Long before David Fincher reminded us that dread is hard-wired into the soul, German playwright Georg Büchner wrote a few fevered dramas, then dropped dead of typhus at 23. Now Gangbusters Theatre Company presents Büchner's 1836 "Woyzeck," a true crime tale of a working-class soldier driven to violence by the vicious manipulation of his superiors.
In director Bob McDonald's visceral but uneven adaptation, army grunt Franz Woyzeck (Christian Levatino) is barely able to provide for his sensual common-law wife, Marie (Sierra Fisk), and newborn child. His desperation becomes fodder for a quack doctor (Michael Laurie) conducting dubious experiments and a hulking drum major (J. Teddy Garces) with an eye for Marie.
Büchner's fragment endures because of its fierce vision of a world where human life is mere fodder -- for profit, blind lust, war and worms. On a near bare stage, the nimble cast creates an atmosphere of indifferent brutality, enhanced by Adam Phalen's eerie sound design. If McDonald sometimes strains with the play's absurdist comedy, he zeros in on "Woyzeck's" helter-skelter meld of eroticism and violence.
Levatino gives the title character an arresting stillness, while Garces finds surprising layers in the drum major, suggesting his vulnerability to Marie's charms may be all too similar to Woyzeck's. And tiny Brighid Fleming tells the play's signature fable -- about a boy living in a dead world -- with disarming command. For classic theater lovers, Gangbuster's low-tech, high-impact approach is a strong introduction to this agitated, minor-key classic.
-- Charlotte Stoudt "Woyzeck," Little Victory Theatre, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. Ends Dec. 14. $20. (818) 841-5422 or www.thevictorytheatrecenter.org. Running time:1 hour, 25 minutes.
Fun and lewdness in 'Backseats'
A notable quota of ribald lunacy runs through "Backseats & Bathroom Stalls." That is clearly why it has extended at the Lyric Hyperion Theater Café. Writer-director Rob Mersola's shrewdly lewd look at the internecine sexual trek of six New Yorkers has cult hit written all over it.
Subtitled "A Not-So-Romantic Comedy of Bad Manners," the play, which premiered in Manhattan in 2000, operates along the lines of many a garage-theater sex romp, starting with simultaneous encounters in the titular locales.
First, there's self-hating Josie (Sadie Alexandru), making out in a car with endowed film student Harlan (Michael Alperin), whose need for gratification is neither discreet nor discriminating, just specific and avid.
Next, there's profoundly closeted Charlie (Daniel Ponickly), an apparent Arrow Collar type who encounters giddy Calvin (Joshua Bitton), Josie's roommate, in the bathroom of a bar. The contrapuntal, um, connection of these disparate pairs begins an intricately wrought series of coincidences and contradictions, taking in Charlie's shrike-tinged fiancée (Jeni Parsons) and an inexhaustible Lothario of alleged Italian-gypsy descent (Anil Kumar).
Although certain twists are readily foreseeable, Mersola skillfully manipulates their progress across the post-millennial landscape with a knack for snappy graphic dialogue. The talented cast gives the cleverly plotted tangle its farcical all.
Its reach will depend on one's taste for audacious after-hours sitcoms. Mersola's narrative is undoubtedly funny; whether it unveils anything essentially new is more questionable.
Still, if the howls of the house at the reviewed performance are any measure, "Backseats," which has been optioned for a film version by director Jim Fall, may well be canoodling and self-castigating for some time to come.
-- David C. Nichols "Backseats & Bathroom Stalls," Lyric Hyperion Theater Café, 2106 Hyperion Ave., L.A. 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 9:30 p.m. Sunday; call for schedule after Nov. 23. Ends Dec. 13. Adult audiences. $20. (323) 960-7829. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Prim, proper but not quite there
Few American playwrights have dismantled belief systems -- theological and personal -- with as much glee and acuity as Christopher Durang, who has giddied audiences with sadistic yet well-meaning nuns ("Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You") and patriarchs with sex-toy addictions ("Titanic"). In the best and worst ways, this droll subversive can let his sharpest ideas run away with him, and "Miss Witherspoon," a roundelay on reincarnation now at the El Centro Theatre, is no exception.
When prim Miss Witherspoon (an anhedonic Kelly Lloyd) is killed (sort of) by a plummeting section of Skylab, she's less than bummed, having found life to be a major drag. Hoping for oblivion, she arrives at the afterlife (Stephen Gifford's Magritte-like backdrop of clouds and infinite sky) to find that karma has different ideas. The sari-wearing Maryamma (Pia Ambardar) pronounces our heroine's aura to be the color and consistency of "brown tweed," like "some negative Englishwomen in an Agatha Christie book whom everyone finds bothersome." The solution, clearly, is another round (or dozen) on Earth.
Forced to reincarnate as a cradle-bound infant, Miss Witherspoon manages to off herself with the help of the jealous family dog. But suicide only sends her into a horrific new existence as the daughter of an abusive couple (Andrew Morris is wonderfully grotesque as a meth addict with a curious resemblance to Tom Petty).
West Coast Ensemble's energetic production captures Durang's distinctive style -- a mix of wit, parody and genuine pain. But it's tough to impose dramatic shape onto his looser plays, squirmy as toddlers sitting through a sermon. Director Joel Swetow briskly directs stage traffic, but we don't always know what, or why, we're watching.
Durang has given the American theater some of its most cathartic laughs, but "Miss Witherspoon" has yet to evolve.
-- Charlotte Stoudt "Miss Witherspoon," El Centro Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec 14. $20-$22. (323) 460-4463 or www.tix.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
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