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CATERPILLAR SOUP

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Lyena Strelkoff was a dancer, a working actor, a member of a theatre company, and in the beginning glow of a new romance when she and her new beau took a hike through a Malibu park and climbed a tree. Nearly 25 feet above the ground, she leaned on a branch the underside of which had rotted, plummeted heels over head, and cracked her spine. To this day she is wheelchair bound, paralyzed below her waist.

She tells the story in this work, titled for the period during which the cocooned creature gives up its earthly body to become a butterfly. But not all is ethereal. Although she speaks of love, nature, beauty, she also introduces the ignorant to the biology of paraplegia, pulling no punches. Urination, defecation, procreation—they share the spotlight with the tenderness of being held by a sister, lifted by a burly health-care worker, dreams of physical recovery. "This is life," she says, summarizing this straightforward, pragmatic, cautionary tale.

The piece was developed for the stage and directed by Paul Linke. The show is as fluid as any other well-constructed piece. Blocking is no different in this case. Strelkoff moves around the stage, covering space like the dancer she is. A small spin of her wheels makes us visualize her plunge from the tree; a jog to one side lets us imagine her dashing for the toilet. Lighting, designed by Kathi O'Donohue, sketches in the tree, the hospital room, a wedding.

One of the many clichés of L.A. theatre is the standing ovation. At the end of this production, there's no way not to offer Strelkoff one. It's at the very least a courtesy, at most an acknowledgement of her fine work, but in any event a reminder that most of us can stand up and cheer.

"Caterpillar Soup," presented by and at Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Dr., Santa Monica. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. (No Sun. performances in Dec.) Nov. 5-Dec. 18. $15-20. (310) 397-3244.

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