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Theater Reviews: Eat the Runt, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, Cute With Chris

Eat The Runt
Conan Moats

GO BACKSEATS & BATHROOM STALLS It used to be said that comedy was about the restoration of the social order. But writer Rob Mersola seems intent on demonstrating that, at ground level, there is no social order. His extravagant farce extracts its laughs from its characters’ miseries and sexual misadventures. Both Josie (Sadie Alexandru) and Elaine (Jeni Persons) are driven by self-loathing and murderous sexual competitiveness. Josie is having an affair with priapic film student Harlan (Michael Alperin), who just wants admiration and sexual servicing, and it doesn’t much matter from whom. He’s also engaging in anonymous erotic encounters with Josie’s gay roommate Calvin (Joshua Bitton). Elaine is engaged to a gay man (Daniel Ponickly) who’s in deep denial of his homosexuality, despite his obsessive pursuit of anonymous men’s room sex. Stirring the mix is Giuseppe (Anil Kumar), a relentless seducer who utilizes his claim of prophetic powers to win over both women. Mersola is a clever writer who exploits the tried-and-true farce structure to engineer a funny final scene in which all the characters are brought together to have their lies, deceptions and shenanigans unmasked. A skillful cast meticulously mines the laughs in this crowd-pleasing date show. The Lyric Hyperion Theatre Cafe, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; call for schedule; through Dec. 13. (323) 960-7829. An E. 4th Street Production. (Neal Weaver)

GO THE BOURGEOIS GENTILHOMME You’d think, from reading the world press, that racism and, by extension, classism, had suddenly been vanquished from the nation — overnight, by a stunning national election. Such is the power of symbolism and hope. Sooner or later, we will settle into a more realistic view of who we are, and were, and how we have evolved in ways perhaps more subtle than the current “we are the world” emotional gush would lead one to believe. It’s in this more self-critical (rather than celebratory) frame of mind that Molière’s 1670 comedy – a satire of snobbery and social climbing – will find its relevance renewed. For now, however, Frederique Michel (who directed the play) and Charles Duncombe’s fresh and bawdy translation-adaptation serves up a bouquet of comedic delights that offers the caution that — though celebrating a milestone on the path of social opportunity is worthy of many tears of joy — perhaps we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves with self-congratulations. The Bourgeois Gentleman was first presented the year after Tartuffe, and it contains many of the hallmarks of its more famous cousin: a deluded and pompous protagonist (Jeff Atik); a con man (Troy Dunn) aiming for social advancement by speculating on the blind arrogance of his patron; and the imposition by the insane master of the house of an arranged marriage for his crestfallen daughter (Alisha Nichols). The play was originally written as a ballet-farce, for which composer Jean-Baptiste Lully performed in the production before the court of Louis XIV. Michel’s visually opulent staging features scenery (designed by Duncombe) that includes a pair of chandeliers, and costumes (by Josephine Poinsot) in shades of red, maroon and black. Michel employs Lully’s music in a nod to the original. (The singing is far too thin even to support the jokes about its competence.) Michel also includes a lovely ballet by performers in mesmerizing “tears of a clown” masks, a choreographed prance of the fops, and she has characters bounding and spinning during otherwise realistic conversations, mocking style over substance. Comedy has a maximum refrigeration temperature of 75 degrees, and when that temperature was exceeded during Act 1 during the performance I attended, the humor ran off the tracks – despite the broad style being sustained with conviction by the performers. By Act 2, the heat problem had been remedied and the comedy began playing again as it should. In fact, I haven’t seen a comic tour de force the likes of Atik’s Monseiur Jordain since Alan Bomenfeld’s King Ubu at A Noise Within. As Jourdain is trying to woo a countess (the striking Deborah Knox), Atik plays him attired in silks and bows of Ottoman extravagance, with a blissfully stupid expression – every dart of his eyes reveals Jordain’s smug self-satisfaction, which is embedded with delirious ignorance. City Garage, 1340½ (alley) Fourth Street, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (310) 319-9939. (Steven Leigh Morris)

BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON There’s delicate poetical imagery in Robert Schenkkan’s 2005 drama about the meeting of and fleeting romance between two exiles in an Austin suburb. That delicacy, however, is saturated by generic chat between the characters and a somewhat predictable romance. You know a play’s in trouble when a gun has to be drawn in order to elicit some palpable drama. That’s no slight against the actors — Demian Bichir and Shannon Cochran — whose sincere and layered interpretations of a Cuban gardener and his deeply troubled white female employer keep the action watchable. This is a play that unearths the past about how they got to where they are — stories of their respective betrayals, as both victims and perpetrators, their guilt and their defenses as life’s hardships have piled up against both of them. So the drama consists of them meeting, courting, spurning that courtship, her regrets over their one-night stand, and the stories that spill from both of them with far too much ease to be an entirely plausible reflection of the grief they’ve both suffered. Michael Ganio’s ornate set consists of an outdoor jungle of pampas-grass for Act 1, which yields to the woman’s bedroom in Act 2. It has a kind of cinematic realism that seems at odds with the metaphysics the play is driving at — where freedom is the freedom to imagine. Neither the play nor the set asks for much imagination on our part. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through Dec. 7. (310) 208-5454. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

GO CHARLES DICKENS’ OLIVER TWIST The austere beauty of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s staging (of Neil Barlett’s excellent adaptation) comes from a haunting blend of musicality — the 14-member ensemble sings the opening and closing recitations in a rousing, pitch-perfect a cappella, and much of the theatrical tension comes from the rhythmic clanging of sticks in unison, while Endre Balogh’s violin accompaniment tilts the tone away from Dickens’ sentimental world of orphans and villains, good and evil, and rich and poor and into a pool filled with more contradictions and ambiguities. Soojin Lee’s costumes capture not only the era but also the grime and dereliction of Victorian London. Dickens’ novel is a saga of human trafficking, and Brian Dare portrays the smudge-faced 10-year-old victim, orphan Oliver Twist, with a subtly pained glint in his eye, which reflects his punishing fate. Tom Fitzpatrick brings a marvelous gruffness to Fagin, the leader of the pickpockets, who adopts Oliver for a while; Geoff Elliott has a delicate turn in drag as proprietress Mrs. Sowerberry; while Robertson Dean also stands out for his clearly enunciated and richly tempered array of characters. Jill Hill is becoming mistress of the femme fatale for this troupe; her “no-good-deed-goes-unpunished” Nancy comes packed with understandable paranoia and glimpses of kindness. The director opened the show by pleading for contributions, as the theater has a campaign for a new theater in Pasadena. “I know it’s a bad time,” she told the audience, “but we didn’t pick the time, the time picked us.” She did, however, pick this play, and the time is perfect for it. A Noise Within, 234 N. Grand Ave., Glendale; in rep, through Dec. 14; call for schedule. (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO CUTE WITH CHRIS: LIVE Aside from his TV career, Canadian actor Chris Leavins made his name by creating one of the most popular series on the Internet – 100,000 hits per show by using a $300 videocam and uploading broadcasts of himself, in his apartment (somewhere between Silver Lake and Echo Park, to judge from the images he beams onto a screen in his one-man show), and displaying photographs of people’s cute pets. His one-hour live performance is a kind comic exegesis on the essence of “cute” — and his larger purpose – residing somewhere between that of David Lettterman and Ira Glass, is trying to find the stories that bind us. In cream suit and sneakers, Leavins’ humor derives partly from his slightly forlorn expression, which he beams out like a laser whenever the audience responds with “ooohs” and “aahs” to the broadcast picture of a baby kangaroo in a pouch, or a kitten with a bow. No sentimentalist, Leavins deadpans that “cute” lasts about six weeks; then you’re in for 12 years of cat poop and matted fur. His broader cultural insight is on the fleeting value we place on superficial attraction – pet photos that have little purpose to anyone but ourselves — and which are relegated like wornout mementos, the detritus of our lives, perhaps like our lives themselves, to ashes or dust. He found one photo of a woman with a dog, which Leavins purchased simply because, he explains, he could not reconcile himself to an image that held so much meaning for somebody at sometime being simply forgotten. And so he invented a story around the photo, imbuing it with a new meaning, which is exactly what we do to a photo, or a painting, or a story, we call a classic. Leavins’ droll act has a kind of muted beauty and profundity lurking beneath his otherwise snappy and amiable presentation. Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; though Dec. 14. (323) 960-7785. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

THEATER PICK EAT THE RUNT What a discomfiting feeling it is to be reviewing a play in a theater with only two other people behind me — particularly a play about a theater critic. In Eat the Runt (which deserves a bigger audience), a critic called The Man (Peter Leake) — a name that serves up far more credit than is deserved — is kidnapped and brutalized for his scathing review in The Fresno Bee of a new work by a blowhard playwright named Buck Lone (Robert Riechel Jr., who did actually write this play). Mr. Lone may or may not have used a gun in the apprehension of the drama critic from his bed (he shows up in pajamas, blindfolded and gagged). We first see him being dragged into Lone’s grubby basement apartment (set by Adam Haas Hunter), which is punctuated by a poster of Samuel Beckett, who provides the scribe his dark inspiration. The Man is a smart, bitter fellow, an obit writer who takes occasional assignments as the paper’s drama critic. (The night before seeing this play, I heard a local arts critic in a theater lobby seething that his paper was now asking him to write obits — so, beyond the obvious metaphor for critics penning last rites, this is art imitating something that’s really occurring.) Lone’s oversexed, sadistic girlfriend, Hammer (Victoria Engelmaer), provides the third side of the triangle in Riechel’s hostage drama. Both the rudely portrayed Hammer (a smart, willing “slut”) and the evidently insane Lone give long-suffering drama critics a power that exists only in the hearts of self-absorbed playwrights who simply haven’t caught on yet that critics don’t make much difference. (That’s among the reasons their ranks across the nation are diminishing so quickly.) But Riechel hasn’t tried to write so much a mediation on the dire state of the arts as a comedy about the brooding imaginings of one deranged artist, which questions whether any creation can be fairly assessed beyond the narcissism of the creator and the cruelty of the judge. (Leake brings an impassioned credibility to his character’s deep conviction that the world would be a better place if only Lone would stop writing plays.) Riechel has pulled off the rare feat of directing and acting in his own play without running it off the rails. His performance is a terrifying portrait of the walking wounded, with little but vengeance for the critic in his head, along with visions of his play starring John Malkovich and being performed by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Hudson Guild Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 13. (323) 960-7721. Living Edge Theaterworks and Red Bark Corp. (Steven Leigh Morris)

FOR ALL TIME This third offering in Cornerstone Theater Company’s justice cycle is a disturbing docudrama by KJ Sanchez, which deals with the legal inequities and personal tragedies of the American justice system — specifically in California, where the egregious three-strikes law compels life sentences even for relatively minor offenses. The play — framed by passages from Aeschylus, which speak to the tragedy of revenge and retribution — airs multiple points of view: They include those of the families of victims, their lives shattered by the murder of a loved one; and those of inmates, some of whom perpetrated those crimes. Also portrayed are jail counselors and the parole officials, who wield incredible power in a bankrupt and overextended system. The most compelling thread centers on an inmate named Talena (Bahni Turpin), a mature lifer who’s worked hard to rehabilitate herself but is denied parole each time after testimony from her victim’s family. Joshua Lamont, as an innocent severely beaten by two street thugs, delivers the most moving monologue. Turpin, Lamont and M.C. Earl, as a minor felon who pleads to meet with his brother (Lamont), deliver the play’s emotional highlights. Laurie Woolery directs an ensemble heavily weighted with nonprofessional performers, resulting in rough edges. The narrow, oblong playing area creates another obstacle to effective staging. But Sanchez’s script, while a bit lengthy, is otherwise cogent and focused, and at times eloquent in humanizing a knotty social issue. Shakespeare Festival/LA, 1238 W. First St., Los Angeles; Wed..-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Nov. 23. (213) 613-1700, Ext. 33. A Cornerstone Theater Production. (Deborah Klugman)

GO MISS WITHERSPOON Set against the firmament of Stephen Gifford’s minimalist set, this West Coast premiere of Christopher Durang’s exploration of the afterlife begins with chunks of NASA’s Skylab falling from the sky and Chicken Little scurrying across the stage to sound the alarm. After the dust has settled, Veronica (Kelly Lloyd) finds herself dead and in a liminal place called bardo. Here, she’s greeted by Maryamma (Pia Ambardar), a loose representation of Hindu spirituality, who expounds on the cycle of life, death and reincarnation — and insists upon calling her Miss Witherspoon. Much against her will, Miss Witherspoon is reincarnated a number of times, coming back as a baby to two radically different families, as well as a dog. During each reincarnation, Miss Witherspoon commits suicide because she “wants to be unplugged” and can’t believe that “this [life] goes on forever.” Nonetheless, Maryamma patiently guides Witherspoon toward true wisdom, receiving assistance from a black female Jesus (LeShay Tomlinson), as well as a Wise Man (Andrew Morris), who resembles Gandalf. Lloyd navigates her character transitions brilliantly and is utterly convincing in each. Ambardar, despite slipping in and out of her Indian accent, has great energy and provides much of the comedy in the piece. Joel Swetow’s direction sets the appropriately outrageous tone for a Durang play, and EB Brooks’ costumes and Suzy Starling’s props bring its absurdity to life. El Centro Theatre, 800 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through December 14. (323) 460-4443. A West Coast Ensemble Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

 

NEW What might happen if, say, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were stuck in a bomb shelter after a nuclear holocaust and ruminated on the dismal effect of the war on their shopping, partying and self-obsession? Despite an appealing premise, writer-performer Lauren Brown and choreographer-performer Rachel Koler’s self-directed avant-garde lambasting of America’s obsession with materialism and Bush’s endless war is mostly – and sadly – vapid and tedious. The docile Lauren and bitchy Rachel, young and dysfunctional socialites sporting garish makeup, hair, and costumes evocative of Darryl Hannah in Blade Runner, engage in elliptical conversation and munch Ritalin and Adderall like peanuts. “This is terrible” opines Lauren wistfully, longing for life before the conflict, to which Rachel, more comfortable in judging people than helping them, acidly replies “terribly boring.” So, to alleviate their ennui, they set about to launch a movement to “make everything new again.” There are engaging touches, like the back screen projection of the happy and sad, the cacophonous music that sets an appropriately unsettling tone, and a charming finale. However, an outside director could have struck a more cordial balance between style and substance and may well have enhanced the duo’s well-intentioned and potentially enlightening piece. Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Wed.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; through Nov. 13. Post Fact Productions. (Martín Hernández)

GO QUIXOTIC The idea of updating Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote to the dead-end environs of a bleak insurance sales office could potentially be a case of shoe-horning a premise into a new setting, but director Amanda Glaze’s crisply staged production of playwright Kit Steinkellner’s emotionally nuanced drama threads a fine path between reality, fantasy, comedy and tragedy. Scenic designer Eric Svaleson’s almost too believably drab office set is bathed in the horrific glow of flickering florescent lights favored by budget-minded bosses world over. Yet, the florescents morph into a lush golden glow when mild-mannered claims adjustor Arthur Quick (Isaac Wade) starts hearing music in his head — and he begins inexplicably to believe he’s the noble knight “Sir Quixotic.” In short order, Quick imagines his tightly wound and nonplussed boss, Allie (Coco Kleppinger), to be a tragic princess, an ambitious temp (Paige White) to be a demonic enchantress, and cubicle pal, nebbish Sam (Ariel Goldberg) to be his “squire.” Glaze’s briskly paced production boasts some beautifully subtle acting turns that are both energetic and organically believable. Although some plot elements in Steinkellner’s script play out more like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch, the work actually has us wondering whether Quick is delusional, or whether his co-workers are actually “enchanted.” Wade’s Walter Mitty–like shift from mousy Quick, to the throatier, more blustery Sir Quixotic is delightful, and engaging turns are also offered by Kleppinger’s brittle Allie, by Goldberg’s sensitive Sam, and Paige’s increasingly unpleasant temp. Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Nov. 22. (310) 396-3680, Ext. 3. A Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble production. (Paul Birchall)

GO SONG OF EXTINCTION E.M. Lewis’ haunting drama unfolds on a set bracketed by shadowboxes filled with butterflies, bells, maps, plants and pictures of Cambodian refugees, presumably dead. Three biologists have three different views on extinction: One, a monomaniac named Ellery (Michael Shutt) is committed to preserving a Bolivian beetle; the second, Ellery’s terminally ill wife, Lily (Lori Yeghiayan), has resigned herself to her impending death, which nobody else seem to care about. death; and the third, Khim Phan (a brilliant performance of understated strength by Darrell Kunitomi), a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, tries to teach Ellery and Lily’s bitter son, Max (Will Faught), and the rest of his high school students that the eradication of a species demands reverence, regret and resignation. (As the last in his family, his own genetic tree is slated to die.) The interplay of the three in Lewis’ smart and honest script is one small push from collective transcendence, as we’re asked to tie the threads together ourselves. Lewis avoids easy sentimentality. Ellery and Lily aren’t shedding tears over the future they’ve lost; their estranged relationship is not just hollow but hostile, and we’re not sure of the root. Aided by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s fine set, director Heidi Helen Davis finds beauty in death, staging it as a boat ride into the jungle with showers of butterflies — a gorgeous counterpoint to Phan’s pronouncement that “extinction is a very messy business.” [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; through Dec. 14. (323) 461-3673. A Moving Arts production. (Amy Nicholson)


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