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Stage Raw

Stage Raw: The Debate over Courtney O'Connell of Columbus, Nebraska

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Mon, Jul 27, 2009 at 2:47 PM

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COMPREHENSIVE THEATER LISTINGS

Also see this week's STAGE FEATURE on Polish theater unmasked

NEW REVIEW GO THE DEBATE OVER COURTNEY O'CONNELL OF COLUMBUS, NEBRASKA
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Photo courtesy of Chalk Repertory Theatre

If we're to believe playwright Mat Smart, which is probably not a good idea, the bloody rampage of a jealous lover in 1894 Columbus, Nebraska led to the "Morgan Morality Act," stipulating that if a woman chose a fiancée over the objections of a former lover who had taken her virginity, her first lover was entitled to challenge her fiancée in a public debate, sort of like a cross between The Dating Game and The Jerry Springer Show. After hearing argumentation from both parties, the woman was free to choose her future mate. If the woman continued to rebuke the challenger, the law forbade him to contact her or to mention her name in public. This anti-stalking bill placed profound confidence in the power of debate in general, and argumentation in particular, to prevent corpses from piling up, as they evidently did in 1894 Nebraska, at least according to the record cited in Smart's play. In Act 1 of his delightful comedy, set in a contemporary Nebraska tavern - here portrayed in the site-specific environs of downtown's Metropol Cafe -- Smart is really grappling with the intersection of commitment and ownership. Jeff Galfer, who originated the role at New York's Slant Theatre Project, is both horrifying and endearing as Scott P. Scooner, a snazzily dressed local denizen whose dream of making it big consists of landing the assistant manager post at the suit shop where he now works as a sales clerk. Scott is a romantic extrovert with a history of suicide attempts over the loss of his love, Courtney (Amy Ellenberger, nicely capturing an emotional descent after floating on air) to a six-figure-salary-earning "dickwad from Sacramento" named James Alexander (Larry Heron, in a suave and smart performance). Courtney's been dating James for two months (compared to her five-year courtship with Scott). During the debate, James offers her a vacation in the Bahamas that only makes her swoon some more, as Scott must endure the site of his ex embracing and kissing his competitor while he's trying to win her back. Thomas (Feodor Chin) gently moderates the debate in a performance of wry intelligence and absurdity, clutching a handbook of the law that stipulates time limits and other protocol for the growingly ludicrous spectacle. After both suitors' presentations, Courtney finds herself paralyzed by indecision, which is when the law's more arcane articles, such as a corn-shucking competition, come into play. Act 2 flies back in time to 1894 and tracks the origins of this "morality act" via a farce with the actors in drag and impressive quick-changes. It's a different play in a different style that presents more of a challenge to the actors than the real-time naturalism of Act 1. It nonetheless tracks the origins of our so-called freedom, and how incapable we are of handing the responsibilities that come with it. Despite the shortcomings of the farce, Jennifer Chang stages the event, and it is an event, with a nimble touch, and Rachel Schachar's costumes are perfect. Metropol Cafe, 923 East Third Street, downtown; Sun.-Mon., 8 p.m.; through Aug. 24. (800) 838-3006 or http://brownpapertickets.com A Chalk Repertory Theatre production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

For the latest NEW THEATER REVIEWS seen over the weekend, press the Continue Reading tab directly below 

NEW REVIEW GO BIG BRO/LIL BRO

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Photo courtesy of Company of Angels

In playwright Jonathan Ceniceroz's torn-between-two-lovers potboiler, a wannabe actor named Carlos (Vince Tula) leaves his mature and ailing partner to set up house with a coquettish young gent from his acting class. The wallowing melodrama commences with Carlos resolutely packing his bags, deaf to the incessant pleas of wheelchair-bound Gil (Art McDermott). We next see him in his new digs, in thrall to the alluring Jeremy (understudy David Padilla), whose clothes he's possessively concealed  in a power play seemingly intended to proscribe his new boyfriend's coming and goings.  Directed by Josh Chambers, the stilted first act unwinds with a rather depthless display of passions as the financially pressed Carlos struggles to support his increasingly sulky and demanding inamorato.  Act 2 improves, however, first because the script acquires some texture as Jeremy evolves into a narcissistic psychopath,  but more so because Padilla - in his debut stage performance - makes the most of the material to establish a beguilingly ominous presence. MC Dermott is persuasive as the catty but perspicacious invalid. To the playwright's credit, the drama ultimately detours away from a sensationalized denouement into one more sensible and satisfying. Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., downtown; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Aug. 2. (323) 883-1717. A Company of Angels production. (Deborah Klugman )

NEW REVIEW GO CYMBELINE THE PUPPET KING
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Photo by Jean-Louis Darville

Shakespeare's Cymbeline is a natural for adaptation as children's theatre since it shares many plot elements of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The play has been much shortened and simplified. Imogen's husband Posthumous and his treacherous friend Iachimo have been eliminated, and the sex and violence are reduced to minimum in slapstick. In this goofy, kid-friendly adaptation by Angela Berliner, King Cymbeline (Stephen M. Porter) is an ineffectual booby, easily manipulated by his evil, ambitious second wife (Donna Jo Thorndale), who wants to marry off her boorish, dim-witted son Cloten (Adam Jefferis) to his daughter Imogen (Erin Anderson). But feisty Imogen (she calls her unwelcome suitor Cloten the Rotten) is having none of this, and takes to the woods, where she's befriended by Belarius (Mary Eileen O'Donnell) and his adopted son Guidarius (Kirstin Hinton), who was raised by wolves, and is given to occasional howling. Many of the jokes are probably over the heads of most children, but they're kept amused by director Will Pellegrini's zanily frenetic staging, and the prospect of free popsicles. The short piece (under an hour) is performed outdoors, and best of all, admission is free.  The Actor's Gang at The Ivy Substation, Culver City Media Park, 9070 Venice Boulevard; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m., thru August 30. Info: (310) 838-4264 or  http://theactorsgang.com. (Neal Weaver)

NEW REVIEW GO THE DEBATE OVER COURTNEY O'CONNELL OF COLUMBUS, NEBRASKA
click to enlarge rsz_debate_over_courtney.jpg
Photo courtesy of Chalk Repertory Theatre

If

we're to believe playwright Mat Smart, which is probably not a good

idea, the bloody rampage of a jealous lover in 1894 Columbus, Nebraska

led to the "Morgan Morality Act," stipulating that if a woman chose a

fiancée over the objections of a former lover who had taken her

virginity, her first lover was entitled to challenge her fiancée in a

public debate, sort of like a cross between The Dating Game and The Jerry Springer Show.

After hearing argumentation from both parties, the woman was free to

choose her future mate. If the woman continued to rebuke the

challenger, the law forbade him to contact her or to mention her name

in public. This anti-stalking bill placed profound confidence in the

power of debate in general, and argumentation in particular, to prevent

corpses from piling up, as they evidently did in 1894 Nebraska, at

least according to the record cited in Smart's play. In Act 1 of his

delightful comedy, set in a contemporary Nebraska tavern - here

portrayed in the site-specific environs of downtown's Metropol Cafe --

Smart is really grappling with the intersection of commitment and

ownership. Jeff Galfer, who originated the role at New York's Slant

Theatre Project, is both horrifying and endearing as Scott P. Scooner,

a snazzily dressed local denizen whose dream of making it big consists

of landing the assistant manager post at the suit shop where he now

works as a sales clerk. Scott is a romantic extrovert with a history of

suicide attempts over the loss of his love, Courtney (Amy Ellenberger,

nicely capturing an emotional descent after floating on air) to a

six-figure-salary-earning "dickwad from Sacramento" named James

Alexander (Larry Heron, in a suave and smart performance). Courtney's

been dating James for two months (compared to her five-year courtship

with Scott). During the debate, James offers her a vacation in the

Bahamas that only makes her swoon some more, as Scott must endure the

site of his ex embracing and kissing his competitor while he's trying

to win her back. Thomas (Feodor Chin) gently moderates the debate in a

performance of wry intelligence and absurdity, clutching a handbook of

the law that stipulates time limits and other protocol for the

growingly ludicrous spectacle. After both suitors' presentations,

Courtney finds herself paralyzed by indecision, which is when the law's

more arcane articles, such as a corn-shucking competition, come into

play. Act 2 flies back in time to 1894 and tracks the origins of this

"morality act" via a farce with the actors in drag and impressive

quick-changes. It's a different play in a different style that presents

more of a challenge to the actors than the real-time naturalism of Act

1. It nonetheless tracks the origins of our so-called freedom, and how

incapable we are of handing the responsibilities that come with it.

Despite the shortcomings of the farce, Jennifer Chang stages the event,

and it is an event, with a nimble touch, and Rachel Schachar's costumes

are perfect. Metropol Cafe, 923 East Third Street, downtown; Sun.-Mon.,

8 p.m.; through Aug. 24. (800) 838-3006 or http://brownpapertickets.com A Chalk Repertory Theatre production. (Steven Leigh Morris)


NEW REVIEW GO FIDDLER ON THE ROOF   Following hard on the ruby-encrusted heels of Broadway's greatest 21st century's phenom Wicked, the Pantages returns to this equally significant Broadway hit from the middle of the last century (nearly a decade as longest running musical) in a spectacular revival. Sholem Aleichem's tale of life in a Jewish shtetl under the thumb of Russia's tzar, dramatized by Joseph Stein with a glorious score and lyrics by Jerry Bock Sheldon Harnick respectively, still generates laughs and other emotions. This production remains loyal to Jerome Robbins' original staging, with expertly recreated direction and choreography by Sammy Dallas Bayes. You won't find any flying or other magical machinery expected in contemporary Broadway fare. It feels like time-traveling 50 years back - yet there's no sense of museum theater here. Leading way is, of course Topol, the Israeli star who first played the lead tole of Tevye on London's West End when he was far too young, then in the 1971 film at the perfect age, now in this "final tour," when he is too old, but still enormously effective as the faithful but constantly God-questioning milkman who sees his Jewish traditions and way of life falling apart. Upon Topol's first entrance he is greeted as a rock star - but the production doesn't rest on his laurels alone; it earns its standing ovation from the merits of the ensemble, musicians and designers. Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 7:30 p.m.; thru Aug. 9. (213) 365-3500. (Tom Provenzano)

NEW REVIEW GO HELLZ KITCHEN ABLAZE

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Hellz Kitchen Ablaze

Tommy Carter's hard-hitting drama delves into the sadly familiar terrain of police brutality and corruption. After a drug raid in which a team member was shot and killed, a clique of New York City's finest rendezvous in an abandoned, graffiti pocked warehouse, ostensibly to commiserate about their dead partner. Robert Mangiardi, Michael Camacho, Sal Landi, Phil Parolisi, Charles Taylor and Gary Werntz turn in harrowing performances as gritty, street wise narcotics officers whose psychological and emotional black holes are nothing short of terrifying. It isn't long after the team assembles that the real reason for the "party" emerges, and we learn that a bond has been made to split nearly a million dollars in confiscated drug money, which is to be retrieved by this gang in blue's only black member, Dash (Tim Starks). It's while waiting for the payoff to arrive that a toxic stew of racism, fear, suspicion, paranoia and undiluted greed start to erode alliances causing insurmountable conflicts that culminate in crushing betrayals and murder. In addition to chillingly realistic characters, Carter's blunt writing and gallows humor propel this 90-minute drama, which in spite of its dearth of action is never boring or tedious. And director Barry Sattels and his cast excel in opening up the explosive tension of the plot. Pan Andreas Theatre, 5125 Melrose Ave. L.A.; Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Aug. 15. (213) 712-5021. (Lovell Estell III)

NEW REVIEW GO THE NUCLEAR FAMILY
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Photo courtesy of The Nuclear Family

As they've been doing since 2007, the company of three actors  (Stephen Guarino, Jimmy Ray Bennett and John Gregorio), and pianist Matthew Loren Cohen, staggered through on wit and a prayer to create a 90-minute musical theater piece off-the-cuff, sprung from the core characters of a generic American family: Mom, Dad and Daughter (some nights it's Son). The piece and even the characters' names are different every night, thanks to the unpredictability of audience suggestions, and the trio play different roles at each performance. Every show, however, starts in the "kitchen" - four wooden chairs, two with broken cross-beams - and spirals in and out of control from there, spinning the dual mythologies of The American Family and The American Musical around and around on a spit. It's ribald, insane, and great fun. Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; Fri.-Sun. 8 p.m.; through August 9. http://needtheater.org A NeedTheatre production (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater Feature.

NEW REVIEW GO
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Photo courtesy of Josh Margolin

ONE NIGHT STAND: AN IMPROVISED MUSICAL Seven young actors don't use wigs for a musical parody concoted in the spur of the moment - this is the improv equivalent of performing without a net.  On the night I saw them, they brewed  a father-son conflict that parodied the literary convention of young people arriving in L.A from the hinterlands to become stars. The lanky Quinn Beswick portrayed a kid in Tennessee confronting his dad (Jonah Platt) about not wanting to live out his father's failed dreams, about not wanting to be a star, but wanting instead to escape to L.A. to pursue his dream of cleaning up after other people who do want to be stars. (No shortage of employment opportunities in that field.) The fresh-scrubbed ensemble showed wit aplenty and boasted bone fide musical theater chops, particularly though the sharp energy and even sharper voices of Samantha Martin and Mollie Taxe. Musical Director Andrew Resnick did piano-accompaniment duties. Hudson Theater Guild, 6539 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 9:30 p.m.; through August 22. (323) 960-4429. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater Feature.

NEW REVIEW THE PAIN AND THE ITCH
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Photo by Ed Krieger

Judging by this 2004 comedy of manners, Steppenwolf playwright Bruce Norris' worst enemy isn't the left-leaning, urban-professional parenting he targets in his caustic, social satire, but his own penchant for overloaded metaphors and excessively convoluted plots. The action centers on a fateful Thanksgiving gathering hosted by Kelly (Vonessa Martin), a young attorney, and her stay-at-home husband, Clay (Brad Price), as told in flashback to a mysterious, Arab cab driver, Mr. Hadid (Kevin Vavasseur). Kelly and Clay seem to be living the American dream with success, wealth (suggested by Kurt Boetcher's distractingly literal, luxury townhouse set) and two young children. With the arrival of Clay's acid-tongued, plastic-surgeon brother, Cash (Scott Lowell), and his malaprop-spouting, Slavic-immigrant girlfriend, Kalina (Katie Marie Davies), however, a host of simmering tensions and festering family resentments quickly surface, not the least of which concerns Clay's growing alarm at the suspicious genital rash afflicting his overprotected, four-year-old daughter, Kayla (Ava Feldman in a role double cast with Olivia Aaron). Norris is at his best when skewering the culture of narcissism that blinds his Yuppie protagonists to the grimmer truths of the world around them (as when Kelly's claim of childhood abuse by "neglect alternating with sarcasm" prompts naive comfort from Kalina in her own story of her brutal, childhood rape by soldiers). But Dámaso Rodriguez's crisp direction of a talented cast can't mitigate the tangle of telescoping flashbacks, red herrings and a wildly improbable and bathetic dénouement that all ultimately blunt Norris' critiques. Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Aug. 23. (626) 683-6883. (Bill Raden)

NEW REVIEW 74 GEORGIA AVENUE/THE PUSHCART PEDDLERS
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Photo by Doug Engalla

Murray Schisgal's two mildly absurdist one-acts chronicle varied aspects of Jewish life.  In the good-hearted but conventional farce The Pushcart Peddlers, directed by Chris Winfield, and set on the New York Waterfront in the early 1900s, wily banana peddler Cornelius (Lloyd Pedersen) cons greenhorn Shimmel (Ren Bell) out of all he owns --but Shimmel falls for Maggie (Melissa Soso), a flower-seller with theatrical ambitions, he quickly learns street smarts. The performances are broad but skillful. The more ambitious and more personal 74 Georgia Avenue, directed by Frances Mizrahi, is set in a formerly Jewish neighborhood that's now entirely black. Martin Robbins (Larry Margo) revisits his childhood home and discovers it's occupied by Joseph Watson (Disraeli Ellison), the son of the janitor at Robbins' old synagogue, who has become more Jewish than Robbins. Joseph fondly remembers the old days from the synagogue and has collected clothes, which mysteriously allow him to assume the identities of their former owners.  When he "becomes" Martin's zayda, it allows Martin to resolve old resentments, and regain respect for his nebbishy father. Both actors deliver fine performances, despite the play's heavy-handed treatment of the supernatural. Lonny Chapman's Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., thru Aug. 22.  http://www.lcgrt.com or (866) 811-4111. (Neal Weaver)    

NEW REVIEW THE TEMPEST Many would argue that Shakespeare is not meant to be experienced in a darkened proscenium house with fancy sets, a silent audience and plush seating, but with minimal lighting and sets, a boisterous crowd and no seating at all.  Those preferring the latter will find this production of Shakespeare's final play to their liking. The familiar story about the wronged former Duke of Milan who is banished to an island with his daughter, only to use his powers of sorcery to command the faeries of the isle to exact revenge on his fellow nobles is performed with traditional minimalism, but with much modern commentary and humor.  Director and company co-founder Melissa Chalsma incorporates into the dialogue jokes about cell phones, Martha Stewart, and even the Barnsdall performance space.  Continuing the modern aesthetic are Daniel Mahler's costumes, which feature a blend of bubble wrap, duct tape, and other shiny bits for the faeries and Prospero's cape, in styles ranging from Mafioso (Sebastian) to band geek (Trinculo) to Charlie Chaplain (Stephano).  The latter two work well for the bawdy, vaudevillian duo, who along with Caliban, become the most engaging part of the performance. What's gained in comedy, however, is lost in the somber philosophical inquiry that makes up significant part of the text.  A major reason for this is the setting, which, by allowing food, drink and a "family atmosphere," also suffers from the distraction of crying, talking children.  And while that atmosphere is good for a summer community event, give me the darkened proscenium house for this play. Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m. (in alternating rep with Henry V, so performance dates vary); through August 30.  (323) 836-0288. An Independent Shakespeare Company. Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

NEW REVIEW  TERMINUS AMERICANA 

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Photo courtesy of the SpyAnts

Matt Pelfrey's weird hot mess of a dark satire is a virtual dramatization of lunacy, as seen from the inside peering out.  If you have ever noticed someone walking down the street, with a tin foil hat firmly lodged atop his or her head muttering imprecations about this or that conspiracy, Pelfrey's play is a work that tells you how that tragic figure came to that point.  Mac Winchell (Brett Hren) is a contented cubicle-dwelling office worker whose life is thrown into disarray when co-worker Felix (Eric Bunton) goes berserk and starts shooting up the building. Felix offs himself right in front of Mac, but before he does, he whispers something unmentionable in his ear.  From that moment, Mac finds himself sliding into a bizarre, alternate universe in which everything is deranged and violent.   After inheriting the Terminus Americana, a phone book-sized manual of madness left by Felix as an office Secret Santa gift, Mac wanders the country having a bizarre series of adventures and ultimately being hailed as a prophet in the New Church of Christ The Office Shooter - and you can imagine what one must do to join that organization. Pelfrey's comedy is intentionally meandering, full of seemingly random incidents and a disjointed structure that is meant to be both frustrating and arch.  Unfortunately, a little goes a long way, and two hours of the disconnected babble almost leaves the audience groping for our own tin foil hats. Danny Parker-Lopes's phlegmatic staging suffers from lagging pacing and strangely clumsy blocking.  Although Hren's slow transition from mild mannered office drone to howling loon is chillingly convincing, some of the supporting performances are prone to stiff acting turns and halting line readings.  The Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru August 15.  (323) 860-8786 or http://thespyants.com. A SpyAnts production. (Paul Birchall)


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