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'Dueling Harps' at REDCAT mixes strings, vocals

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There's nothing like a little harp music to soothe jangled nerves. Popular at weddings, funerals and not a few brises, the age-old instrument, with its sensual curves and ethereal-sounding glissandi, not only has an aristocratic air but also seems an anachronism in today's techno-obsessed world.

That image, however, gets a makeover with the, shall we say, unconventional cabaret act known as "Dueling Harps." Starring chanteuse, actor and performance art diva Ann Magnuson, singer Adam Dugas and harpists Mia Theodoratus and Alexander Rannie, it will arrive at REDCAT tonight for two performances.

"I always found the harp to be Goth -- haunting but also romantic," says the porcelain-skinned, redheaded Magnuson, an erstwhile fixture of New York's downtown art scene and an L.A. resident since 1987. "I was such an aficionado of horror films as a child, I find vampire imagery romantic. But after playing in a variety of bands, it's nice to strip everything down and keep it simple with the harp, which has a dark elegance and provides a beautiful soundtrack to the time-tripping brand of surrealism I enjoy wallowing in."

Magnuson's numerous film credits include playing opposite David Bowie in the cult '80s vampire movie "The Hunger," and she has performed with such bands as the psycho-psychedelic Bongwater, for which she was lead singer and lyricist, and the heavy metal group Vulcan Death Grip. She's also recorded solo CDs, including one from 2006 called "Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories."

But the idea of combining vocals and harp was actually Dugas'. A Brooklyn resident, Dugas also acts, writes, and produces and directs commercials, music videos and offbeat live shows. He began performing with Theodoratus several years ago when he was looking for an accompanist to perform with him in Shanghai.

"The producer could only afford to fly me with one musician," recalls Dugas, whose friendship with Magnuson dates to the mid-'90s, when they were neighbors in L.A., "so I figured I should bring the most unique instrumentalist I could find. That was Mia, who could play Gnarls Barkley and Donna Summer on the harp. We were such a success that we continued to generate more repertory."

As the rep grew, so did the act. After seeing the duo in New York, Magnuson mentioned to Dugas that she knew a harpist too, and "Dueling Harps" was born. Last year, the foursome appeared at Hollywood's Steve Allen Theater, but their show has been revamped for REDCAT to include a bit of Halloween tomfoolery: Beware of ghoulish puppetry (courtesy of puppeteer Robin Walsh), the splattering of blood and a Halloween medley that veers from "Bela Lugosi's Dead" to the theme from "Rosemary's Baby."

And true to the act's title, the harpists open with Flatt and Scruggs' "Dueling Banjos" (famous from the film "Deliverance"), juxtaposing it with Handel's "Sarabande." They'll also take solo turns, with Theodoratus strumming some Frank Zappa and Rannie tackling "Follets," an arpeggio-laden harp classic by Alphonse Hasselmans.

Theodoratus, who earned a performance degree from California Institute of the Arts, also lives in Brooklyn, where, she says, she once had to carry her harp down six flights of stairs because the elevator was broken. She likens the show to a 1960s variety act and says that she does her own arrangements: "It's like taking pop music and treating it like a classical aria and vice versa. It's really fun to flip things around."

L.A.-based Rannie agrees, adding, "The thing I like about the show is the harp harks back to the tradition of a traveling troubadour. It's about storytelling, whether it's a song or spoken word, and some of the songs are humorous and some are poignant. In the end, you've really experienced something."

Indeed, Magnuson and Dugas' disparate set list includes Irving Berlin's "Anything You Can Do," Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin' " and tunes by Henry Purcell and Jefferson Airplane -- plus a dollop of kulning, or Scandinavian cow calling.

Magnuson, who will be seen as a witch in an upcoming episode of the CW show "Valentine," calls "Dueling Harps" unlike any show she's done in a cabaret setting, where chatter and clatter often drown out a performance.

"This kind of more formal theater is a bit disconcerting," she says, "because everyone's sitting there really listening to you. But in the end, an audience is an audience, and I always try to follow my film professor's first commandment: 'Thou shalt not bore.' We can only hope we don't break that commandment."

"Dueling Harps," REDCAT, 2nd and Hope streets, Walt Disney Concert Hall complex, L.A. 8:30 p.m. today and Saturday. $10-$20. (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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