Stage Reviews


    “In Lieu of Flowers” and “Desire”

    Shaana Ruth Balaber’s “In Lieu of Flowers,” is a basic fairy tale, updated with a pop psychology twist.

    Directed by T.J Castronovo and in production at The Bitter Truth Theatre, it mesmerizes because of the sheer physical beauty of the actors, most of whose characters occupy some fairly ugly spaces.

    The story includes a lovely woman, Alley (Jillian McWhirter), held captive by her unhappiness, forced by circumstances to move back home where she seems imprisoned.

    There’s her mother (Babs London), who speaks to her adult daughter mainly in the imperative: “Don’t make crumbs. Try this on. Train your hair back. Don’t use that tone with me.”

    There’s Little Alley (Zoe Warner), presumably the “inner child,” whom only the audience can see, yet whose presence gives the other characters a chill.

    And there’s the rescuing prince of a guy, a gentle, understanding neighbor, Tony (Filippo Valle). Sadly, this supposed savior gains entry based on a lie; he tells Alley and Mama that he’s a “doctor.” What lesson does this play teach?

    While McWhirter has a tough go playing a Jewish daughter of the likes of Mama, she fares better simply as “victim,” an unhappy woman trying to unlock herself. The mother is the quintessential emotional abuser, but London keeps her from a level of fairy-tale evilness.

    Valle is a very natural actor, perhaps too much so, as much of his voice is lost even in the small theater. But his character is so real, it’s somewhat forgivable, and McWhirter becomes young and animated in his presence.

    The play has examples of bad writing: “Have you ever been in love?” “Yes. No. Maybe.” It also has examples of good writing: While Alley and Little Alley are on a job interview, Little Alley voices the little girl thoughts that Alley delivers in more adult dialogue.

    Until she meets her prince, the only joy Alley seems to have is in caring for her cactus collection — metaphors for people who seem untouchable to those who don’t know them.

    “In Lieu of Flowers” runs Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m., through Aug. 22 at The Bitter Truth Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Telephone 818.766-9702.

    “Desire” is well written, well acted and stunningly staged. This powerful play does, however, ask much from the viewer: thought, open-mindedness and a strong stomach.

    Written and directed by John Patrick Langs, “Desire” is an expansion of his one-act play, “Desire and the Black Masseur,” which was a narrator’s story of man’s search for self through “punishing atonement.” Its present incarnation includes that story plus much more of the narrator, Tom.

    Said Tom is likely Tennessee Williams (the one-act was credited as an adaptation of a Williams short story), a writer from Missouri who heads to New Orleans to immerse himself in a more flavorful life — “a diet of observation and recollection.”

    In production at the Gascon Center Theatre, Langs has recast Douglas Sutherland as Burns, the seemingly fragile man who seeks comfort from sadistic “massages” by a black masseur. It’s disappointing that we never get the full skinny on Burns but a compliment to the playwright and actor that Burns is real enough to make us demand more.

    Mark Doerr portrays Tom with just enough information to flesh out his character while leaving some mystery to him. Langs has added a woman to the obsession triangle. As Viviane, Kiersten Van Horne is sweet, sensible and attractive — but not enough to keep Tom’s mind from filling with images of Burns. Klea Scott plays Tom’s landlady with abandon.

    The thought and practice behind the staging are well worth the effort, resulting in an exposition that moves smoothly and expertly. For example, a character stands in a doorway talking to Tom; while they talk, the doorway moves across the stage with her in it, leaving Tom in place to begin the next scene without a clumsy scene break.

    Set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, lighting designer Lonnie Alcaraz and sound designer Robbin E. Broad proficiently ply their professions.

    “Desire” plays the Gascon Center Theatre, tonight through Aug. 7 at 8 p.m., 8737 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City (Helms Bakery complex). Call 323.468-2250.