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
CINDERELLA THE MUSICAL
I attended writer-director Chris De Carlo & Evelyn Rudie’s musical adaptation of the timeless fairy tale with my 9-year-old niece, Rachel. We found ourselves joined by a birthday party of kids who appeared to be around 6, though there was a smattering of infants and adults. These kids were obviously smitten with the broad comedic antics of the stepsisters (Celeste Akiki and Billie Dawn Greenblatt) and their mom (Serena Dolinksy, doubling, in a rare, high-concept moment of intended irony, as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother). The actors’ goggle-eyed expressions and broad-as-a-barn reactions generated screams of laughter from the kids, who were also riveted by the songs (ranging in style from pop ballads to Gilbert and Sullivan parodies). This production has been chugging on and off for 25 years now. Actor John Waroff has dedicated a quarter century of his adult life strutting the boards as King Isgood, so points scored for perseverance, which is more than can be said for Rachel, who promised to write this review and then left it to me. Can’t not mention Ashley Hayes’ lush costumes, nor the tinny sound design that left the singers marooned. Rachel said she really liked the stepsisters and Cinderella (Melissa Gentry) but wished somebody had been more cruel, as in the story. Everybody here was just so nice, and Rachel was aching for something meaner or weirder. I concur. Rachel also said some unkind things about some of the performances, but if she wants those aired, she can write a review herself.
DEATH, LIES AND ALIBIS
Riffing full-length improvs on the works of famous writers is becoming something of a cottage industry — Impro Theatre has busted open works of Jane Austen, Stephen Sondheim, Anton Chekhov, Tennessee Williams and William Shakespeare. Here, director Patrick Bristow (formerly of the Groundlings and currently also with Puppet Up Uncensored) does his own take on Agatha Christie’s literary idiosyncracies with a company named Improvatorium. Creating an improvised production from a couple of audience suggestions in the style of Ms. Christie is, well, murderously difficult — even with Christie’s pro forma structure of a group trapped in a locale, a mysterious death, and an investigation of some sort. The 10-person ensemble comports itself with moments of brilliant off-the-cuff wit intermingled with references to the play’s climactic sporting event — three-legged and potato-sack races. Part of the joy is the strain for dignity, as the circumstances around them prevail against it, combined with their posh attire (wardrobe by Leslee Harman and the cast). Obviously, the event changes nightly, but when I attended, the momentum rolled into a few mud holes and the evening was more a series of lovely, delicate cameo performances rather than a larger view of what Agatha Christie meant to her audience — or means to ours — or even a satire of the essences that ensure her works endure. Amidst the very good company, Bristow and Jayne Entwhistle are standouts.
Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; every other Thursday, 8:30 p.m.; through August 20. (323) 962-1632. An Improvatorium production. (Steven Leigh Morris)
Director–set designer August Viverito and his colleagues have mastered the art of clarity and intensity when working in a tiny space such as this. Peter Shaffer’s drama has always told the harrowing tale of psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Jim Hanna), who must discover why a severely troubled teenager, Alan Strang (Patrick Stafford), has gouged out the eyes of six horses with a hoof pick. What’s different here is that Hanna’s Dysart suffers an anguish at least as deep as the boy’s, and this carries the play from clever melodrama into the realm of tragedy. Dysart slowly realizes that Alan has evolved his own bizarre religion, in which horses are his gods — and has enacted a strange Passion Play. The doctor understands that to cure the boy, he must take from him the richest and most profound experience of his life. The boy’s fierce passion forces Dysart to recognize the barrenness and aridity of his own existence. Viverito has cast it beautifully, with riveting performances by Hanna, Stafford and a splendid supporting cast, who make us feel the play, as well as understand it.
Vanessa Bell (Gillian Doyle) and Duncan Grant (Christopher McFarland) were prominent members of the Bloomsbury Set. Visual artists, they’ve shared a studio and occasionally a bed for more than 40 years, conceiving a child together despite Bell’s marriage to someone else and Grant’s committed preference for male lovers. (The child was raised by Bell’s husband, Clive.) Set in 1923, Joyce Sachs’ period drama speculates on a love triangle involving these two longtime friends and George Mallory (Justin Ellis), the mountain-climbing adventurer and darling of British society, who famously perished scaling Mount Everest in 1924. In Sachs’ portrait, competition for the erotic attentions of the devastatingly attractive Mallory provokes awkward and, at times, painful tensions within the household. Under Kevin Cochran’s direction, the piece scores with its capacity for nuance and its focus on the gap between the ideal of free love and plain old human jealousy. The production also gains color and ambiance from designer Leonard Ogden’s enlivening set and costumes and David Darwin’s lighting. Too often, however, the slow-going dialogue unwinds like a disappointingly airless episode of Masterpiece Theater, with the self-absorbed characters engaged in far too much speechifying about the past. Doyle gives an intelligent, well-calibrated performance, but despite her showing, our sense of a tried-and-true connection between Bell and either McFarland’s smug narcissist or Ellis’ stolid hunk never ignites.
GTC Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through July 25. (818) 238-9998 orwww.gtc.org. (Deborah Klugman)
GO HEAVY LIKE THE WEIGHT OF A FLAME
While R. Ernie Silva’s older brothers were doing hard drugs, he hid out in his room and watched Masterpiece Theater. Silva wasn’t a nerd; he break-danced, liked weed, and grew dreadlocks. But he lived in Bushwick, and to cops, bosses and his mom, being a young, black male in Bushwick meant you were and would always be just like everyone else. Railroaded into a life headed for rehab or death, Silva grabbed a boxcar heading west to go on an American walkabout. Silva is a charismatic talent with slender build and wide grin. The story of his travels, co-written with James Gabriel and directed by Mary Joan Negro, taps into his charm and energy, sending him up and around a set of simple black boxes, strumming his guitar, Savannah, and impersonating the noteworthy, from Richard Pryor and Jimi Hendrix to August Wilson. The travails of young artists and their search for self-definition are a familiar solo show trope, but even the heightened moments — the death of a brother, an auspicious visit from an eagle — feel earned, not manufactured. I expect we’ll see a lot more of Silva, and this very solid monologue is a good place to get acquainted.
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through August 8. (310) 477-2055. (Amy Nicholson)
GO MONKEY MADNESS
In writer-director Daisuke Tsuji’s cracklingly clever tour de force, which takes place on a planet of apes from which Roddy McDowell is conspicuously absent, a group of actors playing monkeys schmutz up their hair, cover themselves with brown paint, squawk and go chee-chee-chee in the aisles, and even toss feces at the audience. (You can examine the contents for yourself. )Tsuji’s amusing and ironic play tells the story of a strapping young monkey (Randy Thompson), who dreams of becoming a human being. His main reason for this wish is so he can fall in love with a sweet, human girl (Olivia Choate), who, in turn, wishes only that she could become a sexy monkey gal. Act 1 consists of the monkey boy’s Siddhartha-like attempts to find his place in the world — he participates in what appears to be a simian rave (crisply and dynamically choreographed with dazzling Janet Jackson–esque moves by Anne Rene Brashier) and then heads to Monkey College. Just when one begins to suspect Monkey Madness is a one-concept piece, events in Act 2 take on a more mythic feel, as a creepy spirit (a towering, showstopping puppet from Cristina Bercowitz) offers both monkey and human the chance to realize their dreams — for a terrible price. Tsuji’s artfully and energetic staging is both smart and dazzling — spectacle here meshes engagingly with undercurrents of cerebral wit. A veteran of Cirque du Soleil, Tsuji uses shtick, choreography, a touch of Bunraku, and evocative acting — and the show sizzles with quirky antics and, ultimately, unexpected sadness. The ensemble enact their simian roles with ecstatic glee, particularly Dee Amerio Sudik’s monkey-elder lady in a performance so seductive, you forget you’re really watching a human. Thompson’s sweet monkey boy is equal parts Curious George and tragic boy-beast.
MY THREE SISTERS
John Walcutt directs his own adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters with decidedly mixed results. Set in West Texas during the Depression, Walcutt’s adaptation is accessible and, at times, clever. However, the flaws in this production outweigh the witty conceit of putting Russian émigrés in Dust Bowl Texas. Moreover, the adaptation suffers from too many anachronisms (“My brother — the loser”), and the liberal use of the word fuck detracts from the verisimilitude. Jimmy Nall gives the one standout performance as Alexander, the love interest of the adulterous middle sister, Masha (Kristina Kontor). As Olga, the eldest sister, Diana Elizabeth Jordan had pronounced delivery problems on the night I attended. (The show is double-cast.) While the youngest sister, Irina (Aidee Salgado), yearns desperately for New York (instead of Moscow, as in the original), two suitors (Jimmy Blakeney and Afshin Hashemi) vie for her attentions. Driving the plot are the actions of brother Andre (Andrew E. Tiles), a wastrel who, without telling his sisters, mortgages the ranch to pay off his gambling debts. In the meantime, Andre’s vulgar wife, Natalie (Dana Joiner), bullies everyone at the ranch to consolidate her own power. Walcutt’s direction is overly broad, at times verging on camp. And Andrew J. Traister hams it up as Ivan Romanich, a family retainer.
Actor’s Playpen, 1514 N. Gardner St., West Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through July 18. (323) 874-1733. (Sandra Ross)
GO ST. JOAN OF THE SLAUGHTERHOUSES
For a lucid analysis of the malfunctioning global financial markets, one could do worse than Bertolt Brecht. And it’s hard to imagine doing Brecht any better than director Michael Rothhaar in this electrifying staging of the Marxist maestro’s classic, anti-morality play, St. Joan of the Slaughterhouses. Set in the Chicago meatpacking markets of the 1930s (wittily caricatured in Danielle Ozymandias’ costumes), the story cleverly inverts the Jeanne d’Arc legend in the character of Joan Dark (a dynamic Dalia Vosylius), an antipoverty crusader whose “Warriors of God” mission caters to packers left destitute by slaughterhouse closings. Joan’s efforts to get the men back to work lead her to financier Pierpont Mauler (the fine Andrew Parks), unaware that it is his stock manipulations that are responsible for the closings and that Mauler is cynically using Joan’s appeals to further his scheme. When she subsequently refuses a Mauler bribe for the financially strapped mission, she is cast into the street, where she belatedly realizes the pointlessness of good intentions without collective action. Powered by Peter Mellencamp’s vivid, new translation and an unerring ensemble (including standouts Robin Becker, Ed Levey, Tony Pasqualini and Daniel Riordan), Rothhaar’s production is a perfectly pitched tribute to the principles of epic theater. (It’s also a showcase for the multitalented Norman Scott, who lights his own set design and shines as Mauler’s scurvy hatchet man.) Rothhaar & Co. not only prove that the old, dialectical dogmatist still has teeth but that Brecht’s bark and his bite are both wickedly entertaining.
Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Aug. 9. (310) 822-8392. (Bill Raden)
After a nearly 30-year tenure in the repertory canon, Sam Shepard’s satirical portrait of the playwright as an existential combat zone has more than demonstrated its resilience under fire. Boasting one of Shepard’s most celebrated comic conceits — the odd-couple pairing of struggling Hollywood screenwriter Austin (Tiger Reel) with his estranged, dissolute vagabond of an older brother, Lee (Andre Carriere) — and what is certainly a bravura feat of dramatic misdirection, the play uses deceptively straightforward naturalism and accessible situational comedy to lure its audience into the shifting surfaces and unsettling ambiguities of Shepard’s carefully constructed, ulterior metatheatrics. Unfortunately, the textual tack into allegorical waters leaves director Wendy Obstler and her lamentably misconceived production irretrievably beached. Obstler’s insistent oversimplification of the brothers’ fratricidal conflict as some kind of pathological projection of parental personalities not only cuts her actors off at the knees but also makes nonsense of the characters’ critical merging of identities in Act 2. Carriere has enough confidence and personal charisma to salvage Lee as a creditable exercise in manipulative cunning and savage self-interest. But without a coherent Austin (Reel’s goes missing due to inaction) to engage, even that personal triumph can’t rescue Shepard’s ruminations on the writer’s quest for authenticity and truth.