X-perimental X-mas

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Two holiday-themed plays are finishing their runs this weekend. The first is Sandra Tsing Loh-s SUGAR PLUM FAIRY. Clocking in at a breezy 80 minutes, this Christmas-themed play can easily be fit into an afternoon or evening-s shopping schedule. It-s a one-woman show, featuring Ms. Loh, that tells the tale of a 12-year old and her schemes to become the star of a local production of the Nutcracker.

Loh-s acerbic observations drive the story and will no doubt serve as a holiday gift to her fans, but David Zinn-s scenery and costumes provide another layer of fun, as the stage is festooned with more Christmas trimmings than FAO Schwarz.

Another family-friendly holiday show that won-t eat up too much shopping time is SPLENDOR, A 99 CENT ONLY STORES WONDERAMA. SPLENDOR is a musical, one that suggests STARLIGHT EXPRESS as reconceived by Jon Waters. It recounts the epic battle between the "Frenchies" and the "Crusties" as they fight over a mythical golden boy, but the story is just an excuse for John Ballinger-s musical numbers and the real star of SPLENDOR: the sets, costumes, and props which all come from 99 cent stores...and the show is narrated by an omniscient 99 cent-only store employee.

SPLENDOR is the creation of Ken Roht who sees the 99 cent-only store as a sort of urban circus. There-s no denying that SPLENDOR is a complete cavalcade of kitsch, but its also hard to deny its genuine desire to please. If you-re looking for sophisticated post-Sondheim musical theater, this isn-t it; but if you want the theatrical equivalent of cupcakes with lots of frosting, SPLENDOR, A 99 CENT ONLY STORES WONDERAMA is a dream-come-true.

Arguably the biggest theater event of the weekend (and certainly the longest) is not about Christmas at all-though it does feature a good deal of green and red lights. For this weekend only, Anglenos will able to experience the Volksb-hne am Rosa-Luxemberg-Platz, a highly acclaimed German repertory group that rarely travels from its home in Berlin.

Volksb-hne is presenting an adaptation of Dostoevsky-s THE INSULTED AND INJURED updated to the 1980-s. Director Frank Castorf places all of the action in a two room house, which looks as if it could be located in suburban Frankfurt or the Antelope Valley. A large video screen sits on the roof of the house, where it serves as a billboard showing either German television commercials or the action (or inaction) taking place inside the house.

To describe any more of the sprawling four-and-a-half hour work is to diminish both the accomplishments of the actors on stage and the process of discovery for anyone brave enough to attend. Make no mistake, THE INSULTED AND INJURED is not an easy performance to sit through. It is frustrating, infuriating, and often incomprehensible-this production forces one to pay attention to more details than the brain can process in one sitting.

Within the first hour, 15 people walked out and after intermission it felt as if half the audience was gone. But those who stayed witnessed a work of theater that was truly unforgettable. Yes, there were parts amidst the 4 1/2 hours that were less than engaging, but despite the dense material-and the fact that it was performed in German-there were moments of true theatrical lyricism where it felt that you were not watching theater, but instead evesdropping on life.

The actors could turn on a dime from these serene naturistic moments and segue into scenes of over-the-top theatricality. In terms of technical performance and physical stamina, the Volksb-hne cast is superb. The production values are minimal, but masterfully handled. The rotating stage and the subtle and powerful lighting are triumphs of stagecraft.

Avante-garde German regietheater is not for everyone, and in a busy holiday season, it's indeed a tough sell. But for those who crave theater that pushes the form in both inspirational and uncomfortable ways, experiencing Volksb-hne is essential.

THE INSULTED AND INJURED plays tonight and tomorrow night only at UCLA-s Frued Theater. SUGAR PLUM FAIRY at the Geffen Playhouse and SPLENDOR at the Evidence Room, both run until Sunday.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.