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Stage Raw

Stage Raw: The Trial of Hamlet

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Thu, Jan 27, 2011 at 9:38 PM

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STAGE FEATURE ON PUZZLER AND ADDING MACHINE: A MUSICAL

Note: Due to a technical mishap, none of this week's capsule new reviews appeared in the print edition. They will appear next week, with next week's new reviews.


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​The West Coast premiere of Bruce Gooch's father/son drama Dirt opens this weekend at Theatre/Theater, presented by Firefly: Theater & Film and Rogue Machine. Photo courtesy of Firefly: Theater and Film

THE TRIAL OF HAMLET The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles presents the trial of Prince Hamlet, presided over by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Jurors include Helen Hunt and Tom Irwin. Monday, January 31, 7:30 at USC, Bovard Auditorium.

For this week's COMPREHENSIVE THEATER LISTINGS, press the More tab directly below.

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HERSHEY FELDER'S GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK Sing along with Hershey Felder to standards by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bernstein, Sondheim, Bock and Harnick, and more. Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; Sun., Jan. 30, 7 p.m.; Mon., Jan. 31, 8 p.m.. (949) 497-2787.

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Interactive kids' musical, book and lyrics by Lloyd J. Schwartz, music by Ben Lanzarone. Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, L.A.; Sat., 1 p.m.; thru Feb. 26. (323) 851-7977.

JOHN LITHGOW: STORIES BY HEART John Lithgow clutches a book of stories, just about the only prop he uses. It's a musty, thick old book that, if we're to believe him, has been in his family for generations. It's the book, he says, that his parents read from in order to entertain him and his three siblings. He recalls the family favorite -- the "funny one" -- P.G. Wodehouse's story "Uncle Fred Flits By." Years later, when his father, Arthur Lithgow, was in his 80s, he had to endure abdominal surgery that broke the spirit of this very spirited man. John was the only actor among his siblings, and therefore the only child who was unemployed and "available" to care for his aging parents -- a task that sent him nightly into paroxysms of sobbing, he says. Until he discovered on the shelf of their home a musty old book of stories containing "Uncle Fred Flits By." The snorts of laughter from his dad, and his subsequent rehabilitation, is the best retort to the fatigued argument that the arts are an indulgence. The arts have, in their way, parallel capacities to an emergency ward in a hospital. And that's one answer to the questions Lithgow posits at the start of his show: Why do people tell stories? And why do people listen to them? As a persona, Lithgow is beyond amiable. He has a physical dexterity and a far-flung vocal range that can impersonate anything from the piping of Englishwomen to a Midwestern barber's gravelly drawl. Curiously, Lithgow's Act 2, a recitation of Ring Lardner's "The Haircut," translates to the stage with more of a thud, perhaps because the vehicle -- the monologue of a deranged barber in a deranged Midwestern town -- doesn't allow the actor the opportunity to vault from one character to the next. Here, Lithgow aims to home in on a gossipy barber's explanation for the death of his friend. Onstage, the point of lightness and depravity coexisting gets made in full within 15 minutes, yet the story lasts far longer. (Steven Leigh Morris)., $50-$70. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 13. (213) 628-2772.

THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE For some, a computer is a word-processing machine and a gateway to the Internet. As long as they are able to type documents, send e-mails and surf the web, they feel they're making full use of this machine. Others, however, use the very same machine to its full technological capacity: making complex calculations, designing eye-catching graphics or composing the next great symphony. In interpreting the work of an accomplished playwright like Martin McDonagh, directors and actors have the same options: Tell the story straightforwardly and competently, or delve deeply into the words and the spaces between them to bring out the richness of their meaning. Like the vast majority of us, director Patrick Williams chooses the former option in staging McDonagh's satire on Irish terrorism. In it, a cat belonging to Padraic (Patrick Rieger), a soldier in the Irish National Liberation Army, is found dead by Davey (Devon Armstrong) and brought to Padraic's father, Donny (John Gilbert), who's supposed to be taking care of it. When Padraic hears that his favorite feline isn't fit, he returns to Inishmore and runs into not only Mairead (Jannese Davidson), Davey's gun-toting sister who's keen to join both Padraic and the cause, but also a crew of INLA members angling to take over his turf. Violence and mayhem ensue, and liters of blood are shed, all of which is a lot funnier than you'd expect. Unfortunately, neither the acting nor directing brings the laugher to full throat. The characters are played too earnestly instead of hyperbolically, a move that injects subtlety into a piece that revels in extremes and caricature. (Mayank Keshaviah). Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 12. (562) 494-1014.

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Photo by Shashin Desai

The most pressing question raised by director caryn desai's staid staging of Stephen Flaherty and Frank Galati's 2006 "chamber musical" is one of form. Is Galati's reductive editing of Stein's experimental poetry and prose into lyrics for Flaherty's anodyne show-tune melodies really the most fitting tribute to a woman whose life and work so fully epitomize the European avant-garde of the early-20th century. Cheryl David gives a spirited recital as the late-middle-aged Gertrude, whose lecture on her life threads through extended flashbacks comprising the bulk of the 90-minute show's 32 songs. As young Gertrude (Shannon Warne) abandons America for the art world of pre-WWI Paris, where she quickly meets her lifelong partner and muse, Alice B. Toklas (Melissa Lyons Caldretti), Galati's book drifts from a celebration of Stein as a pioneer of modernist poetics into her perhaps more enduring status as an icon of gender-identity politics. This subordination of art to romance is emblematized by Kurt Boetcher's valentine of a set (ably lit by Donna Ruzika), in which Gertrude and Alice's love story plays out under a heart-shaped wreath festooned over a stage platform painted in quasi-Picasso figurative abstractions. The musical's climax comes in the camped-up comedy of Galati and Flaherty's five-part take on the 1922 story "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene" (sung by the company). (This is where Stein first used "gay" as a sly coinage signifying same-sex gender preference.) The singers acquit themselves well enough in a score that is purposefully but wearyingly redundant. Gertrude would probably be bemused and mortified. International City Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 13. (562) 436-4610 or internationalcitytheatre.org. (Bill Raden)

MAESTRO: THE ART OF LEONARD BERSTEIN Hershey Felder re-creates the legendary composer. Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; Sun., 2 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 6. (949) 497-2787.

MOON OVER BUFFALO Ken Ludwig's backstage farce, set in 1953 New York. Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 26. (562) 494-1014.

NOISES OFF Michael Frayn's slapstick thespian farce. A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Jan. 30. (818) 240-0910.

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Photo by Ed Krieger

Its promo tagline "An epic musical journey straight to your heart," would seem to place writer-director Chet Holmes' musical in the same category as straight-to-video releases with similar epithets. Considering Holmes' background in screenwriting and his desire to tell "highly satisfying commercial stories that appeal to the masses," it's hardly surprising that his foray into musical theatre fits the bill. In it, aspiring musician Charlie Everson (Tom Schmid) gains a daughter and loses a wife on the same day. Though young Emily (Darcy Rose Byrnes) grows up motherless, her talent for music brings her close to her father. Then one fateful evening, Charlie disappears, leaving Emily an orphan with housekeeper and de-facto nanny Rosa (Elena Campbell-Martinez) as her only family. The next 10 years involve both older Emily (Lindsey Haun) rising to stardom as a singer, and Charlie starting over after he is robbed of his memory. Although the premise is interesting, the problem is that the story is told so cinematically: There are close to 100 scenes, some of which are four lines long before a blackout. While this may work on screen, it is disjointed and jarring on stage. The songs, co-written with Amanda Holmes and Tom Shepard, are pleasantly melodic, but many are too short to be musically satisfying. Still, Haun's voice is a highlight of the show, and she and Schmid do the numbers justice. The two of them, along with the perky and precocious Byrnes, are also very talented performers, but, like the rest of the cast, are constrained by the formulaic and at times melodramatic storytelling. Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru February 27. (323) 960-7788. emilyssong.com (Mayank Keshaviah)

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Photo courtesy of Jessica Cribbs

There's little doubt that motherhood is one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs on the planet, but this stringing together of a dozen anecdotes told by as many moms reduces the maternal experience to a trite series of events navigated by sleep-deprived women in mini-vans. Not that the performers lack talent or that the material is without dramatic merit, but the cumulative effect is like a greatest hits album of mammary musings, a formulaic collection of tracks lacking the subtleties of a seminal album. Stand out performers include Susanna Brisk, who hilariously seethes her way through an original rap about her sniveling off-spring, and Beth Littleford, whose letter to her son's future therapist is good for a few chuckles. But the scene-fest model allows for an excess of confessional blather, stories that are sometimes heartbreaking but by and large not stage-worthy. Though co-creators Lindsay Kavet and Jessica Cribbs make a well intentioned attempt to give mothers their due, their vehicle doesn't serve their subject matter: Motherhood includes too many experiences that can't be expressed in words, shifts in emotion and spirit that defy vocalization. Elephant Stages' Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; (866) 811-4111; thru Jan. 30. (Amy Lyons)

FACEBOOK The weekly show formerly known as MySpace, $5. Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, 5919 Franklin Ave., L.A.; Wed., 9:30 p.m.. (323) 908-8702.

THE FARNDALE AVENUE HOUSING ESTATE TOWNSWOMEN'S GUILD DRAMATIC GAYS R US Erin Foley and her funny pals, gay and otherwise., $14. THE IMPROV, 8162 Melrose Ave., L.A.; First Thursday of every month, 8 p.m.. (323) 651-2583.

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Photo by Maia Rosenfeld

Twenty-two jackals -- I mean, actors -- have run up a $1200 bill at a posh hotel in 1930s Manhattan, and their producer Gordon (Derek Manson) is desperate to skip out on the tab. Fat chance with manager (Phillip William Brock) and corporate heavy (Charles Dennis) blocking their escape. Since Gordon, the director (Joe Liss), the playwright (Dustin Eastman) and the rabble are on the 19th floor, they can't jump. Better options are playing sick, suffering a hunger strike, faking suicide and a dabbling of bank fraud. John Murray and Allen Boretz's madcap comedy ran for 14 months on Broadway in 1937, and if the quips and the wise guys (especially Daniel Escobar's cheery lug) smack of a Marx Brothers movie, that's because it was one in 1938. Except for Eastman's guileless writer, these starving artists aren't suffering for the sake of art -- their play seems secondary to saving their own skins. When real talent, a Russian waiter who studied Chekhov (Elya Baskin, excellent), auditions into their hotel room, his breathtaking monologue goes ignored. This three-act contraption gets going in Act 2 after co-directors Bjørn Johnson and Ron Orbach ease the cast into the comedy's chirpy rhythm. It's a slender pleasure, despite the directors' argument that it makes us reflect on our current economic crisis. Better just to enjoy the physical comedy that makes full use of every corner of Victoria Proffit's suite set; The ensemble leaps over furniture and gobbles down smuggled food like wild, wise-cracking animals. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 12, openfist.org . (323) 882-6912. (Amy Nicholson)

SERIAL KILLERS Serialized stories compete to continue, voted on by the audience. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., L.A.; Sat., 11 p.m.; thru Feb. 19. (310) 281-8337.

SHADOW ANTHROPOLOGY: A POST-9/11 COMEDY Rick Mitchell's look at the U.S. occupation of Iraq through comedy, shadow puppetry, and song. Part of Son of Semele's Company Creation Festival. Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Through Jan. 28, 8 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 12, 8 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 13, 5 p.m.; Through Feb. 25, 8 p.m., sonofsemele.org/shows/ccf2011.html...

STANDING ON CEREMONY: THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS Written by Jordan Harrison, Jeffrey Hatcher, Moises Kaufman, Neil Labute, Wendy Mcleod, Kathy Najimy, Jos<0x00E9> Rivera, Paul Rudnick and Doug Wright, conceived and directed by Brian Shnipper., $25. Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., L.A.; Mon., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 7, StandingOnCeremony.net, Tix.com. (800) 595-4849.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD 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-Galvin 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. (Bill Raden). Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 20. (800) 838-3006.

GO THE TRAIN DRIVER South African playwright Athol Fugard's plays have dealt with the havoc wrought in his country by Apartheid, but his more recent works also often possess the feel of a ghost story, as they grow to encompass the guilt and grief which were the legacy of his homeland's decades of racial inequity. This is particularly true in his powerful new play, in which the spirits of the forgotten dead are all around us, unseen. As he drives his locomotive through the black shantytown area of the city, train driver Roelf (Morlan Higgins) accidentally runs over a mother and infant, after the mother commits suicide by stepping onto the tracks before Roelf can stop. There's nothing Roelf could have done to save them, but he nevertheless is consumed with guilt over his role in the death. At the graveyard where indigent, unidentified bodies are buried, Roelf searches for the dead mother's grave so he can expiate his guilt. Elderly, impoverished gravedigger Simon (Adolphus Ward) is sympathetic, but is also desperate to send Roelf home, before the white driver's presence in the black region of the country causes disaster. Although Fugard's plot is narratively smaller than what is found in many of his other plays, the overall mood of sorrow and resigned, barely controlled rage at how the universe is arranged is powerfully palpable. A deep-seated, thought-provoking pessimism about men's nature is constantly evident. Director Stephen Sachs' character-driven production is stunning, from the dusty squalor of Jeff McLaughlin's desolate, gravel-covered shanty set, to the dense, evocative acting work. Higgins' mingled rage and sorrow -- anger over being forced to kill someone he didn't know, along with his grief over the pair's death - is powerful, but it's Ward's slightly ironic, underplayed turn as the gravedigger that captures attention every moment he's on stage. Fugard has written that the play is a metaphor for the moral blindness of an overclass that has ignored the plight of the hopeless -- but the play cunningly concludes with a tragic coda that suggests, to the underclass, even white guilt is a luxury that harms more than it heals. (Paul Birchall). Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 7 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Jan. 30. (323) 663-1525.

GO TWELFTHNIGHT 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. (Lovell Estell III). Knightsbridge Theater, 1944 Riverside Dr., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru Feb. 13. (323) 667-0955.

CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN SMALLER THEATERS SITUATED IN THE VALLEYS

BROTHERS GRIMM'S SHUDDER Zombie Joe's Underground's adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale "The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.". ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri., 11 p.m.; Fri., 11 p.m.; thru Feb. 25. (818) 202-4120.

CINDERELLA World Premiere interactive musical for kids, book by June Chandler, music and lyrics by Jane Fuller. Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; Sat., 11 a.m.; thru Feb. 19. (626) 256-3809.

IT'S JUST SEX Jeff Gould's comedy takes the underpinnings of sexual fantasy, fidelity and money and puts all of those nuances onstage in a contemporary comedy about three married couples. The wife-swapping plot is straight out of Hugh Hefner's pad, circa 1975. That the play resonates today, in the ashes of the sexual revolution, is one indication of how little has changed, despite how much has changed. (Steven Leigh Morris). Two Roads Theater, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.. (818) 762-2272.

THE KITCHEN PLAYS The Road Theatre Company presents five one-act workshops, including Phantom Tickets, Albie Selznick's one-man morality tale. Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Jan. 29. (818) 752-7568.

A MIXED TAPE Eric Edwards' retrospective of a lonely guy's love life. Playhouse West Repertory Theater, 10634 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Sun., 8 p.m.; thru March 27, amixedtape.com. (818) 332-3101.

NEW EYES Yafit Josephson gives an accomplished performance in her solo show about a Jewish actress facing down Hollywood's cultural stereotypes. It's marred only by a poorly designed slideshow. Josephson slips easily into various personae, combining characters with caricatures to good comedic effect. The opening has her switching from a formidable military officer to her nervous young self on her first day of compulsory military training in the Israeli army. Highlights include a hilarious mime sequence where she uncomprehendingly attempts yoga and another scene where she gives a goofy impression of a macho guy in an Israeli nightclub. Josephson's tall, slender build, piercing eyes and chiseled face lend her a commanding presence, but it's her prominent proboscis that relegates her to the usual gamut of villainous roles, from terrorist to evil witch -- "And no, they didn't have to use a fake nose," she jokes. Her adult journey takes her from the New World back to Israel, where she touches base with her culture, returning to Hollywood with newfound strength of character. Beneath the comedy lies a serious undercurrent stemming from the ongoing war in the Middle East: Land equals identity. (Pauline Adamek). Whitefire Theater, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 13, plays411.com/neweyes. (323) 960-7712.

99 IMPOSSIBLE THINGS 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. (Mayank Keshaviah). Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 13. (818) 508-3003.

SCHMUTZIGEN DEUTSCHE KABARETT This latest, late-night creation from sardonic, surrealist director-choreographer Amanda Marquardt is so straightforward and simple in its concept and execution that it's a wonder no one thought of it before. Take the Kander & Ebb musical classic Cabaret, jettison the treacly and preachy Joe Masteroff book, and stage the results as a brisk and breezy, melodrama-free evening of simulated Weimar nightclub entertainment. The schmutzigen is provided by the indecently flamboyant Luke Wright, who, from opener "Willkommen" through his solo on "I Don't Care Much" to the show's finale, vamps his way through an endless string of double entendres to stake a creditable claim to the role of MC that made Broadway stars of Joel Grey and Alan Cumming. Marquardt herself appears as Sally Bowles (replete with Liza-like false eyelashes), displaying an appealing set of pipes on such signature numbers as "Don't Tell Mama," "Cabaret" and "Mein Herr." Wright returns (wearing little more than an uncredited but campy pair of tuxedo briefs) with chorines Skye Noel (also credited as dance captain and co-choreographer) and Eva Ganelis, as the trio strut their comic stuff in "Two Ladies." But, you might ask, if there's no book, what about the musical's politics -- and what does that have to do with us? Relax. Marquardt gets in her licks, and puts the Deutsche Kabarett, political-satire bite back into Cabaret with "High Chancellor," a hilarious, show-stealing strip number, with Jonica Patella in Hitler drag, bumping, grinding and goose-stepping to the Nazi march "Erika." (Bill Raden). ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Sat., 11 p.m.; thru Feb. 26. (818) 202-4120.

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. Presented by Syzygy Theatre. (Deborah Klugman). GTC Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Thurs., Feb. 3, 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 19. (800) 838-3006.

SYLVIA A.R. Gurney's empty-nester comedy. Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 19. (626) 256-3809.

THE TRIAL OF LIZZIE BORDEN For all the talk of our sociocultural evolution, look no further than the sixth installment of the gory-glorifying serial killer movie series Saw, or the rapt attention given to an especially gasp-inducing murder trial, as a gauge of Americans' fascination with the instinct to kill. Not just kill, either -- the stronger the scent of blood, the hungrier the public's appetite. You could finger Lizzie Borden's 1892 trial as the trigger for this obsession. Writer-director Steven Sabel's world premiere is adapted from the transcripts of the double hatchet murders of Abby and Andrew Borden, for which their daughter Lizzie was arrested and ultimately acquitted. Sabel wisely keeps the stage bare, focusing instead on recollections that twist so sharply you almost need a crib sheet to keep up. Jeremy Mascia's lead prosecutor, Hosea Knowlton, relies on overbearing theatrics as his primary cross-examination tactic, but it's in line with the typical portrayal of the courtroom in film; Annie Freeman is as wide- and wild-eyed as famous photos of the accused. The play feels lacking, but perhaps that's more a reflection of our CSI culture than of the material. Tom Newman's icy original music, particularly the hollow whispering of the children's jump-rope rhyme "Lizzie Borden took an ax," is literally hair-raising. (Rebecca Haithcoat). ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 5. (818) 202-4120.

CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN SMALLER THEATERS SITUATED ON THE WESTSIDE AND IN BEACH TOWNS

NEW REVIEW GO ADDING MACHINE: THE MUSICAL In Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith's adaptation of Elmer Rice's 1923 satire of accountants slaving for The Man in cubicles, a shlub named Zero (Clifford Morts, in a marvelously cantakerous turn reminiscent of the late Carroll O'Connor) eagerly awaits some reward on the 25th anniversary of his hiring. Instead, he's fired, having been replaced by an adding machine. Rice's play was written before the days of pensions and labor unions and the kinds of post War labor protections that, incidentally, accompanied the most robust economic boom this country has every experienced. It was also written five years before the Great Depression. It now arrives as almost all those protections have been swept away, and our economy teeters precariously once more - cursed by economic conditions and employment practices that in so many ways, resemble those of 1923. Yet neither the play nor this musical adaptation is primarily about economics, but rather about metaphysics, which would explain director Ron Sossi's fascination with it. The operatic, often dissonant and percussive music has almost no melody, which is exactly right in a story that drives a spike through the heart of sentimentality and romance. Zero's wife is a hideous, jealous, nagging monstrosity - that would be the character, not Kelly Lester's spirited interpretation that contains echos of Angela Lansbury. The colleague who loved Zero unrequitedly (the marvelous Christine Horn) joins him in the after-life. For the way God really works, and the way dead souls are recycled, you have to see the show. Sossi directs a strong production, though with minimal silk drops representing the afterlife, it didn't look much different from the drab life herein. That minimalism does subvert the moral joke. Patrick Kenny's musical direction strikes nice balances between the onstage band and the singers. The actors just need to settle in and push out the fun they're already having. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., WLA; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (Feb. 27 perf at 7 p.m.) thru March 20. (310) 4770-2055. (Steven Leigh Morris)

CAUGHT IN THE NET Ray Cooney's Internet-inspired sequel to sex farce Run for Your Wife. Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 19. (310) 828-7519.

GO CYRANO DE BERGERAC Director Rae Allen revels in the equal measure of might assigned to pen and sword in Edmond Rostand's word-centric, swashbuckling classic. Allen's sure hand in guiding the text along a well-paced tragicomic trajectory begins with her decision to slash the first scene significantly, depositing the legendary lead character and his protruding nose onstage within a few minutes of the outset. John Colella tackles the titular role with an overabundance of seething anger and outward frustration at Cyrano's self-described ugliness, neglecting at times the character's inherent charm, a crucial hinge upon which the play's front door hangs: We have to fall in love with Cyrano if we are to feel the requisite frustration over Roxanne's (an arresting Olivia D'Abo) ill-informed choice of the doltish but adorable Christian (a sufficiently hapless Toby Moore) rather than her eloquent, adoring cousin. Romantic flatness aside, Colella successfully thrusts home poetic parlance, bringing an effortlessness of speech to the verbose role. Jonathan Redding does smarmy to perfection as the pining Comte De Guiche, and Mark Rimer bumbles beautifully as Raggeneau. Swordplay and balcony climbing are skillfully staged in the small space. (Amy Lyons). Ruskin Group Theater, 3000 Airport Dr., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 20. (310) 397-3244.

FIVE UNEASY PIECES Todd Waring's study of diverse characters, including an elderly Southern woman, an Aussie art teacher, and a French singer. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 27, plays411.com/five. (323) 960-5521.

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. (Paul Birchall). Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Jan. 29, latensemble.com. (310) 396-3680.

GO HOBOKEN TO HOLLYWOOD: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK The big-band show in this musical (book by Luca Ellis, Paul Litteral and Jeremy Aldridge) is staged as a behind-the-scenes live taping of a late-1960s television special with a star identified in the program only as "The Crooner." James Thompson's authentic set comes with sound booth, TV cameras, microphones, lighting, a spacious bandstand and stage, overhead video screens and neon applause signs. Adding to the realism is lots of backstage banter, numerous gaffes, miscues and retakes, and some well-placed comedy and drama played out between director Dwight (Al Bernstein) and his overworked and underappreciated assistant Andy (Pat Towne). There are also cheeky commercial breaks for Shmimex watches and the all-new Ford Mustang. Musical director Litteral and his nattily dressed 12-member band (Jessica Olson's costumes are entirely on cue) combine into a flawless, robust performance redolent of the best of Ellington or Basie. Luca Ellis is a knockout from start to finish as the Crooner. How good is he? If you close your eyes while he sings familiar tunes such as "That's Life," "New York, New York" and "Fly Me to the Moon," you'd swear the Chairman himself had come back for one last encore. As masterfully woven together by director Aldridge, the material is so good that the applause signs aren't really needed. (Lovell Estell III). Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 27. (310) 399-3666.

GO JULIA Playwright Vince Melocchi's sweet, melancholy drama artfully makes the point that, of all the sorrows, nothing beats the sadness of being haunted by guilt over a long-ago romantic misdeed. Lou (Richard Fancy), a frail old man who clearly does not have too much sand left in the hourglass, shambles into a run-down Pittsburgh coffeehouse, ostensibly to witness the razing of the local department store where he worked some 50 years ago. However, his real purpose in returning to the scene is an attempted reconciliation with his long-lost sweetheart, Julia, whom he feels guilty for spurning many years ago. However, Julia (Roses Prichard), who now has Alzheimer's disease, doesn't even remember her own son, Steve (Keith Stevenson). Melocchi's writing is deceptively top-heavy with conversations that at first appear pointless but gradually coalesce to construct the psychological underpinnings of strikingly plausible blue-collar characters. In director Guillermo Cienfuegos' mostly subtle and emotionally nuanced production, the pacing could stand some amping up, but the feeling of reality encompassed by the interactions and confrontations is haunting at times. In his turn as the gruff, cranky Lou, Fancy builds on our expectation that the character is a feeble old coot, gradually shifting him into a figure whose regret and rage are all too understandable. Prichard is unusually believable as the tragically blank Julia. Dramatically vivid work also is offered by Stevenson's glum, disappointed Steve and by Haskell Vaughn Anderson III, as a family friend who remembers all the parties when they were young. (Paul Birchall). Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 27. (310) 822-8392.

PICK OF THE VINE Nine plays, selected from more than 450 submissions from around the world, including Scripted by Mark Harvey Levine and Trace Evidence by Jeff Stewart. Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St., San Pedro; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 6, 7 p.m.; Thurs., Feb. 17, 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 19. (310) 512-6030.

SOCIETY MURDER MYSTERY Kentwood Players present by David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr.'s detective-thriller spoof. Westchester Playhouse, 8301 Hindry Ave., W.L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 19. (310) 645-5156.

2 PIANOS 4 HANDS Semi-autobiographical musical journey from Bach to Billy Joel by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, performed by Mark Anders and Carl Danielsen. North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Solana Beach; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; Wed., 7 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 13. (858) 481-2155.

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