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THEATER REVIEW : 'Sister George' Surrounded by Greatness : Actors Alley's ideal Storefront Theatre space propels the black comedy despite its failings.

August 18, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes frequently about theater for The Times

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Watching director Peter Grego's staging of Frank Marcus' once- controversial black comedy, "The Killing of Sister George," you want to devote all your attention to what's on stage--but you keep noticing what's around it.

The Storefront Theatre, Actors Alley's small space adjacent to the still-in-progress El Portal Theatre, might just be the best theater plant in the San Fernando Valley, and a perfect home for "Sister George."

It's ideal enough to make you realize that, whether the El Portal ever does open (read: sufficient money raised for complete restoration and cleaning), Actors Alley already has a real theater. With high ceilings (allowing for a fine studio-like lighting system), a deliberately unfinished interior that lends a workshop lab effect, plush seats and terrific intimacy, the Storefront is as good as--if not superior to--any similarly small space in Hollywood.

It's an especially actor-friendly theater, which is perhaps why this is the most affecting Actors Alley production I've seen since the group left its original Sherman Oaks home--a nice place, but nothing like this. (This same effect was reported by many who saw the previous, inaugural Storefront show, "The Puppetmaster of Lodz.")

All of which goes to show that a wonderful space and a generally solid cast can alchemize an extremely flawed work like "Sister George" into something memorable. Even when it's clear that not all of the play's possibilities are being exploited.

Marcus' setup is consciously absurd. June (Leslie Simms) goes into a general funk when she's convinced that Sister George, the character she plays on a popular BBC radio serial, is being killed off. She mopes; she abuses her lover / housemaid Alice (Carol Keis)--who always calls June "George"--and she faces off with BBC honcho Mrs. Mercy Croft (Laurel Lockhart) like an adversary at international arms talks. It turns out that June's fears are more than paranoia.

The lesbian June-Alice relationship has a Genet-like sense of subterfuge, disguise and sadomasochism, all of it merely suggested in the prudish '60s period when Marcus wrote this. You can imagine Grego and his actors wanting to burst out of this dramatic corset, but if anything, things are pretty understated. Simms plays up June's butch identity with mannish behavior tics and some delicious cigar puffing, and Keis fondles her dolls very affectionately, but there's very little campiness.

That is Grego's choice (possibly shrewd since recent "Sister Georges" have reportedly poured on the camp), though it deprives us of some of the comic excess, the funky edge, that revivals have the license to indulge in. Yet, without that excess, we zero in on June's character and draw connections between her dilemma and those of actors on "Northern Exposure," notorious for killing off characters.

Simms greatly helps us focus on June's problems and creates a sympathetic actor-in-crisis rather than a monster. Keis grows on you--a little wan at first, truly heartbreaking by the end. Lockhart's Mercy is a superb study in propriety and BBC snobbism, and surprises us with a loving core. Only Judith Ann Levitt, stuck with the dumb role of a neighboring mystic, appears clueless.

A good theater plant like the Storefront allows first-rate technicians to do good work, which is what we see from Paulie Jenkins (lights), Don Gruber (set) and Diane Ross (costumes). Unlike "Sister George's" flat, this is a fine home.

Where and When

What: "The Killing of Sister George."

Location: Actors Alley Storefront Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Oct. 1.

Price: $13.50 to $15.

Call: (818) 508-4200.

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