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Theater Reviews: Zorro in Hell, The Idiot Box, Bad Seed and More

(Photo by Wesley Horton)

{mosimage}PICK  ALICE IN ONE-HIT WONDERLAND Building on their history of stringing classical plays and literature ever so loosely around pop music (JACKson Frost, Much Adoobie Brothers About Nothing, Little Drummer Bowie, It’s a Stevie Wonderful Life, etc.), Matthew Walker and his Troubadour Theatre Company have gleefully minced another classic into an excuse to riff on well-recognized ditties. As in many sketch comedy shows, sometimes these wondrously clever one-joke ponies wear themselves out before the shows are finished. Alice, however, sustains itself on the power of its lunacy — I don’t know exactly why, only that its joy is immeasurable. It could be the other-worldly premise of Lewis Carroll’s story, in conjunction with its structure of Alice’s random and wacked-out adventures. These allow for the players to stop what they’re doing and bludgeon Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians’ “What I Am” without a glitch. At one point, the actors stood in sheepish silence until somebody said, “Does anyone know the next line?”; then, dimple-faced Alice (Christine Lakin) suggested, “Let’s sing a song!” They did, and it was perfect. Walker plays the Mad Hatter with winking, cruel histrionics, and the voluptuous Lisa Valenzuela is comic gold as the Queen of Hearts. Sharon McGunigle’s circus-tent costumes, working with Walker’s discount-store, magic-show aesthetic, includes a stilt walker, puppets and a “man behind the curtain” for many of the show’s cheesy effects. We’re told to ignore him, while he taunts us to do the opposite. Eric Heinly’s musical direction of the five-piece band is as perfect as co-director Joseph Leo Bwarie’s enveloping choreography. It’s like watching a singing, dancing monument to the madness of the world. Troubadour Theatre Company at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank; in rep, call for schedule; thru Aug. 26. (818) 955-8101.  (Steven Leigh Morris)

BAD SEED Incest! Homosexuality! Murderous third-grade girls! Director-performer Danny Schmitz’s low-tech remake of Maxwell Anderson’s 1954 Broadway play about a psychopathic 8-year-old tyke (adapted from William March’s suburban potboiler) traffics in such high camp that Schmitz positions a gymnast-dramaturge (Kyle Blitch) — script in hand — on top of the living room fridge. From that height, like a referee, he throws down a white tissue whenever the uproarious cast veers off text. Most surprising is the realization that every syllable of Anderson’s ludicrous, gonzo exposition is just as he wrote it (though he likely didn’t expect wicked tot Rhoda Penmark to have Schmitz’s five o’clock shadow). In this local encore run after playing in L.A. 10 years ago, Schmitz’s ensemble — particularly Melissa Peterman as a wailing boozehound — leaves sanity in the dust; except for a few slack bits, the audience is kept laughing to the risk of asphyxiation. And on opening night, Patty McCormack (who originated Rhoda on Broadway and received an Academy nod for the 1956 film version) giggled enthusiastically throughout. Buzzworks Theatre Company at the LOUNGE THEATRE, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Aug. 25 (323) 960-5563. (Amy Nicholson)

THE IDIOT BOX Michael Elyanow’s beguiling parody of sitcoms unfolds in a capacious New York penthouse shared by six friends: Chloe (Anna Khaja), Fiona (Tisha Terrasini-Banker), Billy (Dominic Spillane), Mark (Kelly Van Kirk), and Stephanie (Amanda Weier) and her nebbish husband, Connor (David Castellani). This disparate group and their idiosyncrasies provide comic fodder for most of the first act, as they become embroiled in familiar sitcom foibles — innocuous spats and predicaments such as the training of a hostile puppy — all embellished with laugh tracks. Just when you get the impression that this is all nothing more than an amusing but pointless sitcom run amok, the mood subtly darkens, the sound effects cease and reality intrudes, forcing these characters to confront weightier issues of racism, sexual identity and the value of love. Elyanow’s intelligently crafted script is rife with humor and irony, and is superbly augmented by Jeremy B. Cohen’s perceptive direction of the fine cast. NEW OPEN FIST THEATRE, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m., thru Aug. 25. (323) 882-6912 (Lovell Estell III)

{mosimage} LADY K IS ON THE MIC Proclaiming “the revolution has been televised,” poet and solo performer Kim Blackwell delivers a droll but serious-minded take on changing values among women and African-Americans. Blackwell’s point of departure is 1973, when, following the turbulent ’60s, black pride was cresting and the celebrity role models for women were strong personalities like Dinah Washington and Nina Simone. Weaving poems and monologues, the piece surfs three decades; it takes place around a newsstand whose owner, Lester, is about to be forced out of business after 30-odd years as gentrification, via eminent domain, sweeps Los Angeles. Lester’s patrons and friends include Stevie, who gives up his job rather than give up his cornrows; Carlos, a graffiti artist with dreams of opening a gallery; and Dede, a slick-tongued Hollywood agent who confuses Euripides’ Medea with Tyler Perry’s Madea. Most eloquent is Blackwell’s poetess; her commentary, which frames the show, speaks directly to the devolution of black identity and of how women of all ethnicities downgrade themselves from self-nurturing individuals to coy “little girls.” As a performer, Blackwell brings her gifts for mimicry and a physical and verbal adroitness to her material. But under Rich Embardo’s direction, Blackwell’s nuanced delivery seems at times better suited to the camera than the stage. Since the monologues aren’t arranged chronologically, it’s not always clear who is speaking and from what decade. Perhaps the addition of a wig or costume item for every character (Lester has a hat) and a few program notes describing each of them would help. UNDERGROUND ANNEX THEATER, 1308 N. Wilton Pl., Hlywd.; Wed., 8 p.m.; thru Aug. 15. (323) 960-7822. (Deborah Klugman)

{mosimage} PUTTING IT TOGETHER It is no stretch to say that the works of Stephen Sondheim embody the journey of the American musical theater through the latter half of the 20th century. From his tutelage under Oscar Hammerstein III in the ’50s through his professional dominance in the ’70s and ’80s and to his experimental phase of the ’90s, Sondheim has amassed volumes of treasured songs, though few have been picked up by pop singers. Even removed from the context of the shows in which they reside, their articulate, labyrinthine rhyming lyrics and intricate compositions prove both troublesome and challenging for even the most experienced musicians. Tucked away in Sierra Madre, a small company valiantly attacks this revue of some 40 Sondheim tunes, loosely packed into the conceit of a cocktail party focusing on a younger couple (Bryan Hale and Christana Purcell), an older couple (Sandra Hackman and Ken Saltzman), a complicating single woman (Wendy Miklovic), and the narrator (Josie Dapar). There’s pleasure in every number under Connie Washburn’s outstanding musical direction, though some of the most difficult songs audibly stretch Salzman and Hakman’s vocal ranges. Always dynamic, Purcell and Miklovic soar with some of Sondheim’s most heartbreaking words and music. Director Bob Hakman’s light touch allows the performers and music to steal attention from the thin plot, resulting in a winning evening. SIERRA MADRE PLAYHOUSE, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; thru Aug. 4. (626) 256-3809. (Tom Provenzano)

{mosimage} RICHARD II More usurped than usurping, King Richard II is known as something of an idler who squandered the royal bank account on nothing in particular and then, to make up the deficit (and in order to start a little war in Ireland), seized the land of noblemen and leased it out. Not a good way to win friends, or even keep them. In Shakespeare’s play, John of Gaunt (director Joseph Culliton) accuses Richard of being more of a landlord than a king. But Richard, like somebody else we know with similar delusions, was never interested in polls. The divine right of kings was good enough for him, as was the terrible advice offered him by a court of flatterers. The populist uprising that buried him speaks to the isolation and delusions of power, which is precisely why this play needs to be performed at this particular moment. Culliton lets the play, rather than his staging of it, make all the relevant contemporary parallels. Maro Parian’s costumes are 14th-century chic; the bare stage is decorated with family crests and banners, and entrances accompanied by snare drums. David Melville plays Richard with this actor’s trademark levity — blithe, bored and deaf to the appeals of others, yet pointedly sage during his humiliating fall. Freddy Douglas’ Bolingbroke is a worthy opponent, with similar modulations of cruelty masking the illusion of compassion in a hate-driven world. These principals keep the production afloat, despite the wide-ranging gamut of skill among the supporting players. By play’s end, with dew on the grass (the play is performed in a park, al fresco), Gaunt’s words linger as our dollar slowly sets into a haze of seemingly insurmountable debt: “This land of such dear souls . . . Dear for her reputation through the world, Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it, Like to a tenement or pelting farm . . . England, bound in with the triumphant sea . . . is now bound in with shame, With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds: That England, that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.” Independent Shakespeare Company at BARNDSDALL PARK, SOUTH LAWN, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Free; in rep, call for schedule or visit www.independentshakespeare.com; thru Aug. 31. (818) 710-6306. (Steven Leigh Morris)

RICHARD III In his brisk production of Shakespeare’s tragedy of power and depravity, director Louis Scheeder presents a Richard III who is a consummate political animal — affable, oily and treacherous. Shakespeare’s play is a character portrait of the deformed and ambitious Duke of Gloucester (Stefan Wolfert), who orchestrates the drowning of his brother, Clarence (Arnell Powell), the murder of his nephews (Maddie Woolner and Zac Geoffrey), and the seduction (and murder) of the lovely Lady Anne (Ellen Abrams) — all so he can wear the crown. The energy of Scheeder’s production is commendably feverish, but the poetry sometimes suffers from some performers’ machine-gun delivery. Some of the blocking is more ambitious and awkwardly acrobatic than the bare-bones set and atmosphere permits. However, the show is blessed by Wolfert’s engrossingly harrowing turn as Richard. Dressed in a vaguely military jumpsuit and strapped into a plastic splint-harness that suggests his entire left side is paralyzed, Wolfert possesses a disturbing charisma that almost has you rooting for him, despite his diabolical business. Also compelling is Traci Thomas’s spooky turn as witchy old Queen Margaret, the ghostly figure who utters the prophetic curse of Richard: “Bloody that art, bloody will be thy end.” Shakespeare Santa Monica at MILES MEMORIAL PLAYHOUSE, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; Fri. & Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; thru July 29. (310) 270-3454. (Paul Birchall)

ZANNA DON’T There’s something strange about a gay-friendly musical in which the characters are homosexuals at the beginning, but most magically turn straight by the end. Is this lurking gay self-hatred, or perhaps an appeal to a more mainstream audience? Writer-composer Tim Acito (with additional material by Alexander Dinelaris) has created a clever, fast-moving show that relies more on charm than logic. In the play’s topsy-turvy world, homosexuality is the norm and straights are outcasts. At Heartsville High School, gay boy Zanna (Danny Calvert) is the self-appointed love-doctor, equipped with a magic wand and an unreliable book of spells, but curiously unaware of his own needs. Though he pines after hunky Steve (Brent Schindele), he engineers a relationship between his inamorato and shy Mike (Dan Pacheco), and along the way promotes an affair between butch lesbian Roberta (Natalie Monahan) and winsome redhead Kate (Rebecca Johnson). When romance disturbingly blossoms between Kate and Steve, Zanna tries to remedy the situation by magic, with unexpected results. Ever-reliable director Nick DeGruccio shepherds an attractive, talented young cast (including Brian Weir, Justine Valdez, and Matthew Rocheleau) through a lively, handsome, crowd-pleasing romp. Musical direction, choreography and technical credits are all top-notch. West Coast Ensemble at the LYRIC-HYPERION THEATRE, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; indef. (323) 906-2500. (Neal Weaver)

{mosimage} ZORRO IN HELL Zorro, the post-WWI creation of pulp writer Johnston McCulley, became the avatar of masked comic book heroes everywhere and, somewhat improbably, an inspiration for Chicano pride. Or did he? Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Herbert Sigüenza and Ric Salinas) investigates the Zorro myth and history through a rollicking, sometimes untidy farce that suffers from an unfocused Act 2 but still delivers provocative comedy. A cynical Mexican American writer (Montoya) checks into a mysterious California inn for some getaway time, only to encounter a series of characters who embody both state history and the silver screen’s “dashing caballero.” Although the evening is a far broader satire than the group’s recent Water & Power, in many ways it represents a riskier and more complex undertaking. Tony Taccone directs a cast rounded out by Joseph Kamal and Sharon Lockwood, and is solidly supported by Christopher Acebo’s versatile set design. RICARDO MONTALBÁN THEATRE, 1615 Vine St., Hlywd.; Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; thru Aug. 19 (877) 359-6776. See Stage feature next week. (Steven Mikulan)


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