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CAN'T BEAT `DRUMS' ACTOR'S GANG STRIKES IT JUST RIGHT AT IVY SUBSTATION.

Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Critic

You know that theater down in the heart of Culver City? The one that doesn't have the name of a famous actor on the marquee? Well, that locale is getting more and more difficult to recognize with each endeavor its resident company, the Actors' Gang, undertakes.

Come to think of it, much the same could be said about the Gang itself, which has transformed the Ivy Substation into a decent incarnation of post-World War I Berlin for a new version of Bertolt Brecht's early drama, ``Drums in the Night.''

This translation, by Finegan Kruckemeyer, is director Jon Kellam's third go-round with ``Drums,'' and it's easy to see why the Actors' Gang programmed it. A Brechtian tale of a shell-shocked soldier returning home to a world more in chaos than the one he left is -- in the context of the U.S.-Iraq conflict -- kind of a natural for a company that routinely keeps its material timely as well as provocative.

Indeed, Kellam and Kruckemeyer don't need to overemphasize any present-day parallels. Apart from an occasional contemporary touch (a fourth-wall-piercing cell phone call is a deft touch), the production is very much of its age. And, because Brecht was a prescient fellow, of ours as well.

Heavily burlesqued and closer in style to musical cabaret than straight theater, Kellam's ``Drums'' makes splendid use of lights, music and scenery. The cast, meanwhile, is so spot-on terrific that a couple of its members are virtually unrecognizable when they switch costumes (and makeup) to undertake second roles.

I'm referring primarily to Andrew E. Wheeler doubling as Balicke the munitions manufacturer, intent on marrying his daughter to ensure a potential business alliance, and Skanke, the corrosive Emcee-like commentator in a city tavern. Chris Schultz, playing Murk, the daughter's betrothed, and later a drunk, is equally multifaceted.

Brecht's tale anticipates the return of the soldier Kragler (Jarreth Merz) well before the man actually shows up. He's gone missing for three years, but his true love, Anna (Angela Berliner), continues to pine, even though she is now pregnant by Murk. The advice from her anxious parents (Wheeler and Vanessa Mizzone)? Marry the live guy, and don't screw with our business plans.

Kragler's arrival -- he had been a tortured prisoner of war in Africa -- sways Anna, but not before the defeated soldier heads into the city, crashes at a gin mill and joins a band of revolutionaries intent on taking over the newspapers. Neither Anna nor Kragler is a character big on taking dramatic action, meaning the path is open for a reconciliation that is, even for the young Brecht, surprisingly upbeat.

In Kellam's hands, this makes for a darkly comic and thoroughly entertaining evening. The desperate social-climbing machinations of Schultz's Murk (who does a mean Sinatra lip sync) are matched, after intermission, by Ben Cain, George Ketsios, Schultz and especially Wheeler as the disreputable denizens of Glubb's Gin Mill.

For Anna's journey on the streets leading toward the Zoo District, set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer pulls back the central wall and opens up the stage. A windy night this is, and poor Murk frequently is blown -- literally -- off course.

Nothing else about Kellam's fine production comes close to losing its way.

Evan Henerson, (818) 713-3651

evan.henerson@dailynews.com

DRUMS IN THE NIGHT - Three and one half stars

Where: Actors' Gang at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday; through Jan. 27

Tickets: $20 to $25. (310) 838-4264 or visit www.theactorsgang.com

In a nutshell: Excitingly staged and - as is often the case with the works of Bertolt Brecht - still relevant.

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Photo:

(1 -- 2) Jon Kellam's ``Drums'' makes splendid use of lights, music and scenery. The cast, above, is spot-on terrific. Jarreth Merz and Angela Berliner, right, play Kragler and Anna, respectively. The story centers around their love.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 22, 2006
Words:654
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