Theater Reviews: Bruising for Besos, Dracula, Burn This

Michael Lamont

GO  BRUISING FOR BESOS In Spanish besos means kisses, but getting them in Yolanda Villamontes’ family should come with combat pay. With a philandering father who alternately abuses and romances her emotionally fragile mother, Yolanda (writer-performer Adelina Anthony) develops a distorted view of love, which clouds her relationships, most especially with her mom. Now as an adult on a sojourn from L.A. to visit her sick mother in San Antonio, Yolanda is marooned by a busted radiator on a Texas highway and flashes back to memories of her hardscrabble childhood, her budding attraction to women, and the struggle for her and her mother to accept one another. Anthony’s solo performance chronicles a tale of dysfunction with uproarious humor and heartfelt gravity, deftly balancing both and delivering a riveting work. Under Rose Marcario’s sturdy direction, Anthony effortlessly embodies a host of characters, from Yolanda’s strutting father and precocious siblings to her sexually confused high school peer, from a fiery Puerto Rican lover to a mother aching from a love-hate relationship. Designer Robert Selander’s set, centered on a Ford Mustang grill and car hood made of bleached bones, and John Pedrone’s evocative lighting design, combine well with Anthony’s journey of self-discovery. The Davidson/Valenti Theatre at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through March 15. (323) 860-7300. (Martín Hernández)


BURN THIS Lanford Wilson’s drama about four New Yorkers and a funeral is a slippery portrait of love and loss. Staged with a warm cast, it’s flush with hope; just as easily, though, a more aloof ensemble can flip it into a play about emotional isolation, where the polite relationship between Anna (Marisa Petroro) and perfect-on-paper boyfriend Burton (Jonathan Blandino) casts a cold shadow across all dynamics, making her devotion to callously funny roommate Larry (Aaron Misakian) and temperamental lover Pale (a wrenching and infuriating Dominic Comperatore) seem nearly like pathological self-punishment. Director John Ruskin sees this as a love story — the scene breaks twinkle with sentimental music — yet his cast isn’t up to it and hasn’t even been instructed to at least pretend to be listening to each other. (Burton’s confession of a random blowjob from a strange man rolls off Anna like he was droning on about the weather.) Comperatore’s combustible Pale has four times the spark of the rest of the ensemble — when he bursts into the scene, we see the gulf between what Wilson’s play could be and what this staging actually is. Ruskin Group Theater, 3000 Airport Drive, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 22. (310) 397-3244. (Amy Nicholson)


THEATER PICK  DRACULA  Director Ken Sawyer, who recently helmed the delightful Lovelace: A Rock Opera at the Hayworth, scores again with this stylish production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, smartly adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Robert Arbogast is splendid as the creepy count, first seen rising from his grave to put the bite on the lovely Mina (Mara Marini), upon his arrival in England. When Lucy Seward (Darcy Jo Martin) contracts a mysterious illness, her mother, Lily (Karesa McElheny), who runs an asylum, enlists the expertise of Abraham Van Helsing (Joe Hart) to find a cure. Thrown into the mix are Lucy’s betrothed, Jonathan Harker (J.R. Mangels), and the mad, bug-eating Renfield (Alex Robert Holmes). This one’s all about atmosphere. Desma Murphy’s alluring set design is cleverly accented by an enormous backdrop of an incubus sitting on a sleeping woman, inspired by Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, and Luke Moyer’s chiaroscuro lighting schema is perfectly conceived to enhance the atmospheric richness of the piece. Sawyer utilizes an arsenal of haunted-house special effects, including lots of rolling fog and wolf howls, but they never come across as cheesy or overdone; indeed, there are a few scary moments during this 90-minute show, relieved by well-placed humor. NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd.; N. Hlwyd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through March 22. (818) 508-7101.  (Lovell Estell III)


THE GRADUATE British playwright Terry Johnson’s fatuous adaptation of Mike Nichols’ 1967 film and Charles Webb’s novel might have garnered laughs had it been played as a satire. No such luck, I’m afraid. Featuring the Mrs. Robinson character in the buff (the producers raked it in when Kathleen Turner played the role in London and New York), Johnson’s illogical script rips off highlights from the film and juxtaposes them with additional plot points: a drunken tête-à-tête between Elaine (Michele Exarhos) and Mrs. Robinson (Kelly Lloyd), a visit by Benjamin (Ben Campbell) and his parents (Jerry Lloyd and Cindy Yantis) to a psychotherapist, a strip-bar sequence with a topless dancer falling into Elaine’s lap, and a redo of the wedding scene at the end, with Mr. Robinson (Jim Keily) going after Benjamin with a bat. None of these inanities would matter quite so much if Johnson hadn’t also stripped the story of all wit, depth and meaningful social commentary. Directed with little insight by Jules Aaron, the performances range from cartoonish and earnest to an off-putting mixture of both. To be fair, it’s difficult to deliver an ultimate rendering given the dreadful material. As the predatory siren, Lloyd might have fit nicely into a well-calibrated farce. Costume designer Shon LeBLanc mysteriously makes Elaine look as dowdy as possible; nor do his designs flatter Mrs. Robinson. Set designer Stephen Gifford’s drab, functional wood-paneled backdrop underscores this essentially lifeless effort. El Centro Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through April 5. (323) 460-4443. (Deborah Klugman)



GO  LAWS OF SYMPATHY A knockout cast under John Lawrence Rivera’s economical direction gives a human heartbeat to Oliver Mayer’s “message play” — the heart being the theme of human cruelty that lies at the center of this tale about the freeing of Bantu slaves from Somali refugee camps. Though Mayer’s dialogue suffers from didacticism, Anita Dashiell and Diarra Kilpatrick as two war-ravaged women, turn in fully realized performances that extend beyond the novelty of flushing a never-before-seen toilet (the gag gets old after a while). The women arrive with rich pasts, as well as a host of dreams, hopes and aspirations — much to the chagrin of the usually unflappable refugee co-coordinator Mohammed (Ahmad Enani). His angry assistant Betty (Celelete Den) provides some much needed color and humor throughout the play. (The other major humorous bit comes when the Teletubbies, from one of the refugees’ favorite TV shows, arrive unannounced in “person.”) Mayer does deserve credit for creating the morally ambiguous Gerald (Will Dixon), whose plans for the refugees sound vague at best. Act I is entirely taut, but Act 2 trots out a number of clichés and doesn’t know quite when to end. John H. Binkly’s functional turntable set allows Rivera’s fast-paced direction to move quickly from scene to scene. Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through March 29. A Playwrights Arena production. (213) 627-4473. (Sandra Ross)


GO  THE MIRACLE WORKER Though its compelling subject transcends its limitations, William Gibson’s fact-based 1959 play is a product of its time, large and sprawling, yet over-tidy in tying up loose ends. In her infancy, Helen Keller (Carlie Nettles) suffers a high fever that leaves her blind and deaf. Science and medicine (circa 1880) can do nothing for her, leaving her locked in her own world. She becomes a monster child — violent, willful and unmanageable. But her peppery Irish teacher, Annie Sullivan (Erin Christine Shaver), somehow perceives the indomitable intelligence locked inside the child’s head. With profound belief in the power of language, Sullivan sets about teaching the girl a signing alphabet, which eventually enables her to perceive and communicate with the world. The struggle is arduous and violent, and frequently complicated by the well-meaning but misguided Keller family, who indulge Helen as a retarded little animal. Director-designer Joel Daavid, faced with the problem of numerous scene changes, has provided a sprawling unit set, which is handsome but sometimes makes for awkward staging. He’s fortunate in his cast, and Nettles and Shaver boldly tackle their violent confrontations, ably supported by Stuart W. Howard, Julie Austin Felder, Ethan Brosowsky, and Elisa Perry. Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through March 8. Hayworth Productions. (323) 960-7863. (Neal Weaver)


GO  RENT Given how much this Tony Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning rock opera has permeated our culture, there is little need to reintroduce it. Nonetheless, this touring production is special in that it features both of the original Broadway leads (Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp), members of the final Broadway cast, as well as original director Michael Grief, original choreographer Marlies Yearby and original music supervisor Tim Weil. The story, which centers on roommates Mark (Rapp) and Roger (Pascal) and their friends, lovers and lovers’ lovers, is a wild, touching and painful slice of life in the East Village of the mid-1990s. For those familiar with New York, the portrayal of the AIDS epidemic, Giuliani’s “cleanup” of the homeless population, and the gentrification of Alphabet City brings back rueful memories of a city between identities. Populating this corner of the Big Apple is a coterie of bohemians struggling to stay warm, stay high and stay loved amidst the winter chill, all the while singing their hearts out. The songs, ranging from the soulful “Take Me or Leave Me” and the spunky “Light My Candle” to the wonderfully polyphonic “Will I?” and of course the iconic “Seasons of Love,” bring to life this beautiful story and showcase the cast members’ amazing voices. Don’t miss this spectacular revival, which is sure to sell out, especially given its brief run. The Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through March 8. (213) 365-3500. A Broadway/L.A. Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)



GO  THE THREEPENNY OPERA Director Jules Aaron’s luscious production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s dark-hearted musical is a snappy, dramatic delight that, in the words of the play, “has pretty teeth, dear.” The tale of sexy, villainous Mac the Knife (Jeff Griggs), his seduction of the virtuous Polly Peacham (Shannon Warne), and his near-destruction in an underworld inhabited by pimps, thieves, murderers and whores is given a powerful and pleasingly cynical staging. Brecht purists might find some fault with the lack of rattiness in this polished and assured production, yet this reviewer isn’t going to criticize the show for being too skillfully executed — particularly as Darryl Archibald’s gorgeous musical direction contains musical renditions of the Weill classics that approach standards of opera. Griggs, a baritone of strikingly evocative ferocity, delivers his lines and musical numbers with a tightly controlled roar, suggesting some kind of sexy beast who’s just barely holding himself from running amok. In her rendition of “Pirate Jenny,” Warne’s Polly artfully shifts on a dime from sweet innocent to brutal fiend, and as the hardened prostitute who befriends and then betrays Mac, Zarah Mahler’s poignant Jenny Diver delivers her musical numbers with a rough pathos and despair. Eileen T’Kaye’s wondrously funny snaggletoothed hag, Mrs. Peacham, and Paul Zegler’s pompous and self-pitying police chief, are also striking. The translation, by Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold, is witty and vivid — even if the alteration of some of the lines and lyrics that are well-known from the show’s famous theatrical recordings, occasionally elicits some surprise. International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 22. (562) 436-4610. (Paul Birchall)


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