Nov 15, 2004

Review of Reviews Catch-Up

It strikes me that I’d get much further ahead of the ball if I did these round-ups in pieces, a few shows at a time, then republish the entire list on, say, a Wednesday or Thursday before a given weekend, as a sort of guide for the weekend. But then, I know that only critics plan their review schedule for a given weekend a few days before it hits—at the Times, we stringers do, at least.

However I slice it, I hope it’s helpful. Here are a few reviews I wasn’t able to get to until now.

Adding another mixed-positive review to the consensus about the world premiere of Jean Claude Van Itallie’s LIGHT at Pasadena’s Theatre @ Boston Court was Back Stage West’s Hoyt Hilsman, who agreed with his peers that it’s “engaging and evocative, if somewhat overwritten,” singling out a “climactic moment of emotional power and intellectual truth” and praising the “deft direction of Jessica Kubzansky and the nuanced performances of a talented cast.”

Early 20th-century African-American activist Ida B. Wells is the subject of Tazewell Thompson’s “play with music” CONSTANT STAR at the Laguna Playhouse. Critics were generally impressed and informed, with some reservations. Back Stage West’s Melinda Schupmann called it “culturally enriching and… beautifully performed” and called the performances “often riveting,” but found the “patchwork nature of the script” too “scattershot.” The Times’ Don Shirley didn’t disagree, writing that “Thompson is less interested in a methodical biography than he is in evoking the passions that motivated Wells' activism,” but felt that the a cappella spirituals that link the scenes “are the play's salvation… unfailingly moving and performed to perfection.”

A new production of Sophie Treadwell’s cautionary 1928 drama MACHINAL at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Center in West Hollywood impressed the two critics who have weighed in, though they varied in their enthusiasm. At the Times, Daryl H. Miller marvelled that this “strange and wonderful piece of Expressionistic theater… seems of-the-moment all over again,” noting the way the show’s aperture-like design “conveys a powerful sense of claustrophobia.” He did wonder if perhaps the show was “a bit too concept-heavy for its own good,” though he mused that this may make it “ready-made for an experimental showcase such as CalArts' REDCAT space,” adding that most of the participants in the young Blank-the-Dog theatre company are CalArts grads. Steven Leigh Morris at the Weekly quibbled that “not much effort was made to get the ensemble’s hair and wardrobe right, and the furniture is from various decades,” but conceded that director Nataki Garrett’s “riveting staging” and the “intense performance” of lead actress Amanda Maria Lorca, “help us forget about the anachronistic production elements.”

Shishir Kurup’s lavish adaptation of the Ramayana, AS VISHNU DREAMS at Little Tokyo’s East West Players, resonated strongly with the Times’ Don Shirley, who called it “a gripping interpretation” with “thoughtful, funny, and finally poignant dimensions.” His closer summed it up unequivocally: “[Director Juliette] Carrillo’s blending of the story’s far-flung elements is masterful. The cast has no weak links. As Vishnu Dreams is wide-awake theater.” In my review for the Downtown News, I was more equivocal about this co-production with Cornerstone Theater Company as part of its “faith-based” cycle of plays: I thought Kurup hammers the Iraq analogies “a little too insistently,” and that while his humanization of the story’s villain, Ravana, does lend the tale complicated tragic dimensions “reminiscent of the Greeks or Shakespeare,” he hasn’t allowed the story’s hero, Rama, commensurate depth. I found the show’s second act a “drawn-out roundelay of flash-forward, exposition and speechifying confrontation.” I enjoyed Lynn Jeffries’ spectacular shadow puppetry and Chris Acebo’s gorgeous, elemental set. But I had to wonder what this “hectoring and heterodox” take on a founding text of Hinduism has to do with Cornerstone’s ostensible community-building mission.

I’ll confess that I’d never seen a production of Harnick and Bock’s SHE LOVES ME, the 1963 musical based on the same Hungarian play that inspired one of the great films of all time, The Shop Around the Corner. I admire Bock and Harnick—particularly Fiddler and Fiorello--but this quaint confection left me cold. In my Times review of Musical Theatre West’s new production at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Long Beach, I found it “remarkably resistible” even if director Jamie Rocco’s production is “faultless” and “well-cast.” Perhaps, though, I should defer to my colleague Les Spindle, an aficionado of the show, who raved in Back Stage West that the show’s “durable virtues are quite evident” in this “greatly satisfying” revival, “despite some glitches,” which he pegged mainly as a slightly “sluggish” pace in the first act. He raved about leads John Bisom and Teri Bibb and closed rosily: “This holiday-themed confection is like finding a heart-shaped box of scrumptious bon-bons under your Christmas tree.” (Maybe that’s the problem: I always preferred those Dutch butter cookies.) For her part, Long Beach Press-Telegram's Alessandra Djurklou admitted that in the wrong hands, this "charmingly old-fashioned... fluffy and sweet" show "could pretty much become dreck," but that the MTW folks "do it justice." (I will add here that my trip to the Carpenter Center was greatly enhanced by the Karen-and-Richard retrospective in the lobby. They’ve even got Karen’s Ludwig drum set on display!)

Reviving the critical divide over NoHo Arts Center’s musical DORIAN were two reviews I came across recently. In the plus column was Jay Reiner’s at the The Hollywood Reporter, which found it “exciting,” with an “outstanding cast,” and though he conceded that the adaptation is “admirable for its refusal to compromise the dark story and complex themes… the writing feels a bit awkward and overstated in the latter stages.” With some retouching, Reiner thinks this portrait of Dorian “could be on its way to an eternal life of its own.” Offering a wildly dissenting opinion was the Daily News’ Katherine Karlin, who wrote that James J. Mellon’s psychologizing of the Oscar Wilde novel amounted to Dorian Gray as told by Dr. Phil.” She found much of the story implausible and the “stock Creole” characters offensive, though she wrote that among “a large, talented cast [struggling] gamely… only Armelia McQueen manages to rise above the material.”

Back Stage West’s Dink O’Neal chimed into the negative chorus dissing R.S. Call’s story about a pedophile priest, DAMAGES at the Hudson Mainstage in Hollywood. O’Neal called it a “long-winded liturgical mishmash” with “almost universally sophomoric acting,” save James Storm’s “deviously intervening monsignor.” The Catholic church has a lot to answer for—its abuse scandal has spawned mostly terrible plays (though my colleagues have raved about Dakin Matthews’ PRINCE OF L.A and theatre maven Ravi Narasimhan points to Celtic Arts Center’s LEPERS OF BAILE BASTE, which ran in the fall of 2003, as the “best by far in the church abuse sweepstakes”).

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