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Theater Reviews: The Bad Arm — Confessions of a Dodgy Irish Dancer, Alley Cat and Some Kind of Love Story 

Also, Respect: The Girl Em-Powered, Sona Tera Roman Hess

Wednesday, Aug 20 2008
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GO  ALLEY CAT Marnie Olson plays voluptuous Carma in her play (co-written with director Caroline Marshall) about a female sex addict trying to fathom the depths of her self-destructive compulsions, and whether they’re part of some desire for, or resistance to, intimacy. She relishes her power over men, she explains to her skeptical therapist (Elisabeth Blake, who also turns in an affecting cameo as the understandably troubled, newly pregnant wife of Carma’s musician boyfriend, Rocky (Tui Ho Chee). The production straddles the line between comedic drama and soap opera, but it’s salvaged largely by the delicate performances of the entire ensemble, the truthfulness of which passes the severe test of playing in a venue the size of a living room. Excellent portrayals also include Michael Patrick McCaffrey’s petty thief/“recovering” coke addict/new-age bookstore clerk, clearly missing some major brain circuitry, and Suzie Kane’s Gypsy card reader, Wanda — “Money up front, in the Buddha please.” Though Olson and Marshall’s script hovers dangerously close to being trite, it avoids that plunge with the buoyancy of its intelligence and humor. As an actor, Olson probes the crisis of her intimacies and loneliness with such a deft mixture of deflective mockery and inner torment, her struggles take on the universal qualities of a culture plagued by addictions and despair. The larger question — why are we all so alone? — comes blazing from the stage with blanching heat, and that temperature is this comedy’s higher purpose. Psychic Visions Theater, 3447 Motor Ave., West L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Aug. 31. (310) 535-6007. Roadkill Productions (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE BAD ARM — CONFESSIONS OF A DODGY IRISH DANCER Máire Clerkin comes from Irish stock and grew up in London. This blend might explain her satirically grim portrait of the world she grew up in, and the cheerfully British mask she places over it. In some ways, Clerkin’s one-woman show is a study in the loneliness of being ignored by her workaholic dance-teacher mother, who focused all her attention on the paying customers. This child’s-eye view could be peevish stuff were Clerkin not so intractably good-humored. Nor does she place herself above her mocking portraits, including at age 14 a groping suitor in the dance hall, his eyes boggling, tongue swishing lips as he grabs her hips at arm’s length and pushes her around the dance floor like a mop. “Hot in here,” he notes. “What do you say we step outside for some fresh air?” “That sounds like a good idea,” she chirps back with wide-eyed innocence, and with a politeness that forms the outer crust of British civility. Aside from her animated impersonations and snapshot transitions between them, the focal point of Clerkin’s coming-of-age saga is her right elbow, that drifts outward while performing Irish folk dances, a “bad arm” that her mother says is responsible for her placing poorly in so many competitions. The requisite of keeping both arms slammed into one’s body emerges as a metaphoric constriction in a world that Clerkin captures so meticulously, with the help of Dan O’Connor’s direction and Maxine Mohr’s pristinely delicate sound design. Intro to snogging (French kissing) is one of many rites of passage detailed by Clerkin with a blend of intrigue and disgust, as is binge-drinking and the morning-after consequences in one high-stakes public display. Clerkin’s glorious riffs of traditional Irish dance and disco, and some intermingling of both genres, make her argument for transcendence with nary a word spoken. Bang Theatre, 457 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A.; Sun., Aug. 31, Sun., Sept. 7 & Thurs., Sept. 11 & 18, 8 p.m. (323) 653-6886. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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THE DIVINE MADNESS OF ISABELLA One-person shows often deal in household names (i.e., Harry Truman, Samuel Clemens, Eleanor Roosevelt). That way, the audience can meet the performer halfway between official history and a living, breathing interpretation of a hallowed cultural monument. But playwright-performer Wendy Gough is having none of that. Her subject is the all but obscure Isabella Andreini. Gough tells us that Andreini was a renowned 16th-century Italian scholar, poet and actress credited with raising the nascent commedia dell’arte from a low burlesque into the expressive art form that certain university professors and Italian buffs celebrate today. Trouble is, Gough spends so much time relating the history of Isabella and commedia that her play becomes bogged down in a quagmire of drama-smothering exposition. Among the casualties is Gough’s real objective — the tightrope journey of the artist from the safe and rational to the grand inspiration found only at the edge of insanity. Gough’s use of commedia elements in her storytelling proves her an accomplished mask maker, a wry puppeteer, a capable historian and an earnest performer. Unfortunately, artist biographies come with their own Catch-22: The talents onstage must be equal to the artist they’re portraying. Director John Achorn’s insipid stage compositions and Gough’s ultimate failure to transmute lifeless documentary fact into compelling dramatic tension are the best evidence that this pair is not. Write Act Theater, 6128 Yucca St., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through Aug. 24. (323) 469-3113. (Bill Raden)


GO  FABLES DU THEATRE The three tales in director Chris Covics’ imaginative if occasionally assaultive tour de force are just the top layer of an unpredictable theatrical experience that veers between jaw-dropping creativity and brattiness. At the start of playwrights Brenda Varda and Marva Lewis’ trio of one-acts, the entire venue appears to be in a state of chaotic ruin — an actor is laughing drunkenly and slobbering all over an audience member, while other cast members, covered in blood, emerge from behind the stage curtain. The ensemble, finally wrangled like cats into their proper places, perform the vignettes: In “The Stage Coffeehouse,” a coffeehouse owner (Ramiq Sayer, flamboyantly channeling The Nutracker’s Drosselmyer) oversees the ill-fated romance between two of his patrons. In “Xeera’s Night,” a succubus (a splendidly sultry Tulie Bouquess) genuinely falls in love with her victim, with horrific results. The play’s delicate text is frequently interrupted by mishaps: Fired performers storm the stage, and a rumpled, hirsute critic (not from this paper, thankfully) repeatedly bawls out the cast from his seat. Covics’ production shifts in tone from scene to scene — one moment, a genuine homage to French-lite sentiment, as in The Little Prince; the next, a playful spoof of theatrical pretentiousness. The result’s an unpredictable show that doesn’t just blow out the fourth wall, but hits the fifth and sixth walls as well. Unknown Theater, 1110 N. Seward St., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through Sept. 27. (323) 466-7781. An Unknown Theater and Immanence Theatre Artists coproduction. (Paul Birchall)


PEN Seventeen-year-old Matt (Dennis Bendersky) is a good kid who wants to do right by his disabled mom, Helen (Jill Remez), an MS victim confined to a wheelchair. But Helen is such a bitter, bile-spewing individual that it’s difficult to spend an hour with her, let alone days, months and years. Besides her illness, Helen broods over the desertion of her husband, Jerry (Robert Mackenzie), soon to marry a younger woman and move 3,000 miles away. Encouraged by his dad, the college-bound Matt also plans to flee the thorny maternal nest. Written by David Marshall Grant, the play takes on a fundamental moral dilemma: How much do we owe a loved one in need, and how much do we owe ourselves? Drama triggered by this kind of conflict could pack a gritty punch, but this production — at least its first act — unwinds as a lukewarm melodrama despite the characters’ heated Sturm und Drang, delivered at a too-unvaried pace under Jeff G. Rack’s direction. Notwithstanding her dour expression and sharp tongue, Remez’s insufficiently nuanced portrayal never really pinpoints the pain at the core of this unhappy woman’s existence. Bendersky does fine as a frustrated teenager, but here again more finely tuned direction could yield so much more. Mackenzie’s conflicted, pleasure-loving Jerry is the most probing performance of the three. The play turns fantastical in the second act, an artistic choice intended to address the invisible bonds among individuals, but one that, in terms of storytelling, left me thoroughly confused. Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills; in rep, call theater for schedule; through Aug. 31. (310) 364-0535. (Deborah Klugman )

GO  RESPECT: THE GIRL EM-POWERED is an engaging and fun mix of music, song, theatrical shtick. Dorothy Marcic’s script is based on her book, Respect: Women and Popular Music, and wittily broaches core feminist issues — sans sledgehammer — along with issues of love, family, heartbreak and relationship angst. It’s also a fascinating historical overview of the lives of 20th-century American women, augmented with still photos ranging from album covers, newspaper clippings and advertising images from the ’50s. The production soars on Peter J. Loewy’s clever direction, and the four charming women who sing and dance to some 70-plus tunes such as, “I Will Survive,” “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” “Que Sera Sera,” “Lollipop” and “Mister Sandman.” Susan Carr George does yeoman’s duty as a narrator and as Marcic’s stage persona. Joined by NRaca, Jackie Seiden and Alet Taylor, this musical voyage seamlessly navigates a century of music and history with intoxicating style and humor. Ivy Thaide’s costumes reflect some of the time periods, with emblematic styles such as miniskirts and knee-high boots. Musical director Jim Vukovich’s piano accompaniment is nothing short of brilliant. El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Aug. 24. (818) 508-4200. (Lovell Estell III)

GO  SOME KIND OF LOVE STORY This strange, almost Pirandellian one-act is not what we expect from Arthur Miller. A former New York policeman turned private investigator, Tom (Jack Kehler) is hell-bent on freeing a man he believes has been falsely imprisoned for murder. His only real lead is the woman in the case, Angela (Beege Barkette), but she stubbornly refuses to reveal what, if anything, she knows. Over a five-year period, their sparring has continued: They have been lovers, adversaries and mutual tormentors. He feels that his love for her has brought him back from living death — but he knows he can’t trust her. She insists that if she gives him the information he seeks, she will lose him. Neither we nor he can tell if she is a pathological liar, a devious whore, a schizophrenic with multiple personalities, a virtuoso con artist and opportunist, or all of the above. In a single, brilliantly written scene, they play out their story of mutual obsession. Michael Arabian directs with sensitive precision, and his actors serve him with finesse. Barkette is endlessly fascinating as the mercurial, protean Angela, and Kehler provides an admirable foil as an ordinary guy trapped on an emotional roller coaster. Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Aug. 31. (323) 960-4442 or www.thehayworth.com. (Neal Weaver)

GO  SONA TERA ROMAN HESS Cuban-born playwright Dennis Miles has composed an elegy to lost love and distant battles, set — as he mentions in the program — somewhere in the world, sometime in the past. An old farmer marries a young girl, who ends up running off with the farmer’s even younger son. Miles doesn’t bother much with that part of the drama, instead beginning his play with the couple, pregnant and broke, returning to the embittered old farmer for help and forgiveness. Into this scenario, Miles drops a traveling circus troupe and the encroaching front line of a devilish war, thus spinning the action toward the kind of surrealism this playwright is known for, full of heightened language and stylized charm. Director Kiff Scholl’s production strives for — but falls shy of — matching that style entirely, making for a lopsided experience. Unspecific blocking and characterization muddy some of the more poetic moments, and though Greg Wall as the farmer and Kathleen Mary Carthy as his cat-crazy companion deliver some strong performances, the rest of the cast appear somewhat lost in this miasma. Davis Campbell’s set nails the fractured reality of the world, though actors at times self-consciously avoid smacking their heads into slanted rafters. And Becky Gradjeda’s sound design lends a haunting rhythm to the words. The Lounge Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Sept. 21. (323)960-7864. (Luis Reyes)

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