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PACIFIC OVERTURES

at the David Henry Hwang Theatre

Reviewed by Rob Kendt

East West Players' current revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Pacific Overtures is a triumph on so many levels that it feels churlish to point out its shortcomings. Yes, in its move to a new mid-sized theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, this scrappy Asian/Pacific American theatre company bit off a lot more than an Equity rehearsal schedule could chew--a wide load of technical and political hurdles that had more to do with putting up a new theatre facility than putting up a show. And the resulting production not only evinces the expected signs of under-rehearsed performances, it also has moments in which the staging ideas, not just their execution, seem under-developed.

But giving a frame and purpose to this inspired imperfection is a project of such passion, grace, and intelligence that it often takes the breath away--not only Sondheim's bold, lapidarian score or Weidman's witty, serious, absorbing book but director Tim Dang's gorgeously imagined and movingly played production. Employing floating and sliding Japanese screens on Lisa Hashimoto's beautiful modular set, lit evocatively by G. Shizuko Herrera, the show moves like a dream--a haunting, outsized dream outfitted with the stunningly signifying costumes of Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez and the letter-perfect hair and make-up of Newton Kazuo Koshi, and choreographed mostly winningly by Betsy Chang and Kabuki consultant David Furumoto.

In telling the unlikely story of feudal Japan's reluctant opening to the West, Weidman and Sondheim's 1976 show adapts a roughly recognizable revue format to Asian theatre practices--or vice versa--and comes up with as many pristinely lyrical moments as it does fiercely pointed passages. Kayama (Orville Mendoza) is a low-level samurai thrust by the ruling Shogun into dealings with the West--of which his first is meant to be a deal-breaker, since the Japanese from the 17th through the 19th century were militantly xenophobic, strictly forbidding any foreigner to even touch their soil. To help Kayama negotiate with the Americans, whose Admiral Perry has come with four warships to open East-West trade relations or else, the Shogun releases a prisoner, Manjiro (Michael K. Lee), who has lived in the U.S.

These two bond in the playful modal duet "Poems," which is staged beguilingly by Dang and performed sunnily by Mendoza and Lee, and which typifies the score's brilliance. As in the serenely moving "There Is No Other Way," the ploddingly prickly "A Bowler Hat," and the soaring "Someone in a Tree," Sondheim somehow makes the knottiest harmonic material and the trickiest intervals sound as natural as folk tunes, and this production's crowning success--adequate rehearsal time or no--is in perfectly realizing this difficult simplicity. Music director Scott Nagatani has done his job exceedingly well, and continues to do so, directing a small but precise arsenal of drums, winds, and keyboards from across raised platforms.

There are too many high points in the cast to mention them all: Mendoza is an embracing, generous presence, with a husky, pliant baritone and a jack-o-lantern face that registers emotion tellingly; David Furumoto is funny and menacing as Lord Abe, and about equally so in a pair of drag roles; Alvin Ing, who was in the original Broadway cast, has a beatific peace about him (which is wrong for a few of the roles he's assigned) and a searing, feminine voice; Tedd Szeto and Hisato Masuyama score big laughs as Russian and French admirals, respectively; Reggie Lee flawlessly executes a pair of expressive dances; Sabrina Lu has a striking turn as a ventriloquist priest, and Paul Wong and Deborah Nishimura each especially bolster the vocal department in a variety of roles. And as the Reciter, who narrates, comments on, and occasionally steps into the action, Keone Young runs through a kaleidoscope of facets and faces, from warm to proud to distrustful to sardonic, and finally to heartbroken (and he plucks a mean shamisen).

The show ends with the brash, buoyant "Next," in which the Japan that has embraced American-style modernity struts its stuff, both tacky and impressive, while Young collapses in tears at the memory of lost traditions. Needless to say, the resonance of this stirring production seems to multiply endlessly as one walks out of the new theatre into bustling Little Tokyo. It's been a long time since I was proud to live in Los Angeles.

"Pacific Overtures," presented by East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Mar. 18-Apr. 5. (800) 233-3123.

BURIED CHILD

at A Noise Within

Reviewed by J. Brenna Guthrie

I must confess a bias here: I am a big fan of the small, Glendale-based repertory company A Noise Within. I have never seen the company stage a bad production, and most of the time its offerings rival anything that's playing at the Taper or at South Coast Repertory.

It is with that general praise in mind that I say the company has again outdone itself. Bias or no, its current production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child is one of the best things I've seen on a Southern California stage in recent memory.

Shepard's play is almost too dark to be considered a dark comedy, and most productions reflect that sinister undertone. But director Julia Rodriguez Elliott has wisely paid careful attention to the humor in Shepard's writing, creating a strong, multi-layered production. As Dodge, the patriarch of a decaying family, Neil Vipond gives a tour-de-force performance; his comedic timing is absolutely perfect. Jill Hill has delivered fine performances in the company's standard period pieces, but here shows that contemporary pieces are her forte with a strong and sassy turn as the fish-out-of-water Shelly.

Leading man Geoff Elliott is almost unrecognizable in his surprisingly underplayed portrayal of eldest son Tilden. Company newcomer Louis Lotorto makes his presence known as a volatile, on-the-edge grandson Vince. And company staples June Claman, Robert Pescovitz, and Apollo Dukakis are equally strong in the roles of matriarch Halie, middle son Bradley, and Father Dewis, respectively.

Design-wise, the production outstrips the company's usual excellence. Rick Ortenblad has created a visually stunning set: a dilapidated house that seems to echo the family's disrepair. Brenda Plakans has taken great care to fashion costumes that not only reflect each character but also create a subtly unnerving, nebulous sense of time--from the 1940s fashion plates worn by Halie to Vince's '70s polyester.

As is always the case with the works of Shepard, Buried Child isn't for everyone. But even if the play doesn't strike your fancy, it would be well worth your time to see what could be one of the best productions of the year.

"Buried Child," presented by and at A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Mar. 20-May 23. (818) 546-1924.

BLAME IT ON THE MOVIES!

(THE REEL MUSIC OF HOLLYWOOD)

at the Pasadena Playhouse

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

If Monday's shameless display of film studio onanism wasn't enough for you, then cast those screen-burned retinas this way. Team Galligan (and I quote: "Musical sequences compiled and conceived by Ron Abel, Billy Barnes, and David Galligan, original music & lyrics by Billy Barnes, original musical direction and arrangements by Ron Abel [current musical direction by Brad Ellis]. Directed by David Galligan"--you sort it out) has whipped together an impressive re-mounting of this valentine to the cinema, wherein film music is thematically grouped and presented. "The War Years" and "Foreign Films" are especially delightful sequences, though I must admit that "Oscar Losers" slows the top of the second act by showcasing a few numbers that should have stayed lost. Will time ever burnish the love theme from Tootsie?

Original cast members Bill Hutton and Christine Kellogg are joined by Cindy Benson, Charlia R. Boyer, David Engel, Daniel Guzman, and Tami Tappan. And what an ensemble they are: Whether rollicking through the choreography of Yehuda Hyman or achieving Ellis' achingly sweet harmonies, they are practically faultless. Opportunities to shine individually are best, though not exclusively, exemplified by Engel as a man transformed by an Arthur Murray course, Kellogg as a woman beating herself up using a spiral staircase as a weapon, Hutton displaying his winsome tenor in "You'll Never Know," and Benson pretty much every time she opens her mouth.

The women are draped in a variety of languid gowns as well as fun character pieces by Zoƒ DuFour, and the men are dressed like movie stars--like real ones, back when they looked like grown-ups, not tricks. Philip G. Allen's sound reproduces that rich, only-in-the moves quality, but without the THX ad. The celluloid-strip set of Dorian Vernacchio and Deborah Raymond enhances but never clutters Galligan's tribute to the captivating nature of film. Popcorn not included.

"Blame It On the Movies! (The Reel Music of Hollywood)," presented by and at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Mar. 22-Apr. 26. (800) 233-3123.

GHOSTS AND BAGGAGE

at the Los Angeles Theatre Center

Reviewed by Terri Roberts

Everybody carries stuff around with them. Not just external things, like coats or umbrellas, but internally, we often smother actions, emotions, and desires because we listen to the voices in our heads. Sometimes those voices can be seductively dangerous, and sometimes they can be pretty damn funny. Sarah and Oliver hear both kinds of voices in Ghosts and Baggage, now enjoying its world premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Billed as a neurotic comedy, this rambunctious script by actor and debuting playwright Ken Narasaki has some focus problems and could stand some tightening, but it also puts quite a humorous New Age spin on '90s neurosis and ties it all together with a nice little twist at the end.

The energetic if superficial performances of Francois Chau as Oliver and Sharon Omi as Sarah are buoyed by the wonderful Sab Shimono as a chameleon Spirit Guide invoked by Sarah to get her life on track. Sarah runs a New Age bookstore and meets Oliver when he comes in to return a seemingly defective self-improvement tape called Anger Management for Asian Pacific Men. Quicker than you can say Casper, the two are smitten with each other and bounce into Sarah's bedroom behind the store.

But they bring their baggage with them. Sarah's gone off her medication (presumably for manic depression) and Oliver is a ticking time bomb. Throughout the evening, these two are constantly interrupted by the ghostly voices and apparitions of an ex-husband, a father, a friend, and a lover's devilish alter-ego. It gets a little crowded in the room and more than a little funny with some of the Spirit Guide's manipulative antics, such as tap-dancing on the headboard of Sarah's bed while controlling Oliver like a puppeteer.

On a technical note, there are sound, lighting, and timing problems that still need to be worked out. And anyone sensitive to profanity should consider themselves duly warned--there's a lot. But you needn't be Asian to appreciate and enjoy the humor in Narasaki's script, nor must you believe in ghosts or Spirit Guides. But if you come in with a sense of fun, you'll probably walk out with a smile on your face.

"Ghosts and Baggage," presented by zygote productions at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 South Spring St., Los Angeles, Mar. 20-Apr. 19. (213) 485-1681.

CITY OF ANGELS

at the San Josƒ Center for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Winner of six 1990 Tony Awards, City of Angels rewards its audiences with a literate book by Larry Gelbart, jazzy score by Cy Coleman, and clever lyrics by David Zippel. The complex musical also poses formidable technical and artistic challenges. For the most part, American Musical Theatre of San Josƒ surmounts those challenges, especially the artistic ones. The technical triumphs are more elusive.

Artistic Director Dianna Shuster, who directs, has a strong cast of singing actors to bring the show's dual worlds to the stage. The duality comes from the show's real plot: A successful novelist goes to Hollywood to adapt his book into a screenplay and gets a harsh lesson in how the game is played there. The show's other plot is his screenplay, a film noir mystery about a Chandleresque private detective who agrees to find a missing woman and discovers there's much more to the case than that.

As the action shifts between plots, the real story is presented in full color, and the film story is presented in black-and-white and framed as if it were on a movie screen. This is where the production falters: The flats in Robin Wagner's set design move jerkily, calling attention to themselves and slowing the pace. Pamela A. Gray's lighting and Thomas G. Marquez's costumes, however, lend themselves well to the concept.

Except for the actors playing the novelist, Stine (Darrin Baker), and his fictional detective, Stone (Neal Benari), the performers have alter-ego roles in each of the plots. In most cases, their characters have traits in common. The best example of this approach is Kenny Morris as Hollywood producer Buddy Fidler in the real plot, and Hollywood producer Irwin Irving in the screenplay. Morris is terrific as the steam-rolling, sweet-talking studio boss who says he loves every word of Stine's screenplay, then blithely makes drastic changes. Baker's Stine is likeable enough, but needs to project more energy. Likewise, Benari's Stone, the ex-cop turned detective, doesn't command the stage as he should. In his efforts to seem hard-boiled, he loses subtle reactions.

The principal women are more convincing, especially Jeanne Jones as Alaura Kingsley, the woman who hires Stone to find her missing stepdaughter, and as Carla Haywood, the actress who will play Alaura; and Valerie Perri as both Gabby, Stine's long-suffering wife, and Bobbi, the love of Stone's life. Also noteworthy is Lisa Robinson as Donna, Buddy's secretary, and as Oolie, Stone's secretary. She shines in "You Can Always Count on Me." She and Perri also light up "What You Don't Know About Women." Musical director/conductor Steven Smith helps keep the musical energy high.

Kudos to Shuster for the way she handles smoking, a given in 1940s films: The actors go through the motions of lighting up and smoking without actually doing so--a blessing to both actors and audience. Would that more directors followed her lead.

"City of Angels," presented by American Musical Theatre of San Josƒ at the San Josƒ Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Josƒ. Mar. 14-29. (888) 455-7469.

THE WIDOW'S

BLIND DATE

at the Actors Theatre of

San Francisco

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

Israel Horovitz's play, now making its West Coast premiere at Actors Theatre under the direction of Paul D'Addario, owes at least a partial debt to Friedrich D†rrenmatt's classic The Visit. Horovitz has taken the premise of a successful woman returning to her impoverished community years later seeking revenge on the man who wronged her and grafted it onto a gritty, disturbing, sometimes messy, and somewhat overlong portrait of three former classmates in working-class South Boston.

Archie Crisp (James Palermo) and George Ferguson (Finn Curtin) are working in the wastepaper company owned by Archie's uncle (the production's set design is uncredited, but it wonderfully captures the grimy and depressing environs of the plant). Both Archie and George are set up early on as losers of the David Mamet American Buffalo school: rebellious, with hair-trigger temperaments and a gnawing sense of their own mortality and insignificance. At one point Arch observes, "You got to take the bad with the very bad, because that's life."

The arrival of the widowed Margy Burke (Peggy Lopipero) provides the catalyst for the play's climax. A New York college professor with two children, Margy is home to attend to her dying brother, and, at least presumably, to catch up with "old friends" Archie and George. Her real purpose isn't revealed until the last act, but the audience sees it coming long before that, due, in part, to Horovitz's rather clumsy use of foreshadowing and repetition.

Yet even though I had a pretty clear idea of what would happen, I still found myself absorbed in the play's world. D'Addario's direction meanders occasionally, but he and his tight ensemble have managed to get under the skin of this story and make every interaction count. All three actors give convincing and compelling performances (Lopipero's accent slips from South Boston to South Georgia occasionally, but that's a minor quibble). Curtin's creepy George, with his high-pitched tittering giggle, perfectly captures the brutish villainy lurking inside a damaged, resentful soul. And Palermo's Archie, with his misguided idealism and sudden violent outbursts, occasionally reminded me of Lennie in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men--a well-meaning lummox without a clue, but with overpowering emotional needs. "Gaining respect is what this life is all about," he declares, but Archie hasn't the faintest idea of how to properly go about getting it.

A few of D'Addario's choices distract from the emotional build-up in the play. In particular, Curtin's George has to deliver one monologue over '70s rock blaring from a radio. While the music may lend verisimilitude to the environment, it takes away from one of the only extended self-revelatory passages George has. And the feminist in me felt a bit betrayed by the methodology of Margy's wholly justifiable revenge scheme. Still, this is a well-acted, heartfelt production of a play with some obvious structural flaws.

"The Widow's Blind Date," presented by and at Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Mar. 13-Apr. 18. (415) 296-9179.

KEEPERS OF THE DREAM

at the Group Theatre

Reviewed by David-Edward Hughes

There is a great deal of entertainment value in Keepers of the Dream, a collage of words, songs, and thoughts about the contribution of African-American women. Unfortunately, the work, co-created by Nikki Nojima Louis and Jacqueline Moscou, skims the surface of these women's stories, makes too much room for music (beautifully performed though it may be), and fails to stroke the heartstrings the way it should.

I went into the theatre hoping to know a lot more about women like Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Ernestine Anderson, and Fannie Lou Hamer when I left, and really can't say I learned much about them. With less music--there's enough here to fill a musical revue all by itself--their words and stories would have had more time to be heard.

Still, the actresses and the music they sing, are reason enough to take in this production. Co-creator Moscou is a warm, vibrant, and slightly sassy presence onstage, and manages to put her own unique spin on "Summertime" from Porgy & Bess. Angie Bolton scores a direct hit with her tribute to that cantankerous old comedienne Jackie "Moms" Mabley, the most fully realized of all the women paid tribute by the show. Pastor Patrinell Wright has a voice like golden thunder, and does double duty as the show's pianist. From the opening "There's A Meeting Here Tonight" through gospel rousers like "Soon Ah Will Be Done," to a blues medley and the contemporary sounds of "There's Something Happening Here" and "In the Ghetto," the three women weave a haunting spell of words and music, and their trio "Fannie Lou Hamer" is a downright chicken-skin moment.

The physical production of the show is mostly reliant on projected slides and photographs, the quality of which varied rather disconcertingly. In the end I left Keepers of the Dream certainly entertained, but frustratingly under-informed.

"Keepers of the Dream," by and at the Group Theatre, 305 Harrison St., Seattle Center House, Lower Level, Seattle. Mar. 11-Apr. 5. (206) 441-1299.

SLEEPING DOGS

at Copperview Theatre

Reviewed by Sally Johnson

"The harvest is passed, the summer is ended, and we are not saved," says a down-at-the-mouth Wall Streeter in the stiff, disjunctive lingo that characterizes Neal Bell's one-act Sleeping Dogs. Publicized as a surreal capitalist nightmare taking place during the Reagan era, Dogs turns out to be a stilted modern morality play exemplifying the perils of worshipping false idols. Beware, it warns, or you too may go straight to hell.

Life suddenly takes a downhill turn for insurance broker Harrison Parker when the SEC starts to investigate a $26 million discrepancy in the company books he has been diddling. Now Parker has to act--and fast. Should he hit the road or face the music? It's time to decide what matters most: his money, his reputation, his wife, his mortality (he has a heart condition), or his soul. It's bad enough that a co-worker (Daryl Hury) who's like a son to him jumps from the top of their corporate offices on the day everything starts to crumble, or that his wife (Carol Dougherty) is tired of the lies and deceit and won't come to bed. For a man who says he likes to feel his sticky shirts clinging to him, Parker ought to be feeling pretty good, but it's not the heat of passion that has his glands going this time; from the look of him, it's the sweat of worry and the stink of approaching ruin.

In his directorial debut, actor/playwright Stephen Falk employs an obviously deliberate deadpan style that has nearly everyone delivering toneless, zombie-like soliliquies. This approach succeeds in underscoring Bell's homiletic script (as well as perhaps mirroring Parker's fragmented mental landscape), but in its present incarnation greatly undervalues the humorous aspects of Parker's situation.

As the white-collar miscreant Parker, Marcus Hennessy presents an irredeemable man who is stiff as a board and something of a cipher. Parker doesn't move much: Whether he's listening to horror stories from his former secretary (Celeste A. Frazier) or from the man he's hired to break into his office (Andrew Barth), he spends an inordinate amount of time with his arms rigor mortis-like at his sides. At the conclusion of this creaky anti-capitalist auto-da-fƒ you almost have to laugh when Parker decides which road he will take. If only the rest of the play were as amusing. The cast also includes Dario Dalla Lasta, John Rappazzini, and Sherina M. Clarey as the family dog.

"Sleeping Dogs," presented by and at the Copperview Theatre Company, 1953 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Mar. 5-Apr. 11. (213) 469-4343.

COME BACK TO THE FIVE & DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN

at the Long Beach Playhouse

Reviewed by Kristina Mannion

On some levels a thought-provoking indictment of idol worship and the sometimes stifling effects of small town living, Ed Graczyk's Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean--first produced in 1976--is mostly an unsettling, and unsettled, exploration of self-deception and the anguish that results when people attempt to hide from unbearable truths. Though it cleverly combines elements of nostalgia, myth, and a little dose of reality, this decidedly offbeat drama ultimately suffers from a contrived network of underdeveloped subplots and a markedly sluggish momentum--a pace that matches the enervating heat wave consuming 1975 McCarthy, TX, where members of the Disciples of James Dean fan club meet for their 20th anniversary. That lethargic tempo is only made more apparent in this Long Beach Playhouse production, which further languishes in a relatively flat atmosphere filled with too many partially formed characterizations.

At the heart of the story is Mona (Susan K. Berkompas), a middle-aged woman whose lifelong obsession with James Dean has brought about unfortunate consequences for her only son and those around her. Clinging feebly to the claim that Dean fathered her child while in town filming a movie 20 years earlier, Mona's pitiable delusions and frailties, as well as those of her friends, are exposed through a series of real-time scenes and enigmatic flashbacks to the fateful year of 1955. Using Michelle Wolfson's lighting design and some smart staging, director Marla Gam-Hudson and her ensemble do manage to effectively intertwine the intermittent shifts from past to present.

But ultimately neither timeframe receives enough subtle mystery to convey the underlying tones of sadness and distress that color each character. Instead, the production seems to place more emphasis on Graczyk's comedic elements. This focus is best exemplified by Ricci Thomas and Sarah Paalman's on-target portrayals of buffoonish Stella Mae and na•ve Edna Louise, two former disciples whose vulnerabilities are revealed through their amusing but complex relationship, which is not unlike an odd Ralph Kramden/Ed Norton dynamic. As Sissy, Terra Shelman also turns in some touches of humor with her flashy depiction of Mona's racy and flamboyant friend Sissy.

But Graczyk's story is better served when we witness stronger hints of the strange psychology behind Mona's imagined relationship with Dean and the actual facts of what happened in 1955. Unfortunately, Graczyk himself never delves deeply enough into his own bizarre fiction, which leaves us with an unbalanced feeling at the show's conclusion. Left with no real direction, this LBP production likewise rings a bit hollow and creates the unsatisfying feeling that we've been cheated out of the true secrets harbored by the troubled Disciples of James Dean.

"Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," produced by and at the Long Beach Playhouse, Studio Theatre, 5021 East Anaheim St., Long Beach. Mar. 13-Apr. 18. (562) 494-1616.

EROTIC CURTSIES

at Ivy Substation

Reviewed by Rob Kendt

Most critics, myself included, have been guilty of playing a politically correct game of bait-and-switch: When a play comes along that actually offends us with explicit violence or transgressive sexual material (or a combination of both), we find every possible way to avoid saying so, lest we appear hopeless philistines or prudes. Instead we point out its structural flaws, or we might go so far as to call it tasteless or pointless. And if we can find something wrong with the writer's attitude toward minorities, all the better.

But when a writer as prodigiously gifted as Erik Ehn sets his mind to the subjects of "eroticism and language"--the stated themes of the commission the theatre company Bottom's Dream gave him some years ago, which engendered the plays on this current program, as well as several others--it's not so easy to point to flaws in the writing. Ehn has a fertile, febrile prose style and an unforced sense of structure, an almost musical ebb and flow, that gives these pieces what little theatricality they possess. When Bottom's Dream, along with Seattle's Annex Theatre and Dallas' Undermain Theatre, staged some of this work at Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre's Common Ground Festival in 1996, I found it exhilarating: Ehn's writing persuasively penetrated sexual explicitness and came out the other side with lyricism, wit, and genuine emotion.

Even so, after that performance, I spoke to an older woman who said she found the material so harsh she wanted to cry. Now I know how she felt. Perhaps it is a testament to the resilient power of mere words to move our emotions, but this intermissionless production of three-plus one-acts--Icarus, Leda, Three Day Jesus, and Lingerie--filled me with the kind of head-blazing, can't-look dread and disgust I felt the time I tried to watch an open-heart surgery.

Why the difference? James Martin's drily detached direction doesn't help. It's one thing to play these endlessly descriptive tales of sex between father and son, woman and goose, Jesus and goat, etc., with real emotional conviction, as did the Annex actors two years ago under Nikki Appino's direction, but to play them with extravagant, winking irony, as Martin has most of his actors do here, is to up the ante of confrontation--the element, already in the writing, of daring us to be shocked. We are, thanks.

Most of the actors are strong, within this limiting style: Jennifer Griffin shows the most range, Bonita Friedericy the most wit, Tom Sheppard the most fire, Cheryl White the most aplomb, Michael Morrissey the best deadpan. Martin makes a few attempts to theatricalize Ehn's prose--at one point employing bird-toy props in a silly pseudo-ballet parody of Swan Lake (but, strangely, to the overture of Der Rosenkavalier)--and he creates some striking images. But the combination of his nose-tweaking tone and Ehn's heavy, operatically explicit peroration makes this evening unbearable--for this philistine critic, anyway.

"Erotic Curtsies," presented by Bottom's Dream at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Mar. 12-Apr. 11. (310) 231-0446.

THE ARCHERS

at the Company of Angels

Reviewed by Brad Schreiber

Nobody said improv was easy. And when done in song form, it's even harder. But if you're going to do a parody of a lounge act, shouldn't the songs rhyme most of the time? The Archers is an assuredly pleasant core group of three: papa Danny (Floyd Van Buskirk), mama Glinn Bakersmith (Rena Malin), and son Bobby (Bill Larkin), who joins them in song and doubles on the keyboards. Their dysfunctionality helps us through the often static, repetitive patter, as Danny, awash in martinis, announces his son's gayness while Glinn worries about hubby's roving eye.

As for the act, Van Buskirk possesses the best voice and puts it to good use as he and nimble keyboardist Larkin trade barbs on the supposed theme song for the Oscar-nominated film Good Will Hunting. Malin gets in her licks, too, as the audience suggestion for the number "Constipation Blues" yielded the following spontaneous lyrics from her: "Got this feeling night and day/My God, did I eat some hay?"

Sad to say, however, the majority of song improvs on the night reviewed were flat. A charming dancing duo called the Amazing Austerlitzes and a guest singer who did not have a solid grasp on this tricky performance style confused the evening's direction. Though a likeably screwed-up clan, the Archers need to hone their material, rely less on outside performers, and decide whether song title suggestions are coming from a jar, pre-determined by those in attendance, or asked of the audience on the spot.

And only the strongest musical improv performers should end a show by doing a rock opera. After five or six messy songs, "Sleeping Beauty" was a bit too appropriate a title for their late-night crowd. Another friendly suggestion for these well-intentioned crooners: "When the lyrics seem hexed, quickly go the next."

"The Archers," presented by Ike Ola Productions and the Company of Angels at the Company of Angels, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silverlake. Feb. 28-Apr. 4. (818) 380-1576.

PRODUCTION!

(COMING SOON)

at the Bitter Truth Theatre

Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner

Digging for humor in television is like strip-mining in an overworked coal field--the seams run very close to ground level and are quickly exposed by the removal of topsoil. The Killing Kenny Players make a brave effort to parody what is already a parody in Production! (Coming Soon), an ensemble attempt to turn second-string Saturday Night Live-type material into something resembling a play.

The over-used premise finds a Hollywood production company, Poly-Gorp Productions, in crisis: They must come up with some winning new TV programs or be shut down by their parent company. The balance of the play consists of some truly awful ideas being auditioned for the clueless producer, Frantos (Keith Hargrove, also the producer and director of Production!). Most Egregiously Unfunny Sketch award goes to "The Hoes!" in which a na•ve young fellow, Adam Lucas Smith, comes to pick up his prom date, the sexy Linda Vogel, whose father (Hargrove) and mother (Cassandra Beckerman) live by the belief that a promiscuous family is a happy family, and you don't give away anything you can sell. Equally hard to take is "Resurrection 1998," in which a bewildered Jesus Christ (Eric Rodenhiser) comes to preach and remains to audition for role in a particularly tasteless commercial. "Documentary, Lord Apocalypse," with Jason Lassen and Jude Prest (who co-wrote some of the skits), flops ineffectively and incoherently on two video screens at each side of the stage. Finally, a running gag seems to be a series of tasteless commercials for feminine hygiene products. Where is it written that the already tasteless can be made less offensive by parodying it?

While the performances are good and sometimes funny, the material is hackneyed, sacrilegious, and often just plain crude. All the actors are fine and versatile: Beckerman has some moments, some very funny, some over-played, and some embarrassing, but cannot compete with Jason Lassen, who gets the raunchiest, unfunniest, and most clichƒd parts. This is comedy workshop material that might be funny over drinks with friends, but it doesn't translate to even half-way decent theatre.

The night I was there, I couldn't help but notice that the audience thinned out after intermission. Could it be they'd gone home to watch the real thing?

"Production! (Coming Soon)," presented by Big "E" Productions at the Bitter Truth Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hollywood. Mar. 12-Apr. 10. (818) 755-7900.

THE BALCONY

at City Garage

Reviewed by Scott Proudfit

It's difficult to overstate the importance of Jean Genet's plays to contemporary theatre. His insights into the way theatre interacts with the offstage world, and vice versa, are more relevant today than ever before. His views on role-playing onstage and off, as well as the way in which images are created and re-created by society, have been co-opted by psychologists, sociologists, theorists, and academics throughout America.

Despite his brilliance, or perhaps because of it, his plays are nevertheless some of the hardest to successfully produce in this country. They're often quite long; they focus on the marginalized (revolutionaries, prostitutes, thieves); they're violent, and they are decidedly ironic, even cynical, depending upon your personal viewpoint.

However, as with Beckett or Pinter, when these complex plays receive their due in performance, most contemporary writers pale in comparison; their lazy sitcom writing appears infantile and shallow. Yet when a production of a Genet play like The Balcony is not up to the admittedly high mark, the result is painful. This, sadly, is the case with the City Garage's current production.

The play is typically produced on a revolving stage, and with good reason. Without a lightning-fast pace, the intricate story, which centers on a brothel and the revolution occurring outside its walls, really drags. Director Frederique Michel's pacing is much too slow, with long pauses taken after every pronouncement by the performers, needless conceptual blocking of certain roles such as the Envoy, and musical transitions that crawl along frustratingly. Instead of fighting the length of the work, Michel needlessly lengthens the piece to an exhausting three and a half hours.

Of course, with any production that is truly alive, it doesn't matter how long it is. But most of the actors in The Balcony don't seem to have a firm grasp on this challenging material. Transitions from beat to beat are often missed. Moreover, clear connections between the roles played by each character within the brothel and the character beneath, so essential to Genet, are blurred and messy.

The one exception to this confusion is Strawn Bovee as the brothel's lucid and calculating madam. Bovee at least clearly delineates the true desires beneath the many roles she must play. Charles A. Duncombe Jr.'s sets and lights are very creative, particularly his use of mirrors. Unfortunately, his design doesn't help speed things along any, and in this sense detracts from the production.

Those interested in The Balcony should read it, as well as Genet's The Thief's Journal, which provides a lot of insight into his dramas. It's worthwhile stuff, and City Garage should be commended for taking it on. Too bad that this time it got the best of them.

"The Balcony," presented by and at City Garage, 1340 and 1/2 4th St., Santa Monica. Mar. 20-Apr. 26. (310) 319-9939.

ESCAPE FROM HAPPINESS

at the Zephyr Theatre

Reviewed by Les Spindle

It's pop quiz time. George F. Walker's play Escape From Happiness is intended to be one of the following: a) an angst-ridden drama about family dysfunction, b) a Keystone Kops slapstick romp, c) a TV movie crime melodrama, or d) a Joe Orton-inspired sadomasochistic farce. You might as well take your pick, because as evidenced by this hopelessly muddled production, director Peter Spellos has not.

Playwright Walker seems to have envisioned a disturbing comedy of the darkest possible hue, seething with both emotional and physical violence, but if there is a semi-coherent theme buried somewhere in this frustratingly inaccessible work, Spellos and company come nowhere close to conveying it. Amid a tedious barrage of ear-abusive shouting, frenetic histrionics, and confusing plot developments, there are scant few saving graces. A few performances are amusing, and Sydney Z. Litwack's set, with ugly speckled walls and a dowdy, lived-in look, creates a credible domicile for the play's loose-cannon family of neurotics.

The two enjoyable performances are delivered by D. J. Harner and Dorian Lopinto as two sisters who are visiting their beleaguered family following the unexplained beating of their brother-in-law Junior (Anthony Jensen) by two intruders. Harner is very funny as a basket-case homemaker who tries to resolve her screwed-up relationships by offering chocolate cake as compensation, and Lopinto, as a successful bisexual lawyer, plays off of Harner's quirky personality with amusing impatience.

The performances of the remaining cast members are as dysfunctional as the characters they portray. As the family's nutty matriarch, Bobbi Holtzman settles for a one-note interpretation of low-key eccentricity. Judd Laurance gives a lackluster reading as the catatonic father, who makes a surprising character change midstream. As the addle-brained Junior, Jensen's characterization primarily consists of a mannered amalgam of repetitious facial tics, while Meredith Bishop as his relatively sane wife Gail mostly fades into the woodwork. Johnny De Anda and John Marzilli play two farcical thugs who might be more at home in a third-rate episode of Here's Lucy. Marie Chambers' take on the hardboiled female detective Dian is a bargain-basement Lauren Bacall, while Clement E. Blake as her combative partner struggles with a clichƒd tough-guy role.

This is the sort of misguided production that initially generates the uneasy feeling that it will never get started. Then, as the show lumbers along toward the 11 o'clock mark, that feeling is replaced by the much worse trepidation that it will never end.

"Escape From Happiness," presented by NTG Productions at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. Mar. 20-May 10. (213) 660-8587

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