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DIRTY MEAN TRICKS

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at Unknown Theater

Writer-director Jennifer Li's fusion of live music and dance theatre is an intriguing, cirque nouveau–style fantasy, running slightly less than an hour. Accompanied by the band Velvet Monkey, dance artists Hassan Christopher and Marissa Labog collaborate with Li to choreograph Li's imaginative circus of the mind.

The action begins as a thunderstorm drives Lulu (Labog) into an attic room where dust covers enshrouded objects. A large portrait of Victorians comes to life as Lulu uncovers hidden treasures. Beginning with the song "Who Goes There," Velvet Monkey adds its funky sounds to the proceedings. Said group is John Ballinger (guitar), Bruce Carver (drums), Jamison Hebert (trumpet), Marc Jackson (vocals, keys, noise), Rachel Jendrzejewski (vocals), Colleen Kane (trombone), Li (clarinet), Daniel Pearson (bass), and Alicia Wollerton (accordion). Their music is rhythmic and distinctive, using entire-band instrumentation and vocals, as well as Jackson's and Jendrzejewski's significant solos and duets.

A reverberating voiceover narrative also drives the action, as Lulu becomes involved with Christopher's characters and other Victorians (Erika Jensen, Kiersten Morgan, Uma Nithipalan). The signature "Haunted Carousel" number achieves the sounds of a rhythmic carousel, and the tune lingers even after its conclusion. Lulu's dancing moods are evocative, as she experiences fear, curiosity, or desire for one of Christopher's characters.

Costumes by Jamie Hebert, Ryan Heffington, Abigail Nieto, and Vanessa Porter are elegant, befitting neo-Victorian styles. Notable is a carousellike hoop worn by Christopher that moves and sways, sometimes enveloping Labog. Scenic and lighting design by Laura Mroczkowski and Jackson's sound design also enhance the aura of mystery and otherworldliness.

The songs span a mixture of images—from "John Henry" to "Plus Que Jamais," a French number with Christopher as The American and Labog as The French Girl. Next comes "Countdown to Love" with a P.I. and a Dame and lyrics that don't do the music any favors. The program helps decipher the dance and music, but it is probably better to sit back and let the experience envelop you.

Presented by Velvet Monkey at the Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 6 p.m. Apr. 17-27. (323) 466-7781. www.unknowntheater.com.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

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