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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

Pair of New Works Staged in Fullerton

October 23, 2000|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One boast the 8-year-old Stages Entertainment Group of Fullerton can make is that it's always trying something new. The main attempt is with plays, world premieres by local playwrights. Although the plays may be avant-garde, they aren't always, which gives an intelligent balance to their programs.

This time they're inaugurating a repertory system, producing two new plays at the same time. Each has its own evenings and appears in tandem on Saturday nights, alternately one early on, and the other as a late show.

Even though both plays are slightly flawed, they're worth seeing. The most impressive work is Michael Brainard's "A Murder of Crows," which concerns a University of California professor who has been un-chaired by his marriage to a first-year student. The only flaw here is the obvious fact that the playwright has been bitten by the Sam Shepard bug. The whole idea is derivative, and this version, directed by the playwright, works best through the performances of its actors.

Ed Burris, the typically Shepard professor, stares at the New Mexico landscape through binoculars, never defining what his new study concerns. His 23-year-old wife, Jane, seems to want him badly, but Ed only wants to be left alone. His fascination with the landscape appears to involve his striving for freedom of the soul or something like that. Suddenly there enters another 23-year-old, Cecil Flanders, reporter for his uncle's local newspaper. Cecil wants out of the landscape and the shackled life he hates in Santa Fe, and coincidentally an interview with the professor.

Another Shepard stereotype also appears, Rufus Finely, first seen by Ed through his binoculars in his underwear in the wide sweep of New Mexico panorama. Ed hates what Cecil stands for, and dismisses him. But Ed also adores the free life Rufus lives among the mesas and sand. He gets very confused about all this. Meanwhile, Jane puts the make on Cecil, Rufus beats up Ed, and the ending, typically Shepard, is as illogical as all that went before it.

Although the general rule that most playwrights shouldn't direct their own plays still holds, Brainard has focused his staging affectingly, his rhythms are sound and one can only say that it will be interesting to see what another director might find in the piece.

The performances are all sound. Brian Kojac's Ed is intense and sometimes pointedly furtive, and Spider Madison's Rufus is as unrealistically western as most of Shepard's Old West types. Enci Takacs is a delightfully flittering Jane, and Brandon Puleio's Cecil, at first as callow as he should be, is later on charmingly defensive as Jane's lustful victim. The play's best scene has Takacs and Puleio fencing in the semi-darkness of a New Mexico night about whether they will do it or not.

This repertory's other play is less successful. Martin Williams' "Dead Reckoning," directed by Todd Langwell, is fun in the way that 1940s second-features were, unabashedly corny and overdone. A Civil War veteran, Joseph has been summoned to open a school in a backward, evil Texas town.

His mentor has disappeared when Joseph arrives, but he starts the school anyway, striving to lead the inhabitants to emotional and intellectual freedom. But he's up against the most evil and dastardly villain in all this simplistic genre.

Williams' script is shaped like a screenplay, with many locations and very short scenes, and the set changes only succeed in breaking down any dramatic thread in the piece. Director Langwell hasn't been able to overcome the script's silliness, which gets audience laughs even in the most serious moments, and the overacting he allows is unfortunate. Williams likes violent fight scenes, and there are several of them, well-done but doing nothing to advance the emotional impact the plot might have had.

There are some valid, strong performances in the midst of all this. Richard Evans is a believable Joseph, particularly when he's soap-boxing for his new school, and Chad MacFarlane is a valid reconstituted bum as his son. Spider Madison again does his "Gabby" Hayes-"Fuzzy" Knight bit as the town drunk, and he's effective, but again gets laughs at moments he shouldn't and Melanie Baker's Paige, a hooker who redeems herself because of the school, is interestingly varied and detailed.

"A Murder of Crows" and "Dead Reckoning," Stages, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton. "Crows," Fridays, Nov. 3, 17, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, Nov. 4, 18, 7 p.m.; Saturday late shows, Oct. 28, Nov. 11, 25, 9 p.m.; Sundays, Oct. 29, Nov. 12, 5 p.m.; "Reckoning," Fridays, Oct. 27, Nov. 10, 24, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, Oct. 28, Nov. 11, 25, 7 p.m.; Saturday late shows, Nov. 4, 18, 9 p.m.; Sundays, Nov. 5, 19, 5 p.m. Ends Nov. 25. $14. (714) 525-4484. Running times: "Crows," 2 hours; "Reckoning," 1 hour, 45 minutes.

"Crows"

Brian Kojac: Ed Burris

Enci Takacs: Jane Burris

Brandon Puleio: Cecil Flanders

Spider Madison: Rufus Finely

"Dead Reckoning"

Richard Evans: Joseph

Chad MacFarlane: Jacob

Spider Madison: Cactus

Melanie Baker: Paige

A Stages Entertainment Group production of two new plays: "A Murder of Crows" by Michael Brainard and "Dead Reckoning" by Martin Williams. Lighting design: Brandon Puleio. Scenic design: Danuta Tomzynski. Sound design: Michael M. Miller. Fight direction: Michael M. Miller, Chad MacFarlane, Chris Villa.

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