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Entertainment & Arts

The 99-Seat Beat: An Actors’ Gang ‘Carnival,’ a riff on ‘Heart of Darkness’ and more

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Guebri VanOver and Will Thomas McFadden in the Actors’ Gang’s “Captain Greedy’s Carnival.”
(Ashley Randall)

Our weekly picks from Los Angeles’ small-theater scene deliver stories exploring the economic exploitation of the masses (The Actors’ Gang’s “Captain Greedy’s Carnival”), the pure power of storytelling (Sacred Fools’ “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play”) and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” reset in Afghanistan (Son of Semele’s “Ridiculous Darkness”). Plus, we get Judith Scott from TV’s “Snowfall” in a twist on George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.”


1. ‘Captain Greedy’s Carnival’ at the Actors’ Gang

The essentials: In the center ring of this sardonic world premiere musical, a charismatic con man dupes the innocent with flashy assurances of instant wealth. The carnival sideshow setting with its traditional freakish amusements is an allegory for a rigged capitalist financial system, since “both are engineered to entertain, deceive and fleece an eager and gullible public,” according to playwright Jack Pinter.

Why this? Pinter conceived the piece in response to the Wall Street shenanigans exposed by the 2008 economic meltdown, affecting all our wallets in one way or another. The Actors’ Gang has a record of originating edgy, vibrant new work, and Tim Robbins’ oversight as co-founder and artistic director ensures pointed activist messaging. The original score here is by ambient composer Roger Eno, known for atmospheric film soundscapes and his collaborations with his brother, Brian.

Details: The Actors’ Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; ends Nov. 11. $34.99; Thursdays pay what you can. (310) 838-4264, theactorsgang.com


In front, from left: Scott Golden, Heather Roberts, Joe Hernandez-Kolski and Tracey Leigh, with Eric Curtis Johnson in back.
In front, from left: Scott Golden, Heather Roberts, Joe Hernandez-Kolski and Tracey Leigh, with Eric Curtis Johnson in back. Jessica Sherman Photography

2. ‘Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play’ at Sacred Fools

The essentials: As refugees fleeing radioactive fallout bond over campfire reenactments of pop culture, the critical role of storytelling in the survival of humanity drives Anne Washburn’s intricately constructed, seriocomic mashup of Boccaccio’s “Decameron” and the Simpsons’ infamous “Cape Feare” episode.

Why this? Washburn’s ingenious script is profound and at times deadly serious in tracing the way an iconic pop culture narrative evolves to suit the needs of different historical eras. For the L.A. debut of what the author admits is “a beast of a play” to take on, veteran Sacred Fools director Jaime Robledo (“Stoneface,” “Watson”) and the company’s first-rate design team take the audience on a journey through time and space, situating each act in a different theater of the three-stage venue. The Sacred Fools mission is affordable but thoroughly professional theater, so don’t be fooled by the low ticket price.

Details: A Sacred Fools Theater Company production at the Broadwater complex, 1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 18. $15. (310) 281-8337 or www.sacredfools.org


3. ‘Ridiculous Darkness’ at Son of Semele

The essentials: The U.S. premiere of German writer Wolfram Lotz’s riff on “Heart of Darkness” (and its cinematic progeny, “Apocalypse Now”) resets Joseph Conrad’s meditations on colonialism in an absurdist present-day Afghanistan, where logic never gets in the way of freewheeling satire. A top-secret soldiers’ mission, fanatical missionaries, Somali pirates and a pessimistic parrot challenge the reductive way that Westerners view the developing world and the divide between different cultures.

Why this? For the experimentally curious, this is a prime specimen of the way contemporary German theater upends expectations. Lotz wrote the piece as a radio play and encourages unlimited transformation of it. The fearlessly fringy Son of Semele troupe’s staging honors that intent with an open-mike format set in an international cafe, with five actors doubling many parts for the play’s satirical take on globalization — who gets to speak, and whether anyone is actually listening when parrots squawk “The horror! The horror!”

Details: Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; previews start Oct. 14, opens Oct. 21, ends Nov. 12. $20. www.sonofsemele.org

Sarah Rosenberg, left, Ashley Steed and Dan Via in "Ridiculous Darkness."
Sarah Rosenberg, left, Ashley Steed and Dan Via in "Ridiculous Darkness." Matthew McCray

4. ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ at A Noise Within

The essentials: In George Bernard Shaw’s forward-looking classic, a virtuous, self-reliant young woman is horrified to discover that the absent mother who funded her education and comfortable lifestyle from afar earned her wealth the oldest-fashioned way. Gleefully intended, in Shaw’s words, as a “sudden earthquake shock to the foundations of morality,” the play was written in 1893 but banned from public performance until 1925 due to the frank examination of prostitution and its underlying socio-economic causes.

Why this? Nowadays, it’s hard to remember what a rigorously argued, platitude-free debate over difficult moral questions even looks like. Complementing A Noise Within’s classical repertory expertise, guest director Michael Michetti (from Pasadena’s modernist Boston Court theater company) slyly heightens Shaw’s insight into feminist issues and social barriers by making the unrepentant brothel owner Mrs. Warren a self-made woman of color, played by Judith Scott (from TV’s “Snowfall”).

Details: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Runs in repertory; see website for schedule. Ends Nov. 18. $30-$84. (626) 356-3100 Ext 1. or www.anoisewithin.org

Judith Scott, star of
Judith Scott, star of "Mrs. Warren's Profession." Daniel Reichert

The 99-Seat Beat appears every Friday. Our team of reviewers — people with more than 50 years of combined experience tracking local theater — shortlist current offerings at 99-seat theaters and other smaller venues. Some (but not all) recommendations are shows we’ve seen; others have caught our attention because of the track record of the company, playwright, director or cast. You can find more comprehensive theater listings posted every Sunday at latimes.com/arts.

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