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THEATER BEAT

'Brain's' bleeding heart

June 06, 2008|David C. Nichols, F. Kathleen Foley

Heart and music infuse "A New Brain" in the shrewdly spare, gorgeously sung revival at Rude Guerrilla Theater Company. William Finn and James Lapine's 1998 tuner based on composer-lyricist Finn's battle with a brain tumor remains delightfully off-kilter and quietly moving.

"Arteriovenous malformation" is the actual diagnosis that eventually greets frazzled Gordon Schwinn (Ryan Wagner), a songwriter for children's television whose tyrannical producer-star (Jesse Bradley) plays a frog. Gordon's deadline panic turns to graver matters when he collapses during dinner with agent Rhoda (Courtney Walton). At the hospital, Gordon, Rhoda and his lovingly crazy-making mom (Aimee Karlin) grapple with the medical team while awaiting Roger (Jeffrey Aiken), Gordon's lover.

Thereafter, our Finn surrogate faces his deepest fear -- dying before writing all the songs inside him. After surgery leaves Gordon comatose, "A New Brain" becomes a surreal parable about the healing power of art.

Finn's infectiously quirky score and Lapine's angular scenario examine some themes similar to those explored in their "Falsettos." Yet the personal thrust of "A New Brain" is singularly special, and though this production comes from Cal State Fullerton, it's anything but academic. Patrick Pearson's inventive staging sends his vibrant cast sailing around Wagner's restive, touching hero, seamlessly trading off accompaniment duties in post-John Doyle manner under Pearson and Gregory Nabours' co-musical direction.

Ashley Kane and Luke Jacobs as priceless contrasting nurses, Andrew Roubal's minister and Gregg Hammer's doctor prove as vital to the whole as Aiken's golden-voiced simplicity and Walton's poised perkiness. Kaitlyn Etter brings house-rattling chops to bag lady Lisa, and Karlin's intensely focused Mother and Bradley's guitar-wielding Mr. Bungee are inspired.

Everyone is a tad too young, but why quibble? This buoyant "Brain" lands firmly inside the mind (and heart and music) of William Finn, and it's an enchanting place to be.

-- David C. Nichols

"A New Brain," Rude Guerrilla Theater Company, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Dark July 4. Ends July 6. $25. (714) 547-4688. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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Crashing a most uproarious 'Party'

With a nominal nod toward swinging, "Groundlings Key Party" takes on whatever it wishes and decimates us. As hilarious as any Groundlings outing in years, under Ted Michaels' zippy direction this latest show contains nary a lame entry amid the well-written sketches.

As always, the cast alternates from show to show. Judging by the reviewed performance, more than one writer-performer might seduce network honchos, and the high quota of talented women on tap is especially gratifying.

The fearless Annie Sertich is a find, from the gender reversals of "Mistaken Identity" to the alcohol-fueled legal secretary of "Hail Gail," which ends Act 1 in hysteria. Michaela Watkins has ample chances to shine, most notably her stewed "I'm Alright" wedding guest and a breathtaking Arianna Huffington against Stephanie Courtney's ruthlessly skewed Hillary Rodham Clinton in "Huffy Hour."

Ariane Price bends her faintly peeved quality into twisted places in "Spanks," a new wrinkle on foundation garments, and Edi Patterson leads the renegade pack in the "Campbell's" commercial shoot. When all five turn up as mermaids singing about reproduction in "How Do They Do It?," it's hallucinatory.

Against these formidable femmes, Mitch Silpa and Tim Brennen deftly hold their own. Brennen is uproarious as the much-battered Los Angeles police officer making a "Safety Announcement" and the hapless subject of "Pioneers of Dance." And Silpa fractures throughout. His spit-takes with Watkins as geriatric "Extra Extra" players convulse the house, and he and Courtney savage Lawrence Welk's idiom in the finale, "Time," its refrain remaining in your ears for days.

Music director Willie Etra and colleagues Howard Greene and Larry Treadwell maintain their rocking standard, and the improvisational segments have anything-goes spontaneity. "Groundlings Key Party" doesn't outstay its welcome, and it certainly unlocks the laugh meter.

-- D.C.N.

"Groundlings Key Party," Groundling Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays, 8 and 10 p.m. Saturdays. Indefinitely. $21.50. (323) 934-4747 Ext. 37. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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Gender-bending Shakespeareans

Anyone who has ever cozied up to a classic comic book will find obvious virtues in "Macbeth3," playing in the Complex's Ruby Theatre.

Lisa Wolpe's boldly truncated adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy runs just about one hour -- a sort of graphic novel-esque synthesis that gallops along at a breathless pace. And though we do miss certain of the play's jettisoned elements (for instance, Birnam Wood never does make it to Dunsinane), it still has plenty of epic sweep.

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