Russian Roulette

A makeshift "project" by Frank Theatre tries to catch the wry in Chekhov's short stories; a Mixed Blood comedy shows the stereotype in the TV sitcom--and the damage done.

One can't help but wonder how this trilogy might have looked with another week of rehearsal. Though the show certainly would have been better, time alone might not be all that is missing in this mix. Between The Chekhov Project, the recent production of The Lady from the Sea at 15 Head, and the Broadway musical Ragtime, turn-of-the-century sexual politics seem a hot ticket right now. So what remains to be said about Victorian marriage? Though Knox manages to wrap an old lesson in a new package, once the bow has been removed any surprise dissipates quickly.

Mixed Blood's production of Maria! Maria, Maria, Maria!, directed by John Clark Donahue, is equally unprovocative, though its subject matter is more modern--the racial stereotyping on TV sitcoms. Written by Lisa Loomer, who worked for years as a TV writer, the show is designed as a live taping of a multiculti family sitcom called There Goes the Neighborhood. The neighborhood here is a veritable rainbow coalition: At the center is a plainly incredible family comprising a Hispanic woman (Rose Portillo), her East Indian husband (Zaarwar Mistry), and two daughters--one African American (Tezra Bryant) and one Japanese (Ann Kim).

This crew endures visits from their neighbors, a "cockamamie crippled kike" (Michael Tezla), a "lesbian Italian-Armenian" (Marquetta Senters), and a "hardworking, smart, and mean" Korean woman (June Lu). The latter's only line seems to be "You people are stupid." The sitcom segments are spliced with long, tiresome rants on the state of network TV, and behind-the-scenes looks at the actors who are forced to play these flattened, racist versions of themselves.

Rose Portillo is luminous as the actress playing Maria, and she saves this play from becoming a mere political ping-pong match by conveying the real emotional damage in her degrading charade. She's losing the will to play the game, and continually goes off script into manic soliloquys. In one particularly funny, affecting moment, she steps away from her ironing table and doubles over, squealing, "I cannot live in your imagination, because it is too small!"

This comedy is packed with insightful moments, and the actors deliver luxurious, fully fleshed-out monologues on their particular experiences with racism (e.g., the Jewish actor has to pretend to be Italian in order to get hired to play a Jew). But the laughs in this comedy are few, and many of its funniest moments, oddly, are born out of the very stereotypes the show seeks to dismantle.

Like The Chekhov Project, this play suffers from a disjointed quality, an overabundance of frenzy that grows increasingly hard to sit through without an intermission. And like Frank's play, Maria! Maria, Maria, Maria! does not end with a satisfying sense of completion. Instead, the show sputters toward a seemingly random finish. And we're glad to applaud at the end, because, along with these beleaguered actors, we've earned it.

The Chekhov Project runs through March 15 at the Southern Theater; call 340-1725. Maria! Maria, Maria, Maria! runs at Mixed Blood through March 15; call 338-6131.

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