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Stage Raw: Absinthe, Opium and Magic

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Mon, Dec 7, 2009 at 4:05 PM

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COMPREHENSIVE THEATER LISTINGS
NEW THEATER REVIEWS
STAGE FEATURE on plays without words: Hamlet Shut Up! and Violators Will Be Violated

NEW REVIEW
GO ABSINTHE, OPIUM, AND MAGIC

click to enlarge rsz_absinthe.jpg

Photo by Mark Bennington

1920s Shanghai is the setting of Debbie McMahon's wonderfully

environmental tour de force of clowning, dancing, and blood, which

evokes, with ferocious imagination, not just a bygone era, but also the

atmosphere of the Grand Guignol.  Upon arrival at the theater, we are

ushered into an ante-chamber outside the actual auditorium, which has

been set up to resemble a Shanghai bazaar.  There are sallow eyed

maidens serving tea - and also warm absinthe, strained through sugar,

Thomas De Quincey-style. The scent of the absinthe wafts through the

entire theater, melding with dry ice and creating a mood that elegantly

mixes pleasure and decay. The play's first act, "Sing Song Girl Sings

Last Song," is a haunting ballet of despair, involving a cast which

includes jaded "Sing Song Girl" prostitute Bright Pearl (Tina Van

Berckelaer), a young virgin protégé (Amanda Street) who dreams of

becoming Top Whore, and calculating Madame Old Bustard (Dinah Steward),

who plots to sell the virgin to be raped and mutilated by a pig-like

mobster (Roy Starr). Anchored by McMahon's pleasingly

melodramatic choreography, the dance tackles a compelling story of

rage, despair, and vice. Steward's charmingly sinister Old Bustard

steals every scene she's in - but  Street's scheming, loathsome virgin

is a standout as well. Act 2's vignette, Chris Bell's "The Cabinet of

Hands," is a gripping horror tale, with a sharp twist of quirky humor. 

A prissy young French couple (Robin Long and Zachary Foulkes),

vacationing in Shanghai, get more than they bargain for when they go

slumming at the opium den owned by a seemingly kind old woman (Kevin Dulude). As the thrill seeking Westerners get happily stoned on The

Dragon's Tail, the old woman's diabolical true nature shows through. 

The final scene consists of a jaw dropping gorefest that will have you

simultaneously howling with terror and laughter (while slipping your

hands in your pockets for safekeeping). Dulude's wicked old woman is

a perfect embodiment of mysterious evil - and the horrific fate of Long's

ill-fated naïf hilariously suggests an anti-drug teaching moment that's

very effective.  Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood;

Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; check website for added perfs; thru Jan. 3. 

http://www.brownpapertickets.com/ Grand Guignolers and [via] Corpora

Performance R&D House production (Paul Birchall)


For the latest NEW THEATER REVIEWS, press the Continue Reading tab directly below.

NEW THEATER REVIEWS (scheduled for publication Dec. 9, 2009


NEW REVIEW
GO ABSINTHE, OPIUM, AND MAGIC

click to enlarge rsz_absinthe.jpg

Photo by Mark Bennington

1920s Shanghai is the setting of Debbie McMahon's wonderfully

environmental tour de force of clowning, dancing, and blood, which

evokes, with ferocious imagination, not just a bygone era, but also the

atmosphere of the Grand Guignol.  Upon arrival at the theater, we are

ushered into an ante-chamber outside the actual auditorium, which has

been set up to resemble a Shanghai bazaar.  There are sallow eyed

maidens serving tea - and also warm absinthe, strained through sugar,

Thomas De Quincey-style. The scent of the absinthe wafts through the

entire theater, melding with dry ice and creating a mood that elegantly

mixes pleasure and decay. The play's first act, "Sing Song Girl Sings

Last Song," is a haunting ballet of despair, involving a cast which

includes jaded "Sing Song Girl" prostitute Bright Pearl (Tina Van

Berckelaer), a young virgin protégé (Amanda Street) who dreams of

becoming Top Whore, and calculating Madame Old Bustard (Dinah Steward),

who plots to sell the virgin to be raped and mutilated by a pig-like

mobster (Roy Starr). Anchored by McMahon's pleasingly

melodramatic choreography, the dance tackles a compelling story of

rage, despair, and vice. Steward's charmingly sinister Old Bustard

steals every scene she's in - but  Street's scheming, loathsome virgin

is a standout as well. Act 2's vignette, Chris Bell's "The Cabinet of

Hands," is a gripping horror tale, with a sharp twist of quirky humor. 

A prissy young French couple (Robin Long and Zachary Foulkes),

vacationing in Shanghai, get more than they bargain for when they go

slumming at the opium den owned by a seemingly kind old woman (Kevin

Dulude). As the thrill seeking Westerners get happily stoned on The

Dragon's Tail, the old woman's diabolical true nature shows through. 

The final scene consists of a jaw dropping gorefest that will have you

simultaneously howling with terror and laughter (while slipping your

hands in your pockets for safekeeping). Dulude's wicked old woman is

a perfect embodiment of mysterious evil - and the horrific fate of

Long's

ill-fated naïf hilariously suggests an anti-drug teaching moment that's

very effective.  Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood;

Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; check website for added perfs; thru Jan. 3. 

http://www.brownpapertickets.com/ Grand Guignolers and [via] Corpora

Performance R&D House production (Paul Birchall)


NEW REVIEW GO ACCOMPLICE: HOLLYWOOD

click to enlarge rsz_nikkipromo.jpg

Photo courtesy of Tom Salamon

Part game, part theater, part tour: It all begins with a phone call

disclosing a secret meeting location. Aided by clues and mysterious

cast members strewn throughout various locations such as street

corners, bars, iconic landmarks and out-of-the-way spots, the audience

traverses the city streets, piecing together clues of a meticulously

crafted plot. Various Hollywood Blvd. locations, schedule varies. 

http://accomplicetheshow.com. (SLM) See Theater feature on Wednesday

NEW REVIEW GO GAY APPAREL: A CHRISTMAS CAROL A gay

comedy with universal appeal, adapter Jason Moyer's entertaining spoof

of Dickens' classic imagines Scrooge as a prominent fashion designer

who at one time turned his back on true love when he opted for money

and success. In this scrambled parody, the bitchy mean-spirited

Scrooge  (John Downey III) heads the S&M (Scrooge and Marley)

Fashion House, where he mistreats his loyal employee, Bob (Moyer),

while spurning the familial overtures of his good-hearted lesbian

niece, Belinda (Mandi Moss). Meanwhile, Dickens' martyred innocent,

Tiny Tim, has metamorphosed into invalid Uncle Tim (Leon Acord).  When

Christmas Past (Moss) shows up (first as one of a trio of Afro-bewigged

dancers from the '70s), she ushers back memories  of Scrooge's

childhood, when his Dad (Acord) reviled him as a sissy boy for drawing

dresses. Later, an enticing Christmas Present (Christopher Grant

Pearson) appears in the guise of an  Alpine lad - but Scrooge's

overtures are met with a no-no. Co-directed by Moyer and Lauralea

Oliver, the show is bedecked with camped-up Christmas songs and

designer Jennifer C. Smith's comical costumes.  The bare set and

rudimentary lighting design detract a bit from the spectacle, and

Downey's miser is too thinly caricatured, even for satire, but the

performances in the rest of this adept and versatile ensemble amply

compensate. Lyric-Hyperion Theater, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake;

Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru 
Dec. 20. (800) 838-3006.

(Deborah Klugman)

NEW REVIEW GO THE GROUNDLINGS HOLIDAY SHOW The

infamous troupe opens this year's Christmas sketches (plus a token

Hanukkah bit) by taking the audience back to 1978 where a variety show

host announces the evening's very special line-up, including two mimes,

Kowalski and his Amazing Wrench, and a prostitute with a spoon. What

follows is equally random: A boss' niece is frozen in grunge-mad 1993

after too much booze at the office party (cell phones send her into a

thrashing panic), a newscaster throttles an orphan who's overdosed on

cookies, a Cirque du Soleil minotaur reenacts the invention of snow,

which involves him thrusting his white-spandexed crotch at a paralyzed

audience member. Ted Michaels' direction amps the physical comedy to

epileptic heights, causing the crowd to shake with laughter on the

performance I attended. As if to ground the evening, two improv

segments spun from audience suggestions were set in the mundane terrain

of Rent-A-Center and Mattress Giant -- both strip mall spots were mined

for gold. The Groundlings are the best local gang for girl performers,

letting Stephanie Courtney and Charlotte Newhouse shine in odd,

inventive roles; not once were they hemmed in by any dull girlfriend

foil. Among a strong cast, Mitch Silpa was the most go-for-broke, and

was rewarded with guffaws. Groundlings Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave.,

L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; thru Dec. 19. (323)

934-9700. (Amy Nicholson)

NEW REVIEW THE HOUSE OF BESARAB

click to enlarge rsz_houseofbesarab.jpg

Photo by Dane Bowman

Anyone expecting Tamara II may want to give a pass to this

disappointing adaptation of Dracula. Though the production shares the

venue -- the landmark Hollywood American Legion Post -- that housed the

legendary environmental stage hit and promises a similarly immersive

theatrical experience, playwrights Terance Duddy (who directs and is

also the set and light designer) and Theodore Ott's anemic text simply

pales before the full-blooded characterizations and labyrinthine

simultaneity that made Tamara so richly rewarding. Here the Post stands

in for Castle Dracula as Dracula (Michael Hegedus) himself appears in

the atrium to welcome the assembled audience "to witness a battle

between good and evil." In point of fact, what ensues is essentially

the final chapter of Bram Stoker's novel embroidered with the

reincarnation-romance subplot of Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film

version and a bizarre, mad-scientist twist worthy of Roger Corman. The

audience can either follow the Count and his servile assistant,

Renfield (David Himes) into "the Great Hall" or wait for Dr. Van

Helsing (Travis Michael Holder), Dr. Seward (Jessica Pagan

understudying for Terra Shelman) and Harker (Dane Bowman), who soon

arrive with a somnambulent Mina (Chase McKenna) on a mission to save

her vampire-baptized soul. (Hint: follow Van Helsing; he's where the

action -- and the better writing -- is.) Despite the capable cast's game

effort and some elegant costuming by Sara Spink (who also does a fine

turn as one of Dracula's very pregnant brides), a lackluster production

design and stolid direction only compound the exposition-laden script's

failure to realize its environmental-theater ambitions. Hollywood

American Legion, 2305 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 9 p.m.;

Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (310) 203-2850. (Bill Raden)

NEW REVIEW PANDORA This revisionist retelling of the

myth of Pandora's Box was created by director Ben Cox and the ensemble.

In it, we're presented with two Pandoras. The mythical Pandora

(Victoria Truscott) is created by Prometheus the Fire-Giver (Chris

Thorpe) as a wife/lover for Epimetheus (Willie Zelensky), and sent into

the world with a mysterious box that she's told she must never open. 

Curiosity gets the better of her, she opens the box, and unwittingly

releases all the troubles that beset human-kind--but also hope, which

makes the troubles and woes bearable. The modern Pandora (Sarah

Casolaro) is a more familiar figure: raised by her mother (Faryl

Saliman Reingold), with an absent father, she has a sure instinct for

picking cruel, unreliable men.  She uses her box to contain negative

feelings that threaten to engulf her. The show has many virtues,

including effective songs and dances, and the large ensemble is capable

and dedicated. But the production bears too many traces of its

self-conscious, over-earnest acting workshop origins. The mostly black

costumes, and scenes played in virtual darkness, create an overall

murkiness, and pacing is disastrously languid. Numerous short scenes,

separated by overlong blackouts, vitiate the proceedings and make for

flagging interest. Stella Adler Theater, 6773 Hollywood Boulevard;

Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m., thru Dec. 20. http://www.NeoAcroTheatre.com A Neo

Acro Theatre Company production.  (Neal Weaver)

NEW REVIEW GO ROBBIE JENSEN: THE 12 STEPS OF

CHRISTMAS Into Shane Birdsill's slick, corporate-style set, complete

with flipcharts, graphic posters, and a flat panel television display,

self-help "guru" Robbie Jensen (Tony Matthews, who co-wrote the piece

with Matt Schofield) comes bounding to work his magic with the

audience.  It is December at the Marriott in Woodland Hills, and from

the outset Jensen gets his audience clapping and participating in call

and response as he introduces his "Four Steps to the Five Happinesses,"

all while employing a series of Colbert-esque malapropisms.  Matthews'

engaging force of personality and smiling eyes draw you in as he

relates the story of his friend Enrique from Colombia and his sister

Fallopia to demonstrate the effectiveness of the rehabilitative "Robbie

House" run by Jensen and his offstage wife.  In the second and third

acts, set in Philadelphia and Des Moines respectively, Jensen brings

members of the audience up on stage, but Jensen, now separated from his

wife, has begun drinking and his seminar falls apart, though not

without the hilarity that ensues from inebriation.  Director Craig

Woolson keeps Matthews in constant motion, which fits his character

well, and Matthews' conversations with himself on the video screen are

well timed and executed.  Outside of a first act that drags toward the

end and could use some editing, the rest of the show offers an amusing

evening of interactive entertainment. NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia

Blvd., N. Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru December 20.

(323) 960-1053.  (Mayank Keshaviah)

NEW REVIEW THE SANTALAND DIARIES 

click to enlarge rsz_santaland.jpg

Photo courtesy of Blank Theatre Company

That master of NPR snark, David Sedaris, sinks his claws into Claus in

his artful monologue about the relentless Hell we know better as

Christmastime Customer Service.  In director Michael Matthews' intimate

and straightforward solo show, performer Nicholas Brendon portrays the

narrator of Sedaris' tale, who gets a gig as a Macy's Department Store

Elf during the weeks before Christmas.  Any thoughts that the newly

minted Elf might come away from the experience with a sense of faith in

mankind's goodwill almost instantly wears away under the relentless

tide of screeching children, selfish and boorish parents, and seemingly

demented Santas. And what a rogues gallery the Great Christmas Public

is, running the gamut from barfing children, to foul-mouthed parents,

to co-workers as deranged as they are elfin. Although Sedaris's hero is

working in the most ignominious gig, the World of Holiday Fun --

amusing on its own terms -- the story's barbed depiction of the retail

world will ring drolly true to anyone who has ever had a job when they

can't talk back to the rude and the disgusting. Brendon is an appealing

performer who makes Sedaris' story his own, nicely conveying the sense

of a character whose toothy, cheerful grin masks the disdain of the

passive- aggressive store clerk.  If there's a problem with Sedaris's

play, it's that the material is almost aggressively lightweight, with

the dramatic heft of a scrap of Christmas wrapping paper. Still, if

you're into funny jokes about awful customers, the show's frothy charm

has appeal.  2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood;

Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 5 p.m.; thru December 20.

http://www.theblank.com  or (323) 661-9827. A Blank Theatre Company

production. (Paul Birchall)

      

NEW REVIEW STATED INCOME

click to enlarge rsz_statedincome.jpg

Photo by Stephen Allison

If there's any truth to the old apothegm about a good actor's ability

to wring a compelling performance out of the telephone book, director

Mark Blanchard and his gifted ensemble certainly prove it in this

premiere of playwright Hugh Gross' fatally insipid recession comedy.

Times are tough for real-estate loan broker Mel Malt (Sal Landi) in the

wake of the subprime mortgage fiasco. His relationship with his

girlfriend, Irene (Michelle Laurent), is on the rocks; his

cash-strapped daughter (Laurent) is threatening to take his grandchild

(the double-cast Carmen and Rowan Blanchard) off to cheaper pastures;

and his banker (Orien Richman) is hounding him for the back payments on

the home-improvement loan he took out to float his foundering business.

Potential salvation arrives in the form of Stuart Dolittle (the

charismatic Michael Malota), an ambitious and ethically ambivalent

young intern, who proposes that if they can't earn commissions by

getting loans for their fiscally-deadbeat clientele, they can use the

confidential income information on their loan applications to rat out

customers to the IRS for a percentage of any unpaid taxes. And while

the improbable scheme ultimately pays off, little else does in a

disjointed, threadbare narrative beset by too much pedestrian dialogue

and under-developed relationships. The cast takes up some of the slack

with memorably screwball character vignettes (including Richman and

Kasia Wolejnio's wicked take on a pair of bickering, Armenian nouveau

riche) and director Blanchard eases the pain with a breakneck, Howard

Hawksian pace. Pan Andreas Theater, 5125 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat.,

8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (323) 960-7788. Presented by

Actorhood. (Bill Raden)

NEW REVIEW GO THREE TALL WOMEN In a 2005 interview

given to the Academy of Achievement, Edward Albee said "What could be

worse than getting to the end of your life and realizing you hadn't

lived it." The words are eerily apropos when considering this haunting

theatrical meditation on life unfulfilled, and looming death, which

garnered Albee his third Pulitzer in 1994. In the opening tableau, we

first see a senile, elderly women simply known as A (a virtuosic turn

by Eve Sigall), who is either "91 or 92," seated in her bedroom in the

company of a youthful, nattily dressed woman B (Jan Sheldrick) and A's

middle aged caregiver C (Leah Myette). The dialogue is brisk, chatty,

often loud and angry, often humorous, and laced with colorful,

sometimes dark reminiscences that subtly hint at the connection they

share. It is early on in Act 2 when we learn that these three females

are actually one person seen at differing stages in life -- cross

sections of one soul. The conceit allows them access to each other as

familiars and strangers, incapable of fully grasping the person that

they became, torn between joy, guilt and regret, while awaiting the

inevitable approach of death, the "getting to the end of it," as A

sadly muses at play's end. Michael Matthews, in addition to drawing

stellar performances from his cast, directs this production with

redoubtable subtlety. Kurt Boecher's expressionist "exploded" bedroom

set adds a perfect touch. Rounding out the cast is Michael Geniac. El

Centro Theater, A West Coast Ensemble production. 845 N. El Centro

Ave., Hollywood; Thur- Sat, 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. thru Dec. 20 (323)

460-4443. (Lovell Estell III)

NEW REVIEW WACACEMIA Joe Camhi's satire of political

correctness in academia has a buzzsaw to grind, then uses one to make

its points about tyranny in the university, based on the author's own

experience. In a scene that's like a remake of Oleanna - as though

David Mamet's play hadn't sufficiently made its point -- 

professor/stand-up comedian Dr. Mark Michaels (Nick Huff), makes an

"inappropriate" joke in class, offending the dimmest damsel in distress

you're ever likely to meet (Sara McAanarney-Reed). She brings charges

against the prof, and we see him tried in kangaroo court before a

committee of idiots, led by femi-Nazi Dr. Deborah (Wednesday Hobson).

Don't quite know why such an inquisition played as farce ceases to

amuse or persuade.  Michaels is summarily dismissed, which is supposed

to be a bad thing, but I can't say I felt the heavy weight of

oppression, given the dreary quality of his lectures that we saw. It is

unfair that he was fired for telling jokes in class. He should really

have been dismissed for his lack of comic timing. That's all in Act 2.

Let's back up for a moment into Act 1, which consists of a series of

scenes between an elder Mafioso named Jimmy (Camhi) recovering from a

stab wound to the stomach. On orders from the Godfather (Ggreg Snyder),

Jimmy's son Angelo (Chriss Nicholas) must help his dad during his

recovery. Through their comedic banter, we understand how tough-guy

Angelo has been influenced by his college professor wife, Dr. Deborah -

the same Dr. Deborah who leads the inquisition against Dr. Michaels in

Act 2. Angelo questions his father's stream of racist, sexist slurs

with references to "The Feminimine Misspeak" and "mega-culturalism." In

that first act lies the seeds of pretty good comedy, were Deborah to

actually show up and move things beyond one joke. Alas, it implodes in

Act 2 (intended as a separate one-act), when Deborah does show up at

her university setting. Act 3, in the couple's bedroom, is a taut

stand-alone one-act in which we see Deborah's droll response to her

hubbie's infidelity. But as a wrap up to the plays before, it's too

late to salvage the twisted steel. The leading actors are quite good,

and the play gets a nice push from director Rod Oden, staging Act 1 as

a boxing match with a squeaky voiced Ring Girl (Amanda Carr) - who

knows exactly what game she's playing - sashaying across the stage

between scenes in a bikini, bearing placards announcing what's going

on. She is, in fact, the show's highlight, with a humor and spontaneity

that the rest of the production desperately needs.  Actors Playpen,

1514 N. Gardner St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 19. (323)

874-1733. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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