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My pick tonight: ‘Freud’s Last Session’

I’m a big fan of The New Ensemble Theater Group’s play-reading series. If you’ve never experienced one, a play reading might sound like a dry-as-dust time suck that will have you fidgeting in your seat after 15 minutes. But when they’re done right, like with The New Ensemble, they can be an invigorating way to absorb a new play. Don’t worry: the actors don’t read the script cold. They’re as invested in developing their characters as if they were in a full-fledged production.

The company’s latest offering in its Hot Off the Stages series is Mark St. Germain’s hit Off Broadway play “Freud’s Last Session.” Can a Christian and an atheist have a frank discussion about the existence of God and still respect each other in the end? Jaguar Bennett and James Sherrill star.

The reading is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Revue Cafe,  620 E. Olive Ave. Admission is free with purchase of snack or beverage.

“Freud’s Last Session,” an Off-Broadway hit, is receiving its West Coast debut at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through Feb. 10. Who knows? If you like the reading enough, you could make a road trip to see Judd Hirsch and Tom Cavanagh in the leading roles.

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Chesapeake’

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When we first meet Kerr, the performance artist in The New Ensemble’s cheeky new production of the one-man show “Chesapeake,” he’s disturbed. It’s hard to blame him. After an intense feud with a powerful U.S. senator– who just happens to own perhaps the most famous dog in politics–Kerr can’t escape the sound of barking in his head.

The fact the barking in question comes from the senator’s actual dog, a faithful Chesapeake Bay retriever named Lucky, is not the most offbeat thing about Lee Blessing’s play, however. Not by a long shot. Spend nearly two hours with the agitated Kerr — who is brought to life along with other human and animal characters by the very fine James Sherrill, who rises to the challenge in a well-prepared and solid performance — and you’ll soon be steeped in a theatrical soup so cheerfully weird that the mere idea of hearing a dog voice or two in one’s head will seem downright normal in comparison.

You can either look at the experience, directed with a sure hand after a wobbly beginning by Anthony Rico Nan, as jolly good fun or as an exercise in overwrought and vapid silliness. I definitely lean toward the former.

It’s not every day you get to be exposed to an experience that is part pointed political commentary about government funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, part fascinating art-history recap of the early 20th Century Futurism movement, part metaphysical musings about the nature of religion and part — a big part! — a goofball series of entertaining plot machinations involving reincarnation, karmic payback and straight-up doggie sex.

The play continues through Saturday at the Broken Leg Stage.

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Donald’s weekend picks

1. HEAD TO THE BROKEN LEG STAGE
Read my preview interview with James Sherrill in today’s issue of 7 talking about the new play “Chesapeake.” Performance details here.

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Donald’s weekend pick: ‘Shipwrecked’

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Thanks to The New Ensemble theater company, I’m becoming an even bigger fan of staged readings.

I was thinking about this last Friday night while watching the top-notch reading of Sarah Ruhl’s naughty (and beautifully literate) “In the Next Room … or the vibrator play,” which the company presented at the Broken Leg Stage as part of a double weekend of theater festivities. The New Ensemble tonight will stage a reading of Donald Marguilies’ “Shipwrecked: An Entertainment!” (It starts at 8 p.m.; there’s a 7:30 p.m. wine reception, with your first glass of wine free as part of your $5 admission.)

At a staged reading, there are limited production values — often no more than a few chairs arranged on stage, an occasional perfunctory costume, perhaps a prop or two. The blocking is rudimentary, if it’s there at all. The actors carry scripts. There’s less of an effort to immerse the viewer in a total theatrical experience. Instead, you’re keenly aware of the nuts and bolts of the process.

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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Pillowman’

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There’s no gentle place here to rest your weary head for an hour or two of unthinking repose.

Watching “The Pillowman,” Martin McDonagh’s brilliant and trippy play at the Broken Leg Stage — and given a rousing if slightly uneven production by Fresno’s New Ensemble theater company — is more like washing down a couple of No-Doz with a cup of coffee and buzzing through the evening as you toy with big ideas and chuckle at the darkest humor you can imagine.

Director Heather Parish has crafted a keen, insightful production pumped up by stellar performances from James Sherrill and Landon Weiszbrod, two brothers living in an unnamed totalitarian state interrogated about a series of bizarre child murders. Sherrill plays Katurian, a struggling writer whose odd, and frequently violent, short stories mean the world to him. Weiszbrod is Michal, his “slow” sibling, who lives with him.

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More on ‘The Pillowman’

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The New Ensemble theater company brings the cutting-edge black comedy “The Pillowman” to the Broken Leg Stage starting Friday. I have an interview with lead actor James Sherrill in Friday’s issue of 7. Here’s the extended version:

What is the play about?

“The PIllowman” takes place in unnamed totalitarian country. A writer and his developmentally disabled brother are brought in for questioning by the authorities regarding the similarities between the writer’s dark, twisted stories and a number of child murders that have occurred recently.

What role do you play?

I play Katurian, the writer.

Your character has a brother who is also brought in for interrogation. What is the relationship like between the two?

Katurian loves his brother more than almost anything else in the world. He also feels a certain sense of obligation toward him, perhaps even a little guilt over the way he was raised.

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