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Stage Raw

Stage Raw: Smudge

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Mon, Jan 17, 2011 at 9:12 PM
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STAGE FEATURE on John Lithgow's Stories by Heart, and Hair
COMPREHENSIVE THEATER LISTINGS

NEW REVIEW GO SMUDGE The birth of a child usually is seen as a joyful event -- but what if it isn't? In Rachel Axler's disturbing play, the lives of an expectant couple -- Colby (Heather Fox) and Nicholas (Mark Thomsen) -- are upended when Colby gives birth to a limbless being with a single eye. The infant is not only strange to look at; it also responds weirdly -- or, more commonly, not at all -- to attempts to communicate. At home all day, Colby reacts to it with despair and rage, but the ingenuous Nick, a census official, falls head over heels for his new baby girl -- although that doesn't keep him from concealing her oddity from his family, or forestall his mailing out a dissentious questionnaire to the public titled "What Could You Kill?" (Sample question: Could you kill a pig?) Nick's peculiar behavior corners the concern of his brother Peter (Bart Tangredi), a snide guy whose cynicism, within this piece, stands in for the world at large. Axler strews her unsettling story with harsh humor that might have offended but doesn't. Instead, higher motifs -- the definition of life, the limitations of love and the human struggle to adjust one's expectations to painful realities -- remain the production's paramount focus, under Darin Anthony's discerning direction. Tangredi's smarmy dude adds an edgy dynamic, while Thomsen is especially affecting as a man struggling for his illusions -- and his sanity. Joe Slawinski's sound design elaborates nicely on the couple's nightmare. GTC Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. (added perf Thurs., Feb. 3, 8 p.m.), through Feb. 19. (800) 838-3006. Presented by Syzygy Theatre. (Deborah Klugman)

For all NEW THEATER REVIEWS seen over the weekend, press the More tab directly below.

NEW THEATER REVIEWS scheduled for publication Jan. 20, 2011

NEW REVIEW AMY & ELLIOT As sweet, slacker champion Elliot sits on his grubby couch, propping his safety-pinned Converses on the coffee table and strumming his guitar, a theme pushes through the haze of weed and inertia: Writer, director and star Ryan Eggold watched a lot of movies about the '90s. Built around Elliot and his bumbling but earnest attempts to navigate "grown-up" relationships, Eggold's play is as vague as its setting ("The City" in "The '90s"), as circular as the path Elliot makes pouring Cap'n Crunch for his visitors, and as self-absorbed as his exasperating best friend, Amy (Alexandra Breckenridge). In other words, he's constructed a close approximation of the movies, like Singles and Kicking and Screaming, that ended up romanticizing the angst and aimlessness of the existentially challenged 20-somethings dubbed Generation X. Eggold's so comfortable with the script that he glides through the show like a dancer. But too often, his puppy-dog charm turns grating when his dialogue dips from funny ("I don't wanna join Jehovah's Witness or whatever," he says through his door to a solicitor) to cutesy ("Ice cream, yeah, we all scream for it!"). Robert Baker is refreshingly solid as the lone adult in the play; and Gillian Zinser, Eggold's cast mate on TV series 90210, deserves credit for the considerable steam picked up in Act 2. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun, 3 p.m., through Jan. 30. (818) 342-4319. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

NEW REVIEW  GO CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION

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Photo by Ben Horak/SCR

The opening of Annie Baker's comedy about five ordinary people in a Vermont community center's drama class couldn't be less funny, or theatrical: five bodies lying on the hardwood floor playing a counting game, where each shouts one number in the sequence of one to 10 without interrupting anybody else. The purpose is to be "present," and sensitive to the silence in the room. And the action never leaves that room, designed by David Zinn, through a series of short scenes spanning the six class sessions over six weeks. There's much silence in Sam Gold's staging of the entire play -- deliberately, strategically. Though set in a drama class that veers into group therapy (nobody does any acting, one aspiring actress complains; they just tell stories from their lives, or from the lives of their classmates), both the play and its production aim to squelch the kinds of theatrical devices that keep an audience's attention; at the same time, the play reveals microscopic truths of day-to-day living. These include awkward silences. It's a bit like turning a video camera on a rather mediocre acting class, to see what that says about life. Playwright Baker brings similar verisimilitude to the dialogue, which consists of non sequiturs and interrupted confessions, in what might be called profound inarticulation. Despite the buckets of cold water thrown on the artifices of theater that usually keep our attention, Baker's poeticism and play structure are deviously canny. What emerges is a tautly structured, macroscopic poem about the trajectories of ordinary lives as seen through a microscope. A middle-aged, newly divorced carpenter (Ayre Gross) falls for the younger actress (Marin Hinkle) up from the city; though she toys with him for a week or two, her real target is the husband (Brian Kerwin) of the group leader (Linda Gehringer). Their marriage falls to pieces before our eyes. And so on. Not sure the insights about infidelity and breaking hearts and sexual abuse go beyond generic, but the way they're revealed, mostly in the silences, is a wonder and a credit to the ensemble. Call it a Chekhovian exercise in modern Vermont. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m., Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m., through Jan. 30. (714) 708-5555. (Steven Leigh Morris)

NEW REVIEW  GO CIRCUS INCOGNITUS 

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Photo by Amanda Russell

Armed with a Charlie Chaplin-esque persona, acrobatic acumen, a snare drum, fruit, a rickety ladder and an uncanny knack for inspiring giggling fits in small children, Jamie Adkins performs a one-man circus that needs no big top. At the outset, simple props perch unobtrusively on a mostly bare stage, an artistic choice that evokes the endless possibilities of an empty palette. Adkins, who has performed with Cirque du Soleil and Montreal's Cirque Eloize, eases into the filling of said palette, launching the show with a bumbling battle between man, chair, cardboard box and slip of paper. The concepts behind his gags are simple (retrieve the slip of paper from inside the cardboard box); the execution, anything but. (Dive head-first into the box from a chair that continually tips over.) Whether juggling, walking a dubiously flimsy tightrope, teaching a bowler hat a few dance moves or chasing a flashlight beam, Adkins always plays the stupid adult, to the delight of young audience members. The directorial shouts from the audience of 6- to 10-year-olds are half the fun here ("If you don't hold on, you're going to fall!"). Meanwhile, adults can marvel at Adkins' honed clowning techniques and impressive physical fluidity. By the time Adkins clamps a fork between his teeth for the purpose of catching oranges hurled at his face by audience members, he has already demonstrated the squeal-inducing joy of skilled silliness. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Sat., 11 a.m. & 3 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., through Jan. 23. (213) 628-2772. (Amy Lyons)

NEW REVIEW GROUP: A MUSICAL A therapy session's powerful emotions and needs should be a fine match for the intensified drama of musical theater, and for book writer/lyricist Adam Emperor Southard's uneven and intellectually ambitious musical about group therapy. Sadly, though, director Richard Tatum's lackluster production is marred by flat acting and indifferent music (by Josh Allan Dykstra). As kindly psychiatrist Dr. Allen (Isaac Wade, nicely intense) starts his new group-therapy practice, he opts to try an experiment: hiring a rock band. The songster shrink prescribes that his patients "sing" their confessions and arguments in session, on the theory that rock music will allow troubled souls to find inner peace. It is, of course, a daffy idea that would give Jung nightmares he hadn't already diagnosed, and would make Freud drop his cigar. Yet Dr. Allen's troop of patients obediently warble their way through their neuroses. Likable college student Paul (Michael Hanson) belts a song about not being able to have a relationship, while gay kid Chris (Evan Wall) operatically finds the strength to come out to his dad. Other members of their group find closure for their problems, as well -- in song, natch. Although Tatum's sometimes haltingly paced production can't be faulted for sincerity or good intentions, it suffers from a double whammy: The generic-therapy conflicts strain to engender our sympathy, while the songs are a collection of slight melodies and unexceptional lyrics along the lines of, "You've got your issues. Here, take a tissue." The ensemble works together well, crafting a set of engaging characters, but a lack of training is frequently evident in their singing. Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., through Jan. 29. Presented by Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble. latensemble.com. (Paul Birchall)

 NEW REVIEW GO MACHO LIKE ME

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Photo by Eric Sueyoshi

In her solo performance, the very funny Helie Lee explores the issue of male privilege from a South Korean female perspective. (Though she was born in Seoul, her family emigrated to the U.S. when she was 4.) She saw firsthand how her brother was treated as a crown prince, while she and her sister were judged purely on their marital prospects -- provoking her parents' urgent concern with getting her married. She decided to live as a man for 10 weeks, to experience the strength and freedom she attributed to men. She strapped down her bosom, had her hair cut short, acquired a masculine wardrobe and set out to gain entry to all-male enclaves; the results were not what she expected. She found that men's lives were no less constricted than women's, limited by competitive machismo and the fear of being perceived as gay. The tale is both illuminating and hilarious as she gains new insights into what it's like to live as a man and as a woman. By the end of her experiment, she's delighted to return to the familiar bonds of femininity. With director Sammy Wayne, she has forged a rich, witty, seamless tale. Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., through Feb. 13. (800) 595-4849, macholikeme.com. (Neal Weaver)

NEW REVIEW GO ME, AS A PENGUIN

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Photo by Claudia Unger

Yorkshire playwright Tom Wells' comedy, in its U.S. premiere, is a throwback to British "Kitchen Sink" dramas of the 1950s.  This one might be dubbed a "Toilet Bowl" comedy. "I think you should see this," says visiting Stitch (Brendan Hunt), peeking out from the bathroom door belonging to his his very pregnant sister, Liz ( Mina Badie). "Whatever you've done, just keep flushing," she fires back from her threadbare couch.  The play unfolds from her grubby living room. With his penchant for the comfort of knitting, idiosyncratic and perhaps mentally touched Stitch is visiting his sister in Hull from even more rural Withernsea, in order to check out Hull's gay scene. The tenderness between the misfit, almost mortally lonely Stitch and his very pregnant sister has much in common with Shelagh Delaney's 1958 similarly tender play,  A Taste of Honey. Themes of loyalty, love, and desperate longing - intertwined with sado-masochistic behaviors -- just keep trickling across the divide of centuries, and in much the same gritty, earthy theatrical style depicted in filthy furniture (set by John Pleshette) that represents poverty, and not just the poverty of financial resources. Pleshette directs a fine production that gets to the heart of the matter, even if some of the North Country dialects drift a wee bit southwest into, say, Alabama. Hunt serves up a dynamic performance as Stitch, laced with twitches and subtle mannerisms. Bradie's Liz has a similar richness and authenticity. James Donovan plays Liz's partner, and the father of her child, Mark, with a blend of the requisite gruffness required by a guy trying to scrape out a living in Hull, masking a soft-heartedness that would get him cast out to sea, were more people to know about it. Stitch becomes obsessed with a callow aquarium attendant named Dave, played by Johnny Giacalone with an arrogant brutishness that's a pleasingly heart-hearted antidote to the eccentric humanity that shows up in the room. In her pregnancy, Liz has become almost addicted to a popular British snack called Battenberg cake.  "Ah," remarks Stitch drolly, watching her opens the wrapper and melt into paroxysms of delight at the first bite: "Sponge. Jam. Marzipan. All the major food groups." What keep audiences watching new plays may not be new forms at all, but merely the references that provide the necessary inclusion. The Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through March 6 (323) 960-7721. (Steven Leigh Morris)

NEW REVIEW 99 IMPOSSIBLE THINGS

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Photo by Chelsea Sutton

Though Chelsea Sutton's play is not set in Central Perk (there's no Rachel or Monica, no Ross or Chandler or Joey in Sutton's Magic Bean Coffee Shop locale), there is a Phoebe of sorts. Actually, there are six of them. But instead of performing amusingly absurd guitar songs, or recounting childhood tales of woe in hilarious ways, these "Phoebes," along with two imaginary friends and a guardian angel, simply ramble on about "what's real" and what's not through 12 largely incoherent scenes. There's barely a plot, a story, dramatic stakes or a protagonist, and the central conflict (the soul of the drama) emerges sporadically. Most of the dialogue sounds like a college improv show in which someone said, "OK, you hang out in a coffee shop, you have an imaginary friend but you're not sure why, and nobody else is either: Go!" Sutton's serving as writer, director and producer suggests a reason behind the absence of a critical or collaborative eye. Even the performances, save that of RJ Farrington (who portrays the guardian angel), lack sheen. The highlight of the production is Bryan Forrest's authentically detailed coffee shop set. Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through Feb. 13. (818) 508-3003, eclecticcompanytheatre.org. (Mayank Keshaviah)

 NEW REVIEW GO SMUDGE The birth of a child usually is seen as a joyful event -- but what if it isn't? In Rachel Axler's disturbing play, the lives of an expectant couple -- Colby (Heather Fox) and Nicholas (Mark Thomsen) -- are upended when Colby gives birth to a limbless being with a single eye. The infant is not only strange to look at; it also responds weirdly -- or, more commonly, not at all -- to attempts to communicate. At home all day, Colby reacts to it with despair and rage, but the ingenuous Nick, a census official, falls head over heels for his new baby girl -- although that doesn't keep him from concealing her oddity from his family, or forestall his mailing out a dissentious questionnaire to the public titled "What Could You Kill?" (Sample question: Could you kill a pig?) Nick's peculiar behavior corners the concern of his brother Peter (Bart Tangredi), a snide guy whose cynicism, within this piece, stands in for the world at large. Axler strews her unsettling story with harsh humor that might have offended but doesn't. Instead, higher motifs -- the definition of life, the limitations of love and the human struggle to adjust one's expectations to painful realities -- remain the production's paramount focus, under Darin Anthony's discerning direction. Tangredi's smarmy dude adds an edgy dynamic, while Thomsen is especially affecting as a man struggling for his illusions -- and his sanity. Joe Slawinski's sound design elaborates nicely on the couple's nightmare. GTC Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. (added perf Thurs., Feb. 3, 8 p.m.), through Feb. 19. (800) 838-3006. Presented by Syzygy Theatre. (Deborah Klugman)

NEW REVIEW TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

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Photo courtesy of The Production Company

It's easy to understand why playwright Christopher Sergel's 1970 stage adaptation of Harper Lee's sentimental Southern Gothic novel was adopted for its annual pageant by Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala. Its depiction of a noble white patrician defending a helpless, subservient black field hand from being framed for rape by ignorant white-trash extremists is undoubtedly how the South would like to view its Jim Crow past. Why the Production Company chose Sergel's Sunday-school chestnut to inaugurate their new home at the Lex Theatre, however, remains a mystery. The chief virtue of director T.L. Kolman's by-the-book production (amid designer August Viverito's lamentably clumsy clapboard-facade set pieces) is in allowing the company's versatile stock players to strut their stuff in the play's numerous supporting roles: Ferrell Marshall as the story's wryly astute narrator, Maudie Atkinson; a nuanced Jim Hanna as Maycomb's perspicacious Sheriff Heck Tate; Inda Craig-Galván and Lorenzo T. Hughes' twin portraits of dignity under duress as Calpurnia and Tom Robinson; Skip Pipo being diabolical as inbred bigot Bob Ewell. Beside these veterans, juveniles Brighid Fleming, L.J. Benet and Patrick Fitzsimmons hold their own with confidence as, respectively, Scout, Jem and Dill. But it is James Horan's weirdly accomplished, cadence-perfect mimicry of Gregory Peck's film performance as Atticus that proves the evening's perversely guilty pleasure. Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., through Feb. 20. (800) 838-3006. A presentation of the Production Company. theprodco.com. (Bill Raden)

NEW REVIEW GO TWELFTH NIGHT marks the worthy launch of this theater's 17th season. With its multilayered plot, theatrical high jinks, silly sweetness and romance, Twelfth Night is one of the Bard's most popular works. With a nod to the traditional yuletide celebration after which the play is named, director J.C. Gafford's production features music, caroling, dancing and revelry. The setting of Illyria is here re-created as a large, raised platform, surrounded by a table set for a feast, kegs and some old boxes. Though not especially picturesque, it has a certain rustic appeal, and changes in scenes are smoothly handled by a member of the troupe with hand-painted placards. Kristina Mitchell does a fine turn as Viola, the main character in this romp of romance and mistaken identity, who is shipwrecked and separated from her twin brother, Sebastian (Jackson Thompson), on a different part of Illyria. She goes in disguise as a boy named Cesario, employed by the lovesick Duke Orsino (Jim Kohn), who uses her to court (on his behalf) his beloved but less-than-requiting Lady Olivia (Amy Clites). But Viola has herself fallen for her employer, the Duke, while his would-be mistress, Lady Olivia, finds herself smitten with the "boy" Viola is impersonating. The unraveling of this romantic knot makes for lively comedy under Gafford's smart direction, with uniformly good performances. Seth Margolies is a riot as the bumbling Sir Toby Belch. Casey E. Lewis, who puts one in mind of Stan Laurel, is equally funny as the comically foiled Malvolio, while Jason Rowland provides tons of laughs as the fool, Feste. Knightsbridge Theater, 1944 Riverside Drive, Silver Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 6 p.m., through Feb. 13. (323) 667-0955. (Lovell Estell III)

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