AUGUSTA AND TWO OTHER RANDOM ACTS Only the program can prove these three disparate works came from the pen of a single writer. Cheryl Lilko certainly shows range and—in one case—depth, humor, and humanity. Wedding Date finds a woman (Stacy Marr) with a new boyfriend (Jon Malmed) needing an escort for a wedding. He's proving to be an emotional blackmailer, so her friend (Lilko) offers to don a suit and pass for male companionship. Serving less as a theatrical voyage and more an excuse for lesbian kissing, this work needs to be developed so we see more than caricatured family members and shallow sketches of relationships, or reworked so there is more for the imagination and less on-the-nose recreation.
In Little Death, a man and woman face the "morning after" on a weekend getaway to the mountains. Actors Bill Lippincott and Gia McGinley play the couple who swap gender traits in this also-as-yet-unformed work.
But in Augusta, Lilko has created a full story, characters to cheer for, and a tender and humorous look at golf. A young tomboy (Joan Maurer in an energized, bittersweet performance) works at a driving range near the famed PGA course until an unsuccessful pro (Kenneth Alan Williams as a warm but reserved Londoner) offers her a chance for improvement. Rich Gershberg directs all with some endearing attention to detail. The set (Wendy Guidery) of small hanging sheets of appropriately colored plastic that are rolled down for a scene and back up afterward is creative, appealing, satisfactory, and probably wonderfully inexpensive. —Dany Margolies
CRAZY LADIES The lights come up on Katherine Griffith, sitting on a sofa, playing an older woman who suffered through a 45-year marriage, and one thinks Griffith is likewise an older woman. Lights come down, then quickly up again, and Griffith is sitting on the same sofa, this time cross-legged, meditation style, playing a young girl who spent an adventure-filled night at the beach. So, this actress is a younger woman, one wonders? Even after watching her in her 70-minute one-woman work, it's possible we might see this actor offstage and never recognize her. Will the real Katherine Griffith please stand up?
Griffith played more than a dozen crazy ladies revealing bits of themselves to a psychotherapist—portrayed by a Barbie doll seated in a tiny rocking chair. While Griffith and director/co-writer Darla J. Fjeld never fully revealed to us any cause or effect of these ladies' various conditions, we did get a very potent snapshot of each.
Sometimes resembling a Jonathan Winters' character, sometimes passing for Robin Williams' sister, this performer's rubber face and quick-change voice found a perfect vehicle here. She spoke in the round tones of Margaret Dumont for one character, her neck completely disappeared for another, a third laughed melodically at her own jokes. Many of the situations would have been hilarious were they not so painfully real. Director Fjeld created nearly invisibly seams between each character, some stitched together with a common movement, some using a blackout to give the audience a quick rest. —DM
HARDER YET TO TELL Truth can be powerful, but it might not always be theatrical. This work was written and performed by women who survived violent crimes, amply supplying the truth portion of the evening. Amy Benedict, Elizabeth Dement, and Sami Reed recounted the ugly episodes and aftermaths in monologues and dialogues. Their prologue showed them meeting onstage to write a play about their survival. They spoke of "self-esteem," "flashbacks," "post-traumatic stress." Suddenly, they saw the audience staring back, and the idea formed to make this play. It's a noble cause, but this production offered nothing new or revealing.
That these women are speaking autobiographically did not improve the performances. They do have lessons to teach the audience, primarily about how society treats victims of violent crime. Yes, we say thoughtless things: "What were you wearing?" "Was he white?" "Get over it." But there was a distance in some of the performances that may have come from not really wanting to be as close to those memories and feelings as an actor needs to be. The portions that attempted to look comically at survivorship (The Traumorama Improv Group, The Miss Survivor Pageant) seemed to lessen the impact of the more realistic moments. What worked best as theatre, while still grounded in truth, was the voiceover (Brad Henke) we heard during the blackouts between scenes, as a former boyfriend stalked his victim through a series of haunting, revolting telephone calls. Ken Palmer portrayed the various men in these women's lives. Playwrights Jennifer Maisel and Diana Croft provided "additional material." —DM
J. ROACH: UNDERCOVER Think of some weird combination of Tom Waits, Raymond Chandler, and Sybil, and you'll get a sense of this droll 90-minute storyfest of one man's eclectic experiences within the L.A. Unified School District. (There was no intermission. One of the students showed the audience where to find the backstage bathroom; you needn't have raised your hand to be excused.) The uncredited set design was part classroom, part dive bar, part police interrogation room. Daveen D. Giacomo lent a sultry, bluesy atmospheric tone to the show while seated at an onstage piano as each of the nine actors portraying the ubiquitous J. Roach—each in shirt, tie, and pocket protector—took turns coming out from behind a backlit scrim to sit beneath the harsh glare of a hazy white spotlight. In front of them was a small table trimmed with traditional teacher trappings—a mug full of pens, pencils, and a little American flag, plus a pair of apples. The toy cowboy atop his faithful steed conveyed the Wild West atmosphere faced by teachers in the classroom today, but it had another humorous connection later in the show.
An intense Scott Conte first introduced us to Roach, a reporter who had gone so deep undercover as an LAUSD schoolteacher he began to forget he's really a writer. The often harrowing stories we were subsequently told are based on the experiences of director Adam Einstein (writing under the nom de plume of J. Roach), and they abound with such lyrically bad, hilarious lines as "Three years came and went like an alcoholic's trust fund," and "I was three hours ripe, like a browning banana." The show's low-key noirish tone could become hypnotizing; it was difficult, at times, to stay focused on the stories, especially given the excessive length. Thankfully, we only got eight of the 324 stories Roach says he's collected. Still, it really made you wish for a potty break. The talented ensemble included Jeffrey Johnson, Valerie Dillman, Fred Blanco, Eric Bram, Gillian Whitlock, Scott Krinsky, Jon Mozenter, Tom Hymes, and Rebecca Johnson. One hopes they all made it through high school. —Terri Roberts
NOWHERE TO RUN Christy baby, as Chris Wells is called in the show, has got a whole lot of shakin' going on. Wells doesn't just enter; he was invoked with an entire song—"Christy baby, won't you come out and play?"—sprinted into the auditorium in an iridescent suit, leapt up in front of a white baby grand, and began to shuffle. Wells seemed to have channeled much of his vast energy reserves into a booming, soulful voice (think Tom Jones), his impressive falsetto, and some rather aerobic dance moves. Composer/pianist Fred Cassidy wisely chose to highlight his and Wells' knack for '60s Motown and '70s funk. As lyricist, Wells covered some pretty well-worn ground, keeping words and themes simple and playful, with the exception of a few coming-out songs, which dug a bit deeper into the psyche. One could imagine a slightly fuller show were Wells to play around more between songs—his rare moments of improvised silliness added much to a mostly concert-style performance.
Wells could also have benefited from a change of venue—perhaps to a place like the late great Luna Park, where there's room to move and some, well, atmosphere. The enormous Village auditorium and plush seats tended to work against him. Yet Wells' enormous personality, backed by a gifted band, and the sweet and spicy voices of Laural Meade, Patrice Pitman Quinn, and Pinky Turzo, was enough to inspire an overly comfy audience to do some shakin' of its own. —Laura Weinert
PAPA'S BRAND NEW BAG To prove he's not a deadbeat dad, Billy Mayo, newly divorced from his wife though definitely not from his children, fights the demons that have invaded his best intentions. Determined to carry out his personal promise to love, honor, and support his young son and daughter, he sets aside his anger at his wife's insistence that he be labeled the enemy and gets into a brand new bag. He refuses to be stereotyped as irresponsible or to be compared with the swingers in their Porsches who blithely forget their responsibilities. He asks, rather, to be compared with the solid, black, family men who kept families together when they were scarcely considered to be human beings, to those fathers who, after emancipation, traveled, sometimes across the country, to be with their wives and children who had been sold into slavery in distant states.
Peter J. Harris has written a plea from the heart, obviously riven from his own experience. It is a centered prose poem about a man who has just discovered he's a grownup and is planning to prove it. Mayo is a fine convincing actor and made the work his own, as well as moving and ultimately re-affirming. Tamara M. Sibley's direction didn't yield the best effect in this oddly configured space, and Tony Bracy's lighting design was erratic; and even though this can't be considered a play, and wasn't served by an intermission and a second act, Harris' point was well taken. —Madeleine Shaner
PLATE At the start of Abby Schachner's self-written, one-woman show, she passes out barf bags (courtesy of Delta Airlines) to the audience, all the while muttering that she's "just such a people pleaser." It's not for fear of intense audience reaction to her show (which is actually quite clever and entertaining) but rather to make a comical point about the relationship women have to food and their programmed need to meet unrealistic societal expectations of what they should look like. Through a fast-moving series of sketches and songs, Schachner takes quick bites at the advertising industry, religion, cellulite, and Karen Carpenter, and makes comical/thoughtful mincemeat out of oral fixations and food disorders, and the latter's sometimes fatal consequences. Whether she's pummeling a roll of cookie dough, singing about "The Song Inside My Refrigerator," or taking on the persona of the giant Ukrainian lesbian who wants a sexual experience with a perfect body (Barbie), Schachner demonstrated a self-deprecating sense of humor, a sometimes manic energy, and a sincere desire to impart some important information in a palatable, humorous way. Plate is rather uncohesive, and Schachner tended to bounce back and forth between songs and stories like a starving woman high on caffeine and Dexatrim, but it certainly offered up food for thought. —TR
SAVING PRIVATE PICKLE PLANT One might seem hard hearted to minimize the work of FrogWorks, a self-described eco-political street theatre troupe, whose latest show, "Saving Private Pickle Plant," takes on the Playa Vista development project and its potential effect on the Ballona Wetlands. This well-intentioned agitprop group warns of increased traffic, pollution, and threats to the ecosystem.
Using little more than roughly painted backdrops, costumes, and good will, the performers lashed together a satire about Private Mary Lou Pickle Plant (Susan Suntree) who interacts with among, others, a coyote (David Koff), an endangered bird (Allaire Paterson), and a Fairy God Frog (Jan Williamson). Geared for all ages, the troupe lacked focus in storytelling, used neither music nor sound effects, and, except for Suntree, exhibited little sense of humor in its portrayals. Williamson's projection was quite poor for a performer who usually works out-of-doors.
The 1,000 acres of wetlands north of L.A. International Airport, up for grabs, deserves a better defense than this diffuse little half hour, which, in the most tenuous of ways, connects "Moregone Stanley Gold-n-Sacks" with politico "Ruth Galavanter" and doesn't even mention DreamWorks SKG in a significant way. Director Zoey Zimmerman needs to rethink how to tie together the important strands of the story, educate us about politics as well as ecology, and create a few more laughs along the way. Helpful hint: If you have a 10-foot-tall frog onstage the entire time, have it do more than stand there. —Brad Schreiber
SAY UNCLE A tattered, nearly shredded American flag served as the icon for these three scenes, still a work in progress. Nick Fracaro, who also directed, delivered the brief and subtly cynical The 3 Minute Manifesto for an Uncle Sam on Stilts. Decked in patriotic red, white, and blue, Fracaro represented the American dream, as offered by any political candidate. The text is brilliantly subversive and set the tone for the following performers.
With a startling entrance, musician/actor Wharton Tract, portraying the character Uncle, presented a derelict with maniacal precision, with incessant mutterings and silence-shattering shrieks of frenetic urgency. Perhaps he is not a derelict or a vagrant but rather the next undiscovered genius incomprehensible to members of the rat race. Finally, Gabriele Schafer arrived as the Box Office, appropriately clad in a scanty G-string teddy brimming with folded dollar bills, at once a table dancer representing capitalism and the mechanism used to generate such capital—sex.
Fracaro's direction was smooth with special fluidity enhancing the movement of Shafer's performance. Tract added some mood-setting blues with his guitar and harmonica. Say Uncle is at one moment performance art: people peddling their message to the masses in the hopes that one person might hear the desperation beneath their words. At the next moment it is a glance into the adulteration of the American dream: a torn flag, the political whore, and the dazzling stripper dispensing dollars. Myriad messages could be gleaned from this theatrical commentary. —Betty Wilder
SLEEPWALK In its world premiere, Daniel Cariaga's gloomy new play was bolstered by director Jon Lawrence Rivera's edgy and exciting staging. But once you got past the nightmarish visual imagery and haunting background music (uncredited, but superbly engineered by John Zalewski), there was little that seemed new or particularly profound about Cariaga's script. The action charts the downfall of a married man (Rocco Vienhage), who haunts video arcades to indulge in illicit gay sex and is involuntarily thrust out of the closet, while his professional life simultaneously goes down the toilet. This is supposed to somehow relate to a dreamlike state in which the married man has dark visions in which he and other characters around him chant mostly incoherent thoughts, but the point of this was never clear—nor was the link between his moral tribulations on the job and the problems in his personal life.
Vienhage was convincing as the young man in an emotional crisis, and Ogie Zuleueta was properly despicable as the lowlife hustler whose path he unfortunately crosses. Allison Sie had good moments as his fed-up wife, and Christopher Cass was credible as his unscrupulous worm of a boss. But the stars of the show were John H. Brinkley's chillingly austere set and Robert "Bobby" Fromer's unnerving lighting effects. This was an admirable and sometimes intriguing effort, but less cogent than intended. —Les Spindle
THE VEIL PLAYS While intentionally vague as to locale, this pair of one-act plays by Karen Hartman seems to be set in an identifiably Middle Eastern Islamic republic (best bets would place them in Iran or Iraq). Yet they explore universal issues of female oppression, albeit within the context of a culture that's almost unbelievably alien. It's a somewhat arrogant undertaking for Westerners to criticize traditions and customs intrinsic to a world that our own attitudes and beliefs render virtually beyond our understanding, but Hartman's plays are decidedly compelling. If we were occasionally left out to sea by the context, both vignettes were still thought provoking and richly compassionate, while also offering provocative moments of searing irony and genuine anger.
The Mother of Modern Censorship takes place in the office of a trio of women whose jobs are to "protect" the public from entertainment that could potentially corrupt them. Chief censor Thuraya (a hilariously prissy Jennifer Toffel) grooves to the "illegal" music she listens to but then blithely tosses the tapes into the wastebasket with a quick flick of the wrist, forbidding the rest of the world from getting its chance to hear what she does. Her assistant Samia (Luck Hari), frustrated over being constantly browbeaten by her superior—and suspecting her of absorbing the decadence she's hearing—teams up with new arrival Khadiga (Danile O'Loughlin) to stage a coup.
Director Jim Anzide's crisp, witty staging possessed a subtle sardonic tone that elevated the play beyond its meditation on free expression rights into an exploration of the political desperation of low-level flunkies who have discovered that information is power. It's an amusing touch that the three women are engaged in a totally loathsome job but are weirdly likable while performing it. O'Laughlin's naïve-seeming but ambitiously scheming Khadiga was amusing—and it was compelling to watch as Toffel's Thuraya cracks under the unstoppable inundation of "decadent" culture.
In Gum, sisters Rhami (Kiersten Van Horne) and Lina (Wendy Abas) are being raised by their pragmatic Aunt (Jayne Taini) to be paragons of Islamic virtue. Lina has undergone a ritual circumcision, which has left her too crippled to understand the passions and appetites of the still-complete Rhami, who enjoys forbidden pleasures that are likely to endanger her upcoming marriage-by-arrangement to unpleasant businessman Inayat (Richard Augustine).
Hartman's portrait of women who have been subjugated and deformed so they can adhere to men's unrealistic worship of them is profoundly disturbing, and the writing startlingly hints at both the central characters' basic powerlessness and their ultimate complicity in their plight. Although Hartman's writing tends to meander awkwardly into occasional lapses of overwritten dialogue, and director Julia Hamilton's production was slightly marred by pacing problems, the work comes across as being an unexpectedly tragic Islamic version of A Doll's House. Van Horne's free-spirited Rhami was a strong whimsical woman who was completely identifiable, which made her ultimate suppression all the more searing. Also touching and sad were Taini's resigned-to-despair Aunt and Abas' sad-faced Lina. —Paul Birchall
VICTORY DANCE Jessica Litwak's solo show is spellbinding. Seven vivid soulful characters tear at your heart, tickle your funny bone, and challenge your thinking as Litwak fluidly shifts among them by changing accents, personality tonus, body gesticulations and gestalts. Using distinct dialects and viscerally gritty dialogue, they interact in extended scenes sharply focused by director Sue Hamilton and subtly enhanced by Jon Imparato's thoughtful sound design. Sandy Lee's splendid lighting assists the transitions and in one terrific sequence switches tints and intensity to become transformational.
Set in a "liberated" 1976 San Francisco, the action focuses on the relationships among the central character, Maya, her two closest friends, and Masha, her dying disillusioned Bolshevik grandmother who needs to make peace with her past. All of them struggle with rage, pain, and troubled identities—each keeping a secret that stops her from being whole. Jewish Maya is a lumpy, homely poetess, so self-hating that even her fantasies of a date for the senior prom include paying for it with demeaning sex. Luna, an Irish orphan and closeted lesbian, pursues astrophysics, while black Grace, whose spirit soars with Shakespeare, lets a boyfriend abuse her and takes heat in the 'hood for having white soul sisters. Masha—forced closer to Maya than she wanted by the drunken philandering of Maya's mother—suffers the revolutionary's disease of loving an idealized humanity while being filled with contempt for the people around her, including Maya.
As each woman struggles against circumstance and inner conflicts to reach out to the others and to find herself, the students are helped by an inspired poetry teacher who deftly switches gears to mesh her initial fatuous idealism with her students' needs, and all find strength and courage from dream visitations by historical heroines. Julie Williams' butcher-paper backdrop brilliantly captures historical progress and continued hope as a beautifully executed grim Jewish ghetto, a step up from the shtetl, rises to a caesura topped by a sky of bright pansies.
For each young woman, the price of admission to the prom—the Victory Dance—is to confront and conquer something deep and disturbing about herself. But the triumph for Litwak is to have so powerfully enacted what these three misfits mean to one another that their impassioned conclaves, not their monologues, echo in memory.
A minor regret. This production marks a sharp political shift from Emma Goldman: Love, Anarchy and Other Affairs, Litwak's 1986 short solo piece exploring the tension between personal sacrifice and political ideals. Litwak here seems to embrace the idea that only personal fulfillment and bonding can be hoped for or achieved, consigning social justice and ideology to the dust-bin of history, as though in the present world all that can flower from the brave but muddled exhortations of Goldman and other radicals is a chance for personal integrity and happiness. If so, I wish she had found some more vital way to mourn this loss than the cantankerous protests of Masha, for whom revolutionary fervor substituted for human feeling, unlike Emma Goldman, unlike Rosa Luxemburg. —Michael Green
WOVEN For a group called Woven, these people sure wear a lot of knits. Granted, that's the sort of bizarre off-the-wall kind of observation that only a fabric junkie would make. But the nine-member troupe does that sort of bizarre off-the-wall kind of theatre, and it mostly worked. At times, it would have been funnier if they'd stopped sooner. But overall, the exploration of movement, music, improv, and scripted scenes went beyond the boundaries effectively and with good wit.
Woven is not quite sketch comedy, not entirely improvised. Bits included a couple trying to communicate, as it turns out in a stuck elevator. There was dance, drumming, a duet satirizing Oprah Winfrey. Most interesting was a single dancer on a dark stage wearing black except for glow tube necklaces where the performer's face should have been and with a line down the body's midline and down each limb. The effect was a glow-in-the dark stick figure dancing about the stage.
They claim that much of the work is improvised. Most of the sketches were too closely coordinated, including one featuring a Greek chorus stepping out of Agamemnon and just chatting with the audience. That couldn't possibly have been improvised—not with seven players speaking the same words clearly at the same time.
Cast member Noah Harpster is also credited with the show/group's conception and with the direction, and he stayed out of it just enough to keep things on an even keel. Equally impressive was Chris Turner's lighting design and performance, perfectly coordinated to the action onstage. —Anne Louise Bannon