Think of them this weekend as mental gymnasiums. In Los Angeles’ smaller theaters you can work out with an injured soldier dreaming of social revolution in “Johnny Got His Gun,” a colorful character from Los Angeles history spinning stories in “Señor Plummer’s Final Fiesta,” a bullied youth seeking guidance in “Baby Eyes” and two rash young men turning morality upside down in “Rope.”
‘Johnny Got His Gun’ by the Actors’ Gang
What: His is the strangled cry of the voiceless. A shell ripped a soldier apart, leaving his mind a prisoner in a barely functioning body. He wants the world to know the true cost of war, but without a face, arms or legs, how can he communicate? Dalton Trumbo wrote “Johnny Got His Gun” as a novel, published in 1939, when he was a fledgling screenwriter.
Why this? The novel, which Trumbo turned into a 1971 movie, is generally labeled antiwar. But Tim Robbins, the Actors’ Gang’s artistic director, counters by saying, “I think it’s a pro-humanity play. It celebrates life.” Despair can’t defeat this soldier, even when he’s ignored once he finds a way to convey his desire to be publicly displayed as a caution about war. The reason to tell this story now: Robbins says, “What Trumbo has written is something that will inspire us to hold strong in our demands for human decency and truth and life — and the joys of life.” Robbins, who directs Bradley Rand Smith’s 1982 stage adaptation, believes that the full scope of Trumbo’s output — beyond such screenplays as “Spartacus” and “Exodus” — deserves to be better recognized. “His writing is so human; it’s so beautifully poetic and so full of truth.”
Details: Actors’ Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Previews Friday; opens Saturday. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 10. $25-$35; Thursdays pay what you can. (310) 838-4264, theactorsgang.com
‘Señor Plummer’s Final Fiesta’ by Rogue Artists Ensemble
What: Meet Eugene Plummer, one of Los Angeles history’s most colorful characters. He clung to the days of ranchos, when his family’s land sprawled across what is now Hollywood and West Hollywood. He often dressed like he’d stepped out of a storybook, and his tales — some taller than others — were captured in the book “Señor Plummer: The Life and Laughter of an Old-Californian,” published in 1942 when he was 90. The stories come alive in an immersive theater event.
Why this? “Señor Plummer’s Final Fiesta” is presented on the last parcel of the family’s land, known to us today as Plummer Park. Rogue Artists Ensemble, partnered with West Hollywood’s Arts Division, has constructed a two-story representation of Plummer’s house and outfitted rooms in park buildings as storytelling environments, through which visitors choose their path. Using masks, puppets, music and more, a cast of 20 enacts such Plummer adventures as riding a shark, being enlisted in a transport operation by desperado Tiburcio Vásquez and keeping an eye on a pirate (or is he a surveyor?). It’s a chance “to lose yourself in a different time in Los Angeles and to meet characters based on real people who made our city what it is,” says Sean T. Cawelti, Rogue Artists’ artistic director and the show’s director.
Details: Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Previews Friday-Sunday; opens Oct. 19. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays; ends Nov. 4. $35-$55 or limited $20 “community discount” tickets. www.rogueartists.org
‘Baby Eyes’ by Playwrights’ Arena
What: The Greek myth about Zeus and his boy lover Ganymede — as well as Sal Mineo’s soulful yearning in “Rebel Without a Cause” — are jumping-off points for “Baby Eyes,” about a bullied 14-year-old Jewish Italian boy in 1955 Baltimore who thinks he’s found a mentor, and maybe something more, in a black boxer twice his age.
Why this? Playwrights’ Arena artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera says upfront that Donald Jolly’s story — “raw and dangerous and sexual” — is bound to make viewers uncomfortable. But it leaves him “shaking.” The boy in the story is made to feel that he’s not man enough, and that’s a road to suicide. It’s up to society to provide alternatives — support and guidance — Rivera says, so that similar youths “can explore their sexuality a lot better than them just, on their own, sorting it out.” Playwrights’ Arena, devoted to new plays by L.A. writers, presented Jolly’s “Bonded” in a co-production with Latino Theater Company in 2011. It was directed by Rivera, as is “Baby Eyes.”
Details: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave. Previews Friday; opens Saturday. 8 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays, 4 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 5. $25 in advance or $30 at the door. (800) 838-3006, playwrightsarena.org
‘Rope’ by Actors Co-op
What: Two young men — thinking themselves Nietzschean supermen — kill an acquaintance, stuff the body in a chest and keep it in the room during a dinner party to which they’ve invited the victim’s family and friends. Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 British drama “Rope” is the basis of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film.
Why this? Such a twisted tale might seem a shocking choice for the Christian artists of Actors Co-op, but “Rope” pushes a mind-set — rejecting religion, questioning morality — to its extremes and examines the consequences. “To understand what the value of life is, you also have to look at what it means to devalue it,” says Heather Chesley, chairwoman of this first-rate cooperative’s artistic committee. “From a Christian perspective, you go into the dark to be the light.” The director is Ken Sawyer, whose profoundly spooky staging of “The Woman in Black” became a long-running hit for the Road Theatre Company in 2002.
Details: Hollywood Presbyterian Church, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Oct. 28. $25-$35. (323) 462-8460, www.actorsco-op.org
The 99-Seat Beat appears every Friday. Our reviewers shortlist offerings with an emphasis on smaller venues. Comprehensive theater listings are posted every Sunday at latimes.com/arts.