Arts In LA
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The Monster Builder
South Coast Repertory

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Susannah Schulman Rogers and Aubrey Deeker
Photo by Debora Robinson

Self-identified genius Gregor (Danny Scheie) has just built a modern, stark-white castle on a grand scale, and two young architects, Rita (Susannah Schulman Rogers) and Dieter (Aubrey Deeker), have arrived to visit Rita’s classmate, Tamsin (Annie Abrams), who is Gregor’s wife. Rita is wowed by Gregor’s bold design, but Dieter is less enthusiastic.
   Thomas Buderwitz’s stunning architectural setting provides a backdrop for playwright Amy Freed’s newest comedy about the creative process gone awry. As destination architecture has seemingly become the raison d’etre for worldwide installations by famous architects and upsetting the status quo, Freed’s apocalyptic treatise on the ways creation by the master is fodder for satire is witty and timely. Taking a look at “starchitects”—those celebrated idols who have built grandiose buildings to critical acclaim—Freed mocks the outrageous and pretentious nature of their fame.
   Gregor is larger than life, and he revels in his celebrity. When he learns that Dieter and Rita have a potential commission for the renovation of a historic landmark, he pulls strings to get the job for himself. Meantime, the couple has gotten a job with Pamela (Colette Kilroy) and Andy (Gareth Williams), two wealthy clients whose architectural plans also add a humorous dimension to the unfolding story. Luring Rita into a professional relationship, Gregor sets about unleashing evil genius on his unsuspecting disciple.

The story is clever and full of conspiracies, and the collaborative acting skill of the ensemble elevates the production far beyond the pedestrian. Scheie gleefully takes command of each scene, allowing every cast member to play off his energy. Abrams has a flair for comedy, producing memorable moments as the not-so-bright trophy wife. Kilroy is the quintessential rich matron whose wealth doesn’t comport with good taste, and Williams is a genial self-made millionaire whose practical approach to life comes in handy in dealing with Gregor. Deeker acquits himself well as the betrayed builder, and Rogers has fine moments under Gregor’s spell.
   Kent Dorsey’s lighting adds dimension to Buderwitz’s several settings, and Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes are appropriately contemporary. Rodolfo Ortega’s original music and soundscape also beef up the storyline. Directed by Art Manke with superior tongue in cheek, the production heats up as the villain needs to be vanquished.
   The satire is broad, the humor Mephistophelian, and the audience responds accordingly. A clever special effect at play’s end puts the finishing touches on the melodramatic story of sophisticated mayhem. Freed continues to be a master of theatrical comedy.

May 21, 2017
 
May 12–June 4. 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tue-Wed 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 2:30pm & 7:30pm. Running time appx. 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission. $30-79. (714) 708-5555.

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The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage
The Theatre @ Boston Court

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Brian Henderson and Tim Cummings
Photo by Ed Krieger

With the onslaught of media access, be it corporate or social, it seems vicarious experiences rule the day. Whether those experiences come in the form of shameless celebrity or the average human’s willingness to expose the most slovenly of personal foibles, we take a certain comfort in musing, “Well, at least my life isn’t like that.” Even if it were, why would people want to expose their deepest, darkest secrets to the light of public scrutiny?
   To playwright Dan O’Brien’s credit, his world premiere cradles in gloved hands just such a possible sequence of familial confidences. Mysteriously estranged, not by his own choice, from his self-admittedly bizarre parents, O’Brien autobiographically details his attempts to discover the truth in this play about writing a play. The result is a 90-minute work poetically crafted around a series of true-to-life encounters with a variety of members from his extended lineage. Some are distant, while others are in denial. Still more of these odd characters contain flashes of sympathetic concern buried beneath decades of disconnection that has left them unable to offer more than a few confirming facts.
   Director Michael Michetti guides us through O’Brien’s sometimes disturbing, highly compelling chronology of meetings and visits with an obvious sensitivity. Along the way, an almost Shakespearean sequence of preventable moments surface, any of which, if reversed or avoided, would have led to a much more positive outcome for O’Brien.

That Michetti has so remarkably cast this production is a blessing. As the current-day version of the playwright, Brian Henderson exudes his creator’s curiosity and frustrations with a grounded believability even when the piece incorporates sequences of presentational surrealism.
   As Henderson’s lone companion, Tim Cummings inhabits the remaining cornucopia of roles with a stunningly impactful performance. Kudos to O’Brien as well in dramaturgically forgoing a chorus of secondary players and instead employing a lone actor’s talents the likes of which Cummings brings to the stage.
   A stark focus on the proceedings is achieved by way of scenic designer Sara Ryung Clement’s raked stage featuring nothing more than a pair of metallic straight chairs. Augmented by Elizabeth Harper’s lighting, John Nobori’s sound design and Tom Ontiveros’s highly evocative series of projection sequences, Michetti and his charges provide a momentum that snowballs to the production’s conclusion.
   And therein rests the takeaway from O’Brien’s piece. Not all the questions may be answered or the relationships repaired. Still, it’s clear that O’Brien has come to a happy medium with his issues. Perhaps, in our own lives, that’s all to which any of us can truly aspire.

May 19, 2017
 
May 6–June 4. 70 N Mentor Ave, Pasadena. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm (plus added performance Mon, May 22, $5 at the door). $20–$39. (626) 683-6801.

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Long Way Down
Sherry Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Lane Wray, Christa Haxthausen, and Meg Wallace
Photo by Rebekah Atwell

Set somewhere in the Deep South where the accents are thick and the IQs are low, playwright Nate Eppler’s West Coast premiere is a tough row to hoe. The beneficiaries of their dead father’s “estate,” Saralee and Maybelline reside in a ramshackle house bequeathed to them and their incarcerated (therefore never seen) elder sibling, Chanel. Occupying the abode with them is Saralee’s husband, Duke. Rounding out this quartet of characters is Karen, the nonrelated catalyst in Eppler’s tale, who haunts the premises as though she has legitimate grounds for her presence.
   On its face, Eppler’s story has the potential to be much better than is eventually realized in this production. Maybelline clearly has developmental issues exhibited by a childlike naïveté and inability to carry on anything more than the most-rudimentary of conversations. Saralee and Duke are in the very beginning stages of their first pregnancy. His debilitating depression, leaving him unable to work in his family’s construction/excavation business, has Saralee frustrated to no end. Her answer is to sell the house, divide the assets, and pursue a “do over” for just the two of them. Clearly, she’s the only one of these three with any semblance of common sense.
   Enter Karen, a whacked out pro-life activist Eppler paints with the broadest of pejorative brushstrokes. She spars with Saralee, ignores Duke, and manipulates Maybelline to the point that it’s no wonder things turn out as they do.

Still, the fault for the failure of this saga to resonate lies squarely at the feet of its author. Eppler falls into the trap of having to constantly one-up whatever has just occurred in order for the plot to go anywhere. The result is an almost snicker-inducing outrageousness, which director Steve Jarrard and his cast do their level best to combat.
   Unfortunately, due to Eppler’s repetitively constructed scenes and dialogue, none here are able to hurdle the one-dimensional crafting of their personages. Christa Haxthausen manages, to some degree, to clue in on Saralee’s motivation. But, with the least amount of onstage time, her character’s ability to drive things forward in a logical manner is cut woefully short. As Duke, Lane Wray’s work amounts to nothing more than a series of cameo appearances, perhaps intended by Eppler to break up the proceedings. Instead, Wray is sentenced to wander the stage aimlessly bemoaning Duke’s lack of meaning in his life.
   Meg Wallace as Maybelline and Lauri Hendler as Karen carry the majority of Eppler’s script. Wallace is saddled with the most difficult of tasks: bringing to a life a simple-minded adult without falling prey to a one-note performance. There are a few rare moments in which she’s up to the challenge, but Eppler gives her very little to work with. Likewise, Hendler struggles valiantly to rise above the writing or lack thereof. We see Karen’s frustration in dealing with those she thinks are beneath her, but missing from Hendler’s performance is Karen’s ability to turn on a dime from cajoling endearment to frighteningly murderous rage.

Although his scenic design exudes the nearly uninhabitable features of this dwelling, Jarrard’s direction lacks the feeling that events are spiraling out of control faster than Eppler’s characters can make sense of them. Scenes feel disjointed due to delayed cue calls. Unnatural pauses in dialogue diminish the play’s progress. And, the inevitably called-for stage violence feels under-rehearsed, as though it’s taking place in slow motion so no one is injured.

May 23, 2017
 
May 19–June 18. 11052 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $15-20. (323) 860-6569.

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Actually
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Samantha Ressler and Jerry MacKinnon
Photo by Chris Whittaker

We see the kiss twice: once at the play’s beginning and once at its end. Her hands express her uncertainty. They don’t push him away, but they don’t embrace him. Her left hand hovers near his shoulder, a question mark over the moment and certainly over the play.
   In between, Anna Ziegler’s Actually pulls back most of the curtain to show what happens before and after that kiss.
   The two-hander play, in its world premiere at Geffen Playhouse, is not heavy on blame and judgment. It’s not a polemic against anyone or anything. It leaves the audience exhilarated by the intellectual stimulation, the visceral wrenching, and, more objectively speaking, the burning intelligence of the theatermakers, from writer through designers to two gifted actors.

First, let’s be clear. Rape is a malignancy, and it doesn’t appear to be diminishing, particularly on college campuses. But here, as Ziegler has crafted it, the consent is unfortunately murky, compounded by way too much alcohol and way too much desperation in the two characters to prove something to themselves and others.
   A few days later in the lives of these two Princeton University freshmen, he’s undergoing an investigation pursuant to federal civil rights laws after her best friend insisted she report his actions as rape. Well, what she had said to her friend was, “Thomas Anthony practically raped me." Insensitive bragging, or a painful plea for help?
   Under Tyne Rafaeli’s direction, the script is delivered as mostly direct address to the audience, with bits of dialogue in which the characters interact.
   Every fragment of the characters’ confessions reveals the complexities of language and of sex. But their “sides” of the story are being told to a panel of academics and administrators. In that culture, it seems expected that words will speak louder than actions.
   “Actually...” Amber had started to say that fateful night. Did Tom not let her finish her sentence? Should he have taken a step back, just hearing her speak?
   They seem to agree that they had intercourse. Though, as soon as we hear he started the evening with three Jägermeisters and “a coupla Sam Adams” before he even met up with her for drinks, we have doubts about how the evening progressed.

The acting is smart, simple and deep. Samantha Ressler plays the naïve but not inexperienced Jewish student Amber. Jerry MacKinnon plays cocky but self-aware African-American student Tom.
   Are their ethnicities a red herring, or do they add an almost subconscious layer to our expectations for their behaviors? Both characters have previously been involved in what seems like reluctantly consensual situations, both are educated and sensitive, and both should have been wary this night.
   Ziegler makes her audience wonder about letting responsibility for our actions be given over to others, letting our reactions to our actions be labeled by others.
   No matter the investigating panel’s ruling, we wonder what will happen to these two afterwards. This part of their lives will follow them, perhaps forever, tagging them or lurking in the backs of their minds.

May 15, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

 

May 11–June 11. 10886 Le Conte Ave., West LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 95 minutes. $76-82. (310) 208-5454.

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Dinner With Friends
Little Fish Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Renee O’Connor, Christina Morrell, Patrick Vest, and Doug Mattingly
Photo by Mickey Elliott

Karen and Gabe are hosting their longtime friend Beth for dinner. She sits silently, seeming to listen but physically uncomfortable, shifting in her chair.
   Karen and Gabe chat over each other and finish each other’s sentences. The milestones in their marriage seem to be meals, which they recall in zealous detail.
   Yet, as we observe in Dinner With Friends—Donald Margulies’ 2000 Pulitzer-winning play, in production at Little Fish Theater—Karen and Gabe’s marriage seems as solid as they come. Beth, however, unexpectedly announces her split from her husband, Tom. As she tells it, Tom has left her for another woman. Beth’s hosts are stunned.
   Later that night, Tom shows up at Karen and Gabe’s, insisting on telling his version of the marriage and breakup. Karen, shaken, wants none of his excuses. Gabe, as deeply shaken, gives Tom somewhat of a chance to explain.
   Tom’s excuses, delivered in desperation, elicit a few snorts of derision from the audience. Later in the script, months later in the story’s chronology, during a man-to-man with Gabe, Tom mentions a better, solid reason for leaving the marriage.

Margulies paints in subtleties. Every moment in his script is realistic and not “theatrical.” Director Mark Piatelli and his actors have delved into the characters, so we see real people onstage. Particularly good are Christina Morrell as Karen and Patrick Vest as Gabe, as they go through the couple’s daily tasks and then, at play’s end, appreciate the bedrock of their marriage.
   Opposite them, Renee O’Connor plays Beth and Doug Mattingly plays Tom. O’Connor’s task may be the toughest, as Beth proves to be the least likeable character. Mattingly may be miscast, although his first, thug-like appearance may be intended to lure the audience into seeing him as the villain.
   Piatelli uses a bit of interesting blocking in the first scene: Beth gets up to leave, is persuaded to stay, and sits in a different chair so the audience looks at her from a different angle. This attention to movement seems to wane in the second act when, repeatedly, two characters sit at a table and don’t budge for the entirety of their scene. That may be how we behave in life, but it makes the characters’ conversations sound the same, and they’re not.
   Also problematically, although the play’s chronology is not straightforward, and although the dialogue indicates Beth and Karen have lunch outside and Tom and Gabe have drinks at a bar, here they seem to be seated in Gabe and Karen’s present-day kitchen.
   These physical indications of time and place should not have been left solely to costumer Diana Mann, who takes her cue from Margulies’ subtlety and attires the actors in outfits that gently hint at their eras and locales.
   Among the actors, Mattingly is best at being younger and happier in those early days. He smiles more, sometimes happily, sometimes flirtatiously, before Tom’s unhappiness took over.

Should some couples never have married? Can everyone cope with marriage if we only realize change is inevitable and adaptation is our greatest resource? Margulies shows us one thing for certain: Getting “back to where we were” isn’t the key to a happy marriage.

May 15, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

May 10–May 28. 777 S. Centre St., San Pedro. Wed 8pm, plus Fri-Sat May 26-27 8pm, Sun May 28 2pm. $27, $25 for seniors. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. (310) 512-6030.


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Archduke
Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Ramiz Monsef, Patrick Page, and Josiah Bania
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Rajiv Joseph’s world premiere play Archduke, as its title evidences, centers on the assassination history tells us led to World War I. It also examines our innate need to live a meaningful life.
   Three Balkan boys in their late teens are adrift. It’s 1914, and not much is available to them, including longevity. More troublingly, each seems alone, uneducated, unloved.
   One of them, Gavrilo (Stephen Stocking), has at long last sought medical attention from kindly physician Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks), who offers free examinations to the town. Leko diagnoses Gavrilo with tuberculosis. Gavrilo is of course Gavrilo Princip, the real-life assassin of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Duchess Sophie.
   These young men are undernourished—lacking food, emotional support and intellectual stimulation. They have never seen curtains; sandwiches are the treat of a lifetime.
   Leko wants to soothe and heal such boys. He is a flawed yet angelic man. But at his door appears Dragutin Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page), who is the devil incarnate, inexcusably abusive, savagely murderous. Dragutin wants to use such boys to perpetrate political violence. “I’m a man of the people,” he proclaims. He extolls his own patriotism. He’s adeptly manipulative, recruiting one lad with the promise of a job, another with the promise of a purposeful existence.
   Dragutin demands that Leko “send” sick boys to him. Leko refuses. So Dragutin sends in young Trifko (Ramiz Monsef), who pulls a knife on Leko. The doctor quickly calculates how to save more lives: Should he do wrong now and stay alive, or should he protect these lads. He chooses to stay alive.
   So Gavrilo, Trifko, and the third boy, Nedeljko (Josiah Bania), are welcomed into Dragutin’s satanic embrace. At Dragutin’s dining-room table, they’re fed and flattered. You know the rest of the story. Like many boys today, they find their missing pieces through evil men who bring the cool, becoming so-called martyrs for a cause of someone else’s making.

With this fascinating true-life metaphor, Joseph encapsulates this syndrome. The script is not yet flawless: It’s still a little long and a little repetitive. Bits of both acts could be cut, and so could the intermission. Yes, we feel horror as we watch these three ebulliently enjoy their train trip as they make small talk while hurtling into destiny, but somehow their conversation seems padded.
   But Joseph includes another important layer: the treatment of and status of women. It’s an integral part of the psychology of these characters. They either overly idolize women or demonize them. Dragutin is the worst offender, sexualizing women he perceives as outranking him.
   His servant Sladjana (Joanne McGee), however, merely ignores him. She’s too wise, too experienced, to heed him. And despite her second-class status, if even that, she’s the person giving Gavrilo the means for survival and better health.

Giovanna Sardelli directs her outstanding cast with subtlety but much physical humor ranging from commedia to a Trumpian handshake. The humor keeps the play bubbling along. But meantime, it increases our shame because we laugh, even though we know the outcome here and we know the outcome of acts by our century’s boys seduced into terrorism.
   The scenic design, by Tim Mackabee, takes the characters’ environments from stark impenetrability to deluxe mobility.
   Thanks to Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design, we’re looking at the world through early color films of the 1900s, peering through a pallid night and then luxuriating in the newfangled electrical lamps of the train car. Daniel Kluger’s lavish sound design and intriguing music enhance the theatrical experience.
   And this is how the three boys were lured into extremism to achieve the immortality they dreamed of. How the intelligent, educated Dimitrijevic developed into a monster would make another fascinating play.

May 8, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

Through June 4.

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The Bodyguard
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Deborah Cox and Judson Mills
Photo by Joan Marcus

If in 1992 the films on your must-see list included Reservoir Dogs, The Player, Howard’s End, Orlando, or even Wayne’s World, Lawrence Kasdan’s The Bodyguard probably didn’t make your list.
   But that film has indeed been musicalized and brought to the stage, adapted by Alexander Dinelaris. Its national tour is basking at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre, where the late Whitney Houston’s legion fans can hear her megahits receive full power-ballad treatment.
   Alas, those who want meat on the bones of their musical theater might want to pass on this one. Light on character development, light on songs that delve into emotions, and yet light on lightness, its book disappoints.
   On the memorable side, the show starts with gunshots, while the audience is still chatting, before the house lights have gone out. That’s a brave start for director Thea Sharrock.
   With interruptions along the way by a parade of Houston hits, however, the remainder of this show is a shallow, wish-fulfillment thriller.
   What kinds of wishes? For some women, it’s lounging at home in skinny jeans and voluminous sweaters on a great hair day, while a large staff stokes the home fires. For some men, it’s melting and bedding an icy celebrity. For some celebrities, it’s stepping into a pair of thousand-dollar rockstud boots and slipping into a dive bar for karaoke while remaining kinda sorta incognito.

Deborah Cox stars as Rachel Marron. Like Houston, Rachel is a megastar worshipped by fans, some of whom worship too much. She has a stalker (Jorge Paniagua), a former military man who has the smarts and means to breach all the security around her thus far.
   Judson Mills stars as the bodyguard her staff hires to give her greater protection. A former Secret Service agent, Frank claims he’s uninterested in entering the world of celebrity. Then he hears Rachel has a 10-year-old son and quickly agrees to take the job.
   His relationship with young Fletcher (the adorable and talented Kevelin B. Jones III, alternating with Douglas Baldeo) brightens the show. And, despite possible audience concerns about Frank’s motives, Frank seems to have a better parental relationship with Fletcher than does Rachel.
   Frank and Rachel get it on, then don’t. Rachel’s sister (Jasmin Richardson) feels the warmies for Frank, who to her surprise doesn’t reciprocate.
   Rachel’s emotional peak comes at the show’s end, when she gets to sing “I Will Always Love You.” The show’s comedic peak comes when Frank sings karaoke, badly. Dance highlights (choreography by Karen Bruce) re-create or perhaps mock the pulse-pumping onstage gyrations of pop concerts.
   Cox has many of Houston’s astounding vocal abilities. But, at least on opening night, she displayed little emotional heft and none of the outsize star power of Houston. Mills is appropriately cool, and chisel-jawed. Rachel’s entourage is played by actors who fit the bill but, like the two leads, aren’t given material to make their roles indelible: Alex Corrado as Rachel’s personal security guard, Charles Gray as her manager, Jonathan Hadley as her publicist, and Jarid Faubel as an FBI agent.

On the way out after the show, what was the audience talking about? Voices, dancing, missing Houston, transposing the movie to the present despite our gun-wielding society? Nope. Indeed, no one was humming the world-famous tunes. The audience was singing the praises of the taut abs onstage. You can’t wrest that kind of enjoyment from Reservoir Dogs.

May 8, 2017
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

Show closing May 21.

 
Kiss
Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Kevin Matthew Reyes, Kristin Couture
Photo by Enci Box

Critics have been asked to not give away the plot of this play. Out of respect to the theater, the work’s playwright, and its director, most of us won’t. But good luck to anyone who tries to describe the work and the potent sensations it induces.
   On one level, this West Coast premiere by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón tests the audience’s skills in observing and questioning. Didn’t we see one of the actors elsewhere, quite recently? Was a ticket snafu at the door part of the play? When does “real life” leave off and “art” begin?
   The art begins. The scenic design might bring our antennae to attention. How could director Bart DeLorenzo have let the audience see the sandbags securing the backs of set pieces?
   The acting is stilted. It looks and sounds slightly like a scene-study class. Acting clichés abound, but they’re so subtle that they don’t cause laughter in the audience. DeLorenzo couldn’t possibly have allowed acting like this in one of his plays.
   The writing is stilted. Exposition is clunky, repetitive, and beginning to feel too long.
   And then, what happens happens.

The stunners here are not skeletal hands reaching up from the soil to grab a leg. Providing more horror than bloody gashes or sudden materializations ever could is the sickening feeling that settles over us, created by the remarkably skilled artists—writer, director, actors, designers—we mistakenly thought weren’t doing their work well.
   The actions of a woman, an artist, in a clearly fake wig and oversized dark sunglasses repeatedly looking over her shoulder and peering into the darkness on the other side of a half-open doorway shocks us, terrifies us.
   Art gets made. It’s made despite misinterpretations. It’s remade on the fly, by artists flexible and open to change, willing to step to the edge and reveal their souls. The superb actors here, without reference to characters they play, are Natali Anna, Kristin Couture, Max Lloyd-Jones, Kevin Matthew Reyes, Nagham Wehbe, and Cynthia Yelle.
   We passively watch as things happen in other lands, to other people. We’d like to think we’re on their sides, we’re here to help. But if we’re being truthful with ourselves, what we’re probably thinking is, “Could this happen here? To my friends? To me?”
   One thing is for certain here: Kiss gets under the skin.

May 1, 2017
 
April 29–June 19. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, plus select Wed-Thu 8pm. Running time 85 minutes, no intermission. $15-$34. (310) 477-2055.

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