at the West Coast Ensemble
Reviewed by Brad Schreiber
Gladys (Tina Witek) has just had a dream about talking to a famous French philosopher and telling him, "I think, therefore I am." To which the sage replies, "Think again." Rich Orloff's absurdly clever diatribe against societal hypocrisy, Someone's Knocking, is replete with disparaging witticisms and conceptual slaps in the face to modern malaise.
Take, for instance, Jack (Don Cummings), Gladys' husband, who gives her a block of granite each anniversary and is consumed with the need to prevent her from free thought. "Marriage is about communication," he intones, "until the weaker one gives in." Gladys is tempted from the doldrums by Opportunity, dressed in the guise of a superhero (Paul Kouri). He sounds and looks like a matinee idol, but she is too frightened to accept him.
In the struggle to break free from the shackles of her stifling agoraphobia, Gladys fruitlessly tries to connect with her cheerfully resentful sister Phyllis (Mary McBride) and her cowed, stuttering hubby Bill (David Kaufman). When Gladys does manage to finally break away from her control freak husband, it leads to one of the play's most bitingly funny scenes, in which Witek is interviewed, hired, and fired by McBride in one session as an official scapegoat for a conscienceless corporation.
Orloff's terrific dialogue is buttressed by conceptual daring, which includes a TV set that is also a house pet (played enthusiastically by Lisa Picotte) and Gladys engaging in the ultimate sibling rivalry on a TV game show called Being and Nothingness. Though the playwright slows the pace at the end, and Witek shows the real pain of this bizarre journey, the piece is no less effective, much to the credit of director Richard Israel.
Also deserving of kudos is sound designer Pat Lydon of Pfeifer Studios, who seamlessly creates sound montages for Picotte's four-legged TV creature. Lydon's work is a delightful mix of old TV show themes and sound effects which both substitutes for barking and reminds us of the often stultifying nature of that electronic medium.
Orloff fills this comedic gem, played to perfect pitch by the cast, with line after line of savory humor. Theatre folks in the house particularly enjoyed the ignorance of Phyllis' character, who, being told she had confused a play for an opera, pronounces, "Theatre. Opera. What's the difference? They won't let you eat popcorn in either one."
Sometimes, on a good night, the work itself is all the nourishment you need.
"Someone's Knocking," presented by and at West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Apr. 20-May 13. (323) 525-0022.
HUNDREDS OF SISTERS AND ONE BIG BROTHER
at the Brava! Theatre Center
Reviewed by Kerry Reid
Don't let Deborah Swisher's extensive credits as a comedian fool you: Her new solo show is about as far from a vanity joke-fest showcase masquerading as an autobiographical piece of theatre as one can get.
Which isn't to say that Hundreds of Sisters and One BIG Brother is devoid of laughs. Quite the contrary: How can one not derive chuckles from the experience of growing up in the place that made "Today is the first day of the rest of your life" a mantra for the Me Decade? Swisher grew up from eight to 18 at various communes run by Synanon, a now-defunct organization that started out as a movement for rehabilitating those with drug and alcohol problems, but soon moved on to "squares" like Swisher's mother-a single mom with two precocious daughters. Playing a variety of characters with the kind of fluidity, precision, and insight one has come to associate with artists like John Leguizamo, Swisher turns this two-act exploration of her unorthodox upbringing-her own Hideous Kinky, if you like-inside what many characterize as a cult into a poetic, harrowing, funny, insightful, and richly satisfying portrait of a vanished time and lost innocence.
And though the piece grows in unease and sadness over the course of two hours, Swisher steadfastly refuses to fall into the easy, knee-jerk trap of painting the entire experience as damaging and bad. She points out that the Group was able to teach her to read in six weeks-something the public schools, frustrated by her free-spirited and creative nature, had failed to do in two years. Yet this is counterbalanced by the hostility and manipulation of "the Game"-sessions of orchestrated verbal abuse that form a cornerstone of the Group-and by the forced separation she endures from her mother and, later, her runaway sister. (Another tenet of the Group is that everyone in it forms one big family under the benevolent dictatorship of "the Founder," hence Swisher's title.)
Swisher is particularly effective at portraying her mother-a harried single mom devoid of the kin networks and community support that might have kept her free from the seductive appeal of a cult-and the changes in herself as adolescence strikes, with its natural rebelliousness and curiosity. Yet even here, her gift for humor and irony keeps the piece from devolving into a maudlin diary of a misunderstood teenager. Of particular note is her humorous account of her unenthusiastic deflowering at 17 by a cult member 10 years her senior. While many might play up the inevitable overtones of coercion, Swisher recasts the incident as a gymnastics event, complete with hilarious play-by-play sound cues.
What most impresses me about this show, aside from Swisher's abundant gifts as a writer and performer, is her compassion. There are no baddies here (except perhaps the Founder)-just people looking for an idea of utopia as a respite from the fearsome demands of an uncaring larger world. When she finally screws up the courage to leave, her mother gives her some pointed advice: "Just remember-not everyone out there is your brother or sister."
"Hundreds of Sisters and One BIG Brother," presented by Brava! for Women in the Arts at the Brava! Theatre Center, 2789 24th St., San Francisco. Mar. 10-May 23. (415) 647-2822.
THE NORMAN CONQUESTS: ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN
at South Coast Repertory
Reviewed by George Weinberg-Harter
The Norman Conquests, written in 1973, bids fair to be Alan Ayckbourn's masterpiece-his Der Ring des Nibelungen, if you will. Pity, then, that it is seldom performed in its tripartite entirety: three full evenings of theatre during which we might gradually develop a nearly godlike knowledge of simultaneous events in different locations around and about one English country cottage during an extended weekend. Out of Table Manners (in the dining room), Living Together (a sitting room), and Round and Round the Garden, South Coast Repertory is presenting only the final, culminating, and relatively self-contained back-garden segment.
But the other invisible offstage indoor events are pretty well implied (Ayckbourn constructed the segments to be performed in any order, or else singly), and the players are largely saved the sedulous actor's task of supposing what their characters may be up to between their entrances and exits, since the actions concealed behind farce's perpetually swinging doors are clearly specified in the companion plays of the trilogy.
Six able and engaging actors, under Martin Benson's direction, evoke all that and much more, softening their characters' edges with the implied sympathy for (as well as mordant amusement with) human folly that is an Ayckbourn hallmark. The amorously frustrated Norman is played by Timothy Landfield, who resembles a lanky and shaggy Mr. Punch, alternatively frisky-friendly or growlingly downcast (in the manner of a too-amiable chastised dog, with which Norman is compared). Prettily worn and sweetly weary is Susan Marie Brecht as Norman's sister-in law and inamorata, Annie, with whom he would wish briefly to escape to the unlikely adulterous bourne of East Grinstead (which has famously become for Norman and Annie rather what distant Moscow was to Chekhov's Prozorov sisters-a land of lost content).
Tom-the slow and unsatisfactory suitor of Annie, drolly played by Time Winters with a cautious Scots brogue that well fits the man-is a veterinarian likened in his stolidity to one of the horses he doctors; Winters indeed gives his character the plodding dull gentleness of a Clydesdale. Ruth-Annie's sister and Norman's sharp-tongued, long-suffering, near-sighted, and relatively tolerant spouse-emerges surprisingly sympathetically in her portrayal here by Lynnda Ferguson, who manages to ameliorate some of Ruth's harshness without sacrificing the acerbity that makes her renowned collapsible chair scene with Tom a high point of the comedy.
Nike Doukas, as Sarah, yet another sister-in-law with ambivalent designs on Norman, brings the right degree of glossy veneer to this calculating woman. And Allan Hendrick's desperately jolly Reg-Sarah's husband and Annie's brother-rotundly resembling Robert Benchley with his thin moustache and combed-back hair, is both funny and credible. These fallen couples do their misstepping minuet of unconsummated amour in a veritable Eden of an English back-garden, presided over, in Michael Devine's gorgeously hyper-realistic scenic design, by a lovely old brick house, through whose windows and French doors one may easily imagine glimpses of scenes being played out from the two unseen comedies in the trilogy.
And, with York Kennedy's lighting, such a luscious vision of a bright British rural July is created that one wants at once to book a summer's holiday in Sussex. But for their sins-Norman's heartbreak of satyriasis, Annie's hesitations, Reg's inaction, and a general lack of marital charity-the ready delights of this garden seem finally to be denied to Ayckbourn's unsatisfied characters.
"The Norman Conquests: Round and Round the Garden," presented by South Coast Repertory on the mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, Apr. 16-May 16. (714) 708-5555.
at the Seattle Repertory Theatre
Reviewed by David-Edward Hughes
Think Greater Tuna transplanted to Miami Beach with a more serious edge, and you have some idea what the L.A.-based troupe Culture Clash has created in Radio Mambo, currently in residence at Seattle Rep. Scripted from interviews with real Miamians by the Clash's talented actor/authors Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza, and shaped and directed with flair, machine-gun pacing, and clarity by Roger Guenveur Smith, Mambo's salsa-fied vignettes may not find as much favor with Rep audience regulars as, say, the recent Coward festival or Shaw remounts, but it may win over a new generation of more ethnically diverse patrons when word of mouth kicks in.
Roaming from such varied Miami neighborhoods as the expat-filled Little Havana, trendy if seedy South Beach, affluent, white-dominated Coral Gables, riot-ravaged Overtown, mixed-plate Coconut Grove, and Little Haiti, Culture Clash offers hilarious, poignant, and even downbeat observations of Miami's people. The trio scores as a unit and individually portraying a panorama of types ranging from drag performer Che and his girls at the Club Starfish to a flaky Hispanic furniture dealer, to a snooty gay art dealer, to three Death Row prisoners.
Comedically, there is no finer moment than when they spoof a trailer-trash Norwegian/Chicano couple (Siguenza and Montoya) being interviewed by Salinas for the show: "Don't worry", he assures the foot-in-mouth pair, "We won't use any of this." Dramatically, the trio generate heat in a show-closing turn as an architect, a shrink, and a blind man. Not all of the two dozen or so vignettes work, but none are dull, and few of the characters ever seem to be caricatures.
With an eye-catching lighting design by Lonnie Alcaraz, which transforms Siguenza's minimalist set into facsimiles of each neighborhood as needed, and with other design credits expertly executed, Radio Mambo goes down as easily as a mojito and doesn't leave you with a headache in the morning.
"Radio Mambo," presented by and at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, 2nd and Mercer Streets, Seattle Center. Apr. 19-May 23. (206) 443-2222.
THE FAMILY'S AFFAIR
at the Knightsbridge Theatre
Reviewed by Polly Warfield
Here we have playwright Jean Van Tuyle in serene command of her concept, director Jules Aaron in an antic mood, a hand-picked seven-member cast in sync with both of them, the Knightsbridge Theatre cooperative and hospitable-and all at the top of their form. In fact, Van Tuyle's new comedy recalls Neil Simon at the top of his form. Her unpretentious little caper pops like firecrackers; its witty dialogue is punctuated with frequent audience laughter, its physical comedy is greeted with appreciative roars, sometimes even with applause. Van Tuyle, Aaron, et al, dare to be very, very funny in pursuit of frivolous folderol. This play is that rare and precious thing: a genuine fast-paced, feel-good comedy with no aim other than to entertain, which it does royally.
Christopher Neiman engagingly plays John, the play's fulcrum, the eye in the center of its storm. Neiman, who comes off as a more agreeable, less neurotic, better-looking Woody Allen, plays a writer having trouble with his work, as we know the minute the lights go up because the floor is littered with crumpled wads of paper. (Writers are always depicted wadding up paper and throwing it on the floor, an ecologically wasteful habit that should be discouraged.)
John's family has "a lot of agendas," he says, and "can be frightening." Well, not really: It is amusing, silly, and endearing, like the one in You Can' t Take It With You, and its members are good company. Helen Lambros as materfamilias Martha, though lovable, is a vivacious scatterbrain (or so she'd like you to think) who believes her businessman husband is involved in an affair and that the solution is a consultation with Victoria's Secret. Debra, played by Rochelle Robinson, by nature hyper anyway, is now frantically convinced that her husband, John's brother Jimmy (Tim Woodward), is extramaritally involved.
So it goes in a frantic roundelay of delusion that borders on farce but also offers some nicely barbed satire and high comedy in the character of John's AA sponsor George, played by Christian Lebano, who is so exhausted from sleepless nights of counseling his charges that he yawns through a session with John and finally falls into a stupor. His torpor is nothing, however, compared to that of Jimmy, whose caffeine allergy renders him completely catatonic when he downs a pot of strong black coffee John made for Debra, who demands it with the sensible query, "What's the point of decaf?" John, ever accommodating, is kept hopping throughout, trying to satisfy the very varied liquid demands of his relatives.
Christopher Weeks as John's father Philip is a genial white-haired gent. Corinne Chooey is John's provocatively dressed, long-legged, but wholesome Chinese girlfriend Emily. Set designer Dale Boosey created a very pleasant bachelor's pad for John; if echoes of the concurrently playing Measure for Measure resound (and perhaps the lovely French window is from 1997's Death Takes a Holiday), it only adds to the ambience.
Apart from purely providing mirth, playwright Van Tuyle does pose the pertinent question: "Is there such a thing as a functional family?" If so, people don't write plays about them.
"The Family's Affair," presented by and at the Knightsbridge Theatre, 35 S. Raymond (in the Braley Building), Old Pasadena. Apr. 24-July 11. (626) 440-0821.
THE LION IN WINTER
at the Marian Theatre
Reviewed by D.L. King
Stories and legends of courtly love and barbarism, passion and power in the reign of King Henry II of England intrigue the modern mind more than 800 years after the fact and fiction of the period. The Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA) production of James Goldman's The Lion in Winter recreates a remarkable family whose rivalries, torments, lusts, and loves provide more than ample amusement and food for thought. Goldman's 1965 play stands the test of time remarkably well. In fact, in this age of talk show brawls, the violence and deceit of this royal unit of dysfunction seems all the more believable.
The play is rooted in the historical facts that Henry II "married for love a woman out of legend," the amazing Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor presented Henry with five sons and three daughters and supported her son's revolt against her husband in 1173, for which she was sent into a semi-imprisonment that lasted until Henry's death. She was allowed to venture from her royal prison for state occasions and Christmas holidays, one of which is the fictional setting of the play.
Leslie Brott reprises the Eleanor made famous by Katherine Hepburn in her 1968 Oscar-winning film turn. Brott wheedles and wins the affections of each of her three sons and her husband in turn, only to lose out as each of her plots is uncovered. Guest artist Michael Fitzpatrick attacks the role of the murderous Henry II with carefully choreographed emotion.
Henry's verbal attacks on wife and sons and mistress (who all conveniently reside under one roof) are met with equal fervor and skilled sarcasm by their intended victims. Elizabeth Stuart's Alais Capet, mistress to the king and betrothed to his son, is stongly defined; she believably alternates between hatred and love for her rival. Philip Capet, king of France and son of Eleanor's ex-husband, is well-played by Timothy James Kurosawa, as is Richard Coeur-de-Lion by David Huber. First-year student Greg Ayers plays the ineffective son John with an annoying whininess that seems a little overdone, but the marvelous work of Garlyn Punao as oft-overlooked middle son Geoffrey is a pleasure to watch.
Marvelous, too, are the richly ornate period costumes designed by Abby Hogan and the creatively suggestive lighting created by Michael A. Peterson. Equally impressive is the medieval castle set crafted by R. Eric Stone, while wounds and threats inflicted by the wicked tongues of the entire cast haunt us thanks to the skilled sound design of Ali Rodriguez-Carlson.
"The Lion in Winter," presented by the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts at the Marian Theatre on the Allan Hancock College Campus, 800 S. College Dr., Santa Maria. Apr. 22-May 15. (805) 922-8313.
BLESSINGS: AN EVENING OF TWO LEE BLESSING PLAYS
at the Angels Theatre
Reviewed by Adelina Anthony
Down the Road and Riches by the prolific Lee Blessing are offered here as companion pieces, and they make a perfect match. The same cannot be said of the couples in each of his plays: Through the intense emotional lives of the Hennimans and the Riches, the playwright reminds us of the deep, hellish caverns of our souls. Not to worry, though, the night is far from esoteric; talented director Bill Hyatt and his ensemble mine these caverns for all of their dark and golden possibilities. Overall, it is a wonderfully disturbing night.
In Down the Road, we observe the Hennimans (John Prince and Stacie Wilson), a writing couple, conduct a series of interviews with serial killer Bill Reach (Joshua Fardon). Fardon is a thrill to watch, with his upbeat apple-pie looks giving way to quivering cheeks when he is angered or disturbed. He also seems the most natural in his role. One of the few drawbacks of this piece is that it sometimes feels too acted, namely in the forced chemistry between Prince and Wilson.
But the simple theatricality of the piece is too alluring not to keep watching. The lighting design, also by Prince, is predominantly red, white, and blue, reinforcing Blessing's statement about American culture. The soundscape of speeding cars on the interstate also heightens the sense of isolation and emptiness. Amid some chilling moments in which the killer invades (in every sense of the word) the Hennimans' lives, it is the precarious balance of life and death which keeps the piece from falling into utter hopelessness.
The most delicious acting comes in Riches, in which John Prince and Diane Perell as a couple called the Riches celebrate their anniversary. There's real, undeniable chemistry here, and the three-scene play feels more complete than the first offering. Hyatt shines here as a director with an ear for language: The musicality of this piece is in perfect tempo, pitch, and rhythm, especially Prince's monologues; they crescendo in all the right places, only to be followed by the tense silence after the storm.
Although he's not a killer, Prince gives the most human and monstrous performance of the night. His desperate need to save his marriage at all costs makes him so dear to the audience that we not only understand but forgive his violent outbursts. He is well matched with Perell, who in her own right balances Prince's performance with an iron-willed desire to abandon the foundering relationship. The conflict is clear, and the end leaves us praying for the best.
"Blessings: An Evening of Two Lee Blessing Plays," presented by the Company of Angels at the Angels Theatre, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silverlake. Apr. 8-May 21. (323) 883-1717.
FROGS, LIZARDS, ORBS, AND SLINKYS
at Imago Theatre
Reviewed by Jeremy Kemp
Imago has delighted audiences for almost 20 years with this mask and costume study in animal motion. From neon green tropical tree frogs to dingy sloth circus performers to dazzling fluorescent snakes, Frogs delivers psychedelic mind candy fit for children and adults alike.
For a play in which the three performers wear masks throughout and never speak, Imago's masterwork-conceived by artistic directors Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad-delivers a number of ageless themes which seem to translate well across cultures and generations. The troupe recently returned from a series of performances in Germany, and the show has been produced for audiences on three continents-from Anchorage, Alaska to Charlotte, North Carolina; from Singapore to Berlin.
This anthropomorphic pantomime opens with three tree frogs squatting motionless on a black box stage. Large, striking frog masks sit atop each actor's head, and the performers achieve frog postures by facing the ground and raising their shoulders. Costumes are padded to fill out the haunches and complete the amphibian illusion. They hold for a long moment, and the rightmost amphibian gazes intently on his neighbors. The other two frogs peer back alarmed. After a few minutes of trying, the smallest finds she cannot hop and must scoot around the stage on tiptoe chasing after the jumpers.
The next vignette-there are nine total-is a clever cartoon cowboy opera with a twist. Keeping with the mask theme, this cowboy has a large box covering his entire head with a hand crank on the side. As the performer develops the story, he turns the crank and advances cartoons on a paper scroll over his face: As he mimes riding a horse under the hot sun, for instance, we see a sweating cowboy with eyes bulging and tongue wagging. He enters a saloon, hits on a bargirl, gets shot by a jealous suitor and dies. This "animation" combines beautifully rendered drawings by George Smith with dexterous mime by an anonymous cast member. (Indeed, throughout the play it is hard to identify nimble performers Kimberly Dahle, Doron Toister and Michael Zittel, but their motion is flawless.)
Another fine skit makes liberal use of black lights and fluorescent tubes, as one actor in a black stocking suit walks slowly onstage covered completely in brightly glowing sticks while two others flit around him like giant blinking fireflies. The scene ends with a breathtaking black light jump-rope show, with two actors offstage in the left and right wings creating a Jacob's Ladder of shocking red and green waves vibrating across the stage.
Some skits don't come off as well: When a single actor dons a mask backwards and twists and turns in seemingly impossible poses, one seven-year-old sitting in the front row put it succinctly when he said aloud, "So?" And many of the segments wouldn't suffer from a little tightening; the 10 minutes spent building an "intermission" announcement onstage, for instance, seemed draggy.
Music by Daniel Brandt (formerly keyboardist for the pop metal group Quarterflash), Fred Chalenor, and Courtney Von Drehle borrows from Italian and Indonesian folk music to create a fittingly exotic atmosphere.
"Frogs, Lizards, Orbs, and Slinkys," presented by and at Imago Theatre , 17 SE 8th, Portland. Apr. 23-May 30. (503) 231-3959.
at the B Street Theatre
Reviewed by Barry Wisdom
At one point or another, most everyone has felt like they didn't fit in, didn't belong-that they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. For Michael (Kurt Johnson), a rural K-Mart clerk who prefers Beethoven to Bad Company and Kierkegaard to comic books, it's a feeling that's dogged him since birth. The universal-and I do mean universal-theme of alienation from one's peers is at the heart of the B Street Theatre's cosmically entertaining production of Stuart Spencer's Resident Alien.
While few have ever understood what the hell Michael's been talking about, his perpetually irritated ex-wife Priscilla (Karyn Casl) and her bloated knuckle-dragger of a new husband Ray (Greg Alexander) are clueless about his latest story: Their son, Michael tells Priscilla, has been abducted by aliens, who have left behind one of their own. Priscilla doesn't believe a word, since Michael has been known to spirit the boy away in retaliation for what he believes is bad parenting; she tells him to bring their son back or get arrested.
But when Michael confronts the gentle big green man with the Mr. Spock-meets-Herman Munster hairdo (Thomas Redding), he has few answers other than that the boy will be returned unharmed-eventually. For this fun-loving e.t. isn't out to assimilate, he's out to recreate. Having long monitored the planet, he's obsessed with Earth's reputation as the ultimate in pop culture civilizations. Forget the Reese's Pieces: This drone (and his starship's bus boy) have come for Cheetos, outlet malls, and the Spice Girls. Like Michael, he's something of a cultural outcast on his home world. While his shipmates appreciate Earth's classic literature, his idea of a good read is Us magazine.
Before the play's predictable but nonetheless satisfying conclusion, the spaceman engages in very close encounters with both Ray and Priscilla, who, in fine farcical tradition, explain away their green friend's "olive" complexion to Mexican ancestry or "a bad case of liver damage."
This cast of B Street veterans-including David Pierini as the local sheriff-works well together in probing for every laugh possible. Redding, Alexander, and Pierini seem to delight in pushing their characters to the edge in a bid to outdo each other. But, to be fair, without Johnson and Casl's convincing earnestness to play off of, the show's trio of laugh-getters would be far less successful.
Delicate comic touches abound, as director Buck Busfield and lighting designer Scott Freeland have wisely seen fit to accentuate the sometimes subtle script with goofy-but strangely appropriate-lighting, as well as music and sound effects. The only disconcerting aspect of the show is the smorgasbord of regional accents served up by the cast. It's a small point and, since the more exaggerated of these are very funny, easily forgivable.
"Resident Alien," presented by and at the B Street Theatre, 2711 B St., Sacramento. Apr. 25-June 6. (916) 443-5300.
at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre
Reviewed by Polly Warfield
Put not your faith in governments or functionaries, lest you be sorely troubled. Swiss envoy Heinrich Zwygart learns this the hard way in The Envoy, playwright Thomas Hürlimann's drama of diplomatic intrigue and double dealing.
The play's import extends beyond being the West Coast premiere of this major work by a dramatist the Swiss rank with their Dürrenmatt and Frisch. It is also a 99th birthday offering from Martin Magner, himself worthy of rank as an Old Master. Born with the century in 1900, Magner has racked up an impressive record of directorial achievement to which he adds each year by directing a play to celebrate his accumulating March birthdays. A native of Germany and a refugee from the Hitler regime, Magner is steeped in the European tradition; German, Swiss, and Middle European plays are prominent among his oeuvre, which includes liberal servings of Shaw as well. The Envoy was delivered to Magner, in Otho Eskin's translation, by Swiss consul Hans Durig, with the urgent suggestion that he was the one to direct it.
It is an apt choice, and apt timing: The Envoy is in many respects a metaphorical summing up of 20th-century malaise. Zwygart, the envoy, is a decent, honorable, refined Swiss patriot who wants to protect his country from invasion by Hitler's forces. But Switzerland's survival depends on its economic ties with Germany; strong cultural and historic ties exist as well. Zwygart is sent to Berlin as envoy to maintain those ties while doing his best to keep Hitler at bay. Having performed to the best of his ability, the war over, he returns to his Alpine home not as conquering hero but as an accused collaborator with a death sentence on his head. But as he explains, his was an impossible situation: "I had to do evil in order to do good."
As the tormented envoy, Josh Welsh is disheveled and distraught when he returns to the home prepared to welcome him as hero. His aged and ailing father, the Colonel (Curt Lowens), hails him proudly, but his concerned younger sister Regine (Erinn Strain) protests that he looks like a ghost. Slippery Swiss functionary Hoby (Rick Lawless) arrives to let him know-obliquely-the trouble he's in. Two unbidden workmen (Javier Armijo and Robert Olufs) are ominously visible installing wires on the balcony outside the picture windows. It echoes with portent à la Dürrenmatt.
Strain's Regine, a wistful, vulnerable young woman, is poignantly aware her youth will pass her by without a blessing. Lowens, touchingly frail as the old Colonel, has the best, most cogent lines. His eyes failing, he must douse them with stinging eyedrops, sighing, "The whole world is crying bitter tears."
That lamentation sums up Hürlimann's tone, which presents daunting dramaturgical difficulties: The play is presented, rightly, without intermission, its somber tone of threnody unrelieved; and much of it is monologue, as Zwygart pleads for his life, tries to defend himself, supplicates, addressing an unseen presence on the other side of the microphone he knows those mysterious workmen have installed.
Robert Prior strengthens his bid to inherit the mantle of the late designer extraordinaire Robert W. Zentis with his handsome, impressionistic, eloquent set. The wide, deep living room speaks volumes about the culture and refinement of its occupants. Through big bay windows, snow-clad Alps loom like sentinels and beckon like sirens. Kathleen H. Wain's costumes are tasteful and appropriate. But kinks need to be ironed out in the puzzling lighting of Plume Buigues; it fluctuates when it shouldn't and doesn't when it should. Most perplexing is the steady rosy sunlight glow on peaks of the Eiger and the Jungfrau at midnight.
All told, The Envoy succeeds as a saturnine and ironic commentary on the evil of compromise and the frequent necessity of compromise.
"The Envoy," presented by New Theatre, Inc. in association with the Goethe Institut Los Angeles, the German Cultural Center and the Arts Council of Switzerland Pro Helvetia & the Consulate General of Switzerland at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre, Strasberg Theatre Center, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Apr. 16-May 22. (323) 660-8587.
at the Zephyr Theatre
Reviewed by Terri Roberts
Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. So did Lola Wilkins, her brother Otis, and her daughter Princess. And on Apr. 4, 1968, when Dr. King was shot and killed, it looked to Lola and Princess as if their dreams, and those of their hero, died along with him.
In Christina Harley's first full-length play, The Dreamers, we're introduced to the African-American Wilkins clan at the very moment they hear the news of King's assassination. Throughout the rest of the show, we're made privy to their own dreams, and then watch as they are either realized or destroyed.
Lola (Vanessa Bell Calloway), the self-martyred matriarch of the family, clings desperately to the belief that her preacher husband, gone for three years without a word, will soon come back to her. Lola has nary a kind word for her daughter, Princess (playwright Harley), who has two illegitimate children and still dreams of a white-dress fairy-tale wedding. Otis (Glynn Turman), a promising track star in his youth, is half crippled and walks with a cane, drinking beer and moonshine to forget what might have been. Al (Art Evans, who also directs), a longtime family friend, secretly loves Lola, but falls into a debilitating stutter whenever he's around her. And Jerome (Marc Copage) is a hopeful musician who loves, and leaves, Princess.
Harley's script needs only a few minor adjustments to raise it from good to powerful. The first is a sense of place: Lola's Holy Roller attitude, and her belief that her husband is off "evangelizing," lets us assume the story is set somewhere in the Bible Belt, but the exact location is never clear. Also, what happened to Otis is to cripple his leg? Injury? Disease? We never really know.
Then there's Al and Jerome. When Al finally overcomes his stuttering problem to confess his love, it's too pat. The scene, though quite funny, rings false because there's no reason why he should suddenly be speaking clearly. Better, perhaps, that he should enter still stuttering, and work his way through it, than to suddenly appear a changed man.
As for Jerome, his love for Princess is too instant and convenient. It's as if Harley is trying to tie up loose ends without dragging the show on any longer (at roughly two and a half hours, it could use some general tightening up). There's also a brief slide show that interrupts the flow and serves no discernible purpose except to remind us of King's accomplishments, which is unnecessary.
But none of this is to negate the fine work Harley has done here, both as playwright and actress. And she's complemented by such a strong ensemble cast it's difficult to single out any actor for special mention-though if pushed, it would have to be Turman as the crusty, philosophizing Otis, who helps the women realize they already have much more than dreams could ever provide.
"The Dreamers," presented by C.T.C., Inc. and Michael Ajakwe Jr. at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. Apr. 23-May 23. (323) 655-8587.
A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN
at the Laguna Playhouse
Reviewed by Les Spindle
The great American playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) was under-appreciated in his lifetime, not only due to posthumous premieres of his works, but also because his highly individualistic style of semi-autobiographical drama caught critics and audiences off-guard. Few dramatists have dug quite so deeply into their souls to exorcise inner demons while eloquently conveying both the poetic splendor and heartrending despair of the human experience.
O'Neill's bittersweet romance A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943) combines the warm family comedy of Ah Wilderness! (1932) with the harrowing domestic drama of Long Day's Journey into Night (1941), conjuring both the joyful and hellish aspects of O'Neill's turbulent life. Under the capable direction of Jessica Kubzansky, the Laguna Playhouse has mounted a respectable but flawed rendition of this challenging classic.
The power of O'Neill's plays derive more from speech and character than storyline. James Tyrone Jr. (Philip Earl Johnson), the Long Day's Journey character who was inspired by O'Neill's older brother, returns in Moon. He's still a boozing, womanizing ne'er-do-well, but he is now agonizing with guilt over the unresolved relationship with his deceased mother. He owns the Connecticut farmhouse inhabited by the Hogans-the rascally Irish patriarch Phil (Sean G. Griffin) and his feisty daughter Josie (Marjory Graue), a strapping earth-mother of a lass whose heart is filled with both love and loneliness. When Phil craftily plays matchmaker between James and Josie, ostensibly with ulterior motives, the couple shares a magical, moonlit evening of redemption and renewed hope.
Kubzansky has cast strong actors who skillfully tap into the unique rhythms of O'Neill's dialogue, which alternates naturalistic banter with subtle shifts into lyricism. The production neatly captures the brio of hard-drinking, boisterous Irish country people. But in the difficult climactic scene-the coming together of two misbegotten souls-Graue and Johnson don't fully realize the script's potential for spine-tingling catharsis. This lengthy scene is a profound symphony of sorrow and joy that suffers here because the layers of subtext are not evident. Part of the problem-both here and in other scenes-is Graue's vague attempt at an Irish brogue, which is distracting and occasionally unintelligible. But the biggest failing is the actors' superficial reading of this crucial scene, which is neither intellectually nor emotionally satisfying.
As for the other actors, Griffin gives a humorous and insightful interpretation as the ornery patriarch, while James Caffery and Tom Shelton are effective in the respective supporting roles of Josie's departing younger brother and a wealthy neighbor. Production values surpass the already exemplary Laguna Playhouse standards, with the richly textured details of Dwight Richard Odle's rustic interior and exterior set and his astutely designed costumes, as well as Paulie Jenkins' dreamlike lighting and David Edwards' atmospheric sound effects.
"A Moon for the Misbegotten," presented by and at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach. Apr. 22-May 16. (949) 497-2787.
Reviewed by Anne Louise Bannon
I will say this for magician Jeff McBride: He's darned good at what he does. But the question here is whether or not what he does is theatre and should be reviewed as such. There are elements of theatre in his program: He uses dance, mime, and narration to take us on a sort of tour of the "history" of magic. And while he almost assumes a character, it's not quite a character.
But the real test is whether the illusions and stunts that he performs are in support of a story or idea. If they were, it would be without question theatre.
Alas, it is the other way around. The multiplying masks, the woman suddenly appearing in a drum, the sleight of hand are the object of the evening. The idea of a "historical tour" is merely the framework for the illusions, a sort of bridge or conceit that provides costumes for his assistants, Abby Spinner, Scott Hitchcock, and Joan DuKore, albeit some gorgeous costumes. Historical or even cultural accuracy don't enter into it.
This is not a knock on McBride. As a magician, he's fabulous, eschewing the glitz for a more artful approach. Whether he's working with a full-scale prop-and-assistant illusion or the simplest sleight of hand, he is very engaging. His mime is exquisite and his dance elements are strong. He does give in to some sexism, in that Spinner and DuKore are frequently scantily clad, and there is that one trick in which he places one of the women in the basket and shoves swords through it. (Hindu reincarnation ceremony? I don't think so.) But on this score he's not as bad as most of his colleagues.
His mask routine is a wonder to behold, not just in its sleight-of-hand elements but in its beauty. All in all, McBride clearly deserves the "Magician of the Year" honors he received from Hollywood's prestigious Magic Castle. But winding up the mask routine with tragedy and comedy masks does not make it theatre per se. McBride is well worth seeing for his magic; he puts on a good show. That may be some folks' definition of a night at the theatre, but it's a stretch.
"McBride-Magic!," presented by and at Magicopolis, 1418 4th St., Santa Monica. Apr. 21-May 2. (310) 451-2241.
at the Oliverian Theatre
by Scott Proudfit
What is appealing in the works of the current theatrical avant-garde-Maria Irene Fornes, Mac Wellman, Richard Foreman, Suzan-Lori Parks, among others-is their freedom from the constraints of naturalism. When you walk into the theatre for a Fornes play, you step into another world. The individual theatrical universe there is subject to its own language and symbols. Freed from holding a mirror up to the mundanely natural, a successful Fornes play can more directly examine universal truths-about love, life, death, etc.-in the abstract. There is also a certain vitality that comes with only having to concern one's self with the theatrical. This instinctively leads artists, and audience, to rediscover the medium's strengths.
That said, Fornes' plays, like those of her contemporaries, can also often be stubbornly obtuse, cold, pretentious, and exhaustingly repetitive. This typically happens when the writing starts to bask in its own cleverness. Freed from conventions, the writing comments on itself instead, creating a vicious circle, and for the audience, a pointless exercise.
Her first play, Tango Palace, doesn't fully represent the strengths or the weaknesses of Fornes' later writings. The slight plot deals with Isidore, an androgynous clown and voice of the established canon, attacking and seducing Leopold, an earnest youth who attempts to follow a higher cause. Like most writers on their first project, Fornes seems to borrow the voice of others: She wants to write a Beckett play or an Ionesco play (though admittedly, who among the great writers of the last 30 years, from Stoppard to Wellman, didn't want to write a Beckett play as their first?). As a result, Tango Palace, the text, is unsure of itself, with occasional bravura passages of humor and human understanding-particularly between lovers (the writer's trademark later on).
What is more disappointing is that this new production is flawed beyond the admittedly unfulfilling material. While she obviously understands the material, director Mary Tomlinson has not properly stylized the piece, particularly the fight scenes and dancework. The physical life of this play must meet the demands of the often bizarre text if it is to succeed. Clown bits must be hysterical; menacing threats must appear truly menacing.
As far as the performers go, Kevin Hincker is dedicated to getting laughs as the flouncy, affected Isidore, but not on or with his lines. He undercuts himself by not trusting the material. Nicholas Gonzalez as Isidore's ward/beloved/ slave/pupil has a harder task, moving from an essentially unformed embryo of a person to a full, flesh-and-blood nemesis, more vital than his mentor. In a role that gives so little for the actor to express early on, Gonzalez gives us even less. He holds back despite being strapped with the stingiest of parts, and never fully opens up later in the play when the text gives him permission.
On the positive side are Camden Toy's lights and James Rosenberg's sound design, which are properly playful and propel the piece when that is needed most, and Katrina Alexy's elaborate black beetle masks. Tango Palace may not be the greatest of Fornes' word dances, but in this current incarnation, it's further hindered by uncommitted dancers.
"Tango Palace," presented by National Fringe Productions at the Oliverian Theatre, 2609 Hyperion Ave., Los Angeles. Apr. 16-May 9. (323) 654-4631.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDAY SHOW
at the Acme Comedy Theatre
Reviewed by Kevin Salveson
Despite assembling a vivacious group of performers, Acme Comedy Theatre's Bravo company can't quite take the hill back from the enemy in its Butch Cassidy and the Sunday Show offering. Though there are always a few memorable routines and standout performances in such shows, this time around the written material is just too undeveloped to earn Bravo Company the kind of breakout notices it has in the past.
The recipe for sketch comedy theatre in the MAD TV era always seems to end up being more of the same soup. First, the cooks add a pound of skewed social mores in the workplace and at home. "New Girl," which depicts the sexual come-on of a lesbian boss on her hire's first day, almost works due to Stephanie Clayton's injection of coarse man-talk ("Oh, ain't you the feisty filly!") into an office environment role reversal, but the direction by Todd Rohrbacher should have tightened the victim's responses and accentuated the end's reversal for a bigger payoff. Others in this class fail completely, especially the grating one-note guitar playing and family dysfunction of "Rock 'n' Roll."
Second, the formula always includes several cups of women discussing their physiology, shopping habits, and foul mouths in unflattering terms. "Baby Shower" and "Waxing the Monkey," about childbirth pains and body hair, respectively, score some laughs, though "Monkey" relies on cheap Asian accents for the joke. Danielle Hoover makes the most appearances of all the women in the cast, and shows the greatest range: From Italian coquette to cheerleader, b-ball girl to Puritan, she imbues each role with a winning charm. Marisa Chen, as the unwitting Indian being played out of her land, also hits some nice notes, and Joanna Daniels has her white trash character down pat.
Next, add grease: Greasy hair, overbites, '70s leisure suits, wiggy car salespeople, hot-rodding '50s rebels, slick but sick politicians, fart jokes, and sex-paralyzed runts all make their regular appearances here. Of note is Joel Berti's work, who plays both pretty boy and geek with gusto, and whose Michaelangelo in "Oh Mickey" (as in "you're so fine you blow my mind") pays off with the night's funniest joke.
Lastly, toss in some chopped classics. Ann Swanson, another standout, plays a picture-perfect Dorothy in the Oz sendup, while the musical lynching of "Picnic" and the faux-Fosse "Bravo!" entertain with high energy and song. Lastly, "Churning the Butter" adds a pinch of physical comedy to a gumbo which has some spice but in the end leaves one feeling a bit undernourished.
"Butch Cassidy and the Sunday Show," presented by the Bravo Company at the Acme Comedy Theatre, 135 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Apr. 25-indefinitely. (323) 525-0202.
INDIAN SUMMER OF OUR DESPONDENCY
at the Lillian
Reviewed by Wenzel Jones
Some theatre draws its inspiration from classic literature, some from the human condition. I'll guess that this particular outing had its eye firmly on MTV's Real World: It has that same sense of utter self-infatuation that makes it so tempting to hit the remote just one more time, but... well, you want to stay and check out the apartment. And the music is good; were Chris Game's sound design being sold in the lobby on CD, I'd buy it.
The angst-riddled digs in this instance were designed by a collective (Dave Fofi, Mark Duncan, and Anthony Roman), with no one taking any particular blame. Kelly Wand's story is nothing that can be easily pinned down. I'm not even sure that there is one. There are many familiar elements, however: the terminally adolescent males sitting around an apartment, the beautiful albeit cannibalistic babe Siobahn (Andrea Robinson, good-natured and rather fetching in her blood-spattered gown) who appears in their bleak little lives, aliens-you know, stuff.
The occasional line is golden, but there's no sense of cohesion to any of it. It's a logjam of pop culture references, and yet another layer of ironic distance is added by having the whole tied together by a narrator (a quite wonderful Barnaby Wilde) who is willing to point out any script deficiencies you may have missed.
There's no fault to be found in the performers, exasperating though their characters may be. Robert Foster as the pansexual wastrel Norm shares the show with Anthony Roman as Shad, a character who, though more conventional sexually, is otherwise indistinguishable. How these two love to hear themselves talk. Gregory Balaban is almost lifelike as the almost lifelike motivational speaker Jazzy, a character easily confused with the blues singer Old Jazz Daddy Fish (Amos Cowson in a performance as broad as the Mississippi). Alexandra Hoover and Jennifer Autumn Lyons are quite fun as two sets-or maybe it was one set-of twins, the reason for whom I couldn't even begin to explain.
Director David Fofi keeps the proceedings moving, if not coalescing into anything in particular, and eventually you have to either let it wash over you or, as my theatre companion did, grit your teeth and whimper.
"Indian Summer of our Despondency," presented by Kelly Wand and Elephant Off Main at the Lillian, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood. Mar. 27-May 9. (323) 939-9220.
A NIGHT IN THE DELLS
at the Bitter Truth Theatre
Reviewed by Claudia Grazioso
Vignettes may be the perfect art form for an ADD-afflicted society, which, if you believe the media, we are. Still, one fears that, with this need for constant change and stimuli, we'll sacrifice substance. Michael Heimos' A Night in the Dells, directed by Alice Champlin, is a case in point: Set at a motel over the course of one night, the play offers three different stories, all of which are supposed to lead the characters to "defining" moments in their lives, and all of which fall pretty short on content.
The play opens with a lonely woman (Jodi Taffel, one of the evening's stronger performers) preparing for a date with a man who never shows up. Taffel's portrayal of a woman alternately lost to fantasy and overwhelmed by reality is appropriately depressing, manic, and humorous. Still, only rarely do Taffel's instincts break through the monologue she's given to recite-and those are the few times her lines cease to be a "monologue" and become, briefly, the pained rant of a lonely person.
The second vignette involves a mother and daughter, Charlotte and Emily (Linda Porter and Katherine Armstrong), who bond over Charlotte's widowhood and argue over Emily's divorce. Though the two actors play well off of each other, Heimos' script is mercilessly redundant, dragging the actors and the audience endlessly back over the same emotional beats. Daughter: "You're judgmental." Mother: "You're not the Emily I raised." And so on ad nauseam.
In the last installment, a kidnapper, Zach (Edward Johnson, who lapses in and out of a Southern twang) holes up in a room with his captive (Erin Underwood), who spends the first part of the scene slumped in a chair, chin tucked to chest, then sputters to life to demonstrate the "i-i-if I stutter I m-must be sc-scared" acting method. What's eerie about the scene is not only that Johnson and Underwood don't ever interact-it's that they hardly seem aware of each other onstage.
Sympathy here falls with the cast. They are first hampered by a script that lacks any narrative thrust. The characters and the situations don't develop in any kind of organic way, and the "defining moments" aren't built to, they're air-dropped. Champlin does little to help them beyond having them shout occasionally and "build to tears" once per scene. It's a shame-that the script, which has promise, was performed in such a nascent stage, that the director lacked the vision to pull it off, and that the actors-overall not a bad lot-are the ones pitched out onstage to try to make a go of it.
"A Night in the Dells," presented by Daybreak Productions at the Bitter Truth Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hollywood. Apr. 8-May 14. (818) 755-7900.
at the Huntington Beach Playhouse
Reviewed by Kristina Mannion
Sometimes it takes the fresh perspective of an outsider to uncover the solutions to one's problems. At least that's the simple concept at work in N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker. In this decidedly lightweight work, set on a Midwestern farmstead during the early 20th-century drought era, the beleaguered Curry family faces a dual dilemma: the devastation of their thirsty cattle and the likely spinsterhood of the family's grown daughter, Lizzie. When hope arrives in the form of a smoothtalking "rainmaker," however, the Currys' problems are tidily washed away, both literally and figuratively. Transformed by the wave of inspiration generated by their handsome visitor, Lizzie, her brothers Noah and Jim, and father H.C. all learn to conquer their troubles with renewed faith and good old-fashioned optimism.
Somewhere in this homespun premise, Nash saw the ingredients for a feel-good romantic comedy. Hampered by his amiable but largely nondescript dialogue and characters, however, The Rainmaker plays out more like a worn-out sitcom. And unfortunately, this Huntington Beach Playhouse production does little to freshen up the tepid humor and watered-down drama that Nash has created in Lizzie's predicament and that of her family. In fact, nearly all of the choices made by director Jack Millis and his ensemble reinforce the impression of a stale, clich d TV show-from the play's unhurried, too-gentle tempo to the mostly stereotyped performances, to the addition of a sugary transitional sound design reminiscent of the Leave It to Beaver theme song.
Relaxed to a somewhat sluggish pace-and hindered to a degree by a few clunky scene transitions and some minor bumps that were perhaps due to opening weekend awkwardness-this HBP staging adopts a rhythm that gives it an overall perfunctory and trite tone. Admittedly, The Rainmaker allows few opportunities for flash and dazzle, but Millis and his crew pass even these by in favor of a more comfortable approach that leaves us with a pleasant yet mostly commonplace program. The exceptions are few: as Lizzie, Roxie Lee turns in a few amusing moments, most notably when she becomes flustered under the attention of File, the town's reticent lawman, and Bill Starbuck, the mysterious rainmaker who helps restore Lizzie's self-confidence; and David Farkas provides some laughter as Jim, Lizzie's high-spirited younger brother, whose boyish gullibility is also reminiscent of good old Beaver Cleaver.
The rest of the cast, however, falls victim to both the blandness of Nash's characters and the tameness of his mostly predictable script. Given little room to forge memorable personalities, they quickly fade into the background where we forget them as soon as the program ends, much like what happens at the end of those all too familiar television reruns.
"The Rainmaker," produced by Shirl Stewart at the Huntington Beach Playhouse, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach. Apr. 23-May 16. (714) 375-0696.