ACTING: THE FIRST SIX LESSONS Beau Bridges was 10 years old when his father, Lloyd, gave him Richard Boleslavsky's primer for actors, Acting: The First Six Lessons. Boleslavsky studied under Stanislavski and later developed aspects of the master's approach and passed them along to Group Theater luminaries Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman (becoming in a sense the granddaddy of the American Method approach to performance). This adaptation, developed and performed by Bridges and his daughter Emily Bridges under the direction of Charles Mount, illuminates Boleslavsky's process in a series of scenes constructed around the relationship between a theater coach, played by Beau, and a passionate but initially untrained theatrical neophyte, portrayed by Emily. The piece spans five years, during which time the young actress makes a name for herself but returns to the teacher for professional guidance. Prefaced with down-home remarks to the audience, and evoked within a picturesque 1930s framework that they, impressively, put together themselves, this is a show that you want to like — but are constrained from enjoying by the inescapably pedagogical nature of much of the script. Passages instructing in the precepts of sense memory, observation and so forth will be familiar to performers who have attended theatrical workshops, and pretty much irrelevant to anyone else. That said, this stylishly mounted and smoothly executed production is worth viewing if only for Emily Bridges' translucent presence as a fervid young artist. Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Hollywood; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 16.(323) 851-7977. (Deborah Klugman)
GO CUMBIA DE MI CORAZON A romance with music, set in the netherworld, playwright Tony Campion's delectable fable depicts a trio of afterlife employees trying to unite a fisherman named Heriberto (Eliezer Ortiz), dead 50 years, with his newly deceased wife, Maruca (Carla Valentine). To win her, he must ply the dazed, then disdainful woman (she doesn't recognize him at first) with songs from their youth — the spicy, enticing rhythms of cumbia, a popular Colombian dance with roots in slave ritual courtship. For the workers (Joaquin Jasso, Daniel Restrepo and Fanny Veliz), his success is crucial, as their supervisor (Angel Sabate), a cantankerous spirit in black hat and cape, is threatening their demotion to the fiery pit if they fail to maneuver the couple to "The Big House." None of this unwinds with any logic, nor does it matter. Directed by German Jaramillo, the ensemble juggles the whimsy, irony and emotional truth embedded in Campion's script with pitch-perfect skill. Among the play's charms is Katherine Castillo as La Angelita, in a beguiling dance-only performance. The music's beat is contagious, and by play's end the audience is hotly rooting for the once truculent, now newly energized Heriberto, to regain his life's love for eternity. One major problem for non–Spanish speakers in an otherwise very enjoyable show: English supertitles translate only a portion of the text, which is all in Spanish. Bilingual Foundation of Arts, 421 N. Avenue 19, L.A.; opens April 30; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through May 30. (323) 225-4044. (Deborah Klugman)
GO DEMENTIA Anyone who survived the deadly HIV plague years of the '80s, when the best and brightest of the arts community were wiped out by the disease, can't help but be moved by the pathos of playwright Evelina Fernández's AIDS melodrama. While the play's urgency might have diminished somewhat in the intervening years of antiretroviral successes, director José Luis Valenzuela's restaging of the Latino Theater Company's acclaimed, 2002 production has lost none of its rousing panache or theatrical luster. Sal López reprises his tour de force performance as Moises, a flamboyant theater director drifting in and out of consciousness on his deathbed in 1995. He spends his lucid moments planning his final exit scene in a party to be attended by his close associates, which include his lifelong friend, gay hairdresser, Martin (the excellent Danny de la Paz), best straight friend/writing partner, Eddie (Geoffrey Rivas), and Eddie's wife, Alice (Lucy Rodriguez). Moises' less-coherent spells are spent in phantasmagoric dialogues with his conscience and drag-queen alter ego, Lupe (Ralph Cole Jr. in a showstopping performance), who belts out disco dance hits in between haranguing Moises about coming clean with his ex-wife, Raquel (Fernández), on the circumstances surrounding their 15-year-old breakup. A first-rate production design, including François-Pierre Couture's evocative lights, Nikki Delhomme's Mackie-inspired gowns and Christopher Ash's expressionist-surrealist set, underscores Fernández's Eros-trumps-conventional–morality theme with elegance and eloquence. Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat. 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru May 30. (213) 489-0994, ext. 107, thelatc.org. A Latino Theater Company Production (Bill Raden)
GO AN EVENING WITH SUTTON FOSTER In the years since musical-comedy diva Sutton Foster was plucked from the chorus of Thoroughly Modern Millie, just before its opening at La Jolla Playhouse, and elevated to the title role, she's racked up an impressive résumé. In addition to playing a lead role in The Drowsy Chaperone at the Ahmanson and on Broadway, she's played Jo in the Broadway musical version of Little Women, the ogress Fiona in Shrek the Musical, and most recently, she was Nurse Fay Apple in the New York City Center revival of Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle. In this solo performance, which closed over the weekend, assisted only by her accompanist, musical director and longtime friend Michael Rafter, her manner was casual and down to earth, but she provided a dazzling display of charm, musical skill, vocal virtuosity and comic chops. Foster treated us to songs and medleys from shows she's performed, plus "Something's Coming," from West Side Story, a comedy number evoking NYC's sweltering summer weather called "All You Need Is an Air Conditioner to Be the Man for Me," and Sondheim's poignant "Anyone Can Whistle." Her impishly subversive wit illuminated all she did, and she stopped the show repeatedly, whether belting out a power ballad, or crooning a rich pianissimo. The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Closed. (Neal Weaver)
GO JAWBONE OF AN ASS The title is lifted from an Old Testament passage and is fitting for Nan Schmid's sparkling satire about faith run amok in the heartland. Paige Marie (Schmid) is a hard-core, Bible-thumping Christian who lives in a world of the thoroughly devoted. When not wearing out her knees in supplication and prayer, she enjoys cooking all types of goodies for the locals. The picture isn't perfect, however, because her hubbie, Roy, has gone missing; he has a sexual "condition" that compels him to "flog the old bishop" in public, and he has been fooling around with Nam's loose-panty friend, Cora Ann (Eliza Coyle). To the rescue comes the venerable Dr. Admore (a knee-slapping turn by Michael Miccoll), Christian counselor, author, solid American and "savior of the hour," whose prescription for Paige's dilemma is to enter the Pillsbury bake-off and indulge in some risqué cross-dressing. When a body turns up late in Act 2, the proverbial wrath of God brings righteous judgment along with some hilarious revelations. It's all good, enjoyable fun (even if you believe God is a Republican and lives in a red state). Jim Anzide provides sharp direction, and the three-person cast is a riot. Circle X Theater at The Lillian Theater, 1078 N. Lillian Way, Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 29. (323) 962- 0046. (Lovell Estell III)
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JESSE BOY Plenty of writers have trodden down the thickets of dysfunction, which apparently overrun the rural South (my own little Southern hometown must be the lone exception). Certainly, there are families with histories of secrets buried so deep you'd need a backhoe to unearth them. But to cram a play to bursting with every last and most lurid of them, as does Robert Mollohan, playwright and star of this world premiere, feels like little more than shock value for the sake of shock value. Richie (Mollohan), an Elvis impersonator/car salesman and Abigayle (Jaimi Paige), his girlfriend/former lady of the night, live in a state of vague dissatisfaction dotted with bouts of uneasy peace. The tension in their trailer home is pulled rubberband-tight by Abigayle's live-in mentally handicapped brother, Jesse (the excellent Zach Book), Jesse's physically handicapped stripper/babysitter Mary-Lou (Kathleen Nicole Parker), and Richie's homeless uncle, Red (Chris Mulkey). The performances are, across the board, as impressive and nuanced as the range of Southern accents the cast employs. But as the second act hurriedly pulls tricks out of its hat and as the build to the predictable climax barrels toward the audience, the characters' emotional evolutions get lost. Richie's chance for at least a moment of sympathy is especially squandered — if you're going to stack every card in the deck against a character, you have to give the audience a reason to care much earlier than the last 15 minutes of the play. Karen Landry directs. Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Road, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 12 (no performances Memorial Day weekend). (310) 397-3244 (Rebecca Haithcoat)
SPOOF AND SATIRE In the pantheon of wicked nuns where one finds such diabolical Brides of Christ as Sister Aloysius in Doubt and the unnamed Sister of Late Nite Catechism, all homage must be paid to Sister Mary Ignatius, the truly horrific nightmare nun of Christopher Durang's ferocious satire, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. In director Jeremy Aluma's intermittently droll and ultimately workmanlike production, the role of the archetypal terrifying schoolteacher nun is assayed with delicious venom by Joanna Churgin, whose eyes, glowering beneath her wimple, crackle with madness. The play's basically staged as a lecture in which Sister Mary "teaches" us many of the tenets of her particularly unforgiving brand of Catholicism — including her beliefs that murder and homosexuality are equally mortal sins, and her less-than-comforting assurance that God hears every prayer — "Sometimes He just says 'no.' " Midway through the lecture, however, several of Sister Mary's former students show up, first to present a cheesy Nativity play but then to confront the nun with the troubled lives they blame her for. Although some of the cast's supporting turns are marred by stiffness, Churgin's perfectly committed turn as Sister Mary anchors Aluma's intimate staging; she seems absolutely reasonable with her horrific opinions, until the piece arrives at its totally unhinged finale. Unfortunately, Aluma's stodgily paced production of An Actor's Nightmare, Durang's traditional companion piece to Sister Mary, fares less well, lacking the energy and ferocity of the first comedy. A mild-mannered accountant (Johnny Arena) unexpectedly discovers himself part of a play whose dialogue he doesn't know, and which appears to be an ungodly mix of Shakespeare, Noël Coward and Samuel Beckett. The play's theatrical in-jokes mostly fall flat in this mix of heavy-handed blocking and pedestrian line readings. Arena acquits himself well during the play's keynote midsection monologue, during which he appears to lose his mind. Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 29. (310) 828-7519. (Paul Birchall)
GO STARMITES: AN INTERGALACTIC MUSICAL In this astral, half-actor/half-puppet rock opera, the Starmites — a cross between Power Rangers and N*SYNC — are under attack from the evil Shak Graa (Matthew McFarland), who threatens to "debase, deflower, degrade and digest" inner space. Only earthling teen Eleanor (Natalie Storrs) can save the day — and luckily for man- and alienkind, she's a comic book geek who's already boned up on the backstory in Starmites issues 1 to 20,995. Barry Keating and Stuart Ross' musical is slim on plot but packed with ditties as Eleanor blasts off into space with the boys (Michael Joyce, Thomas Krottinger, Jonah Prior and Donald Webber Jr.) to wrest a magical weapon-instrument from the forest of the sexy space banshees (Jen Reiter, Riana Nelson, Jessica Perlman and Raquel Sandler). The technics are great, especially Phil Kong's playful lighting design; Diane Adams' vocal arrangements flaunt the ensemble's talents. But the songs carry on for longer than their repetitive lyrics hold interest, then carry on further through several reprises. Despite its skill, at two and a half hours, it's unconscionably long for a musical fueled only by charm. Even Eleanor's feisty femmepowerment gets bogged down with a several-scene detour about finding inner beauty. The savior is Steve Edlund's crisp directing and his enthusiastic cast — when Storrs rushed to the rescue at the climax, she thundered onstage with such purpose she accidentally kicked her shoe to the rafters and closed out the play barefoot. Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 9. (310) 458-8634. Ensemble Theatre Company (Amy Nicholson)
THE 39 STEPS Though Patrick Barlow's adaptation of John Buchan's book played on Broadway, it's the kind of lark that thrives in fringe festivals (it premiered in London's tiny Tricycle Theatre) — showcasing the quick-change antics of four actors, playing out a flippant stage rendition of Alfred Hitchcock's movie(s). There's no small irony that this season-closing production for the Ahmanson bookends the opener — Monty Python's Spamalot, another stage "homage" to another movie, with many nods to stage techniques in particular and to the theater in general. The attempt here, under Maria Aitken's direction, is to show how comedically cheesy stage effects can parody the cinema techniques employed to show, say, characters scrambling atop the roof of a fast-moving train. (In one scene, a remote toy train traverses the stage.) Even as a fake conceit, it's a fake conceit, since Peter McKintosh's seemingly minimal set comes nestled inside a huge theater with hydraulically moving pieces and every stage invention money can buy. The show is at its best when, with split-second precision, hats get swapped, jackets and dresses get dropped and exchanged, in order for Richard Hannay, Eric Hissom, Scott Parkinson and Claire Brownell to portray a gallery of dozens of characters. The story follows a British stooge (Hannay) trying to fathom the mystery of a German spy operation. The ensemble is amazingly dextrous — more so than charismatic — but that doesn't matter in an exhibition of technique. This is a lot of money to pay for carny show in which some talented actors pretend to be doing a Hitchcock movie onstage, on the cheap. I struggled earnestly to find a reason to care, and came up empty. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through May 16. (213) 628-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris)