The War Cycle: Gospel According to the First Squad
The War Cycle: Gospel According to the First Squad
Rafael Tongol

Laraine Newman, Jennifer Tilly and Roger Bart take on the stars in "Celebrity Autobiography"

Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble brings back its Gospel According to the First Squad (from its War Cycle trilogy), in what critic Rebecca Haithcoat describes as an "electrifying" production.

Celebrity Autobiography has an erratic schedule at Santa Monica's Broad Stage: Larain Newman, Jennifer Tilly and Roger Bart perform "in-their-words" impersonations of the important and self-important in the movie biz, which Amy Nicholson finds both ironic and amusing.

Many recommends of shows seen over the weekend: Circle X's Freak Machine -- a satire of open mic night at the Atwater Village Theater; a strong revivalof On Golden Pond at the Colony Theatre in Burbank; Bill Bozzone's comedy, Rose Cottages at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon. For all CAPSULE THEATER REVIEWS of shows seen over the weekend, go the jump.

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Coming Wednesday night, my long-form feature on the art of the very prevalent solo performance: Joe Hernandez-Kolski's Awake at Bootleg; and Jed Mills' Choices at Theatre/Theater

NEW THEATER REVIEWS: scheduled for publication August 4, 2011

GO CELEBRITY AUTOBIOGRAPHY Here's the thing about celebrities: They become convinced that their every word is fascinating, which makes celebrity autobiographies fascinatingly candid, when say, Marilu Henner doesn't pause before prattling on about how her Taxi co-star Danny DeVito must be a great lover because he's the right height to pleasure a woman while standing. At the start of Celebrity Autobiography, creator Eugene Pack stresses that every word is exactly as published, a reminder to cling to, if you find yourself doubting Melissa Gilbert threatened cheating boyfriend Rob Lowe, "You don't fuck with America's Sweetheart!" (And then obliviously bragged about it in print.) The "celebrity" in the title is two-fold; the authors are famous and so are the reciters, a cast of comedians that includes Laraine Newman, Jennifer Tilly and Roger Bart. While the words themselves need no embellishments, some performers like Cheri Oteri can't resist, adding a yowling, swaggering accent to Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino that sounds nothing like the Jersey Shore star. But the best bits come when the actors read with a devastating deadpan delivery, like Fred Willard's wry recounting of David Hasselhoff's Broadway bow ("I had to prove I was something more than a guy in a Speedo running in slow motion"), or Illeana Douglas' genius for transforming Barbra Streisand's dull accounting of the vegetables in her home garden into a riot of smug self-satisfaction. The show climaxes with four mash-ups: an assault of poetry by Suzanne Somers, a seminar in stage divas, a treatise in disordered eating, and a Rashomon-esque rehashing of the Debbie Reynolds/Eddie Fisher/Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton love knot. Whose account to believe? No one and everyone -- when Tilly's Taylor cocks an eyebrow, truth is beside the point. The Broad Stage, 1310 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; call for schedule: (310) 434-3200. thebroadstage.com (Amy Nicholson)


Laraine Newman, Jennifer Tilly and Roger Bart take on the stars in "Celebrity Autobiography"
Camille Shenkkan

What are the two most dangerous words in the theater? Anyone tempted to answer "performance art" may want to consider the peril and precarious possibilities inherent in the term "open mic." The ultimate in un-curated, vox populi free expression, the open microphone is an engraved invitation to uninhibited exhibitionists of all stripes and their masochistic, enabling audiences. Happily, as practiced by deadpan emcee Darren Schroader, the forum proves to be a surprisingly warm and entertaining talent showcase. Twelve slots are up for grabs, first-come, first-serve. Schroader mitigates the hazards by imposing an ironclad, dignity-saving time limit of five minutes per performance. On this evening, the hits far outweighed the misses with Schroader himself -- in a Glow Stick-stuck body suit -- warming up the crowd in a delightfully bent interpretive dance burlesque. Folk-music parodist  Ukulady Jaimie (a.k.a. Jaimie Devitt) weighed in with her hilarious, ukulele mash-up of T-Pain's "Apple Bottom Jeans," Lil John and the East Side Boyz' "Get Low" and Sir Mix a Lot's "Baby Got Back." Broadway belter Rena Strober showed off her satirical side with an outlandish anthem to the capaciousness of feminine empowerment, "Vigantic." Bill Lawrence limned a bewildered Ozarks pet cemetery director delivering a comic eulogy for a despised poodle in "The Marmot Speaks." And the stand-up team of Doug Perkins and Kip Madsen gave new meaning to stage fright in their bit, "Comedy Coach." For the misfires, audience shill Michelle Miracle was on hand to talk them off the stage with her well-timed wit and ad libbed quips. Circle X Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., L.A.; last Mon. of every month, 8 p.m., through Sept. 26. (323) 644-1929. AtwaterVillageTheatre.com. (Bill Raden)


Laraine Newman, Jennifer Tilly and Roger Bart take on the stars in "Celebrity Autobiography"
Eric Mason

The key to understanding choreographer Kevin Williamson's frenetic, oblique, but still engaging modern dance ballet is in the definition of the key word in the title - "liminal," which is defined as "relating to the point (or threshold) beyond which a sensation becomes too faint to be experienced." This is a ballet about a group of people who are assaulted by sensory overload to the extent that their world actually appears to lose coherence. In one of the piece's early moments, five dancers, dressed mostly in khakis and button up shirts, are seen seated in ugly waiting room chairs, bathed in fluorescent lighting. They twitch in their seats, looking back behind them at a wall that is covered with clocks. Gradually, one after the other, each dancer lurches out of his or her seat to fling themselves about the stage. The lighting turns theatrical, as the dancers roll and perform graceful moves to music that shifts from haunting violin chords to bits and pieces of news radio reports and Top 40 hits. Every so often, the dancers stop and abruptly engage in calculatedly non sequitur exchanges skewering aspects of pop culture: They briefly lead the audience in a rousing rendition of an odious Michael Bolton song, and the another performer reads from an issue of Us Magazine. The agile dancers artfully utilize the performance art medium to depict how the chaos of modern living distracts and agitates. Williamson's crafty, taut choreography - both moody and intense - transforms the banality of culture into something beautiful and strange. We're left wondering whether the show is ironic, genuinely trivial, or as obscure with hidden meaning as Us Magazine is not. The performance also offers two other short ballets, including "Corridor," in which Williamson himself offers a fierce solo as a dancer who appears at first to be falling through space, but then careens and flails as if attempting to escape some kind of loss or terror. Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th Street, Santa Monica; closed. (310) 315-1459.  (Paul Birchall)


Laraine Newman, Jennifer Tilly and Roger Bart take on the stars in "Celebrity Autobiography"
Michael Lamont

Ernest Thompson's original play lacks the high drama of its famous film counterpart, but has all the heart. The tale concerns Norman and Ethel Thayer, an aging couple vacationing on a lake for perhaps their last time, yet returned to some youthful vigor by the advent of 13-year-old step-grandson. While guilty of overt sentimentality, Thompson's script creates expertly drawn characters. The joy of this revival, so ably directed by Cameron Watson, is in its impeccable production values that begin with the casting of the elderly leads. Watching old pros Hal Linden and Christina Pickles navigate through a constantly changing stream of bickering, loving and alternately fearing or bravely facing death, is a mini-course in consummate acting. This combined with John Iacovelli's intricately designed country summer home, meticulously dressed by MacAndME, complements this thoroughly satisfying event. Into the mix comes  fine teen actor Nicholas Podany, who holds his own with the veterans, finding multiple dimensions of adolescence. Monette Magrath also turns in a fine performance as the Thayer's aggrieved daughter Chelsea, come to make peace with her father. Only Jonathan Stewart is out of place as Chelsea's nervous fiancé - his stressful performance seems to belong in a French farce. Colony Theatre Company, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Aug. 28. (818) 558-7000 x15 or ColonyTheatre.org. (Tom Provenzano)


Laraine Newman, Jennifer Tilly and Roger Bart take on the stars in "Celebrity Autobiography"
Ian Flanders

With its towering trees, intermittent birdsong and starry ceiling, Theatricum Botanicum's bucolic amphitheater is a wonderfully ironic venue for a play set in a dumpy tourist motel in South Florida. Theatricum's production marks the West Coast premiere of playwright Bill Bozzone's slightly offbeat and somewhat sentimental comedy about the human urge to form replacement families when our families of origin and matrimony disappoint or disappear. Rose (an inspired Earnestine Phillips) fears her dilapidated motel will be shuttered when a health inspector (Maurice Shaw) notes faulty plumbing and other violations. Panicked and pissed off, Rose begins to rebuild hope when Jessie (Ellen Geer), a motel guest abandoned by her New Jersey cop son (Aaron Hendry) and his selfish, tarty wife (Savannah Southern Smith), befriends her. Enter Lydell (Graco Hernandez), a lonely teen with a knack for odd jobs, who completes the reconstructed family unit. Bozzone worked with Theatricum and re-wrote the role of Rose for a female, a choice that adds a nice layer of complexity to the already plucky script. Though the story veers toward oversimplification of human pain at times, Bozzone smartly redeems sappy situations with left-of-center humor. When Lydell reveals to Rose that his father is a complete zero, for instance, we expect tears and tales of tattered rainbows; instead we get an entirely unexpected story about dad's feigned shooting of Santa Claus, and it's a scream. The cast is solid across the board, with Geer and Phillips winning equal leading lady kudos for layering their characters. Heidi Helen Davis directs with straightforward simplicity, though the pacing lags near play's end. Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga; in rep, call for schedule; thru Oct. 2.  (310) 455-3723. theatricum.com. (Amy Lyons)


Laraine Newman, Jennifer Tilly and Roger Bart take on the stars in "Celebrity Autobiography"
Kirsten Kellog

This undistinguished melodrama about junkies trying to break their habit gets a boost from several capable performances.  Directed by Sean Riley, Paul Shoulberg's script revolves around  roommates Charlotte (Isidora Goreshter) and Maddy (Robin Schultz), both addicted to crystal meth.  Charlotte, a poet, frequents coffee houses where eventually she meets Lance (Jake Dahm), a good guy who falls for her and manages to overcome her jittery reticence.  Maddy has it tougher; she's barred from seeing her young daughter by the child's father Kyle  (James Tyler Johnson), a buttoned up Jesus fanatic whose air of calm righteousness masks rage and a desire to control.  The other two men in their lives are their ultra strung-out pal  Grogan (Shawn-Caulin Young) and their supplier Trey (Brent Harvey) a macho low-life.  The play is least interesting at the start, as the performers, not quite convincingly, depict their addiction and the physical changes they undergo struggling through withdrawal.  It grows more involving as the story expands and other relationships develop.  Both Dahm and Johnson deliver assured performances - the former as a straight arrow and Johnson in the more complex role of a twisted puritan who fails to salve his anger with faith.  Young also has a good scene as a guilt-ridden meth freak at the end of his rope, and Goreshter, after a shaky start, lands on track.  Production resources are unfortunately limited at this workshop venue, making some of the staging less effective than it might have been otherwise. Meta Theater, 7801 Melrose Ave., L.A.;  Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. through Aug. 21. (323) 960-7773. plays411.com/tweaked. (Deborah Klugman)


Laraine Newman, Jennifer Tilly and Roger Bart take on the stars in "Celebrity Autobiography"
Rich Clark

This variety show is presented on the last Thursday of every month, in a cabaret setting. This, its second installment, seemed a bit slap-dash and lackadaisical. Two of the acts listed in the program -- a band and an experimental dance company -- did not appear, and there were many that did appear, not listed in the program. An insistently gay emcee, Michael Mullen, spent so much time talking, milking the applause for every performer, and hawking their CDs that it sometimes felt like an infomercial. Still, there was some talent. Ninja Betty and the Nunchix offered several numbers, including "You're a Big Star -- I'm a Star Fucker." Monologist Joy Nash delivered a comic excerpt from her Fringe show My Mobster, and Kristin Tower-Rowles (grand-daughter of MGM musical star Kathryn Grayson) gave us a slick rendition of "Hollywood Baby" -- i.e., "Broadway Baby" with new lyrics. Musical duo Erica Katzin and David Ryan-Speer harmonized on "Loving You Is Easy" and "Mama, Rock Me." Other performers included the wryly comic singer-composer Enrique Acosta, svelte song-stylist Alissa Harris, and comic Erich Wech. Charlene Modeste put a dark spin on "I Put a Spell on You," and musical comedy diva Veronica Scheyving performed a stylish rendition of "All the Good Men Are Gay." DOMA Theatre Company at The Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles; last Thursday of every month, 8 p.m.; thru October. (323) 960-5773 or plays411.com/vroom. (Neal Weaver)  


Laraine Newman, Jennifer Tilly and Roger Bart take on the stars in "Celebrity Autobiography"
Rafael Tongol

Our first mistake was writing the country's founding fathers as demigods in American history textbooks. Generations grew up believing George Washington was the equivalent of Christ himself -- neither did anything wrong, according to the bibles of both church and state. Vietnam veterans learned the hard way that life did not imitate the Gospels, but for every Born on the Fourth of July, there was another patriotic rally that elevated service to the country with service to God. Tom Burmester's electrifying, tight world premiere, the third in the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble's War Cycle series (read Steven Leigh Morris' cover story from last August), not only confronts the error and crushing weight of ascribing immortality to mere men, but also examines the catch-22 of the fraternity of soldiers. Yes, it's another war play, but the first act moves so swiftly and the themes are presented so seamlessly, you find yourself gasping rather than groaning. Burmester's characters could easily slip into caricature: Eric Anderson's redneck PFC Jackson is a southern Christian's nightmare, quoting scripture and lecturing another soldier about his porn collection moments before he gleefully joins the terrifying, ritualistic chanting of, "Fuck that bitch!" But they all feel so familiar, and you begin to realize these soldier stereotypes are like all stereotypes, true on some level. Director Danika Sudik (aided by Burmester) controls the pace while allowing for necessary outbursts of the tightly coiled emotion and energy inside each solider, all of which are scary in a primal way. Which is, after all, the point. The army, like all fraternities, encourages herd mentality. It doesn't elevate man; it reduces him to his most animalistic instincts -- or so the military hopes, because only when men stop reflecting can they do what must be done to win. The entire ensemble is terrific, but special mention goes to Jonathan Redding's calm-before-cracking sergeant. Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble at the Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St.; Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Aug. 27. (310) 396-3680. (Rebecca Haithcoat)


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