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Funny Face: An actress clowns around with the rubber ball of nuclear demise.

Acting Up

Clowns and monsters populate Loading Zone's sharp, satirical shorts

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Eliot Fintushel may be best known to Bay Area theatergoers as the writer and performer of certain remarkable one-man shows (as with the manic-depressive Apocalypse, in which he recited and acted out the entire Book of Revelation), while Northern California schoolchildren will certainly recognize him as the multitasking ringmaster at the center of magical, eye-popping, storytelling extravaganzas.

There is another side of Fintushel, however, that is lesser known: his work as an award-winning science fiction writer. As dark as Apocalypse was, Fintushel's stage work seldom strays into the same darkened corners that his futuristic fiction frequently does.

That Fintushel, as an artist, has two sides--one as the sacred clown, if you will, balanced by the other, an eerie prophet of doom--has never been more clear than in his new show at the Loading Zone Theater, Shudders and Belly Laughs. Fintushel does not appear in this quartet of short theater pieces, but his various writerly personalities are on conspicuous display.

Directed by David Lear, the new show is exactly the kind of thing that this tiny 50-seat "black box" venue was created for. The fact that no audience member is further than 15 feet away from the action adds to the intimacy--and intensity--of the show, which combines Aleph's Legs, a creepy little piece Fintushel wrote three years ago, with three relatively light "clown sketches" (President Bonzo, Atomic Bonzo and Lala's Gift) originally developed by Fintushel in the mid-1980s.

After a surreal opening monologue written and performed by Christina O'Reilly, a mysterious Fairy Godmother, the "clowns" (drawn from 500 years of jovial history rather from that of Barnum and Bailey) launch the first two short plays, gentle political fables with teasing satirical tones. In the first, Bonzo (played in jittery overdrive by the very funny Al Liner) asks the Fairy Godmother to be made the president of the United States. This makes him happy until Lala (Corisa Aaronson) is granted her wish to be made God. While Lala is content to be God and still be ordered around by Bonzo, the new commander in chief is less secure about sharing power with anyone. "God!" he complains. "Smack in the middle of my Oval Office!"

In the second, Bonzo develops an atomic bomb (OK, a big rubber ball he says is an atomic bomb) that he plans to employ to either blow off the head of rival clown (Celeste Thomas) or use as a nuclear "detergent." A third clown piece comes at the conclusion of the no-intermission show, but before the audience is treated to that, there is Aleph's Legs to jar us all out of smiling, clown-watching complacency.

There are no clowns in Aleph's Legs, since the subject, torture and interrogation, is nothing to joke about. This play reveals Fintushel at his least amused, and at the height of his storytelling scariness.

A Twilight Zone-like head-bender, Aleph employs actual passages and psychological torture techniques from the CIA's official interrogation manual, which Fintushel discovered after the Freedom of Information Act flushed it into public view. Agents Weiller (Edward McCloud) and Vetters (Joe Winkler) discuss the interrogation of someone name Aleph (Jan Freifeld, recently seen as the patriarch in Actors Theatre's Last Night of Ballyhoo). Aleph's legs, it seems, have been cut off by Weiller, but the crude surgery was evidently successful. "He was a proud warrior," Vetters tells him. "Now he's a groveling beast. You won."

Before he knows it, Weiller finds the tone of the interview shifting, shocked to realize that it's he who is being interrogated. So begins a series of twists and turns in which no one is who he thinks he is, and it becomes clear that, when given absolute power of another person's mind and soul, it's astonishingly hard to know when it's time to stop. With the Abu Ghraib scandal still faintly ringing in our apparently-not-outraged-enough minds, the pointedly wicked "truth" of Aleph's Legs is all too timely.


'Shudders and Belly Laughs' runs Friday- Saturday through Dec. 4 at 8pm. Special Sunday matinee, Nov. 21 at 2pm. Loading Zone Theater, Kid Street School, 708 Davis St., Studio 208, Santa Rosa. $10-$14. 707.765.4843.

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From the November 17-23, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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