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Theater Reviews 

Including this week's pick, The 2006 Ojai Playwrights Conference

Wednesday, Aug 9 2006
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GO PICK THE 2006 OJAI PLAYWRIGHTS CONFERENCE Robert Egan was a point man for new-play development at the Mark Taper Forum from the late ’80s until he left the Taper in 2003. Egan’s headed up the Ojai Playwrights Conference for the past five years of its nine-year history, working with the nation’s top scribes in a program that painfully underscores how institutionally supported new-play development — once a cottage industry for local actors, directors and writers — has evaporated within the city limits. However, when there isn’t a producing entity associated with new-play development, Egan says that a different kind of writing emerges: Playwrights are more concerned with what they want to write, rather than with what they have to do to get produced. The other substantive difference, says Egan, is that writers rather than administrators become the primary fellow dramaturges and collaborators — writers with both depth of experience and empathy for the tortuous rewriting process. This year’s festival is called “Empire’s Edge: While at War,” a theme based on a prevalent concern for America’s soul. This year’s participants include Stephen Belber, Lee Blessing, Sherry Kramer, T.D. Mitchell, Ben Rosenthal, Len Jenkin and special guest Chris Trumbo (the son of Dalton Trumbo). On Friday, August 11, 8 p.m., there’s a reading of Sherry Kramer’s When Something Wonderful Ends; Saturday, August 12, 1 p.m., young artists will perform scripts developed in the Youth Writers/Performance Lab directed by Kim Maxwell, Luis Alfaro and Len Jenkin, then at 4 p.m. a reading of T.D. Mitchell’s Beyond the 17th Parallel, and at 8 p.m. a reading of Stephen Belber’s Muscles in Our Toes; and Sunday, August 13, 1 p.m., The Monkey Puzzle Tree by Ben Rosenthal, with Lonesome Hollow by Lee Blessing at 4 p.m. ZALK THEATER AT THE HAPPY VALLEY SCHOOL, 8585 Santa Paula Road (Highway 150), Ojai. (805) 640-0400 or www.ojaiplaywrightsconf.org. (Steven Leigh Morris)


A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL
Lonely widower Guy (Roy Abramsohn) decides it’s time to get back in circulation, so he auditions for a dysfunctional amateur theater led by Daffyd (Matthew Elkins), a failed Welsh actor turned bullying director. Guy is cast in a tiny role in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, but when other actors drop like flies, he finds himself repeatedly promoted, till he’s playing the stellar role of Macheath. He’s also fully enmeshed in the incestuous sexual and financial shenanigans of the company, stumbling into simultaneous affairs with Daffyd’s frustrated wife (Caitlin Shannon) and swinging Fay (Kimberly Patterson). Alan Ayckbourn’s play is a weird combination of elements, intercutting scenes from The Beggar’s Opera with Guy’s farcical saga. Despite sketchy parallels between Guy’s blundering adventures and Macheath’s serial seductions, the bustling jollity of the musical numbers sorts oddly with the plot’s suburban tawdriness. There are laughs here, but the play isn’t one of Ayckbourn’s best. Director Barry Philips makes the most of the theatrical in-jokes, and a large cast, including music director Beverly Craveiro, Diane Hurley, Jaxon Duff Gwillim, David Manis, Darren Richardson and Tracie Lockwood, brings the eccentric actors to vivid life. ODYSSEY THEATER ENSEMBLE, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. & Sun. schedule varies, call for details; thru Aug. 27. (310) 477-2055. (Neal Weaver)


GO DIVA DISH This well-crafted, highly entertaining show details playwright Luke Yankee’s relationship with his mother, actress Eileen Heckart. Unlike other tell-alls by celebrity children, Diva Dish is a fond remembrance of a parent who was an award-winning star of stage, screen and television. Yankee opens the show by praising his mother’s talent as a storyteller, and it’s clear that he’s inherited her gift. A facility for vocal nuances allows Yankee to capture Heckart’s smoke-infused whiskey voice as well as the voices of some of her celebrity friends and co-stars. Yankee re-creates conversations his mother had with Mae West, Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe, among others. One of the most amusing anecdotes concerns Heckart’s peculiar friendship with Marlene Dietrich. Yankee has his own story to tell about Ethel Merman teaching him how to make martinis when he was a child. Directed by John Sgueglia, Yankee is an affable performer who avoids the maudlin, even when discussing his mother’s death. Slide projections and a brief video retrospective of Heckart’s career enhance the performance, and Sgueglia’s judicious direction prevents the 75-minute performance from becoming static. LONG BEACH PLAYHOUSE, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Aug. 26 (added perfs Aug. 13 & 20, 2 p.m.). (562) 494-1014. (Sandra Ross)


LITTLE WOMEN Allan Knee, Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein’s touring Broadway show flattens out Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War–era novel, but that’s to be expected in a musical adaptation. The story concerns four sisters (Kate Fisher, Gwen Hollander, Renée Brna, Autumn Hurlbert) growing up, while their noble mother (Maureen McGovern) mediates their petty feuds with the wisdom and tone of Ma Walton. Societal pressures bear down on them to sacrifice worldly ambitions for home and hearth. Act 1 concludes with tomboy Jo (Fisher) blasting out the torch song “Astonishing” — about how she’s going to dazzle the literary world with her writing. Thank goodness, in Act 2, the musical finds the dark corners of Jo’s conviction, showing how, in the face of the world’s prejudices, that desire and perseverance may not be enough to succeed. But the ending is a fantasy almost as grating as Jo’s blind belief in her literary talent. Howland’s music and Dickstein’s lyrics slide simple motifs and shifting key signatures into a dark and light mix of Sondheim and pop, and musical director/conductor Douglas Coates finds a pleasing balance between the orchestra and the voices. McGovern’s singing melts all resistance with its sculpted beauty, and set designer Derek McLane’s sketch-landscape backdrops are also lovely. Playing a love interest to two of the sisters, Stephen Patterson turns in a vivacious comic turn, and both Robert Stattel, as a grumpy neighbor, and Andrew Varela, playing an awkward German professor, give delightful performances. Susan H. Schulman directs. PANTAGES THEATER, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Aug. 13. (213) 365-3500 or www.broadwayla.org. (Steven Leigh Morris)


GO MACHIAVELLI: The Art of Terror A fascinating rumination on the seductiveness of power, playwright-director Robert Cohen’s historical drama follows the career of Niccolo Machiavelli. The spokesperson for Renaissance Florence’s politically neutral and democratically functioning republic, Machiavelli (Christopher Marshall) is dispatched to Rome to negotiate with Cesare Borgia (Jeffrey Takacs), a remorseless tyrant who startles him by soliciting his services as aide and adviser. To the dismay of Machiavelli’s wife (Andrea Caban) and close colleague (Sean Spann), the hitherto humanist philosopher is dazzled by Borgia’s cold-blooded brilliance. He accepts the post (though never serves, due to Borgia’s untimely death) and ends up tortured and imprisoned for political sedition before finally being forced into exile. A layered, literate work (though Borgia’s rantings might be pruned), the play shows Machiavelli’s intriguing transformation into Borgia groupie and celebrator of “terror’s virtues” — thus commenting on the frightening ease with which we shed our humanity. Takacs seizes the limelight with his volcanic performance, but Marshall and the remaining supporting ensemble are no less gifted in their more subtle portrayals of normal folk trapped by history’s horrors. HAYWORTH THEATER, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Sept. 2. (800) 838-3006. (Deborah Klugman)


THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT Jean Giraudoux’s 1945 classic remains as relevant as ever. A trio of businessmen conspires with an oil prospector in a plot to dig up Paris and extract some crude. Their plan comes in the context of a culture slowly degenerating in the merciless hands of greed, a world that the Ragpicker (played excellently by Steven Lekowicz) describes as one in which “every cabbage has a pimp.” The businessmen’s only obstacle is the fantastic idealism of the Madwoman (Laura Boccaletti) and her sneaky plan to thwart Paris’ destruction. In her otherwise fine staging, director Nancy Cheryll Davis-Bellamy creates a linguistic smorgasbord by imposing artificial French accents on obviously non-Francophone actors. After all, Susan Deeley Wells’ outdoor set, with its standup wooden walls drenched in Monet motifs and its “café” sign, amply proclaims its Parisian setting. Teresa Waxer and Donna Donnelly shine as the Madwoman’s even madder friends, and costume designer Diane McGee has great fun with the threads provided by Creole Inc. CULVER CITY PUBLIC THEATER AT DR. PAUL CARLSON MEMORIAL PARK, Motor Ave. & Braddock Dr., Culver City; Sat., 2 p.m.; thru Aug. 19; free. (310) 712-5482. (Ryan Vaillancourt)


{mosimage}GO OMNIUM GATHERUM “If the world was represented by 100 people...” drones Middle East scholar Khalid (Navid Negahban) to a roomful of merry dinner guests. While they’re more vocal about the sweet-potato amuse-bouche than global income and education disparity, Khalid’s idea should interest them since they’re also representatives — not of the world, but of the loudest voices decrying it. Along with Khalid, there’s the Arianna Huffington (Melora Marshall), the Christopher Hitchens (William Dennis Hunt), the Bill O’Reilly (Alan Blumenfeld), the fireman (Mike Peebler) and a no-nonsense spiritual black woman whose closest parallel is Oprah (Earnestine Phillips). Presiding over these impassioned and familiar mouthpieces is Suzie (director Ellen Geer), a gracious hostess whose continual interruptions and distractions about TV shows, pan-fusion cuisine and Mamma Mia! feel increasingly sinister. Geer masterfully stages Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’ sprightly and uproarious screed, which doles out the lines we’ve heard before, but in the mouths of perfectly realized (and perfectly acted) characters. If the framework is a Buñuel head scratcher (Are they dead? Is this Hell? Do they care?), the playwrights’ detailed investment in — and the playing out of — these archetypes is lively, pointed and ultimately resonant, particularly as Khalid slowly slumps, quietly pacified by a token offering of bourbon. WILL GEER THEATRICUM BOTANICUM, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Road, Topanga; Sat., 8 p.m. (added perfs Sun., 7:30 p.m., thru Aug. 27; Sat., Oct. 7, 2:30 p.m.); thru Sept. 30. (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com.(Amy Nicholson)


ONE NATION, UNDER GOD A Korean student of physics, Paul (Ryun Yu), stumbles into a Catholic church before confessing to the priest, Father Chan (Dennis Dun), to having just killed a young woman (Caroline Le Duc). Writer-director Philip W. Chung structures his Dostoyevskian murder mystery as an account enacted almost entirely in flashback. In so doing, Chung aims to show us the transformation of Paul’s brilliant, scientific mind into a kind of evangelical rapture — with visits by an Angel (Kelley Lund) and visions of paradise. Chung’s sharply written play is not an attack on religion but on dehumanizing, apocalyptic zealotry, embodied in the character of a minister named John Lamb (Brian P. Nichols). Because the Angel appears to Paul before any catastrophe strikes him, Paul’s slide into dementia can’t really be explained as the result of psychological trauma — even though Father Chan makes a stab at it — so the intended irony in the closing image of paradise-on-Earth gets lost, leaving instead a pamphlet for the very lunacy that Chung thinks he’s castigating. Chung stages the play simply and effectively on and around screens and portable blocks that are marbled with galaxies. The fine ensemble mostly enacts the story tenderly, particularly Yu, Le Duc and James Liu, playing Paul’s friend who’s eventually ostracized by his parish for being gay. LODESTONE THEATER ENSEMBLE AT GTC, BURBANK, 1111-B Olive Ave., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Aug. 27. (323) 993-7245 or www.lodestonetheatre.org.(Steven Leigh Morris)


GO TRUE GENIUS David Holstein’s play erases the fine line between genius and insanity in a story about Scooter (Blake Silver), a boy genius who’s a pathological liar. The play explores mental illness and family dysfunction with a sardonic wit that keeps us laughing uncomfortably. After being taken out of school by his mother, Margaret (Angela Bujan), Scooter meets Lila (Liz Lytle) at the office of his psychologist, Dr. Foyer (Anthony Young), and begins to fall for her in a way that’s reminiscent of Zach Braff and Natalie Portman in Garden State. As Lila enters Scooter’s life (through his unlocked fire escape), he is forced to reexamine truth, reality and his perceptions of himself and his family. The entire cast gives solid performances, but Silver in particular portrays Scooter with sensitivity and nuance. Lytle similarly makes Lila’s insanity palpable, and Chris Andres, as Scooter’s younger brother Jeffrey, harnesses his inner child with gusto. Suzanne Karpinski’s direction utilizes a fine balance between physicality and introspection to create an eerie sense of foreboding throughout a play that even has the audience questioning reality at times. HOLLYWOOD FIGHT CLUB, 6767 Sunset Blvd., Suite 6, Hlywd.; Fri., 8:30 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Aug. 13. (323) 465-0800. (Mayank Keshaviah)


GO WATER AND POWER Loaded with more local references than a Thomas Brothers guide (seemingly everything in L.A. from Delta Tacos to Trader Joe’s gets a salute or a ribbing), this new work from Culture Clash, written by Richard Montoya, looks at two Latino brothers and the changing city they represent. Gilbert and Gabriel Garcia (Montoya and Herbert Siguenza, respectively) occupy positions of authority far more powerful than any that previous generations of Eastsiders could have aspired to. Gilbert is a state senator pushing through an L.A. river greenbelt; Gabriel is a shell-shocked LAPD lieutenant holed up in a motel room with guns, tequila and cocaine. Gilbert tries to negotiate his suicidal brother out of trouble, and over the course of 105 minutes we get a crash course in L.A. history and politics, aided by a wheelchair-bound ex-vato named Norte/Sur (Ric Salinas). The trio conjure a Los Angeles that is both a necropolis of memories and a pulsating city of neighborhoods. Funny, bloody and perceptive, Water and Power is also overwritten and a victim of its own urbane sprawl. With so much dialogue concerned with retelling the past, it’s unnecessary for Montoya to include three childhood-flashback scenes. Likewise, the meandering start of a scene with Montoya and a megadeveloper (Dakin Matthews) reveals the danger of blurring the line between conversational footnoting and reflexive name-dropping. Montoya, Siguenza and Salinas acquit themselves well as actors under Lisa Peterson’s assured direction, and she gets strong, atmospheric designs by Rachel Hauck (set), Alexander V. Nichols (lighting) and Paul James Prendergast (music and sound). MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; thru Sept. 17. (213) 628-2772. (Steven Mikulan)

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