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Theater Reviews: Bleeding Through, Answer the Call, Exit Strategy, The Changeling

ANSWER THE CALL This well-meaning musical deserves credit for espousing universal respect and genuine family values (not the ersatz right-wing kind), but it’s otherwise an awkward effort. Writers Michael Antin and Leonard Bloom — music and lyrics by Antin — build their story around an 11-year old boy’s school assignment to learn more about his family. Offspring of a mixed marriage — a Gentile songwriter father, Sam (Derel Maury Friedman) and a Jewish mom, Jill (Josie Yount) — Eddie (Spencer Price) seeks his curmudgeonly maternal granddad, Gordon (Lou Briggs), who is also a songwriter. Gordon is happy to shower Eddie and his sister Becky (Haley Price) with anecdotes about his military service, his horse thief uncle, his heady times in Nashville, his rural childhood, his beach frolicking days and so on. Unfortunately, these ramblings don’t coalesce. Even in a genre that often plays fast and loose with narrative logic, this piece comes off woefully short. Grandma Hannah (L.B. Zimmerman) dances with a healing broken hip. Never-before-known secrets are revealed — Sam had a brutal childhood, Gordon’s brother was tragically murdered — then swiftly forgotten, as we move to the next riff or song. The best of these is the self-descriptive “Crap on the Golden Years.” Others less interesting include one sung by the caregiver (Shamarrah E. Pates) about having car trouble. The vocals are passable, and under Friedman’s direction, the performances conform to cliché. Hollywood Court Theatre, Hollywood United Methodist Church, 6817 Franklin Ave., L.A.; Fri-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through November 22, plays411.com/answerthecall. (323) 960-7735. (Deborah Klugman)

BEAU FIB This musical, credited to playwright Myles Nye and composers John Graney and Andy Hentz, is steeped in the dramatic tradition of the Tragic Clown. And, really, few clowns are more tragic than Christopher Young’s Beau Fib, a sweet-natured young hobo and pathological liar who, at the play’s opening, is afflicted with some kind of amnesia. Haunted by the sound of a distant jazz band, Master Fib commences a journey to figure out why he’s inexplicably dressed in his best pair of shoes. Along the way, he is befriended by a young soldier (Scott Palmason), a jaded prostitute (Cat Davis) and a disenchanted drunkard preacher (Chris Sheets). After a run-in with demonic anticlown St. Clownie (Christopher Karbo, as a fiendish Bozo), the heroes are tricked by bizarre circumstance into descending to Hell to steal the little toe from the King of the Underworld himself (Mike Kindle). Before this can occur, Fib makes some appalling discoveries about himself. If for no other reason, Nye’s musical is exceptional because of his use of the word sardoodledom (Google it) in the program notes. However, in terms of execution, the work is never able to evade the sense of being an early draft. The story drifts from idea to idea in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. The book (both dialogue and lyrics) is ponderous and dry, full of cerebral and academic puns that probably seemed droll and arch on the page but which come off as dreary and pompous on the stage. Director Andy Goldblatt’s intimate, halting production may gel later in the run, but I observed klutzy blocking and ill-timed pacing. That said, Young’s Fib is a likable young rascal. Sheets’ growelly old priest is hilariously bitter, and Davis’ flaxen-haired hooker is simultaneously sleazy and innocent delight. Graney and Hentz’s Tom Waits–like score possesses amiably folksy and ironic undercurrents that are occasionally soulful. Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through November 21. latensemble.com. An LA Theater Ensemble production. (Paul Birchall)

BETTER ANGELS Playwright Wayne Peter Liebman may be no Pastor Weems, but this wincingly hagiographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln (James Read) certainly suggests postgraduate work in the Weems school of exalted and fanciful presidential kitsch. Liberally sprinkled with tidbits of beloved Lincolnalia, the play introduces the Great Emancipator through the flashbacked reminiscences of John Hay (David Dean Bottrell), as Lincoln’s now elderly biographer and former private secretary delivers a university lecture on the man behind the myth. To illustrate Lincoln’s deceptively complex blend of folksy political wiles, razor-sharp intellect and more earthbound emotional needs, Hay relates the meeting of minds between Lincoln and the Wisconsin Angel, Cordelia Harvey (McKerrin Kelly), as the bloody carnage of Chickamauga unfolds. A war widow and real-life champion of better care for the Civil War’s wounded, Mrs. Harvey visits the White House (amid Victoria Profitt’s stately set pieces) to persuade the commander in chief to establish military hospitals in the North. For Lincoln, the attractive, personable lobbyist offers a flirtatious respite from the cares of office, as well as from his offstage “harpy” of a first lady. The encounter also provides the president the opportunity to test his Gettysburg Address and disambiguate his position on emancipation (yes, his intention was always to free the slaves). Despite Liebman’s romantic whimsy (and a particularly cloying postscript), Read turns in an engagingly sly, avuncular Lincoln, abetted by director Dan Bonnell’s handsome staging and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s elegant period costumes. Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through November 22. (818) 558-7000. (Bill Raden)

 

GO  BLEEDING THROUGH Adapted from Norman Klein’s novella of the same title, this world premiere, co-written and co-directed by Theresa Chavez and Rose Portillo, explores historical Angelino Heights (not coincidentally the location of the theater) and the ghosts of its glamorous past. The Unreliable Narrator (David Fruechting) introduces us to the world of the play as it moves fluidly between the past and present. He speaks with Ezra (Ed Ramolete) and Molly (Lynn Milgrim), now two elderly residents of the neighborhood, as he researches a potential murder. Through their memories we learn of a younger Molly (Elizabeth Rainey), who came from Indiana and worked in men’s clothing, which naturally brought her into contact with a number of men, including husbands Jack (Brian Joseph) and Walt (Pete Pano), as well as Jack’s father and longtime customer Harry (James Terry). Chavez and Portillo’s expansive “surround” set, designed by Akeime Mitterlehner, offers a unique staging that, along with the accompaniment of live musicians Scott Collins and Vinny Golia, immerses the audience in the noir world. Francois-Pierre Couture’s angular lighting, Pamela Shaw’s wonderfully detailed costumes, Claudio Rocha’s well-integrated videography and Diane Arellano’s installation of historical artifacts — which the audience is allowed to explore at intermission — all enhance the ambiance as well. Rainey and Milgrim play their double roles with aplomb, but the piece’s main drawback is the lack of dramatic momentum in the writing, making older Molly’s line, “at some point, a place becomes more important than a person,” ring all the more true. Shakespeare Festival/L.A., 1238 W. First St., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through November 22. (800) 595-4849. About Productions. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO  THE CHANGELING This unsparing melodrama was the hit of 1622 and still packs a punch today. Thomas Middleton (who co-wrote the play with William Rowley) also helped the Bard to revise Measure for Measure. Like that perverse comedy, The Changeling welcomes the audience to a romantic comedy just before it about-faces and bites them in the behind. Beatrice-Joanna (Melissa Chalsma) is a rich man’s daughter pursued by three suitors: her father’s manservant (Luis Galindo); her fiancé (Tom Mesmer); and her lover (Sean Pritchett). She provokes the first to murder the second so she can marry the third, but that foul deed can’t go unpunished. What follows is a glut of lurid tragedies: bribes, rape, paid sexual services, shootings, arson, truth potions, stabbing, dismemberment, more stabbing, and suicide. Across town, an asylum owner (Roberto Bonanni) trusts his warden (Bob Beuth) to keep his younger wife (Katherine Leigh) chaste, not knowing that his employee lusts after her. He’s not alone, as two lotharios (Richard Azurdia and Rajan Velu) feign madness to get alone time with the asylum owner’s lovely bride. Though the play predates Origin of the Species by 237 years, you can feel it wrestling with questions Darwin would eventually make public, namely the mystery of female choice and the suspicion that humanity is just an animal operating on passion, jealousy and instinct. It feels natural then that director Pat Towne has updated the setting to Victorian England. When the condescending Beuth calls his inmates beasts and checks their teeth like cattle, we’re reminded of the haves’ defense of Social Darwinism. Aside for some lighting cues that muddied the end of Act I, this is a dark and fascinating production well-served by the strong ensemble and Mikiko Nagao’s steam-punk costuming. Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through November 8. (818) 710-6306. Independent Shakespeare Company (Amy Nicholson)

EXIT STRATEGY Because the elderly are “invisible” in our culture, they can pay for their rent and subscription drugs by engaging in any number of criminal activities, and also give their lives a much-needed adrenaline rush of rebellion against both society and the metaphysical cruelties of aging. Such is the sweet theory behind Bill Semans and Roy M. Close’s sitcom, Exit Strategy. Casey Stangl’s staging is a bundle of paradoxes: James (nicely played by James B. Sikking) is a broke and broken queen who’s a poet and an ex–college professor; he was removed from his post because of a sex scandal. All he has left is his libido. After he’s kicked out of a gay bar, James laments with faux Beckettian ennui: “Sometimes I think I’ve sucked my last cock.” He’s hanging on day to day in the Midwestern rooming house (realistic set by Keith Mitchell) managed by Mae (feisty Debra Mooney) — a rooming house that’s just been sold to a developer. So they’re both facing eviction when Alex (John C. Moskoff) arrives for a brief stay with a benignly criminal plot to earn them all some money. Is Alex a con man? Are the duo being duped by his continual pontifications on how to age well, and his philosophies of squeezing the marrow out of every day, as well as how to avoid staining oneself after urinating? There’s far too much gratuitous explaining going on, so that it deflates whatever mysteries may swim in the subtext of this intriguing situation and these very nice people. Stangl’s languid pacing is both this production’s curse and its blessing. These characters can talk a scene to death, but when they sit, waiting for the play’s most suspense-filled resolution, they speak in non sequiturs, and the play starts to take on the enigmatic, elliptical poetry of David Storey’s beautiful Home, a kind of abstract liturgy about waiting, and dying and living. For a mystery or a metaphysical rumination, the play is far too obvious. Yet for a sitcom, in which much is expected to be explained, it moves too slowly. It’s a tender and humane comedy. If only it were clearer in its convictions, so that they didn’t have to be spoken as though in neon supertitles. Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through November 15. (818) 955-8101. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

GO  GROWING UP WITH UNCLE MILTIE As a young girl growing up in New York City, Patt Benson dreamed of making her mark in show business. Thanks to a combination of luck, talent and an unlikely friendship with a big name-celebrity, she succeeded. In her charming solo outing, Benson recounts her arduous journey, from Manhattan schoolgirl to Hollywood celebrity with the help of the redoubtable Milton Berle. By turns humorous and poignant, she tells of a childhood marred by the occasional drunken outbursts and abuse by her father and how her mother tolerated them, her time in parochial school and her budding desire to be a comedian, one nurtured by her mother. Her first encounter with Berle happened in the fall 1953, while she was on the way to tap-dancing class. Gradually, she became something of his protégé, showing up on his TV show, earning his respect and admiration, and like all the eventual Hollywood lottery winners whose persistence pays off, snagging a plum role in the sitcom Joe & Valerie. Benson packs a lot of material into this short piece, and the narrative has more than a few confusing gaps, but her writing is heartfelt and at times deeply evocative -- descriptions of New York City, for instance, offer alluring images. Rich Embardo directs. Improv Comedy Lab, 8162 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through November 22. (323) 651-2583. (Lovell Estell III)

GO  NO MAN’S LAND When Harold Pinter’s drama was first produced at Britain’s National Theatre in 1975, it was a star vehicle, offering virtuoso acting by John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Now that the star glamour has worn off, it’s possible to see the play more clearly. At times Pinter appears to be imitating Pinter, bringing out all the familiar tropes. Nevertheless, the writing is rich, and director Michael Peretzian gives it an elegant, well-acted production. Two elderly writers, Hirst (Lawrence Pressman) and Spooner (Alan Mandell) meet by chance in a Hampstead pub, and Hirst invites Spooner to his townhouse for a drink. At first, the two seem to be strangers, but gradually it emerges that they have been rivals — sexual and professional — since their days at Oxford. Hirst has won the success game, while Spooner lives in genteel poverty. Prosperity and alcohol have left Hirst semi-embalmed, while Spooner is very much alive, and angling for employment as Hirst’s secretary-companion. But two slightly menacing caretakers are already in place — Briggs (Jamie Donovan) and Foster (John Sloan). Their position is ambiguous: Are they Hirst’s employees or his captors? Mysteries and contradictions proliferate in an evening of perverse wit and skillful acting. Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.; West L.A.; schedule varies, call for information. (310) 477-2055 or odysseytheatre.com. (Neal Weaver)

PURGATORIO “He longs to make a film,” The New York Times reported last year about Italian stage director/set-lighting and costume designer Romeo Castellucci. That longing is more than evident in Purgatorio — one-third of the director’s trilogy (co-commissioned by UCLA Live), based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, presented by Societas Raffaello Sanzio in its U.S. premiere. A mother named First Star (Irena Radmanovic) chops bread at an upstage kitchen table of what one could presume is a spacious estate. She calls out to her son, a boy, Second Star (Pier Paolo Zimmermann), who’s suffering from a fever. He plays with a toy robot, and the dialogue between mother and son is inane and hollow, culminating with him asking, “Is he coming back tonight?” From the food preparation and service, the detailed, robotic rituals undertaken by both characters, and the eventual arrival and tender-empty interaction between husband, Third Star (Sergio Scarlatella) and his wife, Castellucci poses a strategic mystery swirling around what’s happening and what will happen. There’s no mystery, however, to the saturating feeling that this won’t end well. Purgatorio consists of a series of short scenes, separated by long, elaborate transformations into the son’s room, a living room, etc. — each undertaken with a singular absence of urgency. Eventually, supertitles provide stage directions for what has happened, and what is about to happen, adding to the sensation of ordinary people in ordinary situations being automatons in what will turn out to be a universe of harrowing and gratuitous cruelty. This is Dante via Artaud, with cinematic special effects in which a visage of the father appears stranded in a forest of poppies; they melt into a corn field — all seen through the boy’s imagination, like a chase scene out of a horror movie. Castellucci juxtaposes visual and aural opulence against emotional savagery -- one scene is devoted to a character’s dance of death. The result is an impressively dissonant blend of visual elegance and visceral disturbance, while the question lingers: Could this have been equally well rendered on film? But that would depend on the style and substance of the trilogy’s missing two parts. UCLA, Ralph Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall. Closed. Presented by UCLA Live. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

SATURN RETURNS refers to the phenomenon of the planet’s nearly 30-year trip around the sun and that journey’s life-changing astrological effect as it returns to the astral position it occupied at the birth of a character named Gustin. In Noah Haidle’s intriguing but unformed play, Gustin navigates between the important life changes during this planetary effect on Gustin at age 28 (Graham Michael Hamilton), 58 (Connor O’Farrell) and 88 (Nick Ullett). Near the end of his life, Gustin suffering insurmountable loneliness, clings to the company of visiting nurse Suzanne (Kristen Bush, who portrays the play’s three women). His middle-aged ghost is seen pleading with his 29-year-old daughter not to leave him, while she tries to find him a romantic mate to set herself free of his desperation for human contact. Finally his youthful self longs for his sweet but unstable wife to simply love him without fear. Individually the three stories are written with compelling relationships, but the point of their onstage intersection, while obvious from the title and suggested by the situations of loneliness, is never quite established by the text. The acting, under David Emme’s sensitive direction, is outstanding — particularly Bush, who finds the difference among her three characters with remarkable specificity. With Ralph Funicello’s crisp scenic design, supported perfectly by Lonnie Rafael Ulcerous’ lights and Nephelie Andonyadis’ costumes, the physical atmosphere is beautifully delivered. All that is missing here is a real purpose to the story. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; through November 22. (714) 708-5555. (Tom Provenzano)


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