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Theater Reviews: Box 27, Porgy and Bess and Rolling With Laughter

(Photo by Robert Millard)

AS YOU LIKE IT Director Lisa Wolpe transplants the Forest of Arden to the American wild West in this moderately entertaining, one-dimensional production. Reconfiguring Shakespeare to another time and place sometimes works brilliantly, sometimes not. In this case, the conceit proves as distracting as the mix of shepherds and saloons. Nonetheless, the technical elements come together nicely — particularly Christina Wright’s costumes and Alex Wright’s musical arrangements. Abigail Rose Solomon heads the all-female ensemble as Rosalind, an outcast gentlewoman who dons cowboy gear and speaks in a drawl to disguise herself from both her malevolent uncle (an overly emphatic Fran Bennett) and her doting lover, Orlando (Kimberleigh Aarn). Aarn becomes so focused on projecting a convincing machismo that the nuanced sensitivity so central to the character — and so much a part of the play’s exploration of gender ambiguity — eludes her. Solomon’s almost petulant air of outsized bravado seems an oversimplification as well. By contrast, Katrinka Wolfson delivers an assured performance as Celia, Rosalind’s cousin and close friend. The best moments come from among the supporting players, including Brady Rubin as Orlando’s feisty 80-year-old manservant, Dreya Weber as the wrestler Charles and Allison Allain as the love-smitten shepherd Silvius. Paired with Cate Caplin’s choreography, the musical numbers — which extend to include the cowboy classic “Dogie’s Lament” (“get along, little doggie”) — prove charming. Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company at the MATRIX THEATRE, 7657 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 3. (323) 852-1445. (Deborah Klugman)

BOX 27 is the spot on enlistment papers where a U.S. Marine Corps recruit can declare whether he or she is homosexual. Marine Captain Stephen Mills (Joe Jeffrey), slated for a plum promotion to Major, lied when he checked that box and now he wants to come out as a gay man, much to the dismay of Mills’ closeted lover, Major Howard Kurtis (Michael Harrity). Written as a response to the hypocritical Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Michael Norman Mann’s sometimes preachy but mostly compelling play still resonates, especially in a Bush-era military that dismisses desperately needed Arabic translators due to their homosexuality. For Stephen’s dad and Howard’s longtime friend Colonel Mills (Bert Hinchman), “faggots” are sick and can undermine the integrity of the Corps. But for Wiggs (George C. Simms), a retired officer, if the Marines — and the prejudiced elder Mills — could embrace him, a black man, then it can embrace gays. The debate could destroy not only Stephen and Howard’s careers but also their blossoming love. Director Larry Lederman’s keen eye for casting bolsters the piece with superb performances, notably Harrity’s conflicted Howard, Simms as the wise Wiggs and Maggie Powers as a sympathetic bar owner. ACTORS FORUM THEATER, 10655 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru June 10. (818) 506-0600. (Martín Hernández)

THE DEVIL TAKES A WIFE In her imaginative but unfocused solo show, writer-performer Anita Finlay plays a woman whose fiancé winds up in a coma following an accident — and she makes a deal with the Devil to save her lover’s life. The woman agrees to a six-month marriage to the Infernal One, promising him a fabulous time. Within the wink of a Satanic eye, the heroine is whisked down to Hell, where, notwithstanding the flashing fangs and kinky sex on the beds of snakes, Old Scratch turns out to be no worse than any selfish guy, leaving his dirty clothes on the floor and never remembering that a woman has needs too. Finlay’s amusing monologue implies that some men’s habits cause them to resemble the Devil — but she also explores the potent conceit that Hell can consist of our memories and our inability to forgive ourselves for our mistakes. Yet the script, too, doesn’t pick up its dirty socks. Some scenes are both daffy and droll, but others are confused and self-indulgent, veering awkwardly from mystifying sentimentality to poorly thought-out shtick. Still, director David Galligan’s quick-paced production contains some wonderful comic timing and artfully acrobatic blocking — and Finlay herself is an adroit and versatile performer whose genial mugging occasionally reminds us of Carol Burnett, particularly during her leering, tongue-wagging impersonation of El Diablo himself. LE STUDIO, 3025 Olympic Blvd., Stage A, Santa Monica; Thurs., 8 p.m.; thru May 31. Order tickets via http://www.gaulthierartists.com. (Paul Birchall)

KING KALIMARI — THE MUSICAL Derek Taylor Kent’s relentlessly pointless musical is the sort of fare a bored kid might scribble down during study hall. Between villains Queen Xerxi (Jessica Anne Bogart) and Cephalopod overlord Squiderotomy (R.J. Victoria), beloved King Kalimari (Mario Lara) — think Ricky Ricardo in velour — won’t survive this year’s Squidtoberfest. And as the masochistic narrator (Leon Cohen) intones, neither will the rest of Kermopoly, who, confident in their man-mollusk peace treaty, annually welcome the squids to perform their black-light ballet, Reef Madness, in exchange for the townsfolk’s mucus. Enter Dave Dasani (Dylan Vox), a barrel-chested dolt with a wild grin, who hopes to save the day with buddies Rufus and Monster (a funny Christopher Wyllie and Eric Pirooz) and lady love Aquafina (Elisa Eliot). Kent’s gumbo of fairy-tale tropes delights in its stupidity, rhyming “happy” with “crappy” (that is, when you can hear the lyrics over the canned ditties) and referencing pop figures from Ice Cube to Charlton Heston. Worn down by the ensemble’s enthusiasm and the nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, the audience mostly plays along by groaning at the egregious puns. AVERY SCHREIBER THEATER, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru June 2. (323) 960-5570. (Amy Nicholson)

 

PICK PORGY AND BESS  It may be summertime, but the living ain’t all that easy on Catfish Row in George Gershwin’s opera about a black South Carolina island community engulfed by murder and sexual jealousy, set here in the early 1950s. The story (libretto by Dubose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin) and music (George Gershwin’s original blues, jazz and gospel score) are distinctly American, but the characters are mythically eternal. The noble cripple, Porgy, falls in love with Bess, the wayward wife of a brutish lout, Crown. Porgy’s affection transforms Bess, but, as “a sometimes thing,” she’s a woman fatefully pulled toward the drug peddler, Sportin’ Life. This Washington National Opera production, directed by Francesca Zambello and choreographed by Jennie Ford, is a voluptuous offering that makes up with passion what it may lack in narrative foreshadowing and foreboding. The leads are double-cast. Opening night’s Kevin Short’s Porgy is a powerful, muscular figure who does not trade on unearned sympathy. Morenike Fadayomi’s Bess is sultry and crystalline-voiced but, as they say, the devil is in the details, and Mephisto here is Jermaine Smith’s Sportin’ Life, the mischievous tempter who sprinkles the weak-willed with cocaine “happy dust” while sticking his tongue out at Catfish Row’s pious church ladies. We discover, in Smith’s lithe contortions and vocal pirouettes during “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” both the birth of “cool” and of pimp culture. The show, crisply conducted by John DeMain, unfolds on Peter J. Davison’s weathered, two-tier set, which, with its huge sliding steel gate and riveted doors, suggests a prison. With its addictive melodies and transparent imagery, it’s easy to forget that this landmark work is an opera and not a musical. That Gershwin intended it to be sung as such was a sign, in 1935, of unprecedented respect to African-Americans, and yet the history of black objections to the story’s lower-depths setting and fractured grammar reveal that America’s racial divide is as long, wide and deep as the Mississippi. Music Center, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; schedule varies, call for info; thru May 19. (213) 972-8001 or www.musiccenter.org.   (Steven Mikulan)

  ROLLING WITH LAUGHTER If writer-performer Natasha Wood did not have Spinal Muscular Atrophy and did not perform her solo show from a motorized wheelchair (her control of which has its own kind of hypnotic appeal), her show, directed by Cameron Watson, could be fobbed off as another autobiographical slog through a barrage of well-delivered one-liners. Wood comes from the Midlands, and she cheerfully tells of growing up handicapped in England. A quick comic line reveals cosmetic surgery to help her breasts match; she flits by various subjects: her kinship with her brother (similarly afflicted), her father’s teasing that borders on taunting, romance and sex, her stint working for the BBC. And though there are platitudes, such as her describing the indescribable energy of New York or L.A. as a “dream,” this is still an appealing, perky performance. For us, as for Wood, that wheelchair doesn’t go away. Instead, it becomes a lightning rod for the truths underlying all those rim shots and a few clichés. Behind the musicality of Wood’s slight brogue, the chair’s spinning electric wheels, in conjunction with Wood’s slightly twisted body, help conjure poignant and vivid portraits of this young woman waiting at a bus stop, or necking with a suitor, or imploring her dad for a chair that moves more swiftly. This is a show ultimately about the brevity and purpose of life. If Wood can invite so much adventure into her life with her unfettered determination, it renders feeble any excuses the rest of us try to make for ourselves. EL PORTAL FORUM THEATRE, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Mon.-Tues., 8 p.m.; thru May 8. (818) 508-4200. (Steven Leigh Morris)

THE SEA IS A RESTLESS WHORE is one of those pirate plays where everybody says “Arrrrgh!” a lot. It is perhaps the only show to feature a diabetic tap-dancing quadriplegic (played by Matthew Jackson). And it is a coming-out play. Captain Longbrau (Jack Sobrack) comes out as gay (which is no surprise to his crew, who present him with a tin of L‘Oreal Sword Polish for his birthday). Seaman Pete (Max Beard) comes out as a former would-be rock star, and Buckfoot (Liz Jamieson) shame-facedly admits to being a tea-drinking Brit. Longshanks the Fearsome (Tanner Beard) comes out of a trapdoor. Playwright Brian A. Boone has assembled every bad gay joke and pirate gag in the book, and Gabe Dickinson provides the unmemorable songs. Jamieson contributes handsome costumes and sometimes amusing choreography, while director Morgan Buck just goes for obvious camp. The actors do their best to overcome the sophomoric material, and the show is blessedly short. THE NEXT STAGE, 1523 La Brea Ave., Hlywd. Thurs., 8 p.m., thru May 24. (323) 850-7827. (Neal Weaver)

 

SYSTEM WONDERLAND Within designer Myung Hee Cho’s living-room set, its picture window looking out on the Pacific “somewhere in Los Angeles County,” David Weiner’s new play crawls inside a triangle: aging Hollywood starlet Evelyn (Shannon Cochran); her Oscar-winning but now fading writer-director husband, Jerry (Robert Desiderio); and a mysterious young sycophant named Aaron (John Sloan) — fresh out of film school — who was sent by Jerry’s offstage producer to help guide Jerry through a creative block on a screenplay he’s late in delivering. This is a de rigueur dance of clashing egos, defensiveness and a fight for control of the “property” — whether that be the screenplay or Jerry’s wife. Weiner has a striking gift for clipped, overlapping repartee in which the subject of conversation remains buried beneath the words tumbling around it, which contributes to the mystery and suspense already built into the psychosexual drama. The performances are pristine under David Emmes’ direction, and when the dance is done, we’re left with the insight that desperate people in Hollywood — as though there’s any other kind — are duplicitous and venal husks of humanity, who eat the snakes they charm. Thanks, I didn’t know that. SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; Tues.-Sun., 7:45 p.m.; mats Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; thru May 13. (714) 708-5555. (Steven Leigh Morris)


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