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Theater Reviews 

Including Cuts, Each Day Dies with Sleep, Miss Julie and more

Monday, Feb 26 2007
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 CUTS Eight short plays, smartly produced and acted, provide snapshot views onto the provocative imaginations of scribes belonging to Dog Ear Playwrights collective. Some are particularly striking, all are worth seeing. Bryan Davidson’s “Blue,” a literary reflection with echoes of Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney, is narrated by a hematologist (Tom Knickerbocker) whose cure of a young Arkansas woman (Heather Dara Williams) with perplexing blue skin leads to her downfall. Matt Kirkwood directs with elegance. Katy Hickman’s “Nomenclature” plants the entire world in a three-tub garden — the middle tub maintained by geranium devotee Sandy (Donne McRae). Through Sandy’s cheerful, fearful chatter, we understand how the poor woman is caught between the nativist tub to her left, cared for by a militant offstage gardener with no patience for any plant that isn’t from a naturally local source; and an offstage survivalist’s tub to her right, planted with failed food crops. Gently directed by Zach Dulli, the play hangs on a, yes, budding friendship between Sandy and the survivalist’s goth son (Sean Wing) that reveals a snippet of tenderness amidst the horticulture clash. Jacqueline Wright’s “An It” takes identity crisis to the extreme via an institutionalized creature (Ammar Mahmood) who one day, after being visited by beautiful Janet (Williams again), remembers what it means to be human and literally gives away a piece of his heart. Wright is no romantic, however; her view of love, directed with comic book animation by Mark St. Amant, is no Valentine’s Day kiss. Robert Fieldsteel’s “Fabric” takes a stylish glimpse at early-20th-century anti-Semitism via the ugliness of an interaction between a Jewish-American couple (John Cragen and Julie Fulton) and English horseracing enthusiasts (Carl J. Johnson, Ambre Lowe and Mara Marini) at Ascot. Lowe’s subtle haughtiness is exceptional, under Jason Breitkopf’s direction. Joy Gregory’s “Finish and Trim” is, paradoxically, the least ambitious and most moving, chronicling via narration four seamstress’s recollections of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory inferno in New York that also put a fire under America’s trade union movement. Under Elizabeth Sampson’s lyrical staging, the tale is told with horrifying beauty by Kate Mines, Shannon Morris, Bryna Weiss and Bettina Zacar, complemented by David B. Marling’s affecting sound design. The bill also includes works of wry and absurdist humor by Leon Martell, Wayne Peter Liebman and Jennifer Maisel. Lee Osteen II’s multimedia backdrops provide sterling visual unity. Dog Ear Playwrights at THE ROAD THEATRE COMPANY, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Mon.-Tues., 8 p.m.; thru March 20. (866) 811-4111. (Steven Leigh Morris)


EACH DAY DIES WITH SLEEP Those with a taste for the distasteful will get their fill in Jose Rivera’s 1990 play that plunges Ionesco and Sartre’s cruel Abusrdism into the even colder depths of contemporary despair. Nelly (Karla Leticia Saldana), the middle child of 21 siblings, trapped in a grotesque house with a slovenly offstage mother and an abusive father (Adam Soriano), is reduced to animal instinct as she scrambles on her knees to alternately serve and castigate her abuser. After escaping the clutches of the family, she runs away to Los Angeles with beautiful Johnny (Jerry James), a mechanic and would-be fashion model who had impregnated most of Nelly’s sisters. California seems a godsend for the couple, but the paradise cracks as Nelly’s brutal animalist instincts turn to kindness, which is her ultimate undoing. With unsparingly sharp direction, Kristal Greenlea gives Rivera’s exciting turns of phrase and outlandish plot twists an affectionate and appropriately unpleasant production. Sound design by Matari 2600 and Yammi Swoot’s lights are quite impressive given the primitive state of this small theater. While the evening is horrifying, it’s also moving and intoxicating. GARAGE THEATRE, 251 E. Seventh St., Long Beach; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru March 24. (866) 811-4111. (Tom Provenzano)


JUST SAY NO Gay playwright/political activist Larry Kramer was the Paul Revere of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, shrilly attacking President Ronald Reagan and NYC Mayor Ed Koch for their failure to take action against the epidemic. This play is a product of that time, based on the assumption that every negative rumor about the Reagans was true. It’s set in the apartment of the Capote-ish Foppy Schwartz (Ezra Buzzington), self-described “hag-fag,” and dear friend of Nancy Reagan (known here as Mrs. Potentate, and played by Sarah Lilly, who looks more like Margaret Thatcher). The plot hinges on a pair of blackmailing S&M types (Jennifer Ann Evans and David Wilcox) who’re peddling an incriminating videotape that might prevent the president’s re-election. Mrs. Potentate is depicted as a sexually insatiable Great Satan, who coddles her inept husband and destroys the romance between her son, Junior (Ron Morehouse) and Gilbert Perch (Trevor H. Olsen), who’s the castoff lover of The Mayor (Stephen Alan Carver). The piece is funny at times, but it’s essentially a dated political cartoon, and the chaotic plot runs out of steam before the end, despite the best efforts of director Trevor Biship and his fine cast. Sarah Palmrose’s set, complete with five doors and seven busy telephones, is clever and handsome. THEATRE OF NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru March 24. (323) 856-8611. (Neal Weaver)


{mosimage}MACBETH Director Arne Zaslove has imaginatively reset the Scottish play in the American West, and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s chaps-and-dusters costuming, along with the cast’s handling of Winchesters and Colts, firmly bolts the story to the New World prairie. From Barbara Garson’s MacBird to, more recently, Theater@Boston Court’s Romeo and Juliet: Antebellum New Orleans, 1836, Shakespeare’s plays have routinely been reshaped to match certain historical narratives. The latter example, adapted by its director, Michael Michetti, metaphorically extended Romeo and Juliet’s emphasis on clan warfare to America’s formative racial divides; Zaslove’s concept, however, never advances beyond the purely visual conceit of recostuming Macbeth’s regicidal reign into a kind of range war. The show, delivered in Elizabethan English with only a few characters speaking with cowboy twangs or drawls, doesn’t point to anything beyond the original play’s intent. Also, actor Adrian Sparks is playing a much older Macbeth than we’re used to seeing, which makes us question why a man the age we normally associate with Duncan, if not King Lear, is suddenly seized with enough vaulting ambition to hack his way to a throne. Zaslove is a skilled scenarist and knows how to make the most of his actors (especially those in minor roles) when they are not speaking, yet the ensemble doesn’t possess the fiery authority Macbeth requires. Meghan Rogers’ simple set recalls the weathered planks of a frontier town while also suggesting a tyrant’s scaffold. Cricket Sloat’s atmospheric lighting is top-notch and the uncredited witches’ masks are truly eerie. OPEN FIST THEATER, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru April 7. (323) 882-6912 or www.openfist.org. (Steven Mikulan)


{mosimage} MISS JULIE Adapter-director Stephen Sachs shuttles August Strindberg’s 1888 classic about sadomasochism among men, women, servants and masters to 1964 Mississippi — the land that law forgot — with Southern lynchings and Northern-inspired Freedom Marches as a backdrop. Sachs sums up his take on history in a blistering line that compares a wine to LBJ’s Great Society: “full of promise with a bitter aftertaste.” In this context, over a hot, steamy night, he places mulatto chauffeur John (Chuma Gault), in the servants’ kitchen with his black fiancée, Christine (Judith Moreland), and Miss Julie (Tracy Middendorf), the trashy white daughter (“half woman/half man”) of the judge who owns the house and runs the town. Julie steals John for herself in a sexual dance that’s a curious blend of Jean Genet’s ideas and Tennessee Williams’ style. Strindberg was a notorious misogynist, and his treatment of Miss Julie as an imperious home-wrecking neurotic, in conjunction with Sachs’ strict adherence to Strindberg’s naturalistic style, throws at Middendorf the unenviable task of showing a character who acts out rather than a performer who overacts. Middendorf straddles that line in an ensemble that’s sublime. FOUNTAIN THEATRE, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru April 1. (323) 663-1525. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature next week.


{mosimage}A PICASSO Set in Paris in 1941, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s two-character one-act speculates on an encounter between Pablo Picasso (Peter Michael Goetz) and an investigator (Roma Downey) for the Third Reich. Escorted to a dingy office by military police, the art world titan and infamous womanizer confronts the attractive but officious Miss Fischer, who icily requests that he verify the authenticity of several of his drawings. An intense power struggle ensues. After abrasively challenging her authority, the artist acquiesces to her demands; then, learning the pieces are to be burned along with other “degenerate work,” he swiftly reneges on their identity. Although crammed with biographical detail, the play is most concerned with exploring a more universal overlap of sex and power, politics and art (When the painter insists he’s apolitical, his interrogator points to Guernica.) Under Gilbert Cates’ direction, the performers display considerable skill — especially Goetz, who exudes the historical Picasso’s famous arrogance. Rarely, however, do they draw from an inner sanctum to make their interchange something more than an exercise in deftness and agility. A problem too is having the audience seated on both sides of the proscenium, which limits performers’ movements and forces them to speak much of their dialogue in static profile. There are chronic sight-line problems — actors disappearing — for audiences seated near an aisle. I speak from experience. GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri., 8:30 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7:30 p.m.; thru March 25. (310) 208-5454. (Deborah Klugman)


SAD HAPPY SUCKER Stuck to the ground in his backyard and unable to move, Eddie’s (Eddie Ebell) life has been reduced to manic gesticulations and nonsensical babbling amidst interludes of dour ruminations about his condition. The poor fellow can’t even reach a book of matches at his feet to light the cigarette he eventually eats; and his doting but addle-brained mother (Susanne Voss) can only wonder why as she attempts to make his enigmatic quandary more tolerable with food and words of encouragement. Eventually, she calls in a doctor (a fine turn by Valentine Miele), whose bizarre diagnostic techniques and garrulous demeanor result in some hilarious moments, finally arriving at the conclusion that the poor boy is suffering from a contagious “general sense of despair.” This doesn’t have the gravity of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (which also centers on a couple stuck in the ground), but author Lee Kirk succeeds in broaching absurdist themes of alienation and helplessness. The smart script is a tad wordy but often crackles with humor. Sean Gunn artfully sidesteps the pitfalls of tedium and draws sturdy, energetic performances from his small cast. Saint Ed and Seven/Ten Split at the PAUL E. RICHARDS THEATRE PLACE, 2902 Rowena Ave., Silver Lake; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru March 11. (323) 665-8533 (Lovell Estell III)


{mosimage}THE WOMEN OF LOCKERBIE Director Brent Hinkley demonstrates how, with powerful actors and subtly affecting tech support, even dramaturgy as flawed as that in Deborah Brevoort’s theatrical elegy can translate into emotional theater. Hinkley aims for the grand style of a Greek tragedy that Brevoort’s play clearly wants to occupy. Years after the 1988 Pam Am jet crash over Lockerbie, Scotland (wrought by Libyan terrorists), an American woman, Madeline (Kate Mulligan), and her husband, Bill (Silas Weir Mitchell), return to the crash site. They both remain riven by the loss of their 20-year-old son, who fell out of the sky without a trace, though they’ve been coping in contrary ways. While Bill keeps his upper lip stiff, Madeline scours the hills for bone fragments, still keening after seven years and supported by a chorus of locals (Mary Eileen O’Donnell, Terri Lynn Harris and Anna Sommer), who are also trying to protect the victims’ “contaminated” clothes from the efforts of a U.S. State Department bureaucrat (Robert Shampain) to burn them, and close the case. You’d think from Madeline’s unabating fury that nobody else in the world had ever lost a child to war, and the play comments aptly on that American insularity. Yet the portrait of despair is as unrelieved as the epic lament, The Trojan Women. Problem is, Women of Lockerbie is really just a domestic drama, a chamber study in grief, and how it can devastate a marriage. As such, it’s a penetrating work containing vivid biblical imagery. One of the residents recalls how she knew something awful had transpired from seeing her garden rosebush on fire, flames where the roses should have been. Unfortunately, the writing is also puffed up with so many truisms about life and bromides about love, Hinkley’s very presentational direction starts to look overblown. And Brevoort’s sensibility is too romantic to resolve dramatic knots with much emotional honesty. Madeline has convincingly grown to loathe her rational, coping husband. Then she observes him clutching their son’s possessions and weeping for the first time in seven years. That this sight should suddenly cause her years-held, rabid grief to evaporate into a tearful reunion is such goop, one ultimately has to question whether Brevoort is honoring the tragedy of Lockerbie or speculating on it. The acting is mostly excellent in what’s obviously a labor of conviction. Actors’ Gang at the IVY SUBSTATION, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru April 22. (310) 838-4264. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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