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A Lot of Murder, Plus a Little Song and Dance

Theater: The Actors' Gang and Cornerstone find the place where 'Medea,' 'Macbeth' and 'Cinderella' meet.

April 15, 1998|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The drunken porter from "Macbeth" is having a rough night. Not only are men banging loudly on the door of his master's house, but he's also seeing things: on the right an anguished and deranged woman and, on his much less scary left side, a girl jabbering about attending a ball.

Drunk though he is, the porter's not hallucinating. He's onstage at the Actors' Gang, in the middle of a show called "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella." That's right, the porter from Shakespeare's Macbeth is sharing the stage with Euripides' Medea, who's just realizing she's going to have to kill her two children, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, who's about to burst into song. Because, in "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella," three larger-than-life characters and their entourages enact three stories simultaneously. Bizarre though it sounds, at its best "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella" achieves a strange alchemy, making unexpectedly rich connections without the stress of explanation.

"Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella" is a joint venture of the Actors' Gang and Cornerstone Theater, two of L.A.'s--and possibly the country's--most playful serious small companies. Playing each drama relatively straight (though "Medea" features an all-female cast and "Macbeth" an all-male cast), "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella" creates wacky intersections where Greek and Elizabethan drama converge in a dizzying melange with American musical comedy.

The complex staging by Bill Rauch (Cornerstone artistic director) and Tracy Young (of the Actors' Gang) almost always keeps each tale in its own physical space, with Medea (Page Leong) brushing past Cinderella (Evie Peck) but not seeing her. Similarly, the characters take turns speaking their lines, rather like a medley of dialogue. Even when lines overlap, "Medea, etc." never sounds like gibberish. It's possible at all times to follow all three stories, whether you know them or not.

Sometimes, one drama simply takes center stage. At those moments, all characters drop what they're doing and join in. A trashed Medea momentarily forgets her plans to kill her own children and sings "Ten Minutes Ago" with the chorus as Prince Charming and Cinderella waltz around the palace. When the Macbeths throw a banquet, Cinderella and her Prince postpone their courting to attend.

*

The question all of this raises is: Why? What makes three shows at once more than just noise, or funny non sequiturs? Why comb through familiar texts to find places where disparate dramas intertwine, such as the moment when Cinderella, Lady Macbeth and Medea cry out, respectively: "Godmother!" "My husband!" and "You criminal!"

"Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella" is more than a novelty, though at times it strains to achieve a triple parallel universe. It is also a shade too long, and one can sense in several places a desire to hold on to good jokes at the expense of the whole. But on the occasions when the show breaks down the walls between characters, it achieves an inspired openness. For instance, when the betrothed Cinderella locks eyes with Medea, whose husband has replaced her with a younger woman, one feels oneself crossing a spectacularly long bridge in the history of Western literature.

As Medea, Cornerstone's Leong has the toughest assignment because her story is purely tragic (even Shishir Kurup's Macbeth is allowed some fun, such as snatching the crown from the head of Cinderella's King). Leong impressively maintains her bitter anger, her despair, her psychotic world of no return, which only seems deepened by the fact that Cinderella is singing "A Lovely Night" right next to her.

Everyone in the 30-member cast is so entertaining that it's difficult to pick standouts. But Steven M. Porter as the drunken porter has the single funniest scene in a very funny evening, and he's good in a variety of other assignments as well. Evie Peck sings well and makes a sweet but not too sugary Cinderella. As the Macbeths, Kurup and Christopher Liam Moore are excellent at throwing dark, significant looks and at straddling the worlds of comedy and tragedy. Several cast members are hysterically funny, especially Brent Hinkley as Banquo, Peter Howard as the shallow Prince Charming, Daniel T. Parker as the ever-helpful fairy godmother and Gary Kelley, Armando Molina and Benajah Cobb as Macbeth's flirtatious witches. Also outstanding is Kate Mulligan as the silver-voiced leader of the Greek chorus (who ably sings some woeful tunes written by Kurup and David Markowitz).

When the moaning and gnashing of tragedy runs headlong into the high spirits of musical comedy, both forms can seem ridiculous. It is the considerable achievement of "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella" that here they are both also sublime.

* "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella," Actors' Gang Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends May 9. $15. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 3 hours.

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