Perseverance in the face of adversity is a common theme this week on “The 99-Seat Beat,” our selections from L.A.’s theater scene. The human spirit endures, whether in the mythic quests of ancient Greece (“Argonautika”), the bonds of friendship nurtured in a Southern beauty salon (“Steel Magnolias”), the human heart beating within a Victorian-era monstrosity (“The Elephant Man”) or the intermittent miracles wrought by the self-doubting man at the center of “Faith Healer.”
‘Argonautika’ at A Noise Within
The essentials: Perils are faced and conquered, hearts are won and broken, and gods make sport of mortal foibles — all on an epic scale in “Argonautika,” a modern adaptation of Jason and the Argonauts’ legendary quest for the Golden Fleece. Playwright Mary Zimmerman, whose wildly imaginative “Metamorphoses” stunned Mark Taper Forum audiences with its dreamlike tableaux, again employs her signature wit, insight and compassion to humanize archetypal figures from Greek mythology. This retelling offers a distinctively strong female perspective courtesy of the goddesses Hera and Athena, who narrate and participate in the action. Fresh takes on familiar characters include a lovestruck, pre-filicidal Medea and a pompous, blowhard Hercules unexpectedly overcome with romantic tenderness.
Why this? A Noise Within’s producing artistic director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott promises amplified visual spectacle in her staging, with an original music score by Robert Oriol and more singing, dancing, fights and aerial tricks than what Zimmerman had originally intended. “There is a sense of ‘play’ and adventure,” Rodriguez-Elliott said, “that will hopefully remind audiences of what it is like to be a child again and what our collective imaginations are capable of creating.”
Details: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through May 5. $25-$77. (626) 356-3121, www.anoisewithin.org
‘Faith Healer’ at the Odyssey
The essentials: Desperate, despairing and derelict — such are the easy marks seeking divine intervention in Brian Friel’s 1979 masterpiece about a morally conflicted, alcoholic faith healer scavenging the seedier outskirts of the United Kingdom. The “Fantastic” Frank Hardy may be a con man, but his performances succeed just often enough to lace his self-loathing with the possibility of a genuine gift. In a series of monologues, Frank (Paul Norwood), his long-suffering wife (Diana Cignoni) and their unshakably perky manager (Ron Bottitta) trace the contours of Frank’s tawdry life through the prisms of their respective struggles and damaged psyches. Frank offers the observation that people come to him “not in hope but for the elimination of hope … to seal their anguish, for the content of a finality.”
Why this? Friel’s elegant script embodies the Irish gift for storytelling, packed with character-illuminating details, metaphysical mysteries and poetic self-reflections that defy easy classification or judgment. Odyssey Theatre Ensemble founder Ron Sossi revisits the play he last directed in 1989.
Details: An Odyssey Theatre Ensemble production at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (see website for additional weeknights), through May 12. $32-$37. (310) 477-2055, www.odysseytheatre.com
‘Steel Magnolias’ at Actors Co-op
The essentials: “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” declares Truvy, the Southern beautician who presides over the ups and downs of her close-knit circle of customers whom playwright Robert Harling calls “Steel Magnolias.” Infectious comic banter goes hand-in-hand with stoic resilience in Harling’s homage to the colorful, strong-willed women who populated the sleepy Louisiana hometown of his youth.
Why this? The interplay between Harling’s vividly drawn characters is far more intimate and engaging onstage than in the movie adaptation. This accomplished Actors Co-op ensemble includes Nan McNamara (“33 Variations,” “Wit”) as Truvy and, in a more mature role, Lori Berg, who played Truvy in the company’s memorable 1996 staging. The production also marks a homecoming of sorts for director Cameron Watson, whose first L.A. gig was with Actors Co-op in 2005 and who has since gone on to work at many of the Southland’s prestigious theater. Watson approaches the play’s sentimentality with period authenticity and blunt honesty.
Details: Actors Co-op’s David Schall Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through May 5; also 2:30 p.m. March 30 and April 6; dark Easter weekend. $35. (323) 462-8460, www.actorsco-op.org
‘The Elephant Man’ at El Portal
The essentials: When it comes to overcoming physical challenges, it’s hard to think of a more poignantly heroic example than that of “The Elephant Man,” the congenitally misshapen Joseph (John) Merrick, who began life as a reviled circus freak and ended up the toast of Victorian society by the time of his death at age 27. Drawing on the same historical sources as the better-known David Lynch film, this earlier stage biodrama by Bernard Pomerance takes a different approach in representing Merrick's deformities entirely through the actor’s body posture, without elaborate makeup and prosthetics. The play shows us the gentle, civilized soul trapped inside the horrific prison of flesh that the other characters see.
Why this? Reviving Merrick’s story on NoHo’s El Portal stage fulfills a long-held personal mission for Thursday Night Theater Club co-founder Tom Vitorino, who urges compassion and reminds us not to judge others by their outward appearance. In performing the title role, Vitorino draws on his struggle with the after-effects of Bell’s palsy. “I did not choose this play,” Vitorino said. “Oddly enough it chose me, and I am grateful.” Director Robyn Cohen’s staging features period set and costumes, with further dedication to historical detail on view in a lobby display of contemporaneous books, letters, photos and an anatomically correct replica of Merrick’s skeleton.
Details: A Thursday Night Theater Club production at El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through April 14; dark March 28-31. $20. www.elportaltheatre.com
The 99-Seat Beat appears every Friday. Our reviewers shortlist 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. Check out our picks from last week.
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