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. 21. 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm & 7pm. $30. (310) 307-3753.
Independent Shakespeare Company at Griffith Park
Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
Photo by Reynaldo Macias
Summer is a time of tradition. Be it a trip to the beach, an afternoon barbecue and pool party at grandma’s, or—as many Angelenos have come to enjoy—a night of Shakespeare under the stars. Surrounded by the long-abandoned exhibit spaces of Los Angeles’s original zoo in Griffith Park, this season’s outdoor ode to the Bard kicks off with an inspired take on perhaps the most heinous occupant of England’s throne.
Melissa Chalsma helms this pleasantly spry rendition. Obviously, the talent running rampant about this platformed playing space is more than responsible for making this an engaging night of theater. So too, though, is Chalsma’s dramaturgical skill as she, along with the show’s star David Melville, has integrated portions of a little-known version of this tale dating back to 1699 and attributed to a colorful actor-manager-playwright named Colley Cibber, later the poet laureate of England. The result is an outstandingly viewer-friendly production that had audience members of all ages gasping viscerally at the conscienceless actions of the last Plantagenet to wear the crown.
Melville is a treasure when it comes to interpreting Shakespeare’s works. One moment he elicits a guilty laugh from his audience with an unpredictable line-reading, and the next he garners boos and hisses as he exposes Richard’s darkest recesses. Offering only small glimpses of Richard’s stereotypical hunchback and limp, Melville’s is a characterization capitalizing on psychopathic revelry, which elevates the action from mere tragedy to a viciousness unseen in even most of this author’s other villains.
Balancing Melville’s achievements is a group of female characters who are, each in her own way, just as commanding and critical to the storyline’s advancement. As the quickly dethroned Queen Margaret, she of the House of Lancaster, Kalean Ung is out-of-this-world fantastic. Her first-act delivery of Margaret’s prophetic indictment of Richard’s soon-to-come horrors is spine-tingling.
Equally gripping is Ung’s scene in Act 2 opposite Bernadette Sullivan’s regal turn as Richard’s regret-filled mother, the Duchess of York, and Aisha Kabia’s heart-wrenching realization of Elizabeth, Richard’s sister-in-law, whose attempts to save her own children fall woefully short. Glancing about the sloping hillside that serves as this venue’s seating area, one could see audience members leaning forward enraptured by this trio of performances.
One and all, Chalsma’s supporting players offer fine work as well. William Elsman’s Duke of Buckingham carries just the right amount of sly corruption as he assists Richard in his devilish ascendency. Mary Goodchild handles one of Shakespeare’s most difficult roles with exceptional believability: Her Lady Ann, first widowed by Richard’s slaying of her husband and then wooed into Richard’s bed before becoming yet another of those on the list of the dead, is surprisingly sympathetic.
Various cast members, in the form of a heavy metal–inspired band/chorus directed by Chris Porter, provides transitions and augmentations during and between scenes. Melville’s musical compositions, often incorporating Latin lyrics (a program translation would have been welcomed) become increasingly haunting as the plot thickens.
Scenic designer Caitlin Lainoff has provided a simple upstage wall with symmetrically located doorways. Bosco Flannagan’s lighting ably picks up the slack as the sun sets by the midway point of Act 2, plunging the park into darkness. Garry Lennon’s costuming is appropriately regal yet somehow slightly decaying in nature as if to accentuate the internal destruction Chalsma’s direction highlights in this first-rate production.
July 4, 2016
30–July 24. Griffith Park, near 4730 Crystal Spring Dr. Wed-Sun 7pm.
Admission is free. (818) 710-6306.
Tennessee Williams UnScripted
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
17–July 31. 4252 Riverside Dr. Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8pm, Sun 4pm.
$29–44. (818) 955-8101.
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 31. 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)
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