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Theater Reviews: Bug, Scab, Fowl and More 

Also reviews of Food for Fish and The Merry Widow

Monday, Apr 30 2007
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{mosimage} PICK BUG It’s taken 11 years for Tracy Letts’ searing play to reach L.A., via off-Broadway from its London premiere, but the wait’s been worth it. Somewhere outside Oklahoma City, middle-aged waitress Agnes White (Amy Landecker) paces her motel room awaiting the inevitable, with no idea what that is. It soon arrives in the form of a mysterious loner named Peter (Andrew Elvis Miller), who seems like a welcome alternative to Agnes’ abusive husband, Jerry (Andrew Hawkes), a paroled con who’s back in town. Agnes and Peter fall in love, sharing both Agnes’ bed and crack pipe. Their bliss is short-lived, however, as Peter becomes obsessed by the insects he believes are crawling out of his body after being planted there by government scientists. The drama unfolds partly as a piece of Grand Guignol theater, partly as a political fable but mostly as a study of romantic codependency. Director Scott Cummins and an excellent cast strip away the story’s sentimental possibilities to leave exposed a raw nerve of dread. Robert G. Smith’s motel set — neither the retro-kitsch-filled parlor of road movies nor a water-stained hell hole — compresses a psychic wasteland into a few precious square feet. Sound designer Lindsay Jones cranks up the sense of claustrophobic paranoia with the rumble of semis and the chop of helicopter blades, while Leigh Allen’s light plot fills the room with a foreboding chiaroscuro. Lost Angels Theatre Company at the Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 3. (866) 811-4111.  (Steven Mikulan)


{mosimage} CHARLOTTE: LIFE? OR THEATER? This affecting production deserves a less self-important title. Based on the life and paintings of Charlotte Salomon (played by Megan Goodchild with endearing wide-eyed conviction) — a German-Jewish woman from a family plagued by suicides, she was killed shortly after her imprisonment in a Nazi-run concentration camp — Elise Thoron (book and lyrics) and Gary S. Fagin’s (music) “opera in three colors” slides gracefully back to the lives of Charlotte’s parents (Michele Greene and Bruce Katzman) and grandparents (Robert Lesko and Dorothy Constantine), in order to depict how who we are stems largely from whom we come from. The opera is fundamentally about the relationship of life to art, and should put to rest the commonplace that art is trivial compared to real things that matter. Here, art has a direct relationship to the hardships and agonies that accompany life. Charlotte’s paintings both ensnare those truths and provide her refuge from them. They appear throughout the action on Jack Forrestel’s beautiful set of screens and polished platforms. The play also repeatedly refers to its own theatrical devices, in case we forget that theater is also an art form. There are also many references to the power and purpose of music in general, and of opera in particular. A singing instructor (Andreas Beckett) wearing the infamous yellow Jewish star gives voice lessons to Charlotte’s stepmother (a gorgeous performance by Stasha Surdyke), underscoring the connection between art and inner truth. This argument is easier to sell when hunger and Nazis populate the backdrop, and life is clearly a moment-to-moment proposition. But to convince Congress for better arts funding will take more than a committee of artists saying how important their work is. And that’s the paradox, in theme and tone, of Louis Fantasia’s loving and lovely production. That, and the need in this opera for more powerhouse voices. MET THEATER, 1089 Oxford Ave., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru May 26. (800) 838-3006. (Steven Leigh Morris)


FOOD FOR FISH Adam Szymkowicz hangs his whimsical, semipoetic story on the hook of a plot resembling The Three Sisters, although parallels between Anton Chekhov’s characters and Szymkowicz’s three siblings who live together in Manhattan and pine to move to New Jersey should probably not be pushed too insistently. The story revolves around a young, suicidal writer named Bobbie (Joe Egender) who folds chapters of his novel-in-progress into wine bottles and places them in the Hudson River. He also takes to New York’s streets at night to kiss appreciative women he has studied. Meanwhile, his novel manipulates the lives of Barbara (Justin Alston), Alice (Inger Tudor) and Sylvia (Mandi Moss), who miss their late father so much that they’ve kept his coffin in their apartment a year after his death. Barbara’s husband, Dexter (Lauren Letherer), is drifting apart from her, and is drawn instead to her sister Alice — a science researcher who requires her first-time dates to provide her with DNA swabs and blood samples. This is the kind of play in which the writer Bobbie’s characters not only talk back to him but fall in love with him. It’s also the kind whose gender-bending includes the playwright’s strategy of having Barbara played by a male and Dexter by a woman. (Director Heather Holloway’s production takes this a step further by casting Barbara and Alice with African-Americans, and Sylvia with a Caucasian.) Sometimes these conceits stray into the no-man’s land called Cute, but overall Szymkowicz has written a refreshingly perceptive work about how love, work and interior narratives act to both blind and free the individual. Holloway directs a charming cast whose members grow on us without pandering to our expectations. THEATRE OF NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru June 2. (323) 856-8611 or www.­theatreofnote.com. (Steven Mikulan)


{mosimage} FOWL A high-concept, low-content spectacle, writer-directors Robbie Daniels Jr. and Ryan Heffington’s musical is ostensibly about a bastard chicken (Daniels) who hatches three bastard chicks (Tara Avise, Lou Heffington and Nina McCneely), loses them, then finds them (in jail), sort of. All very touching. Daniels, a.k.a. Jer Ber Jones, is an unmitigated ham in drag, cavorting around the world stage (which here is about the size of a walk-in closet), holding a curling-iron wand and crooning tongue-in-cheek amidst little head jerks that are really choreographed to resemble small epileptic seizures. Heffington’s gloriously feathery costumes yield to silks and fetish chic. Avise, Heffington and McCneely’s dancing is simply breathtaking for its vitality and precision. Entering the basement venue, you’ll pass Richard Wainwright’s Nest Installation — a sculpture that’s just a sliver of the care that’s been taken with the tinsel-and-glue decorations. Beneath all the parody is, I think, a musical about hot blood and cold hearts, home and homelessness. Despite the campiness, the relentless pounding of the techno pop dance numbers makes a point about the world grinding on, and grinding up its fowl inhabitants. It’s terrified of taking itself, or anything, too seriously. Yet all through this low-tech glamor fest, underwear is showing. And this is really about what lies beneath. Peekaboo. Casita Del Campo’s CAVERN CLUB THEATER, 1920 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; Fri.-Sun., 9 p.m.; thru May 13. (323) 969-2530. (Steven Leigh Morris)


FREE BIRD In his program notes, writer-director Joe Salazar dedicates this play to his brother-in-law, who died of cancer. The plot portrays the experience of the family of a 30-ish man named Ed (Jacob Magnuson) from his diagnosis to his passing. Ed leaves behind his wife, Tina (Susan Matus), and his brother-in-law Jimmy (Salazar), an agoraphobic painter who lives in the couple’s basement. Ed and Jimmy share a passion for beer, pot and rock & roll — the latter illustrated by oldies blasted pre-show and between each of the 14 scenes (and sometimes during the scenes). Though the inspiration for the piece is heartfelt, the script never extends beyond an artless and sadly predictable chronicle of events. Salazar plays Jimmy as a tiresome and perpetually stoned jokester, while the appearance of a fatal illness doesn’t manifest itself on the healthy-looking Magnuson. Constrained by the material, Matus and Brandy Lamkin (as a home-care nurse) manage some truthful moments in a production otherwise short on verisimilitude. The sick man both convalesces and dies on a small, beat-up sofa (never a bed). And whereas the program places events in 2005-2006, the set features a TV console, a turntable phonograph and albums, and a phone with cord, all pre-dating the action by two decades, with no explanation in the script for these anachronisms. McCADDEN PLACE THEATER, 1157 N. McCadden Pl., Hlywd.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru May 5. (323) 463-2942. (Deborah Klugman)


{mosimage} THE MERRY WIDOW Maybe it’s all those years in storefront and basement theaters, of gazing out over duct-tape and tinsel sets, and up at lighting cables over my head, hitched together by ropes yet still drooping forlorn. Seeing the sheer opulence of Michael Yeargan’s jaw-dropping art deco sets of courtyards and gardens and Maxim’s, I felt like a guest at Versailles. Turn your head, and there’s the black-and-white splendor of Thierry Bosquet’s turn-of-last-century’s costumes on an army of actors, a unity punctured by Susan Graham’s sumptuously blazing red gown. There’s eye candy, and then there’s eye candy. Franz Lehár, Victor Leon and Leo Stein’s operetta (English version by Chirstopher Hasall, with additional material by director Lofti Mansouri) shares the concerns of most European plays written between 1500 and 1950 — money and love. Anna Glawari (Graham) finds herself widowed and loaded financially. When she visits the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris, she finds herself wooed by foreign bachelors, and sex is not their first concern. Such a marriage would be bad for the locals, since Anna’s 50 million francs would go with her, and with whoever the “him” might be. Local Count Danilo (Rod Gilfry) says, despite being destitute, he ain’t interested. (For a country in poverty, these guys sure know how to dress up.) He really does have the hots for her, but her damn money keeps intruding on everything. Yep. It all gets sorted out in Act 3, thank goodness. The dialogue is miked, so we hear some lines we’d rather not, but the singing isn’t, and that’s what I came for, at least. The arias are largely incomprehensible — despite being in English — drifting up into the sky rather than out into the crowd. Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts the full orchestra, whose sound is pristine. Nice performance also by Jake Gardner as the conniving Baron Mirko Zeta and comedic zeal from Jason Graae’s embassy secretary, Njegus. A San Francisco Opera Production at the DOROTHY CHANDLER PAVILION, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; in rep, call for schedule; thru May 26. (213) 972-8001. (Steven Leigh Morris)


SCAB In Sheila Callaghan’s unsparing black comedy, grad students Ani and Christa (Annunziata Gianzero and J.J. Pyle) — a venomous depressive and a shy suburban princess — are odd-couple roommates at a California university with nothing in common besides their hostility to pretentious twits (Sean Sweeney, Priscilla Barnes and Kendra Chell). The principle behind their opposition is symbolized by a three-headed beast draped in berets, martinis and acid snobbery. Ani and Christa’s apartment is their fortress, except they’ve invited in some destructive intruders: a guilt-inducing plant; Ani’s status-conscious ex (Jon Weinberg), who defends his decision to dump her after her father’s funeral because he’s NPR and she’s top-40; and a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary (Barnes) who comes to life solely to destroy what’s left of Ani’s ego and sanity. For all her play’s fantastical elements, which also include a monosyllabic man in very baggy diapers, Callaghan keeps a sure hand on her true-life themes, including the line between friendship and parasitism, grief’s tendencies toward self-destructive distraction, and the caste system of higher education. Because of some slack energy in Mark Wilkinson’s otherwise poignant production, the piece doesn’t always hit its marks, but as Ani — a small, goth John Wayne — builds an impossible crush on her illusorily perfect best friend, the potential for heartbreak is real. TILT Productions at the ELEPHANT THEATER, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru May 20. (213) 484-1956. (Amy Nicholson)


{mosimage}THE TRAGICAL COMEDY OR COMICAL TRAGEDY OF MR. PUNCH Mr. Punch (Thomas W. Ashworth), of Punch and Judy fame, is the most unrepentant villain in theater history. He murders his wife and child, kills off the forces of justice, hangs the hangman and kills the devil — and all this in a puppet show for children. In this curious theater piece, adapted by director Sean T. Cawelti, Miles Taber and Rae Walker, from a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, Punch comes to life to haunt the dreams of a Boy (Dalton O’Dell), exiled to the penny arcade run by his Grandpa (Dana Kelly) while his mother is giving birth. The show is a visual feast, featuring an atmospheric set by Joel Daavid, a Mermaid (Nina Silver), hand puppets, rod puppets, shadow puppets, masked humans playing puppets, video projections (by Patrick Heyn and Brian White) and characters from The Wind in the Willows who come romping through. Cawelti’s anarchic production is more inventive than coherent, partially because the amped-up sound and raucous cries of the ensemble sometimes drown out dialog and lyrics. But Kerry Hennessy’s costumes, masks by Patrick Rubio and clever puppet design by Joyce Hutter keep things interesting even when the story gets lost. Rogue Artists Ensemble at THEATRE/THEATER, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru May 27. (800) 838-3006. (Neal Weaver)


UNCLE VANYA Director David Jay Barry’s program notes explain his minimalist approach to Anton Chekhov’s classic. But one person’s minimalism can be another’s negligence. As Yelena, the young, second wife of a retired professor and the object of other men’s affections on an 1890s Russian estate, Simone Sullivan is clearly more mature than her character’s 27 years, both in look and demeanor. And much of the play’s central theme of enduring the weight of unrewarding years is undermined by casting actors decades younger than their worn-out characters, such as Scott Brady as Yelena’s elderly husband, Serebriakov; Amy Oldham as the old nurse, Marina; and Gloria Gadder as Marya, the mother of the hapless Vanya (Dale Duko). Clare Meehan is convincingly distraught as Serebriakov’s love-struck daughter, Sonya; but Steve Ferguson as her unrequited love, Dr. Astrov, merely scratches the surface of the medic’s melancholy soul. The only authentic prop in Meehan and Oldham’s sparse set design is the samovar from which our unhappy heroes draw their tepid tea. Shoddier tech support comes from what appears to be a cap pistol used in a shooting, and paperback books in the library — decades before such books had been invented. Even minimalism requires some attention to historical detail. 3KO Broadway Theater Company at THEATRE UNLIMITED, 10943 Camarillo St., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru May 12. (818) 685-9939. (Martín Hernández)


WALLS In East Germany just prior to the collapse of the Berlin wall, restive Pandora (Lacy Fisher) dreams about life on the other side, while craving love and acceptance from her prostitute mother (Caroline Stack). But the desire for freedom places her at odds with a teacher (Catherine Curtis), a drug-dispensing psychologist (Ric Rosario), and an assortment of other government lackeys. Her yearnings even earn her a beating at the police station. At this juncture, Jeanette Brown’s impressively ambitious script veers into sentimental melodrama: Pandora hooks up with an itinerant artist (Kurt van Fossen), with predictably tragic results. This all unfolds in a flurry of scenes that are not artfully integrated, underscored by Brown’s stodgy direction. The terribly overwritten script contains flashes of poetic brilliance. But the biggest problems here are substance and cogency. Brown attempts to essay grand themes of love, alienation, totalitarianism, freedom and faith, but her sweeping ideas aren’t drawn with the kind of complexity of experience that might have prevented the play from sounding like a mere rant against industrial modernity. The performances are excellent. ETHOS THEATRE, 1523 N. La Brea Ave, Second Floor, Hlywd.; Fri., 8 p.m.; thru May 25. (310) 383-4053. (Lovell Estell III)


WHEN NATURE CALLS Josefina Lopez’s monologues (loosely linked, thematically) have a lot of heart — but it is often difficult to ascertain where exactly Lopez wants to take us. A program note and a heavy-handed ending scene tell us that the 90-minute show is supposed to make us feel the desperate need to save the environment. We are shown a battery of random characters, all women, including a Red Cross worker who talks about her experience with Katrina, a reporter suffering from an ulcer while trying to solve the murders in Juarez, a young woman experiencing past life regression hypnosis, and even the host of a “Getting in Touch With Your Inner Goddess” workshop. Though the initial monologues are long and feel more like an interesting conversation than a theatrical performance, most of the segments are actually quite engaging; many, however, are related to the intended message only tangentially, in some cases with just a single line of dialogue. Most of the performances, especially those of Cheryl Umana and Joyce Lee, are well honed and absorbing, and the play has potential. But until Lopez weaves her stories into a more specific pattern, her aim will remain oblique, however emotionally charged she may be about the environment and women’s place in it. Corky Dominquez directs. CASA 0101, 2009 E. First St., Boyle Heights; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru May 20. (323) 263-7684. (Alexis Roblan)
click to flip through (5) (Photo by David Elzer)
  • (Photo by David Elzer)
 

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