Whoopi's 'Living on the Edge' Balances a Cast of Characters

San Diego County Arts Writer

A theater full of friends greeted actress Whoopi Goldberg at the Lyceum Stage with cheers and warm applause Thursday night. She in turn responded with a friendly, intimate, comic, poignant, loose-jointed performance of her new one-woman show, "Living on the Edge of Chaos."

It was a homecoming of sorts for Goldberg, who received an Oscar nomination for the role of Celie in "The Color Purple." Between 1977 and 1981 she honed her ensemble acting skills with the San Diego Repertory Theatre. This show was a chance for Goldberg to return the favor to the Rep by playing four benefit workshop performances (Thursday and Friday) to help the theater with its deficit. At the same time, the performances gave Goldberg a chance to judge audience reaction to the new material.

Wearing her trademark dreadlocks, a long white T-shirt, jeans and worn tennis shoes, Goldberg created a clutch of her favorite characters--all society's castoffs and misfits. She kept the house lights up throughout the first Thursday performance, a move that served to pull the audience and the trim actress closer together--a sharing of confidences. It also helped take the edge off the fact that this was clearly a workshop performance.

The socially pointed subject matter focused generally on serious stuff: the handicapped, teen pregnancy, but most often, on the perils of AIDS.

Often Goldberg's social messages came out of the mouths of characters redolent of Skid Row. The ex-drug fiend, Fontaine, spewed forth a lengthy, looping, largely unprintable street-wise rap on racial discrimination (Jimmy the Greek and Jesse Jackson), television evangelism and the Reagan Administration's belated research program on AIDS.

This philosophic derelict harangued the audience about the need for accurate AIDS education:

"You may not dig me," he raved, "but your grandchildren are at stake. You hear what I'm saying?" The audience heard and liked it.

"Living on the Edge of Chaos" seems about halfway complete. It remains a mixture of old and new material, some of it culled from Goldberg's 1985 Broadway hit, "The Spook Show."

A sudden offer of a movie role apparently caused her to postpone the new show's development and a planned February tour.

Her older characters were dead-on creations: the shuffling Fontaine, the pregnant surfer girl, the little girl dying of AIDS. The new creations, such as Inez, a sexually active 76-year-old lounge singer, and an apartment dweller matter-of-factly recounting plans to shoot someone named Bill, were fascinating if less clearly focused.

Because some of the material likely will be jettisoned, the show lacked the refinement of smooth transitions, which were a highly praised part of "The Spook Show."

But the audience seemed to take such matters in stride. The standing ovation that closed "Living on the Edge of Chaos" acknowledged Goldberg's special gifts and offered a resounding endorsement for the new work on which she is embarked.

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