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Theater Reviews: Mercury Fur, Breaking the Code, A Grand Guignol Cabaret

ALWAYS AND FOREVER It’s easy to see what drew playwright-director Michael Patrick Spillers to write this painfully precious if somewhat flat tribute to Mexican-American culture. That’s because the only times Spillers’ otherwise soporific, magical-realism soap opera springs to life are when it touches on the subjects closest to the playwright’s heart: Mexico’s folkloric cult of the “narco saint,” Jesús Malverde, patron saint of drug traffickers, and the narcocorridos, the heroic ballads that celebrate the traffickers’ exploits. Though admittedly fascinating cultural artifacts, they are but footnotes to the tale Spillers intends to carry the dramatic load. That story concerns the rebellious 15-year-old, Alma (Dalia Perla), who is forced by her controlling, older sister Celia (Michelle Castillo) on a journey from Norwalk to Tijuana to join their extended family for the traditional fitting of Alma’s quinceañera gown. Alma, who is much more interested in meeting heartthrob corridista singer Adán Sánchez, conjures the mischievous spirit of Malverde (Arturo Medina) to aid in her quest. Once south of the border, the group is joined by Nardo (Ezequiel Guerra), a narcoleptic proselytizer for corridos, but it is the news of Sánchez’s fatal car accident that finally reconciles Alma to her quinceañera and magically resolves the play’s other half-dozen subplots. Not surprisingly, it is the footnotes — and funny turns by Medina and Guerra — that steal the show in this otherwise indifferently staged production. Casa 0101, 2009 E. First St., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through June 14. (323) 263-7684. (Bill Raden)

 

GO  BREAKING THE CODE Brilliant, eccentric mathematician Alan Turing (Sam R. Ross) did vital work for British intelligence during World War II, breaking the Nazi Enigma Code, which saved thousands of Allied lives, and materially helped defeat the Axis powers. But because his efforts were top secret, he received only posthumous public recognition. (Later, building on his work on the code machines, he pioneered the modern computer.) But as playwright Hugh Whitemore observes here, he broke other codes as well: moral, legal, professional and personal, including the homosexual’s 20th-century code of silence. Gay, guileless, awkward, ruthlessly honest and socially inept, he was often oblivious of his effect on others. When a sexual encounter with a bit of rough trade (Adam Burch) led to a police investigation, he rashly admitted to the inspector (Armand DesHarnais) that he had sexual relations with the young man. He found himself, like Oscar Wilde, prosecuted for “gross indecency,” his life and career wrecked. Writer Whitemore and actor Ross provide an eloquent, touching, richly detailed portrait of Turing, and director Robert Mammana has assembled a fine supporting cast, including Sarah Lilly as Turing’s garrulous, loving mother, and David Ross Patterson as a hilarious dim-bulb bureaucrat. The Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Boulevard, North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 20. www.­theprodco.com or (800) 838-3006. The Production Company (Neal Weaver)

 

A GRAND GUIGNOL CABARET Evoking the raucous, freeform ambiance and style of a 1920s underground Berlin cabaret, director Amanda Haney’s show scores big on variety, less so on quality. Hosted by the charming, garrulous Gunter (Carlos Peñaranda), the evening opens with a lukewarm ditty called “When the Special Girlfriend,” followed by a riotously funny “chair dance,” salaciously performed by the female members of the ensemble to the music of Wagner’s Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) which concludes with the gals spouting water from their mouths like fountain sculptures. Such visual engagement is the cabaret’s strength, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Forster. Peñaranda’s turn as a drag queen and his German-accented rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” cum overalls and straw hat, don’t cut it. Two short plays are also on the bill. Haney, Dani O’Terry and Forster created “The Little House in Friedrichstadt,” a delightful grotesquerie artfully rendered in mime, which tells of fiendish, bloody goings-on in a brothel. Eddie Muller’s “Orgy in the Lighthouse,” adapted from Alfred Marchand’s play, is about two brothers who entertain a pair of whores on a holy day; this version is painfully insipid. Sunset Gardner Stages, 1501 N. Gardner St., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m.; through June 28. www.brownpapertickets.com or www.legrandguignolkabaret.com (Lovell Estell III)

 

GROUNDLINGS ENCHANTED FOREST This well-executed evening of comedy consists of a random collection of skits by company member Laird Macintosh and various co-writers. In “One-Fifth Is All You Need,” a man (Steve Little) who believes himself to be of Irish extraction lands in Native-American heaven, where he discovers he’s one-fifth Native-American and immediately acquires skills in weaving, archery and hand-to-hand combat. In the predictable but nicely performed “Be Grateful for the Good Times,” a couple (Macintosh and Wendi McLendon-Covey) on the cusp of an amiable divorce end up at each other’s throats, while a mollycoddling divorce counselor (Ben Falcone) tries to mediate. “Soft Butt Firm” finds Melissa McCarthy on-target as a sugar-tongued huckster of her recently acquired product — a superabsorbent toilet paper. An alcoholic Dad (Little), drunk and abusive at a Thanksgiving get-together, is urged by one and all to hit the road, in “Giving Thanks.” Directed by Roy Jenkins, the ensemble proves uniformly adept; while the material is generally amiable and entertaining, none of the segments delivers a knockout comedic punch. Groundling Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; through July 18. (323) 934-9700. (Deborah Klugman)

 

 

GO  MADNESS IN VALENCIA We get a look-in on Spain’s Golden Age via playwright-poet Lope de Vega’s 1590 farce about love and lunacy, in David Johnston’s pleasing and somewhat audacious 1998 translation. (Johnston’s version adds a second, alternate ending.) Across the English Channel at around the same time de Vega and Calderon were fusing dreams and life in their writings, Shakespeare was toying with similar ideas in both The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Madness, however, we get no magic potions concocted by the sprites in order to fool mortals into believing they’re donkeys, or “enamored of an ass.” De Vega worked from the presumption that people are either mad, or pretend to be so, without any medicinal help. Floriano (Michael Holmes) arrives in the woods around Valencia in a panic that, for the love of a woman, he’s murdered a local prince. He confesses this fear to a young beauty, Erifila (Vivian Kerr) — a trusting confession, to say the least. Erifila took a servant as she fled from her father and his plans to bind her in an arranged marriage. (The servant strands her in the woods after robbing her of her jewelry and outer garments.) To escape notice, Erifila and Floriano secret themselves in the safest place around — Valencia’s famed mental asylum — where the pair pretend to be nuts, and where the play’s enveloping metaphor for society, and for lovers, takes root. There’s an amiable goofiness in Suzanne Karpinski’s staging of her 13-member ensemble, and this is the right company to pull off a show so influenced by the Italian commedia clowning of the 15th century. Holmes’ Floriano has a hangdog charm that makes him both a persuasive leading man and the idiot savant, depending on whom he’s trying to fool, while Kerr possesses a vivacious esprit that spins, when needed, into the requisite arrogance that accompanies sanctimonious betrayal. Kurt Boetcher’s set relies heavily on burlap and cloth drapery to symbolize the woods, in hues of green and purple. And though Karpinski’s tone is a bit languid at the start, the play’s tangles of attraction, and the accompanying pangs of jealousy, grow increasingly absorbing. For all the technical details and the abundant merits of Karpinski’s production, one does have the feeling that the play has been more staged than interpreted. The canvas on which the work unfolds contains few striking visual motifs that offer an urgent idea of why this play is being performed — beyond the obvious explanation that a few people sort of liked it. As such, it’s a delightful museum piece that could be much more, with a greater breadth of vision. Terrific performances also by Laura Napoli, Juliette Angeli, Brandon Clark and Paul Byrne, among others. Sacred Fools Theatre, Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (added perf Sun., June 28, 2 p.m.); through June 28. (310) 281-8337. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

GO  MERCURY FUR A cross between A Clockwork Orange and the plays of Sarah Kane, British playwright Philip Ridley’s controversial drama, set in a dystopian London under siege, follows a group of young men desperate to survive. Elliot (Edward Tournier) and his brother Darren (Andrew Perez) clean up an abandoned apartment to prepare for a party organized by their friend and gang leader Spinx (Greg Beam). They are assisted by Naz (Jason Karasev), a friend who happens to live in the building, and their drag queen friend Lola (Jeff Torres), who arrives with a costume for the Party Piece (Ryan Hodge), a barely-conscious “Paki” boy who becomes the center of attention. Once Spinx finally arrives, along with the Duchess (Nina Sallinen), final preparations are made for the Party Guest (Kelly Van Kirk), who will be their salvation from this hellhole. But as the party starts, things go awry in a series of twisted, violent events. Like the songs of the British trance band Prodigy, one of which plays during the final scene, the drama’s layers slowly unfold, culminating in an apocalyptic climax that is foreshadowed, yet nonetheless blows you away with its brutality and horror. Dado’s direction brings out the intensity of her actors, who throw themselves headlong into this nightmarish world and reveal their characters to be at once gritty, reprehensible, funny and pitiable. I left the theater disturbed and affected, which, after all, is the point. Imagined Life Theatere, 5615 San Vicente Blvd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; through June 28. (800) 838-3006. BrownPaperTickets.com. A Needtheater production (Mayank Keshaviah)

 

 

OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS Joe DiPietro’s oft-produced farce about Italian-American family life depends on a few minutes of soppy sentimentality to balance out two hours of caricature. For 29-year-old Nick (Ren Bell), every Sunday night is spent in Hoboken having dinner with both sets of grandparents — four nearly imbecilic characters who fuss and rant but never listen to their grandson, who, in turn, constantly yells at them. When Nick tells them he is moving to Seattle for a big promotion, the old folks move into overdrive to stop him — their big weapon: a blind date with the lovely Caitlin (sweetly played by Alyse Courtney). She shames him for his mistreatment of the grands, which leads to enough household calm to explore some deeper emotions and finally tones the hollering down for the characters to find resolution. The writing is quite funny in its Everybody Loves Raymond style, and the over-the-top performances by Irene Chapman, Klair Bybee, Michele Bernath and director Larry Eisenberg (filling in on a Sunday matinee) garnered constant laughs from an appreciative audience. While the script alternates between bombastic and cloying, Eisenberg keeps his actors fully committed to each moment. Chris Winfield’s very naturalistic suburban living room set also helps keeps the cast grounded in some reality. Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 27. (818) 700-4878. (Tom Provenzano)

 

RED, HOT AND BLUE! Director-choreographer Joe Joyce tries to blow the dust off Cole Porter’s antiquated musical but does so with mixed success. Porter’s music and lyrics can’t be faulted other than they have little to do with Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s antediluvian book, grafted onto a musical comedy. The very thin plot line concerns “Nails” O’Reily Dusqusque (Allyson Turner) auctioning off the true love of her life, Bob Hale (Kyle Nudo). These two are fine, but some of the minor roles are grating. Richard Horvitz (channeling Joe Pesci) plays the comic foil way over the top. Worse though is Sandra Purpuro as Peaches, who strives for a Betty Boop voice and achieves something more akin to nails scratching a chalkboard. Choreographer Joyce does what he can on a postage stamp–size stage. Whitefire Theater, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through July 5. (800) 838-3006. By George Productions (Sandra Ross)

 

THE STICKING PLACE As Shakespeare drafted Macbeth, he thought, “This is solid stuff — but what if I set it in a swimming pool?” Or not. But director Chris Covics has gone ahead and set it in one anyway for the sole purpose of paralleling Macbeth’s doom to the pool’s water level. As the thane’s guilt rises, the water surges from the floor and rains down overhead on the four-female ensemble (Brittany Slattery, Angela Stern, Erica Stone and Amy Tzagournis), whose white robes tangle and drag with the wet weight. For a few minutes, it’s chillingly effective. The ladies enter blindfolded, fumbling their way like primordial lizards in a cave, as though Covics is prodding us to think about the Macbeth’s drive to survive and the centuries we’ve spent reliving their fate. But the miserablist new setting has consequences: drains that gurgle over speeches, distracting fears for the actors’ safety, and worst of all, the director’s reliance on his gimmick to compensate for the complete mess he’s made of Shakespeare’s play. It’s impossible to follow. Not just because the actors trade off roles fluidly in midspeech but because they haven’t been directed to articulate the lines in either pronunciation or performance. Happy, scared, female, male, Banquo or Lady M, everything is delivered in a fearful psychotic squeal. At best, it’s a Macbeth tone poem — an unpleasant one for audience and actor alike. Or rather, since the 60-minute production closes with the “Tomorrow” speech, Covics has deliberately made the end-all of nouveau-nonsense Shakespeare adaptations, sending us out of the theater with “signifying nothing” ringing in our heads as a lesson to the cockeyed creatives. Unknown Theater, 1110 N. Seward St., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through June 27. (323) 466-7781. (Amy Nicholson)


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