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THEATER PICK  ASSASSINS When composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer John Weidman look at assassins, their vision is wayward, tough, ambiguous, sympathetic and bitterly satiric. They see people desperate and unhappy enough to embrace the quick and easy solution that never works. The figures they show us — John Wilkes Booth (Christopher Davis Carlisle); Lee Harvey Oswald (a memorable Shannon Stoeke); John Hinckley (David Nadeau); Squeaky Fromme (Darrin Revitz); Leon Czolgosz (Larry Lederman), who shot President Garfield; Giuseppe Zangara (Jim Holdridge), whose stomach ulcers drove him to shoot at FDR (he mortally wounded the mayor of Chicago instead) — are all people with a grievance, and the need to blame somebody else. Assassins still shocks, particularly when it deals with the death of JFK: A song called “Something Just Broke” deftly sums up the national response. Songs and scenes are inextricably woven together, though Sondheim reminds us of his ability to craft catchy tunes when the need arises. Overall, the piece mercilessly insists that we confront the issues it raises. Richard Israel’s on-target production is stark and lively; Johanna Kent’s music direction is sure-footed, and the entire cast is splendid. Stephen Gifford’s clever and flexible set — a series of revolving panels of weathered wood — and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s period costumes richly evoke the passing years. El Centro Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m., thru Aug. 31. (323) 460-4443 or www.westcoastensemble.org. A West Coast Ensemble Production. (Neal Weaver)

David Elzer

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Assassins

Paula and Marc Kayne

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I Stand Before You Naked

Craig Schwartz

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Looped

 

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS is a reminder that even the father of our modern mother tongue had to learn while he earned. So it is with director Ron West and his Open Fist ensemble’s creaky, modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s mistaken-identity protofarce. West moves the action from ancient times to “the beach community of Ephesus, circa 1964,” a bare-bones setting consisting of little more than grips dressed as beach cops on bicycles, which is more of a non sequitur sight gag than fully realized production concept. Certainly, it’s no help to West’s cast members, who must resort to desperate mugging rather than a thorough mastering of their text. Not that the challenge isn’t considerable. A notorious rewrite of Plautus’ Menaechmi, the play is an Elizabethan vaudeville, full of extended punning and slapstick but without the signature sophistication or psychological subtlety of the later Shakespeare canon. The show’s moment of true ingenuity comes with Aegeon’s (William B. Jackson) clumsy opening exposition, which West wittily stages as shadow-puppet flashbacks. Mathew Brenher as Antipholus and Claire Mills as Dromio acquit themselves to best effect as the Syracusean master and slave who unwittingly cause chaos in the lives of their identical twins, the Ephesians Antipholus (Dylan Fergus) and Dromio (Jordana Berliner). Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; plays in rep, call for schedule; thru Aug. 30. (323) 882-6912. (Bill Raden)

 

DESERT SUNRISE At the heart of Misha Shulman’s flawed rumination on humanity’s struggle to achieve peace is a well-orchestrated pas de deux by performers Dominic Rains and Oren Dayan. His drama revolves around an encounter between a Palestinian shepherd named Ismail (Rains) and Tsahi (Dayan), an armed Israeli soldier lost in the desert. The men’s mutual distrust gradually segues to a guarded camaraderie; the worldlier Tsahi is even teaching Ismail how to dance (after they’ve smoked some hashish), when the latter’s girlfriend, Layla (Miriam Isa), arrives. All but foaming at the mouth, Layla holds Tsahi at close gunpoint while angrily accusing Ismail of becoming a collaborator. Up to this point, we’re caught up in the fierce dynamic ignited by Rains and Dayan’s deftly nuanced portrayals, under Ellen Shipley’s direction. Unfortunately, the appearance of the unrestrainedly strident Layla marks a sharp downturn in the plot’s credibility. Isa’s distressingly one-note performance is but one aspect of the problem. More basic is the script itself, since there’s nothing in Ismail’s earlier worshipful description of his beloved (whom he has known all his life) that offers the slightest hint of her raging feminism and rabid nationalism. Also open to question is Shulman’s use of a chorus to give the action an Aeschylean framework; unlike the production’s music, sound (Andrew Monheim) and dance (choreography and belly dancing by Jenna), this chorus is less a vivid enhancement than it is a heavy-handed pretension. Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Aug. 9; (323) 960-7784 and www.­Plays411.com/DesertSunrise. (Deborah Klugman)

 

I STAND BEFORE YOU NAKED The peril of Joyce Carol Oates’ collection of soul-bearing female monologues is that her mordant feminism teeters on disempowerment — every woman is miserable and often because of a man (or lack of one). Still, this talented ensemble has given it a go, and the pieces that work don’t ask the audience to buy the ladies’ woes wholesale. Standouts are Deborah Austin as a wallflower fulfilled by marrying a convicted serial killer; Krysten Klein’s murdered stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold; Cindy D’Andrea as a desperately lonely but desperately cheerful receptionist; and Cecelia Specht’s loony philanthropist who dreams of blasting bullets at her charity cases and country club peers. These bright spots punishingly alternate with more strident pieces where Eddie Kehler’s direction too closely hews to Oates’ hectoring. Though well-acted, the raving anorexic (Layla Alexander), unloved teacher (Amanda Mayen) and passive girlfriend (Shyla Marlin) are exercises in panting, writhing and screaming; a segment that has a devout mental patient awaiting the Apocalypse and which closes with a shrieking nuclear blast is just silly. A concluding chant suggests that all women share each other’s sorrows, but I wanted distance from Oates’ victims even as they each demanded to be loved. East Theater at The Complex, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6:30 p.m.; thru Aug. 17. (323) 960-5773. A Moment 2 Moment production. (Amy Nicholson)

 

GO  LOOPED Matthew Lombardo’s world premiere comedy is loosely based on a real-life incident, when Tallulah Bankhead (Valerie Harper) was called back to the studio to rerecord one line of dialogue for what would be her final film, Die! Die! My Darling. Well past her prime, the alcoholic, pill-popping, coke-snorting actress turns a five-minute task into an eight-hour ordeal, much to the dismay of Danny (Chad Allen), a minor studio employee charged with supervising her. After Bankhead repeatedly blows the line, Danny appeals to her vanity, ego and sense of professionalism, without result. But when she claims that she originated the role of Blanche in the Broadway premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire, Danny boldly calls her out on this lie, reminding her that she did eventually perform Streetcar — but at Miami’s Coconut Grove Playhouse, where audiences laughed at her. In response, the drug-addled actress performs a monologue from Streetcar, and the drab recording studio subtly morphs into a latticed New Orleans avenue, thanks to Adrian W. Jones innovative scenic design and Michael Gilliam’s burnished lighting. Under Rob Ruggiero’s direction, Harper adeptly captures Bankhead’s distinctive vocal mannerisms, and Allen is first-rate as her beleaguered foil. Much of Lombardo’s dialogue is hilarious (“There was a big line in the lady’s room,” Tallulah announces after doing a rail of coke), but the padded two-act play would be more effective as a long one-act. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (no perf Wed., July 23, 8 p.m.; additional perf Wed., July 23, 2 p.m.); thru Aug. 3. (626) 356-PLAY or www.Pasadenaplayhouse.org. (Sandra Ross)

 

Craig Schwartz

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Of Equal Measure

OF EQUAL MEASURE As America is poised to elect a black man to the White House, Tanya Barfield’s historical drama revisits a time when blacks weren’t even wanted in the building. The action unfolds in the tumultuous reform era of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, when issues of child labor, women’s suffrage, monopoly domination and the “Negro Question” are roiling the political waters. For Jade Kingston (an unpolished turn by Michole Briana White), there is wary optimism that Wilson (Lawrence Pressman) might advocate for better treatment of blacks. She gets a job as a White House stenographer, but her boss, Edward (Michael T. Weiss), turns out to be a patronizing boor with a perpetual hard-on, who treats her like a glorified domestic. Bitter and disillusioned, she is dragged into some chicanery with a black journalist (Joseph C. Phillips), which ultimately lands her on the wrong side of the law. Barfield’s script is surprisingly devoid of insight or depth; depicted here by Barfield and director Leigh Silverman, Wilson is reduced to a doddering old man with an annoying penchant for blustery oratory, a dull sense of humor and bad migraines. A scene that has him cringe while watching scenes from Birth of a Nation is almost absurd. Edward is even more of an airy caricature. The final scene, illuminated by fireworks, is grossly heavy-handed and contrived. Richard Hoover and Sibyl Wickersheimer’s Oval Office set piece, however, is well-crafted. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sat., mat., 2 p.,m. thru July 27. (213) 628-2772. A Center Theater Group production. (Lovell Estell III)

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