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Never a group to shy away from artistic challenges, Sacred Fools presents a highly stylized version of Witold Gombrowicz's 1935 satire, translated in 1969 by Krystyna Griffith-Jones. This is Gombrowicz's first of several plays that view societal conformities with a harsh eye, and it's a clear example why his work was banned for decades by the Nazis, and then the Communists. The characters in the show are like puppets being manipulated by invisible strings. To accent that analogy, director Philip Wofford has his cast members perform as if they are marionettes. Their movements are stiff and calculated, and their acting style veers toward melodrama. Wofford's vision suits the play well, and all of the lead performances hit their emotional and technical marks. With assistance from creative sound- and light designs, the production makes the most of the material, though ultimately the production fails as a whole, because the script drags severely in the middle of the second act. It becomes too repetitive to sustain its one intriguing concept.

The story revolves around the actions in the royal court of Burgundia, where everyone acts exactly as they believe they are supposed to. But one day Prince Philip (Michael Kary), bored with the sameness of it all, rocks the community's foundation by choosing as his fiancé Ivona (Dawn Stahlak), a woman cursed with "sluggish blood," who rarely speaks and who barely can stand, let alone walk. Everyone, including the prince, is repulsed by her. But Ivona's refusal to follow society's rules causes everyone, including the King (Steven Ruggles) and the Queen (Ruth Silveria) to reflect on their imperfections and inner ugliness.

Though she speaks only a few lines, Stahlak brings emotional depth and a great deal of humor to Ivona. Her imploring and exasperated stares, and the way she sloshes and staggers, are captivating. The remaining cast is solid, but the standout is Kary as the Prince. He deftly straddles the line between sarcasm and seriousness, and that puts the story into perspective. Wofford fully embodies this play with the puppetry concept, from heavy makeup to the choreographed entrances and exits. It's not until the second act, when the script runs out of new thoughts, that the production loses steam. But, up until that point, it's an entertaining ride.

"Ivona, Princess of Burgundia," presented by and at Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hollywood. Thu. 8 pm. (May 19 & 26 only), Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. (Dark May 28-29.) May 19-Jun. 26. $20. (310) 281-8337.

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