Theater Reviews: Festen, Just Imagine, Never Land, Save Gertrude 

Also, High Ceilings, The Philadelphia Story, The Blunders and more

Wednesday, Oct 14 2009

THE BLUNDERS Jon Berstein’s site-specific comedy with music about L.A. ditherers and sweet loons is set in an L.A. bar-cabaret — cleverly using the environs of the Vermont Restaurant’s cabaret room. This provides the opportunity and context for Lorna (Leslie Beauvais), Gretel (Celina Stachow) and Suzy (Lisa Donahey) to croon musical director Mitchell Kaplan’s original songs (with additional lyrics by Berstein), as well as excerpts from Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Meanwhile the unrequited loves and stifled ambitions that play themselves out at the bar resemble a sitcom based on a Sondheim musical — unapologetically so. The parodies include Ezra (Marco Tazioli), a kind-hearted gravel-voiced sage perpetually frustrated in romance and by his over-the-limit credit cards, and who’s mistaken for a Muppet character. We see him somewhat spinelessly or perhaps desperately duped by fly-by-night shrink Dr. Sylvia (Keli Daniels), a former canine psychiatrist who makes her living applying her doggy techniques to Angelenos. Heartthrob bartender Barry (Casey Sullivan) sends overweight Suzy’s heart aflutter in what she thinks is a mutual romance but is merely Barry’s attempt to exploit her job as a receptionist at Capitol Records. After about 30 minutes, the concept wears thin, because it’s a dramatization of symptoms rather than underlying causes. Posing as an affectionate nod to life in our Industry town, it unwittingly provides grist to outsiders convinced of our city’s superficial denizens. The sound design and/or actors’ use of mikes needs modifying in order to prevent distortion, though Donahey in particular has a gorgeous singing voice, and knows how to use it. Upright Cabaret at Vermont, 1714 N. Vermont Ave., L.A.; Wed., 9 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.; no minimum for dinner or drinks); through October 21. www.the blunders.com. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE DOCTOR DESPITE HIMSELF In Molière’s farce, oafish woodcutter Sganarelle (Charles Fathy) takes a (rubber) mallet and beats his wife, Martine (Clara Bellar), like a dirty carpet, and why not? since she kind of likes it. However, this doesn’t prevent Martine from spitefully telling a passing dolt (Brad Schmidt) that Sganarelle is a famous surgeon who enjoys being paid for his toils by receiving even more-savage beatings. The dolt beats Sganarelle like a brass gong and then hires him to cure his master’s daughter (Raquel Brussolo) of muteness. Of course, it turns out that the girl is only pretending to be mute so she can trick her dullard dad (Steven Houska) and marry the handsome student (Brad Schmidt) she loves. More beatings ensue. The first thing you need to know, even before watching the play’s casual thumpings, is that director Gulu Montiero’s madcap production is steeped in the art of the clowning. The show has the wonderfully shrill pitch and frantic pace of a living cartoon. The cast know the way around the 17th-century gags — and the goofiness is heightened by designer Swinda Reichelt’s jaw-dropping costumes, which turn these classical characters into outlandish figures risen from some other dimension. In his leering turn as Sganarelle, Fathy’s grinning mug floats in what appears to be a blubbering multicolored beach ball, and when he turns into “the doctor,” he is fitted with a bizarre collar with dangling tassles your cats would adore. Sganarelle’s spiteful wife wears a plastic-y swoop skirt covered with rubber balls — and she then returns later as a sexy housemaid, wearing weird plastic blond braids and gigantic plaster breasts. The result of all this artistry is a production that is both timeless and yet cracklies with the freshness of a living children’s picture book. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave, Venice; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through November 8. (310) 823-0710. www.electriclodge.org. An Ipanema Theatre Troupe production. (Paul Birchall)

GO  FESTEN Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 Danish film, Festen, distributed under the English titleThe Celebration, is the basis of David Eldridge’s English-language stage adaptation. The story is based on the hoax of a man announcing on Danish radio that his father had molested him. The play — which thrived in Britain from 2004, including a successful West End run in 2005 before it withered on Broadway in 2006 — is doggedly faithful to the film’s cinematic repartee of multiple, simultaneous conversations around a dining room table at the 60th birthday celebration of patriarch Helge (Jeff Paul). As part of an “honorary” toast, Helge’s middle-aged son, Christian (David Vegh, possessing just the right twitchy blend of gentleness and smugness) announces that in the past, Helge routinely sodomized him and his twin sister, who has just committed suicide. In the shock of that toast, we become jurors: There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Christian is mentally unhinged, though being sodomized by one’s father would be a plausible cause of such instability. The rest of the comedy is a study in the violence that floats just beneath the surface of this large family, of its inability to grapple with Christian’s accusation, as well as the blatant bigotry expressed by Christian’s swaggering brother, Michael (Josh Nathan), against their sister’s (Anna Steers) latest black boyfriend (Jarrell Hall). Meanwhile, doddering Grandfather (Ken Rugg) ludicrously keeps warning that a bawdy joke he’s aching to tell might be too shocking. Eldridge’s acerbic sarcasm in this minefield of brutality amidst the trappings of civility gives the play its Pinter-esque trappings, and to her credit, director Joanne Gordon yanks this production from the play’s cinéma vérité moorings, using an increasingly expansive physical stylization (including an archly choreographed, robotic dining sequence) that physicalizes Christian’s growing nightmare. The writing plays a clever, facile game with pop psychology, which is more provocative than penetrating, yet this nicely acted and sleekly designed production is never less than absorbing. Royal Theatre aboard the Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach; Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.; through Oct. 17. (562) 985-5526. A California Repertory Company production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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