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THEATER REVIEW : 'Drop Dead!' Benefits From Bad Acting : The comedy includes a play-within-a-play with incompetent performers, a bad script and big egos. As a satire, it works.


Actors overplay their parts, reading their lines off of notes concealed in their costumes and in accents ranging from mediocre to just plain bad. When they aren't trying to upstage the other players, they're walking into walls or stumbling over the furniture. Cues are missed, and sound effects come in late, if at all. Nepotism, politics and egos run rampant. Aah, community theater!

Yes, but this time it's supposed to be that way, in "Drop Dead!," a satire written by Billy van Zandt and Jane Milmore that's being performed in Oxnard by the Etc., Etc., Etc. theater company.

It's the group's first production in Heritage Square, a site that will be utilized by at least one more local community theater group in the near future.

For this play, the Petit Ranch House's basement has been converted to a small but functional theater.

The enveloping story of "Drop Dead!" finds director Victor Le Pewe trying to mount an English-style mystery that's been adapted from a work by Alabama Miller, an American. It's the final rehearsal and everything is going wrong, much to the distress of producer Sol Weisenheimer, who has cast his, um, "protegee," showgirl Candy Apples, as the ingenue.

Not only is the cast incompetent and the script itself a shambles, but egos run rampant and one of the leading actors is so hearing-impaired that lines have to be read to her via radio over a headset she's wearing. And then, the bodies start piling up--and not just the victims specified in the play.

Within that framework, the show presents two versions of the "English" play in question: a dress rehearsal and the opening night performance, each a failure in its own way. Miller objects to what's been done to his original script, which is pretentious and no potential prize winner.

Actors love to portray bad actors: There's always a bit of a wink involved, as though the audience is supposed to know that everybody's kidding other, really bad actors. A problem with this production of "Drop Dead!" is that several of the actors' performances don't vary enough between playing bad actors and regular characters.

Still (and not to be too patronizing), this is a comedy, and not intended as a high-minded intellectual exercise. Director Judy Heiliger keeps it moving quickly.

And, there are a couple of particularly noteworthy performances. Alan Price, always dependable, here plays an actor who wants to change the butler he plays from English to French; Kathleen Hobson is delightful as ditzy Candy; and Nita Fouhse virtually walks away with the show by underplaying her role as the hearing-impaired actress.

Also appearing are Irv Citron as Le Pewe, Chuck Frankenberg as stage manager Philip (both played as flamboyant gays), Hugh Bogan as Weisenheimer, Scott L. Johnson as Miller, Glen Heppner as the English play's romantic lead (opposite Candy), Kay Digby as grande dame Mona Monet, and Elmer Ferber as a plumber who is cast because he's the brother of the "Today" show's film reviewer Gene Shalit.

For all its drawbacks, "Drop Dead!" is a lot of fun, and bodes well for the future of Etc., Etc., Etc. in its handsome new home.


* WHAT: "Drop Dead!"

* WHEN: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. through April 9

* WHERE: Petit Ranch House, 730 S. B St. (Heritage Square), Oxnard

* HOW MUCH: General admission, $9

* FYI: For reservations or further information, call 526-6219

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