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Theater Reviews: A Prayer for My Daughter, Cool Negroes, The Female of the Species, On Caring for the Beast

THE ANTARCTIC CHRONICLES In his documentary Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog described the denizens of Antarctica's McMurdo Station as wanderers who tumbled down to the South Pole for lack of roots attaching them to anywhere sane. Jessica Manuel doesn't seem to fit the profile: The perky Minnesotan homecoming queen left home, family and boyfriend to spend a year cranking fuel valves in the Antarctic's -80 F permanent midnight. Why? To escape the normalcy she saw as a noose. Her solo show traffics in the exotic mundane — it's an insider scoop on what the heck people eat, drink and do at the bottom of the Earth (Answer: Tater Tots, booze and harass the newbies.) Directed by Paul Linke, Manuel tells her story in a cheerleader's squeal. Thematically, it's as thin as ice, but Manuel dishes on the slow onset of winter insanity and shares how the boredom of total snow madness inspired Herzog's gang of adventurers to start their own theater troupe. Hudson Guild Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Wed., 8 p.m.; through March 10. (323) 960-7744. (Amy Nicholson)

COOL NEGROES The opening tableau of writer-director Tony Robinson's "dramedy of generational proportion" is a tumbledown city park circa 1972, where a raucous cadre of black militants is protesting segregation. The revolutionary banter and posturing are soon silenced by police gunfire and falling bodies. After this jarring scene, a flash-forward takes us to the present day, when the park is a haunt for a group of regulars: college professor Louis (Sammie Wayne, IV); former flower child Deborah (Teressa Taylor) ; city bureaucrat Joe (Alex Morris); a gay cop named Mod (Mark Jones); the only caucasian in the group, Eric (Tom Hyler); a buppie named Al (Dane Diamond); and the irrepressible Mother Barnes (the fine Diane Sellers), a blind sage. Not much transpires here; there is a lot of talking, which, thanks to Robinson's wit and ear for dialogue, somewhat allays the play's static structure. But one gets the feeling that these entertaining characters overstay their welcome, thanks to a script that is overwritten and languorous. From the mix, Robinson constructs a flimsy storyline about black advancement, interracial romance, political correctness, spiritual redemption, the burden of guilt, and generational angst and conflict. Unfortunately, these motifs are neither skillfully nor insightfully probed. The acting is mostly passable, but Sellers is outstanding. Rounding out the cast are Prema Rosaura Cruz, Tené Carter Miller and Leslie La'Raine. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd. (2nd floor), Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.,m.; through Feb. 28. (213) 624-4796. A Towne Street Theatre production (Lovell Estell III)

CATCH THE TIGER Vicki Robinson plays a denizen/chanteuse in a NYC diner, and when she breaks into song, for a blues ditty or a ballad, Melvin Ishmael Johnson's biodrama about Jamaican-born black separatist Marcus Garvey (Isaac Clay) springs to life — particularly with the great supporting sound system. Robinson's voice caresses and slithers, alternating between gentleness and power. It's the kind of modulation that's desperately needed in Johnson's play, and McNeil's staging of it. The plot starts in 1916, when what would have been the 21-year-old J. Edgar Hoover (Daniel Taylor), newly appointed to the Justice Department, obsessed on bringing charges against Garvey, and having him deported. The play shows what Hoover and the FBI are famous for: infiltration and betrayal. Garvey is "the Tiger," though all he does is wander around the stage and make speeches, culminating with the phrase "Africa for Africans" — repeated at least four times. It's also in the program, in case you missed it from the stage. The hollow speechifying seems sufficient to earn Garvey the adoration of most of the play's characters, as well as the contempt of J. Edgar Hoover, played by Smith with a cadaverous comportment and the hesitant delivery of someone who doesn't quite know what we wants, or why. So if the cat and his would-be slayer are both so inert, there's little else to say. The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through Feb. 21. (323) 850-4436. A Dramastage Qumran production (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE COLOR PURPLE Patrons standing outside the Pantages for last weekend's performance of The Color Purple were understandably miffed when it was announced that because of illness, American Idol glamgirl Fantasia would not be performing. But, to trot out the cliché, the show must go on: Brandi Chavonne Massey acquitted herself superbly in the Fantasia's role of Celie, the long-suffering abused child who gradually transforms into a paradigm of self-sufficiency and proud womanhood. But Celie's painful journey is also a story about the enduring power of the human spirit, and love in its myriad forms. Massey effortlessly plowed through one song after another, never missing a note, and her acting was every bit as impressive. Marsha Norman's adaptation of Alice Walker's novel (music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray) crackles with energy, notwithstanding some awkward plot twists, and a second act that languishes. This is a show that's hard not to get swept up in. The mix of gospel, blues and jazz is as alluring as Paul Tazewell's colorful array of costumes, and Donald Byrd's choreography. Gary Griffin directs. Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Feb. 28. BroadwayLA.org, (800) 982-ARTS. (Lovell Estell III)

GO  THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES is more deadly than the male," wrote Rudyard Kipling some 100 years ago. That might well be the theme of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith's satire of all things that have fallen into the gender divide over the past 40 years. The comedy is set in the library/living room in the secluded country home of Margot Mason (Annette Bening), a sardonic wit and author of feminist self-help books. (Bening's take is perfectly competent though narrow in range). Margot struggles to meet an impending deadline for a book she's barely started, when an interloper named Molly Rivers (Merritt Wever) wanders in through the French doors (Takeshi Kata designed the detailed, realistic set). Based on a real-life incident involving such an intrusion upon author Germaine Greer, and after offering some fake adoration for the famous author, Molly pulls out a pistol and threatens to kill Margot over her sequence of celebrity-motivated, contradictory exegeses that, Molly believes, were responsible for her mother's suicide. (The despondent woman allegedly clutched a copy of Margot's The Cerebral Vagina before hurling herself under a moving train.) Enter Margot's daughter, Tess (a particularly fine Mireille Enos), traumatized by her mother's decades of neglect and contempt for her daughter's having "settled" into a married life with a nice if dim-witted hedge-fund investor named Bryan (an endearing turn by David Arquette). ("I love you, Tess. You know I've always mounted you on a pedestal.") A hausfrau in crisis somewhere between despair and oblivion, Tess has no complaint over Molly's intention to murder her mother. Add to the mix (yes, it's a very busy day for an author who desires only to be left alone to write) Molly's macho taxi driver, Frank (Josh Stamberg), furious because Molly stiffed him — because he wouldn't stop talking about how his wife just left him. Margot's publisher, Theo (Julian Sands), also shows up to resolve a lingering question of genealogy. (The farce is not intended to hold a mirror to life's most probable outcomes.) When Frank finally grows a pair and starts ordering Tess around, her eyes light up and her shoulder straps fall. It's a feminist's nightmare, as is the entire play. It's also a comedy of the ilk George Bernard Shaw might have written had he lived another 100 years, though he probably would have left out the gun, which the characters spend most of the play ignoring anyway. Of course, this is a joke about hostage plays; it also reveals how the person holding the gun may not actually possess all the power, especially if there's enough wit from the playwright and the people who don't hold the gun. There are enough funny lines to keep an evening of repartee and satire from imploding, especially under Randall Arney's sure-footed direction, yet the comedy does skewer one of the most pressing social debates of the 1980s, like a vehicle that's been spinning in a swamp for some time. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through March 14. (310) 208-5454. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  NORTH ATLANTIC James Strahs' play is set in 1983 aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier floating somewhere off the Dutch coast, where post-WWII and Cold War paranoia has resulted in this intelligence-gathering operation among enlisted men and women. REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn; Tues.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Feb. 21. (213) 237-2800. The Wooster Group. See Theater feature.

ON CARING FOR THE BEAST The average layperson planning to see director-playwright Shishir Kurup's somewhat bewildering metaphysical fantasy would be well-advised to bring along a beginner's guide to Dharmic religious traditions. For Kurup's heady, 2001 dramatic excavation of the meanings of truth — the modern corruptions as well as the more ancient, unadulterated permutations — is awash in the symbology, deities and philosophy of Tantric and Jainist mysticism. The latest entry in Cornerstone Theater's ongoing "Justice Cycle" opens in the subdivided home of landlord/earth mother/amateur trance-channeler Mae (Page Leong), whose domestic tranquillity is quickly turning into a world of hurt. The terminal bone disease her gay tenant, Charlie (Marcenus "MC" Earl), suffers from has just entered its painful, chronic phase, which drives his desperate, university professor lover, Art (Michael Cooke), to undertake a crash course in psychic healing. Neighbor Alissa's (Bahni Turpin) book-project profile of the enigmatic Dr. Narayan (Amro Salama), a repentant, U.S.-trained military torturer, sends her and musician boyfriend Sean (Justin Gordon) into the masochistic deep end in their quest to mentally transcend physical suffering. The lives of all concerned are unexpectedly turned upside down when Mae accidentally channels the mother goddess, Kali, and the house is blasted with a bolt of her creative energy. Though the play's spiritual speculations can plod and even overwhelm, for we cynical, secular humanists, Kurup's elegant staging (featuring designer Tom Ontiveros' lovely lights and video projections) and a world-class ensemble prove the perfect sugar to help the New Age go down. Inner City Arts, 720 Kohler St., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Wed., 8 p.m.; through Feb. 24, CornerstoneTheater.org. (213) 627-9621. A Cornerstone Theater production (Bill Raden)

GO  A PRAYER FOR MY DAUGHTER A sweltering New York City summer; Son of Sam is still at large. A massive citywide blackout is around the corner. The year is 1977, and on the verge of bankruptcy, a city barely keeps it together, not unlike detectives Francis Kelly (Kevin Brief) and Jack Delasante (Matthew J. Williamson), two of NYPD's finest, who have nabbed two of its worst: Jimmy Rosario, a.k.a. Jimmy Rosehips (Matthew Thompson), and Simon Cohn, a.k.a. Sean de Kahn (Gary Lamb). A dry-cleaners is held up. Its owner, Mrs. Linowitz, is shot point-blank. There's hell to pay, especially when the boys in blue have no qualms about beating a confession out of these low-life suspects. Problem is, Jimmy and Simon are no rookies, and their ability to manipulate the demons that plague the seemingly hard-boiled Kelly and Delasante turns up the sweltering July heat inside the police station. First performed at the Public Theater in 1978, this revival of Thomas Babe's gritty interrogation drama is masterfully orchestrated by director Albert Alarr, whose fluid blocking and brutally realistic fight choreography make full use of Sarah Krainin's impeccably authentic set. The entire ensemble shines, showcasing both the humor and suffocating pain of a text that poignantly explores "the light" and "the dark" sides of our natures. (The show does contain full-frontal nudity.) Crown City Theatre, 11031 Camarillo St., N. Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through March 6. (800) 838-3006, brownpapertickets.com. (Mayank Keshaviah)

SEASCAPE WITH SHARKS AND DANCER While walking on a Cape Cod beach, writer Ben (Matthew Hannon) spots a naked young woman, Tracy (Christine Weatherup), floundering in the sea. He pulls her ashore and takes her back to his rundown beach house to recuperate — but she's far from grateful. She wasn't drowning, she claims, but dancing. Despite the fact that she's rude, arrogant, selfish and demanding, he's enchanted, and after some hot chocolate and sparring, they tumble into bed. Dan Nigro's play starts out as a kooky "meet-cute" comedy, then segues into a quietly harrowing portrait of a certain kind of destructive relationship. She's convinced that no one can love her, and therefore he'll inevitably leave her. So she constantly threatens to leave him but never does, and he cares for her enough to endure the pain and uncertainty she inflicts upon him. Weatherup's Tracy is an emotionally volatile woman riddled with conflicts; she is manipulative and pathologically self-destructive, while Hannon's Ben is reduced to pure victim and enabler because of his refusal to fight back. Director Benjamin Haber Kamine elicits persuasive performances from his actors, and keeps the proceedings interesting, though a sharper focus on Ben's character might have made for a better balance. Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., L.A.; Wed.-Thurs., 8 p.m., Sun. Feb. 21 & 28, 8 p.m.; through March 5, sharksanddancer.com/tickets. (Neal Weaver)

TITUS ANDRONICUS Heads are chopped off. A woman, after being raped, has her hands severed and tongue ripped away. Babies are impaled on knives. And, at a special feast, a malicious woman is served her sons, baked in a pie. Yes, here is proof (if needed) that Shakespeare could actually be hired today as a staff writer for CSI: New York. Director Thomas Craig Elliott's somber production of Shakespeare's epic of pulp fiction possesses a murky, intimate mood that has you feeling like you're watching atrocities unfolding in an urban back alley. The creepy, almost claustrophobic tone is abetted by designer Erin Brewster's calculatedly grubby set — brick walls, with shadowy platforms full of mysterious dark pits and doorways. Roman noble Titus Andronicus (Dan Mailley) returns to his home, triumphant after war with the Goths, and helps to install oily politician Saturninus (Brad C. Light) as emperor. Titus' reward for this? Saturninus humiliates him by marrying Tamora (Sarah Lilly), the very same warrior queen whom Andronicus just defeated and enslaved. Tamora's sons then rape and mutilate Titus' daughter Lavinia (Erin Fleming). Titus then invites Tamora and family over for a feast — at which revenge is served by the piefull. If anything, Elliott's production is slightly too straightforward and contextually threadbare. Although the dialogue is articulately rendered, the stagecraft is prosaic and unambitious — the violence is strangely reigned in, and the piece's omnipresent gloom and grubbiness are simply not sensational enough to spark the horror the play requires. Admittedly, Elliott commendably emphasizes characterization, and the staging digs into the text to find motivations for the coterie of increasingly heartless characters. Lilly's elegantly wicked Tamara — shifting easily from graciously sugary to venomously witchy — is a pleasure to watch, and so is Light's dopey Saturninus, a greasy politician who turns out to be out of his depth in the wickedness with which he's confronted. Mailley's stiff and priggish turn during the play's first half is initially offputting, but his gradual decline into rage and madness becomes compellingly chilling. Theatre of Note, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through March 13. (323) 856-8611, theatreofnote.com. (Paul Birchall)

TWELFTH NIGHT The idea of traipsing through a dark, damp graveyard on a weekend night to watch a Shakespeare play may be a daunting prospect, but at least audiences who attend director Jerry Ruiz's smooth and energetic production will be assured of seeing an engaging rendition of one of the Bard's jolliest comedies. The show is actually presented inside the picturesque (and grave-free) Masonic Lodge on the cemetery property, which provides a striking, dramatic backdrop for any play. (The auditorium's beautifully constructed, colorfully decorated ceiling beams are worth seeing, even aside from the play.) Viola (Hilary Ward) dresses in drag to serve Count Orsino (Owiso Odera) and falls in love with him, but the woman Orsino has his eye on, beautiful Olivia (Teri Reeves), falls for Viola. Meanwhile, Olivia's drunkard uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Matt Gaydos), and his ne'er-do-well pals play a mean-spirited prank on Olivia's prissy, Puritan steward, Malvolio (Charles Janasz). Ruiz's staging is both intelligently introspective and energetic, even though some of the comic shtick doesn't seem to naturally flow from the text and feels weakly timed. Still, the production possesses a commendable clarity, which itself makes it a fine, competently rendered version of the show. It also boasts some remarkably well-defined character work. Reeves' nicely brittle Olivia warms amusingly to Ward's befuddled Viola, while Guilford Adams' glum fool, Feste, plays nicely off of Gaydos' decadent Sir Toby. However, it's Janasz as the brilliantly uptight Malvolio, and his ghoulishly hilarious attempts to woo Olivia all cross-gartered and leering like a gassy jack-o'-lantern, who truly offers this show's standout performance. Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Feb. 28. (800) 838-3006. Chalk Repertory Company (Paul Birchall)

GO  TWELFTH NIGHT Why set Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in the '80s? The clothes, mostly — the prankster Sir Toby Belch (Bill Robertson) belongs in a Hawaiian shirt. It's also the decade where the men of MTV, be they Boy George or Bret Michaels, slicked on lip gloss, thus making shipwrecked maiden Viola's (Andrea Gwynnel Morgan) decision to dress in male drag on trend. Viola, a.k.a. Cesario, loves Orsino (William Mendieta), Orsino loves Olivia (Rebecca Angel), and Olivia loves Cesario. But Aaron Morgan's likable staging gives equal weight to drunken good-time gang Belch, Maria (Anne Nemer) and Sebastian (Joseph Baird) as they make mischief with dour Malvolio (Henning Fischer). Casual and charming with an unexpected jolt of sexual energy when all the couples are tidily paired, this production best finds its voice when Feste the Jester (Devin J. Begley) grabs his guitar and croons "Boys Don't Cry" in a timbre that mates Johnny Cash and Ian Curtis. At this party, any love child is possible. Chrysalis Stage. Vic Lopez Auditorium, 12417 E. Philadelphia St., Whittier; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Feb. 21. (562) 212-1991, chrysalisstage.com. (Amy Nicholson)