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Enduring oppression with music

In his ongoing cycle of plays chronicling the struggles of African Americans during each decade of the last century, August Wilson has imbued everyday experience with the depth and gravitas of classical tragedy. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the first in the series (and Wilson’s first work to appear on Broadway), explores the tortured void of racial identity and powerlessness confronting a band of black backup musicians in the 1920s.

Director Claude Purdy’s handsomely staged revival at Hollywood’s Lillian Theatre sports solid lead performances, though some awkward timing misses some of Wilson’s finer-pitched nuances.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 21, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 21, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Actor’s name -- In the Feb. 13 Calendar section, a review of the play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” at the Lillian Theatre, mistakenly used a character’s name, Mel Sturdyvant, in place of the actor’s name. The character is played by Joseph Ruskin.

The production’s high point is its assured turn by feisty Loretta Devine in the title role of the legendary singer often credited as the “mother of the blues.” In the outside world, Ma Rainey may have to endure the same oppression and discrimination facing blacks throughout the country, but in a white-owned recording studio (a wonderfully dilapidated scenic environment by Joel Daavid) she lords it over her obsequious manager (Alan Naggar) and the exasperated studio owner (Mel Sturdyvant). It is precisely the limited boundaries of her control that compel Ma to assert it so obstinately, and Devine leaves no doubt that her tantrums are born not of ego but a hunger for payback.

Russell Andrews’ Levee Green smolders as the tormented trumpet player who “eats bad luck for breakfast.” His bandmates (James Avery, Thomas Martell Brimm, Bill Lee Brown) are merely entertainers, but Levee aspires to be a serious musician, setting himself up for devastating consequences in a society that was not yet ready to allow blacks even that level of fulfillment.

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The limitation of letting the band mime its performances to canned music is all the more apparent in this intimate venue, but once Devine’s Ma Rainey starts belting out her songs, there’s no mistaking the authenticity.

-- Philip Brandes

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends March 7. $25. (323) 960-7735. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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Muscling through corporate world

In “Resignation,” Terry Everett Brown’s solo show at Actors Art Theatre, a vibrant assortment of characters festoons a fraying string of plot.

Subtitled “My Journey Through the Corporate World and How I Escaped,” the piece, co-written by the show’s director, Jolene Adams, concerns Brown’s frustrating experiences working for big business. Youthful and buff, Brown is hardly the man in the gray flannel suit. In fact, we wonder just how long Brown actually suffered in the corporate ranks before making a muscular dash for freedom.

Manically energetic, Brown personifies dozens of characters during this short outing, and his comic creations are well-delineated and fully fleshed.

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However, as far as the actual story goes, telling details are in short supply. We know Brown quit corporate life but are unclear what he does for a living now. (He mentions a Web address at the end of the show and suggests we “check it out.”) We also gather that Brown did a stint in the White House press office during his freshman year (of, we suppose, college), but what president was in office at the time is initially unclear.

What is clear is that Brown took a business degree and was recruited by a big banking concern, where he collected “huge paychecks.” Transferred to Milan, Brown nightclubbed every night and had a torrid love affair. He then transferred to Los Angeles, where he worked for a boss he loved.

Is your heart bleeding for him yet? The generic complaints about bureaucracy, printer jams and paperwork cited here hardly account for this level of acute misery. Brown needs to more fully explain compelling reasons for his corporate disenchantment. Otherwise, especially in this era of economic downsizing, outsourcing and actual tribulation, his grievances smack of mere petulance.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

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“Resignation,” Actors Art Theatre, 6128 Wilshire Blvd. #110, Los Angeles. Wednesdays only, 8 p.m. Ends March 31. $12. (323) 969-4953. Running time: 1 hour.

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Two cultures, one performer

Stephen Legawiec’s new play, “Peru in Africa,” continues the Ziggurat Theatre founder’s exploration of psychological and mythological themes in diverse cultures -- in this case, through an Oxford-educated schoolteacher’s spiritual odyssey among the pygmies of the African Congo.

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Written for and starring the versatile, engaging Marianna Harris, this stylish and often poetic solo-performer piece receives a promising debut production from Venice Theatre Works, although a few rough edges warrant revisiting.

The title character, Mary Peru, arrives at her sister’s deserted London art studio, having just returned from her African adventure. Amid the neo-primitive sculpted pillars in Trefoni Michael Rizzi’s exotic set, Mary recalls her trip as she rifles through a steamer trunk full of her scribbled notes.

Steeped in intriguing contrasts between her Western thinking patterns and the isolated, forest-dwelling pygmies’ very different perceptions of time, family, survival and death, Mary’s narrative draws inspiration and factual details from Colin M. Turnbull’s seminal anthropology studies (saluted in fictional meetings Turnbull and the forest tribe he wrote about).

As she chronicles Mary’s hard-won adaptation to an alien society, Harris skillfully incorporates several other characters -- a French smuggler, Mary’s African driver, the pygmies and even her absent sister -- without forcing the transitions. Sometimes the narrative is lucid to a fault, however, given that it’s supposedly delivered in a state of sleep-deprived exhaustion.

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Ernest A. Figueroa’s staging is well-paced and tightly focused but doesn’t entirely solve the artifice of an extended monologue apparently delivered to no one. No, Mary hasn’t lost her marbles in that forest -- but the conceit makes sense only when the reasons are revealed in the end.

-- P.B.

“Peru in Africa,” Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 29. $18. (310) 281-6299. Running time: 1 hours, 50 minutes.

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‘Lotus Maiden’ finding its way

The delicate, complicated parent-child bond has fueled storytellers since man discovered words. This arcane, familiar argot forms the heart of T.Y. Joe’s “The Lotus Maiden,” premiering at the MET Theatre in Hollywood in rep with the main stage offering “Tres Grimm!”

Based on an ancient Korean fable, “Lotus Maiden” uses a Buddhist monk (the estimable Nathan Ha) as envoy into its tale of blind widower Shim (Robert Isaac Lee) and his lovely daughter Chong (Sachiko Higaki, alternating with Esperanza Catubig). Shim, wishing to see his child’s face just once, makes a disastrous bargain with the monk. The devoted Chong indentures herself to sailors to repay Shim’s debts, unaware that the buccaneers need a sacrificial victim for sea-god appeasement.

Underwater, Chong has a briny out-of-body experience, which magically returns her intact to land, where she lands at the Korean royal court. The smitten crown prince (Lucas Lee) proposes, but Chong seeks her father, who wanders tormented by invisible demons.

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At its core, this tale has dry charm and moist wisdom. Joe, director Paul Koslo and the endearing cast often create enchantment with minimal means.

However, the integration of postmodern whimsy and traditional gravity is erratic. Barring the clever, uncredited costumes and Dan Jenkins’ lighting, visual magic is limited. The overstated exposition, awkward tonal shifts and moribund pacing suggest that more rehearsals and pruning are advisable. “Lotus Maiden” is surely a quality outing for family audiences, but it requires a second harvest cycle to achieve full artistic bloom.

-- David C. Nichols

“The Lotus Maiden,” MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., L.A. Mondays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends March 17. $10-$12. (323) 957-1152 Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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Surviving, barely, Hollywood jungle

Actress Blair Tefkin can do ditzy with her hands tied behind her back. This willowy, stark brunet has the unblinking stare of the practiced airhead and that uniquely showbiz voice type: a little-girl timbre burnished by cigarettes and decades of crushing rejection.

Tefkin doesn’t have her hands behind her back in “In the Land of the Giants,” her autobiographical one-woman pop/rock cabaret; she has them out front, thumping a bass guitar, as she relates fractured, poignant, often hilarious tales of minor celebrity, despair and humiliation -- in other words, the average actor’s life.

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From her years as a “tiny prodigy” and child of divorce, through ludicrous acting classes, unrewarding relationships and unsought career advice, Tefkin’s throughline is her struggle to develop a sturdy sense of self in a town where “a woman is a perishable commodity,” as a longtime therapist tells her.

Indeed, as she tells it, Tefkin has been surrounded by fantastically self-involved people -- parents, psychiatrists, agents, boyfriends.

It’s something of a miracle, then, that she retains such a deceptively breezy, self-deprecating sense of humor about a business that’s left her, as she puts it, “Lonely, uninsured and disappointed.”

As a singer-songwriter, she’s no Aimee Mann, but her tunes are witty and often pretty, and they’re backed with loving subtlety by guitarist Bernard Yin and drummer Michael Kramer. Director Andy Fickman gives the proceedings smooth but not overly slick momentum.

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The show’s last third dips into tepid bathos. The emphasis isn’t needed, for Tefkin’s blank stare finally conveys not so much ditziness as a look of hard-won wisdom. She’s faced cruel music and she’s still dancing.

-- Rob Kendt

“In the Land of the Giants,” Bossyboots Productions at the 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends March 13. $15. (323) 960-7744. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

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Excuse me, sir, one more thing

If there’s one thing Lt. Columbo has taught us, it’s that even a seemingly perfect crime will go awry when the perpetrator gets careless or cocky. So don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

The lesson is largely undone, however, in the return of one of Columbo’s earliest incarnations, in the play “Prescription: Murder.” The plodding pace of a presentation by the Woodland Hills Theatre group leaves viewers with too much time to pick apart dramatic contrivances. Columbo lays his usual traps, the suspect conveniently steps into them, and we’re left thinking, “Crime would pay if this guy weren’t such a dunderhead.”

The saving grace is Bob Van Dusen’s portrayal of Columbo. Dressed in a rumpled overcoat and speaking in a raspy voice that tends to gallop and halt with bewildering unpredictability, Van Dusen resembles Peter Falk without exactly duplicating him. Indeed, there’s a bit of Groucho Marx here too, whenever Van Dusen’s eyes go wide and his cigar punctuates his face like an exclamation point.

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The 1962 play by William Link and the late Richard Levinson became a 1968 TV movie of the same name, in which Falk made his first appearance as Columbo.

The plot focuses on a psychiatrist (Wynn Rowell) who’s cheating on his wife (Sharon Cohen) with a younger girlfriend (Veronica Krestow). Unsettled by the crime that drives the story, the coltish Krestow provides the story its unexpected moral center. But the relentless sameness of every scene, under Jon Berry’s earnest but ineffective direction, writes up “prescription: boredom.”

-- Daryl H. Miller

“Prescription: Murder,” Woodland Hills Theatre at the West Valley Playhouse, 7242 Owensmouth Ave., Canoga Park. Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends March 6. $22. (818) 884-1907. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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