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Speaking in Tongues in Santa Monica

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The resilient and acclaimed Open Fist Theatre Company, recently thrust from their home of 15 years in Hollywood, has gallantly taken up residence in a new home at the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica. Speaking in Tongues, by Andrew Bovell, is the last show of their 05-06 season. It is a perfect collaboration, not only between two theatre companies, one with a play and no stage, and another with a space and an empty slot in their season, but also between first-time director Stephen Spinella and his agile, miraculous cast. LAIST saw it last Sunday and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

This play is perfect for anyone who has ever had sex, killed someone, or wanted to do either one. Speaking in Tongues is a mystery without a murder, although there is violence.  This theatrical whodunit leads the audience and the characters down many different roads of blame, confusion, and suspense on the trail of betrayal. We open with two cheating couples and the aftermath of one night's infidelity. From the first lines of dialogue, one scene cuts back and forth with another. No one, including characters or audience, ever sees what really happens. Like different witnesses' accounts in a police report, the play slowly gives us the bare truth.

This mysterious affair is  helmed by the requisite tough detective
with a soft heart. We first see Leon (a very sympathetic Patrick
Tuttle) outside his official capacity - in fact, trying to screw
another man's wife. When we finally find out he's a cop, it's by
accident. Pete (Aaron MacPherson) tells him he looks like one, and he
gets offended, in one of the funniest moments of the night. In the
second act, Leon begins to investigate the disappearance of another
character's wife, and we see him as policeman and husband both.

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Like any good suspense story, this one hinges on the revelation of
several key facts that LAIST doesn't want to reveal here. We do want
to mention, however, that this cast is a truly fearless group, taking
their Santa Monica audience into the  depths of human terror. When
Valerie (Hepburn Jamieson) made four increasingly scared calls to her
husband from a deserted phone booth, the entire audience was
breathless. They already knew she was a missing person, which made it
worse. And when they saw, in the next scene, her husband John (Brian
George, in a tour de force second-act revelation) having to listen to
those calls in front of Leon, and both men stifling their emotions,
there were people in the row behind LAIST sniffling. (We might have
been among them.)

Much of Speaking In Tongues hinges on its particular setting, which is
noted as "one hour north of San Francisco, 10 years ago." It takes
place in a time before cell phones. Characters are damaged, or lost,
driving back and forth to the city on dangerously lit frontage roads.
And people of all walks of life are thrown together, as abruptly as
Leon runs into Neil (Andrew Lukich) and breaks his nose, by accident.
Trying to make amends for that mistake, Leon discovers another crime -
one of the heart, and one of the corpse. It is Speaking In Tongues'
most incendiary secret that the former is more brutal than the latter.

Speaking in Tongues was directed by the actor Stephen Spinella, in his
first (but we hope not his last) production on the other side of the
curtain. An exact relationship exists between Spinella's precise
blocking and Jeff Rack's equally spare set. Four chairs on stage mean four actors will sit in them. A bed means sex - a couch is a therapist - and a cabinet, sure enough, means liquor. In the same harsh calculus, a woman and a man together means sex, or betrayal.  Although many sets aspire to such a harmony of signifiers, we haven't seen one this effective with so little before. The set is truly another character in this show, and perhaps the only one that doesn't lie to the audience.

Max Pierson's lights evoke every hour of San Francisco and environs,
and Drew Dalzell's sound design, although somewhat absent in the first
act, becomes a stirring partner to the mystery in the second. Jeff
Schoenberg's costumes convey all the levels of class and age and
weariness of this confused group. Sonja (Anna Khaja) and Jane (Irina
Bjorklund), a pair of the unfaithful first-act wives, used their
costumes extremely well - or perhaps the costumes were using them? -
as they went from betraying women to drunk post-betrayal women. They
were both beautiful, both proud, and both humiliated by their own
pride - and they also each managed to subtly disapprove of what the
other was wearing.

The cast also features Amelia Borella as Sarah and Dylan Maddalena as
Nick, two characters whose smaller roles function as red herrings
leading to more shocking revelations. If we haven't talked enough
about how spectacular the acting is, it's just because you'll have to
see it for yourself.

Speaking in Tongues runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at
7 pm through October 8 at the Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd Street, in
Santa Monica. There is a parking lot right across the street from the
theatre and it's only $3 after 6 pm. Tickets are $20 Fridays and
Saturdays, and all Sundays are pay-what-you-can. Reservations: (323)
882-6912, www.openfist.org, or www.powerhousetheatre.org.