Christina Augello as Queen Elizabeth, center, is a high point of EXIT Theatre's “Paradise Street.” (Courtesy Jay Yamada)

EXIT Theatre’s ‘Paradise Street’ loses laughs amid chaos

The works of British-born playwright Clive Barker, who’s also a horror-fiction writer, visual artist and film director, have rarely — or possibly never before — been seen locally, so credit goes to Exit Theatre for producing the American premiere of his offbeat, imaginative 1981 comedy “Paradise Street.”

The two-act play is set on Christmas eve and on a magically summery Christmas day in Liverpool.

At its most realistic and basic, the play is about two brothers. The older and more dominant of the pair, Bonner, a hard-drinking rabble-rouser, has just returned from the army and seems to be looking for trouble. He’s also looking for his former girlfriend, Georgia.

The quiet married life of the younger brother, Quinn, is disrupted by Bonner’s arrival.

In the mix are an itinerant Irish street person, Mulrooney; Jude, who works in a VD clinic; and an entire contingent of time-traveling Elizabethans, among them playwright Ben Jonson, “Glorianna” (Elizabeth I) herself, a beleaguered and barefoot Earl of Essex, a grinning ape on a chain and others.

Barker’s dealing with a lot of serious themes in this superbly witty and inventive comedy: the centuries-old enmity between England and Ireland, 20th-century England itself, the war between the sexes, concepts of feminism and more.

But in director Stuart Bousel’s overheated production, it’s hard to discern what that “more” is. The actors shout so much, and so loudly — with such a hodge-podge of accents and dialects, and rushed, garbled articulation — that chunks of dialogue tend to get lost.

Even more problematic, the relationships among some of the characters lack credibility simply because the actors’ reactions to each other are inauthentic; hysterical yelling too often substitutes for normal and nuanced human action-and-reaction that’s required in all plays, whether farce or tragedy.

In this case, because the realistic characters behave in such artificial ways, the contrast between realism and the fantastical suffers.

But there are some wonderful exceptions to all the sound and fury, notably Christina Augello’s carefully calibrated and hilarious portrayal of the randy, miraculously empowered virgin queen, all powdered and bewigged and regal, and Steven Westdahl, whose roles as Ben Jonson and, intermittently, as a commedia-style masquer, are disappointingly small.

Phil Wong, too, has some delicious moments as the sly and endearing trickster Mulrooney.

REVIEW
Paradise Street
Where: Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 17
Tickets: $20 to $30
Contact: www.theexit.org
Christina AugelloClive BarkerEXIT TheatreParadise StreetPhil Wong]Steven WestdahlStuart BouselTheater

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