Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
 
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–May 21. 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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For Piano and Harpo
Falcon Theatre

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Dan Castellaneta and JD Cullum
Photo by Sasha Venola

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

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

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

February 14, 2017
 
Feb 10–March 5. 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm. $30-$45. (818) 955-8101.

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Grimly Handsome
City Garage

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Anthony M. Sannazzaro and Lindsay Plake
Photo by Paul M. Rubenstein

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

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

February 6, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 
Jan 27–Feb 26. 2525 Michigan Ave., Building T1, Bergamot Station, Santa Monica. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. $20-25, Sundays are “pay-what-you-can” at the door only. (310) 453-9939.

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Witness
for the Prosecution

The Group Rep/Lonny Chapman Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Michele Schultz and Larry Eisenberg
Photo by Troy Whitaker

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

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

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

January 31, 2017
 
Jan 27–March 26. 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Free street parking on Burbank Boulevard and side streets. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $20–25. (818) 763-5990.

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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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Shades of Disclosure
Skylight Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Christine Papalexis and Cheri Gaulke
Photo by Ed Krieger

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

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

February 6, 2017
 
Jan 28–March 11. 1816-1/2 N. Vermont Ave. Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. $15-34. (213) 761-7061.

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Beckett 5
Odyssey Theatres

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Norbert Weisser and Alan Abelew in "Catastrophe"
Photo by Ron Sossi

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

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

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

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

January 25, 2017
 
Jan 28–March 5. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. There is wheelchair access. See website for schedule, but in general Wed or Thu 8pm, Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $30-35. (310) 477-2055.

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Urinetown: The Musical
Coeurage Theatre Company at Lankershim Arts Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Robert Collins, Daniel Bellusci, and Ted Barton
Photo by Nardeep Khurmi

With an overpowering sense of dread about the future of our society overshadowing everything we do these days, there couldn’t be a better time for the indomitable Coeurage Theatre Company to resurrect this boisterously biting 2001 political satire—which, when it debuted in 2001, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and winning for Greg Kotis’s book and Kotis and Mark Hollman’s score. With a malignant and power-hungry magnate in charge who vows to “bring our message of hate to the entire world,” to say Urinetown: The Musical was ahead of its time is almost insulting; right now at this time in our history, it’s sadly right on the money.
   With that pesky climate change our own new “leader” insists is fictional having become so harsh and the drought so severe that it’s now illegal for citizens to expel their bodily fluids without queuing up at public utilities where they pay a fee to relive themselves, the prospects for America the Scary is depicted—albeit with outrageously wicked humor—as prophetically dim and dystopian. If the huddled shivering citizens waiting in endless lines and hopping on one leg don’t agree to the cost hikes slapped on them by the greedy Urine Good Company, they are shipped off to Urinetown, a mysterious place where the detainees disappear without a trace.
   Kotis and Hollman pay continuous deference to those who came before them, with continuously crafty flashes of homage throughout to such musicals as Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, and Evita. More pointedly, Urinetown is instantly reminiscent of the then-radical agenda lurking just below the brio in those brazen musical classics by Brecht and Weill. The early rendition of the raucous title song could be right out of Happy End, and there’s a lot of Mother Courage in Janna Cardia’s dynamic turn as facilities manager Penelope Pennywise, particularly as she fiercely belts out, “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” her hands placed firmly on her hips as though about to launch into “Alabama Song.”

Just like performing Brecht, Kotis and Hollman don’t make it easy on the performers or the audience, all of whom must link their imaginations together and traverse the fourth wall fearlessly as narrator Officer Lockstock (the deliciously malevolent Ted Barton) educates curious Raggedy Ann clone Little Sally (Nicole Monet) that too much exposition destroys a good show or that sometimes in a musical it’s easier for the audience to pay attention to one big theme rather than lots of little themes.
   The performances are eager and meticulously rehearsed, the ensemble gamely honoring Christopher M. Albrecht’s spirited choreography, which fills the stage with energy and a wonderful sense of irony no one who’s ever been part of the creation of a musical could possibly miss. Even one knockout understudy on the night reviewed, the engagingly youthful Ethan Barker, was completely able to meld into the breakneck musical numbers without a hitch. These performers could easily present Urinetown in repertory with The Threepenny Opera without having to alter their delivery, strike Matt Scarpino’s suitably downtrodden set, or change out of the perfectly distressed rags designed by costumer Emily Brown-Kucera.
   Daniel Bellusci is a standout as fresh-scrubbed resident hero Bobby Strong, the lowly public latrine attendant who leads a Les Miz–inspired rebellion against Urine Good Company and its owner, mustache-twirling villain Caldwell B. Caldwell (Gary Lamb). Everything good flushes down the toilet for Bobby when he realizes his new love interest, Hope (Ashley Kane), is the daughter of the dastardly Caldwell and has been groomed Trump-style by her father. She’s now recently returned from graduating from the most expensive university in the world where she majored in learning how to manipulate great masses of people.

The direction, by Kari Hayter, is akin to watching a sporting event: without filter, visually nonstop, and willing to go so far over the top the company could make a fortune selling whiplash collars. Brandon Baruch’s lighting is also a major asset, with jumbled strings of household lighting tumbling across the front of the stage, offering glaring footlight illumination for group scenes, interspersed with handheld light bulbs random cast members crouch down to shine in the faces of the principals as they ace Kotis and Hollman’s bittersweet ballads. Keyboardist Peter Shannon does a fine job as the production’s only live musician, a feat made more impressive by the full-blooded, precise musical direction of Gregory Nabours.
   As Officer Lockstock reminds us, dreams come true only in happy musicals—oddly a little like life right at the moment even without an accompanying score to lighten the load. This unbelievably inventive and exceptionally unique revival of an exceptionally unique musical provides some much-needed laughs at a point when so many of us need a break from licking our wounds. Without a doubt, however, it will also gradually sink in that there’s a much deeper message here, meant to produce a simmering rage reminiscent of Peter Finch in Network that, hopefully, makes everyone who sees it realize that, like the manipulated residents of Urinetown, the fight against avarice and dominance—and for justice and ethical treatment for all—is just beginning. Pee freely, my friends, it’s our inalienable right.

November 20, 2016
 
Nov. 5–Feb. 25. 5108 Lankershim Blvd. Thu-Sat 8pm. Pay what you want. (323) 944-2165.

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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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Zoot Suit
Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Demián Bichir and Matias Ponce
Photo by Craig Schwartz

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

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

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

February 13, 2017
 
Feb 12–April 2. 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown Los Angeles. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $25–99. (213) 972-4400.

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The Found Dog Ribbon Dance
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Daniel Hagan
Photo by Darrett Sanders

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

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

January 27, 2017
 
Jan 21–Mar 12. 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Free street and lot parking. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm, Mon 8pm. $34, $20 on Mondays. (310) 307-3753.

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