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THEATER REVIEW : 'Narrow Road' a Bumpy Trip to a Dead End


What is the sound of one hand clapping?

The audience applauding after "Narrow Road to the Deep North."

The Actors' Gang ends its 2nd Stage Theatre history with a whimper. Although it's a very loud whimper, no amount of bombast conceals a misfire.

Edward Bond's "Narrow Road to the Deep North" is the Gang's final 2nd Stage production before the company moves to its own permanent theater this fall. Accordingly, "Narrow Road" is presented in the company's signature style: expressionist and Brechtian, actors in mime makeup signifying with exaggerated comic-book gestures and vocal histrionics. Inappropriately, this flamboyant style doesn't fit Bond's 1968 parable about Japanese Zen poet Basho and Colonialism.

The tale is--or should be--relatively simple. While walking north to find enlightenment through meditation, Basho (Joseph Grimm) comes across an abandoned baby. Rather than rescue the child, the poet philosophizes that its condition comes from "the irresistible will of heaven." Thirty years later, Basho passes by again, only to meet Kiro (Brent Hinkley), orphaned 30 years before (hint). A city has risen nearby, ruled by a tyrant named Shogo (James Parks). A Commodore (Steven M. Porter) is enlisted to overthrow the dictator, but the victorious Bible-quoting Brits prove much worse.

Basho admits, "I don't like meddling in politics--like most people." Nevertheless, the poet rises to become prime minister. So much for detached "enlightenment."

Bond's metaphor for the Vietnam War unfortunately travels neatly into the 1990s as a mirror to such tragedies as Bosnia. But the Gang's cacophonous approach confuses Bond's simple narrative. If Bond insists that "some problems have no solution," the audience is still entitled to know what the problems might be. Apathy? Elitism? Greed? Violence?

The production has exceptional moments. Shannon Holt's lunatic tambourine-banging evangelist is both hilarious and terrifying. A delightful sequence occurs when a priest's head gets stuck inside the "sacred holy relic"--a jug. The ensemble's acting admirably maintains the Gang's aesthetic.

The cast wears Noh sandals, but little of that classic theater's austere simplicity or meditative silences grace director Daniel Bernstein's unfocused interpretation. Rather than haiku epigrams, an audience is bludgeoned by sound and fury. Very little pathos can emerge from absurd cartoon caricatures.

What does maintain a spare and evocative effect is Adam Scher's set--a simple backdrop screen behind a stage covered with earth. But the scenery can't compensate for the bewildering trip down this "Narrow Road" to a dead end.

* "Narrow Road to the Deep North," 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 25. (213) 466-1767. $12. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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