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A bold dance of rage and memory

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“The Sweet Madness” (La Folie Douce) at City Garage has been adapted from “The Monologue,” the middle novella in Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist triptych, “The Woman Destroyed.” The piece is essentially a harrowing rant delivered by Murielle, a deeply narcissistic woman wracked with righteous anger over the dissolution of her latest marriage, and lingering guilt over the suicide of her young daughter.

Murielle’s monologue lends itself nicely to dramatization and has been done before as a one-woman play. No such obvious measures for innovative director-adapter Frederique Michel, the longtime artistic director of City Garage. Here, Murielle is played by four actresses -- Cynthia Mance, Szilvi Naray-Davey, Elizabeth Pocock and Cheryl Scaccio.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and these Murielles, wearing identical black cocktail dresses, are all dressed up with nowhere to go. Alone, desperate, filled with rage, they recount past wrongs, real and imagined. Through it all, the lurking shade of Murielle’s dead daughter (Jennifer Piehl) looks on in sad and silent recrimination.

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It’s an audacious and carefully syncopated staging. Framed against the backdrop of Charles A. Duncombe Jr.’s effectively stark set, the women move in precise unison -- dancing in mincing steps, ticking their heads from side to side, hammering their high-heeled shoes in percussive rage. Acid memories overlap in staccato bursts. With few missteps, the actresses go through their rounds with the precision of clockwork Rock- ettes.

Granted, De Beauvoir’s work is partly a feminist polemic, but Michel brings a bracing humor to the fore, and Murielle -- vain, self-deluded, unsympathetic yet pitiable -- is so richly complex that she is seldom reduced to mere political exponent.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“The Sweet Madness” (La Folie Douce), City Garage, 1340 1/2 4th St. (alley), Santa Monica. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5:30 p.m. Ends July 20. $20. (310) 319-9939. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

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‘Red Noses’ laughs at the darkness

What would you call a priest consorting with a lusty, wanton nun?

“Lucky.” Ba-dum-bah.

Ecclesiastically themed shtick like this fuels the unlikely collision of Borscht Belt humor and medieval horror in Theatre Banshee’s “Red Noses.” The company lauds British playwright Peter Barnes’ mordant Middle Ages comedy as “the funniest play yet written about the Black Plague,” and makes a good case for the claim with a lively, inventive production that taps ensemble skills in commedia, dance and even juggling.

Spanning three ghastly years during the 14th century when the pandemic at its peak claimed a third of Europe’s populace, Barnes’ play revolves around the efforts of kindly but frustrated Father Flote (Andrew Leman) to bring solace to his rapidly thinning flock. As the social order crumbles around him, Flote, in a moment of divine revelation that his traditional priestly role is useless to save people, dons a clown’s nose and resolves, in the best Donald O’Connor tradition, to make ‘em laugh instead.

In his wanderings, Father Flote is soon joined by other misfits -- most notably, a bloodthirsty mercenary (Dan Harper), a craven assassin (John Yelvington), a sex-starved nun (Jennifer Taub), an uptight fellow priest (Josh Thoemke) and a Harpo Marx-ish silent jester (Lance J. Holt) who communicates through ringing bells. In their traveling minstrel show, each finds an ironic redemption and meaning even as death looms all around.

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By including anachronistic figures of speech and even pop songs (“Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries”), Barnes’ script opens the door to an infusion of modern sensibilities, and director Sean Branney enthusiastically embraces the invitation with wit and ingenuity (not least of which lies in accommodating 20 performers on the intimate Gene Bua Theatre stage). David O’s atmospheric original music and recordings of rock songs set to Gregorian chant also extend ambience beyond the venue’s physical confines.

As one might expect from the author of “The Ruling Class,” Barnes characteristically crams a huge volume of fodder through a narrow sieve of a premise, with a great deal of excess and redundancy along the way.

Fortunately, Branney and his high-octane cast skillfully sustain the gallows humor even as they illuminate the play’s unexpectedly warm and life-celebrating heart. This is still Barnes, however, so it comes as no surprise that contentment and joy are not lengthy visitors. Then as now, today’s heroes are tomorrow’s heretics -- and there is always a price to be paid when the norm reasserts itself after a crisis has passed.

-- Philip Brandes

“Red Noses,” Gene Bua Theatre, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends July 13. $15. (818) 628-0688. Running time: 3 hours.

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The unsettling rule of ‘King John’

One of the most obscure entries in the Shakespearean stable, “King John” is rarely trotted out. So straight from the starting gate, Cart Before the Horse Productions’ staging affords a noteworthy opportunity to graze in less familiar pastures. This capably performed if conceptually handicapped modern resetting sports some scenes of great power and eloquence. But as a whole, the play remains very much a dark-horse candidate for more frequent laps around the theater track.

Another installment in Shakespeare’s historical chronicles of the English crown derby, “King John” concerns the struggle for the throne among the Plantagenets, the same clan of dysfunctional royals popularized in James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter.” Following the death of Richard Lionheart, power has fallen to his younger brother John (Patrick Lawlor), despite the superior claim of their young nephew, Arthur (Dave Stann), thus upsetting the natural order of succession. Feminine conniving is supplied by Elinor of Aquitane (Wendy Elizabeth Cooper) and Arthur’s mother, Constance (Lee Ann Manley).

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Commendably committed to a thankless role, Lawlor correctly depicts the antihero John as a weak, craven and ineffectual monarch, unable to cope with the triple threat posed by the jockeying for succession, an invasion from neighboring Philip of France (Vince Froio) and the machinations of the Vatican’s emissary (Daniel Sapecky). Lacking either the majesty of Henry V or the shrewd villainy of Richard III, the unsympathetic John lurches from one defeat to another, leaving a vacuum of moral ambiguity quite unusual among Shakespeare’s history plays.

As events are driven as much by accident as willful design, a fair amount of soul-searching occurs -- but not in John, who derives no insight or growth from his experience. Instead, Shakespeare uses subordinate characters to carry the arcs, such as the loyal Hubert (Paul Sulzman), who, in the production’s most moving scenes, is driven to a crisis of conscience over John’s command to kill Arthur. However, the role that enjoys the most development, Richard’s illegitimate son Faulconbridge, who assumes the responsibilities abdicated by John, is underserved by Brendan Kahlil Elms.

Faced with the play’s hollow core caused by John’s shallowness, director Soren Oliver tries to parlay a liability into an asset in his present-day resetting, by drawing implicit analogies with the Bush administration and recent events. But parallels by themselves do not further illuminate a text -- compared with the mutual reinforcement of concept and content in Ian McKellen’s fascist-era update of “Richard III,” this somewhat labored and gratuitous conceit chokes in the stretch.

-- P.B.

“King John,” Actors’ Gang Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Ends June 21. $20. (323) 256-4040. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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A clash of wills at the ‘Trestle’

Metaphors collide on “The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek” in its local premiere presented by the Syzygy Theatre Group. MacArthur Fellowship recipient Naomi Wallace layers her surreal 1999 Depression-era tragicomedy with simile upon symbol.

Set in a prototypical economically devastated town, Wallace’s fragmented narrative concerns adolescent Dalton Chance (Damien Midkiff), first seen doing shadow puppetry (designed by Shawn MacCaulay).

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He immediately flashes back to his relationship with unbalanced teenager Pace Creagan (Heather Fox). She demonstrates her affections through domination, goading Dalton into a train-challenging dash across the title location (superbly delineated by Eric Hugunin’s Expressionist set).

Pace’s Freudian pursuit has already killed her previous boyfriend, whose whimsically sadistic father and town jailer (Finn Curtin) has a captive audience in Dalton, who recounts all this while awaiting trial for murder. Running counter throughout are Dalton’s frustrated mother (Jennifer Pennington) and unemployed father (William Salyers), who converse, if at all, while pitching a plate back and forth.

Director Martin Bedoian’s execution is sharp, as are the designs. The actors are likewise accomplished, especially the tremulous Midkiff and sloe-eyed Fox, their exchanges invoking Tennessee Williams’ “This Property Is Condemned” as revisited by Beth Henley.

However, Wallace’s ambitious script is more problematic than profound. The Southern Gothic poetry, while often potent, isn’t exactly subtle, better read than heard said. The structure doesn’t help, marred by self-conscious theatrical techniques and thematic overload.

For every pert observation, “Trestle” wrestles with equal parts pretension, like an impressive but overconfident American College Theater Festival finalist.

-- David C. Nichols

“The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek,” Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends June 29. Mature audiences. $15. (323) 254-9328. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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