At Home At the Zoo
Lovelace Studio Theater at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Troy Kotsur and Russell Harvard
Photo by Kevin Parry
Edward Albee received his first recognition when his groundbreaking one-act The Zoo Story, written in 1958, first grabbed New York by its theatrical short hairs in 1960 after debuting in Berlin the year before. It has remained one of his most-celebrated works, the first signal to the world of the prolific genius that was to follow before his death at age 88 last September.
In 2007, the equally prolific and artistically unstoppable Deaf West Theatre mounted its extraordinary version of The Zoo Story starring two of its finest company stalwarts, Troy Kotsur and Tyrone Giordano, who signed the play’s rushing explosion of ideas while speaking actors stood nearby, watching the story unfold as they delivered Albee’s torrential dialogue. It was the culmination of a longtime respect and love affair between the playwright and Deaf West, which began several years earlier when the company contemplated mounting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf starring Phyllis Frelich.
That production never came to be, but the relationship it fostered remained. In 2004, working under a commission from Hartford Stage Company, Albee created a prequel to The Zoo Story, titled Homelife, exploring the moments before Peter heads to what he hopes will be a quiet corner of Central Park where he can read a book and smoke his pipe in peace. Instead he meets a troubled stranger named Jerry, who insists Peter stick around so he can tell him what just happened to him during his visit to Central Park Zoo.
The two plays have been jointly titled At Home At the Zoo, and Deaf West was a logical choice to be awarded permission for the LA debut of the expanded work—not only with the blessings of the author, who insisted on personal approval in granting rights for all his works, but even with Albee talking about being in attendance. Unfortunately, the tenuous financial times postponed those plans, and now that the production has finally come to fruition in collaboration with the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Deaf West and director Coy Middlebrook have had to make magic happen without its creator nearby.
Albee would have been mighty proud. Homelife brings to the story a clear reason why Peter (Kotsur, who reprises his arresting 2007 turn in the role) becomes so intent on defending his masculinity as he and Jerry (the phenomenal Russell Harvard, who rocks the role until March 16, when Giordano takes over) devolve from respectful pleasantries into a violent confrontation as each defends possession of the public bench each considers his own personal property.
Kotsur (voiced by Jake Eberle) is brilliantly subtle in what at first seems to be the less complex role, as Peter tries diligently to communicate in the first act with his loving but sexually frustrated wife Ann (Amber Zion, voiced by Paige Lindsey White), who is desperate to find some new excitement in their predictably complacent relationship. Ann loves her reserved book-editor husband, their daughters, parakeets, cats, and the life they’ve established together in their comfortable upper-middle-class Eastside Manhattan apartment.
Of course, only Albee could take their conversation where it goes, from a 10-minute discussion about circumcision to Peter’s eventual confession chronicling the bloody details of a suppressed brutal sexual encounter during a drunken college frat party. By the time designer Karyl Newman’s slickly 1970s New York flat revolves into massive backlit triangles of fall-like Central Park views, what makes Peter stick around and listen to the increasingly more delusional Jerry (mesmerically voiced as in 2007 by Jeff Alan-Lee) is explained for the first time as his tormentor delivers his infamous lengthy rant about his encounter with his drunken landlady’s dog.
Middlebrook does an exceptional job staging what could be a painfully static two hours of Albee’s familiarly complex dialogue. Deaf West chooses its projects based on how successfully a play can be translated into American Sign Language, and At Home At the Zoo is a perfect match. There’s a kind of expressive style, a remarkably innocent freedom and grace that identifies the performances of most hearing-impaired actors, which beautifully accents and pays homage to the signature gifts of one of the last century’s bravest and most thought-provoking wordsmiths.
March 16, 2017
10–March 26. 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat
2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $60. (310)
Shades of Disclosure
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Christine Papalexis and Cheri Gaulke
Photo by Ed Krieger
In the nearly four decades since HIV/AIDS, once referred to as the “gay disease,” brought worldwide scorn and judgment to those living an alternate lifestyle, close to 40 million people have died, and today 37.6 million people are living with the scourge of it. Aside from the great sorrow AIDS has brought to our world, the disease has also become a major source of discrimination against the gay community—mainly by all those self-aggrandizing conservative religious bigots who pretend to live under their savior’s pleas to practice charity and nonjudgment.
“I’ve felt indelibly stained,” one participant in QueerWise’s unforgettable new performance piece Shades of Disclosure admits, “by the sickness I’ve brought on myself.” For the 17 participants in this eye-opening testimonial experience courageously telling the stories of how HIV/AIDS has affected their lives, such honesty is the norm, not the exception. Michael Kearns, the tireless LA-based writer-actor–AIDS activist who originated the concept for the evening 31 years ago when AIDS/US first debuted on this stage, masterfully directs now, when Shades could not be more timely in this frightening era when our freedom suddenly feels desperately precarious.
The participants, who collectively wage war on our society’s damaging and demeaning labels—all but two of whom play themselves and read the stories they crafted based on their own personal experiences—relate their tale to 16-year-old Sophie Kim, a LGBTQ activist at Harvard-Westlake High School who found a home in QueerWise after coming out to her parents at 14. As she videos their comments, one by one the members of the eclectic ensemble recount who they are and how they—and we all—are connected despite our differences.
The members of QueerWise include writers, spoken word artists, social workers, and educators who commit their efforts to create and perform events such as this. Noted actors such as Darrell Larson, who bravely explains how his diagnosis led to admitting his lifestyle to his wife and daughter and signaled the end of his marriage, is joined by transgendered psychotherapist—and knockout guitarist—Jessie Jacobson, who shakily faces her patients while trying to grapple with her own identity; floundering young nomad Mason Mahoney, wondering if there will be a place for a biracial gay man in the current climate of America; Guatemalan immigrant Roland Palencia, who fears for his own future in his adopted country; and Kim’s teacher from Harvard-Westlake, who wonders if her youthful student will grow up to love and fight for the rights we, her elders, fought so hard to protect.
These stories and others are gently related to Kim as the members of QueerWise offer their “truths now with swift purpose and quiet grace.” Although Shades of Disclosure works best when its storytellers lift their eyes from the scripts they carry, the honest telling of each person’s tales provides a jarringly evocative evening reminding us that our war against bigotry, racism, gender equality, and a disease that has decimated millions is not only not over yet but is a fight that right now at this scary and insecure moment in time must be renewed with vigor and relentless determination.
February 6, 2017
Jan 28–March 11. 1816-1/2 N. Vermont Ave. Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. $15-34. (213) 761-7061.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Norbert Weisser and Alan Abelew in "Catastrophe"
Photo by Ron Sossi
Just the name conjures a headache in some and bliss in others. Playwright Samuel Beckett is considered one of the most-influential 20th-century playwrights, certainly within Theatre of the Absurd style, his Waiting for Godot at the peak of those works.
At the Odyssey Theatres, five of Beckett’s short plays are being performed under the umbrella title that bears his name. With that much advance notice, the audience certainly should know what to expect.
And knowing that the Odyssey’s resident company of superb veteran actors, the KOAN Unit, under director Ron Sossi, is bringing the works to life, we are assured the production will be deep and sharp.
The works are staged on set designer Mark Guirguis’s simple black-box area. A raised platform upstage, where doors open into unseen rooms, gets used for one of the pieces but remains in murky darkness for others, thanks to lighting designer Chu-Hsuan Chang’s mysterious but warm illumination.
“Act Without Words II” opens the production. Alan Abelew and Beth Hogan hunker inside white plastic sacks, until each is goaded (Norbert Weisser clad head to toe in black, wielding a spear) into a day’s action. Abelew, as “A,” loathes every moment. Even his food, a tasty-looking carrot pulled out of his pocket, prompts A to spit out his sole sustenance. A has turned to prayer and pharmaceuticals to get through his days.
Hogan, as “B,” loves every moment of the day, though the manic pace might take its toll. Chronically checking her watch, compulsively exercising, obsessed with her appearance, at least she relies on herself to get through it all, ending with a bit of self-reflection.
Beckett reputedly felt annoyed when people presumed references to his earlier plays, but the carrots, black suit and bowler hat of Godot greatly tempt us here.
“Come and Go” finds three women gathered on a bench in an enigmatic reunion. Diana Cignoni and Sheelagh Cullen join Hogan to perhaps relive their school days, giggle girlishly, share information or spread misinformation, and still find communal support.
Their names—Flo, Vi, Ru—evoke flowers, and they’re dressed in floral pastels, with pristine white satin Mary Jane shoes. But something darker is at work. Each one of the three wanders off while two stay behind to whisper. What they share might be salacious gossip, or it might be news of impending death.
The plays get even darker with “Catastrophe,” in which Director and Assistant literally and figuratively manipulate Protagonist, who represents actor, audience, and nation. Sossi has swapped genders of Director and Assistant, casting Hogan as the imperious Director, oblivious to the figure’s suffering, and Abelew as the obsequious Assistant, who was only following orders. Weisser’s Protagonist doesn’t collapse, likely fearful of the consequences. But when the others leave, he prods us with a chilling, astonishing, richly emotional stare.
“Footfalls” finds Diana Cignoni as a daughter, pacing in front of her mother’s doorway, and Sheelagh Cullen (unseen) voicing the mother. It’s perhaps the most deeply psychological of the plays here, yet it’s also full of wordplay. The mother may be dead or dying, the daughter may be living in the past or living an unfulfilled life now, but Christian imagery reflects constraints on the peripatetic figure.
After an intermission that lets the audience gather breath and wits, “Krapp’s Last Tape” stars Weisser in one of Beckett’s better-known short works. A “wearish old man” listens to tape recordings of himself at younger ages. At each age, he has looked back from a vantage of more experience and more disdain. Despite the shabby appearance and goofy antics, Weisser is an elegant Krapp of rue, nostalgia, wryness, and the wisdom of age and experience.
Beckett included detailed stage directions with his scripts. In “Come and Go,” for example, his directions are longer than the dialogue. Sossi uses some, leads his troupe elsewhere on others, encouraging intellectual and emotional responses to Beckett’s works.
Costume designer Audrey Eisner provides the crisply evocative looks, while sound designer Christopher Moscatiello creates atmospheres of subtle mystery.
So, what to expect here? As in life, those willing to observe, to think, to accept that some things are imponderable but still worth considering, will fare best.
January 25, 2017
Jan 28–March 5. 2055 S.
Sepulveda Blvd. There is wheelchair access. See website for schedule,
but in general Wed or Thu 8pm, Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2
hours, including intermission. $30-35. (310)
Urinetown: The Musical
Coeurage Theatre Company at Lankershim Arts Center
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Robert Collins, Daniel Bellusci, and Ted Barton
Photo by Nardeep Khurmi
With an overpowering sense of dread about the future of our society overshadowing everything we do these days, there couldn’t be a better time for the indomitable Coeurage Theatre Company to resurrect this boisterously biting 2001 political satire—which, when it debuted in 2001, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and winning for Greg Kotis’s book and Kotis and Mark Hollman’s score. With a malignant and power-hungry magnate in charge who vows to “bring our message of hate to the entire world,” to say Urinetown: The Musical was ahead of its time is almost insulting; right now at this time in our history, it’s sadly right on the money.
With that pesky climate change our own new “leader” insists is fictional having become so harsh and the drought so severe that it’s now illegal for citizens to expel their bodily fluids without queuing up at public utilities where they pay a fee to relive themselves, the prospects for America the Scary is depicted—albeit with outrageously wicked humor—as prophetically dim and dystopian. If the huddled shivering citizens waiting in endless lines and hopping on one leg don’t agree to the cost hikes slapped on them by the greedy Urine Good Company, they are shipped off to Urinetown, a mysterious place where the detainees disappear without a trace.
Kotis and Hollman pay continuous deference to those who came before them, with continuously crafty flashes of homage throughout to such musicals as Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, and Evita. More pointedly, Urinetown is instantly reminiscent of the then-radical agenda lurking just below the brio in those brazen musical classics by Brecht and Weill. The early rendition of the raucous title song could be right out of Happy End, and there’s a lot of Mother Courage in Janna Cardia’s dynamic turn as facilities manager Penelope Pennywise, particularly as she fiercely belts out, “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” her hands placed firmly on her hips as though about to launch into “Alabama Song.”
Just like performing Brecht, Kotis and Hollman don’t make it easy on the performers or the audience, all of whom must link their imaginations together and traverse the fourth wall fearlessly as narrator Officer Lockstock (the deliciously malevolent Ted Barton) educates curious Raggedy Ann clone Little Sally (Nicole Monet) that too much exposition destroys a good show or that sometimes in a musical it’s easier for the audience to pay attention to one big theme rather than lots of little themes.
The performances are eager and meticulously rehearsed, the ensemble gamely honoring Christopher M. Albrecht’s spirited choreography, which fills the stage with energy and a wonderful sense of irony no one who’s ever been part of the creation of a musical could possibly miss. Even one knockout understudy on the night reviewed, the engagingly youthful Ethan Barker, was completely able to meld into the breakneck musical numbers without a hitch. These performers could easily present Urinetown in repertory with The Threepenny Opera without having to alter their delivery, strike Matt Scarpino’s suitably downtrodden set, or change out of the perfectly distressed rags designed by costumer Emily Brown-Kucera.
Daniel Bellusci is a standout as fresh-scrubbed resident hero Bobby Strong, the lowly public latrine attendant who leads a Les Miz–inspired rebellion against Urine Good Company and its owner, mustache-twirling villain Caldwell B. Caldwell (Gary Lamb). Everything good flushes down the toilet for Bobby when he realizes his new love interest, Hope (Ashley Kane), is the daughter of the dastardly Caldwell and has been groomed Trump-style by her father. She’s now recently returned from graduating from the most expensive university in the world where she majored in learning how to manipulate great masses of people.
The direction, by Kari Hayter, is akin to watching a sporting event: without filter, visually nonstop, and willing to go so far over the top the company could make a fortune selling whiplash collars. Brandon Baruch’s lighting is also a major asset, with jumbled strings of household lighting tumbling across the front of the stage, offering glaring footlight illumination for group scenes, interspersed with handheld light bulbs random cast members crouch down to shine in the faces of the principals as they ace Kotis and Hollman’s bittersweet ballads. Keyboardist Peter Shannon does a fine job as the production’s only live musician, a feat made more impressive by the full-blooded, precise musical direction of Gregory Nabours.
As Officer Lockstock reminds us, dreams come true only in happy musicals—oddly a little like life right at the moment even without an accompanying score to lighten the load. This unbelievably inventive and exceptionally unique revival of an exceptionally unique musical provides some much-needed laughs at a point when so many of us need a break from licking our wounds. Without a doubt, however, it will also gradually sink in that there’s a much deeper message here, meant to produce a simmering rage reminiscent of Peter Finch in Network that, hopefully, makes everyone who sees it realize that, like the manipulated residents of Urinetown, the fight against avarice and dominance—and for justice and ethical treatment for all—is just beginning. Pee freely, my friends, it’s our inalienable right.
November 20, 2016
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