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A fresh, intense 'Hamlet'

July 24, 2009|Philip Brandes; F. Kathleen Foley; Charlotte Stoudt; David C. Nichols

"Hamlet" productions come and go, but guest director Jessica Kubzansky's staging for Ojai's Theater 150 lingers in the mind's eye, finding much that is rich and strange in the familiar text.

A fresh take is apparent from the surgical elimination of the spooky throat-clearing scene on the battlements of Castle Elsinore. In its place, a silent prologue spotlights the grief-stricken Hamlet (Leo Marks) kneeling before a towering cross at his father's funeral. Cutting to the unseemly revelry, two months later, at the marriage of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude (Lee Ann Manley), to his uncle Claudius (Paul Sulzman) neatly telescopes the two seismic events that threaten his sanity.

No feigned madness for this melancholy prince -- a noble mind is here o'erthrown in Marks' edgy portrayals. The depths of his harrowing descent and hard-fought return are eloquently reflected in the heartfelt apology for his mental lapse that he offers to his mortal enemy Laertes (Brendan Bradley). Insight and feeling are hallmarks of the production's accessible, rapid-fire line readings, which are refreshingly free of mannered thespianship (one of the few dramatic pauses is amusingly placed after Polonius' promise, "I will be brief").

Teeming with vitality and intensity, Kubzansky's in-your-face staging bursts from both ends of the reconfigured 80-seat venue through a central runway flanked by the two audience rows. The solid ensemble performance is heightened by Randall Tico's atmospheric sound design.

Theater 150's impressive first foray into full professional status shows there really are more "Hamlets" on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in even the most jaded philosophy.

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Philip Brandes --

"Hamlet," Theater 150, 316 E. Matilija St., Ojai. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 8. $15 to $29. (805) 646-4300. Running time: 3 hours, 30 minutes.

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Pure love shines in 'Piazza'

"The Light in the Piazza," which opened on Broadway in 2005, was a novel and a movie before it became a musical with a book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, grandson of the legendary composer Richard Rodgers.

Despite Guettel's illustrious antecedents and a Tony win for best score, his undistinguished music slips from memory shortly after the curtain goes down on the El Portal's current production. Still, Michiko Hill's smooth musical direction, William Robert Ewing's nicely downplayed staging, Patricia Jennings' period costumes and a rich crop of accomplished performances make the experience indelible.

Leading the excellent cast is Mary Donnelly Haskell, who plays Margaret Johnson, a well-to-do Texas matron traveling in Italy in 1953 with her beautiful daughter, Clara (superb Stephanie Wall), who sustained brain damage as a child. Clara's young Italian admirer Fabrizio (silver-voiced Blake McIver Ewing) interprets Clara's "special" manner as enchantingly innocent, as indeed does the rest of his family. Initially intent on breaking up the young lovers, Margaret, whose own marriage is falling apart, becomes focused on keeping Clara's "secret" until she is wed.

But not safely wed. Fabrizio's father (Jonathan Kruger) routinely cheats on his wife (Dena Drotar), as does Fabrizio's brother (Darius Rose) on his own tempestuous wife (Christine M. Capsuto). Pure though they are, Clara and Fabrizio are poster children for the illusory nature of love. Their bliss, we suspect, cannot last.

That's the dark irony behind this brightly lighted "Piazza," the shadow of impending loss that gives this deceptively sweet story unexpected sophistication and sadness.

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F. Kathleen Foley --

"The Light in the Piazza," El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $30. (818) 508-4200. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

'Octomom' is underdeveloped

It was only a matter of time before the exploits of Nadya Suleman trickled down to that most lowly of entertainment forms, live theater. Now "Octomom the Musical" has appeared at the Fake Gallery with all the savage vitriol of warm baby formula. Incredibly, this low-budget cabaret leaves you with the desolating sensation that this unholy mother of 14 is too stupefying even for satire.

Actor Chris Voltaire -- who wrote the book and lyrics, directs and appears as a Frankenstein-like fertility doctor -- has a certain demented charm. But a subject this overexposed needs a point of view more surprising than TMZ's.

Voltaire starts to frame a rivalry between Octomom (an enjoyably self-involved Molly McCook) and her nemesis/role model Angelina Jolie (Alexandra Holtzman), but their trash talk is disappointingly tame. Too bad. Despite the ensemble's efforts to please, the inclusion of a Bernie Madoff type (John Combs) who tells us what we already know just takes the evening even further afield.

A longer gestation period might help but right now, "Octomom" isn't quite ready for delivery.

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Charlotte Stoudt --

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