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A Spirited, Endearing Revival of ‘The Fantasticks’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As we close out the year, there’s one thing in life that remains constant and that’s “The Fantasticks,” now in its 3lst year Off-Broadway and the longest-running show in American theater. Phenomenons are worth a repeated look, and the production at the Richard Basehart Playhouse in Woodland Hills is a spirited revival of this fragile parable about love.

It’s tempting to test the preciousness in the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt fable against prevailing fancies--the Inner City Cultural Center turned it into a rock musical in ’69. But director Cynthia Baer remains loyal to the show’s original style, and the result is endearing.

The production, with its presentational style, or open staging, nicely bridges the requisite balancing act between naivete and worldliness. That’s the key to the show’s artful simplicity--Goldilocks and her young swain surviving their romantic dreams after withering escapades with the dark-clothed bandit El Gallo.

A witty, Saturnalian El Gallo is crucial, and Brian Mitchell’s tall, lean, grinning Mephistophelean figure is vital and infectious. As the young girl--dressed in white frill overkill--Kelly Lester catches moonbeams with her pearly obbligatos. The Romeo to her Juliet is earnestly rendered with charm and Angst by Nick Cavarra.

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Christine Ashworth’s mute stage manager, three percussionists at stage rear and Dana Kilgore’s lights and spare set design propel the timelessness. Where the show stumbles is in the vaudevillian approach of the two papas and the overly broad routines of the two characters who aid El Gallo in his abduction scene.

But most of the production reaffirms its delicate spell and suggests why the show has never left the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village since it opened there in 1960.

“The Fantasticks,” Richard Basehart Playhouse, 21028 Victory Blvd., Woodland Hills. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 p.m. Indefinitely. $15-$18; (818) 704-1845. Running time: 2 hours.

Blistering Solo by Palacios in ‘Comic’

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Stand-up performer Monica Palacios has a playing field all to herself. She’s a lesbian Latina comic, and that persona underscores her blistering solo act, “Latin Lezbo Comic,” at the Celebration Theatre.

The tales of self-discovery and coming to Hollywood--that most self-absorbed of performance formats--become ripe commentary, funny and socially barbed, as in spikes. Triply oppressed as a female Mexican-American lesbian, she revels in the comic possibilities of the outsider. She can be hurt, but she’s not a whiner. Palacios is a slugger.

To wit: she incinerates homophobia in the Catholic Mexican-American community, where she grew up. She hilariously recounts bringing her “wife” to her parents for dinner. And she bashes the white, male “homophobic” world of comedy clubs, where the good ol’ boys have rejected her.

“Comedy is a boy’s game,” she says. “All these guys stand around talking about really gross things like flatulence and drugs and their sex lives and everyone thinks it’s funny. Get a lesbian in one of those clubs and people don’t know what to think.”

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What to think about Palacios?

She’s unique. She’s herself (with a veneer of self-consciousness--which seems excusable). She’s a freedom fighter. And she’s vulgar in a way that flattens out vulgarity. Her closing number is a popular song medley that substitutes the word “vagina” for key lyrics.

It’s Lenny Bruce’s liberating technique all over again. Only the taboo is different.

“Latin Lezbo Comic,” Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Jan. 12. $12-$15; (213) 957-1884. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

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Gentle Humor at Comedy Showcase

The Upfront Comedy Showcase in Santa Monica is a mainstream club that wouldn’t know what to do with “Latin Lezbo Comic.” This comfortable little club does improv, with the “The PostModernaires” including veteran members of the Compass Players, Second City and The Committee.

When Second City’s venture in Santa Monica fell apart last year, many of the hands came here. The group’s humor is gentle, spinning off free association games pioneered by Viola Spolin.

Shows fluctuate nightly. The group reviewed--Paul Dooley, Severn Darden, Anna Mathias, Anne Ryerson, Avery Schreiber and Mina Kolb--was quick and resourceful, but the show’s a touch flabby and needs trimming.

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With no rehearsed material, the risks are half the fun. The results, especially animal transformations (lanky Ryerson’s giraffe, rumpled Schreiber’s anteater) and a poetry competition built around the phrase “Green as a grasshopper,” were richly inventive.

Legendary Second City piano-player Fred Kaz, looking like a waterfront pirate, sits to the side rippling the ivories, chain-smoking (in a no-smoking club), humorously underscoring each sketch.

A separate late show at the Upfront Comedy Showcase features a trio of acts, ranging from more group improv (the lukewarm troupe “Bill Bixby”) to inspired silliness (“The Transformers”) to the evening’s only rehearsed material (the one-man “Show-Acting-Guy,” by Second City alum Bob Odenkirk).

For sheer lunacy, “The Transformers” suggest the ingenuity of restless little kids playing games with only their flapping arms for toys. An uncanny continuity holds their cartwheeling antics together, as these guys become birds, underwater swimmers or factory workers on an assembly line. Knockabout cohesion and sparks of dementia earmark this crazed foursome: Rob Campisi, Mike Castagnola, John Frink and Stan Wells.

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Odenkirk, in suit and tie, finishes up like a bedeviled comedian working his way through a late night gig at a comedy club. He’s razor-sharp in his sketch of a man arrested for driving without a license, languishing in a jail cell for two hours where each minute becomes a year and his mind almost snaps. He’s weirdly believable when he pulls a woman he knows out of the audience and proposes marriage (her horrified expression steals the scene).

But his baseball cap-in-the-box routine is lame, and his Abe Lincoln is morose. Notwithstanding the inconsistencies, Odenkirk’s a comic to watch.

Upfront Comedy Showcase, 1452 3rd St. Promenade, Santa Monica. (213) 319-3477. “The PostModernaires,” Saturdays, 8 p.m. Indefinitely. $10; Running time: 2 hours.

“Bill Bixby,” etc., Saturdays, 10 p.m. Indefinitely. $8; Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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Morbid Matters in a Cozy Setting

Once called an artistic Tupperware party, California Cottage Theatre is like a trip to grandma’s house. A freckle-faced rustic greets you at the driveway of a modest red and white bungalow on a leafy street in Van Nuys. You mingle among guests on a back porch full of plants, tea and cookies, then squeeze into the living room, with its fully equipped stage and tight arena seating.

Sightlines are bad, but at this point you’re in such a warm mood it seems nothing could spoil it. The play that unfolds does. “A Necessary End,” by former Deputy City Attorney Joseph Rubanoff, is a turgid, grotesque plunge into one man’s impending death and its effect on his dysfunctional family.

The acting in its hyper way is fine. There’s a scorching erotic scene between a nurse (Ruth Cordell) and the harried protagonist (vibrantly rendered by Cottage co-founder Michael Liscio).

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Technical values in the cramped space are impressive. Director Roy Brocksmith (co-founder and homeowner) has invested considerable craft in this homegrown venture. But the play’s self-conscious ambitions and pretensions are enervating. This is the kind of place where you’d like to see “Harvey” or “Morning’s at Seven,” not a descent into hell.

“A Necessary End,” California Cottage Theatre, 5220 Sylmar Ave., Van Nuys. Three nights per month, call for dates. Free; (818) 990-5773. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.


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