Arts In LA
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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
International City Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Jennifer Parsons, Stephen Rockwell, and Emily Goss
Photo by Caught in the Moment Photography

Three great characters of classic dramatic literature don’t exactly appear in Christopher Durang’s tender comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. But they inspire the personalities and circumstances of the play, and show us what’s in a name.
   The original Vanya, Sonia, and Masha are, of course, characters from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s oeuvre. Here they are modern-day middle-aged siblings, gathered at the family homestead in Pennsylvania.
   Vanya and Sonia have stayed put in this house, unmarried, to care for their parents, who succumbed to dementia. Now the two feel purposeless and past their primes. Meanwhile, Masha waltzed off to the celebrity of an acting career and five marriages.

Director Mary Jo DuPrey has shepherded all the dots onto the stage here. But she fails to connect too many of them. First to be noticed is the flatness and ambiguity of the scenic design. The dialogue states we’re in a morning room, but the flagstone floor surrounded by reeds and the lack of doors indicate this is an indoor-outdoor sort of space, whose back wall, open to the elements, is a bookcase.
   Fortunately, three capable actors steer the characters through the regrets and despairs of middle age.
   Stephen Rockwell plays Vanya in a beautifully underplayed yet rich performance. This Vanya has confidence in his intellect, but his sense of self has atrophied. Unlike others who have played the role, Rockwell makes Vanya cautious in finally opening up. He doesn’t explode, he explains. It’s an effective explanation, but it’s more a lecture than a cri de coeur, which fits his character even if it doesn’t build to a comedic pitch.
   Jennifer Parsons is Sonia, pinched, wrung-out, feeling hopelessly dried up. She puts on a new outfit for a party, however, and we see what the play is about: how the costumes we cloak ourselves in and the roles we take on hide our true selves.
   Leslie Stevens is Masha, theatrical but feeling age’s icy fingers on her career. Stevens’s Masha is grand but far from evil. Back home, even in this unidyllic family, her real self awakens, inspired by the renewal going on around her—and a few quirky machinations by Durang.

Three other characters fill out the play and knock the siblings from their stasis. The housekeeper Cassandra, played exuberantly by Murielle Zuker, livens any melancholy here. Like her namesake from ancient Greek drama, who was given the gift of foresight by the gods and then cursed to always be disbelieved, this one engages in a little voodoo and a lot of prophesizing.
   A young visitor to the neighborhood, Nina, wanders over, as Nina does in Chekhov’s The Seagull. In playing her, Emily Goss doesn’t shy away from the hanger-on aspect of this Nina’s personality, while her effervescence is beautifully contagious and helps explain the changes in the siblings. Connor McRaith plays Spike, the young stud Masha brings home on this fated visit, whose vibrant presence also stirs change.

But, despite the skills onstage, more than a few lines get awkward readings, and more than a few beats start or end clumsily. And too often there’s little feeling of family among the siblings, particularly between Stevens’s Masha and Parsons’s Sonia.
   What could be the play’s two most tender moments don’t breathe. Sonia’s telephone call from a man she met at the party is technically quite adept (we believe someone is on the other end of the line), but no space is allotted for Sonia to experience a life-changing change of heart.
   And in the play’s final beat, when the siblings listen to the Beatles and take a moment to live in hope, and when we want to feel the lumps in our throats, the lights come down before we can even take in all three actors’ faces.
   Still, these are scuffs on a sturdy, burnished script, whose bright light, like that of the siblings, can’t be marred by superficialities.

June 13, 2016
 
Reprinted with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
June 10–July 3. Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 330 East Seaside Way, Long Beach. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $47-49. (562) 436-4610.

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Hedda Gabler
Antaeus Theatre Company

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Jaimi Paige and Daniel Blinkoff
Photo by Karianne Flaathen

Who is Hedda Gabler? Of course she’s the crux of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 play. But who is she, deep down? Hedda Gabler is in production by Antaeus Theatre Company through mid-July. The company, which boasts a deep bench of the city’s best actors, double-casts its shows, so each role is shared by two actors in mix-and-match performances.
   On opening weekend, two strikingly divergent Heddas emerged, revealing what actors can do with a single script, under a single director.
   Ibsen tells us Hedda is a newly married woman of childbearing age, freshly home from her honeymoon with her academician husband, Jorgen Tesman. She claims she found their travels, and consequent constant togetherness, chafing, and now she’s mistress of a house she doesn’t like.
   As a woman of the era in which she was written, she’s stifled by society. But as a timeless character, one could say, she has serious psychological problems. She likely has had lifelong personality disorders. As a schoolgirl, she cruelly yanked her schoolmates’ hair, still remembering which girl could bear it the longest. As a hostess, she takes target practice at one of her guests. Late in the play, she burns a former lover’s life’s work. And more.

Director Steven Robman—who uses Andrew Upton’s modern English-language version of the script—moves the setting up to the presumably less restrictive 1920s. And Robman makes sure the first thing the audience sees is Hedda worshipfully hanging a portrait of her late father in its place of honor.
   What was that relationship about, and how spoiled was little Hedda? She’s her father’s daughter, Ibsen tells us, fearlessly wielding pistols, spoiled and acquisitive. She is surrounded by characters who contrast sharply with her, and she manipulates each. She could crush the overly doting aunt and submissive maid, but she saves her ammo for her naive former schoolmate. Hedda has already worn down her new husband and out-maneuvered the family-friend judge.
   Then, in walks the romantic figure of Ejlert Lovborg, once and again impassioned by Hedda. Her hold over him seeps into the audience, as the whiff of adultery keeps all eyes on the stage.
   Robman toys with the dialogue’s delivery, adding salacious pauses for shock or for laughs. Just when we’re accustomed to several of the actors’ heavy-handed style, the first act closes with a melodramatic effect that puts Hedda and Lovborg in their own pools of light.
   Other moments are subtle, hinting at subtext and making room for the audience’s interpretations. Near the play’s end, Hedda momentarily shrouds herself in the curtains. Is she hiding from her life? Is she envisioning her death? Someone else’s death?

Who Hedda is also depends on who is playing her. In the hands of Jaimi Paige, Hedda has personality disorders, making her vicious and monstrous—not bored, not straitjacketed by the role of women, as has been the customary excuse for her since the play’s debut. But in Paige, she’s wrapped in confidence, glamor, and sophistication.
   In the hands of Nike Doukas, Hedda’s motives are harder to discern. Doukas is also miscast. She is an enormously skilled actor, but she can’t hide her strength and intelligence behind anything Hedda does, and in no way could Tesman have believed he was marrying a sweet, compliant girl in this steely Hedda.
   The two actors playing Tesman offer contrasting interpretations. JD Cullum, opposite Doukas, creates an uncomfortable man, wanting to be alone with his books. Adrian LaTourelle, opposite Paige, is an extroverted teddy bear, happy to be interrupted. Cullum’s Tesman seems to know he’s no longer contented with Hedda. LaTourelle’s Tesman isn’t there yet. Cullum approaches the role intellectually, LaTourelle clowns around.
   Lovborg has no onstage buildup but almost immediately, in an intimate whisper, reminisces with Hedda about having long ago revealed to each other their dark sides. Daniel Blinkoff plays him as weaker, but now more single-minded and thus helpless. Ned Mochel seems healthier and stronger, making Lovborg’s swift downward spiral more tragic.
   The excellent Tony Amendola and James Sutorius share the role of the judge, though Amendola is the more menacing. Kwana Martinez and Ann Noble share the role of Thea, Hedda’s schoolmate. Amelia White and Lynn Milgrim play Aunt Julle. Elizabeth Dennehy is a comedic and Karianne Flaathen an oppressed housemaid.
   Design elements are effective enough and create a sense of the 1920s, though the not-fooling-anyone wigs should probably be rethought.

June 6, 2016

Reproduced with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News.
 
June 2–July 17. 5112 Lankershim Blvd. Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30-34(818) 506-1983.

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Stopping By
Edgemar Center for the Arts

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Barbara Tarbuck
Photo by Jennifer L. Connolly

No doubt Barbara Tarbuck is a treasure to the LA art scene—one of the most-arresting and brilliant actors appearing with welcome regularity on SoCal stages of all sizes and configurations. With this new solo show she authored as well as performs, under the direction of her longtime colleague Brian Drillinger, the jewel sparkles with more luminosity than ever.
   Stopping By chronicles her bittersweet experiences when, at age 74, she journeyed for the first time to that annual crucible of creativity in the barren Nevada desert called Burning Man, that transitory metropolis “dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance” where all are welcomed. There she hopes to find a convivial open space amid the constant billowing dust, the glowing night skies, the openhearted paean honoring the glories of art and fellowship, to scatter the ashes of her beloved husband of 30-plus years.

Utilizing her ageless, infectious energy and uncanny ability to stare down her audience directly and tell it like it is, Tarbuck re-creates an indelible moment in time, her talent as a performer only complemented by her knack of creating vivid images of losing her “Burning Man virginity” with a colorful, poetic lyricism that recalls Anne Rice describing the French Quarter of some 50 years before.
   A dark period followed her husband, Charlie’s, long and difficult death, a time when she all but lived by his side at the hospital, returning home only to collect the mail and feed the cat. Her grief, she explains, was “prickly and mean and followed me around,” forcing her to arrive at the defeatist conclusion that growing old is like falling off the train of life and not knowing where to walk.
   At first, she starts to wonder if agreeing to accompany her son and developmentally challenged younger brother Jacques (names and the gender of her offspring are fictionalized to protect their privacy, she tells us) to Burning Man with Charlie’s ashes at her feet in their cramped car was a terrible mistake. “I felt old and too shy and too alone to join with people,” she recalls, but the incredibly positive, loving environment at the event—as well as the unstoppably counter-creative artistry and generosity of its participants—wins her over and, presumably, inspires a whole new breath of life into her insular world.
   The work is courageous and without filter, from hearty memories of laughing uncontrollably when getting stoned again after years of abstinence to startlingly graphic visual depictions of her robust sexual life groaning with earthy passion under her invisible husband—and when she describes in great detail the wonders of Burning Man and the people she meets, it’s all right there on her well-weathered face and expressively squinty eyes.

The results are mesmerizing and the point here is crystalline. Tarbuck’s efforts, however, are still missing something important: focus. Despite the detailed impressions she conjures, there’s still a rather inexplicable disconnect that hovers between performer and participant, never quite explaining or unloading to us the details of how the transformation that emerges inside her happens. The tales are all fascinating, but we never are privy to how they evolve or how they ultimately affect her beyond just relating them like snippets in a book by David Sedaris.
   We hear of her frustration with how she panics at small things, a trait that to her makes no sense, but without delving deeper into the morass of that realization, we never learn how it was or could be conquered. We hear that as kids she only pretended to like her brother and once even trapped him in a garage to get away from him; but although Tarbuck says he grew into quite a sweet and gentle man she obviously adores and unceasingly protects, we aren’t shown how that conversion occurred. We see how the journey to Black Rock Desert to become part of the creation of the annual Black Rock City changes her, but we aren’t really let in to understand clearly how it happens and, more important, how that new way of looking at things subsequently alters her life.
   These are still minor druthers which, in the next incarnation of Stopping By, could be teased easily to the surface. The talents, courage, humanity, wisdom, and humor of Tarbuck are surely at all times bubbling up right there below the surface to make it so.

June 6, 2016
 
June 4–June 25. 2437 Main St., Santa Monica. Sat 8pm. $20. (310) 392-7327.

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In & of Itself
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Derek DelGaudio
Jeff Lorch Photography

Derek DelGaudio’s world premiere In & of Itself proves him to be a captivating performer and a mesmerizing illusionist. He is not quite yet the philosopher he purports to be, but kernels of interesting ideas weave through the piece—such as making personal pain disappear like a house of cards.
   The show borrows from old routines of cabaret magic acts, from one-man confessional shows, and from ancient myths and stories. Somehow, though, under the direction of Frank Oz (yes, the puppetry artist), the various strands come together for a freshly visual piece.
   Six alcoves in an upstage cinderblock wall hold the beautiful props that DelGaudio uses throughout, all under the vibrant lighting designed by Adam Blumenthal. At least, we think they’re alcoves.
   It’s also a moody piece, with paradoxically soothing yet disquieting music by Mark Mothersbaugh (yes, front man for Devo).

“Magicians” often use pomposity to shake their audiences’ confidence in their own perceptions. DelGaudio is anything but pompous, though snarkiness creeps in during a few of his seemingly improvised asides.
   Secrets and individual elements of the show won’t be spoiled here. Just know that brief, non-embarrassing audience participation is available, to those who want it, by merely standing up during the show’s impressive finale.
   But before that, DelGaudio builds his premises brick by brick (yes, a reference to something in the show). All is perception, including our individual identities, he tells us. Chance, fate, a bit of sculpting, and lots of hard work make us who we are and make this show what it is.
   The show uses the startlingly reconfigured Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater (the 99-Seat space) at Geffen Playhouse to bring the audience almost on top of the action. Even from an aisle seat, though, some of the illusions are not fully visible. At the problem’s worst, an origami boat gets deliberately knocked to the floor, where it may or may not have seemed to disappear.
   The work also includes a convoluted bit about inviting an audience member to come back the next night, which leads into an extreme stretch to get another audience member onto the stage.

The show’s root problem, though, is that it’s exceedingly difficult to be thinking about what DelGaudio is saying while watching what he’s doing—whether it’s intricate handiwork with a deck of cards or the seemingly random resorting of letters in stacked mail slots. Given the subject matter, we’d like to be paying full attention to his thoughts. But the illusions are far more intriguing.
   And yet, at the top of the show, he says, half-accusingly and half-sorrowfully, “You think I’m a liar.” We want to hear what he wants to tell us. We want to know that the audience member who seems to randomly pick out a letter from a stack honestly didn’t know he was picking out a letter written to him by a family member.
   We want to believe that the video of the card work is live.
   We want to believe that DelGaudio is not, as he tells us, a liar.
   Maybe that’s the magic of being an audience member.

May 13, 2016
 
May 11–July 24. 10886 Le Conte Ave., LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 65 minutes. $100-$150. (310) 208-5454.

www.geffenplayhouse.com

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Tennessee Williams UnScripted
Falcon Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Ryan Smith, Lauren Rose Lewis, and Nick Massouh
Photo by Sasha Venola

With the faint metaphorical scent of magnolias lingering in the air and more than enough Southern charm to fill the bill, this brilliantly multifaceted group of improvisational experts pays homage to one of America’s greatest playwrights. Sparked only by the offering of an audience-suggested family heirloom (on opening night, it was a brass bowl), director Brian Lohmann along with cast and crew set out on a hilarious trek through the literally unknown.
   Due to the company’s rotating set of cast members, not only is the storyline a mystery to all concerned but its development is no doubt influenced by whoever has pulled duty at any given performance. On the night reviewed, Lohmann and a stalwart half-dozen took the bull by the horns, leaving the enthusiastically supportive audience rolling in the aisles.
   Some characterizations, more than others, were clearly modeled after those from Williams’s better-known works such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Floyd Van Buskirk’s performance as Mr. Toby, proprietor of a mountaintop resort in Florida (the source of oxymoronic humor throughout the show) was slyly reminiscent of Burl Ives’s Big Daddy, including an otherwise unexplained second-act appearance in a wheelchair. Meanwhile, Kelly Holden Bashar, playing the sultry Melinda Fairweather, channeled a perfectly executed knockoff of Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie. Holden Bashar’s interactions with her sympathetically forlorn husband Robert “Bobo” Fairweather, played by Lohmann, and Ryan Smith’s mysteriously sensual Chance, a stranger to this group of vacationers, were remarkably well-crafted and effective in advancing the plotline.

Ably toting the water bucket of humor were Dan O’Connor and Kari Coleman as the blue-collared Richmond “Skudge” McHenry and his hypochondriacally discombobulated wife, Roberta. O’Connor was a master of snarkiness as he capitalized on details and missteps offered by his fellow actors, while Coleman’s ability to interject with character-driven non-sequiturs was spot-on perfect.
   Likewise, Edi Patterson was a stitch as Carnelian, the resort’s chief cook and bottle washer, whose bizarre name came about during a moment in which she and Lohmann became temporarily tongue tied. Instances such as these are what make witnessing this company’s work so much fun due in no small part to the adroitness with which they are able to mine comic gold from a mere hesitation or slip of the brain. It’s never done as a Gotcha but rather from the collective refusal to pass up an opportunity to add to the chaos.

While the onstage shenanigans take part on designer Michael C. Smith’s appropriately crafted scenery—complete with wicker porch furniture, ivy-covered clapboard walls, and even a corrugated tin moon conspicuously hung upstage center—there’s collusion afoot in the tech booth. Stage manager Madison Goff is responsible for lighting the show as it progresses, while her assistant, Alex Caan, adds musical underscoring and sound effects. What’s most interesting is the influence they have, at times, on just how long a scene plays out or is brought to completion. It’s a symbiotic relationship that rarely fails.
   On the night reviewed, the production offered a perfectly constructed arc of middle, beginning, and end. Revelations and rebirth of relationships came to a believable conclusion much as with Williams’s seriocomic pieces. What any other performance in this run turns out to be is what makes attending this company’s work a visit marked by anticipatory excitement.

June 22, 2016
 
June 17–July 31. 4252 Riverside Dr. Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8pm, Sun 4pm. $29–44. (818) 955-8101.

FalconTheatre.com

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The Little Mermaid
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


The cast of The Little Mermaid
Photo by Bruce Bennett

Walt Disney’s legacy is more than just a mouse or an amusement park. He set in motion a juggernaut that includes films, both live, animated, or a combination of both; award-winning music; television programming; radio programs; and theatrical productions, mostly based on his animated films. McCoy Rigby Entertainment’s newest offering is The Little Mermaid, directed by Glenn Casale, who was charged with enriching and enlivening the original Broadway production with special effects.
   The story by Hans Christian Anderson about a girl who gives up her voice to become human has been given a greatly enhanced plot via Doug Wright’s book, Alan Menken’s music, and Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater’s lyrics. Though it is aimed at children, it has enough wit to more than satisfy adults as well. Mermaid princess Ariel (Alison Woods) has longed for life above the sea and losing her tail for legs.
   When she spots handsome Prince Eric (Eric Kunze) on his ship, she sets about to find a way to accomplish this. Unfortunately for her, she chooses to consult a sea witch, Ursula (Tracy Lore), with disastrous results. In typical Disney fashion, though, the princess captures her prince and a happy ending triumphs with plenty of wisdom about the importance of achieving a happy life.

First and foremost are the special effects. Ariel flies above the stage as though in the water (superbly executed in Paul Rubin’s flying-sequence choreography), and Woods is spunky and equal to creating a believable girl who is up for the challenge of following her dreams. The set design, by Kenneth Foy, employs a clever use of bubbles to simulate water, both in scenery flats and projections. Enhanced by Charlie Morrison’s lighting design, the effect is magical. Unlike many musicals, the set is simple, almost reflective of children’s theater as a whole, but it works as a fantasy environment.
   Mention must be made of Amy Clark and Mark Koss’s fantastic costumes. From Sebastian the crab’s claws and crimson wig to Flounder’s mohawk and yellow and teal striped suit, the characters are alive with color and shimmer. Ariel’s beautiful costume fluttering at its base, simulating a mermaid’s tail, and Ursula’s purple-and-black gown, undulating with tentacles that seem to have a life of their own, are perfect for the undersea effects. Wigs and hair design are also well-done by Leah J. Loukas.

Woods has the perfect Disney princess pure soprano voice, and she is well-cast to match her famous predecessors like Broadway’s Belle (Susan Egan) in Beauty and the Beast. Kunze makes a charming hero with just the right amount of dash to make hearts flutter. His guardian Grimsby (played with the requisite dithery unrest by Time Winters) and ship’s pilot (Jeff Skowron) make up Eric’s entourage. Skowron steals the show in the second act as Chef Louis, whose comedic chops and energetic physicality are devastatingly funny, as evidenced by the spontaneous audience laughter throughout the number.
   Ariel’s sisters are well-played by Kim Arnett, Kristine Bennett, Marjorie Failoni, Melissa Glasgow, Devon Hadsell, Amanda Minano, and Tro Shaw. Jamie Torcellini is an enterprising seagull whose flights and commentary add to the humor. He is accompanied by companion gulls, played by Michael McGurk, Dennis O’Bannion, and James Shackelford, and their number, “Positoovity,” is enchanting.
   Lore is deliciously wicked as she tries to get revenge on her brother, King Triton (a commandingly regal, full-voiced portrayal by Fred Inkley). She orders around Flotsam (Scott T. Leiendecker) and Jetsam (Jeffrey Christopher Todd), electric eels who glide about the stage on Heelys, costumed to light up the darker stage that is Ursula’s habitat. Their “Sweet Child” number is delightful. Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a sinister delight.
   Notable is Melvin Abston as Sebastian, who convinces as a skittery crab with sideways segues as he tries to rein in Ariel after Triton puts him in charge. His rendition of “Under the Sea” is clever and a highlight. Also notable is the lovesick Flounder (Adam Garst), who follows Ariel about with nervous concern. Choreography by John MacInnis makes the production come alive, especially in “Positoovity” and the chef’s “Les Poissons.”

A production of this size and scope has much to recommend, especially on the large La Mirada stage. Effective sound, lighting, music, choreography, and sets on a national tour are not easy to achieve. The commitment to high quality of cast and artistic creators helps achieve a show that is rewarding. Thanks to McCoy Rigby’s successful Disney productions in the past, McCoy Rigby been given the rights to The Hunchback of Notre Dame in its upcoming season.

June 9, 2016
 
June 3–June 26. 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Tue-Thu 7:30, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm (no 7pm perf June 12). $20-70. (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.

www.lamiradatheatre.com

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The Engine of Our Ruin
Victory Theatre Center

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Steve Hofvendahl and Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt
Photo by Tim Sullens

In a season when our country’s fractured political system is at the pinnacle of comedic illogicality, the world premiere of Jason Wells’s hilarious and smartly absurd play corresponds with the reality show unfolding around us. “If we’re the smartest thing on earth,” a character comments on the flawed and destructive nature of humans, “it’s because we figured out how to do the measuring.”
   Inhabiting a luxurious hotel suite in an unnamed Middle Eastern country—kudos to Evan Bartoletti’s spectacularly appointed set and prop designer Alessandra Hajaj’s subtle but suitably gaudy accoutrements, described in the script as resembling a Byzantine whorehouse—a team of American diplomats has been sent by the US government to broker a deal with the foreign country’s scary powder keg of a regime. The idea is to exchange some of our obscenely overflowing corn surplus for anything that will reduce mistrust between the two governments. But, thanks to a hired interpreter with an agenda of her own, things go awry more rapidly than in a farce by Ken Ludwig, even without the slamming doors.
   Under the sure and solid directorial hand of Maria Gobetti, whose crafty and wonderful little physical bits and touches are everywhere and enhance Wells’s tale immeasurably, a stellar ensemble cast works through the ever-increasing misunderstandings and foibles that, although beginning as a simple mission that could have probably ended with a friendly handshake and a back-slapping trip downstairs to the hotel’s bar, turns into a convoluted mess that could initiate World War III if not quelled in a hurry.

One of the slyest and most daring conceits here unfolds in the first scene, in which the American contingent (Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt, Shannon McManus, Gregory Hoyt, and Spencer Rowe) meets with the other country’s top diplomat (Brian Abraham) and his gung-ho assistant (Ryan P. Shrime), and the sabotage from the female interpreter (Zehra Fazal) begins immediately.
   No matter how innocently the Americans offer their corn, told by their higher-ups that it makes no difference what they get in return as long as it eases tensions, everything they say is instead misinterpreted to mandate equality for the country’s women and demand the creation of a Women’s School of Law and Engineering unless they want war.
   The difficult task here for Gobetti and her actors is that, although both groups speak two languages, all the dialogue is delivered in English—although the performers morph from proper English to Borat-speak whenever they try to communicate in the other’s tongue. This takes a few minutes for the audience to grasp. Once the ideas and the rhythms are established, however, the effect is impressive.
   At first, Meinelschmidt seems to be annoyingly oratorical, as though barking all his lines in homage to the late Phil Hartman, but this bombastic speaking voice—which beyond his character’s stuffy Eastern seaboard upper-crusty exterior reveals a sincere effort to his serve his country and ace what he sees as an important mission—is totally intentional. It’s a risky choice for actor and director, but it’s a brilliant choice. Hoyt is also a standout as his goofy, terminally clumsy aide who wants to get all this hokum done so he can party hearty, as is Rowe as the understated security guy who just may or not be a plant from the CIA.
   As their government overseer, Steve Hofvendahl takes his one long scene, wearily, grumpily trying to make Meinelschmidt’s green envoy get his convoluted drift, which involves possibly disposing the country’s dictator, and steals the show. As Hofvendahl blasts the stupidity and naively pretentious demeanor of his government’s chosen negotiator, he clearly defines what a world-wearying job it is to pull the strings of international politics, finally, with a maddened headshake, whining to the skies that what he’s trying to suggest is the most exasperating act of treason he’s ever been assigned to commit.

This is a beautifully written, exceptionally mounted, wonderfully shrewd topical comedy. But, for all of us reeling from the fears and threats that ignite the world with hostilities and rampant paranoia, if you’re not already scared out of your wits that our planet could be doomed by the ridiculousness of our destructive actions, when you wipe away the tears of laughter, this play should do the trick.

June 2, 2016
 
May 27–July 17. 3324-6 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. Ample street parking is available; additional parking at the Northwest Branch Library, directly across from the theater. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm. $24-34. (818) 841-5422.

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Disgraced
Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Hari Dhillon, Emily Swallow, Karen Pittman, and J Anthony Crane
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning theatrical treatise, on the nature of the thinly veiled racial and cultural intolerance all around us that no one until recently would acknowledge exists, is the most important new play to come along in many years. Written in 2011, debuting in Chicago in 2012, moving to Broadway and receiving the Pulitzer in 2013, Disgraced has become the most produced play in America today. Finally, it comes to our heated shores, and this couldn’t be better timed to stimulate a passionate discussion about what lurks malevolently just below the surface of our once-polite society when the issues of hidden xenophobia and our country’s horrifyingly backward cultural divides have become topics on our tongues.
   Amir (Hari Dhillon) is a successful Manhattan lawyer waiting for his firm’s partners to tell him his name will join theirs on the company masthead. Born of Pakistani parents, he has long disavowed his religious Muslim roots and successfully assimilated into the mainstream of the New York social order with the help of changing his last name and telling his bosses his parents were from India—justifying this because his father was born there in 1947, a year before the countries were split.
   His wife, Emily (Emily Swallow), a prophetically Nordic-looking painter who’s hoping her latest canvases focusing on the origins of Islamic art will be included in a new show being curated at the Whitney, has begun a portrait of her husband inspired by a waiter who, despite Amir’s penchant for $600 dress shirts, treated him disrespectfully due to his ethnicity. Inspired by what he was assuming about her husband “as opposed to what you really are,” her canvas pays homage to a Velazquez painting at the Met of a Moorish slave dressed as a nobleman. Although this idea makes Amir instantly uncomfortable, the comparison proves unnervingly visionary over the play’s next rapid-fire 90 minutes.
   Just when radicalized Muslims, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and all those other denizens of the Islamic State have brought the primal conflicts raging in Syria and Iraq directly to our door, Disgraced could easily seem to be rubbing salt into our still-open wounds. Instead it unearths incredibly divergent emotions within us as we try to keep up with whichever character we need to ally.

Things begin peacefully enough. Amir poses for Emily in their posh Upper East Side apartment, standing stoically in a jacket and tie, but with his vulnerability showing since all he has on below the waist are turquoise spandex undershorts. Visually this symbolizes that no matter how hard Amir tries to evoke the aura of a modern businessman well in control, under the bravado he is an emotionally and physically defenseless, out-of-place-looking little boy.
   Amir’s nephew (Behzad Dabu), who due to his own worries about racial profiling has rather improbably changed his name to Abe Jensen, tries, along with Emily, to persuade Amir to look into what they see as the unfair treatment of an aged Muslim cleric on trial for using his congregation’s funds to support Hamas and other Middle-Eastern terrorist organizations. Amir fights to not be involved, but when he reluctantly agrees to sit in on a court hearing on the case, a New York Times reporter seeks him out and quotes him on the case as though he were part of the defense team. This prompts Amir to not only be questioned by his bosses about his suddenly suspect political alliances—as well as information on his employment application—but to eventually lose him his job.
   Riding along as Akhtar’s amazing play at first quietly develops is somewhat akin to being strapped in and helpless in a cramped car on a rickety rollercoaster, chugging up to the top of the first peak and then forcing us to hold on tight while being whipped and pulled and jerked past all sense of gravity. And when Amir’s African-American co-worker Jory (Karen Pittman) and her Jewish husband, Isaac (J. Anthony Crane), arrive for a socially acceptable dinner at the couple’s home, what starts as praise for Emily’s lovely fennel salad turns into a violent free-for-all that ends in one of the most-shocking scenes in modern theater history.

Kimberly Senior, who has been with the play as director since its earliest incarnation in Chicago, masterfully stages her stellar performers around John Lee Beatty’s impressively appointed set as though designing a world-class game of real-life chess, a stage picture complete when her players get knocked down and eliminated just like chess pieces.
   Swallow, Dabu, and Crane could not be better cast, and Pittman’s turn as a wisecracking ghetto survivor on the rise is exceptional and unforgettable. Still, the performance that takes no prisoners is Dhillon’s, creating an indelible portrait of an initially unlikable, glaringly conceited and arrogant man obviously wallowing in self-hatred. Amir is clearly someone wavering precariously between well-studied superciliousness and a tragic sense of disenfranchisement from everything he has tried for his entire life to make himself believe. When he stands alone onstage silently contemplating the portrait his wife created of him, we’re left with the unsettling feeling of watching Dorian Grey’s portrait studying him instead of the other way around. The silence and intensity of the moment is breathtaking.
   The irony of Disgraced opening here a mere eight days after the massacre in Orlando cannot be dismissed. Sadly, although the bloody battles fought by Ahktar’s characters expose the horrors of what can only be described as war, whether global or within ourselves, in the aftermath, we are left to mourn that he wasn’t able solve any of the thorny problems we are so desperately trying to disentangle.

June 20, 2016
 
June 19–July 17. 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown Los Angeles. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $25–85. (213) 972-4400.

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Big Sky
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Emily Robinson and Arnie Burton
Photo by Darrett Sanders

All art is imitation, yes, but give us a break. In Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’s world-premiering Big Sky, we have the bored and emotionally deprived wife trying to hold her marriage together; her ambitiously career-driven, familiarly unfeeling husband; the intensely overdramatic eye-rolling teenage daughter who hates them both; and, of course, the perpetually wisecracking ultra-gay best friend. Why, there’s even an unseen Native American character with a thing for spiritual atonement ceremonies hovering around, influencing the play’s allegorically silly outcome. The only overworked stereotypical character not represented is Tevye yubba-dibby-dibby-dumming around the stage, speculating about being a rich man.
   In a well-appointed corporate-owned Ritz-Carleton condominium in Aspen, unemployed executive Jack (Jon Tenney) and his wife, Jen (Jennifer Westfeldt), wait for a call to send him off for a command performance with the president of a major hedge fund that’s made a killing from poor slobs defaulting on their credit. If the big muckety-muck offers Jack a job, all the couple’s troubles might finally be over, that is if Jack can get Jen to revisit her hormone therapy and stop crying at the drop of a hat. Marriage hasn’t been easy for them, especially since he lost his job and she started having an affair with a terminally ill patient at a hospice where she volunteers—someone who credits her love for his miraculous recovery.
   Throw in Jonathan (Arnie Burton), that token gay bestie delivering a rampant automatic weapon-fire of dryly witty one-liners that leave the actor working harder than Paul Lynde on steroids, and Tessa (Emily Robinson), that predictably spoiled 17-year-old daughter who’s schtupping their Manhattan apartment building’s mystical Native American service elevator porter, and we’re off—to basically nowhere anyone wouldn’t immediately recognize as a place all of us have been before.

Before the intermission, we could be watching an updated version of a brittle 1930s comedy by Phillip Barry, but when the lights come up on the second half, the gloves come off and the family has suddenly swallowed a huge dose of Edward Albee’s sad, sad, sadness. It’s just what’s been expected all along if we’d been listening even semi-closely: the meltdown of a miserably unhappy group of minor social climbers about whom it’s hard to give a hang.
   In a raging blizzard that soon leaves the family without electricity or heat, a drunken and stoned Tessa kills a buffalo in the SUV owned by Jack’s potential employer. Her boyfriend Catoni—a name that translates as Big Sky—insists she and her parents perform an ancient sacramental ritual to properly atone for the death of the sacred animal.
   This provides the play with a symbolically stunted dénouement complete with elemental fire and rhythmic sound of indigenous drums, just to hammer in the point in case anyone out there on Sudafed didn’t quite get it yet. As the warring tribe members suddenly stop drawing blood and screaming at one another, and join together to collectively grunt their way through their return to the primitive, they quickly abandon the idea of a wealthy upwardly mobile future that includes shopping, dabbling in volunteer causes with questionably moral side benefits, and one day soon having a soulless condo in Aspen at the Ritz all their own.

Director John Rando and his proficient cast do their best with Gersten-Vassilaros’s hackneyed dialogue, as the dated dramedy’s desperately unhappy upper-class wannabes claw for their piece of the pie—not to mention the case of $200-a-bottle wines Jack’s potential boss has delivered, which, as the evening progresses, seem to double in value whenever Jack shows them off. Derek McLane’s trendy yet personality-free condo’s set design is rich and quite impressive, complete with a towering open-beamed ceiling and a starkly modern glassed-in fireplace. Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting, luminescent as the ominous snowstorm blankets the lodge’s picture windows, and Jon Gottlieb’s crescendoing sound design are spectacular.
   An enormous amount of exceptional talent and knockout design elements are not enough unfortunately, here terribly wasted on a most disappointing journey back to places we’ve visited time and time again. The sky Gersten-Vassilaros paints for us is simply not big enough.

June 18, 2016
 
June 15–July 17. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. (Partially validated parking around the block adjacent to Trader Joe’s.) Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 2 and a half hours, including intermission. $32–82. (310) 208-5454.

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La Cage
Aux Folles

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

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Gedde Watanabe
Photo by Michael Lamont

By nature, this 1983 musical, adapted by Harvey Fierstein, with a classically infectious and hummable score by Jerry Herman, based on the 1973 French play of the same name and its 1978 film version, is gaudy, oversized, and incredibly ostentatious. Ironically enough, however, this flashiness is also always a major distraction from the story, with those in the position of producing and designing it feeling the pressure to throw around more glitter and feathered boas than those adorning a flatbed truck full of drag queens at the annual West Hollywood Gay Pride Parade.
   What was so sweetly charming and wickedly funny in its original French nonmusical version, something echoed in the 1996 American film adaptation The Birdcage thanks to the unearthly talents of its stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, instantly becomes a cheap target for overproduction. East West Players, an all–Asian American theater company, is giving it a fresh new production that’s just as charming and wickedly funny as the original play and film version, simply because it doesn’t go for over-excess. It instead aims directly for the heart.
   Strip away the squealing cross-dressing chorus boys adorned in massive quantities of sequins and attitudes to match, and underneath the glitz is the unpretentious tale of a longtime gay couple who live above their bawdy Saint Tropez nightclub called La Cage Aux Folles—a slang term for effeminate homosexuals literally translated to mean “the cage of mad women”—and what lurks beyond the satin gowns and high heels is a guileless, gently engaging homage to the nature of enduring love.

Playing Albin, the aging yet flamboyantly girly star of the club’s drag revue and the “wife” in the owners’ longtime union, the inimitable Gedde Watanabe is softly yet spectacularly on the money in this coveted role, making the audience fall in love with him despite Albin’s continuously edgy nature and outbursts of Alexandra Del Lago–style dramatics. When Jean-Michel—the son of Albin’s partner, Georges (Jon Jon Briones)— announces he has fallen in love and is engaged to be married, Albin is thrilled and deeply moved—that is until Jean-Michel (Jinwoo Jung), raised by both partners as their own child, announces he wants his surrogate mom to disappear so he can bring his intended and her ultra-conservative parents home to meet his dad.
   Watanabe is anything but the usual put-together Albin, looking a little disheveled and lost in the characters’ more subdued wardrobe, here designed by Anthony Tran. There’s an air of helplessness permeating his performance that soon ingratiates him to us. But when he steps to the front of the stage to deliver the showstopper “I Am What I Am” ending the first act, he proves a formidable musical comedy diva and a superb tragedian—as though he were the offspring of a hidden relationship between Ethel Merman and Edith Piaf.
   As the more masculine, uber-patient parent Georges, Briones is also endearing. Unlike so many of his bizarrely inappropriate predecessors in this more subdued role, Briones holds his own beautifully, especially in Herman’s plaintive ballad “Look Over There.”

Allen Lucky Weaver is hilarious as Albin’s butler, who wants to be recognized instead as his maid. The supporting cast is uniformly beguiling, particularly Christopher Aguilar, Carlos Chang, DT Matias, Alex Sanchez, and Reuben Uy as the significantly pared-down Cagelle dancers. Under the sharp yet fluid direction of Tim Dang, complimented perfectly by his remarkably clever design team and the energetic, delightfully tongue-in-cheek choreography by Reggie Lee, instead of relying on Ru Paul overindulgence, the modest but versatile David Henry Hwang stage is filled with energy and personal passion without huge sets resembling a hotel lobby in Dubai. La Cage is, to paraphrase the famous words of its own legendary composer-lyricist, back where it belongs.
  

May 21, 2016
 
May 12–June 26. 120 Judge John Aiso St., downtown LA. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $48–$58, student and senior discounts available. (213) 625-7000 x20.

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The Boy From Oz
Celebration Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Andrew Bongiorno and cast
Photo by Casey Kringlen

The Celebration Theatre could not have provided a more impressive welcome for the long-overdue West Coast debut of this once-lavish ultraglitzy musical extravaganza, for which Hugh Jackman won a Tony Award in 2004 playing Peter Allen. Ironically, the Celebration’s new location, the former 55-seat Lex Theatre, would at first glance seem to be quite a comedown for The Boy From Oz after first premiering in 1998 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney, Australia, and playing to more than 1.2 million patrons in Allen’s native country before opening on the Great White Way some 13 years later and running nearly a year at the 1,400-seat Imperial Theatre.
   Oddly, this diminutive venue is ideal for recounting the life story of the irrepressible and ubertalented Allen, even though, as Ben Brantley noted in his original review of the Broadway production in The New York Times, it’s an “indisputably bogus show.” Granted, this is a highly whitewashed CliffNotes version of Allen’s fairytale (no pun intended) rise from farm boy to stardom. Regardless, it also handsomely represents the unquenchable spirit and courage to be himself at any cost that made Allen’s career something to applaud. In an age long before a musical performer’s sexual orientation became a non-issue, no one tested the waters and broke barriers better than he did.
   The Lex’s postage stamp–size stage would make any less adventurous director or choreographer run for the hills, but thankfully, it’s Michael A. Shepperd and Janet Roston who here whisk us off to Oz, showing anyone lucky enough to see this production that the Celebration clearly knows how to celebrate. Shepperd’s staging and Roston’s dance moves could not more impressively utilize every inch of this playing space, filling it with contagiously overachieving performances and featuring a high-spirited live band in view just above the action. Add in strikingly glittery imaginative costuming by Michael Mullin, giving pause to wonder how they could be created on an intimate-theater budget, and this Oz has everything but a yellow brick road and a horse of a different color.

The first daring yet ultimately wise decision was to slim down the size of the musical’s ensemble, casting an energetic, infectiously ballsy squad of 12 to assay every character who energized Allen’s journey from rural Tenterfield, New South Wales, to international superstardom, an Academy Award, and his sad untimely death from AIDS at age 48. Only five castmembers play single characters throughout: Andrew Bongiorno, never offstage as Peter; Kelly Lester as his patient mother, Marion; Michayla Brown as the entertainer as a child; Bess Motta as Judy Garland, Peter’s first mentor; and Jessica Pennington as her daughter and eventually Peter’s ex-wife Liza Minnelli. All other players take on multiple roles and morph into an exceptional all-singing, all-dancing chorus to deliver the show’s big production numbers.
   To Shepperd’s credit, the cast is also an eclectic troupe. In this substantially spare Emerald City cleverly designed by Yuri Okahana, telling a tale traveling from Australia to Hong Kong to New York, the performers range from the exceptionally tall Marcus S. Daniel to the teeny-tiny Shanta Marie Robinson whom Shepperd and Roston place at either end of a dance line seemingly to emphasize and perhaps even poke fun at the diversity of their casting choices. And when Daniel cross-dresses as a leggy Radio City Rockette, he reveals an unmistakable resemblance to Charlotte Greenwood, who once described herself as the only woman in the world who could kick a giraffe in the eye.
   Bongiorno has all the charm and much of the unstoppable charisma of Allen, who was a nearly impossible act to follow. Lester is a standout as his long-suffering mother, especially delivering the plaintive “Don’t Cry Out Loud” as her son battles his final unwinnable battle. The seriously adorable Brown is delightful playing Peter as a child, cast presumably when it proved impossible to find a male that age able to play the precociously flamboyant Peter Woolnough, a kid with an instinctual and uncontainable need to sing, dance, and pose in style.
   Still, the most jaw-dropping performances come from Motta and Pennington. Both prove physical dead ringers for the mother and daughter. Pennington finds much of Minnelli’s sweetness, her early discouragement existing in the darkest corners of her mother’s enormous shadow, and her discomfort with her own eventual stardom—which never brought the happiness she’s always sought. She knocks it out of the park belting the spirited “She Loves to Hear the Music” and later teaming with Bongiorno for the haunting ballad “You and Me (We Wanted It All)” during the onetime couple’s final goodbye.
   Motta channels every tick, every passionately clumsy body movement, every vocal crack, every eye-roll of the tortured Garland in unearthly detail. From her first appearance, in 1966 when Garland’s fourth husband and Allen’s latest trick Mark Herron checked her out of the hospital to see him perform at a club in Hong Kong, Motta is totally sensational, finding Garland’s wicked self-deprecating humor and entitled irascibility with ease. After waking from a nine-day coma to see Peter and his partner Chris Bell (Daniel) perform, Garland soon ribs him for being so green, solidifying their ensuing longtime friendship after seeing his gleeful reaction to her quipping, “I’ll bet you haven’t even had your stomach pumped yet.” Asked to sing a number for the crowd, Motta wails a plaintive “All I Wanted Was the Dream,” which Garland soon added to her repertoire after Peter and Bell began touring as her opening act.

There are inaccuracies in Martin Sherman and Nick Enright’s book, most glaring in the depiction of Allen’s longtime lover Greg Connell (Michael Mittman). The book portrays the sweetly ethereal Texas top fashion model as a butch and somewhat pushy businessman working in advertising when the two met; instead, Connell was managing a restaurant in Greenwich Village at the time. Still, the unfolding of their amazingly loving and supportive relationship is poignantly told.
   Above all, however, it’s the score that makes this such a striking tribute to Allen’s world-class talent. Although the program credits all music and lyrics culled from his own staggeringly prolific songbook, ignoring except in the small print the contribution of Carole Bayer Sager as lyricist in many of his later tunes, the creative genius of this one man is beautifully honored. From “Everything Old Is New Again” to the Olivia Newton-John hit “I Honestly Love You” to the Oscar-winning “Arthur’s Theme (When You Get Caught Between the Moon and New York City)” to the spectacular “I Go to Rio”—which, enhanced by Mullin’s insanely fantastic costuming, affords a suitably showstopping finale—The Boy From Oz chronicles a time when it took an idiosyncratic artist with the soul and audacity of Allen to help change the world in the most melodic way.

May 9, 2016
 
April 29–July 31. 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $40–45. (323) 957-1884.

www.celebrationtheatre.com

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