Theater Reviews: Treefall, One Woman, Two Lives, The Miser

The Miser
Miriam Geer

THE CHAIRS Eugène Ionesco’s 1952 post-apocalyptic comi-tragedy premiered the same year as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot — another post-apocalyptic comi-tragedy that defined the Theater of the Absurd, a literary movement trying to respond to the inexplicable nihilism of the Holocaust, and of the detonations of the atomic bombs that ended, or perhaps cemented the end, of World War II. Godot’s literary images are perfect — a pair of clowns in a barren land waiting for something that might provide some direction, or purpose, while habitually playing out ludicrous daily rituals as time passes, and passes them by. Less so, The Chairs, which is comparatively dense, alluding to the intersection of useless language with a world vacant of intrinsic meaning or purpose. The occupants of The Chairs are also ancient clowns, Wife (Cynthia Mance) and Husband (Bo Roberts) occupying an otherwise abandoned island after Paris, the City of Light, is a mere memory. Husband, a lord of the mop and bucket, keeps boasting of his satisfaction with life, though Wife reminds him constantly of what he could have been. His final act is to be a speech, a performance, a message for future generations, which will explain the meaning of existence. And for this performance the pair gathers chairs into their room, a makeshift stage, so that the chairs echo the chairs of the theater directly behind them. Guests are arriving, military men and the belles they seduce, and even the emperor. We hear fog horns of arriving boats and the excitement builds, a mob entirely created in the minds of Husband and Wife. For us, the chairs are empty. The are filled only by the persuasiveness of the actors to stir our imagination. And this is the emptiness — filled only by a willful act of imagination — that lies in the cavernous hollow of Ionesco’s philosophy. Garth Whitten turns in a fine, fleeting appearance as the Orator, hired by Husband to deliver his message, because Husband is too afraid to speak for himself. Frederique Michel stages, as usual, a physically beautiful spectacle, with Charles Duncombe’s production design. The production takes flight in moments, when the old couple swirls into a ballet of collecting chairs. It works best when it’s a dance. The language however, or Donald Allen’s English translation of it, is beyond the actors, who have both proved so capable in other productions here. Michel and her actors haven’t yet found a dynamic musicality that can lift Husband’s private agony beyond the redundant blasts of a tuba, or Wife’s maternal taunting beyond the peeping of a piccolo. When Husband speaks his beautiful lament, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” it’s in the same harried tone as his later confession about abandoning his dying mother. Even a play about emptiness needs rises and falls — especially a play about emptiness. The challenge is how to fill the void. City Garage, 1340½ Fourth St. (alley), Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.; through September 13. (310) 319-9939. (Steven Leigh Morris). See Stage feature.

DON’T FORGET TO REMEMBER The title of Patricia Parker’s play is a line from a poem by Andrew Baker (Shelly Kurtz), written to remind himself to hold onto his memories as he faces the encroachment of Alzheimer’s. His life is made still harder by the fact that his wife, Dolores (Trudy Forbes), is a rigid, conservative Catholic, with a knack for denying anything in life that might be upsetting. She turns against their daughter Sarah (Lisa Clifton) when she learns the girl is a lesbian. When Sarah decides to marry her female lover, she attempts to drive her out of the house. Dolores’ denial goes into high gear when Andrew makes her promise to help him kill himself when he starts to seriously lose his faculties. Parker is an earnest writer, but her play prolongs the agony till it grows turgid and melodramatic, despite the fine efforts of a capable cast and Kiff Scholl’s mostly excellent direction. (His handling of the scenes is fine, but the “expressionist” pantomime between scenes is more confusing than helpful.) Set designer Davis Campbell makes handsome and clever use of the small space. The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through September 6. (323) 960-7780 or (Neal Weaver)

GO  FRANZ SCHUBERT: HIS LETTERS AND MUSIC Director Peter Medak’s production offers the rare and frankly unmissable opportunity to hear and see Julia Migenes, one of the great operatic divas of our day, gloriously assay Lieder by the 19th-century composer Franz Schubert — all in an intimate 99-seat theater. The piece is essentially a concert, reminiscent in style of the great recitals by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with meager context provided by performer Jeff Marlow’s amiable rendition of selected letters by Schubert. Yet this doesn’t seem to matter much when Migenes’ incredible soprano fills the theater. The show, which Migenes conceived with Phillipe Calvario, consists of a broad stroke biography of Schubert, the wunderkind composer (and protégé of Antonio Salieri, though that’s not much to brag about these days) whose prodigious output of hundreds of songs and operas was cut short by his death from syphilitic complications in 1828. Marlow’s turn as Schubert presents a youthful, perhaps manic-depressive rake, who’s understandably driven by his passions — his rage over not achieving the career goals of being a professional musician is offset by his devotion and love for his art. Throughout his rendition of Schubert’s letters, Marlow is shadowed by Migenes, as a sort of angelic muse, echoing the passions and thoughts of the composer through his songs. A moment in which Schubert expresses despair and frustration is followed by Migenes’s beautifully simple rendition of Schubert’s paeon of forgiveness, “Du Bist Die Ruh.” A moment of rage is followed by a thundering “Die Junge Nonne.” The showstopping finale consists of Migenes’ chilling “Ave Maria” — a gesture of benediction, sung as Schubert himself dies. The play is frankly not for musical neophytes and it is best to do due diligence on Schubert and his Lieder before coming to the theater — but Migenes, assisted by pianist Victoria Kirsch’s deceptively simple accompaniment, offers a powerful and compelling theatrical experience. Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Aug. 23. (310) 477-2055. (Paul Birchall)


GOLIATH During the Israeli pullout from Gaza in 2005, the Israeli soldiers, displaced settlers and incoming Palestinians could agree on one thing — each claimed to be defending their people against a bully. Everyone is David, but no one cops to being Goliath, begging the question: Does Goliath exist, and if so, would he recognize himself? In this heavy-handed parable, we have Gittel (Laura Flanangan) and her teenage son David (Wyatt Fenner), whom she conceived in Manhattan and raised Jewish Orthodox in the Gaza Strip in an effort to distance themselves from her own misspent youth. Gittel raises tulips, a metaphor of desert life that escapes no one. Her flower business is so lucrative, she’s made quasilegal arrangements to leave it to her Palestinian employee Ayat (Anna Khaja) in the face of the Israeli government’s decision to relocate Jewish settlements away from Gaza. David has all the usual acting-out issues plus a savior complex, blood lust and an excitement that the pending eviction of his family will give him cause to start an uprising. His closest enemies are the Israeli soldiers in charge of relocation, Yair (Richard Knolla) and Michal (Ayana Hampton), even though they’re trying to position themselves as his friends. They even brought a pet carrier for his dog (though the creature died months ago). Karen Hartman’s play is meant to be fair to all sides, and it often is, but young David is so increasingly psychotic that we lose tolerance for his being treated with tolerance; the audience is far more hostile to his cause than are the characters in the play — even Yair when David threatens the Israeli soldier with castration. Under Marya Mazor’s direction, the play feels fundamentally disconnected from reality. These five characters are so devoted to their arguments — all phrased in identical mock-Biblical poetics — that they’re slow to react to dramas happening 5 feet away. The inadvertent but oddly appropriate result is the depiction of an inert myopia that suffocates the kind of reason and mediation that might lead to actual progress. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Sat., Aug. 8, 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., Aug. 9, 3 p.m.; Thurs., Aug. 13, 8 p.m.; Fri., Aug. 14, 8 p.m.; Sun., Aug. 16, 3 p.m. (323) 882-6912. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  A HATFUL OF RAIN Directed by Dean Kreyling in a lively revival, Michael Gazzo’s play centers on the issue of morphine addiction. Johnny (a ghostly Chris Devlin) is a returning Korean War vet who got hooked while hospitalized. (The play is double-cast). He’s been successfully hiding his addiction from his wife Celia (Tania Gonzalez) and from his father (Joseph Cardinale) — but not from his brother Polo (Gad Erel), who’s paid off his dealers before. This time Johnny is $800 in debt. His dealers drop by with an ultimatum: Pay the money or wind up in the hospital. Jonesing for his next fix, Johnny takes a gun in search of the money, staying out all night but to no avail. When the hoods arrive the next day, Polo agrees to sell his car to cover Johnny’s debt. But who will bail Johnny out the next time? The drug dealers are a colorful, menacing crew: Mother (Jeremy Radin), Apples (James Lyons) and Church (Aaron Leddick). Radin engages in some very funny stage business, and while he may steal some scenes, it’s Erel who nearly walks away with the entire production. This actor exudes chrarisma and raw sexuality. Cardinale puts in a nuanced turn as the vitriolic patriarch. Skylight Theater, 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Aug. 23. (310) 358-9936. A Katselas Theatre Company production. (Sandra Ross)


LOVE, SEX, VIOLENCE, etc. Playwright Helena Weltman’s six playlets might best be described as sketch dramedy. These character-driven slices of life boast a penchant for ironic twists but provide little of the titillation that the title suggests. The outing begins auspiciously with “Saturday Night Date,” in which a barroom pickup between two strangers (in fascinating portrayals by Lizze Czerner and Danny Grossman) turns into an intriguingly dangerous battle of wits, before a disappointing ending that sound like an old joke. The second offering, “Sitting in a Tree” provides a great opportunity for an actor to play appealingly crazy — Stephanie R. Keefer fulfills this mission as a woman desperate for a child. “Date” is directed with terse humor by Daniel Cerny, and “Tree” with emotional abandon by his father Pavel Cerny. Both directors successfully draw the audience into each work’s disparate styles. The next four plays, however, lack the textual depth and the acting skills to match the first two. A great deal of sexual innuendo and crossed-wire communication causes human complication but not a real sense of dramatic tension. Production values throughout are extremely simple, with only a few props and set pieces to define the worlds. Oscar Schwartz’s costumes, though, are a bit more intricate and help to tell the various stories. Whitefire Theater, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Sun., 3 p.m.; through August 30. (866) 811-4111. (Tom Provenzano)


THEATER PICK  THE MISER Director Ellen Geer delivers a hilarious and highly polished production of Molière’s comedy The Miser. It’s a faithful rendition despite the fact that she’s garnished it with several original songs (written with Peter Alsop), a dog and some creative anachronisms: Neither codpieces nor horn-rimmed glasses quite belong in 1668, but they prove capital laugh-getters. The production’s greatest asset is Alan Blumenfeld, who delivers a wonderfully demented, larger-than-life performance as the miser Harpagon, calling on the traditions of music-hall, vaudeville and burlesque to create a portrait of monstrous greed and vanity. He’s ably assisted by Mike Peebler as his rebellious, clotheshorse son Cleante; Melora Marshall as the flamboyant matchmaker/bawd Frosine; Ted Barton as a choleric cook/coachman; and Mark Lewis as Cleante’s sly, wily sidekick, La Fleche. As the young lovers, Peebler, Samara Frame, Chad Jason Scheppner and understudy Jennifer Schoch capture the requisite romance while lampooning the coincidences and shopworn theatrical conventions of the genre, and a large cast provides fine support. The lavish costumes, including Cleante’s outrageous suit-of-too-many-colors, with its gloriously obscene, giggle-inducing codpiece, are by Shon LeBlanc and Valentino’s Costumes. Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga; through September 27; in rep, call for schedule. (310) 455-3723. (Neal Weaver)

GO  NEW ORIGINAL WORKS FESTIVAL 2009 Program Two of REDCAT’s annual showcase of interdisciplinary performance works weighs in as an evening of paradoxes — both the exhilarating, boundary-breaking kind and the more superciliously bewildering, curatorial variety. The former is delivered via “N1” and its inspired partnering of live-feed video artist Carole Kim and L.A.-based butoh master Oguri, with musical support from avant-improvisationists Alex Cline and Dan Clucas. Ostensibly a choreographic reconception of the Narcissus myth as a solo dance journey, “N1” is more properly a duet in which the spiritual interiority and time-bending precision of Oguri’s butoh-derived physical vocabulary is captured by Kim’s high-tech video processing and then projected onto a cagelike set of layered scrims and variously sized screens. The resulting spectacle both preserves the intimacy and gestural tensions of the “live” dance even as it explodes the subjectivity of the dancer in a dazzling, multidimensional, cubist montage of varying scales, disorienting angles and points of view. The narrative reaches it’s violent climax in a tour de force sequence in which a bloodied and battered Oguri seems to descend into an underworld of menacing shadows only to dissolve in an eye-like pool of unblinking light. Chris Kuhl’s expressive, high-key lighting lends the proceedings an atmospheric, appropriately film noir flavor. If the technical complexity and visionary aesthetics of “N1” could be compared to a game of 3-D chess, then “Leop Year (No Jamming),” the seven-song set by art-school rocker Jennifer the Leopard is the evening’s game of checkers. Vocalist Stephanie Hutin and bandmates Lauren Fisher, Lana Kim and Marissa Mayer archly ironize ’80s Brit-pop and late-’70s No-Wave into a perniciously perky pop repertoire they perform to self-referential comedy videos and an onstage posse of prop-wielding friends. REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., L.A. The festival concludes with Program Three, Thurs-Sat., Aug. 6-8, 8:30 p.m. (213) 237-2800. (Bill Raden)


ONE WOMAN, TWO LIVES Samantha (Kellita Smith), the pivotal character in playwright Alretha Thomas’ soap operatic fantasy, is the envy of her neighbor Belinda (Sharon Munfus). Sam’s preacher husband (understudy Keith Bossier) is good-looking, ardent, and prosperous. Their three kids are dutiful and loving. A happy homemaker, Samantha loves cleaning and cooking for her family; as a pillar of the community she’s also on track to receive the coveted First Lady award from their church. Disaster looms, however, when a hoodlum named Melvin (Billy Mayo) shows up, threatening to expose the crack-sodden errors of her youth. Under Denise Dowse’s direction, Act 1’s simplistic plot lines turn uncomfortably florid in Act 2, as the knavish Melvin resorts to violence, aggressive sexual embraces (which she spurns) and loaded weapons. The story’s far-fetched elements are accentuated further by Smith’s coy and honeyed manner, and camera-ready poise, somehow at odds with the modest stay-at-home mom she’s supposed to represent. Some of her attire (from costume designer Mylette Nora) seems inappropriate: revealing necklines and high-heeled fuck-me footwear worn when at home with family and friends, and a clingy, come-hither dress purchased for the church award ceremony: It seems more suitable for a racy disco. The over-the-top Esther Scott milks the role of Samantha’s cantankerous mother-in-law for laugh — and gets them. Mayo is definitively intimidating while Munfus — playing a great girlfriend but a shrewish wife — is on target as both. Designer Marco De Leon has fashioned an attractive set. Imagined Life Theater, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through August 23. (Deborah Klugman)

SAY GOODBYE TOTO Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to tinker with a literary classic. Such is the case with Amy Heidish’s reimagining of the Wizard of Oz. Heidish places Toto at the center of the narrative, and this dubious conceit wears thin early on. Joseph Porter does the honors as Dorothy’s panting, barking traveling companion, and after the pair is transported via tornado to Oz, the canine is inexplicably mistaken for a sorcerer. Accompanying Dorothy (the fine Renee Scott) on her way to the Emerald City is a mysterious cat (Tracy Ellott), plus of course the Scarecrow (Mike Fallon), the cowardly lion (Andreas Ramacho), and Tin Man (Grant Mahnken), who, in Heidish’s version, are all cursed brothers hoping that face time with the wizard can get them zapped back into human form. The most engaging moments come by way of the Wizard (Jake Elsas), whose magical manipulation of several hand puppets behind a screen is very funny. Alice Ensor does a dazzling job as the good witch, but this doesn’t redeem a script with a tension that dribbles away. And Jamie Virostko’s bland direction doesn’t help. The Hayworth Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Blvd.; L.A., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.; through September 13. (323) 969-1707. An Ark Theatre Company production. (Lovell Estell III)

GO  TREEFALL The most primal aspects of erotic attraction, and the dynamics of competition among siblings and parents and even the foundations of civilization itself — play themselves out in Henry Murray’s post-apocalyptic drama — set on and around a mountain that’s being scorched by a global warming sun, as modern civilization lies in ruins. Four characters (West Liang, Brian Norris, Brian Pugach and Tania Verafield) play-act through the detritus of the world as they try to fathom the purpose of continuing, and the meaning of being human. The play is utterly despondent and achingly true, without a hint of morbidity, and even glimpses of humor, under John Perin Flynn’s studied direction. Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through September 6. (323) 960-7774. A Rogue Machine production. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Stage feature.

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