New Theater Reviews: Cartoon, Li'l Abner, and The Brig

Prisoners in The Brig

THEATER PICK  THE BRIG Kenneth H. Brown couldn’t have stumbled upon a more apt metaphor for institutional conformity than a U.S. Marine Corps jail in Japan, the setting for his 1963 play, first performed by New York’s Living Theatre. For nearly two hours we watch the robotic routines of 10 prisoners (later joined by an 11th) as they are loudly ordered about by a crew of sometimes sadistic, mostly bored guards. We don’t know the men’s names, their crimes or their thoughts — we merely follow their Kabuki-like choreography as they mop floors, smoke cigarettes and line up for chow and showers. As repetitious and ritualized as the “maggots’ ” movements are, they never become boring and it isn’t long before we get caught up in this drama of monotony. How would I get along here? we find ourselves wondering. Would we show the guards how well we’d adapt or would we rebel — or would we, like Prisoner No. 6 (Thom McGinn), find it all too much to bear? This production, directed by original cast member Tom Lillard, is a remount of a 2007 Obie-winning effort. He thoroughly brings us into Brown’s world, in which the prisoners must always stare straight ahead, navigate their cell through military about-faces and never allow their bare feet to touch the floor. Their labored breathing is the only sound they are allowed to volunteer. While virtually interchangeable, the prisoner ensemble of 11 actors performs frighteningly well, at turns morphing into a giant green caterpillar of movement. The guards are similarly faceless although Jeff Nash’s Private Tepperman exudes a cobralike menace. Julianne Elizabeth Eggold’s set is a desolate chamber of bunks, cyclone fencing and barbed wire, visually connecting Cold War brutalism with its Guantanamo legacy. Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 30. (310) 477-2055. (Steven Mikulan)


Prisoners in The Brig

Some Girl(s)

Jeanine W. Stehlin

"Star Song"

GO  CARTOON Playwright Steve Yockey's dark, surreal farce takes place in a land of cartoons, where the ruler is a bratty, curly-haired little girl named Esther (Amy Mucken), who commands her citizens with judicious thumpings from a gigantic yellow hammer. Yet, when mischievous, bespectacled urchin Trouble (Nikitas Menotiades) steals Esther's hammer, chaos sweeps the world of cartoons, sparking an animated, ghoulish war that quickly turns bloody. Puppet Winston (Brian Helm) attempts to sever his marionette strings, while anime forever-best-friends Akane (Julie Terrell) and Yumi (Julie Sanchez) gradually come to murderous blows. Although the story is a none-too-subtle allegory for our own fine government under you know who, Yockey's piece also plays like an Eastern European communist-era political comedy, with farce and cruelty artfully intermingled to create horrifying situations. Director Tiger Reel oversees a fleet-footed, intricately choreographed production, whose frequent leaps from cartoony cuteness to over-the-top violence are both shocking and hilarious. The ensemble's broad mugging belies crafty undercurrents of disturbing unease and paranoia. Particularly deft and shaded turns are offered by Helm's sad-faced puppet, Winston Mucken's monster-child Esther, and Menotiades as the half-clown, half-Che Guevara-esque toon revolutionary. Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 2. (323) 908-7276. An Action! Theatre Company Production. (Paul Birchall)

CIRCUS THEATRICAL'S FESTIVAL OF NEW ONE-ACT PLAYS This slate of one-acts runs hot and cold, undulating between the beguiling and the mundane. The mise en scéne is a domestic setting of one sort or another, a hoary bedroom or living room where high-decibel squabbles, sex, liquor, infidelity and plenty of verbal repartee are leavened with too few moments of humor and emotional connection. Some selections, however, are masterfully crafted. The heart-wrenching "The Regular Thursday Night," written and directed by Joy Bays, features the playwright as a widower so devastated by his wife's recent death and his own lacerating guilt, he can't get it on with his favorite prostitute (Stacy Cole). Joseph Gallo's "Star Song," directed by Robert Cicchini, is an ethereal slice of magic where three young girls (Vanessa Waters, Chelsea Povall, Julia Devine) try to escape their soul-killing environment. "Phyllis and Elliot, Part 1" written by Stephen Mcfeely, is a vapid exhibition of domestic conflict, with Susan Ziegler and Stephen O'Mahoney as a distraught couple. Jami Brandli's "Moon Man," directed by Jack Stehlin, contains a haunting portrait of a widow (Jill Gascoine) who turns to a mysterious stranger (Daniel Donoghue) for companionship. Hayworth Theater, 2541 Wilshire Blvd., Westlake; Tues., 8. p.m.; thru March 4. (323) 960-1054. A Circus Theatricals Production. (Lovell Estell III)


GO  DICKIE & BABE: THE TRUTH ABOUT LEOPOLD & LOEB Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the teenage authors of Modernism's first great crime, are still very much alive in the pop consciousness, with two plays about them running in L.A. Unlike Thrill Me, Stephen Dolginoff's minimalist musical sketch of the precocious thrill-killers, which is playing at a theater across the street, Daniel Henning's exhaustively researched play is rich in biographical detail and period atmosphere. Still, it avoids becoming a prisoner of its own verisimilitude, paying attention to the look of its 1920s milieu without obsessing over the wallpaper. (Roy Rede's simple set consists mainly of antique polished-wood chairs and a long table, with the ensemble of six supporting actors sitting upstage as in a jury box.) What separates Dickie & Babe from similar works is the time it devotes to the formative years of the boys' friendship, as the shy Babe (Aaron Himelstein) becomes a summer guest at the extroverted Dickie's (Nick Niven) family estate. There, the pair's homosexual affections are discovered by an athletics tutor (J. Richey Nash), and rumors follow the two from frat-house gossip all the way to the Chicago courthouse, where the young men stand charged with murdering a child. Henning assembles the facts in an appealing arrangement but needs to curtail his scholarship to nudge the story along faster. There are moments, particularly during the "college years," that cry out for deletion, or at least compression, through the kind of scene jump cuts used in the Leopold-and-Loeb film Swoon. Himelstein and Niven carve out two very different personalities and effectively carry out Henning's attempt to present the pair as villains but also as victims of their own fantasy life. Second Stage Theater, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 16. (323) 661-9827. A Blank Theater Co. production. (Steven Mikulan)


THE ERIKSON REPORT Playwright Adrian Bewley plays the title role of Scott Erikson in a promising new work that consists of two parallel dramas still in need of synthesis. One follows the political intrigue of a young, vigorous Republican U.S. senator (Bewley) under consideration as the party's candidate for vice president in an upcoming election. A series of scenes depicts his faux-pas-laden appearances on talk shows with various hosts (most played by Sinead McHugh), during a personal meltdown in the wake of his father's death, in which he comes off as inhumanly and inhumanely distant from even the appearance of grief, in a world where appearances largely determine success and failure. The mockery of TV "journalism" is so outlandish, in both the writing and in Dina Buglione's directorial style, it pushes this side of the play into comedy sketches struggling to coexist within an otherwise more delicately chiseled human drama. That drama is the coming out of Erikson, as orchestrated by a Mephistophelean freelance journalist/gay-porn-film producer, Bob Hollander (Ken Lerner), who poses as therapist and acting teacher to the vulnerable pol, whose better judgment has gone haywire. Hollander is really just setting Erikson up for blackmail by filming the "sessions" — psychodrama acting lessons involving attachments to porn actors that grow increasingly erotic. One beautifully telling moment involves a scene partner (Derrick Sanders) — oblivious of Erikson's true identity, having no TV, computer or interest in newspapers — who invites him to his apartment for a romantic interlude. Once there, however, Erikson balks — needing the frame of the "acting lesson" to rationalize his obvious attraction to other men. Aside from the bipolar directorial styles, Buglione stages the multitudinous short scenes handily on Michael Crave's multilevel platform set, and much of the acting is equally sharp. Tricia Donohue convinces as Erikson's chrome-plated, Hillaryesque wife; Robert Keiper and Nancy Peterson turn in authoritative cameos as the next-in-line veep appointee and his second lady; and Lerner's rat-eyed poseur-opportunist has stomach-turning authenticity. Bewley anchors his own play as the increasingly disheveled senator slowly tumbling from his fool's paradise. McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Pl., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (added perf Feb. 28, 8 p.m.; no perf March 2); thru March 9. (323) 960-4424. Presented by Drumfish Productions. (Steven Leigh Morris)

Haven Hartman

What the Butler Saw


GO  LI'L ABNER A modest Broadway success half a century ago, Li'l Abner is a charming, if watered down, spoof of American politics, pitting innocently clever Appalachian po' folk against powerful but bumbling Washington bureaucrats. The book, by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, follows the general sense of the famous comic strip while steering clear of Al Capp's more intense satire of figures from the '60s left. ("Joanie Phoanie" sent up wealthy Joan Baez offering protest songs to an orphanage, and Capp also took shots at the Students for a Democratic Society.) Gene de Paul's down-home score and Johnny Mercer's simple lyrics pay homage to Capp's colloquial language, resulting in the one memorable song, celebrating an ineffectual Confederate general, "Jubilation T. Cornpone!" Musical director Darryl Archibald and a large cast of fine performers energize the theater. Eric Martsolf and Brandi Burkhardt are superb as the supersexy but naive should-be lovers Abner and Daisy Mae. The evening's biggest laughs come from Cathy Rigby, finally shedding her little-boy outfit from Peter Pan, to play the very mature, cranky and hilarious Mammy Yokum. Lee Martino's vigorous choreography and Michael Michetti's traditional and economic staging provide the audience exactly what the producers promise: a new and enjoyable look at a rarely performed musical. UCLA Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, Wstwd.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 17. (310) 825-2101. A Reprise Broadway's Best production. (Tom Provenzano)

PUTTING ON THE FRITZ Fourth wall? These two one-acts smash right through it by introducing their characters with a series of smart monologues. When the playwrights repair the wall by having their people bicker, kiss and analyze each other, however, the plays lose their authority. In Steven A. Lyons' cute Peaches in Regalia, a chipper naif named Peaches (Elizabeth Schmidt) is inspired to become a waitress by her diner's signature dessert — a concoction of canned fruit, iceberg lettuce, cottage cheese and paprika — four oddities seeking cohesion, not unlike Peaches and her and fellow patrons, Sasha Harris, David Nett and Edmund Wyson. More twisty is Scott Stein's Scott Stein's First Play: A New Play by Scott Stein, in which the narrator, Scott Stein (David LM McIntyre), attempts to wrest control of his memories from the other Scott Steins and associates (Mark Charron, Karen Corona, Julia Griswold, Michael Holmes, Laura Napoli, Andrew Thacher and Thesy Surface), only to recognize the impossibility of knowing yourself when you can't even remember everything you did last month. Directed by Duane Daniels, it's a nicely staged gem of philosophy that would be twice as strong at half the length. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hlywd.; Tues.-Wed. & Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 27. (310) 281-8337. (Amy Nicholson)

SOME GIRL(S) For a while, writer-director Neil LaBute's play nudges us to believe that he's re-examining gender relations through the perspectives of one insufferably solipsistic Lothario named Guy (Mark Feurenstein) and four ex-girlfriends (Paula Calle Lisbe, Justina Machado, Rosalind Chao and Jame Ray Newman) whom he somehow persuades to meet him (one at a time) at various motel rooms around the country in order to set things right, before he plunges into marriage with an offstage fiancée. And if you can believe that all these jilted women, some married, would drive across town to meet an ex-boyfriend — 15 years after a breakup, in a motel room, no less — with psychic wounds still festering, then the clinking of the verbal sword fights will ring true. That some girl(s) might actually wish to let bygones go is a premise not entertained here. That said, the performances are taut and tart, if not tarty: Machado's voluptuous booze-swilling seductress is just gorgeous. Lisbe's chronically injured sparrow, in a sweet, crisp rendition, is Machado's image inverted. Newman and Chao bring their own constructs of intelligence and dignity. Yet they all go through the same permutations of snarky sarcasm leading to quiet tears and bitter vulnerability. Furthermore, LaBute's main point isn't relationships or the trail of hurt left by Guy, but storytelling. Guy is a writer, and Some Girl(s) wrestles with the writer's right to write, or rather to borrow, if not steal, the stories of people with whom he's been intimate. It's a bit like Donald Margulies' Collected Stories; only here, the debate's counterweights are unhinged. Guy tries to pull off a stunt that is so amoral, it flails all of his arguments into cotton candy, rendering LaBute's treatment of his play's core idea as distracted and frivolous as his central character. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Thurs. & Sat., 8 p.m.; Fri. & Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 3:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; thru March 9. (310) 208-5454 or (Steven Leigh Morris)


GO  STAY FOREVER: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF DUSTY SPRINGFIELD Kristin Holly Smith plays the pop diva in this musical biography, featuring 13 of Springfield's signature songs, including "Son of a Preacher Man" and "Wishing and Hoping." It's essentially a solo show, though Smith receives able support from a four-piece band, led by music director Zachary Provost, and backup singers Lelah Foster and Annette Moore. Between songs, Smith narrates and re-enacts Springfield's past as a wayward Irish lass named Mary O'Brien, till she fell in love with Motown music and changed her name. On the British TV show Ready, Steady, Go!, she helped introduce black music in England, and built a rep as a white soul singer. She scored international success in the 1970s, but her personal life was stormy. A lesbian, she drove her lover away with her growing drug and alcohol dependence and rock-star egotism, and came out (or was outed) in the press. In apartheid-era Johannesburg, she was put under house arrest by the South African government for insisting that blacks and coloreds should be admitted to her concerts. But the real draw here is the songs, sung with passion and verve by Smith, who combines rich musicality with high-octane conviction and style. L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Village at Ed Gould Plaza, Renberg Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Hlywd.; (323) 860-7300 or (Neal Weaver)


WHAT THE BUTLER SAW Risqué and relevant when it first premiered, Joe Orton's 1969 lampoon of the British mental-health system — and of the repressed society in which it flourished — is today more of an antique curio that resembles an episode from The Benny Hill Show. A lecherous psychiatric hack named Dr. Prentice (Carl J. Johnson) persuades a naive young job applicant (Kelsey Wedeen) to remove her clothes. When his wife (Carolyn Hennesy) arrives home unexpectedly, he scurries to conceal the woman's garments, stranding her naked in an examining cubicle. A fatuous medical bureaucrat (Peter Altschuler) arrives; to save face, Prentice passes the bewildered would-be secretary off as a patient, then stands by passively while she's drugged by this zealous and equally lust-filled government bureaucrat. The ribald antics that follow involve full frontal nudity and a trio of confused cross-dressed characters, including a bare-buttocked bobby — a genuinely hilarious moment. The production's main problem — as with so many other American productions of British farce — is its failure, under the direction of Kiff Scholl, to nail down the mindset behind the burlesque. Both Johnson and Altschuler master the mechanics — if not the sensibility — of their roles skillfully. Hennesy's middle-aged sexpot, however, borders on caricature, while Wedeen's naif never gets much beyond the strictures of sketch comedy. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru March 1. 310-281-8337. (Deborah Klugman)

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