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Faith and Violence Collide in Timely Mystery ‘Exmagare’

At a California mission in the late 1800s, a padre kneels in early-morning prayer when shots ring out and a frightened young man and woman rush onto the grounds. In these gripping first moments of his new play “Exmagare,” Joe Camareno begins to lay out a mystery that combines a bitter chapter in state history with Catholic Church belief in a Holy Mother who watches over her children.

A dispute over landownership becomes central to the story, as does a series of abuses, including one that violates the church’s sacred trust. These themes resonate with current events in much the way that the Eclectic Company’s last show, “Victor,” did when its Frankenstein story dovetailed with new concerns about cloning.

Director Paul Millet and designers Jeff G. Rack (set), John J. Grant (lighting) and Mary Reilly (costumes) render “Exmagare” in the dark, burnished glow of an old religious painting.

It’s just the right atmosphere for the eerie yet wondrous events that begin to occur once young Padre Alejo (Armando Valdes-Kennedy) gives shelter to Diego (Peter Pasco) and Anita (Tonantzin Carmelo). The teenage brother and sister have been chased from family land by the mean-tempered settler (Frank Elmore) who has appropriated it. Anita has sustained gunshot wounds and is about to give birth.

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Standing guard at the 15-year-old’s bedside is a specter arrayed in the Virgin Mother’s white veil (Sandra Cevallos). Anita--the only one who can see her, at first--refers to her as “Our Mother.” Is she a bringer of peace? Or retribution?

The symbolism might prove a bit much for some tastes, and the bad guys--the rancher and the doubting Father Egon (Eugene Boles)--are written with too little dimension. Still, Camareno, who wrote the less successful “Delia’s Song,” presented at the Eclectic in 2000, proves to be a vivid and thoughtful writer with this story, as he plumbs the mysteries of faith while exposing the violence that baptized California in blood.

Daryl H. Miller

“Exmagare,” Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends June 8. $12-$15. (818) 508-3003. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

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Irreverent ‘Bible’ Sputters With Inconsistency

The worlds of vacation Bible school and “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” collide in “The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abg’d),” an Ark Theatre Company presentation. Authors Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor follow up their hit “The Cmplt Wrks of Wllm Shkspr” with a deconstruction of the world’s best-selling book.

Performers Roxanne Meyers, Steven Shields and Richard Tatum open with a direct-address prologue resembling a sitcom pre-taping warmup. This sets the tone for the freewheeling blend of sketch comedy and collegiate revue that follows, one Testament per act.

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The actors, all possessing high-voltage comedic energy, are the motor here. Meyers is an agile physical clown; Tatum displays an imposing range of character voices; and director Shields’ outsized responses are hilarious, particularly the payoff to a running gag about Noah’s Ark.

The scattershot text contains some keenly irreverent notions (notably song lyrics recalling Tom Lehrer), and as many groaners as knee-slappers. Similar inconsistency marks Shields’ staging, whose living room pageant charm is undercut by erratic tempo and point. And the Don Rickles-style attitude toward viewer response (or lack thereof), in tandem with an arbitrary audience participation segment, creates an occasionally off-putting atmosphere. Such unevenness suggests this promising work-in-progress might benefit from an outside eye and judicious rewriting.

David C. Nichols

“The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abg’d),” NoHo Actors’ Studio, 5215 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, Saturdays, 10 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. (3 p.m. only on May 26); ends May 26. $15. (323) 969-1707. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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Problems Run Deep in Swollen ‘Red River’

Too many cooks can spoil the broth. Conversely, too few can thicken it to tastelessness.

Take the case of Sally Wills, creator of the glutinous “Red River” at the American Renegade Theatre. “Red River” revolves around the trials and tribulations of Bobbie Jean (Keira O’Keiff), a disenchanted Texas blueblood whose politician husband, Doug (David Schulz), is on the fast track to the governor’s mansion.

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Fed up with her hubby’s philandering, this time with his sultry campaign manager (Heather Schulz), Bobbie Jean moves to the mountains of New Mexico with her best friend Ethel (Kayrin J.B. Nichole) in tow. Bobbie Jean purchases a rural roadhouse, only to learn that it rests on disputed Indian territory (a wacky story point that resurfaces at a later juncture). A rousing success in her new business, Bobbie Jean also finds true love in Native American mountain man Eagle (Mark Luna). But an ugly custody battle with the dirty-dealing Doug threatens her happiness.

As sole writer and director, Wills gets points for the sheer audacity of her undertaking, which features a large cast, complicated scene changes, live music, full-blown dance sequences (courtesy of choreographer Qyn Hughes) and 20 musical numbers. But Wills could have used an objective observer to help channel this circuitous “River,” which overflows with cliches and dramatic dead ends.

Stereotypes abound. Particularly problematic is the combination of Bobbie Jean’s one-note niceness and Eagle’s affectless sagacity. Alarmingly impassive, Eagle (who, by the way, lives in a tree) exhorts Bobbie Jean to “Feel the oneness” and “Live in the moment,” while Bobbie Jean marvels at Eagle’s mystical connection with nature, his “wisdom and inner peace.”

Fine sentiments, if you’re at a holistic health fair, but where’s the romantic sizzle? Wills contributes some engaging tunes, but the plot is hopelessly atonal. Act 1 (which, by the way, lasts two hours) culminates in a trumped-up “crisis” that does little to further the story--just one example of the piece’s many structural weaknesses. A few professional flourishes, most notably Nichole’s glorious voice and Hughes’ lively dancing, are welcome respites in this overlong and uneven evening.

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F. Kathleen Foley

“Red River,” American Renegade Theatre, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 19. $25. (818) 763-1834. Running time: 3 hours and 5 minutes.

*

Expanded ‘Bergeron’ Falls Short of Its Potential

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In a world that values conformity, Harrison Bergeron sticks out. He’s a smart young man, attuned to beauty and human potential--qualities that society can’t knock out of him, no matter how hard it tries.

The hero of a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. short story, Harrison stands as a champion for those who feel that America is degenerating into mindless sameness. He is, in short, a wonderful subject for a play.

So it’s unfortunate that the version of his story told at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood doesn’t live up to its potential. Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” published in 1961 and later included in the collection “Welcome to the Monkey House,” has been adapted and self-produced by Stan Daniels, a writer-producer for the final three seasons of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and co-creator of the comedy series “Taxi.” In the 1990s, Daniels wrote three episodes of the Showtime cable television series “Kurt Vonnegut’s Monkey House.” He also wrote the teleplay for the Showtime movie “Harrison Bergeron,” although after becoming dissatisfied with the project, he asked to have his credit changed to a pseudonym.

His stage adaptation imaginatively expands Vonnegut’s brief tale about an upside-down United States several decades into the future, when the government has pushed the idea of equality to a warped extreme. Daniels finds humor as well as horror in a society where citizens must wear headbands that interrupt higher intellectual functions and where all stimulating thought is weeded out of television programming.

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Still, problems arise because Daniels has structured his play just like a teleplay, with action unfolding in 54 short scenes, some barely a minute long. A more imaginative director might have found a way to make these segments flow without interruption. But Daniels, serving as his own director, merely dims the lights while, for several long moments, the actors move into new positions. The result is 21/2 hours of action that jerks forward and stops, like a car driven by someone just learning how to use a stick shift.

Fortunately, Randy Kravis’ Harrison wins over the audience with earnestness and heart, and in video clips meant to represent videophone technology in 2060, Ed Asner makes a humorous cameo as a bellowing, foul-tempered president of the United States.

Not bad, but with all its smarts, “Harrison Bergeron” is capable of better.

D.H.M.

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“Harrison Bergeron,” Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends May 26. $17.50-$20. (323) 655-TKTS. Running time, 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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‘Daisy’s’ Lesson Rekindled by Riots’ Anniversary

Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” has always possessed a quiet power. As it charts the delicate blossoming of friendship between a Southern Jewish matron and her black chauffeur, it provides a hope-filled example of people seeing beyond their differences and embracing one another.

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That message resonates all the more powerfully right now, as Los Angeles looks back on the civil unrest--much of it exploding out of racial and economic tensions--that occurred here 10 years ago.

Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities offers this chance for reflection in a beautiful staging of Uhry’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse, directed by Michael Michetti and performed by Marcia Rodd, Lance E. Nichols and Time Winters.

Slow and easy is the motto here, as Michetti lets the action unfold gradually and naturally. (Indeed, he manages to sustain this flow even though the producers insisted on inserting a break into Uhry’s intermission-less structure.) As the story progresses from 1948 to 1973, emotions steep and bodies slowly stoop.

Rodd is astringent and imperious as Miss Daisy, at 72, at first resists being chauffeured by Hoke (Nichols), who’s been hired by her son, Boolie (Winters), after she totaled her Packard without leaving her driveway. Nichols’ Hoke is patient, calm and forever good-natured--a solid rock who will wear down the angry river, not the other way around.

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But beneath the feel-good sentiment is a sharp observation about human nature. Miss Daisy and Hoke pride themselves on open-mindedness, yet ingrained prejudices occasionally rush to the surface. The 1992 L.A. riots taught much the same lesson. As commentators have pointed out it recent days, it was partly because the city blithely thought it had moved beyond racism that the explosion of frustration took it so much by surprise.

D.H.M.

“Driving Miss Daisy,” Hermosa Beach Playhouse, Pier Avenue at Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach. Today-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $35 in advance; $40 at the door. (310) 372-4477. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.


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