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The Odyssey’s Affectionate ‘Madwoman of Chaillot’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s always encouraging when a theater takes on the challenge of a classic like Jean Giraudoux’s “The Madwoman of Chaillot.” It’s a real kick, though, when they pull it off--as in Odyssey artistic director Ron Sossi’s staging of the 1944 satire.

Written in the year of the liberation of France and the playwright’s death, Giraudoux’s fable centers on nutsy Countess Aurelia (Sheree North) and her fellow Frenchmen, from a klatch of cafe bohemians to a cabal of crazy ladies. Aurelia enlists her cronies in a plan to thwart some amorphous nasties whose business dealings are threatening to blot out all the good in the universe.

The eloquent play, in Maurice Valency’s fluid adaptation, holds up surprisingly well--thanks to Giraudoux’s rare ability to strike a note that’s wistful and humanistic without being naive, biting but not bitter.

The triumph of good over evil may be broadly and even sentimentally drawn, but it is never without equivocation. Compassion and reason, after all, exist only in the Countess’ alternate universe. And the happy resolution is as precarious as the madwoman’s mental state.

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Giraudoux, unlike so many contemporary writers, was concerned not with man as a bundle of psychology, but as a moral agent. That allows him to broach the bigger questions and wrestle with people’s contradictory impulses--in other words, to employ the medium of theater as more than mere diversion.

Sossi has staged the play with great understanding, affection and, in Act 2, frequently sumptuous theatricality. North relishes the diva role without overplaying her hand. She’s surrounded by a large cast whose members have the grace and skill to play as an ensemble, with particularly memorable performances from Zitto Kazann and Ron House. And Audrey Eisner and Lindsay Stewart’s costumes strike just the right balance between familiarity and eccentricity.

* “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. except March 13, 20 2 p.m. only. Ends April 17. $21.50-$17.50. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

An Inconsistent ‘Time’ at Lost Studio

The unrelenting scuzziness of Mick Collins’ “Wino Time” at the Lost Studio is both its asset and its liability. While the play’s noir aesthetic is unflinching, it doesn’t know when enough is enough.

Set in the provocative realm of private care facilities for substance abusers, “Wino Time” is a slice of stylized sociology that slouches toward, but never quite reaches, a higher plane.

Anti-hero/victim Mario (the incisive Joseph Goodrich) is drowning in the limbo that is Claire’s Care House, surrounded by losers who are worse off than he and recalcitrant caretakers Claire (Cinda Jackson) and Bill (Mickey Swenson). Goodrich and Collins, who also directs, use Mario to convey both manic claustrophobia and the inertia of despair.

Unfortunately, once you get beyond this central character, both the script and the acting are noticeably inconsistent. There are some gritty, realistic scenes written in the play’s anti-literary argot. But there are also gratuitous riffs of scatological and pornographic excess that read like the rantings of a kid who’s just discovered a new dirty word.

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Similarly, the company divides between staunch naturalists (Goodrich, Jackson, Jay Arlen Jones) and those who reduce acting to a bunch of twitchy mannerisms (Jeff Daniel Phillips, Soumaya Akaaboune). There is also one utterly ridiculous and extraneous character--a waif-like urchin (Akaaboune) whom Mario keeps stashed behind his couch--that undermines an otherwise fairly credible play.

* “Wino Time,” Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea, Hollywood. Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Ends Saturday. (213) 933-6944. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

An Amateurish ‘Other Weapon’

You can’t fault New York-based writer-director Robbie McCauley’s intentions in “The Other Weapon” (various locations). Her decision to come here to create, in collaboration with 10 L.A. artists, a piece about the Black Panthers was promising. Too bad the result is more didactic than dramatic.

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Working in the documentary theater mode mainstreamed by Emily Mann and others and recently popularized by Anna Deavere Smith--in which actors portray actual members of a community by using snippets of their transcribed interviews as dialogue--McCauley and her cohorts offer up a collage of recollections, anecdotes and narratives about, but not limited to, the activities of the L.A. Black Panthers.

Regrettably, the show is pitched at the level of a production meant to tour junior high schools. The content is reductive, the tone arch and the presentation amateurish.

The only repeated line is a tip-off: “It’s still cold and it’s still mean. And color is still everything.” Such a parochial view would not have set well with the Marxist/Guevaraist Panthers, let alone today’s emerging African American artists and thinkers who can look to the likes of philosopher Cornel West for analysis.

There are impressive performers among the uneven ensemble, including the Obie-winning McCauley and L.A.'s own Denise Uyehara. But they’re not at their best here.

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* “The Other Weapon,” various locations: Today-Saturday, 8 p.m., UCLA Little Theater, Macgowan Hall, Westwood; March 18-19, 8 p.m., Southland Cultural Center, 226 S. Market St., Inglewood; March 25-26, 8 p.m., Hollywood Moguls Theatre, 1650 N. Hudson Ave., Hollywood. Ends March 26. $10. (213) 660-TKTS. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

‘Undoing’ Showcases Skills of Susan Burke

As a vehicle to show off the skills of actress Susan Burke, William Mastrosimone’s “The Undoing” at the Cast works, at least in Act 1. As anything else, it’s just a contrived bit of bathos.

Mastrosimone has a penchant for implausible scenarios that pit two unlikely adversaries against one another. In this version of his favorite setup, an alcoholic widow named Lorraine (Burke) is working in her East Coast chicken slaughter shop when a stranger (hyper-tense Dean Coleman) appears at her door.

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After the requisite seduction and efforts to dry out Lorraine, it’s revealed that the stranger is the ex-drunk who mowed down Lorraine’s husband. Of course, by the time that’s actually said, we’ve been waiting for it for more than an hour.

* “The Undoing,” Cast-at-the-Circle Theatre, 802 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends April 10. $15. (213) 462-0265. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

‘Chris Hogan Show’ Lacks Structure

Maybe “The Chris Hogan Show” at the Coast Playhouse has value as a forum for its two young performers to develop their stage skills. Let’s hope so. Because it doesn’t fly as theater.

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The show--show case , actually--consists of two dudes in T-shirts, alone onstage with a couple of chairs and their sundry two-character improvs.

Hogan has a modicum of affable charm. And his sloppy sidekick John Lehr provides someone for the slackers in the house to identify with. But whatever talents these two may have would be better served by a more structured vehicle.

* “The Chris Hogan Show,” Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, Mondays-Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Ends Tuesday. $10. (213) 243-7316. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.


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