Theater Reviews: Hillary Agonistes, Of Mice and Men, Flora the Red Menace

Flora the Red Menace
Michael Lamont

ANATOMY OF A SLAP A small, awkward space impinges on optimal enjoyment of this collaborative effort compiled by eight writers, including director Luis Reyes. The premise – a sort of postmodern Noises Off – will appeal mostly to theater people. But there’s enough humor here to dispel one’s worst fears about plays within plays. The specifics don’t matter much for several reasons, among them the patchwork quality of this group effort, Reyes’ valiant but still crabbed direction of too many actors in a tiny space, and the show’s awkward opening and anticlimactic ending. What’s fun is the stuff in the middle, even if occasionally lame, as when the addled Kip (writer Tom Markley) almost gets his ass kicked by Roy (Guy Killum), a bitter actor on the descent, who mistakenly thinks Kip is mocking him. When Kip says he’s taken classes to become a screenwriter, Roy hears “street fighter.” Much more amusing is the scene in which vain actor Jason (Ben Fuller) is running lines with theater wannabe Shelby (Michael Datz), just as Jason’s girlfriend, Diane (Kahshanna Evans), confronts him about their relationship. As Jason tries to quell the angry Diane, Shelby keeps correcting him, underscoring just how many of Jason’s supposedly spontaneous protestations are essentially scripted. What doesn’t work is the framing device for all this — the tense relationship between Renee (Paula Vincent), who’s written the play within this play, and her mother, known to us only through Renee’s comments on a troublesome cell phone. Son of Semele Theatre, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru May 31. (323) 469-4680. Off-Chance Productions. (David Mermelstein)

Michael Lamont

Flora the Red Menace

Craig Schwartz

Of Mice and Men

Ed Krieger

A House With No Walls

BLUE NIGHT IN THE HEART OF THE WEST James Stock’s play suggests a Dadaist variation on Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. The Shreveports are an incestuous, illiterate, intolerant farm family in Epiphany, Iowa. Son Carl (Benjamin Burdick) is humping both mom Ruth (Hepburn Jamieson) and his palm-reading sister, Kristin (Daryl Dickerson). Dad (Andrew Schlessinger) is a deceased Marine whose ghost comes back to visit Ruth and dance to Peggy Lee records. Carl has an unlikely fascination with English movies and the philosophy of Wittgenstein. Their corn is leveled by a tornado, their pigs commit suicide, and the land is (perhaps) sinking into the ground. Meanwhile, Scottish topiary artist Andrew McAlpine (Shawn MacAulay) decides that Scotland is dying of nostalgia, and immigrates to Nevada to practice his art, till he discovers Nevada has no shrubbery. The two plot lines converge (sort of) when Andrew changes his name to John and marries Kristin. Writer Stock seems to feel that if he piles up enough colorful symbols, they’ll eventually mean something, but, alas, they don’t. His play boasts some funny lines and situations – beautifully acted under Amanda Weier’s direction. But the longer it goes on, the less it matters. Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p,m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 21. (323) 882-6912, (Neal Weaver)

FLORA THE RED MENACE The Great Depression is showing up musicals all over the place. (See this week’s capsule review of I’d Rather Be Right.) With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by George Abbott, Flora first showed up on Broadway in 1965, featuring Liza Minnelli in the title role of a Hungarian fashion-designer emigré to New York. Here she’s played by Eden Espinosa, whose beautiful voice can’t quite compensate for a performance of impenetrable perkiness. Flora lives and leads a commune of the barely employed, joins the Communist Party, and then gets caught in a moral quagmire of a labor strike with her more ideologically rigid boyfriend, Harry (Manoel Felciano). (What a gutsy move, to treat Communists seriously on the 1965 Broadway stage.) Though this production’s reconfigured book by David Thompson, created for the 1987 Vineyard Theatre revival, accentuates the need for activism to grapple with an economic crisis, offset by the pitfalls of rigid dogma, it’s not until Act 2 that these nuances show up. And though it’s intriguing to hear musical echoes of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and Chicago, Flora contains only one good song, “Quiet Thing,” exquisitely interpreted by Espinosa. The rest of Philip Himberg’s staging — imagined as a bare-bones WPA theater production — hovers between being adequate and inadequate. The four-piece band (two pianos, percussion and string bass) is overwhelmed by the large space and this musical’s technical demands, and in terms of sheen, as one patron aptly remarked at intermission, “Something is lacking.” UCLA, Macgowan Hall; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru May 18. (310) 825-2101. A Reprise Theatre Company production. (Steven Leigh Morris)


HILLARY AGONISTES It’s June 2009. Hillary Clinton (Priscilla Barnes) has ascended to the Oval Office. Suddenly, without warning, 65 million people, including Bill Clinton himself, vanish from the Earth. The evangelical crowd is incensed and bewildered — if this is the Rapture, how come so many true believers, Pat Robertson among them — have been left behind? In Congress, Republican legislators blame the president and are threatening impeachment. The commander in chief is panicked: What should she do? Should she blame extraterrestrials, as a top military adviser (writer Nick Salamone) counsels, or co-opt the religious zealots by painting her own apocalyptic scenario? A satiric fable, what’s most involving about the play is not so much Salamone’s critique of the flesh-and-blood politician as his representation of the ongoing battle in this country between right-wing religion and reason — here internalized in Hillary herself. Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, Barnes nails the externals of her role but becomes so tangled in its caricature as to miss its deeper implications — though she does have effective moments, if not as a world leader, then as Chelsea’s mother. A bland Jean Gilpin as her chief of staff and closest confidante, and a strident Rebecca Metz as a confrontational Chelsea (she’s converted to Islam) both disappoint. Salamone, who plays five characters — including Stephen Hawking, a right-wing theocrat and a gay cardinal — brings a welcome vitality to the production. Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., L.A.; Fri-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 1. (213) 627-4473. A Playwrights Arena production. (Deborah Klugman)


A HOUSE WITH NO WALLS This third installment of Thomas Gibbons’ enthralling trilogy on race relations studies, with compassion, the loneliness of a woman much like Condoleeza Rice, here named Candace Lane (Kellie Roberts). She’s an African-American intellectual whose drift toward social conservatism has made her a target of black progressives, white liberals and — paradoxically — puts her at odds with the very conservatives whom she courts. With so much stridency in the air, is conversation even possible? As in his Permanent Collection, Gibbons toys with the umbilical cord that connects history to identity, here via the construction of the Museum of American Liberty, celebrating George Washington. On the very grounds of the proposed site was the euphemistically named “servants quarters” — actually a hovel where Washington’s nine slaves were housed. Two of those slaves, a brother and a sister (Toyin Moses and Maurice McRae) occupy the space as ghost presences, haunting Candace, who nonetheless adheres to a philosophy like Ward Connerly’s, that “welfare programs” such as affirmative action not only perpetuate the “victimization” of black citizens in principle, but they also don’t work in practice. So what is the purpose of a museum, and of history: to add to that identity of “victimization”? To give us hope or to leave us paralyzed? What truths need to be included in this museum? What is the role of empirical truth? This core concern, among other issues, puts Candace at loggerheads with black activist Salif Camara (Hugh Dane), while Candace’s former peer and lover, a white, liberal scholar named Allen Rosen (Darin Dahms) spins like uprooted seaweed in the emotional and moral riptides. Through this, the gut-wrenching pursuit of freedom by those ancient ghost presences creates a blistering historical context for all the debate. The ideas and their permutations are scintillating, but Ben Guillory’s underprepared production doesn’t yet do them service, with actors struggling for lines and with Lane’s wan performance in the pivotal role. The play’s arguments and ironies may simply be too weighted in the drama’s cerebral stakes, but it deserves a staging that would test that theory. The New LATC, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 14. A Robey Theatre Company production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

I’D RATHER BE RIGHT Perhaps the current occupant of the White House might successfully solve our nation’s suffocating monetary problems if his cabinet meetings were held in New York’s Central Park. Such is the premise that drives this 1937 fantasy-musical (book by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart). It’s a hot summer in 1937 and old FDR (an engaging Joe Joyce) — despondent over the economy — takes a stroll in Central Park, where he encounters lovebirds Peggy and Phil (Christiana Valo, Stephen Vendette). Angered by the money woes that forestall their nuptials, he vows to balance the budget — no easy task, as the members of his cabinet are like first cousins to the Marx Brothers. With the park as the designated meeting place, one hair-brained scheme follows another — there’s even a radio broadcast with the members playing kazoos. In this two hours of daffy fun, the musical selections aren’t executed with consistent polish, but there's some kick to them. Numbers like “Have you Met Miss Jones,” “Spring in Vienna,” “Labor Is the Thing” and “Off the Record” aren’t likely to enthrall the memory. Most of the heavy lifting is done by Vendette and Valo, superb in their musical numbers, as is Joyce. Brian O’Halloran and John Harvey strike just the right balance on piano and percussion, and Victoria Profitt’s Sesame Street–inspired set has an odd appeal. As a glimpse of bygone Yankee feel-good fervor and white-bread Broadway wholesomeness, it has an indelible charm. Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd.; Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru. June. 1. (323) 960-4429. By George Productions. (Lovell Estell III)


INDECENT ACTS A quartet of short plays rides both sides of the line separating the combative from the sophomoric. Writer-director Coleman Hough’s “Glancing at the War” looks at two performance artists (Erin Fleming and Elizabeth Liang), respectively playing Miss America and Miss Diagnosis prepping to go onstage and letting slip the horrors of their personal lives amidst stretching and elocution exercises. It features taut performances by both women, and Dan Wingard as some kind of crazed production assistant – call it old news well delivered. Jason Grote’s “Luna” is a creation myth about the origins of the Sun and the Moon (David LM McIntyre and Mandi Moss), told with deliberate, inarticulate clumsiness by the subjects of the legend and cokehead narrator (Terry Tocantins). It features similarly appealing performances, directed with choreographed whimsy by Amanda D’Angelo. Boo Killerbrew’s “True Love Waits” takes the single joke of lonely women (Linda Graves, Grace Eboigbe and Krista Collins) throwing a bawdy bachelorette party before their marriage to a beer-swilling Jesus (Tocantis). In Tim Banning’s lascivious staging, the play rides the joke for all it’s worth, and all it isn’t. Eboigbe’s tender Judy stands out amidst the fearless ensemble. Rosalyn Drexler’s “Room 17C” melds Kafka’s Metamorphosis with Arthur Miller’s "Death of a Salesman" by plonking Linda Loman (Shana Ledet Qualls) in a squalid motel room with cockroach Gregor Samsa (a physically dextrous performance by McIntyre). Biff (Joe Roche) also shows up, and gets mad. If there’s a larger purpose to this literary etude about the seediness of existence, it crawled by me. Karen Jean Martinson directs. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 11 p.m.; thru May 31. (323) 856-8611. (Steven Leigh Morris)

OF MICE AND MEN With decidedly mixed results, and with D. Martyn Bookwalter’s atmospherically bleak scenic design, director Paul Lazarus has re-set John Steinbeck’s classic around the Bracero Treaty of WWII. Both George (David Noroña) and his developmentally disabled friend, Lennie (Al Espinosa), carry work permits, but little else is mentioned about the massive importation of Mexican field labor, and, despite a mainly Latino cast, most of the cultural flavor is limited to expressions like dios mio and the occasional pendejo. As with Steinbeck’s novel, the Latino field hands are just as racist as their white counterparts toward Crooks (Curtis C.), the black stable hand. And when not reciting their plan to buy a small farm where Lennie can pet the rabbits, George warns Lennie to stay away from Curley (Joshua Bitton) — and, more importantly, away from Curley’s wife (Madison Dunaway in a wan, unconvincing performance). Espinosa is excellent as Lennie, whose merest hand gestures are compelling. Also, Alex Mendoza makes a strong impression as Slim, and the standouts among the supporting cast include Thomas Kopache in a heartbreaking performance as Candy, and Curtis C.’s Crooks, who embodies the thematic loneliness of the original source material. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (no 8 p.m. perfs May 21 and May 28; additional mat Wed., May 28, 2 p.m.); thru June 8. (Sandra Ross)


SAINT JOAN Director Matthew Kellen Burgos’ staging of George Bernard Shaw’s powerful opus is a worthy if workmanlike production focusing on Shaw’s debates on topics as diverse as class, nationalism and gender equality. This often comes at the cost of the play’s delicate layers of wit and irony, which frequently seem, well, “shaved” off. In 15th-century France, Joan (Dawn Davis), a farmer’s simple daughter, hears saintly voices in her head, and she follows their advice, convincing the local feudal lord (Sam R. Ross) to allow her to command an army that restores the mousy Dauphin (Tom Fornss) to his throne. However, the church disapproves of Joan’s independence — and she finds herself being tried for heresy by a sanctimonious cleric (Joseph A. Cincotti, nicely stentorian), who tries to make her the main dish on the rotisserie, served medium rare. Some productions of Shaw have a tendency to drone, but Burgos keeps things simmering along with urgent intensity. If there’s a weakness, it’s that too many members of the ensemble favor a bawling, declamatory acting style that tilts toward the robotic. Although Davis’ Joan is sometimes overly perky, making her more Starbucks barista than Maid of Orleans, her increasing bewilderment and desperation are haunting. Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru May 25. (323) 960-4424. An Emergence Theatre Company production. (Paul Birchall)

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