Arts In LA
The Woodsman
Coeurage Theatre Company at Lyric-Hyperion Theatre & Cafe

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Tim Cummings and Julianne Donelle
Photo by Nardeep Khurmi & John Klopping

When the film version of Steven Fechter’s play The Woodsman hit theaters in 2004, it was met with a firestorm of shocked reactions. Many felt the main character, played on film by Kevin Bacon, was painted with too much sympathy for the man and sugarcoated the horrendous impropriety of the crime that had led to his character spending 12 years in prison.
   Perhaps the same could be said for the stage version from which the screenplay was lifted but, in the capable hands of director Jeremy Lelliott and featuring a tour-de-force performance by Tim Cummings as the tortured Walter, the results are far more intriguing than they are repellant, somewhat akin to the sick feeling one gets while still slowing down at the scene of a car accident. It’s surprisingly hard not to somehow end up sympathizing a bit too much with Walter, a man on parole for molesting a 10-year-old girl, despite the grisly nature of his crime.

The play begins as Walter sits on a nearly bare stage, suffering through one of his weekly court-ordered therapy sessions with an overly eager by-the-book psychologist (Mark Jacobson, alternating with John Klopping in the role), a man whose cheery personality makes Walter’s skin itch. Watching Cummings’s portrayal, under Lelliott’s piercingly subtle tutelage, we are privy to the ex-con’s struggle not to act out again as he lives with his past. “If memories aren’t important,” he asks his therapist, “why do we have to talk to people like you?”
   Along the way, he begins an affair with a streetwise, outwardly butch co-worker (in a strikingly honest performance by Julianne Donelle, who alternates with Joey Nicole Thomas) at the warehouse where both toil as underpaid manual laborers. Theirs is a relationship that seems to constantly be careening into disaster, like a wobbly car on an old wooden rollercoaster. With deference to her own history of childhood sexual abuse, Nikki still does not see Walter as a lost cause, unblinkingly observing to him that he’s a “little hung up on what’s normal.”
   Walter also sees what’s before him: his brother-in-law Carlos (Cesar Ramos, alternating with Christopher Salazer), who has a bit of a problem dealing with his feelings toward his own pre-pubescent daughter, at least in Walter’s mind, and an unseen predator he calls Candy, a man he observes each day, from his third floor apartment window, trying to pick up young boys getting out of the middle school across the street. Then there’s his haunted nightly visits from the vision of his young victim, played by Katie Pelensky (alternating with Erin Sanzo), who also doubles as Robin, an 11-year-old birdwatcher Walter meets in the park and pursues despite knowing his tormented interest in her could send him back to prison for life.

No, this is hardly Mary Poppins, but it is a jarring and fascinating study of a man who, despite his inclinations, is still a human being in need of understanding and succor in his struggle to fight the demons inside him. Without a doubt, in the wrong hands The Woodsman could be an exercise in the uber-creepy, without a moment’s rest from hacking away at one of society’s most inappropriate and controversial topics. There is even a visit from a monstrously villainous black-hat of a police officer watching Walter’s every move (an appropriately unsettling turn by a scary Gregor Manns, alternating with Nardeep Khurmi), who appears to be lifted right out of a gritty and unapologetically exploitive 1970s cop movie.
   Still, Lelliott’s production rises way above the obvious emotional manipulation inherent in Fechter’s script, emerging as an amazing deep exploration into the nature of deviance. The bare-boned production uses only three wooden chairs, minimal props and staging choices, shadowy lighting by Michael Kozachenko that elicits an old Universal Studios B-horror movie, and sound designer Joseph V. Calarco’s continuously stormy and well-timed thundering background noise to increase the sinister factor exponentially.
   Throughout, honoring Lelliott’s simple yet risky choices, coils the astounding performance by Cummings that makes the viewer root for Walter’s desperate desire for wellness and relief from his agonizing dreams and kinky desires, while never letting up on the threat of the character snapping. It is an unsettling but mesmerizing journey to take, one that will leave the viewer wanting to go home and take a long, hot, cleansing shower. And oddly, that somehow seems like a good thing.

May 18, 2015
May 8–June 13. 2106 Hyperion Ave. Street parking is available. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm All seats are available on a pay-what-you-want-basis. (323) 944-2165.


Around the World in 80 Days
Actors Co-op

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

Kevin Coubal, Eva Abramian, Andrew Caarter, Philip Kreyche, and Bruce Ladd
Photo by Lindsay Schnebly

Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days has been made into films, most notably twice: in 1956 in Mike Todd’s celebrity-studded epic with David Niven and Cantinflas, and in Disney’s 2004 version with Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan. The novel has been adapted for the theater several times, along with this version by Mark Brown in 2001. Even Verne, however could not have imagined the wildly enterprising comedic touches that could be applied to his action-adventure novel.
   As staged by Actors Co-op, Brown’s version is a collaborative enterprise among five actors—Eva Abramian, Andrew Carter, Kevin Coubal, Philip Kreyche, and Bruce Ladd—and its director, Rhonda Kohl. It is clearly as much fun for its actors as it is for the audience.
   In it, Phileas Fogg (Kreyche) wagers £20,000 at his Reform Club that he can traverse the globe in the titular period. He engages a servant, Passepartout (Carter), and they set off by rail and steamship to reach London in 80 days at precisely the same hour as they left. Locations such as India, Egypt, China, and Japan allow for some clever stagecraft, as well as an assemblage of delightful costume changes.

Keys to the success of this Actors Co-op production are an engaging narrative that ties scenes together, fast-paced direction with latitude for whimsical comic touches, and a synergy among cast members that makes believable the fanciful stratagems employed to get the job done.
   Kreyche is a sober and precise Fogg. His no-nonsense confidence stands in stark contrast to the loyal but beset-upon Passepartout; the bumbling surety of Scotland Yard Detective Fix (Ladd), who is certain Fogg is the bank robber he has been charged to bring in; and the myriad citizens Fogg encounters who throw roadblocks in his path. His way is eased with payoffs here and there.
   Abramian plays multiple roles as a newspaper person, a priest, Fogg’s former valet, but most notably Aouda, the Indian woman the companions rescue who is to be sacrificed by suttee. As the play advances, she becomes devoted to Fogg, and her performance is a gentle but enterprising contrast to all the silliness surrounding her.
   Carter’s Passepartout is nimble and crafty, even as he falls prey to thieves and misfortunes. His hilarious French accent also fits the farcical nature of the production. Coubal adeptly takes many roles necessary to flesh out the story—from clerks, engineers, and porters to a director of police and even a perfectly goofy judge who sentences Fogg to jail.

David Goldstein’s marvelous set design and Orlando De La Paz’s scenic artistry allow Coubal to emerge expeditiously from multiple locations on stage, to the delight of the audience. Victorian England as well as numerous foreign locations are easily deduced from Wendell C. Carmichael’s fine costumes. Krys Fehervari’s hair design, including numerous mustaches and hairpieces, allows for many amusing moments.
   Lighting by Matthew Taylor is effective throughout, and David B. Marling’s sound design is notable for its variety and integration of essential noises in action scenes. In a gunfight, the shots seem to be coming from beside your theater seat.
   So, forget the film versions. This adaptation of Verne’s timeless story is clever from start to finish and makes a case for live theater being one of the great pure art forms.

May 13, 2015
May 8–June 14. 1760 N. Gower St. (located on the grounds of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood). Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2:30pm (additional Saturday performances Feb. 15 and March 15, 2:30pm). $20-30. (323) 462-8460, ext. 300.


The Anarchist
Theatre Asylum

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Felicity Huffman and Rebecca Pidgeon
Photo by Jeff Fasano

There was a time when a play by David Mamet meant wildly fascinating though often dastardly characters shouting offensive personal viewpoints regarding the world around them. Mamet’s “people” were, at the same time, both shocking and entertaining. Yet, above everything else, they were harbingers spouting strongly worded indictments of the ignorance and greed rampant in our American milieu. What happened along the way is a mystery, but his latest work, The Anarchist, which understandably lasted a brief 17 performances on Broadway in 2012, is a deeply and unrepentantly conservative treatise that not even subtly disguises the playwright’s far-right politics. Despite Mamet’s obvious gift for writing dialogue, this play is as one-sided as Fox News on steroids.
   The premise here is that Cathy (Felicity Huffman), a ’60s radical imprisoned for 35 years for murdering two police officers, sits in the office of a prison administrator (Rebecca Pidgeon), meeting to discuss her pardon before her nemesis of many years retires. With Cathy’s fate clearly plopped in the hands of the other woman, Cathy tries any means available, including her massive intellect and ability to debate issues, to be able to feel the sun shine on her face again.

Ever read a work of philosophy or a political essay with that constant little voice in your head asking silently, “What does he mean by that?” or “And the answer is?” or “Why does he say this?” or “How could he possibly think that is a cohesive argument?” That’s exactly what The Anarchist elicits, as Huffman proselytizes Mamet’s pigheaded (albeit articulate) viewpoint and Pidgeon providing the voice inside one’s head. It is hardly a play; it is more like a political pamphlet dropped from a plane in a third world nation, only with the magnificent Huffman there to soften the author’s 75-minute philosophical diatribe. Even Cathy’s possibly convenient conversion from Judaism to born-again Christianity is offensive to both sides, especially as written by Mamet. At least in his Oleanna, also a thinly veiled two-character debate on modern morality, there was a tinge of subtlety that softened his narrow-minded argument.
   Yes, of course Huffman is brilliant; she always is. Pigeon, the author’s wife, who is referred to in this script as a “beautiful young totem,” is a competent actor but wooden in a role with little chance of being anything but. It’s interesting that, from his first female creation, the ambitious yet cardboard-character secretary in Speed-the-Plow on, Mamet has shown over and over he has little ability to write for women. His default action is, again with glaring obviousness, to make his most interesting women lesbians. This is true of his characters in his first female-driven play, Boston Marriage, of the president’s speechwriter in November, and here again with the imprisoned Cathy.

As director, Marja-Lewis Ryan has staged the limited action respectfully but still seems to have thrown up her hands in frustration for not standing a chance with this material. Sadly, the glory days of Mamet’s potential for greatness seem to have gotten lost in his need to preach instead of provoke thought. The predictable pingpong banter he pontificates in The Anarchist is akin to watching two actors perform Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, only with neither the freshness nor the humor of Tom Stoppard. Mamet was once definitely a wordsmith as promising as Stoppard, but Mamet appears to have gotten lost in his own shouting from the top of his own personal soapbox without consideration for his audience or interest in creating a well-constructed play.

May 11, 2015
April 24–May 23. 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., LA. Thu-Sun 8pm. $34. 323-960-7784.

Plays411 tickets


Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

The ensemble, with Joel Abelson
Photo by Ed Krieger

The iconic musical Hair embodied the 1960s and that decade’s make love, not war, philosophy. A Chorus Line epitomized the 1970s and that decade’s obsession with self-analysis. What musical best represents the 1980s? Perhaps it’s Cats. Like the ’80s, on the surface this astoundingly long-lived musical seems to glorify the superficial—our names, our appearances, our presumed successes. It certainly introduced leg warmers and spiky hair to the popular consciousness.
   With lyrics consisting primarily of T.S. Eliot’s 1930s whimsical collection of poetry about cat psychology and cat behavior, titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats premiered in 1981 and was for two decades the longest-running musical in London’s West End and for 18 years that record-holder on Broadway.
   Why its success? That was probably in large part due to Trevor Nunn’s then-groundbreaking staging, which is fairly retained in this Norris production, directed, and choreographed by Janet Renslow.
   During the otherwise actionless overture, here are the flashing lights onstage and the green eyes prowling the audience, obviously intended to keep restless modern audiences entertained. Here are the catsuits defining each of Eliot’s particular pusses (costumes provided by Christine Bogle/Stage West Costumes, additional costumes provided by Fullerton Civic Light Opera).
   Here is the junkyard, with its huge rusting hindquarters of a car and the machina ex deus of the giant levitating tire and the ladder (set provided by Fullerton CLO). Here is the preening, prancing, gymnastic 1970s “modern” dance choreography (which Renslow has based on the original by Gillian Lynne). Someday, someone will present a “reimagining” of this show. This is not that day. The Norris audience can rest assured it will be reliving the 1980s—now if not forever.

So, what is Cats all about? Easily discerned is this musical’s huge message about the way cats, and their owners, treat the aged. Slyer messages concern class distinctions, morality, and mortality. Christianity probably figures into the characters, lyrics, setting, and staging.
   On this evening, the Jellicle tribe of cats gathers—an evangelical occurrence perhaps—so its patriarch, Old Deuteronomy (the heavenly voiced Robert Hoyt, who also serves as music director here), can pick one of them to be reborn into a new life and journey up to the Heavyside layer. Some of the cats recount their own histories; some are introduced and sung about by other cats. Old Deuteronomy’s lieutenant, Munkustrap (a welcoming Bill Ledesma), emcees, introducing the tribe to the human audience.
   Rock star Rum Tum Tugger (a charismatic Joel Abelson) can very well tell his own tale, thank you, swiveling his hips as the female felines swoon. Bustopher Jones (a jovial Jason M. Hammond) is the black-with-white-spats cat about town, representing the Edwardian life of clubbing and overeating. Gus (Hammond again) recalls his days prowling the theater, starring onstage at least in his own mind. Gus is joined by Jellylorum (a coo-inducing Kirklyn Robinson) to tell their theatrical tales, which turn operatic and show off their human performers’ stellar voices.
   Mungojerrie (Steven Rada) and Rumpleteaser (Alison Boresi) are the playful cats who create havoc in their home. Skimbleshanks, the railway cat (a buoyant Jon M. Wailin), bounds around the stage while his colleagues gather bits from the junkyard to create a locomotive, giving Renslow the chance to show off her own skills at logistics. Meanwhile, Macavity the Cat, the mysterious evil force that haunts the gathering, barely appears but is sung about throughout.

The two-dozen-member tribe includes a clowder of kittens, but it also includes the aged, gnarled, bedraggled Grizabella (Gina D’Acciaro). The tribe shuns her, turning up pert noses and cruelly shrinking away from her. Grizabella sings “Memory.” Love the song? You’ll hear it plenty during the show. Think it’s just caterwauling? It’s a short song. When baby kitten Sillabub (Bailey Sonner) sings it, it is deliberately without memory, a gentle wondering what life will be like. But when D’Acciaro sings it, holy cat. She magnificently brings to this world-famous song a lifetime of memories—of loss, fear, cruelty, pain, and ultimately hope.
   Fortunately, to cheer up the audience, there’s the comedic Jennyanydots (a delightfully rubber-faced Melissa Glasgow). And to amaze the audience, there’s Mr. Mistoffelees. He is played by Jake DuPree with an astonishing array of dance styles and skills. But DuPree’s gymnastics verge on the unbelievable. He does tumbling passes, on a wood floor, his long slender limbs perfectly controlled.
   In sum, the talents, energy and joy onstage here are spectacular. Yes, at evening’s end, Old Deuteronomy selects the one cat to be reborn, and Cats becomes just a beautiful, ahem, memory.

April 27, 2015

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
April 24–May 10. 27570 Norris Center Dr., Rolling Hills Estates. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes. $25–55. (310) 544-0403, ext. 221.


Women On Time
Working Stage Theater

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Joanna Miles, Kimberly Alexander, and Julie Janney
Photo by Vanessa Mirabal

How half of society has been forced through the years to suffer the slings and arrows of expectations concerning the way that half’s gender is supposed to act while acquiescing to being called the weaker sex is the overlying theme of Women On Time. In a series of seven original interrelated short one-act plays, written and directed by women and featuring three spectacular actors each playing 21 roles, the production is a minor epic in its ambition and scope.
   It’s been more than 150 years since American women began to fight for the right to vote and, as these one-acts jump back and forth in time from the suffragette movement to the present, the question is how much has truly changed and how much has unfortunately stayed as inequitable as ever. Each of these stories is important in understanding the nature of womanhood, from the dawning of the 20th century until today.

The disparate material is equally rich and decidedly pointed. Susanna Styron’s striking “Suffrage” is set in 1917, as a woman (Julie Janney) is torn between the fight for the vote her friend (Joanna Miles) has taken on and the inane shock voiced by her vapid married daughter (Kimberley Alexander), who simply can’t offer an opinion that doesn’t begin with, “My husband says….”
   In Bonnie Garvin’s “Flight School,” three stewardesses in 1992 fight against sexual harassment that goes way beyond coffee, tea, or him. “ ‘No’ is not a word in the American male vocabulary,” one laments, something all too apparent when the eldest and most conservative among them admits an even more devastating incident she faced when she was younger, during a period of history when she had nowhere to go to seek justice.
   Set in 1962, Nikki McCauley’s “To Bra or Not To Bra” features a young blossoming free-spirit daughter (Alexander) trying to convince her mother (Janney) that she should lose her uncomfortable contraption. Lorin Howard’s “Defining Moments” recalls the back-alley abortions of 1955, an era when giving birth out of wedlock still carried the scarlet “A” of society’s unacceptance.

Deborah Pearl’s arrestingly wickedly Network-ish play “Invaluable,” set in the present as three ad execs battle one another for power, shows how desperately twisted and ruthlessly competitive the plight of women in the workforce has become, while Miles’s “Lunch” is a refreshing comedic respite from the heaviness of some of the other storylines, as three modern air-kissing, Gucci-clad social climbers meet for lunch at The Ivy, only to discover Anthony Weiner–style wiener photos of one of the ladies’ office-seeking husband have hit the Internet.
   Perhaps the most memorable of these pieces is Bridget Terry’s right-to-the-bone “Rosies,” set at the end of World War II, as two women leave the factory jobs they held during the conflict so that the “boys” can reassume their rightful place in the workforce. As the eldest of the three squirms because the plant’s Hispanic cleaning woman has been offered a ride home, and as she is even more horrified when her co-worker expresses a desire to stay working rather than to return to dutiful housewifely status, the point is made loud and clear when she blurts, “Don’t bite my head off! I didn’t make the rules!”

All seven short plays are exceptional. Uber-committed performers Janney, Miles, and Alexander are equally amazing in their ability to switch from one gloriously rich character to another; and directors Iris Merlis, Maria Gobetti, Jenny O’Hara, and Terry must be commended for bringing such divergent and focused perspectives into the tales. And although Fritz Davis’s period-shifting video projections are absolute perfection, adding so much with so little to Thomas Meleck’s creatively austere set and lighting designs, only one thing mars the flow to the point of distraction: clumsy, unnecessarily elaborate set changes between each story that could be consolidated or pared down without harming where the stories attempt to take us.
   Whatever small druthers there may be, the women who created and perform in this unique production are indeed on time, on an important mission, and right on the money—times seven. Now, if only our society would listen so we could be sure their most urgent and vital message will prove itself to have been on time.

April 27, 2015
April 19–May 17. 1516 N Gardner St. Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. $25. (323) 960-7724.

4000 Miles
Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Michelle Rosen and Dan Fagan
Photo by Shari Barrett

Most who analyze theater agree that conflict drives great plays. Strong conflict roils the audience’s collective gut. In scripts such as Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, however, the audience is instead left with a gentle nudge.
   In Kentwood Players’ rendition, a perceptive director and a skillful cast at least make this a pleasant evening, spent in a roomy Greenwich Village apartment, beautifully designed by Jim Crawford, sturdily constructed and sweetly appointed.
   In theater, conflict occurs when characters want something the others don’t want. What do the characters want here? Leo, having bicycled across the country, arrives at his grandmother Vera’s apartment in the early morning. He apparently wants to stay the night. What else? Does he just want free coffee and a washer-dryer? Does he want her to comfort him? Does he even know what he wants?
   Vera wouldn’t mind if he stayed longer. But why? Is she feeling familial obligation? Does this widow miss companionship? Does she love this child of her youngest daughter, who moved to Minnesota for reasons never revealed to the audience?
   It’s not clear at the outset how well Vera and Leo know each other. We begin to empathize with them because they’ve lived with or watched or perhaps caused the troubles in their lives. But what these two must learn here is not clear, so we can’t discern what they have learned by the play’s end.
   Is Vera ravaged by memory loss, or is she being coy? Either way, she tells Leo she can’t remember words and she can’t remember much of her apparently colorful past that includes Marxist politics. Leo wants to forget his past. Two life-changing things happened to him before the play begins: one he didn’t cause but tried to clean up, and one he caused and may now be trying to clean up.
   Over the course of the play—somewhere, not hammered home by Herzog—Vera offers Leo bits of advice. She reminds him to help others, share experiences, forgive and forget.

Director Gail Bernardi clearly elicited the souls of these characters. Even Herzog’s jarring comedic lines that end earnest scenes have heft and leave the audience thinking about the conversation and not the joke. Vera is no cartoonish old lady in the hands of actor Michelle Rosen; Vera is a real woman who experienced a very full life. Leo is no mere slacker as Dan Fagan plays him; Leo is cheerful and energetic and may have the potential for a productive life.
   So we don’t mind watching as grandma and grandson hold genial chats over coffee or a bong. But the stuff of dramatic conflict has been occurring offstage: The characters from whom Vera and Leo need something don’t talk to these two or are now deceased. The most damaged relationship may be that between Leo and his adopted sister, whom he kissed in a peyote-befuddled incident much previously.
   His “best friend” Micah—no one reveals the extent of that relationship—was killed in an accident that could be the stuff of comedy. After Leo pours the tale out to his grandmother, she says her hearing aid isn’t turned on.
   Here and throughout, Herzog offers metaphor aplenty about broken lines of communication. Vera and her elderly neighbor check in daily by phone but never see each other. Leo refuses to phone his parents. His session with his sister over Skype ends uncomfortably.
   Herzog brings two other characters onstage. Leo’s soon-to-be-ex girlfriend (Alexandra Johnston) stops by, bitter at first, then enlightened. In between, Leo brings home a pickup (Zoe Kim), whom he treats with mild respect if not confusion.

In sum, Leo arrived at Vera’s, gentle and footloose. When the play ends, he remains gentle and footloose. Grief, guilt, mourning, recollection, forgiveness—these waft by, presumably meant to be tied up at the play’s end. Leo had deliberately avoided Micah’s funeral. Now, he and Vera are leaving for the funeral of a woman he never met. Herzog ends the character arc with his banally penned eulogy.
   The distance across America is under 3000 miles. Herzog’s characters still have a long way to go.

May 18, 2015
May 15–June 20. 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. $20 ($2 discount for seniors, students, servicemen, and Metro riders). (310) 645-5156.


Not That Jewish
Jewish Women’s Theater

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Monica Piper
Photo by Jan Burns

In Not That Jewish we encounter something distinctly unexpected: a first-person memoir by a former standup comic that actually feels like a real play. Even more of a surprise, it’s pegged to a particular demographic (i.e. Jewish women; note name of theater company) while possessing enormous crossover appeal. A fast-paced scrapbook, funny and heartwarming by turns, Monica Piper’s life story proves an unqualified delight in the Jewish Women’s Theater’s spacious yet intimate white-box space known as The Braid.
   Piper’s broadest thesis is that identity is determined by the qualities of one’s heart, not by one’s success or failure at following the rituals and rules of whichever culture a person happens to be born into. In the course of her journey (with stops for standup comedy, a failed marriage, sitcom writing, adopting a son from a Christian single mom, and breast cancer), Piper discovers that the characteristics most needed for a soulful life—compassion, caring, respect, humor—are available to anyone who chooses to tap into them.

Oy vey! I reread that paragraph and think, gevalt, the reader is going to think Not That Jewish is some kind of sermon or self-help tract. Not at all: You don’t win writing Emmys, work on Roseanne Barr’s staff, or secure recognition as a Showtime Comedy All-Star if you’re a tub-thumping spiritual healer. Rest assured that Piper’s take on life (hers and everyone else’s) is infused with laughter, much of it of the belly variety. It’s just that she’s seen enough tsuris, and learned from it, that she can’t help passing along what she knows. And it all happens to be of the sympathetic, healing variety.
   Quick glimpse: Oncologist sits her down to give her “good news, we found it early. And it’s small.” “How small?” “Um…it’s small.” “Is it small enough that I don’t have to do all those 10K runs?”
   I cannot imagine anyone’s not enjoying being in Piper’s company for 90 minutes. And if there are any such, I wouldn’t want to know them.

May 11, 2015
April 9–May 31. The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave. #102, Santa Monica. Thu & Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 90 minutes. $35. (310) 315-1400.


Immediate Family
Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Cynda Williams, Bryan Terrell Clark, and Kamal Angelo Bolden
Photo by Craig Schwartz

If you didn’t know, going in, that the director of Immediate Family had a background in TV sitcoms, you’d get the hint in the first 10 minutes. The opening dialogue is that forced, the bickering banter that aggressive, the pace that frantic. Some of it might’ve been opening night jitters, because the cast at the Mark Taper Forum settles down midway. But The Cosby Show veteran Phylicia Rashad did far better by A Raisin in the Sun, in her exquisite 2011 local revival for Ebony Rep, than by Paul Oakley Stovall’s well-intentioned, but lumpy and ideologically strained play.
   It’s ostensibly a heartwarming ensemble piece in which the Bryants, a semi-estranged set of African-American siblings and friends, return to the old homestead in suburban Chicago to air old grievances on the eve of a family wedding. Yet Immediate Family quickly reveals its real agenda in focusing laser-like disapproval on Evy (Shanésia Davis), a domineering Type A homemaker of deep religious faith and deeper prejudice. Evy sets the house rules and stage manages the whole shebang, and in almost a textbook definition of situation comedy, each of the other characters seems to have been shaped primarily to provide a different means by which they may incur her wrath.
   Jesse (Bryan Terrell Clark), the middle son and aspiring writer, was Evy’s soulmate throughout their youth, but he has disappointed her by not following a glorious career path, not living at home, and, as she sees it, choosing to be gay. Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden), the baby of the family and the impending groom, razzes her constantly and harbors his own secret that will turn her pride into fury before long.
   Nina (J. Nicole Brooks), Jesse’s outspokenly lesbian gal pal, can always be depended upon to get Evy’s goat, but not so much as Ronnie (Cynda Williams), revealed years before as the issue of their proud pastor father and his white mistress. (To make Ronnie even more annoying in Evy’s eyes, she’s a hard drinker and abstract painter who lives in Europe.) Finally, Jesse’s white boyfriend, Kristian (Mark Jude Sullivan), arrives to set the match to Stovall’s crudely arranged stack of powder kegs.

There are still more contrived clashes stuffed into 90 minutes, including Jesse and Kristian’s differing ideas on their own possible nuptials. But the real problem with Immediate Family isn’t its plot. At least there’s always something going on and holding one’s interest, and when attention turns to the family’s traditional card game “bid whist,” the action fairly crackles with excitement. (It’s no surprise to learn that the game was a favorite in the real-life Stovall home, so richly does he lay out its details and dynamics, and the cast grabs onto it as if it were Act Two’s dinner scene in August: Osage County.)
   Nor is the author’s unfortunate treatment of Evy the biggest drawback—though it’s telling about Stovall as a playwright that while everyone (except saintly Kristian) gangs up on her unceasingly, she is not once permitted to score any points on any of them. Everything she does is bigoted, misguided, or vain, yet you have to give her some credit for her ability to withstand all the judgments from the pack of bullies she’s saddled with.

What’s most regrettable about Immediate Family is its insistence on wrapping all of its conflicts in a sentimental wash. There are serious issues at work here—issues of faith, sexuality, legacy, marriage, and personal honor—that are currently pulling families, and indeed an entire nation, apart. Yet virtually everything plaguing the battling Bryants comes to resolution, and in less than 48 hours to boot.
   Life doesn’t work out its tensions quite so neatly. A play that ought to discomfit us, by virtue of its troubling subject matter, is content to reassure and flatter. That’s what sitcoms routinely do, but in a stageplay context it’s a missed opportunity and a shame.

May 5, 2015
May 3–June 7. 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm and 6:30pm. Running time 95 minutes, no intermission. $25–85. (213) 628-2772.


Side Show
Plummer Auditorium

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

Afton Quast and Jeanette Dawson
Photo by Isaac James

Though the original production of Side Show on Broadway closed after only 91 performances in 1997, in subsequent years it has been revived and modified from its original form. The original book and lyrics were created by Bill Russell with music by Henry Krieger. As a dramatic project, it falls far from traditional musicals in topic and execution. In program notes, director T. J. Dawson writes, “It is a big risk but also holds the possibility of moving people in a way they didn’t expect.”
   This musical tells the story of the real-life conjoined Hilton twins, Daisy (Afton Quast) and Violet (Jeanette Dawson). They began their careers in a freak show, entered vaudeville, and eventually starred in two Hollywood movies: Freaks and Chained for Life.
   Here, they are initially befriended by two men—Terry Connor (Gregg Hammer) and Buddy Foster (Gary Brintz)—who later become romantically attached to the sisters. It is unclear at the outset whether the men’s ardor is financially driven, fueled by pity, or physically motivated.

Two dozen or so characters appear on bleachers, delivering the opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks.” The opening sets the stage for the appearance of various characters: the Bearded Lady (Matthew Ballestero), Geek (Dustin Ceithamer), Strong Man (Adam Dingeman), Fakir (Jonah Ho’okano), Sheik (Chris Holly), 1/2 Man 1/2 Woman (Tracy Lore), Reptile Man (Dino Nicandros), Three-Legged Man (Aaron Scheff), Dolly Dimples (Deonne Sones), Snake Girl (Momoko Sugai), Tattooed Human Pin Cushion (Emily King Brown), and 6th Exhibit (Tracy Rowe Mutz). Along with these oddities are Harem Girls (Kat Borrelli, April Jo Henry, Natalie Iskovich), Roustabouts (Bren Thor Johnson, Brandon Pohl, Justin Matthew Segura, Josh Wise) and Fortune Teller (Christanna Rowader). The ensemble actors are uniformly excellent and memorable, as they do double- and triple-duty as characters in the evolution of the lives of the sisters.
   In a menacing performance, the Boss (Nathan Holland) shows the cruelty dealt to Violet and Daisy as they are literally kept circus captives and coerced into performing. His number “Crazy, Deaf and Blind,” in concert with the circus performers, is electrifying.

As Terry and Buddy aid the sisters in escape from servitude and move on to vaudeville, the girls are coached in singing and dancing, and their careers escalate. “Rare Songbirds on Display” highlights the glamour they achieve thanks to their mentors. Underpinning their performing lives is their desire to be normal and have the opportunity for love, marriage, and a life free from constant scrutiny. Their numbers “Like Everyone Else” and “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” are poignant reminders of their plight.
   With lovely voices, Dawson and Quast acquit themselves well as the sisters. The inherent difficulty of moving as conjoined twins eludes them from time to time, and it is a distraction that could be solved with wardrobe adjustments, but having them appear separately in major scenes is an interesting choice. Hammer and Brintz are solid as the two men in their lives.
   Jay Donnell delivers a notable performance as Jake, a gofer who has fallen in love with Violet. His rendering of “You Should Be Loved” is touching, and he is compelling as the lead of powerful production number ‘“The Devil You Know.”

Strong technical support adds to the excellent execution of this troubling and difficult play. A 20-piece orchestra (Los Angeles Musicians Collective) led by Allen Everman enhances the Broadway feel of the show (orchestrated by Harold Wheeler). Lighting by Jean-Yves Tessier is key to spotlighting characters as the story focuses on their dilemmas.
   Costumes by Kate Bergh are superlative, especially for the circus characters and big production numbers throughout the show. Stephen Gifford’s set design is simple, with only bleachers at some points and more-elaborate backdrops as the story escalates. Choreography, by Leslie Stevens, is well-executed and varied. Julie Ferrin’s sound design is also well done in a theater that has some acoustic problems.
   Not a perfect musical, it still provides an edgy, colorful look at a seldom viewed world.

April 26, 2015
April 25–May 10. 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Added performance Sat, May 9 at 2pm.$20–70, plus $3 handling per ticket. (714) 589-2770, ext. 1.


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.

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American Idiot
glory | struck Productions at The Vortex Warehouse

Reviewed by Bob Verini

The cast of American Idiot
Ian Momil

Angelenos have two late-spring opportunities to experience the staged version of Green Day’s American Idiot—and they’ll be able to do so outside of the context of Michael Mayer’s original three-stories-high, multimedia-thick, turbocharged original.
   DOMA, the scrappy local company specializing in bringing mega-techno-tuners like Dreamgirls and Jesus Christ Superstar down to size, will unveil its take in June. Out of the box even sooner is an even scrappier group, eccentrically yclept “glory | struck productions,” which admirably If pretentiously announces its ambition to “create music-driven art that aligns poignant stories with relevant social issues in an effort to inspire collective action.”
   “Out of the box,” did I say? These artists have literally packaged the concept-album-based punk opera within a box: the boxy East L.A. warehouse known as The Vortex. The not-uninviting space has been loaded to the gills with platforms, folding chairs, and lighting towers, bringing a festive rock concert ambience to the story of three disaffected young denizens of “Jingletown, U.S.A.” and their different attempts at rebellion leading to fulfillment.

Johnny (James Byous, alternating with Alec Cyganowski) is the self-styled “Jesus of Suburbia” who treks to the big city to find true romance, an ephemeral one with the waiflike “Whatsername” (Lindsay Pearce) and a deeper one with heroin. Tunny (Jonah Platt, role-sharing with Payson Lewis) gets hypnotized by TV into enlisting in the Army and gets shot up—in a different way from Johnny, certainly—in Mr. Bush’s war, while Will (Matt Magnusson) impregnates girlfriend Heather (Briana Cuoco) and stays at home as a frustrated couch potato.
   The faux-hipster, the soldier, and the family guy: Billie Joe Armstrong’s American Youth triptych of idiots, dramatized with (for my money) a phenomenal set of tunes and a pulsating narrative with a highly moral base. The playful optimism of “Holiday,” the swooning romance of “When It’s Time,” and the heartbreak of “Wake Me Up When September Ends” may have premiered on a CD, but they’re as robust as anything the musical stage has put forward in the last decade, and the show’s message ends up as hopeful as its form seems anarchic.
   I confess that that’s my personal take on an album and musical I love dearly. Yet I concede that American Idiot has always had its doubters, and it has to be said that those who have found the narrative thin, clichéd, and condescending are not likely to be convinced by this glory | struck staging by Topher Rhys and Jen Oundjian (who also choreographs). Two of the stories really miss the mark; the third, Will and Heather’s anguish, comes through poignantly enough, though they get the least stage time and attention. And let’s face it, his worry that life’s passing him by and hers that his commitment to their kid is shaky aren’t exactly the stuff of high drama.
   The more-substantive stories are the ones that get bobbled. In the absence of the original production’s video wall of banal mass audience images, Rhys and Oundjian haven’t found a low-tech way to dramatize Tunny’s seduction into the military mindset. If you blink, you miss it. They also err in placing the march of sleepwalking draftees (“Are We the Waiting”) off to the side, out of most audience members’ lines of vision. (The environmental production plants events here and there and in the aisles, but it’s mostly the stuff on the main stage that registers.) Later on, the co-directors toss away Tunny’s post-wounding morphine dream and “Extraordinary Girl,” replacing his orgasmic overhead pas de deux with a Muslim dreamgirl with a lewd hospital rubdown from a nurse. Under the circumstances, of course you don’t expect the Broadway version’s flying effects. But there are other ways to soar, and Rhys and Oundjian haven’t found one.

Then again, the show rises and falls on Johnny’s sorry descent into addiction and futility, and on opening night, Byous proved unequal to the task. The playbill reveals him as an experienced rocker rather than actor, impressions borne out by his performance: While he sells the lyrics potently enough, the character’s arc escapes him. There’s more to Johnny than pouty egotism, yet Byous never seems to be truly moved or changed by events. His lewd narcissistic quality would be interesting in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but it leaves a hole in the action and emotion here.
   I am hopeful that DOMA will do righter by the protagonists. Still and all, I recommend the Vortex American Idiot for its passion and overall showmanship. Casting a woman as the charismatic drug czar St. Jimmy makes perfect sense for the seduction of Johnny, especially as played by Caitlin Ary in her blowsy Amy Winehouse–drenched fashion. (Ary should either grab a bobby pin or embrace her peekaboo hairstyle; her endless futile gestures at pulling her tresses back become distracting.) Cuoco and Pearce are sterling in support, and the entire ensemble, pumping and jerking through Twyla Tharp-inspired calisthenics, demonstrates a commitment to Green Day’s heart and soul that’s genuinely exciting to witness.
   Living up to their mission, the glory | struck folks are partnering with two charitable organizations: To Write Love On Their Arms (support for the suicidal, depressed, and self-mutilating) and HomeFront Rising (cultural intervention for veterans). Both causes are emphatically relevant to the show’s intended impact, even if that impact isn’t fully realized here, and deserve our support.

May 18, 2015
May 16–June 7. 2341 E. Olympic Blvd., LA. Fri-Sun 8pm. $30–40. (323) 960-4429.


Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Torrance Theatre Company

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Ryan Shapiro and Tim Blake
Photo by Alex Madrid

So, Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar.
   In this tiny bar in Paris in 1904, they begin to ponder what the 20th century might be like. They suspect their individual contributions will change the world.
   This meeting and conversation between two geniuses was imagined by the ingenious playwright Steve Martin—yes, that Steve Martin—and forms the centerpiece of this play. And yes, it is a classic Martin comedy: thoroughly silly and yet an astute observation of humanity. It imagines the night the 20th century’s leading scientific thinker and modern art’s most influential innovator match wits—and pencils.
   In 1905, Einstein would publish his “special theory of relativity.” In 1907, Picasso would paint “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.” But on this night, they are young and energized and full of potential, as is the new century.

At Torrance, under the direction of Jim Hormel, the play’s hilarity remains sharp while Martin’s ideas are given their due respect. The play of course touches on science and art, thought and action, time and timelessness. It is seasoned with earthiness and spirituality, and it is underpinned with the universal and sadly timeless contrasts between men and women.
   So as universal as it is, the play does not require an audience with an extensive knowledge of the works of Einstein (played here by Ryan Shapiro) and Picasso (Joshua Aguilar)—though some of the jokes may brush by us at the speed of light. The pair’s discourse is easily comprehended, perfectly reasonable, and simultaneously witty and tender.
   The regulars at the Lapin Agile represent the rest of us. Embodying the working-class is the bar’s grumpy owner, Freddy (Tim Blake), apparently tired of customers who theorize but don’t pay for their drinks. Representing smart women stuck in second place is Freddy’s better half, Germaine (Amanda Webb), who in 1904 manages to predict the technical innovations of the 20th century, to the scorn of the men.
   The ugly side of commerce is exemplified by the local art dealer, Sagot (Chris Mock), a particularly sharp thorn in Picasso’s side. The ugly side of old age gets a wise but giggle-inducing representative in Gaston (Ron Rudolph), who frequently heads off to the toilet with great urgency and an even greater one-liner.

Just before intermission (this production snips this relatively short play into two acts), a new character bursts through the door, presumably the third man in the triumvirate that will set the course for the century. After intermission, we officially meet him. He is Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Gary Kresca). That’s right, you have never heard of him.
   If we look at Schmendiman from a 2015 perspective, he seems to represent the modern celebrity, expecting fame to precede him, contributing nothing of importance to culture. Or so it seems, until we see, near the play’s end, what he made famous.
   And those who fall for the wrong people and love without hope find a mascot in Suzanne (Anna Fleury), who was momentarily wooed by Picasso’s pickup lines—in this case literal lines, which he drew with his fingernail on the back of her hand.
   Other women here pick more-stable men. Einstein has a date (Stephanie Lehane) who thinks like he does, and even Schmendiman has a fan (Lehane again). But, Martin doesn’t let his audience leave without spending a short but engaging time with another person (Julian R. Diaz) who brought change to the 20th century.

This play, about minds that open, ends as the cozy bar experiences its own bit of theater magic (scenic design by Mark Wood, lighting design by Steve Giltner/Street-Lite LLC). Martin’s goofy humor shares the stage with his pointed reminder of what we made of the 20th century, which started with all the potential in the world.

May 11, 2015

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

May 9–June 14. 1316 Cabrillo Ave., Torrance. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, with an additional show June 11 at 8pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $25. (424) 243-6882.

My Child: Mothers of War
Hudson Backstage Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Melina Kanakaredes and Monique Edwards
Photo by David Sobel

The world premiere of Angeliki Giannakopoulos’s innovative stage adaptation of her 2006 PBS documentary My Child: Mothers of War features a 21-person cast telling the real-life stories, in their own words, of mothers whose lives were radically changed when their sons were shipped off to fight and die in Iraq and Afghanistan.
   This astonishing piece of theater, featuring six high-profile actors seated behind podiums “reading” the actual text spoken by the woman Giannakopoulos interviewed in her film, proffers a crucial message about the horrors of war and the obscenities perpetrated by these two twisted conflicts in particular. And if there was any doubt, having three of those courageous mothers and their weeping families in the audience on opening night—a benefit for Fisher House in West LA, providing support for the families whose veterans never returned—instantly solidified that message. As Frances Fisher grabbed the face of Anthony Rey Perez, the wonderful young actor playing her son, saying a final goodbye to him before he shipped off to the “sandbox” for the last time, the real soldier’s father, seated in the audience, choked out one tortured “Oh, shit” before breaking into tortured sobs in his wife’s arms.

Under Giannakopoulos’s appropriately spartan direction, Fisher leads a brilliant star-studded cast that includes Melina Kanakaredes, Mimi Rogers, Laura Ceron, Monique Edwards, Anna Giannotis, Maria Nicolacakis, and Jean Smart (who will join the production this weekend after returning from making a film out of town). Each woman enters the conflicted minds of those courageous mothers whose sacrifices were so unnecessary. There is no question why these actors have had such notable careers, as here they offer heartfelt, unassumingly expressed, mesmerizing emotional journeys, breathing life into these stories with expert grace and skill.
   As in the aforementioned moment shared by Fisher and Perez, occasionally the actors playing the mothers step out from behind their podiums for individual scenes played opposite the actors appearing as the sons they would never see again. Fisher also has a second moving moment at her son’s grave when Rydell Danzie, as his sergeant, invades her privacy to apologize for not being able to save the son he had promised her to watch over.
   Rogers is arrestingly stoic as her character recalls the moment “The Three Deaths” knocked on her door—one black, one Asian, one Caucasian, all politically correct soldiers—sent by the State Department to bring her the worst news any parent could endure. “The first step is not denial,” she relates, “it’s absolute recognition.” Rogers also proudly shows the letter of regret she received from President Bush, marveling that it is signed “in ink,” while Giannotis’s character adds her own reaction to receiving the same letter: “I could use it in the bathroom.”
   Kanakaredes’s mom recalls her son telling her by phone from Iraq that the militarized Humvees they were driving each cost the government $100,000 to trick out, leading her to wonder how our government could afford that. After he tells her to Google the company contracted to do the work, she discovers “Uncle Bush is on the payroll.” Later in the story, she brings tears to those gathered as she remembers not being allowed to see the covered destroyed face of her boy in his casket but “could tell he was my skinny boy.” Edwards is also affecting as the exceedingly religious mother who reassures her son that everything he was doing was God’s will and he will be protected—until he isn’t. As she learns of his death, Edwards raises her eyes heavenward to sincerely query, “What went wrong?”

The soldiers—played beautifully by Perez, Danzie, Brendan Connor, Juan de la Cruz, Michael J. Knowles, Nick Marini, Randy Mulkey,  Ozzy Ramirez, and Jah Shams—bring the story even closer to our hearts, proving once again that heroes come in all sizes, ages, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds. This is perhaps the most powerful message My Child conveys, especially as clips from the original documentary unfold to the side of the stage. Especially moving is one shot of a returning young soldier, stepping off a bus to be met by a sea of parents and significant others joined to greet their loved ones, whose face quickly dissolves into deep sadness when he doesn’t see anyone there to welcome him home.
   Of the dynamic ensemble cast, some actors appearing in alternating roles depending on the performers’ schedules, it is Fisher, with her steely eye and gravelly, slightly quavering voice, who leaves the most indelible impression, delivering a striking, gloriously nuanced performance.

April 30, 2015
April 26–May 31. Sun. 7pm. Running time 75 minutes, no intermission. 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. $30. (323) 960-7774.


My Barking Dog
Theatre @ Boston Court

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Michelle Azar and Ed F. Martin
Photo by Ed Krieger

What is an audience to make of characters who claim they’re telling the truth but who clearly are not doing so? This question comes to mind as Eric Coble’s poetic My Barking Dog turns increasingly metaphoric and untrue to life. Whatever the script’s ambiguity, its West Coast premiere run is exquisitely produced, thoughtfully directed, and faultlessly acted.
   At the start, in total darkness, the play’s two characters tell us that their story, though perhaps not accurate, is true. Then the lights come up, as Melinda (Michelle Azar) and Toby (Ed F. Martin) move through their repetitive, angular, ugly daily activities. Melinda is a factory worker, loading paper into a print machine. She works the night shift because she doesn’t like being around other people. Toby, who lost his office-management job nine months ago and who has not found work since, crisscrosses his apartment with one arm extended, trying to find wireless connectivity for his laptop so he can continue his job search.
   They have lived in the same apartment building for five years but never met until now. But while Toby constantly seeks connection, as he repeatedly remarks, Melinda professes to thrive on the contemplation solitude offers her. She is nurturing, the one who cares for a visitor’s health and feelings, while she destroys the work of mankind around her. Toby may be sexually adventurous or he may be a dreamer. What is the truth about these unreliable narrators?

As for the play’s title, the barking dog is a coyote that climbs the stairs of Toby and Melinda’s apartment complex and, to put it mildly, makes contact with these two isolated souls. The coyote might represent nature choked out of this pair’s city. But, notably, the play’s title is “My” and not “Our” barking dog. Quite likely the creature represents their individual, more bestial natures.
   And my, oh my, do those natures come out in full force, as director Michael Michetti shepherds visible mankind and invisible beasts into this vivid but unimaginable world. His work with his actors is psychologically deep, bringing out truths about human nature.
   Michetti’s stagecraft, too, is fabulously imaginative. In collaboration with scenic designer Tom Buderwitz, lighting and video designer Tom Ontiveros, and sound designer John Zalewski, Michetti cracks open the stage, the characters’ psyches and the audience’s minds. The stage begins as a square-cornered concrete structure. Scene-setting projections show a barren grey expanse surrounding the apartment, but colors shoot across the grey as the characters grow energized. Toby and Melinda literally pull the rug out from under their feet and figuratively do that to the audience. By the play’s end, the stage has turned into root-bound earth. Shoes come off, clothing comes off—to a respectable limit—and the two relish sinking into the soil.

Azar’s physicality, at first mechanized and constrained, becomes bold and powerful. Although the actor never leaves the stage, she drops decades, her character transforming from exhausted, ill-kempt older-middle-aged night worker to a young woman electrifyingly engaged in her new passion. Martin’s angular reaching for connectivity over the ether becomes a wildly sprawling dance in the earth, as he unpatronizingly makes gender and perhaps species a fluid concept.
   A startling, in reality impossible, occurrence ends the play. Perhaps you were expecting a traditional love story here? That wouldn’t be natural. Or truthful.

April 27, 2015

Republished courtesy of Los Angeles News Group
April 25–May 24. 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena Thu-Sat 8pm; Sun 2pm. $34, discounts available. (626) 683-6883.


Motown the Musical
Hollywood Pantages

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Reed L. Shannon at center
Photo by Joan Marcus

Is there a more critic-proof title out there than Motown the Musical? Not only does it indicate exactly what it is (an overview of the recording powerhouse founded by Berry Gordy) and what it contains (three decades’ worth of soulful hits), but the audience at which it’s aimed couldn’t possibly be deterred by anything negative anyone said. Those for whom the Detroit playlist amounts to the soundtrack of their livesand—I heartily confess I’m one of them—wouldn’t think of missing it. A night of revisiting every hot hit from 1958 to 1983, from “ABC” to “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” sung and danced by an ensemble of 34? I’m there!
   But you don’t have to have grown up during the glory days of Motown to instantly put something called Motown the Musical onto your calendar. During an era when pop music was undergoing sea changes monthly, or so it seemed, the sound coming out of Gordy’s shop was something extra special. Even today’s youngsters find themselves drawn to the elemental emotion of “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “My Girl,” or “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Or they’re captivated by the witty wordplay of “The Love You Save” and “Do You Love Me.” Or they’re swept up in the propulsive rhythms of “Dancing in the Street,” “The Happening,” and a dozen more. Once you’re hooked by any one Motown hit, in my experience, you’re hooked on the label for life, and the prospect of a retrospective tuner becomes a must-see. The curtain rises on a sing-off between spot-on recreations of The Four Tops and the Temptations; need I add it only gets more blissful from there?

For adoring fans, it won’t matter a damn when I report—as so many other critics did when the show premiered on Broadway—that the structure, story, and dialogue are about as hollow as they could possibly be. Gordy (Julius Thomas III, energetic to a fault) is refusing to show up for an all-star 25th anniversary salute, at the prospect of which “the Chairman” is moved to go down Memory Lane and conjure up his life and not-so-hard times: the early struggles; the development of artists who ended up leaving; the tumultuous (I believe that’s the standard adjective) ’60s, and, of course, his love affair with Diana Ross (wondrous sound-alike Allison Semmes).
   After sitting through three hours of Motown the Musical, I still couldn’t tell you where things went wrong, or what Gordy’s particular talent was, or why he ended up deciding to attend the reunion after all. He’s also not exactly the most candid lyricist you could wish for, granting himself few if any character flaws and mostly pointing the finger at others, who made a habit of letting him down at crucial times. (Like leaving him for bigger labels that offered more money.)
   As dubious and limp as the storytelling is, sympathy is swiftly created for the fine singers and dancers required to stop from time to time to utter the toads supplied to them by credited librettist Gordy and his “script consultants,” David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan. Much of the conversation is offered as oratory: “Times are changing, Shelly. We need fresh, bold hits that reflect that!” ”One day you wake up and the stars you polished so hard to shine are not only shining, but in orbit, out of control of themselves and in control of you!” It’s hard to recall a single relaxed, human exchange that doesn’t sound as if it was put through a corporate meat grinder to remove all authenticity while ensuring that the Chairman comes out sounding good.

The script grasps at audience-flattering laughs based on 20/20 hindsight. “Why do we keep wasting money on the no-hit Supremes?” asks an impatient flunky. In the same vein, “What kind of name is Smokey?” queries a crudely caricatured white promoter. (Most of the Caucasian characters are, as it happens, crude caricatures.) In both cases, we know who will turn into the music legends, so ha-ha on those guys. Speaking of Mr. Robinson (Jesse Nager), his buddies fall to the ground in hysterics when he announces he’s writing a song in response to Mary Wells’s “My Guy,” to be called “My Girl.” We wouldn’t have scoffed if we’d been there, you can bet. We also probably would’ve recognized the immediate appeal of “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and its unusual three-quarter time signature, but that’s more than you can say for Ms. Ross, whose reaction is, and I quote: “A waltz? Are you out of your fuckin’ mind?”
   It gets tiring hearing people offer exposition to others who would already be aware of it. “Jackie Wilson recorded my song, and Thelma is divorcing me.” (“I know, baby,” Martina Sykes as sister Gwen unnecessarily replies.) Gordy to Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse): “Don’t you realize the president was killed today?” Gaye: “President Kennedy?” Gordy to accountant: “Lady Sings the Blues was nominated for five Academy Awards!” (That last one is followed by another audience-flatterer: “And Mahogany’s gonna be nominated for 10!,” Gordy exults, as we chortle thinking of that pic’s major flopperoo.)
   Look, nobody’s much damaged by a corny sequence in which the Chairman figures out a name for his company by evoking his home town: “The Motor City. But it feels more like a town to me. Hmmm. Motortown…motortown… motortown…. Oh, well, I’ll think of something.” But there is something wrong, I think, something tastelessly reductive, in representing the Civil Rights struggles of the ’60s in quick video montages and psychedelic lighting while people in Afros and dashikis dance to “War” (huh; what is it good for) and “What’s Going On,” with people randomly yelling out “Dr. King’s been shot!” “Dr. King…is dead!” A black-majority company like Motown must have been shaken to its core by the passing of the more casual rock ’n’ roll ’50s and really forced to examine how the sociopolitical strains of Freedom Riders and protesters—not to mention Vietnam—ought to affect the music. Couldn’t, shouldn’t, Motown the Musical show that for real? Wouldn’t that be fascinating to witness?
   If the thoughtful spectator ignores all the messiness and the falseness and just goes with the groove, he can enjoy the recreations of Wells and Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, clap and sway and tap his feet nonstop, and celebrate Gordy’s undeniable legacy of music shepherded to the top of the charts. No matter how it all really happened.

May 3, 2015
April 30–June 7. 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Running time 3 hours, including intermission. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8 pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. $40¬–587 (premium seating). (800) 982-2787.


Mud Blue Sky
Road Theatre Company

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Adam Farabee, Carlyle King, and Whitney Dylan
Photo by John Lorenz

Aging beyond one’s comfort zone in any job is a bitch, but for 50-something veteran airline stewardess Beth (Carlyle King), the steady stream of dragging her bags into characterless C-grade hotel rooms and bending over to hand people pillows have taken their toll on her lower back. As she considers taking her company’s most recent insufficient retirement package before being unceremoniously laid off, only one thing besides a purse full of those cute little miniature inflight bottles of Jim Beam helps ease the pain. And in Illinois, where she is on layover in the “goiter of the city”—the screamingly unappealing suburban community surrounding O’Hare Airport—her most efficient panacea has not yet being legalized, even for medicinal purposes.
   Serendipitously, Beth met Jonathan (Adam Farabee) on a flight the year before. Whenever she’s in town, he stops by her hotel with a dimebag of weed to ease her pain, both physical and psychological. A little toke, and Beth is feeling far better, somewhat able to ignore the lack of luxuries offered in the kind of typical Comfort Inn-ish stopover where one must go to the front desk to get a clean pillow and the cable offers little more than pay-per-view porn—although, the remote control is so sticky with some unidentifiable goo that it’s best left on the floor where Beth flings it.

Traveling for a living always seems like a dream job for those who don’t have to nap in airports and deal with a plethora of screaming babies kicking seats and soiling diapers, but the daily grind these glorified flying waitresses endure are at the core of Marisa Wegrzyn’s dryly contemporary comedy Mud Blue Sky. Perhaps if Beth had not become so world-weary of her life, or had not almost outgrown the Led Zeppelin T-shirt she changes into from her work uniform, she might not have considered Jonathan an acceptable business associate—especially since her dealer isn’t the kind of role perfect for Bill Macy or William Defoe. Jonathan, you see, is still in high school.
   Beth does her best to get rid of her adrenaline-rushing cohort Sam (Whitney Dylan) before Jonathan shows up with his backpack filled with happy little packages. But her friend catches sight of him waiting in the parking lot outside Beth’s window, wearing sneakers with the tuxedo he rented for his prom. Sam thinks the kid is as cute as a puppy dog (“It’s like seeing a dog dressed in a Halloween costume,” she coos), until she returns to Beth’s room later and finds the teenybopper teen in a tux, hiding in the bathroom. Yet as shocked as she initially is to find Beth buying drugs from a kid the age of her own slacker son, Sam’s raging hormones take over, especially after Jonathan recounts his woebegone story of how his prom date dumped him to go off with her friends. A little tongue in his ear and he’s ready to party, soon off to Sam’s room to experience a new chapter of his education that goes way beyond coffee, tea, or, in this case, her.
   King is hilariously droll as Beth, tired of her rut and her aching back yet somewhat horrified by her own ability to possibly contribute to the corruption of the squeaky clean Jonathan. Dylan’s Sam is a great foil for King, fighting in her own way to keep as young and vital as her day-to-day life sucks the youth out of her. Both actors, however, suffer somewhat from the nowhere-to-go aspects of Wegrzyn’s script which, though witty as heck and brightly clever in its dialogue, still has the air of a TV episodic. This is something only exacerbated by the direction of Mary Lou Belli, who lets these two actors waver from their perfectly genuine delivery to moments of working just a bit too hard to land the laughs.
   As Jonathan, Farabee is a breath of fresh air, completely believable as the sadly overlooked teenager still reeling from the unexpected death of his mother. Never does he descend into sitcom styling, always spartan and effectively real in his simple choices. This is also true of the durable Amy Tolsky, who steals the show as Angie, the obviously discouraged visiting former stewardess who quit flying to take care of her ailing mother. Entering late in the story, Tolsky stays just long enough to tell a disturbing tale of how an incident with an elderly passenger she befriended seemed to lead her to leaving her job—something she seems to regret on many levels as she stagnates in the nearby bluecollar community of LaGrange.

There’s nothing terribly thought-provoking or cathartic or even memorable about the world Wegrzyn creates here, but, hey, it sure is funny, and the gifted troupers in this cast are mostly impressive, besides enduring Belli’s efficient but occasionally somnambulant direction. Beth’s identifiably discouraging but often hilarious lot in life, as she suffers through yet another musty nondescript hotel room in another musty nondescript city is definitely worth a quick layover.

April 18, 2015
April 10–May 30. 10747 Magnolia Blvd. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $17.50–34. (818) 761-8838.

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