Nov 29, 2004

Shepard to Shakespeare

Productions of Sam Shepard plays crop up with unseasonal regularity on L.A. stages, no doubt because actors love nothing more than putting on the wifebeater and letting the stubble grow, or donning a negligee and letting the loose ends frizz out, all the better to enjoy a good, loud wallow in drink, distress, and dysfunction. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Director Artine Brown’s current revival of Shepard’s FOOL FOR LOVE at Theatre 68 in Hollywood is apparently a fine specimen, based on two reviews so far. The Weekly’s Miriam Jacobson wrote that “Shepard’s searing dialogue, combined with the high quality of the acting under Brown’s steady hand, elicits sympathy” for the play’s down-at-heels characters, though she found sound designer Gordon Bash's "thunderous" sound design an "unnecessary distraction." (His name is Bash, after all.) Back Stage West's Melinda Schupmann clearly admired the effort but, like the critics who couldn't hide their distaste for the milieu of A Gift From Heaven, she didn't seem enjoy herself much. "Creepy turmoil... short but certainly not sweet" is how she summed up the proceedings, adding that, in her obviously seasoned theatrical experience, Fool for Love "is like much of Shepard's work: a voyeuristic glimpse at the underbelly of people's hidden lives." A hidden underbelly--what will these critics think of next?
UPDATE: Patrick Corcoran, theatre critic at City Beat, emailed me to point out his own lukewarm review of same. Always good to have another outlet to look for reviews (but how often, Patrick?).

More disdain has come to FREEDOMLAND at the Sidewalk Studios in Burbank. The Weekly’s estimable Steven Leigh Morris, apparently drawn by writer Amy Freed’s pedigree, called it “a latter-day The Skin of Our Teeth” (while I compared it to a “post-hippie Heartbreak House--we critics just can’t help showing off a bit), but if that was intended as a compliment, that’s about as far as Morris’ praise went. He noted “some fine performances and the noblest efforts of director David Barry,” but ultimately found the play “a talky comedy about self-absorption — neither particularly funny nor insightful.” Ouch.

In retrospect it looks a bit like a lesbian version of Love! Valour! Compassion!, though Jane Chambers’ 1980 hit LAST SUMMER AT BLUEFISH COVE, now in a revival at the Davidson/Valenti Theatre on the campus of Hollywood’s L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, predates Terrence McNally’s by a decade. The Weekly’s Sandra Ross warmly reviewed director Sue Hamilton’s production as an effective time-travel exercise, with Ann Closs-Farley’s period costumes easing the journey, and thought the performers “hit the right comedic notes” and demonstrate “exceptionally strong… ensemble work” with both the play’s comic and dramatic turns. For his part, Back Stage West’s Wenzel Jones—whose review bafflingly fails to mention the playwright—was less persuaded, writing that “occasional flashes of… ambient closeness” in two-character scenes evaporate in group scenes that “look more like office parties than like family functions.” Jones quibbled with elements of nearly every performance except for that of Laura Philbin Coyle, “a gem… tucked away in a small role” as a lesbian sculptor.

The process behind the creation of OUT OF TIME at the Paul E. Richards Theater Place in Los Feliz got better notices than the play itself, about six characters in contemporary Athens, Ga. “Sounds profound,” the Weekly’s Martín Hernández wrote of the way the young troupe nom de guerre develops its work through collaborative improv, but what’s onstage “flounders in its endeavor to find an emotional center.” Likewise, Back Stage West’s Jennie Webb speculated that during “four months of presumably fascinating work between six obviously gifted actors and one apparently inspiring creative force,” director Guillermo Cienfuegos, “an ‘end result’ wasn't first and foremost in anyone's mind.” Which is a shame, she wrote, because the show’s actors have created “lovely, fully realized characters” and give performances “rooted in… a strong, truthful place,” even if they don’t “wind up anywhere that adds up.”

The Times’ David C. Nichols gave a wholehearted endorsement to Patricia Cotter’s relationship dramedy THREE at Venice’s solar-powered Electric Lodge, which has already received generally strong reviews. Though he, like his peers, noted a few of Cotter’s overly pat “slogans and stereotypes,” he called the show a must-see for “locals dissatisfied with the current divide on morality” because its “acerbic study of three couples… addresses monogamy with considerable convulsive insight.”

The Weekly’s Tom Provenzano departed a bit from his peers on Jerry Mayer’s two-character romantic comedy 2 ACROSS at the Santa Monica Playhouse, finding it a “rich, theatrical piece that places both despondency and joy above the jokes.” In its “unlikely but fascinating 80 minutes… light banter turns to raw emotion” under director Deborah Harmon.

Back Stage West’s Terry Morgan was less impressed than his colleagues by MODERN DANCE FOR BEGINNERS at the Little Victory Theatre in Burbank. He praised the “impressive acting and tight direction” but found Sarah Phelps' “undeniably witty and amusing” play “unfortunately slight,” without “anything new to add” to its model, La Ronde. Morgan added a divertingly personal touch in deploring the show’s long transitions: “The costume changes between scenes are needlessly long… sometimes lasting up to two minutes—I timed them, which says something.” Always love those reminders that critics are just flesh-and-blood creatures whose tailbones are as tested by tedium as the next theatregoer’s.

Garnering some of the week’s most divided notices was MACBETT at West Hollywood’s Globe Playhouse. Director Neno Pervan offers his own unique take on Ionesco’s absurdist reading of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and the result is a “gratifyingly revisionist staging,” according to the Times’ F. Kathleen Foley, though she quibbled with Pervan’s sightline-oblivious staging and with Zoran Radanovich lead performance, which “hits the right emotional levels” but has too much “leaping, occasionally unmotivated aerobics.” The Weekly’s Stevern Mikulan was delighted both by the Ionesco’s innovations on the original, which make “a rollicking yet, paradoxically, thoughtful exploration of the Scottish tragedy,” and by Pervan’s “Rocky Horror Show production,” the sum of which, he wrote, is “a well-acted reinterpretation of Shakespeare that respects the Bard while it mocks his solemnity.” Back Stage West’s Brad Schreiber sounded the only sour note in this chorus of dazzlement, imagining that Ionesco wouldn’t like the show’s “bursts of electronic music” and “taped machine-gun fire.” He found the evening “unbearably slow… even at its shortened length,” and opined that Pervan “has enervated his own darkly comedic ideas.” This sounds like another must-see-so-I-can-make-up-my-own-mind productions.

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