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Theater Reviews: Land of the Tigers, The Projectionist

Land of the Tigers
Jon Beauregard

GO  CAPTAIN DAN DIXON VERSUS THE MOTH SLUTS FROM THE FIFTH DIMENSION “You are powerful women — you don’t have to use sex as a weapon!” pleads the mutant-brained Dr. Canigulus (Denise Devin) to the alien Vulvulans (“Moth Sluts,” for short), who have invaded the Magellan spaceship. The Magellan has a conservative crew; onboard is a priest (Christopher Aguilar) who prays that their quest serves God’s will. Still, Captain Dan Dixon (Matthew Skylar) and the rest of his men can’t resist the Vulvulans — green, pasties-clad go-go dancers with pneumatic exoskeletons. Led by Empress Syphla (Amanda Marquardt) with the pint-sized Luna (Jonica Patella) as her brute muscle, the ladies quickly hypnotize the crew but for what villainous purpose? Playwright Skylar and director Zombie Joe know the heart of their show beats near Syphla’s gyrating curves, but they’ve generously gone on and given us a show with sharp comic timing and even a half-serious philosophical theme. Though the Vulvulans are technically pestilence, if they look and act like people, would the preemptive extermination Dr. Canigulus demands be genocide? Sure, this is more entertainment than theater, but Zombie Joe and his nonexistent sets always remind me of what I love best about L.A.’s small stages: the scrappy fun of putting up a great show with just a couple costumes and imagination. ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri., 8:30 p.m., Sat., 10:30 p.m.; through April 4. (818) 202-4120. (Amy Nicholson)

CLOWN SHOW FOR BRUNO Prolific playwright Murray Mednick’s latest work is inspired by the life and death of the gifted Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz. A Polish Jew, Schulz eluded the Nazi death camps after becoming the enslaved protégée of a Gestapo officer named Felix Landau. In a cruel twist, Schulz was murdered in 1942 by another Nazi officer after Landau killed the rival’s Jewish dentist. (It’s a “he-killed-my-Jew-so-I’ll-kill-his” scenario.) Touching only obliquely on the actual events, Mednick’s nonlinear play unfolds, quite literally, as a tale told by clowns (Daniel Stein, Bill Celentano and Dana Wieluns, alternating with Kali Quinn). These Harlequins are not your lovable circus types but malevolent jokesters. Eventually the braying trio leaves off taking digs at each other and commences to enact Bruno’s story, using masks in their representations of the artist’s parents and lovers. In many of these scenes, Bruno (Stein) is portrayed as a pathetic wretch, nagged at by his mother and humiliated by the women he desires. Indifferent to its historical elements, the play aims at projecting a broader existential vision: a pitiless world dominated by sadists and fools. Directed by Guy Zimmerman, the stylized performances are skilled but strident and without much texture or affect. There’s no place to put one’s empathy — which may be this surly piece’s bleak and futile message. Art Share Los Angeles, 801 E. Fourth Place, L.A.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru April 18, www.paduaplaywrights.net. (213) 625-1766. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  THE DEVIL WITH BOOBS Director Tom Quaintance and his cast work theatrical magic with this superb staging of Dario Fo’s bawdy satire (in a finely tuned translation by Jon Laskin). Fo is as much a prankster and polemicist as he is a playwright. The action takes place in a town in Northern Italy, where fraud, corruption and vice run amok. However, the staunchly upright Judge Alfonso de Tristano (Michael Winters) is a light amidst the darkness, a man so pure he recoils at the sight of a pair of tits. This situation is intolerable to Master Devil Francipante (the stellar and dangerously funny Phillip William Brock) and his apprentice (Herschel Sparber), so they conspire to possess the judge’s body and spirit. Unfortunately, the plan backfires and the judge’s buxom housekeeper (Katherine Griffith) winds up playing host to the Devil, which causes an eruption of comedy, naughty bits and mayhem. Quaintance provides fluid, intelligent direction, but the cast is flawlessly funny. Even the musical ditties scattered throughout are nicely done (one such number by Brock had me laughing so hard I thought I’d pass out). Cristina Wright’s period costumes and puppets are a riot, and Adam Rowe’s set piece (composed almost exclusively of doors) adds just the right touch. Open Fist Theater, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m, Sun. 3 p.m. through May 16. (323) 882- 6912. (Lovell Estell III)

GO  GOLDFISH is the central metaphor in John Kolvenbach’s eloquently written drama about a pair of college students trying to break free of dependent parents. The deepest flaw in the playwriting is that the characters understand and are too articulate about their life problems. This is particularly true of Leo (Conor O’Farrell), a ne’r-do-well gambler who waxes poetically about his dissolute life and his introverted son Albert (Tasso Feldman) — Leo being the Goldfish who would eat himself to death without his child setting proper controls on feeding. Albert carefully engineers his escape from privation to attend an Ivy League school. His shyness allows him to constantly study undisturbed until he captures the attention of beautiful but unstable coed, Lucy (Kate Rylie), who pulls him into a joyous romance. Enter Margaret (Joan McMurtrey) — rich, stately, beautiful and alcoholic, whose corrosive humor usually hides her pain but not her adoration for her daughter Lucy. While all the performances are excellent, McMurtrey’s possesses the grandeur of Marian Seldes. Director Loretta Greco honors the script with a high-velocity production that keeps the audience riveted. Stark but realistic moving set pieces by Myung Hee Cho are aided by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting and Michael Hooker’s sound — all propelling the story without calling attention to themselves. South Coast Repertory 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Tues.-Fri.; 7:45 p.m.; Sat.Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m.; through April 5. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org . (Tom Provenzano)

 

THEATER PICK  LAND OF THE TIGERS Act 1 of the Burglars of Hamm’s hilarious and thought-provoking comedy, Land of the Tigers, outlandishly crosses Cats with Planet of the Apes. In a whimsical world where felines walk upright and speak English (but thankfully don’t caterwaul “Memory”), a veritable Kingdom of Tigers prance around in feathered wigs and topcoats, while debating important matters (to cats, anyway) in the Tigressional Congress. Amongst this group, the great warrior Sabertooth (Hugo Armstrong) goes into lustful cat heat for sultry she-tiger Sheba (Devin Sidell), which outrages Sheba’s fierce brother Fang Stalkington (Tim Sheridan), who has already fathered several litters with the young beauty. Full of bizarre cat-mating dances, and scenes in which characters shift instantly from conversing to snarling Tiger-style, the Burglars’ comedy is staged by Matt Almos with acrobatic dexterity and perfect comic timing. The reasons for slight touches of campiness become evident in Act 2, however, which follows the cast of dimwitted and absurdly self important actors as they are increasingly brainwashed by their tyrannical, ego-tripping director (a fabulous Michael Livingston, whose eyes glitter with madness). Although the concept possesses slight echoes of Noises Off, the Burglars cunningly explore a different avenue, elegantly satirizing the sense of collective delusion that frequently befalls performers in a mediocre show. The acting work is sprightly, and it’s delightful how the bumbling tiger actors of Act 1 are subsequently revealed as the optimistic, dedicated, yet benighted ensemble of Act 2. The end result, more than calculatedly dippy comedy about cats, is an often compelling meditation on the creation of theater itself, and how the audience will never glimpse the many dramas within a play’s production. Sacred Fools theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8, p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through May 3. (310) 281-8337. A Burglars of Hamm, Sacred Fools Co-Production. (Paul Birchall)

GO  THE LETTERS in John W. Lowell’s new two-character drama refer to the explicitly lascivious correspondence of a musician in Soviet Russia, which The Director of the Ministry of Information (Norman Shaw) is trying to locate. It takes a short while for us to realize this, because at the outset, it appears that the Director has called in his subordinate, Anna (Julie Fletcher), for a promotion, which — knowing the corpse-strewn wasteland of the Soviet bureaucracy — she’s reluctant to accept. But The Director will hear none of her protestations (“We’re not interested in what you want”), and soon the widow finds herself entrapped by defending a colleague/lover who’s implicated in a breach of security by the gossip of an alcoholic bureaucrat whose dubious words The Director now takes as gospel — or at least pretends to. Lowell’s cat-and-mouse game of paranoia and entrapment is old stuff, and, under Anne McNaughton’s staging, it unfolds at a pace a little too measured for a new play in 2009, even as Anna transforms nicely from servility to defiance. The world of the play is rendered with such verisimilitude, with Dean Cameron’s costumes, and his set that features none-too-subtle portraits of Lenin and Stalin gazing down upon the action, that one is inclined to heave a sigh of relief that we’re not in Soviet Russia, though I very much doubt this is Lowell’s point. There are two small keys to the lockbox of this play’s meaning: One is The Director’s insistence that the alcoholic witness’ testimony is reliable, despite the appalling lack of corroborating evidence. This is the embodiment of the nastiest aspect of despotism: an “investigation” fueled by a foregone conclusion, which in the recent past has been every bit as American as it was Soviet. The other key is the power of accusation embedded in gossip — the “truth” lies in the accusation rather than the investigation. These are eternal, universal verities that lead directly to the horrors of tyranny. The quality, the detail and the nuance of both performances is among this production’s strengths. Both roles are filled with torrents of language that’s not so easy to render plausibly, and yet both Shaw and Fletcher accomplish just that. NewPlace Studio Theatre, 10950 Peach Grove St., North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 19. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

LITTLE WOMEN — THE MUSICAL A feminist critic once observed that Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel was told from the point of view of the jailers, not the inmates. In less loaded language, it represented the values of the parents, not the children. This was often the price of writing in the 19th century, which required edifying morals in its stories. Yet Alcott was able to inject enough reality in her tale to make it memorable. This version, however, adapted by Allan Knee, with songs by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein, hews strictly to the musical-comedy formula, rendering it genteel and predictable. Every song delivers precisely what we expect, which tends to bore. One wishes they’d stop singing and get on with the story. Still, this rendition is sometimes superior to the Broadway production: It’s more emotionally coherent and touching, if less handsomely designed. Director Thomas Colby serves the piece faithfully, and the performances are generally good. Cassandra Marie Nuss’s Jo is overly brassy but serviceable, Kaitlyn Casanova deftly manages Amy’s transition from bratty child to beautiful woman, and Bonnie Snyder restores the pepper to irascible Aunt March. As for the rest, what they really need is sharper, less sentimental material. Lyric Theatre, 520 North La Brea Ave., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through April 26. (323) 939-9220. (Neal Weaver)

GO  THE PRODIGAL FATHER Those worried that Larry Dean Harris’ breezy drama about a gay playwright and his bigoted, Alzheimer’s-addled father might have something to do with terminal brain disease can rest easy. The soul-destroying illness is little more than the thinnest of medical MacGuffins in a story whose true subject is the sometimes-paradoxical ways in which codes of masculinity are transmitted and reified in male bonds. For Bible Belt–bred stage scribe Jamey Sanders (Allain Rochel), that means the same hypermacho traits so reviled in Earl (Max Gail), Jamey’s estranged, Korean War–veteran bear of a father, are precisely what attracts him to Nick (Joe Rose), his older, construction-worker bear of a lover. When the memory-challenged Earl unexpectedly flees his Tennessee convalescent home and lands on the gay couple’s Chicago doorstep, Jamey must resolve long-deferred Oedipal issues if he is to both hold onto Nick and effect the story’s bizarre reconciliation while Earl still has half a mind. Along the way, Harris offers the unseemly narrative novelty of employing Earl’s spells of dementia as dramatic flashbacks to some metaphorically murky coon hunts from Jamey’s childhood. Nevertheless, brisk direction by Michael Matthews and strong performances from a veteran cast (Josette DiCarlo is particularly fine doubling as the boys’ flamboyantly flirty friend and Jamey’s deceased mother) make it an entertaining ride. Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through April 26. (323) 957-1884. (Bill Raden)

GO  THE PROJECTIONIST is the tightest play by Michael Sargent I’ve seen, and this structural discipline really allows his keen observations and piercing wit to come blazing through. Designer Chris Covics has transformed the lobby of the Kirk Douglas Theater into the lobby of the dilapidated Art Movie Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in 1983 (the Douglas’ ante-lobby becomes the movie-house’s projection room). We’re perched on bleachers, spying not only on the end of an era for a B-movie “art” house but also the end of hope for the young projectionist, Randy Shaw. Hamish Linklater is just superb as the twitchy, flinching, bewildered drug addict whose UCLA grad-school filmmaking ambitions lie discarded with all the used pop-corn buckets and candy wrappers. In the body of his work, Sargent turns the abject failure of his central characters into high art, and Randy’s failure embeds itself into the play with the arrival of his grad-school peer Ian (Christian Leffler), who’s just swinging by this seventh level of Hell — which Randy pretty much runs entirely by himself — to see a flick. When Ian offers Randy a job, the scene is the punk equivalent from Death of a Salesman, when Willy Loman’s next door neighbor, Charlie, offers the unemployed salesman a lifeline, and he, too, snubs his would-be savior — only Willy is more polite about it. A hint of romanticism walks in the door with the arrival of young Kim Refro (Brittany Slattery) looking for a job — “I feel like the bait in a zombie movie.” Kim obviously takes a shine to the awkward young manager, though he’s not technically the manager. The real manager (Barry Del Sherman) hasn’t shown up for a week; and when he does, it’s with a knife and floozy (Tara Chocol Joyce) in tow, along with aspirations of armed robbery. There are very strong suggestions that the Art Theater is actually part of a Russian Mafia porn operation, and Randy’s moment in impetuous, addiction-inspired glory in the midst of a gun battle seals Sargent’s Oscar Wilde–ish view on the possibilities of human redemption. Grand performances also by Lauren Campedelli, Hugh Dane, Don Oscar Smith and Maynor Alvarado. Bart DeLorenzo’s atmospheric staging is spot-on, as are Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes, Anne Militello’s lighting and John Ballinger’s sound design, all of which combine to cement a past that you can’t run fast enough from. It’s a weird combination, leaving the theater with a grin on your face while also feeling the strong need to take a shower. Douglas Plus at the Kirk Douglas Theater, call for schedule; through April 4. (213) 638-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris)


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