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THEATER REVIEW : Country Play Goes for the Corn : * 'Ripe Conditions' offers a madcap story heavy on rural caricatures. Despite the nonsense, it's pure entertainment.

March 25, 1994|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times

SHERMAN OAKS — There's an old adage that you can do theater anywhere. Roy Brock smith proved that when he opened his California Cottage Theatre in his Sherman Oaks living room. The theater is now in its eighth season and going strong.

Maybe a little too strong at times during his current production of Claudia Allen's country comedy "Ripe Conditions." That refers not to the astonishing special effects that director Brocksmith has contrived, but to the often too highly flavored performances.

"Ripe Conditions" is pure country. Brothers Lester (Michael LeBeau) and Buster (Michael Liscio) coexist on a farm "somewhere in rural America." They fight like wildcats, annoying each other with arguments that have gone on from time immemorial, even before mama collapsed while plowing and kicked the bucket. Even before third brother Abner ran off with Ann (Ruth Cordell), the object of all three brothers' affections. They like to keep things in the family.

As the lights go up, there's a tornado on the way, literally and figuratively. The twister is imminent, but the brothers are more excited about Ann's sudden return to town for her own brother's funeral.

That's the plot, about as silly as a "Hee Haw" sketch. The overboard, caricatured acting compounds the play's thinness. Even Brocksmith's kinetic, stylized direction, with characters often addressing the audience, points up problems. The amazing thing is that it all works. It shouldn't, by any logic, but it does. It's a totally entertaining evening, a sure laugher, if you allow yourself to relax in to the madness.

LeBeau's Lester, fey for even the most sensitive country boy, has a continual cold and is forever bundled up. Liscio's Buster likes his weather crisp and his clothes off. That's how Cordell's passion-smitten Ann finds him, bathing in a bucket, as she starts to make herself right at home again --with both brothers.

Of course, the twister hits just in time for the first act curtain, and that special effect is almost worth the drive to Sylmar Avenue. Its size, volume and movement, the theater's host Tuxedo Toby hastens to announce beforehand, may feel like an aftershock, but it's only the Cottage's way of shaking up the audience. It's astonishingly realistic.

LIAISON: WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Ripe Conditions."

Location: California Cottage Theatre, 5220 Sylmar Ave., Sherman Oaks.

Hours: (Plays one weekend each month, April 14-16, May 12-14, June 16-18.) 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturdays. Indefinitely.

Price: No charge.

Call: (818) 990-5773 for brochure and invitation.

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