Contemplating the fragility of life at the individual, racial and species levels, EM Lewis' new drama, "Song of Extinction," artfully balances its theme of mortality between the intimate and the macroscopic.
Revolving around the tenuous connection between an alienated high school biology teacher and a troubled student, Lewis' lyrical text explores inner psychological states with remarkable eloquence and clarity -- ably depicted by a first-rate Moving Arts cast.
The teacher, Khim Phan (Darrell Kunitomi) is a solitary Cambodian refugee who survived the genocide of the killing fields and remains haunted by the memory of his family, who didn't. Khim knows things about extinction he's afraid to tell his students, retreating instead into scientific detachment from which even the rapidly escalating disappearance of entire species becomes a bloodless abstraction.
Wrenching Khim from his insular cocoon is the unraveling spectacle of Max (Will Faught), a 15-year-old musical prodigy whose mother (Lori Yeghiayan) is dying of stomach cancer. Max's father (Michael Shutt), a field biologist, is too busy -- or grief-stricken -- to deal with his wife's terminal condition, and fixates on his crusade to save an endangered beetle.
When Max's inability to cope with this emotional wreckage forces Khim to step in as a surrogate father figure, the setup is ripe for shameless heart string-plucking. Fortunately, director Heidi Helen Davis' rich, visually expressive staging steers well clear of cheap sentimentality. Even when the dialogue strays at times from literal credibility, the emotional rapport between these characters remains believably frayed and partial, binding together personal loss, genocide and biological devastation with felt truths.
-- Philip Brandes
"Song of Extinction," [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays (dark Thanksgiving). Ends Dec. 14. $20, Sunday evenings pay-what-you-can. (323) 461-3673. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Amusing, focused 'Fata Morgana'
A poignant coming-of-age saga lurks within the risqué froth of "Fata Morgana." Hungarian writer Ernest Vajda's 1924 romantic comedy receives a first-rate revival, as absorbing as it is amusing, by Pacific Resident Theatre.
Revered for the sophisticated screenplays he supplied to Ernst Lubitsch at the dawn of the talkies, Vajda was a celebrated playwright and novelist before Hollywood. "Fata Morgana," first presented under the title "Délibáb" (Mirage), aligns Vajda's light-comic sensibilities to the earthier warmth of his native country.
It transpires on the great plain called the Puszta, where a provincial household is in an uproar. As designer Michael Redfield's subtle lighting rises on Robert Broadfoot's excellent set, restive George (Michael Hanson, a find) repeatedly intones a historical essay. Having disappeared for two days after flunking his exams, 18-year-old George cannot attend the midsummer Anna-Ball, the other reason all his relatives are atwitter.
Although his father relents, George stays home alone. Until couture-clad Mathilde Fay (the delicious Ursula Brooks) arrives, dismayed that no one met her at the station. The bored wife of wealthy cousin Gabriel (vibrant Scott Conte), Mathilde is the titular fata morgana to George's authorial surrogate, winding up in his bedroom as Act 1 ends. Acts 2 and 3 follow the consequences of this dalliance, with rollicking, bittersweet results.
The obscure property is a natural for director Marilyn Fox, whose expert forces all peruse the same delightful page, Audrey Eisner's fine costumes denoting character, Alexander Enberg's sound plot beautifully focused.
So is the playing. Hanson's coltish gravitas and Conte's edgy jocularity dovetail with Brooks' airborne pragmatism, an ideal central triangle, and Sarah Brooke and Tony Pasqualini are quietly invested parents. Valentina Matosian's zesty kid sister, Ed Levey's laconic groundskeeper and Irene Roseen's bravura poor relation form the tonal poles of a superb ensemble. Their effortless precision makes "Fata Morgana" an enchanting period treat.
With a generous soupçon of witty anarchy, "The Bourgeois Gentilhomme" tumbles into Santa Monica. This sleek City Garage take on Molière's deathless satire of nouveau riche pretensions and aristocratic machinations is nominally avant-garde, mainly an unguarded hoot.
First performed in 1670 before Louis XIV, "Gentilhomme" concerns Monsieur Jourdain (the riotous Jeff Atik), his father a wealthy merchant who retained middle-class contours. Hopelessly oafish Jourdain thus obsesses over not just the trappings of nobility, which elude him despite the fawning efforts of a slew of tutors, but over trapping the nobles.
That explains Dorante (aptly acerbic Troy Dunn), a sponging count who pretends to help Jourdain woo Dorimène (Deborah Knox, exquisitely poised), Dorante's own paramour. While everyone mocks Jourdain behind his back, his acidulous wife (Ruthie Crossley) openly bemoans his aspirations, such as marrying off daughter Lucile (Alisha Nichols) to royalty, though she loves commoner Cléonte (Garth Whitten). Assisted by Cléonte's valet (the avid Max Molina), a melee of duplicity ensues, leading to a demented faux-Turkish resolution.
Conceived by Molière as a comédie-ballet, "Gentilhomme" carries many wicked analogies to modern mores. Director Frédérique Michel and designer Charles Duncombe slyly tailor our times into their tart adaptation, complete with anachronisms, nonstop postures and purposely limp songs by Duncombe and John Gregory Willard. The design scheme seamlessly weds the red-black-and-gilt elegance of Duncombe's set and lighting to Josephine Poinsot's splendid costumes.
Goaded by Atik's clueless climber, equal parts Bert Lahr, Don Rickles and a tea cozy, the nimble cast has a stylized field day. Ken Rudnicki's tippling servant, Matt Cook's dance master, Michael Galvin's music master and Edgar Landa's master chef are standouts, but everyone embraces the formalized mischief with élan.
Actually, their devotion to the detailed concept sometimes halts the antic fizz. Nonetheless, if full abandon is still finding its way, this hardly diminishes such a gracefully loopy soufflé.
-- David C. Nichols
"The Bourgeois Gentilhomme," City Garage, 1340½ 4th St. Alley, Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. No performances Nov. 28 and Dec. 22 to Jan. 8. Ends Feb. 22, 2009. (310) 319-9939. $20. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
From Web to stage and back
With a straight face, transplanted Canadian actor Chris Leavins explains how he successfully leveraged "brand new cutting-edge technology -- the Internet" into CuteWithChris .com, the weekly online show that's eclipsed his professional film and TV career. The show -- shot on a $300 camcorder and built around pictures and videos of pets sent to Leavins by their adoring owners -- routinely draws millions of viewers worldwide.
Recounting the story of his improbable success provides the structure of "Cute With Chris: LIVE," a short solo multimedia performance written and directed by Leavins. As anyone familiar with the satiric running commentary that accompanies his fans' submissions well knows, Chris is not into cute. Where others might fawn over a heartwarming kitten pic, Leavins sees only "a box of poo in your house."
He's equally unsparing of the fans themselves -- mostly teenage girls and crazy cat ladies. Yet he finds himself compulsively drawn to "awesome glimpses into the lives of others," an obsession he traces back to his habit of collecting thrift shop photos of strangers and displaying them in his home as family snapshots.
That's one of the few notable psychological insights in the interactive stage show, in which Leavins, armed with a MacBook and a projector, amusingly but superficially skims across his mundane existence. We're treated to a Google Maps tour of his apartment complex and neighborhood, regaled with anecdotes about the deadbeats downstairs and the eccentric people who correspond with him.
Representative clips from Leavins' online series, including signature graphics that can charitably be called neo-primitive, make this a curious case of a stage show that apparently exists to promote a website rather than the other way around.
-- Philip Brandes
"Cute With Chris: LIVE," Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 14. $25. (323) 960-7785. Running time: 55 minutes.
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