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New Theater Reviews: The School of Night, The Joy Luck Club

Fata Morgana

Vitor MartinsFata Morgana

BEAUTY OF ASHES Writer and star Peres Owino’s furious semibiographical poetry and dance piece about female victimization initially argues that for rape victims, the only way past the pain is whoring, being hanged or suicide. Owino’s women and girls span centuries, from a modern-day prostitute and an African princess sold into slavery to a 6-year-old hiding under the stairs; all are united by Owino’s committed portrayal of their suffering. As directed by Ayana Cahrr, supporting dancers Katy O’Toole, Nicholas Utley and Mecca Andrews (the play’s strong, tall choreographer who has the arm span of a condor) hiss “bitch” and “slut” while slinking across the womb painted on the floor, then simulate Owino’s true-life horrors behind a translucent curtain. In Owino’s most searing scene, she argues the viewpoint of one of her oppressors, a charismatic village elder who calls herself “the giver of wisdom” for performing clitoridectomies, preferably without numbing potion; the woman is so entrenched in her own cultural subjugation, she brags that her patients have a success rate of only 12 beatings. Owino’s detours into the language of her native Kenya had a few women in the audience nodding along. The rest of us catch up to her train of thought when her contemporary character dissuades herself from putting a gun in her mouth. She realizes that the path to healing isn’t warding off shame and convincing herself that she “wanted it”; from there, she moves on to give an earnest speech about real empowerment. Stage 52 Theatre, 5299 W. Washington Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through Nov. 16. (323) 960-4429. Nyar Num Productions. (Amy Nicholson)

ELOVE — A MUSICAL.COM/EDY This world-premiere musical by Wayland Pickard explores an online romance between an older man and woman who are newly single. After a Web site called “eLove” matches Frank (Lloyd Pedersen) and Carol (Bobbi Stamm), love seems to blossom as they begin chatting online. The opening number “I’m Single” has a catchy tune with some clever lyrics; unfortunately the highlight of the show comes five minutes in. The rest devolves into repetitive and unimaginative quips punctuated by musical numbers that plunge from the pedestrian to something akin to theme songs from an ’80s sitcom. Pickard does everything in this production but act; his staging lends it a one-dimensional quality that might have been avoided with greater collaboration. He is so focused on trying to milk puns for laughs that his direction employs hackneyed devices, such as talking to pets, and monologues delivered out to the audience. Stamm stumbles over one too many lines, though she and Pedersen have pleasant voices, but Chris Winfield’s cramped set allows them little freedom to physically explore their characters. The piece, in effect, becomes an Ed Sullivan–style standup routine with dialogue so trite, it makes George Lucas look like Edward Albee. NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri., 8 p.m. (Dec. 5-21 only); Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (323) 822-7898. An Angry Amish Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

 GO  FATA MORGANA Hungarian playwright Ernest Vajda is perhaps best known for the screenplays he wrote for director Ernst Lubitsch (including that for The Merry Widow) but this forgotten gem of a romantic comedy, written in 1915, with a tempestuous young man-meets-older woman love affair at its core, is an engrossing, emotionally nuanced oddity. Innocent teenager George (Michael Hanson), a provincial boy living in his family’s isolated chateau in the Hungarian countryside, finds his life turned upside down when his distant cousin’s wife, Mathilde (Ursula Brooks), a sultry vixen 10 years his senior, arrives from the city for a vacation. In a twist of fate that would not seem out of place in the Hungarian 1915 issue of Penthouse Forum, Mathilde shows up on the doorstep while George’s parents just happen to be out for the evening — and she almost instantly beds the virginal, horny young man, who afterward falls in love with her. Complications ensue when Mathilde’s pompous lawyer husband (Scott Conte) arrives at the house the next morning. Although Vajda’s three-act comedy occasionally falls prey to patches of inert dialogue, director Marilyn Fox’s psychologically assured production, blessed by Audrey Eisner’s gorgeous period costumes, possesses a delicate, melancholy emotional truth. In this fragile relationship, Mathilde, who knows the boy better than he knows himself, adores the idea of living forever in the young man’s memory. Performances are deft and multidimensional, particularly Brooks’ inscrutable older beauty. Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (310) 822-8392. (Paul Birchall)

HISTRIONICS This slate of one-acts, based on recorded events, is told through characters forgotten by history. The idea is intriguing, but the end results are far from satisfactory. The dazzling performance of Leigh Anne Goodoff is the only thing that stands out in Michael McKeever’s “Laura Keene Goes On.” She skillfully channels an egotistical, out-of-sorts thespian backstage on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Ken Brisbois directs his own, very funny “Sticks & Stones,” in which a pair of convicts (Scott Rognlien and Rob Smith) shares humorous reflections and much agony while hanging on their crosses, awaiting the arrival of J.C. Rognlien directs Sean Presant’s “A D-day at the Beach.” Here, as elsewhere on the bill, silliness and dull humor pervade: A pair of clueless Brits (Maia Peters and Jason Frost) holidays at Normandy during the historic invasion by Allied forces. Owen Hammer’s puerile “Primitive Peoples” finds Ali Khan as a Meso-American chief whose idyllic life is threatened by the arrival of Europeans and an alien. Pilgrims and Indians share a meal and vapid conversation in Maggie Bandur’s “More White Meat,” directed by Stuart Meltzer. Here, Khan is quite funny as a native with a surprising strain of sophistication. Lounge Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Nov. 30. (No perf Thanksgiving.) (323) 805-9355. Produced by The Next Arena. (Lovell Estell III)

 GO THE JOY LUCK CLUB The quartet of mothers from feudal China and their American daughters form the heart of Amy Tan’s novel, and her screenplay for Wayne Wang’s 1993 film. Susan Kim’s stage adaptation, which premiered in New York in 1999, presents an inordinate challenge to any director: keeping the four story threads and their spiraling flashbacks, anchored in 1980s San Francisco, from fraying in the morass of Tan’s epic landscape. Jon Lawrence Rivera’s staging tackles that challenge head-on with the use of John H. Binkley’s elegant set and projections that have duel purposes: A kind of suspended parchment scroll unfurls to form the stage floor to unite the whirlwind stories; furthermore, projected titles offer clear chapter headings and the names of characters being “framed,” in order to sustain some clarity of focus. The result of Rivera’s noble effort is a kind of duel between dramatic unity and the sprawling essence of Kim’s adaptation (and Tan’s novel). King Lear, which hangs on the sagas of three daughters and their hubristic father, has a similar theatrical swirl, but imagine adding a fourth daughter, and all their mothers. Rivera gets an array of lovely performances, with particularly striking turns from Celeste Den, Karen Huie and Emily Kuroda. Also Rivera’s use of live music adds atmosphere that mostly enhances but occasionally suffocates the tender scenes being played out. David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 5. (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.com. An East West Players production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

MELODRAMA PLAY First produced by La Mama in 1967, Sam Shepard’s rock & roll–studded one act takes an acerbic look at the music business and the wannabes who hunger after its glories. Longhaired Duke (Aaron David Gleason) is a singer with one megahit under his belt; now his manager Floyd (Gerard Marzilli) is pressuring him to come up with another, but the creative juices aren’t flowing; that’s because, unbeknownst to Floyd or Duke’s excitable girlfriend Dana (Rebecca White), Duke had stolen the winning song from his brother, Drake (Nick Denning), and his buddy, Cisco (Harry May-Kline). The strained relationship between the brothers becomes irrelevant after Floyd places all three musicians and Dana under the intimidating watch of a psychopathic muscle-woman named Peter (Fortune Feimster, a successful cross-gender casting choice at variance from the original script). The vigil is to last until a new winning number is produced. Peter’s appearance on the scene injects this hitherto hobbling production with a new dynamic, emanating from the character’s odd mix of menace and vulnerability, and her comic propensity for violence. Under Peter Choi’s direction, the serviceable performances unfortunately lack much spark. In particular, Gleason’s spacy rocker comes off phlegmatic to a fault; by contrast, White as his opinionated companion, inclines toward histrionics. Paul Gleason Theater, 6520 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Nov. 22. (323) 255-5636. A Trystero Theatre Company production. (Deborah Klugman)

SALVAGE The title of Diane Glancy’s drama refers both to the play’s setting in an auto-salvage yard and the larger struggle Native Americans face in reclaiming their dignity and traditions in the White Man’s world. Glancy’s work also confronts the turmoil that can erupt among native peoples when their rage against that world is taken out on each other. While driving home with his father to his small-town yard on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, Wolf (Noah Watts) accidentally hits another car, seriously injuring his father, Wofert (Robert Owens-Greygrass), and the family in the other vehicle. But the other victims’ clan has a history of bad blood between Wolf’s family, and when one victim dies, Wolf and his kin become targets of vengeance. With Wolf’s devout Christian wife, Memela (Elena Finney), counseling restraint and Wofert seeking wisdom from his late wife’s spirit, Wolf tries to avoid the “us against us” battle, but it tragically overwhelms him nonetheless. Glancy structures her play into all too brief scenes that pique then deflate our interest and at times she displays a penchant for clumsy exposition. While Owens-Greygrass’ performance is steady, Sheila Tousey’s direction results in mostly melodramatic histrionics from the tentative Watts and Finney. Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 &.8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 23. (866) 468-3399 (Martín Hernández)

THE SCHOOL OF NIGHT Peter Whelan’s talky history drama, set between 1592 and 1593, cuts to the purpose of art. There’s no doubt this purpose deserves some explanation in our economic crisis, with soaring debt and unemployment, a time when the arts descend even further on the scale of our national priorities and perceptions — as though they ever resided much beyond the bottom ring of sludge. Whelan’s central character is atheist Christopher Marlowe (Gregory Wooddell), around whom Whelen casts an eventually suspenseful mystery leading to Marlowe’s murder amidst camps of paranoid royalist Protestants and their Catholic detractors. While the play makes allusions to his Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the author himself is presented as something of a prankster, the kid in the back of the class hurling spit wads at anything and anybody who wields authority. God heads that list, and that’s where Marlowe starts in mock poems and prayers, reversing his name by praying to “Dog.” And that, ultimately, is art’s highest purpose, Marlowe posits — to so upset the presumptions of our theology and even our existence, that new conversations and perceptions might emerge. Among Sir Walter Raleigh (Henri Lubatti) and other Elizabethan rock stars, Marlowe’s young peer, Shakespeare (John Sloan), puts in the kind of appearance that calls into questions the authorship of his much of his canon. (Critic Robert Brustein posited similar questions about the originality of Shakespeare’s ideas in his Pulitzer- nominated comedy, The English Channel.) Marlowe has some great insights about the distinction between the ideas of a playwright and the ideas of a play. But it’s the dank blend of writers and thinkers talking about writing and thinking, and the arch grandeur of Bill Alexander’s otherwise nicely sculpted staging, that renders the heart of Whelan’s idea about the higher purpose of art as somehow quaint — giving perverse and obviously unintended support to Marlowe’s opponents, and all opponents of art as dissent. Amdist the solid and stylish ensemble, Alicia Roper’s Audry Walsingham, carrying a perpetual sneer and gravel-voiced articulation, is never less than hypnotic. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Dec. 17. (213) 680-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris)

THYESTES’ FEAST In the very good monologue that opens writer-director Peter Wing Healey’s uneven tragedy, the Sun (Bridgette Trahan) argues the primacy of the Greek classics, plays that “rise above the evening news.” Contridictorily, the play’s contemporary resonance isn’t dug out of the myth but spackled over it. Here, the vengeful House of Atreus is a tale of economics, not of blood guilt or cursed inheritance. King Thystes (Robert Long) is a social democrat ruling over ingrates: The communist peasants are restless and, the capitalist gentry is transferring allegiance to his cutthroat brother Atreus (Clint Steinhauser). In another dig to the ribs, Atreus’ cabinet occasionally adopts a Crawford, Texas, twang and the actor cast as Thystes is slim, young, even-tempered and black. When Atreus tricks his brother into eating his own sons, instead of recalling their grandfather Tantalus’ forays into cannibalism, we’re meant to think of Karl Rove trying to stick mud to his rivals. Much of this distracts from, not enriches the myth, as does the direction, which jumps from burlesque to Expressionist to Shakespearean within a single scene, and casting that also favors eclecticism over ability. A monologue recited in a sheep’s bray only distracts the audience from paying attention to its crucial content. Costume designer Karolyn Küsel’s costumes, however, are fabulous, particularly in her frocks for Healey, who plays the two-timing Queen Aerope in larger-than-life drag. Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 30. (323) 960-7745. (Amy Nicholson)