PICK PALACE OF THE END With echoes of Brian Friels Faith Healer, Canadian playwright Judith Thompson paints a richly textured portrait of a world through interrelated soliloquys. But where the Irish Friel gives his purpose of life ruminations a romantic tilt, Thompson surveys the guts and bile of human oppression. Her landscape is Iraq and her trio of characters starts with U.S. Army PFC Lynndie England (Kate Mines), whose photo image giving a thumbs up to the sexual humiliation of Muslim inmates at Abu Ghraib prison made her an object of international contempt. Through her confession, we see her pregnant and with dog tags, checking her name on Google and reading the hate mail in the blogosphere. In attempting to understand her, Thompson has her explain how being a woman in the military requires cold-hearted machismo just to survive, let alone fit in. The prisoner whom she had led around on a dog chain had just called her a dog, she explains, and this was her answer. As for the thumbs-up pose, it was one second of fulfilling a request one second of infamy captured for eternity. Mines cavalier, quick-witted interpretation of the gal from West Virginia includes her singing, with knowing irony, Im just a girl who cant say no/Im in a terrible fix. Next we meet Dr. David Kelly (Michael Katlin), the British weapons inspector almost crucified by Tony Blair for testifying that evidence for the invasion was sexed up. They didnt need to kill him, he did it himself, and we catch him in the woods moments before his suicide. His agony was not for his testimony, but for his complicity in the invasion at the outset, which, unwittingly for him, brutally ended the lives of an Iraqi family hed come to know and admire. The tragedy in Katlins portrayal is slightly mannered, and his dialect is off-center, yet the soliloquy remains engrossing. Anna Khajas Iraqi ghost Nehrjas (killed during the first U.S. invasion) closes the play a testimony to the horrors of life under Saddam Hussein, of seeing her children tortured for information leading to the arrest of their officially loathed father an intellectual and communist. In those days, the CIA was funding Husseins efforts to eradicate his enemies if you recall the 1983 video of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Husseins hand. Nehrjas story is as grueling as it gets, delivered by Khaja with mournful, merciful restraint and a wry, twisted smile that contains everything you need to know about pointless suffering, wisdom and the dignity of endurance. In her play finely directed by Sara Botsford and C.B. Brown, Thompson defiantly scrapes to the marrow of opposing camps, offering a lament that is theological and tragic and contains a rare, eerie beauty. 49th Parallel and Open at the Top at the Noho Arts Center, 111336 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlwyd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru July 8. (818) 752-4709 (Steven Leigh Morris)
SISTER CITIES In Colette Freedmans play, Marys (Bibi Tinsley) unexpected suicide brings her four estranged daughters together for an impromptu wake. The sisters have almost nothing in common, including their fathers, who are different for each of them. Perfect Dallas (Darcy Martin) has a husband and a teaching job; theres also lesbian novelist Austin (Bettina Adger); a wealthy, uptight lawyer named Carolina (Royana Black); while Baltimore (Jen Eldridge) is the youngest, and has always been a drifter. The drama opens with explosive tension between polar opposites Austin and Carolina. Alex Kosztownys costumes further differentiate the two; Carolina sports a perfectly tailored suit while Austin wears sloppy pajamas. Baltimore walks in and muddles the scene with the relative vagueness of her character. Shes ditsy, yet she attends Harvard; she speaks in an innocent baby voice, yet she is great with men. The strongest acting comes in Act 2, during a flashback: Tinsleys magnetic, devastating portrayal of Mary centers the production, and Austins unexpected affection toward her mother shows her vulnerability. Also in the second half, Lisa Cole shows her directorial chops with an uproarious interpretive-dance break. Despite a handful of sweet moments, however, the production rarely congeals, and the eventual embraces of the four sisters look awkward and forced. ALEXIA ROBINSON STUDIO/THIRD STAGE, 2811 Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru June 23. (818) 769-7678. (Stephanie Lysaght)
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THE VISIONARY POSITION In her one-woman show, Carla Collins surveys topics of human and sexual relations in a shape-shifting culture. With costume changes, Collins also appears as a chain-smoking French supermodel, an abrasive Jewish New Yorker, a wealthy socialite with a fetish for black men, and an herbologist to the stars. Collins is filled with and fueled by crass vivacity. She mingles with the crowd, engages in abundant repartee and even performs a lap dance for one unwary patron. The show flies on the power of its one-liners (Im as deep as a lunch tray). The swirl of goofy characters inside Collins head has taken up residence and are behind on the rent, pushing their hostess to unseemly limits. I enjoyed it a lot but couldnt find a reason much beyond the cartoons capacity to show off Collins comedic versatility for them to be on the same stage. The Visionary Position is a bit like Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlins The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, but without the search. The show includes music by Chris Lashelle, with lyrics co-written by Collins and director Paul Schmidt. WHITEFIRE THEATER, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Sun., June 17, and July 8, 8 p.m. RSVP at www.carlacollins.ca. (Steven Leigh Morris)