By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Photo by Brandon Terrell
“There is an idea in the open road,” Dostoyevsky says in The Devils. “The highway goes on for miles . . . like a man’s dream.”
The blacktop horizon of escape was once very much male topography, though somewhere between Jack Kerouac and Tom Robbins, the asphalt became feminized — today, in film and literature, The Road definitely has curves. At least two plays in town currently look at women who have had enough of the men in their lives and hit the pavement without looking back.
Staged inside the King King nightclub, Tougher Than Grace, Charlie Terrell’s swamp-goth “anti-musical,” emerges from a miasma of swooning, codeine-nod vocals and video images that suggest what we’re in for — crosses, churches, trees, roads, animals and a young woman whose daddy seems to hover over her a little too close for comfort.
“She had dirt on her skin . . . a hole in her stocking,” Terrell sings, and before you can say “The Gun Club,” we’re introduced to a peculiar kind of blessed trinity: a Preacher (Michael Childers); his wife, Josephine (Irene Muzzy); and that daughter with the hole, Tina (Jackie Page). The Preacher seems, up to a point, like a straightforward Southern minister. Dressed in a cheap linen suit, he brays a litany of apoplectic and apocalyptic incitements while falling back on the occasional snake-handling routine.
Then there’s the Preacher’s rather profane delivery — a little saltier than we’re used to on The 700 Club — and that daughter of his, whom he insists on hugging and tucking into bed every night. There’s also the small matter of the wild parties thrown by the Preacher and Josephine in their house on a hill — bacchanals that have become as legendary among the locals as Elvis sightings.
Into this milieu comes Jimmy Nickens (Donny Persons), a brash, wandering young painter who’s heard the tales and now wants to see the truth. After challenging the Preacher on the minister’s turf, however, Jimmy gets worked over by some toughs until Tina intercedes. Soon Josephine burns down the house, and Tina and Jimmy split for some big, nasty city and its heavenly bars, leaving Daddy to grovel about the streets, pushing a kind of homeless-man’s altar while barking sermons through a bullhorn. The next time he and daughter meet, he shoots a hole in her face.
Tougher Than Grace is a difficult snake to handle, equal parts performance, live band and projected videos — the last of which play during both the band numbers and the acted scenes. It takes a certain amount of guts to try this format; unfortunately, we don’t know if the songs are here to highlight the acting or the other way around. It’s a question we shouldn’t even be asking, since ideally playlist and play should meld together.
Although the 70-odd-minute show runs without intermission, there’s clearly a demarcation between three acts in Tina’s life, and Tougher Than Graceconcludes with the most interesting one, in which the disfigured runaway dances in a strip club, half her face covered, à la Phantom, with a mask. Yet even here she hasn’t much to say, and so her final confrontation with the Preacher rolls off as an obligatory moment of “empowerment.”
Director Steve Ferguson’s venue is an imaginative choice whose dark recesses are nevertheless squandered. Despite the unconventional site, most of the action takes place on the club’s stage (or within a few feet of it) and at King King’s circular bar, creating some serious sightline problems. The throaty Terrell is an engaging singer and songwriter, and is backed by an able band. However, it probably isn’t a good idea to have the musicians dominate the one area of the club that is most visible to most viewers, especially since only Childers brings a real acting presence to the evening.
Terrell needs to flesh out his libretto — as it is now, his characters are too broad and his plot too thin to hold our attention, and the story has some gaping holes. (Whatever happens to Jimmy after Tina gets shot?) If nothing else, Tougher Than Grace is an honest attempt to raise some frights and is in the right spot to do it.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s comedy, Wonder of the World, is enjoying its West Coast premiere at, fittingly, West Coast Ensemble. There’s no distracting video wallpaper here, although its heroine doesn’t seem much happier than Tina. Cass Harris (Madelynn Fattibene) is fed up. We glean this by the way she’s frantically packing a getaway suitcase that lies open on a bed. Mr. Harris learns this too when he unexpectedly pops home from work bearing a baleful-looking trout aspic. Kip (Stef Tovar) tries to persuade his wife not to leave him, but she’s got the seven-year itch and is soon shuffling off to Buffalo on a Greyhound — where she meets Lois (Jan Sheldrick), an alcoholic housewife bent on committing suicide by going over Niagara Falls in the pickle barrel she’s lugged onto the bus.
Cass will not hear of this, however, for she is a woman on a mission, and high up on her checklist of reinvention is to get a “sidekick” — Lois. (Other goals include learning Swedish, wearing overalls and having an affair.) She temporarily talks Lois out of taking the plunge and into sharing a motel room. From there the ambiguous Lucy-Ethel duo see the falls and ride a tour boat, whose Captain (Robert Gantzos) falls for Cass.