Category: Charles McNulty

Theater review: 'American Idiot' at the Ahmanson Theatre

March 15, 2012 |  3:39 pm

(l to r) Scott J. Campbell, Van Hughes, and Jake Epstein. Lower: A woman in a Burka (Nicci Claspell) descends on a group of wounded soldiers during
Whether “American Idiot” represents a new wave of musical theater or a surprising development in music video, there’s no denying the moody kinetic thrills of this rabble-rousing pop-punk show, which opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Based on Green Day's multi-platinum 2004 concept album of the same title and incorporating tracks from the group’s “21st Century Breakdown,” “American Idiot” alchemizes these recordings into a fluidly choreographed spectacle that is often mesmerizing. And while this touring version of the hit Broadway musical may not possess the same eccentric star power, the show is just as visually enthralling as when I first encountered it at Berkeley Rep, where it had its 2009 world premiere in Green Day’s Bay Area backyard. 

Director Michael Mayer (a Tony winner for “Spring Awakening”) deserves much of the credit for the show’s electric staging. This surreal multimedia kaleidoscope is set in the tumultuous George W. Bush era, after the shock of 9-11 had transformed into an Iraq War battle cry. And the production's loudly propulsive presentation recreates the feeling of an era that moved too spasmodically for anyone to keep up.

 PHOTOS: "American Idiot" on stage

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Theater review: 'The Seagull' at the Antaeus Company

March 6, 2012 |  4:42 pm

The Seagull

One of the pleasures of revisiting frequently revived classics is getting the chance to see unexpected types of actors in familiar parts. Characters we thought we knew inside and out begin to reveal new qualities that force us to relinquish tired assumptions.

In the Antaeus Company's double-cast production of Anton Chekhov's “The Seagull,” several members of the ensemble I saw didn't at all fit the standard image of their characters. Antonio Jaramillo's Tréplev, the Oedipally challenged young writer struggling to find his way artistically and romantically, seems a good decade older than usual. Abby Wilde's Nína, the aspiring actress Tréplev is hopelessly in love with, is a little too raw to fill the naïve ingénue bill. Laura Wernette's Arkádina, Tréplev's egomaniacal actress mother, lacks the natural grande dame hauteur. Bo Foxworth's Trigórin, Arkádina's famous (and younger) writer lover, has a weary maturity that seems beyond his character's years.

But rather than detract from the revival, these discrepancies allowed me to experience our old Chekhovian friends in a new light. It helps that the production, under the direction of Andrew J. Traister, is so attentive to the interpersonal dynamics of the play. The actors really connect with each other in their scenes. This is vital because their characters, strung out in love for the most part, are keenly aware of the comings and goings of those around them. Their hearts are forever monitoring the presence of their beloved, even if, as is so often the case in this inexhaustibly ironic play about the elusive nature of fulfillment, the passion is rarely reciprocal.

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Hollywood embraces Dustin Lance Black's Prop. 8 drama

March 5, 2012 |  5:00 am

8

 Celebrity and social justice joined hands Saturday night at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre for a star-studded benefit reading of “8,” Dustin Lance Black’s documentary play on the Federal District Court trial to overturn Proposition 8, the controversial ballot initiative that took away the right of same-sex couples in California to marry.

While this straightforward drama assembled from court testimony and interviews may not be one for the ages, the sheer wattage of Hollywood luminaries that turned out to support the evening made for a powerful and indeed often moving spectacle.

The glittery event, presented by the American Foundation for Equal Rights and Broadway Impact, featured A-listers Brad Pitt as Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker and George Clooney as David Boies, the attorney representing, with Theodore B. Olson (a fiery Martin Sheen), the two couples who brought the suit to overturn the ban.

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Spring theater preview: 'Waiting for Godot,' 'Hands on a Hardbody'

March 2, 2012 |  9:00 am

'The Scottsboro Boys'

Trucks have never really been my thing, but of the upcoming new musicals this season, I’m most curious about “Hands on a Hardbody,” the Doug Wright-Trey Anastasio-Amanda Green collaboration at La Jolla Playhouse. As for drama (or tragicomedy, to be more precise) I am champing at the bit for “Waiting for Godot,” with Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern sure to put on a Beckettian master class at the Mark Taper Forum.

Here’s a shortlist of the spring season's most promising theatrical offerings.

'Waiting for Godot'

Samuel Beckett’s play is more than just an ingenious work of theater — it’s a modern myth. Two tramps pass their time together while waiting for the appearance of a gentleman who will supposedly redeem their patience and relieve their confounded suffering. A tragicomic mix of vaudeville antics and philosophical badminton, this genre-busting work was magnificently characterized by playwright Jean Anouilh as “the music-hall sketch of Pascal’s 'Pensées' as played by Fratellini clowns.” Two highly regarded Beckett interpreters, Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern, take on the roles of Estragon and Vladimir in a production directed by Michael Arabian and featuring James Cromwell as Pozzo that will have an extraordinary wealth of experience to draw on in reanimating this modern classic.
 
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles Music Center. March 21 – April 22. Tickets start at $20. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org


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Theater review: 'The Treatment' at Boston Court

March 1, 2012 |  2:04 pm

The treatment
Theater Movement Bazaar continues its investigation into the works of Anton Chekhov with “The Treatment,” a movement theater riff on “Ward 6,” one of the Russian author’s indisputable masterpieces of short fiction. A collaboration with the Theatre @ Boston Court, which is hosting the production, the piece isn’t so much an adaptation as a playfully stylized response to the story of a doctor who goes from supervising mental patients to joining their ranks.

The physician in question is Ragin (Mark Doerr), a man who would rather philosophize about the world (with a glass of vodka by his side) than do anything to improve it. A frustrated intellectual, he quickly dispatches his medical duties so he can engage in fruitless talk with Michael (Jake Eberle), an agreeable if dimwitted postmaster, who passes for cultured company in this one-horse town.

Desperate to bandy ideas with someone with a little more firepower, Ragin begins to take a keen interest in Gromov (Mark Skeens), the most highly literate of the Ward 6 inmates. But this new relationship doesn’t just force Ragin to rethink his most complacent beliefs—it causes those around him to question the doctor's very sanity, not least because Gromov, although lucid at moments, is a paranoid lunatic.

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Theater review: 'El Pasado Es un Animal Grotesco' at REDCAT

February 24, 2012 |  4:07 pm

Grotesq 1a
The world keeps spinning, relentlessly, though at varying speeds, in Argentine writer and director Mariano Pensotti's “El Pasado Es un Animal Grotesco” (The Past Is a Grotesque Animal), a hypnotic merry-go-round of story lines performed on a rotating wooden turntable that looks like it was just erected by a few handymen from the corner hardware store.

This often-entrancing collage, which is being presented at REDCAT through Sunday, investigates the destinies of several arty twentysomethings over a 10-year span, from 1999 to 2009. Set in Buenos Aires, the piece travels to different cities (Paris, Rio, Los Angeles) as its characters struggle to come to terms with the setbacks and compromises of mid-30s adulthood, when identity is no longer a game of infinite possibility.

The sensibility is lushly South American, mixing soap opera with surrealism, naturalism with hypertheatricality. (The influence of fellow Argentine writer Julio Cortázar on Pensotti is detectable in the way “El Pasado” hopscotches not just between Paris and Buenos Aires but between stream of consciousness and cinéma vérite.) But the real locale isn't to be found on any map; Pensotti's characters actually reside in the gap between dreams and reality.

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No business like show business: the fate of nonprofit theater in America

February 18, 2012 |  6:00 am

Michael ritchie
The economic crisis has certainly accelerated the ongoing commercialization of nonprofit theater.

But it’s not the only story.

In a Sunday Arts & Books notebook I explore the leadership vacuum that has been exacerbating the situation, examining the way the management side of institutions (such as the Old Globe in San Diego) has wrestled power away from the artistic side and questioning the role of the boards of directors in allowing this to happen.

To read this article, please click here.

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—Charles McNulty

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[email protected]

Photo: Michael Ritchie of Center Theatre Group.  Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.

Theater review: 'The Jacksonian' at Geffen Playhouse

February 17, 2012 |  6:00 pm

Jacksonian 1

In “Crimes of the Heart,” playwright Beth Henley wrung laughs from suicide, with a report of a mother who killed herself alongside her precious kitty and a scene with a grown daughter so mired in scandal that she sticks her head in the oven as though it were a Bundt cake.

Well, that’s nothing compared with the outrageous goings-on in Henley’s latest play, “The Jacksonian,” which is receiving its world premiere in a Geffen Playhouse production featuring Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Bill Pullman at their creepy-comic best. This black comedy, set in Jackson, Miss., in the tinderbox year of 1964, proudly waves its Southern Gothic flag. You know you’re deep in Flannery O’Connor country when the quotidian merges with the grotesque and genteel manners are accompanied by a fist in the face.

Henley, like all good practitioners of the Southern Gothic genre, observes the bizarre customs of her characters without much editorial commentary. (No need for a soapbox with behavior this self-incriminating.) In setting the work in her birthplace during a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, the playwright gets to sift through sepia-tinged memories and examine the pretense of normality in white folks’ lives as churches were burned and black people were lynched. Yet she’s also fabricating a farfetched story that’s as eccentrically stylized as any by David Lynch.

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Help wanted: New hero for Reprise Theatre Company

February 17, 2012 |  1:33 pm

Reprise 1
The announcement by Reprise Theatre Company on Friday that the theater company is canceling the spring production of “The Apple Tree” and “entering into an exploratory phase in order to assess its future programming and the funding of that programming” is saddening but hardly surprising.
 
In a statement issued by the theater’s press representative, Reprise Managing Director Christine Bernardi Weil explained, “based on analysis of recent sales trends, we have projected that we will be unable to meet the required ticket sales and fundraising to responsibly mount the rest of our 2011/12 Season.”

These are tough economic times, to be sure. But they’re only made harder by a leadership vision completely at odds with the theater’s limited resources. And if box office is off, it’s not simply because musical theater aficionados are drastically cutting back. “Once bitten, twice shy” pertains as much to bad romance as to bad Sondheim. 

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Theater review: 'Buddha -- A Fantastic Journey' at Bootleg Theater

February 15, 2012 |  3:45 pm

“Buddha — A Fantastic Journey” at Bootleg Theater
“Buddha — A Fantastic Journey,” Evan Brenner’s one-man show now at Bootleg Theater, borrows the ancient spiritual leader’s own words to trace the progression of his life and philosophy. It’s a tale of renunciation, full of weighty silence and boisterous inner fury, laying out the path to nirvana for suffering mortals.
 
Textually, the show is no more dramatic than a religious pamphlet — and arguably less boldly imaginative. Histrionics aren’t the Buddhist way. But the production, directed by actor John C. Reilly, is soulfully soothing, thanks to Sheela Bringi and Jaeger Smith’s original live score of classical Indian-style music and Francois-Pierre Couture’s subtle pastel-hued scenic and lighting effects. For 70 lulling minutes, the Bootleg becomes a temple of gentle meditation and beneficent instruction.

Like many modern-day semi-secular types, I have been drawn to Buddhism in a superficial, consumer-oriented way (candles, beginner’s yoga, wisdom-dispensing calendars). Brenner’s recap didn’t augment my knowledge much. His quasi sermon, reiterating key principles and themes about the vanity of human wishes in a transitory world, seems pitched to friendly dabblers. (Nodding heads were in serene motion at the opening night performance.)

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