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Theater Reviews

CHEKHOV MANIA: A RUSSIAN VAUDEVILLE Straight out of the late 19th century, the “Pan-Siberian Touring Co.” brings us three of Chekhov’s broadly comic one-act plays complete with vaudevillian interludes and even a dancing bear. The evening is emceed by Yakoff Chekhov (Mike Park), the supposed cousin of Anton, who bears a much stronger (and probably intentional) similarity to comedian Yakov Smirnoff. The first play, The Marriage Proposal, satirizes the practice of wealthy families seeking out other wealthy families for matrimony. John Szura plays the story’s father, Vesna Tolomanska his daughter and Douglas Meyers appears as the suitor. The Harmful Effects of Tobacco is a monologue by a man (Szura) who is supposed to be delivering a lecture on the dangers of tobacco at the behest of his wife, but the talk instead turns into a satire of the institution of marriage. Finally, The Bear (played here as The Boar) caricatures Russian landowners of the period through the relationship between a debt collector (Szura) and the widow (Jacqueline Axton) of the man who owed him money. Unfortunately, the humor in the plays is so contextual that it is lost on modern audiences, turning comic exchanges into tedious tirades. The vaudevillian interludes are amusing, but don’t go far enough to be truly zany. Director James Carey lacks his namesake’s comic sensibility and settles on delivering one loud, furious note. THE ATTIC THEATRE, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 27. (323) 525-0600. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO EVEL KNIEVEL, THE ROCK OPERA The titular subject of composer Jef Bek’s muscular musical is the motorcycle daredevil who was as iconic to 1970s America as leisure suits and shag carpeting. Knievel’s car-jumping stunts were spectacular and as meaningless as the Vietnam War, yet held the country in the grip of a growing fascination with speed and danger. Bek imagines Knievel (Chuck DiMaria) as both a white-trash Horatio Alger seeking to leave his small-town criminal roots for fame and fortune and a Faustian figure torn between a loving woman, Linda (Traci Dinwiddie), and a dark, Black Rider–type character (Kyle Nudo) bent on pulling Knievel’s ass down into the underworld. Bek’s score and libretto (Jay Dover provides additional music and lyrics) captures the period’s adrenalized vocals, typical of such rock operas as Tommy and Jesus Christ, Superstar, and throws in a slight dash of Rocky Horror Show camp. There is a detectable sameness about the numbers, though, with power ballads overwhelmingly favored over the few down-tempo numbers. Nevertheless, the evening is an appropriately supercharged 90 minutes directed with over-the-top gusto by Keythe Farley and brought to life by an energetic ensemble, not to mention Ann Closs-Farley’s shiny costumes. BOOTLEG THEATER, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; thru Oct. 28. (213) 381-7118 or www.ekrockopera.com. See Stage feature next week. (Steven Mikulan)

THE GAS HOUSE The central figure (he’s hardly a hero) in William Donnelly’s play is a third-rate radio shock jock named Don Berlin (Marc Jablon). At the top of the show we learn that he’s been bounced from his program because of a violent and obscene on-air freak-out. Since then he has become a hard-drinking gambler and layabout who works half-heartedly on a supposedly original screenplay (to star himself, of course), which even he knows is derivative and awful. Don’s visited by his poet wife, Adria (Supatra Hanna), from whom he is, he insists, “separated, not divorced.” She’s concerned with helping him “get past this,” even though he’s consistently ignored, neglected and verbally abused her — not to mention thrown things at her. We’re left to wonder why this beautiful, smart, sensitive woman should stick by such an annoying loser. (Eventually we get an explanation, but it’s hardly satisfying. Think of the movie The Brown Bunny without the graphic sex.) It’s a tribute to the charm, talent and passion of Jablon and Hanna, and the skill of director Suzanne Karpinsky, who also provides effective sound design, that eventually we do care about these people. But it’s hard to grasp why the writer felt this man was worth his trouble — or ours. SACRED FOOLS THEATER COMPANY, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., L.A.; Tues.-Wed., 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 31. www.sacredfools.org. (Neal Weaver)

HARVEY FINKLESTEIN’S SOCK PUPPET SHOWGIRLS “Rim job! Rusty Trombone! Donkey Punch!” barks a green bunny. “Leave your inhibitions at the door!” Although its tinsel-and-posterboard aesthetic looks sweet, Harvey Finklestein and Jimmy McDermott’s all-puppet salute to Joe Eszterhas’ camp classic film, Showgirls, has enough aggressive sex and double D’s sprouting out of wrists to frighten Lambchop, Elmo and Big Bird (all of whom make cameos) back to kids’ programming. In the movie, Elizabeth Berkley’s Nomi, a do-anything naif worthy of a Terry Southern novel, pranced, screeched and tossed her hair like an untamed mare. The original was already so gonzo that here directors John and Stephanie Shaterian can only send it up by squeezing in Saved by the Bell jokes and throwing French fries at the audience when Nomi melts down at a fast food joint. There are plenty of giggles watching a sock puppet wind itself around a dance pole or get seductive before a backdrop of neon palm trees. Oddly, however, there are diminishing returns in trying to satirize the movie’s outré sincerity, and each time one sock calls the other a whore, the joke gets less funny. The exuberantly naughty puppeteers are Lowe Taylor, Dorien Davies, Steve Sabellico, Eddie Beasley and Jonathan Caplan. Harvey Finklestein Productions at THEATRE ASYLUM, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri., 11 p.m.; thru Nov. 2. (323)962-0046. (Amy Nicholson)

JULIUS CAESAR Some of the Bard’s most eloquent passages are plucked from this historical tragedy that weighs in on fate, ambition and the sacrifice of personal loyalties for the public good. Directed by Karesa McElheny, this production overlays the material with a twist: It transforms Rome into a matriarchy where women run things and men are timorous and deferential. Lisa Tharps plays the pivotal Brutus, who is persuaded by an obsessed Cassius (Mary T. Sala) to betray her friend Caesar (Marti Hale) because she’s (allegedly) posing a threat to Roman liberty. The nontraditional casting — the characters’ names are preserved but gender pronouns are altered — poses a challenge to the performers in addition to their handling the demanding text and its intricate complexities. The weakest link is Hale’s head of state, who comes off like a domineering society matron, and whose persona begs the question of how she would command the allegiance of either other stateswomen, such as Anthony (Pili Nathaniel), or the Roman public. Ultimately, however, the problem with many of the performances comes down to their lack of nuance and tendency toward melodrama. Tharps’ best moments are her rhetorical ones, rather than her reflective scenes. As her nemesis, Nathaniel sticks to a fierce one-note turn, while Sala’s well-crafted Cassius starts out solid but never probes as deeply as she might have. KNIGHTSBRIDGE THEATER, 1944 Riverside Dr., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Oct. 14. (323) 667-0955. (Deborah Klugman)

GO THE MILK TRAIN DOESN’T STOP HERE ANYMORE Despite the talents of director Tony Richardson and a cast that included Tallulah Bankhead, Tab Hunter and Marian Seldes, Tennessee Williams’ play closed on Broadway in 1964 after only five performances. It was not one of Williams’ best plays. However, director Simon Levy and a terrific cast headed by Karen Kondazian do a magnificent job of bringing this black comedy to life. In a passionate performance, Kondazian plays Flora Goforth, a drug-addled, wealthy widow holed up in an Italian villa. She’s ostensibly writing her memoirs with the help of her devoted secretary, Blackie (Lisa Pelikan), but it’s not going well and their work is interrupted when a young man trespasses on the grounds to deliver a book of poetry to Flora. His name is Christopher Flanders (Michael Rodgers), but as the Witch of Capri (Scott Presley in drag) warns Flora, the young man has been nicknamed The Angel of Death in light of his past visits to aging divas. The production design is as superb as the cast. Shon Le Blanc’s costumes evoke both the excesses and reserve of the early 1960s. Kathi O’Donohue’s gorgeous lighting suggests the beauty of the Italian coast as reflected on Travis Gale Lewis’ multi-functional set. FOUNTAIN THEATRE, 5060 Fountain Ave.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Nov. 4. (323) 663-1525. (Sandra Ross)

THE ROOM Writer-director Michael Franco’s ambitious but unevenly executed play is set in the years leading up to World War II. Wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, but feeling like he’s doing nothing with his life, tycoon Vincent Astor (Shawn MacAulay) establishes a salon for New York’s best and brightest — or, at least, the rich and the richest — to discuss the Great Issues of the Day. During cocktails and dinner in Astor’s snazzy Manhattan East Side townhouse, the various millionaires and celebrities trade gossip about the economy, politics and the troubles in Europe — when Vincent starts to realize that his group could just as easily be a useful think tank tool for spycraft and policy. Franco’s play is extremely well researched, but the story is aimless, the writing is talky and the characters do little but react passively to outside events. This is the sort of drama in which characters sit around holding whiskey glasses, saying things such as, “Ah, that Hitler fellow will never come to power!” Admittedly, director Franco’s staging is both atmospheric and intimate — and engaging turns are offered by MacAulay, as a calm and sensitive Astor, and by John Gegenhuber, as Astor’s good pal, FDR’s sweetly blustery, alcoholic, ne’er-do-well nephew, Kermit. Yet the pacing flags appallingly midway through and, with the lack of dramatic conflict and suspense, ultimately proves fatal. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Nov 18. (323) 882-6912. (Paul Birchall)