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Review: In ‘Under Milk Wood,’ the lost and the lonely live in the poetry of Dylan Thomas

Gina Manziello with the ensemble of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood,” an Open Fist Theatre Company production at Atwater Village Theatre.
(Darrett Sanders)

“Under Milk Wood,” Dylan Thomas’ 1954 radio play that was adapted for stage and screen, presents a formidable challenge, whomever the interpreter, whatever the format.

Set over roughly 24 hours in the sleepy Welsh seaside town of Llareggub (read that backward and you’ll get an idea of the piece’s general cheekiness), Thomas’ “play for voices” features more than three-dozen characters — eccentrics all — as they go about their quotidian but never ordinary rounds.

A recent production in Britain streamlined the cast to some half-dozen performers, but in the present production by the Open Fist Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre, director Ben Martin goes full bore with more than two dozen actors in a well-paced and inventive staging. And if we sometimes struggle to keep track of plot and personae, no matter. “Milk Wood” is an exercise in blissfully poetic language that still commands our attention.

Bruce A. Dickinson as Captain Cat in Open Fist’s “Under Milk Wood.”
(Darrett Sanders)

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Not that its specific characters aren’t indelible, and indelibly portrayed here. Standouts are blind Captain Cat (Bruce A. Dickinson), haunted by the long-dead prostitute whom he loved; promiscuous Polly Garter (Gina Manziello), who yearns for her own dead love as she accommodates the townsmen’s carnal needs; and the Rev. Eli Jenkins (Paul Myrvold), the moral center of the piece, who greets and ends each day with a song of praise that moors Thomas’ meandering fever dream in a richly humanistic context.

Carol Brolaski Kline’s dozens of rustic costumes, Ellen Monocroussos’ lighting and most especially Tim Labor’s original composition and sound design all evoke a seaside community that is strangely but appropriately timeless. It’s the ideal backdrop for the performers, many of whom play multiple roles and all of whom handle the daunting shifts in scenes, characters and moods without a stumble.

“Milk Wood” isn’t an easily approachable text. Devoid of the conventional arc of plot, Thomas’ sprawling mélange takes us into the lives of the vibrant inhabitants of Llareggub, lost and lonely souls who sing, drink, rollick and roister before collapsing into their beds and their ghost-ridden dreams. In this lively and beautifully paced production, Martin and his cast emphasize the mischievous, capturing Thomas’ heroic ribaldry while honoring his play’s mystery and essential sadness.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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‘Under Milk Wood’

Where: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Aug. 25

Cost: $20

Info: (323) 882-6912, www.openfist.org

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Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.


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