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All Things British 

Ann Casey does a wonderful job of filling in for Charlotte Schully as Celia, the crafty owner of an antique shop in Talking Heads Õ first monologue, ÒThe Hand of God.Ó TALKING HEADS

8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 24-25; 3 p.m. Sunday, June 26

True Brew Theatre, 200 Julia St., 524-8440

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, June 23-25; 1:30 p.m. Sunday, June 26; through July 2

Tulane University, Lupin Theatre, 865-5105, ext. 2; www.neworleanshakespeare.com There are at least two occasions for joy out there this week. And in both cases, you might hesitate -- asking yourself if you're really up for an evening of monologues or several hours of Shakespeare. The answer: yes, by all means. Don't miss either one.

Talking Heads is a celebrated series of monologues by the contemporary British playwright Allen Bennett. At True Brew Theater, director George Patterson and G-P Productions are offering us two fascinating selections: "The Hand of God" and "Bed Among the Lentils." These monologues (one-person, one-act plays, really) hold you with their complex, subtle characters.

In "The Hand of God," Ann Casey gives us Celia, the amiable, somewhat crafty, owner of a small antique shop. Celia knows all the tricks of her customers, like when they pretend not to be interested in an object that they're actually dying to get their hands on. She is constantly assessing things, as in: "a carriage clock, tortoise shell veneer, about 1750." We enjoy getting a sense of her world and a bit of her history. The play moves into higher gear when a wealthy older woman of Celia's acquaintance gets ill. It looks like the older woman's estate (packed with salable antiques) will be up for grabs. Celia tries to suborn the woman's maid by offering her a cut of the profits, in order to get her hands on this merchandise.

However, there is a surprise twist in store for the scheming Celia -- and for us. Celia makes one of those ironic mistakes, like when you're playing chess and are so intent on executing your brilliant plan that you fail to notice that your seemingly dimwitted opponent has put your king in check. Casey (who took over the part on short notice when Charlotte Schully became ill) gives a solid, unrushed, convincing performance.

"Bed Among the Lentils" tells a more shocking story about a vicar's wife in an English country town. Sounds simultaneously exotic and tame, doesn't it? In a way, I suppose it is. Susan, the vicar's wife, is not a flamboyant character (like say, Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). But she is, nonetheless, a rebel. She can't really get with "tame." The stultifying conformity of a vicar's wifedom is bad enough. But, alas, her sex life with the vicar -- as we gather from acidic little asides -- is tameness incarnate. Furthermore, the vicar has a "fan club" of church women who fuss over him and pride themselves on the tacky, ostentatious flower arrangements they provide the church.

Well, Susan has a drinking problem (like everything in these monologues, her tippling is understated rather than underlined). Furthermore, she gets involved with an Indian man running a store in a nearby town. Not that they have a mad, cinematic love affair. But she's quite happy getting it on with him, as he is with her -- though neither wants to mess up everything else in their lives.

Janet Shea creates a mordant, believable enigma of a woman and keeps us fascinated with her paradoxically prim boldness.

Meanwhile, over at The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, comedy and tragedy share the stage in a high-spirited and thoroughly enjoyable Merchant of Venice. Comedy, in fact, gets the upper hand, though it's quite a trick -- considering some of the wretched suffering of Shylock, not to mention his brutal thirst for vengeance.

Director AimŽe Michel has set the piece in a vaguely modern period. A piazza in Venice houses a cafe where cell phones ring and Shylock conducts business with a laptop he carries in his briefcase. The sad fate of the suitors -- who must choose a gold, silver or leaden casket in the hopes of winning the hand of the lovely and witty Portia (played by the lovely and witty Lara Grice) is served up with hilarious pomp by Tony Molina as the Prince of Morocco and Randy Maggiore as the Prince of Aragon. Michael Santori gives us a zestful and winning young Bassanio, the down-on-his-luck gent who wins the lady's heart and hand.

The cast is too large to highlight each performance, but there's nary a weak link in this festive garland. A special bravo for Gavin Mahlie, whose Shylock gives one the feeling that he harbors an evil demon of hatred beneath an impeccable facade of logic and businesslike practicality. Bravos as well to Don Van Niekerk as the merchant Antonio, Morla Gorrondona as Jessica, Sean Patterson as Gratiano, Andrea Frankle as Nerissa, Gary Rucker as Lancelot Gobbo and Daniel La Force as the Duke of Venice.

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