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Warm, fuzzy 'Dog' still has bite

August 18, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

AandBC Theatre derives its name from Hamlet's reference to "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time." But while "brief chronicles" aptly describes the work of AandBC, the aridity of "abstract" is misleading.

The affable British company's "The Tale That Wags the Dog," seen twice at the Skirball Cultural Center over the weekend in its North American premiere, is awash in warm feelings about the attraction between men and women. But it's hardly a generic Valentine's Day program.

The production's sentiments are very specifically illustrated through an assortment of acted-out tales, from a medley of ancient stories about the creation of the world -- and the sexes -- to a sprinkling of contemporary anecdotes. The tone varies from lightly bawdy jokes to tragic catharsis.

The three young performers enter from the audience, wearing very casual attire, signaling their audience-friendly attitude. They reenter the audience throughout the evening, though no theatergoers are drafted for the stage.

The two main storytellers, Danny Scheinmann and Sarah Sutcliffe, are married, although this isn't explicit in the show. Both of them are lanky and limber enough to adapt to a variety of roles during the intermissionless performance.

The third performer, musician-composer Neyire Ashworth, is just as vital, using her often klezmer-flavored clarinet and a sound effects board. She also occasionally enters the action in small roles. And she is a stand-in for those who have problems finding a mate. She destroys several coffee cups while venting her frustration.

But more of the show is about successful matches -- although sometimes these love affairs face daunting challenges, as in an anecdote about cross-cultural lovers who were slain together in Saravejo in 1993.

The creation story cycle culminates in a Blackfoot tale in which the performers use the innocent-looking triangle -- the percussion instrument -- in a metaphorical way that will forever change one's impression of triangle players.

The production's appearance was part of "Zeitgeist," the Skirball Center's European Jewish arts festival. The show's Jewishness is manifested not only in the clarinet but also in a Talmud tale about a couple who obtain a divorce on a rabbi's recommendation, and in a couple of other references. But cross-cultural eclecticism is even more obvious. The source material also includes the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Plato's Symposium and the Arabian Nights tales.

Gregory Thompson directed. Slated to move to London's West End soon (presumably in one of the more intimate spaces there), "The Tale That Wags the Dog" is a small-scale delight.

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