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Including this week's pick, It Ain't No Fairy tale

Wednesday, Nov 15 2006
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THE COMEDY OF ERRORS In a streamlined adaptation by director Steven Shields, a cross-dressing cast adds questions of gender identity to Shakespeare’s comedy about mistaken identity. A shipwreck years ago claimed Aegeon’s (Ann Simmons) wife and one of his infant twin sons, both named Antipholus. (The shipwreck is amusingly re-enacted with fabric, dolls and an actor portraying a rock). When the now-adult Antipholus of Syracuse (Suzanne Fagan) arrives in Ephesus, he’s mistaken for the other Antipholus (Patty Robinson) by everyone in the town, including his brother’s wife, Adriana (Michael Holmes). Adding to the string of misunderstandings, the twin Antipholuses have twin servants, both named Dromio (Anna Quirino-Miranda and Amanda Fink), who were also separated in infancy. The adaptation is brisk, but Shields’ black-box staging, while keeping the focus on the play, is a little too broad at times. Nevertheless, the physical comedy is well handled by Quirino-Miranda and Fink. ARK THEATRE COMPANY, 1647 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Nov. 17. (323) 969-1707. (Sandra Ross)


CONJUNTO Oliver Mayer’s very complicated play looks at the plight of Japanese-American, Mexican and Filipino workers in the dark days of World War II, when almost the entire Japanese-American population was interned by the U.S. government. Min (Michael David Cheng) is the owner of a California berry farm that employs a multiracial work force. When he’s ordered to report for internment, he hopes to avoid losing his farm by selling it to his good friend and Latino foreman Genevevo (Gil Bernardi) for $1. Genevevo is thrilled to find himself elevated from humble foreman to patron. But when, after three years, Min is released from the camp, he returns home to find Genevevo in possession of both his farm and his wife, Japanese-born Shoko (Annie Katsura Rollins). Mayer keeps his play lively by incorporating colorful characters, including a zoot-suited female drug dealer (Monica Sanchez), Min’s drug-addicted brother (Blake Kushi) and a hard-drinking Latino (Bobby Plasencia) with a knack for clowning. There’s also a comic, fantasy element in which the characters’ dreams are shaped by American, Mexican and Japanese movies. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera nimbly deploys a fine, multiracial cast on John H. Binkley’s semiabstract set, and Hisao Shinagawa provides the original music, which Rivera plays behind much of the dialogue, sometimes hampering comprehensibility. Playwrights’ Arena at STUDIO/STAGE, 520 N. Western Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 10. (213) 627-4473. (Neal Weaver)


DON’T LOOK NOW Director Chris Covics resurrects playwright Kenneth Patchen’s forgotten 1958 black comedy — a surreal, dense and overwritten fusion of beat poetry and apocalyptic philosophy. A family awakens from some kind of a fugue to discover that the world has literally turned upside down: In their Manhattan penthouse, the floor has become the ceiling, the coffee tables are flipped while sofas dangle from above. The characters, forced to cluster on the ceiling-that-has-turned-into-the-floor, are even more terrified by a menacing wall of deadly darkness and silence that gradually surrounds and presses on them. Patchen’s period piece, like a cruder and less witty version of a Samuel Beckett play, is best appreciated these days as a means of understanding Cold War fears and the mood of rebellion against American society half a century ago. Covics’ production looks great, with a whimsical, topsy-turvy set and Shelby Janes’ crisp, colorful period New York costumes. Droll acting turns are offered by Morry Schorr as the pompous, Jackie Gleason–like dad, and by Carl Moebus, as a Lord Buckley–like homeless eccentric who takes refuge with the clan. Yet, Covics’ commendable attempts to infuse pacing onto Patchen’s ponderous material comes at the cost of the performers’ diction. UNKNOWN THEATER, 1110 Seward St., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru Dec. 17. (323) 466-7781. (Paul Birchall)


{mosimage}DRUMS IN THE NIGHT There’s a lot going on in this early Bertolt Brecht satire, written shortly after the collapse of the 1918 Spartacus uprising in Berlin. Anna (Angela Berliner) is the daughter of a vulgar industrialist (Andrew E. Wheeler) who wants her to forget all about her missing sweetheart, Kragler (Jarreth Merz), who’s presumed to have died during the Great War, and to marry the father’s business partner, Murk (Chris Schultz). Just when she assents to becoming Murk’s wife, and just when a left-wing rebellion breaks out, Kragler returns. The story, in which Berlin’s brief revolution merely simmers in the background, is not entirely about the ambivalent Anna’s dilemma, but also how her indecision affects Kragler, who withdraws into the shadowy, besotted slums before joining the revolt. The best thing about director Jon Kellam’s production is its look — which is never a good sign in a political work. (Sibyl Wickersheimer’s coldly utilitarian set and Jenny Bloom’s morose lighting create an appropriately apocalyptic tone.) The problem is that we have to continually remind ourselves of how new Brecht’s lampooning of businessmen, patriotism and war was when Drums first appeared in 1922. We’re inured to its barbs today, and Kellam has to jazz things up by pumping in Frank Sinatra over loudspeakers and by having cast members jump onto chairs during line deliveries. Still, this is as ferocious a production of this once-outrageous play (translated by Finegan Kruckemeyer) as you’re likely to see, and there are some gripping performances, especially by Merz as the troubled and troubling Kragler, and by Schultz as his social-climbing nemesis, Murk. Actors’ Gang at the IVY SUBSTATION THEATER, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. schedule varies; thru Jan. 27 (no perfs Nov. 23-24 & Dec. 21-31). (310) 838-4264. (Steven Mikulan)


THE GUNS OF CARRAR Bertolt Brecht’s didactic 1937 one-act was intended as a tribute to the revolutionary peasants who fought Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The play revolves around a war widow, Señora Carrar (Monica Sandoval Perez), whose refusal to donate rifles to the Republican cause makes her a pariah among the villagers. Her defiance stems from a conviction that donating arms will perpetuate violence and endanger her sons, whom she’s so far kept out of the military. Panned by Brecht himself — he referred to the work as “a large step backward in my dramatic development” — the piece lengthily argues the pros and cons of pacifism as espoused by the parish priest (Adrian Fernandez) and the title character’s partisan brother (Carlos Sanchez). Director Pedro J. Ortiz worthily aims for an anti-war message, but leaden pacing, an overtly melodramatic acting style and Perez’s sullen performance highlight the many textual flaws. However, Sanchez as an impassioned guerrilla and Alberto Santillian as the widow’s youngest son manage a measure of believability. GRUPO DE TEATRO SINERGIA, 2332 W. Fourth St., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. (no perfs Nov. 20-30); thru Dec. 17. (213) 382-8133. (Deborah Klugman)


{mosimage} PICK IT AIN’T NO FAIRY TALE Just when you feel you’d rather throw yourself out a 10th-floor window than sit through another autobiographical one-woman show about the performer’s professional and romantic travails, along comes Lusia Strus, reinvigorating the meaning of “character” in the term character actress. Strus was a years-long smoker and drinker, which has set her vocal range somewhere near baritone. This, combined with her ferocious sarcasm and pinpoint timing, sets the otherwise bare stage for the interweaving story of two marriages: that of her parents — Polish Ukrainian immigrants to Chicago — and that of her own. Each is a product of its location in time and culture, of its own particular addictions, and each functions and/or collapses on its own terms. Her stories are world-weary and world-wise sojourns through love and death, bitingly smart and peppered with Strus’ fitful zeal for life. “Soooo tired,” is a recurring motif in the mouths of many of Strus’ characters, refugees from Urkranian shtetls and Las Vegas diners. “First, I lost hope. Then I lost faith,” she says, describing her breaking heart. Bitter without being embittered, funny without being glib, sweet without being maudlin, Strus’ performance captures a heart smothered in the dried glue of having been repaired so often, yet still beating with compassion. ELEPHANT ASYLUM THEATRE, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Wed., 8 p.m.; thru Nov. 29. (323) 960-4424. (Steven Leigh Morris)


TELEMONGOL The TV execs programming the Asia Home of Language Entertainment network (yes, AHOLE) are divided over their goal: empowerment or mental junk food? They — and these dozen-plus mini shows — decide to split the difference. The sprightly but insubstantial bits created by a collective of Asian-American theater companies (Lodestone Theatre Ensemble, Cold Tofu Improv, OPM and 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors) fall back on gags about snobbish Korean moms, snobbish Chinese moms and a pecking order that shuns the uneducated, as well as the Filipinos. (Says a convict facing life imprisonment, “I killed my parents by not getting into Harvard.”) But these scholastic mothers and fathers would be proud of the fast-paced comedy’s smarter moments: Marco’s grandson Larry Polo tries to sell Italy’s miscredited achievement, pasta, back to the Chinese; the restricted immigration of the Chinese Exclusion Act prods two lonely ore miners to explore Brokeback Gold Mountain. The closing sketch, “The Very North Korean Holiday Hour,” boasts the blackest, sharpest humor when Kim Jong Il invents Hanaramakwanzamus — a blending of traditions that turns candlelight, fasting and his benevolence into a celebration, which he caps off with a televised execution cheered along by Osama bin Laden and Marilyn Monroe. GTC BURBANK, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 17 (no perf Nov. 23). (323) 993-7245. (Amy Nicholson)


WESTWARD EXPANSION Cecil Castellucci’s one-act emerges as a lighthearted potpourri about railroad travel, combining two fragmentary plots with documentary footage of trains, dialogue from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Strangers on a Train, a brief rendition of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” and a chatty conductor (Rashelle Stocker) who rhapsodizes about railroads. (She points out that long, cross-country train journeys foster personal encounters as shorter air trips never can.) Two women from different eras are traveling across the country in opposite directions. The Woman From 1881 (Darcy Martin), going from Boston to Tucson to take up a teaching job, meets a reckless young man (Ransom Boynton) who’s seeking a new life in the West. The Woman From 2006 (Royana Black) is traveling from L.A. to Boston to hook up with a guy she met on the Internet, but she has a potentially life-changing encounter with a shy, erudite young historian (Jeremy Sean), who’s addicted to quotations. The piece is pleasant but slight: long on charm but short on narrative heft. Of the quartet, Black and Sean have the more richly developed characters to play, which they exploit by skillfully sketching their comic tics and idiosyncrasies. ALLIANCE REPERTORY COMPANY, 3204 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 16 (no perfs Nov. 23-25). NOTE: Performances nightly Dec. 11-17, in tandem with plays from Suzan-Lori Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays. (800) 595-4849. (Neal Weaver)
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