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'Extinction' lyrically explores mortality

November 14, 2008|Philip Brandes and David C. Nichols

Contemplating the fragility of life at the individual, racial and species levels, EM Lewis' new drama, "Song of Extinction," artfully balances its theme of mortality between the intimate and the macroscopic.

Revolving around the tenuous connection between an alienated high school biology teacher and a troubled student, Lewis' lyrical text explores inner psychological states with remarkable eloquence and clarity -- ably depicted by a first-rate Moving Arts cast.

The teacher, Khim Phan (Darrell Kunitomi) is a solitary Cambodian refugee who survived the genocide of the killing fields and remains haunted by the memory of his family, who didn't. Khim knows things about extinction he's afraid to tell his students, retreating instead into scientific detachment from which even the rapidly escalating disappearance of entire species becomes a bloodless abstraction.

Wrenching Khim from his insular cocoon is the unraveling spectacle of Max (Will Faught), a 15-year-old musical prodigy whose mother (Lori Yeghiayan) is dying of stomach cancer. Max's father (Michael Shutt), a field biologist, is too busy -- or grief-stricken -- to deal with his wife's terminal condition, and fixates on his crusade to save an endangered beetle.

When Max's inability to cope with this emotional wreckage forces Khim to step in as a surrogate father figure, the setup is ripe for shameless heart string-plucking. Fortunately, director Heidi Helen Davis' rich, visually expressive staging steers well clear of cheap sentimentality. Even when the dialogue strays at times from literal credibility, the emotional rapport between these characters remains believably frayed and partial, binding together personal loss, genocide and biological devastation with felt truths.

-- Philip Brandes

"Song of Extinction," [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays (dark Thanksgiving). Ends Dec. 14. $20, Sunday evenings pay-what-you-can. (323) 461-3673. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.


Amusing, focused 'Fata Morgana'

A poignant coming-of-age saga lurks within the risque froth of "Fata Morgana." Hungarian writer Ernest Vajda's 1924 romantic comedy receives a first-rate revival, as absorbing as it is amusing, by Pacific Resident Theatre.

Revered for the sophisticated screenplays he supplied to Ernst Lubitsch at the dawn of the talkies, Vajda was a celebrated playwright and novelist before Hollywood. "Fata Morgana," first presented under the title "Delibab" (Mirage), aligns Vajda's light-comic sensibilities to the earthier warmth of his native country.

It transpires on the great plain called the Puszta, where a provincial household is in an uproar. As designer Michael Redfield's subtle lighting rises on Robert Broadfoot's excellent set, restive George (Michael Hanson, a find) repeatedly intones a historical essay. Having disappeared for two days after flunking his exams, 18-year-old George cannot attend the midsummer Anna-Ball, the other reason all his relatives are atwitter.

Although his father relents, George stays home alone. Until couture-clad Mathilde Fay (the delicious Ursula Brooks) arrives, dismayed that no one met her at the station. The bored wife of wealthy cousin Gabriel (vibrant Scott Conte), Mathilde is the titular fata morgana to George's authorial surrogate, winding up in his bedroom as Act 1 ends. Acts 2 and 3 follow the consequences of this dalliance, with rollicking, bittersweet results.

The obscure property is a natural for director Marilyn Fox, whose expert forces all peruse the same delightful page, Audrey Eisner's fine costumes denoting character, Alexander Enberg's sound plot beautifully focused.

So is the playing. Hanson's coltish gravitas and Conte's edgy jocularity dovetail with Brooks' airborne pragmatism, an ideal central triangle, and Sarah Brooke and Tony Pasqualini are quietly invested parents. Valentina Matosian's zesty kid sister, Ed Levey's laconic groundskeeper and Irene Roseen's bravura poor relation form the tonal poles of a superb ensemble. Their effortless precision makes "Fata Morgana" an enchanting period treat.

-- David C. Nichols

"Fata Morgana," Pacific Resident Theatre, 703-707 Venice Blvd., Venice. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Dark Thursday, Nov. 27 and Dec. 11. Ends Dec. 21. (310) 822-8392. $20-$25. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.


A 'Gentilhomme' for our times

With a generous soupcon of witty anarchy, "The Bourgeois Gentilhomme" tumbles into Santa Monica. This sleek City Garage take on Moliere's deathless satire of nouveau riche pretensions and aristocratic machinations is nominally avant-garde, mainly an unguarded hoot.

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