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Theater Reviews: Cymbeline, Oleanna, The Little Foxes

Ectasy, the Musical

Michael LamontEctasy, the Musical

GO  CYMBELINE What might Shakespeare have written if he’d been asked by some 17th-century counterpart of a TV producer to come up with something quick, hot and flashy? It’s likely an extravagantly plotted comedy like this one, with story ideas snatched from legend, his peers and some of his own better-developed and more sublime works. Regarded today as one of Shakespeare’s more minor plays, this comedy revolves around a king’s daughter named Imogen (Willow Geer), banished from court by her father, Cymbeline (Thad Geer), for daring to marry the man of her choice. The plucky gal’s travails intensify when a villain named Iachimo (Aaron Hendry, alternating with Steve Matt) decides willy-nilly to slander her to her husband Posthumus (Mike Peebler), who then commands a servant to assassinate her for her alleged infidelity. Her wanderings eventually land her on the doorstep of her father’s old enemy, Belarius (Earnestine Phillips), who has raised two of Cymbeline’s children (thus Imogen’s own siblings) as her own. Director Ellen Geer has fashioned an appealing production laced with an aptly measured dose of spectacle and camp. At its core is Willow Geer’s strong and likable princess. As her adoring and, later, raging, jealous spouse, Peebler’s Posthumus is earnestly on the mark, while Jeff Wiesen garners deserved laughs as the foppish suitor she’d rejected. The latter meets his end at the hands of the princess’ newfound brother, well-played by Matt Ducati. Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga; Sun., 3:30 p.m.; thru Sept. 27. (310) 455-3723. (Deborah Klugman)

ECSTASY: THE MUSICAL What’s this? A musical based on the notorious hallucinogenic drug whose psychoactive effects include lust and a strong sense of inner peace? Well, not quite. At times, we suspect that the dreamlike mood of S. Claus’ downright strange musical comedy is an attempt to convey what it’s like to partake of the drug. Yet, Claus’ work is also a cheerful 1970s kitsch-fest, set in a world of flaring bellbottoms, John Travolta–esque disco suits and untroubled hedonism. College freshman Angel (Lisa Marinacci) loves her virgin boyfriend Tom (Meyer deLeeuw), but she can’t make him sexually “close the deal” with her. Somehow, Angel magically transports Tom to an alternate universe called the Land of Ecstasy, where Tom’s path crosses that of a wickedly sexy Black Widow Woman (Gina D’Acciaro, whose gorgeous, rock-ballad voice is outstanding), a sex-crazed prostitute (Dina Buglione), and a genial space alien (Patrick Hancock). Claus’ upbeat score isn’t deep, but the work boasts some quick-witted lyrics and some zippy tunes, particularly during the larger production numbers. Director Kay Cole’s energetic staging, which is layered with Day-Glo 1970s iconography and Susanne Klein’s wonderfully tacky leisure-suit costumes, is offbeat and gleefully campy. Sadly, though, the show’s narrative structure lurches from half-baked subplot to subplot — less dreamlike than sloppy. Sometimes the play seems like a joke told by someone on a drug — funny, but only if you’re the stoned guy telling it. Still, some of the cast’s gorgeous voices are clearly more evocative than the flimsy material allows them to show. Buglione’s bubbly Sally Bowles–like turn as the prostitute is delightful — and so is Hancock’s toothy, yet sexually androgynous turn as the space alien. Art/Works Theater, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through July 12. (323) 960-7789. A Theatre Planners production. (Paul Birchall)

GO  THE LITTLE FOXES Lillian Hellman’s 1939 melodrama, set in the South of 1900, studies the voracious appetite for profit by the middle-class Hubbard clan, who look with contempt on both the aristocrats they’ve replaced, and their black employees whom they continue to cheat. And so the drama offers Hellman’s harsh commentary on both the economic and racial foundations of prosperity by those who can afford it, usually at the expense of those who can’t. In addition to his perfectly paced production, director Dámasco Rodriquez also scores points for keeping the repugnant N word that Hellman sprinkles so liberally in the most casual conversations. The plot has a Swiss-watch construction, starting with a visit by William Marshall (Tom Schmid) from Chicago, finalizing a business deal to construct a mill in the small town. Financing would involve contributing shares by three partners: Benjamin Hubbard (Steve Vinovich), his brother Oscar (Marc Singer) — who married and now abuses his aristocratic wife, Birdie (Julia Duffy) — and, finally, the very reluctant Horace Giddens (Geoff Pierson), who has been recuperating for months in Baltimore from a chronic heart condition. Horace’s wife, Regina (Kelly McGillis), is the play’s centerpiece, summoning home her ill husband and engaging in all manner of negotiations, including blackmail against the thieving Hubbards, and against her own husband, in order to grab the most money she can for herself. The play contains some Chekhovian ambiance, such as when Birdie confides that she’s never experienced a happy day in 22 years, and the program notes refer to the drama as one in a series of “great American plays” that the theater has committed to produce. This may be an observant play, but it’s not a great one, as it can’t quite crawl inside the hearts of people it’s too eager to condemn. And that’s the difference between a tragedy and a potboiler. Even McGillis’ fine, emotive performance as Regina, offers the tawdry “survival” excuse for her cold-blooded manipulations. It’s as lame a rationalization as the serial-killer movies that blame the pathology on the killer’s having been abused in childhood. Pierson’s Horace is just grand — tired, wise, yet still on fire to outwit the town’s sundry little foxes. Nice turns also by Yvette Cason and Cleavant Derricks and the servants in residence. As Regina’s coy daughter, Rachel Sondag makes an impressive transformation, from sweetness to defiance, as she slowly figures out what’s going on under her nose. Paradoxically, her kind of moral outrage is also the play’s undoing, serving up more of an editorial, authorial opinion than a vision — an impulse Chekhov, or Tennessee Williams, rarely succumbed to. Gary Wissman’s opulent yet frayed-at-the-edges set shows the beginning of a metaphor but not enough to compensate for the shortcomings of this well-crafted but limited play. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena: Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through June 28. (800) 378-7121. (Steven Leigh Morris)

LOVE WATER In a drainage pipe near a park and a ditch that might be a space-alien breeding ground, unloved Antonio (Joseph Vega) and overly loved Lulu (Alina Phelan) hide out from their normal lives. He’s a teenager escaping his family, which includes a manic mother (Misi Lopez Lecube), who may be lacing his food with poison, and a dad (Chuma Gault) and sister (Jessica Martinez) who don’t care either way. She’s fleeing a husband (Jon Beauregard) so devoted to her he leaves pies in the park for her. “There’s a lot of love in that pie,” Lulu tells Antonio, which means something to playwright Jacqueline Wright, whose allegories here are made of flotsam — her pieces are stitched together with wild images that stir the imagination but don’t quite absorb your emotions. Wright is a clear talent, who delights in the theater medium. Overhead Lulu and Antonio’s hideout, a broken man bandaged from head to foot describes the joy of bashing out brains in a skiing accident and suggests — but doesn’t quite advocate — that we jump off a building. Meanwhile, a lonely lecher finds and hatches a gigantic egg, out of which climbs a pale, naked English-speaking creature who demands freedom and caramels. Sibyl Wickersheimer’s austere set invites movement, and director Dan Bonnell has his cast run — rarely walk -- from end to end. But with Bonnell allowing half the cast to use Wright’s dreamlike imagery and language as an excuse to heighten their speech, while the other half recognizes the need to ground the characters with natural performances, the production feels too bipolar for us to commit to caring about why Dad eats paper, why Mom wears Antonio’s clothes and why Lulu pushes away intimacy. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through July 11. (323) 882-6912. A co-production of Open Fist Theatre and Ensemble Studio Theatre — The L.A. Project (Amy Nicholson)

THE MUSCLES IN OUR TOES High school, the cherished never-neverland of pop culture, is the setting for Stephen Belber’s hit-and-miss comedy, here in its world premiere. On the occasion of their 20th high school reunion, old friends Les (Daniel Milder), Rag (Michael Benyaer), Dante (Al Espinosa), and Phil (Bill Tangridi) congregate in an old music classroom to reminisce and trade shots of booze. This group is a study in contrasts. Dante is a banker, a new convert to Judaism and is full of swagger and attitude; his brother Phil is “atypically gay”; Les works in theater as a fight coordinator; and Reg, an Iranian, works for the federal government. Unfortunately, the bonhomie mojo of the moment is tempered by the absence of their comrade Jim (Keith Ewell), a tennis-shoe baron who’s been kidnapped by rebels in Chad, supposedly in retaliation for the U.S. government’s detention of a terrorist. The play’s premise, already stretched thin, turns to rice paper when the group hatches an insane plot to free their buddy. Most of the buzz here comes from the raft of one-liners, testosterone-fueled antics and bawdy humor, although it starts great in the absence of a viable plot. Cast performances are fine under Jennifer Chambers’ direction. El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd., Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m. through June 28. (866) 811-4111. (Lovell Estell III)

OLEANNA Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles star in David Mamet’s 1992 drama about a college professor and the charges of sexual harassment lodged against him by a failing student. The play is a reaction against the mindset of an era that featured the despotism of political correctness — embodied by Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony before the U.S. Senate against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas for his allegedly sexually explicit conversations while she worked at his secretary at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After all these years, and with Pullman’s affable performance juxtaposed against Stiles’ stoic confusion and indignation, the play strains more than ever to express some serious ideas through a kangaroo court. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through July 12. (213) 628-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Stage feature.

GO  SCHOOL HOUSE ROCK LIVE! TOO The original School House Rock was a long-running kids’ TV show that winningly combined cartoon characters and songs with a high educational content. Here director-choreographer Rick Sparks assembles six terrific, high-energy performers — Harley Jay, Tricia Kelly, Jayme Lake, Michael “Milo” Lopez, Lisa Tharps and Brian Wesley Turner — to employ all their skill and pizzazz on songs about numbers, multiplication, parts of speech, American history, government, the bones of the body, financial interest rates, and a score of other useful topics, all turned into lively entertainment. (A math song about multiplying is called “Naughty Number Nine,” and the American Revolution is served up in “No More Kings.”) There’s a scrap of plot, about saving a financially failing diner, but that’s the merest of pretexts. Cody Gillette provides crisp musical direction and leads the trio (with Anthony Zenteno, on guitars, and Eric Tatuaca on drums) to provide infectious, hard-driving accompaniments on Adam Flemming’s handsome diner set. Clever costumes are by Kat Marquet, and Daavid Hawkins provides hundreds of zany props. If you already know that 6 x 9 = 63, you might feel, as I did, that 20 songs is a few too many, but the kids seem to love it. Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Avenue, L.A.; call for schedule; through July 26. (323) 655-7679, ext. 100, or www.schoolhouserockla.com. (Neal Weaver)

GO  STRANGER Keythe Farley and Eva Anderson’s world premiere musical (or more accurately a play with music) is set in the Nevada town of San Lorenzo in 1847. A bandit named Lagarto (Michael Dunn) has murdered the town’s sheriff and kidnapped his daughter Lucinda (Molly O’Neill). Lucinda’s mother, Miranda, (Ann Closs-Farley, who also creates the beautiful costumes) owns the local saloon and takes in The Stranger (Cameron Dye) who wanders into town one day, running from his own dark past. Lagarto is after treasure Miranda has hidden away, but she refuses to give it up without a fight, rallying the townspeople behind her, including The Padre (Joe Hernandez-Kolski), a morally ambiguous figure. The ambiguity of the priest’s motives, as well as the style of the piece evoke, and simultaneously parody, the “spaghetti Westerns” of the 1960s. Composer Anthony Bollas’ blues licks mixed with Western rock and Spanish guitar perfectly set the mood, along with Rebecca Kessin’s desert soundscape. Francois-Pierre Couture’s wood-slat backdrops that appear branded with a hot iron are wonderfully evocative of The Ponderosa as well. Farley, who also directs the piece, masterfully shifts between scenes and creates arresting tableaux, using the set to its full capacity. Dunn charismatically embodies a larger-than-life outlaw, delivering lines full of humor and irony, and the rest of the cast shines as well, from Dye’s tough-as-nails demeanor and O’Neill’s ferocity to Closs-Farley’s Mae West–like spunk and Hernandez-Kolski’s silver tongue. Bootleg Theater; 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (June 21 & 28 only); through July 4. (213) 389-3856. www.­bootlegtheater.com. (Mayank Keshaviah)

TOUCH THE WATER The cause is great. The intentions are beyond reproach. So why is it that so much of playwright Julie Hébert and director Juliette Carrillo’s eco-advocacy drama plays like preaching to the choir? Perhaps it’s because their protagonist isn’t a human character but a piece of city infrastructure — the much-abused and long-neglected L.A. River. It certainly doesn’t help that the city’s adoption of the 2007 Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan has, in effect, already robbed the political storyline of its dramatic thunder (which may explain why talky stretches of river-greening exposition are about as entertaining as a press release). Still, even sermons can have their charm, and choirs make beautiful music, and this production is rich in both. There is the pleasure of Carrillo’s site-specific staging on the northern bank of the L.A. River overlooking Frogtown (represented in Darcy Scanlin’s river-refuse set) and the rousing raft of original songs (music by Shishir Kurup, lyrics by Kurup & Hébert) that animates the show’s human story. There are engaging, lead performances by Kurup and Page Leong as old, Frogtown friends estranged by a riverbank gang killing, who are finally brought together by the river’s renewal. And there is the climactic coup de théâtre, engineered by lighting designer Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, and its stunning moment of spine-tingling magic that is the raison d’être of site-specific theater. Rio de Los Angeles State Park, Bowtie Parcel, entrance adjacent to 2800 Casitas Ave., L.A.; Wed.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through June 21. (213) 613-1700, ext. 37. (Bill Raden)

TRACING SONNY Young voice-over artist Sonny (Jacob Smith) has more problems than a single play can accommodate. His parents adopted him because his dad (Sebastian Kadlecik) was experiencing a spell of impotence, which rendered children unlikely. Then, when the pressure was off, Dad sired a daughter, who later died of a childhood illness. Mom (Sylvia Anderson) blamed ever-angry Dad, and their marriage foundered. Now Sonny has taken up with pretty, animated cartoonist Luci (Vanessa Hurd), whom he met at the zoo, and they’re engaged. When she miscarries their baby, the resulting grief and guilt render Sonny impotent. His efforts to remedy the situation are hindered by parental voices reflecting Dad’s anger and Mom’s accusations of inadequacy. Playwright Andrew Moore attempts to use both the cartooning and the voice-overs as metaphors, but his plot meanders. Short scenes follow one another without climaxes, scenes are interlarded with bits of old animated cartoons featuring Porky Pig, Popeye, Betty Boop, etc., and director Pamela Moore’s direction fails to supply dramatic thrust. Smith and Hurd provide charm and skill, making the most of their material, but Anderson and Kadlecik are hindered by sketchy, one-note characters. Avery Schreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 28. Produced by Theatre Unleashed. (818) 849-4039 or www.theatreunleashed.com. (Neal Weaver)