Theater Reviews: The Birthday Present, Broken Glass, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale | Theater | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Theater Reviews: The Birthday Present, Broken Glass, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale 

Also, Endgame, Girls Talk, Bonded and more

Thursday, Mar 24 2011

GO  THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT 2050 Stories about dystopian societies often risk seeming contrived, but playwright Tania Wisbar's beautifully detailed and elegiac tale depicts a world that might believably exist, say, 100 years after a Nazi takeover. In the future, poverty and disease have been eliminated, but the world is instead organized on entirely practical lines, with your right to survive being decided by the number of "points" you earn every year. On the 75th birthday of family matriarch Teresa (Salome Jens), her devoted daughter Marsha (Elyssa Davalos) thinks she has collected enough points from her two sisters and family to allow Teresa to live another year. More than just being the emotional center of her clan, Teresa is one of the last living rebels who recalls life before the odious new order came to pass. Marsha's hopes are threatened when unexpected complications up the fee for Teresa's right to life. In director Jonathan Sanger's beautifully melancholy staging, what could be a mechanical exercise in high-concept plotting becomes a wistful tale of how easy it would be to purge memory of the past from the world. Sanger's smoothly executed production boasts many rich details: Set designer Kis Knekt's calculatedly sterile living room is replete with decorative video screens that show 1984-esque messages from the genially sinister bureaucrat (Jeffrey Doornbos) who oversees the family's doings. Knekt's set, in conjunction with composer Karen Martin's eerie incidental music, crafts a world that's just plain crazy. The ensemble work is just as assured. Apart from Jens' powerful turn as the ferociously nonconforming grandmother, Davalos' complex performance as Marsha is exceptional: Her character is seemingly an upbeat chirper, but her good mood is so clearly artificial, it seems as though she's always about to weep. Also engaging in supporting roles are Katrina Lenk, as Marsha's venomously selfish younger sister, and Demetrius Grosse, as a guilt-haunted security agent. Katselas Theatre Company at the Skylight Theatre, 1816 ½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., thru April 17. (323) 960-7733. (Paul Birchall)

BONDED Bolstered by director Jon Lawrence Rivera's unadorned, precise vision, Act 1 of Donald Jolly's homoerotic slave narrative set on a Virginia plantation in 1820 is a piece of earnest, thought-provoking theater. Jolly's frank but lovely storytelling graces the genre with fresh insights about the lives of slaves, traveling beyond the dehumanizing stories of sexual abuse and unspeakable human violence penned so powerfully in the firsthand accounts of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, taking us instead to a slightly reimagined slice of the old South, where sexual freedom becomes nearly as urgent as freedom from human ownership. Sonny (Terrence Colby Clemons), Lily (Toyin Moses) and Jack (Carl Crudup) are the last remaining slaves on a rapidly crumbling Virginia plantation. Enter Asa (Eric B. Anthony), a New York "house boy," whom the three plantation slaves quickly dub "new nigger." Accustomed to fetching cocktails and completing other indoor chores, Asa melts down after being shackled and scrubbed, whipped by Jack (a 70-something, self-proclaimed "true African" who wants to keep the uppity Northerner in his place) and forced to keep impossibly long hours plowing fields. When Sonny and Asa begin to bond emotionally, sexual tensions arise and eventually explode. Sadly, Act 2 is a bundle of redundancies, a drawn-out series of melodramatic manipulations that don't do justice to the first act's promise. Bob Blackburn's sound design, Adam Blumenthal's lighting and John H. Binkley's set serve the story well. Playwrights Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., thru April 9. (866) 811-4111, (Amy Lyons)

GO  BROKEN GLASS Arthur Miller's searing 1995 drama ostensibly deals with the theme of Jewish assimilation and the price of ignoring evil in the rest of the world. In the end, though, the issue is a metaphor for the moral rot fragmenting a loveless marriage. In 1938, American Jewish housewife Sylvia (Susan Angelo) reads in the papers of the atrocities taking place in Germany and develops what appears to be a hysterical, psychosomatic paralysis. Sylvia's husband, uptight mortgage broker Phillip (Michael Bofshever), is justifiably alarmed, but as he seeks help from kindly Dr. Hyman (Stephen Burleigh), the real problems underlying his wife's condition begin to emerge. For his part, Phillip is contemptuous of his own Jewish heritage and is so self-hating he pretends to be Finnish, rather than Polish, even as he's forced to suck up the subtle anti-Semitism at his workplace. In director Elina de Santos' beautifully empathetic staging, the pacing is unhurried, but the emotions rise in tension and pitch until, finally, they reach Shakespearean heights of tragedy. There's so much simmering below the surface here — especially the notion of how, under certain circumstances, self-loathing and guilt can actually be physically manifested. The acting work crackles with subtext and organic emotion. At first the prickly, unforgiving Phillip seems monstrously dismissive — but in Bofshever's increasingly subtle, pragmatic turn, we gradually start to realize the insecurities underlying his self-loathing. The show's engrossing moral center, however, is Angelo's wonderfully vulnerable performance as Sylvia, who is played as part giggling ingénue and part world-weary social activist trapped in a life that, for the most part, she cannot control. Pico Playhouse, 10580 Pico Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., thru April 17. (323) 821-2449. (Paul Birchall)

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