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Theater Reviews: American Dollhouse, State of Incarceration, Smudge

GO  AMERICAN DOLLHOUSE Forget weddings — little girls dream of their dollhouses coming to life. In this "theatrical exhibit" of living dolls, co-creators Chris Barnett and Leah Johnston stage a multimedia production that succeeds not only in indulging childhood fantasies but also in expanding the idea of what theater can be. Tucked away in the nooks and crannies of Glendale's Gallery Godo, three days in the life of a suburban family in 1955 play out as the family members roam among the audience and amid a fascinating collection of mixed-media artwork all loosely related to dolls and the era. Pop art paintings of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe by Mateo Saucedo are clustered around the bedroom of teenage daughter Suzy (Leah Johnston, who, with Barbie-like webbed hands and a Leave It to Beaver–ready vocal cadence, runs away with the show). Colter Freeman's charred, hypodermic needle–ridden baby dolls frame and foreshadow the action in the dining room. Johnston's props are period-precise, down to a box of Trix cereal and a loaf of Mrs. Baird's white bread. The play itself comes to a predictable conclusion, and its subject matter is strongly rooted in fields that have already been harvested by Ibsen's A Doll's House and Todd Haynes' 2002 film Far From Heaven. But by conceptualizing theater as such an all-inclusive medium that calling American Dollhouse a play doesn't do it justice, Barnett and Johnston may be showing us a glimpse of theater's future. Gallery Godo, 6749 San Fernando Road, Glendale; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Feb. 5. theamericandollhouse.com. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

THE BEVERLY HILLS PSYCHIATRIST This double bill of one-acts by German scholar-educator-playwright Cornelius Schnauber makes it clear he is not a fan of psychiatry. The title play tells us about the Psychiatrist (Alexander Zale) and his maddening treatment of his long-suffering Patient (Tony Motzenbacher), a writer fraught with anxieties. The doctor is absent-minded — he can never remember his patient's name — and tends to fall asleep during therapy sessions; whenever he's asked a concrete question, he evades it and ends the session. This goes on for 19 maddeningly repetitious scenes, during which one can only wonder why the patient doesn't just leave. At the end, the patient finally does realize his doctor is a fraud, but it's too little and too late. Perhaps Schnauber was attempting a Pinterian conundrum, but Pinter was never this dull. The second play, "Highway One," is actually an excerpt from a longer work, consisting of a monologue by an opera singer (Lene Pedersen) as she prepares to perform Aida and worries about the daughter she gave up for adoption years before. Director Louis Fantasia stages the pieces ably enough, and there is excellent work by the three actors, but they can't save the plays from themselves. Lounge Theatre 2, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m, Sun., 3 p.m., through March 6. (323) 960-4418, plays411.com/beverlyhills. (Neal Weaver)

THE CAPULETS AND THE MONTAGUES The star-crossed lovers get an astrological realignment in this comedy by Shakespeare's Spanish contemporary, Lope de Vega. Seeming to send up Romeo and Juliet, Lope's play is, in fact, not a skewering of the Bard's tragedy but a farcical rendering of the same source material, Matteo Bandello's novella Giulietta e Romeo. Dakin Matthews' thoughtful English translation centers squarely on the frivolity of lovesickness, the foolhardiness of relentless family loyalty and the potential for comedy amidst the murkiness of communication breakdown. For every fatal turn Shakespeare's text takes, Lope's version veers into the gleefully ridiculous: Juliet (Nicol Zanzarella-Giacalone) comes on to Romeo (Benny Wills) like a tigress in heat at the masquerade ball, Capulet (John Achorn) plans to marry his niece (Kellie Matteson) to ensure an heir when Juliet is pronounced dead, Romeo stumbles around like a frightened man-child in Juliet's dark tomb. Though there's promise of great fun in seeing this underperformed play in a careful translation that pays close attention to the lighthearted impact of rhyming verse, the production is in desperate need of directorial attention. In the hands of Anne McNaughton, the potential for out-and-out comedic outrage and unabashed farcical tomfoolery is lost. Instead, we get a dramatically lukewarm retelling of a well-known story, a tone-deaf production begging to be so much more than a famous tragedy with a jocular spin. The able lead actors suffer under the tonal ambiguities. As nurse Celia, Etta Devine carries many of the comic scenes with her excellent timing and sure-handed delivery. The biggest laughs come when Celia and servant Marin (Bruce Green) revel in low comedy, mocking the wooing process as the lead lovers wax poetic. Dean Cameron's costumes are flawless. New Place Theatre, 10950 Peach Grove St., N. Hlywd.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; through Feb. 27. (866) 811-4111, andak.org. (Amy Lyons)

DIRT Writer-director Bruce Gooch's barnyard gothic is set on a farm where the horses are dead, the cows sold and the dog eaten by coyotes. Mom's dead, too, and son Zac (Ryan Johnston) is in exile. This leaves Papa (John D. Johnston) alone to work the land, whether or not it needs working, because it's a sin to slack. (The Johnstons are real-life nephew and uncle.) Set designer David Potts has draped the walls in dense netting and installed a front porch that looms like a gallows. It's an apt backdrop for when Zac returns to find his muscular pops has gone dangerously senile. And as the set is stockpiled with a hatchet, knife, saw and shotgun, I'd take Dad seriously when he threatens that he won't leave his land without a fight. Though Ryan Johnston is miscast as the estranged son, his clashes with John D. Johnston spark. Too often, however, Gooch has them communicate to each other (and us) through monologues and memories; the script sidesteps as often as it allows them to butt horns head-on. Andrea Robinson is quite fine as a local waitress who swings by to check on the fellas, but the stars of the show are the evocative technics (even if in one climax, the symbolic thunder drowned out the big speech) and the elder Johnston, whose presence dominates the play like a frontier Fury. Post–Lennie Smalls, overall-clad dementia is tricky business — at times, the play seems to want the subtitle "Of Mice and Dad" — but veteran actor John D. Johnston pivots on a nail head from mulish to brutish to yearning, giving the play an immediacy it needs to unleash. Rogue Machine and Firefly: Theatre & Film at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A.; Sun., 3 p.m., Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., through Feb. 27. (323) 960-5563, roguemachinetheatre.com. (Amy Nicholson)

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Oscar Wilde's Victorian comedy endures as a hilarious comedy of manners, its buoyant text brimming with comic hyperbole and epigrammatic couplets, delighting each new generation of audiences. The Chrysalis Stage places their modest sets and seating on the raised platform of the vast Whittier High School auditorium. Andrea Gwynnel Morgan directs and costumes her mostly young cast; she also stars as the pompous yet vulgar Lady Bracknell, performing well, despite an overemphasis on nasal vocal tics and guttural wheezing. Regrettably too old for the part of Jack (the idle young gentleman who invents a fictitious relative to shirk his social duties), Gregory Zide lets the team down with bizarre gestures, a distractingly fake moustache and an attempt at a London society accent that instead wildly rambles throughout the colonies from South Africa to Australia to Canada. Playing Jack's sneaky, foppish friend Algernon, the mouthpiece of Wilde, Harry Vaughn is fey and playful, while Alyson King is clever as the prim and shallow socialite Gwendolen. Jeena Yi's interpretation of precocious Cecily is pure perfection with every line reading, gesture and exemplary comic timing. Chrysalis Stage at Vic Lopez Auditorium, Whittier High School, 12417 E. Philadelphia St., Whittier; schedule varies, call for schedule; through Feb. 20. (562) 212-1991, chrysalisstage.com. (Pauline Adamek)

GO  MACHO LIKE ME In her solo performance, the very funny Helie Lee explores the issue of male privilege from a South Korean female perspective. (Though she was born in Seoul, her family emigrated to the United States when she was 4.) She saw firsthand how her brother was treated as a crown prince, while she and her sister were judged purely on their marital prospects — provoking her parents' urgent concern with getting her married. She decided to live as a man for 10 weeks to experience the strength and freedom she attributed to men. She strapped down her bosom, cut her hair short, acquired a masculine wardrobe and set out to gain entry to all-male enclaves; the results were not what she expected. Lee found that men's lives were no less constricted than women's, limited by competitive machismo and the fear of being perceived as gay. The tale is both illuminating and hilarious, as she gains new insights into what it's like to live as a man and as a woman. By the end of her experiment, Lee is delighted to return to the familiar bonds of femininity. With director Sammy Wayne, she has forged a rich, witty, seamless tale. Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Feb. 13. (800) 595-4849, macholikeme.com. (Neal Weaver)

MLLE. GOD Playwright Nicholas Kazan's uninspired spin on Frank Wedekind's "Lulu" plays comes as a cautionary reminder of just how difficult it is to capture libido on a stage. What some might think is the essence of the erotic mystique certainly will seem for others to be little more than an embarrassingly self-revealing mistake. That the latter proves to be the case in director Scott Paulin's pallid production is not for want of trying. Annika Marks' Lulu contains more provocative posturing per minute than one generally encounters at the average "gentlemen's club." Unfortunately for a play attempting to explore issues of feminine sexual power and the hegemony of patriarchal gender constructs, Marks' miscalculated stridency conjures all the eros of a cold shower. To be fair, even the great Louise Brooks — whose performance in Georg Pabst's classic 1929 screen adaptation Pandora's Box continues to reign as the definitive Lulu — would have been lost in the sophomoric self-parody of a text that calls for a gentleman admirer (Tasso Feldman, double-cast with Gary Patent) to involuntarily blurt out an ecstatic "Yes!" every time Lulu bends over. Keith Szarabajka emerges with his dignity fully intact in a fine turn as the Lulu-obsessed painter Melville (also played by Robert Trebor). Richard Hoover's versatile set and lighting designs and Jason Thompson's sci-fi-tinged video projections lend the proceedings a stylish gloss. Late in the play, a character refuses to describe Lulu's sexual appeal, adding that it is "a certain quality which I wouldn't want to ruin by naming it." Would that Kazan had taken his own advice. Performs with alternating casts. Ensemble Studio Theatre L.A. at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through March 27. (323) 644-1929, ensemblestudiotheatrela.org. (Bill Raden)

NEVERMORE Writer-director Matt Ritchey's far-afield imagining of the life of Edgar Allan Poe is set in a decrepit manse owned by Monty (Briton Green), who hosts a weekend visit by his childhood friend, Edgar Allan (Joseph Gilbert). Hard times have forced the sale of the place where the two played together as kids. Soon after Edgar's arrival, things start to swirl in the vortex of a clubfooted plot that implodes into Gothic chaos. There's murder, parricide, drug addiction, alcoholism and ever-diminishing intrigue. The crowning touches are a dash of incest and a love triangle involving Monty, Edgar and Lenore (Chloe Whiteford), Monty's ailing sister, magically risen from the grave. Dramatic license is one thing, but the conspicuous absence of logic and coherence is quite another. On the upside, Ritchey's staging provides creepy atmospheric density, including the forlorn "caw" of a raven. Patrick Emswiller's dour music is superb, as are the period costumes of Sarah Register. David Graybill's lighting scheme is well conceived, with a portrait of Lenore hanging over a mantle beautifully accented with light. The set by Davis Campbell is simple yet effective. Rounding out the capable cast are William Knight as Dudley the groundskeeper and Steve Patterson as a lawyer named Catherwood. El Centro Theatre, Chaplin Stage, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Feb. 5. (323) 960-1055, plays411.com/nevermore. (Lovell Estell III)

99 IMPOSSIBLE THINGS Though Chelsea Sutton's play is not set in Central Park (there's no Rachel or Monica, no Ross or Chandler or Joey in Sutton's Magic Bean Coffee Shop locale), there is a Phoebe of sorts. Actually, there are six of them. But instead of performing amusingly absurd guitar songs, or recounting childhood tales of woe in hilarious ways, these "Phoebes," along with two imaginary friends and a guardian angel, simply ramble on about "what's real" and what's not through 12 largely incoherent scenes. There's barely a plot, a story, dramatic stakes or a protagonist, and the central conflict (the soul of the drama) emerges sporadically. Most of the dialogue sounds like a college improv show in which someone said, "OK, you hang out in a coffee shop, you have an imaginary friend, but you're not sure why, and nobody else is either: Go!" Sutton's serving as writer, director and producer suggests a reason behind the absence of a critical or collaborative eye. Even the performances, save that of RJ Farrington (who portrays the guardian angel), lack sheen. The production's highlight is Bryan Forrest's authentically detailed coffee shop set. Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Feb. 13. (818) 508-3003, eclecticcompanytheatre.org. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO  SHADOW ANTHROPOLOGY Ten years after 9/11, the plight of rural Afghans caught in the crossfire between U.S. forces and the Taliban remains dire. Playwright-director Rick Mitchell lays bare the cruel urgency of their circumstances in this unpolished but potentially compelling production. Utilizing music (composer Max Kinberg) and puppetry (shadow artist Maria Bodmann), and depicted with the broad strokes of Brechtian-style theatrics, it begins with the recruitment by a Blackwater-type firm of a post-grad in anthropology named Fe (Lymari Nadal). A left-leaning Puerto Rico native, Fe has the job of interviewing Afghans for the U.S.'s human terrain project. Touted as a way to win hearts and minds, the project is a devious attempt to root out insurgents through entrapment. Overseeing the program is a well-paid defense operative named Evan (David Lee Garver), an unprincipled superpatriot whose sprawling ego is pumped up by his coke-and-heroin habit and his steady intake of Viagra. A practiced slimeball, Evan nonetheless proves no match for the region's chief warlord, Gulab (Andrew Qamar Johnson), a brazen villain with no compunction about engineering the murder of a hapless farmer (Ray Haratian), whose 21-year-old daughter (Claudia Vazquez) he has procured in marriage for his septuagenarian uncle (Eduardo R. Terry). Despite roughness around the edges on opening night, the performances are on track, especially Garver's and Johnson's, whose scenes together zone in on the ubiquitous venality on both sides. Illustrating Afghan women's nightmares is another grotesquely funny segment in which Vazquez's martyred bride undertakes, for her family's survival, to fornicate with her moribund but still lecherous spouse. Part of Son of Semele's Company Creation Festival. Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; in rep through Feb. 25. sonofsemele.org/shows/ccf2011.html. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  SMUDGE The birth of a child usually is seen as a joyful event — but what if it isn't? In Rachel Axler's disturbing play, the lives of an expectant couple — Colby (Heather Fox) and Nicholas (Mark Thomsen) — are upended when Colby gives birth to a limbless being with a single eye. The infant is not only strange to look at; it also responds weirdly — or, more commonly, not at all — to attempts to communicate. At home all day, Colby reacts to it with despair and rage, but the ingenuous Nick, a census official, falls head over heels for his new baby girl, although that doesn't keep him from concealing her oddity from his family, or forestall his mailing to the public a dissentious questionnaire, titled "What Could You Kill?" (Sample question: Could you kill a pig?) Nick's peculiar behavior corners the concern of his brother Peter (Bart Tangredi), a snide guy whose cynicism, within this piece, stands in for the world at large. Axler strews her unsettling story with harsh humor that might have offended but doesn't. Instead, higher motifs — the definition of life, the limitations of love and the human struggle to adjust one's expectations to painful realities — remain the production's paramount focus, under Darin Anthony's discerning direction. Tangredi's smarmy dude adds an edgy dynamic, while Thomsen is especially affecting as a man struggling for his illusions — and his sanity. Joe Slawinski's sound design elaborates nicely on the couple's nightmare. GTC Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. (added perf Thurs., Feb. 3, 8 p.m.); through Feb. 19. (800) 838-3006. Presented by Syzygy Theatre (Deborah Klugman)

GO  STATE OF INCARCERATION Scared Straight! has nothing on this often compelling piece of political theater from the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a scathing indictment of the California penal system. The production, by co-directors John Malpede and Henriette Brouwers, starts out unpromisingly enough, with the presentation of a rather tedious Skype video call from attorney Michael Bien, one member of the legal team involved with suing the state for prison overcrowding and inhumane conditions. While this sequence drags, it undeniably provides the expository Parabasis, skewering prison conditions and laws such as "three strikes" that have helped to bloat the incarcerated population to farcical levels. The scene also sets the stage for the far more powerful second part, in which the theater curtain is pulled and we find ourselves in the center of a prison dormitory. In some shows, one may feel like one is in prison; in this one, that intent is deliberately visceral. Metal bunk beds line the walls and center of the theater, and audience members are crammed into the room, often sharing bunk beds with the actors playing the inmates. The directors intersperse disturbing silences between a series of monologues and starkly delivered poems that illustrate the despair and hopelessness of prison life. In one such silence, convicts recline on their beds as the guards patrol every inch of the room. The charged quiet belies the undercurrents of seething rage, and the piece approaches the claustrophobia, sorrow and anger of being in prison. Although it's true that sitting on a nice bunk bed surrounded by a pleasant assortment of theater people and NPR listeners is by no means comparable to being in the hole at Pelican Bay, Malpede and Brouwers' taut production is evocative and edgy, enhanced by the ensemble's passionate and committed performances. LAPD at Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; through Feb. 5. (310) 315-1549. (Paul Birchall)

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD It's easy to understand why playwright Christopher Sergel's 1970 stage adaptation of Harper Lee's sentimental Southern Gothic novel was adopted for its annual pageant by Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala. Its depiction of a noble white patrician defending a helpless, subservient black field hand from being framed for rape by ignorant white-trash extremists is undoubtedly how the South would like to view its Jim Crow past. Why the Production Company chose Sergel's Sunday-school chestnut to inaugurate its new home at the Lex Theatre, however, remains a mystery. The chief virtue of director T.L. Kolman's by-the-book production (amid designer August Viverito's lamentably clumsy clapboard-facade set pieces) is in allowing the company's versatile stock players to strut their stuff in the play's numerous supporting roles: Ferrell Marshall as the story's wryly astute narrator, Maudie Atkinson; a nuanced Jim Hanna as Maycomb's perspicacious Sheriff Heck Tate; Inda Craig-Galván and Lorenzo T. Hughes' twin portraits of dignity under duress as Calpurnia and Tom Robinson; Skip Pipo being diabolical as inbred bigot Bob Ewell. Beside these veterans, juveniles Brighid Fleming, L.J. Benet and Patrick Fitzsimmons hold their own with confidence as, respectively, Scout, Jem and Dill. But it is James Horan's weirdly accomplished, cadence-perfect mimicry of Gregory Peck's film performance as Atticus that proves the evening's perversely guilty pleasure. Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Feb. 20. (800) 838-3006, theprodco.com. A presentation of the Production Company (Bill Raden)

GO  TWELFTH NIGHT marks the worthy launch of this theater's 17th season. With its multilayered plot, theatrical high jinks, silly sweetness and romance, Twelfth Night is one of the Bard's most popular works. With a nod to the traditional yuletide celebration after which the play is named, director J.C. Gafford's production features music, caroling, dancing and revelry. The setting of Illyria is here re-created as a large, raised platform, surrounded by a table set for a feast, kegs and some old boxes. Though not especially picturesque, it has a certain rustic appeal, and changes in scenes are smoothly handled by a member of the troupe with hand-painted placards. Kristina Mitchell does a fine turn as Viola, the main character in this romp of romance and mistaken identity, who is shipwrecked and separated from her twin brother, Sebastian (Jackson Thompson), on a different part of Illyria. She goes in disguise as a boy named Cesario, employed by the lovesick Duke Orsino (Jim Kohn), who uses her to court (on his behalf) his beloved but less-than-requiting Lady Olivia (Amy Clites). But Viola has herself fallen for her employer, the Duke, while his would-be mistress, Lady Olivia, finds herself smitten with the "boy" Viola is impersonating. The unraveling of this romantic knot makes for lively comedy under Gafford's smart direction, with uniformly good performances. Seth Margolies is a riot as the bumbling Sir Toby Belch. Casey E. Lewis, who puts one in mind of Stan Laurel, is equally funny as the comically foiled Malvolio, while Jason Rowland provides tons of laughs as the fool, Feste. Knightsbridge Theater, 1944 Riverside Drive, Silver Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through Feb. 13. (323) 667-0955. (Lovell Estell III)


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