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Commedia troupe revived

Like the iconic theatrical masks, comedy and tragedy intersect in “i Gelosi,” the immensely ambitious, vastly likable and somewhat messy world premiere play now being presented by the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble at the Powerhouse.

That’s appropriate, as masks feature prominently in the narrative -- a heavily fictionalized account of i Gelosi, the 16th century commedia troupe that started out as itinerant street performers before becoming the rage among the Italian and French aristocracy. The company’s cheeky political satire eventually put them afoul of the pope, whose various strictures forced the troupe back into the streets and relative indigence.

For his sprawling yarn, writer-director David Bridel has appropriated many commedia archetypes, all of whom, with the exception of the reserved Isabella (thoughtful Paige White), are larger-than-life adventurers, protagonists in a sort of ensemble picaresque who ply their trade from market squares to royal courts across Europe. One of their more extravagant escapades, an attempted abduction by desperate French Huguenots, seems the stuff of wildest hyperbole but is actually loosely based in fact, as indeed is much of Bridel’s rigorously researched tale.

The spiritual center of the action is Isabella, the Italian gentlewoman who flouts the mores of her day to marry i Gelosi’s leader, Francesco Andreini (dashing Albert Meijer). Isabella soon passes into legend, not only for her acting -- revolutionary in an era when women’s roles were routinely played by men -- but also for her poetry and pastorals, writings that also shattered the Sistine ceiling of the period’s gender roles.

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Occasionally, Bridel seems so eager to make a statement about present-day politics that he tumbles into overstatement, particularly in i Gelosi’s performance before the French court, an agit-prop rant that seems almost laughably anachronistic. But Bridel’s keen staging makes up for the piece’s excesses, and a large, superb cast makes the most of their comedic-tragic opportunities. Starlet Jacobs’ plainly functional scenic design and Jennifer Lee’s splendid costumes complete this vibrant period portrait of a seminal company whose innovations changed the course of theatrical history.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“i Gelosi,” Powerhouse, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends June 14. $20. (310) 396-3680. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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Lying to find some truth

Picasso -- or was it Steve Jobs -- once said that “minor artists borrow, great artists steal.” Theft is the subject of “The Hiding Place,” Jeff Whitty’s restless, pensive roundelay about Manhattan literati poaching one another’s hearts and minds, now at the Attic Theatre.

In mid-'90s New York, successful married novelist Karl (a solid Brian Shnipper) begins an epistolary dalliance with a fragile young woman, Myra (Megan Tropea), who harbors creative aspirations of her own. As fellow artist friends look on with a mixture of bemusement and dismay, the two mine their affair in different ways.

“Place” plays nicely with the permeable distinctions between reality and fiction -- we see scenes from a drama about the romance before finding out just who the author is.

Whitty, a Tony winner for the book of the musical “Avenue Q,” mulls trenchant themes, among them the temperament (and relationships) best suited for generating large word counts and the degree to which we all rewrite our stories to suit our own ends. But the piece lacks focus and chooses to gloss over Karl’s complicated relationship with his wife (Christine Stump) in favor of the easy comedy of a Spalding Gray-like monologuist (Jan Munroe). The cast is uneven, and Whitty is not well served by Kevin Fabian’s awkward direction, which makes following the play’s mash-up of theater and life a little harder than it should be.

Still, “Hiding Place” is a diverting portrait of people who tell themselves lies in pursuit of truth on the page.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“The Hiding Place,” Attic Theatre, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 28. $20. Contact: (323) 525.0600, Ext. 2. Running time: 2 hours.

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Satirical, with limited success

Barbed social comment fuels “Natural Selection” at 2100 Square Feet. Eric Coble’s cracked satire about a techno-driven future where indigenous peoples wind up in ethnic theme parks savages our disconnected post-millennial era.

Welcome to Culture Fiesta, the corporate solution to a decaying landscape. When a performer in the Navajo sector dies, Henry Carson (Joel Huggins), whose paper-pushing exterior masks an adventurous soul, must find a Native American substitute, to the dismay of Susie (Marie Lively), his blog-happy wife. Still, boss Yolanda (Janet Colson) is adamant, so, with bounty hunter Ernie (Josh Zagoren) in tow, Henry heads for the desert, piloted by outlandish Penelope (Abigail Eiland).

After Henry bags sheepherding Zhao (Adam G.), he discovers that his catch is an inauthentic specimen who refuses to return to civilization. Their resulting scheme produces the play’s biggest laughs, as when Henry brings “Leonard Yahtzee” home for Sloppy Joes, with unforeseen aphrodisiac results.

Huggins, whose straight-laced demeanor recalls Dennis the Menace’s dad, contrasts well with Adam G.'s brazen pretender. Zagoren’s gonzo scene-stealer and Lively’s over-programmed spouse are adeptly lunatic, and Eiland is a hoot.

Whether the skewed hilarity carries past all liabilities is a more subjective matter. Although director Jayk Gallagher keeps things brisk, his yeoman staging has uneven aspects. Designers Ian Forester (set) and Josh Cuellar (lighting) skillfully suggest bipolar locales, and Dylan Ris offers thunderous sound effects. Yet the sense of impending apocalypse that drives the plot comes and goes.

There are strained elements amid the rapid-fire dialogue, and Colson misgauges Yolanda’s reactions, pushing comic beats where deadly seriousness would be funnier. The shakily drawn shift to allegory is so abrupt that it blurs Coble’s noteworthy intent. “Natural Selection” is thoughtfully enjoyable, but it’s essentially a superior sitcom with a conscience.

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-- David C. Nichols

“Natural Selection,” 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 29. $15. (800) 838-3006. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.


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