Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
 
The Drowsy Chaperone
Torrance Theatre Company at James Armstrong Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Niko Montelibano, Carly Linehan and Bryan Kinder
Photo by Lucy McDonald

A delightful spoof of 1920s musicals with color commentary by a sardonic narrator, The Drowsy Chaperone is Torrance Theatre Company’s breezy summer offering.
   Chock-full of colorful characters with larger-than-life personalities, brimming with hummable songs, loaded with word play that sweetly mocks the genre, the book and score deliver one of the most charming contemporary musicals around. And yet this Torrance production’s inarguable highlight, the single element that kept it bobbing along on opening night, comes from the unlikeliest of quarters.
   First hitting the stage in 1998, this musical with book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, is hosted by a reclusive musical-theater fan, whom we know only as Man in Chair.

He’s at less than his best, hunkering in his dreary apartment. Trying to cheer himself up, enlivened by the idea of introducing us to one of his favorite shows, he cranks up his turntable and puts on a vinyl recording of the (fictitious) 1928 musical The Drowsy Chaperone.
   That show comes to life, first in his mind and then in his dull grey apartment as characters burst through his refrigerator. Out pops the wealthy, ditzy Mrs. Tottendale (Cindy Shields), who owns the home where the action takes place, and her patient butler, Underling (David McGee).
   Here comes Janet Van De Graaff (Holly Childers Weber), who’s tossing away the life of a showbiz star for marriage to a man she barely knows. Her producer, Feldzieg (Michael Grenie), tries to stop her, mostly at the urging of two Gangsters (Niko Montelibano and Bryan Kinder).
   But Janet is entranced with her fiancé, Robert Martin (Christopher Tiernan), and he’s getting encouragement, mostly helpful, from his best man, George (Logan Gould). Meanwhile Janet is more or less watched over by the inebriated Drowsy Chaperone (Jennasea Bauserman), while Kitty (Carly Linehan), Janet’s wannabe replacement, lurks and plots.
   The obligatory Latin lover, Aldolpho (Danny Gaitan), and the obligatory dea ex machina, Trix the Aviatrix (Imani Hayes), complete the set of zany characters in the 1920s musical.

The vocal performances of the actors playing them are solid and enjoyable, from the matinee-idol voice of Tiernan and the ’20s-style lilt of Bauserman to the more contemporary belt of Hayes, under the musical direction of Bradley Hampton who also conducts a lively but tight pit orchestra. Unfortunately, on opening night, body microphones acted up, from brief crackles to protracted feedback.
   Christopher Albrecht’s choreography suits the tone, period and dancers’ skills set, particularly in the plentiful hoofing numbers, Gould and Tiernan getting a few flashy moments.
   Still, some of the supporting cast seems too green for this stage, lacking not age but the experience to pull a comedically interesting person out of what the script proudly proclaims are two-dimensional characters.
   Where director Glenn Kelman succeeds beyond expectations is in developing the character of Man in Chair in conjunction with the performer who plays him, Mark Torreso. The portrayal here is so delicious that we soon become more interested in his commentary than we are in the splashy musical numbers. Rare for this show, we’d rather spend the two hours listening to him chat unfettered by convention and shyness.
   Kelman and Torreso have gotten to the core of this man. There are hints about Man’s backstory in the musical’s book: his narcissistic mother, his ill-advised marriage, his penchant for leading man Robert Martin. But this Man, despite his gimlet-eyed view of the world, is just fun to be around, fascinating to observe and warranting our vocal support as he berates such diverse behaviors as cellphone use in the theater and stereotyping.
   Living in such self-enforced isolation, of course Man in Chair is filled with self-awareness. But watching Torreso’s Man lose all self-consciousness as he joins in dance numbers and cues lines for his favorite moments, we, too, vicariously become part of this show and of the joy of theater.
   Torreso’s comedic timing is flawless. That can’t be said for the tech crew. Sound and a few light cues were missed, coming too early or too late and spoiling bit after bit. Janet’s botched trick of ventriloquism, phones that had to be answered before they rang, these things spoiled too many moments.

It all comes to a convivial ending, however. Whether it’s predictable or comes as a happy surprise, it warms its audience as it embodies the welcoming nature of the theater community and celebrates the vital part fans play in keeping musical theater alive over the decades.

August 15, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.
 
Aug. 13–Aug. 27. 3330 Civic Center Dr., Torrance. See theater website for dates and times. $35. (310) 781-7171.

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Rapture, Blister, Burn
Little Fish Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Mary-Margaret Lewis, Suzanne Dean, and Kimmy Shields
Photo by Mickey Elliott

As the 20th century sped along and barreled into the 21st, people found more and more opportunities available to them. But choices have consequences, and we might not like all of them.
   Rapture, Blister, Burn is Gina Gionfriddo’s look at three generations of women and their paths. Running at Little Fish Theatre, it’s a thoughtful look. Men, take heart: No character comes off looking great, but no gender takes a bashing, either. The play includes much discussion of history’s waves of feminism. But its more-interesting, more-universal elements may be its characters and plotting.
   Catherine and Gwen were roommates in graduate school decades before. Don was Catherine’s boyfriend. In the evenings, the three drank and debated. Choosing career over romance, but not exactly dumping Don, Catherine departed for London. There she began to build a career of renown in gender studies and feminism, with—laugh if you must—particular focus on the politics of pornography within the women’s movement and degradation of women in the internet age.
   Choosing Don over Catherine, Gwen married him. They have two sons. She has been a stay-at-home mom. Don counsels college students who are drinking and failing. He has longtime expertise in both areas.

When the play begins, Catherine has returned home, supposedly concerned over her mother’s recent heart attack. But it seems she’s trying to relive her grad-school days, a fling with Don included. We meet Catherine (Suzanne Dean), Don (Patrick Rafferty), and Gwen (Christina Morrell) at a get-together in the couple’s backyard. Don and Catherine begin to drink. Gwen doesn’t. The more tanked they get, the prissier she gets.
   The couple’s babysitter, Avery (Kimmy Shields), shows up with a blackened eye. Gwen, shielding her tender 3-year-old son, wants Avery gone. Don scoffs. This sets off the couple’s venting of deep-seated, long-held grievances.
   Does Catherine sense a chance to steal Don back? Certainly, her desire to continue teaching while she’s in town seems genuine. Don gets her a job. Does he want her around?
   Don and Catherine become drinking buddies, acting increasingly like teenage boys, as Gwen later notes. Catherine lectures on porn; he’s a frequent consumer. Staying up all night, ordering pizza for breakfast, smoking recreational weed, turning child care over to others—life is fun when you don’t live by rules but expect others to.
   Catherine’s class draws only two students: Gwen and Avery. And because class takes place in the living room of Catherine’s mother, Alice (Mary-Margaret Lewis), mom frequently barges in, creating that “tri-generational” perspective on women’s lives over the decades while serving martinis and a Shirley Temple for the dry Gwen.

Keeping this play from spinning off into either ludicrous comedy or preachy polemic on the stifling of women are Gionfriddo’s well-placed reminders that as we go through life we cannot unring bells and stuff genies back into bottles.
   Gwen may want to be the celebrity academician, but she is responsible to two sons. Catherine may wish she had a husband and children, but continuously focusing hope on Don has stranded her in her 40s, very much alone.
   Also keeping this play anchored in its heart is the direction, by Mark Piatelli. No character is “wrong,” no character is judged, every character has a reason for behaving as he or she does. And, best, Piatelli doesn’t force laughs, nor do his thoroughly excellent actors.
   Images projected behind the action sometimes augment the staging when Catherine is lecturing, but confuse and distract when she’s not, particularly when the timing is off.
   But either Piatelli or costumer Marlee Delia deserves a respectful nod for putting Avery in a 1960s-style outfit at play’s end. What women have done with their lives has differed through the generations. Who they are at their cores, and who men are at theirs, has of course remained unchanged. These days, as the play says, all of us may pay for having choices, but we’re relatively free to make them.

Curious about the play’s title? It’s reportedly a lyric from the song “Use Once and Destroy” by Courtney Love’s 1990s band Hole.

August 8, 2016
 
Aug. 5–Sept. 3. 777 S. Centre St., San Pedro. Fri-Sat 8pm, with additional Sun 2pm perf. Aug. 28. $25-27. (310) 512-6030.

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Space
Stella Adler Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Stefan Marks and Samantha Smart
Photo by Photo by Brian Wiggle

On a screen above the stage flashes the opening titles for a scratchy black-and-white movie that immediately evokes the gloomy visage of a mid-1940s B-thriller starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and of course Lionel Atwill as the town’s suspicious burgermeister. Over the images roll the titles: The film was written by Kurt Finge, directed by Kurt Finge, starring Kurt Finge, and with the same multitasking auteur listed as everything from composer to set designer to editor.
   So begins the world premiere of the ambitious and equally atmospheric Space, a complex head trip written by Stefan Marks, directed by Stefan Marks, designed by Stefan Marks, featuring original music composed by Stefan Marks, and—guess what?—starring Stefan Marks as Kurt Finge. Orson Welles had his Charles Foster Kane; Marks has Kurt Finge, and his story is just as complex and dark a mystery as that grander epic.
   Finge is desperately trying to navigate the modern tech-driven world as he sits cross-legged on the floor, explaining in an often ominous and disquieting opening monologue that we, like him, are amazing and have vast untapped potential. Apparently Finge has had a lot of time to think about this concept, having spent the last 30 years incarcerated in a mental hospital after a possibly fatal knife attack on his mother (Rachel Parker). He admits counting sheep has not helped him sleep as he grasps for answers, once spending three days tallying up to 500,000 of the wooly little suckers gone a’leapin’.
   Whether the act that sent him into isolation really happened or not, his victim keeps showing up on the scene, giving him maternal grief for the wastefulness of his life. But oddly, Mommy Dearest appears to be younger than he is now. Finge’s story zips back and forth through time faster than a Kurt Vonnegut novel, and the characters are also not always consistent. His therapist (Samantha Smart) may or may not be falling in love with him and may or may not have accepted to his proposal of marriage, while his father (Joel Flynn, in for Michael Matthys), who disappeared years before by escaping into outer space in a hot air balloon, may in reality be his doctor.
   As the tale unfolds, Finge releases layers of suspended fabric made from parachute material, revealing various Caligari-esque doors and a massive opening disappearing into a glittery star-studded curtain that resembles either the aperture of a giant camera, a black hole lurking deep in the cosmos, or even perhaps a welcoming human anus. This is all augmented by a series of projections that includes various views of deep space, a panoramic ascension of a colorful balloon, even the birth of a computer-generated child who frees himself from his umbilical cord with a butcher knife as his naked mother continues to jog into the horizon.

Marks’s dialogue is arrestingly poetic and incredibly evocative, as are all four performances—especially his own, something which, while doubling as director, the multitasking playwright surely orchestrated. At first, the fact that all his characters seem to speak in the same rhythms and with similar thoughts seemed to be the play’s Achilles’ heel, but as things unravel and pieces of Finge’s puzzling mind are uncovered and exposed, this connection makes perfect sense.
   There is often a good argument against one person wearing so many artistic hats in the birthing of his or her own material. Here, although the uniformly committed performances and Marks’s truth-seeking are clear and passionate, there’s also a kind of overwrought and heavily choreographed aura that permeates his staging, as though every gesture and move of his human pawns are completely preordained and somewhat robbed of spontaneity, as though everything that unfolds has been restricted by Marks’s inescapable personal vision.

Yet, speaking of choreography, when he and Smart suddenly break into a dance paying obvious homage to Ginger and Fred, the author’s ingenuity shows its limitless inventiveness, and every other predetermined moment governing his dramatization is easily forgiven. Also impressive are the original ballads that come out of nowhere in the storyline, composed and sung by Marks or in duet with Smart, proving that this guy is something of an ingenious one-man band. It would be surprising if Space did not one day transform into Space the Musical.
   Like Welles’s Citizen Kane, Finge’s movie-within-a-play goes on to win an Oscar for Best Picture during a scene played out in a flashback—or is it a flash forward? Yes, Orson Welles had nothing on Stefan Marks—except for a few million dollars of semi-liquid cash, some wine not sold before its time, and access to a sled called Rosebud.

August 1, 2016
 
July 15–Aug. 20. Stella Adler Main Stage, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., 2nd Floor, Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8pm. $25. (747) 777-2878.

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Go Back to Where You Are
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


John Fleck and Justin Huen
Photo by Enci Box

Just when you think no one could possibly fashion yet another riff on the timeless work of Anton Chekhov, David Greenspan proves once again there are no limits to the ways of paying respectful but inventive homage to the Russian master.
   On an ocean-side bleached-wood deck on the east side of Long Island that could be beamed up and set down anywhere to depict Madame Arkadina’s country estate in The Seagull, or the patio of Frank and Maria’s summer house in Charles Mee’s Summertime, or Conrad’s makeshift outdoor stage in Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, it doesn’t take actors meandering onto designer Nina Caussa’s starkly Hockney-esque playing space with wistful seaward expressions on their faces to know where this is going.
   Yet, Greenspan manages to find something new while honoring the old. Speaking of beaming things up, his arrestingly lyrical Go Back to Where You Are travels from tableau to tableau, where pairings of his eccentric, lonely characters can tell each other—or the audience—what’s on their minds. Thanks to his evocative poetry, Greenspan never moralizes, creating wonderfully multifaceted characters who incessantly whine about their lot in life without making us wish they’d down their cocktails and shut the fuck up.

Bernard (Justin Huen), a frustrated unpublished playwright with perpetual writer’s block, and his classically two-faced Broadway stage star sister Claire (Shannon Holt) host a party at the family beach house, where her old comrade and newest director Tom (Bill Brochtrup) arrives quarreling with his partner Malcolm (Jeffrey Hutchinson) to discuss the first time they will be working together in 15 years.
   Her son Wally (Andrew Walke) is also present for the questionably cheerful soiree, as is Claire’s dear old friend Charlotte (Annabelle Gurwitch), whose career has been nothing as successful as Claire’s. For all the male characters in the play, when not air-kissing half-hearted hellos to one another and conveniently prone to taking long walks along the shore and cliffs above the property, one shared problem seems to haunt each one: men.
   Wally is reeling from his boyfriend’s death, and Bernard’s long-dead partner is equally mourned, while Tom and Malcolm appear to be pondering if such a solitary existence might not be all that bad. From the beginning beats, as Huen wanders onstage behind the seemingly unprepared person giving the welcome speech reminding us to turn off cellphones and unwrap candies, Bernard continues the dialogue directly to the audience, wondering where he is, physically and in life, and questioning what he’s doing at the time—which might just be writing the play we are about to see. His sister will soon warn those in attendance that his writings “go here, then there” to the point where viewers might need a map to keep up. But Bernard explains clearly that what’s about to unfold is going to be weird, a fact he reminds of a couple of times before final bows.

Into this eclectic mix of unfulfilled acquaintances and duplicitous family members drops an angel or spirit or resident of purgatory named Passalus (the truly inimitable John Fleck), an failed ancient Greek actor send by a hoodie-wearing God (Hutchinson) to help the conflicted group get their heads out of their proverbial butts and see the beautiful sunrises from their ascetically pristine party deck. To get the job done as quickly as possible, Passalus decides a good way to avoid detection is to pass himself off in an alternate persona, as well—that of a fluttery, proper, RP-accented elderly British visitor named Constance Simmons.
   Coupled with the fact that Passalus falls madly in love with Bernard, Greenspan’s imaginative scenario provides a clever chance to add a little Michael Frayn-ian farce to the proceedings; if the set were not so austere, there might even be room for a few slamming doors. God returns to Earth to criticize Passalus and remind him that the consequences of not accomplishing his mission would not be his desired oblivion but instead would damn him to an eternally fiery end, especially if his ruse is detected by the mortals.
   Working through the scattered puzzle pieces of this script, with its lack of coherent chronology and demanding a seamlessly insouciant delivery of each elegiac pronouncement cannot be easy for any director or cast to realize. But thanks to this talented veteran ensemble led by stage magician Bart DeLorenzo, watching this dense but sweetly romantic play unfold becomes an exciting, almost dreamlike experience.

Each performer is top-notch, but all spend most of their time deferring to Fleck whenever he is onstage fearlessly taking chances only about three performers could pull off. His quirky interpretation of Passalus is often as frantic and jaw-dropping as any of the famed performance artist’s celebrated one-person creations, solidifying once again that Fleck unequivocally could be the answer to a Jeopardy question about what constitutes an intrepid artist, someone one who courageously left his filter buried in the sand about the time Passalus donned his first toga and carried his first spear into the arena at Epidaurus.

July 23, 2016
 
July 16–Aug. 28. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Alternating Wed or Thu (check theater’s website), Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $10-34. (310) 477-2055.

www.odysseytheatre.com

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The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
Pacific Resident Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Brad Greenquist and Ginna Carter
Photo by Vitor Martins

This Tennessee Williams play has been said to be about good and evil, illusion and reality. Being by Williams, it’s poetic. But onstage at, directed by Dana Jackson and with her thoroughly superb cast, mommy and daddy issues reach out and clutch at the audience’s throats.
   As a rewrite of his 1940s Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities feels more real, more of a psychological study and less of a classical display of symbolism. At its core, Alma Winemiller remains the eccentric nightingale, the not particularly gifted singer with the quirky mannerisms. But her spine feels steelier here, her understanding of herself is deeper. And perhaps because of this new, “improved” Alma, she is more contented with herself. We now cringe for the others around her, not for her.
   As in Summer and Smoke, Alma lives in the closed system of the Mississippi Delta just before World War I. Status depends on job titles. Popularity is based on conformity. Appearance is everything. Alma is a spinster, trying to do what her martinet father demands, trying to rise above the neighbors’ malicious misguided thoughts about her mentally ill mother.
   Oh, is she eccentric. But she is her own woman. So she can’t and won’t change for anyone. That’s apparently what draws her next-door neighbor, young physician John Buchanan, straight to her.

However, all this subtext would not be this apparent without the compassion and admiration director Jackson and the actor playing Alma clearly feel for that character. That actor is Ginna Carter, in a performance of a lifetime.
   Those who’ve seen an Alma in other productions might, frankly, be dreading a revisit with her. She can be grating, evoking disdain or pity. Not here. Here she is such an interesting, involving character, the play’s nearly three-hour running time slips by.
   There’s plenty of acting technique in here, too. Carter vibrates, not with faked, shaky distractions but with a tremendous life force that cannot be stilled. Alma’s scripted gestures have been well-considered. Even her vocal quirks have charm.
   No wonder John seems to treasure her here. Andrew Dits plays him in a remarkably subtle, also respectful performance. John understands Alma, calms her without squelching her energy, admires her, and likely is attracted to her.

But, oh, does he ever have a controlling mother. Mrs. Buchanan claims to care only that her sonny boy marry a fitting woman, not this preacher’s odd daughter with the lunatic mother (played with gentle otherworldliness by Mary Jo Deschanel). But when mommy (played to chilling smugness by Rita Obermeyer) comes into John’s bedroom, strokes his head of curls, and gives him a rather salacious foot rub, we wonder about her ultimate goal.
   Some of John’s connection with Alma likely stems from his observation, conscious or subconscious, that her father is equally controlling, but much colder about it. Rev. Winemiller (a seething, vitriolic Brad Greenquist), captive in a behavioral prison of his own making, is a ramrod, and if he can’t cruelly prod Alma into conformity, he’ll freeze her out of whatever affections he may have.
   Even in small secondary roles (decades ago, playwrights included plentiful such characters because producing budgets allowed them), the acting is polished and era-conjuring. Alma’s acquaintances—a circle of misfits, each with his or her own odd baggage—are played with care and charm by Paul Anderson, Joan Chodorow, Choppy Guillotte, and Amy Huntington, particularly good as they listen breathlessly to an offstage conversation between John and Alma. Derek Chariton plays the strange young man ensnared by Alma’s unfortunate newfound existence at the play’s end.

Helping create this eccentric world, Kis Knekt’s scenic design of Spanish moss and faded grandeur creates a dreamscape, presided over by the stone angel symbolizing and named Eternity. It’s not a set we want to move in to, but it firmly evokes time, place, and mood and holds us there.
   Williams has said Alma is his favorite character and the one closest to him. After seeing this paradigm-shifting production, it’s likely audiences will feel much the same.

July 8, 2016
 
June 18–Sept. 25. 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Street parking or free parking behind the theaters. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm through Aug. 14; Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm through Sept. 25 (no perf. Sept. 2, 9-11 $25–34. (310) 822-8392.

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Church & State
Skylight Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Annika Marks, Tracie Lockwood, and Rob Nagle
Photo by Ed Krieger

Although the concept seems rather improbable in this era, playwright Jason Odell Williams speculates about one uncharacteristically unaltered politician still capable of having a honorable thought all his own. Obviously, Williams’s Church & State is a work of fiction.
   Three days before his demanding narrow-minded constituents head to the polls to do their gloriously self-serving civic duty, North Carolinian Sen. Charlie Whitmore (Rob Nagle) is in a quandary. As his campaign’s theme song, “Jesus Is My Running Mate,” plays over the loudspeakers just before he speaks at a major rally, the hand-slappin’ good ol’ boy is experiencing a moral watershed moment. It’s only been a few days since a mass shooting inside one of his state’s grade schools has taken 29 young lives and, as a typically rapacious politician seeking a photo op, he travels to the site where children’s blood is splattered all over the classroom’s art projects and American flags. Before he can strike a pose looking grim and spout a few hollow promises for the cameras, he experiences a life-altering crisis of conscience.
   At the memorial service, Charlie has an epiphany: that living without fear is more important than second amendment rights, religious faith, or “our country’s antiquated laws.” When approached by a young blogger (Edward Hong) who is shocked when the candidate says he did not pray for the children, he is asked pointblank if he really believes in God. Charlie, in his troubled emotional state, does the most politically incorrect thing he could ever do, wondering aloud if it’s possible to believe in a god who would let such things happen. Charlie then vows to not waste time on prayer when there’s so much work to be done, a statement that goes viral just as he’s about to take the podium.
   Charlie’s bible-thumping, Kim Davis-haired, Spanks-wearing wife, Sara (Tracie Lockwood), and his abrasive stereotypical Jewish campaign manager Alex (Annika Marks) are horrified when they google Charlie’s interview before he hits the stage and realize what is about to go down. The problem is exacerbated when he declares his intent to abandon his carefully prepared speech and talk directly from his heart. Alex, who was hired to keep the senator on track but is now dealing with a boss who wonders if she’s even “in the same car anymore,” believes the move would be political suicide. Sara, who is the kind of person who assumes Alex is a lesbian because she’s a Democrat from New York, for once agrees with her.

Under the brilliant directorial eye of Elina de Santos, this cast could not be better. Despite Alex’s formulaic limitations, Marks avoids the inherent traps written into her role as the hardly decorous campaign manager fighting for her own career as well as that of her candidate, something that could have afforded the character a more satisfying conclusion if she didn’t oddly all but disappear from the play’s concluding scene. Hong does wonders with two small roles, the other as the intern who, when asked his opinion, humbly states he thinks we should all not be so hung up on “what our book says and what their book says.”
   Still, the true genius here was in the casting of Nagle and Lockwood as the fantastically feudin’, tenderly lovin’ Charlie and Sara. Their performances are richly nuanced and disarmingly real in roles that could wipe out lesser actors within the play’s first beats. Lockwood is endearing as the loud and ridiculously opinionated wife zealously protective of her husband and her faith, and Nagle takes our breath way as Charlie. This is especially true in a flashback scene set in two different periods of time, as Charlie recounts and simultaneously re-creates his interview with the offending blogger.
   As his emotional state darkens his demeanor, and later in the delivery of the senator’s impassioned speech about his dilemma and plea for assistance from his constituents to help him get the feet under him again, Nagle is dazzling. Together, Lockwood and Nagle make complete sense of their characters’ frustrations and verbal skirmishes, able to clearly show how the couple’s love for each other will survive no matter what the outcome of the guy’s pivotal re-election.

This is a mesmeric production of a captivating, thought-provoking new play sure to only advance the career of a promising new dramatist. Still, although the outcome of Charlie’s re-election is a surprise, it’s one of the few surprises in an otherwise brightly intelligent and often hilariously on-target script. It is deserving of high praise and well worth the committed participation of this spectacular cast and production team, but if you don’t see the ending coming in the first 10 minutes of its 80-minute running time, you might just be brain dead. Perhaps, sadly, this is because we’ve become so hardened by the tenor of the times in which we live.

July 4, 2016
 
July 2–Sept. 4. 1816-1/2 N. Vermont Ave. Sat 8:30pm, Sun 3pm through Aug. 14, then Sat 5pm and Sun 7pm though Sept. 4. $15-39. (213) 761-7061.

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The Tempest
Independent Shakespeare Company at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal


Lorenzo González and David Melville
Photo by Grettel Cortes

Wrapping up its annual summer foray into the wilds of Griffith Park, Independent Shakespeare Company offers a pleasantly sublime rendering of what is listed as the final entry in William Shakespeare’s playwriting catalogue. Director Matthew Earnest kicks things off with a raucously effective sequence depicting the shipwreck of a vessel transporting various personages of royalty, including the King of Naples and the current Duke of Milan. Underscored by an uncredited sound design brimming with the crashing crescendos of an ocean gale, this first scene sets an excellently chaotic tone for the various levels of miscommunication upon which the remainder of the play relies.
   Shakespeare next provides an expositional scene among the island’s occupants to fill in the past dozen years of backstory. Here we meet Prospero—banished so his brother Antonio could usurp the previously mentioned dukedom—and his daughter, Miranda. Prospero’s time has been spent developing wizard-like powers, which he has employed to land this boatload of underhanded connivers upon his territorial shore. Providing a relatively benign characterization despite Prospero’s obviously harbored ill will, Thom Rivera’s interactions with Sean Pritchett’s Caliban, an animalistic native spawned from a now dead witch, still fairly crackle with tension. Erika Soto offers a Miranda whose grace and instantaneous love for Evan Lewis Smith’s Ferdinand, son to the king of Naples, is most engaging.

Rounding out these equatorial inhabitants is Kalean Ung as a take-charge version of Ariel, a spritely fairy who serves Prospero in the hopes of securing her freedom. Ung, along with an energetic chorus of spirits, exhibits a beautiful vocal range as the troupe performs various sequences of the Bard’s poetic script, set here to Chris Porter’s original compositions.
   Among the royals, Joseph Culliton is a slightly befuddled King Alonso, while William Elsman is perfectly slimy as the king’s younger brother, Sebastian. Along with Prospero’s duplicitous brother, Antonio, played with a seething temper by Faqir Hassan, the two plot to overthrow the King. Instead, their plans fall prey to the bevy of spirits working at Prospero’s behest, as well as the measured wisdom brought to the proceedings by Lester Purry’s performance as Gonzalo, counselor to the King. Even in this expansive venue, Purry’s eye-catching sense of subtlety is scene-stealing at every turn.
   For slapstick comedic relief, nothing tops David Melville’s Stephano and Lorenzo González’s Trinculo. This pair of self-important buffoons, thinking they alone survived the wreckage, attempt to set up a tropical monarchy with the assistance of Caliban, who schemes to do away with Prospero. Naturally, their strategy disintegrates with hilarious results.
   In the end, happiness reigns with freedom, forgiveness, and uniting love ruling the day. Sporting a fluffy sweetness traditionally consigned to cotton candy, perhaps this is a fitting entry with which its author completed perhaps the greatest compendium of literature the world will ever know.

August 17, 2016
 
Aug. 6–Sept. 4. Near 4730 Crystal Spring Dr., LA. Wed-Sun 7pm. Free admission. (818) 710-6306.

www.iscla.org

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D Deb Debbie Deborah
Theatre of NOTE

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Greg Nussen, Alina Phelan, Jenny Soo, Travis York
Photo by Troy Blendell

Schizophrenic behavior is not usually a subject for comedy, but there’s a first for everything, right? In Jerry Lieblich’s whirlwind of a play, our heroine Deb (most often played by Jenny Soo) is not terribly sure who she is—or who anybody in her life is either. She suffers a bizarre kind of disorientation after buzzing a stranger into her urban high-rise apartment thinking it’s a friend, only to be robbed at knifepoint. She explains to her boyfriend Karl (most often Greg Nussen) that she could not identify her attacker to the cops, something that sends her into a tailspinning downward spiral that out-vertigoes Vertigo.
   She tells Karl she feels “like I’m living in Fight Club or something,” even going a step further to wonder if she might be a made-up person from someone’s dream and one day that person might wake up and she’ll be gone. Karl is sufficiently understanding in an I’m-busy-but-sympathetic sorta way, even as he goes in the bedroom to change clothes and, when he returns, is suddenly being played by another actor (Travis York). Deb is sufficiently unnerved but goes along with the surreal experience for a while, even when she begins her new job as an assistant for a famous though highly eccentric artist. York here plays Mark, that nightmare of a boss, but he is again is replaced by Nussen in the same paint-splattered role, then both are followed by Alina Phelan, who also morphs back and forth with the others as Mark’s too-cheery office manager Julia.
   While realizing in a rather subdued panic that she no longer recognizes anyone in her life anymore—even herself—Deb is invited by her employer to an art gallery opening featuring some of his early work, giving the actors, now joined by a fifth performer (Kerr Lordygan), an opportunity to jump instantaneously from one persona to another with almost mindboggling speed.

Under the sharp and highly choreographed direction of Doug Oliphant, his quintet executes an almost unearthly feat, shape-shifting in a flash between personas, from the ones we’ve just barely gotten to know to every other guest at the event, all introducing and reintroducing themselves to one another with lightning speed. It’s something quite amazing to behold, like a stage full of Cirque du Soleil performers doing their own thing while that one rubber-limbed acrobat coils and twists above our heads.
   Mark at one point describes to Deb one recent period in his work when he only did portraits of people as he imagined they’d look when they get old, explaining they could hang them on their walls and wait until they looked right. He abandoned the series, he says, when he realized the paintings “didn’t align with who people thought I was,” charitably giving a hint of insight into what Lieblich’s D Deb Debbi Deborah is all about—besides, of course, offering a quartet of opportunities for brilliantly dexterous, wildly filterless “Who’s-On-First”-savvy actors like these to strut their stuff in the most jaw-dropping way.
   How Deb sees herself and her place in our topsy-turvy world is the issue here, as are how each of us assimilates into our surroundings, how we justify ourselves as artists and as citizens of the planet, and how we handle what’s expected of us.
   The otherwise odious Ayn Rand once said that most people live as “second-handers,” that most exist only for how everyone else around perceives them to be rather than for who they are. “They have no concern for facts, ideas, work,” Rand wrote. “They’re concerned only with people. They don’t ask: ‘Is this true?’ They ask: ‘Is this what others think is true?’ Not to judge, but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing. Not creation, but show. Not ability, but friendship. Not merit, but pull.”

Perhaps this is the message of Lieblich’s bafflingly dense but genuinely fascinating play, that the only way to survive the confusion of modern existence is to just go along, fingers firmly grasping the edges, remaining confident that who each of us is as solitary individuals must be considered—and celebrated—at all costs, regardless of those too frequent times when that expert acrobat twirling just above our heads comes crashing down onto the hard and unforgiving sawdust of the circus floor.

August 15, 2016
 
1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $20-25. (323) 856-8611.

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Blueprint for Paradise
The Athena Cats at Hudson Mainstage

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Regi Davis and Meredith Thomas
Photo by Ed Krieger

Laurel M. Wetzork’s intriguing and unusual idea for a play falters, largely but not exclusively because of flawed direction, in its world premiere. Not even the handsome designs, some of which are ill-used, nor the efforts of the actors overcome the play’s failings.
   Wetzork starts from a slice of local history and imagines it behind the scenes. In 1941, African-American architect Paul Revere Williams had a portfolio that included such admired structures as downtown’s Los Angeles County Courthouse (now the Stanley Mosk Courthouse) and its twin Hall of Administration, when he was contacted by a married couple for a project in Pacific Palisades.
   That project, Williams soon learned, was to design a Nazi stronghold, with a comfortable well-lit library and an ocean view. So much is true. But what were the thoughts and feelings of those involved?
   It’s a fascinating idea for a play, examining ethical principles and relationships, motives and prejudices. The play comments thoughtfully on the way society was and is structured. And, as it turns out, it’s quite timely and topical. But its basic foundation, badly ornamented and weighted by heavy-handedness, crumbles by evening’s end.
   Despite his waiting list of projects, Williams (Regi Davis) has been persuaded to hie on over to the Hancock Park home of Herbert Taylor (David Jahn) and his wife, Clara (Meredith Thomas). As members of organizations that plot the whitening of civilization, the Taylors host German Nazi Wolfgang Schreiber (Peter McGlynn) and American Nazi sympathizer Ludwig Gottschalk (Steve Marvel).
   Schreiber and Gottschalk are stunned to see that the Taylors employ a Chinese maid (Ann Hu) but perhaps are happier to note the Italian manservant (Alex Best). Nothing, however, can top the repulsed reactions to Williams.

So far, the play has a terrific setup, its dramatic conflict at the ready. But rather than enhancing the script where it’s too subtle and making subtle its more blatant moments, director Laura Steinroeder ladles on bad directorial choices.
   Those choices start with cartoonish accents. Granted, one of them is deliberately fake, as a character’s true identity is revealed midway through the play. But each accent seems stereotypical and overgeneralized, from Hu’s Chinese to Gottschalk’s Southern drawl.
   Steinroeder dims lighting designer Matthew Gorka’s otherwise warm Southern California sunlight mid-scenes to create mood where the situation and dialogue have already created it. Then, time and again, she lines up actors across the front of the stage, where they valiantly fight the unnatural configuration.
   Williams, however, knows better than to stand near Clara as they look over blueprints. But where one circle of the table would smartly reveal this, instead they rapidly circle the table many, many times, distracting us from whatever they’re saying. Then Steinroeder turns the moments before the first-act and final blackouts into tacky melodrama.

The script has its flaws, too. Clara’s inheritance, which included a vast sum and real estate in Pasadena, has been spent by Herbert, unbeknownst to her, to construct this compound on property also given to Clara by her mother. That, plus the diabolical way Herbert speaks to her and tries to keep her medicated, ought to be enough of a feminist message. Unfortunately, Wetzork doesn’t trust the audience to spot this, so we hear the messages about unfairness and inequality loudly and repeatedly.
   Fortunately, there’s good to be observed in the script, from personal yet universal points to political ones. Clara, painfully uncertain whether or not she is still considered a mother after her son’s death, drowns her unhappiness in drink, yet realizes she can and should escape from imprisonment imposed by her father and husband. Herbert grapples with being self-made rather than born to wealth as his peers are.
   And of course Wetzork’s revisiting of history is noble and necessary. She notes how fraught the word “refugee” can be. Her characters commandeer the word “fear” on behalf of the Nazi agenda. She reminds us that “betterment” is in the eye of the beholder. Wetzork’s play, and her program notes, urge her audience to study history before it repeats itself.
   And let us be grateful that the site of the proposed compound, Murphy Ranch, is currently a hiking ground in the Rustic Canyon area of Pacific Palisades.

August 1, 2016
 
July 30–Sept. 4. 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., LA. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 and a half hours, including intermission. $25. (323) 960-4412.

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Sierra Madre Playhouse

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Richard Van Slyke and Stanton Morales
Photo by Gina Long

In the grand scheme of things, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is only as good as its cast, and Sierra Madre has that nailed with a terrific ensemble who enliven William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s amusing take on competition among the young.
   The story is simple: A group of middle-school winners of previous bees are gathered to determine the contestant who will go on to the national competition. Combat is fierce, and who will win is anyone’s guess.
   Former winner and local realtor Rona Lisa Peretti (Gina D’Acciaro) is in charge of the bee, and she is joined by Vice-Principal Douglas Panch (Richard Van Slyke), a nervy deliverer of words, definitions, and sentences that pack a lot of the humor of the show.
   The third adult in the scenario is Mitch Mahoney (Jaq Galliano), a rough and rugged offender doing his community service by giving the losing contestants a hug and a juice box. Though the focus in on the children, the adults deliver a plethora of funny and touching moments throughout.

The first child we meet is Chip (Joey Acuna Jr.), an appealing boy scout whose song, “My Unfortunate Erection,” portends early elimination. Next is Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Hannah Leventhal), her school’s gay and straight alliance leader, with two pushy dads.
   Then there’s Leaf Coneybear (Robert Michael Parkinson), who designs his own clothes and is third-place winner of his local bee. He is a surprise selection because winners 1 and 2 are at a bar mitzvah. William Barfée (Stanton Kane Morales), whose attempts to get the judges to pronounce his last name correctly are futile, is awkward and has a magic foot that helps him spell the words.
   Olive Ostrovsky (Cristina Gerla), whose mother is in India in an ashram and father is absent from the event, offers the most affecting portrayal in the production as she pines for affection in “I Love You.”
   Last up is Marcy Park (Joy Regullano), a parochial-school whiz whose deadpan demeanor belies her inner child. Her considerable prowess at acrobatics, musical talent, and facility with six languages are showstoppers.
   Four additional cast members are selected from the audience, and, at the performance attended, they were a delight. Minimally prepared ahead of time, they handled their words like spelling bee pros.

Director Robert Marra gives his actors plenty of leeway for individual portrayals, and the production is crisp and nicely paced. Though the musical numbers are mostly vehicles for spotlighting the characters, Joe Lawrence’s musical direction is excellent, and Marra’s choreography keeps things lively. The voices are universally outstanding in every number.
   Jeff Cason’s set and lighting create a realistic gym with its concrete block walls and adjustable bleacher seats that serve the cast well. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes are inspired, particularly William’s and Leaf’s.
   Though the emphasis is on humor, the story packs a punch as insecurities and issues of acceptance are all too realistic. Adults playing children can often be a bit precious, but these actors are spot on as they fully inhabit each quirky character. This is a true ensemble piece that is notable for its polish and high quality.

July 27, 2016
 
July 8–Aug. 21. 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Ample free parking behind the theater. Schedule not announced. $20–35. (626) 355-4318.

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One of the Nice Ones
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Rodney To and Rebecca Gray
Photo by Darrett Sanders

The prevalence of negative body image issues in our image-obsessed society has hardly been ignored as a subject for scathing and darkly extreme contemporary comedies. Why, Sheila Callaghan and Neil LaBute have practically made it a cottage industry. Yet, finding something fresh in an overworked theme isn’t the kind of challenge from which playwright Erik Patterson is known to walk away. Not only does Patterson offer a brand-new twist to the overworked topic, he also throws in a heaping dose of sexual politics in the workplace.
   Going in for a performance review is a trepidatious event for any insecure underachieving employee, especially when being forced to face one of those many people who seem to operate more from a rush of power than as a levelheaded spokesperson for their boss. And for Tracy (Rebecca Gray), a wheelchair-bound telephone solicitor employed by a sketchy weight loss company, the stakes are even higher, since she’s been denied a rather specialized surgical procedure the firm’s insurance carrier will not authorize.
   At first the panicking Tracy, nervous to the point of hyperventilation, is told by her superior (Graham Hamilton) that despite her drastically low performance levels, her job is secure. But when she shamelessly begins to compliment and cajole Roger, eventually pleading for him to confide to her what’s really going on, he admits she’s high on the list to receive a pink slip at the end of the week. She has one card left to insure her future with Tenderform Weight Loss Systems—and it happens on her back, spread-eagled across Roger’s desk with her crisp professional office-wear skirt hiked above her waist and the pair humping like rabid jackrabbits to The Carpenters’s otherwise lulling “Rainy Days and Mondays” pumped over the firm’s loudspeakers.

Familiarity with the body of work churned out by Patterson is reason enough to strap oneself in and prepare for a bumpy ride after Tracy and Roger make the Beast with Two Backs in full view of their surprised audience, but in deference to the unfiltered creativity established by the play’s darkly twisted creator, it would be almost sinful to reveal any of the play’s rapid twists and turns, something virtually impossible to accomplish without giving away some more delicious downward-spiraling ramifications from the randy co-workers’ inappropriate office…performance.
   Under the mercilessly bold direction of Chris Fields, Gray and Hamilton are courageous and wildly committed at playing One of the Nice One’s central not so nice residents. Although the play basically belongs to them, Rodney To as a sheepish—but well-endowed, we learn—co-worker and Tara Karsian as a customer Tracy has talked into coming into the office for a consolation, are both golden additions to Fields’s sparkling cast.
   Amanda Knehans’s whimsical and versatile set—imagine if Pee-wee Herman had outgrown his playhouse and went to work in an office—is a colorful addition to the fun, but it is Patterson’s mischievous mind and unsanitized wit that makes One of the Nice One infinitely nicer than the socially damaged characters he has invented.

July 25, 2016
 
July 16–Aug. 28. 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm & 7pm. $30. (310) 307-3753.

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The Imaginary Invalid
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Cameron Rose, Willow Geer, and Melora Marshall
Photo by Miriam Geer

Conventional wisdom says laughter is the best medicine. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum fills prescriptions in generous supply with its production of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, adapted by Constance Congdon. But beware: In doing so, it raises quite a stink.
   Ellen Geer, who over the last 40 years has performed probably every principal female role in classical dramatic literature at her late father’s woodsy outdoor theater in Topanga Canyon, is delving into male roles. Last season she excelled as Lear. This season she takes on Monsieur Argan, the eponymous hypochondriac of this 1670s comedy.
   As Madame Argan, Geer limns not a creature of long ago but someone we could know today. Imagining a plethora of illnesses, yes, but also deluding herself about the people around her, Argan is flattered by notoriety and obsessed with the latest in gadgets and remedies.
   That would be funny enough, but director Mary Jo DuPrey marvelously weaves in the sights and sounds, but fortunately not smells, of commedia dell’arte.
   The joy of being at this show is the contrast between the sophistication of going to the theater and the humor we loved in the third grade. Human behavior and the quirks of our culture occupy much of the play, but the passage of wind through the inner tunnels of the body and out one end occupies its own noisy portions.
   Intimation is the sincerest form of flatulence, so sound designer Ian Flanders has a variety of toots up his, er, sleeve. At the first one, audience members peek around to see if anyone else is cracking a smile. Fear not. The show draws smiles, snurkles, and full-blown giggles. Its two-hour running time (including intermission) bounces along, as visual and verbal jokes tumble over the aforementioned audial ones.

The supporting cast meets the challenge of keeping up with Geer’s wonderfully classical portrayal of Argan. Willow Geer plays Argan’s daughter Angelique, the actor’s airy, high-pitched voice working beautifully here, because it suits the frothy character and because it’s clear and audible. Her bouncy ringlets and a huge meringue of a dress (costume design by Vicki Conrad) add to her tonal perfection, as Angelique swings from girlish despair through true adoration of her mama.
   Melora Marshall is Argan’s right-hand servant, Toinette. Marshall has one of the most expressively malleable faces in the business. But she doesn’t even need that face to coax laughter from us when she disguises herself behind Groucho glasses to play Argan’s latest physician.
   Memorably, Cameron Rose plays Claude de Aria (yes indeedy, pronounced, more often than not, as “diarrhea”). Rose’s rooster of a character is, fortunately deliberately, one of the strangest ever to strut the classical stage. With his pinched, white-powdered face under a towering wig of hennaed curls, he’s the opposite of the picture of physical health. Then we get to know his mental health.
   Katherine Griffith plays a notary and an apothecary, her physical comedy animating both. Max Lawrence makes a sturdy, true-blue lover Cleante. And when Cleante and Angelique perform their improvised opera while the other characters watch in various shades of dismay, Tim Halligan’s Dr. Purgeon hilariously looks like he’s wondering if the restaurant down the road is still open.

Zachary Moore’s lighting palette starts out in pretty pink, but it switches to poison purple accompanied by a thunder clap and that “uh oh” bar of music when Argan’s new young husband, Beline (Jonathan Blandino), shows up or is even mentioned.
   But if you’re looking for a serious message, near the play’s end Argan wakes up in moments that reach back to Greek drama for their depth and power.
   Not to give the ending away, but the concept of “physician heal thyself” might be the best medicine. As is laughter, leaving this show’s audience with a healthy dose that lasts through the trip home.
  

August 15, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze.

 
July 9–Oct. 2. 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Repertory schedule, but in general evening curtains at 7:30pm, matinees at 3:30pm. $10–38.50. (310) 455-3723.

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A Raisin in the Sun
Ruskin Group Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Starletta DuPois and Charlotte Williams
Photo by Ed Krieger

What happens to a dream deferred?” asked Langston Hughes in his 1951 poem “Harlem.” “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
   Too many deferred dreams have been keeping the Younger family tamped down in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1958 classic, getting a thoughtful revival at Santa Monica’s Ruskin Group Theatre.
   The racism and classism of the 1950s are roadblocks society has set up, but family dynamics play a part, too, in keeping the Youngers from reaching their potential. Living in cramped quarters, with frustrations simmering, the Youngers reach a crossroads when a large insurance payment comes their way and each of them dreams of how to use the money.
   Walter Lee Younger (Redaric Williams) and his wife, Ruth (Angelle Brooks), live with his Mama (Starletta DuPois) in her one-bedroom Chicago tenement apartment. So does Walter’s sister, Beneatha Younger (Charlotte Williams), and Walter and Ruth’s young son, Travis (Jaden Martin). Walter works as a chauffeur, Ruth and Mama clean houses. They’re exhausted, they feel demeaned, and tempers flare.
   Mama’s late husband left her a life insurance policy, which is paying off in the sum of $10,000. Mama wants to buy a house in Clybourne Park, a “better” area that happens to be all-white. Walter wants to invest in a liquor store. Beneatha is on track to attend medical school.

These and other crosscurrents of dissention and long-brewing conflicts surely were mined, analyzed and then toned down by director Lita Gaithers Owens, leaving the stage free for her exceptionally fine cast to feel like family but not “act” out every bit of subtext. What the audience sees is truth: family members who respect one another but who chafe under the many constraints on them.
   Visitors to the home, reflecting America outside the Youngers’ door, include Beneatha’s wealthy, “assimilationist” suitor George (understudy A.J. Davis at the performance reviewed) and Beneatha’s scholarly Nigerian suitor, Asagai (Mohirah Hall).
   Darkening their doorstep is Karl Lindner (Josh Drennen), sent there to represent Clybourne Park’s unwelcoming welcoming committee. Walter’s fellow investor, up against another form of man’s cruelty to man, is Bobo (understudy Garrett Michael Green). The overly enthused next-door neighbor Mrs. Johnson has been cut from this version.

The technical theater elements are extraordinary. Ryan Wilson and Eric Barron’s set design is not only spectacularly sturdy for a 99-Seat show but also suits the theater’s two-sided configuration (though audience members at far house right can’t see into the alcove that serves as Ruth and Walter’s bedroom).
   Sarah Figoten Wilson’s costuming, particularly for the women, is period delightful and, if it includes hair design, surpasses first-rate. Chip Bolcik’s sound design includes a vacuum cleaner that actually sounds as if it’s coming from above the ceiling. Barron handled set dressing and props, and these include wonderful old-time items that, if we’re not careful, take us off on our own dreams.
   Hughes asks a final question in his poem about a dream deferred: “Or does it explode?” Each generation has done better than its predecessor. Beneatha has options, and the more education she’ll get, the more options she’ll have. Young Travis likely will, too; he respects his grandmother but is confidently starting on his own path.
   Upstage, the little window—where, as Hansberry describes it, sunlight fights its way through—is created with weathered wood and peeling paint, and we can spot rusting fire escapes just outside. But the window also hosts a tiny plant, a bit of growth, a symbol of possibilities. No sagging, no festering, as Langston ponders. The greenery survives and will thrive. Hansberry posits opportunity—for the family, for Chicago, for the nation.

August 8, 2016
 
Aug. 5–Sept. 17. 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25, discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. (310) 397-3244.

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Baby Doll
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Daniel Bess and Lindsay LaVanchy
Photo by Ed Krieger

In the mid-1950s, Tennessee Williams worked with his unacknowledged dramaturge Elia Kazan to turn his short-form 1946 “Mississippi Delta comedy,” 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, into a screenplay. The result was the controversial 1956 film Baby Doll, which transformed the one-act’s leading role of Flora from a possibly mentally challenged and severely overweight housewife with a scratch into the ultra-sexy Carroll Baker.
   Flora became Baby Doll Meighan, a 19-year-old child bride who, when she turns 20 a few days later, must submit to becoming her older and brutal husband Archie’s wife in more than name only. Kazan’s film set off a major hullabaloo, culminating when the Catholic Legion of Decency gave it a “C” rating—as in “Condemned”—and the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman, declared from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral that Catholics would be committing a mortal sin if they watched it.
   Asked if he had seen the film and was not just basing his disapproval on the huge and highly scandalous billboard that dominated Times Square showing Baker in a sheer nightgown lying in a disheveled child’s crib and suggestively sucking her thumb, Spellman replied, “If you know the water is tainted, why would you want drink it?” Years later, the late Eli Wallach, who made his career-making film debut in the movie, was quoted as saying, “I didn’t want the cardinal to drink the water, damn it, just to see the film.” Under pressure and the scrutiny of the times, the studio pulled Baby Doll from general distribution only two weeks after its release, but that didn’t stop it from being recognized for what it was: one of the best movies of that year and, for many Tenn-ophiles, perhaps the very best screen version of a Williams play. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay, and Kazan won a Golden Globe as Best Director.
   Baker, like Wallach, later admitted she and everyone else who had worked on the film had no idea the material would be perceived as prurient. It was believed that the main cause célèbre was the notorious seduction scene between Baker and Wallach, as his character attempts to sexually arouse her on a tree swing. Many critics argued that Silva Vacarro, Wallach’s character, was diddling Baby Doll under her dress since his hands aren’t visible in their lengthy and lingering close-up. According to both actors, however, it was shot that way because of freezing weather conditions that day in Benoit, Miss.—so cold they sucked ice before the cameras rolled to keep steam from escaping their mouths—and Kazan had put heaters around them just below camera range to keep them from shivering.

Truly noteworthy above everything else about this theatrical version of the one of Williams’s only projects created expressly for film is this adaptation by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann, the first to be approved by the playwright’s rigid and highly protective estate. Laville and Mann have not just retooled the tale to fit the confines of a stage presentation, they have done so without altering Williams’s words; every single line in their clever revision was lifted from, and pays exquisite homage to, Williams’s screenplay.
   In it, as workers come to repossess all the Meighans’ five rooms of furniture being paid for over time, Jake (John Prosky), the odious husband of Baby Doll (Lindsay LaVanchy) plots to get his faltering cotton gin back in the black after a huge syndicate mill opens in town, run by Vacarro (Daniel Bess), that has stolen all the business from the locals. As the Sicilian-born Vacarro hosts a party in town to help relieve the tensions, Jake sneaks onto his property and burns down his mill. Vacarro suspects what happened but cannot prove it, so decides to seek revenge by seducing his rival’s young bride while she’s still pulling her Lysistrata routine on her miserably horny husband.
   None of the characters who inhabit the ramshackle Meighan farm is terribly likable, making the actors and director Simon Levy’s task even harder than usual. Prosky is a menacing, perfectly creepy Jake who, as Silva notes to his lovely prey, sweats more than any man he knows, a statement he amends with “Now I see why” after meeting the sensuous but celibate Baby Doll, who without any debate could easily out-nymphet Lolita. Still, the role of Jake is not without its stereotypical problems, giving Prosky little place to go; Jake is as loud and obnoxious and racist in the first scene as he is at the end, hampering the difficult journey any actor playing it must traverse.
   Bess is a suitably sultry and macho Vacarro, and his swingin’ seduction scene bursts with scorching sensuality. Still, both men are overshadowed by the remarkably idiosyncratic, truly mesmerizing turn by LaVanchy, who morphs the cartoonish Baby Doll into a rich, nearly defenseless character for whom one might almost feel just a touch of sympathy.
   And while mentioning performances sure to elicit a pang of compassion, as Baby Doll’s vacant-headed Aunt Rose Comfort McCorkle, Karen Kondazian, so well known and honored for playing many of Williams’s lusty and often coarse leading female characters, makes a U-turn that any appropriately rabid fan of her work will find to be something of a shock. Her dotty and lost Aunt Rose, who sports a ratty grey wig that looks as though it might house a nest of sparrows, lives a foggy nomadic existence, camping out with and cooking terrible meals for her sea of relatives to earn her keep. Kondazian delivers a miraculous performance; never has she been so vulnerable or courageous, adding a fantastic and unexpected twist to her celebrated career interpreting all those quirky, bawdy anti-heroines generated inside the unsettled mind of the greatest playwright of the 20th century.

With the boost from Laville and Mann’s crafty, respectful adaptation, venerated Williams interpreter Levy has done wonders as well at restaging the piece, although by the nature of the art form, there are elements of the film that are conspicuously absent, such as the pivotal rotting floor of the Meighans’ farmhouse attic, the vast and desolate wasteland surrounding Archie’s depressingly unfertile Delta property, and even the couple’s cluttered kitchen that in the movie resembled a long-neglected storage shed behind a disintegrating barn on American Pickers. Somehow, even though the original’s moody and stark black-and-white aesthetic is—understandably—missing, Levy, his veteran design team, and this stellar cast make up for the disparity, fashioning a bleak atmosphere all their own. Ol’ Tenn would be thrilled to see his Baby Doll return to such glorious life once again.

August 13, 2016
 
July 16–Aug. 29. 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Secure onsite parking. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, Mon 8pm. $15–35, Mondays are pay-what-you-can. (323) 663-1525.

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Kingdom of Earth
Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Susan Priver and Brian Burke
Photo by Michael Lamont

What do celebrated actors like Estelle Parsons, Lynn Redgrave, Geraldine Page, and even Marianne Faithful have in common with LA’s own veteran theatrical stalwart Susan Priver? They are all truly gifted artists who for some reason agreed to portray Myrtle Kane in one of Tennessee Williams’s most puzzling and challenging later plays.
   First surfacing in the late 1960s and thereafter subject to many restructured and even retitled incarnations, Kingdom of Earth came at a time when the 20th-century’s best dramatist’s ability to still write arrestingly poetic language—and fabricate the by-then typical bizarre situations in which he always placed his characters—was still intact. After Williams’s many years of drugs and alcohol abuse mixed with disastrous reviews heaped on whatever he churned out after that decade began with his final hit, The Night of the Iguana, it tragically became all but impossible for him to construct a coherent storyline or create a clear or accessible character arc for anyone to assay.
   Most of his other twilight plays were vilified when they have since proven to have been given a bad rap, and today many are recognized to have been way ahead of their time. This is not the case with this one. Even as the later The Seven Descents of Myrtle or tidied up in a screenplay by Gore Vidal and directed by Sidney Lumet for the cinematic Redgrave vehicle The Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots, nothing seems able to save poor Myrtle Kane, a character so annoying one wishes the escape route to roof of her new in-laws’ Mississippi Delta farmhouse might be blocked from access when the play’s pivotal floodwaters come. As Vincent Canby noted in his The New York Times review of that unsuccessful 1970 film, this one is a “slapstick tragicomedy that looks and sounds and plays very much like cruel parody—of Tennessee Williams.”

Myrtle (Priver) is a minor New Orleans showgirl who may or may not have made more money on her back as an afterhours independent contractor who meets and quickly marries Lot Thorington (Daniel Felix de Weldon) on a local TV reality show where the prize money was dependent on their union being finalized. Myrtle desperately hopes she can finally pull a Blanche DuBois and settle down with the first guy she meets willing to put a ring on it, so she blissfully journeys with him to the rural farm he inherited from his beloved mother to take over as the matriarch of the household.
   Why poor dumb Myrtle can’t see what a ridiculously light-loafered fellow her new hubby is, not to mention that he appears to be in the final stages of TB, are the most glaring omissions in Williams’s writing here. This is hampered not only by the master’s inability to be, as he himself later noted of the play, not “in the condition to refine” his characters when he wrote it, but de Weldon is also surprisingly not helped much to crawl out of his character’s neon-lit trap by director Michael Arabian. His Lot in life is bogged down by the vapors and allowed to fall headfirst into every queeny attitude ever feigned by an actor.
   Brian Burke as Lot’s adversarial half-brother Chicken, reclusive caretaker of their ancestral house, fares better, but like his stage partners, his is a character with no place to go. A rather offensive subplot involving Chicken’s mixed race heritage, which has literally nothing to do with the story except to allow Williams to drop the n-word with no reason but to shock during this period when he was no longer trying to work within the bounds of artistic pressures to stay commercially viable, would be interesting if it had a real point.

Although Shon LeBlanc’s costuming survives the storms, scenic designer John Iacovelli is hampered by the Odyssey’s difficult Theatre 2, with its two-sided audience configuration, while John Nobori’s inexplicably strange sound cues are more worthy of an original feature on the SyFy Channel, and Bill E. Kickbush makes matters worse with his clunky and glaringly nonorganic lighting plot.
   Still, two things  make this an interesting journey despite its multitude of negatives. The first is the place Kingdom of Earth holds in the fascinating history of Williams’s career, with the tragic disintegration of his genius here smack-dab in the middle of the period when he admits he was “hardly conscious” most of the time. The other wonder of the production is Priver, who soldiers on despite having anything but a silly cartoon character into which she bravely endeavors to breathe life.
   With all the incredibly colorful heroines created by Williams before substance abuse and encroaching madness dulled his powers to create coherent characters, it’s a shame an incredible actor like Priver, obviously perfect to get under the skin of one of Williams’s flawed Southern belles, isn’t appearing as one of those ladies instead. Someday it would be thrilling to see her quirky and arrestingly bold talents put to better use, cast as Maggie the Cat or Blanche DuBois or Catherine Venable. Myrtle, on the other hand, might have also been a great role if only she had been written with someplace to escape besides the rooftop when the Delta’s levees fail during the storm.

July 28, 2016
 
July 15–Aug. 14. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $30, rush tickets are available for $15 one hour before curtain, at the door (subject to availability). (310) 477-2055.

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