GO  ALCESTE Euripides' version of a Greek myth serves as ground zero for playwright B. Walker Sampson's surreal comedy about the otherworldly journey of two long-term lovers separated by death. Imaginatively staged on a small proscenium by director Darin Dahms, the comic-strip action takes place in a strange dreamscape (set and prop design by Naomi Kasahara) peopled with hooded figures, squabbling ghosts, outsized heroines and supernaturally powerful villains. Foreseeing the imminent death of Adamet (Trevor Olsen, in drag), her beloved Alceste (Lorianne Hill), a gentle accepting soul, follows the sinister counsel of an unearthly scoundrel named Man With Blazing Necktie (Lynn Odell), who proposes to take Alceste's life instead. Soon, a cloaked ferryman (Ezra Buzzington) is escorting a timorous Alceste to the netherworld, while a lonely and bewildered Adamet fends off the seductive embraces of Man's titillating oracle, Woman in Bright Bathing Suit (Jennifer Flack). Meanwhile, a secondary story line tracks the exploits of a comical superheroine named Frigga Brenda (Julia Prud'homme), who boldly slays giants and monsters but comes undone at the hands of the dastardly Man and his female cohort. Oblique dialogue and the seemingly lateral movement of the plot make the first part of the play slow going — but even this slack stretch comes bolstered by well-crafted performances and striking production values, including lighting and sound design by Michael Roman and Ryan Brodkin, respectively, along with Jeremy McDonald's backdrop animation and Takashi Morimoto's inspired costumes. Most memorable within the adept ensemble are Prud'homme and Odell, in blazing command of their outrageous characters. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through March 12. (323) 856-8611. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  THE BLACK VERSION When it comes to black comedians satirizing white movie clichés, the gold standard remains Eddie Murphy's SNL sketch “White Like Me” (watch it at hulu.com). Turning the tables on John Howard Griffin's civil rights–era potboiler Black Like Me, Murphy puts on whiteface to hilariously skewer and underscore well-founded African-American paranoia while speaking to this society's very real racial divide. And while this like-minded evening rarely matches Murphy's comic aim or political grasp, its all-black ensemble of improv all-stars scores more than its share of belly laughs. Audience suggestions target a beloved Hollywood film — this night it was John Hughes' 1985 teen hit The Breakfast Club. Director Karen Maruyama recasts the roles as African-American, and the comedians take it from there, attacking iconic scenes with their considerable improvisational chops. Act 2 revisits the just-minted “black version,” this time via the deluxe DVD box set's audience-shouted “bonus features” — deleted scenes, outtakes, auditions, commentary tracks. Phil LaMarr and Gary Anthony Williams proved especially red-hot, with the versatile LaMarr pulling off the comic coup during an Oprah segment in which his cantankerous character of principal Chuck was played by a now semi-senile Whitman Mayo. Williams and Daniele Gaither were inventive standouts belting out the song parodies (backed up by musical director Willie Etra and drummer Howard Greene), with Cedric Yarbrough giving an inspired psychotic twist to the boy band's R&B closer. Groundlings Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave, L.A.; Mon., 8 p.m.; through Feb. 21. (323) 934-9700, groundlings.com. (Bill Raden)

GO  CAMINO REAL Told that the rarely performed play was by one of the great 20th-century playwrights, you'd guess the author was Tom Stoppard before Tennessee Williams. The 40-character limbo-land puzzler mashes up Don Quixote (Lenny Von Dohlen), Casanova (Tim Cummings), Lord Byron (Michael Aurelio) and the Hunchback of Notre Dame's gypsy femme fatale Esmeralda (Kalean Ung) in the town of Camino Real (pronounced KA-mino REE-al, à la gringo, so as to distinguish it from the country of CaMIno ReAL just next door). Inside the gates, the hamlet is divided further still between the Haves, who sip brandy with Gutman (Brian Tichnell) at his sumptuous hotel, and the Have-Nots, who lay their heads at the fleabag Ritz Men Only, or worse. Between them, there are enough liars and whores that a chipper innocent like Kilroy (the fantastic Matthew Goodrich), a former boxing champ with a heart as big as a baby, is humbled within 10 minutes of hitting town. But this isn't about his escape. It's about his destruction and whether he — and the rest of the captives — will be able to face their fate when the murderous cleaners (Frank Raducz Jr. and Murphy Martin) come to sweep them away. The only people not trying to leave town are the people too damaged to try, a motley crew of pawnbrokers, pickpockets and a taco salesman whom director Jessica Kubzansky keeps in motion, each slipping out in time to pop up in another role. Camino Real is most famous for bombing on Broadway in 1953 and temporarily tarnishing the careers of Williams and director Elia Kazan. (There's even a play about the flop, The Really Big Once, which opened last fall in New York.) Williams' episodic structure lacks momentum, particularly in the second act during a long scene between Kilroy and Esmeralda (who needs more heat). But the decades have given us a better perspective on the questions Williams, then at the anxious peak of his stage career, was asking himself: Can you still love when you're old and cynical? Can art survive amid crass capitalism? And is being a former talent a source of pride or shame? Kubzansky's ensemble is outstanding, even wringing a knowing chuckle from the faux-naif line, “Why does disappointment make people unkind?” With all technical contributions including Silvanne E.B. Park's costumes hitting high marks, Camino Real is a curiosity that you're not likely to see again — let alone this well. Theater @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through March 13. (626) 683-6883, bostoncourt.com. (Amy Nicholson)


GO  THE CRADLE WILL ROCK When Orson Welles attempted to open his production of this Marc Blitzstein musical in 1937, it had to contend with attempts to shut it down by the U.S. Congress, the bureaucrats of the Federal Theatre Project and Actors' Equity. The fact that it was able to open at all was epic. In Blitzstein's work, the cradle represents not the sleeping baby of the lullaby, but a corrupt and immoral establishment bent on co-opting every aspect of American life. In Steeltown, USA, in 1937, local tycoon Mr. Mister (Peter Van Norden) has corrupted press, church, educators, artists and doctors to serve his greed and power hunger. He's opposed only by labor organizer Larry Foreman (Rex Smith, looking and sounding like the quintessential 1930s working-class hero), who leads a stirring call to action. Generic names like Reverend Salvation (Christopher Carroll) and Dr. Specialist (Rob Roy Cesar) are standard elements of agit-prop theater, but here the characters are given enough personal eccentricities to keep them funny and human. In bringing back many elements of his 1995 production for this same theater, director Daniel Henning gives us a lively, rousing, highly stylized version and doesn't patronize us by overinsisting on the obvious contemporary parallels. There are terrific performances from musical director David O and a hugely talented cast of 19, with special kudos to Smith, Gigi Bermingham as a soigné Mrs. Mister, Tiffany C. Adams, Jack Laufer, David Trice, Will Barker, Lowe Taylor, Matt Wolpe and several others. Blank Theatre Company at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through March 20. (323) 661-9827, theblank.com. (Neal Weaver)

GO  DANGEROUS BEAUTY Though the paper-thin story line rushes toward predictability with the passing of every prepackaged plot point, exquisite production values and outstanding singing grace the debut of this musical about a 16th-century courtesan. Based on a true story, Jeannine Dominy's book centers on Veronica Franco (Jenny Powers), a poet of simple means who suffers a blow to the heart when her lover, Marco (James Snyder), protects his status as a future senator by marrying a woman of superior social standing. Heartbroken and headstrong, Veronica chooses to follow in her mother's (Laila Robins) footsteps by becoming a courtesan, a position in which she furthers her brilliance via special access to a bounty of books, while avenging her heartache in the beds of princes and prelates. Witty rhymes and wanton ways make Veronica one of the most powerful women in Venice until she gets into a spat with the increasingly evil Maffio (Bryce Ryness) and puzzlingly trades in her sought-after status for an exclusive affair with the now-married Marco. Things go from fancifully romantic to blandly tragic when Veronica is accused of witchcraft by the Inquisition. The hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold tale doesn't get elevated to any new heights here, but Powers sings the tunes of virtuous maiden and fallen angel with heaven-sent pipes. Snyder holds his own, too, though his character is too one-dimensional to account for the sexually adept and wickedly smart Veronica's long-lasting attraction to him. Ryness brings a rock & roll edge to his portrayal of the villain, but his lack of control prevents a seamless connection with the rest of the ensemble; his performance has the awkward feel of a hair-band guy trying to jam with indie-folk types. Benoit-Swan Pouffer does subtle wonders with the choreography and Soyon An's costumes are artful. The set, by Tom Buderwitz, grabs focus whenever the story doesn't. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m., through March 6. (Amy Lyons)

GO  LOVE LETTERS TO WOMEN Flowers irritating your sinuses? Fondants being stuffed down your throat? Frilly Hallmark sentiments causing excessive eye-rolling? Marketers work overtime in early February to sell romance while inadvertently stimulating the “ugh” reflex. So forgive us if the premise of this world premiere, created by German Michael Torres and written by Ryan T. Husk, gives us pause. Inspired by Torres' life growing up with five older sisters, the series of monologues examines men's relationships with all the women in their lives. The opening sequence, in which the five actors offer descriptive phrases such as “women are faith” and “women are queen,” is as sickly-sweet as a box of cheap chocolates. Fortunately, though, director Hector Rodriguez has cast a group of men talented enough to overcome that initial saccharine taste by rendering the monologues that follow with real heart. Mario Martinez delivers his one-liners (“She was foreign-exchange-student hot”) as casually as if they just came to him, and J. Todd Howell's realizations as a good ol' boy confronting his prejudices elicited tears in the audience. Michael Ruesga easily is the star of the show, and the night could use more of Jeff Blumberg's adorable dorkiness. Even Kevin Vavasseur, who's like a bull in an airplane bathroom, finds his stride in a piece about the Lakers. Across the board, the monologues are too long, but over the course of the evening, even the coldest, crankiest resistance to romantic sentimentality will have started to melt a little. Casa 0101, 2009 E. 1st St., Boyle Heights; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 5 p.m., through March 6. (323) 263-7684. (Rebecca Haithcoat)


GO  MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS After firing director George Cukor and fearing that his film Gone With the Wind will never get back on schedule, producer David O. Selznick (Roy Abramsohn) essentially kidnaps brainy screenwriter Ben Hecht (Matt Gottlieb) and macho director Victor Fleming (Brendan Ford), forcing them into captivity with only bananas and peanuts for brain fuel until they come up with a script and a shooting plan. There is a kernel of truth to this tale, but mostly it's a frame for farce as the men hurl insults at one another, interrupted occasionally by ditzy secretary Miss Poppenghul (Emily Eiden). The comedy picks up steam and has the audience rapt when, most interestingly, Roy Hutchinson's play takes a turn that's striking for its intelligence. In extremis of weariness and emotional rawness, the repartee begins to sound like the kind of aesthetic and political discussion so well created for the art world in Yasmina Reza's Art. What originally were jibes about Jews running Hollywood transform into important discussions about power, responsibility and the society of 1930s America. Director Andrew Barnicle overplays the farce, but he skillfully handles the more sober moments, complementing the talents of the fine cast. Bruce Goodrich's handsome set provides the perfect atmosphere — especially as it gets trashed through the week of nonstop artistic agony. Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Sun., 2 p.m., Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., Feb. 12, 3 & 8 p.m., through March 6. (818) 558-7000. (Tom Provenzano)

GO  100 DAYS The title of Weiko Lin's two-character play is derived from an old Taiwanese Buddhist tradition, which dictates that when the parent of an unmarried child passes away, the child must find a spouse within 100 days in order for the spirit of the deceased to transition peacefully. But matrimony is the last thing on the mind of Will (Eric Martig), who revels in his debauched, hand-to-mouth existence as a traveling comedian on the college circuit, where there is a steady supply of booze and female company. But for Miki (Joy Howard) — Will's love of 15 years removed — life is nothing but painful drudgery, made all the more so by old emotional wounds, an unhappy marriage, middle-class monotony and her fear of having children. When Will attends a funeral service for his mother, he encounters a family friend who sets in motion a chain of events that eventually brings Miki and Will together again, allowing another chapter of their relationship to play out. Notwithstanding a somewhat tedious Act 2 involving an overcooked night of drinking and reminiscing, there is much that is engaging. Lin's script bristles with energy and humor, and he invests these characters with a simple, captivating humanity. The cast delivers high-quality performances, under Brett Erickson's direction. Loft Ensemble, 929 E. Second St., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through March 20. (213) 680-0392, loftensemble.com. (Lovell Estell III)

33 VARIATIONS An American musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda), goes to Bonn, Germany, to visit the highly protected archives of Beethoven's manuscripts. She's possessed by a question: Why, when he was in physical and mental decline, did Ludwig van B. (Zach Grenier) concentrate his godly talent cranking out 33 variations on a minor, quaint waltz composed and commissioned by an Italian music publisher named Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia), who had only asked for one variation from both LVB and Vienna's other best and brightest composers. In the surrealistic swirl of his often beautiful play, enhanced by musical director Diane Walsh's gorgeous live piano accompaniment, writer-director Moisés Kaufman settles on a deeply refreshing theme that spins the definition of mediocre into the exact opposite of that found in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. Instead, Kaufman keeps snobbery at bay by accusing those who label a work, or a person, as mediocre of being blind themselves. For Beethoven found in Diabelli's prosaic waltz endless opportunities for invention — so much so that he delayed his Requiem Mass in order to keep exploring the tune. And this, the play suggests, is an allegory for how we, too, can find richness in what we wrongly presume to be the mundanities of life. Kaufman spins this idea through the relationship between the specialist, mono-focused Brandt and her dilettante daughter (nice performance by Samantha Mathis). Brandt keeps wondering when the child will settle down and make something of herself. Except for Grenier's slightly cartoonish Beethoven, enabled by the slightly less cartoonish portrayal of his caretaker, Anton Schindler (Grant James Varjas), so far so good. However, it's the play's dramatic crux, making it a star vehicle for Fonda, that undoes the event; for Brandt has Lou Gehrig's disease, a somewhat strained attempt to add the stakes of dwindling time to her search, to parallel her own mortality with that of Beethoven, to infuse the drama with gratuitous morbidity and to give Fonda the opportunity to physically implode before our eyes, which she does with stirring conviction and technique. But this play isn't Margaret Edson's Wit, and its thematic focus isn't mortality, and how one has lived; it's primarily about the relationship between mediocrity and excellence in music and in life, and Brandt's disease crashes into that like an uninvited drug dealer at a masked ball. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m, Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m., through March 6. (213) 628-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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