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Cynthia Hopkins’ "Accidental Nostalgia," now on stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse, is billed as an "operetta about the pros and cons of amnesia."

But it is really an exploration of how we create ourselves through what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget.

Hopkins, a Bessie award- and two-time Obie award-winner who has written the book, composed the music and produced the show, stars as Henrietta Bill, a neurologist and author suffering from psychogenic amnesia who sings her way into the dark recesses of her past. (She also plays the accordion, from time to time.)

Hopkins is ably directed by DJ Mendel, who obviously knows how to make the irrational not only understandable, but in some eccentric way, logical.

Returning to her hometown, Henrietta answers various mysteries in her life: Who is her real father? Has she killed him? Is he alive or dead? Has he abused her, and why? She also discovers, after walking down a few blind alleys - and a trip to Morocco - who she really is.

Hopkins’ sweet, simple, but highly evocative voice is backed by her alt-country band, Gloria Deluxe, composed of trombone and guitar (Curtis Hasselbring); drums (Kristin Mueller); bass (Josh Stark); violin, guitar and spoons (Philippa Thompson); and viola (Karen Waltuch).

Gloria Deluxe is a familiar band to Brooklynites who may have seen their raucous sets at Celebrate Brooklyn, the BAMcafe and Pete’s Candy Store.

The music the band plays is a subtle blending of country, blues and jazz, with strains that sound like anything from Kurt Weill to Klezmer. The lyrics have the down-and-out quality of blues and the piercing poetry of Bob Dylan.

They abound with lines like: "It was like trying to catch a dark cloud with a butterfly net/it was like trying to walk across freshly fallen snow/without leaving tracks," or "I must have rocks instead of a brain/I make the same mistakes again and again/I get outta trouble just to get back in."

Although "Accidental Nostalgia" is basically a one-woman show, Hopkins is supported onstage by two factotums (Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg) dressed in the funky vest-over-bare-chest attire usually associated with musicians or DJs, or a Bob Fosse revue. They occasionally dance with her, or throw her a change of clothing, or interact with her in a very sensual manner.

Hopkins is also backed by a videoscape, created by designers Findlay and Sugg, diagrams and pictures displayed on a suspended screen. The video of her father, played by real life dad John Hopkins, reading his explanatory and exculpatory letter is particularly effective and affecting.

Kristen Lapham and Tara Webb have dressed Hopkins in clothing that is bizarre, to say the least. For some reason, she wears kneepads, bandages on her hands and a kind of tunic over a jacket. At one point she strips and stands naked before the audience, then dresses in new clothing, to clearly demonstrate that she has taken on another identity.

Which brings us to nudity on stage - seldom necessary, rarely justified, always eclipsing every other aspect of a production. It’s too bad this one act of self-indulgence mars an otherwise perfect performance.

In fact, despite the utter, shocking weirdness that characterizes much of this show, all of its elements seem perfectly in place and perfectly appropriate. Such is the genius of "Accidental Nostalgia’s" conception and execution.

"Accidental Nostalgia" is the kind of theater that does for the stage what the Big Bang did for the universe - create an explosive chain reaction that keeps producing light and life and is capable of infinite transformation.


"Accidental Nostalgia" plays through April 4, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 7 pm at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water St. at Dock Street in DUMBO. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call (718) 254-8779 or visit www.artsatstanns.org or www.Ticketweb.com.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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