Grinning phantoms as ushers to 'Death'

"Eccentric yet august taste," to quote Edgar Allan Poe, permeates "Masque of the Red Death" at Zombie Joe's Underground. This macabre in-the-round reading of Poe's plague-ridden classic typifies the company's skill at interpretive mayhem.

Mingling in the lobby, attendees can don party masks to the adept playing of guest violinist Robert Matsuda. Before the house opens, planted cast members succumb to violent fits and bloody sweats. Then, grinning madly, Denise Devin and Shaun Mathieu-Smith usher us inside over the bodies.

We assemble on either side of a venue that is deliberately short on chairs, while these grim escorts guide any viewers brave enough to the facilities -- "Towelette for the bathroom, right this way." The rest of the ensemble joins in to the accompaniment of Christopher Reiner's somber yet cheeky music, against walls painted the hues of the seven chambers of Poe's text.

That morbid tale, in which hedonistic nobles sequestered in a ducal abbey ignore the pestilence to their peril, unfolds with twisted finesse. Thanks to director Zombie Joe's fine eye for color and effects, especially the resourceful lighting, his vivid actors merge equal parts glare and glitter, piquancy and phantasm.

Billy Minogue makes a suitably dauntless Prince Prospero, and petite Jonica Patella suggests an antic golem. Ana Rey, Nicole A. Craig and Maria Olsen are contrasting models of straight-faced perversity, and Mark Hein's classical stature is formidable. His climactic arrival in artist Brian O'Connor's cunning metal mask is, like Devin's cracked torch song and Matsuda's lucid Bach interlude, both droll and creepy.

Sightlines and seating comforts are variable, but the unhinged cohesion never wavers, even as we exit past the final corpse pileup. Poe would surely approve.

-- David C. Nichols

"Masque of the Red Death," ZJU Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends April 28. $12. (818) 202-4120. Running time: 1 hour.

*

Taut tale of what happens in 'Tryst'

A period suspense drama laced with modern psychological twists, Karoline Leach's "Tryst" charts its sinister, atmospheric arc at the Black Dahlia Theatre with an economical elegance that even the most discriminating genre fans will relish.

Set in Edwardian England, Leach's two-hander depicts a romantically charged game of cat and mouse between George Love (Gabriel Olds), a handsome con artist who preys on gullible women, and his latest victim, a mousy spinster named Adelaide Pinchon (Deborah Puette).

In overlapping introductory monologues, Olds and Puette skillfully sketch their characters through contrasting perceptions of their two-day courtship and secret elopement.

Cynical, cunning and charming as he effortlessly adopts the manners and diction of a higher social class, George confesses his well-honed seduction techniques with a sociopathic pride coupled with a curious sense of tact. "I slip them a little dream and make them pay a good price for it," he boasts, explaining that he always makes it a point of honor to fulfill the husband's wedding night duties before running away.

Puette's love-struck Adelaide is so naive, trusting and paralyzed by low self-esteem that by the time she hands over her bank book and jewelry even George is moved to pity. Probing the roots of her eating disorder and other "Oprah"-worthy neuroses, he awakens an unexpected boldness in his temporary bride that threatens to upend the balance of power -- the first of the play's artful plot twists.

Literal-minded viewers might find Puette prettier than the script calls for, and a slightly older George facing the twilight of his gigolo good looks would have more reason to be tempted by Adelaide's offer to change direction. Yet these sharp performers energetically sell the piece in Robin Larsen's crisply paced staging. Craig Siebel's stylish modular set ingeniously employs a curvy, hobbit-hole look to add layers to the intimate stage space.

Depth may be in an illusion in what is ultimately a formula thriller, but the illusion is just about perfect.

-- Philip Brandes

"Tryst," Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 6. $20. (866) 468-3399 or www .thedahlia.com. Running time: 1 hours, 35 minutes.

*

With Mamet, it's 'Squirrels' run wild

The significance of David Mamet's "Squirrels," written in 1974 at the start of his career, is primarily historical. Nevertheless, the lively revival at Santa Monica's Miles Memorial Playhouse offers an engaging snapshot of a formidable emerging talent.

In this trenchant comic one-act, Mamet focused not on the lowlifes and scam artists who populate his familiar works but on a more nakedly personal subject, the act of writing -- with predictably sardonic results.

In a drab office adorned with an overstuffed filing cabinet and an antique typewriter, a middle-aged author tries to overcome writer's block with the help of his younger apprentice.

It's quickly apparent that veteran scribe Arthur (Don Oscar Smith) is a hack, and Mamet gleefully depicts his "mentorship" of Edmond (Ben Messmer) as a succession of literary pretensions.

Arthur is fixated on a scenario involving a man feeding squirrels in the park. In a string of variations on "man meets squirrel, squirrel bites man, man strangles squirrel," the pair explore alternative wordings and styles, dancing around the underlying triteness of the scene without acknowledging it. When Edmond eventually grows frustrated, Arthur protests that "I'm not tied to a specific animal!"

Their struggle takes on overtones of Beckett-like absurdity, punctured at last by the caustic observations of the cleaning woman (a snappy Vicki Lewis) who serves as their muse and sometime sex partner. With characteristic bluntness, she dismisses their efforts as artistic masturbation.

Travis Hammer's assured direction showcases Mamet's early stylistic maturity. Very much in evidence are his signature muscular diction, the characters' use of repetition to mask their cluelessness and, of course, the cycle of domination in which the upper hand keeps shifting.

Faced with "the terror of an empty sheet of foolscap," Arthur must console himself with the thought that talent isn't everything. For Mamet, as he demonstrated even at this stage, that has never been an issue.

-- P.B.

"Squirrels," Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 29. $25 to $37.50. (866) 811-4111 or www.squirrelsbymamet .com. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

*

Joyous release in 'Jamaica, Farewell'

The audience for "Jamaica, Farewell" feels as spirited as Debra Ehrhardt's one-woman show. During a pre-play chat with producer Judy-Lee Chen Sang, green banana recipes are exchanged and the benefits of bush medicine touted. This isn't exactly a sleepy night at your average subscription theater.

Playing every other Sunday as part of the Whitefire Theatre's solo series, "Jamaica, Farewell" is less an autobiography of immigrating to the U.S. than an unabashed display of grrl power. Lighting up a bare stage, briskly directed by Monique Lai, Ehrhardt takes us on the ride of her life.

"Everything is possible in America," she tells us breathlessly in the voice of her younger self. Pause, deadpan: "The problem is getting there." But the ferociously determined teenage Debbie, witnessing the disintegration of revolution-torn Jamaica in the 1980s, will do anything to get out: impersonate a nun, set someone's dreadlocks on fire, even enlist a smitten CIA operative to help smuggle a million bucks out of the country.

Impersonating cool BBC reporters, soused barkeeps and big-bottomed madams, Ehrhardt engagingly brings to life the boogie -- and limits -- of Jamaican culture, perhaps best embodied by her charming, heartbreaking father, who has a tendency to gamble away the family's furniture when he's had too much to drink. But the evening's real pleasure is simply Ehrhardt herself, a winning set of contradictions: She can tilt her gorgeous cheekbones skyward with hauteur and then take pratfalls when her American dream hits the skids. She's got it going on, living every day like Independence Day.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

"Jamaica, Farewell," Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. 7:30 p.m. April 15, 29; May 6, 20; June 3, 17; July 1, 15, 29. Special performance at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. Ends July 29. $20; Santa Monica Playhouse, $25. (310) 659-0463. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

*

Joanna and David write it all down

A woman starts a diary the day she meets the man she'll marry. Twenty-five years later, she leaves him -- and a copy of the diary.

So begins "Joanna's Husband and David's Wife," a she wrote/he reads look at a relationship in crisis, now playing at the Fremont Centre Theatre. Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, who adapted the play from her novel, specializes in narratives of female independence -- she wrote the bestselling "A Woman of Independent Means" -- and "Joanna" is ultimately the story of a woman who marries a writer only to realize that she wants to be one herself.

Her subsequent success as a novelist, she discovers, can liberate the marriage or destroy it.

As the titular couple, Lissa Layng and Vaughn Armstrong have an easy, assured appeal, and director Norman Cohen keeps the pace up. But the performers and the play are most compelling when Hailey loses the cutesy stuff to explore the profound ways in which living together works as a slow-acting truth serum.

The most revealing mirror, Hailey insists, is the one lying next to you every night. But are we brave enough to look?

-- C.S.

"Joanna's Husband and David's Wife," Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 22. $25. Contact: (866) 811-4111 or www.fremontcentretheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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