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THEATER REVIEW : Movement, Speech Inspire Worship at Automotive Altar : Set in a car repair shop, 'Wrench' is an offbeat tale of sibling conflict, shamanistic rituals and bad coffee.


In "Wrench," a strikingly original performance piece presented by the UC Santa Barbara Theatre Artists Group and the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, movement itself becomes as much a narrative device as dialogue.

That's not entirely surprising, given that director and co-creator James Donlon was, in the mid-1970s, head of movement and physical conditioning for the Clown College of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

But what is surprising is how well gesture and speech synthesize as Donlon, a resident instructor at UC Santa Barbara, joins forces with Lit Moon Theatre Company's Matthew Tavianini and Joseph Velasco from El Teatro Campesino in this offbeat tale, set in an auto mechanic's shop, of sibling conflict, shamanistic rituals and bad coffee.

"The key is careful observation and precise thinking," mutters Jim (Donlon), the sullen chief mechanic for J & M Automotive, to his partner Matt (Tavianini).

His observation doubles as sound advice to the audience, for information is not doled out in generous linear helpings here--it's up to us to piece together the multilayered relationships between the play's seemingly disconnected occurrences.

Where Jim is the reserved craftsman, Matt is the outgoing schmoozer who manages the shop, deals with customers, and drools at the prospect of landing that new Rapid Lube franchise. Only gradually do we realize from the tense undercurrent between them that they're brothers with a lifetime of emotional baggage locked in the trunk.

Hovering around them is the eerie dual presence of a shaman warrior disguised as a would-be shop assistant (Velasco) with a knack for intuitively diagnosing car problems.

Amid the clutter and grime of a marvelously detailed set, the multiple associations in the work's title play themselves out--from physical tools to twisting movements to sudden emotional turns.

The mood careens from hilarious satire to compassionate slice-of-life to surreal edginess in staging that proves an improbable mix of The Three Stooges, Sam Shepard and David Lynch.

Somehow it works.

While serviceable enough, the dialogue ends up taking a back seat to the imaginative use of movement. What lingers afterward are visual impressions--Donlon's mimed journey through the innards of an automobile, Tavianini's transformation into an engine, and Velasco's limbs and torso painted with mystical symbols as he presides priest-like over the brothers' sacramental metamorphoses.

Innovative and entertaining, this little gem affords ample opportunity to worship at the automotive altar--as all devout Southern Californians must do from time to time.


* WHAT: "Wrench"

* WHEN: Tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.

* WHERE: Studio Theatre, UC Santa Barbara.

* HOW MUCH: $12.

* CALL: For reservations or further information, (800) 893-3535.

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