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Theater Reviews: Gulls, Mrs. Warren's Profession, Howlin' Blues and Dirty Dogs

Bad Penny

Paul RubensteinBad Penny

BAD PENNY consists of speeches and dialogues by Mac Wellman that accrue into a theatrical poem/meditation on American life, while casting doubt on the reliability of any kind of knowledge, or judgment, about it. Thirteen characters (played by Cynthia Mance, Troy Dunn, Alisha Nichols, David E. Frank, Kenneth Rudnicki and Mariko Oka) in New York’s Central Park intersect. A painter meditates on the sky and the stars, and the vagaries of what can be known about them. A man from Montana tries to cross the park with the flat tire of his Ford Fairlane 500, because he can’t find a gas station on the East Side. A woman ruminates on a “bad penny” she picked up, and the curse it will bring. The underlying existential philosophy of the piece hovers somewhere between Camus, Sartre and Ionesco (Wellman devotes an entire chorale to a sequence of familiar clichés that pass for meaning in our culture, as Ionesco did in a number of his plays). One woman walks slowly across the back of the stage, in various attires, holding a punt as though she’s rafting. Production designer Charles Duncombe and director Frédérique Michel provide a beautiful scenic backdrop (lush hues of color, a city-park lamppost and slides of New York that slip through the seasons) and well-coordinated presentation style. They’re working with a largely young company that makes the language perfectly intelligible, but the interpretation fails to reach the depths of experience that give such meditations an emotional sense that corresponds to the philosophical one. City Garage, 1340½ Fourth Street (Alley entrance); Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Sept. 7. (310) 319-9939. (Steven Leigh Morris)

Paul Rubenstein

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Bad Penny

Mayze James

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The HeistShow

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Mrs. Warren’s Profession

DR. FAUSTUS goes to hell, and J. Paul Boehmer’s portrayal of the title character in a 90-minute version of Christopher Marlowe’s tragical history is so deliciously smug and grandiloquently preening, it’s a pleasure to wave him goodbye as he sails downstream. This is certainly fun for the family, but it largely drains the tragedy of import for the sake of a well-executed execution — a romp down death row. Faustus sold his soul to Mephistopheles (Bernadette Sullivan, with a pleasing blend of world-weariness and fury) in order to master the cruel delights of black magic. A scholar bored with the knowledge he had, Faustus just wanted to entertain himself by taunting a pope and kissing Helen of Troy. The cost be damned. The cost damned him. As the daylight fades around the outdoor stage, the countdown to Faustus’ doom grows increasingly magnetic, but even his last-minute terror can’t mitigate, or provide much nuance to, a production that’s more of a revenge melodrama than a tragical history. Antony Sandoval’s bare-bones staging is a stylish, macabre affair (both Faustus and Mephistopheles come adorned with dark feline streaks of makeup extending from their eyes) replete with puppets and masks. The supporting ensemble has a weak link or two, but mostly fires off the prose with clearly enunciated eloquence and a physical agility as large as the surrounding panorama of the city. Particularly strong work by the corpulent Danny Campbell as narrator, Wagner. Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; in rep, call for schedule; thru Aug. 24. Free. (323) 836-0288. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GROOVE AU GOGO Brilliant shards sparkle in what’s otherwise a broken plate-glass window — what creator Jason M. Solomon calls “an acid vaudeville/variety show.” Beat-poet “rants” against social contradictions of modern society (performed by Mike Estimé and Jonathan Kite) get mired in the wafer-thin lighting design that plagues the evening. Kiran Deol rises above that impediment, in a speech about an Indian-American defending her assimilation into this country to a relative. There’s also an amazing drum solo by the kimono-clad Nanami Iwasaki, and a tap routine by Charon Aldredge. Roger Kabler’s celeb impersonations are so fine, they transform the actor, as though even the structure of his face changes. Nice Pete Seeger–ish folk solo by Jeff Murray as well. There are also acts of aggressive mediocrity, but the shadows, echoes and lingering moments of an empty stage betray the abundant talent on the stage, under Kal Clarke’s lackadaisical direction. Theatre/Theater, 5041 West Pico Blvd., L.A.; Mon., 8 p.m.; indef. (323) 422-6331. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO GULLS Playwright Nick Salamone and composer Maurice McIntyre have loosely adapted Chekhov’s The Seagull to America of the 1950s, handily transforming the Russian classic about artistic idealism and despair into an American musical about commerce and repression. It’s a savvy move, translating the artistic tensions of late-19th-century Russia (doomed, high-minded symbolism versus commercial expedience) into artistic tensions of mid-20th-century America (doomed, high-minded symbolism versus commercial expedience). The American symbolism manifests itself in Beat poetry, embodied in frustrated playwright Conrad (John Keefe) and his love-hate relationship with his aging diva mother, Irenie Bennet (Rendé Rae Norman) — who’s fixated on philandering, successful screenwriter Gore Fitzwarren (Robert Mammana), a man painfully aware of his own mediocrity. The center of the storm is an African-American actress, Nina (Sabrina Sloan). After being toyed with by Gore, she flees Greenwich Village with pals Zelda (Grace Wall) and Conrad so the three can be free spirits in San Francisco. But the tug of Gore pulls her south to meet her spiritual decimation in L.A. (which is what L.A. does best). Salamone’s book comes packed with pithy lines and attitudes, such as Irenie’s contempt for the world being off its axis if the sun sets behind Hoboken rather than into the Pacific, where it should. Clinton Derricks-Carroll portrays a jive-poet narrator with links to both Nina and her parents (Marc Cardiff and Eileen T’Kaye) that are better left unrevealed here. McIntyre’s score has a subtly abstract, dissonant flow, with smidgens of gospel and ’40s swing, accentuated in Kitty McNamee’s buoyant choreography. Despite Jessica Kubzansky’s textured staging and wonderful performances, the event feels pro forma until it finds its emotional stride in Act 2, when it enters the Land of Disappointments. There’s a heart wrench for all seasons when Gore, isolated in Beachwood Canyon to write his next screenplay, is visited by his young former muse and has nothing to offer but politeness and platitudes. The play’s closing scene contains a hollow gush worthy of Gore, or Rent, but that’s not worth dwelling on when there’s so much good work on this stage. Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Aug. 24. (626) 683-6883. (Steven Leigh Morris)

HAMLET has long been considered the most daunting and complicated of Shakespearean riddles to confront actors and directors alike. Is the student prince’s famed inability to carry out his revenge a case of overintellectualized paralysis? Or, as the 20th century’s vogue of Freudian interpretations would have it, is he simply Oedipally conflicted into inaction? According to director D.D. Thomas’ clumsy, clinical concept staging, Hamlet is simply stark, raving mad. Taking madness as his cue, set designer James Coyne gives us the day room of a seedy mental institution right out of Ken Kesey. Christian Levatino’s bluntly realized Hamlet is a volatile, McMurphy-esque mental patient, alternating between near-catatonic melancholy and manic eruptions of physical violence. Call this the bipolar Hamlet. Following through with the allegory, Gertrude (Rebecca Jordan) is a cool, controlling, meds-distributing Nurse Ratched in cahoots with Claudius (Rob Kahn), the institution’s blandly Caligarian chief psychiatrist. Ophelia (an indifferent Sierra Fisk) makes her entrance as an institutionalized wrist slasher, long before her breakdown and drowning. The biggest surprise — and Thomas’ moment of inspiration — may well be the image of King Hamlet’s ghost, a horrific, multiple apparition of fully masked and gowned surgeons presumably ready to knock out some lobotomies. When Hamlet finally kicks into revenge mode in Act 2, Levatino signifies the transition by removing his McMurphy cap to reveal a Travis Bickle Mohawk. Such movie-trivia foreshadowing only makes Thomas’ bucket-of-blood dénouement all the more anticlimactic. Little Victory Theater, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru Aug. 17. (818) 841-5422. A Gangbusters Theatre Company production. (Bill Raden)

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Suddenly Last Summer

THE HEIST SHOW: A THRANCE CAPER This slight dance comedy set in a stark, noir cityscape opens with an attempted Grand Theft Auto that evolves into a Keystone Cops kick line as the law chases down and arrests petty criminal Cosimo (Lucius Bryant). In the pen, he hears about a can’t-fail robbery eventually enacted by girlfriend Rosalind (stern bombshell C.J. Merriman) and a gang of broke hustlers — clownish Toto (Alesha Nicole Palmer), slick Basil (Raymond McFarland), bumbling dad Bill (Joseph Beck), malapropism-prone Leon (Juanita Chase) and female boxer Sam (Kelly Grete Ehlert). Aside from an athletic seduction number between McFarland and barefoot ingenue J.M. Beatty, the production never regains the opening number’s clumsy charm. Josephine Schekert’s script is both overcrowded and simplistic, and as the ensemble alternates between yelling, mumbling and overlapping of lines, one wishes the play had scrapped words altogether for an evening of movement. As it is, there’s so little dance that there’s leisure to question whether director-choreographer Jessica Schroeder’s piece is actual thrance, which is defined as theater that expresses character through outsized motion. Synchronized soft-shoe routines for eight are unenlightening (at least they’re not as muddled as one subplot, in which lesbian Sam falls for their mark, Noel Carlon’s male nurse). Throaty standards like “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” are smart selections. Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Aug. 10. (323) 860-6503. An Outlaw Style Thrance Company production. (Amy Nicholson)

GO HOWLIN’ BLUES AND DIRTY DOGS The spirit of the blues pulsates resoundingly throughout this stirring musical based on the life of Big Mama Thornton. Class-act vocalist Barbara Morrison, who sports her own international credentials, delivers an affecting performance as the feisty, soulful singer who died prematurely of heart and liver disease in 1984 at age 57. Written by the Theatre Perception Consortium (Larry James Robinson, Carla DuPree Clark and Tu’Nook), and aided by the gorgeous work of composer Kevin Alan O’Neal, the script, constructed as a memory piece, skips around with some randomness as it tells of Thornton’s journey from her beginnings as the daughter of a fire-and-brimstone Alabama preacher (Robinson) to acclaimed heights and, later, relative obscurity. The strengths in Morrison’s performance lie not in her effort to recreate the historical woman (which she never really attempts to do) but in her expressionistic portrayal of this talented but troubled figure’s essence, captured in Morrison’s earthy, heartrending vocals. Clark directs a top-notch supporting ensemble that includes, besides Robinson, Lou Beatty as vaudevillian Sammy Green, who first plucked Thornton from a local talent show; Larney ‘Dapper’ Johnson as singer Johnny Otis; and Phillip Bell as Johnny Ace, who shot himself as Thornton watched haplessly. The music, performed by a live four-piece band under O’Neal’s musical direction, is simply topflight. Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Aug. 10. (213) 480-3232. (Deborah Klugman)

LOST ON LANKERSHIM This slate of one-acts, written by John Falchi, offers its share of entertaining moments. First up is “Cowboy Goodbyes,” which is more like a “minivignette.” Directed by Zombie Joe, it’s a quick thank-you addressed to some hospitable ranchers by Jim Eshom, outfitted in cowpoke attire, complete with six-shooter. The costume is the only thing that’s of note. In “Hungry for You,” Falchi directs with a slick comic touch. Matthew Sklar, Charles Dequepin and Greg Kaczynski are French Foreign Legionnaires stranded on a boat and driven to the brink of cannibalism. A surprise ending artfully twists the comic knife. Denise Devin directs “A Year,” a tale of redemptive love that’s a tad overwrought. Danielle Larson and Sarah Lesley are sisters whose familial bond is tested by a terrible accident that’s left one blind and the other an emotional and psychological cripple. Better acting is needed to pull this one off. Falchi directs the dangerously funny “Closing,” the riotous gem of the evening. Tommy Mastak (William Norrett) is the epitome of the smooth-talking pitchman who can talk his way into a deal or contract for just about anything, including sex. Zombie Joe directs the darkly funny “Boy’s Night Out,” in which Brian Ibsen, Jim Eshom, and T. Arthur Cottam play guys enjoying a night of wild drinking, but they sadly find their friendship fatally compromised by a woman. “Stories” is a very cleverly written tale sharply directed by Eshom, which finds three characters (Elizabeth Sage, Jessica Amal Rice and Alejandra Bursik-Cervantes) consigned to a “literary limbo,” and searching not for an author, but for a way out. ZJU Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat, 8 p.m.; thru. Aug. 23. (818) 202-4120 (Lovell Estell III)

GO MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION Banned and reviled, George Bernard Shaw’s 1893 satire about a modern Victorian girl, Vivie (Joanna Strapp), who discovers that her estranged mother, Kitty (Gillian Doyle), is a wealthy whore, was so controversial that Shaw prefaced it with a 10,000 word “apology” in which he excoriated his critics as hypocritical sops. Mathematician Vivie is aghast that her youthful independence, her college degree and preference for cigars over romance were funded by mom’s round heels. What’s bold then and now goes beyond Kitty’s convincing defense of her profession (she’s a businesswoman, not a victim) and the intimations of incest when Vivie realizes her suitor’s father (Barry Saltzman), now a clergyman, was one of her mother’s clients. The immorality at stake isn’t carnal but capitalistic: Vivie concludes that brothel-working is fine but brothel-owning is vile. That Shaw’s scorching four-act play, by proxy, attacks everything from the glass ceiling to Nike shoes means its relevance has only increased in over a century. Something’s slightly off in director August Viverito’s pacing as jokes that deserve guffaws score only wry smirks. In a strong ensemble, Doyle is outstanding as an alpha female coquette overloaded with pride, vulnerability and jewels; and as Vivie’s two would-be husbands, Jeremy Lelliott, in a callously foppish take, and Skip Pipo, with his crass, tycoonish portrayal, are hilarious while they underscore Shaw’s insinuation that Jane Austen’s well-married girls are the true prostitutes. Chandler Studio Theater Center, 12443 Chandler Blvd., N. Hlywd; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Aug. 24. (no perf. Aug. 22). (800) 838-3006. A Production Company production. (Amy Nicholson)

GO SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER When Tennessee Williams wrote this play in 1958, prefrontal lobotomy was largely discredited, but it remained a hot issue for Williams. His beloved sister Rose had been subjected to the process by their mother, Miss Edwina, supposedly because Rose had apparently claimed sexual molestation at the hands of her father. Williams converted family history into a parallel tale of Violet Venable (Kim Miyori), whose perverse son Sebastian has suffered a hideous death, as reported by Violet’s niece, Catherine (Elaine Kao). Catherine’s account belies Venable’s most cherished illusions about her “chaste” son, so she seeks to have Dr. Cukrowicz (Leonard Wu) lobotomize Catherine to “cut that hideous story out of her head.” It was sensational stuff in 1958, and it remains disturbing, even when told, Williams-style, largely in lyrical monologues. Though it’s initially disconcerting to see an Asian cast speaking in Southern drawls, as director Chil Kong suggests, the play reflects Chinese and Korean preoccupation with saving face and honoring the dead. Also refreshing is to see Catherine played by an actress who’s authentically young and vulnerable, and then there’s Miyori’s meticulous performance. Despite some awkward staging, this emerges as a serviceable, at times brilliant production. Lodestone Theatre Ensemble, 1111-B West Olive Ave., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., thru Aug. 24. (323) 993-7245 or www.lodestonetheatre.org. (Neal Weaver)

TURPENTINE JAKE Set in the Florida Turpentine camps of the 1930s, this gritty tale of black workers under the “debt peonage” system is dramatized by the grandson of one of these workers, James E. Hurd Jr. (who also directs and stars), and Linda Bannister. The action centers on an accidental stabbing one night over a card game, fueling racial tensions as well as the escape plan of Jake (Hurd Jr.), who concocts a scheme with the Woods Witch (Carlin Smith), a nebulous figure who lives in the pine forest and deals in the occult (reminiscent of Bynum from August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone). Despite the rich source material, the play starts from a traditional dramatic premise before dissolving into a a series of vignettes which, their poetry and humor aside, put the brakes on what should be a riveting and dangerous story. Hurd Jr. and co-director Jim Holmes also shoulder some blame, as they don’t always push the talented cast into the uncomfortable emotional territory the subject demands. On the other hand, the scenic design (complete with Spanish moss and sawdust), along with the costumes and the props, is well crafted and transports us to the rustic South. Similarly, work songs interwoven into the plot add texture to the fabric of the story. Though the intentions of the creators are admirable and the story needs to be told, a rewrite could turn this meditation on injustice and folk wisdom into a piece that truly sings. Del Rey Theatre at Loyola Marymount University, 1 LMU Dr., North Hall 102, W.L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Aug. 24. (310) 338-7588. A Kohl Players production. (Mayank Keshaviah)