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A Contagious and Involving 'Fever'

May 07, 1999|JANA J. MONJI

I've never seen Wallace Shawn performing on stage. Yet one can easily imagine him hunching over, squinting his eyes and unleashing his voice into an intellectual whine when he performs "The Fever," a play that won a 1991 Obie Award.

In this Wolfskill Theater production at the cozy Cafe Metropol, Paul Mackley doesn't try to imitate Shawn, although he stays true to Shawn's feeling that this piece should be performed for groups of 10 or 12.

Dressed in jeans, a navy blue sweater vest and a striped long-sleeved shirt with his shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail, Mackley exudes wide-eyed sincerity and torrential intellectual enthusiasm in Shawn's meandering monologue about a well-to-do traveler. Finding himself worshiping the porcelain throne in a poverty-stricken country, this traveler is forced to confront his liberal values and concepts of poverty, the fairness of wealth distribution and his superior sense of entitlement.

It's as if the audience is at a salon gathering of the intelligentsia when this traveler divulges this shapeless tale of suffering and political torture. Instead of linear relationships, we are given images in juxtaposition like verbose haiku.

Directors Wendy Molyneux and Leigh Okies have paced this show well and maximized the intimacy of the setting and the style of this informal monologue.

* "The Fever," Wolfskill Theater at Cafe Metropol, 923 E. 3rd St., downtown L.A. Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends May 29. $10. (213) 620-9229. Running time: 2 hours.

Thought-Provoking but Distant 'Widows'

Barefoot women in black are waiting and wailing in Ariel Dorfman's political allegory "Widows," at the Open Fist Theatre. Written in collaboration with Tony Kushner, this drama is about how the uncertainty of the fate of the desaparecidos--men abducted by the secret police--leaves manless villages more miserable than lost hope.

As performed here on a minimalist set, the stiff portrayals and staging too often touch the mind when they should touch the heart. In an unnamed country, an old woman, Sofia (Jeanie Van Dam), is so stricken by grief that she can't work. Instead she waits at the river bend where the women wash their clothes. The river rewards her patience by delivering faceless corpses.

Her desperation disturbs the new captain (Joe Hulser), who scolds his second in command (Don Tieri) for not being wiser. One should always give them something to end their waiting, "even if you give them a finger to bury."

When all 36 "mentally underdeveloped, emotionally overdeveloped" widows attempt to claim one body, the captain reverts to the old methods of terror.

Dorfman's insertion of his alter ego, the Writer in Exile (Adrian Sparks), who is "a mirror of a mirror" created by the grieving widows, further removes the audience from the women. Instead of assuming the weight of a Greek tragedy, the play is a rumination--philosophical and not particularly gut-wrenching. The members of the ruling class are presented and played as hissable villains, making this morality play lopsided, something that director Brian Newberg does little to mitigate.

* "Widows," Open Fist Theatre, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends May 29. $15. (323) 882-6912. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

'Dreamers' May Be a Bit Too Mixed Up

Christina Harley's uneven drama "Dreamers," at the Zephyr Theatre, has some absorbing moments as it veers wildly between exaggerated comedy and gritty reality.

Beginning with a television announcement of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Harley tenuously ties the loss of the leader who gave African Americans dreams with the unrealistic dreams of one family. Like the eviction notice that ends the first act, this parallelism is only a loosely incorporated device with minimal repercussions.

In this dysfunctional family the mother, Lola (Vanessa Bell Calloway), is a zealous pastor's wife who can't admit her husband ran with another woman three years earlier. Her daughter, Princess (Harley), can't keep her legs shut, because, as she all too wisely pronounces, her mother never gave her any love so she has to find it somewhere. Princess has two babies and is working on a third. Lola's brother Otis (Glynn Turman) once dreamed of running in the Olympics but is now crippled by polio and his own depression.

It's a strange dichotomy, seeing women buffoonishly feeling themselves up at the sound of a sax and later emotionally imploding at the crushing realization of desertion. Director Art Evans magnifies this schizophrenic tone; his touch is more assured during the lighter sequences.

The cast is generally competent, but Turman is a scene-stealer as the sardonically cynical Otis, even when he's just wordlessly limping around Marco De Leon's decrepit apartment set before the show starts.

* "Dreamers," Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends May 23. $25. (323) 655-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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