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Theater Reviews: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk, They Call Me Mister Fry, Bones

Live Nude Beckett
PHOTO COURTESY OF 2K PRODUCTIONS

GO  BONES Childhood sexual abuse may no longer be the unmentionable topic it once was, but that hasn't lessened its horror or salved the terrible scars borne by its victims. Powered by blistering performances under Gordon Edelstein's direction, playwright Dael Orlandersmith's one-act pivots around a confrontation between an unrecalcitrant alcoholic named Claire (Khandi Alexander) and her two grown children. Twins Leah (Tessa Auberjonois) and Steven (Tory Kittles) have both been maimed by a dark and baneful past. At Leah's bequest, the three meet after a five-year separation in an airport motel room — a sterile environs (designer Takeshi Kata's tidy set) that contrasts sharply with the histrionic outpourings that soon follow. Leah's motive for summoning her mother and brother is to purge the obsessive rage that consumes her; in her recollection both had physically and/or sexually abused her. That recollection doesn't jibe with her brother's memory of things, nor with her mother who claims her own victim status and insists it was she who tried — but failed — to protect Leah from her pernicious, predatory dad. In Rashomon-like fashion, each recalls their own Stygian scenario, although all focus on the omnipresent ghost of Claire's drunken, fornicating partner whom she shared with the man's legally married wife. Highlighted by lighting designer Lap-Chi Chu's shifting shadows, Adam Phalen's sound, and the jarring lament of jazz musicians Doug Webb and Nedra Wheeler's live sax and bass, the story ripples with past and present time permutations. It's an hour-plus of maelstromlike intensity, with a star ensemble that never loses control. Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through August 8. (213) 628-2772. (Deborah Klugman)

THE EXISTENTS All the world's a rock band, and all the men and women merely players. That could have been one of the many quotes that is projected across the multiple screens in James Spencer's set. Another, from Buddha: "The whole secret of existence is to have no fear." And there is a fearless quality to composer-lyricist/performer Ty Taylor's new musical about the rise, fall and resurrection of a rock band. The book is by Douglas Crawford, Taylor and Jason Wooten, and the musical is part of Open Fist Theatre's First Look Festival. At its current stage, the play's ambition is to spin the domestic tensions among the band — which soars in the stratosphere of fame for a while before imploding — as an allegory for family. So when Orion (Taylor) seduces the female drummer, Ella (Laura Jane), after his friend/artistic inspiration, Travis (Jason Paige), had composed her love song, it's Betrayal — allegorical and cosmic. Or when Sky (Chase Matthews) slips back into an old drug habit as tensions within the group escalate, it's the essence of Despondency. The arbitrary death of one of the players in a traffic accident is the working of Destiny, the representative of all the tragedy that lands upon any of us, for no explicable reason. What the creators haven't yet solved is the distinction between the allegorical and the generic. Under Martha Demson's simple, sleek direction, the earnestly told story and its twists of fate are variations on the general trajectories of almost all rock bands, of all kids trying to be both artist and superstar. I waited somewhat patiently for hints of satire, or some larger oppression against which this band is rebelling. This is a group desperately in need of a jerk, to rattle some cages. What destroys most bands are contract disputes and raging egos, and there's nothing of that here. When they get famous, there are no wry allusions to the absurdities or caprices of professional success. I kept thinking of Frank Zappa's Joe's Garage, on this same stage, also about a perplexed rock musician, and its stink bombs directed at the conformity of the age, and at the disconnect between celebrity and accomplishment. Tyler's musical floats on the all myths Joe's Garage kicked in the balls. The four-piece band provides fine accompaniment to some sweet pop songs, performed by the amiable ensemble. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; in rep, through August 22. (323) 882-6912. (Steven Leigh Morris)

LIVE NUDE BECKETT First off, an answer to the obvious question raised by directors Harry Kakatsakis and Jordan Davis' provocative title: Yes, the six-member cast in this selection of short works by Samuel Beckett are costumed solely in their birthday suits — that is if you don't count production designer Gary Klavans' Day-Glo–painted stripes and masks that, under technical director Zane Cooper's all-ultraviolet lighting, gives the actors the appearance of wearing garishly fluorescing and (alas!) opaque, stick-figure body suits. From the program notes, the nudity conceit seems to be nothing more than a punning afterthought, arising from the production's aim of "stripping" the pieces "to their 'bare' essence." While such extreme departures from the exacting intentions of a playwright so notorious for being fastidiously protective of his work might seem a sacrilege to some, the true disservice here is to the ensemble. Such dim and distorting black light obscures too much of the actors' expressive faculties, particularly in the evening's mime pieces, in effect forcing them literally to work in the dark. Still, even in such brutalized Beckett, occasional glimpses of the maestro's mordant wit and eloquent anguish shine through, especially via Davis and Amy McKenzie, who give tantalizing hints of the Beckettian voice both in 1975's Footfalls, as well as (with Natalie Rose) in the 1966, three-character "dramaticule," Come and Go. Next Stage Theater, 1523 N. La Brea Ave., 2nd flr., L.A.; Sat., 9:45 p.m.; through August 21. (917) 340-5895, (818) 720-9651. (Bill Raden)

 

SHAKE A man named Bill (Jo Egender) and his ex, Peggy (Alina Phelan), stand eight uneasy feet apart after a chance encounter in a park. She's homeless; he's a lapsed alcoholic. What turned their love upside-down? Joshua Fardon's chronological play ticks backward every month for a year, from August 2002 to September 10, 2001, and unpacks the affairs and betrayals and guilts sprung from strangers named Matt (Troy Blendell), Julia (Michelle Gardner) and Robin (Bridgette Campbell). The mystery comes in the reverse momentum. Told forward, it's a soap opera — going back, a parlor game. We know this drama traces back to the fall of the towers, but when we get there, we realize Bill and Peggy's relationship was already headed to destruction — 9/11 simply changed the route. More catastrophic is the entrance of Claire (Hiwa Bourne), a femme fatale who uses the disaster for her own ends, though even she, too, is scrabbling for a purpose. Kiff Scholl's direction knows that with every scene, the characters know less and hope more. Under his guidance, Phelan's New York naif is especially heartbreaking. She's a girl with simple dreams, and within the year, even those are impossibly far away. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through September 5. (323) 856-8611. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  STREEP TEASE: AN EVENING OF MERYL STREEP MONOLOGUES "Meryl Streep, gay icon?" I asked Google. She's no Judy Garland, but enough affirmative results returned that, when considered alongside creator Roy Cruz's all-male review of some of Streep's finest screen scenes, she seems well on her way. In her roles, she's checked off, among others, driven activist, "guilty-until-proven-innocent" outsider, and frost-bitten bitch. In her "real" life, she's eschewed ascribing to Hollywood's rigid standards of beauty, becoming successful on her own terms. Cruz and director Ezra Weisz have constructed a well-structured, tight show that's over almost before you want it to be, even though the theater is stuffy to the point of sweaty (further proof of their sense of humor — hand-held fans emblazoned with Streep's face are given as trivia prizes). In case you lack an "inner Streep," Cruz prefaces each monologue with a synopsis of the movie. Mimicking the Academy Awards' setup, a swell of music sweeps the performer down the aisle and up the stage, and he poses dramatically as the lights fade. Since the cast chose their own pieces, they're all well reenacted; naming a favorite is really more about your own favorite "Meryl moment." That said, Trent Walker's scene from Silkwood is white-trashtastic; and Taylor Negron's from Sophie's Choice coalesces the audience into one being, collectively holding our breaths and back our tears. The show's great affection for the un-diva is best revealed in its gentle ribbing, though: Mike Rose's re-creation of a scene from The River Wild should be included if Ms. Streep ever gets a roast. BANG, 457 Fairfax Ave., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through August 29. (323) 653-6886. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

STRIPPED (A COMEDY ABOUT A DRAMA) Who'd have guessed that the gaudy neon sign around the corner advertising Psychic Readings could be hiding a theater. There is indeed a tiny space upstairs for storytelling that is probably more real that the storytelling going on downstairs. In this case, the story is Kirsten Severson's tale of the tumultuous end to her five-year relationship with "The Prince." Accompanied onstage by two video screens, Severson describes the good times in their relationship (including the clever "Peas in a Pod" video montage) before transitioning to the fateful voice mail that begins her descent into insecurity and heartbreak. Originally a solo show titled ... I Think You Went a Little Far With the Herpes Thing ..., the piece has since been developed into a feature film, and now returns as a half-film/half-staged solo show. The combination of media unfortunately doesn't gel, and despite some good lines and moments, director Carlos Velasco's pacing drags in a number of spots and Severson's stage presence feels halfhearted at times. Instead the video sequences — which are well lit and crisply edited — are the show's most engaging aspect. As a short film it could prove visually arresting; as a piece of theater, however, it's little more than another love story gone awry. Psychic Visions Theatre, 3447 Motor Ave., West L.A.; Fri., 8:30 p.m.; through August 27. (310) 535-6007. psychicvisionstheatre.com A Roadkill Productions Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

 

GO  THEY CALL ME MISTER FRY With charismatic comic timing, droll impersonation skills, and a boisterous stage persona that occasionally brings to mind the outlandishness of Robin Williams, writer-performer Jack Freiberger, in his solo show, glibly traipses through the tale of his first year as a fifth grade teacher in a dangerous and crime-riddled "No Child Left Behind" elementary school somewhere in South Los Angeles. Fry is the perfect teacher we all wish we'd had when we were young: avuncular, personable and just a little bit dorky, with an educational philosophy that's motivated by a useful mix of idealism and pragmatism. Fry's tale, admittedly, hews to traditional and somewhat predictable series of "public school" tale tropes — he is offered a job at the South Central school, where he at first feels completely lost in the world of violent teens in a dead-end school. Yet, he gradually finds his way, even with his most troubled students. Throughout the tale, Freiberger plays himself, but he also assays all the other characters: his students, a burly, take-no-prisoners principal, and the prune-faced state educational commissioner who takes umbrage over Fry's use of a balloon sword in class. Although the pacing of director Jeff Michaelski's intimate production sags toward the end, Freiberger himself is consistently charming, holding our attention through anecdotes both touching and funny. Even when some of the piece's scenes seep into melodrama, he holds our attention effortlessly, proof that being a good teacher and being a good actor are by no means mutually exclusive. Asylum Theater, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Sat., Aug. 7, 3 p.m. (800) 838-3006. (Paul Birchall)

GO  THE TRUE STORY OF JACK AND THE BEANSTALK For the past 12 summers, the Culver City Public Theatre has been staging free plays in cozy Carlson Park for families. Audiences bring picnics, blankets and chairs and gather under shady trees for an hour or so of entertainment — generally crowd-pleasing fare such as popular Shakespeare comedies and kid-friendly classics. Now playing is an imaginative adaptation (by director Heidi Dotson) of the fairy tale "Jack and the Beanstalk." Dotson cleverly blends the tale of the golden goose with the familiar story of simpleton Jack, who trades the family cow for a handful of magic beans. Nicely expanded into two acts that fill an hour, the retooled story presents the usually terrifying giant (Dean Edward) as a struggling poet with a devious wife (Ronnie Loaiza), and fashions a thoroughly happy ending. Beautifully narrated by the cow, Milky White (Rachanee Kitchel) — whom, hilariously, only the audience can understand — this sweet, magical play had little kids and adults giggling. Cute sets, costumes and props, as well as the lovely cast, make this is a delightful, low-tech production. Dr. Paul Carlson Memorial Park, Motor Avenue & Braddock Drive, Culver City; Sat.-Sun., noon. (in rep with "The Enchanted Cottage, which performs at 2 p.m.); through August 22. (310) 712-5482. A Children's Popcorn Theater production. (Pauline Adamek)

A WALK IN THE WOODS Lee Blessing's play is set in Geneva, during a disarmament conference, where two negotiators seek to construct a treaty acceptable to both sides. Stodgy, naive, idealistic American John Honeyman (owlish Fox Carney) believes in rationality, and wants to make the world safe from nuclear holocaust. Andre Botvinnik (volatile Larry Eisenberg), a canny, cynical Russian with an impish sense of humor, knows the two powers, the U.S. and Russia, are more interested in seeming to want a disarmament agreement than in actually wanting one. He no longer believes in the reality of their mission, and hopes to make life more palatable by making a friend of Honeyman. He attempts amusingly frivolous conversation, but Honeyman is incapable of frivolity, and likes it that way. Their friendship can only bumble along, with two steps back for every step forward. Their debates are clever, literate and passionate, and their halting steps toward friendship are touching and funny. Richard Alan Woody directs with finesse and draws fine performances from his actors, but he never manages to convince us that the stakes are particularly high, when they couldn't be higher. The Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., N.Hlywd.; Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 4 p.m., through September 4. Produced by the Group Repertory at the Lonny Chapman Theatre. (818) 700-4878, thegrouprep.com. (Neal Weaver)

WHEN IT RAINS GASOLINE/TAPE The first of these one-acts is written by Jason D. Martin and explores the angst-ridden, perplexing world of teens. Through a loosely connected montage of scenes, the cast members confront issues that include dating, sex and abstinence, social networking, peer pressure and jealousy. Some of this is engaging, much is facile. In one scene, Alyssa (Evelyn Gonzalez) spends an inordinate amount of time whining about a prom dress. In another, Emily (Sara Swain), who has just found out she's pregnant, obliges us with fruitless, albeit tender, reflections. Glaringly absent are issues of the troublesome topics of drug abuse and racism. Mason does explore — with brutal clarity — issues of homosexuality and homophobia. The cast performs capably under Joe Filippone and Joelle Arqueros' direction. Did he or didn't he? The answer is far from clear in Stephen Belber's "Tape," a Pinter-esque tale of guilt and retribution. Tossed from his home by an irate girlfriend, low-level drug dealer Vince (Nicolas Read), takes up residency in a Motel 6, where he hooks up with his longtime buddy Jon (Will Shivers). The bon homie atmosphere gradually gives way to simmering hostilities, as Vince accuses Jon of raping his old girlfriend. A taped confession to the crime stirs the pot even more, but the real punch comes when Amy (Whitney Ayers), the girl who was allegedly raped, shows up and immediately starts to mind-fuck the duo. The final scene is darkly hilarious. Belber provides a script loaded with psychological subtlety, and director Argueros commands some really good performances. The Renegade Theatre, 1514 N. Gardner St., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat.7 p.m.; through August 7. (323) 769-5566. (Lovell Estell III)


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