REVIEWS

GRADUATION DAY

at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre

Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner

Sometimes the answer for an underemployed actress is to write her own play. Sometimes that's a dreadful mistake emphasized by the shortcomings of both actress and writer. Nadia Lustman, however, beats all the odds with her intelligent and charming new play, Graduation Day. The clean, clear, and un-self-conscious writing is naturalistically embellished by the sweet realism the playwright displays as Yvette Sterling, a thirtysomething woman who, in the absence of parents, has become the default mother of her rebellious teenage sister, Shannon (Carolyn Palmer).

At the start of the play, Shannon, who has made a point of messing up in every conceivable way, has just been expelled from high school a few short months prior to graduation-not for her blue hair or her piercings, her foul language or unsuitable wardrobe, or even her drinking and drugging, but for breaking the nose of a hated rival. When she radically changes her ways under the influence of a dashing counselor, Tobias Ellison (Jay Huguley), on whom she develops a huge crush, Yvette's problems seem to have multiplied. Factor in a couple of neighbors, Desiree and Rob Hess (Thuy Trand and Dallas Munroe), who like to get it on in public, mainly on Yvette's couch, and Fred Sherman (Gary Dubin), who had a commitment problem with his ex-love but is waving unwelcome flags in Yvette's direction.

While it's occasionally predictable and it does bog down into melodrama a bit in the second act, Lustman's play has a clarity and honesty about it that nicely raises the audience's empathy level. Performances could hardly be better. Playwright Lustman, if she isn't the model for the character of Yvette, has created a suspiciously realistic alter ego on stage. If she's just playing a part, even more kudos to her. Palmer, as the teenage drop-out, is remarkable: light on her toes, adorably obnoxious as an unrepentant Valley Girl, funny, cute, and utterly lovable in a role she was born to play Huguley, despite some lines he has trouble making believable, does handsome work, and Dubin and Munroe make good neighbors. Trand, unfortunately, while charming, is virtually inaudible. C. Riley Schmidt handles his cameo of Max, new boy in town, with aplomb.

Marc Alvarado and Jeff Smith double-team as extremely capable directors; these two have a nice way with a playwright's vision.

"Graduation Day," presented by Caritas Productions at the Hudson Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. Dec. 2-Jan. 22, 2000. $15-20. (323) 653-9998.

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THE MATCHMAKER

at the Sobrato Auditorium

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Even though it has nothing to do with the holidays, San Jos Repertory Theatre celebrates the joy of the season in its delightful production of The Matchmaker. Artistic director Timothy Near has taken some liberties with Thornton Wilder's script, moving the setting from Yonkers and New York City to San Jos and San Francisco, their early 20th-century equivalents on the West Coast. In addition to some local references, she also injects a taste of vaudeville, with olios before the show and between acts. Standing in front of an old-fashioned curtain decorated with historic local landmarks, cast members sing songs about those two cities that were unearthed in various libraries and museums.

What prevails throughout the production, though, is the sense of adventure that Wilder stresses. Several characters willingly take chances for the sake of adventure, and the epilogue, spoken by Barnaby (Jesus Reyes), talks about the need for adventure in life. That's the gift that Wilma Bonet's spunky Dolly Levi delivers so cleverly to the wealthy but miserly Horace Vandergelder. As so well played by Peter Van Norden, Horace undergoes a transformation from a vain man who seeks a wife to keep house to a man who sees how important love is for himself and those around him.

Those around him include his chief clerk, Cornelius Hackl (Michael Butler), who falls in love with a widowed milliner, Irene Molloy (Johanna McKay), who has a bit of spunk herself. They also include his niece, Ermengarde, who faces his wrath for falling in love with an artist, Ambrose Kemper. Ann Marie Shipstad makes Ermengarde less whiny than usually seen, a refreshing change, though Triney Sandoval overdoes Ambrose's emotionalism. Supporting players are strong, especially Howard Swain as Malachi Stack, Horace's newest employee; Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as Gertrude, his housekeeper, and Joy Osmanski as Minnie Fay, Irene's assistant.

In keeping with the play's move to San Francisco, James Carpenter plays Flora Van Huysen, whose house becomes the place where everything is resolved. Flora is an outsized character already, but Carpenter adds a new twist by playing her as an older, slightly campy cross-dresser who has a strong sense of irony and who's seen enough of life that nothing shocks him/her. Carpenter's performance is sheer delight.

Production values equal the performance values with J.B. Wilson's old-fashioned settings featuring backdrops of San Francisco landmarks, complemented by Dawn Chiang's lighting and Jeff Mockus' sound design. Musical director Dolores Duran's vocal arrangements suit the cast well. Shigeru Yaji's costumes feature lovely dresses for the women. When it's time for Horace to lead the parade, he's dressed like a Rough Rider. Cornelius and Barnaby's city outfits mark them as unsophisticated with Cornelius' bright teal suit and Barnaby's plaid.

Near paces the production well, having fun in comical scenes like Cornelius and Barnaby's hiding in Irene's shop without overdoing it. The dance scene at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant also is fun, as everyone gets involved. What more can we ask of a holiday show?

"The Matchmaker," presented by Quantum and the San Jos Business Journal at the San Jos Repertory Theatre's Sobrato Auditorium 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jos . Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 3 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Dec. 10-Jan. 2, 2000. $17-35. (408) 367-7255.

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PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE

at the Alhecama Theatre

Reviewed by D. L. King

Thank you, Ensemble Theatre Company. ETC has taken a popular play-Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile-that is widely regarded as little more than a frolic and turned it into an evening of theatrical art. Martin's book reads like an extended skit, full of self-gratifying intellectual gymnastics and gratuitous witticism, but in the hands of ETC artistic director Robert Grande-Weiss and his wonderfully cast team of thespians, Picasso becomes the kind of show that reminds actors why it is they do what they do.

The inspiration begins as soon as we behold the authentic turn-of-last-century cabaret frequented by the bohemians of Montmartre. No elegant white cloths or fancy bistro here. Gary Wissmann's set is an integral member of the cast, no less important than the actors themselves. Paired with lighting by Peter Gottlieb that veers from delightfully subtle to catch-your-breath-it's-so-much, the setting is perfection.

Perfection of setting is matched by perfection of timing. Timing is what makes Martin's lines hilarious rather than just amusing. Paul Welterlen as Freddy the bartender, especially, has measured the beat of every word and mixed every inflection with a chemist's skill. The team's alchemy doesn't stop there: Barry Cutler's newly old man Gaston strikes each comic pose, each line with wizard-like panache. Adam Wallock's visitor is unexpected in more ways than one-this part, in particular, could have missed the mark very easily, but Wallock nails his ironic impersonation. Strong performances by Dan Gunther as Einstein, David Rogge as Picasso, and Rudolph Willrich as circus-clown-turned-art-dealer Colvis Sagot work individually and together to make the ensemble great.

Great, too, are the four roles played by the two women. Danielle Aubuchon's Suzanne makes old Gaston feel lucky, while her Countess beguiles and her Female Admirer reviles Picasso. And Nancy Nufer's Germaine deprecates and appreciates the men around her with style.

Costuming (by Barbara Lackner) and well-oiled stage management (by Jeffrey M. Main) match the artistry of the play's other essentials. This is the kind of show that you wish you had time to see again.

"Picasso at the Lapin Agile," presented by Ensemble Theatre Company at the Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Dec. 3-Jan. 2, 2000. $20-28. (805) 962-8606.

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LIGHT SENSITIVE

at the Theatre District

Reviewed by Kristina Mannion

Now is the time to catch a glimpse of what the young but impressive Orange County-based Theatre District has to offer. Now, or in the next few weeks, will be the only time left to enjoy this company's work at its Costa Mesa residence. Inaugurated a little more than five years ago, the Theatre District will unfortunately soon be without a home. Due to high-rent expenses-the District lives just a stone's throw from South Coast Repertory in a pricey yet nondescript building behind an urban anti-mall-founders Mario and Joan Lescot are diligently on the lookout for new digs for their still burgeoning company.

Despite the specter of their company's imminent homelessness, however, the Lescots and their formidable theatre team have put an admirable level of energy and care into creating a lasting impression with their staging of Light Sensitive, the final production in the District's present home and the company's fourth revival of the play. Featuring wonderfully sensitive direction by Mario Lescot and touching performances by the three-member cast, this play about love, friendship, and bittersweet new beginnings is a fitting choice for this company's farewell production.

Written by Jim Geoghan with a tender understanding of our insecurities and pride in the face of unexpected affection, this engaging work is set during the Christmas season in the life of Tom Hanratty, a lonely and embittered blind man who lives alone in a run-down apartment in New York's inhospitable Hell's Kitchen. Faced with the upsetting and abrupt news that his best (and only) friend, Lou, will be moving out of state, Tom's cynicism toward life and his own sorry situation takes a major upswing. It gets worse: Turns out Lou has recruited an introverted Edna Miles, a volunteer from a local charity for the blind, to fill the void. When Edna's own feistiness rubs up against Tom's pessimism, a bond begins to grow between them, which leads to a gentling of Tom's rough edges, an increase in Edna's self-esteem, and the budding of a tender new romance.

Reprising the role of Tom for the fourth time at the Theatre District, David Rousseve proves the production's true anchor. Watching his anguish and harsh disdain in the first act-Geoghan includes some startlingly abrasive language-give way to the softened warmth that he develops for Edna in the second act is a joy. And his skill in portraying the inherent helplessness of a blind man is faultless. Rousseve clearly wears this role with an ease born of familiarity and a great understanding of his character.

Rousseve's standout performance is ably complimented by the efforts of Steve McCammon and Karen Mangano in the roles of Lou and Edna. McCammon, with his combination of gruffness and sensitivity, is ideally suited to Lou, whose outer coarseness belies a warm compassion for his unhappy friend. As Edna, the plain but strong-minded woman who coaxes Tom out of his hardened shell with her honest, no-bull attitude, Mangano offers a compelling presence. She cleverly conveys Edna's own shy transformation in the face of love with an astute air of understatement that paradoxically underscores the great changes occurring in her heretofore ordinary life.

Adding to the commendably genuine atmosphere created by this talented trio of actors is the inventive set design for Tom's apartment, which is provided by Two Blue Chairs, Inc. Created to appear like an unkempt nightmare in the first half of the program, the apartment, like Tom, is later infused with a simplistic charm and warmth under Edna's loving touch. It's a theme that's vividly carried out by Lescot and his cast throughout the play: love's ability to effect change for the better. And if that theme seems a bit predictable or overly sentimental, we can forgive Geoghan for his touches of melodrama and Lescot for his indulgent staging, because life itself is often predictable and sentimental. And this play is nothing if not an accurate and thoroughly enjoyable representation of life.

"Light Sensitive," presented by and at the Theatre District, 2930 Bristol St., Suite C-106, Costa Mesa. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Dec. 3-Jan. 1, 2000. $15-20. (714) 435-4043.

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BABES IN ARMS

at the Woodland Opera House

Reviewed by Barry Wisdom

Director/choreographer Michael D. Jackson had fully intended to present the original 1937 script and score of this Rodgers and Hart paean to teen spirit-an ambitious undertaking that has largely been limited to concert versions, including this year's Encores! production in New York and 42nd Street Moon's current San Francisco staging. Unfortunately, Jackson hadn't anticipated a shortage of African-American performers. While this casting shortfall has resulted in the deletion of an important subplot concerning racism-thereby muting the anticipation of finally seeing a fleshed-out recreation of the 62-year-old Broadway mounting-the Woodland Opera House's latest effort is, nonetheless, an overwhelming delight of melody and mirth.

While Jackson's abbreviated cast of 20 fresh-faced "babes" might be short in the pigment department, there's no lack of age-appropriate triple-threat talent in this all-dancing, all-singing story of a group of Long Island teens who look to putting on a show as a means of staying off the work farm. The children of touring vaudevillians, the kids have the chops and the gumption-but do they have enough time and money to pull it off? Reluctantly assuming the mantel of command is Valentine LeMarr (Connor Mickiewicz), who finds himself somewhat distracted by the arrival of pretty hitchhiker Billie (Jenni Stephenson), a failed Hollywood starlet he's sure he's met before ("Where or When").

It's a sweet opener for what proves to be a frothy, entirely satisfying buffet of such Rodgers and Hart classics as "My Funny Valentine," "Johnny One Note" and "The Lady Is a Tramp," played with gusto by James Chavez-Glica's small but capable orchestra.

Among those making the strongest impressions is the extremely relaxed and natural Stephenson, who delivers her smartly sarcastic lines with the same zest she sings Lorenz Hart's wittily rhymed lyrics. Also gifted vocally are Lexi DeRock (Baby Rose), Dan Bello (Marshall) and Mickiewicz.

Though Mickiewicz and Stephenson make a cute couple, it's Ryan Frank and the striking Greta Gerwig who frequently steal the show as the on-again, off-again moon-in-Juners Gus and Dolores. Though, strictly speaking, they're not the best singers and dancers in the show, they more than hold their own in those disciplines. Where they excel is in their energetic, hormone-charged cat-and-mouse exchanges.

Pam Lourentzos and Jackson's choreography work miracles in simultaneously filling the smallish stage with energetic moves, without ever making it seem dangerously congested ("Way Out West"). The gender-bending lifts in "Peter's Journey Ballet" are just pure fun. Though the entire ensemble is uniformly good in executing Lourentzos and Jackson's exuberant moves, "Girl Next Door" Natasha Soto-Albors is a true standout.

The Babes in Arms set is simple but effective, with scenic designer Don Zastoupil and lighting guru Jeff Kean teaming to deliver mood-enhancing looks, the best of which is an appropriately sunny blue-sky effect. Michael Coleman's costumes are more than wonderful evocations of the period, they definitely complement the characters who wear them-from Billie's no-nonsense pants outfit to the drop-dead red dress worn by the flirty Dolores.

"Babes in Arms," presented by the Woodland Opera House Young People's Theatrre at the Woodland Opera House, 340 Second St., Woodland. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Dec. 3-19. $5-10. (530) 666-9617.

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL

at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex

Reviewed by Les Spindle

A Noise Within bestows its annual gift of seasonal cheer upon local audiences with Geoff Elliott's fanciful new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the venerable classic of literature, film, and stage, based on Charles Dickens' 1843 novel. This taut 80-minute version (without intermission) is part fairy tale fantasy and part Lewis Carroll-style whimsy, taking a more lighthearted approach than usual. The result is an uplifting if somewhat superficial rendition of the beloved morality fable.

Under the tasteful direction of Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez Elliott, the production scores points for its strikingly handsome production design. Set designer Michael C. Smith provides an ornate assemblage of multi-level platforms, ladders, set pieces, and large clocks. This provides both a fluid mechanism for setting the various scenes and a dreamlike motif to support the story's metaphysical shifts in time and space. Adding to the ambience are Anglea Balogh Calin's ravishing costumes, James Taylor's surreal lighting effects, Norman L. Berman's charming original music, and Stephanie Shroyer's sprightly choreography. The overall tone of this light-on-its-feet show is as close to musical comedy as you can get without a song score.

Sharing narration duties are Geoff Elliott and Deborah Strang, who also take the roles of Christmas Present and Christmas Past, respectively. Most of the ghosts in this G-rated version aren't frightening. As Marley's Ghost, Mitchell Edmonds sports a funny-looking wig and looks like Zero Mostel, while Elliott's jovial Christmas Present suggests Alice's Mad Hatter. Strang's graceful Christmas Past, perched atop a platform in an elegant white ballgown, seems more fairy godmotherly than ghostly, teaching the ornery Scrooge a valuable lesson. A bit more ominous are multiple Christmas Future ghosts, several apparitions who also serve as a sort of Greek chorus throughout the evening, commenting on the action during Scrooge's various journeys.

Leading a seasoned ensemble, William Dennis Hunt excels as the curmudgeonly skinflint Ebenezer, the character we all love to hate. Consistent with the production's whimsical approach, this Scrooge is a tad closer to Mr. Magoo than, say, George C. Scott. His rantings seem more like the forgettable grousing of an eccentric relative than the hate-mongering of a miserable old coot. Edmonds also lightens his role with well-timed bits of tongue-in-cheek business.

The large cast competently fills an assortment of multiple roles, though they're a bit too rushed through their scenes to leave indelible impressions. This also applies to the show in general: It whisks by with the speed of light, getting the kids home and in bed by 10. But the darker undercurrents that give weight to this timeless parable are unfortunately given short shrift in the process.

"A Christmas Carol," presented by A Noise Within at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex, California State University, 5151 State University Dr., Los Angeles. Wed.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Dec 10-19. $22-30. (323) 224-6420.

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TRIBE OF JUDAH

at Theater/Theatre

Reviewed by Paul Birchall

W riter/director John Pappas' drama explores how inadequate strictures of morality are in a world filled with people who've got nothing left to lose. As convicted robber Eckon (Michael Harris) serves his prison term, he becomes a devout, "born again" follower of the Bible-but after his release, we gradually come to realize that the ostensibly reformed criminal seems more energized by the violent "eye for an eye" bits of the Good Book than the "turn the other cheek" parts.

Eckon quickly falls in love with attractive out-of-work junior high school teacher Sally (Midori Meyer) and bickers with his ex-wife Patty (Dendrie Taylor), who is using a part-time nursing job to mask her heroin addiction. While trying to solve the mystery of his drug-dealing brother's death, Eckon finds himself falling back into bad habits as his path crosses that of his old thug pal, now turned "legit" club owner Dum Dum (Robert Hummer) and Dum Dum's right hand goon Mario (Abdul Salaam El Razzac).

Pappas' play offers an exceedingly intelligent appraisal of the Brechtian idea that moral values are contingent on first having things like a full belly and a happy life. The characters in Eckon's world essentially have nothing, and this makes the criminal activities in which many of them engage the only feasible way that they can get out of their bottom-of-the-well misery. The spectacle inspires questions about what we all might do if removed from the trappings of a regular life. Still, it's unfortunate that the plot itself feels unfocused, half thought out, and ultimately inconsequential. Few of the ideas are resolved dramatically.

Although Pappas' staging is marred by pacing lapses, the production is cast with an ensemble of gifted character actors who offer deliciously edgy and organic performances. The show is fraught with a compelling aura of menace, enhanced by the fact that we find ourselves both sympathizing with Harris' Eckon while at the same time frightened at never being certain of what he's going to do next. The performers all work together admirably. Particularly unnerving are Hummer's scary, Dennis Hopper-like Dum Dum; El Razzac's tight, moody Mario; Brandilyn M. Amie as Mario's edgy, tough girl wife, and Taylor's externally sweet, but internally crazed Patty.

"Tribe of Judah," presented by Redwood Playwrights at Theater/Theatre, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., 4th Floor, Hollywood. Thurs.-Fri. 8 p.m. Dec. 2-17. $15. (323) 871-9433.

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WORD FOR WORD'S WINTER FESTIVAL

at the Magic Theatre

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

Word For Word dispenses with its charming two-year-old holiday tradition of presenting Grace Paley's The Loudest Voice and Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales in favor of a pair of newcomers-and the results are mixed.

The evening opens with a slight slice of dark magic realism by Italian writer Dino Buzzati, The Falling Girl, translated by Lawrence Venuti. Directed by Delia MacDougall, the story follows 19-year-old Marta (Nancy Shelby) on her flight off the top of a tall skyscraper. On her journey down, she encounters a corresponding decline in socioeconomic class, and finds herself entranced by the entrance to a glamorous nightclub as it comes closer and closer into view. But just as she is convinced that she will enter that world of bright promise and romance, a taunting, prettier woman (Susan Harloe) overtakes her.

MacDougall creates some nice stage pictures with Harloe and Demetrius Martin, who, clad in black with silver masks (costumes by Kate Crowley), standing back-to-back with arms upraised and joined in a triangular point, make a lovely outline of a skyscraper. Sound designer Drew Yerys' whistling wind effects are also quite evocative. But the largely descriptive piece doesn't lend itself easily to dramatic staging, and despite the contributions of movement consultant Stephen Pelton, MacDougall's staging feels over-literalized and repetitious, without enough vocal variance on the part of the actors. Buzzati's insights into the passage of time and its effects on the minds of women don't carry enough of a wallop to make a strong impression.

The troupe fares better with the longer piece in the 80-minute show, Edna Ferber's The Kitchen Side of the Door. A wry exploration of the tensions, turmoil, and expectations running through a swank restaurant on New Year's Eve, Ferber's dry, observant wit comes to life under the direction of Leslie McCauley. JoAnne Winter shines as the impossibly neat Gussie Fink, a circumspect kitchen checker at the Pink Fountain Room. The love of her life, Heiny (Adrian Elfenbaum), has been promoted to waiter-and to a new name, Henri-and has, in the process, forgotten about Gussie. As Gussie suffers the torments of the lovelorn on the most romantic night of the year, she valiantly tries to stay on top of her duties, including catching sly waiter Tony the Crook (Nino DeGennaro) as he attempts to short-change the restaurant.

Matthew Antaky's lovely Art Deco set and rosy lighting capture the ambience of the restaurant, and the 10 cast members adroitly switch from harried waitstaff to pampered patrons. (In one particularly nice tableau, a group of three swozzled guests at the end of the night sit staring straight ahead, as if they were in a speakeasy version of No Exit.)

But Ferber's text is also rather slight, for all its charm, and there simply isn't enough sparkling dialogue or scintillating details to flesh this piece out with Word for Word's usual style. "New Year's Eve is like eating oranges. You've got to let go of your dignity to enjoy it," says one of the characters. For these shows, Word For Word should have let down its hair a little bit more.

"Word for Word's Winter Festival," presented by Word For Word at the Magic Theatre, Northside, Fort Mason Center, Building D, San Francisco. Wed.-Sat. 8:30 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Dec. 8-30. $18-21. (415) 437-6775.

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METAMORPHOSES

at Zellerbach Playhouse

Reviewed by Matthew Surrence

Whether splashing, sloshing, rippling, or still, the shallow black pool of water surrounded by a wooden deck that comprises the onstage playing area turns out to be the most striking character in director Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Ovid's account of Greek and Roman myths featuring gods and mortals undergoing transformations, physical and otherwise.

Unfortunately, that means that the spare, elegant visual poetry with which Zimmerman's set and lighting designers, Daniel Ostling and T.J. Gerckens, have mounted the 93-minute, intermissionless show makes a much stronger impression than either her 10-member company's heroic acting while in and around the pool, or her theatricalizing of David Slavitt's translation from Ovid of eight of the myths. That's a considerable disappointment, since the previous Zimmerman show to play Berkeley Rep, the even more visually spectacular Journey to the West, which was based on an ancient Chinese text, remains memorable and moving three years after its brief run at Zellerbach.

Zimmerman's slyly contemporary touches-such as angst-ridden, unnoticed son Phaeton (Doug Hara) complaining on the couch of an analyst (Lisa Tejero) about his remote father, Phoebus Apollo (Erik Lochtefeld, who sings the sun god's part)-in her retelling of the myths recall Paul Sills' Story Theatre of 30 years ago. But her reconfiguration of the myths doesn't have the fresh, wised-up, "Fractured Fairy Tale" quality of Sills' pieces. Zimmerman's short pieces lack humor and feel precious. Also, in the case of certain oft-adapted myths, such as that of Orpheus and Eurydice (Lochtefeld and Jessica Meyers), Zimmerman hasn't come up with anything that carries the kind of depth charge that, say, Black Orpheus delivers.

Some interesting touches include Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman's soundscape of Hades, which features "Stairway to Heaven" and "Chopsticks"; her grafting a Rainer Maria Rilke poem about Orpheus and Eurydice onto the playlet, and the repetition of Orpheus looking back at Eurydice, which recalls the hopeless, battle-of-the-sexes determinism of Pina Bausch's choreography as it leads to grief.

Other moments strike sparks. With a glittering chandelier above the pool and a Magritte sky behind it, the play begins, after a description of the origin of the universe, with a potent telling of the King Midas story, with Raymond Fox as a touching Midas, whose reappearance at the end of the evening hits a mildly satisfying, plangent note. All the splashing around done by Chris Kipiniak, as Erysichthon, condemned to eternal hunger ("The godless are always hungry"), conveys his unruly insatiability, which ultimately turns on himself, and as he hunches in the water, its slow, black undulation suggests his radiating sorrow.

But despite these fleeting, attractive moments, on the whole Metamorphoses leaves no more than a slight ripple.

"Metamorphoses," presented by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre at Zellerbach Playhouse at the University of California, Berkeley, near Dana St. and Bancroft Way, Berkeley. Mon, Tues., Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Wed. 7 p.m., Thurs. & Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Dec. 1-Jan. 16, 2000. $38-48.50. (510) 845-4700.

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SCROOGE

at the Arena Theatre

Reviewed by Holly Hildebrand

Dickensian England meets the Internet, Robert Louis Stevenson, and gospel music in the revival of Scrooge by Theatre Under the Stars at the Arena Theatre in Houston.

If all that sounds weird, it is. This is a show that above all aims to please, and if it has to do so by putting Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past in a "Cyber Cab" and having them sing "We're on the World Wide Web," it will. As for that ghost, well, he's also the Ghost of Christmas Present and Future, a jive-talking fellow in a pink-and-silver sequined suit who does flips and plays host at Scrooge's gospel (yes, that's right) funeral.

The strange thing about all this is that it might have worked had the authors of Scrooge not made such strategic blunders with Charles Dickens' basic story. Book writer and lyricist Jim Bernhard has made Ebenezer Scrooge so utterly nasty and mean that he seems beyond any kind of redemption at all; instead, we expect him to turn into Mr. Hyde at any moment. Bernhard even takes away some sympathy from Tiny Tim, who, after wishing, "God bless us, everyone," expresses a desire to meet Uncle Scrooge in a dark alley and beat him up with his little crutch.

Despite these blunders in understanding its own characters, Scrooge still has some endearing moments. In one, huge wrapped Christmas packages cavort around the stage. Mark Holden's music, although for the most part not memorable, provides some nicely festive moments, as in the opening number "Christmas Is Coming." Perhaps the sweetest scenes are among the final ones, when Scrooge wakes up to find himself a changed man; Gary Beach, as the reformed miser, is a delight as he sings the comic "I'm as Light as a Feather."

In other roles, Rodney Hicks is entertaining as the all-encompassing Ghost of Christmas; Gary Lee Reed lends an air of touching dignity as Bob Cratchit, and Chesley Ann Santoro projects matronly warmth as Mrs. Cratchit. When the script lets him, Christopher Jones is sweet as Tiny Tim.

Director Michael Tapley keeps a brisk pace going but hasn't quite solved the blocking problems that come with staging Scrooge in the round. Tapley and Tito Hernandez have added some pleasant, if conventional, choreographic moments, and Ray Delle Robbins' costumes are lovely. Just don't expect a lot from that other fellow, Charles Dickens.

"Scrooge," presented by and at Theatre Under the Stars at Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway, Houston. Dec. 4-19. (800) 678-5440.

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A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL

at Long Beach Playhouse

Reviewed by Kristina Mannion

Understandably, the play-within-a play convention has long been a favorite of playwrights. It's often a surefire method for adding instant dimension to a work, whether the aim is to provide additional comic material or to create another level for drawing meaningful dramatic parallels.

Both objectives are cleverly achieved in Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval, in a biting contrivance that deftly incorporates John Gay's 1728 The Beggar's Opera-the time-honored English social satire rife with corruption, titillating romance, deception, and otherwise shady goings-on. Created as a spoof of its sugary Italian opera counterparts, Gay's opera also sports an abundance of lighthearted ballads-a combination of sweet and bawdy numbers that both highlight the popular folk tunes of Gay's era and make light of the social issues of the time. Smartly using this enduring, historical musical comedy as a framework for his own modern tale of indiscretions and entanglements, Ayckbourn creates a unique and bittersweet satirical hybrid in his contemporary Chorus.

Featuring a sympathetic but hardly innocent anti-hero-a sort of twin to Macheath, the roguish highwayman who anchors Gay's opera-Chorus follows the events that unfold in a small Welsh community when Guy Jones (Jonathan Nail), a lonely, recently widowed businessman, auditions for the local light opera society's production of The Beggar's Opera. At first shyly content with his one-line part, Jones is continually pushed into bigger roles by his admiring fellow actors, in whose less than perfect lives he finds himself increasingly tangled. Eventually, Jones becomes embroiled in romantic affairs with two of his co-stars; amazingly, he also manages to assume the lead role. But his ultimate amateur stardom is Pyrrhic, as the questionable honorability of his dealings within the community are brought to light and, like Macheath, he falls out of favor.

For the most part, this Long Beach Playhouse production is up to the challenge of Ayckbourn's multi-layered satire. A number of well realized characterizations put the play's moral dilemmas in proper focus, and some members of the cast are adept at amusingly punching up the comedy. But director Steven Fiorillo's staging is too loosely knit for a play that demands smooth timing and a steady flow between scenes-an efficient switch between the rehearsals of Gay's opera and Guy's backstage "dramas" is important. But Fiorillo's rather staid and plodding direction casts a noticeable pall of awkwardness. To a lesser but still conspicuous extent, Eugene McDonald's functional but at times clumsy set design also adds to the general ungainly atmosphere.

The cast does succeed at times in diverting our attention from that gracelessness through their largely commendable performances. Nail is engaging as the reserved Guy, alternately tantalized by and wary of the admiration he accumulates. Likewise, Ciro Barbaro is charming as the inexhaustible Dafydd Ap Llewellyn, the show's director and the town's erratically temperamental local impresario. Also providing enjoyable comedic moments are Courtney Leigh Heins as impertinent barmaid Bridget Baines, Jennifer Quednau as pouty Linda Washbrook, Bridget's rival, and Beverly Turner as Fay Hubbard, a saucy swinger with an open marriage and a calculating grasp on Guy's attention.

All members of the cast are able singers, offering strong and pleasant voices under David Dilorio's capable musical direction (Dilorio also provides accompaniment on piano). As they perform the airy ballads from The Beggar's Opera, interwoven with behind-the-scenes shenanigans, we see how the predicaments and concerns from Gay's era are not unlike the ones we face in today's society.

"A Chorus of Disapproval," presented by and at Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Dec. 3-18 and Jan. 7-22, 2000. $12-15. (562) 494-1616.

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SCENT OF RAIN

at the Tiffany Theatre

Reviewed by Paul Birchall

Retired gay erotic film star Ryan Idol is a performer with a prodigious talent-and it's a good thing it wasn't caught in his jeans as he was getting dressed, or it would have brought ruination to playwright Mark Dunn's fleshy comedy. Dunn's sweet but clumsy "nekkid" hillbilly farce-a cross between L'il Abner and one of those late-night movies you see on a naughty pay-TV channel-is about as lightweight as theatre can be while still being a stage experience. The story takes place on Pa Grettle's man-filled farm, where the flinty but loving father (Danne Taylor) oversees the boyish antics of studly blond Jared (Johnny Urbon), hunky brunet Tillman (Brian D. Johnson), and boyishly innocent Jonathan (Nicholas D. Conlon), his three playful sons.

When Pa learns he's dying, he decides to dedicate his remaining time to finding a "man-wife" for gay young Jonathan, who doesn't know much about lovin' yet. Straight beefcake big bros Jared and Tillman are dispatched to town to play matchmaker, but with only limited success. Jonathan himself only has eyes for sexually ambivalent field hand Bill Tom (Idol), who provides constant sexual tension by lettin' it all hang out at the swimming hole.

Director Patrick Trettenero's smooth-running and light-hearted production is at its most genial when it's at its frothiest. Trettenero's shrewd comic timing is on artful display as he focuses the backwoods humor on these dimwitted, but warmhearted hunky hicks. The show often possesses a surprisingly innocent attitude toward sex that's ingratiatingly charming. But let's be real here: The play exists mainly as a thin pretext to get Mr. Idol and his stage pals out of their clothes as often as possible. The mind all but boggles at the contrivances both playwright and director devise to get them actors into the buff.

It's tempting to be dismissive of Dunn's work as a play at all, since the dialogue is so lame and inconsequential and the acting work so uniformly, er, wooden. On the other hand, the actors' onstage stiffness is actually rather cunningly integrated into their idiot backwoods characters-they're supposed to be slow-talkin', dimwitted hicks, after all.

That said, the spirit of fun all but vanishes midway through the show, when it shifts awkwardly into a stale and tediously banal recycling of conventional "gay drama" clich s that can't help but seem eye-rollingly lame and hackneyed. As Pa Grettle, Taylor adds some much-needed dry, ironic wit to the proceedings, and some funny turns are offered by the versatile Neil Tadken, portraying a variety of unsuitable beaux for Jonathan's attention. Ultimately, though, the play is equivalent to a pleasant night at a strip club, but it's unrewarding as a mainstream theatrical experience.

"Scent of Rain," presented by Garry Bormet and Blue Suit Productions at the Tiffany Theatre, 8532 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Nov. 28-Jan. 9, 2000. $30-35. (310) 289-2999.