Arts In LA
The Other Place
Road Theatre Company

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Sam Anderson and Taylor Gilbert
Photo by Michele Young

There’s a lot about this arresting and intelligent play by rising playwright Sharr White (Annapurna) that is similar to Peter Shaffer’s enduring 1973 classic Equus . Like that drama’s central character, Dr. Martin Dysart, White’s protagonist Juliana (Taylor Gilbert) never leaves the stage, offering this audience a privileged view of the degeneration of an initially self-assured, uber-driven medical professional totally swallowed up in her own uncertainties and in doubt of everything she has ever known.
   The Other Place begins as Juliana, a biophysicist researcher¬–turned–drug company corporate spokesperson, addresses a gathering of students in the Virgin Islands. Pointing to the huge graphic projected behind her, she starts out with a pointed jab: “For those of you only accepted to a medical school in St. Thomas, this is a chromosome.” If Juliana wants to successfully promote the new product she believes could be a breakthrough in the battle against dementia and Alzheimer’s, of course, it might have been better to have started with something more positive. But things are crashing in on Juliana in her life and mind, further evidenced by her obsession with a young woman seated in the audience wearing a yellow bikini.
   “Who is this girl?” she wonders aloud to the theater audience. “Some drug company-funded model or hooker supposed to provide the doctors relief?” Juliana makes a few rude cracks aimed directly at the girl, then realizes she has possibly evoked tears from her. “I start to feel guilty for insulting her, which as you may have surmised by now happens quite often to me,” Juliana admits. “Why do I see something beautiful, then scratch it and scratch it until there’s nothing left?”

This is only the beginning of Juliana’s downward spiral. What’s real and what’s not creeps slowly into Juliana’s nearly nonstop narration, but then suddenly she tumbles headfirst down the rabbit hole—and takes us right along with her.
   Under the guidance of director Andre Barron, Gilbert gives a magnificent, intricately nuanced performance in White’s demanding leading role, seamlessly weaving from sarcasm to rage to heartbreaking vulnerability—and without losing us along the way as the often unlikable Juliana whines and screams in her effort to get everyone around her to understand her plight.
   Danielle Stephens is a perfect choice to play a variety of characters, including an extremely patient therapist trying to diagnose Juliana’s challenges. With a straight face, the therapist asks Juliana if she’s “flirting with suicidal thoughts” and tries valiantly not to be unnerved by Juliana response, “I’m dating them, actually—but they won’t put out.” Stephens also appears as Juliana’s long-estranged daughter and, in her finest moments, as an outsider who arrives at the 11th hour, an innocent current resident of Juliana’s actual “other place,” to quickly become an important piece of the puzzle. Dirk Etchison also appears in several smaller and less-memorable roles, yet he does so with enough passion to make one wish he had more stage time on his own.

In the final analysis, however, the great wonder of this riveting production is the relationship between Juliana and her long-suffering, physically and emotionally traumatized husband, Ian (Sam Anderson). In a pivotal scene between Gilbert and Stephens, Anderson’s Ian stands watching his wife and this stranger in their lives embrace clumsily, but it is the pain and exhaustion on his face that is the most indelible image of the evening, made even more memorable when Ian abandons care for what the onlooker thinks in an effort to hold the wife he’s loved for so many years safe and close to him once again.
   Simply put, Gilbert and Anderson share onstage moments together in The Other Place that are nothing short of magic, a testament to what can be achieved when two such exceptional artists bring this selfless kind of commitment and collaboration to the telling of a story. Gilbert and Anderson could be poster-children for how important it is for actors to spontaneously bounce off each other with total trust.

March 10, 2015
 
Feb. 20–April 11. 10747 Magnolia Blvd. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $17.50–34. ( 818) 761-8838.

www.RoadTheatre.org

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American Buffalo
Department of Music, Theatre and Dance at California State University, Los Angeles and Deaf West Theatre at Cal State L.A.’s State Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Troy Kotsur, Matthew Ryan Pest, and Paul Raci
Photo by Noel Bass

This production of one of modern theater’s seminal plays is certainly interesting intellectually. David Mamet’s 1975 three-hander is in a co-production by Deaf West Theatre and California State University, Los Angeles. The involvement of Deaf West in a show means creative melding of spoken English and American Sign Language to seamlessly recount a story for its hearing and deaf audience members.
   This one takes place in a Chicago pawnshop loaded with the neighborhood’s castoffs. So, too, the three characters are society’s castoffs, men who live in a state of desperate ineptitude and who speak in vulgar invective. But this production seems to ignore the ultimate hopelessness of the three men.
   The shop owner, Don, has sold a buffalo nickel to a customer but now has second thoughts about the sale price. Bobby, the young lad who hangs out at the shop in hopes of occasional paying tasks, proposes revenge on the buyer. Teach, Don’s poker buddy, wants in on the scheme and wants Bobby out. Hell-bent on a caper the three are sure will result in hefty financial gain, they launch into planning without a solid basis for any of their ideas.

Stephen Rothman directs here. Making this production different is the fact that this Teach is deaf. The characters must communicate in sign language, while ensuring that a non-ASL-speaking audience understands every word. So, when Don and Teach converse alone, in ASL only, the audience hears their conversation over headphones (handed out as part of the ticket price, but requiring a driver’s license or other identification to secure the loan). When Bobby and Don converse, the text of their conversation is projected on screens above the action. Otherwise, the characters communicate through a combination of voiced English and ASL.
   Three gifted actors star. The hearing and ASL-adept Paul Raci plays Don, the sensible one at least when compared with his cohorts. Cal State Master of Fine Arts candidate Matthew Ryan Pest appears as Bobby, always in need of more cash. The deaf veteran actor Troy Kotsur portrays Teach, fueled to wild action by irrationality. The trio is joined, offstage, by two more actors. Via the headphones, Collin Bressie voices all of Teach’s lines, while James Foster voices Don’s when Teach and Don are using ASL.

Yet, despite all this creativity and talent, the production fails to pack an emotional punch. This may be because the audience is observing the technique. What does the f-bomb, Mamet’s signature word, look like in ASL? How about the oft-used c-word? Which parts of the dialogue will we see on the screens? How many of their lines are the actors paraphrasing as we watch the text go by?
   Our lack of emotional response might be because the characters don’t reach the extremes the script offers. Teach seems goofy and furious with the world, rather than menacing. Don seems in control, dealing with sitcom sidekicks he can handle before the end of this episode. Bobby seems intelligent, secure, and insolent, not desperate for the approval of his elders.
   Ken George’s set is filled to the catwalks with stuff. A substantial amount of it gets trashed during the show. Kudos to Bressie, who served as fight director, and to those who designed and built the breakaway items. Kudos also to the stage crew who clear and reset the props for each show of the run.

February 24, 2015
 
Feb. 21–March 8. 5151 State University Dr., on the campus of Cal State L.A. Thu-Sat 7:30pm, Sun 2:30pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $12–25.(818) 762-2998.

www.DeafWest.org

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Washer/Dryer
East West Players at David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Rachna Khatau, Ewan Chung, Corey Wright, Karen Huie, and Nancy Stone
Photo by Michael Lamont

At its essence, Washer/Dryer is about a newlywed couple who need to clean up their lives. Playwright Nandita Shenoy gives us Sonya, of Indian extraction, and Michael, of Chinese. They apparently didn’t talk over their needs and goals thoroughly before marrying. But here they are, living in her New York studio apartment, the best feature of which is their own washer-dryer unit.
   Sonya (Rachna Khatau) and Michael (Ewan Chung) have been married for one week. Sonya’s co-op agreement allows only single occupancy in her unit, so Michael must lie to the doorman every time he comes home to his wife. When his harridan of a mother (Karen Huie) comes to visit—which she does with terrifying frequency—the doorman (unseen) becomes suspicious of the goings on in that apartment.
   Add in Sonya’s gay best friend Sam (Corey Wright), Wendee the uptight president of the homeowners association (Nancy Stone) with a gay son (unseen), and Sonya’s grandma in India (also unseen), and lessons about tradition and acceptance abound here.
   Directed by Peter Kuo with a sitcom sensibility, the piece feels like a pilot of the likes of Dharma & Greg. Or, with its running time of 90 minutes, the pleasant if formulaic play might suffice for the first four episodes. Of course, for those who loved Dharma & Greg, this is quite a compliment. The five actors here apparently satisfy Kuo’s and Shenoy’s vision of this play, which seems to favor breezy laughs over what could be pointed commentary on all marriages.

It fell to one actor on the night reviewed to solve a problem that could have proven dangerous onstage. From the moment Wright made his first entrances, it was clear his character would be the show’s Cupid, the mediator, the Dr. Ruth, bringing acceptance and understanding to the can of worms Shenoy opened. As a bottle of “wine” began to leak over its shelf, dripping and creating little splashes on the stage below it, the resulting puddle drew least a portion of the audience’s attention. Would someone slip? Would Wendee’s aqua-blue shoes be stained for the rest of the run?
   Nope. Sam, crawling along the floor to avoid being spotted by mom and Wendee while the women were absorbedly occupied in stir-frying dinner, grabbed paper towels as he slithered by, mopped his forehead, and then began to sop up the spilled liquid. Much as Sam is the story’s problem-solver, Wright was this evening’s freshest, most-inspired element.

February 20, 2015
 
Feb. 18–March 15. 120 Judge John Aiso St. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time $28–38, student and senior discounts available. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission. (213) 625-7000 x20.

www.EastWestPlayers.org

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Sons of the Prophet
Blank Theatre at 2nd Stage

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Mychal Thompson, Braxton Molinaro, Adam Silver, and Jack Laufer
Photo by Anne McGrath

Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran told us we were “far, far greater than you know and all is well.” Right. No wonder a character in Stephen Karam’s play—a 2012 New York Drama Critics Circle winner for best play and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—thinks differently. “Never before,” the character notes in the LA premiere of Karam’s truly contemporary masterpiece, “has bad writing been so richly rewarded.”
   Joseph Douaihy (Adam Silver) is the son of Lebanese immigrants who have pounded that quote into his head his entire life. Raised by his recently departed devout Maronite Christian father and his aged, quickly failing uncle (Jack Laufer), Joseph has listened patiently to the persistent family legend that the Douaihys are directly descended from Gibran, leading them to expect a lot from him and his teenage brother Charles (Braxton Molinaro). The fact that both brothers are gay is a bit of an issue in their household, especially when Uncle Bill moves in with them after their father’s death—something he sees as watching over them, while the brothers believe they are watching over him as his health quickly deteriorates.

Karam’s arrestingly on-target tale careens recklessly from high comedy to intense melodrama, heightened by director Michael Matthews’s expert, finely nuanced balancing act, as well as a supremely game and gifted cast able to maneuver the twists and turns along the way with consummate ease. Despite Uncle Bill’s continuous demands that the boys live up to the ideals set forth by their illustrious possible ancestor, if there is a god, he certainly does not seem to want to reward them for their efforts to remain pure. As the family’s woes accumulate like trash in a dumpster behind a high-rise, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Joseph giving up and giving in, but he is buoyed by one irrepressible trait: his undeniable sense of humor and unearthly ability to take on life’s continuously daunting daily trials as best he can.
   Silver is the superglue that holds the entire production together, giving his Joseph a tremendous sense of patience and adaptability as he deals with his mysterious debilitating illness and the fact that he has not fully come to terms with his anti-Maronite sexuality—evident, as his far more flamboyant younger brother observes, since he dresses like a lumberjack. When Joseph meets a sweetly engaging young reporter (Erik Odom), there’s a glimmer of hope, but even that is not meant to be. Instead, Joseph must patiently endure the continuous taunts of his often obnoxious brother, and the whines and incessant pontificating of his cranky old uncle, all the while dealing with his crazed benefactor (Tamara Zook), an uber-needy book merchant who sees the Douaihy’s story as fodder for acting as agent for a bestseller based on their ordeals.
   Zook is manically hilarious, bringing well-needed levity to the proceedings while still making her audience want to throw her under a bus at the earliest opportunity—as does the family of her character’s late husband, people she also dogs ruthlessly. “I don’t want the fact that we’re estranged to keep us from seeing each other,” Gloria observes, indicating just how out of touch she is. And when she disrupts the school board hearing deciding the future of a young and promising athlete (Mychal Thompson) indirectly responsible for the death of Joseph’s father, who swerved his car to avoid the deer decoy placed in the middle of the road as a prank against a rival team, Zook is at her wild, no-holds-barred best.

The cast is completed by the addition of durable stage veterans Ellen Karsten and Irene Roseen, who appear as a variety of nurses, ticket clerks, and school board members, each character a fresh joy to observe. And when, at the play’s end, Roseen assays a brand new character, a former teacher of Joseph’s who is also trying to heal in a physical therapy office, the real message of Karam’s bittersweet masterwork emerges: the resiliency of the human spirit no matter what this often surprisingly cruel life might toss in our paths. The good die young, they say, but that’s surely not always true. Sometimes they just go on despite the odds stacking up before them, something to be celebrated with all the charm and wonder Karam and this production honors admirably.

February 16, 2015
 
Jan. 31–March 29. 6500 Santa Monica Blvd. (Valet parking available for evening performances.) Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Ticket prices not announced. (323) 661-9827.

www.TheBlank.com

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The Night Alive
Geffen Playhouse

Dany Margolies


Dan Donohue, Denis Arndt, and Paul Vincent O’Connor
Photo by Michael Lamont

This Conor McPherson script fits squarely within his oeuvre—of poetic plays about souls seeking human connection in the midst of supernatural forces. However, unlike other Los Angeles productions of his works—including the Geffen Playhouse’s The Seafarer in 2009 and Geffen’s The Weir in 2000—this version lacks a feeling of something deeper and more mysterious going on.
   In The Night Alive, Tommy (Paul Vincent O’Connor, playing warmhearted and lonely) lives in squalor in one room of a reportedly spotless home, a few steps away from a garden full of large perfect vegetables seemingly ignored by the landlord. That landlord is Tommy’s uncle Maurice (Denis Arndt, stern but loving). Tommy, a low-level laborer, gives piecework to a pal with the lofty name of Doc (Dan Donohue, a wise naif), though he’s named that because he wore Doc Martens—a lesson to the audience not to judge by superficialities. One day, Tommy brings home Aimee (Fiona O’Shaughnessy, a mystery), who apparently had been severely beaten, her face now caked in blood.
   In the lives of these characters, family bonds were long ago shattered and are apparently irreparable. Maurice is a widower, still mourning his wife. Tommy is divorced and alienated from his teenage children. Doc can’t stay with his sister because her boyfriend throws him out. Aimee’s background is clouded. These folk become a sort of foster family for one another. Sure, says Tommy, stay here. Take any of the makeshift beds. Or the floor.

The play is not without feeling. When Maurice offers yet another helping hand to Tommy, the kindness induces a lump in the audience’s collective throat. When Doc ponders the afterlife, and the audience may be glimpsing it, the moment induces a sweet shock.
   Tommy, Aimee, and Doc collectively experience a moment of forgetting daily life, dancing to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” What is, indeed, going on? A movie poster for the film The Great Escape hangs on the wall, not coincidentally next to a dreamscape advertising Finland and another that’s a poster of Gaye.
   Midway through the play, Aimee’s “ex” Kenneth (Peter O’Meara, terrifying) arrives. He seems normal. As it turns out, he’s the personification of evil. He commits a random and motiveless brutalizing of the hapless Doc. Surely the attack killed Doc. Yet the fellow is upright and apparently fine in the very next scene, sporting a bandage around his head as if it were a jaunty cap.
   The action unfolds on Takeshi Kata’s set. It’s a huge room that, with colored-glass windows and high ceiling, evokes a church. Yet the piles of garbage and crumpled bedclothes evoke a more hellish existence.

All this is gleaned from the script and the set. Under Randall Arney’s direction, though, and despite the fine acting chops of the five performers, character definitions aren’t clear, particularly Aimee’s. Who are these people? What does each want? Arney gets the laughs the script intended. But the pathos is felt only long after the final bows, in thinking about the play and trying to piece together its meaning.
   What is indeed going on? Is all a coincidence? Or are the characters nearing or finally making the greatest escape of all?

February 12, 2015
 
Feb. 11–March 15. 10886 Le Conte Ave. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 1 hour 30 minutes, no intermission. $30–79. (310) 208-5454.

www.geffenplayhouse.com

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Jesus Christ Superstar
DOMA Theatre Company at MET Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Lauren Tyni, Anthony D. Willis, Nate Parker, and Venny Carranza
Photo by Michael Lamont

The singular feature of this vest-pocket staging by the DOMA Theatre Company—and the most compelling reason for attending—is the timeless score by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. Which is to say that the MVPs for director Marco Gomez are musical director Chris Raymond and his four performing colleagues, in whose hands the through-sung rock opera commands the playing space full throttle.
   Sitting at his keyboard on a platform upstage right, Raymond establishes a propulsive urgency that never falters. What gets served up is, of course, somewhat thinner than the symphonic orchestration we all grew up with on the original concept album, but it manages to evoke those classic sounds while rocking and buzzing on its own, more intimate terms.
   Raymond is to be further congratulated for vocal management, with a hat tip to sound designer Julie Ferrin, who keeps the words clear without overwhelming us with noise. Among the standouts are Jeremy Saje’s growling, heavy metal Judas; Renee Cohen’s sweetly lamenting Mary Magdalene; the Pontius Pilate of Kelly Brighton, reckless and mournful in turn; and Nate Parker’s Jesus, who hits high notes (“Go!”; “See how I die!”) few previous Christs in my experience have nailed so well. (No pun intended.)
   Though I already possess three previous Superstar albums, if the DOMA folks made a recording I would gladly own it, to admire again how much commitment and moxie they bring to the semi-sacred Webber/Rice party.

I just wish the rest of the production were anywhere near as compelling.
   Gomez’s conceit is that Jesus’s Passion is happening in the here and now of celebrity mania. Among voguing debs and preening queens with cellphones and selfies, Jesus is natty in a club-worthy white linen suit, while the oily Sanhedrin are in black suits and ties like the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange. The entrance to Jerusalem is celebrated not with leafy fronds but with mobile devices attached to wooden rods or “narcissi-sticks,” as I believe they’re called. (Such a perfect choice for Palm Pilot Sunday.)
   These halfhearted, sophomoric ideas don’t hurt much; neither do they help. They get mostly discarded by the end, anyway, as the Crucifixion switches to Jesus in his traditional loincloth and the keening women in long robes. What goes wrong isn’t the concept but the execution—the disconnect between what’s being said and what’s being done.

Is no one listening to what they’re singing? (Julie Ferrin maybe did her work too well.) “Why are you obsessed with fighting?” Jesus challenges his disciples, who are actually obsessed at that moment with nothing more than posing and cooing. “Try not to get worried,” Mary Magdalene advises the Master, “I shall soothe you, calm you and anoint you,” yet Jesus at that moment couldn’t be a cooler cucumber as he saunters through the nitery, basking in general adulation. There’s nothing subversive about this club dude, and no hint of a threatened Establishment among the priesthood; they’re too busy flirting with the crowd to be upset with Jesus anyway. So the plot literally makes no sense, a fact that, let the record note, didn’t seem to bother the whooping opening night crowd one iota.
   Speaking of sauntering, Jesus isn’t the only one. Saje and Brighton are, as noted, singing their guts out, but both are allowed to just shamble around aimlessly, without physical engagement. It doesn’t help, I suppose, that Pilate sports a little pencil mustache and eyepatch like the gigolo who always loses Ginger in the Astaire-Rogers musicals; or that this is the first Judas in my experience who’s the spitting image of Zach Galifianakis.
   The point is that acting—even in a rousing rock musical—happens with the whole body, not just with the singing voice, and the physical act of emoting is consistently absent from the MET stage. To be fair, Parker does a good job physicalizing the scourging in Act Two. But where was he in Act One?

Drama is also undercut by the lame use of an overhead central balcony: The Pilate-Jesus confrontation has no juice when the procurator is hovering 8 feet overhead, nor can Jesus’s pushing some guy and pulling down a little banner convey an attack on the temple heretics down below.
   And really, someone ought to tell the ensemble members that they’re not appearing in No, No, Nanette. Whether they’re supposed to be anguished disciples, fierce zealots, or spiteful tormentors, they bring the same grinning, shine-it-on glee to every occasion. Angela Todaro has overchoreographed the numbers with leaps and cartwheels and spins as if this were a Biblical Newsies, such that after a while you just have to throw up your hands and give into it, or just enjoy the music and ignore the rest. Which I did.

Let’s give the last curtain call to Raymond; second keyboard Yuhong Ng; bassist Graham Chapman; guitarist Michael Abraham; and Logan Shrewsbury, mighty on drums. At the MET, they are the true saviors.

February 14, 2015
 
Feb. 13–March 22. 1089 N. Oxford Ave. (Parking $6 at 5250 Santa Monica Blvd., two blocks east of the theater.) Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. $20-34.99 ($34.99 VIP includes preferred seating, free parking, and a complimentary beverage.) Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, including intermission. (323) 802-9181.

www.domatheatre.com

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Seussical the Musical
3D Theatricals at Plummer Auditorium

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Amber J. Snead and Matthew Downs
Photo by Isaac James Creative

Considering its title, Seussical the Musical ought to be bright and inspiring. But when its first number plays against a black background, hope fades.
   This musical (music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) brings to the stage most if not all of the characters created by children’s author Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat (Cathy Rigby) emcees. The tales of Horton the Elephant (Matthew Downs) tie the stories together. Horton hears tiny JoJo (Grant Westcott) from Whoville and tries to protect him. Horton’s neighbor, the one-tail-feathered Gertrude McFuzz (Melanie Mockobey) seeks plastic surgery and Horton’s love. And so forth.
   Despite being packed with characters and adventures, the production lacks what Seuss is famous for: vibrancy and heart. Blame for this likely falls on the shoulders of director-choreographer David Engel. He’s a performer of tremendous energy and humor, little of which translated to the stage here.
   Energy at a satisfying level doesn’t arrive until the third number when monkeys, named the Wickersham Brothers (Gary Brintz, Brandon Burks and Daniel Dawson), start bounding on stage like Sharks from “West Side Story.”
   Other performers try to liven the show, including Amber J. Snead as Sour Kangaroo (her baby is a puppet) and Victoria Matlock as Mayzie LaBird. Others nearly succeed, at least sending characterizations past the proscenium, including Gregory North as General Genghis Khan Schmitz and, in a brief appearance, Momoko Sugai as Marshal of the Court.

The brains of this show belong to the Cat in the Hat, played with brisk wit by Rigby. The gold-medal-winning Olympic gymnast is still possessed of her flexibility and daring. Local references—dropping “Fullerton” and “La Mirada” into the script—feel organic coming from local-girl-made-good Rigby.
   Rigby takes risks here. She soars over the stage. She banters with the audience. Most riskily, however, she splashed “tears” over the opening-night reviewers and their pen-and-paper notes. She’s particularly adorable working with youth performers, and she’s particularly at ease onstage, gently mocking the show’s several opening-night glitches.
   But the heart of this show belongs to Horton. Played by the approachable Downs, this Horton has a heart. It’s just doesn’t quite fill the auditorium, instead beating shyly.

Possibly the sound system mars the show. Voices that should be rich sound harsh. Some sound almost shrieky. On the other hand, the Wickershams sound fabulous, singing with clear harmonies and interesting dynamics, fully articulating their lyrics. Another issue is the lighting design, which seems dark, bringing down the energy while hiding performers’ faces. A bit of action at the top of the second act takes place behind a scrim and can barely be seen.
   But the black-light number, “Havin’ a Hunch,” provides the show with a bit of exhilaration, though it arrives well into Act Two. And yes, some of Seuss’s themes are quite dark—including parental neglect and the horrors of war—though these themes are not hammered in Seussical. However, the show’s curtain call—a bouncy jiving “Green Eggs and Ham” (including plates of the eponymous foods)—explodes with energy, roaring out over the audience. Here the dancing is crisp and joyous, “selling it” into the back rows. Like a creature in a Seuss story, the rest of the show’s energy needs to be coaxed out of its shy shell. It’s in there.

February 9, 2015
 
Feb. 7–22. Plummer Auditorium: 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm (additional perfs Thu, Feb. 19 at 8pm and Sat, Feb. 21 at 2pm. $20–70, handling fee per ticket $3. (714) 589-2770, ext. 1.

www.3DTshows.com

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Feb. 28–March 7. Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center: 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, plus Sat, March 7 at 2pm. $20–70, handling fee per ticket $3. (714) 589-2770, ext. 1

www.3DTshows.com

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Hellman v. McCarthy
Theatre 40

Review by Neal Weaver


Flora Plum and Dick Cavett
Photo by Ed Krieger

When the late Harold Clurman was directing one of Lillian Hellman’s plays, one of the cast members asked him what Hellman was saying when they saw her passionately speaking into his ear at rehearsals. He replied that it was usually something like, “Tell that goddamn bitch to stop being such a goddamn bitch.” Hellman was litigious, self-righteous, and seemingly permanently angry. So it was no surprise that she went off like a skyrocket when, on an episode of PBS’s Dick Cavett Show, he interviewed critic-novelist Mary McCarthy. She declared that every word Hellman ever wrote, including a, the, and and was a lie.
   Though it was obvious to everybody that McCarthy was indulging in comic hyperbole, Hellman decided to sue her for slander, along with Cavett, his production company, and PBS. The lawsuit embittered the rest of Hellman’s life, and McCarthy was bankrupted by the court costs. Improbably, the feud between the two legendary ladies caught the attention of the nation, and everybody chimed in about it, from Norman Mailer up and down, with most siding with McCarthy.

So playwright Brian Richard Mori had plenty of material to work with, and the production gains extra glamour by the fact that Dick Cavett agreed to star, playing himself. The piece is beautifully played by all involved. Cavett is a bit grayer and heavier than he once was, but he has retained his comic timing, his slyly understated wit, and the wicked twinkle in his eye. Flora Plumb provides an etched-in-acid portrait of Lillian Hellman, capturing her imperiousness, bad temper, and furious defensiveness.
   Marcia Rodd delivers a stylish turn as McCarthy, but the role is far less fully developed than Hellman’s. And that’s a pity as McCarthy’s life, in its way, was just as colorful. (As the story goes, McCarthy’s marriage to critic Edmund Wilson ended when Wilson went to take out the garbage one evening and never came back.) M. Rowan Meyer is funny and wonderfully engaging as Hellman’s star-struck, long-suffering gay caregiver, and John Combs and Martin Thompson shine as the two rival lawyers.

Mori manages to incorporate a lot of biographical detail into his script, including Hellman’s long-term relationship with mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. And he has persuasively reconstructed a one-on-one meeting between the two furious ladies. His play goes on a bit too long, and it suffers from the fact that the real story ended with a whimper, not a bang. The climax of the conflict never happened because Hellman died, still angry and embittered, before it was settled.
   Director Howard Storm gives the piece an impeccable production, and Cavett adds interest to the performance by coming on for a Q&A at the end. When asked how it felt to be playing himself, Cavett joked that the only thing that bothered him was being second choice for the role.

February 11, 2015
 
Feb. 6–28. 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills (in the parking structure at the back of the campus of Beverly Hills High School, enter at north end of campus, free parking). Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, plus select matinees. Running time approximately 2 hours with no intermission. $34.75. (310) 364-0535.

www.Theatre40.org

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Clean Start
Casa 0101 Theater

Reviewed by Julio Martinez


Kim Chase, Maria Russell, and Marina Gonzalez Palmier
Photo by Ed Krieger

Playwright-author Josefina Lopez has teamed with television comedy writer Kathy Fischer (The George Lopez Show) to co-write Clean Start. It’s a situation comedy involving hardworking housemaid Rosario (Ingrid Oliu), who is supporting her indolent mother, Maria (Marina Gonzalez Palmier), and infantile middle-aged sister, Blanca (Maria Russell). Rosario now feels compelled to take in her suddenly bankrupt former Beverly Hills matron employer Parker Reed (Kim Chase). Directed by Fischer, Clean Start has its comedic moments, but it suffers from clunky plotting and occasionally awkward performances that could have used a bit more time in rehearsal.
   Fischer’s staging is not subtle, striving more for caricature than for character. Hyper-superstitious Maria and perennially pouty Blanca chew up the scenery with their disapproving antics at having to share Rosario and Rosario’s small East LA two-bedroom house with this invading gringo lady from the Westside. Chase’s Parker also plays it way over-the-top, pummeling the audience with her privileged posturing. And when these ladies decide to form a housekeeping crew to service one of Parker’s former society friends, the action disintegrates into unappealing slapstick.

Oliu’s Rosario plays understated straight woman to everyone else’s clowning. Unfortunately, Oliu’s delivery often lags behind the frenzied outpourings of the other three ladies. On the plus side, Oliu instills the much needed sense of caring and humanity essential to making the audience feel there is truly someone to root for as this new family dynamic takes shape.
   Supplying welcome diversion from the ladies is Russian immigrant handyman Vladimir (Robert Jekabson), who lives in the basement and would like nothing more than to convince Blanca to come live with him. Jekabson exudes an innocent enthusiasm that plays well against the self-serving machinations whirling around him.
   The economical production values adequately serve the play, especially designer Rees Pugh’s multifunctional setting, complemented by the lighting and sound designs of Sohail E. Najafi and Vincent Sanchez, respectively. And the quinceañera gown executed by costumer Dandi Dewey is the best sight gag in the production.
   In this post–Bernie Madoff world in which a woman of privilege can suddenly be left destitute, Clean Start has the thematic bones to be a successful stage farce. With judicious reworking, this Lopez-Fischer work just might be on to something.

January 27, 2015
 
Jan. 23-Feb 15.2102 E. 1st St., Boyle Heights. Metro bus stations are located on First Street at Soto Street and at Boyle Street (Mariachi Plaza).Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm $15–20, “theater patrons can get a $2 discount by presenting their Metro Bus Cards at the box office when buying tickets.”(323) 263-7684.

tickets@casa0101.org

www.casa0101.org

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Mrs.
Parliament’s

Night Out

Torrance Theatre Company

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Yvonne Robertson and Scot Renfro
Photo by Alex Madrid

Mr. Parliament has forgotten his 32nd wedding anniversary. Big oops? Perhaps not. His faux pas triggers in his wife the chance for growth and happiness in this Norm Foster comedy. This is no black-and-white portrayal of a marriage on the brink. Under the direction of Perry Shields, the play reveals layers of issues that have probably been building up for all 32 years Teresa and Chuck have spent together.
   Yes, Chuck is a self-absorbed male chauvinist. But much of that may be the result of Teresa’s seeming loss of interest in the marriage. At the top of the play, she looks dowdy (spot-on but subtle costume designs by Bradley Allen Lock) and trudges through her day without spark. Chuck, on the other hand, has been paying no attention to the vibrancy that now lies buried in Teresa. She’s bright, funny, and eager for adventure. He wants only to watch televised news. They’ve grown so far apart that she is preparing a special rice dish for him on their anniversary yet he doesn’t like rice.
   So Mrs. Parliament gives herself a night out. Actually, the play spans a few weeks, during which her nights out include attempts at bowling, photography, wine-tasting, boxing lessons, archery lessons, art lessons, and a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. At said meeting, she encounters and perhaps falls for the group leader. He is unmistakably interested in her, and she is wooed by his willingness to talk with and listen to her.

Yvonne Robertson and Scot Renfro portray the Parliaments. Robertson’s Teresa is lively and quick-witted. But, perhaps because of the character’s ambivalence, it’s hard for the audience to decide whether we like her. She is certainly far from perfect as she begins her journey, sucking what she can from life without regard to feelings or needs of others. Renfro’s Chuck is more clearly defined, a man disappointed by life and in fear of losing his roles as husband and worker.
   Five other actors play more than a dozen characters Mrs. Parliament meets along her voyage of self-discovery. These actors—Dan Adams, Bob Baumsten, Geraldine Fuentes, Joan Kubicek, and David McGee—ply accents, physicalities, and voices to create a tapestry of hilariously vivid “types.”
   Baumsten and Fuentes play the elderly Jewish neighbors (who deserve a show of their own). Then Baumsten bounces back out as a helpful bowler and a pugnacious boxing coach. Fuentes next limns a deliciously pompous singing teacher and an old-timer waitress. Kubicek plays the Parliaments’s solicitous daughter, then a rather butch buddy from the neighborhood bar, plus a creepy addict who’s just too fond of the NA group leader. Adams plays the neighborhood grocery store owner, sounding like the “Family Guy” version of the Pepperidge Farm guy. McGee plays a snooty jewelry salesman and an artist’s model, then convincingly takes on Teresa’s sympathetic potential love interest.

Yes, good work is going on onstage. But the audience is missing the show going on right behind the set, as the actors instantaneously peel off layered costumes, strap on big bellies, and slap on outrageous wigs for their next entrances.
   Did we call Lock’s costuming subtle? He blasts subtlety off the stage with an outfit for Teresa’s salsa instructor (Adams) of a metallic-red shirt over a white wife-beater and black satiny pajama bottoms, topped by a black mop-top wig.
   In large part thanks to the simple staging and effective utilitarian set (Cary Jordahl), the show runs at a spritely pace, clocking in at under two hours. An audience can learn plentiful lessons and enjoy plentiful laughs on this night out.

January 19, 2015
 
Jan. 17–Feb. 15. 1316 Cabrillo Ave, Torrance. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. (No perf Feb. 1, but additional show 8pm Feb. 12.) Running time, including intermission, 2 hours and 30 minutes. $25. (424) 242-6882.

FriendsofTTC@gmail.com

torrancetheatrecompany.com

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Revival
Lucid Dramatics at Acting Artists Theatre

Reviewed by Julio Martinez


Victor Gurevich and Ben Moroski
Photo by Andrew Oxenham

Written, directed, and produced by Carla Neuss, Revival attempts to chronicle the loneliness and despair of the disparate habitués of a small, hideaway cocktail bar. The bar is located in a downscale section of Los Angeles and is owned and operated by spiritual healer–cocktail guru Crispin (Ben Moroski). The bar’s regulars include socially jaundiced Tyler (Victor Gurevich), burnt-out pastor Fred (James Svatko), and jaded college student–turned–gentleman’s escort Jo (Adrienne Whitney). They seek refuge from reality by weaving a personal story that will inspire Crispin to concoct a special cocktail for each that captures the palate, assuages all fears, and promotes tranquility. Despite the earnest efforts of the ensemble, nothing else of any dramatic value is accomplished in this shortsighted stage work.
   Neuss indicates that Crispin is on an odyssey of his own, in search of the long-lost holy grail of liqueur that will somehow transform his own life. The playwright takes her woebegone losers-in-life through myriad storytellings, personal revelations, and confrontations. But, by play’s end, no one has been transformed. Everyone simply moves on. Neuss does not offer enough information about these lost souls for the audience to care what happens to them.

Moroski certainly projects the somber intensity of a man who is on a journey of discovery; but his Crispin remains a thematically unsatisfying enigma throughout. Whitney’s Jo is much more forthcoming, handling each of her three “dates”—all performed by a decidedly uncomfortable Joe Mortone—with efficiency and dispatch, while indicating she might want to achieve some level of personal commitment with Crispin. Yet, her eventual meltdown is arbitrary, having been set off by some activity offstage to which the audience isn’t privy.
   Gurevich’s Tyler is believable as a raw-nerved convert to the mandate of Crispin’s alcohol oasis—tell a sweet little story but leave the real world outside. He gives ample evidence that if it weren’t for the bar, his psyche would disintegrate. Svatko is endearing as the life-conflicted cleric. Unfortunately, he has trouble with his delivery, occasionally rendering himself inaudible.

Scenic designer Yuti Okaham creates a quirky-looking bar-lounge setting that evokes the aura of a secret hideaway. But the placement of the bar dead center at the rear of the stage results in awkward blocking. And Gieselle Blair’s wig designs do more damage than good as Martone struggles through his three date personas.
   Revival is in its premiere outing, affirming that Neuss has an original voice. With a running time of around 100 minutes, no intermission, it could stand a rewrite to flesh out the necessary storytelling elements that need amplification.

January 22, 2015
     
Jan. 18–Feb 7. 7313 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Sat 3pm & 8pm. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission. $25. (949) 616-9726.

www.luciddramatics.com

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The Whipping Man
South Coast Repertory

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Adam Haas Hunter, Charlie Robinson, and Jarrod M. Smith

Matthew Lopez’s evocative Civil War story opens in near darkness as a Jewish Confederate captain, Caleb (Adam Haas Hunter), drags himself into his severely damaged home near Richmond, Va., a few days after the recent cessation of the war. Seriously wounded, he is met by former slave Simon (Charlie Robinson), who has stayed behind to look after things after the family fled. When Simon recognizes Caleb, he offers Hebrew blessings for his return. The family and its slaves shared Judaism as their spiritual ethic.
   They are soon joined by John (Jarrod M. Smith), another slave who has grown up with Caleb but whose personal history is a mix of thievery, rebellion, and drunkenness. He brings with him liquor and household items he has “liberated” from the area’s stores and homes. Simon immediately presses him into service, as Caleb’s gangrenous leg needs to be amputated, and Caleb refuses to go to the military hospital. The home becomes a sanctuary of sorts for the three. Caleb is also reminded that John and Simon are now free men, and their attentiveness is doing what is right rather than what they are bound to perform.

Lopez’s play mixes historical racial narrative with melodrama, and though it has many inconsistencies, the production overcomes some of its problems. Director Martin Benson focuses on the human side of the conflict by developing rich characterizations.
   Robinson’s quiet dignity and humor keep Simon from devolving into caricature. The portrayal is believable as Simon celebrates his faith and takes pride in his worth to the family. He anchors reality as the story unfolds.
   Hunter is also excellent as the privileged Southerner who has returned home with secrets and sees his future as bleak. He embodies weakness and regret. His amputation scene is a cringeworthy masterpiece, and his subsequent suffering never falters.
   Smith is also notable as the angry recipient of the “whipping man’s” administration of Southern justice. As John taunts Caleb with accusations, he projects pent-up rage. He is brash yet embraces his Judaism faithfully with all of its traditions. One of the most interesting scenes in the play is a Seder dinner planned by Simon that the three share.

Tom Buderwitz’s set design is elegant, showing vestiges of what once was a grand home with well-appointed design. Tattered curtains hang from the tall windows, and holes in the walls and roof attest to war’s destructive nature. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s muted lighting adds to the melancholy mood and enhances the bleak sadness of the storyline.
   Michael Roth’s original music/soundscape ratchets up the underlying atmosphere, giving the production enhanced presence. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes also add to the poignancy of Southern failure.
   Lopez’s play suffers from a plethora of story threads that bog down the central theme of freedom and racial equality. Still, its message prompts discussion and examination of the human condition, especially in light of our daily dose of societal inequities.

January 16, 2014
 
Jan. 9–25, then moves to Pasadena Playhouse. 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa Schedule and ticket prices are on SCR’s site. (714) 708-5555.

www.scr.org

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Viral
Moving Arts and Bootleg Theatre, at Bootleg Theatre

Reviewed by Neal Weaver


Alicia Adams and Daniel Dorr
Photo by Justin Zsebe

Playwright Mac Rogers has written an oddball comedy about suicide. But his thinking is so muddled, it’s sometimes hard to tell if he’s for it or against it. Scatterbrained Geena (Mariel Higuera), her bullying boyfriend Colin (Daniel Dorr), and her onanistic brother Jarvis (Oscar Camacho) are sexually aroused by witnessing death. But they’re not interested in plain, garden-variety snuff films. They want the death to be peaceful, beautiful, and self-willed by the dying. They’ve come up with the unlikely notion that if they make a death movie of their own, they can make a fortune by selling it to people who share their interests and proclivities.
   To make their film, they must find a star/victim who wants to die and will consent to do so under their auspices. So they create a bogus assisted-suicide website, and then they wait for applicants. One soon appears, in the person of practical, laconic Meredith (Alicia Adams). She’s no fool and soon tumbles to the fact that the three are not quite what they pretend to be. But she wants to die, and she has no money, so if they provide the place and the drugs, why not go along?
   But it’s not so simple: Eager Reena wants to create a handsome set for the shoot, Colin wants a dress rehearsal using tic-tacs to represent the lethal pills, and Jarvis is so turned on he keeps retreating to his room to masturbate. And when their prospective producer Mr. Snow (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) appears, he wants Meredith to die in the nude to make the film more commercially viable, but this offends Colin and Reena, so they decide to become their own distributors.

Just what point Rogers is trying to make is never very clear. He makes a last-minute effort to introduce human content, by having Meredith inspire Reena to rebel against the bossy, hypercritical Colin. But at least the piece is sometimes funny, and director Darin Anthony keeps things lively enough to make us almost forget that it goes on at least 20 minutes too long. And the actors make the most of their roles. Higuera finds considerable charm in Reena’s eager-beaver scattiness, Dorr’s Colin is properly officious, and Camacho derives a measure of comedy from Jarvis’s eternal horniness. The most impressive performance, however, is Adams’s. Her Meredith may be loony, but she has common sense, and at least she knows what she wants.
   Curiously, the show has a very odd starting time of 7:17pm. The number gets a brief mention during the play.

January 12, 2015
 
Jan. 10–31. 2220 Beverly Blvd., downtown LA. Thu-Sat 7:17pm (note early curtain). Running time approx. 90 minutes with no intermission. $15–25. (213) 389-3856.

www.bootlegtheater.org

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Trevor
Circle X Theatre Co. at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Jimmi Simpson and Laurie Metcalf
Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging for Circle X Theatre Co.

They say theater in Los Angeles is really going to the dogs, and that the current battle between the West Coast office of Actors’ Equity Association and its many disgruntled members is truly for the birds. Still, gratefully, the stalwartly and inexhaustibly creative barebones-transforming Circle X Theatre Company is not monkeying around. In the LA premiere of Orange Is the New Black’s writer and co-producer Nick Jones’s brightly modern countercultural comedy, no animal hero has been more notably rendered since the last time Lassie saved Timmy.
   Trevor (formidable physical comedian Jimmi Simpson) returns home to his trailerpark-y domicile, upset that his attempt to get a job at a local fast-food franchise didn’t work out. His surrogate mother, Sandra (the equally formidable Laurie Metcalf), is definitely not happy he went out without her permission, especially because Trevor chose to grab her keys from their most recent hiding place and drive her car several miles to Dunkin’ Donuts to offer his services. As he whines about his lot in life since leaving behind his Hollywood career for their current domestic sub-suburban existence, Sandra talks carefully and slowly to him, slapping the back of her hand repeatedly as she intones, “No, Trevor! No, no!”

Trevor, you see, is more than your typically discouraged and relocated Hollywood performer living on his past glories. He appeared in a reality-based straight-to-DVD release with some of LA’s best-trained performers and even did a commercial with Morgan Fairchild (Brenda Strong in a series of fantasized visits to the household), creating such a special bond with his co-star that he even feels comfortable calling her a peer. “And her hair is the color of pee,” Trevor tells us in one of his many monologues where the audience—unlike Sandra and other inhabitants in the play—can understand. “That’s why she’s so popular.”
   As his actor friend Oliver (Bob Clendenin), with a career so successful he wears a different outfit every day, explains to Trevor in one of his several hallucinated visits, “Behave and the whole world opens up to you.” That’s good advice for our hero, who has a problem accepting authority not only from Sandra but also from anyone, including the local sheriff (Jim Ortlieb) sent to check on him (“One phone call and you’ll never wear that cop costume again,” Trevor warns him. “I know Morgan Fairchild!”) or the animal control officer sent to follow up to help decide if Trevor has become a risky and dangerous member of the community.
  
Should Trevor be allowed to (a) roam free as he once did, becoming so much a local attraction that his photo is even pictured in the area’s tourism brochure, (b) be restricted to his crate in Sandra’s backyard, or (c) be sent to a facility able to handle his increasingly scary antics?
   The future of Trevor as a free agent is the issue here, something the title character is having a difficult time understanding. When the authorities start showing up at Sandra’s door after their frightened neighbor Ashley (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) reports him as a menace to the ’hood and possibly to her newborn child, since Trevor doesn’t speak the same language as anyone else “real” in the play, he is instead sure their presence means he and Sandra are returning to Hollywood and a great new acting job.
   This uniquely quirky contemporary play explores the frustrations we share while trying to communicate with and understand one another. But here the quest is ingeniously seen from a uniquely simian perspective. Life is hard in the ’burbs for Trevor, whom we begin to realize is a 200-pound chimpanzee trying to exist in a people-dominated world, not to mention while navigating the rollercoaster ride of a showbiz career. As Oliver, also a chimp by the way (albeit a more successful one, having starred in the Ringling Bros. all-chimpanzee production of Hamlet), reminds him in one of his dream visits, “Sometimes you groom, sometimes you get groomed…. It’s just the nature of the business.”
   Jones has created an absolutely hilarious contemporary comedy, made more flawless by its dynamic cast and the snappy, visually nonstop direction of Stella Powell-Jones. Simpson and Metcalf possess incredible comedic timing. But when playing together, they make their roles sing with pitch-perfect skill, creating an amazing sense of communication between two members of different species that will make anyone seeing Trevor go home, look their alternate-species family members in the eye, and wonder if they really know what’s on their pets’ minds after all.
  

March 24, 2015
 
March 14¬–April 19. 3269 Casitas Ave. Free onsite and street parking. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $28.

www.circlextheatre.org

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The English Bride
The Road on Magnolia

Reviewed by Julio Martinez


Elizabeth Knowelden and Steven Schub
Photo by John A. Lorenz

Playwright Lucile Lichtblau bases her West Coast premiere one-act three-hander, The English Bride , on the real-life 1986 aborted attempt to place a bomb—unwittingly carried in the luggage of a pregnant Irish lass—onto an El Al flight headed for the Middle East. She believed she was flying off to marry her Jordanian fiancé. He was attempting to blow her up midflight. Lichtblau utilizes these facts to construct an intricate yet thematically flimsy house of lies.
   Dov (Allan Wasserman), a deceptively soft-spoken Israeli Mossad agent, relentlessly peels off the layers of factual inconsistencies being thrust at him by Eileen (Elizabeth Knowelden), a plain-Jane barmaid from Leeds, and Ali (Steven Schub), a charismatic but emotionally fragile young man, here an Arab Israeli. Director Marya Mazor elicits capable performances from the cast but cannot instill compelling substance into a work that has none.
   Set in mid-1990s London, the action moves forward in a series of alternating interrogations, punctuated by flashbacks into the relationship of Eileen and Ali, played out on Kaitlyn Pietras’s adaptable modular setting. From the outset, Dov has a single agenda: to uncover the Syrian agent who was the mastermind of the bombing plot. It quickly becomes evident that he is going to get the information he wants, which reduces the ill-fated couple to the level of irrelevant. The fact that Eileen and Ali have colorful—if not often viable—tales to tell is not enough to sustain the drama; the unseen but much talked about Syrian should be onstage.

Wasserman’s Dov projects a grandfatherly gentleness and good humor when dealing with his two charges, except for the few times he doles out quick but effective corporal punishment when he senses Ali’s prevarications are wasting his time. What’s missing is any sense of urgency or doubt that he will eventually get what he wants. Schubb presents an impressive portrait of a strutting peacock who at heart is a scared little boy who would rather commit the ultimate evil than confront his parents with the truth of how he has been living.
   Knowelden is memorable as this thoroughly mediocre small-town girl who glows with self-satisfaction and humor as she relates the tawdry flimflams that have punctuated her life, including the thievery that got her out of Leeds and her willingness to go to any lengths, including blackmail, to secure her upcoming nuptials.
   As a writer, Lichtblau proves she can create vivid characters and entertaining dialogue. She just needs to place them in a more tangibly realized stage work.

March 12, 2015
 
March 5–April 26. 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu 8pm, Sat 3pm, Sun 7pm. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. $17.50–34. (866) 506-1248.

www.RoadTheatre.org

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Closer Than Ever
Good People Theatre Co. at Hollywood Piano Store

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Sara Stuckey, Jessie Withers, and David Zack


Book musicals and musical revues are two different animals, and it’s a rare theater songwriter or team that can crank out both. Many of the very best— Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Stephen Sondheim, and Frank Loesser come to mind—are responsible for brilliantly unified scores for world-class musical plays. Yet when you divorce their songs from their plots and link them together into a cabaret entertainment, the result is at best pedestrian and usually unfortunate: The lyrics don’t work outside of the original characters, or the composers’ distinctive style, applied to number after number, becomes too much of a good thing. Even Kander and Ebb’s And the World Goes ‘Round, which had a celebrated NY run and still gets performed often, is a shallow reflection of the Cabarets and Zorbas and Chicagos that it ransacks.
   By contrast, the ill luck Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics) and David Shire (music) have suffered with their book shows hasn’t kept them from crafting some of the most-interesting and supple revue scores in many years. Though Baby (1983) has its admirers, it always struck me as three thin fertility narratives attempting, and failing, to make one significant thematic statement. And while they wrote almost three times as many songs as they needed for Big (1996), they never seemed to find the right combination of numbers that would bestow unique stage integrity on the Tom Hanks movie. Put simply, the musical’s raison d’être seemed missing.

But in Starting Here, Starting Now (1976), and even more so in Closer Than Ever (1989), the team gives virtually every song its own raison d’être. The latter show, currently getting a fine local staging by Janet Miller and her Good People Theatre Company, is especially effective because it takes up so many of the personal issues Maltby and Shire attest as central to their own lives: the compromises of marriage; parenting; growing old as one’s own parents grow even older; the disjunction between the dreams we held in youth and what we settle for today. Every song tells a self-contained story, and it’s usually one with a rueful, or O. Henry–clever, twist at the tail.
   There’s not a dud among the 25-odd numbers as performed in the intimate, elegant side room of the Hollywood Piano store on Front Street in Burbank. Jessie Withers and Gabriel Kalomas are as scary as they are funny as two career builders, each insisting that the other mind the baby in “Fandango.” They’re joined by David Zack in enacting a pungent modern love triangle for “She Love Me Not.” Zack teams up memorably with Sara Stuckey for the mellow “Another Wedding Song,” ruminating on past heartbreaks and new hopes:

You’re not my first, as well you know;
Once before I left when marriage beckoned.
But you’re so much more than merely first—
You are the first to be second.

All four get strong solo opportunities, but I think I will remember Stuckey best as “Miss Byrd,” grabbing a stereotype (the quiet, businesslike administrative assistant with a wild life after hours) and nailing it with new verve. It’s no surprise that Miller, one of our top choreographers, uses the space like buttah with just the right amount of movement. She should be staging the big, big shows on a regular basis, of course, but, in building Good People, she’s scaling back for the future, and it hasn’t impaired her inventiveness any.

NOTE: Closer Than Ever’s musical director, Corey Hirsch, will accompany the LA Drama Critics Circle Awards show on March 16, which Bob Verini is producing.

March 2, 2015
 
Feb. 21–March 15. Hollywood Piano Store, 323 N. Front St., Burbank. Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. $12.50–25.

www.GoodPeopleTheaterCo.org

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End of the Rainbow
International City Theatre

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Gigi Bermingham and Brent Schindele
Photo by Suzanne Mapes

Great talent is often accompanied by great torment. Judy Garland’s life was filled with frequent affairs, failed marriages, suicide attempts, and professional struggles even as she was declared by many to be the world’s greatest entertainer. Rather than trying to encapsulate that legendary life, playwright Peter Quilter has chosen to focus on a six-week period toward the end of Garland’s career as she tries to revive her flagging fortunes in a concert tour at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub. She is accompanied by her soon-to-be fifth husband, musician Mickey Deans.
   Following last season’s portrait of opera star Maria Callas for International City Theatre, Gigi Bermingham now takes on the demanding portrayal of the iconic Garland. Rather than attempting impersonation, she and director John Henry Davis focus on Garland’s roller-coaster emotional vicissitudes and insecurities.

The scene opens with Garland and Deans (Michael Rubenstone) arriving at their hotel room. Garland is upbeat, but it is clear from the beginning that Deans’s first priority, taking on the role of manager, is keeping her away from alcohol and pills and getting her ready to perform. Also on scene is her longtime accompanist, Anthony (Brent Schindele, also music director for the production). The dynamic among the three elevates the drama from a celebrity tribute performance to a compelling look at human behavior.
   Bermingham delivers Garland’s music with all the pathos and style required to emulate Garland’s emotional makeup. From “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” to “The Man That Got Away,” Garland masks her failing health and addiction dependence as she takes the stage on Aaron Jackson’s effective Talk of the Town set. Accompanied by musicians Max O’Leary, Ashley Jarmack, John Carbone, and Schindele, the performance numbers are executed with dynamism and plenty of heart.
   Schindele gives an affecting performance, particularly when Anthony tries to convince Garland to quit show business and marry him, even though he is gay. It is perhaps the finest moment in the show. Rubenstone effectively sends a mixed message as Garland’s savior and promoter. Also in a clever cameo is Wallace Angus Bruce as a radio interviewer trying to salvage a failing interview with the doped-up Garland.

In spite of the high quality of the production and Bermingham’s bravura performance, what’s missing is more of the real Judy Garland in the show. As accomplished a performer as Bermingham is, those who watched Garland over the years will notice an absence of her elusive qualities. Still, Quilter’s exploration of Garland’s tragic early demise at 47 is a cautionary tale that makes fine drama.

March 1, 2015
 
Feb. 20–March 15. 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $46-48. (562) 436-4610.

www.InternationalCityTheatre.org

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South Pacific
Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Center

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


Alessa Neeck and ensemble
Photo by Caught in the Moment Photography

Musical Theatre West accentuates everything best about the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic South Pacific. Director Joe Langworth has acquired a talented cast, enhanced the naturalistic script so that the songs emerge from the actors conversationally, and made sure the Pulitzer Prize–winning book scenes are as enticing as the enchanting songs.
   During World War II, before the US military turns the tides against the Japanese, a US Naval base on a small island battles its own racist tendencies as the mostly Caucasian officers mingle with the Polynesian locals. A youthful nurse, Nellie Forbush (Alessa Neeck), falls for a dashing French plantation owner, Emile (Christopher Carl), who has a secret past. Newcomer Lieutenant Cable (Patrick Cummings) sneaks off to the off-limits island Bali Ha’i to rendezvous with a young Polynesian girl, Liat (Cailan Rose). American morality clashes with the island’s more accepting mores with devastating consequences. Only those who can relinquish their prejudice can emerge from the war whole.
   The score feature many beloved tunes, including “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy,” and the piercingly controversial “You Have to be Carefully Taught.” Hammerstein and Josh Logan’s book is naturalistic and heartfelt. One of South Pacific’s achievements is how the characters seamlessly, sometimes mid-sentence, launch into a song so that the numbers appear to be an escalation of the characters’ excitement or anguish.

Neeck conveys both innocence and a quizzical nature necessary to believably portray Nellie’s evolution from a “Cockeyed Optimist” to a mature and tolerant woman. She has a gorgeous singing voice and manages to keep her Arkansas accent throughout her songs. Carl has a thunderous bass-baritone voice and a credible French, but not overwhelming, French accent. He and Neeck have passionate chemistry. Carl’s soulful version of “Younger Than Springtime” is a highlight.
   Jodi Kimura, who played Bloody Mary in the national tour, is magnetic as the brassy, manipulative street vendor. She adds a strain of malevolence to her line readings, giving her almost a demonic presence. As the cunning Luther Billis, Spencer Rowe is a brash and impish con artist. The ensemble works wonderfully together, sounding harmonious in the numbers and instilling realistic relationships among the characters.
   Langworth, who worked on the acclaimed 2008 Lincoln Center production, thoroughly understands the play, directing and choreographing with assurance. The dances, such as “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” are athletic and exuberant. During the Thanksgiving talent show, Langworth allows his actors to be clumsy as nurses and sailors would be, adding to the accuracy.

Castellano’s subtle orchestra allows the actors to smoothly lead into their songs. The overture allows the loud percussion to clash with the strings playing the “Bali Hai” melody, musically representing the American military’s bombardment of the South Pacific islands.
   Musical Theater West brings classics as well as new work to Los Angeles with Broadway-worthy performances. This production of South Pacific is one of its gems.

February 19, 2015
 
Feb. 14–March 1. 6200 E. Atherton Street, Long Beach. Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. “Tickets start at $20. (562) 856-1999, ext. 4.

www.musical.org

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Fugue
The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Troy Blendell and Jesse Fair
Photo by Darrett Sanders

This show has quite the pedigree. Its playwright, Tommy Smith, wrote last year’s insightful and inciting Firemen, featuring abandoned characters in abusive and rescuing relationships. Chris Fields directed that play to detailed perfection, cutting straight to the crux of human relationships. Smith and Fields join their immense talents here, adding a highly skilled cast to tell of three composers who lived in three eras. So what went so wrong?
   The work centers on the love triangles in the lives of the Russian Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), Austrian Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), and Italian Carlo Gesualdo (1566–1613). The work’s title refers to a musical form involving repetition and imitation. It also likely refers to a psychiatric state involving a loss of identity. Bits about who each composer was and his musical contributions flavor the script. Artistic frustrations tie the three men together.
   But Smith goes too far in trying to create a structural fugue: having the characters speak the same lines at the same time to evidence their common longings and struggles. Even if the actors could manage to get their rhythms and inflections perfectly synchronized, the effect is totally distancing.
   Thus this work emphasizes form. So while the characters experience heart-wrenching events, the audience remains almost constantly aware of the architecture imposed on the storytelling. Give it this, though: The script doesn’t feel like a Movie of the Week biopic or an “And then I wrote” chronology of the composers’ lives.

Schoenberg (Troy Blendell) is in an unhappy marriage to Mathilde (Amanda Lovejoy Street). She meets and has an affair with Austrian painter Richard Gerstl (Jesse Fair). Prince Gesualdo (Karl Herlinger) seduces and marries Maria (Jeanne Syquia), who takes as her lover Fabrizio, duke of Andria (Justin Huen). Tchaikovsky (Christopher Shaw) recently married his number one fan (Alana Dietze), but he is overwhelmingly in love with his nephew (Eric Keitel).
   It remains debatable whether the wives were coaxed into marriage or whether they sought the fame their husband brought to the union. History, at least superficially, tells us the men here were destroyed by artistic insecurities. Smith may be showing that the more likely causes of their breakdowns were disastrous romances.
   By this time, the audience is pretty much hip to the “what” of this production. The remaining question is “why.” Apparently the many talented theatermakers involved here believed in the project, dressed it up, and put it on the stage. Well, the dressing-up part worked out beautifully. The production’s costumes, by Michael Mullin, are as good as those that have graced the Ahmanson Theatre stage.

Fields bolstered the script with some of the best actors in the city, as well as ensuring the actors here look like their real-life counterparts. But so much of this script induces puzzlement in the viewer. One example before letting this alone: Toward the end of the play, Tchaikovsky begs his nephew to open a vial of poison and drop the contents into a waiting glass of water, which Tchaikovsky will drink. Why can’t the composer handle this task on his own behalf?
   There’s a lot of (simulated) sexual activity on this stage. Presumably Smith wanted to show extraordinary people doing ordinary things (assuming anal penetration with the hilt of a dagger is ordinary). Just in case this choreography doesn’t convince the audience of the composers’ passions, the red curtains surrounding the stage, and the two red-draped beds, pound in the point (pardon the pun).

February 16, 2015
 
Feb. 14–March 22. 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Free onsite and street parking. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $25. (310) 307-3753.

www.EchoTheaterCompany.com

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Pride and Prejudice
Actors Co-op

Reviewed by Neal Weaver


Paul Turbiak, Greyson Chadwick, Lori Berg, and Adam Burch
Photo by Lindsay Schnebly

When this adaptation of the much-loved Jane Austen novel, by Australian writer Helen Jerome, was produced on Broadway in 1936, pictures suggest, the sets and costumes were lavish, opulent and expensive. A relatively small company like Actors Co-op had to take a more modest approach. Its efforts with the settings are generally successful. The company opted for a unit set, with a backdrop that depicts an impressionist view of the English countryside, and elegant, moveable architectural elements, in grey and white, including Corinthian columns and a couple of impressive doorways, that can be rearranged to suggest the various locales.
   Vicki Conrad’s costumes, however, are a very mixed bag. Many of them are beautiful, graceful, becoming, and very much in period, but others, which appear to have been pulled from stock, seem skimpy and graceless.
   Jerome’s generally adept adaptation simplifies the tale by eliminating two of the five daughters for whom the ambitious Mrs. Bennet (Deborah Marlowe) must find husbands, though when her script was adapted for the screen, the missing girls were happily restored. Otherwise, the piece seems relatively faithful to the novel.

At the heart of the story, the independent-minded Elizabeth Bennet (Greyson Chadwick) is both attracted and repulsed by the stern and taciturn Mr. Darcy (Paul Turbiak). Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s sister Jane (Ivy Beech) is first courted and then dumped by the amiable Mr. Bingley (Brandon Parrish). The necessary conflict is provided by Mr. Wickham (Sean McHugh), the caddish seducer and fortune-hunter who elopes with the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia (Francesca Fromang).
   The pretentious Mr. Collins (Adam Burch) who stands, under the law of entail, to inherit the Bennet estate after Mr. Bennet’s death, adds to the complications. Stirring the pot is Darcy’s imperiously aristocratic aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lori Berg), who locks horns with Elizabeth over her suitability as a bride for Darcy.

Chadwick is a spirited and attractive Elizabeth, well matched by Turbiak’s Darcy. While Olivier, in the film, played Darcy as a romantic figure, Turbiak gives us a forbidding man imprisoned in his own rectitude, whose romantic side is revealed only gradually as love shatters his composure. Beech’s languishing Jane is a sympathetic figure, and Parrish’s Bingley exudes optimism and good humor.
   Marlowe’s Mrs. Bennet scores her comic points with zest, and Bruce Ladd is an admirable foil as her long-suffering husband. Burch is a bit over the top as Collins, but the audience adored him. Berg gives us a stylish and stylized portrait of the bullying Lady Catherine. Director Linda Kerns faithfully preserves the period flavor and expertly marshals her cast of 20.
   Despite the period trappings, the piece doesn’t seem out of date. Jane Austen had a clear-eyed view of society, and pride and prejudice will always be with us.

February 13, 2015
 
Feb. 6–March 15. 1760 N. Gower St. (located on the grounds of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood). Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2:30pm (additional Saturday performances Feb. 14 and March 14, 2:30pm). Running time 2 and a half hours, including intermission. $20–30. (323) 462-8460, ext. 300.

www.ActorsCo-op.org

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Company
Cabrillo Music Theatre

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


Shelley Regner and Alxander Jon
Photo by Ed Krieger

Launching a version of Company, Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking 1970s musical, is a daunting task. The script focuses on Bobby, a passive character who observes his friends’ marriages. It requires a compelling actor who fills the vessel that Sondheim and his librettist George Furth had forged. The production at Cabrillo Music Theater features several stellar performances but ultimately can’t survive a bland Bobby.
   Several vignettes strung together by Sondheim’s striking score, Company shines a light on the evolving (or devolving) marriage unit in the 1970s. Drugs, alcohol, divorce, casual sex, and neuroses prevent the characters from growing. Their emotional handicaps have taken a toll on their single friend Bobby (Alxander Jon). His friends phone him incessantly, harp on his relationships, and treat him like a crutch and a surrogate spouse. Bobby sees these cracked relationships and chooses to remain closed off from love. He dates several flighty girls but has no desire to make a connection. When he wants to marry, it’s not for love but to fill a void. As his friend Amy says, “You have to want to marry somebody, not some body.” He finally has an epiphany, reflected in his closing number, “Being Alive.”

Director Nick DeGruccio imbues this production with a sense of isolation through staging and lighting. Even when people are surrounded by friends, they seem out of touch, outcasts at their own parties. The direction offers a palpable subtext of loneliness that haunts the play. Unfortunately, DeGruccio allows his cast too many pregnant pauses during book scenes, and much of the dialogue sags. Alexander Jon is an affable actor with a pleasant voice, though he go off-pitch at times. Problematically, his Bobby lacks the backbone or charm to command the audience’s empathy. In his scenes with Bobby’s girlfriends, he comes off smug. When with his dynamic friends, he becomes a wallflower.
   Several actors stand out, giving exemplary portrayals. Tracy Lore is perfectly cast as the acerbic Joanne. She unleashes venom in “The Ladies Who Lunch” and an inestimable sadness beneath the cold façade. Shelley Regner as the panic-stricken Amy takes the tongue twisting “Getting Married Today” and turns it in a free-flowing stream of terror. Her comic timing is tight, and she makes one wish the story would center on her. Chelsea Emma Franko’s belting voice makes “Another Hundred People” a jolting anthem.

Cassie Nickols’s vibrant orchestra adds extra sting to Sondheim’s music and Jonathan Tunick’s arrangements. Thomas Marquez’s costumes reflect the swinging ’70s, while Tom Buderwitz’s set is functional while representing the overbearing city crushing its inhabitants.
   Sondheim’s Company is a masterpiece. It reflects how the flower-power ’60s crashed and burned in the early ’70s, leaving a generation struggling for fulfillment. The musical requires a Bobby who’s less scrambled than the one here.

January 31, 2015
 
Jan. 23–Feb. 8. 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30–69. (800) 745-3000.

www.cabrillomusictheatre.com

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The Manor
Theatre 40 at Greystone Mansion

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Darby Hinton and Daniel Leslie
Photo by Ed Krieger

For the past 13 years, the prolific Theatre 40, now celebrating its 50th year, has presented a singular environmental experience that leads theatergoers on a journey through the massive reverberating halls of E.L. “Ned” Doheny’s Greystone Mansion, the infamous palatial estate nestled in the hills above Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills.
   Designed by noted SoCal architect Gordon Kaufmann, Greystone was completed in 1928 on 12.5 acres of primo real estate with a breathtaking view of Los Angeles. The property was given to Doheny as a wedding gift by his incredibly oil-rich father. The original cost to construct the sprawling 55-room, 46,054-square-foot main house alone was $1,238,378. Including the maze-like grounds—which originally comprised stables, kennels, tennis courts, a fire station, gatehouse, swimming pool and pavilion, greenhouse, lake, babbling brooks, and cascading waterfalls—the entire estate set the Dohenys back a trifling $3,166,578.
   Still, great wealth never seems to guarantee happiness and, on the night of Feb. 16, 1929, Ned Doheny was shot to death inside his expansive stone manor house at age 36, victim of an apparent murder-suicide perpetrated by his longtime personal friend and aide Hugh Plunket.

Playwright Kathrine Bates, who appears in The Manor as fictionalized family matriarch Marion MacAlister, has crafted a clever theatrical experience inspired by the Dohenys’s sad true story, uniquely performed on the grounds and in the very rooms where the real events occurred all those years ago. As butler and narrator James (Daniel Lench) explains to the gathered at the show’s very beginning, the names have been changed “to protect the guilty.”
   The cast appearing as the MacAlister-Dohenys and their close associates is exceptional throughout. Finding reality and balance while making themselves heard and trying to seem natural performing in the mansion’s high-ceilinged, stone-walled echoing chambers cannot be an easy task, but this veteran ensemble succeeds splendidly.
   Director Flora Plumb guides her players (based on the original staging of this production by Beverly Olevin) to keep the scenes crisp and uniform in length as the mansion’s three loyal servants (beautifully played by Lynch, Katherine Henryk, and Esther Levy Richman) lead three separate groups of audience members from room to room as scenes are enacted in a loop before them.
   Darby Hinton is particularly noteworthy as Charles MacAlister, the embattled and eventually crushed patriarch who rose from poverty to unreal wealth and fame. Bates is affecting as his loyal wife, especially memorable in a late scene with Melanie McQueen as Cora Winston, the gossipy yet long-suffering wife of a Foghorn Leghorn–style blowhard US senator (Daniel Leslie) whose gambling debts and crooked deals nearly leave the MacAlister clan in disgrace and ruin—analogous to the Teapot Dome scandal, which rocked the administration of President Warren Harding and almost sent the elder Doheny to prison along with Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall.
   John-Paul Lavoisier and Ben Gavin stand out as the MacAlisters’s doomed son Sean and his executioner Gregory Pugh, subtly bringing into their rather stereotypical roles, with body language alone, something perhaps intentionally omitted in Bates’s otherwise worthy adaptation: the long-rumored reason why Plunkett murdered Ned Doheny, the kind of relationship people back then referred to as the “love whose name cannot be spoken.”
 
The story’s timing, too, has been changed from history. Here it spans the younger MacAlister’s tenancy in the manor across 10 years; in actuality, Ned Doheny and his family lived at Greystone only five months before his murder. This is an understandable adjustment to make the timeline work in two acts. But, although much of Bates’s dialogue, especially James’s lyrical opening and final monologues, is evocative, any viewers with a tad of historical OCD might wince at conspicuous missteps. These include Cora’s use of the term “bad-mouthing,” which didn’t come into the American lexicon until many years later, as well as the moment when Gregory’s gold-digging shrew of a wife, Henrietta (Sarah van der Pol), enters the wedding party in her flapper finery singing Dubin & Warren’s “We’re in the Money,” a song not written until 1933.

The real star of the show here, of course, is Greystone. There’s something oppressively lonely and forlorn about the place, a feeling that sinks in and chills your bones while you follow the actors through the halls and from one jaw-dropping room to the next, ultimately affording pensive evidence to support the thought that, as Bates relates, “Tragedy knows no bounds of race, creed, or social standing.” If indeed, as many people insist is true, Greystone Mansion is haunted by the restless ghosts of the Doheny family, hopefully their spirits remain content with the continuing success of The Manor, enough at peace to tolerate this fictionalized telling of their notorious downward spiral in spite of incredible wealth and privilege—and allow those who experience it to leave for home a tad more grateful for what they themselves have.

January 31, 2015
 
905 Loma Vista Dr., Beverly Hills. See show’s website for schedule, but in general: Thu-Fri 6pm, occasional Sat 1pm shows (note early curtain). $55 (plus $3 service charge) (310) 694-6118.

www.theatre40.org

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Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour
Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Barry Humphries and ensemble…and ensemble
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Dame Edna! The mere title and name connote rapier wit, lightly off-color insults, and self-obsession, in the ultimate unabashed satire of celebrities’ narcissism, not to mention their closet contempt for the paying customers. Barry Humphries’s genius creation isn’t a character anymore; she’s a brand, and the brand is in its usual shape in this latest and apparently last appearance at the Ahmanson.
   This long—rather too long, probably—evening can be highly recommended to no one who’s ever seen Edna. I mean, how many more chances are you going to get? And those who are deliriously in love with her shtick certainly aren’t waiting for the likes of me to give them the high sign; they’ve likely been and come back already. It’s those of us in the middle, who enjoy and admire the work yet with a critical eye, who may find that the timing is just a bit off, the laughter just a bit less explosive and prolonged.
  
“I don’t think of this as a show. I think of it as an intimate conversation between two people, one of whom is much more interesting than the other.” It’s a good line, as it was back in 1999 when I first encountered her in The Royal Tour on Broadway. I don’t remember her using it five years later in her next Gotham appearance, Back With a Vengeance, but her overall playbook hasn’t changed much in each of the extravaganzas. If Humphries means it, and this really is the farewell tour,” he’s certainly letting Edna go out true to form.
   It goes like this. A film segment introduces us to the “lady” and her rise. (This year’s is a variation on an E! Channel expose.) We meet her as she’s accompanied by a few chorus members on halfhearted display, and then she talks. To the orchestra (“Hello, possums!”), to the balconies (“Hello, paupers”), and above all to the individuals in the first five or six rows who look like they’ll end up good targets.
   Edna may have a little more trouble hearing spectators’ names than in the past, but she’s just as sharp in gently tweaking their backgrounds (“You live in…Pa-coi-ma?”), clothes, and hairstyles, and above all condescendingly reveling in the adoration she assumes everyone feels for her. If anyone has the temerity to stand up or fight back, she coolly blows them away—hecklers beware. A few celebrity names are dropped for some more snark; the highs and lows of her careers and life are recollected; and intermission.

After the interval, there’s more reminiscence and banter with the audience, followed by an extended segment in which two hapless spectators are brought up on stage to participate in some sort of elaborate charade. This year’s prank—having two strangers get married in a ceremony over which Edna officiates—was pretty great, followed as it was by a live, audible-to-us phone conversation with the son of the “bride”; though I have to say it never hit the heights of her most brilliant Ionescopade in 1999, when she had a spaghetti dinner catered onstage for two patrons and forced them to eat while we watched and she commented. Talk about turning the tables. (As I recall—Dame Edna appearances tend to blur in the mind—dinner was followed by a call to a diner’s unsuspecting babysitter.)
   Truth be told, nothing in this Farewell Tour is fresher than the material from past visits, but who’d expect it to be? Humphries is turning 81 next month, and traversing the world while constantly slipping in and out of gowns, a giant purple fright wig, and layers of makeup must take its toll. He/she is hanging in there, a little shaky in the pins but every bit as rascally as ever, and attention must be paid.
   For the first time (that I know of, anyway), Humphries steps out of character at the end to thank everyone for their longtime fandom and support. It’s a nostalgic, oddly sad moment, as if he were signaling that this is really, really, the last appearance. If so, Dame Edna is going out with no need for apologies. She’s made us roar and, in her slyer potshots at celebrity and fandom, made us think a little as well. Shake those gladiolas for her, fellas.

January 31, 2015
Jan. 28–March 15. 135 N. Grand Ave. Showtimes vary, but in general Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $55–115.(213) 972-4400.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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Billy Elliot, the Musical
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Vicki Lewis and Mitchell Tobin
Photo by Michael Lamont

After the success of the 2000 film Billy Elliot, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine making the story into a musical. Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay, created the musical’s book and lyrics, and with the help of Elton John’s music and Stephen Daldry’s direction, turned out a production that is still currently playing in England today. Concerns over how the British working-class dialogue might play out on a world tour evaporated when productions were widely successful as the musical turned global. The appeal of dreams realized is universal.
   In the McCoy Rigby Entertainment show at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, a down-to-the-wire replacement for Billy occurred when Noah Parets, the original cast member, broke his arm during rehearsals. With only a week before the opening, 14-year-old Mitchell Tobin stepped in as the little boy who chooses dancing over boxing. Since the success of the show depends, in a large part, on the charisma of the actor playing the title role, it was a knuckle-biter, but Tobin more than exceeds expectations.
   The show is gritty and has at its core the unhappy coal miner’s strike in northern England in the 1980s. Billy’s Dad (David Atkinson) is rough and angry, not necessarily ingredients for accepting his son’s desire to dance ballet, hence the conflict. As the story begins and Billy almost accidentally discovers his passion, the scene is set for the fulfillment of Billy’s hopes and aspirations by show’s end.

Director Brian Kite masterfully combines the darker elements of the storyline and the somewhat forgettable musical score with energy enough to convince the audience that improbability can triumph. Dana Solimando’s choreography also goes a long way toward making the story appealing.
   As Mrs. Wilkerson, the ballet teacher whose gaggle of little girls is less than inspiring, Vicki Lewis delivers humor and a cocky edge as she encourages Billy to pursue his talents. Her feisty exchanges with Atkinson as he tries to prevent Billy from dancing are standout. Atkinson is also excellent as the bewildered widower who finds parenthood a challenge in the midst of social upheaval in his life.
   Also interjecting much-needed humor is Billy’s friend Michael (Jake Kitchin), a cross-dressing pal who shows Billy the joys of female attire. Kitchin is ebullient and shines in his characterization. Another notable is Marsha Waterbury as Billy’s forgetful grandmother. Her rendition of “Grandma’s Song,” an account of her unhappy marriage and struggles, is moving and a welcome addition to the musical numbers.

The overall ensemble for this production is well-cast, with many noteworthy cameos. Stephen Weston as Billy’s brother Tony adds pathos as he rails against the plight of the miners and their probable defeat at the hands of the government. Kim Huber provides touching moments as the ghost of Billy’s mother.
   There are two standout moments in the show for Tobin. One is when he imagines his future as a dancer, with Brandon Forrest as adult Billy; the other is a passionate solo filled with anger and frustration. At these moments, the vision of the story is richly articulated.
   Casting is at the heart of the success of this production, and McCoy Rigby has gathered a colorful group to spin out the story. Though at times a bit too formulaic, it still provides a worthwhile foray into British musical theater.

January 27, 2015
 
Jan. 17–Feb. 8. 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Ample free parking. Wed-Thu 7:30, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $20-70 (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.

www.lamiradatheatre.com

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Love, Sex and the I.R.S.
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Bryan Dobson, Diane Vincent, and Jeffrey Cannata
Photo by Melissa Mollo

Farce. It’s that theatrical plot in which a character—apparently always male—tells a lie and gets wound up in it. Then, somehow, over the course of two hours, he manages to unwind himself and earn the forgiveness of his fellow characters. Not many stage productions of farce succeed. This one does, earning top marks all around.
   Billy van Zandt and Jane Milmore wrote the play in the late 1970s, and director Ken Parks sets his version in that era. The play is considerably funnier in that context. Somehow, in the 1970s, love seemed easier, sex more daring, and tax fraud less common and less troubling.
   The writing seems well-plotted, explaining away possible inconsistencies and leaving the audience free to howl at the one-liners. Or perhaps this production makes the situations more plausible because of Parks’s crisp staging and the spectacular comedic chops of this cast.

The play takes place in the Manhattan apartment of two men: starving musicians Jon and Leslie. Jon has finally found work for their band. In Weehawken. At a bar mitzvah. The following October. In the meantime, Jon has been saving money by preparing his own, and Leslie’s, taxes. He has saved them further money by filing as husband and wife. They’re being audited. In two hours. Jon swiftly persuades Leslie to cross-dress and pretend they’re married.
   In the blink of an eye, Leslie grows petulant. Meanwhile, Jon’s idea of feminizing the apartment is to accessorize with throw pillows and antimacassars, making it look as if their great-grandmother lives there.

Jeffrey Cannata is an extremely gracious actor. Playing Jon, this solid scene partner lets the storm swirl around his character rather than grabbing attention. So as Jon’s panic and desperation gradually increase, the audience buys into the story.
   David Herbelin, meanwhile, is thoroughly physically invested in Leslie. By the time Leslie gets into a dress, heels and wig (costumes by Christina Bayer), Herbelin is into female mode, starting with a simpering grin. As Leslie gets tenser, Herbelin’s brow furrows ever deeper, and his shoulders creep up around his ears, nearly touching the bouncy copper curls of his god-awful wig.
   Adding other farcical elements, Jon’s girlfriend Kate has the warmies for Leslie. But she sticks by Jon, even helping to dress Leslie. Playing Kate, Shannon Fitzpatrick is half Herbelin’s size, ensuring laughs when he squeezes into her once-dainty dresses. Leslie, smitten with Kate, has been ignoring his girlfriend Connie. Elaine Hayhurst brings the Jersey Shore to the stage as she plays the lovelorn lass.
   The playwriting device of an invasive landlord lets doors get slammed and window ledges get utilized. Kevin Paul plays him with a deep well of chutzpah. Naturally, Jon’s mom happens by from Chicago in the midst of all this. Playing her, Diane Vincent starts as an average concerned mother. But as the scotch flows, she becomes pratfallingly tipsy, then passing-out drunken, melting over much of the sofa. None of this affects Vincent’s ability to deliver a punch line.

And now for the I.R.S. portion of the evening. Bryan Dobson plays agent Floyd Spinner, who’s clean-cut, bespectacled, and garbed in a starchy suit and tie. But after several schooners of scotch, Spinner’s true, vibrant colors come out as Dobson ratchets up the comedy. Dobson’s old-time shtick is polished to a gleam, and still he makes it seem fresh and immediate and totally tailored to the character.
   Even the interstitial music adds to the humor of this show. Cue “Ladies’ Night” and “Taxman,” and the audience is dancing in its seats. Cue “Macho Man” for the curtain call, and the cast is dancing during the bows. Cue theater this good, and everyone is beaming on the walk back to the car.

January 26, 2015
 
Jan. 24–Feb. 8. 27570 Norris Center Dr., Rolling Hills Estates. Free parking. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $25–55. (310) 544-0403, ext. 221.

www.palosverdesperformingarts.com

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Time Stands Still
Secret Rose Theatre

Reviewed by Julio Martinez


Nik Isbelle, Aidan Bristow, Presciliana Esparolini, and Troy Ruptash
Photo by Dan Warner Photography

Donald Margolies’s sojourn within the lives of two conflicted battlefield journalists, who are attempting to readjust their lives and relationship now that they are separated from the foreign conflicts that originally drew them together, is given a deeply involving up-close-and-intimate outing at Secret Rose Theatre in NoHo.
   The play’s title aptly applies to the emotion-rending events that battered the body of photographer Sarah (Presciliana Esparolini) and crippled the psyche of her journalist lover James (Aidan Bristow). Sensitively guided by helmer Vicky Jenson, Esparolini and Bristow offer a finely detailed, emotionally compelling pas de deux as Sarah and James attempt to achieve a level of post-war-zone compatibility as a “normal” couple living in a Brooklyn flat.
   Margolies doesn’t supply any feel-good resolutions to the conflicts he sets up. He supplies only struggles, leading to arbitrary decisions. This is a good thing because Sarah and James eventually come at each other with raw nerve-endings and naked souls. Esparolini’s Sarah is combative, fighting the limitations of her bomb-blasted limbs, the sometimes claustrophobic needs of the man she loves, and her own sense that she is not appreciated professionally. Yet she projects a loving soul who truly wants to please James and keep him safe.
   Bristow offers an effective portrait of a much more emotionally closeted writer who finally hit a wall of battlefield horror that he could not get past. Now he is slowly coming to terms with a changing agenda about how he wants to live the rest of his life. Bristow’s James seems to bloom as he only too gladly settles into the insignificant everyday pleasures of civilian life.

Supplying well-timed point and counterpoint to this saga are the journalists’ middle-aged editor and longtime friend Richard (Troy Ruptash) and his much younger girlfriend Mandy (Nik Isbelle). This is not an infusion of equals. There is no free-flowing intellectual/aesthetic discourse amongst this quartet. Helmer Jenson admirably achieves a balance among competing agendas and blatant contentiousness, smoothly moving the action forward, solidifying the reality that these four are deeply committed to one another.
   Ruptash’s Richard, who at one time had a relationship with Sarah, projects a believable amalgam of heartfelt concern for and editorial detachment from the often demanding Sarah/James duo. Isbelle’s comedically gifted outing as Mandy provides welcome relief, as she undercuts Sarah’s and James’s journalistic highhandedness, telling them people don’t want to read all their “bummer” pieces.
   Complementing the proceedings is the original music underscoring of music director Craig Richey. Tim Paclado’s setting certainly realizes the space limitations of an average Brooklyn apartment, but also causes occasional awkward stage movement.

January 21, 2015
 
Jan. 17–Feb 8.11246 Magnolia Blvd. Handicap accessible; street parking available. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 1 hour and 50 minutes, including intermission. $30. (323) 960-7788.

www.TimeStandsStillLA.com

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Jack Lemmon Returns
Broad Stage

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


Chris Lemmon

Two-time Oscar winner Jack Lemmon has always been at the top echelon of acting talent. A gifted comedian (he represented Billy Wilder’s personification of the everyman in The Apartment and Irma La Douce) and modern tragedian (his alcoholic characters in Days of Wine and Roses and Save the Tiger are Shakespearean in scope) demonstrate a tremendous range. His son Chris Lemmon’s one-man show toasts his father’s accomplishments and delves into their complicated relationship.
   Utilizing conversations with Chris Lemmon as well as Chris’s memoir, A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to My Father, author-director Hershey Felder follows Jack’s early life with a stern father and flamboyant mother (she was the model for Daphne in Some Like It Hot), his first amateur performances, college life at Harvard, and his career. Lemmon shares his father’s good moments and low points, which sometimes occurred at the same time: The night Lemmon won his first Oscar for Mister Roberts in 1956, he abandoned his first wife at the ceremony to leave for after-parties, signaling the end of their marriage. Jacks’ alcoholism and personal parallels to his characters in Days of Wine and Roses and Save the Tiger are disclosed.

The best reason to recommend Jack Lemmon Returns is Chris’s winning personality. He imitates his father’s voice adroitly and changes his normal expressions to evolve into Jack. He captures Jack’s cadence, humor, and nervous tics. Chris stares directly into audience members’ eyes, creating a sense of intimacy. He plays piano with style, a skill he learned from his father. Director Felder should have relied on footage of Jack’s best scenes instead of having Chris enact them. Because these moments and Jack’s talent are ingrained in the audience’s memory, it comes off as a peculiar choice.
   Felder’s script doesn’t delve as deeply as it should have done. The timelines are unclear, leaving the audience confused. Chris mentions Jack’s alcoholism while discussing the death of Jack’s best friend Walter Matthau, but it’s uncertain if Jack admitted and treated his alcoholism at that time only (12 months before Jack died) or if he came to grips with the disease earlier in life and Felder chose to draw the parallels at that point in the script. The relationship between Chris and Jack also could have used fleshing out. The show tells good stories of Chris’s youth and Jack’s abortive attempts to spend time with him; but then nothing mentioned about their interactions during many years.
   Also, because the crux of the story involves their relationship, it would have been intriguing to hear from Chris how the addition of a half-sister positively or negatively affected him. Did he see his father be more attentive to her than he had been to Chris, or did he repeat patterns? As Felder has done in his own works, he focuses on Jack’s films and peppers those times with anecdotes instead of painting a full picture of the man.

Despite script issues, Jack Lemmon Returns is a loving but complicated portrait of a revered man told by the son who obviously adored him. Chris Lemmon not only exposes new dimensions of an American legend but also reveals himself to be a charismatic stage presence.

January 12, 2015
 
Jan. 7–25. 1310 11th St.See Broad Stage website for schedule. Running time 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission. $54-175. (310) 434-3200.

thebroadstage.com

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Undateable
Second City

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Amanda Blake Davis and Robyn Norris

Sometimes theater is about humankind’s greatest achievers. Sometimes it’s about supremely tragic figures. And sometimes, as with this show, it’s about the rest of us.
   A group of Second City’s fine performers went off piste and conducted a social experiment. After Robyn’s (Robyn Norris) friend posted a profile on a dating site and asked Robyn to check it over, Robyn set up an account to access the site. Robyn created the outlandish profile of an admittedly “crazy-insane person” she named TracyLovesCats. A shockingly large number of men—and women—responded, begging for various forms of contact with “Tracy.”
   Norris’s fellow troupe members Chris Alvarado, Rob Belushi, Amanda Blake Davis, Kate Duffy, and Bob Ladewig joined in, posting outrageous profiles no one could possibly think were anything other than a joke. These performers’ “sketch” show, Undateable, re-enacts verbatim the heartfelt responses by real, everyday people to these perverse personals.
   So, even though Rob (Belushi) pushed the intimacy-phobic envelope with DoorSlamEric, women think Eric is dateable. And although PioneerInABox (Kate Duffy) gets busted (she claims to function as if in the 1860s, yet she’s online), she manages to lure interest. Even Amanda’s (Blake Davis) age-questionable Old4U75 appeals to a prospective beau.
   The show, a fascinating concept, is well-structured and is imaginatively directed by Frank Caeti. It is also, of course, hilarious, though a strong strain of sympathy runs through it. And even though the show has been running for months, the performers have fresh energy. These performers are more interested in telling their story than in “being funny,” so the laughs come from the audience’s self-recognition and not from any obnoxious stage-hogging shenanigans.
   The troupe sings and dances—and not badly—to enhance several of their “scientific” points about romantic behavior. A few minutes of improv at the end of the show reflect the performers’ well-honed chops.
   Locational cautions: The venue is in Hollywood where street parking has a two-hour limit, metered until midnight on Fridays. The show is a mere one hour, but it undoubtedly will start a few minutes late. In addition, the theater is upstairs, and the site has no elevator. But if you’re swift and spry, head on up there for a dose of reality. It will probably provide you with more than several hearty belly laughs. It might also make you weep for mankind.

August 19, 2013

6560 Hollywood Blvd. Fri 9pm. $10.

www.secondcityhollywoodshows.com

goo.gl/maps/kGBj
 

 

 
Sage Awards 2014


PRODUCTION

Buyer & Cellar, Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum

Everything You Touch, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Henry V, Pacific Resident Theatre

Stupid Fucking Bird, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Company at The Theatre @ Boston Court

The Curse of Oedipus, The Antaeus Company

PLAYWRIGHTING

Mickey Birnbaum, Backyard, The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Sheila Callaghan, Everything You Touch, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Scott Carter, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, NoHo Arts Center and Geffen Playhouse

Kenneth Cavander, The Curse of Oedipus, The Antaeus Company

Greg Pierce, Slowgirl, Geffen Playhouse

Marja-Lewis Ryan, One in the Chamber, 6140 Productions & Lounge Theatre at Lounge Theatre

Tommy Smith, Firemen, The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

ADAPTATION

Aaron Posner, Stupid Fucking Bird, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Company at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Troubadour Theater Company, Abbamemnon, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

MUSICAL SCORE

Matt Almos, Brendan Milburn and Burglars of Hamm, The Behavior of Broadus, Sacred Fools Theater Company and Burglars of Hamm at Sacred Fools Theater

DIRECTION

Guillermo Cienfuegos, Henry V, Pacific Resident Theater

Jessica Kubzansky, Everything You Touch, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Company at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Robin Larsen, A Delicate Balance, Odyssey Theatre

Michael Michetti, Stupid Fucking Bird, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Company at The Theatre @ Boston Court

CHOREOGRAPHY

Marcus Choi, Beijing Spring, East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theater

Julie Hall, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Actors Co-op at the Crossley Theatre

Spencer Liff, Spring Awakening, Deaf West Theatre in association with The Forest of Arden, at Inner City Arts

MUSIC DIRECTION

Jake Anthony, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Actors Co-op at the Crossley Theatre

Eric Heinly, The Snow QUEEN, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

David O, Floyd Collins, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

John O’Neill, Harmony, Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre

Jared Stein, Spring Awakening, Deaf West Theatre in association with The Forest of Arden, at Inner City Arts

SCENIC DESIGN

Tom Buderwitz, A Delicate Balance, Odyssey Theatre

Melissa Ficociello, The Last Act of Lilka Kadison, Falcon Theatre, Abbie Phillips and Jan Kallish in association with Lookingglass Theatre Company, at the Falcon Theatre

Stephen Gifford, Backyard, The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Andrew Hammer, Broomstick, Fountain Theatre

Jeff McLaughlin, Pray to Ball, Skylight Theatre

LIGHTING DESIGN

Leigh Allen, A Delicate Balance, Odyssey Theatre

Francois-Pierre Couture, The Curse of Oedipus, The Antaeus Company

Guido Girardi, Beijing Spring, East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theater

Lisa D. Katz, Floyd Collins, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Luke Moyer, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, NoHo Arts Center and Geffen Playhouse

COSTUME DESIGN

Gregg Barnes, Kinky Boots, Pantages Theatre

Jenny Foldenauer, Everything You Touch, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Sharon McGunigle, The Snow QUEEN, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

SOUND DESIGN

Peter Bayne, Broomstick, Fountain Theatre

Richard Woodbury, Slowgirl, Geffen Playhouse

PERFORMANCE IN A PLAY

Brooke Adams, Happy Days, The Theatre @ Boston Court

Hugo Armstrong, Backyard, The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Rae Gray, Slowgirl, Geffen Playhouse

O-Lan Jones, A Delicate Balance, Odyssey Theatre

Eric Lange, The Country House, Geffen Playhouse

Abigail Marks, Top Girls, Antaeus Theatre Company

Kristine Nielsen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum

Ann Noble, The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, Los Angeles LGBT Center at The Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza

Jaimi Paige, Venus in Fur, South Coast Repertory

William Petersen, Slowgirl, Geffen Playhouse

David Selby, A Delicate Balance, Odyssey Theatre

Susan Sullivan, A Delicate Balance, Odyssey Theatre

Kirsten Vangsness, Everything You Touch, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Paul Witten, The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, Los Angeles LGBT Center at The Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza

Jacqueline Wright, Backyard, The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

PERFORMANCE IN A MUSICAL

Carter Calvert, Always…Patsy Cline, El Portal Theater

Larry Raben, The Drowsy Chaperone, Norris Center for the Performing Arts/Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

Jeff Skowron, The Producers, 3-D Theatricals, Plummer Auditorium and Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center

Kyle Taylor Parker, Kinky Boots, Pantages Theatre

Peter Allen Vogt, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Actors Co-op at the Crossley Theatre

Stuart Ward, Once, Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Stage

Mark Whitten, Floyd Collins, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

SOLO PERFORMANCE

Kris Andersson, Dixie’s Tupperware Party, Geffen Playhouse

Annette Bening, Ruth Draper’s Monologues, Geffen Playhouse

Barry McGovern, I’ll Go On, Center Theatre Group at Kirk Douglas Theatre

Christopher Plummer, A Word or Two, Center Theatre Group at Ahmanson Theatre

Michael Urie, Buyer & Cellar, Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum

ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE

One in the Chamber, 6140 Productions & Lounge Theatre at Lounge Theatre: Kelli Anderson, Robert Bella, Alec Frasier, Fenix Isabella, Emily Peck, and Heidi Sulzman

Stupid Fucking Bird, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Company at The Theatre @ Boston Court: Will Bradley, Arye Gross, Charlotte Gulezian, Zarah Mahler, Matthew Floyd Miller, Amy Pietz, and Adam Silver


The voting critics of ArtsInLA.com: Travis Michael Holder, Dany Margolies, Julio Martinez, Dink O’Neal, Jonas Schwartz, Bob Verini, and Neal Weaver

January 5, 2015

 

 
Sage Awards
for theater in 2013


   Who says critics don’t like anything? Our theater critics chose their tops of 2013, from best production through best fight choreography, and the crossover among our choices gave rise to a surprisingly large list.
   And so we have decided to inaugurate our Sage Awards—named for the obvious reference to the wisdom we hope for, but also for the plant that covers the Los Angeles area, as we do.
   Congratulations to the Sage Award winners, and we hope to share more great theater in 2014.


PRODUCTION

Ah, Wilderness!, Actors Co-op

El Grande de Coca Cola, Ruskin Group Theatre

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine

Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre  

Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre

The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre

PLAYWRITING

Jennifer Haley, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Bruce Norris, A Parallelogram, Mark Taper Forum

Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine

Christopher Shinn, Dying City, Rogue Machine

Jackie Sibblies Drury, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre

ADAPTATION

David Ives, The Liar, Antaeus Company

Nancy Keystone, Alcestis, The Theatre @ Boston Court

Jessica Kubzansky, R II, The Theatre @ Boston Court

MUSICAL SCORE

Joe Iconis, The Black Suits, Kirk Douglas Theatre

John Kander and Fred Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

DIRECTION

Matthew McCray, Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre

Michael Peretzian, Dying City, Rogue Machine

Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Ken Sawyer, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre

MUSIC DIRECTION

Dennis Castellano, The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory

Eric Heinly, A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

Ross Seligman, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Robyn Wallace, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Chance Theater  

CHOREOGRAPHY

Rob Ashford, Evita, Pantages Theatre

Matthew Bourne, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Lee Martino, Nuttin’ but Hutton, NoHo Arts Center

Arlene Phillips, The Wizard of Oz, Pantages Theatre

Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

Kelly Todd, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Chance Theater

FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHY

Ken Merckx, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

SCENIC DESIGN

Adrian W. Jones, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Keith Mitchell, Billy & Ray, Falcon Theatre

Allen Moyer, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Jeanine A. Ringer, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Thomas A. Walsh, Annapurna, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Evidence Room, at Odyssey Theatre

LIGHTING DESIGN

Ken Booth, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Paule Constable, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Christopher Kuhl, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

David Lander, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Justin Townsend, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

COSTUME DESIGN

Angela Balogh Calin, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Lez Brotherston, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Michael Krass, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

SOUND DESIGN

Jonathan Snipes, Wait Until Dark, Geffen Playhouse

PERFORMANCE IN A (PRIMARILY) STRAIGHT PLAY

Mark Bramhall (grandfather), Walking the Tightrope, 24th STreet Theatre

Phil Crowley (Nat Miller, father), Ah, Wilderness!, Actors Co-Op

Jason Dechert (young Pericles and pandar), Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Arye Gross (Mr. Sipos), Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center

Robert Lesser (lawyer/Greek chorus), A View From the Bridge, Pacific Resident Theater

Dakin Matthews (Doyle), The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Seth Numrich (Eli), Slipping, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at Lillian Theatre

Deborah Strang (narrator), Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Paige Lindsey White (Esme the granddaughter), Walking the Tightrope, 24th STreet Theatre

PERFORMANCE IN A (PRIMARILY) MUSICAL PRODUCTION

Sabrina Elayne Carten (Blues Singer), One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Nate Dendy (The Mute), The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory

Mary Bridget Davies (Janis), One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Jamie McKnight (Scarecrow), The Wizard of Oz, Pantages Theatre

Josh Young (Che), Evita, Pantages Theatre

SOLO PERFORMANCE

Lorenzo Pisoni, Humor Abuse, Mark Taper Forum


ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE

The Katrina Comedy Fest, Bayou Playhouse and Flambeaux Productions at Lounge Theatre: Peggy Blow, Deidrie Henry, Travis Michael Holder***, Judy Jean Berns, L. Trey Wilson, and Jan Munroe

One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine: Giovanni Adams, Kevin Daniels, Jason Delane, Matt Jones, Ty Jones, Jason E. Kelley, Burl Moseley, and Jah Shams

Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre: Melina Bielefelt, Sharyn Gabriel, Matt Kirkwood, Michael Nehring, Gary Patent, Gavin Peretti, Sarah Roseberg, Kiff Scholl, Dan Via, and Alexander Wells

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre: Johanna Chase, Paul Haitkin, Michael Hanson, Elizabeth Herron, Carl J. Johnson, Che Landon, Ed F. Martin, Ann Noble, Dylan Seaton, Christine Sloane, and Paul Witten

The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre: Gilbert L. Bailey II, David Bazemore, Ayanna Berkshire, Shavey Brown, Christopher James Culberson, Joshua Henry, Trent Armand Kendall, Max Kumangai, Hal Linden, JC Montgomery, Justin Prescott, Clinton Roane, Cedric Sanders, Deandre Sevon, Christian Dante White, and C. Kelly Wright

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre: Daniel Bess, Julanne Chidi Hill, Joe Holt, Phil LaMarr, Rebecca Mozo, and John Sloan


***Travis Michael Holder reviews for ArtsInLA.com. He did not nominate himself, nor did he nominate his show.


The voting theater critics of ArtsInLA.com: Travis Michael Holder, Dany Margolies, Julio Martinez, Dink O’Neal, Melinda Schupmann, and Bob Verini

January 5, 2014
 

 
Switzerland
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Laura Linney and Seth Numrich
Photo by Michael Lamont

In her secluded bastion tucked away in the shadow of the desolate mountains surrounding Locarno, Switzerland, curmudgeonly recluse writer Patricia Highsmith (Laura Linney) is living out her miserable last months. She is reluctantly joined by a nerdy, Harry Potterish young envoy from her New York publishing house. He is Edward (Seth Numrich), the only person left at his firm willing to take on the infamously impossible crime novelist and persuade her to agree to a sixth return visit to her most successful anti-hero, Tom Ripley of the author’s bestselling The Talented Mr. Ripley books—a series so popular they’re known collectively to aficionados as The Ripliad.
   It seems the last emissary sent to get Highsmith’s signature on the firm’s new contract ended up dealing with institutionalization and ongoing therapy sessions. Those resulted from the psychological trauma he received waking up one night in Highsmith’s guest bedroom with his certifiably nutso hostess leaning over his bed—and one of the impressively lethal-looking knives from her world-class collection of vintage weaponry placed unceremoniously at his throat.

Joanna Murray-Smith’s fascinating new play must have been a challenge to create, especially when blending the factual content of the last misanthropic gasps of Highsmith’s notoriously peculiar life and her legendary abrasiveness with the near-gothic literary bombshell blasts of a good fictional thriller worthy of a late-night read. Switzerland is as chockfull of as many twists and turns as any Highsmith novel, providing perfect homage to the work of the author, a person so bitter about our self-destructive, self-absorbed species that she spent a lifetime killing us off, fictionally speaking, in the most-diabolical ways possible.
   It’s nearly as difficult to discuss Murray-Smith’s inventive tale without a spoiler alert. What can be considered here, however, is the production itself, elegantly tucked into the Geffen’s tricky smaller space by designer Anthony T. Fanning, who has brought to glorious life Highsmith’s Swiss fortress, complete with high walls of stone and a majestic view of the Alps, and adorned everywhere with her beloved collection of weaponry that could rival Sidney Bruhl’s in Deathtrap.
   The most memorable thing about this production is Numrich, who makes an amazing transition in his character, ever-so-slowly graduating from a victim, almost cowering in fear of his nemesis, to a self-assured, coolly diabolical adversary worthy of any character Highsmith might have invented. Numrich is a talent to be watched, an actor with all the charisma and promise of an early Paul Newman.

Linney, however, who is at least 20 years too young to play this juicy role, does not fare as well, only managing to offer a predictable, cardboard interpretation of the author’s quirks, leaving Highsmith to never materialize as anything but a foul-mouthed cartoon character. Part of this might be in the casting of Linney, which certainly guarantees ticket sales but has hurt the storytelling drastically. As often seems to be the case with notable actors who’ve spent a long period working mostly in film and television, Linney seems to have forgotten how to take her role on a journey, how to assay a character arc.
   Instead, from start to finish, she plays Highsmith as cold and unaffected by the changes around her, never bringing even a blink of apprehension or adding anything more than a sketchy questioning or chink in her armor. Perhaps this is a choice of Linney or director Mark Brokaw, but more than likely it is in the performance.
   More appropriate for the role would be Estelle Parsons or Jane Alexander or Ellen Burstyn—or maybe one day Judi Dench or Meryl Streep in the film version—as long as they’re smart enough to still cast Numrich opposite her. He is destined for stardom in the near future. Let’s just hope he heads back to his theatrical roots occasionally so he doesn’t forget the basic rubric of acting that working onstage demand.

March 15, 2015
 
March 13–April 19 10886 Le Conte Ave. (parking around the block adjacent to Trader Joe’s). Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $69¬–99. (310) 208-5454.

www.geffenplayhouse.com

Map
 

 
The Price
Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Alan Mandell and Sam Robards
Photo by Craig Schwartz

In the crowded attic of a soon-to-be demolished Manhattan brownstone in the mid-1960s, a conflicted, familially-traumatized New York cop (Sam Robards) confronts the world in which he grew up, now stacked in layers and reduced to unwanted storage. “The price of used furniture,” he’s told later, “is only a viewpoint,” perhaps the most prominent analogy to life itself from the amazingly never-dried out pen of legendary playwright Arthur Miller. With Victor’s late Depression-ruined father’s collection of sturdy early-20th-century furniture piled around him like accusing sentries guarding him from moving on with his life, and his impending retirement postponed for three years now, it’s not hard to imagine Victor reevaluating his existence, something which has not lived up to the promise originally expected of and by him.
   Miller’s 1968 drama had a decent, even Tony-nominated beginning. But today, under the sweeping yet austere directorial eye of Garry Hynes, his sharply personal play has finally come into its own as a true American classic. The painful backstory behind the decades-long estrangement between Victor and his highly successful doctor brother Walter (John Bedford Lloyd) unfolds and smoothes out like the wrinkles in a sheet in the play’s sometimes longwinded second act. But the relationship between the career New York flatfoot and his abrasive wife, Esther (Kate Burton), seems harder to relate to than ever before.

Robards and Lloyd deliver indelibly heartrending moments as the Franz brothers, two men with opposing memories of what went wrong between them, not to mention their remembrances of their father, whose chair where he lived out his life after financial ruin and becoming a widower, placed facing upstage down-center from the action, almost becomes a fifth character in the drama. As was the custom of all epic Miller dramas, The Price is sometimes painfully long and repetitious; today, it probably would be cut to an intermissionless 90 minutes without losing too much of the core of its message.
   Yet when two actors as worthy as Robards and Lloyd are present to make us sit up in our seats and enter, as if in a trance, into the world of the Franz brothers, all is well. The final scene between them unfolds as though we’re eavesdropping through one of the attic’s dirty windows, almost mystically transcending time and place as two men, both shattered and battered by life, bombard each other with information that could either destroy or empower the other’s future.
   Perhaps, when this play debuted, Esther’s nagging and demands of wanting a better and more socially acceptable lifestyle appeared more customary. Today it’s difficult not to hope Victor will let her live up to her threats and get the hell out of his life. Burton does an admirable job making her character human. But, like David Mamet after him, Miller had a difficult time trying to create women’s roles that were less subservient and more stand-alone. Burton and Hines admirably manage to find a few more moments of softness and loving spirit than other actors in that role seem to have done, but it must have been a major effort.

As Gregory Solomon, the 89-year-old antiques dealer and appraiser who comes into the attic to offer a price to cart off all the elder Franz’s treasures, Los Angeles and the whole theatrical world’s treasure Alan Mandell, himself only two years shy of the age of his character, is nothing short of miraculous. With a fluttery, wobbling body language more reminiscent of Edith Piaf than geriatric standard-bearer Ed Wynn, Mandell is mesmerizing, zipping easily from comic relief to poignant melancholy, all the while offering a hint of his early Samuel Beckett training. He is, simply, uniquely able to get away with more physical excess on a stage than anyone else alive today—and his longevity and ability to spout the many lines and complicated speeches, in a role usually assayed by far younger actors cast “older” to play Solomon, gives his fortunate audiences the unique experience of seeing the stellar work of a consummate artist.
   It’s fascinating to realize that international fame and fortune had not dulled Miller’s ability to understand this ordinary family with everyday problems. It was a long time since he became revered for such early work as All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), and several years after the death of his former wife Marilyn Monroe, but the great wordsmith had obviously not lost touch with the plight and the gossamer psyche of the common man—truly the most impressive thing that surfaces as we once again visit the Franz family’s dusty old attic and watch them as they all pay the price.

February 25, 2015
 
Feb. 21–March 22. 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 and a half hours, including intermission. $25–85. (213) 628-2772.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Map
 

 
Enter Laughing—
The Musical

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in the Lovelace Studio Theater

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Noah Weisberg and Sara Niemietz

This time, one might not enter the Wallis with high hopes, let alone laughingly. Young audiences probably know nothing of Carl Reiner, the comedic talent on whose “semi-autobiographical” novel of the same name this musical is based. Older audience members might wonder whether they’ll still find his humor engaging.
   Well, despite its pedigree (book by Joseph Stein based on his play, music and lyrics by Stan Daniels), this score will never compete with the likes of the last one seen at the Wallis, Into the Woods, whose lyrics, many will argue, are among the very best in musical theater.
   Enter Laughing tells of David Kolowitz, a young delivery boy working for a machine shop in the Bronx. His parents plan to send him to pharmacy school. He, however, dreams of being a star. The show revolves around his fantasy. His best friend, Marvin (Jeff Skowron), encourages him so they can meet girls. His girlfriend (Sara Niemietz) fears she’ll lose him to the starlets. His mother (Anne DeSalvo), well, she’s Jewish. His father (Robert Picardo) obeys the wife. David’s boss (Joel Brooks) thinks he’s meshugenah.

The musical’s title refers to a stage direction in the script David uses to audition for his first chance at stardom. Yes, David reads it aloud. “Enter laughing,” he says, as he stiltedly walks across the stage. No! the pompous director (Nick Ullett) tells him: Parentheticals are stage directions, telling you what to do, so try it again and this time laugh. David galumphs back on, says, “Enter laughing” again, but this time laughs, badly. His scene partner, the leading lady and director’s daughter (Amy Pietz), nonetheless thinks he’s adorable. Only in a musical—and apparently in Reiner’s life—can this start lead to a brilliant career in showbiz.
   This musical’s material isn’t even close to great (its best lyrics are Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin titles). But it has charm, particularly as directed by Stuart Ross. He polishes the jokes, adds sight gags, creates choreography that fits the show and suits the performers, and gives the production warmth and heart.
   The supporting performances include several that can be termed great. Avid musical-goers will recognize the performer playing David’s pal Marvin: Skowron recently offered a stellar turn in the Wallis’s Into the Woods. Now, almost unrecognizable, Skowron plays a shrinking violet of a Bronxite. Also delicious is David’s boss, who, in the hands of Brooks, seems like David’s other Jewish mother. Weekly unannounced guest stars surprise the audience. At the performance reviewed, Fred Willard thrilled the crowd.

But the lead performance, by the astonishing Noah Weisberg, makes this one of those “I remember the first time I saw….” shows. He puts one in mind of a somewhat refined Jerry Lewis. Weisberg’s nerdy take on fame borrows gently from great comedic traditions. He sings like a sweet geek here, but when David gets excited, the voice drops into operatic tones. Weisberg’s mastery of his physical instrument bespeaks plentiful physical theater skills. Above this, he brings a contagious joy to the stage.
   And even if the music isn’t quite up to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the onstage trio (led by music director Gerald Sternbach on piano), makes the audience feel like we’re hearing the likes of those greats.
   (Exit delighted.)

February 14, 2015
 
Feb. 11–March 1. 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills. Tue-Fri 8:30pm, Sat 3:30pm & 8:30pm, Sun 2:30pm & 7:30pm (no performances Sun, Feb. 22). $30–50. (310) 746-4000.

www.thewallis.org

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Tristan & Yseult
South Coast Repertory

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Hannah Vassallo and Dominic Marsh
Photo by Richard Termine

Romeo and Juliet …Antony and Cleopatra…Orpheus and Eurydice…Brad and Angelina…literature and the arts are replete with great romances between legendary lovers locked in timeless, deathless passion. What the arts—especially the performing arts, like theater, opera, and film—generally fail to recognize is that most of us ordinary mortals never experience anything remotely like those magnificent obsessions. We’re lucky just to find a gal or guy whom we can hook up with for a while, am I right?
   For those of us whose love stories fall considerably short of Scarlett-and-Rhett territory, there’s Tristan & Yseult, the brilliant production from the UK’s Kneehigh company, now in too-brief residence at South Coast Rep. The script, by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, indeed tells the time-honored yarn of the Irish princess who’s betrothed to Cornwall’s King Mark but who falls for Mark’s nephew Tristan, sent to fetch her for the wedding. (After the wedding, Yseult finds she loves both men, inspiring the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle of even greater fame.) The narrative that Wagner later brought to the grand opera stage as Tristan and Isolde is presented in every tearjerking particular.

But what director Emma Rice does with that text! Beyond her whirlwind mixing of periods and styles, juxtapositions of moods and tones, and interpolation of music, dance, song, stage combat, and special effects, she uses the old legend to explore our very relationship to relationships. We know what the Great Ones are up to, but what do we, the “simple folk” as the royals sang of us in Camelot, do in the course of our everyday kinds of love? How do we perceive those great love stories, anyway? What do they have to do with us? The posing of these weighty yet unorthodox questions leavens what has to be the most impressive evening of total theater I’ve experienced since…well, since Kneehigh brought Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter to Beverly Hills’s Wallis Annenberg Center more than a year ago.
   This Tristan is set in what’s called the Club of the Unloved. As we arrive, a live band above the stage is performing ’60s pop hits in a festive mood that proves distinctly infectious. Yet things cool down noticeably once we are all assembled and informed that the company members are officially called the Love Spotters. “We are the unloved,” they incant. “Passion watchers— kiss clockers—love is at arm’s length.” And for the two hours of the action, no matter how many different roles they assume, we’re always aware of their special perspective as outsiders, those not blessed with the power (or the luck) of living any kind of great passion. “We stand on the sidelines,” they concede, speaking for us all. As if to bring matters down to size in a pungent metaphor, they share with us the strains of Wagner’s magnificent opus as most of us first experienced it: that is, off a scratchy LP.
   The action is full of period defiling and fourth-wall breaking, including audience participation. I wouldn’t dream of giving away any of Rice’s metatheatrical surprises, except to warn you the company never lets you sit back and relax. And the grandeur of the medieval romance is by no means slighted; just try to stop the tears when you see and hear how Wagner’s finale is employed in Kneehigh’s final moments.

But the biggest surprise is that for all its visual extravagance and breathtaking action, this Tristan & Yseult is meant to make us think, not just marvel or bawl. In a magical way I’m still trying to work out in my head, Rice and company are onto something in terms of the role of love in our own lives and world. The great lovers of history aren’t so far removed from us after all, says the show; we just have to see past the grand gestures and inflated rhetoric, to the simple adoration beneath.
   Rice’s work could be the most inventive, iconoclastic, and humane stage direction I know of in the world today. Next to her productions, most other so-called total-theater spectacles stand knee-high to a gnat.

February 2, 2015
 
Jan. 23–Feb. 22. 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tue-Sun, see theater’s website. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $22–74. (714) 708-5555.

www.scr.org

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The Pitchfork Disney
Coeurage Theatre Company at Lyric-Hyperion Theatre & Cafe

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Nicole Monet and Joseph V. Calarco
Photo by Nardeep Khurmi

Phillip Ridley’s stomach-turner of a play, which took London by the shorthairs in 1991 and is credited with beginning the entire confrontational “In Your Face” movement in British theater, is a perfect choice for the perfectly courageous Coeurage Theatre Company to kick off its new season. Ridley’s creepy shocker is here delivered without filter, without emotional cushioning for the faint of heart, without providing barf bags—which might just be a consideration, at least for patrons in the front row.
   On the small, suitably restrictive Lyric-Hyperion stage, director Rebecca Eisenberg and her fearless band of players conjure a dreamlike, menacing, post-apocalyptic world where a twin brother and sister (Joseph V. Calarco and Nicole Monet) live in agoraphobic squalor, surrounded by used candy wrappers and a bookcase full of drugs that once belonged to the parents who either abandoned them or died in a global cataclysmic disaster—something that might have happened or could be just a figment of Presley and Haley Stray’s active imaginations.
   The twins’ lives are spent peeking through the windows at the intimidating outside world, which may or may not be devastated by a nuclear bomb, while eating enormous amounts of chocolate and wondering if they dare leave the safety of their quadruple-locked front door. When Presley becomes intrigued by a pair of people lurking outside their building, the prospect of others intruding in their lives sends Haley into a panic attack—which, considering her brother’s swift reaction, might be something that happens regularly.
   He ends her hysteria by stuffing a downer-soaked binky into her mouth to knock her out and journeys warily outside, returning with a houseguest named Cosmo Disney (Jeremy Lelliott), who brings more than a hint of Clockwork Orange into the sanctity of their filthy, horrendously claustrophobic, Mars Bar–buried environment. It’s not hard to see Presley is apprehensive about his new droogie and yet wildly curious. Although Presley might not realize it, it doesn’t pass Cosmo’s obviously jaded perception that Presley is also painfully attracted to him.

Calarco is quietly hypnotizing in his commitment to the craziness and inner-screaming neuroses of Presley, riveting in his rambling soliloquies about cooking snakes and disturbingly nightmarish visions, most delivered about 2 feet from his audience. It is to the actor’s considerable credit that he makes his character’s world-class dysfunctional thinking seem almost rational. Monet is also bizarrely fascinating as Haley, veering from childish coquette to fiercely disturbed madwoman with lightning speed. If anything might improve in her performance, it would be for her to un-know what she knows about the troubled character, to really listen to her brother and respond spontaneously, to discover Haley’s colorful words and descriptions and not answer before Presley’s lines are even out of his mouth.
   It’s not hard to understand what drew Lelliott to take on the meaty role of Cosmo. He creates a malevolent, dangerously stalking panther of a character whose presence quickly reveals the purposely glaring contradictions rampant in Ridley’s fascinating script, a clash between revulsion and enticement, the ability to simultaneously seduce and repel, mining the human need to grasp for answers to our situation despite an ever-present terror of what those answers could reveal. The showy but complex role necessitates an enthusiastic suspension of the belief that the world is anything but a major shithole where only competition and power can keep us marching to the beat of time, something Lelliott accomplishes.

Lelliott is afforded major attention-grabbing moments sure to pull focus, including his first entrance in which he immediately vomits on the stage, a too-close act that sent women in the front row jumping off their seats, to his eager consumption of a real live wiggling cockroach (the actor says it tastes like pistachio). Still, Cosmo’s cohort Pitchfork Cavalier (Adam Kern) doesn’t have to do much grandstanding here, taking over immediately the first time he walks through the front door. What incredible fortune to find an actor as physically intimidating as Kern, entering late in the game clad in a dominatrix’s zippered leather facemask and more red sequined fabric than needed to cover a couch (Lelliott’s matching outfit could easily have been constructed from its discarded remnants).
   Ridley’s script and Eisenberg’s staging conspire to grab their unsuspecting audience members and toss them mercilessly around in what feels like a literary salad spinner, utilizing the author’s jarring series of incredibly poetic yet darkly twisted monologues, which use highly disturbing and even pornographic images to skewer our society in all its political and religious hypocrisy, and the director’s ability to create a lot of physical cornering and circling. What is eventually revealed is a not-too distant future apocalyptic ruin in which consumerism and greed have all but destroyed our psychologically shredded species. How traumatizing that must have been back in 1991, when this play was first performed. Now it unfolds as a rather disturbing, all-too accurate Fritz Lang–esque prophecy chronicling the scary things that were to come.

February 1, 2015
 
Jan. 31–March 6. 2106 Hyperion Ave. Street parking is available. Thu-Sat 8pm. All seats are available on a Pay What You Want basis. (323) 944-2165.

www.coeurage.org/tickets

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A Walk in the Woods
Sierra Madre Playhouse

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Nancy Youngblut and John Prosky
Photo by Gina Long

The tranquil nature of the title masks the deeply concerning subject of worldwide nuclear destruction that superpowers have been debating over years of diplomatic meetings. This is at the heart of Lee Blessing’s 1988 play about two negotiators who take a break from their formal encounters to have a more informal interaction walking in the Geneva woods near their meetings. It is based on a real incident in 1982 in which Russian and American negotiators left meetings and took that same path.
   American Joan Honeyman (Nancy Youngblut) is a newbie in the world of international mediation. She is earnest, single-minded, and dedicated to making a good deal on nuclear disarmament with her Russian counterpart, Andrei Botvinnik (John Prosky). He is seasoned, having been through many other negotiations with her predecessor, and he confesses that he wants to be friends and get to know her, unlike that previous relationship. This doesn’t figure into Joan’s concept of statecraft, and she continually rebuffs his lighthearted attempts at getting personal.
   As time passes and the powers that be thwart any meaningful proposals that come out of their conferences, the two come to understand each other and develop a relationship beyond their official personae. This process is well-developed in Blessing’s script.

Scenic artist Orlando de la Paz and scenic designer Rei Yamamoto have created a restful setting for the woods’ locale. A large gnarly tree anchors the scene, and a single bench is the focal point for the negotiators’ interactions.
   As an interesting side note, the role of Botvinnik in the original 1988 Broadway production was played by John’s father, Robert Prosky. The son seems to channel that performance.
   Director Geoffrey Wade has just the right touch when developing his actors’ characterizations. Prosky is delightful as the charming Russian with a whimsical nature. Youngblut is equally good as the slightly uptight arbitrator frustrated by her view of Andrei’s frivolous nature.
   Described as a “seriously funny play about saving the world,” this Blessing work highlights the side of the human condition that transcends politics. The actors have good chemistry, and by play’s end they are convincing as they acknowledge their mutual understanding. Sierra Madre’s production is a very satisfying evening of theater.

January 28, 2015
 
Jan. 23–Feb. 21. 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Ample free parking behind the theater. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2:30pm. $15–25. (626) 355-4318.

www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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Anna Christie
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Jeff Perry, Zoe Perry, and Kevin McKidd
Photo by Diego Barajas

What a way to start a new year. Walking into the Odyssey’s intimate Theatre 2, it’s hard to not feel an immediate sense that one is about to be enveloped in something incredibly special. In the cramped playing area, with only two walls available for a set, a long wooden slanted platform forms the stage, suspended above a moat of real water surrounding and isolating it. The playing area is lit only by three hanging industrial metal lamp fixtures, two indistinct practical household table lamps set on the floor to one side, and a glaringly bright ghost lamp. With wisps of fog floating around this setting’s stark angles, the mood is instantly evocative and magical in its simplicity.
   In part that’s because the stage for the opening scene of O’Neill’s rarely performed 1922 Pulitzer Prize–winning classic is usually complete with an elaborate wall of bottles and glasses behind a practical wood-paneled bar to conjure Johnny the Priest’s riverside saloon situated along the Hudson, a place which later gives way to the deck of the barge Simeon Wintrope at anchor in the Provincetown, Mass., harbor and, later, a cabin below deck. The seemingly complex set changes this play calls for now appear easily managed, thanks to the talented hands of director Kim Rubinstein, whose touch is so evident everywhere that her contribution is almost an extra character in the piece.
   In her version, the players struggle to leap across the moat, sometimes becoming immersed. In the visionary collaboration between Rubinstein and set designer Wilson Chin, all that is needed is the blocky, shadowy platform eerily lit by Michael Gend, the undulating spectre of the story’s ever-present sea, and the viewers’ imaginations, leaving room to concentrate on the true wonder of the material and appreciate some of the finest and most balls-out acting to hit LA stages in quite some time.
   Granted, hearing the century-old words created by one of our nation’s greatest dramatists always educes a haunting place no matter what the circumstances. but, as brought back to life by this particular group of artists, it’s both a breathtakingly real and a wretchedly lonesome journey to take. Delivering lines such as “Sailor all right feller but not for marry girl” is not an easy task for any anyone, but if the intentions of the actors are as sincere and the harsh long-gone world inhabited by these uneducated people facing real hardships brought on by their place in the class structure of America in 1910 is realized as perfectly as it is here, the result is a theatrical experience that won’t be soon forgotten.

Anna (the transcendent Zoe Perry) is a physically and emotionally broken young woman who travels to the dank New York waterfront to find her father, crusty old Swedish sea salt Chris Christopherson (Perry’s real-life father Jeff Perry) whom she hasn’t seen since she was 5 years old. Raised by cousins on a midwestern farm, Anna was worked like a slave and repeatedly sexually abused by the family’s youngest son. Escaping to the big city, she tries her hand at regular work as a governess but finds that her earlier experiences have left her better qualified to earn a living on her back. Her father ain’t much of a prize, either: a skipper on a coal barge drinking himself into oblivion at any opportunity, not writing to his daughter because, he says, he wanted to keep her as far away from “that ol’ devil sea” as possible.
   Without explaining her brutal past to her father, Anna takes up residency on his coal barge, where she meets Mat Burke (Kevin McKidd), a shipwrecked Irish sailor who proposes to her before he even dries off. But as the love between Anna and Mat deepens, Anna becomes increasingly more wary of the day she’ll have to tell the men in her life about her questionable past. Even Chris and Mat’s animosity for each other pales in comparison to that dreaded moment when she comes clean to them. “I’m destroyed entirely, and my heart is broken to bits!” wails Mat, so distraught he even considers killing the woman he loved so deeply only a few minutes before, while her father, of course, just goes out and gets sloshed.

As O’Neill’s much-maligned title character, Zoe Perry is mesmerizing. In her very first scene, she quickly reveals her character’s hard-as-nails exterior and the delicate, gossamer vulnerability lurking just below the surface. When she explains her plight to Marthy (a crusty and splendidly froggy-voiced Mary Mara), her father’s equally salty main squeeze, Perry never for a moment descends into caricature as so many have in this role. And when she tells Marthy, “You’re me 40 years from now,” it’s a poignant, melodious, simple delivery as she shakes all over, spewing out through her touching fragility a jarring disgust with the world in general and men in particular.
   Jeff Perry is equally impressive as Anna’s father. It’s a colorful role written with numerous traps into which most actors fall, usually reducing the character to the pouting, one-note, sad-sack, “yumpin’ yiminy” kind of Scandinavian portrayed in 1930s Hollywood movies. McKidd’s character can also easily descend into every stereotype of a sailor of the era, complete with puffing chest and pirate-y accent, but not for a moment does that happen here. These incredibly gifted actors make for remarkable storytelling.
   Still, the most indelible component in Rubinstein’s atmospheric, courageously unpretentious new look at the gloomy long-gone world O’Neill so uniquely explored, is the brilliantly rich and multifaceted performance of Zoe Perry, who tumbles headfirst into the trials, strengths, and shattered dreams of the title role with dizzying force. When Mat tells Anna about how great it is to meet a real lady instead of the for-hire lowlifes he’s encountered in his years at sea, the expression in her eyes as she realizes how everything she has gained could be taken from her is absolutely heartbreaking, as though the actor is channeling the gifts of Hepburn and Streep and Chaplin. This production, above all its other wonders, heralds a future career that could rival that of either of her illustrious parents.

January 27, 2015
 
Jan. 24–March 22. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. There is wheelchair access. Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $20–34.99. (310) 477-2055.

www.odysseytheatre.com

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Reborning
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Kristen Carey and Joanna Strapp
Photo by Ed Krieger

Roger Ebert once opined, “It’s not what a movie is about but how it is about it,” and the notion holds for plays as well. It’d be silly and unfair to reduce Fiddler on the Roof to “a musical about Russian Jews,” or Long Day’s Journey Into Night to “a play about a New England family with a substance abuse problem.” The writers’ particular treatment of their material is what matters: the ways in which artistry transcends topic.
   In one recent, provocative local example, the genius of Tommy Smith’s Firemen, a 2014 offering by Echo Theater Company, is that it refused to be pinned down as “a play about a middle-school teacher who sleeps with a student.” Yes, that plot element was in there, but the handling was sensitive and brilliantly indirect verging on the Pinteresque. Moreover, Smith was concerned with much more in his play than just a Lifetime movie topic: He had a lot on his mind about frightened people’s connections with other frightened people. So much so that he included characters with no direct involvement in the central, taboo love affair, but who had their own loneliness fish to fry.

Of course, a corollary is that when a film or play is nothing more than “about” a topic, that’s a sure sign of trouble, which brings us to Reborning, a work by Zayd Dohrn having its L.A. premiere at Fountain Theatre after a world premiere in San Francisco. This is a play “about” the true-life reborning phenomenon, in which artists create ultrarealistic dolls meant to be indistinguishable from the living, breathing variety. Sounds like a decent enough jumping-off point, opening the door to a whole variety of interesting considerations, including: Why would someone take up such a practice, as opposed to other types of art? How might the art form mess with the artist’s head? And what’s up with a person who’d want to collect such a doppleganger: mania, or aesthetic appreciation, or something darker?
   The Fountain spectator expecting any of that investigation will be disappointed, because the way Reborning proves to “be about reborning” is hokey, melodramatic, and lacking in believable dialogue or behavior. It’s as if Dohrn, having heard tell of this phenomenon, decided to just toss it up onto the stage with a modicum of research under his belt, in hopes that something would resonate. It does not, nor does it convince.

Take the central boy-girl relationship Dohrn establishes. Reborning artist Kelly (Joanna Strapp), feverishly poking a needle into a doll’s eye, is clearly nervous and maybe at a breaking point, pulling at a joint. Her longtime lover¬ and fellow artist Daizy (Ryan Doucette) crafts commissioned rubber dildos, one of which is proudly, lewdly sticking out of his pants when he bursts in, to a customer’s bemusement. When the customer leaves, he starts messing with Kelly’s materials and rudely grabbing at her doll displays, calling them “Chuckie.” “They’re starting to creep me out,” he announces, scoffing at the weirdos who would pay through the nose for a lifelike infant doppelgänger. This from the 10-inch-dildo seller. They banter Freudian theory until the truth comes out: Lately their sex life sucks.
   Almost all of this comes across as phony. Daizy and Kelly have been together for years, and clearly she’s been making these vinyl surrogates for a while now. Why would he, out of the blue, raise naïve questions about the fundamentals and commercial appeal of the art she’s been making, and making money at? Answer: because he is eliciting exposition. He must know how touchy she is about her work, so why would he thoughtlessly manhandle and deride it while she’s clearly in the throes of endeavor? For that matter, why doesn’t he notice her emotional state, or at least give us a Scene 1 hint as to whether this is her normal frame of mind or something noteworthy?
   Why does he parade the protruding dildo as if she’d never seen it before? That one’s easy: It’s meant to get a cheap laugh. And if you think the play ever gets into the contrast between their respective crafts, forget it; Daizy’s crass props carry no other plot or thematic function.
   Meanwhile there’s Kelly, who seems to take no pleasure or pride in her work. “It calms me” she exclaims, not at all calmly. If it brings her no solace, as it seems not to, why does she continue to do it? Out of compulsion, or neurosis, or hope that it will eventually take her to some pleasanter emotional space? Or shall we take the cynical view, that the playwright has predigested the act of making “fake babies,” and decided that anyone who chooses that calling must ipso facto be a basket case?

It’s so easy—far too easy—to use reborning as a metaphor for a tortured soul who can’t accept intimacy. More than that, it seems wrong to pen a play about a craft, only to arbitrarily hang a cornucopia of neuroses on it. Wrong as a dramaturgical choice, and unfair to the craftspersons themselves. (For the record, the real-life reborners quoted in the press materials sound like perfectly rational, normal people.)
   Would matters be improved if Strapp weren’t allowed, by the playwright and director Simon Levy, to play all her neurasthenic cards in the first scene, so that she has nowhere to go but just get crazier? Or if Doucette were given an opportunity to reveal some relaxed charm that might hint at what Kelly is holding onto in their relationship? Possibly so. Certainly Kristin Carey, as the customer whose commission brings events to a head, is by far the strongest element, simply because she possesses stillness and control and isn’t Acting all over the place.
   There’s a mystery woven in, too: something about Kelly’s past. But the real mystery is how this script was accepted for production by the estimable and usually reliable Fountain. If this is what this theater greenlights, what must its reject pile look like?

January 27, 2015
 
Jan. 24–March 15 5060 Fountain Ave. Secure, on-site parking, $5.Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 80 minutes. $15-34. (323) 663-1525.

www.FountainTheatre.com

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Blonde Poison
Theatre 40 in the Reuben Cordoba Theatre

Reviewed by Neal Weaver


Salome Jens
Photo by Ed Krieger

Stella Goldschlag (1922–1994) seems a wildly unlikely protagonist for Jewish playwright Gail Louw. Goldschlag was a notorious “Jew catcher” for Hitler’s Gestapo, and it has been estimated that her activities sent 600 to 3,000 Jews to their deaths. She was so efficient at her job that the Gestapo called her “Blonde Poison.” Louw is certainly no apologist for Goldschlag. The playwright makes no attempt to exonerate or whitewash the woman, but she does seek to understand what could have driven Goldschlag to such monstrous behavior. And, in the end, the portrait is not an unsympathetic one.
   Stella was just coming of age when the Nazis came to power. At first, she and her parents didn’t perceive the danger that was coming. They were convinced the German people were too civilized to tolerate for long Hitler’s barbarous policies. While other Jews were fleeing the country, the Goldschlags could not believe they were really in danger. By the time they realized their peril, it was too late. Because Stella was blonde and beautiful, she was able to pass for an Aryan, at least for a time, but her parents were not so lucky. They were taken into custody and slated for deportation to the death camps. It was then she agreed to work for the Nazis, in exchange for the lives of her parents and herself. And her career as a Greifer for the Gestapo began. She was repeatedly assured that the Gestapo never separated families. But they were lying, and her mother and father were sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt and executed there.

Louw has cast her play in the form of a solo drama and set it in the more recent past: 1994, shortly before Stella (Salome Jens) died. She has been asked for an interview by a journalist she had known in their student days, when he professed his love for her. But now, as she waits for the journalist to arrive, she is terrified. And it becomes clear how much she is haunted by her past and terrified at the prospect of being asked hard questions about it. The most unanswerable question is why she continued to work for the Gestapo after the death of her parents. She can’t answer it, even to herself. She keeps repeating, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
   As the play unfolds, the details of her life since the war emerge. When the conflict ended, she found herself pregnant, the result of an ill-fated love affair. When the Russian troops entered Berlin, she escaped rape by going into hiding. But when her child was born, she was deemed an unfit mother because of her wartime activities, the child was taken from her, and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison as a collaborator. When she later attempted to meet her child, she was rejected with fear and loathing. And, perhaps in order to achieve some sort of absolution, she converted to Christianity.

It’s a harrowing tale, told and acted with both passion and restraint. The solo drama is essentially an artificial format: a single woman talking to herself at length about her past sorrow and malefactions. But Louw is a skillful writer, and Jens acts the role with such profound conviction that we never question her reality. Her attempts at understanding and rationalizing her horrendous past actions seem both credible and moving. Her guilt may be profound, but so is her suffering.
   Director Jules Aaron frames the action with tact and sensitivity, and a finely invisible hand. Designer Jeff G. Rack has created the handsome set—though one wonders how Goldschlag could afford such a fine apartment after all her travails.

January 12, 2015
 
Jan. 8–26. 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills (in the parking structure at the back of the campus of Beverly Hills High School, enter at north end of campus, free parking). Mon 8pm, Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, Running time 95 minutes, with no intermission. $26. (310) 364-0535.

www.Theatre40.org

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