God’s Man in Texas
2nd Stage Theatre
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
Brian Letscher, Tom Costello, and Ted Heyck
Photo by Michael Lamont
Media exposure to the tumult in evangelical mega-churches brought about by the clash of money, power, and ego makes David Rambo’s 1999 cautionary tale a familiar story to modern audiences. The examination of faith, conscience, and ambition is great fodder for drama.
Dr. Philip Gottschall (Ted Heyck) is the founder and pastor of Rock Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. With 30,000 members, a broadcasting empire, two swimming pools, a bowling alley, education from preschool through college, and multitudes of self-help programs, it is an empire presided over by Gottschall with an iron fist. He is 81, though, and a successor needs to be poised to carry on.
Enter Dr. Jeremiah “Jerry” Mears (Brian Letscher), a well-educated and charismatic preacher with a 6,000-member congregation of his own. Ambitious but still idealistic, he auditions and soon become a co-pastor to Gottschall, who is, nevertheless, reluctant to share. This sets up the conflict that drives the story.
A third man, Hugo Taney (Tom Costello), provides tech support for the services, but dramatically he functions as a disseminator of background information, a comic foil, and a catalyst for understanding the character of the two principals. His inclusion adds life to what might have been an overlong biblical duel of faith.
Predictably, the younger Mears is trying to reconcile his desire to take over this active Southern Baptist church, a symbol of his arrival at the top of his profession, with wanting to be principled and righteous. Gottschall’s fierce grip on the senior pastorship makes their clashes epic.
Letscher is thoroughly convincing as the conflicted pastor, grappling with compromising his personal inclinations as he tries to measure up to the demands of the job. Heyck is also effective as the petty tyrant who compromises his faith for personal gain. It’s not a new story, but in the hands of the actors it becomes a revelation.
Note should be made of Costellos’s multifaceted portrayal of the former drug addict who is a disciple of both preachers. He is nervous, edgy, comic, and gossipy while exhibiting a vulnerability that makes him compelling even in scenes where he is the third player.
Directed by Rambo, the thoughtful production is dynamic and well-paced. Brisk scene changes keep the focus on the actors and storyline without diminishing the emotional edge necessary in some scenes.
The greatest compliment that might be given to this play is that it has a satisfactory ending without being the predictable hero-vanquishes-villain scenario one might expect at the outset. It is an affirmation of the human spirit that leaves the audience with food for thought.
August 18, 2015
Aug. 13–Sept. 5. 6500 Santa Monica Blvd. (Valet parking available for evening performances.) Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30. (800) 838-3006.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
The darksides of Craig Johnson, Jeffrey Kieviet, Maribella Magana, Paul Knox, Matthew Anderson, and Rob Young
Photo by Matt Kollar
Emily is in an ethics class with her fellow classmates when her teacher, Mr. Baggot, poses a thought experiment conducted by Ethics Man, a superhero moral philosopher. Ethics Man posits a train, hurtling out of control toward a washed-out bridge. But if he switches the tracks, he will certainly kill one boy standing on those safer tracks.
Says the teacher, “We imagined a problem by switching the points. By sacrificing one person’s life, we can save many lives. Is it a moral action?” He continues to note that Ethics Man is a utilitarian. It’s a moral action only if the consequences are good. The consequences are good if they increase the sum of human happiness. Happiness is a state of well-being, starting off with being alive instead of dead.
And, in the background, the recording of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” begins to play.
So begins Darkside, originally a 2013 radio play by Tom Stoppard that incorporated the Pink Floyd album “The Dark Side of the Moon.” Stoppard, you ask? The playwright of that prickly examination of adultery The Real Thing and that ultra-intellectual romance Arcadia? Yup, that Stoppard. Director Eric Hamme and the black-box Garage Theatre of Long Beach nabbed the script’s U.S. premiere, giving it a theatricalized visualization.
The Boy (Steven Frankenfield) killed in the experiment comes to Emily (Maribella Magaña) to travel with her so they’re “On the Run.” He gives her confidence and an expanded intellect to try to fight greed and climate change, and at first the pair seems to be triumphing.
The two meet American farmer Fat Man (Rob Young in costume designer Cat Elrod’s hilariously bloated overalls), who violated water rights and indulged in overgrazing so he could remain prosperous. They also meet a politician (Craig Johnson) and a banker (Jeffrey Kieviet) who not only mouth identical words but also do so with identical gestures.
Down this strange road, Emily and Boy endure a witch hunt and, ultimately, must face Emily’s mental health issues (Matthew Anderson as her doctor). Is her fate the result of the evils of “Money”? Or, in homage to Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett, is “Brain Damage” to blame?
No low-budget effect is ignored here, in this show that unabashedly looks like it’s being put on in someone’s garage. The stage’s floor is covered with sand, though sand doesn’t seem to figure into the story. Roughly shot videos are dimly projected onto hanging sheets. Strobes and an occasional acid-green light wash over a scene or two, and laser dots play across the stage and over the audience until we feel we’re inside an early video game.
Adding to the (one hopes) tongue-in-cheek shoddiness that reflects Stoppard’s (one hopes) pontificating cheekiness, a handful of Harry Potter–esque dementors haunt the witch trial. On the other hand, designer Elrod memorably gives Mr. Baggot (the cheery Paul Knox) an exceedingly comedic sweater-vest and gives Witchfinder (Anderson again) a handsome 19th-century pirate frockcoat and goat horns.
At the play’s conclusion, though, Magaña and Knox crushingly limn the institutionalization’s realism.
The theater provides about 16 standard theater seats; pillows on the floor surrounding the playing area provide the remainder of the show’s seating. At least the sightlines are great from every seat in the house.
And so this Darkside screams “cult classic.” When the right audiences start finding it—most of whom will inevitably partake in the beverages sold at the box office, if not already intoxicated by some substance—it will have a much longer, happier run than Emily does.
August 3, 2015
Republished with kind permission of Long Beach Press-Telegram
31–Aug. 15, Aug. 27 through Sept. 19. 251 E. 7th St., Long Beach. Thu–Sat
8pm. Running time 95 minutes, no intermission. $15-20. (866) 811-4111.
DOMA Theatre Company at MET Theatre [CLOSED: reopens Oct. 2-18]
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Jess Ford and Andrew Diego
Photo by Michael Lamont
Fifteen years ago, when superpower band Green Day decided to produce a rock opera paying homage to The Who, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, who is credited for writing 98 percent of the Green Day’s most celebrated music, created the dynamically screwed up anti-hero Jesus of Suburbia. When the effort catapulted into the band’s 2004 album American Idiot, it was a worldwide success and won the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2005.
In 2009, Armstrong collaborated with Green Day fan and Broadway director Michael Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Tony winner for Spring Awakening) to turn the band’s Tommy-like concept into a stage musical. First mounted at Berkeley Rep, the theatrical version of American Idiot went on to New York, rocking out the venerable St. James Theatre for more than a year.
LA’s decade-old DOMA Theatre Company, which has been turning out some surprisingly massive and well-appointed productions for almost a decade, is a perfect match for Green Day’s loud and irreverent musical, which follows Johnny (Jess Ford), the Jesus of this show’s particular suburbia, who, with his two buddies Will (Wesley Moran) and Tunny (Chris Kerrigan), dreams in song of leaving the restrictive environment in which they grew up, ready to rebel by singing and rocking their way into the big city.
Things don’t work out so well for Will, whose wife leaves him with their infant son because he never seems to get off his couch, rise from his smoky haze, and put down his ever-present bong. Tunny, too, ends up in an unexpected state, whisked into the army and returning from one of America’s horrifying desert wars in a wheelchair.
Still, we follow Johnny the most closely, as his initiation into disenchanted youthful urban existence brings him into contact with Whatshername (Renee Cohen), who introduces him to her politically active and rebellious lifestyle, and St. Jimmy (Andrew Diego), who gets him high on a series of increasingly more debilitating street drugs.
After the perils of our disintegrating society and the bitterness of life in the real world nearly kill all three heroes, each returns to his hometown. Although it would be more satisfying if the guys discovered how to conquer their demons rather than retreat back to the place that shaped them, hopefully along the way their eyes have been opened to things none of them would have understood without their bellyflop into contemporary chaos.
But that’s fodder for American Idiot II, which in a perfect world should include a palpable sense of the era just past the one when the original album was released, a time when our country’s young’uns were forced to come of age through 9/11, as well as during the Iraqi War and conflicts in Afghanistan and across the globe.
Director Marco Gomez and his design team, especially Michael Mullen, who presumably on a shoestring created some the flashiest, most whimsical and creative costuming seen on any LA stage this year, join to lift this production way beyond the usual limitations of typical 99-Seat theater productions of large-scale musicals.
Musical director Chris Raymond and his excellent band add immensely to the mix, as do the generally balls-out performances by the principal players. One small criticism: Although the denizens of American Idiot are all purdy much continuously in pain, it would be a better character choice if every song and every spoken line were not delivered with a tortured expression and the appearance of emanating from a dying beast.
Especially when assaying Angela Todaro’s energetic and highly athletic choreography, the wildly fearless and spirited chorus of 17 knockout young triple-threats collectively liquefy together, wondrously becoming like one more principal character in the story, reminiscent of the townspeople in Evita who also often moved across the stage as one communal mass of humanity.
Of the talented ranks, it would be remiss not to mention the Joplin-esque vocal calisthenics of Sandra Diana Cantu, as well as the überanimated, appropriately over-bleached Kevin Corsini, one of the tallest ensemble members whose unruly crown of straw glows brightly under Jean-Yves Tessier’s exquisitely atmospheric lighting.
Green Day’s most popular tunes re-created in the musical—including “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” which became a message against governmental avarice and ineptitude after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the title song and “Holiday,” both part of the Green Day’s in-your-face score and Armstrong’s literate and often depressing book and lyrics—clearly express an entire generation’s dissent over the actions initiated by our government in our own country and across the globe.
Underlying the musical’s sometimes simplistic plotline is a conscious message shouting out against corporate greed and unnecessary war, something that overpowers any minor clumsiness. Add in a cast this charismatic and such knockout production values, and this is a miraculous mounting of the musical not to be overlooked.
June 11, 2015
CLOSED, returns Oct. 2–18. 1089 N. Oxford Ave., LA. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm (dark July 4).
General admission $30; VIP admission (includes reserved seating and a
complimentary snack and beverage), $34.99; seniors and students with ID
$20. (323) 802-9181.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Amanda Blake Davis and Robyn Norris
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.
August 19, 2013
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