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Theater review: 'Hoodoo Love' at the Ruby Theatre

March 1, 2012 | 10:29 am

The blues supply the metaphoric fuel for "Hoodoo Love." Katori Hall's 2007 play about an aspiring singer in Depression-era Tennessee receives an ambitious and evocative, albeit erratic, West Coast premiere at the Ruby Theatre.

We first encounter Toulou (Andrea Meshel) mid-coitus with itinerant musician Ace of Spades (Elijah Rock) in her stark, Memphis-adjacent shanty. (Kenneth Olefien's bipolar set centers an impressive design effort.)

Toulou is arguably more an archetype of enduring African American womanhood than a three-dimensional character. Yet there's recognizable human mojo in her bright-eyed fervor to catch the same train to juke-joint fame as Ace -- and also catch Ace's lady-killer heart.

Nudged by former slave Candy Lady (Karen McClain) -- "Bad men stay, good mens go away" -- Toulou turns to traditional hoodoo to make her good man stay. But she hasn't reckoned on Jib (Rickie Peete), Toulou's huckster-minister brother, as bad as all get-out and not about to go away.

Hall's recent success was "The Mountaintop," her play about Martin Luther King Jr. that starred Samuel L. Jackson on Broadway. Admittedly, her debut script sports some clichés and arbitrary plotting amid the pre-PC patois and imaginative interstitial songs -- musical director Haskel Joseph's live guitar licks are worth admission -- yet it fascinates us despite its flaws.

Given director Richard Lyons' uneven tonal control, this is some accomplishment. Meshel is appealing of presence, feathery-sultry of voice; Rock and Peete are apt in talent and type. Yet as the brutal ironies mount, Lyons permits them more melodramatic overdrive than property or venue can easily withstand.

By contrast, McClain's slyly timed, house-rocking takes and showstopping chops -- Ma Rainey meets Mahalia Jackson's conjure-woman cousin -- seem downright nuanced. "Hoodoo Love" teems with stage-worthy virtues. Restraint ain't one of 'em.


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--- David C. Nichols

"Hoodoo Love," Ruby Theatre at the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Adult audiences. Ends April 1. $20. (323) 642-7358. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: Karen McClain, left, and Andrea Meshel. Credit: Chippendale.