Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare)
Blank Theatre Company at Skylight Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Tony Abatemarco and Time Winters
Photo by Rick Baumgartner

Shakespeare wrote about the then-1,600-year-old assassination of a great leader way back in 1599, and The Tragedy of Julius Caesar has been told and retold for more than four centuries since then. It’s hard to know, just on the off chance that our poor victimized planet survives for 400 more, if the story of the assassination of John F. Kennedy will prove in the future to be equally enduring.
   The Blank Theatre’s founder and artistic director Daniel Henning has been obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, including all the various conspiracy theories surrounding it, since he was a teenager. Twenty-five years ago, while studying one of the Bard’s greatest epics, Henning saw the connection, and the idea for The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) began to germinate. Using mostly dialogue directly lifted from the text of Julius Caesar, Henning adapted the work and updated the characters to become the ghosts of some of our country’s most powerful modern emperors and their advisors. Both Kennedy brothers, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, and other various pivotal historical figures during one of the most destructive moments of the 20th century tell their own horrendous tale in classic fashion, their usual tunics and laurel wreaths replaced by Naila Aladdin Sanders’s quintessentially drab but impressively accurate 1960s costuming.

Here, the prime schemer is Hoover, played with an eerie malevolence by the brilliant Tony Abatemarco, so believable in his familiar, slightly revised lyrical arguments aimed at convincing his powerful comrades to commit an immoral politically motivated murder at the highest level, that it’s not hard to conceive this as possibly how it originally unfolded. Persuading his lover Clyde Tolson, Allen Dulles, and McGeorge Bundy (played by Cris D’Annunzio, Bruce Nehlsen, and Jacob Sidney, respectively), among other real-life members of the good ol’ GOP, to follow him on his quest to get rid of their president is scary enough, but when he drags Kennedy’s vice president into their malignant fold, the story does truly reach, if you’ll excuse the reference, Shakespearean proportions.
   As Johnson, the performance of Time Winters is uncanny and the heart of this production, which would be hard to imagine without his unique talents. The always arresting actor, who makes most of his living speaking in a slickly adopted British accent, totally nails Johnson’s Texas drawl, not to mention his usual lumbering shyness and perpetual deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression that so successfully hid the man’s huge and incredibly ambitious bravado. Susan Denaker is also a standout as Johnson’s wife Lady Bird, whose suspicions of what is about to happen tears her between loyalty to her husband and a quiet horror for the implications.
   As Bobby Kennedy, Chad Brannon comes into his own after the death of his brother, where Henning has fiercely adapted Mark Antony’s commanding “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” monologue to be delivered over the late president’s American flag-draped casket. Under the nearly seamlessly fluid direction of Henning, who moves his large ensemble of players around the narrow Skylight Theatre stage as though engineering a perfect chess game, his entire supporting cast is uniformly and gloriously committed to the material.

This world premiere makes for a fascinating evening, and the sheer inventiveness of the project elicits high praise. This doesn’t mean there’s not still room for improvement, however, as the nearly two-hour intermissionless journey tends to become something of a one-trick pony. Once the premise is established and the correlation between the two stories becomes a given, where the action will go next and which moments of Shakespeare’s text will cleverly adapt into the new-told tale settles into a predictability that’s something of an inevitability.
   Perhaps the play might more effectively conclude following the emotionally rousing and imaginatively conceived musical moment featuring the spirited Civil Rights anthem “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” performed by the entire company joined at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. After that crescendoing moment, we squirm with dread knowing what will happen next to Martin Luther King (Brett Collier) and RFK, and, as Bobby falls, his death signals a rather indecisive and abrupt ending to the play. If this additional remembrance of more unnecessary carnage could be eliminated, or if it were followed by one of Will’s more pointed sonnets or some other speech that could sum up the point, it would be, well, a consummation devoutly to be wished.

October 9, 2016
Oct. 1–Nov. 6. 1816-1/2 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. Allow ample time for parking. Fri 8:30pm Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission. $25-35. (323) 661-9827.



The Play About the Baby
The Road on Magnolia

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Philip Orazio and Taylor Gilbert
Photo by Michele Young

Edward Albee, the father of the Americanization of the Theatre of the Absurd, was a huge supporter of the later work of Tennessee Williams. He believed strongly and vocally, as so many others have, that it was the disastrous critical reaction to this infinitely less-orthodox period in the great playwright’s body of work that killed him. Beyond that, he also believed those more-daring plays of Williams’s last gasps of genius, stubbornly determined to test the boundaries of his art while trying to regain his footing at literary greatness, were some of his best.
   When Albee wrote the strikingly bizarre The Play About the Baby in 1998, despite becoming a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama a few years later, the reviews along the way—though not as overtly brutal as they had been for poor Tennessee in his similar twilight years of groundbreaking theatrical exploration—were decidedly mixed. Many people seemed to forget that long before the amazing though more-conventionally rendered Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, Albee received his first accolades of his career with incredibly unfathomable and decidedly unstructured plays such as The Sandbox, The Zoo Story, and The American Dream. “Sometimes,” Albee said of this turn, “a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.”

The plot revolves around a young married couple who appear to be blissfully in love and as horny as rabbits in a field of steroid-soaked carrots. For The Boy (Phillip Orazio), the birth of their baby seems mostly to be a thrill because The Boy can share the mother’s milk from the left breast of The Girl (Allison Blaize), a surprising tableau performed onstage live in director Andre Barron’s no-holds-barred production. Their happy nirvana of an existence and frequent naked gambols chasing each other from one side of the stage to the other is interrupted by the unexpected appearance of a well-put-together older couple (Sam Anderson and Taylor Gilbert), whose arrival seems generated by not much more than to throw a horrifying wrench into the young folks’ idyllic reveries. “Without the wound of a broken heart,” The Man explains, “how do you know you’re still alive?”
   The first act introduces the dense subterfuge of Albee’s point, the crashing together of our unrealistic and capricious concepts about family and love, and how those notions swerve from fantasy into the realities of our often treacherous personal journeys through life. Under the deft direction of Barron guiding the engaging, confident delivery of Gilbert and Anderson in their characters’ demonstrative efforts to take control—often speaking directly to the audience about the absurdity of where the play itself is going—this is experimental Albee at its most accessible.
   The second act, however, as the older couple’s sinister intentions are revealed, gets a little bogged down and repetitive, as though the playwright felt the need to perform a theatrical coup de fouet so the dumbasses who go to see his plays will sit up and take notice of what he was trying to say. This makes it a greater challenge for Barron and his cast to maneuver Albee’s at-times nearly impenetrable text, yet this fine ensemble trudges through the persistent pitfalls with consummate skill and palpable passion to tell the convoluted story regardless of the degree of difficulty.

Road Theatre’s respectful and exquisitely mounted turn bringing this risky play to life should have been able to be touted as a West Coast premiere had it not been, according to the company’s founder and co-artistic director Gilbert, for the direct objection to that concept by the notoriously hands-on and infamously cranky Albee. Beyond insisting upon personal final authorization before anyone could be granted rights to any of his plays over the last decade or more, including demanding approval regarding casting, set design, and even costuming, he would not grant this production the premiere distinction since he would not be able to be there for the opening.
   There must have been some odd and disquieting feelings floating around and blanketing the Road’s opening night, which coincided with the announcement of the great playwright’s death at age 88 only a few hours earlier. If there would be any credence to the idea of ghosts and unsettled spirits hovering over the earth after their passing, the spectral Albee wouldn’t have been far away from Magnolia Boulevard that night—and after seeing what Barron and his company have accomplished with the creation of one of his often misunderstood works, the guy could definitely rest in peace.

September 26, 2016
Sept. 16–Nov. 5. 10747 Magnolia Blvd. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $17.50–34. (818) 761-8838.



Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror
Crown City Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Michael J. Marchak
Photo by DayrlJim Photography

This staged homage to German director F. W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, performed as silently as its source material, is a spectacularly inventive and surprisingly emotive presentation. A perfectly timed underscore, consisting of classical pieces ranging from Lizt’s energetic “Rhapsody on a Hungarian Folksong” to Prokofiev’s pounding “Battle on Ice” and even an eerily dissonant version of Eliza Flower’s “Nearer My God to Thee” (credited in the program as “Nearer My God to Me”) weaves together this seamless tale of love, horror, heroism, and tragedy.
   Having adapted his script from Henrik Galeen’s original screenplay, director William A. Reilly helms a cast of nine, which captures the cinematic style of this long-passed era. In doing so, the theatermakers collectively summon up the chilling effects and forebodingly gothic creepiness of Murnau’s original work.
   From the outset, a narrative track voiced by Saige Spinney plays on an upstage screen that offers not only black-and-white footage but also the traditional silent-film dialogue cards necessary for plotline advancement. Set in the bustling fictional German town of Wisburg, the love story of Thomas Hutter and his blushing bride, Ellen, unfolds via a beautiful pas de deux performed by Michael J. Marchak and Alina Bolshakova, who ably inhabit these characters.
   This elegant sequence is but a foretaste of choreographer Lisaun Whittingham’s exquisite work throughout the production. The company’s attention to detail in paralleling movement, whether through dance or accentuation of blocking, with the musical selections is most impressive.

As the story progresses and Marchak’s character travels to the farthest reaches of Eastern Europe in response to a real estate request placed by the mysterious Count Orlok, the remaining members of this hearty cast are featured in countless instances. Amanda Walter, Shaylynne Armstrong, Maddie Sieffert, Rolando J. Vargas, Matthew Campbell, and Kristian Steel change hats, as it were, with literally every appearance. As they act as part chorus, part stage crew, their efforts are fluid and flawless, with dozens of characters sweeping by before one’s eyes.
   Of course, every horror tale must have its monster, and here, in a seemingly perfect example of nontraditional casting, Michelle Holmes assumes the role of the dreaded Count Orlok. Sporting costumer Tanya Apuya’s spot-on re-creation of Orlok’s trimly cut, black long coat and the character’s iconic makeup design, Holmes’s graceful mannerisms belie the Count’s lurking deadliness. In particular, a second-act scene involving Orlok’s hypnotically puppet-like seduction of Ellen is masterful, as Holmes and Bolshakova interact with rhythmic precision.

Unlike today’s filmic gore fests, Murnau’s and, by extension, this moving production end with an emphasis on emotional impact rather than campy vivisectional carnage. Reilly, along with his company and design team—including Zad Potter’s lighting, Daniel Donato’s and Chris Thume’s previously mentioned projections and videos, and Joe Shea’s sound and music—provide a poignant denouement as courageousness ultimately trumps terror. It is a uniquely refreshing conclusion that makes this show a must-see for longtime fans and neophytes alike.

September 22, 2016
Sept. 8–Oct. 30. 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood (located on the campus of St. Matthew’s Church, street parking available). Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7pm. $30. (818) 605-5685.



The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
Pacific Resident Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Brad Greenquist and Ginna Carter
Photo by Vitor Martins

This Tennessee Williams play has been said to be about good and evil, illusion and reality. Being by Williams, it’s poetic. But onstage at, directed by Dana Jackson and with her thoroughly superb cast, mommy and daddy issues reach out and clutch at the audience’s throats.
   As a rewrite of his 1940s Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities feels more real, more of a psychological study and less of a classical display of symbolism. At its core, Alma Winemiller remains the eccentric nightingale, the not particularly gifted singer with the quirky mannerisms. But her spine feels steelier here, her understanding of herself is deeper. And perhaps because of this new, “improved” Alma, she is more contented with herself. We now cringe for the others around her, not for her.
   As in Summer and Smoke, Alma lives in the closed system of the Mississippi Delta just before World War I. Status depends on job titles. Popularity is based on conformity. Appearance is everything. Alma is a spinster, trying to do what her martinet father demands, trying to rise above the neighbors’ malicious misguided thoughts about her mentally ill mother.
   Oh, is she eccentric. But she is her own woman. So she can’t and won’t change for anyone. That’s apparently what draws her next-door neighbor, young physician John Buchanan, straight to her.

However, all this subtext would not be this apparent without the compassion and admiration director Jackson and the actor playing Alma clearly feel for that character. That actor is Ginna Carter, in a performance of a lifetime.
   Those who’ve seen an Alma in other productions might, frankly, be dreading a revisit with her. She can be grating, evoking disdain or pity. Not here. Here she is such an interesting, involving character, the play’s nearly three-hour running time slips by.
   There’s plenty of acting technique in here, too. Carter vibrates, not with faked, shaky distractions but with a tremendous life force that cannot be stilled. Alma’s scripted gestures have been well-considered. Even her vocal quirks have charm.
   No wonder John seems to treasure her here. Andrew Dits plays him in a remarkably subtle, also respectful performance. John understands Alma, calms her without squelching her energy, admires her, and likely is attracted to her.

But, oh, does he ever have a controlling mother. Mrs. Buchanan claims to care only that her sonny boy marry a fitting woman, not this preacher’s odd daughter with the lunatic mother (played with gentle otherworldliness by Mary Jo Deschanel). But when mommy (played to chilling smugness by Rita Obermeyer) comes into John’s bedroom, strokes his head of curls, and gives him a rather salacious foot rub, we wonder about her ultimate goal.
   Some of John’s connection with Alma likely stems from his observation, conscious or subconscious, that her father is equally controlling, but much colder about it. Rev. Winemiller (a seething, vitriolic Brad Greenquist), captive in a behavioral prison of his own making, is a ramrod, and if he can’t cruelly prod Alma into conformity, he’ll freeze her out of whatever affections he may have.
   Even in small secondary roles (decades ago, playwrights included plentiful such characters because producing budgets allowed them), the acting is polished and era-conjuring. Alma’s acquaintances—a circle of misfits, each with his or her own odd baggage—are played with care and charm by Paul Anderson, Joan Chodorow, Choppy Guillotte, and Amy Huntington, particularly good as they listen breathlessly to an offstage conversation between John and Alma. Derek Chariton plays the strange young man ensnared by Alma’s unfortunate newfound existence at the play’s end.

Helping create this eccentric world, Kis Knekt’s scenic design of Spanish moss and faded grandeur creates a dreamscape, presided over by the stone angel symbolizing and named Eternity. It’s not a set we want to move in to, but it firmly evokes time, place, and mood and holds us there.
   Williams has said Alma is his favorite character and the one closest to him. After seeing this paradigm-shifting production, it’s likely audiences will feel much the same.

July 8, 2016
June 18–Oct. 30. 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Street parking or free parking behind the theaters. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm through Aug. 14; Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm through Sept. 25 (no perf. Sept. 2, 9-11 $25–34. (310) 822-8392.


Going... Going... GONE!
Hudson Guild Theatre

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

Annie Abrams, David Babich, Troy Metcalf, and Dennis Pearson
Photo by Ed Krieger

The sitcom originated in the early days of radio, and it has become one of the most-reliable forms for writers as they spin out a storyline. Playwright Ken Levine, with credits from M*A*S*H and other notable television comedies and 25 years as a major league baseball broadcast journalist, has used this structure and set the play in a press box in a Los Angeles ballpark. The back-and-forth among four commentators as a potential no-hitter unfolds makes for some very funny moments.
   Dennis (David Babich) is a sports geek whose impressive knowledge of baseball stats qualifies him for the job he is eager to leave. Married to an overbearing wife, his only desire is to get a job with the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mason (Dennis Pearson) writes for the Los Angeles Times and bemoans the fact that there are few jobs left in journalism as evidenced by the layoffs taking place in the industry and the nearly empty press box.
   Big Jim (Troy Metcalf) is an online writer whose sarcastic one-liners, heartily delivered, ratchet up the tension as the story unfolds. Finally, pretty Shana Sanders (Annie Abrams) arrives as a substitute commentator in the all-male turf, and she quickly spars with the guys on an equal footing. Abrams’s obvious sex appeal figures into the story, but she is no caricature. Babich’s nerdy character is easily recognizable as the hard-luck guy beset by problems, functioning early on as a foil for the other characters. Pearson delivers as the baseball lover who only wants to be a good writer and keep the job that he loves.

Metcalf gets the lion’s share of the laughs as he slings one zinger after another. It’s learned early on that he isn’t blogging as he sits at his computer but playing a farm simulation game, seemingly uninterested in the actual baseball game in progress. His delivery and timing steal the show. The story is part invention, part history, and a little philosophical musing. The characters are believable, and their genuine affection shines through.
  Much of this is due to Andrew Barnicle’s directorial restraint in keeping the human side of the story paramount instead of overplaying the characterizations. He creates a warm comedy in the best tradition.
   Levine claims his inspiration for the script is a familiar theme: the need to be remembered. Mixed in with the comic moments are genuinely poignant ones that underscore this idea and guarantee that this play has more to offer than just laughs. For baseball fans, it knocks it out of the park.

October 6, 2016
Oct. 10–Nov. 20. 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $30. (323) 960-5521.



Bright Colors and Bold Patterns
Celebration Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Drew Droege

Josh and Brennan are getting married and, although the concept is something of an oxymoron, they’re holding their nuptials at a gay-friendly hotel in Palm Springs. As the LA-based tribes gather to send the couple off, one of the invitees staggers to the pool to join some of his so-called friends attempting to get a nice little desert tan before the ceremony and, perhaps, to try to get even more stoned than they presumably already are. A party is a party after all.
   There, at the hotel’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse–colored poolside designed by Dara Wishingrad, Gerry (Drew Droege) holds court in a constantly escalating haze of margaritas and more than a few nosefuls of cocaine, trashing everyone from Dorothy Zbornak and Jessica Fletcher to his ex and the ex’s far younger current boyfriend who knows nothing of the constant ’70s social references zinging right over his lovely head. The latter two of Gerry’s victims are, it seems, stretched out catching rays in adjoining chaise lounges clad in speedos, lobbing away their tormentor’s continuous barrage of caustic verbal torpedoes for a ruthless hour and a half.
   You’d think it would be vital to see the reactions of the others gathered, reluctant targets stuck at the receiving end of their friend’s abuse and accusations, but alas, this is a one-man show. Luckily for us, however, Gerry is played by his author, and Droege’s wickedly funny Bright Colors and Bold Patterns is directed by Michael Urie, so although the reactions of the group must be conjured and remain entrenched in our imaginations, the other missing characters’ responses to the abrasively obnoxious Gerry are clear as a bell. Why, you can almost see the bruises—or maybe it’s those envisaged speedos.

The title of Droege’s play comes from the wedding couple’s engraved invitation, which asks that those attending not wear—you guessed it—bright colors or bold patterns, a subtle demand by one of the grooms’ tight-assed society mothers to keep the Gay down at the event, something that infuriates Gerry more than even seeing everyone around him being happy while he, pushing 40, apparently remains drowning in another pool: the dating pool. It’s not hard to see why the guy is alone at the party and, despite his initial insistences of his own domestic contentment, it becomes obvious you’d have to be Helen Keller to put up with this guy for more than these 90 minutes.
   Droege’s ruthlessly self-deprecating humor is like the nonstop rat-a-tat-tat of a gay George Carlin clone, and no one is left standing by the show’s conclusion—particularly Gerry. Still, we laugh nonstop at the guy’s outrageous antics and continuously louder and ever more shocking proclamations, so beautifully fleshed out by his creator and the uber-clever director who guides him seamlessly in a tour-de-force performance. It also would be hard not to see how sad life can be for an old-timey gay queen trying to keep his head above water in a new world, and here is the show’s message seething up to the surface from the depths of Gerry’s flood of brutal opinions on just about everything and anyone who isn’t him.

At a time when many same-sex couples are desperately trying to homogenize into the mainstream of our society, the days of bath houses, Sunday brunch deck parties, and fast friends conspiratorially referring to each other as Mary and Grace are all but gone, and poor Gerry is a dinosaur struggling not to get buried in the La Brea Tar Pits with the rest of the fossils. It’s hard for him and many others, one would assume, to remain footloose and frenzied as everyone around you is planning to settle in a nice Orange County craftsman and adopt a few children.
   Droege’s gaudy but ultimately sad character is a sad Pierrot clown lost in the effort big time, and, even though the guy will make you laugh until you wish the Celebration Theatre’s bathroom wasn’t so far away tucked behind the building, the underlying theme of the evening is still compelling, something of a final gasp of a tribute to more carefree days past as the world evolves at lightning speed.

October 4, 2016
Sept. 26–Nov. 14. 6760 Lexington Ave., West Hollywood. Mon 8pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $20-$25. (323) 957-1884.



Blueberry Toast
Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Jacqueline Wright and Albert Dayan
Photo by Darrett Sanders

It’s a lovely sunny Sunday morning in the quintessential color-saturated suburban kitchen of Walt and Barb, who reside contentedly, it seems, in a welcoming bird-tweety neighborhood the couple acknowledges is heaven for Christians, Jews (“After all, they are the chosen people,” notes Barb), and maybe even a handful of conservative Unitarians. As Walt (Albert Dayan) reads his morning paper at their squeaky-clean, blindingly white kitchen table, Barb (Jacqueline Wright) straps on her freshly ironed apron to start preparing her hubby’s breakfast.
   Despite Walt’s insistence that he isn’t hungry, his impeccably Stepford-y little wifey won’t let it go. “You look ran-vuss, dear!” she insists. When Walt realizes Barb won’t give up, evidenced by her standing behind him whimpering like a badly wounded cat, he finally agrees to be served breakfast, something she finds to be, in her sweetly ordered everyday world, to be just plain wonderful. Anything he wants to eat, she tells him, will be his. Anything his “little teeny tiny heart” desires. A towering plate of blueberry toast is Walt’s eventual request—as well as the title of Mary Laws’s outrageous and wickedly funny world premiere black comedy.
   Unfortunately, it seems what Walt meant to request was blueberry pancakes, but Barb has worked hard to fabricate her new culinary creation, adding honey and smooshing lemon into the blueberries to make her concoction more special. Walt does not want her blueberry toast, regardless of how many times Barb remakes and tosses out the same dish with escalating frustration. And even as their adolescent children (played to Pee-wee’s Playhouse precision by adult actors Alexandra Freeman and Michael Sturgis) enter occasionally to perform chapters of their new play, each section featuring titles such as “The Dark and Humble Joys of Mankind,” things quickly unravel in the picture-perfect world of Walt and Barb.

Director Dustin Wills has no filter, fortunately, because nothing should be held back in Laws’s frantic romp devolving from Beaver Cleaver-land to Mad Max-dom, and no one could find the primal monster within the verbally abused and obviously cheated upon Barb than LA’s own counterculture theatrical heroine Wright. Only a handful of people in her unique category could so totally embrace this role and abandon the thin veneer of civilized behavior as successfully as she does. As Walt, Dayan gleefully goes along for the ride of his life, shouldering the task of becoming a physical punching bag of a Bud Abbott to Wright’s delightfully terrifying Lou Costello from hell.
   Amanda Knehans’s incredibly cheery primary color–washed set, whimsically adorned with the children’s Rorschach test–inspired art, random Quaker Oats boxes, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt containers, and an ADT Security Service Sticker slapped inconspicuously on the patio’s sliding glass door, becomes a fifth character in the story, particularly as her work is systematically destroyed during the play’s jaw-dropping 90-minutes of uproarious bad behavior. From the time Barb hurls her first real egg, in what appears to be aimed directly into the front row of the audience, to the final survival-of-the-fittest blood-spurting battle on the slippery tile floor, splendidly devised by fight choreographer Ahmed Best, Blueberry Toast is an E-ticket ride worthy of an interactive Halloween haunted house. Just to realize it takes three workers another 90 minutes each night to restore the stage to its sparkling bright glory tells it all.

So many playwrights would be lost without the dysfunctional nuclear family to shred, but if—and only if—it’s lampooned as flawlessly as Laws manages and it’s as beautifully produced, directed, and acted as by this stellar ensemble of courageously uninhibited artists, the overkilled genre can skirt getting too terribly old. Fighting off the anxieties of growing up banging against the ruthlessly demanding façade lurking just behind the pastoral tree-lined streets and acceptably closeted domestic lifestyles of suburban middle America can be a bear, which is what makes experiencing Blueberry Toast so satisfying. It’s oddly gratifying to see Walt and Barb crawling around their destroyed kitchen floor covered in blood and thrown food while growling like mortally wounded woodland creatures; now if only they passed out rain slickers and a few dozen eggs to the members of their audience, the experience might be just about perfect.

September 25, 2016
Sept. 17–Oct. 24. 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm, plus select Mon and Thu perfs. $30. (310) 307-3753.

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A Taste of Honey
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Sarah Underwood Saviano and Kestral Leah
Photo by Enci Box

In the late 1950s, when bad-boy playwrights Edward Bond and Joe Orton were turning the staid and politically correct world of London’s West End on its ear, an imposing young 6-foot-tall kid from a struggling working class family living in the factory-dominated city of Salford, took the evolution of modern British theater one giant leap further.
   In 1958, high school dropout Shelagh Delaney became the talk of the town when her extremely controversial A Taste of Honey debuted at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. With a shockingly cold steeliness, the play dealt not only with the harsh world in which she lived but also with previously taboo issues such as teenage pregnancy, promiscuity, single parenthood, homosexuality, interracial relationships, and England’s rampant post–World War II poverty.
   It’s the story of neglected young waif Jo, grappling to survive a life subjugated by the perpetually inebriated selfish whore of a mother she detests. Jo does so by recognizing that the darkness inside her is far scarier than the enveloping shroud of societal darkness. Yet when her first play debuted to horrified British audiences, Delaney was 18 years old.
   In this wonderfully re-envisioned revival of Delaney’s one and only truly successful work, director Kim Rubinstein, who brought her amazing talents to reinvent Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie at the Odyssey Theatre last year, has returned to the scene of her triumph to transform yet another difficult classic and make it sing a whole new tune—quite literally.
   On the Odyssey’s warehouse-like north stage, Nephelie Andonyadis’s stark set offers one room that, with lighting and a few gossamer curtains, morphs into every location in the play, also including a space upstage where drummer Gerard Joseph and standup bass manned alternately by Armando Wood and Mark Guitterrez generate evocative jazz standards of the 1950s and ’60s to enhance the ambiance of the roughhewn unfolding drama.

As Jo, the role that nearly 60 years ago made Joan Plowright a star, Kestrel Leah could not be more perfectly cast, finding with a jarringly simple sincerity all the desperation and frustration of her character’s meager, dismal existence. Jo has no filter, nor do any of Delaney’s conflicted characters, doing and saying whatever they want no matter the consequences, quickly blowing the notion of Chekhovian subtext right past the fourth wall, out the unseen filthy window of Jo and Helen’s unheated flat, and into the stinky and polluted River Irwell it faces.
   As Helen, Jo’s booze-swilling slattern of a mother, Sarah Underwood Saviano brilliantly conquers the difficult task of making her character endearing and fun to watch despite what a brazen and inexcusably awful person she is written to be. And if her blistering performance isn’t enough, Saviano grabs a saxophone in one inventive Rubinstein touch, joining the live musicians to wail mean and impressively evocative jazz riffs whenever the action permits.
   Joseph also leaves his station behind his drum set to smoothly transmute into Jimmy, the black sailor who knocks up the teenage Jo and then leaves her to fend for herself. As Geoffrey, the homeless gay art student who befriends Jo and helps her through her pregnancy so well that she sees him as like a “big sister,” Leland Montgomery is a major find here, bringing all the sadness, the sweetness, the inner strength of his character to fruition without falling into the customary stereotypical traps of Geoff’s cockney queenliness.
   Rubinstein’s Taste is undeniably rich, unhampered by the usual conventions that keep artists from exploring new ways to tell classic stories. This striking attempt is basically successful, although taking the dialogue of Helen, who perpetually speaks to herself as though having a conversation with herself (“She’s a right difficult tart, that one, now, ain’t she?”), and delivering all those lines directly to the audience robs the character of a significantly personal idiosyncrasy. The other glaring problem is the casting of the admittedly talented Eric Hunicutt as Helen’s loud and drunken suitor, who is far too young and attractive to efficaciously play the creepy Peter, playing the rough and obnoxious pub-crawler as though he were one of the cartoon-like pirates “Arrrrgh-ing” his way through a journey onboard Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl.

Still, in general this is a phenomenally accessible new telling of Delaney’s melancholy, gloomy, importantly unrepentant tale. It’s clear that Rubinstein has strived to do something daring while still honoring and celebrating the author’s uncanny ability to create such world-worn, bluntly unsentimental characters. The groundbreaking play was surprising successful at a time when few English playwrights were willing to explore such darkness and dysfunction in their society. Although no longer scandalous or shocking, in the astoundingly innovative theatrical vision of Rubinstein, it’s evocative and moving all over again.

October 6, 2016
Oct. 1–Nov. 27. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Wed or Thu 8pm (alternating weeks), Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25-$34, discounts available. 310-477-2055 ext. 2.



The Ithaca Ladies Read Medea
Little Fish Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Kristin Carey and James Rice
Photo by Mickey Elliott

Arthur M. Jolly’s nobly intelligent play The Ithaca Ladies Read Medea is an antidote to the social media mindset by which we’re communicating these days. In the play’s world premiere at Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro, it provides the thoughtful theatergoer with food and shelter.
   It is, however, quite elliptical, leaving it up to the audience to read between the lines. Where some playwrights don’t trust their audience enough, Jolly presumes a smart audience. But that audience will work harder than most to put the pieces together.
   He posits a set of university wives in the 1950s, gathering once per month to gripe and read plays aloud. Though they’re an eclectic group in age and temperament, each wife is articulate and opinionated.
   But it’s the McCarthy Era. One of the wives wrote a letter to the university dean, suggesting that the political leanings of one of their husbands ought to be “considered.” This letter, or someone’s redrafting of it, somehow wended its way to the US Senate.

The eldest and most humorous wife in the group, Elsie (Mary-Margaret Lewis), is married to the dean of Comparative Literature. He had the foresight to focus on Irish writings. The perfectionist Alison (Kristin Carey) is married to a professor who translated Lermontov from its original Russian. That and a few casual comments have led the federal government to investigate him, his colleagues and their wives.
   The wheelchair-bound Adelaide (Shirley Hatton) is naive in the way people with rigid beliefs can be, while Bridget (Marti Hale) is naive in an unthinking way. Among Jolly’s points: Plunging one’s head into the sand is a bad way to deal with demagoguery.
   On this evening, the women are at Alison’s tickety-boo home, where her new maid, Katie (Tara Donovan), tries to make a good impression while sticking to her personal beliefs about honesty. Also new to these gatherings is Bridget’s young niece, Marcie (Kathryn Farren), whose head swims amid the machinations.
   Interspersed throughout the evenings are four flashback segments from the Senate interrogations, as each wife appears before the McCarthyite Sen. Karl Mundt (James Rice), a real-life Republican senator of the era. Each wife handles herself characteristically, notably Alison as she invokes the Fifth Amendment, and Elsie as she slyly acts the ditz.

Jolly has adeptly captured the speech of the era. He also captures the straits women lived in. Alison, imprisoned in grooming and propriety, decides that acting “like a lady” at all times trumps truthful communication.
   But some of the issues he quietly raises continue today. People who gave sons to the war are having their patriotism called into question. Entities keep track of what we read (or buy or download or stream) and interpret what that suggests about us. It took decades for Americans with disabilities to be able to wheel down adequately wide hallways and over ramps in curbs.
   But mostly, the characters note, a stain lasts forever, even one that’s barely visible, whether on a carpet or on one’s reputation.
   Director Danielle Ozymandias nicely re-creates the era in look and tone. A few moments of her staging distract rather than enhance, such as her decision to line up the actors downstage for the reading aloud of Euripides’ Medea.
   One major element of the staging, keeping the senator watching over the action throughout the play, is particularly disconcerting. That likely is the writer’s and director’s purpose: to remind the audience of how oppressive and intrusive that era must have felt, and to make us ponder what we would have done had we been in their vintage shoes.

September 26, 2016
Sept. 23–Oct. 22. 777 Centre St., San Pedro. Entrance and parking behind the theater; access through alley between 7th and 8th streets. Fri-Sat 8pm (additional 2pm performance Oct. 16). Running time: 2 hours, including intermission. $25-27. (310) 512-6030.



Baby Doll
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Daniel Bess and Lindsay LaVanchy
Photo by Ed Krieger

In the mid-1950s, Tennessee Williams worked with his unacknowledged dramaturge Elia Kazan to turn his short-form 1946 “Mississippi Delta comedy,” 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, into a screenplay. The result was the controversial 1956 film Baby Doll, which transformed the one-act’s leading role of Flora from a possibly mentally challenged and severely overweight housewife with a scratch into the ultra-sexy Carroll Baker.
   Flora became Baby Doll Meighan, a 19-year-old child bride who, when she turns 20 a few days later, must submit to becoming her older and brutal husband Archie’s wife in more than name only. Kazan’s film set off a major hullabaloo, culminating when the Catholic Legion of Decency gave it a “C” rating—as in “Condemned”—and the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman, declared from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral that Catholics would be committing a mortal sin if they watched it.
   Asked if he had seen the film and was not just basing his disapproval on the huge and highly scandalous billboard that dominated Times Square showing Baker in a sheer nightgown lying in a disheveled child’s crib and suggestively sucking her thumb, Spellman replied, “If you know the water is tainted, why would you want drink it?” Years later, the late Eli Wallach, who made his career-making film debut in the movie, was quoted as saying, “I didn’t want the cardinal to drink the water, damn it, just to see the film.” Under pressure and the scrutiny of the times, the studio pulled Baby Doll from general distribution only two weeks after its release, but that didn’t stop it from being recognized for what it was: one of the best movies of that year and, for many Tenn-ophiles, perhaps the very best screen version of a Williams play. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay, and Kazan won a Golden Globe as Best Director.
   Baker, like Wallach, later admitted she and everyone else who had worked on the film had no idea the material would be perceived as prurient. It was believed that the main cause célèbre was the notorious seduction scene between Baker and Wallach, as his character attempts to sexually arouse her on a tree swing. Many critics argued that Silva Vacarro, Wallach’s character, was diddling Baby Doll under her dress since his hands aren’t visible in their lengthy and lingering close-up. According to both actors, however, it was shot that way because of freezing weather conditions that day in Benoit, Miss.—so cold they sucked ice before the cameras rolled to keep steam from escaping their mouths—and Kazan had put heaters around them just below camera range to keep them from shivering.

Truly noteworthy above everything else about this theatrical version of the one of Williams’s only projects created expressly for film is this adaptation by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann, the first to be approved by the playwright’s rigid and highly protective estate. Laville and Mann have not just retooled the tale to fit the confines of a stage presentation, they have done so without altering Williams’s words; every single line in their clever revision was lifted from, and pays exquisite homage to, Williams’s screenplay.
   In it, as workers come to repossess all the Meighans’ five rooms of furniture being paid for over time, Jake (John Prosky), the odious husband of Baby Doll (Lindsay LaVanchy) plots to get his faltering cotton gin back in the black after a huge syndicate mill opens in town, run by Vacarro (Daniel Bess), that has stolen all the business from the locals. As the Sicilian-born Vacarro hosts a party in town to help relieve the tensions, Jake sneaks onto his property and burns down his mill. Vacarro suspects what happened but cannot prove it, so decides to seek revenge by seducing his rival’s young bride while she’s still pulling her Lysistrata routine on her miserably horny husband.
   None of the characters who inhabit the ramshackle Meighan farm is terribly likable, making the actors and director Simon Levy’s task even harder than usual. Prosky is a menacing, perfectly creepy Jake who, as Silva notes to his lovely prey, sweats more than any man he knows, a statement he amends with “Now I see why” after meeting the sensuous but celibate Baby Doll, who without any debate could easily out-nymphet Lolita. Still, the role of Jake is not without its stereotypical problems, giving Prosky little place to go; Jake is as loud and obnoxious and racist in the first scene as he is at the end, hampering the difficult journey any actor playing it must traverse.
   Bess is a suitably sultry and macho Vacarro, and his swingin’ seduction scene bursts with scorching sensuality. Still, both men are overshadowed by the remarkably idiosyncratic, truly mesmerizing turn by LaVanchy, who morphs the cartoonish Baby Doll into a rich, nearly defenseless character for whom one might almost feel just a touch of sympathy.
   And while mentioning performances sure to elicit a pang of compassion, as Baby Doll’s vacant-headed Aunt Rose Comfort McCorkle, Karen Kondazian, so well known and honored for playing many of Williams’s lusty and often coarse leading female characters, makes a U-turn that any appropriately rabid fan of her work will find to be something of a shock. Her dotty and lost Aunt Rose, who sports a ratty grey wig that looks as though it might house a nest of sparrows, lives a foggy nomadic existence, camping out with and cooking terrible meals for her sea of relatives to earn her keep. Kondazian delivers a miraculous performance; never has she been so vulnerable or courageous, adding a fantastic and unexpected twist to her celebrated career interpreting all those quirky, bawdy anti-heroines generated inside the unsettled mind of the greatest playwright of the 20th century.

With the boost from Laville and Mann’s crafty, respectful adaptation, venerated Williams interpreter Levy has done wonders as well at restaging the piece, although by the nature of the art form, there are elements of the film that are conspicuously absent, such as the pivotal rotting floor of the Meighans’ farmhouse attic, the vast and desolate wasteland surrounding Archie’s depressingly unfertile Delta property, and even the couple’s cluttered kitchen that in the movie resembled a long-neglected storage shed behind a disintegrating barn on American Pickers. Somehow, even though the original’s moody and stark black-and-white aesthetic is—understandably—missing, Levy, his veteran design team, and this stellar cast make up for the disparity, fashioning a bleak atmosphere all their own. Ol’ Tenn would be thrilled to see his Baby Doll return to such glorious life once again.

August 13, 2016
July 16–Oct. 30. 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Secure onsite parking. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, Mon 8pm. $15–35, Mondays are pay-what-you-can. (323) 663-1525.


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