A phone, a pair of underwear and a set of keys: Everyday items carry an explosive charge in "Saturday Night at the Palace," a clamorous but unconvincing three-hander about the corrosive effects of racism that's a Furious Theatre production at Pasadena Playhouse's Carrie Hamilton Theatre.
It's 1982, somewhere near the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. A couple of young white "okes" (Eric Pargac and Shawn Lee) on their way home from a late-night party have run into motorcycle trouble. Tired, hungry and drunk, they stumble on a burger joint that September (Sean Blakemore), a taciturn Zulu, is closing. As the night grinds on, the issue turns out not to be the engine but rather what's secretly driving each man's actions.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, May 06, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
'He Asked for It': A theater review of "He Asked for It" in Friday's Calendar section gave the wrong first name of the actor who plays Ted. The actor is Joe Egender, not Jed.
This "Palace" is a revival of Furious Theatre's 2002 inaugural production, which garnered considerable attention. (How many companies would start off with a show that required a Zulu language consultant?) The intrepid Furious has gone on to stage compelling work by Jez Butterworth, Craig Wright and Muslim American playwright Yussef El Guindi, and their bold, familiar gestalt is here too: The design elements, especially Cricket S. Myers' relentlessly percussive sound, create an atmosphere of exhaustion bordering on delirium. And the subject matter packs a wallop -- a bluntly effective reminder of how recently apartheid held brutal sway over South Africa.
But author Paul Slabolepszy's violent chamber piece is tricky. While the play offers surprising twists, not all feel credible or earned. Director Damaso Rodriguez hasn't figured out how to make each appear inevitable rather than schematic; as a result, the actors seem like they're trying to service a particular story instead of inhabiting a world where their limited options are shrinking fast. As September, Blakemore turns in impressively focused work, yet even he can't transcend the sense that the game is rigged. While "Palace" may be Furious' celebratory return to the past, perhaps they've come further than they realize.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
"Saturday Night at the Palace," Pasadena Playhouse Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 31. $10-$25. (800) 595-4849. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
A bold, brave but baffling 'Mission'
Like an ever-mutating nightmare, the scenes bleed into one another: Masked contestants meet for a brutal episode of "American Gladiators." An office elevator carries its panicked occupant not to a meeting with "the boss" but to the Iraq desert. And a U.S. soldier worries that he's helped to set the world on fire.
These scenes -- and others that are much creepier -- unfurl in "The Mission (Accomplished)," City Garage's latest variation on the work of the late avant-garde German playwright Heiner Muller.
The piece ponders what can happen when hard-line ideology is imposed on mutable reality. Muller's 1979 original, translated as "The Mission" or "The Task," depicts a covert operation gone awry when French revolutionaries try to foment a slave rebellion in British-held Jamaica in the 1790s.
The City Garage adaptation, by Charles Duncombe, adds a further historical filter: the U.S. incursion in Iraq. One character, speaking with a Texas twang, delivers sermon-like speeches in which he says the spread of democracy is America's mission, entrusted by God. The dialogue is coy about identifying him, but the program names him as "Bush."
The explanatory text in that program is required reading beforehand, because once the house lights dim, reference points are vague and shifting. The midnight landscape -- splashed with ominous red -- is so minimalist that it's all but featureless. Historical periods seep into one another, and the actors continually transfigure into new roles. Under Frederique Michel's direction, this "Mission" is brave and uncompromising, if often bewildering.
-- Daryl H. Miller
"The Mission (Accomplished)," City Garage, 1340 1/2 4th St. (alley), Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 1. $20. (310) 319-9939. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
Scheming in declining Rome
Though parallels to current dynasties abound in "Britannicus," what really stand out are personal dilemmas. For all its political gristle, Jean Racine's 1669 classic about power grabs in Nero's court turns on warped family dynamics. These carry director Bart DeLorenzo's stringent staging for California Repertory Company.
Emperor Claudius is dead, and son Britannicus (Kyle Hall) is his rightful heir, but a coup has occurred. Having usurped succession, stepbrother Nero (Josh Nathan) seems unaware of what his ascent owes to Agrippina (Maria Mayenzet), his epically possessive mother. Nero is more intent on Junia (Anna Steers), Britannicus' betrothed. This obsession launches tactical ploys that end in assassination and madness, with Rome's downfall on the horizon.