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Theater Reviews: Bohemian Cowboy, Tartuffe, Black Women — State of the Union

Bohemian Cowboy

Scott HallBohemian Cowboy

AMERICAN GUILT Starting from the ending and then working its way back, Nick Mills’ take on the Bonnie and Clyde archetype deals with 20-somethings who are searching for meaning in their lives and try to find it through acts of defiance. The story centers on the relationship between Sara (Liz Vital) and Jonah (Eduardo Porto Carreiro), the former, a nymphomaniac who ironically refuses to curse; and the latter, a socially awkward depressive who has been seeing his therapist, Jane (Nicole DuPort), for seven years. Add to the mix Sara’s friends Evan (Jeff Irwin) and Hannah (Venessa Perdua), who end up as enablers in Sara and Jonah’s scheme and as a result are grilled by Keller (Sean Spann), a police detective investigating its devastating results. While there are a few genuine moments of humor and introspection in the writing, most end up sounding like a pseudo-intellectual whinings punctuated by pop-culture debates, further exacerbated by the typical early-20s rapid-fire ADD-esque way in which much of it is delivered. Though Mills’ directing his own work may have been a mistake, the cast members, especially Spann and DuPort, have good energy and fully throw themselves into the material. Theatre Unlimited Studios, 10943 Camarillo St., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through March 14. (847) 800-1762. A Vitality Productions Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

BLACK WOMEN: STATE OF THE UNION Judging from this uneven assortment of comedy sketches, dramatic playlets and poetry performance pieces, the state of identity politics for black women in the age of Obama hasn’t appreciably changed since Ntozake Shange’s landmark 1975 choreopoem, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” Buoyed by a talented ensemble and briskly directed by Nataki Garrett and Ayana Cahrr, the show is at its best when its political agenda is leavened with incisive humor or sharply observed characterizations. These include Lisa B. Thompson’s whimsical “Mother’s Day,” a satire of African-American maternal archetypes in the form of preprogrammed, nanny-bot androids Tamika Simpkins, Lee Sherman and the comically gifted Kila Kitu, who play, respectively, an overly doting Aunt Jemima mammy; a Condoleezza Rice–like hyperachiever; and a vintage 1970s black power militant; Nia Witherspoon’s “The Messiah Complex,” which takes a more serious tack as a lesbian rap star (Lony’e Perrine) recalls her younger, gender-confused adolescent self (Sherman) and how a troubled relationship with her estranged father (Paul Mabon) informed her sexual and artistic awakening; and Sigrid Gilmer’s clever “Black Girl Rising,” in which a wannabe superheroine (Simpkins) comes to Kitu’s Identity League to be assigned crime-fighting powers only to discover the roles allowed a black girl are somewhat less than empowering. Company of Angels, Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., downtown; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through March 15. (323) 883-1717. (Bill Raden)

THEATER PICK  BOHEMIAN COWBOY The original title of Raymond King Shurtz’s one-man show was The Gospel of Irony — which would have been a particularly ironic title, had it stuck, since there’s not a trace of irony in Shurtz’s unwaveringly sincere family memoir, now called Bohemian Cowboy. It’s all hinged to his efforts to understand the mystery of his father’s disappearance three years ago. The elder Shurtz drove six miles into the Nevada desert in his pickup, got out and, evidently, started walking. And now the younger Shurtz is trying to fathom whether this was suicide, or homicide and just some freak turn of events. The older man was not the best of fathers, his son explains through shards of poignant stories that are as compassionate as they are in gracefully written, and spoken. And the father was feeling some humiliation from the physical aftereffects of treatments for a form of cancer not specified in the play. The uncredited set contains raw wood slabs of some nondescript interior; when not showing family photographs, an overhead video monitor frames the action with an image of the boundless Mojave. Under Kurt Brungardt’s tender direction, background sounds to Shurtz’s fantastical mystery tour to the scene of his father’s disappearance include howling wind, the rat-tat-tat of  search-and-rescue helicopters. The father was a musician, and Shurtz juxtaposes his saga with moving ballads from his memory, as well as his own original compositions. Near the beginning, Shurtz quotes William Styron saying that depression is the inability to grieve. Shurtz’s performance is, indeed, an elegy, a theater-poem of Styron-esque insight and elegance. He describes his playwright mother as a poet, while his father was merely “poetical.” He meets Jesus in the desert, a figure “with ebony eyes and crooked teeth,” while Hamlet accompanies him for some of the drive across the expanse. Hamlet, he says, does not care for Shurtz’s song honoring Ophelia. Shurtz performs all this with gentle, wistful intelligence while avoiding the morose or the melodramatic. Through this deeply personal story of fathers and sons, and marriages gone awry, Shurtz has stumbled onto a romantic allegory, not only for a man lost in the wilderness but for a country, dangerously tipsy, swerving over the broken center line of an open road, as though between nostalgia and despondency. Overhead, the canopy of stars remains, as ever, oblivious. Elephant Lab Theatre, 6324 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m. (no perfs March 13-14); through March 21. (323) 960-7744. A Theatre 4S Production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

BRIDEZILLA STRIKES BACK! Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through March 29. (323) 960-7774. See Stage feature.

GO  CHERRY POPPIN’ FESTIVAL In the Friday night bill of its festival of new plays, Alive Theatre shows a dogged determination to fathom the unfathomable Big Questions, through Spartan theatricality and Absurdist jokes. Anthony Cretara and Jasper Oliver’s The Adventure Play or Keep Them Babies Outta My Soup, is a fairy tale — our Kierkegaard-quoting narrator (Calli Dunaway) holds a wand, I think — that follows an earnest and bewildered traveler named Zozza (nice turn by Jessica Culaciati), as he searches for his medieval village, which is some place not unlike Oz. Zozza befriends a Man (Eddie Chamberlain) who, with some merriment, considers the benefits of smashing open his brain with the hook end of a hammer. In in a nifty sliver of theatrical invention by director Jeremy Aluma, he does just that, letting loose a demon (the rotund and jocular Paul Knox) — a fellow who speaks with a Scottish brogue and refers to his own “Mediterranean” dialect. With its cast of nine, the delightfully loony one-act contains an internal battle between pretentiousness and farce. Farce wins. There’s also a shadow puppet play within the play, designed by Robin Bott. Ryan McClary’s Under the Great Booby Hatch concerns a dissident radio host (Jasper Oliver) broadcasting from a clandestine desert location and, with his tormented idealistic assistant (Rebecca Patrick) is wrestling with the ethics of lying on air in order to boost pathetic ratings. In so doing, the play examines the larger ramifications and ironies of truth-telling and storytelling to a nation of loons. With its cartoon aesthetic, in settles upon the view that there is redemption in craziness, that insanity is the only reasonable response to the world as it is. Director Mike Dias works with a devoted ensemble, though Oliver needs to stop mumbling, or the playwright’s point is just so much dead air. Royal Theater on the Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach; in rep, Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m. (pre-show band plays at 7:30 p.m.); through March 8. (562) 508-1788 or www.alivetheatre.org. An Alive Theatre production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  A DON’T HUG ME COUNTY FAIR This crowd-pleasing cornball musical, by Phil and Paul Olsen, suggests a hometown talent show combined with a sort of Minnesota Folk Play, full of bad jokes and set in a bar called the Bunyan, on the first day of the Bunyan County Fair. Proprietor Gunner Johnson (Tom Gibis, who also plays Gunner’s man-hungry sister Trigger) is so uncomfortable talking about feelings that he can’t utter the word “love.” His frustrated wife, Clara (Judy Heneghan), seeks attention by becoming a contestant in the Miss Walleye Contest, whose winner will have her face carved in butter. Also in the running are Trigger and Bernice (Katherine Brunk), a scatty-but-shapely gal who longs to star on Broadway. And there are other competitions: Karaoke-machine salesman Aarvid Gisselsen (Brad McDonald) and camping-supplies tycoon Kanute Gunderson (Tom Limmel) vie for the hand of Bernice, while Kanute and Gunner compete in the fishing contest. The songs, by the Olsens, are rinky-tink and derivative, borrowing melodies from everywhere, but somehow they work. The giddy tone is set by Doug Engalla’s direction, Stan Mazin’s choreography, and an astonishingly detailed set by Chris Winfield, featuring a karaoke machine with a mind of its own. Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through March 29. (818) 700-4878 or www.lcgrt.com. (Neal Weaver)

THE INCREASED DIFFICULTY OF CONCENTRATION Absurdist playwright, militant anticommunist and human-rights advocate Vaclav Havel is unique as the only working playwright who was also a head of state: He was president of both Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. This piece, translated by Stepan S. Simek, centers on social scientist Dr. Edward Hummel (Scott Rognlien), who’s writing an earnest treatise on the nature of happiness and human needs. In private life, however, he’s an egocentric male chauvinist, liar and sexual philanderer. In addition to his neglected wife (Kristina Hayes), he has a flamboyant mistress (Sarah Wolter), and makes passes at his secretary (Whitney Vigil). He’s also participating in a crack-brained research project conducted by the sex-starved academic Dr. Betty Balthazar (Amy Stiller), her oddball assistants (Steve Hamill and Eric Normington), her eccentric supervisor (Bobby Reed), and a temperamental computer named Putzig. Though all the Absurdist elements are present — a fractured chronology, emblematic characters and bizarre events — it seems like a conventional sex comedy grafted onto a philosophical farce. Director Alex Lippard has assembled an able cast, and the results are often funny, but the play’s over-schematic structure makes for arid patches. The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., through March 28. Produced by The Next Arena. (323) 960-7788. (Neal Weaver)

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW Shakespeare’s curiously misogynist comedy predates Neil Strauss’ The Game by 400 years, during which audiences have yet to decide whether he’s confirming or slyly eviscerating gender roles. (In this only recently post-Guantánamo climate, breaking Kate with starvation and sleeplessness and temporal disorientation seems less comic.) This staging seems more concerned with mounting a handsome production than a cohesive one. Jack Stehlin’s direction takes each scene individually, some playing up the humor into Three Stooges–style slapstick, while others burn sexual heat underneath red lighting. The set’s minimal props and checkerboard floor underscore the sense of rootlessness — with characters standing by without much to do in a scene, the large ensemble looks like game pieces waiting to move. The cast turns out fine performances, each with their own tone; those who choose naturalism fare best, particularly Geoffrey Owen’s intelligent Tranio and Stehlin’s shrew-taming Petruchio, who has the easy confidence of Clark Gable. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through April 26. (310) 477-2055. An Odyssey Theatre/Circus Theatricals production. (Amy Nicholson)

TARTUFFE As Madame Pernelle (Judith Scarpone) is giving her imperious farewell lecture to the family, parading in a peach pantsuit with flowing scarves (costumes by Leah Piehl), about a dozen of her suitcases drop from the rafters. They hit with violent thuds, eliciting a blithe response from the family. Such is the lunacy in this present-day San Fernando Valley suburb (set by Ken McKenzie), modernized by director Josh Chambers from Molière’s 17th-century Parisian-estate setting. Meanwhile, Pernelle’s son and master of the house, Orgon (Tim Cummings), stands on a platform high in the sky, dressed like a CIA agent and being caressed by an identically dressed twin, white-gloved figure in a gray ski mask. The double is the interloper-impostor Tartuffe (Antonio Anagaran). Orgon speaks all of Tartuffe’s lines through a microphone, so that the pair are entwined psychologically, as well as physically. Their movements are a kind of choreographed duet, and Chambers’ direction contains many operatic elements. Though the physicalization simply renders austere what’s more amusing (and self-evident) in Molière’s Baroque farce — that Tartuffe is a demon who resides inside Orgon’s soul — it’s nonetheless one of many absorbing theatrical conceits. Another is the complicating reality that Pernelle’s family is here lost in space. Granddaughter Mariane (Megan Heyn) lounges forlornly on one of the lawn chairs, inhaling fumes from aerosol cans that lie scattered at her feet. She’s also in the habit of cutting herself — perhaps in response to the news that her insane father is pushing her to marry his beloved Tartuffe (i.e., himself?) — yet Mariane’s self-mutilation reveals layers of depressions that would go back years. Curiously, this gives some validity to Pernelle’s screed against the family’s spiritual malaise. Even Cleante (Matt Foyer) — Orgon’s brother-in-law and the play’s voice of reason — gives his nicely rendered if slightly tedious advice while lounging and swilling martinis. So we have an unhinged household threatened by the menacing hypocrisy of a pious zealot, whose appearances are accompanied by the dull rumble of Nathan Ruyle’s sound design. Molière’s comedic indignation has been boiled down to a slightly glib nihilism. Donald Frame’s faithful and full-bodied verse translation is completely at odds with Chambers’ staging. The rhyming comes filled with whimsy, yet Chambers is tone deaf to the humor inherent in the text. Molière’s is a humor of behavior; Chambers’ is the humor of despondency. One almost wishes that Chambers would be bolder — staging a meditation on the play rather than the play itself, an opera based on the text rather than the full text itself. What we have instead is bloated austerity — a meringue pie filled with air yet layered with steak and beans and banana cream. Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 22. (626) 683-6883. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE TRIAL OF THE CATONSVILLE NINE In May 1968, Father Daniel Berrigan (Andrew E. Wheeler ) and eight other peace activists seized 378 draft documents and publicly burned them with napalm to protest the Vietnam war and other American government atrocities. Drawing on court transcripts, this play is an account of their trial, which ended in conviction and prison terms for all defendants. The script — Saul Levitt’s stage adaptation of Berrigan’s original verse rendition — lays out an impassioned argument for following the dictates of one’s conscience, even when it involves breaking the law. Each defendant relays what spurred them to take action: a nurse (Paige Lindsey White) who witnessed American planes bomb Ugandan villages, burning children, a couple in Guatemala (Patti Tippo and George Ketsios), who saw American money used to outfit the police while peasants starved, an Alliance for Progress worker (Corey G. Lovett) who became privy to CIA machinations in the Yucatán. Taking it all in is the presiding judge (Adele Robbins). Her sympathies, reflecting ours, lean toward the defendants, even as she rules against them. Under Jon Kellam’s direction, cogent performances successfully counteract the script’s didactic language and cumbersome progression, even though Robbins’ performance lacks nuance. Perhaps most disturbing is the piece’s reminder that the aggression and subterfuge of the Bush administration constituted not a reversal of past policy but a radicalized extension of it. Actors’ Gang at the Ivy Substation Theater, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 21. (310) 838-4264. (Deborah Klugman)