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No escaping the PP Players

Phnom Penh Players

No Exit, The Bald Prima Donna

Russian Cultural Center

Sept 26, 27, 28

Reviewed by Mike Fowler

At least one theatergoer grateful for something to do besides drink and jaw at the

FCC thoroughly enjoyed the Phnom Penh Players' season-opening rendition of Sartre's

suffocating picture of hell, "No Exit"- only to be struck a few moments

later by the thought that he'd been sentenced to go through it himself, confined

for eternity to a room with no escape, listening to other people saying unendurable

things.

Only a few feet away were the exits, but could he casually stand, make his way unobtrusively

down the aisle and - just get the hell out of here! - slip away?

No - and in the end he was glad he couldn't. The Players had loads of fun themselves

and passed along that good-times feeling to the audience. For the most part they

overcame the annoyingly silly dialogue of Eugene Ionesco's "The Bald Prima Donna."

In doing so they capped an evening of one-act plays that delighted three audiences

- and made them glad once more that the Players are around to invite them.

"Prima Donna", according to the Playbill, was first performed in Paris

in 1950, back in the days when some self-consciously serious thinkers seemed to believe

they had struck on something big with the notion that things don't make much sense.

A depiction of the absurdity of English suburban life, it has been playing in Paris

almost constantly since then - which says more about the French than the Brits.

The Playbill called it "scathing" and "powerful", and the dialogue

- full of non sequiturs, nutty contradictions and such - was aimed at leaving us

staring bleakly into meaninglessness: the, cough-cough, absurdity of it all. Credit

the cast and director Michael Popkin for staging it in a way that let us mostly ignore

all that, even if we couldn't quite forget it. The dialogue was Ionesco's fault,

not the players; and they played it for laughs, not angst. Thanks, guys.

It's set in the living room of the Smiths, a couple who are getting on. Sally Parsons

and David Kellaway played them with a nice touch, goofy and giddy. She was wonderfully

twittery about the neighbors and their shops, delivering a chattery opening monologue

to the back of his newspaper. He dropped the paper and picked up his pipe to intone

inanely about this and that. They were fine.

So were Poppy Garner and Nigel Venning, who played a young couple-come-to-visit who

end up in the Smiths' hearthside chairs with Garner delivering the same monologue

Mrs. Smith started things off with - yup, it passes from generation to generation,

'til the end of time; alas. They sagged in the middle of a near-impossible exchange

apparently written to show that the English are, uh, different - say "How very

extraordinary!" one more time, Poppy, and die. But they got through it and moved

on with style.

Genevieve Merceur, a stage rookie, had memorable moments as a French maid with a

demented grin. Her leap through the air into the arms of a smaller Ian Perkins was

the highlight. Perkins himself, in a slicker and yellow hardhat as the Captain of

the Fire Brigade, didn't stagger noticeably, then or any other time. He was droll

and funny. The play built to a comic parade around the stage that made you glad you

stayed, Ionesco be damned.

The sparse set put hearth, tables and living room chairs against a black backdrop

- black for the emptiness of it all, okay? Black worked better for "No Exit",

Jean Paul Sartre's existentialist study of afterlife for the damned as a closed room

where three incompatible people spend eternity discussing each others' sins.

The players are welcomed to damnation by a sardonic valet - Joshua Sondheimer, well-prepared

for his first stage appearance by his real-life role as a lawyer. Expecting the worst

they seem relieved to discover there'll be no physical torture, no eternal fire.

Under Sharon Kevin's solid direction they slowly learn a little brimstone might be

better.

Gordon Longmuir was strong as a philandering journalist who paced, brooded and stared

off at his fast-fading life, where his former colleagues talked about him as a coward.

Ligia Radoias was flighty and flirtatious as a social butterfly who killed her child.

Catie Lott, jaw outthrust, gave a deft portrayal of bitchiness as a bitter lesbian

postal worker.

Players Chairman George Taylor, in the Playbill, says the venture into "Theater

of the Absurd" was a first for the troupe, with the suggestion that it won't

be the last. Here's a hope that they pick their plays carefully. Their presentation

made the most of the real power of "No Exit" and found fun in the dated

silliness of "Prima Donna."

Taylor also points out that the Players exist to give "enjoyable, thought-provoking

cultural stimulus" to a place that needs it. Right you are. Good show.

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