All the Way
South Coast Repertory
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
Hugo Armstrong and JD Cullum
Photo courtesy South Coast Rep
In a tableau framed by a Greek colonnade with the US seal prominently placed centerstage, Robert Schenkkan’s political rouser revisits the moments following John Kennedy’s assassination as Lyndon Johnson (Hugo Armstrong) seizes the reins of power and steps into the presidency. Atop the columns on a raised stage stands a cast of characters who will both ally themselves with Johnson and oppose him, and that is the stuff of his ardent pursuit of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Towering over these key players in stature and temperament, Johnson at his desk centerstage keeps the focus on his Oval Office machinations. In spotlighted vignettes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Larry Bates), Stokely Carmichael (Christian Henley), Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Rosney Mauger), and the like strategize their political opportunities for the long-awaited legislation that would give Negroes, as they were called then, more equality in society.
At Johnson’s right side, Hubert Humphrey (JD Cullum) plays surrogate for a promised vice-presidency to Johnson’s ambition. Herbert Hoover (Robert Curtis Brown), equally covetous of power with wiretapped evidence and investigative secrets, serves the president. Other towering figures of the time—Sen. Everett Dirkson and Strom Thurmond (Hal Landon Jr.), the powerful conservative Democrat Howard “Judge” Smith (William Francis McGuire), Gov. George Wallace (Jeff Marlow), and Robert McNamara (Bo Foxworth)—have telling exchanges as Johnson tries to manipulate the events prior to his re-election the following year.
Also notable are Larry John Meyers as Sen. Richard Russell and Emanuel Celler, Gregg Daniel as Roy Wilkins, and Jordan Bellow as Bob Moses and Dave Dennis in the civil rights camp.
The women of the play are secondary characters, even though we know wealthy Lady Bird Johnson (Nike Doukas) wielded her own power in Texas. Others were Lurleen Wallace and Muriel Humphrey (Lynn Gallagher) and Coretta Scott King and the civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer (Tracey A. Leigh).
Darin Singleton plays a pivotal role as Walter Jenkins, Johnson’s right-hand aide, largely instrumental in achieving many of the president’s goals. His arrest and resignation on a morals charge showed the ruthless nature of politics in Johnson’s world.
This cast is a who’s who of fine contemporary actors who manage to make the nearly three-hour play mesmerizing. Armstrong brings LBJ’s intrigue, intimidation, and sheer force of will to life and delivers a remarkable look at the underbelly of the politics that we now see played out in 24-hour media coverage. It is hard to imagine how the Civil Rights Act might be handled today.
Ralph Funicello’s austere but nicely contrived set allows for multiple exchanges among characters, building suspense. Holly Poe Durban’s costumes are time appropriate, including LBJ’s signature cowboy boots. Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting and Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts’s sound design and original music also amp up the tension. Shawn Sagady’s original projection design executed by Kristin Ellert takes one back to the 1960s effectively.
Director Marc Masterson skillfully manipulates his large cast playing so many multiple roles that no change of persona takes away from the unfolding saga. The foibles and strengths of each character are subtle or audacious as required by the part but never undercut the storyline. It is masterful work by playwright and director. But, if there is one reason to see the play, it is for the performance by Armstrong. It is a theatrical knockout.
September 23, 2016
9–Oct. 2. 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Repertory schedule. Prices
start at $22. (714) 708-5555.
And Then They Fell
Brimmer Street Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Lily Nicksay and Kacie Rogers
Photo by Michelle Risucci
The plight of dispossessed children is always harrowing. Tina Palmquist has captured the disheartening struggle of one abused young girl with harsh and no-holds-barred realism. With no income of her own and her mother in detox soon heading from there to jail, Jordan Matthews (Kacie Rogers, alternating in this double-cast play with Chelsea Boyd) is desperately trying to study for her high school algebra final and prepare for a speech in another class as she dozes in the park, safely—she thinks—away from the unwanted sexual demands of her mother’s slimy on-again-off-again alcoholic boyfriend Dwayne (Tim Venable, alternating with Ian Madeira Sollenberger).
Jordan has few viable options, even rejected in her request for help from the school janitor, who at least lets her into the locker room before hours to shower, until she breaks through the tough exterior of her transgendered homeless classmate Cal (Lily Nicksay, alternating with JJ Hawkins), who was locked out of his house after he told his father he no longer wanted to be called Calista and was looking into gender reassignment therapy. “The next day, I came home from school and there it was,” Cal tearfully tells Jordan. “My life was on the porch.”
The pitiless journey of Jordan and Cal could break your heart, especially in the hands of Rogers and Nicksay who, under director Amy K. Harmon, slip headfirst into the troubled skins of these tragically adrift adolescents who deserve so much more in their rocky journey through life. Venable is exceptional, as well, as Jordan’s slick but uber-creepy predator guardian. Jaquita Ta’le and Ben Fuller (alternating with Faith Imafidon and Brad Harris) do a knockout job playing all the other characters the pair encounters.
Palmquist’s play has lovely moments as an analogy is drawn between Jordan’s situation and the mass death in the south of thousands of migrant birds dropping from the sky for no apparent reason. Her dialogue is gritty and genuine, and her situations are believably shocking. Yet her play suffers from a lack of resolution. It chronicles the world of way too many tossed-aside young people, but it does so as though reporting a true story on 60 Minutes or some TV news segment. Jordan’s story crashes to its inevitable horrific conclusion but never, oddly reminiscent of our current repellent presidential race, offers even a soupçon of hope for the future. And when Jordan breaks the fourth wall to deliver a poetic passage about the demise of those delicate lost birds, it becomes more of a distraction than a viable addendum to the script—as does the frequent robotically regimented scene changes performed by the cast disguised in hoodies.
There are two reasons not to overlook and support this world premiere of Palmquist’s interesting but often too-precious and predictably dismal play: the dynamic performances, especially of Rogers, Nicksay, and Venable; and to make more of a difference in the plight of our town’s steadily swelling displaced youth population. Every dime of proceeds from the ticket sales of this production will be donated to My Friend’s Place, a crucial wellness and educational resource facility struggling against all odds to better the harsh and dangerous existence to which Hollywood’s lost teenage homeless population is subjected every day. As their story is written, we can do nothing to soften the fall of poor Jordan and Cal, but at least we can leave the theater hopeful that our attendance benefitted other kids in a similar position in some small way.
September 11, 2016
10–Oct. 2. 3269 Casitas Ave. Free onsite and street parking. Thu-Fri
8pm, Sat-Sun 2pm & 8pm. $25-30. (617) 953-8544.
Drama Queens From Hell
Theatre Planners at Odyssey Theatre
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
Rick Podell and Paul Galliano
Photo by Ed Krieger
Though it has a promising concept, Peter Lefcourt’s newest spoof of sexual politics and ageism in Hollywood is a fusion of skits, one-liners, and comic improbabilities that could use editing and a clearer focus to emphasize its political points. It depends too much on shtick to advance the plot.
At play’s opening we meet Gerard Manville (Paul Galliano), a young director who is planning a remake of Sunset Boulevard. His announcement that he is dead mimics William Holden’s vocal narration from the original film, though he is a much more jovial victim and onstage throughout. Ostensibly killed by one of three actresses who are vying for Gloria Swanson’s classic role, his death comes on the casting couch rather than by gunshot.
Maxine Zobar (Christopher Callen) is age appropriate, but her career has been bleak of late, and she is desperate to get the Swanson part. Felicia Brown (Dee Freeman) is a former Blaxploitation movie actress who uses Title VII politics to get a chance to audition. Brianne McCauley (formerly Brian) (Chad Borden) wants to take a test run on her nearly complete gender reassignment transformation as the ultra-theatrical aging diva.
Strangely enough, all three are represented by Artie Paramecium (Rick Podell), a stereotypical agent who enters sitting on a toilet with appropriate sound effects by Dino Herrmann. Sleazy and brash, he seems flummoxed by his clients. Also adding comic moments is Andrew Diego as Raphael, a gay secretary who is pressed into service as German Hildegarde in another later characterization.
Director Terri Hanauer has a feel for the satire, but she gives Borden such an over-the-top stage presence, he swamps the remaining cast, though they valiantly soldier on. Enhancing the overall mood of the storyline are scenes from Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic movie. Neatly integrated by projection designer Yee Eun Nam, they ground Lefcourt’s link to the archetypal film.
The text is topical, with references to the current Actor’s Equity 99-Seat theater controversy, local LA geography, Mike Pence, and even Chick-fil-A. There’s a bit of choreography by Tracy Silver, and contemporary music rounds out each act.
In spite of a solid cast, this play fails to do more than travel familiar territory. Lefcourt is clever, and there are a few laughs, but this could be so much stronger with less focus on clichés.
August 24, 2016
20–Sept. 25. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25-30. (323)
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