The Shelter and Jay Johnson: The Two and Only 

New stage reviews

Monday, Jan 30 2006
{mosimage}THE SHELTER

There’re no two ways about it — either you’ll think Valery Belyakovich’s stylized reworking of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths is a work of mad genius or you’re going to feel bludgeoned by three hours of hyper-mannered movement, hoarse declamations and intrusive music. I happen to fall into the latter demographic, although I do recognize the dedication and physical endurance of 19 actors who are nearly always twirling behind whichever characters are speaking at the moment. Set in a contemporary flophouse, the story is a collection of the biographies of various “types” whose lives have been ruined by alcohol. These include a lawyer, an actor, a whore, a cardsharp — even a deli owner. They’ve lost everything and are reduced to living in a filthy room crammed with bunk beds, tyrannized by the flophouse’s owners (Franklyn Ajaye and Nicole Ansari Cox) and a crooked cop (Timothy V. Murphy). A messianic figure named the Wanderer (Donald Lacy) arrives to spread hope as the play’s one real plot unfolds — a love triangle between the owner’s wife, her sister (Stasha Surdyke) and the resident thief (Pasha D. Lychnikoff, who, with co-producer Lee Hubbard, adapted this work for English). The overuse of a fog machine is one tip-off that we’re in for an evening of atmosphere masquerading as philosophy; another is the recurring use of calliope music to underscore reminiscences, and Wojciech Kilar’s theme from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to suggest menace. Black Square Productions at the Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru March 5. (310) 477-2055.

—Steven Mikulan


{mosimage}Jay Johnson got his big break when he saw a casting notice for a ventriloquist on the TV sitcom Soap. He auditioned with his wooden sidekick Squeaky. Jay got the part but Squeaky didn’t. In a funny and curiously touching scene, Jay breaks the news to Squeaky in a way that we share Johnson’s belief in the reality of his characters. In addition to Squeaky, there’s belligerent Bob from Soap, a severed head or two, a talking snake who’s afraid of snakes, a jive-talking monkey who goes ape and a vulture who calls himself The Bird of Death. The show is a genre-bender, which combines a history of ventriloquism, a bit of autobiography, hilarious comedy and the moving tale of a 71-year-old ex-vaudevillian who came out of retirement to carve Squeaky for young Jay, and shared with him his rich craft. Johnson considers ventriloquism an art, and he is truly an artist — as remarkable for his near-magical skill as for his anarchic wit, charm and humanity. And he’s certainly the only ventriloquist who ever moved me to tears. Richmark Entertainment at the Brentwood Theater, Veterans Administration Grounds, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., W.L.A.; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 3 & 7 p.m. (added perfs some Wed., 2 p.m., call for schedule); thru Feb. 19. (213) 365-3500.

—Neal Weaver

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