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Tracing a usurper’s journey

The use of an all-African American cast in the Blue Panthers production of “Macbeth” at Hollywood’s Lillian Theatre ultimately proves a choice that neither illuminates nor imposes any particular new discoveries with respect to Shakespeare’s tragedy. It does, however, afford performance opportunities otherwise unavailable in more traditional casting, which is really all the justification it needs. This despite director Steve Marvel’s program notes offering a lengthy, labored and unnecessary rationale (which boils down to “the issue of race is central to the production but not to the play”). The key question for any cast, black or white, is whether it delivers the mail.

In this case, even with a metaphorical rather than literal Scottish setting, the effort is mostly successful in evoking the play’s vision of ruthless ambition, murder and vengeance. In the title role, Harry Lennix ably navigates the usurper’s journey from faithful soldier to blood-splattered monarch. Rather than bringing specific racial overtones to his portrayal, Lennix adopts a notably universal stance with respect to the roots of Macbeth’s villainy: The early prophecy of his imminent rise in fortune opens a door to deeply repressed, all-too-familiar urges that he’s been hitherto unwilling to acknowledge. Even then, he wrestles with the dictates and obligations of social convention -- hardly a psychopath, he’s a man overcome by the temptations of ambition.

The soft-spoken delivery of Patrice Quinn, as his wife and partner in crime, never quite musters the steely, ruthless resolve of a woman who begs the gods to “unsex” her from all weakness. Lamont Thompson’s strapping Banquo physically overshadows Macbeth, adding a visceral dimension to his potential threat. Peter Macon’s regal Duncan and Karl Calhoun’s impassioned Macduff are standouts in a supporting cast that proves uneven with the scansion.

Marvel’s spare, 10-actor staging reflects concessions to budget realities: The three weird sisters have been downsized to a single witch (Erica Tazel, who doubles as a fine Lady Macduff), and visual spectacle is admittedly lean. Nevertheless, this briskly paced “Macbeth” serves up enough macnuggets to make it worth the toil and trouble.

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-- Philip Brandes

“Macbeth,” Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 4. $27. (323) 960-7753 or www.plays411.com/macbeth. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Casual menace in ‘Strangers’

“You’ll never see me again. You can tell me anything.” With that invitation, the wheels of “Strangers on a Train” at the Knightsbridge Theatre start rolling and rarely slacken thereafter. This serviceable adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s classic psychological thriller by Craig Warner benefits from excellent leads Adam Chambers and Christopher McFarland.

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Highsmith famously bemoaned the changes made to her novel for Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated 1951 film version. Warner’s stage play, first produced in Great Britain in 1996, steers closer to Highsmith’s original intentions.

It begins when alcoholic playboy Charles Bruno (Chambers) strikes up a jovial conversation with rising architect Guy Haines (McFarland) en route to Santa Fe. After learning of Guy’s unhappy marriage, Bruno blithely proposes a trade-off: “We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife, and you kill my father.”

Guy naively dismisses this exchange, but the psychotic Bruno means it. After making Guy a widower, he begins an insidious campaign to force Guy to return the favor, and a subtly homoerotic transference ensues.

Under Scott Dittman’s spare direction, the solid cast maintains a tone of casual menace. Shari Shattuck shines as Bruno’s willfully unseeing mother, and Brooke McCormick avoids ingenue cliches as Guy’s girlfriend. Tim Heinrich, Aaron Stetzik and Stephen Howard offer strong support, but it’s all about the central pair, who deliver the goods.

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Chambers, pitched somewhere between Frankie Muniz and Montgomery Clift, gradually peels back Bruno’s layers, flippancy giving way to chilling fury. Guy isn’t as showy, but McFarland, very much the golden boy in over his head, convincingly traces his descent. Their nervy turns carry past some academic blips in Warner’s text and the odd technical gaffe and keep this “Train” on track to its darkly ironic conclusion.

-- David C. Nichols

“Strangers on a Train,” Knightsbridge Theatre Los Angeles, 1944 Riverside Drive, L.A. 5 p.m. Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 11. $25. (323) 667-0955. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

In ‘Beautiful City,’ conscience sought

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“I know anxiety when I see it,” declares “Beautiful City’s” ruthless would-be mall developer. “If I don’t see it, I get a little anxious myself.”

Not to worry -- there’s plenty to go around. Indigenous anxiety is a natural resource for prolific Canadian playwright George F. Walker, whether in edgy dramas or, in this case, quirky comedy. Some vivid performances from the Open Fist Theatre Company bring out the best in Walker’s off-kilter charms, despite the play’s limitations.

Walker’s angst-ridden urban fable pits idealistic social engineering against both petty and large-scale criminal shenanigans. Successful architect Paul (Patrick Tuttle, subbing for Rob Nagle) is recruited by the egomaniacal developer, Tony (Michael Patrick McGill), to design his hermetically sealed shopping complex. Unfortunately, Tony’s dream puts him at odds with his mother, Mary (Nicola Hersh), a crime family matriarch, who would prefer to make money the old-fashioned way -- quietly and illegally.

The metaphysically offensive nature of Tony’s project burdens Paul with various psychosomatic ailments, which lead him to a series of chance encounters. A populist modern-day witch (Hepburn Jamieson) who runs a discount store and can enter people’s minds offers to help Paul if he’ll donate all his wealth to the public good. Walker’s recurring father-and-son thugs (Bjorn Johnson and David J. Wright) are used to excellent comic effect. An existential cop (Tisha Terrasini Banker) subjects her quarries to amusingly open-ended interrogations.

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For all its whimsical narrative complexities, the play never strays far from Walker’s main theme: the greater role that conscience needs to play in structuring the increasingly dehumanized world we are creating. An undeniably sympathetic vision, but it’s overplayed with some heavy-handed utopian rhapsodizing. A sometimes tedious delight with his own cleverness at the expense of dramatic focus remains an unfortunate Walker signature.

-- Philip Brandes

“Beautiful City,” Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 3. $20. (323) 882-6912 or www.openfist.org. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Office treachery, tragedy in ‘Taken’

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There’s original talent snaking through “Taken” at the Eclectic Company Theatre. Tracy Meeker and David Serpa’s promising study of emotional manipulation has some juicy roles and flashes of vitriol that Neil LaBute might envy. It also wears its cinematic ambitions on its sleeve, and that proves problematic.

“Taken,” originally written for the screen, begins as abusive, abrasive Mark (Drew Richards) defends his night with a hooker during a business trip. Mark, talking to Peter (Jason Britt), his fresh-faced sales partner, cites his relationship with Cynthia (Meeker) to justify bad behavior, which, like his ambiguous attitude toward Peter, stems from deep denial.

Meanwhile, Cynthia takes to overdosing during Mark’s absences. This draws her closer to Ricky (Serpa), Mark and Peter’s co-worker. Ricky, another kind of overbearing, knows he’s better for Cynthia than Mark. The indirect quadrangle that commences turns on sexual hypocrisy and office treachery, leading to noteworthy confrontations, and ends in sudden tragedy.

But staging an unproduced screenplay does not automatically make it theater. The interstitial characters, such as boss Jim (Owen Myers) and Ricky’s mom (JC Henning), are mainly functional, and the narrative structure is awkward. Many nasty patches and pregnant pauses that a zoom lens might deepen grow wearing in the flesh, and director Serpa changes locations efficiently without establishing narrative cohesion.

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Richards is certainly committed as Mark, embracing the character’s negativity, and his scenes with the shrewdly understated Britt are the best thing in the show. Yet Richards, like Serpa as Ricky, resorts to scream mode at outbursts, and Meeker lacks the requisite mystique and desperation. As a future feature film, “Taken” has merit. It needs an outside eye to become a play.

-- David C. Nichols

“Taken,” Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Ends Feb. 11. Adult audiences. $15. (818) 508-3003. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.


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