Theater Reviews: Loveland, Blithe Spirit, The Butcher of Baraboo
GO BLITHE SPIRIT Noël Coward's comedy faced an acid test in its first outing: It opened in the darkest days of World War II, when London was undergoing the Blitz. It kept Londoners laughing even when bombs were falling, and has proved hilarious ever since. As research for his new novel, writer Charles Condomine (Scott Lowell) calls upon eccentric spiritualist Madame Arcati (Jane Mcfie) to conduct a séance at his house. She unwittingly summons the ghost of his predatory, provocative first wife, Elvira (Abby Craden), to the distress and frustration of his second wife, Ruth (Jill Van Velzer). Endless comic complications ensue. Lowell is a dapper, slightly preening Charles, and the svelte Van Velzer turns in a waspish Ruth. Among the highlights of director Damaso Rodriguez's fresh and funny production, instead of the filmy creature we have come to expect as Elvira, Craden gives us a galumphing, earthy ghost clad in a satin-and-lace teddy and flapping crocheted peignoir. Mcfie's a brusque and businesslike Arcati, and Alison Elliott scores comic points as a parlormaid who insists on performing her duties at warp speed. Gibby Brand and Jacque Lynn Colton round out the cast as the Bradmans, a local couple summoned to witness the séance. A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; thru Dec. 17. Schedule varies. For info: (818) 240-0910, ext. 1, or ANoiseWithin.org. (Neal Weaver)
GO THE BUTCHER OF BARABOO Marisa Wegrzyn's kitchen-sink comedy kicks off the Road Theatre Company's 20th season. Filled with colorful, mostly female characters, Wegrzyn's wacky slice-of-life snapshot is set in the small town of Baraboo in snowy, freezing Wisconsin. The loose plot concerns in-laws who feel no constraints expressing their sentiments. Beneath the prickly conversation lies a festering mystery: What really happened to Val's husband, Frank? He was pronounced dead, although no corpse was found. Frank's brother, Donal (Carl J. Johnson), and cop sister, Gail (the hilarious Rebecca Jordan), harbor suspicions that their sister-in-law, Val (Janet Chamberlain), did away with Frank, seeing as she's pretty handy with a meat cleaver. Val's grown daughter, Midge (Nina Sallinen), seems to be dabbling in nefarious activities, supplying local teen meth chemists with prescription meds. But it's Midge's interference with her uncle Donal's family life that causes her strife. Director Mark St. Amant beautifully stages his cast with a sure but subtle hand, eliciting superb performances and spot-on comic timing. Jeff McLaughlin's homely set is impressively realistic — right down to a working sink — and neatly fills the small space. Road Theatre Company at the Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 11. (866) 811-4111. (Pauline Adamek)
DETAINED IN THE DESERT Writer Josefina Lopez penned this satiric piece as a furious critique of the new Arizona law that orders immigrants to carry their alien registration documents at all times, and requires police to question people if there's reason to suspect they're in the United States illegally. Lopez's well-targeted but uneven political comedy draws much of its humor from the spot-on performance of Carey Fox as Lou Becker, a self-righteous right-wing radio host who applauds the anti-immigrant legislation and uses his program to inflame his listeners in the name of lawful democracy. A hatemonger, he even nods his approval when a rabid cohort slits water bottles left by a samaritan to help save the lives of illegals crossing the U.S. desert. It's hard not to chortle when this smug hypocrite is kidnapped, dressed in pink underwear and terrorized by three angry young Latinos, then dumped into the arid wild to see if he can survive the brutal sun. Becker's unhappy experience serves as the sturdiest and most entertaining thread in the play, which also follows the misadventures of an American citizen, Sandi Sanchez (Yvonne Delarosa), who refuses to comply when asked for her ID and eventually ends up in the desert with Becker. Though Sandi's backstory is more detailed than Becker's, the character is less ably drawn; it's unclear what motivates this apolitical person to remain in detention, repeatedly refusing to furnish ID via help from her family. Still, the play contains many strong scenes, and is worth developing. Under Hector Rodriguez's direction, the performances are of varied strength. Casa 0101, 2009 E. First St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; thru Oct. 24. (323) 263-7684. (Deborah Klugman)
FUTURA Nobody writes letters anymore. Emails, text messages, tweets, status updates — sure. But not letters. We have lost the art of the letter. And in Jordan Harrison's world-premiere play, named for a sans-serif typeface, Harrison means that literally. In it, Professor Lorraine Wexler (Bonita Friedericy) lectures on the history of typography — until she is abducted midsentence. We discover that her talk, an attempt to avenge her missing husband, Edward (Bob McCracken), is more dangerous than it initially seems because "the company" has eliminated the printed word. At this point, the play fulfills its 1984-esque scenario in which Wexler, along with her kidnappers Grace (Zarah Mahler) and Gash (Edward Tournier), must operate outside of the law. Despite its length and lack of action, the opening scene engages because of its fascinating historical content, Hana Sooyeon Kim's dynamic projections and Friedericy's wry wit and professorial demeanor. However, as in Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, the transition into the remainder of the piece is disjointed. While Wexler retains her aplomb despite being abused by her kidnappers, the piece's message becomes heavy-handed and the tone a bit perplexing. Still, director Jessica Kubzansky skillfully balances the elements of verbiage and violence in the text, underscoring the charming relationship between Friedericy and Tournier, both of whom deliver solid performances. Kubzansky's transitions (reminiscent of those she used in Mauritius) also showcase Myung Hee Cho's towering, elegant set. While Wexler claims "Typography is the science of subtlety," the play could have used more of it. The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Nov. 7. (626) 683-6883, bostoncourt.com. (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO HAMLET, PRINCE OF PUDDLES Scholars have teased out new layers in Shakespeare's tragedy for 400 years. A new company, L'Enfant Terrible, compresses it into a 45-minute matinee for the kiddies — a bold choice for a play with dead dads, rotten stepdads, treacherous wives, drowned girlfriends, accidental stabbings and a pile of corpses at the grand finale. Writer Angela Berliner has kept the traumas but translated them into kid-speak. Here, Hamlet (Brian Kimmet) hisses to Gertrude (Natasha Midgley), "Frailty, thy name is mommy," encourages the crowd to boo Claudius (Nathan Kornelis) and, when he damns Ophelia (Berliner) to a nunnery, adds the aside, "That's where bad girls go when they need a time-out." Justin Zsebe's high-octane direction and Ann Closs-Farley's bright costumes turn the play into a circus, and playful touches — like having the murdered Polonius (Nicol Razon) curl up like a dead fly — keep the death from being too death-y. With these clowns bopping around and spouting rapid-fire Shakespearese, the kids were transfixed at the performance I attended, even if they didn't know why. Hamlet's play-within-a-play — staged with finger puppets — tries to catch them up to speed, but when all else failed and a child in the second row called out, "Why?" Hamlet patiently paused, turned and explained, "I'm having a hard time." Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Sat., noon; thru Oct. 30. (213) 389-3856. A L'Enfant Terrible production. (Amy Nicholson)
HEIRESS '69 It is one of the morbid ironies of the true-crime genre that our fascination is invariably reserved for the perpetrators rather than their victims. Whether it's the pirates of the Spanish Main or the mastermind of 9/11, it is the names of the murderers that linger in the historical imagination, while the identities of the murdered tend to dissolve into the mists of time. It is precisely this cultural injustice that writer-performer Venessa Verdugo attempts to redress in her one-woman portrait of the late coffee heiress Abigail Folger, who, at the tender age of 25, had the misfortune of sleeping over at the wrong house and on the worst possible evening. In terms of Folger's memory, however, perhaps her greater misfortune was not only to be stabbed to death by members of the Charles Manson family but also to be overshadowed in that fate by starlet Sharon Tate at the precise moment the media were poised to seize on such a lurid crime in order to discredit the burgeoning late-'60s counterculture. Unfortunately for Verdugo, the burden of such sensational history simply overwhelms the scant biographical facts of a young woman whose abbreviated life might be summed up as a poor little rich girl from a broken home, who had a fatal attraction both to bad boyfriends (fellow victim Wojciech Frykowski) and the celebrity sex-and-drugs demimonde then colonizing the Hollywood Hills. Director Elizabeth Romaine Rolnick only undermines Verdugo's efforts with uneven pacing and a dismally static, pathos-smothering staging. Elephant Stages, Studio Stage Theater, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 23. (323) 463-3900, plays411.com/heiress69. (Bill Raden)
GO LOVELAND What a rare experience it is, when a character that's as maniacal, sexually overheated and as transparently off the rails as a sketch comedy goofball from SNL or a Groundlings show can be the centerpiece of a such a deeply moving play. Lying beneath its clowning hijinx, Ann Randolph's solo performance concerns the fleeting essences of memory and home, of a character grappling with sanity, with mortality, and with the erosion of life leading to beauty. All you have to do is imagine the landscape below the aircraft on which the despondent Franny Potz (Randolph) is returning "home" to Ohio from California, and you can imagine the wrinkles in the desert, like those carved by the snaking Colorado River, like the wrinkles on the face of almost anybody who has endured a life worth living. Franny comes up with these images - hard to imagine from somebody who can't look at you without her tongue involuntarily swirling around her lower lip and her eyes boggling out, and who prides herself on singing from Handel's "The Messiah" dead off-key. There's a "businessman" sitting next to her, he's a bit of an asshole but you can understand his skepticism with this loon by his side. The major accomplishment in Randolph's 90-minute show is to slowly transfer our empathy from him to her. And this is done through re-enactments of Franny's friendship with her crusty mother, perhaps the only friend she has, and of how with limited financial resources, Franny ushered the older woman into a care facility on the heels of a stroke. The piece careens from the ribald humor of Franny's sexual fantasy with the aircraft's pilot to the heartbreak of Franny seeing her mother in the "home," and the older woman failing to recognize her own daughter — until memory snaps back with the re-functioning of some decayed synapse. The piece combines childlike, even infantile, humor with profundities about time's inexorable march over all of us. This unorthodox blend results in a performance that's silly and tender in the same breath. Its wisdom and beauty are almost indescribable. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica; Thurs., 8 p.m.; thru Nov. 13, brownpapertickets.com. (800) 838-3006. (Steven Leigh Morris)
LA VICTIMA Written by El Teatro de La Esperanza in 1976, this agitprop musical testifies to the spirit of the Mexican immigrant population, but its worthy message and superior stagecraft can't quite compensate for the script's limitations. Directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela, with music and vocals performed by rock duo Cita and Ricardo Ochoa, the story revolves around several generations of the Villa family, who first emigrate from Mexico in 1915. Over the next 50 years its members are forced back and forth across the border, as the U.S. economy fluctuates and Uncle Sam's immigration policy alters along with it. At a critical point, the central character, Amparo (Lupe Ontiveros), is accidentally separated from her young son Samuel; she is deported to Mexico, while he remains in the U.S., where he, ironically, later lands a position with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Despite the accounts of poverty and exploitation, this is a celebratory play whose essence radiates in Cita's stirring vocals. The music, however, overwhelms the script, which is swamped by polemics. The ensemble does its best, and engaging scenes include a comic encounter between Amparo's younger son (Luis Aldana) and a smitten acquaintance who pursues him (Alexis de la Rocha), and a cathartic confrontation between the adult Samuel (Geoffrey Rivas) and his daughter (de la Rocha), a college activist appalled by her father's job. Scenic designer Teshi Nakagawa's backdrop of dark vertical slats — intimating the desert on the one hand, imprisonment on the other — and Urbanie Lucero's lively choreography add vibrant texture to the spectacle. Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Oct. 31. (866) 811-4111. (Deborah Klugman) A Latino Theater Company production.
TERRE HAUTE It is one of the odder ancillary anecdotes of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that, shortly before his execution, Timothy McVeigh — murderer and mastermind of the attack, which killed 168 people — struck up a peculiar, intimate correspondence with renowned author and social gadfly Gore Vidal. The two men never met, but the idea of what might have happened if they had provides the intriguing premise of playwright Edmund White's 2001 drama, in which McVeigh's fictional surrogate summons Vidal's to a prison death row for a final series of interviews. This is the play that caused Vidal to famously quip about White, "He's a filthy, low writer." Yet White's drama is so inconsequential in presentation, mired in stodgy dramatics and plodding, superficially didactic dialogue, it's hard to understand why Vidal would be so riled. White's Vidal surrogate, named James (Mike Farrell), arrives at the prison to interview McVeigh surrogate Harrison (James Parrack). James has written articles about Harrison and in TV interviews has even defended his actions; Harrison is suitably grateful and wants James to write his life story, as well as bear witness to his imminent execution. White's play hints at the idea that James' attraction to Harrison's fierce ideals is due in part to the fact that Harrison strongly resembles James' long-dead boyhood lover. Yet director Kirsten Sanderson's stiff, halting and glumly humorless production largely misses the inherent irony and bizarre spectacle of mutual incomprehension between a flamboyant, elderly queen and an uber-serious, philosophically deluded mass murderer. As the Vidal character, Farrell captures the famous author's well-known mischievous sparkle and adroit articulacy, but Parrack's Harrison is a one-dimensional and unexplored stick figure in an orange jumpsuit. The play's main weakness lies in the pair's relationship being trivialized as the creepy lambada between a sophisticated elder and his rough-trade flirtation. Blank Theatre Company, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Nov. 14. (323) 661-9827. (Paul Birchall)
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