Tennessee Williams UnScripted
Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
Ryan Smith, Lauren Rose Lewis, and Nick Massouh
Photo by Sasha Venola
With the faint metaphorical scent of magnolias lingering in the air and more than enough Southern charm to fill the bill, this brilliantly multifaceted group of improvisational experts pays homage to one of America’s greatest playwrights. Sparked only by the offering of an audience-suggested family heirloom (on opening night, it was a brass bowl), director Brian Lohmann along with cast and crew set out on a hilarious trek through the literally unknown.
Due to the company’s rotating set of cast members, not only is the storyline a mystery to all concerned but its development is no doubt influenced by whoever has pulled duty at any given performance. On the night reviewed, Lohmann and a stalwart half-dozen took the bull by the horns, leaving the enthusiastically supportive audience rolling in the aisles.
Some characterizations, more than others, were clearly modeled after those from Williams’s better-known works such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Floyd Van Buskirk’s performance as Mr. Toby, proprietor of a mountaintop resort in Florida (the source of oxymoronic humor throughout the show) was slyly reminiscent of Burl Ives’s Big Daddy, including an otherwise unexplained second-act appearance in a wheelchair. Meanwhile, Kelly Holden Bashar, playing the sultry Melinda Fairweather, channeled a perfectly executed knockoff of Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie. Holden Bashar’s interactions with her sympathetically forlorn husband Robert “Bobo” Fairweather, played by Lohmann, and Ryan Smith’s mysteriously sensual Chance, a stranger to this group of vacationers, were remarkably well-crafted and effective in advancing the plotline.
Ably toting the water bucket of humor were Dan O’Connor and Kari Coleman as the blue-collared Richmond “Skudge” McHenry and his hypochondriacally discombobulated wife, Roberta. O’Connor was a master of snarkiness as he capitalized on details and missteps offered by his fellow actors, while Coleman’s ability to interject with character-driven non-sequiturs was spot-on perfect.
Likewise, Edi Patterson was a stitch as Carnelian, the resort’s chief cook and bottle washer, whose bizarre name came about during a moment in which she and Lohmann became temporarily tongue tied. Instances such as these are what make witnessing this company’s work so much fun due in no small part to the adroitness with which they are able to mine comic gold from a mere hesitation or slip of the brain. It’s never done as a Gotcha but rather from the collective refusal to pass up an opportunity to add to the chaos.
While the onstage shenanigans take part on designer Michael C. Smith’s appropriately crafted scenery—complete with wicker porch furniture, ivy-covered clapboard walls, and even a corrugated tin moon conspicuously hung upstage center—there’s collusion afoot in the tech booth. Stage manager Madison Goff is responsible for lighting the show as it progresses, while her assistant, Alex Caan, adds musical underscoring and sound effects. What’s most interesting is the influence they have, at times, on just how long a scene plays out or is brought to completion. It’s a symbiotic relationship that rarely fails.
On the night reviewed, the production offered a perfectly constructed arc of middle, beginning, and end. Revelations and rebirth of relationships came to a believable conclusion much as with Williams’s seriocomic pieces. What any other performance in this run turns out to be is what makes attending this company’s work a visit marked by anticipatory excitement.
June 22, 2016
17–July 31. 4252 Riverside Dr. Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8pm, Sun 4pm.
$29–44. (818) 955-8101.
The Little Mermaid
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
The cast of The Little Mermaid
Photo by Bruce Bennett
Walt Disney’s legacy is more than just a mouse or an amusement park. He set in motion a juggernaut that includes films, both live, animated, or a combination of both; award-winning music; television programming; radio programs; and theatrical productions, mostly based on his animated films. McCoy Rigby Entertainment’s newest offering is The Little Mermaid, directed by Glenn Casale, who was charged with enriching and enlivening the original Broadway production with special effects.
The story by Hans Christian Anderson about a girl who gives up her voice to become human has been given a greatly enhanced plot via Doug Wright’s book, Alan Menken’s music, and Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater’s lyrics. Though it is aimed at children, it has enough wit to more than satisfy adults as well. Mermaid princess Ariel (Alison Woods) has longed for life above the sea and losing her tail for legs.
When she spots handsome Prince Eric (Eric Kunze) on his ship, she sets about to find a way to accomplish this. Unfortunately for her, she chooses to consult a sea witch, Ursula (Tracy Lore), with disastrous results. In typical Disney fashion, though, the princess captures her prince and a happy ending triumphs with plenty of wisdom about the importance of achieving a happy life.
First and foremost are the special effects. Ariel flies above the stage as though in the water (superbly executed in Paul Rubin’s flying-sequence choreography), and Woods is spunky and equal to creating a believable girl who is up for the challenge of following her dreams. The set design, by Kenneth Foy, employs a clever use of bubbles to simulate water, both in scenery flats and projections. Enhanced by Charlie Morrison’s lighting design, the effect is magical. Unlike many musicals, the set is simple, almost reflective of children’s theater as a whole, but it works as a fantasy environment.
Mention must be made of Amy Clark and Mark Koss’s fantastic costumes. From Sebastian the crab’s claws and crimson wig to Flounder’s mohawk and yellow and teal striped suit, the characters are alive with color and shimmer. Ariel’s beautiful costume fluttering at its base, simulating a mermaid’s tail, and Ursula’s purple-and-black gown, undulating with tentacles that seem to have a life of their own, are perfect for the undersea effects. Wigs and hair design are also well-done by Leah J. Loukas.
Woods has the perfect Disney princess pure soprano voice, and she is well-cast to match her famous predecessors like Broadway’s Belle (Susan Egan) in Beauty and the Beast. Kunze makes a charming hero with just the right amount of dash to make hearts flutter. His guardian Grimsby (played with the requisite dithery unrest by Time Winters) and ship’s pilot (Jeff Skowron) make up Eric’s entourage. Skowron steals the show in the second act as Chef Louis, whose comedic chops and energetic physicality are devastatingly funny, as evidenced by the spontaneous audience laughter throughout the number.
Ariel’s sisters are well-played by Kim Arnett, Kristine Bennett, Marjorie Failoni, Melissa Glasgow, Devon Hadsell, Amanda Minano, and Tro Shaw. Jamie Torcellini is an enterprising seagull whose flights and commentary add to the humor. He is accompanied by companion gulls, played by Michael McGurk, Dennis O’Bannion, and James Shackelford, and their number, “Positoovity,” is enchanting.
Lore is deliciously wicked as she tries to get revenge on her brother, King Triton (a commandingly regal, full-voiced portrayal by Fred Inkley). She orders around Flotsam (Scott T. Leiendecker) and Jetsam (Jeffrey Christopher Todd), electric eels who glide about the stage on Heelys, costumed to light up the darker stage that is Ursula’s habitat. Their “Sweet Child” number is delightful. Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a sinister delight.
Notable is Melvin Abston as Sebastian, who convinces as a skittery crab with sideways segues as he tries to rein in Ariel after Triton puts him in charge. His rendition of “Under the Sea” is clever and a highlight. Also notable is the lovesick Flounder (Adam Garst), who follows Ariel about with nervous concern. Choreography by John MacInnis makes the production come alive, especially in “Positoovity” and the chef’s “Les Poissons.”
A production of this size and scope has much to recommend, especially on the large La Mirada stage. Effective sound, lighting, music, choreography, and sets on a national tour are not easy to achieve. The commitment to high quality of cast and artistic creators helps achieve a show that is rewarding. Thanks to McCoy Rigby’s successful Disney productions in the past, McCoy Rigby been given the rights to The Hunchback of Notre Dame in its upcoming season.
June 9, 2016
3–June 26. 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Tue-Thu 7:30, Fri 8pm, Sat
2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm (no 7pm perf June 12). $20-70. (562)
944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.
The Engine of Our Ruin
Victory Theatre Center
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Steve Hofvendahl and Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt
Photo by Tim Sullens
In a season when our country’s fractured political system is at the pinnacle of comedic illogicality, the world premiere of Jason Wells’s hilarious and smartly absurd play corresponds with the reality show unfolding around us. “If we’re the smartest thing on earth,” a character comments on the flawed and destructive nature of humans, “it’s because we figured out how to do the measuring.”
Inhabiting a luxurious hotel suite in an unnamed Middle Eastern country—kudos to Evan Bartoletti’s spectacularly appointed set and prop designer Alessandra Hajaj’s subtle but suitably gaudy accoutrements, described in the script as resembling a Byzantine whorehouse—a team of American diplomats has been sent by the US government to broker a deal with the foreign country’s scary powder keg of a regime. The idea is to exchange some of our obscenely overflowing corn surplus for anything that will reduce mistrust between the two governments. But, thanks to a hired interpreter with an agenda of her own, things go awry more rapidly than in a farce by Ken Ludwig, even without the slamming doors.
Under the sure and solid directorial hand of Maria Gobetti, whose crafty and wonderful little physical bits and touches are everywhere and enhance Wells’s tale immeasurably, a stellar ensemble cast works through the ever-increasing misunderstandings and foibles that, although beginning as a simple mission that could have probably ended with a friendly handshake and a back-slapping trip downstairs to the hotel’s bar, turns into a convoluted mess that could initiate World War III if not quelled in a hurry.
One of the slyest and most daring conceits here unfolds in the first scene, in which the American contingent (Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt, Shannon McManus, Gregory Hoyt, and Spencer Rowe) meets with the other country’s top diplomat (Brian Abraham) and his gung-ho assistant (Ryan P. Shrime), and the sabotage from the female interpreter (Zehra Fazal) begins immediately.
No matter how innocently the Americans offer their corn, told by their higher-ups that it makes no difference what they get in return as long as it eases tensions, everything they say is instead misinterpreted to mandate equality for the country’s women and demand the creation of a Women’s School of Law and Engineering unless they want war.
The difficult task here for Gobetti and her actors is that, although both groups speak two languages, all the dialogue is delivered in English—although the performers morph from proper English to Borat-speak whenever they try to communicate in the other’s tongue. This takes a few minutes for the audience to grasp. Once the ideas and the rhythms are established, however, the effect is impressive.
At first, Meinelschmidt seems to be annoyingly oratorical, as though barking all his lines in homage to the late Phil Hartman, but this bombastic speaking voice—which beyond his character’s stuffy Eastern seaboard upper-crusty exterior reveals a sincere effort to his serve his country and ace what he sees as an important mission—is totally intentional. It’s a risky choice for actor and director, but it’s a brilliant choice. Hoyt is also a standout as his goofy, terminally clumsy aide who wants to get all this hokum done so he can party hearty, as is Rowe as the understated security guy who just may or not be a plant from the CIA.
As their government overseer, Steve Hofvendahl takes his one long scene, wearily, grumpily trying to make Meinelschmidt’s green envoy get his convoluted drift, which involves possibly disposing the country’s dictator, and steals the show. As Hofvendahl blasts the stupidity and naively pretentious demeanor of his government’s chosen negotiator, he clearly defines what a world-wearying job it is to pull the strings of international politics, finally, with a maddened headshake, whining to the skies that what he’s trying to suggest is the most exasperating act of treason he’s ever been assigned to commit.
This is a beautifully written, exceptionally mounted, wonderfully shrewd topical comedy. But, for all of us reeling from the fears and threats that ignite the world with hostilities and rampant paranoia, if you’re not already scared out of your wits that our planet could be doomed by the ridiculousness of our destructive actions, when you wipe away the tears of laughter, this play should do the trick.
June 2, 2016
May 27–July 17. 3324-6
W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. Ample street parking is available; additional parking
at the Northwest Branch Library, directly across from the theater.
Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm. $24-34. (818)
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