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THEATER REVIEW : 'Turbo Tanzi' Goes to Mat With Life's Ills and Wins

November 07, 1994|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Some people wrestle with ideas, some with angels, others with those who would hold them down.

In Claire Luckham's clever and compelling "Turbo Tanzi" at the San Diego Repertory Theatre's Lyceum Space, a woman named Tanzi compresses her emotional battles into a series of 10 bouts in an actual ring, dating from age 1 to adulthood.

Instead of a hurt look when baby Tanzi hears that her mother wanted a boy, we get Tanzi (Laurie Williams) donning baby bonnet and bloomers to get physically pummeled by her mom (Vanessa Townsell-Crisp). And after losing matches with her dad (Todd Blakesley), school chum (Robin Sheridan), school psychologist (Spike Sorrentino) and chauvinist husband (Tyler Mane), Tanzi finally decides to become a fighter and re-christens herself Turbo Tanzi.

The play debuted in 1978 as "Tuebrook Tanzi, The Venus Fly Trap" and became a hit at Liverpool pubs. It subsequently played Manchester, London, New York, Dallas and Los Angeles, with directors localizing the title and references.

Make no mistake. Though a smart idea, "Turbo Tanzi"--the show-- fights a battle of its own against stereotyped characterizations, cliche conflicts and a predictable outcome. Though sexism is at the play's core, the main issues have evolved since Luckham launched her play, focusing on whether Tanzi will have a career or become a housewife. Today's women are tackling more insidious and less obvious struggles as well, with glass ceilings and pay issues just being a couple.

And yet, despite these handicaps, this referee would still have to pronounce "Turbo Tanzi" a winner.

*

The performances are terrific, with a special nod going to Williams as the fierce, spiky Tanzi overcoming her vulnerabilities to become a winner. Williams, who is on course to earn an MFA from UC San Diego in the spring, is a talent to watch. She anchors the show emotionally, even as this slender, 5-foot-4 powerhouse hurls her opponents and takes the bruising falls without a glimmer of holding back.

Director Douglas Jacobs keeps the show percolating humorously, playing to the audience, without sacrificing the piece's dark emotional underbelly. Even as we laugh, we feel Tanzi's pain and recognize the stakes.

Also impressive is Townsell-Crisp, who plays Tanzi's overpowering mother as large as life and twice as natural. Her soaring voice (she does a rafter-shaking "Star Spangled Banner" and "Stand by Your Man") does well even by the funny, but slight, songs from Chris Monks' original score--sparklingly arranged and directed by Pea Hicks.

Blakesley, who plays Tanzi's dad, and Sorrentino as Dr. Grope and the referee are both old vets at working crowds and prove themselves ever-adept at getting the crowd to cheer, boo and throw popcorn on cue. (Not only is eating allowed at this raucous event, there's a refreshment stand in a corner of the theater.) Robin Sheridan plays a perfect Platinum Sue, the Other Girl/Other Woman type who has dogged Tanzi since girlhood.

Mane, a professional, well-muscled wrestler at 6-foot-10, 300 pounds, comes across as a young Schwarzenegger-in-training in his stage debut. And his fight choreography for the "Main Event" between Tanzi and her husband, Dean Rebel, looks and sounds like the real thing.

John Redman has built a hoot of a red, white and blue wrestling ring with ropes that send the fighters bouncing. Judy Watson's costumes are a cartoonishly gaudy treat, accentuated by John Philip Martin's lighting.

If the conclusion to all this is anticlimactic because, let's face it, this final bout is dramatically fixed, this is still a case of the getting there being the fun. But best of all, sneakily, despite the broad, loud strokes of this "Turbo Tanzi," you may find memories of your own wrestling matches sneaking back to haunt you long after these fighters leave the ring.

* "Turbo Tanzi," San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 19. $19-$25. (619) 235-8025. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. Laurie Williams Turbo Tanzi

Tyler Mane: Dean Rebel

Vanessa Townsell-Crisp: Tanzi's Mom

Spike Sorrentino: The Referee

Todd Blakesley: Tanzi's Dad

Robin Sheridan: Platinum Sue

San Diego Repertory Theatre. By Claire Luckham. Music by Chris Monks. Director is Douglas Jacobs. Musical direction/arrangements by Pea Hicks. Fight direction: Christopher Villa. Sets: John Redman. Lights: John Philip Martin. Costumes: Judy Watson. Sound: Debby Van Poucke. Vocal direction: Linda Zuckerman. Dance choreography: Robin Sheridan. "Main Event" choreography: Tyler Mane. Stage manager: Rebecca Nachison.

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