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Clever Writing Lifts Ambitious 'Disciple'

July 15, 1994|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY

Playwright Tom Jacobson is a linguistic gadfly. Often, you are tickled by him. Occasionally, you are bedeviled by him. Once or twice, you just want to swat him.

Linguistic pyrotechnics explode in Jacobson's period verse drama "The Beloved Disciple," now at the Complex. Set in plague-swept London in the late 1500s, the play concerns the friendship between Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (Cully Fredricksen) and the young, wealthy Earl of Southampton (Matthew Wagner). Down on his luck and out of favor with the crown, Marlowe enters into a contest with an itinerant Actor (Robert Kerbeck) to determine who will win the Earl's favor and, ultimately, his patronage.

Thrown together for the term of the wager, Marlowe, the Actor and the Earl launch into rehearsals of Marlowe's newest play "The Beloved Disciple," a dangerously blasphemous drama that will ultimately prove Marlowe's downfall. In this play within a play, Christ is portrayed as an outright charlatan whose success is more attributable to the efforts of his disciple/spin doctor Judas Iscariot than to his own divinity. More shocking, however, is Marlowe's depiction of Christ's fleshly love for his "beloved disciple" John. As Marlowe's play evolves, so does Marlowe's sexual fascination for the young Earl, his own disciple of sorts.

Little is known of Marlowe's life. It is certain that he was an atheistic iconoclast whose heretical views placed him in constant danger of arrest. The motive for his murder in 1593 remains murky.

In this clever attempt to solve the mystery, Jacobson's precocious use of language is rivaled only by the sheer effrontery of his subject matter. Jacobson's themes, particularly in his play within a play, are so radically modern that they seem anachronistic to the period that he otherwise captures so masterfully. Surely, in light of the times, this blatant heresy would have been shrouded in metaphor and mystery, even if Marlowe's motives in writing the play were "suicidal," as Jacobson implies.

The play's production values are somewhat skimpy, but Fred Sanders' direction is clever, as are the performances by Wagner, Fredricksen and Kerbeck. As for Jacobson, he may not quite pull off his ambitious verse drama, but he flirts with brilliance.

* "The Beloved Disciple," Complex, 6470 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m. Ends July 22. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

'Mustard' a Look at Diseased Relationship

Playwright Gina Wendkos has a decided knack for portraying society's disenfranchised. Her "Dirty Mustard" at the Alliance Repertory Company concerns the spasmodic courtship of self-proclaimed losers Rick and Jamie. More disenfranchised than these two you just don't get.

The hopeless, homeless Jamie (Suzan Fellman), who never got over her father's suicide years ago, expects the worst from life, and gets it. Rick (Scott Allan Campbell), whose education ended with grade school, is not at all put off by Jamie's prickliness. Just a few minutes after meeting her in a neighborhood bar, Rick tells Jamie he's going to marry her. It may be that Rick is a pure romantic at heart. Then again, maybe he's just trying to get lucky.

It's a timely story--boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy bashes girl. Typically, Wendkos treats her subject with restraint. Sometimes, however, her dialogue is self-consciously outlandish, a bad Sam Shepard/John Shanley imitation.

Fellman's performance captures the full force of Jamie's propulsive misery. Also skillful, Campbell is hampered by the fact that Wendkos never sufficiently develops his character.

Director Kristen Cloke referees the heated volleys of dialogue with a keen sense of pacing and purpose, almost mitigating Wendkos' lapses into silliness. However, Wendkos' missteps are few. The playwright artfully blends the tender and the visceral in this depiction of a diseased relationship, which leaves us hoping for a happy ending, much like an abused spouse keeps hoping, in all defiance of reality.

* "Dirty Mustard," Alliance Repertory Company, 3204 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug . 3. $12. (818) 566-7935. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

'Live and In Color' Looks for Laughs

"Live and In Color," Danitra Vance's series of comic sketches, currently playing at the Ebony Showcase, is an uneven effort that seems too slight for a full production.

More popularly known as an actress-comic, Vance tackles subjects as diverse as wife abuse, transsexualism, PMS and AIDS. Her characters may be vivid, but her point of view is distressingly desultory. An impassioned take on AIDS blurs into a diatribe about women and breast cancer that leaves us wondering what exactly Vance is trying to say.

Damon Lamont directs a lively cast, which includes Thea Perkins, Yvette Davis, Tangie Ambrose, Rhonda Walker and Melanie Lee. These performers give their all in the pursuit of belly laughs--and get their fair share. However, they are only as good as their material, and this particular material is only intermittently amusing.

* "Live and In Color," Ebony Showcase, 4720 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., except for Saturday and July 30, 9:30 p.m. Ends July 30. (213) 936-1107. $10. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

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