Oct 30, 2004

Review of Reviews, the Halloween Edition

My thinking on Los Angeles theatre, overall, is that there’s too damn much of it, and while some folks I’ve spoken to about this think that’s a good thing because it offers so many more choices, I think it’s only good if you really immerse yourself in the scene and have some reliable sources to guide you. I’ve always believed that essentially 80 percent of any art form is disposable, and the remaining 20 percent is really worthwhile. In L.A. theatre, I feel like the ratio is more 90/10. Identifying and seeking out that worthy 10 percent, and stepping over the stink of the other 90 percent, is the goal, and while I wouldn’t say critics have all the answers, we do have a lot to say, particularly if you take us altogether.

Early October had so many plays opening at once that critics spent the rest of the month catching up. That’s why, for instance, reviews of a major opening like The Conquest of the South Pole, which opened Oct. 2 at the Odyssey Theatre, didn’t hit till this week.

Conquest is among the more unanimously praised shows in this week’s edition of my Review of Reviews, which also includes updates from last week’s list of shows if another critic has weighed in. I’ve more or less ranked the shows in order of critics’ enthusiasm, top to bottom, though there’s no science to this.

In his full-length theatre feature this week, The LA Weekly’s Steven Mikulan also saw fit to connect a pair of religion-themed shows as I’ve done here. He adds another rave to an unbroken streak of recommendations (scroll to end) of recommendations for A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT at the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica, calling the show “a beguiling blend of amateurism and blind innocence… expertly assembled by [director Alex] Timbers,” though he did qualify his praise by noting that “at 50 minutes, the show can only scratch an already soft target.” He also added his voice to the chorus of approval for Julia Sweeney’s LETTING GO OF GODat the Hudson Backstage in Hollywood, calling the former Groundling “that rare performer who brings technical talent and contemplative powers to her live stage shows.” Mikulan’s no easy touch, though: He called the show “about 15 minutes too long” and called out a few of Sweeney’s “emotional gimmicks.” Still, according to L.A.’s critical community, these are two shows worthy of an altar call.

As I mentioned above, Manfred Karge’s weirdly compelling play about unemployed German miners play-acting THE CONQUEST OF THE SOUTH POLE received unanimously strong reviews. In the Times, I called it an “extraordinary if ungainly political parable” with “bold, often blunt direction” by Steve Pickering that “extracts the most from this strange brew.” The Weekly’s Sandra Ross likewise praised Pickering’s “stylized direction,” writing that “the sheer inventiveness of the play-within-the-play—stuffed animals for sled dogs, laundry for walls of ice—provides the humor in Karge’s dark tale of economic depression.” Dany Margolies found it “simultaneously whimsical and gut-wrenching” She conceded that the play is occasionally “heavy-handed” and “impenetrable,” but she ultimately found it a paean to the power of imagination.

Moving a few notches up the list is DEALING WITH CLAIR at the Matrix Theatre in Hollywood, based on Dany Margolies’ rave. To report fully on this double-cast production, Margolies did what none of the rest of us (scroll down) did: saw both opening nights. She was thus able to admire what she called “an exquisite study of acting choices.” More importantly, she wrote that Martin Crimp’s gnomic unfurling of a real estate deal is given a “production that shames us, shakes us,” and “makes us think about our priorities, moralities, responsibilities, and pathologies.” Most theatregoers won’t get the chance to see it twice, but given that performers are mixed and matched willy-nilly throughout the run rather than in two alternating “A” and “B” casts, Margolies’ review is indispensible.

Pasadena’s Theatre @ Boston Court continues its ambitious first season with the world premiere of Jean Claude Van Itallie’s LIGHT, which recounts the unconventional 18th-century love triangle among Voltaire, Emilie du Chatelet, and King Frederick of Prussia. The Times’ Philip Brandes found it a “remarkably compelling story… beautifully performed” under Jessica Kubzansky’s “stylish direction.” His one quibble—that the playwright “relies extensively on monologues, which make the piece a bit talky”—was a bigger problem for the LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson, who felt these potentially “combustible” characters are “boxed in by soliloquies,” which she called “impeccably written and entirely constraining.” She did, however, praise the actors—Lenny Von Dohlen, Jeannie Hackett, and John Hansen—as “stage wonders.”

Michael Gianakos’ gently absurdist comedy THE ARCHITECT OF DESTINY at the Zephyr in Hollywood got gracious reviews for its zany portrait of a confused young man besieged by crazies. I called it “funny” and “featherweight” (scroll down) in my review for the Times, noting that the cast effectively maintains the play’s “delicately jokey momentum” and comparing the overall effort to “a live-action rendition of a particularly good animated sitcom.” The Weekly’s Neal Weaver also happily went along with the play’s “hilarious, demented ride,” though he thought that “the frenzy is too intense to be sustained.” We both admired Mark L. Taylor’s direction and Nathan Matheny’s cartoony sets.

The LA Weekly’s resident Russophile, Steven Leigh Morris, was less impressed than his colleagues by HEART OF A DOG at Elephant StageWorks in Hollywood. He found this adaptation of Bulgakov’s “novel, with its vicious satire of all things Red, akin to beating a dead dog,” and while he called director/adapter Michael Franco’s production “intriguing,” he wrote that it “wobbles slightly between realism and farce—which may be a consequence of his ensemble’s varying acting styles.” He did agree with his peers (scroll down) that Joe Fria’s “metamorphosis from beast to man is simply magical.” Count this DOG scolded but still yapping.

Tom Grimes’ SPEC at the Alliance Rep in Burbank has gotten mixed-positive reviews for its blend of Hollywood satire and topical humor about the current war. The Weekly’s Neal Weaver wrote that “the clever script is full of quotable one-liners whose comic exaggerations reflect current realities,” and that “Grimes and director Scott Campbell deserve credit for stirring up a storm of tragi-farcical mayhem with only five actors.” The Times’ Philip Brandes agreed but wrote that “its relentless absurdity (scroll down) sometimes puts it at odds with its own darkening tone.” For his part, Back Stage West’s Wenzel Jones thought it looked like a staged screenplay, writing that “Grimes' cynicism and observations thrill, but Scott Campbell's direction dulls the stingers, sort of like Preston Sturges on Prozac.”

Another Hollywood-meets-militarism satire, Larry Gelbart’s MASTERGATE at the Actors Circle Group Theatre in Universal City, divided a pair of critics: Both the Weekly’s Erin Aubry Kapan and the Times’ F. Kathleen Foley praised Gelbart’s “furious wordplay” and “sardonic double-talk” in depicting a Congressional hearing inspired by the Iran-contra scandal. But while Foley called it “a moldy leftover from the Cold War era” with uneven performances, Kaplan found the play “relentlessly witty and well-observed” and the performances “expert all around.”

R.S. Call’s story about a pedophile priest, DAMAGES at the Hudson Mainstage in Hollywood, got one blessing and one damning. The Times’ Daryl H. Miller wrote that the production “teeters between stomach-clenching topical drama and middling melodrama (scroll down), between therapeutic inquiry and sheerest exploitation,” while the Weekly’s Sandra Ross was far more forgiving, writing that while Richard Scanlon’s direction was often “sluggish” and the script too “talky,” the show “achieves some nicely creepy moments” and has a “trio of exceptional performers” in the central roles.

The Belfast-themed SCENES FROM THE BIG PICTURE, The Furious Theatre Company’s first outing at Pasadena Playhouse’s Balcony Theatre Upstairs, got consistently reserved reviews. The Times’ David C. Nichols praised a “literally tireless” 21-member cast executing director Dámaso Rodriguez’s “ultra-choreographed scene changes,” but lamented that the “hyper-kinetic staging dominates to distraction, blurring the accrued overview.” The Weekly’s Steven Mikulan, while praising Rodriguez’s “solid” work with a “fine ensemble,” dimissed Owen McCafferty’s play as “essentially a Belfast soap opera” and an “overlong evening of tantrums and tears.” Back Stage West’s Jennie Webb was more encouraging to “the young, ambitious” company, though she praised the effort rather faintly as “a completely respectable production of Owen McCafferty's careful but often surprising drama,” and concluded diplomatically, “It may not be everyone’s cup of tea.”

Critics didn’t quite see the point of the exotically titled HYENAS, OR THE MONOLOGUE OF THEODORE-FREDERIC BENOIT at Stages Theatre Center in Hollywood, a solo show about a young French murderer starring Eric Szmanda. Back Stage West’s Dink O’Neal wrote that Szmanda “has an almost choreographic take” on the character that “challenges us—nay, dares us to explain why we are seated before him.” The Weekly’s Neal Weaver admired Szmanda’s talent for holding attention but found the piece “extremely French,” by which he meant “placing intellectual thrust above emotional appeal and generating little empathy.” Touché.

Another in a spate of spiritually themed plays, BLUE DOVE at the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood, hasn’t received much love. The Weekly’s Judith Lewis wrote that in attempting to musicalize the “complicated life” of guru J. Krishnamurti, composer/playwright Peter Wells has “squandered… the sparkling gifts” of his singers and actors and “reduced Krishnamurti’s exquisite humor and wisdom to a sappy, smiley-faced tract set to mundane melodies and moon-June lyrics.” (Her samples were priceless: “I don’t want to be/some kind of deity/stuck in celibacy,” and “Christians and Muslims and Jews . . . We’re all here together, sharing this planet!”) Back Stage West’s Jeff Favre agreed and added that “director Mark Papp has his cast overacting to such an extent that several scenes accidentally cross over into camp, eliciting laughs where none are intended… Krishnamurti may have a story worth telling, but this isn't the way do to it.”

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