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Theater Reviews: Kooza, Chesapeake, Private Eyes

Wonder of the World

Ed KriegerWonder of the World

AMERICAN GRIND An amalgam of the work of four writers and two directors, this hybrid piece falls somewhere between sketch comedy and a full-fledged play. Set in a coffee house, it features five or six overlapping scenarios. Kevyn (Michael Ponte) is a self-styled self-help guru who is using the venue to recruit clientele. Tudi (writer Cheri Anne Johnson), the white half of an interracial couple, is convinced she’s a black woman born into a white body (in the same way some transsexuals believe that in them, nature’s gone awry). Tudi’s looking to create a rapport between her uptight suburban parents (Charles Marti and Christina L. Mason) and her lover (Daniel Valery), a condescending hipster — while coping with the painful reality of his other women. Betty (writer Tracy Lane) and Nick (writer Andrew Hamrick) are a librarian and high school teacher, respectively — both looking for love and too petrified to acknowledge they may have found it in each other. Rose (Lauren Benge) a fatherless teen distraught over her pregnancy, gets help from Joe (Cooper Anderson), who once abandoned his family. Co-directed by P.J. Marshall and Jennifer Cetrone, the production aims to meld its various plots into a cohesive whole, but the result is closer to a choppily aligned jigsaw. Most of the performances are capable or better, but stronger direction would improve them. The writing is also strong in some places, in need of sharpening in others. E. Yarber is one of the four writers. Lyric-Hyperion Theater, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through November 21. fromthegrounduptheatre. A From the Ground Up Theater Company production. (Deborah Klugman)

AS WHITE AS O Against the backdrop of a New York art show titled “The Innocents: 30 Years of Outsider Art in America,” this world premiere of novelist Stacy Sims’ first dramatic endeavor explores synesthesia, a condition in which senses are cross-wired so that feelings are “tasted” and letters and numbers appear in specific colors, among other things. The “outsiders,” in this case, are Jack (Vince Tula) and his father, Sam (Mark St. Amant), who both spent much of Jack’s childhood in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, festooning their modest backwoods cabin with the detritus of our consumer society. While such decoration was therapeutic for them after losing Jack’s mother, Grace (Elizabeth Sampson), they are discovered by Clara (Lauren Clark), a documentary filmmaker who becomes interested in the house and in Sam. Running parallel to this story line, adult Jack is the subject of another work in the same show by Ed (Ramon Campos), who interviews and videotapes Jack in order to create his piece. The play fluidly oscillates between the present and the past, and accomplished director Sam Anderson deftly handles the transitions, though his pacing and shaping of his characters’ emotional climaxes are a bit uneven. Desma Murphy’s set, enhanced by Jeremy Pivnick’s subtly shifting lighting, is wonderfully detailed and spatially enhances the piece’s thematic elements. The cast has moments of inspiration, but only Sampson consistently delivers the emotional energy required of Sims’ script, which itself would be strengthened by fewer tangential story lines, and a stronger central plot. The Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through December 12. (866) 811-4111. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO  CHESAPEAKE There’s much to enjoy in Lee Blessing’s philosophic monodrama — so long as you don’t expect too much logic and credibility. It’s a fantastic, cockeyed parable about a naive, idealistic performance artist named Kerr (Mark Thomsen), who’s heavily influenced by Italian Futurist writer Filippo Marinetti. When he performs a nude rendition of the biblical “Song of Songs,” Kerr is condemned as a pornographer by ultraconservative Senator Therm Pooley, who’s hell-bent on killing off the National Endowment for the Arts. Pooley has a dog, a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Lucky, which gives him a folksy, vote-getting aura. In a far-fetched scheme, Kerr decides to kidnap Lucky as a piece of reality-based performance art. His plans go awry, Lucky is accidentally killed, and Kerr is mysteriously transformed into a retriever, who looks exactly like Lucky. He’s adopted by Pooley, who’s convinced that he’s a messenger from God. Thomsen is a skillful, likable performer, who finds rich comedy in the plight of a man who’s half human and half dog. The play’s dizzy twists and turns don’t entirely add up, but director Martin Bedoian gives it a clever, funny production, and Thomsen’s performance alone is worth the trip. CTG Theatre, 1111-B West Olive Ave., Burbank; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through October 31. Produced by Syzygy Theatre Group. (800) 838-3006 or Syzygytheatre.org. (Neal Weaver)

CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT Vampires have saturated pop culture to the point that it seems impossible it could hold one more drop of blood. Scott Martin’s musical takes us back 112 years, when hobbyist, writer and backstage grunt Bram Stoker (Robert Patteri) can’t get any interest in the first reading of his new play, Dracula. The cast and audience think it mediocre and cornball. Worse, though Stoker wrote the role of the Count for the great actor Sir Henry Irving (Gordon Goodman), his longtime business partner, he refuses to play the part. Irving’s excuse is that Dracula is ghastly trash; besides, he adds, “I’ve never played a Romanian.” We suspect it’s that Irving also sees too much of himself in the role; he’s been sucking Stoker dry for 20 years. There are the bones of an interesting musical about predatory friendship and faith in your creative instincts, but the play’s thrust is merely about whether Stoker and champion Ellen Terry (Teri Bibb, very good) can sway Irving’s mind. When Goodman bites into the Count’s dialogue, he’s so terrifying and imperious we agree with Stoker’s fixation. Mostly, this is a handsomely wrought production that putters, and the songs that fuel it could be transplanted into dozens of other musicals by scarcely tweaking the lyrics. Under David Galligan’s direction, the strong ensemble looks and sounds great, with supporting players Gabrielle Wagner, Ashley Cuellar, Melissa Bailey and Gibby Brand flaunting their comic timing in the numbers “How Do I Get a Part with the D’Oyly Carte?” and “The Scottish Play.” Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through November 1. A Katselas Theatre Company production. (310) 358-9936. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  KOOZA It’s been about a decade since the blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau (big top) was seen at Santa Monica Pier. This touring production marks the 25th anniversary of Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, and also heralds a return to the simpler, less high-tech formats that informed earlier productions like Quidam and Allegria — the emphasis here being on the old circus traditions of clowning and acrobatics. But that’s not to say that there is something missing here. On the contrary, creator-director David Shiner, who made quite a name for himself as a clown in outings like Fool Moon, has packed this show with drama, comedy, whimsy, music, exotica, slick choreography, and plenty of how-do-they-do-that? moments. The show starts with an Innocent (Stephan Landry) opening a box containing a trickster (Mike Tyus), who reveals the magical world of the circus. And what a world it is! The clowns pull off some dazzling and funny routines, and interact throughout with the audience. Contortionists Julie Bergez, Natasha Patterson and Dasha Sovik twist their tiny bodies into letters of the alphabet, among other things. Lee Thompson amazes with a pickpocket routine at the expense of an unsuspecting attendee. Jimmy Ibarra and Angelo Lyerzkysky garnered a standing ovation for their superhuman feats on the Wheel of Death — a daunting contraption that resembles two interconnected hamster wheels. Marie-Chantale Valliancourt’s collage of costumes are stunning. Under the Grand Chapiteau at the Santa Monica Pier. Tues.-Thurs, 8 p.m.; Fri-Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 5 p.m.; through December 20. cirquedusoleil.com/kooza or (800) 450-1480. (Lovell Estell III)

PRIVATE EYES There are so many lies afoot in playwright Steven Dietz’s puzzle box of a romantic comedy, you’ll be excused if you come away with the impression that if they’re talking, they’re lying. The play’s opening scene features a hateful director abusing a young actress who has shown up to audition for his play. However, in a surprise reveal, the sequence turns out to be scene from a play within the play being rehearsed between a married pair of actors, Lisa (Sarah Kelly) and Matthew (Adam Hunter Howard). Other revelations follow: Lisa is having an affair with the play’s slimy director, Adrian (James Elden), and they both assume that Matthew doesn’t know about it — that’s even part of the thrill for them. Yet, it turns out that Matthew too is keeping a few surprises under his belt. Dietz’s play is ingeniously structured in a convoluted time line that inevitably brings to mind Pinter’s Betrayal, with us often being left guessing the characters’ personalities and motivations from scene to scene. Although the dialogue is glib and occasionally ferociously witty, the characters’ essential inscrutability becomes increasingly off-putting, while director Dan Fishbach’s smooth, straightforward staging is unable to shed any light on these peoples’ motivations. The impression with which we’re left, perhaps intentionally, is of a group of spiteful, self-absorbed folks whose desire for romantic adventure leads only to despair. Kelly does a fine job depicting an otherwise sensible gal, who finds herself caught up in a compulsive appetite for romantic risk, but the male performers are strangely cipherlike, making it hard to understand why Kelly would prefer one above the other. Raven Playhouse, 5233 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through October 25. (323) 960-7782 or privateeyesla.com. Epiphany Productions. (Paul Birchall)

STRAY There’s an old adage taught in playwriting workshops that goes something like, “when in doubt, raise the stakes.” The idea being that the extremity of potential consequences directly determines a drama’s narrative torque. Judging by this earnest but desultory, Bad Seed melodrama, it’s a class playwright Ruth McKee evidently skipped. What’s at stake here is whether the disruptive, albeit never-seen 8-year-old Ugandan refugee, Daniel, will be allowed to stay at his Midwestern magnet school or whether his increasingly bizarre behavior will banish him to the “special-ed warehouse” at the city’s overcrowded and underfunded elementary school. For his altruistic, white adoptive parents, James (Matt Gaydos) and his Kenyan wife, Rachel (Analeis Lorig), the wrong outcome threatens to tarnish their reputations as caregivers. For the school’s harried principal, Tanya (the fine Angela Bullock), and Daniel’s neophyte teacher, Ms. Kennedy (the funny Jennifer Chang), it’s impossible to both teach and deal with a child who cowers under his desk and barks (and bites!) like a rabid dog. As a therapist is brought in (Eileen Galindo) and battle lines are drawn, there’s a tantalizing moment when the characters’ emerging emotional insecurities, personal prejudices and cultural misunderstandings seem poised to give flight to a caustic comedy of errors. That this more satisfying trajectory never lifts off is no fault of director Larissa Kokernot’s brisk staging or of her polished ensemble but rather the timidity and pallid plotting of McKee’s surface-bound text. Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through November 22. (800) 838-3006, thedahlia.com (Bill Raden)

GO  WONDER OF THE WORLD Contemporary American farce has a hero in playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who skews old-fashioned 2-D absurdity by surreptitiously adding depth to initially shallow characters. Elizabeth Bond’s brilliant, comi-tragic performance embodies Cass — a wife who suddenly leaves her 7-year marriage after discovering a grotesque secret about her otherwise dull husband, Kip (Ian Vogt). She follows her list of adventures she wants to experience, which takes her to Niagra Falls, and a cast of oddballs, who slowly turn into a strange new family. Chief among these is Lois (Kimberly Van Luin) a drunken divorcée determined to end her life by riding a barrel over the falls. Director Neil Wilson skillfully attends to each new piece of foolishness, sustaining the intensity of performances even as the comedy cuts through. Of special interest is Jen Ray, who plays several absurd caricatures with conviction. Act 1 produces some of the most honest laughs this reviewer has experienced in years. The second act doesn’t quite live up to the hilarity and emotional charge promised by the first, but at least it offers a satisfying conclusion — and an obligatory adventure scene. The script demands several distinct settings, and designer Damon Fortier provides them with skill and wit. Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through November 15. (818) 841-5422 or SeaGlasstheatre.org. A SeaGlass Theatre Company production. (Tom Provenzano)