Feb 8, 2005

Up From Underground: Review of Reviews Update

I'm a little behind with this update, I know (and too tired even to make a pun about a "little behind"). I've had a very good problem lately: too much work. So thank you for your patience, dear readers, and I hope you enjoy this edition.

Adventurous theatregoers should rush to DOSTOEVSKY’S NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND, at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre in North Hollywood through Feb. 12, according to most critics. The Times' F. Kathleen Foley, for instance, marvelled that adapter/director Josh T. Ryan "actually unearthed considerable humor" from the source material, and characterized his approach as "near-surreal archness." She praised in particular Michael Blomgren, who plays the Underground Man "with a trance-like intensity that never falters." Her witty conclusion: "This 'Notes" fascinates as a pre-Prozac study in tortured egotism." Back Stage West's Dave DePino seemed almost overwhelmed by the show: "Be prepared to get swept up by the sheer artistry of Blomgren's remarkable performance," he gushed. For his part, the Weekly's Steven Mikulan turned in a gnomic two-sentence review that describes "a spirited cast in [a] brief evening of angst, loathing and humiliation." Is this damning with faint praise? I can't tell.

According to Back Stage West's Terry Morgan, "William Inge would be pleased" with director Matthew Solari's new production of BUS STOP, at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena through Feb. 27. "This superb cast does… justice" to Inge's "bittersweet character study," he wrote, while the Weekly's Sandra Ross opined that "strong acting distracts from some of the less savory aspects" of the play, and that under Solari's "perceptive direction, the performances resist caricature."

Critics raved about a new production of THE KNIGHTS OF MARY PHAGAN, at Theatre 68 in Hollywood through Mar. 20. The Weekly's Miriam Jacobson called it a "riveting revival" of Jesse Waldinger’s courtroom drama about the notorious Leo Frank trial and lynching, thanks to a "superb ensemble" and Waldinger's "incisive script." While Back Stage West's Les Spindle wished that the play "ventured further beyond generic courtroom theatrics," he wrote that the production's "spellbinding ensemble [holds] our rapt attention under the masterful guidance of director Scott Mlodzinski."

Yet another tour stop of CHICAGO hit Hollywood's Pantages Theatre last week, where it runs through Feb. 20. In the Times, I wrote that the show is "still high-kicking its buckle shoes with the requisite snap and tickle," praising Gregory Harrison's Billy Flynn but noting that when Patti LaBelle, as Mama Morton, "stops singing," there's "a big hole in the show where a diva should be." The Daily News' Valerie Kuklenski agreed that "LaBelle is on foreign ground in acting her part," but raved about Bianca Marroquín's Roxie and Brenda Braxton's Velma.

Adding his measured praise to that of his colleagues for Charlayne Woodard's FLIGHT, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Feb. 13, was the Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris. His full-length review, as always, is worth reading, but what struck me was this dead-on send-off for the Taper's departing father figure:
Flight…. appearing in the first season of the Center Theater Group in which Gordon Davidson is not artistic director, emerges as a kind of testament to the paradoxically soulful and sometimes thick-headed legacy of Davidson and the Mark Taper Forum—the primary CTG theater he ran since 1967… One moment in Flight—a confrontation between the gardener Alma and Nate—takes on the tone of a biblical allegory for vengeance and gang violence. Alma admits she saw Sadie reading but failed to act quickly enough to protect her from the plantation owner. Intending to beat if not kill Alma for her negligence, Nate explodes: "She doesn’t deserve to live!" The old conjurer, Oh Beah, intercedes like a minister: "Is the fightin' and killin' going to make it all right?" she repeats. "Is it going to bring Sadie back?"
Just in case the audience is too dim to know the correct answer to a rhetorical question, Nate and Alma provide it for them: "No, ma'am," they both intone. This tiny moment of overstatement emerges as the embodiment of everything that was ever right and wrong about the Taper: the profound, rare love and concern for the local community, the conviction that theater must be an instrument for teaching—preaching—social justice, that it must reach out to the underserved and the unknowing, it must bring them onto the dark stage and show them the light. Flight’s old conjurer conjures recollections of the Taper’s Zoot Suit and Black Elk Speaks, plays about L.A.’s Latinos and America’s native tribes, plays with crystalline and indignant delineations of right and wrong, and agendas to make the necessary social corrections for the sake of a better world.

I wouldn't choose exactly those examples to typify Davidson's reign, but Morris' point is well taken. In retrospect, it's probably not such a bad thing that Davidson's default position was '60s-bred liberalism—when he can't find a good play, he puts on a sermon, as I once wrote with exasperation. He will be judged, ultimately, both for the good plays he did put up and for the didactic sermons—and there are worse crimes than preaching to the converted.

Two critics agreed that director/designer Tiger Reel's tightly trimmed, vaguely Arabic-tinged MACBETH, at the Knightsbridge Theatre through Feb. 26, "succeeds to such a high degree in its accelerated pace, sharp acting and visual pleasures that it must be forgiven its multitude of flaws," as the Weekly's Tom Provenzano put it. These include, he wrote, Reel's drastic cutting and his "ultimate failure to wrap his general sense of passion around a specific concept," though Provenzano ultimately called it "a theatrical event well worth seeking out." The Times' David C. Nichols concurred that "the excessive edits… turn key roles into cameos and suck blood from the proceedings" and noted some problems with the concept, but wrote, in a conclusion I don't quite understand, that "even with a concept more decorative than disturbing, Reel's attack on the naked frailties of modern-day nihilism has impressive sound and fury."

Critics are divided, if not passionately, about the one-woman show GOLDA'S BALCONY, at the Wadsworth Theatre in Westwood through Feb. 20. The Daily News' Evan Henerson was bowled over by lead actress Tovah Feldshuh, "a small woman with a plus-size stage presence" who "channels" late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir and "works within—not against—the gloss and technical bombast" of this production of William Gibson's play. The Times' Daryl H. Miller was less impressed, writing that while Feldshuh "does all that is within an actor's power" with a script that "sounds like a recitation from a young-readers' biography." (A bit of personal trivia, if I may: I first saw Feldshuh on the stage of the Scottsdale Center for the Arts in the late 1970s—as Juliet, in an R&J imported from San Diego's Old Globe. She was pretty hot, if I recall correctly.)

Acme Comedy Theatre's new sketch show, ACME LOVE MACHINE, through Feb. 26, received a split decision. In my Times review, I wrote that this Machine "takes a while… to get humming," and that its sketches don't garner "more than a smile or two" until its second half. But Back Stage West's Jenelle Riley raved that "director Travis Oates confidently helms a flawless ensemble of eight talented and distinctive actors" in a production that "packs triple the laughs of a typical episode of Saturday Night Live in roughly the same amount of time."

"Too many jokes" was essentially the verdict of Back Stage West's Shirle Gottlieb on Sarah Ruhl's THE CLEAN HOUSE, at South Coast Rep through Feb. 27. Joining the mixed reviews of her colleagues, she wrote that while director Kate Whoriskey "has her fingers on the heart of Ruhl's intentions" (an interesting, almost surgical image) and "the five-member ensemble is flawless," the play "doesn't live up to its potential, because Ruhl's comedy and pathos are out of balance."

"A spiritual descendant of 'Rocky Horror' " was how the Times' F. Kathleen Foley described SAUCY JACK AND THE SPACE VIXENS, at the Ark Theatre in Los Angeles through Apr. 9. Her verdict: "Comically sharp but musically flat… there's much charm in this offbeat disco musical." Back Stage West's Brad Schreiber invoked "the Confused Artist Sometimes Known as Prince" in trying to describe the show's "pansexual glee," but he lamented that "as much as one wants to like this frothy concoction," it wears out its welcome.

Quipped the Weekly's Paul Birchall of Laura Shaine Cunningham's BEAUTIFUL BODIES, at the Attic Theatre through Feb. 12, "The women who dine together, whine together." He called it an "oddly sour sitcom" that "simply doesn't have a lot to say." And while Back Stage West's Wenzel Jones was no more impressed by the play, he raved that actresses Paula Eliott and Amy Larion "bring vitality to their every moment onstage." Of course, Wenzel wouldn't be Wenzel without a colorful put-down, and this one's a doozy: "As Zoloft model Lisbeth, Megan Bello has a vexing way of closing her eyes and tilting her face up before delivering her lines in a whispery lisp. It plays like the beatification of Hello Kitty (if Kitty had a mouth, of course)."

Those who carry a torch for '80s schlock may not flock to ST. ELMO'S FIRE, at the Complex through Feb. 13. While the Weekly's Sandra Ross enjoyed the play's "time capsule-like glimpse into bad '80s fashion" and found actor/director Bryan Chesters' faithful staging "all the more engaging for its earnestness," Back Stage West's Paul Birchall longed for the "pure camp" of a previous stage rendition that highlighted the original film's absurdity. Chesters' "uninspired and totally by-the-numbers 'straight' staging," he wrote, comes off as "theatrical karaoke, [with] the cast enacting the frequently saccharine script with all the reverence of Laurence Olivier performing Hamlet."

A new revival of OF MICE AND MEN, at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood through Feb. 20, got mixed reviews for director Lisa Dalton's Michael Chekhov-based approach. Back Stage West's Madeleine Shaner said the result "is occlusion—or to put it politely, constipation." (I think possibly Shaner has those two reversed in terms of politesse.) Continuing on a posterior-minded note, Shaner concluded that Dalton's "leisurely pace" made the play "a very long, cheek-changing sit." The Weekly's Deborah Klugman used kinder words to say similar things, calling the production "professionally staged but internally hollow" and lamenting that while Mike Rademaekers "gives it his all" as childlike brute Lennie, his performance "appears too externally crafted to be believed."

Layon Gray's Vietnam chicks-in-combat play SOLDIERS DON'T CRY, at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center in North Hollywood through Feb. 13, took some heavy fire, with Back Stage West's Terri Roberts writing that Gray's "rambling, repetitive, and overwrought drama" looks "like a first-draft screenplay." Meanwhile, the Weekly's Amy Nicholson (fast becoming my favorite new critic on the scene) incisively nailed Gray's approach as "the two-faced empowerment of ’70s rape-revenge flicks." On the one hand, he gives the female fighters "dignity through masculinization, strapping them with gun-dicks (yes, the dialogue makes the connection literal) and slicing them down to genderless last names," while portraying them as exploitation-film stereotypes. Nicholson wrote that while "the actors’ charisma and appeal nearly salvage the tribute presumably intended in Gray’s backhanded salute," his play's "grindhouse carnage drowns both his superficial feminism and the messages in pools of blood."

Critics delivered a "guilty" verdict on THE BUTLER DID IT, at the Knightsbridge Theatre through Feb. 26, with the Times' F. Kathleen Foley lamenting that this "innocuous send-up of the detective genre" gets a "floppy staging," and Back Stage West's Travis Michael Holder called it "just another feeble clone of The Mousetrap or Ten Little Indians."

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