Theater Review: 'Fifteen Minutes' for Some, Endless Replay for the Masses

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The famous never had it so rough.

The Berkeley Repetory Theater has offered up a scathing critique of the cult of the celebrity in John Guare's dark comedy "The House of Blue Leaves."

The play stands as an homage to Andy Warhol's dictum that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. We are continually reminded of Warhol's presence by the towering boxes of Brillo Pads at the set's corner-a reference to the pop artist's work.

And, no surprise, we see an obsession with fame in each of Guare's characters.

Artie Schaughnessy (Jarion Monroe) spends his nights a failed amateur club singer. He dreams of making it big even as he dons his zookeeper's uniform. Bunny Flingus (Jeri Lynn Cohen), his doting mistress, scoffs at her lowly peers. She's held just about every low-brow position, all the while dreaming of finding a famous sugar daddy.

See a pattern?

Our heros drool over the famous to escape the blandness of their day-to-day lives-to them, without name recognition their lives are devoid of meaning. Of course, morality itself takes a backseat to the pursuit of celebrity. Murder, rape, blasphemy, explosives and the pope-in Guaire's work we find it all, and without an ounce of shame. Through the dialogue, which is laced with a continuous wit, we watch a thick interplay of deception and back-stabbing.

Artie despises his insane wife Bananas (Rebecca Wisocky), who torments his dreams of fame each time he steps up to his piano. Bunny, all the while, uses Artie's contempt for his wife to manipulate him, inflating his dreams of fame and driving him to agree to an exodus from his squalid apartment to-where else?-California.

But the most haunting feature of the production is its conclusion, as its characters meet ambivalent fates where we secretly want them to suffer for their delusions.

Guaire has offered up an ironic tragedy that strikes America where it hurts most: at the heart of its fantasies and tabloid magazines.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the play is Cohen's performance. Only two days before the opening of the show actress Marisa Redanty, who was originally cast as Bunny, withdrew due to health problems. The producers found themselves mired in a conundrum: they couldn't use an understudy to permanently fill the role, and it was far too late to find a unionized actress to take on the task.

But Cohen, who had been cast in a smaller role, volunteered to take on the burden. I saw the show only five days after Cohen took the role-that's five days to memorize a script, learn the blocking, but most importantly become the character. And while she does occasionally read from a script while on stage, she nevertheless gives an impressive and passionate performance.

Of course, it's likely her surprising performance is also due to the presence of an equally strong cast.

Monroe's Artie seems at first to be the classically nebish loser. But he plays more than a clueless spaz-even as he shouts at Bananas we see a genuinely tender love for her, which reveals itself overtly in surprising moments.

It is Wisocky, however, who conjures up a truly disturbing performance. Bananas twirls madly across the stage in her worn nightgown. But beyond the facade of insanity, we see shades of a devilish schemer, especially in the ways she bitterly torments Artie.

The play is aptly directed by Barbara Damashek. Characters move freely about the stage, utilizing the intricacies of the space as they argue and conspire against each other.

Damashek has offered a satisfying production-a hilarious work that catches us with tragedy, as it derides our deepest and yet most superficial dreams.

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