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Stage fare: lighthearted Shakespeare, heavy short plays

Standup Shakespeare ``A motley musical,'' conceived by Ray Leslee and Kenneth Welsh, with music by Mr. Leslee and words by William Shakespeare. Directed by Mike Nichols. ``Brush up your Shakespeare,'' admonished the two jolly gangsters in a Cole Porter ditty from ``Kiss Me, Kate.'' Suiting the action to the advice, Ray Leslee and Kenneth Welsh have fine-combed the Bard for ``Standup Shakespeare,'' downtown at Theatre 890. The results comprise a witty scrambling of Shakespearean snippets, soliloquies, and sonnets. The collaborators have blended their cullings into a fluid continuity, with a charming score by Mr. Leslee.

These men are no mere bardolaters. They quote their patron author in and out of context. They seem to have covered everything in Polonius's catalogue, if not ``The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare.''

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Leslee and Welsh delight in odd juxtapositions, anachronisms, and audacious readings of classic texts (like ``Oh, Regan - Reagan!''). Yet there is nothing in ``Standup Shakespeare'' that should ruffle the academics. These burrowing borrowers are here to celebrate Shakespeare, not to diminish him.

The protean Welsh serves as comp`ere, sometime puppeteer, and all-purpose performer, even doubling in brass. At one point he plays a duet on two horns. Whether in jazzy rhythm numbers or gentle ballads, singers Taborah Johnson and Thomas Young add distinctively to the pleasures of the occasion.

Miss Johnson is a solid vocalist in whatever mood, and Mr. Young's high-C-manship would cause a sensation in Ilyria, not to mention Off Broadway.

Composer-keyboardist-conductor Leslee and his onstage combo not only provide splendid accompaniments but also participate valuably in other ways.

``Standup Shakespeare'' runs a little more than an hour with no intermission. Perhaps the collaborators concluded that, while sweet are the uses of diversity, any further quotational fancies might be more than Will would stand for.

Mike Nichols has provided the kind of unobtrusive direction essential to maintaining the show's impromptu air. John Arnone's cabaret-style setting features a red neon caricature of the poet himself. Lighting designer Mitchell Bogart has caused the stars to shine brightly above Will's Place. The casually fetching costumes are by Cynthia O'Neal. Safe Sex Three plays by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Eric Concklin.

Like such earlier stage works as ``As Is'' and ``The Normal Heart,'' the three one-act plays comprising ``Safe Sex,'' at the Lyceum Theatre, concern aspects of the health crisis associated with AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Ranging in mood from broad comedy to conflictive drama, the trio by award-winner Harvey Fierstein offers fittingly treated examinations of diverse homosexual lifestyles, pursuits, and sensibilities in the shadow of a life-threatening disease.

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``Safe Sex'' has moved uptown following a month of sold-out performances at Off Broadway's La Mama in January.

``On Tidy Endings,'' the most substantial of the playlets, occurs in the aftermath of an AIDS victim's death. Mr. Fierstein dramatizes the encounter between Marion (Anne De Salvo), the dead man's former wife, and Arthur (Mr. Fierstein), the homosexual for whom the husband had abandoned Marion and her young son. The writing is sharp, frequently comic, shrewdly sentimental, and undeviatingly sympathetic to Arthur. In addition to the two principals, the brisk performance is well served by Ricky Addison Reed as the understandably baffled young son and Billie McBride as the lawyer involved in helping settle the victim's estate.

The evening's finale is preceded by ``Manny and Jake,'' in which two characters (John Mulkeen and John Wesley Shipp) engage in an elliptical conversation touching on the imperiled state of homosexual promiscuity, and the title work. Here the playwright presents a humorous see-saw dialogue - with the characters atop a giant see-saw - in the course of which two estranged partners (Shipp and Fierstein) quibble, quarrel, and reconcile.

``Safe Sex'' was directed by Eric Concklin, with imaginative scenery by John Falabella, costumes Nanzi Adzima, lighting by Craig Miller, and incidental mood music by Ada Janik.

The author dedicates the playlets ``not only to our lost loved ones, but to those who stood by their sides. To all who work toward the annihilation of this threat and to those threatened.''

The arts are understandably joining in society's humane concern for AIDS sufferers. But as a fairly glib example of case studies and special pleadings, ``Safe Sex'' contains little or no appeal for a general audience.

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