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Theater Reviews: Avenue Q, Tug of War, The Misanthrope 

Also this week's performance pick, the Third Annual Latino New Works Festival

Monday, Sep 10 2007
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GO LA OFRENDA (THE OFFERING) Mix a TV afterschool-special plotline with magic realism and you get writer-director José Casas’ melodramatic yet tender tale of family reconciliation. When Marta Torres (Miriam Moses) loses her only daughter — and little-liked gringo son-in-law — in the 9/11 attacks, she takes her grandson, Alex (V. Rodriguez), into her East L.A. home. To Marta’s dismay, the boy knows nothing of his Chicano/mejicano culture and speaks no Spanish, not that he does much talking in English. Grief-stricken, homesick and angry, Alex spurns Marta’s attempts at consolation as the Mexican Day of the Dead approaches. But when his mom’s favorite toy, a calaca (skeleton figure) named Califas (a dead-on Bruno Sandoval), comes to life as a wisecracking East L.A. homeboy, Alex is imparted some no-nonsense wisdom. But will it be enough to help Alex adjust to his new life, his grandmother and the death of his parents? While the ending is predictable, the characters are thinly drawn, and the staging is somewhat stilted, Casas’ deft blend of humor and pathos and Sandoval’s Califas save the day. And besides, when a play can pack a theater full of neighborhood kids and their parents, somebody’s doing something right, homey. CASA 0101, 2009 E. First St., Boyle Heights; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Sept. 30. Note: no perf Sept. 22. (323) 263-7684. (Martín Hernández)

MODELOGUES Writer-director Sarah Happel’s evening of sketches and monologues inspired by her stint as a fashion model skewers the love-hate relationship between the “beautiful” and the short and plain, who slander their rivals as “skinny bitches” and then copy their cucumber diets. Weight issues reign supreme. (Says one model of another, “She’s an anorexic with a bulimic personality.”) Happel’s funny and enthusiastic ensemble — Joanna Kelly, Sarah Lesley, Jessica Richmond, David Abed, Wesley Stiller and Henry Jacobson — vogue and preen their way through Happel’s promised behind-the-scenes revelations. We learn, unsurprisingly, that models are dumb, stage moms are pushy, designers are insufferable queens, and agents and casting agents are villainous. Like a model, Happel’s show is smarter than expectations. A montage of beauties falling off catwalks elicits a guilty blend of sympathy and giggles. But as the show continues beyond backstage dressers and phony modeling teachers toward the final stretch, where the models claim victimhood, belting “I’m Insecure” to the tune of “All That Jazz,” it’s clear that the world of beauty is too superficial to be mined for two hours. DORIE THEATER AT THE COMPLEX, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 14. (323) 960-4424. (Amy Nicholson)ONE FLEW WEST Taking its title from the same children’s folk rhyme as its source material (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Josephine Schekert’s world-premiere “thrance” adapts the story from a mental asylum, but with a cross-gender twist. Under Nurse Ratched’s (Joseph Beck) paternalistic thumb, all of the inmates are comfortably numb, until a new inmate, R.P. McMurphy (Kelly Grete Ehlert), enters the fold and becomes hell-bent on shaking things up. Gradually, McMurphy wins the confidence of her cohorts, but things turn dark in the second act (the stronger of the two) when Ratched flexes his muscle and takes care of Mack once and for all. Being a thrance, there are dance interludes between the scenes, some emotionally charged and effective (“My Skin,” “Consider This,” “I Will Go Quietly”), the rest mechanical. Jessica Schroeder’s direction is similarly uneven, as the performance doesn’t pick up until near the end of Act 1, and the few emotionally charged scenes can be attributed to the source material. Ella, Sadie and Trixie Minx’s lighting design, however, provides a nice atmosphere for the dance numbers. Standouts among the inmates include lovable stutterer Billy Jo Bibbit (CJ Merriman), constantly mumbling Penny Bancini (Erin Coleman), sadly lobotomized Bettina Ruckly (Genevieve Jones) and unofficial leader Dale Harding (Kirsten Wendeborn). The Outlaw Style Thrance Co. at STUDIO STAGE, 520 N. Western Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Sept. 30. (323) 860-6503. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO SONDHEIM UNSCRIPTED Since Sondheim is impossibly intricate and long — long-form improvisation almost always falls flat — the ImproTheatre folk set themselves an exceedingly difficult task attempting to create a new, Sondheim-style musical every show — one in which they very nearly succeed on opening night. This suggests that refining their skills each week will make it even more compelling than this first outing. An outstanding cast clearly understand the form they are spoofing and have the vocal power to sustain it. Directors Dan O’Connor and Michele Spears prepped the cast extremely well in the kind of relationships required — in this case, three couples and a single man. One hopes in the future that one of the suggestions they ask for is a time period, lest every evening turn into a redux of Company, one of the composer’s few contemporary musicals. The night began brightly with a story of competition within an ad agency to please a very odd new client. Most impressive were Brian Jones and Spears, who invented wonderfully amusing duets as charming young colleagues discovering their love. The story began quickly but bogged down — indicating a need for some driving directorial influence. Also, they lack, of course, the ability to instantly invent the kind of elaborate rhyme schemes that define so much of Sondheim’s brilliance. Fortunately, however, they have a powerful ally in musical director-accompanist Allen Simpson, whose virtuosity in improv keyboard reminds us of the joyful music he composed for Fellowship! a few years ago. Impro Theatre at THEATRE/THEATER, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs., 8:30 p.m.; thru Oct. 11. (323) 401-6162 or www.improtheatre.com. (Tom Provenzano)

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GO THIRD ANNUAL LATINO NEW WORKS FESTIVAL So take a risk. That’s what Highways is doing with its festival of Latino performers, some established, some not — the only Latino new-works festival on the Westside. The beauty of Highways is that it provides a venue for voices that might not otherwise get heard even locally, let alone on the national highways and byways, to where festivals such as this often propel them. Curated by Leo Garcia, this year’s docket includes Friday-night performances by Ric Montejano, depicting a story about obsessions with beauty and crystal meth; Dorian Wood; butch comedians Butchlalis de Panochtitlan; and chanteuse Plastilina crooning traditional Spanish songs. Saturday night is all about dance, with Erika Elizondo and her collaborators; the Blankenship Ballet Company of Venice; and the ABC (African/Brazilian/Cuban) Project, followed by an after-show party dedicated to Celia Cruz. Sunday’s performance consists of political satire by Chicano Secret Service. It’s all sort of like gambling in Vegas, but with better odds of getting more for less. HIGHWAYS PERFORMANCE SPACE, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica;  Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 3:30 p.m.; thru Sept. 16. (310) 315-1459. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO TUG OF WAR Roman theater was mostly frivolous stuff — light entertainment in times of war — paling in comparison to its predecessor, Greek drama. Plautus heads the list of Roman scribes, famous for his slapstick comedies, which are like prequels to commedia dell’arte. If you ever saw a stage production, or the movie of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, you’ll have some idea of the pre-vaudevillian frolic of sex, masters and slaves, which was so much a part of early Roman society. Meryl Friedman has directed, adapted and choreographed Plautus’ Rudens, here named Tug of War (in Amy Richlin’s translation, which floats like silk), with rollicking good cheer and crisp physical precision. This is the latest al fresco offering in the Getty Villa’s excellent classical-theater series. Friedman employs her children’s-theater expertise for this sassy romp that features waves of ad libs, sidebar commentaries, and Friedman’s rousing musical numbers ranging from gospel to calypso to rap, with Graham Jackson’s pristine musical direction of a trio on guitar, accordion and woodwinds (respectively, Armand Arnazzi, Gee Rabe and Brian Walsh). The plot concerns a “virgin” (Cortney Wright), whose marriage to a narcissist (Albert Meijer, playing a hot-tempered Spaniard who describes himself as “flaming”) gets sabotaged by the efforts of a pimp (the hysterically, perpetually grinning Antoine Reynaldo Diel) to sell the virgin into slavery. Amid the perfect cast, Peter Van Norden offers the bearded, boggle-eyed and shrugging old clown/slave Scubus with sizzling style, yet without a trace of affectation. The show is all kid-bright colors (costumes by Ellen McCartney) with a Brechtian underpinning that may have had more to do with artistic license than with Plautus’ patriotic intent. Friedman’s irony-laced adaptation is a deceptively airy mingling of gender relations with themes of human bondage. Defending his duplicity, the human trafficker croons, “Decency is overrated/I am a businessman/I traffic in greed/The marketplace is always open/Check your indignation at the station.” GETTY VILLA, 17895 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu (free shuttle available from the Getty Center); Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Sept. 29. (310) 440-7300. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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