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Theater Reviews: The Ballad of Emmett Till, Dual Citizens, The Subject Was Roses

<i>Wit</i>

PHOTO BY LINDSAY SCHNEBLYWit

THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL Shirley Jo Finney directs a vivacious five-person ensemble in Ifa Bayeza's choreopoem based on the life and death of the 14-year-old black child from Chicago, brutally murdered during a 1955 working vacation in Mississippi, for the "crime" of whistling at a white, female shopkeeper. His funeral, and the open casket demanded by his mother, became a flashpoint for the nascent civil rights movement. Despite the performances' visceral intensity, its lingering, emotionally exploitive depiction of the murder helps boils the history down to a black-and-white sketch of good versus evil. It provokes righteous self-satisfaction more than our introspection. Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 3. (323) 663-1525. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

BARBRA'S WEDDING Daniel Stern's two-character comedy takes place in the Malibu digs of Jerry and Molly Schiff (Wilson Green, Mary Beth Evans). The seemingly happily married couple's placid existence is thrown into disarray when their ordinarily quiet street is transformed into a media horror show with the pending nuptials of their neighbor Barbra Streisand. The street is choked with limos, there are scads of celebrities arriving, and the din of news copters is continual and deafening, forcing them to take refuge inside. Jerry's daily jog is interrupted; Molly wants to block out the whole riotous scene with a specially prepared meal. Before cabin fever sets in, the forced proximity engenders a verbal altercation about Jerry's need to hobnob with the stars, his failed acting career, and even the circumstances of their wedding ceremony. Clocking in at just more than an hour, the script offers some laughs but not nearly enough satire to make the show memorable — the ending drift takes on the tone of a therapy session. Brent Mason's strikingly beautiful two-tiered set piece with its immaculate kitchen is notable. John Coppola directs. Second Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 7. (866) 811-4111. A Studio C. Production (Lovell Estell III)

CALLIOPE ROSE Writer-director Bill Sterritt centers his play on Rose (Dyan Kane), the reclusive keeper of a lighthouse on an island off the coast of Maine. She's obsessed with Greek mythology and living by the Greek ideal, and convinced that the modern world is going to hell. She's visited by Jason (Chris Pauley), clad in antique Greek armor, but it's not clear if he is her long-lost husband or the mythological Argonaut Jason. Or maybe he's a hallucination. Rose's daughter Tina (Ashley Archambeau) wants to turn the lighthouse into a tourist attraction. Several ships have foundered in the vicinity, and it's rumored that the beacon goes dark in heavy weather. Tina suspects Rose of turning off the light deliberately and calls in an agent from the Department of Transportation (Rob Ullett) to investigate her mother. He's soon making love to both mother and daughter. Meanwhile long-lost husband Jason emerges from the sea, tangled in flotsam and jetsam. I found much of the performance inaudible or incomprehensible, due to the lack of projection from the actors, loud sound effects, and extensive use of distracting strobe lights. What I was able to hear sounded precious and pretentious. Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 7. Produced by SPQR Stage Company. (323) 463-3900, spqrstageco@aol.com. (Neal Weaver)

CELADINE With its contrived plot and wan humor, this piece of trivia by Charles Evered reminded me of the chick-lit historical romances I devoured when I was 10. Celadine (Giselle Wolf) is an exceptional 17th-century woman, an acclaimed playwright who once had King Charles' affections. Suffering writer's block, she now runs a coffeehouse with her garrulous friend Mary (Holly Hawkins), a former prostitute. High-spirited and unconventional — but with a dark secret, of course — Celadine cavorts with a young mute, Jeffrey (Will Barker); for laughs, they play horse (Jeffrey) and rider (Celadine), and he mends her pantaloons' seam while burrowed beneath her skirt. The play's real action jumpstarts around a smooth-talking thespian named Elliot (Michael A. Newcomber), who wants Celadine to write another play; soon after, there's an unexpected visit from the king (Larry Cedar), who assigns Celadine a dangerous espionage mission to help root out Protestant spies. The comedy might have worked had it been doused in tongue-in-cheek wit. Though Newcomber charms his way through the vapid script, the miscast Wolf is too earnest and declamatory. Hawkins and Cedar do their best, but there aren't enough clever, farcical elements for them to properly exercise their talents. Most annoying is how the abundant skills of Stephen Gifford, Luke Moyer and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg — scenic, lighting and costume designers, respectively — are frittered away on such prosaic material. Andrew Barnicle directs. Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Sun., 2 & 7p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; through March 7. colonytheatre.com. (818) 558-7000. (Deborah Klugman)

DIGGING UP DAD "If your last name ends in a vowel," explains Cris D'Annunzio in his autobiographical one-man show, you know somebody who knows somebody who rumor says might be working for the Mafia. Though he never knew if his estranged father, an alcoholic second-generation immigrant, and his pals down at the Italian-American Progressive Club were members of the Family, when Pops mysteriously dies of an apparent opium overdose, he's left a startling $250,000 in the bank, and D'Annunzio is the only one brave enough to take the cash as his inheritance. When two gat-toting goons show up to shake him down for $1,500 a week, he realizes he's more like dear old dad than he wants to admit. D'Annunzio has a hell of a hellish life story, but curiously, he rushes through the riveting details that would make it crackle to life. (After the thugs instruct him on how to make his weekly tithe, he skips straight to "Months later ... ") Director Mike Myers could help the tale's pacing and delivery, which feel forced and detached — D'Annunzio is walled off by brusque sarcasm, as though he's not entirely at ease with his frustrations. With her graveyard set lush with grass and dirt, Christine Silvoso has given D'Annunzio a great platform to make what I doubt is his final cross-examination of his relationship with his abusive father, and his Italian-Jewish roots. Ruskin Group Theater, 3000 Airport Drive, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 20. (310) 397-3244 (Amy Nicholson)

DITCH In every relationship, there are four people: the lovers themselves and their insecurities. Taylor Coffman's romantic comedy takes exes Beth (Amber Hamilton) and William (Alex Klein) and physicalizes their inner fears, casting two tough brutes (Nina Millin and Todd Veneman, both of whom are strong enough to put their alter egos in a headlock) to sabotage the couple's tentative attempts at reconciliation. When Beth is overcome with anger, Millin takes charge and berates her ex-boyfriend, who in turn ducks out and lets Veneman fight back. This play sees love the way the ancient Greeks did, as a force that operates against common sense. What works are the moments when the brutes shelter and console their charges by playing on their past hurts, insisting that they're safe only if they shut out everyone else. Though they act like bullies, in the closing scenes we're allowed (a little too late) to see their motivating protectiveness. Still, the peril is that Beth and William come across as weaklings, and as director Jon Cohn has cast young and childlike actors as his romantic leads, we're never convinced either that these two kids could or should work it out. For all its missteps into sitcom humor, this is a play with a grown-up heart, and it would benefit from a staging with maturity. Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Feb. 28, plays411.com/ditch. (323) 960-7787. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  DUAL CITIZENS What a difference a continent makes. I saw Anna Skubik's "Broken Nails" last year in Wroclaw, Poland, where a dim, suspended lightbulb and a stark pool of light (lighting by Anna Cecelia Martin) are just part of the Grotowskian theatrical landscape. Despite the recession, we're a comparatively buoyant culture, and that stark aesthetic feels exotic on an L.A. stage, where half of our theaters, it seems, are dedicated to musicals that parody movies. In and around a huge suitcase, an 80-something Marlene Dietrich (a life-size cloth puppet) engages with Skubik. In one scene they're attached at the hip. Dietrich is hammering out the inner meanings of words like fame, while taking painful injections to defy her obvious age. With her fiery red hair, Skubik is her nurse/keeper, and the relationship is as touchy as in Ronald Harwood's The Dresser. There are moments when Dietrich/Skubik sings, which is not this production's strength. It flies, however, on the intricacy of the relationship between the two women, both quite animated, despite one being inanimate. That single idea, of what's alive and what isn't, of what is an imitation of life, and what isn't, caught in the frame of an aging diva, is a source of infinite fascination. And Dietrich's various reactions to Skubik's proddings hold an almost childlike appeal. In one scene, we hear extended applause, and Dietrich asks, "How long does a moment last?" It's a question anyone in the theater should relate to, and probably anyone beyond the theater, too. Romuald Wicza-Pokojski directs. The evening's first half is also a solo show, Look, What I Don't Understand (if one doesn't count the puppet), written and performed by Skubik's partner, American actor Anthony Nikolchev, and directed by Yuriy Kordonskiy. Also set around suitcases, but with the compelling centerpiece of a wire cage, Nikolchev portrays an array of characters with telling idiosyncrasies in the story of his Bulgarian family's entrapment by the Soviets, and their eventual exile to an Italian refugee camp, where they wait as they hope to enter the communist-phobic United States. The study in tyranny and living in margins is harrowing in its authenticity, ensnared by the truthfulness of the performance. Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (Sun., Feb. 21, March 14 & 28 at 7 p.m. only); through March 28. (310) 477-2055. (Steven Leigh Morris)

THE FIRST LADY Elevating contemporary historical figures to the mythic heights of classical opera invariably risks inviting the mock-heroic. For composer Ken Wells' new chamber opera, which depicts the behind-the-scenes political and emotional fallout from the death and marital infidelity of FDR (libretto by Wells, Richard Roudebush, Gayle Patterson & Matt B. Wells), the dramatic challenge was clearly to bar mockery and its first cousin, melodrama, from the party. Wells successfully meets that challenge with dignity ... perhaps too successfully. Director Courtney Selan's production is a monument to dignified stateliness. For a libretto that paints Eleanor Roosevelt (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Wallace) as cold, emotionally withdrawn and domineering, Selan's declamatory, presentational staging can feel like a trip to the National Portrait Gallery. Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd (soprano Hannah Waldman), FDR's mistress and the object of Eleanor's ire, comes off no less chiseled in marble, especially following a romantic duet with the president (baritone Eric Carampatan), when she impassively stands upstage, as the love of her life suffers his fatal stroke. In fact, Wells reserves his most moving aria for the character that is the piece's true dramatic heart — Anna Roosevelt Boettiger (soprano Rebecca Sjowall in an outstanding performance). Considering that it is Anna who, out of loyalty to her father, invites Lucy to Warm Springs, knowing she is also betraying her mother, and that the bulk of the opera concerns her attempts to win Eleanor's forgiveness, the work might be more accurately called The First Daughter. Still, Wells' score (ably conducted by Stephen Karr), a postminimalist mix of Romanticism and themes culled from Broadway show tunes, Episcopalian hymns and negro spirituals, delivers more than its share of effective moments. Designer Adam Rigg's white sunroom set and beige-and-tan costumes frame the proceedings with the nostalgic appeal of a sepia photo. NPI Auditorium, UCLA, 720 Westwood Blvd., L.A.; Fri., Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 27, 7:30 p.m.; Wed., March 3, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., March 7, 2 p.m. (310) 794-3711. (Bill Raden)

SLAUGHTER CITY There's a lot of anger onstage in poet-playwright Naomi Wallace's 1995 agitprop. Certainly the union meatpackers who work in the play's foul sausage factory — Sarah Krainin's viscera-strewn, blood-spattered set looks like it hasn't been cleaned since the publication of The Jungle — are bitter, mainly at the dithering plant manager, Baquin (Bart Petty), with whom they're deadlocked in stalled contract negotiations. And black floor supervisor Tuck (Brent Jennings) is no less happy with the condescending indignities heaped on him by a racist, white management. Not all the grievances are job-related. Veteran gutter Roach (Christina Ogunade) has rage and intimacy issues stemming from a childhood molestation. And her illiterate, would-be suitor, Brandon (Christopher Emerson), still bears the raw, psychic scars from an extreme act of employer violence dating from his youth. Throw in anti-Semitism, homophobia and gender discrimination, add several musical numbers (courtesy of composer Andrew Ingkavet) and a dose of comic relief, and you'd have enough plot material for 10 such shows. But Wallace then adds the parallel storyline of the otherworldly, ambisexual scab, Cod (Noelle Messier), his/her love for Roach's gal pal, Maggot (Sarah Boughton), and hate for the mysterious, Mephistophelian Sausage Man (Alexander Wells), and the play's message — along with its indignation — all but disappears in the resulting fog of metaphors. Director Barbara Kallir and a talented ensemble's efforts to bring clarity to the chaos are only occasionally rewarded. Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m.; through March 15. (Bill Raden)

GO  THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES Richtly textured performances by Frances Conroy and Martin Sheen provide the best reason to see Neil Pepe's meticulous staging of Frank D. Gilroy's 1964 chestnut. The story concerns an only son (Brian Geraghty), home from the Army after World War II. He's now a little more grown-up and able to recognize the fractures of his parents' marriage. The play, and the production, are beautifully understated, and if the climactic scene is less cathartic than it might have been in 1964, that's no reason to stay away. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through March 21. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

GO  WIT Playwright Margaret Edson won the Pulitzer Prize for this intense drama about an English poetry professor who must wrestle with her painful and imminent death. Directed by Marianne Savell, Nan McNamara delivers a peerless performance as Vivian Bearing, a 50-year-old expert on the poetry of John Donne, who unexpectedly finds herself diagnosed with the fourth and final stage of metastatic ovarian cancer. Bearing's doctor (Phil Crowley) and his research assistant (Daniel J. Roberts) are scientists first, with concern for their patients' comfort being an afterthought. So they have no compunction about insisting that Bearing undertake a full regimen of powerful chemotherapy in order to document its physiological effects on the human body. Edson's commentary on American medical practice, however salient, merely lays the groundwork for the play's most compelling and universal theme: the human struggle not only with mortality's looming oblivion but with the unfamiliar and sometimes humiliating infirmity that precedes it. That Bearing's lifelong subject of scholarly study — the poet Donne — was himself consumed by this topic adds another involving layer to the brew. Tough, unsentimental, yet increasingly vulnerable, McNamara's understated duelist-with-death is pitch-perfect. She's supported across the board by a worthy ensemble. Tawny Mertes is especially winning as the kind young nurse whose humanity imparts the play's final message. Actors' Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; through March 28. (323) 462-8460. (Deborah Klugman)