Claudia Kelly's 500 Hats

Bathhouse Theater

Through July 12. Claudia Kelly's 500 Hats --a former fringe favorite, written by Donna Rae Davidson and composed by Rob Jones--is the funkiest little two-act musical I've ever seen, and by God, it tickles me to bits. It's a vivid, rather disjointed and noisy piece that bustles manically yet delightfully between unbearable bravado, dangerous vibrato, and endearing quirkiness that somehow--somehow!--winds up charming one's britches off.

Much of this britches-offing charm is due to Bobbi Kotula as the title character--a spitfire vixen, a manic schemer, a "make a big entrance and throw a drink in the bastard's face" type you spend half the show wanting to slap and the other half wanting to be. Today Claudia's ex-boyfriend Bob (Mark Sparks) is marrying the younger woman he jilted her for, and Claudia is plotting a scene.

Claudia's long-suffering Jewish mother, Emily Rose (excellently long-suffering and Jewish by Joanne Klein), and best friend, the huge, screaming capital-Q-u-e-e-n, QUEEN! Pearl (John Bartley), try to dissuade her. Dramatic conflict (often silly), startling revelations (kinda dorky), and some very interesting musical numbers ensue. Kotula zips around the stage singing like a kamikaze pixie from some Juilliard in Hell: Her voice has more vibrato than a whole landfill of off-Broadway Annies with jackhammers stuck up their butts, and her high, drilling trill could cut diamonds (let's pray the military never gets hold of that voice box). And John Bartley's Pearl is so gay it makes my Y-chromosome ache.

The fizz goes out of the soda a bit when we actually get Claudia and Bob together: How could this fiery little force of nature be obsessed with this... goober? The chemistry just isn't there, and the plot suffers accordingly. But credibility of plot was never the piece's strong point. It's the spunk and spirit of the show that wins out and makes Claudia Kelly worth seeing. ADRIAN RYAN

Leftover Future

New City Theater

Through July 12. Q: What do you get when you shove Samuel Beckett, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Bukowski into a decrepit sputnik with a couple of jelly jars full of gravel and a suspiciously large femur and send them into orbit for a thousand years?

A: Chillingly weird and poetic entertainment that kicks The Matrix's ass back to Pusstown.

True, I suffer from a tendency toward hyperbole, but this time I mean it. This fantastically peculiar evening of sci-fi prose and theatrical alchemy is simply not to be missed. In order to preserve for you the dizzying sensation of careening into an alternate reality, I'm going to refrain from mere plot synopsis. I'll just say that watching Leftover Future is like being strapped into a roller coaster next to a brilliant schizophrenic who simply won't stop talking about the rigors of time travel.

And I mean that in the best possible way.

It's hard to believe that this polished piece is a work in progress. New City Theater, those venerable and committed cultivators of the avant-garde, commissioned playwright W. David Hancock to produce a new work in 2001. Since then, Hancock has worked on numerous drafts with the uniformly astonishing cast--Mary Ewald, Malte Frid-Nielsen, and Sarah Harlett--and with the deft director John Kazanjian. The current version, arrived at through a sort of Burroughsian cut-up, was delivered late in June, and after this short run Hancock plans a complete rewrite.

Perhaps the ensemble's intense involvement with the creative process and their familiarity with Hancock's difficult language explains how they've managed to create such a believable world out of what could have been unlistenable linguistic chaos. If you are tired of being pandered to by dumb and dumber blockbusters and eager-to-please plays, then let this little piece remind you how good it feels to be astonished by art again. TAMARA PARIS

Starball

Pacific Science Center's Smith Planetarium

Through July 13. I had forgotten how great planetariums are--sitting in the dark, gazing at the ever-evocative stars, learning constellation myths, recalling pleasant memories of staring up at the night. In fact, planetariums, like salt, make everything better. Dinner parties, poker games, plays--all are improved by the mystic properties of an accurate, but fully controllable, sky.

Starball innovators John Kaufmann (Conductor) and Dan Dennis (Proxy) have bottled a bit of this stellar mystery, and dole it out in show-length doses of improvisational glee. Having commandeered the Smith Planetarium at the Pacific Science Center for Starball, they make theatrical hay with the unusual tools at their disposal.

The first half of Starball is a planetarium primer, skimming across quadrants, the meridian, and the daily and seasonal movement of the stars. The second half wades into less certain territory as Dennis and Kaufmann build songs, stories, and constellations out of the audience's collective unconscious. I can't rightly describe the performance, since every show is different, and I wouldn't want to spoil the fun by revealing the inventive duo's methods. I will tell you that our performance featured an improvised sing-along about a criminal with a 21-inch neck and a pool boy who wanted to work in a toy store--and this is the stuff the crowd came up with.

Conductor and Proxy are excellent shepherds to their flock, coaxing good material out of the crowd and playing it with wit and charm. Audience participation is a dangerous animal that, in the wrong hands, can become pitifully dull or just plain embarrassing. Kaufmann and Dennis, however, are goofy masters of their craft.

This review comes late in Starball's run--the show closes this weekend--so hurry to the Smith Planetarium to see the maestros at work before it's too late. BRENDAN KILEY

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