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To be young, Jewish and black

August 22, 2003|David C. Nichols; F. Kathleen Foley; Philip Brandes

Irreverent hilarity spices up "Fried Chicken and Latkas," now playing Wednesdays at the Canon Theater in Beverly Hills. Rain Pryor's account of growing up black, Jewish and Richard Pryor's daughter is an effective showcase for a ripe talent.

Pryor, accompanied by ace musical director Gail Johnson, starts in swinging, her opening number putting thematic new lyrics to Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret": "What's the big deal if I'm black and a Jew? / In temple, I sing the blues. / Life is fried chicken and latkas, too: / I'll make Shabbat for you!" This insouciance just barely prepares her audience for the ribald, bumptious scenario that ensues.

Pryor's crazy-quilt chronological trajectory illuminates her personal and professional saga with instant characterizations, musical numbers and freewheeling aphorisms that range from corny to convulsive under Tracy Silver's direction, augmented by Clinton Derricks-Carroll. Pryor's Modigliani-moppet expressions, kinetic ease, powerful singing voice and rich comic ingenuity are invaluable assets. Conversing with the audience as her paternal grandmother (which is worth the whole enterprise), or sporting an Afro the size of Belize (designed by John Stapleton), Pryor is wickedly funny and sharply observant, as in her uproarious send-ups of her mother and maternal grandmother.

However, when she deals with harsher issues, such as bigotry she has encountered or surviving her father's travails, Pryor's form inhibits her content -- as in her Dad-motivated rendition of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach's "God Give Me Strength" at midpoint, more suited for the evening's climax, or her hastily achieved, underdeveloped uplifting resolution.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater photo credit -- A photograph of the Theatre 40 production of "An Act of the Imagination" in Calendar on Friday should have been credited to Ed Krieger, not David Bartolomi.

Pryor's fertile material and cathartic intent fully warrant full-length expansion beyond this cabaret-style format. Given the clamor at the reviewed performance, she certainly has the audience to justify such architectural additions.

-- David C. Nichols

"Fried Chicken and Latkas," Canon Theatre, 205 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 24. Mature audiences. $20. (310) 859-2830, (213) 365-3500. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

*

'Plague Year' is a tad moribund

Daniel Defoe's life was nothing if not eventful. Born in 1660, Defoe was variously a merchant, a writer ("Robinson Crusoe," "Moll Flanders"), bankrupt and a spy whose irreligious satires earned him stints in prison and the pillory.

Defoe's famous mordancy is in short supply in his "Journal of the Plague Year," a dry recounting of the great London plague of 1665 as seen through the eyes of Defoe's narrator, a saddler trapped in London for the duration. In his thoughtful and visually stunning interpretation at the Gascon Theatre Center, Stephen Legawiec throws in some plot twists and poetic license but otherwise is overly reverential with his source material.

The founder and artistic director of the Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble, Legawiec is noted for his galvanic productions derived from various world myths, such as last season's critically acclaimed "Red Thread," a martial arts-influenced romp based on an ancient Chinese folk tale. "Plague," which, sadly, will be the last Ziggurat production at the Gascon before the theater undergoes a major redevelopment, is essentially a one-man show, written by Legawiec and featuring him as the nameless saddler-narrator.

The set and costumes, designed by Legawiec, are characteristically impeccable, as is Leif Gantvoort's superlative lighting design.

Director Dana Wieluns keeps the action relentlessly meditative and austere. In his recapitulation of Defoe's recapitulation, Legawiec maintains the measured and slightly sanctimonious tone of Defoe's protagonist, whose recital of mortality rates and mortuary procedures occasionally borders on the droning. It is when Legawiec portrays various subsidiary characters -- the quacks and charlatans who proliferated during the epidemic -- that a redemptive liveliness infuses the proceedings, and we glimpse the glinting eye behind the death mask.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"Journal of the Plague Year," Gascon Center Theatre, 8737 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Sept. 7. $15. (310) 842-5737. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

*

'Oedipus' morphs into modern times

Symbolist tactics and City of Angels targets mutate throughout "OedipusText: Los Angeles" in Santa Monica. This adroit City Garage deconstruction imbues Sophocles' ageless saga of the incestuous king of Thebes with modern elements ranging from self-help to trip-hop.

It transpires, as usual with this company, in a self-contained abstract ethos. Author-designer Charles A. Duncombe draws Jocasta's lines from Helene Cixous' opera "The Name of Oedipus: Song of the Forbidden Body," but his esoteric text is otherwise original and impressive.

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