Arts In LA
The Optimist
Elephant Stages

Reviewed by Bob Verini

The cast in preproduction

Jason Chimonides’s three-hander The Optimist developed something of a reputation back east in 2008 and has gotten quite a few stagings around the country since, probably not least because it is an affordable piece that offers meaty roles for three attractive 20-somethings. The West Coast premiere at Elephant Stages has corralled just such a trio. Would that the play were better.
   The premise is a little forced but not wholly implausible. Two fraternal twins—neurotic, career-less Noel (Chris Bellant) and cynical, devil-may-care Declan (Aaron David Johnson)—arrive at a motel in Tallahassee for two concurrent events: the funeral of a female friend their age committed suicide, and the remarriage of their widowed father, to a middle-aged Greek lady. Also on the scene is Nicole (Sarah Jes Austell), whose engagement to an upstanding fellow named Jackson suggests she is well over the painful breakup with Noel, who by contrast loses sleep because he knows in his gut that she is his soul mate.
   Unbelievable, and eventually downright annoying, are the ways in which Chimonides builds the action from there. The unseen characters—Pop, known as Hambone; Elena, his intended; Jackson; even the dead mother and the suicide—are one and all more interesting and dimensional than the three pinheads who occupy the stage. Noel’s whiny self-pitying grates early on; Declan stays on the sidelines, needling Nicole (Chimonides seems to be cribbing a lot from Sexual Perversity in Chicago here); and Nicole keeps coming back for more and more abuse in sharp contrast to the smarts she otherwise demonstrates.
    The chief bit of suspense, I kid you not, is what will happen when Hambone accepts Noel’s challenge to take a beating for how shabbily the old man treated mom while she was dying. Noel and Declan set up the entire room as a boxing arena, complete with side-wall mattresses and duct tape, and every time the doorbell rings, there’s huge anticipation: “Here he is, it’s Hambone! “ “No, I won’t let you do it!” “Let go of me, I’ll kill him!” And so on. But since Hambone is not in the cast of characters, we know he’ll never appear, and the person on the other side of that door is always the cast member not on stage. This is truly dumb storytelling. The jaw drops each time Chimonides tries to build tension with such a lame setup.

Director Will Wallace does the best he can to paper over the play’s flaws, though he does indulge the pauses in the final third, and the kids are excellent, Austell in particular. She helps Nicole score one significant point, that the always morose and negative Noel is actually an incurable optimist. He has to be; only someone who in his gut believes everything will turn out fine could be so let down time and again when things go kerflooey. That's a nice, fresh character insight. But as authentic as the performances are, they can’t single-handedly turn a phony play real.

April 17, 2014

April 3–20. 6322 Santa Monica Blvd. Running time 90 minutes. No website, no ticketing information.

Henry V
Pacific Resident Theatre

Reviewed by Neal Weaver

Carole Weyers and Joe McGovern
Photo by Erika Boxler

Shakespeare spread the story of King Henry V over four plays. We first hear of him, but don’t see him, in Richard II, as Prince Hal, the wastrel prodigal son of King Henry IV. In Henry IV, Part 1, we see Prince Hal’s adventures among the London lowlife and his friendship with the fat rogue Sir John Falstaff. Hal saves the life of King Henry in the war against the rebel lords, kills the warrior Hotspur in single combat, and begins to earn the respect of the king and restore his tainted reputation. In Henry IV, Part 2, King Henry dies, and Hal is crowned as King Henry V. He repudiates the fat night and assumes the responsibilities of kingship.
   Shakespeare, relying on his audience’s knowledge of English history, felt no need to recapitulate the events of the earlier plays, but modern audiences may be thrown for a loss without a sense of the earlier events. Here, director Guillermo Cienfuegos and actor Joe McGovern—who also plays Prince Hal/Henry V—have deftly remedied this by inserting choice scenes from Henry IV to give us a hint of the needful background, and the two introduce us to the major characters, including King Henry IV and Falstaff. They have also cut through the forest of rhetoric to give us the essential facts of the story, played it in modern dress to give it immediacy, and assembled a versatile cast of 11 to play the 40-odd characters of the original.

McGovern gives us a Henry, still young and boyish, who loves practical jokes and disguises, delights in battles of wits with his adversaries and hoisting his enemies on their own petards, but, when called upon to lead his troops into battle, can rise spectacularly to the occasion, as at the battle of Harfleur: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more/or close the wall up with our English dead!” He has kingly authority, but he’s modest enough, before the battle of Agincourt, to circulate incognito among his soldiers to give them “a touch of Harry in the night.” And he’s capable of tongue-tied sweetness in his funny, touching wooing of the French-speaking Princess Katharine, deliciously played by Carole Weyers.
   McGovern is backed up by a splendid array of actors. Alex Fernandez is an eloquent Chorus, as well as an earnest Henry IV. Dennis Madden, bearded and portly, is a convincing Falstaff and a palsied King of France. Oscar Best lends massive authority and strength to the Duke of Exeter. Joan Chodorow shines as Mistress Quickly, with her moving account of Falstaff’s death, and as Alice, Princess Katharine’s sly lady-in-waiting. Terrance Elton is agreeably obnoxious as the arrogant Dauphin of France, and Michael Prichard is a sententious Canterbury and a wily Fluellen. And one mustn’t forget the dog, a clever and handsome Airedale, who adds humor to the preshow. He gets no program credit but wins a place of honor in the curtain call.
   Cienfuegos has assembled his production so adroitly that it seems almost a new work in its own right. With the simplest of means, he suggests the pomp of court life, as well as the chaos and fog of war. And, most important, he gives us a show that’s always fun to watch.

April 16, 2014
March 1–April 20. 707 Venice Blvd., Venice. Street parking or free parking behind the theaters. There is wheelchair access. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $20. Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express welcome. (310) 822-8392.

Romeo & Juliet
Independent Shakespeare Co. at Atwater Crossing Arts + Innovation Complex

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Erika Soto and Nikhil Pai
Photo by Grettel Cortes

Whenever a production of a classic is touted as a “new adaptation,” in this case incorporating “dynamic choreography” and “imaginative staging,” not to mention paring the original cast number down to only eight players, there is engendered a certain level of reservation. Well, let it be said that from start to finish, director Melissa Chalsma and this octet of storytellers live up to every bit of preperformance advertising. This production is so sharply constructed that its sense of immediacy literally keeps one on the edge of one’s seat.
   Chalsma has crafted a show that flows seamlessly even with the occasional textual excising required to facilitate certain actors’ role-doubling duties. Choreographer J’aime Morrison-Petronio has added remarkably intricate touches, given this venue’s intensely intimate size. Physical manifestations of grief and the consummation of the title characters’ clandestine marriage are effective. Likewise, fight director David Melville’s superbly executed stage combat at the conclusion of Act 2 sets this tragic tale spinning toward its inevitable conclusion.

Clearly commanding the stage whenever present is Erika Soto as Juliet. Hers is a performance worthy of multiple viewings, given her handling of Shakespeare’s lyrical prose. Soto’s grasp of the language gives it such clarity that it’s hard to imagine why anyone would interpret it any other way. What she accomplishes in the balcony scene alone is worthy of praise, but the range she exhibits running from the teenage bounciness of first love to the utter despair over Romeo’s banishment is exceptionally impressive. And the scene in which she ingests the coma-inducing drug to counterfeit death is spine-tingling.
   Nikhil Pai brings a more presentational although serviceable style to Romeo. Though his Romeo is clearly as excited as his child bride, he has that look in the eye that betrays his actually seeing the audience when delivering what otherwise should be a soul-searching soliloquy. Kudos, though, to Pai and Soto for a beautifully restrained first encounter and kiss during the Capulet party scene.

Providing first-rate support to the pair are Bernadette Sullivan as Juliet’s Nurse, and Evan Lewis Smith who runs the gamut playing Friar Lawrence and Juliet’s hotheaded cousin Tybalt. Sullivan’s Nurse is a bawdy, eyebrow-arching integral part of the Capulet brood, seemingly entranced by anything in pants. Smith’s priest is a character driven by heartfelt concern, while his Tybalt is a physical beast untamed by logic. As his foil, Mercutio, André Martin is a scene-stealer of major proportions. Foppish and outrageously funny, Martin chews the scenery—in a good way, mind you—of designer Cat Sowa’s set consisting of rough-hewn fencing. Martin also plays Juliet’s father as a smoking-jacket-festooned and brandy-swilling homage to the matinee idols of the 1930s.
   Lovelle Liquigan provides a bit of gender-bending as Romeo’s sidekick Benvolio, and Juliet’s mother, while clearly demonstrating a stronger background in dance technique than most of the cast. Rounding out this noteworthy ensemble are Xavier Watson as the Prince and Juliet’s intended suitor Paris; and Kevin Rico Angulo as Romeo’s father and as Friar John, whose missed appointment with Romeo in Mantua is the point at which the story’s outcome becomes irreversible.

April 15, 2014
April 11–May 3. 3191 Casitas Ave. #168., Atwater Village. The venue is Atwater Playhouse. This is a new performing arts facility and should not be confused with the Atwater Village Theatre one block away. Free parking in lot. Thu-Sat 7:30pm, Sun 2pm. $15-20. (818) 710-6306.

Sacred Fools Theater

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Chris L. McKenna and Donal Thoms-Cappello

The premise of Benjamin Brand’s Taste, as the management of Sacred Fools Theater Company has been unabashedly eager to trumpet in preopening publicity, is a compact made between two men to meet for dinner, at which the guest is to be killed, butchered, cooked, and eaten by the host in what must qualify as the most unusual, and surely the most potentially savory, assisted suicide of all time. The Fools’s frankness is prudent and smart: prudent in that no one can say she wasn’t warned, and smart because knowing what is going to happen allows the audience to concentrate with rapt attention on just how it’s going to happen.
   As to the latter question, I wouldn’t dream of giving away too much, except to say that there’s hardcore video imagery on display and effectively executed gore effects, none of which is recommended for the squeamish. One only need note that Stuart (Re-Animator) Gordon, king of the red-dye mixed with corn-syrup effects, is at the helm, to pick up on the caveat emptor. However, even more interesting than the what and how is the why of the play, TV writer Brand’s first and a remarkably nuanced piece of work.

Ingrained connections between sex and food, and between sex and death, are legion in literature dating back centuries: There’s that forbidden fruit in Eden, of course, and who can say when the orgasm began to be known as le petit mort? Equally pervasive is the belief that ingesting a creature means incorporating part of its soul into oneself, a tenet held by pagans and Christians alike. Is it accident, or producer perversity, that the opening of Taste happens to coincide with Holy Week?
   All of these themes are explicitly incorporated into Brand’s carefully modulated, even suave, plotting, in which it’s easy to believe that the Internet chatting between awkward, self-conscious Vic (Chris L. McKenna) and wealthy, self-possessed Terry (Donal Thoms-Cappello) has all been a prelude to a nuit d’amour. It’s a source of continual amusement that the highly charged dynamic between the two men would proceed pretty much the same whether Vic came here for dinner or as dinner.
   Then, as the preparations mount, we realize that this odd couple is clearly attempting to carry out a solemn ritual whose specifics they’ve painstakingly worked out in advance online. Of course, real life’s messy accidents keep intruding, which results in even more mirth. Yet Taste sends a continuous series of chills up the spine as Vic and Terry, separately and together, take steps we instantly recognize to be preplanned milestones along the way, from appetizer to entrée, carried out with near-religious rigor and even exaltation. A rite is a rite, Brand seems to be saying—whether enacted in a cathedral apse or a comfortable Chicago apartment, and however mundane or macabre it may appear to the observer.

Yet, beyond all of these dimensions, Taste strikes me as a maturely observed meditation on contemporary urban life, a notion that begins with the panorama of high-rise apartments across the street, eerily peeking through designer DeAnne Millais’s breathtaking picture windows. There are millions of stories in the naked city, the set tells us, and this is one of them—a really weird one of them.
   It’s commonplace to decry Internet obsession as a crippling phenomenon that tends to alienate far too many from lives lived in person. Not so in Taste, where Vic and Terry have specifically made the leap from chatroom to living room to follow E.M. Forster’s injunction to “only connect.” Each man’s reasons for keeping this appointment, only gradually revealed in the course of the play’s riveting 90 minutes, prove to be fraught with resonance in terms of the loneliness of modern existence. What these poor souls are looking for remains painfully familiar, no matter how Grand Guignol the trappings become.

Gordon does an excellent job of seamlessly weaving Brand’s serious concerns into all the Guignol excess. I wish he had pushed Thoms-Cappello to even more pronounced vulnerability in the play’s final third, but the actor nicely balances the urbane and the unhinged throughout. And McKenna is simply a revelation, bumbling and then staggering his way through what he hopes will be both his first, and last, meaningful encounter with another human being. The play requires him to carry the lion’s share of humor and poignancy, and he does so with memorable distinction.
   Taste, I fear, is destined to be disrespected and even dismissed because of the wacky chances it takes, and that would be a shame. The play’s central metaphor may be extreme, but it provides much to chew on. Um, hang on, what I mean to say is, there’s food for thought here. Yeah, that’s it. From soup to nuts. Literally.

April 14, 2014
April 11–May 17. 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $25. (310) 281-8337.

Sovereign Body
The Road Theatre Company at the Historic Lankershim Arts Center

Reviewed by Julio Martinez

Taylor Gilbert, Kevin McCorkle, Dani Stephens and Hannah Mae Sturges
Photo by John Lorenz

Myriad thematic vignettes are introduced during first act of Emilie Beck’s sojourn within the complicated social structure of an upper-middle-class Pasadena family ruled over by matriarch Anna (Taylor Gilbert)—a workaholic restaurant owner and master chef who is determined to infuse her rigid sense of order and propriety into the family’s preparations for Thanksgiving dinner. It is soon revealed that all the familial shenanigans are merely fodder for Beck’s subsequent assault on Anna’s physical and psychological being, followed by Anna’s painful second-act journey to make viable the remnants of her body and mind.
   As played out in this world premiere, helmed by Scott Alan Smith, Beck is guilty of piling too many theatrical ingredients into her dramaturgical stew: naturalism, surrealism, breaking the fourth wall, Ingmar Bergman-esque film clips, socio-political commentary, religious debate, and generous helpings of poetry that flow relentlessly within the dialogue.

Smith marshals his competent troupe capably through Beck’s morass of styles and agendas that obscure rather than illuminate the play’s central thematic throughline—the horrific pas de deux between Anna and the invader (personified by Jack Millard) who is matter-of-factly determined to devour her. Anna’s struggle for survival is made even more ironic when juxtaposed with the intermittent film clips (effectively wrought by Daryl Johnson) that reveal a much younger Anna hesitantly marrying into the invader’s master plan. Through it all, Millard exudes the confident charm of an inevitable winner, thoroughly relaxed in his mission, even when he is physically pummeling and ravaging Anna—choreographed with graphic veracity by Matt Glave.
   In essence, this is the Anna show, and Gilbert rams the protagonist relentlessly forward, inhabiting every painful twist and turn in Anna’s ordeal. It is also to Gilbert’s credit that in the throes of Anna’s most painful physical deterioration, this master chef can still project a captivating low-keyed humor when she is given a Crock-Pot as a present from her forever-clueless sister-in-law, Zoe (Anna Carini).

Revolving like satellites around this action—each darting in and out to project his or her own truths—are Anna’s anti-establishment sculptor husband Tal (Kevin McCorkle); her misanthropic 20-year-old daughter Callie (Dani Stephens); Callie’s mother-earth-in-embryo 16-year-old sister Evie (Hannah Mae Sturges); Anna’s own mother, Vivian (Bryna Weiss), fearful that her time is short and that Anna is unprepared to live the rest of her life; Anna’s state senator brother Ben (John Cragen), thoroughly frustrated that he is not living up to anybody’s expectations, which he freely explains directly to the audience; and Ben’s wife, the aforementioned Zoe, a wonderfully entertaining malaprop-spouting devout Christian, who approaches Anna’s household like a stranger in a strange land.
   The design elements are dominated by Stephen Gifford’s finely executed Tuscan-inspired eat-in kitchen. The only puzzling set piece is the faux stove, or rather a table substituting as a stove.

April 9, 2014
April 4–May 24. 5108 Lankershim Blvd., NoHo. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $34. (866) 811-4111.

Sans Merci
The Garage Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Cassie Vail Yeager, Ashley Elizabeth Allen, and Paige Polcene
Photo by

Johnna Adams’s Gidion’s Knot, as presented by the Furious Theater Company in Pasadena, was one of the more scintillating local attractions of 2013. It brought together two women under great strain—a mother whose little boy had committed suicide, and the teacher charged with looking out for him—and in the course of 90 gripping minutes led them into solving a mystery and reaching an epiphany.
   Adams’s new play is another confrontation between women in extremis: A Midwestern mom, whose daughter was murdered by Central American guerrillas, pays a visit to the daughter’s lesbian lover who survived the deadly encounter. Yet, as staged by Long Beach’s Garage Theater, Sans Merci is every bit as flaccid and maladroit as the earlier work was taut and accomplished.
   There’s no urgency to the mutual investigation this time—the fateful trip is long behind the characters by the time the play begins—and almost no sparks are set off over two and a half hours’ worth of benign clashes. Flashbacks to the daughter’s political awakening seem all too obviously based on, and exploitative of, the real life drama of Rachel Corrie, while the sexual awakening, played at snail’s pace, comes across as extraneous. The three actors—Cassie Vail Yeager as survivor Kelly; Paige Polcene as mom Elizabeth; Ashley Elizabeth Allen as the dead girl—work hard and tear many passions to tatters, but without creating suspense or weight.
   As heavy-handed as the writing is, blame for the outcome must rest on the shoulders of helmer Katie Chidester. Adams just indicates it’s raining, but it’s the director who chooses to run a loud, nonstop loop of monsoon sounds beneath the action. Though the play is set in LA, there’s more deluge than in Noah; after a while you literally can’t hear yourself think.
   Adams insists on having Elizabeth quote Keats at length (don’t ask), but it’s the director who sees to it that the recitations are flat and lifeless. In Act 2, the playwright asks for a lengthy silent sequence as Elizabeth divvies up her daughter’s possessions. It’s a poor idea, especially because Kelly has already recited the contents chapter and verse, but it’s the director who blocks the action so far upstage that we can’t possibly get anything out of it. These and other dubious staging choices defer any possibility of our becoming involved in, or moved by, a piteous situation.
   It’s a disappointing outing for a hungry and ambitious company, but one hopes the company recoups next time.

April 9, 2014
April 4­–26. 251 E. 7th St., Long Beach. Fri-Sat 8pm. $15–20. (562) 433-8337.

For the Record: Tarantino

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Quentin Tarantino in background
Photo by Rony Alwin

For the record, For the Record: Tarantino has safely made the transition from the small and cramped Rockwell’s in Los Feliz Village to the larger but also cramped DBA, former site of the Peanuts nitery, in WeHo. The sightlines are better, but the booze is still flowing and the fun is no less infectious.
   The “For the Record” series formula begins with the selection of a noted filmmaker whose work leans heavily on distinctive pop music. (As examples, auteurs previously honored to date include Baz Luhrmann, Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, and Garry Marshall.) The chosen oeuvre is pored over for iconic speeches and scenes, which are then spliced ’n’ diced and Cuisinarted along with solo and group performances of soundtrack songs by a company of nine, in pursuit of what it says here is “a live music immersive concert experience.”
   I would’ve thought “an immersive live music experience” was itself a definition of a “concert,” but why quibble? However you define the revues devised by adapter-director Anderson Davis, they’re always light on their feet and propulsively musical, the more so depending on the nature of the films and their given tunes. Which is to say that For the Record: Tarantino is hard to beat as a source, given the psychedelic characters and unforgettable musical set pieces from the likes of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Reservoir Dogs. The cast at DBA, as if set afire by the excitement of the material handed to it, does it up brown. (Jackie Brown, that is.)

Those familiar with the movies will be best able to appreciate the crazily twisted musical settings (the torturer and victim of Reservoir Dogs engage in a duet to “Stuck in the Middle With You”), and witty character transformations (the Uma Thurman of Pulp doesn’t have to move a muscle to become the assaulted Black Mamba of Kill Bill). On the other hand, who isn’t immersed in the Tarantino filmography nowadays—especially, youthful crowds inclined to a rowdy good time on a Saturday night? And probably even the snobbiest buff, one who wouldn’t be caught dead at the likes of Death Proof, couldn’t help but enjoy the talent and energy bouncing off all four walls of the expanded performance space. He’d be lost as the various mishmashed plots start to come together in the second act, but he’d be entertained for sure.
   Photographic evidence indicates that the celebrated “Q” himself has been in appreciative attendance accompanied by Demi Moore, and surely both were amused to see Moore’s daughter Rumer Willis take on the Thurman role in papa Bruce’s Pulp Fiction. You never know who’ll be “on” any given night; the producers keep some two-dozen troupe members on call so that the show never has to go dark. Willis’s pipes aren’t the strongest, but she’s game and wields a mean Hattori Hanzo sword, you betcha. As a matter of fact, on opening night all the women seemed to have more fun, and more to do, than the men—not surprisingly, given Tarantino’s predilection for giving ladies the lion’s share of his juiciest action.

Fair warning: Some will find problematic, and even disturbing, the inclusion of material from Inglourious Basterds and, especially, Django Unchained: Wacky shootings of mobsters are one thing, but when the victims are Jews hidden under the floorboards and the N-word is carelessly tossed around, you may find your hilarity choked off a bit.

March 31, 2014
March 27–May 17. Thu-Sun 8pm. $35­–55.

(directions/address given to only those who purchase tickets)

God Only Knows
Theatre 40 in the Reuben Cordoba Theatre

Reviewed by Julio Martinez

Pippa Hinchley, Wendy Radford, David Hunt Stafford, Ron Bottita, and Chet Grissom
Photo by Ed Krieger

Here’s an explanation for why it has taken so long for acclaimed British playwright Hugh Whitemore’s (Pack of Lies, Breaking the Code) 2001 “mystery thriller” God Only Knows to receive a US production: It is a dramaturgical nightmare. The game five-member ensemble here might have been capable of instilling at least some emotional texture into this turgid march through Christianity’s wobbly history, but the actors are hampered by helmer David McClendon’s static staging.
   Played out on designer Jeff G. Rack’s attractive Tuscan farmhouse veranda, the opening scene begins to lay out the promising social dynamic between two vacationing middle-aged English couples. Tightly wound architect Charles (Chet Grissom) and cheerful wife, Eleanor (Pippa Hinchley) are involved in the final stages of a Monopoly game with determined-to-get-soused screenwriter Vin (David Hunt Stafford) and his mildly disapproving spouse, Kate (Wendy Radford).
   The four are engaging enough to make the audience wonder where the characters might have taken us if we had been allowed to follow the early stages of friction that appears to be building between always-in-command Charles and softly resentful Vin. Instead, Whitemore thrusts the four into the background as the rest of play is completely taken over by a dazed Humphrey Biddulph (Ron Bottitta), who stumbles onto the veranda after smashing his car into a tree at the entrance to the farmhouse.

Once it is haltingly established that obviously paranoid Humphrey is a British scholar, recently employed by the Vatican, and that he has come into possession of a document showing that the biblical account of the resurrection of Christ was a hoax and Humphrey now fears for his life, all semblance of an ensemble play disappears. It is now the Humphrey show, disseminating reams of historical information for most of the play, occasionally swatting away any attempts at refutation by his four-member captive audience. Botttitta’s pitifully life-beaten Biddulph commands this work, as certain of his atheism as he is that the powers of religious orthodoxy will never allow him to survive. He appears more sad than self-righteous as he deals with the ignorant prattling of his hosts.
   McClendon fails to capitalize on the inherent humor of the situation. It is established that the vacationers are well-educated and have distinct personalities, yet they embody deer-in-the-headlights catatonia for most of the play, further anaesthetized by endless pourings of wine. Even when the second act turns into a pseudo debate on the existence of God—pitting Humphrey’s raging atheism against assertions of the four about salvation—it is reduced to personality-less academic bantering.
   Under McClendon’s guidance, this would have been a perfect situation for the members of the quartet to enliven the proceedings. Yet they are ultimately defeated. The most moving moment comes when Radford’s Kate timidly asks, “Doesn’t it frighten you: nothingness?”

The show’s ending underscores the mystery aspect of this one-sided affair. After all, the whole exercise is based on the premise that Humphrey is who he claims to be and that his life is truly in danger from powerful people who can’t afford to have him reveal what he knows. Mercifully, the production’s ending provides an answer to that mystery.

March 24, 2014
March 20–April 20. 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills (in the parking structure at the back of the campus of Beverly Hills High School, enter at north end of campus, free parking.) Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $24-26. (310) 364-0535

Fiddler on the Roof
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Jason Bornstein, Hollister Starrett, Christopher Stefanik, Samuel Goldman, Bradley Miller, and Martin Feldman
Photo by Shari Barrett

The score of the classic Fiddler on the Roof is among American musical theater’s best. In this production, the music and lyrics get top-tier treatment. But the direction misses opportunities, while so tightly cramming performers into scenes that the audience may fear for the performers’ safety. Among those squandered elements, a too-glib protagonist and his happy-go-lucky wife fail to develop any historical and personal gravitas.
   Based on tales by Sholem Aleichem, with book by Joseph Stein, the story follows Tevye the dairyman in an early 1900s tsarist Russian village. He thinks he rules the roost, but his wife and five daughters show him otherwise. Over the musical’s course, one after the other of his daughters breaks with Jewish tradition, causing Tevye to reassess his beliefs.
   The highlight of this production is its musicality. The score (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) of deservedly well-known classics starts with “Tradition,” describing the prescribed roles of Jewish fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. And from the start, the music direction, by Catherine Rahm, is the star of this show. These are not the best singing voices currently on Los Angeles stages. But when they join together, the harmonies sound lush and plentiful. The chorus works together with astonishing precision, considering that conductor Daniel Gledhill is backstage with the band. The soloists show beautiful phrasing and clarity of expression.

Less successful is Harold Dershimer’s direction and the choreography by Isabella Olivas. While the steps of the dances hew to Russian Jewish tradition—or at least the tradition of Fiddler performances—the group dances mob the stage. Unless the dancers are in precisely the right place, they squeeze by one another at best, bump into each other, or knock bits of costuming off one another at worst.
   Dershimer has let Teyve be so carefree, the musical’s poignancy is lost. In addition, let’s hope the set is kosher, because this Tevye chews plenty of it. Portraying him, Bradley Miller constantly winks at the audience. Throughout, Tevye is completely blithe about pulling his milk cart since his horse became lame. Ultimately forced from his town because of religious hatred, Tevye reacts with a shrug.
   Likewise, Susie McCarthy gives Tevye’s wife none of life’s scars. Golde raised five girls in a hardscrabble environment. She has tolerated Tevye’s, and society’s, patriarchy. And yet she’s sunny and oblivious. Accordingly, there’s no surprise at the end of the couple’s duet, “Do You Love Me?” when indeed she reveals her love.

Fortunately their three eldest daughters are played by actors apparently willing to delve into the reality of their characters’ lives. The glowing Kelsey Nisbett plays the eldest, Tzeitel, with completely fresh reactions to every occurrence in Tzeitel’s life. Her scenes with Nathan Fleischer, playing the hardworking Motel the tailor, are a pleasure to watch as they craft their characters’ longtime devotion to each other.
   Carly Linehan plays second daughter Hodel, who reluctantly but quickly falls for the intellectual, very modern Perchik the student, played by Spencer Johnson. The two actors create visible chemistry, whether gazing at each other across the stage or dancing a forbidden but bouncy polka. Jessica D. Stone seems to understand the weight on third daughter Chava, as she moves farthest from tradition, marrying a Cossack. But because these women are so good onstage, Miller does his best work opposite them, particularly with Stone.
   The fiddler of the title, Tevye tells us, represents their precarious lives. Here the fiddler is middle-schooler Paul Callender-Clewett. If the figure also symbolizes survival and hope, this young violinist suits the role. His tone, precision and focus make his playing one of the production’s highlights as he bookends the show.

March 17, 2014

March 14–April 19. 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $18 ($2 discount for seniors, students, servicemen, and Metro riders). (310) 645-5156.

Theatre Unleashed in association with Mad Magpie at The Belfry

Reviewed by Julio Martinez

Phillip Kelly and Julia Plostnieks

Theatre Unleashed offers an energetic but awkwardly staged rendering of Molière’s 17th- century skewering of religious hypocrisy, Tartuffe aka The Imposter or The Hypocrite. Helmer Jeff Soroka, working from the 2002 translation by British-born Ranjit Bolt, marshals a 10-member ensemble through the machinations of this arch manipulator, hitting all the salient plot points while failing to establish a consistent comedic flow within the action. This is due in part to an uneven ensemble, many members of which struggle to give veracity to the rhymed verse. Also at fault is Soroka’s static staging, complicated by badly placed set pieces that impede the play’s progress rather than facilitating it.
   Soroka’s staging appears to be hindered by The Belfy’s narrow stage area, offering limited opportunity for comedia-esque stage business. The comedy has to come from the interactions of the ensemble. Unfortunately, Orgon’s mother Madame Pernelle (Tracy Collins), brother-in-law Cléante (Jim Martyka), daughter Mariane (Caroline Sharp), son Damis (Corey Lynne Howe), and Mariane’s suitor Valère (Lee Pollero) do not rise to the occasion.

The production does have its pluses. Three characters that decidedly enhance the proceedings are cowardly but ever-opportunistic villain Tartuffe (Phillip Kelly), his arrogant but bumbling foil Orgon (J. Anthony McCarthy), and Orgon’s wily wife Elmire (Julia Plostnieks).
   Kelly’s pious hypocrite invades Orgon’s home like odorous sewer water, insinuating himself into every crevice of opportunity. Tartuffe’s placid façade of piety seems to evolve with every word spoken in his presence: it’s a craven coward when he thinks he has been unmasked, a super-charged bull in heat when attempting have his carnal way with his host’s wife, then a sneering, imperious victor when he believes he has robbed this host of all his possessions.
   McCarthy exudes an admirable balance of comedic pomposity when dealing with his family and abject adoration when in the presence of houseguest Tartuffe. McCarthy’s ability to envelope Bolt’s rhymed dialogue within a finely defined characterization does much to give veracity to Molière’s dramatic throughline. Plostnieks is equally adept in her portrayal of a confident woman who knows how to manipulate a man who is always thinking more with his groin than his brain when in her presence. Also managing to elevate the proceedings are Heather Lake’s scheming maid Dorine and Gregory Crafts’s small outing as arresting bailiff Monsieur Loyal.

March 17, 2014
March 15–April 19. 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood (located on the campus of St. Matthew's Church, street parking available). Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7pm. $30. (818) 849-4039.
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Ruskin Group Theatre

Reviewed by Julio Martinez

Julia Arian, Kathleen O'Grady, and Mark Rimer
Photo by Ed Krieger

Playwright Kathrine Bates bases this world premiere on the true story of middle-aged factory worker Thomas Montgomery’s deranged, murderous Internet chatroom obsession with a supposed teenage girl—as chronicled in Barbara Schroeder’s 2009 film documentary, talhotblond. Since all the tawdry, cold-blooded facts of this case have been well-chronicled, it is expected that Bates would imbue her play with insights that go beyond the mere events leading up to the 2006 murder of Montgomery’s 22-year-old co-worker and Internet rival for this provocative teen’s online affections. As realized by helmer Beverly Olevin and a struggling ensemble, Bates’s straight-ahead dramatic throughline offers no intriguing, revelatory twists or turns; it simply gets there.
   The 90-minute intermissionless piece establishes that 47-year-old Thomas (Mark Rimer) and factory office-mate/part-time college student Alan (John-Paul Lavoisier, alternating with Lane Compton) enjoy an amiable workplace relationship, sharing a mutual attraction to online gaming and casual Internet chatroom distractions to relieve the boredom of the job. Interjecting himself into mix is sarcastic young office clerk Pete (Oscar Cain Rodriguez). When online hottie Jennie (Erin Elizabeth Patrick), AKA talhotblond, insinuates her presence onto his screen and eventually into his psyche, emotionally fragile Thomas’s civil façade begins to crumble.

Rimer works hard at bringing to life the often-redundant scenarios in Thomas’s frustrating courtship of provocatively elusive Jennie; his self-destructive relationship with wife, Cheryl (Kathleen O’Grady), and teenage daughter, Gwen (Julia Arian); and his deep-seated regret about his youthful, failed service in the US Marines—as indicated by his online alter ego, Tommy Marine Sniper (Ben Gavin). But by play’s end, Rimer’s Thomas runs out of material on which to base his angst, so he plows ragingly forward to Bates’s tragic conclusion.
   The playwright provides a few interesting plot points along Thomas’s path of destruction—Cheryl’s discovery of Thomas’s online improprieties and her spiteful communication with Jennie, resulting in Jennie’s vengeful pursuit of Alan—that offer other members of the cast colorful levels to play. O’Grady segues impressively from confused, conciliatory hausfrau to steely-eyed protector of the home front. Patrick conveys a comical pouty resentment when she learns she has been investing her sultry online assets on an aging fraud. And, Arian’s Gwen knows how to be a teenager, exuding the decreasing allegiance of a daughter who has who has reached a maturity that emotionally distances her from her father.

Lavoisier’s Alan appears more confused than alarmed by Thomas’s increasing irrationalism and never establishes a level of veracity when Alan also becomes ensnared by Jennie’s online-transcending allure. Because Jennie’s continuing evasiveness isn’t credible, neither are Alan’s reactions. Rodriguez is properly irreverent as wisecracking Pete but hasn’t quite mastered the supposedly easy flow of Pete’s dialogue. Gavin’s woodenness as Marine Sniper should be alleviated by more time with the role. And Mary Carrig’s Rose Shieler—the middle-aged Internet deceiver who actually ensnared the hearts of these two fallible men—projects a believable smug pride in being able to pull it off.
   Jeff Faeth’s set, Mike Reilly’s lighting, and Marc Olevin’s sound do much to establish the complicated environments surrounding this Internet-age tragedy within the limited playing area of the Ruskin.

March 11, 2014
March 7–April 26. 3000 Airport Ave. (Free parking in the lot in front of the theater.) Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $20-25. (310) 397-3244.

My Name Is Asher Lev
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Neal Weaver

Jason Karasev, Anna Khaja, and Joel Polis
Photo by Ed Krieger

The novel My Name Is Asher Lev, by the late Chaim Potok, is a bildungsroman about the youth and coming of age of a young artist, whose vocation as a painter puts him at odds with his religious faith, his family, and his community. The novel offers an interior drama, as well as an expansive view covering a period of 20 years with a multitude of characters.
   This left Aaron Posner, who was adapting the novel for the stage, with a dilemma. “…I wanted the focus to be on Asher,” Posner has said. “His passionate perspective had to be at the center. Yet…I felt sure that a sprawling, multicharacter realistic drama would not successfully portray Asher’s particular struggle.” Posner’s solution, after much thought and work, was to pare away everything except the crux of the story and to employ only three actors: one to play Asher, and the other two to play his parents and all the other important people in his life.

Asher is born into the narrow, strict, passionately devout Hasidic Jewish community in Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. He is, almost from infancy, dedicated to drawing, arousing anger and resentment in his father, who can’t understand why the boy wants to waste his time on that nonsense instead of working and cultivating his faith. The mother, Rivka, is more sympathetic, but she’s forced to become a buffer between her strong-willed husband and her equally stubborn son.
   Things come to a head when the embattled father discovers that his son is drawing pictures of naked women and, worse still, of the Crucifixion. It seems to the old man that his son has gone over to the enemy, embracing everything that is forbidden, evil, and inimical to the Jewish cause. Asher is able to able to partially mollify his father by invoking the traditions of the art world. “I understand tradition,” the old man says. But the gap between them continues to widen as the demands of an artist’s life are increasingly at odds with the values he grew up with. Finally, Asher is forced to realize that there is no way to reconcile the conflicting points of view, and he must make a gut-wrenching choice.
   All too often, theater has treated art and religious belief facilely and simplistically, but Posner, and Potok, have pondered these matters long and hard, and accord them the dignity and complexity they deserve.

Director Stephen Sachs has assembled a terrific trio of actors for his production, and he directs them with sensitivity and finesse. Jason Karasev etches a persuasive portrait of Asher, from his childhood as a willful but winning kid, to his shy and puritanical adolescence as a young Hasid who’s terrified of the prospect of doing a life drawing of a naked woman, to his growing worldliness as a gifted and successful artist.
   Anna Khaja reveals her versatility as the anguished mother Rivka, an insouciant but tactful artist’s model, and a rich, sophisticated, and knowledgeable gallery owner. Joel Polis skillfully plays an even greater variety of roles, including the hide-bound, fiercely protective father; Rivka’s bon vivant brother; the elderly Rebbe who is the Hasidic community’s spiritual leader; and the secular Jew and dedicated painter who teaches Asher that his art makes demands that are just as fierce as those of his religion.

February 24, 2014
Feb. 22–May 18. 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Secure, on-site parking, $5.Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. $25-34. (323) 663-1525.

A Steady Rain
Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Thomas Vincent Kelly and Sal Viscuso
Photo by Enci

A steady rain falls on the lives of two Chicago cops, but it can’t wash away the pain and hatred and guilt that live in them. Though one seems to be the “good cop” and the other “bad,” nothing is clear-cut in this Keith Huff play.
   We hope pilots aren’t fretting about their stock portfolios and heart surgeons aren’t fuming over a fight they had with their spouses the night before, at the time when we need their attention the most. But the two beat cops here were clearly distracted while ostensibly patrolling. Frustration has been simmering in Joey and Denny because they’ve been passed over for promotions to detective. Denny is intent on crushing the dealer/pimp whom Denny believes threw a rock into the front window of his family home. And one of the cops is in love with the other one’s wife. Distractions, indeed. When the pair misses clear signals that a young boy needs the help of the police, theatrical tragedy strikes.

There are a few moments here when director Jeff Perry overdoes. At one point, seemingly to differentiate time and place and purpose, he puts one of his actors under only a single light, the rest of the stage in blackness, and then never does it again. Either one of us among the audience missed the point, or Perry didn’t trust his audience to get the import of the moment. This script does not need ornamentation. It needs the kind of subtle work he and his cast do the rest of the time.
   And so, Perry and actors Thomas Vincent Kelly and Sal Viscuso immerse themselves in this cold, dark, rainy world for an engrossing hour and a half. The actors play best friends from childhood, cops who toe a thin blue line between law enforcement and vigilantism, men who watch over each other but perhaps aren’t the best guardians. Viscuso seethes and Kelly shrinks. Kelly melts and Viscuso congeals. Viscuso gets defensive and Kelly defends. For the most part, Viscuso’s Denny is the “bad cop,” but he acts out of misplaced loyalty and out of stubbornness born of prejudices, so we pity more than loathe him. Kelly’s Joey acts out of loneliness, filling a void where he sees one, landing a bit of right-place-right-time luck whether or not he deserves it.
   With Perry’s direction here at its best, the actors, sharply focused and painting in small strokes, create a world the audience can clearly feel. And what a relief it is when the actors take their bows and we can leave that dangerous, brother-against-brother, world behind and get in out of the rain.

February 27, 2014
Feb. 22–May 11. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. There is wheelchair access. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Also selected Weds and Thurs. Running time 1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission. $12.50-30. (310) 477-2055.

Second City

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Amanda Blake Davis and Robyn Norris

Sometimes theater is about humankind’s greatest achievers. Sometimes it’s about supremely tragic figures. And sometimes, as with this show, it’s about the rest of us.
   A group of Second City’s fine performers went off piste and conducted a social experiment. After Robyn’s (Robyn Norris) friend posted a profile on a dating site and asked Robyn to check it over, Robyn set up an account to access the site. Robyn created the outlandish profile of an admittedly “crazy-insane person” she named TracyLovesCats. A shockingly large number of men—and women—responded, begging for various forms of contact with “Tracy.”
   Norris’s fellow troupe members Chris Alvarado, Rob Belushi, Amanda Blake Davis, Kate Duffy, and Bob Ladewig joined in, posting outrageous profiles no one could possibly think were anything other than a joke. These performers’ “sketch” show, Undateable, re-enacts verbatim the heartfelt responses by real, everyday people to these perverse personals.
   So, even though Rob (Belushi) pushed the intimacy-phobic envelope with DoorSlamEric, women think Eric is dateable. And although PioneerInABox (Kate Duffy) gets busted (she claims to function as if in the 1860s, yet she’s online), she manages to lure interest. Even Amanda’s (Blake Davis) age-questionable Old4U75 appeals to a prospective beau.
   The show, a fascinating concept, is well-structured and is imaginatively directed by Frank Caeti. It is also, of course, hilarious, though a strong strain of sympathy runs through it. And even though the show has been running for months, the performers have fresh energy. These performers are more interested in telling their story than in “being funny,” so the laughs come from the audience’s self-recognition and not from any obnoxious stage-hogging shenanigans.
   The troupe sings and dances—and not badly—to enhance several of their “scientific” points about romantic behavior. A few minutes of improv at the end of the show reflect the performers’ well-honed chops.
   Locational cautions: The venue is in Hollywood where street parking has a two-hour limit, metered until midnight on Fridays. The show is a mere one hour, but it undoubtedly will start a few minutes late. In addition, the theater is upstairs, and the site has no elevator. But if you’re swift and spry, head on up there for a dose of reality. It will probably provide you with more than several hearty belly laughs. It might also make you weep for mankind.

August 19, 2013

6560 Hollywood Blvd. Fri 9pm. $10.

Sage Awards
for theater in 2013

   Who says critics don’t like anything? Our theater critics chose their tops of 2013, from best production through best fight choreography, and the crossover among our choices gave rise to a surprisingly large list.
   And so we have decided to inaugurate our Sage Awards—named for the obvious reference to the wisdom we hope for, but also for the plant that covers the Los Angeles area, as we do.
   Congratulations to the Sage Award winners, and we hope to share more great theater in 2014.


Ah, Wilderness!, Actors Co-op

El Grande de Coca Cola, Ruskin Group Theatre

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine

Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre  

Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre

The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre


Jennifer Haley, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Bruce Norris, A Parallelogram, Mark Taper Forum

Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine

Christopher Shinn, Dying City, Rogue Machine

Jackie Sibblies Drury, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre


David Ives, The Liar, Antaeus Company

Nancy Keystone, Alcestis, The Theatre @ Boston Court

Jessica Kubzansky, R II, The Theatre @ Boston Court


Joe Iconis, The Black Suits, Kirk Douglas Theatre

John Kander and Fred Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre


Matthew McCray, Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre

Michael Peretzian, Dying City, Rogue Machine

Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Ken Sawyer, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre


Dennis Castellano, The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory

Eric Heinly, A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

Ross Seligman, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Robyn Wallace, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Chance Theater  


Rob Ashford, Evita, Pantages Theatre

Matthew Bourne, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Lee Martino, Nuttin’ but Hutton, NoHo Arts Center

Arlene Phillips, The Wizard of Oz, Pantages Theatre

Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

Kelly Todd, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Chance Theater


Ken Merckx, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within


Adrian W. Jones, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Keith Mitchell, Billy & Ray, Falcon Theatre

Allen Moyer, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Jeanine A. Ringer, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Thomas A. Walsh, Annapurna, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Evidence Room, at Odyssey Theatre


Ken Booth, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Paule Constable, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Christopher Kuhl, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

David Lander, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Justin Townsend, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse


Angela Balogh Calin, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Lez Brotherston, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Michael Krass, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts


Jonathan Snipes, Wait Until Dark, Geffen Playhouse


Mark Bramhall (grandfather), Walking the Tightrope, 24th STreet Theatre

Phil Crowley (Nat Miller, father), Ah, Wilderness!, Actors Co-Op

Jason Dechert (young Pericles and pandar), Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Arye Gross (Mr. Sipos), Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center

Robert Lesser (lawyer/Greek chorus), A View From the Bridge, Pacific Resident Theater

Dakin Matthews (Doyle), The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Seth Numrich (Eli), Slipping, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at Lillian Theatre

Deborah Strang (narrator), Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Paige Lindsey White (Esme the granddaughter), Walking the Tightrope, 24th STreet Theatre


Sabrina Elayne Carten (Blues Singer), One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Nate Dendy (The Mute), The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory

Mary Bridget Davies (Janis), One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Jamie McKnight (Scarecrow), The Wizard of Oz, Pantages Theatre

Josh Young (Che), Evita, Pantages Theatre


Lorenzo Pisoni, Humor Abuse, Mark Taper Forum


The Katrina Comedy Fest, Bayou Playhouse and Flambeaux Productions at Lounge Theatre: Peggy Blow, Deidrie Henry, Travis Michael Holder***, Judy Jean Berns, L. Trey Wilson, and Jan Munroe

One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine: Giovanni Adams, Kevin Daniels, Jason Delane, Matt Jones, Ty Jones, Jason E. Kelley, Burl Moseley, and Jah Shams

Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre: Melina Bielefelt, Sharyn Gabriel, Matt Kirkwood, Michael Nehring, Gary Patent, Gavin Peretti, Sarah Roseberg, Kiff Scholl, Dan Via, and Alexander Wells

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre: Johanna Chase, Paul Haitkin, Michael Hanson, Elizabeth Herron, Carl J. Johnson, Che Landon, Ed F. Martin, Ann Noble, Dylan Seaton, Christine Sloane, and Paul Witten

The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre: Gilbert L. Bailey II, David Bazemore, Ayanna Berkshire, Shavey Brown, Christopher James Culberson, Joshua Henry, Trent Armand Kendall, Max Kumangai, Hal Linden, JC Montgomery, Justin Prescott, Clinton Roane, Cedric Sanders, Deandre Sevon, Christian Dante White, and C. Kelly Wright

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre: Daniel Bess, Julanne Chidi Hill, Joe Holt, Phil LaMarr, Rebecca Mozo, and John Sloan

***Travis Michael Holder reviews for He did not nominate himself, nor did he nominate his show.

The voting theater critics of Travis Michael Holder, Dany Margolies, Julio Martinez, Dink O’Neal, Melinda Schupmann, and Bob Verini

January 5, 2014

South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Lynn MIlgrim and Sue Cremin
Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR

A skeleton staff and a few hanger-on residents are the last occupants of the dilapidated Northern Idaho rest home in Samuel D. Hunter’s Rest. This hardy little band must cope with two impending catastrophes—the facility’s closing and a monstrous blizzard—and a dozen or more personal bumps. The South Coast Rep design department does well by the former in the play’s world premiere, but helmer Martin Benson and his fine cast have problems with the intimate travails. The playwright hasn’t done much to help out.
   Set designer John Iacovelli does an incisive, detailed job in crafting the institutional environment of a depressing nursing home lobby. Special kudos for the cruddy gray paint which clearly someone chose as calming, but which makes the heart sink the more one has to look at it. Donna Ruzika’s lighting and Michael Roth’s sound convey the growing darkness and dimensions of the snowstorm, with an amusing special effect as the sliding glass doors never open when egress is desired, but magically, periodically float apart unbidden. The latter is especially amusing during the period when a patient goes missing: Every time the doors open, the entire cast turns as one to see whether it’s this guy, come back.

That missing patient, Gerald (Richard Doyle), the Alzheimer’s-afflicted hubby of Etta (Lynn Milgrim), is but one of the aforementioned crises that befall this septet; or two, if you count his mental state and disappearance. The list goes on to encompass one surrogate pregnancy, now repented; two marriages in trouble; one messy divorce; one extreme case of achluophobia (fear of darkness); one increasingly empty larder; and an across-the-board sense of dislocation as everyone, employee and resident alike, will have to pack up and ship out in a very short time.
   Being locked in, out of touch with the outside world, would seem to offer a lot of opportunity for action and for reflection. Yet, when you come right down to it, how often have characters provided exciting drama while trapped by a blizzard? The Mousetrap and Murder on the Orient Express, I guess; maybe The Shining; but all of those involved playing cat-and-mouse murder games. Here, there’s nothing much to do except poke around for the missing patient, which no one does very vigorously. The play’s barely two hours but it feels double that; it becomes quite stultifying.

That leaves reflection as the main pastime. But look at how Hunter has set things up. The pregnancy is made four months advanced, taking abortion off the table. The divorce has already gone through, and the displaced patients have already arranged for new lodgings, so those are nonissues. And one member of the most at-risk marriage isn’t present, so we can’t get any couple discord. In other words, the playwright has deliberately placed all of his characters off the hook in terms of urgency, immediacy, and decision-making. No one has anything to decide or do, so they sit. And talk. About very, very little indeed.
   Also objectionable is the shaky morality as applied to one of the characters. Without spoiling anything, suffice it to say that people’s lives are unnecessarily and deliberately set at risk, and an awful crime is committed, yet the perp is given both a Get Out of Jail Free card (from the others, which seems wrong) and a moral free pass (from the author, which is even more egregious).
   But the biggest problem with Rest is that too much is at rest. A talented cast and respectful director (perhaps too respectful; it wouldn’t hurt if Benson would light a fire under these folks) simply can’t perform enough CPR to keep the evening from flatlining.

April 17, 2014
April 4–27. 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tue-Wed 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 2:30pm & 7:30pm. $43-72. (714) 708-5555.

Everything You Touch
The Theatre @ Boston Court and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at Boston Court

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Kirsten Vangsness at center
Photo by Ed Krieger

Wise men of some distant generation insisted true beauty is more than skin deep, but in the jarring world premiere of Sheila Callaghan’s most recent whimsical yet disquieting exploration of youthful 21st-century angst, a less-than-perfect-sized young urbanite desperately tries to swim among the sharks inhabiting the image-conscious world of the fashion industry.
   As Jess (Kirsten Vangsness) wonders if the only thing she’ll ever be good at is longing, she shoves mounds of Chipotle fast food into her mouth to approximate gratification as easily and quickly as possible, while contemplating her consumer-perfect surroundings: “The music is globally responsive, the patrons are coiffed, and all the brushed-metal trimmings and exposed ductwork and blond wood and track lighting is not like you’re just buying a subpar Mexican meal—you're buying a lifestyle.” Below Jess’s calloused surface and grungy flannel-and-army surplus exterior, she is clinging to life, gasping for breath, and fighting off a healthy dose of self-loathing with studied self-deprecation.
   Even after three days spent in bed with the most recent in a long string of utilitarian anonymous sex partners, Jess has yet to figure out what makes her tick, getting turned on by her new lover’s vicious string of verbal insults about the size of her ass (“It looks like Orson Welles in a tank top,” he croons amorously) as a warped substitute for emotion. She shrugs, takes a pull on her turkey jerky, and tells him with an indifferent air, “I don't have friends, I don't date, I just fuck. I’m like your mother’s worst nightmare. Self-employed, self-destructive, and omnivorous.”

Skipping back and forth in time, the unraveling story of how Jess’s monumental cynicism turned potentially deadly is told in tandem with the tale of Victor (Tyler Pierce), a struggling 1970s haute fashion designer who, bored with his own century, looks for artistic inspiration in the kind of person who “eats leather, roots, and feces.” Although the gorgeous, physically perfect Esme (Kate Maher) has been the muse for Victor’s current controversial early Christian Lacroix–esque haute couture line, elevating him from making clothes for himself and “designing costumes for an impoverished theater company,” she is soon replaced by Louella (Amy French), a plain suburban Midwestern spinster who comes to his salon looking like Ethel Mertz dressed to go to Ricky’s club, a Tupperware container of homemade cupcakes in hand for her idol after winning a radio contest to meet him.
   As the two stories intersect and collide, somehow Jess, living in the present, and Victor, stuck in the 1970s, weave together in what at first seems a mystifying, confusing manner. Eventually, however, how these two miserable creatures connect is what makes this play so amazingly provocative and so twisted, so monumentally disturbing, and eventually so poignantly human.

Vangsness is a force of life as Jess, her performance without filter, without hesitation, and visually incredibly courageous; hers is the most arresting performance by an actor on any LA stage so far this year. French and Maher are also exceptional, as is Arthur Keng as Lewis, Jess’s terminally nerdy co-worker whose undying love for her is expressed as only he knows how: bringing up the resailing of the World War II ship Saratoga, blurting out a few scattered fart jokes, and stating that he’d “rather gag himself with an insulated chip insertion extraction clipper than make out with the fembots in the sales department” of their company. As Jess goes off with her latest random pump, Lewis obviously pines for that position, warning her by voice message not to let him stay for more than four days or “he’ll sell your bike and leave pit stains in your T-shirts.”
   Callaghan’s bizarre, penetratingly poetic dialogue must be a challenge for any director, which is why this play is lucky to be in the capable deft hands of director Jessica Kubzansky. François-Pierre Couture designed the stunningly sparse set, and John Burton created the Dali-like props from mannequin parts. Other design elements include wildly painterly projections by Adam Flemming; creamy yet stark lighting by Jeremy Pivnik; and an echoing, clanky sound design by John Zalewski, who also contributes a quiet but haunting original music score.

Above all, though, the most obvious design star here is Jenny Foldenaur’s 130-plus costumes, some of which are seen for only moments in runway parades, worn by three gorgeous model types (Allegra Rose Edwards, Chelsea Fryer, and Candice Lam), who double throughout as stagehands to change scenes, often staying around to play towel racks, bubblegum machines, and telephones, crazy props and accessories placed over their leotards scored to look as if they were window dummy parts that could be detached at will.
   Seldom does anything make such a spirited and elaborate point while telling a story so simple at its core. Callaghan is the theatrical poet laureate of her generation, and we are lucky to be around as she continues to make clear what a mess our species has become with such delicate grace camouflaged by her wicked, unpredictable, wonderfully dark humor.

April 15, 2014
April 12–May 11. 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $34, discounts available. (626) 683-6883.

Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Performing Arts Center

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

Rebecca Spencer, Ashley Fox Linton, Jeff Skowron, and Rebecca Ann Johnson
Caught in the Moment Photography

It would seem that producing a musical featuring the melodies of George Gershwin with the lyrics of his elder brother, Ira, would be simplicity itself, as their work has been acknowledged as among the greatest collaborations in musical theater history. The work has been recognized universally as remarkable for its breadth of style and sophisticated musicality. It was said that the music had “one foot in Tin Pan Alley and the other in Carnegie Hall.” Conceived and written by director Ray Roderick, this production is an ambitious undertaking, attempting to elevate the work beyond the standard, plain-wrap musical revues so common in musical theater.
   One of the successes of this production is its casting. The five principals—Rebecca Johnson, Damon Kirsche, Ashley Fox Linton, Jeff Skowron, and Rebecca Spencer—have much experience collectively in musical theater, with well-trained voices suited to Roderick’s choices of the Gershwins’s works.

The show is broken up into five mini-plays—beginning with New York City, 1928, showcasing selections including the popular “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” and “Stairway to Paradise.” Roderick also features lesser-known works from early plays, such as “Boy Wanted” and “Soon.” A clever montage in which the actors pretend to be typing to “I’ve Got Rhythm” is a highlight. The second section takes place in New Orleans, 1957, and includes more-serious pieces “Summertime” and “The Man I Love,” powerfully delivered by Spencer. As a contrast, “By Strauss” with Spencer, Johnson, and Skowron has a comic moment with clever Viennese costumes.
   Paris, 1939 is the third segment, with impressionistic French paintings as a backdrop for “Fascinating Rhythm,” with Linton and Kirsche, and An American in Paris montage followed by “Our Love Is Here to Stay” with all five cast members. The wartime setting adds a nice touch to Kirsche’s “Somebody Loves Me” and Linton and Kirsche’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”

Originally written as a 90-minute cabaret revue for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, this production has been reworked and expanded to its present two-plus hours with the intent of developing a storyline. The last two vignettes after intermission have arguably less impact than the first three; one is set in Hollywood, 1948, and the last in the present. Though the music of this portion features well-known numbers “Funny Face,” “Do, Do, Do,” and “Swanee,” and standards “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and “Embraceable You,” there may be a bit of music fatigue by this time with such a panoply of more than 40 tunes.

Choreography by Charlie Williams is spirited and greatly enhances the numbers. Skowron and Linton are standouts, though all five performers acquit themselves well in the many dancing scenes. Costumes by Deborah Roberts are many and varied, jazzing up the storyline, again far exceeding a typical showcase. Musical director Bret Simmons and combo provide the excitement of live music accompanying the Gershwin canon. Musical arrangements by Rick Hip-Flores are notable. Set design by Kevin Clowes, lighting by Jeff Warner, and sound by Brian S. Hsieh work well in concert on the large stage at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center.
   From the lovely clarinet intro from “Rhapsody in Blue” at the beginning to the reprise of “I Got Rhythm” at the conclusion, older folks can appreciate a revival of Gershwin tunes and a new generation can see first-hand why the brothers have been so revered. One can only imagine what future music might have been produced if George had not suffered an untimely death at age 38.

April 14, 2014
April 4–20. 6200 E. Atherton Street, Long Beach. Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $17-85, “all tickets are subject to a $3 service charge.” (562) 856-1999, ext. 4.

White Marriage
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Reviewed by Neal Weaver

Austin Rodgers and Mark Bramhall
Photo by Enci Box

Why would Bianca, a seemingly normal young woman, want to contract a “white”—i.e., unconsummated—marriage? That’s the question raised by Polish poet-playwright Tadeusz Różewicz’s surreal 1974 play. (The translation is by Adam Czerniawaki.) It’s set in an insular Polish town around the turn of the 19th century. On the surface it looks like a Chekhov play, with its family gatherings, picnics, and intimate conversations. But it blows the lid off Chekhov by examining the sexual underpinnings in a way no 19th century-writer could have done. And the family at the center of the play—we’re never told its last namecertainly—has its sexual kinks.
   The Father (John Apicella) is a ruthless sexual predator for whom any woman is fair game, whether it’s the Cook (Sharon Powers), the Milk Maid (Sarah Lydden), or a passing Nun (Yulia Moiseenko). He roars like a lion and charges like a maddened bull. The Mother (Diana Cignoni) is a bitter woman, who loathes the man her family chose for her and is therefore essentially frigid. The Grandfather (Mark Bramhall) is an onanistic fetishist and child molester, with a penchant for sadistic games. The Aunt (Beth Hogan) is a romantic figure whose husband died of a seizure while attempting to consummate their marriage, and now, she declares, she doesn’t wear bloomers in either winter or summer.
   The nubile eldest daughter, Bianca (Kate Dalton), is traumatized by the fact that she can’t look at a man without seeing, in her mind’s eye at least, his penis. The younger daughter, Pauline (Emily Goss), with a voracious appetite for food and—prospectively, at least—for sex, extorts presents from her Grandfather in exchange for allowing him to act out his fantasies with her, and she launches a flamboyant attempt to seduce Bianca’s naïve fiancé Benjamin (Austin Rogers). So perhaps it’s understandable that Bianca wants a white marriage.
Różewicz tells his story objectively, without explaining or passing judgement. But he utilizes vivid Rabelaisian fantasies to dramatize the split between our high-minded morality and our baser instincts. The Father sometimes appears with the head of a bull and is repeatedly seen in hot pursuit of the Cook, a bare-breasted woman, and the aforementioned nun. And in a familiar expressionist trope, the guests at the wedding banquet wear grotesque animal masks and gobble their delicacies like hogs at a trough.

White marriages are not exactly a hot-button issue in the US in the 21st century, but the piece is fascinating in its own right and as a historical document. Director Ron Sossi gives it a bizarre, colorful, uninhibited production on Gary Guidinger’s handsome black-and-white set, with art nouveau interiors set against a backdrop of trees in an ominous-looking forest. Costumer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg provides handsomely demure 19th-century gowns for the ladies and sober, Victorian coats for the men. The specialty props—presumably including the many penises, masks, and the phallic wedding cake—are by Leah N. Olbrich.
   Sossi has cast the piece beautifully, with bold performances by Dalton and Goss, and sharp, crisp character work by the entire ensemble.

April 9, 2014

April 5–May 25. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. There is wheelchair access. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Also Wed 8pm April 23, May 7. Also Thu 8pm May 1, 15, 22. $25-30. (310) 477-2055.

The Last Act of Lilka Kadison
The Falcon Theatre, Abbie Phillips and Jan Kallish in Association With Lookingglass Theatre Company at Falcon Theatre

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz

Mindy Sterling and Usman Ally
Photo by Michael Lamont

Everyone suffers from ghosts, either the memories of past decisions that haunt them or the people with whom they never had closure. A Jewish survivor of Hitler’s invasion, the title character here has many lingering phantoms in this moving tale of love, loss, and buried secrets.
   In her cluttered home, the exasperating 87-year-old Lilith Fisher (Mindy Sterling) lies dormant on her chair, recovering from a broken hip. Her husband recently died, and her son has hired a Pakistani healthcare worker (Usman Ally) as a caregiver, much to her chagrin. As the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of Poland’s fall to the Nazis, Lilith confronts her past when the apparition of her childhood love returns to remind her of long-locked-away memories.
   Just before the tanks bulldozed into her homeland, the 17-year-old Lilith (Brittany Uomoleale), whose European maiden name was Lilka Kadison, meets a beguiling performer who expands her limited education. Lilka has grown up in a religious home, responsible for caring for her younger siblings, drawing her strength of purpose from Bible stories as infallible gospel truth. Ben Ari (Nicholas Cutro) satirizes the biblical stories she loves, to her consternation. He begs her to write his new puppet show, based on the tale of Solomon and the queen of Sheba. Lilka discovers love with this handsome young suitor, only to have World War II too soon split them apart. The specter Ben returns to Lillian these many years later, touching her heart again and pleading to be acknowledged. But can Lillian expose the painful secret she has held concealed for 70 years?

Director Dan Bonnell has launched a poignant, lyrical, and visually clever production. The cast is impeccable. Sterling’s depth as a woman 27 years older than herself will pleasantly surprise those who know the actor only from the Austin Powers movies as the comically insane Frau Farbissina. She manages to be cranky and irascible, but also grounded in a deep sadness and loneliness. As the caregiver, Ally holds his own, never allowing this angry lady to steal his self-esteem but also being a conduit for Lillian to unleash her sorrow when she’s ready to confront her past. Uomoleale manages to be both naïve and wise as the young girl who never realized she was hungry for life. Her chemistry with the charismatic Cutro makes the flashback scenes all the more illuminating.
   With set designer Melissa Ficociello and toy designer Susan Simpson, Bonnell utilizes props with panache, having a room full of boxes turned into a graveyard with just the flip of a foot. The puppet shows are striking, both the shadow images and the tableaus. With costumer Ann Closs-Farley, Bonnell even visually pays homage to Grimm’s fairy tales while the characters work on Bible tales. Lilka wears a red dress (like Red Riding Hood) as her young “wolf” leads her off the expected path. Instead of death, the image evokes burgeoning sexuality.
   The script—by Nicola Behrman, David Kersnar, Abbie Phillips, Heidi Stillman, and Andy White—has a cohesiveness and a singular voice that is often not found in projects written by multiple people. The dialogue is poignant and bolsters the audience’s understanding of the characters’ motives. The writers consciously left Lilka’s journey from 1939 to present day murky, which is a valid choice. This writer, however, spent so much time being distracted by guessing (based on the limited information) how she got from point A to point B, that a little clarification may have constructed—not hindered—the audience’s connection to her plight.

A different take on the Holocaust, The Last Act of Lilka Kadison brings memories, magic, toys, and a touch of the supernatural to a tale that in the end is universal for any audience; a life in review, one filled with happiness and regret that must be confronted before one can die in peace.

April 9, 2014

March 28–April 27. 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm. $29.50-57. (818) 955-8101.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Bristol Old Vic in association with Handspring Puppet Company at The Broad Stage

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

The Bristol Old Vic company
Photo by Tristram Kenton

Something is unusual about a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Hippolyta is the most interesting character on the stage. While the audience enters the theater in this Bristol Old Vic touring production directed by Tom Morris (one of the original directors of War Horse), Saskia Portway, who plays Hippolyta, is onstage, laboring in what appears to be a weather-beaten atelier. Portway is engrossed in sculpting or fixing something. The lack of this reviewer’s certainty results less from the intensity and specificity of her work than from the cavernous nature of the Broad Stage, paired with Philip Gladwell’s moody but ocularly unhelpful lighting. That the Broad leaves “emergency” lighting on in its aisles during the production also dims the view of the stage.
   So, Hippolyta works while other characters from the play (it’s not clear who they are, because eventually all of the actors play several roles) wander through the audience, goofing off and trying to make friends. Hmm, possibly this production’s point of view is feminist. When Hippolyta’s fiancé, Theseus (David Ricardo-Pearce), launches in on Hermia (Akiya Henry), telling Hermia she’s under her father Egeus’s (Miltos Yerolemou) power and must marry whomever Egeus tells her to, Portway’s Hippolyta grows disgusted and silently infuriated—a truthful performance that obeys the text. Theseus then says to her, “Come, my Hippolyta: what cheer, my love?” She glares, tosses her head back, and storms out without him. Yes, we can expect a feminist take on the play. Or, perhaps the through-line here will be about the making of art.

Eventually, however, it becomes clear there’s no take on the play, other than to weave in use of “puppets” by Handspring Puppet Company (who created the horse and other animals of War Horse). The setting remains the atelier for the first few scenes, which Morris moves along without breaks—thanks to the modern-day clothing for each character. Soon the workroom furniture moves out, but a large multistory tarp hanging upstage right and even larger broken latticework upstage left remain onstage for the duration.
   The actors create the woods with wood—planks of wood, which they hold upright and motionless or bob and weave to form a tableau. A set piece is introduced at the play’s end, when the mechanicals need a stage for the play-within-a-play Pyramus and Thisby. Yes, this play is about the puppetry.
   Morris reaches for a few other ideas. Henry is a black actor, so when Hermia’s beloved Lysander (Alex Felton) asks why her cheek is so pale, there’s a slight gasp from the audience. Yerolemou also plays Bottom, and plays him as an Italian immigrant—not far from Athens, and why wouldn’t laborers come from other nations, as does Saikat Ahamed’s Snug, perhaps the reason Snug is “slow of study.” But Yerolemou’s Chico Marx–like accent disappears into Received Pronunciation when Yerolemou plays Pyramus. Perhaps Morris mocks the ironing-out of regional accents by the English drama schools.
   The actors playing the Athenian royals then play Oberon and Titania. With no costume changes, the visual cues to the fairy characters are large masks, which Ricardo-Pearce as Oberon and Portway as Titania hold overhead so the fairies are larger than the other characters. Ricardo-Pearce also wields a massive mechanized puppet hand, which might have but did not lead back to that male-domination theme. Puck is voiced by three actors—Ahamed, Fionn Gill, and Lucy Tuck—and embodied by a basket for his body, hand tools for his limbs, and an oilcan-like sculpture for his head, all manipulated by the three actors. Occasionally his scampering can convince us he’s a living creature, but the conceit loses its power quickly and certainly never rises to the living, breathing creature the horse Joey is in War Horse. Other puppets include jellyfish.

But presumably the pièce de résistance here is the contraption that turns Bottom into an ass. To be precise, it turns Bottom’s bottom into an ass, producing gleeful laughter from the audience. Yerolemou’s bare bum, warts and all as they say, becomes the animal’s cheeks. The actor’s feet are clad in footwear that flops to create the ears, and around his ankles are strapped objects that resemble eyes. Effortful squinting and a struggling imagination might possibly help the viewer figure out where the mouth was. Yerolemou faces backwards on the apparatus, a tail attached to his cap. As the actor pedals with his hands, metal bars move like asinine limbs.
   Once the mechanicals put on their play, Morris turns to commedia. The chink in the wall is the space between Snout’s legs. Every time Pyramus and Thisby get near the chink, Snout (Gill) gets bopped in the nuts, to gleeful laughter anew. The once-again bare-bottomed Bottom turns around to reveal a massive merkin; more juvenile titters ensue.
   Then, at this production’s very end, a towering Oberon and Titania (puppetry again) walk upstage, holding the hands of a tiny figure between them. The figure is presumably the “Indian Boy,” and he’s played, conveniently, by Ahamed. Once again, the last moment of this comedy, this magical script, in this production, is clearly a visual with perhaps a point. But the story is lost in all the concept and ambiguity.

April 4, 2014
April 3–19. 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Mon OR Tue 7:30pm, Wed-Fri 7:30pm, Sat-Sun 2:30pm & 7:30pm. Running time 3 hours and 5 minutes, including intermission. $53–110. (310) 434-3200.

A Noise Within

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Geoff Elliott and Freddy Douglas

For Tartuffe to achieve maximum comic, emotional, and thematic impact, the privileged Orgon must serve as the central figure. He must be a misanthrope (a type not unknown to Molière) well and truly disgusted with the world’s vanities as typified by his frivolous, feckless family. Orgon’s profound despair explains his retreat into excessive piety, and it’s what renders him vulnerable to the spell of a seemingly holy visionary.
   Moral blindness is the theme, echoed again and again in the text. It’s a universal theme that’s especially relevant to our time, as we see so many people escaping from what they perceive as a relentlessly cruel existence to seek comfort in all manner of cults and wing nuts. The bottom line is, as it always is in theater, emotional reality. If Molière’s characters and situations are played for real, then the comedy comes through along with real terror, and Tartuffe may even succeed in holding a mirror up to the audience’s own follies.
   On the other hand, if Tartuffe is too obviously insincere and Orgon too witlessly credulous, audiences are allowed, even encouraged, to wriggle off the hook: “Oh, well,” they tell themselves, “that foolish man isn’t me; I wouldn’t fall for a con man’s line.” Indeed, the more farcical the stage business overall, the more likely the spectator will be blinded to what Molière has to say.

The current, handsome revival at A Noise Within, directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, captures the fripperies of the household well enough (in large measure thanks to Angela Balogh Calin’s divinely over-the-top costumes). And in Freddy Douglas’s Tartuffe they have an eminently sinister Rasputin, who teeters tantalizingly on the edge between saint and charlatan.   But with an Orgon (Geoff Elliott) tippy-toeing around in a huge Groucho mustache and metallic eyeglasses that might’ve belonged to Rue McClanahan during the Golden Girls years, and farcical biz that keeps sending the characters tripping over each other, the guts are excised from the drama, pure and simple.
   A Noise Within’s Tartuffe is far from the first to interpret Orgon as a blithering idiot and to litter the stage with pratfalls. But that fact doesn’t make it any easier to witness.

March 24, 2014
Feb. 15–May 24. 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. See ANW website for repertory schedule. $54-66. (626) 356-3100.

Top Girls
Antaeus Theatre Company

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Kimiko Gelman and Karianne Flaathen
Photo by Geoffrey Wade

Written in 1982 when the concerns of the feminist movement and the role of women in society were often at their most controversial
—and, at times, the most overstated and sometimes even abrasive—Caryl Churchill’s absurdist theatrical polemic might seem a tad shopworn three decades later. In less-skilled hands than those of director Cameron Watson and the venerable members of Antaeus Theatre Company, today Top Girls might have stayed on the bottom. Instead, however, the production is vital, sometimes disturbing, and totally smashing.
   Churchill bursts through the issues of women’s right by presenting women through the ages dealing with all the standard topics facing those ambitious enough to want equal footing in our still male-dominated society. These include ageism and an equal place in the workplace somewhere below a shattered glass ceiling, the expectations of motherhood versus the desire for career, and what are perceived as the standard opportunities afforded that half of our society, who only over the last 95 years have been able to vote.
   The first attention-grabbing farcical scene in Churchill’s classic begins in a posh London restaurant, where Marlene (Sally Hughes), the one consistent character throughout the play and a woman who has abandoned her child for a career in business, has invited several time-traveling historical women to sup and get plastered enough to tell the sorrowful stories of their individual struggles in a man’s world.
   Gathered are Pope Joan (Elizabeth Swain) who, disguised as a man, is said to have been pontiff from 854 to 856 AD before her unplanned pregnancy outed her deception; Lady Nijo (Kimiko Gelman), grossly mistreated 13th-century mistress to the emperor of Japan and later a Buddhist nun; 19th-century English explorer and strong-willed naturalist Isabela Bird (Karianne Flaathen); Dull Gret (Abigail Marks), a Brunhilde-like peasant from Flemish folklore, said to have led an army of women to pillage Hell; and the long-enduring Patient Griselda (Shannon Lee Clair) from Chaucer’s  Canterbury Tales, whose husband tests her loyalty in a series of bizarre torments based upon the Book of Job.

Although Hughes plays Marlene throughout, each other actor plays several characters, including the employees and clients of Top Girls, an old-style 1980s employment agency managed by Marlene. These include Swain as Louise, an older applicant who wants a change after many years of being ignored for her loyalty on one job; Flaathen as Mrs. Kidd, the pleading wife of a man overlooked for promotion; and Alexandra Goodman as Shona, a job seeker whose impressive résumé proves to be a fraud. Yet it is the intertwining story of Marlene’s dimwitted abandoned daughter Angie (Marks) and her badly defeated estranged sister Joyce (Flaathen), who raised the troubled child as her own, that tugs the hardest at our heartstrings.
   This Magnificent Seven of exquisitely determined actors (all double-cast with what surely in Antaeus tradition are seven magnificent others) makes Churchill’s old warhorse come to life without a glitch. Flaathen is particularly memorable as Joyce, who, fulfilling what is surely one bravely risky directorial decision, is at one point left alone onstage, sitting quietly at a table, silently contemplating how her life sucks for a far longer time than anyone else would deem comfortable. Still, the truly indelible performance is by Marks as the sweetly lost and desperately needy Angie, falling somewhere between Chaplin’s Tramp and Bette Davis as Baby Jane, bringing to haunting fruition a character you want to climb onstage and comfort.
   Still, the most apparent contributor to the success of this production and the guy who clearly encouraged this exceptional ensemble cast to soar is Watson, whose sturdy yet diaphanous, austere yet elegant leadership is so consistent throughout that it’s almost as though the director is an eighth performer. With the invaluable contribution of his gifted designers—especially Stephen Gifford’s incredibly simple yet astoundingly versatile set and Terri A. Lewis’s knockout costuming—Watson subtly guides the action as though choreographing a timeless ballet, while plainly giving his actors plenty of room to individualize.
   What could have been a dry and dated excursion back visiting the familiar polemics of 30 years ago is instead a magnificent achievement for Antaeus, worthy of the toast delivered by the six historic women gathered for their fantasy meal in Top Girlss first scene: “To our courage, the way we’ve changed our lives, and our extraordinary achievements.” I’ll drink to that.

March 24, 2014
March 13–May 18. 5112 Lankershim Blvd. Parking $7 in the lot at 5125 Lankershim Blvd. (west side of the street), just south of Magnolia. Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30-34. (818) 506-1983.

Lend Me a Tenor
David Schall Theatre at Actors Co-op

Reviewed by Neal Weaver

Stephen Van Dorn, Bruce Ladd, Nathan Bell, Deborah Marlowe, and Tannis Hanson
Photo by Lindsay Schnebly

The central character in Ken Ludwig’s farce is famous Italian tenor Tito Merelli (Floyd Vanbuskirk), who’s scheduled to appear in the title role in Verdi’s Otello for the Cleveland Opera Company. But Tito is well-known for his heavy drinking, womanizing, and general troublemaking. On the day of the performance, Tito has overindulged at lunch and is at loggerheads with his fiery and tempestuous wife, Maria (Gina D’Acciaro). To keep him out of trouble and persuade him to take a nap, he’s plied with a few too many phenobarbitals and goes out like a light, leading the opera’s producer, Saunders (Bruce Ladd), to think he’s dead.
   In desperation, Saunders demands that his hapless assistant—and amateur tenor—Max (Nathan Bell) put on the Otello costume and pretend to be Tito. Fortunately Max has learned the role by watching rehearsals. But as soon as they have left for the opera house, Tito wakes up and, fearful of being late for the performance, puts on his costume (he always carries a spare), wig, and makeup, and heads for the theater.
   So, in Act 2, there are two identically dressed Otellos wandering around, leading to massive confusion and multiple mistaken identities. And it’s Max who winds up onstage while Tito is pursued by the police, who believe he’s a demented impostor trying to break into the opera house. Max, who has never been a hit with the ladies, finds himself besieged by amorous hero-worshipping females when they think he’s Tito. But all’s well that ends well, and everything culminates in a loony epilogue, in which all the characters wildly pursue one another in and out of the set’s six doors.

Moosie Drier directs with verve and a wealth of comic invention. Bell skillfully navigates the changes as Max is transformed from nebbish to newly confident faux-star. Ladd is a whirlwind of motion as the frantic producer, and Vanbuskirk is hilarious as the much put-upon Tito. Tannis Hanson is a vivacious Maggie, Max’s love-interest, who brushes him off when he’s just plain Max but is all over him when he pretends to be Tito.   Selah Victor is flamboyantly predatory as a soprano who sets out to seduce Max/Tito in the hopes that he’ll help secure her a position with the Metropolitan Opera.
   Deborah Marlowe offers a stylish turn as Saunders’s wife, Julia, who’s searching for romantic adventure and hopes to find it with Tito. D’Acciaro makes an imposing figure of the jealous and temperamental Maria. And Stephen Van Dorn offers a spectacularly screwball performance as the pushy, eccentric bellhop, who worships Tito, and demonstrates his operatic savvy by bursting into a rousing rendition of Figaro’s famous aria from The Barber of Seville.
   Designer Karen Ipock provides the handsome hotel-suite set, and Wendell C. Carmichael has created wonderfully glittery gowns for the ladies of the ensemble.

March 22, 2014
March 21–May 4. 1760 N. Gower St. (located on the grounds of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood). Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2:30pm (additional Saturday performances March 29, May 3, 2:30pm). Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $20-30. (323) 462-8460, ext. 300.

Geffen Playhouse in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

William Petersen and Rae Gray in the
Steppenwolf production

Two very human, rather intriguing characters reveal their wounds and their coping mechanisms in this Greg Pierce play. Under Randall Arney’s direction, their story plays out with universality and specificity. But the crux of the work is in the seconds when nothing is said, building to an electrifying moment of crushing silence.
   In large part, Pierce paints with the banal conversations people have in real life. So when Becky, a few months shy of age 18, gets shipped off to her Uncle Sterling in Costa Rica, the two characters chat realistically about “remember when” and “who gets the cot.”
   Yet the playwright highlights the conversations with metaphor. Iguanas sharpen their claws on the roof of Sterling’s hut, upsetting Becky (Richard Woodbury’s surround-sound design). What are these herbivores—harmless to man, reminders of Tennessee Williams’s play—meant to communicate to the characters and to the audience?
   Sterling has removed the doors from his abode (the skeletal walls of Takeshi Kata’s scenic design also help the audience see all of the action). For the claustrophobic Becky and the self-punishing, self-soothing Sterling, the removal of doors is a practical decision with side benefits. Pierce gives Sterling an eyesight condition: conversion insufficiency, in which one’s eyes can’t turn in toward each other. Sterling does eye exercises for this, staring at an object as he brings it closer to his nose. Becky asks how he knows when to stop. “You stop when you start to see two images,” says Sterling. He’ll stop suffering when he starts to see two sides to the events that drove him to escape his life in the US and live in the jungle.

The introspective Sterling gets a quiet, deeply felt portrayal by William Petersen. Sterling can’t be happy that his routines, including his repentant and consoling daily walk through an outdoor labyrinth, are disrupted, but Petersen lets the avuncular relationship trump any disturbance Sterling may feel. Rae Gray limns Becky, playing a teenager caught between childlike energy and young-adult angst, but reflecting Becky’s deep unhappiness: feeling unloved by her parents, abandoned by her boyfriend, apparently mistreated by the juvenile justice system.
   Indeed, both characters have spent time with the American justice system. Sterling practiced law, until his partner was found guilty of wrongdoing over client funds. Becky is currently facing charges in connection with a party at which a neighborhood teen, the girl of the play’s title, met with catastrophe.
   Neither character directly caused the harm. But, couldn’t each of them have stepped in more firmly to prevent it? Each saw warning signs, each had premonitions. So, posits Pierce, should they suffer the guilt for the rest of their lives? How many of us have a “Slowgirl” weighing on our hearts?

Pierce’s script is not flawless. One character is a liar, and once that’s established, it’s hard for the audience to believe any late-in-the-game confessions. And there are moments of obvious exposition. But Pierce’s ingenious element is to keep Sterling still and silent when Becky reveals her final bit of information. Watching him struggle with himself, rather than express himself verbally, goes against our expectations, as there is no “me, too” monologue for closure.
   Though Pierce keeps the character silent, Arney and Petersen let Sterling’s reactions and emotions roil within, thus letting each audience member decide how deep Sterling’s guilt goes. Besides, he may have found a better way of helping his niece.
   The writing also often references, but does not hammer us with, familial discord. Parents are not fulfilling their obligations here. According to Becky, her mother (Sterling’s sister) has distanced herself from Becky—though, clearly Becky lies and sneaks. Becky’s father has distanced himself from Sterling, perhaps in part to break the deep bond the siblings shared as children. But where were the parents of “Slowgirl” when she most needed them?

Arney uses transverse staging, so at all times we see the other half of the audience as it watches the play, despite Daniel Ionazzi’s narrowly concentrated, hazy lighting. What good comes of this staging? Bigger audiences, for a work that deserves them.

March 15, 2014
March 12–April 27. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. (Parking around the block adjacent to Trader Joe’s.) Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission. $57–72. (310) 208-5454.
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