Add Kelly Stuart's "Taxi Dance" at the Cast to the spate of recent productions that depict descents into hell (also including the current "Castles Made of Sand" and "Edmond"). This one shows the influence of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the late writer-director obsessed with hells on Earth.
But "Taxi Dance" is more interesting than much of Fassbinder's work. Part of this stems from Stuart's ability to depict innocence, which was of no interest to Fassbinder. Her subject is a nice woman from the suburbs named Janet (Noreen Hennessy). At the play's start, she's already in hell--a sleazy club, in which women are paid by the minute to dance with male clients--but her naivete is intact. Stuart wants to explore Janet's internal decay, how she drops to the level of her surroundings.
In other words, there's a real character to hang onto here amid the grime. She actually talks to her customers, unlike her fellow workers, who hand out empty one-liners (Stuart's dialogue skillfully distinguishes between the two). Still, it takes a real actress to put across Janet's comment that "this job is like a public service." Hennessy does this line--like Janet's descent--quietly and without excess.
Director Robert Glaudini has an uncommon knack for assembling casts for their visual as well as verbal strengths. "Taxi Dance" marks his best work to date, abetted by lights (Erika Bradburry), music and sound (Don Preston) and set (Nick Flynn and Erika M. Birch) that make you queasy. The women, especially Tina Preston and Diane Sherry, exude a sad sultriness; the men, especially Robert Gould, accent their vulnerability as they confess to Janet. Who would have thought that a play about how women are turned into commodities could also be about how people can listen to each other?
\o7 At 800 N. El Centro Ave., on Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., through June 18. Tickets: $12-$15; (213) 462-9872.
\f7 'Tales of Misogyny'
Among many other ambitious-sounding accomplishments, director Sara Paulson once staged a one-woman show based on a Donald Barthelme short story. Her latest work, "Little Tales of Misogyny," at Al's Bar, although adapted from several stories by Patricia Highsmith, is pure Barthelme.
It's dotted with brief, cutting, often absurdist glimpses of human fear and loathing \o7 in extremis\f7 --in this case, the strange ways women are violated and objectified.
The glimpses are also often funny. "Heartpiece" plays on the old adage of a woman losing her heart to a man, done in witty silhouette. "The Hand" plays on the older adage of a father (a devilish Ron Campbell) giving his daughter's hand in marriage, much to the suitor's distress (Steve Alden, with eyes bulging). "The Dancer" takes tango's sadomasochistic qualities to their logical end. "The Breeder" becomes a tale of a wife's fertility becoming the best revenge against hubby's domination (Steve Ruggles and Saratoga Ballantine).
Interspersed through these tales are vignettes--three women call out every synonym known in English for \o7 breasts\f7 , a wife (devastatingly dry Carol Rosenthal) neuters herself out of some need to save her marriage. The whole is paced with ensemble discipline, and kept in rhythm by the inventive music duo of Tino Cano and Caesar Lopez. Paulson has directed and adapted Highsmith the way Jane Zenzefilis designed the set: with economy (less than an hour running time) and a strong but uninsistent style. Drop the jarring finale, and it's nearly perfect.
\o7 At 305 S. Hewitt St., downtown Los Angeles, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m., Saturdays, 3 p.m., through June 24. Tickets: $5; (213) 829-3547.
\f7 'Guests of the Nation'
Another utterly different short-story adaptation is Neil McKenzie's play "Guests of the Nation," from Frank O'Conner's fiction work. In its sensitive treatment of a moral dilemma faced by soldiers in the Northern Irish strife, this long one-act at the Court Theatre makes a fascinating companion to the flawed Belfast drama, "Ourselves Alone," at the Tiffany.
In their guts, Barney and Joseph, two IRA guards (Wally Kurth and Joe Colligan), know that it's unwise to get too chummy with their British Army prisoners, Hawkins and Belcher (George Jenesky and Matthew Ashford). Hawkins is the brasher of the two Brits, yet he has the same concern. Slowly, they do make a bond, as supposed enemies can when thrown together by circumstance.
When duty calls, in the form of IRA vet Jeremiah (Frank Parker), Barney and Joseph are caught in a tragedy that recalls Stephen Crane. Ron Burrus' production is slightly stolid in its seriousness, but Kurth, Colligan, Jenesky and Ashford show themselves to be compellingly serious actors. Parker and Kate O'Connell play two sides of the Irish mind without becoming symbols, and Peggie Reyna tosses in some dramatics in her unobtrusive signing of the performance.
\o7 At 722 N. La Cienega Blvd., on Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., until June 11. Tickets: $15; (213) 466-1767.
\f7 'South of Where We Live'