Theater Reviews: The Mystery of Irma Vep, Macbeth, Falling Upward

Makin' Hay
Lindsay Schnebly

GO  FALLING UPWARD Ray Bradbury is better known for his formidable achievements in the arena of science-fiction, but he’s also penned a number of plays, including this charming, comedic fable about the denizens of a tavern in rural Ireland. Heeber Finn’s pub is the setting, where a raucous, fun-loving band of Irishmen gather to spin yarns, dance jigs, play music, sing and, of course, “wash their tonsils.” As the play opens, the fellows sing a charming medley of Irish songs while bending elbows under the watchful eye of Finn (Mik Scriba). The music and singing are what give this play its strange magic. Nothing happens in the way of a plot. Garrity (the masterful Pat Harrington) acts as narrator and guide of sorts, the men share a hilarious moment at the gravesite of a wine merchant, where, after toasting the deceased, they piss on his marker, and there is a minor fuss after a traffic accident. A strange contingent of tourists arrives in Act 2, which causes some soul searching. You might say that the playwright wins the pot with a flat hand here. The music is superb; Jeff G. Rack’s tavern set is artfully crafted, and director Tim Byron Owen creates an atmospheric charm that’s irresistible. El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through April 5. (818) 508-4200. (Lovell Estell III)

GO  FROST/NIXON Stacy Keach and Alan Cox star as Richard M. Nixon and David Frost in Peter Morgan’s play. Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave. downtown; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through March 29. Click here for Stage feature.

GREASE Born of NBC’s reality-TV casting competition Grease: You’re the One That I Want, this latest take on Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s Broadway-hit malt-shop musical features perfunctory performances by Eric Schneider and Emily Padgett as star-crossed summer lovers Danny and Sandy. This may explain why headliner status went to American Idol winner Taylor Hicks, despite his mere cameo appearance. He’s the Teen Angel (“teen”? wait, what?) who advises beauty-school dropout Frenchy (Kate Morgan Chadwick) to go back to high school. Hicks’ turn is actually the most effective part of the show, with him crooning to her swooning, as he descends from above amid wafting curls of smoke — but that’s not saying much. Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s staging generally involves the cast just walking around or, worse, sitting or standing in one place as they belt out their numbers. Can we get these kids some roller skates or something? The actors’ voices are uniformly strong, though Schneider’s is unremarkable, and Padgett often tackles the Olivia Newton-John songs like they’re arias. Paul Huntley’s wig stylings and Martin Pakledinaz’s costume design provide delightfully retro coifs on the ladies and snazzy duds on the dudes, but Derek McLane’s cartoon set looks like it was designed by a middle school stagecraft club. And what’s with censoring the explicit lyrics? The car Greased Lightning used to be “a real pussy wagon,” now it’s a “dragon wagon.” What the hell does that even mean? Make no mistake, I love Grease, with its timeless plot of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, girl-sluts-it-up-to-get-boy-back, but this is not the one that you want. Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through March 22. (213) 365-3500. (Derek Thomas)

MACBETH Forget radically deconstructed concept productions or contemporary political reinterpretations, director Sean Branney delivers no such surprises in his traditional and somewhat generic staging of Shakespeare’s Scottish noir. With the text more or less intact — even the oft-cut first witches’ scene remains — Branney’s most brazen liberty is to goose the testosterone with the kind of onstage swashbuckling (choreographed by Brian Danner) that Shakespeare had intended be played offstage. Otherwise, this bard is strictly by the book. The good news is Andrew Leman’s muscular, articulate turn as brave Macbeth. Leman’s performance is nobility personified; which is to say his regal demeanor is only occasionally ruffled by the underlying corruption of a “vaulting ambition” that will turn Macbeth, after Richard III, into Shakespeare’s most notorious regicidal maniac. As the play’s invidious femme fatale, McKerrin Kelly complements Leman with a Lady Macbeth who makes even icy ruthlessness seem sexy. Other standouts include Daniel Kaemon’s dashing Malcolm, and Mike Dalager and Danny Barclay, whose pair of scurvy-chic Murderers looks like they stepped out of a Guns N’ Roses video. For the rest of the cast, costume designer Christy M. Hauptman eschews highland tartan for robes of a more indeterminate, medieval kind. That nonspecificity is continued in the raised stone altar and hengelike monoliths of Arthur MacBride’s set, whose suggestion of Neolithic pagan ritual may be a clever design for Macbeth . . . not, however, for this one, which never otherwise hints at such themes. The Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Toluca Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru April 26; (818) 846-5323. (Bill Raden)


MAKIN’ HAY Playwright Matthew Goldsby’s musical may be set in the imaginary Texas backwoods, but the piece’s pedigree is pure Parisian, as the work is broadly based on Molière’s comedy, Georges Dandin. I say “broadly based” because Molière probably didn’t intend that his characters wear big ole cowboy hats or the occasional Nancy Reagan hairdo. George (David Atkinson) is a grouchy rancher who hits it big “black gold, Texas tea.” What should be a gusher of happiness instead dries up his marriage to the lovely Anna Lee (Rory Patterson). When a sleazy, slick shiny suit–wearing doctor (Steven Hogle) woos Anna Lee with love notes and a ten-gallon that looks like it could hold 20 gallons, the wife starts to weaken, unintentionally abetted on her adulterous way by her own greedy parents, and also by her earthy Mexican maid Lucia (Gina D’Acciaro). Molière’s sardonic spoof of class and middle-class hypocrisy is only tepidly well-served by Goldsby’s overly sentimental tone — and by a score that’s an unfortunate combination of simplistic melodies and lame, moon-in-june lyrics. Director Linda Kerns stages a production that never met a Texas cliché it didn’t want to lasso, while also opting to avoid exploring characters beyond dull ethnic and recycled Texas stereotypes. Brent Crayon’s workmanlike musical direction hits a variety of stock country-music marks, but the weakness is ultimately Goldsby’s treacly score and book. Patterson’s folksy Anna Lee has a wonderful country-crooner voice, and D’Acciaro’s droll Mariachi-influenced songs are a pleasure. Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; through April 5. (323) 462-8460. (Paul Birchall)

GO  THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP: A PENNY DREADFUL Only the late Charles Ludlum, founding genius of NYC’s Ridiculous Theatre Company, could have combined so many hilariously affectionate Gothic send-ups in a single play: There are shades of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, plus The Mummy, Falconcrest, The Werewolf, and many vampire tales. To make the madness madder, Ludlum designed the play as a quick-change tour de force, with two actors (Jim Hanna and Steven Shields) playing seven roles. The time is the 1880s, and the place is Mandacrest, the home of famous Egyptologist Lord Edgar (Shields), who has recently arrived with his new second wife, Lady Enid (Hanna). The portrait of the first Lady Hillcrest, Irma Vep (an anagram for Vampire), stares balefully down above the fireplace as the treacherous housekeeper, Jane (Shields), and the one-legged care-taker, Nicodemus (Hanna), discuss the family’s dark history. Wolves howl, thunder crashes, sliding panels slide, a portrait bleeds, costumes are changed at lightning speed and an ancient Egyptian princess (Hanna) is mysteriously resurrected. Director Andrew Crusse has assembled a brisk, funny rendition on the clever set by Shelley Delayne, and the two actors make broad comic hay of their several roles. The Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Boulevard, L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through April 4. (323) 969-1707. An Ark Theatre Company production. (Neal Weaver)   

THE PARABOX Set against Jim Priest’s minimalist backdrop of colored frames, this play, created and directed by Rachel Kolar and Lauren Brown, features the pair, described as “1” (Brown) and “2” (Kolar) clad in silver unitards with facial makeup that resembles circuitry. Initially, we see them via a silent video montage as theyfrolick at the beach. In the next scene, they discover a mysterious clear box at their door, the Parabox, and “1” tries it on her head, experiencing a maelstrom of sensation. Subsequently, the conflict between them escalates as the Parabox becomes a chimerical prop in the ensuing scenes that trace their lives through marriage, sex, war and divorce. While non-naturalistic experimental theater that doesn’t provide easy answers can be intriguing, this piece fails to challenge the audience in terms of medium or substance. The idea of featuring local music, in this case from bands Future Pigeon and Lucky Dragons, is also commendable, but there is too little of it in the piece to be meaningful. On balance, the look and feel are reminiscent of the parodic Robots from Flight of the Conchords but without the catchy music or humor. Son of Semele Ensemble, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 29. A Post Fact Productions Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

WHO LIVES? Christopher Meeks’ play is engulfed in death: JFK has just been shot, schoolkids duck and cover, and renal disease is inescapably fatal. When blackhearted lawyer Gabriel (Matt Gottlieb) learns his kidneys are shot, it feels like karmic revenge for him being such a prick. Meeks has set the stage for Gabriel’s Scroogelike redemption, and when we learn that an anonymous group of citizens will vote on whether he merits a slot in an experiment, and highly competitive dialysis program, his life is literally at stake. Of course, he fails to be accepted into the program. In desperation, he threatens to sue, thus negotiating a deal that gets him both a machine and a spot on the seven-person board which decides whose life earns a reprieve. Here, Meeks’ plot grinds to a halt as the rest of the play alternates between scenes of Gabriel and his estranged wife, Margaret (Monica Himmel), arguing, and of the group — each a symbolic personality — debating cases that touch on racism, religion and suicide. Director Joe Ochman pushes the play dangerously close to didacticism — people don’t talk, they yell — and the overbearing black-and-white set and costuming bleach out much of the humanity that needs to be at the heart of this story about life and death. Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; through March 29. (310) 204-4440. (Amy Nicholson)


GO  WINGS OF NIGHT SKY, WINGS OF MORNING LIGHT Native American poet and musician Joy Harjo is a woman who communes with spirits, and in this music-embellished piece, she opines about struggle, survival and transcendence in a powerful and eloquent voice. The narrative begins with an allegory about power, but the writer soon switches gears, vaulting back to her impoverished childhood in racist Oklahoma, where her mother, who sometimes sang in local bars, struggled to make her marriage work with her philandering, alcoholic father. After he deserted the family, Harjo’s mom hooked up with a charmer who turned out to be a far worse villain. Eventually, Harjo escaped to the larger world, but the price of freedom was alienation from her beloved parent.  At the core of the piece is the writer’s search for reconciliation and the healing of her fragmented spirit — a healing that, we understand from the beginning, is not merely for one woman but for all. One of the show’s great virtues is Larry Mitchell’s expressive guitar accompaniment, sometimes in tandem with Harjo’s own lyrical tenor sax. The production has weaknesses, however, among them the performer’s delivery, which is sometimes distant and strangely without affect, under Randy Reinholz’ direction.  Also, Harjo at times moves awkwardly. Scenic designer Susan Baker Scharpf’s ethereal backdrop — with its outline of a horse and human head seemingly whipped by the wind — is wonderfully appropriate to the spirit of the work but nonetheless too large for the space, and constraining. Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 29. (323) 667-2000. (Deborah Klugman)


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