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THEATER REVIEW : Festival Puts Student Writers at Center Stage : The annual Ventura College showcase is strong on comedy. The outstanding one-act takes cues from 'The Twilight Zone.'


Of all the year's activities, it's the annual Student One-Act Play Festival that gives Ventura College theater students their greatest opportunity to glow--or to fail, miserably. This year's edition, ending this weekend, varies in quality, of course. But there's no failure, and a bit of promise.

Neil Simon, David Mamet and Wendy Wasserstein needn't worry; this quartet of sketches shows that their writers (and most of the performers) aim less at the Broadway or off-Broadway stage, and more at "Saturday Night Live." The good news is that the two purely comic pieces here are, for all their shallowness, at least the equal of most of what winds up on "SNL."

But neither is the most effective or well-wrought piece of the evening. That honor goes to "The Circus Harlequin," the show's second-half opener, written and directed by Mark Johnson. Like the two comic pieces, it seems inspired by television writing: It could have been an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" or perhaps "The Twilight Zone."

A young woman (Carissa J. Martin) joins a traveling circus as a clown after her fiance abandons her, "because, he said, I wasn't fun to be around, anymore." She is hired by the oily owner (Colin Wilson) who advises her that the troupe is a family, and that "nobody leaves the circus." Soon she encounters a veteran clown (Nick Justiniano), who doesn't speak, and doesn't seem to hear. Eventually she finds out why, and she discovers that the circus owner wasn't speaking metaphorically. Brrr . . .

Billy Alvarado also appears, in a dual role, and the acting throughout is the least florid of the evening--quite an accomplishment, considering that two of the main characters here are clowns!

The first half of the show consists of two comic sketches. "A Lovely Day," written and directed by Amy Garrett, takes place on a city street where a young man (Kenny Luper) spots someone about to jump from a building. As he attempts to stop the impending suicide, Luper's character meets wacky stereotypical characters: a dotty old woman (Sunny Kristine), a pair of camera-toting tourists (Jayne Okruhlik and James C. Minics), and a foot-patrol policeman (Vince Ugolini), who for some reason is dressed as a forest ranger.

"Art Kills," written and directed by P.J. Galligan, takes potshots at contemporary art, again with a cast pulled from the Comedy 101 cliche list: a snotty gallery owner (Christopher Colone), snobbish patrons (Thomasen Stork, Jill Waggoner, Susi Wong), pretentious artists (Kelly Hufford, Jazz Walea) and a couple of naive students (Brittany Jones; Becky Stier).

Galligan chooses his target without showing evidence of knowing anything about it. One of the gallery's installations, involving plumbing fixtures, is actually pretty interesting.

Like Garrett, he populates his play with stupid characters, admittedly considerably easier to write than smart ones. Containing some real wit, the sketch was a crowd-pleaser at last week's opening night.

The final one-act of the evening, "Etaine and Etaire," may strike some viewers as exploring the same superficial and pretentious art as "Art Kills."

A pair of Siamese twins (Jenypher R. Owens and Sarah P. Meaney) who are joined at the back, long to be separated. After their wish is granted in a dream sequence, they discover that their relationship is truly symbiotic.

Again, the play (written by Karen Villeneuve-Hambrick) isn't without merit: There's an interesting use of video, it's a clever idea to have the twins sing in harmony, and director Susan Compton and actors Owens and Meaney have come up with some nice choreography.

The plays take place on two stages in the college's theater building, so there's some moving-around for the audience. There is wheelchair accessibility, but entailing more labor than usual.


* WHAT: Student One-Act Play Festival

* WHEN: Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m.; Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. Ends this Sunday.

* WHERE: Ventura College Mainstage and Circus Theaters Theater, Loma Vista Road (west of Day Road), Ventura

* COST: $5 general admission; $4 students, staff and seniors.

* FYI: For reservations or information, call 648-8922

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