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Theater Reviews: The Mystery Plays, The Arsonists, There Is Truth, Love Is Real

GO  THE ARSONISTS In Max Frisch's trenchant work of surreal irony, which may be better known by its alternate (and perhaps more whimsically satisfying) title, Biedermann and the Firebugs, decent people invite evil into their homes, try to befriend it, ignore its obvious nature — and, by doing nothing, are ultimately complicit in its wicked goals. When Frisch wrote the dark comedy in 1958, he was clearly attempting to craft a metaphor for the rise of Nazis amongst the otherwise sensible German population one to two decades prior. Alistair Beaton's new translation amplifies certain of the text's thematic undercurrents of moral blindness to put us in mind of the paranoia and impotence suffusing the so-called War on Terror. Mild-mannered hair-tonic dealer Biedermann (Norbert Weisser) has been told to be on the lookout for a band of diabolical arsonists sweeping through the neighborhood, setting houses ablaze. Yet, this doesn't stop him from inviting into his home a brutish goon named Schmitz (John Achorn), who shows up on his doorstep asking for food and lodging. We quickly deduce that Schmitz has a certain pyromaniacal bent — and even Biedermann and his primly brittle, suburban wife (Beth Hogan) start to twig that something is wrong when Schmitz and his seemingly psychotic pal, Eisenring (Ron Bottitta), move huge barrels of fuel and bomb detonators into their home's attic. Yet, Biedermann, complacent in his "it can't happen to me" attitude, refuses to see what's happening right in front of him. The performances, as well as the flames, crackle in Ron Sossi's slyly sardonic staging — performances that combine perfect comic timing with dense, rich personalities. Weisser's nervous (and increasingly delusional) Biedermann and Hogan's uptight wife are hilarious — but the true scene-stealers are Achorn's rubber-faced, diabolical Schmitz and Bottitta's ghoulish Eisenring, who are simultaneously so chillingly funny and matter of fact, you almost want to invite them to dinner yourself, despite the potentially blazing ramifications. Set designer Birgitte Moos' beautiful two-level set (1950s-style living room and attic) is ingenious, while Sean Kozma's eerie sound design adds a beautifully sinister atmosphere to the goings-on. Odyssey Theater Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. (some Wednesdays and Sundays, call for schedule); through May 22. (310) 477-2055, odysseytheatre.com/ KOAN Ensemble. (Paul Birchall)

THE DRAWER BOY When a production leaves you not once, but twice, surreptitiously wiping tears from the corners of your eyes, it's difficult to speak against it. Despite the surge of emotion director Melanie MacQueen's cast elicits, this staging of Michael Healey's quiet, pastoral 1999 play is just too rolling — so rolling there are moments you wish you could lie down in the Canadian hay with Angus (Daniel Leslie) and doze off staring at the stars, too. Angus' and longtime friend Morgan's (Robert Mackenzie) military service during World War II led them to London during the Blitz, which left Angus with a head injury: "Before [the doctor] could close it up, his memory escaped." Thirty years later, in 1972, Miles (Kris Frost), a wide-eyed lamb of an actor who moves in to work and research life on their Ontario farm for a new play, threatens to crack the friends' carefully constructed peaceful existence. Hold actors Leslie and Mackenzie responsible for the waves of emotion that sneak up and knock you over. Mackenzie's recitation of his and Angus' story is done with the delicate delivery and calm joy of a father telling his child a bedtime story. Leslie carefully builds the gentle giant Angus, playing neither for laughs nor tears; so when he tumbles, you're desperate to gather up all the pieces and put him together again. The pace in between, however, is so drowsy it makes the already too-hastily tied-with-a-bow ending feel even more drastic and improbable. Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Drive (on the Beverly Hills High School campus), Beverly Hills; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 25. (310) 364-0535. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

GETTING FRANKIE MARRIED . . . AND AFTERWARDS The setting for Horton Foote's bittersweet comedy is the town of Harrison, Texas, where 43-year-old bachelor Fred Willis (John Lacy) shares a home with his ailing, demanding, control freak of a mother (Judith Scarpone). His painfully ordinary girlfriend of decades, Frankie (Martha Demson), has hung in there with him, much to the consternation of her gossipy friends Isabel (Teresa Willis), Laverne (Laura Richardson) and Constance (Stephanie Erb), who feel that he should marry her. One day, out of the blue, he does just that — despite a sexual dalliance with gorgeous Helen (Laetitia Leon), who, incidentally, is suing him for breach of promise. The marital bliss, however, is short-lived after both Frankie and Helen reveal that they're each pregnant. Stir in a friend named Carlton (Bjorn Johnson), who may be Fred's half brother, plus a couple of strange plot twists, and things get really fuzzy. Though Foote's writing, true to his form, comes laced with humor and sadness and an atmosphere that inspires gentle reflection, this clearly isn't one of his sharper works, and director Scott Paulin's leisurely pacing makes sitting through the stasis something of an endurance test. The performances are uniformly good, and set designer James Spencer's living room mock-up is stellar. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.; through May 15. (323) 882-6912. (Lovell Estell III)

 

GO  THE MYSTERY PLAYS Though its title alludes to the biblical pageants of medieval Europe, playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's 2002 pair of supernatural-themed one-acts is actually a revival of a more modern and decidedly secular tradition — the ripping ghost yarn. "The Filmmaker's Mystery" opens the evening as a delightful homage to the macabre pleasures of such Amicus omnibus fright classics as Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. A routine train ride home for the holidays takes a fateful turn when gay horror-movie director Joe (a wryly matter-of-fact Christopher Biewer) is accidentally stranded on a platform during a stop and becomes the sole survivor of the train's subsequent fatal wreck. The disaster's publicity brings him instant career heat back in Hollywood, along with less desirable attention from the spirit of one victim (Frederick Dechow), a handsome neurologist with a gruesome secret, who was Joe's flirtatious seatmate before the crash. "Ghost Children" charts a haunting of a more psychological and circumspect kind: Attorney Abby (Katherine McCoy) reluctantly returns to her childhood hometown to assist in the sentence-reduction appeal of her brother, Benny (Adam Dlugolecki), imprisoned for the slaying, 16 years ago, of their abusive parents and an innocent younger sister. The journey revives Abby's suppressed memories of the murders along with her own passive culpability. A versatile ensemble (playing multiple roles) ably hits all of Aguirre-Sacasa's notes of suspense in Scott Dittman's crisply directed and atmospheric (courtesy of Jake Halverson's eerie lights), bare-stage production. Knightsbridge Theater, 1944 Riverside Drive, L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 11. (323) 667-0955. (Bill Raden)

THE RAINBOW ROOM In her mid-20s, Sara Kumar began hearing voices while exhibiting paranoia and other symptoms of mental illness. One night, she locked herself in her room and set fire to a pile of clothes. Taken by firefighters to County USC Medical Center, she was diagnosed with Myxedema Madness, a thyroid-based disorder that causes a range of strange, sometimes schizophrenic, behaviors. Writer-director Kumar's play is an autobiographically based account that depicts the trauma of a previously healthy woman who finds herself inexplicably overcome by fearful thoughts and visions. Utilizing designer Jessica Dalva's minimal set but with hyperdramatic music to highlight the scene changes, this episodic piece begins with Kundana (Maria Pallas), an aspiring screenwriter, packing to move to L.A., to the dismay of her conventional parents (Maralyn Facey and Kanu Kothari). Initially, the plot dawdles in cafés and yoga classes with garden-variety dialogue employed to relay the rather typical life events and concerns of a 20-something. For example, a generic love triangle involving Kundana, her writing partner, Ben (Karnell Matthews), and his former fiancée (Eswari Raja ) seems ripped from any undergraduate's diary. Act 2, opening in a hospital, recounts the sick woman's healing process but proves no less predictable or more interesting than Act 1, especially when it culminates in Kundana's soap-operatic realization of who her true love has been all along. The flaws in the script notwithstanding, some writing passages do show promise. Pallas' characterization is perfectly pleasant, but of the ensemble, only Matthews develops a character that's nuanced and convincing. Theatre Unlimited, 10943 Camarillo Ave., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through April 11. (800) 838-3006. (Deborah Klugman)

RICHARD & FELIX: TWILIGHT IN VENICE Considerable detail went into Paul Koslo's set — marble pillars crowned with potted plants, a painted vista of the Grand Canal — depicting the rented quarters in Venice, where Richard Wagner (Don Deforest Paul) went to die in 1883. The makeup is just as detailed, with Paul's eyes rimmed in red, and pallid, sunken cheeks that perfectly complement his hacking cough and paroxysms of agony stemming from a blocked intestine. Amidst this cinematic realism in L. Flint Esquerra's staging of Cornelius Schnauber's play, Wagner is visited by the ghost of Jewish Felix Mendelssohn (Jerry Weil), who died almost four decades earlier, and has shown up to guide him to the other side, or perhaps just to torment the anti-Semite. A gramophone player with wax records — toyed with by Mendelssohn for a moment — is a bit odd, given that Emile Berliner didn't patent the contraption until four years after this play takes place. There are also two women, one named Carlotta, Wagner's muse (Kelley Chatman), who spends much of the play reclined on a divan being muselike; the other, Franz Liszt's daughter and Wagner's second wife, Cosima (Kathryn Larsen), urges on her husband's less-than-latent anti-Semitism. Mendelssohn was a composer of lyrical works, the popularity of which still torments Wagner, according to Schnauber's play. Here Mendelssohn expends quite a bit of energy looking smug and predicting the arrival of Adolf Hitler, which Wagner can scarcely believe as he gasps out his final breaths. The crux is a long, long conversation between the musicians, mostly about the past, recalling names of characters and compositions that will doubtless intrigue devotees while leaving everyone else out in the cold. Schnauber may or may not be blaming Wagner for Hitler's ascent. Hitler praised and borrowed from many artists and philosophers. Does that make them all culpable for the Holocaust? It's a question worth considering but in a drama that has more going for it than rumination. In this play about music, there's almost none to be heard. Things perk up for a sex scene that ultimately reveals Wagner's erectile dysfunction. At least it relieves the torpor. MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through April 25. (323) 957-1152. Co-presented by the Max Kade Institute of Austrian-German-Swiss Studies at USC. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

TEA AT FIVE Matthew Lombardo's solo drama about Katharine Hepburn (Cissy Conner), set in her home in Fenwick, Conn., examines her life and loves from two different points of view. In Act 1, set in 1938, she's still reeling from a series of film flops, and the fact that movie exhibitors have branded her box-office poison. Act 2 takes place in 1983, at the end of her career, when Warren Beatty was attempting to persuade her to take on her last movie role, and deals with her declining health, the suicide of her brother and her relations with Spencer Tracy. The piece is largely a compendium of familiar Hepburn stories, but Lombardo tells them well, and he captures the familiar style and accents of her public persona: cheerfully egocentric and monumentally eccentric, alternating earthy common sense with movie-star flamboyance. Conner doesn't resemble Hepburn physically, but she deftly captures her flavor, particularly as the aging Kate in Act 2, complete with the throaty, slightly strangled voice. It's an engaging and skillful performance, which plays on our affection for and familiarity with the original. Set designer Scott Umfress was clearly working under financial limitations, but his minimalist set is evocative if not always historically on the mark. Whitmore Lindley Theater, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 5 p.m., through May 2. (800) 838-3006, tea-at-five.com. (Neal Weaver)

THE TEMPEST Stewardesses Stephanie (Jennifer Gabbert) and Trinculo (Amy Mucken) offer you complimentary snacks as you board Action! Airlines for a flight to the distant island setting of Shakespeare's tale of sorcery and magic, adapted by director Tiger Reel. It's on the island that the "airship" is wrecked by Prospero (a capable Gretchen Koerner) with the aid of Ariel (Becca Fuchs), a sprite who is bound to Prospero and helps her cast spells on Prospero's brother Antonio (Brian Helm) and his co-conspirators who ousted her as the rightful Duke (or Duchess?) of Milan. The gender-bending cuts across the cast as, in addition to Prospero, Stephanie and Trinculo, Francisco (Cloie Taylor) and Gonzala (April Barnett) are also played by women. Reel's infusion of modernism to this island brew also includes live drums (Jesse Torrilhon as an island spirit) and singing (the lovely vocals of Fuchs and her sister spirits), as well as original music. Of course Stephanie and Trinculo's volleys of minibar bottles catapulted about the stage in their scenes with a curiously gas-masked Caliban (Jacob Sidney) provide some laughs, but the juxtaposition of hip-hop with hogsheads of wine is more baffling than revealing. Even Vicki Conrad's costumes, which give Ariel a fearsome Slash-meets-Madonna look, end up an eclectic cocktail of aviator apparel and colonial-explorer garb, perhaps an apt metaphor for a show with compelling elements that doesn't quite tame its own tempestuous nature. Studio/Stage Theatre, 520 N. Western Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 5 p.m.; through April 17. (323) 908-7276, An Action! Theatre Company Production. action-theatre.com. (Mayank Keshaviah)

THERE IS TRUTH, LOVE IS REAL The Postal Service's 2003 album Give Up is 45 minutes of dreamy romance hara-kiri — catchy, perfectly crafted pop for lovers who can't get their fix. And now it's a play, or really, a live album–listening experience with eight performers gamboling to the music like doodles scribbled in a notebook. Conceived and directed by Doug Oliphant, the plot — or really, sketch of a plot — follows an emo guitarist (Anthony Storwick) who wins fame but loses his girlfriend (Bridgette Patchen). Postal Service songwriters Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello are earnest about these minor tragedies of the heart but deliver them with a shrug of "this too shall pass." It's an album for idealists a few drinks shy of fresh perspective. Lyrics like "I kissed you in a style that Clark Gable would have admired," are swoonworthy but slyly self-conscious; to buy into this vision of silver-screen love is to be continually disappointed. Oliphant recognizes that, and what redeems this odd dance piece is his refusal to sell us a happy ending for his rock star–crossed lovers. Still, without the album — which at 7 years old is neither nostalgic nor new — what's left behind hasn't been fleshed out enough to stand alone. If Oliphant really wants to reach "Such Great Heights," he can't use a CD as a crutch. Flight Theater at The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through April 11. (323) 465-0383, brownpapertickets.com/event/99650. (Amy Nicholson)


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