“Cabaret le Fey” Takes Burlesque to a New Level

Burlesque, an ancient and honorable part of theatre, has always appeared in various forms.

It emerged in the mid-19th century as an exaggerated and often risqué comic form in theatre and music-hall “revues,” tweaking the “serious” art and politics of the day.  At the same time, in night clubs, it appeared as a “girly show” (with or without the satire) where women stripped to tease the patrons.

But by the mid-20th century, burlesque had all but died, thanks to puritanic morality crusades.  It fell to a few superstar performers –such as Lilli St. Cyr, Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Tempest Storm — to keep the art of “exotic dancing” alive.

Cheryl Dole (photo: Adam Neubauer)

Cheryl Dole (photo: Adam Neubauer)

The 21st century is a different world. With sexual positivity and gender fluidity fast becoming cultural norms, burlesque has been reborn. And this time, it’s not about an idealized woman arousing a roomful of anonymous men; it’s about women of every shape and size celebrating their bodies, and everyone enjoying the shared mystery of sexuality. (The satire has morphed into  character dances, half cosplay tribute and half gentle parody.)

The rebirth has come swiftly.  A decade ago, groundbreaking LA impresaria Amanda Marquardt was staging 20- to 50-seat shows anywhere she could find space. Today, several companies regularly fill such large venues as Fais Do Do with hundreds of chanting fans.

At the same time, one of the sweetest parts of burlesque tradition has been been brought back to glowing life at the Vampire Lounge in Beverly Hills.

Cheryl Doyle, Deneen Melody, Vanessa Cate, Natalie Hyde (photo: Adam Neubauer)

Cheryl Doyle, Deneen Melody, Vanessa Cate, Natalie Hyde (photo: Adam Neubauer)

Every other Thursday night, a group called Cabaret le Fey presents about 90 minutes of new, original numbers; many of the shows have dark themes befitting the venue. There’s usually a trio of dancers — and the tiny wine bar holds only two to three times that many patrons.

The result is an intimacy even greater than in the cabarets of Paris (which Toulouse-Lautrec painted) or Berlin (immortalized in the films Blue Angel and Cabaret). There is no stage, no proscenium. Each dancer performs within a few inches of every audience member.

The boundaries begin to blur. You feel the tension and release in each movement, the electricity of each emotion passes through your body … you’re being performed with, not just performed for.
The dancer is not a sexual object, nor only the subject of her own sexuality; instead, you sense her moving both your bodies at once — a communion more subtle and more thrilling than any strip tease.

Cabaret le Fey is  an offshoot of True Focus Theater, an adventurous woman-centered troupe that has created memorable multimedia theatre in its few years (Cat Fight; Love Sucks; and Hex, currently running at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater in NoHo).  Artistic director Vanessa Cate performs regularly at the Vampire, along with Deneen Melody and Cheryl Doyle (both choreographers), though other True Focus artists often step in.

The Cabaret le Fey team has been sharing their quietly intimate form of burlesque for several months now, with individual shows planned up to Thanksgiving week.  To enjoy an experience that could not exist until this time, in this place, arrive early and join the lucky few.
Cabaret le Fey, at the Vampire Lounge, 9865 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills 90210.

Alternate Thursdays at 9:00.

No reservations, no cover charge; 1-drink minimum.
Check for performances at <truefocustheater.com/cabaret-le-fey> or (310) 826-7473.


3 New Trick-or Treats: “Nevermore,” “Fallen Saints” and “Dracula”

In less time than it takes a millennial to finish high school, Halloween has grown into the City of Angels’ second-largest theatre season (after the summer Hollywood Fringe Festival).

But it’s not about angels. Fall’s luxuriant growth is full of haunts, escape rooms and mystery tales, all done with black ink, charcoal, and the bright burst of fresh blood.

Here are just three of this year’s new offerings for fright fans:

“NEVERMORE” — A Playful, Twisty Poe Mystery

Elise Golgowski, Michael Lutheran

Elise Golgowski, Michael Lutheran

Theatre Unleashed in NoHo brings another full-length new work out of its deep wine cellar,  uncorking Matt Ritchey’s witty pastiche, Nevermore. Ritchey, director Sean Fitzgerald and the troupe play freely with Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, his stories, and his life.

The result is a tasty dark pastry laced with humor, happily free from dull historical accuracy. It is, however, very accurate to the early 19th-century America Poe inhabited. It’s also studded with Easter eggs for those who know the horror master’s tortuous bio and full bookshelf.

Michael Lutheran (Edgar) and David Foy (his old friend Montresor) shape the mystery’s twisted spine, while David Caprita (a menacing majordomo) and Elise Golgowski  (Lenore) flesh out the terror.  Poe famously said  the most poetic topic is the death of a beautiful woman; Golgowski’s enigmatic Lenore makes us believers.

Oh, and there’s a hidden egg for actors, as the redoubtable Courtney Sara Bell turns a simple “exposition character” into a brilliantly nuanced driver of the tale’s tension.

Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8:00 til Nov. 5,  at The Belfry, 11031 Camarillo St.  <www.theatreunleashed.org> or (818)849-4039. 

“FALLEN SAINTS” — Meeting with a Victorian Medium

An audience member meets a revenant (photo: Adam Neubauer)

An audience member meets a revenant (photo: Adam Neubauer)

The new Force of Nature Company invites us into a 19th-century funeral home at a tiny NoHo storefront.  Gradually, we realize we’re walking toward a seance, and (if we know our Victorian villains) we may suspect whose turf we’re invading.

A grimly cheerful undertaker (Wyn Harris) welcomes us to the compact tour, where a blinded musician (Anatol Felsen) screeches a coffinside serenade and an unhinged scientist (Gloria Galvan) shows off her grisly gathered gifts.  Hectored along by a biblical prophet, we enter the presence of an elegant spiritualist (Michelle Danyn); she’s inhabited by a succession of wraiths from beyond, who all point to a mystery.  Then — suddenly– it is resolved.

This is not a leap-out-at-you chamber of horrors, but a more low-keyed exploration that pleases your fancy and teases your mind, even if you’re not a period geek.  Performances are focused and strong (especially the mercurial Galvan and the commanding yet vulnerable Danyn); the tour is a bit brief, and its tension could be heightened.  But Fallen Saints promises to become a worthy addition to the city’s fall fear fest, and a gentle introduction for newbies.

Fridays and Saturday (5 shows between 7:00 and 10:00) thru Oct. 29, at The Actors Group, 2813 W. Magnolia Blvd. <www.fonproductions.com> .

“DRACULA” — Fresh Telling of a Familiar Tale

April Morrow, Paul Romero (photo: Shane Tometich)

April Morrow, Paul Romero (photo: Shane Tometich)

The Count arose to life 120 years ago in Bram Stoker’s novel,
and the classic film (with Bela Lugosi)  is 85 years old. But the Loft Ensemble’s new,  streamlined version is well worth seeing.

In adapting  Dracula: Blood Before Dawn, Raymond Donahey has compressed Stoker’s sprawling classic into a swift tale of love, lust and conflict. The loves are a lesbian romance — Mina (Ainsley Peace) and the ill-fated Lucy (Lauren Sperling) — and an intense Platonic bond that grows between Mina and Dr. Seward (Paul Romero). The lusts are what drive the two antagonists  — Van Helsing (Marz Richards), who’s passionate for life, and Dracula (Matt Gorkis), who’s addicted to power and death.

Though Donahey preserves the chase drama at the story’s core, it is not Van Helsing but Mina who confronts Dracula at the climax.  She’ll let him take her into eternal half-death if they will use their immortal powers for enhancing life; he, seeing no value in life, insists she help him spread suffering and death. She loses this existential duel, but Van Helsing — affirming both life and death — overpowers the vampire and destroys him.

Dracula: Blood Before Dawn deals more openly with sexual and gender issues than the Victorian original; its characters’ lively interest in Darwin, Freud and Neitzsche also make it more intellectually satisfying.  The set design, by Mitch Rosander and Bree Pavey, is broodingly atmospheric (yet marvelously clever). The performances range from adequate to excellent, with Gorkis’ open, quiet elegance and hidden despair; Richards’ self-irony and rousing arias; and April Morrow’s perfectly embodied Mary (Donahey’s version of the insane acolyte Renfield) taking the palms.

The Loft Ensemble has created a work that deserves a permanent place in the lore of the Transylvanian count; it should resonate fully and long with 21-century audiences.  This debut production is strong, and — with directorial attention to a few performance details (some of which may smooth out now that opening night is past) — on the way to being uniformly excellent.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 7:00, thru Nov. 13, at 13442 Ventura Blvd.,Sherman Oaks.  <loftensemble.secure.force.com/ticket> .




“Hex” Puts the Focus on Women’s Mystery, Power

What is it to be a woman?

This has been one of the animating concerns of True Focus, an inventive woman-centered troupe with a strong aesthetic sense led by founding director Vanessa Cate, in its three years onstage.

For this year’s Halloween season, the company zeroes in tight on the question — and rather than finding an answer, they celebrate a labyrinth of mysteries.

(top) Alariza Nevarez, Cheryl Doyle, Sasha Snow; (middle) Marietta Melrose, Vanessa Cate, Ashley J. Woods; (bottom) Caitlin Fowler, Deneen Melody.

(top) Alariza Nevarez, Cheryl Doyle, Sasha Snow; (middle) Marietta Melrose, Vanessa Cate, Ashley J. Woods; (bottom) Caitlin Fowler, Deneen Melody.

In an hourlong series of  short pieces, most of them using dance storytelling, we are moved rapidly from tragedy to comedy and back, and we’re always fascinated.  There’s a light bit about an invisible man, another about three witches (hello, Macbeth) seeking a virgin sacrifice … but the dominant tone is dark.

At the heart of the show, Cate and Emma Pauly together chant Poe’s The Raven, summoning an austerely erotic Caitlin Fowler.  This morphs into Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, with Pauly summoning the devil (Cate) — which then transforms into a dance-tale of the devil seducing a woman (Deneen Melody),  who is then burned as a witch.

There are she-wolves (in a delightfully re-imagined Little Red Riding Hood, led by Sasha Snow), wives lamenting absent sailors (or are they sirens recalling their prey?), vampires and more.

Hex can be enjoyed as a seasonal pleasure, ringing the changes of our culture’s lore with lots of beautiful women dancing.  But it offers far more: a non-polemic exploration of what it has meant to be a woman in Western societies, and a powerful evocation of the innate gifts — and insoluble mysteries — of the human female.
Hex, by various authors and the company, directed by Vanessa Cate.
Presented by True Focus Theater & Cabaret le Fey, at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., LA 91601.

Tuesdays at 10:00,
through October 25th.

Tickets:  <www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2602548>

Warm, Gentle “Ceremony” Closes After 3 Years

Ceremony is about a life-changing experience.

It can also be one, and it has for many who’ve watched Michael Kass
recount his ayahuasca journey at venues around the country over the last three-plus years.

For those who don’t find it life-changing, Kass’ one-man show does prove warm, entertaining, and deeply life-afffirming.


(photo: Aysia Michelle @isaonair)

Like most theatrical soloists, Kass performs an autobiographic tale.
He keeps it simple: plastic buckets for set and props, no costumes, and voice shifts to evoke the half-dozen other characters who briefly appear.

(To be fair, there are over 100 sound and light cues, deftly provided by Alysia Michelle on closing night.)

Kass is equally sparing about information.  One word, one gesture gives us all we need to know about his parents; the love of his life speaks a single sentence.  Yet we understand intimately how he comes to inhabit the Slough of Despond (as John Bunyan, another gifted spiritual monologist,  called it 340 years ago).

A quickly told string of brief encounters — and impulsive decisions — leads him to a retreat high in the Andes, to meet the potent drug known as “Mother Ayahuasca.”  Here, in richer detail, Kass shares the moments, both harrowing and humorous, that changed his life.

Kass (unlike Bunyan) does not proselytize, nor even describe  his altered life.  It’s up to us to conclude that the fruit of his fearful pilgrimage is this man we’ve just spent the hour with — humble, self-deprecating, funny, and readily open.

Saturday’s staging — at director/producer Diana Wyenn’s home — was the last of Ceremony‘s numerous pop-up performances (which have won awards in LA, San Francisco and San Diego).  Kass and Wyenn deserve our sincere thanks for providing an experience that’s riveting,  lively, often hilarious, and offers us an unspoken invitation to reflect on our own spiritual quests.
Ceremony: A True Tale of Love, Fear and Ayahuasca, by Michael Kass, directed by Diana Wyenn.
Presented at various locations throughout the United States.


Jacqueline Wright, Albert Dayan (photo: Darrett Sanders)

“Blueberry Toast” Slices Deep into our Fantasies

Edward Albee isn’t dead.  And Antonin Artaud is laughing in his grave.

Because Mary Laws is alive and well and writing plays, and the Echo Theater Company is producing them.

In Blueberry Toast, world-premiering at the Atwater VillageTheatre, Laws answers the Frenchman’s  call for a “theatre of cruelty” like Joan of Arc taking up arms for the archangel Michael.  And she presses the American master’s lacerating satire to places even he didn’t go.

It starts simply enough.  A bright, cute kitchen (scene design: Amanda Knehans) and perky music (sound design: Jeff Gardner) gently mock the suburban dream, suggesting where we’re going.  Enter Walt and Barb.  He’s floating in satisfaction, she’s smiling and attentive.

Soon, though, he casts yearning glances outside their cozy domicile,  and she looks at unguarded moments as if she’s swallowed the Franco-Prussian War and been unable to digest it.  She cajoles him into having breakfast; he asks for blueberry pancakes; she serves him blueberry compote on toast.  The glove has been thrown down.

As their marital tete-a-tete escalates to mano-a-mano and beyond, their two children, Jill and Jack, rush in and out.  They’re excited to show off a play they’re creating, one act at a time, and — except for a hilarious TMI moment  when they interrupt violent sex — fail to grasp what’s happening.

Through all three acts of the children’s play, and the brutal crescendo of their parents’ warfare, the audience is laughing helplessly, loud and long — even at the end, when Jill mourns like Electra and Jack sits stunned, an infant Orpheus descending into madness.

In Laws’ hands, the layers of wishing and pretending peel off of the suburban fantasy at breakneck speed, leaving only the dark matter of blood.  What’s remarkable is that on this ride from Disneyland into hell, she has us laughing all the way.

Laws has a precise eye and ear, and a wonderful sense of rhythm and structure.  She lets every syllable mean.  Her writing gifts are amplified by Dustin Wills’ deft, relentless direction, and by the unstinting work of the actors.

Alexandra Freeman’s Jill bounces effervescently, and Michael Sturgis as Jack follows diffidently in her wake.  Neither role could be played by a child,  and these two subtly remind us of how we infantilize our offspring, teaching them not to trust what they see or know.

As Walt, Albert Dayan is delightfully self-centered, remaining blithely clueless about anyone else’s feelings to the bitter end.  His monolog about himself (a  gentle parody of his namesake Whitman?) skewers men everywhere, and his self-righteous woundedness is a joy to behold, even as we wince with recognition.  Masterfully underplayed.

Of course, the demon in this lovely machine, the unfailing source of its energy, is Barb.  And Jacqueline Wright is a virtuoso, taking us through fifty shades of crazy without missing a nuance.   As Barb allows herself to feel  indignity after indignity, then unleashes anger after anger, we howl with laughter — in anticipation of her next act, and in her execution of it.  We know her pain too well, and feel ourselves released when she lets fly.  Barb is a brilliant but terrifyingly difficult role, and Wright gives it one of this year’s great comic performances.

Artaud wanted theatre to shock audiences out of their complacency; Albee wanted it to show us the truth beneath the stories we tell  ourselves.  Mary Laws wants to be “a badassmotherfuckingwriter.”  Echo Theater Company’s production of Blueberry Toast grants all their wishes, and presents American theater with a dark jewel.
Blueberry Toast, by Mary Laws, directed by Dustin Wills.
Presented by the Echo Theater Company, at Atwater Village Theatre,  3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00,
through October 24th.
Mondays (September 19th and 26th, and  October 24th only) at 8:00.

Tickets:   <www.echotheatercompany.com>  or  (310) 307-3753.



“Mexican Trilogy” Artfully Tells Vital American Story

Three full-length plays in one evening?  That’s ambitious.

A century in a family’s life, spanning four generations and two cultures?  Ambitious again.

The Latino Theater Company pulls it off with panache in its newest  creation, A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story. The three plays – Faith, Hope and Charity — are onstage at downtown’s LA Theatre Center.  Using a bold scenic design (by Francois-Pierre Couture) that stacks a half-dozen playing areas in an upstage box wall; powerfully dramatic projections (by Yee Eun Nam); and a daring sound design (by John Zalewski), the LTC troupe unfolds its panoramic tale with wit and warmth, punctuating the story with adroitly chosen popular songs.

Evelina Fernandez, Olivia Cristina Delgado; (rear) Sal Lopez, Sam Golzari, Esperanza America (photo: Grettel Cortes)

Evelina Fernandez, Olivia Cristina Delgado; (rear) Sal Lopez, Sam Golzari, Esperanza America (photo: Grettel Cortes)

The cycle begins in a Mexico swept by revolution, moves to an Arizona mining town and then to Phoenix, and ends in the Los Angeles of 2005.  We follow la familia as it evolves, with the twelve actors shifting characters along the way.   Yet as family members grow and change and die, we also see how some things endure, like traditions, or keep showing up, like genes or habits.

One danger in such an ambitious undertaking is overwhelm — will we lose track of the many-stranded story, or lose interest over the six hours of its telling?  We don’t.  Every element of the production is handled so skilfully that we stay effortlessly engaged, even over the break for dinner (or as we did, from one evening to the next).

Another danger is stereotyping — moving through an entire century and 30 characters in six hours, can each person appear individual and real?  Will historic events be merely quick cartoons? Again, no problem.  As swiftly as the story moves, the playwright gives each character time to reveal inner layers, and the actors make it happen.  And the projections and sound design make each crucial moment echo long after it has passed, as such moments do in memory.

In an ensemble production of such uniformly high quality, it’s nearly impossible to single out artists. Whether handling one role (as Lucy Rodriguez does throughout, and Robert Beltran does in Charity) or several (as everyone else does), the actors demonstrate  impressive  range and versatility.  Even the playwright, Fernández, steps into four roles across the three plays.

Nothing about A Mexican Trilogy leads us to expect a musical.  So we are surprised early on when the sisters Faith, Hope and Elena manage a credible imitation of the Andrews Sisters; then they get even better; and then later, we are stunned by the solos of Ella Saldaña North and Esperanza America.  Sal Lopez — who handles a handful of roles, from young priest to aged paterfamilias to a burned-out veteran — also croons romanticos; and Julio Macias and Kenneth Miles Ellington step into power rock classics with ease.

Now three decades old, the Latino Theater Company under founder José Luis Valenzuela has matured into a troupe that can take on any challenge, as their masterful handling of this epic demonstrates.  A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story is not only a dynamic theatrical  experience, it’s a vital cultural record.  It deserves to be seen all over  this country — and perhaps Mexico as well. The only question is how many companies can match LTC’s bold artistry, or will dare to try.
A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story, by Evelina Fernández, directed by José Luis Valenzuela.
Presented by the Latino Theater Company, at the LA Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles 90013.

Thursdays (Part A) and Fridays (Part B) at 8:00,
Saturdays at 5:00 (Part A) and 8:30 (Part B),
Sundays at 3:00 (Part A) and 6:30 (Part B),through October 9th.

Tickets: <www.TheLATC.org> or (866) 811-4111.




“Anais”: New Wine Bursts the Old Goatskins

When Anaïs Nin began writing, almost 100 years ago, the literary world had no way to deal with her.

To be sure, there were liberated women in Paris after World War I — performers, writers, sexual adventurers who littered the Left Bank cafés and shone at Gertrude Stein’s salons.  But none wrote as frankly and freely about the sensual life as Nin, who claimed the same liberty — in her personal life as well as her writing– that Henry Miller was carving out for men.

anais 1

Nin had to write anonymous dollar-a-page porn to support herself.  Later, as her own works were published, readers who avidly followed her tempestuous sexual odyssey denounced her in public, punishing her with puritan prudery for daring to live an unplanned, embodied life.

Not until the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s did Nin receive more than grudging respect as an artist — and still, thirty years later, she was savaged by her first biographer.  Only now are her stormy life and work appearing onstage.

To capture this whirlwind, librettist/composer Cindy Shapiro and director/choreographer Janet Roston devised a new theatrical form — a dance opera.   “Eternal Anaïs,” a narrator  garbed like the Interlocutor of a burlesque show, weaves together 17 scenes, with a song for each; meanwhile “Anaïs,” a dancer, enacts each episode.  They’re supported by a versatile five-member troupe who dance, sing and act as needed, and by the constant flow of images and words — which were Nin’s lifeblood — on the upstage screen.

Shapiro’s music is unconventional and daring, and creates a world that flows steadily through the scenes; Roston’s energetic and often lyrical choreography similarly sustains the tone throughout. And the projections, by Joe LaRue and James Levy, are a marvel — yet they always serve the story.

Still, it’s up to two bravura performers to carry the show.  Marisa Matthews (“Eternal Anaïs”) almost never leaves the stage, singing her way — often at full belt — through a solid hour and a half.  Her focus and clarity, her ability to charm the audience, and her ease at synchronizing with recorded tracks are simply astounding.  Micaela De Pauli (Anaïs) dances a full-length modern ballet with hardly a moment’s break; she creates a character we know and follow through every subtle change, and leaves us gasping.

The multi-talented ensemble members — Denise Woods, Jacqueline Hinton, Mathew D’Amico, Quinn Jaxon, and Michael Quiett — meet equally fierce demands (and handle the scene changes) with grace. In addition, Jaxon creates Nin’s first husband, a shy banker; D’Amico blusters on as her second, a film actor and outdoorsman; and Quiett shakes her world as Henry Miller, her great mentor and lover.

Putting a whole life onstage is a nearly impossible challenge:  There’s so much to tell, and so little time.  Anaïs takes us into an incredibly complex life, and does it more effectively — and poetically — than any theatrical biography I can recall.

When you arrive the Greenway Court Theatre, you may expect to be shocked by Anaïs Nin’s sexual frankness, as generations have been. Then again, in our polygendered, polyamorous era, you may not be. But you definitely will meet her — and be stunned by the artistry of the storytelling.
Anaïs: A Dance Opera, by Janet Roston and Cindy Shapiro, directed by Janet Roston.
Presented by Mixed eMotion Theatrix and Diana Raab, at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., LA 90036.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through September 18th.

Tickets:  <www.GreenwayCourtTheatre.org> .


“Farragut North”: A Taut, Timely Political Tragedy

‘Tis the season to be cynical.

Election season, when billions of dollars flood the country in search of votes, when TV and internet screens are clogged with ads and arguments.

Just the time for a slick, smart play about politics.  And that’s what Farragut North seems to promise. We’re in Iowa, days before the caucuses, with the campaign team of the Democratic front-runner, a progressive from Vermont.

At first, it’s hard not to look for the real-world parallels.  The governor is raising his money from small donations. Sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders — or Howard Dean (also from Vermont), who pioneered populist funding in his 2004  White House bid.  And our playwright, Beau Willimon, worked on Dean’s staff.

So the first half of Farragut North weaves the frantic, tangled web of high-stakes politics.  We follow press secretary Stephen Bellamy as he angles for coverage from a New York Times reporter, takes an intern to bed, then gets a secret call from the opposing camp.

The call turns everything upside down.  We now see the seamy side of the process — the fakery, the backroom deals, the dirty tricks.  But we see Stephen do the right thing: He tells his boss.

So Act I sketches a swift, savvy picture of politics — its bright, busy surface and its dark, mean underside.  Act II gives us an equally swift, equally dark tragedy: The fall of a man undone by the flaw in his character.  Each scene reveals a surprise, and by the end there’s nothing left of Stephen, not even a lesson learned.

Willimon can show the dark side — he’s the creator of the bleak Netflix hit, House of Cards, about a Macbeth-like couple who reach the White House by stepping over corpses.  But he also shows us more — the deep, complex story of human yearnings and failings beneath the cynical shell. We care about Stephen, even as we loathe his weakness, and what it drives him to do.

Staging this fast-moving, many-layered drama is far from easy.   But Conejo Players Theatre, known for big musicals, does a crisp, compelling job.  Designer John Eslick starts us off with a set that looks simple and familiar — yet eerily foreboding.  Director Elissa Anne Polansky puts it all in motion and keeps it there, never letting the pace or focus drop; she makes juggling knives look easy.

The players rise to the occasion commendably.  Eslick, as the opposing campaign manager, uses his power gently but firmly, a helpful uncle who’s seen it all yet hasn’t become bitter.  Bryan White, as Stephen’s harried boss, nicely hints that he may be in a tad deep, then delivers the first of Act II’s hammer blows in a strong, finely balanced monolog.  And Allison Klinker creates a polished pro of a reporter who’s comfortable sinking to any level.

Parker Harris brings to Stephen the troubling combination of intelligence and unthinking privilege, wielding his wits with charisma but little wisdom.  And Katy Jarvis’ precocious, coltish Molly circles him like a moth entranced by a flame.  Both make us wince at what their characters don’t know they don’t know.

Fred Saliba also deserves a word for his humble monolog as the Waiter, and Beth Glasner for costumes that are invisibly apt, even when clothes become part of the story.

This is a play that leaves you thinking — and talking.  Beyond the razzle-dazzle of power flowing back and forth, there’s the real point of it all: Whom does the power serve?  Beneath the snappy cynicism, there’s a timeless question:  What is virtue, and how do we live it?

Farragut North is as tight and deep a political drama as we’ve had in decades.  Conejo Players are doing it proud.  See it before you vote.
Farragut North, by Beau Willimon, directed by Elissa Anne Polansky.
Presented by Conejo Players Theatre, 351 S. Moorpark Rd., Westlake Village 91361.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through September 17th.

Tickets: <www.conejoplayers.org> or (805) 495-3715.





Horror Shot: ZJU Serves 2,400-year-old “Medea”

The ancient Greeks wrote tragedies and comedies, right?

Medea is neither — it’s a horror story, pure and simple.  And it may be the world’s oldest one, having debuted in Athens some 2,400 years ago.

For its most recent appearance — at Zombie Joe’s Undergound — director Denise Devin has pared Euripides’ full-length play down to a swift and sudden hour of terror.

Medea is not about a man who, like Oedipus, tries to counter his fate and loses to the gods. It’s about a woman who is betrayed by a man, and plans a terrible revenge.

Medea, a princess in a “barbarian” land, is swept away by her husband Jason to the Greek city of Corinth.  After they’re settled long enough to have two sons, Jason has the opportunity to wed the daughter of King Creon, removing the stain of foreignness his wife has brought.

But this will reduce Medea to the status of a concubine, and she will lose her sons to the royal family. She refuses, but cannot change the plan. So she vows revenge on all concerned.

Surprisingly, the gods don’t get in her way, or punish her afterward. Medea swiftly accomplishes her plans, and we are horrified — by her increasingly inhuman actions, and by her apotheosis as a superhuman figure at the end.

By compressing this drama into a single hour, Devin has created a superhuman challenge. The actor who plays Medea must be at a high pitch of ferocity from start to finish, swelling to a climax beyond human — and  with no “recovery time” between scenes, while the Chorus and others debate the action (as in the original).

Fortunately, ZJU has Jonica Patella.  A force on any stage, Patella drives toward her revenge with operatic power, yet along the way reveals a full range of emotions (and dynamics, from triple forte to pianissimo). She is by turns confused, contrite, reasonable, seductive, and overcome by love  — yet implacable in her hatred. Patella’s Medea is so human we can’t help but feel her sufferings; yet so obsessed that by the end, we feel we’re losing our contact with her.  As we should: She has become a monster.

As her well-intentioned but clueless mate Jason, Alex Walters delivers an accurate, almost comic portrait of the privileged male who works hard to get ahead and can’t imagine what all the fuss is about. The ensemble weaves the world around the ill-fated pair: Dale Sandler’s adamant Creon bends nicely at the crucial moment; Louise Claps delivers a stolid Nurse who can’t hide her affections; Larray Grimes’ Messenger makes us feel his shock at the horrid climax; and a Comforters/Chorus trio, led by Dawn Davis, keep Corinth real.

The staging, in Zombie Joe’s tiny black box, is artful and very effective.  From the taiko drums (Xandra-Marie Gabucan and Isaku Kageyama) to Medea’s shocking makeup, to the deft way the Comforters turn into the Chorus and back, we are made to feel the swift story’s incredibly high stakes.  And Medea’s final moment — as a dragonlike apparition (kudos to Devlin and Cristina Brunet) — perfectly translates for a modern audience the awe and horror of Euripides’ ending.

On opening night one or two nerves were noticeable, but that’s ironed out by now.  If you like horror — and are strong enough to take it straight, no sweet mixer, no ice — then step up to NoHo for Medea.  You’ll be shaken, but you won’t be sorry.
Medea, by Euripides, adapted, directed and choreographed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Fridays at 8:30,
Sundays at 7:00,
through September 11th.

Tickets: <www.ZombieJoes.com> or (818) 202-4120.



Seeking a Smart Comedy? Try “One of the Nice Ones”

For 25 years, David Mamet’s Oleanna has reigned as the queen of dark comedies about gender roles and power in American society.

Meet the new queen.

One of the Nice Ones, by LA playwright Erik Patterson, has sharp dialog in the Noel Coward tradition, lots of lively theatricality, and more sudden switchbacks than a mountain road. And you can see it this weekend in Atwater, where The Echo Theater is giving it a world premiere.

Graham Hamilton, Rebecca Gray

Graham Hamilton, Rebecca Gray

The comic conflict occurs in the offices of a weight-loss program, between a call-room worker and her male supervisor.  She’s floridly neurotic, he’s a blooming  sociopath, and both are devilishly clever.

I won’t tell you the story.  But I will tell you that this sparkling script gets a full-speed, often effervescent performance. Rebecca Gray, as the caller, shifts shape swiftly and subtly, managing to keep her suffering real while making us laugh; and Graham Hamilton gets us almost liking a guy we wish we’d never met.  Rodney To, the hapless foil, nimbly tumbles down the steps of decompensation; and Tara Karsian brings sanity into the room twice, first as a bewildered customer and then as an Athena-like judge of the furies.

Of course, a soufflé needs whipping, and director Chris Fields keeps things astir with a steady hand.  Scenic designer Amanda Knehans captures the mood with a complex visual puzzle of a set that reveals itself bit by bit, usually in the brisk scene changes; her playfully unfolding mystery creates a fine analog of the story’s action.

The Echo always delivers strong acting and high production values. In this play, they’re working with a script that’s painfully relevant yet laugh-out-loud risible, and the result is a timely comedy that deserves to be around a long time — it really is One of the Nice Ones.

One of the Nice Ones, by Erik Patterson, directed by Chris Fields.
Presented by The Echo Theater Company, at Atwater Villlage Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00 and 7:00,
through August 21st.

Tickets: <www.EchoTheaterCompany.com> or (310) 307-3753.