See all this week's NEW THEATER REVIEWS (after the jump), including recommendations for I Love Lucy, Live on Stage at the Greenway Court Theatre;

Charles Ludlum's The Artificial Jungle, at the Lounge; and Waiting for Lefty, at the Art of Acting Studio. 

Also, check out the current extended STAGE FEATURES on John Leguizamo's Ghetto Klown and Catherine Trieschmann's How The World Began; and the remainder of this week's COMPREHENSIVE THEATER LISTINGS Check back on Thursday for long-form reviews of John Leguizamo's Ghetto Klown (Ricardo Montalban Theater) and Catherine Trieschmann's How the World Began (South Coast Rep)
PICK OF THE WEEK WAY TO HEAVEN (HIMMELWEG) Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga's powerful psychological horror show takes as its inspiration Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp that was disguised as a charming town to fool visiting Red Cross investigators. The play opens with audience members being allowed to tour an onstage exhibit

NEW THEATER REVIEWS scheduled for publication, October 13, 2011


Credit: Enci

Credit: Enci

Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga's powerful psychological horror show

takes as its inspiration Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp that

was disguised as a charming town to fool visiting Red Cross

investigators. The play opens with audience members being allowed to

tour an onstage exhibit of actual items from the camp — a pillar containing old posters

advertising fake cabaret shows in the nonexistent night club,

forinstance. When the performance itself starts, the actors use the

props and items we've just been examining, thus creating an

environmental experience that's perfect for director Ron Sossi's

evocative staging. A Red Cross worker (Michael McGee) relates his

memories of a tour of the fake concentration camp, which appeared to be

populated by a genially gentlemanly Prison Commandant (the chillingly

perfect Norbert Weisser) and a group of Jewish inmates, happily

portraying “villagers.” Utilizing a lyrical structure that loops back

and forth through time, Mayorga relates the events from several

different points of view — not just the Red Cross worker's, but also

that of the deranged, giggly insane commandant. Gentle scenes of

children playing onstage, or a young couple on a date, are replayed,

each time with increasing terror that suggests a rehearsal process for

which the stakes of a bad performance are death. As his tale unfolds,

Moyorga's disjointed, nonlinear structure (in David Johnston's taut

translation) avoids standard tropes of melodrama as the themes shifts

from the historical to a meditation on the nature of lying, and then on

to a subtle and rather chilling satire of the deceptive nature of

theater itself. Sossi crafts a mood of palpable onstage terror and

cracklingly compelling turns are offered by Weisser's terrifying

commandant, by Bruce Katzman's broken Jewish camp inmate and by McGee's

appalled Red Cross worker.  Odyssey Theater 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.,

W.L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (no perfs Oct. 24-30); thru Dec.

18 | (310) 477-2055, (Paul Birchall)


Credit: Michelle Pederson

Credit: Michelle Pederson

A pet shop is an odd place for a noir score, and an even odder place for a bed placed just 10 feet away from a fish tank where two piranhas bob, awaiting their next meal. But the sleazy sax and inviting mattress are integral to Charles Ludlam's comic melodrama about animal salesman Chester Nurdiger (Rich Hutchman), his restless redhead wife, Roxanne (Bernadette Sullivan), and the handsome stranger (Michael Loomis) who's charmed his way into a hamster cage-cleaning gig — and the missus' panties. He can't resist the way Roxanne wiggles her hips when she bends over to get feeder worms from the refrigerator. And he can't resist when she makes noises about killing Chester under the noses of Mama Nurdiger (Michael Halpin) and Officer Frankie (Brad David Reed). The Artificial Jungle is a well-done trifle about the selfishness of human animals, and under Randee Trabitz's direction it's a great showcase for his team. Sullivan plays the cuckolding wife like a cat clawing at the door for freedom. Halpin's big momma isn't a drag pratfall –she's the second coming of Lucille Ball down to the expressive, heavily mascaraed eyes. And Hutchman's doomed oaf is a fool for his wife, yet he's no dummy; Hutchman makes him at once irritating and ingratiating. When Loomis' seducer is struck by his conscience, the play borrows notes from Shakespeare's Macbeth and Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart which here really should have been The Tell-Tale Talking Parrot. The intermission is unnecessary, but that's the only technical quibble when Keith Mitchell's cluttered set of creatures spills into the seats (there was a snake on my chair), Derrick McDaniel's lighting darkens at every dramatically raised eyebrow and prop designers Judy Heneghan and Andrea Hutchman have built rodent puppets that bone in a cage, both to amuse the audience during scene changes and so Mama Nurdiger will have an excuse to intone, “The rats are in heat.” Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 6. (323) 960-7863, (Amy Nicholson)

THE DINOSAUR WITHIN Tommy (a show-stealing Ari Skye) is a sweet nerd whose speech to the Junior Paleontology Association serves as the string that ties together three stories of loss. Honey Wells (Mimi Cozzens), a fading actress haunted by her past, repeatedly watches footage of the day she stepped into her square at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. A construction worker drilling on Hollywood Boulevard, who left his aboriginal father in Australia due to an obsession with Honey and his desire to be an actor, meets her daughter, Maria (Shauna Bloom). Maria, who stares at her mother's star looking for a clue to her own history, reads a story her former journalism professor wrote about an aborigine who claims dinosaur tracks were stolen from his people. The journalist is struggling with the loss of his son, an unsolved mystery that tortures him. On paper, the stories are all intriguingly interconnected, but most characters are portrayed as being so self-absorbed and single-mindedly possessed that it's difficult to drum up much sympathy for any of them. Maybe that was director Michael Michetti's point. Thanks to a society that increasingly makes it more convenient to interact with laptops than with flesh and blood, most of us power selfishly through our lives, barely acknowledging the existence of others in the same struggles. As a wooden reconciliation takes place onstage, one has to wonder: Will relationships become extinct next? The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 6. (626) 683-6883, (Rebecca Haithcoat)


Credit: Ed Krieger

Credit: Ed Krieger

If you're an I Love Lucy fan, this is your moment. The show, based on the TV series that still runs in syndication 60 years after its debut, takes audience members back to Desilu studio during the 1950s, where the audience sits in on a “live” television taping of two episodes, hosted by the affable Murray Jasper (Mark Christopher Tracy). Though there never will be talents quite like Ball, William Frawley, Vivian Vance and Desi Arnaz, director Rick Sparks' terrific cast channel them with charm, intelligence and energy in this fun-filled musical comedy. Sirena Irwin plays the redhead queen of comedy with precision. Bill Mendieta has got Ricky Ricardo down, including the thick Cuban accent, and Bill Chott and Lisa Joffrey do Fred and Ethel Mertz quite well. The two original episodes, “The Benefit” and “Lucy has Her Eyes Examined” (written by Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr.), are a hoot, but so are the hilarious commercial breaks, the Lucy trivia contest and the surprising variety of musical and dance numbers. Pianist and musical director Wayne Moore does a stellar job leading the six-piece band. Aaron Henderson provides meticulously crafted sets, while Shon LeBlanc's period costumes are on the money. (Yes, there are more than a few red-and-white polka dot dresses). Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave.; Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Dec. 30. (added perfs. Wed. & Thurs., 8 p.m., from Oct. 26). 800-595-4tix, (Lovell Estell III)

I'VE NEVER BEEN SO HAPPY Most of the fun happens in the lobby, where there's chili, slingshot contests and heaps of Western kitsch. With book and lyrics by Kirk Lynn, music and lyrics by Peter Stopschinski, Thomas Graves and Lana Lesley direct this disjointed, ill-conceived send-up of the American West. Presented by the Austin-based Rude Mechs and Center Theatre Group, this mixed-genre musical suffers from a narrative and stylistic identity crisis that leaves it bucking around the stage like a runaway bronco in desperate need of a lasso. The undeniably talented troupe spends much of its energy executing choreographer Dayna Hanson's plot-slaughtering, post-modern dance moves. Annabellee (Meg Sullivan) is shackled by her father, a bullying variety-show host with old-fashioned ideas about unmarried women. Likewise encumbered is Jeremy (E. Jason Liebrecht), a young man whose mother, Julie (Cami Alys), literally ties him to the last mountain lion in Texas when he turns 18, a twofold tactic designed to rid mom's commune of its sole man and to teach him life lessons. When Annabellee and Jeremy meet, love blooms and a theme of personal freedom vs. inevitable human interconnectedness emerges, a struggle that is poignantly summarized in the lovely song “Everything's Tied,” arguably the play's finest moment. Two dogs, Sigmunda (Jenny Larson) and Sigfried (Paul Soileau), often take center stage to race, sing and tell jokes, a device that gets old fast. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; through Oct. 23. (213) 628-2772, (Amy Lyons)

THE MISSILE MAN OF PEENEMUNDE and BURLY Q MOON Playwright-director Bill Sterritt's “The Missile Man of Peenemunde” seems to be offering the kind of polemics mastered by Tom Stoppard, but serves up only tedious and unintended humor. From a campy poster image of a gorgeous woman straddling a rocket, and a cabaret opening with a Hogan's Heroes sensibility in which a buxom St. Paulie Girl (yes, like the beer) sings an uncredited rendition of Tom Lehrer's song “Wernher von Braun,” one expects to be treated to an unbridled farce. But when the sexy lady (Lillian Solange Beaudoin) does appear on the rocket, it's as a serious delusion in the mind of rocket scientist Von Braun (Gregory G. Giles). He battles wits with the aging Nazi Dr. Bahr (Thomas Ehas), who tries to convince the scientist not to test the missile. Weighing in on this long, dull mass of wordiness is the mysterious and creepy Walter Thiel (Steve Ducey), who speaks of the Fuhrer in metaphorical terms based on Norse mythology. But “Missile Man” is genius next to Amy Tofte's pointlesss “Burly Q Moon,” which follows it. It resembles Waiting for Godot cast with women and set in a Weimar-era German cabaret. Several women strip to G-strings and pasties while pontificating on the last days of World War II. The stripping by these reasonably talented young actresses in this small club is quite uncomfortable, compounded by the lack of any reason for it. Theatre Unleashed at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; through Oct. 23. (323) 793-2153. (Tom Provenzano)


Credit: Dominique Serrand

Credit: Dominique Serrand

Peter Barnes won the 1985 Olivier Award for this sprawling work set in 14th-century France during the Black Plague. Billed as a black comedy, the spectacle it mirrors is indeed a grim and savage one. Cackling scavengers hover over diseased bodies. Lawless rapists brawl over who gets to rape a captive nun first. A raucous band of flagellants exhort already miserable souls to whip themselves to repent their evil ways. Meanwhile, callous clergy think only of saving their own skins. From this bleak backdrop a compassionate priest emerges. In glowing white, in contrast to the drek around him, Father Flote (Jeremy Loncka) announces he's been called by God to respond to people's suffering by making them laugh. He gathers a motley crew of blind, mute and otherwise physically or emotionally maimed individuals into a troupe of wandering clowns. And thus the play proceeds, a mix of rambunctious bawdiness and sophisticated commentary involving theology and salvation, politics and power. Staged on a high, wide and nearly bare proscenium by director Dominique Serrand, this production features a strong and versatile ensemble, plus singular costumes by designer Rosalida Medina (special kudos to the feathered scavengers) and striking makeup; together, these twin production elements effectively underscore the garish, grating madness that Barnes sought to portray. But despite these assets, the work's excessive length (two and a half hours) drives home the distressing themes with cacophonous stridency, despite some genuinely funny moments. Several performers make their mark above the general din: Jon Kellam as the fanatical leader of the flagellants, Mary Eileen O'Donnell as an insidiously Machiavellian Pope Clement VI and Steve M. Porter, endearingly human as a blind juggler, a greedy money man and various other roles. Actors Gang at the Ivy Substation Theater, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.; through Nov. 19. (310) 838-4264, (Deborah Klugman)


Credit: Courtesy Art of Acting Studio

Credit: Courtesy Art of Acting Studio

Of all the agit-prop plays of the 1930s, only this Clifford Odets work was potent enough to capture mainstream attention, launch Odets' career, validate the efforts of the fledgling Group Theatre and achieve semi-classic status. Dealing as it does with a taxi strike, it put the lives and pungent language of working-class people onstage as never before Ñ and seldom since. Though the play was historic, director Don K. Williams proves it isn't just a historical curiosity. He's assembled 21 fine actors and melded them into a stunning portrait of the times with obvious parallels to our own day. The play deals with the plight of taxi driver Joe (Jesse Steccato), lamed by World War I, who comes home from work to find his furniture repossessed, his children hungry and his wife (Katharine Brandt) in rebellion. Miller (Jeremy Ferdman) loses his job because he refuses to spy on a fellow worker. And Sid (Chase Fein) must break up with the girl he loves (Emily Jackson) because they can't afford to marry. A doctor (David Lengel) is fired by his hospital to make room for an incompetent senator's son. Corrupt union man Harry Fatt (Adam Bitterman) strives mightily to avert a strike, assisted by armed thugs, but the collective anger Ñ and the unmasking of a company spy Ñ defeat him. Union activist Agate (an impassioned Darren Keefe) brings things to a stunning climax with a furious call for action. Art of Acting Studio, 1017 N. Orange Drive; Sat., 8 p.m (added perf Oct. 22, 10:15 p.m.); through Oct. 22. (323) 876-5481, (Neal Weaver)

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