STAGE : Plays Explore Timeless Theme of Battling Class Distinctions : A two-man show set in South African and a British musical blend humor, passion and memorable songs.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's coincidental that the two early '60s plays opening in Ventura County this week--"Blood Knot" at Ventura College and "The Roar of the Greasepaint--the Smell of the Crowd" in Camarillo--deal allegorically with class distinctions. But the two shows make a wonderful and diverse weekend double feature.

Thirty-two years after its first production, South African playwright Athol Fugard's "Blood Knot" remains relevant, passionate drama. Those qualities, as well as rich humor, are retained in the production by Ventura College's drama department, under the direction of Jay Varela.

The play is set in South Africa in 1960--although the themes are virtually timeless if the play is seen as a metaphor.

Morris and Zachary live together in a one-room shack. It becomes immediately apparent that burly Zachary is the wage-earner of the household, while Morris stays home to clean, cook and even medicate Zachary's blistered feet.

Soon, the audience discovers that light-skinned, fussy and worldly Morris, and darker-skinned more down-to-earth Zachariah are brothers; that Morris has been away for some time, and that while uneducated, Zachary is no fool.

The plot begins with Morris encouraging Zachary to enter into correspondence with a pen-pal, which has amusing consequences. But the humor becomes darker as Morris and Zachary begin role-playing: Zachary demonstrating his job as a gate guard, while Morris pretends to be a member of the white upper class.

P.J. Galligan and David Ford turn in wonderful performances as the brothers--superb acting jobs even if they weren't doing so with difficult South African accents. The relationship develops with smooth subtlety under Varela's direction, with the humorous and serious aspects kept in balance.

"Blood Knot" was a hit in full-tilt apartheid South Africa, and soon after in London and New York productions. While the South African political climate has changed somewhat in the last three decades, the notions of class and prejudice have not, which is why the play travels so well.

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Last year, the Conejo Players presented their version of Anthony Newley's musical "Stop the World--I Want to Get Off." This year, the Camarillo Community Theater is mounting Newley's 1964 follow-up to that show, "The Roar of the Greasepaint--the Smell of the Crowd."

Lesser-known it may be, but the timeless concerns of "Greasepaint" hold up far better than its mired-in-the-'60s predecessor.

This production is timely too--among its many memorable songs is "Look at that Face," last month sung to Chevy Chase by Goldie Hawn on the first episode of Chase's nighttime TV series. (Even more memorable songs from the score include the standard "Who Can I Turn To," "A Wonderful Day Like Today," "The Joker," and "Nothing Can Stop Me Now."

In "The Roar of the Greasepaint," Newley and co-author Leslie Bricusse paint their allegory of class struggle in broad and comic strokes, punctuating it with musical numbers written in pre-rock pop styles.

Perhaps inspired by "Waiting for Godot," the two main characters of "Greasepaint" are stranded in the middle of nowhere. Unlike Samuel Beckett's characters who waited in isolation for the never-appearing Godot, this play's "Cocky" (personifying the lower classes) and "Sir" (as the privileged) endlessly run through The Game of Life surrounded by a number of "urchins," young girls perhaps representing innocence, with additional characters coming in from time to time.

"Sir" usually wins, if only because he's always changing the rules and because Cocky is easily distracted. But, Newley suggests, there is hope.

Michael Sollazzo, who also directs, stars as Cocky--a Newley impersonation, all the way--with Scott Mansfield's vision of Sir perhaps a little closer to a ragtag Peter O'Toole than to Cyril Ritchard, who played the role in the hit Broadway production.

Both Cocky and Sir are comic characters, and Sollazzo and Mansfield are terrific. But the supporting cast is also fine, especially Megan Pryor as the lead Urchin, Stuart Hicks as the character named "Negro," who leaps into the game long enough for one show-stopping song--"Feeling Good"--before disappearing, and Jenna Greenberg as the "Girl," one of Cocky's fatal distractions.

Bob Pryor (Megan's father) appears as another distraction, and the Urchins also include Jillian Byrnes, Alaina Cantara, Louisa Carey, Alonna Hays, Marin Ireland, Becca Murray, Lee Murray (a rather out-of-place adult), Nassira Nicola, Christine Orcutt and Tara Wilson.

The eight-piece band under the direction of Diann Alexander gives Newley's music a sort of middle-European flavor, the cast manages to keep up with Sarah M. Boah's choreography most of the time, and the stage set--credited to Zebra Projects--does the job.

"The Roar of the Greasepaint" isn't an awfully well-written play, but it's more often entertaining than not, the songs and performances are well above par, and Sollazzo--who directed and co-starred in last year's wonderful production of "1776"--has come up with another fine, slightly off-the-wall, piece of work.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Blood Knot" concludes this weekend at the Ventura College Circus Theater on Loma Vista Road in Ventura. Performances are tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. General admission tickets are $7; $5 for students, seniors and Ventura College staff. For reservations or further information, call 648-8922.

"The Roar of the Greasepaint--the Smell of the Crowd" continues weekends through Oct. 30 at the Camarillo Airport Theater, 330 Skyway Drive on the Camarillo Airport grounds. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 7:30 Sunday nights, with Sunday matinees at 2 on Oct. 17 and 24 only. Tickets are $11; $9 for senior, students and active military. For reservations or further information, call 658-ROAR or 388-5716.

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