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ABSINTHE, OPIUM, AND MAGIC; GAY APPAREL: A CHRISTMAS CAROL, THE HOUSE OF BESARAB

Absinthe Opium & Magic
Mark Bennington

GO   ABSINTHE, OPIUM, AND MAGIC 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 antechamber 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 that 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 piglike mobster (Roy Starr). Anchored by Debbie 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, gets 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 the perfect embodiment of mysterious evil — and the horrific fate of Long’s ill-fated naif 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 Web site for added perfs; through January 3. brownpapertickets.com/event/82322. Grand Guignolers and [via] Corpora Performance R& D House production. (Paul Birchall)

GO   ACCOMPLICE: HOLLYWOOD 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 Boulevard locations, schedule varies. accomplicetheshow.com. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature

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.; through December 20. (800) 838-3006. (Deborah Klugman)

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 lineup, 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; and a Cirque du Soleil minotaur re-enacts 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 during 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, as 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. Groundling Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; through December 19. (323) 934-9700. (Amy Nicholson)

THE HOUSE OF BESARAB 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.; through December 20. (310) 203-2850. (Bill Raden)

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 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 humankind — 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 real 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, overly 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 Blvd.; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m., through December 20. neoacrotheatre.com. A Neo Acro Theatre Company production. (Neal Weaver)

GO   ROBBIE JENSEN: THE 12 STEPS OF CHRISTMAS Into Shane Birdsill’s slick, corporate-style set, complete with flip charts, graphic posters and a flat-panel TV 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 onstage, 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 near the end and which 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.; through December 20. (323) 960-1053. (Mayank Keshaviah)

THE SANTALAND DIARIES 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, the narrator of Sedaris’ tale, performer Nicholas Brendon, 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 wear 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 and foul-mouthed parents to co-workers as deranged as they are elfin. Although Sedaris’ 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’ 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.; through December 20. theblank.com, (323) 661-9827. A Blank Theatre Company production. (Paul Birchall)

STATED INCOME 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. While the improbable scheme ultimately pays off, little else does in a disjointed, threadbare narrative beset by too much pedestrian dialogue and too many underdeveloped 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 Hawks–ian pace. Pan Andreas Theater, 5125 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through December 20. (323) 960-7788, statedincome-theplay.com. Presented by Actorhood. (Bill Raden)

GO   THREE TALL WOMEN In a 2005 interview given to the Academy of Achievement, Edward Albee asked: “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 of life unfulfilled, and looming death, which garnered Albee his third Pulitzer in 1994. In the opening tableau, we first see a senile, elderly woman 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 Boetcher’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.; through December 20 (323) 460-4443. (Lovell Estell III)

WACADEMIA Joe Camhi’s satire of political correctness in academia has a buzz saw 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/standup 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 Mcanarney-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 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 “megaculturalism.” In that first act lie 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 hubby’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. Actor’s Playpen, 1514 N. Gardner St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through December 19. (323) 874-1733. (Steven Leigh Morris)