Good notices this week for solo shows: John Paul Karliak homage to his two mothers, Donna/Madonna, at the Lounge in Hollywood; Guy Hollingworth's perf about card sharks, Expert at the Card Table, at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
In the expanding universe of solo performances, Anna Deavere Smith's Let Me Down Easy -- a 20-character meditation of mortality -- plays through the end of July, also at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
NEW THEATER REVIEWS: scheduled for publication July 28, 2011
Perhaps one of the greatest unexpected pleasures in a committed theater goer's life is seeing a small-stage solo show that doesn't suck. Transcending the non-sucky to arrive at this entertaining accomplishment is writer-performer John Paul Karliak's self-deprecating ode to his two mothers. To the horror of his adoptive parents, the pre-adolescent Karliak drops the first hint of his homosexuality during a self-produced living-room drag show featuring his uncanny Carol Channing vamp. Witnessing mom and dad's slack-jawed dismay, Karliak scurries into the closet, and doesn't come out until his teens, subsequently deciding that playing it straight in front of his kindly, fragile mother is the only way to ensure ongoing receipt of her love. He grows up and moves out of state, creating geographical distance in support of the ruse; mother-son weekly phone calls favor surface over substance. But when life in Los Angeles proves less than rosy, Karliak searches for his birth mother -- certain she'll understand him in a way his adoptive mother can't. Surprisingly, he's right. What follows is a study in compassion and abundance, a coming-of-age story that doesn't rely on total abandonment of childlike ways. Though much of the situational comedy feels familiar, Karliak's execution is top-drawer. His delivery is brisk but unrushed, his sense of humor, contemplative but unsentimental. Inhabiting the skin of his drastically different mothers, Karliak's range is gleefully apparent. Rizzo 39 Productions at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlwd.; Tues.-Wed., 8 p.m. (added perf Mon., Aug. 1, 8 p.m.); thru Aug. 10, (323) 960-4420. plays411.com/donnamadonna. (Amy Lyons)
GO THE EXPERT AT THE CARD TABLE
Some would say that the best lawyers perform magic in the courtroom. Guy Hollingworth may be such a lawyer, er barrister, but his preferred magic is of the parlor-show variety. In fact, watching him perform his astounding legerdemain transports one back a century, to a time when such entertainments were commonplace. His affable manner, polished diction, and understated British charm only enhance the effect. But Hollingworth is far from a one-trick pony. His show, which debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival over a decade ago, is as much theatre as it is a demonstration of magic. Its title is that of a landmark book on card cheats published by "S.W. Erdnase" in 1902. However, the true identity of this turn-of-the-century card sharp has never been revealed, and even now, on magic-related blogs and websites, the debate continues. Hollingworth's take on the mystery revolves around a man named Milton Franklin Andrews, beginning with his schoolboy days in Connecticut, when he first became acquainted with card tricks and Erdnase, and continuing on through their adult lives as the duo went on to perpetrate elaborate scams that lead to suicides, murders and an international manhunt. Director (and amateur magician) Neal Patrick Harris, who originally helmed the show in Edinburgh, helps Hollingworth weave myth and magic, seamlessly segueing between storytelling and sleight of hand. And though Hollingworth "explains" his tricks, projects them on an overhead screen, and calls volunteers to witness the feats up close, the audience remains mystified by a performer who clearly embodies the title of the show and lives up to the legacy of the book that inspired it. A Menier Chocolate Factory Production at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica; Wed.-Thurs., 7 p.m.; Fri., 7 & 9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 4 & 7 p.m.; thru August 7. (310) 434-3200. TheBroadStage.com. (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO HEAVIER THAN Spinning together and mixing up myths from Greek Mythology, Steven Yockey crafts an enjoyable fable about love, hubris and human folly. The central character here is The Minotaur, Asterius (the sinewy Nick Ballard, sporting a gigantic pair of horns), a creature part bull and part man imprisoned in a maze-like labyrinth, who, in this re-imagining, is a sensitive beast tormented by dreams of his long absent mother, Pasiphae (Jill Van Velzer), and a consuming love for his sister, Ariadne (Laura Howard). His isolation is somewhat assuaged by the divinatory powers and presence of the white clad chorus (Ashanti Brown, Teya Patt, Katie Locke O'Brien), whose constant chatter and antics account for a good share of laughs throughout. More humor comes when the very gay Icarus (Casey Kringlen) drops in -- literally -- with wings shedding feathers (a portent of things to come), cracking jokes and incessantly hitting on Asterius. Yockey's clever script becomes somewhat puzzling towards the show's end, but for most of this 75-minute piece, it is thoroughly engaging. Abigail Deser's fine direction brings out the best in her cast. Kurt Boecher's scenic design team adds a strong element of the rustic with a visually appealing assemblage of towering, crated rocks. Robert Prior's shadow puppets, wings and video design are equally impressive, as are his simple mix of costumes.Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Aug. 21. (626) 683-6883 (Lovell Estell III)
Eclectic Company Theatre's annual playwrights competition and festival, now in its eighth year, showcases new works by promising playwrights, with mixed results. For three weekends a different trio of plays is on offer, along with a voting ballot for audiences to fill out. The final weekend, August 5-7, is reserved for the audience favorites of the festival. This review is for Week 2. In "Stalking Pollyanna," written by Hal Corley and directed by Katie Witkowski, Mark Motyl plays a middle-aged gay man who spots his boyhood movie-star crush (Hayley Mills) in a bookstore. During this short play he is goaded by his obnoxious younger boyfriend (Jeremy Mascia) to make contact with the girl from his dreams. Delicate revelations that link the man's gay identity with his childhood fantasy are clouded by the implausibility of his friendship with such an insufferable younger man. Dan Farell Bruggeman's "Damien" is directed by Wendy Radford and consists of two intercut monologues that are tenuously linked: Mark Burford charts his character's fondness for his dog while his neighbor, a crabby middle-aged Southern woman (well played by Taylor Ashbrook) suspects the aging pooch of being possessed by the devil. Best of the night is "Holey Smokes," a tale tinged with horror written by Ellen Elizabeth Steves. A massive hole has inexplicably appeared on some rural property. Defying investigation, the chasm traumatizes the locals and visiting scientists. Within the large cast (Dana Amromin directs well), 12-year-old Brighid Fleming gives an exceptional performance, playing a disturbed child with heart-wrenching conviction. Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Aug. 7. (818) 508-3003. eclecticcompanytheatre.org (Pauline Adamek)
IN BED WITH TENN
This collection of six rarely performed, latter day short dramas by Tennessee Williams center mostly on activities that involve a bed. And, if you know your Tennessee Williams, it is a fair guess that these activities consist of shtupping and/or dying. Given that these plays were written rather late in Williams' career, though, the algorithm of dying actually far outweighs the shtupping. On the night reviewed, a central performer in several of the vignettes was unable to go on, forcing several other cast members to step forward and take over his roles. This led to a somewhat chaotic evening that probably did not catch the ensemble at their best. The most dramatically engaging of the vignettes is "The Lady of Larkspur Lotion," a droll tour de force in which a down on her heels hag prostitute (Catherine Curtis) tries to sweet-talk her flinty landlady (Rose DeSena) into not throwing her out for non-payment of rent. Curtis' hilariously pompous turn is nicely juxtaposed with DeSena's earthy ranting. "Green Eyes" features a virile young GI (Bryan Cummings), who returns home from a New Orleans party to discover that his new bride (Tricia Felice) has been entertaining a gentleman caller in their honeymoon suite. And "The Big Game" takes place in a hospital ward where a man dying of a congenital heart condition (Daryl Harper) bonds touchingly with a fellow patient (Bryan Kent), who is shortly to undergo a dangerous brain surgery. The staging, credited to co-directors Natalia Lazarus and George Neilson, is straightforward, with occasional awkward lapses and pacing problems undercutting the attempts to spark the seething sexual tension and subtext that is intrinsic to the material. Vincent Lappas offers an eerily accurate turn as a mischievous, gamine-eyed Williams himself as he introduces each vignette. Promenade Playhouse, 1404 3rd Street Promenade, Santa Monica. Closed. (310) 656-6070. (Paul Birchall)
LET ME DOWN EASY
Anna Deavere Smith conjures 20 characters, in a touring solo performance about mortality. The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica; thru July 31. (310) 434-3200. TheBroadstage.com. See Stage feature
THE PITY OF THINGS
A surreal thread runs through this medley of five one-acts. Tommy Smith's dark comedy, "PTSD" packs the biggest emotional punch. Ably directed by Sabina Ptasznik, it depicts the homecoming of an emotionally barricaded war vet (effectively portrayed by an understated Jason Denuszek) and the efforts of those around him to communicate. Carl J. Johnson is especially touching as his kind but clueless Dad. Nicholas S. Williams steals the evening's spotlight in Bill Robens' "Breaking," directed by Jaime Robledo. A talented mime who moves with agile precision, Williams gives a priceless rendering of the elaborate fantasies of a man undergoing a breakdown. Meanwhile his sister (Krista Conti) watches while confiding her anxious concerns to a friend (Jonathan Klein) - their dialogue a far less involving and even dispensable aspect of Robens' script. In Jason Grote's "Kawaisoo," a woman named Ellie (Jennifer Weaver, alternating with Lauren Letherer) tours through an upscale Manhattan market while conducting an imaginary dialogue with her ex-husband. A stream of discursive small talk reflects both her Philistine affectations and her rage. Though an expressive performer, under Sabrina Lloyd's direction, Weaver reveals too much of Ellie's inner landscape too soon. David Guerra's menacing narrator and Ryan Brodkin's striking sound design are the most noteworthy elements in Delondra Williams' "Desert Aria." Directed by Christopher William Johnson, this overly melodramatic piece involves a woman (Alana Dietze) searching for her lost friend in a place haunted by a Medea-like ghost who drowned her children. Written and directed by Phinny Kiyomura, "The Little Darling," is a shard of a play, a stylized interchange between two mid 20th century women (Kirsten Vangsness and Hiwa Bourne), both named Betty, one of whom channels her anger and self-loathing towards the other. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.; thru Aug. 7. (323) 856-8611. (Deborah Klugman)
Sean Galuszka's low-key suspense drama is set in an apartment in NYC's Hell's Kitchen. There's a violent banging on the door, and Paul (Chris Sams) emerges from the bathroom, wearing yellow rubber gloves and carrying a spray bottle. He seems nebbishy, yet there's something sinister about him. He carefully takes his time before answering the door. When he opens it, a hooded man bursts in. Paul sprays him in the eyes with the bottle. After a brief contretemps, it emerges that the stranger is Jerry (writer Galuszka), a friend of Paul's female room-mate. Learning that she's not at home, Jerry asks if he can wait for her. Paul grudgingly agrees, and proceeds to serve him tea. An increasingly edgy conversation ensues, and the appearance of a lethal looking butcher-knife and a saw hint at violence. Clearly more is going on than meets the eye, including a sexual attraction between the two men. By the end, the play proves to be a love-story as well as a tale of homicide. The play is a carefully controlled - perhaps too carefully controlled -- exercise in suspense. Director Susan Lambert skillfully charts the gradual emergence of the macabre facts, and the two actors cannily play off one another to keep the tension building. SPACE 916, 916 N. Formosa Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru August 20. (323) 848-4561. brownpapertickets.com/event/185937. (Neal Weaver)
SGANARELLE (OR THE IMAGINARY CUCKOLD)
Molière's lusty farce suffers in the hands of an uneven ensemble that can't quite harness the collective high energy upon which the comedy relies. The text, a new version translated and adapted by Frederique Michel and Charles A. Duncombe, includes plenty of deliciously ridiculous material about prideful men and jealous women, but the production misses too many beats to do the material justice. Young Celia (Lena Kouyoumdjian) loves the dashing Lelio (Justin Davanzo) and the pair intends to wed, despite the protestations of Celia's father, Gorgibus (Tim Orona). Sganarelle (Bo Roberts) is happily married to Madeleine (Cynthia Mance). Trouble comes to all four lovers in the form of bad assumptions and faulty conclusions, errors in judgment that threaten to destroy their relationships. Shortsightedness leads to emotional reactiveness, which leads to giant, impassioned displays of terrible, toddler-like behavior. This would all be outlandishly hilarious were the pacing tight and the actors fully committed to their characters' folly. Roberts self-consciously inhabits the cuckolded Sganarelle because he struggles with the lines and with pacing that falls one step behind the rest of the cast. The standout performance comes from Davanzo, whose every appearance on stage infuses the show with the high-octane, quick-handedness it requires. The women unspectacularly hold their own. Duncombe's overall production design is solid, but the lighting includes too many faces erroneously cast in shadow. City Garage at Bergamot Station, Track 16, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru Sept. 4. (310) 319-9939. (Amy Lyons)
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TARTUFFE, OU L'IMPOSTEUR
In a sense, Molière's immortal skewering of religious hypocrisy is the Jaguar XK-E of high-performance stage comedies; its classic lines and comic engineering are readily apparent even when parked, but it is only when humming in the hands of a skilled driver that its true genius finds full expression. Regrettably, with director-adaptor Ellen Geer behind the wheel, this out-of-tune Tartuffe sputters like it's blown a head gasket. Geer tricks out her period-dress (Val Miller's fine costumes), drawing-room production with a handful of original songs (Geer's music, Peter Alsop's lyrics) and the conceit that it is a command performance for Louis XIV, which cleverly sets up the deus ex machina dénouement. But lackluster laughs suggest that the incisive, anarchic soul of Molière has all but eluded her. It's not for the want of trying. Her ensemble of eminently capable, veteran classicists huff and puff their way through each slapstick Geer throws at them. Yet somehow, Orgon (Ted Barton) merely blusters, Dorine (Willow Geer) grates, and Elmire (Misha Bouvion) fades in the clinches. Happily, Aaron Hendry's brilliantly realized Tartuffe is the show-saving exception. Hendry's expressions of agonized piety as he screws Orgon out of house and home is the evening's crowning and excruciatingly hilarious achievement. Daniel Billet also injects rousing physical comedy into his portrait of the hotheaded son, Damis. Even these performances finally prove powerless against Ellen Geer's penchant for filling every nook and cranny of the Botanicum's awkwardly expansive space with business. Her blocking alone suffocates Moliére's funniest set pieces and produces the most irritatingly drawn-out entrances and exits ever seen on a stage. Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga; in rep, call for schedule; through Sept. 30. (310) 455-3723, theatricum.com. (Bill Raden)