THEATER BEAT : 'Tarantula' Spins a Weird Web at Cast Theatre


If "Sunset Boulevard" had an opium-induced sequel, "Tarantula" would be it.

Imagine Norma Desmond as a dime-store heiress, hiding in an island estate to write her memoirs after spending decades in an asylum. The demented heiress and B-movie star has snared two stud hustlers in her moneyed web. But there's an obstacle to the autobiography's completion: Opium addiction has eroded her brain.

Now imagine Norma Desmond as portrayed by Tina Preston, one of L.A. underground theater's most eccentric actresses. Rename Norma "Cat Pastor," then encourage inventive director David Schweizer to shove Preston over-the-edge into Hunter S. Thompson gonzo weirdness.

That's "Tarantula" at the Cast Theatre, Michael Sargent's camp romp that sometimes resembles an insomniac's delirium.

Sargent possesses one of the most original stage voices around. He writes grim satire like a hip-hop Noel Coward for the 1990s.

"It's a terrible thing to outlive one's favorite dress designer," mourns his haunted heroine, remembering a designer's death by AIDS.

Preston is the perfect mate to Sargent's black humor. For two decades she's worked primarily in experimental theater, acquiring a reputation as an offbeat performer whose quirky talents never quite find the right material. "Too smart for her own roles," might be said of Preston's work with such avant-garde playwrights as John O'Keefe and Reza Abdoh.

In "Tarantula's" Cat Pastor, Preston finally meets her match.

In a wild white wig making her resemble a maniacal Marie Antoinette, Preston's hysteric speaks in quivering tones borrowed from Katharine Hepburn. A neurotic spider woman, she totters and trembles in slapstick pursuit of her "chauffeur" and a drugged beachboy.

When the boys insist she return to her memoir, she pouts. "I won't be a partner in my own deconstruction."

Alternately shrewd and deluded, Cat grows nostalgic for her 11 husbands, then grateful she's a "princess" and no longer in movies.

Is Cat Pastor lost in illusion? Demented? Senile? Merely an insomniac?

"I'm no Grace Kelly," admits Cat, but Preston's intelligence never allows the audience to identify her. "I've been on more Life (magazine) covers than Liz," she boasts, then suddenly announces with equal conviction, "I screen-tested for Scarlett, but Vivien Leigh got it."

Preston's outrageous performance is expertly balanced by Dan Bell's "houseboy" and Jason Reed's Tip. Both inhabit their baffled gigolo roles with an understated naturalism that encourages Preston's extremes.

Sargent and Schweizer co-direct with droll humor, setting up numerous visual shocks and puns.

The claustrophobic set by Andy Daley is a kitsch parody of opium dens: candelabrum, lace mosquito netting spun like a spider's web, a diary of clippings that glows with an ethereal light if opened.

Above the small stage in a blacklit cubicle sits Gernot Blume, a German composer and musician, playing a sitar. His presence and music become integral to the atmosphere.

Despite its many virtues, "Tarantula" ultimately feels incomplete, almost as if Sargent ran out of time before fully realizing his weird tale's potential. Its brief second act takes a drastically wrong plot turn into standard Hollywood parody, then comes to an unconvincing and abrupt end.

Although the final scene hints at another cycle of master/slave relationships, it's not enough. More "Sunset Boulevard" and less of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" might allow this "Tarantula" to finish her web.

* "Tarantula," Cast Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood. Fridays- Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays 7 p.m. Indefinitely. $15. (213) 462-0265. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

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