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This Surreal ‘Dumbshow’ Probes Our Primal Impulses

“Dumbshow” at the Sacred Fools Theater is a surreal and nonlinear piece that borrows freely from the works of Dostoevsky and Gogol to “examine the primal human impulse to gain the advantage.”

That quote is from the press notes. However, feel free to interpolate your own meaning onto this bizarre but finely rendered show, which consists of a series of brief and tightly choreographed scenes set to eclectic music.

In the opening scene, the men and women of the large ensemble move hectically about the stage, coalescing into a large circle. They begin a playground clapping game, which evolves into a ring-around-the-rosy dance, which ends with them dashing around in a long line, crack-the-whip style.

Through it all, the actors maintain a joyless deadpan, an eerie juxtaposition to their childlike activities.

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The performers ambulate as if they are on tracks, rushing about the stage but never colliding. The ensemble quickly separates into recognizable groups.

Two male antagonists jockey continually for supremacy, brandishing their suit coats in a bantam-like plumage display. Four men sit in a formal tableau, stirring their tea, then blowing bubbles through their “spoons.”

Three women move like synchronized wind-up dolls, offering such comments as “Men are still men, not piano keys.” Two other women cower in apparent terror, at one point donning white masks and gesticulating from behind a black curtain. A sole woman moves with dreamlike fluidity, inquiring, “Who do you think you are? The king of Spain?”

And so it goes, urgently, playfully, mysteriously. Creators Tina Kronis and Richard Alger (Kronis directs, with Alger assisting) are longtime collaborators who have recently worked with the performance/puppetry collective Mummenschanz.

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Indeed, a keen sense of whimsy underlies their rigorous, purposeful staging. So too does a sense of collective paranoia, the disturbing feeling that something dire awaits these participants at the end of their random, not-so-senseless rounds.

F. Kathleen Foley

“Dumbshow,” Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m.; also March 3, 1 p.m. March 4, 8 p.m. Ends March 6. $10. (310) 281-8337. Running time: 1 hour.

*

‘ElectroPuss’: Skirmish in the Corporate Jungle

Life can be precarious for a happy goldfish in a hungry pool of sharks. Just ask Muffy Jonesmith, the hapless heroine who learns some shocking truths about cattiness and the big bad world in Trista Baldwin’s darkly comic “ElectroPuss” from Circle X at the Hudson Backstage Theatre.

Since career options are limited in her one-company hometown, the archetypically perky Muffy (Jessica Makinson) follows graduation from Zap High School with a receptionist’s job at the sinister Electricland Company where her Mom (Nedra Gallegos) willingly submits to the advances of her sleazy boss (Jim Anzide).

Like any parental surrogate, Electricland not only oppresses its employees but makes them feel guilty for not doing even more on its behalf--an all-too timely caricature of corporate entities that prey on workers’ misplaced trust in the security of their corporate “family.”

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(A portion of the box office will benefit the Crooked E. Com Family Fund for laid-off Enron employees.)

Baldwin’s sharp satirical eye for women’s predicaments in particular--perpetuated as much by the infighting between women themselves as by their male oppressors--is penetrating, but so exaggerated it could easily come off as heavy-handed churlishness in less skillful hands.

Paula Goldberg’s deft staging always finds the tone appropriate to Baldwin’s mercurial voice--whimsical at times, chilling at others.

Particularly effective is Muffy’s transformation from annoying ditz into a brooding feline spouting faux Shakespearean soliloquies.

While Baldwin’s characters and situations rarely overlap behavioral norms, an inspired and committed cast consistently find the loopy sparks that make them convincing in their own over-the-top way.

Katy Selverstone repeatedly stops the show with her side-splitting choreographed routines as a robotic corporate tour guide by day and carnival attraction (run by David Grammer) by night.

Ally Wolfe delights as an exuberantly conniving secretary with her claws out for Muffy over office flunky Travis (Tim Wright), whose zoological obsession with invertebrate animals seems to mirror his own lack of spine.

There’s no shortage of comic backbone, though, in this quirky, often hilarious gem.

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Philip Brandes

“ElectroPuss,” Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends March 30. $15 (pay-what-you-can Sunday matinees). (323) 461-6069. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

*

Margulies’ One-Acts Are Less Than Satisfying

Two one-acts by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, “Pitching to the Star” and “Women in Motion,” have been cobbled together on one bill at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center’s Studio Stras. The pairing is hardly organic. Slight and unrelated, the pieces, as rendered here, are reminiscent more of directing class scenes than a fully fledged professional production.

“Women in Motion” a negligible playlet about two bickering gal pals bound on a Caribbean jaunt, opens the evening. Libby (Chantal Bushelle) and Monica (Rebecca Ling), office chums who have teamed up for an ill-fated vacation, get on one another’s nerves--and ours--as soon as they board the plane. Bushelle acquits herself adequately enough, but why director Andre Nemec encouraged Ling to affect such a grating, adenoidal twang remains a mystery.

Nemec again presides over “Pitching,” a predictable but amusing play about a bemused New York playwright suffering through his first Hollywood “pitch” session.

The cast features Peggy Lipton (“The Mod Squad”) in her stage debut as fading Hollywood star Dena Strawbridge, a petty tyrant who is long on ego and short on brains. Lipton’s brother Robert Lipton and her daughter Rashida Jones also star. Robert Lipton (“As the World Turns”) plays producer Dick Feldman, a knee-jerk meddler with a god complex. Jones (“Boston Public”) is alternately fawning and cynical as Laurie, a development executive who hides her massive contempt for Dick beneath a syrupy exterior.

Matt Champagne is perfectly cast as playwright Peter Rosenthal, the appalled center of reason amid the swirling inanity.

The pace flags early on, but gathers steam along with Margulies’ barbed aphorisms. When Dick grouses to Peter, “Life is too short for irony,” it’s a comic high point. From a cold start, the actors eventually engage us, and Margulies’ brief comedy has the ring of truth, but it is short, sweet and superficial, a playful glance at a trifling subject that does not bear the weight of a full evening.

F. Kathleen Foley

*

“Pitching to the Star” and “Women in Motion,” Lee Strasberg Creative Center’s Studio Stras, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends March 17. $17. (323) 650-7777. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.


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