Theater Reviews: Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, Looking for Paul, The Night of the Tribades 

Also, The Sunset Limited, Uptown Downtown and more

Thursday, Nov 25 2010

CALLIGRAPHY Large prosceniums don't always favor the stories they frame. The cultural arena in Velina Hasu Houston's new play may be transnational, but her drama involving mothers and daughters and the problems of aging and Alzheimer's is surely an intimate one — and perhaps better told that way. The conflict revolves around the newly widowed Noriko (Emily Kuroda), a former Japanese war bride who resides in the U.S., and her embittered controlling sister, Natsuko (Jeanne Sakata), who lives in Japan. Each has a daughter: Hiromi (Melody Butiu) is Noriko's, responsibly concerned when her mother becomes disoriented, while fast-living Sayuri (Fran de Leon) resents mom Natsuko's demands for devoted caretaking after the older woman breaks both legs. Staged by director Jon Lawrence Rivera, the play spotlights the unraveling family mores in Japan that have furnished younger women more choices but also have left elderly people vulnerable, much as they are here. The action, punctuated by Bob Blackburn's ceremonious sound design and Nathan Wang's original music, plays out on designer Ann Sheffield's stark and lusterless set -- its expansiveness diminishes an already sparse emotional dynamic. Another serious glitch involves the flashback sequences in which Kuroda implausibly portrays her character as a young woman romanced by her future husband (Kevin Daniels). Nor do we sense much familial chemistry elsewhere. Only Sakata's acerbic dragon lady is consistently persuasive; the scenes between the two estranged sisters (when they finally do meet after decades of separation) are the most compelling in this essentially toneless production. Playwrights Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn; Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Dec. 12. (866) 411-4111 or thelatc.com. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  CHARLES DICKENS' GREAT EXPECTATIONS Neil Bartlett's translation, in conjunction with Geoff Elliott's (who nimbly performs two idiosyncratic roles) and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's staging of it, strips Charles Dickens' sprawling novel down to its two central threads. The stage result is less textured than the page result, but that may be a necessity of the theater. Brought into sharp focus here are two plots, one personal and the other social. The first contains the ironies accompanying the change of fortune after young Pip (nicely played by Jason Dechert, bewildered as a youth, then with a growing if muted arrogance as an adult) steals food for escaped convict Magwitch (the excellent Daniel Reichert). Magwitch will repay the young man with a kind of bounty that will leave him utterly perplexed — sending his morals crashing into his class consciousness. The interweaving story concerns the morbid and ancient Miss Havisham (Deborah Strang, glorious as always) and her perverse, revengeful plot to break Pip's heart through the pawn of her beautiful niece, Estella (Jaimi Paige). In this production, that plot is really the emotional heartbeat, thanks to the chemistry between the actors. The crisply staged production features innumerable eccentrics who float through this dual-spine structure. The result is far less picaresque than the novel; yet for all the strengthening of the two main crossbeams, the drama is, ironically, more ambivalent in its conclusions. Even Dickens' feed-bad, feel-good blend of despondency and sentimentality is muted, when you'd think that such a structural paring-down would result in a clearer view. Nonetheless, I found that ambivalence oddly appealing. A few overwrought performances temper this otherwise robust production. A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; in rep; call for schedule; thru Dec. 10. (818) 240-0910. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE FIELD Under Sean Branney's direction, John B. Keane's beautifully modulated drama is set in a rural County Kerry pub, where locals gather to see who will end up owning the field that old Maggie Butler is selling. Will an outsider swoop in and snatch it, or will a swaggering local farmer have his way? Barry Lynch brings a formidable menace to his role as the intimidating farmer, "The Bull" McCabe. This is a man with a massive sense of entitlement and a bulldozing force of will. Having leased the land from the old widow for years in order to graze his cattle and gain access to the river, McCabe's had his heart set on owning the "handsome parcel of land" for decades, as did his father before him. Keane's chilling drama is an incisive commentary on the local folk, presenting copious drinking, snarky small-town gossip, incessant childbearing and domestic violence as part of the fabric of everyday life. One scene in Act 2, when McCabe's loyal son Tadgh (Travis Hammer) dares to ask why his parents haven't spoken for 18 years, will make your blood run cold. Excellent performances from all. Theatre Banshee, 3435 Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec 12. theatrebanshee.org/ (Pauline Adamek)

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KIFF SCHOLL - Rendition In Damascus
  • Rendition In Damascus

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GO  LOOKING FOR PAUL Rotterdam performance collective Wunderbaum presented an amazing show over the weekend at REDCAT, not in the Radoslaw Rychcik/Grotowski/Koltès rock & roll sense, but in a mischievous, Wooster Group, deconstrustructive/destructive, dialectical performance-art provocateur sense. This piece was created during a three-week residency, with the help of local performance artist John Malpede. The first three-quarters of the show featured the performers sitting before mics reading group e-mails that document the genesis of the piece, how the idea developed during the trip to Los Angeles and subsequent rehearsals, as well as the dissension, creative chaos and personal discord that emerges during the process. Crucially, the cast of characters included Inez van Dam, a bookshop owner from Rotterdam, whose impassioned antipathy to the monumental, and pointedly obscene, bronze Paul McCarthy sculpture erected in front of her building was both the performance's inspiration and jumping-off point for its examination of the role of public art, the politically charged arena of arts funding, in California as well as the Netherlands (where Wunderbaum's annual funding represents one-quarter of what our state spends on art each year). At the center of the discourse was the polarizing figure of McCarthy himself (in this respect becoming Rotterdam's version of Richard Serra, whose piece "Tilted Arc" created a similar controversy in Manhattan in the early 1980s). Just past the point at which audience members began nervously glancing at their watches, the piece shifted gears to a filmed documentation of McCarthy getting the comeuppance promised by van Dam, as the group staged a guerilla raid on McCarthy's Altadena home and pasted up a mural-sized poster of van Dam's portrait with the words, "Good morning Paul. Think of me as the one you made think of you every day." Finally, the chairs were cleared and the projection screen raised to reveal a set of scaffolds, screens, beds and a toilet, as the group — including van Dam — performed an anarchic, profane and graphically scatological homage/parody of the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf portion of McCarthy's own installation/performance "Caribbean Pirates." REDCAT at Disney Hall. Closed. (Bill Raden)

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