Cast has a blast with 'Mikado'

"The Mikado Project," Doris Baizley and Ken Narasaki's world premiere musical, presented by Lodestone Theatre Ensemble at GTC Burbank, makes serious points about cultural stereotypes and the endemic racism of certain classics, in this case "The Mikado." However, the play's political context is sugar-coated subtext to what is, first and foremost, solid entertainment of a charmingly wacky stripe.

The action takes us backstage at a small Asian American theater company that is running out of cash and may be forced to close. Artistic director Lance (humorous Allen C. Liu), a dedicated fussbudget who lives for his theater, hopes that a radically contemporized production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "colonialist" classic will revive his company's fortunes.

It's a slight but serviceable concept that yields a plethora of barbed parody lyrics and plenty of fun that this cheekily ebullient cast is obviously happy to share. Director Chil Kong keeps the proceedings convincingly spontaneous, lending a warm and inclusive air to the production.

Don't let the apparent offhandedness fool you. Under the casualness lies an impressive stringency, both in Kong's staging and in Dennis Yen's musical direction. The winning cast includes Kennedy Kabasares, Blythe Matsui, Erin Quill, Julia Cho and Feodor Chin. Ronald M. Banks, memorable for his eponymous turn in East West Players' recent production of "Sweeney Todd," is a particular standout, an accomplished actor-singer whose casually funny manner is a pleasant surprise, particularly in light of his bitterly virtuosic previous portrayal.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"The Mikado Project," GTC Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 20. $15. (323) 993-7245. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

A dark but moving trip into 'Hades'

Don't look back -- a life (and death) lesson the ancient Greek poet Orpheus learned the hard way. In Aaron Henne's new play, "Sliding Into Hades," developed and performed by the KOAN Ensemble at Odyssey Theatre, the tragic love of Orpheus and his lost Eurydice becomes a lens to consider dying, grief and our stubborn attachment to life.

The seven-member cast, dressed in Swinda Reichelt's monochromatic costumes, moves across the near-bare stage, playing out the Greek myth, along with more symbolic detours: a trip to a funeral parlor or an echo chamber full of souls immobilized by regret.

Director Ron Sossi, who also conceived the piece, creates a number of arresting images, including the murmuring dead pushing empty grocery carts through the underworld. And over and over, we see Orpheus sweeping the stage with broom, the sound of the bristles against the floor, an eerie cynosure of our impermanence. Then there's the fatal moment when we watch multiple Orpheuses slowly, slowly turn back to look at their beloved Eurydices. We know what will happen, but can't tear our eyes away. Marina Bakica, Diana Cignoni and Ochuwa Oghie, each playing the dead bride, manage to walk the line between mythic and affectingly immediate, and Alan Abelew, as an older Orpheus, has a vulnerability that underscores the play's themes.

The production doesn't always sustain its smartest tone; some scenes devolve into story theater, and the cast can push the gossamer material too hard, turning it into New Age pap. But "Hades" does evoke life's fleeting beauty, and our mortality -- confused, desperate and somehow ever hopeful.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

"Sliding Into Hades," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. May 27 and June 17. Ends June 17. $25-$12. Contact: (310) 477-2055. Running time: 80 minutes.

It's how you play the game

Which is more important -- winning the game at all costs or having fun playing it? Two views of success, American style, square off within the confines of a Little League baseball diamond in "Rounding Third" at Burbank's Colony Theatre.

Playwright Richard Dresser based this warm-hearted two-actor comedy on the real-life collision of his genteel notions of fair play with the unscrupulous tactics of his son's aggressively competitive coach.

Their antagonistic philosophies are embodied onstage by belligerent Don (Jerry Kernion) and his timid new assistant, Michael (Kevin Symons).

In characterizations that divide neatly along class lines, blue-collar Don amusingly channels Ralph Kramden as he barks orders to the unseen kids. Sensitive office worker Michael, haunted by memories of being "the kid who never got picked," is determined to ensure a good experience for everyone.

The arc of conflict that gives way to understanding between them is predictable but enjoyable thanks to engaging chemistry between the actors. Within polite boundaries, playwright Dresser adds a few layers of poignancy and ties up every loose end with hyper-efficient craftsmanship.

Andrew Barnicle's unpretentious direction adheres to simple emotional honesty, though there isn't much he can do to salvage Michael's ham-fisted, suspended-time monologue as he watches his son attempt a game-saving play. Commentary should not be necessary if the play is done right, which for the most part it is.

-- Philip Brandes

"Rounding Third," Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 13. $37-$42. (818) 558-7000. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

A bit of the brogue with a Dubliner

Given the range of literary prowess exhibited by Ireland over the centuries, the judicious approach that actor Neil O'Shea takes in "An Evening With Great Irish Writers" at the Celtic Arts Center seems only suitable. By presenting classic excerpts in the intimate style of 19th century parlor entertainment, Dublin native O'Shea delivers an attractively spare model of old-school oral interpretation.

Produced by the Irish Actors Theatre Company, "An Evening" establishes its aims immediately. The tuxedo-clad O'Shea appears onstage and shares historical background for Jonathan Swift's 1699 "Resolutions When I Come to Be Old," which he tosses off with assurance.

Easy versatility drives this adroitly edited Gaelic sampler. Rarities -- George Bernard Shaw's comedy "John Bull's Other Island," "Elizabeth and Essex" by Percy French -- carry the same authenticity that accompanies more familiar bits by William Butler Yeats and, notably, Oscar Wilde.

The snippets of "An Ideal Husband" are ideally arch, and a lecture-tour anecdote from "Oscar in America" is tailor-made for this context. Though the cuts to the Lady Bracknell-Jack Worthing interview from "The Importance of Being Earnest" that ends Part 1 may pique purists, just try not to guffaw at O'Shea's dead-on attack.

Part 2 brings on the 20th century, where O'Shea proves as trenchant in Sean O'Casey as he is lyrical in James Joyce. The dinner jacket detracts from his otherwise fine rendition of Christy Mahon from John Millington Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World," and, like the occasional shaky pace of the narrations, may result from self-direction.

Still, the final offering -- "Down All the Days" by "My Left Foot" author Christy Brown -- arrives too soon, a testament to O'Shea's unassuming expertise.

-- David C. Nichols

"An Evening With Great Irish Writers," The Celtic Arts Center, 4843 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 20. $15. (818) 760-8322. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

Campus shooting, a search for why

Eerily, "Mark on Society," Leif E. Gantvoort's docudrama about the 1966 sniping spree at the University of Texas, had its world premiere at the Lex the same week as the Virginia Tech massacre. That bizarrely synergistic timing lends emotional heft to the play, which painfully prods the freshly exposed nerves under our lingering national trauma. Yet despite the sincere intentions of all involved to dignify victims of the Texas tragedy -- and by extrapolation, those at Virginia Tech -- the production still blurs the line between sincerity and sensationalism.

"Society" runs about 96 minutes -- the span of time that Charles Whitman rained death from the clock tower on the Austin campus before he was killed by police. Gantvoort sets the proceedings in 1976, on the 10th anniversary of the tragedy. The audience, which functions as reporters gathered for the occasion, is addressed variously by a medical technician who goes over the victims' medical records and a college professor who teaches a class detailing the carnage. Other "interviewees" include a policeman who helped bring Whitman down and several survivors of the carnage. As they speak, we witness the event in flashback.

Meticulously researched, the play is essentially a roster of the injured and slain, victim by victim, complete with details of bullet entry points and actual morgue photos -- a gripping albeit uncomfortable production element that makes us wonder how the families of these victims would react if they were sitting in the audience.

Finessing a dozen-plus performers around a postage stamp stage, director Peter Haskell somewhat mitigates the more lurid elements with a no-frills, emotionally reserved staging, while Gantvoort touches on fascinating if unanswerable questions about why someone like Whitman could snap so suddenly, with such catastrophic consequences.

Like bystanders at a bloody car crash, we can't look away, but we are left feeling vaguely uneasy about our voyeuristic fascination.

-- F.K.F.

"Mark on Society," The Lex, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Ends May 26. $15. (323) 960-7740. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Every 'Assassin' has a story

"Assassins" plays with fire -- gunfire, to be precise. On top of its inherently edgy subject, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's dark musical about the successful and would-be killers of U.S. presidents has an unfortunate history of openings that coincide with peak periods of national distress. Major New York productions in 1991 and 2004 were flanked by the previous and current Iraq wars. And last week's tragic shootings in Virginia cast a heavy shadow over an ambitious but overreaching revival from Sight Unseen Theatre Company.

Director Cindy Jenkins doesn't pull any punches with the show's cautionary history lesson about the recurring aberration in our national psyche: the corruption of the American dream from hopeful possibility into a resentful sense of entitlement. "Everybody's got the right to be happy," croons a fanatical John Wilkes Booth (Michael Laurino), hailed as a pioneer by the vengeful misfits from different eras who gather in a carnival tent to mark the desperation that drove them to violence.

Their grievances are as varied as social injustice and romantic obsession, but their shared alienation over the prizes life denied them erupts in a powerfully performed ensemble pledge of allegiance to "Another National Anthem" for "the ones who can't get in to the ball park."

The staging delivers moments of outrageous black comedy and heart-wrenching pathos, but limited production and casting resources fall short of the show's demands. Musical director Andy Mitton's five-piece orchestration captures only the basic contours of Sondheim's score, which is supposed to trace the evolution of American music through styles appropriate to the assassins' times.

A lack of mikes magnifies the disparity in vocal abilities, but the best of the lot are Philip D'Amore as wacky Garfield killer Charles Guiteau, James Sheldon's nonsinging turn as Lee Harvey Oswald, and Kyle Nudo as the grieving Balladeer whose function as a moral counterbalance is compromised in a re-created visual tableau from the JFK assassination.

The "Something Just Broke" number added after the original staging to provide a much-needed entree for the rest of us is not included here. Nevertheless, there's plenty of tragic if unintended resonance when the assassins declare: "The bitter truths you carry in your heart -- you can share them with the world."

-- P.B.

"Assassins," Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 20. $20. (877) 986-7336. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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