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Friday, June 30, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

A horrific, hilarious journey into prison hell, L.A. fluff

Seattle Times theater critic

Trust Lauren Weedman to know this: When you try to do something for someone else, you reveal a lot about yourself.

Weedman's new solo piece "Bust" is rife with hilarity and home truths gleaned the hard way. The still-evolving stage memoir is partly about the admirable impulse to do good in the world (in this case, by volunteering as an advocate for indigent female prisoners), yet it smartly leaves sentimentality and self-congratulation out of the equation.

Such is typical of actor-performer Weedman, the Los Angeles-based self-portraitist who honed her impressive talent at Empty Space Theatre and returns on this occasion to inaugurate the company's first season in its new home, the Lee Center for the Arts.

The just-built Capitol Hill venue at Seattle University seems nicely tailored to the Empty Space, one of our most venerable and idiosyncratic troupes. After occupying less flexible digs in Fremont, the company is now ensconced in a basic "black-box" venue with decent acoustics, modular seating and easy street parking.

Most crucially, the theater is a blank canvas which corresponds with the Space's original, open-ended theatrical vision, as inspired by famed director Peter Brook's maxim: "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage."

For artistic director Allison Narver's mounting of "Bust," the stage is quite bare — apart from day-glo stripes on the floor like police markers at a crime scene, and striking slashes and squares of illumination in Jessica Trundy's fierce lighting design.

But Weedman fills the void with take-no-prisoners insights and colorful, confrontational characters. These range from hard-knocks women inmates and macho guards at the Los Angeles County Jail, to narcissistic gym buddies sharing diet tips and pet causes. (The latter include a dog-lover who, in a bitingly funny riff, shares her passion for rescuing abandoned dachshunds.)

Now playing

"Bust" by Lauren Weedman, Wednesdays-Saturdays through Aug. 5 (show added July 30), Empty Space Theatre, Lee Center for the Arts, 901 12th Ave., Seattle; $10-$30 (206-547-7500 or www.emptyspace.org).

As in previous solo outings ("Rash," "Amsterdam") Weedman portrays herself as a klutzy, insecure cut-up who charges into situations that quickly become overwhelming — and self-revealing.

She jests about volunteering with the prison-advocacy group Friends Outside to get "a shot at being the prettiest girl in the room," for once, in beauty-obsessed L.A. But the stark truths of incarceration are driven home during a scared-straight tour of the jail.

In a long, gripping sequence that veers from hilarious to harrowing, we hear and see what Weedman takes in: The clanging of cell doors. The warnings of guards not to "coddle" wily, hard-core prisoners. The spectacle of seven people crammed into cells built for four.

That scandalous vision is achieved entirely by the stunned look of horror on Weedman's mobile face. She does her own double takes superbly and is also a highly adroit vocal mimic, shifting between Latino and Valley Girl accents in a matter of split seconds.

The indigent inmates Weedman is assigned to are drawn in specific strokes. An illiterate, homeless prostitute and meth addict pathetically grateful to be offered help — but well beyond its reach. A drama queen whose urgent neediness pushes every one of Weedman's do-gooder, people-pleaser buttons. And a frightened young first-offender, lacking the legal or financial resources for a defense.

Weedman's intense depictions of, and responses to, these women are contrasted with a society of Hollywood wannabes obsessed with such weighty concerns as snagging a role in a soft-drink commercial.

"Bust" excels in its vivid prison segments and its soft-target but rib-tickling satirical snippets. But Weedman has difficulty weaving in another theme: her public humiliation via an article in Glamour Magazine, about the false claim of rape she made as a college student (an incident explored in her earlier show, "Wreckage").

The notion that Weedman is being unfairly branded and victimized for that youthful indiscretion constitutes a sketchy and ungainly subtheme here. It offers little resonance, symbolic or otherwise.

Apart from that, and the need for some general tightening to avoid redundancies, "Bust" is on track to be one of Weedman's best shows. And it's a fine opener for the new digs of Empty Space, a company long devoted to making us laugh, cringe and ponder.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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