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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER REVIEW

Actors Add Passion to Script of 'Ciao Bella'

Author Karen Elyse plays homeless woman with astonishing realism. Co-star Peyce Byron matches her strong performance.

June 20, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask any casting director: Good actors don't take "no" for an answer.

The good ones keep coming back--and not just to auditions. Even when "Ciao Bella," the new drama-with-music at the Victory Theatre, isn't being exactly friendly to the actors, they just keep trying--trying to add drama where none exists. These actors will not be denied.

The irony in this case is that one of the players, Karen Elyse, is also the author, going by her nom de plume of Karen Abercrombie. Elyse tries to pick up where Abercrombie left off, rounding out a desperately lonely, booze-swilling, homeless woman named Annie. As written, Annie is vague, fuzzy and almost without detail. As played, she becomes a character we want to see survive.

This is nearly as true for Jimmy (Peyce Byron), the love Annie believed she lost in Vietnam, who now is searching for her to bring her back home. Or, so it appears. Jimmy's Vietnam back story at least has a taut emotional thread to it, which Byron pulls even tighter.

Annie's back story--a bright girl who once had a promising music career but was abused by her father--is faintly sketched. As a result, it's hard to see what got Annie from there to here. Multiple flashbacks to Annie's past certainly don't help.

They do only what staged flashbacks usually do: stop things in their tracks. Director Kenneth Fisher tries to ease the time transitions, but with only two actors and one basic, graffiti-drenched set (by Michael Pickett), it's impossible to not make it look bumpy.

Act II is nearly shorn of Abercrombie's songs, which are heartfelt but run in place, never saying anything beyond the tritest "I love you." A show about a defeated musical talent should be more musically revelatory than this.

*

The second act also tempers the earlier flashback habit, and focuses on the confrontation between Annie and Jimmy. Even this is a kind of dramatic cheat--we won't reveal how--but Annie ends up tossing her booze in the trash, even possibly leaving the streets.

Yet the story doesn't convince us of her change; Elyse does, through sheer acting willpower. Her absorption of this woman's manic-depressive mood swings and hard-shell defensiveness is astonishing. She surrenders herself to Annie's most antisocial tendencies, making this a scary performance to witness.

Byron doesn't have such an extreme assignment, but he handles the transitions of Jimmy from cocky, pre-Vietnam soldier to crippled, one-eyed veteran with fine physical precision. When he sings, he momentarily turns "Ciao Bella" into opera. A good performer can do that--create splendor on stage from something barely formed on the page.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Ciao Bella."

* WHERE: Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends June 29.

* HOW MUCH: $15.

* CALL: (818) 841-5421.

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