Arts In LA
Rockwell Table & Stage

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Christine Lakin, Brian P. Kennedy, Sarah Hyland, and Jimmy Ray Bennett
Photo by Elliot Dal Pra London

It’s a worthy if not unprecedented idea, taking a hit blockbuster movie and inventing an in-joke infused musical spoof of the original. And surely there could be no better target than Kevin Williamson’s archetypal and oft-imitated slasher flick Scream!, a film that has inspired more Halloween costumes than a whole gaggle of slutty nurses.
   Michael Gans and Richard Register have conceived, written, and directed this irreverent and delightfully off-color takeoff on the 1996 horror classic, inaugurating Rockwell Table and Stage’s Unauthorized Musical Parody series with gusto. Also appearing onstage carrying books labeled “Holy Shit” and wearing choir robes fashioned to look like elongated football jerseys, the creators double—triple?—as the show’s gleefully animated narrators, something that might have been extra difficult on opening night with Williamson and his entourage seated directly down front to check out what has become of his baby in this unauthorized version.

Unfolding around and through the cramped dinner tables, outside the front window, and even on and over the bar of the ambitious Los Feliz cabaret supper club, Gans and Register lead a sparkling revolving cast of some of the best transplanted Broadway musical talent to recently arrive on our shores and headlined by that diminutive livewire Sarah Hyland. Best known as the empty-headed Haley on Modern Family, Hyland knocked audiences on their proverbial butts in July, delivering a showstoppingly sweet and simple “Frank Mills” as Crissy in Hair at the Hollywood Bowl. Now, as the woebegone teenage stalking victim Sidney, Hyland is equally memorable, proving herself possessed with a powerhouse voice for rock that goes far beyond Crissy’s quiet lament of the boy she lost in front of the Waverly.
   All the musical theater veterans alternating in this pun-full satire are wonderfully sincere and slickly successful in their comedic efforts. Particular standouts at the first performance were Jimmy Ray Bennett as Randy and the wildly Midler-like Carly Jibson, one-third of the ever-present Screamette chorus, both of whom break out from the ranks to deliver dynamic world-class solos.

It’s kind of a shame the score for this Scream! is made up of popular standards when the book by Gans and Register, the music direction by keyboardist Brian P. Kennedy, and the talents of his bandmates and this particular cast prove good enough to support the addition of a creative young composer to step the project up to the next level.
   A caution to anyone interested in attending an event at the Rockwell: Avoid getting plunked down onto an uncomfortable stool at the venue’s bar, even if the hostess assures you that you’ll be right in the middle of the action. That’s the biggest part of the problem. Despite the absence of a much desired chair-back to make the 90-minute running time of this show substantially more comfortable, turning away from the bar to watch the show is especially difficult for anyone over 6-foot-tall. The steady stream of wait staff, hosts, bathroom-goers, and actors trying to maneuver past the outstretched legs of those dumped at the bar and the tightly herded patrons seated on the other side of what felt like about an 18-inch aisle made what could have been a pleasant experience more claustrophobic than fun. The staging by Gans and Register is clever, but somehow no one seemed to consider how it would work with a full house.

October 20, 2014
Oct. 18–Nov.15. 1714 N. Vermont, Los Feliz. Fri-Sat 8pm. $15¬–50. (323) 669-1550 ext. 20.


You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Sustaining Sound Theatre Company and Chromolume Theatre at the Attic

Reviewed by Julio Martinez

John Devereaux, Dorothy Dillingham Blue, Richie Ferris, Holland Noel, Kristin Towers-Rowles, and Matt Steele
Photo by Liz Reinhardt

The original, 1967 Off-Broadway staging of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown did not have a book, merely a string of well-known Charles Schulz cartoon quips from his Peanuts strip, highlighted by original songs from the show’s creator, Clark Gesner. Because the tunes are unmemorable, the show relies on the viability of its six-member cast to inhabit and amplify Schulz’s beloved menagerie of life-challenged moppets.
   Sustaining Sound Theatre Company’s ensemble is mostly up to the task, assisted greatly by additional material culled from the 1999 Broadway revival of this tuner provided by Michael Mayer (dialogue) and Andrew Lippa (music and lyrics). Helmer Cate Caplin—who also handles the musical staging—is to be complimented for instilling a strong sense of purpose within the character interactions.
   The show chronicles the daily tribulations of woebegone Charlie Brown (Holland Noel). They are inflicted by his own inadequacies—real and imagined—but he is ever hopeful he will one day get to up the courage to talk to that “little redheaded girl.” Noel is properly callow as “Good ol’ Chuck” but has problems keeping command of his lines. Nevertheless, Noel exudes a proper balance of hopefulness and helplessness, as our round-headed protagonist deals with friends Linus (Richie Ferris), Lucy (Dorothy Blue), and Schroeder (John Deveraux), as well as little sister Sally (Kristin Towers-Rowles) and his dog Snoopy (Matt Steele).

What can’t be helped is Gesner’s lame score, but Caplin certainly tries. Making inventive use of Attic’s limited performance area, Caplin and choreographer Samantha Whidby invest a zesty vitality in the proceedings, incorporating a sense of musical theater pizzazz into such ensemble numbers as the opening, “You’re a Good Man...,” Schroeder’s ode to “Beethoven Day” and the show-closing “Happiness.” Musical director–keyboardist Jeff Bonhiver and an uncredited percussionist serve quite nicely as a two-person pit band.
   The most effective number in the show is Sally Brown’s monumentally self-serving “My New Philosophy,” by Lippa, performed with sociopathic fervor by Towers-Rowles, in a duet with Deveraux’s thoroughly intimidated Schroeder. Towers-Rowles also displays impressive hoofer skills—along with the equally accomplished Steele—as Sally Brown and Snoopy dance their way through “Rabbit Chasing.” On his own, Steele morphs into a canine Bob Fosse as Snoopy celebrates the wonders of “Suppertime.”
   Blue’s Lucy Van Pelt is properly domineering, opinionated, and crabby, especially in her dealings with Charlie Brown (“The Doctor Is In”) and brother Linus (“Little Known Facts”). It also works that Blue’s Lucy doesn’t just melt in the presence of her true love (“Schroeder”); she tells him how it is going to be. Ferris’s Linus believably manages to subdue Lucy with his unrelenting brotherly love.

Erik Austin’s modular scenic pieces are workable, as are the lighting design of Will Clekler and sound design of Kenny Leforte (sound). What doesn’t work are the oversized, thoroughly unflattering costumes of Shon LeBlanc and Melissa Pritchett.

October 14, 2014
Sept. 26–Nov. 2. 5429 W. Washington Blvd. Ample street parking. Theater is wheelchair-ccessible. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $28. (323) 205-1617.


Phantom of the Opera
Vox Lumiere at Los Angeles Theatre Center

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz

James Lynch
Photo by Johanna Siegmann

Kevin Saunders Hayes’s ambitious multimedia experimentations with silent films returns to Los Angeles with a funhouse version of the Lon Chaney classic Phantom of the Opera. Projecting the film on the big screen, the production comments on the movie by intensify the experience with original songs, dance, and wild costumes. Though the quality of the songs is uneven, the intriguing premise and Natalie Willes’s scandalous choreography make for an amusing evening.
   The Carl Laemmle 1925 version of Phantom won worldwide acclaim for its epic sets, frightening sequences, and Man of a Thousand Faces’s most horrifying makeup creation. Manipulating and punishing his own face with tape and wires, Chaney pulled back his features to construct a chilling monster. Both maniacal and pitiable, Chaney’s Erik was a complex villain, since Erik is haunted by unrequited love.

Saunders Hayes collides early- and late-20th-century influences, making the silent masterpieces palatable for school-age children who grew up in an MTV universe. The production, with strobe lighting, thumping beats, and grotesque body movements that border on camp, is a live version of a music video. Because the screen is not obscured, the audiences can delight in the modern fixings while imbibing one of the great horror films. It’s a shame that nitrate deterioration has blurred a lot of the film, but hopefully celebrations like this will continue the fight for movie restoration after such carelessness in the studio system during the mid-20th century.
   Willes’s choreography is Saunders Hayes’s asset. Ballet, interpretive jazz, and hip-hop are mashed-up with precision. The aerial partnering sequences are dazzling and innovative, something you’d see in a Cirque du Soleil show. She has employed dancers who have flawless technique.

The peculiar original score is problematic. The opera numbers are piercing, effectively melding with the visions on the screen. They are exquisitely sung by Danielle Skalsky as the Grand Dame, Julie Brody as Carlotta, and Marisa Johnson as the onstage version of Christine. The pop songs, many with an industrial sound that were utilized by ’80s bands like Styx, are less successful. The melodies are loud and monotonous.
   Because of the theater’s sound system, the lyrics are indecipherable. When they could be heard, they were the same phrases over and over. Some, like the Faust character singing again and again, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi” and “Let’s party like it’s 1899,” are insipid. On the other hand, the use of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is creepily commanding. Sharell Martin’s costumes—bustiers and metallic skirts for the women and shield-like cut-off shirts for the men—create a sexy, robotic punk mood. The Phantom is dressed in tight leather, blood red and black, night goggles and a mad hatter top hat, a clever variation of the boogeyman.

The concept of Vox Lumiere is a sterling idea: making forgotten films accessible to the new generations. Given better songs, it would have the potential to evolve into something startling, adding new dimensions to many gems of masters like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, and D.W. Griffith.

October 14, 2014
Sept. 19-20, Oct. 10-11, Nov. 21-22, and Dec. 12-13. 514 S. Spring St. (parking behind the theater). Fri-Sat 8pm, once per month. $40-75. (844) 809-7025.


The Behavior of Broadus
Sacred Fools Theater Company

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Hugo Armstrong with Amir Levi and Andrew Joseph Perez

Straight up, the Sacred Fool–Burglars of Hamm co-production of ITALICSThe Behavior of Broadus is the most audacious, provocative, entertaining, original musical to premiere in LA since 2008’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, to which the new show bears more than a little resemblance.
   Not only did both receive workshopping and support from Center Theater Group (for which, bless CTG), but each exhibits the same cheerfully anarchic spirit; the same harum-scarum, period-mashing, fourth-wall-breaking theatricality; and equal 20/20 hindsight as to the effect of historical personages and events on the present day.
   The behavior Behavior charts is that of Dr. John Broadus Watson (1878–1958), to whose life story the Burglars librettists (Carolyn Almos, co-director Matt Almos, Jon Beauregard, and Albert Dayan) hew more closely than did Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman in their evisceration of our seventh president. Watson (impersonated charismatically by Hugo Armstrong) escaped a hardscrabble Southern upbringing and fundamentalist conditioning to earn a psychology Ph.D., becoming a pioneer in the movement known, and somewhat eclipsed today but still hanging on, as “behaviorism.”
   Broadly (Broadusly?) speaking, that’s the Pavlovian, anti-Freudian notion that science must observe and experiment upon human subjects. Probing into that which is interior, dreamlike, or hypothetical is rigorously proscribed.

As the musical faithfully synopsizes, Watson applied his faith in the power of psychological conditioning first to the behavior of maze rats (impersonated charmingly by Andrew Joseph Perez); then to child-rearing (he beat Dr. Spock to the punch by decades with 1928’s bestselling Psychological Care of Infant and Child); and finally to advertising, where he propounded the notion that products sell not because of the facts we consumers are told about them but by the seductive narrative woven around them. (Sound familiar?)
   The musical takes awhile to gain its footing. Act One, in particular, fails to establish the evening’s tone for long stretches; for a while it looks like we’re just in for a cartoonish series of easy, cheesy satirical targets (religious mania; egotistical scientists; vain, dumb flappers) with little point beyond childish cynicism. As adroit as Armstrong is, he can’t quite get a handle on Watson in the first half, forced to bang around alternately as clodhopper, fraud, dupe, and true believer.

Once Watson’s personal and professional lives merge after intermission, the ideas start pinging, and Armstrong’s performance takes on full potency and poignancy. We see Watson as much a prisoner of his own theories as their booster: His parenting system sadly backfires on his own sons, and he’s haunted by his incomplete, world-famous experiments on the infant known as “Little Albert,” in whom Watson instilled a fear of rats without following through to undo any potential damage. (Amir Levi chillingly portrays the grown Albert in Watson’s heartbreaking hallucination.)
   We’re also invited to consider behaviorism’s role in making us all consumerists, and in advancing the effects of authoritarian political systems generally. Few musicals offer as much food for the mind.

There’s plenty of ear and eye candy too. The score, credited to the sensational composer Brendan Milburn (Sleeping Beauty Wakes), as well as to Matt Almos and the Burglars generally, is sophisticated and tuneful at once, and—praise be—heavily period influenced as well. Choreography by co-director Ken Roht is sharp and apt throughout, avoiding showiness and camp. Most memorable of all are Jason H. Thompson’s brilliant projected images, whether literal or symbolically tinged, of the outside world Watson was so eager to bend to his behaviorist will.

October 5, 2014
Sept. 12–Oct. 25. 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $25 (310) 281-8337.


The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?
Davidson/Valentini Theatre, Los Angeles LGBT Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Ann Noble and Paul Witten
Photo by Michael Lamont

Edward Albee’s disturbing tragic comedy The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? was the first of his exceptionally prolific body of work to rival Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in importance. It is also his most shocking effort ever, the most challenging to our societal sense of morality and acceptable behavior, and the only one of his plays where finding oneself laughing is something of a guilty pleasure.
   Martin (Paul Witten) is a happily married and highly successful architect who celebrates his midlife crisis at age 50 by having an affair with a bucolic beauty of decidedly nonhuman attributes. He named his four-legged mistress Sylvia because “it seemed to fit her” and, as the tale begins to unfold, he becomes increasingly more puzzled why the people he loves can’t understand what he feels. He’s tried support groups, a kind of Animalfuckers Anonymous where fellow attendees have “things” for horses, dogs, and one small pig, but he keeps his passion hidden until he spills the oats to his best friend Ross (Matt Kirkwood). Ross immediately feels compelled to tell Martin’s wife, Stevie (Ann Noble), so they can plan a strategy to get the poor guy help—or at least buy him stronger cologne.

Ken Sawyer’s direction is fluid throughout, especially amazing when the suddenly aware Stevie begins to smash ceramic tchotchkes around Robert Selander’s smartly claustrophobic Manhattan living room setting, while Martin tries to calmly, rationally explain himself to his freaking-out wife. Between lobbing vases into the fireplace, Stevie makes jokes about her own inadequacy in knowing how to handle this, especially as she has only two breasts and walks upright. No matter how happy or strong a marriage may appear, there are a lot of ingrained suspicions that pass through a wife’s mind, but, as Stevie admits, “I wonder when he’ll start cruising livestock” was not high among them.
   With such a well-proven director to skillfully guide his brave performers through a difficult script, exhausting to watch and perform as Stevie turns their Pier 1–friendly apartment to rubble, The Goat is made more accessible by the rich performances of Witten and Noble, who are fearless in the difficult roles of a couple still in love but facing a devastation neither one believes he or she can possibly survive. Both veteran LA stage actors are monumentally simple, hilariously funny, sincerely heartbreaking, and obviously deeply trusting of Sawyer’s steady but unobtrusive leadership.
   Spencer Morrissey, though not entirely comfortable yet with his stage physicality and considerable talent, has wonderfully touching moments as their teenage son, whose own admission to homosexuality pales in comparison to his father’s newly unearthed penchant for bestiality. Kirkwood’s most memorable moment comes when Martin extracts Sylvia’s photo from his wallet and passes it to his old friend. Without showing it to the audience, his facial expression describes Sylvia right down to those sexy, well-turned hooves of hers (a special unexplained shout-out to the production’s property designer, Bethany Tucker).

Running through Albee’s raucous but always sophisticated humor is the creeping onslaught of tragedy worthy of the ancient Greeks. Just when it seems Martin’s continuous avoidance has become too much, too constricting, Albee pumps up his character with an uncanny strength and even indignation at the reaction of those he loves. Coming slowly to the realization that the people around him are more concerned with how others will react to his barnyard dalliance than how they feel about it themselves, Martin presents the real theme of this masterfully constructed play. Ayn Rand once wrote that most people in the world are “second-handers,” that they live not for themselves but for how everyone else they encounter in their lives perceive them to be. Nothing in this world is more immoral than that.

September 27, 2014
Sept. 19–Nov. 23. 1125 N. McCadden Pl. Free parking is available. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $30. (323) 860-7300.


The Full Monty
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Bryan Dobson, Paul David Bryant, Harley Jay, Sheldon Morley, Jonathan Brett, and Kevin Patrick Doherty
Photo by Ed Krieger

While the material may be a bit questionable, the talent involved in this production is undeniable. This musical tells the story of average men who learn to love their physical selves and the special women who never stopped loving them. Its book, by Terrence McNally, hews to the 1997 film of the same name (written by Simon Beaufoy). McNally’s musical is set in Buffalo, N.Y., as that city’s steelworkers lose their jobs.
   When the men’s wives wander into a nightclub featuring male strippers, spending chunks of their own incomes on the entertainment, two of the men, Jerry and Dave, plot to raise desperately needed funds by likewise stripping down to their boxers, or indeed even less. They gather a ragtag troupe of fellow unemployed workers, and rehearsals commence.
   The men’s poor body images (sagginess, pudginess, baldness) and their perceived limitations (arthritis, age, stage fright) are mighty massive roadblocks. Topping that are the men’s fraught relationships with wives, ex-wives, and mothers. But this wouldn’t be an American musical if the characters didn’t have steep hills to climb.

Playing those characters are a substantial number of vibrant younger talents and a few dazzling “older” folks. At the show’s center, Harley Jay plays Jerry and Sheldon Robert Morley plays Dave. Jay has a rock quality to his singing, Morley a more “conversational” one. Both men, however, flawlessly deliver the anxiety and passions of their characters.
   Paul David Bryant brings fresh vitality to the middle of Act One, even though, he says, as a black man with the nickname of Horse, he is ladened by the expectations of others. At the other extreme, Kevin Patrick Doherty plays the fragile Malcolm, who starts the audience’s tears flowing in the gorgeous “You Walk With Me.” Jonathan Brett masters the clowning role of Ethan: quick to strip, quick to show his Donald O’Connor routine, not so quick to learn the choreography. But if you’re looking for that soaring, thrilling, musical-theater voice, you’ll relish Bryan Dobson as the men’s former boss Harold.
   The womenfolk get the almost last word, and it’s a good one. As Dave’s wife, Heidi Godt’s Georgie sturdily loves him through the belly fat. As Jerry’s ex-wife, Pam, Rebecca Thomas lets kindness peek through Pam’s longtime disappointment. And dominating the men’s rehearsals is old showbiz vet Jeanette, played with pizzazz by (much younger) Eloise Coopersmith.

Even at two and a half hours, the show zips along, directed by James W. Gruessing Jr. with a robust energy and restrained yet hilarious physical comedy. One of his smart moves is to place members of his ensemble alongside the audience to cheer on the men who ultimately perform at the Buffalo club, because clearly the audiences at the Norris could use the support as much as the strippers can.
   But another of Gruessing’s smart moves is to find the heart of this musical, and, as it winds toward its end, it doesn’t pull its emotional punches. From Jerry’s tender ballad “Breeze off the River” through his final battle with fear, Gruessing’s direction grows poignant. David Yazbek’s score is jazzy, complex, and memorable. Under music director Daniel Thomas, the pit band sizzles and the vocal performances are polished.

The story starts off with homophobic joking among the men. This can’t last, one thinks, particularly considering its writers’ other works. It doesn’t. The men of the troupe learn to accept themselves and one another. Less easily accepted is the presence of Jerry’s 12-year-old son, Nathan (the gifted young Bradley Nolan), as an observer of the stripping scheme. The concepts and language expressed in front of him will shock some audience members. Maybe things were different in Buffalo in the year 2000. Or, does the story intend for its audience to loosen up?
   Speaking of 2000, the choreography (by Bryant) is delightfully 1970s. Truth be told, popular dance hasn’t hit a highlight since then. But some of the script’s humor (really, an Eddie Fisher joke?) is painfully dated.
   Spoilers: The men indeed go full monty. But, thanks to the split-second timing of the tech crew, the moment is nearly view-proof.

September 22, 2014
Sept. 19–Oct. 5. 27570 Norris Center Dr., Rolling Hills Estates. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. $45-55. (310) 544-0403 x221.


The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Actors Co-Op Crossley Theatre

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz

The ensemble
Photo by Lindsay Schnebly

The Actors Co-op modest production of the Tony-winning The Mystery of Edwin Drood strips away the large orchestrations, the amplified mikes, and the harmonizing chorus and focuses on Rupert Holmes’s ribald script. Led by the superbly dry Peter Allen Vogt, Drood makes for an uproarious evening.
   The 1986 musical, one of the few meta-musicals, draws on the conventions of the 19th century English music halls, Dickensian melodrama, and what it means to be an audience member. Based on Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel (he died before its completion), the musical takes on the fact that Dickens never revealed who killed Edwin Drood—or even whether Drood died—and creates the first pick-your-own-ending musical, allowing the audience to make that choice.

Composer Rupert Holmes wrote alternate endings allowing for any of the players to have committed and confessed to the murder. Holmes added to the self-reflexivity by having the play performed in a Music Hall, with a Master of Ceremonies (Vogt) commenting on the characters, drawing the audience across the fourth wall, and even promoting future events at the Music Hall. Adding to the insanity, Edwin Drood is played by woman, a primadonna who walks out in a snit when the other cast members turn on her.
   Holmes’s songs are an amalgamation of character songs, such as the piercing “Moonfall” and the revealing “A Man Could Go Quite Mad,” and out-of-nowhere music hall ditties that purposely pull the audience out of the dramatics, like the Act One finale “Off to the Races” and the opening “There You Are.”

Actors Co-op’s director Stephen Van Dorn, with a small but able five-piece orchestra and a stage the size of a bathroom, draws attention to those limitations by having the actors interact with the band and rely on the parody aspects to compensate for the smaller sounds. He utilizes the set for visual jokes, like characters opening pop-out doors as if they were appearing on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Most essentially, Van Dorn relies on a nimble cast to draw out the humor with ironic facial expressions and sly line interpretations.
   Setting the comic bar high, Vogt so masters the double-take that he appears to successfully channel Bea Arthur. Like the famed comedienne, Vogt can shatter an audience into hysterics just with one piercing look. Gina D’Acciaro exaggerates her eyes like a silent movie queen, turning Princess Puffer into a bewitching character. She makes each of her songs, including “Wages of Sin” and “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead,” a showstopper.
   Greg Baldwin makes the permanently soused crypt-keeper Durdles such a loveable drunk that at the performance reviewed here, the audience voted for him and Puffer as the production’s lovers. Catherine Gray is delightfully bombastic as Alice Nutting, the too-big-for-her britches star playing Edwin Drood. Gray exaggerates her characters’ movements as if her Alice thinks that the audience will be entranced by her every whim. She has a lyrical voice that makes Drood’s songs a joy to hear.
   Also playing every line like it is much needed oxygen, Craig McEldowney is appropriately lecherous and manic as the villainous John Jasper. Isaac Wade, who plays a discounted actor playing a dismissed character, conveys in Phillip Bax both a meek nature and desperation for attention. It’s a testament to Wade’s hilarious performance that the audience chose him as the murderer just to watch him perform, since there’s no logical reason for his Drood character Bazzard to have killed the title character.

If one seeks a beautifully and powerfully sung version of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, this may not be the ideal production. The cast have melodic but small voices, and, at least in the current production, lack sustaining power in their notes. However, if one wishes to revel in the delightfully witty dialogue and commentary of Rupert Holmes’s book, enacted by a cast of talented clowns, look no farther than the Actors Co-op.

September 23, 2014
Sept. 19–Oct. 26. 1760 N. Gower St. (located on the grounds of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood). Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2:30pm (additional Saturday performances Sept. 27 and Oct. 25 at 2:30pm). $25-34. (323) 462-8460.


Rogue Machine Theatre

Review by Neal Weaver

Rebecca Mozo, Patrick Stafford, Matthew Elkins, and Gregory Itzin
Photo by John Flynn

Mike Bartlett’s long one-act is a tale of uncertain sexual identity. It attempts to be both visceral and abstract. The central figure is John (Patrick Stafford), the only character who is given a name. He has been living for some time with his lover M (for Man?), played by Matthew Elkins. John claims to love M, but when a young woman, here called W (Rebecca Mozo), takes an erotic interest in him, he succumbs almost immediately to her blandishments, and they tumble into bed. But, though John has left M for W, he now seems to want to return, and brings M a gift of teddy bears in hopes of mollifying him. But M finds that more infuriating than endearing.
   In an attempt to force some kind of showdown, M invites John and W to dinner—but he also invites his remarkably tolerant and understanding father, called F (Gregory Itzin), to provide backup. There are various alarums and excursions as the characters face off, but it’s without the desired result. There’s no way to wring a decision from John. He seems like a dubious prize in a tug of war between M and W, with occasional attempts to intervene by F. In the end, John lies in the fetal position on M’s lawn, while M goes inside to go to bed and W goes off into the night. Has anybody won? And what did they win?

The piece seems potentially fascinating, but because none of the characters has much of a backstory, we’re left with nothing but unanswered questions. Is John gay? Bisexual? Or simply so weak-willed he can be swayed by anyone who makes a serious effort? And why does W go out of her way to seduce a man/boy she knows is gay? We aren’t given enough information to be able to draw any conclusions.
   According to director Cameron Watson, “The playwright has stripped away all devices and elements that we normally have to lean on to tell the story.” In practice, this means there are no props, furniture, or scenic elements, and the four actors are left to square off in a bare space like the cockpit in which game-birds fight. There is no attempt to act out the literal actions of the play, leaving us to rely on the words. Despite the erotic content, the actors seldom touch, and they remain fully clothed in scenes where the words tell us they’re naked. The result is strangely abstract and slightly arid.

Watson has assembled admirable and hardworking actors who play the piece out with skill and style, but they can’t make it add up to much.
   Designer Stephen Gifford provides an all-lime-green performance space, in which the entire theater is circled by green drapes, green floor, green handrails, and green seats for much of the audience. The only nongreen elements are the designs of three parallel lines, which are scattered round the set—representing perhaps John, M, and W?

September 18, 2014
Sept. 13–Oct. 19. 5041 Pico Blvd. (street metered until 8pm except Sun). Fri-Sat 10:30pm. Running time 90 minutes, with no intermission. $30. (855) 585-5185.


Run for Your Wife
Torrance Theatre Company

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Frank Pepito and Gary Kresca
Photo by Brad La Verne

Farce is a difficult form of theater. Torrance Theatre Company is taking it on, in the form of Ray Cooney’s Run for Your Wife. The set here is sturdy, the actors competent. But, under the direction of Gary Robbins, much of the piece is played as if it were a drama.
   The play follows a day in the life of John Smith (Frank Pepito), a cabbie in London. Normally, John lives according to a highly structured schedule. He must. He is a bigamist, and scheduling around two clingy wives requires precision. On this day, however, John is recovering from a concussion he suffered when trying to rescue an old woman who was being mugged.
   Because the normally timely John is late in returning to both his homes, both his wives call their local constabulary in their respective parts of town. Mary (Jennifer Fanueff) lives in Wimbledon, Barbara (Amanda Webb) in Streatham. The police don’t put two and two together because they probably get “John Smith” missing persons calls several times per day.
   The concussed John is not thinking clearly and, because this is farce, he tries to solve his problems by rushing from wife to wife to explain his tardiness to each. Also because this is farce, John confesses his situation to his neighbor Stanley (Gary Kresca) — his Wimbledon neighbor, that is. His Streatham neighbor (Daniel Tennant) is a very swishy dress designer. Two police officers (Geoff Lloyd, Tim Blake) and one newspaper reporter (Tennant again) complete the cast.

Robbins keeps the action lively, but not lively enough. Farce is outsize, it’s manic, it must start high and build to incredibly high intensity. Before a farce’s audience can let go and howl with laughter, it must feel confident the play will take off in a solid trajectory. Instead, here, there’s cause for worry. First of all, the accents falter. There is no such thing as a “British accent,” but too many of the production’s actors have taken on a generalized, vague one.
   The pronunciation of Streatham here varies, and that could be funny if the actors made more of that variation. But too many of them also pronounce Wimbledon as “Wimbleton,” again probably not meant as comedy. The play’s first visual joke falls flat, too, as Barbara wears a black negligee and old pink fluffy slippers.
   Then, there are the stakes in farce. John has been carrying a huge secret to keep his life comfortable. That secret is about to be revealed. Nothing else can matter to him, and that sets the play’s action spinning around him. That doesn’t happen here.

But at one point on opening weekend, midway through Act One, the production jelled. The actors didn’t seem to be saying lines, they didn’t seem to be carrying props and crossing a stage; instead, they were characters who had big, albeit outrageous, problems to solve. And for those few moments, the show was genuinely funny.

September 15, 2014
Sept. 11–Oct. 12. 1316 Cabrillo Ave. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25. (424) 242-6882.


The Western Unscripted
Impro Theatre at Falcon Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Floyd VanBuskirk and Robert Covarubias
Photo by Rebecca Asher

Ah, the creative days of childhood. Backyard forts, instantaneously assigned roles, and an endless supply of “You go there” and “Then I’ll say this“ led to countless hours of fun. Capitalizing on this nostalgic view of yesteryear, Impro Theatre’s revolving troupe of improvisational wizards takes its audiences on a trek through the old West. Playing out on scenic designer Sandra Burns’s dusty town boardwalk with a distant plateau-laden backdrop providing visual perspective, each show’s storyline unfolds based solely on a pair of audience-spawned suggestions.
   On the night reviewed, a gold pocket watch engraved with the name Bessie and the preshow occasion of a bank robbery had the company off and running. By the time the proverbial final curtain touched the stage, there were fistfights, chases on imaginary horseback, and even the obligatory slow-motion shootout.
   Although this effort didn’t fall under the category of “knee-slapper,” there were plenty of laughs to go around as the totally unscripted, two-act storyline unfolded. Perhaps the greatest accolade one could offer co-directors Dan O’Connor and Stephen Kearin, et al., would be their attention to detail. Regardless of whether a scene or moment was spot-on or dead-ended, not once did the vernacular of their chosen genre waiver. And half the fun is watching the mental wheels turn as actors work their way around previously provided clues while searching for just the right colloquialism.

At this performance, a company of eight (from an overall cast list of 20) portrayed an array of a cattle rustlers, robber barons, boarding-house occupants, and local lawmen set in the fictional town of Comsquatch. Highlights included Floyd VanBuskirks’ murderous cattle rancher hell-bent on replenishing his drought-stricken herd by eliminating his nearest rival, Elbert Grisham, played with curmudgeonly glee by O’Connor. Clearly a favorite with the audience, Grisham’s premature murder proved a double-edged sword: ending the first act with the perfect cliffhanger but depriving the audience of the best-constructed character of the night. For example, while listening intently as the Comsquatch sheriff and deputy, played respectively by Ryan Smith and Daniel Blinkoff, admitted not knowing how much money was taken from the town’s bank because no one kept any records, O’Connor’s retort “That’s a horrible way to run a bank!” nearly stopped the show.
   Supporting players included Nick Massouh as a local ruffian taken under VanBuskirk’s character’s evil tutelage. Playing Massouh’s wife was Edi Patterson who developed a romantic involvement with Blinkoff’s deputy, thereby offering an interesting subplot full of conflict and drama. Kelly Holden-Bashar, who took on the moniker of Bessie, and Kari Coleman, as her sister, arrived in town, having traveled from Philadelphia. Domestically inclined, one cooked and one sewed, and they set up residence in the boarding house run by Patterson’s hilarious landlord, Chesapeake Nightsong.
   Assisted ably by the technical improvisation of stage manager Michael Becker on lights and Alex Caan on the soundboard, the evening flows seamlessly from scene to scene. In the end, storylines are tied up, the villains are vanquished, and young love flourishes as the sun sets in the west and once again all is well with the world.

September 16, 2014

Sept. 5–Oct. 5. 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm. $29–44. (818) 955-8101.


Rockwell Table and Stage

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Matt Magnusson, Nicci Claspell, Kyra Selman, and Bianca Gisselle
Photo by Aimee Curameng

It’s been 43 years since Helen Reddy rocked the charts with her announcement “I am woman, hear me roar,” the foremost pop anthem echoing the feminist revolution of the 1970s. Divas have continued to warble messages of female empowerment—in numbers too big to ignore—well into this century, and many of them have been collated into the Rockwell Stage’s “semi-musical” play titled, of all things, Roar.
   That of course is a reflection of the tune “recorded by Taylor Swift,” but Helen Reddy would be pleased nevertheless. If you have trouble telling your Katys and Demis from your Mileys and Gagas, or if you simply crave a wallow in today’s patented brand of tuneful girl power, this turbocharged performance would be a great way to get to know them better, know/Them better, know/Them better now. (Thanks again, Taylor.)
   Calling Roar a “semi” musical is generous, given the flimsiness of director VP Boyle’s storyline linking the 25 songs. Quarreling marrieds (Matt Magnusson and Nicci Claspell), a Lesbian pair (Emily Morris and Kyra Selman), and an off-and-on threesome (Sebastian La Cause, Bianca Gisselle, and Briana Cuoco) use the pop hits to express their momentary pain or joy, as they meet in encounters marked by smoldering looks and anguished poses.
   One person’s health crisis and another’s drinking problem lead to some sort of vague closure, and next to Roar, Mamma Mia!’s storyline starts to look as complex as Les Misérables. However, few will notice or care about the thin, fuzzy, narrative, as the Rockwell cast of seven bursts roaring out of its cage to throw itself into the cavalcade of angst-y celebration with committed abandon.

As performed with the sizzling accompaniment of musical director Brian P. Kennedy’s combo, most of the numbers reveal melodic sophistication and lyrical eloquence you may not have noticed on Sirius-XM as you’ve been driving along to them. (Kudos to Robert Bradley’s sound design for keeping the words intelligible over the din.) A trio of Demi Lovato’s—“Really Don’t Care,” “Heart Attack,” and “Skyscraper”—suggests she might have a stage musical or two in her, so closely tied are the songs to specific psychology. Sara Bareilles’s “Brave” becomes a plea for a vulnerable character to take control of her health when Lorde’s “Royals” is used as the patient’s retreat into depression and defeat.
   Selman and Morris never get an opportunity to cut loose along the order of “Take Me or Leave Me” in Rent, but they make the most of their uninhibited moves as choreographed by Ambrose Respicio III. And speaking of Rent, the second act shift to heartbreak with Christine Perri’s “Human” offers a comforting parallel to “Seasons of Love.” Even when the situations seem derivative, the energy with which they’re played seems fresh—indeed, evergreen.

September 15, 2014

Sept. 12–27. 1714 N. Vermont, Los Feliz. Fri-Sat 8pm. $15–50. (323) 669-1550 ext. 20.


Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Alan Blumenfeld and Ted Barton
Photo by Ian Flanders

Bill Cain’s Equivocation posits Shakespeare in crisis. Not surprisingly, the bard behaves much as his characters do when facing their great questions. Cain’s character, named Shag, cogitates: To write or not to write. That, plus sly commentary on creativity and politics, witty reflections on Shakespeare’s canon, and a universal point about parental love, thoroughly fill the two-and-a-half hours of this delicious play.
   Shag (Ted Barton) is in the midst of writing King Lear and wrestling his unruly, very true-to-life acting troupe at the Globe, under the leadership of veteran actor Richard—presumably Burbage—(Franc Ross). Character actor Nate (Alan Blumenfeld) realizes it’s best to just say the lines, because he wants pay his mortgage. Incipient leading man Sharpe (Dane Oliver), however, wants to be “brilliant.” Armin (Paul Turbiak) wants to keep food off the scripts. Instead, they’re being asked to trudge across that rainy heath in their underwear.
   That’s one conflict Cain creates. Another arises as King James’s henchman, aka prime minister, Robert Cecil (Blumenfeld, again) summons Shag to the palace and demands a play based on a manuscript by James. The play’s plot is to be the Powder Plot—presumably real, reputedly propaganda—which we know of as Guy Fawkes’s scheme to cause a massive explosion under Parliament, thereby killing the royal family and reinstalling Catholicism in England. Whether Cecil concocted the plot, or whether the government is using it to discredit Catholics, Shag must live with himself yet make a living.
   Another character instigates Cain’s third conflict. She is Shag’s indomitable daughter, Judith (Taylor Jackson Ross), twin of his deceased and better-loved son. She, Cain proposes, is one reason Shakespeare was obsessed with twins and spent his last plays on fathers who threw away their daughters and suffered for it.

Mike Peebler directs Equivocation as a comedy with deep currents. Peebler gives the actors modern British accents (scholars debate whether those accents existed in Elizabethan England), but this helps differentiate among the characters. For example, Blumenfeld’s Cecil is veddy upper class, whereas his Nate is lower-middle class. Franc Ross’s Richard probably has the most accurate accent for the period: a clear but “rhotic” (pronouncing his Rs) speech.
   As expected, considering Peebler’s long familiarity with the outdoor Theatricum Botanicum stage, he makes wonderful use of the area, creating Cecil’s office in the cozy loft above the theater’s entrance, placing Shag’s home against the sheltering structure at stage left, setting prison scenes in the second-story space, and of course using the expansive stage as the Globe. Best of all, Peebler choreographs the playing of a famous Shakespeare tragedy facing away from the audience, so we see the stagecraft in swordfights and beheadings.
   The actors here throws themselves into the roles (all but Barton and Jackson Ross creating more than one), seeming to relish their time spent in Cain’s world. There’s not a misstep in the evening, and the opening-night audience, clearly Shakespeare-knowledgeable, caught every in-joke.

How ever could Shag handle his artistically volatile troupe? Turns out that the sense of fraternity among theatrical families is thicker than blood. How could he write a play for Cecil without violating his own sense of ethics and truth-telling? By equivocating. How can he finally see his daughter for who she is? Ah. That’s one of life’s mysteries even Cain can’t solve.

September 9, 2014
Sept. 6–28. 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. The theater is outdoors, so bring a jacket, cushion, and a flashlight for the walk back to the car. Fri 8pm. $10–37, children 6 and under free. (310) 455-3723.

Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Will Bond and Ellen Lauren

The weighty ideas expressed in this piece have retained their potency from nearly 2,500 years ago. The skills and vibrancy of the actors here are flawless. Had the two elements meshed, this would be a perfect production.
   Aaron Poochigian’s translation of Aeschylus’s tragedies—said to be the oldest surviving pieces of Western dramatic literature—retains the majesty of a classical work while letting the audience relax into the language and concepts. When the ghost of King Dareius asks how his son’s ego-driven invasion of a powerful neighboring nation can be anything but “brain disease,” who can help but nod in recognition and agreement? When his son Xerxes, the current king of Persia, returns from battle, only to say he suffers afresh from lack of a parade, it’s horrifyingly clear this defeated leader’s ego remains while his countrymen lost everything.
   Any of the audience’s connection to the text is also due to the deeply committed work by the actors. Stephen Duff Webber, playing Dareius, turns that apparitional persona not into a somberly grandiose specter but instead into the court jester: speaking truths but with all the irony and liveliness one expects from the mentor archetype. Gian-Murray Gianino, playing Xerxes, emits all the self-delusion of the spoiled firstborn son, oblivious to the catastrophe he has caused by invading Greece. Playing the messenger, leaning on a weathered oar for a long, long, long time, Will Bond recites a history lesson and turns it into an action-adventure saga as he describes atheists in foxholes.
   However, the magnificence of Ellen Lauren, playing the queen, trumps all. Widow of Dareius, mother of Xerxes, Lauren’s queen feels the weight of both men’s choices and the current responsibility of being the sole clear-sighted one left at the top. Clarity of speech, electrifyingly intense physicality, and an apparently profound understanding of the text mark Lauren’s work.

These actors, and those playing the ever-present chorus, form the SITI company, Anne Bogart’s longtime ensemble. Intensively trained by Bogart, the actors work in a uniform and awe-inspiring style. They have firm, purposeful walks, their bare feet nearly as expressive as their speech. Some voices sounded forced and raspy in the huge outdoor space of the Getty Villa on opening night, one actor has an impenetrable accent, but otherwise the delivery is clear and “natural.”
   In Brian H Scott’s design, broken bits of giant, presumably Greek, statuary litter the stage. Gold curtains forming the upstage wall rend as figures emerge, and the queen’s gold veil and long train leave a trail of meaningless wealth. All wealth is worthless in the underworld, Dareius points out.
   But the audience spends its energy watching these things, not feeling them, not becoming immersed in the storytelling. Bogart’s choreography, consisting of references to Greek dance and Greek pictorial art, is just that and not welling up from the characters. After all, isn’t our hope for catharsis—a Greek word—the reason we go to theater?

September 5, 2014

Sept. 4–27. 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Pacific Palisades. Thu-Sat 8pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $40-45. Parking is $15 per car. (310) 440-7300.

Psyche: A Modern Rock Opera
Greenway Court Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Ashley Ruth Jones and Michael Starr
Photo by Barry Weiss

The unarguable triumph of Psyche: A Modern Rock Opera is the choreography of Janet Roston, which sets a company of 10, many of them veterans of university ballet and modern-dance programs, to dizzying displays of complex movement. From their first worshipful celebration of the young Psyche (Ashley Ruth Jones), through their incarnation of various spirits and demons doing the bidding of vengeful Greek gods, the ensemble is continuously expressive and interesting.
   At several points Roston and director Michael Matthews bring in trapezes for airborne acrobatics; they’re not as impressive as the aerial work we’ll see at the Pantages in Pippin next month, yet somehow, perhaps because of their proximity to us, they come across as even more moving.
   In other respects, expressive, moving, and interesting are not adjectives that can be consistently applied to Cindy Shapiro’s two-and-a-quarter hour, through-sung, atonal Emo retelling, in semi-modern terms, of the myth of Psyche and Cupid (here called Eros, perhaps to avoid any distracting hint of Valentine’s Day). Her score is one long moan, dynamically scored (by musical director Jack Wall) but lacking in eloquence and dramatic tension; the characters sing what they’re feeling and rarely if ever use the music to make decisions or create action. “Life is so difficult I cannot bear it / I might as well end it” is typical of the on-the-money nature of the lyrics, and the device of having singers repeat their verbs (“You must follow, follow”; “It’s time to travel, travel”) grows stale.

Despite five pages’ worth of program notes and synopsis, and excellent sound design by Cricket Myers, it proves virtually impossible to follow the narrative via visual or aural means; the existence of those five pages is actually a pretty potent hint that someone fears the audience won’t catch on. Our lifeline, and the sole source of the evening’s wit, is projected footnotes (yep, still more commentary) to tell us what has just occurred or what is being said, which proves helpful but clunky. Often the comments are downright sassy, as in “Psyche is fucked” or “Eros is fucked.” What’s significant here is that the spectator would have absolutely no way of discerning the fuckedness of either character in the absence of those side notes, a sure sign that something on stage is simply not communicating.
   If this work is to have a life beyond its six-week engagement at the Greenway Court, Shapiro might do well to introduce Psyche is such a way as to earn our empathy and interest. Right now she’s a construct who never comes alive as a character, and thus she inspires indifference. Shapiro would also be wise not to banish Eros (Michael Starr, an impressively chiseled hunk o’ beefcake) to the attic for the entirety of Act Two, like the first Mrs. Rochester; give him a love song to remind us he’s there, for Pete’s sake, and maybe one with a melody we can turn our ears and hearts around to, for once. And Eros is both the son and lover of Aphrodite (Laura L. Thomas, lively if pitchy); couldn’t more be done with that?
   Despite all the great dancing and strong production values, Psyche: A Modern Rock Opera never escapes its crippling, pretentious self-importance. The soul of humanity, so the Greek myths tell us, was born at the hands of Psyche. Greater infusions of humanity couldn’t do Psyche any harm, for sure.

September 1, 2014

Aug. 29–Sept. 28. 544 N. Fairfax Blvd. (Free parking adjacent to the theater). Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $34.99. (323) 655.7679 x100.
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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.

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Ellen Geer and Dane Oliver
Photo by Ian Flanders

Shakespeare’s King Lear has its potencies. Simply described, it follows the downfall of a once-
powerful leader and the dysfunction of his family. Pondering his retirement, the monarch asks his three daughters to avow their love. The elder two, Goneril and Regan, lavish empty words on papa. The youngest, Cordelia, refuses to play that game, believing her actions of loyalty and respect will trump her sisters’ verbiage.
   The role of Lear is also a noted goal of male actors who are, shall we say, no longer castable as Romeo. Audiences expect to see an aged Lear, whose two eldest daughters are married, who is ready to divide his kingdom among the three heirs. Age and apparent frailty aside, Lear commands the stage, the role requiring vocal and emotional range and calling for masses of memorization. Who among our great actors can fit the bill?
   And, can a woman take on the role?

After more than 40 years of filling theatergoers’ summer schedules with various productions of Shakespeare plays and starring in probably every leading female role in those plays, Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum artistic director Ellen Geer takes on Lear. Completing the gender swap, this Lear’s three children are sons. Will the audience feel more protective of a female Lear? Do the two sons’ actions now feel like elder abuse? Alas, it seems disrespect, hunger for power, and plain ol’ cruelty know no gender.
   It’s possible audiences quite familiar with King Lear will find that the intellectual exercise trumps much of the text’s emotional impact. Quite easily, the word father become mother, he becomes she, and so forth, and for the most part the meter still scans as Shakespeare wrote it. But the acting and the picturesque and effective staging in this production, co-directed by Geer and Melora Marshall, thrill where it matters most.

At the play’s top, Geer’s Lear is a bloated bag of ego. The flattery of elder sons Goneril (Aaron Hendry) and Regan (Christopher W. Jones) sits well with her. When she hears the simple “no more, nor less” from her youngest son, Cordelian (Dane Oliver), Geer’s Lear evidences a recognition that he may be speaking accurately and from a deeper love; but she’s embarrassed and rejects him out of pride.
   Lear takes a fall, despite the best efforts of her loyal advisors and companions. The Fool, more often seen in gender-blind casting than the other characters are, is here played by Marshall. Although the character is still referred to as “boy” and “sirrah,” Marshall gives the Fool deep sisterly devotion and care, while maintaining the verbal comedy the role allows. Kent is played by Gerald C. Rivers in a Caribbean accent when face-to-face with the sane Lear, in standard English elsewhere. Lear, Fool, and Kent ride out the storm on the roof of Theatricum Botanicum’s permanent two-story structure, the outdoor stage providing perfect ambience for the play’s outdoor scenes.
   Less easy to see, Edgar’s main scene is enacted far house right. Edgar, though, is here called Eden, played with sturdy sincerity and a notably expressive voice by Willow Geer. Eden’s sibling, Edmund in the original, is here Igraine, played with head-to-toe resentful ire by Abby Craden.
   Other acting standouts are Alan Blumenfeld as the eye-gouged Gloucester and Frank Weidner as Goneril’s henchman Oswald. But the night’s biggest surprise is young Oliver, who plays Cordelian with classic delivery and physicality, and who will undoubtedly shore up the company’s needs in the up-and-coming-actor department. It’s a thrill to watch him go a round with Geer.

Lines get rewritten to suit the gender shift. “Put’st down thine own breeches” becomes “lift’d up thine own skirt.” Puzzlingly, however, here Lear says, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a shameful child!”
   One of theater’s great stage directions, “Re-enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms,” is staged by the Geer family with due respect to the text, as well as to the gender swap. After Lear has found Cordelian’s body, hanged in prison, Ellen Geer emerges from a trap door in the stage, seeming to hoist Oliver up the stairs. In this version, at play’s end, Edgar and Albany will share the throne.
   Marshall McDaniel provides evocative original music, and Ian Flanders and McDaniel contribute scene-setting sound design. Speaking of even more of the Geer family, in grand Theatricum tradition the family dog gets a cameo, showing stage presence and not reacting to the awws of the audience.

June 10, 2014
June 7–Sept 28. 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. The theater is outdoors, bring a jacket, cushion, and a flashlight for the walk back to the car. Repertory schedule. $10–37, children 6 and under free. (310) 455-3723.

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.


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


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


David Ives, The Liar, Antaeus Company

Nancy Keystone, Alcestis, The Theatre @ Boston Court

Jessica Kubzansky, R II, The Theatre @ Boston Court


Joe Iconis, The Black Suits, Kirk Douglas Theatre

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


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


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  


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


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


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


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


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


Jonathan Snipes, Wait Until Dark, Geffen Playhouse


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


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


Lorenzo Pisoni, Humor Abuse, Mark Taper Forum


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 He did not nominate himself, nor did he nominate his show.

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

January 5, 2014

The Cherry Orchard
Pacific Resident Theater

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Marilyn Fox and Bruce French

he Cherry Orchard has been eluding directors for more than a century. Noting surface hints, the work’s proximity to the Czar’s fall (albeit 13 years later), and knowing that this was Chekhov’s final, dying gift to the stage, productions have persisted in seeing it as nostalgic and elegiac in character. They ignore the manifest hard edges, and, indeed, the very facts of the plot, which on first glance are puzzling if not downright paradoxical, including Mme. Ranevskaya’s inexplicable return from Paris to her family estate; the bewildering renunciation of the lover she worships; her professed passionate loyalty to the titular orchard, followed by little or no fight to keep it; and finally, her profound relief once it’s gone.
   If a director fails to figure out what’s going on there thematically and psychologically, or worse, applies a romantic, sentimental gloss to it all, the four acts are destined to play, and fail, as limp soap opera. I had hoped that the generally reliable Pacific Resident Theater would avoid the traps, but regrettably Dana Jackson’s revival is vulnerable to all of them.
By way of full disclosure, three understudies were on the night I saw it, which ordinarily would earn a rather large pass except they more than pulled their weight relative to the rest. Michael Prichard’s Firs was one-dimensional, but it was a likable dimension. Joseph Lemieux missed the hollowness beneath Trofimov’s revolutionary ranting, but captured his social gracelessness. The excellent Alex Fernandez nailed Lopakhin’s ambivalence, simultaneously reveling in and regretting the ruin he brings onto the family for whom he genuinely cares. I can’t say I was unhappy to have missed the first cast in these roles, however strong they may usually be.
   It was the regulars who most disappointed, starting with consistent line difficulties across the board. Any cast ought at minimum to be line- and cue-perfect, but Chekhov carries a special demand for precision. The fumbling and waffling on the PRT stage would’ve been a surprise and a letdown even if the interpretation had been on target.

Granting that authors may not always know what’s best for their own work, here’s Chekhov complaining to his director, Konstantin Stanislavski, during rehearsals for the 1904 premiere:

   Anya, I fear, should not have any sort of tearful tone…. Not once does my Anya cry, nowhere do I speak of a tearful tone, in the second act there are tears in their eyes, but the tone is happy, lively. Why did you speak in your telegram about so many tears in my play? Where are they?.... Often you will find the words “through tears,” but I am describing only the expression on their faces, not tears.
  He’s right, I’m sure, if for no other reason than that tears are anti-dramatic. The weeper (on stage, and I think in life) is in stasis, indulging himself, in contrast with the non-weeper who rolls up his sleeves and tries to make things happen. Reaction vs. action: I know which I’d choose in a heartbeat. (On stage, if not always in life.) In his comments, Chekhov is indicating two things to prospective directors: (1) There is opportunity for going the easy route by turning the play lachrymose; and (2) the truly interesting choice is to go against the grain. He wants artists to reject the obvious, in favor of exploring subtler aspects of the human condition that may seem counterintuitive but are actually profoundly human. The only way to reconcile all the above-mentioned plot developments, in fact, is to turn standard assumptions on their head.

PRT’s Anya (Kelsey Ritter) cries plenty, as does adopted Varya (Tania Getty), but both are outdone by their mother. Weeping almost constantly for two and a half hours, Marilyn Fox’s Ranevskaya is a doddering, darling kewpie doll whom everyone yearns to hug. Bruce French’s Gaev falls prey to tears, too, while never seeming to figure out why the guy keeps muttering about billiards. The rest of the company, in their charity, keeps stopping to listen to him, until they return to tut-tutting in attendance on beloved Ranevskaya with an oh-poor-lady air. The psychological dynamics make no sense, except as scenes from a maudlin soap.
   What’s so debilitating about allowing characters in theOrchard to sit around bemoaning their fate is that it automatically turns them into victims. In their very nostalgia, they become pawns in the wake of political and cultural change lying beyond their understanding, let alone control. And that is so wrong, so very inappropriate, so downright reactionary for a play whose real concerns are restoration and healing. In no way is it about a cruel new order’s threatening to dispossess the polite, pleasant old world, a view for which neither Chekhov’s work nor his life offers any support.
   The night I went, Fernandez had a couple of moments where he tried to give family and play a shot of adrenalin, and Aramazd Stepanian’s Simeonov-Pischik briefly supplied a full-blooded, complex Chekhovian presence. They were too little, too late. The world of The Cherry Orchard is, or should be, populated with multifaceted, ambitious, vivid people who are hanging on to life with pure grit. Not this time.

October 20, 2014
Aug. 8–Nov. 2. 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Street parking or free parking behind the theaters. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3 pm. $25-30 group rates available. There is wheelchair access. (310) 822-8392.


Kirk Douglas Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Dael Orlandersmith
Photo by Craig Schwartz

At the Douglas, writer-performer Dael Orlandersmith reads Forever—a memoir of growing up with an abusive parent—from a loose-leaf binder while (mostly) standing at a lectern or (occasionally) sitting on a stool. Though the performance is raised above the floor on a handsome, raw-wood structure from Takeshi Kata, and given arty lighting effects by Mary Louise Geiger, by me this is not a play. It’s a platform reading, akin to that which you’d see at New York’s 92nd St. Y. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but let’s call a thing what it is.
   Orlandersmith never works the pages into her performance, and she takes sips of water at times that don’t seem determined by the material. One can only wonder what the effect of the evening would be if she, or an actor designated by her, memorized the piece that she professes to have been working on for a year or more, and acted it full out.

Even then, I suspect that in its current state, Forever would lack some of the characteristics one cherishes in a dramatic work. The premise is that a visit to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris—where the likes of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, and Jim Morrison are buried—sparks a chain of memories of Orlandersmith’s early life and identification of herself as an artist. Such themes are talked about, but not really lived out, onstage at the Douglas. Events are more or less narrated chronologically, rather than seeming to be shaped artistically. Glimpses of the East Village scene of the ’70s and ’80s lack color and delight.
   Moreover, the character of Dael (if indeed any gap is intended between the author and her creation) doesn’t experience the changes or revelations we anticipate. If director Neel Keller were moved to eke out some variety in the presentation, it was in vain; Orlandersmith starts out in a tone of steely, white-hot anger, which she never drops for a second. She certainly has a lot to be angry about: The mother, whose aspirations to a life in the dance foundered on alcoholism and wild living, sounds to have been a horror, and a rape inflicted on the daughter under their own roof is narrated in a harrowing and truly unforgettable way. But were there no moments of grace, of softness, of pity along the way that could be shared with us?

And what happened to the idea that there are two sides to every story, that we can only understand someone by walking in their shoes? Orlandersmith bites off every word, every syllable, for 90 minutes with a remarkable absence of empathy for anyone else. A guide she encounters at the cemetery fuels her rage; even the Irish cop who shows up on the night of the rape to offer comfort barely escapes her resentment. At the end, the announcement of her having come to terms with mother (in an interaction with her body in the morgue) comes of nowhere and doesn’t convince.
   Across the three walls of the stage, tiny images of the author’s family and life—too tiny to be seen from out front—are posted in a long line. The audience is invited at the end of Forever to traverse the display, an offer I declined. Having been permitted so little insight into a life in the course of 90 minutes of talking, I figured I wasn’t going to learn much more from snapshots.

October 14, 2014

Oct. 9–26. 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Free parking underneath City Hall, immediately south of the theater. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 6:30pm. (Additional performances Sun Oct. 19 at 1pm and Sat Oct. 25 at 2pm.) $25-30. (213) 628-2772.


Jersey Boys
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Adam Zelasko, Hayden Milanes, Jason Kappus, and Nicolas Dromard
Photo by Joan Marcus

Whether or not you’re old enough to have been a rabid fan of those legendary ’60s pop music megastars The Four Seasons, or even if you turned off “Sherry Baby” the minute it came on the radio or cancelled that order of fries when the jukebox at the diner coughed up “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” there’s not a chance in do-wop heaven anyone left standing could possibly not enjoyJersey Boys.
   The multi-Tony-winning 2005 hit musical first played here in a hugely successful run in 2007 and still continues to take New York and Las Vegas by storm. Ironically, not even the onstage re-creation of Frankie Valli’s fingernails-on-the-blackboard falsetto could dissuade anyone from enjoying this show immensely. And, frankly, Hayden Milanes’s turn as Valli, swinging effortlessly into his highest margarita-freeze notes, is such a feat of skill one might listen to the original versions of Four Seasons songs with an all new sense of wonder.
   Jersey Boys, featuring a staggering number of the group’s numerous Top-40 smashes written by original band member Bob Gaudio, first and foremost has something going for it a lot of musicals simply do not: a ballsy, crisply intelligent, nonfluffy book, by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, which tells the story of these four working-class goombas from beautiful downtown Newark who beat the odds and stayed out of jail just long enough to become members of one of the most enduringly popular musical success stories of the last century.

Under Des McAnuff’s bold yet surprisingly economical direction and featuring Sergio Trujillo’s perfectly period choreography on Klara Zieglorova’s massive steel industrial-style set that could house an international Stones concert tour, Jersey Boys never once whitewashes the bad times, from founding “Season” Tommy DeVito’s raging personality problems and gambling addiction to Valli’s miserably unsuccessful marriage and the tragic heroin overdose of his daughter Francine (Leslie Rochette).
   Brickman and Elice cleverly conceived Jersey Boys in four parts, giving each castmember playing the Four Seasons a chance to tell that character’s side of the same story. This narrative migration from one guy to the next is accompanied by colorful huge Lichtenstein-inspired rear projections by Michael Clark tagged Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall, indicating passage into a new storyteller’s version. The device is also cleverly used to illustrate the occasional tour stop-off in a random local jail by showing a gavel-banging cartoon judge straight out of a 1955 Dick Tracy panel or to illustrate the group’s best-known song titles as they incubate from tentative first scribble to international hit status, occasionally interspersed with historically accurate performances featuring the current cast performing in living black-and-white re-creations of the Boys’s original performances on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show.

DeVito’s take on things is up first. With Nicolas Dromard in the role, the production is off to a fine start, his boy-Sopranos character telling the audience with feigned humility, “I don’ wanna seem ubiquitous, but we put Joizey on da map.” Dromard walks a fine line as loudmouthed minor street hood DeVito in the effort to make him less of a swaggering, ego-driven asshole, achieving a kind of underlying vulnerability that makes DeVito’s brutish attitude—and the financial problems he created for the group—a bit more understandable.
   Jason Kappus is excellent as the decidedly nonstreetwise Gaudio, the only suburban white-bread member of the group and the last guy to join. Gaudio eventually became the inspired composer of almost all of their great hits, including “Stay,” “Let’s Hang On,” “Bye, Bye, Baby,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
   Adam Zelasco is endearing and arrestingly understated as the late Nick Massi, the often overlooked Season who left fame behind when he came to the realization that “if there’s four guys and you’re Ringo,” there’s only so much glory one can attain.
   The ensemble is impressive, all those performers cast because obviously they’re also precision musicians able to pick up guitars, man the smoothly portable drum sets, and rock out as the storyline demands. Marlana Dunn is appropriately shrill as Valli’s Snookie of a first wife, Mary, someone whom DeVito first warns Frankie will “eat you alive and send you home in an envelope.” Barry Anderson is hilarious as producer-lyricist Bob Crewe, who was a tad on the effete side in an era when everyone thought, as Gaudio tells the audience, that “Liberace was just theatrical.” From the ranks, Jonny Wexler and former Angeleno Thomas Fiscella are standouts as Joey, the gnat-like wannabe groupie who later in life morphed into Joe Pesci, and sentimental mother-loving neighborhood godfather mobster Gyp DeCarlo.

Still, for everything Jersey Boys has going for it, including exceptional lighting, costume, and sound design (by Howell Binkley, Jess Goldstein, and Steve Canyon Kennedy, respectively), all would be in vain without a truly special performer to play Valli, both for the octave-breaking vocal calisthenics the role demands and the wild emotional ride the singer was stuck on as he rode his rollercoaster to fame and fortune. Although in the first act Milanes seemed to have trouble replicating Valli’s unearthly ability to slide effortlessly into those ear-shattering higher ranges, by Act Two he was given a prolonged ovation after knocking a showstopping “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” all the way back to the dreaded row UU and the Pantages’s other sound-challenged under-balcony seats.
   Milanes is riveting again as his character relives the horrendous news of Francine’s untimely death, when the singer is reached alone by phone backstage while out on tour. It was surely not by lottery that the writers decided to save Valli’s take on The Four Seasons’s tumultuous life story for last. And it’s no mistake Milanes was the actor chosen to take over the role on what is surely a grueling national tour, proving himself able to get under the conflicted, often troubled, Jersey-proud skin of Frankie Valli—and make it sing.

October 6, 2014
Oct. 5–19. 6233 Hollywood Blvd. Tue-Thu 8pm, Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. $89–276. (800) 982-2787.


Choir Boy
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Michael Shepperd
Photo by Michael Lamont

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy is a mess but all the same a bona fide crowd pleaser. Its characters are drawn with remarkable inconsistency, and they’re put through enough subplots (touched on, though never explored fully) for a play twice its two-hour length. What pulls it through is the passion of director Trip Cullman’s cast, as well as the potency of the theme that occupies more stage time than a dozen or so others: the power of song to unite and heal.
   There’s a particular urgency in the unity and healing at the Charles N. Drew Preparatory School, about to celebrate its 50th year of rooting African-American youth in religion and tradition to groom them for the future. If you’ve any memory of the “Baird Men” of the 1992 movie Scent of a Woman, you’ll immediately connect with the world with which the Drew Men struggle: honor code, strict faculty, parental pressure, and of course adolescent rebellion and raging hormones.
   Every prep school story has its central misfit, and McCraney’s is more original than most. Scholarship student Pharus Young (Jeremy Pope) is a glorious singer and openly, flamboyantly gay—and the most refreshing element in the first half of Choir Boy is everyone else’s comfort with his sexuality. Oh, there’s a little trouble with gay baiter Bobby (Donovan Mitchell), but jock roommate A.J. (Grantham Coleman) is untroubled, and the others (Nicholas L. Ashe and Caleb Eberhardt) seem to accept the camping with equanimity.
   Only the headmaster (Michael A. Shepperd) frets—“The wrist, Pharus!”—but for him it’s more a matter of exasperation than prejudice. His job is to get these kids ready for college while maintaining Drew’s honor, and he clearly senses that Pharus’s “thing” may put both at risk. The boy’s anchor is the Drew Choir, a renowned ensemble performing old-time spirituals and the school anthem, and Pharus’s one dream is to lead it during senior year.

A lot of puppies-in-a-sack tussling goes on, as in all boarding school yarns, and an entire side plot is brought in wholesale from The History Boys when an eccentric retired prof—Leonard Kelly-Young as Mr. P, a white veteran of Dr. King’s civil rights struggles—is charged with getting the boys ready for essay exams. He shows them how to stand out by opposing a commonly held view. (Remember the tutor in the Bennett comedy, urging a student of Russian history to prove “Stalin was a sweetie”?) Mr. P inspires Pharus to argue that slave songs of liberation—“Wade in the Water” and “Swing Low”—weren’t coded instructions for the Underground Railroad as is widely believed, but rather anthems solely intended to toughen the heart.
   Controversy over this thesism which McCraney takes pains to explore—clearly it’s a pet interest of his—unaccountably becomes a turning point to send Choir Boy careening off its moorings. Tensions of which there was no previous hint start to emerge, and the tone shifts uncomfortably from sassy comedy to turgid melodrama. Issues of shamed sexuality, religious prejudice, family secrets, loyalty, and honor start tumbling out like an opened overstuffed closet, along with unnecessary, exploitative nudity, and suddenly the play has to rush and cut corners to bring all of its strains together. It never quite succeeds.

Yet audience engagement remains unaffected, in the face of all the crisp acting, witty lines, and especially the string of musical turns in which the lights dim on all but a single character selling a soulful classic. Every voice is superb, but I confess I quickly wearied of this repetitious device, which to me yielded diminishing returns. It seemed glib, a too-easy shortcut to eloquence instead of the playwright’s doing his job. But mine is assuredly a minority opinion. The opening night crowd screamed and hooted at every overdone rendition as if this were Spirituals Theme Night on American Idol.
   I suspect idolaters and skeptics alike will agree that Shepperd is the MVP here. His towering presence and studious mien are complemented by a wry sense of humor and rock-ribbed integrity, the combination of which renders his headmaster utterly authentic and welcome in every appearance. He even gets his own musical moment to shine, as the weary leader confesses he’s “Been in the Storm Too Long.” A local favorite, not just for his acting but also for his artistic leadership in the community, Shepperd is by any measure a star, and it can’t be long before all media realize it. See Choir Boy for him if nothing else, and make him your discovery too.

September 27, 2014
Sept. 26–Oct. 26. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $39-79. (310) 208-5454.


The Tempest
South Coast Repertory

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Zachary Eisenstat, Manelich Minniefee, and Tom Nelis
Photo by Geri Kodey

Befitting the final work of a master playwright, Shakespeare puts a little bit of everything into The Tempest. Realism and magic, romance and suspense, farce and wit, spectacle and intimacy—all are put to varied use in his tale of a betrayed man’s elaborate revenge plot that ends in reconciliation and the acceptance of grace. In many ways the entire human condition in microcosm, it’s a tricky theme. Trickier still is the effort to bring the play’s disparate strains into a satisfying whole.
   The South Coast Rep production, born at ART in Cambridge, Mass., by way of a Las Vegas engagement, succeeds in that effort, one might say spectacularly so; and it does so by employing much the same kitchen-sink approach the playwright did, to thoughtful and logical ends.

From designer Daniel Conway it gets a rough-hewn, three-tiered, Globe Playhouse–inspired stage with balcony, main platform including concealable “inner below,” and basement level. Readily morphing from ship to cavern to beach to forest, the set at all times conveys a sense of danger always at hand, especially under Christopher Akerlind’s supple, often startling lighting. Paloma Young’s sumptuous costumes complement the eclectic style.
   From Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, the show derives a series of bluesy tunes performed in the balcony by a splendid combo and two supperclub divas (Miche Braden and Liz Filios) evoking Nina Simone and Diana Krall at their most relaxed. The score is completely modern, yet serves to reinforce the universality of theme here, particularly in the power of music to both bewitch and salve. The shipwrecked characters initially seem a bit unnerved by the unfamiliar strains of piano, bass, and drums, but by the end are brought to the state of bliss only cool jazz can provide.
   The fantastical comes alive thanks to Matt Kent of Pilobolus dance company, who put Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee through their paces as Caliban. You heard right: Two guys, virtually twins in their little dirty diapers, filthy cornrowed hair, and head-to-toe grime are wrapped up on top of and around each other, transformed into a spinning and leaping eight-legged monster speaking in twin voices and scaring the bejesus out of everyone. Except us, that is; for us they are only delight. This could be the first Tempest within memory in which you actively look forward to Caliban and the drunken sailors (Eric Hissom and Jonathan M. Kim) who bewitch him. Traditionally tedious scenes become hilarious and unforgettable with this trio—um, quartet—on the scene.

Teller, the silent, diminutive magic partner of Penn Gillette, certainly did most of the magical heavy lifting here, as he did last year at the Geffen for Todd Robbins’ spookshow Play Dead. For once Prospero (Tom Nelis) is a for-real magician, producing objects from thin air, levitating ladies, and summoning demons; a Pirandellian paradox is created within which the illusions are carried out for the delectation, or at times education, of both the onstage characters and also ourselves.
   My personal favorite involves the flashback re-creation of Prospero’s first encounter with his principal minion. Nate Dendy, a spectacularly droll Ariel with a knack for card tricks, is placed into a magic box with his face and legs exposed, and the sorcerer first gives the head several full twists before opening the doors and revealing a body twisted like a Twizzler. Yes, it’s a great illusion, but it also instantly establishes the master-servant relationship central to the play’s action and climax. Anyway, however any individual gag is meant to work, the sorcery invests the play with visual jaw-droppers never before woven so effectively into The Tempest’s framework.

And where does Teller’s co-director Aaron Posner shine in? Hard to pinpoint, of course, but his superb adaptations of My Name Is Asher Lev (Chaim Potok’s novel) and Stupid Fucking Bird (Chekhov’s Seagull) suggest that his talents lie in audacious yet respectful translations of known artistic quantities, adaptations which transform them even as they honor and illuminate them. Which means he could very well be the single most important force in this Tempest, which never before in my memory has made as much sense, as play or a spectacle. The farewell of Prospero and Ariel had many in the audience, including yours truly, in tears. This is a Tempest to remember and savor forever.

September 25, 2014
Sept. 6–28. 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 2:30pm & 7:30pm. Running time appx. 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $24-68. (714) 708-5555.


Spring Awakening
Deaf West at the Rosenthal Theater, Inner City Arts

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Sandra Mae Frank (front), Amelia Hensley, Joseph Haro, and Treshelle Edmond

Following its much-heralded 2006 Off-Broadway debut at the Atlantic Theatre Company, this groundbreaking masterwork won the Tony Award after its transfer to the Great White Way in 2008. Still, it’s a show definitely not for every taste. Based on the originally banned 1891 German play Fruhlings Erwachen, by Frank Wedekind, however, this reviewer considers it one of the two most powerful and innovative musicals of the last decade (the other is Next to Normal) despite its large following of detractors from the ranks of the habitually offended.
   Dealing with sexual situations, nudity, homoeroticism, solo and implied mutual masturbation, sadomasochism, rape, physical parental abuse, abortion, and suicide, all involving a highly charged group of pubescent curious students in a tight-knit rural German community, these were not your average everyday subjects for artistic exploration in late-19th-century Europe under the thumb of Kaiser Wilhelm II—or of the New York City then recently relinquished by Rudy Giuliani either: a place Rosie O’Donnell once quipped was so cleaned up that Times Square hookers were dressing like Teletubbies.
   Steven Sater’s remarkable adaptation was a brave undertaking even on Broadway, a risky effort made more palpable by the inclusion of Duncan Sheik’s haunting score, Sater’s exceptional book and lyrics, and career-making original performances from fresh-faced newcomers Lea Michele and Jonathan Goss, among others. After its global success as a musical, not many people would think someone could further improve on such odds. The “someones” are the clever veteran re-interpreters at Deaf West, and the improvements are onstage in downtown Los Angeles.

Utilizing deaf and hearing-impaired actors working alongside hearing musical theater performers here proves to be a brilliant concept, especially because the story takes place in an era when sign language was banned from deaf education and the alienation of the hearing impaired or otherwise disabled population was considerably more heartless than it is today.
   Without updating Wedekind’s original material much, thus leaving these horny country-fed kids puzzled by their own testosterone levels and all ready to jump out of their skins under the repressive hold of their stiff-backed parents and educators, Sater’s book quickly erupts from the standard theatrical format in its second scene, taking place in a strictly run Latin class.
   Featuring the blossoming boys of the town seated at austere wooden desks, suffering the wrath of a miserably Dickens-y schoolmaster (played by Daniel Marmion—he, Natacha Roi, and Deaf West’s foremost leading player Troy Kotsur, play all the adult roles), the stage suddenly explodes with the contagious energy and raucous volume of a rock concert with the spirited “The Bitch of Living,” giving rise (no pun intended) to deaf and hearing boys leaping high in air in precise unison to interpret Spencer Liff’s electric and ingeniously ASL-inspired choreography.

Michael Arden’s smoothly sly and visionary direction is evident throughout, guiding his wildly gifted young performers. Sandra Mae Frank (beautifully voiced by Katie Boeck) and Austin MacKenzie (in his first professional turn and first performance since high school) are the resident star-crossed lovers Wendla and Melchior, particularly unforgettable in their haunting duet “The Word of Your Body.”
   Daniel N. Durant as poor doomed slacker Moritz is memorable in his indelible “Don’t Do Sadness,” voiced by Rustin Cole Sailors who, like all the other singers, does double duty as part of the production’s knockout band. And although there isn’t a poor performance in the cast, Ali Stroker as Anna, able to somehow sign her dialogue and guide her wheelchair simultaneously, and Joseph Haro as that lovable secret wanker Hanschen, are major standouts—as is Haro again when he joins Joshua Castille (voiced by Daniel David Stewart) to stop the show with their delightful gay-curious reprise of “The Word of Your Body.”

As innovative as is the work of Arden and Liff, and as clever as Sater was eight years ago to take an obscure and dusty period piece and turn it into a resplendently relevant contemporary theatrical effort still able to blast the ill-conceived conduct of miserably unhappy adults trying to repress the human condition of their offspring in the name of religion and “common decency,” what makes Spring Awakening one for the ages is Sheik’s Grammy-winning and ingeniously evocative score, which soars to new heights in this converted downtown warehouse—with poignant ballads such as “Mama Who Bore Me” and upbeat whole-company numbers able to send the entire house rocking like the aptly titled “Totally Fucked.”
   Sure, when Spring Awakening took New York by storm, we’d heard it all before—from the late 1960s when Hair first premiered to 30 years later when Rent reinvented the world of musical theater. Both those productions shook out the corn as high as an elephant’s eye, cleared away the rain in Spain, and beat enormous odds for enduring success. Now, thanks to the magic of Deaf West coupled with the limitless talent and imagination of Arden and Liff, here we go again.

September 23, 2014
Sept. 13–Nov. 9. 720 Kohler St., downtown LA. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. $30-34. (818) 762-2998 (voice).


Marjorie Prime
Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Lisa Emery, Frank Wood, Lois Smith
Photo by Craig Schwartz

On the heels of Spike Jonze’s award-winning film Her comes another whimsical, futuristic, seriocomic speculation about artificial intelligence’s commercial and emotional potential.
   This one is Jordan Harrison’s world premiere play at the Taper, titled Marjorie Prime, and concededly it lacks the heft of Jonze’s celebrated Oscar winner, not to mention its unforgettable strain of steamy sexuality. Still, under Les Waters’s skillful direction, the play’s precise understanding of human need, captured by a wonderful cast, grants it resonance and entertainment value way out of proportion to its modest (80 minutes) scale.
   In Her, lonely folk of the future can link up to a humanoid app that both organizes one’s calendar and acts as a surrogate friend, confidante, career counselor, and even lover (giving new meaning to the phrase “phone sex”). By contrast, Harrison is interested in technology’s ability not to obtain intimacy never before known but to hang on to past intimacy beyond the reach of death.
   Sometime late in the current century, Harrison posits, your MacBook Pro will be able to summon up for you a three-dimensional, living (if not exactly breathing) replica of a loved one—and at the age of your choice. Say there, elderly widow: Want your husband back, and not just returned but at the age when he proposed to you? You got it. All you have to do is feed your “Husband Prime” the names and anecdotes you want him to absorb, and correct him when he gets attitude or manner wrong, and presto, you may upload a companion for the rest of natural life. Yours, anyway.

How this all works out—who orders which Prime, and what transpires in the wake of those purchase orders—must be kept a secret from all except those who buy tickets for the Taper. However, what can and should be noted are the flavorful ways in which the basic situation taps into some of the very fundamentals of human relationships. What do we actually crave from a parent, a sibling, a lover? How do loved ones construct histories—their own, and each other’s—and what happens when two such narratives clash? If we were granted a second chance to work out problems in a crucial relationship, how would we go about it? And above all, what exactly does it mean to be human?
   Such pungent questions may sound heavy and even pretentious, yet they are handled here with an unfailing sense of playfulness. It’s as easy to sit back and revel in the fun, as it is for Marjorie herself (Lois Smith) to rock back in her assisted-living home Barcalounger and parry with her anguished daughter (Lisa Emery), put-upon son-in-law (Frank Wood), and reconstituted hubby (Jeff Ward). The sands are running out of her hourglass, but the will to live is strong. It’s reassuring, somehow, to visit America several decades hence and know that whatever technological remedies become newly available, the same old problems will be there for the grappling.

Luminous Smith and brittle Emery are potent foils, and Wood’s patented brand of bemused humor and folk wisdom complements them perfectly. (It’s actually difficult to think of any play to which Wood would not be a decided asset. Clare Luce’s The Women, maybe? That’s about it.) Ward has less to do, but, visually and attitudinally, there’s never a reason to wonder why someone would choose to conjure him back.
   Mimi Lien’s set design exudes both futuristic efficiency and modern-day comfort. There’s a scenic coup built in that’s simple and heartbreaking, adjectives equally applicable to Marjorie Prime.

September 23, 2014
Sept. 21–Oct. 19. 135 N. Grand Ave. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 80 minutes, no intermission. $20-70. (213) 628-2772.


Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Karl Schott and Jeff Cheezum, with Raúl Bencomo on stairs
Photo by Shari Barrett

The three actors of Orphans hurl themselves to the floor, barrel across the stage, and bound around with their ankles tied together. Theirs are athletic, fully energized portrayals that turn Kentwood Players’s Westchester Playhouse into a virtual athletic field.
   But their subtle and truthful internalized reactions to their characters’ circumstances, as well as Kentwood’s choice of this brutal yet tender allegory, make this the most daring, exhilarating piece of theater seen on this stage in a long while.
   Written by Lyle Kessler, the script looks at human need for familial connection. His characters are archetypes—whatever trinity the audience may see in them—dwelling in Kessler’s magical-realism world. Two brothers, Treat and Phillip, live in Philadelphia—the city of brotherly love, natch. They are orphans, and Treat has taken on the parental role.
   But Treat is desperate to keep his younger brother helpless and thus reliant on him. So Treat has kept Phillip inside their home by convincing Phillip that the younger lad long ago suffered a near-fatal allergic response in the “outdoor” air.
   Treat supports them through petty theft and pickpocketing. In the evenings, he returns home and pulls spoils of his day from his own pockets (kudos to the stage crew for its work in setting the play’s many props before every performance).

One day, Treat brings home a different kind of treasure: a stranger. He is the improbably inebriated Harold, who carries a briefcase full of financial documents, a symbol of but not real money. Harold, mid-nightmare, calls out for “Mommy.” That may be his last honest utterance in the play. When Harold wakes, he is unperturbed by his circumstances. After he sobers up, he reveals he, too, is an orphan, on the run from those with whom he did “business” in Chicago.
   And yet, Harold seems far too clever to let himself be “taken in”—brought into their shelter and hoodwinked—by Treat. Harold’s presence, however, is what the lads need to begin their emotional growth.

Kathy Dershimer picked a challenging play to direct, and then she rose to the challenge. She doesn’t force realism on the circumstances, nor does she underline mystical moments—though the lighting in that center-stage clothes closet is a deft touch. She has kept the actors’ energy pumping and the action moving along, although a pacing slump occurs just before the play’s end.
   Dershimer also cast wisely. Playing Treat, Jeff Cheezum seems powered by an auxiliary energy source, reacting to every threat, big or small, facing the little world Treat has created. As Phillip, Raúl Bencomo is a manchild, stunted but not hopelessly so, unschooled but not dull-witted.
   And, as Harold, Karl Schott is a master class in layering humanity on a rather magical character. Whether the actor is watching for reactions from the other characters, or whether he’s delivering seemingly unplayable lines (“What did he do next?”), Schott is the real deal.
   The apartment and the lads clean up nicely after intermission, Bencomo looking preppy and Cheezum yuppy as befits the 1980s script. If Dershimer can quiet Cheezum, so he’s not yelling every line with no respite, his character would seem more menacing and less predictable. And a bit of sound design would benefit the scene changes. With those bits of housekeeping, this would be a totally stellar production.

September 15, 2014
Sept. 12–Oct. 18. 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $20. ($2 discount for seniors, students, servicemen, and Metro riders). (310) 645-5156.


Happy Days
Theatre @ Boston Court

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams
Photo by Ed Krieger

Although this Samuel Beckett play was written and first performed more than a half-century ago, it seems he was something of a Nostradamus while churning out his hilariously bitter, deliciously off-centered allegories chronicling the hidden underbelly of life as he knew it. With our planet today crashing to destruction through climate change, not to mention our state’s bleak drought conditions and even the current debilitating heat wave enveloping the Southland this week, the absurdist playwright’s 1961 play Happy Days eerily reinforces his chillingly prophetic, humorously bleak pronouncements of the gradual disintegration of all living creatures struggling for fresh air and daily sustenance.
   British director Peter Hall once expressed that Beckett’s much-dissected work was “as much about mime and physical precision as about words”—an observation clearly buttressing the perception that the gossamer directorial vision of Andrei Belgrader, guiding an actor as fearless as Brooke Adams, has inspired something truly remarkable. With her body stuck in a massive mound of dirt from just below her chest throughout Act One, only Adams’s arms, her incredibly mobile face, a scattering of everyday items pulled from a large leather satchel, and a few scattered groans and mumbles emanating from the mostly out-of-sight Tony Shaloub as her husband Willie are available to help her keep our attention.

When lights come up for the play’s second half, Winnie is buried even deeper, visible now only from the neck up. Adams still uncannily manages to hold the stage despite her character’s restricted physicality (“What a curse, mobility!” Winnie exclaims without much conviction), riveting our attention with her deep, soulful eyes that easily impart an acute sense of the mournfully lonely and exaggeratedly barren spaces surrounding Winnie’s steadily shrinking world. As though simultaneously channeling the unique qualities of Meryl Streep or Kathleen Chalfant and Marcel Marceau, Adams magically employs the flash of a wide goofy smile or the flickering of a quickly extinguished dark cloud of fear to interrupt her character’s frequent exclamations while trying to convince us—and herself—just how happy her days really are.
   Willie is there to help but not able to do much himself. “You’re not the crawler you once were, dear,” Winnie notes, yet life without him is the scariest thing she might have to endure. “If you were to die or go away and leave me,” she realizes, “what would I do? What could I do all day long? Simply gaze before me with compressed lips?” Shaloub is obviously a world-class comedian, bringing a floppy clown-like energy to the usually thankless role, pulling focus once in a while but never at an inopportune moment, always working in deference to the overdue rediscovery of his real-life wife’s unearthly and too-long-absent talent.
   Between the ringing of a headache-inducing bell to guide her daily habits, one shrill bleat for sleep and another to awaken, Winnie exists without a clue why she and Willie are there. “But that is what I find so wonderful,” she tells us. “The way man adapts himself to changing conditions.” Winnie always looks at the bright side of her dilemma, chronicling the “great mercies” of her situation in a bizarrely poetic, bitingly funny, and incredibly pessimistic two-act monologue, continuously searching for things to reinforce how wonderful life is.

Interpreted by lesser talents than this director and his two exceptionally gifted performers, nothing can be harder to sit through than Happy Days—something that thrilled its author, who was famous for sitting near the rear exit of his plays in performance to gleefully thank the patrons who chose to leave early. See, his work—especially this play and his classic Waiting for Godot—skewers the dryness and encroaching disintegration of daily life. Winnie tries desperately to keep this negativity inside her, but notwithstanding continuous little expressions of small joyful discoveries, “sorrow keeps breaking in.” Despite his once-grateful personal thank-yous offered to disgusted or confused departing audience members rushing for the exit, Beckett does not let us leave the theater feeling good about the world around us, but his woeful, often uproarious revelations oddly celebrate the indomitable spirit of the human condition despite the massively insurmountable odds stacked against us all.

September 16, 2014
Sept. 13–Oct. 12. 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $34, discounts available. (626) 683-6883.


Animals Out of Paper
East West Players at David Henry Hwang Theater at Union Center of the Arts

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Kapil Talwalkar, CS Lee, and Tess Lina
Photo by Michael Lamont

Rajiv Joseph has built Animals Out of Paper with metaphors about human longing for connection. The result is a gentle but unpersuasive play.
   Ilana (Tess Lina) is an unhappy woman, in the process of divorcing. She is a noted expert in origami: the Japanese art of paper-folding, in which a two-dimensional sheet is transformed into a three-dimensional figure. She lives in disarray and faces a creative block. Presumably, through the action of the play, she will transform into a three-dimensional person.
   One rainy night, Andy (C.S. Lee) arrives in her life. He has been longing for her from afar for years—since he first saw her lecturing at a national conference on origami. He purports to contact her on conference business, but he wouldn’t mind a romance with her. He also wants her to mentor his high-school student, Suresh (Kapil Talwalkar).
   The embittered Ilana lets Andy into her life, though it’s not clear why—other than for Joseph’s dramaturgical needs. Andy always looks on the bright side, having literally counted his blessings since he was 12 years old.
   Ilana lets Suresh in, too. He’s of Indian heritage, but he masquerades as a hip-hopper. He comes off the rails near the play’s end, looking for a sexual connection with her. Her reaction is troubling but unfortunately not impossible. The entire story could, however, be her dream, as the play begins on a stormy night when she is awakened by Andy’s persistent ringing of her doorbell.

Director Jennifer Chang stages the piece competently but seems to gloss over the deeper sadness of the characters. Lina’s Ilana is just so prickly, although that may be the reason she doesn’t promptly launch Suresh back on track. Lee’s Andy is much the buffoon (very much akin to his character on Dexter). But when Ilana asks Andy about his hidden pain, Lee implodes in a beautifully internalized reaction—the most memorable moment of this production.
   Naomi Kasahara’s set folds and unfolds like, you guessed it, origami. Sound effects to indicate a “magical” moment distract more than aid the audience. But the scene change performed by Talwalkar’s Suresh is a surprising delight.

September 15, 2014

Sept. 10–Oct. 5. 120 Judge John Aiso St. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $28–38 plus handling per ticket; student and senior discounts available. (213) 625-7000 x20.


What I Learned in Paris
The Colony Theatre

Reviewed by Julio Martinez

Joy Brunson, Karan Kendrick, and L. Scott Caldwell
Photo by Michael Lamont

In 1973, Atlanta-based playwright Pearl Cleage served as speechwriter and press secretary to 35-year-old Maynard Jackson during his historic successful bid to become mayor of Atlanta—the first African American to be elected mayor of a major US city. Cleage has funneled this experience into a tame romantic sitcom, focusing on peripheral players in Jackson’s campaign. Helmed by Saundra McClain with a sense of comedic expediency more than thematic clarity, The Colony Theatre’s West Coast debut of What I Learned in Paris does not offer enough substance to warrant its two-and-a-half-hour running time, despite L. Scott Caldwell’s captivating turn as feminist warrior Evie.
   Played out on Charles Erven’s period-perfect Atlanta apartment, the post-election night romantic shenanigans involve campaign wheeler-dealer J.P. Madison (William C. Mitchell), his youthful wife Ann (Joy Brunson), and his youthful campaign aide John Nelson (Shon Fuller). The problem lies in the fact that the two youthfuls are secretly in love, which could seriously jeopardize J.P.’s political aspirations. Observing from a not-so-safe-distance is campaign worker Lena Jefferson (Karen Kendrick). But the action moves into high gear with the arrival of J.P.’s ex-wife, Evie, who has acquired an overflowing cornucopia of feminist enlightenment since her self-imposed exile from Atlanta.
   Cleage eschews the very real substance of the election to focus on a domestic schism that, in essence, could have happened anytime, anywhere. There is also the clunky device about J.P. and Ann’s original elopement that takes too much time to explain and lacks any thematic veracity. And despite frenzied action by all concerned, the only laugh-getter in this whole menagerie is Evie, who—despite a heroic effort by Caldwell—is given way too much to say and to do. Given Caldwell’s fluency, Cleage could have reduced this effort into the one-person Evie play. It would have gotten more laughs in a lot less time.
The play’s title refers to Evie’s post-marriage sojourn to Paris, where she finally learned to love herself purely as herself, gaining the confidence to openly explore the wonders of positive self-realization. And by play’s end, she easily casts aside everybody else’s problems, as well as her own. Along the way, the rest of the ensemble acquits itself, despite the dramatic throughline imbalance. Kendrick gives credible evidence that if her Lena had been allowed to break out more, she could have offered strong counterbalance to Evie. Mitchell is properly sputtering and intractable as J.P., knowing in his heart that he is no match for his ex. The best thing about Brunson’s Ann and Fuller’s Nelson is they project an endearing, totally callow understanding of adulthood.
   The production values of this second installment of the Colony’s 40th season are admirable. Erven’s afore-mentioned setting is complemented by designers Dianne K. Graebner (costumes), Jared A. Sayeg (lights), Dave Mickey (sound), and Orlando del la Paz (scenic art).

September 15, 2014

Sept. 6–Oct. 5. 555 N. Third Street (at Cypress). Park in and enter from the shopping center structure. The theater is wheelchair-accessible. Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $20-49, discounts available (818) 558-7000 ext. 15


Kirk Douglas Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

DeWanda Wise and Chris Bauer
Photo by Craig Schwartz

There was a time when seeing a new play by David Mamet promised an evening charged with electricity, a guaranteed celebration of just how stimulating and provocative art can be if the artist is willing to not give a proverbial rat’s ass what people will think. With the LA debut of Mamet’s newest play at the Douglas, however, all the circuits have been connected with the precise hand of a long-established pro, but the resulting charge is simply not the intense jolt it used to be.
   Race unfolds in one room: the conference room of a well-heeled big-city law office, where partners Jack Lawson (Chris Bauer) and Henry Brown (Dominic Hoffman) are grilling a potential client to decide if they are willing to take on his controversial case. As the firm’s comely intern Susan (DeWanda Wise) sits unobtrusively in the background taking notes on the meeting, pompous business mogul Charles Strickland (Jonno Roberts), accused of raping a young black girl he had been dating, grudgingly and half-heartedly tells his side of the events.
   It’s fairly apparent Strickland chose this firm to take his case, after releasing another, mainly because of the partners’ make-up. Lawson is white, Brown is African-American. One would assume the question would be whether the partners believe the man’s story, but, as Lawson sermonizes to his protégée Susan, the man’s innocence or guilt is unimportant. Instead, the question is whether or not they can persuade the jury that he’s innocent. “He gets off,” Lawson pontificates, “because his entertainer—that would be me—put on a better show.” Asked at one point by Susan, who is also African-American, whether somewhere down deep he thinks black people are less intelligent than whites, Lawson quickly counters that he thinks all people are stupid and blacks are not exempt.

Under Scott Zigler’s crisply slick direction, the production features a dynamic cast and design team that would be hard to better. And even though Mamet has created Susan as far more three-dimensional and instrumental to the plot than are any of his past female characters, something is missing here, especially in the play’s highly predictable ending. The language and themes—not to mention the title—are just as provocative as in those exciting old Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo days, but somehow the writing doesn’t pack the wallop one would expect from one of our time’s most courageous—and most feted—wordsmiths.
   Perhaps we’ve all become inured to the sharply barbed language and skewering one-liners a new play by Mamet promises to deliver. Or perhaps the playwright has reached that place in his renown where he does give that aforementioned rat’s ass after all. It’s just that the usual rat-a-tat-tat urgency of his brilliant, daring early work seems somewhat subdued here. But don’t give up hope. This is a guy with a few surprises up his sleeve yet, especially if he goes back to revisit that brashly youthful time when he didn’t care what his audiences’—or his critics’—reaction would be.

September 8, 2014

Sept. 7–28. 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Free parking underneath City Hall, immediately south of the theater. Wed-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30 pm. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, including intermission. $20–55. (213) 628-2772.

Broadway Bound
Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz

Michael Mantell, Noah James, Betsy Zajko, Ian Alda, Allan Miller, and Gina Hecht
Photo by Enci

Jason Alexander, co-star of the original Broadway cast of Broadway Bound, directs this nostalgic piece with enough pathos and humor to stir audiences’ hearts. Led by the sensitive actor Gina Hecht, the top-caliber cast mines Neil Simon’s jokes for all their potency, while remaining grounded in this touching memoir of a family collapsing.
   The final play of Simon’s “Brighton Beach” trilogy, Broadway Bound is more dramatic and less jovial than Brighton Beach Memoirsand Biloxi Blues. In winter 1949, the Jerome family is at a crossroads as some members are climbing the capitalist ladder and others are tied to the pre–World War II world, have lost their way.
   The narrator Eugene (Ian Alda) is no longer the naive child of the first play. He and his brother, Stanley (Noah James), have begun an exciting writing career. Their Aunt Blanche (Betsy Zajko), who in Brighton Beach Memoirs is a lonely widow struggling with two daughters, has married a wealthy man and now lives comfortably on Park Avenue.
   Heartbreakingly, the marriage of parents Kate (Hecht) and Jack (Michael Mantell) is disintegrating. The noble, kind spirit that led the household in Brighton Beach Memoirs is gone. Jack has lost the integrity that Eugene idolized in that first play. Weak and sometimes cruel, Jack treats his family like strangers. Kate, who lives to serve her family, finds her boys growing up and her husband sneaking away, so her purpose is dwindling. Grandfather Ben (Allan Miller) ignores his ill wife and lives separately from her in the Jerome house, ranting Socialist rhetoric about how the country has fallen apart.

Dealing with the tragedy of growing old and growing apart, author Simon, who won a Tony for the play in 1986, still manages to be hilariously astute. Punch lines about the generation gap, familial bonds, and life in the lower middle class never mock the characters but shine a light on experiences many share.
   Alexander, who played Stanley in the original production, displays a special affinity with these people, and that filters through to the cast. Miller, as the cantankerous but wise grandfather, plays the role with insight into Ben’s values and into his selfishness. Zajko brings tenderness to Blanche, a central character from the first play, now on the sidelines in the family, too wealthy to fit in anymore and too representative of everything her father hates to connect with him. Zajko makes it clear how much Blanche cares and how frustrating it must be to drift away when she can financially support the people who saved her and her children during the first play.
   James is a firecracker as Stanley, filled with anxiety, hope, and combustive energy of someone on the brink of success. He flops around like a yippy dog, endearing his character to the audience. Mantell has a tougher role, and, due to either brave or unwise choices, his performance didn’t ingratiate his character to the audience. It would take finesse to draw the audience to Jack despite his unlikable actions, and Mantell does not show the consternation in Jack’s current soul. He comes off as merely a cad.
   Eugene Morris Jerome has always represented the youthful exuberance, naiveté, and perceptiveness of Simon as a young man. It’s a great service to Simon’s voice that Ian Alda’s performance is so winning. Marveling at the family his character would eventually write about, Alda’s Eugene is observant, sensitive, and prescient.

But, Hecht holds the play together. Obstinate as a bull but protective and loving, her Kate is the Jewish mother audiences either cherish or wish they had. The play’s pièce de résistance, a monologue about Kate’s youthful dalliance with movie star George Raft, reveals a rebellious and passionate woman who may have been able to achieve more in a different world. Her foxtrot with Alda is graceful and touching.
   Set designer Bruce Goodrich and prop designer Katherine S. Hunt have turned the stage into a lived-in Brighton Beach Jewish home of the late ’40s with ironed doilies, hanging designer plates, sconces, and faded family photos. The costumes, by Kate Bergh, are appropriate for the period and this family’s financial lot.
   A special play, Broadway Bound is poetic in its interpretation of a family’s struggles. Unlike Eugene O’Neill’s, Tennessee Williams’s, or Edward Albee’s literary families, Simon’s famous family rallies together under adversity, with comedy and love. Alexander’s witty version is a valentine to families everywhere.

August 6, 2014
Aug. 2–Sept. 28. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. There is wheelchair access. Fri-Sat 8pm, with selected Wed and Thu perfs, Sun matinee times vary. $30. (323) 960-4412.
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