Theatre Review : 'Visit' a Bristling Tale About Quality of Justice

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Claire was a teen-ager, a cad did her wrong--in a town without pity. Now she's the richest woman in the world. And she has returned to that small town, where the fellow still lives.

Watch out.

Friedrich Duerrenmatt's "The Visit," a bristling tale about the quality of justice, has turned the Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble's small arena in West Los Angeles into a sizzling center of moral conflict and human drama.

As directed by Stephanie Shroyer, Duerrenmatt's 1956 parable can make your skin crawl. At times, this in-the-round staging literally places members of the audience among the townspeople of the small burg of Gullen, "somewhere in Central Europe," as they search their souls.

Think Bette Davis. It's impossible not to think of the late great star when you watch Nancy Linehan Charles' performance as Claire, the avenging fury. Charles is virtually a dead ringer for Davis--in her steely command and acerbic humor as well as her looks.

The people of Gullen eagerly anticipate Claire's visit. They know how rich she is and how poor they are. They hope she'll be generous enough to restore her old home town to its former glory.

Claire sweeps in with an entourage that would pass muster in a David Lynch movie. Her formidable butler (Stu Levin) looks like Max in "Sunset Boulevard." A young Greek hunk (Scott Pelton) will soon be Claire's eighth husband. Two bruisers (James Benton, Richard Byron) bear the grand but limping queen on a sedan chair. Finally, two blind eunuchs (John Cirigliano, Matt Gottlieb) tag along, apparently court musicians.

At first the small talk is as strained as it might be at the beginning of your average high-school reunion. But Claire isn't there for the nostalgia. She wants to make an offer that she believes her former neighbors can't refuse. She'll give them a billion marks--if they kill the man who once impregnated her and then denied it, Anton Schill (Richard Fancy).

Whoa. Schill is just about the most popular guy in town. He's slated to be the next burgomaster. Kill Schill? Unthinkable. "We are not in the jungle. We are in Europe," declares the current burgomaster (William Dennis Hunt). End of Act I. Unfortunately for Schill, there are two more acts.

*

Maurice Valency's version of Duerrenmatt's script drops a couple of Claire's husbands and the formal choruses of the original but sustains the suspense, and Shroyer's production fills in the details. Continually propelling the narrative with Saturday matinee urgency is a musical score by Tom Gerou, performed live by the composer on an electronic keyboard.

The arena has been transformed into a haunting cavern by set designer Matthew C. Jacobs and scenic painter Scott Campbell, befitting the ominous situation this small town finds itself in. Chairs hang horizontally from the low ceiling like stalactites, on call to be lowered and used on the floor as necessary, but otherwise bearing silent testimony to the askew nature of "The Visit."

In a land where the train is the primary window on the world, Deena Lynn Mullen's lighting and Ruth Judkowitz's sound design trace a train track across the stage, and a little toy train chugs around a portion of the ceiling. People come and go from every corner of the arena. At one point, this writer's seat was virtually encircled by the singers who attempted to welcome Claire upon her arrival.

Throughout all the shifting shadows in this remote backwater, Charles' Claire never wavers in her intent, and the vivid colors of her outfits, designed by Cara Varnell, emphasize this. Claire's target, Schill, is portrayed by Fancy as an affable, all-too-human guy who descends into breathless panic in Act II, but then emerges as the play's firm moral center in Act III. In his own way, Fancy makes the unlikely Schill as imperative as Claire.

"The Visit" is the strongest production yet from a company that just won a critics' award for continuing achievement in smaller theater. Considering the different vantage points that are available in this seating configuration, a second visit sounds like a great idea.

* "The Visit," Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble, 8780 Venice Blvd., West Los Angeles. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; 2 p.m. matinees on May 15 and 22. Ends June 12. $15. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

Hidden Treasure

Driving down Venice Boulevard, it's easy to miss the 75-seat arena of the Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble. But the company's new revival of Friedrich Duerrenmatt's "The Visit" demands attention. The action is just inches from your face in this jolting tale of a woman's revenge.

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