Buffoon takes it over the top

Clown Corn Messiah is the bizarre name of a bizarre performance arts trio consisting of Chuck Harper (director), Casey Smith (performer) and Jesse Aasheim (percussion and sound).

Clown Corn's new performance piece, "At Play in the Valley of the Shadow of Chet," a Circle X production at Stages in Hollywood, is so completely offbeat that it beggars description. A rubber-faced and agile performer, Smith can best be described as a mad clown or perhaps a high-decibel mime.

To open, Smith rides in on a weird, white cloth hobbyhorse. The horse gets sick, and Smith frantically tries to resuscitate his ailing sidekick. From that point on, Smith talks to and pummels a bunch of weirdly protuberant white dolls. He dances wildly. He falls asleep. He tells stories using children's toys and action figures as "puppets." All the while, he searches frantically for Fatty, a Godot-like character who eventually drops in -- quite literally.

At first, Smith's shrieking, largely nonverbal turn is strident in the extreme. Combined with Aasheim's wonderfully well-orchestrated but ear-splitting live percussion and sound effects, the result is initially so assaultive, you may start to dissociate.

However, just as you are about to shut down and turn off, this brief and impressively Dada-esque piece starts to grow on you like a psychedelic fungus. From a buffoonish and largely wordless naif, Smith's persona progresses to bitter verbosity, erupting in a stream of surreal profanity that is nothing short of hilarious.

F. Kathleen Foley

"At Play in the Valley of the Shadow of Chet," Stages Theatre Center, 1540 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 9. Then 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 13. $12. (323) 465-1010. Running time: 1 hour


Colorfully drawn comic book tale

When they're not saving the world, three members of the Unified Superheroes Alliance kick back at their local Secret Cafe and shoot the breeze about their comic book deals, 401(k) packages and the advantages of, er, costume stuffing.

Then Mandible Maiden's apprentice sidekick, Pungent Humboldt, shows up and the trio's world will never be the same.

Jeremy Gable's new play, "American Way," presented by Blank Theatre Company at 2nd Stage Theatre, careens into a tragicomic finish that's not quite ready for prime time, but director Darin Anthony and the cast do well with some wickedly funny stuff along the way.

Teen actor Mark L. Young as Pungent (his superpower is "icy breath") is youthfully gung-ho in a loosely drawn, catalytic role that takes Gable's assured satiric riffs on comic book nerds and superhero pop culture uneasily into Sept. 11 territory.

The seasoned adult pros are a kick.

Has-been Crescent Wonder, reliving his glory days and playing his own theme music via a button on his belt, is given just the right notes of bombast and loneliness by Bill Dempsey. J. Richey Nash makes Firebang's hint of over-the-edge frustration palpable as he obsesses over shaky comic book sales and eroding support among the 6-to-19 male demographic.

Johanna McKay has a blast as feisty Mandible Maiden, who spits acid and catches bullets in her teeth, while dressed in red-white-and-blue bustier, mini-skirt and thigh-high spike-heeled boots. (J.J. Pyle did the spot-on costumes.)

The shift into tragic mode, in a parallel to the real-world horror of three years ago, needs fine-tuning in timing and content; still, the last moments of bravado and fear resonate.

-- Lynne Heffley

"American Way," 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends Oct. 23. $15. (323) 662-7734. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.


Radical ideas on trial in a musical

Of the individuals ever jailed by the U.S. government for their unorthodox beliefs, the 20th century psychologist Wilhelm Reich was the only one whose books and writings were actually rounded up and burned.

Any rebel who managed to ruffle feathers on that cosmic a scale is a natural magnet for metaphysical conspiracy buff and cult icon Robert Anton Wilson (of "Illuminatus" fame), who dramatized the controversial outcast's plight from a surrealistically skewed perspective in his rock-musical play, "Wilhelm Reich in Hell." The edgy Son of Semele Ensemble ends its season with a raucous, ultimately frustrating revival in which, as anyone familiar with Wilson's writing could predict, challenging ideas and warped humor collide in an unruly muddle.

A three-ring circus set in a limbo between death and rebirth, the play finds Reich (Ray Paolantonio, sympathetic but in way over his head) once again standing trial for his radical ideas. Prosecuting the case are the Marquis de Sade (Michelle Ingkavet) and Count von Sacher-Masoch (Brad Henson) in clown costumes, while a satanic Ringmaster (Nathaniel Jusiniano) presides.

Circus characters and historical figures including Marilyn Monroe (Bridget Brno), philosopher P.D. Ouspensky (Neil Donahue) and Reich persecutor Calley Eichman (Larry Coven) testify, heckle and dance as the four-piece rock band and punkette vocalist Sharyn-genel Gabriel perform the original score Kristen Toedtman penned for Wilson's fevered lyrics.

Staging by Reverend Mike Smith is energetic, but the whirlwind of activity undermines the attempt to lay out some of Reich's dangerously lucid ideas about mechanized Western society and its repressed sexuality. If making Reich's philosophy harder to grasp than necessary was part of Wilson's sardonic intent, this production achieves it all too well -- but it's faithful to a literary style Wilson once characterized as "wandering about a fun house at a rather seedy amusement park."

-- Philip Brandes

"Wilhelm Reich in Hell," Cell2, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 24. $20. (213) 351-3507. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.


Religion, science and a monster

The "Monster" that lumbers across the stage of Santa Monica's Miles Memorial Playhouse retains the principal plot points of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," stitched together with adaptor Neal Bell's postmodern meditations on religion, science, morality and sexuality. While Sight Unseen Theatre Group's ambitious staging is long on atmosphere and committed performances, it lacks the production resources to bring a stiffened story line back to life.

Nevertheless, director Andy Mitton crafts moments of riveting intensity. The Creature is "born" in a harrowing scene, as gruesomely made-up actor Clark Freeman convulsively reacts to an unwelcome flood of new experience. As the impossibility of finding love or acceptance quickly transforms him into a figure of rage, cunning and vengeance, Freeman's monster has soul-searching exchanges with creator Victor (Michael Laurino).

In Bell's version, Victor is a flawed genius, dedicated to conquering death but unaware of his own feelings until they broadside him. As his long-neglected sweetheart, Elizabeth (Megan West), observes: "You hide from those who love you, no one can find you -- maybe you are God."

A tide of twisted sexual tension engulfs the entire Frankenstein homestead. Amid the relentlessly brooding backdrop, Susan Matus' serving wench exudes earthy sensuality. As Victor's best friend, Ben Correale struggles with orientation issues in his character's attraction to both Victor and Elizabeth. Even the Creature seems to derive a homoerotic charge in his fatal encounter with Victor's brother (Frank Smith).

Unfortunately, despite the eerily effective multichannel sound design (by Aashish Pathack), too many of the visual effects and sets are too distractingly cheesy to do justice to the story's sprawling gothic sensibilities.

-- Philip Brandes

"Monster," Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 31. $20. (877) 986-7336. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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