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Style & Culture | AL MARTINEZ

A heart worn upon her sleeve

August 22, 2005|AL MARTINEZ

SANDRA TSING LOH is one of those frantic, rocket-fueled, high-energy, iconoclastic funny women who dashes about so wildly that one can almost be convinced she is subliminal, existing in flashes barely below our level of awareness.

Othello, on the other hand, is a good-natured, slow-moving, agonizing Moor who has no sense of humor at all and ends up, not making us laugh, but making us ponder his vulnerability when, duped by the evil Iago, he murders his wife.

Together, Sandra and Othello made for an interesting weekend.

Loh, who is one of L.A.'s most gifted satirists, held a reading of her upcoming one-woman show, "Mother on Fire," on a Saturday at the 24th Street Theatre, leaving a crowd of friends, relatives and camp followers hoarse with laughter.

It is her comeback from, well, a one-word performance on NPR station KCRW-FM last March that got her fired. She mentions it in her current show by saying, "For 15 minutes, yes, I was a bit of a rock 'n' roll star," a reference to the minimal restraint rockers often display in their public usage of the dreaded "F-word."

"Othello," Will Shakespeare's dark study of jealousy and duplicity, was performed the next afternoon under towering oak trees and a flawless blue sky at Topanga's Theatricum Botanicum, a place worth seeing even if nothing is being performed and you're just sitting there, breathing and feeling.

I mention Loh at the 24th Street Theater on the edge of downtown and Othello in the outdoor setting of the Theatricum because they bookend L.A. in a couple of ways, not the least of which is by the very nature of their content and presentation. Shakespeare is classic, Loh wildly contemporary. Both are stylistic.

I'm not going to spend time on Shakespeare because either you know his plays or you don't deserve to. I will say that James Avery was a powerful Othello, and several in the audience had to be restrained when the show was over from hunting down James LeFave (Iago) and giving him a good beating, the dirty rat. Well, I guess you can't use God's little animals in a derogative sense in Topanga, where all creatures, however dirty, are worshiped. So just think of Iago as a person with whom you would not share your tofu.

Loh, writer, performer and mother, is L.A.'s gift to anyone who can keep up with her. One must absorb her performance to truly make sense of it. You sit and listen to her whiz by, think about it on the way home and suddenly burst into laughter when, at last, your brain, catching up, makes the synaptic connection.

Watching her dash back and forth across a stage, arms waving, is like watching a tennis match between maniacal kung fu artists. She begins in a kind of defense of motherhood: "The OLD TESTAMENT? A CAVALCADE of colorful FATHERS -- God, Noah, Abraham, Moses -- While the patriarchs are BASKING in spotlights at big gold altars, declaiming 'Why, why, why?' ... where are the mothers?"

She answers: "AMIDST the killings, locusts, floods, the MOTHERS are ... ? In the background, at the well -- ALWAYS at the well. They're beating their BREASTS, rending their hair. It's tedious, repetitive -- FACTORY work almost!"

That is the first stage of her rocket into a segmented treatise on the role of mothers first in history and then in Van Nuys. Although I was present at the reading, I am copying her quotes from a script, and the capital letters and punctuations are hers. Imagine Loh, if not shouting in your ear, at least emphasizing with a raised voice directly into your face.

"Mother on Fire" leaps from women in history to exclusive private kindergartens where Loh is considered a celebrity mom for having said the "F-word" on the air ("Is THIS how dark my world has become? That the MOTHER I most IDENTIFY with is Courtney Love?"), to mild confrontations with her Chinese father (Her mother was German, which makes her a kind of Manchurian/Teutonic Nietzschean Confucian on speed), to a fanciful war on private schools joined by "nuns with attitude" and finally a kindergarten in Van Nuys -- "My local migrant farmworker kindergarten."

From start to finish, it is a journey that, en route, takes on the L.A. school district ("Like a Saigon, falling in flames"), environmentalists ("I find myself cursing the Tree People"), George Bush ("Our president is a guy who says nu-cu-lar"), Calabasas ("The houses? How can I put this? They were all mansion-y, white carpet-y, chandelier-y?"), liberals ("Come to think of it ... ALL my bad reviews have come from Blue State papers!"), and other cowering fools and movements.

It is delivered in such a funny, frantic, off-handed manner that her act is more Observations of a WOMAN Curmudgeon than the RANTINGS of a MAD HOUSEWIFE. The show, which opens Sept. 30 and runs to Nov. 6 at the 24th Street Theatre, will include visual aids, as they say in kindergarten, and will be polished but not, I hope, toned down. Since this was a reading, I can't guarantee it will INCLUDE the QUOTED MATERIAL. I think it will, but WHO KNOWS? At least, unlike "Othello," no one dies at the end.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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