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THEATER REVIEW : A View of Criminals and Prisoners of Love : One-act works written by local playwrights are making debuts at theaters in Santa Paula and Ventura.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two local playwrights are debuting a total of three original one-act plays in Ventura County theaters this month: George B. Pratt’s “Carlos!” and “Amphisbaena” at the Plaza Players theater in Ventura and Gary Best’s “Final Approach” at the Santa Paula Theater Center.

Pratt has written 17 plays, several of which have been produced in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago, he says. “Final Approach” is Best’s first play, produced or otherwise.

“Carlos!” and “Final Approach” deal with real or accused criminals; “Amphisbaena” is about prisoners, too: prisoners of love.

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Sal (Hugh McManigal) and Meg (Christy Bell) are introduced in the first section of “Amphisbaena,” with five subsequent skits depicting stages of their relationship. “Carlos!” features Simon Alvarado as a real-life international terrorist, Illich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal.

Does it really surprise anyone that, though all of the actors do capable work, a real-life international terrorist is intrinsically more interesting than a fictional man and woman who can’t decide how well they’re getting along?

It helps when viewing a play if you care about the characters, and there isn’t a lot to care about in Sal or Meg as they parry with one another. (Fans of the television series “Thirtysomething” may ignore this paragraph). At worst, they’re caught up in their supposed mutual hilarity as only people who have had too much to drink can be. It’s a pity that nobody’s passing out free drinks to the audience during this section.

The most impressive sketch in the set lasts only seconds, and neither party speaks during it. There’s a lesson here, somewhere. Not to mention that “Amphisbaena” is one of the two least-inviting titles of plays to be produced in Ventura County for several years, the other being the Santa Paula group’s 1992 production of another vocabulary-stretcher, “Eleemosynary.”

McManigal and Bell have worked together in several local productions, most recently as one of the couples in a production of “Love Letters,” and their chemistry is as undeniable as their talent.

Pratt’s ability is more evident in “Carlos!” in which he gives personality to a heretofore and intentionally shadowy character. As the one-act play begins, Sanchez is chatting up an unseen woman in a London disco; later, he’s seen addressing students of Marxism in a Moscow university.

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This is the most historically fascinating section of the play, as the Jackal relates the story of Simon Bolivar, who was (to Europeans, at least) South America’s equivalent of George Washington, only more accomplished: Washington, after all, never had to lead troops across the Andes.

Carlos is given dimension. He’s intelligent but smarmy, and his assassination-for-hire is reprehensible by any reasonable standard. And Alvarado, most familiar to audiences of Ventura College productions, does a job (under Pratt’s direction) worthy of the character.

Over in Santa Paula, Best--who has acted and directed for several local ensembles--has written and directed a prison drama, “Final Approach.” On Saturday night, he was also performing a minor role, the actor cast in it otherwise occupied for the evening. Another, even smaller, part is played by any of three actresses.

The actors playing major roles, David Ralphe and Taylor Kasch, are better known locally as directors, although both have been seen acting in several productions, in Santa Paula and elsewhere.

As “Final Approach” begins, Gene (Ralphe) and David (Kasch) are being held in some sort of a prison; Gene is the dominant, intellectual figure, while David is evidently a career con eager to learn from Gene--who teaches him words including subjective and consensus, if not amphisbaena or eleemosynary.

Some serious philosophizin’ by Gene takes up the first two-thirds of the approximately 70-minute play and may be more fascinating to Gene than it is to the audience. A bit of tightening-up might be in order: Playwright Best seems to be looking for something mysterious, like the old TV series “The Prisoner,” but so far his script is just vague.

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It gets considerably more interesting as David opens up and Gene reveals why he’s in prison. There’s some character development here, but Best takes a lot of time at it, giving the (as written) less interesting character the bigger part. Subordinate though he may be, Kasch does a terrific job as the bearded, tattooed lifer; his character reeks of hopelessness.

By the time there’s a Major Decision to be made . . . well, maybe Best and Pratt could consider getting together and finding some way to put Carlos in jail with Gene and David--it’s a more likely prospect, as it turns out, than one might assume.

Details

“Carlos!” and “Amphisbaena.”

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday through July 29.

* WHERE: Plaza Players theater, 34 N. Palm St., Ventura.

* HOW MUCH: $10 (general admission), $6 (students and seniors).

* CALL: 643-9460.

“Final Approach.”

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, through July 29.

* WHERE: Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula.

* HOW MUCH: $10 (general admission), $7.50 (students and seniors).

* CALL: 525-4645.

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