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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
American Tales

I would prefer not to. — Bartleby the Scrivener

Well, call me Ishmael! Who'd have thought that a musical based on a short story by Herman Melville, paired with a short story by Mark Twain, would make for a charming evening of theater?

The Antaeus Company, in its fourth biennial ClassicsFest, has accomplished this with its production of American Tales, two very different stories set in the 1890s. In Twain's The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton the lovers are brought together by none other than Alexander Graham Bell. Alonzo, played by a wide-eyed, rubber-legged Daniel Blinkoff, decides on a blustery night in Maine to telephone his Aunt Susan in Baltimore. Instead of reaching Aunt Susan, he overhears a glorious song from someone with whom he falls instantly in love. She is Rosannah, a lovely young woman (played with delightful coquetry by Devon Sorvari) who lives in San Francisco. Obviously, all the bugs hadn't been sifted out of Mr. Bell's invention yet, and why and to whom the lovely Rosannah was singing is never explained, but aside from all that. . .

Instantly captivated, the couple continue their long-distance love affair with daily phone calls. Meanwhile, the villain of the piece, one Mr. Burley (Raphael Sbarge), continues his smarmy courtship of Rosannah, whom he values only for her money. Upon discovering he has a rival for her affections, he travels to Alonzo's home in Maine, where he pretends to be a Frenchman (complete with fake moustache) and sabotages Alonzo's phone calls to Rosannah. Whereupon the heartbroken Rosannah runs off to work for a mission in Fresno and Alonzo walks from Maine to San Francisco and back again, trying to find her.

It's all very silly and 1890-ish, campy and overwrought, but brought to delightful life by the earnest sincerity of the players. The "silent movie-house" type music by Jan Powell is beautifully rendered by the onstage "orchestra" of pianist and conductor Michael Alfera, with Amanda Kopcsak on violin and Jay Rubbottom on bass. Ken Stone, who has collaborated with composer Jan Powell for more than 20 years, wrote the book and lyrics, and moves the drama along successfully and cleverly by daring to rhyme such words as "schemer" and "femur". And Laura Fine Hawkes' scenic design, consisting of bits of maps enlarged and mounted at angles, emphasizes the plot's shifts from Eastport, Maine, to San Francisco, Fresno, Honolulu, and New York City.

The second of the American tales, based on Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener is a dark, existential mood piece very different in tone from Twain's. Raphael Sbarge plays Bartleby, a diffident, lonely young man who is hired as a clerk in the "snug little firm" of a Lawyer, played with both zest and angst by Peter Van Norden. Two other clerks, nicknamed Turkey and Nippers (John Combs and Daniel Blinkoff, respectively) and an office boy, Ginger Nut (Devon Sorvari) try, without success, to befriend Bartleby, who sits and copies legal documents hour after hour without budging from his seat. When he does look up from his work, he stares obsessively at the brick wall that faces his window.

Gradually, Bartleby begins to reject his assignments, responding with "I would prefer not to" to all requests. Finally, he is doing no work at all, but continues to sit at his desk staring at the brick wall. The Lawyer, who tries several times to get rid of him, is overcome by compassion and eventually moves to smaller offices where, he tells Bartleby, there will be "no room for him." But he continues to feel responsible for the young man.

Bartleby the Scrivener was not popular when it was written, but later was considered the precursor of "absurdist literature" and was credited by Albert Camus as having a great influence on his own work. This adaptation, with suitably dark and melancholy music by Jay Powell, is grim,and haunting. It is superbly directed by Thor Steingraber. (Kay Cole and Thor Steingraber are listed jointly as the directors, but I assume that Cole directed the Twain piece.) Both pieces are double-cast, and Steven Ladd Jones alternates with Michael Alfera as pianist/conductor.

A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, who sometimes seems to be the only costume designer in L.A., created the very handsome period costumes for both plays. Jose Lopez and John Apicella, respectively, provided the lighting and sound.

The Antaeus Company, now in its 17th year, emphasizes the ensemble process in presenting readings, workshops, and full productions. Its members and guest artists comprise some of the finest artists working in theater and movies today, and its current ClassicsFest, which runs through August 17th, includes such works in process as Troilus and Cressida, Rhinoceros, The Voysey Inheritance, and Cousin Bette. Included in "first looks," the list of rehearsed readings and late night events that may soon become full-blown productions, is Clare Boothe Luce's The Women, Zastrozzi, based on a novel by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shakespeare's Richard III.

American Tales
By Mark Twain and Herman Melville, with music by Jan Powell and book and lyrics by Ken Stone
Directed by Kay Cole and Thor Steingraber
Cast: Devon Sorvari (Rosannah/Ginger Nut), Daniel Blinkoff (Alonzo/Nippers), Richard Miro/Ralph Sbarge (Burley/Bartleby), John Combes/Paul Eiding (Uncle Charles, Maid/Turkey), Philip Proctor/Peter Van Norden (Doctor/The Lawyer).
Set Design: Laura Fine Hawkes
Costume Design: A. Jeffrey Schoenberg
Lighting Design: Jose Lopez
Sound Design: John Apicella

Running Time: 120 minutes including one 15-minute intermission
Antaeus Company, Deaf West Theater, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 506-5436,
From : 06/19/08 to 08/17/08; opening 06/27/08
Tickets: $30
Reviewed by Cynthia Citron based on 08/01/08 performance
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