Theater Reviews: SOTTO VOCE, ANTIMAN, VOICE LESSONS (Los Angeles)

by Harvey Perr on June 11, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

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One of the pitfalls of being a theater reviewer in Los Angeles is that it is impossible to see more than the smallest amount of the cascade of plays that open here in a single week; it is probably a source of great frustration as well to the many performers and production companies that feel lucky to get a single reviewer to attend. There are times, however, when I hear from trustworthy friends – I guess it’s a form of “buzz” – that I must see this or that show and I really do make an effort to heed their advice, because, when I do, I might have an extraordinarily rewarding experience (as I did last year when I saw the Poor Dog production of Gertrude Stein’s Brewsie and Willie, which incidentally, will be revived as part of the potentially exciting Radar L.A. Festival next week and which should be on any serious theatergoer’s list of theater events not to be missed; enclosed is my original review; I will have daily reports from the front once the festival starts; it runs from June 14-19).


For starters, I belatedly discovered Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group a few weekends ago; Sotto Voce (which unfortunately plays its final performance on Saturday, June 11) is one of the most exciting and gratifying  examples of gallows humor I have come across in far too long, given that these times are ripe for just this kind of mordant vision of life’s inequities. We play far too safe these days when what is called for is more artful explorations into the unspeakable and the unnamable, which is precisely what Sotto Voce offers with a vengeance.

Robert Riemer’s play is a swift, nasty, wickedly demented, and seriously wacky collection of brief but startlingly original scenes which, when put together, create a world of dark corners that are desperately in search of illumination. Incest, church abuses, and suicide are among the subjects thrown into this heady brew – all seen through the eyes of its director, the wonderfully named Zombie Joe (whose day job happens to be undertaking), with a cool detachment and a marvelous sense of what is visually arresting – in which Wendy, the play’s teen-age heroine, clearly in the early stages of madness, is serially raped by her father who then passes her on to her brother, and who is then abandoned by her mother to the church, where Patsy, a nun with not so secret desires, has her passionate way with her. The mood, as you can imagine, is so dark that laughter gets a bit stuck in one’s throat, but laughter pours out anyway, thanks primarily to the skill and commitment of its actors.  The fact that they keep their tongues in cheek doesn’t stop them from making a pretty scary impression.

In the written play, Wendy’s Dad and her brother Sonny are meant to be played by the same actor, but I think it was a wise decision on Zombie Joe’s part to cast two actors, because the sexuality becomes magnified in those moments when Wendy is literally sandwiched in between her two abusers, and because Skip Pibo gives such a terrific deadpan performance as Dad. And Heather Roberts’s Patsy is the embodiment of sexual derangement. But the entire company is, as already noted,
quite good.

If you miss Sotto Voce, you can still see Turbo Tartuffe, which plays on Fridays at 8:30 p.m.; or Urban Death, which is their late-night Saturday show at 11 p.m. And their newest venture, Hamlet, Prince of Darkness, plays on Fridays at 11 p.m. Personally, I am going to see as many as possible, because, if Sotto Voce is a demonstration of what they are up to, this is a home-grown company that deserves our attention.


Next, I didn’t see Riel Paley’s Antiman until its last weekend. But, since it is a solo performance, it might very well have an extended life. So I thought I’d just, in passing, single out some of its many virtues. Paley is, to begin with, a tremendously gifted young actor; he has created for himself a passionately felt piece in which he plays his own five-year-old self, his rakish sailor of a stepfather, a story teller with an authentic and rhythmic Cruzan accent, and, most memorably, his mother – I’ve never seen a woman played by a man with such a fascinating physical sensuality. Further, Paley writes exceedingly well, so that the sheer beauty of some of its writing masks the fact that the play, which is clearly autobiographical, can be, at moments, lacking in structural coherence. Michèle Lonsdale Smith’s direction was smart and understated. And, better still, Rachel K. Levy’s lighting design was subtly beautiful, sometimes turning Paley into a piece of human sculpture. Such good work deserves recognition.


Finally, I never thought I’d see a Justin Tanner play that wasn’t a trade-mark Tanner production, which is to say loose-limbed and nervy and played to a hilt by his company of actors who have become expert at interpreting his manic brand of naturalism, but, even though Voice Lessons is more an extended sketch than one of his full-out attacks on the life styles of Southern California’s working class, it was heartening to see his work turned into a potentially commercial explosion of comic hilarity. This was due to the knockout performances of Laurie Metcalf as a community actress in Monterey who demands voice lessons and French Stewart as the put-upon music teacher she demands them from. The comic precision of the two, under director Bart DeLorenzo’s shrewd eye, was dazzling to watch. That the lady seems a little bit more than ready for the loony bin didn’t seem to bother anyone, which was its most serious weakness. And, frankly, the acting was so tight that it seemed to leave absolutely no room for spontaneity. At the performance I attended, however, Metcalf broke Stewart up at one minute, and Stewart dropped character and desperately tried to get things back in line, laughing uncontrollably as he did. It was my favorite moment, and closer to the Tanner style, and, therefore, a reminder that Stewart was once one of Tanner’s gang of actors.

Who knows what other pleasures are out there that pass by the scrutiny of a single reviewer trying to see as much as possible while still maintaining a semblance of real life?

harveyperr @


Zombie Joe June 12, 2011 at 9:36 am

If you missed SOTTO VOCE at ZJU Theater Group try to catch these other great performances:
NOW PLAYING at Zombie Joes Underground Theatre
– URBAN DEATH – LIVE HORROR ON STAGE! Every Saturday at 11pm
– TURBO-TARTUFFE! – Fridays 8:30pm – thru June 24, 2011
– HAMLET, PRINCE OF DARKNESS – Fridays @ 11pm thru June 24, 2011
– Oscar Wilde’s Salomé – SAT 8:30pm & SUN 3pm June 18 thru July 17, 2011
– Takin a Break from Sex – FRI 8:30pm July 1st-August 5th, 2011

John Topping June 16, 2011 at 1:00 am

Editor’s note:
For the record, we have since learned that playwright Robert Riemer (SOTTO VOCE) did in fact write “Dad” and “Sonny” as separate characters.

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