Knowing the rules before you break them can spell the difference between innovation and cluelessness. This week’s theater selections are from adventurous companies that know exactly what they’re doing as they focus on rule-breakers who defy the status quo: a retired cop struggling to hang on to his dignity (“Between Riverside and Crazy” at Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood), a boy’s metaphysical journey in search of self-definition (“Witkacy/Two-Headed Calf” at REDCAT in downtown L.A.), a famed blues singer’s bittersweet victory over hardship and racial discrimination (“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” at International City Theatre in Long Beach). We’ll start with a lone dissenter caught in an Orwellian nightmare.
‘1984’ at Actors’ Gang
The essentials: George Orwell intended his novel as an exaggerated cautionary satire about a totalitarian society fueled by hatred and disinformation, where anything less than slavish devotion to an autocratic leader’s whims is equivalent to treason. In the 13 years since director Tim Robbins and his Actors’ Gang theater company debuted Michael Gene Sullivan’s stage adaptation, it’s come to look more and more like a documentary. This time around, Will Thomas McFadden plays the imprisoned Winston Smith, facing the consequences of his thoughtcrimes; Robbins, in his first stage appearance since 2004, plays Smith’s merciless reality-twisting interrogator, O’Brien.
Why this? The most revisited play in the Actors’ Gang repertoire, “1984” is ideally suited to the company’s stylistic marriage of political activism and commedia dell’arte farcical excess. In comments emailed to The Times, Robbins urged audiences to consider: “What is it to be free and human, and how much do we participate in our own dehumanization? What is our collective two-minute hate? Why do we carry monitoring devices with us wherever we go? Why have we willfully given up our privacy?”
Details: An Actors’ Gang production at the Actors’ Gang Theater, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through Dec. 7, plus 2 p.m. Sundays on Oct. 27, Nov. 10 and Nov. 24. $34.99 (Thursdays pay-what-you-can). (310) 838-4264, theactorsgang.com.
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‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ at Fountain Theatre
The essentials: Falling somewhere between comedy and drama while pushing the boundaries of both, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner abounds with the playwright’s sympathetic, surprising and very human portraits — a retired, recently widowed NYPD beat cop, his ex-con son and their life-hardened houseguests. Beset by lawsuits, eviction threats and crusading evangelism, “Pops” Washington tries to hold on to his rent-controlled apartment in a prime real estate neighborhood — his last remaining domain of self respect.
Why this? A stellar cast is headed by Montae Russell (“King Hedley II” on Broadway and L.A.’s Matrix Theatre) as Pops and Fountain favorite Matthew Hancock (“The Brothers Size”). For veteran director Guillermo Cienfuegos, the play’s magic is in how consistently funny it remains while exploring big issues: grief, alcoholism, gentrification, police brutality and religion. “There’s no better way to impart to an audience some essential truths about what it is to be human than while you’re making them laugh,” he said.
Details: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 15. $25–$45 (limited pay-what-you-want Mondays). (323) 663-1525, FountainTheatre.com
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‘Witkacy/Two-Headed Calf’ at REDCAT
The essentials: In its U.S. premiere, Polish avant-garde director Natalia Korczakowska’s hallucinatory travelogue is a metaphysical coming-of-age drama about a young person confronting depression — someone who cannot see a future but finds spiritual and creative renewal in the California desert. The title’s “two-headed calf” refers to the way in which the character is split into two conflicted personas: one a fragile artist, the other a human cog in the societal machine. The director adapted this piece from 1930s works by Poland’s iconoclastic writer-theorist-painter-photographer Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, known as Witkacy. Reflecting the neuroses and despair induced by political conditions between the world wars, the plays predated the existential Theatre of the Absurd.
Why this? Korczakowska emphasizes the relevance of Witkiewicz’s reverence for art and the restorative power of nature to defeat the greatest disease of our time and his: indifference. “The play feels like a Quentin Tarantino movie, but one that poses metaphysical and philosophical questions,” she said, “a form of stand-up comedy for nine actors.”
Details: A REDCAT, Studio Teatrgaleria and CalArts Center for New Performance coproduction at REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles. 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, then 8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Oct. 25. $27-$32. (213) 237-2800, redcat.org.
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‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’ at International City Theatre
The essentials: This dramatic re-creation of jazz great Billie “Lady Day” Holiday’s final performance before her death in 1959 at age 44 reveals her monumental talent as well as her struggles with poverty, racism, sexual abuse, heroin addiction, jail and failed marriages. Across 14 of Holiday’s hits (including “Easy Living,” “Strange Fruit” and, of course, “God Bless the Child”), Karole Foreman depicts the increasingly inebriated singer’s feisty defiance as she regales us with her life stories and teases the shy pianist (Stephan Terry) trying his best to hold her together. The more she unravels, the more impactful the songs become.
Why this? Foreman’s résumé demonstrates the acting chops (“Fences” at ICT, “The Wedding Band” at Antaeus) and vocal pipes (“Caroline, or Change” at PCPA Theaterfest, California Repertory’s “Next to Normal” in Long Beach) needed for the show’s mix of soul-stirring music and heart-rending drama. “At a time when race, gender and the opioid crisis are being discussed loudly on a daily basis,” director Wren T. Brown said, “Billie Holiday’s life and career are a great example of what it means to not just survive but triumph in the face of lifelong abuse and struggle.”
Details: An International City Theatre production at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 330 E. Seaside Way. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 3. $47-$55. (562) 436-4610, InternationalCityTheatre.org.
You always can find our latest theater coverage at latimes.com/theater. Recent reviews include “Buried Child” at A Noise Within, “1984" from Actors’ Gang, “Anastasia” at the Pantages, “217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous” from CAP UCLA, “The Light in the Piazza” by Los Angeles Opera, “Gem of the Ocean” at A Noise Within, “How the Light Gets in” by Boston Court Pasadena, “The Vandal” by Chance Theater and “The Canadians” at South Coast Repertory.