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The Largest Elizabeth in the World/Sovietiquette: My Days in Russia

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THE LARGEST ELIZABETH IN THE WORLD

Griffin Theatre Company

SOVIETIQUETTE: MY DAYS IN RUSSIA

International Performance Studio

Playwright Stephen Gregg's The Largest Elizabeth in the World is a hilarious absurdist fantasy about a teenage girl who grows to be 50 feet tall. Gregg, who also penned Griffin's successful Sex Lives of Superheroes, produced last season, displays a remarkable talent for merging the ridiculous and the mundane. He creates characters with a wealth of quirks and puts them in bizarre situations, yet manages to ground his plays in a basic honesty about human nature. The Largest Elizabeth in the World is a kind of teen-oriented "Woody Allen meets Edward Scissorhands."

Gregg seems to have taken the idea for the show from the Roches song of the same name. In the song, "Elizabeth" refers to a prissy schmuck; the opening line is "Don't you sometimes feel like the largest Elizabeth in the world? / Usually at a time when the boy is indifferent to the girl." Gregg translates "largest Elizabeth" literally, and sticks with the song's major theme: "Wouldn't you like to feel like yourself after suffering so many years?"

It's a play about self-discovery and adolescent awkwardness, teen rebellion and the acceptance of people who are different. Its flaw is that it is about all those things and more--grief at the loss of a loved one, budding sexuality, possibly even eating disorders--but Gregg never clarifies the play's main point. Elizabeth's growth spurt seems a metaphor, but for what?

Still, Griffin Theatre's production makes the journey to the disappointing ending a delightful one, so much so that the play's final ambiguity almost doesn't matter. Christopher L. Sheley's set combines suburban reality with cartoon cutouts of strangely painted palm trees, creating a world in which the play's ludicrous and ordinary elements are equally at home. William J. Massolia's sound design emphasizes the silly. His combination of pop tunes ("Big Girls Don't Cry") and boppy instrumentals that sound like scene-change music for My Three Sons had me laughing throughout.

Director Neil Wilson has a flair for the absurd that shows in a myriad of ways. Elizabeth's growth is achieved with ingenious staging and some simple props. Wilson allows his talented young actors to flaunt their oddity but never to push it to the point of inanity. Somehow each strange character is a fully rounded human being.

Dawn-Christian Maxey is superb as Amanda, the nasty sister. A toned-down Sandra Bernhardt, she has a menacing voice and lust for torment that would make her right at home in the Addams family. Laurel Holloman as Elizabeth is a completely believable teenager, a good girl who's trying to discover her own voice. The nuances of her portrayal--more like film than stage acting--emphasize her otherness in a world of broadly played characters. G. Scott Thomas and Debra Rich turn in strong performances as the aggravating father and wacky neighbor, who strike up an oddly touching romance over candy corn. Wayne E. Pyle is a bit one-dimensional as Joseph, Elizabeth's nerdy love interest, but as the play gets wilder Pyle seems to find his place, and by his earnest final moments he's extremely winning.

Writer/performer David Marquis's Sovietiquette: My Days in Russia also takes the audience to another world. Sovietiquette is a one-man show made up of songs, slides, jokes, travel tips, and anecdotes gathered from Marquis's travels to what was once the Soviet Union. (The last time Marquis was there was three days before the coup attempt.) During the course of the performance Marquis also prepares some hearty borscht, which he shares with all at the end of the evening.

Marquis's tales are both funny and enlightening. He speaks of the Soviet people with love and humor, but he paints a bleak picture of their daily existence, bringing the headlines about economic disaster to a personal level.

Marquis also has a sweet and personable demeanor that makes his stories easy to listen to; but he's not the best storyteller. His segues are slightly forced, and he seems to struggle to stick to the script instead of allowing himself to tell some of the stories as they come to him. He relaxes when he interacts with the audience, however, particularly when he invites an audience member onstage. Then the anecdotes are much more engaging--I started to wish he always had an audience member onstage with him, maybe helping him slice vegetables.

Sovietiquette provides a rare glimpse into the life-style of the average Soviet citizen, and Marquis brings a keen eye and warm heart to that uncommon view.

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