L.A. theater: An American pioneer tale reframed by a female and nonbinary cast


Our 99-Seat Beat column will begin its summer hiatus next week, but first we’re taking one last look at promising offerings on local stages in July. Options include Son of Semele’s gender-bent tale of Western pioneers, the most famous Shakespeare play you’ve probably never seen, “Dancing at Lughnasa” in Atwater Village and a new drama about the legacy of child abuse.

‘Men on Boats’ at Son of Semele

The essentials: Jaclyn Backhaus’ quirky off-off-Broadway play employs an ironically skewed lens in its historical reenactment of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 geological expedition along the uncharted Colorado River. All 10 of the historical white male explorers are played by female or nonbinary actors who speak in contemporary vernacular even as they tackle the untamed wilderness. Son of Semele Ensemble’s production unfolds on a surreal minimalist construction site where history itself appears to be under construction.

Why this? Though the gender-switched effect is often comic, the piece is no mere drag show parody of testosterone-fueled adventurism. By placing inclusion front and center even while exploring a historical event in which only white men were involved, the play implicitly addresses the subject of a woman’s place at the table, director Barbara Kallir said. “The ‘history under construction’ concept reframes American history so that audiences reflect not only on the heroic efforts of the American pioneers, but also on people from the time who were clearly excluded.”


Details: Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, through July 28. $25 (limited pay-what-you-can admission through July 14).

‘Two Noble Kinsmen’ in NoHo

The essentials: If “The Two Noble Kinsmen” doesn’t ring a bell, you’re not alone. But there’s growing scholarly consensus that Shakespeare and John Fletcher coauthored this adaptation of Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” about two high-born comrades-turned-rivals for the hand of the same princess. The company Porters of Hellsgate ventures beyond the Bard’s traditionally accepted canon with this obscure title, the 26th in the company’s founding mission to present all of Shakespeare’s plays.

Why this? The play’s Shakespearean meditations on love, class distinctions, gender politics, friendship, family and even the refugee experience make for a timely, achingly sad and raucously funny experience, according to director Will Block. He cautions that “you may find yourself a more active participant in the action than at your average production.” On Sundays, the piece is paired with “Double Falsehood,” an 18th century tragicomedy allegedly derived from the lost “Cardenio,” a second Shakespeare-Fletcher collaboration.

Details: A Porters of Hellsgate production at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 W. Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Opens July 13. Performances 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 11. $20.

‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ at Open Fist

The essentials: “Atmosphere is more real than incident, and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory,” the narrator says in Irish playwright Brian Friel’s poetic, semiautobiographical portrait of his mother and spinster aunts’ unraveling household during a pivotal 1936 Celtic harvest festival.


Why this? Open Fist Theatre Company follows its highly regarded production of “Anna in the Tropics” with Friel’s Tony Award-winning memory play. Although the company is more commonly associated with edgy contemporary material, Open Fist’s deep bench of actors are equally at home with classics. Artistic Director Martha Demson heads the ensemble in the role of the schoolmarm matriarch (played by Meryl Streep in the 1998 film adaptation).

Details: An Open Fist production at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles. In previews; opens July 12. Performances 8 p.m. Mondays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 18. Additional performances 8 p.m. July 12 and Aug. 16. $20-$45 (previews are pay what you want). (323) 882-6912,

‘Apple Season’ at Moving Arts

The essentials: When the death of a father draws a troubled schoolteacher and her estranged brother back to the family apple orchard, the inherited property proves inseparable from their legacy of childhood trauma. A chance encounter with an old flame triggers unsettling but necessary revelations in E. M. Lewis’ challenging new flashback-driven drama, which requires its three performers to shift between their characters’ past and present selves.

“Apple Season” is part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere initiative, a prominent incubator for new works. The production features Rob Nagle, a frequent presence on Southland stages, Liza Fernandez and Justin Huen.

Why this? Skillfully weaving big themes into the subtext of her intimately-drawn character portraits has made Lewis a fast-emerging playwright. (Her “How the Light Gets In” will be presented in September at Boston Court Pasadena.) Darin Anthony, artistic director of the company Moving Arts, aims to show “female empowerment manifested in an inherently human way — messy and multilayered.”

Details: A Moving Arts production at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles. Opens July 12. Performances 8 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 5. $24-$30. (323) 472-5646,

The 99-Seat Beat shortlists offerings with an emphasis on smaller venues. Some recommendations are shows we’ve seen; others are based on the track record of the company, playwright, director or cast. The column will go on hiatus for summer and return ahead of the fall season.

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