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Theatre Reviews : 4 One-Acts Hit, Miss Poe-tential : OCC, in staging a total of 11 works by Don Nigro, is to be congratulated for its rare festival format.

August 04, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Festivals devoted to a playwright are rarer than one might think. While they're done all the time for film auteurs, playwrights--unless their names are Shakespeare or Shaw--don't rate.

Well, the drama department at Orange Coast College thinks Don Nigro rates. Through Sunday, the department is staging a rotating survey of 11 of Nigro's one-acts. Collectively, they amount to a tribute to an American brand of surrealism.

Individually, the productions reviewed (four of the 11) don't always tap into Nigro's taste for life's bizarre distortions. But this sampling is one of the more creative gestures by any college around here lately.

Nigro flows from the tradition laid out by Edgar Allan Poe, with the same concerns for obsessive behavior, the gnawing realization of art and civilization's futility in the face of our own savage nature and, above all, total immersion in death. In various ways, all four of these plays (which repeat tonight) contemplate death obsessively.

In "Something in the Basement," Mary and Phillip contemplate the death of a marriage. Resigned that they can't make babies together, Mary spurns the slightest affection from her husband and becomes afraid of--and then drawn to--a noise in their basement.

But her talky, mercurial nature drags down this black comedy. Krista Kirkwood seems a little unsure how to play Mary, but Todd Veneman (who also directed) nicely delivers Phillip's quietly building panic. Neither of them can do anything, though, about an ending you can see coming long before it arrives.

*

In "The Death of Von Horvath" a struggling playwright (Michael Nottingham) visits a medium (Tamara Hoffman) in Amsterdam. He has escaped the German Nazis and wants a glimpse into his future. This minor piece, played with a kind of Euro-dread under Rita Renee's direction, touches on a playwright's belief that an empty theater is death itself.

Death becomes a joke in "Crossing the Bar" as Tom--a dressed-up corpse at his own funeral (the too-young-looking Michael Rinke)--simply refuses to die. Although two women, Margaret (Angelica Gutierrez) and Gretchen (Jan Henrotin) eulogize him lavishly, he rises up and calls out for another woman. "You're ruining a perfectly good funeral!" the women scream. Under Donna Ham's direction, it all makes for a succinctly funny and theatrical outing.

But with "Captain Cook" (which also repeats Sunday), Nigro manages to find the least dramatic way of telling an inherently dramatic story. Mrs. Cook (Susan Shearer-Stuart) tells us what happened to her eccentric explorer-husband, up to and including his cannibalization in Hawaii. It's a poor substitute for seeing Cook's follies in action.

*

It doesn't help that Shearer-Stuart sounds nearly winded by the amount of text she has had to memorize. Only at the end of this long aria, when she doesn't have to play-act Cook and his cohorts, does the actress let loose with some real emotional energy. Still, as directed by Jody Marler, the curious "Captain Cook" feels like an exercise, not a play.

The Nigro one-acts not reviewed: "Binnorie" (which plays Saturday), "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?" (Saturday), "Ragnarok" (Saturday), "Specter" (Saturday and Sunday), "Madaline Nude in the Rain Perhaps" (Sunday), "Nightmare with Clocks," and "Winchelsea Dround."

* The Don Nigro Festival, Orange Coast College Drama Lab Studio, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Ends Sunday. $5. (714) 432-5932.

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