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Theater Reviews: Black Watch, Clay, Lauren Weedman, Durango

{mosimage} GO BLACK WATCH Part docudrama and part ballet, Gregory Burke’s play is an homage to the 300-year-old Scottish Black Watch army regiment, originally clan warriors. Its final phase of amalgamation into other Scottish regiments occurred during its second tour of duty in Iraq (outside Fallujah), scenes of which are played out besides flashbacks/flashforwards to a bar in Fife, where a playwright (Paul Higgins, who doubles as the company sergeant), is trying to gather interviews for a play — this play. Black Watch shares some traits of war dramas we’ve become familiar with and possibly inured to — with the kind of hyperrealistic macho-cursing-aggression-bonding scenes found in, say, John DiFusco’s Tracers. In John Tiffany’s staging of Black Watch, however, the realistic keeps turning surreal and theatrical. This is partly due to Laura Hopkins’ set design, a football-field-shaped stage with audience risers along both lengths, and Tiffany’s staging of some scenes with exaggerated distances between characters in order to amplify the gulfs between them. Letters home are read in sign language — a hauntingly beautiful evocation of lament without a trace of sentimentality. In one scene, what’s essentially a narrated history lesson about the regiment could have been a drab recitation. Instead, throughout the exposition, one soldier gets flipped over the shoulders of his mates, who strip his kilt and calf-protectors, replacing them with a tightly choreographed series of costume changes as locales and wars roll by. (Costumes by Jessica Brettle.) Colin Grenfell’s lighting ranges from shafts of sidelight to hues of night-light green, supported by the visual poetry of Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer’s video design. Right after a joke coming from a nervous patrol in the field, a jolting bomb blast suddenly reveals three bloodied soldiers dangling and twisting, slowly falling like feathers. We’re all too familiar with the mentally unbalanced war vet (Ali Craig) in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder, as with grunts’ growing disillusion with a disastrous foreign policy. But it’s intriguing to witness an American war through a Scottish lens — and not just from the sidelines. This is an eerie and moving history of war itself, of its evolving codes of conduct, and honor, told in both a wash of obscenities conjoined with majestical dance, and the kind of swagger that says so much more than words. National Theatre of Scotland and UCLA Live, UCLA, FREUD PLAYHOUSE; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Oct. 14. (310) 206-1144. (Steven Leigh Morris)

CLAY This 80-minute solo show by writer Matt Sax starts off as the story of a white hip-hop performer’s rise to fame, but before the flashbacks dig very far into the background of that artist, Clay, we realize his artistic ascent is only incidental to the telling of his life. Clifford/Clay is a teenage New York suburbanite who experiences the divorce of his parents, the suicide of his mother and his eventual romance with his stepmother. Perhaps more important is the Oedipal showdown he has with his salesman father and Clay’s identification with a new father figure, Sir John. Sir John is a black Brooklyn rapper who teaches shy, nerdy Clifford not only how to bust a rhyme and freestyle, but also to look inward to find artistic authenticity. And this is where Clay inevitably runs smack into clichés. Not only does the story’s feel-good message sound like after-school-special stuff, but it shamelessly relies on a Magical Negro — a wise, genielike figure placed on this earth simply to await the arrival of a confused young white man in need of self-esteem, a few street smarts and some insight into life’s mysteries. Sax, who owns a rubbery face and can mimic a formidable range of sound effects, is a personable performer minted in the Danny Hoch mold, except that he lacks Hoch’s innate toughness — directed by Eric Rosen, Sax always gives you the feeling that he needs you to like him. The show’s spare set (Walt Spangler), stark lighting (Howell Binkley) and percussive sound (Joshua Horvath) are suitably brutal. 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.; thru Oct. 14 (no perfs Oct. 2-5). (213) 628-2772. (Steven Mikulan)

GO DURANGO In her emotionally absorbing family drama, Julie Cho crafts a painful version the Lees, who are what you might call a thoroughly Americanized Korean-American family with many smoldering insecurities and discontentments. The patriarch (Nelson Mashita) is a successful ad executive, though his glacial coldness has unsettled his sons. After he suddenly finds himself booted out of his job, he decides to take his sons, Isaac (Jim Suh) and Jimmy (Ryan Cusino), on a road trip to Durango as a family get-together. Instead, all hell breaks loose, hell being long-standing resentments and a crushing secret involving homosexuality. Cho’s script is both accessible and wonderfully mysterious and surprising. Chay Yew’s masterful direction plays the volatile and subtle emotions of these damaged characters with all the grace and dexterity of Itzhak Perlman on a violin. David Henry Hwang Theater at the UNION CENTER FOR THE ARTS, 120 Judge John Aliso St., Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Oct. 14. (213) 625-7000. (Lovell Estell III)

{mosimage} GO GOBLIN MARKET Laura (Tami Tappan Damiano) and Lizzie (Jennifer Pennington) are Victorian-era sisters, saddled with responsibilities of society and motherhood. Privately they escape adulthood as they compete in a childish singing game of naming exotic fruits — the game begins innocently, but soon transforms them back to a youthful horror as they are enticed by mysterious creatures in the woods. Based on a poem by Christina Rossetti, composer Polly Pen and writing-lyricist partner Peggy Harmon create a beguiling, if initially impenetrable, operetta filled with haunting images and ameliorated by the joyous love the pair shares. Director Martin Bedoian’s sharp staging cuts through much of the denseness of this short, taxing piece. The performances make the evening soar — particularly Damiano’s astonishing voice. The four-piece ensemble under the musical direction of Philip White offers a sumptuous orchestration. Jason Z. Cohen’s delicate scrim house and forest sets, lighted exquisitely by Dave Mickey, add to a high standard that gives this difficult production its integrity. Syzygy Theatre Group at GTC BURBANK, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Oct. 20 (added perfs Sept. 27, Oct. 4, 11 & 18, 8 p.m.). (800) 838-3006. (Tom Provenzano)

JIM MORRISON: SWIMMING TO THE MOON The ’60s have never looked more topical than in this debut of Gary Flaxman’s tribute to that decade, which addresses deviant celebrities, racial tensions and the Vietnam War through the lens of Jim Morrison’s spirit. Flaxman’s themes mirror Britney, the civil rights controversy of the Jena Six and the Iraq war. However, instead of being poignant political work, the performance is constructed more like a book report on the 1960s with dashes of clichéd dialogue and Morrison’s poetry. We are introduced to the whiskey-soaked Doors front man (Damon Shalit) in a Paris hotel, where he wakes up to an enigmatic fellow named Al (Abner Genece), who informs the rock star that he’s dead. Al introduces himself as a “transporter” to the afterlife by making redundant death innuendoes. Morrison’s destiny is determined with the help of an argumentative Jimi Hendrix (Rusell Richardson looking either stony or stoned), one of Morrison’s devoted fans (the wide-eyed Corryn Cummins), a woman who died in the 1967 Detroit riots (Sarah Scott Davis in an enchanting performance), a right-wing senator (the commanding Steven Shaw), and an angst-ridden Vietnam solider (the powerful Jake Bern). The minor characters add much-needed tension but the leads do not — if only Shalit’s acting were as sculpted as his abdominals. Similarly, Genece’s Al comes of as stiff. Under Judy Rose’s direction, the play reveals a darker side of the moon where all is bleak, and the life-death limbo needs some rock & roll. 44th St. Productions LLC at the ART/WORKS THEATRE, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.: Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Nov. 11. (323) 960-4412. (Sophia Kercher)

{mosimage}PICK GO LAUREN WEEDMAN: A WOMAN TRAPPED IN A WOMAN’S BODY (TALES FROM A LIFE OF CRINGE) This is the woman who, as a student, arriving at a late hour to her college dorm, said by way of explanation that she had just been raped. It wasn’t true. She made it up. Why? For the drama? For the attention? That she got, as she clung to the story, which led to her being asked to identify her assailant from a police lineup of incredulous suspects. A university counselor pointed out to her that claiming to be raped, then waiting a week to undergo a medical exam, underscored her need for professional help. And if the story was invented, her need for help was even more dire. Meet Lauren Weedman, a beautiful divorcée now in her mid-30s who deflects commitment — to people, to passions — with her spitfire wit and hallucinogenic reality, for which she keeps apologizing and then continuing along the same spiral of lunacy. Her self-deprecating humor is not just funny, its excesses contain jaw-dropping revelations on the intersections of passion and fear. The example cited was from a show called Wreckage , which she performed a couple of years ago at the same venue where, on Friday, she’ll be reading from her book, A Woman Trapped in a Woman’s Body (Tales From a Life of Cringe) ,   as part of its launch party . Weedman first appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Her other shows include Homecoming , Rash and Bust . A book signing follows her reading. UPRIGHT CITIZENS BRIGADE, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hlywd.; Fri., Sept. 28, 8 p.m. (323) 908-8702. (Steven Leigh Morris) (Also read Joe Donnelly's article on Lauren Weedman here.)

PAINTED ALICE When the creatively blocked Alice (Rashmi) paints — or, more precisely, stays up late pretending to — she listens to self-help tapes. She needs them: Her relationship with Leverett (Brad Cook) is rocky, her patron (Daisy Mullen) is pushy and her colleague has just committed suicide by stuffing herself in a dryer. The only cure is a Lewis Carroll vacation to the world beyond the canvas, where she encounters a series of fairyland archetypes that mirror the nastier side of the art market. (Tweedledee and Tweedledum, played by Dexter Hamlett and Frank Noon, are here reimagined as painters who bicker over whether it’s better to be commercially or critically successful.) William Donnelly’s loose sketches are driving at real issues about painting for dollars, but Donnelly’s cartoonish writing matches Jayne Taini’s direction: The lead already knows the solution to her problems, but it’s so aggravating, who cares if she achieves it? Yet Jenn Bowman — a tiny spitfire incarnation of Bette Davis — makes a splash in a series of comic turns that include a bitter mermaid, and a wealthy dowager who puts Alice on trial for too much artistic integrity. Sphere Theatre Company at the ELEPHANT THEATRE, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Oct. 7. (323) 960-1057. (Amy Nicholson)

THE ROOT Playwright Gary Richards sets out to prove the old saw that money is the root of all evil in this oddball crime melodrama. Vinnie (Jon Manfrellotti) has taken over his father’s down-at-heel filling station in Queens. The place no longer pays for itself, and Vinnie is in a bind — ripe for plucking by corrupt police inspector Jerry (Alan Wasserman), who has pressured him into converting the business into an illegal chop shop. Vinnie is a fundamentally decent guy whose participation in the scheme has cost him his wife, his child and the respect of his father. But Jerry threatens violent retribution if Vinnie deserts the enterprise, so Vinnie tapes Jerry’s threats. Jerry catches him at it, and settles in for a leisurely torture-murder. So far, it’s predictable stuff. But in Act 2, wild cards begin to fly. Both Vinnie’s clothes-conscious assistant, Willie (Baron Kelly), and his landlord, pornography producer Chick (Jim Hanna), wander into the proceedings by accident, and all plans go up the spout. (Apparently nobody ever locks doors in this play.) The result is a comedy melodrama with a quartet of eccentric characters, efficiently staged by Ken Meseroll and acted with verve. Robert Tintoc supplies the seedily detailed set. ARK THEATRE COMPANY, 1647 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Nov. 17. (323) 969-1717. (Neal Weaver)

{mosimage}SPRING AWAKENING The best-laid plans... . An ambitious production company and dedicated ensemble work with a translation and adaptation (respectively by Francis J. Zeigler and director August Viverito) of Frank Wedekind’s 1906 drama. The play’s main ideas concern the high cost of sexual awakenings among schoolchildren in a sternly moralistic and sexually repressed society. This production may have been inspired by the success of the rock musical adaptation on Broadway. This, however, is not the musical; perhaps it needs to be. The scale of woe (pregnancies and suicides) is operatic, so that in our age, at least, all that emerges from playing it as realistically as they do here is overwrought melodrama. This tendency gets compounded by the obvious interpretations and Teutonic dialects of the the adults (J.C. Henning and Thomas Mikusz) and the monochromatic albeit sensitive portrayals by the youth. Near play’s end, bereft Melchior (Adam Kalesperis) — kicked out of school for penning a bit of porno and wrongly blamed for contributing to his rival’s suicide — says, “I dare not weep here,” though he’s been sniveling for a good 20 minutes. Abbie Cobb’s innocent Wendla is very perky and sweet, Allie Costa’s Martha (a victim of daily beatings by her father) has an intriguing quality that blends morbidity with accommodation, but like most of the actors here, her character is determined by the performer’s qualities rather than by the twists and turns of the play’s circumstances. In the ensemble’s defense, how an American actor is supposed to bring credence to lines like, “I’m so frightfully sorry, really,” is anybody’s guess. The Production Company at THE CHANDLER STUDIO THEATRE CENTER, 12443 Chandler Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Oct. 27. (310) 880-1016. (Steven Leigh Morris)

THIRD Wendy Wasserstein’s final play before her death in 2006 is a meditation on the theme of liberal bias in academia. Unfortunately, the play’s dramatic rough edges suggest the need for a final-draft polish that, tragically, the piece will never get. The play takes place at a small but classy New England college, where Laurie (Christine Lahti), a tenured and conventionally liberal English professor, develops a visceral dislike of handsome, preppy freshman Woodson Bull III (Matt Czuchry). Woodson (or “III” as he pompously dubs himself) seems to symbolize everything that Laurie loathes — he’s an entitled, white jock and probably (gasp!) a Republican. When III turns in a brilliant paper, Laurie becomes convinced that there’s no way a dufus prepster like him could have written it — so she publicly accuses him of plagiarism. The investigation essentially ruins III’s academic life, even though Laurie comes to realize she’s mistaken about many things. Wasserstein’s skills lie in crafting characters whose sympathetic interior qualities often offset glaring personality flaws. Here, though, the emotional juxtaposition never quite comes together, and Laurie’s overly hateful behavior in Act 1 never mitigates her supposedly redemptive warm and fuzzier activities later on. Part of the problem is Maria Mileaf’s overly glib directorial style, like that of a TV drama, emphasizing unearned sentiment over believable motivation. And Lahti’s unexpectedly patronizing and judgmental Laurie is unable to transition believably from condescension to compassion. GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A. Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Oct. 28 (310) 208-5454. (Paul Birchall)

TWELFTH NIGHT Staging this kaleidoscopic Shakespearean comedy on a tiny stage is a game enterprise. Director Matthew Reilley handles the mechanics ably, framing the action in front of designer Beau Deshotel’s ivy-walled backdrop and lending an atmospheric touch with his own original guitar composition. What’s less in evidence is a novel or insightful perspective, and the intricacies of the comedy’s gender-bent characters and themes. These elements seem missing in large part because of broadly uneven performances. The front-and-center love triangle involving the noblewoman Olivia (Sonja O’Hara), the lovesick Count Orsino (Dustin Coffey) and the male-masquerading Viola (Betsy Roth) is visibly upstaged by the play’s pranksters, most notably Bart Shattuck as the hard-drinking troublemaker, Sir Toby Belch. Abetted by his pal Sir Andrew (Matt Van Winkle), Olivia’s housekeeper Maria (a down-to-earth Pip Swallow) and the clown Feste (Blake Griffin), Sir Toby engineers the delicious comeuppance of Olivia’s puritanical steward, Malvolio (Peter Altschuler). Humor sparks around the machinations of this mischievous quartet; it’s also kindled in the onstage presence of Shane Andric’s late-arriving Sebastian, Viola’s twin, and Ryan Wood in a minor but skilled turn as Sebastian’s friend, the sea captain. But the production flags around several pivotal performances. Altschuler’s dour one-dimensional puritan misses myriad opportunities for ribaldry, and O’Hara overlays Olivia with a flirtatious petulance that diminishes one of the more interesting roles in the Bard’s pantheon of women. Village Green Productions at THE COMPLEX, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Oct. 7. www.complexhollywood.com. (Deborah Klugman)


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