The truth is often absurdly funny. In the '60s, European dramatists celebrated that tenet, and their cryptic absurdist plays both entertained audiences and offered temporary relief from the oppression of totalitarian regimes. Playwright Slawomir Mrozek's Tango is considered a masterwork in absurdist humor (think Ionesco with a plot). In iron-curtain Poland, Mrozek began his career as a political cartoonist, writing for theater on the side. And it's possible to see the cartoonist's parodying hand throughout Tango, thanks to Stages' inventive production.

The play never addresses politics directly. Instead, the story follows a bohemian family passionate about poker, fornication and wild art experiments. Arthur, the buttoned-down son, drags them away from such pursuits and toward a stiff Victorian code of manners. The difficulty of that task is evident from the disarray of the family home: Ancient velvet drapes cloak the windows, huge marionettes and layers of afghans cover the room and a forgotten wedding dress lies on a chair. An enormous blue eye peers through the home's front window.

Played by Scott Fults, Arthur tries to discipline everything in his parents' household, from their libido to their dress. A tiny tyrant who makes the error of substituting form for meaning, he is headed for an inevitable fall. Fults fine-tunes Arthur's darkness with occasional levity: As he tries to convince his cousin to marry him, he explains it has nothing to do with sex and then leaps on her in a thwarted seduction. The result is somewhat chilling. Watching Fults as Arthur reminds us that all dictators are laughable at first, and all of them are, as impossible as it seems, human.

In a satisfying combination, totalitarian government collides with this strange family. Mrozek threshes out the inherent problems in both while giving the audience a story (a rare treat in an absurdist play). As characters pop out from under piles of blankets and disappear behind a sliding screen, the mystery is how successful Arthur's return to graceful living will be.

In this watertight production, the comedy works in the fine way that comedy can work when professionals are connected to one another and to their material. They step out of one another's path with Mazurka-like precision, they grovel and they fight for control of the family rituals with the ferocity of a real family. When Arthur's mother, Eleanor (Connie Cooper), admits she's sleeping with the household's permanent guest, Fults' fury gathers steam, much as it does when he finds that guest, Eddie (Kent Johnson), amusing himself by gazing at the female anatomy sections of textbooks. Like a huffing, puffing train, Arthur gets more ridiculous as he gets angrier, but his ability to make others bend to his will becomes more sophisticated and pervasive.

As the disenchanted head of the family, Stomil (William Hardy) is fat and satisfied with his life of art projects. Hardy is suitably distressed by Arthur's readiness to embrace all the social codes that Stomil abhors: traditional marriage, proper attire and class distinction. As a counterpoint for Arthur, Stomil reflects the ridiculousness of a totalitarian government: In the effort to mandate everything in life, the dictator succeeds only in establishing a new contrary set of values. To everyone but Arthur, the bourgeoisie is a despicably low form of life.

It's not often a performance causes you to stumble into the parking lot, shocked to return to the real world. But Stages' Tango may do just that. Producing a comedy so rife with metaphor is tough, but director Rob Bundy makes it work. The audience embraces truth with laughter, and perhaps more surprising, given the political nature of Mrozek's work, they embrace moments they recognize from their own experience.

Last Wednesday night, during Shirk Workers Union's patio production of Cowboy Mouth, flying big-daddy roaches bombarded the audience -- an unintentional element that playwright/actor Sam Shepard probably would have embraced. Shepard once said that his prolific output of plays in the '60s (and his prolific use of hallucinogens) was an attempt to get away from the roaches and rats that inhabited his crumbling New York City apartment. Certainly the characters in Cowboy Mouth would understand that kind of logic. Co-written with Shepard's onetime gal, rock poet Patti Smith, Cowboy Mouth is a play about the end of their hazy love affair -- the relationship that in real life gave way to Shepard's career as a writer.

The second production from Vicki Weathersby's Shirk Workers Union, Cowboy Mouth is bare-bones theater, playing on the tiny patio of the Last Concert Cafe. Despite the difficulties of the environment -- the roaches, the heat, the tiny stage -- Weathersby has pulled together another thoughtfully entertaining bit of theater.

Cavale, the incarnation of Patti Smith, is smart enough to know that the only saints left in popular culture are rock musicians, and she's trying her hardest to craft Slim (the thinly veiled Shepard) into just that kind of inspirational figure. Slim obliges to an extent, but can't really let go of the family he left behind. He tries to work himself into a rock-star state by listening to Cavale's stories about real musicians -- people who played what they knew and bared their souls for their audience -- but it's never a completely satisfying or successful venture for him. As Slim, Todd Lowe picks up his guitar to sing fairly well, but his performance lacks the moments of lightning that make Slim tick.

As Cavale, though, Weathersby is wry and witty. "I'm sick of telling stories about people killing themselves," she tells Slim. "It makes me jealous." Costume designer Windy Everist has outfitted Cavale as a thrift-store glamour girl in a black mesh petticoat and a black velvet bustier -- a marked contrast to Slim's red union suit. The elegance makes a lovely sort of sense, because while Slim makes fun of her improper grammar, it's Cavale who's well-read and philosophical.

The direction succeeds in the small moments of stage business: Lowe pulls Weathersby up off the floor and in one swift move has her legs wrapped around his waist. A lobster man (Alexander Marchand) comes to the door to deliver (what else?) lobster, and Lowe poses languidly, waiting for Cavale to come back from the bathroom. A fine sense of timing holds the production together, and the actors' rapport pays off in the trickier moments, like when Cavale explains her likeness to Baudelaire.

It's a bit ironic, and perhaps unavoidable, that the weaker character in this play is the one Shepard modeled after himself. Cowboy Mouth is Patti Smith's play, and Weathersby fits the role well, combining a world-weariness with surprising charm. The same could be said of the production, especially of Weathersby's mysterious, darkly inspiring Cavale.

Tango runs through November 17 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, Suite 101, 527-0220. Cowboy Mouth runs Wednesday nights through November 27 at Last Concert Cafe, 1403 Nance, 788-0671.

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Megan Halverson