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Stage Raw: Why Torture is Wrong

This week's THEATER FEATURE on Pasadena Playhouse's demise, and what it means for the arts community. 

THE 31ST ANNUAL L.A. WEEKLY THEATER AWARDS NOMINEES

NEW REVIEW
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WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM

Stage Raw: Why Torture is Wrong

Photo by Rick Baumgartner

Christopher Durang's Loony Tunes aesthetic - with the help of Daniel Henning's perfectly modulated direction - gets swashed onto our so-called war on terror. Thank goodness Durang has moved beyond family dysfunction. Still, you'd think our recent history, propelled by some deranged Might Makes Right cabal from a powerful coven of loons, has been exhausted by American playwrights by now. Durang's outrage and piety, however, get channeled into breaths of comedic napalm, something like a cross between The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Dr. Strangelove. Durang has now joined ranks with Dario Fo. Sweet Felicity (stylish Rhea Seehorn, trying to be sensible in a world with no sense) wakes up in bed with a stranger, Zamir (Sunil Malhotra), after a night out at a bar. Turns out, Zamir slipped her a drug, raped and married her -- none of which she remembers. The "priest" was Zamir's friend, porno film maker Reverend Mike (Nicholas Brendon, sort of like Owen Wilson with a slow-mo brain). Zamir has anger management issues and feels badly that most of the women in his family are dead. This is cold comfort for Felicity. Yet she finds herself compelled to defend her "husband" when her Dick Cheney-emulating father, Leonard (Mike Genovese) - a volunteer in the "shadow government" -- drags Zamir into the torture chamber that he's been claiming is a private closet for his butterfly collection. Narrator and power-drill wielding torture-room assistant Loony Tunes (Alec Mapa) encourages Leonard to "bweak a finger, bweak a finger" -- all of which is based on a misunderstanding by Leonard's spy, Hildegard (Catherine Hicks, spending a good portion of the play with underwear swishing around her ankles), that Zamir's overheard conversation about a porno movie was actually a terrorist plot. Durang re-runs the ending a couple of times, trying to capture the moment where it all -- "it" being the sad plight of our country - went so wrong. I particularly enjoyed Christine Estabrook as Leonard's blissed-out seething wife, Luella, who can't stop talking about the theater, even while torture is being committed upstairs, because theater is what's "real." And what has she seen lately? "250 plays by Martin McDonagh and David Hare." Britain of course dominates our theater's new plays, obviously because "Americans are stupid." Durang is getting a lot off his chest, and off ours. The laughter he generates is from nonsense about nonsense, unnervingly true and cathartic, and beautifully performed. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd. (2nd floor), Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 14. (323) 661-9827 http://theblank.com A Blank Theatre Company production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

For the latest NEW REVIEWS reviewed over the weekend, press the More tab directly below

NEW THEATER REVIEWS scheduled to be published February 11, 2010

NEW REVIEWS COOL NEGROES The opening tableau

of writer-director Tony Robinson's "dramedy of generational proportion"

is a tumbledown city park circa 1972, where a raucous cadre of black

militants is protesting segregation. The revolutionary banter and

posturing is soon silenced by police gunfire and the dropping of

bodies. After this jarring scene, a flash forward takes us to the

present day where the park is a haunt for a group of regulars: college

professor Louis(Sammie Wayne, IV); Deborah(Teressa Taylor) a former

flower child; Joe(Alex Morris), a city bureacrat; a gay cop named

Mod(Mark Jones); the only caucasian in the group, Eric(Tom Hyler); a

Buppie named Al( Dane Diamond); and the irrepressible Mother Barnes

(the fine Diane Sellers), a blind sage. Not much transpires here; there

is a lot of talking, which, thanks to Robinson's wit and ear for

dialogue, somewhat allays the static structure of the play. But one

gets the feeling that these entertaining characters overstay their

welcome, thanks to a script that is overwritten and languorous. From

the mix, Robinson constructs a flimsy storyline about black

advancement, interracial romance, political correctness, spiritual

redemption, the burden of guilt, and generational angst and conflict.

Unfortunately, these motifs are neither skillfully nor insightfully

probed. The acting is mostly passable, and Sellers is outstanding.

Rounding out the cast are Prema Rosaura Cruz, Tené Carter Miller, and

Leslie La'Raine. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd (2nd floor),

Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.,m.; thru Feb. 28. (213)

624-4796 A Towne Street Theatre production. (Lovell Estell III)

NEW REVIEW GO COUSIN BETTE

Stage Raw: Why Torture is Wrong

Photo by Michele K. Short

Drawn from Balzac's La Comedie Humaine, playwright Jeffrey

Hatcher's adaptation revolves around a cunning woman's campaign to

revenge herself on the rich relatives who have callously dismissed her

as shabby and unimportant. Sheltered, and fed with scraps of food off

her pretty cousin's plate, poor-relation Bette Fischer (Nike Doukas)

grows up nurturing her hate, eventually evolving into a plain-faced

spinster who is everybody's confidante and nobody's friend. Brilliantly

Machiavellian, Bette's fastidious plot to destroy the family involves

arranging a liaison between her attractive neighbor and abused wife

Valerie (Jen Dede), and Hector (John Prosky) the lecherous and

profligate husband of her virtuous cousin, Adeline (Emily Chase ).

Bette also acquires wealth (and thus power) by promoting the work of a

young Polish sculptor, Steinbock (Daniel Bess), whom she's fallen in

love with - unfortunately for her, since he ends up betrothed to

Adeline's daughter, Hortense (Kellie Matteson). Directed by Jeanie

Hackett, the production purposefully underscores the source material's

melodramatic elements; for example, heightening the narrative's key

points with the melancholy refrains of Chopin. At least one key

performance is over laden with shtick, and some fine-tuning of others

is in order. Still, Doukas is terrific, delivering a consummate

performance that arouses, for her long-suffering deceitful character ,

pity, disdain -- and admiration. Tony Amendola's licentious merchant is

also top-notch. And alongside the story's bathos is its salient

reminder of what cruelty, indifference and injustice can do to the

human spirit. (The show is double-cast.) Deaf West Theatre, 5112

Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 4

p.m.; thru March 21. (818) 506-5436. An Antaeus Company production.

(Deborah Klugman)

NEW REVIEW GO HAMLET

Stage Raw: Why Torture is Wrong

Photo courtesy of The Porters of Hellsgate

When this Hamlet (Charles Pasternak) says he'll "put an antic

disposition on," he really means it. Pasternak's Prince is sometimes

maniacal, bounding around and turning somersaults. He brandishes his

wit savagely and at times -- as in the closet scene with Gertrude

(Jessica Temple) -- he can be downright brutal. He's particularly good

in the comic scenes with Rosencrantz (director Thomas Bigley) and

Guildenstern (Gus Krieger). There's not much of the "sweet prince"

about him, but it's a performance that works. He receives solid support

from Temple, Jack Leahy, doubling as Claudius and the Ghost, Jamey

Hecht as Polonius, and Taylor Fisher as Ophelia. Director Bigley

provides a mostly direct and straightforward production, despite a few

gaffes: the First Actor's speech about Pyrrhus is so tricked out with

superfluous business that it's both awkward and absurd. On the plus

side, Bigley gives us a generous portion of the text, tactfully edited.

Costumer Jessica Pasternak is clearly battling budgetary limitations,

but her decision to try to convert modern men's suits into period

costumes is more distracting than helpful. It's a long evening (over 3

hours) but an engrossing one. The Flight Theatre, 6472 Santa Monica

Boulevard. Produced by The Porters of Hellsgate. Thurs. & Sat., 8

p.m.; thru Feb. 13. Playing in repertory with Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern Are Dead. (951) 262-3030 (Neal Weaver)

NEW REVIEW PARADISE STREET

Stage Raw: Why Torture is Wrong

Photo courtesy of Title3

Title3 is a new company dedicated to giving women strong, unusual,

fascinating roles. For their first production, they've chosen Constance

Congdon's dark sociological piece about class resentment and privilege.

Jane (Molly Leland), a brilliant, assured and beautiful professor of

gender and semiotics -- who drops phrases like "The nomenclature of the

patriarchal case for hegemony" as easily as ordering a club sandwich --

has just moved to a small college town with her self-centered elderly

mother (Danielle Kennedy). Just before the semester starts, Jane's

battered into a coma by a homeless woman (Lane Allison, in a menacing

portrayal), who's bitter at being one of society's invisibles. As Jane

struggles to make at best a partial recovery from irreversible brain

damage, her attacker steals Jane's identity, and is delighted to find

that she's treated as an icon. (At conferences, she's paid $1000 to sit

on stage and grunt one word answers like Buddha -- let the masses, or

the critics, figure out what she means. It's true: the Haves get more

while the Have-nots suffer. The mechanics of Congdon's plot don't make

a lick of sense, but we're hooked by the premise, and by director

Courtney Munch's great ensemble -- filled out by Jiehae Park, Jane

Montosi and Lorene Chesley in a variety of roles. By intermission,

however, the play has made its point. It nonetheless continues to pad

along, wedging in scenes where a Puerto Rican social worker shows

Jane's mother how to use a Kegel exerciser, one of Montosi's characters

silently mops an entire floor, and the homeless attacker babysits her

publisher's drug-addicted daughter. To paraphrase a program note,

Congdon needs to appraise this two-and-a-half hour muddle and chip away

everything that doesn't look like the very smart play about class

tensions buried inside. The Attic Theatre and Film Center, 5429 W.

Washington Blvd., L.A.; opens Jan. 29; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.;

thru Feb. 21. (323) 525-0661. A Title3 production. (Amy Nicholson)

NEW REVIEW THE PEACOCK MEN

Stage Raw: Why Torture is Wrong

Photo courtesy of Company of Angels

Deconstructing American masculinity can be a sticky thicket even in

the best of analyses. Add issues of race and representation to the mix,

however, and its order of complexity increases exponentially. So it's

no surprise that playwright Ronald McCants' idea-packed, satiric foray

into the psychic minefield of black male identity can be as profoundly

disorienting as it is provocative. For McCants' hapless cast of

circus-performing Peacock Men -- African-Americans who, like their

brilliantly plumed namesake, have been domesticated into gender-warped

docility -- the ride is also downright deadly. One performer, Robert

Mapplethorpe's horse-hung The Man in the Polyester Suit (Hari

Williams), has already succumbed after his reduction to an erotically

objectified exhibit and his mysterious disappearance by the sadistic,

white-faced Ringmaster, Steve (Will Dixon). So when avaricious street

rapper Cash (Chris P. Daniels) signs on as a replacement, he finds

himself with a job both physically and existentially more perilous than

he bargained for. Turns out Steve's circus is more of a torture

funhouse in which Cash and his cohorts (John J. Jordan & Michael A.

Thompson) are subjected to humiliations and acts of violence scripted

right out of real-world headlines (Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, etc.).

And while Ayana Cahrr's staging loses crucial dramatic momentum during

some of the play's lengthier, overly didactic passages (the show could

easily benefit from a judicious, 30-minute trim), McCants' nightmare

vaudeville proves a field day for its terrifically talented ensemble.

Company of Angels, Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., downtown;

Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru March 7. (323) 883-1717. (Bill

Raden)

Stage Raw: Why Torture is Wrong

Photo courtesy of Chalk Repertory Company

The idea of traipsing through a dark, damp graveyard on a weekend

night to watch a Shakespeare play may be a daunting prospect, but at

least audiences who attend director Jerry Ruiz's smooth and energetic

production will be assured of seeing a engaging rendition of one of the

Bard's jolliest comedies. The show is actually presented inside the

picturesque (and grave-free) Masonic Lodge on the cemetery property,

which provides a striking, dramatic backdrop for any play. (The

beautifully constructed, colorfully decorated ceiling beams of the

auditorium are worth seeing, even aside from the play.) Viola (Hilary

Ward) dresses in drag to serve Count Orsino (Owiso Odera) and falls in

love with him, but the woman Orsino has his eye on, beautiful Olivia

(Teri Reeves), falls for Viola. Meanwhile, Olivia's drunkard Uncle, Sir

Toby Belch (Matt Gaydos) and his ne'er do well pals play a mean

spirited prank on Olivia's prissy, Puritan steward Malvolio (Charles

Janasz). Ruiz's staging is both intelligently introspective and

energetic, even though some of the comic shtick doesn't seem to

naturally flow from the text and comes across as being weakly timed.

Still, the production possesses a commendable clarity, which itself

makes it a fine, competently rendered version of the show. It also

boasts some remarkably well defined character work. Reeves's nicely

brittle Olivia warms amusingly to Ward's befuddled Viola, while

Guilford Adams's glum fool Feste plays nicely off of Gaydos's decadent

Sir Toby. However, it's Janasz's brilliantly uptight Malvolio, and his

ghoulishly hilarious attempts to woo Olivia all cross gartered and

leering like a gassy Jack O'Lantern, that truly offers this show's

standout performance. Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica

Blvd, Hollywood: Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 28. (800)

838-3006. Chalk Repertory Company. (Paul Birchall)

NEW REVIEW WHO IS CURTIS LEE?

Stage Raw: Why Torture is Wrong

Photo by Lynne Conner

The titular question of this play by Ashford J. Thomas (who also

plays Curtis Lee) set in 1950s Greensboro, North Carolina is sparked by

the appearance of a young man in a ramshackle tavern who immediately

attracts the attention of regulars Herman (Gerrence George) and Otis

(Carl Crudup), as well as owner Joe (Logan Alexander). Despite his

shabby appearance, the visitor Curtis claims to be a songwriter for

radio icon Miss Wanda Denise (Kelley Chatman), as well as being a

boxer. Herman and Otis don't buy either story, but Curtis' buying them

drinks keeps them mollified. Unfortunately Curtis has no money,

bringing him into conflict with the normally staid Joe, who, after

threatening Curtis, takes pity on him and puts him to work.

Complicating this situation are Calvin Hunt (Richard Lewis Warren), a

greedy white developer trying to force Joe to sell the place, Mitchell

(James E. Hurd, Jr.), a black gangster to whom Curtis owes money, and

Angel (Paris Rumford), Otis' ironically-named promiscuous daughter.

Director L. Flint Esquerra skillfully mines the comedy in the text, and

Paul Koslo's weathered set provides an authentic mise-en-scène.

Alexander shines in his gruff, pained portrayal of Joe, Crudup and

George have solid comic timing, and Hurd, Jr. is menacing in his brief

appearance. Thomas delivers the sincerity and hotheaded anger of youth,

but his writing, characterized by powerful, resonant themes, doesn't

always cohere. MET Theatre, downstairs in the Great Scott Theatre, 1089

N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru

February 28. (323) 957-1152. www.themettheatre.com A Thought Collective

Productions Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

NEW REVIEW GO WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM

Stage Raw: Why Torture is Wrong

Photo by Rick Baumgartner

Christopher Durang's Loony Tunes aesthetic - with the help

of Daniel Henning's perfectly modulated direction - gets swashed onto

our so-called war on terror. Thank goodness Durang has moved beyond

family dysfunction. Still, you'd think our recent history, propelled by

some deranged Might Makes Right cabal from a powerful coven of loons,

has been exhausted by American playwrights by now. Durang's outrage and

piety, however, get channeled into breaths of comedic napalm,

something like a cross between The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Dr. Strangelove.

Durang has now joined ranks with Dario Fo. Sweet Felicity (stylish Rhea

Seehorn, trying to be sensible in a world with no sense) wakes up in

bed with a stranger, Zamir (Sunil Malhotra), after a night out at a

bar. Turns out, Zamir slipped her a drug, raped and married her -- none

of which she remembers. The "priest" was Zamir's friend, porno film

maker Reverend Mike (Nicholas Brendon, sort of like Owen Wilson with a

slow-mo brain). Zamir has anger management issues and feels badly that

most of the women in his family are dead. This is cold comfort for

Felicity. Yet she finds herself compelled to defend her "husband" when

her Dick Cheney-emulating father, Leonard (Mike Genovese) - a volunteer

in the "shadow government" -- drags Zamir into the torture chamber

that he's been claiming is a private closet for his butterfly

collection. Narrator and power-drill wielding torture-room assistant

Loony Tunes (Alec Mapa) encourages Leonard to "bweak a finger, bweak a

finger" -- all of which is based on a misunderstanding by Leonard's

spy, Hildegard (Catherine Hicks, spending a good portion of the play

with underwear swishing around her ankles), that Zamir's overheard

conversation about a porno movie was actually a terrorist plot. Durang

re-runs the ending a couple of times, trying to capture the moment

where it all -- "it" being the sad plight of our country - went so

wrong. I particularly enjoyed Christine Estabrook as Leonard's blissed-out seething wife, Luella, who can't stop talking about the theater,

even while torture is being committed upstairs, because theater is

what's "real." And what has she seen lately? "250 plays by Martin

McDonagh and David Hare." Britain of course dominates our theater's new

plays, obviously because "Americans are stupid." Durang is getting a

lot off his chest, and off ours. The laughter he generates is from

nonsense about nonsense, unnervingly true and cathartic, and

beautifully performed. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd. (2nd

floor), Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 14.

(323) 661-9827 http://theblank.com A Blank Theatre Company production.

(Steven Leigh Morris)

NEW REVIEW GO WRECKS

Stage Raw: Why Torture is Wrong

Photo courtesy of the Geffen Playhouse

The loaded situation in writer-director Neil LaBute's "love story"

allows for a kind of velvet glove to reach inside one's heart, and then

it swirls around the intestines for a while before making its

withdrawal. This leaves us, well, touched, but in a way that's far

from sentimental. Ed Harris stars in this monologue, set in a Northern

Illinois funeral home. His wife's casket forms the centerpiece of Sibyl

Wickersheimer's set - her photo perched on its lid. Cricket S. Meyers'

sound design offers the whispers and echoes of voices in an ante-room,

where our bereaved widower Ed Carr (Harris) ostensibly floats - that

would be his public self. But that's not what we're seeing. He refers

to himself being "back there" with "them" while he speaks to us through

the mirror of his subconscious. What we get is his real eulogy, with

the secrets he won't tell them, because he's a private person, he

insists. (There are some secrets, such as his wife's final four words,

that he won't tell us, either.) He has a blazingly clear reason to be

so private, and that's the melodramatic revelation near play's end that

forces us to confront the definition of love, and how that definition

rubs up against social propriety. I didn't buy that revelation, not

within the colloquial, ruminative and realistic confines of LaBute's

direction. But that's a small matter. The big matter is the gorgeous

combination of LaBute's digressive and piercingly insightful love

letter with Harris' tender-furious child-like and ultimately profound

interpretation. Ed Carr is a bit like a chain-smoking Dostoevskian

narrator, who, while drifting onto free-associated topics and bilious

commentary (on anti-smoking campaigns, for example), he is, finally, on

message. And his message about the essence of love is upsetting and

unimpeachable in the same breath. Geffen Playhouse, Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.;

Sat, 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 7. (310) 208-5454.

(Steven Leigh Morris)

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