CONFESSIONS OF A CATHOLIC CHILD Elizabeth Appell’s instructive melodrama about a woman’s struggle to take responsibility for her own life comes filtered through a Roman Catholic lens. Diagnosed with inoperable cancer, the 70-something Regina (Sandra Lafferty) lives tormented by recollections of abortion, adultery and a shattered marriage. A drinker who’s estranged from her dependable but resentful daughter, Kate (Heidi Mages), she wrestles with thoughts of suicide but is constrained by her religious upbringing. Her deliberations are interrupted by ghosts from the past and a fantastical apparition — a pleasure-loving, free-will-spouting Pope (Paul Strolli) who grants her the freedom to forgive her own mistakes. Other specters include her intolerant mother (Mages) and suspiciously wimpy father (Michael Vincent Carrera), as well as past incarnations of herself — most conspicuously a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines spirit named Queeny (Kimberly Atkinson), a tiara-decked beauty who becomes her primary challenger in the internal battle of choosing whether to live or die. Directed by Lauren McCormack, the piece stumbles on Lafferty’s too-deliberate performance but comes vividly to life around Atkinson’s vivacious, fun-loving phantom, and gains mileage from Mages’ honest portrayal as a troubled alcoholic’s frustrated daughter. Set entirely in Regina’s apartment, the production could also gain by adding details to the generically spartan set (designer John Deleonardis), making it a more personal expression of Regina’s character. Virtual Theatre Project at DEAF WEST THEATRE, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Sept. 23. (323) 663-0112. (Deborah Klugman)

{mosimage}  CORTEO Making an extended Southern California stop as part of a national tour, Daniele Finzi Pasca’s creation for Cirque du Soleil features 61 artists (aerialists, tight-rope walkers, gymnasts, acrobats, dwarfs and clowns) from 16 nations, spinning out a circus act of jaw-dropping visual beauty and physical precision around a clown (Jeff Raz), who imagines his own death and funeral procession. Raz appears as one of the few nonathletic figures in the company, gazing with wonderment as he’s hoisted into the sky among benign, winged angels. Philippe Leduc’s original music bypasses this troupe’s standard pop-rock accompaniment for more evocative Eastern European Gypsy strains that bring Gogol Bordello to mind. The spectacle itself contains flashes of Spielberg (the Dead Clown rides a bicycle along a tightrope in the sky) and Fellini, with a brass band funeral procession led by dwarfs. One of the small women (Valentyna Paylevanyan) hangs from a canopy of huge helium balloons, floating over the stage and audience, gliding down, only to be vaulted skybound, giggling and cooing, by any patron willing to give her a slight shove upward. With Martin Labrecque’s ethereally beautiful lighting design, this is as close a depiction of a dream as you’re likely to find in the theater — or whatever this is. Ironically for a circus, most of the clowning falls flat, and the central concept yields to the thinnest of suggestions during Act 2, which concentrates on the Olympian gymnasts. For a display of human physicality that defies the laws of physics, this show is a gift from the gods. The $22 parking charge, however, is highway robbery. Under the Grand Chapiteau in the parking lot of THE FORUM, 3900 Manchester Blvd., Inglewood; Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 5 p.m. (added perf Thurs., Sept. 20, 4 p.m.); thru Oct. 28. (800) 678-5440. (Steven Leigh Morris)

A DOLL’S HOUSE Director Elina DeSantos’ emotionally wrenching production of Henrik Ibsen’s marital drama avoids trendy directorial gimmicks and political interpretation, and instead focuses, as it should, on the story of a relationship based on mutual incomprehension. Bank manager Torvald (Jaxon Duff Gwillim) and his lovely wife, Nora (Anna Quirino Miranda), think they’re a happily married couple — but even as she fusses about the house making everything perfect for him, and he patronizingly calls her his “skylark,” they ignore the elephant in the room — that he regards her as his toy. DeSantos’ wonderfully nuanced, intimate staging is energetic and lively, and it shrewdly limns the characters’ psychologies in subtle ways. As Miranda’s Nora darts all over the stage, her fixed expression of bubbly happiness is almost painful to watch, as it so obviously masks an increasingly desperate neurosis. If the show possesses a flaw, it’s in the slight overdemonization of Nora’s husband, Torvald, who’s too easy to dismiss as a prissy prig. Even so, Gwillim’s infusion of smirking pomposity gives Torvald an arrogance that’s only too recognizable. Richard Tatum, in the usually thankless role of the blackguardly blackmailer Krogstad, is unexpectedly sympathetic — and a sweet, vulnerable turn is offered by Renae Geerlings as Nora’s world-weary school pal Mrs. Linde. ARK THEATRE COMPANY, 1647 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Sept 8. (323) 969-1707. (Paul Birchall)

GROUNDLINGS YEARBOOK Director Deanna Oliver has found her muse with this latest Groundlings main-stage outing, returning to the irreverent content, creative élan and manic energy that put this house on the map. The sketches all yield laughs; even the customarily hit-and-miss improv segments deliver the goods. Complementing the material is a skilled cast of comics who are as funny as they are relaxed on stage. “Yanni” features a befuddled and mustachioed Andrew Friedman as a flamboyant Greek composer struggling desperately to get it right for a PSA on behalf of victims of multiple sclerosis. In “A Banner Day,” Mikey Day, Larry Dorf, Friedman and Hugh Davidson are armed and masked jihadists whose taped rants are complicated by an imploding flag on their set. Mikey Day fascinates and amuses with some trickery in “Send Me an Angel,” where he takes on the persona of the mind freaker Criss Angel (by comparison, Day makes the illusionist look cuddly and inviting). As usual, the evening is nicely embellished by the efforts of musicians Willie Etra, Howard Greene and Larry Treadwell. GROUNDLINGS THEATRE, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; thru Sept. 22. (323) 934-9700. (Lovell Estell III)

{mosimage} PICK THE HASTY HEART John Patrick’s sentimental play, produced on Broadway in 1945, may be
best remembered as one of Ronald Reagan’s better movies, but it’s
revived often enough, usually by small theaters, to be considered more
than a curio. In director Michael Rothhaar’s admirably restrained yet
detailed staging, the three acts move swiftly. Robert Broadfoot’s sets
effectively suggest a British army hospital in Burma during World War
II, where Yank (Keith Stevenson), Digger (Nathan Mobley), Kiwi (Michael
Balsley) and Tommy (Ron E. Dickinson) endure tropical heat and slow
recoveries with equanimity until the arrival of Lachy (the excellent
Scott Jackson), a laconic Scot who couldn’t be less friendly. Prompted
by a superior officer and the saintly Sister Margaret (Lesley Fera),
the motley invalids, each representing one of the Allies, have sworn
kindness toward their new roommate. For Lachy is dying, though he alone
doesn’t know it. Elsewhere, the competing accents could easily have
become jumbled, but not here. Jackson’s Scottish brogue is pitch and
letter perfect, Stevenson’s Southern stutter unforced. Nor do Patrick’s
quicksilver banter and emotive pleadings fall flat in this exemplary
production. Only hard hearts will be able to resist Lachy’s final
capitulation or the playwright’s belief in the redemptive power of
friendship. PACIFIC RESIDENT THEATER, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice;
Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Oct. 14. (310) 822-8392. (David Mermelstein)

LUCY & THE WOLF Needy Lucy (Tara Hunnewell) devotes her meager life to campaigning for a mayoral candidate whose platform is “Making the world safe for babies.” Returning late from campaign headquarters, she cuts through a dark alley and comes upon Johnny Wolfe (Scott Conte), preparing to blow his brains out. The chemistry between them is intense, and suddenly they’re having violently satisfying sex. She immediately invites him to move in with her, and he does, alternating between tenderness and violence. He’s apparently a hit man, but Lucy marries him anyway. How disorienting to have a curtain call at the end of Act 1, but Act 2 reveals how the first act was merely a performance, and the two characters are actors appearing in a small not-for-profit theater. They alternate deconstructing Act 1 with falling in love, despite her engagement to Dr. Mark (Jason Huber), and the fact that the actor has a ball-busting wife (Patty Medina). The play, written and directed by Stefan Marks, is strange, intriguing and punctuated by Marks and Kelly King’s bizarre musical score, which sounds like a mating of Jimi Hendrix and Seinfeld. Both Hunnewell and Conte are terrific. TWO ROADS THEATRE, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 23 & 30, 7 p.m.; thru Sept. 30. (888) 210-3649. (Neal Weaver)

THE MYSTERY PLAYS In his program notes, director Jeff G. Rack writes that “for theater to survive, and attract an audience in our environment of media saturation, theater needs to deliver people something they can’t experience anywhere else.” How curious then that his production of two one-acts by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa resemble episodes of The Twilight Zone without their camera angles or suspense — as though replacing dramatic action and scenic details with actors talking and describing scenes is somehow theatrical. In Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, similarly with many characters and scant action, there’s the compensation of lush, delicate poetry and the way it builds atmosphere, but even that could hardly be called the wave of the future. In the first play, The Filmmaker’s Mystery, young ne’er-do-well photographer Joe Manning (Adrian Pereira) finds himself on a commuter train with a “neurologist” named Nathan West — if this has something to do with author Nathanael West, I didn’t get it. Joe and Nathan sit together, chatting as strangers who hit it off sometimes do, their banter and mutual enthusiasm and exchanged phone numbers all screaming gay pickup, before Joe wanders off the train at a stop prior to his destination. It leaves without him and his luggage, before crashing and burning, killing everyone on board. Joe, apparently the sole “surviving” passenger (he may or may not be dead himself) must now reckon with his “luck,” and his guilt, and his purpose, given how the ghost of Nathan — whose life turns out to have been considerably more nefarious than Joe imagined — guides him through a ritual of absorbing and absolving the sins of the dead in order that they can get to where they’re going. Great premise, and the acting is fine, but the play mistakes a mystery’s keen ruses of logic for simply being mysterious by making up the rules to the cosmos as it goes along — which would be fine were there the satirical spark of Alice Through the Looking Glass, or the grandeur of Dante’s Inferno. Instead, it serves up a few insider film jokes and one very beautifully staged image of purgatory, with its departing train of dead souls. The bill’s second play, Ghost Children,concerns the fatal clubbing by young Ben Gilly (Matt Clifford) of his abusive parents and kid sister, and the years-later attempt of his older sister (nicely textured performance by Meredith Bishop) to forgive her brother, who remains in prison. The psychological hand-wringing goes round and round, and Rack’s appealing, minimal set of moving pillars doesn’t exactly turn water into wine. THEATRE 40, 241 Moreno Dr. (on the Beverly Hills High School Campus), Beverly Hills; in rep, call for schedule; thru Sept. 2. (310) 364-0535. (Steven Leigh Morris)

RUMOURS OF OUR DEATH The allegory for our political society concocted by playwright George F. Walker may be thuddingly literal, but its wackiness liberates producer-director Michele Lainevool’s zippy production from this venue’s claustrophobic confines. When the King (the commanding Stone Van Gorder), who has the demeanor of what could be considered some love child of, say, Nixon or George W. Bush, senselessly leads the country into an imminent war, rumors abound — tittle-tattle among the countrymen that the spoiled brat Princess (Debra Drucker channeling Paris Hilton) has been kidnapped by terrorists. Turns out that rumor is true. There are also whispers spread by the gluttonous queen (the hilarious Patricia Harrison) about a bomb that could wipe out the world’s bodies of waters. Meanwhile, the common people, already struggling to make a livelihood, are forced to pay the Princess’s ransom. One day, the Farmer (Dennis Delsing), dies and returns as a walking zombie. Soon, all find themselves joining his fate — the evisceration of popular protest. At least Walker’s dialogue is more thought provoking than his obvious satire of our times, and the production contains some high points. Carlos Acuña steals the show as the Terrorist and Foreigner, playing in turns a frightening intimidator and a funny man. Unfortunately, things sag with lackluster performances by a couple of the townsfolk. Ethos Theatre Company at TRES STAGE THEATRE, 1523 N. La Brea Ave., Second Floor, Hlywd.; Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Sept. 15. (Sophia Kercher)

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