THEATER BEAT

"Franz Schubert: His Letters and Music" provides exactly what the title says, no more, no less. On a mostly bare stage, soprano Julia Migenes sings 17 of Schubert's lieder while an actor (Jeff Marlow) recites the composer's private correspondences to his friends and family.

If the concept sounds dry and anti-dramatic, it often is. But this strangely satisfying production at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles harmoniously fuses music and words in a way that preserves and even heightens the psychological complexity of its subject. This is a rare stage biography that's smart enough to let an artist's creations speak for themselves.

The production, directed by Peter Medak, has its two performers alternate in the spotlight. Though they don't exchange a word of dialogue throughout the evening, they seem to subliminally feed off of each others' presence, like twin muses or maybe two sides of the same personality.

Migenes' voice is both sultry and nuanced; in terms of projection, she achieves just the right balance for this intimate staging. (She's accompanied on the piano by Victoria Kirsch.)

Audiences with prior knowledge of Schubert's life will enjoy the show more, but it's not a prerequisite. This modest production is so simply conceived and elegantly executed that it communicates on a purely spiritual level.

-- David Ng

"Franz Schubert: His Letters and Music," Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. $15-$30. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

End of the world as boys know it

Tales of post-apocalyptic survival are rarely cheery, but even by the genre's downbeat standards Henry Murray's "Treefall" presents a particularly bleak vision.

In its debut production from Rogue Machine, Murray's provocative, if sometimes labored, four-character drama benefits from finely tuned performances and a spectacularly detailed scenic design (by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz) strewn with the detritus of civilization.

Amid a dying world ravaged by global warming, three unrelated teenage boys have banded together in a feeble semblance of a family unit. As they forage for canned food and try to evade the now-lethal sunlight, the three face the hopeless challenge of sustaining a social order severed from any meaning or purpose. Without adults to provide mentorship and continuity, parental responsibilities have prematurely fallen on the oldest, Flynn (Brian Norris), who tries to keep order through ritual, invoking memories of peanut butter or chocolate cake at the start of each meal, or "educating" his companions with books pilfered from an abandoned library. His efforts ring increasingly hollow to August (West Liang), who wants more out of life than their cabin shelter can provide. Adolescent Craig (Brian Pugach) enacts fragments of Shakespeare plays whose meaning he can't comprehend and looks to Flynn for guidance through his emerging sexuality -- with disastrous results.

Their fragile triad is threatened by the sudden appearance of a scavenger named Bug (Tania Verafield). Her disruptive influence triggers the conflicted struggle with sexual identity -- freed from constraints of social norms -- that lies at the play's heart.

Visually and emotionally gripping, John Perrin Flynn's staging employs ample nudity and graphic violence to heighten the intensity, mining frequent actorly moments from a script that covers a lot of redundant territory (quoting lines from "Romeo and Juliet" gets the cultural disintegration point across the first time; return visits are really unnecessary). The writing could be tighter and cut deeper, but "Treefall's" edgy, end-of-the-world vibe effectively drives home its cautionary message about the environmental legacy we're neglectfully creating for future generations.

-- Philip Brandes

"Treefall," Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 6. $25. (323) 960-7774. Running time: 2 hours.

Groundlings aim for high hilarity

The relative fun of "Groundlings Space Camp" will rely on any given night's itinerary of rotating writer-performers. Overall, this latest outing from the irreplaceable improv troupe is an efficient laugh-getter, sporadically graced by high-flying wit.

Following a goofy video PSA and a typically rocking blast from musical director Willie Etra's band, director Mikey Day tweaks the format a bit. The first half is almost all sketches. Most of them land, and some soar. For example, Charlotte Newhouse and the redoubtable Stephanie Courtney savage sitcom grand dames in "AARP" with "SCTV"-worthy zeal. Kevin Kirkpatrick's "The Protector" mines sci-fi hilarity from Toys R Us elements, and his outre crank Fred returns in "Principal's Office," rewardingly teamed with co-author Ben Falcone.

The stalwart Tim Brennen's sweat-laden "Welcome to Toastmasters" drone is an interactive prototype worth developing. A never-more-demented Jeremy Rowley makes an inexorable "Kobe" fan and joins Kirkpatrick, David Hoffman and Scott Beehner as "America's Best Dance Crew," leaving hysteria in their orbit.

However, the show's structure proves top-heavy, and its jets cool after intermission. A wry audience-participation gimmick attends Andrew Friedman and Hoffman's "Hostage Situation," with Brennen and Damon Jones most selfless. The sketch itself is overstretched. Falcone's "BBQ" is a lunatic groin-punching piece, fueled by sound designer Nate Myers, which should pulverize Judd Apatow devotees but left me colder than a moon rock.

Most troubling is how the few improvisational sequences betray prefabricated strategy in their isolated context. Still, if "Groundlings Space Camp" isn't entirely cosmic, it launches sufficient howls to offset the occasional lack of Tang.

-- David C. Nichols

"Groundlings Space Camp," Groundling Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays, 8 and 10 p.m. Saturdays. Ends Oct. 3. $21.50. (323) 834-4747, Ext. 37. Running time: 2 hours

All's fair in love and legal action

A self-aware comedy for the "Juno" generation, Mat Smart's "The Debate Over Courtney O'Connell of Columbus, Nebraska" argues that true romance requires legislation. The sudden engagement of Nebraska native Courtney (Amy Ellenberger) to the well-adjusted James (Larry Herron) throws Courtney's moody ex, Scooner (Jeff Galfer), into a tailspin. Desperate, he invokes the state's Morgan Morality Act of 1894, which holds that a woman's first lover may challenge another suitor to a public debate as to who is more worthy of her hand.

This romp by Chalk Repertory Theatre, known for its site-specific work, takes place with minimal staging at downtown's Cafe Metropol, where you can nibble bruschetta while comparing realism (James) versus romance (Scooner). Courtney's response to the throw-down is a delicious surprise and the evening's high point. In the second half, we travel back to 1894, on a fateful day when the rampage of a jilted lover led the Columbus sheriff (Feodor Chin) to create the Morality Act. Pistols are brandished, ladies (played by men) swoon and everyone lip-syncs to a power ballad.

"Debate" has a fresh charm, and director Jennifer Chang's ensemble samples performance styles -- Charles Busch, Tarantino, reality TV -- with offhand ease. After the first hour, though, that exuberance starts to wear thin, and you wish for more content under all the commotion. Smart talks of eternal love, but he may be more interested in just having fun.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

"The Debate Over Courtney O'Connell of Columbus, Nebraska," Cafe Metropol, 923 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Sundays and Mondays. Ends Aug. 24. $15. (800) 838-3006. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 08, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction Groundlings show: A theater review of "Groundlings Space Camp" in Friday's Calendar section included an incorrect phone number for more information. The correct number is (323) 934-4747. Also, the ticket price has been changed to $16.50 plus a $1.50 service fee, rather than $21.50 as noted in the review.
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