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Arts and Entertainment

Theater in L.A.: New Solo Shows

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Edmund L. Shaff as Winston Churchill | Photo by Carla Barnett

Edmund L. Shaff as Winston Churchill | Photo by Carla Barnett
We've already had a couple of occasions in recent months to ruminate on the prevalence of one-person theater performances in LA. But they just keep coming. If we'd wanted to, we could have seen a different solo show every single night last week (OK, maybe we did kind of want to, so let's say: if we'd had the time). In the end we managed to catch four of them. And while only one was anything like a must-see for those so inclined, they were all different enough from each other to stave off the sense that we were repeating ourselves.

When acclaimed British playwright and screenwriter (The Hours, The Reader) David Hare's Via Dolorosa opened on Broadway in 1999, the whole point of the show was that it starred David Hare. Hare isn't an actor, but his venture to Israel and the occupied territories motivated him to take the stage himself to relate his experiences and reenact his encounters with all the characters he met there rather than write a conventional play based on them. Now that Via Dolorosa is being performed in Southern California for the first time, though, Hare isn't here. Instead, the part of "The Author" in the production at Burbank's Missing Piece Theater is played by veteran actor David Bryan Jackson, who starts off the play, as Hare, talking about how strange and unusual it is for him to be in front of an audience. This sounds like it shouldn't work. But it does work very, very well.

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Amy Milano in "Dancing With Crazies" at The Lounge Theatre. Credit: Greg Tarter for Element Creative.
Incidentally, for a play written to be topical in 1999, Via Dolorosa remains uncannily on point today. A peace process, intransigent settlers, terrorism, Netanyahu, Gaza--all the region's story lines are still the same. What's even more striking is Jackson's great success in turning Hare's first-person narrative into his own. When the original playwright/performer presented his exchanges with disenchanted Israeli politicos, gregarious Palestinian artists, strident ideologues, hopeful peacemakers, and sundry other figures both creepy and charismatic, his character portraits had an inherently journalistic credibility. When Jackson recreates these same dialogues, as well as Hare's own alternately sardonic and emotional commentary on his experiences, the actor's additional degree of separation from the events portrayed obscures the evening's reportorial trappings, but enhances its theatricality. Which is something considerably more entertaining and illuminating.It would be hard to imagine another performer playing the role of self-proclaimed "Mom on a Mission" Amy Simon (though, hey, who knows) in the breezy, educational one-woman show, She's History, which Simon developed after her daughter wanted to write a Women's History Month paper about Cher. Over the course of 90 minutes in Hollywood's Lounge Theatre, Simon introduces us to a cavalcade of seminal figures in women's history, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Victoria Woodhull, Sojourner Truth, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and Nancy Pelosi, among many others. And, really, unless you're a full-fledged student of the topic, you probably don't know more than a small fraction of the story that She's History presents in its loosely structured way. Sometimes Simon reenacts a historical scene featuring one or two of the figures she's introduced, and sometimes she simply tells the audience about them, what they accomplished, and why they're important (with accompanying illustrative slides and videos). Sometimes she acts out scenes from her own family life to highlight the continuing relevance of the history she's presenting, and sometimes she brings up the house lights and chats with the audience directly. It's all very engaging and informative, if never exactly dramatic. Except when we were leaving the theater after it was all over and a woman from the front row approached us in the lobby to point out that we were the only male presence in the whole audience that evening and pointedly declaimed: "Interesting!"

Andrew Edlin's one-man play, Churchill, at the Whitmore/Lindley Theatre in North Hollywood, is an amiable hagiography of Sir Winston set in the great man's private bunker in 1955 as he deliberates whether to retire from politics and hand over the Prime Minister's office to his loyal Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. This occasion, of course, affords Churchill the perfect opportunity to look back over his life and career and relive many of the key moments right before our eyes. Actor Edmund L. Shaff nicely captures the look and mien of the historical figure he portrays, and, especially in Act One, his presentation of Churchill is both charming and complex. After Intermission, though, at least at last week's Opening Night performance, Shaff was clearly less comfortable than he had been in the earlier going, as if he could have used one or two more previews to nail down this part of the play. Now that the production is further along in its run, though, we can easily imagine that the intervening performances have allowed the actor to settle into the second act as effectively as he already had the first, and the evening's entire dramatic arc may be more fully realized.

In another solo show at the Lounge Theater, Dancing With Crazies, local actor/dancer/comedian Amy Milano tells her own life story. Her father abandoned her when she was young, and her mother was really annoying. Sometimes her family lived in a van. She moved around a lot as a young adult, living in Africa, London, Jamaica, New York, and now LA. Most of the people she's encountered in this world, until recently, have disappointed her. But now that she's grown up a bit, her life is more stable, and she may finally be establishing a home for herself. For more details, see Dancing With Crazies.

Via Dolorosa runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 3 and 7, through November 7 at the Missing Piece Theatre, 2811 West Magnolia Blvd, Burbank.

She's History plays this Sunday, October 10, at 3 and Tuesday, October 12, at 8 at the Lounge Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

Churchill plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 3, through November 7 at the Whitmore/Lindley Theater, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

Dancing With Crazies plays Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 8 through November 4 at the Lounge Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

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