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Smoke and Mirrors
Disappearing Inc. and Road Theatre Company at Historic Lankershim Arts Center
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
“When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?” asks Albie at the top of this show. “And what were you afraid of?” These questions cleverly plunge the audience into a childlike mindset, priming each viewer to enjoy the wonders of magic—prestidigitational and theatrical—that will follow.
After young Albie’s father died, Albie was afraid of everything, his older self tells us, but mostly of being a nobody. And so Albie immersed himself in honing the skills of a magician. We meet him as a lisping lad in mismatched pajamas during the LBJ presidency; we titter with him as he wore an afro in the 1970s; we gag with him as he squeezed into spandex in the 1980s. And we watch the magic “tricks” grow in sophistication.
This production deserves its wide-ranging praise. Its writer-star, Albie Selznick, is an engaging and talented magician who has more than paid dues in acting roles across Southland stages. Here he apparently plays himself as a young magician whose father died when Albie was a lad and who subsequently has been trying to find his place and his stride, doing so through prowess in sleight-of-hand and, it turns out, sleight of his entire body.
This long-running show obviously has found its stride, directed by Paul Millet. That’s not to say Selznick coasts at this point. He’s very present, apparently eager for each audience member to have a good time, but never pandering or patronizing. His vast series of illusions begins with Ping-Pong balls that appear and disappear with seeming ease from between his fingers. He juggles, he stilt-walks, he amazes, and after 90 minutes he closes with an illusion that surprised even the careful watchers in the audience. Selznick might have overdone all the mentions of his father, but if that’s what it takes to get him through his routines, so be it.
At the performance reviewed, the warm-up act starred three young talents: Kyle Bryan Hall, Angie Hobin, and David Valdes—the latter quite young, at 14. They banter ably and amiably with the audience, host a trivia contest, and collect a short “survey” filled out by audience members that later figures in one of the illusions. They also play various characters throughout the show, and half the fun is trying to guess which ones and how they did it.
They are joined by Brandy LaPlante as Bessie Houdini, who returns from history to play magician’s assistant to young Albie. Selznick aimed high, and fearlessly, in selecting the famous wife and partner to appear with him.
Note to parents/guardians: This review does not intend to recommend the production for all young audiences, but the show is certainly appropriate for young magicians, with the proviso for hypersensitive parents that one F-bomb is dropped. If that’s the worst your child ever hears or says, you’re quite the magician.
August 12, 2013
The Normal Heart
Reviewed by Bob Verini
Lisa Pelikan, Dan Shaked, Stephen O’Mahoney, Tim Cummings, and Fred Koehler
Photo by Ed Krieger
Almost 30 years after its premiere, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart still packs a wallop, though it’s a different kind of wallop from that which first stunned audiences in the record-breaking long run at New York’s Public Theater. Back then, the fury over governmental, institutional, and (to a large extent) public indifference to the “gay plague,” as it was then known, was designed to give everyone a huge, urgent kick in the ass, from Ronald “I won’t mention AIDS” Reagan and Mayor Ed “Here’s $9K for your little organization but don’t say where it came from” Koch, on down. No one had any idea what the eventual scope or longevity of the crisis would end up being, so every performance was suffused with a palpable fear. Is Kramer right? Could millions be wiped out?
Today the fear factor is diminished, as evidenced not by the disappearance of AIDS (where did that rumor start?) but by the hundreds of thousands now thankfully managing to live with their immunodeficiency, and by the (less thankfully) reported rise in unprotected sex. Today, as we watch Kramer’s characters gripped by a mysterious killer to which everyone else seems indifferent, a different kind of fury bubbles up: a retrospective fury. We know that science and government eventually acted; we know the virus was discovered; and we know that huge progress has been made. Anger remains, but it’s not quite as white hot.
Much of the impact of The Normal Heart on a 2013 audience comes out of shared grief over the sheer numbers of bold, beautiful men and women cut down long before their prime in an inescapably sad, and ongoing, accounting. Yes, millions were wiped out, as we feared. In many ways, the play serves as a living AIDS quilt. At the same time, Kramer’s opus can also invigorate an audience as it attests to what mass action around a common cause can do—though there is also power in the enactment of how difficult it is to organize and sustain any such mass action.
Simon Levy’s revival at the Fountain Theatre taps into all of those strains. His crisp blocking and scene changes facilitate his vigorous depiction of the messy politics of AIDS activism, and a projected crawl, as the audience exits, singles out theater, film, and TV talents who succumbed to the disease. Actually, Adam Flemming’s video designs work superbly throughout, as they communicate contemporary headlines and body counts along with identifying each scene’s place and time. But it’s that final crawl that really hits home.
The production’s main weakness, a lack of modulation in the acting, may fix itself or get attended to over time. Fine players—Verton R. Banks as the seeming mayfly who proves to be the GMHC’s rock; Lisa Pelikan, the wheelchair-bound doctor-slash-Cassandra; Fred Koehler as a bullied bureaucrat—throw all their punches in their first few scenes, boxing themselves in emotionally and histrionically as the years move along and the victims pile up. It’s small wonder that most of the show’s memorable moments are those played with restraint: Bill Brochtrup’s NY Times reporter, bearing up courageously until the very last moments. Matt Gottlieb, straight-arrow brother of activist Ned Weeks (Tim Cummings), standing tall against Ned’s accusations, founded or otherwise. And above all Stephen O’Mahoney as Bruce Niles, the Marlboro Man president of the organization, whose description of his dying lover’s horrific flight home to Phoenix is all the more chilling for how low-key it’s played.
Cummings is a special case, thrilling yet problematic. He is clearly the engine powering this event, having fully internalized all of this character’s crotchets and passions. (Ned is the warts-and-all surrogate of Kramer himself.) Yet he too loses it too soon for comfort, indulging in the most blatant of hand gestures and vocal histrionics in his earliest scenes; by the end he is literally forced to bang his fists and head into the walls to react to events, and it’s all just too much. If Cummings could justify more restraint along the way—and he is surely enough of a pro to do so—he’d be infinitely more moving at the finale.
September 24, 2013
21–Dec. 15. 5060 Fountain Ave. Secure, on-site parking, $5. Thu-Sat 8pm,
Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours, 40 minutes, including
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
Tribute band concerts have become more and more common, particularly when the band in question has aged or broken up. The performers generally have an ear for the melodies and mannerisms of their idols, but you are, by and large, aware that they are not the originals. In the case of Tim Piper playing John Lennon, that doubt vanishes immediately, as he projects the look, the mannerisms, the accent, and the talent.
Brother Greg Piper greets the audience with news that the show is not a play but more like a concert, and it will be loud. He offers earplugs at $1 each and then traverses the audience selling quite a number. He also cautions that the musicians are old guys but among the best in the business. Then it’s time for “Revolution,” played by Tim Piper and his band, Working Class Hero.
Piper’s musicianship is uncannily familiar for die-hard Beatle fans. It appears that the composition of the audience falls into that category, because in nearly every sing-a-long, the audience knows the words, rhythms, and pauses. It is truly a love-fest.
If it were just about the music, it would be worth the ticket price, but Piper channels Lennon as he relates his life story. From the earliest days in school when Lennon formed a band with Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Stu Sutcliffe, he recalls that he was pretty much on his own. With a completely absent father and a mother who turned him over to her elder sister to raise, he remembers it as a rather loveless and painful time. Even though he regained a relationship with his mother, she was killed when he was 17, which appears to have made an indelible impact on him. He recalls that his relationship with most of the women in his life was violent and abusive. He describes himself as a bad husband and a worse father to Julian, born to him and Cynthia Powell, his first wife.
As the music progresses, much of it a result of his partnership with McCartney, he alludes to his early performing, their time in Hamburg, drug use, and Brian Epstein’s leadership that put them on the map.
Providing an ever-changing backdrop to the reminiscences are Piper’s video projections of photos and psychedelic images, enhancing the experience. From Ed Sullivan’s 1964 television broadcast, on which the boys gained world fame, through the stages of their evolution as a band, Piper is witty and acerbic, as well as thoughtful in his evaluations of how Lennon handled his life. Paired with Yoko Ono, whom most people disliked, he reveals that she was Lennon’s muse, the person with whom he finally found love.
Piper plays to the audience intimately, at one point coming out into the audience for a sing-along, greeting some people he obviously knows. He ties his songs to personal experiences, to Powell, to drugs, to friction with his bandmates. For those who know Lennon only through his songs, it is an expanded glimpse of a man who was a rebel, a counter-culture figure, and a person whose demons obviously drove him to acts recounted here with remorse.
The accompanying band—brother Greg on bass, Don Butler on guitar, Morley Bartnoff on keyboards, and Don Poncher on drums--contributes mightily to the enjoyment of the performance. They are top-notch in every way. Greg Piper is superb as musical director.
Written and directed by Steve Altman, with writing credit also granted to Tim Piper, the show is a notch above most tribute concerts in its narrative and lyric delivery. Straddling the line between play and musical, it provides context for the familiar hits, as well as Lennon’s less widely known works. Where most tribute shows play the standards, this show also includes his latter works created when he was on his own away from the Beatles.
Lennon is an icon, arguably one of the greatest musical talents of our time. Piper’s homage to his work and life paints a vivid portrait of the man and re-creates some of his best songs with intensity and seeming spontaneity. The energy of the band and Piper’s superb delivery make for a totally enjoyable experience.
August 14, 2013
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
Reviewed by Julio Martinez
Kirsten Kollender, Joshua Bitton, Peggy Dunne, and Jennifer Pollono
Photo by John Flynn
The opening scene of John Pollono’s cathartic sojourn within the lives of a working-class family in Derry, N.H., reveals deceptively placid divorced mom Maggie (Jennifer Pollono) bundling up to face her daily dose of New England winter weather. Playwright John Pollono is merely setting the audience up for the impending explosion. As she is suddenly forced to deal with another potential life-crushing tragedy in her life, Jennifer’s rage-soaked Maggie projects the weight of her family’s generations of failed women—all of whose youthful dreams were shattered by teen pregnancies—through her every jagged word and gesture.
There is no emotional wiggle room in Maggie’s life. When she discovers her 17-year-old daughter Erica (Anna Theoni DiGiovanni) has taken the car during the night and is now missing as a sudden winter blizzard hits the area, Maggie is soon hemmed in by the living representatives of her miseries—including her destitute live-in mother, Linda (Peggy Dunne reviewed, Anne Bronston alternates in the role); Maggie’s recovering-alcoholic ex-husband, Lou (Joshua Bitten); and his squeaky-clean new wife, Penny (Kirsten Kollender). There are occasional sitcom-level sarcasms flowing amongst these caged antagonists as a plethora of pent-up frustrations are unleashed; but director John Perrin Flynn admirably keeps the inherent tension focused on their tangible fears about the fate of Erica.
The scenes between Jennifer Pollono and Bitten exude a palpable sexual tension that at any moment seems capable of exploding into physical violence. Fueling their frustration is the inherent knowledge that too much has happened to bridge the gap that now separates them. Actually, playwright Pollono is guilty of exposition overkill as Maggie relentlessly batters Lou with his pre-sobriety past deeds. Dunne’s Linda offers a notable study in human wreckage just living out her days as painlessly as possible. Inadvertently serving as a tension-buster is Kollender’s Penny, who refuses to allow the misery around her to derail her innate sense of good will no matter how many insults are slung her way.
What turns this admirable working-class drama into a theatrical work of art are playwright Pollono’s brilliantly conceived counter-balancing scenes of DiGiovanni’s socially jaundiced teen girl holed up in a roadside motel to ride out the storm, accompanied by her adoring classmate and toady, Scooter (Jonathan Lipnicki), who has been talked into driving out of state so the girl he loves can hook up with her older guy boyfriend. Within the space of a few short scenes, DiGiovanni and Lipnicki manage to believably evolve and transform two embryonic psyches into a single-minded union that is prepared to take on the world.
The final character in this tale has to be David Mauer’s perfectly detailed living room/kitchen setting that impressively transforms quickly into the motel hideaway. Indeed, the entire production is buoyed by the designs of Jeff McLaughlin (lights), Peter Bayne (sound), and Caitlin Doolittle (costumes).
September 30, 2013
14–Dec. 16. 5041 Pico Blvd. (street metered until 8pm). Theatre is
wheelchair accessible. Sat 5pm, Sun 7pm, Mon 8pm (no performances Sept
23, Oct 21). Running time 90 minutes. $30. (855) 585-5185.