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‘Sisters’ at Celebration; O’Neill Sea Plays at Celtic Arts; ‘Twelfth Night’ by Company of Angels; ‘The Death of Shakespeare’ at McCadden Place

Lesbian drama, which only came out of the closet a few years ago, is perhaps the best index the straight world has to gay women.

Among the newest dramatic examples is playwright Patricia Montley’s “Sisters,” at the Celebration Theatre. This is not a headlong plunge but rather a gradual submersion into lesbianism with women who deny it, embrace it, hide it. What makes this West Coast premiere particular, however, is that the background for the drama is the Catholic church and the seven characters are nuns and ex-nuns.

The catalyst, whose idealism borders on Joan of Arc, is a passionate, intellectual nun (Judy O’Dea) who invites five former convent classmates to a reunion at a beach house retreat. She wants their support in her battle with the archdiocese to counsel gay Catholics and forge a gay ministry.

She tells her friends she is gay and then compels them to open up, too. (She knew all along whom to invite.) Latent lesbianism hovers in the air. Abashed ex-nuns full of lesbian denial concede gay affairs in the past. One wife and mother (the spunky Nidia Cota) admits that she discovered too late her true preference and indulges a kiss with a virginal, startled figure (Mary Lou Aurelio).

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What we have is not “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” but not a hothouse opera either. Most of these women are fleeing their lesbian inclinations. Two are married, another has a boyfriend.

What the play does is break down stereotypes. Playwright Montley (who is the chair of the drama department at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Pa.) emboldens her play with a hard, topical political edge (dramatized through flashbacks with a firm but sensitive Mother Superior played by Shannon Welles).

When it comes to crunch time--outcast time--none of the old convent gang is willing to go public with her sexual bias to push the cause of the zealous friend. Hearth and security come first. The idealistic nun (whose unfulfilled love for one of the group is her real agony) is left to fight alone.

There are artless aspects to the production. The set design is shabby. The play accelerates slowly, and the staging, under director Lenore Willard, is often awkward.

What shines are Welles’ protagonist, Sarah Forbes Lilly’s pain, and Elizabeth Palmer’s anger. Most importantly, the work has a nice ambiguity and plenty on its mind.

Performances run at 426 N. Hoover St. (Silverlake), Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 5 p.m., through May 1. Tickets: $10. (213) 876-4257.

‘Two From the Sea’

Eugene O’Neill’s early sea plays throb with atmosphere, and the Celtic Arts Center evocatively catches the tough camaraderie in the one-acts “Bound East for Cardiff” and “The Long Voyage Home.”

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Director Joe Praml draws excellent ensemble performances from his casts (particularly Tom Noga in both plays, Robert O’Carroll’s dying seaman Yank in “Cardiff,” and Sonja Green-Fortag and Joan Mullin as the saloon slatterns in “Voyage”).

“Bound East for Cardiff” (O’Neill’s first staged play, by the fabled Provincetown Players in 1916) looms as a murky “Lower Depths” in Dart Conrad’s set design. The actors’ rough brogues are authentic and comprehensible. The tramp steamer’s rhythmic, thudding “ka-lunk-ka-lunk” fill the pale darkness of the seamen’s hole (credit lighting and sound designer Peter Strauss).

The aura of squalor is not as textured in the curtain-closer, “The Long Voyage Home,” which offers a Swedish lunk (Bill A. Jones) about to be shanghaied from a waterfront dive. The acting and staging, however, maintain this solid salute to O’Neill’s centennial.

Performances run at 5651 Hollywood Blvd., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., through April 17. Tickets:$6-$10. (213) 462-6844.

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‘Twelfth Night’

The Company of Angels is doing “Twelfth Night” set against the background of the L.A. music industry. Randy Ruff’s original contempo score is “the food of love” and it fits the concept perfectly.

Set designer’s Ron Benson’s Malibu sky and languorous palms and costume designer Catherine Beaumont’s fashions also tell us it’s L.A. Indeed it comes as an apt touch when Viola enters the city (still called Illyria) and queries, “What country, friends, is this?” That does sound like a newcomer’s response to Los Angeles.

Director Gary Armagnac’s idea is an imaginative one. But the majority of his cast lacks the diction for Shakespeare. Textually, the Bard is intact. But only a few actors have the timbre and vocal dexterity, notably Gary Matanky’s strong Duke Orsino. Linda Grinstead’s Viola and Mark Abelson’s clown are flavorful, but Janet McGrath’s Countess Olivia suggests a restoration project in the image of Cher. Bizarre even for L.A.

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The production can’t sustain the comedy’s lyricism. Out of context, the subplot with Malvolio is merely inane. “Twelfth Night” doesn’t transfer that easily after all. The fun fades into Pismo Beach.

Performances are at 5846 Waring Ave., Hollywood, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., through May 14. Tickets:$10. (213) 466-1767.

‘Death of Shakespeare’

Don’t get the wrong idea. This is not Shakespeare dying in the snow after leaving a pub. It’s an adolescent dirge, and Shakespeare is the name of a late, beloved cat, the symbol of bittersweet, deathless romantic love in a two-character play that is a miracle of miscalculation.

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This is the sort of saccharine, cloying piece that doomed first love affairs generate in budding writers who love pain. Hurt and breaking up? “The Death of William Shakespeare,” at the McCadden Place Theater, is just the ticket.

Actually, the young man here (performed by the playwright, Dan Saunders) is into his second love (Julie Austin). She’s a country girl who wises up. He’s a West Village elitist who never wises up.

At least Saunders didn’t direct. That task went to T. J. Castronovo, who faced the challenge of literally pulling a kitty kat out of a bag in the last scene. The bereft calls him Romeo. Has no one any shame?

Performances are at 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood, Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., through May 1. Tickets: $10-$12. (213)466-1767.

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