Theater Reviews: You, Nero, Hangin' Out, La Ronde
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS Jules Verne’s classic comedy adventure sets sail with seemingly stuffy 19th-century Brit Phileas Fogg (Matthew Floyd Miller), when he proposes a wager to his social-club fellows that he can indeed pull off the title deed. Embarking instantly with the help of a new manservant, the bumbling but faithful Passapartout (Gendell Hernandez), Fogg engages trains, boats and elephants in his zeal to win the bet. All the while, the pair is tracked by Detective Fix (Howard Swain), who believes Fogg to be guilty of grand larceny. Feminine company is provided by Aouda, an Indian woman they rescue from being burned alive on her husband’s bier. In addition to these central figures, the cast members portray more than 30 smaller roles in a frenetic chamber-theater piece combining first-person narration, complex characterizations and 2-D caricatures. Kelly Tighe’s smart scenery amusingly captures the melding of Verne’s old-century technology with futuristic sensibilities — most effective is a large turntable, interestingly operated by highly visible stagehands rather than electricity. Director Michael Butler keeps the actors racing through the story, averting any possibility of boredom; nevertheless, the production is far from satisfying. Adaptor Mark Brown presents little wit, if any, in the language, or humor in the action to compensate. Brown and his fine actors try to goose it, with increasingly silly gags and anachronisms, from which they earn the play’s only laughs. As this is the case, they are fortunate to include comic actor Mark Farrell in more than 20 roles (including a William Shatner–esque cavalry commander) with a shameless sketch-comedy flair. Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach; Tues-Sat., 8 p.m.; mats. Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; added perfs Jan. 22, 2 p.m., and Feb. 1, 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 8. (949) 497-2787 or www.LagunaPlayhouse.com. (Tom Provenzano)
FAR FROM AN ANGEL’S GAZE Set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, writer-director Jude Anchang’s heavyweight drama highlights the plight of innocent victims in Central Africa’s bloody civil strife. Laurent (Tejay Bah) is a young businessman obsessed with the rape of his wife, Philomene (Yetide Badaki), at the hands of insurgent terrorists. Ignoring the warning of his priest (Sadiq Abu), he vengefully commits a murder that provokes further threats to his fellow villagers. Meanwhile, the convalescing Philomene is being sought by her former suitor, Fabrice (Bambadjan Bamba), who is now an officer within the militia responsible for the rapes and other vicious atrocities. Overwritten, murky and/or chronologically confusing in places, the play nonetheless features strong passages, interesting characters and visceral themes. The action is executed in broad strokes, but Badaki is lovely and sympathetic as an intelligent woman struggling to maintain her dignity after a devastating act, and Bamba brings resonance to her haunted pursuer. Both Brandi Satterwhite, as an honorable police officer, and Robert Okumu, as the guerrillas’ cruel commander, bring nuance to their roles. The production would be far more involving if Bah, a novice performer, had more range. Avery Schreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Jan. 31. (323) 354-5159. A Sacred Drum Theatre Production. (Deborah Klugman)
HANGIN’ OUT: THAT NAKED MUSICAL Conceiver-creator Robert Schrock is trying to summon lightning to strike twice on much the same concept — stark-naked performers gamely crooning and dancing through songs — that took his Naked Boys Singing from a West Hollywood hit to an off-Broadway success. Here, 19 writers and musical director Gerard Sternbach, on keyboard, serve up a pastiche of almost two-dozen ballads and up-tempo musical-comedy standards on themes of nakedness, sexual awakening, sexual arousal, body image and self-esteem. These are performed by three men (Eric B. Anthony, Marco Infante and Brent Keast) and three women (Heather Capps, Carole Foreman and Lana Harper) entirely in the buff, singing and prancing like nudists on a tropical beach to Ken Roht’s choreography on and around small wooden blocks on a stage mostly defined by a lush upstage curtain. Like the remake of some very successful movie, it pales slightly when compared to the original, perhaps because it’s trying to reinvent that earlier wheel. With a few notable exceptions (“Patron Saint” and “Work of Art”), the songs just don’t have the wit and vigor of Naked Boys. ... It’s slightly paradoxical that the company members, with varying body types and ages, some buff, some less so, are so comfortable in their skin, and so charming, that the impact of their nudity eventually wears off, exposing not their flaws but those of the musical itself. They are certainly all profiles in courage. Macha Theatre, 1107 Kings Rd., W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 15. (323) 960-4443. (Steven Leigh Morris)
LA RONDE Round and round we go: Arthur Schnitzler’s roundelay of pass-the-torch love affairs involves a Prostitute, a Soldier, a Parlor Maid, a Young Gentleman, a Young Wife, a Husband, a Sweet Young Thing, a Poet, an Actress and a Count. This is the world premiere of the late Carl R. Mueller’s subtly modernized adaptation, which has hints of contemporary colloquialisms while sustaining the stiff flavor of 19th-century Austria. Two personable young actors, Alyson Weaver and Ken Barnett, portray the entire gallery of characters. Thank goodness for the suspended, delicate neon signs that have the names of their characters glowing in the sky (set design by Steve Barr), or the characters would be hard to differentiate. This may be the central weakness in a technically polished production (John Zalewski’s sound design has jazzy or pop strains playing subtly behind many of the courtships; Soojin Lee’s lacy costumes hint at the late 1800s). On the other hand, the lack of differentiation may be the point of Larry Biederman’s staging. Well into the second hour of this dance, sans intermission, the actors start lip-synching their prerecorded dialogue in a blending effect. Sometimes the recorded voices are disembodied. In a later scene, the Count kisses the video image of the Actress on a wall, showing that he’s enamored of the idea of her rather than the person herself. It’s all a bit Wooster Group–ish, but that company’s actors sizzle. If the purpose is to show the disembodiment of what we call romance in its various permutations, the actors still need a range of features to define the progression of characters, or the directorial vision disintegrates into a long, technically ambitious blur. Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 1. (323) 960-7792. (Steven Leigh Morris)
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THE SERMONS OF JOHN BRADLEY Young John Bradley (writer-performer Hunter Lee Hughes) steps into the pulpit of his Texas church to conduct damage control after his preacher father is implicated in a spectacular sex scandal. Then he’s outed as a gay man, defends gay marriage — assisted by his handsome lover-friend, Trevor (Gavyn Michaels). Bradley founds his own Transformation Ministry, but his mission as a truth-teller is undermined by his own self-delusions — and his sermon implodes when his stash of crystal meth tumbles into view. (Trevor’s massive, flagrant infidelities have apparently provoked Bradley’s disillusionment and addiction.) In a curious performance piece, Bradley and Trevor, clad in 2(X)ist briefs and lots of glitter, play out their tempestuous erotic relationship in a dance choreographed by Ashley Osler. In the final scene, a secular communion, we’re invited to partake of bread, apples and water. Hughes’ play is fragmented and oddly constructed, with each scene introduced by a New Agey shaman (Mary T. Sala), who invokes animal spirits, pounds a drum and makes dire predictions. Hughes is an able actor, but his play founders on the attempt to embrace too many themes, underpinned by an unresolved conflict between spirituality and carnality. The result, though often interesting, is both precious and murky. The Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 1. (323) 957-4611. Produced by Fatelink Productions. (Neal Weaver)
YOU, NERO Imagine a young Paul Lynde in a toga and you might have some sense of Danny Scheie’s swishy portrayal of the eponymous, bloodsucking Roman emperor in Amy Freed’s new comedy. As he sashays around the stage, you can’t quite tell from moment to moment whether he’s kidding or about to disembowel you. When Nero commissions the eager-skeptical hack playwright Scribonius (John Vickery, bearing an expression of perpetual concern) to write a bio-epic about Nero, to portray him as a nice fellow rather than the sloth who murdered both his mother (Lori Larsen) and the wife he abandoned for a blonde beauty mistress, Poppaea (Caralyn Kozlowski), jokes fly about new play development — because Freed’s homage to Plautus is really about the redemptive powers of theater. In an age when the thoughtful-stodgy kinds of plays penned by aging Scribonius yield toRoman Idol entertainments that Nero cherishes (and even performs in), Scribonius’ dramatic study of Nero and his mother actually incites a murder — oops. So much for theater bringing out the best in us. Oh, yes, and Rome burns. Yet the scintillating ideas and funny repartee in Freed’s play feel rushed into production. Not only is the script still in need of some serious clipping (stories are told twice in succession by different characters for little apparent reason), Sharon Ott’s staging feels oddly lethargic and too polite for the slapstick and farce that reside latent in the text. As in the plays of Plautus, the plot is so thin, the comedy really hangs on the mercurial humor. The style over substance demands effervescent performances, and only Scheie rises to that standard amid an otherwise perfectly pleasant ensemble. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; Tues.-Sun., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Jan. 25. (714) 708-5555. (Steven Leigh Morris)
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