Weekend Theater

GO PICK 2006 OJAI PLAYWRIGHTS CONFERENCE Robert Egan was a point man for new-play development at the Mark Taper Forum from the late ’80s until he left the Taper in 2003. Egan’s headed up the Ojai Playwrights Conference for the past five years of its nine-year history, working with the nation’s top scribes in a program that painfully underscores how institutionally supported new-play development — once a cottage industry for local actors, directors and writers — has evaporated within the city limits. However, when there isn’t a producing entity associated with new-play development, Egan says that a different kind of writing emerges: Playwrights are more concerned with what they want to write, rather than with what they have to do to get produced. The other substantive difference, says Egan, is that writers rather than administrators become the primary fellow dramaturges and collaborators — writers with both depth of experience and empathy for the tortuous rewriting process. This year’s festival is called “Empire’s Edge: While At War,” a theme based on a prevalent concern for America’s soul. This year’s participants include Stephen Belber, Lee Blessing, Sherry Kramer, T.D. Mitchell, Ben Rosenthal, Len Jenkin and special guest Chris Trumbo (the son of Dalton Trumbo). On Tuesday, August 8, 7:30 p.m., Egan moderates a panel of the dramatists in a symposium about what it means to be a playwright in this era. On Thursday, August 10, 7:30 p.m., the symposium “Race and Class in America: Identity and Assimilation” includes a performance of Steve Connell and Sekou’s The All American Minstrel Show. Friday, August 11, 8 p.m., a reading of Sherry Kramer’s When Something Wonderful Ends; Saturday, August 12, 1 p.m., young artists will perform scripts developed in the Youth Writers/Performance Lab directed by Kim Maxwell, Luis Alfaro and Len Jenkin, at 4 p.m. a reading of T.D. Mitchell’s Beyond the 17th Parallel, at 8 p.m. a reading of Stephen Belber’s Muscles in Our Toes; Sunday, August 13, 1 p.m., The Monkey Puzzle Tree by Ben Rosenthal, at 4 p.m., Lonesome Hollow by Lee Blessing. Zalk Theater at the Happy Valley School, 8585 Santa Paula Road (Highway 150), Ojai. (805) 640-0400 or (Steven Leigh Morris)

LITTLE WOMEN Allan Knee, Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein’s touring Broadway show flattens out Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War–era novel, but that’s to be expected in a musical adaptation. The story concerns four sisters (Kate Fisher, Gwen Hollander, Renée Brna, Autumn Hurlbert) growing up, while their noble mother (Maureen McGovern) mediates their petty feuds with the wisdom and tone of Ma Walton. Societal pressures bear down on them to sacrifice worldly ambitions for home and hearth. Act 1 concludes with tomboy Jo (Fisher) blasting out the torch song “Astonishing” — about how she’s going to dazzle the literary world with her writing. Thank goodness, in Act 2, the musical finds the dark corners of Jo’s conviction, showing how in the face of the world’s prejudices, that desire and perseverance may not be enough to succeed. But the ending is a fantasy almost as grating as Jo’s blind belief in her literary talent. Howland’s music and Dickstein’s lyrics slide simple motifs and shifting key signatures into a dark and light mix of Sondheim and pop, and musical director/conductor Douglas Coates finds a pleasing balance between the orchestra and the voices. McGovern’s singing melts all resistance with its sculpted beauty, and set designer Derek McLane’s sketch-landscape backdrops are also lovely. Playing a love interest to two of the sisters, Stephen Patterson turns in a vivacious comic turn, and both Robert Stattel, as a grumpy neighbor, and Andrew Varela, playing an awkward German professor, give delightful performances. Susan H. Schulman directs. PANTAGES THEATER, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Aug. 13. (213) 365-3500 or (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO WATER AND POWER Loaded with more local references than a Thomas Brothers guide (seemingly everything in L.A. from Delta Tacos to Trader Joe’s gets a salute or a ribbing), this new work from Culture Clash, written by Richard Montoya, looks at two Latino brothers and the changing city they represent. Gilbert and Gabriel Garcia (Montoya and Herbert Siguenza, respectively) occupy positions of authority far more powerful than any that previous generations of Eastsiders could have aspired to. Gilbert is a state senator pushing through an L.A. river greenbelt; Gabriel is a shell-shocked LAPD lieutenant holed up in a motel room with guns, tequila and cocaine. Gilbert tries to negotiate his suicidal brother out of trouble, and over the course of 105 minutes we get a crash course in L.A. history and politics, aided by a wheelchair-bound ex-vato named Norte/Sur (Ric Salinas). The trio conjure a Los Angeles that is both a necropolis of memories and a pulsating city of neighborhoods. Funny, bloody and perceptive, Water and Power is also overwritten and a victim of its own urbane sprawl. With so much dialogue concerned with retelling the past, it’s unnecessary for Montoya to include three childhood-flashback scenes. Likewise, the meandering start of a scene with Montoya and a megadeveloper (Dakin Matthews) reveals the danger of blurring the line between conversational footnoting and reflexive name-dropping. Montoya, Siguenza and Salinas acquit themselves well as actors under Lisa Peterson’s assured direction, and she gets strong, atmospheric designs by Rachel Hauck (set), Alexander V. Nichols (lighting) and Paul James Prendergast (music and sound). MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; thru Sept. 17 (no perfs Aug. 8-10). (213) 628-2772. (Steven Mikulan)

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