Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
 
Lord of the Underworld’s Home for Unwed Mothers
Skylight Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Adrian Gonzalez and Corryn Cummins
Photo by Ed Krieger

Opening night of newcomer David Mamet’s American Buffalo on Broadway some 40 years ago immediately signaled the dawning of an amazing new voice for the American theater. The same thing was apparent two years ago when Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet debuted here at the Blank, the first of his two plays—the other being last year’s The Humans—to become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
   In the debut of Louisa Hill with the world premiere of her Lord of the Underworld’s Home for Unwed Mothers at the Skylight, where it was developed as part of Skylight’s resident playwright program, that rare yet familiar surge of artistic promise returns again. Hill’s dialogue is a little Mamet, a little Karam, and a lotta Tennessee Williams in its harsh and profane poetry.

Dee (Corryn Cummins) is a sweet and sheltered suburban teenager in the mid-1960s who abandons her adoring and safe admirer since early childhood for the town’s resident bad boy (both played by Adrian Gonzalez). When she soon becomes pregnant, her properly Catholic parents (Gonzalez again and Amy Harmon) are as ashamed as folks were back then about such things, more because of what the community will think of them then caring about their daughter’s feelings or emotional state. Dee is spirited off to a dismal place teeming with dour nuns and healthcare workers (all played by Harmon) who won’t even consider for a moment the girl’s wish to not give the baby up for adoption.
   Act Two takes place in 1991 and introduces us to Dee’s daughter Corie (Michaela Slezak), who unfortunately has grown up into a foulmouthed, exceedingly mixed-up young adult after being shuffled off to a string of foster homes and institutions all her life. When Corie comes of age and is given a file identifying her mother, she would normally be reluctant to reach out to her through her dense cloud of hatred and pain over being abandoned by Dee—were not for the fact that she is pregnant and in the same situation her mother endured a generation earlier.
   Cummins is heart-wrenching in both eras, delivering a wallop of a performance throughout, but particularly when the frightened and emotional teenage Dee must hand off her newborn into the arms of authority she doesn’t accept. Slezak is a perfect foil for her, as raucous and in-your-face as Cummins is sweet and (almost) endlessly cheerful, making the face-to-face meetings between the two the most riveting parts of the play.
   As all the other characters who wander through the story, Gonzalez is exceptional in his lightning-speed transformations, especially hilarious in his final turn as Corie’s baby daddy, a dreadlocked, heavy-metal rocker with a clear nod to early Keanu Reeves. Harmon has more difficulty separating the personas of her characters, who all seem to have the same rhythms and eye-rolling exasperation of her original appearance as Dee’s That ’70s Show–like mother, but it’s easy to see that delineation could fall more into place as the run of the play continues.

Hill’s dialogue is gritty and often raw, especially when spouted by the world-weary Corie, yet the playwright’s subject matter has the dreaded ring of soapy chick-flick-ery that thankfully is skillfully overcome by the production. In the hands of director Tony Abatemarco, who stages his players on Cindy Lin’s wildly abstract set to wander seamlessly—and sometimes whimsically—from time zone to time zone over the play’s 27-year span as the onstage Marylin Winkle provides lyrical accompaniment on cello, Hill’s script blossoms like a spring flower.
   Thanks to this slickly mounted and performed introduction to the work of an obviously gifted new playwright, we can all expect a great future for Hill.

April 17, 2017
 
April 8–May 14. 1816-1/2 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. Fri-Sat 8:30pm, Sun 3pm. $15–39. (213) 761-7061.

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Cat’s-Paw
Actors Co-Op

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Sean McHugh and Vito Viscuso
Photo by Lindsay Schnebly

One would think that a terrorist-based piece, even three decades past its premiere and updated in 2011 to include at least a noticeable albeit passing reference to Al Qaeda, would retain some relevancy today. And yet, playwright William Mastrosimone’s treatise on “Eco-Warriors” and the battle between personal agendas seems surprisingly lackluster.
   Perhaps it’s that we live in a world where the hideous has become commonplace. So much so, that fictional behavior of the sort, predicated on the antagonists’ aversion to water pollution, seems less identifiable to audiences who are faced with torture, beheadings, and mass attacks on a near daily basis.
   Director Stephen Rothman’s production struggles to get off the ground until well into its hour-and-45-minute running time. To be fair, the blame can be laid, for the most part, at the feet of the author. Mastrosimone spends more time than needed laying out his backstory and the rationalization for the militants’ actions via a repetitious exchange between the group’s leader and a female television journalist who has been kidnapped for the purpose of interviewing him.

When a previously seized low-level Environmental Protection Agency official, seen briefly at the play’s onset, returns to the stage, along with the protesting group’s second-in-command, the stakes finally ratchet up enough to foster some concern over what might happen to any of these beings.
   Walking a tightrope of character-driven pontification spiked with rare flashes of rage is Sean McHugh in the role of Victor, the “Earth Now” army’s chief. McHugh certainly embodies the strength and stature necessary for maintaining a threat of physical power over his minion and their captives. Unfortunately, his interchanges with them and while relaying Mastrosimone’s numerous monologues never make the transition from the page to the present. The result is a sense of speech-making rather than a genuinely heartfelt devotion to a cause that would lead to the play’s offstage car-bombing near the U.S. Capitol building, which has claimed the lives of a dozen senators and scores of bystanders.
   Deborah Marlowe as heralded news reporter Jessica Lyons serves as Victor’s adversary and, by necessity, therapist. Hoping to survive her encounter, Jessica must suggest, cajole, mediate, and occasionally acquiesce in order to achieve her primary objective while providing the world with the glimpse into Victor’s agenda that he so desperately wants to put forth. Marlowe handles this assignment with vigor and an excellent array of emotional adjustments in response to the occasional changes in Mastrosimone’s plot structure.
   Cathy, Victor’s underling, played by Ivy Beech, is perhaps the most challenging role in the show. She serves as support to her captain’s plans while being torn between her allegiance and the discovered realities of the situation in which she plays a part. Beech does a fine job in her role by never overshadowing the circumstances. She too, however, suffers from some rather abrupt and difficult character changes that flow from Mastrosimone’s pen.

Where this piece gives way to what might have been is when Vito Viscuso takes the stage in the role of EPA bureaucrat David Darling. Having been held for an indeterminate, but clearly lengthy, period, Darling exudes the expected effects of his unwilling incarceration. Viscuso’s performance is gripping at every turn. Fearful of speaking unless given permission, apologetic for any perceived overstepping of bounds, placating his captors, Viscuso epitomizes his character’s terror of the unknown. Even when he’s cowering in silence, it’s almost impossible to take one’s eyes off of him.
   David Pott’s basement scenic design works seamlessly in this venue, offering director Rothman an excellent surface on which to maneuver his players. One can almost smell the must and chemical odors of the various bomb-making components on display, meticulously accoutered with Lori Berg’s properties and dressing. Adam Macias provides an array of sound effects that enhance the sub-surfaced locale. And although James Moody’s lighting is quite effective throughout the show, some of the actors were left standing in strangely darkened portions of the stage during the production’s curtain call.

April 4, 2017
 
March 24–April 30. 1760 N. Gower St. (located on the grounds of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood). Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2:30pm (additional Saturday performances April 1 and April 8, 2:30pm). $20-30. (323) 462-8460, ext. 300.

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Antaeus Theatre Company at Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Ross Philips and Rebecca Mozo
Photo by Steven C. Kemp

What could be a better choice to inaugurate Antaeus Theatre’s sparkling new two-theater complex than Tennessee Williams’s masterwork, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, especially when directed by Cameron Watson, whose vision for the production took into account the introduction of patrons to the company’s just-completed starkly barebones black box mainstage.
   Paying homage to Jo Mielziner’s abstract original Tony-awarded 1955 set design, which innovatively featured a series of giant Southern-style white window shutters jutting high on the Morosco’s otherwise unlit stage, here designer Steven C. Kemp, at Watson’s suggestion, has created three massive windows placed at angles to a sloped wooden platform surrounded by wood chips and the dark mystery of the wings.
   This proves a perfect setting to explore the notoriously messed-up marriage of Brick and Maggie the Cat (Ross Philips and Rebecca Mozo, alternating in Anteaus’s traditional partner casting with Linda Park and Daniel Bess in the roles) without the need to bring in more regal accoutrements to evoke the Pollitt clan’s 28,000-acre palatial plantation on the Mississippi Delta.
   By offering this unembellished alternative to the usual depiction of Brick and Maggie’s grandly opulent bedroom—which, as each of the three acts opens, has begun to tilt and revolve and slide symbolically off the wooden platform to land ominously askew in the wood chips—Watson and his incredibly talented team can concentrate almost solely on telling the story of this troubled and twisted family done in by greed, sexual repression, and the societal mores of the day.

And what an amazing retelling of Williams’s Pulitzer Prize–winning drama this is. Philips is incredibly simple and gloriously understated as the alcoholic Brick, giving one of the most arresting and real depictions of this difficult character since the emergence of Paul Newman so many years before.
   Mozo is great at crawling under the nervous and sexually repressed skin of Maggie, a difficult task considering an actor must be shrill and annoying, yet endearing enough for audiences to care about what happens to her. Mozo does, however, get lost in Maggie’s lilting Delta drawl, occasionally to the point of her lines not being understandable, something that should be easy to correct and may settle in during the run of the play.
   Unlike most performers assigned to play Brick’s insufferable sister-in-law Mae, Jocelyn Towne (alternating with Tamara Krinsky in the role) stealthily manages to avoid the ghost of Madelyn Sherwood, who made a memorable career of playing women one might like to smash in the face with any nearby grapefruit. As her equally unlikable husband Gooper, Patrick Wenk-Wolff (alternating with Michael Kirby) adroitly morphs from cartoon good ol’ boy to avaricious, seething villain with glorious ease.

The supporting cast is excellent in the play’s rather gratuitous minor characters—particularly Mitchell Edmonds as Reverend Tooker and Tim Halligan as Dr. Baugh (alternating with John DeMita and Robert Pine, respectively). Mae and Gooper’s obnoxiously spoiled gaggle of Ritalin-deprived “no neck monsters” are wonderfully played by Vivienne Belle Sievers and Helen Rose Warshofsky (alternating with Henry Greenspan and Eliza LeMoine).
   Still, if there is any reason not to miss this exceptional revival, it is the indelible work of Harry Groener and Dawn Didawick as dying Pollitt patriarch Big Daddy and his long-suffering spouse Big Mama that is the heart of this production. As wonderful as alternates Mike McShane and Julia Fletcher might be in the roles, this real-life man-and-wife team could become recognized as the millennium’s West Coast Lunt and Fontaine or Cronyn and Tandy from their turns in these difficult roles.
   Big Mama has never been as sweet and adorable as in the hands of Didawick, who dominates all her scenes—especially in her final moments when her stalwart loving wife is told the truth about her husband’s illness and her elder son starts to demand she look over papers that would legally put him in control of the Pollitts’ massive estate, when the enormous well of strength lurking below the Southern genteel surface emerges.
   And nowhere in Williams’s prolific stable of screwed-up characters, from Blanche and Stanley and Miss Alma to Maggie the Cat, is there a character with such insurmountable acting traps written into it as Big Daddy, based on Williams’s own monstrous father he grew up terrified to encounter. Anyone playing this role seems to fall headfirst into the rhythms and natural bigness of Burl Ives, the former folk singer who created the role.
   Still, instead of shouting gruffly and chomping on a huge cigar, the not-so-big Groener starts so gently and unobtrusively that when Big Daddy’s rage as he talks with his drunken unresponsive son emerges, and soon after when learning his diagnosis hits, his performance is revelatory. It’s a brave move to play such a familiar character so differently than expected, and hats off to a brilliant actor and his equally brilliant director for reinventing Big Daddy. Groener’s turn is alone worth the price of admission. and it’s a humbling honor to see such fine work unfold live right before one’s eyes.

March 26, 2017
 
March 23–May 7. 110 E. Broadway, Glendale. Plan time for parking; some lots post 3-hour limits. Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30-34. Running time 3 hours, including two intermissions. (818) 506-1983.

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The Snow Geese
Independent Shakespeare at Atwater Crossing Arts + Innovation Complex

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Nikhil Pai and Evan Lewis Smith
Photo by Grettel Cortes

At times reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’s penchant for multigenerational conflicts, denial of obvious truth, and family dysfunction, this West Coast premiere of playwright Sharr White’s engaging work soars on the back of precise direction and an impressive ensemble.
   Director David Melville has crafted, in this remarkably intimate venue, a production that never lags, even during White’s rare tangential sidetracks. Likewise, Melville’s sound design, punctuated throughout with period-perfect musical selections, fills the space more than adequately. Adding gild to the lily are Bosco Flannagan’s lighting and Ruoxuan Li’s costumes that, spanning the Edwardian and World War I periods, are noteworthy aspects of the show’s overall first-rate production values.
   We are “welcomed” into the lodge-like abode of the Gaesling family on Nov. 1, 1917. The matriarch, Elizabeth, a widow of only eight weeks, struggles to maintain a grip on her psyche and on the relational issues posed by her two sons as well as an older sister and brother-in-law. Along the way, secrets are revealed, denials scuttled, and realities forced into acceptance, all of which threaten to permanently destroy this tenuously fragile ecosystem.

Melville’s strong suit is in his casting of this piece. Melissa Chalsma is equal parts rock and tissue paper as she brings Elizabeth to life. Her beautifully wrought performance, complex beyond words, anchors White’s character-driven narrative, which quite often turns on a dime given its emotional upheavals.
   Eldest son Duncan, played by Evan Lewis Smith, is clearly the favored progeny. Having been raised for greatness including a stint at Princeton, he is home from boot camp for an overnight visit before heading off to Europe where America has finally been forced to join the horrors of WWI. Meanwhile, the role of younger brother Arnold, portrayed by Nikhil Pai, is that of the forgotten one. Always given the back seat, the crumbs, and the proverbial pat on the head, he is left to struggle for acceptance and respect.
   Smith and Pai are tremendous in fulfilling of their assignments. Melville’s nontraditional casting in compiling a family of obviously different racial make-ups is quickly and easily forgotten as these two actors create a relationship that is believable in its rivalry and its love. Smith exudes a rakish confidence that belies his character’s eventually exposed fears and insecurities. Pai’s depiction of Arnold’s pent-up frustrations floods the stage with a near-childish tantrum that is understandably justified. In the hands of these two actors, we witness the characters mature.
   Walking a tightrope of emotions and position within this tribe are Bernadette Sullivan and Bruce Katzman as Elizabeth’s sister, Clarissa, and brother-in-law, Max Hohmann. The sisters’ exchanges are more often than not quite prickly as Clarissa has chosen to shroud herself in an outspoken devotion to Methodist spirituality. Still, Sullivan brings such a quality of well-timed empathy to this role that one is thankful for her character’s straightforwardness and common sense.
   Katzman too, rises to the challenge of playing a secondary character whose backstory is equal to those of the leads. Max, a decades-long resident of the USA, is a physician whose patients have abandoned him in the face of America’s growing anti-Germanic sentiment. Katzman does yeoman’s job personifying the patience and, at times, the male leadership this unit grapples for in the face of their patriarch’s recent passing.
   Rounding out the troupe is Faqir Hassan, in a well-played cameo as the now dead Theodore Gaesling, and Kalean Ung as the household’s last remaining servant. Hassan’s single scene brings into perspective Elizabeth’s mental issues and provides White’s strongest method for fleshing out why the members of this family have assumed their varied and dubious roles. Ung is a stellar example of subtlety and restraint in her role as Viktorya, a formerly wealthy Ukrainian ingénue now forced into the menial duties of cook and maid. Her delivery of Viktorya’s advice and wisdom, well-timed and pithy throughout, leads the family to view her as an extension of them.

Returning to the comparison with Williams, the welcomed difference between his work and White’s saga comes in the form of a begrudgingly won optimism here. It’s welcome, leaving one with hope for the future of this tale.

March 24, 2017
 
March 17–April 9. 3191 Casitas Ave., #168 (at the Atwater Crossing Arts + Innovation Complex). (Free parking in lot adjacent to the theater.) Thu-Sat 7:30pm, Sun 2pm. $20–$35 (a limited number of free tickets are available for each performance so that price is not an obstacle to attending live theater). indyshakes@iscla.org. (818) 710-6306.

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Building the Wall
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Bo Foxworth and Judith Moreland
Photo by Ed Krieger

Although Pablo Picasso was speaking of painting when he said art was not meant simply to decorate the walls of an apartment, his message is still critical and far more universal. Instead, he believed, the greater function of art should be as an “offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”
   With the communicative arts, the more topical the message, the better. Only two months since the beginning of Donald J. Trump’s brazen assault on everything anyone with a conscience holds dear, Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Robert Schenkkan brings us Building the Wall, a riveting cautionary tale he wrote in a single week, speculating about what might happen to our country if the current administration isn’t stopped in its fascistic tracks.
   It’s 2019, and the good news is our embarrassing and soulless 45th president has indeed been impeached, but not before irreparable damage has been done. As the Prince of Petulance sits in exile in his golden palace in Palm Beach nursing his wounds—and probably still daily tweeting his displeasure—one of his sycophants languishes in a prison cell awaiting sentencing while his immediate superior has escaped trial by committing suicide.
   Rick (Bo Foxworth) is a private prison official who began supporting Trump when he heard the first presidential debate on TV while drowning his sorrows in a bar. Although lightning didn’t strike, Rick found Trump’s “performance” entertaining. He admits Trump’s non-PC boldness immediately elevated him beyond his lifelong outsider status and, for once, made him not feel ashamed of himself anymore.
   Under Michael Michetti’s tensely claustrophobic direction, Foxworth stealthily avoids making his character either a troglodyte or a monster, delivering a quietly compelling performance as the fiercely conflicted scapegoat paying for the crimes of the misguided former leader of the free world, whose stance on immigration has in this future abyss dissolved into a horrific repeat of the Holocaust.
   Although Rick objected to the orders passed down from on high, where detainees were taken in buses the guards called “taco trucks” to meet a fate far worse than deportation, his interviewer Gloria (the solid Judith Moreland) believes his crime was letting it happen without offering any resistance—something as a black woman living in America during this period she knows only too well.
   Schenkkan’s script is sometimes predictable, and the premise—as Gloria asks and Rick answers questions about his beaten-down life which so obviously formed his skewed belief system—often feels awkward and too convenient. Still, the combined artistry of Schenkkan and Michetti guiding these two immensely talented performers helps make Building the Wall an urgently important call to arms. It is a disturbing warning about things that easily could happen if we, as Americans, do not stand up to the insanity and tyranny unfolding daily before our eyes and somehow right the terrible mistake foisted upon our nation and the world.

March 22, 2017
 
March 18–June 18. LA. 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, Mon 8pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $15–$35. 323-663-1525.

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Liana and Ben
Circle X at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Mara Marini and Kimberly Alexander
Photo by Tim Wright

The pedigree that came along with the announcement of this world premiere was instantly thrilling. Circle X, one of LA’s best, bravest, and most inexhaustible theater companies, was about to take on a new work by one of our town’s most breathtaking wordsmiths, Susan Rubin. And along for the rollercoaster ride of what surely would be an unregimented effort to bring Rubin’s Faustian-inspired epic to fruition was one of our most innovative directors, Mark Bringelsen, leading a world-class cast of heavyweight LA theatrical talent.
   Whatever went wrong, whatever might be learned from this effort, can hopefully benefit future productions of Rubin’s Liana and Ben, a play more than worthy of further exploration. Still, this production is an astonishingly unexpected disappointment. Perhaps a big part of this outcome is the staging, with audience placed on either side of a long, slender playing space dominated by two huge seesaws. It’s not difficult to see what an inventive idea this was on the drawing board, but to say it doesn’t work in actuality is a major understatement. Even while an audience might appreciate the ingenuity that went into creating the apparatus, it limits the actors’ playing space and is also a rickety distraction, particularly when on the move into another position.

As we stare ahead directly into the equally confused faces of patrons on the other side of the action—not to mention, on opening night, two brightly lit older gentlemen desperately struggling to stay awake in the front row—the gifted and quite courageously game quartet of players is surely directed to use the space. The result, however, is that the boldly gorgeous visual designs by Jason H. Thompson are lost as projected onto the floor and the walls on opposite ends of the playing area, while conversations between characters often are staged so far apart that one begins to feel like a ping-pong ball trying to take in both actors at once.
   Bringelsen further accentuates this divide by directing his performers to continuously make slow, motivation-free moves from one place to another, especially in the case of Kimberly Alexander as Liana, who repeatedly does so with sensually charged balletic movements.
   If there is a reference to Alexander’s time-traveling character having a history in dance during her 250-year lifespan, a result of a pact negotiated with Ben (Jonathan Medina), a guy who, it doesn’t take long to realize, is the busy boss-man of that infamously fiery mythological world down below, it’s not clear. As sweepingly poetic and jarringly insightful as Rubin’s script proves to be, the meat of the story—the quest for Liana to save her soul by proving to her nemesis that our world is worth saving—is obscured far too long and not really apparent until Act 2, when our heroine travels to Hades in an effort to sort things out.

There is no doubt the acting is committed and admirably risky; but again, the directorial eye to keep everyone and their individual styles on the same track is surprisingly absent. Alexander has the biggest challenge as she spouts Rubin’s classically tinged poetic observations on life, but it seems she is often reciting her dialogue without connecting with it or making any discoveries as Liana zips through her emotional life lessons.
   Perhaps the other even more omnipresent problem about mounting this play, with its rather foreseeable theme of good always being able to conquer evil peeping through its beautifully lyrical passages, is doing so at this point in our country and our world’s self-destructive race to trigger our own oblivion. “The truth lies in stories,” a character in Liana and Ben reminds us—or is it preaches? But sadly, where once was hope and faith in the future of our species, something inspirational when comfortably reflected in our art, there’s a lingering unshakable malaise that now overshadows so many scared and depressed people with a soupçon of intelligence.
   It’s painfully difficult in these precarious days to not to let those incredibly unwelcome feelings drown us in cynicism and disenfranchisement about how art and artists, as we’ve always been led to believe, can change the world. Art heals, yes, but sometimes the drip-drip-drip of water torture as it happens with such agonizing sluggishness is too much to bear.

February 20, 2017
 
Feb 18–March 26. 3269 Casitas Ave. Free onsite and street parking. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $20-25.

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Pie in the Sky
Victory Theatre Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


K Callan and Laurie O'Brien
Tim Sullens

The world premiere of Lawrence Thelen’s lovely little two-hander Pie in the Sky has a unique hook: As the play’s rural mother and daughter banter about their lives and loves and lifelong differences in the middle of the night in an Abilene, Texas, trailer park, they peel apples, measure out brown sugar, manipulate “store bought” crust into submission, and bake a pie. Actually bake a pie. Live. Onstage.
   Not only is the Little Victory filled with warmth and sweetness from the quietly heartfelt performances of K Callan and Laurie O’Brien, but by the time the oven’s timer dings, the intoxicating and comforting smell of homemade apple pie permeates the entire playing space—and those in attendance, suffering the Pavlov’s dog effect from the aroma, are treated post-performance to a bite of the ladies’ culinary creation.
   Thelen’s story is simple, and the familial revelations Mama (Callan) divulges to her lonely widowed daughter Dory (O’Brien) as they shuffle about the trailer’s kitchen at 4am are surely shocking to her, yet for the audience, most everything that’s revealed is rather predictable, especially the ending. Anyone who does not guess ahead of time what’s about to happen when that fateful final timer buzzes has to be thinking more about the smell of pie baking than the characters in the drama and the constant hints they’re dropping.

Despite moments when it appears the chopping and coring and measuring and mixing of some of the dessert’s ingredients, not to mention Dory’s constant eye-rolling over her mother’s demands and inappropriate comments, are robbing viewers of our precious and fleeting time on the planet, what makes it all work are the sincerity and downhome spirit of these two veteran actors and the insightful leadership of their director, Maria Gobetti.
   Life is full of little secrets, as Dory’s feisty octogenarian mother proclaims, and just when we think we’re starting to figure it all out, it starts to fall apart. “Peel, slice, stir, repeat” is Mama’s mantra, the repetition of which would be the downfall of Thelen’s Pie in the Sky if it were not for the serendipitous inclusion of this production’s triumvirate of world-class talents, three strong and incredibly gifted artists named Gobetti, Callan, and O’Brien.

April 2, 2017
 
March 31–May 21. 3324 W. Victory Blvd. Ample street parking is available; additional parking at the Northwest Branch Library, directly across from the theater. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm. $24-34. (818) 841-5422.

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Absinthe
L.A. Live

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


The Twizzlers
Photo courtesy L.A. Live

There’s not much doubt Absinthe, which played to packed houses at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas from 2011 until last year, is a blatant rip-off of a certain mega-successful French-Canadian circus conglomerate. That said, there’s also no contest that if Zumanity, that company’s sexually charged permanent attraction at New York-New York Hotel and Casino, can be billed as “The Other Side of Cirque du Soleil,” Absinthe could be dubbed “The Farthest Nether Regions of Zumanity.” It’s shudder-inducing to think just what the creators of this show, with their 600-seat “Spiegeltent” now plopped down for an indefinite run at L.A. Live, could do with the term “nether regions.”
   This production could make Zumanity look like Mary Poppins, if raunchiness is the judging point. It goes far beyond anything ever envisioned by those innovative imagineers from Montreal, from exposed skin to incredibly inappropriate comments shouted over the loudspeakers by emcee The Gazillionaire, supposedly the show’s owner, and his uber-horny assistant Penny Pibbets (whether these people are for real or actors is something of a secret, it seems). The bossman uses the F-word more frequently than Lenny Bruce ever could imagine.
   Between his constantly XXX-rated commentary and continuous attempts to offend anyone in the first two rows—the embarrassed victims dubbed with labels such as the Black Guy, the White Hippie Dude, the row of Gays, the Chinese Chick, and the Orange County Republican, he tells jokes like, “What do you get when you cross a German and a Mexican?” Answer: Beanerschnitzel. Penny talks a lot about her varying degree of vaginal wetness, introducing acts such as the hunky Mexico City–based Los Dos Tacos with salty running dialogue about the acrobats smelling like penis and Ax Body Spray and proclaiming them so hot that Tom Cruise would love to…um…pleasure himself while watching them.

Through the over-the-top adult humor, heartfelt vocals by the wonderfully Joplin-esque Green Fairy, and a turn from a lovely tassel-turning stripper named Misty West 88th Street, Absinthe’s typical gravity-evading circus performers from around the globe do their thing. Among others, there’s an incredibly dangerous roller-skating act called The Twizzlers, who work so close to the Spiegeltent’s audience seated in the round that they’re warned not to move or worse yet, stand up; the seemingly boneless Silicon Valley Girls trio, who bend in places no human should be able to; the graceful and gorgeous Girl in the Bubble, who accomplishes an unearthly rubbery dance writhing around a gigantic clear plastic globe; and the chiseled Matt Matterhorn, who uses poles to exhibit his amazing gymnastic prowess. Oh, and we’re told by Penny that the Bubble Girl and Mr. Matterhorn are dating so we should all just close our eyes and fantasize about the positions they can get into together.
   The Gazillionaire’s introduction for the knockout antics of the balancing quartet The Lost Boys refers to them as four meatheads “from Belarus or Russia or the Ukraine” who resemble 1,000 pounds of beef stroganoff, speak no English whatsoever, and, between vodka shots, use their athletic prowess to try to fly out through the roof of the tent since they have never been able to lose the urge to defect.

The most beautiful and jaw-dropping performance of all is assayed by the balletic, garden fairy–like Flying Farquhars, shaggy blond twins (we’re told) from Armenia who perform a gossamer, incredibly sensual aerial pas-de-deux far above our heads, restrained only by what unambiguously resembles bondage straps. If that horny Penny wasn’t wet after their act, she must be acting after all.
   Absolute Vodka and other heady potions are hawked endlessly from the moment one enters the tent and continue to flow even during the performance, servers passing drinks down through the aisles like the donation box at a Jerry Falwell revival meeting. Oddly, however, no libations are necessary to get high watching Absinthe—the show itself will make you reel.

March 27, 2017
 
Opened March 22 “for a limited engagement.” 1005 Chick Hearn Ct., downtown LA. Tue-Wed 7:30pm, Thu-Sat 7:30pm & 9:30pm, Sun 5:30pm and 7:30pm. “Starting at $49.”

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Ah, Wilderness!
A Noise Within

Reviewed by Mindy Schupmann


Emily Goss and Matt Gall
Photo by Craig Schwartz

In his nearly 30 years of playwriting, Eugene O’Neill experimented with myriad stage conventions, winning Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Though most of his dramas were melancholy or tragic, in 1932 he penned a comedy that portrays the Miller family of Connecticut on the Fourth of July, 1906. Its protagonist is almost-17-year-old Richard (Matt Gall), certainly O’Neill’s alter ego, who is flush with first love and bursting with ideas culled from classic literature his mother finds improper for a boy his age.
   The family also consists of younger brother Tommy (Samuel Genghis Christian); younger sister Mildred (Katie Hume); elder brother Arthur (Ian Littleworth); father Nat (Nicholas Hormann); mother Essie (Deborah Strang); Nat’s sister, Lily (Kitty Swink); and Essie’s brother, Sid (Alan Blumenfeld). The conflict for Richard is that his love, Muriel (Emily Goss), has written Richard a note ending their relationship as commanded by her father (Marcelo Tubert), who has found love letters quoting poetry from said books that he finds scandalous. In his despair, Richard goes on a double date with Arthur’s friend, Wint Selby (a breezy Conor Sheehan), who takes him to a bar where he meets a prostitute, Belle (Emily Kosloski), and gets drunk. Returning home, he faces his parents, who discuss what punishment he should receive.
   As simple as the story is, under the skilled direction of Steven Robman and with a superb cast, the story unfolds with many opportunities to examine a family dynamic, love in its many forms, and ideas and ideals nostalgically depicted.

Strang and Hormann are pluperfect as Richard’s parents, penned by O’Neill with just the right amount of loving and wise concern. Swink and Blumenfeld are also excellent as characters who can’t consummate their relationship, as Lily can’t overcome her aversion to his drinking, and he seemingly is too weak to make a success of his life. All four bring depth to their characterizations.
   Gall’s characterization of Richard is multifaceted and touching as he navigates the waters of adulthood. When he discovers that Muriel is still in love with him, his naivete and youthful exuberance make for tender and delightful moments. Goss is charming as Richard’s sweetheart.
   Littleworth, Hume, and Christian make for wonderful, period-perfect siblings, enhanced by Garry D. Lennon’s excellent costume design and just the right touch of ’30s sensibilities. Tubert ably portrays a stuffy prude as Muriel’s father, and Kosloski is also fine as the slightly racy working girl. Kelsey Carthew makes the most of Norah, the stereotypical family serving girl, and Matthew Henerson is a hearty salesman who helps Richard home from the bar.

Director Robman has interjected musical numbers performed by the actors into the story from the time period that serve as atmosphere and enhance the scene changes and passages of time. They are a diverting addition to the production, music-directed by Jonathan Tessero. Frederica Nascimento’s simple scenic design and Tom Ontiveros’s lighting design also enhance the play.
   This is a glimpse into a less complicated period, often attributed to O’Neill’s desire for the life he didn’t have growing up but wished for. It is a staple of American theater, and A Noise Within presents a polished and enjoyable production.

March 22, 2017
 
Through May 20. 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Repertory schedule. $48–76. (626) 356-3100 ext. 1.

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At Home At the Zoo
Lovelace Studio Theater at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Troy Kotsur and Russell Harvard
Photo by Kevin Parry

Edward Albee received his first recognition when his groundbreaking one-act The Zoo Story, written in 1958, first grabbed New York by its theatrical short hairs in 1960 after debuting in Berlin the year before. It has remained one of his most-celebrated works, the first signal to the world of the prolific genius that was to follow before his death at age 88 last September.
   In 2007, the equally prolific and artistically unstoppable Deaf West Theatre mounted its extraordinary version of The Zoo Story starring two of its finest company stalwarts, Troy Kotsur and Tyrone Giordano, who signed the play’s rushing explosion of ideas while speaking actors stood nearby, watching the story unfold as they delivered Albee’s torrential dialogue. It was the culmination of a longtime respect and love affair between the playwright and Deaf West, which began several years earlier when the company contemplated mounting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf starring Phyllis Frelich.
   That production never came to be, but the relationship it fostered remained. In 2004, working under a commission from Hartford Stage Company, Albee created a prequel to The Zoo Story, titled Homelife, exploring the moments before Peter heads to what he hopes will be a quiet corner of Central Park where he can read a book and smoke his pipe in peace. Instead he meets a troubled stranger named Jerry, who insists Peter stick around so he can tell him what just happened to him during his visit to Central Park Zoo.
   The two plays have been jointly titled At Home At the Zoo, and Deaf West was a logical choice to be awarded permission for the LA debut of the expanded work—not only with the blessings of the author, who insisted on personal approval in granting rights for all his works, but even with Albee talking about being in attendance. Unfortunately, the tenuous financial times postponed those plans, and now that the production has finally come to fruition in collaboration with the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Deaf West and director Coy Middlebrook have had to make magic happen without its creator nearby.

Albee would have been mighty proud. Homelife brings to the story a clear reason why Peter (Kotsur, who reprises his arresting 2007 turn in the role) becomes so intent on defending his masculinity as he and Jerry (the phenomenal Russell Harvard, who rocks the role until March 16, when Giordano takes over) devolve from respectful pleasantries into a violent confrontation as each defends possession of the public bench each considers his own personal property.
   Kotsur (voiced by Jake Eberle) is brilliantly subtle in what at first seems to be the less complex role, as Peter tries diligently to communicate in the first act with his loving but sexually frustrated wife Ann (Amber Zion, voiced by Paige Lindsey White), who is desperate to find some new excitement in their predictably complacent relationship. Ann loves her reserved book-editor husband, their daughters, parakeets, cats, and the life they’ve established together in their comfortable upper-middle-class Eastside Manhattan apartment.
   Of course, only Albee could take their conversation where it goes, from a 10-minute discussion about circumcision to Peter’s eventual confession chronicling the bloody details of a suppressed brutal sexual encounter during a drunken college frat party. By the time designer Karyl Newman’s slickly 1970s New York flat revolves into massive backlit triangles of fall-like Central Park views, what makes Peter stick around and listen to the increasingly more delusional Jerry (mesmerically voiced as in 2007 by Jeff Alan-Lee) is explained for the first time as his tormentor delivers his infamous lengthy rant about his encounter with his drunken landlady’s dog.
   Middlebrook does an exceptional job staging what could be a painfully static two hours of Albee’s familiarly complex dialogue. Deaf West chooses its projects based on how successfully a play can be translated into American Sign Language, and At Home At the Zoo is a perfect match. There’s a kind of expressive style, a remarkably innocent freedom and grace that identifies the performances of most hearing-impaired actors, which beautifully accents and pays homage to the signature gifts of one of the last century’s bravest and most thought-provoking wordsmiths.

March 16, 2017
 
March 10–March 26. 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $60. (310) 746-4000.

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Into the Woods
Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Eleasha Gamble, Laurie Veldheer, Anthony Chatmon II, and Vanessa Reseland
Photo by Joan Marcus

One of the theater’s most enduring modern classics began in the Southland in 1986 at San Diego’s Old Globe, and there’s no doubt Stephen Sondheim’s indelible Tony-winning score for Into the Woods is one of the most impressive efforts ever to transform the genre musical comedy into the complexities of musical theater. Colorful denizens of some of the world’s most famous fairy tales—Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and poor Jack of beanstalk-climbing fame—collide onstage in a joint quest to rid their beloved woods of one nasty giant.
   It’s understood that Into the Woods has hardly been ignored in the years since it premiered in New York in 1987, with many touring companies tromping all around the globe throughout the ensuing years, including a 1988 US national tour, a 1990 West End production, a 10th-anniversary concert version in 1997, a return to Broadway in 2002, a 2010 London revival, another in 2012 as part of New York’s outdoor Shakespeare in the Park series, and then there’s the star-studded film version directed by Rob Marshall in 2014 that garnered Meryl Streep as the Witch something like her 4,987th Oscar nomination.
   It is difficult to imagine something fresh and different could possibly be done while attempting to reinvent this show, when Sondheim’s haunting music and director James Lapine’s incredibly clever and irreverent book—based on The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim which, when published in 1976, analyzed popular fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis—were so groundbreaking and inventive in the first place. This production, however, which Fiasco Theatre Company debuted Off-Broadway at the 410-seat Laura Pels Theatre in 2015 to great acclaim, manages to do just that.

Under the truly visionary direction of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, this reinvigorated journey through the bewitched underbrush is meant to be extremely barebones, with 10 incredibly energetic and charismatic actors play all the characters, switching between them with lightning-fast alacrity. Featuring Derek McLane’s simple floor-to–light grid jumble of theatrical rigging to indicate the ominous forest of trees, an industrial-sized ladder to evoke Rapunzel’s tower, and a small-statured actor illuminated like a shadow puppet to gargantuan proportions on the back wall to make that notorious lady giant come alive—and subsequently die a most dramatic death—no special effects or wildly intricate projections are utilized to tell this cautionary tale of once-upon-a-times that don’t always portend happy endings.
   What’s best about this production is how the simplicity of it accentuates the music, fiercely and grandly played onstage on an extremely movable piano by musical director and sometimes performer Evan Rees. The voices of the ensemble could not be better, perfectly delivering Sondheim’s intricate and most difficult score when they’re not donning bonnets and grabbing wooden hobbyhorses to morph from one character to another.
   What’s somewhat lost in the shuffle of imagination over substance, however, is the message lurking below the surface of Bettelheim’s original concept, which presented the case that fairy tales help children solve certain existential problems such as separation anxiety, oedipal conflicts, and sibling rivalries. The extreme violence and ugly emotions of many fairy tales serve, he believed, to deflect what may well be going on in a kid’s head anyway, even if he or she is reluctant to reveal those puzzling thoughts. Although Sondheim’s lyrics often delve into the Caligari’s cabinet nature of the original production, this remounting is considerably less dark and more appropriate for children—if they can stay awake for the show’s three-hour duration.

There’s also a kind of preciousness that overshadows this journey, making one think it must have been a lot more charming to see unfolding for the first time at the 410-seat Laura Pels rather than the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre. Even the cast members’ first stroll onto the massive stage to wave to audience members and sit casually on the lip of the stage to greet and kibitz with the folks in the first row seems a long way off from the 16th row, let alone how that must feel up in the second balcony. It’s as though we’re supposed to enter another fantasy: that the cost of mounting this production at the Ahmanson was still an austere effort when the expense of bringing it here and converting it for this space must have been considerable. The evolution here, though incredibly sincere, is not completely…well…believable, if you’ll excuse the expression.
   Still, no narrative tool is more contagious than belief—just ask audiences who for years shouted their belief in fairies to help that boy who wouldn’t grow up resurrect his faithful Tinkerbell. In that regard, Brody and Steinfeld’s fanciful direction and the heartfelt performances by this troupe of supremely gifted performers, who all sing like birds and conjure a tornado of personality, still gamely create the essential necessary magic once again.

April 8, 2017
 
April 5–May 14. 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 3 hours, including intermission. $25–$125. (213) 972-4400.

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The Siegel
South Coast Repertory

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Mamie Gummer and Ben Feldman
Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR

Fresh from the 2016 award winning Cloud 9 at Antaeus Theatre Company, savvy director Casey Stangl takes on a world premiere comedy by Michael Mitnick, designed to examine love and its complications. It has plenty of humor and a bit of food for thought along the way.
   At play’s opening, Ethan (Ben Feldman) has just arrived, flowers in hand, to propose to Alice (Mamie Gummer). She’s not there, so he chats with her parents, Deborah (Amy Aquino) and Ron (Matthew Arkin). The hitch is that Ethan and Alice broke up two years previously, and they haven’t seen each other since. When reminded of this fact, Ethan declaims it doesn’t matter, because they are destined to be together. Absurd? Absolutely, but the chase is always the most highly interesting aspect of any love relationship.
   With a nod to Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and its convoluted romantic relationships, Mitnick takes on Ethan and Alice, her parents, and Alice and her new boyfriend, Nelson (Dominique Worsley). When Alice is flummoxed by Ethan’s declarations and offers him the standard end-of-romance-line, “You’ll find someone special,” he retorts, “I don’t want someone special. I want you.”

Aquino and Arkin are delightful as the wry intellectuals, a doctor and a lawyer, respectively, who have had twists along their own romantic path. Arkin, in particular, has very solid moments.
   Gummer is a perfectly assured millennial who rejects the goofy Ethan initially, but as they interact, it is the audience who must decide if this coupling will work out or if it is doomed to certain failure. Worsley, too, provides genuine laughs as the urbane suitor who begins with confidence and devolves into angst as Alice and Ethan spend more time together. Feldman delivers his offbeat protestations of love and zany logic charmingly enough to act as theatrical catalyst for the subsequent interplay among the actors. Devon Sorvari has a nice cameo in the production.
   Mitnick has a knack for comic lines, and there are plenty. Stangl handles them with a light touch and great comic timing. Michael B. Raiford’s stylish revolving set keeps the action moving, and Elizabeth Harper’s lighting design allows for effective scene changes.
   In a clever twist at the end of the play, Mitnick allows himself a little editorial commentary on love’s uncertainties that elevates the message. It is in these moments that the production finds its heart.

April 4, 2017
 
March 24–April 23. 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. See theater’s site for schedule. "Prices start at $22." (714) 708-5555.

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An American in Paris
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


The opening scene
Photo by Angela Sterling

Most musicals either grab the audience or do not. It’s a risk to leave the audience a bit unsettled by intermission since there’s the chance people may walk out. An American in Paris takes that gamble, never giving audiences the assurance that the dangling story lines will ever gel, but by Act Two, it’s clear that the adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1951 musical is in very assured hands and quite a marvel. Featuring luscious George and Ira Gershwin songs and inventive dance, An American in Paris is a treat.
   It follows the storyline of Alan Jay Lerner’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner), an ex-GI, lives the bohemian life in Paris after the fall of Nazism. The musical, with a libretto by Craig Lucas, focuses on Jerry falling in love with Lise (Sara Esty), the fragile ballerina from Monte Carlo, with whom his two friends Henri (Nick Spangler) and Adam (Etai Benson) are also smitten. Once each discovers that the other two have designs on her, resentment festers. Adding to the romantic entanglements, pretty heiress Milo (Emily Ferranti) sets her sights on Jerry even if it means paying for his attentions.
   It takes two acts to understand how subversive and shrewd Lucas’s libretto truly is. The audience spends Act One following Jerry, who is a cad and not very compelling. Gene Kelly played the central character in the movie and his Jerry was self-involved and cock-of-the-walk, but he always followed his heart; Scribner’s Jerry is an extreme version. Only after absorbing the whole story does one realize that, despite the order of the curtain calls, Jerry Mulligan is not the protagonist.
   The character who grows and learns, who endears himself to the audience, who captures the musical’s major themes, is Adam, the American piano player, who was injured in the war and remained in Paris to compose music and heal his heart from the damage of mortal combat. Throughout the musical, Jerry is a snake who stalks a girl and hurts everyone around him, while Adam is the romantic. Adam personifies the fragility and talent of composer George Gershwin, while Jerry is only an obstacle to everyone.
   The musical doesn’t even bother to showcase Jerry’s talents. We know Adam is talented, since he wrote lovely songs such as “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “I Got Rhythm.” Lise is a passionate dancer we see showcased throughout the evening. Yet the audience never sees Jerry’s art (if the gorgeous projections are his, there’s no indication given). The only artistry of Jerry’s that we witness is designs for the title ballet, yet they look tacky, like they were inspired by the Partridge Family bus.
   After spending much of the musical annoyed that there is no compelling reason to care about Jerry’s travails, it’s revelatory to understand Lucas doesn’t want the audience to care about Jerry. This is Adam’s story, obvious from the beginning since Adam, not Jerry, opens the musical talking to the audience, essentially narrating.
   Lucas also veers away from the movie by bringing the shame, betrayal, and anger of post-war Paris into the story. Many of the characters are hobbled or motivated by what they experienced in the war. The book always recognizes that good people can do thoughtless things and calls the characters on their selfishness.

Of the cast, the two actors who grab the audience are Benson as the damaged but lovable composer and Ferranti as the wealthy patron. Both are triple threats and have the strongest voices in the lead cast. Esty and Scribner are outstanding, athletic dancers, but their acting and singing are only fair. Spangler believably plays the hapless Parisian, who adores a woman who doesn’t love him back. as a dope, trapped between his desire to be a good person and his compulsion to have what he feels he deserves.
   The orchestra sounds vibrant, playing some of the American Songbook’s gems. Mixing the Gershwins’ hit parade songs “S’Wonderful” and “The Man I Love” with George’s interludes such as “Cuban Overture,” the score features the best of the best. Bob Crowley’s costumes are haute couture, with the dresses for Milo, particularly a striking green number, standing out. The Tony-winning sets and projection design by Crowley and 59 Productions are spellbinding. From the locales that are both realistic and impressionistic to the lake that is a mixture of projection and physical, the visuals are inspired.
   Also Tony-winning, Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography is poetic, jazzy, and toe-tapping. After keeping the balletic motif throughout the musical, when Wheeldon switches to tap for the showstopping “Stairway to Paradise,” it sets itself apart. The cast members are consummate dancers and perform Wheeldon’s moves with aplomb.
   Both a treatment of the classic MGM musicals of the 1940s and ’50s and a skewed reflection of the quintessential Gene Kelly persona, this American in Paris does more than just transplant a beloved film to the stage. It reinterprets it while conserving the film’s major attributes: the score and the joy of magical dancing.

March 24, 2016
 
March 23–April 9. 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $35–149. (800) 982-2787.

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Die, Mommie, Die!
Celebration Theatre at the Lex Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Drew Droege and Tom DeTrinis
Photo by Matthew Brian Denman

Just when the world seems to be going completely nuts, the victimless madness of Charles Busch could not be more welcome. Die, Mommie, Die!, his outrageous parody of those silly old film noir monster-diva movies, debuted in LA at the Coast Playhouse in 1999 with its creator appearing in high drag as dastardly Angela Arden, a well-married Hollywood has-been in the late ‘60s who rules her tony Beverly Hills mansion with an iron mascara brush. The production went on to a lengthy New York run and became a feature film in 2003, both also starring Busch as his murderous heroine.
   Celebration Theatre’s lovingly remounted revival begins with the Bacall-tinged voice of its own celebrated Angela, Drew Droege, thanking us all for braving our horrible LA winter to attend the show. After threatening bodily harm if audience members don’t follow the rules of theater etiquette—much to the trepidation of the wary five patrons chosen to sit onstage on two ornate period couches flanking either side of the stage—Busch’s signature send-up of latter-day campy Bette Davis slasher melodramas takes no prisoners. Not even the overly made-up droopy-faced Angela survives, staring into her ornate but smoky mirror, as she prepares to attend the Beverly Hills Psoriasis Ball, to see nothing looking back besides “just hair and makeup and some very important jewelry.”
   With the obvious blessings of Ryan Bergmann’s unstoppably convention-free direction, this seriously over-the-top ensemble of shameless players takes the story one step further than ever before. These folks would drop their pants for a laugh if they could—no, wait, they actually do—most notably Pat Towne as Angela’s wealthy film producer husband Sol Sussman, who takes his drawer-drop one step further by letting Droege as his grimacing wife shove an enormously oversized suppository into his nether regions live onstage. One can only be grateful not to have been picked to sit in those onstage seats.

Where Busch’s deadpan Eve Arden–style performances have always been acerbic and dry as the Mojave, exhibiting his unearthly ability to circumvent the comedic pratfalls he wrote into his roles, Droege’s Angela could not be more blatantly campy, like a Zolpidem-sedated Ruby Keeler in her geriatric years playing Baby Jane Hudson wearing Joan Crawford’s real-life wardrobe. Before we are ever even introduced to the bigger-than-life mistress of the castle, however, we hear from her neglected daughter Edith (Julanne Chidi Hill) that her once-illustrious songstress mother now has a “vibrato as wide as Mr. Ed’s asshole” as we’re brought up-to-date watching a newsreel-style video showcasing Angela’s downward-spiraling career, culminating in a poster hawking her appearance playing the title role in Peter Pan at the Wichita County Fair.
   Entering from the estate’s garden, apologizing to the family and all in attendance for being “up to my elbows in manure” as Angela models her best gardening finery, Droege immediately takes Busch’s classic role and makes it his own. From sipping bottomless martinis to plotting Sol’s early demise utilizing an arsenic-dipped suppository to camouflage the treachery to spouting an endless barrage of low-registered bon mots, mispronouncing words Angela believes sound classier with a little French affectation added, Droege is a treat to behold, out-Garlanding the revered Dame Judy at every opportunity.
   Andrew Carter as resident gigolo Tony is a quintessential foil for Angela’s horny scramblings as she towers over her pocket-sized lover, a former TV series star waiting for a new pilot with the range and class of his Squad Car 13, who now supports himself by giving tennis lessons—that is when not utilizing his massive member (kudos to Allison Dillard for designing costuming that makes it possible to keep his kielbasa-sized tool erect for more than two hours) to keep wealthy matrons happy. Towne overcomes the obnoxious Hollywood executive stereotype and Jewy-slang dialogue written into the role of Angela’s oy-veying husband and is a hoot as the slimy Sol, whose life’s work has been “made a mockery of by pretentious fag and bulldyke film critics.”
   Hill has her best moments spouting off about her hated mother or pawing Sol in the most delightfully inappropriate father-daughter relationship since the invention of 24-karat friendship rings. The impossibly wide-eyed Gina Torrecilla as Bootsie, the family’s longtime maid who is hot for Sol, although her main purpose in life is saying her prayers to help send Dick Nixon to the White House in ’68, is a tremendous asset to this slickly entertaining production. And as the Sussmans’ emotionally fragile shrink-managed son, Lance, home from college after blowing his school’s entire math department in the faculty lounge, it’s hard to imagine anyone funnier or more uninhibited than the wonderfully wacky understudy Nathan Mohebbi (in for Tom DeTrinis).

“This family, frankly, exhausts me,” Angela—or is it her twin sister, Barbara?—admits, leading one to stop and wonder how this superlative cast, led by someone with razor-sharp timing and the ability to bring down the house with a flash of an errant eyelash, can get through a string of performances of Die, Mommie, Die! without sleeping 20-hour stretches between shows. Having such a clearly infectious good time together, and sharing that gift with their grateful audience onstage and off, must keep the adrenaline pumping at warp speed.

March 6, 2017
 
Feb 17–March 26. 6760 Lexington Ave., West Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25-$40. (323) 957-1884.

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Fun Home
Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Robert Petkoff and Kate Shindle
Photo by Joan Marcus

Saturated with multiple awards and honors, including the Tony for Best Musical and finalist status for the Pulitzer Prize, Fun Home is without a doubt one of the most important and groundbreaking musicals of all time. Without a single real good clambake or surrey with fringe on top in sight, the arrestingly personal story of real-life cartoonist Alison Bechdel ellipses the problem of Maria many times over without offering even one spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.
   Bookwriter Lisa Kron has lovingly adapted Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, her graphic memoir detailing her clumsy coming out as a lesbian in college and her close but puzzling relationship with her funeral director–English teacher father (Robert Petkoff), who killed himself by stepping in front of a bus while she was away at school discovering her identity. As the fortysomething Alison (Kate Shindle) wonders where her life is going and if her unresolved issues with her father and the lingering fear that her startling lifestyle revelation were the cause of his suicide, her younger selves share the stage with her as she narrates, portrayed at age 10 (by a delightfully precocious Alessandra Baldacchino) and during her breakout college years (by Abby Corrigan).
   Stumbling upon a tattered old box of family mementos, Alison reminisces about her staid and unwelcoming Victorian family domicile that her dad has painstakingly restored and the funeral (“fun,” get it?) home he owns where she and her brothers (Pierson Saldavor and Lennon Nate Hammond) frolic and play in and out of the caskets in the display room. Her father morphs with instantaneous incomprehension from doting, supportive parent into a volatile Daddy Dearest clone, one minute praising his daughter’s artistry and the next calling her names and telling her that her drawings suck.

When Alison writes home, admitting she has entered into an affair with the patient and nurturing Joan (Karen Eilbacher), the answer is basically silence beyond dear old Pop noting she’s off on a new adventure and telling her not to fall for labels until she decides who she really is. Frustrated with her parents’ unwillingness to really discuss her sexuality, she brings Joan home for a visit, where her long-suffering mother (beautifully and understatedly assayed by Susan Moniz) pours out a startling confession along with a tongue-loosening glass of vino in the early afternoon—something with which she appears to be familiar.
   Alison’s father, she’s told, has been having affairs with guys since even before the marriage started, resulting in many problems for the couple in their nosy small town—especially for anyone as closeted and self-hating as dear old dad. When he breaks the wall between himself and the narrator-observer Alison and invites her on a drive, she excitedly notes all the similarities between the two of them, but he is unable to respond, cutting the ride short and leaving her stunned by his inability to share and communicate. Soon after, that public convenience forever ends the possibility of any interaction between them, and she wonders, as she sketches her poignant images, if chaos never happens if it’s never seen. “I can draw a circle,” Alison mourns aloud, thinking of her sadly tortured father. “His whole life fits inside.”
   Nope, this is not musical comedy by any means—although the early “Come to the Fun Home,” as the three youthful siblings create an imaginary TV commercial for their dad’s business while popping in and out of a display casket, will surely make you laugh out loud. As a significant and welcome entry in the evolution of musical comedy transforming into musical theater, however, this is the best of the genre since 2009’s Next to Normal, until now the most arrestingly notable new musical in many, many years. The cast is one of the best touring ensembles in a long time under the tutelage of director Sam Gold, who does a yeoman’s job melding the characters and situations between the story’s three periods of time and manages to adapt the once-intimate theater piece into something that impressively fills the cavernous Ahmanson stage.

Petkoff does a phenomenal job as Alison’s tormented dad, a role that must require about 20 hours of sleep daily and maybe a generous prescription for Zanex to make it through a lengthy national tour without eyeing a bus or two on one’s own. Moniz, as the mother patiently staying in the shadows as she deals with the heartbreak of her life as she tries to shield her kids from the reality of the situation, breaks out gloriously in the haunting 11th-hour ballad “Days and Days.” Corrigan also brings down the house with the delightful “Changing My Major”—in this case from Art to Joan—creating the evening’s most affecting performance that elicited two separate ovations on opening night after scenes with nary a song to put a button on ’em.
   Above everything and ascending to the top of the wonders here is the musical genius of Jeanine Tesori, who with lyrics by Kron has brought to the world the most innovative and ambitious score since the discovery of Stephen Sondheim, almost qualifying the musical as an operetta more than something that will comfortably stand in time alongside works by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Meredith Willson. There’s even a hint of homage to Sweeney Todd or Pacific Overtures or A Little Night Music in the mix, especially when Alison sings as she draws a “dark shaded stripe/bum bum bum.”
   There are not enough adjectives to adequately describe Fun Home. But, when an artistically well-pampered and sophisticated opening night audience winds its way out of the Ahmanson in silence and tears and the inability to make conversation beyond tight hugs with friends and familiar fellow first-nighters, you can bet you’re experiencing something uniquely special, something historic, something unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before.

February 24, 2017
 
Feb 22–April 1. 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 1 hour and 50 minutes, no intermission. $25–$125. (213) 972-4400.

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Mess
Theatre of NOTE

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Kirsten Vangsness

Well, here’s another nice mess Kirsten Vangsness has gotten us into. See, in the eccentricity department, Criminal Minds’s eccentric computer geek Penelope Garcia has nothing on her creator, who now takes to the stage of her beloved Theatre of NOTE to present the latest incarnation of her prodigiously personal solo piece Mess, in which the fearlessly unfiltered storyteller confesses that the title of her show couldn’t be more appropriate—even if she has become skilled in covering her mess with stuff she gets from Sephora.
   Our perception of life and our challenging of whether time is indeed even a linear concept are examined through Vangsness’s outrageously in-your-face humor, based on a Ted Talk called “Making Sense of a Visible Quantum Object” by Aaron O’Connell. As she zips back and forth at time-warping speed through various periods in her life past, present, and future, she morphs with jaw-dropping alacrity to ages 4, 7, 14, 44, and 54. As her breakneck performance tumbles forward, the phenomenally talented Vangsness champions every one of her life’s pivotal passages.

There is the 4-year-old Kirsten, surprised to find, as her mother “closes her eyes” on the kitchen linoleum, that she has inadvertently created her first chaotic mess in her room. This proves something her mom, complete with the geometric pattern of the floor still pressed into her cheek, warns her is why the rain forests are disappearing and the tigers are dying at an alarming rate.
   By age 7, she has realized that growing up in the sheltering arms of her family would never afford her an ideal Beaver Cleaver-esque nurturing experience, especially when confronted by a scary father she calls her “not kitten, not Fred Rogers dad.” Instead, her exploding young mind turns to visits from possible space aliens willing to offer her better advice, beginning with the one mini-monster she discovers waving at her from the depths of the crawlspace under the stairs of their new home.
   When her teen years appear to be even more angst-ridden than they are for most, she succumbs to peer pressure and takes a summer break with a friend at a church-run summer camp. There she realizes that a fellow camper has lovely little nipples resembling small cupcakes, that the priests are lots hotter and sexier than she expected, and that the kids finger-banging one another under a bridge in the adjoining woods, when joined in the chapel to praise Jesus, sound a lot like Liv Tyler in Lord of the Rings when they talk in tongues.

Vangsness spills out her story with manic energy, her fingers splayed out vertically before her like she’s nursing a drying manicure and her signature quirky body language resembling a kid in water wings floating for the very first time. As she navigates the admittedly self-induced Mess of her life, she shares with us the realization that, no matter how high the piles of junk grow around you, no matter how many kitten-hating fathers or linoleum-patterned mothers or hypocritical Jesus-freak teenyboppers named Tiffany or imaginary monsters intrude on your life’s personal journey, there’s also a multitude of paths to take and a butt-load of channels to click onto. When you’re as strong and as incredibly gifted as Vangsness, our messy conquering hero reminds us that we get to choose the channel, and it’s up to us just how much we want to let it take us wherever we want to go.

February 20, 2017
 
Feb 2–March 11. 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Dates and times not announced. Ticket prices not announced.

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33 Variations
Actors Co-op

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


John Allee and Bruce Ladd
Photo by Lindsay Schnebly

Spanning nearly two centuries and the Atlantic Ocean, this time-traveling, paralleled account of a musicologist suffering the slow debilitation of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) while researching an obscure mystery surrounding the then equally health-challenged Ludwig van Beethoven comes to beautiful fruition in this moving incarnation.
   Director Thomas James O’Leary and his impeccable cast of seven, along with top-drawer production values, elevate playwright Moisés Kaufman’s already near-perfect script to an almost heavenly realm. As the primary catalyst of this story, Dr. Katherine Brandt is a renowned specialist in compositional analysis. In light of her terminal diagnosis, she seems hell bent on avoiding, for as long as possible, an irreversible fate. Nan McNamara’s handling of this iron-willed character who eschews even the most personal of human contact is powerfully arresting. Her interactions with Greyson Chadwick, who matures before our very eyes as her daughter, Clara, are a pas de deux of agonizingly mixed signals and emotional near misses. It is a relationship afforded great investment by these actors and director O’Leary.

Early on, we are introduced to a young male nurse, Mike Clark, brought to life with a boy-next-door charm by Brandon Parrish. Mike is Katherine’s connection to the realities of her medical condition and through a series of often comical interludes comes to serve as helpmate and love interest for Clara. Just as critical to this emotionally fractured mother-daughter team is a German archivist, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, played by Treva Tegtmeier. At first frosty to what she believes may be the less than valid investigation by Katherine, she slowly warms to her American counterpart. Tegtmeier’s work, simple and true, seems born of an all-consuming dedication to individual moments which when compiled render a character arc that is the very essence of believability.
   On the flip side of this somewhat surreal storyline is a trio residing in early 19th-century Vienna. There is Anton Diabelli, a struggling musical publisher and wannabe composer whose original waltz served as the basis for a planned notebook of variations penned by numerous composers of the day. Played here with frustrated bemusement by Stephen Rockwell, Diabelli is a sympathetic portrait. As the closest confidante and self-proclaimed “friend of Beethoven”—it’s right there on his calling card—Anton Schindler, John Allee is delightfully unctuous. Dr. Brandt’s research eventually reveals that Schindler, who is dedicated to his “master” at every turn, may have harbored a historical perspective slightly less accurate than first believed.

And then there is the prodigy around whom this entire premise revolves, a man so wracked with inner genius that one variation on Diabelli’s original isn’t enough and thirty-three were not too many. Portraying Beethoven, Bruce Ladd challenges one’s ability to choose the appropriate adjectives. Aside from bearing an uncannily striking resemblance to the composer, Ladd gives a performance that transcendently captivates the senses. In one particular instance, aided by the unblemished assistance of onstage pianist and musical director Dylan Price, Ladd nearly stops the show with his astonishing interpretation of Beethoven, his hearing gone and his health in utter disarray, as he composes the final piece of this play’s title.
   In addition to collecting such an impressive ensemble, O’Leary is blessed beyond measure with a support system of theatrical artisans. Scenic designer Nicholas Acciani’s acumen is gloriously displayed via set pieces that double, even triple, as various items and locales, each delicately illuminated thanks to the prowess of lighting designer Andrew Schmedake. Meanwhile, Acciani’s breathtaking video and photographic projections flood the stage with images that transport us across the miles and years contained in Kaufman’s script. David B. Marling’s sound effects are equally crucial to the cascading series of scenes one witnesses. Rounding out this assemblage of expertise are Vicki Conrad’s costuming, E.K. Dagenfield’s obvious skills in dialect coaching, and Michelle Parrish’s subtly austere, show-ending choreography as all of Kaufman’s characters, living and dead, join together symbolically in bringing closure to what is an ornate yet simple tale of two lives’ interconnected paths.

February 13, 2017
 
Feb 10–March 17. 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 2:30pm (add’l perf Sat 2:30pm Feb 18 & March 18). $20–30. (323) 462-8460.

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