A poignant tribute to ‘Heroes’


The unsung valor of the military spouse informs “Silent Heroes” at Gardner Stages, the second production by VetStage Foundation. If the schematics of Linda Escalera Baggs’ extended one-act about six Marine aviator wives in 1975 verge on the old-fashioned, its subject could scarcely be more timely.

Set in the “ready room” of a Marine Corps Air Station, “Silent Heroes” quickly establishes its premise as the wives anxiously gather to learn which one of their pilot husbands isn’t returning. During their vigil, they bicker and bond through confessions that encompass abuse, adultery, racism and pacifism. By the open-ended fade-out, it’s clear that, as valiant as U.S. servicemen unquestionably are, their women, who hold together family, home and each other, are just as courageous.

Vietnam-era details apart, “Silent Heroes” most resembles the Hollywood films of World War II. Its structure, with revelations interrupted by the overhead roar of another safely landing plane, is more serviceable than profound. Yet Baggs has a knack for turning jargon and issues into dialogue and an eye for behavioral specifics, and director Carmen Melito gradually draws the vital message into firm focus.


Her proficient players pack a lingering punch, at ease with military terms and finding laughs through the tears. Eileen Grubba’s cynic-with-a-secret and Jane Hajduk’s group leader are contrasts in committed technique, while Nadege August gives her socially isolated nurse galvanic power. Heather Simon underpins the by-the-book pragmatist with palpable tension, and any gaucherie in Leslie Ann Thompson’s pregnant enabler and Cynthia Rose Hall’s defiant feminist is wholly apt.

Obviously, veterans and their families should not miss “Silent Heroes.” Open-minded civilians could learn something valuable from the essential integrity of this deeply felt tribute.


“Silent Heroes,” Gardner Stages, 1501 N. Gardner St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Dec. 22. $20. (818) 308-6296. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

IMs from Iraq to the girl back home

In the world premiere “@Heart” at the Ruskin Group Theatre, playwright J-Powers offers us an epistolary drama with an updated twist. Here the two characters remain linked, not by a leisurely written correspondence but by hastily composed computer instant-messages between Jennifer and Harris, a young couple parted after the 9/11 attacks by Harris’ enlistment in the military.

Freed from the logistical concerns presented by a larger production, director Paul Linke has opted to use three different casts that perform on different evenings. In a fittingly straightforward and sincere staging, Linke seats his actors -- Jessica McClendon and Mikey Myers at the reviewed performance -- at two tables, each facing a laptop. There is no eye contact or direct interaction, but the stakes are high and the feelings intense.

Kathi O’Donohue’s lighting and Robert Ramirez’s sound are crucial to the ambience. Seamless production elements include intermittent slides and captions, projected on a large screen, that chronicle news events.


After Harris is shipped from Afghanistan to Iraq, the piece spirals into predictable tragedy. Both Myers and McClendon deliver affectingly earnest performances, but the pregnant Jennifer’s descent into cocaine addiction, along with her whiny insistence that Harris return home, somewhat vitiates her as a sympathetic character.

Perhaps the playwright wants to make the point that the war is as hard on those left behind as on those who fight it, but the persistent emphasis on Jennifer’s bar-hopping exploits over Harris’ battlefront experience almost plunges the piece into bathos. Fortunately, “@Heart” has enough heart and emotional truthfulness to compensate for its occasional shortcomings.


“@ Heart,” Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan. 20. (Dark Dec. 21-30.) $20. (310) 397-3244. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

War and games in ‘Harm’s Way’

In “Harm’s Way,” the wages of war and military exploitation hit home, in this case Ft. Belvoir, Va. The second part of playwright Shem Bitterman’s trilogy about the Iraq conflict, this study of a career Army prosecutor, his disturbed daughter and a private suspected of a war crime has obvious pertinence and frequent histrionic fire.

Beginning with a synoptic armchair game between Maj. Jonathan Fredericks (a restrained Jack Stehlin) and mentally challenged Bianca (Katie Lowes), “Harm’s Way” carries echoes of Aaron Sorkin. Its central narrative involves the Army’s desire to hush up a case involving the alleged murder of Iraqi civilians. After gung-ho Pvt. Nick Granville (Ben Bowen), the proposed scapegoat, falls for Bianca, “Harm’s Way” sends them AWOL to the metaphoric Anaconda Mountains of Montana. A jagged morality play ensues.

It’s a provocative and often worthy complement to its predecessor, “Man.Gov,” and director Steve Zuckerman deploys his strong cast to engrossing effect. Stehlin pulls his reactions from deep within, Bowen is fearless in his outsized Southern imbalance and Lowes bravely explores Bianca’s deliberately obscured pathology. Eric Pierpoint and Wendy Makkena almost steal their scenes as commanding officer and ambiguous journalist, respectively, while Josh Allen tears into the play’s most underwritten yet pivotal role as Nick’s discharged fellow soldier.


Their skill counters some awkward aspects of staging and content. A made-for-cable movie whiff of convenience sporadically intrudes, the bombshell that ends Act 1 needs more than a stilted blackout and the climax descends into melodrama. At times, Bitterman voices moralizing conclusions better left to the viewer to determine, with Fredericks’ final statement about America unearned. Still, there’s much to admire about “Harm’s Way,” which leaves us eager to see how Bitterman finishes his ambitious triptych.


“Harm’s Way,” Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Dark Dec. 21-Jan. 5. Ends Feb. 9. $25. (323) 960-1054. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

More ‘Twist’ than campy spoof needs

Think of “Twist” as “Oliver Twist” with a -- well, you know. With its emphasis on cross-dressing, gay S&M; and a host of assorted kinks and fetishes, there’s more of Charles Ludlum than Charles Dickens in Gila Sand’s ultra-campy, gender-bent rock musical adaptation, which targets a somewhat different audience than did the family-friendly “Oliver!”

Dickens scholars and workhouse tyrants have long appreciated the masochistic element underlying the iconic orphan’s plaintive “Please, sir, I want some more.” But why settle for subtext?

It’s a question asked and answered (repeatedly) in the tune-lashed saga of Oliver, here transformed from underage boy into “an attractive youth of indeterminate (but legal) age,” convincingly portrayed by Brandon Ruckdashel.

Dominating Oliver -- and the entire production -- is transsexual actress Alexandra Billings in a charismatic performance as riding-crop-wielding Fagin. When Artful Dodger (Chris Carlisle) brings Oliver back to the den, Fagin’s alpha-dog instincts come to the fore in a romantic triangle that would have scared the dickens out of Dickens.


Outrageous excess is exactly what Sand and her collaborator, composer Paul Leschen, are after with songs that include “Bound and Tied” and “Clothes Make the Man.” Russell Kiefer’s solo keyboard accompaniment doesn’t really do justice to the score’s potential, though director Paul Storiale’s budgetary emphasis on clothes (by A.M. Bartolomeo) makes sense, given the subject matter.

But the paper-thin conceit runs out of ingenuity long before it runs out of plot. For the most part, “Twist” is an extended one-note joke that sympathetic fans will find endlessly entertaining but others will find endless.


“Twist,” Avery Schreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 30 (dark Dec. 23). $20. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Royals at their most unrefined

“Juana,” a fraught historical saga staged by Write Act Repertory, examines the life of Juana La Loca, queen of Castile, daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, wife of Philip the Handsome of Austria, mother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V -- and political pawn.

Was this tragic royal figure, with dominion over a hefty chunk of the recognized world, locked away “in a room without light” and driven mad by power-grabbing usurpers? Or was she undone by genetic instability and her ungovernable passion for her philandering husband?

All of the above, and an out-of-body-traveling mystic as well, in Write Act’s puppet-and-pageantry production of late local playwright Paul Casey’s imaginings of this chapter of epic 15th and 16th century history.


It’s a daunting challenge for the actor at the center of it all. Despite her Madonna-like loveliness, Caroline Gelabert struggles with time and place, her speech patterns unfortunately reminiscent of a sudsy teen queen from “The O.C.”: “Oh, forget it. You wouldn’t do it anyways,” she responds to her sadistic jailer, the Marques de Denia (Phillip Kelly).

Gelabert isn’t alone in her inability to find her bearings. In this convoluted history lesson, told through awkwardly framed vignettes that touch on the Inquisition and pre-Renaissance cultural change, only Alexandra Cheyney’s strong presence as a far-seeing fortuneteller is ready for prime time.

Their fellow performers wrestle with the tricky requirements of acting through their own bunraku-style puppets, director Andrew Moore’s device relating to the human monsters that inhabit Juana’s dark universe.

It’s an intriguing approach, but one that calls for considerable refinement, as does Moore’s realization of the play overall.


“Juana,” Write Act Repertory Theatre, 6128 Yucca Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; ends Dec. 15. $20. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. (323) 469-3113.

‘Rock’ livens up some old lessons

At the start of “Schoolhouse Rock Live!” the sudden transformation of ordinary objects into five ethnically diverse singing phantoms barely fazes newly credentialed schoolteacher Tom. “I usually enjoy a good psychotic hallucination,” he says, “but I have to get ready to teach class.”


No problem: His new imaginary friends are here to help Tom (Eduardo Enrikez) prepare for his first day on the job. And that’s the setup as they take turns leading him through 20 songs lifted from the “Schoolhouse Rock” animated TV shorts that coupled educational content with catchy pop tunes.

This stage review, conceived in 1993 by Scott Ferguson, Kyle Hall and George Keating for Theatrebam Chicago, features a representative assortment of the subjects in which late boomers and Gen-Xers received additional after-school imprinting: grammar, math, science, history and government (the ballad of the Bill who yearns to become a Law, included here, haunts me still, a sad echo from less polarized times).

Total commitment from the enthusiastic cast (Chad Borden, Tameka Dawn, Antoine Reynaldo Diel, Elaine Loh and Susan Rudick) ensures no flagging energy. Director Mark Savage augments his staging with animated film, colorful props and a kiddie participation number.

Unfortunately, poor acoustics in the venue renders much of the lyrics barely intelligible; the educational value for younger viewers is questionable at best.

More problematic: Much of the material is seriously dated, occasional updated factoids such as Pluto’s demotion from planet status notwithstanding. The “Elbow Room” history lesson about the country’s westward expansion is the peppiest homage to Manifest Destiny you’re likely to hear this side of a Klan rally. Even adults who remember the original series are more likely to cringe with embarrassment than sigh with nostalgia.


“Schoolhouse Rock Live!” Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. 4 p.m. Saturdays, 4 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 24. $20 adults, $15 children. (323) 655-7679. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.