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Theater Reviews: A Wither's Tale, All My Sons,Karma the Musical

Sad Happy Sucker
PHOTO COURTESY OF LYRIC HYPERION THEATRE

GO ALL MY SONS With the recent BP oil disaster, the Enron debacle, and the misadventures of financial moguls like Bernard Madoff, it is no wonder that theater company artistic directors all over town are dusting off their copies of Arthur Miller's magnificent evisceration of capitalism, American corruption and moral hypocrisy. However, it is difficult to come up with new and innovative ways to present the often compelling piece. Shakespeare and Beckett, to name a pair, can be staged in a variety of settings and directorial styles, but Miller's play gets to the heart of a family standing around on a front porch next to a fallen tree. Director Edward Edwards stages his intimate and psychologically nuanced production almost like a mystery — even during the play's seemingly banter-filled opening scenes, we sense an underlying unease and sadness; the puzzle is spotting all the clues and then piecing them together to understand what is really going on. Edwards' production is anchored by crackling acting work. Paul Linke's unusually crusty Joe Keller, the family patriarch who let an underling take the rap for a mechanical error that killed a number of pilots during World War II, is full of alpha male bluster and bonhomie, but even from his first appearance, his eyes possess a resigned coldness that suggests the truth he's hiding and has accepted only too well. In Catherine Telford's turn as Kate, Joe's grief-sick wife, we see a character whose denial-stoked belief that her beloved, MIA son will return from the war is a means of tamping down the ferocious rage that ultimately explodes in the play's final act. As Joe's idealistic son Chris, Dominic Comperatore's shyness shifts to disgusted anger, a turn that hints at the possibility he was aware on some level of his father's sleaziness. Although uneven turns are offered by some of the supporting cast, Maury Sterling's crushed boyish performance as the scorned son of the framed co-worker is brilliant, as is Austin Highsmith's unusually appealing Ann, whose shocking reveal about the dead son (often one of the more contrived plot twists in most productions) is here powerfully well-motivated and believable. Ruskin Theatre Group, 3000 Airport Road, Santa Monica Airport, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Oct. 2. (310) 397-3244. (Paul Birchall)

GO CHESS IN CONCERT This rock opera, with lyrics by Tim Rice, book by Richard Nelson, and music by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA, was first produced as a concept album. Now, after a number of unsatisfactory theatrical variations, Rice has wisely named the concert version as the official one. Like the game of chess, the show is abstract, and the concert version matches that, putting the focus on the characters, their emotional conflicts and the virtuosity of the performers. The action is set at the international chess championship matches. Act 1 pits Soviet champ Anatoly (Peter Welkin) against the willful, petulant, show-boating American, Frederick (Blake McIver Ewing). Anatoly wins but immediately defects to England, setting the stage for the dynamic Act 2. Defector Anatoly is pitted against a high-powered Soviet player (Christopher Zenner). Soviet official Molokov (Gregory North) is hell-bent on making sure the disloyal Anatoly loses and will do anything to realize that outcome, including psychological warfare, blackmail and ruthless meddling with the personal lives of Anatoly, his estranged wife (Emily Dykes) and his Hungarian girlfriend, Florence (Nicci Claspell). Director Robert Marra provides a crisply elegant production, musical director/conductor Greg Haake impeccably renders the challenging score, and the performers are terrific, including Gil Darnell, Rich Brunner and the excellent chorus. Met Theatre, 1089 Oxford Ave., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., through Aug. 29. (323) 960-7735. Produced by the Musical Theatre of Los Angeles. (Neal Weaver)

GO KARMA THE MUSICAL Is hindsight really 20/20? In this engaging musical, baby boomer Christine (book writer Susan C. Hunter) travels back to the 1960s to counsel her younger self on how to avoid error and heartbreak. Supremely confident, perky college-age Chris (Katie McConaughy) dismisses Christine's cautionary exhortations ("You're old!" she snaps at the woman she will become), then treks off to a rock concert to hook up with peace marcher Greg (Trevor Murphy), who will father — and later abandon — their child. Bolstered by composer Les Oreck's spirited score and lyrics, the play cruises through several decades, tracking Chris' struggles as a single mom while noting, Forrest Gump–like, the broad societal changes our nation undergoes. One funny scene depicts the hippie "commitment" ceremony that Greg persuades Chris is as binding as a marriage. It isn't. The piece also replays the bitterness surrounding the Vietnam war, integrating that conflict via Chris' brother Frank (Matt Pick), a marine who resents Greg's politics. And the production gains traction from Liz Heathcoat's lively choreography, executed by an enthusiastic ensemble, and from videographer Scott Hunter's background montage of cultural icons. That said, the show has multiple rough edges, including an uneven standard of performance and vocals that need improving. Director Michael Eiden does a respectable job of maneuvering a large cast in a small space, but this show does require more room. Among the ensemble, Brittany Beaudry stands out as Chris' supercool pal, Gloria. Heathcoat as Greg's sanctimonious mom and Pick as the upstanding Frank are notable in smaller roles. Write Act Repertory Theatre, 6128 Yucca Ave., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Aug. 28. (323) 469-3113. (Deborah Klugman)

 

LONG BEACH POPPIN' PLAY FESTIVAL For the third consecutive year, CSULB alums present four to five courses of theater per night, divided into three different prix-fixe menus. The appetizer common to all three nights, "What Can We" by Craig Abernathy, is a five-minute exploration of making theater. The concept is interesting, but the flavors don't quite gel, so the meal gets off to a shaky start. The meat-and-potatoes main course is Nathaniel Kressen's "Jumper's With the Gypsy," a tale of two lost souls in the city that never sleeps. From the start, it's hard to invest in either character, and outside of a couple of good lines, the scenario seems contrived in its attempts at being deep. Lloyd Noonan's "An Agreement Between Father and Son" is a dark comedy in which a father and son make a pact to deal with pain-in-the-ass Grandpa. It is dark all right, relentlessly, so that darkness seems its only purpose. Finally, "Eddie, A Musical About Failure" by R. Edward and Ellen Warkentine provides the sweet ending to the evening. Unfortunately it's less a chocolate soufflé and more a bowl of vanilla ice cream. The generic score consists of a series of character songs that, while amusing and fun, don't tell much of a story. In fact, the entire meal is perfectly encapsulated in a line from one of its songs: "I know it's light on consequence and plot, but it's what I've got." Lafayette Ballroom, 528 E. Broadway Ave., Long Beach; Thurs.-Sat., 8: p.m.; through Sept. 11. (562) 818-7364. alivetheatre.org An Alive Theatre production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

MACBETH You can almost always expect generous displays of the gleefully grotesque from the folks at Zombie Joe's, and this production of the Bard's Scottish play is no exception. Director Amanda Marquardt has added some ghoulish effects that neatly embellish the play's supernatural elements. But any minimalist staging of a play, especially Shakespeare, places much of the burden of success on the actors, and this group doesn't quite pass muster. Aaron Lyons and Skye Noel acquit themselves passably in the key roles of Macbeth and his bloodthirsty Lady. But there's something amiss in their onstage chemistry; too often they give the impression of spoiled, squabbling siblings rather than a conniving, ambitious king and queen. Some liberties taken with the original narrative proffer some jarring surprises and fun. The biggest problem is the overheated pacing: There are many, many instances where the actors simply tear through their lines, rendering them all but unintelligible and spoiling the potency and beauty of Shakespeare's prose. The showstoppers and scene stealers are, however, Lauren Parkinson, Nicole Fabbri and Lana Inderman, who are from start to finish terrific as the three witches. Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd.; N.Hlywd.; Fri., 11 p.m. through Aug. 20. (818) 202-4120. (Lovell Estell III)

GO MASTER CLASS In the wooded Theatricum Botanicum, though the crickets are competing to hit the high C, they can't rattle Ellen Geer's imperious turn as Maria Callas — the soprano is used to swatting down her rivals. Today, her targets are the overconfident Juilliard students in her master class: They're too soft, too simple. When it comes to La Divina and her precious time, these three coeds (Elizabeth Tobias, Meaghan Boeing and Andreas Beckett) can't win. Weak voices are an insult, better voices an affront. Would you expect hugs from a scrapper who saw even the audience as her enemy? Terrence McNally's fanged comedy is gleeful schadenfreude when Callas destroys these hopefuls and burnishes her own legend but sublime when discussing the art of opera — after she's shredded the students' egos, she gifts them a foundation to rebuild. But while director Heidi Helen Davis helps Geer sharpen her knives, both are lost in McNally's too-on-the-nose inner monologues. These are meant to expose Callas' vulnerability, particularly in her memories of Aristotle Onassis, who by the play's setting had already dumped the diva for Jackie Kennedy. Here, these raw pains ring like fluttery pop psychology — if Callas heard them, she'd shriek. "This isn't just opera, this is your life," she commands, and like Tosca and Medea, she is the heroine of her own tragedy. Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga; Sat., Aug. 28, 8 p.m.; Sun., Aug. 29, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 4, 8 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 11, 8 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 25, 4 p.m. (310) 455-3723. (Amy Nicholson)

 

GO ON THE VERGE (OR THE GEOGRAPHY OF YEARNING) When you receive the hieroglyphic text "omg r u going to b here l8r?" from your mother, not your preteen cousin, the days of spitting at the spelling of "Quik," or "E-Z," seem positively quaint. Indeed, "Language takes a beating in the future," says Harriet Whitmyer as Fanny, one of three spirited, pre-feminist explorers in Eric Overmyer's time-tripping, word-whirling play. For those greedy geeks of us who've always gobbled sentences faster than they're written, Overmyer offers the equivalent of a buffet table buckling under the weight of one of each of Jonathan Gold's "99 Things to Eat in L.A. Before You Die": All deserve your undivided attention, but the next tastes as delicious as the last. Yet the true coup is that Overmyer actually says something with all those lovely words. Though the women (a terrific Anna Kate Mohler and Susan E. Taylor complete the trio) are trekking — lustily, not fearfully — through "terra incognita," they are unmitigatedly familiar with their internal ranges. This is an Eden where women can take nips of liquor from their own flasks, eat "bear chops and moose mousse" and wield knives and guns with the ease of gangsters, while simultaneously bemoaning "life without a loofah" and sweating over the sight of a man (the funny Diego Parada). Fear steadily increases, as the future begins to tumble into their consciousnesses, but so does their inclination to embrace it, for better or worse. Daniel Bergher's and Sean Gray's light and sound designs nicely complement the dialogue-thick script. Andrew Vonderschmitt directs. Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St.; Long Beach. Fri.-Sat., 8:00 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Sept. 18. (562) 494-1014 (Rebecca Haithcoat)

SAD HAPPY SUCKER If the devil is truly to be found in the details, then playwright Lee Kirk's painfully pallid homage to French Absurdist master Eugène Ionesco isn't in need of a dramaturg so much as an exorcist. The play begins promisingly enough, with the introduction of Eddie (Eddie Bell), a young suburbanite whose feet have become mysteriously rooted in place where he stands in the back yard of his dotty mother (Lauri Johnson). It's the kind of patently surreal premise whose real-world, life-and-death consequences Ionesco would have explored with a deliriously relentless logic to foreground a deeper, ontological inquiry. However, unlike on planet Earth, where the first responders to such a crisis might be an EMT unit or the fire department, Kirk sends in a spectacularly inept doctor (Valentine Miele), who somehow still makes house calls. When the physician becomes likewise immobilized but is told no rope is available for an attempted winch to freedom, even that obstacle is given the lie by an ignored, albeit handy garden hose pointlessly ornamenting Christian Zollenkopf's incongruously realistic backyard set (convincingly accented by Alicia Ziff's diurnal lighting). Director Sean Gunn and his supremely gifted cast do manage to milk Kirk's situational ludicrousness for sporadic laughs. But these are not enough to finally push the text's bantamweight dramatic stakes (the characters' imperiled dignity) and non sequitur–laden plot into the heavyweight division of Ionescan existential despair. Lyric Hyperion Theatre, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m.; through Oct. 10. (323) 342-2261. brownpapertickets.com/event/121721. (Bill Raden)

GO A WITHER'S TALE The Troubadour Theatre Company, led by writer-director and chief jester Matt Walker, is renowned for witty mash-ups of Shakespeare with pop tunes. Watching this lampoon of A Winter's Tale and Bill Withers, die-hard Troubie fans may lament the less-than-usual ratio of comedy to drama. Combining a handful of Withers' gentle pop hits with Shakespeare's problematic play (Is it a drama? Is it a romantic comedy?) makes for a more low-key experience than usual. Echoing Othello, an irrationally jealous King (Matt Walker) incarcerates his pregnant wife, Hermione (Monica Schneider), on suspicion of fraternizing with his best friend, King Polixenes (Matt Merchant), and orders the execution of their baby girl. The somber saga builds to Walker's showstopping rendition of "Ain't No Sunshine," enhanced by Jeremy Pivnick's elegant lighting design. Clocking in at 90 minutes (no intermission), this show's strength lies in the plaintive musical numbers. The five-strong band is superb and features some haunting underscoring and solos from John Krovoza on cello and violin. The entire cast sing, harmonize and dance exquisitely — credit Ameenah Kaplan for her deceptively simple yet tight choreography. Sets for a Troubie show are typically spartan, which makes Sharon McGunigle's luscious period costumes particularly noteworthy. Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through Sept. 26. (818) 955-8101. A Troubadour Theatre Company production (Pauline Adamek)

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