Arts In LA

Archives 2017

Shades of Disclosure
Skylight Theatre

In the nearly four decades since HIV/AIDS, once referred to as the “gay disease,” brought worldwide scorn and judgment to those living an alternate lifestyle, close to 40 million people have died, and today 37.6 million people are living with the scourge of it. Aside from the great sorrow AIDS has brought to our world, the disease has also become a major source of discrimination against the gay community—mainly by all those self-aggrandizing conservative religious bigots who pretend to live under their savior’s pleas to practice charity and nonjudgment.
   “I’ve felt indelibly stained,” one participant in QueerWise’s unforgettable new performance piece Shades of Disclosure admits, “by the sickness I’ve brought on myself.” For the 17 participants in this eye-opening testimonial experience courageously telling the stories of how HIV/AIDS has affected their lives, such honesty is the norm, not the exception. Michael Kearns, the tireless LA-based writer-actor–AIDS activist who originated the concept for the evening 31 years ago when AIDS/US first debuted on this stage, masterfully directs now, when Shades could not be more timely in this frightening era when our freedom suddenly feels desperately precarious.
   The participants, who collectively wage war on our society’s damaging and demeaning labels—all but two of whom play themselves and read the stories they crafted based on their own personal experiences—relate their tale to 16-year-old Sophie Kim, a LGBTQ activist at Harvard-Westlake High School who found a home in QueerWise after coming out to her parents at 14. As she videos their comments, one by one the members of the eclectic ensemble recount who they are and how they—and we all—are connected despite our differences.

The members of QueerWise include writers, spoken word artists, social workers, and educators who commit their efforts to create and perform events such as this. Noted actors such as Darrell Larson, who bravely explains how his diagnosis led to admitting his lifestyle to his wife and daughter and signaled the end of his marriage, is joined by transgendered psychotherapist—and knockout guitarist—Jessie Jacobson, who shakily faces her patients while trying to grapple with her own identity; floundering young nomad Mason Mahoney, wondering if there will be a place for a biracial gay man in the current climate of America; Guatemalan immigrant Roland Palencia, who fears for his own future in his adopted country; and Kim’s teacher from Harvard-Westlake, who wonders if her youthful student will grow up to love and fight for the rights we, her elders, fought so hard to protect.
   These stories and others are gently related to Kim as the members of QueerWise offer their “truths now with swift purpose and quiet grace.” Although Shades of Disclosure works best when its storytellers lift their eyes from the scripts they carry, the honest telling of each person’s tales provides a jarringly evocative evening reminding us that our war against bigotry, racism, gender equality, and a disease that has decimated millions is not only not over yet but is a fight that right now at this scary and insecure moment in time must be renewed with vigor and relentless determination.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 6, 2017
 
Grimly Handsome
City Garage

Everyone involved in bringing Grimly Handsome to life at Santa Monica’s City Garage has done all the necessary work. Still, the play will feel like a farrago, unless the audience is willing to patiently dig in to sort out the threads.
   Julia Jarcho’s script, the 2013 Obie-Award winner, now in its West Coast premiere, is an intermissionless three-parter. First, on a frigid evening, two men wait for customers at a Christmas tree lot in New York City. They are Gregor (Andrew Loviska) and Alesh (Anthony M. Sannazzaro), each an Eastern European. We find this out when they speak heavily accented and hesitant English, though when they’re speaking in their native tongue, we hear it as flawless English.
   Alesh wants to be an American policeman. Gregor, wearing an eye patch, chides him with a reminder of police corruption back home. Or, is “the village” they refer to “The Village?”
   A girl, Natalia (Lindsay Plake), looking like Red Riding Hood browses the trees. She’s stunned at the high prices, so Gregor, with apparent sarcasm, gives her a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
   When she leaves, Alesh and Gregor role-play picking up women. And then they role-play drugging, raping and killing them.
   We next see Natalia curled up on her sofa, the tiny awkward tree on display, as she reads a detective novel. And then she returns to the lot, where she takes a cup of tea from Alesh the way Snow White trustingly took an apple from the queen. Alesh carries her lifeless body away.

So far, so grim. Or, should that be “Grimm?”
   Director Frédérique Michel gives this first scene high style and deliberate pacing, so the work feels suspenseful. She then choreographs her use of Josephine Poinsot’s costumes, so Plake quickly re-emerges from backstage to start putting on the bits of costuming Sannazzaro had taken off: cap, flannel shirt, scarf.
   Plake’s Natalia thus transforms into Nally, an easily distracted man called in for interrogation by New York Police Department detectives Greggins (Loviska) and Alpert (Sannazzaro) as they investigate a series of Christmas slayings.
   Except, under Michel’s hand, it’s not clear that they truly are detectives. The words they say could pass for cop talk, but here, again, they speak with high style and deliberate pacing. Is Natalia dreaming them up? Note the dial phone in the room.
   More twists and surprises follow along these lines. Themes of identity and identifying with, interrelatedness, and natural evil waft through the 90-minute work.
   But most surprising, and certainly a highlight of the costuming, is the third segment. It seems to leave us with the idea that animals have better ethics than we do—or at least that they learn from their collective unconscious. Ignorance will be our downfall, we are warned.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 6, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 
Witness for the Prosecution
The Group Rep/Lonny Chapman Theatre

Originally published as Traitor Hands in the Jan. 31, 1925, edition of Flynn’s Weekly, this stalwart among the prodigious catalogue of Agatha Christie’s works has enjoyed numerous incarnations, including a slew of film and television versions. Its theatrical debut took place October 28, 1953, at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre. Though arguably not one of Christie’s most-gripping forays in adapting one of her novels for the stage, this three-act piece still can be quite engaging, especially when given dedication to detail as evidenced in this production.
   Director Jules Aaron keeps things humming along with a provocatively crisp pacing that maintains an aura of “What’s coming next?” Christie’s clues are all there, and this cast of 14 exercises the pithiness of her language with ease. Kudos to Linda Brennan, the production’s dialect coach, for a commendable slate of accents employed by her charges.

Defendant Leonard Vole, played with a mixture of befuddlement and righteous indignation by Patrick Skelton, is on trial for the bludgeoning murder of Miss Emily French, a 66-year-old woman who, as an indication of the play’s age, is repeatedly referred to as “elderly” throughout Christie’s script.
   Vole’s legal team consists of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, brought to life with scene-stealingly delicious perspicacity by Larry Eisenberg, and Mrs. Joan Mayhew, given an energetically optimistic turn by Michele Schultz. Aaron chose non-traditional casting in changing Mayhew from John to Joan. The resulting relationship between these two barristers is captivating and serves to further highlight the tale’s occasional comedic moments.
   Romaine, a German national Vole married and brought back to England, is his only true source of an alibi as the circumstantial evidence mounts against him. She turns out to be the titular character. Divulging any more of the plot’s twists and turns would be unfair to the production and detrimental to our dear readers’ enjoyment of this expertly directed, multilayered mystery. Suffice it to say that Salome Jens offers a remarkably adroit performance as this often maddeningly enigmatic woman.
   Thanks to J. Kent Inasy’s stunningly ingenious scenic design involving pivoting double-backed walls and platforms, we are transported from Sir Wilfrid’s chambers to the Central Criminal Court of London, better known as the Old Bailey.

Here a collection of memorable characters is introduced—including Lloyd Pedersen’s drily humorous Justice Wainwright; Chris Winfield’s frustratingly self-assured prosecutor, Mr. Myers; Sherry Michaels’s witness Janet Mackenzie, Miss French’s housekeeper who makes no bones about her distrust of defendant Vole; Bruce Nehlsen’s sometimes fed-up, over-confident Scotland Yard Inspector Hearne; Mikel Parraga-Wills’s court clerk, with his silver-tongued delivery of the sessions’ calls to attention and administration of witness oaths; and Todd Andrew Ball’s and Roslyn Cohn’s uniquely drawn medical specialists, after both double as Sir Wilfrid’s legal staff in the opening scene of Act 1.
   Inasy’s lighting complements not only his notable set but also Angela M. Eads’s period-perfect costuming and Judi Lewin’s hair and wig designs. Aaron and sound designer Steve Shaw incorporate well-chosen musical pieces as scene segues. Aaron’s choice to make the audience the jury is well-thought-out; however, the use of taped crowd sounds at various points throughout the courtroom scenes is a tad distracting, especially when the onstage characters begin talking over disruptions that the presiding judge would most certainly quiet from the bench before allowing the case to proceed. Still, this is but a quibble with an otherwise uniformly excellent production.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
January 31, 2017
 
The Found Dog Ribbon Dance
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Coping is an intensely personal matter. The impact of a loss, whatever form it takes, is quite often inexplicable to the outside world. How one handles it and the potential need for comfort is the big picture in playwright Dominic Finocchiaro’s world premiere piece. Finocchiaro populates his play with unique people brought to life by a uniformly excellent cast under the able direction of Alana Dietze.
   As strange as it may seem at first, Norma, played with exquisite simplicity by Amanda Saunders, is a New York City–based professional “cuddler.” Blazing a path into this heretofore little-known job category, she encounters a widely varied clientele.
   There’s Dave, a pajama-clad divorcé, played by Eric Gutierrez whose moment of angst upon misreading Norma’s empathy is heart-wrenching. Harrison, a balls-to-the-wall stock market analyst, given a strong portrayal by West Liang, serves as a superlative muse for challenging Norma’s outwardly calm demeanor.
   Meanwhile, Trista, played by Clarissa Thibeaux, is Norma’s first female client, an 18-year-old given to “cutting” as she obviously struggles with her sexual identity. And Gregory Itzin is outstanding as a quietly empathetic older gentleman named Xeno who winds up providing Norma with the very connection and opportunity for reflection that she is supposedly offering him.
   Throughout, Norma sponsors the titular canine character, brought to life here by Daniel Hagen, whose work is engagingly perfect. Director Dietze along with Saunders and Hagen have avoided any pitfalls of disbelief the audience might foster, given this human-animal cohabitation. Theirs is a reality one buys into immediately and wholly.
   As Norma attempts to locate Dog’s owner, she runs headlong into a pair of characters who, frankly, could use her professional services. Gabriel Notarangelo plays Colt, a streetwise skateboarder whose foulmouthed invectives mask the heartbreak of having lost his own canine companion. Julia Dretzin embodies Miranda, a nearly heartless, or so we first assume, businesswoman whose mission is to bring home any dog in order to placate her children over their missing pet. Notarangelo and Dretzin spin gold with these cameo appearances, as their characters challenge Norma’s comfort zone.

On the flip side, all is not drama and depression. While posting a flier at a local coffee shop, Norma encounters an older-than-average—early 40s—barista named…wait for it…Norm! Steven Strobel is flawless as this charmingly goofy, occasionally immature, yet surprisingly deep man whose hobby is described by the other half of the play’s title. Strobel’s and Saunders’s scenes, touchingly directed by Dietze, are equal parts giddy teenage infatuation and quietly wistful moments of introspection. One finds oneself hoping for this relationship to take root and flower as Norma’s long-suppressed losses are given freedom to emerge, thanks to this unusual union.
   Dietze’s production staff complements her work with aplomb. Kirk Wilson’s arena-styled scenic design welcomes the audience to sit in any of the three sections surrounding the playing space. Jesse Baldridge’s lighting of the many locales in Finocchiaro’s script is warmly appealing.


Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
January 27, 2017
 
The Great Kooshog Lake Hollis McCauley Fishing Derby
Torrance Theatre Company

Torrance Theatre Company’s latest offering is another charmer from Canadian playwright Norm Foster. Titled The Great Kooshog Lake Hollis McCauley Fishing Derby, it shows the city mouse in all of us that small-town folk have all the wisdom we could hope for but perhaps none of petty stresses we cling to.
   The play has the feel of a fairy tale. A man who has misplaced his enjoyment of the important things in life becomes stranded for just the right amount of time in the lovely surroundings of Kooshog Lake, where three fairy godmothers and one fairy godfather wryly readjust his priorities.
   With a title like that, it’s no surprise the play is also a bit about names. What we call someone influences how we think of that person, and what we’re called influences how we think of ourselves.
   It’s about James Bell (Nick Brustin), tightly wound big-city big-shot banker, who was driving through the area on his way to a conference when his fuel pump opportunely broke, stranding him here just long enough.

He has been giving his life to his job. That job, it seems, will no longer be giving back to him. At Kooshog Lake, he comes upon Sienna Grey (Jennifer Faneuff), the earth-mother (thus the name) general-store owner whose afternoon nap James interrupts. She’s mourning her only son, who moved away and hasn’t called. But this doesn’t mean she’ll treat James with any apparent motherliness.
   The father figure in this mix is Kirk Douglas (Ron Gould), who starts to mess with James’s mind by pretending he doesn’t know who the real Kirk Douglas is. When the townsfolk tell James there’s only one phone in town, James loses all perspective.
   As if she could sniff out the presence of a new man in town, Rhonda (Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt) stops by the store. She may be a remorseless flirt, but she also runs most of the lakeside businesses. Despite his urban sophistication, she scares James. That’s likely why he quickly turns to the luminous Melanie Morningside (Rachel Baumsten), who evidences good sense and a sweet but currently aching heart.
   So, who is Hollis McCauley? He’s the catfish the locals have been trying to hook for more than 20 years, in their annual fishing derby with an enviable purse to be won for his capture. If he were to be caught, would anyone hang on?

The Kooshogians aren’t perfect. They’ve done things they regret, and they tease James until he doesn’t know joke from truth. But they’re exactly what he needs right now.
   Exactly what the play needs is a director with warmth and humanity, and it gets just that in Gia Jordahl, who makes this Foster comedy remarkably rich yet delicate—well, except for Brustin’s frequently mugging delivery.
   The scenic design and construction by Mark Wood takes the audience far away from Torrance and into a piney, weather-beaten haven. Lighting by Katy Streeter evokes warm morning and evening northern sunlight. Bradley Allen Lock’s costumes set a relaxed, timeless tone.
   Kooshog’s townsfolk feel a strong sense of community. They don’t lock their doors, because, as Kirk Douglas says, “If someone steals from one of us, they steal from all of us.” What a lovely place in which to retreat for a few days. Or a lifetime. Or two hours, including intermission.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 23, 2017
 
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 
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
 
Finding Neverland
Pantages Theatre

It’s back, just past the second star to the right and straight on til morning, yet another telling of the Peter Pan story. Even for those among us who run from sappy musical theater offerings, right now, as the world crumbles and burns around us, Finding Neverland could not be more gratefully welcome. Based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan and the 2004 film version, this grand-scale Broadway musical adaptation follows the relationship between playwright J. M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) and the fatherless London family that became his inspiration for Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, which debuted on the London stage nearly 100 years before Johnny Depp ever donned a nicely pressed ascot.
   Just at the point where Barrie’s successful playwriting career was stymied in a massive writer’s block and his stressed-out producer Charles Frohman (Tom Hewitt, who doubles as a delightfully ominous Captain Hook) was thinking of checking out another, fresher protégé, in a classic bit of serendipity Barrie met lovely young widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) and her obviously pre-Ritalin litter of energetic sons (including the infectiously talented Jordan Cole, Finn Faulconer, and Mitchell Wray at the performance reviewed) in a local park.
   Sensing the reclusive, solitary detachment of the brood’s eldest brother Peter (the sweet and angel-voiced Ben Krieger), it doesn’t take long for Barrie to take the kid and his siblings under his wing, something that shocked the tight-corseted denizens of proper conservative London society. The bond between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family may or may not have sped up the demise of the his already floundering marriage; but, in the process, it also brought the world one of the most-familiar and beloved children’s stories of all time.

This musical version couldn’t be much better. After a New York run starring Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer, it has taken to the road without losing any of its high-tech visual marvels. The incredibly kinetic staging by director Diane Paulus and the spirited, charmingly cheery choreography by Mia Michaels are perfectly accentuated by an eager ensemble and a world-class production team on every level. Yet, even the veteran expertise of set designer Scott Pask, lighting magician Kenneth Posner, and costumer Suttirat Anne Larlarb take a back seat to Jon Driscoll’s amazingly fluid and ever-moving visual imagery that, on the massive and towering Pantages stage, steals the show.
   In an era when traditional movable and fly-able set pieces are often replaced using striking visual projections—a special boon for touring productions—Posner’s towering and moody views of stormy London skies, with dramatic clouds and graceful soaring birds crashing across a romantic moon, are brought to dreamlike life. Although sometimes creating such modern industrial-strength illusions can prove an easy way out, here it works as magically as, well, a healthy sprinkle of pixie dust itself.

Aside from everything this charming adaptation has going for it, however, there’s the hauntingly lovely score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. From Dwyer’s solo turns with the lyrical ballads “All That Matters” and “Sylvia’s Lullaby” to the show-stopping production number “We’re All Made of Stars,” which features Krieger, Faulconer, Wray, and Cole in the most smile-inducing specimen of bonded sibling behavior since Seven Brides for Seven Bothers, we might not be prepared to hum a few bars of “Circus of Your Mind” as we leave the theater, but it may just motivate immediately going out and purchasing the CD.
   Everything about Finding Neverland runs like a well-oiled machine, but without losing any of the momentary enchantment that can take us all, regardless of our age, back to the time when we first saw Peter Pan take flight and longed to help him get that shadow of his sewn back on and journey through the night skies with him to join the Lost Boys. Never growing up to face a world gone totally mad is a consummation devoutly to be wished there days, and it’s a lovely treat when any fantasy can transport us away from the daily barrage of evening news insanity.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 22, 2017
 
Circus 1903: The Golden Age
of Circus

Pantages Theatre

It must be hard for circus-themed touring productions to exist in the massive and glitzy shadow of Cirque du Soleil. There have been many animal-free Cirque clones popping up over the last years—and most of them hang for dear life onto the coattails of the Montreal conglomerate with varying degrees of success. None, however, has been as imaginative or downright captivating as Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus, now loaded into the Pantages for a too-short stay.
   Beginning with the premise that this usual troupe of death-defying aerialists, acrobats, jugglers, and tightrope artists are setting up their wares alongside a railroad depot in a small town at the turn of the last century, Circus 1903 is different from its competitors. Not only were the producers smart to hire notable magician David Williamson to play their wisecracking, slightly world-weary ringmaster Willy Whipsnide, they also brought on board costumer Angela Aaron to re-create the players’ painstakingly accurate period wardrobe, as well as scenic wizard Todd Edward Ivins and lighting designer Paul Smith to add to the illusion of the members of the ensemble joining to raise their tents and festooning them with strings of lights and colorful banners.
   By the second act, their smoky, atmospheric preparations give way to a full-blown performance, and the result may be slightly minimal but still, most charmingly magical.

And speaking of magic, the other distinctive thing this traveling entertainment has going for it is the participation of Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller of Significant Object, who bring to life the show’s resident star attractions: the enormous, incredibly graceful “Queenie” and her adorably goofy and energetic baby “Peanut.” Millar and Waller’s pair of life-size elephant puppets are manipulated by several retro-costumed puppeteers walking next to and visibly moving inside the beautifully rendered creatures, instantly reminiscent of the enchanted animals dominating the National Theatre’s adaptation of War Horse—of which Millar was part of the creative team. Bringing these glorious beasts to life proves a feat of extraordinary artistic alchemy, only making their delighted audiences wish for more. A few future lions and tigers and bears, maybe? Oh, my. We can only hope.
   Surely Circus 1903 doesn’t have the limitless resources available to the world-full of nonstop wonder fashioned for one of Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix’s empire of enchanted dreamscapes, but what Circus 1903 does with what it has got is, simply, magical on its own.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 17, 2017
 
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips
Wallis Center for the Performing Arts

Like a cat that doesn’t want to be caught, theater that satisfies adults and children can be elusive. But Britain’s Kneehigh theater company caught an adorable cat firmly by the scruff with this production.
   And what a gorgeous, joyous, meaningful piece of theater Kneehigh has devised, using creative storytelling, lively song and dance, and thoroughly endearing puppetry. In this adaptation by Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) and Emma Rice from Morpurgo’s novel, the stage at the Wallis has become a seaside town (Lez Brotherston’s set and costumes), where a second-story band shell houses musicians, many of whom are also actors in the show, as talents abound here.

At the home of Grandma and Grandpa, a kindhearted geeky-grungy grandson (Adam Sopp) visits. Grandpa (Chris Jared) passes on, tenderly staged as he rises youthfully and without handicap from his wheelchair and ascends a ladder to the bandstand. Granny (Mike Shepherd) ignores her disapproving children and bolts out of the funeral on her motorcycle, but not before she hands her grandson her diary from her youth.
   As he begins to read it, we’re transported to 1940s Devon, England. Living on a struggling farm are preteen Lily (Katy Owen), her overworked mother (Kyla Goodey), and Lily’s grumpy grandfather (Shepherd). The town’s schoolteacher, Madame Bounine (Emma Darlow) has her hands full with Lily and the other undisciplined students, but like everyone in town, nevertheless she persists.
   Refugees, including a charming young geek named Barry (Sopp), come from London and aren’t particularly welcome. Lily lashes out and is surprisingly bratty, both for a wartime Brit and for a story’s heroine. But when it’s needed, Lily’s golden heart takes over.
   And then, American soldiers take over the area, requiring displacement of the residents. Yes, this happened, for real, in the Devon town of Slapton Sands. There, as history now tells us, soldiers disastrously rehearsed the D-Day invasion. The 946 in the play’s title commemorates the number of American lives lost.

The show also commemorates American gum-chewing. Alas, this seems to be how so much of Europe remembers our soldiers. Here, the GIs include the African-American Adolphus T. Madison (Ncuti Gatwa) and his faithful friend Harry (Nandi Bhebhe).   Grandpa can’t understand why the “ruddy Yanks” need to disrupt his life. Then Barry, unwanted elsewhere, moves in with the family. This city boy is a dab hand at repairing the broken farm machinery and an enthusiast for the farming way of life. Attitude is contagious.
   Still, Lily is slower to appreciate Barry. She’d rather spend time with Tips, her cat. Tips is playful, affectionate, smart, and portrayed by a puppet wielded by the actors, primarily Bhebhe. Tips apparently refuses to evacuate and is lost to Lily. The can-do Adolphus and the quiet but observant Harry promise Lily they’ll search for her, and they do. But, being a cat, she’s independent.
   Dramaturgically, her independence allows people of various ages, nationalities and races to get to know one another. Not surprisingly for those days, the countryside Brits hadn’t come in contact with many blacks. And, as Harry later admits, he had never met whites who took him to their hearts like these folks do.
   Remarkable about Owen’s performance as a child just turning 12 years old is Owen’s willingness to launch, skid, and plunge over and off the stage, with no fear of a broken hip. Remarkable about the performances of all the actors are the commitment, freshness, and auxiliary skills they ply, including playing instruments under Pat Moran’s music direction and eccentric dancing incorporating period fads, choreographed by Rice and Etta Murfitt.

You know by the show’s title that adventures abound. So does destruction, sacrifice, death. So does rich theatermaking, from obvious drag through references to Brecht. And so does joy, in little plot twists that reveal the power of love to heal and unite, the remarkable resilience in each of us if we free it.
   Now, curiosity kills cats. But why doesn’t the audience see the cat’s adventures here? And what is soldier Madison’s middle name?

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 13, 2017

Republished courtesy Daily Breeze
 

Future Sex, Inc.
Lounge Theatre

When a malevolent Trump-like conglomerate called Monocorp falsely alarms the public that sexual activity must be stopped due to an impending epidemic, the prospect of future sex for our species is jeopardized. The only solution is strapping on—the wrist…what were you thinking?—a little apparatus Monocorp manufactures called the Love Light, which, when activated, stimulates an orgasm of epic proportions. In offering this product for worldwide utilization, Monocorp can soon, of course, control the planet.
   With an infectious score that, as a character tells us with tongue firmly in cheek, runs the spectrum all the way from hip-hop to rap, this outrageously X-rated pop musical melds Arthur C. Clarke, Lady Gaga, and a North Beach-y peep show vibe with surprising success. The weakest part is writer-composer John Papageorge’s predictable and rather silly script, which has the feeling of being created on the spot as the play progresses and oddly makes one wish, if he wanted to go for adult humor and off-color double-entendres, he’d gone a little further.
   Still, the music is worth suffering through the dialogue and situations, which also boasts exceptional performances, surprisingly fluid staging by director Kiff Scholl on the Lounge Theatre’s extremely limited playing area, steamy choreography by April Thomas, and comically sexy strip-clubby costuming by local glitter-god Michael Mullen that makes one immediately wonder just where this guy shops.

Ally Dixon and the Pee-wee Herman–suited Kevin McDonald have a splendidly good time as the corporation’s evil henchwoman Vivian and her nerdy suitor George O. Thornhill, while Tanya Alexander and Michael Uribes scenery chew with hilarious results as Monocorp’s devious CEO and a sketchily talented magician whose allegiances waver from bad to good. Jolie Adamson steals every one of her scenes as Cherry, a Valley Girl-accented robot with moves like C-3PO and outfits inherited from Britney Spears. Maya Lynne Robinson, as a fallen pop star who tries out a Love Light, vibrates and twitches and rolls her eyes back in the lengthiest and most memorable onstage “happy ending” in the history of the American theater.
   Alex Vergel as the wisecracking deejay-MC; Sean Leon as Alexander’s hunky “enforcer”; and Erica Ibsen, Natalie Polisson, Briana Price, and Elise Zell as the gamely raunchy dancing ensemble fill out the ensemble with spunk, much to the delight of one single older man in a wrinkled overcoat seated directly in the front row who looked so much like a drooling, knee-slapping denizen of a real-life gentlemen’s club that he almost seemed like a plant. Yup, Future Sex, Inc. is, as Papageorge’s dialogue tells us, a “one of a kind—like a snowflake or a cum stain.”

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 9, 2017
 
Chapatti
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
 
Nunsense
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
 
For Piano and Harpo
Falcon Theatre

Noted musician, composer, and author Oscar Levant was one of those larger-than-life figures prominent from the 1930s until his death in 1972. In his New York days, he was a member of the Algonquin Round Table along with Dorothy Parker, Alexander Wollcott, and Robert Benchley. He was a a sought-after concert pianist. He was a regular panelist on the radio show Information Please, providing mordant wit, which led to his later career in Hollywood, notably in films The Barkleys of Broadway and An American in Paris, playing an eccentric version of himself.
   Playwright Dan Castellaneta, himself an eclectic actor, comedian, and voiceover artist (The Simpsons, Darkwing Duck, Rugrats, The Tracey Ullman Show) has taken on the task of exploring a dark period in Levant’s life when he was frequently committed to mental institutions.
   Part vaudeville, comedy sketch, and melodrama, Castellaneta’s fluid foray into Levant’s life attempts to portray the figures who influenced Levant and the inner workings of his genius. From an autocratic father who certainly contributed to his neuroses to longtime friend George Gershwin, he traversed a life of celebrity and addiction. Sometimes confusing as the play morphs from past to present, it nevertheless presents an affecting picture of a man whose talents were frequently overshadowed by his psychological angst.

As Levant, Castellaneta is suitably funny and tragic. In Act 1, the story is theatrical as well as expository with a fine cast of characters—JD Cullum, Deb Lacusta, Gail Matthius, Phil Proctor, and Jonathan Stark—playing multiple roles as Gershwin, Levant’s wife, Harpo Marx, Levant’s parents, Jack Paar, and others. Because the piece is structurally complicated, it is tough going at times for the characters to make seamless switches from person to person, so sometimes there’s a glitch or two. Act 2 is more measured, and during this interpretation of Levant’s life the emotional heft of the story is most affecting.
   Cullum is particularly notable as Charlie, a mute patient Oscar meets as he spends time in the hospital. Many of the best moments of the story are played out in their exchanges. He also adds considerable humor as Harpo. Lacusta is affecting as his wife, and Matthius has funny moments as Fanny Brice and a fellow mental patient. Proctor is a reliable character actor who does yeoman work as Levant’s father, Harpo’s butler, and others. As Paar, on whose show Levant was a frequent guest, Stark is noteworthy. He also fills in as doctor and Gershwin.
   Music supervisor–pianist David O provides Levant’s musicianship only partially concealed behind the scenes, and harpist Jillian Risigari-Gai delivers Harpo’s music as the two characters mime the music in the foreground. It is a significant addition to the play’s overall mood. Also striking is Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting design, transforming the nearly bare stage into multiple settings like Harpo’s home where Levant spent much time, the hospital with its struggles, and his home with his wife.

Director Stefan Novinski balances the comedy with adversity nicely as he maneuvers his cast through the many overlapping scenes. As Levant was noted for his one-liners, including “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin,” Novinski makes their many inclusions in the script seem believable as dialogue.
   Though the play challenges the audience to keep the time periods and events sorted out, it works best as a theatrical endeavor when it focuses on the human aspects of the story rather than the biographical. The ensemble’s considerable talent makes for a worthwhile exploration of this complex and intriguing man.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
February 14, 2017
 
Zoot Suit
Mark Taper Forum

The history of Los Angeles is a fascinating and often sordid tale. This is particularly true of the bigotry and racial profiling which has befallen, and continues to befall, our pivotal Chicano population over the years. It makes the Taper’s sparkling revival of Luis Valdez’s groundbreaking musical Zoot Suit, which premiered at the same theater way back in 1978 when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth and the mastodons had not yet gotten hung up in the tar pits, more timely than ever—before our current administration brings back tar and dumps us all in it for a swim.
   As the news continues to be chockful of reports of Trump-inspired ICE raids and deportation roundups that have rocked Los Angeles and the country this weekend, recent National Medal of Arts recipient Valdez, who once again directs his own masterpiece with the participation of his son and longtime collaborator Kinan as his associate director, takes us back to 1942. While World War II raged across our globe, the LA pachuco society was the relentless target of brutality and the stomping on of human rights by the police and the military.
   Valdez returns to his story of the infamous Sleepy Hollow murder trial and the resultant Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, aided by a passionate cast and designers who have obviously worked tirelessly to do their homework. Designer Christopher Acebo’s soaring metal industrial structures, looming in front of a mysterious night-lit backdrop of the East LA barrio smoldering below a rendition of City Hall, is a perfect tool for Valdez’s stark staging and the hot-blooded dance numbers choreographed by Maria Torres to the infectiously cheery original score by the legendary late “father of Chicano music” Lalo Guerrero.

Speaking of research, costumer Ann Closs-Farley’s amazing period costuming defines her as a vital member of the exceptional team that has brought this production back to life, whether it be finely tailored Joan Crawford-esque suits for reporter Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont) or the spectacularly colorful dancewear moving seductively with every jerk and stretch of the energetic and rubber-limbed ensemble. . Her work is accentuated by the gorgeously detailed “drapes” that adorn the ghostly El Pachuco (Demián Bichir) and members of the local gang who became victims of the American court system. Once referred to by a young Malcolm X as a “killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell,” Closs-Farley’s brilliantly day-glo-ing zoot suits, complete with their signature watch chains dangling from the belt to below the knee, could make a comeback due solely to the success of this revival.
   Bichir is a dynamic presence as he bravely attempts to fill the well-worn pointed-toed shoes that became the springboard to fame for his predecessor in the role, Edward James Olmos. Bichir is wonderfully sparse in his choices as he prances and poses as the continuously dominant spirit figure gliding through the action as the conscience of the falsely accused Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce), although his gravelly, raspy delivery of some of his key lines does tend to get lost in their own gargle. Ponce also seems to keep his delivery more to the bone than do many of his castmembers, as does Jeanine Mason as his spunky love interest Della. A special treat is the casting of Daniel Valdez (who also doubles as musical director) and Rose Portillo as Henry’s longsuffering, endearingly simple immigrant parents, since they are the actors who, four decades ago, played the roles of Henry and Della in the original cast.

Of course the saddest thing about seeing Zoot Suit so painstakingly returned to its original venue is to realize how little has changed since the Sleepy Lagoon murders and the subsequent Zoot Suit Riots, which shook Los Angeles to its core and subsequently spread around the country 75 years ago. Like studying the arc between Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in 1905 and Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County 100 years later, the endurance of great art unmistakably exposes how our conflicted species refuses to modify our behavior and learn from our mistakes, how little we really, truly try to honor and to practice the humanity we profess to hold so dear.


Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 13, 2017
 
Lyrics From Lockdown
The Actors’ Gang at Ivy Substation

In a political climate where disagreements are labeled as “unconstitutional,” “destructive,” even “treasonous” or “evil,” refreshing is the message that’s both timely in its relevance and balanced in its presentation. In this case, the message, that of a justice system that, at times, is most certainly unfair to its participants based on no more than a series of immutable factors such as race, ethnicity, or the supposedly guaranteed “freedom of association.”
   In this moving, often comical, power-punch of a solo performance, author Bryonn Bain details his amazingly overflowing cup of life. Having broken with the tradition of his Brooklyn upbringing to serve as the four-time president of his class at Columbia University and eventually graduate from Harvard Law School, Bain seemed on track for what by all standards would be success at every turn. And yet, the path his life was to take proved to be the positive outcome of a blindside.
   Racially profiled and wrongfully incarcerated by the New York City Police, Bain has produced a stunning array of work and social activism, which even included serving as the topic for a segment of CBS’s Sixty Minutes in which he was interviewed by the venerable Mike Wallace. In this theatrical production, he parallels his autobiography with that of Nanon Williams, sent to Texas’s Death Row at age 17 (a sentence converted in 2005 to life imprisonment), both of whom have spun gold from dross through their unveiling of the ills found within our nation’s incarceration industry.

Bain’s ability to offer his thoughts and feelings without drubbing his audience over the head is perhaps the most admirable quality of his work. Instead, he introduces us to his family: a father known for his love of Calypso music, a Bible-thumping mother, and two brothers, one of whom walked the tightrope between lawfulness and the gangsta lifestyle. In doing so, Bain humanizes himself, and his message is thereby saved from being overshadowed by the unforgiving militancy so often found in those who espouse a “cause.” It’s one of many wise choices that he and director Gina Belafonte have made in crafting this fast-paced one-act.
   So too are the incorporations of musical stylings, credited to the playwright’s father, B. Rolly Bain, which transform this poetry into gripping lyrics backed by an onstage three-piece ensemble. John B. Williams on the double bass and Isaiah Gage on the cello, along with the remarkable talent of an artist identified as “Click the Supa Latin” serving as a human beatbox, make amazing use of what are normally considered traditionally staid instruments. Although untitled, Bain’s compositions run the gamut from blues to calypso and classical to hip-hop. In particular, he riffs on subjects which for the purposes of this review shall be referred to as “Growing Up on Marcus Garvey Boulevard,” “Things Are Not Always What They Seem,” “On My Way,” and “Scribble On.”

Equally valuable is a trio, artistes in their own right, inhabiting the theater’s tech booth. Billed as the designer and video DJ for the production is Omolara Abode. In addition to a pair of traditional suspended screens marking the set’s upstage area, Abode’s almost ceaseless array of video and still projections fill the side walls of the Ivy Substation’s decades-old, brick-walled interior. Meanwhile, Pierre Adeli’s sound cues, including live vocal interjections from the booth, flawlessly augment and accentuate Bain’s 75-minute monologue. Seamless lighting transitions, under the guidance of technical director Jason Ryan Lovett, are provided throughout the show by Cihan Sahin.
   Concluding his performance with “So Many People in Need,” perhaps the most poignant of all his sung works, Bain and director Belafonte send their audience out onto the street moved and perhaps encouraged to action rather than merely ruminating over what has just been experienced.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
February 12, 2017
 
Beckett 5
Odyssey Theatres

Just the name conjures a headache in some and bliss in others. Playwright Samuel Beckett is considered one of the most-influential 20th-century playwrights, certainly within Theatre of the Absurd style, his Waiting for Godot at the peak of those works.
   At the Odyssey Theatres, five of Beckett’s short plays are being performed under the umbrella title that bears his name. With that much advance notice, the audience certainly should know what to expect.
   And knowing that the Odyssey’s resident company of superb veteran actors, the KOAN Unit, under director Ron Sossi, is bringing the works to life, we are assured the production will be deep and sharp.
   The works are staged on set designer Mark Guirguis’s simple black-box area. A raised platform upstage, where doors open into unseen rooms, gets used for one of the pieces but remains in murky darkness for others, thanks to lighting designer Chu-Hsuan Chang’s mysterious but warm illumination.

“Act Without Words II” opens the production. Alan Abelew and Beth Hogan hunker inside white plastic sacks, until each is goaded (Norbert Weisser clad head to toe in black, wielding a spear) into a day’s action. Abelew, as “A,” loathes every moment. Even his food, a tasty-looking carrot pulled out of his pocket, prompts A to spit out his sole sustenance. A has turned to prayer and pharmaceuticals to get through his days.
   Hogan, as “B,” loves every moment of the day, though the manic pace might take its toll. Chronically checking her watch, compulsively exercising, obsessed with her appearance, at least she relies on herself to get through it all, ending with a bit of self-reflection.
   Beckett reputedly felt annoyed when people presumed references to his earlier plays, but the carrots, black suit and bowler hat of Godot greatly tempt us here.
   “Come and Go” finds three women gathered on a bench in an enigmatic reunion. Diana Cignoni and Sheelagh Cullen join Hogan to perhaps relive their school days, giggle girlishly, share information or spread misinformation, and still find communal support.
   Their names—Flo, Vi, Ru—evoke flowers, and they’re dressed in floral pastels, with pristine white satin Mary Jane shoes. But something darker is at work. Each one of the three wanders off while two stay behind to whisper. What they share might be salacious gossip, or it might be news of impending death.

The plays get even darker with “Catastrophe,” in which Director and Assistant literally and figuratively manipulate Protagonist, who represents actor, audience, and nation. Sossi has swapped genders of Director and Assistant, casting Hogan as the imperious Director, oblivious to the figure’s suffering, and Abelew as the obsequious Assistant, who was only following orders. Weisser’s Protagonist doesn’t collapse, likely fearful of the consequences. But when the others leave, he prods us with a chilling, astonishing, richly emotional stare.
   “Footfalls” finds Diana Cignoni as a daughter, pacing in front of her mother’s doorway, and Sheelagh Cullen (unseen) voicing the mother. It’s perhaps the most deeply psychological of the plays here, yet it’s also full of wordplay. The mother may be dead or dying, the daughter may be living in the past or living an unfulfilled life now, but Christian imagery reflects constraints on the peripatetic figure.

After an intermission that lets the audience gather breath and wits, “Krapp’s Last Tape” stars Weisser in one of Beckett’s better-known short works. A “wearish old man” listens to tape recordings of himself at younger ages. At each age, he has looked back from a vantage of more experience and more disdain. Despite the shabby appearance and goofy antics, Weisser is an elegant Krapp of rue, nostalgia, wryness, and the wisdom of age and experience.
   Beckett included detailed stage directions with his scripts. In “Come and Go,” for example, his directions are longer than the dialogue. Sossi uses some, leads his troupe elsewhere on others, encouraging intellectual and emotional responses to Beckett’s works.
   Costume designer Audrey Eisner provides the crisply evocative looks, while sound designer Christopher Moscatiello creates atmospheres of subtle mystery.
   So, what to expect here? As in life, those willing to observe, to think, to accept that some things are imponderable but still worth considering, will fare best.
  

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 25, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

The Lion
Geffen Playhouse

It’s a given that most self-created solo shows dig deep into the past and the personal demons haunting their authors. Benjamin Scheuer takes it one step further with The Lion, adding one component fairly unique to that genre: unflinchingly recounting the bittersweet memories of his life and individual trials and using gloriously evocative music.
   Scheuer offers a bravely unembellished look at growing up in a difficult situation, letting his story unfold through powerful and hauntingly poetic ballads, his sandpapery vocal dexterity, and some truly ferocious skills as a guitarist. Yet austerity is the key here, Scheuer moving from stool to stool, picking up a half-dozen guitars showcasing his versatility, on the Geffen’s intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis stage. His only co-conspirators in showcasing his massive talent are the unobtrusive but effective direction by Sean Daniels, complemented by Neil Patel’s ever-changing sound studio design, lit simply but chameleon-like by Ben Staton.

Scheuer tells of his uncomfortable relationship with a demanding father whose expectations do not mesh with his son’s free spirit, ending in a bitter argument never resolved before his dad, whom he obviously adored, suddenly died of a brain aneurism. A gifted hobbyist musician, Scheuer’s father was a notable mathematician.
   Although he shared his musical passion with his son—even building him a homemade banjo in the basement—his frustration that his offspring didn’t inherit his analytical skills or wasn’t interested in academic success destroyed their time together.
   Scheuer’s story trudges on through a love affair, catastrophic illness, and numerous attempts to find himself in some way that does not involve his passion for music, told by these gifted hands in this quiet and unvarnished production.
   Scheuer is the quintessential product of singer-songwriters from a groundbreaking generation past, a Leonard Cohen or Cat Stevens or James Taylor for the millennium, only taken a step further with a personal tale he shares without filter or embellishment—and we, his sufficiently mesmerized and emotionally transported followers, are his grateful beneficiaries.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
January 16, 2017
 
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
 
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