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‘Mound Builders’ is worth all the talk

Lanford Wilson’s “The Mound Builders,” now at the Open Fist, is one of the playwright’s strongest works, a discursive yet pointed drama that only occasionally lapses into the self-conscious chatter to which Wilson is prone.

A multiple Obie winner in the mid-1970s, the play has been infrequently produced in recent years. Now director Martin Bedoian and his superlative cast give local audiences the chance to see it done to a fine turn. The plot, which flashes back and forth in time, concerns a summer excavation of an ancient Indian village -- an undertaking made all the more complicated by the new dam nearby that is causing the valley to slowly fill with water. When they’re not off at the nearby dig, the chief archeologists, professor August Howe (Bart Tangredi) and his assistant, Dan Loggins (Kevin T. McCarthy), are sequestered in a nearby cabin (Donna Marquet’s convincingly ramshackle set). Also in residence are Howe’s wife, Cynthia (Hope Shapiro), their daughter Kirsten (Mary Ann Springer) and Dan’s pregnant wife, Jean (Amy Watt), a gynecologist on leave from her practice. Under Howe’s dispassionate eye, Cynthia has been carrying on a brazen affair with Chad Jasker (Ryan Honey), the local youth whose father owns the land where the excavation is taking place. Chad is romantically obsessed with Jean while at the same time nursing a covert homosexual attraction for her husband. When Howe’s famous sister, D.K. (Jennifer Pennington), is toted onto the scene in a state of alcoholic collapse, the emotional round robin is given vertiginous new momentum.

Before the inevitable topple into tragedy, we are privy to fiercely intelligent interactions, far-ranging conversation, cultural clashes and frustrated romantic yearning, with a bracing dose of female bonding thrown in for good measure. Under Bedoian’s firm guidance, the funny, fiercely intelligent performers glide over their occasionally long-winded exchanges with style and grace.

“The Mound Builders,” Open Fist Theatre, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-

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Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 16. $15. (323) 882-6912. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

--F. Kathleen Foley

*

Multiple plot lines snarl in ‘Cotillion’

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Douglas Sirk meets Radclyffe Hall in “Cotillion,” playing at the Renberg Theater as part of the Edge of the World Festival. This Lucid by Proxy production of Jeanette Scherrer’s coming-of-age play has an interesting premise; its content is another coming-out party altogether.

Set in 1957 Alabama, Scherrer’s plot centers on 18-year-old Becky Teasdale (Shannon Nelson). Her recently remarried father is perpetually away on business, leaving his daughter in the uneasy care of her socially minded stepmother, Mae Belle (Tina Gloss).

Mae Belle distracts herself from spousal neglect and stepchild indifference by focusing on the upcoming debutantes’ ball. Becky is reluctant to attend, though wealthy neighbor Johnny (Robert Porch) is mad to be her escort.

Childhood confidante Nattie (Sarah Culberson), daughter of the Teasdales’ housekeeper, Celie (Kila Kitu), thinks Becky the luckiest girl in town. Meanwhile, Becky secretly carries a torch for Johnny’s sister, Cassandra (Sara Weller).

Scherrer’s direction elicits good work from her actors, with the wide-eyed Nelson especially fresh casting. However, the script’s cramped narrative line defeats the multiple plot convolutions, with the racial intolerance thread almost a different play.

The conflict resolution between Mae Belle and Celie, for all of Gloss and Kitu’s talent, plays out like an “ABC Afterschool Special,” while Weller’s bad girl is a compendium of cliches. Something special lurks within “Cotillion,” but it requires serious rewriting to fully emerge.

“Cotillion,” Renberg Theater, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, the Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. Saturday, 2 p.m.; Oct. 26, 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 26. $15. (818) 786-2229. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

--DAVID C. NICHOLS

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*

‘Supreme Being’: Don’t analyze this

Perched at the outer edge of EdgeFest 2002, “Supreme Being” at Stages Theatre Center affords a rare local opportunity to enter avant theater figure Richard Foreman’s idiosyncratic ontological-hysteric zone, at the intersection of metaphysics and paranoia.

Conventional expectations of plot, character and realism are best checked at the door. Foreman’s signature method is to construct pieces out of his daily written musings, unedited and with no predetermined assignment of words to individual characters. Structure, such as it is, surfaces in the rehearsal process, building on the text’s resonances in the performers.

Tanya Kane-Perry, who has worked with Foreman as actor and director, set out to preserve the integrity of that process in staging “Supreme Being,” which is assembled from Foreman’s voluminous notes (many of which are downloadable from www.ontological.com). In a surreal limbo called the Radio Hotel, five women intone, sing and puzzle over the curious lines that seem to pop spontaneously from their lips -- hotel existence as a form of self-discovery. Carla Melo spends most of the piece lounging in a cube frame. Zeljka Gortinski mines witty reactions to the diverse assortment of poles she’s stuck with, Mari Garcia lip-syncs salsa tunes in a hula skirt, and Naomi Azar flits about the stage like Ariel on angel dust.

Among “Supreme Being’s” cerebral conundrums are “Let’s suppose that consciousness is a way of lying about the world”; “I talk to myself, which means I don’t have to move my lips”; “The food that enters the mouth mirrors the mind”; “Hunger is something you should consider an obligation”; and “Ready ... set ... don’t think.”

That latter is particularly good advice. Rational analysis will only get you in trouble here. Far better to let the text and images wash over you, and allow meaning to emerge from the show’s recombinant associations and repetitions -- not unlike the music of Steve Reich, in which the listener extracts patterns from a series of notes constantly shifting in and out of phase with one another (Reich’s “Desert Music” is even used at one point).

Like all Foreman pieces, this one will never be remounted, but the lines could be recycled in fortune cookies for a Mensa party or a mental ward -- I’m not sure which.

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“Supreme Being,” Stages Theatre Center, 1540 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 p.m. (additional 4 p.m. show this Saturday); Sundays, 1 and 8 p.m.; Ends Nov. 3. $12. (323) 465-1010. Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes.

--PHILIP BRANDES

*

‘AmeriKafka’ in need of a pruning

“AmeriKafka,” Ken Prestininzi’s world-premiere play at the MET, is a disappointingly haphazard exercise inspired by the life and writings of Franz Kafka. The action is set in Prague in 1924, the “threshold moment” just before Kafka’s early death from tuberculosis. As Kafka (Silas Weir Mitchell) gasps his last, we are privy to his disjointed dying thoughts, a hallucinatory reverie that takes us back and forth in time and in and out of reality.

The freewheeling plot vacillates between loosely adapted scenes from “Amerika,” Kafka’s early, unfinished picaresque novel about an Eastern European youth’s bizarre experiences in the promised land of America, and incidents from Kafka’s life, with particular emphasis on his friendship with Itzhak Lowy (David Razowsky), a prominent director and actor on Prague’s Yiddish theater scene.

Within that framework, director Loren Rubin, acclaimed for last season’s production of “The Master and Margarita” at the Zoo District, attempts a sweeping and ambitious staging, complete with dance and song sequences, live klezmer music (a highlight) and complicated design elements. Certainly, Kafka’s highly visual and wildly inventive writing lends itself to dramatization, as countless other theatrical adaptations have proved. But Rubin’s direction seems oddly flat, the play philosophically muddled, the actors ill-equipped to handle the vocal requirements of the original songs by music director Brenda Varda and Beth Bergman.

Using surrealism as a springboard, Prestininzi tries to make the leap from the prosaic to the profound, employing events from Kafka’s admittedly uneventful life to make grandiose statements about American decadence, the Nazi scourge and the indispensable role of the theater in Jewish culture. Perhaps with a lot more stagecraft and a little more pruning -- particularly of those painfully atonal musical interludes -- he can yet make his case.

“AmeriKafka,” MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 17. $20. (323) 957-1152. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

--F.K.F.


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