Been There Before

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

&quotI; been there before." This, of course, is the last line from one of the most famous books in American literature. The young narrator is, naturally, dismissive of the places he-s already been--but part of growing up is realizing you can go home again. Two productions that began here in Los Angeles and then went on to achieve big things in far off places are back for a short time and both are worth seeing, whether you-ve been there before or not.

The first of these is a 1994 play titled A Night in November. This one-man show was written by Marie Jones--a playwright who in the last five years has become quite famous for her work, Stones in His Pockets, which was put on at the Mark Taper Forum this summer.

A Night in November focuses on the relationship between nationalism and football in Northern Ireland. The title refers to an evening soccer match that Kenneth Norman McAllister--an average, workaday Protestant in Belfast--attends with his chain-smoking, Catholic-hating, father-in-law.

The football match--and the ugliness of the Ulster fans--makes Kenneth reevaluate the prejudices in his own life, which eventually leads him to another football match, this time to support the &quotother-; Irish team in its World Cup game against Italy.

A Night in November is not a major work--it-s a bit too long and a bit too sentimental, as it posits that football and a pint of Harp are all that-s needed to heal the world-s problems. But the play is an effective rant against the tacit, middle-class endorsement of reactionary policies--and it-s also a good deal of fun.

Most of this fun is courtesy of actor Marty Maguire, who plays all 26 characters in the play. I-m not sure if there-s a Gaelic term for &quottour-de-force;,- but Maguire-s acting suggests that there should be. His intense, captivating performance (helped by Tim Byron Owen-s succinct direction) took this 2001 production from its small debut in the Valley, all the way to London and then on to the famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Another stellar performance of a character who learns that the people he grew up hating, might not be so bad after all, can be seen at the Ahmanson Theatre, as the musical Big River returns to the L.A. Music Center. Tyrone Giordano plays Huckleberry Finn, capturing all of Huck-s curiosity, benevolence and impishness--and amazingly, Giordano does this without speaking a single word.

Of course, Giordano does speak volumes, but with his hands, as Big River is a staging of Mark Twain-s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn performed entirely in sign language.

There-s singing too, but it-s the signed aspect of Big River that grabbed the theater world by the lapels when Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood premiered this staging back in 2001. Since then, this revival of the 1985 musical was restaged at the Mark Taper Forum and eventually went to Broadway where it won a special Tony for "Excellence in Theater.-

The music and lyrics of Big River are a mix of Broadway melody and pop-country idiom, with a hint of Randy Newman. But if even if you hate folksy music, or hate showtunes, Big River will probably win you over, as it-s the one musical where you can shut your ears and still follow along. In one song, the final verse is performed only in sign language. The music and singing just vanish, but the number continues without losing an ounce of its meaning or impact. It-s an incredible moment that speaks to the clarity and grace of sign language. And if you didn-t catch the show in one of its earlier incarnations, it-s like nothing you-ve ever seen, or heard...or not heard.

Big River continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through January 23. A Night in November also runs until January 23 at the Celtic Arts Theatre in Studio City.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.