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'Downpayments' at Inner City; 'Macbeth' at Chandler Studio; 'Snake Talk' at Tiffany Theatre; 'The Wine Cellar' at Theatre Rapport

March 31, 1989|RAY LOYND

Two years ago, the Inner City Cultural Center and Woodie King Jr. were among the producers of a provocative "audience play" called "Checkmates" that went on to a long run at the Westwood Playhouse. Now, the ICCC and King are embarked on another insightful comedy, "Downpayments," that enjoys an equally promising future.

Written and produced by Tracee Lyles, "Downpayments" features six female characters nesting in Ruby's Roost, a splendid old house presided over by one-time entertainer Ruby La Ru (Alaina Reed). She made her last payment on the manse years before, but she's still paying down emotionally, as are most of the characters.

The acting, with one exception, is penetrating and at times raucously funny. In three cases, the performance level is dynamic (Cyndi James Gossett's vain, aspiring actress; Tina Lifford's steely, vivid playwright, and Michelle Davison's crisp, no-nonsense neighbor.)

Director Shirley Jo Finney's staging is brisk, as feathers fly in a warmly appointed, multilayered interior set designed and lit by Qulture Jarrett. The costumes by Hoda are telling and frequently delicious. (Jarrett and Hoda are two more women in this nearly all-female production, the ICCC's cheerful tribute to National Women's History Month.)

The rhythm of the show is ensemble-polished. These people have their personal demons, but they're all self-reliant black women, complete with a working-class character, the self-described Ms. Plumber (played with a touch too much smirk by Marj Hardman).

The play's weak link is the whiny, tiresome teen-ager who materializes both forlorn and pregnant; it's playwright Lyles' one cliche role (which Chantal doesn't begin to redeem).

The theater may be in a lousy neighborhood, but forget that. This is entertaining, bracing theater. There's valet parking.

At 1308 S. New Hampshire Ave., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., through April 22. Tickets: $20 ; (213) 387-1161.

'Macbeth'

"Macbeth" races from sin to sin with a concentration that is remorseless. Shakespeare brooks no diversions. This is not a costume drama. It's a tragedy of morbid gloom.

As such, director Christopher Tanner's production at the pocket-size but sleekly comfortable Chandler Studio in North Hollywood is an imaginatively staged black cauldron of a production. There are no props (except masks). All the actors wear similar black capes and hoods. The postage stamp-size stage is black, sucking you into the cosmic maw of the unspeakable midnight murder and the crimes that follow.

Tanner's concept is different, intensive and risky. The design of the production is choreographed almost like a chamber piece, a danse macabre.

The danger lurks in the production's austerity. Character distinctions get blurred. The darkness is dreamlike, immersing, but also relentless, and it puts a frightful burden on the lighting plan--in this case musty-toned, broken by slashes of stark illumination.

Steve Whelan's Macbeth and Cheri Roberts' Lady Macbeth catch the inexorable sweep of bloody destinies. The witches naturally benefit strongly from the show's bleak dressing, and Eric Kinch's Banquo, Peter L'Angelle's Duncan, and Joseph Dean Vachon's Macduff are visceral characterizations.

At 12433 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood, Fridays through Sundays, 8 p.m., through April 23. Free, with requested donations of $5. (818) 769-9871.

'Snake Talk'

A woman alone on stage segues with quicksilver movement from maiden to mother to crone. This is the stuff of the pre-patriarchal goddess and her teacher the snake. But the ancient, mythic baggage materializes in feisty contemporary terms in "Snake Talk: Urgent Messages from the Mother" at the Tiffany Theatre.

That creator-performer Naomi Newman plays the quintessential Jewish mother is secondary to the larger female voice Newman uncoils with wit, bite and a panache that is particularly winning because it is so unstressed. Newman, who collaborated with her director, Martha Boesing, on this intermissionless "theatricalized Dharma talk," as she calls it, also sings songs and plays a quaint accordion.

The performance is not flashy. It's not show biz we're watching but an actress quietly in tune with life's cycle, reaching for the stars in lamentations of aging and death and other awesome topics that are lodged always in the flesh, and mystery, of Woman.

The Traveling Jewish Theatre production is part of the WomanRites series presented by L.A. Theatre Works and Tiffany Theatres.

At 8532 Sunset Blvd., Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 5 p.m., through April 30. Tickets: $16-$20. (213) 652-6165.

'The Wine Cellar'

Playwright Francis Gallagher has a good idea for a play: culpable and jaded Germans hiding out in the cellar of a bombed out restaurant as the Russians storm Berlin. But "The Wine Cellar" is not vintage grape at Theatre Rapport.

The writing and the characters frequently veer toward comic opera. At times the style suggests an updated parody of "Cabaret." The direction by Vince Di Vincenzo is stodgy, and the acting is largely artless with a luminous exception: Richard Dudas' S.S. officer is the real thing. His encounter with a Russian captain (another able performance by Robert Shoemaker) is the intellectual and human highlight.

The cyanide death scenes, with slouching bodies and a blonde singing "Falling in Love Again," are Weltschmerz at its most ludicrous.

At 1277 N. Wilton Place, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. through May 6. Tickets: $10. (213) 660-0433.

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