The New Electric Ballroom
Rogue Machine at Theatre Theater | 5041 Pico Blvd., Hlywd | Through July 30 | Tickets $30 | roguemachinetheatre.com
Earning the award for Best Musical Book at last month’s Tony Awards was highly regarded Irish playwright Enda Walsh, citing his stage adaptation of John Carney’s Once screenplay. It doesn’t take long after The New Electric Ballroom begins to realize that the bittersweet romance of Once is light years away from the poetic yet psychologically unnerving drama that unfolds in Walsh’s earlier work. At times, Ballroom feels like a cross between Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic Waiting for Godot and a Gaelic reinvention of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, minus the camp.
It’s sort of a distaff counterpart to Walsh’s equally eccentric play The Walworth Farce, in which the males in an Irish family act out their past tragedies and disappointments in the form of a frantic charade. Less humorous though equally lacerating, Ballroom creates a compelling portrait of pent-up resentments, cruelty, deep regrets and loneliness among three adult sisters residing together in an Irish village—the elder Breda (Lisa Pelikan) and Clara (Casey Kramer) and middle-aged Ada (Betsy Zajko). The senior siblings enlist the less assertive Clara to join them in reenacting a traumatic evening from their past. They stage their bizarre psychodrama—complete with costumes and props.
The women are recalling the initial excitement and the disappointment that followed when their hopes of romance were dashed at a local nightspot, the New Electric Ballroom. The then-young women were infatuated with the sexy Elvis-like rock singer who performed at the club, but he ultimately snubbed the now-embittered Breda for someone else. Their ritualistic recreation eventually attempts to add a jubilant ending. A lonely and oafish fishmonger, Patsy (Tim Cummings), who periodically stops by to visit the sisters, is persuaded to don a flashy suit to portray the sexy nightclub singer, performing for and wooing Ada. Will the hoped-for happily-ever-after materialize?
Walsh’s script is dominated by lengthy and florid speeches, as the sisters and their guest recite philosophical monologues, requiring rapt audience attention to absorb the torrent of thoughts and emotions. Connecting the lyrical text to a minimalist plot is worth the effort in a play that ultimately offers a deeply moving portrait of longing and loss, seasoned with dark humor.
For the most part, director John Perrin Flynn prevents the dense text from slipping into tedium. The passion, pain and hostility in the sisters’ shared relationships are expertly conveyed in the layered performances of Pelikan, Kramer and Zajko, whose interplay is frequently riveting. Cummings is likewise terrific, enriching the breadth of what initially seems a comic-relief character with hints of suppressed despair. The Irish brogues are pitch-perfect, owing a salute to dialect coach Tyler Seiple.
The design efforts are equally sublime, imparting the perfect balance between kitchen-sink realism and a stylization befitting the play’s flights of fancy. Salutes are due for Stephanie Kerley-Schwartz’ atmospheric scenic design, Leigh Allen’s lighting, Adam Phalen’s sound and Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes. Though this highly unconventional play won’t be everyone’s cup of Irish tea, Rogue Machine provides a superbly nuanced production of a highly challenging work. —Les Spindle
Ahmanson Theatre | 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown L.A. | Through July 29 | Tickets $20-150 | centertheatregroup.org
Galloping with sure feet on the narrow line between drama and sentimentality, this children’s-story-for-adults is brought to life with such breathtaking theatricality and heart that even the most jaded of theatergoers will be unable to resist the charms and artistry of the national touring production currently stabled at the Ahmanson.
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, and adapted by Nick Stafford, War Horse debuted at Britain’s National Theatre in 2007 before landing in New York, where it picked up five 2011 Tony Awards, including Best Play. The story is slight, essentially focusing on the relationship between a boy and his horse in early 20th-century England, but the staging is dynamite, primarily because of the magnificent work of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. Handspring’s Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones have worked miracles with cloth and rods, creating a menagerie of seemingly living puppets, but none as awe-inspiring or sensitively handled as the story’s main character, Joey.
Set before and during World War I, the play begins with young Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra) getting Joey as a foal after a bidding war between his feuding father, Ted (Todd Cerveris), and Uncle Arthur (Brian Keane). Albert carefully trains the young, rebellious thoroughbred, before Ted secretly sells Joey to the British army after the war breaks out. Heartbroken, the underage Albert runs away to go to the front lines and find his beloved steed.
The second act depicts the horrors of war, juxtaposing state-of-the-art theatrical technology with the simplest of staging techniques in a wondrous display of storytelling as Bijan Sheibani faithfully recreates the original direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. Explosive music from Adrian Sutton punctuates the drama, and animated projections from 59 Productions dart effectively across the surface of what looks like a massive piece of torn paper hanging over Rae Smith’s affectingly spare set. The deadly innovations of the “Great War”—barbed wire, machine guns, mustard gas—all come into play, as Joey goes from carrying an English officer to serving to transport the German wounded. The futility, innocent victims and harrowing emotional toll of war are all examined with power and imagination, and the ending—though inevitable —still packs a punch.
The cast is mostly strong, with their performances taking an appropriately equal place among all the other grand storytelling elements. The brave puppeteers (it takes three of them to operate each horse) collaborate like dancers, seeing, feeling and moving with astonishing sensitivity and synchronization. You’ll swear you see Joey thinking and feeling. His gloriously theatrical presence will make you do the same. —Christopher Cappiello