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Theater Reviews: Photograph 51, Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara, Ghosts

Photograph 51
Ed Krieger

DID YOU DO YOUR HOMEWORK? Writer-performer Aaron Braxton has passion and talent — both amply evident in this promising work in progress about the difficulties of teaching in the urban classroom. A 13-year veteran with L.A. Unified, Braxton builds his piece around his early experience as a substitute teacher filling in for an old-timer — 33 years on the job — who one day ups and quits. A gift for mimicry brings the performer’s characters into clear comic focus: himself as the beleaguered Mr. Braxton, several colorful problem students, their even more colorful and problematic parents and another staff member — a well-meaning elderly bureaucrat in charge of the school’s counterproductive testing program.

At times Braxton steps away from dramatizing the action to speak to the audience directly about the frustrations of trying to make a difference, contrasting his own upbringing as the son of a teacher, taught to respect education, with the imperviously disdainful attitude of his pupils. He also sings four songs, displaying a beautiful voice. The piece’s main problem is its disjointedness and discontinuity; the songs, reflective of Braxton’s message, are only tenuously connected to the narrative, itself a patchwork collection of anecdotes juxtaposed against addresses to the audience. This gives the show a hybrid feel — part performance, part moral exposition, part musical showcase. Yet there is plenty of power and potential here. Kathleen Rubin directs. Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through April 18. (310) 358-9936. (Deborah Klugman)

 

GO  GHOSTS There’s nothing supernatural about Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 drama: His ghosts are our own bitter memories and the old, dead ideas that continue to confine and stifle us. The form and the language may be dated, but the issues are as fresh as ever. Mrs. Alving (Deborah Strang) has crucified herself in the service of duty and respectability that narrow provincial society and her own hypocritical minister, Pastor Manders (Joel Swetow), have drilled into her. But her efforts to do the right thing have backfired because they were based on lies, and her attempts to shield her son (J. Todd Adams) from hard truths have almost destroyed him. Ibsen has structured his play like Oedipus Rex — or a modern whodunit. On a seemingly ordinary day, inconvenient truths keep emerging, inexorably, till everything and everyone are morally compromised or destroyed. Director-adapter Michael Murray has assembled a fine cast (including Mark Bramhall and understudy Rebecca Mozo); he calibrates their performances with precision and reveals a sharp eye for Ibsen’s dark comedy. If one wanted to quibble, one might wish the last scene had been played for a bit less melodrama, but overall, it’s a terrific, coherent and always engrossing production. Nikki Delhomme provided the fine costumes. A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd., Glendale; in alternating rep through May 9; call for schedule. (818) 240-0910. (Neal Weaver)

 

JUMPING THE MEDIAN: AN EVENING OF 4 UNEXPECTED ONE ACTS Playwright Steve Connell’s collection of four one-act plays may bill itself as “unexpected,” but for the most part, the vignettes are sadly prosaic, mining familiar romantic tropes and themes. Strongest of the set is the promisingly stark “Us And Them,” in which a bubbly young couple (Tyler Moore and Sara Sido) move into their new home, which was previously owned by a miserable, older couple (In-Q and Elizabeth Maxwell). Imaginatively staged by co-directors Connell and Emily Weisberg, the set is divided into two quadrants, showing both couples in the same house at different times — and the piece artfully hints at the haunting (if not necessarily logical) idea that the young loving couple must inevitably turn into the older, miserable couple.

Sadly, the other vignettes do not rise to the same emotionally nuanced level. “Jumping the Median” is a plodding, overwritten opus about the long, long, long courtship of a young couple (Ida Darvish and Connell), who endlessly woo each other at that hoariest of one-act play locales, the iconic park bench. In “Love Thy Neighbors,” whose choppy dialogue and clumsily cartoonish tone has the sloppy and random feel of having been written in haste, a suburban mom (Sara Sido) welcomes the neighbors for dinner — and the neighbors somewhat inexplicably turn out to be literal characters out of ancient Greek drama. Connell is a slam poet of some national reputation, so it’s natural that he and Weisberg’s crisp staging has a dark, streetwise edge. It’s just a pity the writing itself devolves so frequently into dull cliché. The Other Space at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth Street, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 19. www.plays411.com/­jumpingthemedian. (Paul Birchall)

 

GO  LOUIS & KEELY: LIVE AT THE SAHARA I haven’t seen this musical study of ’50s lounge-act crooners Louis Prima and Keely Smith since its transcendent premiere at Sacred Fools Theatre last year, and oh, is it different. Documentary- and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Taylor Hackford has been busy misguiding writer-performers Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith’s musical. Taylor took over from director Jeremy Aldridge, who brought it to life in East Hollywood. Smith and Broder have drafted an entirely new book, added onstage characters — including Frank Sinatra (Nick Cagle), who, along with Broder and Smith, croons a ditty. (As though Cagle can compete with Sinatra’s voice, so embedded is it into the pop culture.) They’ve also added Prima’s mother (Erin Matthews) and other people who populated the pair’s lives.

 

The result is just a little heartbreaking: The essence of what made it so rare at Sacred Fools has been revamped and muddied into a comparatively generic bio musical, like Stormy Weather (about Lena Horne) or Ella (about Ella Fitzgerald). It used to be so much more, because it was so much less. What was a kind of musical poem is now an explanation. What was mysterious is now explicit, not only in the play but in slide projections. What made this musical so rare was the simplicity of its premise: Prima, a lounge-act singer whose act is dying, brings in a 16-year-old, Smith, to save his act. She falls for him; he tortures her by rebuffing her romantically and exploiting her offstage passions onstage. After they eventually marry, her talent overshadows his, and the offstage jealousy and hostility energize the stage act.

Prima’s yearning for fame leaves him exiled and in a coma, where the play begins and ends. This entire story was channeled through the two characters and the onstage band. Every song, from “Basin Street Blues” to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” was a manifestation of either Prima’s quest for immortality or the jealousies occurring in their partnership. The music met the textbook definition of how songs are supposed to serve a musical, to express what can’t be said in life. But if Frank Sinatra grabs the stage to croon a song that comments on their marriage, or Prima’s mother stands ironing stage left, that rarefied bubble is shattered. There was one riveting scene in which young Keely Smith approached one of the musicians for comfort — sliding precariously down the slope of betrayal. That scene, an illustration of how a story could be told within the strict confines of a tightly constructed world, is gone, but so is that world.

Hackford clearly never understood or appreciated the pristine theatricality of what Broder, Smith and Aldridge had carved. The play’s core and tone have been diminished by the cinematic expanse of a documentary, rife with psychological theories and the gratuitous appearance of (and scenes with) other characters. Add to that a tonal shift: The musical’s original heart of darkness has been sprayed over by a larger proportion of upbeat numbers replacing some of the reflective ballads. Gone are “Tenderly/Can’t help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

The good news is the terrific musicianship, the musical direction originally by Dennis Kaye and now shared by Broder and Paul Litteral, remain as sharp as ever, as are the title performances. Broder’s lunatic edge and Bobby Darin singing style has huge appeal, while Vanessa Claire Smith has grown ever more comfortable in the guise and vocal stylings of Keely Smith. It was the music that originally sold this show, and it should continue to do so. With luck, perhaps Broder and Smith haven’t thrown out their original script. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 3:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; through April 26. (310) 208-54545. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

THEATER PICK  PHOTOGRAPH 51 This West Coast premiere of Anna Ziegler’s powerful yet subtle play ­Photograph 51, concerns Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who was instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Set against Travis Gale Lewis’ cleverly accretive set and illuminated by Kathi O’Donohue’s complex and variegated lighting, the play takes us into a seminal period in biophysics. No sooner are we introduced to Rosalind (Aria Alpert), her colleague Dr. Wilkins (Daniel Billet), and her graduate assistant, Maurice Gosling (Graham Norris), than Rosalind declares in no uncertain terms, “Dr. Wilkins, I don’t do jokes. I do science.” Her confidence and professionalism lead to an uncomfortable friction with Wilkins and the rest of the chauvinistic male scientific establishment, including Watson (Ian Gould) and Crick (Kerby Joe Grubb), who are simultaneously in search of the genetic blueprint.

While Rosalind remains the consummate professional, even cold at times, she does reveal slivers of her inner life through correspondence with American scientist Don Casper (Ross Hellwig). As each side gets closer to the genetic blueprint, one of ­Rosalind’s photographs ends up becoming crucial to unlocking the mystery. Director Simon Levy efficiently orchestrates the manipulation of time and space, turning vast leaps into imperceptible segues, and inspiring powerful performances from his actors. The entire cast sparkles behind Alpert, whose portrayal of Rosalind’s ruthless efficiency, biting wit and deep pain is a tour de force that brings to mind Meryl Streep’s take on Anna Wintour. This tribute to a woman who helped to crack the Pyrex ceiling reminds us of the need to reexamine “his”tory and should not be missed. The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 3. (323) 663-1525. (Mayank Keshaviah)

 

 

GO  THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES The central character in Molière’s comedy, here translated and adapted by Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe, could be and often is a punching bag. But not here. Arnolphe is another in a stream of Molière’s aging, patronizing nitwits (like Orgon in Tartuffe), who presume that they can control the devotions and passions of young women in their care. In Tartuffe, when Orgon’s daughter protests his insistence that she break her wedding plans to her beloved suitor in order to marry the clergyman he prefers, Orgon figures her rebellion is just a impetuous, childlike phase. In The School for Wives, there’s a similar mindset to Arnolphe (Bo Roberts), who has tried to sculpt his young ward, Agnes (Jessica Madison), into his future wife. He’s known her since she was 4, and he’s strategically kept her closeted, as though in a convent, hoping thereby to shape her obedience and gratitude. Just as he’s about to wed her, in stumbles young Horace (Dave Mack) from the street below her window, and the youthful pair are smitten with each other, soon conniving against the old bachelor. Horace, not realizing that Arnolphe is the man keeping Agnes as his imprisoned ward, keeps confiding in the older man about his and Agnes’ schemes, fueling Arnolphe’s exasperation and fury. Perhaps it’s the use of director Michel’s tender, Baroque soundtracks, or the gentle understatement of Roberts’ performance as Arnolphe, but the play emerges less as a clown show and more as a wistful, almost elegiac, rumination on aging and folly. Arnolphe tried to create a brainless wife as though from a Petri dish, an object he can own, and the more she rejects him, the more enamored he becomes of her, until his heart breaks. The pathos is underscored by the obvious intelligence of Madison’s Agnes — an intelligence Arnolphe is blind to. The production’s reflective tone supersedes Michel’s very stylized, choreographic staging (this company’s trademark).

The ennui is further supported by a similarly low-key portrayal by David E. Frank as Arnolphe’s blithe friend and confidant, Chrysalde. In fact, when lisping, idiot servants (Cynthia Mance and Ken Rudnicki) keep running in circles and crashing into each other, Michel’s one attempt at Commedia physicality is at odds with the production rather than a complement to it. Company costumer Josephine Poinsot (surprising she doesn’t work more) provides luscious period vestments and gowns, and Duncombe’s delightful production design includes a gurgling fountain, a tub of white roses and abstract hints of some elegant Parisian court. City Garage, 1340½ Fourth St. (alley entrance), Santa Monica; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.; through May 31. (310) 319-9939. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

SIN, A CARDINAL DEPOSED The 2002 deposition of Cardinal Bernard Law had all the elements of great theater: small heroes, a giant villain and a troublesome morality that raised more questions than it answered. But while all the pieces are there, they still need to be shaped, and playwright Michael Murphy simply trims the transcripts and presents a fictionally synthesized laywer (Steven Culp) and his inquisition of the publicly disgraced (but Vatican-condoned) Cardinal (Joe Spano). It’s smart and interesting but wearisomely literal. This leaves director Paul Mazursky little to do but stage it as a stiff tableaux — the Catholic Church’s last ethically superior supper — centered on the deposition table. At that table, the cardinal is flanked by his lawyer (Carl Bressler) and his fictionalized opponent. Add to this trio two actors who read the letters of witnesses, truth seekers and church officials (Edita Brychta and Jack Maxwell, both great at shifting through a dozen accents) and a molestation victim (Christian Campbell), who oversees it all in silence. While the cast is quite good, all that reading from scripts adds to the inertia, leaving us restless enough to wish Murphy had dug beneath the surface and unearthed questions he only gestures toward, such as the coexistence of good and evil in priests whose six days of benevolence will never balance their afternoons of selfish harm. Hayworth Theater, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Thurs., 8 p.m.; through April 19. (323) 960-4442. (Amy Nicholson)

 

TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY There are some good ideas in Absurdist playwright Will Eno’s metaphysical satire of the vapid, spectacle-driven infotainment that is local TV news. Unfortunately, stretching what is at best a one-gag comedy sketch into 80 intermissionless minutes isn’t one of them. The pity is that it should have been a joke worth telling. When a mysterious, cosmic calamity extinguishes all starlight, including the Sun’s, and thereby plunges the Earth into perpetual darkness, a hapless and incredibly inept local news team is left grappling with how to provide live TV coverage of the biggest story in history, when there is literally nothing to see. As a deadpan studio anchor (Christopher Spencer) juggles remote feeds from field reporters Stephanie Dorian, Jeff McGinness and Paul Knox, the realization of having nothing meaningful to communicate soon takes its toll. Unable to report on the outside world, the crew’s malaprop-mangled ad libbing slowly turns inward on the terror and emptiness of their own existence. And while an able cast (Spencer and Dorian are particularly fine) nails their characters’ insipid banalities and portentous posturing, the material’s comic potential too soon evaporates. Director Eric Hamme fails to find either the rhythms or the timing needed to extend the laughs, while Gisela Valenzuela’s bleak, all-black minimalist set and an overbearing sound design by Matari 2600 only add to the crushing boredom. Garage Theatre, 251 E. Seventh St., Long Beach; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through April 18. (866) 811-4111. (Bill Raden)

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