Local theater's looking kinda edgy in the dog days of late August: Paul Birchall had good things to say about City Garage's production of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis; big nods also for Sandra Bernard's I Love Being Me, Don't You? at REDCAT; Zombie Joe's Underground's Devils Love at Midnight; The Walworth Farce, Enda Walsh's farce at Burbank's Theatre Banshee; and Samantha Macher's To the New Girl (Skypilot Theatre at T.U. Studios)
NEW THEATER REVIEWS, scheduled for publication Aug. 18, 2011
GO DEVILS LOVE AT MIDNIGHT
As any longtime fan can testify, the Grand Guignol Gothicists of ZJU could perform the phone book and make it look like a blood-curdling issue of EC Comics. Fortunately for this short, late-night evening of original playlets and poetry torn from the sketchbook of Zombie Joe himself, the featured texts are nothing so prosaic. Rather, the seven pieces (mostly -- and inventively -- directed by Jana Wimer) constitute a virtual key to comprehending the tortured, Catholic-guilt-twisted fatalism that both informs ZJU's aesthetic and provides their stage-zeit with its haunting, hallucinatory geist. Thus, in the opener, "Folly of Love Fulfilled," Davern Wright, Joanna Bartling and Kyle Clare enact a parable of love, family and fate, in which redemption is annulled through the irony of its reverse-sequenced narrative. "Only Ever One" explores love lost via an idiot-child trance channeler (a mesmerizing Amy Gotham) exploited for dubious, otherworldly comfort by her brokenhearted sister (Anne Westcott) and a bereaved pilgrim (Denny Zartman). "The Sad Soul-Searching Spirit of Sweet Lil' Violet Nantucket" takes a grotesque look at transgressive desire in its tale of two inmates from Serenity Farms Asylum (Zartman & Wright) grave-robbing the skull of a gruesomely abused and murdered former patient (Gotham). The evening's visual keynote is provided by "Procession of Devils," in which director Sebastian Munoz inflects ZJ's wry meditation on the veniality of his San Fernando Valley youth with Hieronymus Bosch-like theatrics. Shayne Eastin and Michael Maio illuminate the shorter verse pieces with their original score and engaging stage presence. Zombie Joe's Underground, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd; Fri., 11 p.m.; thru Sept. 2. (818) 202-4120. zombiejoes.com. (Bill Raden)
DOLLS! - NOT YOUR USUAL LOVE STORY
Situated at the midpoint between Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker and Disney's Toy Story 3, local theater stalwarts Evelyn Rudie and Chris DeCarlo's new musical explores the secret life of dolls. Yet despite a fascinating premise, the pairing of a simple love story and commedia dell'arte archetypes with high-flown wordplay and allusions results in a serio-comic tone that, rather than working on multiple levels, becomes a bit muddled. A menagerie of cast-offs, squeezed into a cramped "toy box" decorated in pink Victoria's Secret stripes, mourns the maturation of their owner and wonders at the veracity of the legend that dolls in their situation are given the chance to become real children. As they await the moment when one of them may be chosen, they reveal their histories, fears, doubts and longings through song. Initially, the overuse of spotlights and the static, declamatory style of DeCarlo's blocking suggest a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Victorian "teapot stance." When that choice turns out to be more sincere than spoof, it becomes difficult to take seriously the more tender and philosophical moments in songs such as "Leaving" and "What Is A Child?", two of the most thematically interesting in the score. Still, the poised ensemble, decked out in Ashley Hayes' (Rudie's pseudonym) colorful costume designs is a memorable sight, especially Melissa Gentry, who nimbly executes the numerous changes required of Fussy Fanny. Nancy Dobbs Owen, as Valentina Ballerina, impresses with her body control, remaining en pointe or stone still for long stretches, and Serena Dolinsky, as Marguerite the Victoriana, has a wonderful expressiveness that highlights her skillfully crafted "cracked-face" makeup. Actors Repertory Theatre at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 6:30 p.m.; thru Sept. 25. (310) 394-9779. santamonicaplayhouse.com (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO 4.48 PSYCHOSIS
Playwright Sarah Kane's kaleidoscopic drama premiered shortly after her suicide in 2000. At the time, one British theater critic called the work a "70 minute suicide note" - and, of course, even with the best will in the world, it is almost impossible to separate the intense and ferociously angry text of the work from the tragic real world story surrounding it. This is particularly true when you consider that the lyrical writing overtly deals with issues of depression and mental illness from the point of view of the sufferer - it may be one of the best plays to depict suicidal depression from the inside out. Set, as the program notes, "inside a deranged brain," the work consists of a series of fragmented exchanges that often take the form of inchoate expressions of rage twinned with frustrated awareness of a lack of control. A clearly unstable young woman (Cynthia Mance) sits center stage, bracketed by two figures in chairs behind her and another figure, a seemingly severed head in a bird cage -- all of whom mutter abrasive vituperations at the hapless girl. There is also a pair of other performers who portray the doctors attempting to treat her - even though they offer only the coldest comfort to the angst-ridden heroine -- offering utterances like "I know nothing of you, but I like you!" Frederique Michel's harrowing and edgy production, replete with eerie sound effects and dialogue interspersed with characters suddenly lurching into rhythmic spasms and twitching, hauntingly captures the state of mind of someone with tunnelvision perception in which all thoughts, excuses, and opinions inevitably lead to one ultimate act self-negation. Designer Charles Duncombe's sterile hospital room-like set and the eerie, percussive sound effects suggest the heroine's matter-of-fact view of her own madness and feelings of emptiness. The production delivers a disturbing and striking theatrical experience. City Garage at Track 16 Gallery (Building C) at Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Blvd, Santa Monica; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; thru Sept. 9. (310) 319-9939. brownpapertickets.com/event/185421. (Paul Birchall)
GO I LOVE BEING ME, DON'T YOU?
Whether belting the blues, lambasting American advertising, or re-visiting her early show business years in Los Angeles via a story about all the crappy cars she's owned, comedian Sandra Bernard's frank sexiness and cards-on-the table tough talk command attention. Her latest solo show succeeds as a searing stand-up act and rock concert, and an uproarious tell-all, as Bernhard shares stories from her Comedy Store days, her coming out, and her child-rearing experiences, punctuating memories with covers of "Across 110th Street," "Who's That Lady?" and some original music. No small part of the fun here is the ferocious red-head's love-hate relationship with Los Angeles, the city where she launched her career and bought her first home. As she warmed up the crowd on opening night, Bernhard talked about her surprising lack of pre-show anxiety: "It's Los Angeles," she snickered, "the stakes are so low." But Bernhard aimed high all night, topping off two hours of jugular vein comedy with a medley of foot-stomping songs about sisterhood. REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn.; Wed.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., Aug. 21, 7 p.m.; thru Aug. 21. (213) 237-2800. redcat.org (Amy Lyons)
GO LIVE NUDE GROUNDLINGS
The Groundlings stay fully dressed in their latest sketch comedy and improv show, and thank heaven: In the skit "Breathe Me," about two fumbling dancers with an overload of sexual tension, Annie Sertich places her face so close to Alex Stagg's leotard-clad crotch, it's a wonder she doesn't suffocate. (Don't worry parents, you can't see anything through the fringe on his toga.) I'd call that sketch a stand-out, except that this is the most uniformly solid Groundlings show I've ever seen, thanks to its emphasis on eclectic ideas threaded by comedy that arrives with plain-spoken ease. Sometimes it even has a bite, as in "Marco," when a posh, bored couple (Michaela Watkins and David Hoffman) lasers in on charming their shy Latin waiter (Mikey Day). But when he gives in to their insistence that he have a drink at their table, the wife clutches at her purse. In "Career Placement," Day plays a seventh-grader depressed when a standardized test concludes that he should be a Night Floor Manager at Michaels. And Sertich has another raw moment as a struggling actress trying to charm the casting agents (Staggs and David Hoffman), who want her to fess up to an embarrassing personal story for a cheese commercial; like many a Hollywood lost soul, she can't gauge the difference between what's amusing and shockingly personal. Comediennes Watkins and Sertich own the show, and director Damon Jones makes sure neither is stuck playing the girlfriend. (He even gives them the first improv all to themselves.) In every skit, their characters are uniquely memorable and brazenly funny. Among the strong cast of six, only Day gives Watkins and Sertich a serious challenge, playing everything from a Death Star desk jockey kissing up to Darth Vader to a squealing girl at summer camp in a bit of drag that's strikingly accurate at capturing the mind of a swoony pre-teen. Groundlings Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat, 8 & 10 p.m.; thru Oct. 1. (323) 934-9700. groundlings.com. (Amy Nicholson)
NEXT WINDOW, PLEASE
Five bank tellers and their nurturing manager, all female, are distraught when they learn of a bank merger bringing potential layoffs. The delicate balance of their workday relationships is further upset by the arrival of an ambitious, charming and handsome junior executive (Chris Wolfe) who, like a cat among the pigeons, shows up to observe for a week and then advise his superiors who should keep their job. Playwright Doug Haverty uses the small Santa Monica branch of a bank as the setting for his examination of the daily routine of these six vivacious, opinionated and financially-strapped working women (Stephanie Colet, Kady Douglas, Bianca Gisselle, Trisha Hershberger, Shelby Kocee and Gina Yates). Scenes that chart their final workweek are intercut by insightful monologues as each character takes a turn in a spotlight to share personal confessionals with the audience. Though lazy theatrically, this device nonetheless permits their individual stories to sneak into our hearts. Creating a range of multi-cultural characters seems a good choice, but having three of the five tellers speak in broken English does not. Haverty's heartfelt comedy skirts its potential by substituting a feel-good tale of feminine camaraderie for conflict or a ruthlessness that would be far more reflective of the times. While the acting is mostly good, this production's pace is infuriatingly sluggish and protracted, under Richard Alan Woody's direction. The Group Repertory at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 pm.; thru Sept. 17. 818-700-4878. thegrouprep.com. (Pauline Adamek)
GO TO THE NEW GIRL
The trophy wife (Niki Nowak) of a prominent televangelist considers divorcing and/or exposing her husband for his affair with a gay man.A spoiled matron (Ashley Fuller, alternating with Jennie Floyd) berates the pretty young housekeeper who has complained of her spouse's sexual harassment. A woman who has suffered multiple miscarriages (Monica Lawson) excoriates her mate's new lover and casts a curse on the child they are expecting. An elderly woman (Rosina Pinchot), happily married for 57 years, shares the story of her marriage with her Alzheimer-stricken husband's new companion, a woman he fell in love with in a nursing home. Directed by Jeanette Farr, playwright Samantha Macher's script relays the stories of ten betrayed or forsaken women, each of whom speaks to the paramour who has ensnared her beloved's affections. To the credit of the playwright and the company, Macher wrote this play at the request of this company's members to counterbalance the overwhelmingly male-oriented perspective of their past productions. Not all the narratives are equally developed - some trail off without sufficient resolution -- and some performances are of a notably higher standard than others. Still, Macher's writing reflects the humor and detail of an insightful storyteller. Pinchot captures the spotlight with a heartrending portrayal of a lost and cherished love. Also notable are Tifanie McQueen as an abused wife livid enough to murder her rival, and Shelby Janes as a pregnant gal bidding a welcome good riddance to her crackhead boyfriend. Skypilot Theatre Company at T.U. Studios, 10943 Camarillo St., N. Hlywd.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Sept. 18. (800) 838-3006. skypilottheatre.com (Deborah Klugman)
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Playwright Kyle Jarrow tells the improbable tale of unfaithful husband Ryan (Michael Trucco), and his serial infidelities. During a night on the town, he picks up pretty blond Jill (Jen Eldridge) and takes her back to her apartment for a night of sex. But every time he makes a move on her, there's a loud clap of thunder, and a cell-phone call from the police informs him that his wife Karen (Lisa Brenner) was in a serious automobile accident at the moment of the first thunder-clap. A local news anchor (Dana Kelly, Jr.) reports a series of world-wide disasters, convincing him that his misdeeds have the power to trigger cataclysms. The accident has left Karen paralyzed from the neck down, leaving Ryan in guilty despair. Devoutly religious hospital attendant Anton (Gugun Deep Singh) attempts to persuade him of the power of prayer. And what seemed to be a satirical farce about religious superstition and delusions of grandeur abruptly turns into a drama about miracles, faith, and the power of prayer. And with that turn, credibility goes out the window. Despite herculean efforts by director Damaso Rodriguez and his cast, the play remains fractured by its disparate elements and uncertainty of tone. Second Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Sept. 17. Produced by Electric Footlights & TNT Entertainment. brownpapertickets.com/event/187180 (Neal Weaver)
GO THE WALWORTH FARCE As the house lights darken, a lone spotlight lingers on the door of the set. One man, Blake (Cameron J. Oro), sniffs at a stretchy blouse and sprays it with air freshener before ironing it. Another, Dinny (Tim Cummings), sits center stage, slowly polishing his shoes. The last man, Sean (Adam Haas Hunter) rushes through the door, latches its four locks, races into the kitchen, and freaks out as he unpacks his purchases. They're all prepping for an in-house performance, though you don't realize it yet: Your mind scrambles as the bizarre play-within-a-play unfolds -- is this some kind of crazy game? No, it's Enda Walsh's riveting black comedy. In a festering hole of a London flat (nicely detailed by Arthur MacBride), the father, Dinny, stars and directs his sons Blake and Sean in a staging of a day from their past in Ireland. There's a conspicuous wackiness in Blake playing the female roles, and of Dinny casting himself as a brain surgeon. It's a comedy, right? -- until the sky blackens with a sudden, violent outburst from Dinny. By the time an outsider (Brie Eley as the checkout girl from the grocery shop that Sean visits every day) enters the fray, you feel the play teetering ever closer to foreboding territory. In slicing open a deeply disturbed family, Walsh explores how a parent's fear and best intentions can warp and cripple the minds of his children. Yet the play also is a study of how people soothe and stabilize themselves with habit, and families mentally rewrite history in order to live with their pasts. Director Tim Byron Owen's excellent ensemble nimbly handles the aerobically taxing and emotional performance. Like the best of stories, the full impact of its implications slams you only after you close the book. Theatre Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Sept. 4. (818) 846-5323. theatrebanshee.org (Rebecca Haithcoat)