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'Yanks' Pays Homage to Vaudeville

Theater review: Theatre de la Jeune Lune's nouveau approach puts a fresh spin on comic traditions.


LA JOLLA — At the Cafe L'Amerique, things happen. Four cartoonish-looking people sporting fatty deposits in bizarre places, for instance, sit around drinking contentedly from one glass of milk with four very long straws. Then they blow bubbles. Then they leave.

This is the strangely understated theater of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the nouveau vaudeville troupe based in Minneapolis that by traveling around the country has attracted both grants and fans, though it has (perhaps wisely) not yet tested the edgy waters of Manhattan.

"Yanks & Frogs: Moon Over a Hong Kong Sweat Shop," the troupe's 1985 show, opened at the La Jolla Playhouse on Wednesday night.

This gentle, gentle evening of skit comedy and song pays homage to the old vaudevillians and silent film comics--underlined by below-the-face lighting, Eric Jensen's old-fashioned piano accompaniment, and by the actors' rouged and powdered faces. Several in the 10-member cast display the kind of achingly poignant mugs reminiscent of silent film actors--Dominique Serrand's sloping eyes recall Peter Lorre, while Luverne Seifert possesses the sweet oblivion of Fatty Arbuckle.

The show's aesthetic is also clearly connected to other new vaudeville stars like Bill Irwin and David Shiner. But Jeune Lune does not believe in stars; theirs is strictly an ensemble act. The entire troupe is credited for direction and authorship, and the program offers no clue as to which actor is playing what character. Nor are we given the names of skits or songs.

"Yanks & Frogs" creates its own universe; alternative, but always easy to follow. Ancient routines are peppered with new detail. A banana peel left on the floor causes an inevitable but still surprising chain of events leading to absolute havoc, all in slow motion. The arrival of a giant flying cow surprises no one.

The evening offers some silent, some mixed and some fully verbal skits. To my mind, only the quieter ones approach the kind of poetry necessary to this particular genre. When this kind of theater doesn't achieve poetry, it can seem quaint, or worse, precious or annoying.

The troupe achieves poetry several times. I particularly loved Serrand's turn as a bedraggled old woman whose trouble negotiating the steps down into the cafe is a gentle ballet of old age. Here we get absolute mastery imitating complete incompetence--a formula that has worked for comedians since the beginning of time. The old woman finally sits and proceeds to perform terrible magic tricks with great pride. Serrand has a brilliant moment when his character, with terminally chaotic hair and lipstick covering the entire bottom half of her face, takes out her lipstick and delicately applies it to a precise spot.

The speaking sketches, which almost always employ cute, strangulated voices, work far less well. Some--far more eager to please than they are funny--may bring the senior class play to mind. One involved three eager Cub Scouts who jump around and sing songs about "ca-ca" and "doo-doo." I'll say no more. Another showed the breathless courtship of Stanley and Mona, who meet, marry, betray each other and get old (very old) in about two minutes. There's no point to this skit except the speed in which it spews out cliches.

Minimally verbal skits were also more successful. The spiffy Act 2 opener involved an in-flight aerobics class. Flanked by two lovely flight attendants (Sarah Agnew and Patricia Buckley), the instructor (Vincent Gracieux) gets things going. His middle-age paunch is shown off particularly well in a sparkly leopard unitard with gold fringe. He leads the audience in a spirited and very funny limited aerobics routine that even includes a brief Macarena (don't worry--you're not actually asked to do it).

Perhaps the best summation of the troupe comes from the troupe itself. Just before the Act 1 break, they sing a little ditty urging us to go out in the lobby and refresh ourselves. The lyrics go something like this. "It's not unusual to need some time/To digest events/That have no meaning or rhyme."

Of course, events that have no reason and no rhyme can be sublime, divine, or they can just be an annoying waste of time. The Theatre de la Jeune Lune can feel confident in knowing they have brought the full range of that experience to the audience at La Jolla.

* "Yanks & Frogs," La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 20. $19-$36. (619) 550-1010. Running time: 2 hours.

With: Sarah Agnew, Patricia Buckley, Stephen Cartmell, Barbra Berlovitz Desbois, Steven Epp, Vincent Gracieux, Michael Lenz, Luverne Seifert, Dominique Serrand, Joel Spence. With Eric Jensen at the piano.

The La Jolla Playhouse presents a production of Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Written, designed and directed by Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Music and lyrics by Michael Koerner. Additional music and lyrics by Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp. Lighting design adapted for La Jolla by Frederic Desbois. Stage manager Joyce Davidson.

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