The Times’ Theater Beat reviewers – Philip Brandes, F. Kathleen Foley, Margaret Gray, David C. Nichols and Charlotte Stoudt – spend the year prowling Los Angeles area theaters, especially the smaller ones, and providing their opinions of what they see there every week on Culture Monster and in the Friday Calendar section.
Here are some of their favorites (and a few less favored) of 2011 theatrical offerings.
Best New Play:
Charlotte Stoudt: Tie between “Pursued by Happiness,” by Keith Huff, staged at the Lankershim Arts Center by Road Theatre Company and “Extraordinary Chambers” at the Geffen
Kathy Foley: A tie between Nick Salamone's “The Sonneteer” at the Gay and Lesbian Center's Davidson/Valentini Theatre, and Tom Jacobson's “House of the Rising Son,” Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles' production at the Atwater Village Theatre.
David C. Nichols: “House of the Rising Son” by Tom Jacobson
Philip Brandes: Penned in the early 1900's, the pair of one-acts from “Peter Pan” creator J.M. Barrie in “Barrie: Back to Back” weren't technically new, but leave it to Pacific Resident Theatre to re-discover long-neglected chestnuts with tremendous heart.
Margaret Gray: “Girls Talk” by Roger Kumble
Centered around the troubled residents of a soon-to-be-shuttered assisted living facility, Lordygan’s drama employs parallel timelines to unravel the mysterious ties between Milly (Kenlyn Kanouse) and Irving (Joseph Cardinale), a constantly bickering elderly couple (is there any other kind in a nursing home play?), and their dementia-afflicted fellow tenant, Sylvia (Ivy Jones).
On the plus side, the plot is capably constructed, alternating scenes between present-day Milly and Irving, preparing for their imminent eviction, and their youthful 1950s selves (Beth Ricketson, Adam Coggins) in the early stages of their relationship. The two timelines converge in the traumatic reveal that has shaped the course of the marriage.
Keeping the pivotal events under wraps until the finale effectively emphasizes the play’s message about the destructive effect of unspoken truths. Trying to speak them is where the play runs into problems. The labored dialogue bears little resemblance to the way people talk, from oddly cryptic exchanges (“Where did you go?” — “Just into the darkness”) to awkward anachronisms (Irving’s WWII recollection about his urging liberated Dachau prisoners to “Do your thing” to their captors). Stream-of-consciousness monologues immersing us in Sylvia’s deteriorating mind are particularly overwrought.
Is Cirque du Soleil’s de facto Occupy Vegas coup the product of an extraterrestrial invasion? That’s the whimsical alternate reality explanation offered in the sci-fi themed “Atomic Holiday Free Fall,” the latest incarnation of veteran Cirque performer/director Stefan Haves’ ever-mutating Your Town Follies revue. Launched this time out in collaboration with the Actors’ Gang, the variety show continues to entertain, though at times the eclectic mix of companies feels more like atomic fission than fusion.
Your Town Follies leverages Haves’ Cirque connections, enlisting extraordinary talents from the troupe’s various Las Vegas and touring shows — dancers, acrobats, clowns, jugglers, and other iconic cabaret acts — in vaudeville-inspired back-to-basics stagings that emphasize raw physical prowess over elaborate technical effects. As in Your Town Follies past, some acts will remain constant through the run — notably gravity-defying aerialist Eric Newton, gifted comedienne Kasey Wilson, a bevy of fetchingly choreographed Atomic showgirls, and lead singer Karen Blake heading up Philip Giffin’s versatile band.
Others will change nightly; the reviewed guest lineup included a graceful and poetic ballet by Sebastien Stella and Katia Sereno, tap dancer Sarah Reich hoofing her way along “Route 66,” and Haves reprising his brilliantly expressive “Back Man” character created from his inverted torso.
Less satisfying is the interactive staging and framing narrative about some time-traveling aliens from Planet Cirque, whose mission to become entertainers takes them to 1960s Vegas and Memphis; their interludes really suffer in comparison with the high-caliber Cirque acts.
-– Philip Brandes
“Atomic Holiday Free Fall,” The Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 nightly through Dec. 23, expect Sunday, plus Dec. 31. $35. (310) 838-4264 or www.theactorsgang.com. Running time: 90 minutes.
Photo: Stefan Haves. Credit: Nathan Kornelis
One of the best sightseeing bets in town is attending a taping of “I Love Lucy Live on Stage." As a member of the live Desilu Studios audience, you get to see what goes into making this hit TV show that’s destined to become a comedy classic -- mark my words.
A ticket gets you into the "filming" of two actual “I Love Lucy” episodes. Part of the fun is the pretense that the starring roles are being performed by stand-ins.
Though supposedly played by Sirena Irwin, there’s no mistaking the pitch-perfect authenticity of Lucy Ricardo’s signature fluttering eyelids, plaintive wails, distracted nail biting and jaw-clenched grimaces — this sure feels like the hilarious real deal. Bill Mendieta’s Ricky has lost a little weight (probably from being wrapped around Lucy’s finger so often), but his exasperated, mangled pronunciation hasn’t changed, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else belting out “Babalu” like he does with his seven-piece Tropicana club band. Naturally, sidekicks Fred and Ethel Mertz (Bill Chott, Lisa Joffrey) are on hand for Lucy’s backfiring antics.
Both of the episodes I caught involved Lucy’s insatiable desire to break into showbiz. In “The Benefit,” she wheedles Ricky into performing for a women’s club, then inserts herself into the act to upstage him. Later, when “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” she’s blinded by dilating eyedrops just before her jitterbug audition number for a hotshot producer. Screwball jokes, catchy songs and terrific dancing — these episodes have it all. I hear director Rick Sparks is such a perfectionist that he shoots each one more than once just to be safe, so you’ll probably get to see these episodes, too-- the current shooting schedule has just been extended through Feb. 26
"The only thing holding me together is rage,” declares an infected gay man in an uncomfortably truthful moment of “As Is,” William M. Hoffman’s groundbreaking 1985 drama about the early days of the AIDS pandemic.
“As Is” was the first Broadway play to deal openly with the outbreak of AIDS in the gay community, predating Larry Kramer’s better-known “The Normal Heart” by a month. In a potent revival from the New American Theatre, it remains a chilling snapshot of the dread, uncertainty and despair at a time when diagnosis meant a death sentence and people wondered if it was safe even to share a telephone.
Like most AIDS-themed plays that came after it, “As Is” depicts the effect of the disease on a relationship — in this case between Saul (Mark Shunock), a domestically inclined, self-sacrificing photographer, and his acerbic, far edgier former lover, Rich (Charles Pasternak). What distinguishes both “As Is” and “The Normal Heart,” however, is their visceral sense of panic and confusion at the emergence of the new “gay plague” that did not even have a formal name until 1982.
Where Kramer’s more activist rhetoric rails against the political climate of willful neglect that greeted the disease’s outbreak among an outcast demographic, Hoffman’s more personal focus is on Rich and Saul’s journey of forgiveness and acceptance, set against insightful, intimate details of bar pickups, help line counseling services and hospice care.
An inherited genetic trait becomes a quirky metaphor for irritating but inescapable cultural legacies in writer-director Laurel Ollstein’s amiable comedy “Esther’s Moustache” at the Studio/Stage Theatre.
The errant titular follicles sprout without warning from the upper lip of Maddie (Joanna Strapp), a reclusive 25-year-old artist who specializes in magazine cartoons about bawdy goddesses. Retreating from the baggage of her Jewish family heritage and her father’s recent suicide, Maddie spends an unhealthy amount of time in the imaginary company of her principal creation, an amusingly empty-headed statuesque siren named Lilith (Mara Marini), who gives Maddie an outlet to draw great sex even if she isn’t having it.
Maddie finds her carefully insulated cocoon breached from opposite directions — first by Gerd (Burt Grinstead), a handsome German fan with a crush on her, next by her domineering grandmother, Esther (Ellen Ratner), a Holocaust refugee with a penchant for revising history to suit her own convenience. Arriving on an uninvited mission to “fix” Maddie, Esther embodies the cultural DNA Maddie is determined to escape (from pushy personality to facial hair).
It’s 1980, and although the sun may have not yet set on the British Empire, it seems to be down to its last feeble rays in playwright Stephen Wyatt’s satirical monologue, “The Standard Bearer,” smartly directed by Julian Sands at SFS Theatre.
The prospect of bearing standards proves dicey for a hammy thespian on a dismal tour of the west African former colony he’d visited 30 years ago at the start of his career. Played by Neil Dickson with perfectly modulated self-importance and cultural cluelessness, the unnamed actor has arrived late for his performance in a remote schoolhouse, after a nightmare trek through the bush that has incapacitated his costar wife.
Determined to honor his professional commitment, he stands in sweat-stained clothes pompously reciting passages from the plays, punctuated with whispered pleas for help from his unseen stage manager. Sands’ staging delights in depicting the tropes of no-budget theater to which the hapless actor must resort, from mouthing trumpet fanfares to taking both roles in the scenes he’d intended to perform with his no-show wife.
Though written in 1928 and ripped from the headlines of a sensational contemporaneous murder trial, very little about Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” feels dated. That’s due as much to Treadwell’s forward-looking modernist vision of urban dehumanization as to her idiosyncratic stylistic voice, which downplayed topical references in favor of more abstract representation.
Don’t expect warm hugs as Open Fist Theatre’s edgy revival achieves the author’s intended clinical Brechtian detachment, though some aspects of the piece could be more effectively realized. In this nine-segment tale of an office worker-turned-trophy wife-turned-murderess, perfectly-cast Charlotte Chanler brings wild-eyed desperation to the dangerously haunted protagonist, a young woman sketched in broad generic strokes (we only learn her name is Helen in a passing aside). Nevertheless, Chanler nails the play’s icy rage as the young woman’s longing for freedom is thwarted at every turn by forces of socio-economic oppression, anticipating feminist dialectics by several decades.
Opening with her dead-end clerical job in a nameless office where employees move and speak like extensions of the machines they work on, the young woman’s only escape is through loveless marriage to her smug, condescending boss (and excellent Arthur Hanket). Though her discontent with traditional avenues of fulfillment is palpable, the vacancy at her core keeps her from being any more sympathetic than her oppressors. The depiction of her wedding night, as her lecherous husband bounces her on his lap like a gangly rag doll, shows off Barbara Schofield’s staging at its creepy, furious best.
Despite standout supporting performances from Marilyn McIntyre and Elizabeth Greer, some scenes lose focus in a meandering compromise between archetypal elements and period specificity, without a consistent commitment one way or the other among the sprawling ensemble.
–- Philip Brandes
“Machinal,” Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 20. $25 (pay-what-you-can Friday and Oct. 30). (323) 882-6912 or www.openfist.org. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Photo: John LeMay, Charlotte Chanler, Daniel May and Elizabeth Greer. Credit: Maia Rosenfeld.
One of the more thoughtful and well-crafted musicals of the last three decades, the seldom-seen “Falsettos” shows its staying power in Richard Israel’s superbly staged revival at the renovated Third Street Theatre.
Told entirely in song, this 1992 compilation of two one-acts by composer/lyricist William Finn explores the bittersweet relationships in a fractured family of neurotic New York Jews during the years flanking the onset of Reaganomics, yuppie greed and the AIDS outbreak. Some period-specific plot elements notwithstanding, the show captures still-resonant complexities of love, commitment and responsibility through the comic timing, dramatic heft and singing chops of a thoroughly professional cast.
Act I (originally the stand-alone “March of the Falsettos”) opens in 1979 as flawed protagonist Marvin (Jesse Einstein) sings of his desire to maintain “A Tight-Knit Family” despite having left his faithful wife Trina (Lani Shipman) for his new boyfriend Whizzer (Richard Hellstern). Marvin’s selfishness wreaks emotional havoc — both Shipman and Hellstern deliver hilariously painful showstopping numbers as the victims of Marvin’s fickle affections.
It’s a classic Edward Albee setup: A mature husband and wife grappling with marital tensions find themselves playing hosts to an inexperienced couple from out of town. This may not be the Albee play you’re expecting, though — especially when the visitors turn out to be a pair of sentient sea lizards.
Written in 1975, Albee’s “Seascape” explores some of the playwright’s signature themes in an unusually whimsical mode, albeit with typically sharp-edged wit and intelligence — qualities skillfully captured in Charlie Mount’s enjoyable, handsomely staged revival for Theatre West.
As the lizards migrating to a new life ashore, Paul Gunning and Kristin Wiegand consistently delight with quirky inflections and deft physical comedy (Gunning also created their intricate costumes and makeup). Though they speak perfect English, the lizards’ bewilderment at human customs, concepts and emotions combines goofy outsiders’ logic and an underlying poignancy of alienation. Driven from their underwater home by an existential sense that they no longer belong, their deep uncertainty and ambivalence is palpable.
The picnicking humans they encounter face a turning point of their own. Feisty Nancy (Arden Teresa Lewis) wants to spend their retirement years exploring things they never had a chance to do, while her depressive husband Charlie (Alan Schack) would rather shut down and do nothing. Their initial introspective monologues miss some of the text’s playful elements, but the production’s delivery and pacing hit their stride with the lizards’ arrival toward the end of the first act.
Stability is an illusion, Albee’s wry, charming and surprisingly hopeful fable concludes, but while evolutionary change may be a scary prospect, it also brings unexpected potential for greater understanding and connectedness.
–- Philip Brandes
“Seascape,” Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 16. $22 and $25. (323) 851-7977 or www.theatrewest.org. Running time: 2 hours.
Photo: From left, Kristin Wiegand, Paul Gunning, Alan Schack and Arden Teresa Lewis. Credit: Thomas Mikusz