Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
Resolving Hedda
Victory Theatre Center

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Tom Ormeny and Kimberly Alexander
Photo courtesy Victory Theatre Center

Individual stage performances are but momentary glimpses, jointly experienced for one fleeting moment by their creators and those who witness the proceedings. So, what would occur if, in stepping through the proverbial looking glass, it was revealed that the characters not only exist in perpetuity but are completely aware of every actor who has embodied them since those characters were committed to parchment by the play’s author?
   This is the stepping-off point of playwright Jon Klein’s mind-bending world premiere comedy based on Henrik Ibsen’s century-old classic Hedda Gabler, given first-rate direction here by Maria Gobetti.
   Kicking off this often hilarious straddling of the fourth wall is Kimberly Alexander, whose tour-de-force performance in the title role demands she walk a constant tightrope between the theatrical reality of Ibsen’s tale and Klein’s wickedly funny asides and plotline machinations.
   Alexander’s delivery of Klein’s expository opening monologue brings the audience up to speed with both Ibsen’s original tale and Hedda’s obsessive desire to, for the first time ever, survive this story’s denouement.
   And with such lovely production values–Evan Bartoletti’s beautifully appointed drawing room set and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s fetching costuming–one steps back in time with ease.

Dramaturgically, Klein mirrors Ibsen’s original by setting up his quartet of scenes with the standard plot points, paying scrupulous attention to the details of the original play. George and Hedda Tesman have returned from a nearly half-year honeymoon during which he performed research and she was bored to distraction. George’s hopes for a professorial post become entangled with a former rival while Hedda manipulates George’s spinster aunt, a flighty childhood acquaintance, and a local court justice.
   But within this saga lurk twists from the very start. Klein’s Hedda has totally dispensed with the household maid, Berta, so as to maintain a sense of control as she activates her scheme. Replacing Berta is a silent stagehand, portrayed by Sean Spencer, who appears throughout with modern-day items.
   Hedda excepted, none of the characters realizes what is happening, but each struggles valiantly to incorporate heretofore unseen props into their world of 1891. Meanwhile, tossed-off references to the Internet, specific television shows, politics, even modern-day medical conditions take wing, thanks to Alexander’s sardonically dry delivery.

The supporting cast expertly handles the challenge of embodying Ibsen’s original characters not as actors but real-life people who must deal with all of Hedda’s intentional curveballs. Alyce Heath gives Aunt Julia a pleasantly optimistic, occasionally clueless, tone that works well when she is faced with anachronistic developments. Ben Atkinson’s George, is more bumbling than browbeaten as he struggles to keep up with the strange behavior demonstrated by the Hedda he thinks he knows.
   As Hedda’s put-upon schoolmate, Thea Elvsted, Marisa Van Den Borre exudes a sympathetic air despite her character’s whininess. Meanwhile, Tom Ormeny is at the top of his game in the role of the slimy Judge Brack, whose apparent concern masks his palpably creepy sexual obsession with Hedda.
   Perhaps the closest to the mindset of Alexander’s Hedda is her husband’s chief competitor, Eilert Lovborg, a formerly disgraced academician who has managed to revive his career. In the hands of Chad Coe, this Lovborg seems to sense what Hedda is hoping to pull off.
   And yet, the stone rolling down the hill cannot be dissuaded from its appointed path. Hedda exits with the pistol, one of a pair belonging to her father, a renowned military general. We hear a shot. Ibsen’s enigmatic final line is delivered by Judge Brack. Is all as it seems? One must witness this enjoyable production to fully experience Klein’s masterful homage.

October 5, 2017
3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. Ample street parking is available; additional parking at the Northwest Branch Library, directly across from the theater. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm. $24-$34. (818) 841-5421.



Honky Tonk Laundry
Hudson Mainstage Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Bets Malone and Misty Cotton
Photo by Michael Lamont

No doubt more than happy to sport the title “King of the Jukebox Musicals,” playwright-creator-director Roger Bean can add another gem to his jewel-laden crown with the Los Angeles premiere of this hootenanny homage to the Country Western genre. Originally staged at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre some dozen years ago, the show now includes musical additions and deletions intended to improve the flow of Bean’s somewhat updated storyline.
   On that note, Bean is a wise director for not having reinvented the wheel when it comes to casting his piece. Featuring the production’s original cast, Bets Malone and Misty Cotton, the evening is blessed with one showstopper after another, backed by Jon Newton’s fully fleshed orchestrations. Individually, each performer can rattle the rafters with the perfect tonal qualities required for this type of music. And when performing the various duets, their voices become almost one in timbre, an absolute must given some of the harmonic requirements.

Malone plays Lana Mae Hopkins, a third-generation owner-operator of the Wishy-Washy Washateria, the design of which, by Tom Buderwitz, is out-of-this-world perfect with every conceivable nook and cranny offering Adam McPherson’s properties as eye candy for the viewer. Having arrived to discover her employee, Jennelle, is in the county hoosegow, Malone’s Lana Mae bemoans her professional and personal fate—more on husband Earl in a moment—with the wistful “I Need a Vacation.”
   Almost as if heaven-sent, in pops Cotton as the semi-bipolar Katie Lane Murphy, a local gal who is just one Valium away from taking out her cheating, live-in boyfriend, Danny. Within a few more songs from the show’s collection of nearly two dozen in total, and before the first act concludes, we learn a whole passel about these two. Cotton’s family history is laid out in “Independence Day,” while Malone offers words of wisdom and advice via “Stand by Your Man” and the self-revelatory “Who I Am.”
   As things proceed, we come to realize these two have some serious “man” problems on their hands. Cotton goes for broke with an almost demonically possessed comical version of “Before He Cheats” in which she recounts having vandalized Danny’s pickup truck. Meanwhile, Malone’s Lana Mae is eventually forced to conced husband Earl’s cheatin’ heart after Cotton’s equally hysterical rendition of “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” featuring just one example of choreographer James Vasquez’s consummate show-wide work. The result is a gut busting sight gag performed by Malone involving chocolate bars, crayons, a box of Krispy Kreme donuts, and a collection of thong underwear belonging to Earl’s bed bouncing mistress, Raylene. Oh, and a sizzling hot duet version of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’.”
   Having now been emotionally linked through their common circumstances, Katie Lane encourages Lana Mae to follow her heart and pursue her long-shelved dream of being a “Nashville sangin’ star.” The plan evolves into a one-night concert that brings us back from the intermission break. Bean and musical director Lyndon Pugeda pull out all the stops, lending even further credibility to Malone’s and Cotton’s unequaled talents. Here, too, costumer Renatta Lloyd, hair and makeup designer Byron Batista, and sound designer Cricket S. Myers top their own fantastic first-act production values.

Highlights of this show-within-a-show include a salute to the queens of the Grand Ole Opry in which Malone and Cotton bring to life the vocal stylings of Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Tammy Wynette. And what would a tour through Nashville’s version of “Your Hit Parade” be without some down-home country vocal gymnastics? Answering the call, these two triple-threats bring down the house as they combine a pair of songs including Bean’s original piece, composed with Adam McPherson, “I Wish That I Could Yodel.”
   But, for true melodic bliss, nothing surpasses Malone’s nearly heartbreaking rendition of real-life singer Terri Clark’s “Smile.” Among the full-throated belting and comic zaniness, this quiet, reflective moment, featuring the unparalleled talents of lighting designer Steven Young, is worth its weight in gold. Oh, and lest you think Danny, Earl, and even Jerry, the town’s oft-referred-to and only Uber driver, get off scot-free, rest assured they’re in attendance at the Act 2 concert, whether they realize it or not.

August 26, 2017
Aug 11–Sept 17. 6539 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm & $45–55. (323) 960-7773.



The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Independent Shakespeare Company in Griffith Park

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Evan Lewis Smith and Erika Soto
Photo by Grettel Cortes

There’s some pretty wild twistin’ goin’ on up at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park, and it’s not just the plotlines in Shakespeare’s comedic treatise on love, betrayal, and eventual reconciliation. It’s the 1950s. The jackets are plaid, the chiffon is flowing, and the socks are a-hoppin’. This production may be director and Independent Shakespeare Company co-founder David Melville’s slickest conceptual integration of a work by the Bard with a particular musical genre seen to date. From the cast’s topnotch leads to the indefatigably energetic members of the ensemble, this retooling of the company’s first-ever production (dating back to Hollywood’s Barnsdall Park some 14 years ago) is outstanding. And dang, can this group’s backup band take you down Memory Lane.
   The story is fairly simple which further serves Melville’s vision for the piece. Valentine, an intellectual young man, sets off from Verona to Milan in search of his fortune, fame, destiny, what have you. Once there, his heart is smitten by the stunning Silvia, already promised to a local gentleman by her father, the Duke. Meanwhile, back in Verona, Valentine’s best friend Proteus is in the throes of romance with local girl Julia. Upon being sent to Milan against his wishes by his own father, Proteus jettisons all thoughts of Julia in favor of lusting after Silvia, thus providing the story’s conflict. Banishments, concealed identities, comedic servants, hoodlums, and even an actor portraying a disgustingly smelly canine round out this wild and wacky tale.

As Valentine and Proteus, Nikhil Pai and Evan Lewis Smith handle Shakespeare’s language with such ease that nary a thought or emotion is missed. In particular, Pai’s reaction to the Duke’s forcing him to leave Verona is truly touching, while Smith’s first-act soliloquy justifying his rakish behavior in discarding his love for Julia elicited stridently negative verbal audience reactions.
   As Silvia, Sylvia Kwan is radiantly regal. But beware of her character’s eventual temper, which Kwan fervently unleashes on Smith’s Proteus, a comeuppance that resulted in shouts of acclamation from the hillside full of viewers.
   Erika Soto’s Julia is thoughtful one minute and impulsive the next. Soto’s ability to wring out every conceivable moment from her lengthy speeches and witty repartee opposite various other characters reveals an expert skill set. Whether as Julia or Sebastian, the male disguise she assumes in order to pursue Proteus to Milan, Soto is an onstage powerhouse.
   Supporting this quartet is a host of ISC’s brightest and best. William Elsman doubles admirably as the onstage drummer and the oh-so-regal Duke. Xavi Moreno and Melville are respective riots in the roles of Speed and Launce, servants to Valentine and Proteus. April Fritz was an audience favorite in the wisecracking, Brooklyn-accented role of Julia’s maid, Lucetta. Patrick Batiste, not only carrying the lion’s share of the vocal stylings, brings a lanky comedic charm to Julia’s compadre Sir Eglamour. And nobody holds a candle to Katie Powers-Faulk’s dance moves as a gun-toting biker chick Valentine encounters upon taking up residence as leader to the forest outlaws.
   But, for scene-stealing gusto, no one matches the chameleon-like talents of Lorenzo Gonzalez, who embodies a varied trio of roles. Gonzalez is commanding as Proteus’s father, Antonio. He’s a hoot as Crab, the aforementioned cur that invokes the repeated wrath of Melville’s Launce. And he brings down the house as the foppish, lisping, Italian-accented Thurio, Silvia’s originally intended.

The remainder of the band consists of Gerald McGrory on bass guitar, Melville playing a mean electric lead, and the show’s musical director Dave Beukers, easily one of the most talented keyboardists in Los Angeles. After all, just about anyone can play a stationary piano. In this case, however, a traditional upright winds up wheeled all over the stage with Buekers literally at its beck-and-call.
   Caitlin Lainoff’s singularly colored green back wall, featuring multiple doorways and window units, pops to life under Bosco Flannagan’s lighting design. Ruoxuan Li’s costumes are period perfect with special note given to the band’s matching suits and the outlaws’ leather ensemble. A remarkably prodigious amount of well-performed choreography, by Powers-Faulk, is incorporated into the show, not the least of which are the full company numbers that conclude both acts of this must-see production.

August 25, 2017
Aug 5–Sept 3. Old Zoo in Griffith Park. Wed-Sun 7pm. Free. (818) 710-6306.



Cigarettes & Chocolate/
Hang Up

Pacific Resident theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Matt Letscher and Marwa Bernstein
Photo by Vitor Martins

In their West Coast premieres, two one-act radio plays by Anthony Minghella grace the smaller stage at Pacific Resident Theatre. Though the two are produced as radio plays, the actors speaking from music stands, Michael Peretzian directs with enough subtext and reactions to start the audience’s imagination moving and filling in any blanks.
   Minghella (writer-director of The Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient ) wrote Hang Up in the 1980s, when telephone technology was different but human feelings were of course the same as they are today. Minghella and Peretzian flay those feelings to reveal a couple’s innermost secrets even when the pair speaks in superficialities and lies.
   She (Molly Schaffer) phones He (Michael Balsley) late at night, when he is not expecting to hear from her. Soon the barbs come out, starting small with such topics as the music she wanted to listen to but couldn’t. She asks him to call her back, and the balance of power shifts.
   He tells her he misses her. She won’t say she misses him. Undercurrents pour across the stage, from the dialogue and from the performances. Jealousy, regret, neediness, anxiety—these appear fleetingly but cuttingly in the actors’ voices and on their faces.

She speaks of a relationship in which the man does all the talking for the deaf woman. Silence is a shield, a sword, a blessing, and a burden. And it takes on a large role in the next play here, 1988’s Cigarettes & Chocolate.
   Gemma (Marwa Bernstein) has given herself a vow of silence. This produces in her family and friends a compulsion to talk, mostly on voicemail as they leave rambling messages for her. Her silence also arouses their self-absorbed guilt, as they blame themselves for her choice.
   Her partner Rob (Matt Letscher) has had an affair with their friend Lorna (Ursula Brooks). He’s now certain this prompted Gemma’s silence. The prissy Alistair (Jaxon Duff Gwillim) has professed his love for Gemma in an ill-advised letter, then blames the letter for her withdrawal. Her friend Gail (Tania Getty) is in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy. Is Gemma jealous enough to refuse to speak?
   Two good listeners take in the onslaught of guilt, while the talkers ignore the fact that these two, too, are silent, and their silence is soothing. Sample (Balsley) is Rob’s tolerant chum, Conception (Schaffer) is an Argentine psychiatrist-turned-housemaid, and they gently nod or look quizzical at all the right moments.

Did any of these people cause Gemma’s silence? Or is she mourning the lost opportunity to adopt a Vietnamese boy she spotted in Italy? Or is she mourning, or admiring, a self-immolating monk? Gemma speaks in soliloquies, to herself and to us, in Minghella’s signature elliptical style.
   Under Peretzian’s direction, the performances are evocative, clear, simple, and moving. British accents, from these American actors, are thoroughly convincing.
   Rebecca Kessin’s sound design adds restaurant clinks and nearby trains, helping the audience picture each setting.
July 17, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
July 15–Sept 10. 705-1/2 Venice Blvd, Venice. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. $25-$34 (student rush $12). Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission.(310) 822-8392.



Pacific Resident Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Keith Stevenson and Alex Fernandez
Photo by Vitor Martins

How can people be rhinoceroses? Ask that in the literal and figurative senses, and you have Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 landmark play Rhinoceros. The Romanian-French playwright wrote it in response to politics in his native Romania, where he watched Fascism and Nazism lure friends and neighbors into despicable thoughts at best, sickeningly inhuman behavior at worst.
   The play has lost none of its meaning and potency. Witness its run at Pacific Resident Theatre, in a translation by Derek Prouse. Here we watch and think of those who voted in any way differently from us because a political party told them to, based on slogans and to be in line with the herd they follow.
   Director Guillermo Cienfuegos (a nom de guerre for one of the actors here) renders a representational, rather than abstract, version of the play. He keeps it in its original setting of a mid-century French town, depicted in costuming (from provincial to Parisian, by Christine Cover Ferro) and scenic design (David Mauer’s charming set unfolds side-to-side, top-to-bottom, like a massive piece of origami).
   With designs so specific, the play might not have felt universal. But the opening-night audience audibly showed that this script still gores us.

How easily the townsfolk turn to denial, then make excuses for a trend, then ignore righteousness and capitulate in favor of following the herd. Their excuse is likely the economy. The grocers (Robert Lesser, Sarah Zinsser) have probably seen profits dwindle. The café proprietor (Brad Greenquist) probably thinks he can’t get good workers anymore. His waitress (Kendrah McKay) probably hates working for an abusive boss and unappreciative customers.
   In their midst is our unlikely protagonist, Bérenger (Keith Stevenson). He’s ordinary, liking his drink and not particularly concerned with his appearance. His friend Jean (Alex Fernandez) obsesses over appearance and punctuality. Bérenger worships the pristine Daisy (Carole Weyers) from afar. His colleague Dudard (Jeff Lorch) seems so clear-thinking. One by one, they are swept up in a tide of transformation.

Rhinoceros is about race and origins. The townsfolk’s lives are about to be destroyed, and yet they argue over whether the rhinos have one horn or two, are Asian or African. The play is also about language. People carelessly utter trite phrases in place of thinking, as they make excuses and hide behind slogans.
   To our modern theatergoing ears, the play is long and gets repetitive. Had it been written today, it might consist of just one of the three acts. But we stay with the characters, wonder if we’ll ever see a rhinoceros, and deeply empathize with Bérenger as he stands firm against the swelling ranks of friends and neighbors turning to a movement they don’t understand but don’t particularly want to.
   Among the bits of visual humor, reminding us that cliché is a French word, the town boasts an accordionist mime (Melinda West). Even here, we seek laughter because the truths Ionesco shows and the truths we’re living are so wrenchingly painful.

July 17, 2017
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

July 15–Sept 10. 703 Venice Blvd, Venice. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. $25-$34 (student rush $12). Running time 3 hours, including 2 intermissions.(310) 822-8392.



Arsenic and Old Lace
Odyssey Theatres

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

Jacque Lynn Colton, J.B. Waterman, and Sheelagh Cullen
Photo by Enci Box

Joseph Kesselring’s black comedy about the Brewster sisters murdering old men with elderberry wine as a charitable act has been a staple of American theater since the 1940s when it played on Broadway for a total of 1,444 performances. Murder for fun seems to delight audiences, and this Odyssey revival, played broadly for laughs with farcical overtones, is pure escapist entertainment.
   Elderly Abby Brewster (Sheelagh Cullen) and sister Martha (Jacque Lynn Colton), Mayflower descendants, live in the family home and are beloved in the neighborhood for their good works. As the play opens, two police officers (Mat Hayes, Darius De La Cruz) have just arrived to pick up a box that the sisters have gathered for a local charity. The policemen are frequent visitors, as the sisters’ brother, Teddy (Alex Elliot-Funk), believing himself to be Theodore Roosevelt, plays his bugle and annoys the neighbors. The sisters are entertaining their next-door neighbor, Reverend Dr. Harper (Alan Abelew), whose daughter, Elaine (Liesel Kopp), is in love with their nephew, Mortimer (JB Waterman).
   Idyllic normalcy soon turns to macabre humor when drama critic Mortimer arrives to discover a dead body in the window seat. Believing Teddy to be the murderer, he tells the sisters that Teddy must be committed to Happydale Sanitarium. They are indignant, claiming the body to be their work and nothing to do with Teddy. They further assert that there are nearly a dozen other victims in the cellar that they have assisted out of their misery. They have convinced Teddy that the men are victims of yellow fever that was prevalent during Roosevelt’s term during the building of the Panama Canal, so he happily buries them below stairs.
   While this might be enough to sustain the comic trajectory of the play, for good measure Kesselring introduces maniacal brother Jonathan (Gera Herman), who has returned after a 20-year absence to dispose of a body, Mr. Spinalzo, whom he has murdered. He is accompanied by alcoholic plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Ron Bottitta), whose recent transformation of Jonathan’s face so that he won’t be recognized is a facsimile of the horror film star Boris Karloff.
   At this point in the story, events spiral out of control, and the farce becomes convoluted mayhem. Mortimer’s attempts to shield his aunts, deal with his twisted brother, fend off his fiancée’s questions, and come to grips with the realization that he himself might be genetically predisposed to lunacy drive the narrative.

Director Elina de Santos goes for over-the-top action from the beginning. Cullen and Colton steal the show as the pixilated sisters whose sense of ethics won’t allow Mr. Spinalzo to join the good Christian men in the cellar. Waterman is suitably distraught as he tries to cope, and Kopp makes a nice foil for his machinations. Elliot-Funk is enthusiastically hearty as Teddy, carrying out his charge up the stairs to San Juan Hill at every opportunity.
   Hermann tries, not always completely successfully, to provide the sinister element of the murderous brother with a Karloff running gag that doesn’t play quite as well in 2017. Bottitta’s German accent sometimes impedes his dialogue, but he makes the most of his fear of Jonathan. The other supporting characters play it broadly and relish the comic details. Michael Antosy adds suspense as a wannabe playwright cop, and Yusef Lambert arrives in the nick of time to cart Jonathan away.
   Scenic designer Bruce Goodrich’s Brewster home makes a wonderful backdrop for the funny business taking place as bodies appear and disappear amid sinister maneuverings. Leigh Allen’s lighting design is also effective. Amanda Martin’s costumes for the Brewster sisters and Elaine are particularly charming.
   In these days of graphic storytelling, Arsenic and Old Lace is a welcome foray into a gentler time. Kesselring’s happy ending with a twist comes as a neat conclusion to a production that has an enthusiastic ensemble enjoying themselves with a willing audience along for the ride.

August 29, 2017
Aug 26–Oct 8. 2055 S Sepulveda Blvd, West Los Angeles. Wed or Thu 8pm (alternating weeks), Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $25-$34, discounts available. (310) 477-2055, ext. 2.



Welcome to the White Room
Theatre of NOTE

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Sierra Marcks and Chris Gardner
Photo by Darrett Sanders

With a doff of the cap to both Rod Serling and Jean-Paul Sartre, playwright Trish Harnetiaux’s West Coast premiere makes for an engaging, thoughtful, even surprising tale. Three seemingly scientific types find themselves confined within the title location. Never ones to panic, this trio of brainiacs approaches the predicament from a viewpoint of experimental fact-finding and solution. The three’s methodical interest in each subsequent clue, dispensed through a sliding panel in the locale’s only visible doorway, provides Harnetiaux’s audience with the opportunity to “play along,” as it were.
   The venue’s eye-catching set, courtesy of scenic designer Amanda Knehans, is most ingenious—not so much in that there are hidden secrets but rather for its multidimensional appearance despite what would seem a rather bland choice of palettes with which Knehans had to work. Likewise, Rebecca Raines’s lighting, along with perfectly cued sound effects courtesy of Dean Harada, and various projected graphics provided by Kjai Block, transform what at first glance is merely a three-sided box into an unusually pliable playing space.

Director Megan A. McGuane and her charges wring just about every conceivable action from this setting and Harnetiaux’s script. Intentionally clipped dialogue, particularly at the onset, is delivered with a practically perfect staccato further augmenting these characters and the puzzle-like quandary they face. McGuane keeps this extended one-act moving at a pace that neither dulls the senses nor hurtles past her audience’s ability to keep up.
   Carrying the weight of this intriguing premise are Chris Gardner, Sierra Marcks, and Sarah Lilly as Mr. Payne, Ms. White, and Jennings. Initially, the characters present to the others an invention, each more bizarre than the one before. It’s the excellent manner in which Harnetiaux introduces these personages without relying on unnecessarily lengthy back stories. No matter that none of these contraptions has any sort of practical application. They just add to the humorously bizarre nature of the plot.
   Gardner’s lankiness and obvious deftness with physical comedy is on full display throughout the production. Marcks does an equally excellent job capturing the intellectual sensuality so apparent to the viewer but to which her character is oblivious. And Lilly is spot-on perfect as Jennings, their maturely defined, British-accented colleague who would perfectly usurp the old boys’ club as the first female version of James Bond’s gadget procuring “Q.”

Throughout the piece, all sorts of oddities make their way into the proceedings. Some are immediately apparent, others only make sense upon witnessing Harnetiaux’s surrealistic conclusion. Most notable are what the characters do with what is supposedly the world’s last deck of playing cards (kudos to prop designer Andrea Ruth) and Gardner’s and Marcks’s expertly executed tango, choreography credited to Nancy Dobbs Owen and Ana Cardenas, which Lilly narrates with escalating passion.
   Without divulging the denouement, this company’s first-rate production values and all around onstage artistry make it a lot of fun trying to wrap your brain around this mind-bender of a tale.

August 22, 2017
Aug 17–Sept 16. 1517 N Cahuenga Blvd, Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $20-25. (323) 856-8611.



Other Desert Cities
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Rafael Goldstein and Melora Marshall
Photo by Miriam Geer

What happens in other people’s homes behind closed doors? That’s the stuff of so much Great American Theater. Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities will likely join the pantheon of those works, despite a few already dated references. But family dynamics, political clashes, addictions and depression will always be with us—and are exquisitely rendered for the stage here.
   And what happens when a family member wants to very publicly disclose very private family secrets? Here, daughter Brooke writes a memoir about her politically radical elder brother, a topic her parents have buried along with their son.
   Brooke’s parents, Polly and Lyman Wyeth, have settled into a comfortable retirement of early morning tennis games, quickly followed by nonstop unabashed alcohol consumption yet a cigarette habit they hide from each other. They have also settled into a Palm Springs lifestyle with their Reaganite circle of friends—including Nancy, whom Polly has modeled herself on.
   Now it’s Christmas, and the grown children are back in the fold. Brooke has come in from Sag Harbor for the first time in years, having been hospitalized for a “breakdown.” Her younger brother, Trip, is here on a holiday break from producing television schlock. Polly’s sister, Silda, is fresh from rehab.

Director Mary Jo DuPrey, to her artistic credit, tones down the comedy—though the script offers plenty at its start, as the Wyeths rib one another over politics and lifestyle. DuPrey instead heads straight for the souls of these characters, each of whom is utterly human.
   Her cast is stupendous, in their individual characterizations and working together as an ensemble to create a feeling of a family that knows itself and yet doesn’t.
   Mark Bramhall plays Lyman, a former movie star and now a stately but loving patriarch. Ellen Geer plays Polly, a former Hollywood writer who hasn’t lost her quick wit but who has given up that life to take care of a family that might not want her care.
   Willow Geer takes on Brooke, who has been through life’s worst and survived but still fears her parents. Rafael Goldstein is the delightful Trip, always the baby of the family yet who wisely fends off a caregiving role.
   Melora Marshall, an actor who has made herself court jester in decades of Theatricum productions, at last plays it straight here in what may be her best performance yet. She gives a magnificent portrayal of the tenuously recovering alcoholic Silda, childlike and yet a former successful writer in the unwelcoming world of movies, holding fast to leftist ideals amid her right-wing hosts.
   Most notable among the design elements are costumes by Vicki Conrad. Lyman wears classics, Trip wears Hollywood comfy, Silda and Brooke wear loose-waisted clothing to accommodate the anti-depressant weight gain, and Polly gets a ladies-who-lunch kaftan that’s a gem.

This play tells a very specific story about this particular family. And yet the entire opening-night audience was noticeably gripped by it as the Wyeths’ long-kept secret was recounted. How many families have kept truths like these to themselves? How many have been torn apart by politics and war, in America and perhaps in those “other desert cities” halfway across the world?

July 10, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

July 8–Oct 1. 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Repertory schedule, but in general evenings at 7:30pm, matinees at 3:30pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. The theater is outdoors, cushions available for rent. $10–$38.50. (310) 455-3723.



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First National Tour at Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Michael Luwoye and Isaiah Johnson
Photo by Joan Marcus

“How.” That’s the first word of Hamilton. The word, as a question, repeats throughout.
   Pretty much everyone who has seen or heard this musical agrees it is genius. The question remains, how did Lin-Manuel Miranda come up with this miracle?
   How does he tell the story of Alexander Hamilton in lyrics and music? Yes, music. Despite the “rap,” the score includes melody, harmony, and counterpoint.
   How does he tell a story that is in essence about writing, yet his writing almost entirely escapes self-consciousness and self-referentiality?
   And once Miranda created the piece, how did director Thomas Kail set it on the stage, so the audience sees and feels the story? (The first national tour is reviewed here, in its run at Pantages Theatre.)
   And how did Hamilton, the forgotten Founding Father of our nation, climb so high and fall so far. How did this orphan boy from the Caribbean get to America, rise within political ranks, create our financial system, and then plummet amid the vehement jealousy surrounding him?

Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry), self-described as “the damn fool that shot him,” narrates Hamilton’s story. The main figures in Hamilton’s life quickly appear onstage. Indeed, if the show has a fault, it’s that so much rich material goes by so quickly. This work doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator.
   As early as the opening number, the pairing of roles the actors play reveals more of the show’s genius. We hear that Hamilton’s son Philip (Rubén J. Carbajal) and his friend John Laurens (Carbajal again) died for him; Hercules Mulligan and James Madison (both played by Mathenee Treco), Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (both by Jordan Donica) “fought with him.”
   His wife Eliza (Solea Pfeiffer), her sister Angelica (Emmy Raver-Lampman), and too-close neighbor Maria (Amber Iman, doubling as third sister Peggy) passionately loved him. George Washington (Isaiah Johnson) wisely trusted him.
   With all this support and admiration, how could Hamilton fail? That’s the story here, as tragic as the Greeks ever wrote about.

Miranda’s music is as eloquent as his lyrics. Hamilton is energized, never cool, never laid-back. Even in his old age, there’s an underlying drive. The score begins in optimism. College drinking songs ensue. Revolution foments and, in a military march, “Yorktown” provides a stunning summary of the 1781 battle.
   At the top of Act Two, Miranda introduces Jefferson with syncopated jazz, cool and swinging. Hamilton’s downfall is propulsive and slightly atonal. His final correspondence with Burr is a polite minuet. Eliza’s finale is filigreed and knife sharp.
   Kail stages the nonstop, sung-through score vividly and fluidly. On David Korins’s multilevel set of brick and wood, seemingly not yet completed just as our nation’s history wasn’t and isn’t, Kail creates the action. It spans shipboard through polite drawing rooms and tough-talking cabinet rooms to the Weehawken dueling grounds.
   Perhaps better for the storytelling, no lead performances stand out as star turns, though the voices are captivating. Catching attention here is an oversized portrayal of snide, gleeful King George III by the wryly effervescent Rory O’Malley (chosen to give the post-show speech on opening night, warmly recognizing the behind-the-scenes theatermakers, including understudies and standbys).
   Likewise remarkable is Howell Binkley’s lighting. It changes the locale, mood, and tone of the story. One of the benefits of sitting in the balcony for this production is seeing the lighting from that angle.

These are the “hows” of the production. What of the “hows” of the characters? How did Hamilton fall? The same way he rose: through a dangerous mix of tremendous ego, tremendous ambition, and tremendous talent.
   How did Eliza survive her husband’s extramarital affair and her son’s death? She grew a steely spine and stepped out of her self-absorbed unhappiness to take action, to help others, to document her husband’s history. She’s a vital part of telling this story and, as women can manage to do, she gets the last, poignant, word.
   This show is indeed genius. The remaining “how” is how to afford and obtain tickets.

August 21, 2017
Aug 16–Dec 30. 6233 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. $85–750. (800) 982-2787.



Triptych Theatre Company at Vs. Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Jamie Wollrab
Photo by Kate Danson Photography

Driving home from a summer job making sandwiches, in a grisly road accident, a 17-year old killed his 9-year-old sister. Fifteen years later, he talks about it—the collision, his family’s reactions, coping—in playwright Adam Rapp’s Nocturne.
   It’s in production by Triptych Theatre at the tiny Vs. Theatre in West Los Angeles, where we listen, breathlessly, to a 90-minute monologue that takes us down that road and the others traveled in search of forgiveness.
   Grief and guilt form the massive foundations on which Rapp builds his story, a tour-de-force piece, named for the Grieg piano piece the boy played at competitions—winning the smaller ones but never a big one.

Jamie Wollrab portrays the unnamed young man here, under the co-direction of James Eckhouse and Richard Schiff. Fortunately, the two directors seem to have agreed on a point-of-view for the production. It’s less musical than visual, not focusing on the piece’s musical forms nor on its intriguing use of language. But it’s certainly deeply grounded in the emotions of this family.
   Rapp wrote the middle of three scenes—the second movement, musically speaking—in the third-person voice, as The Son undoubtedly finds it easier to look at his life from the outside. Wollrab pulls out stacks of books, reads the titles, uses the tomes to create furniture in the New York City walkup with its bathtub in the kitchen. Behind upstage scrims, a piano, crashed car, and typewriter are illuminated as The Son’s memory educes them (scenic design by David Mauer).
   Wollrab works a mere few feet from the audience, his sad eyes looking like they’ve done 15 years of crying. His despondency floods the stage. But he recognizes the healing power of humor and lets it make him crack a smile or even a wry laugh.
   Wollrab also beautifully embodies the playful little girl, the fragile mother and the hoarse father, as The Son remembers them. Guilt and grief hang over The Son’s every thought and action. The law and the facts absolved him from guilt—yes, he was speeding, but the brakes failed. Still, his parents won’t forgive him, nor will he forgive himself.
   In Christina Bushner’s costume design, The Son’s clothing is clean but not pressed or polished, as if he can get only so far in his daily tasks, as if cleanliness alone is ample for where he is in life.

On opening night, one of the stage’s hanging lighting fixtures flickered noticeably, sometimes distractingly. Things happen, even in the city’s large theaters, and repairs probably began as soon as the audience filed out. But Wollrab’s actorly concentration was so intense, he either didn’t notice or he retained his professionalism and committed to his character’s story. People face bigger problems, greater worries, than a flickering Fresnel, and this production reminds us to heal our hearts and not sweat the superficialities.

July 24, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

Run of this show has ended.

Animal Farm
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum,

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Lea Madda, Holly Hawk, Thad Geer, and Jacquelin Schofield
Photo by Liam Flanders

While Big Brother watches over Broadway as George Orwell’s 1984 plays there through this summer, our own Topanga Canyon is putting the neigh in neighbors with Orwell’s Animal Farm. The legendary author’s decades-old writing remains horrifyingly pertinent.
   Orwell’s 1945 novel about tyranny and corruption, adapted for the stage in 1984 by British director Peter Hall, still shines through, despite being told in a mildly musical theater form with lyrics by Adrian Mitchell and music by Richard Peaslee.
   It follows the politically satiric novel most Americans read in school days gone by, and perhaps still do, in which Orwell posits a farm that symbolizes a nation, likely pre-revolutionary Russia, the various animals standing in for groups and classes of humans.
   Though, if the audience on the evening reviewed is any indication, too many readers have forgotten the climactic point in the fable at which the animals’ set of ethics is changed by leaders whose absolute power corrupts absolutely.

On Mr. Jones’s farm, the animals that have served humans so faithfully rebel, at first under the righteous principles set forth by the aged boar Old Major (Thad Geer) after Mr. Jones (Steve Fisher) falls victim to alcohol.
   The pigs take charge, led by a troika. And we know how well it goes when three people in political power share leadership “equally.” Here, we have the idealist Snowball (Christopher Yarrow), the power-hungry Napoleon (Mark Lewis) and Squealer (Melora Marshall), who serves as press secretary with an ever-ready set of alternative facts to feed the masses.
   Minimus (Holly Hawk), a pig and writer by trade, turns her talents to propaganda and national anthems, inspiring the sheep (Maya Brattkus, Bridgette Campbell, Jessica Gillette, and Matthew Pardue) to follow the leaders docilely.
   The horses show more independence. Mollie (Lea Madda) prefers capitalist comforts and her pretty possessions. Boxer (Max Lawrence) on the other hand, thoroughly buys into the propaganda. Clover (Katherine Griffith) seems to play by the rules but listens carefully.
   The hens (perpetually twitching Bethany Koulias, Jordann Zbylski, and Lauren Zbylski, with Cameron Rose as their rooster) demand a better future for their chicks. Few, however, heed the raven Moses (Clayton Cook), who speaks of a better afterlife.
   The wisest among the animals are of course the literate ones: skeptical old donkey Benjamin (Rodrick Jean-Charles) and collegial goat Muriel (Jackie Nicole).

Animals “disappear,” some in purges and some in trucks that back up onto the farm and ominously entice creatures onboard (one of the many clever, sardonic set and prop items from designer Ernest McDaniel).
   The story is framed by two young narrators, reading from the novel. Sierra Rose Friday and Shane McDermott do spot-on work, particularly Friday’s marvelously clear enunciation.
   Several other actors give beautifully crafted physical and vocal portrayals. Among them are Madda as the delightfully chipper prancing horse Mollie, Jacquelin Schofield as a girlishly excitable piglet, and Lawrence as the too devoted cart horse Boxer. They might not even need Vicki Conrad’s spectacular costuming to create their characters, though those costumes add to the visual marvels of seeing a show in this outdoor setting.
   Once again over the theater’s long history, this time headed by lighting designer Zach Moore, the tech crew conquers the challenge of lighting a show from daylight through sunset to darkness, the times and angles of which change daily throughout the theater’s season.
   Unfortunately, the weedy songs add nothing, except a few skilled musicians, to the proceedings. The songs have no emotional heft, add nothing narratively. Fortunately, the show zips along around them.

So the sum total impresses, under Ellen Geer’s picturesque yet purposeful direction. That Orwell’s tale still resonates powerfully is inspiring and dismaying. That the history of the venue permeates the production is likewise remarkable (Will Geer and his family built the space in the 1950s as a refuge for fellow McCarthy-Blacklisted artists). The venue is as sturdy a reminder as Orwell’s writings are that we usually recognize our clear and present dangers. Now, what to do about them?

June 26, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
June 24–Oct 1. 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Repertory schedule, but in general evenings at 7:30pm, matinees at 3:30pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. The theater is outdoors, cushions available for rent. $10–$38.50. (310) 455-3723.


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