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Three-Piece Suite Is a Perfect Fit

February 16, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — In Orange Coast College's Drama Lab Studio, the theater students are on their own without a net, doing the kind of work they might do if they ran the department. It's nice to see--via the new student production, "Double Absurdity and a 1/2"--that they'd include the theater of the absurd in the curriculum.

Even better is the sign that the students have learned their lessons. "Absurd" in this context does not mean kooky, nuts or wacko. In a general sense (admittedly dangerous for such a broad range of styles and playwrights), it means that the old rules no longer apply in a world gone mad with tyrants, mad scientists and genocide.

That's why writers as different as Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco have never delivered explicit political tracts but, in person, ooze politics.

That tension is always just under the surface in the best absurdist writing, and that's what is on display here with a triple bill of Pinter's obscure short piece, "Applicant," followed by Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano" and Jean Genet's "The Maids."

"Applicant" is understandably obscure, an early exercise for Pinter in the game he subsequently mastered--the dominator versus the dominated, the weapons being words and sex.

Mr. Lamb (Ryan Brandos) enters the lair of Miss Piffs (Heather de Michele), and before he knows what hit him, she has him down on the floor and is pummeling him with questions ("Do you have eczema?" "Are you afraid of women?").

Director Rita Renee has a lot of fun with a loud musical trio and a stage manager (Todd Veneman) transforming the action into a conga line.

This sets the table for "Bald Soprano," which director Pilou Chapeaud has slightly adapted to Newport Beach from the original's setting in the suburbs of Paris. The shift not only doesn't harm the sensibilities of Ionesco's savage skewering of the self-involved bourgeoise--but also it reminds us what a marvelously resilient play this is.

In trying to write an "anti-play" to destroy theater in one fell swoop, Ionesco ironically launched his playwriting career with an enduring classic.

Ionesco's two couples, the Smiths (Rachel Davenport and Alex Laverde) and the Martins (Peter Kreder and understudy Kristina Leach, replacing Jennifer Green), are separately introduced as chatty, well-coiffed marrieds who are total strangers to each other.

When they get together, things gradually break down--with a snooping maid (Maroussia Chichikova), a fire chief (Jeff Marx) desperate for any fire at all and a literal war of words.

Chapeaud knows that speed is everything when it comes to making "Soprano" sing, and his cast is more or less in fifth gear, with a few needed downshifts along the way. The Newport setting adds a comfort zone for these young actors, but they also have a distinctly European discipline in their clipped, crisp delivery of the pun-filled wordplay.

"The Maids" is a smart choice for the program, if only to suggest how richly varied the absurdist stream really is. Unlike Pinter and Ionesco, Genet never concealed his gay and liberation politics but, instead, rhapsodized about it.

"The Maids" always sounds better in French, and is most potent when played in drag, as Genet requested. Here, under Dave Barton's direction, it is in English, and the two maids, Solange and Claire (Jenn Ortiz and Michelle Duffey), along with their boss known as Madam (Jan Henrotin), are definitely not in drag.

Barton replaces Genet's staging concept with a slightly punked-out setting and gives Solange and Claire a more explicitly lesbian dynamic. When Madam is away, the mice are out to play as master-servant, but it is Ortiz's Solange who eventually takes control.

"The Maids" examines power politics in the bedroom, but Barton and Ortiz humanize the play far beyond what you usually see. Duffey sounds sometimes winded, and Henrotin isn't remotely authoritarian, and yet this is an uncommonly touching, differently erotic "Maids."

* "Double Absurdity and a 1/2," Orange Coast College Drama Lab Studio, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Today-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $5. (714) 432-5932.

An Orange Coast College Theatre Repertory production of three plays by Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet. "Applicant" directed by Rita Renee. Lights by Jamie Sweet. "The Bald Soprano" directed by Pilou Chapeaud. Lights: Sweet. Costumes: Green. "The Maids" directed by Dave Barton. Lights: Sweet. Set: Barton. Costumes: Cynthia Corley. With Ryan Brandos, Heather de Michele, Todd Veneman, Rachel Davenport, Alex Laverde, Kristina Leach, Jennifer Green, Peter Kreder, Maroussia Chichikova, Jeff Marx, Jenn Ortiz, Michelle Duffey and Jan Henrotin.

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