Russia has seen its share of puppet regimes but nothing quite like Rogue Artists Ensemble’s “Gogol Project” at the Bootleg Theater. Combining masked performers, digital animation, immersive sound and music, and diverse styles of puppetry, this spectacular new piece deftly balances flights of whimsy and depths of darkness in three classic short stories by 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol.

Visual invention dazzles as director Sean T. Cawelti marshals a gifted design team to drive the storytelling. Puppet creators Brian White, Wes Crain and their cohorts earn co-equal billing with the performers. A towering bearded tailor with a giant moving-scissor mustache prepares the title life-changing garment for “The Overcoat’s” office drone (Kristopher Lee Bicknell). For “The Nose,” Pat Rubio’s masks and Kerry Hennessy’s costumes wittily animate the detached proboscis of a pompous bureaucrat (Tom Ashworth) as it assumes a respectable place in society, while his dog (expertly manned by April Warren) trades hilarious love letters with another pooch. Above Katie Polebaum’s village set, a giant projected clock face mutates with increasingly sinister animations to reflect the mental unraveling of the “Diary of a Madman” scribe (Don Allen).

Highly physicalized commedia-inspired performances complement the design flourishes, particularly from Estela Garcia’s pushy hat shop matron parading a cloth silhouette of her eligible daughter. Though the plots are easy to follow, some familiarity with the Gogol stories is helpful, if only to better appreciate the skill with which playwright Kitty Felde, using minimal dialogue, has woven them together (Ashworth’s nose-deprived official becomes the callous VIP to whom “The Overcoat’s” wronged hero appeals in vain, while the official’s daughter (Audrey Moore) becomes the object of the “Madman’s” romantic obsession).


Textual compromises are inevitable in this stylized presentation -- the surreal absurdity of some segments blunts the hard-hitting social realism in others, and more literary nuances do not lend themselves to broad caricature. But the trade-off is worth the immersion in sheer staging opulence and ingenuity.


Philip Brandes --

“Gogol Project,” Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 1. $25. (800) 838-3006. Running time: 2 hours.


‘Sweeney’ still on the cutting edge

The enduring genius of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler carries “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Their macabre Tony-winning masterwork revisits its penny-dreadful roots in this compact Production Company revival.

Many approaches have attended this musical thriller since its 1979 premiere, most recently John Doyle’s cast-accompanied deconstruction and Tim Burton’s gory Hammer Studios-flavored film. Here, director Derek Charles Livingston and musical director Richard Berent re-parse the fiendishly intricate property around a fervent ensemble, seeking a stylized immediacy that often evokes “The Threepenny Opera.” Given its computerized accompaniment and un-amplified voices, the musical accuracy and intelligibility of lyrics are gratifying.

Kurt Andrew Hansen’s resonant title barber never quite reaches dementia, but his “Epiphany” is still so intense that we’re afraid to applaud. If Donna Pieroni overplays the infatuation as Mrs. Lovett, his raucous partner-in-meat-pies, her Kathy Najimy-meets-Faith Prince attack is entertainingly apt. When they devour the Act 1 finale, “A Little Priest,” we’re goners.

Harmony Goodman, reliable as always, makes us overlook her Beggar Woman’s lack of disarray, while Brian Maples’ reedy tenor and Jenny Ashman’s focused soprano adorn more interesting lovers than usual. Rob Herring gives urchin Tobias unforced clarity, R. Christofer Sands treats rival barber Pirelli to a droll ham’s holiday and Nancy Dobbs Owen offers keen work en pointe as Sweeney’s lost Lucy.


There are some unfinished lapses in Livingston’s staging. Weston I. Nathanson’s lecherous Judge Turpin isn’t sufficiently repellent, ditto Rick Cox’s clarion-voiced Beadle. Designer August Viverito’s illumination could use footlights, his functional set reveals “dead” customers exiting, and some late-inning tactics may confuse nondevotees. Still, overall “Sweeney’s” yeasty essence lands with a vengeance.


David C. Nichols --

“Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 22. $34. (800) 838-3006. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.


Romance that’s just sweet enough

Thornton Wilder, notable for winning Pulitzers for a novel and two plays, was a theatrical experimenter whose most arguably conventional work is “The Matchmaker,” a sweetly rendered Valentine to 1890s New York.

Of course, Wilder’s gentle comedy about the inimitable Dolly Gallagher Levi, an Irish-born yenta who eases the path of various romances while angling to hook her own rich husband, later became source material for the massive musical hit “Hello, Dolly!” But whereas the musical remains an unapologetic star vehicle for the reigning divas of the day, the play is far more egalitarian, a rich aggregation of innocents and eccentrics, many of whom break the fourth wall to directly address the audience.

Dave Florek’s staging for the Interact Theatre Company at the Victory Theatre Center boldly emphasizes the play’s sweetness while neatly avoiding sentimental stickiness. Curiously, Florek gives the plot’s farcical elements somewhat short shrift. After all, when characters don drag and hide under tables, subtlety is not the best option.

But that’s a minor flaw in an otherwise lively production that showcases the talents of seasoned stage veterans and less polished newcomers. Amanda Carlin’s delightful Dolly has just the right touch of cheerful coarseness. As wealthy curmudgeon Horace Vandergelder, James Gleason mitigates his character’s irascibility with the hint of a twinkle. And as boozy jack-of-all-trades Malachi Stack, James Greene is matter-of-factly marvelous. His wryly hilarious “one vice at a time” monologue is the evening’s highlight.


F. Kathleen Foley

“The Matchmaker,” Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 18. $25. (818) 765-8732. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.