{mosimage} PICK A LESSON BEFORE DYING In rural Louisiana in 1948, Jefferson (a superb Malik B. El-Amin), a
semi-literate young black man, accidentally witnesses a shootout that
kills a white man. Too confused and scared even to deny his guilt,
Jefferson is charged with murder and sentenced to death. The local
black community, and one sympathetic white deputy (Shannon McClung),
knows he is innocent, but there’s no hope of a retrial in the racist
legal system. Jefferson’s friends can only strive to help the young man
to face death with dignity, courage and a sense of his own worth. His
stern, loving, matriarchal godmother (Baddja-Lyne) enlists the aid of
her preacher (Gregor Manns), and two of Jefferson’s former teachers,
Grant (Eddie Goines) and Vivian (Syr Law), who also happen to be
lovers. Ultimately, it’s Grant’s doubt rather than the preacher’s faith
that provides a dollop of salvation and a muted, tragic triumph. The
play, skillfully adapted by Romulus Linney from a novel by Ernest J.
Gaines, faithfully re-creates the time and place, and director/designer
Penny L. Moore brings it to vivid life, assisted by a terrific cast.
There is a touch of clumsiness in the staging, due to space
limitations, but in every way that counts, it’s a wonderful production.
4 Productions at Actors Group Theatre, 4378 Lankershim Blvd., Universal
City; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 18. (818) 585-8880.
(Neal Weaver)

{mosimage} THE BACCHAE Smartly directed by Michael Matthews, Allain Rochel’s all-male adaptation of the Greek tragedy adds gender and sexuality to Euripides’ already heady mix of power, murder and divine retribution. Dionysus (Michael A. Shepperd), the god of hedonistic pleasure, vows revenge on Pentheus (Bob Simpson) because the buttoned-down Theban ruler refuses to worship him. As Theban citizens leave their city for the mountains to join the Maenads (the bare-chested worshippers of Dionysus), the prophet Tireseas (Bobby Reed) urges acceptance of the new religion, as does Cadmus (Daryl Keith Roach), who tries to convince his grandson Pentheus to do so as well, but to no avail. Rochel’s streamlined adaptation moves quickly under Matthews’ razor-sharp direction, and Shepperd is simply tremendous as the seductive yet vengeful god. The rest of the cast is equally fine, especially Michael Tauzin as Quintus, Pentheus’ faithful servant. Kurt Boetcher’s graffiti-covered set lends itself to Matthews’ visually stunning, homoerotic stage tableaux featuring the chorus of Maenads (Colbert Alembert, Todd Kubrak, Mario Simone, Ryan Spahn and Michael Taylor Gray). Tim Swiss’ evocative lighting and Marjorie Bear’s costumes add to the production’s arresting style. CELEBRATION THEATRE, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 11. (323) 957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com. (Sandra Ross)

CAMELOT Since its 1960 premiere, there have been various attempts to retool this Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical about the love triangle between King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, because weak storytelling betrays its gorgeous score. This newest effort by Lerner’s son Michael and director Glenn Casale makes some great strides with a leaner, darker version, but still fails to give the music the powerfully dramatic frame they seek. Too much of the clumsy original book remains, and gone are some of the most stirring musical numbers. The first night opened to a plague of microphone troubles that made Michael York’s voice warble and echo as Arthur, while Rachel York’s Guinevere received no amplification at all — still these artists soldiered on for an appreciative audience. Fortunately the system was tweaked by the appearance of Lancelot in a masterful portrayal by James Barbour, whose glorious baritone seems to fly from his throat with no apparent effort. From this moment the show caught fire — especially in forbidden love-scene duets between Lancelot and Guinevere. The budget doesn’t allow for a large enough company, diluting some of Casale’s most interesting mob effects. This is the first stop on a Broadway-bound tour that will require some major tinkering to get it there. LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Jan. 28 (no eve perf Jan. 28). (562) 944-9801. (Tom Provenzano)

CONFESSIONS OF A MORMON BOY Steven Fales was a sixth-generation Mormon married with children and nursing a secret — he enjoyed Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and the Lifetime Channel. He was gay, gay, gay and trapped. Fales’ engaging one-man show explains how he tried to fight his homosexuality, then simply to conceal it and, finally, to accept reality. His story is riveting for both the first and third half-hours, but somewhere in between the narrative bogs down in repetitive talk about his family. Jack Hofsiss directs the evening as though it were a self-empowerment rally, which only undercuts Fales’ soulful cry for identity. COAST PLAYHOUSE, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 18. (800) 595-4849. See Stage feature next week. (Steven Mikulan)

REVISIONIST HISTORY Nulla and Dig (Barbara Streifel Sanders and William Landsman) are not only archaeology’s power couple — she translates, he excavates — but self-described “renegades in love with history” as well. More with history, it turns out, than with each other. For, after five years of failure and bankruptcy, Dig’s got his hands around Nulla’s throat, coercing her to interpret three undiscovered glyphs just revealed by a lethal Mexico City quake. Perhaps because it’s the Day of the Dead that Nulla then conjures a story of love and war: On the eve of Cortes’ seizure of Tenochtitlan, an Aztec nobleman’s daughter (Ashby Plain) is resurrected onstage along with a conquistador (Sean Pritchett), as the two argue over gods, loyalty and legacy. The women are united by their fatalism, the men by groomed stubble and, as both couples hash out their philosophies between make-outs on a sacrificial altar, writer-director Bill Sterritt ambitiously explores how both the shapers and readers of history are vulnerable to bias and misinterpretation. Unfortunately, Sterritt’s language is fatally expository and as stiff as a fossil (“Our parade of transformation is transformed into veni vidi vici!”), which underscores his plot contrivances and makes empty-sounding twaddle out of his most interesting thoughts on whether history is permanent or fluid, and how time can upgrade a failure to a mere setback. STUDIO/STAGE, 520 N. Western Ave., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 4 (Feb. 4 perf, 1 p.m.). (323) 463-3900. (Amy Nicholson)

SAFETY Playwright Chris Thorpe’s timely drama probes the conundrum of a photographer of war grown inured to its atrocities. After years of bearing witness to killing and mutilation, Michael (John Montana) has become alienated not only from his family but from himself. He inhabits an existential netherworld in which he struggles to vanquish a persistent whisper of self-loathing; this grows more distinct after a stranger (Mac Brandt) saves his daughter from drowning while Michael stands by, a frozen witness. Concerned with moral choices, the play offers profound insight into human contradiction. On opening night, this production, directed by Peter Forster, featured a capable ensemble whose members were still exploring their roles. Brandt — playing a man who never reads the newspaper but who can act in a crisis — is highly effective as Michael’s foil. But both Peggy Goss as Michael’s resentful wife, and Katrina Lenk as his trendy journalist mistress, need to delve deeper to be fully persuasive. Montana, convincing as a troubled introspective individual, could also use more color and passion; likewise, while Russ Borski’s production design may reflect the gray despair that dominates Michael’s inner life, its shadowy sameness doesn’t always serve the drama. Reservations notwithstanding, this is a fine work of theater. MCCADDEN PLACE THEATRE, 1157 N. McCadden Pl., Hlywd.; perfs Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 18. (818) 780-0661. (Deborah Klugman)

TAMMY FAYE STARLITE’S BORN AGAIN AGAIN! For those uptight souls who take their Jesus straight up with no chasers, be advised that this zany show’s content will certainly offend. Sporting bottle-blonde tresses and a gaudy evening gown (with an even gaudier crucifix nestled on her ample bosom), Tammy Lang, a.k.a. Tammy Faye Starlite, incisively satirizes the Christian faithful, country music, right-wing radio and Bible Belt politics. The show is formatted as a live radio broadcast over station KKoK (“Home of the Hayride”), hosted by the garrulous Gareth Clover (Jeff Ward). Miss Faye is fresh out of rehab from the Betty/Gerald/Eileen Ford Center, and glibly talks about her sexcapades, substance abuse and indulgence “in the rites of Satan” — and, of course, the wonder-working power of Jesus. Tammy’s bawdy palavering with Clover facilitates many funny moments and naughty bits, but above all the gal can sing; she’s all over that signature country twang and style, and she works the audience like an evangelist at a roadhouse revival. With smooth accompaniment by Keith Hartel on guitar, she humorously chronicles her incestuous relationship with her father on “Moonshiner’s Daughter” (with a wink to Loretta Lynn) and my favorite, “If You’re Coming Down Jesus (Then Come All Over Me).” The show is cleverly directed by Michael Schiralli. RENBERG THEATRE, Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat, 8 p.m.; thru Jan. 27 (Jan. 21 perf at 7 p.m.). (323) 860-7300. (Lovell Estell III)

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