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Stage Raw

Reviews of A Widow of No Importance; The Vault: Unlocked; The Stories of Isaac Leib Peretz; and more . . .

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Tue, Sep 20, 2011 at 11:23 AM
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"The gentrification of downtown Los Angeles is a sinister metamorphosis engineered by spoiled hipsters and well-heeled land grabbers in this whodunit parody by the Vault Theatre Ensemble," writes Amy Lyons about The Vault: Unlocked, at Los Angeles Theatre Center;

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Also Deborah Klugman found wry humor in Matt Chait's one-man compendium of  Yiddish yarn-telling, The Stories of Issac Leib Peretz, while Pauline Adamek found herself delighted with Shane Sakhrani's domestic comedy, A Widow of No Importance, at East West Players. Find all the latest NEW THEATER REVIEWS after the jump. 

The Los Angeles Stage Alliance has announced the nominees for its peer-judged 2011 Ovation Awards.

Here are the COMPREHENSIVE THEATER LISTINGS for the remainder of the week. Also check out the current expanded STAGE FEATURE on Theresa Rebeck's Poor Behavior

NEW THEATER REVIEWS, scheduled for publication Sept. 22, 2011


CABARET

click to enlarge ED KRIEGER
  • Ed Krieger

The original Broadway production of this musical, with book by Joe Masteroff based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin stories, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, was patently unreal, with the gay British narrator transformed into a heterosexual American, and the growing Nazi menace largely relegated to the periphery. The revisionist revival by the Roundabout Theatre brought out the show's darker side, and most subsequent productions, including this one, have followed its lead. In this rendition, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the Nazi threat is fully dramatized, and narrator Cliff Bradshaw (Jeff McLean) is identified as gay, but he plays it like a straight leading man, leaving things muddled. Bryce Ryness is effective as the scurrilous Emcee, though his performance is more flamboyant than savage. Mary Gordon Murray's Fräulein Schneider is a battered fatalist who's learned she must go along to get along. But the high points of the evening are John Iacovelli's huge and lavish set and Lisa O'Hare's fragile, manic Sally Bowles. She keeps us aware that her giddy charm is a way of concealing her desperation from herself and the world. There are also expert performances from Robert Picardo, Katrina Lenk, Zach Bandler, and the large ensemble. Reprise Theatre Company at the the Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, UCLA; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m., thru Sept. 25. (310) 825-2101, reprise.org. (Neal Weaver)

CARNEVIL

click to enlarge COURTESY OF SACRED FOOLS THEATRE COMPANY
  • Courtesy of Sacred Fools Theatre Company

The more familiar we get with real-life horror stories -- a mother is tried for the first degree murder of her own child, our country can't wake up from a fiscal nightmare -- the more we prefer our theatrical experiences escapist, preposterous. In Joe Fria and Michael Teoli's "gothic horror rock musical," Danny (hopefully, James Lynch's melodramatic acting style is intention) returns to the dying carnival run by his cousin Serena (ditto for Natascha Corrigan) and her brother (a convincing Joey Bybee). Nothing is quite as it seems, and when a creepy dude named Craven (Jeff Sumner) swoops in to save the day, things get even weirder. Despite a few rousing numbers ("Side Show" and "Freak!" in particular), some powerful performances (namely Geoffrey Dwyer), and director Janet Roston's entertaining choreography, Fria and Teoli's obsession with horror films blind them to the basic premise of the best of 'em -- keep it simple, keep it simple, keep it simple. Theater can't indulge in the complexities of film: Danny's back story, represented for a good part of Act 1 by some "thing" in a jar, and then told in nightmares of flashing lights, cut-out images projected on a screen, as well as a real-life version of childhood Danny and his parents, is more confusing than terrifying. Although Roston kept the set changes as clean as she could, there are just too many of them, which add length to an already overlong show. Cutting a few extraneous numbers, such as "Pain," would help, too. Sacred Fools has the template for a scary romp, and when the twist comes, it actually causes a little chill. But to make us duck our heads and squeeze our eyes shut like Freddy Krueger did, they must maximize on the medium's strengths. Sacred Fools Theater Company, 660 N. Heliotrope; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru October 22. (310) 281-8337, sacredfools.org. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

MADAME PRESIDENT

click to enlarge COURTESY OF EL PORTAL THEATRE
  • Courtesy of El Portal Theatre

Perhaps if it had been written and first performed in the 1950s, playwright Agatha Elizabeth Montgomery's romantic comedy about the first female President would have seemed clever and daring. However, as a contemporary, West Wing-like political satire, this proves to be toothless tour de force. With so many dynamic female leaders (from Maggie Thatcher to Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton) to fashion a fictional character from, what a pity the play takes as its focus one dimensionally conventional starch queen Madison Montague (Montgomery), the lady Commander-in-Chief, who appears to worry less about that pesky economy than about the public finding out that she's dating handsome Nobel Prize winning scientist Dr. Peter (Tom Killam). She's less a female FDR than she is Herbert Hoover in drag. It may be emblematic of our culture's latent sexism that, even in a drama that is about exploring the world of the first female President, the main concerns are about the She-Prez's romantic life. In any case, within a mythical U.S. that's strikingly devoid of any real crises, President Madison finds herself locking horns with diabolical Speaker of the House Woodley (Michael Clair Miller, nicely loathsome) over a water preservation project - while she also tries to discover the identity of whomever in her administration is leaking information to a sultry and wicked political blogger (Angelique Mechel, also delightfully nasty). If the plot sounds a little like early Aaron Sorkin, that is probably intentional, but director Rita Cofield's stilted and inertly paced production is strangely unconvincing, politically. It doesn't help matters that some uneven performances are marred by awkwardly under-projected and pause-filled line readings. Although Shirley Leong's wonderful Oval Office set is beautifully detailed and realistic, and Montgomery's bowl hairstyle-and-power suit are striking, the show's lack of dramatic heft is disappointing. El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd, N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru October 2, (866) 811-4111, elportaltheatre.com (Paul Birchall)

GO REDCAT NEW ORIGINAL WORKS FESTIVAL, WEEK TWO

click to enlarge STEVEN GUNTHER
  • Steven Gunther

Doomed women dominated the second week of REDCAT's New Original Works festival. The first of two paired pieces was Rosanna Gamson's Layla Means Night, a dance interpretation of "Scheherazade" where the dead brides own the show. In a morbidly beautiful moment, three corpses descended from the ceiling shrouded in white fabric like butterflies dried in a spider web. Once they touched down upon the stage, they morphed into ghouls in red dresses, crawling on all fours with their knees, elbows and wrists bent at deathly lurching angles. When they stood and danced, they were determined to take up as much room as possible, thrusting their long arms and legs into the air and landing with a determined thud, as a modern blonde in satin punctuated the mood by angrily halving lemons. The vague feminism climaxed with a near five-minute long shower of red rose petals, the scent of which filled the room even if the slender ideas in the piece couldn't. Post-intermission was Robert Cucuzza's straightforward but satisfying Cattywampus, a dramedy that relocates Strindberg's 1888 Miss Julie to a Pennsylvania car lot. The action was set to a dynamite mock-Western score of trumpets and guitars by Juli Crockett. Miss Julie (Jillian Lauren) was now the wife -- not daughter -- of the dealership owner (what dad still has command over a grown woman?) and after a drunken office party, she propositioned the auto detailer Donnie (D.J. Mendel) by propping her foot on the break table and ordering him to kiss her shoe. Mendel is a deft physical comedian -- he peeked under her dress and then slithered to freedom like a limbo champion. The blue collar slapstick and jokes about Ford Pintos and screw-top wine gave the play the appearance of kitsch, but under the surface it roiled with violent class tension. Lauren's Miss Julie liked to be in control but lusted to be thrown around by this hick with dirty hands. Yet Mendel was so good, he stole the show's focus, giving her the fantasy she wanted. But when she over-reached and cooed ""I want you to watch me watch the sunrise," he growled back, "That's stupid." Jenny Greer as Chrissie, Donnie's passed-out girlfriend, also had a knack for understatement. Towards the end, she sobered up just enough to get the entire audience laughing. Donnie and Chrissie's relationship might not be true love, but at least they shared a passion for beer and line-dancing, though when they partnered up, Donnie seemed deliberately to skip half the steps. Hey, sometimes a sketch can be just as solid as the real deal. REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn.; Next week, a different bill: WEEK THREE: Thurs.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; thru Sept. 24; (213) 237-2800, redcat.org. (Amy Nicholson)

SHOOTING STAR

click to enlarge ED KRIEGER
  • Ed Krieger

There is perhaps one genuine moment of emotional truth in Steven Dietz's otherwise dubious 2008 comic melodrama. It occurs early in the play, when Dietz's middle-aged, former college lovers, Reed McAllister (Kevin Symons) and Elena Carson (Michelle Duffy), recognize each other across an airport departure lounge (on David Potts' eerily empty air terminal set) and quickly turn their backs, each quite rightly dreading even a passing re-aquaintance with ghosts from their past. Then Reed inexplicably does an about-face just as a winter blizzard makes the pair captive to a closed airport and 80 of the most improbable minutes in either modern air travel or recent playwriting. For any love story to get off the ground, an audience must fall for the romantic protagonists before even the characters themselves. Symons and Duffy are both perfectly affable and charming performers, and they mine the self-consciously sardonic similes of Dietz's dialogue for all the laughs they're worth. Their characters, however, are such sourly pallid portraits of prodigal refugees from the 1970s that their mild sparring and flirtatious rehash of the past always feels unconvincing and inadvisable, never irresistible or compelling. By the time all their regrets have been uttered and their sad lives thoroughly aired, all that gets revealed is that they are as empty and shallow as forty-something adults as they were in their 20s. Director David Rose and a capable design team (including costumer Dianne K. Graebner's unsettling Stevie Nicks-riffed wardrobe) lavish the production with polish; what they are unable to lend the story is authentic heart. Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 3 & 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Oct. 16. (818) 558-7000, colonytheatre.org. (Bill Raden)

GO THE STORIES OF ISAAC LEIB PERETZ

click to enlarge ED KRIEGER
  • Ed Krieger

A cynic tracks the whereabouts of an elusive rabbi who disappears from the community during a period of Jewish penitence and prayer. A poor schlemiel, having stoically endured a lifetime of misery, appears before a heavenly tribunal to receive his due reward - but is then too timid to collect it. An unenlightened traveler confides his marital woes to a fellow sojourner; his hysterically distraught young wife says she's "bored" and - can one believe it?! - wants to spend time reading. Poet, playwright, journalist and writer of short stories, Isaac Leib Peretz was a pivotal voice in Yiddish literature and in the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement of the 19th century that preached expanding secular education for Jews while encouraging them to continue to nurture their Jewish identity. As a writer Peretz both loved - and heartily laughed at - the people he wrote about; his stories are embedded with the fantasies and superstitions of the pious, as well as the philosophical reflections of his own more skeptical mind. Framed by a bare stage, with a few boxes as props, playwright-director Matt Chait plays multiple roles in a masterly rendering of seven of Peretz' irony-laden tales. His transitions are highlighted by designer John Toom's adept lighting and underscored by violinist Lior Kaminetsky interim Klezmer solos. Some of the narratives ramble, and at nearly two and a half hours the program is too long -but overall it's time well spent journeying into this humane and thoughtful writer's perspective. Ruby Theater at the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Wed.-Thurs. 8 p.m.; Sat. 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Oct. 10. (323) 960-7780, plays411.com/peretz.; complexhollywood.com. (Deborah Klugman)

THE UNAUTHORIZED AFTERLIFE OF EUGENE O'NEILL Serial adulterer, raging drunk, quasi-anarchist, Princeton castoff, creator of modern American theater, Eugene O'Neill was quite a character. By the time he was 24, O'Neill had fathered and abandoned his first child, sailed to Central America and attempted suicide. By 32, he'd won his first Pulitzer. A eulogy of sorts, this play begins at the end, with O'Neill (James Cady) entering the austere set, a black, coffin-like table adorned with a small bouquet of white chrysanthemums, in a cloud of white light. This thin set-up--that O'Neill's still restless spirit has embarked on a round of theater-hopping, restaging his life night after night in order to plunder it for meaning -- makes some biographical sense but lacks dramatic focus. Free to roam, the work quickly settles into what's largely a litany of family tragedies: mother, the morphine junkie, the embittered father, the death by alcoholism of his older brother, the suicide of his own sons, and so forth-- a choice that doesn't so much bring to life the man as it does the Wikipedia entry. A stronger hand from director Brian Hansen might have benefited the production. By turns angry, self-mocking, sarcastic and mournful, Cady delivers a performance that can be moving and amusing but also sentimental and rarely layered. The actor, who also wrote the script, scores some emotionally complicated moments, such as when he exploits the pain of a suicidal friend, and also captures something of the rhythms of the artist's work. But by glossing the sins in favor of the sinned against, the play sidesteps O'Neill's own ferocious honesty. Meanwhile, Michael L. Miller's lighting design adds somewhat to the mood, ranging mainly from static to literal. Pasadena Playhouse, Carrie Hamilton Theater, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Fri., Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (added mat Sat., Sept. 24, 2 p.m.); thru Sept. 25. (626) 356-PLAY, pasadenaplayhouse.org. (Mindy Farabee)

GO THE VAULT: UNLOCKED

click to enlarge VaultHectorCruzSalvador.jpg

The gentrification of downtown Los Angeles is a sinister metamorphosis engineered by spoiled hipsters and well-heeled land grabbers in this whodunit parody by the Vault Theatre Ensemble. Greedy real estate developer Ron Dillinger (Fidel Gomez) has plunged to his death from a rooftop near Spring and Sixth Street. The gory details of the maligned millionaire's end are revealed via a series of sketches and songs that create a backdrop against which he was offed. Suspects include a local dress maker whom Dillinger couldn't buy; a down-and-out entrepreneur whose dreams were crushed when Dillinger cut him out of a deal; a kinky dominatrix; the homeless population; and Dillinger's impregnated, undocumented maid. The immigrants, drug addicts, hot dog vendors and small merchants all have a common enemy in Dillinger, and they despise the homogenous crowd his live/work developments attract. While clues to the murder are slowly gathered, hilarious song-and-dance numbers about "hurricane hipster" keep the social commentary on track. An intensely pathetic gaggle of overconfident dudes practically shoot their wads in anticipation of the downtown artwalk, at which they intend to soak up the ironic coolness of the grimy area and "get wasted at a dive bar." The local hot dog vendor is hilariously displaced at said artwalk by a hot dog eating performance artist. All of this territorial outrage is executed skillfully by the intensely cohesive ensemble, but the material sometimes meanders. Jasmine Orpilla's original musical score holds things together when the sketches get a little saggy and Francois Pierre-Couture's stylized scenic design strikes the right cartoonish note. Co-directors Aaron Garcia and Fidel Gomez adroitly manage the chaotic fun. Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Thurs.-Sat., 9 p.m.; thru Oct. 8. (866) 811-4111, thelatc.org. (Amy Lyons)

GO A WIDOW OF NO IMPORTANCE

click to enlarge MICHAEL LAMONT
  • Michael Lamont

Fun and frothy, new playwright Shane Sakhrani's insightful play presents the lighter side of the socially crippling stigma of widowhood in modern India. Although it's been two years since still-young-at-50 Deepa (an impishly cute Linda Patel) lost her husband, she insists on fasting and praying all day and refuses to leave her posh apartment. All Deepa wants before she dies is to see her gorgeous grown daughter married. But the thoroughly modern Tara (Puja Mohindra) is resisting an arranged marriage and exhorting her well-off mother to escape her largely self-imposed seclusion and enjoy life so she can head off to study abroad. Meanwhile Deepa cooks for and commiserates with her son's childhood friend Vinod (Sunil Malhotra), the recently divorced guy-next-door, and surprises herself by succumbing to his advances. For these unconventional lovebirds, life is suddenly brimming with the vibrant colors of romance, until Deepa's grown children find out. Sakhrani's dialogue and situations are clever and realistic, and his protagonists mostly skirt caricature, though the three male 'suitor' characters (all played by the hysterically funny Parvesh Cheena) do venture into broad comedy to hilarious effect. Anjali Bhimani is excellent as Deepa's fashionable best friend, the fast-talking and scheming matchmaker Lalitha. Director Shaeen Vaaz neatly inserts some slapstick moments and Bollywood flavor and keeps Sakhrani's marvelous two-act play skipping along. East West Players at David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Oct 9. (213) 625-7000, eastwestplayers.org (Pauline Adamek)

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