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Stage Light

Ark's Plays Explore Class, Sex

October 05, 2000|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Can the knaves successfully revolt against their masters? A pressing question in, oh, AD 1030, and even in 1968, when revolution was going global and plays like Joe Orton's one-act "The Erpingham Camp" and Jean Genet's "The Maids" were being staged by revolutionary-minded theater groups.

This pairing of European comedies concerned with class-conscious matters that presumably have no truck with Americans in 2000, by the Ark Theatre Company at the Whitefire Theatre, would seem to be a truly counterculture gesture. Still, with L.A. finding itself ribboned with picket lines by everyone from actors to bus drivers to county employees, a little class consciousness seems to be in the air. It would be interesting to see the response of striking Screen Actors Guild members, for instance, if they checked out Ark's latest work after a day on the front lines.

Orton's seldom-staged piece is the evening's intriguing opener, depicting in the late playwright's typically brassy way the violent destruction of a summer camp run by the fatuous Erpingham (Bruce Cornwell in total John Cleese mode). Beginning as a seemingly mild spoof of strained British efforts to get a little rest and relaxation, with camp employee Riley (Richard Tatum) aggressively climbing the camp's corporate ladder by convincing the boss to take over the evening show, "Camp" devilishly morphs into a fable of the have-nots (the camp guests) rebelling against the tyrannical haves (Erpingham). Even more than his oft-revived full-length black comedies, such as "Loot," this briefer Orton satire is bitterly political, less concerned with sex and morals than with the absurdity of self-appointed power-mongers. It is strongly reminiscent of "If," Lindsay Anderson's political fable set in a British public school.

Director Michaela Goldhaber displays firm control over the comedy's increasingly wild momentum, with Robert Tobin a standout as the Cockney-accented rebel leader, Kenny.

This same control is somewhat missing from director Andrew Crusse's handling of "The Maids," even though Crusse has deliberately applied his own perspective to Genet's 1947 comic-tragedy, one of the early classics of the theater of the absurd.

The maids, Claire (Jennifer Chu) and Solange (Kiersten Van Horne), as in Genet's original, playact at different roles in the household, with Claire dressing up as Madame, whom they serve, and Solange playing Claire. Meanwhile, on an upstage platform, two male prison cellmates, also named Claire (Jim Merson) and Solange (Josh Cooke), act out the same script as the maids, with each group passing off sections of the text as in a relay.

It's a highly mannered device, clearly meant to suggest that we all have male and female sides and to remind the audience of Genet's beginnings as a poet of the cellblock. But the switching between pairs becomes needlessly distracting and finally to little purpose, except to provide a new spin on this tantalizingly mysterious drama of mistresses, servants, sexual roles and fate. Carol Mack's extraordinary Madame is decadence incarnate, and Van Horne plumbs rich levels of pathos, while Chu hams up a role about playacting, and the men look like they're merely puppets in a director's experiment.

BE THERE

"The Erpingham Camp" and "The Maids," Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Friday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.; Oct. 14, 8 p.m.; Oct. 15, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 20, 8 p.m.; Oct. 22, 3 p.m. Ends Oct. 22. $10-$18. (323) 969-1707. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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