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Stage Light

Creating Theater Out of Nothing

July 27, 2000|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The old vaudeville show was like a kebab, with a little bit of everything for every palate. Moira Quirk and Michael C. Rayner, co-creators of "A Post-Modern Vaudeville Show" at the Raven Playhouse, are obviously not cooking up the old kebab. Theirs is more like a two-course meal with each dish made by wildly different cooks.

Quirk simply comes out on stage and talks, with minimal props. Rayner bursts out after intermission and juggles, balances and spins things around, all within a mordantly comic framework. The show's common threads are life's rampant absurdity and the unexpected ways in which you can create a whole lot of theater out of next to nothing.

Rayner is pretty special, but he doesn't exactly blow you away like the guy on the Venice boardwalk who juggles electric saws. Quirk, though, suggests something remarkable in her stand-up act, which immediately presents itself to the audience as more than a stand-up act.

The stage has the barest hint of domesticity, complete with a small table set up with tea for two. She's British, and absolutely must have her tea, but explains she's trying ever so hard to assimilate. She's doing OK so far, having already landed some roles and a steady gig as host of Nickelodeon's game shows "Guts" and "Global Guts." But her biggest struggle, she explains in her delicate and almost hypnotic tone, is trying to be a good girl. She's trying, but she keeps slipping up and doing naughty things.

One of them is slipping little "nasty" words into her act. By doing so, she manages what would seem to be the impossible act of reviving the sense of shock that "blue" comedy first triggered in the 1950s before Lenny Bruce broke the walls down.

Quirk does not launch into a raunch routine. Her act is a sly, brilliant take on the American perception of British reserve concealing a capacity for outrageousness. She knows that we think we know, and even tells us she knows, and nevertheless surprises us every step of the way. She makes it all go down with precision delivery and crisp timing. Some bits about apartment neighbors narrating tapes for the Braille Institute and strip-teasing to the post-modernized Baroque music of Michael Nyman may just become classics.

Quirk's act starts small and becomes large, while Rayner's begins big and ends up being a slightly nuttier version of the usual juggling act. A voice announces that secret U.S. government agencies engineered the "Urban C.L.O.W.N. Project" during Vietnam to keep the troops entertained, and there's one last clown from the project answering phones at the CIA.

Rayner emerges Jerry Lewis-like out of a nylon tent (his CIA workstation) to do goofy gym exercises with a Sly Stallone doll and a Cabbage Patch doll that loses its dress.

The rest of the act is all skill, punctuated by some comic touches, such as Rayner setting up a photo of his wife onstage to remind himself that he's a married man. (He assures a chortling woman in the audience that he and his wife "make sweet Christian love," and the chortling grows louder.)

He then balances a wheelbarrow on his chin, then does it over an audience member. He holds up a towel, wraps and twists it and turns it into something resembling a ready-to-eat chicken. He juggles glow-in-the-dark balls and cigar boxes, and caps it with balancing a cheeseburger on top of a spinning umbrella. For an encore, he juggles two pins while putting the wheelbarrow back on his chin.

Nice stuff, but the show (actually produced by Quirk's and Rayner's Urban C.L.O.W.N. Project) seems to have its order backward. None of us can do what Rayner does, but what he does is open shows, not close them. That's Quirk's job, and she should do it in her own naughty way.

BE THERE

"A Post-Modern Vaudeville Show," Raven Playhouse, 5233 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 10. $7. (818) 766-5412. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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