What better way to inaugurate a company named Unknown Theater than with a virtually unknown play?
British writer J.B. Priestley's 1939 drama "Johnson Over Jordan" certainly fills the bill. The piece has only been revived once, and reasons for its obscurity are immediately apparent -- though initial perceptions prove deceptive as the piece builds surprising dramatic momentum and emotional impact.
"It's a Wonderful Life" meets "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" in Priestley's surreal theatrical fantasia tracing a prematurely deceased middle-aged Everyman's journey through the afterlife. Beginning with his own funeral, bewildered Robert Johnson (Christopher Cappiello), a mild-mannered office manager, wanders through a series of hallucinatory encounters with archetypal figures and people from his past.
Through rotating side panels, photo projections and descending fabric and props, a succession of locales melt into one another in a dreamlike montage as Johnson sloughs off the impediments of his mortal coil. The first to go are material attachments in a Kafkaesque insurance office where Johnson tries to collect on his policy. Next come dark, repressed libidinous fantasies in a nightmarish nightclub. An ominous recurring shadow in a skull mask drops cryptic aphorisms along the way.
Out of this fragmentary muddle, however, director Chris Covics and his committed ensemble skillfully mine an unexpectedly simple, heartfelt parable of human connectedness in the second half. As Johnson gains more insight and a measure of control over his journey, he's able to review his life with people who figured prominently in it. Particularly moving are his exchanges with his grown-up children (Tara Jean O'Brien, Thomas Cooney) and his poignant reunion with his wife of 30 years, as they revisit their first meeting knowing all that will come from it.
"Johnson Over Jordan" is far from a perfect play, but choosing it over safer, more familiar material for a debut says much about the ambitions of this new company, which has put additional sweat equity into retrofitting its 55-seat venue, a former industrial space just off Hollywood's theater row. Ample stage space, excellent sightlines and rotating after-show music and arts events suggest this Unknown Theater won't stay that way for long.
-- Philip Brandes
"Johnson Over Jordan," Unknown Theatre, 1110 N. Seward St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 27. $18 online; $25 walk-up and phone. (323) 466-7781 or www.unknowntheater.com. Running time: 2 hours.
Impassioned 'Acts' of social liberation
The title of "Acts of Desire" at the Fountain Theatre concerns post-feminist self-esteem. In this impressive pair of one-acts, playwright Yussef El Guindi brings a poetically charged voice to the struggle by Muslim women to sound their own voices amid repression.
Adapted from stories by Salwa Bakr, both plays take place in present-day Cairo. "Karima's City" introduces its title activist (Naila Azad, a find) in her sanitarium cell. "There is only so much a mind can do looking at four walls every day," says loquacious Karima. Her memoir unfurls in wittily unnerving Kafkaesque flashbacks. Defying her mother (Marisa Vural), going braless to work, decrying gentrification and voting inequity, Karima's quest ends with attempted mutilation and dreams of restored foliage.
"What a Beautiful Voice is Sayeda's" moves inward. While bathing one day, Sayeda (Sarah Ripard) falls prey to a mellifluous entity (Azad and Grace Nassar). Telling her traditionalist husband (Navid Negahban) that she wishes to become a singer results in Sayeda being sent to a doctor (Marc Casabani). After a harrowing, pill-choked croak, Sayeda reclaims her stifled identity.
Despite slightly obvious metaphors, Guindi is undeniably gifted, and Deborah Lawlor's elegant staging has fetching directness. Karima embracing her favorite tree (Kamal Marayati), an audience assault by overstuffed politicians (costumed by Naila Aladdin-Sanders) and Sayeda's dance with her alter ego are among the haunting images. Scott Siedman's unpretentious set, Kathi O'Donohue's lithe lighting and David B. Marling's taut sound all serve mood.
The strong ensemble turns on the translucent central portrayals. Azad's pert Audrey Hepburn quality and Ripard's multifaceted dignity pull us past the occasional overstated point. "Acts of Desire" won't change patriarchal thinking overnight, but it's an arresting start.
-- David C. Nichols
"Acts of Desire," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. $25. (323) 663-1525. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Emotional elegy given by 'Sisters'
If the key to Anton Chekhov is to value being over acting, "Three Sisters," presented by HapaLis Productions in association with Theatre of NOTE, unlocks the essentials. Director Alina Phelan and her fervent players attack the 1901 classic with apt spontaneity.
"Three Sisters" (here shorn of "The") concerns the wealthy Prozorov siblings and their thwarted dreams of Moscow (and everything else they aspire to). Chekhov's beautifully gradated drama presages the end of imperial Russia in the provincial existence that suffocates weary teacher Olga (Rena Heinrich), uneasily married Masha (Elizabeth Liang) and naively hopeful Irina (Millie Chow).
With Mina Kinukawa's minimalist set letting subtlety and humor take focus, Phelan maintains a warmly elegiac tone, echoed in Robert Oriol's lights, Paula Post's costumes and Dennis Yen's sound. The cast is imposing. As Olga and Irina, the refined Heinrich and risk-taking Chow pursue modulated paths to the piercing awareness that Liang's searing Masha carries from the start.
Chris Payne Gilbert invests Masha's officer with wonderful sensitivity. Trevor H. Olsen is correctly stilted yet vital as her academic husband. Russell Edge and Jonathan Klein make well-contrasted rivals for Irina. Patricia Place and David Ross Paterson are droll servants. Charles Sedgwick Hall's drunken doctor and Jason Sino and Jeremy Lucas as eager soldiers have broad appeal. Phinneas Kiyomura's brother Andrey can further depict the outer ravages of his mismatch with Natasha (an effective Lucy Owen), but his acting chops are formidable.
Paul Schmidt's translation is accessible but largely prosaic, and the lean, Sino-Russian concept is mainly decorative. Nonetheless, this straightforward revival has notable emotional punch.
"Three Sisters," Gene Bua Acting for Life Theatre, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. $18. (323) 938-7491. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
Showbiz anxiety; 'Frazzled!' lives
What's a TV writer-producer to do when she's too old to write a show about people twice her age? That's the root of all angst afflicting the central character in "Frazzled!" at Burbank's Victory Theatre.
In this amiable but inconsequential screwball comedy, "Golden Girls" creator Lee Thuna has some whimsical vicarious fun venting frustrations from her showbiz career. The author's stand-in, brassy, exasperated Sarah (Caroline Allen), has retreated in a funk to her New York apartment but can't escape the pressures from her quirky family.
Out of the gate, Allen plays up Sarah's satiric martyrdom with assured comic timing. When her ex-husband (Anthony Cummings, striking a good balance between parody and sympathy) drops by out of concern for her depression, she tells him, "It's not a matter of life and death -- just death. Mine." Her suicide plan, it turns out, is to simply stop eating and starve herself to death. Naturally, it's a bid for attention, and she gets plenty, courtesy of family melodrama that plays like a pilot for a Bea Arthur series.
The most successful humor revolves around Sarah's mousy, unhappily married daughter (Dorothea Harahan, in a superbly nuanced performance), who turns out to have a delightful psychopathic streak. Unfortunately, her vindictive energy is wasted on philandering husband Barry, played with one-note narcissism by Jeremy Kent Jackson.
Director Richard Hochberg keeps things moving at a brisk clip but hasn't found much significance in a play that consistently sacrifices continuity of character and story for easy sitcom punch lines.
"Frazzled!" Victory Theatre, 3326 Victory Blvd., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 18. $20-$22. (818) 841-5421 or www.victory theatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
Connection made, and not, in 'Four'
Opening the first Celebration Theatre season in over a decade is an event in itself, and the Los Angeles premiere of "Four" will surely find proponents among the venue's devotees. How far Christopher Shinn's acclaimed study of two seeming disparate couples in search of intangible connection reaches beyond them is decidedly subjective.
Widely praised at its 2000 London premiere and subsequent New York productions, "Four" is the first play by Shinn ("On the Mountain"), and his is unquestionably a significant, singular voice. "Four," which opens on an enigmatic phone call and ends with an emblematic exit, juxtaposes racial and sexual divisions against peculiarly American ennui during one long July 4 in Hartford, Conn.
That phone call comes from June (the vivid Nathan Frizzell), a closeted teenager awaiting a chat room date. High school senior Abigayle (Cesili Williams), in cellphone conversation with pager-packing basketball star Dexter (Blaine Vedros), alerts us to her invalid mother and traveling father. Enter Joe (Michael A. Shepperd, engaging as ever), a duplicitous college professor. Shinn tangentially moves these four toward concurrent reversals and Abigayle's final departure through the center of designer Kurt Boetcher's door-studded backdrop.
Artistic director Michael Matthews maneuvers his proficient cast with great skill. Designs have flair, especially Carol Doehring's festive lights, though the robotic transitions grow wearing. So, sadly, does Shinn's script, better at depicting aimlessness than illuminating it. June and Joe's narrative fascinates, but its parallel with Abigayle and Dexter's meandering colloquy is studied, and offstage Mom is an obviated device. "Four" honors Shinn's disillusioned thesis. It doesn't ensure fireworks.
"Four," Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 11. $20. (323) 954-1884. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes