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Stage Raw: Kharmful Charms of Daniil Kharms

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NEW REVIEW KHARMFUL CHARMS OF DANIIL KHARMS

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Photo by Taso Papadakis

Here's a fascinating oddity:  A series of short works by a now almost forgotten Russian author.  Daniil Kharms was a brilliant, early Soviet-era writer who, like most brilliant writers, happened to be decades ahead of his time. He may also have been a madman, or driven mad  - after all, he died in a lunatic asylum during Stalin's reign, starving to death during the Siege of Leningrad. Kharms, a founder of the Russian OBERIU absurdist movement, wrote about seemingly inconsequential incidents that are peppered with unbearable cruelty - or which piquantly showcase the utterly random pointlessness of existence. A pompous historian attempts to give a history lecture, but is repeatedly interrupted by a colleague who starts bashing his head with crocker plates.  The writers Pushkin and Gogol commence a literary argument, but wind up brawling and cursing like beasts. Later, a lecherous couple indulges in illegal pre-coital love talk, leading directly to their arrest by thugs from the state milita. A short time later, the leading thug, now alone, coos to herself using the same love talk for which the couple was arrested.  Director Olya Petrakova's cheerfully ironic production is marred by pacing problems - some skits plod and the repetitious nature of some of the items inevitably causes our attention to wane about halfway through the series. Petrakova and her cast aim for the tone of an old Monty Python episode, and, in particular, of the bizarre Terry Gilliam cartoons, in which characters rip off each other's limbs or have sex or cheat on their spouses, and then act as if nothing has happened.  Yet, the ultimate lack of context frequently leaves us frustrated - which is, of course, more than half of the intention.  The end result is a fascinating tour de force of unusual spectacle and oddly mean spirited comedy.  The cast's performances are mostly amiable, if a little flat in tone and one dimensional in characterization, coming up short on the uniquely Eastern Bloc mix of humor, rage, and confusion seemingly required by Kharms' deceptively simple text. ArtWorks Theatre, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; thru March 20. (800) 838-3006 or http://www.brownpapertickets.com. An ARTEL production. (Paul Birchall)

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NEW THEATER REVIEWS (scheduled for publication  March 4, 2010)

NEW REVIEW BROADS! At retirement community Millennium Manor, four mature and feisty gals have formed a singing group called The Broads, and perform in an annual variety show -- which we're  seeing. Recently widowed Elaine (June Gable) founded the group, along with her plump, nearsighted sister Myra (Barbara Niles), who interrupts the show to promote her gay song-writer son. Puerto Rican live-wire Nilda (Ivonne Coll) sashays around in a Carmen Miranda outfit, complete with towering fruit-bowl head-dress, and blond, buxom Louise (Leslie Easterbrook) revels in the wonders wrought by her Botox and plastic surgery. The book, by Jennie Fahn, regales us with often corny old-age jokes, and Joe Symon's songs address subjects supposedly dear to stereotypical seniors: Social Security, early bird specials, etc. Providing a wisp of plot and a stab at realism, Louise announces, mid-show, that this is her last performance: She must leave the Manor because her savings have run out. But this is musical comedy, so the problem is immediately solved. Jules Aaron offers stylish direction, with Kay Cole's clever choreography. Stephen Gifford's set is handsome, and Shon LeBlanc provides the glittery, glitzy costumes. It's the four talented women, however, who provide the chief attraction, with their accomplished performances. El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., thru April 4. (818) 508-4200 or  http://www.broadsthemusical  A Route 17 Production. (Neal Weaver)      

NEW REVIEW GO CAVE QUEST When Seattle game programmer Justin Yi (West Liang) reaches the summit of a Tibetan mountain where Buddhist nun Padma (Kim Miyori) has been meditating in silence for three years, his reaction is tres 2010: he texts a photo to his business partner back home tracking him on Google Earth. Meanwhile, Padma barricades the door. She's easily -- and obliviously -- steamrollered by the fast-talking, panic attack-prone scion of Generation Y who, like the web itself, respects few boundaries. The two are from different planets, though Padma was once a west coast kid from Fresno. Justin's got a proposition for the nun ranked in the top three on hardcorebuddhist.com (an accolade she absorbs with a blank stare). She can share with the masses the wisdom she learned meditating for 18 hours a day in a small wooden box through a video game he wants to develop. The game's seventh level would be  "enlightenment." Even "a quick fix is still a fix," he chirps. Not so, insists Padma, and Les Thomas' intellectual play becomes a snowed-in showdown between two stubborn forces. Director Diane Rodriguez captures the tiny motions that show Padma's comfort in her harsh world -- and Justin's ease in upending it. Though the characters are vividly drawn, for most of the play, they dig in their heels so that their arguments become smartly, though perhaps excessively, reincarnated - an issue easily resolved with tighter plotting. East West Players, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 14. (213) 625-7000. (Amy Nicholson)

NEW REVIEW DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS This slight musical comedy by composer-lyricist David Yazbek and playwright Jeffrey Lane closely follows the 1988 movie, filled with sight gags and overwrought farce in this story of a pair of con-men who compete for marks in the French Riviera. A few amusing numbers show off the talents of Chip Phillips as the patter-singing, posh, older swindler and Matt Wolpe as the crude pop-singing young hustler. Their moments together bring instant life to the stage, even through the goofiest of comic bits. Director Richard Israel, who normally turns small theaters and ensembles into huge, polished productions, fares less well here. Most damaging to the production is that none of the supporting cast is sufficiently skilled at singing or dancing. Only Michael Manuel, as the chief of police, rises above his limited hoofing/crooning ability with his charm. Set designers Dove Huntley and Rob Corn create some magic with the Noho Arts Center's balconies. This is an unusually large 99-seat acting space - in fact some well-choreographed scene changes provide some of evening's more entertaining moments. Interact Theatre Company at NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru March 21. (818) 508-7101. (Tom Provenzano)

NEW REVIEW GO FORGIVENESS

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Photo by Kurt Boetcher

What happens to love when the specter of childhood sexual abuse rears its ugly head?  Soon-to-be-married Jill (Emily Bergl) and Ben (Peter Smith) are driving to visit Jill's dad Sam (Morlan Higgins) and stepmom Pat (Lee Garlington) when Jill breaks it to Ben that her father raped her when she was 13.  Twenty years have passed.  A recovered alcoholic who served time for his crime, Sam - now  a born-again Christian - actively struggles for redemption.  Jill has forgiven him, but Ben, newly-apprised, is  horrified and repulsed. Prodded by Jill's anxious scrutiny - will this new knowledge change his feelings for her? - Ben steadily becomes more angry and confused.  Playwright David Sculner's aptly titled play meaningfully examines the various ties that bind us to our loved ones, as well as the snags and hurdles to be mended and overcome if these bonds are to remain secure.  Directed by Matt Shakman, the production's weakest element appears at the beginning  in the interchange between Jill and Ben, which reverberates with little more persuasiveness than a polished staged reading; also, sans light or sound effects, it's difficult for the performers to sustain the illusion of driving.  Once the couple arrives at their destination, however, the drama becomes more compelling, as the  dynamics of Sam and Pat's  marriage come into play, and the presence of Jill's adolescent stepsister (Kendall Toole) ups the ante for everyone. Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru March 28. (800) 838-3006.  http://www.thedahlia.com (Deborah Klugman)

NEW REVIEW KHARMFUL CHARMS OF DANIIL KHARMS
rsz_kharmful.jpg
Photo by Taso Papadakis

Here's a fascinating oddity:  A series of short works by a now almost forgotten Russian author.  Daniil Kharms was a brilliant, early Soviet-era writer who, like most brilliant writers, happened to be decades ahead of his time. He may also have been a madman, or driven mad  - after all, he died in a lunatic asylum during Stalin's reign, starving to death during the Siege of Leningrad. Kharms, a founder of the Russian OBERIU absurdist movement, wrote about seemingly inconsequential incidents that are peppered with unbearable cruelty - or which piquantly showcase the utterly random pointlessness of existence. A pompous historian attempts to give a history lecture, but is repeatedly interrupted by a colleague who starts bashing his head with crocker plates.  The writers Pushkin and Gogol commence a literary argument, but wind up brawling and cursing like beasts. Later, a lecherous couple indulges in illegal pre-coital love talk, leading directly to their arrest by thugs from the state milita. A short time later, the leading thug, now alone, coos to herself using the same love talk for which the couple was arrested.  Director Olya Petrakova's cheerfully ironic production is marred by pacing problems - some skits plod and the repetitious nature of some of the items inevitably causes our attention to wane about halfway through the series. Petrakova and her cast aim for the tone of an old Monty Python episode, and, in particular, of the bizarre Terry Gilliam cartoons, in which characters rip off each other's limbs or have sex or cheat on their spouses, and then act as if nothing has happened.  Yet, the ultimate lack of context frequently leaves us frustrated - which is, of course, more than half of the intention.  The end result is a fascinating tour de force of unusual spectacle and oddly mean spirited comedy.  The cast's performances are mostly amiable, if a little flat in tone and one dimensional in characterization, coming up short on the uniquely Eastern Bloc mix of humor, rage, and confusion seemingly required by Kharms' deceptively simple text. ArtWorks Theatre, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; thru March 20. (800) 838-3006 or http://www.brownpapertickets.com. An ARTEL production. (Paul Birchall)

NEW REVIEW LOBBY HERO
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Photo by Steven Moses

Kenneth Lonergan is known for writing flawed characters that gently chew on an audience's heart, but in Pacific Stages' inaugural season opener, he dangles them in front of you for so long you eventually stop caring. That's a shame, because director Robert Bailey's well cast ensemble is terrific. A young, sweet, directionless security guard named Jeff (Edward Tournier) stumbles into the limelight of a murder investigation.  His supervisor, William (Kareem Ferguson), has landed there as well, since it's his brother who's been accused of the crime.  Further complicating the drama are a hair-trigger rookie cop and her alpha dog partner (Dana Lynn Bennett and Nick Mennell).  Lonergan's critically acclaimed 2000 film, You Can Count on Me, seems to have been the template for Lobby Hero, down to the thickets of dialogue and Jeff's similarities to the film's Terry Prescott.  (Did Bailey subconsciously cast a Mark Ruffalo look-alike?)  Whereas the film catches every nuance of Lonergan's intricately wrought characters and conversations, the stage occasionally swallows them. The spark of possibility is there, though:  Mennell closes Act 1 with such a fierce roar of fire, the entire theatre is set alight.  He's so fine, his every slick entrance is greedily awaited, but neither he nor the rest of the cast can stoke that kind of excitement through to the end of Act 2.  Smartly, executive director/founder Jeryll W. Adler has three of the four actors onboard as Pacific Stages Artists Company Members. This bodes well for the acting standard of future shows at this El Segundo theater. Pacific Stages, 2041 Rosecrans Ave., El Segundo; Thurs.-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; thru March 21. (310) 868-2631. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

LOVE BITES - VOL. 9 The Elephant Theatre Company's annual short-play festival, including Reality Romcom: Day 98 With My Attained Pixie Dreamgirl by Kerry Carney; This Little Piggy by Marek Glinski; Empowerment by Dominic Rains; Surprise by Mark Harvey Levine; Most Likely by Gloria Calderon Kellett; Tag by Tony Foster; Rox-N, Miss Thang by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich; Hard by Steven Korbar. Elephant Theatre Lab, 1078 Lilian Way, L.A.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru March 14, www.plays411.com/lovebites. (323) 960-4410. See Stage feature.

NEW REVIEW GO OEDIPUS EL REY Brilliantly staged by director Jon Lawrence Rivera, Luis Alfaro's transmogrification of the story of Oedipus to prison and the barrio makes for powerful stuff. A chorus of inmates unveils the saga: A gang leader, Laius  (Leandro Cano), informed that his infant son will one day destroy him, orders his henchman Tiresias (Winston J. Rocha) to take the child away and kill him.  Fast forward a generation: Both Tiresias and his "son" Oedipus (Justin Huen) are incarcerated together in North Kern State Prison. (Intellectuals of sorts, they frequent the prison library.) On his return to the barrio after his release, Oedipus meets up with and slays Laius, before falling for Jocasta  (Marlene Forte) -- the two flagrantly light each other's fire, to the community's displeasure.  As per Sophocles' original, the tale unwinds to a tragic and  enlightening denouement, with all the classic themes evident: the folly of pride, the immutability of fate, the reluctance of human beings to confront obvious truth. Alfaro spins much of this in a colloquial lexicon that makes it all the more forceful.  Some of his passages - Tiresias' musings on what a father really is, after Oedipus has beaten and reviled him (beautifully played by Rocha) - are memorable and moving.  Huen is charismatic, the ensemble is strong and the  production design - lighting (Jeremy Pivnick), scenic design (John H. Binkley) and sound and music composition (Robert Oriol) - is impeccable. Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 28. (626) 683-6883. (Deborah Klugman)

TORRID AFFAIRE Theatre Unleashed presents Andrew Moore's sex comedy. Sherry Theatre, 11052 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru March 6. (818) 849-4039. See Stage feature.

NEW REVIEW GO WIREHEAD
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Photo by Cathryn Farnsworth

Beneath the slippery, allegorical surface of playwrights Matthew Benjamin and Logan Brown's crackingly funny sci-fi farce lurks a satirically savvy questioning of what is generally known as the "digital divide." Namely, for all the handheld computing horsepower (and its supposed competitive advantage) available to the tweeting class, does being perennially plugged-in actually represent a disconnection on a more fundamental, human level? As an answer, Benjamin and Brown fast-forward to a near future in which the iPhone has morphed into the "Z Drive," a pricey, intelligence-boosting, intracranial implant that gives those who have the financial wherewithal an Einstein-like genius. For have-nots like midlevel account executives Adams (the fine Jeremy Maxwell) and Destry (an antic Marc Rose), the technology produces only indignation, especially when a junior company intern with the surgery, Hammy (Riel Paley in a riotous turn), immediately wins a leapfrog promotion to become their boss. But Hammy's machine intelligence also turns him into something of an omniscient Ernst Stavro Blofeld on speed. Taking matters into their own hands, the boys form "The Hackers," a terrorist resistance group whose idea of a surgical strike is carried out with meat cleavers. Director Larry Biederman's supercharged staging (abetted by set designer Efren Delgadillo, Jr.'s clever use of scrims, and the wit of Dan Weingarten's lights and Drew Dalzell's sound) races along like a manic blend of Davids Mamet and Cronenberg, whisking the black comedy into a bloody froth of Grand Guignol proportions. Stage 52 Theatre, 5299 W. Washington Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru March 14,  http://www.echotheatercompany.com (800) 413-8669. An Echo Theater Company production. (Bill Raden)

NEW REVIEW (YOU'VE NEVER SEEN) FIGHT CLUB?!?  As an afficionado of the bizarre brilliance that is Zombie Joe's Underground, I thought I knew what kind of satirical lunacy to expect from a late-night event with the above title. But far from the anticipated burlesque of the 1999 film, adaptor-director Amanda Marquardt (who claims never to have seen it) presents her own somber theatrical vision of Chuck Palahniuk.'s novel. With the three lead actors, Mark Nager as the unnamed protagonist; Lamont Webb, portraying Tyler Durden; and Dana DeRuyck as Marla; she nearly succeeds. Each brings conviction to their roles in this fantasy of two men building a world-wide underground, fighting army of anarchists. Webb is particularly engrossing in his role as the mysterious creator of Fight Club. The power of their fights, choreographed by Aaron Lyons, are intensified in the tiny venue, and Nicole Fabbri's intense make-up effects make it all the more effective. The rest of the cast and Marquardt's ultimate direction, however, suffer from the lack of skillful acting. The venue's intimacy, so supportive of the fight scenes, becomes merely claustrophobic as the piece devolves into a jumble. The show's two hours, sans intermission, might have been been reduced to a bearable length by shortening interminable blackouts that punctuate the event every few moments, grinding its momentum to a series of halts. ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 10:30 p.m.; thru March 20. (818) 202-4120. (Tom Provenzano)