Arts In LA
Runs have ended for these shows.
Walkin’ in a Winter One-Hit-Wonderland
Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

The 12th-annual holiday show from Troubadour Theater Company, Walkin’ in a Winter One-Hit-Wonderland, proves to be the occasion for walkin’ down Memory Lane with the previous nine. There’s plenty of reminiscing; video footage of past productions; and in-jokey references to company members and past characters that invest the tight (an intermissionless 90 minutes) event with a real inside-baseball, for-the-cognoscenti feel.
   “This one’s for the fans,” announced company founder and director Matt Walker at the post-opening gala, and there are enough of same to sell out the Falcon, as does every Troubie effort within days of its announcement. The fans know the drill: song parodies galore; plenty of outré wordplay; ample breaking of the fourth wall to tease, scold, shock, and amuse the assembled masses; and enough impressive acrobatics and choreography to remind us that the Troubies are makers of real musical comedies, not just fraternity follies.
   As promised by the title, peppered throughout the evening, thanks to music director Eric Heinly and his intimate trio, are No. 1 hits churned out by artists who disappeared—a-ha and Vanilla Ice and whoever it was who sang “You Light Up My Life”—and some fun is had seeing whether the audience can be stumped. But eventually the revue format is abandoned in favor of a narrative, and it’s—you guessed it—A Christmas Carol. Oy vey, you may sigh with me, again with the spirits and the transformation? But at least it’s told efficiently, and there’s no arguing with the Scrooge they’ve chosen.
   That curious supporting character from the Rankin-Bass Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, the Winter Warlock, has become a December perennial around the Falcon, blissfully incarnated by Beth Kennedy as a benighted head case with the voice of Andy Devine and the self-absorption of Miss Piggy. Here Winter, as he’s amiably known, decides to quit the Troubies and take up a living where he’s appreciated, though those foot-long icicle fingers render him unsuitable for a wide range of professions from bartender to blackjack dealer. Happily, versions of Dickens’s ghosts show up to reassure W.W. that the Troubies wouldn’t be the same without him. Quite right, too.
   Walkin’ will not yield the same degree of entertainment to Troubie virgins, as they’re called, as would one of the company’s more self-contained and plot-driven extravaganzas, or even past Yuletide favorites like 2011’s unsurpassed mash-up of Jean Shepherd and Leonard Bernstein, A Christmas Westside Story. (Who can forget Mom’s warning against BB guns: “A toy like that/Will shoot your eye out”?) Yet, for those of us who have lived with these performers and their unique brand of carefully crafted chaos for years, the current offering is a jolly reunion with the satisfying sting of well-spiked eggnog.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
December 15, 2013


Twist Your Dickens! (Second City’s A Christmas Carol)
Center Theatre Group and The Second City at Kirk Douglas Theatre

There possibly have been more skewed adaptations of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol presented through the years than productions of the works of William Shakespeare, whose own classics have featured such variations as cowboys, skinheads, and Jets versus Sharks. No retelling of a beloved old story has been quite as skewed as it is in A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens!, however, hilariously and ruthlessly reimagined by the fertile comedic geniuses that keep Chicago’s legendary Second City company as cutting edge as it was some 60 years ago.
   Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort have irreverently adapted—often going totally off-track—the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his spirited friends, under the comedically fearless, pratfall-inspired direction of Marc Warzecha. Added in are random sequences, such as one with castmembers’ heads stuck in cutouts of the Peanuts characters to spoof A Charlie Brown Christmas by offering what they say is the real ending dropped onto the cutting room floor by network censors, and appearances by George Bailey (Joe Liss) of It’s a Wonderful Life, a cheesy former ring-a-ding-y recording star (Brendan Jennings) too drunk to remember the proper lyrics for traditional Christmas carols, and a disco-dancing nun (Jaime Moyer) who seems to be on the lam from a touring production of Sister Act.
   The story always returns to its Dickensian roots, but even though many of those familiar standard lines about undigested bits of beef and sending the needy off to poor houses are intact, we are also knocked to the floor when Jacob Marley (the versatile Liss again) confronts the scowling Ebenezer (Ron West) with his usual monologue about his misguided, greedy life exemplified by the length of his chains, only to be reprimanded in return by the old reprobate’s perfectly timed reply: “Fuck you.” All is well by the end, of course, especially when Scrooge visits his nephew’s home for dinner, then realizes it’s still 8am, or decides to make up for his past transgressions to his clerk Bob Cratchit (Ithamar Enriquez) and his family by sending them an Edible Arrangement.
   West is the quintessential Scrooge, performing the role in some kind of unspoken homage to Larry David (“Christmas! Humbug!” he yells to the charitable solicitors, “I don’t care if it’s Jesus’s birthday!”), but able to suddenly move his lanky, supposedly creaky limbs as though he once danced with ABT—or at least in the window of Fiorucci’s. His castmates are equally outrageous and gloriously spontaneous, every one of them more than ready, willing, and able to seamlessly run with suggestions from the audience to finish sketches, improv-style. Many bits veering from Dickens are wonderfully executed, but perhaps the most memorable is a scene in which poor crippled Tiny Tim (Amanda Blake Davis) has a playdate with a group of his also physically challenged friends, including one poor kid (Frank Caeti) delivered in a heap on the floor, dumped out of his caregiver’s wheelbarrow.
   In a truly right world, the prize turkey will still hang in the butcher’s window for many years to come, and this production will become a sorely needed annual counterculture holiday tradition in LA.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
December 15, 2013

 
The Steward of Christendom
Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum

Having well and truly conquered James Tyrone (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Hickey (The Iceman Cometh), Krapp (Krapp’s Last Tape), and Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman), Brian Dennehy sets up base camp at the Mark Taper Forum to take on his most daunting personal Everest yet. With its dozen or more lengthy, allusive monologues, and action encompassing seven decades of life in tumultuous Dublin, ending up in a filthy madhouse, Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom could very be the most demanding role in—well, in all Christendom.
   Dennehy deserves plaudits for his concentration and sheer stamina as Thomas Dunne, one-time police superintendent during the period leading up to the 1922 establishment of the Irish Free State. But that’s not to say that his energies are employed in aid of our entertainment, or even our greater moral understanding. Quite the contrary, Steward stubbornly, even perversely, resists audience engagement, especially an audience not thoroughly steeped in the history and culture of 20th century Ireland. For all Dennehy’s labors and the services of a handsome production, the play comes across as almost three hours of pretentious blather.
   What makes this evening such a slog? Partly it’s the structure. Dunne’s reminiscences dash from his pitiful peasant youth, through his service in the hated municipal police as a Catholic acting for the Brits, to finally handing over Dublin Castle to Michael Collins, over whose assassination Dunne carries considerable guilt. Sounds like an eventful life, but Barry chooses maybe the least audience-friendly means of covering these ups and downs: fractured chronology, confrontations with little spark and muted resolution, speeches that meander and peter away. Particularly offputting is the practice, shared by many art-minded novelists, of beginning a speech with an undetermined pronoun, viz., “He was a fine fella.” Okay, but many minutes go by before you discover who “he” is, and by the time you find out, you’ve forgotten what’s been said about “him.”
   More damaging is the lack of action—not activity but rather a personal objective the character is trying to achieve. If Dunne were actively attempting to, for instance, atone for his actions, or justify them, or redeem them, or some active verb that would invest him with a reason for gabbing all night long and reliving key events, it would be one thing. But under Steven Robman’s direction, all Dunne does is rouse himself periodically from tortured, muttering sleep from time to time to rattle off the aforementioned sea of logorrhea that passes the time but achieves little else. The Steward of Christendom—and Dennehy must share some culpability here—never picks up enough forward momentum to build to any kind of climactic realization or catharsis. To put it bluntly, when a character demonstrates no need to engage in his behavior, there is little incentive for the audience to stay interested in it.
   Dunne’s three daughters—yes, there are deliberate hints of King Lear about—and his only son killed in World War I, pop up in Dunne’s fevered brain from time to time, and at least seem fully realized as characters. So do the attendants of the loony bin. All of their interactions get something going until Dunne is left alone again to prattle, as inevitably he is; the secondary figures, spirited as they are, prove inadequate to hold us.
   Dennehy, as already noted, is an actor of superb gifts and grit who can pull off just about anything he puts his mind to. He and we deserve better than this misshapen vehicle.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
December 10, 2013

 
Peter and the Starcatcher
Center Theatre Group at Ahmanson Theatre


Our species seems to need to create prequels and sequels to all great literature, and, Lord knows, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has had its share. Could we be enthralled by yet another explanation of how the boy who wouldn’t grow up managed to pull off such a feat? It doesn’t take long to get caught up in the wonder of this magical reimagining, by Rick Elice (Jersey Boys).
   Of course, much of the wonder here is in the world-class imaginations of directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Pee-Wee Herman Show), as well as the whimsical movement designed by Steven Hoggett. The initial stab of anticipation comes on entering the massive Ahmanson Theatre and seeing scenic designer Donyale Werle’s extraordinary, glittery false proscenium, made up entirely of discarded trash and items relegated to horrifyingly overstocked landfills. Aside from the startlingly playful, continually inventive staging by Rees and Timbers, utilizing a couple of trunks, a few ropes, bare-boned metallic structures, and incredibly dedicated actors bringing the minimal accoutrements of every day to glorious life, Werle’s set and the costume design by Paloma Young are the most creative and humorous use of trash since Ann Closs-Farley dressed the denizens of Ken Roht’s now-classic 99-Cent Only shows at LA’s Bootleg Theater.

Based on the novel titled Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the story of the stage production follows precocious, tomboyish young Molly (Megan Stern) and her father (Nathan Hosner) as they go to sea to escort a trunk of precious “starstuff” goods to the Queen but are waylaid by enterprising pirate Slank (Jimonn Cole), who is transporting orphans in a hold below deck to sell to a potentate as food for his pet snakes. Among the doomed kiddies is a boy (Joey deBettencourt) who hates the insincerity of all adults and wants to remain a kid forever.
   The evolution of these well-loved characters, and that of flamboyantly Paul Lynde–ian pirate Black Stashe (John Sanders), makes all this so clever. Stashe has both hands, but it’s not hard to imagine that by the end of the story he might not—and there might be some ominous ticking added to Darron L West’s sound design. The fearlessly over-the-top work by such a committed ham as Sanders—meant in a good way—in this ostentatiously delightful role is a major boost to the fun here, especially when the Hook-to-be loses his hand, which includes an unending sight-and-sound gag that goes on longer than a double-take by Stan Laurel played in slow motion.
   The performances of the ensemble players, all steadfast in their task to honor Hoggett’s Evita-like bundled staging, have obviously been rehearsed with the precision commitment of Olympic athletes. Standouts include Benjamin Schrader as Molly’s stalwart nanny Mrs. Bumbrake, Harter Clingman as her smitten pirate love interest Alf, and Luke Smith as the dimwitted Smee, and LA’s own treasure Edward Tournier wins our hearts as a lost boy named Ted, who makes fine deadpanned use of his character’s woebegone view of the world—except when it comes to satiating his ever-present appetite.

This is theatrical innovation at its finest, in its simplicity and in its grandeur, especially amazing when it so comfortably fills a stage the size of the cavernous Ahmanson, where so many shows transported from other venues are swallowed up in its enormity. This show is obviously able to transcend anything that could possibly conspire to keep it from working, and the result is an evening to keep anyone charmed and smiling contentedly throughout the rapidly approaching holiday season.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
December 8, 2013

 
Parfumerie
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

If someone doesn’t know the history of the many variations spawned from playwright Miklós László’s 1936 Hungarian play Illatszertár, this first theatrical mounting to grace the 500-seat Bram Goldsmith Theater stage within LA’s impressive new Wallis Annenberg Center will start to seem familiar rather quickly. Adapted and translated into English by Laszlo’s nephew E.P. Dowdall, Parfumerie is as slick and crisp and quietly grand as the very playing space it inaugurates.
   From Illatszertár came such enduring fodder for lovers of romantic comedy as Ernest Lubitsch’s 1940 film classic The Shop Around the Corner, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, followed by later remakes In the Good Old Summertime and even You’ve Got Mail, not to mention the Broadway musical She Loves Me. Yet although the sweetness and humor of those more-familiar versions filters through Parfumerie, the star-crossed romance between Budapest store clerks Mr. George Horvath and Miss Amalia Balash (Eddie Kaye Thomas and Deborah Ann Woll) plays second fiddle to a much darker and far more serious focus, the plight of the store owner’s troubles—and as played by veteran actor Richard Schiff, that’s just about fine, thank you.
   As Mr. Miklos Hammerschmidt, Schiff mesmerizes in his ability to pull us into his that plight, making us want to know, even more than the employees of his charming old store (and perhaps Allen Moyer’s intricately detailed two-story design of it is the best set created in LA this year), why the old man is in such a volatile and fragile emotional state. Initially, it seems as though Mr. Hammerschmidt’s woes come from the ominous tenor of the times descending upon the wary inhabitants of prewar Hungary, including curfews for stores and policemen patrolling the streets, but soon it becomes clear there’s more to it than just his faltering business, a fact that leads to a scary cliffhanger at the end of Act One. Schiff’s quietly majestic man is a revelation, singlehandedly lifting this production from light comedy to engrossing drama.

With the sure hand of director Mark Brokaw to guide them, Thomas and Woll offer the odd counterpoint to the drama, achieving their goal with what feels like remarkable ease. They have all the charm of Stewart and Sullavan, fierce in their hatred for each other, gooey in the romantic connection that eventually surfaces. The supporting cast is golden, especially Arye Gross as the sweet and gentle veteran clerk Mr. Sipos, who advises Amalia, “When you’re as old as I am, you apologize even while you’re being yelled at.” Matt Walton and Cheryl Lynn Bowers in contrast are gloriously slimy as the gold-digging Mr. Steven Kadar and his hot-to-trot mistress Miss Ilona Ritter. Jacob Kemp has wonderful moments as the parfumerie’s awkwardly goofy, eager-to-please apprentice Arpad, though the actor is less successful after his character makes a transformation toward the end of the play.
   Given how hard it must have been for Brokaw to stage so many actors on such a scene-stealing new stage, and as good as it is to see this many actors working in Los Angeles at one time, there’s a stilted feeling here in the gifted director’s staging, so full of busy work for the employees the parfumerie to accomplish, that it gets distracting—especially when it’s clear not much is being accomplished, just lots of boxes and bows being moved from one place to another, like the rocks in the concentration camp scenes in Bent.

There’s no doubt the real star of Parfumerie is the space in which it’s debuting. Moyer’s incredibly detailed set gloriously evokes the story’s setting, complete with high ceiling, art nouveau railings and trim, and even snow falling just outside the store’s front windows as David Lander’s lighting goes almost undiscernibly from sweeping sunlight to reddish twilight to nighttime with exquisite ease. Michael Krass’s perfectly period costuming, Paul Huntley’s hair and wig designs, Jon Gottlieb’s rich sound plot, and Peter Golub’s charmingly evocative original music add world-class touches to the mix, all of which in turn conspires to celebrate the advent of this finely appointed, exciting new arts complex rising in the shadow of the historic old Beverly Hills Post Office building it reinvents.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
December 8, 2013

 
Potted Potter
Irvine Barclay Theatre


In their unauthorized “Harry Experience,” two irrepressible young actors, Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, take on the Harry Potter experience with lots of audience involvement and daffy insider jokes from the seven-book bestsellers by J. K. Rowling. Billed as a parody, the material takes its cues from some elements from the books, but it also makes reference to other literary or pop culture icons, such as Bilbo Baggins and the like.
   In this part-improv show, Turner and Clarkson begin with Rowling’s first in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as the first book is titled in Britan), and weave details from the books into sight gags and witty patter, much to the delight of the audience of Potter fans.
   Simon Scullion’s bare-bones set is reminiscent of the setup for summer plays produced by the neighborhood kids in their backyards. The giant snake Nagini is represented by a very flexible stuffed toy. “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” actually is mentioned very blithely, and the audience moans in fear of the Dark Lord, Voldemort. Potter T-shirts, jackets, and hats adorn the audience, and it is evident that the cash-cow that is anything Rowling will keep this production afloat for a long time.
   One of the best moments of the show comes when a young boy and girl are invited to put on wizard hats and join in the fun onstage. On the night seen, Clarkson appeared wearing a Quidditch outfit—for the uninitiated, Quidditch is a fast-paced game played on brooms, chasing a ball with wings to score a goal. At one point, the little boy gets into the theatrical game enthusiastically and causes Clarkson to take an unanticipated pratfall, much to Turner’s delight. It is the nature of this unexpected hilarity that is most endearing.
   To their credit, aside from all the improv-style banter, they include details from all of the books, and, by the time the show has ended, they have covered the 4,000 pages rather respectably. The easy camaraderie between the actors is largely the charm of the piece. Clarkson is the authority on the books, and Turner claims not to know much about them. He is basically a big goofball.
   Having traveled worldwide to sellout crowds, they look like they have carved out a career for themselves in addition to their successful children’s television work back in the U. K. A non-Potter reader or stuffy old person might not find this hodge-podge of silliness worth the $45 dollar ticket, but, for the faithful, it is an opportunity to be an insider in an homage to all things Harry.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
November 26, 2013
        
Play Dead
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Back in the heyday of the great movie palaces—roughly the Depression until TV conquered all sometime in the 1960s—many a management would supplement the regular bill of double-feature and selected shorts with late-night live magic shows. These last gasps of vaudeville, known as “spook shows,” proved to be a great training ground—for illusionists who yearned to practice their skills before an audience, and for teenagers who welcomed the chance to engage unobserved in passionate lip-locking when the house went dark. Win-win.
   However many teens will take the opportunity to make out in the Geffen’s seats during the current attraction, Play Dead, my goodness, it’s a wonderful spook show. The previous tenant of the main stage, Wait Until Dark, delivered a couple of mild frissons. But Todd Robbins’s magic show–cum–mentalist act–cum-monodrama delivers at least three big jumps and twice that many shrieks in 80 minutes, much of it played in pitch-black darkness. This is, without a doubt, the best source of theatrical scares since The Woman in Black a decade or more ago. (Not for the kids, however—unless they’re mighty mature kids.)
   Robbins is a self-described “sideshow guy,” the veteran of numerous carnivals and the US magic circuit, whose signature stunt is eating lightbulbs—more than 4,000, according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! He begins Play Dead with that very gag; other, more-elaborate feats follow, and he carries off genuinely jaw-dropping mind-reading as well. But his principal order of business is to engage us in a remarkably intimate tête-à-tête on the topic of death: what it is, why we’re fascinated with it, why we fear it and why we shouldn’t.
   Tom Buderwitz’s set might have been inspired by the wacky layout of Culver City’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. It includes an untidy attic’s worth of boxes, books, relics, and ragtag curios—including a giant “Jesus Saves” cross and a Boris Karloff death mask. The voice of Teller—yes, that Teller, Penn’s partner who never speaks and who serves as director of this show; golly, he sounds distinguished—unnervingly complements the usual cellphone reminder by letting us know that once inside, we’re locked in for keeps. And suddenly there he is, the affable, courtly Robbins, his crisp lab coat soon to be smeared with fresh blood as he dips into, he says, the personal collection of a lifetime to reminisce about his relationship with the Grim Reaper, and, in passing, scare the crap out of us.
   As you might expect, much of the show is wry and funny in the vein of Vampira or Zacherley or any of their fellow impresarios of pop horror. And the illusions consistently amaze. But you start to realize that there’s a lot more going on in Play Dead around the time Robbins raptly details the history of turn-of-the-20th-century serial killer Albert Fish, who kidnaped, raped, murdered, and ate 41 Brooklyn moppets. Or later, when Robbins takes a suspicious amount of pleasure in recounting the bizarre circumstances of the 1999 murder of Dorothy Bembridge, a kindly, elderly piano teacher in Robbins’s own hometown of Long Beach.
   This guy wants to push our buttons, all right, but not just the ones marked “Gasp” and “Giggle.” He’s out to rub our noses in the whole idea of gruesome death, taking an almost perverse pleasure in our revulsion as he soothes us one moment and mocks us the next. That perversity is what a good spook show is all about. Go with it, and consider slipping on a pair of Depends first.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
November 25, 2013

 
Dallas Non-Stop
Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre

Playwright Boni B. Alvarez imagines what the hopes and aspirations of ignorant Filipina country lass Girlie (Sandy Yu) might be when she arrives in the big city of Manila to go into training as a call center operator for fictional American Spirit Airlines. Fortunately, Alvarez is blessed with a dramaturgically vivid imagination. The second generation Filipino-American channels his own youthful enthusiasm for 1970s/’80s hit TV series Dallas into Girlie’s fixated belief that life on the Ewing ranch in South Fork, Texas, would be the ultimate realization of the “American Dream.” Alvarez and helmer Jon Lawrence Rivera offer a richly textured journey of discovery as Girlie and her co-workers Chichay (Angel Star Felix), Rodrigo (Kennedy Kabasares), and Charlie (Anne Yatco) come to terms with their individual situations on and off the job.
   Rivera’s staging—complemented by the easily adaptable modular sets of Christopher Scott Murillo and the atmospheric video projections of Adam Flemming—captures the evolving dynamics of these co-workers as each strives to gain traction and possibly an advantage in a competition to see who will be chosen to be supervisor at the end of the training period. A highlight of the production is Rivera’s realizations of Girlie’s intermittent flights of fancy, imagining herself the embodiment of Pamela—Bobby Ewing’s lower-class bride (portrayed in the series by Victoria Principal)—and the rest of Girlie’s co-workers morphing impressively into the rest of the Ewing clan.
   Girlie is immediately aware she is attracting more than professional interest from her Indian-born supervisor/trainer Sandeep (Nardeep Khurmi) and the head office honcho from Cleveland, Brad (Jim Kane). Yu offers a revelatory portrayal of a young woman who arrives ill-equipped to handle all the shifting stimuli coming her way but will let nothing deter her from her objective, even her own unwise decisions. Absorbing her life’s experiences as layered armor, Yu’s Girlie slowly evolves from relentlessly happy but naïve American TV–loving provincial child to a sadder-but-wiser big-city woman who now knows how to control her own destiny.
   Yatco’s flamboyant Charlie and Felix’s more introspective Chichay offer needed counterpoint within Girlie’s story. Alvarez uses the evolving interplay between lifelong friends Charlie and Girlie to manifest Girlie’s eventual realization that she has become somebody quite apart from her friend. It is to Yatco’s credit that Charlie doesn’t let Girlie off the hook, reacting as if she has been tangibly assaulted by her former friend. Felix offers another highlight of the production with Chichay’s chilling, zen-like assault on Brad’s morality while calmly explaining to him the gastronomic wonders of balut: a developing duck embryo that is boiled alive and eaten in the shell.
   Kane exudes a perfect amalgam of illusionary corporate confidence and nerdy insecurity as Brad comes to learn just how much of a self-determined woman Girlie has become. Kasabares is quite impressive as hyperactive Rodrigo, who is Girlie’s main competition for the position of supervisor. Less successful is Khurmi, who doesn’t quite inhabit the persona of the conflicted Sandeep, either as Girlie’s supervisor or her potential lover.
   Dallas Non-Stop provides ample evidence that Boni B. Alvarez is evolving into a significant voice in local theater. In his second alliance with Playwrights’ Arena artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera, Alvarez has found a synergistic creative collaborator.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
November 18, 2013

 
Barrymore
Good People Theater Company at Greenway Court

Known as The Great Profile, John Barrymore was considered one of the finest actors of his time. With a handsome visage and notable theatrics, he was praised by all and emulated later by a succession of actors including Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness.
   In playwright William Luce’s tribute to Barrymore’s legend, actor Gordon Goodman takes on the daunting task of capturing the essence of this man whose brilliance was legendary and whose alcoholism and profligate ways destroyed his career.
   It is 1942, and Barrymore has rented a theater where he will play Richard III, a role that had been a hallmark of his acting career in the ’20s. He jauntily enters the stage, pushing a rack of costumes, singing “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” and exuding charm. Though Barrymore seems a bit unstable, he sets about engaging the audience. Speaking from backstage, his loyal prompter, Frank (Matt Franta, adding a fine counterbalance), interrupts Barrymore’s musings with orders to start rehearsing. He is aware that this is probably Barrymore’s final chance to revive his fading career.
   The bits of biography Barrymore shares are enlightening. His father, Maurice, was a famous actor in his time, but alcohol and syphilis caused madness and death when he was in his mid-50s. John feared he would follow in his father’s footsteps.

As the play progresses, Barrymore recounts tales of his several marriages and children and speaks fondly of sister, Ethel, and brother, Lionel, also accomplished actors. Barrymore relates that he first wanted to be an artist, as did Lionel, and Ethel wanted to be a pianist. They all, however, went into “the family business.”
   The script is challenging, as it requires the actor to intersperse lines from the various Shakespearean plays earlier performed by Barrymore, which interrupts the general narrative. Goodman is clearly passionate in his portrayal. By the second act, dressed as Richard, Barrymore lapses into moments of histrionics that almost seem a parody of his earlier abilities. He becomes more erratic, and it is clear that he is failing. He died in 1942.

Director Janet Miller allows Goodman much latitude in his characterization. Barrymore was larger than life, and Goodman gives it all he’s got. Scott Walewski’s authentically theatrical set and Kathy Gillespie and Barbara Weisel’s costumes are apt, especially a handsome double-breasted suit with a perfect ’40s fedora. Katherine Barrett’s lighting is problematic, as the lights brighten and dim, sometimes distractingly, with a frequency that interrupts the flow of the story. Allowing the story line to take care of the mood may serve the play better.
   Christopher Plummer originated this play in New York to critical acclaim, and Goodman is a worthy successor. It is an interesting look into theatrical history.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
November 18, 2013

 
Exit the King
A Theatre Connection at NoHo Actors Studio

Theatre of the Absurd icon Eugene Ionesco (1909–94) has dragged his pathetically whiny, monumentally self-serving everyman, Berenger, through four of his works: The Killer (1958), Rhinocéros (1959), Exit the King (1962), and A Stroll in the Air (1963). A Theatre Connection has taken on Exit the King—the least absurdist, most linear of the four works—with semi-successful result. The interactions project an impressive grasp of the material, but the pace of the action proves labored.
   The interplay among forever-wimpy King Berenger (Jeff Alan-Lee) and his dwindling castle entourage is plot driven, eschewing Ionesco’s usual proliferation of nonsensical non-sequiturs. Helmer Pat Towne understands the basic premise of the work: Berenger is fated to die by the end of the play, and he pulls out all his self-preservation-at-all-costs artillery to ward that off. Towne surrounds the doomed monarch with the last vestiges of his crumbled empire, projecting their individual agendas, never allowing the floundering Berenger to achieve any peace of mind or body. Unfortunately, at times the ensemble members appear to be waiting their turns to speak rather than responding out of the inspiration of the moment.

There are two notable exceptions. Ragingly dismissive Queen Marguerite (Erin Matthews) counts down the minutes to her husband’s demise, never losing focus on her objective. Matthews’s Marguerite appears to snarl through her lines as she combats the King and anyone else who tries to detract from what she knows is the inevitable. This makes even more effective her final-scene segue into a comforting aide to Berenger as he gives up the fight and steps into the afterlife.
   Marguerite’s willing partner in this exercise of royal oblivion is The Doctor (Nicholas Ullett), who has made himself useful as a physician, executioner, astronomer, and whatever else will guarantee he will always be needed and employed. With gleeful abandonment, Ullett entwines himself within the persona of the kingdom’s all-purpose henchman, supplying ready answers to whatever questions are asked and justifications for all actions taken.
   Marguerite’s counterpart is Berenger’s ever-adoring second wife, Queen Marie, portrayed with relentless adoration by Jill Bennett. Though Marie is the object of utter scorn and dismissal by Marguerite, Marie’s mood only rises and falls with the fluctuations of Berenger’s situation. Although Bennett does not appear totally comfortable with her lines, she captures the hopelessness of an incomplete being whose only purpose in life is make someone else happy. The light in her eyes appears to switch off when she finally realizes she is of no use at all.

As the only two working-class subjects left within Berenger’s command, The Guard (Terry Tocantins) and The Nurse (Analia Lenchantin) are tasked with conveying some semblance of Ionesco’s absurdist view of life as a meaningless journey. Tocantins’s Guard dutifully stands at his station and repeats whatever commands are thrown at him, all the while exuding a total disconnection with the proceedings around him. Lenchantin projects the cheerful, disrespectful vitality of the last servant left in the kingdom, knowing full well that she is now responsible to no one.
   As the main focus of everyone’s attention, Alan-Lee’s Berenger has the unenviable task of beginning to die from the moment he first steps on the stage, but must take nearly two hours to complete the deed. Although Alan-Lee possesses a well-honed physicality and sense of the comedic, there is no evolutionary throughline to his King’s supposed relentless deterioration. This King merely goes from one type of denial to another as if he were following a checklist. And because his supposed power and glory have been stripped from him before he first appears, he is not offered much wiggle room in his descent. He is pitiful when he arrives and pitiful when he leaves. Because the King is standing in for all mankind, there should be more to it than that.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
November 12, 2013

 
Falling
Rogue Machine

Falling looks at lives lived in pain. Josh, the fully grown son of Bill and Tami Martin, is autistic. Each audience member’s sense of whether he’s “severely” so or relatively functional may differ. Whatever, he can grow violent and cause serious physical harm those around him.
   And so, when we meet the parents (Matthew Elkins, Anna Khaja), they’re considering whether to warehouse Josh (Matt Little) or continue trying to cope. Josh’s younger sister, Lisa (Tara Windley), would like to see Josh evaporate, and grandma Sue (Karen Landry) lives in the belief that Josh is still a malleable little tyke.
   Clearly, playwright Deanna Jent chose a situation brimming with conflict. Reportedly, she took the advice “write what you know,” as the characters are said to be based on her family. The Martin family needs to be on edge moment-to-moment and yet tries to live in love.
   However, as constructed, this play fails to tell a story in the dramatic sense. The characters face serious issues, and their struggles can be extrapolated to everyone’s, even if not involving autism. But no one seems to arc, no one seems to go on a purposeful journey, although the story is probably Tami’s.
   Further distracting from her point, Dent paints in various styles. The script meanders among drama, black comedy, magical realism, and perhaps others. This makes it hard if not impossible for the audience to know how to react. Do we laugh heartily at stress-relieving off-the-cuff humor? Or will the next line slap us in the face for doing so? Do we pull back and wonder where Tami has gone, or do we travel with her on a metaphoric trip to a new understanding?
   Director Elina de Santos has succeeded in setting her cast on a single course, each actor playing the reality of each moment, evoking “normal” reactions to the play’s events. And until the dialogue lurches elsewhere, such as into fantasy or comedy, de Santos sweeps the audience into the characters’ emotional quandaries. But even the likes of this helmer can’t overcome all of the script’s bumps.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 12, 2013

 
Twelve Angry Men
Pasadena Playhouse

From 1954 to the present, Reginald Rose’s Emmy-nominated teleplay on CBS’s Studio One has been rewritten as a theatrical piece, was made into an Academy Award–winning film with some of the finest actors in the business, and has been reworked by theater companies over the years, even as 12 Angry Women. In this Pasadena Playhouse production, director Sheldon Epps has gathered an accomplished group of actors who have the heft and charisma to tackle this nearly archetypal work.
   The setting is a jury room with 12 jurors who represent a diverse cross-section of their community. They have just heard the trial of a young man accused of murdering his father. The foreman (Scott Lowell) has taken the first vote: 11 guilty votes to one not guilty vote by Juror Eight (Jason George), who wants to explore all the possibilities that might lead to a reasonable doubt. That tactic has met with fierce opposition from some and many concerns about how long the deliberations might take from other less-committed jurors.
   Beyond the tumult one would expect from a highly charged topic, Epps increases the conflict by making the jurors nearly evenly split between African-American and white actors. In one scene, the black jurors stand on one side of the jury room facing the whites. It is a stark reminder of political and social divisions that still exist today.
   Juror Three (Gregory North) draws the plum role of the loud, bullying businessman who threatens other jurors with his unyielding opinions. Juror Ten (Bradford Tatum) also has a memorable scene in which he rails against “they,” who have threatened his world with change. Their scenes crackle with charged tension.
   Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Robert Picardo, Lowell, and George provide the measured intellect necessary to weigh the options. Picardo is fine as an unflappable juror who deliberates with logic and reason. Adolphus Ward plays an elderly man with great humor and gravitas.
   In Rose’s script, all of the other actors have an opportunity to showcase their characters, and each is realistic and identifiable. Jacques C. Smith plays a man whose youth in a slum has given him unique perspective on the murder. Adam J. Smith, Barry Pearl, Ellis E. Williams, and Jeff Williams also contribute fully believable characters with subtlety and nuance.
   The anger of the title has many dimensions. It refers to the fights among the jurors but also reveals life experiences of some of the men and how they have come to form their opinions in the case. Animosity, prejudice, fear, and vexation mingle as the story plays out. As all the jurors deliberate, their humanity or lack thereof paints a picture of our society in general. Its universality is timeless.
   The words electrifying and powerful need to be attached to this fine revival of Rose’s work. Epps moves the actors about skillfully, allowing the dynamic among the actors to underline the philosophical issues raised. Lighting by Brian L. Gale and sound by Jon Gottlieb enhance the production.
   For solid performances and sheer magnetism, it would be hard to find a better production anywhere. The personal investment the ensemble has in the work makes it a standout.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
November 11, 2013
 
The Middle Class Nobleman
(Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme)

Parson’s Nose Theater at Lineage Performing Arts Center

What gives Lance Davis’s adaptation of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Middle-Class Nobleman) the ability to soar from the merely silly to the memorably sublime is its accessibility. An opening night audience ranging from the very young to the more-seasoned of theatergoers enjoyed this barebones production with equal glee. And, why not? Clearly, Davis and his fellow cast members were having just as much fun performing this crisply paced offering as were those viewing it. Credit goes to Davis for utilizing modern-day vernacular in addition to clipping the show’s normally lengthy running time to a mere 90 minutes including intermission.
   In the titular role, Davis is the essence of pompous befuddlement. Desperate to join the upper class, his Monsieur Jourdain schools himself in subjects ranging from music appreciation to philosophical mumbo jumbo. Ever the fool, Davis’s character struts about the stage in a uniform best described as a Napoleonic Captain Crunch. As his opportunistic trio of coin-pocketing tutors, Thomas Ashworth, Barry Gordon and Mark McCracken lead Davis through exercises in, respectively, terpsichorean, vocal, and philosophical absurdity. Ashworth accompanies Gordon’s warbling on an accordion, and McCracken nearly stops the show with a rubber-faced lesson in vowel pronunciation.
   Meanwhile, Jill Rogosheske earns heartfelt sympathy points as the long-suffering Madame Jourdain, who does her best to rein in her husband’s costly shenanigans. It’s a losing battle as it becomes clear that M. Jourdain is lusting after the daffy Marquise Dorimène, played with flighty abandon by Mary Chalon Davis. Jourdain’s confidant, Count Dorante, played with slimy delight by Paul Perri, has been using Jourdain’s funds to court the Marquise for himself. Perri does a wonderful job keeping Davis at bay while slobbering over the object of their affections.
   Along the way, a subplot involving the family maid, Nicole, the Jourdain’s daughter, Lucile and their respective paramours, Covielle and Cleonte is given its just due. Playing Nicole and Lucile, Marisa Chandler and Nora Frankovich, respectively, nicely handle their state of near exasperation over Jourdain’s insanity. And as the girls’ love interests, James Calvert and Gary Lamb pull out all the stops executing the story’s dénouement—which shall remain unexplained here so as to carry its full weight for future audiences. Suffice it to say, designer Holly Victoria’s costume choices for this particular section of the production are unforgettable, as the entire cast joins forces to end this frothy confection on the highest of notes.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
November 11, 2013

 
The Homosexuals
Celebration Theatre at Atwater Village Theatre

Regardless of our sexual orientation, we spend our lifetimes seeking to understand who we are—and wondering how others perceive us. Unless one has read and favorably absorbed a heap of Ayn Rand, it’s hard not to care what other people think, as perfectly idealistic as that concept may be. The West Coast debut of Philip Dawkins’s arrestingly human and incredibly literate play The Homosexuals distinctly defines friendship and personal discovery in our confusing era when welcoming one’s own identity in a media-hungry society is anything but easy.
   Evan (Brian Dare) is an almost too stereotypical corn-fed transplant arriving in Chicago in 2000, introduced his first night in town to a glibly urban group of gay friends who could be lifted directly from a Terrence McNally play. At one point Evan even tells his new friends he was moved to come out of the closet and migrate to the big city after seeing Love! Valour! Compassion!. The group immediately pounces on Evan like bees to honey, except for the first person he meets: sweet, unassuming, nerdy Michael (Kurt Quinn).
   Over the next 10 years, Evan matures into a far more worldly adult but, although the pitfalls and regrets of his decade of discovery are explored, only the audience can see what’s coming. Making this play so fascinating, the tale of Evan’s decade of discovery is told backwards, beginning with the first scene set in 2010 and reversing the scene order, two years at a time.
   As each scenario unfolds and more of Evan’s journey is explored, Dawkins’s play basically asks whether two gay men can stay friends without ever-present sexual tension interrupting the experience. Each of the scenes depicts Evan in a different relationship with all but two of his quickly adopted Windy City friends: the sweetly adoring Michael, to whom we wish he’d pay attention, and the group’s friendly neighborhood self-proclaimed faghag Tam (Kelly Schumann). With each section, the audience is somewhat frustratingly gifted with the knowledge of what we already know will be Evan’s future, but as he searches desperately for love and a lasting connection, the audience’s crystal ball becomes increasingly more clouded.
   Under the precise direction of Michael Matthews, who handles scenic and costume changes between eras as a sensual military drill, the cast is golden. Dare does a remarkably believable job assaying the subtly demanding task of depicting Evan as increasingly less mature, never abandoning the throughline of his character. “I don’t know why I’m here,” he notes sincerely at one point, making the hotly pursuing Mark (David Fraioli) observe, “Except if you stayed where you were, you would die.” Fraioli does a commendable job as the group’s resident asshole, delivering some of Dawkins’s harshest revelations on gay life, and Schumann is in contrast a wonderful relief as the outspoken Tam. Understudies Christopher Grant Pearson, as Evan’s most enduring lover Colin, and Karnell Matthews, as the hunky British Mark, do their best squeezing into an ensemble as tight as this one, although Karnell Matthews’s godawful British accent is a huge distraction to his otherwise charming portrayal.
   Two of the actors, however, leave the strongest impression. Butch Klein as the flamboyant Peter, a character unmistakably fulfilling Dawkins’s need to bring a little Nathan Lane into the proceedings, overcomes the many traps of his clichéd musical theater–obsessed queen, tugging at our hearts as Evan breaks his, culminating in the poignant plea, “I deserve to be dated on purpose!” Quinn as Michael breaks our hearts even further; he is particularly outstanding in a quietly sensational bedside confession recounting a difficult childhood trauma, something which again only the audience is privy to while Evan nods off beside him.
   The Homosexuals is an epic story told with intelligence, sharp wit, and endearing theatricality. There’s an exclusivity in the struggles and pleasures offered those who embrace the gay lifestyle, especially today, when the trials of Stonewall and the inequities of times past are less an issue. Still, there’s also a palpable camaraderie shared with everyone else holding on for dear life on our rapidly spinning, increasingly more confusing planet. Evan’s progress seems clearly inevitable (“like death and Andrew Lloyd Webber”), despite Dawkins’s queries whether sex is the quintessential tie that binds. Ultimately, the author leaves the indelible and reassuring impression that friendship and love are the connection that unites us all.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
November 10, 2013

 
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Actors Co-Op David Schall Theatre

With two weekends to go until Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde vacates Actors Co-op in Hollywood, those who enjoy horror stories brought to the stage don't have many chances to take it in. But they should make the effort. An ensemble of six sports fine accents and great versatility in bringing to life Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novella.
   Stephen Van Dorn plays the gentle medico throughout, while every other cast member has one or more chances to play the malevolent alter ego. Fleetly and efficiently, the company brings out the highs and lows of London society, and evokes the creepy unease caused by a fiendish murderer's running around unfettered and unidentified.
   Mark Bramhall and Paul Turbiak make the strongest impressions—the former for his strong, distinctive characterizations as a supremely detestable Sir Danvers Carew, the latter for his best-in-show twisted Hyde and best-in-show cue pickup. But everyone has fine moments.
   If Van Dorn seems at times to overexpress Jekyll's anguish instead of having the good man fight against it, and if director Mary Jo Duprey extends some of the revelations way too long, Pablo Santiago's chiaroscuro lighting and Austin Quan's terrific sound design see to it that the classic horror tale never loses its grip on our emotions, or eardrums.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
November 6, 2013

 
The Pain and the Itch
Wilder Theatrics at Zephyr Theatre

Playwright Bruce Norris doesn’t provide his audience with comfort and hope. Apparently he’d rather we think, squirm, even cringe. So his plays are not for the faint of heart. Then again, neither is life.
   The Pain and the Itch is his 2004 opus. It centers on a family, adding in one outsider who has forever affected the family and another outsider whom the family has forever affected. Taking place in the home of married couple Clay and Kelly, the action flashes back and forth between Thanksgiving dinner and a subsequent evening. Invited guests at the dinner include Clay’s brother Cash, their mother, and Cash’s girlfriend. At the other evening, Clay and Kelly have brought Mr. Hadid into their home to discuss a serious matter; however, in Norris’s world, Hadid also seems to materialize during the Thanksgiving gathering.
   Director Jennifer Chambers makes all this clear to the audience—or at least as clear as possible. In addition, she creates a lifelike feel of family onstage, for better or worse. Clay (Eric Hunicutt), a stay-at-home dad, deeply resents Kelly for the euthanizing of his beloved cat, supposedly to make way for the children. Kelly (Beverly Hynds) likes to take charge, except when she doesn’t, dumping unwanted tasks and blame on Clay.
   Cash (Trent Dawson) is a cocky Republican, a physician, and, according to Clay, the favorite son. Mom (April Adams) can start and then stop a conversation with her pseudo-liberal gaffes. Cash’s young Eastern European girlfriend, Kalina (Beth Triffon), won’t take crap from anyone anymore but manages to leave some form of her “sick” on the bathroom mat. And yet Kalina clings to her relationship with Cash. Clay likewise stays with Kelly, and both brothers include mom in their holiday celebrations. What is it about us that makes us tolerate the pain and give up so much for the itch?
   Playing Clay and Kelly’s little daughter, Kayla, Ava Bianchi (alternating with Kiara Lisette Gamboa) is extraordinarily comfortable onstage, at most times living in those imaginary circumstances (hey, we can’t begrudge her a peek at us now and then). The most startlingly real portrayal is delivered by Joe Holt as Hadid. Holt must keep our interest, because Hadid is the last to reveal his purpose there. Ultimately, debatably, he’s the character most deeply affected by the ramifications the family has set in motion. And yet, how pure are his interests in the onstage goings on?
   Especially noteworthy is the casting, by Michael Donovan. He has gathered skilled veteran actors who match one another in tone and intensity. The actors playing blood relatives bear physical resemblances, particularly Adams and Dawson as mother and son. Praise is also due set designer Joel Daavid for the appealing home—and to whomever provided the financing that paid for it.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 4, 2013

 
The Black Suits
Center Theatre Group at Kirk Douglas Theatre

This world premiere musical, now at Kirk Douglas Theatre, manages to get plenty of new wine into very old, if not downright dusty, bottles. The saga of the making of the eponymous garage band soars despite a paper-thin, clichéd plot; derivative character types; and QED themes of friendship and youthful dream-making. What gets it off the ground are a super-talented, super-attractive, super-likable cast of six and the supple, engaging songs of Joe Iconis, perhaps the most highly touted yet underproduced music man in theater today. The Black Suits, soon to make a Gotham appearance, isn’t the smash hit that will establish him, but it certainly strengthens his brand and offers deserved exposure.
   Our fab four are so closely modeled on the aspiring quartet in That Thing You Do!, you might well mistake Suits for the long-hoped-for stage version of Tom Hanks’s maiden directorial effort. This one is set in present-day Long Island, N.Y., instead of 1950s Pittsburgh, but the playbook is the same, starting with the sensitive, shy, articulate protagonist (Coby Getzug’s lead singer Chris has anxiety issues related to an indifferent dad), and what Rent called the “pretty-boy front man” (Jimmy Brewer as lead guitarist John doubts his self-worth).
   Toss in two sources of comedy relief—dorky (Will Roland’s bassist Nato sports funky boxers and aspires to zoology) and doofusy (Harrison Chad’s bruiser-sized music-nerd drummer Brandon)—and you also have the lineup from Stand By Me, whose shifts in tone from frat humor to maudlin heartbreak are amply reflected in the libretto, by Iconis and Robert Emmett Maddock. The guys try to keep the partnership afloat in time for the St. Anne’s Battle of the Bands, which we’re led to believe is make or break. Is the band destined to make music together for the long haul or just be a small flash in a tiny pan?
   Because first prize is a $50 gift certificate at a local Red Lobster, you can be forgiven for thinking the stakes are on the low side. But then stakes are different, aren’t they, when one is in high school? Cool and whatever, as the characters are wont to sing; but the life-and-death urgency of the acting at times seems out of proportion to the incidents depicted.
   An obligatory girlfriend (Veronica Dunne) is there mostly to throw a romantic monkey wrench into the Suits’s solidarity, though she’s assigned career and identity issues of her own so as to blend in, thematically speaking. And straight from Jeanette in The Full Monty is local character Mrs. Werring (Annie Golden), supposedly a one-time CBGB’s intimate of Lou Reed and the New York Dolls, now living the suburban good life in a marijuana haze. Husband, kids, and job go unmentioned, but she possesses plenty of free time to egg on Chris’s Mick Jagger-fueled fantasies.

The Black Suits needs work in the second act, when things get all emo, angsty, and Next to Normal for far too long. (John Simpkins’s staging, lively up until that point, could profitably work against the emotional indulgence more than it does.) Still, the kids and Golden sport great pipes and unflagging commitment throughout, which keep one interested in their ups and downs even as the events play out exactly, and I mean exactly, as expected. There’s a first-rate ensemble backstage, helmed by musical director Charlie Rosen, but whether the onstage guys are playing for real some or none of the time, they appear to be rockin out. And as the Monkees proved, that’s almost as good as the real thing.
   And though most musicals’ scores can’t fully be appreciated on first hearing, there’s lots of droll wit and fresh insights in Iconis’s lyrics, and melodic surprises throughout the score. It could be the first new tuner in five years whose CD I wished I could pop into the car stereo on the way home.
   Played on Derek McLane’s ingenious, attractive set with Ben Stanton’s rock concert lighting, the whole enterprise engenders considerable good will without ever getting close to No. 1, with or without a bullet.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
November 4, 2013

 
Young Frankenstein
Musical Theatre West at Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center

Mel Brooks’s very funny 1974 film became The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein in late 2007. Receiving mixed reviews from the critics, it nonetheless played on Broadway for more than 500 performances, and it began a very successful touring show in 2009. Its appeal comes from a lively cast, very silly jokes, and energized musical numbers.
   The setting is Transylvania Heights, 1934. The villagers are celebrating the death of Dr. Victor von Frankenstein when it is brought to their attention that he had an heir, Frederick Frankenstein (Zachary Ford), head of the Anatomy Department at Johns, Miriam, and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine. Soon he arrives in town to deal with the estate and is met by Igor (Ben Liebert), an impish hunchback with a traveling hump. Liebert’s performance throughout is made for a Mel Brooks spoof, and wherever he is on the stage, something funny is happening.
   After a lively “Together Again for the First Time,” they travel to the mountaintop laboratory and are greeted by the sinister Frau Blücher (Tracy Lore) and Inga (Andi Davis), Frederick’s curvaceous lab assistant. Combined with a fine voice and a comic touch in “Roll in the Hay,” Davis makes a comely foil for Ford. Adding hilarious moments to this scene are two spirited horses (Travis Morse, Ryan Chlanda) who whinny in fear every time Frau Blücher’s name is spoken. As a running gag throughout, it is pure Brooks.
   He was not known for subtlety, and this burlesque of horror films provides all the shtick so beloved by his fans. Brooks’s music and lyrics and book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan reflect the wry and zany nature of Brooks’s sense of humor. The music is essentially forgettable, but when delivered by a first-rate ensemble and accompanied by musical director Corey Hirsch’s excellent orchestra, it provides the company with more than enough dazzle.
   Adding charming sex appeal and over-the-top histrionics is Rebecca Ann Johnson playing Elizabeth, Frederick’s fiancée. Her entreaty “Please Don’t Touch Me” is a comic standout as Frederick tries to comply and the ensemble dancers execute pairings in which no one makes contact. She is also glamorously stunning with beehive hair à la Elsa Lanchester, bride of Frankenstein, after her passionate encounter with The Monster.
   Ford, charming and boyish, gives his role a less manic performance than Gene Wilder did in the original film, but he imbues the character with comic frustration as he fails to resist Inga, discovers his inner mad scientist after creating his living monster, and seems genuinely baffled as he stands ready to be hanged by the villagers.
   For genuine comic appeal, Lore and Jeffrey Rockwell (as Inspector Kemp/Hermit) deliver the goods. Lore’s Blücher is arch and suggestively evil as Lore milks the role. Rockwell hilariously brandishes his wooden arm and leg as Kemp and is humorous as the blind hermit who pours hot soup on the bewildered monster’s lap.
   For sheer goofiness, Danny Blaylock is a wondrous re-animated figure of fun as The Monster. Ford and Blaylock’s “Puttin’ On the Ritz” is a classic piece of theatrics much appreciated by the audience.
   Direction and choreography remounted by Lauren Kadel from Susan Stroman’s original work is superb. Lithe and athletic dancers stand out in the production numbers, and managing the large cast with many character and wardrobe changes is laudable.
   Jean-Yves Tessier’s atmospheric lighting on Robin Wagner’s elaborate set is notable as are William Ivey Long’s costumes and Brian S. Hsieh’s sound design. Musical Theatre West has outdone itself with this first production in its 61st season. From the first mysterious foggy moments to the exuberant and slick finale, careful attention to every detail makes the production Broadway quality and a treat for its audience.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
November 4, 2013
 
A Strange Disappearance of Bees
Collaborative Artists Ensemble at Raven Playhouse

Where playwrights draw their inspiration from is often remarkably intriguing. Here author Elena Hartwell wishes to shine a light upon Colony Collapse Disorder and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the estimated decimation of nearly one-third of all U.S. honeybee colonies since the disorder’s identification in 2006. For those whose exposure to this dilemma goes no further than purchasing a jar of this industry’s delectable byproduct, it’s an eye-opening issue. The list of agricultural items is long, and the potential financial losses over such a breakdown in the food chain is inestimable.
   How Hartwell parallels such a topic with a tale involving human counterparts is where things get, in a word, sticky. Kicking things off and then interspersed throughout are a sequence of informative yet, at times, relatively disjointed monologues discussing the history and importance of bees. Meanwhile, her piece follows five characters, alive and dead, whose convergence at Cashman’s, a small-town bakery, leads to a variety of rather predictable revelations. It’s a marriage of subjects that seem ill-matched most of the time.
   Robert, a young Amerasian, appears seeking his father, a Vietnam War veteran whose name hangs over the store. Again, this is an intriguing catalyst, and were that the primary focus of the tale, it might make for gripping drama. Unfortunately for Robert, his father has died before his arrival. Any information he receives comes secondhand from Lissa, a young store clerk; her boyfriend, Callum, a local farmer; and his father’s longtime lover, Rud, who is a beekeeper and the deliverer of the aforementioned soliloquies on apiculture. Meanwhile, the deceased Cashman, appears throughout the play in a series of flashback scenes designed to provide backstory. Along the way, a number of rather melodramatic secrets pop out of the woodwork, ranging from crisscrossed love interests to war-related aftereffects.

Although the interweaving of these personal storylines and the overall topic of beekeeping seems tenuous at best, director Steve Jarrard has highlighted a few moments in which Hartwell’s script shows signs of dramatic acuity. As Robert and Callum, Christian T. Chan and Brian A. Pollack provide an Act One–closing nose-to-nose showdown over their respective feelings for Lissa that fairly crackles with restrained aggression. Likewise, Meg Wallace expertly handles Lissa’s escape from her otherwise subservient existence when she attacks Callum over his reluctance to divorce his (unseen) wife.
   Jean Gilpin does a fine job with Rud’s various monologues in addition to her insistence that Robert read all of his father’s returned correspondence before she will tell him the circumstances of Cashman’s death. Ian Patrick Williams displays an engaging charm as the now deceased patriarch. His recollective scenes with Gilpin are perhaps the most charming and believable of any in the show; however, his Act Two breakdown was so intense on the night reviewed as to be unintelligible at times even in this intimate venue.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
November 4, 2013


Endgame
A Noise Within

There is a moment in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame when blind, crippled, but ever-imperious Hamm (Geoff Elliott, who also directs) declares the central theme of this work, “The end is in the beginning and yet we go on.” As if playing out the hopeless final moves of a macabre chess match, Hamm and the wretched players—Clov (Jeremy Rabb), Nagg (Mitchell Edmonds), and Nell (Jill Hill)—spout out their pitiful maneuverings, fully acknowledging they have been condemned from birth yet are unable to cease their useless babbling until they are no more. If this reads like an infliction of relentless misery on the audience, it isn’t. As Nell reveals, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
   Scenic designer Jeanine A. Ringer impressively honors Beckett’s specific stage directions, creating a large, inhospitable, decrepit room where two nearly-out-of-reach windows, inadequately covered by tattered black curtains, offer no real light on the proceedings. Two strategically placed trashcans underscore that this is a place for refuse. In fact the cans serve as the final habitat of Hamm’s legless parents, Nagg and Nell.
    Elliott—as director and central character—deserves kudos for thrusting Beckett’s words front and center. At times, however, the specificity of the dialogue impedes the pacing of the work, as does Rabb’s painfully measured movements as Hamm’s servant—the only character who can walk. As enacted by Elliot and Rabb, the relationship between Hamm and Clov gives credence to literary assertions that their names personify their status as hammer and nail—Hamm constantly wielding hard blows and soft ones, and Clov always acquiescing, although Rabb’s projected negative manner could be likened more to a slowly bending nail, ever more resentful of the ritual Clov must face every day.
   The more captivatingly humane interactions occur between Nagg and Nell. Edmonds seamlessly entwines pathos and humor within this hopelessly entrapped human decay, whether he is piteously attempting to coax a sugar plum from his imperious son or coyly cajoling his wife into sharing memories from their much happier early days. The combative, defeatist relationship between Nagg and Hamm is balanced by Nagg’s ever hopeful desire to be life-affirming with Nell.
   Hill projects the deep pitying sorrow of a long-suffering companion who acquiesces to reminiscing about long ago memories but cannot endure the reality of the present, refusing when Nagg pleads, “Could you give me a scratch before you go?” When he reminds Nell that she scratched his back yesterday, Hill infuses a lifetime of lost dreams into Nell’s, “Ah, yesterday.”
   The final scene offers Elliott’s well-played distillation of Beckett’s view of human existence. Clov, suitcase in hand, stands at the open door, ready to flee his lifetime of misery. Yet he doesn’t move. Where will he go?

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
October 28, 2013

 
4000 Miles
South Coast Repertory

Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles comes to us with a considerable reputation as a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but whatever virtues this intergenerational seriocomedy may possess, they certainly don’t come through in South Coast Repertory’s version.
   The text seems overrated from the get-go. It involves a Manhattan-based widow (91, deaf but still feisty, lifelong Communist—you know, colorful), who receives a surprise visit from her grandson (21, college dropout, Granola eater—you know, rebellious).
   In town at the end of a solo bike ride that began in Seattle, an understandably weary Leo rings Vera’s doorbell at 3 a.m., surely a thoughtless time to disturb a nonagenarian’s slumber, but, because a 100-minute play has to get started, she takes him in.
   “How are you?” she politely inquires. “I’m fine,” he snaps, his tone conveying that he’s not fine at all but that it’s going to be like pulling teeth to find out wassup.

Sure enough, although there are plenty of logical opportunities for him to cop to his angst’s sources, including just what happened to best friend Micah out there on the bike trail, Herzog slowly doles out the reveals with miserly meanness, arbitrarily delaying the final shoe’s dropping that will bring the show to an end.
   Shared values and politics should effect a natural bond between this pair, but for contrived reasons their clashes occupy most of the intermissionless work’s running time. In between sniping, the kid lets grandma make him coffee and launder his sheets and generally walks all over her, yet, incredibly, Herzog never sees to it that the spoiled brat gets any comeuppance. His shift in address from "Vera” to “Grandma,” suggesting a softening, is just tossed away. Indeed, by casting an actor (Matt Caplan) who, one would bet, will never see 30 again, helmer David Emmes immediately renders the character well-nigh insufferable. It’s one thing when a 21-year-old is self-absorbed and feckless, quite another thing 10 or more years later.

Everything about the production seems slightly off, starting with Emmes’s crapehanger pacing. Jenny O’Hara is all fluttery mannerism as Vera; we wait in vain for a moment in which she can hit her grandson—or us—between the eyes with true, deep feeling. Leo’s scene with a free-spirited pickup (Klarissa Mesee) is pitched to giddy farce, while twin appearances by his ex (Rebecca Mozo) mosey along with Actors Studio naturalism.
   Design is invariably a South Coast strong point, but even Ralph Funicello’s set feels wrong: A moderately spacious flat seems to possess the dimensions of a Costco, and yet most of the show is blocked as two people sitting on a couch.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
October 28, 2013

 
The Mystery of Irma Vep
Falcon Theatre

No one does inexhaustible excess better than Charles Ludlam—and no director in Los Angeles is better at celebrating that kind of excess than Jenny Sullivan. The presence of Ludlam’s 1984 Off-Broadway “penny dreadful” Irma Vep here is made all the more welcoming at the hands of Sullivan, especially featuring the participation of her two fearless vaudevillian-inspired performers: Matthew Floyd Miller and Jamie Torcellini.
    The title is an anagram for that eternal folk predator, the infamous and currently overexposed nocturnal bat-hybrid who sleeps in coffins and drinks the blood of human victims. But vampires are not the only such creatures who show up in Ludlam’s madly silly gothic tale. There are ravenous werewolves, large-breasted mummies, and murderous housekeepers, as well as delicate damsels in distress, wooden-legged groundskeepers, and one suspiciously ominous Egyptian tour guide left over from an audition for an Indiana Jones sequel.
   Yes indeed, Irma Vep would surely need a large and eclectic international cast if performed under ordinary circumstances, but thanks to Ludlam’s limitless imagination, there’s no need to break the bank with all those expensive Equity contracts. Every one of the inhabitants of Mandacrest Manor near the Hampstead Heath, as well as those miscreants surfacing deep within a musty old tomb in ancient Egypt, are played by Miller and Torcellini, who careen in and out of doors and appear from behind hidden panels, playing every character—and they do so with such swiftness it would make all three faces of Eve dizzy.
    Miller is especially convincing as the rigid Gale Sondergaard–esque housekeeper Jane Twisden, yet he is able to rush to the kitchen with the tea tray and almost instantaneously emerge from another entrance as the pipe-smoking man of the manor, Lord Edgar. Miller is a wonderful straight man to the outrageous Torcellini, a pint-sized cross-dressing Lucille Ball who bounces around hilariously as Edgar’s poor slip of a second wife Enid, transforming with lightning speed into the lustful limping groundskeeper Nicodemus, as well as assaying both the mummy and the mummy-hunter.
   Both actors are also wonderfully adept at spouting Ludlam’s groan-inducing puns with deadpanned ease. “Get away from me, Nicodemus, with all your double entendres!” Jane Twisden warns early on, serving as something of a warning to those gathered to watch the tale unfold, as well.   There is nothing but ridiculous fun waiting for lucky patrons of Irma Vep, which offers a humor that needs a sprightly audience willing to go along with the grand spoof of such mediums as old Universal Studios horror movies, Victorian melodramas, and Emily Brontë novels. This sense of abandon was something that seemed to elude those congregated at the Falcon Theatre the night this reviewer attended. They uniformly reacted to Ludlam’s nonsensical madness as though they were longtime residents of a rest home being serenaded by Miley Cyrus. This of course made the difficult and exhausting task already being undertaken by Miller and Torcellini even harder. Still, the pair persevered gamely, falling into every overdramatic swoon and trotting out every sight gag without fail, blithely ignoring the general lack of response. For that alone, these guys are to be commended.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 27, 2013

 
Evita
Pantages Theatre

“She didn’t say much but she said it loud.” That’s Eva Peron (1919–1952) as assessed by nemesis Che Guevara during the prologue of Evita. But as it happens, the accusation of saying very little, very loudly has dogged the Andrew Lloyd Webber–Tim Rice through-sung tuner ever since it emerged as a concept album in 1976, sweeping Broadway’s Tonys two years later. Last fall’s revival production helmed by British wunderkind Michael Grandage was greeted with some critical indifference; but that version, now on tour at the Pantages, is unquestionably triumphant. If the show has the reputation of a lavish but empty songfest, then a stellar cast and canny theatricality redeem it.
   That’s not to say the musical numbers are disappointing or secondary to the overall effect. Indeed, this could be the strongest singing-and-dancing ensemble to have visited our city in many years, those talents serving to embody the madness that was Peronism. “A New Argentina” brings the house (and act one curtain) down with full-throated revolutionary fervor, just as Eva’s mad philanthropy whips her descamisados—“the shirtless ones,” the mob—into a dizzying frenzy for “And the Money Keeps Rolling In.”
   Nevertheless, the numbers are shaped for storytelling, not for stopping the show. Watch, for instance, during the first big dance number, “Buenos Aires,” how new arrival Eva apes in turn the moves of the three groups who will so impact her life (the well-to-do, the military, the peasants), easily joining each until she winds up leading them all. Rob Ashford can usually be depended on for superior choreography, but he far outdoes himself here.

Because Grandage and Ashford focus on personalities over spectacle, this Evita never devolves into the usual series of disconnected set pieces, the numbers skipping along like recording tracks. Eva’s megalomania comes through loud, yes, but also loud and clear. There’s an unprecedented fluency in the narrative as the legendary street gamine manipulates her way, through sheer force of will, into movie stardom, political power, and eventually virtual sainthood.
   There are only three in the principal cast, all sensational. Caroline Bowman keeps a genuine interior life going as Evita, reflected in bearing, attitude, and a streak of humor I can’t recall seeing in the role before. Her way with a ballad is eclipsed only by her belt, her shifts between the two thrillingly analogous to the means by which the real-life Peron played her people like a pipe organ. Similarly, by applying a veneer of oily glad-handedness over a core of solid steel, Sean MacLaughlin conveys without words her consort Peron’s lifelong knack for being the last strongman standing.
   Josh Young’s Che occupies an intriguing middle ground between jacked-up fanatic and bland, omniscient observer. Our narrator-companion is savvy to the Perons’ con game, sure. But he can’t help but be fascinated by it and even—of all things—retains slim hope that maybe, just maybe, their plan for the nation might pan out. That blend of cynicism and innocence keeps the character alive and alert throughout. And man, can this guy sing.

The last 20 minutes, truth be told, are a bit of a drag, as Grandage allows the tempo to flag and his cast to strain into sentimentality and near-idealization. But maybe that’s just the spirit of damnable Eva at work. It would be just like her to bring anyone who would anatomize her irresistibly under her spell.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
October 25, 2013

 
Sunny Afternoon
Gangbusters Theatre Company in association with Combined Artform at Theatre Asylum

Just as we are about to observe the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination and considering the much-discussed newly published book The Kennedy Half-Century, which claims to blow all conspiracy theories out of the water, playwright Christian Levatino’s Gangbusters Theatre Company debuts the world premiere of his Sunny Afternoon, an engrossing work of historical fiction—or is it fictionalized history?—that proposes a whole new supposition about the still-controversial death of our 35th president.
   Taking place in a cluttered, sparsely grim police interrogation room directly after the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald (Andy Hirsch) in a Dallas movie theater, Sunny Afternoon speculates about the unrecorded 48 hours that he remained in the custody of real-life Police Captain William Fritz (Darrett Sanders) as he tried to use his Ben Johnson–esque good-ol’-boy persona to pry concrete answers out of Oswald before he was to be transferred into federal custody.
   Under Levatino’s direction, the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. Sanders is particularly arresting (no pun intended), mining a down-home cowboy “aw-shucks” charm as a guy obviously more upset about a cancelled football game and intent on making sure his Chinese food delivery includes wings than he is interested in questioning the man seated across from him accused of one of the most infamous crimes in history. Sanders nails Fritz with veteran ease, understanding Levatino's intent to make Fritz likable until the coldblooded and unfeeling nature of his quest overshadows his easygoing allure.   There are wonderful, juicily scripted moments provided for most of the cast members, especially the heart-clutching histrionics of Gil Glasgow as Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry, Justin Welborn as the swaggering but diminutive Assistant DA Bill Alexander, Janellen Steininger as Postal Inspector H.D. Holmes, and Mark St. Amant as possibly sinister 11th-hour surprise visitor Howard Hunt—yes, that Howard Hunt, one of Richard Nixon’s White House plumbers who claimed on his deathbed he had been approached by the CIA to help engineer the assassination of Kennedy.
   Levatino’s knack for creating rich characters and clever dialogue—not to mention casting exceptional actors to interpret his vision—makes it possible to suspend belief in knowing historically how this sunny afternoon a half-century ago turned out. Even as the play rushes through 90 minutes of tense confrontations and chest-butting among between a roomful of testosterone-laden Texans calling dibs before what we all know will be the inevitable conclusion, Levatino’s deliciously perverse final twist is a knockout sure to flabbergast even the heartiest Kennedy assassination theoreticians.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 24, 2013

 
The Old Settler
JVO Productions in association with InterACT Theatre Company at Pico Playhouse

Fine actors well-cast in juicy roles: That’s all a large number of theatergoers demand in the way of theatrical pleasure, and John Henry Redwood’s The Old Settler at the Pico Playhouse will amply reward them. While this nostalgic sentimental journey set in World War II–era Harlem is no great shakes as a play, it offers a quartet of thesps plenty of opportunities to strut their stuff with conviction and emotional variety.
   The mood and situation are reminiscent of Paddy Chayefsky’s output back in the Philco Playhouse days: highly charged character studies of the lower-middle class denied love and starving for it. If you have fond memories of Ernest Borgnine as Marty, the gentle butcher who looked ahead into middle age with no intimacy and no prospects, you’ll bond with domestic Bessie Borny (Ruby Hinds) as relations with her young boarder from down South (John R. Davidson) gradually progress from formality to guarded intimacy to…can it really be love? Not if his down-home gal (Crystal Garrett), now jazzing it up at the Apollo, has anything to say about it—let alone Bessie’s sister, Quilly (Jolie Oliver), nosy, on the premises, and ever-ready to bring up old bad blood.
   These folks are all types, and not very deeply etched types at that. But when actors are ready, willing, and able to invest types with understanding and depth, the predictability and basic plot tension of something like The Old Settler are almost comforting. You can sit back and wallow in their joys and grieving, engaged yet confident that you’re never going to be truly disturbed.
   Again, the cast makes all the difference. If Davidson is a tad too motor-mouthed for a country fish out of water, and if Garrett neglects to find anything sympathetic or vulnerable in her hard-hearted floozy, both nevertheless glow with performance energy and purpose.
   Oliver is particularly effective in shifting between her functions as comedy relief and sometime antagonist, and the believable dynamic between her and Hinds takes full advantage of their differences in vocal timbre, stature, and rhythm. Oliver apparently took on producing this piece as a showcase for herself and Hinds. Good on her if that’s so, for the roles suit them well and show them off impressively, just as a showcase ought to do.
   Helmer William Stanford Davis has a handle on the details of time and place, and he keeps things zipping along.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
October 22, 2013


Don’t Dress for Dinner
International City Theatre

For all the purported sexual sophistication attributed to the French, Marc Camoletti’s cheeky farce about a married couple’s “liaisons dangereuses” at a French country house is less daring and more conventional than one might expect. Still, its romantic machinations make for amusing moments.
   Written in the 1980s but set in the ’60s when American women were being instructed by Cosmopolitan magazine in the fine art of seduction, and London’s Carnaby Street was the world’s model for trendy mini skirts and swinging clubs, Camoletti’s Boeing Boeing and this play were part of the new hip, broad-minded openness about sex.
   Jacqueline (Amie Farrell) has planned a trip to visit her mother, leaving husband Bernard (Greg Derelian) home alone for the weekend, so she thinks. Taking advantage of this domestic respite, Bernard has planned to have his mistress Suzanne (Afton Quast) visit in Jacqueline’s absence. Unfortunately for him, his wife intercepts a phone message from an employment service confirming the imminent arrival of a cook, Suzette (Karen Jean Olds). A subsequent phone call from Bernard’s friend Robert (Michael Wrather) sets Jacqueline’s heart aflutter as it becomes clear from Jacqueline’s manner that the two are having an affair, and Robert will also be coming for the weekend.
   Naturally, Jacqueline plans on staying and cancels her trip to her mother’s. As the visitors begin arriving, complications pile on complications as the story unfolds. Hint: Suzy/Suzette/Suzanne cause helpful identity misunderstandings.
   Standouts in the production are Olds as Suzette and Wrather as Robert. Both have mastered the studied reaction and comic timing helpful in this kind of farce. Olds, particularly, is a gifted comedienne who grabs the best laughs of the night. Also humorous is a quirky performance by Michael Cusimano, with a terrible French accent, as Suzette’s jealous husband. It might be noted that accents, in general, in the production could use a bit of work.
   Director Todd Nielsen’s pacing helps preserve the silliness and coincidences necessary for the improbable storyline. Jack Jones’s “Wives and Lovers” and assorted bossa nova pieces executed by sound designer Dave Mickey also provide the backdrop for the risqué situations.
  JR Bruce’s comfortable scenic design of pink and aqua pastels lighted by Donna Ruzika gives a nod to the French romantic influence.   Though husband and wife are intoxicated by the prospect of having an opportunity for time with their lovers, when each spouse learns the truth, each feels betrayed and reacts with dismay. The resolution is a nifty piece of writing.
   Camoletti’s play, here adapted by Robin Hawdon, is an airy, lightweight piece of fluff. Knowing that, it is easy to sit back, allow yourself to eschew the often disillusioning news of the day, and laugh.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
October 21, 2013

 
Wait Until Dark
Gil Cates Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Suspense and suspension hallmark this sleek production. At the play’s climax, on opening night, no breathing could be heard among the audience members. No one shifted in his seat, no one crinkled her program, no critic dared jot down a note. Suspense reigned. At the top of the play however, one must suspend disbelief, giving up all thoughts of “natural” or “expected” behavior. The earlier each viewer passes that tipping point, the more immersive this theatergoing experience will be for that viewer.
   Frederick Knott’s 1966 play, turned into a film the following year, is so well-known, its mere existence could constitute a spoiler for this world-premiere adaptation, by Jeffrey Hatcher. The bone structure is the same—a blind woman confronts the criminals who invade her home—but the finer features are given a softer, more classic, yet more feminist appearance. Hatcher sets his version 20 years earlier than Knott’s, but the language suits today’s ears—including, somewhat startlingly, the dropping of an f-bomb at the play’s climax.
   Matt Shakman directs, creating a memorably powerful sense of impending terror. From the first slash of light at the front door to the last flicker of a matchstick, Shakman gets the audience into the mood to be scared. He does so through fine actors who create believable characters and through the work of outstanding designers—including Craig Siebels’s steep apartment (the stage raked to improve sightlines), Elizabeth Harper’s sienna lighting that pinpoints flashing knives, and Jonathan Snipes’s ominous sound design and foreboding music.

But the theatergoing mind might need a bit of coaxing back into the forgiveness the genre requires, considering the improbable activities onstage. At the top of Hatcher’s script, two brutes invade the darkened apartment. The two readily find their way around a stranger’s abode, in one case homing in on a light switch in the kitchen and in another case casually switching on a table lamp as if he’d lived there for years.
   Two actors playing the thugs certainly chill the audience’s blood: Rod McLachlan as the slightly bumbling Carlino and Adam Stein as the enormously creepy Roat. However, we might wonder how they knew the apartment’s tenant, Susan (known as Susy in the original play and the movie), would be blind and thus not see one of them as he stood at the foot of her stairs. And how did Roat know Susan’s husband’s phone number, let alone bother to memorize it? Additionally, much as we try to remain immersed in the story, we might observe that although rain pours outside throughout the entire play, only one person is wet when he comes inside.
   Susan’s blindness is fortunately quickly apparent to the audience. Alison Pill plays the blindness with great technique, adding on period speech cadences and enunciation, plus welcome sturdiness and independence. Pill makes the newly blinded Susan proud to be blind, a challenge she’ll damn-well conquer. And so she stays relatively calm on the outside, focused and calculating on the inside, as the play’s events roll onward.

Setting the play in 1944 also helps explain why the seemingly savvy Susan would so readily let a stranger into her home. That “good-cop,” Mike, is a soldier here, claiming to have been “attached to the same unit” as Susan’s husband. Playing Mike, Mather Zickel gives no spoilers away and thus smoothly delivers the shocker at the end of Act One.
   Knott’s and Hatcher’s work lets the womenfolk be the crime-solvers and the brawn. Susan’s young neighbor, the rebellious Gloria who helps save the day, gets a great portrayal by young Brighid Fleming, part comedic and part tender, definitely awkwardly adolescent. And, when at the play’s end the blind Susan heads straight for the arms of her devoted but not doting husband, Sam (Matt McTighe in a well-modulated performance), she proves she can indeed do anything.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 20, 2013

 
Totem
Cirque du Soleil at Port of Los Angeles

Themes are generally reserved for Cirque du Soleil’s permanent presentations in Las Vegas: Past and present shows that helped reinvent the Strip commemorated Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and the music of The Beatles. Other popular forever attractions there orbit the magic of Criss Angel and offer a randy celebration of human sexuality, while two others feature a vast pool of water and a belching pit of fire in the place where a stage would normally be. Seldom have any of the Cirque’s unique touring productions revolved around one leitmotif, especially anything as all-encompassing as the evolution of mankind. Such an undertaking is Totem, which has pitched its famous blue-and-yellow tent at the harbor in San Pedro in the shadow of the city-sized U.S.S. Iowa.
   Written and directed by Stephen Lapage, Totem traces the journey of man’s transformation from the amphibiotic fish and frog stage, with acrobats accomplishing unearthly feats on an enormous bone-like jungle gym as they crane their necks and flick their tongues like giant flexible reptiles, all the way to today, where cowabunga-y surfer boys in colorful jams and oversized Day-Glo sunglasses dream of flying with the birds—and of course, in the enchanted worlds of Cirque du Soleil, succeed.
   Carl Fillion’s vast and mysterious set looks like a moonlit bog, until a section known as the Scorpion Bridge rises hydraulically between sections to become, with the help of gorgeously realistic projections: a lake, a pulsating ocean, a cold Icelandic vista, a fiery volcanic eruption, and a starry sky (culled from photographs taken by Cirque founder Guy Laliberté during his time aboard the International Space Station).
   Of course, the participants do all things Cirque, from a showstopping sensual and gravity-defying trapeze pas de deux high above our heads to a troupe of riders on unicycles balancing and transferring metal bowls with their feet onto their cohorts’ heads. Perhaps the most arresting and emotionally affecting moments come from an amazingly majestic Amerindian hoop dancer, who recalls our nation’s overlooked history, surrounded by members of various tribes beating their drums and symbolizing the endless circle of life on our planet.
   Characters include a scientist who often enters with his simian assistant (a nimble performer in a highly realistic monkey suit), obviously symbolizing Charles Darwin. There is also the omnipresent figure who occasionally descends headfirst from the highest point in the tent to spark new transformation, resembling a human disco ball as slashing spectrums of light radiate from his body in costumer Kym Barrett’s crystal-emblazoned leotard.
   Totem takes us on a thrillingly seductive signature journey that lands somewhere between science and myth, speaking to us in a universally artistic and acrobatic language that exemplifies our deepest dream state and challenges us by revealing our inestimable potential to be even greater and more evolved than we are.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 17, 2013

 
The Liar
Antaeus Theatre

This production is a buoyant treat from first to last. Full disclosure, this is coming from someone with a lifelong antipathy to mistaken-identity plots—you know, the ones in which one opportune word from a character would set everything right immediately, but that word is arbitrarily withheld until the 11th hour. That’s exactly how David Ives’s rhymed couplet version of a 1644 Corneille play operates, and yet such is the magic of this production that it never feels labored.
   Our dashing hero Dorante (Graham Hamilton in the “Cherries” cast in this double-cast production) has not one but two Achilles heels in his quest to hit upon fortune and romance in beau monde Paris: reckless impulsiveness, and a congenital disinclination to truth-telling. The former has him assume that given two first names, the woman of his dreams must be called Lucrece rather than Clarice—cf. tedious identity confusions, above—while the latter trait causes him to muck everything else up despite the best endeavors of cynical servant Cliton (Brian Staten).
   Clearly this is commedia dell’arte stuff, a fact that Ives emphasizes through self-conscious asides on “this is only a play,” and that director Casey Stangl exploits with controlled tomfoolery and audience participation. Tech elements are solidly professional and eye-pleasing, creating a blithe air wholly appropriate to the textual goings-on.
   On press night, some of the “Cherries” comedy suffered from muddy execution—that will surely work itself out in time, irrespective of what goes on with the “Tangerines” cast on alternate nights—but happily, three key performances avoided a bunch of deadly traps.
   The play requires a Dorante totally committed to mendacity yet capable of an act of sincere 11th hour repentance, as inspired by father Geronte, who could be easily tossed away as a bumbling Pantalone. Hamilton’s classical training and apparently innate sense of whimsy put both halves of our hero in splendid hands, while Robert Pine earns Geronte’s laughs yet maintains the moral authority to bring the audience to a hush when he gives his son his deserved late-inning what-for.
   Moreover, a show like The Liar needs at least one reliable, dazzling farceur or farceuse on the premises, and the “Cherries”’ cherry atop the sundae is Karen Malina White as our heroines’ twin maids. The lady careens between impish Isabelle and severe Sabine with total concentration, nary an eyebrow raised, and she kills every time in two of the funniest performances I’ve seen on any LA stage this year.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
October 16, 2013


Creditors
The Odyssey Theatre & The New American Theatre at Odyssey Theatre

Gustav (Jack Stehlin) had his happy life ripped from him, years earlier, when his youthful wife Tekla (Heather Anne Prete) cast him off for successful young artist Adolph (Burt Grinstead). Now, Gustav has invaded the Swedish seaside hotel where he and Tekla once honeymooned and where his former wife and her current husband are now vacationing. Gustav methodically sets out to extract payback for what was taken from him and he is demanding interest: the destruction of two lives for his one. A co-production of Odyssey Theatre and New American Theatre, the LA premiere of David Greig’s new translation of August Strindberg’s 1888 psycho-drama Creditors, helmed by David Trainer, offers a surgically precise yet emotion-rending study in psychological assassination with a touch of dark humor thrown in. On the minus side, this is not a fair fight. Then again, Strindberg did not instill enough humanity in these people to care who wins or loses. It’s the action that counts.
   Set in 1888, the opening scene finds Adolph quite ill, confiding in Gustav in the lounge of the hotel, unaware that he is speaking to his wife’s former husband. He only knows he has found a willing, sympathetic ear on which to unload his marital concerns and doubts about Tekla’s dominating nature with him and her openly flirtatious manner with other men, especially younger men. Grinstead’s Adolph believably gushes at what he believes to be sage advice from this worldly gentleman who has been kind enough to give of his time and attention.
   Unfortunately, Strindberg provides Gustav—portrayed with cold-blooded, cobra-like precision by Stehlin—with an overabundance of weapons to inflict on woefully susceptible Adolph. While sympathetically musing, “Life offers a thousand means by which we can hurt each other,” Gustav is declaring what his intentions are toward Adolph and Tekla. By the scene’s end, Gustav has reduced the younger man to a state of palsied hysteria, inhaling Gustav’s every malevolent thought and suggestion, even promising to give up sexual relations with his own wife.
   What Gustav does not predict is Tekla’s commanding hold on him. Sweeping into the lounge with beaming certainty, Prete’s Tekla imperiously projects the quickly shifting agendas and priorities of a socially liberated woman who innately knows she is emotionally superior to the men who believe they can control her destiny. Her only weakness is her deep-rooted sense of guilt at having abandoned Gustav, which allows her former husband to wedge himself back into her affections and possibly her bed.
   Trainer underscores the authenticity of this godless ménage à trois, bereft of free will and any true feelings for their fellow human inhabitants on earth. As Gustav points out, real feelings evolve into emotional indebtedness, and indebtedness breeds creditors. While Gustav is in mid seduction, Tekla cries out, “I feel you’re trying to steal my soul.” Gustav coldly replies, “There is no soul.” Tekla answers, “I know, I know, I know.” Indeed!

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
October 15, 2013

 
Lake Anne
The Road on Magnolia

A
n unrelenting aura of sadness permeates playwright Marthe Rachel Gold’s sojourn within the challenged life of Anne (Laurie O’Brien), a widowed former prima ballerina dealing with the often chaotic behavior of her handicapped adult son Will (Alex Smith) and the potential loss of her beloved lakeside home in upstate New York. Even the positive machinations—a potential real estate deal that would save the homestead, a surgery that could save her son’s life, the offer from her mercurial danseur nephew Joe (Michael Traynor) to help her land a job with his ballet company—fail to evoke any sense of tangible thematic evolution even while they are occurring. Anne’s psyche is dwelling somewhere else. O’Brien projects the bottomless melancholy of an aging artist who knows that nothing in the present or the future can make up for what she had in the past.
   Director John Frank Levey compensates for Gold’s imbedded moroseness with spritely paced staging, complemented by JR Bruce’s visually engrossing scenic design dominated by a realistic projected video of the family-owned lake that is Anne’s namesake. Acting as much-needed counterbalance to Anne’s lack of positive initiative is her practical and insightful sister-in-law, Emily, portrayed with an attractive, no-nonsense fervor by Laura Gardner.
   Smith offers a hauntingly realistic portrayal of a palsy-inflicted man-child who painfully but relentlessly struggles to project his own sense of identity and purpose. As Laurie, the potential real estate investor who has the power to assuage Anne’s financial woes, Stephanie Michels offers the proper hint of imperious superiority as she calmly explains the reality of Anne’s situation.
   A puzzling sequence in this work is an overly long impromptu ballet pas de deux danced by Anne and her 30-something nephew-by-marriage Joe, choreographed by Cate Caplin, suggesting this might be an important dramaturgical indicator. It isn’t. The ensuing heavily implied romantic/sexual tension belies playfulness between kin, indicating instead that Anne has no grasp on reality and is bordering on mental collapse. For his part, Traynor’s coquettish nephew offers validity to his mother Emily’s evaluation that he is incapable of taking responsibility for his actions.
   Playwright Gold sets Anne on a thematic path that is predictable from the beginning; but it would have been much more satisfying if she had veered off to an alternative, more creative conclusion. Despite her innate self-centeredness and penchant for making poor choices, O’Brien’s Anne exhibits a basic intelligence and sense of humor that should enable her transcend her situation. Too bad Anne didn’t go there. It would have facilitated a more impressive debut outing for Road Theatre Company’s new 77-seat performance space in the NoHo Senior Arts Colony.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
October 13, 2013

 
Fallen Angels
Laguna Playhouse

Naughty wit and improbable liaisons were Sir Noël Coward’s staples in many of his most-famous works, and this 1925 charmer is full of the racy and sophisticated dialogue that audiences have come to expect. As in his oft-performed Private Lives, his characters are worldly and explore sexuality through the prism of society’s strictures.
   Julia and Fred Sterroll (Colette Kilroy, Mike Ryan) are a predictably upper-crust couple, settled into a marriage without the passion Julia desires and Fred treats as an indisposition neatly tucked away. Their friends, Willy and Jane Banbury (Andrew Barnicle, Katie MacNichol), live in a flat above them and share their style of living. Julia and Jane have been friends since childhood and have a secret that is unknown to their husbands. Prior to their marriages, each woman had an affair with dashing Frenchman Maurice Duclos (J. Paul Boehmer), and he has sent a message that he is in town and wants to see them. Understandably excited and titillated by the prospect of seeing him again, they realize the peril it places on their current lives.
    Thus sets the stage for a masterly bit of comic theatrics. MacNichol and Kilroy are pluperfect as the agitated and eager wives who explore their options: Should they leave town or stay to meet Duclos? In a classic scene, glamorously dressed and nervously choosing to await his arrival, they fortify themselves with champagne and become gloriously drunk in comically laudable theatrics. Adding equally droll delight to the proceedings is Mary-Pat Green as Saunders, the Sterrolls’ new maid. She is omnipresent throughout, offering advice, playing and singing at the piano, dispensing hangover remedies, and claiming employment in an increasingly funny set of occupations. Awfully close to stealing the show, it is a testament to the acting prowess of MacNichol and Kilroy that they hold their own.
   Though the husbands hold diminished roles in the early part of the story, they emerge with farcical outrage near the end. Barnicle and Ryan are delightfully engaging in their roles. Boehmer, too, provides the flourish and necessary theatricality as the flamboyant inamorato.
  Director Art Manke handles this play with a comic touch that Coward would have endorsed. His exceedingly physical choreography for the inebriated ladies is adroit and in keeping with their upper-class portrayals. It is stylish from start to finish. Setting the mood for the time period are David K. Mickelsen’s colorful costumes and Tom Buderwitz’s elegant set, lighted handsomely by Peter Maradudin. Composer Steven Cahill’s sound design and music throughout add to the charm of the play. A scene in which the spotlighted Green plays and sings at the piano while the set is being embellished during the first act is an unexpected delight.
   Manke and company have served Coward’s play well. It may be dated in light of contemporary attitudes, but its rarified atmosphere captures many recognizable human emotions.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
October 13, 2013

 
Eat Your Words
The Standard Hotel’s Cactus Lounge

Since The Moth debuted in 1997, thousands of tales have been told to live audiences of standing-room-only crowds all over the world. As a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, The Moth is a celebration for both the raconteur, who breathes life into true tales of ordinary experiences, and the storytelling novice, who has lived through something extraordinary and yearns to share it. Now, on the first Thursday of each month at the gloriously over-decorated, delightfully kitschy Standard Hotel on the Sunset Strip, Moth veteran, Howard Stern Show survivor, and New York standup comedian Greg Walloch hosts Eat Your Words, which brings a whole new spin to the tradition of slick pros and willing amateurs relating their experiences. The big difference is, the highly eclectic participants who take the stage for Eat Your Words talk about all things—and anything—food related.
   Among the brave souls sharing their remembrances of meals past in the recent October event, comedian-actor Sam Pancake (star of Fox’s Kitchen Confidential and the Lifetime series Lovespring International), TV writer Shauna McGarry (Anger Management), and standup Rajiv Satyal delivered hilariously woebegone accounts of how specific memories of food triggered less-than-warm-and-fuzzy reminiscences about their lovelife and familial trials. Real-life chefs Sergio Perera and Jacob Kear of the Amalur Project, a nomadic event that brings their expertise into already established LA restaurants for one night (something akin to a culinary Rave), were less comfortable talking to the audience until a specific food was mentioned, which then turned up their passion considerably.
   The only painful part of this month’s second edition of Eat Your Words came from comic writer Andy Behrman, whose unfocused, somewhat incoherent rantings barely linking the subject of food to the recent death of his father and complete with unappetizing details about his dad’s final struggle, brought the mood of the evening down considerably. Only the genuinely pained expression of our host Greg Walloch, seated nearby trying to figure out how to humanely give the poor guy the hook, provided a bright spot to Behrman’s rambling descent into uncomfortable. Just plain too soon, unless Behrman’s “bipolar” T-shirt signaled a warning against offering him a public platform in the near future.
   The best story of the evening was the final one told by Walloch, who recalled his flirtation with “freegan”-ism, or dumpster diving, back home in Manhattan for food thrown out by restaurants and markets that could still be reclaimed and provide a nice, healthy, and hopefully, maggot-free meal. As Walloch remembered being headfirst in a trashbin searching for food, a producer with whom he had worked walked by and was oh-so happy to see him—and subsequently tried to help him in case Walloch had suddenly become down on his luck and homeless.
   Downer surprises aside, Eat Your Words is a wonderful way to spend an evening, seated comfortably in the wildly eclectic Standard, listening to funny, endearing people—well, most of them anyway—laughing at themselves with a uniquely humorous sense of self-deprecation with which everyone in attendance can surely relate.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 12, 2013

 
War Horse
Pantages Theatre

Nick Stafford’s epic stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s popular novel for children is impressive in itself, but what incredible serendipity brought together the inimitable designers to create the unique design aspects of this production is the stuff of which theatrical history is made.
   The original direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris for National Theatre of Great Britain has been painstakingly maintained on this national tour by Bijan Shelbani, once again revolving around the production’s true stars: the incredible life-sized horses created by the Handspring Puppet Company. Each horse is “wrangled” by several performers, all of whom wear appropriate period costumes and walk alongside or inside the stylized animal. Trained to perfection by Toby Sedgwick in the art of making the horses, birds, and one mischievous goose come alive, the handlers animate their charges as though they were manipulating giant versions of Indonesian-style shadow puppets. Within minutes, the wranglers almost disappear to their astonished audience as their efforts to bring the animals to life makes the viewer almost totally forget the puppets are not living, breathing creatures.
   The design of War Horse is equally impressive, with lighting effects by Paule Constable and set designer Rae Smith’s striking projections at the back of the stage, which change from childish sketches of horses and the idyllic green homelands of early 20th-century Devon to huge, starkly impressionistic Caligari-esque slashes horrifically depicting the gritty horrors of the French countryside during the first world war. The Pantages is actually a better-sized room for the production than its earlier version seen downtown, although the acoustics of the venue do not work with a gruff-voiced English accent any better here than it did last year with Billy Elliot.
   This is of course the familiar story of a young man and his beloved horse, who is led off to battle without him. It will bring tears to anyone’s eyes by the end of the second act, which suddenly seems particularly ironic when one shakes one’s head and realizes the emotional floods are being unleashed by puppets consisting of stylized wheels and gauze and geometric superstructures.   The cast, led by the hardworking Michael Wyatt Cox as the loyal Albert, is extremely passionate and appear thrilled to be a part of such a theatrical masterpiece. Maria Elena Ramirez is a standout as Albert’s mother, and Andrew May excels as the sweet German captain who so heartbreakingly questions his humanity and ponders the outrageous grotesqueness of war.
   The imaginative spectacle of this makes it a perfect choice for family outings, although Mary Poppins or Peter Pan it is not. It is hard to imagine the reaction from small children to the play’s many deaths of four- and two-legged characters, although it might be the impetus for parents to talk to their children about the horror and waste of war—just in case the next generation can do a better job of avoiding it than the rest of us throughout the history of our species.
   There is one unforgettable scene in which one English and one German soldier wave white flags and join together to try to save the hero’s horse from the deathlike grip of a barbed wire trap. As they shake hands and prepare to go back to their separate trenches and begin to once again try to kill one another, the war-weary Englishman says to his sworn enemy, “There are widows weeping everywhere because men couldn’t talk like you and I just have.” This is the true message of War Horse; would that the people in power in this troubled world might try to heed it.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
October 12, 2013

 
The Sunshine Boys
Center Theatre Group at Ahmanson Theatre

The pleasures of The Sunshine Boys stem from the interplay of phlegmatic Judd Hirsch and volcanic Danny DeVito, one-time Taxi stars now interpreting the fictional legendary vaudeville team of (respectively) Lewis and Clark. As rendered by author Neil Simon, these so-called comedy giants are pretty tame, their alleged gifts hardly in evidence in the weak sketch they’re called upon to perform. The engine of the plot is that they’ve never gotten along, but the rationale for Lewis’s hatred is woefully lame (he’s mad that Clark keeps dentalizing his T’s with spittle and poking him in the chest), and Clark’s disdain for Lewis seems based on nothing at all.
   So there’s no event and no play, really. All we can feast on is a lot of gags (the Simon specialty) and personality, and fortunately there’s just enough of both in Thea Sharrock’s mostly crisp staging to get us through a two-hour evening. Hirsch and DeVito possess the effortless chemistry—and more important, the crucially different performing styles—to suggest the strengths and the strains that would be operating on a comedy duo. The poignancy of their final reunion, even though the writing is puerile, is well-earned.
   Annie Abrams is a nifty bimbette in support of the comics’ crude sketch antics, while Justin Bartha (the hapless AWOL bridegroom in The Hangover) would be even stronger in support if he abandoned his sing-songy line readings and actually played the reality of his character’s need.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
October 7, 2013

 
Broadway Bound
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

N
eil Simon is widely considered one of America’s premier scriptwriters, having won dozens of critical awards in motion picture, television, and theatrical endeavors. His brand of light comedy has been the mainstay of countless theater companies nationally for more than 50 years, beginning with Come Blow Your Horn in 1961. Interestingly, in spite of these accolades, he takes hit after hit from some critics who deem much of his work as lightweight and commercial.
   In his trilogy—
Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues,
and Broadway Bound—Simon arguably achieves some of the most skillful writing of his career. Semi-autobiographical, it examines a Jewish family in Brooklyn through the eyes of character Eugene Jerome. The first play looks at the teenage Eugene as he enters puberty; the second chronicles his days in basic training in the army, stationed in Mississippi; and the third and final sees Eugene grown up, preparing for a career in comedy writing for radio and television with his brother, Stanley. Intrinsically humorous, the three plays are, nonetheless, serious and accomplished.
   It would be hard to imagine a better cast than the one assembled for this production of Broadway Bound. Director Jeff Maynard has deftly and sensitively allowed the innate drama in the story to coexist honestly with the wit of Simon’s lauded one-liners. Stanley (Brett Ryback) and Eugene (Ian Alda) have been given an opportunity to write a comedy sketch for a CBS radio show. As the promoter of the duo, Stanley is high-strung and over-zealous in contrast to Eugene’s less volatile nature. As this momentous point, the rest of the Jerome family is battling painful changes. The brothers’ parents, Kate (Gina Hecht) and Jack (John Mariano), are on the verge of divorce over Jack’s infidelity. Grandfather Ben (Allan Miller) is rebuffing his daughter Blanche’s (Cate Cohen) entreaties to move to Florida with his wife, who is currently not well and living independently from him.Though this play is successful on its own merits, Brighton Beach Memoirs
provides some context for the inner workings of the family.
   Ryback nearly steals the show as Stanley, with over-the-top antics that provide the comic heft of the story. Not overshadowed, though, Alda delivers a perceptive commentary combined with a genial portrayal, as Simon breaks the fourth wall to allow for perspective on the family trials. Miller inhabits his elderly character with warmth and believability, adding much to the family dynamic. Cohen plays the frustrated daughter with just the right amount of pathos.
   The heart of the drama, however, is the husband-and-wife relationship so capably played by Mariano and Hecht. Mariano’s personal torment at betraying his wife is emotional, conflicted, and palpably real. Hecht opposes him by conveying her anguish with restrained fortitude. They make their characters sympathetic even with their obvious shortcomings. In a subsequent scene, while dancing with Eugene, Kate abandons her stoicism and allows a glimpse of a younger, hopeful woman as she elegantly mimics a dance she had with George Raft in her younger days. The ensemble work is top-notch, a testament to the abilities of fine actors.
   Bruce Goodrich’s multilevel apartment is integral to the drama, and sound and lighting by Josh Bessom and Daniel Ionazzi, respectively, project the play’s era. Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes also add color to the atmosphere.
   Simon’s wry commentary throughout his works affect audiences who appreciate commonalities among all ages and ethnicities. It is easy to see why he was a Kennedy Center honoree for his lifetime contribution to the performing arts.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
October 7, 2013

 
The End of It
End LA and Scott Disharoon at Matrix Theatre

How much should theater resemble real life, and how much can it do so? Playwright Paul Coates hits a big nail on the head in this look at the human heart. His play clearly and cleverly reveals the universality of love and the pain of divorce. But it also spotlights the artificialities, albeit long-accepted ones, of theater.
   The End of It begins as a husband and wife (Coates, Kelly Coffield Park) have ushered their party guests out, long after midnight. He’s ready to settle down, she’s eager to chat. She goes offstage momentarily. He then tells her he wants a divorce. The character who reenters is now a man (David Youse). The two men continue the conversation—shock, disbelief, “when?” “why?”—and then the “husband” leaves and is replaced by another man (William Franklin Barker). We’re now watching another married couple, this one gay, having the same conversation, same time, same place. After a while, this couple morphs into a lesbian couple (Wendy Radford, Ferrell Marshall).
   Yes, heartbreak is universal. After each couple’s 20 years together, the heartbreak is compounded by the crushed expectations of “forever,” the fear of being alone in middle age, the knowledge that communications between them might not have been full and open all this time.
   That’s Act One, taking place at 1am. Act Two takes place at 10am that morning, in the same living-room setting, at which time more conversations ensue. The work is very real, very honest, but it’s also very rational. No one throws a fry pan. On the other hand, it’s cathartic enough that sniffles can be heard throughout the audience. But how much can be shown within the confines of the theater? In real life, these conversations, and any accompanying tantrums, take hours, days, sometimes decades to unfold and resolve and resurge. Where should a theatrical depiction leave off?
   Coates’s dialogue is wonderfully realistic and thus believable no matter which of the “husbands” and “wives” are speaking it. Director Nick DeGruccio gives it verve without melodrama. No one here turns into Medea, as DeGruccio keeps the “wife” character lucid while letting each actor find his or her own breaking point. To subtly remind the viewer which character is which, the couples share color schemes: the characters wanting to leave wear variants of blue, the ones hoping for continued unity wear purples. Coates and/or DeGruccio keep the six actors onstage at many points throughout, sometimes leaving them sitting at the sides of the action, sometimes inserting them in the playing area. That is simultaneously an intellectual distraction and a sweet reminder of our commonality despite differing “lifestyles.”
   From the audience’s viewpoint, this production could be performed without an intermission. Maybe it’s needed, though, to help the actors mop off and hold it together. Each is superb here, the dialogue coming from the heart, spoken simply, revealing much quiet emotion. Still, even one fry pan would give a more-rounded depiction of that life-changing event.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 6, 2013


Smokey Joe’s Café
Pasadena Playhouse

It’s not really accurate to call Smokey Joe’s Café, now spinning merrily at the Pasadena Playhouse, a jukebox musical. Actually, the Leiber and Stoller revue is a jukebox, so defined as a mechanism by which popular songs can be performed one after the other. It even looks like a juke, with lighting man Steven Young’s thin neon piping around Gary Wissman’s curved proscenium arch, and Abdul Hamid Royal’s hot-licks band upstage—just where a turntable would sit—as the music goes ‘round and ‘round and it comes out here.
   What it isn’t, really, is a musical. Unfortunately for Smokey Joe, not to mention Leader of the Pack and others of their ilk, the bar for this sort of thing was set awfully high by 1978’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, which presented the Fats Waller catalogue through a cavalcade of wise and wicked attitudes. All five characters in that show are clearly defined, and there’s a cynical worldview underlying everything from the staging to the setting. (Among other things, it dares to point out that the WWII home front was notable as an occasion for widespread profiteering and, well, misbehaving.) Because Richard Maltby’s sassy classic attaches some complex themes to the playlist and isn’t afraid to get dark and brooding, it makes for something less than a play but much more than a concert.
   Leiber and Stoller, by contrast to Waller, don’t present a distinctive point of view, and how could they? They were songwriters for hire—ready, willing, and able to shape material to talents as varied as The Coasters, The Drifters, Ben E. King, and Elvis, whose debt to the legendary team is well attested to in the second act of Smokey Joe’s Café. They wrote ballads (“I Who Have Nothing”) for solo males and novelty songs (“Yakity Yak”) for a generation—a varied repertoire but one that no one has tried to weave together into a portrait of anyone or anything. (The songs take us through about 20 years of rock ’n’ roll, but there’s no sense of the world’s or the music’s changing over that time.)
   So: an enjoyable concert, but one that may yield diminishing returns as it goes along for two bouncy but somewhat repetitious hours. Jeffrey Polk’s staging (apparently strongly indebted to Jerry Zaks’s from the original five-year Gotham run) is efficient, and his choreography even cleverer than that, but he has managed to direct only three of his nine performers to stand apart. Monique L. Midgette is a delightful peppet pot; Kyra Little Da Costa a sexy, satirical chantoosie; and big man Michael A. Shepperd a charismatic rascal. The rest are fine. They ain’t misbehavin, but they ain’t makin a strong impression either.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
October 1, 2013

 
Lost Girls
Rogue Machine

The opening scene of John Pollono’s cathartic sojourn within the lives of a working-class family in Derry, N.H., reveals deceptively placid divorced mom Maggie (Jennifer Pollono) bundling up to face her daily dose of New England winter weather. Playwright John Pollono is merely setting the audience up for the impending explosion. As she is suddenly forced to deal with another potential life-crushing tragedy in her life, Jennifer’s rage-soaked Maggie projects the weight of her family’s generations of failed women—all of whose youthful dreams were shattered by teen pregnancies—through her every jagged word and gesture.
   There is no emotional wiggle room in Maggie’s life. When she discovers her 17-year-old daughter Erica (Anna Theoni DiGiovanni) has taken the car during the night and is now missing as a sudden winter blizzard hits the area, Maggie is soon hemmed in by the living representatives of her miseries—including her destitute live-in mother, Linda (Peggy Dunne reviewed, Anne Bronston alternates in the role); Maggie’s recovering-alcoholic ex-husband, Lou (Joshua Bitten); and his squeaky-clean new wife, Penny (Kirsten Kollender). There are occasional sitcom-level sarcasms flowing amongst these caged antagonists as a plethora of pent-up frustrations are unleashed; but director John Perrin Flynn admirably keeps the inherent tension focused on their tangible fears about the fate of Erica.
   The scenes between Jennifer Pollono and Bitten exude a palpable sexual tension that at any moment seems capable of exploding into physical violence. Fueling their frustration is the inherent knowledge that too much has happened to bridge the gap that now separates them. Actually, playwright Pollono is guilty of exposition overkill as Maggie relentlessly batters Lou with his pre-sobriety past deeds. Dunne’s Linda offers a notable study in human wreckage just living out her days as painlessly as possible. Inadvertently serving as a tension-buster is Kollender’s Penny, who refuses to allow the misery around her to derail her innate sense of good will no matter how many insults are slung her way.
   What turns this admirable working-class drama into a theatrical work of art are playwright Pollono’s brilliantly conceived counter-balancing scenes of DiGiovanni’s socially jaundiced teen girl holed up in a roadside motel to ride out the storm, accompanied by her adoring classmate and toady, Scooter (Jonathan Lipnicki), who has been talked into driving out of state so the girl he loves can hook up with her older guy boyfriend. Within the space of a few short scenes, DiGiovanni and Lipnicki manage to believably evolve and transform two embryonic psyches into a single-minded union that is prepared to take on the world.
   The final character in this tale has to be David Mauer’s perfectly detailed living room/kitchen setting that impressively transforms quickly into the motel hideaway. Indeed, the entire production is buoyed by the designs of Jeff McLaughlin (lights), Peter Bayne (sound), and Caitlin Doolittle (costumes).

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
September 30, 2013


Flowers for Algernon
Deaf West Theatre at Whitefire Theatre

It’s an audacious challenge this renowned theatre company has taken up. David Rogers’s stage version of Daniel Keyes’s original novel detailing the struggles of an intellectually disabled man made superhumanly intelligent via an experimental surgical procedure is tough enough as written. Countless scenes and just as many characters, some of which appear once or twice at best, make for an often complicated storyline. Adapt it for audiences composed of both the hearing and the deaf, and the difficulties rise exponentially.
   Charlie Gordon, the subject of this medical miracle, is chosen to receive a brain-altering surgery which seems to have proven more than successful on a laboratory mouse named Algernon—played here, no lie, by Cherry Snowdrop, Community Magnet Elementary cuter-than-cute pet. Within a short time, Charlie surpasses the cerebral levels of those responsible for his transformation. But as with most cases, this too-good-to-be-true scenario eventually spirals to a dark and heart-wrenching conclusion for mouse and man.
   Director Matthew McCray and his cast of 12 offer a production that unfortunately lags in momentum due in part to the very convention Deaf West theater company normally puts to such good use. The synchronization and the clarification of signed and voiced characters, as well as an incredibly complicated series of technical effects, occasionally obstructed more than facilitated throughout the show’s nearly three-hour (with-intermission) running time.
   On the surface, deafness as a metaphor for the leading character’s scripted disability is quite thought-provoking. As Charlie, actor Daniel N. Durant does a fine job mirroring the two, as his character matures socially as well as progressing from a rudimentary form of American Sign Language to his post-surgical fluency. Likewise, Josh Breslow’s pairing with Durant as Charlie’s voice is a welcomed oasis of seamless chemistry, and he provides dramatically appropriate narration for an endless string of video-style diary entries featuring Durant. These sequences, however, along with faintly imaged subtitling for multiple characters, are projected on scenic designer Sarah Krainin’s assemblage of cumbersome pole-mounted screens that the cast struggles to reposition throughout the performance. We get that these are the human-sized equivalents of Algernon’s maze walls, but any payoff in that regard is diminished by their distraction and the time it takes to get to each ensuing scene.
   Glimpses of fine supporting work are available within the remainder of the cast. Alek Lev, Crystal Lott, and Melanie H. Vansell, all hearing actors fluent in ASL, pull triple duty and more as they jump effortlessly from specific roles to interpreting and back again. Bruce Katzman does a yeoman’s job both as Charlie’s long-lost father and as the head of the medical clinic who handily flips between encouragement and ruthless self-interest. Although spot-on in his direction of these moments, McCray veers toward the wildly melodramatic in those scenes featuring Sarah Lilly as Charlie’s psychotically knife wielding mother. It’s fair to assume that this aspect, like the show’s technical deficits, will fine-tune themselves as the run progresses.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
September 30, 2013

 
Henry VIII (Enrique VIII)
Broad Stage

It’s not the first play of Shakespeare’s canon to spring to mind, but Henry VIII was reportedly among the last he wrote (co-credited to John Fletcher). At least all of us know of this king, the one with the outsized appetites—including six wives. At the end of Shakespeare’s version, which concludes with his celebration of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the birth of baby Elizabeth, one might wonder where his first wife is. Indeed, Shakespeare’s Catherine of Aragon graciously disappears. Do any scholars know for certain how the original script ended? Did Shakespeare have the courage to depict her anger when her rival’s daughter was sitting in his audience? Did the play get largely rewritten—by a producer or two, by an actor or two, or by a scholar or two?
   Not to leave anything to hagiography, Spanish theater company Rakatá gives Catherine the upper hand, in its adaptation credited to Jose Padilla, Rafael Díez-Labin, and Ernesto Arias. At least it seems that way, judging by the activity onstage, elegantly helmed by Arias to polished swiftness. Rakatá performs its Enrique VIII in Spanish. For those who do not speak said language, however, there are a few joys in sitting in on this two-hour conversation and not understanding a word.

One can certainly “get” the story. The nuance of the characters, however, is lost without knowing their word choice. Without the palette of the writer, we miss the clues about their level of education, their precision and need for control, their deeper emotional states.   The non-Spanish-speaker here can watch behavior—of the characters and of the actors. And to that end, this production separates the hombres from the chicos. Its two leads transcend the spoken word—though each has excellent vocal technique—allowing suspension of disbelief. In Elena González’s performance, we are watching not an actor but Catherine: furious, crushed, sickened, demented. In Fernando Gil, we have Henry’s regality to the extreme: a man with absolute power, who can afford to laugh his enemies out of his sphere. Gil is, however, a handsome brunet rather than the homely redhead depicted in portraits.
   The other actors, surprisingly, have picked up the bad habits associated with bad American acting. In particular, fingers jabbingly point to the ground or offstage when anger is expressed but acting homework has not been done. And those distant, “concerned” gazes over the audience as the actor stands center stage seem laughable when the dialogue is not there to engage the viewer’s mind.
   As for the adaptation, the readily apparent changes include the prologue and “narration,” here divided between two congenial actors, and of course the ending. Catherine is allowed to explode, venting the rage of a longtime wife rejected in favor of a younger, prettier replacement. And to depict Catherine’s “otherness”—a foreigner in the English court—she seems to have been given the lisped “s,” though it occasionally shows up in the speech of the other actors. But hewing to Shakespeare’s version, Boleyn is mocked by the court—emphasizing the pronunciation as “Bullen”—and Catherine’s death swiftly morphs into a Shakespearean celebration of the “hey nonny nonny” kind.

Lessening the joys here, though, are supertitles that summarize scenes rather than translating dialogue. Of course the benefit is that the eye remains more on the stage and less desperate for the projected words. But the supertitles include many grammatical gaffes, which apparently no one, over the long run of this production in English-speaking countries, has bothered to edit.
   Further distractions are the fault of the Broad and not Rakatá: A restless audience member can shake the seats of adjacent row mates. And, at the performance reviewed, one toddler, inexplicably brought to the theater and even more inexplicably allowed in, quite audibly cooed and babbled incessantly throughout the first act.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 28, 2013

 
The Normal Heart
Fountain Theatre

Almost 30 years after its premiere, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart still packs a wallop, though it’s a different kind of wallop from that which first stunned audiences in the record-breaking long run at New York’s Public Theater. Back then, the fury over governmental, institutional, and (to a large extent) public indifference to the “gay plague,” as it was then known, was designed to give everyone a huge, urgent kick in the ass, from Ronald “I won’t mention AIDS” Reagan and Mayor Ed “Here’s $9K for your little organization but don’t say where it came from” Koch, on down. No one had any idea what the eventual scope or longevity of the crisis would end up being, so every performance was suffused with a palpable fear. Is Kramer right? Could millions be wiped out?
   Today the fear factor is diminished, as evidenced not by the disappearance of AIDS (where did that rumor start?) but by the hundreds of thousands now thankfully managing to live with their immunodeficiency, and by the (less thankfully) reported rise in unprotected sex. Today, as we watch Kramer’s characters gripped by a mysterious killer to which everyone else seems indifferent, a different kind of fury bubbles up: a retrospective fury. We know that science and government eventually acted; we know the virus was discovered; and we know that huge progress has been made. Anger remains, but it’s not quite as white hot.
   Much of the impact of The Normal Heart on a 2013 audience comes out of shared grief over the sheer numbers of bold, beautiful men and women cut down long before their prime in an inescapably sad, and ongoing, accounting. Yes, millions were wiped out, as we feared. In many ways, the play serves as a living AIDS quilt. At the same time, Kramer’s opus can also invigorate an audience as it attests to what mass action around a common cause can do—though there is also power in the enactment of how difficult it is to organize and sustain any such mass action.

Simon Levy’s revival at the Fountain Theatre taps into all of those strains. His crisp blocking and scene changes facilitate his vigorous depiction of the messy politics of AIDS activism, and a projected crawl, as the audience exits, singles out theater, film, and TV talents who succumbed to the disease. Actually, Adam Flemming’s video designs work superbly throughout, as they communicate contemporary headlines and body counts along with identifying each scene’s place and time. But it’s that final crawl that really hits home.
   The production’s main weakness, a lack of modulation in the acting, may fix itself or get attended to over time. Fine players—Verton R. Banks as the seeming mayfly who proves to be the GMHC’s rock; Lisa Pelikan, the wheelchair-bound doctor-slash-Cassandra; Fred Koehler as a bullied bureaucrat—throw all their punches in their first few scenes, boxing themselves in emotionally and histrionically as the years move along and the victims pile up. It’s small wonder that most of the show’s memorable moments are those played with restraint: Bill Brochtrup’s NY Times reporter, bearing up courageously until the very last moments. Matt Gottlieb, straight-arrow brother of activist Ned Weeks (Tim Cummings), standing tall against Ned’s accusations, founded or otherwise. And above all Stephen O’Mahoney as Bruce Niles, the Marlboro Man president of the organization, whose description of his dying lover’s horrific flight home to Phoenix is all the more chilling for how low-key it’s played.
   Cummings is a special case, thrilling yet problematic. He is clearly the engine powering this event, having fully internalized all of this character’s crotchets and passions. (Ned is the warts-and-all surrogate of Kramer himself.) Yet he too loses it too soon for comfort, indulging in the most blatant of hand gestures and vocal histrionics in his earliest scenes; by the end he is literally forced to bang his fists and head into the walls to react to events, and it’s all just too much. If Cummings could justify more restraint along the way—and he is surely enough of a pro to do so—he’d be infinitely more moving at the finale.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
September 24, 2013


Humor Abuse
Mark Taper Forum

Most kids dream about running away from home to join the circus. Lorenzo Pisoni’s early dream was to run away from the circus and the rampant “humor abuse” he grew up enduring. In his real-life variation on being born in a trunk, his earliest moments began with rigorous and demanding training at the hands of his clown of a father—no, his real clown of a father.
   You see, his parents, Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider, met in the San Francisco Mime Troupe and juggled together for whatever remuneration landed in their hats as street performers in Union Square. By the time Lorenzo was born, they had co-founded the Pickle Family Circus, and the die was cast. By age 2, Lorenzo was wandering onstage during the show’s intermissions to perform his own variation of what his parents did. Soon after, the training began—something accompanied by the nearly continuous mantra of, “No, do it again. No, do it again.” By age 6, Lorenzo was an integral contracted player in the Pickle Family Circus, where he matured into both a seasoned clown and a man with considerably life skills despite—or possibly because of—his bizarrely abnormal growing years.

Pisoni has taken the indelible memories of that upbringing to the stage in his one-man show Humor Abusewith the obviously invaluable aid of this show’s director and co-creator Erica Schmidt—chronicling a childhood almost no one else in his audience could possibly fathom. To him, this was just life, and what he was taught was not at all about being funny. “This is a comedy and I am a straight man,” he tells those gathered to hear his tale. “Eat any candy you want throughout the show,” he graciously suggests at the onset, “and sit in silent judgment.” It doesn’t take long, however, before any thoughts of negative judgment melt away into belly laughs, followed by collective amazement and the realization that Larry and Peggy’s kid learned his lessons well.
   For 95 nonstop, albeit sweaty, minutes, Pisoni performs the very same feats his dad passed on to him: from squeezing himself into a steamer trunk (the same one once hoisted into the ring on his father’s back) to juggling carrots to repeatedly falling down a flight of stairs in increasingly awkward positions to balancing on his nose the very hat his mother made for his father to wear.
   Pisoni performs in front of a canvas drop that was used in the Pickles’s shows and utilizes many of the props and trunks they carted around from city to city while on tour. Pisoni recounts what it was like to open his lunchbox at school, only to often find a plastic banana, and being sent off to the airport to go through the check-in process carrying an enormous set of moose antlers (when the TSA official asks if he realizes he has to check the rack, Larry’s straight-man son realizes what the joke was his father played on him this time).

Pisoni’s performance is a quietly brilliant, surely unique tribute to his father and the joys of growing up in an unconventional manner. The love and respect this man shows for his father is far more amazing than any of the jaw-dropping tricks and tumbles, and we, his grateful audience, come away with far more than an appreciation for clowning as a true art form. We come away appreciating the limitless bonds of familial love few of us have been fortunate enough to know in our short time here on this risky planet.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 23, 2013

 
R II
The Theatre @ Boston Court

For R II, Jessica Kubzansky’s adaptation currently being performed at the Theater @ Boston Court, Shakespeare’s Richard II has lost not just six letters from its title but also about 25 percent of its text and upwards of 90 percent of the ensemble usually assembled to perform it. In R II, John Sloan portrays the titular monarch, with Jim Ortlieb and Paige Lindsey White on call to stand in as everyone else.
   And as it happens, all of this reduction is to the good. Richard has always been the toughest history to stage. Almost nothing happens in it, and it’s almost completely concerned with the psychology of its central character, appropriately enough for Shakespeare’s one and only all-verse drama. (For Elizabethans, spoken verse was the highest form of expressed thought.) Kubzansky’s concept instantly focuses our attention on the play’s principal strength: its poetic, incisive musing on the nature of kingship.
   Richard is a terrible king: vain, wasteful of the public coin, a hapless politician, and the pawn of idle flatterers. Yet he is indeed the true king, anointed by God. If he is to be deposed—as he will be, by stalwart Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV—what legitimacy is any future monarch to possess? And more immediately, if Richard is no longer king, then what exactly is he? Richard II is Shakespeare’s most existential drama, more concerned with roleplaying than any other besides Hamlet; and R II puts all the speechifying about self and mirrors and identity into fascinating relief.
   The production is both beautiful—a Boston Court hallmark—and expressive. Kaitlyn Pietras sets a stark metallic throne upstage right and a sort of conference table center left as the two environments any ruler needs. There’s also a circular grid dead center, which lit from below evokes the prison environment in which the deposed Richard is confined. Key speeches are excerpted in projection (also credited to Pietras) as if to make manifest the play of thoughts in the ex-king’s mind, and Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting throughout is appropriately moody and portentous. And the action is always crystal clear: Kubzansky rearranges some text so that Richard can more or less narrate the action from confinement in flashback, and introduce each entering character by merely muttering his or her name. It’s all quite ingenious, and endlessly interesting.
   That’s not to say R II is fully realized in this first production. White’s demonstrates admirable versatility, but Ortieb’s vocal and physical repertoire aren’t varied enough to bring a full panoply of characters to life. Sloan is skilled enough to capture Richard’s petulant vanity as his principal characteristic, and smart enough to know he can never, ever be likable. (A likable Richard II sinks any production.) Yet there’s a level of anguish to the character that he seems to keep at arm’s length, not an unusual state of affairs given Boston Court’s often clinical acting style, but one that can damage a play so dependent on a character’s inner torment made three-dimensional.
   Reservations notwithstanding, R II is a Shakespearean evening that will amply reward anyone willing to give himself over to it. One suggestion, though: Cannot costume designer Jenny Foldenauer come up with a proper shirt for her star? Sloan has to constantly tug at his little black cotton singlet to keep it from riding up, an intolerable imposition on a king so careful of his public and private image. It’s singularly unbecoming.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
September 23, 2013

 
The Producers
Norris Center for the Performing Arts

The Norris Center for the Performing Arts wanted to be a producer of a great big Broadway smash. It found one: a splashy, slightly raunchy tuner. Yes, the ambitious folks at Norris got themselves The Producers. And because they got it, they thoroughly, totally, flaunt it.
   There’s no respite from the Mel Brooks–style humor. He wrote this musical’s book, with Thomas Meehan, plus the music and lyrics, based on Brooks’s 1968 satirical film of the same name. This musical is chockablock with nearly tasteless, nearly reprehensible humor. So, why is it so funny?
   The Norris production visually resembles the national tour. The program credits the direction and choreography to Matthew J. Vargo, “re-created from the direction and choreography of Susan Stroman.” So the several-stories-high sets, the multidoor office primed for farce-style entrances and exits, and even the pigeon coop make this version feel just like the great big touring show.

But Vargo and the Norris made one big improvement: They cast two actors who know how to earn laughs rather than force them, who can deliver musical theater songs, who care more about creating characters than being stars.
   The story is about two men who plot to profit from a Broadway show that flops. They bilk “little old ladies” for the seed money, ensure that the material is universally deplored so the show closes on opening night, and then pocket the remaining funds. How low can men go for money and power, and can these two ever find redemption?
   Max Bialystock is a veteran impresario par awfulness. Leo Bloom is an artistically unfulfilled accountant. These characters are ripe for overharvesting. But Nick Santa Maria modulates Max’s sleaziness and desperation, and Marc Ginsburg sweetly shows Leo’s insecurity and longing. And yet each is hilarious. Neither tries to mimic the show’s original actors, but each brings in a mix of freshness and old-school comedy. Santa Maria gets a laugh with a well-placed “oy,”and Ginsburg calibrates Leo’s manic panic yet croons like a romantic tenor.

Max and Leo head off to find a writer and director for their show. Along the way, Farley Cadena has a wicked sparkle as the leading “little old lady,” and Elaine Hayhurst sizzles as the no-talent Swedish bombshell Ulla, hired by Max and Leo to fill, er, a variety of positions. The producers find Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-raising, Fuehrer-worshipping hack who has penned Springtime for Hitler. James W. Gruessing Jr. isn’t over the top playing him; he’s at the top, in a grandly, joyously, comedic portrayal. To direct Springtime, Max and Leo tap Roger DeBris and his assistant Carmen Ghia. They’re richly enacted, from head to “Keep It Gay” wrists, by Ken Prescott as the über-confident director and Jon M. Wailin as the queen-of-the-slow-exit assistant.

Yes, this Producers looks like a Broadway smash. As the show’s numbers get bigger, the costumes get bigger, bolder, and more awe-inspiring, designed and built by The Theatre Company. The 15-piece band sounds like a broadcast orchestra, and the vocal work is beautifully clear, particularly in duets by Santa Maria and Ginsburg. However, as of opening night, the sound had not been adjusted for the performers. Good money says it will be before long.
   To the distress of Max and Leo, the critics loved Springtime. One critic wrote, “It was shocking, outrageous, insulting, and I loved every minute of it.” Regarding this Producers, that’s our sentiments exactly.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 23, 2013

 
St. Jude
DouglasPlus at Kirk Douglas Theatre

One would be hard-pressed to cast aspersions on playwright–solo performer Luis Alfaro’s devotion to his chosen subject matter. Titled after the Fullerton, Calif., hospital in which his father passed away, this 70-minute one-act is, if nothing else, heartfelt. As Alfaro traces his own life from birth to that fateful day when he lovingly ushered his father from this world, it seems his intention is to grant the viewers permission to reflect on similar life experiences.
   Alfaro’s emotional investment aside however, the production’s structure and theatrical conventions more than occasionally mar his desired result. With the aid of an onstage assistant, he begins the show by dressing designer Takeshi Kata’s roughly hewn, planked stage with a sparse array of minimalistic furniture. Located stage right is an overhead projector upon which the uncredited crewmember places a series of story-augmenting transparencies focused on an upstage screen. Down center is a lectern where Alfaro spends far too much time reading to the audience from a binder holding his script. The impression given is that of a work in progress. Is it a seminar, a piece of performance art, or something one might hear at a coffeehouse poetry slam?
   For example, displayed on the screen is a hand-drawn map of Highway 99 running through California’s central valley region. The audience waits while Alfaro manipulates his hands over the glass of the machine in what curiously looks like an attempt to create a shadow animal. After a rather uncomfortable length of time, it becomes apparent he has pricked his finger drawing a bead of blood, which he then uses to denote his birthplace, Fresno. Explained away as a connection to the habitual medical testing his father endured, it would be an interest-piquing choice were it not so terribly overused. Instead, it becomes a repetitively creepy distraction during a series of unmemorable taped voiceovers.
   To be fair, Alfaro’s background is one of a very successful playwright and university level instructor, rather than that of a seasoned actor. Still, there are times when director Robert Egan might have encouraged the author to pare some of his material, as well as coaxing a more nuanced performance from his charge.
   Only toward the end of the piece does Alfaro offer a glimpse of what might have been. As he recounts his father’s final days at St. Jude, all of the vocal overprojecting falls away. He steps out from behind the safety of the lectern and simply talks, trusting his own memories to provide the words that contain the power to move his audience. Given the bombastic nature of the first 60 minutes or so, it’s a refreshing albeit tardy respite.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
September 23, 2013

 
Rodney King
DouglasPlus at Kirk Douglas Theatre

Roger Guenveur Smith’s monodrama Rodney King is like a Wikipedia article performed to Tai Chi moves, absent a considered point of view that might turn soapbox ranting into art.
   Smith’s first words are “Fuck Rodney King,” a provocative enough way to stick it to the culturally blind among us until you start to wonder whether he actually means it. Every blow rained down on the hapless construction worker on that night in 1991 is captured as surely as it was on camcorder that night, almost to the point of exploitation.
   But thereafter Smith mocks King cruelly, for everything from his famous plea “Why can’t we all just get along?” to the acceptance of a $3.8 million settlement and a sad death in a backyard pool. “Glug, glugs” are acted out throughout, along with the repeatedly whined “Right, Rodney?” which may have been intended as fellow feeling but comes across as condescension. Any artist is perfectly free to criticize anyone or anything, of course, but the tactics herein are questionable at best and contemptible at worst, and their effect is muddled.
   A perfunctory ticking off of various heroes and villains of those steamy, violent LA days is punctuated by logy snippets of rap and poor jokes. Discussing King’s chief antagonist Sgt. Stacey Koon, Smith tosses in “Good name,” the height of the evening’s stinging wit. It’s all ground already magisterially covered by Anna Deavere Smith in her own monodrama Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, where she was able to bring empathy to each of her subjects instead of the preening self-congratulation to be found here.
   In life Rodney King deserved better at the hands of the L.A.P.D. In death, whether seen as hero or martyr, pawn or dupe, he deserves better than becoming the butt of this painful embarrassment.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
September 23, 2013

 
The Wizard of Oz
Pantages Theatre

Many of us out there fly away as swiftly as Elphaba’s monkeys from sugary family-oriented musical theater fare, but there’s something nearly critic-proof about this first North American tour of a new stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. The actors cast as the Munchkins aren’t that small, the set pieces don’t always perform as smoothly as one might wish, and the scrim that frequently descends to turn live action into filmic computer graphics are an annoyance, but still the piece has the potential to melt the hearts of even the crankiest of old critics almost as easily as Dorothy Gale dispatches the Wicked Witch of the West with a little well-placed H20. What a world, what a world.
   We’re not in Kansas anymore in 2013, so a plethora of impressive computerized tricks, designed by Jon Driscoll and Daniel Brodie, are utilized in this production to tell L. Frank Baum’s enduring little tale of Dorothy and her realization that there’s no place like home, something that ordinarily sets theater purists fretting. But somehow, since this is such a famous tale and the kids in the audience are suitably—too often untypically—enthralled, the elaborately programed visual effects are somehow forgivable, although perhaps that aforementioned descending scrim should be left down throughout the show so its arrival doesn’t immediately telegraph that the actors and sets will be disappearing into CGI.
   Still, there is a better reason to appreciate this journey to Oz. Under the guidance of director and co-adaptor Jeremy Sams, this cast is a major asset here, the performers pushing through the onus of roadshow-itis and giving every bit of it their all. Danielle Wade is a sufficiently feisty and wide-eyed Dorothy, rising above any dialogue inadequacies with a beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that pays homage to the legendary performance by Judy Garland without resorting to imitation. Jamie McKnight is a standout as the suitably rubbery Scarecrow, who may not have a brain but has definite flexibility and a comic timing that subtly delivers the punch with some of the new updated dialogue. The same is true of Lee MacDougall’s charming Cowardly Lion, contributing a performance even more foppish than Bert Lahr’s indelible original interpretation, able to knock off a few decidedly contemporary bon mots that, like those of Pee-Wee Herman a few decades ago, go directly over the kiddies’ heads (to the Wizard, he puffs up his newly coiffed chest and admits, “I’m proud to be a friend of Dorothy’s!”). Then there’s Nigel, the single-named little terrier who takes on the role of Toto with the same conviction and heart as any of his human counterparts.
   It’s nice to hear all those charming, evocative old tunes penned by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg that so many generations have grown up humming on their way through life (how often have you been off to see the Wizard when you’re sure no one’s listening?), but added here are several decent new songs by none other than Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber (who is also credited for this co-adaptation), including a vaudevillian-y number called “Wonders of the World,” written for Professor Marvel (sturdily assayed by Cedric Smith), and the spirited “Red Shoe Blues,” a worthy match for the talents of Wicked Witch Jacquelyn Piro Donovan. Choreographer Arlene Phillips keeps the Winkies and others on their toes, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting glorifies the classic Deco charm of the Pantages right to the balcony, and David Andrews Rogers contributes considerably as conductor and musical director.
   Nope, it may not be Garland and Bolger and Hamilton (oh, my!) in this lively adaptation of Oz, but, truly, what’s offered in their place is an entertaining, respectful substitute.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 19, 2013

 
The Burnt Part Boys
Third Street Theatre and West Coast Ensemble Theatre at Third Street Theatre

The Burnt Part Boys, now at the Third Street Theater in a co-production with West Coast Ensemble Theater, is an energetic hoot-’n’-hollerin’ musical play that would benefit from a little less hoot-’n’-hollerin’ and a little more straight talk.
   West Virginia, 1962. Things is fraught in the Twitchell homestead, still reeling since Paw and 11 other miners died 10 years ago in a cave-in on South Mountain, the affected portion of which has become known as “the burnt part.” The widow Twitchell is catatonic or drunk or something in a back room, leaving 18-year-old Jake (Aaron Scheff) as the man of the house. When we meet him and good ol’ boy buddy Chet (Joe Donohoe), yee-hawing and clinking beer bottles, work prospects are looking up, for the mining company intends immediately to reopen the burnt part to development for the first time in a decade.
   What no one has counted on is troubled, idealistic 14-year-old Pete Twitchell (Daniel David Stewart). The lad sees the burnt part as a sacred shrine that must remain untouched, and he’s gonna climb up there and set off some dynamite (by gum!) to accomplish just that. As it happens, Pete has seen John Wayne’s The Alamo seven times, and visitations by cocky Davy Crockett, noble Sam Houston, and boozy Jim Bowie show up to egg him on. (I suppose it could’ve been worse; he could’ve fixated on The Manchurian Candidate and had Laurence Harvey persuade him to go all Raymond Shaw on the company’s ass.)
   As acts of civil disobedience go, Pete’s doesn’t exactly rise to a sit-in at a Birmingham lunch counter; he is heedless of what an explosion might to do to his community’s economy, not to mention the potential additional loss of life. Still, we’re supposed to be wholly on his side as he picks up tomboyish woodsy hermit Frances (Lauren Patten) and best friend Dusty (a sprightly Adam Dingeman, who seems to have “comedy relief” tattooed on his forehead), for a trek clearly inspired by Stand By Me en route to a final reckoning with brother and dad.

The flavorful songs, by Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tysen (words), are mainly bluegrass-anthemic. Boy, are they anthemic. Main characters are supposed to kick off a musical with an “I want” song; Pete had three before I stopped counting. Songs are staged by Richard Israel with actors staring spellbound up to the sky as if posing for a coin, and the lyrics reflect the same common-man observations already amply represented in Mariana Elder’s dialogue. Didn’t people in 1962 Appalachia ever sit still for a single quiet, unaffected conversation? If Israel had found more moments for the characters to calm down and just talk to each other, The Burnt Part Boys might not seem quite as repetitious and wearying as it currently does.
   Within the heavy-handed framework, the cast acquits itself sincerely and honorably, though Patten seems to have been glued to Annie Get Your Gun while Pete was over at The Alamo. In her relish at waving her rifle around and singing about the joys of roasting squirrels and gophers, she can make one nostalgic for the greater restraint of Betty Hutton.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
September 17, 2013

 
Little Shop of Horrors
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

It’s fun being rich and famous, no matter how we get there. Just ask Miley. Or Lindsey. Or Seymour Krelborn. He’s the nerd at the heart of Little Shop of Horrors, on its surface about a man-eating plant but at its roots about the need for wealth and fame that eats away at so many people and makes them do such strange things.
   Kentwood Players provides rich soil for this musical, turning over the direction to Michael-Anthony Nozzi, who certainly shows a green thumb. With book and lyrics by Howard Ashman, music by Alan Menken (based on the original film written by Charles Griffith, directed by Roger Corman), the storytelling is lively, fun, and very metaphoric.
   The action takes place in Mr. Mushnik’s (Peter Miller) flower shop. No wonder everyone there is underworked and underpaid: The shop is on Skid Row. Mushnik’s assistants are Seymour (Brett Chapin), who tinkers with “strange and interesting plants,” and Audrey (Kristin Towers-Rowles), a ditzy salesgirl.
   Seymour and Audrey are sweet on each other, but Audrey prefers being abused by her boyfriend, a sadistic dentist (Randy Brown). So far, this is your average American love story.
   Now, it happens that Seymour gets hold of a wee little dionaea in its tiny pot, which he names Audrey II—affectionately called Twoey, because who doesn’t fall in love with his man-eating house plant? Like any evil, the plant grows, until its roots, leaves, and one giant blossom fill the back wall of the shop. What Seymour must do to feed it is the stuff of horror films—and modern celebrity.

Chapin and Towers-Rowles are captivating. They have gentle chemistry and make the roles their own while hewing to the iconic characterizations. While both adeptly play the comedy, Chapin reveals mankind’s battles with temptation, and Towers-Rowles shows the heartache of abused women.
   Nozzi built the Twoey puppets (spoiler, sorry) for this production. They’re charming, like plush toys, and they’re certainly more family-friendly than some. The large Audrey II is operated by and voiced by John Devereaux, fortunately with more humor than horror. He is joined by a large number of puppeteers, helping manipulate the plant and creating its eager root system.

In front of that tableau are the Skid Row denizens. So Nozzi moves a cast of about 25 performers around that stage. That’s impressive enough. But the costume and wig changes are so numerous, they’re a task merely to count. The choreography that must be going on backstage ought to be turned into a show of its own. With that kind of traffic control, however, scene changes can’t be much beyond rudimentary, though they are mercifully swift.
   Those costumes and wigs are a treat (Maria Cohen and Arlene Cohen). The lioness’s share of those goes to a doo-wopping Greek chorus of very wise gals. Playing them, Liz Adabale, Amanda Majkrzak, and Brittney S. Wheeler nail the three-part harmonies. Credit music director Joshua Eli Kranz, who ensures the entire cast sounds solid and blends well.
   So who or what ends happily ever after here? The plant and its progeny do. The lure of wealth and fame is destined to continue. Gulp.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 17, 2013


The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later
Davidson/Valentini Theatre

Time heals everything, so the song goes, and a quick overview of history reveals there’s no calamity so atrocious that the passage of time won’t soften its impact. Shed any tears over the massacre of the Huguenots lately? How about the victims of the Children’s Crusade? Fortunately, art often comes forward to try to ensure that an event’s power will not be blunted for future generations. Thanks in part to Shoah and Schindler’s List, the Holocaust will remain an immediate horror to millions yet unborn; and say what you will about James Cameron, those who died on the real Titanic are infinitely more likely to live on in memory because of him.
   All of which is to say that if the terrible fate that awaited young Matthew Shepard in 1998 is recalled in ensuing decades, the parties responsible will be Moisés Kaufman and the members of his Tectonic Theater Project, whose travels to Laramie, Wyo.—site of the infamous, torturous beating on a prairie fence that ended in Shepard’s death six days later—led to two unique and unforgettable artistic documents. The second of them, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, has finally landed in LA, in a quietly splendid production helmed by Ken Sawyer.

The format is much the same as the initial Project, when Kaufman and 11 colleagues swept into town, five weeks after Matthew was pronounced dead, to take Laramie’s temperature. Interviews with intimates of the victim and perpetrators, as well as University of Wyoming types and everyday citizens, were turned into a documentary play performed by the compilers, dropping in and out of their own personas to provide a living quilt of life in the immediate wake of a town tragedy.
   For the 2008 anniversary, a smaller cadre made the trip, and their mission was stranger and even more vital. They encountered pervasive evidence of a determination to sweep the Shepard incident, particularly its underlying bigotry, under the carpet. Beyond the demolition of that grimly iconic fence (too many gawking trespassers for the landowner’s comfort, apparently), the visitors found an institutional unwillingness to memorialize Matthew; coded sentiments everywhere that it was time to “move on”; and a pervasive rumor that homophobia had nothing to do with the murder, that it had all been “a drug deal” or “a robbery gone bad.” A 2004 episode of 20/20 did considerable damage in this regard, recounted here along with documentary evidence that the filmmakers were out to sabotage the hate-crime scenario sight unseen.
   Anyone familiar with the Shepard case—and the Tectonic actors had more than a decade invested in it—could find plenty of fuel for fury in these developments. Moreover, on this trip, company members were for the first time given access to the perps. As the transcripts of jaw-dropping interviews with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are faithfully recounted, you can practically feel the audience’s collective blood pressure rise.

Yet that’s why it’s so refreshing, even stunning, that project, play, and production never waver in allowing cool heads and reason to prevail. Indeed, a local folklorist is given considerable stage time to explain sympathetically the theory of how a community—any community—tries to control its own history by allowing the more salutary narrative to take hold. To be sure, for every step toward openness or progress around town or in Wyoming generally—and there was some—two or three instances of callous disregard are recounted. But the tone remains evenhanded.
   Sawyer respects the original Tectonic intent in evoking real but never overdone emotions. His ingenious production concept—placing the cast in the midst of the theater-in-the-round audience—wisely ensures that we cannot turn our eyes and hearts away from the multiple sorrows of Laramie circa October 1998 and beyond. We become heartbroken captives within them. (Certainly I don’t think I’d want to know someone whose heart wasn’t broken by the end of this play.) The actors don’t do much to characterize the Tectonic players—probably that’s inevitable—but they deftly assume Laramie characters with a snap of a John Deere cap or the donning or doffing of a cardigan. And on press night Michael Hanson and Dylan Seaton embodied principal actor McKinney and unwilling accomplice Henderson, respectively, with chilling aplomb. Evidently the thesps are alternating in those roles, though it’s hard to imagine either one better played.
   The playmakers came not to praise or bury Laramie, but to understand it. They trust that we spectators share that goal, and can decide how to think and feel for ourselves.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
September 16, 2013

 
In My Corner
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Joe Orrach has many talents, but they’re put on such obvious display in this solo show. He sings, he dances, he hits the speed bag—bare-handed. To what purpose? What’s his story?
   Written by Lizbeth Hasse and Orrach, directed by Jeremiah Chechik, this show follows Orrach from his youth in the Bronx, where he imagined himself as Mickey Mantle, to Orrach’s time as a welterweight boxer for the Air Force. His mother, of Italian heritage, seemed always to be cooking. His father, a Puerto Rican, seemed always to be looming—sometimes lovingly, sometimes violently—over the kids.
   Yes, Orrach has many talents. He shows us some, doing the Twist as he recounts winning a contest as a young boy; doing a little Latin dance to mimic his relative; offering a long number to honor his mother’s pasteles. Orrach sings. But why?
   He tells us he played three varsity sports. After he and his teammates engaged in a prank, his teammates didn’t have his back. He blames racism. He doesn’t explore the possibility that they just didn’t like him.
   By the time he puts on his tap shoes here, he’s just showboating. His tap-dance technique is of the heavy-footed school and not involving particularly interesting musicality. The tap works best when he portrays his father, building tension as Dad threatens to beat him.
   The explanation for this show might be that he is and always will be the youngest of four siblings, trying to get attention—and Daddy’s approval. Dad loves boxing? Orrach takes abuse in the ring—for four years. The staging comes to life for a segment in a boxing ring, when his father finally comes to his defense.
   Orrach moves out of his parents’ home and into Manhattan. He studies ballet—and presumably tap, too. And that’s it. End of story. What’s his point? What’s his purpose in asking for his audience’s time and money? One thing’s certain: He has put his one-man show on the boards.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 16, 2013

 
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change
Crown City Theatre

This charming examination of relationships couldn’t be in better hands. Director Gary Lee Reed, aided by musical director William A. Reilly, offers a heartwarming version of author-lyricist Joe DiPietro’s and composer Jimmy Robert’s small-venue mainstay—which boasts a 12-year Off-Broadway run, second only to The Fantasticks. And along the way, if one notices a few “updates” or local references, never fear. Included within the script/score and its accompanying materials is permission from the show’s original creators encouraging just that.
   Reed has cast a quartet of performers who amaze at every turn. Craig McEldowney and Chris Cooke hold up the testosterone side of the aisle, while Leigh Golden and Natalie Hope MacMillan balance the evening with graceful pizzazz. Tickling the ribs is the silly: McEldowney’s tough guy dissolving into mush while attending a chick flick in “Tear Jerk” or Cooke’s glib handling of infantile babble in “The Baby Song.” Tugging the heartstrings is the sublime: Golden’s ode to anticipation, “I Will Be Loved Tonight,” and “I Can Live With That”, an effectively simple duet between MacMillan and McEldowney playing single senior citizens who meet at a wake.
   Showcasing choreography by Rhonda Kohl, McEldowney and MacMillan provide a sexually charged romp as long-suffering parental units in “The Marriage Tango.” The full cast takes a rip-roaring road trip in “On the Highway of Love,” courtesy of four rolling office chairs that double as the family car. And in an inspired “update” by Reed, Cooke leads the company in the normally female-sung “He Called Me” in a tip of the hat to society’s changing mores.
   Adding to the fun are various musical genres featured throughout. There’s a ’50s feel to “Hey There, Single Gal/Guy,” in which disappointed parents (McEldowney and MacMillan) snidely jab their son and his girlfriend over their decision to break it off. Country-western aficionados will get a kick out of MacMillan’s homage to the ugliest of clothing collections in “Always a Bridesmaid.” And for those seeking a foray into the world of fantasy and alter egos, Cooke and Golden kick off the evening with “A Stud and a Babe,” in which two nerds let it all hang out.
   Reed mines additional gold with his crafting of the scenes that thread this revue from start to finish. McEldowney and MacMillan do a remarkable job as blind daters speeding their way through subsequent dates without stopping to smell the roses. Meanwhile, Golden and Cooke are deliciously annoying as first-time parents whose insipidness drives away an old friend. But for sheer showstopping power, nothing tops Golden’s turn as a divorcee creating an online dating video that disintegrates into a full-throated therapeutic breakdown. Her performance of this serio-comic monologue is a priceless capper to this topnotch production.

Reviewed by Dink ONeal
September 16, 2013

 
The Long Weekend
Torrance Theatre Company

Max and Wynn have bought a beautiful house in the country. They’ve invited Roger and Abby for a weekend visit. The two women are best friends. Their husbands, however, gloomily predict it’s going to be a long weekend. As it turns out, in this Norm Foster play, the consequences of that weekend eventually span two years—two long, soul-searching years.
   Neither of the two couples is particularly happily married. They pretend to be happy—to themselves and to each other. And so there’s laughs to be had: at the dialogue dripping with veiled disdain, at the subtle glances the spouses cast at each other, at the farcical situations.
   Director Perry Shields certainly accents the comedy. The evening is well-shaped, the laughs build, the actors’ timing is crisp, and Shields adds bits of stage business that work well with the script. Perhaps unintentionally adding to the humor are the dated references. Though the play was first produced in 1994, apparently theatergoing audiences can always be counted on to laugh at the mention of permanent press and capitalists.
   But Foster also includes tidily packaged messages about truth, including the truth of greener pastures. The characters haven’t told their basic truths to one another for years, and likely they haven’t been truthful to themselves. That, more than the long weekend, is the supreme waster of time. So the play is surprisingly deep, faithful to real life, and perhaps a little close to home for some in the audience.

Shields has found the balance between broad comedy and personal truths, and has cast four actors willing to stay there and not wander into the more-fun-to-play broadness. Tyler Penn plays Max, to whom Foster pointedly gives the last name Trueman. Max is a lawyer who hasn’t found the words, or courage, needed to reveal himself. Penn gives Max that ready-to-burst feel and does so in a way only the audience can sense.
   Oddly, Max’s wife seems not to notice. Yet she’s a psychiatrist, played with an almost haughty pristineness by Jennifer Faneuff.  Wynn has written five books because she just can’t bring herself to speak face-to-face with the people at whom her advice is directed. Wynn’s “best friend” Abby is a shopkeeper who can’t keep her home in order. Angie Light plays her with a touch of longing and heartbreak beneath the confidence. (Daina Baker-Bowler will assume the role Sept. 20–29.)

Gary Kresca, however, is given the gift of playing Roger. Kresca offers thanks by way of a hilarious portrayal, or in this case two. Roger is a math teacher but considers himself a writer because he’s working on a screenplay. It’s probably awful, as the Roger of the first act is rather doltish, deliciously played by Kresca with nerdy obliviousness. By the second act, Roger has moved to Hollywood and taken on that stereotypically cool vibe, so Kresca changes his physicality head to toe, as well as vocally, gifting us with some of the biggest laughs of the night.
   And so, the human foibles, the pointed messages about honesty, told with humor but not ignoring truthfulness, make this Long Weekend at the theater zip by.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 16, 2013

 
Ordinary Days
Not So Artful Productions & The Victory Theatre Center at the Big Victory Theatre

Adam Gwon’s 2009 Off-Broadway boutique tuner—which played at South Coast Rep in 2010—imaginatively underscores the socio-emotional fragility of four singles living among 8.245 million other souls in “the city that never sleeps.” Helmed by former Broadway actor–dance captain Angel Creeks, Ordinary Days follows the daily mundane struggles of aspiring artist Warren (Reggie de Leon), overachieving, angst-ridden grad student Deb (Katie Kitani), and the early-stage love affair between Jason (William Martinez) and Claire (Anne Schroeder), who are in the tentative process of living together.
   Accompanied by music director–keyboardist Alby Potts, Gwon’s recitative-like songs offer more character revelation than melodic enrichment, but his lyrics cleverly thrust the characters forward. Warren is the most optimistic of the four yet faces the most rejection, attempting to pass out fliers to the unseeing, unaccepting throng that thrusts by him on the street (“One By One By One”). One of the throng who absent-mindedly grabs at one of his fliers is Deb, who cannot express to herself a clear reason for what she is doing in this town (“Don’t Wanna Be here”).

De Leon simply inhabits the persona of unrepentantly vivacious and clueless Warren, who cannot inherently understand why people wouldn’t want to listen to him. When he returns Deb’s lost book and she then attempts to flee his presence, Warren simply overpowers her with his unabashed goodwill. And that is saying something because Kitani imbues Deb with an almost tangible social misanthropy constructed out of her own fear of failure. Before agreeing to have coffee with Warren, she assures herself, “You’re gay, right?” Also a plus, DeLeon and Kitani are superb vocalists, sailing through their combined, “Dear Professor Thompson/Life Story.”
   The Jason-Claire relationship is more troublesome to pull off. There is almost no backstory on their individual lives, and the romantic aspect of their relationship is not evident, leaving only the social adjustment period of two disparate individuals who probably should not be pushed together in a small living space at such an embryonic stage in their relationship (“I’m Trying”).

A sublime example of composer Gwon’s ability to reveal character motivation within a song (“Fine”) occurs when Jason and Claire disagree on what kind of wine to bring to a friend’s dinner party. When Jason suggests cabernet, Claire rejoinders, “They’re serving monkfish, so, darling, the wine can’t be red.” Jason surrenders, declaring, “Fine, I’ll bring the red. You bring the white. That way I’ll still get drunk. You’ll still be right.”
   Jason constantly appears to be trying to evaluate exactly where he stands in the relationship, and Martinez carries off discomfort quite well. He offers a tenderly expressed “Favorite Places,” yearning for a situation in life where his psyche can rest. Clair offers no help, because she is constantly fighting a haunting memory that won’t allow her to truly commit herself (“Gotta Get Out”). Schroeder offers a sympathetic portrayal of this troubled woman but does not express the same vocal fluidity as the rest of the ensemble, especially in her upper register.
   Creeks achieves an admirable pace to this one-act, 80-minute chamber musical, allowing the rhythm of the dramatic throughline to flow through to its prescribed conclusion for Claire and Jason (“I’ll Be Here”), as well as Warren and Deb (“Beautiful”).

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
September 16, 2013

 
Hamlet
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company at Odyssey Theatre

Here’s an aphorism that could have been included with Polonius’s fatherly advice to his children: Turnabout is fair play. Today we find it incomprehensible that women were not allowed to appear onstage when this play premiered. In this production, the cast is entirely female. And at many times throughout, you could prove it only by the program. From the spear-wielding Bernardo’s “Who’s there?” through to the Ghost’s gesture of triumph at the play’s close, the mind could easily believe it was watching a mixed-gender cast.
   It’s also a mixed-race cast. The mind soon settles into that subset of givens. So what if Polonius is Asian (Natsuko Ohama), his daughter Ophelia is African-American (Chastity Dotson), and his son Laertes is Caucasian (Cynthia Beckert)? The focus remains on the storytelling.
   Other than all that, this is a fairly straightforward rendition, directed by Lisa Wolpe and Ohama. Lavish costuming, by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, sets it in Shakespearean days. Don Llewellyn provides the sturdy stonework set, moodily lit by Jeremy Pivnick.
   The cast speaks the speech, giving meaning and life to the ultra-famous text. Offering a particularly interesting portrayal, Ann Colby Stocking plays a thoughtful Player King. She makes her character an observant, sensing actor rather than the pompous performer more commonly seen. Kimberleigh Aarn’s Horatio is a true friend to Hamlet, devoting his soul to the prince.
   But of course the play belongs to Hamlet, and, in that role, Wolpe doesn’t disappoint. It’s obvious she has spent years thinking about it. It’s even more obvious she has spent years observing men and male physicality. Her facial mannerisms, the energy in her hands, the distribution of her weight as she walks make her transformation astonishing.
   Her “To be” might not sound the way one wants, emphasize what one expects, but the rest of Wolpe’s text work is so clear, one must give credence to this interpretation of that most famous soliloquy.
   Though our senses quickly adapt to the gender here, it’s harder to believe Hamlet is a generation younger than Gertrude—perhaps more a problem in the casting of a young-looking Laura Wernette as his mother.
  Still, once Wolpe gets going, we wouldn’t trade her for anyone. Meantime Aarn and Beckert seem to be likely Hamlets for the next go-round.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 15, 2013

 
Funny Girl
3—D Theatricals

3–D Theatricals’s handsomely mounted but anemic Funny Girl has taken the title too literally. Nicole Parker’s Fanny Brice practically bounces off the walls to get laughs. The actor seems to have internalized much of the available video and audio of the legendary comedienne, and channels Brice’s oy-vey, Baby Snooks mannerisms rather well. Parker’s vocals are, to these ears anyway, harsh and unappealing in the upper register, but that’s a matter of taste. What is less arguable is that she and director Michael Matthews have tended to slight the essential psychological elements built into the role.
   Brice’s deep-seated insecurity about her looks, coupled with iron confidence in her own talent, are supposed to amount to a fatal combination that—according to Isobel Lennart’s libretto—lead her to both doubt the love of the first guy who gives her a tumble (Nick Arnstein, a charisma-light and musically shaky Josh Adamson) and smother him into irrelevancy as a husband. Yet Parker’s Brice is neither insecure nor confident: She’s merely a chirper, a charmer, a will-o’-the-wisp, a choice that works against the character in scene after scene. Her refusal to sing “I’m the Most Beautiful Bride” in the Ziegfeld Follies comes across as a cutesy whim rather than a fear of humiliation, so grabbing a pillow to turn into a bride en route to the maternity ward—supposedly a spontaneous comic coup that seals Fanny’s stardom—carries (no pun intended) no weight.
   At one point Nick accuses her of having been angry at him the moment he walked in the room. This comes as news to the spectator, who never sees Parker get riled up at any time. Her interpretation isn’t passive-aggressive, just passive, a quality that extends to the acting across the board. Venny Carranza’s Eddie Ryan never gets a moment to establish his crush on Fanny, so his sniping from the sidelines seems unmotivated and bizarre. Gregory North’s Flo Ziegfeld is just a large fellow lacking authority and panache.
   You sort of know you’re in trouble when the mature Fanny’s famous first line spoken into a mirror, “Hello gorgeous,” comes across so neutral, so colorless. Does she mean it? Is she kidding? No way to tell. At the same time, Nick’s “You Are Woman” seduction in a private restaurant salon is tarted up with all manner of slapstick. Fanny is alone with him here; she’s not performing for the public; yet both her eagerness and self-consciousness—not to mention the pratfalls—seem directed to a crowd. The private, offstage Fanny, the one who is supposedly hurting and raging and feeling, fails to make an appearance in the 3–D production, though she’s talked about often.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
September 13, 2013

 
Ah, Wilderness!
Actors Co-op

Primarily recognized and awarded—four Pulitzers and the Nobel Prize for literature—for his dramatic works, Eugene O’Neill penned this 1932 three-act comedy attempting to capture the perhaps imagined essence of a bygone era. In a small Connecticut town, the Miller family makes its way through the Fourth of July holiday. Family members cast aside their internal differences and struggles to support one another. Despite their progeny’s occasional forays into rebelliousness, parents are ultimately shown respect for their life experiences and wisdom. Given O’Neill’s upbringing in boarding schools and his lifelong struggles with depression, alcoholism, and numerous medical issues, it’s not so hard to imagine why this piece is billed as a “wistful re-imagining of his youth as he wished it had been.”
   The key to a successful production lies in the ability to bring to life the story’s inherent charm. Director Thom Babbes has done a masterful job of harmonizing that requisite appeal with those moments when O’Neill’s tale takes a few slightly harsher turns. Of course, it helps that Babbes has amassed a cast that so effectively embodies the Miller family’s dynamics. As patriarch Nat, Phil Crowley presents the very essence of fatherhood. Whether Nat is advising, disciplining, or offering the unwavering love upon which his family depends, Crowley’s performance is so inspiring and believable it makes one wish for a hug. Likewise, Jodi Carlisle’s engaging portrayal of mother Essie balances with Crowley’s to produce an affectionate pas de deux.
   Playing their respective unmarried siblings who make up this extended family, Townsend Coleman as Essie’s alcoholic brother, Sid, and Carrie Madsen as Nat’s sister, Lily, work through their own relational choreography. Coleman does a fine job of infusing his scenes of inebriation with the script’s clearly intentional serio-comic undertones. Meanwhile, Madsen offers a heartbreaking performance, as Lily struggles with the conflicted feelings that led her to break off her engagement with Sid some 16 years prior. Finely tuned supporting roles as various Miller family scions are provided by Patrick Lawrie, Chloe Babbes, and Tate Downing, in addition to Maurie Speed’s turn as the family’s dingy Irish maid.
   Ultimately, however, this is a story of love found, nearly lost, and finally reclaimed—a journey that squarely rests on the shoulders of Nicholas Podany, whose performance as Richard, the second-eldest of the Miller children, is the arc of O’Neill’s script. He successfully traverses this coming-of-age pathway, transforming from a sometimes tantrum-throwing juvenile to a young man one feels will confidently handle adulthood. Podany’s work is never better than in a pair of singular scenes opposite Catherine Urbanek’s delicious depiction of a barhopping woman of ill repute and Melody Hollis whose rendition of Muriel McComber, Richard’s intended fiancée, is truly entrancing.
   Scenic designers Mark Henderson and Tim Farmer have gifted Babbes’s production with a lusciously trimmed, turntable-based set that provides for easy transitions among the production’s various locales. Shon LeBlanc’s costuming and Krys Fehervari’s hair/wig design capture the period’s feel for high collars and coiffed stylings. Minor quibbles in this otherwise first rate production would be a few outer edge dark spots in Bill E. Kickbush’s lighting and the occasionally over amplified volume of sound designer Cameron Combe’s collection of turn-of-the-century musical scene segues.


Reviewed by Dink O'Neal
September 9, 2013

 
Twilight Zone Unscripted
Impro Theatre at Falcon Theatre

Submitted for your approval: Four random audience suggestions serve as the impetuses for four completely self-contained plotlines. Lights fade to black. Cue the iconic theme song. Sit back as this company’s remarkably adroit wizards of improvisation take you on a sidesplitting ride through The Twilight Zone.
   Through what must have been a very curious rehearsal process for just such a theatrical genre as this, co-directors Jo McGinley and Stephen Kearin have clearly insisted their troupe do its homework. Those involved seem to have spent countless hours delving into the biographical background of TZ’s famed creator-narrator, Rod Serling. Heavily influenced by his service in World War II, Serling’s vision and messages elevated the original series beyond mere sci-fi pablum. And Impro Theatre’s excellent grasp of this style of long-form improvisation is a credit to its own collective talent and to that of the source material. Furthermore, each of the four nearly half-hour-long “episodes” is based on a single audience suggestion. This, along with the company’s rotating lineup of performers, guarantees that no two evenings could possibly be the same.
   On opening night, Dan O’Connor and Lauren Rose Lewis created a newly wedded couple whose debate over the historical significance of a family heirloom—a pocket watch—gave an often emotion-packed glimpse into the struggles of a young marriage. The moments of silence they embraced, aided by sound designer Allen Simpson’s array of musical underscoring and Leigh Allen’s lighting design improvised from the booth by Michael Becker and Jo McGinley, were priceless. It was a testament to the importance of story over punch lines and over the tendency to view improvisation as merely topping the previous line.
   Completing Act I was a spy story set in Cold War Berlin. Edi Patterson and Brian Lohmann had a secret so critical, they had to convince the others in this West German coffee shop to never divulge its contents. Capitalizing on extremely silly accents, this had all the earmarks of a goofy sitcom—until, that is, the story took a dark turn with the arrival of Mike McShane’s former Nazi laboratory guard. What gave this storyline an effective midway twist was Patterson’s unforeseeable decision to “off” McShane, leaving the rest of the cast to suddenly adjust the storyline accordingly. It served as a great intermission conversation starter.
   Act II featured Brian Michael Jones as a wimpy gas-station attendant suddenly gifted with Herculean strength by a pair of alien beings. Diehard fans of Serling’s series will no doubt see the similarity between this and a 1961 broadcast episode titled “Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” which starred Burgess Meredith. Still, this “borrowing” of plotline came off as a delightful reminiscence, and Jones’s portrayal of the flustered everyman gifted this section of the show with a tankful of humorous charm.
   Wrapping things up was perhaps the evening’s most bizarre offering. A group of participants gathered in a church social hall for a regularly scheduled night of bingo. Lohmann and Michele Spears were the newcomers, while Paul Rogan and the ever wacky Patterson inhabited the veteran players. Foreboding darkness took precedence almost immediately, as it became apparent that McShane’s minister, aided by O’Connor and Lewis, wasn’t necessarily a disciple of the Lord. Although the ending lacked the traditional TZ punch, this particular long-form sketch utilized the entire cast’s talents and sent the audience home wondering what might be on the docket for subsequent performances.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
September 9, 2013

 
bare: A Rock Musical
glory|struck Productions at Hayworth Theatre

When bare: a pop opera premiered at the Hudson Theatre in October 2000, it wasn’t the show’s lame plot that made it such a critical sensation. Privileged young people being angst-ridden about peer acceptance and sexual identity while being confined within the walls of an upscale coed Catholic boarding school is not exactly revelatory. The show’s success was driven by the pulsating vitality and veracity of the ingenious score, wrought by Damon Intrabartolo (music) and Jon Hartmere (lyrics), performed by a well-balanced cast and backup band. The show’s current incarnation, bare: a rock musical, has the potential to achieve the same success, but not until the supposed backup band stops obliterating the onstage efforts of a hardworking ensemble that can barely be heard and is rarely understood.
   The exposition of the evolving relationship between love-anguished Peter (Payson Lewis) and the school’s carefree big-man-on-campus Jason (Jonah Platt) is laid out in the opening two ensemble numbers (“Epiphany,” “You & I”). Despite director Calvin Remsberg’s efforts to create an atmosphere of zesty school-days interplay among the cast, the onstage activity is reduced to the level of hurried, inaudible pantomime. When finally given his solitary moment, Lewis admirably transcends his accompaniment to project Peter’s abject misery (“Role of a Lifetime”) at not being able to freely reveal his feelings for Jason.

At the opening night performance, Platt appeared to be searching for Jason rather than inhabiting him. There is very little display of emotional acknowledgment of Peter’s relentless desire for a committed relationship (“Best Kept Secret”) or the increasing ardor being projected Jason’s way by the popular and beauteous Ivy (Lindsay Pearce), whom he treats like an annoyance even while bedding her (“One”).  Pearce, on the other hand, displays every transition in the maturing life of a casually promiscuous “golden girl” who wants more for herself (“Portrait of a Girl”) and is devastated by the ultimate reality of her situation (“All Grown Up”).
   In this ensemble of never-ending personal agendas, the essence of teenage self-loathing is personified by Jason’s supposedly overweight, unattractive, and bitterly sardonic sister, Nadia, sympathetically portrayed by attractive, not at all overweight Shelley Regner (standing in for Katie Stevens), who impressively underscores the deep resentment felt by a talented, sensitive soul who is not chosen to play Juliet (“Plain Jane Fat Ass”) or asked out on a date (“A Quiet Night at Home”).
   When her playfully sarcastic asides can be heard, Stephanie Anderson’s Sister Chantelle (a role she created in the 2000 original production) offers much-needed comedic relief, attempting to mold an undisciplined herd of teens into a stage-worthy production of Romeo and Juliet. Anderson has no problem being heard over the band when she blasts through gospel-tinged “911! Emergency” and “God Don’t Make No Trash.”
   Another holdover from the original production is John Griffin, who created the role of Jason in 2000. Now ensconced in the robes of the Priest, the not always helpful student advisor, Griffin exudes the ambivalence of a man of the cloth who understands the emotional dilemma Jason is facing yet cannot transcend the church’s doctrine to truly help him (“Cross”).

Given the 35-song score, director Remsberg and choreographer Jen Oundjian keep the pace of this near operatic work moving spritely toward its conclusion; but there are specific plot points that need to be highlighted in order to properly appreciate the dramatic throughline. Of course, that is difficult to achieve if you can’t understand what the characters are saying. Hopefully the sound balance will be corrected in subsequent performances.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
September 9, 2013

 
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
Sacred Fools

Edward Einhorn has done a capable job in reducing Philip K. Dick’s classic, dystopic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to stageworthy dimensions. A brave job, too, considering that Ridley Scott’s cult hit Blade Runner has already mined the source material to such epic effect.
    Einhorn seems most interested in the film noir roots of Dick’s narrative, in which bounty hunter Rick Decker operates like a private eye in the Robert Mitchum vein, investigating whether any number of suspicious characters are illegal androids who have escaped back to Earth from their enforced servitude on Mars. The play moves deliciously down shady back alleys into tense, flavorful mano-a-mano conversations, while allotting generous stage time and weight to Dick’s musings on what it truly means to be human.
    At Sacred Fools, helmer Jaime Robledo creates some arresting visuals, and engages Anthony Backman and Ben Rock to pull off jazzy projection wizardry. Unfortunately, either Robledo didn’t instruct his actors to absorb enough film noir technique or they weren’t up to the task. Most of his thesps are stuck in either drippily naturalistic or campily satirical modes, neither mode especially deft or interesting. Only Rafael Goldstein, as an android rebel leader, manages to imply twisted psychology under a casual affect to hit all the right chiaroscuro notes.
   Speaking of hitting notes, did warbler Luna Luft (Emily Kosloski) have to be given so damn many of them? A sort of android Celine Dion but even more annoying, Luna is the mainstay of one of earth’s two remaining TV channels in a caterwauling performance of the “Mercer Arias,” an atonal series of quasi-religious tone poems that are bafflingly allowed to intrude whenever Dick, Einhorn, and Robledo manage to get a little excitement going. A little Luna goes a long way, especially since every Aria is orchestrated and sung identically, courtesy—if that’s the word I’m looking for—composer Henry Akona. I don’t know about androids, but I began to dream of electric headphones that might mercifully drown her out.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
October 8, 2013
 
The Dream of the Burning Boy
Malibu Playhouse

David West Read’s The Dream of the Burning Boy, now in its West Coast premiere, might be an intriguing new play. It might be. As it is in this languid, over-directed, and overly sentimentalized production, it’s hard to tell.
   The burning boy is high school student Dane (Matthias Chrans), who at the very beginning of the play exits from a brief conference with his English teacher, Larry (Jeff Hayenga), over his mediocre grade—he had supposedly turned in an essay on the leading character in Dante’s Inferno titled “How I Lost My Virgility”—only to drop dead of a brain aneurism in the hallway outside his demanding teacher’s classroom. As Jeff deals with a disturbing recurring dream about his final encounter with his prize student, and the rest of the people directly touched by Dane’s sudden demise are drawn into what could be an Equus-sized mystery, the school’s new overachieving greenhorn guidance counselor, Steve (Tyler Ritter), continues to lurk around offering sunshine and annoying textbook analyses to the rest in a clumsy effort to help them, scratching at wounds everyone else is trying to let heal.

There is a lot of smart dialogue in Read’s play, and the characters could be interesting enough if they were not guided by director Edward Edwards to emote at full emotional tilt from the beginning of each scene to the end, leaving the sense that all these possibly gifted actors are auditioning for roles on Days of Our Lives rather than trying simply to tell an interesting story. The best performances come from supporting actors Chrans, who does a remarkable job of re-creating the same dialogue twice, and Zach Palmer as a dimwitted friend who has shamefully bedded Dane’s girlfriend (Joslyn Kramer) and lusts for the dead boy’s troubled sister (Jayne McLendon). Hayenga and Ritter also do their best to keep from dipping headlong into melodrama, but the ladies of the cast—the two mentioned above and Melissa Kite as Dane’s grieving mother—could all be fugitives from a telenovela.
   Edwards never lets his actors just stand and speak, adding continuous hand-wringing and continuous business such as emptying books from backpacks onto desks, playing with a mechanical stuffed toy in Steve’s motto-covered office (he is happiest with his posters to hang around the school that read, “Everything Will Be All Right”), and moving aimlessly and without convincing motivation around the playing space. Using activities to keep the actors on track is a fine idea, but only if the activities have some remote relationship to what’s unfolding in the storyline.
   Some of the fault might be inherent in Read’s script, which features short filmic blackouts that distract rather than enhance and includes conversations that veer away from telling the story. In one encounter in the school library, Rachel disrobes for Kyle, something that seems to have absolutely no relationship to the rest of the play. Perhaps the director missed a plot point while focusing on leading his actors to cry and shake and sputter when just saying the words would have been be more effective. Erin Walley’s impressively prop-strewn and highly decorated set, featuring three distinct settings that eliminate what could be frequent set changes, is hampered by Mike Reilly’s muddy lighting effects, which do not successfully isolate the three areas where the action takes place.

There’s a lot of promise in the script. Someday, hopefully, it will be realized without overly fussy theatrical histrionics overpowering the journey. If this fault is not in the writing and did come directly from this mounting’s omnipresent direction and hectic staging, it could one day prove to be a more satisfying experience for some future audience.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
September 8, 2013

  
Rebecca’s Gamble
Theatrecraft Playhouse

Robert Begam and Art Shulman wrote this play as a courtroom drama. Their story could also pass for a gothic tale. Unfortunately, it totters between styles, and director Rick Walters makes a simultaneous case for both. And so this production sits precariously, leaving its audience wondering how to react.
   Though, five audience members per show are asked to reach a verdict on what Dr. Rebecca Adler has done. She worked at a cryonics lab, which freezes newly dead bodies in the expectation that technology of the future will revive them. She is being prosecuted for freezing her good friend, a man who had been ill with AIDS. The state of Arizona claims she murdered him. She claims otherwise.
   The science is modern, the idea of resurrection is not. The writing here is old-fashioned—in good ways and not. The structure is simple: a criminal trial, some of which is ludicrous, some of which is accurate. With staging in the round, the audience must be on its best behavior at all times. The same can’t be said for the characters, some of whom flaunt courtroom etiquette.

What’s realistic here, rooting the play in 21st-century America? Nearly every witness starts on an annoyed note. Apparently no one, even in a play, wants to be subpoenaed to testify. The prosecutor is pure snark, though he’s played with craft by Jerry Weil, and the defense attorney is pure unctuousness, though that’s well done by Randy Vasquez.
   On the gothic side of the balance, the intriguingly elegant Diane Linder stars as Rebecca. The character is mysterious and otherworldly, a 19th-century figure forced into a 21st-century forum. Unfortunately, Linder is given several ungainly chunks of dialogue and directed to hugely overact them. Much of the dialogue is sappily underscored. The lighting design flashes up and down, presumably to show whispered conversations when whispering would keep the conversation from the audience.
   The production double casts several of the witness roles, giving the actors wigs and differing accents. Obviously, such casting works when the actors are capable. Just about everyone will love Dominick Morra as the doddering rabbi, who pulls the ace from his sleeve in the form of New Testament scripture. An interesting characterization comes from Duane Taniguchi as an insecure technician. Henry Holden is firmly in command of his craft and the courtroom as the judge.
   The production certainly presents balanced arguments for and against Rebecca’s guilt, keeping the audience listening and thinking. But because of the nature of a trial, the audience is never privy to the more-interesting moments of the conversations between Rebecca and her patient. Nor, again because of the nature of the justice system, do we discover the “truth.”

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 7, 2013

 
Prometheus Bound
California Institute of the Arts Center for New Performance (CNP) in association with Trans Arts and the Getty Museum at Getty Villa

As Greek tragedies go, Prometheus Bound poses something of a staging nightmare. There’s no betrayed wife out to murder her own children and her rival, no king brought to understand the truth about the older woman he married. Instead, it’s a solemn religioso pageant in which the god who created mortal man, and went on to endow us with intelligence, hope, skills, and fire, is sentenced to be chained to a rock face and tormented for eternity, in perhaps the world’s first example of no good deed going unpunished. Our protagonist—he’s too static and distraught to qualify as “our hero”—hangs there while people come by, deliberately or accidentally, to harangue him or sympathize with him. He rails at the universe until the entire environment catastrophically crumbles. The end—at least for the first of three plays in a trilogy ascribed to Aeschylus, though the latter two works have been lost to history.
   Still, it was inevitable that Getty Villa, annual producer of intriguing classical texts before uncomfortably backless stone benches, would get around to producing this seminal document of man’s fate and his relationship to divinity. Luckily, CalArts theater dean Travis Preston was tapped to helm it. He does pretty much everything possible to activate the material to no sacrifice to the central argument. He’s aided there by the remarkably clear and vigorous rendering of the original text by poet Joel Agee. Interested parties will be able to decide for themselves, when the translation is published in the New York Review of Books.

The production’s showpiece is the much-publicized 5-ton, 23-feet-tall wheel, ominously occupying the amphitheater floor in the role of Prometheus’s rocky-promontory prison (design by Preston and Efren Delgadillo Jr.). The contraption decidedly resembles the clock face in the movie Hugo, or one of those circular floor fans college students use to cool down their dorm rooms; within the larger sphere sits a smaller one on which Prometheus (Ron Cephas Jones) is hoist, and which can ride up or down to bring the god to ground level or back up to the mezzanine. At first you may irreverently muse that they might’ve set up a dunking pool beneath and handed out baseballs as a sure-fire Getty fundraising activity. But the setpiece actually works quite well: It’s iron, so it seems elemental enough, and over the course of the production it takes on a significant measure of metaphorical and emotional power.
   Celebrated New York actor Jones possesses plenty of power as well. Splayed Christ-like on the little platform while assuming various postures of torment, he effortlessly embodies the man of action laid low by petty vindictiveness. Prometheus is a prophet—his name means “foresight,” it says here—but Jones and Preston never let him fall into the know-it-all smugness that characterizes many a dramatic seer. When it’s time to treat his visitors to a foretaste of their future, he lashes out at them as if to say, “You think I’m suffering? Wait’ll you see what’s in store for you, bee-yotch.”  The attitude may play havoc with his likability, but it strengthens his interest as a character throughout.
   Particularly notable is the cool jazz musical accompaniment from Vinny Golia and Ellen Reid, helping to bridge the gap between Hellas and Hollywood with confident Miles Davis–like strains.

The acting is always serviceable, and in the case of Mirjana Jokovic’s Io it’s considerably more than that. Io was the hottie whom Zeus seduced, for which pains Mrs. Zeus, Hera, turned her into a heifer pestered by a gadfly. Her misery finds no easement in Prometheus’s visions, and Jokovic seems to internalize a lifetime’s worth of pain in her body and voice. The perennial trap in poetic drama is sonorous verse speaking unencumbered by emotionality, but Jokovic believes in, and cares about, every syllable she utters.
   Choral work is a mixed bag, Preston’s dozen belles sometimes engaging in activities more appropriate to a yoga class or martial arts dojo  (choreography Mira Kingsley). But there’s unforgettable tension when they start to climb that clock face, the click-clicks of their protective hooks contributing to the sense of ascending a precipice. For once, a chorus can literally be said to hang on the main character’s every word.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
September 7, 2013

  
Coyote on a Fence
Theatre of Arts at Arena Stage

Coyotes don’t play fetch and greet us at the door and guard us in our homes. Coyotes are the predator version of our snuggly pups. They are the canines with the need to kill, excused—but not usually forgiven—because they’re programmed that way. Do we know of people like that?
   Two inmates on Death Row, each a predator in his own way, are the fascinating main characters in this Bruce Graham play. John Brennan is an educated, intelligent, well-spoken man, convicted of kicking to death a drug dealer. Bobby Reyburn is an ill-tended young man, convicted of setting fire to a church of African-American congregants, burning 37 people to death, including 14 children in Sunday school. Do we like one of these two inmates more than the other at this point?
   The men meet when Bobby moves in to the cell adjacent to John’s. Bobby is damaged from his upbringing—underprivileged and abused, perhaps a little bit confused. Less is spoken of John’s background. Yet John is the force driving the play. Perhaps that’s why there’s shock to be had at the play’s end.

Director James Warwick cast well, and character work has laid a solid foundation for the unlikely friendship between John and Bobby. The scenes between these two men are absorbing, a credit to the writing, direction, and acting. Cody Kearsley is stellar as white supremacist Bobby. This murderer’s vile commentary on African-Americans and Jews ought to disgust the audience. As Kearsley plays him, however, Bobby remains vaguely appealing, disturbingly worthy of empathy—perhaps more like a coyote pup.
   Rob Nagle plays John as highly intelligent but not annoyingly so, deeply pained but not weepily so. This character has secrets; and, though Nagle seems to know all of them, he’s not sharing.

Less successful are scenes with the play’s two other characters, apparently because Graham felt he needed them to shoehorn in additional information. That’s no fault of very competent actors Benjamin Cooper Mathes, playing the New York Times reporter, and Lisa Valenzuela, playing the prison guard. And Warwick’s staging ensures that scenes flow one into the next—though at one point a conversation between the reporter and John seems to morph into a conversation between John and Bobby, turning the action dreamlike.
   Also creating a probably unintended but definitely protracted distraction, Kearsley gives Bobby one blue eye, à la Marilyn Manson. Sound design includes a somewhat menacing but also distracting metallic whirring. These are cosmetic annoyances that could be pruned from the production. The good character work far outweighs them.
   The coyote of the title was shot by Bobby’s idolized uncle and stuck on a fence to show mastery of and hatred for a predator. Has our criminal justice system treated the inmates similarly? Is execution merely public humiliation and an ostentatious display of death? Or will the act serve as an example and a warning to the remaining pack? This and other questions may long haunt this Coyote’s audience.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 7, 2013

 
Captain Dan Dixon vs. the Moth Sluts From the Fifth Dimension
Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre

Considering its smile-evoking title, it’s not hard to imagine why the audience at this sci-fi spoof was all atwitter even before the house lights dimmed. Playwright Matt Sklar, who handles double duty in the title role of Captain Dan Dixon, pulls out all the stops both on paper and onstage. His script, detailing a Star Trek–esque crew’s struggles to survive an encounter with a group of scantily clad intergalactic sirens, is a sharply tuned 1950s homage to multiple genres. If one knows their stuff, one can catch references ranging from western serials to film noir in this fast-paced one-act, smartly helmed by Sebastian Muñoz.
   Opening with a scene on the bridge of the spaceship Magellan that sped by almost a little too fast to be discernible at times, Sklar introduces us to his crew of angst-ridden misfits. David Wyn Harris as Chow, the ladle-wielding chuckwagon-style “cookie” from the ship’s galley, is a hoot. His death scene is a hilarious anachronistic allusion to Hollywood’s love affair with the open range. As the Magellan’s science officer, Dr. Canigulus, Jonica Patella provides the perfect foil to Sklar’s commanding officer. Sporting a headpiece exposing her brain, Patella handles the lion’s share of technical verbiage with ease and excellent comic timing. Meanwhile, Tyler Koster’s embodiment of the vessel’s youngest crewmember, Virgil, is full of charming innocence. His budding romance with Heldine Aguiluz who plays Vickibelle, daughter of the invading force’s queen, is button cute, not to mention providing the show with it’s “question mark” conclusion.
   In the title role, Sklar does a yeoman’s job. One moment he’s concretely serious in his endeavors to save the ship and potentially all of mankind, and the next he is handling the goofier aspects of the story’s ludicrous nature with abandon. His scenes with Katherine Canipe—who appears as Empress Syphla, the leader of this insectile band of marauders known as the Vulvulans—are some of the production’s finest offerings. Spouting staccato style dialogue, the two parry and thrust and at one point even engage in sultry choreography that brings to mind the Travolta-Thurman dance from Pulp Fiction.
   As the minions of this cold-hearted species of winged invaders, Corey Zicari, Caroline Montes, Courtney Bandeko, and Vivi Varon deserve mention if for no other reason than their onstage hubris. They’re clad in nothing more than shimmery spandex hot pants, white go-go boots, and the skimpiest of pasties. And to top things off, these four, along with Canipe and Aguiluz, are covered in more green body paint than is used in a national tour of Wicked as they prance about this venue’s microscopically small stage, cooing and beguiling the Magellan’s crew. To be sure, it places this show in the “adult” category, but, thanks to Muñoz’s direction, it never crosses the line from comic to crass.
   Production values are at best minimal. The uncredited set—consisting of panels of wall-mounted dials, gauge, and gizmos—provides just the right ambiance for this gritty silliness. It’s a laugh-packed hour of fun, of which Roger Corman would be proud.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
September 2, 2013

 
Rapture, Blister, Burn
Playwrights Horizons Production at Geffen Playhouse

Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn is a report from the feminist front. Folded within a thin narrative is a lot of intriguing conversation, which in the course of two acts brings out numerous perspectives on what women do (and should) need and what they do (and should) want. The talk is often witty and almost as often wise, and to the extent to which you enjoy being pummeled by ideas, while having enough leisure to relate them to your own life, you will likely have a great time at the Geffen’s latest attraction (direct from New York with the original cast). But it’s all more white paper than play, and, if your priority is story, you may get antsy long before the final curtain falls.
   Like Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, which Gionfriddo has conceded was something of a precursor, Rapture focuses on a brilliant, accomplished, but restless academic who has succeeded in pretty much everything she set her mind to except settling down with a husband and family. Catherine Croll (brittle, thoughtful Amy Brenneman) came close, back when she was in grad school and enamored of prodigy Don Harper (Lee Tergesen, boasting the right mixture of sexual attractiveness and dissipation); but Ph.D. study in London left the field free for roommate Gwen (a chirpy Kellie Overbey) to snap Don up. Now that Catherine has forsaken a New York lush life for her old New England college town, in order to care for mom Alice (Beth Dixon) following a summer heart attack, there Don and Gwen are with two kids and an obviously shaky union threatened by Don’s weed and Internet porn habits. Old sparks are present. But does Catherine, in her early 40s with the clock ticking, want them rekindled? And would it be right or smart to fuel that fire?
   With typical hesitation, Catherine doesn’t attack these questions head on but decides to occupy her summer by teaching a seminar in pop culture and feminism with Don as her college dean (she can stay close to him, she reasons). As it happens, the only students who sign up are Gwen and her former babysitter Avery (Virginia Kull), a bubbly co-ed with a possibly abusive undergrad boyfriend and a series of surprising opinions about how the sensuous or ambitious woman ought to live her life.

Holes are present in the storytelling and acting that ensue. For one thing, Dixon is spry as a cricket and never directed to convey infirmity, so we are never sure whether Catherine is overstating the risks to mom that deter her from what she might call “self-activating behaviors.” (And I hasten to add that this is not the kind of ambiguity that seems thematically intended from helmer and playwright, rather a matter of indifference to them.) Alice’s salty views and reminiscences keep taking Catherine aback. But has she never noticed in 40 years that her mother is a card, or is this a recent phenomenon? Either way, the relationship doesn’t convince.
   Speaking of unconvincing relationships, Gwen and Catherine are written and played with little sense of a shared past as roommates or fellow scholars, so the entire set of given circumstances feels bogus. Catherine is explicitly portrayed as a celebrity author of fame and means; would a visiting scholar who’d been a guest on Bill Maher’s HBO show be able to persuade no more than two acquaintances to sign up for a seminar that promised to consider porn and slasher movies? Come on, students would be queuing up down the block. (But then the producers would have to pony up for a bigger cast, no doubt.)
   The more you think about the plot mechanics, the more you start to think Gionfriddo has saved up a lot of personal ruminations and cocktail-party insights, and just jury-rigged a story to contain them. (That’s an accusation that could not be fairly leveled, by the way, at either The Heidi Chronicles or Gionfriddo’s own trenchant and brilliant Becky Shaw, as yet seen no closer to LA than South Coast Rep.)
   Still, Rapture’s ruminations and insights are so amusing, and so much richer than we are used to hearing on any stage, that they will satisfy many, many audience members. As Gionfriddo chronicles the different stages of post–World War II horror movies, for instance—atomic mutations after Hiroshima; groups-bonding-to-avoid-peril disaster epics after Vietnam; slashers targeting co-eds in the wake of Women’s Lib—one can see Geffen spectators smile and nod, as if reflecting on the films they’ve witnessed and deciding whether the conclusions apply. None of it has very much to do with the Catherine-Don-Gwen triangle, of course, but who cares when the talk is this interesting? To some, the defense of the oft-reviled Phyllis Schlafly alone—whose ’80s perspective on wives’ taking the subordinate role finds considerable support in surprising places among the characters—will be fresh enough to keep one engaged for long stretches.
   The most satisfying aspect of Peter DuBois’s production—the most distinctive melding of a unique and persuasive character and the attitudes she espouses—is Kull’s Avery, a priceless amalgam of tics, physical expansiveness, performer intelligence, and intense concentration. Does the performance skew the play’s thematic balance? Sure it does; Avery has no business being so much more interesting and complex than the trio at the story’s heart. But she is captivating as hell. Who wants to quibble?

Reviewed by Bob Verini
August 28, 2013

 
A Short Stay at Carranor
Theatre West

At last, a play with two lead roles for actors able to pass for 70-year-olds. More particularly, those actors here look romantically attractive enough to sweep the audience into the love story of Irene and Chet, whose relationship has been thwarted since Irene was 16.
   William Blinn’s script brings Irene and Chet together at Irene’s lakeside cottage. She’s widowed, he’s still married to the supposedly understanding Diane, but he has congestive heart failure and insists on spending his last months with Irene. “The entire family is in a tizzy,” says one if its members. And this is the play’s central conflict. Give Blinn this: At least his romantic couple isn’t constantly bickering.
   They are played by the perpetually luminous Lee Meriwether, as Irene, and Don Moss, as Chet. Unfortunately, Moss’s Chet seems hollow—not enough to make his character completely selfish, just that there’s no full character yet. So Meriwether is tilting at windmills up there, improvising reactions her character should be having but doing so at no apparent prompting by her scene partner.

Blinn’s script is a comedy—in the Aristotelian sense, not in the “this is funny” sense. It’s possible, but not likely, a different director could have perked up the work. John Gallogly’s pacing is at a tragedian’s gait, the evening taking two and a half hours to unfold on the night reviewed. At a crisper tempo are Corinne Shor as Irene’s daughter, Shelby, and George Tovar as Shelby’s husband. Both actors create realistic, dimensional people. Unfortunately, near the play’s end, Blinn saddles them with a spat that comes out of nowhere and ends facilely.
   And speaking of the play’s end, Chet’s wife, Diane, shows up but gets little chance to say anything. It seems Blinn uses her as a way to get Chet out the door and out of Irene’s life. Mary Burkin daringly plays Diane as dowdy. Is Diane dowdy to be a contrast with Irene? Or is she dowdy because she’s tired of battling Chet, or because she was called last-moment to immediately fetch him?
   Gallogly seems to have boxed himself into befuddling staging. The set (Jeff G. Rack) is handsome. However, the layout of the house suits moving the actors around but seems unrealistic—at least to a city-dweller. Why must the bathroom in this spacious home be with the kitchen, stage left, and not upstairs adjoining the bedrooms, stage right? And why does the lake, which appears as a backdrop behind the actors, wrap around to the other side of the house, so the audience seems seated in it?
   Apparently to make completely certain we know whether the characters are indoors or out, or in various rooms, the lighting is switched on and off and we are given sound effects. Lots of sound effects. Whether doors are visible in the set or imaginary, open ones get their own noises—perhaps cicadas, or wind, or traffic. And, just when we’re thinking there’s something very much like On Golden Pond going on here, we get a sound suspiciously like the call of a loon.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 26, 2013

 
Sherlock Through the Looking-Glass
Porters of Hellsgate at Whitmore-Lindley Theatre

Playwright-director Gus Krieger has imaginatively entwined the transcendent observational and deductive skills of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional yet legendary crime snooper Sherlock Holmes with British author Lewis Carroll’s conundrum-strewn literary machinations, as manifested by the denizens of his nonsensical Wonderland. Sherlock Through the Looking Glass displays an abundance of the playwright’s impressive research into the output of these two 19th-century literary giants; but Krieger the director should have judiciously edited his text to enhance the flow of the complicated dramatic throughline, especially in Act Two.
    The thrust of the action pits Holmes (Kevin Stidham) and his sturdy sidekick Dr. Watson (Timothy Portnoy) against a ruthless criminal known as Jabberwock, who has infected much of London’s population with a hallucinogenic drug that reduces people to psychotic babblers of disjointed Carroll-speak. The production design gives new meaning to the term sparse. Often utilizing little more than a table and two chairs, Krieger literally choreographs a disciplined 14-member ensemble as it inhabits many locales within and around late-19th-century London, as well as the surrealistic environs of Wonderland.

To the credit of director and ensemble, the plot flows coherently and seamlessly forward. There is just too much of it. This is ponderously evident in drug-addled Holmes’s second-act descent through the many testing levels of purgatorial Wonderland as Jabberwock strives to destroy the detective’s ever-more tentative grasp of reality. Because each of these levels is specifically and memorably realized—highlighted by the minimal but imaginatively wrought costumes and masks of Jessica Pasternak—it becomes an exercise in tedium for the audience to sit through Holmes’s eventual mastery of the situation by working his way up the same painstakingly realized testing levels.
     Of course, much is thrust onto the mantle of the title character. Stidham wades effortlessly through reams of Holmes’s deductive jargon while exuding a buoyant sense of humor. Given the ever-recurring presence of the mercurial Holmes, Portnoy’s emotionally more grounded Watson is underutilized. It would have been interesting to witness Holmes and Watson solving the puzzles of Wonderland in tandem. It certainly would have provided more variation on the theme.
   Among an adroit supporting cast, Andrew Graves stands out as a kind of grownup edition of Artful Dodger, exhibiting a zesty streetwise humor while committing all deeds nefarious. The distaff ensemble members—Jennifer Bronston, Dana DeRuyck, Ulka Mohanty, Amelia Gotham, and Louise Gassman—wend effectively through myriad portrayals, whether playing villainesses, Wonderland-ites, or heroines.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
August 26, 2013

 
Red
International City Theatre

It might be deduced, knowing painter Mark Rothko’s iconoclastic nature, that he might not applaud the news that a recent Christie’s auction of paintings included one by him that sold for $86.9 million. Considered one of the great postwar modern artists, in the latter years of his life he grew increasingly disturbed by the collector who wanted his work as a conquest, acquiring it as a trophy rather than for what meaning might be gleaned from it.
   When he was commissioned to do a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building in New York in 1958, he struggled with the excitement of creating work on such a grand scale versus being aware that it would be in a space frequented by diners who might not pay attention to, understand, or appreciate its worth.
   John Logan’s play explores this dichotomous problem by setting the stage in Rothko’s (Tony Abatemarco) workshop with a fictitious young assistant, Ken (Patrick Stafford), who proves to be the audience for Rothko’s theories about art and other artists’ work. Rothko begins by telling Ken that he is not “your father, your rabbi, your shrink, your teacher, but your employer,” and then sets about ranting and pontificating while Ken tries to anticipate his needs and escape his wrath.

From the first moments of the play, Abatemarco’s stage presence is riveting. Aside from looking a bit like Rothko, Abatemarco leaves no doubt that he is fully invested in the work, which is highly intellectual, passionate, and, at times, spellbinding. Ken appears at first to be merely a contrivance designed to be the sounding board for Rothko. As time passes, though, Ken releases pent-up anger and challenges the master in a frustrated tirade that shows Stafford’s strong acting mettle. Direction by caryn desai is precise and allows latitude for the actors to maintain a high level of tension and brio.
   Besides substantially fleshing out much of Rothko’s biographical detail, Logan creates theatrical high points in the production. Rothko and Ken engage in a verbal duel, naming things that are red. Then, in a visceral explosion, they prepare a huge canvas by painting it a vibrant red at lightning speed.
   As a backdrop, JR Bruce’s studied scenic design includes large canvases in Rothko’s style that can be moved about to set a new mood and are illuminated by Donna Ruzika’s fine lighting design. Adding to the artistic mood (credit Dave Mickey’s sound design), classical music accompanies many of the scenes, often escalating the action and giving it weight.

Rothko was contemptuous of the younger generation of artists coming to prominence, including Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, calling their work vapid. Rothko’s ego seems monumental, but there is always the undercurrent of pain and loneliness in Abatemarco’s portrayal.
   This is a play about relationships. It considers the relationship of artist to art and master to novice. It is erudite, invigorating, and thoroughly engrossing.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
August 26, 2013

 
Merlin: The Untold Adventures
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

Merlin’s adventures, “untold?” Gosh, hasn’t the saga of the windbag wizard been told a bazillion times, in books (picture and grownup), films, TV movies, and even a couple of Broadway musicals? And the thing is, he’s really such a lousy character when you come right down to it. All-knowing, all-powerful figures are almost by definition the antithesis of dramatic; a true protagonist has got to possess some central vulnerability. Kept on the periphery, an omniscient Merlin (like a Yoda) can serve as a fascinating tutor/ally of your main warrior. But placing him center stage is a recipe for nothing much going on, and so it is at Theatricum Botanicum.
   Writer-director Ellen Geer’s sprawling, earnest epic is a mulligatawny of pre-Christian myths, post-Christian symbology, and Arthurian iconography, performed in a style that’s one part T.S. Eliot verse drama (atonal droning to music by Marshall and Kellan McDaniel) to two parts Game of Thrones. You know the sort of thing, beefy ejaculations sparked by odd pauses: “We will not!...Have a beardless boy!...As our king!”
   The huge, game cast is in constant motion, forming and reforming its ritual dances, switching costumes and characters from druids to barbarians to chivalric knights. Yet the action is well-nigh impossible to follow given the text’s carelessness in sorting out who’s who, where we are, or when, or how much time has elapsed between scenes.
   Over the first half hour, at least a dozen characters are presented, but the only two identified by name are Merlin and Jesus—neither of whom, needless to say, requires any introduction. Characters are actually asked, “What is your name?” and refuse to answer. In Act One, Michael McFall roars on as a terrifying, brutalizing tyrant who’s king of the Britons, I think. Or maybe just the Saxons? Anyway, McFall is terrific in the part, but it wasn’t until Act Two that someone clearly referred to him as Vortigan. He plays a different barbarian later in Act Two, Amilcar, but I haven’t a clue as to who this one was king of or kin to, though, again, McFall etches him beautifully.
   A bigger problem emerges with our lead: Melora Marshall plays Merlin. Now, cross-gender casting can be amusing (Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical); winsome (traditional interpretations of Peter Pan); or provocative and even political (Lisa Wolpe had an incisive take on Iago a few years ago at the Theatre @ Boston Court). But the more sexuality is involved, the more such casting makes for a rum go.
   Merlin’s central personal issue—if one can keep track of it between all the grunting and swordplay and ballets acting out the building of Stonehenge—is the wizard’s passion for his doomed Princess Asis (Samara Frume). With a female playing the man’s part, the courtship and impregnation genuinely strain credulity, and a later reunion with daughter Nimue (weirdly mispronounced with two syllables) lacks any trace of paternal feeling. Merlin is effectively neutered as a character anyhow, given his constant 20/20 foresight of what is about to occur. But the casting makes it doubly tough to respond to Merlin as much of anything.

As the play droned along, my mind kept lurching back to Vortigan. What an interesting character as limned by McFall: drunk with power and wine, alternately mauling and humiliating his wife—this guy out-Herods Herod, one might say, yet he always remained real. I started to wonder what the roots of this monster were. Was he born evil? Surely not; no artist worth his or her salt believes that. What combination of nature and nurture, then, could’ve turned out such a feral, ruthless, murderous creature? Not to mention the murderous creatures we’ve read about in our latter days. Well, Vortigan is just a generic brute in the current game plan. But he could’ve been so much more.
   In the program, Geer talks about finding contemporary relevance in old legends, and she includes a lot of vague, predictable ranting about war and peace and whatnot. But if one is going to go mucking about with mythology, why not try for something fresh? Couldn’t an epic play cast some light on the roots of a Stalin, a Hitler, a Ceausescu—hell, throw in Bush or Blair if you want, I don’t care; but why not take your one vivid, original creation and put him at the forefront? The corruption of Vortigan: Now there’s an untold adventure worth the two-and-a-half-hours’ telling.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
August 20, 2013

 
Tanglin’ Hearts
Theatre 40

The plot of Shakespeare’s As You Like It—a convoluted entanglement of political intrigue, familial imperatives, and complicated youthful romance in 16th-century France—is given a much simpler treatment when updated to service the contemporary country ’n’ western tuner Tanglin’ Hearts, wrought by Zora Margolis (book, lyrics, and story), Peter Spelman (music), and Charlotte Houghton (story). Two decades after its debut at Theatre 40, this 20-tune songfest, set in Arden County, Texas, has been updated to incorporate the realities of today’s social media and computer technology, helmed with an understated hand by Allison Bibicoff.
   The production impressively does away with burdensome exposition by having exiled landowner Duke Fredericks (Sean Smith) wander through the proceedings, summarizing plot machinations and scenic segues, even facilitating the disbursement of props. This allows the audience to more easily digest the evil doings of Duke’s brother Ben Fredericks (Kevin Michael Moran)—the shady real estate manipulator who is gleefully anticipating selling everybody out for fun and profit—and the socio-romantic frustrations endured by Ben’s niece Rosalind (Heather Barr), his daughter Celia (Cailan Rose), starry-eyed local girl Phebe (Sarah Schulte), and Duke’s own lost love of his youth, bar-owner Jackie (Susan Brindley).
   The romantic pairings offer opportunities for appealing musical interludes, including those for Barr’s Rosalind (“My Jigsaw Heart”), confused by her infatuation for returning local boy recording-star wannabe Jesse Wells (“Sing a Country Song”), portrayed with a proper balance of country bumpkin charm and vocal acuity by Madison Cassaday. Comedically adept Rose as Celia (“Baby Straighten Up”) musically beats her woebegone beau Webb Wells (Nick Denning) into submission—imaginatively choreographed by Bibicoff. Possessing the most velvety-rich voice in the show, Smith’s Duke gives lessons in wooing with his second act-opening, “My Heart Says Yes,” although Brindley’s Jackie has already expressed her opinion of him in the first act (“Don’t Fall in Love With a Loser”). Moran’s Ben Fredericks offers a first-act highlight with his vulgarly sexist and self-serving “Benworld Rap,” featuring the comical, forced-into-it backup dancing of Celia and Rosalind.
   The modular sets of Jeff G. Rack, complemented by the mood-enhancing lights of Ric Zimmerman, amply service the bare-bones mandate of Bibicoff’s staging; and Michele Young’s costumes impressively validate the country setting. What does not work is the anemic sound design of Bill Froggatt, which sabotages the adroit efforts of the three-piece back up band: Gonzolo Palacios (music director–guitarist), Sandy Chao Wang (keyboards), and Josh Browne (bass).
   The sound, which should spread completely across the stage, is concentrated limply to the rear of stage right—leaving the onstage performers to sound vocally naked as they traverse the stage area, inadequately buoying the dance numbers, and failing to supply the punch needed to elevate such full-cast production numbers as the show-opening “Texas” and closing number “Country’s Where You’re Coming From.” Tanglin’ Hearts is a stage-worthy work, and Theatre 40 has the talent to pull it off. One would welcome it back with decidedly more sound reinforcement—not to make the band sound louder but to make it sound deeper. A percussionist would also be useful.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
August 20, 2013



Undateable
Second City

Sometimes theater is about humankind’s greatest achievers. Sometimes it’s about supremely tragic figures. And sometimes, as with this show, it’s about the rest of us.
   A group of Second City’s fine performers went off piste and conducted a social experiment. After Robyn’s (Robyn Norris) friend posted a profile on a dating site and asked Robyn to check it over, Robyn set up an account to access the site. Robyn created the outlandish profile of an admittedly “crazy-insane person” she named TracyLovesCats. A shockingly large number of men—and women—responded, begging for various forms of contact with “Tracy.”
   Norris’s fellow troupe members Chris Alvarado, Rob Belushi, Amanda Blake Davis, Kate Duffy, and Bob Ladewig joined in, posting outrageous profiles no one could possibly think were anything other than a joke. These performers’ “sketch” show, Undateable, re-enacts verbatim the heartfelt responses by real, everyday people to these perverse personals.
   So, even though Rob (Belushi) pushed the intimacy-phobic envelope with DoorSlamEric, women think Eric is dateable. And although PioneerInABox (Kate Duffy) gets busted (she claims to function as if in the 1860s, yet she’s online), she manages to lure interest. Even Amanda’s (Blake Davis) age-questionable Old4U75 appeals to a prospective beau.
   The show, a fascinating concept, is well-structured and is imaginatively directed by Frank Caeti. It is also, of course, hilarious, though a strong strain of sympathy runs through it. And even though the show has been running for months, the performers have fresh energy. These performers are more interested in telling their story than in “being funny,” so the laughs come from the audience’s self-recognition and not from any obnoxious stage-hogging shenanigans.
   The troupe sings and dances—and not badly—to enhance several of their “scientific” points about romantic behavior. A few minutes of improv at the end of the show reflect the performers’ well-honed chops.
   Locational cautions: The venue is in Hollywood where street parking has a two-hour limit, metered until midnight on Fridays. The show is a mere one hour, but it undoubtedly will start a few minutes late. In addition, the theater is upstairs, and the site has no elevator. But if you’re swift and spry, head on up there for a dose of reality. It will probably provide you with more than several hearty belly laughs. It might also make you weep for mankind.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 19, 2013

 
I Am Not Mark Twain
Rogue Machine

No, he’s not. Steven Cragg dresses up as Mark Twain, he puts on a “Southern” accent, and he tells an oddly tall, oddly metaphoric tale—though, who knows, this one may be true—in this solo show. It seems Cragg would like to be adored, admired, even merely remembered, the way Twain is, when he has shuffled off this mortal coil. But, as Cragg admits, he is not Mark Twain.
   This did not prevent Cragg from believing he was losing his mind, thus stopping by a costume shop—conveniently on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles—and picking up a ratty wig of grey curls, false eyebrows, and mismatched cream-colored linen clothes. The theatrical accoutrements assist him, he says, in recounting the strange tale of this show.
   In it, he looks back on a journey of self-discovery, which commenced when he unexpectedly heard from an ex-girlfriend. Neither his wife nor his young son, who survived a near-deadly fever, could compete with the sexual promises issued by the ex, so Cragg departed home on a cross-country excursion to, ahem, hook up with the delectable damsel.
   While recounting his tale, he does his damnedest to keep the audience involved. He calls his audience “my babies.” To be precise, he says “mah babies,” in keeping with the Southern accent. Among his babies will be more critics. And he does his damnedest to keep the critics on his side. From the start, he deprecates himself. He admits to looking less like Twain than like Rip Taylor. Cragg admits his accent will falter throughout the monologue. He admits the idea to do this one-man show came from his psychotherapist. Has Cragg been reading local reviews of solo shows? Will all this disarming self-evaluation make him critic-proof?
   Cragg tells his story in graphically sexual terms. He is not a heroic figure. He is a humorist, and his narrative includes humor of all colors, though much of it is particularly blue. When, however, he switches off his jokiness and claws open his raw shame over his behavior, he can shake the souls of his audiences more than all the shock-value humor could ever do.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 15, 2013

 
Just Imagine
Hayworth Theatre

Tribute band concerts have become more and more common, particularly when the band in question has aged or broken up. The performers generally have an ear for the melodies and mannerisms of their idols, but you are, by and large, aware that they are not the originals. In the case of Tim Piper playing John Lennon, that doubt vanishes immediately, as he projects the look, the mannerisms, the accent, and the talent.
   Brother Greg Piper greets the audience with news that the show is not a play but more like a concert, and it will be loud. He offers earplugs at $1 each and then traverses the audience selling quite a number. He also cautions that the musicians are old guys but among the best in the business. Then it’s time for “Revolution,” played by Tim Piper and his band, Working Class Hero.
   Piper’s musicianship is uncannily familiar for die-hard Beatle fans. It appears that the composition of the audience falls into that category, because in nearly every sing-a-long, the audience knows the words, rhythms, and pauses. It is truly a love-fest.

If it were just about the music, it would be worth the ticket price, but Piper channels Lennon as he relates his life story. From the earliest days in school when Lennon formed a band with Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Stu Sutcliffe, he recalls that he was pretty much on his own. With a completely absent father and a mother who turned him over to her elder sister to raise, he remembers it as a rather loveless and painful time. Even though he regained a relationship with his mother, she was killed when he was 17, which appears to have made an indelible impact on him. He recalls that his relationship with most of the women in his life was violent and abusive. He describes himself as a bad husband and a worse father to Julian, born to him and Cynthia Powell, his first wife.
   As the music progresses, much of it a result of his partnership with McCartney, he alludes to his early performing, their time in Hamburg, drug use, and Brian Epstein’s leadership that put them on the map.
   Providing an ever-changing backdrop to the reminiscences are Piper’s video projections of photos and psychedelic images, enhancing the experience. From Ed Sullivan’s 1964 television broadcast, on which the boys gained world fame, through the stages of their evolution as a band, Piper is witty and acerbic, as well as thoughtful in his evaluations of how Lennon handled his life. Paired with Yoko Ono, whom most people disliked, he reveals that she was Lennon’s muse, the person with whom he finally found love.

Piper plays to the audience intimately, at one point coming out into the audience for a sing-along, greeting some people he obviously knows. He ties his songs to personal experiences, to Powell, to drugs, to friction with his bandmates. For those who know Lennon only through his songs, it is an expanded glimpse of a man who was a rebel, a counter-culture figure, and a person whose demons obviously drove him to acts recounted here with remorse.
   The accompanying band—brother Greg on bass, Don Butler on guitar, Morley Bartnoff on keyboards, and Don Poncher on drums--contributes mightily to the enjoyment of the performance. They are top-notch in every way. Greg Piper is superb as musical director.
   Written and directed by Steve Altman, with writing credit also granted to Tim Piper, the show is a notch above most tribute concerts in its narrative and lyric delivery. Straddling the line between play and musical, it provides context for the familiar hits, as well as Lennon’s less widely known works. Where most tribute shows play the standards, this show also includes his latter works created when he was on his own away from the Beatles.
   Lennon is an icon, arguably one of the greatest musical talents of our time. Piper’s homage to his work and life paints a vivid portrait of the man and re-creates some of his best songs with intensity and seeming spontaneity. The energy of the band and Piper’s superb delivery make for a totally enjoyable experience.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
August 14, 2013


Smoke and Mirrors
Disappearing Inc. and Road Theatre Company at Historic Lankershim Arts Center

“When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?” asks Albie at the top of this show. “And what were you afraid of?” These questions cleverly plunge the audience into a childlike mindset, priming each viewer to enjoy the wonders of magic—prestidigitational and theatrical—that will follow.
   After young Albie’s father died, Albie was afraid of everything, his older self tells us, but mostly of being a nobody. And so Albie immersed himself in honing the skills of a magician. We meet him as a lisping lad in mismatched pajamas during the LBJ presidency; we titter with him as he wore an afro in the 1970s; we gag with him as he squeezed into spandex in the 1980s. And we watch the magic “tricks” grow in sophistication.

This production deserves its wide-ranging praise. Its writer-star, Albie Selznick, is an engaging and talented magician who has more than paid dues in acting roles across Southland stages. Here he apparently plays himself as a young magician whose father died when Albie was a lad and who subsequently has been trying to find his place and his stride, doing so through prowess in sleight-of-hand and, it turns out, sleight of his entire body.
   This long-running show obviously has found its stride, directed by Paul Millet. That’s not to say Selznick coasts at this point. He’s very present, apparently eager for each audience member to have a good time, but never pandering or patronizing. His vast series of illusions begins with Ping-Pong balls that appear and disappear with seeming ease from between his fingers. He juggles, he stilt-walks, he amazes, and after 90 minutes he closes with an illusion that surprised even the careful watchers in the audience. Selznick might have overdone all the mentions of his father, but if that’s what it takes to get him through his routines, so be it.

At the performance reviewed, the warm-up act starred three young talents: Kyle Bryan Hall, Angie Hobin, and David Valdes—the latter quite young, at 14. They banter ably and amiably with the audience, host a trivia contest, and collect a short “survey” filled out by audience members that later figures in one of the illusions. They also play various characters throughout the show, and half the fun is trying to guess which ones and how they did it.
   They are joined by Brandy LaPlante as Bessie Houdini, who returns from history to play magician’s assistant to young Albie. Selznick aimed high, and fearlessly, in selecting the famous wife and partner to appear with him.
   Note to parents/guardians: This review does not intend to recommend the production for all young audiences, but the show is certainly appropriate for young magicians, with the proviso for hypersensitive parents that one F-bomb is dropped. If that’s the worst your child ever hears or says, you’re quite the magician.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 12, 2013

 
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Actors’ Gang at Ivy Substation

Why is this Night different from all other Nights? To start with, it’s smart, it’s imaginative, it’s beautiful, it makes sense of the peculiar world Shakespeare created. It takes the titular dream to heart, as characters shape-shift and locales subtly morph. Still, the text is clear. Under the direction of Tim Robbins and starring a mere 12 actors, it’s one of the best versions to have graced LA stages in recent decades.
   Instantly obvious to the audience, actors play more than one role. As the play unfolds, it is soon obvious that skilled, committed actors fill those roles. Each speaker has delved into the text, finding what’s humorous, tender, lewd, universal in each line. The actors speak with careful enunciation, so the language is heightened but not overblown. The cast mostly does not emphasize the rhythm of the verse but instead brings out its meaning.
   Take for example Will Thomas McFadden. As Lysander, he’s a devoted beau in a performance that’s modern but not of our period. Then, offstage while Hannah E. Chodos delivers Helena’s “How happy some o’er other some can be” soliloquy, he returns, transformed into the “slow of study” Snug, creating him with sweetly goofy physical comedy. To launch the very next scene, McFadden becomes a prancing First Fairy, delivering delicate evocative banter opposite Puck. Then, performing the role of the lion, McFadden’s Snug turns into a RADA graduate.
   Puck comprises three performances, by actors of differing nationalities, races, and genders. And yet, Alejandro Ruiz, Cihan Sahin, and Sabra Williams make Puck clearly recognizable while tossing the role to one another.
   The fairies run and leap and—because of the way Robbins and the troupe created the movement, so the bodies express purpose and move without hesitation—they seem to hang in the night sky. The action onstage is so mesmerizing that the costume changes and prop swaps taking place off to the sides go unnoticed—helped by the focus of Bosco Flanagan’s sylvan lighting. Thus no scene breaks occur; a gust of theatrical wind clears out one subplot and whisks in another. Indeed, as befits the play, the entirety feels exactly like a night of unbroken dreaming.

Botanical beauty fills the stage. Actors not playing a particular role in the scene set the scene with drooping boughs of flowers or tall stalks of grasses. Instead of the characters traveling through the woods, the woods spin and shift around them. During scenes, breezes blow through blossoms, keeping visual interest alive. When the drugged Lysander discards Hermia into the shrubbery, there she appears to lie fallen, in reality held up by actors draped in ivy.
   But not all is ethereal. The deep bench of skilled actors who play the inept mechanicals toy with commedia, led by the very “ept” Mary Eileen O’Donnell as Peter Quince. The mechanicals swat at bothersome insects, they get anxious as the curtain time approaches for Pyramus and Thisbe, and then, in stagecraft’s good old-fashioned lazzi, they can be seen “backstage” as they ready for their entrances.
   Adding emphasis, mood, and energy, original music is played live by composer David Robbins on percussion in this dream of a production, as wise as it is beautiful.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 12, 2013

 
Open House
Skylight Theatre

Playwright Shem Bitterman and director Steve Zuckerman certainly know how to facilitate frustration within a character. During the opening 15 minutes of Bitterman’s 90-minute world premiere two-hander, Open House, LA-based real estate salesman Chuck (Robert Cicchini) sits in solitary vigil within the empty craftsman house he so desperately needs to sell. Set designer and lighting designer Jeff McLaughlin’s accurately detailed setting, time-shift lighting, and strategically imposed blackouts underscore the passing of days and Chuck’s increasing frustration—further amplified by intermittent cellphone conversations with his truly lost adult daughter and a condemning ex-wife.
   Cicchini molds himself within Chuck’s situation, evolving from mild uneasiness to utter despair. Early on, while casually perusing the LA Times, he exudes a relaxed confidence in his abilities. This visibly erodes with the passage of time. After days spent in this self-imposed solitary confinement, Cicchini’s Chuck projects utter physical rage while listening to a game on the radio, graphically revealing he is at the edge of an emotional precipice. Zuckerman impressively guides the pace of Chuck’s solitary journey to maximum effect.
   Bitterman releases Chuck from solo purgatory with the arrival of Martha (Eve Gordon), an East Coast transplant attempting to flee her own demons. Her emotional baggage sets in motion a war of agendas that thrusts the two characters into darker regions of each other’s psyches. Bitterman masterfully reveals the developing entanglement of these two damaged souls. Their individual needs relentlessly penetrate each other, as Chuck and Martha jab and parry in an engrossing journey to rampant co-dependency.
   While in the process of discussing and/or negotiating the potential purchase of the house, Gordon’s always-questioning Martha provides the needed counterpoint to Chuck’s relentless pushing and placating. Later, she believably evolves into the compliant soul that desperately desires to give herself over to Chuck’s supposed masterful confidence.
   Unfortunately, the playwright does not achieve a viable dramaturgical pinnacle to this Chuck–Martha saga. By play’s end, Chuck’s house-of-cards façade is too easily toppled, based on facts arbitrarily imposed onto the thematic throughline. This also forces the audience to mentally fact check earlier established posts that no longer support Bitterman’s structure. To his credit, this well-established writer has created two memorable characters that could successfully co-mingle in a longer two-act work with a reimagined ending. They certainly stay in one’s mind.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
August 6, 2013

 
Nickel and Dimed
Bright Eyes Productions at Hudson Mainstage Theatre

Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, prompted critics, pro and con, to examine the lives of the working poor through her eyes. Well-educated and a successful writer, Ehrenreich attempted to leave her comfortable life behind to try to live on a minimum wage. As she traversed the country taking jobs as a hospital aide, a WalMart worker, a cleaner, and a waitress, she told a compelling story of the inequities faced by millions in our society who struggle to survive.
   Joan Holden, a principal playwright with the San Francisco Mime Troupe for more than 30 years, was challenged to bring Ehrenreich’s book to the stage in 2002. The play opens with Barbara (Zachary Barton) meeting with her publisher to come up with a worthwhile idea for publication. A self-described social democrat and feminist, she proposes looking at welfare reform from the inside. With only her car and a $1,000 cushion for emergencies, she applies for low-wage jobs and lives in tiny apartments that she soon learns are too expensive for her meager income of $7 an hour. Two jobs or more are the fate of her target population. In applying for them, the indignity of urine tests were the norm, along with intelligence-insulting questionnaires.
   Barton makes a believable protagonist, eschewing glamour for grit. Her fellow actors—Veronica Alicino, Jackie Joniec, Kathleen Ingle, Carmen Lezeth Suarez, Johnnie Torres, and Matthew Wrather—play multiple roles as co-workers, customers, bosses, and the like. These roles are a challenge, as the actors have to morph quickly during a long succession of scene and role changes. The play has a very focused point of view, and the narrative is broken occasionally by Barbara’s journalistic voice explaining or commenting on the action. She defends a fellow worker and gets angry. She discovers how backbreaking some jobs are and begins to appreciate physically what was only an intellectual understanding of the workers’ plight.
   Director Richard Kilroy handles the episodic nature of the story with skill, even though the constant set changes sometimes break into the emotional circumstances of the story. As set designer, he makes few pieces multipurpose. Lessening the scene change activity might make for a richer audience experience.
   It has been argued that while Ehrenreich could comment on her own experience and be an observer of social ills, she still used a car to get to work and to appointments, was able to call her dermatologist for relief from a rash she acquired, and never fully lost sight of the fact that she was able to step in and out of the counterfeit impersonations she adopted.
   As reports of Congressional inaction related to minimum wage, immigration reform, and welfare are recounted daily, it is clear this production could not be more topical and compelling. With more than 3.6 million workers making minimum wage and others not far ahead, Ehrenreich’s tale is a call to action and a reminder that good theater can spotlight societal ills more effectively than many other means of reporting.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
August 6, 2013


Revelation
Lillian Theatre at Elephant Stages

It’s a mixed blessing for the severely repressed über-nerd Brandon (Marco Naggar), whose fundamentalist preacher father always told him to keep his priorities intact after relocating to New York City, especially because Manhattan is hardly a place widely thought of as Rapture proof.
   Sadly, the poor guy is having a very bad apocalypse. Just as daddy predicted, End Times hits the Big Apple, and much to Brandon’s dismay and despite his refusal to use bad language in his daily life or to mock his father’s obsessive religious doctrines, he has somehow been left behind with all us doomed sinners. “Jesus has come back!” we’re told—not much comfort for all the other inhabitants of Samuel Brett Williams’s hilarious new play who never thought he came in the first place.
   This darkly black comedy takes our poor schlep of a hero on a cross-country trek through the ruins of the world in a borrowed Honda—a car his dad always said were built Rapture tough. Along for the ride, literally, is his disbelieving neighbor Rebecca (Zibby Allen), with whom he once shared a brief sexual dalliance that might have just been the thing that cost Brandon his rightful place on the Heavenly Express.
   Rebecca doesn’t much buy Brandon’s theories until the pair heads out into the streets, where piles of smoldering clothes are all that’s left of the chosen ones, and the faces of some of the survivors sport more pustules than the first frames of a Clearasil commercial. Along the journey from New York to possible redemption in—of all places—Shreveport, La., the pair suffers through imploding ex-lovers, encounters with bat-shit crazed kidnappers, and hassles with myriad other unfortunate folk left behind to wallow in the rubble—something that allows this unstoppable ensemble of deliciously over-the-top actors a chance to throw all restraint to the winds and shine like the game troopers that they are.
   Williams’s play is sharply off-kilter, absolutely chock-full of glorious chances for outrageous hilarity in its rapid barrage of wonderfully wrong circumstances, all of which Naggar and Allen sail through with delightfully confused comedic skill. The supporting cast bows nicely to the cartoonlike situations, which unfold in sequence like turning the pages of a graphic novel by Clive Barker. Oddly though, beyond the silly black humor and charmingly goofy performances, something is missing in the script, which seems to continuously miss making a point beside trying to shock and spewing otherwise welcome inappropriate humor.
   Jeffrey Eisenmann’s bleak multilayered set design and Michael Mullens’s subtly tongue-in-cheek costuming, as well as (uncredited) nifty hair and make-up design, add to the success of the storytelling here, but it is entirely to the credit of director Lindsay Allbaugh, who never lets up for a moment in the pacing of the story and leads her possibly tainted Kool-Aid devoted cast to pull out every stop, that makes this work so well. If anything is revelatory about Revelation, it is Allbaugh’s ability to turn a rather predictable—albeit funny—script into a production to admire.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
August 5, 2013

 
Nine
DOMA Theatre Company at MET Theatre

The fiendishly difficult (to stage, and hence usually to watch) Nine proves beyond the range of DOMA Theatre Company. It’s a shame, given the company’s mightily effective Dreamgirls earlier this year, but Arthur Kopit’s gloppy gloss on Fellini’s film has proved the undoing of many a producing organization.
   Essentially an impressionistic series of musical sketches inspired by the 1963 classic’s characters and situations, Nine observes cinemauteur Guido Contini (David Michael Treviño) sorting through his life’s influential, mostly female figures to break through the blockage in his work and personal life. After many a random musical number and bit of badinage, he abruptly arrives at the realization that no matter how old he becomes, a part of him always will remain a kid, will remain “nine.” This stupendous insight could’ve hit him at any point in the previous two hours, or indeed while he was back in prep school, but we don’t begrudge him the epiphany because it means we can go home that much sooner.
   The ensemble, remarkably low on performance energy, doesn’t seem to have been told why any of the production numbers is supposed to be there, so all are performed on the same forced level of tacky Vegas lounge-act verve. Maury Yeston’s melodies—flavorful and supple, the one undisputable triumph even if one detests the show—are nicely performed by Chris Raymond’s band, but the tricky lyrics are undone by the inadequate speakers and thick marinara of superfluous Italian accents. Why director Marco Gomez figured enjoyment would be enhanced if everyone sounded like Chico Marx is anyone’s guess—to one another, Italians would sound unaccented, would they not?—but atsa da way it goes.
   Still, everything hinges on the star. A charismatic, thoughtful Guido, one desperate to set his emotional house in order and sexy enough to inspire universal hot pants, is clearly a must. Here, a grievously miscast Treviño lacks sexual chemistry with those who cross his path, and he greets all his past, present, and fantasy visions with the same slack-jawed stare of incomprehension. Existential inquiry is conveyed by gazing up into space as he talks to people instead of looking them in the eye, as if he were Don Quixote about to break into “The Impossible Dream.” Without a Guido who can make us believe in and care about his artistic quest, nine equals zero.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
August 5, 2013

 
Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka
Torrance Theatre Company at James Armstrong Theatre

Torrance Theatre Company reportedly twisted itself into a chocolate pretzel to put on this production of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka. The results are worth it.
   The musical is based on Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which impoverished Charlie and his parents and four grandparents live in kindness and hope. Nearby factory owner Willy Wonka sets out to find his successor, putting five golden tickets into worldwide circulation. Four majorly spoiled kids and Charlie find the tickets and enter the unique world of Dahl.
   This production is polished to a gloss like tempered chocolate, under the direction of Mark Torreso. Its young Charlie, performed by Logan Gould, seems genuinely and wholeheartedly kind. Its grownup star, Jared Pugh as Willy Wonka, possesses a wonderful singing voice. The youth chorus and youngsters playing the “invited” factory workers known as Oompa Loompas are disciplined but lively. Featured actors vividly create their offbeat characters without chewing the sweet scenery.
   Yes, that scenery (designed by Brian Sandahl) charms, it awes and it might cause a moment of daydreaming because of its 1950s-Disneyland charm. It moves in and out of sight with apparent ease. Made of wood and whimsy, it also includes a huge screen for giggle-inducing projections—such as “bad nuts” traveling along a conveyor belt.
   Unfortunately, the scenery might be all that’s hummed after the show. How much more delectable the whole would be if the adaptation (Leslie Bricusse and Timothy Allen McDonald) and score (Bricusse and Anthony Newley) were even one step up. Having committed to the material, however, the company rises above the challenges of smoothing the narrative flaws and livening the music and lyrics. Noticeably, the pit orchestra, under the firm hand of music director Rick Heckman, features remarkable unison and a crisp percussion section.
   Also adding appeal to the music, Pugh has an easy, open singing voice and ample range. The opera-singer-in-waiting here, though, might be young Andres de Dios, who plays Augustus Gloop, the gluttonous German ticket holder. And even if you are of a certain age and had hoped never to hear “The Candy Man” again, John Fugatt brings it to sweet life.
   Playing Augustus Gloop’s mother, Cindy Shields goes bialys to the wall in a spectacular featured performance involving a Teutonic accent and slap-dancing. Likewise, Bob Baumsten garners huge laughs as Grandpa George, because everybody loves a deaf old guy played by an actor who doesn’t miss a trick.
   So what if the period of this piece is never quite clear. There’s mention of listening to Little Orphan Annie on the radio, yet Sharknado gets a shout-out. Keeping the story timeless are its themes of painful unemployment and its dreams of a lifetime supply of chocolate.
   But ultimately, theater is storytelling, and best about the storytelling here is Dahl’s moral: Children who misbehave are punished, while good children who err and then apologize without being asked to and who do so with heartfelt remorse end up well. These days this moral seems like sheer fantasy, making the time spent with Wonka and company total wish fulfillment. Considering the cravings during and after the show, it’s probably also good business for chocolate purveyors across the South Bay.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 5, 2013

 

Shrek the Musical
3—D Theatricals at Plummer Auditorium

A hero and the musical about him have been on a journey. From the book by William Steig to the Dreamworks animated film and then back to the book again, this musical has undergone multiple changes from Broadway and the national traveling production to its current successful regional incarnation by 3—D Theatricals. With book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori for the 2008 Broadway show, it is still being recrafted along its journey. Given first-rate direction here by David F. M. Vaughn, who was a cast member on Broadway and appeared in the regional tours, it is lively and exuberant.
  
Populated by fairy tale characters and its lovable giant ogre, Shrek (T. J. Dawson), the colorful swamp with its imposing bright green trapunto trees is visually arresting and theatrically useful for moving the cast about. As with all heroic stories, this one begins with Shrek being exhorted by the likes of Pinocchio (Daniel Dawson), elves, bears, and three famous pigs to help them foil their exile from the kingdom of Duloc by Lord Farquaad (Vaughn), who has his eye on becoming king after he marries the Princess Fiona (Melissa WolfKlain). At this point she is hidden away from him, so he challenges Shrek to find her.

Along the way, Shrek comes upon a donkey (Brandon Armstrong) beset by Farquaad’s army. Scaring them away earns Shrek the motor-mouthed donkey’s undying loyalty. Calling himself a GPS with fur (Anderson amusing as the jive-talking character), he offers to help Shrek find the princess. Of course, there have to be travails before outwitting the petulant and very tiny Lord (Vaughn on his knees to great comic effect).
   Notwithstanding Farquaad’s soldiers, the most compelling danger is from a stage-filling, fierce, and fiery dragon (puppet design by Christian Anderson and Derek Lux). After Donkey averts their danger by charming her, Fiona, Donkey, and Shrek proceed on their way. Arguably the best number in the show comes when the Pied Piper (Arthur L. Ross) and a bevy of rats tap-dance through to Justin Greer’s lively choreography. Act 2 is overlong, and some of the numbers designed to explore characterizations might be trimmed to tighten the show. Having said that, though, each song is well-performed and well-directed. WolfKlain has a perfect Disney-princess voice and shines as a lovely young lady by day and a charmingly green lady ogre at night, thanks to a curse by a wicked witch. Dawson’s larger-than-life characterization is aided by his strong vocals and sensitive portrayal.

The large cast of fairy tale characters delivers splendid ensemble work. In multiple roles, Keith A. Bearden, Sydney Blair, Alison Boresi, Brennley Faith Brown, Michael Cavinder, Alex Ellis, Jenna Gillespie, Laleh Khorsandi, Emily King Brown, Emilie LaFontaine, Johnny Machesko, Hadley Belle Miller, Robert Ramirez, Amber J. Snead, Jon M. Wailin, and Drew R. Williams give it their all. In particular, Ellis stands out for her dialogue and vocals as the gingerbread boy.
   As the film appealed to general audiences because of some references aimed at adults, so this show is chock-a-block with clever allusions to other Broadway shows like The Lion King, Gypsy, and Rent, and political jibes as recent as New York’s mayoral race. As Fiona and Shrek begin to fall in love, they prove “I Think I Got You Beat,” with dueling and escalating flatulence, plus belching thrown in for good measure. Though this might not set a good example for the many children in the audience, it was well-received at the performance seen. As with all fairy tales, a happy ending is in store for the characters.
   In a show like this, the technical side can make or break a production. Costumes by Kate Bergh, lighting by Jared A. Sayeg, sound design by John Feinstein, and set design by Tom Buderwitz are superlative on Fullerton’s large stage. Further, Mike Marino’s prosthetic makeup design, Jason Vaughan’s character design, Cliff and Kat Senior’s wigs, and Denice Paxton’s makeup design are beautifully executed. Though the live orchestra almost drowns out some musical dialogue, musical director–conductor Julie Lamoureux’s music and Danny Troob’s orchestrations contribute to the excitement of live theater. All in all, this production hits all the right marks.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
July 30, 2013

 
Brendan
Theatre Banshee

Theatre Banshee has such respect for Irish-born Ronan Noone’s immigrant saga, Brendan, that the Burbank-based ensemble has opted to eschew complicated production designs in favor of a minimalist all-purpose setting, with hints of costuming hanging from the walls for quick character transformations. When he or she is not performing within the flow of this West Coast premiere’s dramatic throughline or manipulating modular set pieces, each cast member sits in one of the chairs lined up on either side of the playing area, listening intently to the play’s progression. Director McKerrin Kelly and a well-honed six-member ensemble certainly give credence to the adage: The play’s the thing.
   Developed by Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, which premiered the work in 2007, Noone’s tale focuses on Brendan (Patrick Quinlan), a deeply troubled young Irishman who has been living in New York City for five years yet cannot escape the psyche-crippling self-loathing that caused him to flee his homeland in the first place. Though Brendan is desperate to assimilate and lose himself within this new land, his near-catatonic reclusiveness and inability to communicate sets him totally apart from the mainstream of American life.
   Quinlan offers a portrayal that is almost soul-wrenching in its effectiveness. His Brendan approaches each relationship as if he will suffer some deep injury if he allows himself to open up and just be human. Yet, he exudes a puppy dog attractiveness that makes viable the number of people in Brendan’s life who want to care for him and be a part of his life.

Noone is so determined to have his woeful protagonist eventually make his way to in this new world, he imposes a few dramatically dissatisfying choices. For instance, he places Brendan in the center of one of the most inhumane communities in the world, have him be his own worse enemy, and yet have his personal path to salvation almost effortlessly paved with everybody else’s good intentions.
   The visage of his dead Mammy—hilariously deadpanned by Kathleen M. Darcy—is relentlessly present, offering sound if not always welcome advice. Through all his fumbling indirectness and uncertainty, he is adored by Maria, the worldly-wise hooker he regularly frequents, and Daisy, the gentle Irish lass who would leap into his arms if only given a chance. Both characters are portrayed to endearing perfection by Catia Ojeda.
   Witnessing Brendan’s woefully inept courtship of his African-American neighbor Rose (Devereau Chumrau) is an exercise in audience frustration. How could this deliciously adorable young lady be attracted to this fumbling mess? Yet, she is. She doesn’t even flee when he calls her “exotic.” It is a credit to Chumrau’s commitment to the task that she makes it work. Amir Abdullah and Eamon Sheehan also offer a series of portrayals that give needed substance to Brendan’s evolutionary pilgrimage.

It is also incomprehensible that this immigrant NYC resident is so desperate to learn to drive and needs to own a car. And everybody he knows seems to own one while living in a city where practically no one else does? Finally, how does this common laborer, who works through a series of menial jobs in one of the most expensive-to-live-in cities in the world, seem to have unlimited funds to satisfy his libido on a regular basis with Maria—even hiring her to teach him how to drive—and pays cash when he finally purchases a car?
   These dramaturgical blemishes only slightly tarnish this production. In essence, the playing is the thing. And this Theatre Banshee production plays so well.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
July 29, 2013

 
El Grande de Coca Cola
Ruskin Group Theatre

When Ron House starred in the February 1973 Off-Broadway premiere of El Grande de Coca Cola, he was a tad young to be playing the monumentally self-aggrandizing showbiz entrepreneur, Señor Don Pepe Hernandez. Well, his stage persona has aged perfectly to embody the near-decrepit Don Pepe, speaking in what can only described as pidgin Spanish. House commands the stage in a production helmed by Alan Shearman, who, along with House, Diz White, and John Neville-Andrews, scripted the show.
   The setup for Don Pepe’s “Parada de las Estrellas” (Parade of the Stars) is given to the audience in the lobby, before the show begins. Set in a low-grade nightclub—wrought to seedy perfection by set designer Cliff Wagner—located somewhere south of the border, Don Pepe’s cabaret review is supposed to feature international headliners. When they do not show, Pepe recruits his not-so-talented daughters Maria (Nina Brissey) and Consuelo (Lila Dupree), near-catatonic son Juan (Aaron Jackson), and ragingly egotistical family friend Miguel Vasquez (David Lago) to be his faux stars.

There is a simple ethic to executing a spoof: find very talented performers to play performers with no talent, and have them do it with utter commitment. El Grande’s ensemble is certainly up to the task. Within a 70-minute running time, master of ceremonies Don Pepe oversees a plethora of groan-inducing novelty acts, including often hilariously inept attempts at acrobatics, magic, marksmanship, Shakespearean monologues, dancing that ranges from tango to hip-hop, and vocals that bombard such styles as pop, heavy metal, and even opera.
   Dupree’s Consuelo sets the proper tone in a preshow warm-up, enthusiastically working the audience to find a real milionario (millionaire) she can invite to her abode in the broom closet beneath the stairs. Her broken-English interactions exude a zesty comedic sensibility, playing off whatever reactions she gets from the men (and women) she attempts to recruit to be her quickie broom-closet paramour.
   A highlight of the show is Jackson’s effort to create a tableau of diminutive French painter Toulouse-Lautrec attempting to place an oversize canvas on an easel that is too tall for him to reach. With shoes strapped to his knees, Jackson puts on a jaw-dropping display of physicality that would be a credit to Charlie Chaplin. Also memorable is Brissey’s Maria, offering a comically rich portrayal of a cockeyed mystic. And Lago’s ever-frenzied Miguel not only displays ample skills as a pianist and drummer, his dance moves are put to adroit use as a Teutonic hip-hop master in a routine choreographed by Tor Campbell.

Through it all, House’s Pepe proves he is indeed the master of the show. He not only works the room, he manipulates it, often utilizing audience members as foils for his self-proclaimed talents—such as his Dancing With the Stars routine with audience ladies who never have to leave their seats.
   Aiding and abetting the proceedings are the deliciously cheesy costumes of Sarah Figoten Wilson, as well as the mood-enhancing lighting and set dressing of Mike Reilly and Jeff Faeth, respectively.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
July 24, 2013


A Parallelogram
Mark Taper Forum

If there’s a more sheerly interesting playwright in the United States these days than Bruce Norris, I don’t know who it is. In a continuing series of audacious, ambitious comedies, he has remained resolutely non-P.C. in questioning some of our culture’s most cherished assumptions on race (his Pulitzer winner Clybourne Park), compassionate liberalism (The Pain and the Itch), wounded warriors (Purple Heart), and sexual obsession (The Infidel). At the same time, Norris was and remains an established working actor, which could explain his knack for carving out juicy roles that keep both thesp and spectator gripped.
   His current offering, A Parallelogram, originally mounted in 2010 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is interested in one of the most pervasive human illusions of all: the notion that we possess free will. In so doing, Norris seems to have taken as his model the great Alan Ayckbourn, whose masterworks like Henceforward and Comic Potential pull off the tricky task of grafting time travel and other futuristic, technological gimmickry onto intense emotional situations. Ayckbourn would immediately bond with Bee (Marin Ireland), a pharmacy chain middle manager who’s profoundly depressed. Not only is she unsure whether divorced live-in Jay (Tom Irwin) still carries a torch for his ex, but an elderly version of herself named Bee 2 (Marylouise Burke) sits chain-smoking in the corner, hinting at everything that will happen to Bee in the future and insisting that no steps Bee takes will make any difference to any outcome.
   Bee 2’s remote control, which rewinds Bee’s life at any given moment to prove the old dame’s deterministic point, is the source of much of the humor of Act One. So are her wry quips on the present and future, peerlessly delivered by Burke in a role exploiting her talents for all they’re worth. (Her explanation of why senior citizens are difficult to communicate with may make you wish you’d worn Pampers to the Taper.)

Yet Norris has more than gags on his mind. For one thing, there’s a very real possibility the older woman’s Cassandra-like pronouncements of fate—which only Bee can hear—are just figments of imagination, the product of brain lesions destined to kill the girl before long. Beyond that, we are meant to share Jay’s anguish as the young woman for whom he upended his entire life rails and disintegrates. And of course Norris wants us to ruminate on and be moved by the larger human condition, because Bee—the unwitting prisoner of lines of time that occasionally, fatefully clash in space to control our fate—is, let’s face it, us.
   Whether you sympathize or empathize with Bee is an open question. Despite Ireland’s valiant efforts, the character is so relentlessly dour that it’s hard not to be drawn away from her and toward the more centered and relaxed antagonists: hapless Jay, hilarious Bee 2, and the elemental JJ (Carlo Alban), a gardener assigned a very different role after one particularly drastic retake. (Shaw has much the same problem with his most rational heroines: One doesn’t rush to embrace Major Barbara or Saint Joan when there are so many more-fun folks milling about.) Moreover, it’s arguable whether Norris fully fleshes out his dramatic idea to deliver it with the roundhouse punch that seems intended.
   Nevertheless, A Parallelogram is never less than fascinating, wittily designed by Todd Rosenthal and staged for maximum delight by Anna D. Shapiro. And at times, the play seems to have its finger on the pulse of something existential. Every once in a while its lines meet in the form of a parallelogram, and your universe quakes. Just a little.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
July 24, 2013

 
Wrap Your Heart Around It
Falcon Theatre
 
Singer-musician LynnMarie Rink accomplishes a rare feat in this autobiographical one-woman show. She ensnares her audience while never appearing to put on a show—except when she dons her accordion and plays music with the four-piece band sitting behind her onstage. The rest of the time, she just rambles nonchalantly around Jeff McLaughlin’s comfy, all-purpose setting—occasionally nibbling on her sister’s “killer” chocolate cake —gently and matter-of-factly unveiling a journey that includes growing up in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father, stumbling her way into a successful musical career, giving birth at age 42 to a Down syndrome child, and struggling to find the spiritual and emotional stability to actually have a life.
   Under the astute guidance of solo-show guru Michael Kearns, Rink appears to be discovering what she wants to say as she is walking and talking—moving occasionally to the dressing table on stage right where she keeps the cake. Exhibiting pin-point comedic timing, she launches into a genial recap of growing up in a Slavic community outside Cleveland, Ohio—the youngest of six children, the daughter of Lud, a bar owner who was also an accomplished musician-performer.
   But it soon becomes evident that this comely blond lady with the dazzling smile is also revealing the horrific history of a traumatized childhood, dominated by a high-functioning alcoholic, who thoroughly intimidated his wife and children. Rink reveals, “My mother died of cancer when I was 17. She didn’t fight it. She found a way out and she took it.” The one area in which Rink eventually found common ground with her father was in music. She explains, “He supported me all the way.  He cried more than I did each time I lost at the Grammys.”
   Rink almost shrugs her way through the chronicle of her career in music, admitting she had no choice but to pick up the accordion at age 11. She reveals she never took it seriously, deadpanning, “I didn’t believe the words accordion and career belonged in the same sentence.” Periodically, she does indeed strap on the “box” and launches her accomplished musicians—Paul Carrol Binkley (guitar), Paul Cartwright (fiddle), Joey Ayoub (bass), Chris Steele (percussion)—into a smorgasbord of polka and country fare, including “Beer Barrel Polka,” mildly suggestive “Momma’s Got a Squeezebox,” comical “That’s What I Like About the North,” and even a polka-tinged rendering of Three Dog Night’s rock anthem, “Joy to the World.”
   The band, led by Binkley’s gently supportive acoustic guitar work, also underscores Rink’s descent into despair as she reveals her soul-ripping journey to accept her now 7-year-old son James, beginning in 2006 when she discovers—after suffering two miscarriages—she was going to give birth to a special-needs child. Rink leads the audience through her history of monumental self-denial, believing it was her job to fix this “broken child,” driving herself into deep depression and thoughts of suicide.
   She admits that her salvation, in part, came after a therapist prescribed the anti-depressant Lexapro. Rink also sums up her lifelong struggle with religion by revealing a spiritual awakening that occurred when she took her young son to Sears. The events that occurred that day led her to the realization, “James was never broken.  It was me.” She concludes the show with a projected collage of photos of her perennially smiling son, followed by an encore musical session with the band. This is a show that should travel well, especially as a theatrical showcase for the woman Jay Leno once dubbed “The Dixie Chick of Polka.”

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
July 21, 2013

   
Pack Up the Moon
Brimmer Street Theatre Company at Lounge Theatre

In 20th-century writer W.H. Auden’s 1938 poem, “Funeral Blues,” he underscores the utter finality of death with the phrase “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.” Playwright Christina Cigala’s four-hander laudably explores the journey of a gay couple and a female relative who are desperately attempting to re-establish their lives after the death of the couple’s adoptive infant. Unfortunately, Cigala’s inventive dramatic throughline loses its way by play’s end, imposing a situation on the audience that pretty much obliterates the veracity of what has gone on before.
   Living on set designer Alex Pletcher’s pseudo-impressionistic LA-home interior, showbiz entrepreneur Andre (David Jette) and his agoraphobic husband, Carter (Brad Harris), are attempting to rebalance their lives following the tragedy of the SIDS demise of their son. Helmer Amy K. Harmon establishes a captivating interplay between these two that is reminiscent of the mildly combative but emotionally interdependent sparring of Sesame Street duo Bert and Ernie. Carter distracts himself with a plethora of esoteric, self-inclusive, high-minded activities, while Andre deals with the emotionally challenging daily necessities of life— like leaving the house and going to work.
   Into this unstable union, Cigala imposes the presence of Carter’s woefully wayward cousin T-Anne (Emilia Richeson), who has descended to a rock-bottom level of dysfunction that renders her incapable of surviving on her own. What Richeson does with this character is awe-inspiring in its execution. Dealing with every situation that comes her way with a last-grasp-at-life urgency, Richeson’s T-Anne overpowers the lives of her two hosts, creating an illogical but somehow functioning triumvirate that strives to bring another infant into the household.
   The decision to have T-Anne impregnated with Andre’s sperm sets up a series of frustrating thematic shifts, especially in the evolution of the T-Anne–Andre and T-Anne–Carter relationships. The fact that T-Anne is going through monumental hormonal changes and imposing emotional demands on the two guys doesn’t justify the playwright’s arbitrary imposition of Jekyll-and-Hyde changes in the personalities of the two men, especially the monstrous transformation of Andre. As justification, Cigala throws in heavy-handed backstory exposition that is so arbitrary it could have come from a different play.

What works here is the added presence of Jaime, an all-purpose midwife and lifestyle guru, portrayed with creepy, effervescent goodwill by Ben Fuller, who acts as a kind of one-person Greek chorus to this distorted family threesome. An added bonus is the emotionally riveting sound design of Cricket S. Myers, whose supportive orchestrations of street sounds, jazz, and dissonance buoy the emotional undercurrent of each scene.
   Cigala is to be lauded for tackling such emotionally searing subject matter. She has an original voice that deserves more time on stage. A reworking of the second act of potentially powerful Pack Up the Moon would certainly be worth the effort.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
July 16, 2013


Alcestis
The Theatre @ Boston Court and Critical Mass Performance Group at Boston Court

Director-writer Nancy Keystone doesn’t exactly crank em out quickly through her Critical Mass Performance Group, but they sure are worth the waiting for. Her 2006 Theatre @ Boston Court staging of Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play made keen sense out of that peculiarly remote text, and now, with Alcestis, Keystone and her team have created a completely involving, scintillating take on Euripides for our time.
   You may recall the myth of the good young king Admetus (Jeremy Shranko), late of treasure ship Argo (captained by Medea’s husband, Jason, remember him?), whose prophesied early death is forestalled when his titular queen (Kalean Ung) agrees to enter the Underworld in his place. This noble gesture, which has fascinated audiences and scholars for centuries (it “puts strain on a marriage,” say the Boston Court artistic directors straightfacedly in the program, which is putting it mildly), morphs in the CMPG’s hands into a sometimes whimsical, always energetically theatrical examination of vital universal themes: loyalty, the marital bond, the nature of “bromance” (Apollo and Herakles each have a strange kind of bond going with Admetus here), and, above all, humanity’s overwhelming awareness of death.
   Heady stuff? Not to fear, it plays with whipsaw glee on this Pasadena stage. There are dances—both fancy production numbers and bone-cracking Martha Graham–esque contortions—as well as wacky choral interludes and absurdist pantomimes right out of Ionesco. Characters even periodically step out of character to comment on the Euripidean original. For all that, there’s not a whiff of camp to be found. The performances are emotionally pointed and rich, as legendary figures’ old sorrows and new resentments make themselves felt across the centuries and across these footlights. In the end, a reunited Admetus and Alcestis retain their mythological status even as they become an ordinary modern couple, with all the pleasure, and pain, modern coupling entails.
   Most notable are Lorne Green’s urbane Apollo and Nick Santoro’s delightfully lunk-headed Herakles (costume designer Sarah Brown wittily puts him in football pads, investing him with stature and satire at once), but everyone in this captivating project pulls his or her weight. If you crave a modern spin on classical themes that respects its audience’s willingness to go where intuitive artists want to take you, you can do no better than swing by this delightful production.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
July 16, 2013

 
Lend Me a Tenor
Westchester Playhouse

How might you know a play is a farce? Normally, the set offers a clue, and in particular the set will include several doors that allow characters to barrel into situations and then quickly escape the consequences. This production of Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor boasts six doors. Hilarity, you can be sure, ensues.
   It starts when world-renowned opera star Tito Merelli seems to have gone AWOL the afternoon of his premiere appearance with the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, in a production of the opera Otello. A thousand opera cognoscenti excitedly await the event, but behind the scenes the company general manager Saunders (Harold Dershimer) and his assistant Max (Matt Landig) frantically search for the temperamental tenor.
   Eager for Merelli’s arrival but aware of the problem are Saunders’ daughter Maggie (Samantha Barrios), to whom Max has unsuccessfully proposed marriage; the company’s ambitious soprano Diana (Rachel Boller); and the chair of the opera guild Julia (Susan Goldman Weisbarth). All have gathered in Merelli’s hotel suite, where an opera-loving Bellhop (Michael Willens) inconveniently and ceaselessly attempts to meet the star.
   Isn’t this enough hurly-burly for farce? Not yet. So, the bombastic Merelli (Scot Renfro) arrives with his fiery, had-it-up-to-here wife (Maria Pavone). The humor that has been simmering now begins its rolling boil. Fortunately, that humor is of various types over the course of the play. Lowbrow gags include sexual innuendo (try naming your favorite P-word). Highbrow wit includes “in” jokes to bring a chuckle to operagoers (Merelli is nicknamed Il Stupendo, though the only similarly named singer in real life was Joan Sutherland, called La Stupenda). Slapstick comes in the form of a grape that gets spit across the room. And, this being farce, situational humor abounds, from the play’s start to its finish, when the entire day’s events are re-enacted in fast-forward fashion.
   Although Ludwig wrote the play in 1989, its action takes place in the 1930s, when people dressed beautifully to attend the opera or merely to travel. (Ahem.) To an admirable extent, director Gail Bernardi has urged her actors into period-correct behavior and speech, and her costume designer, Kathy Dershimer, has clad the actors lavishly. Bernardi has also kept an expert rein on the shenanigans. So though the situations are inevitably outrageous, the audience sees realistic characters who feel real-life emotions. Landig’s Max gains confidence through trials by fire, while he eventually soothes Harold Dershimer’s irascible impresario and Renfro’s divo. Maggie wants to experience “something special” before she marries, but when Maggie finally realizes what she did, the look on Barrios’ face is tender and truthful. Playing the hotel’s official nudnik, Willens mines sparkling gems from Ludwig’s lines. Pavone is a pepperpot, Boller a wily seductress, and Weisbarth a glowing presence (in part aided by her “Chrysler Building” couture).
   The above-mentioned six doors, by the way, can be slammed without shaking the walls, and they stayed slammed even on opening night. Credit set designer Drew Fitzsimmons but also Kentwood Players’ crew of Jim Crawford, William Carter, and actors Renfro and Barrios. Above all, however, don’t stop to ponder how two identical Otello costumes made it into the hotel. That’s just farce.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 15, 2013

 
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Chance Theater

A number of successful musicals have interpreted history in the light of politics. Audiences have been entertained, as musicals from Ragtime to Annie to Wicked examine societal issues. In this case, populism takes center stage as Andrew Jackson’s life unfolds from youth to the presidency and the rise of the Democratic party. It’s an exhilarating ride.
   Starring a youthful cast, Alex Timbers’s book and Michael Friedman’s music and lyrics explode in opening scenes as “Populism, Yea, Yea” foreshadows Jackson’s legacy as “the people’s president.” His accomplishments are extolled as well as his failures, and he appears to be his own best cheerleader, “I’m So That Guy.”
   In adolescence he lost his parents to misfortune and cholera, and he joined the military, rising in the ranks to become General Jackson. At this point we learn he hates the Spanish, the British, and the Indians; further, he becomes a spokesman for the angry frontiersmen who resent all governmental corruption in politics coming from the Northeast.
   Setting the play in a Western-style saloon and environs gives the cast the freewheeling space for the quirky characterizations that dominate the action. F-bombs fly along with plenty of generic discontent, as wars and strife dominate the action. The Creek Wars, the Battle of New Orleans, and Jackson’s demands that the Indians cede most of their land to the US further illuminate his rise to power. It seems very Western in nature, but the locale is Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee.
   Keaton Williams delivers a credible Jackson, even though the play demands more histrionics than verisimilitude. The ensemble works well together, and Kelly Todd’s choreography makes the most of the space. Fight choreography by David McCormick is boisterous and notable. Characters rush in and out, energetically leaping about, to the excellent accompaniment of Robyn Wallace’s fine music direction. From time to time a cast member grabs a guitar or horn and joins the combo on stage. Billed as a rock opera, it is more rock than operatic, and the ensemble—which includes Robert Wallace, Zachary Storey, James McHale, Gary Fields, Nick Adomo, Kyle Cooper, Gasper Gray, Ashley Arlene Nelson, Alex Bueno, Chelsea Baldree, Dannielle Green, and Janelle Kester—sings enthusiastically even as the demanding action requires much physicality. And yes, there’s blood along with all this Sturm und Drang.
   Director Kari Hayter packs a heap of storyline into her frenetic 95-minute production. Lighting by Steve Giltner can be moody or crisp as the story dictates. Dave Mickey and Iris Zacarias’s sound design enhances the work of the musicians (Robyn Wallace, Gray, Steven Wagner, Bill Strongin).
   Lots of contemporary references add to the tongue-in-cheek history lesson. Effete pols like Van Buren and Adams turn up, contrasting nicely with rough-and-tumble Old Hickory. If Wall Street complaints enter the fray, so much the better. A few gender jokes also pop up here and there. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not a play for every taste. It requires suspension of disbelief, a tolerance for crudity, and a willingness to revisit history with a wary eye. Nonetheless, the cast gives as good as it gets in its interpretation of this satiric look at politics through the prism of today’s affairs of state.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
July 14, 2013

     
Sister Act
Pantages Theatre

You would think, as standardly formulaic as it is, a musical stage version of the 1992 film hit Sister Act wouldn’t have a prayer. There’s nothing even pretending to be new or innovative in this production, which boasts the movie’s leading player Whoopi Goldberg as one of its producers. But you know what? Sister Act at the Pantages is infectious fun and a perfect summer entertainment meant to just let audiences sit back, enjoy the ride, and not analyze it too deeply.
   The story is a given. Over-the-top minor nightclub entertainer Deloris Van Cartier (Ta’Rea Campbell) sees her gangster boyfriend Curtis (Kingsley Leggs) blow away a guy in the alley behind his seedy club and has to go on the run to avoid being his next victim. With the help of her childhood schoolmate “Sweaty” Eddie Souther (E. Clayton Cornelious), now the cop assigned to keep her safe until she can testify in court, Doloris goes in hiding posing as a nun in a cash-strapped convent. You’d have to have been living under a rock for the past 21 years not to know what happens next, and, again, the musical version of the Joseph Howard–penned film offers nothing even remotely new. Even Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s score seems to be chockfull of riffs faintly recognizable from tunes made famous in Disney projects; and the book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, even with later doctoring by the great Douglas Carter Beane, is about as fresh as a 3-day-old bagel.
   It just doesn’t matter. Sister Act makes you smile and rock out a bit in your seat. What makes the show work so well is an incandescent mounting with sharply focused production values and a cast that could not be better. In a role it would be hard to interpret anew, Campbell brings an even sassier delivery than the film’s high-profile star did and is blessed with a powerhouse voice that knocks her songs out of the ballpark and could possibly even reach the back row of the cavernous Pantages’s nosebleed seats without amplification. Leggs and Cornelious at first appear cast for their vocal abilities and not their acting prowess, but one thing that’s most notable about this show is that every character is given a showcasing solo turn. Leggs takes the stage easily with his “When I Find My Baby,” and Cornelious brings the house down with Eddie’s fantasy number “I Could Be That Guy.”

Sometimes touring productions of Broadway hits look a little tattered around the edges in delivery and performance, but this one is bright and brand new—and virtually every performance is beautifully rich and heartfelt. There are dynamic solos for Lael Van Keuren as the repressed Sister Mary Robert and wonderful chances for Florrie Bagel as the bubbly Mary Patrick, Diane J. Findlay as cranky Mary Lazarus, and Richard Pruitt as Monsignor O’Hara to shine on their own, along with every member of the splendidly cast ensemble of all-singing, high-kicking, too-quickly (but who cares?) liberated nuns. There are showstopping performances from Todd A. Horman, Ernie Pruneda, and the hilarious Charles Barksdale as Curtis’s henchmen, reminiscent of performers left over from a revival of Guys and Dolls or ready to brush up their Shakespeare with their “Lady In the Long Black Dress.”
   Yet perhaps the most outstanding performance of the evening comes from Hollis Resnik as the convent’s put-upon Mother Superior. Her dryly understated delivery is notable from the start, but when she takes the stage with Campbell for “Here Within These Walls” and her solo “Haven’t Got a Prayer,” this Sister Act is at its best.
   Once again, there’s nothing pioneering about Jerry Zaks’s direction or Anthony Van Laast’s choreography, but it’s created and performed with such sharp precision that the work seems as though it’s an homage to early musical theater offerings from mid-last century. Klara Zieglerova’s sets, Lez Brotherston’s costuming, Ken Travis’s sound and, especially, Natasha Katz’s lighting are also top-drawer, as is the musical direction of conductor Brent-Alan Huffman and a wonderful orchestra that mixes touring and local musicians.
   Nope, there’s nothing new or even remotely surprising about Sister Act, but it just plain doesn’t matter. It’s a delightful, glittery, wonderfully silly escape from the rapidly spinning and increasingly more confusing world around us and something that will leave you glad to be alive. Somehow, right now that seems to be a formidable accomplishment.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
July 12, 2013

 

ModRock
El Portal

ModRock is a train wreck, the waste of a perfectly good idea for a jukebox to rifle, namely the array of 1950s and ’60s British hits that transformed the pop music scene worldwide and eventually made its way to our shores as the “British invasion.” As British invasions go, ModRock is Dunkirk.
   The libretto by showbiz entrepreneur Tom Coleman, billed as “Hagan Thomas-Jones,” whose program claim never to have written for the stage before is easy to credit, tries to pull the ol’ switcheroo on such mismatched musical romances as Grease and West Side Story. A star-crossed affair is contrived between a perky, posh mod bird, beehived in Mary Quant mini and go-go boots, and a surly, soulful Teddy boy rocker, slouching over his Harley in white T and tight black jeans.
   That the Romeo & Juliet thing is time-tested doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily easy to pull off. West Side Story does so by emphasizing the deep emotional roots of the feud between the homegrown Jets and immigrant Sharks. Grease focuses on the efforts of one fish-out-of-water “good girl” to find acceptance among the high school greaser set. Both premises offer a lot of plot, reversals, and opportunity for character delineation.

By contrast, ModRock offers us…nothing. That’s right, literally nothing happens, dramatically or thematically, over the course of two hours of preening and posturing and thick, impenetrable British accents. No reason is ever provided for the hostility between the two groups. The mods shop and chatter; the rockers hang out on a stoop and chatter; no character is ever moved to do anything or accomplish anything. The big dance club climax of act one occurs when—and you’ll have to trust me on this—a mod and rocker accidentally bump into each other, at which point the hall breaks up into a (phonily staged) brawl. Curtain.
   Instead of a story, ModRock has its characters cop attitudes and sing songs that reflect those attitudes. A girl pining for a guy sings “Tired of Waiting.” A kid fed up with his surroundings croons “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” And so on. Many of the matchups are logical enough, and the tunes are by and large terrific. But none ever moves the story along (yeah I know, “what story?”), so tedium sets in early and never completely goes away.
   Curiously, no one has bothered to explore the essence of that musical era, such as the contrast between the sprightly, puckish sensibility of, say, Herman’s Hermits or The Dave Clark Five, and the darker, more introverted concerns of The Kinks. Both extremes are represented in the show—“There's a Kind of Hush” and Petula Clark’s “Downtown” make up the finale—but the cheerful tunes aren’t assigned to the cheerful characters, nor the soulful songs to the brooders. (Or, maybe even more intriguingly, vice versa.) Nope, all the styles are lumped together, and whatever number seems to suit a momentary attitude is chosen.

It’s all really a drag, played with an almost total lack of performance energy by a talented but hamstrung ensemble of 12, none of them able to make his or her character distinguishable from the others. Nothing rocks.
   It’s worth noting, speaking of The Kinks, that Ray Davies’s work is prominently featured, a reminder of what a seminal writer he was and what a trailblazing band he fronted. But he gains no reflected honor from the corny choice of “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” as an intro to the mod ethos, and his gloomily nostalgic “Where Are They Now”—depressed, dour, pretentiously staged—has got to be the worst opening number of any tuner this year. With luck, nothing else will come along to challenge it for the title.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
July 9, 2013

 
The Royal Family
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

A nation should know and experience its classic dramatic texts. Yet the major virtues of many of ours remain virtually unknown, even to many serious theatergoers, solely because the casts are too large for almost any contemporary producer to afford.
   Happily, employment limitations have never deterred the bold custodians of Topanga Canyon’s Theatricum Botanicum, who annually mount gems like George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 The Royal Family on the scale they deserve. Happier still, the Theatricum is able to call upon a genuine theatrical dynasty of the type this play celebrates. Having the Geer clan—matriarch Ellen Geer and her sister Melora Marshall, Ellen’s daughter Willow, and daughter-in-law Abby Craden—appear together in such a witty, stylish work truly makes for one of the summer’s most entertaining popular attractions.
   The titular Cavendish family, famously modeled on the Barrymores, are toasts not only of Broadway but also of the barnstorming circuit coast to coast. Their whole lives are devoted to making theater, so much so that they turn their very everyday existence into a flamboyant performance scaled to an invisible second balcony. The issues with which they grapple—marriage, career, impending retirement, jealousy—take on greater intensity because in their own minds they’re all always on stage. All of which makes the play’s acting demands especially stringent, in our need to believe in their behavior and in the larger-than-life expression of it.
   The Botanicum cast, under Susan Angelo’s assured direction, rises to the challenge. No one among the principals—who besides various relatives of founder Will Geer include multiyear company mainstays Aaron Hendry and Alan Blumenfeld—was immune from line trouble during the fifth performance. But no one’s shaky words detracted from their individual and collective embrace of the Cavendish flair, their peculiar brand of emotional extravagance that we must accept as real minute by minute—and, in this production, we do.
   High style is rare among any acting company. You ought to go see this one pull it off.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
July 10, 2013

 
A View From the Bridge
Pacific Resident Theatre

“I want my respect!” insists Eddie Carbone continually—and ambiguously. Sadly for him, but thrillingly for audiences since 1955, when Arthur Miller’s magnificently crafted play premiered, Miller’s protagonist Eddie has no idea what respect means nor how to earn it.
   Eddie lives in Brooklyn with his well-worn wife, Beatrice, and her sister’s 17-year-old daughter, Catherine. Beatrice’s two young male cousins are arriving from Italy, illegally, to stay with the Carbones until the two can find enough work to support themselves and send money home. Catherine becomes sweet on one of them, unlocking a variety of previously suppressed undercurrents.
   Under the co-direction of Marilyn Fox and Dana Jackson, the script’s crushing emotionality quietly settles over the audience, leaving us shaken and saddened for Eddie’s inability to handle what could have been a wonderful life. Only a few moments of direction don’t ring true: Choreographed fights are too timid, particularly considering the proximity of the audience, and recorded music playing over the last lines of dialogue distract from rather than enhance the pathos of the story. Otherwise, this is a thoughtful, measured, well-rehearsed production, from casting through the faded wallpaper.
   Playing Eddie, Vince Melocchi is stunningly good—truthful and tightly lidded, so the actor swallows Eddie’s tears and earns the audience’s affection rather than bawling histrionically and demanding it. Fox and Jackson have cast an everyman rather than a matinee idol, which makes Eddie’s romantic inclinations frighteningly real rather than cartoonish.
   Lisa Cirincione has cut Catherine out of cloth of another time. The character has the energy, joy, and naïveté of a 1950s teen. Melissa Weber Bales makes a lovely, unappreciated Beatrice—once a pretty girl just like Catherine, now a frustrated, exhausted, housebound wife.
   Miller enhances the Greek tragedy of his tale with a Greek chorus in the single person of local lawyer Mr. Alfieri. The craft with which Robert Lesser handles the role establishes the production’s tone from the outset. This is top-quality acting, at its apex when Lesser and Melocchi share a scene in Alfieri’s office.
   The play takes place on Staci Walters’s and Jeffery P. Eisenmann’s extraordinarily well-designed, well-built set. The construction is solid (slammed doors don’t shake the walls), the brickwork looks real, and that aged wallpaper is a miracle of either savvy shopping or artistic distressing.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 6, 2013


The Judy Show—My Life As a Sitcom
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

One will glean from her solo show that Judy Gold desperately wants her own sitcom, in part to promote her personal history of ultimately earning acceptance from her family, and thus she created this 95-minute saga (co-written with Kate Moira Ryan), packaged with its own theme song. In that case, one hates the medium but loves her message.
   Her set (Andrew Boyce) is a happy mix of old and new. An entry door with its three little inset windows recalls sitcom doors of yore. At the other side of the stage is a shiny upright piano, cheerily producing bouncy theme-song chords. The proscenium (created for the Audrey black box) is papered with what might be old TV Guide covers. But upstage is a wall-to-wall collection of video screens that spring to vibrant life at just the right moments (projection design by Boyce; the evening is directed by Amanda Charlton).
   Just like Dick Van Dyke, Gold pops through that front door to welcome her audience. Dressed in stretch jeans and tennies, she tries hard to make us to feel comfortable and on her side. Her appeal sours quickly, however, as she drops names and emphasizes her hundreds of TV credits. Soon she’s at the piano, accompanying herself as she sings, hoping the audience will marvel at the breadth of her talents. Instead, it’s easy to let her slide into that dreaded “solo showcase” category.
   Some of her jokes—including one about Nazi concentration camps and one about Anne Frank—are in excruciatingly bad taste. She shrieks. She uses myriad Yiddish words—including a prayer for the dead, which she pronounces over the goldfish she flushed down the toilet. She never lets the audience forget she’s desperate for her own sitcom.
And yet. Gold, a 6-foot-3 observant Jew and a lesbian, had trouble finding acceptance in her life. Photos of her, displayed on those video screens, reveal a child who had to self-soothe, an adolescent with bad hair on photo days, a self-consciously towering college student. She was unique and yet so human. And therein lies this show’s goldmine, pardon the pun, of catharsis.
   Young Judy watched sitcoms that revolved around happy hetero families whose parents forgave and showed love to the children every 30 minutes. And as Judy grew up, she wanted to let other children know they’re normal enough to see their stories told on TV, too. Today, her moving messages of hope, of reconciliation, of acceptance, though they might not merit a sitcom, merit this solo show.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 3, 2013

 
The Katrina Comedy Fest
Lounge Theatre

Beginning with a mournful blues song accompanying a video (production design by Jeff Teeter) showing the devastation and flooding after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the scene is set for a tale of tragedy. But no, the five actors who join the audience in the intimate Lounge Theatre are there to tell the true stories of survivors who recall the experience. The superlative cast includes Judy Jean Berns, Peggy Blow (double cast with Deidrie Henry) Travis Michael Holder, Jan Munroe, and L. Trey Wilson. Each plays a specific character but also chimes in as added voices for extra characters.
   The setting is Antoinette K-Doe’s Mother-in-law Lounge. Antoinette (Blow, at this performance) is a feisty, take-charge grandma who starts the narrative about the prelude to the hurricane. It’s clear that she can handle anything that comes her way, and a flood is just one of those pesky things that illustrate her competence and generosity. Munroe is Sonny, affluent and used to being able to order solutions to problems with money. Wilson is Raymond, draped in Mardi Gras necklaces and raggedy clothes, a quasi-homeless character finding this flood the adventure of his life. Rodney, played by Holder, is the caretaker for his parents, and alcohol fuels his frustration with his situation. Judy, played by Berns, is timid but to her delight finds herself hooked up with tattooed juveniles who would never have crossed her path under ordinary circumstances. The narrative hopscotches from person to person, always leaving a thread of the story ready for pickup later on.
   Director Misty Carlisle’s adept execution was probably made smoother by casting experienced pros whose nuanced characterizations range from easygoing impatience to nerve-wracking agitation. The screen at the rear of the stage, used so well in the beginning of the play, is a weak link in the staging and needs more purposeful visuals to enhance the storyline throughout. The final photos of the real-life people portrayed make a nice finish for the production.
   Playwright Rob Florence’s script is funny, poignant, uplifting, and clever. In 80 minutes, he captures the essence of why people from New Orleans want to remain, even when the potential for disaster is always palpably real. This Hollywood Fringe Festival production is first-rate, and it should be remounted with this cast so more people could view the fine work exhibited.
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
June 27, 2013
 
The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy
Theatre Planners at Odyssey Theatre

It is historical fact that exiled Soviet Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky and his wife, Natalya Sedova, settle in Mexico in the late 1930s—living as guests in the home of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera—until Trotsky is assassinated in August 1940 by Spanish-born Communist agent Ramon Mercader. Playwright Peter Lefcourt has enveloped these facts within the clunky machinations of a present-day ensemble of actors who decide to stage an opening night revolt, rendering their Author’s (Greyson Lewis) historical drama of Trotsky’s murder as an improvise-at-will, no-holds-barred self-serving exercise in chaos. Lefcourt’s play fails to produce the most basic element of farce: humor. Despite the imaginative, fluid staging of helmer Terri Hanauer and the yeoman efforts of a talented ensemble, the work sinks under the weighty excess of the script.
   Promisingly, at the play’s outset, Lefcourt reveals the theatrical mindset of the ensemble putting on this play when the actor playing Rivera (Joe J. Garcia) steals a moment offstage to call his agent, pleading with him to set up an audition for a TV series. There is also the requisite leading-lady tension between the damsels playing Kahlo (Murielle Zuker) and Sedova (Holly Hawkins), who feels she should have been cast as Kahlo. Lefcourt sets in motion the elements of a traditional play-within-a-play comedy when news comes that the actor playing the small but pivotal roles of a police captain and assassin Mercader has died in an accident, forcing the monumentally unwilling Author to step in and assume the roles in order for the show to go on.
   What’s apparent immediately is the viability of Hanauer’s cast, manifested by the first-act interplay between Zuker’s sensuous, mischievously brilliant Kahlo and Garcia’s ingratiating vulgar muralist Rivera. Deceptively refined Trotsky (Joel Swetow) and his exile-weary wife fit right in, with constantly in heat Rivera soon finding his way to Sedova’s bed. Also scampering attractively about on Joel Daavid’s exquisitely detailed Mexican hacienda setting are youthful, sexually charged servants Guadalupe (Ashley Platz) and Jesus (Christopher Rivas), who are constantly finding opportunities to lock themselves in the potting shed.
   Unfortunately, the bottom drops out of these promising proceedings when Swetow’s actor inexplicably goes off script, launching into an impassioned speech by peasant-turned–land owner Lopakhin from Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, leaving the audience with nothing to hold on to from the viable dramatic throughline that has been established. During the play’s supposed intermission, Trotsky/Lopakhin convinces his stunned stage mates that the only way to save themselves in this supposedly unworthy stage work is to chew up the scenery, throwing in whatever snippets of other plays that spontaneously come to mind, much to the consternation of the Author.
   The second act is long on unrepentant silliness, with excerpts of stage works ranging from Shakespeare to Beckett crammed into the proceedings, occasionally interrupted by plot snippets from the Author’s original work. There is nothing to recommend these scenic meanderings. Because they come out of nowhere, they cannot stand on their own as comedy or drama. They have no entertainment value, take up time as they put the plot of the play on hold, and obliterate the talent-laden characterizations of an ensemble that deserves better.
   Lefcourt has proven his comedic playwriting adeptness with such works as Only the Dead Know Burbank and La Ronde de Lunch. In the program for Assassination, he reveals he started to write this eight years ago, intending it to be a “left wing bedroom farce.” He ran aground with it and put it away. Last fall, when he decided to finish the play, he took it in this new direction. It was decidedly the wrong direction.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
June 25, 2013

revolver
Celebration Theatre

There are six barrels in a handgun and six diverse stories in the world premiere of Chris Phillips’s revolver at the Celebration Theatre. From a heavenly confrontational tango between Jesus and Judas to the connection between perpetrator and victim hauntingly reiterated in the final tableaux between the dead Matthew Sheppard and his murderer Aaron McKinney arriving in purgatory, these are basically unrelated stories that deal with the aftermath of physical and emotional violence—particularly as it relates to the gay community.
   Though the connection among the tales is a bit sketchy, the writing is clear and solid. Ryan Bergmann’s staging is appropriately ethereal, and the excellent performances by this cast of six conspire to make this an important production despite the faint flavor of a night of showcasing one-acts. There are lots of “Friends of Dorothy” references in the script, from an audition where a gay actor is reading for the character of the flaming cop (“It’s just a punchline but someone’s gotta do it”) to a speech about the banality of Out magazine, complaining that it reduces gay rights to hair highlighting mishaps and finding the right patio furniture.
   The cast is palpably committed to the material and, surely to Bergmann’s credit, uniformly subtle in its performances, where an easily achieved flamboyance could sink this production faster than the Titanic. The final scene between Sheppard and McKinney is heartrendingly simple and honest, especially as performed by Daniel Montgomery and AJ Jones. John Colella is also a standout as a painfully cynical gay journalist being interviewed by a young admirer (Matthew Scott Montgomery). In this inspired, thought-provoking monologue, the playwright’s treatise on gay issues, as acceptance in our culture grows increasingly more open and narrow at the same time, clearly explores a dangerous, festering divide that could eventually swallow up so many advances as quickly as society embraces them.
   Although Janet Roston’s tango and Sondra Meyer’s fight choreography were still a bit clunky on opening night, those difficult elements probably have come together by now with a little target practice. With Bergmann’s sparse vision, featuring a wall of rolling doors moved by the actors to create new spaces, and aided by Matthew Brian Denman’s shadowy, unearthly lighting plot and Rebecca Kessin’s echoing, intentionally staccato sound design, the atmosphere is exquisitely ripe for a major hit for the Celebration honoring the work of an insightful new playwright.
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 20, 2013
 
One Night in Miami
Rogue Machine

Any stage play that incorporates characterizations of well-known, real-life contemporary people has a challenge from the outset. Audience members will usually need time to adjust their individual sense-memories of these figures before they can accept and relax into the portrayals they are viewing onstage. That is no problem for Kemp Powers’s world premiere One Night in Miami. As fluidly staged by Carl Cofield, the post–boxing match hotel-room gathering of Cassius Clay (Matt Jones), singer-composer Sam Cooke (Ty Jones), NFL football great Jim Brown (Kevin Daniels), and Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X (Jason Delane) pulsates with the tangible energies of these personalities that transcend memories of the real-life people and live on their own terms.
   It is Feb. 25, 1964, the night Clay shocked the sports world by soundly thrashing reining heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Reveling in the euphoria of Clay’s historic victory, these four avowed friends prowl around Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s finely detailed low-rent hotel room, each projecting his own personal agenda, not always achieving empathetic accord with the others.
   Powers skillfully shifts and evolves the thematic emphasis among the men as Malcolm X prepares to launch his protégé Clay into the mainstream of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Brown and Cooke urge the new champion to establish himself as a celebrity in the real world of the black man in America, with all the adulation, money, and sensual rewards that come with it. Working within a confined space, Cofield achieves an admirable rhythmic cohesion within an uninterrupted 85 minutes as these men jive and joke with each other, at times seriously challenging the veracity of one another’s choices in life. The reward for the audience is the finely realized portrayals of this inspired cast.
   Matt Jones offers a powerful portrayal of Clay, a joyous man-child, whose bubbling spirit is adorned by a magnificent physique that can barely be contained within its environment. He offers a tour-de-force round-by-round re-enactment of his battle with Liston, complemented by the supportive interplay of Daniels’ Brown. Jones also gives poignant evidence of this 22-year-old’s insecurity and ambivalence—beaming with anticipation of the Jim Brown/Sam Cooke world of women and fame, while sheepishly paying heed to Malcolm X’s declaration that Clay has a moral responsibility to be a new kind of leader for the black citizens of this country.

In sharp contrast to Jones’s flamboyance is Delane’s intensely controlled outing as Malcolm X, a completely self-invented being whose every word and movement is calculated to achieve maximum effect with minimal physical exertion or emotional expression. Delane’s Malcolm exudes a concentrated laser-like energy whenever he chooses to focus his general disapproval at the antics of Clay or a member of his entourage. Yet, Delane subtly displays cracks in Malcolm’s armor, revealing his concerns that the Black Muslim bodyguards standing outside the hotel door (Giovanni Adams, Jason E. Kelley) have been provided by Nation of Islam supreme leader Elijah Muhammad more to watch Malcolm than to protect him.
   The production’s principle entertainment is provided by Ty Jones’s outing as pop idol Sam Cooke, offering an impressive display of the “king of soul” vocal technique, entertaining his pals with the slick and the gritty versions of his hit, “You Send Me.” When Malcolm chides Cooke because his songs don’t reflect the changes in society reflective in Bob Dylan’s recently recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Jones blasts tears and rage through Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
   Daniels’s Jim Brown is the most relaxed man in the room. When Malcolm challenges the football great as to why he has ignored the call to become a Muslim, the athlete casually replies, “Pork chops and white women.” Daniels admirably captures the confidence of a gifted black man who has come to the decision he will deal with the white world at his own pace and on his own schedule.
   Powers is a playwright-in-residence at Rogue Machine. This debut work gives every evidence his voice will be heard on stages for quite awhile.

Reviewed by Julio Martinze
June 18, 2013

 
We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known As South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915
Matrix Theatre

If you revel in fine actors’ pushing the envelope of what performance can do, or have an interest in investigating important historical experience via theatrical means, this ungainly-named but unforgettable work is *the* production of the summer, just as Son of Semele’s recently closed Our Class was *the* production of the spring. In both, a splendidly unified ensemble, masterfully directed, shape-shifts among multiple roles to tackle, head-on, the 20th century’s legacy of dread.
   The title says the cast is “proud,” though the situation and subject matter seem rather to confound and rile the six thespian characters assembled on the wide-open Matrix stage, surrounded by various accoutrements of a rehearsal room (crummy chairs and tables; a blackboard) and performance space (set pieces; a ladder). The topic is the now-lost Herero tribe’s fate during the period when Germany held “Southwest Africa,” now Namibia, in its iron grip. Between 1904 and 1907, the building of a railroad by indigenous workers, their lives held cheap, led to the extinction of a massive (more than 100,000) and proud people. But how? And why?
   Though company members are generically identified as “Black Woman” or “Another White Man,” they convey an aura of specific and varied mutual backstory as they arrive, banter, and engage in their actory preshow “mah-may-mee-mo-moo” warmups; a stilted historical overview complete with maps on opaque projector and scrawled wall text goes off well enough. What stymies the sextet are knotty dramaturgical concerns.

For instance, there are plenty of personal letters extant from German soldiers on the East African front to their Rhinemaidens back home, and the “cast” is prepared to present those with appropriately deep feeling. But none of the documents, apparently, alludes whatsoever to the awful events under the writers’ watch; they barely mention the Herero at all; indeed, there’s little or no documentary evidence of the tribe left to us. As one character points out, the only reason we know they’re gone is that they’re gone.
   The company debates the propriety and truthfulness of ascribing, to Soldaten and tribespeople alike, motivations and emotions we cannot be certain of. They improvise, relate their own personal histories, act out and act up, their disagreements festering until they explode across racial (three blacks and three whites among the actors) and gender lines.
   Eventually it becomes clear that the real subject of playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury is our very response to history. Yes, she wants to explore the Herero tragedy and see that they’re not forgotten. But even more, she needs for us to understand that human cruelty is not something we only see in the here and now: The people who sinned and were sinned against in centuries past were no less real than we are now, and if we cannot recognize that and mourn them properly, it’s our limitation, not theirs. If a genocide falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear it, it still occurred.

This ambitious play, bursting with theatrical opportunity and complex ideas, is (predictably) subject to excess and flaw. It’s never clear why these six have assembled to tell the Herero saga in the first place, or what stake in it makes them remain in the face of the rawest intercompany conflicts. Also, much is made of this being a democratic artistic collective, but there seems to be insufficient objection whenever Black Woman (Julanne Chidi Hill, clearly Drury’s mouthpiece) steps forward as director and puppeteer, as she periodically chooses to do.
   Script issues aside, the work is stunningly performed. Hill wears the pain of a historical atrocity on her face and in her very body. John Sloan manfully wrestles with his innate decency as a lonely German soldier once he (Sloan) recognizes what this son of the Fatherland must have been privy to, and is completely believable in his attempted exit from the whole business. Daniel Bess provides sardonic, even dazzling comedy relief in several of the most outrageous character impersonations. Joe Holt’s intellectual and emotional pain is deep and evident throughout, while Phil LaMarr and Rebecca Mozo triumph in their attempts to reconcile their reality as actors with the narrative they have been deputized to tell.
   The best compliment to helmer Jillian Armenante is that at times it becomes impossible to believe that all of this give and take, all of this historical exploration, wasn’t improvised on the spot. The flow of events, emotions, and parallel worlds, shaped by her sure directorial hand, is seamless. This is a shattering evening not to be missed by anyone who treasures theater.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
June 18, 2013
 
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)
Santa Monica Repertory Theater at The Promenade Playhouse

In this three-person show—originally the work of writer-actors Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield—three actors enact highlights of, summarize, or at least mention the title of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays. First up are highlights, or lowlights, of Romeo and Juliet. Next, Titus Andronicus is boiled down to a cooking show on which body parts get stewed by a handless Titus and a tongueless Lavinia. The plot of Othello is recounted through rap, Macbeth is summarized in a rolling brogue, led by Oz’s Wicked Witch, and all the comedies are combined and skewered on a single shtick. This leaves Hamlet to be shredded after intermission.
   The show is is here performed by Eric Bloom, Mike Niedzwiecki, and Lucas Kwan Peterson, directed by Sarah Gurfield. This production might not feature the fully committed commedia antics of other versions, but these three actors bring something perhaps more engaging to the work: They present to their audiences gentler, warmer, more-welcoming personalities, sweetly and nonthreateningly coaxing full audience participation in the shenanigans while earning laughs.
   As the script permits, the onstage actor-characters are named for the actors who portray them. Eric (Bloom) is the somewhat fearless leader of the troupe, forced to corral the under-prepared Mike (Niedzwiecki) and the skittish Lucas (Kwan Peterson). Mike is in truth not the Shakespearean scholar he professed to be, Lucas is the company member stuck with playing all the female roles (of course he is the tallest of the three), and Eric must keep the audience in check and amused by old jokes. Hilarity thereby ensues.
   The original script, penned in those distant times of 1987, has of necessity warranted such updates as information derived from Wikipedia (some of it even accurate), as well as the use of smartphones. The style of humor, however, happily remains resolutely old-school.
   The script also allows for improvisation and audience interaction. These three actors, skilled at the form, are enough in tune with the audience that, at least in one case on the night reviewed, the persona given to an audience member was stunningly close to her real life one.
   The show has that expectedly ragtag feel, but someone put much thought into the details that keep the audience feeling safe. In creating the women, Lucas’s acting choices prominently feature vomiting to show feminine “upset”; the vomiting is, as the mechanicals say in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as ’twere any nightingale, so as not to frighten the ladies. Throughout, stage combat is cleverly deconstructed and warrants a show of its own. “Shakespearean” costumes (Madeline Keller) allow for swift changes in character and gender, and a vast selection of mirth-inducing wigs helps distinguish among the female characters.
   The impression ultimately left by this evening is of smart, genial fun—and the memory of three actors we wouldn’t mind seeing speak the speech in a “straight” production of a Shakespeare play, where they could reveal the full extent of their apparently plentiful classical skills.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 18, 2013

 
Yes, Prime Minister
Geffen Playhouse

Before you hear this production described as “sitcomish,” know it was written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, the writers of the 1980s British television series Yes Minister and then Yes, Prime Minister. And if the humor of those series was good enough to keep the Brits giggling, it’s good enough for this reviewer. This two-act stage version, in its American premiere, is directed by Lynn. British vibrancy and tomfoolery come to the stage, as the eponymous leader tries to lead his miscreant peoples. And that’s just his cabinet.
   The prime minister (Michael McKean) seems to be a dolt. His cabinet secretary (Dakin Matthews) is gleefully convinced he is. His principal private secretary (Jefferson Mays) tries desperately not to think so. His special policy advisor (Tara Summers) suspects the worst and thus is crisply prepared to cover him at every turn. Under Lynn’s measured direction, the cast is superb. These four masters of the double-take, the slow burn, the smirk, and the cringe pull off a bigger coup than the characters do. In particular, Matthews seems to have scrupulously studied the likes of the legendary British comedic actors.
   The plot is secondary. It involves something about a scheme to borrow money from the nation of Kumranistan, in turn helping the Kumranistani ambassador (Brian George) find his boss a bit of illicit entertainment for the night, and using the fluctuating measurements of global warming to cover all. A late-night visit by the director-general of the BBC (Time Winters) and a rasping interview by a veteran BBC presenter (Stephen Caffrey) put the PM at risk of losing his ultra-slim majority, but, as good leaders do, the PM gathers his wits at the right time and makes all well. At least for now. There’s always the chance of a Christmas special.  

A wee word of warning, hopefully not a spoiler, for the jumpy in the audience: That first thunderclap comes swiftly and loudly after the PM asks for a sign from God—which he then promptly misuses.
   Simon Higlett’s set design notably includes the window design and brick facing of the real-life home where the action takes place: the historical Chequers.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 14, 2013

 
Neva
A DouglasPlus Workshop Presentation, co-produced with South Coast Repertory and La Jolla Playhouse at the Kirk Douglas Theatre rehearsal room, Upstairs @ KDT

In near darkness, three actors perform a play about three actors trying to rehearse a play in near darkness—almost the same thing and yet so far from the same thing. This dichotomy and interrelatedness permeates all of Guillermo Calderón’s fascinating Neva, in its English translation by Andrea Thome.
   This production and the story take place in a rehearsal room. Calderón directs, lighting the 75-minute work with a single instrument: As the characters gather around their room’s only heat and light source, the actors here are illuminated by this “heater.” When one character adjusts the heater to warm himself, the actor is turning the light source toward his face. The little box is an ingenious bit of theater craft, not least of which because gentle light also emerges from its back, covering the audience with a soft blanket of visibility.
   The characters are Olga Knipper, real-life widow of Anton Chekhov, and two fellow actors: the well-born Aleko and the well-worn Masha. The skilled actors playing these three are Sue Cremin, Ramón de Ocampo, and Ruth Livier, respectively. Cremin crafts that difficult creature: the actor of fragile ego and enormous self-absorption who nonetheless earns the audience’s interest and sympathy. De Ocampo gives his character a hint of leading-man swagger, while happily delving into the “theater games” the trio plays in the rehearsal. Livier gives Masha the characteristics of a third kind of actor: a little hyper, a little too eager to fit in with the senior company members, a little too overtly reactive to everything happening that day.
   The characters are rehearsing in St. Petersburg on Jan. 9, 1905. That date has since become known as Bloody Sunday, on which demonstrators were killed, believed to be the start of the “violent phase” of the Russian Revolution. Art and politics, in theory, are separated by the walls of the theater but, in keeping with Calderón’s theme, deeply affect each other.
   Outside, the country is in meltdown. Inside, the characters tame—or develop—their emotions by enacting and re-enacting milestones in their lives. They discuss acting techniques such as “substitution” and improvisation, but they tear themselves down. They graphically describe sexuality, but they ethereally describe emotional attachment. They talk of champagne, but they swig vodka throughout. Olga and Masha, names Chekhov often gave his characters, were, in real life, the names of his wife and sister, respectively. Is Calderón showing us the push-pull of marriage and blood family?
   At the play’s end, Masha ponders: “How many times can one say I love you and I love you not? I’m tired of it? How many times can you cry and claim truth onstage? And be more real and find new symbols? Enough. It’s already 1905, and I believe that theater is finished. This is not the 19th century anymore, capitalism has machines now.” She could easily be speaking about yet more different yet related worlds: the difficulties of a stage performance and a prescient reference to the advent of film acting.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 14, 2013

 
A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream
Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

That merry band of contemporary comedia dell’arte folk known as Troubadour Theater Company has eschewed its usual annual debut of a new Shakespeare–rock ’n’ roll mashup in favor of reviving 2000’s disco-infused A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream—combining the Bard’s mystical woodland frolic with tunes from the 1977 John Travolta film. The current incarnation, once again helmed by Troubie founder Matt Walker, is more polished than the original but less surprising and not as funny.
   The preshow, disco-ball mood certainly is established as power-voiced Lisa Valenzuela rips through two 1970s standards: Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way” and the theme from “Car Wash,” more than adequately backed by the four-member Eric Heinly–led Troubie band, featuring the pick-perfect lead/rhythm guitar work of Linda Taylor. Once the show is on, Walker does an admirable job of balancing the progress of Shakespeare’s Troubie-accented plot with songs by the Bee Gees and others. Surprisingly, it is the to-be-expected commedia-esque breaking-the-fourth-wall mischief that fails to ignite, as if it is now merely part of the well-worn Troubie technique rather than the comedic inspiration of the moment.
   In a Troubie show, plot is secondary to characterization. Walker offers a devilish Puck, moving the opening scene along with a bouncy “Staying Alive,” setting up the royal wedding machinations of Theseus (Morgan Rusler) and Hippolyta (Suzanne Jolie Narbonne) and introducing the four wayward Toluca Lake-ian lovers: Helena (Beth Kennedy), Demetrius (Joseph Leo Bwarie), Hermia (Katherine Malak), and Lysander (Tyler King).
   Kennedy is a one-person comedy show as forever-scorned Demetrius-adoring Helena. She is counterbalanced perfectly by Malak’s ragingly sensual Valley girl Hermia, who has both guys lusting after her while she undulates through KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes.” Bwarie makes his mark as the strutting bantam cock Demetrius, while never letting an opportunity go by to remind everyone that he once starred in Jersey Boys.
   Walker emphasizes the clownish machinations of the four laborers-turned-thesps: Nick Bottom (Rick Batalia), Flute (Rob Nagle), Starveling (Valenzuela), and Quince (Walker). In fact, nearly allof the short second act is devoted to their wedding-day performance of the tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe. These four are so determined to be hilarious that performance often disappears within a mish-mash of self-conscious improv, semi-slapstick, and impromptu one-upmanship that is more for their entertainment than for the audience’s.
   The into-the-woods shenanigans of king and queen of the faeries, Oberon (Matt Merchant) and Titania (Monica Schneider), are hindered by Merchant’s understated, under-volumed delivery. But Schneider’s spell-smitten seduction of Batalla’s Bottom after he has been afflicted with a head of a donkey is a sex-charged delight, highlighted by her renderings of “If I Can’t Have You” and “How Deep Is Your Love.” As per usual in a Troubie show, much of the fun derives from the talent, enthusiasm, and commitment of the complete cast ensemble numbers, blasting through such tunes as “We Know How To Do It” and the show closing “Disco Inferno (Burn Baby Burn).
Reviewed by Julio Martinez
June 11, 2013

A Man of No Importance
Good People Theater Company at Lillian Theatre

The first extended run of the tuner A Man of No Importance is a matter of some importance, as it inaugurates—in this era of folding companies and theaters in transit—a new enterprise: the Good People Theater Company, under the direction of the gifted veteran stager-choreographer Janet Miller. Taking on the countervailing winds (money drying up, expenses mounting, uninterest in live performance growing) is a brave and noble thing, and one wishes Miller and company well.
   The GPTC mission statement is a little vague at this point, the group’s reason for being seemingly pegged to Miller’s taste and enthusiasms. And one hopes the promised “focus on chamber musicals and small-cast plays” doesn’t presage yet another moribund round of superfluous The Last 5 Years and Frankie & Johnny revivals. That being said, many a robust company first saw life as the brainchild of a single artist, and Miller has been kicking around long enough at the service of others to have earned the right to open her own shop. She and the cohorts of Good People are good people; there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about what lies ahead.
   Indeed, the sheer selection of their inaugural work is evidence of interesting things ahead. A Man is a lovely, underappreciated 2002 effort from the creators of Ragtime (book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens), and it’s one of the most distinctive and impressive musicals of recent years. This time, the team was inspired by a little-seen 1994 film top-lining Albert Finney as Alfie Byrne, a meek, repressed bus conductor (and when was the last time you saw Albert Finney as a meek, repressed anything?), who suffers under Catholic guilt and is driven by passion for the writing of Oscar Wilde and his vehicle’s humpy driver Robbie, not necessarily in that order.
   The story counterpoints Alfie’s tentative efforts to don the green carnation and be true to himself (a common theme in McNally librettos) with the reactions of his friends and neighbors: many are shocked, a few supportive, and a surprising number ready to shrug off his “difference” in stride. All in all, this more or less event-less story is a far cry from natural tuner material, even given the affinity of Irish subjects to musicalization. A repressed mama’s boy could be the definition of a character who “doesn’t sing,” and it would be very easy to reduce the neighborhood folks to types, even cruel caricatures.
   Yet most of those pitfalls are avoided in the adaptation, which boasts wit and wisdom in the dialogue and bewitching balladry in the score. In the manner of James Joyce’s The Dead (as adapted by Richard Nelson) A Man captures a cross-section of humanity at one distinct period of time with precision and grace.
   It’s hard to understand why this musical has gotten so little traction since its Lincoln Center premiere. In any case, there’s no question the opening night audience at Lillian Theatre reacted with delight. Despite a last-minute cast change requiring an actor to carry a script, and the need to manage a cast of 15 through multiple short scenes, Miller’s staging is as fluid as her handling of the actors is sensitive. Stealing a march on next year’s touring production of Once, musical director Corey Hirsch superbly evokes small-town Irish life through a canny marshaling of violin, guitar, flute, and percussion. The Alfie of Dominic McChesney doesn’t quite break the heart—his discomfort and later his joy at giving his suppressed desires rein, seem superficial rather than deeply felt—but the ensemble throws itself into the proceedings with appetite and integrity. Keith Barletta is a sterling Robbie, and there’s strong support from Matt Stevens, Gail Matthius, and Audrey Curd, among others.
   It was smart, if risky, of Miller to present this ambitious work as part of the Hollywood Fringe, where it should stand out as a major undertaking against all the two handers and monodramas that will grace the next few weeks. The show, like Miller’s burgeoning endeavor, deserves encouragement and support.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
June 11, 2013

     
Ionescopade, A Musical Vaudeville
Odyssey Theatre


In 1960, British literary scholar Martin Esslin labeled the works of post–World War II playwrights Samuel Becket, Jean Genet, and Romanian-born Eugene Ionesco as Theater of the Absurd, based on Albert Camus’s concept of the absurd: “capturing the meaninglessness of existence.” Originally conceived by Robert Allan Ackerman in the early ’70s, the vaudeville-esque snackfest Ionescopade—as revised for the fourth time by Ackerman’s original collaborator Mildred Kayden (music and lyrics) and director-choreographer Bill Castellino—serves up semi-satisfying samplings of Ionesco’s jaundiced doomsday themes as tuneful, lightweight divertissement, enthusiastically rendered by Castellino’s dedicated seven-member ensemble.
   Castellino staged the West Coast premiere of this work at the Odyssey in 1982. He and Kayden have been tinkering with it ever since, offering subsequent stagings at the Smithsonian (1995) and off Broadway (2012). Here impressively underscored by keyboardist–music director Gerald Sternbach and facilitated by the wordless onstage Writer—portrayed with endearing sad-sack affability by Alan Abelew—Ionescopade skips lightly over a dozen Ionesco works without landing solidly on any. Castellino is decidedly aiming at form over substance.
   Despite the often zany and colorful outpourings, lackluster musical material such as matricidal Mother Peep (adroitly performed by Kelly Lester, Jennifer Malenke, and Cristina Gerla) and Everyone Is Like Me (forcibly sung by Tom Lowe), do not offer substance, edification, or even silliness for its own sake. They merely take up time and space. Faring better is the complete cast outing on ragingly self-serving Bobby Watson and Family, inventively choreographed by Castellino. Another successful routine, which would have been right at home on a burlesque stage, is The Cooking Lesson, featuring Joey D’Auria as the well-seasoned French chef.
   Fortunately, Ionesco’s relentless demonstration of the failed human effort to achieve relevance is in evidence. The Leader features a manically adoring Andrew Ableson, extolling the wonders of a leader who turns out to be headless. Ableson also effectively conveys the hopeless rage of the next victim of The Killer. Frenzy for Two offers D’Auria and Lester as a war-ravaged couple who only truly become terrified when the sounds of the bombardment cease. As a telling finale to the evening’s proceedings, the ensemble is dispatched, one by one, knocked off by an unnamed plague, leaving Abelew’s uncaring Writer to wonder amiably off to his own dehumanized oblivion.
   Castellino’s vision is impressively supported by the in-your-face production designs of David Potts (sets), Jeremy Pivnick (lights), Mylette Nora (costumes) and Joe Behm/Josie Griffin-Roosth (sound). But despite the historic affirmation Ionesco has achieved for his minimalist stage ethic, it is still disappointing there is no there there.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
June 10, 2013

  
Dead Man’s Cell Phone
International City Theatre

Sarah Ruhl’s slightly daffy but contemplative play takes a shot at our cell phone culture while examining human connections and the nature of love. Jean (Alina Phelan) is sitting in a cafe, ostensibly working on something, when a cell phone at the next table rings over and over, interrupting her concentration. Finally, she rises to encourage the man at the table to answer it. The problem is, he’s dead, and, in Ruhl’s world, a phone demands to be answered.
   With this simple premise, a story unfolds in which Jean begins to take ownership of the phone, and, in some ways, the life of the dead man. As she takes messages and meets people involved with him, she finds herself inventing things he said so as to make those people happy. We find out he is Gordon, with a brother Dwight (Trent Dawson); a mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (Eileen T’Kaye); a wife, Hermia (Susan Diol); and a very glamorous Other Woman/The Stranger (Heather Roberts).
   Ruhl has created a quirky set of characters for Jean to meet, but it is Phelan’s show all the way. She is endearingly earnest, and she makes plausible what might otherwise be the author’s implausible conceit. T’Kaye delivers a ditsy old broad as a nice foil for the pleasant but conventional Hermia and Dwight. Roberts dispatches her dual characterizations with good old-fashioned, movie-style panache.
   One of the highlights of the production is a superbly choreographed fight between Phelan and Roberts (fight coordinator Andrew Amani). As Jean is knocked unconscious, in a bit of magical realism, she meets Gordon, whose revelations and questionable morality shock her into embracing life and love.
   D Martyn Bookwalter’s set and Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting are streamlined for a series of scenes within the play. Kim DeShazo’s costumes for Roberts are perfectly executed. Director Richard Israel combines comedy and philosophy skillfully, mining the best aspects of Ruhl’s wit and the skills of his actors to produce a thoughtful piece with great audience appeal.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
June 10, 2013

Lillias White: A Woman on Love
Catalina Jazz Club

It’s not often that our town is blessed by a rare cabaret appearance by an artist the caliber of Lillias White, who is gracing Los Angeles with her amazing talent for two Mondays, her night off from August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. White leaves Bertha Holly’s apron and comfortable shoes behind and treats her eager audience to the incredibly sophisticated side of one of our generation’s greatest musical performers.
   Unlike her homegrown Bertha, the glamorous, urban White is all sequins and sparkles as she hits the stage with a dynamic new arrangement of “A Grand Night for Singing” that could make Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein join the walking dead and crawl through that dang corn as high as elephant’s eye just to see her interpret their tune. Backed by an excellent combo (Steven J. Robinson on drums, Kenny Echezin on guitar, and Jonny Morrow on bass), led by musical director Michael Orland (American Idol), and featuring Kojo Littles, Timorris Lane, and Jake Simpson delivering smooth background vocals, White provides a memorable evening with the help of this world-class talent.
   As an opening act, White’s co-star in Joe Turner, Keith David, does a standup set so chockfull of jokes so off-color they would make Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor blush. But, what’s special about his set is the way he morphs into every character in each joke, once again clearly revealing what a great actor he is even if his humor is enough to curl your grandma’s toes.
   From a precision tribute medley of signature Lena Horne classics to a showstopping rendition of Billie Holliday’s “Forbidden Fruit” to an indelible arrangement of Jules Styne’s “Make Someone Happy” that provokes a lot of hand-holding in the audience, White is a consummate entertainer and a vocalist whose phrasings and stylings set her way above most other cabaret performers. Yet above all, White brings something inimitably special to her adoring audience: a sense of welcoming us into her home, where she wraps us up in cozy blankets and feeds us on the nourishing wonders of her talent, warmth, and grace.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 8, 2013

 
Sleepless in Seattle—The Musical
Pasadena Playhouse

If you’ve ever had nothing else to think about and thus spent a second or two wondering if the 1993 film Sleepless in Seattle depended on Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan for its charm, this world premiere musicalized version of it provides your answer. Yes, it needed them for its success. Even that pair, however, couldn’t save this stage rendition.
   The musical’s book, by the movie’s co-scripter Jeff Arch, hews to the film, adding in music by Ben Toth and lyrics by Sam Forman. Naturally, it includes songs for bereaved father Sam and son Jonah, journalist Annie and her soon-to-be-erstwhile fiancé Walter, and their various friends, bosses, siblings, dates, homeless folk, and whomever else wanders across the stage and is thus apparently in need of the emotional release of his or her own song.
   Those songs are at least bland enough to not be memorable by reason of awfulness—except for the lyrics of one clunker that includes a refrain of “yeah.” Oh, yeah, it does. So, Sleepless in Seattle—The Musical didn’t warrant an 11-o’clocker like “No One Is Alone.” But this Sleepless does nothing to embrace the sounds of the 1990s, even though the story remains stubbornly set in that decade.

That setting is a choice, and a defensible one. But it begs 1990s choreography, which is unfortunately provided here, by Spencer Liff, in all its gawdawful self-consciousness. Perhaps someday everyone will conclude that those are moves best left to historical study only. Meantime, here they’re performed in particular by Jonah (a sturdy Joe West, who has a better future in the performing arts) and Sam’s buddy Rob (Todd Buonopane as the comic relief and such a welcome energy on the stage).
   But this production will never loft with its charmless leads. Perhaps director Sheldon Epps toned down the performances of Tim Martin Gleason as Sam and Chandra Lee Schwartz as Annie. The audience would be more likely to root instead for a romance between Sam’s sister (were she not married), played by the lively Lowe Taylor, and Walter, played by the sturdy Robert Mammana—none of our business why these two performers weren’t given the lead roles.
   Gleason is lackluster, selling nothing beyond a lightly sketched character based on a movie character. Schwartz is bland, and so oddly ageless that at times we might wonder whether she’s just too young for this story. But all might be forgiven if these leads had soaring, mellifluous voices. He doesn’t, and she hit enough off-pitch notes to cause audible gasps—from this reviewer.

Epps staged the piece with scaffolding and spiral staircases that puzzle as often as they establish locations. But more distracting are video screens, many of the ones around the proscenium arch too brightly lit and some of them occasionally ill used—as when Annie is supposedly driving but is apparently being followed by a tree. Dr. Marsha, the radio host, is shown in silhouette; her chin-length bob gives her profile a massive chin. And so forth.
   Just in case the audience doesn’t know what the show is about, midway through the second act the creators insert a song about searching for connection. Even the most avid of theatergoers might, by this time, be wishing for connection with the exit doors.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 5, 2013

 
Dying City
Rogue Machine

Dying City is, if memory serves, the first LA has seen of the remarkable output of playwright Christopher Shinn in almost a decade. It’s also the latest in a series of small-cast shows at which Rogue Machine has proved itself to be peerless. Both are reasons to make immediate plans to attend this timely and emotionally draining work. And then to demand more Shinn of our local impresarios.
   This distinctively American playwright has received most of his attention in London. The Shinn specialty is linking the politics of personal relationships, especially in a gay versus straight context, with the politics of the post-9/11 West, all of which you would think would put his plays in nonstop demand. Yet they have been hard to come by unless you live in London or New York, a discouraging fact that may soon change when his college-bullies melodrama Teddy Ferrara, which did well in Chicago awhile back, becomes more widely available. But who knows? One hoped in vain Now or Later, in which a presidential candidate has to cope with a gay son and his non–P.C. extracurricular activities, would surface during the past election year.
   Certainly this Rogue Machine triumph should prompt LA producers to give Shinn a good hard look—first perhaps at Picked, the story of a young actor tapped for a big movie lead and a natural fit for our town; and then to the rest of his provocative and always stimulating oeuvre.

Dying City is a two-hander and a pas de trois, as Gotham therapist Kelly (Laurie Okin) enacts alternating scenes with twin brothers. In 2004, husband Craig (Burt Grinstead), a pro-war serviceman, is about to leave the next morning for one more, voluntary, Iraq tour of duty. Eighteen months later, well-known film and stage actor Peter (Grinstead again) pops in unannounced, having not seen Kelly since Craig’s funeral some months before. There’s more than meets the eye in the marriage as Craig packs up to ship out; meanwhile, in 2005, Peter has taken an intermission powder from his Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and he has brought along not just familial but also career and sexual baggage to plop into his sister-in-law’s lap.
   The notion of an actor’s having to pop in and out to make costume, hair, and manner changes sounds more appropriate to a Ken Ludwig farce than to a serious drama about America’s ambivalences over war and sexuality. But it all plays brilliantly, partly because Craig and Peter’s differing polarities work on Kelly’s mind in complex and clashing ways; it makes perfect psychological and dramatic sense for the two men to flit in and out of her consciousness.
   But mostly it works because the playing and direction are so superior. It’s astonishing to watch Grinstead create two wholly different characters—different from top to toe—with each new entrance. Okin matches him every step of the way, believably limning a whirlwind of discoveries and conflicting emotions even when she’s given no lines to convey them. Each pair of characters carries full, rich history into their encounters, and it cannot be easy for either thesp to manage the time-twisted given circumstances of discontinuous scenes. Yet they do so in a way that will take away the breath of anyone who knows, from the inside, what it is for an actor to inhabit one character in real time, let alone two in two different real times.

Meanwhile, Michael Peretzian’s helming is the kind where you’re absolutely unaware of his hand, yet you’re absolutely certain he was critical to the work’s success. Take Peter’s initial late-evening appearance on Kelly’s doorstep, for instance. I’m trying to remember when, in either theater or film, I last saw such a believable unplanned interaction between two characters. Memory fails me. The moments of overlapping dialogue, the pauses that mesh and clash, the emotional roller coaster even a brief exchange can turn into—all of it reveals a director’s talents and taste, no question.
   Then too, as Dying City moves along, the rhythms are impeccable. You never get the impression that each scene is beginning as soon as Grinstead can throw on shirt or toss off robe; rather, you sense that the director has determined how the music of the scenes must operate and is shaping the movements like those of a symphony. This show has a heartbeat that’s set by conductor Peretzian and carried out by virtuoso actors in a way that is very, very rare on any stage.
   It would be unfair to say anything more about the play’s themes and narrative surprises, because Dying City relies on an audience member’s active engagement in the here and now. Throughout the play, what we think we know is suddenly transformed by that which we didn’t know but all at once perceive. Like life, kinda. The less you know about what goes on here, the more its spell will work on you. All you need to know is that it’s terrific, that the audience space is limited, and that it won’t run forever.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
June 4, 2013
The Scottsboro Boys
Ahmanson Theatre

This production opens with a woman sitting on a bus bench, holding a pastry box. The aroma from the box seems to give her a Proustian memory. Suddenly, a troupe charges through Ahmanson Theatre, heads for the stage, and begins to tell the tale of the Scottsboro boys. The story of the real-life pretense at justice for nine Southern black teens in the 1930s unfolds, but not in documentary form.
   How could anyone turn this horror into a musical? How could anyone set up the audience to laugh until the chair is pulled out from under us? And yet, the power in this style of history lesson feels familiar. Doesn’t Cabaret give its audiences the same punch in the gut, singing and dancing a path through the monstrous psychology of Nazi Germany?
   Of course it does. The Scottsboro Boys comprises music and lyrics by Cabaret’s John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson. In the hands of these three, the storytelling is even fiercer than it could be in a documentary. The glib lies that put nine young men—two of them at age 13—in prison for nearly a decade hang heavily over the production, which uses the minstrel-show style as a lurid metaphor to mock the American South’s legal system in the 1930s.
   Susan Stroman directs. The (presumably necessary) excesses of The Producers are not found here. Instead, she creates a sleek, purposeful, powerful storytelling machine. Her show’s minstrel elements are ugly in meaning but full of theatrical beauty. Her staging is deceptively simple, using hard-backed chairs that fit together to form boxcars and jail cells and courtrooms. Her choreography shows off the ample skills of her cast, but more important it creates emotional reactions in the audience.

The performers who give so much of themselves to re-create the Scottsboro nine likewise focus first on the storytelling and its emotional impact. But, every so often throughout the production, their craft attracts our attention, though the actors—to the credit of Stroman and her cast—never play “angry.”
   The musical’s “lead” character is Haywood Patterson. Over the course of his imprisonment, he was given literacy by the 13-year-old Roy Wright and eventually wrote his autobiography. Patterson is given a towering portrayal by Joshua Henry, while Clinton Roane gives Wright a tender one. Stunningly, at around 13 years old, Deandre Sevon plays the other 13-year-old, Eugene Williams, with the presence and skills of an adult.
   Christian Dante White plays Charles Weems, but he also plays Victoria, the dastard whose lies ruined the lives of the nine men, as well as the families and friends of those men. Gilbert L. Bailey II plays Ozie Powell, but he also plays Ruby, who initially also lied about a rape but who much later at least had the decency to recant. White and Bailey are vaudevillian yet realistic in their distaff portrayals.
   Completing the nonet, Christopher James Culberson plays the protective Andy Wright; Justin Prescott plays the ailing, hardworking Willie Roberson; Cedric Sanders plays the eventually pardoned Clarence Norris; and David Bazemore plays the nearly blind Olen Montgomery, whose eyeglasses were broken on the day of his arrest and who was at last given a new pair after two years.
   These talents are surrounded by other spectacular performances. Trent Armand Kendall plays a bow-legged white sheriff and an aged white prosecutor; JC Montgomery plays attorney Samuel Liebowitz, who gave his time and knowledge to the nine. These two performers also take on minstrel stock characters. The two are not merely triple threats, because they make good on those threats, with convincing acting, beautifully voiced singing, and feat-filled dancing. The luminous Hal Linden plays the minstrel show’s Interlocutor.
   Who, then, was that woman (C. Kelly Wright in a selfless performance) on the bus bench who opened the play? Let’s just say she was someone who knew her place. But there’s more to her presence than who she is. This musical points out something about memory, about understanding history, about reminding each of us why we need to say, “Never again.”

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 4, 2013

 
A Fried Octopus
Bootleg Theatre

A gossamer, dreamlike feeling  permeates Bootleg Theater’s homegrown dance-performance art piece A Fried Octopus, in which an absinthe-driven Toulouse Lautrec (a considerably taller Kirk Wilson) conjures visions of the models the tortured artist made legendary—while ruminating in a rambling blur about the mercurial power of art and where it can be found. Created by director Justin Zsebe and Bootleg artistic director–performer Alicia Adams from real-life writings all the way from La Belle Epoque to the contemporary musings of David Lynch, this piece was developed with the participation of these actors, and each is lucky to have the collaboration of such brave artistic souls.
   Light and beauty breaks through the oppressive darkness of Lautrec’s hallucinatory visions, symbolized inventively by the participants literally breaking through the layers of draped translucent plastic strips that dominate Jason Adams’s otherworldly set—this in an effort to make the audience privy to watching the intricacies of the painter’s mind unlocking in a series of ADHD-fed stream-of-consciousness revelations as he contemplates the world around him.
   It is a bold, courageously conceived concept and often proves fascinating to scrutinize, especially as lit by François-Pierre Couture’s seemingly LSD-inspired, ever-changing, clearly organically motivated lighting design that strikes at our emotions.
   Still, all the elements that should fascinate are here but somehow do not reach out to us to bring us along on the journey. It’s as though we are watching a 90-minute exercise in an Ann Bogart master class, fun to observe but without much connection to truly move us.
   The ensemble is boundless in its collective enthusiasm, though not all performers are on the same page nor do they deliver their message in the same rhythm. Wilson, Michael Dunn, and Will Watkins are the most successful at breaking through the private cerebral zaps of realization to pull their audience into their discoveries, and Kera Armenderaz does an especially memorable job interpreting an old standard torch song a cappela.
   A Fried Octopus looks like it was exciting to create and experience coming to fruition; if only there had been more emphasis in engaging the audience enough for us to be able to join in on the fun and not be left as vaguely amused voyeurs.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
June 4, 2013

 
Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Pantages Theatre

Anyone who thinks national tours are always done on the cheap need only take a quick gander at the Pantages’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the musical version of the 1994 cult cineclassic whose title begins The Adventures of…. Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner justly won an Oscar for their array of outré gowns, towering hairstyles, and kinky footwear, but honestly, the stuff they’ve sewn together for this tuner makes their film wardrobe look like so many sack suits. The show is RuPaul’s wet dream, each look more outlandish than the next but all executed with droll wit and a boatload of investor cash. Admittedly, the sets appear against a dull array of seedy pink backdrops and borders with all seams showing, but so they did on Broadway, too.
   The glamour beneath the eye-popping lights is undeniable. I daresay the only show in town more exciting must be the one backstage, as all of those clothes and accessories are laid out, put on, and set aside at lightning speed by a company of 22, boot by sequined boot. The unsung Priscilla corps of dressers and stagehands surely deserves some kind of award, or at least a raise.
   Musically, the show outdoes the film by a country mile as well. Stephan Elliott, the pic’s writer-director, and Allan Scott have ransacked the ’70s and ’80s jukeboxes for every pop ballad (“True Colors”), disco hit (“Boogie Wonderland”) and self-affirmation anthem (“We Belong”) any licensee was willing to release to them. The result is a nonstop parade of glorious tunes or appalling crap—depending on your point of view—played by Brent Frederick and his little band as if every one were a showstopper and danced the same way; and damned if most of the numbers don’t stop the show, and most pleasantly too.

With so much flamboyant fun to be had, it seems almost churlish to complain about the storytelling, but duty compels. The first casualties of any good film’s transformation into a musical tend to be delicacy, understatement, and density of feeling, and indeed none of those qualities have made it through the librettists’s distillation and vulgarization process for Broadway. The highs of the trek from Sydney to Alice Springs are higher than ever, but none of the lows resonates. None of it seems to matter much, to the characters or to us.
   This extends to the acting, as well. Flighty Felicia, played by Guy Pearce lookalike Bryan West, comes the closest to re-creating the original prototype, but her emotional demands are the lightest by far; she’s just a girl who wants to have fun. The ambivalence of Tick (Wade McCollum) regarding his lifestyle and wife and son is just fuzzy (to be fair, Hugo Weaving struggled a bit here as well); and Scott Willis completely jettisons the bitterness and pain Terence Stamp brought, so mysteriously and unforgettably, to the widowed transsexual Bernadette. Looking remarkably like the old-time movie actress Lizabeth Scott, Willis is just a haut-Broadway diva looking for l’amour.
   Our three headliners go through the motions without cutting very deep. The queens’s barbs at each other, which gash in the film, have lost their sting. It’s all in fun now, because We Are Family and so on. But if they can’t truly pierce one another’s hearts, they can’t do likewise to ours.
   None of that will bother you much during the two and a half hours of Priscilla, so intoxicating is all the showbizzery. You won’t find a harder-working or more genial ensemble anywhere in town, that’s for sure. They flit—I think that’s the verb I’m looking for—from drag divas to oil riggers to clichéd foreign tourists (who, yes, squint and carry cameras) with gusto and unflagging energy as they reflect good will, sell the tacky numbers, and shine it on for everything the material is worth.

Yet all of that, too, comes at a price. One of the major themes of the movie is found in the repeated contrasts between the shaky but defiantly plucky drag queens and the rest of Australia in all its sweaty, misogynistic, homophobic, redneck glory. The nation, Adventures seems to be saying, is still trying to invent itself, still trying to carve out a civilization from a rude, humdrum backwater, in which the diva brigade is meant to be seen as something of a vanguard as it lets its freak flag fly, whatever the consequences.
   In the musical, stabs are made in that direction. The drunken road gang still beats up Felicia when she dares to flirt, and the townies still paint “Fuck off, faggots” on the side of the bus. Yet with everyone singing and dancing within an inch of their lives, where’s the contrast? Even the vicious bigots get a sprightly pop hit to perform: John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
  Constant juxtaposition of calloused hands and velvet gloves gives the movie version incredible bite and texture. But in the musical, we know that every bigot is just waiting to race offstage and jump into heels and Lee Press-on Nails again. The spectacle has no more bite than the Electric Parade at Disneyland.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
May 30, 2013
 
Fool for Love
T.U. Studios


There are many obvious traps inherent in this iconic 1983 Sam Shepard play, and, despite a pair of generally sharply focused performances in the two pivotal roles, complemented by appropriately brave and often steamy staging by director Gloria Gifford, many of the traps have been fallen into headfirst in this production.
   Eddie (Chad Doreck) has traveled 2,840 miles to find his half-sister and longtime obsession May (Lauren Plaxco), who is trying to make a new life for herself working as a short-order cook somewhere in the dust and heat of the Mojave Desert. Eddie, it seems, can’t stop disappearing on May, nor can he keep his hands off other women—at least according to May’s active imagination. The raw sexuality the pair shares is the heart of the story, written sometime before the term codependent became the mantra for couples counselors everywhere. May is quick to tell Eddie to leave her alone—that is when she isn’t in her next breath pleading with him to stay. Even after May’s suspicions prove correct when his current paramour arrives in her new Mercedes to shoot up the front of May’s motel room, the physical draw between the two makes it clear their unhealthy fixation with each other will never stop.
   Gifford does a phenomenal job exploring the powderkeg sexuality of the couple, and her actors are troopers for making it such a swelteringly hot experience for their audience. Doreck and Plaxco are surely powerhouse actors, especially evident in the impressive 11th-hour monologues, but they are also a bit misguided.

Remember, there are those traps. If Doreck didn’t work so hard limning the standard aw-shucks cowboy persona, his performance would be infinitely more successful; and someone, most probably the director, should tell Plaxco she doesn’t need to shout every line in this intimate space as though she is trying to reach the back rows at Stratford. It’s too easy for Shepard’s dialogue to devolve into shouting and grabbing without finding the subtle subtextual nuances of the couple’s rollercoaster ride of a relationship, something essential to keep things engaging without producing a massive headache.
   As the Old Man, Robert May does little besides reciting his lines without much clarity about why his occasionally intrusive character is included in the storyline. Zach Killian, as May’s current date, gets comfortable way too quickly when hanging out with May and her precariously stalking half-brother, especially after trying at first glance to beat the shit out of Eddie.
   Still, this Fool for Love is certainly salvageable with a little rethinking about how the relationship between Eddie and May transitions on a dime from dangerous to passionate to even sweet. According to the program, this production was developed from a scene in Gifford’s acting class. So the director might have fallen into yet another trap: looking at the progress her students have made since studying with her without taking more into account how the actors playing these two major characters should be guided. Less yelling, more real loving in their steamy sexual couplings, and this could be a major revival of a great play that so deserves to be completely understood.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
May 29, 2013


The Fantasticks
South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage

Not only does helmer Amanda Dehnert’s take on The Fantasticks at South Coast Rep justify yet another revival of an overfamiliar warhorse, but it also reminds us of the fundamental reasons the Tom Jones–Harvey Schmidt valentine has been a perennial for more than 50 years and is likely to remain one.
   “This man is a magician!” explains papa Hucklebee (Gregory North) in introducing our suave narrator-compere El Gallo (Perry Ojeda), who will engineer the mock kidnaping scheme designed to bring Luisa (Addi McDaniel) and Matt (Anthony Carillo) together in true love. Dehnert takes that quite literally, turning the corny emcee and his Mute pal (Nate Dendy) into a Penn and Teller act featuring a slew of sleight of hand and vanishing illusions.
   The prestidigitation is pulled off with great aplomb by the dandy Dendy. The best news is that the trickery amounts to no distraction. Quite the contrary, it taps right into the musical’s main themes of illusion versus reality.
   Matt and Luisa are already in love when the story (inspired by an Edmond Rostand original) begins, but it’s a phony love, a fakery cooked up by fantasizing adolescents reared on fairy tales and heroic epics. Their love needs testing and a cold dose of reality if it is to endure; Dehnert masterfully pulls back from all the magic just when the plot needs her to do so. Even those who have seen The Fantasticks endlessly over the years will be struck by how lucid and moving it is in this interpretation.
   They’ll also be amazed at how relaxed and poised the performances are—terrific work all around, especially from Scott Waara and North as the two dads— and the splendid musical direction from Dennis Castellano. There’s a tender sense of valedictory in longtime SCR veterans Richard Doyle and Hal Landon Jr. as the hapless hams Henry and Mortimer. But any sense of fading careers is just one more “Fantastick” illusion. These two redoubtable thesps are as hale, hearty, skillful, and welcome as ever.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
May 29, 2013

The Crucible
The Antaeus Company

In this version of Arthur Miller’s evergreen play, co-directors Armin Shimerman and Geoffrey Wade give us theater as the Greeks might have seen it. The two directors block the actors to face the audience, rather than one another, at almost all times. Here it’s as if the actors were in the rehearsal room, the eye “contact” shifting as if the characters were communicating with one another while facing a mirror.
   Why doesn’t this work? Audiences have expectations, and many want their actors to face each other. Adding to the meta-theater feel—or in this case perhaps meta-rehearsal feel—actors involved in an upcoming scene sit upstage, subtly watching the action. Unfortunately, one might spend too long pondering the significance of the particular combination of actors there.
   On the other hand, why does the direction work? We can see the full force of the play in these actors, not half-hidden in their profiles, not in three-quarter “cheating” toward the audience, not in standing unnaturally close to each other or moving downstage center to signal, “This is an important moment.” Only two pieces of lighting design do that signaling here; hopefully, either they were board-operator error or are something to be changed over the run.
   The sole exceptions to the audience-facing concept are moments between John and Elizabeth Proctor. The couple’s intimacy—or lack of it—belongs to these two, privately, while the rest of Massachusetts butts in to everyone’s business and makes assumptions based on the manipulation by the town’s teen girls.

This play is, after all, Miller’s condemnation of witch hunts in general, and in particular that of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Shimerman and Wade’s direction makes this so clear. Names, reporting names, keeping a good name, signing one’s name—all seem significant without being spotlit by the line readings. So, too, the sandpaper that the Proctors’s marriage has become is given tangible layers by Bo Foxworth as a very human John and by Kimiko Gelman as a formerly ill, currently stretched Elizabeth.
   The directors couldn’t have operated this way with lesser actors. The cast knows what it’s saying, the language is articulated and it resounds. Shimerman’s ability to paint beautiful compositions shows, but it doesn’t overwhelm the subtle character work he and Wade have elicited from their casts. (The play is double-cast. “The Putnams” are reviewed here.) There’s an evenness in the contrasting characters that, rather than making the whole seem bland, keeps the archetypes involvingly human. The smug-yet-insecure-televangelist portrayal of Reverend Parris by John Allee counterbalances the sensible nobility of Dawn Didawick’s Rebecca Nurse. The seductively bullying Abigail Williams created by Nicole Erb reflects the evil side of young America; the ice-breaking performance of Philip Proctor leavens and brings tenderness to the careworn Giles Corey. The scales fall from Reverend Hale’s eyes in the work of Ann Noble—the reverend’s Christian name changed to Jean here—so why, oh, why couldn’t they fall from the eyes of the obdurate Gov. Danforth, in a chilling portrayal by James Sutorius?
   The costuming seems relatively modern, resembling rehearsal attire. What the audience gives up by the way of buckled shoes and pilgrim collars, we gain in the ability to see in full the reactions of these townspeople living a life far too similar to ours. And although nearly every American theatergoer has seen a Crucible—or been in it at some grade level—it’s an honor to see it done this well.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 29, 2013


Heart Song
Fountain Theatre

Stephen Sachs’s flamenco-infused comedy/drama Heart Song reveals a pair of agendas, neither of them fully realized. The first act serves as a primer on the art of flamenco—its form, history, mysticism, and spiritual depth. The second act deals primarily with the cathartic emotional journey of Rochelle (Pamela Dunlop), a middle-aged Jewish woman who must face and deal with her unresolved feelings for her mother on the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death. Helmed at a measured, rhythmic pace by Shirley Jo Finney, the first act informs the second act but doesn’t illuminate it.
   The center of this play’s attention is Rochelle—single, out-of-shape, and living in Manhattan—who is prodded by her Japanese-American masseuse Tina (a tentative Tamlyn Tomita) into taking a flamenco class for women who are past the physical prime of their lives. The class is taught by Katerina (Maria Bermudez), an undulating flamenco guru whose aim is not to merely teach dance steps but to unleash each woman’s inner duende: the spirit of evocation that comes from a deep inner voice as a physical/emotional response to the music.
   Bermudez’s Katerina effectively claps, stomps, prods, sings, coaxes, and coos at her adoring charges, including down-to-earth African-American nurse Daloris, played to the free-spirited hilt by Juanita Jennings, and a quartet of class regulars—Alicia (Andrea Dantas), Bernadette (Sherrie Lewandowski), Sarah (Mindy Krasner), and Elisa (Elissa Kyriacou)—who serve as an appealing response chorus to Katerina’s outpourings. Unfortunately, by the end of the first act, there is no evidence that these flamenco seminars have had any effect on Rochelle, who doesn’t learn to dance and remains curmudgeonly detached from the proceedings. Her duende remains locked away.
   The second-act dinner-party bonding of Rochelle, Tina, and Daloris over wine and cannabis quite believably loosens Rochelle up as she declares, “I haven’t had pot since McGovern.” As Rochelle takes the tentative steps toward revealing the deep pain and sorrow she has been suffering on the eve of the traditional unveiling of the tombstone for her mother, Sachs also includes the personal history testimonials of Tina and Daloris. It is a distraction that dilutes the potency of Rochelle’s revelation of the horrific suffering her mother endured and the facts of her early life, which Rochelle discovered only after her mother’s death.
   In the final scene at the cemetery, Finney inventively utilizes Katerina’s chorus as gravestones that evolve into a lively flamenco celebration of life and the freeing of Rochelle’s duende. Although her spiritual evolution is supposedly a result of her slight immersion into the soul of flamenco, it is easier to believe that Rochelle’s newfound happiness and emotional freedom is a result of finally having loving friends in her life—no matter what they dance.
   The designs of Tom Buderwitz (sets), Ken Booth (lights), and Dana Woods (costumes) serve the flow of this premiering work quite adequately. And the sound design of Bruno Louchoarn is a perfectly volumed complement to the proceedings, especially Bermudez’s programmatic but sultry choreography.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
May 28, 2013

 
The Royale
Kirk Douglas Theatre

Oh, how playwrights have tried to explain why we behave the way we do. Marco Ramirez takes his audience on that exploration in this world premiere. And even though a play about boxing might not sound universal enough, this one is tremendously satisfying in its intellectual and emotional study of the psychology of sports and racism.
   It is said to be “loosely inspired” by the legend of Jay Johnson, the first African-American boxer to win the heavyweight championship of the world—accomplishing it in this play by toppling a boxer named Bernard Bixby—holding the title from 1908 through 1915. But this is no straightforward biography. And, under the direction of Daniel Aukin, the sport’s brutality is rendered with artistry rather than brawn.
   On a stark wooden floor, surrounded by chairs on which the cast sits and serves as a musical Greek chorus, the action plays out, whether in the ring, gym, or hotel rooms (set design by Andrew Boyce). Lights serve as a backdrop but never hurt the audience’s eyes. We meet Jay (David St. Louis) as he fights young challenger Fish (Desean Terry). The two actors face the audience as they “box,” using their feet to stamp their punches, so we see the expressions on their faces and hear their thoughts throughout their bouts. Jay’s trainer Wynton (Robert Gossett) and the progressive white fight promoter Max (Keith Szarabajka) are in Jay’s corner, soon joined by Fish.
   Jay seems fearless, and in St. Louis’s stellar portrayal, he’s equal parts athlete and showman. Yet something is upsetting Jay, making him fearful and angry beneath the expert punches and counterpunches. What deeper battle is he fighting? Is he confronting racism, or is he a 9-year-old watching his sister’s desperate attempts to look like white girls? The psychology of an athlete, perhaps of all of us, comes into fascinating view.

The Royale of the play’s title was a horrific contest in which young black men would climb into a ring, blindfolded, and in essence fight for their lives, the “winner” stuffing his pockets with coins tossed into the ring. Jay’s trainer Wynton fought in them and won, and the take ran as much as a half-month’s wages. But, as Wynton observes, “To this day, ain’t a coin I hold in my hand that I don’t try to wipe the blood from.” So much for the thrill of victory, in this metaphor for sports and so much more.
   Gossett plays Wynton with a body broken by the fights of decades before. He can barely walk. So it’s even more heartbreaking when he tries to share his wisdom with Jay, and Jay rejects the advice, preferring to walk his own path. Diarra Oni Kilpatrick plays Jay’s sister, the actor and the character holding ample sway over the men.
   Ramirez calls the Bixby-Johnson fight “a contest 200 years in the making.” Looking back, it was unfortunately only one small step. Many more followed. The giant leaps wouldn’t come until perhaps 1964, and then perhaps 2008. So why is America still walking that path? Maybe that’s another topic for another Ramirez play.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 28, 2013

 
Fool for Love
T.U. Studios


There are many obvious traps inherent in this iconic 1983 Sam Shepard play, and, despite a pair of generally sharply focused performances in the two pivotal roles, complemented by appropriately brave and often steamy staging by director Gloria Gifford, many of the traps have been fallen into headfirst in this production.
   Eddie (Chad Doreck) has traveled 2,840 miles to find his half-sister and longtime obsession May (Lauren Plaxco), who is trying to make a new life for herself working as a short-order cook somewhere in the dust and heat of the Mojave Desert. Eddie, it seems, can’t stop disappearing on May, nor can he keep his hands off other women—at least according to May’s active imagination. The raw sexuality the pair shares is the heart of the story, written sometime before the term codependent became the mantra for couples counselors everywhere. May is quick to tell Eddie to leave her alone—that is when she isn’t in her next breath pleading with him to stay. Even after May’s suspicions prove correct when his current paramour arrives in her new Mercedes to shoot up the front of May’s motel room, the physical draw between the two makes it clear their unhealthy fixation with each other will never stop.
   Gifford does a phenomenal job exploring the powderkeg sexuality of the couple, and her actors are troopers for making it such a swelteringly hot experience for their audience. Doreck and Plaxco are surely powerhouse actors, especially evident in the impressive 11th-hour monologues, but they are also a bit misguided.

Remember, there are those traps. If Doreck didn’t work so hard limning the standard aw-shucks cowboy persona, his performance would be infinitely more successful; and someone, most probably the director, should tell Plaxco she doesn’t need to shout every line in this intimate space as though she is trying to reach the back rows at Stratford. It’s too easy for Shepard’s dialogue to devolve into shouting and grabbing without finding the subtle subtextual nuances of the couple’s rollercoaster ride of a relationship, something essential to keep things engaging without producing a massive headache.
   As the Old Man, Robert May does little besides reciting his lines without much clarity about why his occasionally intrusive character is included in the storyline. Zach Killian, as May’s current date, gets comfortable way too quickly when hanging out with May and her precariously stalking half-brother, especially after trying at first glance to beat the shit out of Eddie.
   Still, this Fool for Love is certainly salvageable with a little rethinking about how the relationship between Eddie and May transitions on a dime from dangerous to passionate to even sweet. According to the program, this production was developed from a scene in Gifford’s acting class. So the director might have fallen into yet another trap: looking at the progress her students have made since studying with her without taking more into account how the actors playing these two major characters should be guided. Less yelling, more real loving in their steamy sexual couplings, and this could be a major revival of a great play that so deserves to be completely understood.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
May 29, 2013


Mahmoud
Whitefire Theatre

It is understandable why Canadian-based thesp Tara Grammy’s Mahmoud—co-scripted by Grammy and Tom Arthur Davis, helmed by Davis—received solo-performance honors at 2012 Toronto and New York Fringe festivals. Iranian-born Grammy offers an exuberant, hyper-polished, pitch-and-rhythm-perfect sojourn within the lives of three disparate Toronto immigrants—an aging, relentlessly upbeat Iranian engineer-turned–cab driver; a romance-smitten homosexual Spaniard; and a callow Iranian-Canadian teen actor wannabe—each living out “the day-to-day grind in a large metropolitan city.”   Despite duo Fringe kudos, there is not enough substance to this piece to sustain a regular theatrical run. Her adroit performance skills notwithstanding, Grammy’s sketchy, thematically incomplete character studies need to be fleshed out and amplified. At a paltry 50 minutes, the current staging of Mahmoud at Whitefire Theatre barely serves as an introduction.
   Ever-vivacious Grammy touches on a number of sensitive issues: inherent racism and media-driven distrust of Middle Eastern immigrants; ignorance-driven homophobia among immigrants; preteen social angst amplified by minority status; and the historical credibility gap separating the original Iranian immigrants who fled their country following the overthrow of the shah of Iran in 1979 and the current, social media–savvy young Iranian immigrant adults who have been raised under the influence of Western culture.
   The unifying force in this piece is the title character, Mahmoud the cab driver, who at some point shares his taxi with each of the other characters. Grammy effortlessly flows into the persona of this colorful refugee of a prosperous, upper-middle-class existence under the shah who became a persecuted victim of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalist Islamic regime. Intermingling Grammy’s exquisite timing with the thematically supporting production designs of Jenna Koenig (lights) and Mike Conley (sound), helmer Davis seamlessly moves the dramatic throughline forward, chronicling Mahmoud’s ongoing struggle to remain upbeat and positive while plagued by the ongoing nightmares of his obliterated former life. Unfortunately, there is not enough thematic substance within Mahmoud’s travails—present and past—to give him credence as a three-dimensional character.

The same can be said of Grammy’s not-so-adroit flamboyant Spanish-born gay romantic who is pining for the return of his Iranian lover so they can be married. Sporting an implausible, muddled Castilian accent, this character has no backstory to make believable his manic assertions that his boyfriend—a product of one of the more homophobic societies on earth—is going to wed him and take him home to meet the family. There is also an unworkable taxicab confrontation between the Spaniard and Mahmoud. It would be equally plausible to believe Mahmoud throws his passenger out of his cab because he is homophobic or due to the Spaniard’s relentlessly obnoxious behavior.
   What plays to near perfection is Grammy’s 13-year-old Tara, suffering all the normal early teen social woes, further plagued by the knowledge that with her dark skin and hair, she can never compete with the blonde beauty who naturally beats her out for the role of Tinker Bell in the school play and the heart of the class hunk.
   The highlight of this production is the taxi ride argument between adult Tara, who has had the privilege of enjoying many visits to modern-day Iran, and Mahmoud, who hasn’t seen his home country for more than a quarter century. Davis stages the scene to haunting effect. It is achingly poignant that long-suffering Mahmoud cannot appreciate this young woman’s transcendence over history, while Tara cannot express empathy for the self-built wall of terror Mahmoud has built that permanently places him in exile. This scene should serve as a potential beginning to a second act that continues the path of Tara and Mahmoud to discover and reveal in-depth resolutions to their journeys.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
May 20, 2013

Cooperstown
The Road Theatre’s New Second Home: The Road on Magnolia

In 1962, powerhouse baseball player Jack Roosevelt Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. As the first black player to break the color line in Major League baseball, his accomplishments over his lifetime in sports are praiseworthy.
   Playwright Brian Golden has taken this historical moment and framed a story that addresses issues of civil rights along with the personal stories of his characters. Junior (Cecil Burroughs) works in Jimmy’s Diner in Cooperstown. Junior is dreaming of a day when the largely absentee owner Jimmy Fletcher would name his manager, a role Jimmy already holds without the designation. His waitresses are Sharree (Jamye Grant), his sister, and Dylan (Alexa Shoemaker), a spunky tomboy who loves baseball and can fire off statistics and opinions readily.
   Into the diner comes Huck (T. J. McNeill), a quirky baseball fan who has traveled all the way from Ohio to be present at the induction. He is immediately taken with Dylan because of her forthright manner and love of baseball that matches his. There are several plots addressed in the story. The most obvious—racial discrimination and civil rights—are at the center, but love, loyalty, and family also figure into the mix.
   As the induction day nears, Junior learns that Jackie Robinson and fellow inductee Bob Feller will be coming to the diner for lunch and photo ops. Junior is uncomfortable with this, but Sharree is militantly opposed. She has been protesting against discrimination, and her group wants to make a political statement. At this juncture, Fletcher’s wife, Grace (Ann Hu), arrives to let Junior know that if he refuses to go along with the scheme, he will be fired. Sexual tension exists here, and that relationship is also part of the story.

Burroughs, although almost too soft spoken, is thoroughly believable as a man looking for affirmation of his talents. His interaction with Hu delivers palpable tension as their history is revealed. Grant is also notable for her passionate characterization. McNeill and Shoemaker’s love story subplot nearly overwhelms the more serious racial narrative. They play well together, and you find yourself drawn to their reactions even when they aren’t front and center.
   Director Darryl Johnson’s light touch saves the story from being bombastic or melodramatic, even as the characters’ revelations of their secrets unfold. Very well cast, the ensemble is perfectly natural and engaging. Golden’s script has enough humor to offset the sometimes didactic history inherent in the story. It is a fine-tuned production inaugurating the Road Theatre Company’s second space, The Road on Magnolia.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
May 19, 2013

 
The Women
Theatre West

When ever-sarcastic Depression-era feminist Nancy Blake (Dianne Travis) accuses fellow Manhattan socialite Sylvia Fowler (Leona Britton) of having an “orgasm by gossip,” she is distilling the agenda underscoring playwright Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 all-female stage play, The Women, having an unsteady but still stageworthy revival at Theatre West. Helmer Arden Teresa Lewis’s labored effort to marshal her 17-member distaff cast through a dozen scene changes and myriad costumes does not always serve the flow of Luce’s dramatic throughline, but the text prevails. And it is a deliciously satisfying text.
   Having no real power or influence to control the society in which they live, Luce’s women of privilege feed on one another for their emotional nourishment. The current object of Sylvia’s cultured malice is life-contented wife and mother Mary Haines (Maria Kress), who unfortunately falls victim to the “good intentioned” machinations of the women she considers her good friends. Britton’s Sylvia glows as she manipulates events to make sure Mary learns that Mr. Haines is having his way with working-class salesgirl Crystal (Caitlin Gallogly). Kress exudes the proper poise and sophistication but doesn’t inhabit the persona of Mary, a demure, trusting innocent who eventually evolves into a take-charge warrior. Kress seems to be attempting to discover Mary as she goes along.
   What elevates The Women above the level of a mere high society cat fest is Luce’s seamless social counterbalance, offering up the reality of life for the have-nots who pamper these ladies of privilege. Performing as an ensemble unto themselves, Jeanine Anderson, Heather Alyse Becker, Melanie Kwiatkowski, Paula K. Long, and Sarah Purdam portray an assortment of maids, nannies, waitresses, salesgirls, beauticians, nurses, etc. who constantly indicate their opinions of the ladies they serve, as much with body language as with words. Long’s Nurse, who informs pregnant and pampered Edith (Anne Leyden) what it is like to bear children when a woman lives in poverty is a penetrating study in controlled bitterness.

Luce reveals that in the life and times she inhabited during the early part of the 20th century, the only difference between a society matron and a salesgirl is at what level each can find a man to take care of them. Mary’s mother Mrs. Morehead, portrayed with steely determination by Sandra Tucker, staunchly advocates that her daughter keep her husband at all costs, even with his infidelity. There is an equal determination oozing out of opportunistic Crystal—played to the hot-eyed hilt by Caitlin Gallogly—who utilizes all her youthful credentials to replace Mary as Mrs. Haines.
   The playwright also hints at a future when women just might be moving toward a greater freedom of purpose. She incorporates the expediency of a Reno Nevada divorce, made possible by the six-week residency statute enacted by Nevada in 1931. Travis’s free-spirited writer Nancy is proud to be a virgin in her 30s, untouched, unencumbered, and free to travel the world whenever she pleases. And for comedy relief, Luce throws in amour-smitten Countess De Lage (an endearingly dotty Jacque Lynn Colton), an independently wealthy four-time divorcee who keeps marrying and discarding men just to keep her love alive.
   The designs of David Offner (sets) and Valerie Miller (costumes) adequately evoke the period. And the ensemble should be credited for the dedicated manipulation of both with nary a mishap.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
May 14, 2013


The Beaux’ Stratagem
A Noise Within

The pedigree seemed so promising on paper. George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, for 400 years a certified crowd pleaser. First stab at tightening and adaptation done by Thornton Wilder, playwright of imagination and grace (Our Town; The Matchmaker). The job latterly completed by farceur Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor; Crazy for You). All performed under the aegis of celebrated local revivalists A Noise Within. The show looks great, too. Lovely costumes and fanciful wigs. If only it were funnier.
   A lack of intimacy hamstrings the endeavor. ANW’s recent hilarious The Bungler and The Comedy of Errors employed the full depth of the company’s deep thrust stage, bringing the wacky characters and their hijinks right down into our laps. Comic complicity is everything. Yet whenever I have seen ANW push the action against the back wall to maintain extensive contact with set pieces, they’ve gotten in trouble, and so they do here. We need to feel as one with the penniless beaux (Freddy Douglas and Blake Ellis) in their stratagems to marry for wealth. But director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s blocking shunts so much of the action upstage, in bedroom and barroom alike, that Beaux starts to feel like a genuine museum piece, i.e. something we’re straining to view through thick glass.
   Strain of various kinds is the principal reason the occasional chuckles too rarely turn into belly laughs, and the viewer’s hopeful rictus smile keeps defying translation into sound. Someone thought it would be a good idea to impose on the company a variety of thick accents, mostly Midlands. They sound authentic—coach Nike Doukas knows her dialects—but at the price of obvious struggle on the part of the cast. Also, hardly any cast member tosses off lines easily, or plays against the words. Frequent exceptions are the two male leads, played by Freddy Douglas and Blake Ellis; and Joel Swetow’s nobleman and Alan Blumenthal’s lackey, the latter two not onstage enough to make enough of a difference. But these four, not coincidentally, are the surest laugh getters.
   Farce requires airiness, exuberance, and surprise, none of which are easily captured when an actor is as constrained by her speaking pattern as by a period corset, and keeps getting asked to bark punch lines to hit the rear of the auditorium. The players work hard, and we have to work equally hard to stay with them. But when comedy becomes hard work—and at a running time, if that’s the phrase I’m looking for, of two and a half hours—you can’t be surprised when we workers are inclined to go on siesta or on strike. ANW’s Beaux’ Stratagem asks too much of us, for too little comic return.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
May 14, 2013

 
The Matchmaker
Actors Co-Op


By 1955, when Thornton Wilder penned this play, he had already gained great success, winning Pulitzer Prizes for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. This play had been written earlier as The Merchant of Yonkers, but when commissioned by Tyrone Guthrie to rework it for his company, Wilder changed it significantly by featuring Dolly Levi as a central character. It was a hit, made into a film of the same name, then the stage musical Hello, Dolly.
   By now most people know the story of the matchmaking machinations of the shrewdly enterprising widow, Dolly Gallagher Levi (Lori Berg), who sets her sights on the wealthy Yonkers merchant, Horace Vandergelder (Dimitri Christy). He has determined he will propose to a hat maker from New York, Mrs. Irene Malloy (Ellis Greer), but Dolly invents a wealthy young woman who is attracted to Horace and sets up a meeting at the Harmonia Gardens.
   In the meantime, Irene tells her young assistant, Minnie Fay (Katie Buderwitz), that she is planning to marry Horace to escape the tedium of making and selling hats. Just as she does this, into the shop arrive Horace’s chief clerk, Cornelius Hackl (Jeff Fazakerley), and apprentice Barnaby Tucker (Joseph Barone), who are hiding out from Horace’s discovering that they are in New York, as they were supposed to be minding the store in Yonkers.
   Other side plots in this comedy concern Horace’s niece, Ermengarde (Rory Patterson), who wants to marry Ambrose Kemper (Coy Benning Wentworth), an artist with no steady income, but Horace has forbidden the engagement and sent her to New York to stay with a friend of her mother’s, spinster Miss Van Huysen  (Deborah Marlowe). Further he has hired a tricky agent, Malachi Stack (Brian Habicht), to see that there is no trouble with Ermengarde. Stack and a cabman (Matthew Gilmore) get drunk, along with Irene, Minnie May, Cornelius, and Barnaby. From this point on, the farce becomes very humorous—mistaken identities, true love thwarted, and money as a subject of interest to all.

Berg and Christy deliver the goods as the two main principals. Greer and Buderwitz also are well-cast as the reckless milliner and her silly giggling assistant. Fazakerley and Barone have, by far, the most engaging roles as the two clerks out for adventure. Barone also delights with spontaneous gymnastics, much appreciated by the audience. Habicht is also a pro providing comic relief.
   Director Heather Chesley keeps the pace moving and manages her ensemble well. She has a deft touch, making the comic scenes believable for their lack of a heavy hand. Choreographer Julie Hall creates dancing between the scenes, adding lively music to the show. Costumes by Vicki Conrad are charming.
   This production is entertaining with a cohesive ensemble. The four acts move along swiftly, and the play ends satisfactorily with all the couples perfectly matched. Overall, this show handles Wilder’s wit well, and it is recommended for a cheerful night at the theater.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
May 13, 2013

 
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Mark Taper Forum

August Wilson is surely the most important American dramatist of the final two decades of the last century, a given that makes it so important to honor his memory with the kind of reverential productions his plays deserve. To say the Taper’s revival of this Wilson masterwork is worthy of this mantle is an understatement; it is a magnificent effort.
   Under the nurturing, subtly omnipresent leadership of director Phylicia Rashad, Joe Turner’s back with a vengeance. and Los Angeles is lucky to be able to again experience an impeccable production of what could be Wilson’s best work, part of what has been called his Century Cycle: 10 plays that chronicle the African-American experience, each representing a different decade and all taking place in the ever-evolving Hill District of Pittsburgh. Beginning with Gem of the Ocean, set in 1900, and ending with Radio Golf, Wilson’s last play taking place in 1997 (which debuted at the Taper shortly before its creator’s death), no one since O’Neill so clearly defined who we are as Americans, with all our spirit and all our warts right out there for all to see.
   Joe Turners Come and Gone is the second play in the cycle, set in 1911 in the kitchen and sitting room of Seth and Bertha Holly’s modest boardinghouse dwarfed by a massive, silky backdrop of the then-burgeoning Pittsburgh skyline and the Smithfield Street Bridge looming above the second floor of John Iacovelli’s evocative set. As Bertha (Lillias White) cooks and keeps her house in order in the most loving way possible, her husband (Keith David) oversees the antics of their boarders with what he’d like to be an iron hand, even if his inherent gentleness gets in the way of his attempts at authority. White and David are the heart of this production, leading the breathtaking ensemble cast with incredible spirit in a time when African-Americans were still caught between the end of slavery and a dubious—though promising—future. “The world got to start somewhere,” woebegone drifter Herald Loomis observes, his own once-solid faith in turmoil from living in the troubled times enveloping him. “I been wandering a long time in somebody else’s world.”
   Joanne DeNaut must be credited for her exemplary casting here. Glynn Turman as the neighborhood’s resident conjure man Bynum Walker; Gabriel Brown, January LaVoy, and Vivian Nixon as boarders who come and go, their stories peripheral to the others but equally as fascinating, are all golden and fiercely committed to telling Wilson’s tale. John Douglas Thompson is chilling and heartbreaking as Loomis, a man held by bounty hunter Joe Turner for seven years and now on the road with his daughter Zonia to find the wife (a knockout Erica Tazel in her 11th-hour appearance) he was forced to leave behind.
   Raynor Scheine is excellent as the Caucasian peddler who liberally peppers his stories with the “n-word” without a clue that it is offensive to his friends and, as the 10-year-old Zonia and her new, equally pintsized friend Reuben, Skye Barrett and Nathaniel James Potvin smoothly hold their own, acting alongside their veteran adult counterparts, surely another nod to the supportive and passionate hand of a majorly gifted director.
   This new mounting is resplendent in every way, alternately delicate and wildly boisterous, epic and humble. “I ain’t never found no place for me to fit,” one boarder confesses to another. “Seem like all I do is start over.” Our country has come a long way in the last 102 years, but thanks to Wilson’s rich, blessedly fervent storytelling and his charming, resilient characters who speak in simple yet lyrical terms, it’s easy to see we still have a long way to go.


Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
May 11, 2013

 
Hot Cat
Theatre Movement Bazaar at Theatre of NOTE

Throughout its first half, this production is a fun and intellectual reworking of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Where Williams “told” us, writer Richard Alger and director-choreographer Tina Kronis “show” us. Where in Williams’s version the childless Maggie, speaking to her husband, Brick, bewails the number of children his brother Gooper and sister-in-law Mae have produced in their sports-loving family, in this version Mae plays center to Gooper’s quarterback and snaps out the no-neck monsters, er, baby dolls, in quick succession. Where Maggie complains about the twee performances those kids put on at family gatherings, here Mae and Gooper are classic stage parents, their bodies urging and acting out the show as they watch the progeny they hope will inherit the family estate of Big Daddy and Big Mama.
   The dialogue could be Williams’s. Hot buttered biscuits earn a poetic description. And then biscuits get hurled in a thoroughly choreographed food fight followed by a thoroughly choreographed cleanup. Brick, accompanying himself on guitar, sings an impassioned ode to the “click” in his head. The performers do a physicalized ode to heat, some of it jocularly theatrical clichés, some of it unexpected yet descriptive movement, and some of it genuine sweating by the nonstop troupe.
   No 1950s realism here. The actors go all out for Kronis’s stylized movement and delivery. Crystal Diaz is a fiercely feline Maggie, and David Guerra wields Brick’s crutch as a fifth limb while he ensures the label on the Southern Comfort bottle always faces the audience. David LM McIntyre is the highly cheery, people-pleasing Gooper, and Jenny Soo is the smug Mae. Eric Neil Gutierrez, despite relative lack of age and girth, is a shadow-casting Big Daddy, and Blaire Chandler heads straight for 1950s screen queen as Big Mama.
   Yes, that’s the first impression—of tremendously amusing style but little substance. Where’s the grip in the gut normally felt at a Williams play? And then it happens, without announcement, creeping in on its cat paws. It seems to occur during what would be the Act II scene in which Brick undergoes what Williams described as “virtual vivisection” at the hands of Big Daddy. Alger and Kronis have not abandoned their comedic take (Brick’s pal Skipper may be a, gasp, communist) nor their whimsy (Maggie delivers comfort via an arrow laced with morphine). But the theater magic Kronis and Alger bring to the stage has suddenly enriched the story with almost overwhelming emotionality. The longed-for wrench of a Williams play has been provided. Indeed, this remantling of the classic might have out-Williamsed Williams.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 6, 2013

 
The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later
Chance Theatre

In October 1998, Matthew Shepard was attacked and brutally beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson in Laramie, Wyo. Shepard was tied to a fence and left to die. Though he didn’t die for several days, his injuries were too severe, and he remained in a coma until his death. He was targeted because he was gay, and at the subsequent trial the acts were deemed a hate crime.
   Following this story, which gained national attention, Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie to interview citizens about their views of this horrific crime. Those interviews turned into The Laramie Project, a play first performed in February 2000. For more than nine years, Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, advocated for hate crime legislation for LGBT individuals, including people with disabilities. Remarkably, the controversy surrounding this attempt began under President Bill Clinton, when the House of Representatives rejected his efforts to extend Federal hate crimes legislation. Later, a threat by President George W. Bush to veto a bill presented by John Conyers meant failure again. The Matthew Shepard Act was finally signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009.
   Prompted by the critical acclaim for The Laramie Project, Kaufman and several members of the original interview team returned to Laramie to re-interview some of the participants and to see what, if any, changes might have happened in the town. That visit begat the current play, also with a powerful impact.
   The most common thread this time around is their desire to move away from the notoriety and go forward. Sadly, 20/20 did a special, asserting that the killing was a drug deal gone wrong, and many townspeople eagerly welcomed that interpretation rather than the one in which an innocent young man was molested because of his sexual orientation.
   Director Oanh Nguyen stages the play on a raised platform stage with only chairs as props (scenic designer Fred Kinney). They have surrounded the actors with walls on which video projection (designer Joe Holbrook) can effectively serve as a colorful scene changer, from Wyoming views to prison walls. The eight-member cast (Jocelyn A. Brown, Robert Foran, David McCormick, James McHale, Erika C. Miller, Karen O’Hanlon, Brandon Sean Pearson, and Karen Webster) take on multiple roles as they portray the various citizens of Laramie.
   The ensemble is superb, and it is hard to single out individual performances for praise. The plethora of characterizations required range from passionate advocates to ignorant townspeople. This second production of the events surrounding the crime adds important characters to the lineup. One interview is with a priest (well-played by Robert Foran), who cautions the interviewers to see the murderers as people. The two, Henderson (James McHale) and McKinney (Brandon Sean Pearson), give voice to their thoughts after 10 years of incarceration. Both are chillingly realistic yet, through the prism of the priest’s eyes, victims of misfortunes in their own lives. Both actors are palpably disturbing.
   The play is more than an account of events. It attempts to explain the many ways in which people react to tragedy, from intellectualizing to denial. Nguyen plays it straight, letting the audience identify with characters or with the circumstances of the crime. Henderson’s portrayal is subdued, with regret and strange passivity, but Pearson, who elicits anger and pathos, delivers a memorable characterization. Kaufman’s rendering of this tragic story speaks most eloquently about the perils of diversity. While issues of equality play out in the media today, the personal face of ordinary people’s responses to such discrimination and hate crimes is fascinating. Kaufman and his co-writers Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber have produced a work that has sufficient gravitas to make a place for itself as a work of important political and social examination.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
May 6, 2013


Miss Julie
Geffen Playhouse

Neil LaBute’s brainstorm of setting Miss Julie in Prohibition-era Long Island syncs up with multiple ’30s-movie dreams, which in turn set off provocative sparks within August Strindberg’s 1888 fever dreams. Whatever your assessment of the updating, there’s no question that the Geffen Playhouse premiere offers a tremendous LA showcase for three much-vaunted Gotham talents: Lily Rabe, Logan Marshall-Green, and Laura Heisler.
   If Myung Hee Cho’s gleaming gray and white kitchen set reminds you of butler William Powell’s domain in My Man Godfrey, that seems totally apropos. LaBute and helmer Jo Bonney are clearly tapping into tropes and images of New Deal–era social satire, especially the farces in which a wisecracking servant squares off with a deb far above his station.
   Rabe’s Miss Julie is a throaty Katharine Hepburn in green flapper drag, alternately drawn to and repelled by her father’s footman John, embodied by Marshall-Green with studly self-possession and sneering Brooklyn patois (John Garfield is definitely indicated). Meanwhile, off to the side, John’s fiancée (Heisler) displays Nancy Carroll cuteness and Eve Arden cynicism; she’s already pregnant by the guy, so she has little to fear from any shenanigans pulled by the lady of the house in her slumming expeditions.
   The upside of the updating is that Strindberg’s class war and sex battles are rendered with deep high stakes immediacy: Where most traditional productions set in 19th century Sweden seem quaintly remote, this one plops the play’s Gatsbyesque social climbing right into your lap. The downside is that there is as yet not much control over the balance between humor and pathos. Bonney really tests our willingness to go along with Miss Julie’s downward spiral. Should the audience be quite so cued into hilarity during the play’s most famous violent act, involving a pet finch?
   Nevertheless, all three performances are enormously precise and persuasive, Rabe in particular making every gesture, movement and line reading count as she vacillates between lewdness and serenity, joy and despair, not unlike Carole Lombard at her most moonstruck. You may not feel that Julie’s final decision is rendered wholly believable—is it ever, in this day and age?—but Rabe’s characterization is a tart reminder of the very fine line between the comically screwball and the homicidally bipolar.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
May 2, 2013

     
Falling for Make Believe
Colony Theatre

To Burbank comes the legend of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, retold in a trim 95 minutes by librettist Mark Saltzman. As stage memoirs go, this one is thin but not entirely unpersuasive, and in its musicality (21 Top 40 hits pulled from the savory songbook) and entertainment value alone, should be a winner for the Colony, which can use one in its heroic battle for financial solvency.
   The past century’s preeminent bard of the unlucky in love, Lorenz Hart (1895–1943) was tiny in stature, homely, Jewish, alcoholic, and man-crazy—a losing combination in any era, but especially toxic in the heyday of the patrician café society that once governed Manhattan’s artistic elite. He kept his yearnings totally private—a frustrating paradox to the eager biographer, of whom Saltzman is only the latest of many—and yet there they are, for all the world to hear, pressed within the sheet music representing a quarter-century’s worth of lyrical inventiveness.
   So nakedly did Hart hang heart on sleeve, Saltzman has an embarrassment of riches to choose from in detailing a downward self-destructive spiral in words and music. There’s the one-night stand he met when “My Heart Stood Still” but can’t remember “Where or When”; the trick out of Hart’s league (“You Are Too Beautiful”) and in for the kill (“You Took Advantage of Me”); and the absolute lack of faith in human interaction (“This Can’t Be Love”; “I Wish I Were in Love Again”). It’s a doleful musical profile indeed, even leaving out Hart’s all-time anthem to emotional defensiveness, “Glad to Be Unhappy” (“Unrequited love’s a bore/And I’ve got it pretty bad”), or his most plaintive lyrical line in “Bewitched,” “and worship the trousers that cling to him.”
   Whether integrated into the narrative or offered as ironic or pointed commentary, these timeless tunes are performed with great gusto under Keith Harrison’s musical direction and complemented by Lisa Hopkins’s choreography, creating a real sense of musical time and place.

And the lead performance is top notch, Ben D. Goldberg nicely capturing the boozy ambivalence and self-hatred of a man out of step and out of happiness options. His portrait is deepened through scenes of homosexual life and love in prewar Manhattan, when Prohibition’s end opened the doors of “proper” saloons but banished same-sex socializing to closets and secret signals. Director Jim Fall does a good job of sketching out the milieu, aided by Jeffrey Landman’s just-sleazy-enough portrayal of a Gotham pimp and enabler who keeps Hart hopped up and strung out.
   Our personal guide to the demimonde is one Fletcher Mecklin (Tyler Milliron), a stand-in for all the Broadway hangers-on who have ever hoped to enter the upper echelons on the coattails of a Lorenz Hart. (Saltzman gets something else right about Hart here: The lyricist’s sense of personal integrity refused to let him partake of the casting couch, where at least his fame and power might have gotten him laid on a regular basis.) Milliron is most likable and credible as a talented Midwestern hottie who is never quite able to “Sing for Your Supper” and sleep his way to the top, though it would’ve been good if his narration, on the day of Hart’s funeral, were invested with a little more age and gravitas.
   There’s other work to be done on the roles. Composer Rodgers gets the same kind of uncritical pass he always demanded in life; Brett Ryback seems to know how flat and dour the role has been conceived but does his best to invest the man with levels. Rebecca Ann Johnson’s chorine—a too-young surrogate for aging “Pal Joey” star Vivienne Segal whom Hart vainly hoped of marrying—lacks weight except when she’s belting, which is happily often.
   And there’s one seriously bungled scene in which Rodgers bails out Hart and Fletcher from a drunk tank. It’s the play’s sole opportunity to dramatize the special humiliation of being officially slammed down just for being oneself, yet Fall, Saltzman, and actor Megan Moran play it for stupid, vulgar laughs. (The lady cop confuses “Blue Moon” and “Blue Skies.”) This is a sequence that needs no jokes, only real terror.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
May 1, 2013

Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers
The Blank Theatre at 2nd Stage

Bursts of joyful theatricality turn the West Coast premiere of this Michael Lluberes play into something not to be missed. What Lluberes does with the J.M. Barrie perennial is, truth be told, no fresher than Michael Matthews’s Story Theater concept, but Matthews’s actors happily take to their task as if no one had ever before built an environment with boxes and chests, or presented narration in direct address, or pulled out rippling blue fabric to represent a river. Their joy, even in hijinks so overfamiliar, becomes yours.
   The script’s provenance is unusual. The world-famous fantasy that sent Maude Adams, and later Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby, a-soar remains in US copyright until 2023. However, to the sorrow of the rights-holders, the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy on which the play was based is now in the public domain, leaving the tale open to whatever shenanigans every Tom, Dick, or Michael has in mind to pull with it. And Barrie hewed so closely to his original prose source, anyway, that the two versions are to all intents and purposes identical. The eternal Never Land rascal, the Darling family, Captain Hook, Smee, and the crocodile are all fair game now for iconoclasts, parodists, and psychological investigators of every stripe.
   The worst of the ripoffs are yet to come, though, because this show is no subversive desecration or hackwork. Fans won’t be irked or disturbed by what goes on within this playhouse. There are a few benign twists—Mr. Darling and Nana are gone; Mrs. Darling is made to double as Hook; little brother Michael plays a very different role—which all in all fail to justify the extreme subtitle; our hero remains “Peter Pan, the boy with slight mother issues.” Lluberes’s biggest service is in whittling down the story—which ran three hours the last time I saw it in London—to a sleek, comfortable two.
   And it’s told with enormous brio, style, and good will. Matthews’s ensemble skillfully morphs from Lost Boys to Indians to pirates and back again, and each gets his or her moment to shine. Trisha LaFache is a disappointingly pallid Hook, but Daniel Shawn Miller’s buff Peter and Liza Burns’s glowing Wendy manage to set off real sparks in each other—complicated, understated sparks appropriate to Barrie’s delicately weird worldview. The environment established by Mary Hamrick’s set, Kellsy MacKilligan’s clothes, Rebecca Kessin’s sound design and especially Tim Swiss and Zack Lapinski’s subtle lighting is one for an audience member to curl up in like a favorite childhood book.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
April 30, 2013


Cops and Friends of Cops
VS. Theatre Company

Paul stands by the light of a jukebox. The audience is intrigued, wondering who he is and why he’s there. Dom the bartender wonders aloud who this man is and why he’s there. “Are you a cop?” Dom asks Paul. “Friend of a cop?” Soon Emmett enters. We learn he’s a cop with a drinking problem. Then in come Roosevelt and Sal, cops. Roosevelt is a newlywed and a black man, Sal is one month from retirement and a racist—but Sal is okay with that because he’s only joking.
   And that seems to be mostly it for how much we learn about these characters, other than the secret revealed between Paul and Emmett. For the play’s duration, writer-director Ron Klier gives us lots of silence (not as weighted as Pinter’s) and lots of combat and bleeding (not as compelling as even Shakespeare’s). Klier might be going for a filmic ambience, but silent motionless staging can’t compete with film technique for moving the exposition along.
   Five very fine actors try to serve Klier here. Playing Paul, Johnny Clark is brooding darkness personified, but if all Klier allows him to do is rub his beard and push his hand through his curly mane, where’s the arc, or any drama? Paul Vincent O’Connor makes Dom grizzled hospitality personified. Rolando Boyce as Roosevelt and Gareth Williams as Sal play well off each other, convincing as partners, intense as they wait out the action. Andrew Hawkes is of interest as Emmett, but he spends most of the play lying on the floor, largely concealed from view. 
   Throughout, several actors at a time breathe heavily to indicate fear, though the text ought to suffice. Klier then lines up three actors, downstage to upstage, so the upstage actors cannot be seen by a portion of the audience. The lighting wanders on and off, adding a confusing layer of surrealism whether intended or not.
   Danny Cistone’s superb barroom set, then, ultimately serves as the one element the audience can root for.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 29, 2013

 
Brecht on Brecht
The Other Theatre Company at Atwater Playhouse

On the small, basically barren stage, featuring five mismatched chairs and one door frame attendees must walk through to enter, the sense of being in for a real treat is palpable—and this welcome new mounting of the 1961 Off-Broadway classic does not disappoint. Sadly, a frozen computer kept the opening-night audience from seeing footage of Bertolt Brecht, a man who once observed that his own intelligence ruined his life, as he was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Older people in attendance might have wished for those archaic, simpler ways of projecting images in live presentations to accompany this production, but in the end nothing could silence the wonder of one of the modern world’s most influential thinkers.
   Luckily, the computer glitch was visual and not auditory, so the voice of Brecht—some of which was recorded while he appeared before US Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt in 1947—still rings out throughout the play, starting with the scratchy opening strains of the great man’s own tinny 1928 recording of his “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” or “Mack the Knife” as we now know it, instantly evoking exactly what he and composer Kurt Weill intended. As a dramatist and dramaturg, Brecht was keen to create epic theatre without epic production values, something that soon made interpretations of his technique referred to as “Brechtian,” which the Free Dictionary describes as a “style that relies on the audience’s reflective detachment rather than the production’s atmosphere and action.”
   Because of Brecht’s genius for austerity and extravagance combined, revivals of his works have one unusual thing in common: They are nearly director and actor-proof. Here, however, under the muscular direction of Alistair Hunter, the five-person ensemble is golden, understanding the quirks and excesses that make Brecht’s poetic observations on life so poignant today.
   Susan Kussman leads the ensemble with a perfect sense of Brecht, delivering her pieces in harsh light, often as though she were the proverbial frightened deer caught in the headlights. Belinda Howell, who sings many of the songs, including the lusty shout-sings from Mother Courage, also has a wonderful feel for Brecht, both ladies expertly complemented by the sturdy talents of Gil Hagen-Hill, Daniel Houston-Davila, and Gregg Lawrence. Obviously, this courageous quintet and their director have worked together passionately to bring this haunting material to life, as Brecht’s words careen from his early days in Berlin through his disillusioned tenure as a screenwriter in Hollywood—which he referred to during that era as “The Swamp,” stating, “Every day I go to the market where all the lies are told”—before fleeing to East Berlin to live out his final years without finger-pointing by people who were clearly not able to understand what he had to say to us all. “I fled from the tigers,” Brecht wrote, “I fed the fleas. What got me at last? Mediocrities.”

The scariest thing about reviving Brecht on Brecht more than a half-century after George Tabori compiled this indelible material for its first appearance at Theatre de Lys—playing off-times in front of the set for one of the many mountings of Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera)—is how little has changed in the world. The intolerance and its horrific aftermath of a closed-minded, self-promoting society, something which Brecht so fiercely chronicled and which sent him scurrying for safety all over the world, still exists in our supposedly more sophisticated times.
   Perhaps the most lingering message left behind from this heartfelt revival of Brecht on Brecht is a sparse little poem from The Buckow Elegies, written in 1953: “I sit by the roadside watching the driver changing the wheel. / I do not like the place I have come from. / I do not like the place I am going to. / So why with such impatience do I watch him changing the wheel?”

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 29, 2013
 
The Miracle Worker
Actors Co-op

It mattered not at all that everyone in the audience knew how this William Gibson play would end. Yes, teacher Annie Sullivan would drag the blind and deaf Helen Keller to the pump and hold the child’s hand under cold running water, and Helen would be struck by a lightning bolt of understanding. And yet that didn’t stop the entire front row of a Saturday matinee audience from sitting perched in rapt attention throughout the entirety of the production. Such is the miracle of this play.
   Annie was brave. Helen was braver. So are the actors portraying them, under the polished direction of Thom Babbes. Annie is taken on by Tara Battani, relatively period but mostly loose-limbed and living in roiling determination. Helen is played by Danielle Soibelman, totally immersed yet disciplined enough to throw punches, unafraid to grab her scene partner’s face, engaging in some of the most convincing stage combat seen in Los Angeles. These two ragingly impassioned and physically committed actors fully engage with their roles.
   Although the audience would be satisfied watching only these two, Gibson wrote it, in the 1950s, as a large-cast play. Young students at the school for the blind and young servants help support the action. The Keller family is rather a mess. Helen’s father (Bruce Ladd) is a martinet. His son James (Tony Christopher) resents his pretty young stepmother (Catherine Gray) whom the father brought into the family. Aunt Ev (Joanne Atkinson) further fractures the relationships. In Gibson’s world, it takes Annie to force the family into a cohesive whole with a vital purpose.
   Onstage is one more large bundle of disciplined joy: the Keller family’s pet dog. Adding to the realism, of course the onstage water pump for the final scene functions right on cue. For the occasional audience member who momentarily loses concentration on the story, Shon LeBlanc’s costuming—and in particular Mrs. Keller’s gowns—will keep the eye firmly on the stage.
   Who or what is the miracle worker here? Is it Annie, who stuck by her understanding and persevered in her efforts? Is it Helen, who knowingly fought her way out of darkness and who became a world-renowned public speaker? Or is it whomever or whatever gives each human an indefatigable spirit?

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 29, 2013


Low Tech
Eclectic Company Theatre

The ever-recurring struggle to temper the relentless advance of technology with the basic tenets of humanity and human frailty is the basis for Jeff Folschinsky’s energetic but woefully humorless premiering farce. The inclusion of a six-member Greek chorus, which offers not only ongoing commentary to the action but also leaden asides, does nothing to enliven the underwhelming caricature-driven action, haltingly staged by Chelsea Sutton, played out on Jeff G. Rack’s cumbersome modular set pieces.
   The central protagonist is Allegra Marcos (Amanda Smith), a former actor who has become the face, figure, and 24/7 spokesperson for all-consuming social media conglomerate High Tech International. When overworked and exhausted Allegra has the temerity to turn her communication device off for a day in order to enjoy much-needed down time, she causes a worldwide panic, and the forces of corporate necessity are unleashed to destroy her.
   Smith offers a believable, low-keyed portrayal of a normal working girl who does not quite understand what all the fuss is about when she is forcibly sent to a loony bin for observation and then has to stand trial to save herself from being “put away.” Her supportive allies are High Tech’s operating system Zeus (personified by sympathetic Fuz Edwards)—who inexplicably has taken up residence in Allegra’s psyche, yet can physically share meals with her—and Allegra’s best friend Margaret (Michelle Danyn), who displays her own flights of mental instability. Also complementing the proceedings is Smith’s defense attorney, Jonathan (Jason Britt), refreshingly portrayed on the same understated wavelength as Smith.
   Farce works best when the evolution of the dramatic throughline contains some vestige of veracity, offering at least a modicum of plot stability as a launching platform for the play’s humor. Instead, this playwright’s flimsy premise forces the villainous characters to be laugh mongers unto themselves, unsuccessfully petitioning for yocks. This is especially true of Tyler Tanner in his portrayals of professionally inappropriate Dr. Andy and neo fascist prosecuting attorney Maximillian Von Strasberg. Paul Duffy’s hyperenergetic outing as pro wrestler Slam Master–turned–trial judge is another unsuccessful effort to mine humor in a vacuum. And the self-conscious buffoonery of High Tech’s two head honchos, portrayed by Mark Bate and Dan Mandel, grows increasingly tedious with each passing scene.
   The highlight of Low Tech is the adroit intermittent choreographed action by Christopher Mahr. The second act staging of Allegra’s trial as a group dance number is the most entertaining aspect of the whole evening.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
April 29, 2013

Real Men Sing Show Tunes... and play with puppets
Norris Center for the Performing Arts

The first group to take a thrashing here is gay men. Shortly thereafter, the “real men” get their knocks in against the womenfolk. That’s the downside of this West Coast premiere. However, give the show’s creators, Paul Louis and Nick Santa Maria, this: They admit early and often to being juvenile and vulgar here, and there’s no hint of mean-spiritedness. Indeed, these men poke fun at themselves more than they do at any other group. And the upsides of this show are the talents and charm of the performers, the tuneful and engaging songs, and the smooth-as-silk staging. Oh, and the puppets (constructed by Louis and Ellis Tillman).
   The show begins as the heterosexual members of a men’s Broadway chorus are introduced. Three men sparsely occupy the stage, singing “Real Men.” Soon Man No. 3 (Chris Warren Gilbert) is at the office of his psychotherapist (Chris Kauffmann), unable to open up. The therapist insists on puppet therapy, so out comes a puppet who looks like a little girl but who’s a woman in her 30s. Soon the puppet is grabbed roughly and hurled into the wings. Next, Man No. 1 (Santa Maria) sings “I’m Not,” insisting, despite his clean apartment and the like, that he’s not gay. At this point, fortunately, the show has nowhere to go but up. So, up it goes.
   The mirth-inducing puppetry is featured in “Prairie Men,” in which Santa Maria and Kauffmann appear as cowboys on top, bendy ballerinas on the bottom, while the lyrics rhyme ballerina with Al Pacina. Of course that’s too cute, so the show counterbalances it with a walking, talking male copulatory organ that, shall we say, takes a bow at the sight of the ill-kempt wife.
   But the show grows tender, as Man No. 1 wonders why he said “I Do” and Man No. 2 resents his wife’s young children (yes, puppets) until one says the magic word. An ingenious bit features a middle-aged Superman (a hilarious puppet) and the middle-aged galoot (another hilarious puppet) whom Middle Age Man fights in an alley—until Mrs. Middle Age phones for help with the DVD player.
   The men credit their fathers and other role models. They grow old while protesting, “I’m glad I’m not young anymore.” And topping off this segment on aging, Santa Maria does an awe-inspiring old geezer. The show is tied together by the device of a 12-step program, and the musical numbers are broken up by a series of one-liners delivered as readings from “The Book of More Men.” Settings are swiftly created by projections, and the pit band (uncredited) is lively and tight under the baton of Daniel Thomas.
   So, the sensitive in the audience might even forgive the writers for their insensitive moments. Besides, how cranky can one be with writers of lowest-common-denominator gags who toss in an offhanded reference to a classical music conductor from the 1950s?

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 29, 2013


American Misfit
The Theatre @ Boston Court


It’s easy to describe the formal aspects of this Dan Dietz world premiere. Its meaning proves a much bigger headscratcher. In the vein of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Assassins, and Jeffrey Sweet’s American Enterprise, Misfit filters an episode from U.S. history through a modern musical idiom, making use of equal parts docudrama accuracy and theatrical hyperbole. (Washington, Reagan, and J. Robert Oppenheimer make buffoonish cameo appearances.) This particular legend, if so hifalutin a term can be applied to the show’s long-forgotten lowlifes, is that of the 18th century Harpe brothers, whose objections to the newly established constitutional republic allegedly led them to declare a sort of personal revolution and conduct a bloody reign of serial terror in the Cumberland West. 
   Clearly Dietz sees meaningful allegory in the Harpes’s protest, but what does it yield? It’s not as if their cause (they want America to have a king again) is anything we’d be inclined to rally around. There’s little emotional or intellectual logic in the arc of their rebellion—the boys meet a pair of lovelorn sisters (Maya Erskine and Karen Jean Olds) on the prairie and turn into the Manson Family—and the psychological connections required for empathy are absent. Sleazy blackguard Little Harpe (Daniel MK Cohen), the brains of the outfit, is portrayed as George to the Lennie of dull-witted brother Big (A.J. Meijer), but that’s as far as the relationship goes.
   In the end, muddled Misfit belabors the point that there’s violence in America’s DNA that plays havoc with our better impulses—a message so familiar and tired, Western Union won’t even bother to deliver it any more.

Meanwhile, the chosen musical form, rockabilly, is almost immediately revealed as malapropos. The Memphis sound of Carl Perkins and early Elvis certainly presaged a rock n’ roll revolution, but it was only anarchic and demonic to Eisenhower-era fundamentalists and cranks. Today it just sounds joyous. As replicated by Dietz and Phillip Owens’s authentic-sounding new songs with bassist Omar D. Brancato’s fine orchestrations, it neither complements the Harpes’s bloody doings nor adds meaningful juxtaposition. It just seems off-kilter. Massacres are staged through Lee Martino’s vigorous 50s dance party choreography, but to what end? There’s no enhanced irony or horror there, just athleticism.
   The portrayal of murderers on a spree lacks conviction overall. Lead singer Banks Boutté seems to think he’s supposed to perform some sort of emcee function à la Cabaret, so he’s sinister and suggestive without suggesting anything in particular. The stuffed dummies used to represent the Harpes’s victims are an empty conceit. Later, things take a clichéd sentimental turn when Little is supposed to be reformed by the love of a good woman (Eden Riegel), but it’s no more believable than when he repents of the repentance and returns to the killing fields.
   Dietz has Big accidentally kill an infant by hugging it too closely, still more shades of Of Mice and Men. Yet historians make a case that the brute was retaliating because the kid’s crying got on his nerves. The author’s indifference to that little historical nugget gives you a pretty good idea of the play’s squishy center.
   Helmer Michael Michetti’s cast is capable across the board, and, in Cohen, Riegel, Erskine, and Olds, much more than that. But this anatomy of American misfits proves, in James Agee’s memorable phrase, the same old toothless dog biting the same old legless man.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
April 23, 2013

Annapurna
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble at Odyssey Theatre
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Sometimes when film and television stars deem to return to the stage—especially small 99-Seat stages where actors are paid just enough for gas to get to the theater—the action is met with grumbles and eye-rolling by those who disdain the star’s success. There is nothing even remotely akin to slumming in the Los Angeles debut of Sharr White’s astounding Annapurna.
   Real-life married couple Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman met while working together in Charles Mee’s The Berlin Circle at Evidence Room in 2000, a relationship that began for Mullally with the excitement that she was asked on a date by someone who had no idea who she was (considering her fame and awards for her work on Will & Grace were already in the wind). The production generated a true romance among Mullally, Offerman, and their director then as now, Bart DeLorenzo. Both actors have had major success since then, but both return to their roots whenever they are able, especially if it involves working with the remarkably prolific DeLorenzo.
   This ménage of world-class talent is a fortunate amalgam for White’s play, a phenomenal two-character character drama from a playwright who probably will soon be as famous as his current performers. Using the analogy of scaling one of the highest and most treacherous peaks of the Himalayas, White’s story thrusts together Ulysses, a beaten-down former poet of some promise reduced to living a penniless and solitary life in a deteriorating gulfstream trailer in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Colorado, with Emma, the ex-wife he has not seen for 20 years, since the day she disappeared with their 5-year-old son in the middle of the night.

Climbing a range takes “commitment,” a word that signals special meaning for mountain climbers, evoking the moment when there’s no chance of returning to civilization from the path originally taken. The same is true for Ulysses and Emma, who shows up at her ex’s trailer with food and cash after learning he’s dying of lung cancer. “I’m just passing through,” she tells him. “Eventually.” In the course of the play’s 90-minutes, Emma cleans up Ulysses’s squalid, bug-infected, dogshit-encrusted pigsty as he coughs and wheezes and tries to be the pillar of emotionlessness men like him feel they need to be. He knows her arrival after two decades, sporting bruised shoulders and arms, carrying groceries and $17,000 in cash, and pulling a vase of fake flowers from her backpack, means it’s time to find out what happened all those years earlier, before he kicks the proverbial bucket—that is, if he can find one not crawling with his friends the ants.
   Under the sturdy, austere direction of DeLorenzo and featuring two actors capable of such astonishing commitment to their art, Annapurna is the play and production of the year so far in Los Angeles. How easy it would be for the simple unfolding of these people’s enduring love for each other to be boring and more than a tad maudlin, but never once does the story get bogged down in expositionary excess. Offerman is riveting, offering a bravely uncluttered, incredibly honest portrait of a troubled man in enormous pain, physically and emotionally, while the far less showy yet heartbreaking performance of Mullally is a wonderful foil to his work. Mullally, who has had her share of memorable turns on LA stages long after her fireplace mantel was graced by a pair of Emmys and a few other well-deserves awards, seems to be here to support her man—something that so fuels her Emma with as much love as any two people could possibly share.

Even without these odds for success, the indelible debut of Annapurna signals a major new playwright to watch, who, like Williams, turns jarringly dark poetry into difficult dialogue that would be hard to decode in lesser hands than those contributed here by the Offermans and DeLorenzo. And when Ulysses begins orating the first stanzas of the epic poem he has written over the last lonely two decades to the love of his life, the long-absent Emma, Williams again comes to mind, as when the aged Nonno begins reciting “How Calmly Does the Olive Branch,” the epic poem he has also been composing for 20 years, at the end of The Night of the Iguana. Many writers are compared to Williams, it’s true; White might be the one guy who makes that mantle stick.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 23, 2013

 
Ruthless! The Musical
Torrance Theatre Company

Do you love originality and scintillating wit? Well, too bad. Musical theater tropes and bad puns serve the nonstop fun in Ruthless! The Musical, currently in a lively production at Torrance Theatre Company.
   Composed by Marvin Laird, with book and lyrics by Joel Paley, this show parodies large chunks of celebrated 1950s musicals such as Gypsy and films All About Eve and The Bad Seed, adding snatches of musical references to such greats as Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne.
   At its center, third-grader Tina proclaims herself a star, to the chagrin of her picture-perfect mother, Judy. No sooner are the words spoken, then at their door appears manager Sylvia. Judy’s husband is AWOL. Not so Judy’s adoptive mother, Lita, an embittered theater critic. Still, Tina auditions for her school play but earns only an understudy role. Homicidal jealousy prompts Tina to finagle her way onto the stage and eventually into sentencing to the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingénues. The second act finds mother Judy on Broadway, tended to by overeager assistant Eve. Secrets are exposed, identities revealed, and all ends happily—for the audience only.
   “I was born to entertain,” says Mackenna Butcher in the role of Tina (on the evening reviewed). Now, that’s typecasting. This young actor sings, dances, has comedic timing, and is primed to learn spit-takes. Lacey Keane adorably plays Judy as a bubbly housewife, using a light vibrato singing voice, then belts her songs as diva Ginger.
   Creating characters timelessly yet of the period are Lisa Meert as an overly stimulated teacher and as an overly persistent reporter, and Daina Baker-Bowler as Ginger’s scheming assistant. Shirley Hatton’s critical granny Lita bursts with braggadocio, as well as hatred for musical theater.
   Sylvia, however, is an eye-catchingly statuesque creature. She looks sleek, she moves with glamor and allure, and—wait, is that an Adam’s apple? Yes, playing her is Paul Rorie. Part dragon-lady, part fairy godmother, his portrayal also includes a bit of wistfulness and is thus textured and dimensional. Amid even these performers, Rorie has the best singing voice, rich and powerful.
   Director Jim Hormel cast beautifully, keeps the tone bright, and perfectly captures the period and its quirks. Adding to the pointed humor are a badly voiced piano (though well-played by Mark McCormick), the (mostly) absentee husband and father, and giggle-inducing wigs (Michael Aldapa) yet fabulous costumes accessorized with an enviable supply of gaudy rhinestone brooches (Rachel Lorenzetti).
   The stage-right area used for the school auditorium scenes could be raised to improve sightlines, the stage-left area remains a bit underused, but the shenanigans center-stage hit the spot. This musical is probably not for the very young, considering its murderous 8-year-old, “some adult language,” and innumerable moments of innuendo. But, for musical-theater aficionados and newcomers, it provides joyous entertainment. And of course it should be seen by any 8-year-old pondering a life upon the wicked stage.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 23, 2013

A Catered Affair
Musical Theatre Guild at Alex Theatre and Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza’s Scherr Forum

What a simple and universal story: A mother insists on giving her only daughter a lavish wedding. The reasons here, however, are not so simple. Addie Hurley never got the wedding she wanted, perhaps not even to the man she wanted. Since then, she says, she always favored their son and never treated daughter Jane kindly.  Guilt and shame drive Addie now.
   So even though husband Tom needs the money for an additional share in his taxi, and even though Jane insisted on a City Hall ceremony, Addie persists, coaxed along by her “single” (read: gay) brother, Uncle Winston.
   This musical, with book by Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by John Bucchino, is based on the 1956 Bette Davis–starrer written by Gore Vidal, from the original 1955 teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky. Fierstein keeps the 1950s setting and thus a few of the original script’s old-fashioned elements (including the pressures of pregnancy out of wedlock), but shows the timelessness of remorse and personal sadness.
   Musical Theatre Guild presented the rarely seen vehicle in a concert-staged reading, the performers holding their scripts but moving around the stage. The design included black chairs that start in a circle against a black curtain, but A. Jeffrey Schoenberg provided the colorful, period-adorable costuming, and the (uncredited) lighting design eventually bathed the actors in an apricot glow as Addie gives up her vicarious dreams.

The music is more Sondheim than Rodgers, yet the performers brought out its complexities and nuances in MTG’s greatly abbreviated rehearsal schedule, under Brent Crayon’s music direction. Alan Bailey, who helms here, let melancholia drift through, so although a wedding is in the planning, this piece was not a light comedy. Bailey created pockets of hilarity, though, as when during a dinner at the Hurleys’s home, the in-laws-to-be, the Hallorans, crowd in at the table, convincing the audience the families are in a tiny Bronx walkup.
   The undoubted star here was Marsha Kramer as Addie. Despite popular notions of a lack of roles for women over 30, Addie can be a gift to a musical theater performer, and Kramer unwrapped that gift with great tenderness. From the musical’s start, she left no doubt Addie lives in deep, long-term sadness and disappointment. Her Addie’s joy in planning “a catered affair” for her daughter was tainted with delusion, then with stubbornness, and we felt anguish for her and the wasted life she feels she has led.
   Playing Tom, David Holmes gorgeously watched Addie as she fantasizes about the wedding she would have liked for herself. As Jane, Melissa Fahn displayed a warm, operatic voice and a combination of innocence and determination befitting the 1950s. Helen Geller earned giggles as the busybody neighbor and admiration as the quietly understanding saleswoman. Roy Leake Jr. made Uncle Winston a three-dimensional being (after the show, knowledgeable members of the audience praised his work over Fierstein’s, who reportedly overplayed the role) and gleefully delivered the tipsy variations on “Halloran.”
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 23, 2013

Habitat
Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 3

Canadian playwright Judith Thompson has chosen to underscore a tragic societal schism—disenfranchised adolescents desperately needing the security of safe home environments, versus the already established communities who don’t want these children residing in their neighborhoods—as a series of short, woefully unfocussed expositional scenes that dilute and sabotage the playwright’s intent. The five-member ensemble, under Jose Luis Valenzuela’s often awkward staging, work hard at establishing character veracity but are defeated by meandering, often needlessly overwrought dialogue that does not ring true.
   The combatants are distilled down to ragingly self-hating 16-year-old Raine (Esperanza America) and Margaret (Susan Clark), a former pillar of an upper-middle-class community, who has become a sorrowful recluse since the death of her husband. When Raine, who has lost her mother to cancer, moves into the group home on Margaret’s upscale, suburban block, they immediately establish a kinship of sorrow and loss that, regretfully, is never adequately explored. Instead, Raine becomes engulfed by the chaotic machinations of troubled group-home founder Lewis Chance (Sal Lopez) and an aggressively sociopathic teen, Sparkle (Paul Nguyen).
   Margaret has problems of her own, dealing with her own fading mortality and an emotionally fractured adult daughter, Janet (Nina Silver), who is a mother and lawyer. Despite their mutual affection, Raine and Margaret soon find themselves on opposite sides of the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) dilemma.

The most perplexing aspect of Thompson’s dramatic throughline is her total failure to establish a plausible battle between the group home and the neighborhood leaders who want to throw them out. Lopez’s Chance is effectively conciliatory and persuasive when first addressing the community’s populace. Yet, this man, who supposedly has had years of experience running group homes, later becomes ragingly inhospitable to the two most important members of his opposition and is subsequently reduced to the level of a babbling fool when addressing members of the city council. All lawyer Janet has to do is lay out the facts from the community’s point of view, which is no contest at all.
   To satisfy Thompson’s agenda to vent against the villainy of the status quo, America’a Raine and Nguyen’s Sparkle serve up sociological “truths” that are not plausible, coming from characters of their ages and backgrounds. This is especially true of Raine’s second-act harangue of Margaret, who is blasted with a short history of the downtrodden waifs of society.
   Clark instills within Margaret a fundamental amalgam of sophistication and feistiness that is underused in this work. Margaret offers flashes of Brahman superiority that gives evidence she could solve everyone’s problems with a snap of her fingers. Yet, she fades completely once the wheels of societal orthodoxy start rolling forward. Lopez commendably commits to the many shifts in Chance’s emotional stability, effectively if unintentionally establishing a character who should never have been placed in charge of a group home from the outset.

Director Valenzuela seems more perplexed than aided by designer Tesshi Nakagawa’s disjointed, wall-less environments that define the group home, Margaret’s living room, and the surrounding neighborhood. At times, the comings and goings of the characters appear aimless, as if unsure when to make an entrance or an exit. It is also noticeable if not disconcerting to have characters enter from the rear of Margaret’s house and then leave through the front.
   Judith Thompson’s Habitat, which was first produced in Canada in 2001, certainly takes aim at the NIMBY mindset in society, but her scattergun approach to this work fails to hit her target.

Reviewed by Julio Martinez
April 22, 2013


Billy & Ray
Falcon Theatre

Billy & Ray is Mike Bencivenga’s depiction of the collaboration between B. Wilder and R. Chandler on the homicidal film noir classic Double Indemnity. If you can make it through Act 1’s outrageous overacting, jokes that fail to land, and exposition and researched anecdotes heavy-handedly ladled out, your return from intermission will reward you with a pretty absorbing and satisfying show.
   The principals are conceived as a thin gloss on The Odd Couple, with director Wilder (Kevin Blake) the sloppy, womanizing, boozing, cigar-chomping boor, and pulp novelist Chandler (Shaun O’Hagan) the repressed academic priss who never shows up for work without a jacket and tie. Blake’s miscalculation, compounded by Bencivenga and helmer Garry Marshall, is to take for granted that we will find Wilder’s snotty bullying to be charming, instead of allowing us to discover his charm on our own. His speaking voice resembling Peter Lorre howling in mid-orgasm, strutting around full of himself, Blake’s Wilder comes across as an insufferable lout with no redeeming qualities. Get the hook.
   The morality of the presentation is also noteworthy. It’s dismaying, not to say sickening, that we are clearly meant to see Wilder—a serial adulterer who respects nothing and no one, wasting Paramount time, money, and facilities on screening room amours and gambling—as a merry pixie who is to be admired for his daring in flouting convention, yet at the same time Chandler is mercilessly mocked for his stuffiness and for sneaking shots of hootch from his briefcase while claiming to be a non-drinker.
   There was a time when you could count on general agreement, with Blanche DuBois, that the only unforgivable sin was deliberate cruelty; there was a time when the struggle of someone like Chandler to curb his alcoholism might prompt compassion on the part of artists. No longer. Now the compass of modern American drama (including the cinema here) asserts that as long as one is true to oneself, one is entitled to a moral pass. Now it’s hypocrisy that has become the failing one cannot possibly redeem. Wilder goes out of his way to be arbitrarily cruel to his writing partner, but he’s honest about it so it’s okay;  Chandler is a hypocrite for trying to pretend he doesn’t drink, so he’s fair game for ridicule. Double Indemnity is an unsavory story, but it doesn’t seem right that its making should be depicted with yet more sour cynicism.

Anyway, there’s every reason to leave Act 1 and do what Indemnity’s Walter Neff should have done the moment he met Phyllis Dietrichson, namely hop in the jalopy and head for the border. However, do come back for the second half of Billy & Ray. All the performers settle down and start playing the stakes of the situation. Ali Spunk’s secretary stops trying to sound like Bette Midler’s “Soph” character and brings tenderness into the writers’ room along with the endless bourbon. Anthony Starke’s producer Joe Sistrom is no longer there to just fuss about as he trots in exposition, but begins to care deeply about the fate of his project and his employees. Even Blake modulates his obnoxious hamminess to hand over the stage to O’Hagan, who becomes quite real and moving as he lets us in on what’s in Chandler’s baggage other than a flask.
   Still, Bencivenga lets a delicious irony slip away. The collaborators’ chief artistic challenge, as portrayed here, is in staying within the Production Code’s restrictions on the depiction of murder, sex, rape and all the other seaminess favored by original author James M. Cain (not to mention novelist Chandler himself). Bencivenga deftly shows us the subtle choices made by the adapters to convey all of Cain’s sordidness through indirection—choices that make Indemnity an enduring, genuine classic. Yet at no point does any character, or our playwright, ever acknowledge that the much reviled Production Code was the impetus for all that creativity. Had the Code not been in place—had its prohibitions not forced the likes of Wilder and Chandler to find ingenious solutions around them—is there anybody who would argue that Double Indemnity would have turned out better?

Reviewed by Bob Verini
April 22, 2013


Tomorrow

Skylight Theatre Company, Rogue Machine, and York Theatre Royal at Skylight Theatre Complex

Plays by Donald Freed are never encumbered by subtleties. In his Tomorrow, now in its world premiere at Skylight Theatre, Freed’s newest and perhaps best gift to the world in his long and illustrious writing career, is no exception. It’s as though Freed has dispensed with all extraneous bullshit and gone for the jugular of our somnambulant national consciousness. As the radio in the background in Abigail and Jamie Booth’s deteriorating craftsman estate above Beachwood Canyon drones on about the Supreme Court decision in 2000 to hand George W. Bush the presidency on a silver platter, Freed’s three players re-enact passages from Shakespeare’s Macbeth—a play about a man who stole a throne by murdering a king.
   Laura Keating (Jenn Robbins) is an ambitious young star-on-the-rise who has been offered what could be the defining moment of her career, playing Lady Macbeth in the West End, a performance that will be turned into a film starring the same actors. She seeks out coaching from her idol, the 100-year-old Abigail (Salome Jens), in the role Abby had been renowned for performing. Abby has lived for many years in self-imposed exile with her great-nephew Jamie (Kevin Quinn, in for Geoffrey Forward), surrounded by racks of retired costumes and walls filled with dusty old photographs of the then-celebrated people with whom Abby once shared the stage, from Uta Hagen and Eva Le Gallienne to Edward G. Robinson and Nazimova.
   Laura sinks to her knees to beg Abby to help her, even offering $1,000 per hour and the mortgage on her house. “I want your soul,” Abby tells the desperately cloying young woman. So begins Freed’s mesmerizing ballet of crashing themes, utilizing the declining splendor of the theatrical arts fueled by so many avid theater artists, people who literally gave up their lives for their careers, with the deterioration of our troubled society. Even Abby’s long-held dream to begin a national theater company has years before been dashed by economics and apathy, culminating in her realization that “We cannot have an American national theater until we have an American national soul.”

The scenes among these three characters yield much more than simply offering a story of people boosting one another into experiencing the passion every true artist needs to go on, although the audience is blessed to be privy to that mysterious process seldom seen by outsiders. Jamie, who painfully gave up his own celebrated career years earlier in shame after freezing onstage in a pivotal scene in the very same “Scottish play,” leads Laura to refine her vocal range and diction. Abby forces their eager student to explore deeper and deeper into the Lady’s background and how it demarcated her choices, dissecting and enhancing the Bard’s rich subtext with ardent fervor. The craft of the actor has never before been shared so openly onstage or with more fascinating results.
   Damian Cruden’s direction is flawless, from his staging to the incredibly intricate performances he elicits from miraculous Jens and Quinn, who not only proves himself to be the perfect foil for her tour-de-force turn but also as one of those unstoppable theater artists Freed’s play celebrates. As Jamie, he is quite amazing, especially considering he took over this demanding, impossibly loquacious role from Forward for the first time, with only a week’s notice, on the evening reviewed. Quinn would have here been applauded even if the knowledge of this feat hadn’t been offhandedly shared following the performance.
   Robbins is by far less successful, ironically quite impressive when she slips more and more into the role of Lady Macbeth, but she is unable to make any of her moments as Laura believable, indicating her character’s emotions rather than letting them filter through the sieve of her own persona. Her acting shows, especially when held up against the work of these co-stars.
   Jens is one of the true geniuses of the world stage, who gives a performance that every student of acting should see several times. One cannot take one’s eyes off her, even when others speak. A few slow head turns or well-placed blinks signal waves of understanding not many actors alive today could attain. Perhaps the most expert part of her performance is how the frail, elderly Abby transforms into a tigress as she works with Laura, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of her forgotten career to become the actor she once had been.

The title Tomorrow was obviously chosen to be a metaphor about how we must, as artists, let our personal disappointments disappear to help one another grow in a world, as Shelly said, where poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of mankind.” There’s a line in the play about the fear of becoming one of those obscure old faces gracing Abby’s walls, photos now fading into oblivion if no one is there to remind future generations who they were and what they contributed. O, Mr. Freed, how wonderful to have you here to allow us this gossamer tribute—especially while shouting at us to wake up with such brilliantly eloquent, quiet delicacy.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 22, 2013
 
Slipping
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at Elephant Stage’s Lillian Theatre

In his haunting poem “Lament for the Moths,” Tennessee Williams warned: “Enemies of the delicate everywhere / Have breathed a pestilent mist into the air.” In our supposedly advanced and liberated society, the rampant suicides and attempted suicides of LGBT teenagers are epidemic. In Daniel Talbott’s arresting play Slipping, now in its LA premiere, one of those young victims is Eli, a troubled kid struggling with his sexuality after relocating to Iowa from San Francisco following the car crash that claimed his father’s life. Although the emerging storyline is easily foreseeable, the text is elevated by Talbott’s sweepingly poetic dialogue and the richly textured monologues Eli (Seth Numrich, who originated the role in New York in 2009 before he became a hot new star on the horizon) delivers to the audience.
   Eli is trying to escape a lot of things, including whether his father’s death was an accident or a result of his mother’s infidelities. Above all, however, Slipping chronicles Eli’s attempts to come to terms with his sexuality. Eli’s battle is not compounded by the usual unaccepting parent, as his mother (Wendy vanden Heuvel) is quick to ask if there are any guys in his new school to whom he’s attracted. Although Eli is indeed intrigued by sweetly goofy girl-crazy classmate Jake (MacLeod Andrews, who also appeared in the play Off-Broadway), Eli is badly damaged by his first affair—with an abusive, self-loathing jock (Maxwell Hamilton), who alternately wants to make love to Eli and beat the crap out of him. 
   Talbott’s sturdy staging is the other wonder here. Besides his evocatively poetic soliloquies, another unconventional aspect is embraced with courage and fervor in his directorial choices: the weaving back and forth in time among San Francisco, Iowa, and New York without concern for standard dramatic structure. Talbott never conforms to telling a story that builds to one conclusion. Instead he offers a culminating meeting late in the timeline that could signal a possible happy ending before depicting a scene of heartrending emotion between the same two characters several years earlier. 
   Vanden Heuvel does her best with a rather underwritten role, making one wish Eli’s mother had a chance to experience life-changing revelations about her life and her relationship with her son that could make a difference to the play’s outcome. It’s something of a given that Numrich—who went from this production in New York to starring on Broadway as Albert in War Horse, followed this season by his critically acclaimed turn in the leading role in the heralded revival of Golden Boy—is what has brought this play to our shores four years after its debut.
   He is an incredible young actor, easily echoing the early days of Paul Newman or James Dean. Indeed, his work here is something of an amalgam between Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. But although Numrich is all but guaranteed to become a major star, perhaps he and Andrews reprising their original performances today is a bit challenging for them. Numrich appears to have to work too hard, at 26, to pull off playing Eli in his mid-teen years, especially right after bulking up to play Odet’s classic hero Joe Bonaparte.   
   Andrews is more successful bringing an infectious teenage energy to Jake, his character’s emerging love for Eli the most touching aspect of this production—although a bit of manscaping for the play’s hotly unflinching sexual tableaus might have added to the illusion. The most impressive performance of this remounting is the new guy: Recent UCLA grad Hamilton gives a scary, finely nuanced performance as the desperately tortured Chris.
   Despite its predictability, Slipping is an important new play, one that needs to be shared on whatever level it is offered. Because Talbott’s writing and staging is so clearly filmic, it wouldn’t be surprising if this run in our reclaimed desert might find it has an even more apparent future than the emergence of its original star.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 15, 2013


American Buffalo
Geffen Playhouse

David Mamet’s bones and rep were made with his 1975 American Buffalo, a scabrously funny deconstruction of our national way of doing business as seen through the eyes, ears, and butterfingers of three lowlife Chicago a-holes who think they’re masterminds. Randall Arney’s Geffen Playhouse revival milks all the humor and fun out of this seminal piece—and reminds us what a genius Mamet can be at his best—but falls short in giving us, between the eyes, the darker underside of the American Dream.
   For most of the play’s lean and mean two hours, the habitués of a Chicago junkshop (lovingly re-created by designer Takeshi Kata) rail against the fools, liars, and betrayers of their acquaintance. Here’s blowhard Teach (Ron Eldard) ranting about the temerity of a woman friend in chiding him for eating a piece of toast off her plate at the local diner:  

Only (and I tell you this, Don). Only, and I’m not, I don’t think, casting anything on anyone: from the mouth of a Southern bulldyke asshole ingrate of a worthless nowhere c—t can this trash come. And I take nothing back, and I know you’re close with them…. The only way to teach these people is to kill them.

   That mix of the profane and the courtly, the entitlement underlying that “Ah, it’s no big deal” passive-aggressiveness, instantly established Mamet’s peerless comic voice, and by the reactions of the opening night Geffen audience, it’s been a long time since any other play or playwright has served up the same heady brew. The Don referred to above (Bill Smitrovich) is the shop owner with a curiously paternal interest in youthful junkie Bobby (Freddy Rodriguez), a hanger-on-cum-protégé to whom Don purveys life advice:

It’s no difference with you than with anyone else. Everything that I or Fletcher know we picked up on the street. That’s all business is: common sense, experience, and talent.

   Useful tip, right? No more so a page later when Donny avers, “That’s what business is: people taking care of themselves.” These guys are constantly pontificating on what they know and what they’ve learned; none of it makes any sense, and it’s hilarious because we instantly see the gap between their view of themselves and who they really are.

Unfortunately, there’s another, wider, more important gap that this production fails to exploit. In the course of the play the characters get the notion of this one big score, ripping off some random coin collector whose late interest in a Buffalo head nickel suggests he’s got a cache of riches to be burgled. Things are increasingly, absurdly incomplete and chaotic as a long day’s journey of half-assed planning moves into night and the hoped-for zero hour.
   We can’t be surprised when it all falls apart, but we also should not be surprised when it erupts into violence. Mamet is concerned not just with blowhard fantasies but with their consequences, and for the play to fully pay off, we have to believe in the white-hot rage boiling inside the eyes of Teach and Donny. We have to comprehend that for all the bravado, when people with nothing are confronted with their nothingness, they turn, and things get terribly ugly indeed.
   There’s no rage boiling within Eldard and Smitrovich, and minimal tension between them. When Teach apologizes for speaking in anger, or when Donny lashes out at Teach for taunting Bobby about “skin-popping,” the moments have no weight, there’s nothing behind them. Arney is content to get the laughs; but he can’t or doesn’t want to elicit the deeper strains of emotion behind Mamet’s remarkable characters.
   Played perfectly, American Buffalo doesn’t just make us say, “Yes, that’s exactly how people do business in this country.” It should also chill our blood with the realization of the passion behind all the big talk and self-deception. Played perfectly, the work can bring about a real catharsis of pity and terror. At the Geffen, helmer and actors are heedless of the terror, and that’s a pity.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
April 11, 2013


One Night With Janis Joplin
Pasadena Playhouse

Though it looks and sure sounds like a rock concert, this production is a genuine piece of theater that re-creates not just the personality of the legendary gravel-voiced rocker (Mary Bridget Davies) but the world in which she lived and died. The Pasadena Playhouse practically throbs with the soul of Woodstock Nation—an era which, for all its antiestablishment cynicism and nihilism, sustained the unmistakable sense of possibility that a dream of peace, love and rock ’n’ roll could be made real in the here and now.
   You go in expecting the usual cheesy “I was born/And then I wrote” animated Wikipedia article that usually passes for the review of a notable entertainer’s life and work. But writer-director Randy Johnson never falls into predictable traps. For one thing, the details are deftly and sparingly woven into the fabric of Pearl’s boozy monologues between numbers. They’re also presented out of chronological order, so the audience never gets several steps ahead of the biography. Yes, we get to see images of the young Janis against the back wall, but never when we expect them; when they pop in, they appear to be projections of her mind at any given moment, rather than a contrived multimedia device for our benefit.
   Better still, Joplin’s musical influences aren’t just talked about but also literally brought on stage in the person of The Blues Singer. The breathtaking Sabrina Elayne Carten pops in to impersonate the likes of Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Chantels lead singer Arlene Smith as each one intersects with the Joplin playlist.  Performing the numbers that helped to shape Janis’s unique “white girl sings the blues” style, Carten—with Johnson’s adroit shaping—permits us to hear the influences for ourselves. We’re encouraged to draw our own conclusions about these great artists’ musicianship and its impact on the little girl from Texas whose voice was snuffed out way too soon.

Not enough can be said about Davies, whose command of Pearl’s sound, look, moves, and temperament is close to supernatural. Her Janis is aware of her own abilities and proud of them, but also suitably modest about where she derived them and what they ought to mean to her fans. The decline and death (at age 27, good God!) are evoked, but subtly, imperceptibly: So complex is Davies’s artistry that we only gradually realize that she is playing Janis’s downward arc. It’s a sleight of hand act: She makes us so aware of Janis’s life force that the realization of how swiftly it was to be snuffed out hits us like a thunderbolt. Make no mistake, Davies pulls off not just an impersonation, it’s a full-out piece of acting worth studying, and one that’s impossible to forget.
   The show, which originated in Cleveland and D.C., looks and sounds like a million bucks. Bandleader Ross Seligman’s sidemen are astonishingly varied and capable, plausibly ’60s, without ever veering into campy caricature, and Justin Townsend’s lighting is the most moody and subtle locally seen this year, whether in a play or musical.
   All the familiar hits are here, but One Night With Janis Joplin perhaps never surpasses its Act One finale, when Carten delivers “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” in full Bessie Smith drag and droop, only to transform into Aretha for a spine-chilling duet with Janis on “Spirit in the Dark.” For the better part of 20 minutes, Davies and company defy you to dwell on the real world outside. It’s the 1960s all over again, so full of love and promise.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
April 10, 2013


Years to the Day
Beverly Hills Playhouse

Longtime friends Jeff and Dan meet up for a coffee, having not had a good face-to-face in four years. Their first genuine “how are you?” comes five minutes into this world premiere by Allen Barton. Yes, Dan spends much time and energy posturing and joking, but Jeff follows right along. This dynamic intrigues. The audience cares to know what drives these two, even as they banter about phone technology and the latest film.
   Apparently what drives them are a shared history and basic needs for contact and stability in their lives. Barton seems to have set his play in the future, though this is not emphasized nor explained. But his point seems to be that humans will always find it hard to share and reveal our true selves, despite all our gadgetry and mediums.
   Director Joel Polis confidently keeps the men at the table throughout—no blocking to vary the staging. But nothing seems static, because his actors play the subtext of every available moment. Each man sees the humor in the most banal of conversations, each knows the sadness behind their life choices. As actor Michael Yavnieli portrays him, Dan speaks in harsh words, but his tone twinkles. Jeff LeBeau gives Jeff subtle physical mannerisms that vary over the course of the men’s revelations.   (Among those mannerisms, however, LeBeau continually plays with his shoe, particularly touching the sole. If it’s intended as a character trait, the trait adds nothing to the audience’s understanding of him. If it’s a bad habit, it should immediately be stopped.)
   Over the years of their friendship, Jeff has, somewhat understandably, refrained from expressing opinions he thought might cause Dan to “spaz out.” Unsurprisingly, Jeff has also kept a large part of his personality hidden. Meanwhile, years before, Dan’s parents divorced and pretended to loathe each other, but in reality the couple remained romantically involved. Jeff is divorced, among other things, but shows a different side in front of his daughter. Living lies, hiding secret selves, the characters in Barton’s world make even bigger messes for those around them.
   The two men finally face each other across the table when each reveals his deepest truths, in a tender, all-too-brief moment. Thereafter, Jeff sits a little differently from before, and Dan seems a little softer than before, try as he might to hide it. Whether the men have changed enough to make this work sufficiently “dramatic,” and whether the “conflict” is ample, depends on one’s theatrical tastes.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 8, 2013

 
Our Class
Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre

Incomprehensibly horrific acts of inhumanity rarely happen in one fell swoop. Instead, they are usually the result of a series of after-the-fact identifiable and even predictable incremental steps. Such seems to have been the case with a relatively unknown, at least to those in the Western Hemisphere, massacre of Jewish Poles in the village of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941. Estimates of the number of dead range as high as 1,600, and despite trials of a few local residents in 1949 and 1953, villagers to this day claim ignorance or immunity on behalf of previous generations and familial predecessors. Not until the publication, in 2001, of a book by historian Jan Gross was the Polish government forced to fully face the guilt that most rightfully belongs to the unfortunate Jewish residents’ fellow townspeople.
   Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s original work, adapted here by Ryan Craig, details the lives of 10 classmates, half of them Jews and half Roman Catholics, leading up to and following the slaughter of the Jedwabne Jewish community. Based loosely on a number of real-life victims and participants, it is certainly a compelling and often heart-wrenching story. Pulling no punches, the playwrights recount how Jews were murdered in the town square, as well as the torching of a local barn where 400 of the survivors were herded and eventually exterminated at the end of that fateful day. Though the vast number of storylines and subplots make a gripping tale, the coverage of more than six decades from start to finish makes the two-hour-and-45-minute running time seem unnecessarily lengthy, occasionally repetitive, and at times quite difficult to follow as Act 2 struggles to tie up all the loose ends.
   Director Matthew McCray has, however, brought together a remarkable ensemble that unhesitatingly grabs this play with both hands. As one witnesses childhood friendships dissolve into divisive religiosity and national pride, thereby leading to unspeakable acts of cruelty, the trust and collective commitment these actors exhibit is beyond powerful. In the Jewish roles, Sharyn Gabriel, Michael Nehring, Gary Patent, Sarah Rosenberg, and Kiff Scholl never come off as “put upon,” despite their clearly delineated positions as victims. Nehring in particular does a fine job given that his character immigrates to America as a child, subsequently interacting with his former peers only via a series of letters. Scholl’s and Gabriel’s characters marry and produce a child. Her death, along with their child, in the farmyard inferno, as well as the brutal slaying of Patent’s character, are some of the harshest moments in the production. Rosenberg’s character is saved from the onslaught by one of the five non-Jews, whom she marries after converting to Catholicism to save her life.

On the other side of this coin are the terrifying transformations of the perpetrators from innocent youngsters to heartless automatons steeped in self-denial. Actors Matt Kirkwood, Gavin Peretti, and Dan Via play the undoubted villains of Slobodzianek’s tale, yet each fleshes out portraits of conflicted turmoil. Kirkwood’s character runs back to the church as he finishes his life as a parish priest. Peretti and Via, each symbolizing the most barbaric aspects of human nature, manage to evoke disgust and yet a perverse sense of compassion. Alexander Wells and Melina Bielefelt ably provide the rare glimpses of sympathy seen on this side of the aisle. His character marries the aforementioned Jewess, while Bielefelt’s hides Scholl’s widower with whom she, too, becomes romantically entwined.
   Throughout the production, the cast plays a variety of musical instruments, to varying degrees of success, while augmenting the script with original songs by composer Sage Lewis. Occasionally effective, this music tends, more often than not, to sideline the production’s momentum. The atonal tunes accompany highly poetic lyrics that, despite the audience’s proximity to the players, aren’t always that easy to understand. Production values are handled nicely including Sarah Krainin’s arena-formed playing space filled with utilitarian-style classroom desks and chairs. Anna Cecelia Martin’s lighting picks up the monochromatic features of Jenny Foldenauer’s costuming, while Cricket S. Myers surrounds the space with a highly effective sound design.
   In all, this is not a production for the faint of heart. Raw and painful in its indictment of man’s coarseness, it not only reinforces the adage that we must “never forget” but also shines a needed spotlight on the world’s current throes of violence and upheaval.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
April 8, 2013

Walking the Tightrope
24th Street Theatre

Created for children and adults, this 65-minute play evokes powerful feelings of youthful discomfort and adult mourning, as young Esme comes to her grandparents’ seaside home for a summer visit. This West Coast premiere by Mike Kenny, directed by Debbie Devine, will sadden and haunt and ultimately enlighten by its storytelling. Oddly, it may simultaneously enthrall by its simple theatricality.
   A few rudimentary boxes and frames onstage, backed by projections, provide all the audience needs to be able to imagine a quaint train station, a sunny day at the beach, a comfortable moonlit bedroom. Esme (Paige Lindsey White) arrives by train, alone, but only her grandfather (Mark Bramhall) comes to greet her. Where is Nanna? Slowly, over the play’s course, the grandfather begins to overcome his grief and becomes able to reveal the fact of Nanna’s death to his grandchild.
   White charms as the child, Bramhall arouses wrenching sorrow as the grandfather. But as the gentle, lingering, greatly maternal presence of Nanna, Tony Duran is masterful. Gently ensuring a warm beverage is at hand, handing out beach necessities at the back door, comforting and making life softer, Duran’s twinkling little grandmamma stands guard over her family in spirit though no one but the audience seems to notice the assistance.
   A question that may come to mind when one sees this play is whether young Esme’s parents (unseen) should have stepped up and told Esme, rather than putting the burden on grandpa, that her grandmother died. Such questions are ripe for parental discussions. Young theatergoers may pose their own questions (the producers recommend this production for ages 6 and older). In stepping back from the family-blame game, however, one might consider that grandpa was unable to speak frankly, for a variety of reasons.
   Onstage pianist Michael Redfield plays his original score, warming and soothing the painful moments and adding brightness to the happier ones.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 1, 2013
   
On the Spectrum
The Fountain Theatre

Playwright Kent LaZebnik’s personal connection with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder)—he has two nephews and a niece diagnosed with autism–provides the inspiration for this, his third dramatic work dealing with the subject. Interesting enough, yes, but were it not for his skills as a storyteller, the result could have easily veered off into the lands of way-too-technical or dry-as-dust.
   Instead, he has crafted a sharp, witty and informative 90-minute, extended one-act without treating his audiences as though they were listening to a lecture. So compelling is this tale, though perhaps wrapped up just a bit too quickly at the conclusion, one wishes it had been given the chance to grow up into a two-act play. This small quibble aside, the sure-handed direction of Jacqueline Schultz affords LaZebnik’s engaging piece a fitting West Coast premiere.
   Mac is a 23-year-old diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. His single mother, Elizabeth, a photo editor, has devoted her life to obtaining every possible type of therapy for Mac, and it has paid off in spades. He has completed some sort of collegiate level degree in computer graphics, and he is considered highly functioning and able to pass for “typical” in the outside world. With technological advancements in her career field making her skills more and more obsolete, Elizabeth faces the prospect of having to sell their Manhattan apartment, a development that does not sit well with Mac.
   While searching for a job to supplement the family income, he connects online with a woman named Iris, who, due to her own struggles with autism, realizes their bond. She hires him, sight unseen, to develop the graphics for her website, which is devoted to a fictitious “Otherworld” where Celtic mythology collides with whatever images and ideas pop out of Iris’s head. As their relationship blossoms, first electronically and then in person, the effect it has on all three characters is what elevates LaZebnik’s tale from merely intriguing to downright enthralling.

A
s Mac and Iris, Dan Shaked and Virginia Newcomb are engrossing at every turn. Shaked handles his character’s duality, both the calm moments and occasional outbursts, with complete believability. Before us we see a young man who has worked harder than most of us could ever imagine just to be able to seem “normal” to everyone around him. Shaked does a yeoman’s job in handling the “blind leading the blind” aspect of his character’s relationship with Newcomb’s as together they encounter heretofore unexplored emotions and physical consciousness.
   Likewise, Newcomb does an amazing job bringing to life an adult who has been afforded nearly none of the therapeutic assistance her male counterpart has accessed. Her movement about the stage, replete with repetitive gestures and facial mannerisms, mirrors the nearly constant narration and computer generated voice program she uses to communicate. It is a nearly description-defying performance that tears at the audience’s heart.
   Veteran actor Jeanie Hackett plays Elizabeth with the exact balance of frustration, love, and protective concern one imagines would be necessary to handle a lifelong commitment to a child challenged with Mac’s disorder. The relationship Hackett and Shaked have polished between their respective roles is one of mutual respect and love, yet never losing sight of the fact that each possesses the right to be brutally honest with the other. It’s an innately human set of qualities that adds a special level of “life” to their characters.
   Supporting this trio of outstanding performances and director Shultz’s expertly conceived conceptual vision are the most enviable of production values. John Iacovelli’s scenic design consisting of countless frames, be they windows or pictures, provides an endless series of perspective-driven spaces for R. Christopher Stokes’s dappled lighting. Peter Bayne’s original music compositions and sound design are flawless as are Jeff Teeter’s stunning array of eye-catching video designs that transport us through locales both corporeal and imaginative.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
April 1, 2013

 
Mad Forest
Open Fist Theatre

This is not Caryl Churchill’s best play. But, wowza, does Open Fist Theatre Company know how to produce it, bringing the structurally unwieldy, big-cast, part-foreign language script to vivid life. It centers on the times just before, during, and after the Romanian people’s move to oust Nicolae Ceauşescu.
   If the audience thinks of the play as focused on that moment in history, the play, feels heavy-handed and obvious. If, however, the audience takes it as symbolizing any and all repressive leadership, the play feels chilling. Director Marya Mazor creates a dark, cold world, where unornamented concrete structures restrict physical and emotional expansion (production design by Richard Hoover). At the play’s start, the 20-member cast portrays the populace waiting, resignedly silent and unmoving, in an equally unmoving line. The characters in line turn to the audience in Brechtian style. In unison they recite a poem, in Romanian, with broad if not necessarily convincing smiles, praising Elena Ceauşescu.
   Churchill divides her play into stories of the individual and stories of the nation. Parts I and III focus on two families, their friends and colleagues, and the interpersonal relationships that reflect a not-so-gracious but very universal side of humanity. Part II consists of verbatim statements by Romanians, made to Churchill and the company of British actors who went to Romania in the midst of the 1989 upheaval to conduct interviews. The Open Fist cast, stepping up to two microphones, delivers a cavalcade of testimonials. The inclusion of Eastern European accents puzzles, until one realizes that the statements are verbatim accounts given to Churchill, by brave souls with various abilities to speak English.
   The two families at the play’s center are the laboring-class Vladu family and the professional-class Antonescu family. Papa and mama Vladu (Joe Hulser, Katherine Griffith) are parents to three children. Lucia (Jennifer Hyacinth Schoch) marries an American but loves a Hungarian (James Ball). Gabriel (Brad Schmidt), married to Rodica (Jessica Noboa), is wounded in the revolution. Florina (Alla Poberesky), a nurse, seems to be in love with Radu (Rene Millan), the son of the Antonescus (Patrick John Hurley, Barbara Schofield).
   The depth of the theater company’s bench astonishes. The leads are stellar, and some are beyond “acting,” completely realistic onstage. But even the smaller roles are filled with actors who would be leads in other productions: A priest (Ryan Mulkay) chats with an angel (a teenage Ian Hamilton), and drinks are served by a Broadway-caliber waiter (Jan Munroe).
   Add to this Mazor’s traffic-control direction, the dusky lighting design by Wyatt Bartel/PRG-LA, and Tim Labor’s ominous sound design and original compositions that sound straight out of Carpathian villages, and the whole makes for an impressively evocative and provocative evening of theater.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 1, 2013


The Good Thief
Open Fist Theatre

Our storyteller in this solo show doesn’t do characters. He doesn’t show slides. In the hands of performer Michael McGee, he enthralls with words. Conor McPherson, who later wrote The Weir and still later Shining City, gives an actor this opportunity for pure storytelling, Irish-style.
   This is not to say director Scott Paulin seems absent. Far from it, he gives shape and seasoning to the monologue. At just the right moment, McGee bursts into fakey martial arts moves, combatting a stage full of imaginary adversaries. At just the right moment, McGee settles into the onstage chair and cracks open a big bottle of a little sumthin’.
   McPherson has created a character ripe for change. Our “thief” starts his tale by revealing his profession as small-time thug and his romantic style as card-carrying member of the she-deserved-the-beating club. Sent on a job by the man who stole his girlfriend, he finds the situation not as expected, and the job is botched. Through mistakes and luck, he ends up on the run with the now-widow of the man he was only to rough up a bit. On the road, he dreams—literally or not—of a peaceful, loving, more useful life. Then, having glimpsed the life of a contented man, he tries to re-create it with a later-in-life “roommate.”
   McGee seems to see and hear everything he recounts. So does the audience. From a dreary pub to a sunny garden, every setting reveals itself in the viewer’s imagination. Lighting design, by Wyatt Bartel, helps create the sites and moods. The sound design, by Peter Carlstedt, is solid, but it distracts. With storytelling this good, gilding of the aural lily isn’t needed.
   With that much alcohol being downed by the character, should we wonder how much of the end of the story is from his imagination? Besides, how has he made it back to the pub to tell us his story on this particular night? Hmm. And who is the good thief? Is the play so titled because the character unwittingly stole moments of a better life? Or, as McPherson likes to do, does the title refer to a certain figure from one of the greatest stories ever told, Irish or otherwise?
   Paulin sets the mood with his curtain speech, complete with Irish accent that could easily fool LA ears. In addition to the standard reminders about electronic devices and candy wrappers, he offers a foreword that, in Irish storytelling tradition, dovetails perfectly with the piece we’re about to hear.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 1, 2013

 
Tender Napalm
Six 01 Studio

British dramatist Philip Ridley has a penchant for oxymorons. His titles pull you up short with their startling juxtapositions: Leaves of Glass, The Pitchfork Disney, The Reflecting Skin. Even his career is oddly bifurcated, as he bounces between lacerating X-rated adult drama and lighthearted plays and novels for kids. The title of his masterpiece to date, Mercury Fur, evokes the cold molten metal and warm fuzziness that coexist within a brilliant preapocalyptic nightmare, in which the world’s wealthy choose the planet’s impending doom to indulge their sickest fantasies, while their minions desperately seek some last-minute love. (The needtheatre company pulled off a dazzling local production in 2009.)
   Another local outfit has gotten ahold of a worldwide Ridley hit with yet another oxymoronic title: Tender Napalm is a 90-minute series of spoken narratives performed—either as waltzes of love or dances of death, you pick—by two unnamed teenagers (Graham Hamilton and Jaimi Paige). They seem to be the last two people on earth, or at least relate to each other as if they were, trying to stave off Armageddon by way of the creation of tales.

While some of the stories seem designed to impress (he tells of elaborate derring-do in vanquishing a sea serpent), others involve elaborate psychosexual one-upsmanship verging on outright attack. At different times, each describes placing a live grenade into a nether orifice of the other and pulling the pin, and on several occasions each seems to throw a monkey wrench into a familiar storyline merely to throw the other for a loop. This must’ve been what it was like when Edward Albee’s George and Martha were dating.
   It’s all very vivid and profane and sweaty and theatrical. You can readily understand why two thesps would sign on as co-producers for such an impressive showcase of their talent, as they’re called upon to handle thick English accents, leap and preen and fight and make mad love. After a while, a little of such inchoate, abstracted stuff goes a long way, though just when your eyes start crossing in the middle of still one more list of disparate images, someone invariably says or does something amazing to compel your attention. It all winds up with a memory (a fantasy?) of how they met long ago, for a rather lovely coda.

Paige is the more natural and easier to watch; Hamilton is the more “actor-y” but more fascinating to watch. Together they make a pretty good team under Edward Edwards’s direction, on a ratty Persian rug placed within a square arena bounded by 14 chairs on each side. The thesps work up a considerable sweat, and one can only hope that their sole prop, a long green schmatte—practically a third character deserving of its own curtain call—gets a good laundering between performances. It needs one.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
April 1, 2013
  
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
The Antaeus Company at Deaf West Theatre

A theatergoer can’t go wrong with an evening of intelligent discourse about true-to-life issues. George Bernard Shaw’s writing is hard to top, and his social conscience is as modern as could be. Mrs. Warren’s profession has been prostitution. As Shaw pointedly states, it saved her from poverty and likely starvation. She wasn’t in the business for giggles.
   Mrs. Warren’s daughter, Vivie, home from college—educated but without the possibility of a degree in the 19th century—discovers how her lifestyle has been financed. She discovers other facts about her family situation, too, and about the natures of the men around her and her mother. No one is a hero here, but no one is purely villainous, either.
   Even though the actors’ accents waver and speech cadences are occasionally too modern, director Robin Larsen ensures that the audience is looking at real people, not cartoon characters of “old” times. Mirrors are held up to real-life relationships as Larsen connects the dots between characters. Anne Gee Byrd’s Mrs. Warren and Rebecca Mozo’s Vivie clearly have a mother-daughter relationship, albeit Vivie has been educated in the British style, separated from her mother for months on end. Vivie’s friend and intermittent beau, Frank (Ramon de Ocampo), clearly disrespects and disdains his father, the Rev. Samuel Gardner (John-David Keller).
   Larson also makes visual Mrs. Warren’s past. Behind the action, set designer François-Pierre Couture includes a slatted flat that, when lit by Jeremy Pivnick, reveals the young Mrs. Warren at “work.” The moments of revelation make real just some of the strength and determination of that woman and so many more. As Shaw wrote in his “apology” to the play, “[S]tarvation, overwork, dirt, and disease are as anti-social as prostitution…. [T]hey are the vices and crimes of a nation, and not merely its misfortunes.”
   But some of Larson’s staging might confuse the easily puzzled among the audience: For example, why do the characters sometimes come through the latching gate of the rectory garden and sometimes come around the fence?
   The character name Praed (played by Bill Brochtrup as the “sensible” one onstage) gets pronounced in a variety of ways. Yes, this is the wont of the Brits, and most humorously the name is pronounced like “prayed.” But it’s not clear that the character—as opposed to the actors—intend to use differing pronunciations. 
   Whatever one’s impressions of this production, as the playwright said of himself in the third person, “Shaw cannot be silenced.”
   Multiple casts take on the roles. This review covered a Friday-night performance, by “The Shaws.”

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 31, 2013

 
The Nether
Kirk Douglas Theatre

On opening night of this world premiere, playwright Jennifer Haley cooked up a small firestorm that poured into the lobby and onto the street after the show. A notable portion of the audience continued talking about the subject matter. Those who didn’t, however, walked out in solitude and buried themselves in their online world of texting and email and whatever. Really? They didn’t even pause to think about what they had seen?
   Haley paints the future of “Western” civilization as living online, some people totally and permanently becoming their virtual selves, in a place called the Nether, formerly known as the Internet. Haley focuses her play on a site called The Hideaway, created by a man called Sims (Robert Joy), who is being interrogated by Morris (Jeanne Syquia), designated a detective. The playwright does two remarkable things: She creates a mesmerizing (some would argue extremely disturbing) world, and her play’s central conflict leads to endlessly debatable questions of psychology and/or morality. 
    Morris has brought Sims to a sterile grey chamber, where she tells him she’s authorized by those on message boards to investigate The Hideaway. The site, or realm as it’s called, allows adults to have horrifyingly abusive and deadly relationships with children in a highly realistic, albeit “virtual,” form. In this realm, the sunlight is warm, the odors of mulch underneath open windows waft up to a second-story bedroom, and the sexuality and bloodshed leave the participant thoroughly believing his senses.

How can this not be completely reprehensible? Therein lies the play’s ultimate query. Sims knows his propensity for child abuse cannot be fixed by psychotherapy or castration. So he created this simulation, where he and others can act out their compulsions. Is it an acceptable means for venting, or will it make pedophiles think there’s acceptance in the world at large because this realm condones their acts, or should humanity have a zero-tolerance policy on any form of abuse, even an artificial one? Isn’t there a divide between mens rea and actus reus? Isn’t Sims merely the intersection of artist and scientist, reproducing life as he would like to see it but forcing it on no one?
   To give little away: At some point the audience may catch glimpses of the virtual hideaway and its denizens (Brighid Fleming, Adam Haas Hunter, and Dakin Matthews). Morality aside, the view is spectacular, created with grace and smarts by director Neel Keller and set designer Adrian W. Jones. Keller literally moves the action along, making the scenes of interrogation intense and tinting other scenes of happy Victoriana with the darkest undertones.
   The play’s one remarkable moment of acting occurs at the end, as Matthews takes on a 9-year-old girl’s persona. It earned the actor a gentle, genuine, probably pressure-relieving laugh—definitely for his performance, not the characters’ situations.
   This production should be seen for the world it creates and the conversation it will provoke. Meantime, spare a thought for the young people in real life who are being abused as you read this.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 26, 2013

 
Sexsting
Skylab Theatre Complex

Neither this website nor anyone affiliated with it endorses child abuse of any kind. Chances are, playwright Doris Baizley does not endorse child abuse of any kind. She wrote a play, and the play is undoubtedly intended to provoke. In that, she succeeds. Please don’t shoot the messengers.
   This West Coast premiere, written “in collaboration with [attorney] Susan Raffanti,” traces online correspondence between a San Diego–based FBI agent and a man he is investigating for a thus-far cyberspace-only relationship with a 14-year-old girl named Sandy.
   Unsurprisingly, this 14-year-old girl is a fictitious creation of said agent, Richard Roe (note the legalese surname). Under pressure from the agency to ensnare a predator, he haunts various chat rooms with the intent to persuade an adult male, any adult male, to hop a plane with a suitcase full of rubbers and head for Lindbergh Field in the hopes of meeting Sandy.
   John Doe (note, again, the legalese name, perhaps to insure the playwright against lawsuits by the similarly named) finds Sandy online and begins to chat with her. Instead of snapping up Roe’s bait, Johnny D counsels patience, abstinence, and dating boys her age. And he remains resolutely put in Illinois. As Roe becomes more desperate, the agent pushes harder.

The men’s desks and chairs are identical. Both men empty their pockets of the belongings of manhood before sitting down at their computers. Both men sip their favorite beverages as they type. Each loves to fish. As it turns out, each is in a troubling relationship with his wife and kids. One, however, is in love with a fantasy, marinating in the memory of a preteen crush gone sour.
   Baizley includes additional characters: adults online (Bonnie Brewster, Danielle Marie Gavaldon, and Wolfie Trausch) who are pretending to be young girls, and Roe’s supervisor (Christian Lyon). Baizley probably included these characters to provide visual and aural variety, and director Jim Holmes uses them well. But they’re not necessary to the storytelling. Our interest remains with Doe and Roe and their eminently dramatic conflict.
   In large part our interest is stoked because two of the city’s finest actors play the roles.  JD Cullum is stellar, playing Johnny D as lost in arrested development, tempted by feelings awakened after more than 30 years. Johnny seeks a connection with someone his own emotional age, and Cullum nails the neediness and the immaturity. Gregory Itzin plays Agent Roe as thoroughly frustrated by his personal and professional situations, unhappily puzzled by the feelings evoked as he discovers commonality with his correspondent. Itzin melts into Roe’s loneliness, evidencing moments of comfort in chatting with a correspondent Roe knows to be a contemporary.
   Projections (presumably by set- and lighting designer Jeff McLaughlin) effectively and simply establish locations. Just before the play begins, sound designer Christopher Moscatiello sets the tone with Tom Waits’s poem of paranoia, “What’s He Building in There?”
   The play is not flawless. It’s hard to believe FBI agents talk to each other the way these two do; it’s even harder to believe FBI specialists in this area don’t know most if not all the tricks and carefully use them. It’s likewise hard to believe Johnny D wouldn’t spot the trickery. Then, again, he has the mindset of a teenage boy and may be desperate to misunderstand the clues—most of which he catches. But the script is complex and rich. And Baizley knows when and how to end the work. The tragedy haunts the audience, and whatever we think would have happened, there’s sadness for the broken John Doe and especially for victims across the globe. We are, all needless to say, complicated creatures.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 26, 2013

 
Master Class
International City Theatre at Long Beach Performing Arts Center

The success of some theatrical pieces depends on one central character to provide the emotional heft necessary to carry the show. This might be the case in this Terrence McNally revival about Maria Callas were it not for the charming portrayals of the students who are signed up to take the master class offered by the brilliant opera star at Juilliard in the early 1970s, near the end of her career. Described as fictional, the play nonetheless weaves elements of Callas’s real life into the narrative.
   Callas, played with passionate precision by Gigi Bermingham, begins as she, with autocratic condescension, starts the class that we, the audience, are attending. There is no cushion for her chair; she needs a footstool because of her short stature; she calls for water—all requests that are fulfilled by an unimpressed stagehand (humorously portrayed by Jeremy Mascia). She is prepared to pass on her wisdom but only if the students merit her time.
   The first young soprano to face the indomitable Callas is Sophie De Palma (Danielle Skalsky). At first eager, she is halted after singing only one note. Callas witheringly points out that wasting time on the voice must not begin until the singer can embody the character. McNally’s Callas claims, “This is not about me,” when clearly the opposite is true. Scathing yet, at times, humorous, Callas is the quintessential diva.
   As the second singer—a confidently brash young tenor, Anthony Candolino (Tyler Milliron)—approaches, Callas puts him through his paces, but she is gentler with the male singer than she is with the two women in her class. His performance triggers memories of her past, bringing her to reflection and tears.
   The third student is Sharon Graham (Jennifer Shelton), who leaves after being challenged with haughty treatment, but she returns for the honor of being critiqued by the bel canto expert. When the session ends badly, she reviles Callas with hateful remarks. All three students bring life to the play with beautiful operatic renditions of works that Callas either performed or knew well.
   Bermingham handles the characterization well, though she is much more elegant and toned down than the fiery Greek whose life was, by her own accounts, difficult. Her Callas muses over her failed relationship with Aristotle Onassis, and she relives her triumphs at La Scala.
   Director Todd Nielsen maintains a brisk pace, allowing Bermingham her dynamic presence, but he wisely allows the students to give as good as they get. Jeremy Pivnick’s skillful lighting enhances Bermingham’s solitary monologues into her past. Accompanist–music director James Lent plays a cheerful role as Callas’s skillful pianist in the classroom. An operatic soundtrack plays in the background throughout the evening.
   Master Class attempts to capture the soul of this quixotic, ego-driven woman. She is gracious and abrasive, sentimental and tormented. McNally’s play on its own is self-indulgent biography, but watching Callas come to life in a taxing role for any actor is rewarding.


Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

March 25, 2013
 

Dreamgirls
DOMA Theatre Co. at The MET Theatre

This Dreamgirls crackles with energy and treats audiences to a tidal wave of standout performances. In this musical with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, music by Henry Krieger, and additional material by Willie Reale, three black female vocalists, à la The Supremes, try to discover a method by which to break out in the music scene of the early 1960s. Along the way, the singers suffer through interpersonal rivalries, managerial feuds, and unrequited love affairs as each member of the group struggles to find the strength to follow her individual dreams. 
   Director Marco Gomez has pulled off a daring feat in finding a way to shoehorn a large ensemble piece—28 performers and an onstage musical sextet—into this smaller venue’s playing space. Not once, even during choreographer Rae Toledo’s most intricate work, is there a sense of overcrowding. Music director Chris Raymond, on keyboard, exudes confidence conducting from far stage right. His combo is balanced beautifully with the flawless vocal amplification provided by sound designer David Crawford. Picking up every nook and cranny of Amanda Lawson’s two-storied set, Johnny Ryman’s illumination misses not a beat when, seemingly at every turn, costume designer Michael Mullen increasingly amazes with a series of gowns and period clothing that are worthy of their own curtain call. 
   Basking in the glow of these exceptional production values is a cast whose intensity seems barely containable. Constance Jewell Lopez, Jennifer Colby Talton and Tyra Dennis are dynamite as the titular trio. As Effie White, the group’s original lead singer, Lopez handles the emotional arc with strength and her songs with all of the hallmarks of a star. Her rendition of the Act 1 barnburner “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” very nearly heralds the intermission a whole scene early because of Lopez’s showstopping performance.
   Likewise Talton as Deena Jones (the Diana Ross equivalent in this story) and Dennis as Lorrell Robinson, the baby of the group, are exceptional. As their characters transform from followers to leaders before our eyes, both actors do a yeoman’s job bringing to life the maturity their characters must develop to reclaim their personal dignity. Memorable as well is Tiffany Williams as Michelle Morris, the singer chosen to replace the ever increasingly difficult Effie when the group seems about to self-destruct.

On the male side of the aisle, all is well. Welton Thomas Pitchford provides the perfect combination of cunning and confidence in the pivotal role of Curtis Taylor, Jr. A former car salesman, Curtis nudges out another adversary and becomes the group’s manager and Deena’s love interest. On the verge of losing her over his manipulative ways, Pitchford’s pleas in “When I First Saw You” are simple and powerful. Likewise, Frank Andrus Jr. plays Effie’s brother C.C., whose musical compositions are the group’s bread and butter, with sincerity and a refreshing lack of guile. And finally, there is Keith Arthur Bolden who is an indefatigable core of passion and fervor as Jimmy “Thunder” Early, the established star in whom the trio first entrusts their future. Clearly modeling his role after real-life singer James Brown, Bolden brings down the house with “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” “Walkin’ Down the Strip,” and his second-act swansong “I Meant You No Harm.”
   The remainder of the multitalented cast covers multiple roles spanning the 1960s and on into the next decade as the ride gets much rougher. In the end, however, our heroines make peace with their various demons and distractions, which leaves each of them in separate, albeit much better, places from which to orchestrate the rest of their lives and careers.
   It’s another feather in the increasingly crowded brim of a musical theater company that has staked a claim of noteworthy excellence in a city where its list of rivals has sadly dwindled over the past few years.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
March 25, 2013


Nuttin’ But Hutton
NoHo Arts Center

She was the queen of the novelty songs. The girl next door whose firebrand pizzazz and subtle sex appeal made her the worldwide pin-up darling of the GI’s during World War II. The actress who proved to studio chiefs that she could handle anything they threw at her including saving their butts when Judy Garland’s downward spiral threatened the completion of Annie Get Your Gun and Rita Hayworth bowed out of The Greatest Show on Earth. And when she faced her own demons, she left it all behind on her own terms. She was the indefatigable Betty Hutton.
   Betty may have met her match in the multitalented Diane Vincent, who felt moved, upon seeing Hutton’s final televised interview with TCM’s Robert Osborne, to spend countless hours along with her husband—Sam Kriger, who doubles as the show’s music director—researching Hutton’s life and career in order to create this remarkable homage. Vincent is the perfect whirling dervish of energy as she turns every one of the show’s nearly two-dozen numbers into showstopping bombshells. Vincent’s solo standouts include Frank Loesser’s “Rumble, Rumble, Rumble” and Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s “His Rocking Horse Ran Away,” but those barely scratch the surface of what this wide-eyed comedian and her fellow cast members pack into this fast paced-ride. The sure hands of director Larry Raben and choreographer Lee Martino keep everything moving smoothly and expertly balanced between madcap hilarity and heart-tugging emotions.
   Vincent’s unabashedly paper thin script revolves around DeeDee, an actor who, in Act 1, has cornered a struggling Ziegfeld wannabe in his office where she machine guns him with her Hutton tribute in order to secure his backing for a full-blown production. Veteran character actor Nathan Holland provides just the right amount of harried skepticism as producer Buster Heymeister, playing foil to Vincent’s hysterical bombardment. His duet with Vincent on “A Square in a Social Circle” is a heartwarming break from the show’s rapid-fire delivery.  

Backed up by a trio of highly individualized chorus boys (Chad Borden, Daniel Guzman, and Justin Jones) who just “coincidentally” happen to be named Tom, Dick and Harry, DeeDee pulls out all the stops trying to win over Heymeister’s support. Oh, and was it mentioned that Vincent’s “anything for a laugh” sensibility lends itself to a series of groan-inducing puns and punch lines that keeps the audience wanting more? Listen closely for her topper, which involves the use of Holland’s character’s name.
   Likewise, Vincent and Kriger offer the backup guys the opportunity to highlight their background stories and hidden desires as Act 2 shows us DeeDee’s finished production. Borden’s dreams of traipsing the boards as a Shakespearian tragedian come to fruition when the cast re-creates Loesser’s blockbuster number “Hamlet.” Guzman’s character, killing time until he can play Emile “Debe-Cue” in a local playhouse’s production of South Pacific, steps out in a medley remembering Hutton’s Broadway appearance in that Rogers and Hammerstein vehicle. Jones is a crackup with his ventriloquist’s-dummy partner, which serves him well during a cute-as-a-button duet with Vincent titled “Igloo.”
   Kriger’s orchestrations and, in particular, his quartet arrangements for the men are heavenly, as is the small combo of musicians he leads from a stage right balcony. Costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg deserves a medal for the never-ending array of wardrobe choices and changes the cast pulls off with effortless aplomb. Jeff McLaughlin’s scenic design with smoothly gliding furniture pieces and swiveled wall panels looks great under Luke Moyer’s constantly impressive lighting. Cricket S. Myers sound balance is never better than during Vincent’s contemplative renditions of “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” and in what serves as the icing on the cake, her truly heartfelt show-ending duet with a video projected Hutton as they sing her signature piece, “Somebody Loves Me.”

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
March 25, 2013


End of the Rainbow
Ahmanson Theatre

When Judy Garland sang, “Forget your troubles, come on get happy,” in the 1950 film Summer Stock, she convinced much of her audience that she was at least trying to take her own advice. Hollywood insiders knew about her crushing insecurities and multitudinous addictions. But in performance, Garland gave. She shed her issues for the moment and became the musical number. In hindsight, of course, we see behind the big, brown, long-lashed eyes.
   Peter Quilter’s West Coast premiere End of the Rainbow gives us a self-centered, thoroughly distraught, though manically jocular Garland. The action takes place in 1968 in a not-yet-paid-for suite at London’s Ritz Hotel and on the tiny stage of a nightclub. Garland, in the West End for a five-week run of concerts, is being tended to, with varying degrees of success, by her manager-fiancé Mickey Deans (Erik Heger)—soon to be husband No. 5—and by her accompanist, the saintly, gay Anthony (Michael Cumpsty).
   Quilter’s script lumps in bits of well-known biography and quotes and extrapolates the rest, coming to a jarringly direct-address ending in which Anthony tells us not all will be well, unsurprisingly. Thus, the draw of this production has been the performances, directed by Terry Johnson. As Garland, Tracie Bennett gives at best an athletic performance—a jittery, frenetic portrayal. Bennett can “do” Garland the way comedic drag performers do her: as a cartoon drawing, finding the gross outlines that immediately establish the persona. But who is Garland the person, and why don’t we know her any better after the two acts we spent watching her?

In her performances, the real-life Garland appeared extroverted, seemingly aware of her every gesture and of course aware of her musicality. Bennett’s Garland seems introverted, while the actor seems focused on giving the audience—the ones at the nightclub and the ones in the Ahmanson Theatre—every quirk and tic she thinks we want to see. A touch of that might even be acceptable, if we only could see behind the shell, when Garland is not “on.” She cries to Mickey, “I don’t want to be loved out there, I want to be loved in here.” Well, let us love the real her. Instead of showing us the offstage agony and the onstage professionalism, it seems as if Bennett’s Garland is “performing” in the private-life scenes and dealing with “demons” in the nightclub scenes.

What can keep the audience hooked in are the universally human quandaries and qualities onstage here. Judy can’t cease being bossy, though she professes to be delegating to Mickey. She can’t face a performance or a radio appearance without confidence-building chemistry. She can’t see pure, caring love when it comes to her. Those moments, few as they are, are wrenching.
   So is Cumpsty’s performance as Judy’s Scottish accompanist. This portrayal of a kind, supportive, smart man should qualify the actor and character for a spinoff all about Anthony. In addition, Cumpsty plays piano for Judy’s desultory rehearsals in her hotel room and at the club performances.
   Two more reasons to shout hallelujah: With orchestrations by Chris Egan, music arrangements by Gareth Valentine, and music direction by Jeffrey Saver, the onstage band sounds simultaneously modern and old-school in the best senses of those terms; and William Dudley’s costuming thoroughly evokes the era.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 23, 2013

 
Ragtime
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

About 100 years ago, the 20th century held great promise for America. We would earn a reputation as a world superpower. We would be known as a populace of hard work and bravery and innovation. And yet, we were a nation of haves and have-nots, “colored” and whites, hawks and doves, activists and the uninformed. We welcomed some immigrants and not others. We worshiped celebrities. We suffered unemployment. How much of that would change over the century?
   Ragtime, the musical based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel of the same name, brings to life this panoply of 20th century American issues. It does so at a distance of time that makes us ponder what has changed and what hasn’t. The musical—with book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty—is flavored with ragtime rhythms. Its stories are recounted in short scenes of varying tempos. Three main tales weave together, ultimately reflecting the fabric of our nation.
   Mother and her family, upper-class Caucasians, at first seem bound by propriety, fighting the groundswell of change coming to their world. Meantime, Coalhouse Walker Jr., the Harlem-based musician, is quietly infuriated by those he thinks look down on him. Tateh, a Jewish immigrant, struggles his way out of the tenements, determined to make a living in the new land.
   As their stories mesh under the direction of Susan Goldman Weisbarth, the cast of nearly 50 fills Westchester Playhouse’s small playing area. Weisbarth stages elegantly, particularly considering the choppy material. Her full-chorus numbers thrill, thanks in large part to music director Bill Wolfe, who ensures the clarity of the clever, intelligent lyrics and who allows moments of choral pianissimo to contrast with and build the big moments.

For the most part, Weisbarth’s stars handle Flaherty’s complex music well. The strikingly handsome Deus Xavier Scott captures Coalhouse Walker’s magnetism, simmering anger, and dignity, and the performer’s singing voice is stirring yet soothing. Jennifer Sperry is luminous as the proto-feminist Mother, her voice warming up and warming as the show progresses. As Tateh, Bradley Miller displays a big voice and big heart, as well as an effortless dance style.
   The cast boasts charming child performers, particularly the engaging Logan Gould as Mother’s son, known as Little Boy, and the enchantingly focused Karen E. Kolkey as Tateh’s daughter, Little Girl. An older and thus more-sophisticated performer, Slater Ross captures the hormones and determination of Younger Brother. Coalhouse’s beloved, Sarah, gets a sweetly shy portrayal by Johanna Rose Burwell. Sarah’s opposite, the indomitable activist Emma Goldman, gets a fully charged portrayal by Joanna Churgin.
   Though not all the voices astonish and not all the dancers amaze, the totality does—thanks to hard work and bravery and innovation. In Ragtime, America begins its journey to the melting pot, along the way birthing civil rights and jobs for women. What will we make of the century spinning ahead of us?

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 22, 2013


Tribes
Mark Taper Forum

Nina Raine’s Tribes is a dense stew of a family saga, boasting more provocative themes and sharply defined characters than most plays of double its length or ambition. Maybe not since August: Osage County packed the Ahmanson Theatre in 2009 has a single Los Angeles stage played host to such a richly satisfying examination of the bonds and strains acting upon our two families: the one in which we’re born, and the one we shape for ourselves.
   The main theme is deafness, and not just that which was visited at birth to Billy (a mesmerizing Russell Harvard) and is slowly creeping up on his girlfriend and American Sign Language tutor Sylvia (excellent, touching Susan Pourfar).
   The members of Billy’s family—academic parents; feckless, disturbed older brother; and feckless, rootless older sister—all make their living through words (or try to), which means they wildly overestimate their ability to communicate. Even worse, they possess a knack for selectively processing what anyone else is saying, based on long-standing prejudice or habit.
   Raine knows the ways in which relatives take each other for granted, and the consequent explosions when a child or sibling suddenly doesn’t behave as expected. It doesn’t take long for new families to become afflicted, either: Billy and Sylvia’s love affair quickly becomes as tainted by crossed wires as if they’d been together for a decade.
   There’s no better recipe for theatrical hilarity than a roomful of people whose business is to use words as a weapon or shield, going at each other at white heat. But it’s more than a comedic energy that’s at work here. Layers and levels among the various relationships are only gradually revealed, making Tribes one of the rare plays that becomes more complex and more gripping as it moves along. When the emotional stakes are as high as Raine raises them, amusement again and again turns on a dime into heartbreak a theatergoer will not soon shake or forget.  

All the performances are spectacularly assured—doubtless a function of having been honed for more than a year at New York’s Barrow Street Theatre—with special mention going to Will Brill’s astonishing two-hour descent into mental catastrophe as Daniel, whose protectiveness toward his baby brother proves to have an eerie psychological subtext.
   Director David Cromer once again shows his ability to weave metatheatrical devices (projections, oddly-framed subtitles, and sound effects) into realistic dramas, as he did at The Broad Stage for Our Town and in New York for the sadly underappreciated Brighton Beach Memoirs. While some of the devices enhance the emotion, others seem self-consciously showy. Yet none seems idle or ill-thought-through, and when the impact is as strong as it is here, one is inclined to just take it all in and be carried along, unprotesting.
   There’s a lot of yelling in this household, which is justified thematically and characterologically, but which makes it a little difficult for the viewer to find a comfortable seat at the table for the first half-hour. But don’t give up on Tribes. It’s got your number.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
March 11, 2013


Driving Miss Daisy
Sierra Madre Playhouse

What a squandered opportunity for two highly skilled actors and a script that offers minute-by-minute chances to reach and teach an audience. Instead, here the two actors create cartoon characters in a hurried display that cursorily sketches the script’s issues and emotions.
   Alfred Uhry’s three-hander introduces the audience to the 72-year-old Daisy Werthen at a point where, her driving abilities on the wane, her son Boolie hires the 50-something Hoke to chauffeur her. Prejudices being what they were in the 1940s South, the Jewish Daisy and African-American Hoke come to grips with their “places” in society and their self-images. Over the course of the play, from 1948 through 1973, the characters and American culture bravely change.
   Mary Lou Rosato and Willie C. Carpenter can and do find moments of depth as Daisy and Hoke. Those moments are quiet, effective, and unfortunately brief. Director Christian Lebano seems to have put his rehearsal time into staging rather than delving into the world of the play. The various cars are represented by a handsome set of black-lacquered chairs and a bench, which work well visually; but the actors guide the furniture down the raked stage and back up, leaving the audience to hope the dolly doesn’t slip into the first few rows of seats.
   Because the attention here is focused on sliding set pieces in and out and quick-change costuming, Uhry’s script is revealed as a badly strung-together chronology that lurches along like Daisy’s driving. There’s little foundation or momentum for the final scene, in which Hoke should gently feed Miss Daisy. Instead it plays as if they’re downing as much food as possible before the swiftly dimmed lighting cuts off the action.
   It’s left to Brad David Reed, playing Daisy’s son Boolie, to limn a realistic character who reflects an understanding of the conflicts around him and who grows from handling them—even while playing the comic relief.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 5, 2013

 
Cavalia’s Odysseo
Cavalia’s Odysseo’s White Big Top

Once again Cavalia’s trademarked multi-spired tents have been raised on what is normally a vacant and structure-less foundation in Burbank. Although this incarnation bears some resemblances to its 2011 predecessor, this time the remarkably talented cast of rider/trainers and their equestrian charges transport their audience through myriad worldly and terrestrial locales as they delight the senses at every turn. Co-directors and choreographers Wayne Fowkes and Benjamin Aillaud, respectively handling the human and animal performances, have crafted a production that is the textbook definition of spectacular.
     From the opening strains of composer Michel Cusson’s original score, which runs the gamut from haunting to exhilarating, it’s obvious that every aspect of the show works in perfect harmony. A single, riderless horse enters the playing area, slowly followed by an ever-increasing number of its kind, while vocalist Anna-Laura Edmiston, interpreting Cusson’s French lyrics, welcomes one and all to this mysterious experience. As Act 1 progresses, there is the familiar and impressive Roman and Trick riding.
   So too, a touching display of human-equine interaction titled “Le Sedentaire” wherein trainer Elise Verdoncq singlehandedly guides nine steeds through a series of patterns using nothing more than barely perceptible vocal commands and calming caresses. But the newest additions draw the greatest responses. A troupe of West African acrobats, including members of two families, practically steals the show with each appearance. Equally mind-blowing is “Carusello,” an aptly titled segment in which a full-sized merry-go-round descends from the upper reaches of the tent, coming to rest on the stage floor. Utilizing this veritable playground is a group of stunningly agile gymnasts whose feats of physical prowess on rotating and static poles are nothing short of astonishing.

Act 2 begins with “Oasis,” during which 28 pairs of horses and humans scattered about the stage in reclining positions slowly rise and combine into a singular body of dancelike movement. Following this majestic demonstration are death-defying performances on aerial hoops. Along the way, lighting designer Alain Lortie combines his talent with that of a group of visual specialists to transform the arena and the three-story Imax-styled scrim behind it into locations including the lunar surface, the Sahara, and the grasslands of the African tundra. Capping off the evening is a nearly full flooding of the sand-covered stage with approximately six to eight inches of water. Into this marsh-like setting bursts a riderless herd that cavorts about the stage, leading into “Odysseo,” the titular finale/curtain call in which the entire cast, human and equine, presents highlights from the production.
   One note of caution: Given Cavalia’s location and the travel and parking logistics involved, it is highly advisable to plan ahead and allot ample time for reaching the venue prior to the opening curtain. And although this is not a short show, due in part to a necessary 30-minute intermission so that man and beast can prepare for Act 2, it is worth every minute.


Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
March 4, 2013
 
12 Angry Men
Torrance Theatre Company

A few days ago, a juror made local news for conducting Internet research to help herself decide the case she was on. The court dismissed her from the jury panel.
   So the audience at Torrance Theatre Company’s current production might need to suspend disbelief and all knowledge of the legal system while watching Reginald Rose’s 1950s play (here in the version adapted by Sherman Sergel). It’s a small price to pay for the thrill of watching men solve problems through the power of well-chosen words.
   Rose sets his play in a jury room, where the eponymous panel must unanimously decide a young man’s guilt or innocence. But the setting serves only as a springboard for Rose’s main themes: we are creatures of prejudice, so it’s best we act peaceably and through discourse.
   By the play’s end, the audience has learned a bit about each juror—though not any juror’s name. At the top of the play, only Juror No. 8 thinks the defendant deserves a considered deliberation. The foreman tries to keep peace while the men debate the testimony and confess their biases and re-enact the crime.  

Perry Shields directs with charming detail and a firm hand on pacing and tone, leaving the play in its original, 1950s setting. He also stages the work flawlessly, so even though the action requires nothing more than men sitting around a long table, here those men wander and lunge and stretch and perch at precisely calibrated moments, keeping the play rolling along. The fussy in the audience might wonder whether 1950s jurors would dare appear in casual attire, but at least it breaks up the visuals and suits the characters. 
   Shields also cast well. From the outset, Rose’s specific character “types” make themselves known to the audience. The belligerent father, Juror No. 3, is given a well-constructed portrayal by Scot Renfro, going from merely angry to flushed rage over the course of the play. The gentle European immigrant, Juror No. 11, gets a lovely portrayal by Bob Baumsten, who clearly and consistently speaks with a vaguely Yiddish accent throughout.
   So-called multicultural casting works beautifully here. Matthew David Smith plays Juror No. 5, who admits to having lived in slums, with strength but not pomposity, and with respect for the period yet without caricature.
   Juror No. 8, however, must carry the show. He begins the journey by revealing the results of his independent investigation, in a flashy move that should convey what he’s thinking. In Reed Arnold’s subdued portrayal, the audience rarely sees the essence of this character or his thought processes. Arnold makes him neither an everyman nor a hero, never growing or changing.
   Arnold shows skills, however. He is an adept listener, reacting with theatrical timing, as does the rest of Shield’s cast, remaining thoroughly focused though mere feet away from the audience in this intimate space.

The characters swelter in the closed room, so periodically one or another gets up for a drink at the water cooler. Here, the 1950s-evoking cooler—indeed the entire jury room with its well-worn table and chairs, and its realistically painted linoleum flooring—deserves praise for SteveG Design and the scenery crew. Steve Giltner’s lighting design hints at government-issue bulbs without looking harsh on the actors.
   What’s missing from the 1950s? Fortunately, all that cigarette smoke makes no appearance here.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 4, 2013


Therapy
Eleventh Street Productions in association with and at Secret Rose Theatre

The art of therapy—and it appears to be an art—attempts to explore issues leading to enhanced personal development. In this case, writer-director and licensed clinical social worker Jeff Bernhardt looks at this world through the eyes of three therapists and a bitter young man who is the patient of one of them.
   Steven (Jed Sura) has a new client, Lance (Luis Selgas), who has come to him unwillingly because his parents want him to be “fixed.” Though Steven tries to make a connection, Lance isn’t willing to cooperate, and his early sessions are unproductive.
   As is often the case, therapists attend therapy sessions of their own. Steven sees Moira (Lynn Ann Leveridge), a warm, motherly practitioner, who is helping him understand issues of abandonment by his mother and his failure to commit to a relationship with his girlfriend. Moira, in turn, sees Sandra (Marcie Lynn Ross), a formal and reserved therapist who seems detached from her patient.
   Bernhardt’s construct utilizing frequent mini-scenes allows for the interweaving of the central characters. As a device it works to keep the action moving, but it also fragments the storyline and leaves questions unanswered.
   The star of the play is the beautifully designed set by Eloise Ayala. The three coexisting offices reflect the personalities of the therapists. Moira’s is eclectic, with various art pieces and incense; Steven’s is more academic and masculine; Sandra’s is sterile and minimal.

Selgas is outstanding as the troubled, angry, and volatile young man whose persona is authentic. Leveridge is also completely believable as she invests her character with real empathy. In a particularly emotional moment with her own therapist, she imbues her character with genuine pathos. Ross and Sura are equally good in their characterizations.
   While the story is engaging and follows a plausible trajectory, tightening the threads of the plot to allow for longer development of the characters’ issues would improve the audience buy-in. At play’s end, the three therapists have begun to address their personal lives more proactively, but it is more mechanical and tidy than emotional. Still, much food for thought is provided, and sympathy for the counselor results. Bernhardt’s caveat might be: therapist, heal thyself.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
March 4, 2013

Jeckyll & Hyde, the Musical
Broadway/L.A. at Pantages Theatre

There are a few positive aspects of Jeff Calhoun’s direction of a show that is fast approaching “chestnut” status as it winds its way across the country on a multicity tour before its heralded revival on the Great White Way. Lavish production values set a high water mark from the opening moments and work exceptionally well—less perhaps one glaringly harsh exception in the second act. Designer Tobin Ost has created a magnificently versatile scenic design featuring large panels that swivel and move about the stage, providing areas upon which projection designer Daniel Brodie’s handiwork, some still and some moving, augment various scenes. Likewise, Ost’s costuming is sumptuous and eye-catching, darker hues setting the tone for this gothic tale of horrific tragedy thanks to lighting designer Jeff Croiter’s topnotch illumination.
   Couple these highpoints with a deep well of supporting players from which Calhoun has drawn, and one could easily see a long and healthy New York run. But this piece must rest, as well it should, on the shoulders of the actor selected to assay the titular roles. Unfortunately, in what can best be described as a disappointing example of “stunt” casting, Constantine Maroulis—he of American Idol fame—demonstrates that an otherwise amazing ability to “rock out” on what are clearly “legitimate” musical theater compositions seems merely self-indulgent and horribly out of place.
   It’s as though he and musical director Steven Landau are compensating for Maroulis being seemingly in over his head. His Jekyll displays not a shred of leading man quality, but comes off instead as weak and possessing none of the drive and determination that leads to his self-experimentation. His bland version of composer Frank Wildhorn’s and lyricist Leslie Bricusse’s Act 1 signature piece “This Is the Moment” seems more about posing around the stage than playing the good doctor’s mounting excitement. Likewise, it seems inexplicable that a woman as self-assured as Teal Wicks’s beautifully voiced Emma Carew would ever find romance with such an insecure specimen.

Maroulis’s version of Jekyll’s evil alter-ego, Edward Hyde, is, to be sure, much more watchable, that is if catching rare glimpses of his face from behind a mop of forward-combed hair qualifies as such. As Hyde becomes the stronger of the two, the transformations and Maroulis’s wavering accent become less and less convincing. But the worst affront comes in the form of Calhoun’s take and his star’s performance of “Confrontation.” Is it that Maroulis couldn’t handle what is arguably one of the most difficult solo pieces ever written or did his director feel that current audiences needed to be wowed with exaggerated spectacle? Rather than demonstrating the battle being waged between the character’s dual personalities, Maroulis sings only the Jekyll half of the song while the walls of his home play movie screen to overblown video sequences featuring the actor, prerecorded, singing the Hyde role amidst images of cracked mirrors and animated explosions. Rather than providing a climactic part of a larger story, it seems like a stage-sized version of an Xbox game.

On the other hand, and thankfully so, his co-star, Deborah Cox is everything anyone could wish for in the role of the love-starved prostitute, Lucy Harris. Cox’s acting is of the highest caliber, and kudos to her for trusting the songs enough to simply sing them as originally written. No outlandish demonstrations of a vocal range that no doubt she has on hand. Just gorgeous, lovingly rendered performances of “Someone Like You,” “A New Life,” and her showstopping interpretation with Wicks of the female duet “In His Eyes.” How audiences will respond to this piece when it finally reaches Broadway remains to be seen. On the night reviewed, the reactions of those at the Pantages were certainly a mixed bag. Some leapt to their feet to applaud, while others headed up the aisles even as the rest of the cast exited the stage and Maroulis made a final approach to the footlights visibly encouraging further adoration the way one might envision a rock concert to end.
Reviewed by Dink O'Neal
February 16, 2013

 
Around the World in 80 Days
International City Theatre

For nearly 150 years Jules Verne’s inventive writings have captured the imagination of other writers, poets, and artists as they create works based on his often fanciful science fiction stories. A delightful case in point is playwright Mark Brown’s clever adaptation directed by Allison Bibicoff with a crack team of five energetic actors playing more than three dozen parts.
   We all know the story: Phileas Fogg (Jud V. Williford) bets a group of his Reform Club fellows that he can circle the globe in 80 days. Joined by his French manservant, Passepartout (Michael Uribes), he travels by steamer and rail, all the while encountering exotic locales and perilous mishaps. Around the same time as Fogg is leaving on his adventure, a British bank robbery leads Detective Fix (Brian Stanton) to suspect the wealthy Fogg of the deed, and Fix follows him, placing obstacles in Fogg’s way so he can arrest him at the appropriate time.
   Trying to describe the plot’s machinations and actors’ roles is nearly as difficult as Fogg’s global endeavors. A particularly amusing scene is an elephant ride utilizing two gray umbrellas, a stack of chairs, and a labeled “trunk” that actors climb on, swaying as they journey. There’s a typhoon, Indian uprisings in the old West, and mysterious orange-clad figures to foil. The story is well-anchored by the very proper and precise Williford, epitomizing the unflappable Brit. Uribes contributes acrobatic skill and quick-witted comedy, making a wonderful foil for their risky perils.
   Cast member Melinda Porto delights as male and female characters, notably her nuanced portrayal of an Indian princess rescued by Fogg from the funeral pyre of her husband. Mark Gagliardi’s facility with accents and quick changes are a large part of the success of the production. Stanton, in addition to his detective portrayal, does yeoman work as other colorful characters.
   Staci Walters’ global-map backdrop plays its part well, following Fogg and company from London back to England with a moving light along the travelers’ path. Donna Ruzika’s artful lighting and Dave Mickey’s thoughtful sound design add punch to the production. Kim DeShazo’s costumes, particularly those which are quick changes, are highly effective.
   Bibicoff has her hands full with Brown’s challenges. It is noted that he gives few stage directions, allowing for directorial imagination. Thanks to Bibicoff’s skills and lighthearted management, this play charms from beginning to end and makes a fine opener for ICT’s season.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
February 3, 2013

 
Backbeat
Karl Sydow in association with Glasgow Citizens Theatre at Ahmanson Theatre 

Gentle program notes for this U.S. premiere attempt to stave off complaints by Beatles connoisseurs. “And, of course, Paul is left-handed,” the notes conclude. But the right-handed Daniel Healy who plays Paul McCartney is, pardon the Dionne Warwick paraphrase, always someone there to remind us that the production takes much license—unfortunately not all of it artistic. 
   Backbeat, by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys, details the early history of the Beatles as the band gels in Hamburg and Liverpool. More particularly, and problematically, however, the story follows the trajectory of Stuart Sutcliffe, the band’s original bass player. Sutcliffe, played by Nick Blood, is cool and hip, and although he’d rather be painting than spending seven nights per week, six hours per night, in the smoky clubs of Hamburg, he is after all winning the girl and winning a scholarship to a German state art school. He makes a very dull main character in the midst of this low-stakes story.
   The audience is told, every which way, how much John, played with pert insouciance by Andrew Knott, “loves” and “admires” Stuart. Paul plods on, but we know there’s hope for him. Meantime, as we also know, drummer Pete Best, played by Oliver Bennett, is doomed. That’s narratively and musically a pity; Bennett wails in virtuosic licks, and Best shows up sober, on time, and in time. Best is replaced in late innings by Ringo, to whom Adam Sopp gives cheery pendulous stick strokes. Daniel Westwick plays the callow George Harrison.

David Leveaux’s direction shares a credit with “Iain Softley’s Production for Glasgow Citizens Theatre.” Whoever took charge here, it’s not nearly enough. “Longer” and “louder” seem to be the actors’ guides, as walls slide in and out around them to show scene changes, while a shabby sofa serves as the furnishing that represents “a scene at home.” At a train station, steam engines let off puffy clouds of water vapor. A few scenes later, Paul and John are in an otherwise empty club, surrounded by puffy clouds of cigarette smoke.
   Thick accents—maybe resembling Liverpudlian but in many cases not resembling German—waft in and out of hearing. Leanne Best, playing the photographer and eventually Stuart’s wife Astrid, is allowed to shout her every line. Once again, though she is a pretty creature in stylish blonde gamine cut, this Astrid makes one wonder what Stuart ever saw in her.
   During each of the Hamburg club scenes, a drunken man dances in front of the band. Sometimes those dances are clearly from the 1980s and not the ’60s. That the actors playing the Beatles don’t look like their real-life counterparts is not as troublesome as that they don’t look like they’re in the ’60s, either.
   But most troublesome in this production, the sound of the band’s numbers is muddily distorted, as well as nearing painfully loud. Additionally, it’s possible instruments were being tuned out of the audience’s sight, but you couldn’t prove it by this reviewer’s ears.
   One scene catches a bit of fire. Paul is noodling around with a lackluster song that begs, “Please love me, too.” John wanders by and starts to tinker. Bit by bit, two artists see a problem, work it, and solve it. “Love Me Do,” is born. This is simple and entrancing storytelling. Perhaps another time, in another show with better storytelling skills, we’ll find out how Paul’s melody line for that song became the harmony.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 1, 2013

Machu Picchu, Texas
at The Stella Adler Theatres 

At the top of this Timothy McNeil play, the audience may be a little confused about who’s related to whom. As McNeil continues to introduce the family members to us, it seems they’re a little confused in their relationship boundaries, too.   The numerousness of the characters, though, contributes to the “old-fashioned,” “well-made play” feel of McNeil’s work. Still, metaphor pervades the storytelling, making it appear quite up-to-date and yet timeless. This world premiere script has its charms, but it also has a few faults that could be repaired.
   In brief, here’s the consanguinity: Sonia and Harold Ogden, in whose home the play takes place, are parents to Melissa. Sonias sister Rhonda is married to Charlie Foster, and their sons are Terry and Dalton. Also visiting over the play’s course are Sonia’s childhood friend June Bug and her husband, Donnie, as well as Melissa’s boyfriend Brandon and Terry’s childhood friend Michael.
   Harold and Sonia are trying to tend to Terry, who’s emotionally wrecked because his father, Charlie, had recently been brutalized by “college kids” and who is now brain-damaged and wheelchair-bound. Sonia was in love with Charlie before he married her sister, and Sonia thinks her love was requited. Terry is in love or lust with his first cousin Melissa. She seems to return the feelings, but then she shows up with Brandon. Soon, Terry momentarily falls into the arms of Michael. June Bug, unoffended by the goings on, confesses a brief long-ago crush on Sonia.
   Unfortunately, it’s not clear what these unhappy souls, particularly Terry, were like prior to the attack. Was he an average “college kid,” too, when he was attending? Or was he always this withdrawn and lost? And when was he tossed out of school? Was Rhonda always so tightly wound, or has her husband’s horrifying incapacitation caused her to become a never-ending well of annoyance and fury? Sonia, it’s likely, was always a nurturer; here she is continually providing snacks, though she probably knows they’re needed to soak up all that booze. And Charlie, it seems, has always been the epitome of amiability. What a special soul he is, and how we wish he were onstage longer.

McNeil’s themes wend expertly through the play: delusion, dreams, dark urges, and the consequences. The grownups seem to be teaching the younger generation all the right things—work hard, be kind, take the high road—though alcoholism runs wide and deep. However, begging for a rewrite are two ungainly moments in the script. Information hastily revealed before the intermission break might be better left to play out in Act 2. And a rendition of verse and chorus of “Over the Rainbow” bogs down the midst of Act 2.
   McNeil also directs, and he creates his mood fully and disturbingly. Some of the upstage action can’t be seen from portions of the audience, however—in particular when Terry sits in his bedroom, knife poised, and contemplates cutting his wrists. But the staging is otherwise thorough. The generous set (design by Michael Fitzgerald) tells so much about the family. At stage left is a crafts area at which Sonia tries to make her house a home—or at which she immerses herself in tasks to forget her troubles. At stage right, tiny plants are trying to spring up on the porch. A well-stocked bar seems to hover over the house upstage. And behind everything, the Andes tower over this Texas home.
   The two McNeils also turn in superb performances. Bonnie McNeil’s matriarchic Sonia gently shines a glow of hope over the family, and Tim McNeil’s brain-damaged Charlie is crafted with precise but respectful details and a humanity the size of Texas.
   What happens when good people give in to their dark urges and give up their dreams, and how do they deal with the consequences? It’s an intriguing setup for a drama, and it’s tackled here with solid theatermaking.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 28, 2012
 
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich
Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA’s Macgowan Hall Freud Playhouse

No hidden message here: From the start, we’re told that this is a story about power. Indeed, it’s several stories about power. An acting troupe is trying to piece together a theater production in which two paragons of power collide. The troupe, unsurprisingly, is led by an alpha-male director and comprises a few actors who think they should be running the show.
   Enhancing and adding complexity to the storytelling, the fictional troupe was created by the real-life troupe Back to Back Theatre, hailing from Australia and led by director, devisor, and designer Bruce Gladwin.
   The production’s audience probably should know that four of the five actors are, in the words of Back to Back, “intellectually disabled.” This knowledge will keep the audience from any impatience at not understanding those actors’ occasionally limited verbal articulation. But any disability doesn’t keep those actors from, well, acting. Each man reflects stagecraft—including presence, focus, and imagination. On the night reviewed, a backdrop stuck on its track. These “intellectually disabled” actors worked the problem until they solved it, just as fellow actors do any night on any stage around the world when things go amiss in live performances.
   But as with group dynamics, each actor falls into a role in the troupe. The class clown is Mark Deans. The quiet problem-solver is Simon Laherty. The authority-questioner is Scott Price. And the thespian is Brian Tilley, playing Ganesh in the almost-play-within-a-play. Onstage with them is Luke Ryan, playing the troupe’s director. Ryan also plays Vishnu—simplistically stated, the Hindu god considered master of the universe, in charge of battling chaos.
   The troupe is developing a production in which Ganesh—again simplistically summarized, the elephant-headed Hindu god known as the destroyer and the protector—travels to 1940s Germany. There, Ganesh plans to reclaim the symbol and symbolism of the swastika, originally a Hindu sign of luck.
   Scott and the director fight over the director’s exercise of power. Some in the audience will side with actors who are in need of and deserving kindness. Some in the audience will side with a director frustrated over constantly reining in and disciplining his actors. Fisticuffs ensue—rendered gently—until Scott’s castmates subdue their director and shoo him off. What happens when there’s a void in strong leadership? Simon, never offered the role of Hitler, steps into it; in a strikingly theatrical turn, the lights switch to “performance” mode, dramatically illuminating the “play” and concealing in darkness the rehearsal furniture and costumes and the lolling actors around him.

It’s one of many moments of gorgeous visuals (design and set construction by Mark Cuthbertson, design and animation by Rhian Hinkley, lighting by Andrew Livingston, Bluebottle). Floor-to-ceiling plastic sheeting creates the various backgrounds: misty forests, a fenced-in home at evening. Two tables, a few chairs, projections, lighting, sound design, and, presto, creation! Ganesh, a Jewish man, and a Nazi are on a train hurtling through mountain passes. The audience is invited in to see how artistry is made, but the effect awes us anyway.
   Even more stunning is how these young Australians can generate such chill air portraying 1940s Germany. It’s not just that their Hitler and Mengele terrify; it’s that Laherty, playing Simon, wears striped pajamas throughout rehearsals, and when Simon steps into the role of a young Jewish man, he burns with an intelligent flame we know will be horrifyingly extinguished by a sick social “need” for perfection.
   The play about Ganesh is never quite completed, for reasons that make up its framing device. At the end of the evening, we’re left with Mark, who makes himself secure under a table. What is he doing there? Hiding? Resting? Playing? Thinking? Enjoying just being?
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 27, 2013
 
Giving Up Is Hard to Do
The Victory Theatre Center’s Little Victory Theatre

At what point do you reveal to someone—a potential lover, a family member, an interviewing employer—an essential part of you that you’ve been keeping secret? And, having told that person, what reaction have you the right to expect?
   For the many who find autobiographic solo shows too ego-driven, this one by writer-performer Annie Abbott, directed by Joel Zwick, may come as a pleasant surprise. Abbott is a working-class actor, and her tales of breaking in and earning her first roles pepper this 75-minute piece. So do her adventures in online dating after she was widowed from her much-worshiped husband. But the crux of this story is exceedingly universal—though not to be divulged here.
   Abbott is energetic and engaging, playing grandmothers and young nieces and nephews and her towering husband as he knocks down walls in their new home. She makes a cozy storyteller, dressed in rich shades of plum nicely standing out against the brick-and-wood set of office, restaurants, backyards, and meeting room (all designs attributed to François-Pierre Couture).
   Abbott’s script sews disparate pieces of her life together in an easy-to-follow, appealing, sometimes poetic story, punctuated by summaries (“I found myself standing in footprints I thought long ago disappeared”) that hang in the air for a few tender moments.
   What doesn’t work here is the setup—the introduction and conclusion, the excuse for Annie to tell her story. The main substance, the point of the production, begs for better. There’s enough humor and frankness in Abbott’s recounting of her life. In telling a story about meeting someone she could finally trust, she and Zwick should trust the audience to be ready to listen without needing a warm-up act.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 27, 2013


Happy Face Sad Face
The Elephant Lillian Stage

Happy Face Sad Face, R.J. Colleary’s new play, elicits much more of the latter than the former, though if all concerned were a little more conscientious and less self-congratulatory, they might have a shot at favorably reversing the ratio. Commendably, if hubristically, the show self-identifies as possessing “a brilliantly simple concept,” to the effect that the same story, first a drama and then a comedy, is “told from the polar opposite perspective.”
   I would share that enthusiasm if I could think of a single instance in which such a conceit actually worked. Woody Allen’s Melinda & Melinda tried it, although the cutting back and forth between the serious and wacky versions went awry when it proved impossible to figure out which was meant to be which. Aside from canny programming choices by regional producers (as when a production of Hamlet is chosen to play in repertory with Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet/Cahoot’s Macbeth), the line between tragic and comic may be too thin to make much hay out of the contrast Colleary attempts here.
   At least he indulges in no cross-cutting: Act 1 is the serious take. Audience snorts and guffaws on opening night suggested audience members weren’t immediately catching on that Sad Face was up first, though they can’t be blamed for inferring that such a preposterous plot—involving a stranger’s insurance scheme, the slow revelation of family secrets, and a lot of people waving guns around—must have been intended as satire. Late-inning machinations and twists prove to be the main point of interest in what emerges as a glibly cynical thriller with a would-be O. Henry payoff, not a truly serious drama per se. But at least it keeps one interested.

The switcheroo to comedy in Act 2 feels a bit of a cheat, because instead of creating mirthful spins on Act 1’s storyline, Colleary just imposes a lot of silly choices on his characters. Insurance agent Jason (Tom Christensen) for instance, who glides through Act 1 coolly clad in casual preppy attire, now shows up in silk copper-colored pajamas and a flapping dragon-print robe. His visiting, squabbling parents (Thomas F. Evans and Perry Smith) come back after intermission as S&M-freaky swingers, while wife Emily (Krizia Bajos), a Cuban-American of oddly snippy but otherwise sensible mien, is transformed into a shrieking, non-English-speaking harpy who out-chicas Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara, if such a thing is possible. Either way…a Cuban named Emily?
   For the record, Smith garners some real laughs as a wacko bondage mistress, but Christensen flits around as if always preparing to reveal his supposed heterosexuality as a sham, though that never comes to pass. Meanwhile dad Evans, in underpants and a dog collar, spends most of Act 2 hidden behind a sofa, which is good.
  
Here’s a totally unsolicited but totally apropos acting lesson for all concerned. A truism of acting goes that whenever someone on stage exhales or retreats or collapses, it has the effect of bringing something—an action, a scene, a moment, an intention—to an end. Once the air is gone, something else has to be built from scratch, and each new effort to get something going puts a strain on audience attention.
   In both acts, helmer Kathleen Rubin allows her players constantly and fatally to let the air out of the scenes. It’s especially important that characters in a thriller or comedy, Colleary’s genres of choice, be quicksilver and alive: They must always be thinking, always trying to make things happen, eyes gleaming and bodies tingling with energy as if they can’t wait to leap up. In this production, by contrast, the cast is forever sitting around depressed and mopey, like castaways in those New Yorker cartoons set on tiny desert islands. If by any chance any of Rubin’s actors is moved to get some action going, you can count on a castmate to squelch it by misapplying the prevailing energy.
   One consistent buzzkiller is Jason’s insurance client Malcolm (Rob Locke), who cannot stop panting exhaustedly. It’s unclear whether Locke, a portly fellow, is actually in distress or he somehow feels he has got to keep reminding us that Malcolm is infirm, but either way it’s unpleasant to witness.
   An acting teacher I once knew made a simple but effective suggestion: Anytime you or your character feels like exhaling, find a way to justify turning it into an inhalation, and you’ll be energized by what happens. As proof that Happy Face Sad Face could profit from this tip, consider that the three biggest opening night laughs in Act 2 occurred when two or more characters took big, deep breaths simultaneously. I daresay the audience was unaware of why they were being roused, but it was like taking a hit from oxygen masks dropping from a plane’s ceiling. A steady infusion of fresh air wouldn’t fix the ungainly plot and dialogue, but it could do a lot for the palatability of this production.
Reviewed by Bob Verini
January 23, 2013
Boeing-Boeing
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

The word stewardess has often been synonymous with the word glamorous, and Marc Camoletti’s naughty French farce, translated by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans, spotlights three sexy flight attendants and their playboy boyfriend, Bernard (Carter Roy). Bernard has created the ideal life for himself. With mathematical precision worthy of a war campaign, Bernard has acquired three stewardess fiancées, each working a different airline. He has managed this because they have flight plans that don’t overlap. True to formula, that is going to change.
   Gloria (Melanie Lora) is the first of the three—a blonde American nearly the embodiment of a living Barbie. Number 2 is Gabriella (Kalie Quinones)—a feisty Italian with an attitude. Number 3 is Gretchen (Amy Rutberg)—a hearty and imposing German. All three are in love with Bernard and are pushing him toward marriage, a commitment for which he has little enthusiasm. Matters are further complicated when bachelor schoolmate Robert (Marc Valera) comes to stay. Bad weather has interfered with Bernard’s split-second timetable, and eventually all three women end up in the apartment at the same time, an event that challenges the amorous Bernard and his hapless friend.
   Adding deadpan humor to the proceedings is Berthe (Michelle Azar), Bernard’s beleaguered maid. Playing Berthe, acerbic yet complicit in the events, Azar nearly steals the show. Jeff Maynard’s directorial choices are often hit-and-miss. When applying physicality to the scenes, he does a fine job with expert timing. He is heavy handed, though, and some characterizations begin at too intense a level and seem overdrawn too soon.
   As in any good farce, Kevin Clowes’s colorful apartment design includes multiple doors necessary for comic entering and leaving. Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting design also creates a bright and effective atmosphere. Helen Butler’s stewardess uniforms are notable.
   When the play premiered in the 1960s, sex was just taking center stage in a number of films and plays. By now, it is old hat, and this touring revival is pleasantly silly but breaks no new ground. Though the cast is enthusiastic, the final result is a tepid C+.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
January 21, 2013

 
The Snake Can
Indie Chi Productions at Odyssey Theatre

Many think of the romantic travails of the middle-aged as hilarious, and most plays on this topic say little but patronize much. This play includes its fair share of hilarity, and inevitably its main audience will be the middle-aged, though the appeal of several of the performances demands broader attendance. Indeed, in this world premiere, playwright Kathryn Graf treats the topic respectfully, thoughtfully, and intriguingly, giving what could be a light play enough disturbing undercurrents to satisfy the serious-minded theatergoer. The surprise popping out of this production, like the snake out of the can, is its submerged depth.
   The play centers on three women who are close friends in differing relationship situations. Meg (Sharon Sharth) ricochets among boy toys. Nina (Diane Cary), a painter, has separated from her husband Paul (Gregory Harrison), who has a new girlfriend. Harriet (Jane Kaczmarek), a widow for seven years, is a journalist currently trying to pen a novel. Harriet’s loneliness drives her to online dating, through which she meets Stephen (James Lancaster), at least intellectually her match. Meg tries dating Jake (Joel Polis), to uncomfortable effect. Nina wants no relationship, determined only to make art.
   Much of Graf’s script holds the mirror up to nature. Life’s issues are unabashedly there, onstage, for the audience to recognize. If you want a peek at what’s wrong with the way women deal with relationships, watch Harriet and Meg try to figure Stephen out after one date.
   Some of the script, however, could be trimmed. In particular, the scene between Meg and her best friend’s ex husband Paul rolls on far too long, going over material already spoken about or obvious. The play tidies up loose ends, which will appeal to some audiences and frustrate others. A few charmingly phrased epigrams are offered by Brad (Polis again), who serves as a plot device and delivery system for the play’s wisdoms, such as, “By this age, whatever hasn’t killed us, hasn’t made us stronger, it’s made us tired, and vulnerable and just a little more scared of life.”

Director Steven Robman shepherds the tone, giving the comedy weighty underpinnings and keeping the drama away from melodrama. He also seems to have given the actors latitude in some areas—though why not, with these veterans? During Nina’s aria of frustration, Cary roams the stage, seemingly unencumbered by blocking. His scene changes are brisk, aided by Hana S. Kim’s projections.
   Not a snake-can surprise, and enhancing this production, are several performances. Sharth is a perky delight, making Meg energized but very real. Lancaster makes Stephen a comfortable presence, clearly able to appeal to Harriet, the actor a more-than-able foil for Kaczmarek in their thought-provoking scenes together.
   But absolutely stellar is Kaczmarek. Not for a second is she actorly: She never falls back on line readings or gestures seen onstage so often when actors haven’t decided what their characters would do. She’s always vibrant but never hammy. She glows with the joy of playing a character. Yes, the character Graf wrote is sturdy and funny. But Kaczmarek makes her interesting, mixing the unexpected with the typically human.
   Costume designer Miguel Montalvo works in a pleasant grey palette and gives the women enough shoe changes to keep the hawkeyed in the audience a little envious. Montalvo also gives Stephen green suede shoes and a matching tie, for those seeking visual clues about the characters’ “real” lives.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 21, 2013


Track 3
Theatre Movement Bazaar and Bootleg Theater at Bootleg Theater

Where does Track 3 head to? It heads to Moscow, but only if one is uncomplaining and faithful and perpetually contented. And that means three sisters by the names of Olga, Masha, and Irina will probably not be on that train.
   In Track 3, Chekhov’s Three Sisters gets a thoroughly creative adaptation by Richard Alger, directed and choreographed by Tina Kronis. This work merges text with dance—though it’s not “dance” as audiences may expect after watching certain television versions of it. No sambas, no 32 fouettés. Kronis’s style is fascinatingly distorted daily movement. Why ask an actor to walk across the stage when he or she can slither, limp, leap, or otherwise skedaddle in unique ways?
   The production’s period (Alger’s lighting and scenic design, Ellen McCartney’s costuming) has a Chekhovian look, yet splashes of modernity delightfully disorient the eye. So, too, Alger’s story sticks to the original, but smartphones interrupt the action—fortunately onstage and not from the audience.
   The lighting is bright and spills onto the brick walls of the theater and into the audience. This keeps the piece from being as moody and mysterious as other of Kronis and Alger’s works. It also keeps the viewer’s mind focused on the mechanics of the production and not wandering off to Russia with the characters. Adding to the Brechtian feel, the actors sit at the side of the stage, preparing for and awaiting entrances.

Those actors reflect long rehearsals here, but they also reflect skills built over years. They move well. Particularly adept at Kronis’s vocabulary, Mark Skeens plays the worshipped brother, Andrei. In general, though, the men commit more fully than the women do to the dancing, moving with purpose and completing each “step.”
   The actors also sing, particularly charmingly in a barbershop quartet of Skeens, Mark Doerr, David LM McIntyre, and Jesse D. Myers; and Myers, playing heartbroken suitor Tuzenbach, contributes beautiful guitar accompaniment to other musical numbers. Doerr cuts a romantic figure as Masha’s lover, Vershinin. Skeens reveals the crushed spirit of Andrei. McIntyre provides gentle comedy as the buffoonish Solyony but also steps in to reveal “random” facts—presumably as the nonmentioned character of Ferapont from Chekhov’s original.
   Yes, women star in this version, too. From the production’s start, the iconic trio springs forth as a lively—yes, including Masha—group. Kendra Chell creates schoolmarm Olga, Dylan Jones plays the disappointed Masha, and Caitlyn Conlin is the babied Irina. And then, Liz Vital bursts forth as Natasha, the sisters’ new and unwanted sister-in-law. Vital seems to thrive on physical comedy, her skills made even more noteworthy by Natasha’s lovely scarlet shoes.

Alger leaves in the essentials and the amusing. Natasha’s inamorato gets mentioned, repeatedly, because “Protopopov” is such a fun-to-say name. Masha’s husband is never seen, because, feh, who needs him! Natasha proudly wears a shiny green belt. The troubling fork remains downstage throughout.
   At the play’s very end, the sisters construct a tiny house out of teacups and books. Indeed, isn’t that all a cozy home needs?
   For the persnickety in the audience: The actors pronounce the city as “Mahs-cow.” To their credit, they do so with uniformity—though on the night reviewed one educated-otherwise actor let slip and then corrected mid-sound a “Mahs-coh.”
   Sadly, the pronunciation doesn’t matter to three sisters, who still, despite a long history of appearing onstage in various fantastical adaptations, aren’t anywhere near their return to Moscow.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 19, 2013

 

The Motherfucker With the Hat
South Coast Repertory Julianne Argyros Stage

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s fine play The Motherfucker With the Hat is about many interesting things, the least important of which is the title’s brazenly cocking a snook at print editors and old-school patrons, daring anyone to object to the vulgarity. Well, the title is juvenile and stupid, an unnecessary attempt to call attention to itself. But the play is anything but.
   Where Hat and Michael John Garcés’s production at South Coast Rep are strongest is in the insistent tugging at the tenuous bonds between pairs of people with whom we can all identify. Husbands and wives. Lovers. AA sponsor and sponsee. Relatives. Buddies. Guirgis has built his reputation as the detailer of society’s flotsam and jetsam in such works as and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. But if you look past all of his freaks and geeks with their self-consciously outrageous dialogue and behavior, you locate a sensitive humanist, whose main theme is the endless physical, psychological, and financial and emotional obstacles that separate the members of our species in their important relationships. Guirgis is peerless at piling on those obstacles, such that it becomes completely fascinating to watch his people struggle to cut past them.
   Hat is a five-hander, a much smaller cast than Guirgis is used to fielding. Yet there are as many complications among them as in his breakthrough epic (13 characters) of Times Square in the Giuliani era In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings (1999). There are race and class differences exploited here, as well as differing moral philosophies and just plain everyday misunderstandings, and Garcés manipulates them (and our feelings and funny bones) with unusual skill.

Where the play is strong but the production is not, is in the central tragedy of Jackie, a recent parolee struggling with going straight but unable to exorcise a lifetime’s legacy of fear, doubt, and low self-esteem. When Hat begins, he has been (mostly) sober for weeks, he has nabbed a job with a future, and he brings his girlfriend flowers. Within minutes, however, his demons are aroused at the sight of some motherfucker’s hat in the apartment, and thereafter he tears himself apart with the methodical decline of a Greek tragedy.
   I didn’t see the Broadway production in which Bobby Cannavale scored a personal triumph as Jackie, but I can imagine him in it: He’s a big man—not just physically but aesthetically; he commands any room just by standing in it—playing a character who is being pushed by society, and AA, and everyone around him to become small, well-behaved, obsequious…that is, ordinary. When Jackie is imposing, as Cannavale surely is, his fall can assume a tragic dimension. But a miscast Tony Sancho is already small and ordinary, and boasts a limited vocal and emotional palette to boot.
   The rest of the cast is marvelous, and Nephelie Andonyadis’s spinning, swirling set picks up on the chaos at work among the actors. But there’s no way a whiny, petulant, unprepossessing Jackie can break our hearts, and Sancho does not do so, not for a moment. As a result this Motherfucker delights but never awes.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
January 15, 2013

 
The Grand Irrationality
The Lost Studio

An array of themes populates Jemma Kennedy’s world premiere script. Together, those themes might send a nicely existential message about taking responsibility for oneself. The production, however, suffers from an unimaginative mounting.
   We first meet Guy Proud (Gregory Marcel), indeed a guy but not yet a man, as he lunches with Nina (Kirsten Kollender), a businesswoman who has made herself sexually objectified. Guy works for Big Daddy ad agency as a copywriter. Nina is a senior product developer for a soft-drink company. He cares more about keeping his job than being creative on it. It’s hard to tell whether she cares more about hooking up with Guy than about ensuring booming sales on the new beverage, but Kollender’s portrayal seems to lean more toward the romance, judging by the crushed heart she delicately reveals near the play’s end.
   Guy’s lunch is interrupted by his blowsy sister Liz (Mina Badie), who wheels her baby in with her to announce that her and Guy’s father, Murray (Peter Elbling), has fallen and is injured. Murray, it turns out, is quite a card. Murray’s neighbor Vivienne (Bess Meyer) is a Frenchwoman and an active women’s rights advocate. Guy’s boss Alex (James Donovan) completes this chamber piece by filling in the fatherly, though vulgarly delivered, advice Guy isn’t getting from Murray.  

Feminism, alcoholism, abandonment issues, and astrology feature in Kennedy’s script. Ultimately, the Proud family decides to get a grip. The script may be too long. It’s hard to tell because, although director John Pleshette has done solid work developing his actors’ characters, the staging drags out the storytelling beyond what average patience can bear. The frequent scene changes seem well-rehearsed but not well-conceived. Pleshette’s work with the actors shines in the production’s consistent tone and the characters’ three-dimensionality—though the French and Irish accents are wobbly. 
   Highlighting the acting, Elbling is, to borrow a delightful British adjective from the dialogue, stupendous. He creates the heart of a very unsympathetic character, and he displays pristine timing that lets Murray speak naturally without cutting off his scene partners’ lines.
   The production’s nudity is gratuitous, mostly because it is distracting and does not fit with tone of play.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 15, 2013

Hansel and Gretel
Theatre West

This well-known tale, of German origin, is credited to the Brothers Grimm for its first official recording in the early 19th century. The ironies of the publishing duo’s surname and the general tone of their works are hardly lost on those familiar with their compilations. Foreboding and often quite gruesome, these stories were clearly intended to frighten and warn the reader.
   For the purposes of this spritely production, however, Lloyd J. Schwartz’s script homogenizes the more grotesque aspects while maintaining a clear focus on the moral that no matter how bad things get, it’s never the right choice to run away. And judging by the enraptured attention of the 3- to 9-year-old audience members at the performance reviewed, director Elliot Schwartz and company have achieved precisely their intended goal. Although the production is heavy on audience participation, director Schwartz keeps things moving with enough speed so that there isn’t time for fidgety boredom to take over.
   In the title roles, adult actors Joey Jennings and Caitlin Gallogly make a cute pair for their paradoxical physical appearances and their onstage chemistry. Jennings plays Hansel as a very tall boy whose zero percent body fat contradicts his constant desire to eat. Gallogly’s Gretel, on the other hand, is the sensible one. Shorter in stature and sporting a blue gingham dress that would do Dorothy Gale proud, she has the job of reining in Jenning’s nicely turned goofiness. Their delivery of composers-lyricists Hope and Laurence Juber’s ear-friendly original compositions, particularly “We’re in a Mess of Trouble,” is well-rendered.
   Anthony Gruppuso does a fine job as the protagonistic pair’s father, an unemployed woodcutter. Having eschewed the wicked stepmother, playwright Schwartz uses dad’s lack of work as the reason his children decide to run away. Gruppuso’s voice lends a legitimate quality to the production’s most lyrical number, titled “Family,” while ably handling his comedic interactions with the young viewers.
   Silliness in spades is served up by Barbara Mallory as Birdy, a scatterbrained fowl, reminiscent of Dory from Finding Nemo, who eats the children’s breadcrumb trail. On a technical note, her number, “Birds Fly Better in Flocks,” was almost unintelligible due to the taped music’s volume level and the logistics of herding nearly two dozen kiddos who flooded the stage when she asked for volunteers.

Meanwhile, Kathy Garrick, as an ever-so-friendly Witch, is the closest thing to a villain this play serves up. Gone are the cannibalistic undertones, replaced by her conniving plan to overfeed the titular duo, thereby leading to their slothful laziness, so she can hijack the production and present her own theatrical showcase. Her big number, “The Candy Wrapper Song,” performed with Mallory, is clearly the standout piece on the song list.
   In the end, with a magic spell here and a well-timed reveal there, the proceedings wrap up with a nice big bow. It proved to be an experience that sent everyone out the door with smiles on their faces.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
January 14, 2013
 
’Tis Pity She’s a Whore
Cheek by Jowl, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA’s Macgowan Hall Freud Playhouse

For several reasons, it may take the audience a while to “get” this production. But once the concept makes sense and the more-adept performances begin, there will be no doubts left about the setup and the execution. This is a benchmark evening.
   Director Declan Donnellan places John Ford’s nearly 400-year-old play in the present. The set is a bedroom backed by a blood-red wall hung with movie posters—sirens and seductresses are their unifying theme—and their contrasting images, primarily of the Virgin Mary. One door in the upstage wall opens to a hallway, but the other door opens to a pristine, brightly lit bathroom in contrast  with the darkly sanguine bedroom.
   Donnellan avoids scene changes: All the action takes place in and around the bed, whether reflecting a choice to reveal the text as a nightmare or to show that every thought and movement of each character stems from sexuality or its denial. The friar offers his advice to “repent” while the bed sits squarely centerstage; a crowd piles onto the bed to “whoot” loudly over a fight. 
   Most fascinating, however, is that Donnellan brings one or more witness into many of the scenes. Thus, many conversations seem to be watched over by someone. Does this represent our conscience, or does it represent society’s prurience, nosiness, curiosity, judgmentalism? At the play’s gruesome end, so many characters feel compelled to peek into the bathroom and see the bloody wreckage, though those ahead of them emerge screaming in fright and disgust. We love our voyeurism, don’t we?
   We also love the superficial. The female characters play dress-up in a variety of modes: a haloed bride, a widow in weeds (a little black dress here), a naughty schoolgirl. The males, at least the overtly sexual ones, go leather-clad or starkers.

So why the doubts at the top of the play? Apparently not every RADA-trained actor has spectacular enunciation (who knew?) and not every actor can dance (we knew!). The cast emerges to perform a little introductory divertissement, but only a few of the actors move well and in time to the music. Then it may take time for the audience to stop objectively observing the world of the direction and start to feel for the characters.
   Eventually, somehow, we feel. It seems to happen when Donnellan shows us the mundane: when the married couple fights in the bedroom, or while the husband offers his wife a gift of tiny baby clothes, which she unpacks with gentle surprise. Or it may happen when the violence becomes just too much: when a sadistic “exotic dancer” bites the tongue out of the chatty “tutoress,” or when the brother of the “whore” commits his two final deeds.
   It seems there’s nothing to pity here, and no blame leveled at the title character, as the original script’s last line is omitted. What’s left is a vivid evening of storytelling—and any judgment is up to us.
 

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 10, 2013

 
Dirty Filthy Love Story
Rogue Machine at  Theatre/Theater

The dirt and filth of Rob Mersola’s world premiere script refers to his protagonist’s hoarding. The love in the title is a thornier issue. Ashley (Jennifer Pollono) is a young widow who cannot throw anything away. Her nosy neighbor Benny (Burl Mosley) finally worms his way into her home and persuades her to begin the purging process. The unlikely prince who comes to clean up her life is the waste-disposal expert Hal (Joshua Bitton).
   Ashley, it seems, had a troubled relationship with her husband. It seems her relationship with her mother (spoken to by phone, a lot) might be even more problematic. By contrast, the garbage collector Hal brings a purity of love into Ashley’s life.
   The relentless humor in Mersola’s script springs from pain. A deep, tender heart occupies the play’s center. And director Elina de Santos ensures that the audience laughs with the characters and never at them, which makes this play about extremes of behavior very, very universal.
   Pollono tears our hearts. Her Ashley is ludicrous, but she is also real. Pollono plays her with a revealing candor—a bit of a clown and yet a princess-in-waiting. Mosley’s Benny is pure clown, yet Mosley’s calibrated performance lets the audience know when it’s acceptable to laugh.
   Bitton, however, goes for no laughs as Hal. The actor is stunningly gentle with Hal. Bitton is so rawly honest, one forgets he’s acting, whether he’s plowing through boxes or calming Ashley.  

Another spectacular star of this production is the set, designed by David Mauer and Hazel Kuang, which fills the stage to overflowing. Indeed, Rogue Machine bravely and generously allows the set to spill over into house right, limiting the number of seats to be sold each night. Debris tumbles at precisely the right moments, in precisely the right places, reflecting thoughtfully designed and carefully constructed “backstage” machinery. If only we could control our hearts just as precisely.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 9, 2013

 
Other Desert Cities
Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum

After decades of literature in which parents have been unrelentingly portrayed as thoroughly idiotic, playwright Jon Robin Baitz at last gives us the Wyeths. Yes, he loads them up with politically conservative ideology. And, yes, the top of the show is joke-heavy, as Polly and Lyman’s liberal-leaning daughter, Brooke, comes home for Christmas. Fortunately, however, Baitz has a bigger agenda.
   As Brooke, her brother Trip, and their mother’s sister Silda genially gang up, the audience can’t help but notice a distant coolness in Polly and Lyman. These parents like their lifestyle of tennis and drinking and a close circle of Reaganites—including, it turns out, Nancy—and the cigarette habit they hide from each other. But when Brooke announces she is about to reveal family secrets via her memoirs, cracks appear in her parents’ iciness.
   Their desert home spans the wide Mark Taper Forum stage, stirringly appointed by Takeshi Kata to fully convince the viewer the family lives in affluence in Palm Springs, Calif. The stone walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, and pale color scheme whisper desert elegance, but the design also conveys secrecy and lifelessness, as curtains remain closed at all hours while most of the signs of occupancy are the bottles of booze. Of course there’s also a thickly lit Christmas tree, which becomes even more laden with symbolism when Baitz reveals that Polly and Silda are Jewish.

T
hat wide expanse of the home may, however, be the problem director Robert Egan couldn’t navigate. He blocks the actors far, far apart, and thus many conversations are yelled across the stage. Further, to keep the visuals from monotony, he makes the actors wander over the stage and stand in conversation. The men, with better vocal skills than the women have here, don’t seem to be screaming when they speak, so the audience’s support may tend toward Lyman and Trip at the start of the play.
   Robert Foxworth plays Lyman superbly. Foxworth not only understands and conveys Baitz’s humor, but the actor is also in character from head to toe at every moment, so we’re immersed and invested in Lyman’s story without “actorly” distractions. Also adept is Michael Weston, who is natural and engaging and who brings honesty to Trip’s sense of humor. 
   Playing Brooke, Robin Weigert is given, or allowed, so much business by Egan, she’s a bundle of tics. But she has masterful moments, including Brooke’s explanation of the topic of her new manuscript; the actor sounds as if the moment is new and improvised and full of enthusiasm.
   JoBeth Williams gets off to a weak start, trying to communicate with her scene partners across the expansive stage; but she is flawless listening to Foxworth and then taking the reins during the play’s reveal. Jeannie Berlin doesn’t pick up her cues as Silda, leaving uncomfortable gaps in her conversations with Williams’s Polly. Baitz gave Silda the funniest lines, however, so audience members not paying attention to acting technique will probably be inclined toward supportive laughter.
   Baitz briefly mentions “other desert cities”—once as Brooke talks about the sign along the freeway leading from LA to Palm Springs, and once in reference to other, other desert cities, halfway around the world, which begins a mention of political truth-telling and starts the mind wondering about parent-child relations there.
   But here, in this small but fraught desert city, Polly and Lyman have a reason for being so seemingly unemotional. As it turns out, mom and dad are dimensional, caring, and wise—though, fascinatingly, the ethics of their choice at the core of the play are debatable.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
December 18, 2012

 
Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDOORS
Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

An L.A. Christmas without a new Troubie holiday show would be like an office party without spiked punch. Even in one of Troubie’s less-than-great outings, like the current Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDOORS, you get a healthy dose of the unique relationship that exists between Matt Walker’s troupe of musical zanies and their audience. In the mutual affection between strangers that characterizes every Troubie performance, there’s no better expression of the spirit of Christmas to be found in Southern California.
   There’s a lot to like in this adaptation of the Rankin-Bass perennial about the weird reindeer with the shiny nose, as cross-pollinated with the Doors’ songbook. Musical director Eric Heinly comes up with theater-friendly orchestrations of the likes of “Riders on the Storm” and “The End,” which he and his combo deliver with smokin’ heat. Molly Alvarez pulls off some typically slick choreography for the troupe, with Ameenah Kaplan staging a nifty flying sequence late in Act 2. And the cast of 18 is one of the Troubies’ strongest, standouts being Paul C. Vogt’s droll, understated Frosty the Narrating Snowman; Rick Batalla as a bloated, shirt-open, chest-hair-sporting Santa; and the indispensable Beth Kennedy, featured as Rudolph’s Tab-addicted mother Blitzen and—wait for it—yes! The Winter Warlock. Most delightful of all, perhaps, is Dan Wascom as “Bomi” the Yeti, doing things on stilts (in a giant Elmo-dyed-white costume) that should be impossible, if not illegal.
   For all that, why does the show feel so second-tier overall? Even keeping in mind that Troubie shows always change, grow, and improve over time, the disjunction between the jolly Rankin-Bass cartoon and the dour, deterministic Doors songs simply hasn’t been addressed in the construction. One wonders why Rudolph wasn’t played as a Jim Morrison clone. (Morrison is actually pretty much absent from the entire production.) Steven Booth’s Rudolph is just a likable dolt as he was in the animated version, and not much comic mileage is made out of his, and the other North Pole denizens', singing these songs. So Rudolph is just kind of there, kind of dull, actually.
   Meanwhile, here’s a quick guess: I’d venture to speculate that this show uses fewer parody lyrics, and relies more on the original words, than any other Troubie show before it. Sure, it’s good for a chuckle when Rudolph’s nose glows to inspire “Light My Fire,” but the joke doesn’t expand beyond that. All of which is to say, the songs just aren’t that funny, and the effort hasn’t been made to truly metamorphose the Rudolph cartoon by way of the Doors’ sensibility—the way West Side Story and A Christmas Story were magically, hilariously made to merge in last December’s offering.  

Essentially, Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDOORS is a satire without a target, which means it misses its mark too often. Maybe the key to the problem is the show’s fatal looseness. Absent is the strong structure that made last year’s extravaganza shine. I for one would like to see the Troubies tackle another Christmas tale while following the blueprint of another familiar book show like West Side, with its tonal consistency and lyrics ripe for parody. (Rock songs as a rule aren’t especially reliant on their words, so there’s little to spoof there. But show tunes are a different matter.) What about Santa on the Roof? (Sounds crazy, no?) Or The Winter Warlock Picture Show? It’s about time for W.W. to take center stage, and I for one would love to see her/him assume the role of Frank N. Furter for some Christmas-based mischief.
   As I say, you can’t spell Christmas in L.A. without “Troubies.” Well, I mean you can spell the word, but not cast the spell. ReinDOORS should be seen. But we’ll have to await Santa Matt and his elves’ getting back to prime form next year.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
December 12, 2012
 
Gatz
Elevator Repair Service at REDCAT

If you are reading this on or prior to Dec. 9 and you haven’t procured a ticket to Gatz, the Elevator Repair Service marathon running only through that date, please stop reading and get going. This is one of those theatrical events that truly merits the clichéd designation “not to be missed,” though the reason it’s unmissable may not be the aspect of the production that’s been touted to you.
   Having read this far, you doubtless know that the intrepid ERS team is presenting (the most appropriate verb in this context) the entirety of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, word for word. The vast majority of the text is read aloud by actor Scott Shepherd, though there’s a distinctive staging idea at work that doesn’t exactly make Gatz a play—it’s probably best described as a literary circus—but its values are immediate and theatrical and heavily visual. Gatz most certainly isn’t a “staged reading.”
   You’ve also surely heard that it’s long, though you may not have been told that the bulk is handed out in manageable, easily digestible chunks. For the record: Chapters I, II and III take two hours, followed by a 15-minute intermission. Chapters IV and V occupy another one hour and 45 minutes, at which point you get an hour-long dinner break. Chapter VI and most of chapter VII take up 90 minutes, and then after the intermission they finish up chapter VII through to the end, a comparatively speedy 85 minutes. On Dec. 1, we began at 2:06 pm and filed out at 10 minutes after 10.

It’s a prodigious theatrical feat, full of amusing acting turns and self-conscious directorial moments, but Gatz is finally most interesting and, yes, important, for the insight it provides into Fitzgerald’s text. The story of Jay Gatsby nee Jim Gatz is a satirical portrait of 20th-century America—all the more striking because though it was barely written two decades in, it got the century’s number big time—but it is first and foremost a satire, something adaptations bland (1949 with Alan Ladd) and floridly romantic/funereal (1974 with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow) totally missed. It’s easy to miss in a silent read, as well. But when read/performed aloud, and helmed by a director (John Collins) who knows how mordant-funny the tale really is, the novel’s genius is evident, maybe as never before.
   And if you mourn the loss of deathless romance in what ERS make of Gatsby and Daisy, remember that she commits manslaughter and doesn’t give a damn about it.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
December 6, 2012

 
Coney Island Christmas
Gil Cates Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Every year Christmas plays emerge—some staple productions like A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life, and some not so ordinary like The SantaLand Diaries or Winter Wonderettes. There is a certain amount of trepidation attending one when the cast includes children—or young adults pretending to be children, which can often be much worse.
   In this play, adapted by Donald Margulies from a short story by Grace Paley called The Loudest Voice, the setting is Brooklyn in the ’30s. The Abramowitzes own a grocery store on Coney Island. Their daughter Shirley, a very forthright and loud-voiced young lady, is the central character in the story. At play’s opening, young Clara (Grace Kaufman) is home, claiming illness that will cause her to miss her Christmas pageant at school. Her great-grandmother Shirley (Angela Paton), using a bit of psychology, tells her a story about when she was in school. As the scene unfolds, the stage fills with characters, one of whom is Shirley at school age.
   Clara is fascinated with what she is seeing, and she settles down with her great-grandmother to watch. Shirley’s parents appear center stage in their store, and her mother (Annabelle Gurwitch), who appears to be very strict, tells young Shirley (Isabella Acres) to be useful and unpack cans and shelve them. Her father (Arye Gross), seemingly the warmer of the two, reminds his wife that life is meant to be enjoyed. This establishes the conflict that will arise when Shirley is tapped for a particular part in her school play, something that is an obvious conflict with her mother’s view of Judaism and assimilationism.
   Shirley’s teacher, Mr. Hilton (John Sloan), is an enthusiastic young man with big plans for his class. The first performance we see from the youngsters is a Thanksgiving play, complete with Pilgrims, Indians, and a very enthusiastic turkey played by Shirley. Mr. Hilton is helped by an attractive French music teacher, an energetic Miss Glace (Lily Holleman), clearly smitten with her male colleague. This pageant is soon followed by a Christmas one, even more elaborate and hilarious.
   Bart DeLorenzo’s direction wrests every bit of humor imaginable out of his large cast. Shirley’s best friend, Evie Slotnick (Kira Sternnbach), is a priceless scene stealer and adds considerable comedy to her various roles. As the parade of wise men, angels, and even Santa Claus show up at the manger, there can hardly be an audience member who can’t conjure up memories of school programs that are equally improbable and fraught with peril.

P
aton is delightful as the senior storyteller, easily capturing the excitement she feels as she sees herself and her parents come to life. She is warm and wise. Kaufman is natural with just the right amount of spunk. Gross is also excellent as the loving father, trying to please his demanding wife yet following his instincts for what will be best for Shirley. Gurwitch is also fine as the mother kvetching against change, who is trying to keep the customs alive in the family. As Shirley’s schoolmates, the excellent cast of 20-somethings are superb, principally Joe Gillette, Ty Freedman, Julian Evens, Mays Erskine, and Andrew Walke. Sloan and Holleman are equally delightful in their parts, particularly as they root for their charges with animated gratification. Eileen T’Kaye neatly adds a bit of local color to shrewd shopper Mrs. Kornblum. Also in the lively ensemble are Rachel Hirshee, Sequoia Houston, Elitia Daniels, Jim Kane, and Richard Realivasquez.
   But it is Acres who carries a large part of the show, from delight at being selected for important roles in the pageants to anguish as her mother forbids her participation. Acres is a strong actor and brings authenticity to her part.
   Takeshi Kata’s Coney Island set in sepia and black conjures up old photographs and is artistically interesting. Utilizing a revolving turntable, he allows for smooth scene changes. Far in the background is a skeletal Ferris wheel adding an extra dimension to the design. Costumes by Ann Closs-Farley are also imaginative and whimsical.

W
hen the now-late Geffen Playhouse founder and producing director Gil Cates commissioned this Jewish Christmas story, he envisioned it being a classic across the denominations that could be repeated annually. Margulies has easily created the framework, and DeLorenzo has set a high bar for subsequent productions. It is hard to imagine a better one.
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
November 30, 2012


Anything Goes
Roundabout Theatre Company at Ahmanson Theatre

For pure escapism and delightfully silly antics, Cole Porter’s 1934 romp joined the ranks of plays and movies designed to provide a respite from the travails of the Depression. This touring version of the 2011 Broadway revival employs a passel of talent and gives audiences the pleasure of revisiting Porter’s witty lyrics and lovely ballads.
   Like the screwball comedies of the ’30s, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book created from the original work by P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton is full of improbable situations. In brief, a young stockbroker, Billy Crocker (Erich Bergen), has a wealthy client, Elisha Whitney (Dennis Kelly), who is bound for England on a cruise ship. When Crocker arrives at the ship on an errand for Whitney, he spots a girl he is in love with, Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke). Prodded by her mother, Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt (Sandra Shipley), Hope is set to marry a prosperous Englishman, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Edward Staudenmayer), in order to repair the family fortunes.
   Also aboard is Crocker’s gal pal, former evangelist–turned-singer Reno Sweeney (Rachel York), who not so secretly hankers after Billy and is the nicely contrasting vamp beside the virginal Harcourt. That should certainly be enough to create a perfectly respectable play; but, in the hands of the original four collaborators and ramped up in the new book by Timothy Crouse (Russel’s son) and John Weidman, all sorts of quirky characters are thrown in for good measure.
   There’s Moonface Martin (Fred Applegate), a second-string gangster whose companion is Erma (Joyce Chittick), the flirty charmer who takes on the willing crew. Throw in two Chinese card sharks (Vincent Rodriguez III and Marcus Shane), four so-called angels under Sweeney’s wing (Jacqueline Burtney, Courtney Rottenberger, Vanessa Sonon, Dionna Thomas Littleton), the Captain (Chuck Wagner), and the ship’s purser (Jeff Brooks), and you have the principal characters. They are joined by a cadre of passengers and crew members who enliven the musical numbers and provide heft to the storyline.

Act 1 is arguably the better half of the play. Porter’s hits “I Get a Kick Out of You,” Easy to Love,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “Anything Goes” are standards, and director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall gives them fresh appeal. Adapted from other Porter shows, they fit nicely into the plotline.

   The original Sweeney was played by Ether Merman, and York has all the power and confident delivery required, though she gives it a more full-throated, seductive turn. Bergen adds lanky charm to his role as love interest. His “You’re the Top” with York and “All Through the Night” with Finke are show favorites and charming interludes in the wildly comical and convoluted plot.
   Character roles are a staple of Broadway shows, and a standout in this show is Applegate, who joins with York in “Friendship,” one of the best comic songs delivered. The other standout is Staudenmayer, playing a character typical in Wodehouse’s stories and a welcome addition to the production. His duet with York near the end of the show, “The Gypsy in Me,” is a wonderfully comic crowd pleaser.
   Another notable performance is by Chittick, nearly stealing many of the scenes in which she appears. Her insouciant effervescence makes “Buddie, Beware” with the sailors noteworthy. Also enjoyable is Kelly as the slightly tipsy Yalie who pines for Hope’s mother.
   Costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are clever and dazzling, notably a quintessentially British one for Staudenmayer and the many beautiful gowns for the female characters. Makeup design by Angelina Avallone and hair and wig design by Paul Huntley add authenticity for the ’30s look.
   Derek McLane’s original scenic design aboard ship and in cabin scenes also serves the production well. Added to that is the inventive lighting design by Howell Binkley, especially in a scene where a blue light comes to life in Moonface Martin’s “Be Like the Blue Bird.”
  Among the most memorable moments in a Broadway musical are those when the orchestra delivers the overture and the curtain rises on a wonderful set. Music director Jay Alger, donning a naval hat, adds that special touch, providing energy for the musical numbers, in particular for the tap-dancing “Anything Goes.”

The production is not without flaws. Act 2 is over-long and filled with zany plot machinations that exist only to provide further opportunities for showcasing musical numbers. While York and Chittick are Broadway-quality performers, Finke is a paler version in her role, though she has a voice that blends well.

   In order to populate the very large set, sometimes cast members appear and disappear simply to add color as the show progresses. On opening night, however, the cast handled some technical glitches well.
   This original Roundabout Theatre Company production is bright, lively, and, on balance, delivers the requisite humor originally plotted by its creators. It recognizes the need for modification but doesn’t stray too far from the original authors’ intent. Those of a certain age will welcome the return of Porter’s classics with nostalgia, and those who are newly discovering time-honored theater will find charm in the vintage ballroom-dancing and colorful choreography. It is easy to see from this production why Anything Goes continues to be a staple of musical theater companies.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
November 29, 2012

 
Bad Apples
Circle X Theatre Co. at Atwater Village Theatre

The setting for this rock musical is Abu Ghraib, and the characters are soldiers of various stripes. But the triangular relationship at the story’s core could be set anywhere and anytime in history. This musical is operatic in its expansive reach.   Not that the word opera comes to mind when listening to the score’s rhythms and watching the choreography’s hip-hop tone. But the whole is classical in construction—including its three-act structure that runs nearly three hours with two intermissions.

   This world premiere—with book by Jim Leonard, music and lyrics by Rob Cairns and Beth Thornley—centers on a real-life romantic and military quandary, though the storytelling takes artistic liberties with names and facts. This version tells of black Sgt. Chuck Shepard (James Black) and the two white women—Lindsay Skinner (Kate Morgan Chadwick) and Margaret Scott (Meghan Maureen McDonough)—who became spellbound and then pregnant by him and begged him to marry them.
   Act 1 opens with a somber ballad. “Love conquers all, but love is no defense,” the three lovers sing, by way of apologetic introduction that resonates and reflects the many actions shown, described, and hinted at over the evening.  There’s danger in not fully knowing what or whom one loves so passionately. Young Americans generously volunteer for National Guard duty, thinking they’d fight floods, not wars. Donald Rumsfeld (Sean Spann) professes love for country. Lindsay’s parents (Larry Clarke, McDonough) profess love for her. Shepard professes love for his fellow soldiers. The 9/11 murderers (Mueen Jahan, Anthony Manough) professed their love, too. Every action here is true or realistic, yet far from norms and expectations.
   Act 2 opens with a rolling three-quarter-time drinking song at Club Abu. The song lyrics have been provided to the audience, some of whom are sitting at the café tables edging the stage. Sure enough, most are easily lured into joining the “fun,” despite having seen and heard the misguided, violent, shameful things the characters did in Act 1. So can we blame the young soldiers for their willingness to “join in?”

Pitch-black humor abounds, and yet not many will want to laugh. The 9/11 murderers mundanely order a pre-flight pizza, bickering like early-bird diners over which one was to bring the coupon. John Langs directs, keeping visual vibrancy throughout while the tone deepens and darkens. He fully uses the two-story playing space, keeping the audience busy. Another of his smart moves was to retain lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick, who creates mood and memory.
   Choreography by Cassandra Daurden mixes hip-hop and old-fashioned Broadway jazz, and it suits the performers, who look like real-life soldiers and not like Fosse’s Jets and Sharks. Music direction by Rob Cairns and Beth Thornley is notable for its balance and the performers’ clarity.
     Remember the good old days when war was merely hell? asks one of the characters. Fortunately or not, we’re now in the days when musicals are not merely escapist fun. Be prepared to observe and think at this one.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 25, 2012


Nora
Pacific Resident Theatre

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House sans accoutrements is still A Doll’s House. The housewife who starts out as chattel finds the strength to break away from societal and marital strictures. Nora is Ingmar Bergman’s abridged version of Ibsen’s play minus such characters as the children and servants. It nonetheless captures the essence of the power-struggle marriage between the doll-like Nora and her husband, Torvald—though in this production, with English translation by Frederick J. Marker and Lisa Lone-Marker and directed by Dana Jackson, the story still runs two hours.
    In both versions, young Nora Helmer, who lives in 1870s Norway, realizes her courage and potential as more than a perfect dolly who exists solely to serve her husband. In Bergman’s redux, the characters helping effect change in Nora (Jeanette Driver) are Torvald (Brad Greenquest); the longtime family friend, Dr. Rank (Bruce French); the chum of distant memory, Kristine Linde (Martha Hackett); and the lawyer to whom Nora owes money, Krogstad (Scott Conte).
   Jackson’s direction focuses sharply on Nora, putting her on a bright red loveseat center stage at the top of the play, as the supporting characters sit upstage awaiting their entrances. Driver’s Nora starts as a twittering bird—from a modern feminist viewpoint a little annoying in her abject submission to Torvald.
  Over the play, Driver deepens and strengthens Nora’s voice and lets her listen more and more openly rather than pretending to not notice. That Nora’s transitions may exist more in these physicalized changes and the audience’s knowledge of Ibsen’s famous character than in the script is not the fault of the actors or director here.

The most behaviorally fascinating and probably most honest moment in the production occurs when the elderly ailing Rank opens his soul to Nora and confesses his longtime feelings for her. Driver’s Nora knows but can’t cope, whereas French’s Rank thinks she knows but can’t press the issue. Both actors speak the dialogue as written but evidence subtle emotional reactions that contrast with the words.
   Also trying to find additional dimensions to Mrs. Linde, Hackett is rather luminous, making her character a sturdy but certainly not overconfident role model for Nora. At least on the night reviewed, however, Hackett’s hair was cropped in a very modern style, which distracted more than once from the storytelling.
   Also distracting are exits and entrances up the center aisle that suddenly occur near the conclusion of the play, and a strange moment of nudity in which the Helmers undress to show they’re going to bed, then immediately dress as the lights come up—though artistically handled by Jackson.
   But Jackson creates the era and, magically, the climate, as this production is best at transporting the audience to a chilly distant past, when the war on women seemed to be ending at last.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 25, 2012
  
Hamlet
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at Broad Stage

For anyone interested in, let alone passionate about, Shakespeare or classical acting, a trip to The Broad Stage to attend the (UK) Globe Theater’s touring production of Hamlet ought to be as much a priority as a pilgrimage to Lourdes for the halt, weak, and lame. This could be the best Hamlet (and the best Hamlet) you will see in your lifetime. It certainly was in mine.
   Finally we get a prince of Denmark who justifies all the textual references to his rash youth. Michael Benz, whose future stardom should be a foregone conclusion, bears a not-unuseful resemblance to Dennis Christopher back in his Breaking Away days; Benz is raw and callow, thoroughly believable as the overeducated, overemotional young scholar with whom nothing in the adult world sits well, least of all his parental situation. Yet Benz also possesses incredible (for his age) physical control and concentration, as well as a merciless intelligence. His skills make Hamlet’s transition to manhood and revelation, and finally to premature death, eminently plausible. In sum, I’ve never seen a Hamlet conceive of, let alone pull off, such a clear, textually supported, and affecting transformation over the course of the five acts. During the interval, I bet a friend that this Hamlet would come back from England demonstrably the same character but with new resolve and stature—and I was so right. 

B
lessedly, the other characters in the court of Elsinore aren’t played as types but as fully wrought individuals who are transformed by the tragedy’s headlong events. Especially impressive are the Claudius of Dickon Tyrrell (what a Shakespearean name!), at first a dapper, self-possessed gent who shrinks by inches as his world closes in; Miranda Foster’s Gertrude, only gradually made aware of how her actions have offended Heaven; Carlyss Peer’s Ophelia, making the descent into madness chillingly believable; and a memorable, original Polonius in Christopher Saul, getting all the character’s laughs without compromising his stature as a statesman. Everyone but Benz plays multiple parts, in a complex casting scheme that brings out the best in each actor and, I would argue, the best in each role. For instance, having Tyrrell essay not just the King but the ghost king and the First Player—a feat of magic made possible by a curtain quickly flung closed and open across the mock-Globe touring stage to whip us between the two sides of the playing area—creates all sorts of resonances if you pay attention to what’s being said and by whom.
     Best of all, this is as well-spoken a piece of Shakespeare as I have ever been thrilled to attend. Helmers Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst clearly subscribe to the Sir Peter Hall school of versification, which transformed the RSC into a world-class classical repertory but whose precepts, at least in the U.S., have as Hamlet would say been more honored in the breach than in the observance. They’re really quite simple, actually:

   1. Respect the rhythm. The iambic pentameter is the characters’ heartbeat, not an impediment to your naturalistic style. Use the verse; it’s not yours to abandon at whim.
   2. Act on the lines, not between them. The syllables and words tell you what you should be thinking and feeling. Everything you need to know is there.
   3. Take slight pauses at the ends of lines, and feel free to take a full stop when a sentence or clause ends mid-line. Otherwise: Keep it going. As a rule, Shakespeare’s characters think as they speak, not while they’re silent.
   4. Play the urgency. Pick up the cues.

   Most American actors of Shakespeare, in my experience, follow No. 4 pretty regularly, Nos. 2 and 3 intermittently, and No. 1 almost never, which is actually the most important rule for unearthing from the plays everything the author placed there. Seeing this Hamlet amounts to an acting class in the playing of verse.

S
ome of my colleagues and friends have snippily carped at all the humor, often racy and broad, in this production, sniffing it’s not a tragedy. I wish them many fine times with lugubrious three-hour productions with Melancholy Danes clad in black and walking the parapets of Elsinore lost in grim thought. Me, I’ll stick with the one Hamlet—and I estimate I’ve seen over three dozen—that made me feel deeply for the boy whose tragedy it is that he’s forced to be a man too soon, and that kept me in its grip from beginning to end.
Reviewed by Bob Verini
November 20, 2012

Avenue Q
DOMA Theatre Company at MET Theatre


Somewhere on the unseen side of its iconic logo lies a section of the Big Apple where sunny days rarely chase the clouds away. This neighborhood—lined with shabby-looking, somewhat boarded-up brownstones—is populated by a bizarre collection of people and craft-store fabricated creatures. Pre-kindergarten phonics or in-depth discussions concerning which of these things is not like the others hold little concern. This is a street where the inhabitants struggle merely to survive. And thanks to this altogether flawless production, it’s a sinfully delectable place to visit.
   Sporting a hilariously adult-themed book by the ironically named Jeff Whitty, with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, this piece is a creative coup. Obviously based on the world concocted by Jim Henson and crew, it’s a ladle of homage sprinkled into a swimming pool filled to the brim with irreverent jabs and some downright naughty goings-on. And it works wonderfully in this cozy venue under the impeccable direction of Richard Israel, as the misfit residents of this forgotten lane endeavor to conquer issues including sex, love, and financial desperation.
   Danielle Judovits, Christopher Kauffmann, Mark Whitten, and Libby Letlow are the human hands and voices behind the most outrageous collection of oddball puppets one could ever conjure. Judovits, gifted with effortless vocal skills, plays Kate Monster, the preschool teaching assistant pining for love, as well as her own arch-nemesis, Lucy the Slut. Kate/Judovits’s Act 1 ending ballad, “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” is heartbreakingly tender in its simplicity. Breathing life into Kate’s romantic counterpart, Kauffmann is cute as a button. Playing an unemployed college graduate, aptly named Princeton, he ponders “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?” And as these two pas de deux their way through the show, Kauffmann also doubles as Rod, one-half of a male roommate situation, who wrestles with his sexual identity.
   Whitten and Letlow must lose 10 pounds a performance. In addition to portraying Rod’s goofy roommate, Nicky (their duet “If You Were Gay” is a near showstopper), Whitten brings down the house with every energetic appearance of Trekkie Monster, a horny—both his head and his libido—loveable furball who assures us that “The Internet Is for Porn.” Letlow is a walking definition of versatility, demonstrating her extensive background in theatrical puppetry. Her appearances as Kate’s teaching mentor, Mrs. Thistletwat, and her work with Whitten as a pair of passive-aggressive demons called the The Bad Idea Bears are wickedly funny.
   As the non-puppeted neighbors, Chris Kerrigan and Janelle Dote provide much-needed human interaction. Dote’s duet with Kate titled “The More You Ruv Someone” is a belter’s delight, while Kerrigan revels in his solo “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today.” The final cog on the wheel that makes this show spin smoothly is Benai Boyd’s gender-bending portrayal of landlord Gary Coleman. Yes, that Gary Coleman. Boyd is perfect as she pops in and out with sassy asides and words of wisdom—including “Schadenfreude,” a duet with Nicky so clever, it’s regrettable that there aren’t more verses.
   Israel’s fantastic direction is supported by Angela Todaro’s sharply executed choreography and Chris Raymond’s first-rate musical direction. Raymond conducts a stage-right combo of six that is superbly balanced with the cast’s microphones. Johnny Ryman’s masterful lighting finds every crevice of Staci Walters’s astonishingly detailed scenic design.
   On a personal note, this production has catapulted its way to the top of this reviewer’s list of the best shows of 2012. Dare to miss it, and you, like the cast of this groundbreaking piece, will be singing “It Sucks to Be Me.”


Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
November 19, 2012

One November Yankee
NoHo Arts Center

This two-person drama by Joshua Ravetch examines the lives of three sets of brothers and sisters. Stars Harry Hamlin and Loretta Swit give it all they’ve got, but the script is thin, and it’s hard to find a sustained emotional connection to the characters. Ravetch directs his script, and that helps to some degree, but it may also hinder his objectivity as he weaves his storyline. Scenic designer Dana Moran Williams and set constructor–artisan Red Colegrove/Grove Scenery have given the play a visual shot in the arm with the canary yellow, single-engine plane missing half a wing and nose down on the stage. As each of the four scenes unfold, that representation of a crash is central to the action.
   The first and last scenes concern Maggie and Ralph. He is an artist who has constructed a replica of this plane for MOMA, while Maggie kvetches a lot, grudgingly offering her support. There is a fair amount of squabbling between Maggie the realist and Ralph the optimist.
   The second scene takes place five years earlier but still revolves around the aircraft so prominent in the story. We learn more about the plane crash and the effect it has on siblings Margo and Harry. To disclose more would spoil the revelations that occur in the third scene with yet another pair, Mia and Ronnie, and, finally, back to Maggie and Ralph in the present time.

There is a fair amount of adult humor laced throughout the play. F-bombs are plentiful, and there are times when wit sparks a scene that is otherwise flat and sex seems a subject designed strictly for the audience.
   Kate Bergh’s costumes are well-suited to the time period, but unfortunate wigs do not enhance Swit and are distracting. Luke Moyer adds fine lighting to the production, and Jeff Gardner’s sound design works well, especially as background for scene-changing. A television monitor provides engaging historical footage of airplane history.
   Hamlin and Swit have good chemistry, and they are old hands at characterizations from their many years on television and the stage. They often add the electricity that enlivens the play’s superficiality, and they find the humanity necessary to engage the audience. Hamlin is particularly touching in one vignette as he faces his future.

All plays are, by nature, contrived; and believability is a key element that can take a simple idea and make it meaningful for an audience. In this case, Ravetch has combined humor and drama, but the story only begins to gain momentum in the second half. The show is described as “theatrical origami,” a designation that is apparent near the end of the play as pieces fall into place. It has promise, but it feels like a short story trying to be a two-act play, and its needs fine-tuning.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
November 19, 2012

 
A Christmas Twist
SeaGlass Theatre at the Victory Theatre Center’s Big Vic Theatre

From some of the wacky minds that brought forth Of Grapes and Nuts, which tweaked John Steinbeck’s greatest works, comes this irreverently funny collage of characters and storylines first put to paper by the pen of Charles Dickens. Authors Doug Armstrong and Keith Cooper, joined by Maureen Morley, have intertwined a bevy of Dickensian favorites—Fagin and Mr. Bumble, as well as Scrooge, the Cratchits, and the requisite Ghosts of various Christmases—resulting in a rip-roaring holiday classic.
   In this hilarious consolidation, Mr. Bumble, the workhouse beadle, is the nephew of Ebeneezer Scrooge, who coincidentally owns the orphanage made famous in the original Oliver Twist. Bumble winds up selling the young lad, herein nicknamed Tiny for obviously comic purposes, to Fagin, who ends up losing him on his first job, whereupon Tiny is adopted by the Cratchit family. Act 2 incorporates all of these oddballs and nutcases into Scrooge’s traditional visit from the specters who bring about his soulful transformation and an ending chock full of revelations and comeuppances galore.

At this point, it might take a scorecard to keep up with the outlandishly bizarre comings and goings, but, really, who cares as long as the laughs keep rolling. And with a cast this versatile, it’s one bellyacher after the next. Paul Stroili directs this romp while he provides an outstanding turn as Mr. Bumble, whose flowery dialogue consists of some of the most nonsensical analogies imaginable. The style, pacing, and off-kilter tone are all testaments to Stroili’s intimate connection with this material, which had its world premiere in Chicago in 1989.

Aiding Stroili in these madcap high jinks is the facile Chris Wynne who, as Fagin, serves as victim to Bumble’s aforementioned challenging language only to reappear in a show-stopping cameo as the lisping Mr. Fuzzywig. There’s Lauren McCormack’s Scrooge, subtly deadpanned as he endures a night of unexpected apparitions. Jen Ray submits a delightful homage to child actor Jack Wild in her portrayal of Little Artful Annie (wait for the joke, it’s coming). Kimberly Van Luin is a hoot as Mrs. Cratchit and the anxiety-ridden Ghost of Christmas Past. Alison Blanchard’s inebriated Ghost of Christmas Present drags Scrooge around Scott LeGrand’s uncluttered yet surprise-filled set with gusto.

But the night belongs to Warren Davis and David Reynolds in their respective roles as the surprisingly swinish Bob Cratchit and the oversized man-child “Tiny” Twist. Davis produces a near flawless turn as his Cratchit, so often the victim in this tale, relishes with sadistic glee the ludicrous stunts that he and his wife put Twist through, all in the name of celebrating Christmas. Meanwhile, Reynolds, sporting the physique of an NFL lineman, hobbles about the stage with the aid of a crutch clearly many sizes too small as he offers asides to the audience, denouncing his various persecutors. The sheer juxtapositions alone are laughable, but it’s what Davis and Reynolds accomplish here that makes them so noteworthy. Handsome attire all around is credited to costume designer Travis Thi. Keep an eye out for Blanchard’s Christmas Tree–styled dress and the various accoutrements found hanging all over actor David G. Peryam’s side-splitting visit as the spirit of Scrooge’s former partner, Jacob Marley. Efrain Schunior’s sound inserts, including soap opera-ish organ chords, are another dollop of icing on this well-turned fruitcake of a production.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
November 12, 2012

A Bright New Boise
Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater

This Samuel D. Hunter script is saying something, and other people say they hear its message. But some of us do not hear it. Why not? The play pleased a New York publication enough to win an Obie. The play then merited the interest of Rogue Machine theater company and director John Perrin Flynn, who are giving it its West Coast premiere.
   The play seems to be about religious zealotry and its effects on those less believing. Will (Matthew Elkins) has come to town, ostensibly to find employment, possibly to escape a scandal at his Evangelical church. We can’t be sure about any of this, nor that Will is desperate enough to take the not-quite-full-time job at ultralow wages, and so it’s hard to work up sympathy for him. Once he convinces the store manager (Betsy Zajko) he can handle the job under her stated conditions and she hires him on the spot, his first act is to tell young Alex (Erik Odom) that he’s his father. Alex seems shaken by the news, but he also seems shaky to begin with. His adoptive brother, Leroy (Trevor Peterson), is a counterpoint to Will, having artistic talents and a capacity for proselytizing shock.
   Will certainly disturbs the status quo of every other character. Pauline (Betsy Zajko) crisply runs a branch of Hobby Lobby, having kept the store on steady legs for years now. Leroy has been protecting his brother, and Alex might have temporarily forgotten the father whom he thinks abandoned him. Another employee, childishly awkward Anna (Heather L. Tyler), has been living a solitary life, spending her after-hours evenings in the store’s break room—one setting of the play, sharing stage time with a parking lot Flynn creates by bringing a cross-like streetlamp on and off the stage. Periodically, Will stands under that lamp and, face upturned, pleads, “Now!” presumably asking to be taken from his Earthly state or asking that the entire race be rapturized.
   Maybe a hint about the storytelling is offered by two corporate “suits” (Ron Bottitta and Rob Dodd), whom the audience sees via closed-circuit TV as the two offer corporate-style inspiration to the workers—when the broadcasts aren’t crossing wires with grisly videos of real-life surgeries.
   The play doesn’t clearly fall into a genre, which of itself should not signify any wrongdoing by Hunter; but at least some of us are left wondering if we should be laughing at these characters, pitying them, or trying to emulate them.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 11, 2012


Red Barn
Independent Shakespeare Company in the ISC Studio

Captivating storytelling hallmarks this world premiere musical in Los Angeles that centers on an 1827 crime in the English countryside. David Melville and Melissa Chalsma, better-known to summer-Shakespeare audiences as the makers of Independent Shakespeare Company’s outdoor seasons, wrote the book for Red Barn, in part because the story, told to Melville by his mother when he was a boy, continued to stay with him—an excellent recommendation for a tale. In it, the mole-catcher’s daughter, Maria, had an affair with the landowner’s son and heir, Matthew, and bore his daughter. Matthew would set wedding dates and then postpone, until his debauched lust pushed him into an even more irrevocable act.
   The musical’s book tells the story chronologically but with detours to courtroom testimony by the townsfolk. It neatly introduces the characters. The dialogue sounds period, with occasional intentional bits of very modern English.
   Melville’s music enchants. The appealing melodies and chords and rhythms are varied yet make a cohesive whole, and that whole establishes time and place without sounding of the period. Indeed, one might find the music more redolent of the Beatles than of, say, the likes of Elgar. The score is played by Melville and Ashley Nguyen (who also plays various townsfolk) on guitar, David Bickford (who also doubles as a judge) on piano, and Dan Schwartz (who music directs) on bass.

The ISC Studio space is a white box, which surprisingly sets the piece more in 19th century England than a black box might. The space feels barnlike (in a good sense), as well as like a schoolhouse and courtroom. Chalsma directs. She stages the piece fluidly, with charming details, shaping the action to build and peak. She plays up the creamy white space, costuming her performers (credited to Michelle Neuman) in shades of eggshell and brown.
   The production stars Mary Guilliams, as the unfortunate Maria, and Matthew Michael Hurley as her paramour William. Robert Alan Beuth as Maria’s father, Claudia de Vasco as her stepmother, Aisha Kabia as the obligatorily saucy wench, and Erika Soto as the classically pure wife give lovely, specific portrayals. Melville plays the comedically villainous Beauty Smith, and, though Melville wouldn’t intend to steal the show, it’s impossible not to watch his every quirky moment onstage. 
   The two creators say they wrote this musical on and for the Independent Shakespeare actors, giving the performers the chance to work in a new area: musical theater. That’s a noble idea, and certainly the cast includes performers in the actors-who-sing and actors-who-move categories, in addition to a few musical theater triple-threats. But if this production is to have a second life—and it should—better singing voices are in order, particularly for the two leads. However, likely responsible for much of the storytelling’s success are the acting abilities and engaging presences of the actors, again particularly those two leads. Firming up the Suffolk accents will also turn this into the top-rate production it can easily be.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 11, 2012
 
The Muesli Belt
Theatre Banshee at The Banshee

This U.S. premiere of an Irish import is a gentle little script that probably would speak to Dubliners of the late 1990s. But playwright Jimmy Murphy offers not much to Angelenos of the new millennium, who would be thrilled with increasingly large offers to purchase any property we might be lucky enough to own. In addition, the play’s structure feels anticlimactic before we even notice a climax. But it provides an armature on which to hang human behavior, and director Sean Branney makes certain the five characters spark and sparkle.
   Dublin boomed during that era—not to mention the signature penchant for drink we hear about in so many Irish plays—so pub owner Mick (Matt Foyer at the performance reviewed) has been able to keep the Black Pool afloat for at least a quarter of a century. Tommy the tenant (Ian Patrick Williams) raised his daughter in the adjacent cottage. Nora the hairdresser (Kathleen M. Darcy) has been struggling, but she knew better days, particularly when she met the love of her life and held her engagement party at the Black Pool. Sinéad the barmaid (Lisa Dobbyn) depends on the bar for her living.
   The overly friendly local property developer, Mossy (Andrew Leman at the performance reviewed), has finally named Mick’s price, and Mick sells the bar—in action offstage. The sale forces Tommy to move, Sinéad to find work elsewhere, and Nora to confront her feelings for Mick. Tommy cashed his retirement check, Sinéad shows herself to be a reliable worker, and Nora, we’re told, will start advertising her business and just might decide on a second date with Mossy and/or accept his offer to buy her family-business salon.

That’s the plot. The interesting undercurrent on this stage is Mick’s aversion to or lack of interest in the women, who drop hints subtle and unsubtle that they’d give him a go. This aspect of Mick is never explored, but its result seems clear: He is out of there, no strings attached.

   But no matter what might trouble the viewer about the script, Branney has brought out every possible relationship among the characters, and his actors play the the relationships with graceful warmth. Foyer’s Mick is emotionally transparent to the audience, even if Mick isn’t to the other characters. Darcy’s Nora is so humanly layered, we’ll never know all her hidden thoughts and feelings. Dobbyn is a sharing presence on the stage, and Williams is a gentle one. Adding spice, Leman’s Mossy is an Irish Mr. Applegate as he gleefully brings havoc to the neighborhood.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 8, 2012
 
Theatre in the Dark
Odyssey Theatre

Some ideas don’t even sound good on paper. This one, however, turns out to be a thoroughly entertaining and relatively informative one. Ron Sossi’s brainchild lets audiences sit in absolute pitch darkness, experiencing theater without benefit of our sight. These 90-minute performances (of alternating evenings titled Dark, reviewed here, and More Dark) comprise stories told in the dark, sketches about the dark, conversations as if not in the dark, and bits of the dark side.
   A comforting preshow speech by Sossi lets the audience know what to do if the darkness overwhelms any of us. Then, of course, he reminds us to shut our cellphones. One phone doesn’t go out, however, leaving a flickering blue flame that annoys the audience plenty. The phone’s owner continues his loud conversation. But, wait! The trained timbres of that voice belong to actor Ron Bottitta, and he’s in a piece titled Our Dark Connection (written by Anna Nicholas, directed by Sossi) that pointedly reminds us of cellphone etiquette and missing the best part of a play’s opening seconds because of audience distractions.
   Several brief moments of light help break up the evening, calling upon designer Kathi O’Donohue to reward our eyes with a flash of vision. In Friedrich Dürrenmatts metaphor-filled account of a train trip that goes off the beaten tracks, titled The Tunnel (directed by Sossi), we spot the terrified faces of men hurtling toward their fate (voiced by Alan Abelew, Jack Axelrod, and Botita, narrated by Denise Blasor, Beth Hogan, and Nicholas). In Elegant Dinner (created by the company and Nicholas, directed by Sossi), we eventually see what or where the gourmets are eating, as do they. Uh oh. (Performed by Axelrod, Marcia Battiste, Blasor, Sheelagh Cullen, Jean Gilpin, Nicholas, and Cary Thompson.) The nostalgic Dancing in the Dark is a glimpse of Axelrod doing as advertised.
   So, in darkness, this audience could easily realize how essential sound design is to theater. John Zalewski creates a sense of excitement, so the audience never sits in stifling stillness, then adds sound as specific as furniture and belongings tumbling down (Moving In, written and directed by Sossi) and as abstract as movement of air.
   In String (directed by David Bridel), two people repeatedly try to coerce a man into saying “string,” even though he is desperately doing exactly that. The piece comes off as bad Monty Python until one recalls it’s by Matei Visniec, whose voice was repressed in his native Romania. Almost as philosophic but deliberately funny, in Sound in the Forest the tree falls after a pontificating trio departs for the nearest bar.
   Occasionally, without visual cues, the end of one segment is indistinguishable from the start of the next. Did the animalistic roar come from the mother in Womb (Sossi) or from a creature in Prehistoric Hunt (created by the company, directed by Jeremy Aluma)?

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he stars indeed come out in the dark. Hogan, whom Odyssey audiences barely see as she quietly administers the theater, is the lively highlight here in A Happening. She plays a chipper grocery shopper with a charmingly extreme desire to share the delights of food with us. Hogan treats the audience to a feast of appreciation and real food; presumably with the help of night vision goggles, she interacts with hungry volunteers from the audience, offering tastes to them and spreading the aromas of strawberries and popcorn over the rest of us. Hogan also begins the evening by sharing a warm recount of the sensing of ghosts across Odyssey Theatre’s long history.

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his production is memorable for its setting. It’s also memorable for the lingering impression that its actors are genuinely joyous. Their childlike energy pours from the stage, as if they had returned to their first-year acting-student selves and discovered a new class exercise that just can’t go on long enough. And yet, they are responsible for the timing of overlapping conversations without benefit of seeing their scene partners, plus blocking to remember, accomplished with a grid of overhead wires they navigate so their voices move around the large playing area.
   How does the audience fare? One supposes no one with claustrophobia or fear of the dark will attend. At the show reviewed, the crowd behaved exemplarily at first, then let off steam during and immediately after Hogan’s feast, and feet get restless at about the 60-minute mark. Still, it’s a remarkable event lovers of theater should try.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 5, 2012

 
How To Survive a Zombie Apocalypse
Combined Artform and After Dark Entertainment at Theatre Asylum & Lab 

Curse you, George Romero! Oh sure, there have been films focused on reanimated cadavers that predate the famous director’s 1968 groundbreaker, but these were populated primarily by ashen-faced, hollow-eyed voodoo slaves lurching across the screen in forgettable titles such as 1932’s White Zombie. But along came Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and with it a whole new set of ground rules as to why these creatures exist, what their objectives are, and how to avoid becoming their next meal.
   In the spirit of Dawn of..., Day of…, Return of…, Land of..., and yes, even Shaun of the Dead, this half-scripted, half-improvisational, Americanized edition of a British version (original written by Ben Muir, Jess Napthine, David Ash, Lee Cooper/After Dark Productions) is back to poke fun and a few sharp objects at our fascination with this horror genre.
   Director Patrick Bristow and his fellow trio of actors have accomplished something more than merely admirable in adapting this piece for us Yanks. They finesse this material with, dare the pun be uttered, deadpan proficiency. The result is a comic home run that keeps the subject matter engaging even for those who, like this reviewer, have previously found this particular field of fiction to be of minor interest. Bristow is an emcee extraordinaire, playing the role of Dr. Bobert Dougash, a clinical specialist whose overriding desire is to prepare the rest of us for the as-yet-to-occur but surely imminent arrival of the show’s titular calamity. Never flagging in enthusiasm, Bristow demonstrates an expertise for realizing when a bit has run its course or can be milked for a few more guffaws. And upon sitting down with a figurative stool and bucket, milk them he does with a magnificently dry delivery.
   Dr. Dougash’s compatriots from the School of Survival—be sure to watch for the specialized hand signal here—included, on the night reviewed, Mario Vernazza, Jayne Entwistle, and Chris Sheets as conspiracy-minded lunatics. Vernazza is a comic powder keg as Ronald Jarfist, a camouflage-clad, pseudo-military type constantly restrained by Bristow from making slightly sexy overtures to female audience members. Entwistle exudes the perfect air of scientific authority as the lab-coated, bespectacled Kirsta Kanbert until her unpredictably nutty communications with the audience on survival do’s and don’ts prove her to be just as much a first-class eccentric. Sheets sidesplittingly portrays Braydon Manxpipe, the part–village idiot, part–scientific experiment guinea pig for the group. Sheets does a fantastic job of personifying this tousled man-child’s literal take on each new piece of incoming information. He’s not retarded, just hilariously befuddled.
   Three chairs and a podium keep the focus in this cozy venue right where it needs to be: on the performers and their interactions with the viewers. This briskly paced, family-friendly one-act deserves a long and profitable run, be that at the box office or away from the brain-eating undead.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
November 5, 2012
 
How to Write a New Book for the Bible
South Coast Repertory

Narrator Bill (Tyler Pierce) enters with a notebook in hand and announces: “First rule of writing? Write what you know. If writers stuck to it, there would be no books.” On that note, over time, we learn that Bill is a writer, a priest, and, ultimately, a caregiver for his dying mother. Family, we find out, is where we learn what we know.
   Audaciously, Bill further announces that the Bible embarrasses him. He claims it begins with bad anthropology and ends with bad science fiction. It is from this irreverence that we come to understand his faith and travel back and forth in time to learn about his family he calls “functional.”
   The play is autobiographical storytelling. Playwright Bill Cain kept a diary, and from it he has culled memories from his youth and adult life that help him articulate his feelings and frustrations. We meet his father, Pete (Jeff Biehl); brother, Paul (Aaron Blakely); and mother, Mary (Linda Gehringer).
   Almost immediately we learn that Mary has terminal cancer with about six months to live. She is in intractable pain, but her quirkiness and upbeat nature provide a lot of the humor that permeates the play. Bill opines that his and Paul’s lives were ruined by the book The Little Engine That Could. Mary thought that there wasn’t anything you couldn’t do if you put your mind to it and had God on your side.

This comes into focus in Blakely’s fine performance as a willing warrior in Vietnam who suffers in silence after his return. A touching scene describes the brothers' road trip to the Vietnam Memorial (with clever uplighting by Alexander V. Nichols from removable circles on the floor of Scott Bradley’s excellent minimalist set).
   Kent Nicholson directs with a sure hand. The chemistry among the actors and the directorial choices make compelling Cain’s wit, honesty, and sentiment without sentimentality. Pierce is outstanding as he navigates the highs and lows of the family relationships.
   Gehringer is thoroughly believable as the 80-year-old who struggles with acceptance and the physical impairments that beset her. Pete is also brought amiably to life by Biehl (along with other cameos throughout the production). Pete is an optimist and is said by Bill to “have loved entirely a woman who could not be entirely loved.”

An argument could be made that the play is too long and drawn out. There’s a lot of soul searching and maybe a tad too many pauses for philosophical reflection. What does successfully occur, though, is Bill’s coming to terms with what he has learned about his family and himself.
   Bill announces at the end of the play that every hundred years every family should add a new book to the Bible. He considers this play his submission. The visceral recognition that the human condition is about living and dying strikes a universal chord and provides the emotional heft that lingers long after the production ends.
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
November 4, 2012
 
Death of a Salesgirl
Bootleg Theater

First to strike the attentive audience member upon entering the theater here is John Zalewski’s sound design. It seems to consist of effervescent electronic dots and anchoring bass-note dashes. A haunting, initially disquieting, ultimately soothing presence, his sound will continue to envelop the production.
   Meanwhile, next of note to the observer is François-Pierre Couture’s set. Apparently a hotel room—though its ceiling is a gape rimmed by earth and dead leaves—it is confining, a little menacing, and very tidy if shabby.
   Cat (writer-actor Patricia Scanlon) storms onstage, wearing a trench coat and carrying two old-style hard-shell suitcases. A slurry of words pours from her, delivered in noir stylings. An exhausted traveling saleswoman, Cat needs comforting. Our empathy immediately sets in.
   What would it be like to be someone else, Cat wonders? A crow, laden with symbolism, perches on a picture frame behind her (projections by Adam Flemming; animation by Dan Lund). She takes off her coat; she is wearing a Girl Scout uniform laden with badges and patches—presumably reflecting knowledge and good behavior.
     Sales aren’t what they used to be, Cat says. More empathy for this worker struggling to stay afloat. I’d like to blame it on the economy, she says. The elliptical thought indicates self-awareness. All I need is communication between two human beings, Cat says.
   Suddenly a man bursts into the room. Frank (Paul Dillon) is manic but has apparent affection for Cat. Over the course of the action, he plies her with their old bad habits, making messes that force her pay the financial and emotional costs. Dillon gives an astonishing, completely uninhibited performance of a completely uninhibited character; the portrayal causes us to feel for Frank and his deep unhappiness. Scanlon, too, gives a wrenching portrayal, stylized and real, crushing in its eventual self-containment.
   And yet we’ve seen characters in need before. Why are we reacting so strongly to Cat and her circumstances? Scanlon’s script is a journey, building to the ending one might hope for, taking a frightening, twisted, even humorous path (deliberately clichéd conversations add to the tapestry of words). Beyond that, the script gets vivid life from director Matthew McCray. From the carnival-esque to the bedlam-esque, his direction engages, startles, and shakes the mesmerized audience. Virtual Franks dance along the walls, one of them the well-behaved man disdaining the “real” Frank’s behavior and treating Cat as he should. Out of the tattered corners of the room pour dusty desiccated vines, the fruitlessness of Cat’s attempts at human connection.

Those who have experienced Arthur Miller’s version won’t be unfamiliar with the emotional impact the lonely salesperson’s story can have; this one delivers its wallop in 75 minutes. Helping usher in clues, enlivening and tying the whole together, a character called Management is played with wit and intensity by Jeremy Mascia.
   Let’s not forget another group of theatermakers in this endeavor. Each night the production begins with that tidy set that becomes inundated with mess: empty bottles, clothes, leaves, snow, and Cat’s dozen or so samples that must be unwrapped again. Person or persons unacknowledged stay after the show to clean up the stage every night, resetting the props where they can be used for the next night’s journey. If the play disturbs, the crew’s constant labors reassure again
.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
November 3, 2012
 
Orestes 3.0: Inferno
City Garage

Apollo, god of healing and truth, pops onstage for a chat with the audience. He is clad in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses, a party boy. Does his makeover shake our core beliefs? If our gods aren’t who we think they are, how can we put one foot in front of the other and keep marching through life? And then he says, “Just because a god commands it, doesn’t make it right.” Were we ancient Greeks, would we have bothered going home from the theater?
   Thus begins Charles L. Mee’s Orestes 3.0: Inferno (upgraded from his Orestes 2.0) directed and choreographed by Frédérique Michel. Based on the Euripides original, this production reminds us how modern the Greeks were—or how old-fashioned we are—as humankind continues its savaging of family and culture. After all, mom had killed dad, so son has killed mom and now is in an incestuous relationship with his sister. What’s a civilization to do about that?

The play concerns rationales and blame and forgiveness. It also lets Michel ply her stylish taste. In Michel’s signature palate of black and red, Apollo (Erol Dolen in a lively, fun-loving portrayal) pulls mom’s body away on a river of blood. The act clears the stage for the very personal (Megan Kim’s topless Electra gets washed by silver-voiced operatic singer Samantha Geraci-Yee as the muse Clio), as well as the very public (a court of law presided over by Nathan Dana Aldrich as a keffiyeh-draped, yes, Sophocles).
   Orestes (Johanny Paulino) gets advice from his bangder cousin Pylades (Justin Davanzo in a clear, stageworthy portrayal): commit more murder, topped with a bit of kidnapping. The victims? The glamour-puss Helen (a classily comedic Katrina Nelson in vivid red, whether a 1940s-style swimsuit and cream fur coat or an off-the-shoulder Grecian-column dress, among the highlights of Josephine Poinsot’s lively costume design) must be slain and her young daughter must be kidnapped (fortunately, Hermione is here portrayed by a life-size doll, wielded with Henson-esque skill by Dolen).

Of no help to Orestes is his bombastic uncle Menelaus (Daryl Keith Roach). Of much help to the audience is Orestes’s grandfather, Tyndareus (the fearless Bo Roberts), who reminds the listener that there are words our culture is told not to say, and yet one can commit murder and be allowed to find the words to justify it.
   Another very human presence onstage is Nikos (sympathetically played by Mitchell Colley), a sweet soul who loves Clio unrequitedly. Three Furies (Leah Harf, Mariko Oka, Megan Penn) pursue the presumed evildoers and seek retribution.
   Musician Justin Bardales provides unobtrusive but propulsive drum and guitar licks to accent Michel’s sleek storytelling.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 29, 2012

Build
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse


Technology and human relationships combine to warmhearted effect in Michael Golamco’s world premiere. Even his not terribly likeable two characters turn universal, sympathetic, and somewhat heroic by play’s end.
   Kip has become severely agoraphobic, never leaving the conglomerated mess he calls home (designer Sibyl Wickersheimer), living in a robe and pajamas, dining on pizza deliveries. In major part he doesn’t want to leave, but in small part he shouldn’t: He has been paid to complete design of a video game, apparently a task at which he is supremely adept. Someone must keep him on track, so he and his boss agree on his childhood friend Will to crack the virtual whip.
   While Kip finds burning inspiration in the creative and technological side of his work, Will cares most for the materialistic benefits of the salary and hipness of his job. Both, however, live for the artificial worlds they create, and each, as we eventually find out, lost his wife to his obsessions.
   Directed by Will Frears, the play hurtles along, cresting like a good digital game. But pause buttons get hit to fine effect, as one or another character stops to think, perhaps to feel.   The setting is sometime in the future—not so distant that people aren’t wearing shabby plaid robes and a medical boot to stabilize an ankle, and pizza no longer comes in cardboard boxes, but later enough that an A.I. wandering into one’s living space doesn’t totally shock.
   That artificial intelligence is a creature built by Kip, meant to replicate his late wife from a time when the marriage was solid. Laura Heisler plays the A.I. as very realistically human, whether through the actor’s choice or that of Frears. Only the bit of ring-modulation underlying her voice clues the audience in that she’s an A.I., but charmingly the sound effect increases as her “emotions” rise (designer Vincent Oliveiri).

So why do we care about Kip and Will? Ultimately, each recognizes his faults, each is an unselfishly devoted friend to the other. Can we blame them for wanting to live in the virtual world, where everything follows a clear set of rules? We also care because they’re played by very skilled, very patient actors. Thomas Sadoski turns Kip into a man older than his physical years: crooked posture, crumbling joints, broken by the deepest personal loss. Peter Katona chisels the post-yuppie Will: driven, confident, and yet not snide or cocky. Each actor waits, allowing his character to slowly bloom into the men we hoped they could be.
   The script deftly drops hints about the characters instead of announcing facts about them. Its title is also telling. We have learned how to build new things, but sometimes the most important things in life are already right there, awaiting our attention.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 29, 2012

 
Silence! The Musical
Theater Mogul at Hayworth Theatre

Watching Silence! The Musical can bring on a full-fledged case of déjà vu, flashbacks to the first time you saw Airplane! (1980) or, before that, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in the ’70s. In each case, a recognizable property or genre was raked over the coals, its tropes and self-seriousness lampooned, its integrity interrupted by modern non sequiturs and general nonsense.
   So it is with this sendup of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, as crafted by book writer Hunter Bell (Name of Show) and songwriters Jon and Al Kaplan, who—the Playbill hints—seem to have collaborated, in some undefined way, on the spoofy libretto. Not just the bones, but the flesh and blood of the iconic 1991 Oscar winner are all there, yet it’s all given a snarky, often clever, sometimes labored twist. Whichever of the movie’s violent, vulgar moments have stuck in your mind, you can be sure that every one is highlighted and beaten into comic submission, and the ones you don’t remember will be dragged in as well. 
   Which is why, even at 90 minutes, it goes on far too long. It doesn’t take much to nail this kind of spoofery, just a transcript of the original, a good ear for cliché, and a knack for inverting anything rude as innocent and vice versa. Audiences roar, which is not to be mistaken for appreciation for artistry. 
   There’s talent aplenty here. Director-choreographer Christopher Gatteli just won a Tony for contributing the latter skill to Newsies. Designer Scott Pask’s three Tonys include one for The Book of Mormon. Christine Lakin, expertly channeling Jodie Foster’s Agent Starling, is a mainstay of our local geniuses the Troubadours, and Davis Gaines—sort of but not completely channeling Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Lecter—performed both Raoul and the title role in The Phantom of the Opera more than 2,000 times.
   Which is to say that all of them have much experience with more worthwhile material, and one can only hope they get back to it soon.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
October 22, 2012

 
The Doctor’s Dilemma
A Noise Within


George Bernard Shaw would be so proud—not just because this production of one of his more rarely mounted plays is virtually flawless, but because of its ironic relevance given one of the biggest disputes in our nation’s present-day political clime. As the major parties in America currently battle over the pros and cons of national healthcare coverage, Shaw’s piece is a masterfully comprehensive tome centered on a medical professional’s ethical skirmish over whether to care for the tubercular bohemian artist husband of a much younger woman with whom he has been smitten. Containing countless targets of ridicule, the script might come off as “preachy” were it not for the masterful work of director Dámaso Rodriguez and an absolutely stellar cast.
   Leading the pack is the wonderfully restrained Geoff Elliott as Sir Colenso Ridgeon, a seemingly upright physician actively engaged in a trial testing the effects of a treatment for tuberculosis. Elliott’s work in detailing his character’s internal struggle between his Hippocratic obligation and personal desires is pure magic. As Jennifer Dubedat, the object of Ridgeon’s affections, Jules Willcox injects her character’s girlish charm with a fortitude that when aroused proves her to be every bit Elliott’s equal on the boards.  Likewise, Jason Dechert provides a measured sense of swagger in his role as Louis Dubedat, the young artist who serves as a foil to Ridgeon and his close-knit collection of fellow medical luminaries.

Shaw puts this trio of colleagues to best use as his story’s comic relief. Apollo Dukakis’s take on Sir Patrick Cullen is one of impeccably delivered dry wit and understatement as Cullen’s is the moderate viewpoint when things veer toward the absurd. And veer they do, with Freddy Douglas and Robertson Dean portraying the other two support pillars on this three-legged stool of buffoonery. As Dr. Cutler Walpole and Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington, Douglas and Dean are the life of the party as their respective characters constantly bump heads over the advantages of surgical versus medicinal intervention. Dean in particular, with his rising chorus of “stimulate the phagocytes,” elevates Shaw’s dialogue from merely amusing to bust-your-gut funny. His interpretation of a Shakespearian monologue, clearly evidence of Shaw’s scorn for the Bard, is practically showstopping.
   Supporting roles are ably filled all around. David LM McIntyre is endearingly sympathetic as Dr. Blenkinsop, a junior-level colleague also suffering from TB whom Ridgeon chooses to treat while pawning off the artist Dubedat on one of his flakey associates. Rafael Goldstein and Kelly Ehlert keep pace with the crowd in a pair of minor expository characters, while Deborah Strang is a sassy hoot as Ridgeon’s snarky housekeeper.
   Susan Gratch’s open-air scenic designs are made all the more remarkable by the obviously well-rehearsed running crew. Lighting designer Brian Gale has provided a beautiful mix of shadows and illumination that emphasize Rodriguez’s traffic patterns. Doug Newell’s sound assists the scenic segues nicely, and Leah Piehl’s costuming perfectly reinforces each character’s individual traits.
   In the end, Shaw’s genius was his ability to skewer societal norms, classes, and subjects—be it vivisectionists, art critics of all sorts, or any sort of pomposity—through seemingly innocuous philosophical discussions. Here, we are treated to a wonderfully wrought production that has taken Shaw’s best and made it even better.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
October 22, 2012
 
And Then There Were None
Actors Co-Op David Schall Theatre

Many consider Dame Agatha Christie the finest mystery writer of all time. Whether you agree, it can certainly be said that her work And Then There Were None has been one of the most successful play adaptations from a mystery novel to date. A clever if not grim story, Christie modified it for the stage in 1943 with a lighter tone and more palatable ending than the one in her original book.
   The setting is a remote island. The guests have been invited by absent hosts who promise to arrive soon. In the meantime, recently hired butler Rogers (Pete Pano) and his wife (Teresa Bisson) see to the disposition of the visitors. They are a mixed lot, but it is learned via a sonorous, disembodied voice that each has been responsible for the death of others and has escaped retribution. This, of course, ramps up the tension, and soon deaths begin to occur among the travelers.
   The first is Anthony Marston (Lucas Moore), a victim of cyanide poisoning diagnosed by Dr. Armstrong (Wenzel Jones). A feeling of unease settles over the gloomy house (nicely designed by Karen Ipock). The second is Mrs. Rogers, who seems to have died in her sleep.
   On the wall of the living room is a framed nursery rhyme, “Ten Little Soldiers,” which describes how they died. The first “choked his little self,” followed by one who “overslept himself.” The group begins to recognize that these sudden deaths fit those descriptions, and soon others listed in the poem follow. To add to the guests’ fear, little soldier figurines sit on a mantel; and, as murders occur, the counterpart figurines begin to disappear.

The entire cast is excellent. Though Bisson and Moore have the least stage time, they do a fine job of making the most of their characters. Following those characters’ deaths, next comes elderly General McKenzie (Don Robb), who dies from a knife to his chest (“one got left behind”). Rogers is killed with an axe to his head (“one chopped himself in halves”). Emily Brent (Deborah Marlowe), religious and cold, is killed by hypodermic needle (“a bumblebee stung one”). By this time, the remaining characters are left to ponder their fate, and a mystery’s conclusion should never be revealed.
   Remaining are Vera Claythorne (Greyson Chadwick), a young attractive secretary; Philip Lombard (Clay Bunker), an upbeat soldier of fortune; William Blore (Jack Kandel), a former policeman; and Sir Lawrence Wargrave (Steve Gustafson), a retired judge whose observations bring the story into focus. Adding additional color is Fred Narracott (Sergio Mautone), the boat skipper.
   Gustafson’s portrayal of Wargrave is accomplished and nuanced as his character develops. Jones is spot-on, a nervous, dithery doctor with the right amount of trepidation; Chadwick makes a fine damsel in distress, while Bunker is cocky and confident. Marlowe gets special kudos for her superbly rigid near-fanatic. Pano enacts a fine English butler, doing his duty even as his wife has died. Robb embodies a fine older soldier whose resignation about his fate makes him a sympathetic character. Blore adds masculine confidence as he puzzles through the events.
   The designs are beautifully done, with set and props by Karen Ipock, lighting by Mark Svastics, and costumes by Vicki Conrad appropriate for time and place.
   Director Linda Kerns manages the complicated characterizations and storyline with just the right amount of gravitas and tension. Under less expert leadership, the story could develop into farce or melodrama, neither of those happening here. However improbable the ending, it works, and the audience can breathe a sigh of relief and appreciate the enduring pleasure of Christie’s most famous work.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
October 21, 2012
  
Seminar
Center Theatre Group at Ahmanson Theatre

If you’re new to theatergoing, you may be surprised to learn that characters have secrets they just might reveal shortly before the play ends. And if you’re still growing up, you may not know that bullies have a pained or soft side. What else is revelatory about Theresa Rebeck’s West Coast premiere?
   Its story covers an approximately one-month period during which four young writers have each paid $5,000 to be critiqued by formerly exalted writer Leonard (Jeff Goldblum). Over the first four sessions, Leonard reads as few as five words and as “much” as two pages of a student’s work, forms his intransigent opinion based on that quick read, and offers by way of “seminar” his looks of disdain, disgust, or mildly pleased surprise, or his verbal commentary in the form of name-calling and trash-talking.
   The female characters are stunningly 1970s clichéd. What could Rebeck be trying to tell the audience about those clichés? Izzy (Jennifer Ikeda) is an overtly sexual Asian who at the top of the play flashes her bare chest. Kate (Aya Cash) is a lovelorn affluent feminist. The male characters are likewise clichéd writers. Douglas (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) is a bloviating bag of logorrhea—who opens the play and then seems to fade into the backdrop. Martin (Greg Keller) is financially strapped, naive, and insecure—and apparently thus, according to Rebeck, the perfect candidate to be a writer.
   With its quips about writers and writing, and its quips about New York, this is yet another play that lets audiences feel smarter for getting it but doesn’t make its audiences smarter.

David Zinn’s set consists of the stately walls and bookcases, topped by a crystal chandelier, of Kate’s New York apartment; but the furniture “doesn’t go” with the architecture. The chairs and credenza are hideous modern, and the back wall is mostly obscured by a painting of presumably the New York skyline in various shades of hot pink. Does the set symbolize the degradation of modern writing? The decay of New York? At the 80-minute mark, that backdrop lifts and the setting moves to Leonard’s loft, where we see shifting alliances and interests and learn, “Life is complicated. People are complicated.”
   Sam Gold directs. On opening night, following a week of previews in Los Angeles, the actors’ timing was seriously off and they repeatedly failed to hold for laughs. This is one Seminar it’s best not to sign up for. (Fortunately, Leonard didn’t seem to be quibbling about ending sentences with prepositions.)

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 18, 2012
  

Cymbeline
A Noise Within

The pros make it look so easy. This production has the breezy feel of an itinerant theater troupe mounting an impromptu version of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Most things that look easy, however, result from planning and practice. That, plus years of training contribute to making the dialogue sound improvised here. And of course we can’t see the probably madcap goings on backstage: the swift crossings, the costume and wig changes, the actors and crew waiting in the wings to execute the rapid, economical scene changes.
   Cymbeline tells of hasty banishments of the good while the bad hold sway too long. It’s a late Shakespeare play, but not a great one. However, Bart DeLorenzo directs, making this production memorable and thoroughly pleasing. On one level it seems to be about making theater, though never preciously so. Detritus of theater props edges the playing space, the costuming is a mélange of centuries, and the play opens with a ghost light onstage. At the top of the play, whirling on and offstage via a cheerful storm are the play’s characters—and, it seems, a few from other Shakespeare plays, perhaps in a nod to the borrowings here by the playwright from his earlier works.
   But DeLorenzo’s ingenious decision was to assign the actors multiple roles. With the exception of Helen Sadler—who plays the heroic Imogen—the cast assays at least two roles each, one a basically good person and the other a relative villain. Angela Balogh Calin’s costuming helps the audience separate good from evil. Imogen is the only character pure enough to earn the wearing of white; her beloved husband, Posthumus, nearly as decent, gets a powder-blue frock coat; and the Italian villain, Iachimo, gets black leather, neck to toe.
   Happily, the actors also beautifully convey their characters. Sadler makes a lovely Imogen: fearless but not reckless, sturdy but not joyless, a “virtuous” woman but one with modern virtues of strength and intelligence and independent thinking. Sadler has a relaxed but vibrant physicality, and her voice has pleasing colors.
   She plays opposite Andrew Elvis Miller, who makes a wonderfully sleazy Iachimo, their bedroom scene comedically suspenseful and unnerving, and then becomes Caius Lucius, the capitulating Roman general. Sadler also plays opposite Adam Haas Hunter, appropriately graceful and loving as Posthumus, but madly hilarious as the Queen’s petulant son, Cloten.
   Francia DiMase plays said malevolent Queen, then the paternal Belarius who has tended to King Cymbeline’s expatriated sons. DiMase executes a nice hip-throw of one of those sons, helping earn Ken Merckx’s fight choreography a round of applause at the performance reviewed. The two sons are played by Jarrett Sleeper and Paul David Story, who also serve as narrator-hosts in those portions where Shakespeare tells us instead of showing us. Joel Swetow gives humanity to the ultimately good Cymbeline, Time Winters gives nobility to the always faithful servant Pisanio.
   Who portrays the play’s visiting Jupiter? The god who appears upon an eagle, throwing a thunderbolt, is a darling shadow puppet. Throughout the play, Ken Booth’s lighting, warm for Italy and cool for Britain, always hints at magic to be done.
   Yes, the play seems to glide by on a fall breeze. “Live, and deal with others better,” says Posthumus concisely, in one of theater’s most magnificent credos. And then, suddenly, the happy ending—such a fairy tale, so improbable, and so deeply enviable in its gracious hope for mankind—hits with a knockout punch.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 7, 2012


Julius Caesar

The New American Theatre at McCadden Place Theatre

Apparently this Shakespeare play doesn’t need to be performed on the steps of a real-life city hall to impress. Here, a chamber version captures the story’s expanse while feeling immediate, near, and unfortunately modern. Add in the casting of women in traditionally male roles, modern-day business attire, and non-declamatory performances, and the production plays like an Aaron Sorkin series.
   Jack Stehlin directs in the small but two-story stage. Between his staging and the terracotta painted flats (designed by Noah Silverstein to resemble ancient pottery), all roads lead to Rome’s many locales. There, uncertainty over political leadership leads to partisan conversations, which lead to deadly warfare.
   But no stage makeup bloodies the hands here. Seemingly out of nowhere, when characters are knifed to death, the actors discreetly don scarlet satin gloves to represent blood-soaked hands. Against the black clothing, the effect is more shocking than even the goriest of fake blood produces. Knives, too, are fitted with red tape that shows up as the knives are pulled from the victims. Crowd scenes are loud and propulsive and seem to sweep the audience into the action. Music (Roger Bellon) augments the drama.
   Said drama begins as the statue of Caesar (Tim Halligan) watches over his city. It ends as his ghost (Halligan in white face) haunts the city. Between, Stehlin plays Brutus as a man wracked with doubts but showing none of it to those he can’t trust. One of the city’s few actors who does heightened classical speech and makes it sound like modern everyday conversation, Stehlin turns Brutus into an everyman.
   Flanked by adept actors Tom Groenwald as the manipulative Cassius and Scott Sheldon as the oratorical Marc Antony, Stehlin leads his troupe the way that Roman throng had wished its leaders would have done. Other friends, Romans, and countrymen are played by Joe Bays, Brendan Brandt, Alex Monti Fox, Kimberly Jurgen, Jordan Lund, Chelsea Povall, Jobeth Prince, Jade Sealey, Patrick Vest, and Vanessa Waters.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 29, 2012


The Real Drunk Housewives of the San Fernando Valley
Bill & Nathalie Haller at Oh My Ribs Entertainment at The Complex***


Feeding off of America’s love of voyeuristic schadenfreude, they’ve propelled the Bravo Channel to the top of the cable TV ratings heap. From Beverly Hills to Miami to New York, these women deliver some of the most stunning behavior into our living rooms on an almost daily basis. So, is it any wonder that someone would grab the brass ring by penning a stage version dedicated to such shocking conduct?
   Authors-composers-lyricists Kelly Holden-Bashar and Bill Haller deserve tons of praise for doing just that with this hourlong one-act packed with some of the most inappropriately uproarious material one could imagine. Having enjoyed a standing-room-only run earlier this summer, the show is back, with only one cast member substitution, for its current schedule of performances. 
   Director David Jahn and choreographer Jeffrey Polk have left no turn unstoned as their cast of six cavorts its way through this often jaw-dropping script and score. Introductions all around are delivered via “Champagne,” the opening number in which backstories and interpersonal rivalries are cleverly established.
   There’s Rene, the older of the bunch, played with delightful abandon by Leah Mangum. Jen Rhonheimer provides a pushcart full of spice as Pepsi, the wisecracking Spanish hottie. Ana Cristina is all bubbly brainlessness as Olivia, the show’s Barbie figured, requisite blonde bombshell. Robyn Roth demonstrates knockout comic timing as Rikki, a former child television star whose hateful sibling rivalry takes centerstage as she is interviewed by Chris Caldwell Eckert who fills the enviable position of male host for this alcohol fueled catfight.   

Holden-Bashar and Haller’s score effectively skewers every major plot point found on the programs they are parodying. The song titles are fairly self-explanatory—including “Ain’t Nothin’ That She Wouldn’t Screw,” “Big Money,” and “Better Than I’ve Ever Been.” A couple of obvious standouts, however, touch on current events and censorship. “The End of Sober” features Eckert’s host character railing on the topic of gay versus straight marriage inequities. Eckert does a fantastic job of grabbing the spotlight as he capitalizes on his chance to shine amidst this estrogen-packed laugh fest. But for sheer technical kudos, nothing tops “The Bleep Song” in which the ladies perform a profanity-laden rant during which Haller, doubling as the show’s technician, electronically bleeps out each vulgarity as it’s mouthed by the cast. It’s a must-be-seen-to-be-believed highlight of the show.
   And as the audience finishes its BYOB adult beverages (yes, really!), the cast wraps things up with “We’re Alive As Long As We’re On Bravo.” It’s apparent that these types of individuals, lampooned so successfully here, crave attention with such ferocity that they possess virtually no concern for the damage they inflict on themselves or others. It’s a brilliantly voiced condemnation of our culture set against a backdrop of politically incorrect hilarity.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
***Review of show in its previous run.
 
Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them
Artists
at Play at GTC Burbank

Edith is an unusual little girl. She’s a 12-year-old Filipina, armed with a pellet rifle and an oversized stuffed frog, living alone with her 16-year-old brother, Kenny, on a remote farm somewhere in the Midwest. Their mother is dead and their father, never seen onstage, seems to serve only as a source for replenishing the bank account from which these two ostensibly abandoned minors draw funds to purchase their necessities. Kenny’s best friend and classmate, Benji, rounds out this trio of characters in playwright A. Rey Pamatmat’s treatise on childhood development that frequently stretches the bounds of credulity.
   Despite Pamatmat’s rather monotonous script, director Jennifer Chang achieves some pleasant results. Aided by a first-rate design team, the show’s production values are quite nice. Arturo Betanzos’s barn-like interior and various furniture and accessories, including a remarkably multifaceted sofa, work wonderfully for the script’s constantly changing series of locales. Jennifer Hill’s lighting and Dennis Yen’s sound design are also admirable sources of support.
   But it’s the acting by Rodney To as Kenny and Brian Hostenske as Benji that elevate their portion of this story from the commonplace to intriguing. So many times, it seems adult actors wind up overplaying underage youths in a falsely representational manner. Nothing could be further from the case with To and Hostenske who, under Chang’s directorial hand, present each moment of their budding gay relationship with complete believability and just the right amount of curious trepidation. The outcome is an endearing story of two boys whose respective searches for individuality ends up bringing them even closer together than ever.
   It’s a shame Pamatmat wasn’t satisfied with making this plotline the primary focus of his tale. For as heartwarming as Kenny and Benji’s blossoming love affair proves to be, it’s diametrically offset by what winds up feeling like the pointless inclusion of Edith’s character. Amielynn Abellera deserves a measure of recognition for her efforts, but her performance settles into a style that proves to be the polar opposite of that of her co-stars.
   In her defense, Abellera is saddled with a number of repetitively dull scenes in which she carries on one-sided conversations with Fergie, the aforementioned frog, while scouting out positions from which she can guard the homestead with her BB gun.
   Maybe these monologues seemed good on paper when Pamatmat penned them, but Chang doesn’t seem to have been able to inspire Abellera, clearly much older than 12, to rise above what would be average children’s theater. And it’s enough to make one wonder why, in a city full of talented child actors, this production didn’t choose to cast a real 12-year-old in this supposedly pivotal title role.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
October 30, 2012
  
42nd Street
Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Performing Arts Center

Ever since 1934 when Ruby Keeler sweetly but awkwardly tapped her way into America’s collective heart, this show has been a feel-good offering, and Musical Theatre West has mounted it with flash and dazzle. With more than a little nod to Busby Berkeley, director-choreographer Jon Engstrom channels those extravagant floor patterns and over-the-top production numbers to give an audience a lot to smile at.
   It’s an iconic story. A fresh young thing, Peggy Sawyer (Tessa Grady), comes to Broadway from Allentown, Pa., to audition for a show called Pretty Lady, directed by legendary tyrant Julian Marsh (Damon Kirsche). She is befriended by handsome juvenile Billy Lawlor (Zach Hess) and, after a few awkward missteps, finds herself in the chorus.
   The reputed star of Lady is Dorothy Brock (Tracy Lore). Her Texas sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Paul Ainsley), has put up the money for the show as long as she stars, but she is secretly in a relationship with Pat Denning (Christopher Guilmet), her former stage manager, behind Dillon’s back. When Marsh is tipped to this fact, he hires a couple of thugs to take Denning out.
   As Brock rehearses, Sawyer accidentally falls on her, and Brock breaks her ankle. It looks like the show must close, but chorus girls talk Marsh into starring Sawyer, even though she has only two days to prepare. Exhausted and discouraged, Sawyer packs and gets ready to take the train back to Allentown. Marsh follows her, and repeats the most famous line in the show, “Sawyer, you listen to me, and you listen hard. You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.”  

T
he cast of this show is superior in every way. Kirsche has powerful vocals and charisma, especially in his encounters with Grady. She is the perfect ingénue, perky and bright, with a lovely voice, and she handles the physical comedy like a pro. Lore, too, can deliver a number and acquits herself well as the diva with a heart of gold.
   Supporting characters in this show are standouts. Lady writer-producer Bert Barry (Jamie Torcellini) is a hoofer in the old style, and his numbers are among the best in the show. The show’s writer, Maggie Jones (Barbara Carlton Heart), plays mother hen to the chorus girls, and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” with Bert and “Anytime” Annie (Caitlyn Calfas) can’t be beat.
   Featured chorines Calfas, Lindsay Kristine Anderson, Blair Hollingsworth, and Evie Hutton dance expertly and provide extra energy and humor.
   Harry Warren’s music and Al Dubin’s lyrics have become standards. “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” We’re in the Money,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” and “42nd Street” are among those that endure. Mark Bramble and Michael Stewart’s book also captures the vibe of the period.
   Lighting by Jean-Yves Tessier is notable, especially on the large stage. Particularly lovely costumes by The Theatre Company and sets and props courtesy of Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston give the production the grand look necessary to make this a big Broadway-style production. Michael Borth’s music direction with the outstanding orchestra also adds special energy to the dancing and singing.
   This 42nd Street stands out from among many productions of this chestnut as the perfect marriage of talent and enthusiasm, accomplishing all one could want in a musical theater evening.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
October 30, 2012
 
Vincent
The Next Arena at VS Theater

In a tiny theater, performed by only one actor, is the story of a massive passion. Eager to learn, yearning to serve, desperate for romance, Vincent Van Gogh lived an unfulfilled life that haunts us to this day. What would he think if he could have seen into the future?
   Leonard Nimoy penned this one-person show, which we can be certain accurately depicts Van Gogh’s thoughts and feelings. The painter copiously corresponded with his brother Theo, and the letters have survived. But Nimoy shapes the facts, his framing device here a eulogy by Theo, the emotionality of the story coming from Theo’s fervid admiration for Vincent and our own sadness for sweetly noble aims cut short by physical and probably mental illness.
   Still, it takes an actor and director to fully create Theo and his memories of Vincent. Paul Stein directs, Jean-Michel Richaud performs, and the effect transports the audience to 1890s Paris. Richaud beautifully calibrates his performance. Fraternal adoration, religious fervor, lust, guilt—all are created in truth here and have their rightful place in his work.
   The set includes the furniture of Arles one could see in Vincent’s paintings: wooden side chairs, a French Provincial table, stools, and an easel—that, although loaded with an artistically incorrect empty frame, allows us to watch Richaud’s “painting” as he faces us while speaking. The set also includes a video screen that displays the many, many canvases Vincent painted—some familiar to all, some familiar to only the Van Gogh aficionados.
   Steve Pope’s lighting prominently features Vincent’s favorite color, yellow, then dramatizes the stage with magenta, a color supposedly symbolizing the highest universal love.
   Some people burn with talent. Others of us can only talk about it.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 25, 2012

You Can’t Take It With You
Antaeus Company at Deaf West Theatre

The family at the heart of this George S. Kaufman–Moss Hart play is so cheerful, non-critical, and forgiving, it’s obviously sheer fantasy. It’s certainly unusual on stages so often filled with alcoholism, abuse, manipulation, and self-loathing. The Vanderhofs and Sycamores and their hangers-on live for free speech and the pursuit of happiness. 
   Indeed, as director Gigi Bermingham sees it here, life in this home is so congenial that the “colored” maid and her beau sit at the dining table with the rest of the family, breaking class and race barriers that would have seemed insurmountable in 1937 when the play premiered. To top that, one of the Sycamore daughters has married a black man. Not everyone is easy with the choice, but Bermingham leaves it up to the audience to glimpse the checkered reactions.
   Obviously this well-made play hasn’t changed since you saw it—or likely performed in it in high school. What’s different here is the two casts of veteran actors in roles from lead to bit. It’s an honor to observe their work, as each commits to Bermingham’s shtick and soul.

Anyone wondering what actors add to the director’s work must watch both casts of a double-cast play, as here. Starting with the tax-evading Grandpa Vanderhof, Joseph Ruskin plays him as eccentric because he was born that way; Lawrence Pressman plays him as eccentric by choice. Pressman’s character is a wealthy libertarian, aware of the maelstrom around him; Ruskin’s seems too sweet to deliberately cheat the national treasury, merely a forgetfully wise patriarch.
   Grandpa’s daughter, Penny Sycamore, gets the loving-mother treatment from Julia Fletcher and Eve Gordon. As the aspiring but probably no-talent playwright, Fletcher lets her eyebrows rhythmically accompany her typing; Gordon types while acting out the melodramas Penny writes.
   Penny’s husband, Paul, gets a contented teddy-bear portrayal by Paul Eiding; under Marcello Tubert’s crafting, Paul glances at himself in the mirror but ruefully notes there’s no improvement he could make before company comes.
   Paul and Penny’s daughter Essie wants desperately to be a ballerina. Linda Park’s Essie is slender and a skilled dancer, so her downfall is narcissism. Kellie Matteson’s Essie does ballet because her soul needs to physically dramatize every emotion. But the Sycamore daughter Alice seeks a more “normal” life and has fallen in love with Tony Kirby, whom she reluctantly brings home for a meet-see. Lizzie Zerebko and Kate Maher bring a period sensibility to their work as Alice, and Jeremy Glazer and Nicholas D’Agosto turn Tony into a sweet matinee idol, though D’Agosto gives the most authentic period feel by giving Tony that signature veneer of happiness.
   As the man who delivered ice and stayed for eight years, Mr. DePina, Tony Abatemarco is perfectly accented and perfectly, seriously, immersed in his comedic role, adding to it more than a hint that this perpetual bachelor is homosexual. Jeremy Guskin brings to the role shades of a child escaping the travails of growing up. Karen Malina White’s maid, Rheba, is happy as can be; Veralyn Jones makes her sensible and undeluded.

Of course Tony’s parents come to dinner. Playing Mr. Kirby, Josh Clark brings a blue-bloodedly initial reluctance to the table; John Apicella brings a hidden hunger—for affection and for the tempting food.
   Shannon Holt, as Mrs. Kirby, is sour-faced and trembling with fury, and her speech cadence is of the era. Her performance is a little “big” but also fits the shape of the play, the zaniness peaking near the play’s end. Amelia White plays it smaller, but there’s plenty to watch in her uptight wealthy white conservative plunged into her nightmare of American liberalism.
   Even small roles get thoughtful touches. Playing the IRS agent who drops in on the family, Patrick Wenk-Wolff looks at each family member with a suspicious eye, while Jeremy Shouldis is befuddled by the many-ring circus.
   On Tom Buderwitz’s cozily busy set, style meets functionality as he breaks the small playing space into rooms and nooks. Sports equipment hangs on the walls though it’s seemingly never used by this family that finds its pleasures indoors. Paul and Mr. DePina build firecrackers that resound in the Deaf West space made for sound to be felt.
   “Why can’t we be like other people?” Alice asks pleadingly. It’s because the audience wouldn’t have it any other way.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 23, 2012
 
In the Red and Brown Water
Fountain Theatre


I
t’s about time Tarell Alvin McCraney’s work was able to be seen in Los Angeles. The Brother/Sister Plays, his trilogy about indigenous backwoods Louisiana folk operating under strange and magical Yoruba and Caribbean influences, has been garnering raves on both sides of the Atlantic (he has served as a house playwright for the RSC), whether performed as a unit or, as here, one at a time with the debut of In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain Theater. McCraney is black and gay, but his work occupies no narrow niche; it’s for and about everyone.
   This particular leg of the tripod takes off from Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma, the famous verse drama about a young women driven insane by her inability to become a mother. Her McCraney counterpart is Oya, a high school track star with dreams of running her way out of the bayou to a promising future, but she forgoes them in favor of men who don’t exactly use her ill, but don’t use her in the way she wants to be used—that is, as the mother of their child. The hothouse environment, in which a woman’s childbearing is prized above everything else and the denizens occupy themselves with exotic talismans, songs and dances, and superstition, is presented as fertile breeding ground for profound mental disturbance, and McCraney charts Oyas disintegration masterfully, and devastatingly.

The play is peppered with an odd but effective conceit, as the actors speak stage directions—“Oya runs”—and then perform them. It turns the entire ensemble into one great group griot, inviting us around the fire to participate in the immediate creation of an unforgettable folk tale.
   Shirley Jo Finney is the perfect director for this sort of material, fearless and skillful and completely comfortable with the interweaving of indigenous ritual into a linear narrative, as she demonstrated in The Ballad of Emmett Till a couple of years back. Once again she has assembled an excellent cast, beginning with the stunning Diarra Kilpatrick, whose Oya begins fresh-faced and ends shattered, yet her decline is so subtly etched we’re practically unaware of her falling apart until it’s too late.
   The female members of San Pere, La., are one and all superb. Of the men, Theodore Perkins is a crafty, delightful trickster and Gilbert Glenn Brown a sizzling, sinister stud; only Dorian Christian Baucum, as the auto mechanic Ogun, fails to deliver a clearly delineated portrait. (Ogun is a principal in the other two plays, The Brothers Size and Marcus or the Secret of Sweet, so perhaps Baucum will find his legs as the trilogy goes along. The Fountain expects to perform all three plays in due course.)
   McCraney also has a drag play, Wig Out!, floating around, and his new Choir Boy is a London smash hit. You will be hearing a lot about him. You might as well start finding out now what all the shouting is about.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
October 22, 2012
Creation
Boston Court Performing Arts Center

The premise is promising, but the sum of this Kathryn Walat script feels unoriginal and uninspiring. However, it gets much tender care from director Michael Michetti and his design team, and the quartet of actors steps up in all seriousness to deliver lines that might flop from the mouths of lesser performers.
   Could the story end any other way? From the start of the play, Sarah (Deborah Puette) and Ian (Johnathan McClain) seem dissatisfied with their marriage. Ian had imagined himself a working paleontologist, and Sarah had imagined herself married to a “nice” Jewish doctor. He’s instead tied down as an academic, apparently a reluctant biology professor, also uninspired to start on his book. She is a pathologist because she prefers the science to the healing arts. On his birthday, they’re boating. Lightning strikes him. She thinks she waited too long to begin resuscitation. This she confesses to handsome young neurologist Amal (Ethan Raines), as electricity sparks between these two.
   Meantime, Ian happens to meet Zach (Adam Silver), a gay master’s candidate in music composition. Ian, hearing music in his head since the boat episode, decides he’ll free his inner composer through Zach’s knowledge of notation. But Zach has already told the audience—through one of the direct addresses Walat relies on to convey information not revealed in dialogue—that his newbie students don’t know “what being a composer is.”
   By play’s end, Zach is the only character who has kept his word and who has not violated professional ethics. Meantime, Sarah is rather cold, she is rather unfaithful to Ian, and now she’s having second thoughts about a grant previously awarded her. And yet Sarah is inexplicably attractive to not one but two men.   Still, the most puzzling character is Ian. Did the lightning strike alter Ian’s brain, prompting him to believe in the existence of God? Or, did proximity to his mortality awaken a fear of death? Or had Ian already been looking for an excuse to pursue yet more hobbies and occupations, meanwhile avoiding manhood and fatherhood? 
   Michetti stages the work elegantly, from boating incident to melodramatic ending, on François-Pierre Couture’s set paired with Adam Flemming’s projection design, providing visual interest and mood. Bruno Louchouarn’s original music lets the audience know that at least we’re not imagining it.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 15, 2012

Fraternity
Ebony Repertory Theatre at Nate Holden Performing Arts Center


Real-life events often beget theatrical productions that bring to light the larger picture surrounding those happenings. In playwright Jeff Stetson’s script, the terrorist bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., Baptist church in which four young girls died figures in a complex story about politics and race.
   The setting is an exclusive black men’s club in 1987 populated by the movers and shakers of Birmingham. There’s Senator Charles Lincoln (Roger Robinson), an aging politician, who is running for what may be his last term. His opponent is his former aide, Paul Stanton (Rocky Carroll), a man who prides himself on his strong morals and wants to represent a new age in black politics. The key players comprise Reverend Benjamin Franklin Wilcox (Harvy Blanks), wealthy real estate tycoon Preston Gherard (William Allen Young), musician Turk Maddox (Robert Gossett), and newspaper publisher Turner Greystone (Mel Winkler). Seeking admission to the club is young lawyer Brandon Carrington (Nasir Najieb).
   Power is the prime exploration here—how you get it, what you are willing to do to get it, what you do with it when you achieve it. Intertwined in this examination are other issues of black history: unequal opportunities for blacks, particularly in the South, and lingering echoes of the civil rights movement.
 
What keeps the somewhat pedagogic nature of the dialogue convincing is the dynamic among the actors. Director Henry Miller uses restraint as the hot-button topics come to light, and his impressive cast makes genuine its passion, anger, or grief. In particular, Robinson seems larger than life, an almost archetypal politician who has achievements as well as compromises in his career. The drinking minister, the smarmy opportunist, and the grieving father are revealed as the story unfolds.
   Scenic designer Edward E. Haynes Jr. creates a beautifully articulated set that, combined with Elizabeth Harper’s subtle and evocative lighting, is a perfect setting for the production. From bow ties and suspenders to well-shod men, Wendell C. Carmichael’s costume design is first rate.
   In an after-the-performance audience talkback, Carroll commented on how gratifying it was for the ensemble to be able to work together in one show, an opportunity he acknowledged didn’t happen often in theater or television. The caliber of the actors, their authenticity, and their regard for the material make it a very worthwhile production.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
October 15, 2012

 
The Turn of the Screw
Visceral Company at Underground Theatre

To attend this production, one should be able to see in the dark. To best enjoy this production, one should probably be at least a little afraid of the dark.
   The Henry James novella on which Jeffrey Hatcher based this script is that classic “ambiguous” tale about a young governess who comes to a Victorian manor to tend two young children. Does she see the ghosts of former occupants, or is she imagining/hallucinating?
   Either way, Hatcher turns the story into a two-actor play. The female actor plays the governess on her new job at Bly. The male actor, however, plays all other characters—including the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, the 10-year-old possibly precocious Miles, and the 8-year-old darling innocent Flora. Thus, the scaredy-cats in the audience can jump in shock or quiver in fear as the story unfolds; while the theater aficionados can relish the creativity.
   Amelia Gotham plays the governess. She plays it straight though heightened enough to keep the viewer intrigued. She does so without giving away whether her character is haunted or crazed. Nich Kauffman takes on the remaining personae. He likewise plays them straight, not campily, whether portraying the conveniently icy uncle or the presumably naive progeny, though he carefully delineates each of his characters.
   Under Dan Spurgeon’s steadying direction, though not every moment is true to the setting and period, the mood stays simultaneously gripping and playful. He turns the minuscule playing space into bumpy roads, lakeside gardens, offices, entry halls, nursery bedrooms, and more. Tyler Aaron Travis’s set design consists of chalky outlines to create balustrades and patterned wallpaper; a simple black side chair is the only furniture on the set. Dave Sousa provides picture-perfect lighting, including creepy candlelight and spooky moonlight.
   So why must we see in the dark? Before the show, the theater’s house is kept in very dim lighting even while the audience is filing in. Watch your step. And then, on your way out, keep an eye peeled for, you know, things that go bump in the night.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 15, 2012


November
Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum

M
any of the modern-day U.S. presidents have been great public speakers, most have had their moments of dignity, a few have done great acts to better the nation. But, in every case, haven’t you wondered what each is like in the privacy of the Oval Office?
   Maybe it’s best not to know. As playwright David Mamet postulates him here, Charles Smith is an idiot. This president is uninformed, bigoted, and on the take. And, being a Mamet creation, he’s delightfully foul-mouthed.
   When we meet him, Smith (given a freewheeling portrayal by Ed Begley Jr.) is about to lose the second-term election. His wife (unseen) continually phones him at work, a device that’s not only comedic but also allows Mamet to set up the impending relative poverty Smith faces. Alas, no presidential library awaits Smith. So he needs a quick buck. This November, he is reminded that he’s about to receive a $50,000 honorarium for the customary pardoning of a turkey or two. So he sets out to shake down the birds.
   Smith is kept afloat by his by-the-rules aide Archer (Rod McLachlan) and by Smith’s utterly devoted speechwriter Bernstein (Felicity Huffman). The turkeys are kept afloat by the character Mamet names A Representative of the National Association of Turkey and Turkey By-Products Manufacturers (Todd Weeks). Add a visit by the local Native-American tribal leader (Gregory Cruz), and wackiness ensues.

Fortunately, there’s a point to the high jinks. Bernstein bears the double-whammy of being Jewish and a lesbian, just two of the persuasions and ethnicities disdained by Smith. And yet, Smith dimly recognizes that he can’t function without her.
   Scott Zigler directs with an obvious affinity for the playwright’s work. Each character is an island, but all the actors function as a solid unit. Lines fall trippingly from the tongues. The blocking feels natural, working well in the round Oval Office on the thrust stage. Zigler’s actors set the stage during the brief scene-change blackouts, Huffman pulling props out of Bernstein’s capacious purse. 
   Begley is delightfully adept at playing the imbecile, jumbling words and repeating lines of dialogue. But Huffman is the superstar here. She is made up to be unglamorous and plays a character jet-lagged and suffering a cold. And yet we can’t take our eyes off her. Perhaps that’s because Huffman never takes her eyes off the other actors, and Bernstein never stops focusing on Smith. Turns out Bernstein has her own agenda. She begs and coaxes Smith to “do something pure in this waning time.”
   At the play’s end, our POTUS is about to take a stand that will undoubtedly tick off his fellow bigots. Considering that the person Smith is helping is someone he has relied upon, used, and abused for many years, Mamet offers a lot of justice, poetic or otherwise, in balancing these scales.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
October 9, 2012

 
Bend in the Road
Carrie Hamilton Theatre

Albert Einstein is credited with having said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” These words are certainly apropos when it comes to the title character of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel, Anne of Green Gables. Her tale of a redheaded orphan, Anne “with an E” Shirley, whose daydreams and creativity lead to adventures galore, is renowned for its appeal to audiences both young and old. Never was this was more evident than in a recent standing room– only performance of this staged version. It’s an invitingly charming production for all ages, adapted by Benita Scheckel, who also directs the piece, and Michael Upward, whose original composition make this more a “play with music” than a traditional musical.
   At the performance reviewed, Justine Huxley brought to life Montgomery’s sassy young heroine with an engaging impishness that immediately won over the mix of adult and child audience members. Ever spunky, but never annoying or off-putting, Huxley’s comic timing was complimented perfectly by her excellent vocal skills. In particular, “Walk Like Sisters”—featuring Huxley and Melinda Porto, playing Anne’s best friend, Diana Barry—is clearly the show’s most memorable tune. Faintly reminiscent of “For Good” from Stephen Schwartz’s score of “Wicked,” this duet soars melodically with a lovely harmonic line that produces goose bumps. All in all, Huxley did a first rate job, so much so that it’s hard to believe that she is the production’s understudy.
   Supporting roles in the show are handled expertly. As Anne’s adoptive guardians, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, Christopher Callen and Don Margolin provide a sense of stability for their characters’ teenage charge while grounding the production with a crucial reality. At one point, Callen, tempering mild exasperation with compassion, leads Anne through a touching rendition of Upward’s version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” You could have heard a pin drop in the theatre.
   Providing additional standout performances are James Jaeger as a curmudgeonly stationmaster and teacher Mr. Phillips, and Christopher Higgins as the schoolhouse heartthrob, Gilbert Blythe. And a doff of the hat to Barbara Niles for injecting comic relief with her role as Avonlea’s town busybody, Rachel Lynde. She does a great job of bringing to life a bombastic character without crossing the line into caricature. In a musically challenging trio titled “The Feud,” Niles joins Callen and Kate Sullivan, as Diana’s mother, as they battle over what should be done about Anne’s antics. It’s a great ending to the show’s first act.
   At times, Act 2 feels a bit choppier as attempts are made to include as many of Montgomery’s more memorable plot twists as possible. There’s the tea party mix-up between currant wine and raspberry cordial, leaving Diana drunk as a skunk, as well as Anne’s saving of Diana’s younger sister, Minnie Mae, with a dose of Syrup of Ipecac. And who could forget Anne’s walking the ridgepole on the roof of the schoolhouse?
   As the production concludes with Anne’s graduation and her subsequent promotion to the position of Avonlea’s schoolteacher, one senses that Scheckel and Upward had their hands full paring Montgomery’s 300-page tome down to a marketable running time. Still, the proceedings are wrapped up nicely with the cast singing the production’s title song as Anne proclaims poet Robert Browning’s well-known phrase, “God’s in His heavenAll’s right with the world.”

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
October 7, 2012

 
American Fiesta
Colony Theatre


There are many ways to find pleasure in a production: you like the story, you admire the actors, the philosophical themes are intriguing, or you have such a personal connection to some element in the play that you are willing to overlook a few inherent flaws. Such is American Fiesta, by Steven Tomlinson, starring Larry Cedar as its singular performer.
   Cedar presents himself as Steven, a 40-year-old Oklahoma-bred male whose childhood fascination with Barbie and G.I. Joe wearing Ken’s clothes foretells his present leanings. Steven works for a company called Goldrich Neurometrics, where he looks at various areas of the brain to figure out how to sell something. Flanked by three large screens, he diagrams brain anatomy leading to what he calls a “serotonin smoothie.”
   Jump to his present dilemma. He is planning to marry his partner, Leon, in a ceremony in Canada, and he wants his parents to attend. That desire seems doomed at the start as Cedar re-creates the parents’ reactions. Flaw No. 1: Steven seemingly doesn’t use any of his understanding of this neurometric data to make the case to his parents.
   About this time, he becomes fascinated with Homer Laughlin’s Fiesta dinnerware. Fiesta ware was created in the 30s in five solid colors: red, cobalt blue, yellow, ivory, and green, and its appeal was that it could be purchased as mix-and-match open stock. Steven begins to collect, beginning with a large mixing bowl, but he only wants perfect pieces and soon discovers Ebay.
   Scenic designer David Potts chooses a stage-wide, white shelving system on which Fiesta pieces begin to appear, some placed by Cedar and others subtly added from behind the scenes (well lighted by Jared A. Sayeg). As they increase in number, we meet relatives and antique dealers amid more visits to Steven’s home and continuing parental disapproval. Cedar is perfectly charming as he tells the story and morphs into his many characterizations. He makes it easy to understand his character’s fascination with collecting.
   Director David Rose utilizes pauses effectively as the humor in the characterizations develops. The Latino lover is stereotypically gay but endearing, and both parents are believable as they love their son but grapple with his situation.

Flaw No. 2: Writer Tomlinson bogs down in making everything overtly meaningful. As Steven comes to understand that flaws in the pottery may not always detract from their worth, Tomlinson doesn’t trust the audience to find its way through the character’s evolutionary growth and put all the pieces together. Instead, the final minutes of the play become a lecture, even as Cedar makes palpable the emotional connection.
    Cedar gives it all he’s got as he integrates history into storyline. His skill is considerable, and that is what makes the evening enjoyable.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
October 1, 2012
   
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
Gil Cates Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Early in Hollywood’s heyday, directors discovered that caricatured black actors played well in films, especially comedies, and the actors, desperate for work, acquiesced. Male stereotypes were born: wide-eyed, lazy, superstitious, subservient characters who kowtowed to their superiors (read that white). Among the actors were Willie Best, Mantan Moreland, and Stepin Fetchit, the most highly paid stock actors in the genre.
   Women fared no better. As bandana-clad mammies, coquettish ladies’ maids, or earthy seductresses, they were represented by several character actors: Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters, to name a few. Subservience was pervasive but softened as the women appeared to be satisfied with their lot in life.
   Thus, we come to Lynn Nottage’s West Coast premiere that takes a humorous look at a fictitious actress, Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathen), as she tries to break the 1930s casting barrier faced by blacks. She is joined by Lottie (Kimberly Hébert Gregory), a sassy plus-sized charmer who would like to break into movies. Rounding out the trio of friends is Anna Mae (Merle Dandridge), a sexy black passing for Brazilian so she can get cast by director Maximillion Von Oster (a droll Mather Zickel) in his picture.
   Act 1 opens with maid Stark helping her mistress, actress Gloria Marshall (a pitch-perfect Amanda Detmer), learn her lines for a picture she will be doing called The Belle of New Orleans. Marshall, known as America’s sweetie pie, is capricious and theatrical, and her maid indulges her while hoping to become a star in her own right. Many funny lines create a fluid, old-fashioned, Broadway-style play. It is the more effective half of the production.
   Act 2 confirms the three actresses’ shot at stardom via filmmaker Tony Gerber’s screening of Belle, as viewed by a 1970s audience looking for an answer to “What Happened to Vera Stark?” It is played broadly for laughs, but older members of the audience will fare better, as the panelists (Spencer Garrett, Gregory, Dandridge) channel the era’s classic pseudo-intellectuals deconstructing the film. In another characterization as a Brit on the panel, Zickel exhibits his comedic chops. Kevin T. Carroll also makes the most of dual characterizations.

Now we learn that Vera has turned into a boozy lounge performer in Vegas, bitter and larger than life in her marabou-trimmed, psychedelic outfit (stylish costumes by Esosa). Marshall surprises her at the event, and the slightly bitchy dialogue and back-and-forth by the panelists diminishes the earlier artful depiction of the character types and the underlying racial context.
   Director Jo Bonney handles the material adroitly and is adept at comedic timing. Her skilled touch is most evident in Lathan’s over-the-top scene playing a shuffling Southern black slave. Even as Stark does this, she bemoans her willingness to demean herself, something she vowed she would never do. This, then, becomes Nottage’s focus as she explores racial bias in America. Skilled at looking at black women in a theatrical context (Intimate Apparel, Ruined), Nottage delivers a lighthearted production with a message.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
September 27, 2012

 
Rome at the End of the Line (Roma al Final de la Via)
24th Street Theatre and Viaje Redondo Producciones at 24th Street Theatre

Two timid 7-year-old girls walk along railroad tracks. But as with all great friendships, each needs the other—to help climb, to correct misconceptions, to have someone with whom to share her dreams. For Emilia and Evangelina, some things never change. We watch as they return, at ages 13, 20, 40, 60, and 80. Each time, they come with the hope of hopping the train and heading for Rome—as far from their village in Mexico as Moscow was to Chekhov’s sisters or, one can’t help but think, as far from a chat with Godot as Beckett’s two travelers will always be.
   The entire piece is performed in Spanish with English supertitles. Written by Daniel Serrano, directed by Alberto Lomnitz, the dialogue allows the friends to gossip between revealing milestones, secrets, and fears. But the dialogue might not be the most important element of the storytelling here. (Either that or it was difficult to follow at the performance reviewed because parents think “recommended for ages 12 and up” means their restless attention-seeking 4-year-old twin boys would enjoy it.)
   Julieta Ortiz plays the pretty, brave Emilia. Norma Angélica plays the honest, loyal Evangelina. The actors work the characters’ physicalities but also age the speech patterns and deepen the emotions. At age 7, the girls leave gaps before speaking; by the time they’re 40, the women chat over each other’s sentences. At 20, fixing their hair takes precedence over all else; at 80, it’s finding the way to walk in comfortable shoes. At 13, Ortiz’s Emilia is a mass of sullenness and impatience; at 60 she walks with a seriously broken pelvis. Throughout, Angélica’s Evangelina is the sturdy beacon that allows a friend to wander without getting lost.
  
But Rome remains the focus of all their longings, particularly Emilia’s. And when they feel they’re too mature to keep trying, Emilia says, “I miss the hope of getting there.” The more-sensible Evangelina realizes what she will miss is her friend.
   For the audience, much of this production’s magic is in watching the actors change clothes and hairstyles onstage. These brief moments allow glimpses at the art of creating characters on the hoof.
   Clearly this is a memory play, and clearly the each of us must decide what has transpired. Also as clearly, we will have seen a memorable production.
   (Best for ages 12 and up. And we mean it.)

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 23, 2012

 
Under My Skin
Pasadena Playhouse

It is hard to decide which of the many tragic excesses committed in this wannabe romantic comedy should be singled out for scrutiny. Billed as being about sex, love, and healthcare, it cobbles together as many gender-bending, puerile double-entendres as can be heaped onto in one storyline.
   Harrison Badish (Matt Walton) is the arrogant, smarmy CEO of Amalgamated Health Care. Melody Dent (Erin Cardillo) is a single mom whose bratty daughter, Casey (Danielle Soibelman), and geriatric father, Samuel (Hal Linden), are her responsibility. When she gets a job at Amalgamated, she and Badish end up in an elevator that plummets to the ground and kills them. A smart-aleck angel (Yvette Cason) appears and brings them back to life. However, their souls end up in each other’s bodies, and that sets the stage for the comedy advertised.
   Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser, whose sitcom-writing credentials are extensive, have applied the hit-you-over-the-head style of playwriting to this story. Lines like “Don’t ask me, I have dementia” and “That’s Mayan.” “Then by all means take it.” are standard.
   Tim Bagley and Monette Magrath, both capable actors, fill in as multiple characters like Badish’s fiancée and Dr. Hurtz (get it?). Also, as Melody’s gal pal, Megan Sikora plays Nanette, an energetic sex bomb, whose antics are predictable and tasteless.
   Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs this farce with a heavy hand. As the switched-at-death couple, Cardillo and Walton are encouraged to mug and strike attitudes that diminish the potential humor in the situations. Their awareness of each other’s problems becomes lost in the parade of sex scenes, visits to the gynecologist, cancer scares, and appraisal of our failing healthcare system. Linden and Soibelman are caricatures and largely wasted in their roles.
   The only plusses in this production are on the technical side. The talented John Iacovelli provides an artistic, Mondrian-inspired set, complete with center-stage, realistic elevator. Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting also enhances the scenes, and costumes by Kate Bergh are imaginative.
   For quasi-adult innuendo and a spate of one-liners, this play would be hard to beat. Opportunities for real reflection are too little, too late and turn what might be a clever premise into schlock.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
September 23, 2012

Justin Love
Celebration Theatre in association with Demand Productions and Peter Schneider at Celebration Theatre

As with any fairy tale, we know the story but eagerly await the manner of its telling. The hero must make a difference, must battle demons, and probably should end up “the winner.” And likely if you have decided to see this production, you’d approve of the outcome. So, how is the telling?
   This world-premiere musical is told by book writers Patricia Cotter and David Elzer, story by Elzer and Bret Calder. In it, young Chris (Tyler Ledon), despite a passion to become “a writer,” becomes an assistant to Hollywood publicist Buck (Alet Taylor), whose client is big-name actor Justin Rush (Adam Huss), married in power couple fashion to Amanda (Carrie St. Louis). So much for setup. Oh, wait. Chris is openly gay. Oh, and Justin is gay but not apparently so to his fans.
   In telling the story, the creators use music by Lori Scarlett and David Manning, lyrics by Scarlett, to so effectively sweep the unfolding events along, the audience will either willingly follow with the characters or stop to marvel at the detailed theatermaking.
  The musical highlight may be the anthemic “Someone Goes First,” in which Chris urges Justin to be the first major movie star to admit his homosexuality. Of course the song could serve to urge any of us to step out for any of our causes, to act as a standard-bearer, to not assume someone else will fix what needs fixing. Currently, the song ends so quickly the audience doesn’t have a chance to applaud, let alone absorb it. And it has no reprise.
   At least not yet. This musical will have more lives. And when those occur, that ought to attract a stronger singer-actor to the role of Justin. Though, to be fair, once Taylor steps onstage as Justin’s publicist, no competition can distract the audience. Her energy spills up the aisles as she plays the monstrous boss but one with a delicate job to do.
   And speaking of delicate jobs, Michael Matthews directs. This vehicle is neither tacky nor salacious. It tells its story joyously but with sophistication and compassion. Well, compassion for everyone except the media. For theatermaking this good, we’ll take one for the team.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 22, 2012

Churchill
The Production Company and Portrait of Churchill, LLC, at Lex Theatre

One of civilization’s great men ought to make an ideal subject for a one-person show. Unfortunately, writer Andrew Edlin failed to take the threads of that life and weave it into even a solid fabric, let alone a fascinating tapestry. Actor Edmund L. Shaff recites the material with a respectable degree of authority, and director James Horan polishes as much as he can. But, to borrow badly from the historical witticisms, rarely has so little been culled from so much material with so few results.
   Instead Edlin finds a flimsy excuse for dramatic “conflict” and then strings together Winston Churchill’s most famous and most delightful epigrams, whether apocryphal or not. The audience is somehow seated inside Churchill’s “bunker” on the evening he decides whether or not to retire from leadership of the British government. Churchill reveals to the audience, in direct address, that he must telephone his wife and let her know his decision. Oh, how he suffers while trying to make that decision. Meanwhile, he speaks clever sayings while trying to light his cigar.
   Act 2 begins as Churchill is bathing—even though he knows the audience is seated in his bunker—and then he must pop out of the bath, wrapped in a towel fortunately the size of the Queen’s official flag. The audience then is privileged to watch one of the 20th century’s great leaders don shoes and socks. And then the “conflict” returns as he dithers about whether to retire and how to break the news to his wife. The conclusion comes as the lighter finally strikes its flint and he can puff his cigar.
   Give the evening this: Shaff doesn’t “do” the caricatured speech. Instead he effects an aristocratic accent. And on the night reviewed he enthralled much of the audience with his ability to “memorize all those lines.” Theatergoers for whom that is the benchmark of greatness might be satisfied here. Those of us who expect more must keep expecting—and we will never, never, never give up.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 21, 2012
 
Scream Queens—The Musical
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

At a time when the world seems constantly on the verge of strife and upheaval, it’s easy to understand why so many people find solace in the past. Whether it’s comic book heroes or decades old science fiction television programming they love, fans are never in short supply. At “cons,” they find equal parts nostalgia and vicarious thrills. Souvenir vendors hawk their wares, and even minor celebrities make a sideline living reveling in the adoration of their devotees.
   Capitalizing on these uniquely voyeuristic gatherings, author-composer-librettist Scott Martin has crafted a satirically charming variety show featuring a cross section of B-list horror film mavens. It’s a delightful evening of camp, corn, and costumes galore.
   In a hotel ballroom in Parma Heights, Ohio, the 1998 International GlamaGore ScreamiCon gets off to a riotous start as this cast of six introduces itself via the production’s title song. Martin, who also directs, is clearly a top-drawer wordsmith. Well-crafted rhymes and puns abound, and there’s just enough innuendo and bawdiness to maintain these wannabe leading ladies’ underlying sexuality without being crass. With each ensuing number, each of these straight-to-video stars offers insight into their personal histories and their universal need to be remembered.
   Leading the pack is Amanda Majkrzak as Richelle. Clearly the mistress of ceremonies, she establishes an immediate rapport with the audience and offers a beautifully soulful rendition of Martin’s second-act ballad, “Happy Endings.” As Alexis, Susan Goldman Weisbarth is the troupe’s den mother. But watch out. Just about the time you take her calm demeanor for granted, she busts out, à la Diana Ross, with a showstopper called “Everybody Starts at the Bottom,” backed up by our next two noteworthy sirens of the small screen. Jennifer Richardson is all pearly-white smiles, Daisy Duke cutoffs, and “Hey, y’alls” as the Arkansas-raised Bianca. Richardson is a hoot in her feature number, “Gotcha Cornered,” which pays hilarious homage to a plotline staple of most horror films.
   Equally fun is Allison Mattiza as DeeDee, the queen whose career was, well, shall we say, “consummated” in every one of her R-rated credits. Mattiza handles Martin’s patter song, “Don’t Open That Door” with ease and is definitely the show’s premiere comedienne. Azeen Kazemi plays the youngest fright-fest star, and Victoria Miller plays the well-mannered Brit. Although they fit well into the group numbers, both struggled with their respective solos, “Fay Wray” and “Still in Demand,” on the night reviewed.
   Jim Crawford’s scenery and Tom Brophey’s lighting are adequately supportive, but Jayne Hamil’s seemingly endless array of costumes and wardrobe accessories stands out among the production values. Also noteworthy are uncredited homemade clips of our stars’ films, sprinkled liberally throughout the production. Sure, some fall a bit flat but others, such as “Soccer Mom Sleepover” and one in which an unseen giant boils down three of these heroines into a hot-tub consommé’ are guffaw-inducing knee-slappers in this clever tribute to celluloid schlock.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal  September 21, 2012
 
The Fools
Santa Monica Playhouse

One would be a fool to not find charm in this translation/adaptation of Molière’s Les Fâcheux. He mocked youthful love, ageless deception, and classism of 17th-century France, and it’s comforting to know we’re still able to provide material for playwrights. Evelyn Rudie keeps the style of the original but makes the language accessible to modern ears and the comedy fresh enough.
   Director Chris DeCarlo takes the stage to briefly play Molière but also to play La Montaigne the valet. Ironically named, this valet is not a mountain but a bumbler. But as is usual in comedy, the bumbler puts broken-hearted lovers back together. Meanwhile, DeCarlo lays claim to theater’s most comedically slow exits and one of its most unidentifiable accents. (French? German? Freedonian?)
   Nor does he keep all the fun to himself. Rudie plays various characters, including a widow who emits sound effects when she, or another, mentions trigger words. Alison Blanchard steps into a few trouser roles. Garett Stevens splashily takes on gamblers, dandies, and a troubadour. Commedia dell’arte is alive and thriving.
   That young hero, Eraste, is played with romantic charm by Zack Medway. His adored, Orphise, is played with romantic wit by Serena Dolinsky. Both have a firm grasp on classical acting, and, in the musical numbers along with Stevens, the younger generation reveals lovely singing voices.
   Mon dieu, the costuming! Designer Ashley Hayes’s banquet of colors and textures keeps the audience’s eyes on the action, turning the tiny playing space into a busy French village.
   How can Eraste compose a song when he has lost his composure? And, mid-sentence when he spots his beloved, could he say anything but, “I gave at the—Orphise?” These and other urgent questions can be answered for those willing to admit what fools we all be.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 16, 2012
 
Encounter
East West Players in Association with Navarasa Dance Theatre at David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts


The wisdom of the adage “Show, don’t tell” quickly becomes apparent in this dance-theater piece. And symbolic “showing” can be even more evocative than realism, which may explain why the storytelling here leaves the viewer shattered. In a universal tale about shortsighted despotism and evilly wielded power, only the production’s beautiful theatricality comes out the winner.  
   Navarasa Dance Theatre tells the story through some dialogue, a bit of singing, and much dance/movement. As the beautiful Dopdi is suspended upside down, high on a pole, while her captors interrogate her, the backstory begins to unfold. Written by director-choreographers Aparna Sindhoor and Anil Natyaveda with S M Raju, the story follows Dopdi (Sindhoor) and her husband, Dulna (Natyaveda), heads of a troupe of traveling performers by night, apparently working the fields by day. A militaristic regime has taken away the rights and resources of the natives and claims the troupe is passing along secret messages at each performance. So the major general (Sunil Kumar) and his troops (Raghu Narayanan, Suvarna Raj, and Leah Vincent) track the couple, finally capturing Dopdi.
   The setting and period is deliberately ambiguous. “They took the forests, they took the rivers, now they want us to leave” cries the indigenous populace. The fieldworkers have no option but backbreaking labor, and though they keep a watchful eye around themselves, danger comes from above. The music accompanying them, by Isaac Thomas Kottukapally, is wonderfully programmatic: sometimes through South Asian melodies and orchestrations, sometimes a bugler and drummer in a propulsive military tattoo, sometimes a terrifying buzz or hum. And sometimes actor-dancer Natyaveda drives the story with tabla rhythms on a tambourine.

The dance/movement styles also cross many stylistic borders: Indian classical, Bollywood, and touches of hip-hop blend with various martial arts and their kicks, lunges, marches, and stick-fighting. Even the moments of humor here transcend cultures—softly mocking “starving artists,” gently provoking giggles at the sight of a captive who insists on grinning for his ID photos. Not funny is the startling, ultimately haunting statement hanging over the story, “Unknown male, age 32, killed in an encounter.”
   Sindhoor and Natyaveda are thoroughly trained, but their performances are studies in contrasts. She moves with enchanting schooled precision, not a stretched finger out of place. He favors the joy in movement, so though he’s never sloppy, he lets himself fly. The two share a pas de deux; and this may be the least interesting choreography here, ornamental rather than at all narrative. However, it allows a moment to reflect on Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting, which forms hidden depths and pockets of glow, creating thick tropical air and spreading heavy sadness across the evening.
   After the captors lie about the conditions in which they keep Dopdi, they strip her naked (symbolically), and hooded men rape her. Never mind which nation or era they’re in: Sindhoor turns the aftermath and Dopdi’s gut-wrenching reaction, the stuff of legends, into world-class theater.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 14, 2012

 
The Full Monty
Third Street Theatre


There’s not a heck of a lot to say about Richard Israel’s competent if somewhat slipshod The Full Monty at Third Street Theatre, erroneously billed as LA’s first intimate staging (a version was mounted at Theatre/Theater in 2008). If you like the Terrence McNally/
David Yazbek Buffalo, N.Y., rejiggering of the UK original —and I do—you will probably like this take on it. If you love the musical and still resent its losing every one of 10 Tony nominations to The Producers (raised hand here as well), then you are almost certainly destined to have a good time and be able to overlook the manifold flaws, not the least of which is an imbalance between offstage pit band and singers such that Yazbek’s witty lyrics too often go unheard despite the 99-Seat “intimacy.”
   The show seemed terribly underrehearsed on opening night, especially the clunky scene changes, I’m not sure how much smoother the latter will get over time. For Malcolm’s suicide attempt, did they have to not only create an ugly and unevocative shell of a car, but also take the time to build it right before our eyes? Seating the actor on a plain wooden block would’ve been preferable to forcing us to watch that boring setup.
   Also, Will Collyer is a fine musical juvenile—and that’s not a rap but a compliment; strong juveniles are hard to come by—but he lacks the requisite athleticism and roughneck authority for the pivotal role of Jerry. Still, it’s a pleasure to see so many roles executed with droll underplaying, especially Ryan O’Connor’s tough-to-pull-off Dave and Jan Sheldrick’s usually-hammed-up Jeanette, and Shannon Warne and Erin Bennett bring rare depth to two of the women in the men’s lives.
   It’s a shame that they couldn’t have rounded up at least one more character male to pick up some of the burden forced on poor Paul Walling, who seems to end up playing a dozen roles by show’s end, though he’s far from an inconspicuous doubler. It gets kind of funny as he’s trotted out scene after scene as union rep, auditioner, minister, delivery man, etc., trying in vain to disguise himself. Chronic underemployment is a main theme of this musical, but not in Walling’s case.
   The thing I liked best about this Full Monty is the rock-bottom authenticity of its central dramatic arc. These six guys seem like regular Joes trying very hard to impersonate Chippendales dancers and gradually realizing how much fun they’re having in the process. Every other Monty finale I’ve seen has come across as far too slick and showbiz. In the final half hour of a long evening, this production’s offhanded messiness turns into a major virtue.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
September 11, 2012

 
Collected Stories
Langland Productions at Odyssey Theatre

The quality of this production is undoubtable. Much thought and skill and time have gone into the onstage product. But whether director Terri Hanauer and her duet of fine actors ring all the possible tones in Donald Margulies’s script is another think.
   Margulies’s craft is on display start-to-finish here, as he sculpts a mentoring relationship. His two intriguing characters help the story flow and build, and bits of clues are carefully inlaid within the dialogue. We meet Lisa, a young writer, when she first enters the Greenwich Village walkup of Ruth Steiner, established short-story writer. Over six years, Ruth mentors Lisa in art and in life. While Ruth goes from prime to possibly past that prime and certainly ailing, Lisa goes from fumbling hero-worshiper to possibly worthy adversary.
   “My memory is shot to hell,” says Ruth. Is that an invitation to shore it up? To pilfer it? Whichever, Lisa is mobilized to take on Ruth’s memory—or, more specifically, her memories.
   From the actors’ first moments onstage, little glances, littler inhalations, all sorts of subtle behavior inform the audience of so much subtext. Meanwhile, a cup of tea spills expertly. A slap lands swiftly and accurately and almost goes unnoticed, but the result stuns the recipient and the audience. April Lang and Natalie Sutherland seem to have spent a very long time developing their characters and living honestly in those circumstances. Lang is thoroughly believable (though a little low in energy at the matinee reviewed) as Ruth: touchingly donnish, grudgingly materteral, easily secretive, and very humorous. Sutherland creates a rich, plausible portrait of Lisa, growing from callow, rawly talented young woman through ambitious author but never losing her desperation to please.
   And therein may lie a problem: At this production’s conclusion, Lisa seems to have acted out of a guileless belief that her acts were artistically justified. And that makes for a valid balance of power between the two women, leaving hanging an interesting question about the ownership of a story. But would the play be stronger if we saw a possibility that Lisa acted out of manipulation, vindictiveness, or jealousy?
   The (uncredited) costumes and makeup turn Lisa from a casually sloppy, tennie-clad student to published author in her little black dress. Heel heights increase across each of the five scenes, as Lisa grows in confidence. And makeup subtly ages her. Ruth seems to go from almost elderly in shrouding clothing to youthful casual as her status may be diminishing. Hanauer puts so much care into showing the passage of time that a plant in the bookcase “grows” over the play’s course.
     Hanauer’s direction is valid. But is it “right?” Or is there such a thing in the theater? And ultimately, aren’t these the questions that distinguish “art” from “craft”?

Reviewed by Dany Margolies September 10, 2012
 

The World Goes ‘Round
Actors Co-Op Crossley Theatre

It’s difficult to imagine a more ingeniously crafted and flawlessly performed conceptualization of this Kander and Ebb homage than that which has sprung from the innovative mind of director Robert Marra. It’s not the expansion of the traditional cast of five singers to include an additional pair of performers that makes this show a zinger. It’s not merely scenic designer Andy Hammer’s magnificently rendered urban coffee shop setting or Bill E. Kickbush’s spectacular lighting and Vicki Conrad’s individualized costuming. Rather, it’s that Marra has fashioned, seemingly from whole cloth, an utterly seamless take on this traditional revue while utilizing the show’s wide-ranging song list to create characters who exhibit backstories and plotlines galore.
   These are real people whose doubts, fears, regrets, and expectations play out as they interact in “real life” and through fantasy sequences. From Gina D’Acciaro’s forlorn Homeless Woman to Carrie Madsen’s elite Socialite, this remarkably talented cast portrays an intriguing cross-section of society brought together at this intersection of time and place for a very particular reason. As Kander and Ebb’s prolific songbook unfolds, we meet a collection of customers—including Robert W. Laur’s crossword puzzle obsessed Older Man, Michael D’Elia’s nervously flighty Business Man, and Selah Victor’s spunky Housewife. Rounding out the cast as the Coffee Shop Girl and Her Boyfriend are Kristen Heitman and Jeremiah Lowder.
   Marra and music director Michael Brill have struck gold with this multitalented septet as virtually every number is worthy of praise. D’Acciaro brings a tortured ennui to the title song while reappearing strategically with various reprises, then closes Act 1 leading the company through a stunning rendition of “How Lucky Can You Get” from Funny Lady. The Older Man, it turns out, is a widower and obvious creature of habit. As he reminisces with “Sometimes a Day Goes By” from Woman of the Year, his younger counterpart, played by Lowder, is outside the coffee shop window, simultaneously pining for his own lost love with the wistful “I Don’t Remember You” from The Happy Time. It’s a haunting juxtaposition of imagery.
   Meanwhile D’Elia’s businessman clearly has the hots for Madsen’s obliviously self-absorbed blueblood. His unrequited passion takes wing with a tragicomical take on “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago and his second-act assaying of the title song from Kiss of the Spider Woman. Madsen demonstrates a notable range with Marra’s leggy choreography in “All That Jazz,” as well as a heart-wrenching turn with “Colored Lights” from The Rink and when teamed up with Victor’s starstruck housewife in the charmingly funny duet “The Grass Is Always Greener.” Victor highlights her skills with Heitman and Lowder as they perform the tremendously difficult trio blend of “Isn’t This Better?”, “Maybe This Time,” and “We Can Make It.”
   And as the show floats effortlessly towards Marra’s well-calculated conclusion, there is a renewed sense of hope. Hope, not only for the younger couple’s blossoming love but that these people, and perhaps the audience members as well, have been touched by something truly meaningful.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
September 9, 2012
 
Natalie Portman, the Musical!
Chromolume Theatre at the Attic


“W
hat were they thinking?” That’s the polite form of the question critics ask rhetorically when theater productions don’t work. Fortunately regarding this production, the answer is apparent from start to finish. Unfortunately another question hangs over it. “What’s missing?” we wonder. What is making it good but keeping it from being great?
   The “they” who are thinking clearly in this case is a theater company of young, energetic, skilled actor-singers. Their goal is to give audiences a good time, and although that comes at the expense of real-life actor Natalie Portman, she doesn’t pay at all dearly. Not that it should matter, but the fun poked at her is relatively gentle; the facts speak for themselves. (Oddly, her choreographer-fiancé-husband is not mentioned by name.) The fun poked at those around her is harsher; again, the facts speak for themselves. The perpetually sullen Kristen Stewart (Brittany Garms) appears briefly and takes a skewering. Portman’s Black Swan director, Darren Aronofsky (Garms again), gets shellacked.
   The onstage talent is plentiful. The design is gleefully guerilla. The storytelling is entertaining. And Tara Pitt, playing Portman, is delightful, gently mocking the perennially successful actor’s perennially extraordinary cheeriness. However, a higher-stakes feel to all the performances might take this production up a level, as might a more disciplining hand at the helm. Several moments are already up there. Particularly electrified is Lindsey Nesmith as a rhapsodic Sesame Street puppeteer; not only is the character comedically irrepressible, her blonde-pigtailed puppet is hilarious.
   The cast sings more than competently, and the harmonies are strong and pleasing in the group numbers (book and lyrics by Garms, music by Frankie Marrone and Pitt). Song topics include Harvard University—where Portman earned a degree and here has a brief encounter with Mark Zuckerberg—and the shaving of her head for V for Vendetta.   Garms, the writing-directing motor of this machine, obviously has comedic chops, but her stage presence and sense of humor are so sophisticatedly dry, they don’t loft the production. The in-jokes about being a young actor in Hollywood don’t let up, but perhaps that’s their point.
   The troupe revels in the badness, mocking the work when the storytelling slumps. Wigs are deliberately gawdawful, tunes get comedically clichéd. But heighten more of the work, and a gem can be mined.
   Or would a high-gloss polish ruin the rough-hewn product? As it stands, the overall feel is merry, the silliness is charming, and the production should appeal to its presumed target audience of millennials.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 8, 2012

Euripides’ Helen
Playwrights’ Arena, presented by J. Paul Getty Museum at Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at Getty Villa

Nick Salamone is most gracious in crediting Euripides as the writer here, merely listing himself as adaptor. He has riffed on the Greek tragicomedy original, working with historical plot and characters but blending in elements of Hollywood movie musicals and characters from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
   Rumor had it Helen abandoned her husband, Menelaos, and her homeland, Sparta, to take up with Paris, the handsome prince of Troy. As retold by Euripides, the gods had instead removed Helen to the Egyptian island of Pharos, where she lived an insulated life while a look-alike lived the life the Spartans heard about.
   It’s charming to sit at the Getty’s outdoor amphitheater and guess who the modernized characters are. Hattie the slave (Carlease Burke) is patently Mammy of Gone With the Wind fame. An entertaining chorus (singing, no less) of three screen sirens comprises the (formerly) most beautiful women in the world: Elizabeth Taylor, in the role of a (wink, wink) black Cleopatra/Cleo (Arséne DeLay), Marilyn Monroe as Cherie/Cherry (Jayme Lake), and Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois/Lady (Melody Butiu).

But can we, and should we, expect more from the likes of Salamone and his director, Jon Lawrence Rivera? The play lambastes Hollywood’s glorification of youth and glamour, as Helen (Rachel Sorsa) repeatedly speaks in the past tense of her country’s, and Menelaos’s (Maxwell Caulfield), love for her.
   The play also turns powerfully anti-war when Ajax’s half-brother Teucer (Christopher Rivas) rolls onstage in a wheelchair, the luckless pacifist having lost his lower legs to battle. The play is working at this point, and as often happens with life and art, just then on the night reviewed a jet plane flew low over the amphitheater and re-created the sounds of modern warfare. This potent moment was then deflated by a sung chorus of “When Teucer Comes Marching Home.”
   To bring the funny, a vaguely Asian-Communist regime runs Pharos, headed by Theoclymenus and encouraged by his sister Theonoe. He, played with lechery and hilarity by Chil Kong, is the type who takes all the available titles—king, chairman, CEO—you know the type. Theonoe, played with tenderness by Natsuko Ohama, however, has the gods in her corner, probably thanks to hours spent in prayer. And in the acting department, Robert Almodovar wields stagecraft as his weapon, his voice thrillingly filling the space.

What else have modern audiences come to expect, and what have we the right to expect? Did the Greeks cast the best singers in the singing roles? Did all the jokes land in those days, either because of the writing or the delivery?
   And are Salamone and Rivera preaching to the Hollywood choir? Most know we, like the ancient Greeks, love our mythology, enjoy believing in improbabilities, and are deeply divided over our wars. Some things just can’t change.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
September 7, 2012
 

Ghost-Writer
International City Theatre at Long Beach Performing Arts Center

From where does creative inspiration come? And what do the lucky recipients do with it when it comes? Michael Hollinger’s play quietly and thoughtfully wonders about this. But more-haunting, more-universal questions lurk at the play’s depths: How much do people imagine their romances, and how often are those imaginings sussed out by outsiders? 
   The audience’s mind is thusly probed by the onstage characters. They are novelist Franklin Woolsey; his wife, Vivian; and his longtime amanuensis, Myra. As we learn early on, Franklin is deceased, but Myra seems to continue typing out his words, apparently attuned to ectoplasmic messages. Or so she may be telling a listener she addresses throughout the play—but whom we never see. Hmm.
   As Myra unfolds the tale, one fact emerges: She has skill and inspiration as a writer. The audience is clued in to one more fact, in large part by Kim DeShazo’s luscious costumes: The play is set in 1919. And so Myra has been dismissively ignored—as so many women were in that era, though they served as lieutenants for famous men—instead going through life as “Mr. Woolsey’s eccentric secretary.”

The genteel artistry of this production owes much to the script but also to the elegant, graceful, delicate direction of Caryn Desai. “Inspiration makes us wait,” says the play, and Desai heeds the epigram, lingeringly and sedately. And yet sharp shards of more than one broken heart wend their way through the play’s calm exterior.
   International City Theatre’s casting director, Michael Donovan, helped choose ideal actors for the roles. Leland Crooke appears codgery enough to be the distant older boss, appealing enough to suit a romanticized memory of a sapiosexual secretary. Cheryl David, long cast in LA theater as a comedian, here gets the laughs but also molds several crushing moments as the wife/widow Vivian. Paige Lindsey White, playing Myra, lets nothing modern wander into her work. White is completely of the era, articulate without sounding artificial, believably intelligent, and perfectly keeping Hollinger’s secrets while keeping the audience interested in Myra.
   Hollinger also packs in much about writing: punctuation and word choice and, yes, the inspiration involved, provoking laughter of recognition from those in the audience who have struggled with the likes of parataxis.  
   Even in 1919, technology interrupts inopportunely. A ringing telephone (sound designer Dave Mickey) represents the wife’s watchful presence and comedically cautionary voice when Vivian can’t in person.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies September 5, 2012
 
Sweet Thursday
Pacific Resident Theatre


John Steinbeck might well admire the look and feel of this world premiere stage adaptation of his sequel to Cannery Row. It takes place years later, and most of the characters still live on the Row even though it has fallen on hard times. Doc (Joe McGovern) has returned from his stint in WWII, and his melancholic demeanor has subdued the generally ebullient denizens of the Palace Flophouse and Grill. Mack (Jeff Doucette), the hearty idea man and story narrator, figures that Doc needs a woman to snap him out of his apparent loneliness. Luckily, Suzy (Lela Loren) has arrived and taken up residence in Madame Fauna’s Bear House Restaurant, the local brothel. Many machinations follow before true love can win out. Hence, the problem with the adaptation.
   Steinbeck was gifted at examining life’s microcosms as his characters interact. What was fluid in prose becomes scattered and awkward as characters come and go with concomitant furniture changes, new costumes, and pauses for narration. As Robb Derringer and director Matt McKenzie’s adaptation attempts to flesh out the wonderfully quirky souls of the story, it bogs down as scene after scene tries to include too much of Steinbeck’s plot and local color.
   McGovern’s Doc is gloomy and underplayed, often fading against a sea of picturesque characters. Loren’s Suzy is also colorless, and their eventual relationship is half-hearted and pale.

There are, however, interesting characters who don’t appear in Cannery Row. Lee Chong’s store is now owned by Joseph and Mary Rivas (George Villas), an upbeat bantam rooster of a man who will do anything for a buck. Villas is terrific, livening up any scene he is in. Dora Flood, the original brothel owner, is replaced by her sister Fauna (Suzanne Ford), who continues the tradition of instilling in her girls (Lisa Cirincione, Summera Howell) manners and good deportment. She prides herself on the number who have gotten a star on her picture wall as successfully finding husbands. Suzy is her new project, and Ford delivers an energetic portrait as madam and local astrologer.
   As Mack’s boys, Norman Scott, Ed Levey, and London Shover look the part but have little to do but add atmosphere as actors and musicians. The exception is Hazel, given a nice turn by Ericjohn Scialo, who plays the dim-witted but lovable fool of the play.
  
Other notable characters are the Seer (Dennis Madden), Old Jingleballicks (Lee de Broux), and Joe Elegant (Kevin Fabian). In the myriad scenes, they come and go, adding humor and life to the work. Adding to the puzzlement of how this play is constructed, though, is the inclusion of musical numb