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STAGE REVIEW

'Angel' on Their Shoulder

May 01, 1997|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Nothing dates like satire. Unless, of course, you're satirizing the movie industry, which shows about as much promise of evolving as the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park."

That's why Sam Shepard's "Angel City," now 21 years old, plays like new in a smart production by San Diego's hip young Sledgehammer Theatre. When this reviewer first saw the show eight years ago, its mockery of money-mad producers feverishly shaking down ideas for those ever-profitable disaster films evoked recollections of "The Towering Inferno," "The Poseidon Adventure" and "Earthquake."

This production is just as timely, sandwiched nicely between "Independence Day" and "Twister" and the new "Volcano." Once movie-mogul Wheeler (Todd Blakesley) explains why the public demands disaster movies--they can be very focusing in the absence of a world war--it's hard to surrender yourself to the moment with the same sense of gee-whiz-pass-the-popcorn pleasure.

Wheeler and his oily partner, Lanx (Matthew Thompson), are sweating under their pricey power suits. To save their $80-million flick, they need to add a disaster that will make people buy tickets. But it has to be a new disaster, one that no one's ever imagined before. Or else they're headed for financial disaster.

So they bring in Rabbit (Don Victor), a cowboy-shaman-artist to come up with the idea that will save the day.

Rabbit tries to team up with the secretary, sexy Miss Scoons (Julie Jacobs) and Tympani (Beret K. Malmgren), a timpanist on the payroll for the sole purpose of coming up with a rhythm that will drive audiences wild. But everyone ultimately is in it for themselves in this city of angels. And the strain of it all has everyone metamorphosing into lizards, boxers and nuns, as dreams and reality collide with inner selves and projected selves.

It makes sense the way a dream does, but with wittier lines.

"They swallow you whole and spit you out as a tax deduction," Rabbit exclaims at one point. "People living in dreams which are the same dreams I'm dreaming but never living," Miss Scoons cries out plaintively about the stars she wishes she could be.

Sledgehammer co-founder Ethan Feerst directs here with a sensitivity and high style that merits more forays into the director's chair. Sledgehammer blows you away with its cinematic sense of stage visuals. But Feerst and his excellent cast also expose the deeper, more vulnerable human side of the story.

Jacobs' Miss Scoons is like a moth drawn to the flame of the screen that burns her. She gives a lovely and complex performance. Stand-up comic Victor brings a wit to Rabbit--the Shepard part--that winnows out the melodrama from his ambivalence to the commercialism inherent in what he, as an artist, is being asked to do.

Thompson's Lanx, so oily and menacing, also suggests inner fears that make him crumble. Blakesley's angry Wheeler exhibits danger emanating from his desperation.

Michelle Riel's three-tiered set on Sledgehammer's deep stage places the moguls literally on a flight above the well-paid sweat labor. And then she magically pulls a boxing ring out front and back of that. Jeff Ladman's menacing sound has Rabbit literally in a box with a zinging force field.

Richard Anthony Fellner's bold lighting design navigates the worlds of dreams bending into realities and back. Al Germani's choreography sharpens the poetic connections. The production as a whole offers an intellectual and emotional edginess that cuts right into the smug big-money pretensions of "Volcano." Yes, Virginia, there are alternatives to disaster films. Forget the toast. Enjoy the roast.

BE THERE

"Angel City," Sledgehammer Theatre, 1620 6th Ave., San Diego. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends May 11. $7.50-$15. (619)544-1484. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.

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