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DOUBLED UP IN LAUGHTER : 'Twin Desperados' at Irvine Barclay Takes Comic Aim at Radio Westerns

August 12, 1993|CORINNE FLOCKEN

Somewhere on that great lonesome trail called family entertainment, "Twin Desperados" added more corn to the corn and more hero to the hero. And ticket buyers at the Irvine Barclay Theatre should be plumb glad it did.

Chock-full of cornball Western humor, shoot-'em-ups and True Blue Heroes of the Open Range, this 1989 comedy by playwright Greg Atkins and fight choreographer Christopher Villa could easily have been shrunk to fit the stage of a local theme park. But "Twin Desperados" needs room to kick up its heels, and this revival by Irvine's Theatrefaire for Children gets acres of it--at times, too much.

Final performances are this weekend.

"Twin Desperados" features 39 local children and adults and is directed by Theatrefaire co-founder Blake Gould. (Atkins and Villa get in on the act too; Atkins plays the Masked Desperado and Villa serves as the fight director.)

The production opens in the heyday of radio drama, when gloriously overwrought heroes and villains loom large on the airwaves and in listeners' imaginations. Three radio actors and a silken-voiced announcer set the scene for "When Bullets Kiss," the final action-packed chapter of the serial "Twin Desperados." After a word from our sponsors ("Sugar Bullets--the cereal that gives you the sugar, uh, energy you need"), we're off.

The scrim lifts to reveal the bleak town of Armadillo, where bad guys run rampant and even a pretty schoolmarm can't get a date. The Masked Avenger and his trusty sidekick, Howdy, fresh from their latest scrape with evil and plumb out of clean costumes, ride into town looking for a laundry and find themselves up to their six-shooters in dirt.

But what's this? On their heels are another pair of crime fighters who look and act exactly the same as the first two! It's the Masked Desperado, a federal agent posing as a hired gun, who infiltrates the baddies' gang to uncover a land-hungry baroness' plot to choke the life out of Armadillo. Riding his stick pony (the mount of choice here in Armadillo) alongside is his long-suffering partner, Pardner.

All four heroes are in search of the long-lost twin brothers from whom they were separated at birth. Their quest has taken them across the West, where they have filled their time with feats of courage and decency, and the occasional commercial plug. Now they are together at last. Except of course, nobody knows it.

The burning questions arise: Will the twins' reunion be joyful? Will the villains' plot be successful? Or will the masked men squash them under their gleaming boots like cow pies? Will Kid Vicious ever bathe?

For the rest of the show, the answers are played out to the Nth degree by the cast and by the designers, who contribute blazing Western skies, soul-stirring music and scenery-chewing brawls.

It's no surprise that Gould has given things such a free rein. Gould commissioned Atkins and Villa to write a spoof based on his idea that would borrow both from Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors" and the radio Western dramas of yesteryear. The show made its debut that summer in an outdoor staging at Irvine Valley College.

Except for some dull spots and technical lags, the effect at the Barclay is fine, although at two hours it runs long for younger children. Still, "Desperados" must have worked even better in IVC's smaller, more casual setting. Physically, the Barclay gives the designer more to play with--resulting in effects such as set designer Wally Huntoon's "speeding" onstage locomotive--but at times the theater's dimensions work against the show.

Atkins' and Villa's purposely contrived characters would be more attractive at closer range. This is melodrama, and in the Barclay's expansiveness, the goofball interaction between actors and viewers that makes melodramas work is next to impossible. That feeling of detachment was heightened at Friday's opening, when half of the theater's 756 seats were empty. At one point, Blake tries to close the gap with an aisle chase scene, but it isn't enough.

The actors help out by playing it large. As the Masked Avenger, Mark John McSheehy carries it off well with his Dudley Do- Right posturing and voice; it's no wonder he turns Amber Hamilton's prim Miss Rebecca's heart to butter. Apparently trying to baby a sore throat, Atkins was more restrained vocally but compensated with physical humor that pleased the kids in the house. (Many of the sight gags in this show play to adults, by the way. Keep an eye on the masked men's hairlines.)

As the steely baroness, Teri Ciranna borrowed heavily from Katharine Hepburn. Mike Urdanet's Kid Vicious is a filthy, terminally bowlegged creep who brings the term slime bucket to a new low.

The uncredited costumes, including the baddies' woolly chaps and Miss Lucy's snappy riding habit, were in sync with the show's mood, and the closing scene would have been incomplete without lighting designer Chris Medvitz's glowing sunset. Todd Meir's sound design sometimes blotted out the thin voices of the kids in the cast.

Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

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