Theater Reviews: Ruth Draper's Monologues, The Tallest Tree in the Forest

Mark Taper Forum | 135 N. Grand Ave., DTLA
Through May 25 |
* * * *

Whether or not you’ve heard of Paul Robeson, once you see the new play written by and starring the powerhouse that is Daniel Beaty, you won’t soon forget him. Directed by Tony and Emmy-nominated director and playwright Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project), The Tallest Tree in the Forest is Beaty’s show all the way. He creates a compelling and intimate portrait of one of the most remarkable African-American men in history.

The man laid out before you is something of a wunderkind and Renaissance man. Robeson attended Rutgers University, intent on becoming a lawyer, but opted for an international singing career that led to acting in theater and film. His empathy for the suffering of people around the world led to his support of pro-Soviet policies, and he was eventually blacklisted. While significant details of Robeson’s later years are absent from the show, it’s still a gripping and engaging piece of historical theater.

Beaty portrays Robeson with a grace and ease but also creates a host of supporting players that he brings to life with the simple arch of a wrist or a change in pitch. The set’s dark wood and brick is the perfect showcase for Beaty to command the stage, especially when he performs one of the many standards that were a part of Robeson’s repertoire. Throughout the show, Beaty delivers one knock-out tune after another with an intensity that dares you to believe he isn’t the reincarnation of Robeson himself. —Kevin Taft


Ruth Draper’s Monologues
Geffen Playhouse | 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
Through May 18 |

Ruth Draper (1884-1956) was a renowned actress-writer best known for her brilliantly witty monologues satirizing colorful female characters whose eccentricities were revealed in articulate and revelatory comedic vignettes. Oscar-nominated film star Annette Bening, who periodically graces L.A. stages in classics and contemporary plays, captures the literacy, humor and wry social commentary in Draper’s repertoire as she brings four Draper characters to life during a breezily entertaining 90 minutes.

Draper’s monologues gained their widest exposure in recordings of some of her best stage works. Bening’s intelligent and diverse interpretations clearly aim to illuminate the literacy and humor of the material by making it suitable to her own gifts as an actor rather than to imitate Draper, whose appearances on film and TV are almost nonexistent.

Bening is at her best when portraying an aggressive comedic persona that conjures memories of Rosalind Russell’s Mame or Kay Thompson in her prime. The radiantly beautiful actress transitions between these and other characters of varying ages with chameleon-like panache, and it’s exhilarating to watch the prodigious contemporary artist that Bening is pay tribute to an immortal talent from an earlier era like Draper. —Les Spindle

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