Pictures speak 'A Thousand Words'

Pictures speak 'A Thousand Words'
'A THOUSAND WORDS': From left, Mickey Swenson, Heidi Darchuk and Coleman Hough in a scene from 'Dressed for Dinner.' (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
There's painting, sculpture and a bunch of short plays. Also a bar, fair trade chocolate and a big bowl of Chex Mix. Now playing at Art Share L.A., "A Thousand Words" is an inviting, if erratic, conversation between nine writers and nine downtown artists. Each playwright riffs off one artist's work -- which includes everything from commemorative urns to replicas of Mesopotamian antiquities. The resulting theater feels like a wander round a gallery: Some items demand attention, others don't register.

"Words" is beautifully produced by Padua Playwrights and LaDADspace, and the evening's overall design elements -- staging, lighting, costume, sound -- achieve a striking elegance. Even the transitions, directed by Nick Faust, have an economy and grace. The writing, and some of the art that inspires it, however, turns out to be considerably more uneven.

A guide to the standouts: Coleman Hough's "Dressed for Dinner," inspired by her mealtime meetings with mixed-media artist Alberto Miyares, presents that familiar sight, an unhappy couple (Hough and Mickey Swenson) dining out, and then throws in a surreal waitress (Heidi Darchuk). Directed by Faust, "Dressed" toys with the borders we assume when going out to eat: between the raw and the cooked, between wait staff and customers, manners and truth.

The play that holds the most resonant conversation with its artwork is Darchuk's "K(nots)." Jett Jackson's painting of a man's wide back, covered with fantastical maritime figures, takes on vivid three-dimensional life at the hands of director Gill Gayle and costume designer Gwendolyn Stukely. A wheelchair-bound mermaid (Lake Sharp, alternating with Nicole Disson) pines for the silent Pegboy (Jack Littman), while a shipwreck (Lisa Denke) searches for her lost captain (Swenson again). The play feels like Max Ernst meets Jacques Lacan, a dirty joke about impossible love. I have no idea what it means, but "K(nots)" carries a weird, oneiric power.

Line for line, the best play may be Sharon Yablon's "Look Up," which transforms an innocuous event -- a real estate agent showing a family a home -- into something dementedly profane. (The artist here is Emmeric James Konrad, whose raucous charcoal cartoons capture something genuinely anarchic.) Too bad Tina Preston turns her hilariously inappropriate agent into a John Waters character from the get-go. The choice seems too easy, and the play would have benefited from a stronger directorial hand from Gray Palmer.

Is there something about visual art that compels playwrights to create a world rather than a clear narrative? Many of the plays start with a strong premise but most can't keep their focus. But like the "Car Plays" that took over the Steve Allen Theater parking lot last season, "A Thousand Words" deserves high marks for exploring the notion of what constitutes an evening of theater. If what's missing this time is a certain consistency, let's hope Padua and company revisit this experiment, ideally with sturdier results.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

"A Thousand Words," Art Share L.A., 801 E. 4th Place, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 29. $20. (213) 625-1766. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Macbeth leads a mighty force

If you want to watch Great Birnam Wood come to High Dunsinane Hill, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better setting than Topanga's outdoor Theatricum Botanicum.

For their new production of "Macbeth," directors Ellen Geer and Chad Jason Scheppner deploy an impressively large cast that makes the most of the theater's forest environs, battling with fervor in the hills around the amphitheater. When the Thane of Cawdor (Jim LeFave, appealingly direct) broods on his murderous actions, the night itself becomes a character, its darkness mirroring Macbeth's descent into blind ambition. Even the steady throb of the canyon's insects and frogs adds to the atmosphere.

This is Shakespeare's shortest and most intense tragedy, delivered in swiftly paced scenes, with a minimum of scenery and no-frills medieval costuming; if the nuance sometimes gets lost, the story stays front and center, an action thriller to the end. All martial sinew with fellow warriors, LeFave's Macbeth creates a surprising intimacy with the audience during his soliloquies, which convey a man realizing he's unable to handle the mayhem he's unleashed.

Melora Marshall (alternating with Susan Angelo) distracts with her declamatory Lady M, but Aaron Hendry turns in credible work as the impassioned Macduff, and, as his doomed wife, Elizabeth Tobias conveys real anguish as a woman whose world is collapsing around her. If the witches feel a little like a Twyla Tharp troupe gone wild, they provide an eerie soundscape of cries and whispers for this stark, gorgeous play.

-- C.S.

"Macbeth," Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Call or check online for schedule. (310) 455-3723, Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Uneasy hybrid is a bit blockheaded

Ever wonder what Charlie Brown and the other "Peanuts" kids would be like in high school? Neither have I, but then that very novelty is the gimmick that will likely sell plenty of tickets for Bert V. Royal's "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead." In this "unauthorized" parody, newly revised by the author for Havok Theatre Company, the character names have been changed to protect the intellectual property rights, but there's no mistaking their targets.

The sheer incongruity of Charles Schulz's ageless innocents grappling with substance abuse, rampant hormones, sexual orientation and the peer pressures of adolescence has innate satiric potential. Director Nick DeGruccio and a talented cast mine abundant laughs from these transpositions, particularly in some well-crafted monologues, and modulate Royal's sometimes jarring shifts of tone with notable finesse.

Our narrator, called simply CB (Joseph Porter), is still the perpetual loser enslaved to predictable conformity, though the play's dark edge is apparent when we first see him mourning his faithful beagle, who had to be put to sleep after contracting rabies.

Ever-philosophical Linus (Jaden Leigh) is now a Buddhist stoner; Lucy's alter-ego (Megan McNulty) is an institutionalized pyromaniac who still tortures CB with mind-twisting psychoanalysis. CB's younger sister (Andrea Bowen) wittily cycles through increasingly outlandish identities, while Christine Lakin and Lauren Robyne are deliciously catty as self-absorbed teen incarnations of Peppermint Patty and Marcie.

The Schroeder-like introverted piano prodigy (Wyatt Fenner) is possibly gay and a hazing target for Pigpen stand-in (Nick Ballard), a homophobic jock almost unrecognizably mutated into a plot device for the play's real agenda.

Unfortunately, shoehorning a sermon against gay-bashing into a "Peanuts" spoof makes for an awkward hybrid. On the one hand, there's little affection for Schulz's iconic characters -- simply dragging them through the mud for cheap laughs without showing comparable creativity comes off as mean. If we set aside the parody context and consider just the story, we're left with clichéd, heavy-handed melodrama.

This show wants to be "Avenue Q" and "The Laramie Project," but there's no way to split the difference.

-- Philip Brandes

"Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead," Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 6. $25-$30. (323) 960-7774. Running time: 2 hour, 15 minutes.

'Hello,' there are other people here

Over the course of "Hello, My Name Is ____" at the Garage Theatre in Long Beach, you may find yourself becoming quite fond of the colorful and personable perpetrators of this world-premiere "original" play.

Once freed from the proceedings, however, you realize you must have been suffering from the Stockholm syndrome. The captors/creators get points for sheer playfulness, but seldom includes the other kids on the playground -- in this case, the audience -- in their arcane game.

The show initially takes the form of a seminar presided over by Mike Ollenhertz (Jamie Sweet), a cheesy motivational speaker who spends the bulk of his remarks toying with the far-fetched acronym, C.O.M.M.U.N.I.C.A.T.I.O.N. (Communication Opportunities Made Meaningful Using New Intellectual Capacities Already Twined Inside Our Noggins). From there, the story segues into a behind-the-scenes look at the Garage cast brainstorming ideas for its show. And to make matters more unfathomable, various comedy sketches, more notable for their absurdity than their humor, are roughly interspliced into the whole.

The problem is that the play succeeds neither as parody nor comedy nor absurdism. It's all committee-designed, but the messy result feels as if this particular committee did the bulk of the rehearsing at a late-night keg party. And why an intermission break was necessary between the overlong first act and the astonishingly brief second is a pure puzzlement.

Best not to judge, however, on the basis of "Hello" alone. Despite this misfire, the performers are a pleasing bunch whom we would love to see expend their considerable energies on a more worthy vehicle.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"Hello, My Name Is ____" Garage Theatre, 251 E. 7th St., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. $14. Ends July 13. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Intellectualizing with mad 'Lucia'

Literary history swarms with accounts of fragile psyches undone by love, and "Lucia Mad" undoes with the best of them. Don Nigro's ornate fantasia about James Joyce's daughter and her unrequited yen for Samuel Beckett is nothing if not faithful to the existentialist underpinnings of its real-life figures.

In its valiant Alive Theatre staging in Long Beach, the audience sits in L-formation around a playing area framed by candles floating in bowls of water. Director Craig Fleming opens with a note of disarming lunacy, as a knock on the outside doors admits Lucia (the vivid Jill Taylor), who cranks up the gramophone and lip-syncs in cracked Dennis Potter fashion.

This recurring motif, like the various others that Nigro deploys in his stream-of-consciousness scenario, works because of Taylor's restlessly controlled title portrayal. As lithe as a Denishawn dancer, Taylor's sudden silences and piquant timing nicely offset lighting designer Chris Batstone's deadpan Beckett.

Rory Cowan makes an enjoyable Joyce, clipped and authoritative, and though Danielle Dauphinee feels faintly anachronistic as long-suffering wife Nora, her dry sarcasm fits the absurdist vaudeville ethos. Ryan McClary and Aaron Van Geem are broad but serviceable in dual supporting roles.

Whether their agreeable fervor and Fleming's direction will translate to general audiences is a trickier paradox. There is skillful pastiche in Nigro's script and sly symbolic juxtaposition, but also a raft of references that may tickle devotees of "Ulysses" and "Waiting for Godot" while baffling the uninitiated.

Although "Lucia Mad" announces a company well worth watching, the net effect is highly specialized, most recommendable to scholars and cognoscenti.

-- David C. Nichols

"Lucia Mad," Hotel Lafayette, Executive Ballroom, 528 E. Broadway Ave., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 4 p.m. this Sunday only. $18. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.