An elegant noir thriller — presented Word for Word

In a way, Word for Word is slumming — but deliciously so — with its theatricalization of noir writer Cornell Woolrich’s 1937 “Angel Face.” The ensemble is known for staging works of literary fiction — chapters of novels or short stories by great writers — verbatim, the “he saids,” “she saids,” etc. distributed among the characters in ways that are deeply revealing. Yet this murder mystery is genre fiction, hardly great literature.

But Word is well-equipped to take on fresh challenges such as this. And director Stephanie Hunt has gathered the troupe’s considerable resources to fashion a little gem of a show that may not be as richly satisfying for literary elitists as Word’s usual, more nuanced fare, but which has its own raison d’être.

The story is simple, distinguished from similar pulp stories of the era only by having a female narrator: the eponymous Angel Face. Beautifully played by Laura Lowry with a pained half-grin and a tough-girl stance, Angel’s trying to find out who really killed the seductress Ruby Rose (a slinky Morgan Voellger). Ruby was Angel’s beloved brother and Chick’s no-good slut of a girlfriend. Chick (nerdy and nervous in Danny Wolohan’s portrayal) faces the death sentence for the crime, but Angel’s sure he’s innocent. There’s also the obligatory mobster (a slimy Paul Finocchiaro) and his henchmen (Wolohan and Michael Patrick Gaffney, who finesses several small, distinctive roles), plus a good-guy detective (a likeable John Flanagan).

Crackling with the genre’s requisite snappy, smart-ass dialogue, thick with metaphors, the drama is staged on two tiers in Project Artaud’s cavernous performance space, which provides a perfect frame for the multiple production elements: Thomas Ontiveros’ dim and cinematically noir lighting, often casting hulking shadows on huge side panels; the jazzy, big band score that punctuates the action (sound design by Calvin LL Jones); Laura Hazlett’s exquisite period costumes; the simple but evocative set pieces (by Mikiko Uesugi).

The actors comprise a knockout ensemble, strutting, posing, and articulating (with New York accents) in a uniformly crisp, presentational style. Altogether this is a well-realized, quasi-expressionist vision that transforms the fairly generic story into an elegant little entertainment.

Angel Face ***

Presented by Word for Word

Where: Project Artaud, 450 Florida St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, closes Sept. 2

Tickets: $28.50 to $36.50; pay-what-you-can rush Wednesdays through Fridays

Contact: (415) 439-2456 or www.zspace.org/angelface.htm

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