CALLIGRAPHY Large prosceniums don't always favor the stories they frame. The cultural arena in Velina Hasu Houston's new play may be transnational, but her drama involving mothers and daughters and the problems of aging and Alzheimer's is surely an intimate one — and perhaps better told that way. The conflict revolves around the newly widowed Noriko (Emily Kuroda), a former Japanese war bride who resides in the U.S., and her embittered controlling sister, Natsuko (Jeanne Sakata), who lives in Japan. Each has a daughter: Hiromi (Melody Butiu) is Noriko's, responsibly concerned when her mother becomes disoriented, while fast-living Sayuri (Fran de Leon) resents mom Natsuko's demands for devoted caretaking after the older woman breaks both legs. Staged by director Jon Lawrence Rivera, the play spotlights the unraveling family mores in Japan that have furnished younger women more choices but also have left elderly people vulnerable, much as they are here. The action, punctuated by Bob Blackburn's ceremonious sound design and Nathan Wang's original music, plays out on designer Ann Sheffield's stark and lusterless set — its expansiveness diminishes an already sparse emotional dynamic. Another serious glitch involves the flashback sequences in which Kuroda implausibly portrays her character as a young woman romanced by her future husband (Kevin Daniels). Nor do we sense much familial chemistry elsewhere. Only Sakata's acerbic dragon lady is consistently persuasive; the scenes between the two estranged sisters (when they finally do meet after decades of separation) are the most compelling in this essentially toneless production. Playwrights Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn; Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Dec. 12. (866) 411-4111 or (Deborah Klugman)

GO  CHARLES DICKENS' GREAT EXPECTATIONS Neil Bartlett's translation, in conjunction with Geoff Elliott's (who nimbly performs two idiosyncratic roles) and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's staging of it, strips Charles Dickens' sprawling novel down to its two central threads. The stage result is less textured than the page result, but that may be a necessity of the theater. Brought into sharp focus here are two plots, one personal and the other social. The first contains the ironies accompanying the change of fortune after young Pip (nicely played by Jason Dechert, bewildered as a youth, then with a growing if muted arrogance as an adult) steals food for escaped convict Magwitch (the excellent Daniel Reichert). Magwitch will repay the young man with a kind of bounty that will leave him utterly perplexed — sending his morals crashing into his class consciousness. The interweaving story concerns the morbid and ancient Miss Havisham (Deborah Strang, glorious as always) and her perverse, revengeful plot to break Pip's heart through the pawn of her beautiful niece, Estella (Jaimi Paige). In this production, that plot is really the emotional heartbeat, thanks to the chemistry between the actors. The crisply staged production features innumerable eccentrics who float through this dual-spine structure. The result is far less picaresque than the novel; yet for all the strengthening of the two main crossbeams, the drama is, ironically, more ambivalent in its conclusions. Even Dickens' feed-bad, feel-good blend of despondency and sentimentality is muted, when you'd think that such a structural paring-down would result in a clearer view. Nonetheless, I found that ambivalence oddly appealing. A few overwrought performances temper this otherwise robust production. A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; in rep; call for schedule; thru Dec. 10. (818) 240-0910. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE FIELD Under Sean Branney's direction, John B. Keane's beautifully modulated drama is set in a rural County Kerry pub, where locals gather to see who will end up owning the field that old Maggie Butler is selling. Will an outsider swoop in and snatch it, or will a swaggering local farmer have his way? Barry Lynch brings a formidable menace to his role as the intimidating farmer, “The Bull” McCabe. This is a man with a massive sense of entitlement and a bulldozing force of will. Having leased the land from the old widow for years in order to graze his cattle and gain access to the river, McCabe's had his heart set on owning the “handsome parcel of land” for decades, as did his father before him. Keane's chilling drama is an incisive commentary on the local folk, presenting copious drinking, snarky small-town gossip, incessant childbearing and domestic violence as part of the fabric of everyday life. One scene in Act 2, when McCabe's loyal son Tadgh (Travis Hammer) dares to ask why his parents haven't spoken for 18 years, will make your blood run cold. Excellent performances from all. Theatre Banshee, 3435 Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec 12. (Pauline Adamek)

GO  LOOKING FOR PAUL Rotterdam performance collective Wunderbaum presented an amazing show over the weekend at REDCAT, not in the Radoslaw Rychcik/Grotowski/Koltès rock & roll sense, but in a mischievous, Wooster Group, deconstrustructive/destructive, dialectical performance-art provocateur sense. This piece was created during a three-week residency, with the help of local performance artist John Malpede. The first three-quarters of the show featured the performers sitting before mics reading group e-mails that document the genesis of the piece, how the idea developed during the trip to Los Angeles and subsequent rehearsals, as well as the dissension, creative chaos and personal discord that emerges during the process. Crucially, the cast of characters included Inez van Dam, a bookshop owner from Rotterdam, whose impassioned antipathy to the monumental, and pointedly obscene, bronze Paul McCarthy sculpture erected in front of her building was both the performance's inspiration and jumping-off point for its examination of the role of public art, the politically charged arena of arts funding, in California as well as the Netherlands (where Wunderbaum's annual funding represents one-quarter of what our state spends on art each year). At the center of the discourse was the polarizing figure of McCarthy himself (in this respect becoming Rotterdam's version of Richard Serra, whose piece “Tilted Arc” created a similar controversy in Manhattan in the early 1980s). Just past the point at which audience members began nervously glancing at their watches, the piece shifted gears to a filmed documentation of McCarthy getting the comeuppance promised by van Dam, as the group staged a guerilla raid on McCarthy's Altadena home and pasted up a mural-sized poster of van Dam's portrait with the words, “Good morning Paul. Think of me as the one you made think of you every day.” Finally, the chairs were cleared and the projection screen raised to reveal a set of scaffolds, screens, beds and a toilet, as the group — including van Dam — performed an anarchic, profane and graphically scatological homage/parody of the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf portion of McCarthy's own installation/performance “Caribbean Pirates.” REDCAT at Disney Hall. Closed. (Bill Raden)


MACBETH Warrior Poet theater company was founded on a shared interest in martial arts and the stories of soldiers. (Vets get in free.) Which means the fights in this Macbeth are great, sword-clanging, near-miss brawls and the highlights of this handsome and hungry staging. Unfortunately, the line readings are delivered like wild punches, which is a considerable impediment. They're strong, if not accurate. Still, you can't say director Anton Ray lacks ambition: Not only does he include scenes most productions skip, he adds new ones, worms in the Lord's Prayer, and even plays out Macbeth's banquet breakdown twice, with and without Banquo's ghost (Vonzell Carter). There's even more death in the deaths. We see Macbeth (Michael McIntyre) stab Duncan (Ray), see Lady Macbeth (Murielle Zuker) take her own life, and when the minions murder Lady MacDuff (a forceful Joanna Kelly), the lights dim over a necrophiliac gang rape. McIntyre's Macbeth gets better as he gets cockier and the large ensemble looks great stomping around in designer Kat Marquette's leather and chiffon costumes, their clothes heavy with buckles as Lady Macbeth races around the stage in boots that look like architectural marvels. As the tragedy powers forward, the Weird Sisters (Abica Dubay, Meghan Lewis and Whitton Frank) lounge around the castle like evil vapors — and in this over-the-top staging, they even get the last word. Mission Control, 11920 W. Jefferson, W.L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 4 p.m.; thru Dec. 4. (661) 219-4577. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  THE NIGHT OF THE TRIBADES Generally speaking, biographies of even immortal artists rarely produce compelling dramas. Whatever mysterious alchemy transmutes raw experience into refined art is simply too interior and remote from the dramatic, social arena to ever satisfactorily be laid bare on the stage. Swedish playwright Per Olov Enquist's delightfully sardonic 1975 take on the marital woes of Scandinavian literary giant August Strindberg (in Ross Shideler's spry 1976 translation) may be the notable exception. Drawn from a period when Strindberg (John Prosky) was an adherent of what might be charitably termed Darwinian male chauvinism, the play opens on the read-through rehearsal of Strindberg's short 1889 one-act, The Stronger, the writer's self-flattering portrayal of the affair between his wife, actress Siri von Essen (Sarah Underwood), and her lover, Marie Caroline David (Linda Castro), which ultimately scuttled the Strindbergs' already foundering marriage. In a stroke of sadistic pique, Strindberg has cast the real-life lovers to play their fictionalized counterparts. The results only recapitulate the hapless playwright's emasculating trauma, and play as if the author of The Dance of Death had written an episode of Fawlty Towers. Director Thomas P. Cooke's mercurial production and a superb cast (including Craig Anton's hilariously vapid ham actor Shiwe) capture all of Enquist's mordant wit, while a peerless production design team (Catherine Baumgardner's museum-grade period costumes; Jeffery Eisenmann's antique, backstage set; Ronan Kilkelly's expressionistic lights) lends the proceedings a literate gloss. Royal Theater aboard the Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. (no perfs Nov. 23-27); thru Dec. 11. (562) 985-5526 or (Bill Raden)


NIGHTSONG FOR THE BOATMAN Perhaps playwright Jovanka Bach was attempting an update of Euripides' Alcestis: In both plays, a selfish man tries to elude death by persuading someone else to die in his place. Poet/college professor Harry Appleman (John Di Fusco) gambles for his soul with Murlie (Alexander Wells), the thuggish boatman who ferries the dead across the River Styx. He loses the game, but wants to welsh on the deal. Harry is so obnoxious and arrogant, it's hard to care what happens to him. He hasn't written anything substantive in years, but feels his identity as an artist absolves him from all responsibility. A spoiled, drunken, irresponsible egomaniac, he seduces his students, treats his mistress (Nicole Gabriella Scipione) shabbily, and abandons his wife (Donna Luisa Guinan) and daughter (Amanda Landis). In the incoherent, contrived and ultimately silly second act, Harry continues to seek someone else to die his death. The piece is awkwardly written, with many short scenes that seem to just stop rather than reaching any climax, separated by clumsy scene changes. Director John Stark does little to bolster the pretentious script, but the capable actors (including Michael Byrne, Geoffrey Hillback and J. Lawrence Landis) struggle manfully to make sense of a preposterous plot, and designer Jaret Sacrey provides a handsome set. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 12. (310) 477-2055. (Neal Weaver)

RENDITION IN DAMASCUS Playwright John Christian Plummer's character-driven moral drama is almost undone by the sheer randomness of its plot, which somehow encompasses such disparate figures as a maniacal Protestant minister with a butcher's knife, a philandering husband who might be possessed by the devil, and a professional torturer working for the U.S. government. Minister Sarah (Courtney Rackley) finds her faith sorely tested when her professor husband, Hal (Pete Caslavka), confesses that he has been having an affair with Sarah's church secretary, Missy (understudy Laurel Reese on the night reviewed, sweetly perky). Worse, Hal's excuse for his errant behavior is that he has started to hear voices in his head: Someone claiming to be none other than “A Satan” told him to cheat on his wife. While Sarah storms off to Misty's house, intending to do her great bodily harm, Hal gets a visit from his brother Schuyler (David Stanbra), just back from Iraq, where he tortured a hapless suspected terrorist to death. Complications ensue when His Infernal Majesty (aka Satan) again takes over Hal's body, Exorcist-style. Plummer's play does not lack for potentially intriguing themes, but they're poorly tied together and the thought processes are sometimes choppy: A play that equates in moral importance the notion of a man torturing someone to death and a rather prosaic, tawdry love affair requires more logical underpinnings than this work possesses. Still, director Kiff Scholl's crisply staged, intimate production boasts some nicely committed acting work, particularly in the turns by Caslavka's creepy, possibly possessed Hal and by Rackley's brittle Sarah, whose character's emotional decomposition is shattering. Working Stage Theatre, 1516 Gardner Ave., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 3. (323) 960-7719. (Paul Birchall)

GO  THE SUNSET LIMITED John Perrin Flynn's top-notch staging of Cormac McCarthy's 1996 two-character play shows the author is a gifted dramatist as well as a superb novelist. A life-and-death struggle emerges in the dingy apartment of an ex-con named Black (Tucker Smallwood), who has just rescued White (Ron Bottitta) from a suicide leap off a subway platform. That their names are racial signifiers is just one of the dynamics McCarthy uses to mine the ironies in this simple scenario. Black is poor, uneducated and a committed man of faith, an inner-city Good Samaritan whose redemption came in prison and who unwaveringly believes in the value of life and God's grace. White is a hyper-rationalist, a successful university professor and defiant atheist who is weighted down with crushing despair and hopelessness. It's a high-stakes intervention where both men state their cases with unbridled passion and eloquence engendering a back-and-forth shift of empathies, and one never gets the sense of an immutable moral center or of merely listening to lectures. McCarthy, who is noted for his sparse dialogue and powerful imagery, exhibits an uncanny ear for ghetto argot, but just as nimbly utilizes the idiom of the academic. When, at the end, White erupts and expresses a weltanschauung of the darkest hue, one is reminded of Nietzsche's remark about staring into the abyss. Complementing Flynn's fine direction are the equally superb performances. Rogue Machine at Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 19. (323) 960-4424, (Lovell Estell III)


GO  UPTOWN DOWNTOWN As Mel Brooks wrote in The Producers, “If you've got it, flaunt it!” Some living legends delude themselves and cause fans to quietly cringe, but not this one: Leslie Uggams has still got it. Slender and glinting in sequined black pants, she shimmies and sings her way though the highlights of a life spent onstage. Though she remained somewhat physically restrained during her opening-night performance, she made up for it with a vocal dynamism that would shame those less than half her age. When you begin your career at age 6, perform 29 shows a week at the Apollo between the ages of 9 and 16, and graduate to the comparatively cushy (oh, just eight shows a week) world of Broadway, a voice like that's a requirement. Plenty of jazz standards kept the well-heeled crowd tapping their toes and Uggams struttin' her stuff. Showcasing her staggering range, the delicate strokes with which she touched Gershwin's “Summertime” were no less powerful than her lusty belting of Ellington's “It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).” The spoken transitions were a little stiff, and they felt forced; naturally, this Broadway baby seemed most at home when singing. It's better to show than tell anyway; mimicking the vocal styles of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington (all of whom she's sung with), she showed why she's still working more than 60 years after she began. Don Rebic leads a sophisticated, happy orchestra that equals Uggams' mastery. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 12. (626) 356-7529. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

THE WILD PARTY It could be argued that the 1920s were the true beginning of the sex-and-drugs ethos of open pleasure-seeking by the Lost Generation, who were perhaps more accurately described by the French equivalent Génération au Feu, or Generation in Flames. Such flamboyance and Joseph Moncure March's narrative poem of the same title inspired Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe's musical tribute to the Jazz Age and its decadence. Set in the New York apartment of promiscuous vaudeville dancer Queenie (Krista Sutton) and her comedian husband, Burrs (Casey Zeman), the story centers on a cocaine-and-gin–fueled party thrown by the couple for a coterie of characters that run the social, racial and sexual gamut. While the period is rich in source material (as demonstrated in HBO's Boardwalk Empire), this revival limps out of the gate with uninspired, crisp-as-oatmeal choreography, muddled singing and musical direction that lacks pizzazz, as well as a consistent tempo. Director Julia Holland nicely stages the living mise-en-scène, but nonetheless fails to harness the big Broadway feel and big performances that are vital to carrying an episodic vehicle with little to no plot. Bright spots include Deborah LaGorce-Kramer's intricate costumes and a convincingly catatonic morphine addict in Sally (a barely blinking Bonnie Frank), but absent the necessary bravado and bravura, this incarnation might be more aptly titled The Mild Party. Malibu Stage Company, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; thru Dec. 5. (310) 589-1998. (Mayank Keshaviah)

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