Independent Shakespeare Company at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park
Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
Lorenzo González and David Melville
Photo by Grettel Cortes
Wrapping up its annual summer foray into the wilds of Griffith Park, Independent Shakespeare Company offers a pleasantly sublime rendering of what is listed as the final entry in William Shakespeare’s playwriting catalogue. Director Matthew Earnest kicks things off with a raucously effective sequence depicting the shipwreck of a vessel transporting various personages of royalty, including the King of Naples and the current Duke of Milan. Underscored by an uncredited sound design brimming with the crashing crescendos of an ocean gale, this first scene sets an excellently chaotic tone for the various levels of miscommunication upon which the remainder of the play relies.
Shakespeare next provides an expositional scene among the island’s occupants to fill in the past dozen years of backstory. Here we meet Prospero—banished so his brother Antonio could usurp the previously mentioned dukedom—and his daughter, Miranda. Prospero’s time has been spent developing wizard-like powers, which he has employed to land this boatload of underhanded connivers upon his territorial shore. Providing a relatively benign characterization despite Prospero’s obviously harbored ill will, Thom Rivera’s interactions with Sean Pritchett’s Caliban, an animalistic native spawned from a now dead witch, still fairly crackle with tension. Erika Soto offers a Miranda whose grace and instantaneous love for Evan Lewis Smith’s Ferdinand, son to the king of Naples, is most engaging.
Rounding out these equatorial inhabitants is Kalean Ung as a take-charge version of Ariel, a spritely fairy who serves Prospero in the hopes of securing her freedom. Ung, along with an energetic chorus of spirits, exhibits a beautiful vocal range as the troupe performs various sequences of the Bard’s poetic script, set here to Chris Porter’s original compositions.
Among the royals, Joseph Culliton is a slightly befuddled King Alonso, while William Elsman is perfectly slimy as the king’s younger brother, Sebastian. Along with Prospero’s duplicitous brother, Antonio, played with a seething temper by Faqir Hassan, the two plot to overthrow the King. Instead, their plans fall prey to the bevy of spirits working at Prospero’s behest, as well as the measured wisdom brought to the proceedings by Lester Purry’s performance as Gonzalo, counselor to the King. Even in this expansive venue, Purry’s eye-catching sense of subtlety is scene-stealing at every turn.
For slapstick comedic relief, nothing tops David Melville’s Stephano and Lorenzo González’s Trinculo. This pair of self-important buffoons, thinking they alone survived the wreckage, attempt to set up a tropical monarchy with the assistance of Caliban, who schemes to do away with Prospero. Naturally, their strategy disintegrates with hilarious results.
In the end, happiness reigns with freedom, forgiveness, and uniting love ruling the day. Sporting a fluffy sweetness traditionally consigned to cotton candy, perhaps this is a fitting entry with which its author completed perhaps the greatest compendium of literature the world will ever know.
August 17, 2016
Aug. 6–Sept. 4. Near 4730 Crystal Spring Dr., LA. Wed-Sun 7pm. Free admission. (818) 710-6306.
D Deb Debbie Deborah
Theatre of NOTE
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Greg Nussen, Alina Phelan, Jenny Soo, Travis York
Photo by Troy Blendell
Schizophrenic behavior is not usually a subject for comedy, but there’s a first for everything, right? In Jerry Lieblich’s whirlwind of a play, our heroine Deb (most often played by Jenny Soo) is not terribly sure who she is—or who anybody in her life is either. She suffers a bizarre kind of disorientation after buzzing a stranger into her urban high-rise apartment thinking it’s a friend, only to be robbed at knifepoint. She explains to her boyfriend Karl (most often Greg Nussen) that she could not identify her attacker to the cops, something that sends her into a tailspinning downward spiral that out-vertigoes Vertigo.
She tells Karl she feels “like I’m living in Fight Club or something,” even going a step further to wonder if she might be a made-up person from someone’s dream and one day that person might wake up and she’ll be gone. Karl is sufficiently understanding in an I’m-busy-but-sympathetic sorta way, even as he goes in the bedroom to change clothes and, when he returns, is suddenly being played by another actor (Travis York). Deb is sufficiently unnerved but goes along with the surreal experience for a while, even when she begins her new job as an assistant for a famous though highly eccentric artist. York here plays Mark, that nightmare of a boss, but he is again is replaced by Nussen in the same paint-splattered role, then both are followed by Alina Phelan, who also morphs back and forth with the others as Mark’s too-cheery office manager Julia.
While realizing in a rather subdued panic that she no longer recognizes anyone in her life anymore—even herself—Deb is invited by her employer to an art gallery opening featuring some of his early work, giving the actors, now joined by a fifth performer (Kerr Lordygan), an opportunity to jump instantaneously from one persona to another with almost mindboggling speed.
Under the sharp and highly choreographed direction of Doug Oliphant, his quintet executes an almost unearthly feat, shape-shifting in a flash between personas, from the ones we’ve just barely gotten to know to every other guest at the event, all introducing and reintroducing themselves to one another with lightning speed. It’s something quite amazing to behold, like a stage full of Cirque du Soleil performers doing their own thing while that one rubber-limbed acrobat coils and twists above our heads.
Mark at one point describes to Deb one recent period in his work when he only did portraits of people as he imagined they’d look when they get old, explaining they could hang them on their walls and wait until they looked right. He abandoned the series, he says, when he realized the paintings “didn’t align with who people thought I was,” charitably giving a hint of insight into what Lieblich’s D Deb Debbi Deborah is all about—besides, of course, offering a quartet of opportunities for brilliantly dexterous, wildly filterless “Who’s-On-First”-savvy actors like these to strut their stuff in the most jaw-dropping way.
How Deb sees herself and her place in our topsy-turvy world is the issue here, as are how each of us assimilates into our surroundings, how we justify ourselves as artists and as citizens of the planet, and how we handle what’s expected of us.
The otherwise odious Ayn Rand once said that most people live as “second-handers,” that most exist only for how everyone else around perceives them to be rather than for who they are. “They have no concern for facts, ideas, work,” Rand wrote. “They’re concerned only with people. They don’t ask: ‘Is this true?’ They ask: ‘Is this what others think is true?’ Not to judge, but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing. Not creation, but show. Not ability, but friendship. Not merit, but pull.”
Perhaps this is the message of Lieblich’s bafflingly dense but genuinely fascinating play, that the only way to survive the confusion of modern existence is to just go along, fingers firmly grasping the edges, remaining confident that who each of us is as solitary individuals must be considered—and celebrated—at all costs, regardless of those too frequent times when that expert acrobat twirling just above our heads comes crashing down onto the hard and unforgiving sawdust of the circus floor.
August 15, 2016
1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $20-25. (323) 856-8611.
Blueprint for Paradise
The Athena Cats at Hudson Mainstage
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Regi Davis and Meredith Thomas
Photo by Ed Krieger
Laurel M. Wetzork’s intriguing and unusual idea for a play falters, largely but not exclusively because of flawed direction, in its world premiere. Not even the handsome designs, some of which are ill-used, nor the efforts of the actors overcome the play’s failings.
Wetzork starts from a slice of local history and imagines it behind the scenes. In 1941, African-American architect Paul Revere Williams had a portfolio that included such admired structures as downtown’s Los Angeles County Courthouse (now the Stanley Mosk Courthouse) and its twin Hall of Administration, when he was contacted by a married couple for a project in Pacific Palisades.
That project, Williams soon learned, was to design a Nazi stronghold, with a comfortable well-lit library and an ocean view. So much is true. But what were the thoughts and feelings of those involved?
It’s a fascinating idea for a play, examining ethical principles and relationships, motives and prejudices. The play comments thoughtfully on the way society was and is structured. And, as it turns out, it’s quite timely and topical. But its basic foundation, badly ornamented and weighted by heavy-handedness, crumbles by evening’s end.
Despite his waiting list of projects, Williams (Regi Davis) has been persuaded to hie on over to the Hancock Park home of Herbert Taylor (David Jahn) and his wife, Clara (Meredith Thomas). As members of organizations that plot the whitening of civilization, the Taylors host German Nazi Wolfgang Schreiber (Peter McGlynn) and American Nazi sympathizer Ludwig Gottschalk (Steve Marvel).
Schreiber and Gottschalk are stunned to see that the Taylors employ a Chinese maid (Ann Hu) but perhaps are happier to note the Italian manservant (Alex Best). Nothing, however, can top the repulsed reactions to Williams.
So far, the play has a terrific setup, its dramatic conflict at the ready. But rather than enhancing the script where it’s too subtle and making subtle its more blatant moments, director Laura Steinroeder ladles on bad directorial choices.
Those choices start with cartoonish accents. Granted, one of them is deliberately fake, as a character’s true identity is revealed midway through the play. But each accent seems stereotypical and overgeneralized, from Hu’s Chinese to Gottschalk’s Southern drawl.
Steinroeder dims lighting designer Matthew Gorka’s otherwise warm Southern California sunlight mid-scenes to create mood where the situation and dialogue have already created it. Then, time and again, she lines up actors across the front of the stage, where they valiantly fight the unnatural configuration.
Williams, however, knows better than to stand near Clara as they look over blueprints. But where one circle of the table would smartly reveal this, instead they rapidly circle the table many, many times, distracting us from whatever they’re saying. Then Steinroeder turns the moments before the first-act and final blackouts into tacky melodrama.
The script has its flaws, too. Clara’s inheritance, which included a vast sum and real estate in Pasadena, has been spent by Herbert, unbeknownst to her, to construct this compound on property also given to Clara by her mother. That, plus the diabolical way Herbert speaks to her and tries to keep her medicated, ought to be enough of a feminist message. Unfortunately, Wetzork doesn’t trust the audience to spot this, so we hear the messages about unfairness and inequality loudly and repeatedly.
Fortunately, there’s good to be observed in the script, from personal yet universal points to political ones. Clara, painfully uncertain whether or not she is still considered a mother after her son’s death, drowns her unhappiness in drink, yet realizes she can and should escape from imprisonment imposed by her father and husband. Herbert grapples with being self-made rather than born to wealth as his peers are.
And of course Wetzork’s revisiting of history is noble and necessary. She notes how fraught the word “refugee” can be. Her characters commandeer the word “fear” on behalf of the Nazi agenda. She reminds us that “betterment” is in the eye of the beholder. Wetzork’s play, and her program notes, urge her audience to study history before it repeats itself.
And let us be grateful that the site of the proposed compound, Murphy Ranch, is currently a hiking ground in the Rustic Canyon area of Pacific Palisades.
August 1, 2016
30–Sept. 4. 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., LA. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running
time 2 and a half hours, including intermission. $25. (323)
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Sierra Madre Playhouse
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
Richard Van Slyke and Stanton Morales
Photo by Gina Long
In the grand scheme of things, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is only as good as its cast, and Sierra Madre has that nailed with a terrific ensemble who enliven William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s amusing take on competition among the young.
The story is simple: A group of middle-school winners of previous bees are gathered to determine the contestant who will go on to the national competition. Combat is fierce, and who will win is anyone’s guess.
Former winner and local realtor Rona Lisa Peretti (Gina D’Acciaro) is in charge of the bee, and she is joined by Vice-Principal Douglas Panch (Richard Van Slyke), a nervy deliverer of words, definitions, and sentences that pack a lot of the humor of the show.
The third adult in the scenario is Mitch Mahoney (Jaq Galliano), a rough and rugged offender doing his community service by giving the losing contestants a hug and a juice box. Though the focus in on the children, the adults deliver a plethora of funny and touching moments throughout.
The first child we meet is Chip (Joey Acuna Jr.), an appealing boy scout whose song, “My Unfortunate Erection,” portends early elimination. Next is Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Hannah Leventhal), her school’s gay and straight alliance leader, with two pushy dads.
Then there’s Leaf Coneybear (Robert Michael Parkinson), who designs his own clothes and is third-place winner of his local bee. He is a surprise selection because winners 1 and 2 are at a bar mitzvah. William Barfée (Stanton Kane Morales), whose attempts to get the judges to pronounce his last name correctly are futile, is awkward and has a magic foot that helps him spell the words.
Olive Ostrovsky (Cristina Gerla), whose mother is in India in an ashram and father is absent from the event, offers the most affecting portrayal in the production as she pines for affection in “I Love You.”
Last up is Marcy Park (Joy Regullano), a parochial-school whiz whose deadpan demeanor belies her inner child. Her considerable prowess at acrobatics, musical talent, and facility with six languages are showstoppers.
Four additional cast members are selected from the audience, and, at the performance attended, they were a delight. Minimally prepared ahead of time, they handled their words like spelling bee pros.
Director Robert Marra gives his actors plenty of leeway for individual portrayals, and the production is crisp and nicely paced. Though the musical numbers are mostly vehicles for spotlighting the characters, Joe Lawrence’s musical direction is excellent, and Marra’s choreography keeps things lively. The voices are universally outstanding in every number.
Jeff Cason’s set and lighting create a realistic gym with its concrete block walls and adjustable bleacher seats that serve the cast well. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes are inspired, particularly William’s and Leaf’s.
Though the emphasis is on humor, the story packs a punch as insecurities and issues of acceptance are all too realistic. Adults playing children can often be a bit precious, but these actors are spot on as they fully inhabit each quirky character. This is a true ensemble piece that is notable for its polish and high quality.
July 27, 2016
8–Aug. 21. 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Ample free parking
behind the theater. Schedule not announced. $20–35. (626)
One of the Nice Ones
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Rodney To and Rebecca Gray
Photo by Darrett Sanders
The prevalence of negative body image issues in our image-obsessed society has hardly been ignored as a subject for scathing and darkly extreme contemporary comedies. Why, Sheila Callaghan and Neil LaBute have practically made it a cottage industry. Yet, finding something fresh in an overworked theme isn’t the kind of challenge from which playwright Erik Patterson is known to walk away. Not only does Patterson offer a brand-new twist to the overworked topic, he also throws in a heaping dose of sexual politics in the workplace.
Going in for a performance review is a trepidatious event for any insecure underachieving employee, especially when being forced to face one of those many people who seem to operate more from a rush of power than as a levelheaded spokesperson for their boss. And for Tracy (Rebecca Gray), a wheelchair-bound telephone solicitor employed by a sketchy weight loss company, the stakes are even higher, since she’s been denied a rather specialized surgical procedure the firm’s insurance carrier will not authorize.
At first the panicking Tracy, nervous to the point of hyperventilation, is told by her superior (Graham Hamilton) that despite her drastically low performance levels, her job is secure. But when she shamelessly begins to compliment and cajole Roger, eventually pleading for him to confide to her what’s really going on, he admits she’s high on the list to receive a pink slip at the end of the week. She has one card left to insure her future with Tenderform Weight Loss Systems—and it happens on her back, spread-eagled across Roger’s desk with her crisp professional office-wear skirt hiked above her waist and the pair humping like rabid jackrabbits to The Carpenters’s otherwise lulling “Rainy Days and Mondays” pumped over the firm’s loudspeakers.
Familiarity with the body of work churned out by Patterson is reason enough to strap oneself in and prepare for a bumpy ride after Tracy and Roger make the Beast with Two Backs in full view of their surprised audience, but in deference to the unfiltered creativity established by the play’s darkly twisted creator, it would be almost sinful to reveal any of the play’s rapid twists and turns, something virtually impossible to accomplish without giving away some more delicious downward-spiraling ramifications from the randy co-workers’ inappropriate office…performance.
Under the mercilessly bold direction of Chris Fields, Gray and Hamilton are courageous and wildly committed at playing One of the Nice One’s central not so nice residents. Although the play basically belongs to them, Rodney To as a sheepish—but well-endowed, we learn—co-worker and Tara Karsian as a customer Tracy has talked into coming into the office for a consolation, are both golden additions to Fields’s sparkling cast.
Amanda Knehans’s whimsical and versatile set—imagine if Pee-wee Herman had outgrown his playhouse and went to work in an office—is a colorful addition to the fun, but it is Patterson’s mischievous mind and unsanitized wit that makes One of the Nice One infinitely nicer than the socially damaged characters he has invented.
July 25, 2016
July 16–Aug. 28. 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm & 7pm. $30. (310) 307-3753.
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