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THE WICKED STAGE and the gag reel

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I'm not often thanked in theatre programs, which is as it should be—I mean, how would I keep my sacred critical impartiality if theatre companies started preempting attack by thanking me before I'd seen their shows? It didn't dawn on me till after I'd seen Kirk Ward's frenetic, hilarious, disturbing 3 Stories Tall at Elephant Asylum Theatre that the reason he thanked me, Back Stage West managing editor Scott Proudfit, and staff writer Laura Weinert in his program is that we'd done him the simple honor of running an Opening This Week feature prior to his show. He was so grateful, he told me after the show, to be singled out by Back Stage West, because he's never been particularly noticed by the press in L.A.—an astonishing fact, considering his years of yeoman work at the Actors' Gang, in such memorable productions as Tracy Young's Dreamplay, in a series of Michael Sargent porno romps, and in such widely reviewed productions as Cool Cops, Broadway, and XXX Love Act.

Come to think of it, as good as he was in all these shows and as large as he seemed to loom in the Gang's dysfunctional family, Ward was above all a gifted and generous ensemble player. So it was great to see him on his own in 3 Stories, in a fully staged solo-show rendition of the sort of shaggy-dog yarns that spill out of Ward unbidden anytime he has an audience of two ears. If these three apparently true tales—about a bouncer gig gone bad, a crazy grandma who chased him with scissors and sent him mysterious missives on lint, and his sad old trailer-trash dad—seem to go on a bit, it's only because Ward needs to put a blackout between the first two, which take up the first hour of the evening. Structure aside, what's simultaneously engaging and pleasantly maddening about his show is that he's the sort of guy whose nervous system is pitched just a little higher than the rest of us, who's alert to the dramatic potential of every exchange. He's a paranoiac with good reason, if these stories are true, but with a peerless sense of ironic humor—and, perhaps most movingly, with a longing to make peace with, and find pathos in, even the easiest targets, including himself.

At the show the night I attended were the Taper's Latino Theatre Initiative leaders Luis Alfaro (no mean solo artist himself) and Diane Rodriguez, with her husband, music promoter José Delgado. The latter two seemed to be laughing with special appreciation at Ward's references to his NoCal hometown of Hollister. I asked Rodriguez and Delgado about this after the show, and they told me they're from the area and have known Ward since he was 12, when he worked/played with San Juan Bautista's world-famous El Teatro Campesino. Rodriguez recalled playing the main devil in the annual Christmas pageant, with a young Ward as her assistant devil. Ah, yes—that explains the program thank-you to Luis Valdez.

Also in evidence were independent casting director Nicole Arbusto (The Tao of Steve, The Mullets) and actor John C. Reilly, with his producer/screenwriter wife Alison Dickey. At intermission, Reilly regaled us with an amusing story of his own: His Chicago-area high school, a Catholic boys academy called Brother Rice, will soon hold its 20th high school reunion, and as an enticement for Reilly to attend, they're offering him an alumni award previously bestowed on such Rice luminaries as "Lord of the Dance" Michael Flatley and REO Speedwagon lead vocalist Kevin Cronin. (He'd go only if he could be guaranteed a jam with Cronin, Reilly quipped.) The Flatley reference reminded me of the time the Actors' Gang hosted the L.A. Weekly Awards, and Chris Wells and Kyle Gass did a parody called "Lard of the Dance," in which they let their formidable bellies hang out and jiggle as they fake-clogged, and even belly-slapped. Ah, sweet memory.

• Kudos to Laura Marchant and Emily DuVal's loud*R*mouth Theatre Company for bringing the first significant local premiere of nationally acclaimed, Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks' work to light with their brave production of In the Blood at Long Beach's Edison Theatre, which runs for another weekend. I recommend it, with reservations, to anyone interested in Parks' unique voice, which owes much to Brecht but has its own contemporary grit and abstraction. This story of a homeless mother of five, played passionately, if confusedly, by the mercurial RaChelle Stocker, plays a bit like a magic-realist fable, except that here the magic is not supernatural; the forces that move this grim world are sex and money. Marchant's direction is sure-handed and spare, and she has great allies in lighting designer Leif Gantvoort and scenic designer Andrew Deppen, who constructed a rickety, evocative hanging mobile to frame the action. (Matt Anderson and David Ledger's sound design, however, is strangely faltering.) The power of In the Blood is finally its fiercely individual voice and its queasy sense of inevitability. Parks has long been a playwright to watch, but here on the West Coast we've had to "watch" from a distance. Here's to loud*R*mouth for giving us the chance to watch up close and personal. (We're told, sadly, that the two-member company is disbanding—but not to worry, said Marchant; on her own she'll be "even louder.")

At the Edison I sat next to theatre publicist Mina Silverstone, who informed me of the untimely death of actor/playwright John Henry Redwood more than a month ago. Just 60 years old, the sturdily named Redwood had a local home at Sheldon Epps' Pasadena Playhouse, which staged his The Old Settler in 1998 (with CCH Pounder and Jenifer Lewis in the leads) and which last employed him as the star of James Still's solo show Looking Over the President's Shuolder (a show I missed, but which my L.A. Weekly colleague Steven Leigh Morris took to task for its lack of radical revisionism—as if a White House butler would make a likely subversive voice). Redwood will be missed, not just locally but nationally.

• White Trash Wins Lotto, Andy Prieboy's cult musical about the rise and fall of heartland hair-metal god Axl Rose,was for a while touted as the next Hedwig or at least the next Bat Boy. It played at Largo Pub for many weeks before a short-run unveiling at the Roxy, which I missed but which critic Scott Proudfit saw and still can't stop raving about. That was in 2000, and we've often wondered what happened to the show since—so we're happy to report that White Trash will hit the stage of the Freud Playhouse as part of David Sefton's brilliantly programmed UCLA Live series in February. We're assured that lead actor Brian Beacock is on board. Bring your lighter.

• Has Mitchell Gossett given up his edgy theatre company, Bottom's Dream? He's a busy agent at Cunningham Escott Dipene (see Talent Trade, p. 4), but every time I talk to him about a client or an agency issue he also updates me on his theatre plans. The latest news: Mac Wellman, whose play Terminal Hip Gossett himself performed winningly as part of the 1999 EdgeFest, is working on a new play, specifically for a Bottom's Dream world premiere this fall, tentatively to star John Billingsley, a marvelous actor who did some notable local stage work (a great Aguecheek at A Noise Within, for instance) before being snapped up as Enterprise's loveable Dr. Phlox. How does Gossett possibly have time to run a theatre company? He doesn't need to: Bottom's Dream resident director James Martin just secured a grant to make his position there full-time. Bottom's up!

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