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THEATER BEAT

Inconsistency Undercuts 'Rising Tide'

March 26, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

History is made by the historians, something that playwright Vernon Takeshita seems to be alternately thrilled and amused by in his quasi-farce "The Rising Tide of Color," at East West Players. He isn't content simply to relate the absurd account of an embarrassing incident in the 1920 Nob Hill household of the Phipps family. He wants to turn this sexually tinged, culturally charged family comedy into an examination of how ideas can be made to look like facts, how appearances deceive, how history is first and foremost a story.

Built into Takeshita's concept is that all of the roles--be they the super WASPish Phippses, the racialist Rev. Aldrich (Nelson Mashita) or Paul (Shaun Shimoda), the Japanese-American youth hired as the family's gardener--are played by Asian-American actors. It renders absurd the hysterical finger-pointing at Paul when he's wrongly accused of raping the Phippses' daughter. What else, the reverend remarks, does one expect of the lower races?

But this isn't only a baroque joke on the politics of differences (something now shared by the left and the right). Takeshita's narrator (Cindy Cheung) finds herself losing control of her own story, which was to show patriarch Everett Phipps (Dom Magwili) as a man of the people. A monster under the skin is more like it.

Takeshita's ripe tragic-farce demands much, and you can only wish that he had a director and cast that could consistently put across the nervy majesty of his project. While Magwili, Byron Mann as the effete son and Darrell Kunitomi as a squirrelly family friend are poisonously good, Mashita as the play's center of conflict hardly utters a roar.

Both Shimoda and Annie Yee's maid are funny victims but Cheung and Gerrielani Miyazaki (as Mrs. Phipps) can't keep their broken women together.

Director Brian Nelson's farce timing is slack at best and, with designers Bill Eigenbrodt (set) and Randy L. Ingram (lights), he hasn't worked out the set's own rising tide of colors.

"The Rising Tide of Color," East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Silver Lake. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 25. $18-$20; (213) 660-0366. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Urban Defeats Rural in 'Uncle Vanya'

Casting also bedevils director Peggy Shannon's gentle, intimate staging of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" at Theatre 6470. While William Dennis Hunt's Vanya is a font of bitterness, a resounding Ghost of Wasted Time, Janet Borrus' equally crucial Elena lacks the magnetism that she should have to drive men crazy. They still look crazy here but not in the way Chekhov intended.

Steven Memel's comically passionate Dr. Astrov, Chekhov's voice for "Vanya's" highly advanced ecological message, is playing a fool in a vacuum when he's with Borrus. While he, along with Hunt and Eric Kohner's finely drawn Telygin feel very much like 19th-Century men lost in the new millennium, Borrus feels too contemporary. It distracts from the play's fundamental concern, which isn't the old versus the new so much as urban society leaving the rural behind, and Vanya in the dust.

The comedy is played pianissimo, which is fine since Shannon is more interested in the play's sadness, especially as it's played by Hunt and Ilsa Anna with a shattering closing aria as lonely Sofya. Susan Gratch's set subtly accompanies the play's music, especially in the way her painted landscape background feels ultimately small and denuded.

"Uncle Vanya," Theatre 6470, 6470 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends April 18. $12.50-$15; (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

'Take Away' Rises With Humanism

The late playwright-actor William DeAcutis died of AIDS shortly after he finished writing his play "Take Away," which is partially about a young man dying of AIDS. But this Mojo Ensemble production, at the American New Theatre, is not a play about AIDS. It is about death as the great equalizer. Though you grimace at director Brian Frank's and lighting designer Richard Taylor's unfortunate decision to cast a pool of light on the play's three dying characters in their final moment, "Take Away" contains an adult rather than a romantic understanding of mortality and grief.

You wish only that this dimensionality applied to all of DeAcutis' people. While Robin Bennett's conservative Joey and Larry Cox's more flamboyant Carl are shown to love and fight and make up as real lovers dealing with Carl's real sickness, Jenette Goldstein's strident wife Jerry and Patrick Kuhn's slob husband Bart are cartoonish kin to the "Married . . . With Children" set--without the laughs.

Even the other heterosexual couple, Joey's elderly parents Bella (an affectingly fragile Frances Bay) and Tony (a steady Pete Trama), first appear as nutty oldsters. But Bay's humanism cracks open the play's own humanism, making "Take Away" a bigger experience than it might have been.

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