“Exit the King” by Eugene Ionesco at City Garage, Bergamot Station L-R: Natasha St. Clair Johnson, Troy Dunn, David E. Frank and Lindsay Plake Photo by Paul M. Rubenstein

City Garage’s “Exit the King” at Bergamot Station, Rogue Machine’s “Ready, Steady, Yeti, Go” at Electric Lodge in Venice, and “Dana H.” at The Kirk Douglas in Culver City opened this week, showcasing the strength and diversity of local theatre. Absurdity, racism and lip-synching each play a role.

ABSURDITY

City Garage serves up Eugene Ionesco’s “Exit the King” with strong performances in a manic staging. The King (Troy Dunn), is 400 years old and let his kingdom is failing all around him: the sun won’t shine, the cows won’t produce, no one takes his orders anymore – the King is sick and he is going to die. He rejects the idea, will not relinquish control, and won’t reconcile himself to the obvious facts.

His first wife, Queen Marguerite (Natasha St. Clair-Johnson) is the harsh truth teller who, along with the ridiculous doctor (Anthony M. Sannazzaro — think Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks), tries to persuade the King to face his reality head-on; his second wife, sweet Queen Marie (Lindsay Plake) continues to deny it, wanting only to comfort him and pretend it isn’t happening.

Although described as one of the more “narrative” plays in the Berenger cycle (which includes “Rhinoceros,” brilliantly mounted a while back at Pacific Resident Theatre, and “A Stroll in the Air,” which I’ve not seen), this is a loud and illogical piece of playwriting. Ionesco himself was ill and fearing death as he wrote it; Berenger (the King) goes through the stages of grief, from denial, to despair to finally accepting (Ionesco lived on to write this play and others).

Critics note that Ionesco’s plays keep adding things: people, animals, more. But in this play, he subtracts:  first his guard, then his maid, then his doctor and finally his wives disappear from view, and in City Garage’s beautifully dramatic ending, the King fades to black, alone on his throne.

I can’t say I like this play; it’s too absurd. And while I thought a despotic maniac on a throne might resonate with our political times, I just couldn’t make the connection. Nevertheless, City Garage is always worth a trip, so expand your horizons. Call (310) 453-9939 or visit www.citygarage.org for more information.

RACISM

I have never been more impressed with adult actors playing junior high students; they’re utterly convincing as awkward, edge-of-teenage-puberty kids.

High energy, much comedy and with a message that doesn’t browbeat you, “Ready, Steady, Yeti, Go” by David Jacobi, mounted by Rogue Machine (one of LA’s finest small theatre companies), is excellent. It’s part of the National New Play Network New Play Exchange, with three productions across the country.

A group of kids in a ramshackle hideout in the woods reenact the story of what happened to them: there’s a set of twins, the bully Goon (Ryan Brophy) and the goody two-shoes Gandry (Kenney Selvey); their black friend, Carly (Jasmine St. Clair); mixed-race Barry (Randolph Thompson, in multiple roles); Kate (Rori Flynn, also in multiple roles); plus a silent but comic character with a boom box, Shades (Morgan Wilday).

Together they comprise one of the most outstanding casts I’ve seen on stage in LA in a long while, pitch-perfect performances under Guillermo Cienfuegos’s dazzling direction.

Someone has painted the N word on Carly’s house and the kids want to know who did it. It’s a lesson in condescension, biased pre-supposition, and how NOT to try to make others whole; no one bothers to ask Carly what her family wants, while the school busily puts on a town hall, brings in an amateur detective, and decides to authorize a wholly inappropriate mural to cover the graffiti.

Re-enactments of scenes — at the town hall, in the family’s homes and backyards,  mothers, fathers, the budding romance between Carly and Goon — take place whenever someone yells “Ready, Steady, Yeti, Go,” with just a couple of milk crates, a chalkboard, some chairs and a table as props for rapid onstage scene changes.

The subject matter provides a classic example of white liberal guilt and unintended (but built-in) micro-aggression gone wild. It’s one hundred percent perfectly-imagined and beautifully- produced theatre.

Go see it at The Electric Lodge in Venice. https://www.roguemachinetheatre.net/ready-steady-yeti-go/ 

LIP-SYNCHING DANA H.

Now here’s a twist: Deirdre O’Connell is “Dana H.,” at The Kirk Douglas Theatre, who tells the story of her ordeal when a psychiatric patient, and a leading light of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, kidnaps and keeps her as a hostage for five months. It’s tough stuff.

In a set of interviews conducted by a friend of the playwright, Lucas Hnath, Dana tells the true story of this bizarre kidnapping…she’s the playwright’s mother and it really happened.

And in a tour-de-force performance, O’Connell does not speak Dana’s words but rather lip-synchs the actual interview tapes with such credibility and authenticity that it’s hard to believe she’s not doing the talking.

Her every gesture — from wrist bracelet jangling, to eyebrow raises, eye and head gestures, hand movements and pauses—coordinates precisely with Dana’s own voice on the recording (O’Connell is set up as if recording this live); we only hear, not see, the interviewer.

The harrowing tale is frightening and frankly unimaginable, as Dana herself has trouble remembering the chronology and what’s real or imagined . She often refers to a manuscript she wrote about her experience and how it finally ended.

It’s intense and an amazing performance. “Dana H.” runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through June 23. https://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/kirk-douglas-theatre/2018-19/dana-h/

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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