Theater Reviews: Jane Austen Unscripted, A Skull in Connemara, Model Behavior

DAI (Enough)
Courtesy of Lillian Theatre

DAI In her one-woman show, gifted writer and solo performer Iris Bahr poignantly illustrates how infinitesimally fragile the line is between life and death. The piece takes place in a Tel Aviv café minutes before a suicide bombing. The café hosts an international clientele: an American actress filming a love story involving (ironically) a Palestinian suicide bomber; a gay German man stalking his Israeli ex-lover; a partisan Jewish settler; a mother of young children, rabid in her support of Israeli hegemony at the expense of Palestinian claims. Bahr portrays 10 loquacious individuals in all, each monologue concluding midsentence, as the bomb detonates, obliterating the life of the person we’ve come to know intimately in just a few moments. Embedded in each portrait are the irony and humor that come from the human tendency to perceive the world narrowly, through one’s self-interest. Several elements detract from the production, however: a tendency toward sameness in the clipped tempo of each monologue, and the awkward staging of the explosion at the end of each sequence, consisting of a loud noise and the unconvincing response of the performer, as he/she collapses. While a director is credited for the original staging, none is mentioned here. What’s necessary in order to realize the drama’s latent power is a director with a sensibility as nuanced as Bahr’s own. Lillian Theater, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. through Feb. 15. (323) 960-4410 or www.plays411.com/dai. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  JANE AUSTEN UNSCRIPTED Oh, what fun to see an improv troupe create a two-act drama in the style of a Jane Austen novel, inspired on the night I attended by the audience suggestion “snails.” The show is never the same, though director Dan O’Connor did say the company has rehearsed an English country dance that is sometimes plugged in, sometimes is not. And there are, of course, constant characters the company taps into, depending on who’s available on any given night. On the night I saw the show, 11 first-rate comedians performed. O’Connor portrayed Mr. Dawson, a highly reputable fellow engaged in a snarky and pointless dispute with Miss Amelia Green (the charming Jo McGinley). Much of the plot concerns the ability of these two porcupines to find love — in a Regency English style no less, encumbered by tightly fitting corsets, dinner jackets and ties. Among the moments of high tension was when Amelia’s father (Floyd Van Buskirk) found the prickly lovebirds unescorted in a parlor room, sparking a scandal. There were also gorgeous cameos by Stephen Kearin as the genteel, horse-faced Mr. Robert Walker, and by Lauren Lewis as Amelia’s delightfully birdbrained sister, Rebecca. When an audience member’s cell phone triggered a whining sound over the speakers, it inspired a spontaneous subplot about a swarm of invading bees, and some controversy over whether or not it was decent of Mr. Walker to cure Rebecca’s bee sting by slopping mud on her bare arm. Aside from its breathtaking wit, the show reveals the codes of behavior that accrue into an acting style, and even a social style. This is a comedy about essence rather than substance, revealing how one is so often confused with the other. If there is such a thing as humane comedy, this would be it. Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Feb. 15. (323) 401-6162. An Impro Theatre production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  MAGNUM OPUS THEATRE: LOVE WRITTEN IN THE STARS The fury of reading through piles of crappy screenplays for exploitive wages has to be what motivated this vicious comedy series. As playwright Jon Robin Baitz once said, L.A. theater offers a response to the “toxicity of living in a company town,” and Magnum Opus Theatre is a strong response to just that. In director Joe Jordan’s crisp-as-toast style, a company of nine performs this excruciating screenplay with unfettered mockery, with Your Host, Thurston Eberhard Hillsboro-Smythe, a.k.a. “Thursty” (Brandon Clark, in red dinner jacket and the droll pomposity of Alistair Cooke in Masterpiece Theatre) reading all the stage directions, including misspellings. This is the story of a chubby girl named Amber (Franci Montgomery, who is not chubby at all, which is part of the joke), abused like Cinderella by her beer-swilling aunt (CJ Merriman), who curses her, slaps her and calls her a pig — a Punch and Judy show by any other name. Amber has a fantasy lover, the ghost of a Hollywood actor (Michael Lanahan) accidentally slain during the filming of a gangster gun battle. Through plot convolutions too tedious to enumerate, Amber winds up in Hollywood, in a movie about her travails, for which she receives an Academy Award. As the plot slid into its final trajectory, the crowd shouted out “noooooh,” as it became cognizant of where this was heading. Any play can be ridiculed simply by employing theatrical devices used here: Whenever “Thursty” reads: “Jeff gives her a passionate kiss,” Lanahan uses his fingers to withdraw a sloppy kiss from his mouth, which he then palms off to Montgomery’s hand, who then slips the “kiss” into her blouse. But even this wildly presentational brand of theatrical ridicule can’t disguise the artlessness of the dialogue and stage directions. What emerges through the event’s cruelty — besides the mercifully unnamed screenwriter’s ineptitude — is a portrait of the writer, for whom Amber is an obvious stand-in. As the lampoon wears itself out, we’re left with something underneath that’s gone beyond parody to the pathetic — the reasons somebody would have written such a story in the first place, and the hollow, generic fantasies that serve as balm for her feelings of isolation. Watching this show is like watching well-trained runners pushing somebody out of a wheelchair. That’s a comic bit from old sketch-TV shows, but 90 minutes of it leave you feeling that the company’s comic fury is so strong, and its skills so sharp, the joke has been propelled beyond its target to a very dark place, fascinating in its own right. Sacred Fools Theatre, 660 N. Heliotrope, L.A.; Fri., 11 p.m.; through Feb. 27. (310) 281-8337. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

GO  MODEL BEHAVIOR “A play played at right angles” might be an apt description of Richard Alger’s reimagination of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Masterfully choreographed and directed by Tina Kronis, an ensemble of 11 performers, in their own words, “shreds” the story into a movement-based, bare-bones series of scenes punctuated by musical numbers. The action follows London lawyer Mr. Utterson (Jake Eberle), as he investigates strange occurrences between his old friend Dr. Jekyll (Jacob Sidney), and the misanthropic Mr. Hyde, who is first discovered by Utterson’s acquaintance Mr. Enfield (Jonathan Green). Utterson is aided by reports from Jekyll’s butler, Mr. Poole (Mark Skeens), and his domestic staff, as well as by Dr. Lanyon (David LM McIntyre), to whom Jekyll reveals his split personality. The performers, dressed in period attire but barefoot, remind one of the ensembles behind avant-garde works of the 1960s like The Serpent or modern incarnations like The Wooster Group. Christopher Kuhl’s dynamic lighting, which compensates for the almost non-existent set, emphasizes Kronis’ precise direction and 90-degree choreography. The cast shines in its exacting execution of Kronis’ minimalist vision, proving Mr. Utterson’s observation that “never is a reflection more thoroughly itself than when it is nothing.” 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., downtown; Sat., 8 & 10:30 p.m. Sun., 3 p.m. (note: added perf Thurs., Feb. 12., 8 p.m.; no perfs Sat., Feb. 14); through February 22. (213) 745-6516. A Theatre Movement Bazaar Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

MODERN LOVE Anthony Mora’s play is centered on a male obsession: Screenwriter-producer-director Jack (Rico Simonini) becomes convinced that studio receptionist Sharon (Laura McLauchlin) is the actual, living embodiment of the character he has created. He rashly attempts to cast her as the lead in his film, without consulting the studio or his co-producer. Despite the play’s title, it’s more about power than about love. Ruthless producer Carla (Ann Convery) and Jack mercilessly demonstrate to a young writer (Michelle Draper) how powerless she is, and she’s soon superseded by Jack. Nymphet star Jillian (Aubrie Weinholt) uses her box-office clout to bully and humiliate those around her. Pushy Sharon uses her neediness as a weapon, and Jack’s tenuous authority is undermined when he indulges in personal feelings. Eccentric preacher/con-man (Richard Rossi) seeks to save Jack’s soul — and promote his own idea for a TV show. There may be a coherent play here somewhere, but, at present, Mora’s script takes off in all directions, sometimes at the expense of logic and credibility. Director Chelsea Sutton faithfully deploys her able cast in service of the play. Sidewalk Studio Theatre, 4150 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., through February 21. (818) 558-5702 or info@sidewalkstudiotheatre.com. (Neal Weaver)

MONSTERS AND PRODIGIES: THE HISTORY OF THE CASTRATI Why would anybody care about a history of how preadolescent boys in 17th-century Europe were castrated in order to preserve the beauty of their high voices? Mexico City’s Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes served up a pretty good response to that question at REDCAT over the weekend in a circuslike spectacle that was as disturbing as it was beautiful. A snorting, stomping Centaur (Miguel Angel Lopez) opened the piece, his huge, bare chest heaving from behind stable doors, establishing the Greek myth origins of how lines between men and beasts became crossed — along with those between men and gods. Fast-forward to the 20th century, and the stage was occupied by ghoulish characters out of a Molière farce: Siamese twins in whiteface (Raúl Román and Gastón Yanes) attached at the waist by their Baroque vest, a fuming harpsichordist (Edwin Calderon) and one Castrati (Javier Medina) — whose amazing soprano is reputed to have been the consequence of a childhood disease, not castration, which has been illegal since the earliest 20th century — even in Italy. (The play’s closing image of the despondent, last surviving Castrati, accompanied by an ancient recording of his singing “Ave Maria,” was eerily haunting.) Dualities abounded on the stage: the brutality of castration (especially when it went awry) versus the beautific rapture of those high holy voices; Jorge Kuri and Claudio Valdes Kuri’s play (in Spanish, supertitled in English) emphasizes the duality between the age of reason, embodied by polite French opera–going habits versus the wild emotionality of the Italians, who used opera as a center of socializing — even during the performances — and stopped their chattering only during the occasional arias that really captured their attention. And for such arias, audiences showed emotive appreciation. The stage was eventually opened to reveal a huge sand pit behind those stable doors. The twins were separated, there was the intervention of the French Revolution, and the performance devolved into a madcap farce, that included Punch and Judy Show antics, food fights and the parade of a magnificent horse, restrained to the point of frothing at the mouth. This frothing, combined with the beast’s heavy breathing and the animal’s stunning, balletic elegance, summed up the duality of distortion and beauty. Using a history-lesson format, the spectacle wore out its welcome and then, most curiously after the anarchy of the revolution, the welcome wore itself back in again; and Kaveh Parmas’ performance as a near-naked Slave, goaded to torment the Castrati for no reason other than comic relief, was masterful. REDCAT, inside Disney Hall. Closed. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

GO  A SKULL IN CONNEMARA Playwright Martin McDonagh — a four-time Tony nominee — is known for his rhythmic, ungrammatical dialogue and a worldview that’s comic, unsparing and just. He sets his plays in Irish villages so small and overgrown with past grievances, neighbors remember 27-year-old slights that didn’t even involve them. Here, a part-time gravedigger named Mick (Morlan Higgins) and his sop-headed assistant, Mairtin (Jeff Kerr McGivney), are assigned to disinter the bones of Mick’s wife, dead of a car crash officially, but the bored locals, like old widow Maryjohnny (Jenny O’Hara) and Thomas the cop (John K. Linton), have long whispered that she was murdered by her husband. Under Stuart Rogers’ measured direction, Higgins feels capable of dismissive violence — say, flinging hooch in Mairtin’s eyes — but we’re reluctant to see the killer who could be hibernating within his bearish frame. Instead of plumbing the comedy’s bleak cruelty, the production plays like a cynical — and highly watchable — Sherlock Holmes story: The focus is on the villagers’ thick webs of past and present tension, which spin into an obsession with fairness, where characters glower, “Now I have to turn me vague insinuations into something more of an insult, so then we’ll all be quits.” Jeff McLaughlin’s fantastic pull-down set converts from a living room to a cemetery, with grave pits as deep as Higgin’s thighs are thick. Theatre Tribe, 5267 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through February 28. (800) 838-3006. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  STORMY WEATHER Mirrors mirrors on the walls. That’s what you’re seeing all over the stage in James Noone’s set, as Lena Horne (Leslie Uggams), now aging in the 1980s, observes her younger self (Nikki Crawford) through the travails of a difficult life. Her torments include having to surrender custody of her one, infant son, Teddy, to her estranged husband (Phil Attmore), as she chooses to leave New York to accept an offer by MGM Studios in Hollywood. For a light-skinned African-American chanteuse swimming upstream toward stardom in post–World War II America, the crosscurrents she encounters include the kind of stock bigotry (lobbying notto play maids in the movies) and gossip surrounding her secret, tempestuous marriage to Jewish arranger Lennie Hayton (Robert Torti). Another mirror image includes the resentful adult Teddy (Joran Barbour) and Horne’s father, Teddy Sr. (Cleavant Derricks). Ensnared in Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunt of the ’50s, and thereby shunned by the Hollywood studios, Horne finds employment in France (of course) and on Broadway. The despondency caused by waking up one day and realizing that she’s lost all the men in her life, including Teddy from kidney disease, raises the question of how one endures life’s tempests. (As Linda says in Death of a Salesman, “Life is a casting off.”) Such are the metaphysics of Sharleen Cooper Cohen’s musical, suggested from the Horne’ biography, LenaHorne,Entertainer, and punctuated by more than two-dozen classic jazz-pop hits, including “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Hooray for Hollywood,” “When You’re Smiling,” and the eponymous “Stormy Weather” — all accompanied by a 12-person orchestra perfectly conducted by musical director Linda Twine, and beautifully sung by members of the large ensemble. In her adaptation, Cohen frames Horne’s journey down memory lane via conversations with her life friend and rival, Kay Thompson (Dee Hoty). Though Horne’s snide attitude toward this “friend,” once attached to the Hollywood studio that betrayed her, creates a brittle and nicely unsentimental repartee, their conversations — being locked in the past tense — bog things down dramatically. Michael Bush’s staging compensates for this drawback with sheen, partly because the songs are often so nicely tethered to Randy Skinner’s sleek choreography, mostly because of Crawford’s knockout voice and sexy charisma, and the tender-sassy interpretations by Uggams. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through March 1. (626) 356-7529. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

TAKING STEPS Alan Ayckbourn’s 1979 sex comedy boasts a variety of riotously farcical situations, droll dialogue and hilarious, yet believable characters. However, like many of Ayckbourn’s plays, at the piece’s core, the underlying themes of heartbreak, midlife disappointment and greed suggest a much darker work teetering on a razor’s edge of despair. Boorish, but wealthy bucket- manufacturing tycoon Roland (Marty Ryan, nicely smug) plots to purchase a rundown Victorian mansion to please his trophy bride, Elizabeth (the splendidly kittenlike Melanie Lora). But when Roland arrives home to find that Elizabeth has packed her bags and fled, he drinks himself into oblivion, forcing his nebbish lawyer, Tristam (Jonathan Runyan), to spend the night in the spooky house. Complications ensue when Elizabeth returns home, and, in the dark, mistakes a snoozing Tristam for her horny husband. The visual gimmick behind Ayckbourn’s comedy is that, although the play is set on three floors of a mansion, all the action takes place on the same stage level, with the actors moving amongst each other, without connecting with each other. It’s a gag that tires fairly quickly, and co-directors Allan Miller and Ron Sossi quite rightly underplay the wearisome gimmick in favor of emphasizing the play’s more adroit character-driven comedy. A few cavils: The British dialects are haphazard, which inevitably causes some of the performers to bypass some layers of irony. Still, the ensemble work is mostly deft, with Hoff’s bloated pig of a husband, Lora’s selfish and flighty wife, and Runyan’s innocent waif lawyer being wonderfully vivid, three-dimensional, and unexpectedly dark characterizations. Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through March 22. (310) 477-2055. (Paul Birchall)

THREE SISTERS A new company named Chalk Repertory, consisting largely of alums from the U.C. San Diego Theatre and Dance Department, have rolled into Hollywood with a production of Chekhov’s century-old masterwork about miserable marriages, unrequited loves and stifled ambitions (in a colloquial adaptation by Susan Coyne). Here it’s set quasi-atmospherically within the ornate confines of the newly and beautifully remodeled Masonic Lodge of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The audience sits on two sides of the elongated, rectangular stage, at the head of which is a separated playing area used for a banquet scene or, later in the play, an area depicting the woods (set and projection design by Tom Ontiveros). This means that the action floats all over the room, presenting a challenge to lighting desgners Rebecca Bonebrake and Ontiveros, who are working with only four lighting instruments in the sky, plus some floor lights, and the glow emanating from the room’s grand chandeliers and some art nouveau floor lamps that punctuate the sprawling playing area. The result is a number of scenes played in murky shadows, blurring the dramatic focus of this tender, difficult play. Larissa Kokernot’s staging mixes Slavic and Japanese influences, with the over-educated Prozorov family (that would be Masha, Irena, Olga and their brother, Andrei) — stranded in the provinces and yearning for a more cultured life — all played by Asian-American actors, the women sometimes dressed in silky kimonolike attire. Kokernot’s laconic staging avoids the pitfalls of strained farce with a languor that allows Chekhov’s innate humor to bubble out, gently, between the ruminations and glances. The biggest drawback is that the actors playing the Prozorovs careen between overplaying and underplaying so that the play’s core feels both overly and underly mannered. Some of the supporting cast, however, provides a sense of what this all could be, were its potential matched by the sparks of talent on the stage: Tony Amendola’s crusty/kind layabout doctor Chebutykin, for example, or Teri Reeves’ vixen Natasha, who grows increasingly, viciously confident as her power accrues. Adam J. Smith’s lovestruck Tuzenbach possesses an earnest and endearing clarity of purpose, while Corey Brill’s schoolteacher, Kulygin, presents a soft-spoken clown, suffering the quiet of agony of watching his wife fall in love with the visiting battery commander, Vershinin (Ricardo Antonio Chavira, in a strong and generously dignified portrayal). Owiso Odera is particularly grand as the seething and often rude army captain Solyony, prone to vicious verbal outbursts followed by inevitable remorse and embarrassment. Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Masonic Lodge, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through February 22. (866) 468-3399. A Chalk Repertory production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

THE TODD AND MOLLY SHOW The talented Todd Heughens and Molly O’Leary certainly have a blast onstage together in their two-person, sketch comedy offering, which includes some music. However, most of their pieces belabor punchlines, giving this revue the choppy rhythm of a work in development rather than a sharp, witty cavalcade of laughs. Intermittent video pieces that share the same sluggish pacing don’t enliven the downtime between sketches as much as they should. Director-choreographer Karl Warden has this duo following tried-and-true dance moves well, but like the whole show, none of the steps is really inspired. Now there are clear high points, such as their penultimate go as an aging lounge act couple who — between complaining about their tranny son and lesbian daughter — break into hilarious versions of contemporary club favorites. But what really salvages the night is how absolutely likable these performers are, how much we applaud their desire to fight middle-age ennui with the sheer power of jazz hands and fart jokes. Heh Heh. The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs., 8 p.m; through February 26. www.plays411.net/thetoddandmollyshow (Luis Reyes)


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