'Shakin' ': A Storytelling Tradition

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As its subtitle announces, "Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery," at West Coast Ensemble in Hollywood, is more of "a celebration of love and family" than a play. But then, author Shay Youngblood, who has based the piece on her short story collection, "The Big Mama Stories," isn't aiming for a play in any standard way.

Its spirit is based in the African-American tradition that believes that a story, and storytelling, are means of passing on wisdom and changing people.

Youngblood chooses not to show specifically how Alex Datcher's daughter/narrator is changed, but to have Datcher recall--conjure up--the five surrogate mothers who raised her in the absence of her own mother, a dancer. This is a gallery of memories, not a drama.

Which isn't to say that the individual stories aren't dramatic, or funny: A tale, for instance, involving the "big mamas" on a bus during civil rights days hilariously turns an incident that could have sparked a riot into a scene drenched in irony. Other moments are pure mood, as when Aunt Mae (a stunning Starletta DuPois) whips up a spiritual flourish during a Bible meeting.

Appropriately, for a work about black women's strength in the face of adversity, director Diann McCannon has amassed a galvanic all-woman cast, ranging from the quiet, Gibraltar-like maternalism of Susie Garrett to the Pan-African warmth of Michele Shay. McCannon, though, has yet to find a way of making the work dance on stage: Memories, especially good ones, flow better than this.

"Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery," West Coast Ensemble, 6240 Hollywood Blvd., Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends March 24. $15; (213) 871-1052. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

'Hounds' Survives Its Pre-Show Hype

Even before it opened, Felton Perry's production of Ron Trice's "Hounds," at Gardner Stage in Hollywood, sounded strange.

The show would have a post-performance ticket raffle, the prize being a copy of Shahrazad Ali's controversial book, "The Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman."

But "Hounds" is everything Ali's book reportedly isn't (this critic has read only accounts of the book). While Ali writes from her own point of view--some call it a diatribe--about how black women had better start obeying their men if they want African-American culture to survive, Trice's sinewy drama is interested in multiple points of view. The men and women in "Hounds" all have a stake, and a case.

Indeed, Trice's women--especially the young Renae (Johari)--are victims of male manipulation and neglect, though in her final fusillade, Renae condemns all the grown-ups for acting like children. In its seductive crudeness, long group scenes of poisonous male bonding and cross-generational, cross-gender warfare, "Hounds" resembles nothing so much as David Rabe's "Hurlyburly."

It doesn't need publicity gimmicks, which undermine its worth, and it deserves a better home than the Gardner's bomb shelter environment. Director Trice makes the most of things with a semi-arena staging that vitally creates the feeling of a boxing match. And some of the sparring is amazing: Alretha Baker's wily Joan, Bill Lee Brown's wimpy Rat, Mark Frazer's electric Tiny and Kyle-Scott Jackson's spineless Scotty.

Now, let's see them in a real theater.

"Hounds," Gardner Stage, 1501 N. Gardner, Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends March 10. $12-$15; (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Sexes Battle It Out in 'Brontosaurus Blues'

Director Michael Schlitt faces a built-in problem staging Kevin Diller's "The Brontosaurus Blues" at Burbank's Victory Theatre. Diller's play takes place in a dance club full of throbbing music and bopping singles; how to convey this and still have a play with discernible people and conversations?

Schlitt's solution is to briefly crank up the music, then fade it out and let his five actors take over. This is practical, but it doesn't help the atmospherics, nor does Rod Langdahl's design, dominated by his and her bathrooms.

This could be a joke--a generation gone down the toilet--but Diller's work isn't that quick-witted. His schematics have four women (all elastically played by Amy Lemon) and four men--urbane dudes at the bar (Tony-Rodney Monaco and Todd Jeffries), manic ones in the boys' room (Tim deZarn and Elliot Easton).

They're more snapshots than characters, their gender battles are too familiar and their supposedly hip comments sound dated.

"The Brontosaurus Blues," Victory Theatre, 3326 Victory Blvd., Burbank, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends March 9. $10; (818) 841-5421. Running time: 70 minutes.

Improv Rules 'Kate's Curse Cured'

For those of us who are less than fond of "The Taming of the Shrew," the Attic Theatre Ensemble in Hollywood has the good idea to run roughshod over Shakespeare's dubious propositions on sexual politics with "Kate's Curse Cured, or U-Fix the Classics."

Co-director (with A. P. McGovern) John MacKane--also the emcee--helped found the improv group, Artificial Intelligence, and improv rules this new show. From casting (audience members pick the 11-member ensemble's names out of a hat, to match them with a role) to final coda (lovers speak ad-hoc rhymes to each other), "Kate's Curse Cured" puts actors on a real tight-wire.

A lot of Friday's show smacked of "Saturday Night Live Does the Bard," with plenty of pop anachronisms ladled on: Bianca, for instance, picks her suitor on a "Dating Game"-type show. The Attic group has picked the right target, though you wouldn't want to see them demolish "Lear." It's decent popcorn theater, where the sloppier the set and costumes, the better.

"Kate's Curse Cured, or U-Fix the Classics," Attic Theatre, 6562 Santa Monica Blvd., Fridays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends March 9. $8; (213) 462-9720. Running time: 75 minutes.

Audience Chooses 'Oscar Spade' Ending

The audience for Paul Walker's "From the Files of Oscar Spade," at the Chapel Court Theatre in Hollywood, also has a chance to script the end of the show, but, like everything else about Richard Merson's hopelessly hobbled production, it feels dropped in our laps.

The feeling comes from the show's uniform rank sloppiness. Because this whodunit's campiness (what else from a '30s Hollywood milieu?) is so utterly botched, the last-minute audience participation gives off the scent that Walker really had no idea how to finish his play. When Geoffrey Brooks' Oscar (yes, Sam's neglected brother) asks us for help, it's no wonder he has so few takers.

"From the Files of Oscar Spade," Chapel Court Theatre, Hollywood United Methodist Church, 6817 Highland Ave., Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends March 2. $10; (213) 874-4527 or (213) 874-6203. Running time: 75 minutes.

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