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ARROZ CON POLLO The titular Puerto Rican dish becomes the central metaphor for human and humane relationships in Edward H. Hernandez’s tightly drawn, extremely literate but unfinished morality tale. Brian Turley convincingly portrays Nathan, a Midwestern MBA hatchet man, brought to New York by a powerful corporation to oversee a tsunami of layoffs. Rafael Robles smoothly embodies Victor, the company’s wise and enigmatically spiritual custodian, who offers a perfect foil to Nathan’s worldly indifference. But it is Victor’s lovely daughter, Angela (an earnest if overplayed performance by Andrea Munoz), and her Tupperware dish of arroz con pollo that lures Nathan’s innate decency out from behind his calloused heart. The trio’s ultimate goodness is sorely tested by the cold-blooded greed of the CEO’s daughter, Emily (played with apt chilliness by Katherine Leilani McDowell). Mary Jo DuPrey directs the fine cast, with an intensity that matches the density of the text, but it is the very skill of the company that reveals the play’s ultimate weakness. This is a rare example of a playwright who needs to add more: In its current 70-minute incarnation, the characters and plot are revealed too quickly with so little development, there are few surprises besides a rather unconvincing melodramatic finale. The moral is spun by the Zenlike Victor in the first few moments, and the rest is quick and interesting, but it’s not a particularly suspenseful flight toward an outcome that’s evident almost from the start. Ruby Theatre at The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun 7 p.m.; through Dec 21. (323)-960-7863 or www.plays411.com/arrozconpollo. (Tom Provenzano)
A CHICAGO CHRISTMAS CAROL William A. Reilly and Gary Lamb have transplanted Charles Dickens’ tale to Upton Sinclair’s Chicago in a quasi-Brechtian musical take on the Christmas favorite. There are, of course, slight changes in characterization: “Tiny” Tim Cratchit (Malek Hanna) is now a union organizer at Fezziwig’s Meats, where his father, Bob (Lamb), is trying to preserve his job in a bad economy (one of many parallels to our current business climate). Instead, the role of the lovable waif goes to a Christina Jessup (Shannon Lamb), who, with her mother, is made homeless by the unfeeling Scrooge (Michael Vodde) at the story’s outset. The rest of the events unfold in a more familiar Dickensian fashion, while set to Reilly’s music. Unfortunately, director-choreographer Tam Warner creates a strange hybrid between Verfremdungseffekt and emotional realism, giving the play a presentational feel that at times resembles a Christmas pageant. Dean Cameron’s gritty, versatile set and Caitlin Erin O’Hare’s colorful costumes provide visual appeal, and a number of the players have pleasant voices, most notably Tara Brown, who plays Scrooge’s erstwhile love, Isabella Fezziwig. Despite the feel-good ending, due solely to the happy resolution of Christina’s tragedy (and Shannon Lamb’s cute looks), the emotional heart of the show is missing, making us wonder if Scrooge’s transformation was really the dream. Crown City Theater, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through December 21. (818) 377-4055. (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO A GRAND GUIGNOL CHILDREN’S SHOW “Not for children” says the program’s subhead — and they’re not kidding. Tapping the same root used by Shockheaded Peter, writer-director Debbie McMahon takes the scariest fairy tales in the world, and draws both their violence and latent eroticism through a vivacious and rude entertainment that’s part–French vaudeville and part–British Punch and Judy puppet show. Not meaning to be overly literal, but there was some vagueness as to the era: The production is framed as a touring show, circa 1930, while, at the same time, being a birthday party for Monsieur Guignol, who turns 200 this year. So Puppets Punch and Guignol perch in their wooden booth looking down on their human replicas, as four fairy tales are played with song and dance, with Chris Bell’s set (sheet backdrops, mostly) and puppets, Jeanne Simpson’s charmingly goofy choreography and Matt Richter’s deliberately rambling lighting design. “Little Red Riding Hood” is a cross between a snuff tale and pedophile’s wet dream, as Ms. Hood (Hannah Chodos) removes her red bonnet (revealing pigtails, of course) before stripping down for the Wolf (Gary Karp), languishing in the bed of Grandma (Vanessa Forster), whom he’s just eaten. (There may have been a reference to her being eaten out; at least that joke was made about somebody.) The ensuing carnage shows poor Little Red with an alarmed facial expression, as her bloodied intestines are strewn from her midsection around the stage. “The Ugly Ducking” is a lovely and considerably more benign costume parade about family and tribes. “Rapunzel” is an R-rated production with finger puppets, while “Hansel and Gretel” turns into an impressively disturbing saga of cannibalism, coming from the same country that put a millions of people into ovens. Though the sophomoric Punch/Guignol repartee grows tiring, and the dramatic beats within the fairy tales need paring, there’s no denying how the lurid morbidity of the event sneaks up on you. And when the witch, opening her oven, tells Hansel and Gretel, “You thought the famine hasn’t come to my house!” the tingles up the spine run hot and cold. Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m. (added perf Dec. 18; no perfs Dec. 26 & Jan. 1); through January 10. (323) 871-1912 or www.brownpapertickets.com. (Steven Leigh Morris)
I LOVE MY WIFE Cy Coleman’s 1977 wife-swapping musical feels almost as if it’s been steeped in amber, providing a portal back to a pre-AIDS era of swingin’ and sexual rebellion. Burly Alvin (Jason Alexander) flunks a “How Repressed Are You?” test in an issue of Cosmo and realizes he needs to pep up his sex life. His solution is to plot a ménage à trois with himself, his wife, Cleo (Vicki Lewis), and Monica (Lea Thompson), the wife of his free-loving best pal, publicist Wally (Patrick Cassidy). Unfortunately for Alvin, Cleo misinterprets the plans and assumes the party is going to be between her, Alvin and Wally. Complications ensue when the four best friends meet on Christmas Eve to consummate their misbegotten four-way. Ho ho ho, indeed. Director Larry Moss’ splendid production of Coleman’s odd musical boasts unusually deft and focused comic timing, much of it the result of the agreeably neurotic interplay between Alexander’s Alvin and Lewis’ Cleo, which strongly puts one in mind of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Michael Skloff’s upbeat musical direction is just as tightly assured and winning, particularly during the unexpectedly heartfelt finale, a tribute to true love. The show’s faults are ultimately those of the original musical. The incidents of undercover naked Kama Sutra poses and hashish smoking fit oddly with Coleman and lyricist Michael Stewart’s traditional belt-and-ballad show tunes — and the music itself has an incongruently fusty feel. Brentwood Theatre on the Veterans Administration grounds, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through December 14. (213) 365-3500. A Reprise Theatre Company production. (Paul Birchall)
IVANOV The problems in Chekhov’s first full-length play, written when he was 27, caused the Russian dramatist no end of frustration; it’s a warmup for his later, more delicate studies of a fading aristocracy, and their shiftlessness while standing in a shifting era. Ivanov’s adoring Jewish wife is dying of consumption, but the “poor fellow”— widely accused in his town of marrying her for her dowry, and now having affairs as a kind of financial speculation on the future — can’t bear to stay at home. He can’t endure her illness, or the townsfolk who yammer endless platitudes about recipes. Mostly, he can’t stand himself and the pointlessness of his existence. Chekhov was trying to upend the romantic idea of “the superfluous man” — a centerpiece of 19th-century Russian literature. The playwright presents all Ivanov’s flaws without judging him, while also making no apologies for him. This arouses in the audience a whirlpool of frustration — conflicting passions over whether his reckless and callous disregard for his dying wife does actually reflect the larger callousness of simply living and dying, and is therefore a logical response to it. This is not a comfortable meditation, which explains why this would have been such a difficult idea from which to launch a playwriting career. The German company, Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, brought its 2005 German-language, English-subtitled staging to UCLA over the weekend in a production that blew open those difficult questions so that they loomed large and clear. Director Dimiter Gotscheff sliced in excerpts from Chekhov’s other works, but, mostly, he cleared the stage of all detritus, creating a white canvas. Billows of fog emanated from the floor and seeped out into the audience (“no connectedness, each wandering around in his own fog”), while the ensemble — resembling characters from a George Grosz cartoon — played out a kind of languid vaudeville, rigidly presentational, on the cavernous stage. The trousers of landowner Lebedev buckled up somewhere north of his pot-bellied navel. He had a scrub beard and started a run toward the audience, which he couldn’t seem to stop, tilting at the lip of the stage like a tree leaning dangerously into the orchestra pit. He pulled back just in time to save himself, wandered back upstage and then fell down, for no reason. Another scene had the entire ensemble fallen on their backs like dying insects, struggling to get up. Amidst this Beckett-like vision, Lebedev cut a small fart. The fog billowed throughout. The ensemble was equally magnificent. No gesture was without a purpose. Samuel Finzi’s bearded Ivanov bore a perpetually forlorn expression, juxtaposed against his animated voice. The case for his prosecution was moral. The case for his defense was existential. In that divide lay the beauty of this production. Presented by UCLA Live. Closed. (Steven Leigh Morris)
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KEN ROHT’S 99¢ ONLY CALENDAR GIRL COMPETITION Now in its sixth year, director-choreographer Ken Roht’s 99 Cents Only Theater is beginning to look like a one-trick pony. As in past years, the trick is to limit his costume (Ann Closs-Farley) and set (Jason Adams) designers to use only what they can scrounge from the titular discount chain for Roht’s decidedly silly burlesques of Radio City–style, holiday musical spectaculars. It’s a funny gag — thanks mainly to the wit and ingenuity of Closs-Farley, whose show-stealing creations dress this year’s ostensible lampoon of beauty pageants in the highest of camp. It almost makes one overlook Roht’s failure to gird his polished production numbers with the narrative spine of a coherent book. Instead, he and co-composer John Ballinger are content to let their parody coast on their pastiche of Godspell-vintage, R&B show tunes and the bare structural framework of the pageant form itself. And while their clever lyrics often connect, the lack of a story arc or character through-lines means the evening never amounts to more than a concert of disconnected — and increasingly monotonous — musical sketches. If storytelling isn’t Roht’s forte, however, he again proves his genius at talent recruitment. This year’s 28-strong, pitch-perfect company generates enough singing and dancing power to light up an entire Broadway season. Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (213) 389-3856. (Bill Raden)
GO MY TRIP DOWN THE PINK CARPET If a zest for life is infectious, there’s probably no more delightful a carrier than Leslie Jordan. A diminutive stage, film, Emmy Award–winning TV actor, and fugitive from the Bible Belt, Jordan regales us with anecdotes illuminating his inner journey, from abashed homosexual and show-biz neophyte to triumphant Hollywood insider and the self-proclaimed “gayest man I know.” In his autobiographical show, My Trip Down the Pink Carpet, he relays, in no particular order — and in an unapologetic Chattanooga drawl — stories that encompass his childhood and adolescence: as a toddler craving a bride doll after attending a wedding; his infatuation with the high school quarterback, foiled (no surprise here) by the cheerleader with the perky breasts; and the trepidation of his first visit to a gay bar. Other stories are plucked from his colorful career as a performer, as when his mad crush on Mark Harmon during a film shoot left him speechless in take after take, or when mischievous George Clooney conspired with a costumer to let out his pants, or when Beverly D’Angelo dispatched him to Victoria’s Secret to buy her some panties. At the core of his tale is the struggle and eventual overcoming of alcohol and drug addiction and his ultimate confrontation with the seminal fears that brought them on. While Jordan’s themes are familiar, his charm, his energy, his impeccable timing and above all his warmth make this a one-of-a-kind show. David Galligan directs. L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, Renberg Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Dec. 14. (323) 860-7300. (Deborah Klugman)
PERILOUS! PENELOPE PERIL VS. THE HOLIDAY ORGASM Like defensive friends who must have the last word, on Opening Night, this comedy’s producers and announcer (Tyler Tanner) seemed defiantly proud of its mere two days of rehearsal. As it only runs for four performances, expectations can remain low for its second and last weekend. That’s almost a winning strategy for an erotic Yuletide slapstick that was never intended to be good. Rather, this hyper yarn about a born-again virgin named Wendy Wallflower (Elizabeth Dement) — whose alter-identity superhero, Penelope Peril, must save her town from a Christmas Eve contagion that’s turned everyone from the mayor (Bob Brunson) to her dweeby boyfriend, Phil (Fuz), into a sexual predator — is a stocking overstuffed with bad puns, furious dry humping and softcore lesbian incest. Though the jokes are adamantly outrageous, they’re also entirely predictable. The four writers (Taylor Ashbrook, Jeff Folschinsky, Tanner and Dement) never hit full-throttle lunacy, sticking instead to the more common turf of bawdy acronyms — such as the Criminal United Municipal Services. Though the show almost wants to be a train wreck, Dement’s hot pants–clad savior is so gosh-darned wide-eyed and earnest that her performance helps Ashbrook’s direction hold it together. (That she’s the spitting image of Carrie Fisher is a bonus.) Also strong are Laura Lee Bahr as Penelope’s lusty sister; and Fuz, who lisps and sputters as the hapless geek, only to make a convincing about-face as Philandro, the Christmas Bandito of Love, merely by slapping on a mustache. Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 12. (818) 508-3003. (Amy Nicholson)
SCROOGE MUST DIE! The Actors’ Gang’s X-rated take on Dickens’ classic tale gives new meaning to the phrase “a blue Christmas.” Writer-director Angela Berliner seems determined to re-imagine the novel, using much of the original text, interspersed with rants that are jaundiced, scatological, violent and aggressively sexual. (One riff concerns being raped by a herd of buffalo.) Mr. Scrooge (Scott Harris) murders Marley (Justin Zsebe) and throws his body to the wolves at the door. Old Fezziwig (Pierre Adeli) is a capitalist exploiter, and his Christmas party degenerates into an orgy with much pan-sexual simulated sex. Nephew Fred (RJ Jones) is declared to be a homosexual, and his wife (Sabra Williams) a slut. The Cratchit family apparently dines on roast rat rather than roast goose, and the young Cratchits are a rum lot: Peter (Seth Compton) is a gin peddler, Martha (Heather J. Thomas) is a hooker, and Tiny Tim (Elora Dannon) seems more interested in masturbating than asking for blessings. There’s no real purpose or point of view, merely a compulsion to debunk everything in sight. There are occasional laughs, but brief as it is (just more than an hour), the show quickly grows tiresome. Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat., through Jan. 10; variable schedule; call for info. (310) 838-4254 or www.theactorsgang.com. An Actors’ Gang production. (Neal Weaver)