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Stacey Elizabeth Tries to Climb out of Her Nightmare/The Search for "The Madonna of the Secret Garden"

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STACEY ELIZABETH TRIES TO CLIMB OUT OF HER NIGHTMARE and

THE SEARCH FOR "THE MADONNA OF THE SECRET GARDEN"

Raven Theatre

If brevity is the soul of wit, maybe prolixity is the soul of tedium. I saw three shows within a week that were each almost three hours long--productions that wore out their welcome long before they surrendered the stage--so Raven Theatre's "Shorties" series was for me a theatrical tonic. At least Raven knows that it's wiser to say too little than to say little at great length.

A one-hour program, "Double Quest" is "two one-act journeys" by Chicago playwright David Rush, whose short plays concern two very different people in dramatically different quests. The first, Stacey Elizabeth Tries to Climb Out of Her Nightmare, may be less than original in its subject, but its inventive structure makes up for that. The second, The Search for "The Madonna of the Secret Garden," fares well in both regards. In both, Shon Little's smooth staging neither sags nor preaches.

At first Stacey Elizabeth Tries to Climb Out of Her Nightmare seems to be one more Tales From the Front lament by a single woman who can't dig up a decent date. In fact it's a parable with a punch. The title character (Doreen Dawson) is in quest of balance in her lopsided life: a man. Addressing the audience, Stacey Elizabeth demonstrates the nightmare of the title in flashbacks of her dates with mystery men who should have remained mysteries: an anal-retentive mama's boy, a loser who can't commit beyond a third date, a man on the rebound who prattles endlessly about his ex (Jeff Parker plays all of them). Stacey Elizabeth copes by pretending that her life is a movie and she controls the camera, or that she comes from Venus, where she will someday be returned to a normal life.

Just as she's about to quit the dating game, a fantasy comes true. Stacey implores God for advice, and he descends from the top of a stepladder and considerately puts Stacey's problems in perspective--by telling her all the awful things that will happen to her during the rest of her life, that she'll die alone, for instance. Meanwhile he places bandages on her face. When she takes the bandages off, he says, the pain will remind her that, in light of her grim future, she should take all the pleasure she can in life, even in her less-than-perfect dates.

I don't know how effective God's aversion therapy may be, but as a play Stacey Elizabeth carries a tough little lesson on the danger of being too finicky about anything as comparatively minor as romance. The play may teeter on the edge of self-conscious cuteness, but it's too clearheaded to sugar-coat its characters. Dawson plays out Stacey's frustrations with the throwaway charm of a stand-up comic; Parker neatly distinguishes the men's multifaceted neuroses and depicts God with suitable omnipotence.

The Search for "The Madonna of the Secret Garden" is a spoof of Channel 11's pledge drives and such PBS sacred cows as Civilisation and Art of the Western World. It begins with pledge director Paul Pleading (Chip O'Neil) imploring viewers to send money, playing on their guilt, cultural insecurity, and snobbishness. The show he introduces, "Paintings Uncovered," is hosted by Randall Blake (Kyle Kizzier), an unctuous art historian. This particular program is a docudrama about fictitious painter Domenico Tessoro and his famous but enigmatic 1870 work "La Madonna del Giardino Segreto."

Assorted women testify to Tessoro's visionary life: his perplexed mother, an enraptured lover, a devoted fellow artist, the disillusioned model for "La Madonna," and the owner of the painting, who later commits suicide (all played by Juliet Funt). From them we learn some wild anecdotes about Tessoro: that as a kid he literally identified with the animals he grew up with, that he believed he could control the stars (especially during sex in an olive grove), that once he flew. After each woman's confessional testimony, Blake pontificates on the supposed mysteries of the work (all we see of it, however, is an empty gilt frame on an easel).

Of course the truth of the artist eludes both the art historian's nitpicking analysis--he can't see the painting for the pigments--and the women's self-serving poetic ramblings. The show only trivializes Tessoro, and the harassing pledge-drive interruptions further flatten and cheapen whatever mystery "La Madonna" might have had. When Blake ends his presentation by opining that "La Madonna" should remain a mystery, he doesn't know how thoroughly his inquiry has proved that point.

Funt plays the women with easy versatility, O'Neil is appropriately bland as the pledge driver, and Kizzier's pompous art historian sucks his pipe with smug academic satisfaction.

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