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THEATER REVIEW : We Could Do With More of This Kind of 'Hysteria'


The fair sex. The weaker sex. The pregnant sex.

Tracy Young believes women continue to be slaves to their bodies--or to society's notions about their bodies. It's time for an Emancipation Proclamation.

But her "Hysteria," at the Actors' Gang Theatre, is no solemn decree. It's a zingy musical comedy--and some of the best evidence yet to refute the old canard that feminists are humorless. Staged satire is seldom this provocative, this meaty, this engaging.

In 1992, an earlier version of "Hysteria" was mounted in the Gang's former home at 2nd Stage, a few blocks away. As with many of the Gang's sprawling productions, that stage was too small. "Hysteria" looks and sounds better now.

Young manages to sustain and unite two different narratives, set more than a hundred years apart in two different countries.

Her contemporary American story is built around Garnet Poindexter (Kate Mulligan), newly pregnant and not yet glowing. Her husband neglects her, and the family to which she has returned is, well, eccentric. Mom (Patti Tippo) is an ex-supermodel who isn't adjusting well to middle age, Dad (Daniel Parker) is touting his latest line of unisex clothing by wearing women's garb.

Then there are Garnet's sisters. Corky (Tricia Parks) has imagined she's pregnant ever since a traumatic incident at college and has been a recluse for months now, awaiting her first contractions. Taylor (Evie Peck) wants to follow her mother into the modeling trade, even if it takes a few visits to Dr. Sandra Needles (Laurel Ollstein), mom's plastic surgeon. She's encouraged in her delusion by her father's lecherous friend Chadley (Kyle Gass), the cosmetics king.

One day, while examining old photos, Garnet suddenly finds herself in the presence of her great-great-grandmother Lilymoist Teagarden (Cari Dean Whittemore), a fluttery Victorian miss who, in 1888, has been diagnosed with female "hysteria" and confined indoors by her bullying doctor (Parker). Lily gets a second opinion from Lydia Tripplehorn (Molly Bryant), a speechifying crusader for women's rights and a champion of the condom and the clitoris.

With most of the cast playing roles in both centuries, Young cleverly brings her stories together, eventually focusing on Lily's unwanted pregnancy as much as Garnet's. For this latest version, Young brings Lily's lover Heathcliff (V. J. Foster) out on stage for a funny, swoony seduction.

Young also changed the beginning--sacrificing some childhood memories for a more coherent introduction to the family--and the ending, which now includes a note of reconciliation between two arch-enemies. She's out to make a point, but she doesn't pretend that abortion is a painless choice or that the other side has no principles.

Adult audiences (there are bare breasts and frank talk) should welcome this savvy cartoon with open arms--and minds.

* "Hysteria," Actors' Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends June 18. $12-$15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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