Theater Reviews: Echo One-Act Festival, Pope Joan, Taking Over

Hunter Gatherers
Anthony Masters

ECHO ONE-ACT FESTIVAL The lion’s share of this evening of six one-acts hews to a template: Two people — one drunk — hash out their diametrically opposed world views and teeter off with souls wounded and minds opened. There’s clever writing to spare, but in each, the energy and promise of depth flags before the curtain. Directed by Stefan Novinski, David Ives’ “The Other Woman” changes the manic-stranger theme to an even-keeled wife who has just become a wild, paranoid, horny sleepwalker; her husband is stymied and stricken with guilt — is he cheating on his wife with his wife? — but this play, too, cuts off before its questions flourish. Standouts are Julia Cho’s “Three Women,” a streamlined and effective short play about the pressures of womanhood in which a mother (Kit Pongetti) and grandmother (Ruth Silviera) undermine their dreams that daughter Allison (Lucy Griffin) will live a fuller life than their own by nudging her toward marriage and kids. Director Josh Moyse has a good grip on Cho’s clever fast-forwarding of time. Also quite good is Padriac Duffy’s “The Dirty Laundry of Marjorie,” a tone-perfect tragicomedy about two blue-collar housewives (Alison Martin and Tara Karsian, both excellent) stuck in a too-small town, staged with empathy and humor by Chris Fields. Stage 52 Theatre, 5299 W. Washington Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 15. (800) 413-8669. Presented by Echo Theatre Company. (Amy Nicholson)

HUNTER GATHERERS Though it poses as a Buñuelian comedy of manners, San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s broad suburban satire is to the surrealist master’s dissections of bourgeois hypocrisy what a baseball bat is to a surgeon’s scalpel. Nachtrieb’s comic meat is the venerable dinner party gone bad. Pam (Sara Hennessy) and Richard (Doug Newell) play host to high school chums Wendy (Vonessa Martin) and Tom (Steven Schub) to observe the couples’ mutual, 12th wedding anniversary. That there is little to celebrate becomes quickly apparent. The priapic ex-jock Richard is an insatiable carnivore with a literal blood lust (the play opens with him slaughtering a lamb on the living-room floor for the evening roast) that disgusts the sexually repressed Pam. The concupiscent, maternally frustrated Wendy loves flesh (especially, as it turns out, Richard’s), much to the dismay of the salad-eating, sexually impotent Tom. If such unlikely marital mismatches and simmering sexual yearnings are the stuff of comic dynamite, Nachtrieb never finds the fuse. Blame an overdeveloped taste for the obvious. Nachtrieb’s characters are too immediately transparent and one-note; they muster neither the dignity to feed a farce nor the dimensionality to sustain the most superficial of sitcoms. Director Dámaso Rodriguez’s puzzling inability to stage the surfeit of visual and physical gags allows the audience to get so far ahead of the punch lines, the laughter never quite catches up. Pasadena Playhouse, Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 21. (626) 356-PLAY. A Furious Theatre Company production. (Bill Raden)

MACBETH Director Jonathan Redding helms an intimate, moody production of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play,” in which that unlucky Thane of Cawdor takes murderously poor career advice from a trio of witchy employment counselors. Although some inexperienced members of the cast have trouble wrestling the metrical challenges of Shakespeare’s poetry, the show boasts a cool, omnipresent sense of dread, and contains a variety of shrewd, character-related innovations. Alexander Pawlowski portrays Macbeth as a borderline primitive brute turned psychotic tyrant: We first see him swinging a club and wearing a pelt-like tunic that puts us in mind of Bamm-Bamm from The Flintstones. As his scheming wife, Lady Macbeth, Meredith Hines radiates a disturbing viciousness that contrasts chillingly with her smarmy kitten-like first greeting with the hapless King Duncan (Jacques Freydont). When the two Big Macs get around to performing their bloodiest deeds in the dead of night, Redding thrusts the stage into murkiness, with little more than a ghost light to depict the murderous pair. Sadly, Redding’s atmospheric and often cerebral approach to the play is marred by some moments of lagging pace and overly broad acting turns from some of the other performers. Ultimately, though, this vivid and commendably clear presentation of the play is ideal for audiences new to the play, or for those who just want to catch up with it once again. Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 Second Street, Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru February 14. (800) 595-4849. A Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble Production. (Paul Birchall)

MURDER ON THE BOUNDING MAIN On an ocean liner crossing from New York to Southampton, England, malicious archconservative radio gossip columnist Mason Armstrong is shot down during a midnight promenade on deck. The suspects include a dim-witted movie star (Brian Ames), who spends his days shooting albatross, and his manager (Richard Leppig), who’s rumored to be having what in truth would be an improbable affair with the star, a blonde chanteuse named Bernadette (Maureen Ganz). Then there’s a fourth-rate comedian named Rudy Tudy (Barry Schwam), who spouts endless, bad one-liners; a mysterious widow (Rosina Pinchot); and Armstrong’s formidable, red-baiting assistant (understudy Christine Soldate). The ship’s captain (Richard Large) enlists the aid of honeymooning detective Mordecai Pierce (writer-actor Jack Chansler) and his new bride, Teresa (Joanna Houghton), to help solve the crime. Chansler’s script is set in 1953, but it would have seemed dated even then, and it’s hard to care about his tissue-paper characters. Even Detective Pierce is a sexist homophobe. The only remotely sympathetic figures are the detective’s wife, and the elderly widow who’s still mourning the death of her screenwriter husband, driven to suicide by the Hollywood blacklist. There’s little or no suspense (who cares whodunit?), and even less probability. The Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30; thru Feb. 21. (626) 256-3809 or (Neal Weaver)


GO  PIPPIN I know that we’re on the cusp of a Depression and theater audiences ache for frivolity and distraction, but this one really vexes, largely because it’s so damnably seductive. First, Roger O. Hirson’s book and Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics combine into what has been one of the most-produced musicals in colleges and high schools in the past 30 years. Add to that Jeff Calhoun’s hypertheatrical staging and choreography of a topflight ensemble in a style designed to accommodate the hearing-impaired actors of co-presenter Deaf West Theater, and you’ve got a extremely glossy carny show in which the central role is bifurcated between the hangdog charm of deaf actor Tyrone Giordano and his voiced alter-ego, Michael Arden. The pair share the stage with a huge ensemble, one revealing through physicality the agony and bliss of Charlemagne’s son, Pippin, as he searches for the purpose of life, while the other gives voice to those expressions through a dextrous vocal interpretation and Schwartz’s somewhat sappy songs, rendered here with effervescent beauty. This is the latest in a series of Candide riffs (much searching for purpose these days), in which Pippin fights in a war, learns about sex as well as domesticity, commits patricide, serves as king, screws up by being benevolent to the peasants and dismantling the army while an Enemy Beyond encroaches: Silly boy. Shut up, go home and tend to your garden. Let smarter people take care of the empire. Your adopted son will dream and make the same mistakes. Pardon me, but this is crap posing as wisdom, truisms posing as truth, especially at a moment in our history when doing nothing but tending our garden has landed us collectively in the biggest sand trap in American history. I couldn’t join the standing ovation on press night. I just couldn’t, I was so pissed off — politically, philosophically. If this were just diversion, I’d have risen to my feet. I love diversion as much as anybody. But I felt in this production a creepy, reactionary underpinning that’s even out of touch with our new government’s position on everybody taking responsibility to pull each other up. And for this shimmering magic act to close out by cautioning us about the seductive qualities of veneer is a fraud of the first rank. The show is so well done, see it for yourself, and see if you’re as annoyed as me. Deaf West Theatre and Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m.; (Jan. 31 perf at 8:30 p.m.; Feb. 17 perf at 7:30 p.m.; no perfs Feb. 18-20); thru March 15. (213) 628-2772 or (Steven Leigh Morris)

POPE JOAN Christopher Moore’s musical (he wrote the book, lyrics and music), here directed and choreographed by Bo Crowell, hasn’t quite been in development since 800 A.D., which is when the eponymous female pope (whose existence floats on rumor and speculation), but it must feel that way to the creators of a show that’s been over a decade in the making. There are some really interesting ideas at the core here, but they’re not brought into focus by Moore or Crowell. Priest “John” (a woman in disguise) lives a life of piety to God, which in her mind includes exercising her hearty libido, while the Church parades its wares in any number of different disguises. This all provides the possibilities of an intriguing fable about authenticity and artifice. What we’re served up instead is a largely tedious historical epic about a naïve female child, tenderly played by Whitney Avalon, driven from England to a French monarch’s bed. Through an intricate web of fortune and alliances, not to mention her uncanny skill to raise the dead, she is elected Pope, under the name “John.” (Yes, a few know her secret but have political reasons not to reveal it.) It takes until the middle of Act 2 for her actually to make it into Pontiff’s garb, which is when her callowness comes to the surface; her insistence on feeding the peasants while she’s surrounded by power-mongering clerics is not so far removed from politics in Washington right now. It it were about her naïve piety, this could be a musical remake of Shaw’s St. Joan, but this work’s larger purpose is too muddied to draw that conclusion. Moore seems so determined to tell a biographical history (including opening, largely irrelevant sequences devoted to the fall of the Roman empire and the birth of Christianity, and one cumbersome chunk of expository back story that rounds out Act 1). The effect of all this lumbering narrative, that includes dreadful, archaic dialogue, is that the one striking visual symbol of the central character, stripped and with a crucifix resting on her naked back, isn’t really the essence of much that’s actually being dramatized. A six-piece band onstage isn’t well served by voices that can barely hold a tune (the chorales have the strongest effect), too many supporting actors have scant stage presence, Crowell’s “choreography” is simply movement for non-dancers, and Brent Mason’s set of medieval walls and platforms stifle the allegorical potential rather than giving it the flight of, say, Arthurian legend. Most of whatever glimmers of magic appears on the stage come from Shon LeBlanc’s gorgeous costumes. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd.; Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru January 24. (323) 960-4412. (Steven Leigh Morris)


REVERB Leslye Headland’s sobering dramedy gives new meaning to the term “dysfunctional relationship.” Dorian (Wes Whitehead) is a struggling musician in L.A.’s rock music world on the verge of the “break” that will propel him to stardom. But his self-absorption and personality quirks often put him at odds with bandmates Hank (Brandon Scott) and Shane (Patrick Graves). However, the squabbles with his fellow musicians pale in comparison to the volatile complexities that inform Dorian’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend, June (Melissa Stephens). Both are ensnared in a grotesque attraction for each other fueled by lust, gratuitous physical brutality and shared, lacerating pain. When Dorian’s Bible-thumping sister, Lydia (Laila Ayad), informs him that his father is dying, Dorian is ultimately forced into a harrowing confrontation with his own demons. First-class performances and Headland’s smart direction don’t quite compensate for a script that’s cleverly written but is often too wordy and static. The characters are compelling and well sketched, yet the playwright doesn’t delve perceptively enough into their personalities to make their emotional and psychological fault lines truly convincing. Working Stage Theatre, 1516 N. Gardner St., West Hollywood; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 22. (323) 630-3016. An Iama Theatre Company production. (Lovell Estell III)

GO  TAKING OVER From the way he walks across the aisle in front of the stage, you’d think that Danny Hoch has a lumbering gait, until he springs onto the raised stage as though his shoes had launchers in their heels. Hoch’s one-man show is worth seeing if only for the Puck-like nimbleness he uses to portray a series of men and women from a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. Physical dexterity is matched by verbal, with his hypnotic renditions of rapid-fire local cadences. Hoch’s characters include an ex-con trying to hustle a job from an indie-film crew setting up on the streets. He finally offers to move boxes for free just to show his mom, who’s watching from a nearby brownstone window, that he’s needed. The parodies are broad, vicious and tender at the same time, as in the case of an African-American woman who sits on her stoop keeping an eye on the local kids, and a Dominican taxi dispatcher who verbally assaults the Puerto Rican and Mexican cabbies under his charge in Spanish (translations provided on screen). His tenderly spoken bigotry is a comedy act that would get him thrown out of an office building in most American cities were he to unleash his torrent from a different post. One character includes Hoch himself, responding to letters of complaint that all the white guys in his show are assholes: Leading that list is Stewart Gottberg, the investor-owner of a new luxury high-rise assuring his prospective clients that the residents of the “buffer” building next door — apparently mandated by some “affordable-housing” legislation that actually ushers in gentrification — won’t be using their spa or swimming pool. Hoch, as himself, also recites, with muted irony, viewer complaints that his show has no message. What do you want us to do — stop progress? they ask. Perhaps his show is just a showcase dancing around a plight. He claims that the blood of a fallen gang member is more “authentic” than an organic artichoke being sold in the Whole Foods market now occupying the site where the gang member died. But since he started touring his show about gentrification, an elephant has walked across his stage, and his determination to ignore it places what should be the hippest event in town way behind the curve. Since the economic meltdown, loans on construction of the luxury high-rises he finds to be such a symbol of numbing, sterile consumerism have themselves been mostly frozen, while the new president is appealing to us to reconsider former habits of debt-based conspicuous consumption and narcissistic isolation that have driven our county into its current crisis. For the first time in 15 years, rents are actually dropping. This is the paradox of creating a topical show in an era when the topics change even more quickly than Hoch’s turn-on-a-dime impersonations. Tony Taccone directs. Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 6:30 p.m. (added perf Feb. 22, 1 p.m., replaces 6:30 p.m. perf); thru February 22. (213) 628-2772 or (Steven Leigh Morris)


VIBRATING SUN A rock band named Vibrasol performs with pole dancers (Goddess 13) performing in front of them. Each group — according to their creative statements in the program — have lofty artistic ambitions, but what they’ve put on stage, though entertaining, is actually quite commonplace. And though the event is billed as a collaboration, the band doesn’t play to the dancers, nor do the dancers seem to dance to the music. Each group is doing its own thing; only occasionally does a moment of synchronicity emerge. If this were happening in a club or bar around town, it could be fun and engaging — with a beer in hand, we could marvel on how damn good that electric violin player is. But a theater environment, with the audience welded to their seats, calls for some kind of story or at least a concept. Everyone in this rock concert is talented, and the potential for a rich theatrical experience is there, but no one has engineered a show that is more than the sum of its parts. Unknown Theater, 1110 N. Seward Ave., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 1. (323) 466-7781. (Luis Reyes)

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