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The Real Stories Behind the Titles : January's stage productions offer a mixed bag of treats. Just don't confuse the themes with what is on the marquee.

January 01, 1991|JAN HERMAN

Never trust the title of a play, especially in January.

"Pirates," which begins previews Friday on South Coast Repertory's Mainstage in Costa Mesa, has nothing to do with Erroll Flynn.

The prize-winning script of this fantasy drama does take its inspiration from a pair of 18th-Century female swashbucklers who might have taught the star of "Captain Blood" a thing or two. But playwright Mark Lee's real focus is a 20th-Century history professor caught up in a feminist confrontation with her college department's all-male faculty.

"Snakes," which opens Thursday at the Orange County Coalition of the Theatre Arts in Costa Mesa, has nothing to do with reptiles.

Playwright A.L. Parish has written what the theater company describes as an inside look at labor negotiations between union officials and the corporate executives of a chemical plant.

"All the workers want is to be tested (for exposure to) deadly toxins on the job," notes a press release from the theater.

Is there a way to make contract talks dramatically appealing without reviving "Waiting for Lefty"? Presumably, the producers have been inoculated against the toxins of box-office poison.

Moving right along, "Burn This"--which opens Jan. 10 at the Forum Theatre in Laguna Beach--has nothing to do with American flags or Joan of Arc.

Lanford Wilson's play is actually a "searing" romantic comedy, as it is so often described. Set in New York's Soho district, "Burn This" traces the intense relationships among four characters, concentrating chiefly on the one between a Neanderthal non-artist named Pale and a sensitive modern dancer named Anna.

Meanwhile, despite the titles of two other plays coming our way this month--Manuel Puig's "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter"--it would be erroneous to conclude that Hollywood is suddenly showing an interest in Orange County.

The Puig opus, which begins previews Jan. 22 on SCR's Second Stage, was a theatrical production before it was a movie. Ditto for the Goldman work, which begins previews Jan. 18 at the Alternative Repertory Theatre in Santa Ana.

Just in case you wondered, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" hasn't anything to do with spiders. Nor has "The Lion in Winter" anything to do with Joy Adamson.

Puig, who adapted his novel to the stage, takes us inside an Argentinian prison cell shared by a tough political subversive and a flamboyant homosexual window dresser. Despite their antithetical differences, they find a common bond (their humanity) and a common enemy (the repression by a fascist regime).

Goldman, who has written a fictionalized period piece combining comedy and history, takes us to the medieval court of King Henry II where he and Eleanor of Aquitaine--his imprisoned queen--and their three sons indulge in vengeful plots and counterplots over succession to the throne.

(Incidentally, don't let ART's tape-recorded phone information fool you. It really is James Goldman who wrote "The Lion in Winter," not William . William Goldman wrote "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," among many other screenplays.)

As for Tina Howe's "Painting Churches," which opens Jan. 15 at the Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach, the central character is, indeed, a painter.

The title does not confuse that issue. But the churches she hopes to paint are not the buildings you might expect. In fact, they are not buildings at all. They are human monuments: her elderly parents in Boston, Fanny and Gardner Church.

Next, though not in chronological order, we come to Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," opening Jan. 17 at UC Irvine's Fine Arts Concert Hall.

The title of this epic five-act parable refers to the geographic and cultural region of the Caucasus, not to race.

Set in the East and based on a Chinese fable, Brecht's play involves a civil war, an abandoned child, a roguish fool who becomes a judge and "the temptation of goodness."

For a play with a truly epic title, we can look forward to Marcia Leslie's "The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safretta Mae." Try getting that on a marquee.

Ironically, "Trial" won the 1989 Short Play Competition at Los Angeles' Inner City Cultural Center.

Leslie takes a look at how stereotypes of African-American women are perpetuated in the media. Previews of her play begin Jan. 30 at Garden Grove's Gem Theatre in a production by the Orange County Black Actors Theatre that will also travel to Rancho Santiago College's Phillips Hall in Santa Ana.

Theatergoers also will be able to catch several one-day performances billed under simple or self-explanatory titles that shouldn't confuse anybody:

* Nanette Fabray will do a one-woman variety show called "An Afternoon With Nanette Fabray," at the Moulton Theatre on Jan. 20 in a benefit for the Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled.

* The Seattle Mime Theatre will present episodes from "New American Mime Stories" as well as "Pinocchio," the old Italian story, on Jan. 12 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in Irvine.

* The Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis will present "Pippi Longstocking," an adventure story about a girl named Pippi Longstocking, on Jan. 22 also at the Irvine Barclay.

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