The Hideaway in Nether

In the bleak world of the future the Internet offers just about the only color in a grey, dreary world. And for a pedophile, it offers an escape.

Much like Alice going through the looking glass, a man named Sims (Robert Joy) has entered the Internet and created a beautiful Victorian mansion called “The Hideaway,” to which he invites selected guests. These are men who, like himself, are attracted to pre-pubescent girls.

Thus begins Jennifer Haley’s powerful new play The Nether, now having its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

As the play opens, Sims is being questioned in a Kafkaesque manner, full of contradictions and non-sequiturs, by a brusque bureaucrat named Morris (Jeanne Syquia). She is trying to determine who and where the Internet server is who is allowing Sims to enter and leave his illegal Hideaway at will. He, of course, denies everything and deflects her accusations.

From the grim gray room in which he has been detained, the set then evolves into a gorgeously outfitted Victorian sitting room and Sims enters wearing an elegant costume appropriate to that period. With him is a beautiful little girl with golden ringlets and puffed sleeves: Iris, who obviously dotes on him. Iris (Brighid Fleming) is a true coquette, dancing and twirling and obviously fulfilling his every fantasy.

But there is a penalty to be paid for getting “too close.” The girls are dispatched to “boarding school” and another girl, different only in name, takes her place.

Into this sexual fantasy house comes a client named Woodnut (Adam Haas Hunter) who is too shy to approach Iris physically, but falls in love with her instead.

Meanwhile, an older gentleman named Doyle (a superbly weary Dakin Matthews) is being interrogated in the gray room. He is apparently an operative who had been sent to spy on Sims, and to do so had spent so many pleasant hours in the Hideaway that he is contemplating “crossing over” to that fantasy world permanently.

Through the impeccable acting of everyone involved, the tight direction of Neel Keller, and Adrian Jones’ magnificent sets, this technology-riddled science fiction world seems both plausible and possible. You care about the plight of the protagonists—and you almost wish their dreams could really come true.

The Nether will continue Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 pm through April 14th at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City. Call 213-628-2772 for tickets.

Photo: Robert Joy and Brighid Fleming
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Avenue Q: not a street for kids

It’s really a puzzlement trying to figure out who the producers of Avenue Q had in mind for an audience for their puppet show, since the production is too cloyingly cutesy for grownups and too explicitly sexual for kids. (In fact, the show comes with a warning: “Not Suitable for Children Due to Adult Themes and Puppet Nudity”.)

Yet, for all its marshmallow moments, it’s won all the accolades Broadway can bestow—Tonys in 2004 for Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book.

The current production at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica is, I suppose, as good as it gets. The puppeteers, wielding the oversized heads of their furry and felt characters, mimic the facial expressions and body language of their Muppet-like stars. After a while, you can’t tell which of them is real.

The story is simple enough. A new college grad named Princeton (remarkably played by an energetic Aric Martin) moves into a seedy apartment on Avenue Q and proceeds to search for his “purpose in life.” In due course he becomes the lover of a furry “monster” called Kate (Rachel Hirshee), who lives next door and exuberantly joins him in a lengthy, graphic bout of sex. And “puppet nudity” is the least of it.

There is a subplot with a gay Republican (also played by Aric Martin) and the ungay object of his affection, Nicky, (Matthew Artson) who only wants to be his friend.

There is a pregnant couple, he black (Keith Wright), she Asian (Kristina Reyes), who get married in a Jewish ceremony with “mazeltovs” all around.

And there is a female non-puppeteer (Celia Rivera) who inexplicably plays Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman. And finally, there is a hairy Trekkie Monster (Matthew Artson) who eventually saves the day and helps Princeton find his purpose.

Written by Jeff Whitty, with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, from an original concept by Lopez and Marx, Avenue Q was originally intended as Children’s Television for Adults. Director/ puppet master/choreographer Kevin Noonchester steers his artists through their paces in an attractive street scene by set designer Thomas Brown. And the story is moved along by the music, which is rendered crisply by the actor/singers—or, if you will, by the puppets.

Avenue Q will continue at the comfortable 200-seat Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through April 6th. Call 310.828.7519 for tickets.

Fountain Theatre Soars with “On the Spectrum”

He is a 23-year-old college graduate preparing to go to law school. He is verbose, awkward, and intensely focused. The sort of young man who will offer a 20-minute response to “Hello.” He has Asperger’s Syndrome. She is a recluse living in a fantasy world of her own creation, tied to her computer and communicating in a mellifluous computer-generated voice. She is autistic. What could possibly go right? On the Spectrum, by Ken LaZebnik, is a love story between two people on different ends of the Autistic Disorder Spectrum and the play’s presentation is yet another triumph for the remarkable Fountain Theatre. On the Spectrum is a brilliant, flawless masterpiece. Mac, an amazing Dan Shaked, lives with his mother (Jeanie Hackett) in an apartment in New York City. Stiff and clumsy, with a

line of chatter that is a classic example of TMI (Too Much Information), he is nevertheless charming and infinitely lovable. Though he functions fairly well, his Asperger’s shows itself in his naiveté and his proclivity for taking all conversation literally. As he notes, he “doesn’t waste a lot of time on emotions.” Iris, an equally awesome Virginia Newcomb, lives alone in an Otherworld that she has invented for herself in Queens. Her “Crystal Palace” in her imaginary forest is inhabited by Tolkien-like creatures who are her only friends. Her autism is severe; she is Our Lady of Perpetual Twitches. In an effort to find a job, Mac develops a classified ad offering his services as a computer graphic designer to which Iris responds. She would like to illustrate her magic world, and she captures his imagination with her unrestrained fancies. They begin a conversation on their computers that flashes back and forth on screens behind them. And here I must comment on the extraordinary set. Disappointing at first sight, it consists of what seems to be a hodgepodge of empty overlapping wooden frames and a few sticks of furniture. But thanks to the technical wizardry of video designer Jeffrey Elias Teeter and set designer John Iacovelli, the background becomes a world of its own. Her crystal palace in the forest alternates with his graphic moving train presented complete with puffing smoke and the evocative sound design of Peter Bayne. Full of fantasies drawn in black and white, the background suddenly bursts into vibrant color as the two correspondents begin to fall in love. It’s an enchanted moment. The plot is straightforward and believable, and Jeanie Hackett, though less flamboyant than Mac and

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Iris, is a perfect illustration of a loving mother stretched for a lifetime by unbearable burdens. The three principals shine under the pluperfect direction of Jacqueline Schultz, theater director, award-winning actress, and educator who has worked with learning disabled students for more than a dozen years. This is a production that will take your breath away. If you only have the opportunity to get to one play this spring, On the Spectrum is the one to see! On the Spectrum will continue at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie), Los Angeles, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through April 28th. Call 323.663.1525 or visit for tickets. Photo: Virginia Newcomb and Dan Shaked Photo by Ed Krieger

Silence Within, Noise Without

How does a playwright portray the isolation and loneliness that being deaf entails? In the case of Tribes, playwright Nina Raine has the help of award-winning director David Cromer, the brilliant acting of deaf actor Russell Harvard, who speaks, signs, and lip-reads, and the special effects of lighting designer Keith Parham and sound designer Daniel Kluger. All of whom collaborate to make a deeply engrossing theater experience. In a boisterous, argumentative family that shouts its way through every conversation, Billy (Harvard) is quickly lost in the noise. His predicament causes the stage to darken, equating darkness with deafness and graphically thrusting the audience into his silent world. At the other end of the spectrum is Billy’s devoted brother Daniel (Will Brill), whose head is burdened with insistent voices and persistent static. Heading this dysfunctional family is the patriarch, Christopher (Jeff Still), a writer who believes in the supremacy of language even though he knows that “language doesn’t determine meaning.” He is in love with “the premise of language and the expression of words.” It is he who has been most insistent that Billy learn to speak and lip-read, believing that the community of deaf people who sign are “members of a cult founded on exclusion. They are the Muslims of the handicapped community,” he says. When Billy becomes interested in a young woman, Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), who is in the process of going deaf, he brings her home to meet his family. His mother (Lee Roy Rogers) and sister (Gayle Rankin) join in the family’s nerve-wracking session of grilling her on how to express various abstract feelings in sign language. (Much as a child will grill an adult when he discovers she speaks a foreign language.) Christopher fixates on the limitations of sign language and goads her about the efficacy of speaking vs. signing. And she is forced to admit that the limitations of sign language sometimes make the signers appear brash and tactless. Later, as he learns to sign and express his feelings, however, Billy recognizes that he is “a second-class

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citizen” in his own family. “You all laugh,” he says, “but you can’t be bothered to explain the joke to me.” Whereupon his sister Ruth responds angrily, “None of us can be bothered with any of us!” Having brought Sylvia to translate for him, he signs his frustration that the family has never learned that language and notes that “this is the first time you’ve listened to me, and it’s because I’m not talking!” An interesting aspect of this play is that when the family is discussing something, they all talk at once, interrupting each other, shouting to be heard, and generally creating a bedlam in which none of them can be heard or understood. On the other hand, when Billy and Sylvia sign to each other, their conversation is projected on various surfaces around the stage. The only problem with this is that, depending on where you’re seated, the words are too small and too far away to be read. David Cromer’s last foray into Los Angeles theater was the exceptionally fine rendering of Our Town at the Broad Stage. In Tribes he shepherds his flock of extraordinary actors through a play that is gripping, thought provoking, and attractively attired in designer Scott Pask’s appropriately “lived-in” setting. But you’ll be glad you don’t live there with this exhausting family. Tribes will continue at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, in downtown Los Angeles Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 pm through April 14. Call 213-628-2772 of visit for tickets. Photo: Susan Pourfar teaches Russell Harvard to sign. Photo by Craig Schwartz

The Complete Word is “Absurd!”

If you are at all familiar with the brutal self-help discipline of est, you will find it paraphrased, parodied, and particularly incomprehensible in Complete, a new play by Andrea Kuchlewska currently having its west coast premiere at the Matrix Theatre. Two graduate students in linguistics spar over trainer Jack (Scott Victor Nelson)’s seminar profundities, such as “You are creating yourself being afraid”, “There are no excuses”, and “There is no ‘trying’.” And to every protest he snaps, “I got that!” before he demolishes the protester. As the scene switches back and forth between the seminar and the two students’ efforts to write an esoteric paper together, she (a shrewish Meredith Bishop) and he (a timid Scott Kruse) obsess over various crucial words. Her obsession

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revolves around the ways to use, or misuse, the word “create.” “I feel rage behind my eyes when I hear language used incorrectly,” she reveals. He, on the other hand, obsesses over the differences between a program and a training session. “’The Training’ takes vulnerable people and promises them power,” she informs him, aghast that he is taking it seriously. Bishop is a brilliant actress, but she would be a lot funnier if she stopped screaming from time to time. Kraus is also very good, but the play belongs to Nelson, the badgering guru, who has the smirking, intimidating, wise-guy approach down pat. The character the play doesn’t belong to is Evie (Tess Oswalt), who is either the daughter of, or a younger version of, Bishop’s character. The reason that point is ambiguous is that Oswalt’s delivery is so squeaky, fast-paced, and cutesy that you can’t understand a word she says. Not a good omen for a play about linguistics. Director Jennifer Chambers does a good job of keeping things moving, but she can’t do much about the dialogue, which takes the essential messages of The Training and repeats them ad infinitum. But then, if all the redundancy were removed, the play would be ten minutes long. Complete will continue Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 through March 30th. The Matrix Theatre is located at 7657 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles. Call 323.960.7822 or visit www.plays411,com/complete for tickets. Photo: Scott Kruse (underneath), Meredith Bishop (on top) Photo by Ed Krieger

Happy Hillbillies Hoot and Holler

There ain’t no harps in Paradise. Just fiddles and banjos and a foot-stompin’ good time. At least that’s Bill Robertson, Tom Sage, and Cliff Wagner’s version of it. The three writers, plus Wagner’s honky tonk band, the Old #7, have created a bluegrass musical comedy that will knock your socks off.

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The action takes place in Paradise, a small town that’s gone all to hell since the coal mine shut down. But that’s not enough to keep the townspeople from singing and dancing at every opportunity. And there’s plenty of opportunity: 15 original songs that range from pseudo-religious (“Greater Than Thou”) to comic (“Hillbillies”) to romantic (“Same Old Me”) to motivational (“You Won’t Get Out Alive”) to hilariously naughty (“Mine Is Bigger”). And a runaway show-stopping tap dance by Tater Gayheart (Elijah Rock), the black son of the white mayor (a dynamic Jason Rowland). Enter the “villains”: a demonically ambitious television producer (Marie-Francoise Theodore) who wants to capitalize on the town’s diminishing fortunes by making it the focus of a reality TV show, and a fast-talking preacher, the Rev. John Cyrus Mountain (a crafty but charming Jonathan Root) who wants to build a mega-church that will bring visitors and prosperity to the town. (He also wants to build a Walmart-like emporium called “Jesus Christ Super-Store,” but that’s another story.) Mountain brings with him his tacky but well-intentioned “Muse”, Chastity Jones (Nina Brissey), who furthers his religious message by belting out a blatantly provocative number called “Jesus is Deep Inside Me.” Resisting these potential changes is Louanne Knight (Rachel Noll), the owner of the small local store and the most respected woman in town. She understands the damage that can be done by the sudden acquisition of fame and riches and wants to keep the townspeople from such overwhelming temptations. But the preacher is all for this change in the town’s fortunes “from coal mine to prime time” and takes everyone by surprise by revealing that he is not who they think he is. It’s a wacky show, beautifully paced by director Dan Bonnell, with all sorts of twists and subplots, and thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. Not the least of the enjoyment comes from the cluttered set designed by the team of designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz and master builder Cliff Wagner. Whether it reflects the items for sale in Louanne’s store, or represents the way of life of a small hillbilly town, it is replete with pots and pans, an old gas pump, Coca Cola signs, hub caps, a bed’s headboard, a quilt, and variously shaped copper cake pans. A motley, and perfect, collection. Paradise, a Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy, is currently having its world premiere at the Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Road, in Santa Monica. It will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2 through March 30th. For tickets call (310) 397-3244 or visit Photo: Ed Rowland, Jonathan Root, and Elijah Rock Photo by Agnes Magyari