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THEATER REVIEWS

A 'Nude' That's Just Skin-Deep

March 31, 1997|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Laura Shamas' "Portrait of a Nude" at the Alternative Repertory Theatre is not a play in the strict sense. It's more of a docu-sketch about the effect of Francisco Goya's "Naked Maja" on liberals and conservatives over the past couple of hundred years. Finally, it's a piece about censorship and those who would tell us what we'll look at and listen to.

Shamas' message seems to be that most censorship is hypocrisy (consider a magazine, say, that would not print a copy of Goya's famous classical painting but would print brassiere ads with provocative models). The play also takes shots at the "politically correct" movement.

The playwright leaves the door open to the treatment of her script, which bounces from Goya's actual painting of the naked courtesan (posed by the Duchess of Albain in a moment of abandon) through efforts to keep people from seeing Princess Diana looking at the maja, to an affirmative-action suit in which the painting figures.

Director Joel T. Cotter opts for a sketch approach, rather than a more sober, dramatic approach, and though this waters down some of the irony in the writing and keeps the political points from perhaps finding their targets more forcefully, it does manage to get laughs.

The approach would have been more effective if Cotter hadn't allowed some of his performers (all of whom play four roles throughout) to go so far overboard. Particularly guilty are John E. Farrell and David Mendelsohn, who play Goya and Manet, respectively. They attack their canvasses as though they are fencing with them. Neither (nor the director) seems ever to have seen a real artist at work.

Sally Leonard, especially as the Duchess, and Kathryn Byrd, particularly as the professor involved in the sexual-harassment suit, are restrained to excellent effect: Shamas' writing glows in their hands.

Tracy Merrifield is best as the intelligent cultural aide from the Prado Museum, and Leonard has fun both with the slightly dim Di and a feisty PC feminist, who thinks like a lawyer and pouts when her client gives in.

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* "Portrait of a Nude," Alternative Repertory Theatre, 1636 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends April 20. $16-$18. (714) 836-7929. Running time: 2 hours.

John E. Farrell: Goya, Baudelaire, museum guard, Dean Winslow

Sally Leonard: Maria, Suzanne, Princess, Ms. Artiz

Kathryn Byrd: Inquisitor, Zola, English aide, Professor Cordell

Tracy Merrifield: Inquisitor, Victorine, Spanish aide, female student

David Mendelsohn: Scribe, Manet, schoolboy, male student

An Alternative Repertory Theatre production of a play by Laura Shamas, directed by Joel T. Cotter. Producer/sound design: Gary Christensen. Scenic design: Suzie Duval. Lighting design: David C. Palmer. Wig/makeup design: Michele Owen. Stage manager: Julia Ann Stormont.

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