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Stage Capsules 

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999

New Wrinkles
Morris Bobrow, Rita Abrams, and former Chron theater critic Gerald Nachman's new comedy revue about middle age is well-staged, clever, and inoffensively entertaining. It's also unilluminating. Comedy canards that appeared in Erma Bombeck columns 20 years ago (like wrinkles, memory loss, and the banalities of domesticity) exist alongside newer ones like Viagra, multiple ex-spouses, and high school geeks who are now millionaires. The cast is competent and energetic, especially Sal Bovoso, who uses his dark, bushy eyebrows as wry exclamation points; Larry Diskin, who bleats a blues number to his uninterested kid about how tough things were when he grew up ("With garage doors, we used machismo/ Not some little geezmo"); and the elegant Karen Hirst, who sings a pretty Lloyd Webber-esque song about the horrors of being called "Ma'am." But I couldn't help but think of Helen Slayton-Hughes' The Purple Sage at this year's Fringe Festival, which took adages about making the golden years productive and upended them. Slayton-Hughes used imagination and subversion to deal with aging. Bobrow, Abrams, and Nachman accept it with a sigh and a wan chuckle. I know which I prefer. With Sally Gerstein, Sara Hauter, and Tom Jermain.

--Joe Mader

The Trial of God
Elie Wiesel's very long play about Jews in a small Ukrainian village, after a pogrom around 1649, turns on the funny idea that one of these Jews might want to put God on trial for his crimes against humanity. The innkeeper, Berish, is a lone Jewish survivor in the village, and when three Jewish musicians turn up in his tavern hoping to entertain the local faithful on the eve of their Purim festival, Berish has to let them know they've made a terrible, embarrassing mistake. Then he tells them about the pogrom that left him atheistic and alone. Instead of playing music, the minstrels let Berish vent his frustrations by staging a trial of God.

So far so good. "Why would a God let us suffer like this?" is an age-old demand against faith, and in close to three hours of talk, using a mysterious, Luciferian stranger as counsel for the Lord, Wiesel carries an audience step by rational step toward the light. On paper it works, but actually watching The Trial of God must be like watching a production of one of Plato's Dialogues: excruciatingly boring. Better acting might help; but the performances in this production -- except for a climactic shouting match between Berish and the devilish advocate -- make it feel more like a trial of Job.

--By Michael Scott Moore

Maybe it was inevitable for Subterranean Shakespeare to take on Hamlet: The show must loom on the playlist of any Shakespeare company like some kind of rebuke. But still you have to admire the pluck of a troupe willing to stage it in the basement of a pizza joint. Most of Shakespeare's other plays have enough coarse comedy and war to handle video-game explosions rumbling through the walls and order numbers being called on a PA system from upstairs; but the dark, haunted tragedy of a brooding prince? At La Val's? Director Stanley Spenger has edited the script for this show down to a manageable 2 1/2 hours, not always gracefully, and the actors wear suits and ties and one military coat (on Claudius) that suggest some kind of South American dictatorship. The results are very mixed. Andy Laird makes a strong Hamlet -- young, arrogant-looking, with swept-back hair and sharp eyes -- and drives the show forward with his bracing manner (though he also affects a British accent, which makes him seem vain during speeches). Spenger is even better as Polonius, all bumbling pedantry and good comic timing. The shockingly pretty Ophelia (Ali Baker) improves after she loses her mind. But Claudius, Gertrude, most of Hamlet's men, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Osric are totally unconvincing. It's Hamlet for Hamlet's sake, with no particular vision, pocked by some well-rendered scenes.

--By Michael Scott Moore

Spring Awakening
Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening opens with a fairy tale-like scene of a birthday girl lamenting the extraordinary length of her new skirt; it's so long that she must stand on a ladder to wear it, while to move she must rely on her entourage to roll her about. Thus begins a play condemning society for enforcing sexual ignorance on its youth. It looks to be a rendition of tried and true themes of repressed sexuality, but beneath its characters' harmless conversations about crushes and upcoming academic exams lurks a Dionysian underworld, full of cloaked abortionists and 12-feet-tall judges, in which rape and suicide make abrupt entrances. Though the script attempts to explore philosophical questions raised by the tragic events in the play, its philosophical debates are never developed. Fortunately the production is greatly enhanced by the talented cast, Lauren Elder's captivating sets, and Barbara Damashek's ingenious direction. Confusing in its entirety, the play is best viewed as a striking display of symbolic scenes that work to stun the eye.

--By Fiona Gow


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