Category: Theater review

Theater review: 'The Caretaker' at the Curran Theatre

April 6, 2012 |  3:00 pm

The caretaker1

 Clarity is not commonly thought to be one of Harold Pinter’s signature virtues. But when his work is done right — and the penetrating British import production of “The Caretaker” starring two-time Tony winner Jonathan Pryce at San Francisco's Curran Theatre is nearly flawless — there’s a dreamlike lucidity that will have you seeing deep into the underground pathways of human nature.

When Pinter burst onto the British playwriting scene in the late 1950s, his enigmatic style proved exasperating to many of the day’s leading critics, who could tolerate mystery only if it came with an intelligible explanation, some moral or message they could comfortingly relay to their readers. Not given one, they grew frustrated by this cocky upstart whose characters spoke, as one impatient reviewer put it, in “non-sequiturs, half-gibberish and lunatic ravings.”

“The Caretaker,” which premiered in 1960, turned out to be Pinter’s breakthrough play, the work that inspired a new receptiveness to his dramatic tactics. Characters behave in ways that are every bit as opaque as the menacing festivities of his earlier play “The Birthday Party” (the flop that became a classic). But the psychology of “The Caretaker,” even when elusive, is too real to be dismissed as flamboyant gimmickry.

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Theater review: 'The Vault: Bankrupt' at Los Angeles Theatre Center

April 5, 2012 |  3:50 pm

“The Vault: Bankrupt”
“The Vault: Bankrupt,” now being presented by the Latino Theater Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, is the latest offering from the Vault Ensemble, a cheeky multi-ethnic group that began performing in 2010 in conjunction with downtown's Art Walk. 

Developed through improv sessions by the entire company, “Bankrupt” is a light-hearted parody of the recent financial meltdown that centers around an idealistic middle-school teacher who ventures into the fictional Dream America Bank to secure a loan.

But in this particular bank, all employees are white-faced, hilariously hissing vampires in search of new prey.  When the Teacher, a Candide-like naif, insists on a closer inspection of the bank and its reserves, he is launched on a surreal adventure that is ultimately corrupting, transforming him from nice guy to opportunistic bloodsucker.

Directed by ensemble members Aaron Garcia and Fidel Gomez, the show is fueled by a tonic mixture of youthful ebullience and pure cheekiness.  However, the wildly careening plot, which takes the hero to outer space and back again with many outrageous segues in between, too often veers away from comprehensibility.

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Theater review: 'The Elephant Man' at Theatre 68

April 5, 2012 | 10:22 am

"The Elephant Man"
Any production of "The Elephant Man," Bernard Pomerance's 1979 Tony winner about the severely deformed individual who became Victorian society's darling, depends upon the actor playing doomed title curiosity Joseph (a.ka. John) Merrick. The current revival at Theatre 68 features the remarkable Babar Peerzada, who evokes the grotesquerie without prosthetics in an impressive fusion of physical control and unforced pathos.

Other excellent turns adorn this Grimy Corps presentation. Jeny Batten gives actress/confidante Mrs. Kendal easy warmth beneath the dry grandeur. If Chris Payne Gilbert takes some time to register the contradictions of Frederick Treves, the doctor who rescues Merrick from degradation, his clipped understatement is apt. Ron Bottitta, Nicholas Caballero, Kimberly Condict, Jamie Harris and Paulie Rojas are proficient in multiple roles, from sideshow freaks to crowned heads.

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Theater review: 'Deathtrap' at the Davidson-Valentini Theatre

April 3, 2012 |  1:39 pm

Brian Foyster, left, Cynthia Gravinese and Burt Grinstead in "Deathtrap"
Greed, strangulation, and male nudity — just another day in bucolic Connecticut in Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” now receiving a frisky revival at the Davidson-Valentini Theatre in the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center.

It’s 1978, and Sidney Bruhl (Brian Foyster), a thriller writer whose last Broadway hit ran during the Kennedy administration, has just received the first draft of a play by one of his workshop students, Clifford (Burt Grinstead). His acolyte’s manuscript is so promising, Sidney notes, “a gifted director couldn’t even hurt it.” (It’s the throwaway show biz trash talk that gives this play its charm.)

As Sidney muses on how convenient it would be to murder strapping young Clifford and steal his work, his fragile wife, Myra (Cynthia Gravinese), reminds him that psychic Helga Ten Dorp (Elizabeth Herron) has rented the cottage next door and may sense negative vibrations. Thus is launched a fiendish plot and, by Act II, a medieval crossbow’s bolt. 

The challenge of “Deathtrap” is to make its mechanical turns seem organic; Sidney himself would respect the intricate stage business required to pull off this thriller’s big shocks. Director Ken Sawyer delivers the boos with relish, though he has less command over the tone of performances — each cast member seems to be in a different play. This dissonance erodes our suspension of disbelief, particularly with Heron’s hammy turn as Helga.

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Theater review: 'Lincoln: An American Story' at Pasadena Playhouse

April 2, 2012 | 12:38 pm

On April 14, 1865, Union Army medic Charles Leale went to Ford’s Theatre to see “Our American Cousin,” and became the de facto presiding physician in the aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination. He was 23 years old. Leale’s extraordinary story is the heart of “Lincoln: An American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra,” Hershey Felder’s schmaltzy, stirring solo show with live music, now at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Basically, this is a one-man oratorio: Writer-performer-composer Felder, dressed in a Civil War uniform, is accompanied by a 45-piece orchestra playing his own score as well as such classics as “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” It is quite grand, if not perhaps a little grandiose, especially under the epic direction of Joel Zwick (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”).

Felder, whose canny stage portraits of Beethoven, Chopin and Leonard Bernstein seem to be keeping some of L.A.’s larger nonprofit theaters afloat these days, is a natural ham. He is not so much an actor as a performer, and his florid gestures and pantomime feel very 19th century indeed.

If he oversells his tale, there’s certainly no need -- “Lincoln” has an irresistible hook. The step-by-step account of the shooting, the immediate aftermath at Ford’s Theatre and Lincoln’s deathbed are all the more absorbing for their minute details. Other sections, such as Walt Whitman’s vigils at the bedsides of wounded soldiers, or a brief description of minstrelsy, play like ideas that haven’t been fully integrated.

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Theater review: 'Magic Bullet Theory' at Sacred Fools Theatre

March 29, 2012 |  4:04 pm

"The Magic Bullet Theory"
An intriguing notion shoots through the ricocheting subversive brio of "The Magic Bullet Theory." By training their thematic sights on a surprisingly credible conceit -- that John F. Kennedy's assassination was the unintended result of a bungled scare tactic -- playwrights Terry Tocantins and Alex Zola give this irreverent Sacred Fools presentation noteworthy substance.
Directed by JJ Mayes with larky invention, "Bullet" follows Charlie Harrelson (Tocantins, effectively restrained), the real-life convicted killer of Judge John H. Wood Jr., and father of actor Woody Harrelson.
Sandwiched between an incredulous Earl Warren (Morry Schorr) and the archetypal Texan (a rip-roaring Rick Steadman), who facilitated things before and after Nov. 22, 1963, Charlie carries the ironic tangent: he, Lee Harvey Oswald (Michael Holmes) and two CIA-recruited Yalies (Monica Greene and Pete Caslavka) were supposed to "miss the target." Oops.
What recommends "Bullet" is the garage-show confidence with which Mayes, choreographer Natasha Norman, the design team and a laudable ensemble attack the mayhem.

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Theater review: 'The Merchant of Venice' at Theatre Banshee

March 29, 2012 |  3:00 pm

“The Merchant of Venice”
Who would have thought that Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” was such a romp?

Certainly, Shakespeare’s “tragic comedy” has taken a lot of heat in recent decades for its arguably problematic portrayal of Shylock, the usurious Jew bent on vengeance against a noble Christian.

Yet director Sean Branney, who won a Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Award for his direction of last season’s “The Crucible,” largely redresses that pitfall by emphasizing the comical in a surprisingly rollicking staging.  And if all that high energy occasionally verges on the manic, the production nonetheless scores high points as a richly cogent entertainment that honors every syllable of the Bard’s text.

Branney is particularly fortunate in his Shylock -- stage vet Barry Lynch, in a galvanic turn.  Played with understated shrugs and the faint hint of an Eastern European accent, Lynch’s subtle Shylock explodes into roaring power as he prepares to extract his grisly payment from his debtor, Antonio (excellent Time Winters.)  As Antonio’s bosom friend, Bassanio, who borrows from Antonio to woo his lady love, Portia (Kirsten Kollender), Daniel Kaemon is also fine.

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Theater review: 'Two Gentlemen of Chicago' at the Falcon Theatre

March 29, 2012 |  2:02 pm

Two Gents Press 1
In "Two Gentlemen of Chicago" at the Falcon Theatre, the Troubadour Theater Company sets Shakespeare's lesser comedy "Two Gentlemen of Verona" to the greatest hits of the band Chicago, irreverently mixing the incongruous sources to create a theatrical hybrid that, despite being possibly more entertaining than either, manages to honor both. 

"Two Gentlemen," believed to be Shakespeare's first play, is most interesting for its inclusion of themes he would develop in later masterpieces: betrayal, cross-dressing, noblemen running wild in the forest. In the Troubadour version, each plot development is a springboard for an adapted Chicago song, from "If You Leave Me Now" to "Saturday in the Woods" to "Hard to Say I'm Sorry." That last one is the perfect way for the repentant cad Proteus (Matt Walker, who also directs) to make amends, except that, as he explains in an uneasy falsetto, "Everybody knows this song is way too high."

The Troubies, as fans call them, have been around since 1995, building a cult following with their Shakespeare/pop crossbreeds ("Fleetwood MacBeth," "As U2 Like It," "OthE.L.O.").

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Theater review: ‘Hello! My Baby’ at the Rubicon Theatre

March 28, 2012 |  3:15 pm

“Hello! My Baby”
Dramatist Cheri Steinkellner shrewdly sets her thoroughly charming new jukebox musical in a time before there were jukeboxes, in order to connect a new generation with a fading, uniquely American cultural legacy. Developed and launched with brio by Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre, Steinkellner’s “Hello! My Baby” is a ticket back to New York’s Tin Pan Alley heyday, when people enjoyed popular music the old fashioned way — they played it. 

Feeding the public’s appetite for popular hits back then provided livelihoods for the scrappy young sheet music pluggers whose streetwise story lines Steinkellner serviceably employs to thread (with occasional plot-advancing additional lyrics) more than 30 classic tunes by such diverse songwriting talents as George and Ira Gershwin, Gilbert and Sullivan, Eubie Blake and of course Irving Berlin, who began his own musical career as a plugger. 

The production abounds with promising fresh-faced talent, starting with Ciaran McCarthy as the neighborhood’s cocky top plugger, Mickey McKee, an aspiring lyricist whose dream of emulating Berlin’s success is hampered by one small detail — he can’t write music. The proverbial luck of the Irish pairs him with Nelly (Evie Hutton), a Jewish factory worker and pianist who’s more than his match in talent and spunk. 

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Theater review: 'Anna Christie' at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego

March 24, 2012 | 10:37 am


The enduring dramatic power of Eugene O'Neill steers “Anna Christie” at the Old Globe into waters both risky and impressive. O'Neill's 1921 Pulitzer Prize winner about a life-battered tart receives an intimate, audacious rethink, stewarded by director Daniel Goldstein.

O'Neill's narrative teems with evocative details. From Act 1's seedy bar on the waterfront of 1910-era New York City and thereafter, “Anna Christie” is richly atmospheric, its simple plot ebbing and flowing like “dat ole davil sea.”

That last is the refrain of Chris Christopherson (an inspired Bill Buell), the sodden Swedish mariner who learns early on that the daughter he dispatched to Minnesota relatives 15 years ago is returning. This entails ousting Marthy Owen (Kristine Nielsen), his wry, booze-soaked bedmate, which cues up the title character (Jessica Love, valiantly unconventional).

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