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THEATER REVIEW : 'The Almond Seller': A Hard Nut to Crack : In trying to say too much in this drama based on her native Romania, the playwright doesn't say enough.


IRVINE — In 1990, playwright Oana-Maria Hock returned to her native Romania to see for herself the immense changes taking place. Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was gone, and the freedom promised by the country's new leader, Ion Iliescu, looked like the same old totalitarianism.

"The Almond Seller," the play that resulted from Hock's odyssey, doesn't make a political statement. And that's all to its good.

In the West Coast premiere production at UC Irvine's Fine Arts Studio Theatre, Hock's concerns are human. Her central figures are Toma, a young archeologist; Alexa, a miner; and the Widow's Daughter, an expatriate journalist come home to do a photo story on Romania's ills.

The trio played together as children, alike as "brothers and sister." Their one meeting as adults bears the play's tragic main point.

But there is not enough time given by Hock to her three protagonists to find the dramatically viable humanity in their individual evolvement or in the bizarre circumstance of their final date with destiny.

Her characters talk in events, even in their too-rare and too-brief scenes within Hock's structure, and they talk in philosophies. They have little concern with their own inner lives and, therefore, neither do we.

Hock has tried to say too much in her cinematic drama, and in so doing has managed to say less than she intended.

There are three Fates, gowned in blood red, who explain the creation of the universe, the stars, the planets and their satellites, all eventually resulting in Romania. Just when they are reaching their poetic point, a male figure crawls painfully before them, and when they ask why he has been beaten to death, he mumbles that he is Romanian.

Then the titular Almond Seller, Ion the Madman, appears. He is digging in a mass grave, looking for Romania's past, and finding its symbols in bone, chicken foot, wooden spoon and potato. Under the almond tree, he says, beneath the salty grass and the bones of those who went before, is a world of happy people. Presumably this is the world of monarch and peasant?

Time is wasted with three crones, including Toma and Alexa's grandmothers, bewailing the vegetable gardens that are gone; time is wasted with a hooker and her Italian tourist trick, a flamboyant mental patient, and time is wasted with a panoply of images that inform us about what was happening in Romania, without drawing us into the dramatic vortex of a people's soul, and the ties that bind Toma and Alexa and the Widow's Daughter but don't protect them from the social evils that destroy them.

That is Hock's message--the survival of a communal mind--but she keeps its power from us with a design that is too complex and, in sum, too shallow.

Director Annie Loui has made a concerted effort to illuminate Hock's veiled icons, but her fine production can only provide what is in the script.

Grant Sullivan's scenic design is imaginative and evocative, with its twisted wall and useful set pieces, L. Scott LeGrand's lighting is painterly, and Annaliese Baker's costumes are just right, as is Timothy Melbinger's sound design and original incidental music.


Although Jason Heil's Erratic Man, the mental patient, is overdone like a vaudeville turn, although the Fates (Heather Blackinton, Ali Hanson, Ann Shipley) have much less resonance in their recitation than they could have (they're better as the crones). Although some of the minor roles are more caricatured than characterized, the performers in the central roles try to give as much depth as they can to shadowy images.

Michael Smith's Toma is powerful and intelligent, a heroic totem, and Pete Shilaimon's Alexa is a rock, solid and impregnable. If their performances have more stature and size than Lisa Colbert's frantic, scattered Widow's Daughter, they have more firm ground to work on.

Ted Barker has an interesting sense of calm as the Theatre Director, who is a born survivor, Marika Becz has a good honest fire burning inside her as Toma's girlfriend, and Thom Rivera makes much sense out of the blatherings of the mythic Almond Seller.

* "The Almond Seller," UC Irvine's Fine Arts Studio Theatre, UC Irvine. Wednesday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Ends Saturday. $6-$8. (714) 856-6616. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Michael Smith: Toma

Pete Shilaimon: Alexa

Thom Rivera: Ion, the Madman

Lisa Colbert: the Widow's Daughter

Heather Blackinton: Fate, Lina

Ali Hanson: Fate, Anika

Ann Shipley: Fate, Baba Iana

Ted Barker: Theatre Director

Jason Heil: the Erratic Man

Marika Becz: Toma's Girlfriend

A Drama at UCI/Stage 2 Productions production of a drama by Oana-Maria Hock. Directed by Annie Loui. Scenic design: Grant Sullivan. Costume design: Annaliese Baker. Lighting design: L. Scott LeGrand. Original music/sound design: Timothy Melbinger. Stage manager: Valerie F. Claxton.

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