Transformative mythmaking

Performance artist Susan Simpson launches her new Silver Lake theater, the Manual Archives, with "Lead Feet and Nothing Upstairs: A History of the Lifelike," a piece that radicalizes and reinvents the notion of puppet theater.

The 20-seat "micro theater," which has a proscenium the size of an executive's desk turned sideways, may be tiny but provides sufficient scope for this unusual blend of puppetry, film, music and mythmaking.

The story revolves around the Ditto Sisters, identical triplets who leave their rustic native land of Bucolia and immigrate to Los Angeles, a metropolis upon which they have a godlike and profound effect. With the sisters' arrival, everything in the city, from buildings to people, begins replicating. Some find the change nightmarish, but for others, the new culture of mutability proves transcendent.

Also ever-shifting, the plot largely defies interpretation, but while possible themes of urban sprawl and the ethical implications of new technologies may be obvious, "Lead Feet" primarily resonates as a surprising, fitting homage to Los Angeles, that diverse and transformative dreamscape that above all else offers the constant possibility of change.

Many facile hands were required to realize Simpson's labor intensive conceit, which features fantastically elaborate sets that look like what might have resulted if John Napier had detoured into Lilliput. Perched beside the stage, Jackie Kay Knox narrates the action, while Katie Shook, Kendra Ware and Anne Yatco hand-manipulate and voice the Ditto Sisters. Live music, some traditional and some original, is provided by Emily Lacy and Eric Lindley.

The womblike atmosphere and the spacious intervals between set changes might prove a bit sleep-inducing at intervals, but don't expect traditional theatrical notions of pacing and plot to apply to this singular enterprise. While not suitable for young children, Simpson's bedtime story may spark new visions in those who have lost the faculty for dreaming.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"Lead Feet and Nothing Upstairs: A History of the Lifelike," Manual Archives, 3320 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. this Sunday only. Ends June 30. $15. (323) 667-0156. www.manualarchives.org. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Get ready to laugh at the Groundlings

For a codified statement of why we love the Groundlings, catch "The Untitled Groundlings Project." Dependably funny, largely self-contained, this latest outing from the celebrated troupe highlights writing and ensemble energy to satisfying advantage.

With director Roy Jenkins as our benign referee, "Untitled" follows the time-tested structure. Goaded by the ever-righteous band (music director Willie Etra, Howard Greene and Larry Treadwell), a rotating cast of writer-performers tears into sketches and ad-libs with practiced aplomb.

From the opening, "Driving Mr. Daisy," au courant items take a back seat to accessible targets, as Tim Brennen's instructor inspires Jim Cashman's student by his escalating bad example.

In "Ultimately," stoic champ Brennen and commentator Christian Duguay keep straight faces alongside the fearless Steve Little. Given that his pulpy mug elicits audience shrieks the moment he appears, their deadpan mastery is doubly impressive.

That ease of interplay typifies "Untitled," from the group variations in Michael Naughton and Michaela Watkins' fragrant "Hung Jury" to the range of reactions to Duguay's full-throttle delivery of "William's Song," which ends Part 1 on a wry high.

"Untitled" rather slights topical humor and improvisations, but it certainly shows off the current crop of crazies. Against a ruthless male roster, Watkins and the arch Ariane Price easily hold their own, Watkins' antic teen "Prodigy" and Price as "The Author Herself" especially choice.

And Jeremy Rowley continues certifiable. His Asian self-help entrepreneur in "The Saigon Way" approaches Sacha Baron Cohen, and he knows no boundaries leading his brethren in the gut-busting "300" finale. This musical spoof, like "Untitled" itself, tills little untried soil, but it's vintage Groundlings mayhem.

-- David C. Nichols

"The Untitled Groundlings Project," Groundlings Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays, 8 and 10 p.m. Saturdays. Ends June 30. $20. (323) 934-4747 or www.groundlings.com. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

'Kid' moves home but goes on and on

Here's a tip to intrepid practitioners who mount an original comedy: You might want your show's running time to clock in at slightly less than, say, "Hamlet."

That's a notion that has eluded writer-creator Chris Econn and director Ryan Dixon, whose "interactive" new show, "The Boomerang Kid," is entertaining and frustrating audiences at the Powerhouse in Santa Monica.

Entertaining, because Econn's conceit of handing out PDAs and enabling the audience to vote on which way the plot will skew is novel and potentially amusing. Frustrating, because with an 8 o'clock curtain, you'll be lucky to get out by 11.

Not that Dixon's staging doesn't have its virtues. The actors are comically gifted pros who labor mightily in the salt mine of Econn's overextended conceit, digging up laughs along the way. The pacing is almost frenetically crisp -- a tip-off that these game performers are trying their best to cut to the chase.

It's a marathon that ultimately exhausts all concerned. The "Kid" in question here (engaging Tyler Poelle) has returned home to his mother's house after being evicted from his apartment. At various points, the audience votes on what direction the kid's story will take. The first act involves an unlikely adventure into the wilds of South America, where the Kid and his irascible uncle (amusing Mark Engelhardt, the standout of the show) fall afoul of a People's Temple-esque cult leader.

Brace yourself. There's more. After intermission, you opt for a different scenario -- a story involving the dysfunctional employees at a struggling computer company -- and pray for a more abbreviated outcome.

It's a vain hope, and that's a shame. The cast members, which include Ida Darvish, Andrew Koenig, Davitt Felder, Ethan Hova, Tyler Moore and Kylee Rousselot, are all pretty terrific, and there are funny twists to Econn's story, which supposedly involves about 50 possible permutations. But if you gotta have a gimmick, you've also gotta have an idea about just how far you can push things. No matter how inventive and well executed, this "Kid" turns obnoxiously bratty.

-- F.K.F.

"The Boomerang Kid," Powerhouse, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 14. $25. (866) 633-6246, Ext. 9. www.powerhousetheatre.com. Running time: 3 hours.

Corruption, incest and D.C. lobbyists

Ambitious perversity guides "Bitch" at the Bootleg. Susan Rubin's hip yet erratic dark comedy of corruption takes on sibling rivalry, corporatism, voodoo and hormones in its account of a public relations firm and the K Street clientele it caters to.

Stone and Stone is a Manhattan agency that sells whatever Washington lobbyists want sold. That stance mirrors the family dysfunction that pits Katherine (the valiant Bhama Roget) against Dick (Nick Mennell), her amoral brother. Enter enigmatic Claire Toussaint (Portia Realer), who hawks a "nonlethal, war-avoidance serum," drolly depicted in the videos created by director Mark Bringelson and Adam Soch.

As Katherine and Dick angle to outsmart each other, complications arrive with secular Arab representative Dodi Kalfayan (Ismail Bashey), Sapphic-minded Sen. Kalvin (Liz Davies) and Brittany (Mara Marini), Dick's not-so-dim assistant.

Set designer Desma Murphy concocts a striking maze of office walls that evoke the hollowness of the Beltway, and Jeremy Pivnick's lighting goes from conference-room stark to film-noir plush. John Zalewski's sound and Robert Prior's costumes are typically proficient, although the climactic channeling of legendary voodoo queen Marie Leveau lacks oomph.

Although Bringelson maneuvers his tart cast and smart designers with flair, it doesn't quite mask the liabilities of Rubin's script. There's wit here, and imagination; also clunky exposition and structural blips. The prime conflict -- Katherine and Dick and their patrician mother -- plays largely off-stage, and the incestuous undercurrent doesn't mesh with the geopolitical satire. Though "Bitch" might make a wild screenplay, it needs rewrites to ensure a theatrical future.

-- D.C.N.

"Bitch," Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends July 7. $20. (323) 389-3856. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Wrestling with the Bard's 'Caesar'

Negative campaigning. Publicity stunts. Civic-minded politicians corrupted by contact with the whatever-it-takes mentality of campaigning for higher office.

These scenes from the run-up to the primaries can be seen as well in "Julius Caesar," Shakespeare's depiction of internecine politics in ancient Rome. PNR Productions has chosen just the right time to revisit the play, which it presents in modern dress, performed by an African American cast, at Stage 52. Unfortunately, director Andrew McCarty's conceptual insights are only half-communicated by a cast that struggles with Shakespeare's language.

Dressed in crisp, dark suits, these politicos could be community leaders or Beltway statesmen. Brutus (Imoh Essien) is diplomatic and photogenic. As top official, he might do some real good. His beneficence is undone, however, by Cassius (Theodore Mark Martinez) -- unelectable but well connected enough to pull some strings -- who urges that the elder-statesmanly Caesar (Vincent J. Isaac) be rubbed out.

Soon, fear and fighting envelop the marble-clad, maroon-draped, abstractly modern environs as rival factions, outfitted like paramilitary forces, jostle for power.

Daniele Watts, portraying Brutus' wife, Portia, is the lone actor in this cast of 13 who demonstrates any facility with Shakespeare's language, her voice a barometer of her distress as she tenderly, then urgently beseeches her closemouthed husband to confide in her.

The rest of the cast appears oblivious to scansion, insensible to emotion. Playacting at pathos and randomly flailing their arms, they cause this production to decline and fall even more rapidly than poor, misled Brutus' polling numbers.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"Julius Caesar," Stage 52, 5299 Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 23. $20. (310) 634-8091. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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