Think of all the things going against small theater. Micro budgets. Limited rehearsal time. Restricted casting opportunities. Cramped working conditions. Actors getting replaced faster than you can say "movie job."
Then think of small theater's aces in the hole. New plays. And a subversive attitude--because what is there to lose?
You can see a lot of the former, but the latter is strangely elusive. So even with the obvious slightness of the Lisa Morton quartet of one-acts, "Spirits of the Season," at the Lionstar Theatre, it's good to see small, disadvantaged theater cop some real attitude.
Take the program title. Rather than offering some heartwarming Yuletide tales, these four little plays take on somewhat nastier spirits of the Halloween variety. And yet "Spirits of the Season" isn't some dumb ghoul show, but a collection of pieces riddled with disturbing thoughts.
"Too Young To" clearly establishes the evening's "Twilight Zone" pedigree with a triangle involving roommates Danny and Jack (Steven Wise and Michael Vaccaro) and their sexy pickup from the disco, Elizabeth (Maryann Majick). Shifting in a flash from light comedy to dread, Morton manages to avoid cheap exploitation traps and opts for some real existential resonance, while director Lonnie Schuyler's actors--even Majick in a near-impossible assignment--drive things to a grim end.
Under Don Jarman's uneven direction, the second play, "Falling to Pieces," takes a while finding a firm comic footing. Bill Hagy and Jenny Moss as newlyweds Robert and Miriam initially flub lines and timing, throwing off the blackly comic tone. Robert's recently dead first wife, Claire, is still rotting away in her casket in a funeral home, but Miriam has some grotesque and money-grubbing plans in store to upset the burial arrangements. The actors, including the nutty Mary Ann Lutz, are a little silly, but they're still better than anyone on this season's TV sitcoms.
Morton directs her own "Silver Nitrate Blues," which blends two big items in the American cultural landscape--angels and AIDS--without cliches, melodrama or triteness. Like each piece on this bill, the less revealed about the plot, the better. Bill Stoddard's photographer Peter is an economic character portrait in which big emotions are contained, while Rachel Wells' Ellen plays with a double identity and a woman who can't be pinned down.
Grand Guignol takes center stage (actually, just out of view so it's not a total gross-out) in the closer, "Howlin' Monck and the Death of Music," co-directed by Morton and Schuyler. Andy Davids' Monck is a heavy-metal guitar hero with, well, major glandular problems, while Darryl Armbruster's roadie-gofer Hardy tries to keep him in check. Things turn into the ultimate groupie nightmare, as Erica Hale's Ashley finds out. Like the first piece, what could have been stupid horror tricks turns into a real drama with this committed cast.
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* WHAT: "Spirits of the Season."
* WHERE: Lionstar Theatre, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.
* WHEN: Fridays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 29.
* HOW MUCH: $10.
* FYI: For tickets or information, call (818) 761-6783 or (310) 274-7889.