GO EXILES Playwright Carlos Lacamara's drama puts a powerful human face on the Mariel boat lift, Fidel Castro's mean joke of 1980, when Cuban-Americans were invited to come to Cuba to fetch their loved ones, to take them to the Land of Opportunity, but were instead subjected to a painful bait and switch. Cuban-American mechanic Rolando (Alex Fernandez) sails his rickety boat to Cuba, believing he's going to be bringing his beloved mother to his American home. Instead, the authorities force him to take Rolando's pompous brother-in-law, Joaquin (Lacamara), Joaquin's sullen daughter, Sadia (Heather Hemmens), and some other extra treats — a maniac (Khary Payton) and a murderer (Mark Adair-Rios). Midway through the voyage, the boat's motor breaks and tensions flare among the passengers. Rolando's teenage son Roli (Ignacio Serricchio) falls for Sadia, while Rolando and his brother-in-law fight over long-ago wrongs. Then the murderer makes his move. In David Fofi's emotionally rich, character-driven production, the conflicts brew and simmer, aided by the claustrophobic mood provided by John Iocavelli's beautifully rickety boat set. The show's pacing sags occasionally, particularly toward the end, which feels inordinately drawn out — and the breakdown of the boat seems like a forced plot development to keep the characters from being able to get anywhere. Yet the the play's emotions crackle, and the piece brims with real fury and regret, whether it's the anger of Fernandez's excellently rigid Rolando, or the snappishness of Hemmens' snide but vulnerable Sadia, forced to abruptly uproot her life. Payton's haunting turn as the maniac, whose lunacy, we discover, springs from years of torture, also stands out. Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 27. (323) 960-4442. (Paul Birchall)
GEOGRAPHY OF A HORSE DREAMER Neither a major nor even a very memorable member of the Sam Shepard canon, this 1974 script dates from the London-exile period in which Shepard was still trying to crack the nut of the beginning-middle-end dramatic structure. Which means it belongs to a handful of tween plays that share little of the poetical fireworks of the '60s or the craft and thematic riches of his post–Pulitzer Prize work. Nevertheless, Shepard did write Geography of a Horse Dreamer as a comedy, and that's where director Jamie Wollrab and the playwright part company. Kris Lemche is Cody, a Wyoming cowboy whose onetime ability to dream horse-race winners has turned into a losing streak after he's kidnapped and imprisoned by gamblers Beaujo (John Markland) and Santee (the fine Scoot McNairy). When effete mob boss Fingers (an inspired Dov Tiefenbach) demotes the men to the dog tracks, Cody's prognosticative powers are temporarily restored but at the cost of his sanity, which leads Fingers' cadaverous henchman/quack, the Doctor (Thurn Hoffman), to salvage Cody's valuable "dreaming bone" by cutting it out of the back of his neck. Essentially a seduction-of-the-artist allegory embroidered by a pastiche of plot and character archetypes from vintage Warner Bros. gangster melodramas, Shepard's surrealist aims — along with their intended laughs — are all but lost in Wollrab's realistic mise-en-scène and some wildly uneven performances. Moth Theatre, 4359 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru March 6. (323) 666-2296. (Bill Raden)
JUST A SONG AT TWILIGHT Willard Manus has chosen an interesting subject — growing up in a Jewish household with a deaf mother in 1928-1942 — but his autobiographical script seldom gains momentum. Henriette (Lene Pedersen) and her older sister Marion (Janne Halleskov Kindberg) hoped for singing careers, but both lost their hearing in early adulthood. The play centers on the plight of Henriette, her self-proclaimed Bolshevik husband, Izzy (Ilia Volok), and their son, Ben (Michael Hampton), who yearns to try out for the Giants before he's sent off to World War II. Stifling any sense of a dramatic trajectory, every scene introduces new and different thematic materials: a discourse on ear surgery in the 1920s; a debate over the relative merits of lipreading versus sign language; an argument about capitalism versus communism; rivalry between sisters;, father-son conflicts; a lesson in lipreading taught by an amorous teacher (Darin Dahms); and a wartime romance between Ben and his girlfriend (Julie Bersani). All these elements could be combined in a successful drama, but here they don't mesh. There's good work by the cast, but director John DiFusco isn't able to focus the play's rambling structure. Songs of the times and a historical slide show do provide evocative period flavor. WriteAct Repertory Theatre, 6128 Yucca Ave., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 27. (323) 469-3113. (Neal Weaver)
GO KATAKI Shimon Wincelberg's two-hander is set during World War II on a remote Pacific island (wonderfully depicted in painstaking detail by designer Potsch Boyd). Protagonist Alvin Coombs (Fernando Aldaz) literally drops into the story after he is forced to parachute from his plane during combat. Much to his dismay, the island is not deserted, and he finds himself at the mercy of Kimura (Yas Takahashi), an armed Japanese solider who frisks him at knifepoint, taking his cigarettes and cash. Worse, Kimura speaks almost no English, and Alvin almost no Japanese. What begins as grunts, gestures and improvised sign language, however, soon turns into true communication as the mortal enemies get to know each other. None of this is smooth by any means, but it stokes the drama, providing moments of humor, tension and poignancy. Director Peter Haskell brings out this emotional depth in the text, masterfully massaging stretches of silence into powerful conflict, and his elongated transitions between scenes come to embody the Beckettian pace of life for this stranded pair. Haskell is aided by Louis Roth's fight choreography, which is at times scary in its violence, and of course by Aldaz's and Takahashi's moving performances, so authentic in their humanity. What is most enjoyable, though, is the return to theater's origins in basic movement and expression. This creates an atmosphere reminiscent of a time when we took more than a moment to contemplate life. McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 13. plays411.com/kataki. (Mayank Keshaviah)
NAKED IN THE TROPICS Writer/director/producer Odalys Nanin's play (with a few songs by Nanin and Daniel Indart) focuses on lesbian immigration lawyer Alicia (Nanin), who is embarking on a love affair with the beautiful Isis (Natalie Salins). But Isis has a teenage son, Andy (Carlos Moreno Jr.), and Andy is a very busy boy. In addition to impregnating his girlfriend, Linda (Castille Landon), he has also teamed up with Joe (Daniel Rivera), who introduces him to performing seminude (in faintly obscene peekaboo loincloths), gay sex, drugs and drug dealing. When Joe frames Andy to take the fall in a drug arrest, the boy is threatened with deportation to Cuba — though he was born in the U.S. Lawyer Alicia must defend him in court, where her defense hinges on finding the midwife (drag performer Carey Embry, who plays the role as a Kate Hepburn wannabe, complete with accent, mannerisms and the Hepburn quiver) who delivered him, just north of the Mexican border. Nanin's predictable soap-opera script combines countless genres — including lesbian romance, boylesk, after-school special, musical and courtroom drama — to very little purpose, and the author's slack direction doesn't help. The cast strives mightily to score with thinly written characters who are trapped within the lackluster material. Macha Theatre, 1107 Kings Road, W.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 21. (323) 960-1057. (Neal Weaver)
THE NARROW WORLD Daniel Damiano's satire features a disgruntled employee named Harrington (Will McFadden) who overthrows his idiot boss (Dan Sykes) and becomes a corporate Ubu Roi — Alfred Jarry's sadistic slob who ran Poland into the ground. With the keys to the kingdom comes a princess — the CEO's lonely daughter (Sigi-Blu Zweiban), whom Harrington marries — and the twist that the CEO (Cody Goulder) has less interest in the bottom line than keeping his daughter's bottom tapped. (He measures Harrington's performance by her happy glow.) McFadden's Harrington rules the show. Cocky, calculating, domineering and dispassionate, he barks his lines like he's conquering Earth (and his hairstyle increasingly resembles that of der Führer). Damiano's script has some funny zingers, but the scenes would pack more punch if chopped in half; Daniel Armas' pared-down production struggles to inject life into a series of long, static conversations. At its cold, ruthless heart, this play about men who talk over other men needs more snap and bloodletting, with a stronger pulse appropriate for a play that ends with an ode to all the tangible pleasures in the world, none of which can be found on a spreadsheet. Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 7. (602) 689-7714. (Amy Nicholson)
GO SIDHE Otherworldly shadows inhabit playwright Ann Noble's intense drama about two fugitives from Ireland and their ravaging effect on others' lives. On the run, smoldering Conall (Patrick Rieger) and his oddly passive companion, Jacquelyn (Jeanne Syquia), rent a dingy room above a Chicago bar from its tight-lipped owner, Louise (Noble). Louise's steadiest customer is her alcoholic brother-in-law, Vernon (the standout Rob Nagle), who remains inconsolable over the shooting death of his philandering wife, Amy, whom he'd worshipped unrequitedly. Bitter and unhappy, both Louise and Vernon are wont to tear at each other fiercely — but their problems pale next to those of Louise's tenants, whose mysterious past hints at savage violence and unspeakable secrets. Just how terrifically unimaginable the latter prove to be is something we don't learn until well into Act 2. Adding a supernaturalistic element to this already densely miasmic plot is Jacquelyn's proclivity for experiencing strange apparitions: namely, the "Sidhe," a mythic tribe of pre-Gaelic fairies with startling powers to affect human — in this case Jacquelyn's — behavior. Full of dark turns, Noble's story is so packed with tension and conflict that at times it's hard to believe only four characters are taking part. Not every twist is credible, even given the play's supernatural standards. And sometimes the heavy Irish brogue makes essential details difficult to grasp. These qualifications notwithstanding, the production is often riveting, under Darin Anthony's direction. Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., N.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 20. (866) 811-4111. (Deborah Klugman)
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GO STAGE DOOR In 1936, when Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman's comedy and homage to The Theater (that would be Broadway) showed the divide between the legit stage and the vulgar movie biz in Hollywood (an industry where "You only have to learn a line at a time and they just keep taking it until you get it" and "You don't even have to be alive to be in the pictures"), the authors were playing off an East Coast/West Coast divide. How strangely apt, then, that the play may now speak more to L.A. theater, and its ongoing love-hate relationship with Hollywood, than to the Broadway of yore. If you think this revival is just a valentine to a bygone era, think again. This week, the Pasadena Playhouse is closing its doors. The year after Stage Door premiered on Broadway, the Pasadena Playhouse was named the State Theater of California. It had, in its 12-year existence, produced the entire Shakespearean canon, as well as 500 new plays. In August 1937, Tempe E. Allison described the Playhouse in the New York Times as "theatrical refreshment in this dust bowl, if not desert, of the legitimate stage, which has been sucked dry by the gigantic growth of its next-door neighbor, Hollywood." Though that kind of mythology has shifted over the decades, and our legitimate stage is anything but a dust bowl, the authors' portrayal of the theater as a somewhat quixotic and poverty-stricken home for actresses placing an odds-defying bet on a rare moment of spiritual fulfillment has a current sting of truth, even after more than 70 years. The home, here, is a boardinghouse for actresses called the Footlights Club. Some like Louis (Katy Tyszkiewicz) are surrendering into marriages they dread while others, like pretty Jean Maitland (Kim Swennen), get swept away by Hollywood and one of its dapper producers, David Kingsley (Arthur Hanket). Problem is, pretty Jean can't really act, even though she's thriving out West as cover-girl material in a land where artists become employees for hire — and often they're hired to sit around in the sun. This theory is tested when Jean gets shoveled back by the Studio to star on Broadway — a cynical marketing ploy. Mephistophelean Kingsley, dripping with self-loathing (a nice turn by Hacket), pushes to replace Jean with his own flame, Terry Randall (a smart, sensitive portrayal by Amanda Weier). Terry, who has talent, has no desire for Hollywood and its games. In her deft and stylish staging of a cast that tops two dozen, Barbara Schofield pits the brunette Terry against blond Jean, the talented against the talentless. Terry had been dating a lefty playwright (Matt Roe) who sold out his pedantically stated ideals quicker than it now takes to swipe a credit card. This production comes on the heels of last year's Light Up the Sky, demonstrating this company's firm grip on smart, sassy period comedies. Detailed set by James Spencer and Shon LeBlanc's textured costumes further feed the ambiance. Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 13. (323) 882-6912. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO STOMP In this era of high-tech theatrical extravaganzas, every so often comes a show whose conceptual framework makes you appreciate the refreshing virtue of simplicity. Such is the case with this percussive spectacle, now in its 15th year of rattling audience eardrums. For the uninitiated, Stomp is a collage of choreography, dance, performance art and percussion pyrotechnics generated by an eight-member troupe that uses a mind-boggling array of "found" instruments to make music. These include trash cans, kitchen items, steel drums, matchbooks, push brooms and even, yes, the kitchen sink. From start to finish, co-creators and directors Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas put these performers through their paces, with one sweat-inducing routine after another. The opening segment using push brooms starts out placidly enough, but it soon morphs into a fiery, imaginative tempest of rhythmic clatter. One of the most stunning moments occurs when the lights darken, and the troupe use the "click" of Zippo lighters to create a tune, which is given more impact by the flames. Most remarkable about this 90-minute show is the seemingly endless variety of sound and tonal effects that emerges from what are properly considered commonplace items (my favorite: a number done with crumpled newspapers). And the creators have tossed in a nod to circus tradition with an engaging bit of clown antics. Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 7. (800) 982-2787. (Lovell Estell III)
GO SWEENEY TODD Thirty years ago, Stephen Sondheim's gothic melodrama arrived on Broadway as the game-changer that would usher in an era of operatic opulence in musical theater — paving the way for the juggernaut of Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and The Phantom of the Opera. In the decades that followed, Sweeney enjoyed revivals throughout regional theater, joined the repertoire of legit opera companies and was finally revived in a reduced concept in which the 10 performers also doubled as their own small orchestra. But now Musical Theatre West has returned Sweeney to his Grand Guignol roots with a vast production faithful to Hal Prince's original effort. Director Calvin Remsberg, who toured as Beadle Bamford with the original Broadway cast, has re-created the original's power and majesty with help from a uniformly outstanding cast, partnered with musical director John Glaudini and his full orchestra. Not a moment of the nearly three hours lags in this gruesome story of the vengeful barber and the bakeshop proprietress, Mrs. Lovett, who contrive to make meat pies from unsuspecting tonsorial clients. Norman Large earns his last name in his huge performance as the cutthroat, and Debbie Prutsman is truly as fine as Angela Lansbury was in 1979. Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 7, 2 & 7 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 14, 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 14. (562) 985-7000. (Tom Provenzano)
For complete theater listings, go to blogs.laweekly.com/style_council/stage-news.