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Lewd Mechanics: Stage Highlights 

Thursday, Dec 25 2003

Ambitious Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet, Theater@Boston Court. The new Pasadena company’s maiden production of R&J, adapted by director Michael Michetti, was the kind of balcony-swaying, no-seat-belt ride that you dream of seeing more often in L.A., especially on larger stages like the Music Center, the Geffen and Pasadena Playhouse. Set in antebellum New Orleans, Michetti’s show was a clash of races and religions with a pinch of voodoo, lightning and Spanish moss thrown in for atmosphere.

Scariest Lighting Plot: Griffith Middle School Auditorium. Last month, actor Danny Glover, stumping for Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich, appeared with the candidate at the East L.A. school. Glover, in his velvety rasp, warmed up the audience prior to Kucinich’s appearance by appealing for solidarity and social justice — only to be transformed into a menacing silhouette, thanks to a lighting wash that left the lip of the stage, where he stood, completely dark. The result drove home the need for even the smallest school to receive a full brace of Fresnells, dimmer packs and spotlights.

Snapshot of the Culture: Valparaiso, Sacred Fools Theater. While many plays take place in the present or presume to examine contemporary “issues,” few show the collective mentality that decides what is and what is not an issue in the first place. Don DeLillo’s unnerving fable surgically laid out the boredom and aggressive narcissism that shape American pop culture. Thomas Craig Elliott, playing a man who commits a series of airplane-boarding mistakes and becomes a disposable celebrity, led a fine ensemble.

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Dynamic Duo: David Paladino and Kenneth Rosier in The Island, Beverly Hills Playhouse. The acting in two-man shows can often seem like two competing solo performances, but Paladino and Rosier, as two black prisoners of apartheid, made this 1973 play by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona practically bleed with urgency and humor. Their commitment to their roles and to each other burned brightly on a spare, dark stage.

Best Agatha Christie Moment: Polly Warfield’s Memorial, El Portal Theater. “This is going to be the longest night of our lives,” sighed one stage wit in the lobby before the memorial for the beloved Drama-Logue and Backstage West critic who died this past October. But, while it was true that there were enough tributes to make the program last four hours, the portrait that dozens of personal reminiscences revealed was not at all like that of a soft-touch reviewer who never met a play she didn’t like. In fact, halfway through the evening, following quote after favorite quote read from Warfield reviews by friends and colleagues, it became clear that Polly could be as ironic as anyone. Her style was so dry and light, though, that it took the cumulative effect of these readings for us to realize it. Polly, we hardly knew ye!

The Scenery Is Not for Chewing: David Gallo’s Gem of the Ocean set, Mark Taper Forum. Gallo’s aquamarine wreck of a Pittsburgh house interior suggested both the haunted lair of a black family and the ships that brought their ancestors in chains from Africa. If it took us a while to realize that their house was rather too large to be believed, it was because director Marion McClinton’s strong ensemble never let the set dwarf the characters’ emotions or drown out their lyrical conversations.

A Dirty, Dim-Lighted Place: Small Craft Warnings at the Evidence Room. Word has it that this New Orleans import came with plenty of drama backstage, but what we saw from the audience was a wonderful rendition of a rarely staged Tennessee Williams play set, no less, along California’s haunted coast. Tirades and confessions from the mouths of barroom losers never sounded more melancholy — or angelic.

Man and Offerman. From the sex slug in Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy (at the Odyssey Theater Ensemble) to the aging punk rocker in Kelly Stuart’s Mayhem (Evidence Room), Nick Offerman’s portrayals supercharge any work he appears in with a blend of sarcasm and hurt.

Audience Participation: Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theater. The T&A must be doing something right, because audiences keep talking about their plays — even when they’re being performed. Or maybe it’s just the folks sitting near me. At least cell-phone calls are noticeably down during performances.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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