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More to 'Red Hat' than meets the eye

Theater | THEATER BEAT

March 12, 2004|David C. Nichols;Lynne Heffley;Rob Kendt;Philip Brandes

Sharp urban wit accompanies "Red Hat & Tales," presented by Playwrights' Arena at Moving Arts in Silver Lake. Nick Salamone's surreal dramedy transpires in a literal closet, and local leaseholders will identify with (or salivate at) Justin Huen's fine setting.

Its dominant feature is a sea of scattered postcards, which underscores Salamone's scenario. Unemployed greeting-card scribe Paul (Salamone) charts his back story through "insouciant literary droppings" to absent lovers and relations. Paul's green-card-seeking Canadian wife, Sheila (Elizabeth O'Connell), questions these unsent missives as well as Paul's avoidance of direct contact beyond role-playing games.

In turn, Paul finds Sheila's hesitancy to detail her history as suspect as her "tomato toilet paper cover" hat. A metrosexual fable about the mysteries of attraction and moving past loss unfolds.

"Red Hat's" bisexual wrangle hangs on Jon Lawrence Rivera's neat staging and the layered playing of Salamone and O'Connell. The direction deftly manages the Expressionist shifts, with smart assets in Jeremy Pivnick's lighting and Bob Blackburn's sound. Both actors are estimable, striking ribald and sensitive notes in rapid succession with easy empathy and timing.

Salamone's authorial expertise is obvious, but he overdoes the metaphors, referencing everyone from Edward Albee to Gore Vidal, and the ending feels arranged. This along with the fascinating unseen characters and described events indicate that Salamone is sitting on a larger creation. "Red Hat & Tales" is recommendable as is, but a full-length work lurks within its fleet, florid text.

-- David C. Nichols

"Red Hat & Tales," Playwrights' Arena at Moving Arts, 1822 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends April 10. Mature audiences. $15. (213) 627-4473. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

*

Puppets present creation myths

At the outset, "Native Dreams," a short new shadow puppet theater piece based on Native American creation myths at the Miles Memorial Playhouse, sets an evocative mood.

Dappled shadows, quiet flute music and a simple but well-crafted set that resembles rocks covered with ancient cave paintings are complemented by the theater's intimate, wood-beamed ambience.

Presented by puppet masters Steven Ritz-Barr and Eugene Seregin and the Metropolitan Puppet Authority, this otherworldly journey created for family audiences has trouble taking flight, however.

It begins when two hand puppets -- rubbery-looking rock creatures -- speak gibberish, toss a rock up into the air and disappear. This ushers in a hissing mist and the shadow puppetry.

It also signals the show's main flaw: narrator Ritz-Barr's electronically altered voice, lowered to Darth Vader range. Far from adding a magical dimension, the effect at times verges on unintelligibility and occasionally skips like a bad cellphone connection, breaking the mood of the peaceful ambient music and chants.

Nor did a passel of narrative bobbles help during last weekend's opening performance. Well-edited, prerecorded narration would surely do better justice to the pair's delicately crafted, winning shadow creations -- a rabbit, a fox, a coyote, an elk, a bear, fish and birds.

The show's last vignette is the winner: Audience members are invited behind the shadow screen and given a puppet and a part to play in a comic tale about why bats fly at sunset.

-- Lynne Heffley

"Native Dreams," Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.; ends March 28. $5-$10. (310) 455-7150. Running time: 45 minutes.

*

Clumsy play, compelling topic

It lurches, it lumbers, it's several rewrites and rehearsals short of stage-worthy. But there's a seed of promise, and flashes of genuine insight, in June August's pat but not entirely predictable new play, "Coming to Life," about a support group at a senior residential facility.

When ramrod-straight psych student Linda (Felicia Wilson) arrives to host weekly sessions with five older women as part of her doctoral research about "the challenges of aging," we know exactly where we're going: down Repressed Memory Lane to tidy up what she calls "unfinished business."

This tag-team journey of self-discovery, of course, won't spare our above-it-all interlocutor; we know that when she answers a personal question by saying, "This isn't about me."

She's not alone in broadcasting the denial the play will methodically dismantle. Chubby Helen (Jacque Lynn Colton) angrily fends off all comers, while former activist Vera (Leslie Paxton) deflects Linda's probing more archly: "Maybe that's the showstopper -- looking into my heart."

Similarly protective of private regrets are haughty loudmouth Louise (Dorothy Constantine); saintly, blind Janette (Teddy Vincent); and stern, literate Clara (Jody Carter).

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