Theater Reviews: The Rendezvous, Nano Nation, Brooklyn, U.S.A.
GO BROOKLYN, U.S.A. This crime melodrama by John Bright and Asa Bordages, who wrote many of the classic Warner Bros. gangster flicks, was first produced on Broadway in 1941. Today, it seems like a time capsule of Brooklyn, and of America in the 1940s, and this feeling is further enhanced by the wonderful period props. True to its time, the play has a huge cast and a leisurely pace as it tells the tale of a mob led by Albert Anastasia (Johnny Crear). But the action centers on hired killer Smiley Manone (Rico Simonini, looking startlingly like a young Jimmy Smits), his naive hooker girlfriend (Danitha Bockoven), who explains plaintively, "I'm not a hustler, I'm a lady of joy." Shelly Kurtz is impressive as Louie, a Jewish barber who's lured into the mob action by Anastasia's promise to get his parents out of Nazi Germany. Elisabeth Noone scores as the tough, bighearted proprietress of the neighborhood candy store. There's fine support from a large cast, including Johnny Williams as a portly hit man, Will Beinbrink as a union organizer murdered by the mob, and Adriana Demeo as his girlfriend. Director T.J. Castronovo evokes the style of the old gangster films, and meticulously preserves the period flavor, assisted by Thomas Brown's detailed sets and Sherry Coon's costumes. Write Act Repertory, 6128 Yucca Ave., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., through July 31. (323) 469-3113. (Neal Weaver)
CIRCLE OF WILL William Shakespeare wrote his greatest works before 1608 — so what was he ruminating on in 1610? Directed by Brian Herskowitz, writers Bill Cakmis and Jack Grapes' scenario imagines a contentious exchange between the Bard (Grapes) and his friend and leading man, Richard Burbage (Joe Briggs). A stumbling attempt at satire, the piece portrays Shakespeare as a lesser literary light and Burbage as a cretinous narcissist, fed up with dramas about death and threatening to walk unless he gets to be a hero in a play with a positive ending. The problem lies not in the lampoon of the theater but in the script itself, which strives for laughs by utilizing misquotes and scrambled references to various Shakespearean plays and characters. Done well, this device would work brilliantly; here, lacking conceptual underpinnings and continuity, it falls flat. Midway through, the actors acknowledge they're on stage and break the fourth wall, appealing to the audience to help resolve their existential dilemma and hasten the comedy to a conclusion. At that point (if not before) shades of Shakespeare for Middle School begin to infiltrate the evening. As to the performances, Grapes is likable, while Briggs' evident gift for larger-than-life burlesque deserves better material. Designers Martin C. Vallejo's set and Anasuya Engel's costumes add period flavor. Macha Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Road, W.Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Aug. 15, plays411.com/circleofwill. (323) 960-7822. (Deborah Klugman)
FABRIC On August 2, 1995, federal authorities raided a sweatshop in EL Monte, where 72 Thai garment workers, mostly young women, were being held captive. Lured to this country under false pretenses, they lived as many as 12 to a room, laboring 17 hours a day for $300 a month. Commendable as a vehicle of instruction, playwright Henry Ong's heavy-handed docudrama chronologically depicts their recruitment, onerous captivity, rescue, and the trial and conviction of their employer, another Thai national whom the workers dutifully addressed as Auntie Suni (Dian Kobayashi). The drama adds fuel to our moral outrage when the question of what to do with the rescued illegals becomes an issue, with prominent government officials callously supporting their deportation. Devoid of nuance, the script's villains materialize as stark caricatures, especially the pivotal Auntie, who could easily give Snow White's stepmother a run for her money. From an artistic standpoint the production is saved by the performances of Jennifer Chang, Jully Lee and Jolene Kim as three of the trapped women; each relays her character's story with sensitive and compelling grace. Diana Toshiko in multiple roles and Ben Wang as a labor commissioner who takes action at last are also worth mentioning. Designer Luis Delgado's sweatshop set is appropriately dreary; Pia Smith's costumes add color. Marlene Forte and Tchia Casselle co-direct. Company of Angels at the Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4:30 p.m.; through Aug. 8. (866) 811-4111. (Deborah Klugman)
GO LOVE, CONNIE Connie, our blond-wigged and hirsute heroine (writer-performer John Cantwell, from the Nellie Olesons), regales us with energetic flash dancing and pageantry, all set to raucous '80s pop tunes. The dance numbers are interspersed with sinister, projected minimovies that feature the menacing presence of a black leather–clad stalker with evil designs on Connie's precious white cat. Lightning-speed costume changes and high-energy dance routines keep the slightly demented Connie on her toes, and director Michael Bodie maintains a cracking pace. The 50-minute show co-stars Molly Cranna as the shapely cat "Vickie," complete with kitten mask and four sets of feline nipples. Her sweet pas de deux with Connie, set to Madonna's "Beautiful Stranger," signifies a flashback to when Connie adopted her beloved kitty. The only dialogue in this hilarious, risqué evening is an on-screen chunk of venomous exposition by villain Bambi (Kelly Mantle) explaining her deadly motivation. With its suggestive groping and simulated broomstick penetration, Love, Connie is not for delicate sensibilities. Then again, why not take your mom or grandma along? She might laugh her ass off. Cavern Club Theater at Casita del Campo, 1920 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; Fri.-Sat., 9 p.m.; through July 24. cavernclubtheater.com. (Pauline Adamek)
GO NANO NATION Since their founding in 2007, L.A.-based performance provocateurs Poor Dog Group is quickly establishing a reputation as a sort of poor man's Wooster Group. Its targets tend to be American mythologies of all stripes, as they are promulgated, passed on and reified across the cultural spectrum. This is a theater of gesture rather than of plot-driven narrative or even dramatic language. Thus, in this riveting, nonverbal, solo-movement piece by dancer-choreographer Jessica Emmanuel, dance becomes the means of stripping away misogynistic cultural overlays and exposing raw meaning — in this case, attitudes toward women seen in African-American folk and music traditions, which continue to inform contemporary rap and hip-hop. In front of a projected, black-and-white video montage, combining vintage clips from Hollywood silent melodramas with increasingly abstract compositions (directed by Jesse Bonnell), Emmanuel performs an intensely plaintive, physical corollary to Jelly Roll Morton's epic 30-minute, seven-part "Murder Ballad." The Morton blues classic is a revelation in itself — the saga of a woman who futilely murders "the bitch" with whom her boyfriend is cheating, only to be sent to prison, where she takes a female lover, while her boyfriend merely replaces her with another woman. Technical director Adam Hunter (who also contributes the moody, low-key lighting) provides a final touch of video alienation by monitoring the onstage proceedings on a vintage, black-and-white TV with an out-of-whack horizontal hold. Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Sat., 10 p.m.; through July 24. brownpapertickets.com/event/119059. (800) 838-3006. (Bill Raden)
GO PHIL THE VOID; THE GREAT BRAIN ROBBERY With his full, finely trimmed beard and unknotted bow tie, Phil van Hest looks like the best man at a wedding of ichthyologists. He knows he looks smart and works to discredit himself first in an opening story about himself, a beer, a joint and a bra slingshot; and second, by revealing the reason he's certain he's dumb: the Internet. At age 31, he's of the perfect age to grasp Life 2.0's impact — he's old enough to remember memorizing phone numbers and young enough to feel pressured to keep up with 4-chan memes. "I do not laugh out loud as often as I claim to," he intones in a Hamlet pose, and to make his case that outsourcing our minds to Google will drive us all mad, he draws upon rhesus monkeys, Vietnam tortures and Theseus. Directed by David Fofi, van Hest delivers his sermon like a first-rate street preacher — he knows when to let his doomsaying loom over our heads and when to pop the tension with a joke. A leap to Alan Greenspan and his school of evil fools allows van Hest to glom his case to the idea that the entire modern world's gone to rubbish. In his epilogue, he announces his plan to launch a commune in the Bay Area — and by then, we're swayed to come with. Elephant Theatre Lab, 1078 Lilian Way, Hlywd.; Sat., 8 p.m.; through Aug. 7, philvanhest.com. (866) 811-4111. (Amy Nicholson)
GO OTHELLO When you think Shakespeare in the Park, the first of the Bard's plays to spring to mind as one that makes sense to be staged in an outdoor setting is probably not the tale of the tragic Moor who is tricked into throttling his hapless wife as if she were a rubber chicken. But director Stephan Wolfert's unpretentious, moving production, staged in the outdoor band shell behind the Felicia Mahood Senior Center, unspools with an artful combination of psychological depth and brisk military precision — a fitting mash-up for a theater company whose members consist of professional actors who are a mix of military veterans and civilians. Although Shakespeare's text suffers from being trimmed to the bone to make the show's 90-minute performance time, Wolfert's production nevertheless boasts some rich character work. Wolfert's turn as the diabolical Iago, whose bitterness over being passed up for promotion drives him to trick his master, Othello (Arnell Powell), into killing his lovely wife, Desdemona (Jody Carlson), is fascinatingly complex. He plays the villain with surface geniality, wheedling his falsely friendly encouragements with an oily smile that makes it only too clear why Othello prefers the handsome, more obviously loyal Cassio (an appealingly charismatic Daniel Kucan). Powell assays Othello as a shrewd (but unexpectedly unworldly) military genius, attracted to the innocence of his Desdemona. He finds himself completely lost amidst the currents of psychological manipulation and warfare — an easy, naive mark for Wolfert's cerebrally wily Iago. The straightforward simplicity of the brutal scene in which Othello strangles Desdemona (Carlson plays her like some high school sweetheart) is so barbaric, it's far more profoundly disturbing than one sees in most productions of this work. The West L.A. Bandshell, behind the West L.A. Library, 11338 Santa Monica Blvd., W. L.A.; Sat.-Sun., 6 p.m.; through Aug. 8. (310) 559-2116. Free. Shakespeare and Veterans Productions. (Paul Birchall)
GO PLAY DATES Relationships would ride so much more smoothly if the elementary survey Will You Be My Girlfriend? Check "Yes" or "No," could be given/taken before every action. Do you want me to take out the trash right this minute? Will you be passive-aggressive if I have a quick drink with my friend, the one you hate? Do you have any intention of marrying and having children with me? The trick, of course, is answering honestly and earnestly, and not pouting like a kindergartner. In three short acts strung discreetly together, playwright Sam Wolfson takes a crack at love and relationships. The first, "Boy Meets Girl," is the sharpest of the trio. In their 48-hour romance, Stacey and Sam (Elizabeth Bond and a nicely understated Rob Nagle) connect over chitchat on the playground. "I'm a day trader," Sam says — "in the lunchroom: Snowballs, Star Crunches — desserts, mostly." The second act, "Dr. Love," is the weakest, mostly due to the now exhausted smart/shock-culture of both Dr. Drew and Howard Stern, on whom the title character seems to be based. Fortunately, it's short. Though the third, "Honeymoon Period," is a little too precious, if you've ever been long-coupled, the bedtime ritual that opens the act will be embarrassingly, hilariously familiar. "We were performing a scene from Gorillas in the Mist!" a horrified Katie (Kristin Lee Kelly) exclaims. Wolfson's dialogue is on par with the best sketch and sitcom writing, which means plenty of cozy pop culture references cushioning a Big Lesson. When the subject's love, no matter how much the ending resembles an episode of Friends, most audiences will relate. Kurt Boetcher's efficient set deserves mention, a very funny Brian Monahan rounds out the cast, and Jennifer Chambers directs. Green Beetle Productions, Elephant Space Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through August 1. (323) 960-7776. (Rebecca Haithcoat)
GO PROCREATION The plays of Justin Tanner are like Rice Krispies. They crackle when you pour in the right actors — and the actors here from his own company are just right — and then they kind of wash away. Maybe that doesn't matter. That crackling is the sound of Tanner's satirical barbs directed at the foibles and delusions of L.A. suburban white-trash types. (His latest farce is set in Highland Park.) He does for (or to) L.A. what Del Shores does for (or to) the South. Shores' plays come with more of a message and smidgen more sentimentality. Tanner brings on a gallery of types, lets them go until somebody lands on a revelation, or confession, which may or may not make a jot of difference to the lunatic world being depicted. Maybe it's apt that a play called Procreation should have 13 characters. One of them, Ruby (Danielle Kennedy), is a pregnant grandmother (awaiting octuplets — she's even brought the sonograms with her) with a sanctimonious gigolo beaux, played wonderfully cocky by Jonathan Palmer. (They both visit SoCal from Colorado, and he offers lectures on healthy lifestyle and self-discipline. He may as well be preaching on the virtues of vitamins to drug dealers.) Everybody here is in debt. Mom Hope (Melissa Denton) runs a novelty store called "Wish on a Rainbow," which smug hubby Michael (nicely goofy by Michael Halpin) announced must liquidate immediately. Can they afford to send their corpulent 15-year-old, bed-wetting son, Gavin (Kody Batchelor), to the fat farm? (He tosses his urine-drenched blanket at his relatives, for his own amusement. He will surely grow up to become a playwright.) Hope's sister Deanie (goggle-eyed Patricia Scanlon) hoards other people's garbage, while her terminally unemployed, good-natured husband, Bruce (Andy Marshall Daley), makes a career out of asking his relatives for loans. There are drug deals, offstage blow jobs and an entire subplot of gay intrigue. Tanner's satire of behaviors roasts not so much a culture of greed as a culture of need — derived from the cruelty of snarky jokes and emotional neglect. One character says, perhaps ironically, "Let's try to be more mindful of what we say from now on," as though that would fix anything. Call it Molière ultralite. Sitcoms like this depend on the unspoken reactions to the torrent of one-liners. Director David Schweizer has the cartoons just right, but he drives the play on the fuel of its quips rather than the comedic agony that lies beneath them. Which may be why the farce begins to wilt after an hour or so, despite the effervescence of ongoing amusement. The uncredited costumes are very witty. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 7 & 9:30 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Aug. 15, plays411.com. (310) 477-2055. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO THE RENDEZVOUS It's been nearly 20 years since New burlesque emerged from the cauldron of the L.A. and New York underground rock and dance-club scenes, which now makes it old enough to be a freshman in women's studies at UCLA and NYU. Director, choreographer, show creator and lead dancer, Lindsley Allen (Pussycat Dolls) gives an eye-popping, postgraduate demonstration of the nouvelle bump and grind as she leads her faculty of Cherry Boom Boom dancers through a raucous evening of retro-themed, terpsichorean tease. And what's not to like about sitting in a Hollywood Boulevard nightclub and watching a chorus of sexy women dressed to the nines in the fetishistic camp of skimpy, Anne Closs-Farley costumes, while lip-synching, shimmying and shaking for 75 minutes to rock & roll and exotica classics on designer François-Pierre Couture's seamy-noir set? Extra credit goes to Kelleia Sheerin's sleight-of-hips strip while gyrating inside a Hula-hoop; Ruthy Inchaustegui's gravity-defying, aerial sling dance; and Sharon Ferguson leading a line of corseted dominatrixes through a B&D whip number, fittingly set to the Cramps' "Queen of Pain." Ferguson doubles as the evening's breezy, Texas Guinan–esque emcee, while Angela Berliner and Brian Kimmet do exemplary narrative duty in an engaging, bad-date comedy pantomime threaded between the dance numbers. David Robbins' high-decibel sound and Sean Forrester's kinetic lights set an appropriately louche, red-light mood. King King, 6555 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; last Thursday of every month, 9 p.m. (323) 960-5765. (Bill Raden)
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