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at the Black Swan

Reviewed by Rob Kendt

Who knew? All Ellen McLaughlin's dense, gnarly play Tongue of a Bird needed was to be grounded for it to really take off. In its Mark Taper Forum premiere earlier this year, McLaughlin's drama about a search-and-rescue pilot in denial seemed arid and portentous, more poem than play, and even an estimable cast that included Cherry Jones, Marian Seldes, Sharon Lawrence, and Diane Venora, under director Lisa Peterson, couldn't give its words a theatrical pulse.

This new Oregon Shakespeare Festival production under director Tim Bond has the huge advantage of intimacy: The three-quarters-in-the-round Black Swan theatre puts us in the midst of both the conflicted pilot's stubbornly earthbound struggles and her airless Cessna flights, and its low ceiling forbids any Flying-by-Foy trickery in the ghostly appearances of her long-dead mother-a major distraction at the Taper, where Sharon Lawrence hovered, tilted, and whirled over Jones' sleepless bed as a teasingly surreal vision. Here, an appropriately spectral Suzanne Irving merely slides in on a platform, just above the action, in her Amelia Earhart get-up, suggesting flight but more precisely a kind of motionless suspension-more dreamlike, really, and closer to the elevation at which this messed-up mom left the world, and left her young daughter, Maxine, to grow up with a hole in her life the size of the sky.

Indeed, combing the sky is where the now-thirtyish pilot Maxine (Robin Goodrin Nordli) is in her element, but she knows it's also a way to escape herself-to cut loose from her own life, to look down on it instead of living it. As a character, too, Maxine is one of those impossible roles in which an actor must stand just outside it to deliver commentary and live it in the moment. That Nordli does both is the key to her success: She nails the breathless poetic monologues, which tell us rather than show us what Maxine is going through, with a self-deprecating, guardedly confessional tone-she does slightly pained, chin-up spunk like no one else, without cloying-but she also manages to show us Maxine's cathartic arc across the play's schematic sky.

Perhaps most crucially, and heartbreakingly, she keeps all this self-discovery-which involves those apparitions by her mother and a girl (Brigitte Loriaux) who may be the one whose search mission she's taken on-close to the vest; it's an inward journey she doesn't share except with us. When Maxine is with Dessa (BW Gonzalez), the freaked-out mother of that lost girl, or her contrary Polish grandma (Dee Maske), who encourages and role-models Maxine's isolation, she shuts down like a hangar door. Only we can see her wheels spinning like the propeller fan at the back of William Bloodgood's sere set.

All the actors root the music of McLaughlin's flightier language in solid, clear character voices, which makes it sing all the more. I quibble only slightly with Gonzalez's Dessa, who is too lovable a mess, making her reveries about her daughter touching but her angry resentment at life forced. (Gonzalez also definitively renders the title role of OSF's Good Person of Szechuan this season; the beatific glow seems to have seeped over.)

Bloodgood's coldly corrugated scenic design is warmed by Derek Duarte's lights, while John J. Gibson's sound design and Russ Appleyard's music blur into unnerving glossolalia. By grounding itself in the play's harshest paradoxes rather than its most obvious thematic thrusts, this is a Bird that earns its wings. It flies higher by burrowing deeper.

"Tongue of a Bird," presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the Black Swan, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. July 6-Oct. 31. (541) 482-4331.



at the Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Paul Birchall

You can keep your dandified Kenneth Branagh and your ossified Laurence Olivier: The future of classical theatre has arrived, and its protean, vulpine face is that of brilliant writer/performer Steven Berkoff, whose compellingly edgy and sly one-man show is a hilariously engrossing tour de force phenomenon by any theatrical standard. This collection of vignettes-which mingles monologues from the denizens of the Bard's dastard alley with Berkoff's own deliciously arch observations about the nature of villainy, and his ironic commentary about the state of modern theatre-is the sort of thing every lover of the stage should see. It's a stunning opportunity to witness a febrile talent at the top of his game.

Dressed appropriately in dark black, with eyes a-flashing and tongue a-waggling, Berkoff strides onto the essentially empty stage and launches with railway train-like intensity into Othello's Iago, whom Berkoff envisions as a petty, embittered, mediocre creep-a contrast to the tyrannical, clearly sociopathic Richard III, who, Berkoff notes, would chop off someone's head with the same disinterest as he'd ask for two lumps of sugar.

His unrepentantly nasty, insincere Shylock, who is described with all the refreshingly politically incorrect craven brutishness Shakespeare intended, and his Lady Macbeth, depicted as a wonderfully smoky-voiced, spooky yet manly femme fatale with more balls than her husband, are over-the-top yet hilariously engrossing. Noting that even heroes possess a bit of the villain in them, Berkoff also briefly enacts moments from Hamlet and A Midsummer's Night Dream that showcase their heroes' more morally ambiguous qualities.

We're struck by how clear and colorful Berkoff's readings are. There's a cartoonishness to Berkoff's expressions and gestures, but every detail of each lurid, wicked thought is lusciously explored in vivid, creepy glory. And the cleverness of Berkoff's scintillatingly quick-witted patter, which good-humoredly (and sometimes quite maliciously) pokes fun at the iconic status of some of those so-called "real" actors and British playwrights, is charming and engrossing. This is the sort of bracingly intelligent and subversive show that makes it to L.A. all too rarely.

"Shakespeare's Villains," presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Aug. 6-Sept. 12. (310) 477-2055.



at the Beverly Hills Playhouse

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

Although this show is in large part the very same show Miss Coco Peru offered up at the Masquers Cabaret a few years back, to see it again is to revisit a dear friend and find that time has only improved her.

Behind every good drag queen there's a man, and Clinton Leupp is the writer and performer who brings Miss Coco Peru to life. His magic is his utter sincerity in his storytelling-an ironic thing, as it's channeled through such an unabashedly artificial creation. Miss Coco Peru (I believe only she herself may use the familiar "Coco") somehow manages to get around any defense you may have erected, be it a professed impatience with one-actor shows or a generalized weariness of drag queens. The stories are about travel and relationships and a million other things, but to pass along a few details would be to offer up a dry husk in lieu of the juicy original. Nobody, but nobody, can tell a story like this drag queen from the Bronx.

Michael Orland's musical direction is seamless. The vocal selections are elegantly restrained and take advantage of the performer's strengths, which spring more from emotional confidence than vocal coaching. The music selected to underscore some of the monologues almost appears to have been written for the show (though I doubt that Wagner or Holst had any idea Miss Coco Peru was awaiting their contributions).

The lights, most flashily displayed when Miss Coco Peru descends into hell (the gay wing), are designed by Byron "Diva" Batista. They are otherwise quite subtle and an asset to the production. Batista is also responsible for the elegant Act Two gown (and one presumes the sensible heels). The more prosaic but equally flattering Act One ensemble is by Gregg Cook. Miss Coco Peru's red lacquered flip of a wig (which I'm certain will one day reside in the Smithsonian) is the handiwork of Frank Zeccda.

Since seeing the show, I can't get Miss Coco Peru out of my head. Whether it was repeated exposure or an exceptional house I cannot say, but this time I think she's cast a spell. You may well be susceptible, too.

"Miss Coco Peru's Universe," presented by and at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills. July 30-Sept. 4. (310) 281-6557.



at International City Theatre

Reviewed by Polly Warfield

Harold's homonym is "herald"-one who proclaims important news, a crier or messenger, a harbinger of change. Thus Harold is well named, for he proclaims life-altering change and makes it happen for the orphaned waifs he takes under his wing in Lyle Kessler's multi-faceted, gem-like play. But Harold is more than herald. He is the Mysterious Stranger of myth and legend, Zorro, Superman, Lone Ranger, and, to lost boys Phillip and Treat, he is Peter Pan as well. Harold is also one of the most fascinating, many-dimensional characters in current dramatic literature. I hope you love him as much as I do.

The Never Never Land in which Phillip and Treat eke out their precarious existence is a miserably dilapidated old row house in North Philadelphia-a dismal mess littered with stacks of discarded newspapers and cast-aside articles of clothing, and torn, yellowed sheets hanging at the windows. The home is both haven and hovel-a visual statement of what director Elina deSantos describes as the play's theme of abandonment. The orphaned boys are on their own; older brother Treat provides hand-to-mouth sustenance with proceeds from an occasional mugging. Because juvenile authorities would take Phillip away to some bureaucratic facility, he forbids the younger lad to venture outside the door, leaving the bright but illiterate Phillip in a childlike state of innocence and ignorance.

Surely it is by divine (or dramatic) design that Treat encounters Harold in a bar and brings him home one night. Treat's motives are ulterior: He means to rob Harold of whatever is in that briefcase he carries. But Treat is outmatched by Harold's street smarts, and the tables are turned. When he hires the wary Treat as his "bodyguard," he's a stern taskmaster. "You're a wild animal, Treat," he tells him, "and I'm going to train you."

Harold is tough, but he is also tender; he gives Phillip the bear hugs he needs and buys him splendid yellow loafers. Though Harold's reasons for all this concern are later revealed-and we're led to believe he may have something to do with the Mob-I'm convinced above all that Harold is an avatar, an incarnation of goodness, and that this play is an allegory if ever there was one.

Orphans has undergone changes since its 1983 world premiere at the Matrix with Lane Smith as Harold, Joe Pantoliano as Phillip, and Paul Lieber as Treat, perhaps since its subsequent staging at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and Off-Broadway. Directed by deSantos with a sure and steady hand, this is an equally powerful and profound production. Though the original ending, in my opinion, was the more powerful, with its positive affirmation of good over evil, this version's conclusion is still so moving that one sees it through tears, momentarily too stunned to applaud.

The three actors meld into an ensemble of organic perfection. Barry Lynch as Harold is a rough-spun, down-to-earth charmer who wears the map of Ireland on his mug. He is both mother and father in the tenderness and love of his solicitous care. Joshua Hutchinson is a tightly coiled, dangerous and volatile Treat, on whom hardship and abandonment have left their indelible mark; Harold's unconditional love is too much for him, he can't handle it, and his anguish at the end is visceral and poignant. Phillip's transformation under the warmth of Harold's love is wondrous to behold, and newcomer Pedro Balmaceda, in his West Coast debut here, is a revelatory delight-astonishing, breathtaking, totally endearing, he claims the role as his own.

Production elements, as always here, are excellent. Paulie Jenkins' lighting tells us all we need to know about time of day, weather, and ambience. Dan Reeder's set tellingly delineates the before-and-after of Harold's advent. Sherry Linnell's costumes make their own wry comment. Orphans is thrilling, exciting, inspiriting theatre at its best.

"Orphans" presented by Shashin Desai at International City Theatre, Clark & Harvey Way, Long Beach City College campus, Long Beach. July 30-Sept. 5. (562) 938-4128.



at the Granada Theatre

Reviewed by D.L. King

Relief, cautious optimism, satisfaction, and pride: These are the feelings that Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera's season-ending presentation of A Chorus Line bestows upon its fans. Relief that the long slump that characterized much of its 1998-'99 season is finally broken; cautious optimism that artistic director Charles Ballinger and executive producer Paul Iannacone finally put together the players and properties that make for a winning team (and that they'll continue to follow through with this formula in upcoming productions); satisfaction in a play and players well-presented and an audience's time and money well-spent, and pride that Santa Barbara CLO is at least in the ballpark with its hopeful tagline, "Broadway by the Sea." That's how good director/ choreographer Sam Viverito's A Chorus Line is.

Viverito, who played Paul in the original production of Michael Bennett's brainstorm of a musical, stages the play with electrifying style, exciting choreography, and excellent instruction of a talented cast. Rather like a good baseball team, this cast's talent extends even to the second team: On the Sunday I saw the show, understudy Jon G. Orozco stepped into the role of Paul as if he'd been playing the part all along. Orozco's Paul painfully tore his long-buried shame from his psyche and presented it to director/analyst Zach with admirable skill.

Though there's obviously nothing like the excitement of opening night, reviewing a play the second week into its run has some telling advantages-this cast is a tight ensemble that has honed every characterization. Dance captain Paul Hadobas' Zach is an intriguing psychological study in control, insight, piercing analysis, and heartfelt empathy. His resistance to ex-lover Cassie's aspiration to be a member of his chorus line defines him as less of an ogre, more of a kindred spirit to those chorus hopefuls that he interviews. Every member of this ensemble dances well, and Viverito's dazzling choreography shows each player at his best.

Singing is very strong, too, though as Cassie, Christine Marie Norrup didn't stand out as having the star-quality pipes the role demands. Jill Lewis' Maggie, on the other hand, has an astounding voice paired with great dancing technique-she's one to watch. Other standout performers include Kelli Fish as the ever-pragmatic owner of new body parts, Val; Michael J. Christe as Mark and Matt Kubicek as Bobby; 4'10" Liza Macawili as Connie; Cindy Marchionda as Diana, and a Ben Vereen-like Jeffrey Polk as the dynamic Ritchie. Laura Soltis is excellent as the vampish Sheila (though I probably would have had Soltis and Norrup swap roles).

Music director Elise Unruh coaches a boffo bullpen of musicians, and lighting design by Liz Stillwell shines on a set designed by-well, once again the program doesn't credit who designed the set, just who owns it. Sound design by John Feinstein is fine for the most part, though some soloists seem not to have their mikes turned up. With a cast this good, we want to hear every single note.

"A Chorus Line," presented by Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera at the Granada Theatre, 1216 State St., Santa Barbara. July 30-Aug. 22. (805) 966-2324.



at the Scherr Forum Theatre

Reviewed by Les Spindle

The latest touring edition of Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway revue is a delectable grab bag of choice segments from the series' 17-year history. Alessandrini periodically mounts an updated Off-Broadway version of his deliciously irreverent series of Great White Way roasts. Unlike the tired road company of his Forbidden Hollywood franchise, which played at the South Bay Playhouse earlier this year, this Broadway collage is graced by an exemplary cast of Forbidden vets and director John Freedson's fastidious adherence to Alessandrini's trademark style.

There are two things that make Alessandrini's shows stand out among showbiz spoofs. Firstly, most of his material uses the exact songs from a specific show, cleverly twisting the lyrics to provide double-edged irony. For example, actors cracking their vertebrae under Julie Taymor's mammoth Lion King animal costumes sing "Can You Feel the Pain Tonight?" Those best acquainted with the shows-not to mention with behind-the-scenes Broadway gossip-will obviously catch more of the barbs, which leads to the second point about Alessadnrini: Because he enlists triple-threat performers, the revues provide as much musical pleasure and boffo comedy as they do satirical commentary.

This national edition wisely emphasizes shows that have toured for a while (Ragtime, Chicago), while avoiding some (Footloose) that are just entering the gate. A notable exception-which nonetheless connects solidly-is Kristine Zbornik's priceless lampoon of the notoriously eccentric Ann Miller in Paper Mill Playhouse's Follies ("I'm Still Weird" to the tune of "I'm Still Here"). While Zbornik is superb in her many diverse guises (such as Chita Rivera and Natasha Richardson), the talents of chameleon-like Susanne Blakeslee are unfortunately under-used. When she does gets to strut her stuff-wrecking Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun ("I'm a kewpie doll who's pushing 58") and Bebe Newirth in Chicago-the mimicry and the humor are both dead-on.

Versatile Ed Staudenmayer elicits guffaws as a smiley-faced Coalhouse Walker Jr. (a.k.a. Brian Stokes Mitchell) in Ragtime. Brian Patrick Miller enjoys many fine moments, such as his bit as a thin-voiced Phantom (a.k.a. Michael Crawford) receiving belting lessons from the Merm (Zbornik). The guys also bring down the house as bickering gay swans in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake.

Catherine Stornetta provides vibrant musical direction and piano accompaniment. Phillip George's choreography and Alvin Colt's costumes are infused with wry wit. This uproarious production-a last-minute replacement for a cancelled Theatre League show-sneaked into Thousand Oaks with almost no press coverage. It's a secret that cries out to be broken.

"Forbidden Broadway," presented by Theater League, John Freedson, and Harriet Yellin at the Scherr Forum Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Art Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Aug. 6-29. (805) 583-8700 or (213) 480-3232.



at the Lex

Reviewed by Lesley Solmonson

Even today, in the midst of our heightened political awareness and endless recycling of our recent past, we still tend to shy away from the specter of Vietnam. Whether it's guilt, insensitivity, or a wash of other emotions, we have yet to make peace with this era. Luckily, Blue Sphere Alliance's production of Tracers, a Vietnam requiem of sorts, drives home the importance of remembering.

Written in 1980, Tracers was created by playwright John DiFusco out of the recollections of a group of actors, all of whom were Vietnam vets. While the message here is one we know well, it is both immediate and heart-wrenching in its honesty, shown both in the original writing and in the remarkable dedication of the Blue Sphere cast. What makes this play so eminently watchable is that the actors embrace their roles completely, risking everything as they scream, cry, crawl, and beg only a few feet before the audience. We are literally in the laps of these guys, and, thanks to director Richard Embardo's energetic staging, they do everything in their power to suck us in.

The entire cast is first-rate and all deserve mention, since each actor has his moment in the sun. At the center of events are a dynamic JR Craig as Scooter and Joel West in an impressive theatre debut as Dinky Dau. Stevie Johnson (Habu) and Kurt Carceres (Little John) give the troop their backbone as the team leaders, while David Sean Robinson as Baby San provides annoying comic relief.

Rounding out the group are Charles Volkens as Doc and Morgan H. Margolis, who make the most of their poignant smaller roles in a scene in which they get high and riff on Pirandello. Lastly, Mik Scriba as Sgt. Williams is an amusingly nasty drill instructor who lets us know that most of his "maggots" will die. While Scriba isn't quite as ferocious as we might expect, he brings an off-beat humor to an otherwise horrific arena.

This production of Tracers works so well because the cast members clearly trust each other. This is a play about risks, and while it's rare to see actors work so well together, it's especially gratifying since this is truly an ensemble piece. While the last act drags on a bit in the end, the actors keep things moving, and director Embardo makes some inspired choices to send his message home. Design credits (sound design by Celeste DiFusco, lights by Kathi O'Donohue, set by Burris Jackes) are impressive across the board.

"Tracers," presented by Blue Sphere Alliance at the Lex, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood. July 15-Aug. 22. (323) 655-8587.



at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre

Reviewed by Barry Wisdom

What's the matter with kids these days? Well, part of the problem is that they're too often their parents' children-or so seems to be the case in Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear, the third of four summer offerings by the California Shakespeare Festival. While Lear (Richard Risso) may be of benevolent intent in his plan to equally divide Britain between his three daughters, he's a real jerk in prefacing the announcement with the public game of Who Loves Daddy More?

And though his two eldest-the backbiting brown nosers Goneril (Marcia Pizzo) and Regan (Allison Marich)-have no qualms in massaging the aging monarch's vanity, his youngest and most beloved daughter Cordelia (Sarah Overman) refuses to gush. In a wild fit of incredulity, she offers a plaintive but simple declaration. As absolute rulers (and their daughters) are apt to do, Lear overreacts-stripping Cordelia of her birthright before handing her over to the King of France (Maceo Oliver), who cares not that she is now dowry-less.

This ultimately leads to Lear's undoing, as the manipulative Goneril and Regan seek to push aside Lear-aided by Regan's duplicitous husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Peter Macon), and Goneril's popinjay of a steward Oswald (Michael Storm). Also in on the mutiny is the equally conniving Edmund (Paul Sulzman), son of Lear's loyal Earl of Gloucester (Philip Davidson), whose feud with his brother Edgar (the excellent David deSantos) somewhat parallels the infighting of the Lear court and provides a unique Shakespearean subplot.

In this handsome, always interesting production led by director Denis Arndt, even the most treacherous of Lear's villains are somewhat likable-from Edmund's sense of humor to the eldest sisters' simmering sexuality. This is welcome, considering the play's grimness and epic length.

Though the young and dazzling Pizzo, Marich, and Overman are closer in age than may be traditionally represented, they do well in carving out appropriately distinct personalities. Pizzo, who began the production as an understudy, steps into her role with a deliciously royal bearing, projecting the kind of cool malevolence of the witch queen in Snow White. Even standing still-backed by the beautiful hills of Orinda's Siesta Valley and framed by Eric Sinkkonen's impressive unit set-she commands attention. When she casually shoves poisoned sister Regan off of her, it evokes a nervous laugh from the audience-it's unexpected, but such a Goneril thing to do.

As Regan, Marich is more of a hands-on force of evil, a loose cannon who doesn't think twice about drawing a knife to stab an inconvenient servant standing between Cornwall's thumbs and Gloucester's eyes. It's impossible to mention either actress without noting Beaver Bauer's provocative take on color-coded pre-Christian costuming. Goneril's clingy, stage-length green and black gown mixes what look like two furniture coverings-both fabric and leather (Naugahyde?)-to create an absolutely enthralling look. Regan's backless ensemble is also a winning combination.

Without the benefit of such eye-catching costumes, Risso's Lear is riveting. Though early on it seems he has but two modes of delivery-either a loud, guttural stream or a slow, soft whisper-Risso's very physical performance offers real emotional depth in the latter scenes in which Lear ruefully accepts the consequences of his hubris.

"King Lear," presented by the California Shakespeare Festival at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre, Siesta Valley, Orinda. Aug. 7-Sept. 5. (510) 548-9666.



at Long Beach Playhouse

Reviewed by Kristina Mannion

Put together somewhat like a cubist painting-slightly disjointed, a deceptively simple jumble of parts that make up a complex whole-Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen is an unorthodox portrait of the modern artist. Focusing, in part, on the big-business aspect of the contemporary art world, this introspective drama eschews traditional chronology, instead jumping between past and present to give us a unique view of its main character, Jonathan Waxman-an American painter whose phenomenal success leads him to question the ethics behind his professional and personal goals and accomplishments.

More than just an observation of contemporary ethics or an experiment in shifting time, however, Margulies' play is a touching examination of personalities. Featuring honest characterizations and tightly woven dialogue, this work is a noteworthy slice-of-life piece that shrewdly explores our common human flaws and our desire to use the past as a remedy for the present.

In the current Long Beach Playhouse production of Sight Unseen, these themes are given stylish and sharp detail by director Adam Kingl and his astute cast. Despite a few uneven moments at the beginning, this relatively well-oiled staging presents the play's unconventional amalgam of scenes with studied simplicity. This leads to a smart and seamless blend of past and present-an effect that Margulies no doubt intended as a means to show us the equal importance of focusing on individual moments in time, rather than dwelling only on the sum of those moments.

Making efficient use of the Playhouse's small Studio Theatre stage, designer Gary Wissmann has created a practical and well-appointed rotating set that allows clever scene transitions. Kingl and his ensemble use this to their advantage, creating a smooth flow among the few pivotal moments of Waxman's life that make up the play. These begin with his reunion with his ex-lover, Patricia, during the London premiere of his artwork, and reach back 17 years to the beginning of their bittersweet relationship.

In the lead roles of Jonathan and Patricia, Michael Kaplan and Cara Newman provide a tender yet slightly stilted chemistry that works well for this pair of mismatched exes, who reminisce about past hurts and battle over present dilemmas: Jonathan was the one who broke Patricia's heart in their parting 15 years earlier, and his return now sparks controversy for Patricia when it appears that his only interest is in reclaiming a painting of her that he had done during the first blush of their romance.

At first, Kaplan and Newman are a bit uneven in their roles-each comes across as a bit too bright, speaking their lines a bit too brusquely-but this gives way to more relaxed and subtle portrayals, as we begin to see the underlying sadness of these characters, who are both hampered and consoled by their past. Newman is especially touching in a scene in which Patricia painfully confides her once-abiding love for Jonathan. Kaplan is best in delivering his more deadpan comic lines, and likewise is moving in his turn as a younger Jonathan, thrilled with new romance but troubled by his and Patricia's differing background and ambitions.

Filling in the supporting roles with remarkable skill, Richard Ruyle and Patricia Thielemann provide superb balance to this production. Ruyle is excellent in the role of Nick, Patricia's forlorn and painfully shy husband, who knows his love for his wife is not truly reciprocated. His measured speech and subtle resolution in the face of Jonathan's brashness make Nick's tormented emotions all the more tangible; though it's in a secondary role, Ruyle's quiet portrayal ultimately offers the play's best-realized and most sympathetic characterization.

Thielemann, in contrast to Nick's introversion, offers a fittingly feisty personification of Grete, a German art journalist whose needling questions and insinuations about his high-priced art make Jonathan doubt his motives and his work. Their scenes, which take place during Jonathan's premiere showing, are an explosive display of tensions that represent a departure from the restrained emotions that pulse during Patricia and Jonathan's scenes together.

In these scenes with Grete, which occur only days after Jonathan has repossessed Patricia's prized painting at a high price for all concerned, we witness a culmination of the artist's woes-and perhaps gain our best understanding of the mutability of ethics, and how easy it is to use the past to explain away the present, and vice versa.

"Sight Unseen," presented by and at Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. July 23-Aug. 28. (562) 494-1616.



at the Actor's Lab

Reviewed by Anne Louise Bannon

When the director's notes in a program describe Petruchio as sensitive and go on about turning the tables on Shrew's sexist (to modern ears) ending, such as Michael Faulkner's for this Troy Rep production did, I start to get worried.

I needn't have this time-mostly because of Troy Rep artistic director Antonia Grace Glenn's outstanding performance as Kate. She at least has the nerve to play that infamous submissive monologue as it was written, while still keeping enough of her own strength to show that what she has lost is her heart to Petruchio, not her spirit.

Danan Pere, on the other hand, takes Faulkner a little more seriously, giving his Petruchio several moments of doubt. Most of the time, this gives some real texture and flavor to a traditionally one-note role. But not all of the moments are organic, so that between Pere's physical appearance and his mugging, I was occasionally reminded more of Ricky Ricardo than Antonio's brawling son determined to wive it wealthily in old Padua.

Even more interesting is the way Faulkner uses the Christopher Sly plot, usually cut from production scripts. David Metz, as the drunk found in the theatre by the players, is hysterically funny, especially in the way Faulkner resolves the fact that there is no ending for the Sly plot in the original.

Naturally, the parts are doubled and tripled, with John Dorr-Bremme and Michael Bruegger carrying off their parts distinctly and well; I had to look twice to tell that Bruegger's Peter was also the aged and lustful Gremio. But best yet, among the minor roles, is Jennifer Adams as the servant Biondello, playing fully into the farce to delightful effect. The only thing marring the evening are Luis Valdez's over-fast speeches as Tranio.

There is literally no set, and only a few props (by master David Pavao). Costumes meant to suggest 1940s Mafiosi look more like flashy modern dress. But all of this works in favor of the production. Overall, this is a fun Shrew, with a few clever touches and a couple of bravura performances. These, more than any new interpretation of the central battle of the sexes, are all we require.

"The Taming of the Shrew," presented by Troy Rep at the Actor's Lab, 1514 N. Gardner, Hollywood. July 9-Aug. 15. (323) 769-5211.



at Theatre of NOTE

Reviewed by Edward Shapiro

To call Jennifer Maisel's new play Eden ambitious would be like calling the Grand Canyon large. Within the confines of two hours and the tiny black box at the Theatre of NOTE, Maisel introduces a pistol-packing, suicidal, HIV-positive nomad, a bride terrified of her destiny, a Holocaust survivor on a quest, a lesbian performance artist, and, yes, an angel. Sisterhood, mother/daughter relations, fate, purpose, and our responsibilities to our loved ones all get air time here, proving that Maisel believes in providing a thematic bang for your buck.

Unfortunately, there's too much going on for any of the plots and themes to cohesively gel or for the play to resonate beyond its separate moments. What Maisel does provide, though, is a stage full of fascinating characters who, despite the occasional indulgence in language too theatrical for its own good, are always watchable and interesting.

Dan Oliverio's smart direction does a lot to help hide the seams, but Maisel has overburdened her characters, and not all of the actors are up to the challenge. Lisa Anne Morrison plays Cecilia, the AIDS-infected protagonist, who works at the roving nightclub which gives the play its name. Like a fish thrashing around on deck, Morrisson is all explosive physical energy and hostility. Under her tangle of curls, she does what she does well, but her performance lacks variety. Still, she's better off than David Conner, whose performance makes Harvey, the guardian angel, far more enigmatic than he should be. Jonathan Klein and Christopher De Wan are both fine, but their roles are underwritten; they're there to serve as catalysts more than as characters in their own right.

Alina Phelan as Rebecca, the reluctant bride, fares far better. Her frustration and ambivalence, amid this occasionally whiny piece, manage always to be both sympathetic and believable. And Pamela Gordon as Maura, Cecilia's devoted mother, gives a lovely, luminous performance. Always the true-believing optimist, Maura has the unenviable task of fulfilling more thematic function than actual plot, but Gordon's work is transcendent. Her smoke-ravaged voice, diminutive size, and large, expressive eyes can be both adorable and shattering, making Maura the most compelling of the characters.

Jonathan Klein and Dan Mailley are both inventive with their respective lighting and set designs, making the play's multiple scenes fit comfortably within the small space.

With Eden, a show whose very title puts audiences on symbolism alert, Maisel may have bitten off more than she can chew. She is, however, a smart and talented writer with a strong voice. While Eden is by no means a failure, it would be nice to hear what Maisel has to say when she isn't trying to say it all in one breath.

"Eden" presented by and at Theatre of NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd, Hollywood. July 23-Sept. 4. (323) 856-8611.



at the Actor's Lab

Reviewed by Adelina Anthony

If Shakespeare's language and poetry is a perfect bouquet of flowers, Troy Rep has no qualms about smashing these flowers in front of your eyes and then handing the poor limp stems over to you with an irreverent smile. Essentially, Beyond the Valley of the Bard is a night of silly theatre.

The pre-show music sets you up for something unconventional, as tunes from the 1980s play away. And you are forewarned in the program by director/ adapter Steve Garvin that he has taken full liberty with Shakespeare's scripts. He's not joking.

The sketches before the main act are both clever and corny. They do lose their force of originality when you figure out that most of them fall into the TV-commercial parody format. They range from Lady Macbeth's "out damn spot" speech, which becomes a spot remover commercial, to an actor promoting oversized leeches for medical care. One of the better sketches involves a strongly sex-minded Dr. Ruth advising Ophelia, Helena, and Richard III to solve their problems by using their libidos.

The sketches do at least this much: They prepare us for the main act of defilement, Romi and Julio. In this cross-gendered version, set at Verona High School, cheap laughs run amok from beginning to end. Unfortunately, the actors run away with the language, as well. Most of the original Shakespeare is garbled and mangled by their poor diction. What keeps us tuned to the production are some over-the-top performances that spring up like bright sunflowers in a patch of weeds: Jennifer Manley as Tanya Montegue gives the most outrageous performance as she mourns over Julio's dead body. It's the best laugh of the night.

There is nothing tragic about this show, except some of the blocking. If you're not sitting in the first two rows, forget about catching the infamous lover's death scene-but that's probably for the best, since it's the only time the play tries to prick some sentiment from an audience numbed by foolish antics. This bare-bones production would be a perfect touring piece for the middle and high school circuits. After all, the humor in it appeals to a more juvenile sensibility.

"Beyond the Valley of the Bard," presented by Troy Rep at the Actor's Lab, 1514 N. Gardner, Hollywood. July 15-Aug. 15. (323) 769-5211.



at the Bitter Truth Theatre

Reviewed by Laura Weinert

There is a modern interest in art that strives to be psychologically therapeutic. Indeed, most art has something of this aim at its conception, going back to what Aristotle identified as the cathartic process. But there are certain plays which seem to make it their express purpose to reveal the knotty roots and blooms of psychological damage, and instruct us how such crippling of the spirit might possibly be remedied.

Such plays, while noble in their humanist impulse, are problematic to the reviewer, in that the sheer worthiness of the cause makes one feel that criticism is not only contrary to the good one hopes the piece will serve but also somehow irrelevant.

Shaana Ruth Balabar's In Lieu of Flowers, which explores an emotionally insecure divorc e's relationship with her domineering mother and her memories of sexual and verbal abuse, is one such play. At the opening, we find Alley (Jillian McWhirther) in the kitchen with Mama, played by Barbara "Babs" London. London gives a complex, layered performance as a jaded, overbearing woman who spouts a slew of motherly advice, biting insults, attacks on her ex-husband, and warm memories. "Your jeans are too tight. You'll get a yeast infection," she warns Alley, in a tone that is both cruel and wildly funny.

An aspiring writer who lacks the confidence to pursue a career or stand up to her mother's insults, Alley would rather retreat into her garden of cacti. Hard to get close to, scarred forever if they are bruised, the prickly plants become a clear, if predictable, metaphor for Alley's own situation. As her character moves from quiet obedience to a willingness to fall in love and to confront her mother, McWhirther exudes a pensive fragility that is compelling but uniform.

Filippo Valle brings a slick urbanity to his role as Tony, the Italian philosopher/standup comedian who suddenly appears on the scene and inspires Alley to confront her demons. Though his character is valiant in his attempts to boost her self-esteem and get a laugh out of her, often the slow delivery of Valle's more comic lines robs them of their intended humor.

"Love is feeling safe with someone," the play purports, as it escorts us into this fresh romance. Yet it is troubling that Alley's newfound prince, in the intimate scene in which she tells him she was not only verbally abused by her mother but actually beat up by her and that she was sexually abused by her brother, rather than become a patient confidant, suggests she see his therapist.

Though problematic at points, for anyone who has undergone similar life trials In Lieu of Flowers offers an important depiction of the cycle of abuse, with a tragic, though reaffirming, endnote of hope and recovery.

"In Lieu of Flowers," presented by the Theatre of Hope for Abused Women at the Bitter Truth Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hollywood. July 18-Aug. 22. (818) 766-9702.



at the Donald M. Jones Memorial Drive-In Playhouse

Reviewed by Brad Schreiber

"What kind of town is this?" asks a mental asylum inmate as Charlotte Corday (Laura Russell). And when audience members look around from their seats in their cars, listening to the actors via their car radios, realizing they are trapped in the Donald M. Jones Memorial Drive-In Playhouse, the question is an apt one.

The Assassination and Persecution of Jean-Paul Marat, as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade at the Drive-In expands Peter Weiss' already record-setting title for length. And director Michael Shamus Wiles, along with co-director Paul Mackley, create new modes of creepiness with this powerful setting by having these 1808 loonies wander amid the parked cars, mumbling, hands occasionally outstretched, brushing the cars to keep the patrons on edge.

The uniqueness of Wolfskill's second drive-in presentation intensifies some of Weiss' poetic ragings, most ably when the lust-driven Duperret (Joe Fria) does a pas de deux with Corday. Fria's leering, wild-eyed countenance and acid-tinged voice strike the perfect, off-center note for this production.

What is regrettable here is that the directors have not found other lead actors who measure up to Fria and Russell. As sexual deviant/playwright de Sade, Bradley Whitfield does a serviceable job without much passion. On the other end of the scale, they have curiously cast Jennifer Bishton as revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, and she rages at the top of her lungs without variation, distorting the words, regardless of how much one fiddles with the volume knob on the car radio.

Sound, of course, plays a huge role in an environmental setting such as this, and the directors' decision to use many actors chanting, while conforming to the original text, does not help here. The muddiness of their simultaneous recitations begs for trade-offs of lines to help decipher the choruses. Similarly, the music presented live, like the occasional random shoutings of the asylum members, serves to obscure rather than underline the text. On the other hand, when a single violin suddenly punctuates the action, we are transported.

When it comes to madness, sometimes a hard focus, rather than chaos unbridled, best reaches both our ears and our guts.

"Marat/Sade at the Drive-In," presented by Wolfskill Theater at the Donald M. Jones Memorial Drive-In Playhouse, 615 Imperial St., Los Angeles. July 31-Sept. 5. (213) 613-0986.



at the New Conservatory Theatre Center

Reviewed by Matthew Surrence

Seeing a show by 42nd St. Moon-the shoestring San Francisco company that revives lost or forgotten Broadway musicals in semi-staged, concert productions-is like sitting in on a survey course in American musical theatre history. Sitting Pretty (1924), the subject du jour, was the last of the "Princess Theatre musicals," written by composer Jerome Kern, lyricist P.G. Wodehouse, and book writer Guy Bolton. In 1915, Kern and Bolton (later joined by Wodehouse) began producing a series of musicals at the 299-seat house that would advance the form. The shows, which included Nobody Home, Very Good Eddie, and Have a Heart, had modern stories, small casts (no more than 30!), small orchestras, and only two sets-one for the first act and one for the second.

Although produced not at the Princess but at the Fulton Theatre, where it flopped, running only 95 performances, Sitting Pretty is called a "Princess show" because it reunited the trio of creators, who had broken up following a rift, and because it hewed to the Princess formula. Kern's score is considered by musical theatre historians to be the link between his light early work and the more adventurous music he would write, starting with the giant leap he would make in 1927 with Show Boat.

Unfortunately, in their two-hour-and-40-minute production, the mostly mugging members of the 42nd St. Moon cast, hobbled by co-producing artistic director Greg MacKellan's rudimentary direction and Berle Davis' pedestrian choreography, fail to make a persuasive case for the show.

Bolton's book is some nonsense about twin sisters in an orphanage and a millionaire looking to adopt some heirs and disinherit some others. Throw in a couple of crooks masquerading as a boy and his tutor, and you have the story. The laughs come from such cracks as, "Poverty is the banana skin on the doorstep of romance," and, "A chafing dish is a frying pan that's gotten into society." Wodehouse reaches far for clever rhymes; the pairing of "why it is" and "varieties" represents a typically shaky coupling. But Kern's melodies are pleasant throughout-exceptional on the gorgeous ballad "Days Gone By" and on a languid duet between the sisters, "On a Desert Island With You."

As the twins, Dyan McBride and Caroline Altman wear similarly marcelled brunette wigs, and their voices blend prettily on the "Desert Island" number. But there the resemblance ends. The dimpled, appealing McBride has a natural, unforced charm; Altman, like the rest of the cast with one exception, pushes everything she does, particularly her facial expressions. The exception is Karen Walsh, who plays several small roles and, like McBride, knows how to be expressive without mugging. Even a history lesson need not be writ all in uppercase.

"Sitting Pretty," presented by 42nd St. Moon at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Aug. 6-22. (415) 861-8972.



at Moving Arts

Reviewed by Terri Roberts

There are lots of scary things in the world-buildings exploding, planes falling from the skies, teen violence. But even scarier than what's outside in the world is what's inside us human beings.

Lee Wochner's Monster Stories is a collection of short one-acts meant to explore the dark side of the human psyche. What Wochner uncovers, however, is a jumble of quirky moments, intriguing situations, and interesting observations that bump and stumble into each other in the dark without getting very far. Under directors Julie Briggs and Mark Kinsey Stephenson, what's lacking is the precision sharpness that could elevate these stories above mildly amusing (and sometimes funny) to tales that make a piercing point at the same time they entertain.

In Visiting Ours, Ed (an amiable Tony DeCarlo) visits cranky old May (a one-noteish Lisa Temple, wearing a dreadful wig) every Tuesday in the nursing home where she lives. He insists she is his mother; she insists she has no kids. It's a fascinating premise that includes an alluded-to trauma in Ed's youth, but the abrupt ending provides no answers.

Jack and I is a Twilight Zone-like monologue delivered by a middle-aged man (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) recounting his whereabouts one unfortunate evening. Seems a young man was murdered after leaving a bar patronized by our nameless narrator and his mean-spirited pal, Jack. Jack, he claims, is responsible for the murder-yet, he's the one drenched in blood. Again, there is a crispness lacking here. Stephenson also gives us the voices of Jack, the young man, and another murder victim, but they all run together like a cherry slush. Distinctions are soft and blurred; there is no edge in either the script or Stephenson's characterization.

The final story, Animals, is a discussion by a Social Realist (a pleasant Richard Hamner) who theorizes that humanity's problem is not bad parenting, a bad society, or chemical imbalances, but that human beings have dismissed the animal side of their nature. The writing here is more intellectual and humorous, and the piece itself is buoyed by the refreshing vibrancy of James Smith as the Dumb Animal husband, who likes to smoke cigars and spit in the yard.

Other interrelated stereotypes include the Seeker (Rachel Brindamour), who wears a glued-on fake smile; the Bad Friend (Temple, in another bad wig and a bitchy attitude), and the Hired Man (Gary Marschall), who's part handyman/part hit man. Regrettably, their characters remain cardboard stock, while Smith brings his to life with disarming ease.

The black box setting and minimal set pieces keep the focus on the stories, which have the potential for insight but still seem afraid to come fully into the light.

"Monster Stories," presented by and at Moving Arts, 1822 Hyperion, Los Angeles. July 16-Aug. 22. (323) 665-8961.



at the Celebration Theatre

Reviewed by Paul Birchall

Although God himself appears during the last scene to clue us in on his philosophy of life, playwright Larry Dean Harris' collection of monologues has less to do with being holy than with being wholly like a TV movie. You can forget those pesky, hard-to-remember Ten Commandments: Harris has the temerity to do them two better with these dozen vignettes which explore various issues about morality-albeit in a breezy but dismayingly trite and superficial way.

Director T. Jay O'Brien's staging is crisp, dynamic, and intimate, and the production's ensemble offer nicely workmanlike and pleasingly glib performances. But the show is unable to evade a generic and by-the-numbers quality, and many of the scenes feel both tired and lacking in dramatic context. To make matters worse, one is hard pressed to find a character here who isn't a tediously one-dimensional stereotype. It's not necessarily a credit to say that you feel like you know many of the show's characters: Of course you do-they're essentially all recycled from the movies.

In the show's most vivid portrayal, Patricia Place is unnerving as a frightening, sugary, but inwardly wicked old woman who closely resembles Ruth Gordon from Rosemary's Baby. Marian Woods is also quite touching as a Donna Reed-y housewife frustrated that her husband is fantasizing about other women. Elsewhere, Abbey Star Payne is a bubbly Valley Girl high school virgin who seems to have stepped right off the set of Clueless. There's also the proverbial hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (Amy Loftus) who considers herself a social worker, and a firebrand preacher (Lamar Vandyke) who mingles righteousness with good old-fashioned greed. When God himself (a genially goofy Gary Bullock) arrives to tell us all to be "good to each other," the entire piece feels hackneyed to the point of banality.

It isn't that either the performances or writing are wooden, stilted, or clumsy. In fact, O'Brien's presentation is both slick and affable, although, as in many monologue shows, the writer never fully explores a character before moving on to the next one. The real problem here is that virtually everything that transpires onstage is so predictable that we start having deja vu long before the scene is over.

"Bible Stories," presented by Playwrights 6 at the Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. July 19-indef. (323) 666-4638.



at the Acme Comedy Theatre

Reviewed by Zach Udko

Taking a cue from the latest in swimwear fashion, Acme has decided to go skimpy with its latest offerings, trimming the company down to a seven-member ensemble and shortening the evening to fewer scenes than usual. Unfortunately, the players have also cut away most of the show's potential comedy, leaving Acme practically naked in a series of embarrassing sketches-embarrassing to watch, that is.

There's only one advantage to the whole company's downsizing, and that saving grace, ironically, is also short. His name is Robert Yasumura, and he's funny as hell. The three scenes he wrote for the night reviewed were so downright hilarious that it almost makes the trip over to Acme worthwhile. Almost.

Yasumura's "All About Alfie" deals with a single mother (Jonna Tamases) raising an adopted Malaysian boy who supposedly has a rare growth disorder that makes the five-year-old appear to be 30. In reality, Alfie is a beer-guzzling, chain-smoking con artist trying to pass for the kid. In his "Han Solo," Yasumura gets back at his very loud lovemaking roommate and girlfriend by shouting lustful cries in the other room during masturbation.

Alex Alexander is the evening's other shimmer of hope; she's a fantastic character actress who could use a lot better material. When she doesn't speak in her "Capellini Sisters"-a clever bit about the 40-year reunion of two Italian acrobats-she's an absolute hoot. But her take on a drunk and fed-up Shamu in "I Could Go on Jumping" and her horny highway nuisance in "License and Registration" don't seem to go anywhere in particular. And though Travis Oates scores a winner with his solo "Helluva Ride," as a tour guide through the depths of the underworld, we've been there, done that.

Ever since the group has started incorporating video segments between sketches, the Acme shows have dragged a bit more. Here, the videos are not only superfluous but a bit self-indulgent, with segments from an unfunny "Behind the Scenes" spoof splitting up the evening. Director M.D. Sweeney needs to get his troupe out of trunks and back into some credible outfits.

"Acme Swimsuit Edition," presented by and at the Acme Comedy Theatre. 135 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. July 17-Indefinitely. (323) 525-0202.



at Professional Actors' Counsel

Reviewed by Polly Warfield

The Orison Group Entertainment Division, in conjunction with the Professional Actors' Counsel, offers this evening of one-acts at a theatre so small it could be a contender for the title of "Tiniest in L.A." Headed by actor/producer Vance Strickland, it is located in a storefront venue Strickland with his own hands converted into a theatre that's the new kid on the block, down the street and around the corner from the Santa Monica Boulevard area hopefully designated as "Theatre Row Hollywood." When PAC dug in there about six months ago, establishing a foothold so small it might better be called a toe-hold, it was a labor of love-and faith. We note and appreciate the significance of the name-an orison is a prayer-for with what better attitude than prayer should one approach such an awesome and dangerous pursuit?

The results onstage are mixed. The first one-act, Red Breams, is by Linda Stockham, who creates a sense of atmosphere and unusual dialogue, i.e., "He may have been lured into the waves by barking seals." And: "When dead old men swim in the sea/You will know what is meant by eternity." The latter quote comes from a poem by the play's character Mr. DeMissie, a famous poet, now one of those dead old men, as he drowned himself in the sea last night. What a tangled snarl we encounter, involving the poet's antecedents and affairs, his mother (she also drowned herself), family secrets, and unsuspected interrelationships among the three characters.

Winston Bailey appears as the 95-year-old poet inhabiting the stage as a ghost, Michel Karoly as his longtime companion and housekeeper, and Claire Mallett as an eager young freelance writer who arrives at the poet's seaside home on an assignment. Karoly is the most adept and experienced thespian of the trio. Mallett has a pleasant, perky quirkiness, but should make it more clear that this is a part of her characterization. Meanwhile, Bailey lurks and paces aimlessly, is not at all spectral, and seems uncertain of what he should be doing. In his first-time directorial effort, Bill Sheppard should have told Bailey not to do something-just stand there. Sound effects (uncredited) are very good.

More work is needed in several categories: blocking for one, basic acting techniques for another. Well, that's what PAC is here for. We quote again from the company manifesto: "Vance believes one should always aspire to be great. The way to achieve that... is to work diligently at honing one's skills." We couldn't agree more. (And FYI: Bream is a European fresh water fish. I looked it up.)

J.P. Flores' The Saint on the Couch is more accessible, and more professionally performed and presented; it is funny, well-acted, and well directed by Trent Hopkins. Chris, played by either Linsay Clyde Irvine or Mark Mouro (I don't know which on the night reviewed, because there was no notification), is on his way to a hot date, and he calls on St. Anthony to help him find his car keys. The Saint shows up and makes himself right at home in the casual person of Tony Franchitto. Girlfriend Jennifer (played alternately by Simone Gad and River Skybetter-again, no way to know which I saw) arrives and hits it off splendidly with St. Anthony. For fun, playwright Flores even throws in a second heavenly visitor; we won't give it away except to say that Ken Robling couldn't be more Irish in the part. This tangy little comedy is as substantial as the foam on the beer St. Anthony enjoys.

By way of explanation: I could have determined which actor appeared in the double-cast roles by inquiring, but in this case decided not to. An announcement should be made, especially if a reviewer is present. But then, producer Strickland is new to all this: He explained to me that he had been making a low-budget movie and was so impressed by the stage skills of the actors auditioning for him that he determined to delve into live theatre, despite having seen only two plays before in his life. There is much to applaud and encourage about this new company. Bravo, best wishes, and an orison or two.

"Red Breams" and "The Saint on the Couch," presented by the Orison Group Entertainment Division in conjunction with Professional Actors' Counsel, 1108 Seward St., Hollywood. Aug. 5-15. (323) 957-9556.

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