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Theater Reviews 

Including this week's picks, Elia Arce’s The Fifth Commandment, Samuel Beckett Centenary and Stephen Holman

Wednesday, Nov 8 2006
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 DEATH OF A SALESMAN Okay, I admit it: I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Willy Loman’s dreams shattered yet again. When the play began, however, a strange thing happened. Bob Collins’ staging of Arthur Miller’s classic uncovered the element of love that’s absent from so many productions. The omnipresent love of his family lurked beneath all of Willy’s (Eddie Jones) harsh words. Yet rather than detracting from the pain of the story, Willy’s love for his family made the tragedy of delusions and shattered ambitions all the more heart wrenching. Alan Charof’s Charley begins as mere comic relief, but develops into a standout, textured performance, with his late show of loyalty toward Willy proving to be one of the most touching moments of the play. Laura Fine’s set and Gelareh Khalioun’s costumes meet in perfect harmony, both characterized by vintage shades of black and cream, offset by an occasional rosy flourish. Kurt Thum’s haunting music and Michael Mahlum’s warm lighting help the story transition smoothly between past and present. Despite the abundance of famous monologues, none of the actors milk their speeches, and the perfect pacing never falters. Productions of Death of a Salesman may be a dime a dozen, but Collins’ exquisite staging is in a class of its own. Miss O Productions at the ODYSSEY THEATRE, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 15. (310) 477-2055. (Stephanie Lysaght)


{mosimage}PICK THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT, and SAMUEL BECKETT CENTENARY  The U.S. Army originally told Nadia McCaffrey that her son, Sergeant Patrick McCaffrey of Tracy, California, had been killed in Iraq by insurgents in 2004. But in June this year, after Senator Barbara Boxer helped secure the autopsy report, McCaffrey’s commander, General Oscar Hillman, appeared at her door with three other soldiers to report that her son had actually been gunned down by Iraqi troops whom the Americans were training. Furthermore, the killing was not the first attempt on McCaffrey’s life or on other American forces by our Iraqi partners. Nadia McCaffrey will be reading in Elia Arce’s The Fifth Commandment , a multimedia performance that examines the moral justifications and rationalizations for killing another human, and the various consequences of that act. Arce interviewed dozens of soldiers for the piece, from Houston to Twentynine Palms, California. International Latino Theatre Festival at REDCAT, Second and Hope sts., dwntwn.; Thurs.-Sat., Nov. 16-18, 8:30 p.m. (323) 960-5132.

Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland — featuring Conor Lovett and Ally Ni Chiarain — stages various works of drama and prose by Samuel Beckett honoring the literary master’s 100th birthday. The trilogy “Molloy,” “Malone Dies” and “The Unnamable” and a program featuring “A Piece of Monologue,” “Enough” and “Texts for Nothing III, VIII & XI” will be performed in repertory thru November 12. On Wednesday through Sunday, November 15-19, Gate Theatre Dublin brings back its celebrated production of Waiting for Godot.   Both companies appear at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse; call (310) 825-2101 for schedule and tickets.  (Steven Leigh Morris)


IPHIGENIA CRASH LAND FALLS ON THE NEON SHELL THAT WAS ONCE HER HEART (A RAVE FABLE) Loosely based on Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, Caridad Svich’s ambitious play with music is set near the killing fields of Ciudad Juarez. Facing a tough election, General Adolfo(Richard Azurdia) plots the murder of his daughter, Iphigenia (Sharyn Gabriel), to secure the sympathy vote. She escapes, soon meeting up with the Fresca Girls (Alexander Wells, Jonathan C.K. Williams and Azurdia), three ghostly maquiladora workers who lead her to a rave where she encounters Achilles (Doug Barry), a drug-addled pop star. (All of this is set against the background of the unsolved murders of young female factory employees in Ciudad Juarez.) Matthew McCray’s stylish direction more than compensates for the occasionally awkward juxtaposition of rave aesthetics, social commentary and Euripides. The technical elements are frequently dazzling, including masks by Hallie Dufresne, puppets by Deborah Bird and multimedia projections (Michael Marius Pessah and Barbara Kallir). John Eckert’s lighting design and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design underscore the building menace, and Ryan Poulson’s original music also deserves kudos. Son of Semele Ensemble at THE STUDIO SPACE, 1238 W. First St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (no perfs Nov. 24-26); thru Dec. 3. (800) 838-3006. (Sandra Ross)


JUDITH: A PARTING FROM THE BODY Playwright Howard Barker’s beautiful yet savage one-act drama, based on one of the books of the Apocrypha, might be one of history’s first feminist tales, even if its narrative often seems more appropriate for Desperate Housewives than The Little Golden Book of Bible Stories. In ancient Assyria, the Israelites face extermination at the hands of cruel General Holofernes (Mark McClain Wilson). The night before an important battle, a brilliant young Israelite widow, Judith (Julia Prud’homme), sneaks into Holofernes’ tent. She seduces the General — and in the midst of some boisterous begetting, she stabs him to death, while her servant (Krista Conti) chops off his head (with rather more gusto than you’d expect). Director Tom Beyer presents Barker’s chamber drama as an intimate war of seduction in which the characters try to flex their power, using emotional chemistry and sexuality to see who can conquer whom first. Barker’s lyrical writing possesses the heightened reality of opera, but the show fundamentally turns on its often searing performances. Prud’homme, as the young widow, plays a character who’s particularly nuanced psychologically and who realizes that she must fall in love with her target to seduce him. Her ultimate murder of him, and her wrenching emotional unraveling from having done so, charts a startling dramatic trajectory that goes from rage to love to heartbreak, and finally to insanity. THEATRE OF NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Mon.-Tues., 8 p.m.; thru Nov 14; then Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec 16. (323) 856-8611. (Paul Birchall)


THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA This musical escape through 1950s Italy plays out like a Disneyland attraction, with the nominal lesson that even mentally challenged women can find true romance. (The story concerns a young and cerebrally underdeveloped American tourist who falls for a local boy in Florence.) Composer-lyricist Adam Guettel breaks free of the narcotizing blues-rock melodies that often characterize contemporary musicals, but in Craig Lucas’ book, based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novel, no one is ever in any real danger of unhappiness — or even discomfort. AHMANSON THEATRE, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m.; thru Dec. 10 (no perfs Nov. 23; no eve perfs Dec. 3 & 10; added perfs Nov. 20, 8 p.m., & Nov. 30 & Dec. 7, 2 p.m.). (213) 628-2772. (Steven Mikulan) See Stage feature next week.


THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE This certainly isn’t the first time Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta has been set in a carnival — here, it’s on and around Coney Island circa 1930. I’m not sure how this improves on the original, or what the point of the adapter Christopher Lavely and director Karesa McElheny’s concept is, other than, “let’s just set it somewhere exotic and see what happens.” The operetta makes a mockery of Victorian codes of honor and duty, a joke that would seem to score a direct hit on the 21st century, but the re-creators must have felt more comfortable in the midst of America’s Great Depression, because that’s where and when they set the play. Curiously, hard times are nowhere to be seen on the stage. Instead, we’re offered the festive circus colors of Lacey Anzelc’s set and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes, under Luke Moyer’s lighting. Meanwhile, Lavely’s musical adaptation loosens the operetta’s Victorian girdle, allowing some tones to wander onto blues and gospel turf. Pirate King Eric Anderson is a ball of dashing charisma; Kristin Reitter’s ingenue Mable has a glorious voice. Adam Simmons’ Frederick gets off to a callow start, but finds vocal authority in “Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast?” that he sustains through most of the show. Brian Paul Mendoza’s smart though busy choreography and McElheny’s staging occasionally poke us in the ribs to point out the jokes, which flattens them, as though they don’t trust G&S’s wry humor. However, the musical’s balance between the singers and the live orchestra, which Lavely conducts, is perfect — as is John Moschitta Jr.’s Major-General Stanley. Over the Top Productions at the NOHO ARTS CENTER, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 10. (818) 508-7101. (Steven Leigh Morris)


SPLENDORA This Southern Gothic musical, with book by Peter Webb, music by Stephen Hoffman and lyrics by Mark Campbell, is set in small-town Splendora, Texas. Young Timothy John (Ben Hensley) was raised by his eccentric grandmother, Esther Ruth, who donned him in frilly feminine attire till he rebelled and ran away. Now Esther Ruth is dead, and Timothy John returns to Splendora with Jessica Gatewood (Adriana Róze), an imperiously exotic creature who dresses pseudo-Victorian. It soon becomes clear that Jessica and Timothy John are opposing, male/female aspects of one conflicted person. When Jessica starts a flirtation with a shy local minister, Brother Leggett (Michael Gregory), the conflict intensifies. Timothy John is hopelessly in love with the prim preacher, and wants to reassert his male self. A subplot concerns tomboyish Sue Ella (Elizabeth Green), who guesses Timothy John’s secret — and the preacher’s. Local gossips (Janet Clark, Laurie Morgan, Kathryn Skatula and Cory Watson) provide a colorful chorus. Webb’s book is predictable despite a plethora of plot, Campbell’s lyrics are clever, and Hoffman’s music is pleasant if seldom memorable. But director Ken Salzman has mounted a handsome production, with an accomplished cast who keep things interesting in this oddball but engaging venture. CELEBRATION THEATRE, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (no perf Nov. 23); thru Dec. 3. (323) 957-1884. (Neal Weaver)


{mosimage}PICK STEPHEN HOLMAN  Los Angeles had not seen anything quite like the gruesome cabaret called Theater Carnivale, which debuted in 1987 — not so much in a premiere as by radical C-section. Its creator, Stephen Holman, reanimated the razzle-dazzle of vaudeville, tossed in some Grand Guignol gags and — voilà!  — the company’s gory “Splatterville” aesthetic was born. A veteran of the London punk scene and, later, New York’s Lower East Side art clubs, Holman came to L.A. in search of the new and willing. “I wanted to start up something that was not affiliated with an arts-funded space or comedy club,” he tells the Weekly . “You end up with the same audiences when you perform in gallery venues. I wanted to mix things up with sword-swallowing strippers.” That mix included solo turns by John Fleck, Harry Kipper and Johanna Went, as well as Holman’s own sketches. Then, lured by film and animation opportunities in San Francisco, Holman moved north in 1992, although he says he is strongly considering returning to L.A. soon. Track 16 has been exhibiting a retrospective of the graphic works of Holman and Alien Comic Tom Murrin, and, for the next two Saturdays, Holman and Murrin will perform live in separate shows there. It’ll be a time to reminisce, rue and rant. “There is no underground,” Holman sighs. “Everything is caught up in commerce. Culture these days is all about who you’re quoting.” Stephen Holman performs Tourism Without Tears: cheese propulsion, Christian ventriloquism and other surrealist tips on avoiding international disaster ; Tom Murrin performs  Full Moon Salute and Thanksgiving Fling . Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bldg. C-1, Santa Monica; Sat., Nov. 11 & 18, 8 p.m. (310) 264-4678.


SURFING DNA The good news here is that show-biz triple threat Jodi Long is a wonderfully amiable entertainer whose stories of a life in theater are constantly amusing and often moving. Born “in a trunk” to a Chinese-Australian hoofer and Japanese-American showgirl on the “Chop Suey” (Asian-American) nightclub circuit, Long learned early to cherish song and dance as a child. This 90-minute ride through half a century of music, family harmony and parental strife is peppered with moments from the Rodgers & Hammerstein tune “Grant Avenue,” which first landed her a job in a forgettable Broadway show at age 7 and later became her signature song in the updated revival of Flower Drum Song. Director Lisa Peterson keeps Long sharply focused throughout, never letting her linger too long on the sadder aspects of life, nor to luxuriate in show tunes. The chirpy production snaps along with slides of Long’s life projected on Rachel Hauck’s spare but handsome set, well matched with Jennifer Setlow’s excellent lighting. The bad news is that this show seems to be part of a much-pared-down East West Players, whose seasons have become slanted toward single-actor or tiny cast shows — for all the obvious reasons. East West Players in the DAVID HENRY HWANG THEATRE, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo; Wed-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Nov. 19. (213) 625-7000. (Tom Provenzano)


VICTORIAN Echoes of Arthur Miller’s family dramas about broken dreams swirl around Chris Collins’ new play, set in a dilapidated Victorian home in San Francisco. Aging SFPD officer Stephen (Dennis Delsing) finds himself with too many bills, an overmortgaged house, an estranged daughter (Suzie Cobb) impregnated by a young man whom Stephen despises. The play is also populated by Stephen’s son (Matt Fromm), an apathetic high school football star with control issues and who’s obsessed with a young pianist (Allie Revera) trying to forge a future on her own terms, rather than his. Finally, there’s Stephen’s embittered and clinically depressed wife (Willow Hale), his affable brother (P.J. Marshall) — a business failure who’s trying to start a family enterprise — and Stephen’s 10-year-old daughter (Caylie Marnell), who spends most of the play sketching and absorbing the family’s river of regrets (“We shoulda moved to Petaluma when we had the chance,” Stephen laments). Because Collins doesn’t differentiate between arguments and action, the play is more of a long series of recriminations than a drama — despite a suicide and other galvanizing devices. Though the characters are nicely layered, the problems stem from a combination of Collins’ repetitive dialogue and Tom Bonasera’s direction that’s largely bereft of style and focus, with entire scenes played in shadow. Fogbank Entertainment at the HUDSON GUILD THEATRE, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Nov. 19. (323) 960-7752. (Steven Leigh Morris)


WIZARD FINGER Jill Benjamin, the hostess/prime mover of this variety show, compares it to a bunch of friends getting together to put on a show in the garage, and that’s a fair estimate. Personnel vary, and so, presumably, does the talent. At the performance I attended last month, a grab bag of diverse material started with the rock band Flow, which played afterward for dancing. Stripper Victoria Vengeance performed as a pistol-packing Old West dance-hall girl, singer-comedian Brendan Hunt cleverly improvised a song to lyrics supplied by an audience volunteer, and three female monologists told their tales: Benjamin talked about her navel (an outie) and her childhood passion for dressing up and showing off; Busy Philipps told us the downside of talking too much, too loud; and Nicole Sullivan found rueful fun in describing her talent for serendipitously wandering into the midst of bank robberies, gang warfare and assorted muggers. A “glow-show” featured a group called Fire Groove, a sort of low-rent Cirque du Soleil, involving black light, colorful swirling wands and an enormous Hula-Hoop. Many in the crowd seemed to know each other, and the event seemed as much a party as a performance. MOLLY MALONE’S IRISH PUB, 575 S. Fairfax Ave., L.A.; Thurs., Nov. 16, 9 p.m. (323) 654-8617. (Neal Weaver)
click to flip through (2) Elia Arce in The Fifth Commandment
  • Elia Arce in The Fifth Commandment
 
 

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