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Humor, rage in the Stalin era

A mordant fusion of comedy and outrage, “Red Star” is a characteristically bitter offering from British playwright Charles Wood, also notable for the screenplays “Help!” and “The Knack.” Wood, who came in on the tail end of the Angry Young Man epoch in British theater, neatly avoids the curmudgeonliness that has afflicted many of his contemporaries. Full of rage and not a little horror, “Red Star” is still a brass-plated hoot.

The play is set in Russia in 1951, when an ailing Stalin still holds his country in a thrall of terror and paranoia. Friends denounce friends; husbands denounce wives. The Soviet citizenry, one character points out, is divided into three groups: those who are serving time in the country’s prison camps, those who have recently been released, and those who are en route.

For young Nikolai (Craig Young), disaster is only a matter of time. An aspiring actor, Nikolai does a mean impersonation of Josef Stalin -- a dangerous party trick indeed. Condemned to 30 years of hard labor for his effrontery, Nikolai gets a reprieve when he is cast as Stalin in a string of biopics glorifying the strongman. However, Nikolai later learns that there’s a grim downside to his film stardom.

The first production of the Nomad Theatre Company’s three-show season at the Matrix, this U.S. premiere was initially produced in the mid-1980s, yet some of its references are so timely that they seem to have been patched in from yesterday’s headlines. Director David Payne grinds Wood’s ax -- make that sickle -- to a sharp edge, but the performers’ melange of various dialects makes little stylistic sense. Laura Fine’s scenic design and Kristie Roldan’s lighting are memorable, as are Aldo Shllaku’s original music, David Beaudry’s sound and Gelareh Khalioun’s costumes. The cast is ably anchored by Young’s Nikolai, a Chaplinesque naif whose refusal to compromise his own morality is alternately his salvation and his downfall.

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F. Kathleen Foley

“Red Star,” Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 18. $25. (866) 966-6623 or www.nomadtheatrecompany.com. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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Daily treatment: How women feel

Don’t be misled by its title. “Nice Tits” at the Alliance in Burbank is no peep show. A series of monologues, the show employs the operative metaphor of women’s breasts to examine various passages in women’s lives, from the comical to the harrowing.

If the premise sounds high concept, that’s because it is. Co-creators and directors Kristen Cloke, Kelly Hill and Erin Underwood have taken the basic idea of “The Vagina Monologues,” pitched a bit higher, so to speak. As in “Vagina,” the monologuists in this play relentlessly objectify their own body parts to make a larger statement not only about the objectification of women in society, but conversely, about the pride that women themselves derive from their own powerful physicality.

Here, that premise sometimes cloys, and the level of acting ranges from the gripping to the merely workmanlike. Despite a few belabored intervals, however, the production is buoyed by an underlying sense of humor, purpose and female fellowship.

Particularly effective is throaty-voiced Robin McDonald as a woman who recounts her near-molestation by a college instructor. Initially humorous, her anecdote builds to an unexpected pitch of righteous outrage. Also terrific is Ellen Buckley as a stand-up comedian vamping on open-mike night at a comedy club. Her improv takes a terrifying twist as she segues into a surreal and shocking account of her encounter with a rapist.

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Most of the stories are more lighthearted in tone, but all were developed in intensive workshops over the course of many months, and that rigor is evident in this strong but simple staging. A coy program note suggests that many of the pieces are at least partially autobiographical. Whatever their derivation, they are consistently diverting -- a heartfelt response to the airbrushed stereotypes that abound in the media.

-- F.K.F.

“Nice Tits,” Alliance Repertory Company, 3204 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Dark Thanksgiving weekend. $15. (800) 595-4849. www.tix.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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What makes each person ‘Beautiful’

Intriguing ability takes prominence in “Making Beautiful” at the Powerhouse Theatre. Emerging composer-lyricist Ryan Scott Oliver applies his chops to the travails of the post-"Friends” generation.

“Making Beautiful” runs five prototypes through conflict/resolution in revue format, complete with obligatory stool (spray-painted in accordance with Chris Murillo’s pastel setting) and an abstract through line, sort of. Libby Jensen’s lighting plot catches the sexually conflicted Tenor (Chris Fore), a gay Catholic at confession. This launches the title anthem, quickly taken up by the artistically struggling Soprano (Kelsey Jessup), burned by her latest gallery rejection. The Alto (Emily Clark, alternating with Erika Whalen) ends her latest romance, with the Baritone (Merrick McMahon). The hypochondriac Mezzo (Allie Bower) has pill issues. Internal rhymes give way to augmented harmonics as Oliver’s theme emerges -- “And in my way/I may find something to say/Making beautiful.”

What sustains “Making Beautiful” is the sweet-voiced quintet of twentysomethings, all worthy, and the author. A ripe talent in the vein of audible influences Stephen Sondheim, William Finn and Jason Robert Brown, Oliver understands theater music, and his amiable songbook has its neurotic charms.

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For example, the Soprano’s “Crayon Girl” is a superior life-lesson saga with insightful lyrics. The Tenor’s cheeky “Kama Sutra,” complete with Hindu-deity backup singers, has delightful sass, and the ballads are notably melodic. Musical director Brett Ryback elicits smooth sounds, though director Andrew Shaffer provides little more than traffic management. Not that he has much structure to play with. “Making Beautiful” highlights Oliver’s promise, but it’s a showcase in need of a libretto.

-- David C. Nichols

“Making Beautiful,” Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Dec. 10. $20. (310) 396-3680, Ext. 3 or www.powerhousetheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour.


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