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One last look before the big crossing-over

November 11, 2005|Philip BrandesDavid C. Nichols

What better way to inaugurate a company named Unknown Theater than with a virtually unknown play?

British writer J.B. Priestley's 1939 drama "Johnson Over Jordan" certainly fills the bill. The piece has only been revived once, and reasons for its obscurity are immediately apparent -- though initial perceptions prove deceptive as the piece builds surprising dramatic momentum and emotional impact.

"It's a Wonderful Life" meets "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" in Priestley's surreal theatrical fantasia tracing a prematurely deceased middle-aged Everyman's journey through the afterlife. Beginning with his own funeral, bewildered Robert Johnson (Christopher Cappiello), a mild-mannered office manager, wanders through a series of hallucinatory encounters with archetypal figures and people from his past.

Through rotating side panels, photo projections and descending fabric and props, a succession of locales melt into one another in a dreamlike montage as Johnson sloughs off the impediments of his mortal coil. The first to go are material attachments in a Kafkaesque insurance office where Johnson tries to collect on his policy. Next come dark, repressed libidinous fantasies in a nightmarish nightclub. An ominous recurring shadow in a skull mask drops cryptic aphorisms along the way.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 15, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
'Frazzled!' -- A review of the play "Frazzled!" in Friday's Calendar section described playwright Lee Thuna as the creator of "Golden Girls." Susan Harris was the TV show's creator. The review also identified actress Caroline Aaron as Caroline Allen.

Out of this fragmentary muddle, however, director Chris Covics and his committed ensemble skillfully mine an unexpectedly simple, heartfelt parable of human connectedness in the second half. As Johnson gains more insight and a measure of control over his journey, he's able to review his life with people who figured prominently in it. Particularly moving are his exchanges with his grown-up children (Tara Jean O'Brien, Thomas Cooney) and his poignant reunion with his wife of 30 years, as they revisit their first meeting knowing all that will come from it.

"Johnson Over Jordan" is far from a perfect play, but choosing it over safer, more familiar material for a debut says much about the ambitions of this new company, which has put additional sweat equity into retrofitting its 55-seat venue, a former industrial space just off Hollywood's theater row. Ample stage space, excellent sightlines and rotating after-show music and arts events suggest this Unknown Theater won't stay that way for long.

-- Philip Brandes

"Johnson Over Jordan," Unknown Theatre, 1110 N. Seward St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 27. $18 online; $25 walk-up and phone. (323) 466-7781 or www.unknowntheater.com. Running time: 2 hours.

*

Impassioned 'Acts' of social liberation

The title of "Acts of Desire" at the Fountain Theatre concerns post-feminist self-esteem. In this impressive pair of one-acts, playwright Yussef El Guindi brings a poetically charged voice to the struggle by Muslim women to sound their own voices amid repression.

Adapted from stories by Salwa Bakr, both plays take place in present-day Cairo. "Karima's City" introduces its title activist (Naila Azad, a find) in her sanitarium cell. "There is only so much a mind can do looking at four walls every day," says loquacious Karima. Her memoir unfurls in wittily unnerving Kafkaesque flashbacks. Defying her mother (Marisa Vural), going braless to work, decrying gentrification and voting inequity, Karima's quest ends with attempted mutilation and dreams of restored foliage.

"What a Beautiful Voice is Sayeda's" moves inward. While bathing one day, Sayeda (Sarah Ripard) falls prey to a mellifluous entity (Azad and Grace Nassar). Telling her traditionalist husband (Navid Negahban) that she wishes to become a singer results in Sayeda being sent to a doctor (Marc Casabani). After a harrowing, pill-choked croak, Sayeda reclaims her stifled identity.

Despite slightly obvious metaphors, Guindi is undeniably gifted, and Deborah Lawlor's elegant staging has fetching directness. Karima embracing her favorite tree (Kamal Marayati), an audience assault by overstuffed politicians (costumed by Naila Aladdin-Sanders) and Sayeda's dance with her alter ego are among the haunting images. Scott Siedman's unpretentious set, Kathi O'Donohue's lithe lighting and David B. Marling's taut sound all serve mood.

The strong ensemble turns on the translucent central portrayals. Azad's pert Audrey Hepburn quality and Ripard's multifaceted dignity pull us past the occasional overstated point. "Acts of Desire" won't change patriarchal thinking overnight, but it's an arresting start.

-- David C. Nichols

"Acts of Desire," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. $25. (323) 663-1525. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

*

Emotional elegy given by 'Sisters'

If the key to Anton Chekhov is to value being over acting, "Three Sisters," presented by HapaLis Productions in association with Theatre of NOTE, unlocks the essentials. Director Alina Phelan and her fervent players attack the 1901 classic with apt spontaneity.

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