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The Arts
09.10.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Cameron Fabrick
CHEESE WIZARD: Sister Elizabeth (Violet Ash) shows off her prize creations.

Big Balls

Renegade Theatre Experiment's 'The Book of Liz' delivers laughs and life lessons

By Ben Marks


WITH HER rotund face, guileless gaze and sweat-stained peasant attire, Sister Elizabeth Donderstock (Violet Ash) looks like a figure plucked from a Brueghel painting. Donderstock is a member of the Squeamish sect of Cluster Haven, which shuns contact with the outside world except to take its money in exchange for the Squeamish's famous gouda cheese balls, in both smoky and traditional flavors. As the title character in Renegade Theatre Experiment's production of The Book of Liz, Ash is the star of the show, but mere billing is not what makes this so. Ash's character is big and sweaty—she's constantly dabbing at her brow and eyes—and one of her stockings seems to have surrendered to the forces of gravity partway up an ample alabaster calf. Beyond her comic appearance, Ash takes the numerous surreal slights and absurdist challenges that sibling playwrights Amy (Strangers With Candy) and David (Naked, When You Are Engulfed in Flames) Sedaris hurl at her with equanimity and grace. Donderstock is a survivor, but the reason we root for her is not out of pity for the Sedarises' creation but because of Ash's performance, which is smart enough to take this improbable cartoon seriously.

As it turns out, Sister Liz not only makes the sacred cheese balls that keep the Squeamish afloat, but the recipe is hers, too. So she's understandably miffed when Cluster Haven's idiotically pious Reverend Tollhouse (Howard L. Miller) gives a visiting blowhard named Brother Brightbee (Vic Prosak) her job of making the cheese balls (Brightbee's parish is famous for its handmade matchsticks and other parodies of rural religious craftsmanship, none of which, understandably, are as lucrative as Donderstock's cheese balls). Donderstock gets no sympathy when she complains of this unfair turn of events to Sister Constance Butterworth (played to passive-aggressive perfection by Evangeline Maynard), so she decides to leave the parish in search of a little self-respect, as well as to avoid being banished to the chive pastures. Once out in the big bad world, Donderstock is befriended by a Ukrainian couple (Prosak again, plus Christine Schisano, who successfully channels Tracey Ullman for her Oxana). Before you know it, the wide-eyed, unworldly Donderstock has been hired as a waitress at a restaurant called Plymouth Crock, where all the employees except Donny (the marvelous Schisano again) and Donderstock are recovering alcoholics. Within two months, Donderstock is practically running the place.

Throughout the play, the Sedarises' sweetly surreal dialogue is as much fun to listen to as their books are to read, particularly when the lines are being delivered by Ash and her female counterparts (the performances by the men, on the other hand, feel as fake as Tollhouse and Brightbee's beards, which have the luxury of not being designed to convince us otherwise). And there's more than just comedy here. By the end of the play, Donderstock has become a fount of some reasonably significant wisdom: "I can face old age," she says at one point, "but not without my principles." Later, she wonders how she could have allowed herself to pick apart the one thing she loves most in the world. Haven't we all been there? It's a slightly odd turn for a slightly odd play that is mostly silly, but just as the Squeamish cheese balls are more than globes of gouda, the play is more than just a comedy.


THE BOOK OF LIZ, a Renegade Theatre Experiment production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Sept. 20 at the Historic Hoover Theater, 1635 Park Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $13–$20. (408.351.4440)


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