Theater Reviews: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Dirty Dancing, Ten to Life
GO BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO Provoked by an American guard named Tom (Glenn Davis), the Tiger (Kevin Tighe) in a cage in the Baghdad zoo, circa 2002, lops off Tom’s hand and is swiftly shot by Tom’s partner, Kev (Brad Fleischer). This is a story of people, and creatures, who keep losing parts of themselves, and every image stands for something else. The tiger was shot with a gold revolver pillaged from the Uday Hussein’s palace by Tom — along with a gold toilet seat that he hopes will be a source of financial security upon his return to the U.S. Gold and the gold rush forge a pit of woe. Among the living and the ghosts populating Rajiv Joseph’s panorama is a topiarist named Musa (Arian Moayed), though the occupying American soldiers inexplicably call him Habib. And throughout the Magritte-like dreamscape wanders the ghost of that Tiger, now pondering the purpose of existence and original sin, as though being caged in war-torn Baghdad weren’t punishment enough for whatever crimes he committed as a Tiger, kidnapped and airlifted from Bengal. Joseph’s symbolism and magic-carpet ride are quite magnificent, supported by Moisés Kaufman’s staging on Derek McLane’s set of blue-hued tile with a mosque archway, rimmed with gold. And, of course, Musa’s topiary figurines that wander in and out, like the growing population of ghosts. Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through June 7. (310) 628-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Stage feature.
COME BACK LITTLE HORNY In playwright Laura Richardson’s clever sourball of a family comedy, mom Susan (Wendy Phillips) and dad Ian (Scott Paulin) used to be artists, but now they’re retired — read “tapped out” — and they seem to spend most of their time sniping at each other. Meanwhile, their closeted gay son Loki (Brendan Bonner) and borderline schizophrenic daughter Nora (Jennifer Erholm) still live at home, subjected to endless sneers and veiled insults thrown in their direction. Into this toxic atmosphere comes the family’s one successful scion, Stanford University professor and bestselling author Raven (Danielle Weeks), who, estranged from her clan, shows up for a visit, bringing along her newly adopted pet dog Horny (delightfully played in canine drag by Jason Paige, whose leg-humping, slobbery performance all but barks with the unfiltered love that the human characters can’t express to each other). Raven’s latest book is a hostile but truthful roman à clef about her family — and, as they peruse the book, the clan is forced to confront the miserable truth. Director Martha Demson’s character-driven production artfully emphasizes the subtext underlying the family’s brittle relationship. Not a line is spoken that doesn’t seep with layers of corrosive back story. Although the pacing occasionally falters — and the piece frankly could use some cutting, particularly during the final third — the writing is smartly full of just the sorts of lines you hope never to hear from your mother. The ensemble work boasts some ferocious acting turns, particularly from Phillips’ scathingly bitter mother and Weeks’ superficially loving, passively hostile daughter. Lost Studio Theatre, 130 S. LaBrea Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through June 20. (310) 600-3682. (Paul Birchall)
GO DIRTY DANCING Blockbuster musicals based on blockbuster films are multiplying like viruses, but Dirty Dancing is different. Its approach to slapping film on a stage is the zenith of the seamless and shameless. Instead of adding songs, original screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein’s theater translation mimics scenes with a faithfulness to her treasured 1987 source material that’s slavishly high camp. Add in James Powell’s extravagant direction and we’re served up fantastically expensive cheese that knows audiences don’t just want to see Baby (Amanda Leigh Cobb) and Johnny (Josef Brown) dancing on a log, they want to see that log descend majestically from the ceiling and be dismissed when it’s served its momentary purpose. By duplicating the pacing, plot and props, Dirty Dancing revels in the luxurious disposability that tells a crowd they’re getting their money’s worth. Wow factor is key when you’re shelling out the cost of several DVDs to watch the exact same thing live — the set whirls and motors, spitting up bridges and doors and revolving platforms, dancers in great costumes pack the stage, and giant video screens even show us the fractured glass when Johnny punches a window. It’s the kind of nonsense that delights both cynics and fans. (Inversely, it’s now the script’s dabbling into race and class consciousness that feels cheap.) Cobb and Brown are twins for Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, the charming Cobb approaching the role with actual acting, while the muscular Brown has fun aping Swayze’s show-pony dramatics. In a strong and massive cast, standouts include Britta Lazenga as the ill-fated dancer Penny and the very funny Katlyn Carlson as Baby’s snotty sister Lisa. Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through June 28. (213) 365-3500. A Broadway L.A. production. (Amy Nicholson)
GO EL OGRITO (THE OGRELING) Jesús Castaños-Chima stages Suzanne Lebeau’s dark fairy tale (performed in Spanish with English supertitles) with sweetness and depth. It concerns a mother (Julieta Ortiz) trying to protect her young son (the adult Gabriel Romero) from the heredity and instinct of blood lust. His father, you see, was/is an Ogre, or one who eats children. After going through six of his own daughters, he fled to give his infant son a chance. Dad hangs offstage in the forest, watching with admiration as his son struggles with hereditary, demonic passions to eat little animals and, eventually, little children, while his mother strives valiantly to ban the color red from the house, and serve him vegetarian fare grown in the garden — in these plays, gardens always serve as an antidote to the horrors of who we are. 24th Street Theater, 1117 24th St., L.A.; Sat.-Sun., times vary, call for schedule; through June 21. (213) 745-6516. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Stage feature.
F YOURSELF: AN EVENING WITH FAMKE ROUMSTEAD Just a few doors north of Canter’s Deli in a small storefront on Fairfax, a Rubenesque woman with close-cropped dark hair sashays about the stage and invites you to “learn how to f yourself.” She is Famke Roumstead, sexologist, lecturer, Manatee Community College Alumnus . as well as your private dancer for the evening (yes, she treats us to her version of the Tina Turner classic). “I don’t look romantical . but I am,” she tells the audience as she begins the show with one of a number of clever, Bush-like neologisms. In a fairly short set (clocking in at around 40 minutes), Roumstead riffs on sexual taboos, debunks sexual stereotypes and exposes archaic archetypes of femininity and female sexuality. Her deadpan style and comic timing are weirdly reminiscent of the great Stephen Wright, though at the same time the two couldn’t be more different. And as the show is at an improv theater, Roumstead doesn’t hesitate to request audience participation, including engagement in a breathing exercise to find our “genitalia spirit animals” and calling volunteers onstage to assist her in various demonstrations. While the show could use a little tightening in terms of direction, it’s a pleasant diversion. Bang Comedy Theater, 457 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.; through May 30. (323) 653-6886. (Mayank Keshaviah)
I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT Even by the standards of the venerable 12-step confessional, Jonathan Coogan’s one-man memoir of growing up amid the pot smoke, promiscuity and pernicious parenting of the freewheeling Hollywood of the ’70s is fairly tepid stuff. Which is not to say Coogan doesn’t have a lot going for him as a performer. With a wry, self-deprecating manner and an engaging stage presence, he clearly knows his way around a one-liner. His autobiographical material, however, just doesn’t generate the highs — no pun intended — or lows demanded by the shopworn victim-recovery formula. Perhaps that’s because, in the land of medical marijuana, having been a teenage stoner turned weed dealer scared straight by a brush with the law seems so, well, underwhelmingly ordinary. More likely it’s because this “addiction” story, at least as it’s framed here by Coogan and his co-writer, director Dan Frischman, seems to constantly shrink before a pair of far more compelling characters always looming in the background — namely Coogan’s colorful, pot-smoking New York–Jew parents. In fact, judging by the unresolved bitterness permeating the piece, its real star is Rosy Rosenthal, Coogan’s Ralph Kramden–esque wisecracker of a father (tellingly, the mother’s name is never uttered). Far more than any clichés about a “higher power,” it is Rosy and his spare-the-fist-spoil-the-child version of tough love that determines the psychic trajectory of Coogan’s life and is this tale’s true heart and soul. Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through June 13. (310) 358-9936 or katselastheatre.org. (Bill Raden)
MARRY ME A LITTLE & THE LAST FIVE YEARS For Marry Me a Little, Craig Lucas and Norman Rene constructed a wisp of a plot to incorporate 16 existing Stephen Sondheim songs. In it, two New Yorkers, a man (Mike Dalager) and a woman (Jennifer Hubilla) each spend a lonely Saturday night at home. Since one set serves for both apartments, we see both obliviously pursuing their solitary lives within a single space. Director Jules Aaron seems to distrust the original concept, allowing them to be aware and interact, so the thematic loneliness is nullified. The result resembles a musical revue, or an overproduced concert. The Last Five Years, written/composed by Jason Robert Brown and directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, depicts, in 14 songs, the dissolution of a relationship, seen from opposite perspectives by writer Jamie (Michael K. Lee) and Cathy (Jennifer Paz): He sees their relationship chronologically, while she views it retrospectively, leaving us to piece together the fractured tale. The performers are all capable, but only Lee brings needed dynamism. Since one play concerns a relationship that never happens, and the other depicts a deteriorating one, they make for a grim evening, though the opening-night audience seemed enthusiastic. East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theatre, 129 Judge John Aiso St., L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 21. (213) 625-7000 or eastwestplayers.org. (Neal Weaver)
OCHRE & ONYX: THE LANGSTON HUGHES PROJECT Langston Hughes celebrated the notion of black as beautiful long before the slogan became a watchword for social change. Spotlighting our nation’s ongoing racial divisions, writer Lynn Manning’s message play attempts to make a connection between Hughes’ brief coming-of-age sojourn in Mexico in 1920-21 and the modern-day struggles of a young slam poet named Nubia (Lauryn Whitney) who must deal with her personal anger and prejudice. The latter scenario ignites around Nubia’s gnarly relationship with an affable African-Latina painter, Lisa (Melissa Camilo), who has enthusiastically sought out their artistic collaboration, but whom Nubia resents for her Hispanic roots. The play alternates between what happens with these women and the more interesting historical drama involving Hughes (Maurice Glover) and his crusty, domineering dad (Rodney Gardiner), who wants the poet to give up poetry and move to Mexico, where, as a black man, he can get some respect. Hughes’ early life — his tremendous emotional conflicts and the nascent beginnings of his inspirational ideas — is fascinating fodder for drama, but the script strays off the mark with painfully excessive melodrama and too much time spent showing the naïve hero learning to carouse with more jaded companions. Glover has a pleasant quality but his performance is none too deep. Whitney brings to the role lots of fierce passion (the poetry is terrific), but she’s hampered by the script’s overall didacticism. Under Nataki Garret’s direction, both she and Camilo come across as symbols for opposing attitudes rather than fully developed characters. Los Angeles Design Center, 5955 S. Western Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through May 31. (323) 599-0811. A Watts Village Theater Company production. (Deborah Klugman)
GO TEN TO LIFE Leave logic at the door and you’ll get your full quota of laughs from this quartet of one-acts, each of which blends sci-fi, sex and absurdity in an entertaining way. Written by Annette Lee, “Hacienda Heights” is about a homicidal teen (Ewan Chung) living with a sexually predatory and abusive mom (Janet Song) and even more abusive grandmom (Emily Kuroda). Off to commit mass murder, he’s forestalled when his alternate self (Feodor Chin) arrives from another dimension to redirect his aggression toward the villains at home. In Nic Cha Kim’s “RE:verse” (the evening’s funniest and most satisfying), a man (Chung) headed for his 10th high-school reunion undergoes extensive cosmetic surgery at a bargain-basement price; the catch is that it’s for three days only, after which he’ll revert — at an inconvenient moment, of course, else it wouldn’t be funny — to his former self. Tim Lounibos’ “Be Happy” concerns the power struggle between a psychiatrist (Chin) and his patient-wife (Peggy Ahn). The setup is confusing at first and it’s a bit of a wait to the final payoff — but worth it. Judy Soo Hoo’s “The Red Dress” is about a married woman (Song) who, strangely, keeps insisting to her husband (Elpido Ebuen) that they renew the warranty on her “red dress” — a plea he rejects, precipitating hellish consequences. No small part of the production’s humor comes courtesy of designer Dennis Yen’s sound and Christopher M. Singleton’s lighting; the latter highlights the erotic and/or gruesome scenarios that intermittently play out behind set designer Philippe Levine’s classy sliding screens. GTC Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Toluca Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 7. (818) 238-9998. A Londestone Theatre Ensemble production. (Deborah Klugman)
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