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Brits With "It"

Steven Berkoff provides a one-man three-ring circus in Shakespeare's Villains at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. He snaps, crackles, and pops. He sends off sparks, pinwheels, and Roman candles. He works up a sweat. He contorts his India rubber face and athlete's body into evocations, incarnations, emanations-of Iago, Richard III, Macbeth and the Mrs.-also of Hamlet ("he caused the deaths of a lot of innocent people") and, bathed in spooky blue light, of Oberon, who made Puck do his dirty work ("Puck, for crying out loud-what kind of a name is that?"). This show is not a mere laugh fest, by any means, but who would have thought Shakespeare's villains had so much laughter in them?

Berkoff is a vocal and physical virtuoso. On a bare black stage, dressed in black, no set, no props, the superb lighting design of Nick Mattingley, here reconstituted by Nathan Sykes and Kathi O'Donahue, is all the help he has, or needs, to hold his audience spellbound for two hours. Actor/writer/ director Berkoff offers, along with much else, handy hints for working thespians (such as a creative solution to the problem of missing props). He dazzles, he amazes, and no student or aficionado of the actor's art should miss him.

What complement and contrast it was on the following night to witness another superb British actor, Brian Cox, holding an audience enthralled through his one-man performance of Conor McPherson's neo-Gothic chiller St. Nicholas at the Matrix (now closed after a too-short run). Berkoff and Cox could hardly be more different in style. Berkoff is hot, Cox is cool. Both are brilliant, both generously displayed supreme examples of theatrical technique and the art of acting.

PFLAG Flies High

Composer/lyricist Steven Schalchlin and librettist Jim Brochu received an Oscar Wilde Award for their acclaimed hit musical The Last Session at Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays' birthday party on July 31. The organization's first Wilde Award was presented, a year after its founding, to the Bill Solly musical Boy Meets Boy at the Las Palmas Theatre. (And doesn't this show deserve a revival?) Schalchlin and Brochu accepted their handsome award from PFLAG's Bill La Marche during the organization's 23rd anniversary celebration at the rambling La Ca˜ada hillside estate of Griff Martin.

Whoever put the formula for success in a nutshell with an injunction to "Find a need and fill it" might as well have had PFLAG in mind. There was no such support organization when Larry and Adele Starr first met with a handful of other caring and loving parents in 1976. From its small Southern California beginnings, the parents' group has grown into a nationwide organization of power and prestige, because there was, quite literally, a crying need for it. PFLAG, as it's known for short, is a dedicated, informed group that advises and counsels parents who confront unfamiliar, often frightening problems of accepting the knowledge that their children are "different"-they are gay, probably born that way, and going to stay that way. The needless suffering PFLAG has prevented, the heartbreak it has healed, and the families and lives it has saved would doubtless be a surprising, and enlightening, statistic.

Schalchlin, who entertained with a medley of his Last Session songs, comes from a "super-conservative" Christian background and a family with a Baptist missionary minister father (something twice as conservative, he noted, as a mere minister). Steven gets lots of e-mail from troubled young people, he said in his moving acceptance speech, "and the most important thing I do is try to get them to stay with their families, and steer them to PFLAG." The talented composer/musician, who lives with AIDS, told his hosts, "You don't know how much strength you've given me just by loving your kids."

His partner Brochu informed me he is off to Chicago to direct a production of their award-winning musical there, and said current stagings are now on the boards in Denver, Omaha, Houston, and Dallas. He said The Last Session has been translated into Swedish for Stockholm, German for Berlin, "and Australian for Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and Perth." Brochu added, "It's thrilling the way this little show has taken off."

Pious Party

Let's stamp out stereotypes, shall we? Well, not all of them. Stereotypes can be useful. If they weren't rooted in reality, they wouldn't be stereotypes. But it is refreshing to find the exception, the one that doesn't fit the mold, perhaps even transcends it. The Reverend Diane Borcyckowski, for example, is not your typical cleric. Rev. Diane ministers to her adoring flock at the Center for Creative and Conscious Living (an affiliate of the Church of Religious Science) at 4552 Lincoln Ave., Suite l04, in Cerritos. She has a good time at it; she has a good time living in general. Her Sunday sermons transcend stereotype; they are inspirational, often inspired, and punctuated with frequent laughter.

The Rev likes to live dangerously-or should we say adventurously. She has recently returned from a spontaneously undertaken trip to Thailand. She has been known to sky-dive. Alone one night on a Moscow subway she emerged from an adventure that was not without danger. She enjoys camping in the wilderness, venturing into still or choppy waters in a kayak. Before embracing her current calling, the Reverend was an actress; she played Tennessee Williams heroines Blanche and Alma, The House of Blue Leaves' wacky Bananas. As Elizabeth Blair, she embarked on a television career, with starring roles on The Little House on the Prairie and soaps like Days of Our Lives. Newly armed with a Master's Degree in Theatre and Dance from the University of California at Los Angeles, she's looking forward to expanded teaching opportunities. With her acting partner Joe Parrish she performs, here and there, now and then, in A.R. Gurney's two-hander Love Letters.

That was some non-stereotypical birthday party her parishioners threw for Rev. Diane at her church. Its piece de resistance was a performance of Some Habits Are Hard To Break by the (non-stereotypical) Hot Cross Nuns. Thanks to Dan Goggin, Tom Lehrer, and Sister Mary Ignatius, irreverent spoofs of consecrated sisters in full regalia are not the novelty they once were, but this one pushes the envelope. Its humor was broad, bordering on bawdy, and sometimes stepping over, but the performance was consistently hilarious.

Offstage, these unconsecrated sisters are Linda Dodson, Sue Abitanta, Kathy McGinty, and Laura Sheriff-and these sisters can sing! Two are of comfortable girth, two are rather small; two sing high, two sing low; together they create close harmony sweet as any barbershop quartet's. They may deliver lyrics straight-"Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "Sentimental Journey," "Don't Fence Me In." Or they may twist them into parody-"I Enjoy Being a Nun" ("I don't mess with brand new hairdos/'Cause I'm covered from head to toe"); "Under Our Habits" (adapted from "Under the Boardwalk"-never mind), "Chapel of Love" ("Gee, we'd love to but/We'll never get married..."); "How Do You Solve a Problem Like... Bill Clinton" (from Sound of Music), "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" (a wicked jab at Rush Limbaugh). When not a cappella, Steven Applegate accompanies them on piano.

Rick Friday, in sackcloth as Brother Thomas Guide, provides extra comic relief, as if any is needed. Of benign and bearded visage, and deadpan, he is a Teddy bear in a monk's robe. Among his homilies: "What do you get when you cross an atheist with a Jehovah's Witness? Someone who rings doorbells for no apparent reason." Having offended most denominations, but not very much, this musical romp with "liturgically incorrect" sisters concluded with a salute to the Rev-"a wonderful sport"-and the promise that these Hot Cross Nuns will be appearing soon in Riverdance. I wouldn't be surprised.

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