Monday Night Marsh
"Monday Night Marsh." Various artists at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), on most Mondays. Call 826-5750.

"Monday Night Marsh" is a sometimes-cutting-edge forum for new work by local actors who have enough courage and imagination to stand alone and deliver maybe half an hour of material. Highlights from last week's installment were "Bent," by Nicole Brown, and "The Cellophane Prophecy," by Charlie McClelland; and one reason they stood out, strangely, was the shameless use by both performers of wild and gratuitous digressions.

Brown is a bright young actor with a lot of energy who threw herself into three different characters, starting with a poetry reading by the winner of the Fremont Middle School Poetry Contest. A nervous, wide-eyed girl -- ingenuous-looking, African-American, in sloppy pigtails -- sidled onstage and recited a poem called "Bent" that detailed recent incidents of racism (burning churches, graffiti in bathroom stalls), especially in Fremont. The piece was an unsettling little cameo; it lasted as long as the poem. Then Brown became a smart-mouthed beautician wearing a blue gel-pack across her eyes, accusing an invisible customer of being ugly. This was comic relief. Brown's third character was a young woman who failed to get the point of certain 12-step programs. Speaking to what she thought was a Celibates Anonymous group, she told about bringing a fifth of Jack Daniel's and some Dixie cups to an AA meeting ("I thought this was a drinking group"), and then rambled on about almost having sex, personal body space on BART, and a psychic in Berkeley. It was a pointless but fun digression that showed off Brown's range (she can be angry, mock-sad, cheerful, whimsical) and comic imagination.

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Charlie McClelland's "The Cellophane Prophecy" was apparently a chapter from a longer autobiographical work in progress. It dealt with McClelland's first regular job in San Francisco during the '70s after two years of imitating Charlie Chaplin for tourists on the street. He'd been hired by a strip club to imitate Charlie Chaplin for women onstage. ("It gave a new meaning to 'The Little Tramp,' " McClelland quipped.) He built up to his first strip-show moment by describing the other strippers -- freaks, mostly -- and then avoided it completely with a manic digression about learning to ride an elephant as a clown in a Florida circus. It was more pointless fun, the only disappointment being that McClelland never clarified his snarky title.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Present at the Transition
The Ladies of the Camellias. By Lillian Garrett-Groag. Directed by Larry Biederman. Starring David Kudler, Elizabeth Benedict, and Wanda McCaddon. Presented by TheaterFirst at the Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College (at Parker), Berkeley, through Oct. 5. Call (510) 436-5085.

TheaterFirst's production of Lillian Garrett-Groag's The Ladies of the Camellias isn't exactly ladylike or about the ladies. The play is a brief glimpse into the lives of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse -- two women who stomped their way into the 19th-century thespian hall of fame. But there's more to the play than reconstructing their eccentric lives.

The show is based on the play La Dame aux Camelias, by the younger Alexander Dumas. (The story has been the basis of everything from La Traviata to the Garbo vehicle Camille.) Bernhardt, of French courtesan stock, made it big and used to tour with a menagerie of wild animals and men; Duse acted her way out of Italy's playhouse gutters and became the darling of the international stage. Garrett-Groag's scenario puts Dumas in charge of both divas for an upcoming staging of his play in Paris. This conceit offers the writer a chance to give us a hint of the aches and pains theater was experiencing at the turn of the century. Indeed, at one point, stagehand Benoit (Dana Kelly) asks disgruntled bit-part player "The Girl" (Jennifer Davis), "Don't you want to be a part of theater history?"

Although Garrett-Groag doesn't say so explicitly, it's worth knowing that (diva) history was being made. Konstantin Stanislavsky had just proposed leveling the actor/actress playing field; Emile Augier was pushing to see fewer epic romances and more socially aware dramatics. When Dumas fils (David Kudler) arrives onstage and suggests to his divas that the coveted role of Marguerite Gautier can be played with more natural ease, we're witnessing his great breakaway from the tradition of heroic deeds established by the older guard, typified by his father, Dumas pere, he of the great historical romances like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

When, in the play, Dumas fils tells old-schooler Bernhardt (Elizabeth Benedict) that she brings to the role an inappropriate bohemian abandon, and when he tells Duse (Wanda McCaddon) to lose her overdetermined morbidity, they resist. Slinging her pink "vulture" feathered boa over one shoulder, Bernhardt responds, "Nobody goes to the theater to see the ordinary." Duse simply states: "You wrote her. I invented her."

The Russian anarchist Ivan (Ben Cleaveland) anticipates a time when the divas will no longer be marketable and theater directors will be born to mediate between writer and actor. Nonetheless he's a theater fan. He storms the stage, clutching a gun and bomb, and begins to reinterpret Dumas' play, offering constructive suggestions (recommending peasants be stood inside stage-set windows), even acting out parts to capture the "right" mood. The actors are less shocked by his gun than his cutting-edge suggestions. The divas sniff at his social critique -- until it becomes clear that the authorities have failed to come to rescue them. Garret-Groag's idea of presenting this moment of questioning and transition by means of an imagined encounter between the different extremes of the day -- artistic and social -- is effective and clever.

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