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THEATER REVIEW : 'Brain Death' Is Packed With Life as It Pokes Fun at Modern Minds

October 31, 1987|NANCY CHURNIN

SAN DIEGO — Have you ever wondered just what the inside of your frazzled, overloaded mind looked like?

First, envision a stage with two giant ears, a giant nose and, farther back, eyes suspended from the rafters. (For women, add giant curlers at the very top.) Through lips at the farthest corner, a tongue protrudes, melting into a thick red-painted line that runs over a white Stonehenge of teeth to swell into a curled tip at the edge of the stage.

Now imagine writing on the stage. "The Constitution" brushes up against "Mother," "God," "Ten Commandments," "MGM," like a confusion of rules battling for supremacy. Any wonder that when you look up at the walls, you find an abstract explosion of unravelled springs and bows and tabloid signs: "Eat All Day, Lose Weight" and "Kid, 4, Shoots Mom"?

That's what Rob Murphy came up with for his set design of "Six Women with Brain Death or Expiring Minds Want to Know," the wild and wackily winning musical now having its West Coast premiere at the San Diego Repertory Theatre at Horton Plaza through Dec. 5.

Although the initial inspiration for the piece, written by composer Mark Houston, six actresses and one other man, was the absurdity of tabloid headlines, Murphy's set ingeniously points an arrow to the confusion of the people reading the headlines. Can they possibly believe what the (barely) fictitious National Expirer is telling them? Can they believe what the government is telling them? Or self-help books? Or even their mothers?

Indeed, in a world flooded with disinformation, what can anyone believe about anything? Under Sam Woodhouse's sharp and sure direction, six very talented actresses (not the authors) sing, dance and speak their way through 15 vignettes that ask that question from a variety of angles.

Although some of the pieces do address the question more ably and memorably than others (which would probably improve the show by their absence), the overall performance has a vitality and heart that makes it more than the sum of its parts.

Melinda Gilb, who was so funny as the trampy angel in the recent "Suds," does a touching turn here as the woman with too many self-help books who sings, "I Think I Read Too Much." Sharon Murray is marvelously acidic as the hard-drinking, hair-rollered, soap-opera addict watching and sniping at her broadcast of "All My Hospitals," only to find rising from her television the tall and elegant Kate Kiley, playing the television, indignantly yelling back.

Seraiah Carol does a commanding performance as the girl who, in one number, is "too fat to be prom queen" and in another shares an apartment with the living severed head of the all-American girl who won the crown all those years ago.

Less successful are confused visions in which Linda Libby, an otherwise pleasing performer, plays a woman lost between a dream of her favorite Disney movie, "Bambi," and her children's favorite, "Rambo." More tedious is a running joke about a group of divas, led by the generally appealing Geraldine Joyce, who try to make it as a singing group first in Motown and later in Nashville. All the effort ends up as a long road to a payoff that's not worth the wait.

What the show needs are more numbers like the excellent ensemble piece, "The Real Thing." The number begins with the women talking in overlapping monologues about Ken and Barbie dolls and the men they have known. The stories build, exploding into a fantasy where Barbie and Ken get married as three of the women don wedding veils and the other three--in one of many brilliant costuming surprises by Sally Cleveland--put on rubber Ken wigs and T-shirt tuxedoes.

The piece is successful because of the hope and anxiety expressed by the women who really want the wedding to work. It's a tough look at a nostalgic subject that never once sinks into the sentimental morass that the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre's recent "The Wonder Years," a similarly structured revue, could not avoid.

Houston's first song, "Expiring Minds," is the most memorable in the score, but the others are well-served by Houston who, as music director, conducts the live four-man band. Burnham Joiner handles the sound skillfully, and Bonnie Johnston's brightly stepping choreography is appropriately upbeat. Peter Nordyke's lighting, while often colorful and creative, distracts by failing to achieve smooth transitions.

All of these elements add up to a pleasing show that isn't long on answers, but, to its credit, doesn't try to be. As James Thurber once said, "It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers." And"Six Women" certainly does know some of the most interesting questions.

"SIX WOMEN WITH BRAIN DEATH OR EXPIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW."

By Cheryl Benge, Christy Brandt, Rosanna E. Coppedge, Valerie Fagan, Ross Freese, Mark Houston, Sandee Johnson and Peggy Pharr-Wilson. Music and lyrics by Mark Houston. Director is Sam Woodhouse. Musical direction by Mark Houston. Choreography by Bonnie Johnston. Set by Rob Murphy. Lighting by Peter Nordyke. Costumes by Sally Cleveland. Sound by Burnham Joiner. Stage manager is Lisa Medwid. With Seraiah Carol, Melinda Gilb, Geraldine Joyce, Kate Kiley, Linda Libby and Sharon Murray. At 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 5. At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, 790 Horton Plaza, San Diego.

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