Photo by Rob Nava

ASK THEATER PROJECTS' COMMON GROUND festival, starting this week at UCLA's Macgowan Hall, focuses on the art of performance, rather than on the script-based orientation of ASK's other programs. (ASK Theater Projects is a national, privately endowed theater-support organization.) “We have expanded what we would define as theater,” says executive director Kym Eisner. The performances are all free, but reservations are required to guarantee seating. The festival's reservation line is (310) 478-9ASK. On the docket this year:


  • The Lively Lad is NYC-based playwright Quincy Long's absurdist, Edwardian-style look at contemporary social politics, which aims to blend the tones of Joe Orton and Noel Coward. Satirizing the social elite by making cynical jabs at status and materialism, the narrative follows a young woman's desperation to compete in the spheres of high society. Her father, who indulges her elitism with the gift of a eunuch, is himself in love with a plebeian. C'est la vie. Long's play addresses what he describes as a return to the classist cruelties of 1920s New York, with servants living in their employees' high-rise domiciles — a lifestyle made possible by the efforts and agonies of the working class. Long and director Kathleen Dimmick set out to use frivolity as a baton against re-emerging class barriers. (Fri., June 25, 8 p.m.; Sat., June 26, 2 p.m.; Sun., June 27, 7 p.m.)


  • Bea[u]tiful in the Extreme, presented by the locally based Oasis Theater Company, consists of excerpts from Leon Martell's play — based on Steven Ambrose's book Undaunted Courage, about the exploits of American explorer Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark). The piece examines Lewis' turbulent life, from his traversing Louisiana in 1803 to his brutal, mysterious death in 1809 en route to Washington for a report on his findings about the merits of the Louisiana Purchase. The title, taken from one of Lewis' memoirs in which he left out the u in beautiful, echoes the great explorer's description of the American West and serves as a metaphor for the incomplete man. (Thurs., June 24, 7 p.m.; Sun., June 27, 6 p.m.)


  • If I Knew Then . . . Performance artist Joyce Guy embarks on a self-reflective journey in which she visits her past and ruminates upon how certain experiences have shaped her life. Highly influenced by South African author Mazisi Kunene, whose work is recited as bridges between Guy's own anecdotes, the performer emphasizes the importance of obtaining wisdom, of continually learning from the past while growing older. African rhythms buttress the piece, with original music by Willie Jones III, and Cynthia Berry's a cappella vocals bleeding into the tones of Aretha Franklin and Count Basie. (Sat., June 26, 1 p.m.)


  • A Fisherman Out of Water is an epic Japanese fable about a boy torn from his adoptive fisherman father by a mischievous monarch. Storyteller Nathan Stein uses juggling to enliven the story. “I wanted to use the juggling to physicalize the creatures and the characters in the story, to make it integral to the telling,” says Stein. In one instance, the mystical king comes to shore from the royal barge, juggling for an awestruck populace. In another, the boy tries to escape from the king's clutches by turning into a swallow — depicted in a juggling flurry. While performing in Japan, Stein became fascinated with how Japanese theater often integrates movement and dazzling stage skills with the telling of fables, particularly in aquatic tales. On the political front, part of the show's purpose is to draw more attention to the way government turns a blind eye to institutions carelessly poisoning our water supply. (Fri., June 25, 7 p.m.; Sun., June 27, 1 p.m.)


  • Two-Headed. Playwright Julie Jensen visits polygamous 1880s Utah in her ASK-commissioned piece about two girls growing up Mormon. The story hinges on the 1857 Mountain Meadow Massacre, in which a group of Mormons, aware that the government planned to challenge them over their practice of polygamy, rounded up and massacred 120 immigrants. But the piece doesn't aim to hurl agitprop indictments at the Mormons. Rather, it seeks to blend facts with conjecture in order to reach a clearer understanding of who these people were. Veronica Brady's staging will be a more or less complete version of the script, with no intermission or even blackouts. “I want the audience to see a whole life pass,” explains Jensen. (Thurs., June 24, 8 p.m.; Sat., June 26, 8 p.m.; Sun., June 27, 2 p.m.)


  • Rain City Rollers rolls down from Seattle, home of the House of Dames and their roller-derby homage. In 1935, Leo Seltzer organized the Trans-Continental Roller Derby, modeled after the famed Dance Marathon, during which he witnessed a skating crash escalate into a violent slugfest for a bemused audience. Restructuring the rules to make the derby a sport, Seltzer invented the epitome of competition kitsch. Artistic director Nikki

    Appino and a collection of enthusiastic collaborators have synthesized this story with the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus to create what they describe as a mythic knock-down, drag-out mobile grudge match. Appino, with composers David Russell and Kevin Joyce, dance captain/ choreographer Tina LaPadula, and a host of singers, dancers and actors, will perform a 20- to 30-minute excerpt from the project. (Thurs., June 24, 9 p.m.; Sun., June 27, 3:30 p.m.)

  • Catapult: La Comedie Humaine. Commissioned by the National Dance project, the Diavolo Company's offering engages a thematic exploration of the couch. Esoteric? Well, the company, headed by Jacques Heim, has made a name for itself by using commonplace structures as a way to express nuanced human behavior. “This object is so much a part of our lives. On couches we relax, we wait, we worry, we sleep, we fight,” Heim explains. The company isn't made up exclusively of dancers but also includes gymnasts, actors and athletes. “I choose performers who have a knowledge of the body, those who come with a vocabulary of movement.” Later on in the process, the piece will be accompanied by a narrative and will premiere, fully formed, November 4 at UCLA's Royce Hall. (Fri., June 25, 9 p.m.; Sat., June 26, 6 p.m.)


  • Speed Hedda. The Fabulous Monsters have made a splash in L.A. theater with cross-dressed, role-reversing revisitations of classic texts such as Alice in Wonderland and The Importance of Being Earnest. Here, they present artistic director Robert Prior's fast-paced adaptation of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. Prior's version is replanted in the early '60s, when the social climate accepted, or at least didn't reject, the use of stimulants to combat the depression caused by domestic servitude. Prior insists that he doesn't mean for the piece to meander into an anti-prescription-drug diatribe but rather to serve as a conduit through which to understand the collective mentality of senators who have their wives lobotomized (the inspiration for The Stepford Wives). In trademark Monsters fashion, the show is gender-bent and promises a riotous collage of colorful sets, outrageous costumes and live mambo music. Prior points out, though, that the script “is remarkably faithful to Ibsen.” Hmmm. (Sat., June 26, 3:30 p.m.)


    In addition to all the shows, ASK will host its second annual Theater Fair on Saturday and Sunday afternoon directly outside Macgowan Hall, where representatives from theaters all over Los Angeles will be available to answer questions and provide information on their seasons, submission processes and opportunities to get involved. Food, live music and “other surprises” will be included.

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