Classics Illustrated

1. As Vishnu Dreams, Cornerstone Theater Company and East West Players. Playwright Shishir Kurup’s sassy adaptation of India’s epic poem The Ramayana took swipes at gender roles, racism and, yes, even the Iraq invasion, but remained a loving homage both to its Sanskrit source and its view of human nature. Shadow puppets, live musical accompaniment and an eclectic costuming effort created an ideal cultural bridge to American audiences; director Juliette Carrillo’s revelatory production should be toured in schools as well as commercial theaters.

2. A Winter People, the Theater @ Boston Court. Chay Yew’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard moved Chekhov’s play to China and 30 years forward. Embroidered with the conversational cruelties and banal ruminations of the waiting classes, this transplant sometimes fumbled with historical exposition to explain its new surroundings, but Yew directed his play with panache, and the production soared.

3. Bitter Bierce, Or, the Friction We Call Grief, Bottom’s Dream at the Zephyr Theater. How often does anyone blow the dust off Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary or "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," let alone mention their author in a play? Playwright Mac Wellman’s stage presentation, written as a solo show, succinctly distilled the acerbic, jaundiced outlook of this 19th-century San Franciscan. Actor John Billingsley turned in a crafty performance as the politically incorrect satirist, making the evening, depending on the audience member, either an introduction to a curmudgeon or a reunion with an old friend.

4. Macbett, Il Dolce Theater Company at the Globe Playhouse. Part political food fight, part Rocky Horror Show, director Neno Pervan’s production of Eugene Ionesco’s send-up of the Scottish play both served the playwright’s absurdist vision and paid homage to the Bard’s poetry. Working with a pared-down version of Charles Marowitz’s translation, Pervan unleashed a lean hellhound of social comedy — and the suspicion that the story’s ambitious villain committed regicide for an iridescent, lime-green frock coat.

5. The Devils, Open Fist Theater. Playwright Elizabeth Egloff, who created a political stir with her work on the trashy TV biopic The Reagans, had also kicked literary shins a few years ago with a broadly comic adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel about a cabal of provincial nihilists plotting against czarist Russia. Open Fist’s L.A. premiere, directed by Florinel Fatulescu, played up Egloff’s farcical moments with gusto, while faithfully capturing the story’s feverish, claustrophobic paranoia. Actor Jeremy Lawrence stood out as the whining intellectual Stepan Verkhovensky, the kind of liberal complainer who’d seem at home by an antique samovar or a modern office water cooler.


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