Arts In LA
Sondheim Unscripted
Impro Theatre at Falcon Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Daniel Blinkoff, Ted Cannon, Ryan Smith, Kelly Holden Bashar, and Cory Rouse
Photo by Jill Mamey

Having tackled such diverse and daunting topics as Westerns, the classics, and even Rod Serling, is it any wonder that this troupe would train its improvisational sights on one of musical theater’s most complex composers? With only a handful of audience suggestions—a family heirloom and four musical notes—eight performers and one pianist conceive a show that will live on only as long as it takes to get to the next performance.
   Opening night, using an imaginary crockpot and the tones E flat, G Sharp, A, and D, the company cooked up an often knee-slapping concoction of Greek gods, a witches’ brew, and the subsequent resolution of World War II. The fun is knowing that the performers have no more idea where this thing is going than do their viewers.

How one can “direct” a show based entirely on improvisation boggles the mind. Still, co-directors Dan O’Connor and Michele Spears show their hands by way of the company’s ability to replicate some of the more recognizable traits found in Sondheim’s works. Patter songs with demonstrably intricate lyrics abound. So, too, do those Sondheimian passages in which an up-tempo piece takes a dramatic turn by way of a contemplative bridge. Music director Peter Smith is a whiz on the baby grand. Utilizing the audience-suggested quartet of notes, he composes an overture of sorts and then spends the next two acts caressing and cajoling his onstage companions through their on-the-spot compositions.
   As characters are formed, refined, and drawn into an overarcing storyline, it’s a hoot to watch the mental gears turning before our eyes. Spears, a master at turning a soliloquy into a full-blown production number, assumed the role of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy. Her character’s discontent with always knowing what was going to happen next was the driving force behind the plot. Paired up with Ryan Smith as a befuddled Hades, Greek king of the underworld, they made sparks fly feverishly.

The troupe would, of course, be remiss in having a crockpot without the witches responsible for the supernatural stew contained therein. Filling the often sultry, sometimes hilariously clumsy shoes of these two cackling conjurers were Kelly Holden Bashar and Lisa Fredrickson. Possessing seemingly limitless vocal ranges and rapid-fire comic timing, they became the show’s sirens, tempting and taunting throughout. As the human objects of their affections, Brian Lohmann and Brian Michael Jones forged a bromance of sorts as a duo who’s sampling of the crockpot’s magical broth transports them to the strangest of worlds.
   Meanwhile, Impro Theatre veteran Floyd Van Buskirk assumed the role of overseer, that being Zeus. Sensing the abject silliness surrounding him, Van Buskirk veered toward the dramatic, a choice that wisely grounded the second act as the company fashioned a conclusion to the tale. Ably assisted by Cory Rouse’s energetic portrayal of Hermes, herald of the Olympian gods, Van Buskirk’s performance stood out as the quintessential example of improvisational give-and-take.

As the performance unfolded upon set designer Sandra Burns’s cubically painted stage floor—reminiscent of artist M.C. Escher’s eye-tricking lithographs—and gently curving upstage ramp, the production’s lighting, designed by Leigh Allen, and crafted within the moment by stage manager Michael Becker, was surprisingly luscious. Of course, there are dissonant chords and some atonally constructed harmonic convergences when forging a musical from scratch, but having chosen Sondheim as the foundation certainly helps, and welcoming audience participation into the mix makes for a recipe most everyone could love.

September 2, 2015
Aug. 28–Sept. 27. 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank. Wed–Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm.$29–59. (818) 955-8101.


Red Blanket Productions at Pico Playhouse

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Claire Adams and Janna Cardia
Photo by Will Adashek

Somewhere in the seemingly limitless expanse known as Stephen Sondheim’s mind lurks a vision that seems allotted to but one in a generation. How else to explain the unusual, often mind-blowing audit of a subset of American inhumanity: those who have attempted to or succeeded in murdering a commander-in-chief. Paired with playwright John Weidman’s occasionally stilted script, Sondheim’s music and lyrics beckon us down the rabbit hole with unbridled speculations as to the motivations and fictitious interactions of this rogues gallery.
   Overall, Dan Fishbach’s direction proves to be sharply crafted with a staccato-like precision. Along with the contributions of music director Anthony Lucca and choreographer Lili Fuller, Fishbach’s grasp of the surrealistic nature of this piece and its concept make for a breathtaking palpability.
   Bringing to life some of our nation’s best and perhaps least-known villains is a uniformly excellent cast. Leading this parade of historical pariahs is Travis Rhett Wilson as John Wilkes Booth, the granddaddy of the clan. Wilson’s performance is downright chilling as he exudes a wild-eyed air of unrepentant outrage over President Abraham Lincoln’s execution of the Civil War. Equally gripping are Adam Hunter Howard’s turn as Leon Czolgosz, William McKinley’s killer, and Jason Peter Kennedy’s intermittent appearances as Giuseppe Zangara, the Italian immigrant who killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak while missing outright his intended target, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On the lighter side of things, if it’s possible to infuse a comic perspective into such a topic, Jeff Alan-Lee’s scene-stealing take on Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s assassin, is delicious. In particular, his song-and-dance-man spin on “The Ballad of Guiteau” is a definite highlight. Meanwhile, Claire Adams as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Janna Cardia as Sara Jane Moore, both of whom failed to take out Gerald Ford within 17 days of each other, are a hoot. Adams’s and Cardia’s scenes, including their characters’ supposed joint connection with Charles Manson, provide wacky contrasts to the production’s darker moments.
   But when it comes to unequivocal creepiness, it doesn’t get any better than the final trio of villains. Zach Lutsky brings a simmering unpredictability to his performance as Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley. Contrasting this quiet despair is David Gallic’s performance as Samuel Byck, who’s 1974 attempt to kill Richard Nixon by flying an airliner into the White House literally never got off the ground. Gallic’s monologues wherein he records his thoughts for Nixon are stunningly intense.
   So is Sean Benedict’s self-conflicted assaying of Lee Harvey Oswald as he faces his destiny in Dallas. Will he pull the trigger? Won’t he? The rest of the cast, once more led by Wilson’s Booth, watch on and eventually revel in his decision. It’s a stomach-turning moment of theatrical effectiveness.

If one had to quibble with this otherwise notable production, the choice to insert an intermission into what was written as an extended one-act, containing less than a dozen musical compositions to begin with, gives the proceedings a disjointed feel. So too, the existence of only a single upstage point of ingress and egress in set designer Alex Kolmanovsky’s otherwise eye-catching scenery. Though visually stimulating, it stymies segues and the show’s overall dramatic progression at times as each successive scene must pause long enough as those preceding clear the stage.

August 27, 2015
Aug. 21–Sept. 27. 10508 West Pico Blvd., LA. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30.


And the Stones Will Cry Out
Little Fish Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

James Rice, Don Schlossman, and Rodney Rincon

Man’s relationship with God and man’s relationship with man are tested in David Graham’s theatricalization of an episode in 18th-century German academia. His three-hander pits the egos of men against their understandings of the Bible. Would that the three scholars knew as much about themselves as they purport to know about divinity.
   Dr. John Beringer (James Rice) is dean of the medical school at University of Würzburg. He’s arrogant, patronizing and intransigently opinionated. Refusing to listen to others, he’s a stickler for rules beyond reason. University librarian and historiographer Georg Eckhart (Rodney Rincon) maintains a veneer of obliviousness to Beringer’s snide barbs and self-entitled demands for service. But those barbs and demands hurt, despite Eckhart’s cheerful nature, and the wounds build up to the point of permanent scarring. Ignatius Roderick (Don Schlossman), trained as a Jesuit and currently a professor of geography and of algebra, has been pushed around by Beringer one too many times. Beringer now insists Roderick expel a student, “in service of the truth.”

Their bickering turns into a debate, pitting the Bible against science. Beringer has found fossils that don’t match known species. He insists God is displaying his principles and testing man’s faith. Roderick espouses a more humanistic philosophy: God might propose, might set boundaries, but man is responsible for his own actions. The fossils begin arriving in improbably large numbers, bearing increasingly outrageous figures. Mostly to enhance his legacy, Beringer begins writing a book about his finds.
   Little Fish company member Graham’s thought-provoking work builds upon a prank, which is revealed early on in the play, but the play doesn’t feel farcical. It feels like any good drama in which the conflict causes people to come to the crux of what ails them.
   Stephanie Coltrin directs. Her casting is excellent, the actors’ character work is quite good, and what a pleasure it is to hear actors enunciate the heightened language so beautifully. But her staging is exceedingly distracting. No sooner does the audience become engaged than one or another of the actors leaves the playing area and heads up an aisle, forcing audience members to notice one another behind the actors.
   This is most egregious when the first-rate Schlossman’s Roderick is weepily revealing his longtime regret about his life’s course, and he wanders completely out of sight. Another troubling distraction comes when Rice pronounces his character’s name with a soft G while Schlossman has been pronouncing it with a hard G. Bringing the audience back into the action, Linda Muggeridge’s costumes are exquisite, including frilled shirts, embroidered waistcoats, and substantial wool cloaks.

Beringer tried to silence the voices of his two colleagues, and by doing so, as predicted in the Gospel of Luke, the stones have cried out. In Graham’s view, no man can or should be expected to tolerate mistreatment at the hands of another man. But what’s the price to be paid when it happens, and who has the right to collect?

August 10, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze

Aug. 7–Sept. 5. 777 Centre St. Entrance and parking behind the theater; access through alley between 7th and 8th streets. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time two hours, including intermission. $25-27. (310) 512-6030.


Citizen: An American Lyric
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, and Leith Burke
Photo by Ed Krieger

James Baldwin once noted that skin color cannot be as important as being a human being, something that Stephen Sachs and his Fountain Theatre family have explored time and again over their impressive trailblazing 25-year tenure in our city. Once again, Sachs and his intrepid cohorts have proven themselves to be a vital, urgently significant voice in the battle for our humanity with Sachs’s provocative new adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s international bestselling book of confrontational poetry, here customized into a startlingly creative and highly theatrical meditation on the inequities of race relations in America.
   Rankine’s mismatch of personal stories dealing with racism, told directly to the audience in arrestingly lyrical yet in-your-face verse, confronts how African-Americans are treated in our troubled society, and it could not have surfaced more timely. From beyond how our president is treated and disparaged because of his color or the daily stinging news reports of the deadly way people in authority treat minorities, Rankine confronts an audience peppered with non-minorities with disturbing tales of horrific abuse interspersed with simple verbal faux pas slipping from the lips of people trying to show others just how liberal they are—like someone at a party who, trying to form a well-meaning but ill-advised connection, instead carves a crevice as deep as the Grand Canyon by cheerfully telling someone she has features more like a white person.

“Being around a black person,” one of Rankine’s characters observes, “is sometimes like watching a foreign film without translation,” while another cannot get it out of her head when someone close to her keeps calling her by the name of her housekeeper. Also explored is the career of Serena Williams, who seemed to have to fight through a separate set of rules and a slew of possibly racist judges to get the recognition she deserves, not to mention learning how to keep her tongue and push ahead without angry outbursts.
   Under the dynamic direction of Shirley Jo Finney and with a special nod to the precision movement work created by Anastasia Coon, this stellar cast of six—Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick, and Lisa Pescia—could not have been more perfectly chosen to deliver the punch of Rankine’s thought-provoking spoken-word collage. Utilizing as a mantra a quote from Zora Neale Hurston, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” Finney’s uber-committed sextet weaves around one another, making way for one another verbally and physically, recounting instance after instance of the many imbalances in our social interactions.

The results are disquieting in many ways, and surely that, in part, is Rankine’s intention. Her brilliantly dramatic urban prose leaves us to contemplate our own deeply imbedded and often hidden prejudices, certainly something to revisit often in our lives and dealings with others. Still, Citizen: An American Lyric could sporadically soften its stance a tad or maybe even occasionally detail a few of our species’ strides and similarities as well as our differences. Part of what is most unsettling is that it confronts us so relentlessly, yet never even momentarily offers any resolution. The often irate indictments spewed out makes those gathered feel somewhat more attacked and personally accused rather than encouraging us to join together to make changes happen, to possibly suggest ways we can all work together to improve our lot in life. As Rankine observes, “just getting along should not be an ambition.”

August 9, 2015
Aug. 1–Oct. 11. 5060 Fountain Ave. Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm & 7pm (no 7pm performance Aug. 16), Mon 8pm (dark Sept. 7) $15–34.95 (323) 663-1525.


Romeo and Juliet
Independent Shakespeare Co. at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park [CLOSED, reopens Sept. 3, 4, 6]

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Nikhil Pai and Erika Soto in ISC’s indoor production
Photo by Grettel Cortes

It’s fair to say that having presented last year’s highly intimate, indoor adaptation of this piece using only an eight-member ensemble, this company can do it all, in a venue large or small. From the opening sequence of a town square full of sword swinging rivals to the gorgeously staged final tableau involving the doomed lovers, director Melissa Chalsma brings to the massive “confines” of Griffith Park a vibrant, full-cast production.
   This time around, an onstage quartet of musicians, billed as The Lively Helenas, named after one of the guests invited to the party at the Capulets, inhabits stage left. Providing original rock-style underscoring and songs, the drum-dominant music pulsates. And although the performances are ramped up to accommodate this beautiful outdoor locale and scenic designer Caitlin Lainoff’s towering set of gray panels and polished chrome railings/platforms, Chalsma and company retain the ability to magically lull one into a sense of security before this tales turns so abruptly tragic.

Heading up the cast is the incomparable Erika Soto, whose performance is a Juliet for the ages. As stated by her Nurse, played with delightfully bawdy abandon by Bernadette Sullivan, Juliet is a girl of “not quite 14.” Soto shies not away from displaying her character’s bubbling exuberance. Likewise, as the consequences of missed communications and uncontrolled rage begin to ravage what might have been, her Juliet matures before our very eyes as she faces choices far beyond her years.
   As her romantic complement, Nikhil Pai is a Romeo whose dashing good looks belie a young man who, in Juliet, sees that true love is far more enthralling than mere lust. His scenes with Soto (and the balcony scene alone is worthy of one’s attendance) are music to the ears, as these two give wing to Shakespeare’s words. Likewise, Pai’s lamenting of banishment to his confidant, Friar Laurence, played with all the dry wit David Melville can muster, tugs at the strings of the heart.

Supporting roles range from servants, watchmen and citizens—played by William Elsman, Jack Lancaster, Ashley Nguyen and Xavi Moreno—to the better-known characters whose actions create the ever-circling spiral of doom.
   Evan Lewis Smith is a Tybalt whose testiness quickly gives way to fiery rage. Sean Pritchett and Aisha Kabia make for a stunning Lord and Lady Capulet. It’s easy to believe this well-heeled pair, gorgeously costumed by Houri Mahserejian, has sired Soto’s delicately beautiful Juliet. Pritchett, in particular, commands the stage as he rages over Juliet’s resistance to her arranged marriage to Paris, played with a benign naiveté by Vladimir Noel.
   Across the aisle is Faqir Hassan’s portrayal of Romeo’s father, Lord Montague, as a seemingly gentle man whose reaction to the goings on is more confused sadness than hatefulness. His nephew, Benvolio, originally written as a male cousin to Romeo, is given a relatively successful gender twist as played by Mary Goodchild.
   Joseph Culliton’s portrayal of Escalus, Prince of Verona, is one of concerned strength for his kingdom. As Mercutio, André Martin presents an almost unimaginably outrageous character. Whether appalling the story’s other characters with his ribald inappropriateness or cavorting throughout the audience as he delivers the well-known monologue concerning Queen Mab, Martin’s performance is a tour de force—so captivating that when Mercutio is fatally struck at Tybalt’s hand, gasps were heard from numerous theatergoers at this shocking portent of even worse things to come.

July 23, 2015
July 3–26, returns Sept. 3, 4, and 6. 4730 Crystal Springs Dr., Griffith Park. Thu–Sun 7pm.Free. (818) 710-6306.


A Permanent Image
Rogue Machine Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Tracie Lockwood, Anne Gee Byrd, and Ned Mochel
Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Ah, to be in northern Idaho, where an ordinary couple could peacefully parent a son and daughter, and then spend their golden years wallowing in substance abuse and unenlightening religious worship.
   Unfortunately for Martin and Carol, the creation of Samuel D. Hunter in A Permanent Image, conscious thought had begun to creep in and disturb the peace. And then Martin died, leaving Carol alone to cope and fend off the sudden hovering of their daughter Ally and son Bo, which is how and when this play begins.
   Hunter digs into parent-child relationships, sibling rivalry, marital discord, coping mechanisms, and, actually, the meaning of life. Martin, before he died, began to explore his essence, physical and spiritual, in light of scientific knowledge. How do we know this? Carol videotaped Martin as he sat on their sofa and pondered aloud such concepts as the origins of the universe.
   Carol won’t discuss his cause of death. But after his death, she painted the home white. Literally. She painted not only the sofa but also the afghan draping the sofa. She painted not only the walls but also the paintings, the painting frames, the telephone. The opposite of mourning black or perhaps a fresh start, the whitewashing also serves to showcase the films of Martin she can now watch. Nicholas Santiago’s video design plays over David Mauer’s scenic design so unbelievably precisely that the audience seems to see a three-dimensional Martin sitting on that sofa.

Although the details of Hunter’s craft are not perfect—marred by such flaws as awkward scene breaks—the themes he tackles are universal and eternally of interest. So director John Perrin Flynn takes the good with the bad, focusing on and making the audience focus on his fine quartet of actors.
   The four bringing the audience into this too bizarre, too real world are Anne Gee Byrd as the intractable heavy-drinker Carol; Ned Mochel as the terminally frustrated son, Bo; Tracie Lockwood as the secretly disappointed daughter, Ally; and the nearly unrecognizable Mark L. Taylor as the filmic Martin, a man who lived a simple life until he began to truly ponder universal complexities.

July 13, 2015
June 6–Sept. 7. 5041 Pico Blvd., West LA (street metered until 8pm except Sun) Sat 5pm, Sun 7 pm, Mon 8 pm. $30–35. (855) 585-5185.

God’s Man in Texas
2nd Stage Theatre

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

Brian Letscher, Tom Costello, and Ted Heyck
Photo by Michael Lamont

Media exposure to the tumult in evangelical mega-churches brought about by the clash of money, power, and ego makes David Rambo’s 1999 cautionary tale a familiar story to modern audiences. The examination of faith, conscience, and ambition is great fodder for drama.
   Dr. Philip Gottschall (Ted Heyck) is the founder and pastor of Rock Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. With 30,000 members, a broadcasting empire, two swimming pools, a bowling alley, education from preschool through college, and multitudes of self-help programs, it is an empire presided over by Gottschall with an iron fist. He is 81, though, and a successor needs to be poised to carry on.
   Enter Dr. Jeremiah “Jerry” Mears (Brian Letscher), a well-educated and charismatic preacher with a 6,000-member congregation of his own. Ambitious but still idealistic, he auditions and soon become a co-pastor to Gottschall, who is, nevertheless, reluctant to share. This sets up the conflict that drives the story.
   A third man, Hugo Taney (Tom Costello), provides tech support for the services, but dramatically he functions as a disseminator of background information, a comic foil, and a catalyst for understanding the character of the two principals. His inclusion adds life to what might have been an overlong biblical duel of faith.
   Predictably, the younger Mears is trying to reconcile his desire to take over this active Southern Baptist church, a symbol of his arrival at the top of his profession, with wanting to be principled and righteous. Gottschall’s fierce grip on the senior pastorship makes their clashes epic.

Letscher is thoroughly convincing as the conflicted pastor, grappling with compromising his personal inclinations as he tries to measure up to the demands of the job. Heyck is also effective as the petty tyrant who compromises his faith for personal gain. It’s not a new story, but in the hands of the actors it becomes a revelation.
   Note should be made of Costellos’s multifaceted portrayal of the former drug addict who is a disciple of both preachers. He is nervous, edgy, comic, and gossipy while exhibiting a vulnerability that makes him compelling even in scenes where he is the third player.
   Directed by Rambo, the thoughtful production is dynamic and well-paced. Brisk scene changes keep the focus on the actors and storyline without diminishing the emotional edge necessary in some scenes.
   The greatest compliment that might be given to this play is that it has a satisfactory ending without being the predictable hero-vanquishes-villain scenario one might expect at the outset. It is an affirmation of the human spirit that leaves the audience with food for thought.

August 18, 2015
Aug. 13–Sept. 5. 6500 Santa Monica Blvd. (Valet parking available for evening performances.) Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30. (800) 838-3006.


Garage Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

The darksides of Craig Johnson, Jeffrey Kieviet, Maribella Magana, Paul Knox, Matthew Anderson, and Rob Young
Photo by Matt Kollar

Emily is in an ethics class with her fellow classmates when her teacher, Mr. Baggot, poses a thought experiment conducted by Ethics Man, a superhero moral philosopher. Ethics Man posits a train, hurtling out of control toward a washed-out bridge. But if he switches the tracks, he will certainly kill one boy standing on those safer tracks.
   Says the teacher, “We imagined a problem by switching the points. By sacrificing one person’s life, we can save many lives. Is it a moral action?” He continues to note that Ethics Man is a utilitarian. It’s a moral action only if the consequences are good. The consequences are good if they increase the sum of human happiness. Happiness is a state of well-being, starting off with being alive instead of dead.
   And, in the background, the recording of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” begins to play.
   So begins Darkside, originally a 2013 radio play by Tom Stoppard that incorporated the Pink Floyd album “The Dark Side of the Moon.” Stoppard, you ask? The playwright of that prickly examination of adultery The Real Thing and that ultra-intellectual romance Arcadia? Yup, that Stoppard. Director Eric Hamme and the black-box Garage Theatre of Long Beach nabbed the script’s U.S. premiere, giving it a theatricalized visualization.

The Boy (Steven Frankenfield) killed in the experiment comes to Emily (Maribella Magaña) to travel with her so they’re “On the Run.” He gives her confidence and an expanded intellect to try to fight greed and climate change, and at first the pair seems to be triumphing.
   The two meet American farmer Fat Man (Rob Young in costume designer Cat Elrod’s hilariously bloated overalls), who violated water rights and indulged in overgrazing so he could remain prosperous. They also meet a politician (Craig Johnson) and a banker (Jeffrey Kieviet) who not only mouth identical words but also do so with identical gestures.
   Down this strange road, Emily and Boy endure a witch hunt and, ultimately, must face Emily’s mental health issues (Matthew Anderson as her doctor). Is her fate the result of the evils of “Money”? Or, in homage to Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett, is “Brain Damage” to blame?

No low-budget effect is ignored here, in this show that unabashedly looks like it’s being put on in someone’s garage. The stage’s floor is covered with sand, though sand doesn’t seem to figure into the story. Roughly shot videos are dimly projected onto hanging sheets. Strobes and an occasional acid-green light wash over a scene or two, and laser dots play across the stage and over the audience until we feel we’re inside an early video game.
   Adding to the (one hopes) tongue-in-cheek shoddiness that reflects Stoppard’s (one hopes) pontificating cheekiness, a handful of Harry Potter–esque dementors haunt the witch trial. On the other hand, designer Elrod memorably gives Mr. Baggot (the cheery Paul Knox) an exceedingly comedic sweater-vest and gives Witchfinder (Anderson again) a handsome 19th-century pirate frockcoat and goat horns.
   At the play’s conclusion, though, Magaña and Knox crushingly limn the institutionalization’s realism.
   The theater provides about 16 standard theater seats; pillows on the floor surrounding the playing area provide the remainder of the show’s seating. At least the sightlines are great from every seat in the house.

And so this Darkside screams “cult classic.” When the right audiences start finding it—most of whom will inevitably partake in the beverages sold at the box office, if not already intoxicated by some substance—it will have a much longer, happier run than Emily does.

August 3, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Long Beach Press-Telegram
July 31–Aug. 15, Aug. 27 through Sept. 19. 251 E. 7th St., Long Beach. Thu–Sat 8pm. Running time 95 minutes, no intermission. $15-20. (866) 811-4111.


 American Idiot
DOMA Theatre Company at MET Theatre [CLOSED: reopens Oct. 2-18]

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Jess Ford and Andrew Diego
Photo by Michael Lamont

Fifteen years ago, when superpower band Green Day decided to produce a rock opera paying homage to The Who, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, who is credited for writing 98 percent of the Green Day’s most celebrated music, created the dynamically screwed up anti-hero Jesus of Suburbia. When the effort catapulted into the band’s 2004 album American Idiot, it was a worldwide success and won the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2005.
   In 2009, Armstrong collaborated with Green Day fan and Broadway director Michael Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Tony winner for Spring Awakening) to turn the band’s Tommy-like concept into a stage musical. First mounted at Berkeley Rep, the theatrical version of American Idiot went on to New York, rocking out the venerable St. James Theatre for more than a year.
   LA’s decade-old DOMA Theatre Company, which has been turning out some surprisingly massive and well-appointed productions for almost a decade, is a perfect match for Green Day’s loud and irreverent musical, which follows Johnny (Jess Ford), the Jesus of this show’s particular suburbia, who, with his two buddies Will (Wesley Moran) and Tunny (Chris Kerrigan), dreams in song of leaving the restrictive environment in which they grew up, ready to rebel by singing and rocking their way into the big city.

Things don’t work out so well for Will, whose wife leaves him with their infant son because he never seems to get off his couch, rise from his smoky haze, and put down his ever-present bong. Tunny, too, ends up in an unexpected state, whisked into the army and returning from one of America’s horrifying desert wars in a wheelchair.
   Still, we follow Johnny the most closely, as his initiation into disenchanted youthful urban existence brings him into contact with Whatshername (Renee Cohen), who introduces him to her politically active and rebellious lifestyle, and St. Jimmy (Andrew Diego), who gets him high on a series of increasingly more debilitating street drugs.
   After the perils of our disintegrating society and the bitterness of life in the real world nearly kill all three heroes, each returns to his hometown. Although it would be more satisfying if the guys discovered how to conquer their demons rather than retreat back to the place that shaped them, hopefully along the way their eyes have been opened to things none of them would have understood without their bellyflop into contemporary chaos.
   But that’s fodder for American Idiot II, which in a perfect world should include a palpable sense of the era just past the one when the original album was released, a time when our country’s young’uns were forced to come of age through 9/11, as well as during the Iraqi War and conflicts in Afghanistan and across the globe.

Director Marco Gomez and his design team, especially Michael Mullen, who presumably on a shoestring created some the flashiest, most whimsical and creative costuming seen on any LA stage this year, join to lift this production way beyond the usual limitations of typical 99-Seat theater productions of large-scale musicals.
   Musical director Chris Raymond and his excellent band add immensely to the mix, as do the generally balls-out performances by the principal players. One small criticism: Although the denizens of American Idiot are all purdy much continuously in pain, it would be a better character choice if every song and every spoken line were not delivered with a tortured expression and the appearance of emanating from a dying beast.
   Especially when assaying Angela Todaro’s energetic and highly athletic choreography, the wildly fearless and spirited chorus of 17 knockout young triple-threats collectively liquefy together, wondrously becoming like one more principal character in the story, reminiscent of the townspeople in Evita who also often moved across the stage as one communal mass of humanity.
   Of the talented ranks, it would be remiss not to mention the Joplin-esque vocal calisthenics of Sandra Diana Cantu, as well as the überanimated, appropriately over-bleached Kevin Corsini, one of the tallest ensemble members whose unruly crown of straw glows brightly under Jean-Yves Tessier’s exquisitely atmospheric lighting.

Green Day’s most popular tunes re-created in the musical—including “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” which became a message against governmental avarice and ineptitude after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the title song and “Holiday,” both part of the Green Day’s in-your-face score and Armstrong’s literate and often depressing book and lyrics—clearly express an entire generation’s dissent over the actions initiated by our government in our own country and across the globe.
   Underlying the musical’s sometimes simplistic plotline is a conscious message shouting out against corporate greed and unnecessary war, something that overpowers any minor clumsiness. Add in a cast this charismatic and such knockout production values, and this is a miraculous mounting of the musical not to be overlooked.

June 11, 2015
CLOSED, returns Oct. 2–18. 1089 N. Oxford Ave., LA. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm (dark July 4). General admission $30; VIP admission (includes reserved seating and a complimentary snack and beverage), $34.99; seniors and students with ID $20. (323) 802-9181.


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.


The following have generously supported

Lucy Pollak
   Public Relations

Judith Borne
   Public Relations

Ken Werther

Philip Sokoloff
  Publicity for the Theatre

Jerry Charlson
   Up & Running Arts Management and Consultants

(323) 733-7073 

Lynn Tejada
Green Galactic

Sandra Zeitzew
Director of Public Relations
Santa Monica Playhouse


  Sandra Kuker

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Café Society
Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Donathan Walters and Ian Patrick Williams
Photo by Ed Krieger

It’s rather chilling that in our media-deadened society we can turn on the evening news and hear, “Another mass shooting today in…” and not be surprised, let alone horrified. In Peter Lefcourt’s smart and all-too-contemporary comedy, a group of Angelenos are held captive in a Westside Starbucks by a guy with a bomb in a bowling bag—and the point made is that even those here directly forced into submission are not surprised, let alone horrified, by their own drastic situation.
   In Lefcourt’s world, his characters easily reflect our skewed lives in LA. Kari (a completely hilarious Chandra lee Schwartz) zips into the bathroom of the Pico Boulevard coffee supermarket to change from hooker-wear to business attire between auditions, and ruthlessly rightwing business entrepreneur and Fox News defender Bob (Eric Myles Geller) makes a sight-unseen date online at to meet realtor Marilyn (Susan Diol) at the store for an afternoon hookup.
   Here, despite Lefcourt’s clever innovation, the playwright faces a considerable challenge, shared by director Terri Hanauer and her intrepid design team. These vapid characters and three other captives in corporate latte-land continue to live their treacherously self-involved lives as Martin (Nick Cobey) demands to talk on the phone with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz or Martin will blow his prisoners and all of the man’s most flavorable beans—not to mention original CDs of Summertime Grooves and Bossa Nova Moods—to kingdom come.
   As those gathered continue to check for messages and updates on their own little lives, screen images of all of their individual electronic devices appear on projection designer Yee Eun Nam’s two huge displays at the back of Amanda Knehans’s very authentic-looking set, where Starbucks’ familiar menu of drinks continuously disappears and transforms throughout the action into the characters’ text messages and emails as the world turns dramatically dangerous around them.

It isn’t until their plight shows up on their screens, reported on by local on-air celebrity Kelly Kahanahana (Kailyn Leilani), an assignment that pisses off Martin even more because he so dislikes her typical Barbie doll delivery of the news, that the mocha hits the fan. It seems Martin is protesting all kinds of societal injustices, particularly as accentuated by Schultz’s empire, which in his mind continues to grind out Vente after Vente, severely underpaying his employees while living a luxurious life at his home behind the Hotel Bel-Air, his ranch on Maui, or his ski getaway in Aspen—all places at which operators at Starbucks’ hotline try in vain to locate him so perhaps he could talk to the perpetrator and ease the situation.
   Throughout the ordeal, the electronic devices keep transmitting, even though Kari can’t initially contact 911 because she’s late on her Verizon bill and her personalized phone plan “doesn’t allow for 911 texting.” Marilyn keeps surreptitiously trying to close an important deal to sell a house. “I’m being held captive by a guy with a bomb,” she tells the listing agent of the property, who instantly counters with, “Can’t you just text your buyer?” Wannabe screenwriter Jeff (Eric Wentz) keeps trying to instantly turn the ongoing tribulations into a screenplay, discussing with the captives who they think would be best to play them in the project. “Not Denzel,” the store’s barista Darnell (Donathan Walters) insists. “I’m tired of Denzel!”
   The final inhabitant of the Starbucks is someone who has abandoned electronica: frequent hanger-on Anastasia (Ian Patrick Williams), a cross-dressing homeless man who believes he is the lost Russian countess, when in reality he is the disgraced head of a failed Fortune 500 company until the most recent recession. This is something that occasionally snaps the guy back into his former gruff-voiced corporate honcho status, his side-talking projectiles of profanity only tempered when someone talks him back into his gentler and more conducive fantasy persona by calling him “Your Royal Highness” or asking him about the upcoming ball at the palace.

Hanauer’s ensemble is beautifully committed to the material, although the desensitized nature of their characters make it difficult for them to have more than one direction to explore and, in Lefcourt’s script, some of them sit with nothing to contribute for long stretches at a time until a funny line is thrown their way. Equally difficult is the task allotted to Hanauer, who seems to have concentrated more on this factor than on the often glaringly static staging, which too frequently leaves her actors placed in uniformlynspaced straight lines across the stage.
   Despite this and a rather unsatisfactory conclusion—though it’s all followed by a hilarious onscreen trailer for Jeff’s upcoming film version starring, among others, Meryl Streep as Anastasia and Denzel Washington after all as Darnell—Lefcourt’s script, though hardly yet perfected, is still often sharply funny and bitingly astute. His conceit is a rich indictment of the numbed-down condition of our electronically dominated lives where we wonder which is real: what’s happening around us, or what’s flashing on our ever-present cellphone screens.
   The fact that none of what’s happening seems in any way be threatening to these people until the news trucks and swat teams start congregating outside the store and their plight shows up on TV is the best thing about life as depicted here. And it should not be lost that when those gathered begin to sense the danger of their situation, Kari instantly texts her agent to be sure he doesn’t give reporters her latest headshot but instead uses the prior one. You know, the one with the longer hair.

August 31, 2015
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25–30.(323) 960-1055.


International City Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Michael A. Shepperd and Karole Foreman
Photo by Suzanne Mapes

Fences keep people out, fences keep people in. Fences separate races and generations. For Troy Maxson, they also represent goals not reached and, for as long as he can manage, a barrier to death.
   Set in the 1950s, Fences is one of the 10 plays August Wilson wrote, each one chronicling a decade in 20th-century African-American life. In this production at International City Theatre through Sept. 13, realism, symbolism, and the sins of the father fill the stage as potently as they did 30 years ago when the play premiered.
   Troy (Michael A. Shepperd) began life with great potential and great handicaps. His mother walked out on his abusive father. Troy ran away from home at 14 but became a star in the Negro Leagues. Racism halted his baseball career. Or, did his troublemaking personality keep him from making the transition to the majors?
   Though now a garbage collector, Troy again strives to live the American dream. He is married to the wise and sturdy Rose (Karole Foreman) and is the father of a teenage son who has great athletic potential. On Friday nights, Troy downs a pint of gin with his best friend, Bono (Christopher Carrington). But Wilson adds complexities to Troy’s existence, some oppressively hanging over the characters, some hinted at.
   Troy’s brother, Gabriel (Matt Orduña), who suffered a serious brain injury in the war, survives on benefit checks, some of which Troy has quietly used to buy his own home. Lyons (Theo Perkins), Troy’s eldest son from a previous marriage, cares more about his conked hair and his band mates than he does about his (unseen) wife. Troy and Rose’s son, Cory (Jermelle Simon), seems destined for success, but Troy wants that to end. A third child (Mma-Syrai Alek) will be in the Maxsons’ lives by the play’s end.

Director Gregg T. Daniel shapes and calibrates this stirring production. He doesn’t beg for laughs as the play begins, he doesn’t beg for tears as it ends. He lets his audiences feel for themselves.
   Daniel also keeps the characters compact. Even Gabriel, one of the “magical” roles Wilson usually includes in each play, is magnificently realistic in Orduña’s performance—until the play’s atavistic ending, when Orduña flares under Karyn D. Lawrence’s poetic lighting.
   As Rose, who stands in the pantheon of steadfast theatrical wives, Foreman is stunningly real, whether quietly knitting on the porch or seething at Troy’s ultimate deception. If we didn’t know from the dialogue that Rose was diligent, we’d see it in the spotless laundry she pins to the wash line and in her crisply pressed dresses, which costume designer Kim DeShazo ensures can be swiftly donned during the play’s brief scene changes.
   Carrington, too, remains steady, exactly as Troy’s longtime friend has been, never stealing focus but always ready to laugh or coax.

Still, Shepperd’s performance is the stunning centerpiece here. He, like Troy, is a big man, in stature, voice, and presence. But the bigness only amplifies Troy’s broken body and broken spirit. Dark moods run in small spurts through Shepperd’s work. In a fascinating psychological study, he never “acts” the lies, perhaps because his Troy likes the self-delusion.
   Troy relentlessly clings to his dissembling and his bad choices. Above Troy’s red-brick house, scenic designer Don Llewellyn has hung the dormant branch of a tree. All but one of its leaves have fallen onto the front porch’s overhang. In a gorgeous bit of symbolism that hangs over this play, that one leaf holds fast, like Troy, refusing to give up its past.

August 24, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Long Beach Press-Telegram.
Aug. 21–Sept. 13. 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thu–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $46–48. (562) 436-4610.


Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me
Little Fish Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Doug Mattingly and Ben Hensley

Since it premiered in 1992, this Frank McGuinness play hasn’t lost its plausibility. It takes place in a windowless cell in Lebanon, where three men of differing nationalities are held as hostages. Centering on the psychological toll of being imprisoned, the play explores a timeless yearning for, and fear of, being watched over. All these elements get tender care in Little Fish Theatre’s production, as an Irishman, American, and Englishman struggle to survive, physically and mentally, while chained in place for months on end.
   The strong, steady young American doctor, Adam (Doug Mattingly), plays peacemaker between the Irish journalist, Edward (Joshua Thomas), and the English professor of English language, Michael (Ben Hensley). The script is not overtly political, though Irish playwright McGuinness wouldn’t miss this chance to include nationalistic barbs in the conversations.
   To try to keep their sanity intact, the men “make” movies, re-create famous moments in sports history and recite the correspondence they’d be sending home if they could. Yes, the power of storytelling keeps them going.

The play’s title is a takeoff on the Gerswin song, which the script suggests be sung or piped in between scenes—an apparently annoying stage direction that director Tito Ortiz wisely decided to scrap in this production. Instead, Ortiz lets the script and his lighting designer, Stacey Abrams, indicate the passage of time and variations in state of mind.
   To varying extents, the captives believe God watches over them, as they read from the Bible and the Quran. The title also refers to the guards, whom the three men seem to believe are observing them from above. But the title also refers to the parents and spouses the men think they failed to please, as well as to those who haunt the trio’s memories.
   Michael feels remorse for the death of his wife. But, referring to himself as a “pansy little Englishman,” he visibly winces as the other two continually promote their unflinching heterosexuality. Adam notes his academic accomplishments, perhaps mostly to convince himself his family must have been proud. And in a wrenching moment near the play’s end, Edward begs to be driven in an imaginary car to his father’s grave for one last bit of comforting.

Ortiz has the actors carry their chains on and off the stage, perhaps symbolizing our responsibility for our own actions—an idea Adam touches upon. The actors are so good, they can carry the chains and the concept without distracting the audience, keeping us very much involved in their characters’ despair and hope.
   But keeping the actors chained, and usually seated or lying on the cell’s floor, means audience members seated behind the front rows cannot see all of the action without shifting in their seats.
   Equally as distracting, the script gets repetitive and bloated, particularly in Act 2. During a long passage that tries but fails to be Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Michael and Edward ponder Adam’s whereabouts by repeating that he is dead, until the audience either doubts it or begins not to care.
   McGuinness also packs the script with large portions of “Amazing Grace,” “Run Rabbit Run,” and George Herbert’s poem “Love.” The recitations are not without their import to the men, but a line or two from each would suffice.

The filth-encrusted men fantasize about cocktails and swapping Christmas presents. For his gift, Michael wants only a washcloth. He makes the audience think of the many men and women who are trying to live through similar circumstances. We, the lucky ones, watch our brethren find ways to survive. Then we can head home, hug our loved ones, and wash our faces.

August 17, 2015

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
Aug. 13–Sept. 3. 777 Centre St., San Pedro. Entrance and parking behind the theater; access through alley between 7th and 8th streets. See theater website for schedule, but in general Thu 8pm and Sun 2pm. $25-27. (310) 512-6030.


El Grande CIRCUS de Coca-Cola
Skylight Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Marcelo Tubert and Paul Baird
Photo by Ed Krieger

Standing in the lobby after this show, Skylight Theatre Company’s artistic director, Gary Grossman, was quick to point out that his prolific ensemble has spent years mounting “issue plays” and that he was thrilled to present something for a change where the theme is “silly is as silly does.”
   Of course, someone would be hard-pressed to find something as silly as this production—unless, it would be the notoriousEl Grande de Coca-Cola that spawned it. First surfacing Off-Broadway in 1973 before playing for more than a year at the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip and virtually kick-starting the careers of Jeff Goldblum and the late Ron Silver, the revue’s creator and star Ron House’s Latin-themed romp into Marx Brothers territory became an international hit, with new productions regularly sprouting up all over the world ever since.
   For years House and his fellow original cast member Alan Shearman wanted to create a sequel to the madness. The two have come up with the perfect concept, as Pepe Hernandez (the leading character in the original, played forever by House) has decided to spread his wings and further tap into the “limitless talents” of his eager sons and daughters to reach beyond the cabaret stage and transform into their own family circus.
   Complete with rather ominous knife throwing, a flamenco flea circus where Pepe’s enthusiastic applause eliminates one of his performers, a bout of aerial gymnastics in which the comely performers wrapping themselves in suspended silk ribbons get too tangled to unwind without help, and the family morphing into members of the Bolshoi Ballet’s “Radioactivo!” company to take on a clunky rendition of Swan Lake , this is truly sidesplitting stuff guaranteed to make your ribs hurt.

Under Shearman’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek direction and with the collaboration of Tor Campbell’s intentionally lead-footed choreography, this new cast works brilliantly together. As Pepe’s daughters Consuelo and Maria, Lila Dupree and Olivia Cristina Delgado bring to mind a slapstick routine from Lucy and Ethel—one of those times Ricky didn’t realize the new act he hired for his club was actually his favorite nemesis and her vaguely willing sidekick. Paul Baird goes for Ricardo-perfected straight-man status as the girl’s dashing brother Miguel, doubling quite admirably on the piano whenever the need arises.
   Marcelo Tubert is the quintessential replacement for House as patriarch Pepe, complete with a Joker-esque pitchman grin that could sell canned tamales to Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger. He is especially hilarious as he takes on the role of the matriarch in a sendoff of those infamous Mexican television novellas, looking a little like a Chicana Eleanor Roosevelt as he/she shouts “Infidelio!” when discovering his co-stars in a pile of cuckolded positions before they whip out weapons to end each other’s overdramatic existences.
   As the Hernandez family’s adopted brother Juan, the kid left on their doorstep by wandering gypsies, Aaron Miller steals the show. From his continuously tortured and fearful expressions that make him look like a Chihuahua about to be caught in the blades of a table fan, to his off-tempo drumming, to his continuous pratfalls and outrageous physical antics as he eagerly careens from accident to accident during the proceedings, this guy could have an El Grande all his own—especially as topped by his Monty Python-like on-his-knees turn as a pintsized Napoleon trying to load a gigantic cannonball into an equally gigantic cannon.

Even though part of the conceit is that all of Pepe’s ring-mastering pronouncements of what is to come are delivered in Spanglish—or mostly Spanish with some key English words thrown in—if anything might be improved here, it could be to drop some of the continuously slow overemphasis on phrases to be sure everyone in attendance gets what’s being said. Giving the audience the benefit of the doubt that they don’t have to be hit so hard with repeated semi-translations and the wink-wink-nudge-nudge stressing of words similar in both languages would make all this that much more comical. The outrageous fun here isn’t in what’s being said; it’s in the visual absurdity of what’s being executed by this energetic troupe of world-class clowns able to make the rest of the world around us disappear, at least for a carefree 90 minutes of incredibly infectious inanity.

August 17, 2015
July 25–Sept. 20. 1816-1/2 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. Fri–Sat 8:30pm, Sun 3pm. $34. (213) 761-7061.

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