Stage

Charm and Bite
Marga Gomez's Gag Reflex. Written and performed by Marga Gomez. At Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint, 3583 16th St. (at Market), through Aug. 9. Call 861-7933.

Marga Gomez is a wiry, gaptoothed, vaguely Latina-looking dyke with the same sarcastic sex appeal as Sandra Bernhard, and she offers more or less the same sort of fare, a cheerfully scathing take on pop and celebrity culture. She grew up here but now lives in L.A., and Gag Reflex is solo performance in the worst tradition -- a struggling actor gets up to discuss her frustrations in the vast desert of Hollywood. Gomez, though, has enough charm and bite to make it work. She starts with cliches about smog and traffic, but goes on to describe the weird spectacle of John Tesh getting his star on Hollywood Boulevard -- "which makes you feel like anything's possible" -- and gives a surprisingly good riff on the hopelessness of the Los Angeles bus system. She also swears off doing an "impersonation" (of a fax machine), but then does a rueful and sophisticated satire of Kathleen Turner.

That's the first half of the show. It's called "Jaywalker," a title that doesn't quite work. She plans to premiere a full version of "Jaywalker" this fall, in L.A., but she should think about renaming it Gag Reflex because the potential of that title hasn't been fully explored. The second half of the show is just stand-up -- labeled "Gags" -- but since Gomez makes jokes about L.A., it doesn't feel much different from the rest. It's merely disorganized. She delivers jokes about dating ultrafem lesbians, she lacerates vegans ("They're very kind to animals, but they're cruel to Marga"), and she does a funny routine about automatic toilets and faucets. Some of the jokes fall flat, and her Spice Girls shtick has started to smell like aging fish. But when she relaxes with the audience and just seems to be improvising, Gomez can be hilarious.

More than one critic in this space has complained about solo shows that are too self-centered, and I still think solo performances that bring other characters onstage are more interesting than the sort of thing Gomez does; but clearly the rules are blurry. Ranging too far from personal material can dry up a show as quickly as talking about what happened the other day in the store. To earn a place onstage a solo performer should constantly ask, "So what?" Gomez does, answering with a genial sarcasm.

-- Michael Scott Moore

True Stories
Word for Word. "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies," by Eudora Welty. Directed by Ellen Chang. "The Halfway Diner," by John Sayles. Directed by Sandra Langsner Crews. At the Magic Theater, Building D, Fort Mason, Marina & Buchanan, through Aug. 16. Call 441-3687.

Stretching the whole text of a short story onto the framework of a stage production is like opening a frog in science class and pinning its guts to a board: It makes for some interesting effects, but what you have at the end is not exactly frog. Word for Word's current show at the Magic eviscerates two stories, "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies," by Eudora Welty, and "The Halfway Diner," by John Sayles. For five years now at the Magic, the Word for Word group has been trying to make good prose work onstage; and the literariness of what they do has earned them a following. These two stories are paired on purpose, to show separate snapshots of small societies of women.

Lily Daw is a simple girl in Mississippi who says she plans to marry a traveling xylophone player, who's passed through town and disappeared. The three ladies -- Mrs. Carson, Mrs. Watts, and Aimee Slocum -- take the liberty of believing that the xylophonist isn't coming back, and to save Lily's honor they pile her onto a train for the Ellisville Institute for the Feeble-Minded of Mississippi. Delia MacDougall plays Lily with an electric Southern coil in her voice, coy and nervous, dreamily twisting her arms and feet. "Fixin' to get mahr-ried," she muses; and the church ladies are just as good (especially Helen Shumaker as Mrs. Watts) at blustering around the town in a dudgeon of scandalized propriety. Maybe the cleverest moment is "when they came to the bridge over the railroad," and a friend of Lily's is "sittin' on the rail, sippin' an orange Nehi." To show the bridge and railroad one of the ladies takes a section of garden fence and lifts it over her head, then lays it on the floor in time with the narration. This is the kind of fun moment that has made Word for Word so popular; but the burden of having to narrate every word also bulges the story, making it lumber more than it would as a simple play.

"The Halfway Diner" is more problematic, because even on paper it lays everything out. It's about a busload of women taking their weekly trip to a California penitentiary. Sayles wrote it in the voice of one of them, Lourdes, but here all the characters narrate, which waters down some of the original charm. The women are also meant to be the tough wives and girlfriends of convicts; but most of the actors can't do tough. There are also too many flashbacks and parallel stories for this to feel comfortable onstage. Still, the owner of the Halfway Diner, Elvira, is played with a beautiful driving energy by Margarette Robinson, and the actual visitation at the prison -- darkened, ritualistic, with stark light and spare sound effects -- works because it's so focused. That seems to be the principle in Word for Word: Keep it simple, because putting narration into the mouths of actors can spread even a graceful story into an unladylike shape.

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