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THEATER | REVIEW

Role Playing

In 'Tribal Tales,' actress brings humor, sadness and passion to six characters.

July 23, 1998|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Clarice Cohen appears to have a simple case of a widow's reheated drive for sex and stardom. But behind every person is a complex web of stories, and this is what finally makes writer-actor Susan Merson's solo show, "Clarice Cohen's Tribal Tales of Love," so haunting.

It takes a while for Merson to finally deliver the tragic underbelly of what seems to be a slight, comic collage involving six Jewish characters. But what connects these "Tribal Tales," at the Eclectic Theatre Company, is Merson's remarkable malleability as an actor.

Her shifts from Clarice, a somewhat pretentious but indomitable born-again bohemian chanteuse who plays the Jewish retirement-home circuit, to Betsy, a somewhat confused suburbanite, to Connie, the even more confused granddaughter of Clarice's lover Ernie, is the stuff of a true repertory-style actor.

Director Randee Trabitz)--who has directed John Fleck, staged Charles Ludlum) shows and assisted David Schweizer)--understands the theatrical essence of the chameleonic player.

Trabitz and Merson have particular fun with the show-within-the-show stuff: Clarice's "Bagels and Blues" show features such Peggy Lee) hits as "Fever," for instance. They goose up the low-budget glitter of the act without lampooning it to death.

A staging glitch is the occasional use of video during Clarice's scenes, which is at best extraneous and at worst visually crude. At one point Clarice speaks directly to the camera, but it's not clear to whom the speech is intended.

Designer Rand Ryan contributes much more interesting, and theatrically simple, elements that cleverly divide the Eclectic stage space and even speak to Clarice's flamboyant character.

Curiously, Merson's performance grows stronger through each character and scene. An early scene in a mental ward is a long drone that momentarily freezes the play's drama in place, while a later scene involving bitter Estelle speaking to granddaughter Connie from "The Netherworld" (as it's identified in the program) is a tour de force of passion, energy and sadness.

Estelle's speech is such a powerful expression of an old Jewish woman's abuse and loss that these "Tribal Tales" cannot go on much further.

Indeed, Clarice reappears in silence, and leaves. After so many monologues stuffed with so many words, Merson shows the true artist's sense to know her exit moment. It's a quietly brilliant end to a deceptively complex work.

BE THERE

"Clarice Cohen's Tribal Tales of Love" at the Eclectic Theatre Company, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 1. $15. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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