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at the Noho Arts Center

Zastrozzi began as a would-be Gothic novel by the 18-year-old poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, published in 1810. It's full of overwrought adolescent prose and stilted 19th-century dialogue. It's hard to imagine why Canadian playwright George F. Walker chose to convert it into a play, but the work has served him well, achieving multiple productions, including two productions several years ago.

Walker employs the novel's major characters in a plot of his own devising. Zastrozzi (Philippe Brenninkmeyer) is a master criminal, who regards the creation of bad art as a capital offense. He has devoted his life to avenging himself on Verezzi (Alex Robert Holmes), who has seduced (in the novel) or murdered (in the play) his mother. Obsessive, predatory sexpot Matilda (Anna Khaja) is futilely pursuing Zastrozzi, while Verezzi vainly pursues her. Meanwhile, coy professional virgin Julia (Holly Persell) charms Zastrozzi and Verezzi.

Walker has converted his Gothic source into an updated Jacobean revenge play, the kind in which most of the dramatis personae wind up dead. And here, directors Sara Botsford and Christopher Brown have abandoned its period setting to recast it as 1940s film noir.

The plot hinges on a confusing backstory, and the playwright hasn't provided a convincing opponent for Zastrozzi. Verezzi is a nincompoop, a fuzzy-minded religious visionary artist, too ineffectual to kiss a woman, much less murder one. To give Zastrozzi a viable antagonist, Walker invents Victor (Bob Morrisey), a loyal friend who has sworn to protect Verezzi. Victor lends substance to the story, but Verezzi seems hardly worth defending.

Brenninkmeyer provides a debonair Zastrozzi, suggesting a diabolic James Bond. Khaja's Matilda is a cartoon dominatrix who longs to be dominated, but she wields a mean bullwhip. Holmes finds comedy in the ineffectual Verezzi, as does Persell in Julia's sexual susceptibilities. Morrisey's Victor is resourceful and athletic, and Drake Simpson scores as Zastrozzi's henchman, also enamored of Matilda.

Presented by 49th Parallel Theatre and Open at the Top Productions at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Jul. 18-Aug. 24. (818) 508-7101.

Reviewed by Neal Weaver

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