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Balls of fire

Rock music fuels Stella's trip to afterlife

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Playwright and spoken-word artist Ian Fuller never hesitates to follow his ideas wherever they take him. His plays can be defiantly odd, blending myth, religion, history and pop culture in unpredictable, even whimsical ways. Actor Tim Cordier, for instance, played a deified incarnation of Alexander the Great in Fuller's Darkly Trapped Like Dark Rats and a hybrid of an alligator and a hockey goalie named "Okefenokee Joe" in The Odyssey of Modesty Forth.

Fuller's latest production, Brazen Act's Stella Goes to Hell, may be the most purely entertaining of the three shows, in large part because of its frequent effectiveness as a musical. Particularly in the first act, roadhouse rock 'n' roll provides the engine for a typically trippy script about angels, devils and former U.S. presidents.

The anything-goes spirit is established when Stella Cohen (Melissa Mason) tells a friend (Rachael Lambert) good news about her academic career, and launches into the rollicking duet "Got My Ph.D." Director and guitarist Chad Yarborough leads a live band (bass, drums and cello), making an unlikely rave-up of a song full of references to the Ivory Tower and sabbaticals. The acoustics of the 7 Stages Back Stage Theatre can be a problem, as it's not always easy to understand the lyrics, which can carry plot points and ideas we'd like to know.

Almost immediately thereafter, Stella has the bad luck to fall down a flight of stairs and wind up in the hereafter. She meets Jesus (Ethan Ealy), who calls her the spitting image of Mary Magdalene, but God (Morgan Lee), wearing a cream-colored suit, gives his son a dope-slap and casts Stella into hell for being Jewish.

The underworld is run by Lucifer aka "Nick" (Matthew Myers), who comes across as equal parts fallen angel, lounge lizard and put-upon manager: Because of the overcrowding in Hades, his demonic minions are revolting (I'll say). As Stella observes in the song "Hell Is Bringing Me Down," "I can tell by the smell you've let your mighty kingdom go to hell." In the play's best sight gag, one imp has a fiery hairdo like Heat Miser from the "Year Without a Santa Claus" animated special.

Stella's feisty nature has strange repercussions on spiritual beings. She not only convinces Nick to abandon hell and his war with God, she also proves surprisingly tempting to Jesus: "I kissed a girl!" he boyishly exclaims after they lock lips. Stella even brings hope to the damned Zachary Taylor (also played by Lee), ex-frontiersman and 12th American president.

Act Two takes place on a primitive planet that Nick calls "Harvey Wallbanger," with the cast in togas and Flintstones costumes building a new society. Nick and Jesus (whom Stella calls "J."), both in mortal form, have a score to settle with each other. Though the play's second half includes such admittedly memorable moments as Satan and the Son of God singing "Die, Angel, Die" while embroiled in mortal combat (which begins with a bout of thumb-wrestling), neither the songs nor the storyline are as engaging as Act One.

With characters including Nefertiti (Lambert) and a belly-dancing Mata Hari (Aviva), Stella Goes to Hell moves all over the historical and metaphysical map. Fuller has some interesting notions about the personalities of major figures from Judeo-Christian culture, and it seems inevitable that the character of Stella becomes less compelling as the play goes on. She's the catalyst for much of the action and Mason makes her a plucky heroine, but the role that makes the most intriguing choices may be Nick, whom Myers plays as spoiled and over-the-top but often amusing.

Fuller's work is often reminiscent of the politically charged guerrilla theater of the 1960s, especially in Stella when Ronald Reagan challenges the devil for the right to rule Hell. That loose attitude suits the cast well, and at the show I attended the actors ably ad-libbed through a brief power failure. The play's shifts in tone and drawn-out length keep Stella Goes to Hell as a whole from being as enjoyable as its individual parts, but if you're curious about checking out Fuller's vision, why not pay heed to temptation?

Stella Goes to Hell plays through June 23 at 7 Stages Back Stage Theatre, 1105 Euclid Ave., with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $12. 678-380-1484.

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