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Theater Reviews: K2, The Train Driver

The Train Driver
PHOTO BY ED KRIEGER

EVERYTHING WILL BE DIFFERENT Teenage Charlotte (Alana Dietze) is intense, emotional and not attractive in a conventional sense. Her problems multiply when her mother dies, and she's left to deal with the dismissive contempt of her dad (Christopher Fields), who resents her for not being his now lost, beautiful wife. To cope, the unglamorous teen immerses herself in the legend of Helen of Troy, using that myth as a springboard for her fantasies of sexual power and irresistible lovability. Written by Mark Schultz, the piece sets anchor in the realm of absurdity, where Charlotte operates as a clueless narcissist, as carelessly cruel toward others as they are toward her. Schultz extracts questionable humor from her mucked-up priorities — her career goal is to be a porn star — and from the snarky abuse that several characters inflict on each other. Under John Lawler's direction, Dietze's sullen adolescent displays a mulishness that seems dull and depthless, but for a few exceptional moments. The most vivid and moving occurs when, narrating Hermione's futile wait for the return of her mother, Helen, the unhappy Charlotte breaks down. The capable supporting ensemble includes Liz Fenning as her chirpy gal pal and Bobby Campo as the oily dude who won't give her a second glance, except for a blow job. Designers Frederica Nascimento's set and Jared A. Sayeg's lighting contribute to the drama's discomfitingly cold and surreal ambiance. Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 14. (877) 369-9112. An Echo Theater Company production. (Deborah Klugman)

ON EMOTION "All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better." This quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson is apropos for both the Son of Semele Ensemble and for its latest offering from Mick Gordon and neuropsychologist Paul Broks. Their collaboration centers on a question voiced early on by cognitive behavioral therapist Stephen (Michael Nehring), who asks, "Are we just puppets of our emotions?" The subject of the question and his experiment is Anna (Melina Bielefelt), a disturbed artist who has been befriended by Stephen's daughter Lucy (Sami Klein), who herself is experimenting with older men. It is also no coincidence that Anna makes puppets; her latest creation is an astronaut puppet for Stephen's autistic son Mark (Alex Smith), who is obsessed with stars and Star Trek. Mark, sadly, does not repay her in kind, as his inadvertent experiments with his eidetic memory bring to light uncomfortable truths. Director Matthew McCray utilizes Adam Flemming's clever video design, Sarah Krainin's awesome "starry floor" and Ian Garret's lighting to full effect in the transitions between scenes, which are nicely choreographed. However, the script's lack of stakes and character empathy make McCray's job difficult within the scenes, which are filled with tepid emotions that feel manufactured. But while the result of this theatrical experiment is not wholly successful, the ensemble is to be commended for embodying the words of Erasmus Darwin: "A fool is a man who never tried an experiment in his life." Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Mon., 7 p.m. (Nov. 8 and 15); no perf Oct. 31; through Nov. 15. (213) 351-3507. sonofsemele.org (Mayank Keshaviah)

FDR From the moment he rolls onstage in a wheelchair until his labored exit, 90 minutes later, with cane in hand, Ed Asner does a phenomenal job of channeling — himself. But in all fairness to this accomplished actor, giving dramatic life to a towering figure such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt is no easy task. For all of 15 minutes, Mr. Asner makes a valiant attempt at studied mimicry, speaking with a tinge of that East Coast patrician accent that characterized Roosevelt; then he lapses into his own raspy voice and speech mannerisms, with just a touch of Lou Grant. The production, an adaptation of a decades-old work by Dore Schary, is basically a sketchy retrospective of Roosevelt's presidency. The script surveys Roosevelt's bout with polio, a litany of congressional races, lots of mock press conferences, some key incidents in his life and some perspectives on the events of the time. For the most part, it's quite dry, and Asner's delivery vacillates from the clinical to the rambling conversational. The most engaging part of the evening is the segment about America's entry into World War II, including Roosevelt's famous declaration of war. Had there been more substance to Schary's script, or a more skilled director, the production would certainly make more of an impression. The good news is that the performance is the first for some time on the economically fragile boards of the Pasadena Playhouse. 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 7. (626) 356-PLAY. (Lovell Estell III)

GO  K2 When asked in 1923 why he wanted to climb the highest mountain in the world, English mountaineer George Mallory replied, "Because it's there." This somewhat apocryphal quote, often called the three most famous words in mountaineering, easily could have been the motivation for the two climbers in Patrick Meyers' play. With the world's second-highest mountain as its terrifyingly harsh backdrop, this intimate story revolves around life-or-death decisions made on a ledge at 27,000 feet where Taylor (Jake Suffian) and Harold (Sean Galuszka) are trapped after an accident that cost them Harold's leg, as well as one of only two climbing ropes they had. While Taylor desperately tries to recover the lost rope, he and Harold converse on a range of topics, from the mundane to the profane to the profound. The palpable sense of danger throughout the piece is realized through a powerful combination of the actors' performances, designer Laura Fine Hawkes' bare-bones mountain set, and Leigh Allen's icy-blue lighting. Even the decision to keep the theater below room temperature adds to the ambience. Director Damen Scranton successfully pushes his actors to the limit, eliciting from Galuszka quiet moments of introspection that contrast with Suffian's volcanic outbursts of emotion — both of which reveal the characters gaining perspective while paradoxically losing their sanity. Ellie Follett's authentic costumes complete the picture, with her choices of snow gear effectively taking us back to 1977. So why should you see this play? Because it's there. Underground Theater, 1314 N. Wilton Place, Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 14. (800) 838-3006. K2LA.org. (Mayank Keshaviah)

KIDNAPPED BY CRAIGSLIST: THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT It has been a mere three years since Katie Goan and Nitra Gutierrez's original collection of Craigslist-inspired comedy sketches premiered in New York, and only two since director Lori Evans Taylor's L.A. production bowed for TheSpyAnts Theatre Company. In online-cultural terms, however, those 36 months might as well be a lifetime. Because, even in Taylor's recycled Halloween edition, which has been partially rewritten by Goan with a decidedly gothic spin, the show's weird and wacky assortment of cranks, kinks and jaw-dropping confessions of perversity — pulled from the site's actual postings — today feels like rather tepid and everyday online fare. Perhaps that's because during the interim the show has been upstaged by Craigslist itself, which in 2007 expanded from classifieds to the crime blotter in a series of user-perpetrated, headline-grabbing tragedies that have themselves become commonplace. And though the director steers clear of those real-life horrors, Taylor's transfer of her original staging's carnival sideshow to the creep show (courtesy of Adam Haas Hunter's effective lights and spiderweb-festooned, haunted-house set) turns out to be more than just seasonally fitting. MC Amy Motta is back as the Crypt-Keeper, this time in eye-popping, mistress-of-the-dark fetish drag (by costumer Marina Mouhibian). Returning as well are some of 2008's crowd-pleasers, including Motta's hilarious "I Love You. Leave My Butt Alone," a folk-song complaint about her boyfriend's penchant for anal sex, and "I Like You so Much I Farted," in which Jennifer Etienne Eckert mourns a dream date gone bad due to a bout of uncontrolled flatulence. Also returning is a crack ensemble in an unrelentingly frenetic fusillade of 40 hit-and-miss comedy skits and musical numbers whose batting average makes this 90-minute show feel a half-hour too long. Elephant Lab Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; call for schedule; through Nov. 13. (323) 860-8786, thespyants.com (Bill Raden)

THE QUARRY John Markland's quiet and largely uneventful play captures the awkward silences and elliptical exchanges between disaffected youth in Midwestern America. As two taciturn teenagers chug beers and converse by a waterlogged, disused quarry, the image of a small-town, dead-end existence is lightly sketched. Pete (played with deep intensity by Zachary Shields) is a tough loner, prone to goading and bullying his friend Gary (Max Barsness). With numerous cartoony, homemade tattoos decorating his arms, fingers and torso, plus his incessant chain-smoking and fascination for guns, Pete is a closed book you don't want to open. Gary's heading for college and urges his mate to visit his girlfriend Jessie's (Addison Timlin) hip preacher father, RD (Nicholas Guest). Pete does, and gains some guidance from the kindly father figure. In the process, he becomes entangled in Jessie's dark secret. Markland's direction of his own work lacks the necessary distance and perspective to open up the material for greater impact. Important plot points have to be inferred from the sparse script and it certainly doesn't help that all of the actors, save Timlin, mumble their lines. Straining to hear them in this small, deep space is almost like eavesdropping on a conversation next door. The penultimate scene may or may not contain a creepy undertone that propels the tragic finale — it's hard to tell. Markland squanders the opportunity to have both that scene and the preacher's final sermon impart the drama they deserve. Moth Theatre. 4359 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m. (no perfs Halloween weekend; added mat Sun., Nov. 14, 2 p.m.); through Nov. 14. brownpapertickets.com/event/126184. (Pauline Adamek)

SORT OF A LOVE STORY Joseph Bologna and Richard Krevolin have written sort of a play, sort of directed by Bologna. It's not unusual for married stars to join forces, as Bologna and wife Renée Taylor do here, acting together on the stage, but it's odd to find the wife playing her husband's mother. On a nearly bare stage, the two treat us to the fiction that: a) this is the first performance of a workshop production; and b) Ms. Taylor is not an actress. Taylor plays a fantasist obsessed with Ginger Rogers (she calls herself Gin) who was seduced and impregnated at age 15, and reluctantly gave up the baby (predictably named Fred) for adoption, before launching a career as a paid escort. Meanwhile, Fred (Bologna) is an incorrigible kid whose great ambition is to be sent up the river to Sing Sing. A failed heist wins him his dream. But he's obsessed with finding the mother who abandoned him, and of course he does. After many supposedly comic misadventures, they fall into hard luck. He becomes a drug addict, she a hopeless drunk. This is played out in a series of sitcom one-liners, till the ludicrous, inspirational ending. What were they thinking? El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., matinee Oct. 20, 2 p.m.; through Oct. 24. (866) 811-4111. elportaltheatre.com. (Neal Weaver)

GO  THE TRAIN DRIVER South African playwright Athol Fugard's plays have dealt with the havoc wrought in his country by apartheid, but his more recent works also often possess the feel of a ghost story, as they grow to encompass the guilt and grief that were the legacy of his homeland's decades of racial inequity. This is particularly true in his powerful new play, in which the spirits of the forgotten dead are all around us, unseen. As he drives his locomotive through the black shantytown area of the city, Roelf (Morlan Higgins) accidentally runs over a mother and infant, after the mother commits suicide by stepping onto the tracks before Roelf can stop. There's nothing the train driver could have done to save them, but he is consumed with guilt over his role in the death. At the graveyard where indigent, unidentified bodies are buried, Roelf searches for the dead mother's grave so he can expiate his guilt. Elderly, impoverished grave digger Simon (Adolphus Ward) is sympathetic, but also desperate to send Roelf home, before the white driver's presence in the black region of the country causes disaster. Although Fugard's plot is narratively smaller than what is found in many of his other plays, the overall mood of sorrow and resigned, barely controlled rage at how the universe is arranged is powerfully palpable. A deep-seated, thought-provoking pessimism about men's nature is constantly evident. Director Stephen Sachs' character-driven production is stunning, from the dusty squalor of Jeff McLaughlin's desolate, gravel-covered shanty set to the dense, evocative acting work. Higgins' mingled rage and sorrow — anger over being forced to kill someone he didn't know, along with his grief over the pair's death — is powerful, but it's Ward's slightly ironic, underplayed turn as the grave digger that captures attention every moment he's onstage. Fugard has written that the play is a metaphor for the moral blindness of an overclass that has ignored the plight of the hopeless — but the play cunningly concludes with a tragic coda suggesting that, to the underclass, even white guilt is a luxury that harms more than it heals. Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 12. (323) 663-1525. (Paul Birchall)

VENICE Pablo Picasso is famously credited with the epigram, "Good artists copy, great artists steal." He might also have added, "And all artists invariably steal from Shakespeare; the trick is in knowing what to take." In the case of this overwrought, albeit handsomely mounted musical co-production from Kansas City Rep and Center Theatre Group, writer-director Eric Rosen's search for a plot on which to hang actor-composer Matt Sax's rousing hip-hop- and R&B-infused score eventually led him to Othello. The result is less a theft than an act of vandalism. Set in a mythical near future, in a fictional city named Venice that has been wracked by 20 years of war, the story focuses on the political and fraternal rivalry between pro-peace leader General Venice Monroe (Javier Muñoz) — read: Othello the Moor — and his Iago-ish half-brother, the fascistic Captain Markos Monroe (Rodrick Covington). Venice aims to inaugurate his "Sunrise" peace policy with his public wedding to childhood sweetheart and Desdemona stand-in Willow (Andrea Goss) in the city's newly restored cathedral; Markos schemes to sabotage that symbolic act. How he does so involves a scheme so obtuse and shorn of Shakespeare's psychological subtleties that it requires a roving narrator, the Clown MC (Sax), to continuously clarify the characters' motivations in bursts of hip-hop exposition. Suffice it to say that by the time Markos achieves his nefarious ends, his victims include Venice's loyal lieutenant, Michael (Erich Bergen), Michael's Lady Gaga–like "love interest" (Angela Wildflower Polk), Markos' military-industrialist co-conspirator (J.D. Goldblatt) and, in the evening's most misbegotten bowdlerization of the Bard, Willow herself. The real tragedy of Rosen's self-consciously mythic melodrama is in its disservice to the show's powerhouse vocal talent and inspired production team. David Weiner's elegant lights, Meghan Raham's smart costumes and striking, bomb-ravaged church set and Jason H. Thompson's meta-theatrical projections all lend the evening a stylish polish. Sax's music emerges as the star attraction, and the audience undoubtedly will be humming the sweetly moving duet "The Wind Cried Willow," sung by Goss and the show's Emilia, Victoria Platt, on the drive home. The story, they'll likely forget before they unlock the car door. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9280 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Nov. 14. (213) 628-2772. centertheatregroup.org. (Bill Raden)