Arts In LA
Coney Island Christmas
Torrance Theatre Company

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Diana Mann, Perry Shields, and Hannah Smith
Photo by Alex Madrid

It’s 1935, and Mrs. Abramowitz’s 12-year-old daughter has been cast as Jesus in her school’s Christmas pageant. Oy. So goes Coney Island Christmas, Torrance Theatre Company’s holiday season offering, written by Donald Margulies based on Grace Paley’s short story “The Loudest Voice.”
   Though it’s not the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright’s best or most sophisticated play, it may be his most charming. It sweetly but firmly reminds us that change is universally hard, yet what’s most meaningful seems to stay with us forever.
   Mrs. Abramowitz (Diana Mann) is a devoted mother, a hardworking wife, and, need we add, Jewish. Fearful of mockery, fearful of what the neighbors will think, fearful of what the ancestors will think, fearful of losing her daughter to another way of life, she plotzes when young Shirley (Hannah Smith) comes home to report that her teachers insist she’s the only schoolchild with the skills to star as young Jesus.
   But there’s a chink. Her daughter is clearly talented, as Mrs. Abramowitz learns when the drama teacher Mr. Hilton (Gary Kresca) and music teacher Mademoiselle Glacé (Amanda Webb) arrive at the family’s deli (with Cheryl Crabtree as a crusty customer) to plead with Shirley’s parents. How could a mother resist?
   And as we find out, there’s another chink. Mr. Abramowitz (Perry Shields) doesn’t object to a little assimilation, and he wants his daughter to be happy. And, well, actually, ahem, he’d always wanted to be a performer, too.

The play may seem slight. It runs only 90 minutes and still is packed with two pageants (adults play Shirley’s schoolmates) and snippets of traditional Christmas songs and recitations, plus a framing device in which now elderly Shirley (Geraldine Fuentes) relives this memory for her great-granddaughter Clara (Makenzie Browning). But Margulies adeptly tells his story, squeezing in convincing character arcs and objectives, and bits of daily life from Depression-era Brooklyn.
   Under the direction of Sasha Stewart Miller, the lead actors throw themselves wholly into their characters. They feel the conflicts between tradition and acceptance but also physicalize the 1930s and speak in uniform accents. Additionally, the Yiddish and Hebrew they speak sound thoroughly authentic.
   Stewart Miller also herded but gave freedom to a playful cast of “kids” (Nick Bradfield, Claire Griswold, Matt Garber, Price T. Morgan, Lauren Oseas, Franklin Richardson, Josh Velez and Paxton Wright) who take on such Nativity figures as Santa Claus and Ebenezer Scrooge. What, they weren’t present at the birth of Christ?
   And speaking of sacrilege, the Annunciation gets a rather loose rendition here, complete with endearing disbelief at the very idea of premarital sex, revealed to Mary by a Gabriel (Richardson) wheeled in on a ladder by Mr. Hilton.

The remarkably clever, evocative, and well-engineered scenic design, by Mark Torreso (sturdy construction credited to Torreso and James Markoski) unfolds like a children’s book across the shallow stage and magically creates time and place as skillfully as any set on L.A.’s major stages.
   Costuming, by Bradley Allen Lock, not only includes a Thanksgiving and a Christmas show, but also smaller details such as a chic look for Mademoiselle Glacé and miraculously quick changes from bedtime to school clothes for Shirley.
   However twisted the Nativity tale gets, Margulies sorts it out at the play’s end, with a prayer spoken by the bright, perceptive young Shirley. If everyone in the audience, or better yet anywhere in the world, of any faith or none, acted with these thoughts in mind, life would be bliss.

November 9, 2015
Nov. 7–Dec. 13. 1316 Cabrillo Ave, Torrance. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25.(424) 242-6882.


The Shoplifters
Victory Theatre Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Wendy Johnson, Kathleen Bailey, Steve Hofvendahl, and Alex Genther
Photo by Tim Sullens

Canadian playwright Morris Panych is far better-known and better-awarded in our close-but-yet-so-far neighbor to the north. But if LA theaterlovers take advantage of the unique opportunity to see the West Coast debut of one of his most hilariously perverse plays, presented under the sharply cagey watch of director Maria Gobetti, the writer’s star might rise quickly over our western climes.
   Double-sided tape being nothing as reliable as it once was, seasoned shoplifter Alma (Kathy Bailey) is caught stuffing a 16-oz. rib eye steak under her skirt by the supermarket’s awkward security guard–in-training Dom (Alex Genther). She and her decidedly more traumatized and reluctant accomplice Phyllis (Wendy Johnson) are herded into the back room of the supermarket, only to have the novice crime-stopper quickly placed more on the defensive than the offensive. Alma, who admits she is “at the top of her game” in the petty theft business, immediately begins to blast the painfully gung-ho young rookie for his impertinence rather than exhibiting any contrition, reminding him that even Prometheus stole fire from the gods—and after all is said and done, that didn’t turn out to be such a bad thing.

There’s nothing in the emotionally breakable kid’s training manual that helps him deal with the situation, as the chapter on what to do when meat falls out of a customer’s underwear seems to have been omitted. Luckily, Dom is confident he can rely on the expertise of his colleague Otto (Steve Hofvendahl), the older security guard who’s been showing him the ropes between frequent eye-rolls at his charge’s Dudley Do-Right attitude. Unfortunately, that lesson might still be hard to come by, as Otto has been watching Alma steal from the market on a regular basis without ever stopping her, his professional duties compromised because he has developed a massive crush on her right through the monitor of the store’s surveillance system.
   Under Gobetti’s precise leadership, her three notable veteran performers are remarkably comfortable with Panych’s often hyperbolic rat-a-tat of nonstop humor. Bailey has the especially difficult task of making the cornered Alma, almost eagerly ready to take on the situation and talk her way out of an arrest, appear hardened yet intensely vulnerable. She’s a woman ready to discuss the “whole structure of the market economy,” if necessary, but not before reminding her captors they don’t have the crime on tape and besides, she and her apprentice certainly don’t have time for all that. Phyllis has to get to the job she loves as a hatcheck girl at a local club and she herself has to continue fighting her private battle with the Big C.
   Hofvendahl makes an exceptional foil for Bailey’s hardened Alma, sweetly relatable as the world-weary, desperately tired lifelong security guard (“If they passed their cop exams,” Alma tells Phyllis, “they wouldn’t be working here”) ready to chuck it all, especially after the new store manager lets him go for giving a shoplifting homeless kid a pass. With Hofvendahl’s wonderfully understated delivery, Otto becomes a perfect example of someone who once wanted to change the world but now, after 30 years toiling dutifully as an unappreciated worker drone surviving within the corporate system, just wants to leave the room with a little dignity.
   As the somewhat dim-bulb and fragile Phyllis, Johnson is delightful and totally amazing, offering an exaggerated, truly over-the-top performance that for some reason works. Few actors can create a character as broadly—and bravely—as Johnson, getting away with much more than others because everything she does, every face she makes or line she croaks out like a whiny, overgrown, overtired 4-year-old, originates from a deep-down base of supreme reality. Genther, however, a rookie in this exceptional company of performers and obviously as raw as his character, is not as lucky. He could be the quintessential Dom if he just trusted himself and what he’s got to offer physically in his role, not work so darn hard to be funny. Still, he obviously has a unique talent just ready to blossom, so hopefully he will learn from working with his trio of well-honed co-stars.

Of course, the big question here, which Panych explores with an achingly sharp eye for contemporary humor, is whether the “imbalances of the world can be corrected by a can of stolen tuna,” especially when the perpetrator believes all she was doing was “grabbing at something that’s owed” her. Is it a better life Alma wants—or just a leaner cut of rib eye?

November 8, 2015
Nov. 6–Dec. 20. 3326 W. Victory Blvd. 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) 841-5422.

Victory Theatre


The Sparrow
Coeurage Theatre Company at The Historic Lankershim Arts Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

The cast of The Sparrow
Photo by John Klopping

One has to wonder—as this miraculously inventive production unfolds in all its minimal yet enchanted splendor—how much Chris Mathews, Jake Minton, and Nathan Allen’s script spells out the quirkily performed elements that make this so uniquely evocative, and how much of the dreamlike experience can be attributed to the mad talents of director Joseph V. Calarco. According to Coeurage Theatre’s artistic director Jeremy Lelliott, 98 percent of the kudos must indeed go to the director, noting that stage manager Emily Goodall complained that, since the script itself had no stage directions, she practically had to write an entire new draft just to factor in Calarco’s continuous barrage of distinctive cue notes.
   It shows. It’s not often noted that the brightest and most omnipresent star of any production is clearly the imagination of its director, but this guy’s hand and his vision is present throughout every moment of this West Coast premiere. Coupled with the impressive original musical score by one of Coeurage’s other resident prodigies, Gregory Nabours, this well-honed team of unstoppable young artists has created pure unadulterated magic.

The plot of The Sparrow does not offer much new without these embellishments, as Emily Book (Katie Pelensky), a teenage girl who was the lone survivor of her grade-school bus’s horrific encounter with a speeding train, returns home after the death of her guardian grandmother to try to fit back into her insular suburban community. It doesn’t take long to realize there’s more to the shy bespectacled Emily than meets the eye, as in her ability to fly, catch bullets in her hand, or eventually wreak revenge and smite her enemies with a simple wave of her arm.
   Most of what happens here is predictable and standard Carrie-like fare minus the pig’s blood—that is until Calarco invents incredible new ways to exhibit the range of Emily’s supernatural powers with the help of choreographer Tasheena Medina and their remarkably well-drilled cast, who together create all of the story’s special effects, as well as every scene change , moving with a collective precision not seen since Hal Prince’s direction of the townspeople in Evita reinvented the term “ensemble.”
   Paying constant deference to Nabours’s imposing score while dashing behind and around set designer Kristin Browning Campbell’s minimal muslin screens, hauntingly backlit by Benoit Guerin’s shadowy Caligari-inspired lighting, the cast is so in tune it’s almost as though it moves as one being, transforming from parent to high school cheerleader to ghost of one of the dead bus riders with well-rehearsed ease. This is a case of one theater company’s unfettered and courageous artistic prescience turning a minor play into a major experience. Coeurage has had quite the year, and for once the universe was in incredible alignment when it put together Lelliott, Calarco, and Nabours to continuously craft theatrical sorcery in Los Angeles.

November 3, 2015
Oct. 24–Nov. 21. 5108 Lankershim Blvd. Thu-Sat 8pm. Pay what you want. (323) 944-2165.


Man Covets Bird
24th Street Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Leeav Sofer and Andrew Huber
Photo by Cooper Bates

How refreshing to witness a show suitable for all ages that neither talks down to its older attendees nor leaves its youngest audience members in the dust. This US premiere—only its second production worldwide—has something for everyone. Playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer’s engaging tale of a young man who develops a touching relationship with a wild bird captures both the heart and mind. In the hands of director Debbie Devine and a phenomenally talented two-person cast, the result is magically inspirational.
   Andrew Huber masterfully tells the tale, in third person, of our young hero. While executing all necessary actions required for carrying out his role, he offers a performance of such charming gentility that one can’t help but be drawn in to his character’s storyline. This young man, whose name is never specified, marches to the beat of his own Bohemian drum, so much so that when he is confronted by a young bird, it seems only natural that the two would strike up a nearly lifelong relationship. Along the way, Huber’s remarkable handling of Kruckemeyer’s 70-minute, intermissionless monologue produces an engaging, edge-of-your-seat effect.
   Likewise, Leeav Sofer’s contribution, though never through the spoken word, is absolutely essential to the show’s message. As the undefined bird, his characterization is that of an ever-present, undemanding soulmate to the man. And despite the occasional well-placed birdcall, Sofer’s performance never falls prey to that of caricature. Instead, we are treated to gorgeously crafted original melodies— written by Sofer and self-accompanied on keyboard and clarinet—that he performs with Huber, who plays acoustic guitar. These interludes, best described as in folk style, are spine-tingling in their harmonic beauty as they set Kruckemeyer’s lyrics to music.

Devine’s work in crafting this production is aided by some of the finest production values imaginable. In this venue’s warehouse-like surroundings—it was once a turn-of-the-century carriage house—and utilizing nothing more than a rolling A-frame ladder and small “beat-box” cubes as portable furniture, her cast moves effortlessly around the thrust stage and through the seating areas. Surrounding the perimeter of the playing space are four distinct areas upon which simplistically hand-drawn projected animation creates various locales. These videos, credited to Matthew G. Hill and Sara Haddadin, flow from one screen to the next while perfectly timed to the actors’ actions.
   Cricket S Myers’s sound cues are a rich addition, in at least one instance seamlessly continuing Sofer’s clarinet solo. Dan Weingarten’s lighting is specific when necessary and lush when appropriate. And a big “hats off” to stage manager Alexx Zachary for calling a show that most certainly must consist of hundreds of cues.
   Kruckemeyer’s script asks, what effect does every moment of our lives have on those we encounter. To the credit of this company’s motto, “Theater for all audiences,” it is more than obvious this goal had been met and then some.

October 6, 2015
Sept. 26–Nov. 22. 1117 W. 24th St. Sat 3pm & 7:30pm, Sun 3pm (dark Oct. 24, 25, 31, Nov. 1). Running time 70 minutes, no intermission. $2.40–$24. (213) 745-6516.

Wood Boy Dog Fish
Rogue Artists Ensemble at Bootleg Theater

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Paul Turbiak and Willem Long
Photo by Chelsea Sutton

This darkly macabre adult retelling of the legend of Pinocchio is so visually dazzling and so filled with ingenious, spectacularly colorful marvels that the originality conjured by this company is alone worth the price of admission. Now, if only Chelsea Sutton’s script were vaguely as fascinating as the resourceful energy and imagination expended by the members of Rogue Artists Ensemble, who decorously explain themselves to be a unique troupe of “hyper-theatrical” designers and multidisciplinary artists who collectively create imagistic enchantment from scratch.
   Utilizing ancient storytelling techniques—such as dance, masks, music, and above all puppetry—combined with modern technology gleaned from digital media, interactive sets, and sophisticated theatrical illusions, the Rogues are courageous and, luckily for their grateful audience, work totally without filter.

François-Pierre Couture’s fanciful and highly versatile set design, enhanced immeasurably by Dallas Nichols’s stunning videos, transforms Bootleg Theater’s converted warehouse space from Geppetto’s eclectic workroom to the bottom of the ocean to the ominous Dogfish’s creepy amusement park with the help of the über-enthusiastic cast members who move mountains—albeit cardboard mountains—and manage quick changes into Kerry Hennessy and Lori Meeker’s whimsical costuming to become fantastical cats, foxes, fish, and deliciously wild underwater creatures.
   The masks were fabricated, according to the program, with the participation of an enormous number of company members. They are mind-blowing, and the puppetry, especially that for the infamous wooden boy with the growing nose (a string-less marionette manipulated from behind by three performers dressed head-to-toe in black) is extraordinary. The deep sea section of this production is populated by huge gorgeously feathery fish on poles, swimming around the stage manipulated by actors on their backs lying across giant skateboards. And when Pinocchio finds himself lured onto a frightening nightmare carnival ride, 3D glasses (available at check-in for a $1 “suggested donation”) are meant to enhance the audience’s experience.

The trouble here is that the storyline seems to have been developed around the special effects rather than the other way around. As visually mesmerizing as the production design is, Pinocchio’s journey oddly becomes about as dry and boring in places as watching paint dry. Sections appear to have been created because the Rogues had gimmicks to add—great ones notwithstanding—as well as wonderfully bizarre creatures or costuming to introduce.
   But under director Sean T. Cawelti, little effort appear to have been spent to develop the classic tale or to justify some of the inexplicably broad acting choices made by his actors. Stylized performances are certainly acceptable when presenting such nonrealistic fare, but those performances must be consistent rather than individually indulgent.

Although it’s fun to watch the spirited and talented ensemble suggestively wrestle a kick-line of blow-up sex dolls or dueling with swords made from balloon animals, it doesn’t exactly translate to satisfying storytelling. And even though patrons were told at the entrance they would be informed when to don their 3D specs, the performance reviewed was the victim of a missed cue, so how the 3D section usually unfolds, presumably on Pinocchio’s scary ride through the dastardly amusement park, must remain a mystery in this review.
   Still, Wood Boy Dog Fish is wondrous in so many ways. Though clearly geared for adults—Pinocchio has his feet burned off before being hung by the neck and left to swing throughout intermission—in our media-saturated society it’s unlikely children’s innocence would be compromised. So unless you’re raising your kiddies in a hermetically sealed Plexiglas capsule, they might not need to be left out of the fun.

November 16, 2015
Nov. 13–Dec. 12. 2220 Beverly Blvd., near Downtown LA. Thu-Sat 7pm (note early curtain). No perf. Nov. 26-27. Also Sat Nov. 28 (pay what you can) and Sun Nov. 29 at 2pm. $18-25. (213) 596-9468.


Awake and Sing!
Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

James Morosini and Marilyn Fox
Photo by Ron Sossi

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

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

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

September 28, 2015
Sept. 26–Jan. 31, 2016. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm (Thu 8pm in Oct. and Nov.). $15–34. (310) 477-2055 ext. 2.


Second City

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Amanda Blake Davis and Robyn Norris

Sometimes theater is about humankind’s greatest achievers. Sometimes it’s about supremely tragic figures. And sometimes, as with this show, it’s about the rest of us.
   A group of Second City’s fine performers went off piste and conducted a social experiment. After Robyn’s (Robyn Norris) friend posted a profile on a dating site and asked Robyn to check it over, Robyn set up an account to access the site. Robyn created the outlandish profile of an admittedly “crazy-insane person” she named TracyLovesCats. A shockingly large number of men—and women—responded, begging for various forms of contact with “Tracy.”
   Norris’s fellow troupe members Chris Alvarado, Rob Belushi, Amanda Blake Davis, Kate Duffy, and Bob Ladewig joined in, posting outrageous profiles no one could possibly think were anything other than a joke. These performers’ “sketch” show, Undateable, re-enacts verbatim the heartfelt responses by real, everyday people to these perverse personals.
   So, even though Rob (Belushi) pushed the intimacy-phobic envelope with DoorSlamEric, women think Eric is dateable. And although PioneerInABox (Kate Duffy) gets busted (she claims to function as if in the 1860s, yet she’s online), she manages to lure interest. Even Amanda’s (Blake Davis) age-questionable Old4U75 appeals to a prospective beau.
   The show, a fascinating concept, is well-structured and is imaginatively directed by Frank Caeti. It is also, of course, hilarious, though a strong strain of sympathy runs through it. And even though the show has been running for months, the performers have fresh energy. These performers are more interested in telling their story than in “being funny,” so the laughs come from the audience’s self-recognition and not from any obnoxious stage-hogging shenanigans.
   The troupe sings and dances—and not badly—to enhance several of their “scientific” points about romantic behavior. A few minutes of improv at the end of the show reflect the performers’ well-honed chops.
   Locational cautions: The venue is in Hollywood where street parking has a two-hour limit, metered until midnight on Fridays. The show is a mere one hour, but it undoubtedly will start a few minutes late. In addition, the theater is upstairs, and the site has no elevator. But if you’re swift and spry, head on up there for a dose of reality. It will probably provide you with more than several hearty belly laughs. It might also make you weep for mankind.

August 19, 2013

6560 Hollywood Blvd. Fri 9pm. $10.


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Need to Know
Rogue Machine Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Corryn Cummins, Tim Cummings, Ron, Gary, and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe
Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Most everyone has had the experience of being pursued by an obsessive and needy admirer, be it a nosy neighbor, a far-too-friendly co-worker, or even a romantic partner who won’t go away once the bloom is off the rose. In Jonathan Caren’s cleverly suspenseful new gothic comedy, what at first appears to be a relatively benign instance of having to deal with a harmless kind of mini-stalker progresses rapidly to Play Misty for Me status.
   For Lilly and Steven (Corryn Cummins and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe)—a young couple relocating to Manhattan after trying to make a home together in Los Angeles—that initial apprehension is exacerbated by something many of us are still in the process of comprehending in its full-frontal glory: social media. It’s bad enough that Caren’s classic millennials quickly discover that the living room wall of their new apartment is so thin that their neighbor appears to be able to hear their conversations—not to mention their rather noisy lovemaking. But the creepy guy on the other side is a needy, obnoxiously overfriendly loser with terminal halitosis, named Mark (Tim Cummings). And when they realize Mark knows everything about them and their lives from trolling Facebook and Twitter, the threat becomes even more unsettling, if not bordering on truly scary.
   On Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s exceptional set, which is the best use of a small playing space seen in this town in a long time, both apartments, divided by a cutaway wall, are visible to the audience. As Lilly and Steven unpack and try to get over the fact that they cannot seem to shake Mark’s advances, Mark is indeed leaning over his desk with his ear glued to their shared wall. And after they realize that he probably heard them talking about what a sad weirdo he appeared to be when he walked into their apartment to introduce himself as they emerged from their showers in less-than-appropriate host and hostess wear, they are a little unnerved when he again shows up at their door, offering a plate of home-baked cookies as a housewarming gift. Of course, considering that he jokes he’d added his own excrement to the cookie dough, their reaction is understandable.

Despite a script that features fascinating character studies but doesn’t really go anyplace as unpredictable as it could and then ties things up way too neatly, Bart DeLorenzo directs his trio of knockout performers with a near-Hitchcockian ability to create tension and dread from everyday situations that don’t usually foster suspicion. Cummins and Near-Verbrugghe are excellent as the cornered couple, subtly mining the unspoken problems lurking just below the picture perfect image of their relationship they’ve cultivated to present to the outside world—and to dupe each other. Near-Verbrugghe is especially impressive as his character’s emotionally fragile past is revealed, beginning the play like the world’s most charming boyfriend but ending, especially after a final nerve-shattering scene shared with Cummings, eerily exposing his own deep-seated secrets.
   Still, this is Cummings’s show. As Mark, he is incredibly unnerving, an urban apartment dweller’s worst nightmare, yet he makes Mark oddly endearing, so you’d like to scratch him behind the ears and reassure him that he’s a good boy. All of Mark’s quirks and tics are completely realistic. Cummings amazingly finds something in his character that makes one wonder if the majority of the red flags that go up as Lilly and Steven try to discourage a connection with their ever-smiling, often charmingly funny, and self-deprecating pursuer are mostly products of their own imaginations. His performance in this role, written so intrinsically filled with traps that could swallow up lesser actors, is the stuff that made Peter Lorre in M or Tony Perkins in Psycho keep viewers up at night.
   If Caren’s promising and potentially disturbing play were as polished as its performers or DeLorenzo’s subtly suspenseful direction, it would be nearly perfect. As is, it’s almost there—and the people who are currently breathing life into it for Rogue Machine elevate it far beyond where it travels on its own.

November 19, 2015
Oct. 25–Dec. 13. 5041 W. Pico Blvd. Fri 5pm, Sun 7pm, Mon 8pm. $30–35. (855) 585-5185.


The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Thomas Silcott and Philip Solomon
Photo by Ed Krieger

If there was any doubt that Athol Fugard is our planet’s greatest living playwright, the arrival of his newest, most personal, and most arresting play cinches that distinction. Debuting at Fountain Theatre, the place the esteemed South African writer has called his “artistic home on the West Coast” for many years now, this play brings the message of his life’s labors full circle. As always in his work, he gives voice to the problems caused by the apartheid system in his country before the system collapsed in 1994, but here he also chronicles its aftermath and the whole new set of problems that developed since then—as viewed from both sides of the issue.
   In the late 1950s, while working as a clerk in a Native Commissioners’ Court in Johannesburg, Fugard was shocked by the injustices implemented by his fellow Afrikaners’ structure of racial segregation and enforced through legislation by the National Party. Fugard’s voluminous output of anti-apartheid opinions brought him directly into scary conflict with the government. To avoid prosecution and the threats on his life and that of his family, his plays were for years produced and published outside of South Africa, only presented covertly in his homeland in church basements and the living rooms of private homes.
   His newest work is based on a true story, that of aging outsider artist Nukain Mabuza (a charmingly charismatic Thomas Silcott), a black worker on a farm owned by ultraconservative Afrikaners in the Mpumalanga Province in the early 1980s. Mabuza put his passions and frustrations with his lot in life into creating a vibrant “garden of flowers,” painting designs directly on the massive rocks of his patron’s barren land. His zest for this unique primitive expression is stymied by one huge boulder dominating the area, the last one he hasn’t turned into gorgeously gaudy and evocative piece of folk art.

“Two Sundays now we come here with everything, but Tata does nothing,” Mabuza’s 10-year-old adoring apprentice Bokkie (Phillip Solomon in a monumental and instantly memorable LA stage debut) gently scolds the old man. “He just sits and stares at the Big One.” Pestered by the boy, Mabuza begins to work on what would soon become his last creation. But, instead of the colorful geometric circles and squares energizing his previous work (beautifully re-created here on Jeffrey MacLaughlin’s starkly austere set by local artist Clairfoster Josiah Browne), he starts by painting on huge square eyes, letting his nemesis rock see what he’s up to as he tries to tell his simple life story on its rough stone surface. “Can you show me, Big One, where my home is?” Mabuza asks the rock. “I’ve still got no home.”
   His efforts are thwarted by a visit to the site by the landowner’s wife, Elmarie Kleynhans (Suanne Spoke). Although she has great affection for the old man and has let him express himself on her beloved terrain, she demands he wipe off the strangely out-of-place design and get back to his original quest. Bokkie quickly and vocally defends his mentor’s bold expression, leading the mistress to demand Mabuza take off his belt and give the boy a whipping, spitting out, “I will not have some little klonkie [an ugly, patronizing apartheid-era term for a black child] with a head full of nonsense telling me what to do.” Mabuza’s meek acceptance of his mistress’ demands frustrates the boy, born too late to totally understand the ravages of a long and difficult life spent living in privation, dependency, and racism. Bokkie can only hope that, sometime in the future, Mrs. Kleynhans and her husband will “open their eyes and see us.”
   As Act 2 unfolds, it is now 2003. Although Mabuza died only a few days after that first encounter and Bokkie soon after ran away from the plantation, the man’s garden of silent flowers is still there, albeit dirt-covered and the paint faded away, choked by weeds and dead foliage. A new figure, a grown man named Jonathan Sejake (Gilbert Glenn Browne) enters the scene with a backpack stuffed with paint cans, ready to try to re-create Mabuza’s last work on the Big One, the creation the older man called the “story of his life.”

After Sejake is interrupted by Mrs. Kleynhans brandishing a pistol pointed directly at him, the true meaning of Fugard’s masterpiece begins to unfold. Soon the patrona realizes that Sejake is actually the grown Bokkie, now a principal of a school in an adjacent province. The two spit venomous accusations at each other—she as a woman in mortal terror of being forced off her land or, worse, brutally murdered as her Afrikaner neighbors were, he desperately trying to make her understand the fierce importance of remembering his old friend and restoring his legacy just to prove the old man was there, that he existed, that he mattered.
   Just when you think things could not get better than being a fly on a rock observing the scenario so lovingly and sweetly created by Silcott and the pintsized Solomon, Spoke and Brown take over the stage, and their time together is pure unadulterated theatrical magic. Every word from Brown comes directly from emotions surely stored deep inside him, and Spoke, in a tour-de-force performance as the conflicted Afrikaner who doubts the ferocity of her own beliefs, is sure to break your heart.
   This is Fugard’s most important and most eloquent play in years. As Fugard said in an interview on NPR, “At this moment in our history, the stories that need telling are more urgent than any of the stories that needed telling during the apartheid years.” Thanks to this monumentally simple and jarringly evocative production, beautifully interpreted by a stellar cast under the gossamer, sweepingly subtle yet impassioned direction of the wondrous Simon Levy, this is also the production of the year in Los Angeles, not to mention the best ensemble cast of 2015.

November 9, 2015
Nov. 7–Dec. 14. 5060 Fountain Ave. Secure, on-site parking, $5. Mon 8pm, Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm & 7pm. $15-34.95, Mondays are pay what you can. (323) 663-1525.


Carrie the Killer Musical Experience
Los Angeles Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Jon Robert Hall and Emily Lopez
Photo by Jason Niedle

Book the rest home, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Not even crashing chandeliers or gondola rides through candlelit underground tunnels could compete with this blazingly in-your-face new game in town. After disastrous mounting after disastrous mounting since its legendary script and technically challenged nosedive of a Broadway premiere in 1988—which was booed at final curtain on opening night and even prompted Ken Mandelbaum’s 1992 book Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops—somebody finally got it right. No, not right, perfect.
   Billed this time out as Carrie the Killer Musical Experience, it has been transferred from the production’s debut this spring at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts to of one of downtown LA’s most majestic and historic old movie palaces. Here, director Brady Schwind’s brilliant “immersive” reinvention creates an environmental experience for his astounded audience. This is without a doubt the theatrical event of the year in Los Angeles and surely will go on to become yet another feather in the cap of world-class theater created in our much-maligned cultural desert climes.

Based on Stephen King’s popular anti-bullying 1974 novel and Brian DePalma’s 1976 film adaptation, the infamous story’s conversion into musical theater wasn’t a smooth transition. When poor Carrie White got drenched in pig’s blood as she accepted Prom Queen crown in the original Broadway version, those dastardly teenaged tormentors Billy and Chris ran onstage and threw the blood on her instead of it being dumped in buckets from the rafters as in the book and film. This was due to the difficulty of the necessary stage blood clogging the actress’s body microphone, and because Carrie’s song “The Destruction” begins almost immediately after the dousing, there had been no time to clear her microphone before it was needed. Well, whatever has changed since then—or whatever Schwind, sound designer Cricket S Myers, and illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer have managed to cleverly improve upon—the blood comes from the right place. And those audience members close to the action should be forewarned to bring along a raincoat.

On designer Stephen Gifford’s remarkably versatile environmental high school gymnasium set, the continuously picked-on Carrie—in a dynamic and often brave turn by Emily Lopez, beginning the evening naked in a shower with menstrual blood running down her legs in a scene excised from the original—does her best to keep her telekinetic powers a secret. But when the torture becomes nonstop, especially from the legally blonde Chris (Valerie Rose Curiel) and her oaf of a suitor Billy (Garrett Marshall), our heroine’s retaliation is, simply, a bitch.
   Along the way, a living crucified Jesus appears far above our heads, both he and his cross flying through the auditorium like a specialty act from Cirque du Soleil, while bottles, iconic religious figures, and eventually Carrie’s crazy, Bible-passage-spewing mother and other enemies levitate high into the gothic theater’s jaw-droppingly baroque plaster-ornamented six-story auditorium. And if one is seated in the “senior” section, four 20-person bleacher pods surrounding the playing area directly in front of the massive stage, you’ll be in for another thrill, as performers and other workers push and pull the units from behind along with the action, giving patrons the sense of one of those classic vertigo-inducing mirror-bending camera effects made famous in movies just like the original Carrie.
   The ensemble cast is dizzyingly energetic and super-talented, with special nods to the sensational Misty Cotton as Carrie’s shrew of a born-again Jesus-freak zealot mother, elevating (no pun intended) Margaret’s show-stopping solo “When There’s No One There” to a level not achieved since Betty Buckley clutched her crucifix in the role. Kayla Parker is also a standout as surviving flashback witness Sue Snell, who knocks it out of the gymnasium with the gorgeous “Once You See” and in the haunting love ballad “You Shine” in a sweet duet with Jon Robert Hall as her poor doomed boyfriend Tommy Ross.

Still, as stunning as is Schwind’s visionary staging and as beautifully augmented as it is by Lee Martino’s ultraspirited choreography, the wonder of this production—aside from hopefully heralding the potential resurrection of architect S. Charles Lee’s mind-blowingly ornate venue, opened in 1931 with financing by Charlie Chapin—is that it finally honors composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford’s truly gorgeous and way-too-long-overlooked musical score (to book by Lawrence D. Cohen).
   Although there was no official cast recording made of the original production, several bootlegged audio tapes were made during live performances, along with video footage surreptitiously shot from the audience. These recordings began to circulate soon after the show unceremoniously closed and became something revered, passed from worshipful devotee to worshipful devotee through the ensuing years. Hopefully, recognition for their achievement will finally come to Gore and Pitchford, and this electric, exciting musical adaptation will get the kudos it so richly deserves.

October 15, 2015
Oct. 8–Nov 22. 615 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. Tue–Fri 8pm, Sat Oct 17, 31 and Nov 14 6:30pm & 11pm, Sat Oct 3, 10, 24, and Nov 7, 21 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 6:30pm. $40–125. (888) 596-1027.

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

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Dan Middleditch and Roland Ruiz
Photo by Ken Sawyer

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

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

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

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

September 22, 2015
 Sept. 18–Dec. 13 (no performances Thanksgiving weekend). 1125 N. McCadden Pl., West Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $30.(323) 860-7300.


El Grande CIRCUS de Coca-Cola
Skylight Theatre [moved to Colony Theatre]

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Marcelo Tubert and Paul Baird
Photo by Ed Krieger

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

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

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

August 17, 2015
Nov. 7–Dec. 13. 555 N. Third St. (Free parking in the Media Center structure.) Thu–Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25–49. (818) 558-7000 ext. 15.

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