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Theater Reviews: Thurgood, As the Globe Warms, I'm Not Here Anymore

Songs And Dances Of Imaginary Lands
PHOTO BY MICHAEL B. HARRINGTON

AS THE GLOBE WARMS Solo performer Heather Woodbury creates elaborate worlds. For her performance, What Ever, Woodbury elasticized herself into 100 characters for a sprawling American epic. This follow-up is a semi-political soap opera that will run a new installment every weekend for three months, and, gauging by its launch, Woodbury's interested in charting the rise and fall of the artistic class and the crystallization of the divide between the two Americas. On the 4th of July 1985, a cowed girl picks up a video camera and discovers she's an artist; 25 years later, she's dead and her brother is attempting to describe her archive of tapes to a barbecue of gentrified Californian creatives who deign to do their own sculpting rather than hiring interns for the "dirty" work. On the other coast, a preacher, his shrewish Tea Party wife and their daydreamy teen daughter fret about the BP oil spill and a species of endangered frogs that might prevent them from expanding their church's parking lot. Woodbury has little patience for both blues and reds and loves to skewer the of hypocrisies of both camps. To help her stay true to her own voice, she could use a director (none is credited) to help her shape and simplify her frantic character changes; she has a capable range of accents but spends scenes shifting wildly around in her chair to make sure we're following who's who. Besides the chair, the only prop onstage is a handycam that records each episode for the internet and streams it live on a screen against the wall. It's unclear yet if the distraction will prove purposeful, but what's certain from the starting gate is that the enthusiastic Woodbury has energy for miles (and months). Echo Curio, 1519 Sunset Blvd., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.; through Oct. 2 (no performance July 31). (213) 977-1279. (Amy Nicholson)

GO BECKY'S NEW CAR "When a woman says she wants a new house, she really wants a new husband. When she says she wants a new car, she really wants a new life." In Steven Dietz's smart if tonally uneven new play, these are the prophetic words of amiable and grounded Becky Foster (Joanna Daniels), who worries that she has squandered her best years as an office manager drudge at a car dealership, while saddled with a lumpen husband (Jon Eric Preston) and patronizing grad student son (Nick Rogers). A chance for a new life comes prancing into Becky's dealership, when slightly spacey billionaire billboard tycoon Walter (Brad Greenquist) randomly chooses Becky as the sales agent for his mass-purchase of cars for all the employees at his company. Walter, grieving over the death of his wife, is inexplicably attracted to the earthy "real world" Becky, whose own moral compass starts swinging around like a drunken sailor as she contemplates ditching her family for a life of glamour and wealth. Dietz's play receives its Los Angeles premiere in director Michael Rothhaar's whimsical production that comes laced with melancholy. The play's genesis is worthy of some note: The work was a personal commission by a Seattle arts patron as a gift for his wife. As such, the material occasionally tries a little too hard to please, with a narrative that occasionally emulates the mood of 1930s screwball comedies — a style that is an uneven alchemical fit with the underlying tone of midlife despair, in which the work is also deeply steeped. However, when Dietz is willing to let the play rise to silly froth, the results are splendid. Scenes in which Daniels' bubbly Becky repeatedly invites opinions from audience members — some of whom are roped onstage into helping her with a wonderfully droll costume change moment — balance charmingly with moments in which she finds herself swept away by Greenquist's charismatic Walter. Although the contrivances of the play's final third are too preposterous to sustain even willing disbelief, the ensemble overall crackles with witty, sympathetic performances — including Rogers as Becky's goofy son and by Suzanne Ford's graceful turn as a prickly rival for Walter's affections. Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd, Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through August 15. (310) 822-8392. (Paul Birchall)

I'M NOT HERE ANYMORE W. Colin McKay has cast his play in the form of a mystery. Josh (Dayton Knoll) is a former GI who has served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and suffers from combat trauma upon his return home. He has frightening flashbacks, which can drive him to violence, and he's haunted by two people (or are they hallucinations?) from his time in the Gulf. Kim (Casey Fitzgerald) is a girl who was killed by a roadside bomb, and Eddie (Sal Landi) is his former buddy, whom he believes aims to kill him if he reveals dark secrets about his time in the combat zone. There are also two doctors, Mel (Brian Connors) and David (Dig Wayne), who are at odds about Josh's treatment. But there are too many mysteries, and too few reliable "facts" for us to know precisely what's going on. Josh is clearly an unreliable narrator, the two ghosts/hallucinations have agendas of their own, and so perhaps do the doctors. We can never be certain whether Josh is dogged by psychotic fantasies, or telling uncomfortable truths the army wants to keep under wraps by committing him to a mental hospital. Good work from the actors and director Al Bonadies, but the script is perplexing. Pan Andreas Theatre, 5125 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., through Aug. 28. Produced by The Actorhood. (323) 468-8062 or TheActorHood.com. (Neal Weaver)

GO  OTHELLO Shakespeare must've been orchestrating from his grave: Three times during Independent Shakespeare Company's production of Othello in Griffith Park, a pack of coyotes burst into laughter. Fitting that nature should interject its opinion on that most futile of human emotions that motorizes the action of Shakespeare's tragedy. "O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on ..." the kingpin Iago ironically warns Othello. Director Melissa Chalsma has elicited smart, sharp, funny interpretations from her cast, notably Cameron Knight, Andre Martin, David Melville and Bernadette Sullivan; and even with the distractions that accompany an outdoor performance (bring blankets and sweaters), the audience was rapt throughout. As Othello, Knight precisely navigates the slippery slope into paranoia, gradually unraveling until he becomes near-primal, the "black ram" Iago first described him as and now has led him to be. Melville, a charismatic villain, transforms physically as Iago, bounding confidently at Act 1 opens, only to become hunched and shuffling as if shackled by mid-play. Shakespeare proves to have been a cultural seer — he set an African as commander-in-chief long before we even considered the idea — commenting on interracial marriage ages before Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and promoting feminist ideology centuries before Gloria Steinem became a Playboy Bunny. Universal truths keep him relevant; here, it's how susceptible we are to doubt and how jealousy erects a steel coffin around the mind. The desire to exact justice after being provoked by senseless injustices keeps Shakespeare satisfying, despite the inevitable high body count that revenge can accrue. Here, justice is served by a woman choosing truth over matrimonial obedience, while the revenge is as misguided as it is pointless. Independent Shakespeare Co. and Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival, Griffith Park, Old Zoo Picnic Area, 4730 Crystal Springs Dr.; Thurs.-Sun., 7 p.m.; through August 1. (818) 710-6306 or iscla.org (Rebecca Haithcoat)

REDHEAD CUBAN HAUSFRAU HUSBAND Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were pioneer celebrities who set the standard for clean, white-bread television comedy. They also were one of Hollywood's original power couples amassing a fortune from ownership of their own studios. But in his self-described musical homage to the I Love Lucy show, writer-director Fletcher Rhoden fall short of telling their story or of telling any story that's the least bit compelling. The herky-jerky script contains no semblance of narrative cohesiveness or flow, though it comes spiced here and there with historic details about Ms. Ball's life. Performer Joan Elizabeth Kennedy fails to channel Lucy convincingly, and is consistent only in singing off-key. Ditto for Derek Rubiano, whose Cuban accent wobbles in a remedial performance. Rhoden's music and lyrics are competent though without a hint of any Latin-American origins or influence in the music. Rhoden's direction does little to shore up the holes in his script. Jodi Skeris and Michael Anthony Nozzi are presumably standing in for other actors as the zany neighbors, but that's hard to tell from the program. Mount Hollywood Theater, 4607 Prospect Ave., Hollywood: Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Sept 4. (323) 667-9113. (Lovell Estell III)

1776 When composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards and librettist Peter Stone's feel-good, cartoon history became the surprise hit of the 1968-69 Broadway season, the country was mired in an unpopular war, riven by social discord and rocked by the suspicion that maybe we weren't the moral leaders of "the free world" after all. Forty years later, surprisingly little has changed, so what better time to roll out this amiable, musical reminder of our erstwhile nobility? And if the tone seems a bit self-congratulatory or historically reductive for some tastes, credit director Nick DeGruccio's impeccable production and a flawless ensemble for so ably selling Stone's long-winded book and Edward's mostly undistinguished songs. The story is, of course, the debates leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, wherein we learn that the Founding Fathers liked to have sex but didn't necessarily like one another, and that they sold out the rights of African-Americans for the sake of consensus. Steven Glaudini delivers an uncanny impersonation of William Daniels as John Adams; Stephen Vinovich is appropriately bawdy and avuncular as scene-stealer Benjamin Franklin; and Robert J. Townsend, as South Carolina slaver Edward Rutledge, electrifies the house with his stirring rendition of "Molasses to Rum." Costumer Yolanda Rowell provides the eye candy with her sumptuous collection of frock coats and lace; Steven Young's lights lend it all a John Trumbull elegance; and Musical Director Matthew Smedal tops it off with admirable pitch-perfection. Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., July 18, 2 & 7 p.m.; Sun., July 25, 2 p.m.; through July 25. (562) 985-7000. A Musical Theatre West production. (Bill Raden)

GO  SONGS AND DANCES OF IMAGINARY LANDS Pretend that you are a 5-year-old at an art museum: The concepts of line, perspective, medium and tone mean nothing to you. In fact, if imposed on your experience, they would only detract from it. But despite your age, on a visceral level you are seduced by the vibrancy of color and the familiarity of shape. In the same way, this site-specific contemporary opera, developed by director and co-choreographer O-Lan Jones, resonates with sight, sound and spectacle, despite the difficulty in imposing traditional meaning on it. Where once Mazdas were sold, now theater is happening, and Jones serves up a feast for the senses, along with musical director David O, set and costume designer Snezana Petrovic, and a cast and crew of dozens of artists. The feast consists of a series of songs, dances, short scenes and videos that thematically interweave elements of both human history and the stages of our lives. Depending on the price of their tickets, audience members can either ride in "trains" or walk and carry their folding chairs between performance venues in the 25,000-square-foot space. In addition to the obvious commentary on social class, this unique seating arrangement never lets you become restless. And though the vignettes are uneven, what impresses most are Petrovic's imaginative use of the space and the coordination required to keep so many moving parts working together harmoniously. 8810 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through July 18. (323) 655-2410, overtoneindustries.org. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO  THURGOOD There's much to recommend in George Stevens Jr.'s generic biodrama about the legendary African-American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose career as an NAACP attorney culminated in successfully arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that South Carolina's "separate but equal" defense of racial segregation was unconstitutional. The play, if one dares to call it that, is at its best during those trial scenes in which the event's only actor, Laurence Fishburne reprising his Broadway appearance, plays out scenes from the series of trials as both both Marshall and his opponent, John W. Davis. Unfortunately, this courtroom drama, which constitutes a fleeting if climactic segment of the piece, is the only drama. The rest is a lecture by Marshall at Howard University in which, for little apparent reason other than his acceptance of a lecture fee, he reflects on his life and career. Fishburne portrays him as both folksy and crusty, with nice physical detail as the man ages, but this is all a bit like Hal Holbrook portraying Mark Twain: completely d ependent on wit, whimsy and legend, while bypassing so much of the human being underneath. He refers to his difficult character, but that darker side has no reason or context to show itself, and that would be a show. What we get is a full dose of Marshall's courage and rectitude, in which we're "challenged" to submit to his thesis that segregation, lynchings and bigotry in general are really bad things, and that they're not even constitutional. Okay, I'll keep that in mind. What saves Leonard Foglia's production from tedium is the history lesson itself, how in economic downturns we, like most countries, turn on the spigot of racial hatred, which spews over so many laws that have tried to contain it. Elaine J. McCarthy's projection designs are a cinematic yet effective way to bring the last century into our laps. It's an oddity but true here that an idea for a play can be more powerful than the play itself. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through Aug. 8. (310) 208-5454. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  TWO PLAYS BY YUKIO MISHIMA Perhaps most notorious in the West for his sensational, 1970 suicide by seppuku, controversial poet-novelist Yukio Mishima was also a playwright of both contemporary dramas and works blending the modern with traditions drawn from the classical Japanese stage. This fascinating evening features two of Mishima's modernized Noh texts from 1956 (translated by Donald Keene) that play like a Gothic mix of Tennessee Williams and Edgar Allen Poe. With Hanjo, directed by Aramazd Stepanian, Mishima takes the theme of pure love into the tortured extreme of the Noh madness play. Jitsuko (Hiroko Imai) is a 40-year-old painter who, though she has never found love, has discovered the perfect embodiment of it as a subject for her paintings in Hanako (Kazumi Zatkin), a beautiful geisha driven insane by the agony of futilely waiting for the return of true love Yoshio (Yutaka Takeuchi). In The Lady Aoi, Toshi Toda directs Mishima's surreal twist on the vengeful ghost play. Hikaru (Toshiya Agata) arrives at a strange clinic to find his sedated young wife, Aoi (Miho Ando), tormented by "the ghost of a libido," the still-burning love/hate of Hikaru's jilted former lover (Fay Kato). Toda also directs a traditional, short Kyogen interlude piece, the farcical Hana-Ko. Though the production has its share of rough edges, a delightful cast and supple direction (accented by Chris Edinjikilian's misty scenic painting and Sandy Gabucan's effective lights) neatly illuminate Mishima's dark and uncompromising obsessions. Luna Playhouse, 3706 San Fernando Road, Glendale; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; through Aug. 1. (818) 500-7200. (Bill Raden)


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