Story Hour

Out There The Business

The Zoo Story
By Edward Albee. Directed by Aida Jones. Starring Carolyn Bates and Kerry LaBelle. Presented by the 511e Chronicles at the Brava! Studio, 2180 Bryant, through Jan. 26. Call 982-6422.

To most people, "alternative staging" means a Wild West Taming of the Shrew, a multiracial Our Town, or gender-swapping in the major players. 511e Chronicles' production of The Zoo Story casts two women as Peter and Jerry -- but sex-swapping is only the most superficial way in which 511e reinvents Edward Albee's freshman play. First performed in Berlin in 1959, The Zoo Story's great themes of alienation and redemption were apparently too much for the decade of the family hour. But in the decades since, the play has come to personify a triumph of the one-act form, moving swiftly to dramatic catharsis in a compact space. Jerry, a manic and a transient, initiates a conversation with publishing executive Peter in Central Park. Peter's Eastern middle-class civility keeps him nailed to the bench as the disturbed drifter's diatribe charts the frustrations of modern life.

People familiar with the standard ranting-head rendition of the play may be put off by this interpretation's deliberately soporific pace. Jerry's seven-page rage about a dog usually comes off like Spalding Gray on speed. But this slow and rhythmic approach brings out some of the text's undertones. Kerry LaBelle, as Jerry, works carefully through the longer speeches with the slow tick of a metronome, more a confused Ophelia than a Muni passenger driven to the brink by late N Judahs. Carolyn Bates complements this with a sympathy and patience not usually awarded to the character of Peter. 511e's alterations to The Zoo Story don't tamper with the meaning of Albee's text; the program's notes make no excuses for the female casting, and by the performance's conclusion there is no need.

As a supplement to the play's lyrical approach, 511e has arranged for a rotation of local musicians to play before each performance. The buskers contribute to a cafe atmosphere, part of the company's attempt to capture the elusive concept of a "living theater." The Brava! theater occupies an unmarked building, but a slide projector casts the production logo onto its brick exterior. The box office is a card table at the back of the performance space, and before the play company members make friendly plugs for other Mission artists.

-- Julie Chase

The Stand-In
By Keith Curran. Directed by Danny Scheie. Starring Matt Cornwall, Stephen Bowman, Carmen Elena Sosa, and P.A. Cooley. At Theater Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St., through Feb. 8. Call 861-5079.

A "play about gay stereotypes in Hollywood" sounds only slightly more appetizing than a dance about late-term abortions or a sculpture about Internet censorship. But Keith Curran's last play at Theater Rhinoceros, the harrowing tragicomedy Walking the Dead, offered an excoriating look into the complexities of a female-to-male sex change. The Stand-In probes these themes of sexual reinvention with a goofier attitude and a petit ax to grind.

Although the first sequences of wigged talk-show hosts and cloying tango dancing threaten to fulfill your worst fears, the play soon reveals a thicker subtext beneath its campy exterior. Mixing caustic wit, cinematic pacing, and characters who implode with contradictions, Curran manages to do what almost never works: build a play around an idea. Under Danny Scheie's exuberant direction, the versatile cast of 10 actors playing over 40 roles ignites a vivid, ironic, and finally provocative tale of coming out in the limelight.

The story follows Lester Perry -- played by the convincingly wooden Matt Cornwall -- a studly, stuttering soap opera star, who accepts a role in You're Out!, a cable porn movie about a gay umpire. Faced with an aggressive tango teacher, a suspicious girlfriend, an outspoken call boy, and a probing paparazzo, Lester is forced to confront his own splintered identity and closeted sexuality.

On the surface, The Stand-In is about Kevin (Stephen Bowman), the "real homosexual," who replaces Lester in the movie's sex scenes. But the title resonates with the many characters who've created stand-ins to mask their true selves. Lester's ostensible girlfriend -- played as a sci-fi S/M diva by the lightning-tongued Carmen Elena Sosa -- claims that she remade her identity (she calls herself a "cyborg") to escape her original identity, as a little girl named Nancy Reagan. (Gossip on the set has it that she was actually a man.) Correspondents from Entertainment Tonight turn out to be undercover journalists from Queer Times. Male prostitute Sparky admits he uses different names to fulfill his clients' desires. Finally, Lester is the biggest stand-in of all, deceiving no one more than himself.

Despite the carnival of doltish actors, slimy agents, duplicitous journalists, and pompous directors, Curran's broad-brushed portrayal of Hollywood somehow avoids bombast. Behind their masks, characters exhibit subtle quirks of speech and action that both heighten the satire and ground the play in its own peculiar reality. For instance, Lester's Midwestern parents -- dazzlingly portrayed by Alexis Lezin and David Eppel -- are cheerfully queer-friendly, referring to two women they met on a Caribbean cruise as "our lesbians." The script succumbs to earnest diatribe only rarely, as when the Queer Times reporter (P.A. Cooley) lectures Lester that closeted celebrities are guilty of supporting "institutionalized apathy." "People are dying because of terrified little shits like you. The troops are advancing," he declares, throwing down his backpack angrily.

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