BECOMING NORMAN Utah native Norman P. Dixon has had two coming-out parties: first, as a gay man and second as an artist. At times, he's been one or the other — say, when he graduated with a drama degree from BYU — but this solo show marks the 45-year-old's insistence on claiming both after spending the last 15 years toiling in office work and retail. The first half of the night follows the artist as pretty blond boy slowly learning that (a) there was a closet, and (b) he was in it. No quick revelation in Orem, Utah, a town, as Dixon describes, “where people didn't even think Boy George was gay.” Dixon is a handsome blond with a theatrical voice, and he powers through his life story with a blend of self-congratulation and insecurity. This serves him less well when his autobiography decamps from Salt Lake to Los Angeles and we hit waves of tales wherein his talents are spotted, he's offered a semi–big break and he sabotages himself in fear. Dixon's journey is both topical and familiar — who hasn't moved out to L.A. with big dreams? — and its only surprises come from his warm support network. When the former Mormon sent out four dozen letters announcing he was gay, only two respondents were upset. Between anecdotes, Dixon belts out songs he wrote about his struggle, built around words like dreams and wings and flying. We're happy he's happy. Debra De Liso directs. NOHO Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Sept. 12. (800) 595-4849. (Amy Nicholson)

KAFKA'S MONKEY — A REPORT TO AN ACADEMY Poor Franz Kafka. The prewar prose master of the sardonic grotesque has taken a terrific drubbing in the English-speaking world, not the least by substandard translations. These have all but eviscerated the caustic irony of his slyly subversive chronicles of man's quest for dignity in the dehumanizing bureaucratic purgatory of the Industrial Age. Reason enough to celebrate director Elena Vannoni's dazzling, German-language staging of Kafka's mordacious, 1917 monologue. In it, a renowned talking chimp, Red Peter (H.P. Vannoni in a tour-de-force performance), recounts the five-year odyssey from his kidnapping in the jungles of Africa to his fame in the music halls of Europe. H.P. Vannoni is aided by English supertitles, in a translation seasoned with heretofore missing, Kafka-esque flavors by Bruce Anderson, and a large video screen that projects and sometimes abstracts extreme close-ups of the onstage action. The actor articulates Red Peter's determination to escape the fate of life behind the bars of a German zoo by at first aping the loutish behavior of his captors, and later augmenting that with the education and elocution of “the average European.” But by restoring the original, guttural poetry and syntactical music of Kafka's mother tongue — even as he parses the subtexts with languidly pregnant pauses, mercurial shifts from simian rage and wistful regret to shocked comprehension — Vannoni the actor also eloquently underscores Kafka's supreme irony: By taking on the attributes of human civilization, Red Peter has merely traded one kind of cage for another. Zoo District at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; closed. (323) 464-3375, exit-production.com. (Bill Raden)

GO  MEDEA Euripides' tragedy concerning a betrayed woman and her monstrous revenge remains a timeless examination of humanity's struggle with its darker, primal urges. With the exception of a misstep at play's end, Travis Terry brilliantly directs a superb cast, relocating the story to a contemporary lunatic-asylum setting. The text reveals a few contemporary words — kid and trash — while preserving the antique language that's so rich with imagery and passion. Adalgiza Chermountd's Medea is first heard wailing from behind a white paper wall, part of designer Dionne Poindexter's central set piece of Medea's quarters, which rotates with ease. “Whipping her grief-tormented heart into a fury,” Chermountd has a disheveled yet formidable presence, and her multihued interpretation ranges from coherent and ferocious to deranged. Her unspeakable deed is chillingly depicted. Commenting in unison, the chorus of young girl (Shaina Vorspan), mother (Lauren Wells) and grandmother (Karen Richter) double as asylum orderlies, with Shaina Vorspan giving an especially expressive performance. There are some welcome moments of levity in R. Benito Cardenas' playful interpretation of Aegeus, one of Medea's fellow lunatics. A highlight is the scene when Medea's duplicitous ex-husband, Jason (Max Horner), attempts to “correct her exaggeration” with his version of events. Aside from a tacked-on happy ending that feels utterly false, this unpretentious production holds many rewards. Knightsbridge Theatre, 1944 Riverside Drive, Silver Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through August 29. (323) 667-0955. (Pauline Adamek)

SPEAK OF ME AS I AM It's easy to understand why singers and dramatic artists would want to portray the legendary Paul Robeson. Actor, athlete, intellect and man of principle, Robeson fearlessly battled for justice — and paid the price. This solo show, featuring opera baritone KB Solomon, meshes some of the highlights of Robeson's life with renditions of the songs (“Old Man River,” “Going Home”) for which he's most famous. The (uncredited) script relays information about Robeson's life in no particular order but repeatedly returns to his battle with HUAC's hearings and their painful aftermath. Directed by Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter, Solomon (whose bio lists music credits but no acting) spins an expository monologue that remains on the surface and seems most suitable for youthful audiences unfamiliar with the material. Designer Michael Boucher has crafted a low-budget but attractive set, and Joyce S. Long's lighting adds professional sheen. Gallery Theater in Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun 3 p.m.; through September 5. (323) 960-7779, pr4plays@plays411.com. (Deborah Klugman)


STILL STANDING Playwright Shyla Martin sets out to tell the tale of Laura (Venessa Peruda), a Los Angeles woman who discovers a startling letter while sorting through the belongings of her deceased father. In it, the writer, Celeste Ellis (Monique McIntyre), informs Dad that she has borne him a daughter, and asks for child support. Laura is thunderstruck to discover that she has a half-sister. Her Aunt Sarah (Eileen T'Kaye) urges her to go to Katrina-ravaged New Orleans to track down the mysterious sister. But the meeting with that sister, Tracey (Nichelle Hines), proves awkward because, though both women had white fathers and African-American mothers, Laura is ostensibly white and Tracey is recognizably black. When the two women eventually form a bond, it's threatened by unforeseen events. The story is potentially interesting, but Martin's naive dramaturgy dilutes its power. Many short scenes, in different locales, make for long, debilitating scene changes; plot details emerge in haphazard, confusing fashion; and there are red herrings: Tracey's brother (Rondrell McCormick) elaborately hides a mysterious packet, which is never explained or referred to again. Director Nick Mills has assembled a capable cast, but the play's fragmentary scenes and shifting focus defuse their efforts. Theatre Asylum, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m., through September. Produced by Vitality Productions. (323) 960-7863, plays411.com/stillstanding. (Neal Weaver)

GO  TOPDOG/UNDERDOG Lincoln and Booth are bizarre monikers for a pair of siblings. In this solid revival of Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize–winning drama, capably directed by Martin Papazian, names aren't the only ironic peculiarity here. Lincoln (A.K Murtadha) and Booth (M.D. Walton) are African-Americans, named by a neglectful, long-gone father as a joke; they now cling to one another for survival yet harbor volcanic resentments toward each other. The play's potency lies in this attraction-repulsion dynamic and the resultant venomous acrimony, which Parks so neatly dissects. Lincoln, the oldest, is kicked out by his wife and forced to move into Booth's sleazy, trash-strewn apartment. Life isn't unbearably wretched for him; he has a “real” job as an arcade attraction playing the Great Emancipator — complete with whiteface, fake beard, stovepipe and trashy overcoat — while patrons shoot him for recreation. Once a master of the three-card monte street hustle, he now salves what's left of his dignity with false hopes and Jack Daniels. His pistol-packing brother, however, dreams of being the ultimate monte player, seeing the game as his ticket out of poverty and an affirmation of his manhood. Parks sketches an ugly portrait of thwarted urban life, sibling rivalry and crippling self-delusion. Though not much happens in this two-hour comedy, the writing is thoroughly engaging. Yet it's Walton and Murtadha's rugged, emotionally charged performances that work the magic. Lillian Theater, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through September 12. (323) 960-7719. (Lovell Estell III)

GO  A WOLF INSIDE THE FENCE “You can't lose your way in a history class. You can only go backwards,” says Linus McBride (Arthur Hanket), a history teacher who seems to be losing his passion, and possibly his marbles. The target of the advice is Marion McNeely (Charlotte Chanler), a troubled transfer student at McBride's Oregon public high school. With dark secrets of his own, Linus cultivates an attachment to Marion. At the same time, the new principal, Judy (Amanda Weier), cultivates an interest in the girl, with whom she shares more than she would care to admit, while losing interest in her boyfriend, math teacher Harold Carson (Colin Walker). What develops is an intense series of events as these wounded animals become entwined in each other's lives. Playwright Joseph Fisher weaves a rich tapestry of dark chocolate secrets and twisted desires, pairing it perfectly with a dry champagne wit that sparkles in the mouths of this talented cast. Hanket, particularly, wields Fisher's rapier wit with impeccable comic timing and an understated manner that leads to some devastatingly funny lines. The credit for this must, of course, be shared with director Benjamin Burdick, who strikes a fine balance between the piece's humor and horror. The minimally staged performance is a good reminder that when fancy sets, lighting and other aspects of modern stagecraft are put away, the heart of good drama is compelling characters and a well-crafted text. Open Fist Theater, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (performance dates vary); through September 11. (323) 882-6912. openfist.org. (Mayank Keshaviah)

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