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Late-life romance in ‘First Love’

“There needs to be love in this world.” Such simplistic-sounding truths underscore the spry theatricality of Charles L. Mee’s “First Love,” receiving its Southern California premiere at the Odyssey Theatre. This 2001 companion piece to Mee’s “True Love” and “Big Love” provides a tickling, ultimately piercing rumination on romance in the twilight of life.

After reworking Aeschylus in “Big” and Euripides in “True,” Mee explores absurdist territory in “First.” It transpires indoors and outside simultaneously, with Gil Alan’s set pieces and John Fejes’ lighting creating an ephemeral rehearsal arena, as if Rene Magritte were subletting Samuel Beckett’s studio.

Its initial inhabitant is Harold (Robert Symonds), a seventy- something prototype whose park-bench nap is interrupted by feminine counterpart Edith (Priscilla Pointer). Her aggression sparks unanticipated intimacy, charted through mercurial recollections and hilarious non-sequiturs. By the conclusion, this pair has broken each other’s hearts, as well as those of their audience.

Mee’s ungainly iconoclasm can be an acquired taste. Here, however, he indulges in less sloganeering and more poetic specifics, sustaining his uniquely vital voice when his referential architecture threatens to sag.

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Director Allan Miller keeps this exercise honest with selfless assurance. Pointer and Symonds obligingly do the same, magnificent in their attuned commitment.

Though one questions Mee’s third party (Jacy Gross, alternating with Suyun Kim), whose functional appearances flirt with overcontrivance, this matters little. “First Love” may be specialized, but it’s also especially engaging, and fans of its inimitable author should flock.

-- David C. Nichols

“First Love,” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m., except this Sunday and April 27, 2 p.m. only. Ends May 11. Mature audiences. $20.50 to $25. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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Fassbinder looks at youth culture

The provocative genius of the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder dominates “Katzelmacher,” now at City Garage in Santa Monica. This 1968 debut by the icon of the Anti-Theatre receives a polished, pertinent realization.

Set outside Munich in 1966, the plotless narrative traverses a group of lower-brow Bavarians. Embodying the restless youth culture then exploding across Europe, these miscreants are as promiscuous and casually deluded as their author is clear-eyed and acerbic in his objective delineation of their existence.

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Enter immigrant Jorgos (Steve Najarro, in the part originated by Fassbinder), the subject of the title epithet, an obscene allusion to foreign sexual behavior. This unwitting Greek unleashes a swirl of xenophobia, leading to sudden, primal violence.

Director Frederique Michel and translator Denis Calandra honor Fassbinder’s ethos, linking the vignettes with hieratic interludes and rhythmic techniques. In tandem with Charles A. Duncombe Jr.'s production design and Erin Vincent’s costumes, the ultra-stylized approach suggests Bob Fosse doing Gunter Grass on absinthe.

Maia Brewton, Maureen Byrnes, Laurence Coven, David E. Frank, Mathew Gifford, Katharina Lejona, Szilvi Naray-Davey and Bo Roberts offer avid counterpoint to Najarro’s sweet incomprehension. Kathryn Sheer is touching as his paramour, a role created by Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla.

Curiously, Fassbinder’s deliberate detachment feels less viscerally compulsive than in the 1969 film. The tactics command intellectual attention without consistently demanding emotional reaction. This may be an inevitable casualty of 21st century desensitization, and the arid topicality of “Katzelmacher” couldn’t be more obvious, or recommended, regardless.

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-- D.C.N.

“Katzelmacher,” City Garage, 1340 1/2 4th St. (alley), Santa Monica. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5:30 p.m. Ends April 27. $20; Sunday, pay what you can. Mature audiences. (310) 319-9939. Running time: 70 minutes.

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A tumult of technical effects

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A faceless puppet boy is entrusted with a mechanical rabbit, which he must reluctantly return to a mysterious handless man. During his journey, he parlays with the moon, swims the ocean and penetrates a primeval forest roamed by wild dogs. Eventually, unable to decipher the meaning or even the reality behind his cosmic adventures, the puppet boy tears off his own Styrofoam face.

An adult spin on fairy tale themes, Padraic Duffy’s “The Mechanical Rabbit” at the Sacred Fools Theatre is a surrealistic and occasionally unwieldy parable that explores a child’s painful progression from innocence to experience. The gap between the two proves too wide for Marty, the puppet protagonist, who eventually tumbles into despair, even insanity.

The slight, deliberately simplistic plot strains to support a wealth of technical effects in Duffy and Mauri Bernstein’s ingenious staging. A dizzying combination of mixed-media, puppetry, music and live performance, the piece is breathtakingly inventive. The action is underscored by Kubilay Uner’s brooding original music, performed live by cellist Marina Peterson. Like ninjas on a mission, a black-clad crew silently glides around Jim Walters’ marvelously malleable set, cueing up video segments, clicking slides and manipulating Christine Papalexis’ marvelous puppets.

The puppets range from tiny shadow silhouettes, especially effective in charming underwater sequences, to life-sized. Few human faces are seen. The adult puppets have been constructed with blank Styrofoam faces, onto which slides of actors’ faces are projected -- a virtuosic stunt that goes surprisingly smoothly.

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Not so smooth, on opening night, was a botched video segment in the final seconds of the show -- a misfortune that cast the thematic point of the proceedings into some doubt. The top-heavy technical elements sometimes slow the play’s pacing, but those elements, in and of themselves, are extraordinary.

Video director Trey Stokes, sound designer Kevin B. Barron, lighting designer Sean Telles and lighting designer Ruth Silveira all deserve high praise, as does the entire design team, for this flawed but groundbreaking work.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“The Mechanical Rabbit,” Sacred Fools Theatre, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends April 26. $15. (310) 281-8337. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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Love that’s lusty but, alas, creaky

The founder of the Los Angeles Theatre Center, which folded in 1991, veteran theater maven Bill Bushnell returns to Los Angeles to direct the West Coast premiere of Mayo Simon’s “Split,” a Company Rep production at the American Renegade Theatre.

It’s a homecoming with no fatted calf in sight. In fact, Simon’s play about middle-aged-plus lovers whose long-term affair is drawing to a close is meager fare, seasoned with a heavy hand.

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In the play, Arthur (Donald Bishop), a married professor who lives on Long Island, has just gotten word that his unmarried girlfriend, Claire (Michele Marsh), who lives in L.A., is about to be married. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Arthur loves Claire but can’t bring himself to forfeit his comfortable life on her behalf. Dissatisfied with Arthur’s occasional visits, Claire frets about her future and longs for companionship in her fast-approaching twilight years.

Amusing Brandon Ford Green plays various roles, including a waiter, a piano-bar player, a homeless woman and a pizza delivery man, all of whom step out of character to portray the Speaker, Arthur’s omnipresent inner voice, who cynically counsels Arthur to avoid commitment at any cost.

Simon gets points for portraying oldsters as lusty, full-bodied individuals who face the same urges and dilemmas as young people. However, the play’s creakiness belies its intended vitality, and Bushnell does little to oil the works. Marsh is endearing as a self-sufficient divorcee whose independence palls with encroaching old age, but Bishop is dangerously stiff in his role as randy paramour. As a result, their sexual attraction fails to convince -- a glaring flaw in this wannabe romantic comedy, which never quite gels as either comedy or romance.

-- F.K.F.

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“Split,” American Renegade Theatre, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 20. $20 to $25. (818) 506-7550. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.


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