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The Art of Artifice 

Plays about the birds, the trees and men in drag

Wednesday, Feb 11 1998
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Who says Anton Chekhov was a kind, compassionate man? I think he was a sadist and, even in death, remains one - lulling actors and directors into his moody, atmospheric worlds before pinning them to the stage and driving a stake through their hearts. To see evidence of such Gothic horrors, check out The Cherry Orchard at Culver City's Gascon Center Theater.

The play chronicles the fall of the genteel, myopic Russian aristocracy in the early years of this century, and foreshadows the arrival of those vulgar Bolsheviks. Madame Ranevskaya (Sally Savalas) returns to her country estate after traipsing around Europe and pretty well squandering the family fortune. The solution to her financial crisis is evident: Chop down the estate's beloved cherry orchard, parcel out the land and sell it. The inevitable transpires. The estate is sold in an auction to the merchant Lopakhin (Kevin Skousen) - of peasant stock - and the trees start to fall. Add in a few unrequited loves and moments of comedic pathos, and you've got a world classic.

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As if Chekhov's precarious musical balance weren't difficult enough to strike, Larkin has her actors assume Russian dialects for the first three acts, a device which swiftly dissolves into unwitting parody ("Eef I lyet yoo kees moy errm, zzen yoo'll vaant to kees moy hyend"). In Ionesco's Rhinoceros at the Odyssey Theater, director Ron Sossi has his actors spout phony French accents in a broadly comic, scathing swipe at French provincialism. But Larkin's production is too earnest and realistic to offer such a lampoon (though it could easily have swung in that direction). If Madame Ranevskaya were a man in drag, and Srdjan Popovic's sound design included an organ instead of a violin quartet, we'd be on Charles Ludlam's turf - more on him later.

Larkin's are not bad actors, they just look bad, for which she must bear some responsibility. In one scene, a man and a woman exchange an intimate glance, he mumbles something incomprehensible. Suddenly a torrent of emotion inspires him to clutch his chest and gaze piercingly at the sky, declaiming his love. You can see in the actor's eyes the deluded satisfaction of revealing the character, when all that's really revealed is the intrusive artifice of acting. This production is bursting with such tiny corrupting moments, so that governesses and landowners, servants and students become virtually indistinguishable from each other. Laurie Fink's period costumes, though beautiful, add to the funk; the maid is dressed almost as grandly as the aristocrats. The accents are dropped in Act 4, wherein Larkin transports the action to the laptopped, cell-phoned Napa Valley a century later (the year is 2004). The time leap is presumably contrived to underscore Chekhov's eternal appeal, but it just adds one more layer of smog.

Director Milena Albert endures Chekhov's savagery with comparative grace in her production of The Seagull at Hollywood Court Theater - perhaps because she did the translation, perhaps because she is herself Russian and understands both the timbre of the language and the oeuvre.

Chekhov's early comedy focuses on writers and the act of writing, pitting the "successful" yet mediocre author of realistic stories, Trigorin (Gildart Jackson), against the impetuous young symbolist scribe Konstantin Treplev (Kent Burnham) as they compete for the affections of both a callow young actress, Nina (Fran-Serene Spero), and Treplev's diva mother (Stephanie Nash). The abundant humor homes in on the blind cruelty of the self-absorbed, which is to say almost everybody in the play.

Albert employs actors of varying skills, and her delicate, cinematic direction works in fits and starts. You won't find much hollow posturing by this company, but you will stumble upon small static lapses, moments when the production's heart seems to stop beating - temporarily - as though waiting for a TV or movie camera to show evidence of a pulse that's simply too faint to be felt in the theater.

Still, performances such as Allison Sie's brooding Masha make the endeavor worthwhile - when, for instance, she throws a telling glance that is freighted with bitter history, sarcasm and wit, behind which the actor simply disappears.

The Birds at South Coast Repertory and The Mystery of Irma Vep at West Hollywood's newly refurbished Tiffany Theater attempt precisely the opposite effect - to expose theatrical artifice with gumption. Fearless actors approach nervous patrons, who suddenly find themselves in the literal spotlight, being dusted off with a small brush, like some archaeological artifact, or identified as a White House intern. Aristophanes wrote The Birds hundreds of years before Christ wandered the Earth; the late Charles Ludlam penned Irma Vep around 1984. The intervening millennia notwithstanding, both amount to much the same thing - particularly given The Birds' free adaptation by Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash and playwright John Glore.

Actor-writer Ludlam was the spearhead of a scattershot American theatrical movement dubbed the Ridiculous, which started gathering momentum in New York around 1966 and also included the works of playwrights Kenneth Bernard and Ronald Tavel, and director John Vaccaro. The next year, Ludlam founded his now legendary Ridiculous Theatrical Company, embracing a philosophy vaguely articulated by Tavel in the program to his play The Life of Lady Godiva: "We have passed beyond the absurd; our situation is absolutely preposterous."

The staples of the Ridiculous aesthetic include cross-dressing; campiness; mockery of sexual mores, of respected figures; and parodies of established literary forms. Culture Clash's men-in-drag depictions pretty much fit the Ridiculous bill: Mother Teresa (clutching a can of peas and referred to as "Pinky"), Princess Di (trying to deliver a message from the gods) and a female Century 21 real estate agent, each wandering through a balloon-filled "Cloud Cuckooland" boxing ring (designed by Christopher Barreca).

The story is a cautionary tale that unfolds in an improvisatory style under Mark Rucker's freewheeling direction. A couple of outcast homeboys, Gato and Foxx (Richard Montoya and Victor Mack), "tired of being on the wrong end of the food chain," are offered refuge in the avian kingdom of a mangy bird named Hoopoe (Herbert Siguenza), a kingdom nestled somewhere in the atmospheric gap between the mortals and the gods. Throughout the social satire, cheesy ditties (holding a tune is not the Clash's strength) and merciless puns ("the Birder Patrol"), Foxx morphs into a dictator, sealing the "birder" and, finally, wrestling the gods into submission. Shigeru Yaji's costumes consist largely of props: plastic knives and forks, baby bottles, toilet plungers, and the kind of lurid flags planted by real estate agents to entice passers-by to open houses.

The concept is far better than the content, which is equal parts puerility and wit. The Birds has the feel of Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room. Watching it is like enduring the presence of a wiseacre uncle who keeps telling jokes, all the while hoping that a few of them will hit the mark. (And sometimes they do.) He may think he's an iconoclast, but he's really just eager to please.

The Mystery of Irma Vep spoofs the entire Gothic vampire-werewolf-mystery-melodrama genre, careening from "Mandacrest on the Moors" to various places in Egypt and back again. Milquetoast archaeologist Lord Hillcrest can't let go of his late wife's memory, nor can his housekeeper, Jane Twisden. All of which makes things a bit rough on his new wife, Lady Enid. Stir in an Egyptian mummy, a goggle-eyed, peg-legged manservant who harbors unresolved class issues, and a mysterious woman sealed behind the sarcophagan walls of Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio's hysterical set, and the layers of parody stack up on each other like so many coffins in a mortuary. That the eight characters are all played with outlandish glee by just two actors (John Fleck and Tony Abatemarco) renders the event a quick-change extravaganza, handily staged by Randee Trabitz.

But the real point of The Birds, Irma Vep and the cult of the Ridiculous is that they're playing in upscale theaters on Sunset Strip and in Costa Mesa. Ludlam's rage has already been packaged; his appeal to scuffle with the culture has fallen the way of gangsta rap shilled to the 'burbs, of hippie and punk counterculture recycled as Melrose chic. Similarly, as a subversive concept, drag comedy has died from overexposure and is now being resurrected as a fashion statement. The question is: Where's an earnest, angry 20-year-old to turn in a world where Gorbachev does Pizza Hut commercials, where marketing passes for wisdom?

THE CHERRY ORCHARD
By ANTON CHEKHOV
At the GASCON CENTER THEATER
8737 Washington Blvd., Culver City
Through February 21

THE SEAGULL
By ANTON CHEKHOV
At HOLLYWOOD COURT THEATER
Hollywood Methodist Church,
6817 Franklin Ave.,
Hollywood
Through February 15

THE BIRDS
By ARISTOPHANES
Adapted by JOHN GLORE and CULTURE CLASH
At SOUTH COAST REPERTORY
655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Through February 22

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP
BY CHARLES LUDLAM
At the TIFFANY THEATER
8532 Sunset Blvd.,
West Hollywood
Through March 22

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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