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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Take a beautiful, sexually liberated female archetype. Mix in some macho dialogue filled with wit and innuendo. Add a dash of gratuitous nudity and play it with gusto...but mostly for laughs. Recipe for a great evening of theater? You'd think.

Those are the ingredients for Mlle. God, Ensemble Studio Theatre's inaugural production in their new Atwater Village home.

Written by Nicholas Kazan, Mlle. God is an adaptation and modern re-tread of the nineteenth century Lulu plays by Frank Wedekind. It's one in a long line of plays about sexually active and alluring femme fatales. Cue the Velvet Underground and think Salome, Judith, Aphrodite, Medea ...Catwoman in her tight-fitting leather suit...you get the idea. Ironically, these plays aren't written by sexually liberated women but by fantasizing men...and in men's hands they become a sort of twisted wish fulfillment.

Playwright Kazan has compressed Wedekind's two plays into two acts entitled "Pleasure" and "Punishment" and updated the setting to modern day San Francisco. Our heroine, Lulu, is a young seductress and refers to men not by name but by their number in her sexual conquests.

The challenge for Lulu, the play, and especially this production, is how do you reconcile pleasure and accountability? In the opening moments Lulu rebuffs a suitor with the devastating, "I couldn't possibly marry you. You're old." That hurts...but rather than embrace the brutal frankness of naive Lulu, Paulin directs it for a laugh. It's as if the production doesn't trust the words themselves. The arrows don't hit their emotional targets.

And that's a problem when the almost sitcom atmosphere of act one transitions into the soul searching revelations of act two. When the consequences finally come, the audience doesn't particularly care because the play hasn't earned… it's earnestness.

The evening is almost saved by the performance of actor John Nielsen as the Governor. Nielsen single-handedly adds a gravitas and immediacy to the play that it otherwise largely lacks. When he enters you suddenly feel as if the actors are really speaking to one another: words have consequence. Sadly, he enters near the end of the play -- but it's worth going just to catch his performance.

The other reason to make the trip is the theater itself. The space, christened the Atwater Village Theater, is a joint venture between Ensemble Studio Theater and Circle X. There are two 99-seat theaters nestled in a funky arts complex that the companies are sharing to present a four play season, two from each, between now and August. While it's still a little rough around the edges and lacking charm -- florescent lighting is rarely lobby friendly -- the space is filled with the promise of critical mass. Hopefully with two ensembles sharing responsibilities, they can avoid the burn-out that undid the Evidence Room and so many others and build a sustainable audience in their new Atwater home.

Ensemble Studio Theatre's production of "Mlle God" plays through March 6 at the Atwater Village Theater.

For info on the play text the word "curtain" to 69866.

What's your balance of pleasure and punishment? Join the conversation at KCRW.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.


Mlle God

, written by Nicholas Kazan, directed by Scott Paulin, and starring Annika Marks as Lulu; presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, Gates McFadden Artistic Director

 

Performances through March 6 (Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Sundays at 2 and 7pm) at the Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA @ Atwater Village Theatre (3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater Village, CA 90039); free parking on-site

To reserve or for more information, call 323-644-1929 or go online to EnsembleStudioTheatreLA.org.

 

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