'Female' riffs on feminist rants

Who said political correctness couldn't be fun? Lisa B. Thompson's "Single Black Female," presented by the Cassandra Project at the Complex's Flight Theatre, is unabashedly leftist, a liberal rant with a decidedly feminist tinge. However, the show brims with passion and energy and the kind of goofball humor that one doesn't typically associate with political rhetoric.

The play's basic structure -- a series of brief, breezy scenes -- is almost that of a sketch comedy show. Segments begin with bald thesis statements like "Being African American is so inconvenient" that serve as jumping off points for comedic riffs treating subjects ranging from lesbianism to shopaholic sprees.

Sometimes, the choice of material -- gynecological visits, holiday angst -- seems sitcom slight, and Thompson occasionally lapses into heavy-handed speechifying about sexism and patriarchy. More often, Thompson stands her stereotypes on their heads, to apt and funny effect. These right-on feminist sisters want equal rights and equal pay, but they also yearn for steamy romance and Jimmy Choo shoes, not necessarily in that order. Heavily pregnant but nonetheless formidably graceful Tia Hunnicutt and gamine Caryn Ward are delightful dynamos who make Thompson's text sing. Director Colman Domingo brings a choreographer's precision to his crisp staging. Sound designer Byron Mason underscores the action with an indispensable R&B; track that keeps things lively.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"Single Black Female," Flight Theatre at the Complex, 6472 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends April 18. $20. (213) 206-3544. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

*

Mr. Nevil goes to Stewartland

By all accounts, Jimmy Stewart was a thoroughly nice guy, as likable off screen as on. However, channeling Stewart's essential niceness into a dramatically charged narrative proves a tall order in "James Maitland Stewart," Steve Nevil's biographical one-man show at Theatre West.

Nevil and his co-adaptor, Ted Snyder, who also directs, assembled the play from a variety of sources, including Stewart's frequent guest appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. The play shows us the elderly Stewart, played by Nevil, about six months after the death of his beloved wife, Gloria. Alone in his Beverly Hills study, cozily re-created in this uncredited set design, Stewart sifts through the artifacts of his career and rambles freely about the events of his past life.

The props, also uncredited, are choice -- vintage Playbills and paraphernalia that look as if they were lifted from a Stewart museum retrospective. However, if the props are supposed to spark Stewart's free-associations about his career, then why Nevil and Snyder kept the action so strictly chronological is a bit puzzling. Granted, the adaptors have unearthed some choice anecdotes and we get brief but telling glimpses into Stewart's wild bachelorhood, his distinguished war service and his long and devoted marriage. Yet as the evening grinds on, the play seems more like a glorified resume, an exhaustive recapitulation that could stand massive pruning.

Despite its structural deficiencies, the show has plenty of saving humor, and Nevil is a fittingly laid-back performer who ably impersonates Stewart while steering well clear of caricature. Speaking directly to the audience, his Stewart displays the unassuming modesty and native wit that made him one of America's favorite stars for more than 40 years.

-- F.K.F.

"James Maitland Stewart," Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends May 9. $20. (310) 362-8838. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

*

Antiwar attitudes infuse triptych

John Cothran Jr.'s "Higher Ground," at the Actors' Gang's tiny El Centro space, strains so mightily toward profundity that it bursts its seams.

The three short plays that make up the evening all take place on a hill in a city park, a sort of "grassy knoll" rudely defined by Sandy Adams' scenic design. A mysterious Groundskeeper (Michael Teigen), apparently invisible and omniscient, punctuates the play with observations so hyperpoetical they are unintentionally funny.

In the first mini-play, Cothran plays Roland, a garrulous African American man who is bedeviled and ultimately humiliated by Lorna (Alysan Marie), a tough young Caucasian girl who has just stolen a handful of plastic U.S. flags and brandishes them fiercely. Uneducated and brutalized, Lorna spouts violent pro-war rhetoric of the most simplistic stripe. Roland, who we learn was a trained assassin in Vietnam, counters with a measured argument about the horrors of war.

The U.S. flag figures once again, though more peripherally, in the second scene, which introduces us to Carl (Walter Addison) and his wife, Hazel (Juanita Jennings), a biracial couple who have spent their lives serving activist causes but are dismayed by recent political developments in America.

In the third scene, Joe (Jed Grant), a deranged Vietnam vet, makes ready to defend his "high ground" against imagined enemies. When a sympathetic police officer (Bruce Beatty) tries to roust Joe from his park campsite, we learn a bit about Joe's life and losses before inevitable catastrophe.

As a matter of fact, all three scenes devolve into predictable crisis. The overblown Groundskeeper notwithstanding, Cothrane has a flair for naturalistic dialogue, and his characters, though crudely drawn, are vivid and sympathetic. However, his antiwar themes are troweled onto his drama with such a heavy hand that they are ultimately more puerile than persuasive.

-- F.K.F.

"Higher Ground," the Actors' Gang El Centro Space, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends April 24. $10. (323) 465-0566, Ext. 15. Running time: 1 hour.

*

Damaged psyches in center ring

Hot flashes of performance panache peek through "Freak Show" at the Los Angeles Repertory in Hollywood. Co-creators Stephanie DePalma and Alexandra Leeper focus their ambitious study of socially damaged psyches through the lens of physical deformity, HBO's "Carnivale" redrawn by Charles Ludlam and Camille Paglia.

You enter from the alley, an experience in itself, where a cast member clad in Goodwill chic directs you to an upstairs lobby distinguished by some talented artists' work and audible activity from nearby rehearsal rooms.

This affect carries into Francis Enriquez's impressive black-and-red velour setting and Brendan Turk's Expressionist lighting. Ringmaster DePalma presents the oddities passed on from her mother (the maternal principle is a principal leitmotif).

A crumpled-paper hunchback (Kevin Lowe) carries soulful inner beauty. Incestuous twins (Nick James and Stephanie Hawkins) become marionettes, reliving parental loss at the jaws of Colin Angus' wolfman, who is something to see.

Ryan Findlay's geek has bite; Baelyn Neff's blondie shills wares with sparkle aplenty; Ryan Cook's bearded lady defines louche. Their game ensemble colleagues range from valiant to amateur.

But the slack pacing, errant scene-shifts and purple script challenge everyone. "We complement each other like the stars do the sky," goes one hardly atypical line.

It emits from Leeper's womb-retreating Kahkoon, whose accelerating Saran-wrapped maneuvers embody the show's uneasy teeter between the risible and the opaque. Rave-heads, therapists and thespians may see differently, but "Freak Show" seems a showy fracas.

-- David C. Nichols

"Freak Show," Los Angeles Repertory, 6560 Hollywood Blvd., 2nd floor, L.A. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends May 1. Mature audiences. Closing night, $25; all other shows, $50. (213) 268-4817. Running time: 2 hours.

*

Spanish farce from an unusual source

The title character of "The Shoemaker's Prodigious Wife" is an independent-minded 18-year-old who, to escape poverty, has married a much older man. Loathing the arrangement as yet another manifestation of a patriarchal society that expects a woman to be either "a nun" or "a dishrag," she rebels by tormenting her husband with extravagant accounts of men who have wooed her.

It's an antic, oddball farce written by -- surprise! -- Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish playwright better remembered for the revelatory dreamscapes of such dramas as "Blood Wedding" and "The House of Bernarda Alba." Though the 1930 comedy loses something between page and stage in an uneven Bilingual Foundation of the Arts presentation, the remaining performances, all in Spanish, are of academic interest, at least.

Garcia Lorca sought to revive popular forms of Spanish theater while freeing the stage of what he regarded as stale realism. For "Wife," he envisioned prodigious displays of fantasy and symbolism.

Unfortunately, Bilingual Foundation bungles precisely these two elements.

As the story unfolds, the lights dim now and again to a dark, dreamy blue. Because the action, as staged by Margarita Lamas, plows ahead in an unvarying furrow of broad comedy, the audience can be excused for not having the slightest clue as to what's occurring. What's happening, though, is a shift in perception as the wife progresses from everyday harangues to epically exaggerated taunts.

This much, at least, was evident at one of the final English-language performances: The sparks between feisty Azalia Correa (the wife) and beleaguered, brow-mopping Eleazar Del Valle (the shoemaker) revealed the faint outlines of distant, untouched regions in this unusual play.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"The Shoemaker's Prodigious Wife," Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, 421 N. Avenue 19, Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends April 18. In Spanish. $25 and $27. (323) 225-4044. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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