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Theater Reviews

GO PICK THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF A TRAILER-TRASH HOUSEWIFE  Del Shores may well be the Molière of L.A. Over decades, the writer-director-producer has stuck with, and by, a repertory of actors in his own comedies who frequently home in on hypocrites who cloak their power abuses, and homophobia, in the garb of the church. Trials and Tribulations (2003) concerns a wise hausfrau, Willadean (Beth Grant), stuck in a Texas trailer home. She teaches herself one new word a day — “pulverize, solidarity” — words that feed her battered self-respect. Through the visitations of a black neighbor, La Sonia (Octavia Spencer), and a slutty, over-the-hill cocktail waitress, Rayleen (Dale Dickey), Willadean slowly untangles the fibers of love, neediness and loathing that keep her attached to her increasingly abusive husband, J.D. (David Steen). (J.D. quotes the Bible to justify his thrashings of Willadean, and his opposition to her friends and her “liberation” — a part-time job at Wal-Mart.) Though the portrait of spousal abuse appears lifted from any rural domestic-abuse file, it floats in a pool of tart satirical jokes (extended riffs on crushed Lay’s potato chips baked into a casserole, and “cherry dump delight”) that land with unexpected poignancy. “Lord, she does not look good in the light of day,” remarks Willadean about her approaching competition, Rayleen — with the telling coda, “bless her heart.” A blues singer (understudy Pam Trotter) croons gospel and other ditties that work in counterpoint to the otherwise-stock melodrama, while gilding the comedy’s theological frame. The clutter of Robert Steinberg’s harrowing set provokes some painful humor, but the play’s essence comes from its perfect cast, so that it unfolds with chiseled nuance, and the authenticity of wizened faces and gentle smiles. Zephyr Theater, 7456 Melrose Ave., L.A.; in rep, call for schedule; thru June 17. (800) 595-4849. (Steven Leigh Morris)

A BED AND A BAR The music. The slang. The characters’ and audience members’ prowess with cell phones — there’s nothing like a comedy about young love to keep the monocled theater critic tethered to contemporary America. However, while Carlos Javier Castillo’s play has flashes of zippy dialogue (press materials tout him as “the Mexican Mamet”) and some wry observations on modern relationships, after a while those relationships start to look a lot like the kind we’re used to seeing onstage. Two couples meet separately at a bar for one-night stands but find themselves falling into the long haul. At this point (roughly when the male characters’ over-the-top comments about pussy, bitches and hos get stale), the story itself falls for traditional, purple badinage about commitment and loneliness, and loses its comedic bling. Gloria Gifford lightly directs a double-cast, shoestring production (actors at the “bar” pour their own drinks out of a bottle), but moves things swiftly across set designers Neita and Dayton’s spartan set, which is inexplicably bookended downstage by a crucifix and a flashlight. On the night I attended, Shaun Baker’s performance as smooth-talking club prowler Christian was easily the show’s biggest charm; that evening’s bill also included Chad Doreck, Anaisabel Mercado, Kimberly Demarse and Joseph Eid as a fifth-wheel character who seems to represent the latest in male dandyism but whose skinny leather tie, cassette tapes and use of pay phones was oddly anachronistic. GGC Theater, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru July 1. (800) 595-4849. (Steven Mikulan)

GO ELIZABETH REX Playwright Timothy Findley’s exuberantly ambitious flight of fancy wonders what would have happened if Queen Elizabeth I had spent the night in a barn with Shakespeare and his acting company while waiting for word that her betraying lover, The Earl of Essex, had succumbed to the executioner’s ax. The highly overwrought but enjoyably literate text pits Elizabeth (Karesa McElheny) against pox-ridden, homosexual actor Ned (David H. Ferguson), who plays all of the Bard’s leading women. The two spar over gender definitions as the rest of the company stand amazed that the monarch would engage with such a creature at all. All of the performers are intense in character and perfectly articulate in their several differentiated dialects. Director Robert Mammana gives his actors permission to chew scenery untethered, and it pays off. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s perfect period costumes, along with Dana Moran William’s heavy wooden set, are both treats. NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 25. (818) 508-7101, Ext. 5. (Tom Provenzano)

IRMA & EMMA/RICHARD & FELIX Two short works by locally based German playwright Cornelius Schnauber examine the last days of three people. In Irma & Emma, a one-act very similar to David Storey’s Home, two senile old ladies confined to a nursing home recall their lives in scrambled memories. Opinionated Irma (Laura James) has been married several times and confuses her husbands with her son and her father. Also, she enjoys decrying sex. Emma (Dorothy Constantine), a much gentler soul, forgets most everything not long after hearing or saying it, save for her fondly remembered life as a farmer’s wife. In a work filled with non sequiturs, Schnauber is clearly reaching for Beckett-like profundity, but his obvious, generic pronouncements fall far short. James and Constantine throw themselves into their roles despite the banality of the dialogue, and director Louis Fantasia basically leaves everyone alone. Richard & Felix, despite its title, is a monologue, in which Richard Wagner on his dying day talks to the unseen ghost of Felix Mendelssohn and begs to be understood. But Schnauber has imbued his Wagner with too much self-consciousness, to say nothing of a post-Holocaust sensibility regarding anti-Semitism. As Wagner, Fantasia looks nothing like the composer, but his stentorian delivery conveys the right authority. Starting June 1, Don DeForest Paul assumes the role. Met Theater, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 25. (323) 957-1152. (David Mermelstein)

 

GO ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD You might call it Waiting for Hamlet. Director Tiger Reel, by dressing the title characters in Tom Stoppard’s philosophic comedy in shabby suits, scuffed brogans and derby hats, reminds us of the play’s similarities to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. As Stoppard observes, “Every exit is an entrance somewhere else,” but Shakespeare’s feckless courtiers, as fictional characters, find themselves in limbo when they’re out of the action. They wait, flip coins and wonder about the meaning of life and death, oblivious of the plot that leads them to doom. By nudging the play toward slapstick and comic anachronisms, Reel mounts a production that’s more lively than subtle, and the two protagonists emerge as part Vladimir and Estragon, part Mutt and Jeff. Geoffrey Hillback renders Rosencrantz as an endearing goofball, and a fitting foil for the soberer Guildenstern of Brian Helm. They make a terrific comic team, abetted by a florid performance by Raymond Donahey as The Player, while Adam Chambers provides a willfully eccentric Hamlet. Reel and Amanda Karr’s minimalist/constructivist set is handsome and flexible, but dressing the (mostly female) troupe of tragedians in Victorian lingerie seems merely gimmicky. Knightsbridge Theater, 1944 Riverside Dr., Silver Lake; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 11. (323) 667-0955. (Neal Weaver)SENSITIVE SKIN There’s one good reason to see this play and her name is Kate Ascott-Evans. As Eden, the molten center of Shem Bitterman’s drama about a neurotic photographer and her relationship with two warring brothers (Warren Kole and Paul Wesley), Ascott-Evans gives a gutsy and unnerving performance that reverberates long after the lights go out. Elephant Theater, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru June 24. (323) 960-4410. (Steven Mikulan) See next week’s Stage feature.

GO SOLOMANIA!: The Watts Towers Project Roger Guenveur Smith’s solo show gathers inspiration from Simon Rodia, the unassuming Italian immigrant who spent 33 years single-handedly building the Watts Towers from found art, then deeded them to a neighbor for $1,000 and walked away. (“I wanted to do something great,” he said.) Rodia’s story represents but one narrative thread in this often opaque and rambling yet mesmerizing piece. Framed by outsize slides of the structures’ architectural detail, as well as Caruso’s mellifluously symbolic rendition of “O Solo Mio,” Smith presents a kind of cultural collage that juxtaposes “salvaged,” sometimes shadowy, memories of family and friends with historic events and personalities: the shooting death of a cousin; the assassination of Bobby Kennedy; the Watts riots (which left the towers unscathed); the untimely death of his friend, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; and the violent clubbing of Dodger catcher John Roseboro by Giants pitcher Juan Marichal, which prompted the 6-year-old Roger to angrily tear up his baseball cards. A spoken-word artist who riffs on language, Smith also adopts an oddly spastic slow-motion gait to accentuate the work’s dreamlike elements. His tumbleweeding, rampageous style is equal parts confusing and illuminating. Kirk Douglas Theater, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; in rep, call for schedule; thru June 11. (213) 628-2772. (Deborah Klugman)

GO STRIPSEARCH Developed with Paula Killen, Adria Tennor’s highly engaging autobiographical one-woman show is composed of a series of vignettes that trace her journey from insecure adolescent to sexually emancipated female. While removing layer after layer of clothing, Tennor tells a story of failed romances and dead-end jobs. While attending NYU, she worked as a coat-check girl and was noticed by a man claiming to be an agent for CAA. (He wasn’t.) After that, she tried standup comedy but bombed because she delivered the not-so-funny jokes with her eyes closed. After moving to L.A., where she became a personal assistant to a woman who did nothing, she found the dating scene so miserable that she vowed to remain celibate for a year. During this time, she enrolled in a stripping class and, though initially intimidated by the requisite 6-inch heels and itsy-bitsy costume, she found self-confidence through pole dancing. Sharp direction by Melora Hardin helps Tennor create distinct characters, and Brett Sheridan’s inventive lighting delineates clear scene changes and mood shifts. Acme Comedy Theater, 135 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Tues., 8 p.m. (added perf Fri., June 2 & 23, 8:30 p.m.); thru June 23. (323) 525-0202. (Sandra Ross)

 

STUCK Toronto is tough when you’re a struggling actor (read: shiftless pothead) named Jack (the fine David DeLautour). Not only is he ensconced in an increasingly common “premidlife crisis,” but the closest he’s come to the stage in six years is as an usher. And some thug just stole his pot. David Rubinoff’s self-destructive one-act demands the suspension of disbelief. It’s amusing, dramatic and easy to swallow that characters from Jack’s wretched 24 hours — a simple stream-of-consciousness monologue with the patter of spoken verse — reappear through unusual circumstances. However, Jack’s reefer madness that kicks off the whole series of unfortunate events (including his losing his change in a candy machine, eating too many prunes and getting felt up by a nun) catches in the throat — how many weed junkies get the shakes? Still, this rambling comedy is just dark enough to pretend to have significance, and director Justin Ross (helped by Carol Strober’s set and Brent Beath’s lights) grants it a modest sincerity that allows Rubinoff’s Grand Guignol of street grime more resonance and poetry than it deserves. Elephant Lab Theater, 1078 Lillian Way, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 4. (323) 908-9643. (Amy Nicholson)THE TENTH MAN Set in a shabby Long Island synagogue, Paddy Chayefsky’s comic spin on S. Ansky’s Yiddish theater classic The Dybbuk zeroes in on Evelyn (Jossara Jinaro), a young woman reputed to be insane. Her grandfather (Joseph R. Sicari) insists that she’s not crazy but possessed by a dybbuk — a dead soul that has taken over her body. He persuades his fellow worshippers that they must perform an exorcism to drive out the malignant spirit. Attempting to round up a 10th man to complete the minyan (required for an Orthodox service), the sexton (Gary Grossman) ropes in Arthur (Alex Craig Mann), an alcoholic, suicidal lawyer, who immediately falls in love with Evelyn. Despite obstacles, the exorcism is performed, complete with black candles and the blowing of the ram’s horn — but the results aren’t what they expected. Chayefsky’s play is essentially a folk comedy, well-larded with shtick and offering a field day to an engaging crew of (mostly) Jewish character actors (including James Sloyan, Joseph Ruskin, Burt Metcalfe and Howard Storm). Gene Reynolds’ direction is clever but overbusy, made more awkward by technical difficulties at the performance attended. Camelot Artists at the Skylight Theater, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 18. (Some roles are double-cast.) (310) 358-9936. (Neal Weaver)

THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE William Saroyan’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize– and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award–winning work may well have expressed the zeitgeist of its time, landing on Broadway amid the throes of the Great Depression and the anxious anticipation of another world war. Nowadays, however, it’s a slice-of-life chestnut that merely portrays the mischievous yet tedious antics of a host of eccentric characters. Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon is a seedy dive on San Francisco’s waterfront where the wealthy, champagne-guzzling Joe (Michael Franco) dispenses money and wisdom among the bar’s despondent denizens. When Joe’s gofer Tom (Jimmy Kieffer), whose life was possibly saved by Joe, falls for lonely hooker Kitty (Anna Khaja), Joe plays Cupid to the star-crossed pair. Under Stefan Novinski’s direction, there are some exceptional individual performances, notably Franco’s drunken philosopher, Khaja’s vulnerable whore and Michael Patrick McGill’s gruff but sympathetic bar owner Nick. But taken together, these and other worthy pieces add up to a whole that’s sadly unsatisfying. Open Fist Theater, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; pay-what-you-will perfs May 28 & June 4; thru July 1. (323) 882-6912. (Martín Hernández)

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