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Wednesday, Sep 10 1997
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Southern Stew
Roux. By Samantha King. Directed by Gary Graves. Starring Deborah Fink and Jan Zvaifler. Presented by Central Works at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Dana), Berkeley, through Sept. 14. Call (510) 558-1381.

From Flannery O'Connor to Sam Shepard, white-trash culture has spawned a rich literary stew of country cuisine, twisted family secrets, and strong, virtuous women who want out. Roux, Samantha King's new play, starts with that and adds the spice of murder. Created through a collaborative process first pioneered by the Joint Stock -- the British company best known for midwifing the works of Caryl Churchill -- Berkeley-based Central Works researched, interviewed, and improvised around the theme of "women who kill" for six months before King shut herself away to create the one-act, two-woman play.

Like Fried Green Tomatoes, Dolores Claiborne, and The Prince of Tides, Roux finds its conflict in the differing reactions two people have to poverty and abuse. "It's what you do with what you have," explains the ever-optimistic 21-year-old Coby. She's talking to an uninvited stranger named Lyda Abbot as she prepares her prize-winning jambalaya for the annual state fair. At first Lyda appears to be only what she claims -- a New York food critic who has come to interview Coby about her recipe. But as the Louisiana sky breaks open into a summer storm, stranding the two women in the ramshackle kitchen, the intertwined secrets begin to unravel with revelations monstrous enough for any TV miniseries. While Coby tries to keep Lyda from investigating the thumping in the basement, Lyda does her best to shroud her reasons for leaving the small town and her mysterious relationship to Miss Min -- the former mistress of the house.

Before the Gothic climax (a smorgasbord of incest, pregnancy, infant abandonment, and spousal abuse), the women talk jambalaya, rainstorms, and the proper way to kill a pig. In these moments, King's dialogue simmers with confidence and vivid detail. "First, you don't name your pig!" Coby shouts into Lyda's tape recorder, before launching into a pungent, lyrical description of a pig's final moments. When Lyda interrogates Coby on her secret recipe, the banter falls into a spicy staccato rhythm, subtly portraying the as-yet-unrevealed bond between the two women. But her knack for edgy comic subtext falters when King faces the great tangle of her plot. Suddenly the characters lapse into cliches, telegraphing revelations in great banners of information. "He took pieces of me that he had no right to take!" cries Lyda, referring to Bingo, the absent bogyman of the story. "It ain't right," muses Coby. "But I'm having his child." In a particularly excruciating moment, Lyda waves a butcher knife, bellowing, "He's going to be very sorry for what he did to his little girl!" At this point the delicious brew of quirky characters, mysterious Louisiana atmosphere, and culinary metaphors all but disappears behind the tepid tragedy of soap opera. Instead of offering the complex flavors of art, the drama tastes predigested and cheesy.

The problems are compounded by Jan Zvaifler's interpretation of New Yorker Lyda and director Gary Graves' peculiar choices for her. Her hunched shoulders and nervous gestures successfully communicate urban neuroses, but when the time comes to reveal the vengeful little country girl she left behind, the transformation to hurled threats and hard-bitten snarls feels both overwrought and undersupported. By contrast, Deborah Fink's portrayal of Coby follows an opposing arc. In her first moments Fink emanates the charming, vaguely Hee Haw-esque energy of the cute country bumpkin. But as the play continues, her performance unfurls into a savagely emotional study of ordinary suffering and moral struggle. Even when the dialogue succumbs to melodrama, Fink manages to make it believable. By the end -- with eyes bloodshot and snot gleaming on her upper lip -- Fink has undergone the radical metamorphosis that many actors dream about but few ever get the opportunity to achieve.

-- Carol Lloyd

Land of Apartness
The Road to Mecca. By Athol Fugard. Directed by Floyd LaBar. Starring Myrl Britton, Robert Elross, and Jill Kongabel. Presented by Theater Factory at the Jewel Theater, 655 Geary (at Jones), Aug. 1-30. Call 339-8118.

I owe the Theater Factory group an apology, for not coming sooner to see The Road to Mecca at the Jewel Theater. Athol Fugard wrote this play when South Africa was still deep in the mire of apartheid. "Apartness," racial and otherwise, has always been important to Fugard, and The Road to Mecca delicately twists the theme: It studies an eccentric widow's alienation from the rest of her provincial town. The show played for the last time at the end of August to a packed house, and it gave off a slow but potent heat.

Miss Helen lives in a cluttered home somewhere in the Karroo Desert, with shards of tile and mirror decorating the walls; concrete sculptures of owls, pyramids, and camels stand in the yard. She started to sculpt after the death of her husband, and by the time of the play she's become a matronly town eccentric, mistrusted by most of her neighbors. A young friend named Elsa Barlow arrives from Cape Town on the evening of the play to talk about a letter she'd received from Miss Helen that hinted at suicide, and on the same evening the local pastor visits with papers that would commit Miss Helen to an old-age home. Elsa is a freethinking schoolteacher who doesn't believe her friend should be committed, so the play becomes a battle for Miss Helen's independence. "Mecca" is the name of her kitschy house, which she doesn't want to leave; the road there started one morning when Miss Helen skipped church because of a vision of an owl that needed to be rendered in cement.

Sculpting is the one sure way out of despair for Miss Helen, and she explains her desperate letter to Elsa by saying that she can't be sure her visions will keep coming. But she denies that she's suicidal. Elsa says, "So what are we talking about?" Miss Helen, looking distressed, answers, "Darkness, Elsa!" and gives a stunning, gut-felt speech about the encroaching gloom.

At the Jewel, Elsa was played flintily by Jill Kongabel; and Robert Elross was a sober, tweed-dressed pastor, well-cast for the part although he tended to rush his lines. But Myrl Britton was amazing as Miss Helen. She wore a big, draping housedress; her gray hair was piled sloppily on her head, and she inhabited every nuance of Miss Helen's moods, from cheerfulness to dotage to anger. Except for the very last moment, which felt oversentimental, the show was a finely controlled drama of revelation. Miss Helen had a candle fetish that corresponded to her affection for Mecca ("Light is a miracle," she tells Elsa, "which even the most ordinary of human beings can make happen"), and near the end a forest of candles was burning onstage, making the tiny Jewel Theater feel like a surrogate church.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Four on the Floor
Free Microwave Oven With Every Ticket Purchase. Written and directed by John Mendelssohn. Starring Mendelssohn, Lisa Wiseman, Allen Steen, and Kristen Porter. Presented by the San Francisco Hysterical Society at Teatro v. Wade, 50 Oak (at Van Ness), through Oct. 4. Call 972-8027.

The high point in this breezy collection of comic sketches and songs is "The Job Interview," in which Hysterical Society writer/director John Mendelssohn plays a fawning supplicant who answers an ad for a brown-nosing job. When the personnel manager (played by Allen Steen) apologizes for making him wait, he protests, "Oh, the delicious anticipation!" Mendelssohn, who spends most of the interview on all fours shining Steen's shoes, is perfectly hilarious as a kowtowing cretin who lists experience as a professional ass-kisser among his qualifications. The sketch goes on to have Kristen Porter interrupting the interview to try out for the company's bimbo opening, another position created by the firm's sexual stereotype affirmative action program.

Mendelssohn, a former Rolling Stone scribe with what he calls "a deep and passionate loathing for stand-up" comedy, has written around that genre's worst offenses to craft a character-driven show with frequent local references. "Why don't we just make you a sign that says 'I'm hopelessly out of date and I won't catch up for a million years?' " demands the jaded employee of a Gauntlet-type studio after a suburbanite comes looking for a tattoo in "Mr. Bridge and Tunnel." Then they suggest that if he really wants to be hip, he'll have an organ removed. In "The Mugging," a busy criminal and a wealthy couple consult their day planners in an attempt to reschedule a thwarted robbery.

Unfortunately, this kind of inspiration is sporadic in Free Microwave Oven With Every Ticket Purchase. One of the show's greatest strengths -- topical absurdity -- is also its greatest weakness. The going is slowest during the eight songs punctuating the program's 10 sketches. In "Gay Friends," Porter and fourth Society player Lisa Wiseman extol the virtues of good-looking, witty gay men and decry the dearth of suitable straight men. It's pretty stale. "Fine Dining" is built around the realization that you can rhyme the name of one wine with lots of others: cabernet, chardonnay, Beaujolais, etc. Steen, Mendelssohn, Porter, and Wiseman are adequate singers, but the songs are only mildly entertaining, and the cringe-inducing choreography that accompanies them is the kind usually committed by community theater. And if there's one thing that David Letterman made painfully clear with that "Uma-Oprah" debacle, repetition doesn't make things funnier. Mendelssohn drops the word "chorizo" into every third skit, creating a running joke with a limp.

This most recent incarnation of the comedy collective, which began as Spandex Amazons two years ago ("Half the actors in the Bay Area have been in the troupe for a few minutes," Mendelssohn laments), is blessed with a decent comic range, and only occasionally overestimates its abilities, as with the gangsta rap in "Poise in the Hood." When Microwave Oven lags, the fault is not in the pacing, which is snappy, or the delivery, which is often sly. It's the material, which suffers from middle-of-the-road blues.

-- Heather Wisner

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