By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
At the Actors’ Gang it isn’t so much those horrors as Swift’s humor that is on display. Farley receives enthusiastic support from six ensemble members, whose standouts include Steven M. Porter (the Emperor of Lilliput) and Vanessa Mizzone (the Brobdingnagian Queen). Many of the book’s original religious and political targets may remain obscured in this adaptation, but Swift’s less immediate lessons about tolerance endure.
Singapore playwright Damon Chua’s drama follows in a long series of hommages à noir that have been appearing on Los Angeles stages since the 1980s, but even before the lights come up on Film Chinois, something doesn’t seem quite right at the Grove Theater Center. A pre-show soundtrack includes the credit-roll music to Kiss Me Deadly, The Killers, The Charge of the Light Brigadeand — The Charge of the Light Brigade? Relax, we tell ourselves — we’re in for an evening of femmes fatales, deadpan dialogue and herbal-cigarette smoke. Lots of herbal-cigarette smoke.
The story takes place in Beijing, 1947. A woman of mystery named Chinadoll (Elizabeth Pan) shows a disturbing habit of not only trying to narrate the play but referring to herself in the third person as “the Beautiful Girl.” She soon meets an American spy named Randolph (Sean Dougherty) who’s on a mysterious mission even as Mao Zedong’s Red Army has begun its life-and-death struggle with the corrupt Nationalist government. Meanwhile, the manipulative Belgian ambassador (Frank Simons) dangles transit papers as a carrot before sexy singer Simone (Joyce F. Liu) — let’s leave it to the imagination just what the ambassador’s stick is.
For nearly 105 minutes, we’re left to figure out Chua’s intentions — and his script. All four characters meet in various combinations: They answer door knocks they shouldn’t answer, get tied up and shot at, loiter in dark corners. These are the outward signs of film noir, the play’s putative inspiration, but we’re never sure why it’s a mystery. Chua’s story is all about the trench coats of noir, so to speak, but not what’s inside them. We gather Simone wants out of China, but we also know she isn’t the story’s center. Likewise, the ambassador fits the profile of a noir hero (“a man who’s already middle aged, old almost .?.?. [who’s] often the masochistic type, his own executioner,” wrote French cineastes Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in 1955) — but Randolph is the protagonist here, a Yankee cop lost in the Orient.
The main fault of director Kevin Cochran’s production is that it squanders Leonard Ogden’s inventive set design (a raked stage whose surprising depth recedes to a vanishing perspective) and David Darwin’s lurid light plot by endless scene changes and a noisy backstage environment. This is a shame, because obviously a lot of work went into this show and the cast is committed to bringing the story to life. By the time it ends and the Beautiful Girl tells Randolph that an even more mysterious woman is “my mother’s sister,” we feel like adding, “Forget it, Randy. It’s Chinadoll.”
GULLIVER’S TRAVELS | By JONATHAN SWIFT, adapted by JOSHUA ZELLER | At Actors’ Gang at the Ivy Substation Theater, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City | Through September 8 | (310) 838-4264
FILM CHINOIS | By DAMON CHUA | At Grove Theater Center Burbank, George Izay Park, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank | Through July 21 | (818) 238-9998