Arts In LA
Road Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Barret Lewis and Gabriela Ortega
Photo by Michele Young

Few playwrights as gifted as Lisa Loomer could find dark humor in such a gloomy and prophetic indictment of the ever-encroaching fringes of our apathetic and self-involved society, cunningly pounding the last few nails into the coffin that holds our frantically flailing American dream. JJ, Breezy, and Franklin are three lost teenagers living on the mean streets of Medford, Ore., trying desperately to get their overly used and abused asses to Los Angeles, home of all fading dreams, before the frost kills them. Little do they know that LA has more homeless kids on its streets than does anywhere else in the country. So when their jagged and pitfall-ridden journey farts to a dismal finish in Ashland, perhaps it’s for the best.
   The frenetic JJ (a phenomenally on-the-money Barret Lewis), whose brain on drugs, he surmises, is more like a cheese omelet than that simple frying egg he’s seen on TV, wants to make it to Hollywood to be discovered as a singing star. The fact that JJ knows only one song—and his guitars keep getting ripped off, making him have to rip off another one—is an extreme indication of the absence of any happy ending for a kid whose father once forced him to beat his own puppy to death in an effort to show him how crappy life is.
   His companion Breezy (Gabriela Ortega) just want to escape her stepfather who is the father of her unborn child, while Franklin (Lockne O’Brien) has been kicked out of his house for being gay, surviving by turning tricks in filthy toilet stalls of a public restroom.
   These severely damaged kids meet a vast array of friends and adversaries along their journey to nowhere, including dreadlocked earth-mother Shannon (Chelsea Averil) and her urban philosopher boyfriend Aaron (Donald Russell), who take them under their wing until it becomes inconvenient, realizing that their charges “create so much drama so they don’t have to live their boring lives.”
   There is a heap of adults to deal with along the way and in flashback as well, all played to the hilt by Elizabeth Herron and Steve Apostolina. Both actors are quite startling as they morph from one person to the next, especially Herron as she portrays Breezy’s cold sore–sporting, severely miscreant aunt with an agenda all her own, and Apostolina as a drunken faded flowerchild living in the park, singing “Maggie’s Farm” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” on the cold hard ground—prompting Breezy ask if he wrote “that stuff” and him to answer, “Absolutely.”

Unlike the old days when Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and David Mamet wrote scenes in their plays so long one needed a bathroom break, the age of playwrights having grown up staring at televisions has created a clear modification to the theatrical artform: short, filmic scenes that last about as long as a Scorsese take. In Homefree, no scene lasts longer than five minutes or so, and each change is accomplished by rolling or turning designer JR Bruce’s roughhewn monolithic barn sections, transforming the setting from park to shelter to the house trailer of Breezy’s tweeker aunt.
   Each transformation is accompanied by the cast and is set to suitably appropriate loud and raucous street music, which is a viable choice but not the best. The scene changes are so frequent and the performance of them so all-encompassing that they detract severely from the flow of the tale Loomer and director Michael Matthews are attempting to tell. It is clever in concept, but too oppressively stagey and even annoying in execution.
   If, instead of music, the actors continued to do the dirty work but without break in their dialogue, finishing one scene and starting each new one while making the scene change, it could have been a far more innovative and fluid alternative—not to mention dropping about 15 minutes from the production’s running time.

Still, Loomer’s insight into these sad characters is palpable, making one wonder if she sat down among the trashcans and makeshift lean-tos to be able to write in their voices so eloquently. Aaron is surprisingly okay with the realization that “people in houses need us to feel better about themselves,” but that concept should be—and surely is meant to be—terrifying to the rest of us. Aaron, JJ, Breezy and most of their whole new stand o’ cotton, we’re told, were conceived in a Walmart and are just trying their best to “hurry themselves out of here.”
   Loomer, Matthews, and their exceptional and strikingly committed ensemble have captured that disconsolate indictment of our next generation and fear for the future beautifully, making us wonder—if our species has indeed fatally crashed itself into a brick wall of pollution, climate change, and hopelessness—whether global warming wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.

September 27, 2015
Sept. 18–Nov. 8. 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $17.50–34. (818) 761-8838.


Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Andrea Stradling, Jennifer Marion, and Scot Renfro
Photo by Shari Barrett

When is an English drawing-room murder mystery not an English drawing-room murder mystery? Or perhaps playwright Don Nigro’s Ravenscroft is not even a murder mystery.
   The first clue that the Kentwood Players production is not your standard whodunit is the set. Rather than cramming rooms and furnishings of the play’s remote English manor house onto the Westchester Playhouse stage, director Sheridan Cole Crawford and set designer Jim Crawford empty the entire stage and backstage area, then dot the space with mere suggestions of those rooms and furnishings.
   So there is no backdrop. The wide cyclorama at the back of the stage, occasionally reddened by lighting designer Richard Potthoff in a spurt of bloodletting, lets the audience know our imaginations must be engaged, as is that of each character.
   A hanging window frame allows a generalized view of a swirling snowstorm. The hint of a backstairs area, a vague upstairs bedroom, and the housekeeper’s cozy bedsit surround the drawing room where Inspector Ruffing (Scot Renfro) struggles to solve a murder or two.

Apparently, within the last three months, two men were found dead at the foot of the Ravenscrofts staircase. One was Mr. Ravenscroft, who left behind his wife (Andrea Stradling) and his daughter Gillian (Kati Schwartz). The other was the mysterious Patrick.
   The inspector repeatedly interrogates the family, as well as the servants: Mrs. French, (Deborah Ishida), Dolly (Jennifer Marion), and Marcy the Viennese governess (Jessica Marshall-Gardiner).
   What the characters say is only half as fascinating as what they don’t say. Some confess, then recant. Some blame the murders on ghosts, lurking in shadows. Characters, too, lurk in shadows, happening to wander into the drawing room when the inspector needs them. But here the sudden appearance of characters is not bad writing.
   After all, our hidden selves lurk in shadows, too, and then may suddenly appear. So, is the inspector a drunken pedophile, spending a few seconds in his fantasy world?

In the inspector’s world, the men are dead. They’re not even carefully described. Patrick was the “coachman, groom, repairman, gardener,” as if none of the women knew exactly what he did. Mr. Ravenscroft is described merely as a language professor. v But Patrick left behind this saying, perhaps the key to this play: “A ghost is an emotion that can’t get out.”
   The women crowd around the inspector, ultimately professing their interest in him. Are they trying to lure him into a finding of death by accident? Perhaps he is not even of the era. The women are, but he is dressed in a more modern suit than that worn in 1905 England (costuming by Marie Olivas).
   The accents here seem haphazard. And yet they’re not. Each character has his or her own distinct British or mid-Atlantic accent. The inspector suggests to Mrs. Ravenscroft that Gillian may need “professional help.” My, what a modern expression for 1905. But whether from the alcohol or from psychoses, the inspector begins to crack.

The play goes on awhile too long, feeling a touch bloated and repetitive even in the first act. Still, there’s fun to be had in solving the mysteries along with Inspector Ruffing.
   Most noticeably, the hands on the clock—one of only two items spotlit at the darkened beginning and end of the play’s two acts—don’t move. The other item, a birdcage, imprisons a songbird that, like the emotions here, can’t get out.
   This play may leave its audience puzzled, vaguely troubled, and yet somewhat entertained. Certainly, those deeply irked by questions left unanswered should not attend. But those who want to dig into the human mind will appreciate it as an even greater mystery than those English drawing-room ones.
September 14, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News
Sept. 11–Oct. 17. 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $20 ($2 discount for seniors, students, servicemen, and Metro riders). (310) 645-5156.


One Man,
Two Guvnors

South Coast Repertory at Segerstrom Stage

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

William Connell and Dan Donohue
Photo courtesy of

Influenced by the popular commedia dell’arte of the 16th century, Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century archetypalThe Servant of Two Masters makes a perfect model for Richard Bean’s British update of a wily servant’s service to two bosses in 1963 Brighton. Populated by some of the stock characters of the form, it is two and a half hours of pratfalls, comic timing, and improbable situations designed for maximum laughs.
   The story in brief: Rachel (Helen Sadler), whose twin brother has been murdered, is in town, disguised as her twin for revenge and in hopes that she can finally marry her boyfriend, Stanley (William Connell). She hires a servant, Francis Henshall (Dan Donohue), at the same time that Stanley also hires him. Henshall’s motives are greed and an insatiable desire to eat vast quantities of food, something that underpins a running gag of the story.
   In another pairing, Alan (Brad Culver) is in love with Pauline (Sarah Moser), who was promised to Rachel’s brother but is now hoping to elope with Alan. Also in the mix are Pauline’s father, Charlie Clench (Robert Sicular) and Alan’s father, the Latin-spouting Harry Dangle (John-David Kellar). Charlie’s secretary, Dolly (Claire Henshall), helps round out the main cast along with Charlie’s old friend, Lloyd (Allen Gilmore) who owns a pub. Alfie (Louis Lotorto) and Gareth (Danny Scheie) are waiters there.

As broad a farce as can be imagined, the characters mug, pose, and engage in over-the-top antics that are prescribed by commedia’s catalog of traditions. Characters rapidly exit and enter doors on opposite sides of the stage, identities are mistaken, insults are exchanged, and it is all done in a near-manic atmosphere.
   Donohue is the star, and his physical prowess in executing his shtick is considerable. A scene in which he laboriously attempts to pick up a presumably heavy trunk is a case in point. He finally enlists two audience members to do the deed, and it is clear that the trunk is weightless. He also drafts a woman from the audience to perform silly and slightly embarrassing tasks, much to the theatergoers’ delight.
   The ensemble must work well together to accomplish the comic timing necessary, and the cast is well-chosen. South Coast Repertory resident member Kellar is particularly amusing in a verbose declamation, and Moser makes a perfectly ditsy blonde. Culver and Lotorto also kick up the action.

Another addition is The Craze (Casey Hurt, Mike McGraw, Marcus Högsta, and Andrew Niven) who serve as a skiffle musicians, enhancing the festive mood of the show. The music is peripheral but engaging.
   David Ivers’s energetic direction helps escalate the action from comic to campy. Meg Neville’s costumes are imaginative, and Hugh Landwehr’s Piccadilly scenic design is award-worthy.
   Commedia has its attractions, but this venture is overblown at times and some of the jokes miss their mark. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is done colorfully and cheerfully.

September 22, 2015
Sept 19–Oct 11. 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Repertory schedule. Prices start at $22. (714) 708-5555.


First Date
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz

Erica Lustig and Marc Ginsburg
Photo by Jason Niedle

Experiencing theater—or any form of entertainment—is similar to the sensation of a blind date. Apprehension, as past disasters or boring evenings flood the mind, mix with exhilaration of a history of joyous surprises. In the opening moments, one can sense confidence in the conversation or a desperation to be adored. When the evening is finished, the audience replays all the moments, good or bad, to decide whether the memories of the night will be cherished or forgotten. First Date is an amalgam of all those quirky dates—a bit odd, quite charming, and filled with enough vinegar and heart to resonate as a memorable evening.
   Awkward Aaron (Marc Ginsburg) goes to a bar on his first real date since losing his girlfriend more than a year ago. The snarky but sympathetic waiter (Scott Dreier) points out how Aaron is trying too hard, buttoned up in his work suit where he should be more relaxed.
   The artsy Casey (Erica Lustig) immediately finds Aaron clumsy and his conversation technique a bit overbearing. Casey is a serial dater, and instead of looking for diamonds in the rough, she quickly dismisses her dates for superficial reasons. Aaron finds Casey intriguing but closed off. Can two strangers survive ghosts of their relationships past, critical best friends/relatives always putting in their two cents, and crippling insecurities to find love in this cold, loud bar? Or will they find themselves imprisoned within the ultimate consolation prize, the Friends Zone?

Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s score is reminiscent of musical storyteller William Finn. The songs, ordinary but compelling, reflect the anxiety of modern American life. The melodies are catchy and energetic, recollecting songwriters as diverse as Bock and Harnick, Simon and Garfunkel. The songs reveal the hiccups for contemporary daters, including religious complications, comparison-shopping your date with past lovers, and the terror that your most embarrassing moments are eternally captured on social media.
   Austin Winsberg’s book includes many witty asides and humorous episodes. He captures the humiliation one feels when leading a first date conversation to an impasse or an off-color joke. The script has a rather antiquated view of gay men, which gets tiresome: that any gay man can find love with any gay man in proximity, as if interchangeable.
   Director Nick DeGruccio has picked a fantastic cast. Ginsburg, though dashingly handsome, projects a gawkiness so that the audience can understand Casey’s apprehension. Lustig gives Casey layers, portraying someone tired of dating and being disappointed all the time, yet glimmering with hope that she can meet someone special someday.

Most of the robust laughs come from the chameleon-like ensemble: Dreier as the cynical waiter who only finds happiness pretending he’s a nightclub diva, Kelly Dorney as an imagined version of Aaron’s castrating ex, Stacey Oristano as Casey’s stern but loving sister, Justin Michael Wilcox as Aaron’s oversexed best friend, and Leigh Wakeford as Casey’s reliable date-bailout, who gets increasingly irritated throughout the evening when Casey doesn’t answer his calls. Besides these main characters, the five play wacky others in Casey’s and Aaron’s heads.
   Taking a note from the songwriter’s use of musical parody, DeGruccio uses visual motifs to draw from musical history, while choreographer Lee Martino blends punk, Modern, and traditional Jewish folk dances. During “The Girl For You,” musically reminiscent of Fiddler on the Roof’s “Tevye’s Dream,” DeGruccio has Aaron’s grandmother lifted on another’s shoulders. While “The Awkward Pause” uses the riffs from “The Sound of Silence,” the chorus dresses like hippies wandering through Scarborough Fair. Timing is everything in a zany musical comedy, and DeGruccio appropriately gives the audience no time to think before the next zinger hits.
   Stephen Gifford’s club set is fittingly antiseptic, like most chichi bars in New York, and Steve Young’s spotlights on the ceilings make everyone’s faces appear half hidden, as if everyone has something they’re trying to conceal.

First Date will remind anyone who had to suffer through the dating pool just how frightening it can be, even when both parties are worth the time. Audiences love to laugh at their past traumas, and First Date gives opportunity to find catharsis.

September 21, 2015
Sept. 19–Oct. 11. 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Ample free parking. Wed-Thu 7:30, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $20-70. (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.


Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles
The Theatre @ Boston Court at the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Sabina Zuniga Varela, Zilah Mendoza, and VIVIS
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Each year for the past 10 years, the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades has commissioned a Los Angeles theater company to adapt an Ancient Greek play for the Getty’s outdoor amphitheater. This year, the Pasadena-based Theatre @ Boston Court sets the Euripides tragedy Medea in modern-day Boyle Heights, to create Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, and the results are spellbinding.
   Playwright Luis Alfaro hews to the original’s plot—the story of a woman with supernatural abilities who helps her beloved Jason “get ahead” and then is utterly betrayed by him. But Alfaro’s adaptation feels fresh and unforced.
   Under Jessica Kubzansky’s superbly clear but subtle direction, the play begins with a Greek feel, set against the Getty Museum’s classical façade, as Medea’s servant Tita begins the tale. Soon, a small two-story white brick-and-clapboard house rolls onstage, and we are indisputably in the barrio. Designed by Efren Delgadillo Jr., the house’s front wall is created with semi-transparent fabric, so the audience can see inside when lighting designer Ben Zamora wants us to.
   Tita (the mononymous Vivis) is our Greek chorus. As she recounts this tale in a style that ranges from spiritualism to standup, it’s apparent she adores Medea, but she also hints at reasons for Medea’s behavior, and these reasons take the story from myth to modern life.
   Medea never stops feeling like a mojada, Mexican slang for wetback. She and her family came here illegally, Tita tells us via a flashback, just as other border crossings fill today’s news. The borders in this tale, however, may wander into mental health territory, also ripped from horrifying headlines.

Crafted by Alfaro and Kubzansky, this Medea is of another world, and, in portraying her, Sabina Zuniga Varela lives as if in a dream she can’t awaken from. Varela’s Medea could be a soul of the past, she could be unrelentingly clinging to her life as it was in Mexico. She is also very likely unhinged.
   In contrast, the Hason of Justin Huen is perfectly ordinary. Not to say Huen’s acting is. He’s a veteran of Alfaro’s other Los Angeles adaptations of the classics: Electricidad (Alfaro’s reworking of the Electra myth) and Oedipus El Rey (his updating of Oedipus Rex).
   But Huen makes Hason such a convincingly oblivious jerk that Hason’s excuse to Medea, “It’s not what you think,” is as much a machete to our hearts as, well, no spoilers here.
   Alfaro may have helped ground the story for modern audiences by making Tita an unreliable narrator. She, too, is a sorceress, and not one convincingly fond of the audience. She begins with an invocation to ancient spirits, ends as she clears the stage, but in between repeatedly uses her playfully insincere smile for pointed humor.
   Greek plays need a messenger. Here that role is filled by Josefina, a cheery gossip, played by the earthy, exuberant Zilah Mendoza. Josefina warns Medea about Hason’s boss, Armida.
   Medea’s flights of spirituality let Armida know that the competition is easily assailable, as we watch the thoughts of both actors spin. As played by Marlene Forte, Armida is a powerful force who casts a different sort of spell on Hason—rooted in money and lust.

Only one element might momentarily distract the audience from this mesmerizing evening. It’s the acting of young Anthony Gonzalez, playing the 10-year-old son, Acan. Gonzalez is astonishingly skilled, and we may step back to marvel at him. In him, we vividly “see” the parched, exhausted travelers along their border crossing. Though standing on the stage, he seems to sweat in the crowded truck, he seems to want so much to sleep lying down. And yet Gonzalez finds joy in the humorous moments of the play. None of this is faked. This actor’s imagination is living in these circumstances.
   Alfaro includes much Mexican slang and other in-jokes about Los Angeles. But the context and subtle translations make the dialogue pleasantly understandable.
September 11, 2015

Republished courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News
Sept. 10–Oct. 3. 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Pacific Palisades. Thu–Sat 8pm. Running time approx. 90 minutes, no intermission. $36–45. (310) 440-7300.


Psycho Beach Party
Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Rem Garza, Miguel Solorio, Amara Phelps, Ebony Priddle, and Alyssa Garcia
Courtesy of Michael Hardy Photography

A performance of Charles Busch’s campy Psycho Beach Party should be great fun. For the audience, that is. The actors will have their fun during rehearsals, getting the giggles out of the way and figuring out the innuendo so they don’t realize it on opening night in front of an audience. By the time the show is on the boards, the cast must be fully committing to the camp, not smirking and not self-conscious.
   In Long Beach Playhouse’s production, at its Studio Theatre through Oct. 3, directed by Dale Jones, the cast is clearly having fun onstage. Unfortunately almost none of the actors captures that absolute commitment and adherence to the kitschiest of styles, the spoof. Nor do they particularly evoke the play’s era.
   The beach party of the title is based on 1960s beach movies and the television series Gidget. The psycho of the title, pardon the spoiler, harks back to Hitchcock films. Busch’s young protagonist is Chicklet, a naive perky teen with a baby voice (originally played by Busch, here played by Amara Phelps).
   More than anything else, Chicklet wants to learn to surf and to be one of the boys on a Malibu beach. But Chicklet doesn’t always act like Chicklet, and the split personalities emerging from her over the play include quite the variety of characters, which Phelps switches on swiftly and adeptly.
   Against a twirling red Op art background à la Vertigo, Chicklet morphs into her “true nature,” Ann Bowman, who claims to be queen of dominatrices. With low voice and drawling delivery, Phelps’ Ann seduces the defenseless lads on the beach.

At least, most of them are lads. Gender-swapped casting is part of the fun—in this case for the actors and for the audience. Two women—Alyssa Garcia and Ebony Priddle—play two of the surfers, taking the audience on a mind-bending hang-ten ride.
   The most deliciously Buschian transformation, though, is by John Downey III, who plays Chicklet’s mommy dearest, creating her though a physical caricature of Joan Crawford via Faye Dunaway.
   Meanwhile, playing it straight, irrespective of whether her character is or isn’t, Emma Bozanich is Berdine, Chicklet’s book-smart best friend. Bozanich is the acting highlight here, evidencing the talent for a long future in comedic roles.
   Highlights of Jones’ direction are the dancing on surfboards in front of a huge wave, and a slo-mo slugfest. The highlight of the script may be how Bettina, the new-in-town Hollywood starlet (Nicole Xavier), persuades two wannabe writers (Garcia and Priddle) to clean up her yard as part of the movie they’re pitching to her.

Evoking the era, Donna Fritsche’s costumes are beautifully crisp and well-fitted.
   But in several scenes, ignoring the theater’s already inadequate sightlines, Jones places his actors on the floor far downstage. The first row can see the actors here, but audience members in the second row continually shift in their seats for a better look. The audiences in rows behind that are pretty much stuck listening to the dialogue to figure out what’s going on. On opening night, family and friends in the audience seemed willing to crane their necks, but not everyone else will want to or be able to. This show is definitely not for the kiddies. Busch, when not painting in mild sexual innuendo, speaks in dialogue that’s on the nose—and other body parts.
September 7, 2015

Republished courtesy of Long Beach Press-Telegram

Sept. 5–Oct. 3. 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, including intermission. $14-24. (562) 494-1014 option 1.


Sondheim Unscripted
Impro Theatre at Falcon Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Daniel Blinkoff, Ted Cannon, Ryan Smith, Kelly Holden Bashar, and Cory Rouse
Photo by Jill Mamey

Having tackled such diverse and daunting topics as Westerns, the classics, and even Rod Serling, is it any wonder that this troupe would train its improvisational sights on one of musical theater’s most complex composers? With only a handful of audience suggestions—a family heirloom and four musical notes—eight performers and one pianist conceive a show that will live on only as long as it takes to get to the next performance.
   Opening night, using an imaginary crockpot and the tones E flat, G Sharp, A, and D, the company cooked up an often knee-slapping concoction of Greek gods, a witches’ brew, and the subsequent resolution of World War II. The fun is knowing that the performers have no more idea where this thing is going than do their viewers.

How one can “direct” a show based entirely on improvisation boggles the mind. Still, co-directors Dan O’Connor and Michele Spears show their hands by way of the company’s ability to replicate some of the more recognizable traits found in Sondheim’s works. Patter songs with demonstrably intricate lyrics abound. So, too, do those Sondheimian passages in which an up-tempo piece takes a dramatic turn by way of a contemplative bridge. Music director Peter Smith is a whiz on the baby grand. Utilizing the audience-suggested quartet of notes, he composes an overture of sorts and then spends the next two acts caressing and cajoling his onstage companions through their on-the-spot compositions.
   As characters are formed, refined, and drawn into an overarcing storyline, it’s a hoot to watch the mental gears turning before our eyes. Spears, a master at turning a soliloquy into a full-blown production number, assumed the role of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy. Her character’s discontent with always knowing what was going to happen next was the driving force behind the plot. Paired up with Ryan Smith as a befuddled Hades, Greek king of the underworld, they made sparks fly feverishly.

The troupe would, of course, be remiss in having a crockpot without the witches responsible for the supernatural stew contained therein. Filling the often sultry, sometimes hilariously clumsy shoes of these two cackling conjurers were Kelly Holden Bashar and Lisa Fredrickson. Possessing seemingly limitless vocal ranges and rapid-fire comic timing, they became the show’s sirens, tempting and taunting throughout. As the human objects of their affections, Brian Lohmann and Brian Michael Jones forged a bromance of sorts as a duo who’s sampling of the crockpot’s magical broth transports them to the strangest of worlds.
   Meanwhile, Impro Theatre veteran Floyd Van Buskirk assumed the role of overseer, that being Zeus. Sensing the abject silliness surrounding him, Van Buskirk veered toward the dramatic, a choice that wisely grounded the second act as the company fashioned a conclusion to the tale. Ably assisted by Cory Rouse’s energetic portrayal of Hermes, herald of the Olympian gods, Van Buskirk’s performance stood out as the quintessential example of improvisational give-and-take.

As the performance unfolded upon set designer Sandra Burns’s cubically painted stage floor—reminiscent of artist M.C. Escher’s eye-tricking lithographs—and gently curving upstage ramp, the production’s lighting, designed by Leigh Allen, and crafted within the moment by stage manager Michael Becker, was surprisingly luscious. Of course, there are dissonant chords and some atonally constructed harmonic convergences when forging a musical from scratch, but having chosen Sondheim as the foundation certainly helps, and welcoming audience participation into the mix makes for a recipe most everyone could love.

September 2, 2015
Aug. 28–Sept. 27. 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank. Wed–Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm.$29–59. (818) 955-8101.


Red Blanket Productions at Pico Playhouse

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Claire Adams and Janna Cardia
Photo by Will Adashek

Somewhere in the seemingly limitless expanse known as Stephen Sondheim’s mind lurks a vision that seems allotted to but one in a generation. How else to explain the unusual, often mind-blowing audit of a subset of American inhumanity: those who have attempted to or succeeded in murdering a commander-in-chief. Paired with playwright John Weidman’s occasionally stilted script, Sondheim’s music and lyrics beckon us down the rabbit hole with unbridled speculations as to the motivations and fictitious interactions of this rogues gallery.
   Overall, Dan Fishbach’s direction proves to be sharply crafted with a staccato-like precision. Along with the contributions of music director Anthony Lucca and choreographer Lili Fuller, Fishbach’s grasp of the surrealistic nature of this piece and its concept make for a breathtaking palpability.
   Bringing to life some of our nation’s best and perhaps least-known villains is a uniformly excellent cast. Leading this parade of historical pariahs is Travis Rhett Wilson as John Wilkes Booth, the granddaddy of the clan. Wilson’s performance is downright chilling as he exudes a wild-eyed air of unrepentant outrage over President Abraham Lincoln’s execution of the Civil War. Equally gripping are Adam Hunter Howard’s turn as Leon Czolgosz, William McKinley’s killer, and Jason Peter Kennedy’s intermittent appearances as Giuseppe Zangara, the Italian immigrant who killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak while missing outright his intended target, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On the lighter side of things, if it’s possible to infuse a comic perspective into such a topic, Jeff Alan-Lee’s scene-stealing take on Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s assassin, is delicious. In particular, his song-and-dance-man spin on “The Ballad of Guiteau” is a definite highlight. Meanwhile, Claire Adams as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Janna Cardia as Sara Jane Moore, both of whom failed to take out Gerald Ford within 17 days of each other, are a hoot. Adams’s and Cardia’s scenes, including their characters’ supposed joint connection with Charles Manson, provide wacky contrasts to the production’s darker moments.
   But when it comes to unequivocal creepiness, it doesn’t get any better than the final trio of villains. Zach Lutsky brings a simmering unpredictability to his performance as Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley. Contrasting this quiet despair is David Gallic’s performance as Samuel Byck, who’s 1974 attempt to kill Richard Nixon by flying an airliner into the White House literally never got off the ground. Gallic’s monologues wherein he records his thoughts for Nixon are stunningly intense.
   So is Sean Benedict’s self-conflicted assaying of Lee Harvey Oswald as he faces his destiny in Dallas. Will he pull the trigger? Won’t he? The rest of the cast, once more led by Wilson’s Booth, watch on and eventually revel in his decision. It’s a stomach-turning moment of theatrical effectiveness.

If one had to quibble with this otherwise notable production, the choice to insert an intermission into what was written as an extended one-act, containing less than a dozen musical compositions to begin with, gives the proceedings a disjointed feel. So too, the existence of only a single upstage point of ingress and egress in set designer Alex Kolmanovsky’s otherwise eye-catching scenery. Though visually stimulating, it stymies segues and the show’s overall dramatic progression at times as each successive scene must pause long enough as those preceding clear the stage.

August 27, 2015
Aug. 21–Sept. 27. 10508 West Pico Blvd., LA. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30.


Citizen: An American Lyric
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, and Leith Burke
Photo by Ed Krieger

James Baldwin once noted that skin color cannot be as important as being a human being, something that Stephen Sachs and his Fountain Theatre family have explored time and again over their impressive trailblazing 25-year tenure in our city. Once again, Sachs and his intrepid cohorts have proven themselves to be a vital, urgently significant voice in the battle for our humanity with Sachs’s provocative new adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s international bestselling book of confrontational poetry, here customized into a startlingly creative and highly theatrical meditation on the inequities of race relations in America.
   Rankine’s mismatch of personal stories dealing with racism, told directly to the audience in arrestingly lyrical yet in-your-face verse, confronts how African-Americans are treated in our troubled society, and it could not have surfaced more timely. From beyond how our president is treated and disparaged because of his color or the daily stinging news reports of the deadly way people in authority treat minorities, Rankine confronts an audience peppered with non-minorities with disturbing tales of horrific abuse interspersed with simple verbal faux pas slipping from the lips of people trying to show others just how liberal they are—like someone at a party who, trying to form a well-meaning but ill-advised connection, instead carves a crevice as deep as the Grand Canyon by cheerfully telling someone she has features more like a white person.

“Being around a black person,” one of Rankine’s characters observes, “is sometimes like watching a foreign film without translation,” while another cannot get it out of her head when someone close to her keeps calling her by the name of her housekeeper. Also explored is the career of Serena Williams, who seemed to have to fight through a separate set of rules and a slew of possibly racist judges to get the recognition she deserves, not to mention learning how to keep her tongue and push ahead without angry outbursts.
   Under the dynamic direction of Shirley Jo Finney and with a special nod to the precision movement work created by Anastasia Coon, this stellar cast of six—Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick, and Lisa Pescia—could not have been more perfectly chosen to deliver the punch of Rankine’s thought-provoking spoken-word collage. Utilizing as a mantra a quote from Zora Neale Hurston, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” Finney’s uber-committed sextet weaves around one another, making way for one another verbally and physically, recounting instance after instance of the many imbalances in our social interactions.

The results are disquieting in many ways, and surely that, in part, is Rankine’s intention. Her brilliantly dramatic urban prose leaves us to contemplate our own deeply imbedded and often hidden prejudices, certainly something to revisit often in our lives and dealings with others. Still, Citizen: An American Lyric could sporadically soften its stance a tad or maybe even occasionally detail a few of our species’ strides and similarities as well as our differences. Part of what is most unsettling is that it confronts us so relentlessly, yet never even momentarily offers any resolution. The often irate indictments spewed out makes those gathered feel somewhat more attacked and personally accused rather than encouraging us to join together to make changes happen, to possibly suggest ways we can all work together to improve our lot in life. As Rankine observes, “just getting along should not be an ambition.”

August 9, 2015
Aug. 1–Oct. 11. 5060 Fountain Ave. Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm & 7pm (no 7pm performance Aug. 16), Mon 8pm (dark Sept. 7) $15–34.95 (323) 663-1525.

Awake and Sing!
Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

James Morosini and Marilyn Fox
Photo by Ron Sossi

When Awake and Sing! was produced in 1935, it was a transformative experience for theatergoers. Playwright Clifford Odets was an early member of the Group Theatre in New York, a lab for Stanislavski’s system of acting with a shared commitment among the collective for social change through theater. Among the most prominent members were Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Elia Kazan.
   The youthful Odets wrote Waiting for Lefty, acclaimed for its call for progressive remedies for workers, including unionization. Its success led to Awake and Sing! in 1935, less fiery but still espousing reform for economic injustice in the aftermath of the Depression.
   In Awake and Sing!, the modest Bronx apartment of the Jewish Berger family is the setting for the unfolding story of the sometimes contentious clan. Bessie (Marilyn Fox); her father, Jacob (Allan Miller); her ineffectual but optimistic husband, Myron (Robert Lesser); Bessie and Myron’s edgy grown daughter, Hennie (Melissa Paladino); and their 22-year-old son, Ralph (James Morosini), co-exist in the small but well-kept lodging (nicely articulated living space by Pete Hickok).
   In the mix are Bessie’s affluent brother, Morty (Richard Fancy), and Moe Axelrod (David Agranov), a cynical family friend whose pugnacious and brash manner adds spice to the dialogue and underscores a simmering tension between Hennie and him. It has just been learned that Hennie is pregnant. To satisfy Bessie’s desires for respectability, she wields her considerable influence and forces Hennie to marry Sam (Gary Patent), a Russian man she doesn’t love who is courting her.

Odets chose an often utilized three-act format, and once the scene is set, the second act a year later contains the dolorous elements of the story. Ralph falls in love, but Bessie is contemptuous of the penniless orphan girl he has chosen. Jacob, in spite of being bullied by his daughter, encourages Ralph to break free and find a fulfilling life. He counsels, “Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust, and the earth shall cast out the dead.” For a brief time, Odets was a member of the Communist Party, and some of Jacob’s Marxist imprecations are left-leaning and express a strong social conscience.
   Fox’s austere characterization reflects bitter disappointment in her marriage and a seeming disregard for the happiness of any of her family members. She seems a slightly darker character than Odets envisioned, and the only affection she shows is for her brother, but it is obvious in her manner that his wealth is the contributing factor. Fancy is spot-on as the self-satisfied and arrogant merchant, touting his superiority over the group and clashing with Jacob over political ideology. Miller is appealing as the gentle and frustrated idealist.
   Odets envisioned the play with comedic touches, somewhat lost in this grim portrayal of dreams and romance lost. Agranov comes closest to capturing lighter moments as he snipes away at the family. Paladino delivers a despondent Hennie, but some of her spunk returns as she and Moe decide to abandon convention and leave to seek happiness.
   The ensemble is well-cast and directed by Elina de Santos, reprising an earlier production she helmed 20 years ago at the Odyssey. Notable in this cast are Patent, who manages to wring all the anguish out of his hopeless marriage, and Morosini, whose youth is seemingly crushed by circumstance. He makes the transition from helplessness to optimism believable. Lesser makes a sympathetic foil for Fox’s harsh iron will. The ensemble creates a cohesive whole and delivers skilled characterizations.
   Costumes by Kim DeShazo are effective, and Leigh Allen’s lighting design sets the appropriate mood. Sound designer Christopher Moscatiello achieves a 1930s flavor with Caruso recordings and radio broadcasts.

Odets’s choice to conclude the events with an illusory happy ending for all is probably less realistic than the exposition suggests, but it ties up all the ends satisfactorily for the audience. At least Ralph finds strength within himself and hope for the future.
   A revival of Odets’s play seems fitting as some of the same uncertainties exist in today’s political and economic climate. The dialogue is certainly dated and solutions to their problems would be handled much differently today, but as a glimpse into America’s theatrical past, it is thought-provoking.

September 28, 2015
Sept. 26–Nov. 29. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm (Thu 8pm in Oct. and Nov.). $15–34. (310) 477-2055 ext. 2.


One Slight Hitch
Torrance Theatre Company

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Shirley Hatton, David McGee, and Makenzie Browning
Photo by Michelle Browning

Lewis Black is the standup comedian who delivers prodding rants punctuated by his crooked and wriggling index fingers. He’s rather genius, assuming one agrees with his views.
   He has written handfuls of plays, too, and his One Slight Hitch is in production at Torrance Theatre Company through Oct. 11. “If my name weren’t on it, nobody would know that I wrote this play,” he is quoted as saying.
   But not for the reasons he seems to be implying. He’s a bright man, he reportedly fell in love with theater at age 12, he holds an MFA from Yale School of Drama. One couldn’t prove any of this by his play.
   It takes place in 1981 on the wedding day of Courtney Coleman (Kay Capasso). She’s scheduled to marry Harper, her straitlaced boyfriend of only a short while. But somehow she and her parents keep referring to Harper as Ryan.

We learn some of this, and more, from Courtney’s sister, P.B. (Makenzie Browning), who narrates via voiceover because she’s looking back on this day from the present and because her 16-year-old, onstage self is made oblivious by massive headphones that blast the hits of 1981. Courtney’s other sister, Melanie (Collette Rutherford), ought to be made oblivious by the massive amount of booze she drinks.
   As Courtney’s family gets ready for the wedding, cracks appear in the nuptial joy. Driving the dramaturgical wedge into that joy is the unexpected arrival of Ryan (Johan Badh), Courtney’s recently dumped boyfriend.
   Ryan wants to be the Jack Kerouac of the 1980s, including all that entails. He’s the antithesis of the steady Harper (Ryan Shapiro), who, once he’s clued in on the hitch, takes the lunacy with noble good nature.

It’s pretty standard farcical fare, as Ryan gets shoved out of the way into either the living-room closet or the puzzlingly right-off-the-living-room shower—this odd architecture a fault of the script, not of the direction.
   But director Glenn Kelman’s casting may have contributed to one of the most troubling misfires here. David McGee and Shirley Hatton play Dr. and Mrs. Coleman, Courtney’s parents. Whatever the political leanings of these fine actors may be, onstage here they don’t look like the Reaganites of the script. In a play like this, the audience judges characters by their looks, and these two look like hippies. It doesn’t help that McGee’s Doc wanders around the house in an unbuttoned short-sleeved shirt, his undershirt on proud display.
   Harper’s parents show up at the house, but Black keeps them out of sight, and McGee’s aptitude for comedy shines in Doc’s monologue delivered out the front door as he unhospitably struggles to prevent the travelers from entering or otherwise discovering the goings-on inside.

Rutherford, a highly skilled actor, must have wrestled mightily with her underwritten character, a nurse who cares deeply about healing, yet who drinks astonishing quantities of liquor after an all-nighter and on the morning of her sister’s wedding. Does Melanie love Courtney? Does she lust after Ryan or does she want Ryan to marry Courtney? Can Melanie walk into the backyard on this summer afternoon, wearing a satin full-length bridesmaid’s dress and all that big hair, and not be toppling over from inebriation?
   Rutherford is also saddled with a nurse’s outfit that’s too short and too tight, apparently scripted thusly. But the highlight of Diana Mann’s costuming may be Ryan’s “Star Wars” boxers, which, for those who live in either hope or fear when Ryan emerges from the shower, wrapped in a towel, get revealed by the teasing Melanie.
   Black hints early on about the play’s denouement. “Can I have a real life and still write?” Courtney muses. “Courtney will have the wedding that we never had,” her mother notes. In between, his dialogue takes ungainly turns to move the plot, but at least the plot suits the characters and their personal histories.

And at least here, Kelman and the cast approach this production with such commitment and conviviality that it’s hard to totally dislike the play. One other aspect draws our admiration. Mrs. Coleman has enough self-awareness to know why she wants this wedding so desperately: Her generation was shredded by war, and now wants to see her children’s oblivious generation come back to life.

September 14, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze

Sept. 12–Oct. 11. 1316 Cabrillo Ave, Torrance. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25. (424) 242-6882.


The Princes of Kings Road
Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA at Neutra Institute and Museum of Silverlake

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Ray Xifo and John Nielsen
Photo by

In the first site-specific production from EST/LA, performed in Silverlake’s Neutra Institute Museum and Gallery—designed in 1950 by Richard Neutra along with his son Dion, who here co-produces—Tom Lazarus’s play, developed in EST/LA’s Playwright Unit workshop, offers a fascinating look at our metropolis’ greatest architect and the contentious relationship he shared with his onetime mentor, business partner, and later bitter adversary Rudolph Schindler.
   After 23 years of personal and professional disaffection, estranged groundbreaking modernist designers Neutra and Schindler (Raymond Xifo and John Nielsen) find themselves suddenly forced back together again, serendipitously assigned to adjoining beds at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Although the details of their reunion are here only fictionalized, one might hope this is something like how it really went down, beginning with the former colleagues and family-like friends—Schindler sponsored Neutra to come to the United States from their native Austria, where they’d met as students at Vienna’s Technical College—shouting to their poor beleaguered duty nurse (Heather Robinson) that one of them has to immediately be moved to another room.
   As the insults (“Sycophant!” screams Schindler; “Narcissist!” yells Neutra) slowly begin to die down, one major thing Lazarus has captured is the pair’s enormous respect for each other’s work and talent. The vitriol between them tames down as they start to reminisce about the days when they designed together, Schindler as the world-class futurist he was, Neutra as the genius engineer who could make his partner’s otherworldly plans functional. “We were bolder, simpler than anyone,” Schindler laments, “and architects today imitate our designs!”

With the inclusion of simple staging by Lazarus on a stationary set consisting mainly of two hospital beds, the never-before explored personal relationship shared by these two great men, whose cultural legacy changed not only the landscape of Southern California but influenced all of mid-century design across the globe, is a fascinating journey. Schindler had opened his famous Kings Road home to Neutra and his family when he arrived in LA in 1925 after working for two years in Chicago under Frank Lloyd Wright (whom Schindler refers to here as more a publicist than an architect). But Schindler is resentful over a major contract he believed his friend stole from him all those years before.
   Still, as the men’s forced time together continues and as Schindler’s cancer makes him increasingly frail, their former love for each other resurfaces. As played by Xifo and Nielsen, these illustrious men’s individual virtuosity, as well as their flawed and fragile humanity, emerge. Xifo is especially impressive, able to effortlessly overcome Lazarus’s flowery and often overwritten speeches. Nielsen’s humorous take on Schindler’s former Bacchanalian lifestyle is a perfect foil for Neutra. Robinson also handles her rather underwritten role as the ping pong ball literally bouncing between the men’s fiercely played game but without much of a substantial character arc of her own.
   The writing could be less theatrical and more real, but Lazarus’s play should have a life well beyond this first mounting, albeit with pruning of the characters’ sometimes stilted dialogue. It is also a tremendous treat to see it performed where it is, in this austerely angled, authentically Neutra-envisioned space featuring the designer’s original exposed strip neon lighting and signature louvered windows.

Driving home from the opening weekend matinee along the winding Silverlake reservoir, with its many Neutra houses looming along the east side of the boulevard reflecting the sunset in their majestic walls of windows (which Neutra tells us in the play was his intention), all directly facing Schindler’s magnificent sprawling flying saucer of a house peeking through the overgrown foliage at the tippy-top of the hill on the other shore of the lake, one might have a new respect for the accomplishments of two of Los Angeles’s most-enduring 20th-century visionaries.
   “We were reinventing the world, Rudolph,” Neutra proclaims to his unlikely roommate. “We were re-creating our Vienna!” And, in the process, they were also reinventing Los Angeles and solidifying its position as one of the major design capitals of the world.

September 20, 2015
Sept. 12–Oct. 4. 2379 Glendale Blvd., Silverlake. See theater website for schedule, but in general Fri–Sun. $25. (323) 641-7747.


When Stars Align
Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

Veryle Rupp and Jason Woods
Photo by Ed Krieger

When Stars Align is a novel by Carole Eglash-Kosoff, chronicling conflicts between advantaged whites and black slaves in the Civil War–era South. Now adapted into a play (by the author, with co-writer and director John Henry Davis) spanning many years, it blends history with the story of young black Thaddeus (Jason Woods) and the daughter of a plantation owner, Amy (Haley McHugh), who form a friendship in a time when to do so would be death to Thaddeus. Beyond these pivotal characters are the stories of the son of the house, Henry (Nick Ballard); his wife, Elizabeth (Sarah Lyddan); and Henry’s father, Jedidiah (Veryle Rupp).
   Adding to the running narrative is the tragedy of the slaves and others integral to the changes occurring despite Southern opposition to the politics of the day and the abolition movement. But, from the archetypal mammy, Sarah (Tamiyka White), to assorted slaves who rail against mistreatment, the characters waver into caricature, and the story’s predictability is telegraphed from the play’s beginning. Having said that, the cast is uniformly well-directed and strives to create passionate portrayals.

The villain of the piece is Henry: a vitriolic, bigoted, and thoroughly reprehensible character in the hands of Eglash-Kosoff and Davis. Young Henry has raped a field slave, Rose (Allison Reeves), leading to Thaddeus’s birth. Much to Henry’s dismay, his father favors the boy, teaching him to read and employing him as a house slave. Henry’s dissolute character is further demonstrated by womanizing with prostitutes and a loveless marriage to Elizabeth, whom he chooses only to sire his children.
   Through many events of war and retribution, the story highlights the actual Colfax massacre that took place in Louisiana in 1873. The play portrays the slaughter of many of the black characters who have finally found a semblance of freedom after the war. Historically interesting, it might have been more effective as a greater plot focus in this episodic production.
   Ballard’s Henry is easy to hate, and he carries a lot of the show on his shoulders. Woods is also notable as the young naive boy who must cope with his personal history and ambitions. Lyddan plays a fragile Southern belle whose tragic fate is played out against her feelings of entitlement and white privilege.
   McHugh is earnest as the rebellious daughter who loves unwisely, and Rupp portrays a complex father. White, too, is good, straddling her role as mediator.

JR Bruce’s utilitarian set works well, establishing the plantation, cotton fields, a riverbank, and a battlefield. Leigh Allen’s lighting is mood appropriate, and Michael Mullen’s costumes lend verisimilitude to the period.
   Adapting a play from a novel is tricky, especially one that traverses time and place. Eglash-Kosoff has attempted to include much of her novel’s plot. Some of the dramatic effect is lost in taking on too many events, and multiple characterizations get lost in the telling. Fiddle and guitar music at the beginning and post-intermission are mood-setting, but they slow the momentum of the story. Kudos to the cast, though, for heartfelt performances.

September 6, 2015
Sept. 5–Oct. 4. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm (also Thu 8pm Sept. 24 and Oct. 1). $25-30. (323) 960-7738.


 American Idiot
DOMA Theatre Company at MET Theatre

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
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.


Second City

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

6560 Hollywood Blvd. Fri 9pm. $10.


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The Sound of Music
Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

From left, clockwise: Audrey Bennett, Maria Knasel, Kerstin Anderson, Mackenzie Currie, Paige Silvester, Svea Johnson, Erich Schuett, and Quinn Erickson
Matthew Murphy

First of all, this is indeed your father’s The Sound of Music, in its national tour now launching here. The stage version birthed the film, which retained much of the theatrical book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. But onstage, the gorgeous songs appear in a different order, and songs not included in the film give supporting characters the chance to voice their positions and emotional states.
   Don’t let it confuse you. The story still centers on Maria Rainer and her immersion into the von Trapp family. She is portrayed by Kerstin Anderson, who is being touted by the show’s director, Jack O’Brien, as a “discovery” with “star-making magic.” Don’t expect Julie Andrews, however. Anderson has a sweet if unimposing voice, and her American vowels may startle the ear at the top of the show, when she sings “The Sound of Music.”
   Yet, Anderson has an astounding joy that radiates from head to toe and doesn’t leave her for a moment. Yes, her acting style is a bit big, but it felt like opening-night big on opening night, full of the thrill of taking on this role, full of eagerness to tell this stirring story. In no way would Captain von Trapp and his children not fall in love with this Maria.

Having brought in Anderson, O’Brien also brings magic to his staging. To fleetly flee and fly from dusky carved-wood convent to sunny villa, garret bedroom to balustraded terrace, cathedral to gated abbey garden, he relied on set designer Douglas W. Schmidt and lighting designer Natasha Katz. O’Brien can’t get the massing and movement of the seven children to look “natural.” But his swirling movement of the nuns in “(How Do You Solve a Problem Like) Maria” early in the show is lively and effective—and the number lets the audience know that the Ahmanson’s sound system is in spectacular order here.
   Not spectacular are the myriad accents heard onstage: Continental, British, American. Perhaps faring best there are the von Trapp siblings. The actors are, of course, adorable and talented. It’s astonishing that they show focus and strength throughout this nearly three-hour performance, on a weeknight, though Audrey Bennett as the youngest, Gretl, was showing signs of wilting.

Portraying their father, Georg, is Ben Davis. His strong resemblance to Ralph Fiennes doesn’t end with the physical likenesses. Davis doesn’t so much perform a song as let it emerge from his depths. Though he has a velvety baritone, he is unshowy, so the story keeps progressing without braking for the song.
   Merwin Foard does a rip-roaring Max Detweiler, the presumably homosexual impresario who helps the family escape the pursuing Nazis (clearly not knowing what the Nazis will have in store for him). Dan Tracy is the young Nazi delivery-boy, Rolf. Teri Hansen is the too-inappropriate-for-Georg baroness.
   Of the charming actors playing the siblings—who include Mackenzie Currie as Marta, Quinn Erickson as Kurt, Svea Johnson as Brigitta, Maria Knasel as Louisa, and Erich Schuett as Friedrich—the standout is Paige Silvester, playing the eldest, Liesl. She has a lovely voice, perhaps more musical than Anderson’s, and she dances beautifully.
   Musical theater aficionados just might geek out over hearing Ashley Brown sing the role of Mother Abbess. Broadway’s original Mary Poppins delivers a soaring performance here, culminating in a knockout “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” to close Act One.

Of course the songs are memorable—most of them long-ago memorized by most of the audience—and the story of parental love squeezed a few tears from many in the audience. Spare a thought, too, for those who needed to, and those who now need to, flee their homelands because of the insanity of so-called leaders allowed a foothold there.

October 1, 2015
Sept. 30–Oct. 31. 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 50 minutes, including intermission. Ticket prices not announced. (213) 972-4400.


Mary Poppins
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Lucas Coleman and Gail Bennett
Photo by Ed Krieger

“Anything can happen,” sings Mary Poppins in the musical bearing her name. On its opening night at Norris Theatre, nearly everything did happen—good and bad.
   The musical is largely based on the 1964 film Mary Poppins. Co-credited to British impresario Cameron Mackintosh, the stage version bears much the same pedigree as the film: Richard and Robert Sherman’s songs, and most of the story by screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi. Here, Julian Fellowes wrote its book, and the score substitutes several new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
   And if you saw the film when you were a child, you probably thought it was about a brother and sister whose new nanny did very cool magic and took them very cool places. Now that we’re grownups, however, we realize that this musical is also about absentee parents and the resulting loneliness in their children.
   What makes Mary Poppins (Gail Bennett) suddenly appear at the Banks family home is not the cute letter little Jane (Aine Lee) and Michael (Paul Kerker) write to her. It’s her psychic awareness that this family is in distress, despite the huge house, pretty clothes and many servants.
   To Jane and Michael, those superficial things can’t take the place of an afternoon flying a kite with Father (Craig Woolson). But he is an investment banker and can’t be bothered with noisy children. Mother (Kellie Cundiff) was an actor who gave up her career for her family. (Mrs. Banks was a suffragette in the film, but perhaps today too few audiences remember what that is. Her absenteeism in the film also better served the dramaturgy.)

Many of the magic tricks from the film—and from the novel by PL Travers on which all of this is based—are in this show. They include Mary’s magic carpetbag from which she pulls impossibly large objects; the knickknacks that crash to the floor and then fly back on shelves; and, most impressively, a Mary Poppins who flies over the stage, and her boyfriend Bert (Lucas Coleman) who dances upside-down over it. All of these worked flawlessly on opening night, under the direction of Tony Mansker.
   But on opening night the sound equipment performed abysmally and the scene changes were appalling. “Anything can happen if you let it,” continues the song. Someone let this happen. Not for the first time on an opening night at the Norris, the actors’ microphones malfunctioned. They switched on and off, they picked up neighboring actors’ voices, they became statical when actors perspired.
   The set, provided by Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, is beautiful. Here it requires manipulation by stagehands, and on opening night far too much went amiss. Massive halves of rooms were wheeled toward each other until momentum took over and they banged together. Sometimes trees were left behind from an outdoors scene, looking like they grew indoors. Sometimes an actor didn’t move an item and a stagehand had to emerge onstage and move it.
   All of this likely threw the actors. In particular, Bert’s Coleman rushed through “Step in Time” with his fellow chimney sweeps, leaving music director–conductor Jared Scott behind to staunchly try to hold the beat.
   It’s a nearly three-hour show. The parts with the Banks children will totally engage tots in the audience. But scenes between adults, important and meaty as the scenes are, will likely not.

Part of the fun of seeing theater is the chance to feel we’ve “discovered” a new talent. In this show is one such youngster. No, not one of the Banks children. They’ve clearly been discovered and are equally clearly destined for onstage careers. This time the discovery is Matt Alpert, the actor playing the hallboy, who with his pliable voice and sunny if put-upon presence will have a long career in “character” roles.
   In the musical’s era of a century ago, the parents are preoccupied by money and politics. Today it’s electronic gadgets we can’t tear our eyes away from. So when it’s time for Mr. Banks to head out with his children and finally fly that kite, this moment truly sends our hearts soaring.

September 21, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze

Sept. 18–Oct. 4. 27570 Norris Center Dr., Rolling Hills Estates. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 3 hours, including intermission. $25-45. (310) 544-0403.


Hit the Wall
Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Dan Middleditch and Roland Ruiz
Photo by Ken Sawyer

It was late June 1969, and what a week it had been. Judy Garland had overdosed in London a few days earlier, and her remains had been interred after being on display in a Manhattan funeral home for an estimated 20,000 mourners—many of them her loyal gay following. The temperatures were in the high 90s, and the humidity was overwhelming, but still the community gathered at the clubs and in the streets of Greenwich Village to bewail and celebrate their queen. At 1:20am on June 28, the door to Christopher Street’s now historic Stonewall Inn burst open, and a swarm of New York’s “finest” announced, "Police! We’re taking the place!”
  It did not go well. Patrons were pushed and pulled as they were divided by what the officers perceived to be their gender. While many refused to produce their identifications, and while curious onlookers from other neighborhood bars and clubs began to gather outside, one roughly handled and vocally protesting lesbian was clubbed over the head with a baton. The growing crowds started chanting “Gay power!” and others spontaneously began to sing “We Shall Overcome.” Soon a full-scale riot ensued. The rest is history, marking the beginning of the gay rights movement in America.

Playwright Ike Holter and director Ken Sawyer have taken on the difficult task of trying to re-create the mood and the reasons behind the Stonewall Riots, which came down to one pressing thing: Gay people were tired to death of being treated like shit. Holter’s and Sawyer’s work is masterful, and, with the invaluable assistance of collaborators and designers, the pair has managed to turn the Center’s pintsized Davidson-Valentini Theatre into the streets of the Village almost 50 years ago.
   Kudos to Sawyer for his fluid and exceedingly imaginative staging, as well as Edgar Landa for his startlingly effective and even a tad scary fight choreography re-creating those moments when all hell broke loose. Incorporating impressively spirited and electrically energetic production numbers and original songs by Anna Waronker and The Go-Go’s Charlotte Caffey for this production, the obviously well-drilled ensemble pulls no punches—quite literally.

And what a dynamic and committed cast it is. Holter’s story is today hardly unfamiliar to most of us and, in all honesty, each character presented in Hit the Wall is doomed to be a recognizable stereotype. Without Sawyer and his team, these particular actors, the live band hovering over the small stage (Johanna Chase, Jennifer Lin, and Nicole Marcus) to beautifully interpret the music, and the kind of quality the LA LGBT Center demands in its productions, this could quickly have hit that wall and made a big drippy splat.
   There’s the nervous drag queen (Matthew Hancock) who felt he had to dress up in honor of his late-lamented former Dorothy of Oz; a pair of caustic, overly effeminate, yet streetwise party boys (Roland Ruiz and Blake Young-Fountain) who hang out on a local stoop and do their own stinging live streaming version of The Fashion Police; the self-hating Adonis (Burt Grinstead), who crooks his finger and promises passing men only an hour to worship him; the upper-class daughter, who dresses like a male dock worker (Charlotte Gulezian) despite the rift it has caused with her family.

There’s also the afro-ed, militant, self-proclaimed dyke (Shoniqua Shandai) who literally travels with her own soapbox to take to local parks and proselytize about her cause; the on-the-fence former preppie dropout (Adam Silver), whose attraction for the drag queen is confusing to them both; and, of course, there’s gotta be at least one wide-eyed milquetoast kid right off the boat from Midwestern suburbia (Jason Caceres), who can’t wait to strip out of his J.C. Penny finery and wiggle his assets at the audience.
   Aided by a supporting cast of cops and outraged neighborhood citizens, these performers simply knock Hit the Wall out of the proverbial ballpark despite the predictability of these easily pigeonholed characters. Hancock is especially mesmerizing as the reluctant, shy drag queen whose real name is not Molly Minnelli but Carson. Gulezian is also a major standout, particularly arresting in a heartbreaking late scene as her straitlaced conservative sister (an exceptional Kristina Johnson) comes to bail her out of jail and offer an alternative that is never going to happen despite how much both sisters want it to be.
   Hit the Wall is not groundbreaking theater, but it is a raucously in-your-face environmental experience that overcomes its built-in limitations. And for anyone who is not old enough to remember or has not studied the history of gay emancipation in our country, it should be a must see. Especially…right about…now.

September 22, 2015
Sept 18–Oct 25. 1125 N. McCadden Pl., West Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $30.(323) 860-7300.


These Paper Bullets!
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Nicole Parker and Justin Kirk
Photo by Michael Lamont

About the best way to communicate my absolute, unalloyed pleasure in These Paper Bullets!, Rolin Jones’s Much Ado About Nothing adaptation at the Geffen, is to report that the smile that came over my face in the first five minutes stayed with me through the intermission, which I couldn’t wait to have end so that I could return for Act Two, and hung on back to my car and beyond. This bliss—rare in my theatergoing experience, whether on or off the clock as a critic— was due not just to the hilarious writing, perfect playing, canny direction, and delightful scenography. It also stemmed from the realization that everything about this production, born at Yale Repertory Theater, was clicking into place early on and proceeding seamlessly. Everything seems “right.”
   That rightness starts with the mood established in a boardroom, in which two evident middle-manager types (Brad Heberlee and Tony Manna, both wonderful) are seated at either end of a long, heavy table sipping tea, loudly, beneath a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. The painting falls crazily askew as a blustering Colonel Blimp type (a marvelous Greg Stuhr) barges in to complain about the state of youth in England today, complete with narrated newsreel footage (our Colonel standing cluelessly in front of the projector for a while) of Britain’s No.1 rock sensation, those Liverpudlian moptops universally known as Ben, Claude, Balth, and Pedro— everybody’s favorites, The Quartos.
   What are we promised in the first five minutes? That our three onstage bureaucrats will, in fact, stand in for Dogberry and his watch; that there’ll be some nuttiness afoot; that the warriors of Much Ado will in this case be returning from a triumphant international tour; that the production will steep us in the look and ethos of mod London in the 1960s; that a lot of Beatles-related punnery is in store; and, above all, that the prevailing comic mode will be droll and gentle, emphasizing the wit that drives Shakespeare’s 1600 classic more than any other play in the Bard’s canon.

And so it all comes to pass. Jones completely respects the Much Ado plot and characters, but in Carnaby Street attire and manner they simultaneously create something that’s brand new and of itself. Bea (Nicole Parker, superb), for instance, remains a free spirit deserving the sobriquet “My Lady Disdain,” but, as a Mary Quant–inspired fashion designer, she has earned her own independent acclaim and fortune, with even less reason than Shakespeare’s Beatrice to make her way to the altar. Stunning Cousin Higgy (Ariana Venturi, magnifique) readily inspires the devotion of Claudio/Claude (studly, warm Damon Daunno). But by turning her into a dizzy model hooked on vodka and Quaaludes, Jones opens the door to brilliant comic business never allotted, in my experience, to the stock Much Ado ingénue.
   The treatment of The Quartos actually creates not two but three things-in-themselves. The four are believable avatars of Shakespeare’s characters, while comprising a sly brotherhood of madcap ’60s rockers of their own, all joshing and prank-pulling and double-entendre. The villain of the piece is now the group’s former drummer, tossed out for lack of talent and reduced to the wardrobe master, thus allotting to Don Best (a toweringly sinister Adam O’Byrne) motivation for evil far more compelling than Shakespeare’s Don John can ever tap into.
Yet these central figures offer more than just Shakespearean parallels and a believable rock quartet. Their scenes have been shaped as an endlessly inventive, ever-loving homage to everything Beatle: the album covers, the public pranks, the private stories as we’ve come to know them over the years, the music (Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong provides delicious pastichey versions of early hits), and best of all, the anarchic but subtly witty worldview that burst on the world in 1964 in A Hard Day’s Night.
   Following the lead of Richard Lester’s seminal mock-rockumentary, in fact, could be one of the best contributions director Jackson Gay has made to These Paper Bullets! Yes, there are moments of farce, which Gay stages brilliantly and her cast executes to perfection—in particular, the twin scenes in which Bea and Ben (Justin Kirk, hilarious) are gulled into accepting each one’s love for the other, and the riotous interrogation of the villain’s henchman (Rod McLachlan) in the plot to undo Claude and Higgy. In conventional productions, this scene never gets anywhere near the laughs. And yes, some of the ’60s iconography is Laugh-In broad, with partygoers Jerking and Twerking and Monkeying against projections of swirling flowers as if Austin Powers had just crashed into the room.
   But again and again, Gay insists the characters remain soft-spoken and real, bantering like genuine old friends and tossing one-liners lightly into the ozone exactly the way A Hard Day’s Night, and to a lesser degree Help!, won for the Fab Four our undying affection. The Geffen cast plays the play—Bullets! and Much Ado alike—trippingly on the tongue, for real as well as for fun. Exactly what you’ve ever gone to a Shakespearean comedy to see, and much more besides.
   That this production is able to dip so deeply into 50 years’ worth of collective images and memories without ever seeming crass, obvious, or crude brings that same smile back to my face right now. I can’t say enough about this comic event. Please please me, and yourself, by going as soon as possible.

September 20, 2015

Sept. 16–Oct. 18. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue–Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $32–82. (310) 208-5454.


American Falls
The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Beth Triffon, Garrett Hanson, and Eric Hunicutt
Photo by Darrett Sanders

We have always been fascinated by the guileless complexities of the supposedly idyllic life in those insular small towns lurking quietly in the middle of America. Miki Johnson’s jarringly shocking yet poetic memory play, which weaves together a series of direct-address monologues from the residents, both living and dead, of a small town in rural Idaho, is the perfect culmination of everything that has come before it. There are no ticking clocks or sunflowers to whine about missing in our recently departed heroine’s reminiscences—and probably, in life, this play’s Lisa never appreciates a butternut tree as dearly as Emily Gibbs did.
   In this misshapen world, not even protecting her young son from her dangerously warped husband, who knows the boy isn’t his, could keep Lisa (a disarming Deborah Puette, alternating with Andrea Grano) from killing herself. “I loved that little boy but it wasn’t enough,” she admits to us. Instead she leaves her lovechild Isaac (Tomek Adler) in the dubious care of the certifiably insane Samuel (Karl Herlinger), who spends most of his time onstage screaming obscenities at Isaac. This kid stays motionless seated cross-legged upstage while his stepfather shaves his legs and arms with a straight razor as he tells Isaac how much he’s always hated him and plotted to kill him in the most gruesome ways possible.

Under Chris Fields’s spartan but effective direction on Nina Caussa’s strikingly austere set—complete with picture windows looking out on a vast stretch of desert plains—the broken family’s tragedy is split with the personal horror stories of other intertwined residents of American Falls, seated in their own assigned and basically impenetrable areas of the stage under Jesse Baldridge’s haunted lighting plot and accompanied by Jeff Gardner’s subtle and suitably dreamlike jukebox of countrified musical choices.
   Isaac’s real father, Eric (Eric Hunnicutt), shares a table throughout at the local dive bar, getting progressively more toasted with his buddy Matt (Ian Merrigan, alternating with Garrett Hanson) and his girlfriend Maddie (Jessica Goldapple alternating with Beth Triffon) as they relate tales of childhood sexual abuse and other horrors that not even gulping massive slugs of Jägermeister can obliterate. On the other side of the stage, seated precariously on an old tree swing, is Samuel’s crusty, world-weary, booze-soaked mother, Samantha (Barbara Tarbuck in a tour-de-force performance), who personifies how child abuse travels from one generation to the next as she tells us in no uncertain words how much her son, right from the womb, always gave her the creeps.
   In the middle of all the action, seated at a huge overstuffed reclining lounge chair, is Billy Mound of Clouds, a psychic Native American shoe salesman who can’t even get through telling us about his predictions without veering off into conversations about his favorite TV programs. Cano is the heart of Johnson’s otherwise disjointed and highly horrifying tale of life in places like American Falls, offering one of the finest and most heartfelt performances on any LA stage this year.
   Without the miraculous Cano as Billy as part of Field’s uniformly amazing cast, I can’t help but wonder if Johnson’s lyrical yet earth-grounded play could possibly succeed; he is the glue that holds the entire production together.

One of the earliest lessons I learned about being an arts critic included something I just evoked: using “I” in my writing. I have broken that basic rule with judicious infrequency and usually with the pre-ordained blessings of my editor because I had some connection or history with the play I’m discussing. In this case, however, I want to take this journalistic assault one step further. Because I attend most plays I review with my beloved Hugh Eaglehart Ta’neeszahnii, who was raised on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, his insight into the accomplishments of this gifted new playwright and the performance of Cano is, I believe, worth breaking rules to share:

   “The joke at the beginning about Billy’s satellite dish instantly flashed the brilliance and authenticity of Johnson’s script for me, because only an Indian would get that joke. Many of my family members and neighbors still live in mud-encrusted hogans with dirt floors, yet everyone there has a satellite dish. I was the only one in the audience who laughed.
   “I immediately was drawn in when Billy started talking about his feet and magic shoes. Native Americans aren’t often well represented in art, most likely because we’re some really messed up people. Leandro Cano walks a tightrope that could easily become a hilarious joke for bilagáana, but his authenticity, warmth, and familiarity with the self-deprecating humor of natives made it so believable. I kept trying to find the word to describe how his Billy touched me, and I realized the word is ‘tribal.’ He made me see my uncles back home. My great-grandfather was a medicine man, and his performance made me homesick for the rez. It was like taking a trip to the Four Corners.”

Still, as mesmerizing as the performances are, as perfectly austere are Fields’s direction and the production’s design elements, the true marvel here is the script. “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you!” the ghost of Emily cries out at the dawning of the 20th century in Our Town. “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”
   From lamenting that sweetly picturesque existence in the early 1900s in Thornton Wilder’s timeless Grover’s Corners and the desolate frustrations of eternal spinster Alma Winemiller from Glorious Hill, Miss., in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, and on to our current era when the twisted dysfunction of Tracy Letts’s battling Weston family hid their dastardly secrets deep in the dusty earth of Osage County in August, no one has ever skewered the hidden realities of bucolic small-town life in our country better or more elegiacally than Johnson. A hundred years from now, presuming our greedy and indifferent species hasn’t disappeared from the earth entirely by then, in a fair world American Falls should be as much of an American classic as any of its celebrated predecessors.

September 15, 2015
Sept. 11–Oct. 18. 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm & 7pm. $25. (310) 307-3753.


The Object Lesson
Kirk Douglas Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Geoff Sobelle

They say one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. The venerable Douglas has been made unrecognizable for Geoff Sobelle’s latest exploration into his own unique and unbounded form of performance art. The front rows of the theater’s seats have been removed and replaced, along with the stage, by piles and piles of old cardboard storage boxes, many labeled, some not.
   Sobelle and his innovative cohorts, director David Neumann and installation designer Steven Dufala, encourage patrons not to sit down when they enter the space but to instead explore the contents of the sea of boxes (magic marker-ed with such intriguing identifications as “A Starry Sky,” “Old Conversations,” and “The Smell of Horses”) before they pull one of them up around what feels like the center of the room to watch lone performer Sobelle go on a magical spring cleaning of the world’s most surreal storage warehouse. “There’s a fine line between vintage and crap,” he mutters as he pulls lamps and recorders and dial telephones out of cartons and arranges objects culled through a lifetime of clutter around a battered leather wing chair.
   It’s as though Cirque du Soleil decided to produce a work by Samuel Beckett, then hired the secret lovechild of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin to headline. Sobelle is a world-class clown, able to keep our attention for 75 minutes as he unearths more and more memories of his journey through life. He recounts his campout deep in the woods where a mysterious distant glow turns out to be a traffic light, an object he pulls from an old refrigerator box and proceeds to let change from red to green to yellow in a lengthy Beckett-like sequence as his rapt audience sits in complete silence.

Sobelle reminisces about a long past trip to ol’ Paree and many other adventures of his youth, recalling encounters with old friends and mourning the loss of old romances. As he does his bittersweet unpacking, he invites audience members—some seemingly surprised by their inclusion, others not—to join him in his walk down memory lane. He has one woman describe the contents she pulls out of her purse into an over-amped microphone. He offers another a romantic dinner date complete with a fine wine pulled from a box, served at a makeshift table lit atmospherically by a dented chandelier held shakily by another patron, and featuring surprisingly fresh stored lettuce, carrots, and other veggies he chops into a salad while doing a tango on the table wearing an exhumed pair of ice skates.
   Sobelle fascinates as he scales stair-stepping boxes stacked all the way to the highest grids of the Douglas, one lone figure dwarfed by the stored memories of a lifetime and lit by a huge collection of old table lamps arranged in the ghostly shadows of Christopher Kuhl’s suitably haunted lighting design.

Years of memories go by, culminating in one small box set on a table from which, for The Object Lesson’s finale, Sobelle pulls 20 times more stuff than could have fit inside, beginning with soiled infant clothing and moving through the presumed stages of his life. The contents include a large collection of reading glasses, all of which he dons and discards continuously throughout. The search culminates as a typical unmanageable tangle of electronic device cords transform slowly into an endless mass of dirt-encrusted roots.
   Ashes to ashes, dust to dust seems to be what this amazing storyteller and his fertile imagination is indicating here, as though he’s trying to tell us to divest ourselves of the clutter and old dusty baggage that grab onto our lives and become the chains that keep our brief existence on this planet moving forward. Either that or he’s just reminding us to go home and start going through that long-ignored basement storeroom.

September 14, 2015
Sept. 9–Oct. 4. 9820 Washington Blvd. Free parking underneath City Hall, immediately south of the theater. Tue–Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 6:30pm. (Exceptions: Added 1pm performance Sundays, Sept. 13 and Oct 4. No 2pm performance Sat, Sept. 12. No 6:30pm performance Sun, Oct 4.) $25–55. (213) 628-2772.


Broadway Bound
Theatre Palisades at Pierson Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

David Tracq, Georgan George, Larry Thaler, and DL Corrigan
Photo by Joy Daunis

Theatergoers are rarely able to observe characters growing up over the course of several plays. Shakespeare’s Prince Hal provides one notable exception. Playwright Neil Simon offers another. In his Brighton Beach Memoirs, we met Eugene Jerome, the hilariously genial youngster in 1940s New York, torn between becoming a professional baseball player and becoming a famous writer.
   Eugene is Simon’s stand-in, so at the end of Brighton Beach we know where Eugene is headed. Simon then takes Eugene through army basic training in Biloxi Blues, in which references to his talent for and obsession with writing promise another happy ending, at least for Eugene.
   The third play about Eugene, Broadway Bound, currently in a production by Theatre Palisades at Pierson Playhouse, finds Eugene and his brother, Stanley, as a young adults in 1949, about to break in to scriptwriting for radio and television, as did Simon and his equally funny but less famous brother, Danny.
   In the first play of the trilogy, Eugene’s parents, Kate and Jack Jerome, are solidly married. Perhaps Eugene was too young to see the cracks in the marriage, but here the very realistic, very heartrending problems between Kate and Jack are centerstage.
   So, too, are the travails facing the incipient writers, and these provide the comedy. Eugene and Stanley have one night to churn out a script or face never working again, and their agony gets empathetic laughs.

For the most part, director Sherry Coon doesn’t let the comedy get forced, nor does she let her actors sink into self-pity. One hint about Coon’s take on the play may come from set designer Sherman Wayne’s color scheme here. The wallpaper pattern in the Jerome house is of green roses on a creamy background, and the trim on the home’s exterior is green—the color symbolizing growth, health and healing. Eugene and Stanley will be fine. So, too, will Kate, who, suddenly facing an empty nest, seems to grow a magnificently sturdy spine.
   Portraying Eugene, DL Corrigan is rather impish. Eugene usually has a gimlet-eyed take on the family’s foibles, but Corrigan’s Eugene has more of a twinkle in his eye out of sheer enjoyment of his family.
   Playing Kate, Georgan George is not quite the usual Jewish mother, either. She also squints and scowls to a distracting degree. But her ability to create a devoted mother and betrayed wife is outstanding.

David Tracq masters the energy and enthusiasm of Stanley. Tracq impressively remains effervescent through Stanley’s panicked night trying to write a comedy sketch, and his excitement at listening to the Jerome brothers’ words on the radio is fresh and truthful.
   Dark clouds hang over Kenneth Steven Bernfield’s Jack. The model father in Brighton Beach Memoirs lives in a grayer area here, and Bernfield delicately wrestles the demons who prevent Jack from being the man his sons believed him to be.
   Kate’s sister, Blanche, gets a memorable portrayal by Caroline Westheimer, refusing to apologize for her new wealth, pleading beautifully with her father to call his wife, because, yes, marital relationships are not this family’s strongest skill.
   But one other cause for heartbreak crept up on opening night. The actor playing Kate’s über-Socialist father, Ben, was apparently a late replacement and was shaky on his lines. By way of a crutch, he seemed to be begging for laughs for his character. Most of this occurred at the top of the play, setting a sour tone that gradually faded.
   Simon, as it turns out, has not had the happiest of personal lives, despite his phenomenal professional success. Eugene, one hopes, will learn from his family’s, and Simon’s, mistakes and fare better.
September 7, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News

Sept. 4–Oct. 11. 941 Temescal Canyon Road, Pacific Palisades. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $18-20. (310) 454-1970.


Café Society
Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Donathan Walters and Ian Patrick Williams
Photo by Ed Krieger

It’s rather chilling that in our media-deadened society we can turn on the evening news and hear, “Another mass shooting today in…” and not be surprised, let alone horrified. In Peter Lefcourt’s smart and all-too-contemporary comedy, a group of Angelenos are held captive in a Westside Starbucks by a guy with a bomb in a bowling bag—and the point made is that even those here directly forced into submission are not surprised, let alone horrified, by their own drastic situation.
   In Lefcourt’s world, his characters easily reflect our skewed lives in LA. Kari (a completely hilarious Chandra lee Schwartz) zips into the bathroom of the Pico Boulevard coffee supermarket to change from hooker-wear to business attire between auditions, and ruthlessly rightwing business entrepreneur and Fox News defender Bob (Eric Myles Geller) makes a sight-unseen date online at to meet realtor Marilyn (Susan Diol) at the store for an afternoon hookup.
   Here, despite Lefcourt’s clever innovation, the playwright faces a considerable challenge, shared by director Terri Hanauer and her intrepid design team. These vapid characters and three other captives in corporate latte-land continue to live their treacherously self-involved lives as Martin (Nick Cobey) demands to talk on the phone with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz or Martin will blow his prisoners and all of the man’s most flavorable beans—not to mention original CDs of Summertime Grooves and Bossa Nova Moods—to kingdom come.
   As those gathered continue to check for messages and updates on their own little lives, screen images of all of their individual electronic devices appear on projection designer Yee Eun Nam’s two huge displays at the back of Amanda Knehans’s very authentic-looking set, where Starbucks’ familiar menu of drinks continuously disappears and transforms throughout the action into the characters’ text messages and emails as the world turns dramatically dangerous around them.

It isn’t until their plight shows up on their screens, reported on by local on-air celebrity Kelly Kahanahana (Kailyn Leilani), an assignment that pisses off Martin even more because he so dislikes her typical Barbie doll delivery of the news, that the mocha hits the fan. It seems Martin is protesting all kinds of societal injustices, particularly as accentuated by Schultz’s empire, which in his mind continues to grind out Vente after Vente, severely underpaying his employees while living a luxurious life at his home behind the Hotel Bel-Air, his ranch on Maui, or his ski getaway in Aspen—all places at which operators at Starbucks’ hotline try in vain to locate him so perhaps he could talk to the perpetrator and ease the situation.
   Throughout the ordeal, the electronic devices keep transmitting, even though Kari can’t initially contact 911 because she’s late on her Verizon bill and her personalized phone plan “doesn’t allow for 911 texting.” Marilyn keeps surreptitiously trying to close an important deal to sell a house. “I’m being held captive by a guy with a bomb,” she tells the listing agent of the property, who instantly counters with, “Can’t you just text your buyer?” Wannabe screenwriter Jeff (Eric Wentz) keeps trying to instantly turn the ongoing tribulations into a screenplay, discussing with the captives who they think would be best to play them in the project. “Not Denzel,” the store’s barista Darnell (Donathan Walters) insists. “I’m tired of Denzel!”
   The final inhabitant of the Starbucks is someone who has abandoned electronica: frequent hanger-on Anastasia (Ian Patrick Williams), a cross-dressing homeless man who believes he is the lost Russian countess, when in reality he is the disgraced head of a failed Fortune 500 company until the most recent recession. This is something that occasionally snaps the guy back into his former gruff-voiced corporate honcho status, his side-talking projectiles of profanity only tempered when someone talks him back into his gentler and more conducive fantasy persona by calling him “Your Royal Highness” or asking him about the upcoming ball at the palace.

Hanauer’s ensemble is beautifully committed to the material, although the desensitized nature of their characters make it difficult for them to have more than one direction to explore and, in Lefcourt’s script, some of them sit with nothing to contribute for long stretches at a time until a funny line is thrown their way. Equally difficult is the task allotted to Hanauer, who seems to have concentrated more on this factor than on the often glaringly static staging, which too frequently leaves her actors placed in uniformlynspaced straight lines across the stage.
   Despite this and a rather unsatisfactory conclusion—though it’s all followed by a hilarious onscreen trailer for Jeff’s upcoming film version starring, among others, Meryl Streep as Anastasia and Denzel Washington after all as Darnell—Lefcourt’s script, though hardly yet perfected, is still often sharply funny and bitingly astute. His conceit is a rich indictment of the numbed-down condition of our electronically dominated lives where we wonder which is real: what’s happening around us, or what’s flashing on our ever-present cellphone screens.
   The fact that none of what’s happening seems in any way be threatening to these people until the news trucks and swat teams start congregating outside the store and their plight shows up on TV is the best thing about life as depicted here. And it should not be lost that when those gathered begin to sense the danger of their situation, Kari instantly texts her agent to be sure he doesn’t give reporters her latest headshot but instead uses the prior one. You know, the one with the longer hair.

August 31, 2015
Aug. 22–Oct. 11. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25–30.(323) 960-1055.


El Grande CIRCUS de Coca-Cola
Skylight Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Marcelo Tubert and Paul Baird
Photo by Ed Krieger

Standing in the lobby after this show, Skylight Theatre Company’s artistic director, Gary Grossman, was quick to point out that his prolific ensemble has spent years mounting “issue plays” and that he was thrilled to present something for a change where the theme is “silly is as silly does.”
   Of course, someone would be hard-pressed to find something as silly as this production—unless, it would be the notoriousEl Grande de Coca-Cola that spawned it. First surfacing Off-Broadway in 1973 before playing for more than a year at the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip and virtually kick-starting the careers of Jeff Goldblum and the late Ron Silver, the revue’s creator and star Ron House’s Latin-themed romp into Marx Brothers territory became an international hit, with new productions regularly sprouting up all over the world ever since.
   For years House and his fellow original cast member Alan Shearman wanted to create a sequel to the madness. The two have come up with the perfect concept, as Pepe Hernandez (the leading character in the original, played forever by House) has decided to spread his wings and further tap into the “limitless talents” of his eager sons and daughters to reach beyond the cabaret stage and transform into their own family circus.
   Complete with rather ominous knife throwing, a flamenco flea circus where Pepe’s enthusiastic applause eliminates one of his performers, a bout of aerial gymnastics in which the comely performers wrapping themselves in suspended silk ribbons get too tangled to unwind without help, and the family morphing into members of the Bolshoi Ballet’s “Radioactivo!” company to take on a clunky rendition of Swan Lake , this is truly sidesplitting stuff guaranteed to make your ribs hurt.

Under Shearman’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek direction and with the collaboration of Tor Campbell’s intentionally lead-footed choreography, this new cast works brilliantly together. As Pepe’s daughters Consuelo and Maria, Lila Dupree and Olivia Cristina Delgado bring to mind a slapstick routine from Lucy and Ethel—one of those times Ricky didn’t realize the new act he hired for his club was actually his favorite nemesis and her vaguely willing sidekick. Paul Baird goes for Ricardo-perfected straight-man status as the girl’s dashing brother Miguel, doubling quite admirably on the piano whenever the need arises.
   Marcelo Tubert is the quintessential replacement for House as patriarch Pepe, complete with a Joker-esque pitchman grin that could sell canned tamales to Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger. He is especially hilarious as he takes on the role of the matriarch in a sendoff of those infamous Mexican television novellas, looking a little like a Chicana Eleanor Roosevelt as he/she shouts “Infidelio!” when discovering his co-stars in a pile of cuckolded positions before they whip out weapons to end each other’s overdramatic existences.
   As the Hernandez family’s adopted brother Juan, the kid left on their doorstep by wandering gypsies, Aaron Miller steals the show. From his continuously tortured and fearful expressions that make him look like a Chihuahua about to be caught in the blades of a table fan, to his off-tempo drumming, to his continuous pratfalls and outrageous physical antics as he eagerly careens from accident to accident during the proceedings, this guy could have an El Grande all his own—especially as topped by his Monty Python-like on-his-knees turn as a pintsized Napoleon trying to load a gigantic cannonball into an equally gigantic cannon.

Even though part of the conceit is that all of Pepe’s ring-mastering pronouncements of what is to come are delivered in Spanglish—or mostly Spanish with some key English words thrown in—if anything might be improved here, it could be to drop some of the continuously slow overemphasis on phrases to be sure everyone in attendance gets what’s being said. Giving the audience the benefit of the doubt that they don’t have to be hit so hard with repeated semi-translations and the wink-wink-nudge-nudge stressing of words similar in both languages would make all this that much more comical. The outrageous fun here isn’t in what’s being said; it’s in the visual absurdity of what’s being executed by this energetic troupe of world-class clowns able to make the rest of the world around us disappear, at least for a carefree 90 minutes of incredibly infectious inanity.

August 17, 2015
July 25–Oct. 18. 1816-1/2 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. Fri–Sat 8:30pm, Sun 3pm. $34. (213) 761-7061.

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