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STAGE REVIEW : Wonderful, Wacky ‘Buddha’ May Answer Bowery Prayers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If necessity is the mother of invention, the Bowery Theatre should beam, having parented a happy, healthy production in the midst of a serious financial crisis.

“Laughing Buddha Wholistik Radio Theatre” opened at the Kingston Playhouse Thursday and should serve two purposes for the Bowery: The play stands on its own as a wonderfully wacky comedy that will provide audiences with a great evening of theater. Set in a radio-station sound stage, the play takes the audience behind the scenes of an old-style radio program akin to Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” The device allows for three different dramatic sketches, a variety of mock commercials and special guest appearances.

And, cleverly, the production also succeeds as a promotional device, informing audiences that the Bowery is suffering from a lack of funds and that any and all donations are crucial to the very existence of the theater.

As Bowery Artistic Director Ralph Elias said in a taped broadcast during the show, the Bowery joins “esteemed associates” such as the La Jolla Playhouse and the San Diego Repertory Theatre in announcing “We’re broke.” Instead of simply announcing a debt, however, the Bowery has successfully woven a press conference of sorts into its current production.

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“Laughing Buddha,” written by Burnham Joiner and Bowery Managing Director Todd Blakesley, is a hilarious, multilayered comedy combining both silly humor and biting social satire. Foremost on the Joiner-Blakesley agenda is poking fun at contemporary California culture, an activity both writers obviously relish.

The episodic comedy sketches--all arranged by different artists--make up the bulk of “Laughing Buddha.” Blakesley himself directed the strongest of the three, a parody of “The Shadow” called “The Guest.”

Local actor Robert Larsen shines as “The Guest,” a sinister character who seeks to uncover the truths behind suburban living. “I am The Guest,” sneered Larsen, his eyes rolling lavishly, “and I know many things, for I visit on weekends.”

Not only does “The Guest” visit, he also shows up (gasp!) a half-hour earlier than scheduled, seeking to find outer space aliens living in neighborhood tract homes. Larsen’s exaggerated presence stopped the show on several occasions as laughter filled the 76-seat theater.

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Another of the episodes, “Chardonnay Chaparral,” features “tales of the wine countries of the Old West.”

Directed by Linda Vickerman, the characters in “Chardonnay Chaparral” are a goofy sort; the sheriff (Robert Larsen) is a sissy who struggles over wine lists; snooty dogs choke on sub-par domestic champagnes; and when one rogue is granted a final glass of wine before being hanged, he asks the sheriff: “Aren’t you going to let it breathe?”

San Diego City Councilman Bruce Henderson made a special appearance in the show Thursday, delivering a tongue-in-cheek “public service announcement” regarding the countywide water shortage.

Henderson informed the audience that, despite the recent rain, San Diegans still need to conserve water. He continued to explain that even he is doing his part to fight the drought, encouraging his wife “to shower with friends.” Different guests will appear throughout the run.

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San Diego Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Douglas Jacobs also stopped by the Bowery stage during “Laughing Buddha,” presenting his plans to save San Diego theater during a mock radio interview show called “Recovery Theatre.”

According to Jacobs, local theaters need to attack financial woes with a militaristic approach. Jacobs’ proposals (“Operation Culture Shield”) include the construction of a military-industrial arts complex and the institution of $1.2-million cruise flyers, promotional devices with pinpoint accuracy that could be used to speed up the direct-mailing process.

Blakesley, looking like a bearded, somewhat-demented Keillor, choreographed the show with seeming effortlessness. The show moved with grace as Blakesley, sitting at his sound-effect desk, manipulated shoes in sand to create a walking sound and spilled frying pans to simulate the sound of a crashing bicycle.

The cast fills its sound stage surroundings with uniform excellence. Bowery veteran Allison Brennan does wonderful schtick with her “Adopt-An-Actor” appeal, informing theater patrons that for only $15, philanthropists can “feed an actor for a month.”

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Local radio traffic reporter Erin Garrett makes a solid San Diego debut in “Laughing Buddha,” playing numerous roles and utilizing more than a few humorous accents.

Melissa Reaves, too, demonstrates considerable vocal talents, interpreting everything from an alcoholic dog to a wingless chicken to Connie Lawson, the sole sane person caught in the bizarre world of “Pompous Beach,” which was directed by Helen Reed Lehman.

Along with Larsen, Paul M. Jennings offers the show’s strongest, most facile performance.

In “Chardonnay Chaparral,” Jennings easily switches back and forth between playing a pre-pubescent boy and a rough-and-tumble traveling astrologer. He also does commendable work imitating the dulcet tones of the prototype station announcer.

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The Bowery team is excellent up and down the cast and throughout the show. If you support exciting, imaginative theater, hurry to see this show--not for the Bowery’s sake--for your own.

“LAUGHING BUDDHA WHOLISTIK RADIO THEATRE,”

Production directed by Todd Blakesley. Written by Burnham Joiner and Todd Blakesley. Sound design by Burnham Joiner. Lighting design by Roger Henderson. Stage manager, Rebecca Nachison. Cast: Allison Brennan, Erin Garrett, Paul M. Jennings, Robert Larsen, Melissa Reaves, Burnham Joiner and Todd Blakesley. At the Bowery Theatre, Kingston Playhouse, 1057 1st Ave., downtown, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. through April 7. $14-$16. 232-4088.


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