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Fascist Foodies

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

What is it about villains and their refined tastes?

For years now, classical music has been one of popular culture's favorite ways to make serial killers seem idiosyncratic. The classic example is Hannibal Lecter, who killed and ate a symphony musician because he played off-key.

But if Bach is the fetish of serial killers, two new plays running here in Los Angeles make it clear that food is the fixation of Fascists.

The American expatriate Ezra Pound was many things: a poet, an anti-Semite, a composer, a pro-Mussolini fascist, and according to a new drama at the Odyssey Theatre, a foodie.

Early in the play, we see Pound in a US Army cell outside Pisa, expounding in French about the gourmet meals he savored in Paris during the 1920's. It would be hard to imagine that Pound didn't learn to appreciate haute cuisine when he dined out with &quotThe; Lost Generation" during his years in Paris; but in the context of this play, his epicurean rant feels like an affectation.

Michael Peter Bolus' Pound of Flesh, playing through June 25, is high-minded, literate, and in many ways, elegantly crafted. But like its subject, it's an off-putting mix of pretense and sincerity. Gertrude Stein famously quipped she thought Pound &quotto; be the village explainer, very useful if you happen to be a village; if not, not." At the Odyssey, the audience becomes the village, as this fictional Pound explains his theories on everything from modernism to Zionism.

Monologues do suit Pound, and actor Joel Polis adroitly adopts the poet's grandiose speaking style--with all his r's baroquely trilled. Some of these monologues are dramatic, like a mock speech to the Nobel committee which ends in a screaming fit; but playwright Bolus has shoehorned Pound's rhapsodies into a conventional two-fister. Pound explains and explains, and a young Army Private (played by David Mauer) is the sounding board, asking naive questions which prompt more explaining and exposition.

The title, taken from The Merchant of Venice, is a clever play on Pound's hated for Jews and usury, but the playwright structures Pound of Flesh as a trial to measure Pound's racism against his intellect--ala Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides, a work which weighed the conscience of Hitler's favorite conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler. While it was hard to glean what Furtwangler really felt about the Reich from the way he played Beethoven, with Pound, his facists thoughts were expressed not in ambiguous musical notes, but with solid words. Because of this, the fussy back and forth between Pound and his jailer is unnecessary, it serves only to make the play audience-friendly and turn Pound's fierce ideas into a cuddly &quotthink; piece" which could have been titled Tuesdays with Ezra.

More fascist foodies are on display in the world premiere of Michael Halperin's All Steps Necessary. This one-act takes place in Hermann Goering's salon, where upper-echelon Nazis convene three days after the infamous Kristallnacht of 1938.

Surviving transcripts of this meeting are the basis of Halperin's play, which embellishes history to present a portrait of evil by committee. We're invited to compare Goering's country club Nazism to Goebbel's born-again hatred--and marvel at how in a roomful of Nazis, an insurance executive becomes the moral compass.

All Steps Necessary isn't much more than a radio play, but save for its &quotwhere; are they now" denouement, it's an engaging one. Some actors were still having trouble with their lines this past weekend, but all of them were successful in recreating their historical counterparts. Much of this must be credited to meticulous casting and the Broadway-caliber costume design of Valerie Laven-Cooper, whose Nazi uniforms and period suits look perfect in every detail, right down to the little swastika tie pins.

Even more gleaming than the medals on Goering's chest are his tray of pastries, which look like they're fresh from the counters of Demel. The playwright paints the Nazi leadership as unable to agree on anything--other than a desire to eat these exquisite confections. This has the effect of making the klatch of Nazi criminals appear less overtly menacing, but this Inkwell Theater production (running through Sunday) creates an interesting mix of charm and chills, best embodied in Richard V. Licata's corpulent Goering, who seems to believe he can devour the entire world one Linzer Torte at a time.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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