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Theater Reviews: The Limitations of Genetic Technology, Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein 

Also, Roccopella, Crimes of the Heart

Thursday, Nov 18 2010
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CRIMES OF THE HEART is a play that's been widely performed ever since it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1981. But for only the second time in its history, it is presented with an Asian cast, and it's the first time in which the three Southern sisters are specifically hapa (of mixed Asian descent). While this may strike traditionalists as incongruous, a few minutes into the first scene, the ethnicity of the actresses falls away and their Southern personas take over. This melting away of ethnicity into the quirky ethos of playwright Beth Henley's Southern gothic humor is a testament to the talents of Elizabeth Liang (a perfectly put-upon Lenny), Kimiko Gelman (a fabulously flighty Meg) and Maya Erskine (a beautifully batty Babe), not to mention dialect coach Anne Schilling. But if the gold standard of interpreting a classic is an invitation to see the play through a new lens, director Leslie Ishii's production falls short. If the production's freshly minted Asian currency gets "whitewashed" into the regional idiosyncrasies of Mississippi, it says little new about the play, and even less about the assimilation of cultures. Rather, its reason for being would appear to be casting opportunities for these excellent actors, and this well-staged production becomes just an exercise for those who wish to be entertained once again by the tender absurdity of the McGrath sisters. For those who have deeper hungers, however, it's a missed opportunity to utilize this company's talent. East West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso St., dwntwn.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 5. (213) 625-7000, eastwestplayers.org. (Mayank Keshaviah)

LOL! LATINA ON THE LOOSE! If you don't know Brazilian actress Mina Olivera — "Best Looking Hooker" on several episodes of Reno 911! — it takes about five minutes of her solo show to realize she'd be a great caipirinha date. Bubbly, cute and grounded, she's as easy to spend 90 minutes with as a cold drink on a hot day. Set on a stage with lightbulbs that dangle low like fallen stars, Olivera's one-woman biography dances through the last 30 years of her life, and sambas back further still to when her grandmother, a huge force in her life, was a 16-year-old beauty queen in a village of 500. Grandma was a hobbyist psychic, respected and feared for prophesying the plane crash that killed the first fiancé of Olivera's mother. From the joy with which Olivera describes their dynamic, it's clear that grandma's big personality helped push her granddaughter to embrace her own inner diva. (When Olivera finds a bra in her boyfriend's apartment, she hears Grandma's advice to make this her operatic telenovela moment.) Grandma's big wish was to see Olivera act on Melrose Place, never mind that the show was canceled right after Olivera arrived in San Francisco for school. Olivera's quest to be an actress survives one bad boyfriend, one better one and several counselors and managers who advise her against betting her future on making it as a Latina actress. One cautions that the hurdle Latino actors face is their own delusion that they aren't typecast. But Olivera isn't here to make universal statements about prejudice, emotional abuse, culture shock or any other potholes on her road to Hollywood — she's here to crack jokes and make friends, and she does so with ease. Alberto Barboza directs. Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Nov. 20. (866) 811-4111. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  THE LIMITATIONS OF GENETIC TECHNOLOGY Former L.A. Weekly critic and playwright Luis Arturo Reyes' darkly cerebral satire opens with a snazzy set of video mock-commercials touting the benefits of a megalithic corporation's genetic engineering program, and concluding with the ironic motto, "Our product is people!" Set in the near future, the play posits a world in which genetic technology has allowed almost every dream to come true. The population now has the ability to be beautiful and perhaps immortal. Yet even as people have their livers swapped out after a brisk night's boozing, and teenagers capriciously get themselves genetically implanted with elf ears and a tail to fit the fashion, more complicated issues are afoot. When, at a company party, a holographic image of eternally boyish corporate CEO York (Kyle Nudo) announces his suicide, the corporation is thrown into chaos. Reyes' drama is unabashed science-geek chic — intelligent, imaginative and full of wit — but the sometimes awkward technical jargon and dense, philosophy-filled exchanges take a long time to spark much emotional momentum. Midway through, though, comes the desire by the new company president (Jeffrey Wylie) and his marketing-executive wife (Harmony Goodman) to create a young baby android. With the couple's growing affection for a creature they at first consider a science experiment, the play reaches an incredibly moving tragedy. Director David Watkins Jr.'s intimate production occasionally suffers from energy lapses, but designer Steven Calcote's video-screen-and-chrome set quite effectively creates a futuristic mood. In his turn as the indefinably spooky, Peter Pan–like company CEO, Nudo engagingly balances scientific detachment with childlike innocence. Sarah Lilly, as his world-weary wife, offers a splendidly nuanced turn that's equally mischievous and sad. Wylie and Goodman, as the corporate parents "testing" the cloned baby, are appealing as their characters nicely evolve from cold businesspeople into a loving dad and mom. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 4 p.m.; thru Dec. 12. brownpapertickets.com/event/131828. (Paul Birchall)

click to enlarge Roccopella
  • Roccopella

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