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Theater Reviews: Eclipsed, Naked Boys Singing, Scarecrow, Underground Woman

The Something-Nothing
Ed Krieger

ECLIPSED Playwright Danai Gurira powerfully dramatizes the ugly realities of women caught up in the Liberian Civil War. The action unfolds circa 2003, inside a derelict jungle compound occupied by the kidnapped “wives” of a guerrilla commander. Bahni Turpin, Edwina Findley and Miriam Glover pass the time chatting, grooming hair, scrounging for food, and, offstage, mechanically satisfying the sexual needs of the General. The wives are known simply as numbers, bluntly emphasizing their lack of autonomy and dehumanized condition. Turpin (No. 1) is by turns sweet and caustic, a comforter and authority figure to the younger girls. Findley, pregnant with the General’s child, possesses an infectious sense of humor, while Glover (No. 4), is a study in childlike naiveté. The dynamics change when a former captive turned fighter (Kelly M. Jenrette) convinces Glover to join the cause, which puts them at odds with a government peacekeeper (Michael Hyatt), whose own daughter was kidnapped. Cast performances are quite good, even though it is difficult at times to understand the dialogue through the affected West African accents. Sibyl Wickersheimer’s jungle set piece is stunning, and Robert O’Hara provides sensitive direction for this production, which in spite of its dearth of action and bleak subject matter, conveys the resilience of the human spirit. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through October 18. (213) 628-2772. (Lovell Estell III)

GOGOL PROJECT Director Sean T. Cawalti’s production of playwright Kitty Felde’s adaptation of three short stories by Russian Absurdist Nikolai Gogol is a whirligig of ferocious creativity. In “The Nose,” a pompous small-town politician (Tom Ashworth) wakes up to discover that his nose has decided to go AWOL, and he’s frustrated when the wandering member transforms into an enormous schnoz capable of rescuing dogs from wells and romancing local lovelies. “Diary of a Madman” shows a low-level drone of a civil servant (Ben Messmer, wonderfully bug-eyed) spurned in love and going insane, imagining he hears local dogs sending each other love letters. In “The Overcoat,” a mild-mannered postal clerk (Kristopher Lee Bicknell, sweetly channeling Charlie Chaplin) buys a new overcoat, which ultimately brings him nothing but tragedy. Performers caparisoned in Pat Rubio’s stunning Commedia-style masks interact with the dazzling puppets designed by the production’s six-person mask crew in a manner that often suggests a spooky Russian tragic version of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. The astonishing, Big Bird–sized nose puppet, snorting up Danishes provided by the town baker, is a particular delight. Elsewhere, the show’s imagination is best showcased in details, from the sequence in which a murderous barber’s fantasies of killing his client are projected in shadow puppet form on the wall behind him, to the scenes involving the talking dogs, whose beautiful puppet forms are manipulated Bunraku-style with masked puppeteers. Ultimately, though, Felde’s workmanlike script is so broad and perfunctory, we feel little emotional connection to the characters or the situations, and the production’s admittedly gorgeous artifice essentially upstages the storytelling. The end result is an experience that is undeniably provocative but also assaultive and occasionally hyperactive. Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 p.m. Call theater for additional performances; through November 1. (800) 838-3006 or rogueartists.org. A Rogue Artists Ensemble Production. (Paul Birchall)

GO  MEDEA Lenka Udovicki directs Annette Bening and Angus Macfadyen in the Euripides classic. UCLA Live, Ralph Freud Playhouse, Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through October 18. (310) 825-2101. See Theater feature.

GO  THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP It’s been 18 years since this manor mystery was the No. 1–produced play in America, and it hasn’t worn out its welcome. In a dreary, rural house, the widowed master (Kevin Remington) has brought home a bride (Michael Lorre), a tremulous blond actress who might not have the wits to survive the local vampires and werewolves (or the grudging maid and infatuated stable boy). Charles Ludlam’s fleet-footed thriller comedy is in the key of camp, but this production tampers down the winks and nudges, staging it as an exercise in theatrical imagination. Lorre’s sparse set design is a model of how to turn a small budget into an asset. The furniture and decorations are drawn with thin, white lines on flat, black-painted wood, and the actors set the tone by first finishing the final touches with chalk. Irma Vep is always staged as a play for two performers, and Remington and Lorre (who also directs) are great sports, changing from a bumpkin with a wooden leg to a bare-breasted Egyptian princess in less time than it takes to tie your shoes. The actors’ physicality is great, but dresser Henry Senecal and stage manager Akemi Okamura also take deserved bows at the end. WeHo Church, 916 N. Formosa Ave., Hlywd; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Oct. 11. (323) 667-1304. A Deconstructed Productions production. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  NAKED BOYS SINGING When this musical, written and directed by Robert Schrock, debuted at the Celebration Theatre in 1998, it was the first show to acknowledge candidly that it featured nudity for its own sake, without explanation, justification or apologies. (The opening number was, and is, called “Gratuitous Nudity.”) Some audiences were astonished to discover that, when the actors are relaxed, uninhibited and enjoying the situation, nudity is remarkably unshocking. The show has achieved enduring worldwide success, though a brief L.A. revival a couple of years ago was decidedly lackluster. One wondered if the show would hold up, now that the novelty is gone. Not to worry. This new production, featuring eight talented and very naked men (Eric B. Anthony, Jeffrey A. Johns, Jack Harding, Timothy Hearl, Marco Infante, Tony Melson, Daniel Rivera, and Victor Tang), proves that when performed with wit, insouciance and skill, the show still has the capacity to charm. It’s exuberant, and full of joie de vivre, and when the actors are having fun, the audience has fun. Though not all the voices are strong, the cast are all engaging, Schrock’s direction is crisp and fast-paced, and the songs offer ample wit and humor. Gerald Sternbach provides excellent musical direction. Macha Theatre, 1107 Kings Road, W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through November 22. (323) 960-4424. (Neal Weaver)

GO  THE NEED TO KNOW In a much-evolved solo show that she first presented at Burbank’s tiny Sidewalk Studio Theatre seven years ago, and which she’s been touring ever since, April Fitzsimmons has grown into the role. Given that her show is autobiographical, this is a bit like saying she’s grown into herself, which is also probably true. Perhaps the show has taught her more about the complexities of life, but it’s also taught her how to act. Her impersonations of family and friends, her vocal range, her physical dexterity and her comedic timing are now more fully accomplished, and a scene referring to Obama has been added. What starts as a domestic romp from her childhood in Montana and her fling with a man engaged to somebody else, slides into an adventure monitoring Russia and the Middle East as part of a U.S. Air Force intelligence team. Partly to spite her father and her family’s Navy heritage (her father refused to support her wish to pursue an acting career in L.A.), she joined the Air Force, and found herself in the south of Italy, working as an intelligence analyst. Even then, she had a raw morality that simply bristled at evidence of nuclear materials being illegally trafficked across foreign lands, evidence that never made it into the press, because the “need-to-know” standard, and U.S. relations with those foreign governments, prevailed against it. That bristling was also the germinal fuel of Fitzsimmons’ eventual antiwar activism: It’s not wars that protect our freedom, it’s the Bill of Rights, she tells a heckler at a beachfront, antiwar ceremony honoring U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. Having marched with an M-16, and been privy to the byzantine workings of the military-intelligence network, Fitzsimmons’ has earned the right to stage an agitprop performance. She describes being a teenager in the south of Italy, living on the estate of an older Mafioso as refuge from her barracks. He sidles up to her and complains of his “tensseeon,” that the cure is “amoooree.” Yet Fitzsimmons flips this cheesy pickup line into poetry, when, at show’s end, she speaks of the tensions in the world, and how the only cure is amore. Steven Anderson directs. Actors Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Thurs., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; through October 24. (310) 838-4264. (Steven Leigh Morris)

SCARECROW Playwright Don Nigro’s Midwestern Gothic makes for an uneasy fit on a legitimate stage. Perhaps that’s because the one-act psychological horror began life as the script for a 1979 experimental video shot at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, in which the cinematic, windswept vistas of Iowan corn fields stood in for the roiling subconscious of Nigro’s sexually frustrated young heroine, Cally (Linda Tomassone). In director Antony Berrios’ production, those fields are necessarily pruned to a dozen, desiccated stalks (on designer Vincent Albo’s farmhouse set), thereby diminishing the figurative effect and throwing the poetic onus onto Nigro’s humorless, derivative text. The tale deals with the troubled, claustrophobic relationship between 18-year-old Cally and her reclusive, repressive, evil-obsessed mother, Rose (Deborah Lemen) — think Carrie and Margaret White, albeit without Stephen King’s telekinetic fireworks. Their chief contention is over boys and sex, both of which Rose considers ultimate threats to be kept apart from her virginal daughter with a shotgun. Rose’s vigilance cannot extend into the adjacent corn fields, however, into which Cally daily disappears to rendezvous with the mysterious Nick (Ian Jerrell), a beguiling drifter who may either be a figment of her romantic fantasies or the malevolent incarnation of Rose’s worst fears. Both Tomassone and Lemen acquit themselves well in the melodramatic clinches (though Cally appears more salon-groomed than corn-fed), and while Jerrell delivers a measure of dash, he misses the menace that might stoke Nigro’s otherwise suspense-starved story. Avery Schreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., N.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through October 17. (818) 859-3160. (Bill Raden)

GO  SHINING CITY Conor McPherson’s pristine study in urban loneliness, first produced in 2004, unfolds in a Dublin walkup where a sexually confused therapist, Ian (William Dennis Hurley), listens, and listens, and listens some more to the half completed sentences spewed by his despondent client, John (Morlan Higgins), who keeps bursting into paroxysms of sobbing over the loss of his wife, killed in an auto accident. Making matters worse, the couple were estranged at the time, and what will eventually unfold is John’s story of his blazingly pathetic and unconsumed adultery with someone he met at a party — his blunderings, his selfishness, and his need not so much for sex but for the validation that comes from human contact, which his now–late wife couldn’t provide to his satisfaction. John is haunted by her ghost, and Ian must ever so gently tell him that what he saw or heard was real, but ghosts simply aren’t. (That gently yet smugly articulated theory will be challenged, along with every other pretense of what’s real, and what isn’t.) While listening to his forlorn client, and answering with such kindness and sensitivity, Ian is himself going through hell: A former priest, he must now explain to his flummoxed wife (Kerrie Blaisdell, imagine the multiple reactions of a cat that’s just been thrown out a window) that he’s leaving her, and their child, though he will move mountains to continue to support them financially. Ian’s plight becomes a tad clearer with the visit of a male prostitute (Benjamin Keepers) in yet another pathetic and almost farcical endeavor to connect with another human being. Director Stephen Sachs’ meticulous attention to detail manifests itself in the specificity with which Ian places his chair, in the sounds of offstage footsteps on the almost abandoned building’s stairwell (sound design by Peter Bayne), in the ebbs and flows of verbiage and silence, in Higgins’ hulking tenderness, and in the palate of emotions reflected in the slender Hurley’s withering facial reactions. This is a moving portrait, in every sense: delicate, comical, desolate and profoundly humane. It’s probably a bit too long, the denouement lingers to margins of indulgence, but that’s a quibble in a production of such rare beauty. Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through December 19. (323) 663-1525. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE SOMETHING — NOTHING An excessively late start, covered by pounding, annoying club music led this reviewer to notice only the flaws in the first part of this outing — but Fielding Edlow’s smart script and the fine acting eventually prevailed. Three solipsistic New Yorkers nearing 30 pride themselves on their cynical worldliness while simultaneously hiding their desperate loneliness and fear of intimacy. Liza (Annika Marks) awkwardly uses the most complicated words in conversation, which is ironically laced with the youthful crutch of “like” several times per sentence. She persists in trying to keep up with those she secretly believes are her intellectual superiors. She is alternately adored and scorned by her near-psychotic lesbian roommate Luna (a delightfully grotesque performance by Robyn Cohen) as well as by her love interest, a narcissistic would-be writer (played with sexual zeal and emotional vacancy by Michael Rubenstone). The three characters spiral down into self-pity, lifted occasionally by some moments of genuine human contact — generally shut down by the receiving party. Edlow’s dialogue bounces between razor-sharp and languid, creating a weird uneasiness. She ends the second act with a character shouting, “This is not a Neil LaBute play” — a remarkable insight, as the play does feel like a female response to LaBute’s constant woman-baiting. Director Kiff Scholl smartly allows his hand to disappear, giving over the storytelling to the richly textured, sad characters. Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; (323) 960-7721. (Tom Provenzano)

UNDERGROUND WOMAN Very loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Victoria E. Thompson’s dark comedy focuses on a cynical woman who just wants to be left alone. Thompson performs as Delia Donovan, a woman who desires only to drink herself to death. Her dysfunctional family has other plans, however. Led by therapist Elise Rosen (Maaren Edvard), her family stages an intervention. Self-mutilating daughter Rachel (Maegan McConnell) can barely hide her resentment as she tells her mother she loves her. Newly sober son David (Chris Kerrigan) is illiterate, unable to read the letter penned by the therapist to his mother. Bitter adult sister Harriet (Hilarie Thompson) resurrects old grudges and blames her older sister for her not becoming a cheerleader in high school. Delia’s husband, Don (James Loren), writes a convincing enough intervention love letter — until it’s revealed that he’s having an affair with the therapist. Director Anita Khanzadian elicits superior performances from Thompson and Edvard, but some of the supporting players are a bit overblown, bordering on shrill. Two exceptions: Adam Sherman does an excellent job as Delia’s equally cynical nephew, and director Khanzadian is fine as Delia’s mother. Victoria Profitt’s homey set adds to the persuasiveness of the play. The Michael Chekhov Studio in association with Theatre Unlimited, 10943 Camarillo Ave., N.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through October 18. (818) 238-0501. (Sandra Ross)