Paint by Numbers
Painting Churches. By Tina Howe. Directed by Amy Robins. Starring Susan Collins, Ralph Miller, and Dolores Richardson-Lubin. Presented by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at the Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck in Berkeley, through Feb. 22. Call (510) 528-5620.

Do you like television "movies of the week" with angels and family secrets and Richard Thomas Jr.? If so, run to Painting Churches, presented by the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley. But if you prefer your theater more intellectually stimulating than a Hallmark card, Tina Howe's cloying, feel-good family album will hold little for you. Most faults of the production lie in Howe's plodding, pedestrian script. The Churches of the title are Gardner and Fanny Sedgwick Church, highbrow Bostonians. Gardner is a senile poet, Fanny his loyal caretaker. Literary references are dropped into the text to validate the fictional characters' importance -- Ezra Pound once bought Gardner a pair of shoes, we're told. Their daughter, Mags, is an art instructor who's just been discovered. A still life of Mummy and Daddy will be part of her SoHo premiere. Mags attempts the portrait as her parents are packing to move.

Howe has a promising setup, but the play never plumbs the artistic process of poet and painter, or the relationship between father and daughter. Howe's handling of poignant moments is forced; they read like Bazooka Joe fortunes typed in at the end of Doogie Howser, M.D. As the poet, Ralph Miller is the lifeline of the show, his disciplined performance keeping the sugarfest in check. Dolores Richardson-Lubin, as his wife, struggles with lines, but is charming as the frenzied matriarch. The couple are supposed to be pleated-skirt-and-pearls Boston chic, but Howe does little to distinguish them from Sun Belt trailer-park elderly, gossiping about neighbors' diseases.

Susan Collins is less appealing as Mags. The high-strung artist is a hangover from the '80s, bent on blaming her anorexia and alcoholism on stuffy parents who squelched her inner child. Collins' crocodile tears and whining turn the play's climax into melodrama. When Gardner and Fanny fawn over the finished painting, Collins does Sally Field: "They like it! ... They like it!" Director Amy Robins attempts to compensate for the static script with motion and color, but the show runs a half-hour too long for its two short acts.

-- Julie Chase

Cell Blocked
Hurricane. By Erin Cressida Wilson. Directed by Delia MacDougall. Starring Margo Hall and Lynne Soffer. At New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom, through Feb. 16. Call 267-3956.

Tuned into the horror of World War I, Brecht dished up theatrical eye-openers that asked audiences not "to hang its brains up in the cloakroom along with its coat." His theater aimed to enlighten -- socially and politically. Spinning out of this tradition, writer Erin Cressida Wilson and director Delia MacDougall stir up a mess of socio-political issues with Hurricane. Serving time in solitary somewhere in Africa, the play's framing character, Katy (Margo Hall), looks to the stone walls for comfort. Emanating from the wall are voices of the disenfranchised from around the world. We move from Africa to NYC to Utah to S.F., encountering the likes of an anorexic woman, a cross-dressing "mo" (homosexual), Latinas coping with AIDS, and a back-of-the-woods type with post-fallout cancer.

Bud-drinking Esther (Lynne Soffer) is wise beyond her hickness. She waxes surreal, juxtaposing the "spitfire light" of an A-bomb test explosion with "burning rabbits [that] run across fields." Esther tells her story as a way of coming to terms with losing her baby in a stillborn birth and having her own "voice box cut right out." New York roommates Ray (Colman Domingo) and Judy (Jamie Comer) have little in common. Ray's a megaqueen on the prowl for some Puerto Rican ass who thinks an Ashanti symbol tattooed to his newly shaved head will give him some African cachet. Judy's your basic Kate Moss wannabe. Ray squirms uncomfortably in and out of every fashionable combo his wardrobe offers, while an emaciated Judy obsesses over her too-small breasts and too-fat ass.

The other stories also push the body-as-residual-site-for-alienation theme. Mixed Chicana-Irish Molly (Cristina Frias) lives with her mother, Maria (Monica Sanchez), a firm believer in doing what it takes to climb the social ladder. Maria, suffering from AIDS-induced pneumonia, refuses to tell Molly about the life of her absentee Irish father; she forces her to dye her red hair black to look more chola and cash in her affirmative-action ticket at Stanford. Molly wants to know about her heritage but also wants some maternal affection, but the only connection she gets is when she shoots Maria up with a daily dose of AZT.

Hurricane hits hard, but this is supposed to be theater, not a political shindig. Wilson and MacDougall get far too femcrit-politico here, offering up talking heads instead of fully realized characters. Katy never develops beyond her "I want to scream" rhetoric; Molly is too wrapped up in her "my mother taught me how to feel anger" cliches to be compelling; and Judy's "I cum therefore I am" does little to deepen our understanding of the human condition. Slamming the issues only drives us harder to coat-rack the brain.

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