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Cutting-edge staging for 1928 drama

“I won’t submit,” declares a young woman caught in society’s gears, though the mechanism seems certain to crush her.

A strange and wonderful piece of Expressionistic theater, Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 drama “Machinal” seems of-the-moment all over again in a presentation by the fledgling Blank-the-Dog company.

Right away, this presentation, directed by Nataki Garrett, conveys a powerful sense of claustrophobia. The stage closure has been rigged to work like an aperture (design by Efren Delgadillo Jr.). At first, it opens only narrowly to offer a glimpse of office workers clustered close together, repetitiously performing tasks. The young protagonist (Amanda Maria Lorca) must squeeze into the center to take her place. She chokes on her words, gasping for air. Dizzying, kaleidoscopic images of machinery churn across a video projection (designed by Austin Switzser) in the background.

Out in the world or at home, the young woman is surrounded by automatons (the company consists of Ja’Nai Amey, Shaughn Buchholz, Dustin Lancaster, Carla Nassy, Marco Neves, Rendon Ramsey and Jin Suh). The playwright took her inspiration from a sensational 1920s murder; her play tries to understand what happens when people are pushed too far.

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Perhaps a bit too concept-heavy for its own good (especially that aperture), this production nevertheless seems ready-made for an experimental showcase such as CalArts’ REDCAT space in Walt Disney Concert Hall -- no surprise, perhaps, since most of those involved are CalArts graduates.

-- Daryl H. Miller

“Machinal,” Lee Strasberg Creative Center, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. Ends Dec. 11. $20. (323) 692-1079. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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One musical that’s hard to love

Characters sing in a musical when their emotions overtake them -- when mere dialogue can’t convey their feelings. Characters in the cutesy classic “She Loves Me” sing because they’re in a musical, illustrating musically what they might more easily say -- in fact, often have just said.

Only in the show’s steadily thickening second act do tune-worthy emotions emerge, as a pair of contentious co-workers begin to realize they’re secret pen-pal amours. In a giddy rush, these unwitting lovers have “Where’s My Shoe?,” “Vanilla Ice Cream” and the title tune -- three brilliant exemplars of romantic comedy in song that could be taught in any musical-theater workshop. But these come roughly two hours in, after a long first act sets up the premise with the ploddingly expository “I Don’t Know His Name” and the profoundly generic “Will He Like Me?”

Musical Theatre West’s faultless, well-cast new production, directed by Jamie Rocco, plays to the show’s strengths. With William Forrester’s painterly set and crisp costumes by Todd K. Proto, the production has a music-box spring in its step. In the lead romantic roles, John Bisom and Teri Bibb make an attractive screwball pair. The show’s generous character parts are fully realized by bottle-blond Christina Saffran Ashford, suavely unseemly Stan Chandler, sidekicky Ira Denmark and fusty Nils Anderson. A crack chorus bustles winningly.

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Still, too much of “She Loves Me” -- adapted from the same play that inspired the films “The Shop Around the Corner” and “You’ve Got Mail” -- renders an irresistible romance remarkably resistible.

-- Rob Kendt

“She Loves Me,” Musical Theatre West at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (also 7 p.m. Nov. 14). Ends Nov 21. $20 to $47. (562) 856-1999, Ext. 4. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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A creative take on creation

If curling up with a Joseph Campbell video is your idea of a good time, you’re a natural audience for “The Mythology Project: In the Beginnings” at the NoHo Actors Studio. In this theatrical tour of creation myths from diverse cultures, writer-director Annie Terry and a plucky octet of performers employ an inventive mix of dance, music and dramatic genres to give stage-worthy shape to abstract narratives.

Limited production resources notwithstanding, a refreshingly playful, unpretentious sensibility ensures the majority of sequences are entertaining.

The most memorable sequences take fearless liberties with their conceits. In “Tales of Babylon,” a 2,000-year-old poem about quarreling gods and the rise of civilization is transformed into a 1930s radio play.

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A Chinese myth about splitting the cosmic egg into yin and yang uses striking shadow projections and eloquent narration to beautiful effect -- the show’s most affecting scene.

Less inspired efforts present Egyptian, African and Ancient Greek cycles of betrayal and power struggles among their deities in visual and musical styles of their respective cultures, in which the company sometimes strays out of its depth.

Closer to home is a clever sequence that recounts the familiar Old Testament Genesis story in point-by-point parallels with modern scientific theory, pairing “Let there be light” with the Big Bang, and so forth. Some comparisons are a stretch but the underlying truth in the comparisons remains clear: These myths are simply maps we impose on a terrain that will always be mysterious and unknowable.

Without preachiness, the piece reveals common themes in an implicit attempt to bridge cultural divides. Of course, it’s easier to unify humanity at the beginning of things -- once history gets rolling is when the real trouble starts.

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-- Philip Brandes

“The Mythology Project: In the Beginnings,” NoHo Actors Studio, 5215 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 21. $10-15. (818) 771-5755. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

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‘Heavyweight’ lacks punch

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The late Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” legacy overshadows his mastery at observing human behavior, as in “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” the celebrated 1956 teleplay that made his name. Its original broadcast with Jack Palance won multiple awards, including the first Peabody given to a television writer. “Heavyweight” reappeared in 1957 on British television with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, then as a 1962 film starring Anthony Quinn.

Serling conceived it as a play, though, and his narrative approaches Clifford Odets’. Failed prizefighter Harlan “Mountain” McClintock (Jon Berry) first appears in semi-conscious state, supported by manager Maish (the vivid Bob Van Dusen) to his dressing room. The Mountain must quit the ring, if he wishes to live. Trainer Army (Derrel Maury) is empathetic, having been there himself. Maish, however, is out for Maish. Thus, “Heavyweight” follows McClintock’s gradual realization, spurred by a sympathetic social worker (Sharon Repass), of how his profession has used him.

Director Noel Britton makes resourceful choices, as in the music, but her staging, like Sean French’s set, is more functional than forceful. True, Berry, childlike and spasmodic, registers sheer animal will. Van Dusen commands every sleazy turn, and Maury, too young by half, is valiant in a role created by Ed Wynn.

Elsewhere, the game cast succumbs to little-theater idiom, while the erratic, episodic pace defeats sustained tension. Nostalgic devotees will appreciate Serling’s timeless writing and the notable leads, which keep “Heavyweight” from hitting the mat, but production variables result in a split decision.

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-- David C. Nichols

“Requiem for a Heavyweight,” West Valley Playhouse, 7242 Owensmouth Ave., Canoga Park. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 11. $22. (818) 884-1907. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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Bitterman’s drama message-laden

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Playwright-director Shem Bitterman goes for the emotional jugular in “The Circle,” a play about how one father tries to come to terms with the death of his only child in a school shooting. However, Bitterman too often inadvertently tickles the funny bone in his strained and histrionic drama.

A Circus Theatricals production at the Stella Adler Theatre, Bitterman’s world premiere features Jack Stehlin as a nameless Man whose daughter is shot while attending a school prayer circle. The Boy (Dylan Kussman) responsible is a tortured young outcast who later takes his own life while in jail.

As demonstrated in “The Job,” Bitterman’s elliptical drama about a murder for hire that played in New York in 1999 after an L.A. run, Bitterman is best when he’s being reserved and mysterious. In “The Circle,” he descends into the manifest, disastrously.

One suspects Bitterman has connected to his subject so deeply that he has jettisoned all salvaging objectivity, writing to the message rather than the plot. All the characters, even the teens, converse in the same platitudinous vein, with little thought as to how they would actually speak. The shooter, when asked why he killed, replies, “That’s the $64,000 question,” while another youth calls people “Kemo Sabe” -- both phrases from another place and time that sound patently false in the mouths of mere kids.

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Bitterman helms a huge cast of more than two-dozen actors, many grossly miscast. Particularly puzzling is the fact that the teenage roles are played by actors well beyond adolescence -- in some cases, way beyond. Stehlin does his usual thoughtful job in his pivotal role, but his effort is largely wasted here.

As he has so successfully in the past, Bitterman needs to reinsert a splinter of ice into the heart of his well-meaning but overheated drama.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“The Circle,” Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Ends Dec. 18. (No performances Thanksgiving weekend.) $20. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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