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at the Berkeley City Club

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

In Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert wrote, "Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we strum out tunes to make a bear dance, when we would move the stars to pity."

Judging by the eloquent, impassioned, intelligent Flaubert on view at Aurora Theatre Company in Dorothy Bryant's Dear Master, Bovary's creator underrated the ability of words--at least in their written mode--to move the minds and hearts of fellow beings. Based on the 13-year correspondence of Flaubert and George Sand, this play provided the genesis for Aurora Theatre Company in 1991. Happily, both Aurora and Dear Master have thrived since that inaugural production.

Richard Rossi directs the current revival, as he did the original, with Aurora's artistic director Barbara Oliver reprising the role of Sand and Owen Murphy stepping into the role of Flaubert originated by Ken Grantham. Both actors soar in this challenging, heartfelt, thoughtful, utterly soul-satisfying production.

The differences in their viewpoints provide one of the great dialectics in the show. Murphy's Flaubert makes his first entrance spewing invectives about the short-sightedness and general idiocy of the critics who have decimated his novel Salammbo. Sand is the sole literary figure of note to recognize the brilliance of the work, and her encouraging letter to Flaubert begins their correspondence. (Flaubert admits having been a fan of Sand's work for some time, telling her, "I used to sleep with a dagger and your latest novel under my pillow.") Sand, who never quite loses her faith in humanity, delineates the difference between herself and Flaubert in the latter half of the 90-minute show: "I offer the people consolation. You give them desolation."

Yet despite the chasm in their viewpoints on the possibility for improvements in the human race, Sand and Flaubert share many things. Both are reviled by the hypocritical bourgeois literary establishment. Both endure the hardships of poverty and estrangement of families. In a heartbreaking bit of irony, Flaubert relates how the beloved niece whom he had urged into a respectable marriage with a safe, dull fellow has followed a very Madame Bovary-like path into infidelity and dissatisfaction--while Sand's daughter, whom she urged to marry an artist for love, has also ended up unhappy.

It's impossible to provide a pat summary of all the wonderful themes woven into the magical tapestry of this play. And it's so rare to see a show that actually credits its audience with the intelligence to follow philosophical arguments made with the sort of wit, sorrowful self-realization, and battered-but-not-broken resolve exhibited by Oliver and Murphy's characters. Playwright Bryant wisely realizes that it is precisely the explication of small period details, the specifics of daily life, that gives universal power to this work.

All the design elements--David Hoffman's sets, Richard Olmsted's lighting, and Anna Oliver's costumes--flesh out this simple and profoundly moving show with the same loving attention to detail.

"Dear Master," presented by the Aurora Theatre Company at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Nov. 28-Dec. 14. (510) 843-4822.



at the 24th Street Theatre

Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner

William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers is an apt production for the 24th Street Theatre, which has chosen for its home a dilapidated old garment factory that was scheduled for demolition. In Saroyan's play, the scheduled destruction of the World Theatre--where a washed-up clown, the King (Wesley Mann); a faded, ailing actress, the Queen (Claudette Sutherland); a failed boxer, the Duke (J. Steven Markus), and a lost girl (Katy Boyer) take up residence--looms heavily in the consciousness of its inhabitants. Virtually without hope, money, or food, they nevertheless make room for a young couple, the Father (Jay McAdams), the Mother (Sarah Zinsser), her newborn baby, and Gorky, their bear (Eric Whitmore). Through unbelievable trials and tribulations, they manage to stay alive by virtue of hope and the power of love.

Sentimental it may be, deriving its conceit from a set of ancient beliefs, but the thrust of Saroyan's point of view nevertheless rings true, empathetic, and honest under Stephanie Shroyer and Sarah Zinsser's superb direction. Excellent performances by Sutherland, Markus, Mann, and Boyer create an enviable sense of empowerment that stimulates the supposedly heartless Wrecking Crew Boss (Josƒ Garcia) and his sidekick, Jamie (Mario Larrazabal), to delay the end of the World (theatre) for just a few more days.

And what tremendous power old-fashioned values exert in the era of Beavis and Butthead! The Duke's generosity, the King's pride, the Queen's dignity, the Bear's trust, the Silent Boy's (Scott Conte) sacrifice--all speak of a nobility much higher than the individualism of a nation of self-absorbed getters and spenders who have coopted the American Way. Matthew Jacobs' and Kara Conrad's minimal set design nevertheless evokes the homeless cave dwellings that have become the now-familiar habitats for the destitute humanity of the allegedly prosperous '90s.

There are still projection problems in this lofty space--when backs are turned, or sentimental moments occur upstage, voice quality is lost to the rafters--but each production here learns well from the last.

"The Cave Dwellers," presented by and at the 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., Los Angeles. Oct. 10-Dec. 21. (213) 658-4050.


at Masquers Cabaret

Reviewed by Sally Johnson

With more than 20 years of comebacks to her credit, Peggy Judy is the perfect washed-up lounge crawler, a singer who'll play wherever they'll have her: Travelodges in North Dakota, Hotel 6, you name it. Between numbers she talks about life, particularly the incredible journey of her own life, like how she got her name, or her one chance at major motion picture stardom (lost to arch-rival Connie Francis).

Wearing generous half moons of pale blue eye-shadow, fake eyelashes, and an "I've been there and learned to live with it" expression, actress Molly Brandenburg looks the part of the hapless crooner sporting a teased-out ash blonde wig, elbow-length pink satin gloves, and a mini purple dress with a V-shaped (ouch!) hemline. With a throaty, absurdly "star quality" vibrato, she's ready to dreamily pounce or purr--whatever it takes--and her droll comedic instincts are well tuned.

Parodying such fifth-rate headliners is part and parcel of Brandenburg's act, and she's blessed with a versatile range, but it pays to remember that Peggy Judy is dead serious. Most of the songs, like "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves," "Love Train," and a half dozen others are successfully over-sung spoofs (although "My Funny Valentine" actually succeeded in sounding soulfully bittersweet), but the fast-paced '70s medley including "YMCA" comes across as a messy blur.

Sharing the stage with Peggy Judy are the Peggy Judy dancers Hecubus (Martin Morissey) and Biff (Dean Cleverdon, who also directed), who purposefully shag about loosely and don ridiculous get-ups, like solid gold skintight body sheaths. All one can say about them is: They'd be good if they weren't so godawful bad! But I guess that's the point. Donny Parvo (explosive Jim Edson), a voluptuous Vegas lounge lizard, unexpectedly shows up two thirds through Peggy Judy's set and is given the mike to sing "I'm Your Vehicle, Woman," thrusting and gyrating his way into the audience's heart.

The Masquers Cabaret has a cozy, clubby feeling and serves dinner as well as drinks. The program has its ups and downs, but Peggy Judy never forgets she has an audience. She puts out, and the result is a light evening of frothy entertainment. Musical arrangement is by Jeremy Hugh Stuart, tech direction is by Glenn Hendricks. Jeff Strong provides clear sound.

"Peggy Judy: Funkadelic!," presented by and at the Masquers Caberet, 8334 W. Third St., Los Angeles. Oct. 31-Dec. 12. (213) 653-4848.


at the 2nd Stage Theater

Reviewed by Les Spindle

In 1969, Al Pacino received his big break when he earned a supporting actor Tony for his performance as a rebellious young junkie in Don Peterson's drama Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? Under the skillful direction of Gregory Cohen and Samantha Swaim, this revival of Peterson's alternately humorous and poignant slice-of-life story about disaffected youths is surprisingly pertinent for a nearly 30-year-old play.

Peterson's episodic script is set in a rehab center for young narcotic addicts on an island near an unspecified industrial city. The early scenes introduce the large cast of characters and quite emphatically establish--a la The Blackboard Jungle--the boisterous volatility of the high-strung youths. (A bit too emphatically, in fact. The directors would be wise to tone down the unrelenting monkey business, which becomes tediously repetitious.)

The focal character is the gentle but firm English teacher (convincingly played by Jay Michael Fraley), while the major story threads involve a cocky, violence-prone anarchist, Bickham (Michael Piscitelli), and the problematic romance between Conrad (Lamar Vandyke), a sweet-spirited black boy who shows promise of rising above his problems, and Linda (Andrƒa Kim Walker), a tough-as-nails hooker who turns tricks in exchange for cigarettes and dope.

Cohen and Swaim elicit a fine ensemble effort, with special mention due for Walker's superb depicton of a young woman desperate for love but afraid to admit it, and the winningly amusing Vandyke as her patient and persistent admirer. Piscitelli also excels in his admirably layered performance, displaying both Bickham's dangerous combustibility and the vulnerability of his broken spirit. He actually bears a striking resemblance to Pacino, who created the role, but wisely avoids mimicry. Among other fine performances, those of Marcos Monzon, Samuel Bliss Cooper, Alden Sears, Max Goldberg, and Paul Bordman stand out.

The directors occasionally allow the pace of the lengthy show to lag a bit, especially in the marginally relevant scene involving a class production of A Christmas Carol. But in all, this is an intelligent and moving rendition of a play that was well worth reviving.

"Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?," presented by MJP Productions at the 2nd Stage Theater, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Nov 13-Dec 14. (213) 876-8418.


at the Third Stage Theater

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

The holidays are upon us, and we find ourselves developing seasonal tastes for things which we would not normally. Egg-based alcoholic drinks. Elfin statuary in the home. Plays like this one.

Ma (Bobbie Norman, an actress whom it is very easy to turn into Susan Hayward) is a widow standing at the head of a family gathering in the matriarchal lair every Christmas (kudos to Jim Hendriksen for a set that's every bit as cluttered and crappy as a real living room). Much is made about the clan's Italian heritage and Jersey City location, though this in no way narrows the show's appeal. Things happen, none of which won't be telegraphed to you an hour in advance. Suffice it to say there are a couple of announcements, a theft, and a Big Lesson Learned at the end.

Tree Washburne's shamelessly sentimental script ranges from serviceable to deplorable, with some seriously underwritten characters--the Southern girl is not only religious, dim, and blonde but she's named Dixie, for God's sake--but in the infectiously affectionate atmosphere of the evening there's a tendency to feel protective and ignore the flaws, as one must with kin.

The sizable cast is a joy and too large to list here, but mention must be made of Sierra Billiu as Carmella, the precocious youngest of the brood. She's pivotal in making the emotionally soapy moments work, and she does. Brett Elliott's Neil may be the most perfect son-in-law ever, Brenda Adelman and Tree Washburne add much-needed texture as the lesbian/Wiccan couple, and, of course, Norman holds the whole show together with her stern/loving/gracious/wise Ma.

Roy Washburne's direction has the casual artlessness of actual family gatherings. The experience is not unlike being beaten with a candy cane, but it feels well, dammit, around this time of year, it feels good.

"Ma," presented by Actor's Edge Productions at the Third Stage Theatre, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Oct. 17-Dec. 13. (818) 705-2370.


at the Actors' Theatre of

San Francisco

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

It's always great to see a play I love done well. However, it's sometimes even more refreshing to see a terrific production of a play I've never had much use for.

Such is the case with David Rabe's Hurlyburly, now receiving a revival under the skillful direction of Louis Parnell and Sara Heckelman, and featuring a cast of seven actors who work their butts off to keep this show flying. At nearly three hours, the show is still too long--but the company keeps it on track with style, integrity, and passion.

My main problem with Rabe's script isn't that it's such a guy-fest; rather, it's more a problem that these guys, on the page at least, just aren't all that interesting. Pharmaceutically addled angry white guys who've screwed up their lives and are looking for the perfect broad to either save them from themselves or blame for their predicament just isn't a storyline that holds my attention for very long.

But this cast manages to overcome many of the ponderous qualities of Rabe's script by focusing on the details of the relationships--the pauses, the sidelong glances, the sudden outbursts, the overlapping speeches by characters who are desperate to be heard and who have forgotten (or never knew) how to listen. As Eddie, the casting director on a downward spiral who's trying to find some meaning in the hollow mess of his post-divorce life, James Cunningham nails the anguish, self-pity, and flashes of unbelievable cruelty that power his character. David McNees brings a snarky charm and smug self-assurance to Mickey, Eddie's callow roomie; he's amusing and revolting in equal proportion, and what he says rings true just often enough to be discomfiting. Tony Abou-Ganim and Parnell convincingly inhabit the characters of Phil and Artie--the former a brutishly desperate outsider, the latter a consummate player in the hamster-wheel world of the studios.

Even more impressive, given the limited amount of stage time they're given, are the performances of the three women in the cast. As Donna, the ditzy hitchhiker presented to Eddie and Mickey as "a care package" by Artie, Chloe Taylor endearingly evokes the na•fish wisdom at the heart of her character. Deborah Taylor's Darlene balances the sleekly groomed facade of her character with roiling hurt at boyfriend Eddie's paranoia. Best-of-show honors, though, go to Michele McCall's Bonnie, the balloon-dancing stripper whose life is imperiled by Phil and derided by Eddie. Her impassioned defense of the choices she has made to support her young daughter provides the real emotional heart to this play.

Jeff Wincek's set nicely captures the cool black-and-white pseudo-industrial feel of Eddie and Mickey's apartment, and Denise Pieracci's costumes create a jolting Big Eighties flashback. I can't wait to see what Pour Boys can do with a script I like.

"Hurlyburly," presented by Pour Boys Productions in association with Genesius Theatre Productions Company at Actors' Theatre of San Francisco, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Nov. 14-Dec. 22. (415) 567-6088.


at the Bitter Truth Theatre

Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner

In Christopher Cartmill's play, 19th-century French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix (Barton Smith) is obsessed by his vision of the painting he's working on, La Chasse au Lion--a violent depiction of a lion hunt in which the hunter and the prey are virtually indistinguishable from each other. His intense monomania spills over into his private life, where he finds himself pursued and pursuing, desiring and rejecting, ardently seeking relationships he is simultaneously fleeing.

His own violence emerges in his dual passion for perfection in his art and in his lovers--the beautiful dancer, Elise Morrell (Delia Ford), and a distant cousin, Josephine de Lavallette (Kerry Hite), both of whom he can willingly relinquish to his socialite friend, the debonair, uncomplicated Alfred-Auguste Cuvillier-Fleury (Cartmill).

While all four actors are quite picturesque, exquisitely costumed by Michelle Nevius, and set deliciously against Phillip Nolan's elegant scenic design, their interaction seems stilted and too carefully arranged. Part of the blame must be laid on playwright/director Cartmill's doorstep, since much of the play consists of highly poetic monologues delivered from a character's subconscious directly to the audience. Both women seem to be mouthing their lines without really inhabiting their roles; their apparent uninvolvement with the supposedly passionate characters they portray makes for an uninvolved audience, and too many scenes fall flat from too many words and little action.

The most telling moments, and the most real, are between Alfred and Eugene, who are able to spark off each other, and even seem to have fun doing it, where the scenes of the men with their lovers fail. But then, a brooding, obsessive artist is never the best company, which seems to be the conclusion of both these beautiful women.

"La Chasse," presented by Puissance Productions in association with the Bitter Truth Partners at the Bitter Truth Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hollywood. Nov. 21-Dec. 21. (818) 755-7900.


at the Candlefish Theatre

Reviewed by Sally Johnson

Using John D. Ravold's much abbreviated adaptation, the Candlefish Theatre presents in three acts Little Women, Louisa May Alcott's resilient domestic classic about growing up, with all its tests of character and temper. The production follows the lives the March family sisters, Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy, and has a pleasing feel to it, but unlike the book, doesn't succeed in tugging too strongly at the heart strings. Co-directors Bo Crowell and Blake Steury, who also designed the dowdy Victorian interior with pleasant Christmassy red and green touches, need to raise the emotional stakes.

High points of the evening include an amusing and silly amateur theatrical put on by the girls, and an appropriately awkward wooing of pretty sister Meg (Ossi Zer-Ilan) by young Master Brooke (Roy Samuelson). But Father's (Jack Thomas) homecoming should be received by giddier joy, and fragile sister Beth's (Wendy Obstler) decline warrants more obvious concern.

Act Three introduces tomboy Jo's future husband, the German Professor Mr. Bhaer (given an enjoyably offbeat rendering by actor Steven Owsley). His broken English is so candidly delivered that it makes everyone around him seem fastidious. Other standout performances include Dawn Worrall, an effervescently romantic Amy; Samuelson, whose Chesire Cat grin fairly pops with hopeful hilarity, and Jennifer Johnson as Alcott's alterego Jo. Nathan Steury, who plays Laurie, the next door neighbor who longs to be part of the March family, exhibits some finesse (and he's the only person to age believably). On opening night Mary Schafer, in the role of Marmee, the matriarch of the family, seemed not entirely at home in her own house, and some of her speeches were overly pause-laden. Esther Richman plays a temperamental, no-nonsense Aunt March.

Michael Pacciorini's hoop-skirted frocks are varied and attractive. Lauren Hodge's diffuse lighting could be warmer, and some of the staging tends to bunch up clumsily. But for all its defects, this production moves in the right direction. With some adjustments to the rhythm, and a broader, less staid approach, it could be a holiday pleaser.

"Little Women," presented by and at the Candlefish Theatre, 1540 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Nov. 21-Indef. (213) 460-2080.


at the Bathhouse Theatre

Reviewed by David-Edward Hughes

Bathhouse Theatre artistic director Arne Zaslove has a penchant for re-setting Shakespeare's comedies in different eras, locales, and with anachronistic musical scores, and that conceit worked splendidly two seasons back for his smash rock 'n' roll Midsummer Night's Dream. Sadly, the current Twelfth Night, set aboard a 1930s-era cruise ship right out of Anything Goes but augmented with a score that is largely Gershwin (with Porter, Coward, and others tossed in at random) is at best so-so Shakespeare and at worst a musical comedy champagne gone flat.

The central problem is that although some of Zaslove's actors handle the Shakespearean dialogue with ease and grace, and a few others have a way with a vintage song, none of them are versatile enough to do both without the seams showing. Acting honors go to Jeff Hogan's much-maligned Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Timothy Hyland's rascally Sir Toby, Amy Frazier's saucy Maria, and Claire Vardiel's dignified Olivia. As the scampish Feste, Chad Kelderman possesses an often pleasing boy tenor voice and a '30s singer manner, particularly on Coward's bittersweet "If Love Were All."

But the show continually fails to ignite, though a more brightly paced second act helps things considerably. Stylistically, it might have helped to use only Porter or only Gerswhin songs, as mixing the musical styles only adds to the misshapen state of the show.

Norm Spencer's delicious shipboard set and Carl S. Bronsdon's period-perfect costumes make the show look delectable, and music director/pianist Rob Jones tickles the ivories with grace and verve. A pity their efforts are squandered on such an unsatisfying hodgepodge of a show.

"Twelfth Night or What You Will," presented by and at the Bathhouse Theatre, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N, Seattle. Nov. 15-Dec. 28. (206) 524-9108.


at Sweet Lies

Reviewed by Les Spindle

Matthew Calhoun's admirably intended but clichƒd drama Restraint manages to turn a provocative subject into melodramatic mush. Although we've seen the subject of rape dramatized many times in plays, films, and especially in TV movies, this urgent social issue certainly could be explored from new perspectives with fresh insights. Unfortunately, neither Calhoun's trite script nor David A. Cox's flaccid direction take us anywhere that we haven't been before.

As the story begins, Angela (Deborah Burns) has just been gang-raped by several young men but can't bring herself to share the ordeal with her callously distant mother (Susan Holloway-Messina). As the play progresses, we view Angela's mental anguish through the periodic reappearance of the rapists, who stroll across the stage in the midst of other scenes, Greek chorus-style, to taunt Angela with cruel barbs.

Angela has been carrying the trauma and bitterness around inside of her for four years when she meets and becomes attracted to Andrew (Barry Thompson), a kind and patient man who nonetheless cannot break through her emotional block. When Angela eventually tracks down the criminals and brings them to justice, she begins to make progress in exorcising her mental demons.

The most well-rounded characterizations come from David Billotti as Joey, an emotionally fragile youth who was taunted into participating in the violent act by his friends, and Vi LaRoche Dupre as Joey's compassionate mother, who sympathizes with Angela's plight. Burns and Thompson do the best they can with their one-dimensional roles. Phil Bray is stiff and unconvincing as the ruthless defense attorney.

When, near the end of the play, we are briefly teased, a la Rashomon, with the possibility that Angela really did invite the boys' actions, a play that was previously guilty of being just shallow suddenly becomes annoyingly unfocused as well.

"Restraint," presented by the American Renegade Theatre Compay at Sweet Lies (behind the Bitter Truth Theatre), 11050 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hollywood. Nov 7-Dec 21. (818) 763-4430.


at the William Alderson Studio Theatre

Reviewed by Paul Birchall

Playwright Romulus Linney's slender drama is about a religious sect of backwoods Christians who demonstrate their faith by caressing venomous snakes. While the theme is the subject of faith and the way it can redeem even the most unworthy and sinful of dysfunctional reprobates, director Bruce Fleming's unpretentious but lethargic and unfocused staging is unconvincing at showing either human frailty or religious ecstasy.

Bad-tempered redneck brute Coleman (Nicolas Kane Landry) is dumped by his wife Nancy (Brandi Hensley), who subsequently moves in with the Rev. Obediah Buckhorn Sr. (Jack Kissell), the mild-mannered preacher of the Pentecostal church Nancy has recently joined. Coleman drags his amiable, whiskey-swillin' hick lawyer Canfield (William Alderson) to Nancy's church to watch the bizarre dances of the reptile handlers. There he learns a few things about the parishioners, a group of reformed sinners who have turned their backs on their evil ways for the sake of their snakes.

Linney's play possesses an underlying ambiguity that's more than slightly unnerving: We're never entirely sure whether these characters are genuinely holy figures or are simply deluded crackpots. Fleming's staging plods instead of ignites, and the show is lacking in the relentless, sheer overpowering enthusiasm and energy that would convince us that these folks are touched by something unusual. The religious ceremony itself, the play's pivotal moment, is performed in a surprisingly listless and languid manner--and concludes with an abrupt religious conversion that's weirdly pat, dramatically unmotivated, and unconvincingly contrived.

Hensley's rebellious Nancy and Janet Chamberlain, as a reformed fallen woman parishioner, emerge more touchingly than the other one-dimensional hick stereotypes, but the production feels routine and uninspired. There's ultimately not even a snake for excitement.

"Holy Ghosts," presented by and at the William Alderson Studio Theatre, 817 1/2 N. Fairfax Ave., W. Hollywood. Nov. 22-Dec. 20. (213) 852-1816.


at Glaxa Studios

by A.R. Clark

As its title might suggest, Gregory O'Neill's Post-P.C. address issues of political correctness as well as notions of gender and sexual identity in lesbian and gay cultures.

But in fact the show does so much less. Despite two strong performances and energetic direction, Post-P.C. makes a for very dull evening. Jamie Comer plays She, a lesbian rescued from a fire by Joshua Fardon as He, a gay man. The two start an affair that promises to challenge the traditional notions of sexual boundries, but never does. As for addressing political correctness, the script never does that either, except to say that it is bad, with no reason offered. The script is mostly didactic, with a dash of self-reference and a few good laughs.

Comer and Fardon are dynamic. They bring a great deal of energy and courage to their roles, but, with a script as vapid as this, the result is never satisfying. (The one notable exception is a well-written monologue about what constitutes "drag," which Comer slinks through admirably.) The actors deserve better than to have to play a scene in which the age-old question of how to leave the toilet seat is rehashed for 10 minutes.

However poor his writing may be, O'Neill makes a fine director. Not only does the play move quickly and fluidly, but the action fills the space nicely--an admirable feat with only two performers. The transitions from the fictional onstage world to a self-conscious state of performance are also handled well. This director and these talented performers have everything but the play going for them.

"Post-P.C.," presented by Gregory O'Neill at Glaxa Studios, 3707 Sunset Blvd., Silverlake. Nov. 14-Dec. 14. (213) 969-4896

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