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Shepard’s ‘Shaved Splits’ at Al’s Bar; ‘Guys and Dolls’ at Harlequin Playhouse; ‘Paganini!’ at Actors Alley

Al’s Bar and Sam Shepard’s early rock ‘n’ roll one-acts were meant for each other. The joint is a bar all right, but it’s also a theater that sits on a desolate street south of Skid Row that looks like a painting by Edward Hopper.

Shepard’s play, “Shaved Splits,” written in 1969 when he was 25, couldn’t have a better Bohemian venue. Director James Terry brings his personal Actors’ Gang energy to this 976-Players production that thrives on a dramatic idiom rife with ‘60s rebellion.

The show features a salacious, avaricious performance by Robbin Harvey Trousdale (of the Trousdale family). Her entitled character is a restless, frustrated wife in a mirrored apartment who fantasizes scenes from porno novels while flipping out in bra and panties on a water bed that fills the stage.

She’s alternately attended by a muscular black masseuse, an alienated Chinese housekeeper, a revolutionary street fighter, a corporate American husband and a hustler of dirty books (Ron E. Dickinson in the production’s only other vivid performance).

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Gunfire rat-a-tat-tats away in the streets below. But the most important sounds, and this gets to the heart of the production, are the musical cues and original rock arrangements from a live, three-piece band sitting abreast of the audience.

Sometimes the music drowns out the actors’ words, but Shepard and director Terry see the excesses of these characters as if they themselves are rock ‘n’ roll band instruments. At the end the revolutionary (Tim O’Connor, a rock musician making his acting debut) literally turns into an electric guitar in the show’s finest moment, finding identity and glory in his musical metamorphosis.

The play can be nasty as a whiplash, and the production, running a little more than an hour, is unnecessarily strident. But it’s rewarding to have Al’s Bar staging these works--in this case, an obscure one-act by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright which had never been seen before in Los Angeles.

‘Guys and Dolls’

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This 1950 Broadway war horse should head for the barn unless the track is awfully fast --Gotham has to excite you, that crap game in the sewer has to sizzle, the streets have to snarl: Hey, let’s go to New York!

Unfortunately, at the Harlequin Dinner Playhouse, we remain in Santa Ana. We’re not transported to Damon Runyon’s sassy cartoon world. And there goes the show.

The set is a series of uninspired panels under an artless Manhattan skyline at the rear of the stage. The huge apron of a playing area is a dank void. They didn’t even bother to cover the floor. Two huge speakers block low sightlines, cutting off actors’ legs. The important feeling of a live orchestra is waived for pre-recorded, taped music.

Most of the show’s gamblers are too likable to make any mob (except for the cocky bluster of Joseph Hana and Richard G. Rodgers). At least the leads (Jeffrey Rockwell’s solid Sky Masterson and Susan Hoffman’s sturdy Salvation Army lass) are vocally sharp.

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The show, nearing the end of its current run, opened 39 years ago and time has not been generous to it. Even Milton Berle in a soft production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1980 couldn’t save it. Abe Burrows’ jokes haven’t sailed for years. The three or four durable tunes by Frank Loesser need live music.

All anyone wants out of dinner theater is a good, light time. But the trend is out of favor and it can’t survive like this.

The spacious, comfortable Harlequin, which still serves a substantial buffet dinner, has brought plenty of pleasure to patrons during its 12-year history. To combat a rough box-office year, however, the theater recently returned to staging “the classic old chestnuts,” in the words of Harlequin veteran director and “Guys and Dolls” helmsman Lynn Phillip Seibel.

It’s clearly an uphill climb.

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The real dinner theater story reflected here is in the dwindling houses. The evidence goes deeper than any single show on a slow night. From a peak of some 170 houses nationally in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the number of dinner theaters in the country has plunged by more than two-thirds, according to Seibel.

“Luck Be a Lady Tonight,” sings Sky and the gamblers. More than ever, it’s a roll of the dice.

‘Paganini

An unusual theater piece that is much more violin concerto than theater, “Paganini!” should enthrall devotees of the 19th-Century maestro. Otherwise, this musically spellbinding piece lacks sufficient tension to sustain dramatic interest.

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Staged as a masque in two acts at the Actors Alley Repertory Theatre, this Los Angeles premiere features Robert Rudie in a musically virtuosic solo performance.

Rudie, who co-wrote the material with the director, David Schecter, dons wigs and fluctuates his voice in deft transitions to other characters in this rendering of Paganini’s controversial life. These characters include French composer Hector Berlioz and the famous castrato , Luigi Marchesi.

The time is early June, 1840, a week after Paganini’s death in Nice. The church has forbidden his burial in consecrated earth, charging licentious and heretical behavior. We open to “the night air beyond” Nice where Paganini materializes to deny the church’s accusations, ridicule its injustice and grandly play the violin--on one string, two strings, caprices and concertos.

Rudie, who is now assistant concertmaster of the Austin Symphony, won an Emmy for this portrayal on the PBS series, “Meeting of Minds.” But his persona as Paganini the man seems a caricature, even inadvertently comic, like an old horror movie cliche, with furrowed brow and glaring eyes.

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Then he picks up his violin and you are swept away. Rudie’s most successful acting is in his often amusing portrayals of other characters, especially that of the English manager John Watson, who dryly describes Paganini’s relentless lusting after his daughter.

Rudie’s wife, pianist Kathryn Mishell, embellishes the evening with musical illustrations.


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