmoved even by the gory spectacle of a bloodied, blinded Oedipus poignantly resigned to his fate.

So has A Noise Within nailed it? Redefined a masterpiece? Instantly vaulted into the first tier of American theatre companies? Not quite: There is still texturing to come for this group, as evidenced by a few actors called upon here to play out of their range‹of age, style, or emotional edge. Still, let us loudly admire ANW for boldly and skillfully notching its young gunbelt with not just a Greek tragedy, but the Greek tragedy.

In a showdown with the ultimate challenger about destiny, A Noise Within is still standing, and taking aim at quite a future of its own.

"Oedipus the King," presented by and at A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Mar. 5-May 8. (818) 546-1924.

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THE TEMPEST

at the Space Theatre

Reviewed by Dianne Zuckerman

The story belongs to Prospero; the spirit is Ariel's. Together, they add up to a satisfying, stimulating production of The Tempest by the Denver Center Theatre Company. Director Anthony Powell keeps the action clean, the words clear, and the stage uncluttered, letting the Bard's rich tale resonate.

Freedom is the focus, as Prospero awaits release from the isle on which he has been confined since brother Antonio usurped Prospero's authority as the Duke of Milan. But with freedom comes responsibility to use one's power wisely, a lesson for the learning both for Prospero, the magician, and Ariel, the mischievous, captive spirit.

Tony Church makes an authoritative Prospero, projecting the wisdom of age as well as the rightful Duke's passion and purpose. Church's Shakespearean skills serve particularly well in the play's expanses of exposition, as meter is transformed into meaningful emotions. Prospero's eyes flash with ire, then soften, voice sighing like the sea's murmur as he gazes at his much-loved daughter, Miranda (given an engaging blend of innocence and spark by Shannon Koob).

If Church's Prospero grounds the show, Bruce Turk's Ariel graces it with a touch of magic. His sleek, blonde looks set off by Andrew V. Yelusich's elegant white costume creation, Turk darts as smoothly as a star danseur when conjuring his roguery. But just as quickly, Ariel's mood can skirt despair. Eyes tormented, torso writhing like a reptile, his pain is palpable as he reminds Prospero of his promise to free his servant.

Freedom of another sort is explored in the show's broad-humored subplot, as hot-eyed, island inhabitant Caliban (given dignity and angst by Bill Christ) lurches about, hatching his ill-fated plan against Prospero. Other standouts among the strong cast include Jamie Horton as Stephano, the besotted wine steward, and Randy Moore as good-hearted Gonzalo, two of the mariners who turn up on the island in the show's storm-tossed opening.

The production also benefits from effective design work, led by Pavel Dobrusky's lighting and set‹a raked, celestial-colored stage sloping around a central rise‹and Gary Grundei's music, which adds an apt sense of isolation to the locale.

"The Tempest,'' presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company at the Space Theater, Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis Streets, Denver. Mar. 18-Apr. 17. (800) 641-1222.

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SINGIN' IN THE RAIN

at the Fred Kavli Theater

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

Pack a hamper, get the car tuned, get a housesitter‹whatever you think necessary before making a trek to deep Thousand Oaks to see this show. Although this stage adaptation of a movie musical about the movie industry's transition to sound is never going to work as well in the theatrical form as it did in the cinematic, this production has verve and sparkle to spare.

I'm not suggesting you make the drive just to view glitter, however. David Engel in the role of Don Lockwood is an almost perfect realization of something we don't see very often on the stage anymore: the song-and-dance man. His voice is well-suited to the familiar songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, his acting is sufficient for him to glide by the chestnuts nestled in Betty Comden and Adolph Green's adaptation of their own screenplay ("I'd rather kiss a tarantula... Hey, Joe, get me a tarantula!"), and he moves like a dream. In an inadvertent homage to 42nd Street, his sidekick Cosmo is played by B.K. Kennelly, an actor who stepped in less than 36 hours before the opening curtain when the original actor broke his foot. Kennelly is a captivatingly comic performer and was off book and in step (well, mostly) in spite of having had such an abbreviated rehearsal period.

As the winsome love interest Kathy Selden, Holly Bosil is a charmer and has a voice verging on the angelic, while Kelli Thacker is joyfully abrasive as Lina Lamont, a woman whose hair color and vowels have been tortured into forms unknown to nature. Jon Engstrom captures the appeal of the original source in his direction and choreography. The Set Company has provided backdrops both monumental and insubstantial, kind of like the movies themselves.

"Singin' in the Rain," presented by Cabrillo Music Theatre at the Fred Kavli Theater, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Mar. 19-28. (805) 583-8700.

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THE CURIOUS SAVAGE

at the Crossley Theatre

Reviewed by Lesley Solmonson

The innocence and idealism of the 1950s are alive and well at the Actor's Co-op, whose current production of The Curious Savage gives us a look at a rarely seen play by playwright and screenwriter John Patrick, better known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Teahouse of the August Moon, as well as the film adaptations for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing and High Society.

With Patrick's trademark gaiety, The Curious Savage tells the story of wealthy widow Ethel P. Savage, played with delightful aplomb by Janet Raycraft. Having hidden the family fortune from her greedy children, Ethel finds herself in an asylum surrounded by inmates who have more humanity than most "normal" people. It is this theme‹that normalcy is in the eye of the beholder‹that gives Patrick's play its inherent decency and warmth, despite the sometimes outdated perspective.

The actors in this production work seamlessly together, showing the obvious benefits of an ongoing company. No one steals the show from anyone else and every actor is given his or her moment to shine. While director Bonnie Hellman could have reigned her actors in a bit‹they tend to embrace the buoyancy of the dialogue a bit too much and push for the jokes‹she does manage to present a unified ensemble. The entire cast is solid, but standouts include RoseAnne Vau as Miss Wilhelmina and Peter Kanetis as Jeffrey, both of whom capture the honesty of their roles and the humor of the play without going overboard.

Most enjoyable about the play is that it accomplishes what so many modern playwrights can't, or simply won't, do: tell a simple, heartfelt, and genuinely funny tale about human nature without resorting to rough language or dark subject matter. While the latter are certainly elements of modern life, it's still refreshing to see work that can entertain without them. And Patrick succeeds on all levels with wonderfully original dialogue and quirky characters, who delight us with their essential humanity.

Technical credits are all excellent, with kudos going to set designers Tim Farmer and Mark Henderson, who make the most of their single set. Also first-rate are the costumes of Shon LeBlanc, whose designs range from the straightforward to the wonderfully absurd.

"The Curious Savage," presented by and at the Actor's Co-op, Crossley Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. Mar. 5-May 9. (323) 462-8460.

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DAY OF ABSENCE

at Masquers' Cabaret

Reviewed by Anne Louise Bannon

Maybe it's because images of white people donning blackface to reinforce viscious, negative stereotypes are still too painful for our African-American brothers and sisters, but you have to wonder why more blacks haven't turned the tables by donning whiteface and making fun of Caucasians. Certainly Douglas Turner Ward's play Day of Absence shows that it can be done to hysterical perfection. And though producer and director Blake Roberts swears that his production is just meant in apolitical fun, it is political, it is offensive‹and it should be. It is also wonderfully funny, as well as thought-provoking, proving that a play can still be as deep as the ocean without being angst-ridden.

The absence in the title refers to the sudden disappearance of all the African Americans from a Southern town over the course of a day in 1966. The whitefolk accordingly panic: All of a sudden, there's no one to clean up after them, cook for them, and take care of their babies. Even the community leaders who were "passin' as white" have disappeared.

Roberts has stayed true to the playwright's intentions, casting an all-African-American cast, mostly playing multiple roles in whiteface, with a lone Caucasian (J. Carlos Rubio) as a TV announcer reporting on the chaos. The best part is that the cast avoids the trap of winking at the audience, instead playing the characters true to their intentions. Thus we audience members, especially those of us who are white, are properly skewered but not clubbed over the head.

If I have any quibble with the cast, it's with some minor garbling of lines here and there throughout the evening. John B. Moody, as Mayor Henry R. E. Lee, mars an otherwise energetic performance by using a raspy voice that sounds less than organic and had me worrying about him trashing his throat. But among the many standout actors, Theo Fitzgerald has a grand moment as Mr. Council Clan-Grand Dragoon. While being interviewed by the Announcer, Fitzgerald plays full-out the Klansman dedicated to eradicating the Negro‹as long as they "git" at the Klan's convenience.

This is a minimalist production, with no set to speak of, again per the author's notes. But this works well for the limited space of Masquers' Cabaret. Roberts makes excellent use of what little he has, mounting a production that is wickedly funny and hits home probably more often than we white devils would like to admit. Of course, maybe if we did, plays like this could be apolitical and just in fun.

"Day of Absence," presented by Blake 13 Productions in association with Blazon Bamn at Masquers' Cabaret, 8334 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles. Mar. 5-Apr. 10. (323) 653-4848.

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THE TWO GENTLEMAN OF VERONA

at the McCadden Place Theatre

Reviewed by Zach Udko

Imagine if the Royal Shakespeare Company went bankrupt and had to start asking their actors to find costumes in their own closets, and if they couldn't afford elaborate sets or props and had to perform in a tiny venue in Hollywood. The result might not be too far off from the Subterranean Theatre Company's fresh and lively production of Shakespeare's Two Gentleman of Verona, set in Hollywood's Golden Age. This show proves that talent can go a long way without much money.

This charming bunch of performers, now in their third season, was founded by graduates of Indiana University who are trying to make it as actors in L.A. And Shakespeare's early comedy of friendship, greed, lust, love, and gender identity is the perfect vehicle for all of them to strut their stuff.

Matt Caton's Valentine and Jeremy Hall's Proteus work well with each other as the two friends competing for the same love. Molly Sullivan's Sylvia is a tough gal with a lot of piss and vinegar. Stephen J. Skelton, Christopher Cause, and Kelli Bielema each have their own moments to shine as Speed, Thurio, and Julia, respectively. But the evening's real favorite‹surprise!‹is Tom Sonnek's Launce, the dim-witted servant who's always moping about how his dog Crab doesn't love him. Also of note is Shakespeare the dog's fascinating and complex portrayal of Crab.

No set designer is credited. Indeed, it seems as if the scenery is largely unfinished even two weeks into the show's run, but this somehow adds to the charm of this quaint mounting. If there's anything more troublingly uneven about the production, it's Benjamin Livingston's sometimes questionable direction. Having the actors fake dialogue in the background of a couple of scenes proves to be quite distracting and awkward. He also seems to go in and out of the Hollywood mood that he's created. More continuity with the look and feel of the period would enhance the production.

Apart from these quibbles, Livingston and his actors manage moments of sheer comic bliss and, all around, a swinging good time.

"The Two Gentleman of Verona," presented by the Subterranean Theatre Company at the McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. Mar. 5-Apr. 10. (818) 754-1518.

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TOO OLD FOR THE CHORUS

at the Celebration Theatre

Reviewed by Terri Roberts

Back in the flower-child days of the 1960s, the motto was, "Trust no one over 30." In the youth-obsessed culture of the '90s, that motto has could be nipped and tucked to say, "Ignore anyone over 30." Too Old for the Chorus, a delightful new musical revue with words and music by Marie Cain, Shelly Markham, and Mark Winkler (co-creators of the exuberant, bare-bones Naked Boys Singing!) is receiving its world premiere at the Celebration Theatre. The theatre's soon-to-depart producing artistic director, Robert Schrock, directs with an emphasis on low-key staging and a minimum of fuss and bother.

The production uses a piano player (musical director and arranger Bill Schneider) and a five-person ensemble to take a lighthearted look at the problems plaguing the over-30-but-still-young-at-heart crowd. But as bubbly Virginia McMath, the baby of the group (in her 30s but playing early 40s), notes, being in your 30s may not make you very old, but it's still considered "too old for the chorus."

McMath is joined by Jo Hinds, Alvin Ing, Wayne Moore, and Sammy Williams, all of whom prove that, as Hinds' spotlight song demonstrates, "Age Is Just a Number." (For the record, Hinds confesses to being 65 and a grandmother.) It's nice, in this intimate space, to hear non-amplified voices. Ing and Hinds can't always quite match their peers in vocal power, but everyone gets brownie points for good diction. Each actor gets to chat briefly about themselves and offer a defining anecdote about aging. But though intended to be loose and conversational, these introductions could use a little editorial lyposuction to trim the fat.

Musically, Act One is pleasant enough, but Act Two features stronger writing and a wider range of styles. It opens with the show's title song, which includes a spoof of A Chorus Line's famous hat-tipping, high-kicking show-stopper, "One" (especially hilarious, since Williams won the Best Supporting Actor Tony for originating the role of Paul in that landmark show). Later, it's a real treat when Williams dons his dancing shoes for the debonair "When 50 Wore a Tux."

"Invisible/Invincible," is a rousing all-male paean to that female anthem of independence, "I Am Woman." Touches of tenderness accentuate "Dog Passages," in which Moore poignantly recalls the past decades of his life according to which pooch was his partner at the time, and "Quiet Fire," a duet between Williams and Ing describing the late-in-life comfort and security of being well loved.

Too Old for the Chorus opens with an enthusiastic company number, "Potential," and closes the circle with the bittersweet "All That I Can Do." Appropriately, the jokes are abandoned here and the clich s about getting older are gone. What's left, then, is the realization that whether by fate or circumstance, these five have survived while others have not. To make that accomplishment meaningful, they sing, they will do all that they can do to make a difference in the world‹and lives‹around them. And they're never too old to do that.

"Too Old for the Chorus," presented by and at the Celebration Theatre, 7051 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Mar. 20-May 30. (310) 289-2999.

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PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS

at the Lucie Stern Theatre

Reviewed by Judy Richter

It's all about socks. Not socks in general, but socks in particular: an old pair of argyles that belonged to an artist's father. Without them, the artist can't complete his lovemaking. Playwright John Patrick Shanley uses this premise to develop an often hilarious, sometimes astute comedy, Psychopathia Sexualis, being given a crackerjack production by TheatreWorks.

To complicate matters, the artist, Arthur (Darren Bridgett), plans to be married soon, but his shrink, Dr. Block (Tommy A. Gomez), has taken the socks and won't give them back. So Arthur asks his best friend, Howard (Dan Hiatt), to see Dr. Block and retrieve them. Howard has been going through a bit of a rough patch ever since quitting his job as manager of a big mutual fund two years ago. Seeking insight, he has been reading books by seminal psychoanalysts like Freud, Jung, and Reich. When he goes to see Dr. Block, the Freudian shrink quickly puts his own spin on Howard's problems. It takes Arthur's fiancee (Marin Van Young), encouraged by Howard's wife (Rebecca Dines), to set everything right.

Shanley has laced the script with zingy one-liners deftly satirizing psychoanalysis, male friendship, and marriage. While the men obsess over psychological implications, the women take charge. Howard's wife, Ellie, is the voice of reason and common sense as she urges Arthur's fiancee, Lucille, to go ahead with the marriage despite Arthur's problem: No man or marriage is perfect, she reasons, and as long as Arthur and Lucille love each other, which they do, it's worth trying to work things out. Thus advised, Lucille musters her considerable strength and confronts Dr. Block to surrender the socks.

Director Amy Gonzalez directs with a sure hand and fields a strong cast to do her bidding. Hiatt and Dines are accomplished comic actors whose opening scene is a well-choreographed duet of artful nuance. In his scene with Dr. Block, Hiatt's face seems to register every conflicting emotion and sore point that arises from within Howard. Later, Dines shows herself a master of comic timing and understatement when her Ellie tells the distraught Lucille about Arthur's sock fetish.

Van Young is a marvelous Lucille, a tough Texas belle first seen flouncing around in a poufy wedding gown underlain by bright red petticoats and underwear. (Credit Ardith Ann Gray for the costumes, which include stylish, well-tailored outfits for Howard and Ellie.) And Gomez is effective as Dr. Block, who alternates psychobabble with accurate insights. The weak link is Bridgett, who overdoes Arthur's anguish.

Bruce McLeod's sets reflect the wit of the play. Arthur and Ellie's sophisticated living room, with its abstract art, contrasts with Lucille's Texas d cor: old Western movie posters and cowhide upholstery. Dr. Block's office features tall shelves of primitive masks and other creepy items. Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting and Aodh Og O Tuama's sound complete the ambience.

"Psychopathia Sexualis," presented by TheatreWorks at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto. Mar. 13-Apr. 11. (650) 903-6000.

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VENUS

at New Langton Arts

Reviewed by Matthew Surrence

Like the hip-hop artists who are her contemporaries, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks brings a collagist aesthetic to the theatre. In the manner of a rap song, her play about Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a. the Venus Hottentot‹an early 19th-century African woman with extraordinarily protruding buttocks who was put on freak-show display in Europe‹samples melodrama, vaudeville, Brecht, Absurdism, even doctored medical texts to examine something of the tangled web of racial exploitation and the exoticism of the Other.

But as performed by Thick Description, the company that brought Parks' The America Play to San Francisco in 1994, Venus' various pastiche elements bounce off each other boringly more often than they create juxtapositions that offer unexpected illuminations of her time and our own. Part of that seems due to faults of the play itself. Like certain hip-hop artists, Parks is sometimes mind-numbingly repetitive and obvious; the repeated chorus of "The Venus Hottentot is dead!" that opens the play gets it off to a strained start, and the leitmotif of an oft-delivered love couplet proclaiming its own artificiality quickly wears out its welcome. Exaggerated attempts at Monty Python-esque comedy, with an aristocrat lusting after the Hottentot and a panel of hydra-headed judges, falls flat.

But despite those and other opaque-bordering-on-obtuse stretches, and despite some off-key performances in director Tony Kelly's production, the cumulative effect of the two-and-a-half hour production (with a medical description of Baartman's vital statistics read throughout the intermission) is haunting, due in large part to June A. Lomena's beautifully crafted performance as Baartman.

On designer Julie Slinger's straw-strewn, concrete floor in the small New Langton Arts playing space, surrounded by curtains containing sketches of side-show attractions, standing before a stack of hay bales and a red chaise, Lomena is instantly compelling, turning around slowly, sullenly displaying herself in a padded-bottom brown unitard. The intimate playing space allows Lomena to scale her acting to subtle, cinematic proportions. Snarling at her gawkers, growling at her captors, lusting after luxuries, Lomena expresses her character's depths with a subtly shaded line reading or a flash of her eyes that incisively conveys the many layers of the character. Lomena also conveys one of Parks' main points‹the multiple layering of the ways Venus is perceived‹with a richness and clarity that fills in much that is lacking in Parks' framework.

Other cast members finding their way into Parks' unique rhythms are Johnny Moreno, who makes his melodramatic turn work by pushing to gloriously outrageous limits the role of an excitable young man fascinated by the idea of the Hottentot, as well as by Katrina Hodrick LaShea's appealing imitation and the RADA-trained Susan-Jane Harrison, who brings crisp perfect pitch to her judge. Michael Craig Patterson does sufficiently well in several small parts.

But miscast Molly Goode misfires in her parts, particularly flattening her Mother-Showman, who spends much stage time speaking to a caged Baartman. Brian Yates preens as a ringmaster announcing several of the play's 31 scenes, and Rhonnie Washington is stiff and one-dimensional as the Baron Docteur who both loves and exploits Baartman.

"Venus," presented by Thick Description at New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom St., San Francisco. Mar. 13-Apr. 11. (415) 565-0331.

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THE POSSUM PLAY

at South Berkeley Community Congregational Church

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

Benjie Aerenson's first script, The Possum Play, came to the attention of the Shotgun Players via Sam Shepard's agent, and it's not hard to see the connections between the two playwrights. Now receiving its West Coast premiere at the Shotgunners' temporary home in South Berkeley, Aerenson's script shares some of the rich, disturbing imagery of Shepard's best work, and his obsession with the tame surface world vs. the chaotic underbelly‹along with a tendency to bludgeon dramatic images past the point of maximum impact.

Fortunately, as directed by Katie Bales, the Shotgun production largely avoids the traps of the material, and manages to create several evocative moments. That the show overall fails to completely cohere has more to do with shortcomings in Aerenson's script than with the staging or performances.

Set in humid South Florida, "between the mangroves and the malls," The Possum Play follows the disintegration of mah-jongg-playing matron Sally Martin (Mary Eaton Fairfield), along with the increasing delinquency of her troubled son Clark (Dan Wolf). The possum Sally discovers eviscerated by the side of the road at the beginning of the play serves as a metaphor (one belabored by Aerenson) for all the ugliness, death, and needless cruelty in the world. Sally becomes convinced that she can save her son only by cutting herself off from her protected, air-conditioned existence and plunging wholeheartedly into the darker realms. This aspect of the plot has echoes of Breaking the Waves; fortunately, Aerenson's script stops short of the self-immolation that film required of its female heroine.

As his mother goes on her lonely mystical quest, Clark and his cronies spend their time bragging about the girls with whom they may or may not have slept, and trying to provoke straight-arrow Jordan (an appealing Ryan Gowland) into exploring his own darker, violent impulses. The scenes with the boys in the mangrove stand pulse with energy and unspoken rage; as Turner, the most amoral of the gang, Ariel Shafir's blend of brooding good looks and casual cruelty is often chilling. Wolf's vocal inflections occasionally make him sound like a junior Joe Pesci, but his uncomfortable yet yearning scenes with his troubled mother ring true. As Sally, Fairfield is stronger in the second act than in the first, in which her overly mannered approach to Sally's increasingly frail psyche distances us from the character's anguish.

Bales' staging keeps the cinematically structured scenes moving smoothly. What hampers the production is that Aerenson simply tries to do too much with what is essentially a simple parable about accepting what one cannot change. His critiques of suburban housewives, though often funny, aren't particularly fresh (though Pamela Wylie and Beth Donohue shine as two of Sally's worried-to-distraction friends). Michael Frassinelli's set and Alex Lopez's lighting work wonders in creating a mysterious and menacingly monochromatic green jungle world with the sparest of resources, and Jon Axtell and Alex Koberle's original score creates an eerie soundscape‹something like Tangerine Dream on Valium.

"The Possum Play," presented by the Shotgun Players at the South Berkeley Community Congregational Church, 1802 Fairview, Berkeley. Mar. 19-Apr. 18. (510) 655-0813.

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2

at Theatre 40

Reviewed by Paul Birchall

Playwright Romulus Linney's engrossing drama seems deceptively simple: It's a basic presentation of the facts surrounding the highly biased, kangaroo court Nuremberg trial prosecution of Adolph Hitler's "Number Two" man, Hermann Goering. Yet the piece is a subtle and complex juxtaposition of themes: If the Devil himself came to earth and turned himself in to the authorities, would he deserve a fair trial?

When the play opens, we find Goering, in 1946, awaiting trial at an Allied-run prison, whose American commandant (David Hunt Stafford) subjects him to a series of petty persecutions. The bitterly ironic Goering genially jokes with his captors, who find him disgusting at first but are subsequently shocked to find themselves drawn to genuinely likable qualities in his personality. On the other hand, Goering's defense attorney (Manny Kleinmuntz), a patriotic German who admired the cohesiveness the Nazis brought to Germany, enters the trial liking his client‹but soon grows to despise Goering's lack of remorse.

Director Stewart J. Zully's matter-of-fact staging, which emphasizes psychological depth over mere blocking, eloquently conveys how the people around Goering are forced to confront their gradual realization that evil is more subtle and pleasing-looking than they originally think. Kleinmuntz offers a subtle, thoughtful performance as Goering's surprisingly humane and compassionate defense attorney, while Eric Casenave, as the Jewish psychiatrist assigned to provide therapy for Goering, movingly portrays a man torn between loathing and a devotion to duty.

Ironically, the play's fatal misstep is the casting of Milt Kogan as Goering himself. Kogan's powerful acting talent can't be faulted: He plays Goering as a larger-than-life being who, for better or for worse, already has one foot in the history books. However, while the actor artfully communicates Goering's ostensible malevolence and misanthropy, the character's near-hypnotic charm is less evident. It's unclear why anyone would be beguiled by this all too obviously vile man‹and, when the supporting characters seem to be seduced by him, they often look like they're reacting to some quality that isn't actually portrayed onstage.

"2," presented by and at Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills. Mar. 20-May 2. (323) 936-5842.

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A BLACK TRILOGY 1999

at the Inglewood Playhouse

Reviewed by Kevin Salveson

As far as grassroots theatre goes, the Unity Players Ensemble has other troupes beat: Its playhouse is set smack dab in the middle of Inglewood's Edward Vincent Park. In the two years since beginning operation, founder and producing director Spencer Scott has built a solid theatre experience for the black community, replete with an accomplished cast of regular players and a short list of challenging original writers. Its most recent production, under the title A Black Trilogy 1999: Three More Original One-Act Plays From the Avant Garde shows UPE to be growing into a position of importance in its quest to deliver relevant work, though much of the material doesn't rise above the best work being done by African-American theatre artists today.

Jailhouse Rock, written by Edgar Chisholm, is the first of the trilogy. We are introduced to Roxy (Gina Marie Fields), a proud woman needy for love. Fields' opening monologue is feisty and vulnerable, and the best part of her performance. When Snake (Leslie Jones), a convict, makes a random obscene phone call from jail, the two hook up. Jones' performance as the typical sweet-talking scoundrel is delightful. Roxy's sister, Kat (Taka Valentine, filling in as understudy), isn't as much of a dupe. When Snake tries to seduce her, the sisters break up. It's hard to care too much, though, partly due to Valentine's sassy, one-note performance, but also to a script too ridden with clich to believe.

Chances Are also features Taka Valentine, this time as Kelly, a cocaine addict who is the focus of an intervention carried out by David (Muhammed Zaid, believable as a big brother), Mike (played with heart and humor by Tommy Franklin), and sisters Danielle (Leslie Gladden) and Tina (Bernita Gross). In this work, directed by the playwright, Yvette Culver, there are flashes of real humanity, especially in the work by the men. But despite a surprise ending, which is touching, the show's pace sometimes ebbs, and it lacks the fluid flow of a real family working its problems out in real time.

The last work in the trilogy, Willie Said To by Dennis Gersten, is definitely the best, featuring fully developed characters and multi-layered writing. D'Wayne Gardner excellently portrays Lamont, a teacher frustrated by the playfully sarcastic youth Jake (Michael Massengale, who shows great energy and verve). Though Lamont's wife Susan (a sensitive Jamie Taylor) gives him support, he's already failed with one student (realistically portrayed by Jorge-Luis Pallo), and hopes to do better with Jake. But, though Jake's brother (Marcus Miller, in a brief cameo) urges Jake to make the right choices, Lamont's arguments for working toward a better life don't jibe with the world as Jake knows it. The play resolves bitterly for Lamont, and we're left asking which world we ourselves live in.

"A Black Trilogy 1999," presented by the Unity Players Ensemble at the Inglewood Playhouse, 740 Warren Lane, Inglewood. Feb. 26-Apr. 4. (213) 860-3208.

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IF YOU EVER LEAVE ME... I'M GOING WITH YOU!

at the Canon Theatre

Reviewed by Les Spindle

If You Ever Leave Me... I'm Going With You!, the latest effort from the husband-and-wife team of writer/comics Ren e Taylor and Joe Bologna, provides an ingratiating two hours of easy-to-digest fluff. Somewhat like browsing through the scrapbooks of a pair of captivating showbiz vets, the show seems geared for undemanding, middle-of-the-road audiences‹sort of an I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change for the menopausal set.

The show's unpretentious premise, played out primarily on two stools in front of Thomas Buderwitz' bare-bones set, includes autobiographical banter between the couple about their meeting, marriage, and career, which frequently segues to vignettes from their semi-autobiographical stage and screen comedies. Video clips from one of their four marriage-renewal ceremonies add to the show's simple pleasures.

The careers of Jewish-American Taylor and Italian-American Bologna were bred in the 1960s theatrical milieu of Neil Simon and Murray Schisgal, so their works are heavily flavored by a vintage style of Broadway humor that is best described as ethnic-on-wry. To describe his father's racist views of Taylor, Bologna cites the man's Archie Bunker-styled assertion that Jews like the ocean, which Bologna countered with the argument that there are few Jewish sailors. But Dad got in the last word with: "They don't want to be on the water, just near it." Taylor relates a similar anecdote when she recalls nervously telling her mother that Bologna was not a Catholic, to which the lady replied, "That's all right. At least he's a Capricorn."

The comic vignettes derive from several Taylor/Bologna efforts, including the 1970s stage and film anthology Lovers and Other Strangers and 1997's The Bermuda Avenue Triangle (soon to be filmed). Some sketches are more entertaining than others, but the deadpan delivery of Taylor meshes well with Bologna's more ironic approach, and the couple gain a lot of points for their infectious charm.

In the best sketch, a widow and widower meet at a senior citizen's social. Bologna plays the aging Lothario who sets his sights on the na™vely trusting widow (Taylor), who initially resists his advances and is only rescued when the Viagra he took clashes with the dinner he's trying to digest. Other highlights include the segment in which a couple are astounded to hear of their son's impending divorce, and one in which a daffy actress (Taylor), claiming her age range is "13 to 80," auditions for a cocktail-mixer commercial, telling the director (Bologna), "I'm a sex symbol. I just started late."

"If You Ever Leave Me...I'm Going With You!," presented by Canon Theatricals at the Canon Theatre, 205 N. Caon Dr., Beverly Hills. Mar. 13-Apr. 26. (310) 859-8001.

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RED, WHITE, AND TUNA

at the Marines Memorial Theatre

Reviewed by Judy Richter

After recruiting so many honorary residents of Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams are looking for more with Red, White, and Tuna, the third installment in a series that began with Greater Tuna in 1982, followed by A Tuna Christmas in 1994. This time out, the town is abuzz with plans for the Tuna High School reunion over the July 4 weekend. Three prominent women are vying for the title of Class Reunion Queen, and several former residents have returned for the event.

One of the keys to enjoying the Tuna gang is that Sears and Williams not only have written the shows, they also portray all the characters (22 this time). Their co-creator is Ed Howard, who also directs. They deftly skewer small-town attitudes and parochial people, but always with a sense of affection. The three Tuna installments reflect changes in the residents' lives as they grow older and confront new crises: Red, White, and Tuna also introduces two new characters, Star Birdfeather (Sears) and Amber Windchime (Williams), formerly known as Bernice and Fern. They fled Tuna for the more enlightened environs of Lubbock, where they lead a hippie lifestyle, but‹fortified with a little pot‹they're back for the reunion.

Taking centerstage, however, is the pending marriage between the widowed Bertha Bumiller (Sears) and the divorced Arles Struvie (Williams). Plans go awry, though, when he insists on going to a rattlesnake roundup on their honeymoon, while she has her heart set on a Passion Play in Arkansas.

Bertha's renegade son, Stanley (Williams), is visiting from Albuquerque, where he has become a successful artist who paints taxidermy (road kill, his sister says). Also returning to the homestead is Bertha's very pregnant daughter, Charlene (Williams), whose husband is away in the Army. Charlene is still whiny, and Stanley has a hard time thinking of his mother as a sexual being. His beloved elderly Aunt Pearl Burras (Sears) isn't much help either, for she buys animal motif nightgowns from Field & Stream because they're such a turn-on to her husband.

The tall, burly Sears also brings us such assorted characters as Joe Bob Lipsey, the drama director who runs afoul of Vera Carp (Williams) and her Smut Snatchers; R.R. Snavely, who has apparently been abducted by a UFO, and Inita Goodwin, the Tastee Kreme waitress who has started a catering business with her hormone-driven co-worker, Helen Bedd (Williams). Besides the characters already named, Williams is memorable as Petey Fisk, the gentle, eccentric animal lover, and Didi Snavely, the gravel-voiced, chain-smoking owner of a used weapons store.

The show needs some tightening before it hits Broadway: Act Two tends to lag, especially the scene set at Inita and Helen's food booth at the reunion. Some of the gags also wear thin, such as Vera's yelling at her incorrigible son (whom we never see). Still, the show is well worth the return to Tuna, whose physical setting is well captured by Kevin Rupnik's simple sets, Linda Fisher's often outlandish costumes, and Root Choyce's lighting. Most of all, it's worth seeing Sears and Williams ply their theatrical magic.

"Red, White, and Tuna," produced by Charles H. Duggan at Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., San Francisco. Mar. 17-28. (887) 771-6900.

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THE GLORY OF EASTER

at the Crystal Cathedral

Reveiwed by Kristina Mannion

With a stage that spans 124 feet across, soars 80 feet high, and is comprised of five miles of steel undergirding, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove boasts a spectacular venue for its equally striking 16th annual production of Paul David Dunn's The Glory of Easter, a retelling of the Biblical Passion chronicling Jesus' last days on earth, his trial, his crucifixion, and his final ascension to Heaven.

Taking advantage of every inch of the Cathedral's impressive proportions, this showy staging is a special effects extravaganza. Pulling out all the stops, director Dunn, set designer Charles Lisanby, lighting designers Perry Halford and Terry Larson, and special effects guru Rick Helgason have certainly created a vivid spectacle. In addition to a cast of professional performers and more than 200 church member volunteers who recreate the scene of a bustling Jerusalem marketplace, this visual blitz features plenty of dazzling lighting effects, an enormous tiered set, a powerful surround-sound system, flying angels, a cavalcade of animals including horses, donkeys, and a Bengal tiger, and a final scene that involves the opening of the Cathedral's giant glass walls to the outside air. It's not a production that allows the eye to wander.

Amid all of this admittedly extraordinary glitz and ostentation, however, the play's historical account ultimately loses some of its potential impact. With so many effects and novelties to marvel at, the substance of Dunn's serious drama, which borrows many of its words directly from scripture, unfortunately takes a secondary role. Contributing to this overall imbalance is Dunn's less than smooth direction, which manifests itself in some inconsistent pacing and a handful of uneven performances that can't quite match the overwhelming standards set by the high production values. What's more, Bodie Newcomb's earnest but largely melodramatic and inflated portrayal of Jesus also regrettably leaches some of the charisma from the play's most important character. In the end, the tale of Jesus' powerful message, his persecution, and his ultimate resurrection are nearly outdone by the production's many overreaching ambitions.

Still, there are a few noteworthy portrayals that serve to ground the show with solid deliveries and well-realized characters. As Vitelius, the proud Roman soldier who serves under Pontius Pilate and eventually comes to believe Jesus' holy identity, Carl Reggiardo is a commanding presence with an equally commanding and mellifluous voice. His strong performance is matched by Alan Coates, whose turn as Pilate is likewise authoritative and convincing. And finally, in a short but indelible role, Daniel Bryan Cartmell is both menacing and fiendishly amusing as the lavishly licentious King Herod, who ridicules Jesus before remanding him to Pilate for judgment.

Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the grandiose atmosphere created by the production's more ostentatious elements, these performers show us how a realistic and well-defined characterization can enhance, and even surpass, the most dazzling special effect.

"The Glory of Easter," produced by Paul David Dunn at the Crystal Cathedral, 12141 Lewis St., Garden Grove. Mar. 19-Apr. 3. (714) 544-5679.

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SECOND HAND

at the Actors' Gang Theatre

Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner

Sara Karl takes the pages of her journal, which should be properly titled The Diary of a Young Girl, and metaphorically flings them on the stage as her new solo show, Second Hand. The problem is, there's not much written on those pages. What may be fascinating to a 25-year-old reviewing her own life is seldom as gripping as Greek drama, or even Theatre of the Absurd, to a jaded audience. It's an autobiography written before a life has been lived‹like reconciling a bank account that's had few deposits or withdrawals.

Karl has a good deal of charm and appeal, and an admirable confidence about her performance. She seems like someone you might like for a friend. Her life, however, which is her material, seems to have been lived in a white bread vacuum, on a very even keel, lacking events and, certainly, drama.

Her story begins at a very early age, which involves flopping in loose-limbed exuberance about the stage, emphasizing the adorable cuteness of extended babyhood. Her costume is an ugly dress which envelopes her, presumably to hide that she doesn't have a four-year-old build but which manages only to make the statement that her mother had no taste, and that she's wearing perfectly visible rolled-up slacks and a man's dress shirt underneath. Her baby lisp lets us know she's just a child, so her questions to her mother are nicely na™ve and worth a few chuckles. Isn't she cute?

Unfortunately, at 25 she's still suffering from that lisp, and still asking those same na™ve questions. Cute has become cutesy. It hardly makes sense that a 25-year old doesn't know what a lesbian is but thinks she might be one. When the ugly dress comes off, thank heavens, there's an equally ugly, crumpled, and ill-fitting pair of pants underneath, which get paired with an oversized man's suit jacket and hat, in preparation for her first job interview‹as a dish washer. A series of dead-end jobs, the likes of which most folk in the arts have suffered through, and an unsavory experience with some bimbo party girls, which involves more undressing and another unattractive outfit, bring her to the realization that she's an actress. She's found herself. That's it. Where's the beef? Had there been any, I wouldn't have had to give away the ending.

Fred Johntz directed; Karl's writing is fluid, literate, and sometimes mildly funny, but it might belong more on the page than on the stage. Or stored in a trunk until it's had time to ripen.

"Second Hand," at the Actors' Gang Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Mar. 17-Apr. 7. (323) 660-8587.

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