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Review: 'The Designated Mourner' at Son of Semele

May 13, 2009 |  4:30 pm

Mourner_press1_print Pertinent truth suffuses the self-lacerating literacy of "The Designated Mourner." Its implications are both affecting and disturbing. Wallace Shawn's 1996 requiem for intellectual freedom as Western civilization implodes receives an incisive production by Son of Semele Ensemble.

First staged at London's National Theatre by David Hare (who subsequently filmed it with originators Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser), "Mourner" takes an audacious path around its subversive précis.

Set in an unnamed time and country beset by oligarchic oppression and guerrilla counter-reaction, "Mourner" unfolds through a three-part direct-address narrative. By stressing the emotional lives of his characters -- the titular survivor, his erudite wife and her famed poet father -- Shawn allows the topicality of encroaching class warfare to enter our awareness peripherally. Acerbic, elusive, poetic and chilling, the writing is demanding in a rarefied manner.

Accordingly, director Matthew McCray and his ace forces offer a judiciously kinetic reading. Set designer Sarah Krainin's surreally slanted décor creates a post-Murnau netherworld, lighted by Jeremy Pivnick with typical brilliance. Suzanne Scott's understated costumes, Ryan Poulson's ambient sound and Adam Flemming's ethereal videos add cohesive texture.

Real-life father and daughter Don and Sarah Boughton have a natural affinity that affords the maximum eloquence, while Michael Kass fulfills his central Shawn-surrogate role with perfectly pitched tragicomic panache. Their deftly modulated immediacy brings Shawn's verbal pyrotechnics to gripping life, making "Mourner" as much a cause for laudatory celebration as for unnerved recognition.

-- David C. Nichols

"The Designated Mourner," Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (213) 351-3507. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Mondays and Tuesdays. Call for exceptions. Ends May 30. $20. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Caption: Front to back: Michael Kass, Sarah Boughton and Don Boughton.  Credit: Barbara Kallir