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Theater Reviews: Joe's Garage, Sea Change, Fatboy 

Also, Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and more

Wednesday, Oct 1 2008
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BE LIKE WATER Veteran performance-art monologist Dan Kwong takes a stab at multicharacter, dramatic narrative with this rather sweet, albeit conventionally scripted, coming-of-age dramedy. If Kwong leaves his avant behind, however, fans will be happy to see his signature arsenal of pop-culture tropes and racial-justice themes survive the assault only slightly blunted. Tracy (Saya Tomioka) is a 14-year-old, Asian-American karate-kicking tomboy, struggling through the psychic obstacle course of adolescence. Familiar sexual identity and self-image hazards are made even more harrowing, however, when complicated by the pernicious racism of Chicago’s Chinatown, circa 1978. But this is the post–Bruce Lee world, meaning Tracy has a virile Asian role model she can emulate when she goes up against the class bigot (Jonathan Decker). More than that, she has the man himself, or at least his conjured ghost (an amazing Cesar Cipriano), as her spiritual trainer. Somehow, the ghost’s faux philosophical doublespeak guides her through a brush with the law (and into a dress) and reconciles her culturally divided parents (Michael Sun Lee & Pam Hayashida). As a playwright, Kwong still has some remedial lessons ahead on curbing television-bred structural and linguistic ticks and on how to write a stage entrance. A lush and polished production by director Chris Tashima and his gifted design team helps to smooth over some of the rough edges, while terrific performances from a likable ensemble make one overlook the rest. East West Players, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Oct. 12. (213) 625-7000. (Bill Raden)

 
DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE For about half of Act 1, Sarah Ruhl’s comedy clings (as though to an intriguing but weightless straw) to the situation of a young single woman, Jean (Margaret Welsh, perky and bright-eyed), discovering that the reason her neighboring diner (Lenny Von Dohlen) at a sidewalk café won’t answer his constantly ringing cell phone is that he’s just died. It’s not until mid-act, in a greeting card shop where she and the dead man’s brother, Dwight (Andrew Borba), find their awkward, tender courtship constantly interrupted by that invasive cell phone, that the intrusion of technology on our privacy and humanity starts to emerge. In that same scene the pair discover how words on paper are so much more durable than words in air, and the play’s glorious, unfulfilled promise emerges, yet it remains unfulfilled. A rarity without a cell phone of her own, Jean becomes enamored not only with the phone that she filches and keeps answering with a growing addiction but also to inventing stories about the man’s last words (which she never actually heard because she discovered him dead) — in order to comfort his family members and one mistress (Nike Doukas, speaking in the style of an SNL sketch with an indiscernible Continental dialect). We eventually learn that the dead man also made up stories, ostensibly to “comfort” people but really to hide his secret, shady occupation, which was the source of his prodigious wealth. Somebody in the play points this out as a kind of irony. Somebody points out almost every bit of cleverness being strived for, which is a troubling indication of how the play’s pleasingly ethereal notions must be explained because they’re too muddled to stand on their own. That both Jean and the dead man comfort people with lies is intended as a literary flirtation with the larger purposes of fiction, legend and myth — themes that have earned Ruhl her well-earned reputation. But the gaping distinction between one character using lies to hide his present occupation, and another using lies to invent a past, are as broad as a barn door that remains unopened. Instead, Ruhl’s play walks around it and takes snapshots from any angle in the hopes that the resulting collage will pass for a cogent story and a portrait of our times. Rather, we get a sketchy treatment of ideas so beautiful, they deserve better. Director Bart DeLorenzo amps up the caricatures of the women in the dead man’s family — dressing his aristocratic mother (Christina Pickles) in bright red, and draping her with a fox; while his widow (Shannon Holt) emerges as a bundle of perfectly executed comic twitches. The scenes’ broad style strains against the classical romantic streak that blazes through the courtship between Jean and Dwight. DeLorenzo got to the heart of similar themes with far more unity in Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked... at this same venue, which makes it hard to discern whether responsibility lies with him, or with Ruhl’s perfunctory theatrical treatment of her lovely imagination. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m.; through Oct. 12. (714) 708-5555. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 
GO  FATBOY Playwright John Clancy’s 2004 Edinburgh Fringe hit adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi lands here just in time for the Wall Street meltdown and one of the most surreal election campaigns in American history. What does a farce from the turn-of-last-century about a slovenly, debauched and debauching glutton-king of Poland and his equally hideous wife have to do with us? Start with Macbeth, then fast-forward to Charles Keating. Remember home sweet Home Savings & Loan? Enron? If that’s too far back in time, think about Countrywide Financial Corporation and the predatory sub-prime mortgages that we’re all now going to pay for. In Jarry’s play, the padded fat bastards beat and starved their subjects while attaining ever-more riches and power, until a little revolution had the minions chasing their persecutors into the wilderness. Clancy calls his adaptation Fatboy, and Ian Forester directs it like a Punch and Judy puppet show in which the padded clowns punch each other until both are rolling on the floor. Mark Mendelson’s cheesy set comes with the painted-on grime of an old vaudeville theater, fake footlights included. In white-face, Alexander Wells and Rebecca Jordon play Fatboy and Fudgie, a happy-miserable couple who do little but eat money and gleefully hurl abusive epithets at each other — a none-too-subtle dramatization of our own consumer culture. There’s no dramatic arc. It’s not that kind of play. Fatboy screams throughout, and mentions this aspect in one of many asides. He wants pancakes; she wants money. The rest is a stream of creative curses that turn obscenity into an art. The couple actually mentions art more than once, along with catch phrases like “human dignity,” “truth” and “beauty,” before they collapse in paroxysms of laughter. Oh, yes, Fatboy survives his kangaroo trial for international war crimes by mocking the court and murdering his opponents. There’s quite a bit of neck snapping, with sound effects. Just when you’re ready to dismiss all this as beyond over-the-top, the lights dim, and Fatboy turns menacing. He looks straight at us, and holds us accountable for living by the values that have gotten our country exactly where it is now. Fat bastards, that means you. Grand performances also by Alan Simpson, Bobby Reed and Abigail Eiland. Imagined Life Theater, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; thru Oct. 26. (800) 838-3006. A Needtheater Production. (SLM)

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