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Theater Reviews: Titus Andronicus, Debbie Reynolds: Alive and Fabulous

The Reckoning
PHOTO BY CARLOS SAN MIGUEL

GO  DEBBIE REYNOLDS: ALIVE AND FABULOUS On opening night, myriad Debbie Reynolds cronies decked out in their Hollywood best showed up to support the movie legend and to fill the coffers of the Thalians, a mental health charity. Reynolds went all out for her pals in the audience, with vitality and sardonic humor. In her homage to her own illustrious career, Reynolds mocks herself and her aging audience with the show opener, Sondheim's "I'm Still Here," the first in an evening of jokes about still being alive. Between songs and clips from her film career, from June Bride to Singin' in the Rain, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and beyond, Reynolds' self-effacing quips celebrate both her enormous talent and her unrepentant life as a "bitch," with a crustiness that's joyfully delivered. She presents tributes to and impressions of many departed friends, including Judy Garland and Bette Davis, but it is her spot-on imitation of the still very present Barbra Streisand (complete with a fake big nose and long-haired wig) that brings down the house. She heaps well-deserved praise on her musical director/pianist Joey Singer and percussionist Gerry Genuario, with whom she has spent years performing. Just approaching 80, Reynolds is indeed alive and fabulous. Her show is a pleasure. El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Oct. 3. (818) 508-4200. (Tom Provenzano)

ELEKTRA ELEKTRA There are numerous elements that could contribute to a mind- and heart-wrenching production of Sophocles' tragedy of matricide and vengeance. Start with the outdoor amphitheater tucked into the grounds of the Getty Villa, which allows for the kind of epic acting style that gives the drama its ferocity; add Pamela Reed's powerhouse performance as Clytemnestra, the matriarch who recently murdered her husband, General Agamemnon, upon his return to her bed from the Trojan War. (She had her reasons, and no it wasn't another woman.) Reed possesses the regal grandeur one would expect from the Lady of the House of Atreus. Yet within that noble posture, she can roll her eyes at the ravings of her embittered daughter, Elektra (Annie Purcell), or toss off a one-liner as though she's in a comedy of manners. Inexplicably, that contradiction results in nuance rather than tearing at the ligaments. It takes a rare gift to pull that off. Then there's Timberlake Wertenbaker's lucid, oratorical translation, composer/musical director Bonfire Madigan Shive's lugubrious music played by cellist Theresa Wong (additional music by Michael Wells and Wong), with percussion by Wells. Also grand is Jack Willis' rich-voiced Tutor, guiding Clytemnestra's long-lost son, Orestes (Manoel Feliciano), into the parlor for some unpleasantry. The play hangs on Purcell's Elektra, and the reasons behind her fury at her mother. And there it hangs itself. When that emotion is as earnest and generic as it is here, the cello accompaniment gets snagged on the high wires of pretentiousness. Purcell pours out her heart with a limited range of tonalities, resulting in a stagey effort. How these torrential emotions can be made authentic is the mystery of this play as well as the art of acting. The danger is, when it's not quite there, it's not there at all, and everything else starts to unravel, so that we're left appreciating some staging effects and a couple of good performances, rather than feeling the power of a classic. Carey Perloff directs. Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 2. (310) 440-7300. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Andrew Lloyd Webber's longest-running Broadway musical in history (now in its 23rd year) is also the world's most lucrative single entertainment project to date, raking in more than $3 billion since it was first staged in London in 1986. Now in its third national tour, presented by the Music Box Company, "Phanty" will sing its swan song on Halloween night at the Pantages. Based on Gaston Leroux's Gothic romance, and reminiscent of the fable Beauty and the Beast, the story follows promising singer Christine (Trista Moldovan) as she falls under the spell of a masked and ghoulish Phantom (Tim Martin Gleason inhabits the role with conviction), who haunts the Paris Opera House. The superb cast includes Sean MacLaughlin as Christine's suitor Raoul and Kim Stengel playing the pompous diva Carlotta. Moldovan's clear, pure voice only occasionally competes with the lush sounds of the orchestra. Infamous for borrowing several musical phrases from Puccini and even Pink Floyd, Webber's melodies may be as pedestrian as this musical is popular. His composition moves seamlessly from grand opera to romantic duets to rock opera (wailing electric guitar), all of which mesh well with occasional harp and violin solos, and the soaring, tender melodies that create several shivery moments. Harold Prince is still credited for the crisp direction. Energetic conducting by William Waldrop rounds out this first-rate production. Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 31. (213) 365-3500. (Pauline Adamek)

 

THE RECKONING The setting for Kimba Henderson's sprawling drama is a Louisiana crawfish farm called Rubaiyat. The farm is owned by the Robilliards, a proud, affluent black family headed by L.J., an iron-willed patriarch who, as the play opens, is set to return from a stay in the hospital. L.J. (Alex Morris) is determined that daughter Nathalie (the splendid Toyin Moses) take over the farm, and he'll stop at nothing to see that she does, even if it means breaking up her pending marriage to a young doctor (Dorian Christian Baucum). When a strapping young white man named Nicholas (Jacob Sidney) mysteriously arrives, L.J. encourages him to woo Nathalie. But Rubaiyat has an ugly history filled with angry ghosts, dating back to the days of slavery, and it is in the telling of that history that Henderson's otherwise intelligently written script becomes a tad cumbersome. By way of flashbacks, some of which are awkwardly inserted, we learn about how a white family, the Burnsides, were cheated out of title to the plantation, and of the taboo, interracial love affair that caused it. The parallels between past and present become apparent, but this obvious contrivance and the facts unveiled do little to bolster the play's story and become distracting. Rubaiyat's dark past collides with the present in Act 2, where the identity and true purpose of Nicholas' appearance come to light. By this time, however, the surprises are slight, and the resolutions unsatisfying. Ben Guillory directs a very good cast, whose solid performances somewhat offset the script's shortcomings. John Paul Luckenbach's two-tier set piece is a knockout. Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru. Oct. 24. (866) 811-4111. (Lovell Estell III)

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE An entirely satisfying adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's 1969, postmodernist, antiwar novel may simply be a dramatic impossibility. George Roy Hill's 1972 film version comes close in its rendering of the book's dark, ironic fatalism and some of its chaotic narrative sweep. Where both Hill and this 1996 stage adaptation by Steppenwolf writer Eric Simonson fall short, however, is in capturing the elusive, playful poignancy of a story that is less about war than it is about memory and reconciling the trauma of the lived experience. In the case of both Vonnegut the author/narrator (Raymond Donahey) and his fictional, time-tripping everyman, Billy Pilgrim — a role split between Don Schlossman, A.J. Diamond and Owen Sholar as, respectively, Old Billy, Young Billy and Boy Billy — the experience in question is their survival of the militarily pointless Allied firebombing of Dresden at the end of WWII. How each struggles to give meaning to an atrocity that beggars human imagination — Vonnegut by writing his novel; Billy by retreating into solipsistic, sci-fi fantasy — drives the action of both novel and play. Director Tiger Reel (who is also credited with the show's minimalist set and evocative sound design) composes some lovely stage images, but when it comes to leading his uneven ensemble (including the novelist's daughter, Lily Vonnegut) through Simonson's purposefully disjunctive, albeit unwieldy, smash-cut scenes, the director seems little more than a traffic cop. Clever illumination by designer Matt Richter unfortunately also sheds unwelcome light on costumer Becca Fuchs' period malapropisms. Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 23. (213) 393-5638, action-theatre.com. An Action! Theatre Company production. (Bill Raden)

GO  STATE OF THE UNION When politics-as-usual gets you down, humor and fantasy can help, which may explain the Pulitzer Prize for this 1945 romantic comedy about an honest man who considers running for president, then realizes the compromises he'll have to make to win. Writers Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse's play debuted after WWII, when the United States was flexing newly acquired muscles on the world stage and organized labor was still a force to be reckoned with. When it begins, the Republican powers-that-be are searching for an outsider (some things don't change) to challenge Truman in 1948. A savvy political operative named Conover (James Gleason) is testing the waters with a business executive, Grant Matthews (Don Fischer) and his popular public persona. Anxious to brush Matthews' affair with a glamorous female publisher (Tracy Powell) under the rug, Conover calls on Matthews' estranged wife, Mary (D.J. Harner), to join the campaign. Mary's initial reluctance metamorphoses into enthusiasm after messages from the common folk come flooding in, and she becomes the voice of democratic idealism railing against Conover's special interests. Though the piece supposedly revolves around Matthews and his choices, in this production it is Harner's charismatic housewife who garners the spotlight, transforming this stolid message-vehicle into lively human drama. Fischer, a bit stiff, appears every inch a captain of industry but is less convincing as a man of integrity. Elizabeth Herron scores as Lulubelle, the discerning wife of a corrupt judge. Designer Joel Daavid's handsome set frames the action, and Meagan Evers' costumes (The men's ties are a treat!) enliven it. Anita Khanzadian directs. NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Oct. 31. interactla.org. (877) 369-9112. Presented by Interact Theatre Co. (Deborah Klugman)

 

GO  TAKE ME OUT Baseball star Darren Leming (Ary Katz), the central figure in Richard Greenberg's provocative 2002 comedy-drama, is a paragon of talent, skill and virtue. Half black and half white, he has become baseball's golden boy, admired and adored by teammates and fans until he impulsively decides to come out as gay, and the press runs with the story. He thinks that because he's young and rich and famous and talented and handsome, he's immune to negative consequences. But like a rock dropped into a pond, his revelation produces ever-widening ripples that undermine his world. Bigotry and religious fanaticism rear their heads, as irate fans accuse him of desecrating the sacred sport. As for his teammates, it's a loss of innocence: They're forced to confront the homoeroticism that underlies their comfortable locker-room intimacy. Most deeply affected is newly recruited relief pitcher Shane Mungitt (Garrett Matheson), a naive, dim, barely literate orphan from the deep South, where racism and homophobia were bred in his bones. He's ultimately both victim and aggressor, driven by feelings he doesn't understand, to an act of ambiguous but lethal violence. Greenberg probes issues of sexual identity, moral ambiguity, personal responsibility and baseball, in pungent, idiosyncratic dialogue laced with subversive wit. Director Michael Matthews has assembled an almost perfect cast on Kurt Boetcher's intimate in-the-round set, and he explores the play's complexities with finely focused exuberance. Katz skillfully charts Leming's transformation from Apollonian serenity to a man forced to acknowledge his failings and vulnerability. Tom Costello brings comic chops and rich conviction to the shortstop Kippy, the play's narrator, who's shattered when his sentimental do-good-ism produces disastrous results. And there's a deliciously deft comedy performance by Thomas James O'Leary as Leming's fey, gay financial manager, who regards his boss as a hero and finds a wondrous epiphany in the world of baseball. His aria comparing baseball to democracy is as penetrating as it is funny. They receive solid backup from the sterling cast. Tim Swiss' lighting design and Veronica J. Lancaster's sound are integral to the action. This is Celebration Theatre's most ambitious and impressive production in years. Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., thru Oct. 31. (323) 957-1884, celebrationtheatre.com (Neal Weaver)

GO  TITUS ANDRONICUS In his odd, entertaining production, director Steven Sabel gives Shakespeare's sadistic tale of vengeance and bloodlust a True Blood twist, reimagining the play as a Gothic story of warfare between two vampire clans. Conquered Goth queen Tamora (Jennifer Blanck, beautifully icy) marries the Roman emperor Saturninus (Jordan Maxwell), who offers her a "blood gift," following which she avenges herself against her great rival Titus (Tom Newman). Tamora's thug sons (Mike Eastman and Nick Zaharopoulos) rape Titus' daughter Lavinia (Christina Fleming), and then chop off her hands and tongue. In response, Titus kidnaps the boys and throws a party, feeding the sons' flesh to an unwitting Tamora as hors d'ouevres. The vampire concept at first sounds as though it could be rather silly, but the eccentric notion ultimately adds a mythic dimension to the play's sequences of unbridled cruelty and operatic emotion. The atmosphere of myth is underscored by blocking that often consists of Kabuki-like gestures and emotional expressions of operatic, heightened reality — these are predatory characters who are driven by their root emotions of hatred and rage. In the end, here's a production of Titus that gives the audience exactly what it wants: terrifying horrors, staged with an unabashed love of Grand Guignol. Lavinia has been dragged off to be raped, and returns dangling meat-tipped stumps where her hands were and vomiting blood every time she tries to speak. Sabel's pruning of Shakespeare's text can sometimes seem as ferocious as the Moor's slicing off of Titus' arm, but the staging's fierce energy is both harrowing and effective. Particularly powerful turns are offered by Blanck, by Kyle Goldsberry's evil Moor, and Fleming's hapless, tragically destined Lavinia. Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood; Fri. & Sat., 8:30 p.m.; thru Oct. 16. (818) 202-4120. (Paul Birchall)

YARD SALE SIGNS What price beauty? In Jennie Webb's comedy, the cost is 90 minutes of female bonding in a dressing room that — metaphor alert — has no walls. As any Cathy comic strip can tell you, women forge a complicated relationship with their clothes: inspiration, ambition, comfort, judgment, insult. From their hangers, they hiss, "Where are you going to wear me?" "What are you going to do about those thighs?" The closest parallel to the female/fabric struggle these five women and token gay male have is with their mothers, none of whom are present except in continual conversation. Webb's allegories name the ladies "The Focused Woman," "The Scattered Woman," "The Selfless Woman" and "The Woman With Children"; the latter slowly and physically collapses over the course of the play as though her three kids have torn her limb from limb. Elina de Santos' chirpy direction has fun with the play's sight gags, particularly a giant purse that chucks up a cooler, a clothing rack, four dozen yard sale signs and a U-Haul's worth of boxes. The broad humor and big rants can't earn the closing round of hugs. Our attention is occupied by designer Eva Franco's heaps of colorful original clothing (all for sale after the show) rather than the characters pawing through it as they pick apart their psyches. Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs., Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Nov. 14. (323) 960-4424. Presented by Rogue Machine. (Amy Nicholson)


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