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Theater Reviews; The Comedy of Errors, The Birthday Boys, The Woodpecker

Women in Shorts
PHOTO BY ED KRIEGER

GO  THE COMEDY OF ERRORS A strongman, a ventriloquist, three showgirls and a mimic with 1,000 voices make up just half of the Burlesque on Brand troupe, which enters, grandstands and immediately plunges into Shakespeare's shortest and most slapstick comedy about two pairs of long-lost twins crisscrossing in Ephesus. Here, servant Dromio (Jerry Kernion) wears a plaid toga, argyle socks and saddle shoes. (The four credited costumers have done fantastic work.) When Dromio vents to hero Antipholous (Bruce Turk) that the chubby kitchen wench (Gibby Brand) who claims she's his betrothed "is spherical, like a globe — I could find out countries in her," their banter smacks of Abbott and Costello. Director Michael Michetti's dynamite ensemble is held together by Turk's leading man, who, like his Errol Flynn mustache and the production itself, is playful and self-mocking, but never ironic. Michetti inventively turns bereft father Egeon's (Michael Stone Forrest) tale of how he lost his four sons — the longest speech in Shakespeare's canon — into a silent black-and-white film, but the director's not above showing a pie in the face. And he even gets laughs for Adriana (Abby Craden) and Luciana (Annie Abrams) in their usually thankless roles. In the first few scenes, the play threatens to become a musical, but once past the momentary misstep of two musical numbers, the production settles into the most droll and deft staging of The Comedy of Errors I've seen in a decade. A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; in rep, check website for schedule. (818) 240-0910, anoisewithin.org (Amy Nicholson)

GO  THE BIRTHDAY BOYS Stop me if you've heard this one: Three U.S. Marines walk into an Iraqi storage room. OK, they don't walk. They get dragged into it. Point being, there are three of them, and they're together in this room. "Seems a bit dark and serious a scenario for a punch line," you think to yourself, but you would be wrong, because Aaron Kozak, who won the "Fringe First" award at last year's Hollywood Fringe Festival for this play, makes it much funnier than you would expect. Without being disrespectful to the gravity of military service or the war in Iraq, Kozak finds dark humor in the humanity of three Marines —privates Chester Gullette (Gregory Crafts), Lance Tyler (Sean Fitzgerald) and Colin Carney (Jim Martyka) — who have been captured from Al Asad air base by members of the Mahdi Militia. All three are bound hand and foot with duct tape and blindfolded, which limits their interactions but generates some solid physical comedy, such as when Lance tries to fight Colin and they end up writhing around like angry inchworms. Director Jacob Smith's spot-on timing effectively modulates transitions from lighter discussions of women and home lives to darker topics such as war and impending doom. Fitzgerald, as the most intense and combative of the three, genuinely makes us dislike him at times; Martyka, though quiet for long spells, believably exudes shame for attempting to abandon his brothers; Crafts, as the most mature and levelheaded of the men, pleasantly subverts the stereotypical Marine. And to top it all off, there's an unexpected twist that takes the comedy to a whole new level. A Theatre Unleashed production. NoHo Stages, 4934 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., thru March 27. (818) 849-4039, theatreunleashed.com. (Mayank Keshaviah)

BRENDAN O'LENIHAN LEAVES THREE DAUGHTERS After novelist Brendan O'Lenihan's massively successful literary career spawns "the greatest novel in history" (as one of O'Lenihan's daughters puts it), the writer becomes a recluse, delves into alternative spirituality and cuts off contact with his three daughters. They've congregated for his funeral, and the family dynamic that playwright William Norrett has constructed has the potential to be much more interesting than standard sister fare. Socially speaking, he's hit the dramatic jackpot: Kathleen (Jonica Patella) is a ghostwriter for rappers, Annebeth (Jana Wimer) is an Oscar-winning producer who shrinks behind her filmmaker husband, and Maureen (Bethany Orr) is a teacher in South Africa, with a Ph.D. in physics. Yet while the disparate paths the sisters have taken could more than satisfy the need for conflict required in such a play, Norrett's confidence seems to have faltered, leading him to build on a silly, ultimately irrelevant inheritance premise, the climax of which defies the very term. Though the male ensemble generally succeeds in its supporting roles, it's difficult to decide if the sisters' brittle, forced emotion and general disconnect from the material are the result of being miscast or under-rehearsed. Underground Annex Theater, 1308 N. Wilton Place, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., thru March 27. (818) 688-1219. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

I GET KNOCKED DOWN When writer-performer Evan McNamara first appears in this one-man show, he's wearing a T-shirt that reads "ARISE" and pointy elf ears. He is, he tells us, a member of an elf clan, and his sister, Raven, is a vampire who for years drained him of vitality. He then assumes the role of a Guardian Angel who revels in his own self-esteem. "God loves me," he claims, "because I make heaven look so cool." The elf tells about the woman he loved, hard-hearted Hannah, who married him and bore him two children, but then announced she'd been unfaithful from the start. We then meet Evan's other suffering alter egos: a prisoner shackled till he frees himself through an act of will, a martyr who embraces his pain, a scholar who alternates between raging against his fate and philosophic acceptance, a clown who wraps himself in a cloak of protective humor, and a hipster in stylish shades who doesn't contribute much to the story. McNamara is an appealing and energetic actor, but his bromidic ending is announced (self-knowledge is the key) rather than dramatized, so the show, though pleasant, seems both short (40 minutes) and slight. Director John Coppola might have been wise to insist on more substance. Studio C Artists, 6448 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; variable schedule, thru April 24. igetknockeddown.eventbrite.com. (Neal Weaver)

 

JUMP/CUT Depicting the crushing debilitations of mind and spirit that are by-products of bipolar disorder is no easy task. Neena Beber's 2003 play makes a worthwhile effort to invoke compassion for those coping with the jarring highs and soul-destroying lows of the illness, but an overabundance of on-the-nose dialogue about the nature of depression gives way to tidily scripted outpourings of emotion that render the play a forced contrivance bereft of an essential resemblance to real life. Paul (Brett Mack) lets best buddy Dave (Michael Perl) crash on his couch, a living arrangement born of misguided but entirely plausible loyalty on Paul's part. Dave is, after all, an old friend in need, a young man who can't get his life on track due to the crippling effects of mental illness. Paul, a filmmaker whose nose is pressed firmly and admirably to the grindstone, has fun sharing the same space with Dave for a short while, until Paul meets Karen (Melissa Lugo), falls in love and soon finds himself ensnared in a love triangle. It turns out that Karen is more attracted to the romantic availability and neediness of a depressive than the unavailability of a go-getter. The narrative engine breaks down beyond repair when Paul and Karen decide to make Dave's depression the subject of a film project. Focus quickly gets split between romantic entanglements, the hardships of the creative process and serious mental illness. The acting is solid across the board and director Paul Millet keeps the pacing sharp and quick. Arena Stage at Theater of Arts, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., thru March 26. (323) 595-4849. (Amy Lyons)

A NIGHT AT THE OSCARS Well past the autumn of their careers, aging Hollywood film star William Chance (Brian Pietro) and his has-been art house actress wife, Diana (Susan Kohler), are invited to make a cameo appearance on an Academy Awards telecast. They meet with their flamboyant TV commercial agent (an engaging Ernie Brandon), are flattered by an adoring network production assistant (Jason Kaye), perform their spot and enjoy a nostalgic dance. Pietro and Kohler's twin portraits of doddering affability and fading feminine vanity offer sporadic instances of sentimental charm. But in the service of Peter Quilter's stale stab at Noel Coward–esque comedy, whose idea of wit is repeated allusions to Viagra and Preparation H, such moments only underscore the play's lack of authenticity, insight or discernible purpose. Ralph Romo's overly literal set and Jennifer Still's pointless video sequences only exacerbate the clumsiness of Diane Carroll's staging. Malibu Stage Company, 29243 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 5 p.m., thru March 20. (310) 589-1998, brownpapertickets.com. (Bill Raden)

WOMEN IN SHORTS Performed by Joanna Miles and Louise Davis, this sextet of short plays by different writers and directors rarely rises above workshop standard. The setting for all is New York's Central Park. By far the most involving is "Magic Rabbit," written by John Fazakerley and directed by Robert Burgos. It's an encounter between a homeless woman (Miles) and the wife of an infamous embezzler (Davis) whose apartment building is currently besieged by the press (the allusion to Ruth Madoff seems obvious). Gradually it comes to light that the homeless woman also was once a person of privilege, and that the now-hounded matron once worked for her husband. The play's ironic message comes across in the wealthy woman's dawning recognition of the humanity she shares with this shabby person she initially scorns. Jim McGinn's "Divorces R Us" unwinds like a comedy sketch with a predictable twist; under Bennett Cohon's direction, Davis plays a dissatisfied housewife, with Miles a divorce counselor who advises her on how to squeeze the most from her husband. In "Sisters," by Gloria Goldsmith, directed by Judy Chaikin, a fiscally responsible woman (Miles) clashes with her profligate spending sister, who cons money from others. Writer Tom Baum's "The Great Outdoors," directed by Asaad Kelada, presents a conflict between a reclusive widow (Miles) and her exasperated, resentful daughter (Davis). In "Park Strangers," by Brian Connors, directed by T.J. Casanova, the performers play two actors in a commercial for a vaginal itch product. In need of pruning, "Ladies of the State," by Miles Brandman, directed by Matthew Reilly, is set pre–World War I; it depicts an anxious mother (Davis) pleading in vain with a well-connected acquaintance (Miles) to help get her son exempted from the draft. In general, excepting small character adjustments, the performances in each piece evoke a sameness and little directorial creativity. Much of the writing comes off like an exercise, with varying success. Working Stage Theater, 1516 N. Gardner St., L.A.; Fri-Sat, 8 p.m., Sun, 3 p.m., thru March 20. (800) 838-3006, brownpaper tickets.com/event/143986. (Deborah Klugman)

 

GO  THE WOODPECKER In playwright Samuel Brett Williams' angry drama of despair, we are introduced to a coterie of tragic characters who virtually line up to debase themselves and turn a potentially pleasant existence into a horror show. Idealistic young Jimmy (Brian Norris) loathes his family life: He's a college dropout who can't find a job and spends his days snorting glue rather than face his miserable existence in the trailer home he shares with his parents. Mom Martha (Tamara Zook) dreamed of being a singer but now lives in a pill-stoked daze, while abusive dad Harold (Mark Withers), in a wheelchair due to a long-ago accident, is so suffused with bitterness, his insane rages frequently threaten to spill over into incoherence. Jimmy pins his hopes for the future on joining the Army, which he believes will turn him into the hero he has always dreamed of being. However, when he arrives in Iraq, events don't turn out as expected. Williams' play so piles on the brutality, bitterness and rage that the piece occasionally threatens to short-circuit into camp. Still, in director Jon Cohn's darkly moody staging, the drama's sense of existential rage is urgent and evocative, while its ferocious emotional charge outweighs the contrived plotting. Norris offers a particularly strong and moving performance as the increasingly tortured son, almost appearing to age and become hollow before our eyes. Compelling turns also are offered by Zook's spacey white-trash mother and by Withers' almost-too-monstrous dad. A Mutineer Theatre Company production. Studio/Stage Theatre, 520 N. Western Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., thru April 3. (323) 871-5826. (Paul Birchall)


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