Arts In LA

Archives 2017

Adler & Gibb
Kirk Douglas Theatre

Something is strangely fascinating about Adler & Gibb, the latest from the strangely fascinating theatermaker Tim Crouch.
   In 2010, he brought to Los Angeles An Oak Tree, in which Crouch ushers an unprepared actor, different each night, onto the stage and feeds him or her direction and dialogue over earphones. In 2011, Crouch returned with The Author, about our various roles in and accountability for the theater.
   The British iconoclast is back with his 2014 work Adler & Gibb, about the nature, making, performing and celebrity of art. It’s co-directed with his frequent collaborators Andy Smith and Karl James.
   As with all his work, it is not suitable for everyone, nor, probably, is it intended as mass entertainment. It is best enjoyed by those with an interest in theater and culture, or those with a thirst for and willingness to sit through something this different.

Before it begins, or perhaps for its beginning, a child (on the night reviewed, the remarkably disciplined and adorable Olivia Abedor) interacts with the audience, handing out props and retrieving them, all based on instructions she hears via headphones. Instructing the child throughout this 90-minute work, Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart sits upstage, a microphone in hand, matter-of-factly showing the audience that art is being made with technology and with theater magic.
   Then comes a slightly more concrete beginning. As in conventional work, we watch an actor apparently playing a character. Jillian Pullara is Student, beginning her academic presentation about art-world icon Janet Adler, who hit the heights in the 1980s, walked away and into obscurity in the 1990s, and died in circumstances prompting ghoulish speculation.
   Lest you wonder, Adler is fictitious, though you couldn’t prove it by Adler & Gibb. She seems real to the audience, perhaps more real than the people trying to describe her, perhaps more real in contrast to Crouch’s deliberately distancing, deconstructed, elliptical and fractured style of storytelling.
   Adler is the subject of a proposed film, to be enacted by Louise (Cath Whitefield) and bankrolled by her (unseen) betrayed husband. Louise is bloated with need and ego, soothed and stoked by her acting coach Sam (Crouch).
   Sam and Louise do an acting exercise about trespassing on the retreat built by Adler and her life partner Margaret Gibb (Gina Moxley). Then they’re either inside Gibb’s home, uninvited and unwanted, or imagining they’re there.

The script mocks art, but it does so in the most artistic of ways. It mocks the cult of the artist, it mocks art criticism. It ponders ownership—of art, artist, representations of art and artist, property, love, life.
   It paints in violence. The dialogue speaks of the beating of Gibb’s dog. The moment is acted by Whitefield and Abedor, as Louise takes a bat and, while we watch, thrashes the little figure.
   Now, the child has donned a padded jacket, the beating is done with a “pool noodle,” and, the Kirk Douglas Theatre assures us, the child is safe and protected by her headphones from the fouler language and “graphic imagery” of the production.
   But the opening night audience didn’t seem to even flinch at this point. Is it that we’re Hollywood-ized, that we know these things are created through careful craft and through adherence to California law if not union regulations? Or is it that we were busy wondering which to react to: the beating death of a dog, the (not) possible bruising inflicted on a young actor, or the coaching we imagined was needed to reassure the child that this was “just acting.”
   Who fired the gun at the story’s end? If Louise, is that any worse than what we have watched her do to Gibb? And, speaking of brutality, why doesn’t Louise ever thank her acting coach?
   The story, which has begun very much in the world of theater, ends in the world of film. There’s no bright line dividing those worlds in here, and perhaps Crouch is saying there isn’t one out there.

But none of this is the strangest part. What’s stranger is how Adler & Gibb leaves an emotional residue. Despite all its elements shining a light on how the magic is made, somehow we care, feel, are left wandering through a melancholic mist as we leave the theater. So, ticket-buyer, beware. Just as you should see a horror film only if you want to be scared, you should see this production only if you want to be made to observe and think—and perhaps feel a peculiar disquiet.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 23, 2017
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

If you insist on a little sense in dramatic literature, you might note that Nunsense has not a lot. Character development goes nowhere. Identity, devotion, sisterhood, a calling? These get mentioned here but get no payoff. And yet this musical was the second-longest-running show in Off-Broadway history, lasting more than 10 years there.
   But if you want to be cheered up, perhaps tell a joke to the crowd, and play a quick but hilarious round of bingo, this show will serve you well. In large part that’s thanks to its five heaven-sent musical-comedy performances.
   With book and music by Dan Goggin, based on his line of greeting cards, Nunsenseis pretty much an excuse for more than a few songs and more than a few gags. It also calls upon its cast to showcase multiple talents, from expected song-and-dance skills to unexpected skills.
   As the backstory goes, the convent’s chef accidentally introduced botulism into her vichyssoise, killing 52 sisters. The survivors had money to bury only 48 of them; four are in the freezer, awaiting interment (cue joke about blue nuns). And so this fundraiser. That’s how hard Goggin worked to set up this revue by the Little Sisters of Hoboken.

The sisters warmly welcome the audience (be prepared to answer or perhaps tell a nun-related joke). Then Reverend Mother (Dawn Stahlak) arrives. She’s witty and savvy, though she becomes inebriated sniffing a bottle of rush. And of course at one point in her youth she wanted to go into showbiz.
   Joining her “onstage” is young novice Sister Mary Leo (Noelle Marion), who can dance, as she shows us in her red satin pointe shoes. Fortunately, Marion can dance too, in her ballet solo “Benedicite” and in the group’s tap number, “Tackle That Temptation With a Time Step.”
   Beyond her skill in hot-wiring cars, Sister Robert Anne (Rebecca Lumiansi) likewise had aspirations to perform, and a bit of talent, which she proudly displays in “Playing Second Fiddle,” about being an understudy onstage and in life.
   The charmingly wacky Sister Mary Amnesia (Silvie Zamora) lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head. Zamora sings in a light soprano as the sister’s tremulous self. But when she brings out a puppet as part of the “act” (how they got that puppet to look just like Mary Amnesia is a modern miracle), Zamora turns her puppet into Ethel Merman.
   And, given the 11 o’clock number (unless you attend the Saturday or Sunday matinees offered at the Norris, in which case it’s technically a 4 o’clock number) is Sister Mary Hubert. She’s played by the stellar Jennifer Leigh Warren, who belts the gospel “Holier Than Thou” to shake the heavens—or at least the audience seated in the balcony.

The show is directed with heart and wit by Ken Parks and choreographed with wisdom and simplicity by KC Gussler. Bless Palos Verdes Performing Arts for including a live orchestra, which sounds great, under conductor–music director Jake Anthony, from the playful musical-theater tunes through the classical-music themes wafting through Goggin’s score.
   No one from the audience is asked to tithe—mainly because a source of funds is revealed at the show’s end, but also because Nunsense is ultimately a very gentle show, despite the presence of a 12-inch ruler at one point. These nuns do not berate, they do not punish, they even welcome Protestants among the audience.
   And despite the incontrovertible truth that this show consists of singing, dancing, acrobatic nuns, there’s a joy in watching characters who have fanciful dreams yet love their day job—and a joy in watching the actors who revel in playing those characters. The bingo is a blast, too.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 23, 2017
Republished courtesy Daily Breeze
Pick of the Vine 15
Little Fish Theatre

Nine short plays by nine playwrights fit together snugly to make a brisk evening of theater in Little Fish Theatre’s 15th annual Pick of the Vine play festival.
   Subjects and themes this year include birth and death, truth and lies, sexuality and gender, parenting, revenge, and, topically, politics. And even if none of the plays hits home in every viewer, the collection offers the opportunity to sample these playwrights while watching uniformly superb acting by the evening’s eight performers.
   First up is “I Don’t Know,” by James McLindon, directed by Madeleine Drake. Soldiers march to their sergeant’s cadences, but the sentiments expressed don’t fall in line with the sexual politics of a younger and more liberal generation. The drill sergeant (Rodney Rincon) gets an ear-opening lesson from his soldiers, also in rhyming cadences.

For a couple’s 30-year-old, live-at-home son (Brendan Gill), it’s time to grow up and hear the truth, in “Santa Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” by Patrick Gabridge, directed by Gigi Fusco Meese. However, maturity doesn’t mean we can’t keep the magic of Christmas alive, as his parents (Geraldine Fuentes, Rincon) eventually agree.
   In the sensual and disquieting “Wheelchair,” by Scott Mullen, directed by Richard Perloff, two strangers (Olivia Schlueter-Corey, Bill Wolski) meet on a park bench, where a seemingly random wager ends in revenge.
   In “The Holy Grill,” by Gary Shaffer, directed by Drake, a young couple (Jessica Winward, Wolski) face their premarital interview at their local church. But the priest is supposedly not available, so two detectives step in (Rincon, Don Schlossman), leaving the couple to try to lie to law enforcement of the earthly kind.

“A Womb With a View,” by Rich Orloff, directed by Perloff, whimsically imagines what goes on behind the scenes in getting a baby (Holly Baker-Kreiswirth) ready for birth.
   “Screaming,” by Stephen Peirick, directed by Perloff, looks at parents (Jessica Winward, Wolski) with a 3-month-old child. Of the nine plays, this one seems the toughest to bring to life: It’s less play than serious conversation between one character who’s not listening and one who’s not forthcoming. Unlike Perloff’s other two, more-successful, pieces, here he aims for the straightforward, leaving the audience to decide how to react.
   “Thick Gnat Hands,” by Erin Mallon, directed by Elissa Anne Polansky, is a lovely study of the wisdom we can glean from illness. Polansky’s actors (Schlossman, Wolski) are far upstage, distanced from the audience, but the actors lure us toward them as the story reminds us to forgive ourselves and live each day with a conscious joy.

Equally tender is “The Way It Really Truly Almost Was,” by Brendan Healy, directed by Polansky. A husband (Schlossman) sits at the bedside of his comatose wife (Baker-Kreiswirth), attempting a revisionist look back at his marriage. His wife sets him straight.
   The comedic highlight is “A Very Short Play About the Very Short Presidency of William Henry Harrison,” by Jonathan Yukich, directed by Meese. The story of the ailing brand-new president (Rincon) who won’t take the advice of his wiser aide (Schlossman) bursts with witty, pointed, political commentary, plus a bit of toilet humor.

Throughout the nine plays, a piece of the set becomes refrigerator, dialysis machine, park bench, deathbed, birth canal, and more. That’s all the audience needs. But the upstage structure, in a mud-brown pattern against painted brown wood, distracts, as we expect it to be turned around into something, anything, for a finale.
   We expect this because Little Fish usually offers well-designed and well-constructed sets. This one remains static and unappealing. Better to have kept the background plain, leaving the audience, well-stimulated by the writing and acting, to imagine the settings.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 16, 2017

Republished courtesy Daily Breeze
Laguna Playhouse

Christian O’Reilly’s delightful Irish play about two lonely souls of a certain age is both witty and poignant. From the first moments when bachelor Dan (Mark Bramhall) speaks to the audience as storyteller, we are engaged in a tale that is deceptively simple yet thoroughly affecting.
   Dan is lonely after his many-decades lover has died. Dan fills his time with visits to the vet with his small dog, Chapatti. When the vet suggests that he is coming too often with a dog that has no health issues, Dan determines that he has nothing to live for, but what will he do with Chapatti?
   As luck will have it, he bumps into an elderly neighbor, Betty (Annabella Price), a personable soul who cares for 19 cats. She is just as outgoing as Dan is withdrawn. With a history of an unhappy relationship, she sees Dan as her last hope for love.

Price and Bramhall have an easy chemistry and elevate what could be predictable into a warm and uplifting story full of heart and a few surprises along the way. O’Reilly artfully balances comic moments with an exploration of human needs as the characterizations unfold. While both characters have had disappointments in life, the play is never maudlin nor contrived.
   Marty Burnett’s set design effectively creates Dan’s and Betty’s houses and an outdoor space. Elisa Benzoni’s costumes are notable, especially in a scene where Betty and Dan are tentatively exploring romance. Lighting by Matthew Novotny and sound by Melanie Chen successfully round out the production. Dialect coach Jan Gist needs a mention, as Bramhall and Price make believable their Irish characterizations. Director David Ellenstein’s adaptation of Judith Ivey’s original direction has just the right touch for the story.

In this time of in-your-face drama and overtly preachy storylines, O’Reilly’s gentle and very human narrative is a welcome addition to Laguna’s theatrical season.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
January 27, 2017
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