Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
 
The Play About the Baby
The Road on Magnolia

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Philip Orazio and Taylor Gilbert
Photo by Michele Young

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

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

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

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

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Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror
Crown City Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Michael J. Marchak
Photo by DayrlJim Photography

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

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

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

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

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Barbecue
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Cherise Boothe and Rebecca Wisocky
Jeff Lorch Photography

There’s a heap of deliciously inappropriate nonstop laughs in the West Coast premiere of Robert O’Hara’s twisted comedy Barbecue. But it might not be until a day or so after we see it that we realize the message behind the outrageous chronicles of a majorly dysfunctional trailer-trash family grills up a lot more than chipotle-smothered chicken tenders.
   Lillie Anne, Adlean, James T, and Marie (Frances Fisher, Dale Dickey, Travis Johns, and Elyse Mirto, respectively) are siblings who gather to picnic in a local public park in the heart of Trumpland, an enigmatic place in the vast wasteland the program refers to only as Middle America. The reunion is a ruse for an intervention aimed at the siblings’ wayward sister Barbara (Rebecca Wisocky), nicknamed Zippity Boom, her nickname since childhood, when she began to scare the bejeebies out of the others.
   They quickly conjure familiar victims of our long-lost American Dream, reminiscent of all those game toothless souls willing to throw punches and chairs at one another on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. As James T notes early in the game—and game is definitely an appropriate word here—“We ain’t got no goddam normal family.”
   Organizer and the slightly more conventional Lillie Anne, called out by one of her sisters as not the only one “up here with a GED,” has tried her best to make this event work out. She has at the ready a plane ticket to Alaska and a space reserved for Barbara at a drug rehab retreat, and Lillie Anne has composed a long and brutally honest tough-love letter to read, warning Barbara of far-more-ominous repercussions than her family’s disenfranchisement if she doesn’t go along with their plans.
   None of the others has remembered to write a letter, of course, but Adlean still has an idea to propose, threatening that if Zippity Boom doesn’t comply she’ll beat her until she “sees the white meat.” It’s not easy for any of these mismatched brethren to listen to reason, particularly since all of them appear to have substance abuse issues of their own, from crack to alcohol to downers.

Then the stage suddenly goes to black. It’s a clever and highly unexpected ruse to introduce a second ensemble playing the same loud and stoned troupe of extreme miscreants. The new actors are dressed identically, holding the same cans of Coors, and popping the same pills from the same purse. The only difference here is that, instead of being white-trash crackers, the new cast is African-American (Yvette Cason, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Omar J. Dorsey, and Heather Alicia Simms).
   As surprising as this wrinkle in O’Hara’s darkly cunning saga may be, however, it is only the beginning, as the lights go on and off in Act One to reveal the progress of the clumsy intervention as it continues with Zippity Boom (Cherise Boothe) gagged and tied to a post in the park’s gazebo. The end of the act is like a final reveal on Twilight Zone, but again, it’s only the beginning. O’Hara manages to send up everything from Tennessee Williams family life to Hollywood and the myth of superstardom.
   Lillie Anne is the slightly less-crazed leader who with perpetual frustration precariously holds together her wildly out-of-control brood as best she can. As that less-flashy character, who has to subtly anchor the reality of O’Hara’s wonderfully ridiculous situations while honoring the play’s rat-a-tat comedy, veteran artistes Fisher and Cason expertly provide the glue that keeps the proceedings from devolving into total disaster. Dickey is constantly hilarious as Adlean, who despite trying to recover from breast cancer is puffing on Marlboros from first curtain to final, and Simms delivers a knockout monologue as the amphetamine-fueled Marie before her brother tasers her into momentary catatonia, explaining that he felt she needed the rest.

The cast is 90 percent golden, although Boothe, who came into the cast after the final tech rehearsal as a last-minute replacement, has not yet found her footing in the role. She is still obviously struggling to meld the two distinct personalities of her Barbara, who must instantaneously and seamlessly switch from a spoiled and pretentious movie star sporting a phony Beyonce-inspired upper-class accent to expose her roots as a ghetto survivor. Hopefully, as the run sinks into place, so will her performance.
   The only other aspect of this production that could use further thought is Colman Domingo’s staging. He far too often clumsily lets his gloriously gifted performers form a direct uniform line across the lip of the stage and directs any actor delivering a monologue or offering other important dialogue to directly play it out front to be sure the audience gets it.

All other hairpin turns crashing through Barbecue makes it a hard play to discuss, but even without revealing the many head-spinning comedic bombshells, it can be said that the subterfuge of O’Hara’s uproarious dialogue, spit out with separate but equal Springer-osity, is sure to rattle around for a while until one can see the forest through the trees. It seems comfortable enough to enjoy the shrill insanity of Lillie Anne’s lowly bucolic kin, but how does that perception change when confronted with the same characters with the same issues thrusting a hip to one side, rolling their eyes, and spouting urban Ebonics?
   Through the tearful mist of rapid-fire comedy, O’Hara demands that we question our reactions to these people, to consider how effortlessly we fashion stereotypical assumptions in our heads about the issues of race and social standing that are currently rearing their ugly heads in our broken and evermore divided country.

September 18, 2016
 
Sept. 14–Oct. 16. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $57–98. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. (310) 208-5454.

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Captain of the Bible Quiz Team
Rogue Machine at various Lutheran churches

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Deborah Puette
Photo by John Perrin Flynn

In a tiny church, a battle wages. That battle has been nearly settled by American law, it seems to be settling in large urban areas. But in the hearts and minds of the congregation at Kandota Lutheran Church in Little Sauk, Minn., it’s still a stubbornly fought war.
   In Tom Jacobson’s world premiere Captain of the Bible Quiz Team, we, the audience, are congregants as pastor Landry Sorenson takes over the pulpit for the months from Christmas Eve through Easter. This pastor has returned home to tend the flock while Landry’s father, the lifelong reverend here, suffers from abdominal cancer.
   Pastor Landry sure knows the Bible. Trying to emulate dad, as a youngster Landry was captain of the Bible quiz team. But knowing the Bible can cause chafing with others who claim they, too, know the Bible.
   The topic of homosexuality comes up in this church. It comes up when the congregation raises it, splitting neighbor from neighbor, kin from kin, Landry from her father. The play clearly has its point of view, and the play is manipulative. But isn’t manipulation a main purpose of art?
   Pastor Landry is chatty up there. Secrets are too painful to keep. Secrets have made Pastor Landry ill. Pastor Landry wants no more secrets.

At the performance reviewed, Deborah Puette played Landry. She shares the role, over the run of the production, with Amielynn Abellera, Wayne T. Carter, and Mark Jacobson, while Barbara Browning serves as charming organist at all the performances. Yes, the role can be played by a male or female actor; the message is the same.
   Director Michael Michetti shapes the performance exquisitely. The play’s purpose builds, the darkness settles in, the audience becomes curious and cares about what’s happening to Landry.
   Puette, in Landry’s first time at this pulpit in front of the township she grew up in, where she has hundreds of relatives, is understandably tense. Her cheeks strain to stretch across her face, her lips stick ever so slightly to her teeth. She glances down at her notes a goodly amount. She has a horrible little nervous laugh.
   At Landry’s next sermon, for Epiphany, Puette gives Landry more confidence, more “stage” presence. Her voice is deeper and fuller, her face is relaxed, her head is up. By Ash Wednesday, Landry’s voice is theatrical, powerful, colorful. And her messages are becoming deeply personal, much having to do with the relationship between father and child.
   By Maundy Thursday, she is irate, blasting congregants and the church hierarchy for hypocrisy. By Good Friday she is pleading, questioning, tearful. Imagine the roiling conflict inside her if she has the audacity to drop an f-bomb within the sanctuary.

What a tremendous spiritual experience it is to be saved—in this case by the affection and respect of people whose lives you have bettered just by being yourself.
   At the end of the play, each audience member is called by name and asked to stand, as a group—to stand up, to stand for. As Jacobson reminds us, it’s the right thing to do. Or as some of us would say, it couldn’t hurt.

September 5, 2016
 
Aug. 27–Oct. 3. At either Lutheran Church of the Master in West Los Angeles, St. Matthews’ Lutheran Church in North Hollywood, or Hollywood Lutheran Church. See website for location and dates, but in general Sun 3pm & 7pm, Mon 8pm, and Sat at various times. $34.99. (855) 585-5185.

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Next to Normal
Pico Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Isa Briones and Michelle Lane
Photo by John Dlugolecki

Next to Normal is a contemporary musical in many ways. First produced in 2008, its style, language and most of all subject matter keep it far from the likes of Golden Age happy-ending shows. But the material is powerfully transportive, particularly when the performers are uniformly capable of making it so.
   The book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, set to music by Tom Kitt, step inside the head of a woman suffering mental illness and inside the dynamics of her family. At Pico Playhouse, the production’s subtitle, “An original musical,” certainly is truthfully descriptive.
   The Playhouse is a 99-Seat theater—often termed “intimate” theater, meaning everyone in the audience can see the actors’ faces. Those who have seen this material in much larger houses had hoped to someday see it up close.
   But intimate theater means we should also be able to hear the actors’ voices—without electronic amplification. This production mikes the actors and amplifies voices loudly. It’s director Thomas James O’Leary’s one choice that keeps this piece from being fully extraordinary.

The story centers on Diana (Michelle Lane), who has long been diagnosed as manic-depressive and given manifold medications. As we watch, she undergoes other psychiatric therapies. Pill bottles line her medicine cabinet, office and hospital visits fill her weeks. Her psychopharmacologist (Randal Miles) keeps her well-stocked. Eventually, a new practitioner (Miles again) tries various drug-free treatments on her.
   Her husband, Dan (Nick Sarando), is forbearing and stoic, but their high-achieving daughter, Natalie (Isa Briones), seems about to crack. Natalie feels ignored, simultaneously worrying that she might likewise develop mental illness, so she anesthetizes herself with mom’s stash of drugs and nights of clubbing. She’s so numbed that she can’t quite understand why a boy with a crush on her, Henry (Blaine Miller), patiently and devotedly hangs around.
   Diana seems to ignore Natalie in favor of Natalie’s brother, Gabe (Harrison Meloeny). He’s clearly Diana’s favorite child and best friend. And then the audience is let in on what has been going on in this family for years.

Kitt’s music, played by an offstage five-piece band conducted by music director Taylor Stephenson, is largely a musical-theater form of rock, with charming exceptions such as the ironically all-American “It’s Gonna Be Good” that befits Oklahoma!. But sometimes, when a tune turns urgent and propulsive, the voices don’t, and sometimes the performers are asked to belt when the lyrics and the place in the story’s progression don’t merit a belt.
   Still, under O’Leary’s helmsmanship, the performers’ realistic yet specific characterizations, and the depth of emotions they pull from the pen and paper of the score, are outstanding.
   O’Leary’s staging, too, beautifully blends realism with the kaleidoscopic story. At just a few points, however, because sightlines aren’t ideal at this theater, actors seated on the stage floor might be blocked from audience members’ views.

But, as if the story hadn’t emotionally wrung the audience out completely, near its conclusion the focus turns briefly to Dan. The man who has endured and held it all together, who stuck by Diana all these years, must now face his ghosts.
   “Give me pain, if that’s what’s real/It’s the price we pay to feel,” go the lyrics of the finale. The characters are beginning to recognize, understand and cope with their feelings. Next to Normal certainly helps its audiences get in touch with theirs.

August 22, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Aug. 19–Oct. 8. 10508 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles. Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $32–36.99. (310) 204-4440.

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The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
Pacific Resident Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Brad Greenquist and Ginna Carter
Photo by Vitor Martins

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

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

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

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

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

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Blueberry Toast
Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Jacqueline Wright and Albert Dayan
Photo by Darrett Sanders

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

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

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

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

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All the Way
South Coast Repertory

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Hugo Armstrong and JD Cullum
Photo courtesy South Coast Rep

In a tableau framed by a Greek colonnade with the US seal prominently placed centerstage, Robert Schenkkan’s political rouser revisits the moments following John Kennedy’s assassination as Lyndon Johnson (Hugo Armstrong) seizes the reins of power and steps into the presidency. Atop the columns on a raised stage stands a cast of characters who will both ally themselves with Johnson and oppose him, and that is the stuff of his ardent pursuit of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
   Towering over these key players in stature and temperament, Johnson at his desk centerstage keeps the focus on his Oval Office machinations. In spotlighted vignettes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Larry Bates), Stokely Carmichael (Christian Henley), Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Rosney Mauger), and the like strategize their political opportunities for the long-awaited legislation that would give Negroes, as they were called then, more equality in society.
   At Johnson’s right side, Hubert Humphrey (JD Cullum) plays surrogate for a promised vice-presidency to Johnson’s ambition. Herbert Hoover (Robert Curtis Brown), equally covetous of power with wiretapped evidence and investigative secrets, serves the president. Other towering figures of the time—Sen. Everett Dirkson and Strom Thurmond (Hal Landon Jr.), the powerful conservative Democrat Howard “Judge” Smith (William Francis McGuire), Gov. George Wallace (Jeff Marlow), and Robert McNamara (Bo Foxworth)—have telling exchanges as Johnson tries to manipulate the events prior to his re-election the following year.

Also notable are Larry John Meyers as Sen. Richard Russell and Emanuel Celler, Gregg Daniel as Roy Wilkins, and Jordan Bellow as Bob Moses and Dave Dennis in the civil rights camp.
   The women of the play are secondary characters, even though we know wealthy Lady Bird Johnson (Nike Doukas) wielded her own power in Texas. Others were Lurleen Wallace and Muriel Humphrey (Lynn Gallagher) and Coretta Scott King and the civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer (Tracey A. Leigh).
   Darin Singleton plays a pivotal role as Walter Jenkins, Johnson’s right-hand aide, largely instrumental in achieving many of the president’s goals. His arrest and resignation on a morals charge showed the ruthless nature of politics in Johnson’s world.

This cast is a who’s who of fine contemporary actors who manage to make the nearly three-hour play mesmerizing. Armstrong brings LBJ’s intrigue, intimidation, and sheer force of will to life and delivers a remarkable look at the underbelly of the politics that we now see played out in 24-hour media coverage. It is hard to imagine how the Civil Rights Act might be handled today.
   Ralph Funicello’s austere but nicely contrived set allows for multiple exchanges among characters, building suspense. Holly Poe Durban’s costumes are time appropriate, including LBJ’s signature cowboy boots. Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting and Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts’s sound design and original music also amp up the tension. Shawn Sagady’s original projection design executed by Kristin Ellert takes one back to the 1960s effectively.
   Director Marc Masterson skillfully manipulates his large cast playing so many multiple roles that no change of persona takes away from the unfolding saga. The foibles and strengths of each character are subtle or audacious as required by the part but never undercut the storyline. It is masterful work by playwright and director. But, if there is one reason to see the play, it is for the performance by Armstrong. It is a theatrical knockout.

September 23, 2016
 
Sept. 9–Oct. 2. 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Repertory schedule. Prices start at $22. (714) 708-5555.

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And Then They Fell
Brimmer Street Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Lily Nicksay and Kacie Rogers
Photo by Michelle Risucci

The plight of dispossessed children is always harrowing. Tina Palmquist has captured the disheartening struggle of one abused young girl with harsh and no-holds-barred realism. With no income of her own and her mother in detox soon heading from there to jail, Jordan Matthews (Kacie Rogers, alternating in this double-cast play with Chelsea Boyd) is desperately trying to study for her high school algebra final and prepare for a speech in another class as she dozes in the park, safely—she thinks—away from the unwanted sexual demands of her mother’s slimy on-again-off-again alcoholic boyfriend Dwayne (Tim Venable, alternating with Ian Madeira Sollenberger).
   Jordan has few viable options, even rejected in her request for help from the school janitor, who at least lets her into the locker room before hours to shower, until she breaks through the tough exterior of her transgendered homeless classmate Cal (Lily Nicksay, alternating with JJ Hawkins), who was locked out of his house after he told his father he no longer wanted to be called Calista and was looking into gender reassignment therapy. “The next day, I came home from school and there it was,” Cal tearfully tells Jordan. “My life was on the porch.”
   The pitiless journey of Jordan and Cal could break your heart, especially in the hands of Rogers and Nicksay who, under director Amy K. Harmon, slip headfirst into the troubled skins of these tragically adrift adolescents who deserve so much more in their rocky journey through life. Venable is exceptional, as well, as Jordan’s slick but uber-creepy predator guardian. Jaquita Ta’le and Ben Fuller (alternating with Faith Imafidon and Brad Harris) do a knockout job playing all the other characters the pair encounters.

Palmquist’s play has lovely moments as an analogy is drawn between Jordan’s situation and the mass death in the south of thousands of migrant birds dropping from the sky for no apparent reason. Her dialogue is gritty and genuine, and her situations are believably shocking. Yet her play suffers from a lack of resolution. It chronicles the world of way too many tossed-aside young people, but it does so as though reporting a true story on 60 Minutes or some TV news segment. Jordan’s story crashes to its inevitable horrific conclusion but never, oddly reminiscent of our current repellent presidential race, offers even a soupçon of hope for the future. And when Jordan breaks the fourth wall to deliver a poetic passage about the demise of those delicate lost birds, it becomes more of a distraction than a viable addendum to the script—as does the frequent robotically regimented scene changes performed by the cast disguised in hoodies.
   There are two reasons not to overlook and support this world premiere of Palmquist’s interesting but often too-precious and predictably dismal play: the dynamic performances, especially of Rogers, Nicksay, and Venable; and to make more of a difference in the plight of our town’s steadily swelling displaced youth population. Every dime of proceeds from the ticket sales of this production will be donated to My Friend’s Place, a crucial wellness and educational resource facility struggling against all odds to better the harsh and dangerous existence to which Hollywood’s lost teenage homeless population is subjected every day. As their story is written, we can do nothing to soften the fall of poor Jordan and Cal, but at least we can leave the theater hopeful that our attendance benefitted other kids in a similar position in some small way.

September 11, 2016
 
Sept. 10–Oct. 2. 3269 Casitas Ave. Free onsite and street parking. Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat-Sun 2pm & 8pm. $25-30. (617) 953-8544.

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Haunted House Party
Troubadour Theatre Company at The Outdoor Classical Theater at the Getty Villa

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Beth Kennedy and Matt Walker
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Scholars may try to tell us they know exactly what theater looked like in ancient Rome. But they’ll never convince all of us that Troubadour Theater Company’s Haunted House Party, in the nighttime air of the outdoor Getty Villa’s amphitheater, isn’t an exact replica of a sunny day at a suburban Roman crossroads, two millennia ago, where an itinerant company of actors and musicians stopped to entertain, perhaps inform, and hopefully earn a few coins.
   On opening night of this Troubies show, Getty Museum director Timothy Potts, attempting his now-traditional curtain speech, tried to lecture the audience on the history of Roman playwright Plautus’s Mostellaria, translated as “Haunted House,” on which the current show is based. But the Troubies, probably having sat through a few of his introductory disquisitions on ancient theater, were having none of it. Potts, happily, had the wisdom, grace, and sense of humor to literally run for the hills, leaving the stage to the entertainment.
   So, it’s 200 B.C., and because the Romans are feeling nostalgic for all things Greek, a Roman theater troupe is putting on a comedy set in Athens. In it, a father (Michael Faulkner) departs his home on a three-year business trip, leaving his son, Philolaches (Nicholas Cutro), home alone—well, alone except for the many, many slaves. Philolaches, being equal parts foolishly romantic and politically egalitarian, borrows money to buy the freedom of one of the slave girls, Philematium (Joey Keane), which ultimately gets paid back by his friend (Matthew Patrick Davis).
   At least, we’re assuming Philematium is a girl. Among the onstage shenanigans, it takes quite a bit of glancing at Philematium from different angles to assure ourselves that her portrayer is indeed male. But then, Troubie director and this play’s adaptor Matt Walker plays the prevaricating slave Tranio, and Walker is in real life a straightforward, truthful lad. Troubie veteran Beth Kennedy plays the doltish slave Grumio, and Kennedy is immensely talented and bright. Thus they call it acting, and all of it is delightfully skilled here.

This plot had been around the block by the time Plautus got to it, based on the work of the Athenian comedic playwright Menander. It has been around the block since. It became a basis for the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and, it would appear, for the film Risky Business.
   Also recycled, but with clever parody lyrics that meld the ancient play with our previous night’s news, are such pop classics as Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” introducing the haunted house, and R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” offering commentary on the upcoming election. Donald Trump takes the brunt of the evening and Bernie Sanders makes an appearance (in a near-perfect vocal imitation by Rick Batalla as the aged next-door neighbor), so of course Hillary Clinton can’t escape scot-free.
   At the top of the evening, we’re reminded the Villa is surrounded by neighbors the Getty values, so decibels must be kept low. Music director Eric Heinly manages a minor miracle, keeping the volume somewhat down but the energy up, even backed by unamplified harpsichord and cello. That’s the way the Greeks heard their performing arts, and that’s the way some of us prefer it.
   But as if to make up for the more genteel volume, the company amps up the raunch factor. This may be the bawdiest show in the Troubies’ 21-year history.
   Much of this night’s visual and verbal comedy is based on the noted Roman adage “If you can’t laugh at sex, you may as well be having it.” Or words to that effect. Let’s just say pingpong balls and merkins get a rare airing in the cool September marine mists of Pacific Palisades. But, as Walker points out to those persons squeamishly tittering in the crowd, some of the artifacts in the museum directly behind the stage aren’t in the least puritanical either.

The performers sing, dance, play musical instruments, improvise. They do it to entertain us but in the process remind us of how good generous friendship and parental forgiveness can feel. And that they have felt good for thousands of years. And that we are still laughing at sexual innuendo. The upcoming election, however, still doesn’t feel that funny. Maybe it will in 2,000 years.

September 12, 2016
 
Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Sept. 7–Oct. 1. 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Pacific Palisades. Thu–Sat 8pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $36-45, discounts available. (310) 440-7300.

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Jason Dirden, Damon Gupton, Glynn Turman, and Keith David
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Although Jitney was the first play in August Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” (though rewritten in the next decade), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was Wilson’s first to debut on Broadway, in 1984, immediately putting him on the map. After he completed the last play in the series, written just before his untimely death in 2005, the 10 plays were more fittingly redubbed the American Century Cycle, and no 20th-century American playwright—not even Eugene O’Neill, Clifford Odets, nor Tennessee Williams—has so clearly honored with such homespun nobility the culture of an entire race of socially alienated and continuously ill-treated citizens.
   The only one of Wilson’s cycle not taking place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in 1927 in the “Race Division” of a Chicago recording studio, where a group of veteran musicians gathers to back the real-life Gertrude “Ma” Rainey on one of her nearly 100 recordings. Known as Mother of the Blues, Rainey was one of the first African-American artists to set down tracks of her songs—though sadly she was hardly the first to be taken advantage of by greedy white entrepreneurs who cashed in on these great groundbreaking artists big time.
   All of Wilson’s characters chronicle the rocky history of his people in their first entirely free American century, speaking with all the colloquialisms and street lyricism of the black urban existence as they forge tenuously through a troubled 100 years. Perhaps nowhere is the cornerstone of his message more pure and historically fascinating than here, as we get to know the wonderfully resilient eccentrics who make up the fictionalized members of Rainey’s Georgia Jazz Band, central to the story as they orbit an eventful and not altogether peaceful day in her life.
   The guys kid one another mercilessly—disparaging their sexual prowess, whining about who bogarts the others’ reefers, arguing about who is the more valuable player among them. Although Rainey (in a showstopper turn by Lillias White) enters late to quickly begin terrorizing her band and bark orders at her employers, the easy, down-homey, world-wise teasing that pingpongs among her guys (Jason Dirden, Keith David, Damon Gupton, and Glynn Turman) is the heart and soul of Wilson’s story. Ma Rainey’s “Georgians” are indicative of the writer’s lifelong mission to explore the heritage of black Americans and chronicle their collective struggle to rise from the shame of slavery and claw their way to their rightful place: shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of us.

Director Phylicia Rashad brings an uncanny authenticity to the proceedings, eliciting exceptional performances from the majority of her ensemble, but it’s the performances of the boys in the band that deliver the greatest wallop. All four actors double on the band’s instruments—which three of the four learned specifically for this production. Steadfast Wilson interpreters David and Turman are overflowing with laidback charm as the eldest, eye-rolling members of the troupe, while Gupton, a conductor and the only member of the quartet who is also a musician, epitomizes the term double-threat. Still it is Dirden, playing Levee, who personifies the frustrations of an entire race of disenfranchised people, who indelibly generates the exasperations of Levee’s lot in life, consummately fleshing out the character’s massive arrogance while making his attitude easily fathomable.
   White has all the swagger, insolence, and huge-voiced imposing quality that got the crusty Rainey through her career, yet she contributes something only someone of her reputation can give, dipping deep into the knowhow her long and celebrated career as a musical theater marvel has afforded her. One could only wish about 45 minutes could have been added to the length of this magnificent revival of a magnificent play so White could have a lot more time at the old vintage standup carbon microphone. As Wilson notes, “Boy, it be an empty world without the Blues.”
   If Lorraine Hansberry hadn’t tragically died at age 34 before her voice had the opportunity to fully be heard, Wilson might have had a run for his money as the singularly most important African-American playwright of the 20th century. As things stand, however, his phenomenal Pittsburgh Cycle is a testament to the spirit and tenacity of an entire race of people fighting for a dignity and equality that to this day has never been fully realized. Wherever in time each of the stories takes place—beginning with his Gem of the Ocean, set in the first decade of the last century, on to Radio Golf unfolding 90 years later—no one has so clearly honored a majestic and irrepressible people or chronicled our country’s shameful racially inequitable past from then until the millennium as brilliantly as he did.

September 15, 2016
 
Sept. 11–Oct. 16. 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown Los Angeles. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm (no performances Oct. 4-7). Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $25–85. (213) 972-4400.

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The Imaginary Invalid
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Cameron Rose, Willow Geer, and Melora Marshall
Photo by Miriam Geer

Conventional wisdom says laughter is the best medicine. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum fills prescriptions in generous supply with its production of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, adapted by Constance Congdon. But beware: In doing so, it raises quite a stink.
   Ellen Geer, who over the last 40 years has performed probably every principal female role in classical dramatic literature at her late father’s woodsy outdoor theater in Topanga Canyon, is delving into male roles. Last season she excelled as Lear. This season she takes on Monsieur Argan, the eponymous hypochondriac of this 1670s comedy.
   As Madame Argan, Geer limns not a creature of long ago but someone we could know today. Imagining a plethora of illnesses, yes, but also deluding herself about the people around her, Argan is flattered by notoriety and obsessed with the latest in gadgets and remedies.
   That would be funny enough, but director Mary Jo DuPrey marvelously weaves in the sights and sounds, but fortunately not smells, of commedia dell’arte.
   The joy of being at this show is the contrast between the sophistication of going to the theater and the humor we loved in the third grade. Human behavior and the quirks of our culture occupy much of the play, but the passage of wind through the inner tunnels of the body and out one end occupies its own noisy portions.
   Intimation is the sincerest form of flatulence, so sound designer Ian Flanders has a variety of toots up his, er, sleeve. At the first one, audience members peek around to see if anyone else is cracking a smile. Fear not. The show draws smiles, snurkles, and full-blown giggles. Its two-hour running time (including intermission) bounces along, as visual and verbal jokes tumble over the aforementioned audial ones.

The supporting cast meets the challenge of keeping up with Geer’s wonderfully classical portrayal of Argan. Willow Geer plays Argan’s daughter Angelique, the actor’s airy, high-pitched voice working beautifully here, because it suits the frothy character and because it’s clear and audible. Her bouncy ringlets and a huge meringue of a dress (costume design by Vicki Conrad) add to her tonal perfection, as Angelique swings from girlish despair through true adoration of her mama.
   Melora Marshall is Argan’s right-hand servant, Toinette. Marshall has one of the most expressively malleable faces in the business. But she doesn’t even need that face to coax laughter from us when she disguises herself behind Groucho glasses to play Argan’s latest physician.
   Memorably, Cameron Rose plays Claude de Aria (yes indeedy, pronounced, more often than not, as “diarrhea”). Rose’s rooster of a character is, fortunately deliberately, one of the strangest ever to strut the classical stage. With his pinched, white-powdered face under a towering wig of hennaed curls, he’s the opposite of the picture of physical health. Then we get to know his mental health.
   Katherine Griffith plays a notary and an apothecary, her physical comedy animating both. Max Lawrence makes a sturdy, true-blue lover Cleante. And when Cleante and Angelique perform their improvised opera while the other characters watch in various shades of dismay, Tim Halligan’s Dr. Purgeon hilariously looks like he’s wondering if the restaurant down the road is still open.

Zachary Moore’s lighting palette starts out in pretty pink, but it switches to poison purple accompanied by a thunder clap and that “uh oh” bar of music when Argan’s new young husband, Beline (Jonathan Blandino), shows up or is even mentioned.
   But if you’re looking for a serious message, near the play’s end Argan wakes up in moments that reach back to Greek drama for their depth and power.
   Not to give the ending away, but the concept of “physician heal thyself” might be the best medicine. As is laughter, leaving this show’s audience with a healthy dose that lasts through the trip home.
  

August 15, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.

 
July 9–Oct. 2. 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Repertory schedule, but in general evening curtains at 7:30pm, matinees at 3:30pm. $10–38.50. (310) 455-3723.

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Baby Doll
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Daniel Bess and Lindsay LaVanchy
Photo by Ed Krieger

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

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

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

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

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