The Actors’ Gang, formerly based in Hollywood, inaugurates its new digs at Culver City’s Ivy Substation Theater with a sumptuous reworking of its 1992 staging of three 20th-century Japanese one-acts, adapted and helmed by associate artistic director Brent Hinkley. Utilizing a compelling amalgam of traditional Japanese theater, classical kabuki, commedia dell’arte and western theatrical stylings, Hinkley impressively guides a synergistic ensemble through the emotional essence of each play.
Although all three legiters ostensibly were written in defiance of conventional Japanese theater, Hinkley pays homage to the traditional art form in the decidedly Eastern-influenced production designs of Sibyl Wickersheimer (sets), Adam H. Greene (lights), John Zalewski (sound) and Ann Closs-Farley (costumes).
Particularly notable is the presence of a hanamichi (raised passageway) running across the front of the stage, enhancing the dramatic effect of each character’s entrance or exit. Another plus is Hinkley’s use of black-robed stage assistants to offer props and faux prompting to the characters.
The opening work, Kichizo Nakamura’s “The Razor,” burrows into the psyche of small-town barber Tamekichi, portrayed with laser-like intensity by Silas Weir Mitchell. The machinations of this Sweeney Todd wannabe and his sensual but dissatisfied, long-suffering wife, Oshika (Kaili Hollister), incorporate a compelling balance of stylized Japanese movements, Brechtian social commentary and modern western psychological drama. Zalewski’s pulsating, nerve-rending sounds and Greene’s mood-enhancing lights are tangible assets to the onstage action.
The closing play, Shimizu Kunio’s “The Dressing Room,” incorporates Nina’s monologue from Chekhov’s “The Seagull” as the psychological battlefield for the raging desperation of four actresses whose very existence depends on getting the role. Kunio masterfully separates the conflicting agendas within a single persona and parcels them out to four incomplete souls, creating a riveting theatrical adventure.
The portrayals are dead-on. As the central character, Beth Tapper projects a maniacal, unrelenting anger restricted only by the limitations of her lung power. A bottomless depth of dramatic passion is personified by Vanessa Mizzone’s portrayal of an older, earthier thesp who has learned to use body language to optimum effect. In sharp contrast is Lindsley Allen as a petite charmer forever scheming to undermine the others. As the helpful prompter, Angela Berliner communicates a winning wholesomeness that belies her driving ambition.
The least satisfying work in this trio is the middle play, “Madman on the Roof” by Kan Kikuchi, which is presented as a kyogen, or comic interlude performed between two tragedies. Hinkley attempts to infuse the work with commedia dell’arte flair, but the generally understated portrayals undermine the style, despite Closs-Farley’s surrealistic costumes and finely wrought masks. The stand-out perf is Simon Anthony’s highly stylized in-drag portrayal of the meddlesome Neighbor.
Zalewski’s captivating and always inventive sounds, including a haunting reworking of the classic Japanese melody “Sakura,” are a highlight throughout the production.