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WEEKEND REVIEWS : Theater : Padua Festival: A Lovely Madness of Unusual Plays


The Padua Hills Playwrights Festival leads theatergoers on an elaborate, adult treasure-hunt through the grounds of Woodbury University, where the festival has resurfaced after a two-year absence. Whether its stage is a road, a hill or a pavement behind a building, each of the four eccentric short plays in the A Series feels like found art, and their eccentricities sometimes deepen into mystery when an actor appears from behind a shrub or when the wind participates in an actress's hair.

Playwrights direct their own work at Padua, which, when it works, is an intense experience, like hearing Stephen Sondheim sing "Anyone Can Whistle" or T.S. Eliot read "The Waste Land." It works here.

As its title suggests, "Terra Incognita" by Maria Irene Fornes uses its site in strange and inventive ways. In Spain, three American tourists pause to exchange curious opinions and argue about the nature of perception, the meaning of Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story" and the Gulf War.

They sit across a narrow road from the audience at the bottom of a little hill. Sometimes they drive by in a car, on a road at the top of the hill. Also on that hill sits a man on a bench (hello, Albee!) who is obsessed by what the Spaniards did to the Indians, which eerily echoes the news from Rwanda. Also, a foul-smelling lunatic wanders in, bursting with information about the way different civilizations have conceived the shape of the world. These are strange happenings in a strange place, reminiscent of a Paul Bowles novel, but warmer, and with more connection between the characters.

Then again, if you've ever wanted to see three insane women in wedding dresses and tennis shoes stand on a faraway hill screaming, "Francoise!," then don't miss John O'Keefe's "Disgrace." O'Keefe depicts a bizarre picnic, undertaken by three women who have all slept with, and probably killed, the aforementioned Francoise.

"Disgrace" is actually the playwright's expression of awe and fear in the face of Woman, whether statuesque and passionate (Denise Poirier), short and comic (Susan Van Allen) or so sex-crazed and whacked-out that her Linda Blair imitation goes almost unnoticed (Dahlia Wilde). O'Keefe paints traditional female foibles in primary colors, such as when Poirier screams, "You screwed my lover!" and then sinks to her knees, wailing, "I'm gonna get in trouble 'cause I got mad!" Although it could be called "Thelma, Thelma and Louise," "Disgrace" is a complete original.

The first show in the A Series, Neena Beber's "Failure to Thrive," dissects a remarkably bad but not loveless marriage by two people who seem to have removed themselves from society.

He's obsessed with the behavior of the roseate spoonbill--did you know that they separate from the flock only when sick? She thinks that Disney World is "whole, foreign countries," while he sees it as a place "about the failure of imagination." He speaks into a microphone at a podium; she hardly ever looks at him but does take the mike to give a lecture on his shortcomings--failure to provide shampoo is particularly held against him. Their adopted daughter simply wants to go to New Zealand, and who can blame her? While you wouldn't want to be inside this household, Beber has made it fun to observe.

Finally, John Steppling's "Understanding the Dead" is a story about some lost souls living in a remote corner of India, in a dirty, smelly town that for some reason a hotel chain called the Conroy Group has decided to open to tourism.

Two Americans who have fled into obscurity there take jobs as a maitre d' and an exotic dancer. As a dancer with severe stomach cramps, Priscilla Harris performs a little masterwork. Also, the playwright, John O'Keefe, is funny as the smarmy developer of tourism.

Other standouts: Kimberly Flynn is a delicate philosopher in "Terra Incognita," Jessica Hecht has a hilarious way of pausing as if to say something earth-shattering and then . . . nothing, in "Failure to Thrive," and the aptly named Dahlia Wilde is a first-class nut in "Disgrace."

Sitting in the chill several minutes after midnight, watching the fourth play of the evening, a theatergoer may feel the improbability of these strange plays and their stranger locations. That improbability--and the unpredictability of the works on display--is the Padua experience. This festival is not meant to be an actor's audition for Hollywood casting directors, although that may happen. Padua is about the art of writing short plays. The thought that this almost totally noncommercial form holds on with so much heart is warming as the chill sets in, and we watch Steppling's band of assorted runaway lunatics and lost souls in India. For the assorted runaway lunatics and lost souls in the audience, it's a lovely madness.

* "Padua Hills Playwrights Festival," Woodbury University, 7500 Glenoaks Blvd . , Burbank, Thursday-Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Ends Aug . 14. $20 or $35 for both nights. A Series, Thursdays - Fridays; B Series, Saturdays - Sundays. (213) 466-1767. Running time: A Series: 4 hours, 20 minutes.

A Series: "Failure to Thrive," writer-director Neena Beber. With Michael Shamus Wiles, Jessica Hecht, Kara Westerman. "Disgrace," writer-director John O'Keefe. With Denise Poirier, Dahlia Wilde, Susan Van Allen. "Terra Incognita," writer-director Maria Irene Fornes. With Kimberly Flynn, Jennifer Griffin, Leo Garcia, Leon Martell, Joel Goodman. "Understanding the Dead," writer-director John Steppling. With Mick Collins, John O'Keefe, Shelly Desai, Priscilla Harris, Kathleen Cramer, C.J. Saunders.

Costumes by Jennifer Chapman. Lighting Jason Berliner. Sound Christian Osborne. Production manager Kristin Overn. Founder, artistic director Murray Mednick.

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