It's a vision thing. From a workshop production of Nancy Keystone's Apollo. Photo by Efram Delgadillo, Jr.

L.A.'s loss is Portland's gain. Those with any memory of local theater will remember A.S.K. Theater Projects and its thrilling work with new play development – in many cases taking works already in development by Los Angeles companies and giving them resources, a stage, and letting them show their wares-in-development (readings and workshops) to artistic directors and lit managers invited from around the country. The brains behind the short-lived annual Common Ground Festival that propelled these works forward belonged to a guy named Mead Hunter. A dispute too tedious to go into here sent Hunter packing from A.S.K. and Southern California. Now, many years later, with Hunter well-entrenched as literary manager at Portland Center Stage in Oregon, it's no coincidence that Portland is launching a city-wide new works festival called “Fertile Ground.”

The centerpiece of that festival is the premiere of director Nancy Keystone's decade-in-the-making choreographed theater collage about the NASA space program, Apollo. An earlier version was presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. A.S.K. Theater Projects also developed Keystone's The Akhmatova Project (about the eternally despondent-hopeful Rusian poet, Anna Akhmatova, in the Common Ground Festival, also under Hunter's watch. Apollo shows our nation when it had a vision as broad as the cosmos, with an eye to setting foot on the moon, thanks in part to the expertise of former Nazi rocket scientists employed by NASA. All of this is set during the Civil Rights movement, providing an epic portrait of the United States that couldn't be better timed: It's slated to open days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, a moment when our country will once again face new prospects of what we're capable of, in the shadows of what we've done.

Click here for a YouTube video collage of the project.

Note: The Comprehensive Theater Listings function of this blog will be up and running next Monday.

For this week's NEW THEATER REVIEWS of the two productions at the Long Beach Playhouse, press the Read On tab directly below.

Note: The Comprehensive Theater Listings function of this blog will be up and running next Monday.


LITTLE WOMEN Dale Jones directs a Kristen Laurence's cozy Cliff Notes adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's mandatory classic for girls that's so good-natured, it decides to end before one of the character's tragic death. Laurence tidily divide's Alcott's sprawling story of the hardships four sisters face during the Civil War into three acts and five Very Big Days — during the course of any given afternoon, placid Meg (Megan Harvey), fiery Jo (Danielle Keaton), milquetoast Beth (Devri Richmond), and fussbudget Amy (Hayley Jackson) joke, bicker, sabotage each other, nearly die, make up, find out someone else is near death, have their lives upended, find solace in sisterhood, and sing. The production is competent enough but has the inertia of irrelevance; there's little to take away from it but the feeling of having drunk a glass of warm milk. Occasionally, Jones invites us to giggle at their antiquated innocence — the largest laugh comes when Meg confesses she flirted at a dance — but the general tone is constrained by naivete. Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through January 17. (562) 494-1014. (Amy Nicholson)

The Rainmaker Photo Courtesy of Robert Craig Photography 

GO THE RAINMAKER N. Richard Nash's comedy is in many respects conventional Broadway fare of the 1950s, written with love for its characters who care about each other deeply, even when they're not good at expressing it. It's also a richly funny play, being a comedy of character rather than one driven by wise-cracks. Phyllis Gitlin's staging offers no virtuoso performances, but her tightly-knit ensemble brings the piece to throbbing life. Loren McJannet-Taylor makes a poignant figure of the spinster Lizzie, who feels that life has passed her by because she's plain and has never been able to attract a man. She achieves a bit of theatre magic by becoming beautiful in the moment that the con-man rain-maker, Starbuck (Kevin Deegan), tells her that she is. Mitchell Nunn ably captures the helpless frustration of her father, determined to make his daughter happy even if he doesn't quite know how. Paul Breazeale is all boyish charm as the kid brother Jimmy, who, like Lizzie, is dominated by their puritanical controlling brother, Noah (Sean Gray). Cort Huckabone over-plays his “Aw, shucks!” shyness as the love-sick sheriff's deputy File, and Deegan works a bit too hard to demonstrate Starbuck's charm, but in the end they serve the play admirably. Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through Feb.7; (562) 494-1014 or www.lbph.com. (Neal Weaver)

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