Arts In LA

Archives 2017

Honky Tonk Laundry
Hudson Mainstage Theatre

No doubt more than happy to sport the title “King of the Jukebox Musicals,” playwright-creator-director Roger Bean can add another gem to his jewel-laden crown with the Los Angeles premiere of this hootenanny homage to the Country Western genre. Originally staged at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre some dozen years ago, the show now includes musical additions and deletions intended to improve the flow of Bean’s somewhat updated storyline.
   On that note, Bean is a wise director for not having reinvented the wheel when it comes to casting his piece. Featuring the production’s original cast, Bets Malone and Misty Cotton, the evening is blessed with one showstopper after another, backed by Jon Newton’s fully fleshed orchestrations. Individually, each performer can rattle the rafters with the perfect tonal qualities required for this type of music. And when performing the various duets, their voices become almost one in timbre, an absolute must given some of the harmonic requirements.

Malone plays Lana Mae Hopkins, a third-generation owner-operator of the Wishy-Washy Washateria, the design of which, by Tom Buderwitz, is out-of-this-world perfect with every conceivable nook and cranny offering Adam McPherson’s properties as eye candy for the viewer. Having arrived to discover her employee, Jennelle, is in the county hoosegow, Malone’s Lana Mae bemoans her professional and personal fate—more on husband Earl in a moment—with the wistful “I Need a Vacation.”
   Almost as if heaven-sent, in pops Cotton as the semi-bipolar Katie Lane Murphy, a local gal who is just one Valium away from taking out her cheating, live-in boyfriend, Danny. Within a few more songs from the show’s collection of nearly two dozen in total, and before the first act concludes, we learn a whole passel about these two. Cotton’s family history is laid out in “Independence Day,” while Malone offers words of wisdom and advice via “Stand by Your Man” and the self-revelatory “Who I Am.”
   As things proceed, we come to realize these two have some serious “man” problems on their hands. Cotton goes for broke with an almost demonically possessed comical version of “Before He Cheats” in which she recounts having vandalized Danny’s pickup truck. Meanwhile, Malone’s Lana Mae is eventually forced to conced husband Earl’s cheatin’ heart after Cotton’s equally hysterical rendition of “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” featuring just one example of choreographer James Vasquez’s consummate show-wide work. The result is a gut busting sight gag performed by Malone involving chocolate bars, crayons, a box of Krispy Kreme donuts, and a collection of thong underwear belonging to Earl’s bed bouncing mistress, Raylene. Oh, and a sizzling hot duet version of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’.”
   Having now been emotionally linked through their common circumstances, Katie Lane encourages Lana Mae to follow her heart and pursue her long-shelved dream of being a “Nashville sangin’ star.” The plan evolves into a one-night concert that brings us back from the intermission break. Bean and musical director Lyndon Pugeda pull out all the stops, lending even further credibility to Malone’s and Cotton’s unequaled talents. Here, too, costumer Renatta Lloyd, hair and makeup designer Byron Batista, and sound designer Cricket S. Myers top their own fantastic first-act production values.

Highlights of this show-within-a-show include a salute to the queens of the Grand Ole Opry in which Malone and Cotton bring to life the vocal stylings of Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Tammy Wynette. And what would a tour through Nashville’s version of “Your Hit Parade” be without some down-home country vocal gymnastics? Answering the call, these two triple-threats bring down the house as they combine a pair of songs including Bean’s original piece, composed with Adam McPherson, “I Wish That I Could Yodel.”
   But, for true melodic bliss, nothing surpasses Malone’s nearly heartbreaking rendition of real-life singer Terri Clark’s “Smile.” Among the full-throated belting and comic zaniness, this quiet, reflective moment, featuring the unparalleled talents of lighting designer Steven Young, is worth its weight in gold. Oh, and lest you think Danny, Earl, and even Jerry, the town’s oft-referred-to and only Uber driver, get off scot-free, rest assured they’re in attendance at the Act 2 concert, whether they realize it or not.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
August 26, 2017

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Independent Shakespeare Company in Griffith Park

There’s some pretty wild twistin’ goin’ on up at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park, and it’s not just the plotlines in Shakespeare’s comedic treatise on love, betrayal, and eventual reconciliation. It’s the 1950s. The jackets are plaid, the chiffon is flowing, and the socks are a-hoppin’. This production may be director and Independent Shakespeare Company co-founder David Melville’s slickest conceptual integration of a work by the Bard with a particular musical genre seen to date. From the cast’s topnotch leads to the indefatigably energetic members of the ensemble, this retooling of the company’s first-ever production (dating back to Hollywood’s Barnsdall Park some 14 years ago) is outstanding. And dang, can this group’s backup band take you down Memory Lane.
   The story is fairly simple which further serves Melville’s vision for the piece. Valentine, an intellectual young man, sets off from Verona to Milan in search of his fortune, fame, destiny, what have you. Once there, his heart is smitten by the stunning Silvia, already promised to a local gentleman by her father, the Duke. Meanwhile, back in Verona, Valentine’s best friend Proteus is in the throes of romance with local girl Julia. Upon being sent to Milan against his wishes by his own father, Proteus jettisons all thoughts of Julia in favor of lusting after Silvia, thus providing the story’s conflict. Banishments, concealed identities, comedic servants, hoodlums, and even an actor portraying a disgustingly smelly canine round out this wild and wacky tale.

As Valentine and Proteus, Nikhil Pai and Evan Lewis Smith handle Shakespeare’s language with such ease that nary a thought or emotion is missed. In particular, Pai’s reaction to the Duke’s forcing him to leave Verona is truly touching, while Smith’s first-act soliloquy justifying his rakish behavior in discarding his love for Julia elicited stridently negative verbal audience reactions.
   As Silvia, Sylvia Kwan is radiantly regal. But beware of her character’s eventual temper, which Kwan fervently unleashes on Smith’s Proteus, a comeuppance that resulted in shouts of acclamation from the hillside full of viewers.
   Erika Soto’s Julia is thoughtful one minute and impulsive the next. Soto’s ability to wring out every conceivable moment from her lengthy speeches and witty repartee opposite various other characters reveals an expert skill set. Whether as Julia or Sebastian, the male disguise she assumes in order to pursue Proteus to Milan, Soto is an onstage powerhouse.
   Supporting this quartet is a host of ISC’s brightest and best. William Elsman doubles admirably as the onstage drummer and the oh-so-regal Duke. Xavi Moreno and Melville are respective riots in the roles of Speed and Launce, servants to Valentine and Proteus. April Fritz was an audience favorite in the wisecracking, Brooklyn-accented role of Julia’s maid, Lucetta. Patrick Batiste, not only carrying the lion’s share of the vocal stylings, brings a lanky comedic charm to Julia’s compadre Sir Eglamour. And nobody holds a candle to Katie Powers-Faulk’s dance moves as a gun-toting biker chick Valentine encounters upon taking up residence as leader to the forest outlaws.
   But, for scene-stealing gusto, no one matches the chameleon-like talents of Lorenzo Gonzalez, who embodies a varied trio of roles. Gonzalez is commanding as Proteus’s father, Antonio. He’s a hoot as Crab, the aforementioned cur that invokes the repeated wrath of Melville’s Launce. And he brings down the house as the foppish, lisping, Italian-accented Thurio, Silvia’s originally intended.

The remainder of the band consists of Gerald McGrory on bass guitar, Melville playing a mean electric lead, and the show’s musical director Dave Beukers, easily one of the most talented keyboardists in Los Angeles. After all, just about anyone can play a stationary piano. In this case, however, a traditional upright winds up wheeled all over the stage with Buekers literally at its beck-and-call.
   Caitlin Lainoff’s singularly colored green back wall, featuring multiple doorways and window units, pops to life under Bosco Flannagan’s lighting design. Ruoxuan Li’s costumes are period perfect with special note given to the band’s matching suits and the outlaws’ leather ensemble. A remarkably prodigious amount of well-performed choreography, by Powers-Faulk, is incorporated into the show, not the least of which are the full company numbers that conclude both acts of this must-see production.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
August 25, 2017
First National Tour at Pantages Theatre

“How.” That’s the first word of Hamilton. The word, as a question, repeats throughout.
   Pretty much everyone who has seen or heard this musical agrees it is genius. The question remains, how did Lin-Manuel Miranda come up with this miracle?
   How does he tell the story of Alexander Hamilton in lyrics and music? Yes, music. Despite the “rap,” the score includes melody, harmony, and counterpoint.
   How does he tell a story that is in essence about writing, yet his writing almost entirely escapes self-consciousness and self-referentiality?
   And once Miranda created the piece, how did director Thomas Kail set it on the stage, so the audience sees and feels the story? (The first national tour is reviewed here, in its run at Pantages Theatre.)
   And how did Hamilton, the forgotten Founding Father of our nation, climb so high and fall so far. How did this orphan boy from the Caribbean get to America, rise within political ranks, create our financial system, and then plummet amid the vehement jealousy surrounding him?

Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry), self-described as “the damn fool that shot him,” narrates Hamilton’s story. The main figures in Hamilton’s life quickly appear onstage. Indeed, if the show has a fault, it’s that so much rich material goes by so quickly. This work doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator.
   As early as the opening number, the pairing of roles the actors play reveals more of the show’s genius. We hear that Hamilton’s son Philip (Rubén J. Carbajal) and his friend John Laurens (Carbajal again) died for him; Hercules Mulligan and James Madison (both played by Mathenee Treco), Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (both by Jordan Donica) “fought with him.” His wife Eliza (Solea Pfeiffer), her sister Angelica (Emmy Raver-Lampman), and too-close neighbor Maria (Amber Iman, doubling as third sister Peggy) passionately loved him. George Washington (Isaiah Johnson) wisely trusted him.
   With all this support and admiration, how could Hamilton fail? That’s the story here, as tragic as the Greeks ever wrote about.

Miranda’s music is as eloquent as his lyrics. Hamilton is energized, never cool, never laid-back. Even in his old age, there’s an underlying drive. The score begins in optimism. College drinking songs ensue. Revolution foments and, in a military march, “Yorktown” provides a stunning summary of the 1781 battle.
   At the top of Act Two, Miranda introduces Jefferson with syncopated jazz, cool and swinging. Hamilton’s downfall is propulsive and slightly atonal. His final correspondence with Burr is a polite minuet. Eliza’s finale is filigreed and knife sharp.
   Kail stages the nonstop, sung-through score vividly and fluidly. On David Korins’s multilevel set of brick and wood, seemingly not yet completed just as our nation’s history wasn’t and isn’t, Kail creates the action. It spans shipboard through polite drawing rooms and tough-talking cabinet rooms to the Weehawken dueling grounds.
   Perhaps better for the storytelling, no lead performances stand out as star turns, though the voices are captivating. Catching attention here is an oversized portrayal of snide, gleeful King George III by the wryly effervescent Rory O’Malley (chosen to give the post-show speech on opening night, warmly recognizing the behind-the-scenes theatermakers, including understudies and standbys).
   Likewise remarkable is Howell Binkley’s lighting. It changes the locale, mood, and tone of the story. One of the benefits of sitting in the balcony for this production is seeing the lighting from that angle.

These are the “hows” of the production. What of the “hows” of the characters? How did Hamilton fall? The same way he rose: through a dangerous mix of tremendous ego, tremendous ambition, and tremendous talent.
   How did Eliza survive her husband’s extramarital affair and her son’s death? She grew a steely spine and stepped out of her self-absorbed unhappiness to take action, to help others, to document her husband’s history. She’s a vital part of telling this story and, as women can manage to do, she gets the last, poignant, word.
   This show is indeed genius. The remaining “how” is how to afford and obtain tickets.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 21, 2017
Triptych Theatre Company at Vs. Theatre

Driving home from a summer job making sandwiches, in a grisly road accident, a 17-year old killed his 9-year-old sister. Fifteen years later, he talks about it—the collision, his family’s reactions, coping—in playwright Adam Rapp’s Nocturne.
   It’s in production by Triptych Theatre at the tiny Vs. Theatre in West Los Angeles, where we listen, breathlessly, to a 90-minute monologue that takes us down that road and the others traveled in search of forgiveness.
   Grief and guilt form the massive foundations on which Rapp builds his story, a tour-de-force piece, named for the Grieg piano piece the boy played at competitions—winning the smaller ones but never a big one.

Jamie Wollrab portrays the unnamed young man here, under the co-direction of James Eckhouse and Richard Schiff. Fortunately, the two directors seem to have agreed on a point-of-view for the production. It’s less musical than visual, not focusing on the piece’s musical forms nor on its intriguing use of language. But it’s certainly deeply grounded in the emotions of this family.
   Rapp wrote the middle of three scenes—the second movement, musically speaking—in the third-person voice, as The Son undoubtedly finds it easier to look at his life from the outside. Wollrab pulls out stacks of books, reads the titles, uses the tomes to create furniture in the New York City walkup with its bathtub in the kitchen. Behind upstage scrims, a piano, crashed car, and typewriter are illuminated as The Son’s memory educes them (scenic design by David Mauer).
   Wollrab works a mere few feet from the audience, his sad eyes looking like they’ve done 15 years of crying. His despondency floods the stage. But he recognizes the healing power of humor and lets it make him crack a smile or even a wry laugh.
   Wollrab also beautifully embodies the playful little girl, the fragile mother and the hoarse father, as The Son remembers them. Guilt and grief hang over The Son’s every thought and action. The law and the facts absolved him from guilt—yes, he was speeding, but the brakes failed. Still, his parents won’t forgive him, nor will he forgive himself.
   In Christina Bushner’s costume design, The Son’s clothing is clean but not pressed or polished, as if he can get only so far in his daily tasks, as if cleanliness alone is ample for where he is in life.

On opening night, one of the stage’s hanging lighting fixtures flickered noticeably, sometimes distractingly. Things happen, even in the city’s large theaters, and repairs probably began as soon as the audience filed out. But Wollrab’s actorly concentration was so intense, he either didn’t notice or he retained his professionalism and committed to his character’s story. People face bigger problems, greater worries, than a flickering Fresnel, and this production reminds us to heal our hearts and not sweat the superficialities.

Dany Margolies
July 24, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

The Rainbow Bridge
Ruskin Group Theatre

When the audience enters the theater, onstage is an examining table bearing a small beagle snuggled in a soft little towel. Oh, dear. Are we going to be laughing or crying?
   There’s cause for both, throughout The Rainbow Bridge. Playwright Ron Nelson filled his play with funny lines, and there’s quite a bit of life’s truths in there. But the work needs a rethink. It can and should be stronger.
   It centers on Jerry (Paul Schackman). He’s a lawyer and decent guy, but he’s haunted by the way his mother and sister treated him when he was younger. They have passed on, his sister Amanda (Mary Carrig) shooting herself, and their mom, Lois (Lynne Marie Stewart), slipping and falling in the blood. Oddly, that seems funny here.
   When Jerry takes his ailing beagle to the vet (Jaimi Paige in a perfectly calibrated performance), she convinces him to euthanize the pup. But how this crazy vet has kept her license is impossible to fathom. She’s too upset to administer the final meds but not too upset to blatantly seduce Jerry.
   She makes Jerry read aloud a poem titled “The Rainbow Bridge,” about meeting our loved ones on “the other side.” And, cue magic music, Lois and Amanda return to haunt Jerry at every inconvenient moment.

Nelson has the opportunity to say much about growth and healing. Many of us carry with us the ghosts of our pasts. But as of now, the play could use restructuring and a bit more of a universal lesson—without sacrificing any of its humor.
   First and foremost among the dramaturgical problems, the protagonist doesn’t learn or change much, but his sister does. Amanda begins to realize why she has picked the wrong men, she begins to cry when she sees an example of real love, and she figures out how to get back across the Rainbow Bridge.
   The conflict is in the bickering between Jerry and his family. Even though he still fears mom, we never believe he’ll go through with the deadly crimes Lois wants him to commit. Mostly, there’s not a chance he’ll disappoint his sweet wife (Emily Jerez). So he’s doesn’t seem to be battling his conscience at any deep level. Nor does Jerry’s client, Theodore the arsonist (Edric Carter at the performance reviewed), seem eager enough to go through with any actus reus. He’d rather share a smoke with Jerry.

The f-word is overused throughout. At this point it’s lazy writing. When used in a play once or twice, it might give us the measure of a character. Here it has lost its potency, with a single exception: The yoga teacher (Mouchette Van Helsdingen), finally losing her center, earns a laugh with it.
   Director Michael Myers gives the piece polish and adds sight gags that zip by. Hillary Bauman’s scenic design relies on perfectly executed choreography, the actors and crew working in smooth sync, as strips of canvas are unfolded and reversed and removed to create each scene.
   As of now, however, this work is a series of sketches that needs a better throughline. A pot of gold lurks somewhere in it.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 23, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
Cigarettes & Chocolate/
Hang Up

Pacific Resident theatre

In their West Coast premieres, two one-act radio plays by Anthony Minghella grace the smaller stage at Pacific Resident Theatre. Though the two are produced as radio plays, the actors speaking from music stands, Michael Peretzian directs with enough subtext and reactions to start the audience’s imagination moving and filling in any blanks.
   Minghella (writer-director of The Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient ) wrote Hang Up in the 1980s, when telephone technology was different but human feelings were of course the same as they are today. Minghella and Peretzian flay those feelings to reveal a couple’s innermost secrets even when the pair speaks in superficialities and lies.
   She (Molly Schaffer) phones He (Michael Balsley) late at night, when he is not expecting to hear from her. Soon the barbs come out, starting small with such topics as the music she wanted to listen to but couldn’t. She asks him to call her back, and the balance of power shifts.
   He tells her he misses her. She won’t say she misses him. Undercurrents pour across the stage, from the dialogue and from the performances. Jealousy, regret, neediness, anxiety—these appear fleetingly but cuttingly in the actors’ voices and on their faces.

She speaks of a relationship in which the man does all the talking for the deaf woman. Silence is a shield, a sword, a blessing, and a burden. And it takes on a large role in the next play here, 1988’s Cigarettes & Chocolate.
   Gemma (Marwa Bernstein) has given herself a vow of silence. This produces in her family and friends a compulsion to talk, mostly on voicemail as they leave rambling messages for her. Her silence also arouses their self-absorbed guilt, as they blame themselves for her choice.
   Her partner Rob (Matt Letscher) has had an affair with their friend Lorna (Ursula Brooks). He’s now certain this prompted Gemma’s silence. The prissy Alistair (Jaxon Duff Gwillim) has professed his love for Gemma in an ill-advised letter, then blames the letter for her withdrawal. Her friend Gail (Tania Getty) is in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy. Is Gemma jealous enough to refuse to speak?
   Two good listeners take in the onslaught of guilt, while the talkers ignore the fact that these two, too, are silent, and their silence is soothing. Sample (Balsley) is Rob’s tolerant chum, Conception (Schaffer) is an Argentine psychiatrist-turned-housemaid, and they gently nod or look quizzical at all the right moments.

Did any of these people cause Gemma’s silence? Or is she mourning the lost opportunity to adopt a Vietnamese boy she spotted in Italy? Or is she mourning, or admiring, a self-immolating monk? Gemma speaks in soliloquies, to herself and to us, in Minghella’s signature elliptical style.
   Under Peretzian’s direction, the performances are evocative, clear, simple, and moving. British accents, from these American actors, are thoroughly convincing.
   Rebecca Kessin’s sound design adds restaurant clinks and nearby trains, helping the audience picture each setting.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 17, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
The Cake
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

North Carolina bakery owner Della (Debra Jo Rupp) announces at Cake’s beginning that nothing is as gratifying as baking a perfect cake. It is the ultimate satisfaction. Frostings, fillings, she loves them all, and her enthusiasm for her craft has landed her a gig on one of those reality television bake-off shows. Her imagination can hardly fathom the honor it might be to win, and her warm and friendly manner might just add the magic element to make that happen.
   However, there’s always a cat among the pigeons, and into her shop comes Macy (Carolyn Ratteray), a politically active, rather smug and condescending young woman with notebook in hand who starts querying Della about her opinions on a multitude of topics, including the evils of sugar. As their conversation becomes more uncomfortable, it’s clear that Della isn’t going to win Macy over with her brand of small-town charm.
   Things look up, though, when Jen (Shannon Lucio), a young woman Della helped raise, arrives with the news that she is engaged to be married. Della’s initial joy quickly turns to distress when she learns that Macy is Jen’s intended. Her personal and religious values won’t let her celebrate by making the wedding cake.

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter’s simple story packs a punch, thanks to Rupp and Lucio’s sensitive portrayals of very human characters for whom there are no glib or easy solutions. No matter your personal or political persuasions, Brunstetter challenges ideology by looking at the conflict each character faces on a very personal and believable level. That she adds considerable humor helps mitigate the nature of a play that tackles an issue that is currently in the courts and has passionate people on both sides concerned about the resolution.
   Brunstetter’s Macy is the most problematic character in the play. As the spokesperson for a host of social ills, she is more contrived than the other characters and has a greater challenge to garner sympathy. Ratteray gives it her best, but her character shows mostly superficial growth from beginning to end. Rupp shines as the conflicted woman who has to confront this painful issue and others in her life that she has ignored. In a nuanced performance by Joe Hart, Della’s husband Tim has to face an issue of his own that adds texture to this story of personal and societal changes.
   Lucio, too, portrays the small-town girl whose desire for the wedding of her childhood dreams clashes with her partner’s idealistic Weltanschauung. Director Jennifer Chambers doesn’t overly sentimentalize Jen’s struggles, which gives more heft to the characterization. Chambers manages a studied yet sympathetic take on all sides of the issue, and though there is a pleasant resolution at the end of the play, it isn’t the kumbaya so often neatly wrapped up in pink ribbon.

Set designer Pete Hickok’s bakery makes a fine backdrop for the unfolding story, giving Rupp a counter to retreat behind when things heat up. Pablo Santiago produces inventive lighting in scenes where the spectral voice of George (Morrison Keddie), the MC of the baking show, interrupts the action to challenge Della with stentorian overtones. Jeff Gardner’s sound design is effectively dramatic.
   This is primarily a comedy with drama thrown in to give the treatment of gay marriage and conservatism a lighter touch than is often the case. There’s no doubt that Brunstetter has a point of view, liberal to be sure, but it isn’t hammered home, and there are some universal understandings that can be gleaned after peering into the lives of these perfectly normal people in conflict.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
July 7, 2017
3–D Theatricals at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center

Will the farmer and the cowman ever be friends? Maybe only in the theater.
   The South Bay’s eminent musical theater production company 3–D Theatricals has been promising a “re-imagined” version of Oklahoma!. First produced on Broadway in 1943, with music by Richard Rodgers, and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, the work long ago upended theater with its groundbreaking storytelling.
   Now, director T.J. Dawson makes good on his promise, starting with the overture. Native Americans burn sage and shake rattles in the story’s cornfield. That certainly is re-imagined.
   The Indians are townsfolk here, as are African-Americans and Caucasians. Dawson posits a racially mixed Midwest rather than a midcentury musical theater one.

We still get Laurey (Julia Aks), the sturdy, stubborn farm girl living with her Aunt Eller (Tracy Rowe Mutz). Laurey is still wooed by cowboy Curly (Zachary Ford) and by farmhand Jud Fry (Rufus Bonds Jr.). Her pal Ado Annie (Kelley Dorney) still can’t decide between steady Will (Tom Berklund) and exotic Ali Hakim (Drew Boudreau).
   We still get an astonishing array of the most glorious songs—from “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” through the title song and finale—sung beautifully, for the most part. Those lucky enough to see this production won’t be disappointed in Aks and her silvery light-opera voice, particularly in the deceptively frothy “Many a New Day,” nor in Bonds and his velvety baritone, particularly in the unusually morbid and here serious “Pore Jud Is Daid.”
   Music director Julie Lamoureux makes the lush score playful and buoyant, toying with tempos and letting her vocal soloists work in a bit of syncopation.
   Dawson’s revolving stage lets the whole look cinematic while making scene changes seamless, as we stay immersed in the story.
   Equally thrilling is the choreography, by Leslie Stevens. The crowd numbers, particularly the Act 2 opener “The Farmer and the Cowman,” might look to the audience like a chaotic mess. But that’s what spontaneous country dances look like. And of course here, thanks to Stevens’s painstaking feats of blocking, no one bumps into anyone, no one gets out of step.
   Disappointingly, the footwork in her dream sequence (elegant dancers Missy Marion and Dustin True) is masked by dry ice blowing along the floor (the chemicals can be smelled in the audience).

Good literature remains relevant and powerful throughout the ages. That’s why even fresh eyes, though not young children, will appreciate the greatness of this classic American musical.
   Note, however, that the focus of Oklahoma! for those who delve behind the gorgeous music is usually squarely on Laurey’s awakening. Here it’s on racism, made even more threatening when the Caucasian Curly suggests that the African-American Jud hang himself, and more disturbing when the townsfolk hold an impromptu trial that skirts legal procedure.
   But with this re-imagined version comes decision-making. Bonds and Dawson seem not to have settled on a single characterization of Jud Fry. Is Jud of substandard intelligence? Or socially inept? Does he repeatedly scratch his scalp out of nervousness or a lack of clean housing? Why does he shuffle meekly around Laurey and Eller but grow steely when alone with Curly?
   Quibbles aside, at the show’s end it’s electrifying and unifying to see this cast, racially diverse, younger (a toddler graces the stage) and older, singing as one: “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand.” You’re doing fine, Oklahoma!

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 19, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

The Book of Mormon
Pantages Theatre

The Book of Mormon is a phenomenon. It was geared to offend everyone and yet is so inoffensive that there have been no boycotts or controversy. The show has sold out on Broadway for 2586 performances and counting, in London, and on tours across the world. Even more surprising, the main target, the Church of Latter Day Saints, takes advertisements out in the playbill, giving money to a show that ribs it nightly. It’s obvious why such a jagged little pill goes down so smoothly. Book of Mormon is a hysterical musical pastiche created by people who love musicals.
   Irreverent and yet strangely respectful of its characters, The Book of Mormon is the brainchild of Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Anyone who has seen an episode of the long-running potty-mouthed cartoon on Comedy Central knows Parker and Stone commonly walk (and fall over) a fine line between satire and offensive. Here, they manage to juggle an extraordinary balance of X-rated songs, belly laughs, a morality play, and a touching buddy tale, featuring tragic bloodshed more apropos for an episode of the Keifer Sutherland series 24, but it all manages to work.

The youthful cast in the current tour consists of mostly newcomers fresh out of college, but their talent and professionalism match a Broadway cast. As Elder Price, the self-seeking new missionary who expected a life of ringing doorbells in glorious Orlando, only to be trapped in war-torn Uganda, Gabe Gibbs has a powerful voice and more teeth showing than the villain in Jaws. His overambitious smile projects Elder Price’s façade of pure ecstasy when he is actually dying inside. Conner Peirson’s Mickey Mouse voice and dumpy walk turn Elder Cunningham into a delirious cartoon worthy of South Park. Still, his sincerity and desire to help others shines through, making his character the play’s hero.
   Leanne Robinson, who shockingly made her debut with this tour, is a stick of dynamite. With a voice like a true diva in an enchanting persona, her Nabulungi steals the show from the rest of the talented cast. PJ Adzima is an energizer bunny of jubilation as the sexually buttoned-up Elder McKinley. His beet-red cheeks and twinkling eyes betray his character’s ability to “Turn It Off” as his main song claims.
   The songs riff on the classic musicals, sometimes hinting at successful tunes from the past. There are motifs in “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” very similar to the ear to Alan Menken’s “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop of Horrors, “Joseph Smith American Moses” is a pitch-perfect spoof of The King and I’s “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” while the opening of “I Believe” all but thumbs its nose at The Sound of Music’s “I Have Confidence.”
   The choreography is more infectious than lice spread across a kindergarten classroom. Casey Nicholaw has the cast bouncing around like Mexican jumping beans. Everyone is in constant motion, spreading a kinetic energy into the audience.

One issue, at least for those in the center orchestra where this reviewer sat on press night: The sound reverb, particularly in Act 1, was set so high that much of the lyrics were difficult to hear. Because the naughty lyrics offer most of the fun, not hearing many jokes was a major issue. The mixing may have been fixed during intermission because most of the lyrics were decipherable in Act 2.
   Often tours that have been traveling for years lose their power over time and new casts become diluted carbon copies of the original actors. Book of Mormon smartly assembles a talented band of performers to capture the original’s spirit.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
June 4, 2017
Long Way Down
Sherry Theatre

Set somewhere in the Deep South where the accents are thick and the IQs are low, playwright Nate Eppler’s West Coast premiere is a tough row to hoe. The beneficiaries of their dead father’s “estate,” Saralee and Maybelline reside in a ramshackle house bequeathed to them and their incarcerated (therefore never seen) elder sibling, Chanel. Occupying the abode with them is Saralee’s husband, Duke. Rounding out this quartet of characters is Karen, the nonrelated catalyst in Eppler’s tale, who haunts the premises as though she has legitimate grounds for her presence.
   On its face, Eppler’s story has the potential to be much better than is eventually realized in this production. Maybelline clearly has developmental issues exhibited by a childlike naïveté and inability to carry on anything more than the most-rudimentary of conversations. Saralee and Duke are in the very beginning stages of their first pregnancy. His debilitating depression, leaving him unable to work in his family’s construction/excavation business, has Saralee frustrated to no end. Her answer is to sell the house, divide the assets, and pursue a “do over” for just the two of them. Clearly, she’s the only one of these three with any semblance of common sense.
   Enter Karen, a whacked out pro-life activist Eppler paints with the broadest of pejorative brushstrokes. She spars with Saralee, ignores Duke, and manipulates Maybelline to the point that it’s no wonder things turn out as they do.

Still, the fault for the failure of this saga to resonate lies squarely at the feet of its author. Eppler falls into the trap of having to constantly one-up whatever has just occurred in order for the plot to go anywhere. The result is an almost snicker-inducing outrageousness, which director Steve Jarrard and his cast do their level best to combat.
   Unfortunately, due to Eppler’s repetitively constructed scenes and dialogue, none here are able to hurdle the one-dimensional crafting of their personages. Christa Haxthausen manages, to some degree, to clue in on Saralee’s motivation. But, with the least amount of onstage time, her character’s ability to drive things forward in a logical manner is cut woefully short. As Duke, Lane Wray’s work amounts to nothing more than a series of cameo appearances, perhaps intended by Eppler to break up the proceedings. Instead, Wray is sentenced to wander the stage aimlessly bemoaning Duke’s lack of meaning in his life.
   Meg Wallace as Maybelline and Lauri Hendler as Karen carry the majority of Eppler’s script. Wallace is saddled with the most difficult of tasks: bringing to a life a simple-minded adult without falling prey to a one-note performance. There are a few rare moments in which she’s up to the challenge, but Eppler gives her very little to work with. Likewise, Hendler struggles valiantly to rise above the writing or lack thereof. We see Karen’s frustration in dealing with those she thinks are beneath her, but missing from Hendler’s performance is Karen’s ability to turn on a dime from cajoling endearment to frighteningly murderous rage.

Although his scenic design exudes the nearly uninhabitable features of this dwelling, Jarrard’s direction lacks the feeling that events are spiraling out of control faster than Eppler’s characters can make sense of them. Scenes feel disjointed due to delayed cue calls. Unnatural pauses in dialogue diminish the play’s progress. And, the inevitably called-for stage violence feels under-rehearsed, as though it’s taking place in slow motion so no one is injured.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
May 23, 2017
The Monster Builder
South Coast Repertory

Self-identified genius Gregor (Danny Scheie) has just built a modern, stark-white castle on a grand scale, and two young architects, Rita (Susannah Schulman Rogers) and Dieter (Aubrey Deeker), have arrived to visit Rita’s classmate, Tamsin (Annie Abrams), who is Gregor’s wife. Rita is wowed by Gregor’s bold design, but Dieter is less enthusiastic.
   Thomas Buderwitz’s stunning architectural setting provides a backdrop for playwright Amy Freed’s newest comedy about the creative process gone awry. As destination architecture has seemingly become the raison d’etre for worldwide installations by famous architects and upsetting the status quo, Freed’s apocalyptic treatise on the ways creation by the master is fodder for satire is witty and timely. Taking a look at “starchitects”—those celebrated idols who have built grandiose buildings to critical acclaim—Freed mocks the outrageous and pretentious nature of their fame.
   Gregor is larger than life, and he revels in his celebrity. When he learns that Dieter and Rita have a potential commission for the renovation of a historic landmark, he pulls strings to get the job for himself. Meantime, the couple has gotten a job with Pamela (Colette Kilroy) and Andy (Gareth Williams), two wealthy clients whose architectural plans also add a humorous dimension to the unfolding story. Luring Rita into a professional relationship, Gregor sets about unleashing evil genius on his unsuspecting disciple.

The story is clever and full of conspiracies, and the collaborative acting skill of the ensemble elevates the production far beyond the pedestrian. Scheie gleefully takes command of each scene, allowing every cast member to play off his energy. Abrams has a flair for comedy, producing memorable moments as the not-so-bright trophy wife. Kilroy is the quintessential rich matron whose wealth doesn’t comport with good taste, and Williams is a genial self-made millionaire whose practical approach to life comes in handy in dealing with Gregor. Deeker acquits himself well as the betrayed builder, and Rogers has fine moments under Gregor’s spell.
   Kent Dorsey’s lighting adds dimension to Buderwitz’s several settings, and Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes are appropriately contemporary. Rodolfo Ortega’s original music and soundscape also beef up the storyline. Directed by Art Manke with superior tongue in cheek, the production heats up as the villain needs to be vanquished.
   The satire is broad, the humor Mephistophelian, and the audience responds accordingly. A clever special effect at play’s end puts the finishing touches on the melodramatic story of sophisticated mayhem. Freed continues to be a master of theatrical comedy.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
May 21, 2017
The Bodyguard
Pantages Theatre

If in 1992 the films on your must-see list included Reservoir Dogs, The Player, Howard’s End, Orlando, or even Wayne’s World, Lawrence Kasdan’s The Bodyguard probably didn’t make your list.
   But that film has indeed been musicalized and brought to the stage, adapted by Alexander Dinelaris. Its national tour is basking at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre, where the late Whitney Houston’s legion fans can hear her megahits receive full power-ballad treatment.
   Alas, those who want meat on the bones of their musical theater might want to pass on this one. Light on character development, light on songs that delve into emotions, and yet light on lightness, its book disappoints.
   On the memorable side, the show starts with gunshots, while the audience is still chatting, before the house lights have gone out. That’s a brave start for director Thea Sharrock.
   With interruptions along the way by a parade of Houston hits, however, the remainder of this show is a shallow, wish-fulfillment thriller.
   What kinds of wishes? For some women, it’s lounging at home in skinny jeans and voluminous sweaters on a great hair day, while a large staff stokes the home fires. For some men, it’s melting and bedding an icy celebrity. For some celebrities, it’s stepping into a pair of thousand-dollar rockstud boots and slipping into a dive bar for karaoke while remaining kinda sorta incognito.

Deborah Cox stars as Rachel Marron. Like Houston, Rachel is a megastar worshipped by fans, some of whom worship too much. She has a stalker (Jorge Paniagua), a former military man who has the smarts and means to breach all the security around her thus far.
   Judson Mills stars as the bodyguard her staff hires to give her greater protection. A former Secret Service agent, Frank claims he’s uninterested in entering the world of celebrity. Then he hears Rachel has a 10-year-old son and quickly agrees to take the job.
   His relationship with young Fletcher (the adorable and talented Kevelin B. Jones III, alternating with Douglas Baldeo) brightens the show. And, despite possible audience concerns about Frank’s motives, Frank seems to have a better parental relationship with Fletcher than does Rachel.
   Frank and Rachel get it on, then don’t. Rachel’s sister (Jasmin Richardson) feels the warmies for Frank, who to her surprise doesn’t reciprocate.
   Rachel’s emotional peak comes at the show’s end, when she gets to sing “I Will Always Love You.” The show’s comedic peak comes when Frank sings karaoke, badly. Dance highlights (choreography by Karen Bruce) re-create or perhaps mock the pulse-pumping onstage gyrations of pop concerts.
   Cox has many of Houston’s astounding vocal abilities. But, at least on opening night, she displayed little emotional heft and none of the outsize star power of Houston. Mills is appropriately cool, and chisel-jawed. Rachel’s entourage is played by actors who fit the bill but, like the two leads, aren’t given material to make their roles indelible: Alex Corrado as Rachel’s personal security guard, Charles Gray as her manager, Jonathan Hadley as her publicist, and Jarid Faubel as an FBI agent.

On the way out after the show, what was the audience talking about? Voices, dancing, missing Houston, transposing the movie to the present despite our gun-wielding society? Nope. Indeed, no one was humming the world-famous tunes. The audience was singing the praises of the taut abs onstage. You can’t wrest that kind of enjoyment from Reservoir Dogs.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 8, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

The Music Man
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

Even among the best of musicals from the Golden Age, The Music Man stands out for its exhilarating score, classic storytelling, and memorable characters. This production of it lives up to the musical’s name.
   The book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson, based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey, tell of an Iowa town, usually beset by gossip and indolence, during the month when traveling salesman Harold Hill upends that world.
   How good is the score? It won the 1958 Tony Award for best musical, snatching the honor away from West Side Story. It includes such classics as the invigorating “Seventy-Six Trombones”; the soaring encapsulation of finding love, “Till There Was You”; and that beautiful song about hope in our lives, “The Wells Fargo Wagon.”

But face its basic fact: It glorifies a conman, ultimately promising his redemption and his faithfulness to the lovely woman who rescues him.
   Still, doesn’t Harold’s con improve their lives? He puts music in the souls of these folk. The school board members who have loathed one another suddenly form a barbershop quartet and can’t bear to be apart. Tommy, the town hoodlum whose father is a (gasp) day laborer, finds in Harold an adult who trusts him with responsibility, and suddenly Tommy shows industriousness, ingenuity and leadership. And, as any music teacher will agree, giving children the opportunity to play music together builds a group ethic and a sense of belonging.
   There’s only one problem: Hill doesn’t know one note from another, and the one woman he doesn’t spellbind is the town’s librarian and piano teacher, Marian Paroo.  

At the Norris, Brent Schindele makes Harold a bounding, charismatic figure, performing with ease but always hinting at Harold’s underlying compulsion to scam and scram.
   Katharine McDonough plays Marian, the character from literature through the ages whose pure love redeems a miscreant. McDonough makes Marian savvy yet caring, her defiant chin at the show’s end worth a thousand words. Above this, her voice is glorious: silvery and clear, yet expressive.
   Cathy Newman plays Marian’s mother with warm charm, adorably desperate for Marian to marry. Travis Burnett-Doering plays Marian’s tiny brother, Winthrop, whose transformation from morose to joyous is not only believable but also inspiring here. Olivia Park plays Marian’s piano student Amaryllis, impressively singing and acting, darling in her duet with McDonough.
   Greg Nicholas is Mayor Shinn, a big blustery politician who can’t get his facts and the city’s laws straight and who can’t seem to speak a complete thought but always manages to squeeze in a malapropism. Mary Murphy-Nelson plays the mayor’s wife, not as outrageously over the top as Hermione Gingold’s 1962 film portrayal but about as funny.

Thanks to director Todd Nielsen, as much fun as the production provides, it seems infused with old-fashioned charm and dignity. His sets and staging are simple when they can be, elaborate when they need to be. Sets, provided by The Music and Theatre Company, slip in and out unobtrusively and are wielded by a well-rehearsed stage crew.
   The chorus sounds superb under music director Sean Alexander Bart, and choreographer Daniel Smith pays lovely homage to the show’s original choreographer, Onna White.
   The ending feels a little abrupt. Perhaps the film version, in which the handful of ragtag, out-of-tune kids morphs into the marching band of our imaginations, has spoiled us. At least a sing-along chorus of “Seventy-Six Trombones” for the bows here might have soothed our savage breasts.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 24, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

Laughter on the 23rd Floor
Little Fish Theater

1953, America. Mass media are contributing to the dumbing down of the nation, women are battling second-class status, and a toxic demagogue who strangely worked his way into a position of power has a stranglehold over decent, law-abiding citizens.
   At the same time, national television consists of three networks. Among the most-watched programs, at least on the coasts, is comic genius Sid Caesar’s variety-comedy series Your Show of Shows, still considered a broadcasting landmark.
   One of the writers on that show was a young Neil Simon. In 1993, Simon immortalized his time there in his play Laughter on the 23rd Floor, currently enjoying a befitting run at San Pedro’s Little Fish Theatre.

Holly Baker-Kreiswirth directs this snappy show, well calibrating the comedy, giving the laughs breathing room while keeping the action scooting along. She also cast well.
   According to rumors—and Simon’s admissions—the characters here are based on the real-life talents penning Caesar’s show. Max Prince (Don Schlossman) is Caesar, and he’s as much a zany whacko in the room as Caesar was on television. Sure, Schlossman goes over the top, but who’d want to watch a sedate, businesslike genius of comedy?
   Also over the top is Ira (Daniel Tennant), unsurprisingly a stand-in for Mel Brooks. Tennant plays the rather vulgar, exceedingly hypochondriacal, unpopular but undeniably talented Ira unapologetically full out.
   Head writer Val (Richard Perloff), likely the real-life Mel Tolkin, still has the heavy Russian accent of his youth, but his commands of English and comedy are all-American. Perloff does superb work weaving some of the show’s funniest lines into the jittery sobriety of a mature man who is wise enough to fear his boss.
   Kenny (Chris McNair) is likely Larry Gelbart, who began his professional writing career at age 16. Brian (Ryan Knight), the token gentile, is the kid who despite the odds believes he can make it to Hollywood—and eventually does. Milt (Bill Wolski) is our hilarious introduction to the lunatics in this very talented asylum.

Women have broken the glass ceiling, or at least through to the 23rd floor here, though they’re not finding it completely sexism-free. Carol (Melissa Brandzel) keeps up with the men in the comedy quips, even through her pregnancy (yet always wearing a hat to work, courtesy of Diana Mann’s period-evoking costuming). And though Helen (Kathryn Farren) is Max’s secretary, she wants to write, aptitude be damned.
   And the young Simon on his first job? Here he’s Lucas, played by Jeff Rolle Jr. Rolle is African-American, and frankly it takes a moment for our lizard brains to accept him as Simon. But Rolle is adorable, our warm and hospitable guide to the mad world of television writing, and he’s funny without forcing a moment.
   The play turns serious and slower in its third act, but that befits its historical background. The nation was barely beginning to recover from the war when we were asked to deal with our own monstrous fear-monger. Here, Max must face the network’s edicts: trim the show by a half-hour, lay off a writer and accept babysitting by a management representative.

The f-word gets used, a lot. Somehow Simon makes it funny and not inappropriate for a group of writers pressured to create on schedule, and who did so perhaps better than anyone else in entertainment history.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 24, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

Farragut North
Odyssey Theatre

What’s it like being a high-level presidential campaigner? You know, one of the folks who tell candidates what to say and how to say it. They ain’t no lilies of the field. They toil, gruelingly long hours, and oh do they spin. They’re characters in Farragut North, a 2008 play by Beau Willimon. You know, the creator of the Neflix series House of Cards, about horrifyingly dastardly power plays in Washington, D.C.
   Willimon’s play, a guest production at the Odyssey in West Los Angeles, follows a day in the life of Stephen (Jack Tynan), the 25-year-old press secretary for Democratic presidential candidate Gov. Morris (unseen). Stephen’s boss is Paul (Geoffrey Lower), the governor’s campaign manager. We meet them as they’re having drinks with The New York Times political reporter Ida (Jennifer Cannon), who in this production of the play is getting very handsy with the men, while Ben (Adam Faison), the young deputy press secretary they treat as a go-fer, soaks up every word.
   While Ben observes them, we observe director Cathy Fitzpatrick Linder’s choices. On opening night, not all the voices were fully audible. More troublingly, not all the characters were fleshed to their optimums.

One imagines a person in Stephen’s position to be sharp-witted, thoroughly impassioned and single-mindedly driven. Tynan doesn’t play him this way. His Stephen pleasantly poses as a strategist, as if he were still wondering what his career path might be. He certainly doesn’t appear smart enough to tame the traveling press corps. So when he meets in secret with Tom, the rival candidate’s campaign manager (Andy Umberger), it probably wouldn’t occur to the audience that Stephen would be savvy enough to consider, even for a moment, a double-cross. But there it is, dropped into his unwitting lap. Out of stupidity, avarice or the belief that he’s invincible, he meets with Tom in an out-of-the-way bar, and Tom invites him to join the rival campaign.
   We don’t see in Stephen’s face or actions why he took this meeting. There’s certainly no malice, no duplicitousness here, just wrong place at the wrong time. That’s not of great dramatic interest and doesn’t turn the character into a tragic hero.
   Molly (Margaret Fegan), the 19-year-old intern, has entered the mix. She’s opportunistic and seems to love wielding power as much as Stephen does. Yet Linder has her actors play the bedroom scenes as a romance. These people are backstabbers. Proving that the scars they leave are borne by the voters, a sweet waiter named Frank (Francisco J. Rodriguez, doubling as a Los Angeles Times reporter given, natch, short shrift) speaks from the heart about what the previous presidential administration has done to his family.

Throughout the play, the f-word gets used inordinately frequently and begins to distract. Maybe that’s what one hears on campaigns, but a more judicious use of it would have been appreciated.
   One other issue may keep the audience from becoming engaged with the characters: The lighting doesn’t sufficiently illuminate the actors. Every scene takes place in murky, dappled twilight, whether in a hotel room, airport lobby, bar or press conference.
 But shining through the dimness is Lower as Paul. We can feel Paul’s competence, his passion, his fighting through the weariness of a long, bitter political battle. Paul’s monologue about his first campaign, as he poured his own money into his candidate’s run, provides the most absorbing moments of the production.
   The play’s title refers to the D.C. Metro stop that underlies the heart of Washington’s lobbying and political-consulting district. According to Willimon, this is where political has-beens work. It’s where Tom tells Stephen he’ll end up. But this Stephen is so convivial, seems so harmless, he’ll have no trouble finding work back on some other foolish candidate’s campaign.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 17, 2017

Republished courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News
An American in Paris
Pantages Theatre

Most musicals either grab the audience or do not. It’s a risk to leave the audience a bit unsettled by intermission since there’s the chance people may walk out. An American in Paris takes that gamble, never giving audiences the assurance that the dangling story lines will ever gel, but by Act Two, it’s clear that the adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1951 musical is in very assured hands and quite a marvel. Featuring luscious George and Ira Gershwin songs and inventive dance, An American in Paris is a treat.
   It follows the storyline of Alan Jay Lerner’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner), an ex-GI, lives the bohemian life in Paris after the fall of Nazism. The musical, with a libretto by Craig Lucas, focuses on Jerry falling in love with Lise (Sara Esty), the fragile ballerina from Monte Carlo, with whom his two friends Henri (Nick Spangler) and Adam (Etai Benson) are also smitten. Once each discovers that the other two have designs on her, resentment festers. Adding to the romantic entanglements, pretty heiress Milo (Emily Ferranti) sets her sights on Jerry even if it means paying for his attentions.
   It takes two acts to understand how subversive and shrewd Lucas’s libretto truly is. The audience spends Act One following Jerry, who is a cad and not very compelling. Gene Kelly played the central character in the movie and his Jerry was self-involved and cock-of-the-walk, but he always followed his heart; Scribner’s Jerry is an extreme version. Only after absorbing the whole story does one realize that, despite the order of the curtain calls, Jerry Mulligan is not the protagonist.
   The character who grows and learns, who endears himself to the audience, who captures the musical’s major themes, is Adam, the American piano player, who was injured in the war and remained in Paris to compose music and heal his heart from the damage of mortal combat. Throughout the musical, Jerry is a snake who stalks a girl and hurts everyone around him, while Adam is the romantic. Adam personifies the fragility and talent of composer George Gershwin, while Jerry is only an obstacle to everyone.
   The musical doesn’t even bother to showcase Jerry’s talents. We know Adam is talented, since he wrote lovely songs such as “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “I Got Rhythm.” Lise is a passionate dancer we see showcased throughout the evening. Yet the audience never sees Jerry’s art (if the gorgeous projections are his, there’s no indication given). The only artistry of Jerry’s that we witness is designs for the title ballet, yet they look tacky, like they were inspired by the Partridge Family bus.
   After spending much of the musical annoyed that there is no compelling reason to care about Jerry’s travails, it’s revelatory to understand Lucas doesn’t want the audience to care about Jerry. This is Adam’s story, obvious from the beginning since Adam, not Jerry, opens the musical talking to the audience, essentially narrating.
   Lucas also veers away from the movie by bringing the shame, betrayal, and anger of post-war Paris into the story. Many of the characters are hobbled or motivated by what they experienced in the war. The book always recognizes that good people can do thoughtless things and calls the characters on their selfishness.

Of the cast, the two actors who grab the audience are Benson as the damaged but lovable composer and Ferranti as the wealthy patron. Both are triple threats and have the strongest voices in the lead cast. Esty and Scribner are outstanding, athletic dancers, but their acting and singing are only fair. Spangler believably plays the hapless Parisian, who adores a woman who doesn’t love him back. as a dope, trapped between his desire to be a good person and his compulsion to have what he feels he deserves.
   The orchestra sounds vibrant, playing some of the American Songbook’s gems. Mixing the Gershwins’ hit parade songs “S’Wonderful” and “The Man I Love” with George’s interludes such as “Cuban Overture,” the score features the best of the best. Bob Crowley’s costumes are haute couture, with the dresses for Milo, particularly a striking green number, standing out. The Tony-winning sets and projection design by Crowley and 59 Productions are spellbinding. From the locales that are both realistic and impressionistic to the lake that is a mixture of projection and physical, the visuals are inspired.
   Also Tony-winning, Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography is poetic, jazzy, and toe-tapping. After keeping the balletic motif throughout the musical, when Wheeldon switches to tap for the showstopping “Stairway to Paradise,” it sets itself apart. The cast members are consummate dancers and perform Wheeldon’s moves with aplomb.
   Both a treatment of the classic MGM musicals of the 1940s and ’50s and a skewed reflection of the quintessential Gene Kelly persona, this American in Paris does more than just transplant a beloved film to the stage. It reinterprets it while conserving the film’s major attributes: the score and the joy of magical dancing.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
March 24, 2017
The Cripple of Inishmaan
Torrance Theatre Company

Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words hurt more, in this dark comedy by Martin McDonagh. The sticks and stones are wielded by these all-too-human characters, but the more-damaging cruelty is in what they say to one another. And even when they try to be kind, the harm they may be doing might be worse than that caused by unsparing words.
   The time is decades ago, the place an island off the Irish coast, and the characters quirky, but the story feels strikingly immediate in the play’s production at Torrance Theatre Company.
   It centers on Cripple Billy (Kawika Aguilar), a good-hearted young man whose hand is paralyzed and who walks with an obvious limp. But his soul is even more damaged, as he has spent his life believing his parents didn’t want him because of his physical limitations.
   He lives with his Aunt Eileen (Shirley Hatton) and Aunt Kate (Virginia Brown), who run the local grocery. Eileen copes with life by sneakily stress-eating the store’s latest shipments of candy, and Kate calms herself through conversations with stones she lovingly cups in her hands.   Billy longs for a kiss from the town’s prettiest girl, Helen (Alberie Rachele Hansen). She, however, is busy trading those kisses around town for products and services.
   The play’s plot is set in motion when news comes, via the town busybody Johnnypateenmike (John Ogden), that a film crew from Hollywood has landed on the neighboring island to make a movie. Billy and Helen insist on heading to the filming location, certain stardom awaits them. They hire Babbybobby (Jonathan Fisher) to row them over.
   But Johnnypateenmike, who tends his 90-year-old Mammy (Christi Lynch) by pouring whiskey into her, might have gotten the details of the film shoot, as well as many other bits of “news” he spreads, rather wrong.

Sasha Stewart Miller directs, leaving no stone unturned. She brings out whatever truths are possible to glean about each character, and her staging puts the action together like a jigsaw puzzle. That action leaps from store to moored rowboat to bedside, on scenic designer Mark Wood’s compact, sturdy, effective set, mistily lit by Katy Streeter of StreetLite, LLC.
   McDonagh writes in multiple levels of meaning and knotted plot twists. By the play’s end, the audience might be growing less certain about who has done what and why.
   Billy sees the good in Bobby, despite Bobby’s retributive temper, and in Helen, who despite teasing her little brother Bartley (Nick Jordan Bell) for his obsession with telescopes, says she bought him one for his birthday. If there’s a fault with McDonagh’s script, it’s that everyone seems to have lied, so we don’t know if anything they claim at the play’s end is true.
   So we’re not sure whether the kindly town physician (David McGee) is hiding facts about Billy’s health or isn’t competent enough to know. Or did Billy’s words have the power of transforming his health?
   Speaking of the power of words, the actors use strong Irish accents—and strong Irish invective, though the f-bomb here sounds happier and funnier rhyming with “heck.”

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 20, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

A Wrinkle in Time
Sierra Madre Playhouse

Imaginative direction, striking designs, and two vivid performances bring the thrilling journey of Madeleine L’Engle’s science-fantasy novel to life onstage at Sierra Madre Playhouse. Whether L’Engle’s deeper messages could possibly have been woven through what is essentially young persons’ theater—though a delight for adults, too—remains a reason for long chats after the show.
   The novel—about time-and-space travel, good and evil, growing up as our authentic selves at our own pace, family and friendship, and more—has been adapted for the stage by John Glore. Director Christian Lebano uses six actors to create the story’s many characters, and he establishes the many settings using a translucent set with doors and windows cut into it.

It was a dark and stormy night, as we are told by the narrators, the printed words projected onto the set, and Christopher Moscatiello’s excellent sound design. That’s when we first meet our protagonist, Meg Murry (Cate Jo). Meg can’t sleep, so she heads downstairs (a delightful moment between Jo and the stairway video of set- and projection designer Matthew G. Hill). Meg’s 5-year-old brother, Charles Wallace Murry (Boone Grigsby), preternaturally sensing and intelligent, has been expecting her. With hot cocoa and sandwiches, he welcomes Meg and their mother (Kristyn Chalker) into the cozy kitchen.
   Charles Wallace then introduces them to Mrs. Whatsit (Lena Thomas), a wonderfully peculiar stranger he found during his wanderings in the neighboring woods.
   Where is Father? Ah, that’s the mystery and launching point for the voyages of Meg, Charles and their newly met friend Calvin (Mike Rose), as they bend time and space to visit the unique but archetypal planets Uriel, Camazotz and Ixchel.
   What they learn, and we are reminded of, are the perils of dictatorships, the danger of creeping mind control, the damage caused by trying to make people exact copies of one another. Very much missed from the book are the Judeo-Christian references and its lessons in confidently being oneself even as an outsider.

Lebano nicely brings the book to theatrical life, seasoning the stage with humor and keeping the action bubbling along. He is helped a good amount by Chalker, who doubles as the entertaining eyeglasses-wearing Mrs. Who and the extraordinarily maternal Aunt Beast; and even more by Thomas, who makes a hilarious pratfalling clown, and an eccentric but beautiful-on-the-inside fairy godmother.
   Most effective at bringing all the characters to life are the costume designs, by Vicki Conrad. Calvin has his letterman’s jacket, Aunt Beast has her furriness, and Mrs. Whatsit is a glory of mismatched yet appealing, layered yet unrestricting outfits.
   All is highlighted by original music, composed by Sean Paxton, in a pleasing mix of 1970s synthesizer and sci-fi eerie exhilaration. Rebecca Hairston’s lighting design can too-brightly flash but certainly adds excitement, particularly when it helps create IT, the brain that thinks for its planet’s citizenry so they don’t have to.
   Naturally the traveling trio brings back Father (Clayton McInerney) for a very happy ending—even though, as most of us know, terrible darkness still lurks out there.

For fun before the show, the lobby can barely contain all the displays and activities the Playhouse provides. Most entertaining might be the opportunity to make a mask, imagining what creatures on other planets might look like.
   The show is double cast. The “Space” cast is reviewed here.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 13, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
33 Variations
Actors Co-op

Spanning nearly two centuries and the Atlantic Ocean, this time-traveling, paralleled account of a musicologist suffering the slow debilitation of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) while researching an obscure mystery surrounding the then equally health-challenged Ludwig van Beethoven comes to beautiful fruition in this moving incarnation.
   Director Thomas James O’Leary and his impeccable cast of seven, along with top-drawer production values, elevate playwright Moisés Kaufman’s already near-perfect script to an almost heavenly realm. As the primary catalyst of this story, Dr. Katherine Brandt is a renowned specialist in compositional analysis. In light of her terminal diagnosis, she seems hell bent on avoiding, for as long as possible, an irreversible fate. Nan McNamara’s handling of this iron-willed character who eschews even the most personal of human contact is powerfully arresting. Her interactions with Greyson Chadwick, who matures before our very eyes as her daughter, Clara, are a pas de deux of agonizingly mixed signals and emotional near misses. It is a relationship afforded great investment by these actors and director O’Leary.

Early on, we are introduced to a young male nurse, Mike Clark, brought to life with a boy-next-door charm by Brandon Parrish. Mike is Katherine’s connection to the realities of her medical condition and through a series of often comical interludes comes to serve as helpmate and love interest for Clara. Just as critical to this emotionally fractured mother-daughter team is a German archivist, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, played by Treva Tegtmeier. At first frosty to what she believes may be the less than valid investigation by Katherine, she slowly warms to her American counterpart. Tegtmeier’s work, simple and true, seems born of an all-consuming dedication to individual moments which when compiled render a character arc that is the very essence of believability.
   On the flip side of this somewhat surreal storyline is a trio residing in early 19th-century Vienna. There is Anton Diabelli, a struggling musical publisher and wannabe composer whose original waltz served as the basis for a planned notebook of variations penned by numerous composers of the day. Played here with frustrated bemusement by Stephen Rockwell, Diabelli is a sympathetic portrait. As the closest confidante and self-proclaimed “friend of Beethoven”—it’s right there on his calling card—Anton Schindler, John Allee is delightfully unctuous. Dr. Brandt’s research eventually reveals that Schindler, who is dedicated to his “master” at every turn, may have harbored a historical perspective slightly less accurate than first believed.

And then there is the prodigy around whom this entire premise revolves, a man so wracked with inner genius that one variation on Diabelli’s original isn’t enough and thirty-three were not too many. Portraying Beethoven, Bruce Ladd challenges one’s ability to choose the appropriate adjectives. Aside from bearing an uncannily striking resemblance to the composer, Ladd gives a performance that transcendently captivates the senses. In one particular instance, aided by the unblemished assistance of onstage pianist and musical director Dylan Price, Ladd nearly stops the show with his astonishing interpretation of Beethoven, his hearing gone and his health in utter disarray, as he composes the final piece of this play’s title.
   In addition to collecting such an impressive ensemble, O’Leary is blessed beyond measure with a support system of theatrical artisans. Scenic designer Nicholas Acciani’s acumen is gloriously displayed via set pieces that double, even triple, as various items and locales, each delicately illuminated thanks to the prowess of lighting designer Andrew Schmedake. Meanwhile, Acciani’s breathtaking video and photographic projections flood the stage with images that transport us across the miles and years contained in Kaufman’s script. David B. Marling’s sound effects are equally crucial to the cascading series of scenes one witnesses. Rounding out this assemblage of expertise are Vicki Conrad’s costuming, E.K. Dagenfield’s obvious skills in dialect coaching, and Michelle Parrish’s subtly austere, show-ending choreography as all of Kaufman’s characters, living and dead, join together symbolically in bringing closure to what is an ornate yet simple tale of two lives’ interconnected paths.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
February 13, 2017
Once on This Island
3–D Theatricals at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center

The visuals are gorgeous in 3–D Theatricals’s production of the infrequently produced Once on This Island. Costuming, lighting, choreography—everything that appeals to the eye gets a lavish treatment in this lively, charming show. Unfortunately, at least on opening night, too many of the voices sounded off-pitch, and the lyrics were too often indecipherable.
   The 1990 musical, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty (both of Ragtime), is based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl, by Rosa Guy. It’s set on a Caribbean island—director Rufus Bonds Jr. specifies Haiti—where color and light are vivid. In this production, days are sunny and earthy, nights are neon and gods are jewel-toned. Under Jean-Yves Tessier’s rich lighting, Stephen Gifford’s revolving set evokes warm sands and lush greenery, and Nephi Garcia’s costuming establishes the characters while making the audience want to leap onto the stage and join the party.

In the story, a little girl (Kayla Joy Smith), frightened by a thunderstorm, is calmed by her fellow islanders who tell her a tale to pass the time. They sing of a young girl named Ti Moune (Smith again), orphaned by a storm and found in a tree by the kindly Mama Euralie (Erika Bowman) and Tonton Julian (Keith Jefferson). Ti Moune grows up (Leah Stewart), lovely but coveting life on the other side of the island, where richer, whiter people live a fast life. She prays to the gods, in “Waiting for Life.” And as gods do in literature, they bicker and then challenge her with overly literal interpretations of her requests, in “And the Gods Heard Her Prayer.”
   Then the goddess of love (Daebreon Poiema) suggests love can conquer all. Relenting, the god of water (Jay Donnell) will provide the place where she will meet her true love. The mother of Earth (Dominique Kent) promises Ti Moune safe passage. The top-hatted demon of death (Edred Utomi) offers Ti Moune an escape clause from his ultimate price.
   And so Ti Moune meets Daniel (Cooper Howell) when he crashes his car on her side of the island. She nurses the unconscious lad, smitten and faithful to his care. The ending of Ti Moune’s life has purpose and hope, but it is unhappy.

Unhappily here, the sound of the show is problematic. The audio system might have been awry on opening night, when lyrics for plot-establishing songs couldn’t be fully understood. Also partly to blame, too few singers enunciated as well as the better ones did.
   And too many of the singers seem to have learned vocal production from popular culture rather than from formal training, so loudness takes precedence over pitch and dynamics.
   But the cast fully and ebulliently commits to Yusuf Nasir’s spirited, African-inspired choreography, as Bonds’ staging seems to effortlessly breeze through this 90-minute intermissionless show.
   And, happily, there’s purpose and hope for a new generation of performers. Here, congratulations to the very young children’s ensemble of Kennedy Nibbe, Mackenzie Nibbe, and Inaya Reddick, each of whom, along with Smith, joyfully nails the choreography.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 13, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

Shades of Disclosure
Skylight Theatre

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.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 6, 2017
Grimly Handsome
City Garage

Everyone involved in bringing Grimly Handsome to life at Santa Monica’s City Garage has done all the necessary work. Still, the play will feel like a farrago, unless the audience is willing to patiently dig in to sort out the threads.
   Julia Jarcho’s script, the 2013 Obie-Award winner, now in its West Coast premiere, is an intermissionless three-parter. First, on a frigid evening, two men wait for customers at a Christmas tree lot in New York City. They are Gregor (Andrew Loviska) and Alesh (Anthony M. Sannazzaro), each an Eastern European. We find this out when they speak heavily accented and hesitant English, though when they’re speaking in their native tongue, we hear it as flawless English.
   Alesh wants to be an American policeman. Gregor, wearing an eye patch, chides him with a reminder of police corruption back home. Or, is “the village” they refer to “The Village?”
   A girl, Natalia (Lindsay Plake), looking like Red Riding Hood browses the trees. She’s stunned at the high prices, so Gregor, with apparent sarcasm, gives her a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
   When she leaves, Alesh and Gregor role-play picking up women. And then they role-play drugging, raping and killing them.
   We next see Natalia curled up on her sofa, the tiny awkward tree on display, as she reads a detective novel. And then she returns to the lot, where she takes a cup of tea from Alesh the way Snow White trustingly took an apple from the queen. Alesh carries her lifeless body away.

So far, so grim. Or, should that be “Grimm?”
   Director Frédérique Michel gives this first scene high style and deliberate pacing, so the work feels suspenseful. She then choreographs her use of Josephine Poinsot’s costumes, so Plake quickly re-emerges from backstage to start putting on the bits of costuming Sannazzaro had taken off: cap, flannel shirt, scarf.
   Plake’s Natalia thus transforms into Nally, an easily distracted man called in for interrogation by New York Police Department detectives Greggins (Loviska) and Alpert (Sannazzaro) as they investigate a series of Christmas slayings.
   Except, under Michel’s hand, it’s not clear that they truly are detectives. The words they say could pass for cop talk, but here, again, they speak with high style and deliberate pacing. Is Natalia dreaming them up? Note the dial phone in the room.
   More twists and surprises follow along these lines. Themes of identity and identifying with, interrelatedness, and natural evil waft through the 90-minute work.
   But most surprising, and certainly a highlight of the costuming, is the third segment. It seems to leave us with the idea that animals have better ethics than we do—or at least that they learn from their collective unconscious. Ignorance will be our downfall, we are warned.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 6, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
Witness for the Prosecution
The Group Rep/Lonny Chapman Theatre

Originally published as Traitor Hands in the Jan. 31, 1925, edition of Flynn’s Weekly, this stalwart among the prodigious catalogue of Agatha Christie’s works has enjoyed numerous incarnations, including a slew of film and television versions. Its theatrical debut took place October 28, 1953, at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre. Though arguably not one of Christie’s most-gripping forays in adapting one of her novels for the stage, this three-act piece still can be quite engaging, especially when given dedication to detail as evidenced in this production.
   Director Jules Aaron keeps things humming along with a provocatively crisp pacing that maintains an aura of “What’s coming next?” Christie’s clues are all there, and this cast of 14 exercises the pithiness of her language with ease. Kudos to Linda Brennan, the production’s dialect coach, for a commendable slate of accents employed by her charges.

Defendant Leonard Vole, played with a mixture of befuddlement and righteous indignation by Patrick Skelton, is on trial for the bludgeoning murder of Miss Emily French, a 66-year-old woman who, as an indication of the play’s age, is repeatedly referred to as “elderly” throughout Christie’s script.
   Vole’s legal team consists of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, brought to life with scene-stealingly delicious perspicacity by Larry Eisenberg, and Mrs. Joan Mayhew, given an energetically optimistic turn by Michele Schultz. Aaron chose non-traditional casting in changing Mayhew from John to Joan. The resulting relationship between these two barristers is captivating and serves to further highlight the tale’s occasional comedic moments.
   Romaine, a German national Vole married and brought back to England, is his only true source of an alibi as the circumstantial evidence mounts against him. She turns out to be the titular character. Divulging any more of the plot’s twists and turns would be unfair to the production and detrimental to our dear readers’ enjoyment of this expertly directed, multilayered mystery. Suffice it to say that Salome Jens offers a remarkably adroit performance as this often maddeningly enigmatic woman.
   Thanks to J. Kent Inasy’s stunningly ingenious scenic design involving pivoting double-backed walls and platforms, we are transported from Sir Wilfrid’s chambers to the Central Criminal Court of London, better known as the Old Bailey.

Here a collection of memorable characters is introduced—including Lloyd Pedersen’s drily humorous Justice Wainwright; Chris Winfield’s frustratingly self-assured prosecutor, Mr. Myers; Sherry Michaels’s witness Janet Mackenzie, Miss French’s housekeeper who makes no bones about her distrust of defendant Vole; Bruce Nehlsen’s sometimes fed-up, over-confident Scotland Yard Inspector Hearne; Mikel Parraga-Wills’s court clerk, with his silver-tongued delivery of the sessions’ calls to attention and administration of witness oaths; and Todd Andrew Ball’s and Roslyn Cohn’s uniquely drawn medical specialists, after both double as Sir Wilfrid’s legal staff in the opening scene of Act 1.
   Inasy’s lighting complements not only his notable set but also Angela M. Eads’s period-perfect costuming and Judi Lewin’s hair and wig designs. Aaron and sound designer Steve Shaw incorporate well-chosen musical pieces as scene segues. Aaron’s choice to make the audience the jury is well-thought-out; however, the use of taped crowd sounds at various points throughout the courtroom scenes is a tad distracting, especially when the onstage characters begin talking over disruptions that the presiding judge would most certainly quiet from the bench before allowing the case to proceed. Still, this is but a quibble with an otherwise uniformly excellent production.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
January 31, 2017
The Found Dog Ribbon Dance
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Coping is an intensely personal matter. The impact of a loss, whatever form it takes, is quite often inexplicable to the outside world. How one handles it and the potential need for comfort is the big picture in playwright Dominic Finocchiaro’s world premiere piece. Finocchiaro populates his play with unique people brought to life by a uniformly excellent cast under the able direction of Alana Dietze.
   As strange as it may seem at first, Norma, played with exquisite simplicity by Amanda Saunders, is a New York City–based professional “cuddler.” Blazing a path into this heretofore little-known job category, she encounters a widely varied clientele.
   There’s Dave, a pajama-clad divorcé, played by Eric Gutierrez whose moment of angst upon misreading Norma’s empathy is heart-wrenching. Harrison, a balls-to-the-wall stock market analyst, given a strong portrayal by West Liang, serves as a superlative muse for challenging Norma’s outwardly calm demeanor.
   Meanwhile, Trista, played by Clarissa Thibeaux, is Norma’s first female client, an 18-year-old given to “cutting” as she obviously struggles with her sexual identity. And Gregory Itzin is outstanding as a quietly empathetic older gentleman named Xeno who winds up providing Norma with the very connection and opportunity for reflection that she is supposedly offering him.
   Throughout, Norma sponsors the titular canine character, brought to life here by Daniel Hagen, whose work is engagingly perfect. Director Dietze along with Saunders and Hagen have avoided any pitfalls of disbelief the audience might foster, given this human-animal cohabitation. Theirs is a reality one buys into immediately and wholly.
   As Norma attempts to locate Dog’s owner, she runs headlong into a pair of characters who, frankly, could use her professional services. Gabriel Notarangelo plays Colt, a streetwise skateboarder whose foulmouthed invectives mask the heartbreak of having lost his own canine companion. Julia Dretzin embodies Miranda, a nearly heartless, or so we first assume, businesswoman whose mission is to bring home any dog in order to placate her children over their missing pet. Notarangelo and Dretzin spin gold with these cameo appearances, as their characters challenge Norma’s comfort zone.

On the flip side, all is not drama and depression. While posting a flier at a local coffee shop, Norma encounters an older-than-average—early 40s—barista named…wait for it…Norm! Steven Strobel is flawless as this charmingly goofy, occasionally immature, yet surprisingly deep man whose hobby is described by the other half of the play’s title. Strobel’s and Saunders’s scenes, touchingly directed by Dietze, are equal parts giddy teenage infatuation and quietly wistful moments of introspection. One finds oneself hoping for this relationship to take root and flower as Norma’s long-suppressed losses are given freedom to emerge, thanks to this unusual union.
   Dietze’s production staff complements her work with aplomb. Kirk Wilson’s arena-styled scenic design welcomes the audience to sit in any of the three sections surrounding the playing space. Jesse Baldridge’s lighting of the many locales in Finocchiaro’s script is warmly appealing.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
January 27, 2017
The Great Kooshog Lake Hollis McCauley Fishing Derby
Torrance Theatre Company

Torrance Theatre Company’s latest offering is another charmer from Canadian playwright Norm Foster. Titled The Great Kooshog Lake Hollis McCauley Fishing Derby, it shows the city mouse in all of us that small-town folk have all the wisdom we could hope for but perhaps none of petty stresses we cling to.
   The play has the feel of a fairy tale. A man who has misplaced his enjoyment of the important things in life becomes stranded for just the right amount of time in the lovely surroundings of Kooshog Lake, where three fairy godmothers and one fairy godfather wryly readjust his priorities.
   With a title like that, it’s no surprise the play is also a bit about names. What we call someone influences how we think of that person, and what we’re called influences how we think of ourselves.
   It’s about James Bell (Nick Brustin), tightly wound big-city big-shot banker, who was driving through the area on his way to a conference when his fuel pump opportunely broke, stranding him here just long enough.

He has been giving his life to his job. That job, it seems, will no longer be giving back to him. At Kooshog Lake, he comes upon Sienna Grey (Jennifer Faneuff), the earth-mother (thus the name) general-store owner whose afternoon nap James interrupts. She’s mourning her only son, who moved away and hasn’t called. But this doesn’t mean she’ll treat James with any apparent motherliness.
   The father figure in this mix is Kirk Douglas (Ron Gould), who starts to mess with James’s mind by pretending he doesn’t know who the real Kirk Douglas is. When the townsfolk tell James there’s only one phone in town, James loses all perspective.
   As if she could sniff out the presence of a new man in town, Rhonda (Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt) stops by the store. She may be a remorseless flirt, but she also runs most of the lakeside businesses. Despite his urban sophistication, she scares James. That’s likely why he quickly turns to the luminous Melanie Morningside (Rachel Baumsten), who evidences good sense and a sweet but currently aching heart.
   So, who is Hollis McCauley? He’s the catfish the locals have been trying to hook for more than 20 years, in their annual fishing derby with an enviable purse to be won for his capture. If he were to be caught, would anyone hang on?

The Kooshogians aren’t perfect. They’ve done things they regret, and they tease James until he doesn’t know joke from truth. But they’re exactly what he needs right now.
   Exactly what the play needs is a director with warmth and humanity, and it gets just that in Gia Jordahl, who makes this Foster comedy remarkably rich yet delicate—well, except for Brustin’s frequently mugging delivery.
   The scenic design and construction by Mark Wood takes the audience far away from Torrance and into a piney, weather-beaten haven. Lighting by Katy Streeter evokes warm morning and evening northern sunlight. Bradley Allen Lock’s costumes set a relaxed, timeless tone.
   Kooshog’s townsfolk feel a strong sense of community. They don’t lock their doors, because, as Kirk Douglas says, “If someone steals from one of us, they steal from all of us.” What a lovely place in which to retreat for a few days. Or a lifetime. Or two hours, including intermission.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 23, 2017
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
Adler & Gibb
Kirk Douglas Theatre

Something is strangely fascinating about Adler & Gibb, the latest from the strangely fascinating theatermaker Tim Crouch.
   In 2010, he brought to Los Angeles An Oak Tree, in which Crouch ushers an unprepared actor, different each night, onto the stage and feeds him or her direction and dialogue over earphones. In 2011, Crouch returned with The Author, about our various roles in and accountability for the theater.
   The British iconoclast is back with his 2014 work Adler & Gibb, about the nature, making, performing and celebrity of art. It’s co-directed with his frequent collaborators Andy Smith and Karl James.
   As with all his work, it is not suitable for everyone, nor, probably, is it intended as mass entertainment. It is best enjoyed by those with an interest in theater and culture, or those with a thirst for and willingness to sit through something this different.

Before it begins, or perhaps for its beginning, a child (on the night reviewed, the remarkably disciplined and adorable Olivia Abedor) interacts with the audience, handing out props and retrieving them, all based on instructions she hears via headphones. Instructing the child throughout this 90-minute work, Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart sits upstage, a microphone in hand, matter-of-factly showing the audience that art is being made with technology and with theater magic.
   Then comes a slightly more concrete beginning. As in conventional work, we watch an actor apparently playing a character. Jillian Pullara is Student, beginning her academic presentation about art-world icon Janet Adler, who hit the heights in the 1980s, walked away and into obscurity in the 1990s, and died in circumstances prompting ghoulish speculation.
   Lest you wonder, Adler is fictitious, though you couldn’t prove it by Adler & Gibb. She seems real to the audience, perhaps more real than the people trying to describe her, perhaps more real in contrast to Crouch’s deliberately distancing, deconstructed, elliptical and fractured style of storytelling.
   Adler is the subject of a proposed film, to be enacted by Louise (Cath Whitefield) and bankrolled by her (unseen) betrayed husband. Louise is bloated with need and ego, soothed and stoked by her acting coach Sam (Crouch).
   Sam and Louise do an acting exercise about trespassing on the retreat built by Adler and her life partner Margaret Gibb (Gina Moxley). Then they’re either inside Gibb’s home, uninvited and unwanted, or imagining they’re there.

The script mocks art, but it does so in the most artistic of ways. It mocks the cult of the artist, it mocks art criticism. It ponders ownership—of art, artist, representations of art and artist, property, love, life.
   It paints in violence. The dialogue speaks of the beating of Gibb’s dog. The moment is acted by Whitefield and Abedor, as Louise takes a bat and, while we watch, thrashes the little figure.
   Now, the child has donned a padded jacket, the beating is done with a “pool noodle,” and, the Kirk Douglas Theatre assures us, the child is safe and protected by her headphones from the fouler language and “graphic imagery” of the production.
   But the opening night audience didn’t seem to even flinch at this point. Is it that we’re Hollywood-ized, that we know these things are created through careful craft and through adherence to California law if not union regulations? Or is it that we were busy wondering which to react to: the beating death of a dog, the (not) possible bruising inflicted on a young actor, or the coaching we imagined was needed to reassure the child that this was “just acting.”
   Who fired the gun at the story’s end? If Louise, is that any worse than what we have watched her do to Gibb? And, speaking of brutality, why doesn’t Louise ever thank her acting coach?
   The story, which has begun very much in the world of theater, ends in the world of film. There’s no bright line dividing those worlds in here, and perhaps Crouch is saying there isn’t one out there.

But none of this is the strangest part. What’s stranger is how Adler & Gibb leaves an emotional residue. Despite all its elements shining a light on how the magic is made, somehow we care, feel, are left wandering through a melancholic mist as we leave the theater. So, ticket-buyer, beware. Just as you should see a horror film only if you want to be scared, you should see this production only if you want to be made to observe and think—and perhaps feel a peculiar disquiet.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 23, 2017
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
The Secret Rose

Revealing the innermost workings of her heart and the devotion she has for the fostered and adopted animals she has supported over the years, playwright and solo performer Lisa Wharton’s multilayered Strays is lovingly crafted.
   Wharton, adopted at just 17 days old and then a second time as a youngster by her stepfather, brings a unique perspective to the unspoken fears and trepidation that must inhabit the mind of a homeless animal.
   Her childhood seemed quite perfect at times. And yet, unpredictable betrayals by the fathers she assumed were her support system threw her world into utter chaos. It’s a tribute to Wharton’s inner strength and determination that she now leads a life so well-adjusted, positive, and more than obviously successful.

Even more admirable is her ability to transfer that strength into a mission through which she lifts up the lowliest of creatures. As Wharton details her various experiences with rescue animals, she treats her audience to the humor, the frustrations, and even the pathos that comes along with committing one’s time, talent, and treasures to such an undertaking.
   Through her various characterizations and with the assistance of photos and videos clips projected on an upstage wall unit, Wharton ingeniously introduces us to her “family.” There’s a darling tabby-marked feline named Boo and a Benji-like dog named LadyBug. Via some pretty funny anecdotes, we learn that these two are presumably in complete control of the Wharton household. And then, one day, along comes “Freeway.” Probably won’t take anyone long to figure out how and from where this little guy came into the picture.
   Wharton also regales the fostering of a larger, multibreed dog named Luke she rescued from certain death and nursed back to health and for whom she was able to eventually secure a loving home with a well-vetted family. Here is where we are invited by Wharton to dig deeply into what it takes to raise, nurture, and finally set free another being. It speaks volumes as she parallels it with having finally had the opportunity to meet her own birth mother.

Director Lisa Nicole Lennox clearly has a personal stake in developing her excellent connection with Wharton and her material. Lennox’s set design consists of a number of moveable pylons, which Wharton makes good use of in revealing hidden treasures and creating various locales. Likewise, Donna Willett’s lighting creates a number of uniquely separate playing spaces in this intimate venue.
   And finally, lest one think that this production is presented only for the purpose of advancing Wharton’s message, it is noteworthy to add that the benefits will quite literally live on. Wharton, Lennox, and all associated have created this piece as a commendable effort to raise funds and are donating 75 percent of all ticket sales to be distributed to two different animal rescue organizations. What they offer is a touching piece worth seeing and a worthy cause that touches others.

Reviewed by Dink O'Neal
November 17, 2017
The 39 Steps
Actors Co-op Crossley Theatre

Ample credit deservedly rests with the creator of this tale, novelist John Buchan for having paved the way for the advent of thriller fiction or what he referred to as the “shocker.” Buchan’s story of intrigue, espionage, and murder was quite serious in its debut as a serial in 1915 and subsequently brought to the silver screen in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 cinematic revisiting. How appropriate, then, not only to poke fun at these masters but also to pay tribute to their works by way of a comically heartfelt homage courtesy of playwright Patrick Barlow’s 2005 adaptation.
   Director Kevin Chesley and his stalwart quartet of players bring to life perhaps dozens—one loses count—of characters, both principal and ancillary, while keeping their respective tongues planted firmly in cheek. Chesley’s utilization of a thrust stage brings the proceedings right into the laps of his audience. The result is a nicely honed mixture of Barlow’s melodrama and subtler moments during which viewers can catch their breaths.
   Perhaps the only drawback to this venue would be the inability to capitalize upon backdrops and projections, which are more easily afforded on a proscenium stage. Here though, Stephen Gifford’s scenic design rings the downstage edges of the space with numerous crates full of Lori Berg’s plethora of props and goodies. From these boxes, which are also used to construct any number of larger set pieces, Chesley’s cast pulls out everything from hats to phones to flasks to what appeared to be a rainbow trout. Upstage are massive floor-to-ceiling, triple-decked, warehouse-style shelves packed to the brim with every conceivable period-perfect item one could use for incorporation into this fast-paced yarn. The effect is that of an adult-sized toy box constantly revealing its treasures and secrets.

As Richard Hannay, the hero of this spy-laden fable, Kevin Shewey brings a welcome sense of the Everyman. Avoiding the traditional choice of the square-jawed, GQ model who stands straight and tall while all around him is amiss, Shewey triumphs here by playing Hannay as often befuddled and flustered but eventually able to call upon his inherent intelligence and common sense to surmount the obstacles he encounters.
   Amply filling the requisite role of the various femme fatales Hannay encounters is Lauren Thompson. From a hilariously ill-fated foreign agent to a Scottish farmwife to Hannay’s eventual love interest, Thompson provides thoroughly fleshed out characterizations that prove her versatility at every turn.
   Every other role in the show is quite literally brought to life by a pair of roles Barlow has titled “Clowns.” Filling what are perhaps two of the most exhausting onstage assignments ever, Townsend Coleman and Carly Lopez are indefatigable. As to how many personages they create—one loses count somewhere around the two dozen mark for each of them—Coleman and Lopez are whirling dervishes assuming and discarding costumes, accents, and even genders with crispness and verve. In particular, keep an eye out for Coleman’s Scottish farmer and the duo’s second-act appearance as blissfully wedded innkeepers. Their performances reveal throughout that dialect coach Adam Michael Rose is worth his weight in gold.

Other notable additional production values adding to this delightful romp include Vicki Conrad’s cornucopia of costuming and hair designs, as well as Andrew Schmedake’s lighting, complete with music hall–style footlights, and Warren Davis’s spot-on sound effects that are called in the booth with razor-sharp precision by stage manager Derek R. Copenhaver.

Dink O’Neal
October 21, 2017
Sister Act
Torrance Theatre Company at James Armstrong Theatre

When she was in first grade, Doris Carter was told to shut up and sit down. Since then she has been doing her best to recover. She may have gone overboard.
   She changed her name to the fancier Deloris Van Cartier. She set herself up as a lounge act. She dresses in flashy, attention-grabbing garb. And of course she has a married boyfriend who treats her appallingly.
   She sounds like people we know in real life. But she is the heroine of Sister Act, the stage musical with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, and additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane, based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie.
   In its too-short run at Torrance Theatre Company, it joyously reminds us, men and women, that celebrity and material wealth may be exhilarating, but they cannot substitute for friendship and a deeper purpose in life.

Deloris (Ashley Elizabeth Crowe) hopes her boyfriend Curtis (Ripley Scanlan) can put her on a better stage. Instead, she witnesses him kill one of his henchmen for leaking information to the police. She heads for the police station, where officer Eddie (Joshua Lopez) tells her two things vital to this musical: He had a crush on her in high school, and he’s going to hide her at the local convent.
   Yes, we know where these plot lines are going, and they go there improbably easily. But the journey is everything here, and that journey is accompanied by delicious disco-style songs.
   Mother Superior (the beautifully voiced Catherine Rahm) is reluctant to house a lounge singer. Deloris is reluctant, to say the least, to give up smoking and drinking and devote herself to a contemplative life. Who’s going to blink first?
   And then Deloris meets the sisterhood. Mary Patrick (Jade Taylor) is the bubbly one, Mary Robert (Brianna Liddi) is the timid one, Mary Teresa (Wendy Way) is the doddering one, and Mary Lazarus (Cindy Shields) is the delightfully grumpy one. Too many Marys? There’s also Sister Mary Martin of Tours (Claire Griswold). Musical theater puns, as well as racial and religious puns, abound harmlessly.
   By the way, Deloris is African-American, and the sisters are mostly Caucasian. A few jokes get made along the way at the expense of both. When Mother Superior sends Deloris to choir practice, Deloris slowly, steadily, hilariously finds purpose, collegiality, and genuine admiration in her life, and the final result is a colorful, color-free blend of women in this sisterhood.
   But Mother Superior has learning to do, too. She repeatedly asks for a sign from God, while improvements abound around her. On the other hand, Monsignor (Perry Shields) delights in the “transvestites, bikers, addicts, and Jews” newly populating the congregation, just as they delight in the new sounds emanating from the dusty cathedral.

Jim Hormel directs a smooth, clearly told production here. Under music direction by Bradley Hampton, the disco beats sound irresistible. The staging includes polished design elements, among them lighting (Steve Giltner/Streetlite LLC) that swirls like the New York Hustle, sound (Brian Hsieh) that echoes in the stone cathedral, and costuming (Bradley Allen Lock) that changes faster than the eye can see.
   In Torrance, the sisters sing a pulsating “Take Me to Heaven.” But if you’re in the audience, you might feel like you’re there already.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 7, 2017

Reprinted courtesy of Daily Breeze
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Ahmanson Theatre

The character at the center of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is “on the spectrum,” probably labeled high-functioning autistic. But this Simon Stephens play is not about autism, nor indeed about any particular psychophysical condition. It’s about all of us.
   Britain’s National Theatre production of it plays at Ahmanson Theatre through Sept. 10. For art about facing fear, adapting, triumphing and the way we treat others supposedly “different” from us, audiences can’t do better.
   It’s based on Mark Haddon’s novel, which was written as the thoughts of 15-year-old Christopher as he goes through his unique and yet universal hero’s journey. Stephens turned the introspective novel into a play, in which Christopher and his mentor-teacher Siobhan voice Christopher’s thoughts while other actors step into various characters along Christopher’s journey.

Marianne Elliott’s direction is highly stylized, vibrant, dynamically shaped, and always putting the audience’s comprehension first.
   So the first thing we see on the all-black stage is the dog in the nighttime. It lies dead, a pitchfork sticking up from it. Christopher has come upon it. And among the very first things we learn about him, he cannot tell a lie. What a superb protagonist he makes.
   He sets out to solve the mystery of who killed the dog. He finds out at the end of the first act. In the second act, we watch him try to solve an even greater mystery: What makes us the way we are.
   His parents have lied to him. Strangers misunderstand him, school administrators even at his “special” school don’t support him. People lose tempers and do terrible things in anger.

The settings are created by Bunny Christie’s stark, visually simple scenic design; Paule Constable’s wonderfully disturbing lighting; and Fin Ross’s video designs that create the order and the chaos in Christopher’s mind.
   Christopher’s neighborhood in Britain’s town of Swindon comes to life, created by lines of white lights on the black set. Maps of England are easy to evoke. The magic here is in evoking the sensory overload, the confusion, the isolation of stepping out of our patterns. But the trains—which Christopher would agree are metaphors for the connections among us—turn out to be among the most moving parts, literally, of the production design.

As Adam Langdon portrays him, Christopher is a boy learning to be a man. But Langdon’s performance skills are mature and towering. Breaking our hearts in his quiet moments, he fluidly performs the quirky physicality of the role that includes dance and fight choreography (Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, with Yasmine Lee and Tim Wright).
   The actors around Langdon crisply embody the “types” all of us encounter. Gene Gillette makes Christopher’s father, Ed, maternally attentive and caring but quick to become violently angry. Felicity Jones Latta makes mother Judy remorseful yet confused and flighty.
   Maria Elena Ramirez is a devoted, sensitive Siobhan, Christopher’s mentor and the driving force behind getting his story out to the world—and to the audience. Amelia White is the neighborly neighbor, who seems to “get” Christopher either from her mature age or from personal experience with people like him.
   But there are others, like so many of us, who don’t want to deal with people different from us or who don’t recognize the signs. From police to subway workers, clergy to shopkeepers, they are onstage in brightly drawn portrayals by Brian Robert Burns, Francesca Choy-Kee, John Hemphill, Kathy McCafferty, and Geoffrey Wade.

Christopher consciously takes action to be brave. More bravery comes from director Elliott, who makes such interesting choices as having his parents argue in darkness while Christopher tries to sleep.
   Christopher insists on taking his A-Levels in mathematics, the United Kingdom’s academic tests for the best and brightest students looking to go on to vaunted universities. Do the adults around him want to protect him from failure, or do they want to protect themselves from shame?
   Will Christopher ever reach his highest potential? This work pointedly says it’s up to the rest of us to let him.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 7, 2017

Reprinted courtesy of Daily News
As You Like It
Antaeus Theatre

It’s remarkable that theatermakers have kept Shakespeare’s works alive for some 400 years. It’s as remarkable that his works can still feel fresh and relevant, done the right way. And it can be a thrill to see a sizeable portion of the city’s best actors taking on his roles. Still, the story, language and subtext must come to life with clarity and purpose. Otherwise, why bother putting on this play?
   Rob Clare directs Antaeus Theatre Company’s As You Like It at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center. What was his concept, his point of view here? Costuming might indicate that the era of his setting is “timeless.” Other than that, it’s hard to glean any purpose. And so the flaws in Shakespeare’s “comedy of forgiveness” show up glaringly.

It begins as Duke Senior (Bernard K. Addison) has been usurped of his throne by his brother, Duke Frederick (John DeMita), and has retreated to the Forest of Arden. Frederick, however, allows Senior’s daughter, Rosalind (Julia Davis), to remain at court with his own daughter, Celia (Abigail Marks). Meanwhile, two other brothers, the elder Oliver (Daniel Dorr) and younger Orlando (Daisuke Tsuji), sons of Frederick’s late friend, live in constant conflict.
   Orlando and Rosalind fall in love while at court. Angering Frederick, Orlando must flee to Arden; Rosalind is, coincidentally, simultaneously banished. She and Celia leave for Arden, taking the court jester Touchstone (Adam J. Smith). Rosalind and Celia disguise themselves, Rosalind as a young man, Celia as a shepherdess. They encounter Jaques (Tony Amendola), the thoughtful observer and cynical commentator on even the happiest of lives in the Forest. They also encounter shepherd Silvius (Adam Meyer), who pines for the uninterested shepherdess Phebe (Erin Pineda), who falls in love with the disguised Rosalind. William (Ben Atkinson) is smitten with goatherdess Audrey (Elyse Mirto), but so is Touchstone. Orlando fails to recognize Rosalind but feels a strange connection to the young man she masquerades as. Meantime, Oliver and the disguised Celia fall in love.

Had this play been written today, critics would shred it. In the middle of this idyllic setting, Shakespeare provides a wrestling match. Just as we’ve started to figure out the characters and their relationships, in wanders Audrey in Act III, Scene 3, and here comes Phebe at Act III, Scene 5. They look like afterthoughts, hastily scribbled in to make a nice quartet of lovers for the big finale. At the play’s end, the four couples marry, whether well-suited to each other or not.
   If any of this bothers you, and you seek a plausible explanation for how the playwright of Hamlet could also have penned this one, heed George Bernard Shaw, who wrote of this play that Shakespeare was probably pandering to popular tastes here. Where Shakespeare’s other plays delve into psychology and rely for plot points on human behavior and reactions, Shaw wrote that this one went straight for masses-pleasing superficiality, “throwing it in the face of the public with the phrase As You Like It.”
  Still, it has its charms and glories. Memorable characters abound, as do metaphors and similies—and perhaps that’s the better explanation for the title. Shakespeare promotes pastoral living, kindness to all and gender equality. So in some productions, it can be a rich, happy tale of love and forgiveness and peace of heart. With no apparent driving force, as here, it’s just a lot of words.
   This production is double cast; the Acorns cast was reviewed.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 31, 2017

Republished courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News
Other Desert Cities
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

What happens in other people’s homes behind closed doors? That’s the stuff of so much Great American Theater. Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities will likely join the pantheon of those works, despite a few already dated references. But family dynamics, political clashes, addictions and depression will always be with us—and are exquisitely rendered for the stage here.
   And what happens when a family member wants to very publicly disclose very private family secrets? Here, daughter Brooke writes a memoir about her politically radical elder brother, a topic her parents have buried along with their son.
   Brooke’s parents, Polly and Lyman Wyeth, have settled into a comfortable retirement of early morning tennis games, quickly followed by nonstop unabashed alcohol consumption yet a cigarette habit they hide from each other. They have also settled into a Palm Springs lifestyle with their Reaganite circle of friends—including Nancy, whom Polly has modeled herself on.
   Now it’s Christmas, and the grown children are back in the fold. Brooke has come in from Sag Harbor for the first time in years, having been hospitalized for a “breakdown.” Her younger brother, Trip, is here on a holiday break from producing television schlock. Polly’s sister, Silda, is fresh from rehab.

Director Mary Jo DuPrey, to her artistic credit, tones down the comedy—though the script offers plenty at its start, as the Wyeths rib one another over politics and lifestyle. DuPrey instead heads straight for the souls of these characters, each of whom is utterly human.
   Her cast is stupendous, in their individual characterizations and working together as an ensemble to create a feeling of a family that knows itself and yet doesn’t.
   Mark Bramhall plays Lyman, a former movie star and now a stately but loving patriarch. Ellen Geer plays Polly, a former Hollywood writer who hasn’t lost her quick wit but who has given up that life to take care of a family that might not want her care.
   Willow Geer takes on Brooke, who has been through life’s worst and survived but still fears her parents. Rafael Goldstein is the delightful Trip, always the baby of the family yet who wisely fends off a caregiving role.
   Melora Marshall, an actor who has made herself court jester in decades of Theatricum productions, at last plays it straight here in what may be her best performance yet. She gives a magnificent portrayal of the tenuously recovering alcoholic Silda, childlike and yet a former successful writer in the unwelcoming world of movies, holding fast to leftist ideals amid her right-wing hosts.
   Most notable among the design elements are costumes by Vicki Conrad. Lyman wears classics, Trip wears Hollywood comfy, Silda and Brooke wear loose-waisted clothing to accommodate the anti-depressant weight gain, and Polly gets a ladies-who-lunch kaftan that’s a gem.

This play tells a very specific story about this particular family. And yet the entire opening-night audience was noticeably gripped by it as the Wyeths’ long-kept secret was recounted. How many families have kept truths like these to themselves? How many have been torn apart by politics and war, in America and perhaps in those “other desert cities” halfway across the world?

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 10, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

Letters From a Nut
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Ted L. Nancy (not his real name) has written enough prank letters, and received enough replies, to fill several books. He, or an authorized agent, proudly proclaims that his books have even been translated into Japanese and Portuguese. High praise, indeed—or is that one of his comedy bits?
   Ted’s real name is Barry Marder, and Marder has funneled the correspondence into a variety of media including an animated web series, as well as an evening of live entertainment titled Letters From a Nut.
   At the Geffen, where it makes its debut, some of us in his audience might feel that our legs are being pulled out of their sockets. That feeling starts with the playbill. Credited with direction is Pierre Balloón, whose bio is clearly a gag. So, no director? Or no one willing to slap his or her name on it?
   The show credits a dramaturge, however. Considering the lack of a throughline, indeed any shape to the show, that’s equally perplexing.

The show begins as Ted introduces himself to the audience, rather awkwardly. Marder has written for Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Bill Maher, David Letterman, and George Carlin. What Marder didn’t pick up from working with these legends is their ability to stand in front of a crowd and deliver material.
   Ted says his compulsion to prank via correspondence began when he read the fine print on a bag of Fritos and noticed an invitation to write to the company with any questions or comments.
   Among the letters he subsequently wrote are the ones he reads aloud here, addressed to corporations and a few political leaders. If you laughed at letters like these when you were in fifth grade, you’ll probably still laugh here. However, are we laughing at Ted’s audacity or at the failure of the recipients to recognize how ludicrous the missives are?
   There’s one to the then-president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, expressing admiration and asking him to become an officer in Ted’s Vacuum Club. It earned a reply and a signed photo.
   There’s another to Topps Baseball Card Company, offering a complete set of Mickey Mantle’s toenail clippings. The National Baseball Hall of Fame ultimately responded.
   What should the audience make of the customer service reps and the aides de camp who write back to Nancy? Should we pity their gullibility? Admire their politesse and restraint? Cut them considerable slack for corresponding in other than their native languages?
   Further to the leg-pulling, the production includes projections of the letters above the stage that don’t match the versions read aloud, made even more troubling because Ted keeps telling us these letters are “real.”

Joining Marder onstage, two performers add to the puzzlement, for different reasons.
   Beth Kennedy embodies the recipients of Ted’s letters. She does this behind a vast collection of wigs and moustaches, an even vaster skills set of accents and speech impediments, quirky stances and funny walks.
   But at this point in its development, the show is more about her astonishing talents than about the correspondence.
   The other presence onstage is Sam Kwasman, who appears as Pagliacci (the character from the opera). His task is to bring out a few props and roll his eyes in disgust. The kindest thing to be said here is that this bit doesn’t work.
   Give the show this: It includes a segment featuring retribution for letters that seek prize-winning submissions—along with an entry fee. That’s the kind of satisfaction theatergoers seek in a work like this, along with a few laughs.
   Meantime, for now, Letters From a Nut should be returned to sender for serious rethinking.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 30, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

Animal Farm
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum,

While Big Brother watches over Broadway as George Orwell’s 1984 plays there through this summer, our own Topanga Canyon is putting the neigh in neighbors with Orwell’s Animal Farm. The legendary author’s decades-old writing remains horrifyingly pertinent.
   Orwell’s 1945 novel about tyranny and corruption, adapted for the stage in 1984 by British director Peter Hall, still shines through, despite being told in a mildly musical theater form with lyrics by Adrian Mitchell and music by Richard Peaslee.
   It follows the politically satiric novel most Americans read in school days gone by, and perhaps still do, in which Orwell posits a farm that symbolizes a nation, likely pre-revolutionary Russia, the various animals standing in for groups and classes of humans.
   Though, if the audience on the evening reviewed is any indication, too many readers have forgotten the climactic point in the fable at which the animals’ set of ethics is changed by leaders whose absolute power corrupts absolutely.

On Mr. Jones’s farm, the animals that have served humans so faithfully rebel, at first under the righteous principles set forth by the aged boar Old Major (Thad Geer) after Mr. Jones (Steve Fisher) falls victim to alcohol.
   The pigs take charge, led by a troika. And we know how well it goes when three people in political power share leadership “equally.” Here, we have the idealist Snowball (Christopher Yarrow), the power-hungry Napoleon (Mark Lewis) and Squealer (Melora Marshall), who serves as press secretary with an ever-ready set of alternative facts to feed the masses.
   Minimus (Holly Hawk), a pig and writer by trade, turns her talents to propaganda and national anthems, inspiring the sheep (Maya Brattkus, Bridgette Campbell, Jessica Gillette, and Matthew Pardue) to follow the leaders docilely.
   The horses show more independence. Mollie (Lea Madda) prefers capitalist comforts and her pretty possessions. Boxer (Max Lawrence) on the other hand, thoroughly buys into the propaganda. Clover (Katherine Griffith) seems to play by the rules but listens carefully.
   The hens (perpetually twitching Bethany Koulias, Jordann Zbylski, and Lauren Zbylski, with Cameron Rose as their rooster) demand a better future for their chicks. Few, however, heed the raven Moses (Clayton Cook), who speaks of a better afterlife.
   The wisest among the animals are of course the literate ones: skeptical old donkey Benjamin (Rodrick Jean-Charles) and collegial goat Muriel (Jackie Nicole).

Animals “disappear,” some in purges and some in trucks that back up onto the farm and ominously entice creatures onboard (one of the many clever, sardonic set and prop items from designer Ernest McDaniel).
   The story is framed by two young narrators, reading from the novel. Sierra Rose Friday and Shane McDermott do spot-on work, particularly Friday’s marvelously clear enunciation.
   Several other actors give beautifully crafted physical and vocal portrayals. Among them are Madda as the delightfully chipper prancing horse Mollie, Jacquelin Schofield as a girlishly excitable piglet, and Lawrence as the too devoted cart horse Boxer. They might not even need Vicki Conrad’s spectacular costuming to create their characters, though those costumes add to the visual marvels of seeing a show in this outdoor setting.
   Once again over the theater’s long history, this time headed by lighting designer Zach Moore, the tech crew conquers the challenge of lighting a show from daylight through sunset to darkness, the times and angles of which change daily throughout the theater’s season.
   Unfortunately, the weedy songs add nothing, except a few skilled musicians, to the proceedings. The songs have no emotional heft, add nothing narratively. Fortunately, the show zips along around them.

So the sum total impresses, under Ellen Geer’s picturesque yet purposeful direction. That Orwell’s tale still resonates powerfully is inspiring and dismaying. That the history of the venue permeates the production is likewise remarkable (Will Geer and his family built the space in the 1950s as a refuge for fellow McCarthy-Blacklisted artists). The venue is as sturdy a reminder as Orwell’s writings are that we usually recognize our clear and present dangers. Now, what to do about them?

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 26, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
The Good Doctor
Little Fish Theatre

Playwright Neil Simon is nothing if not charming and clever. He has also, in nearly all of his many plays, astutely observed the human condition. In The Good Doctor, a series of sketches, however, he aims more for amusement and less for elucidation.
   Of course, there’s no harm in sheer entertainment, and perhaps in these tense days it’s even more needed. At Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro, director James Rice balances the humor with the work’s Russian roots.
   Simon based the 11 pieces here (some productions include additional ones) on short stories and plays by Anton Chekhov, Russia’s great (some say greatest) playwright of the last century.   All the stories are introduced by, and sometimes include, The Writer (Daniel Gallai). He’s part Simon and part Chekhov, and he lets us in on his creative process and a bit of his life.
   In “The Sneeze,” hapless civil servant Ivan (Sam Gasch) treats himself and his wife (Maire-Rose Pike) to seats in the expensive section of a theater, where the pair is seated behind Ivan’s Respected Superior the General (Dan Adams) and the General’s wife (Amanda Karr). Ivan sneezes, loudly and wetly, on the neck of his boss, then spends much of the rest of their time at the theater apologizing clumsily.
   In “The Drowned Man,” The Writer is strolling dockside when The Tramp (Gasch) appears and offers to drown in front of him for a mere three rubles. In “The Governess,” the cruel mistress (Karr) surprises the weak-willed servant (Pike).

What did these five actors do at their auditions to win these roles? Did Gallai come with 16 bars of a ballad? Did he show off a bit of stage combat? Was Pike asked to prepare monologues from Chekhov’s The Three Sisters? Was director Rice looking for an actor with the looks of Dick Van Patten and the slapstick chops of Dick Van Dyke when Adams happened by?
   These skills are fully on display here. Gallai, along with Karr, sings a delicate song of ruefulness in “Too Late for Happiness,” in which the older folk ponder fresh romance. Playing a banker in “A Defenseless Creature,” Adams grins and grimaces and wields that even-older-than-Chekhov massive swathing around his gouty foot, while he’s about to be hornswoggled by a wily customer (Karr).
   The Writer also shows us tender scenes, including the one about his visit to a brothel when he was a lad (Gasch), frog-marched there by his father (Gallai). Another lovely scene shows the playwright auditioning a young woman (Pike) who’s his number one fan—and who can perform each of Chekhov’s Prozorov sisters from The Three Sisters exquisitely.

To quote The Writer, this evening is “charming, but a far cry from Tolstoy.” Though, as our lore tells us, laughter is the best medicine, and there are many healthful moments here.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies 
June 19, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze.
Geffen Playhouse

If only we had said one thing instead of another, done something differently, gone somewhere else on a particular day. Yes, this is a universal form of self-doubt, and mentally mending our mistakes or pondering possibilities can be quite exciting.
   So why is Constellations, Nick Payne’s 2012 two-hander, ultimately so unexciting?
   It’s about two people who keep connecting, though perhaps nothing tangible connects them, much like man-made lines in constellations. Roland is a beekeeper, Marianne is a quantum physicist. We see them first at a picnic. She strikes up a conversation with him, flirtatiously.
   The scene replays, with the same dialogue but slightly different intentions as it’s spoken. The scene replays again, as Roland firmly and abruptly announces he has a wife. The scene replays yet again, this time as Roland flirts and Marianne evades.
   And for these initial moments, Constellations is interesting, even if only as an acting and a directing exercise. But the entire play, spanning a mere 80 minutes, consists of replayed scenes, and the concept wears out its welcome early on. An audience might think it’s clever twice, funny on the third go-round. After that, we begin to wonder how much padding was added to flesh out even these 80 minutes.

Marianne and Roland meet again at a ballroom dance class, over and over, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by chance. They go on their first date, each tries for that first kiss, they move in together, they break up over infidelity—in some versions hers and in some versions his. And then they seem to be back together to help her through terminal cancer and possibly assisted suicide.
   Two actors known mostly for their television work step into the roles here. Allen Leech, best known as Downton Abbey chauffeur–turned–son-in-law Tom Branson, plays Roland. Fortunately, after a millisecond onstage, he disappears into Roland, leaving the secure, refined Branson behind. Leech has acting chops, and he plies them here to create a very real, always interesting character.
   Ginnifer Goodwin, from Once Upon a Time and Big Love, seems less successful as Marianne. She doesn’t always maintain the character’s English accent, sometimes even sounding like she’s trying to make Marianne a different character in separate scenes. But more crucially to the play, Goodwin constantly seems artificial, leaving us to wonder when she’s going to pull off a mask and let us in on something different going on here.

Takeshi Kata’s black set reflects Lap Chi Chu’s variegated lighting. Sometimes the patterning resembles a view of Earth from space, as we objectively examine ourselves. Sometimes it resembles views of galaxies splashing out in seemingly random colors and shapes. Whatever might be seen in the set and lights, at times they offer a more interesting opportunity for observation than the storytelling does.
   Giovanna Sardelli, who directed Geffen Playhouse’s Guards at the Taj and Center Theatre Group’s Archduke, directs here. Unlike her work in those productions, here it seems dull—with one exception. In one scene later in the play, the characters communicate in sign language, presumably British. Their intensity, and our concentration in trying to piece together what they’re saying even though we’ve seen that scene several times already, makes a fresh, exciting moment in the play.

June 19, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
The Conduct of Life
Inner-City Arts

In days gone by, people made names for themselves by doing something useful for society. María Irene Fornés wrote plays that broke old rules, broke barriers, and taught something, whether to other playwrights or to audiences.
   Though she was a leader of the off-off-Broadway movement in the 1960s, the Southland knows her better from her establishing role in the also legendary Padua Hills Playwrights group and festival. Now, her 1985 play The Conduct of Life is getting an airing at Inner-City Arts in downtown Los Angeles. In part because of her importance to theater but also for what the play still says about humanity, this highly stylized, challenging, disturbing work is well-worth viewing.
   It consists of a plotless series of scenes, many of them soliloquies or duologues, telling and not showing. It pulls from mismatched theatrical styles, the most easily recognizable of which is absurdism. It has no protagonist, no one’s journey we wish to join in on. It ends in gunfire.
   And yet, as a whole, it effectively and efficiently makes its points in a mere 60-minute running time, with a theatrical depth and richness not always achieved by plays with plots and standard exposition.

In what can be gleaned of “story,” we learn that military officer Orlando (Nick Caballero) interrogates and tortures captives in an unnamed, presumably Latin American, nation. His goal is maximum power.
   He seeks that, too, in his relationships at home. His wife, Leticia (Adriana Sevahn Nichols), knows she’s in a loveless marriage. But uneducated, though bright and articulate, she needs marriage to survive.
   In a presumably secret room in Leticia and Orlando’s home, he repeatedly rapes a child, formerly homeless and orphaned, now imprisoned there, though the play keeps us guessing, until the end, whether this is real or his fantasy.
   Visiting the home, Alejo (Jonathan Medina), symbolizing passivity, can’t stop himself from admiring Orlando. The sometimes-stuttering maid Olimpia (Elisa Bocanegra) disdains her employers. But she, too, can’t walk away from her job (the time frame of this work seems ambiguous, though the dial telephone gives us an approximate era).
   The child, Nena (Antonia Cruz-Kent), is last to speak, revealing her horrific childhood and her coping mechanisms. Likewise, the visual focus ultimately turns to Nena. It’s director José Luis Valenzuela’s statement that our actions leave the next generation to cope with the results.

Fornés’s themes are status, gender, class, education and, in particular, how we blame others for what ails us and how our deepest misery shows up as violence, which becomes contagious.
   Valenzuela makes visual and even more visceral the potent script. His actors, even working in various styles throughout the play, make their every moment believable, a pure reflection of human behavior.
   Symbolically, François-Pierre Couture’s pristine all-white set design belies the messiness of the characters’ lives. It also serves as a canvas for Johnny Garofalo’s highly saturated lighting design that changes with the intensity of the scene.
   John Zalewski’s superb sound design underscores the script’s brutality, notably in the sound’s almost cruel intrusions on our hearing and heartbeats, but also in the juxtaposition of classical music to the inhumaneness of words and actions here.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 12, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage
The Theatre @ Boston Court

With the onslaught of media access, be it corporate or social, it seems vicarious experiences rule the day. Whether those experiences come in the form of shameless celebrity or the average human’s willingness to expose the most slovenly of personal foibles, we take a certain comfort in musing, “Well, at least my life isn’t like that.” Even if it were, why would people want to expose their deepest, darkest secrets to the light of public scrutiny?
   To playwright Dan O’Brien’s credit, his world premiere cradles in gloved hands just such a possible sequence of familial confidences. Mysteriously estranged, not by his own choice, from his self-admittedly bizarre parents, O’Brien autobiographically details his attempts to discover the truth in this play about writing a play. The result is a 90-minute work poetically crafted around a series of true-to-life encounters with a variety of members from his extended lineage. Some are distant, while others are in denial. Still more of these odd characters contain flashes of sympathetic concern buried beneath decades of disconnection that has left them unable to offer more than a few confirming facts.
   Director Michael Michetti guides us through O’Brien’s sometimes disturbing, highly compelling chronology of meetings and visits with an obvious sensitivity. Along the way, an almost Shakespearean sequence of preventable moments surface, any of which, if reversed or avoided, would have led to a much more positive outcome for O’Brien.

That Michetti has so remarkably cast this production is a blessing. As the current-day version of the playwright, Brian Henderson exudes his creator’s curiosity and frustrations with a grounded believability even when the piece incorporates sequences of presentational surrealism.
   As Henderson’s lone companion, Tim Cummings inhabits the remaining cornucopia of roles with a stunningly impactful performance. Kudos to O’Brien as well in dramaturgically forgoing a chorus of secondary players and instead employing a lone actor’s talents the likes of which Cummings brings to the stage.
   A stark focus on the proceedings is achieved by way of scenic designer Sara Ryung Clement’s raked stage featuring nothing more than a pair of metallic straight chairs. Augmented by Elizabeth Harper’s lighting, John Nobori’s sound design and Tom Ontiveros’s highly evocative series of projection sequences, Michetti and his charges provide a momentum that snowballs to the production’s conclusion.
   And therein rests the takeaway from O’Brien’s piece. Not all the questions may be answered or the relationships repaired. Still, it’s clear that O’Brien has come to a happy medium with his issues. Perhaps, in our own lives, that’s all to which any of us can truly aspire.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
May 19, 2017
Odyssey Theatre

Critics have been asked to not give away the plot of this play. Out of respect to the theater, the work’s playwright, and its director, most of us won’t. But good luck to anyone who tries to describe the work and the potent sensations it induces.
   On one level, this West Coast premiere by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón tests the audience’s skills in observing and questioning. Didn’t we see one of the actors elsewhere, quite recently? Was a ticket snafu at the door part of the play? When does “real life” leave off and “art” begin?
   The art begins. The scenic design might bring our antennae to attention. How could director Bart DeLorenzo have let the audience see the sandbags securing the backs of set pieces?
   The acting is stilted. It looks and sounds slightly like a scene-study class. Acting clichés abound, but they’re so subtle that they don’t cause laughter in the audience. DeLorenzo couldn’t possibly have allowed acting like this in one of his plays.
   The writing is stilted. Exposition is clunky, repetitive, and beginning to feel too long.
   And then, what happens happens.

The stunners here are not skeletal hands reaching up from the soil to grab a leg. Providing more horror than bloody gashes or sudden materializations ever could is the sickening feeling that settles over us, created by the remarkably skilled artists—writer, director, actors, designers—we mistakenly thought weren’t doing their work well.
   The actions of a woman, an artist, in a clearly fake wig and oversized dark sunglasses repeatedly looking over her shoulder and peering into the darkness on the other side of a half-open doorway shocks us, terrifies us.
   Art gets made. It’s made despite misinterpretations. It’s remade on the fly, by artists flexible and open to change, willing to step to the edge and reveal their souls. The superb actors here, without reference to characters they play, are Natali Anna, Kristin Couture, Max Lloyd-Jones, Kevin Matthew Reyes, Nagham Wehbe, and Cynthia Yelle.
   We passively watch as things happen in other lands, to other people. We’d like to think we’re on their sides, we’re here to help. But if we’re being truthful with ourselves, what we’re probably thinking is, “Could this happen here? To my friends? To me?”
   One thing is for certain here: Kiss gets under the skin.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 1, 2017
Actors Co-Op

One would think that a terrorist-based piece, even three decades past its premiere and updated in 2011 to include at least a noticeable albeit passing reference to Al Qaeda, would retain some relevancy today. And yet, playwright William Mastrosimone’s treatise on “Eco-Warriors” and the battle between personal agendas seems surprisingly lackluster.
   Perhaps it’s that we live in a world where the hideous has become commonplace. So much so, that fictional behavior of the sort, predicated on the antagonists’ aversion to water pollution, seems less identifiable to audiences who are faced with torture, beheadings, and mass attacks on a near daily basis.
   Director Stephen Rothman’s production struggles to get off the ground until well into its hour-and-45-minute running time. To be fair, the blame can be laid, for the most part, at the feet of the author. Mastrosimone spends more time than needed laying out his backstory and the rationalization for the militants’ actions via a repetitious exchange between the group’s leader and a female television journalist who has been kidnapped for the purpose of interviewing him.

When a previously seized low-level Environmental Protection Agency official, seen briefly at the play’s onset, returns to the stage, along with the protesting group’s second-in-command, the stakes finally ratchet up enough to foster some concern over what might happen to any of these beings.
   Walking a tightrope of character-driven pontification spiked with rare flashes of rage is Sean McHugh in the role of Victor, the “Earth Now” army’s chief. McHugh certainly embodies the strength and stature necessary for maintaining a threat of physical power over his minion and their captives. Unfortunately, his interchanges with them and while relaying Mastrosimone’s numerous monologues never make the transition from the page to the present. The result is a sense of speech-making rather than a genuinely heartfelt devotion to a cause that would lead to the play’s offstage car-bombing near the U.S. Capitol building, which has claimed the lives of a dozen senators and scores of bystanders.
   Deborah Marlowe as heralded news reporter Jessica Lyons serves as Victor’s adversary and, by necessity, therapist. Hoping to survive her encounter, Jessica must suggest, cajole, mediate, and occasionally acquiesce in order to achieve her primary objective while providing the world with the glimpse into Victor’s agenda that he so desperately wants to put forth. Marlowe handles this assignment with vigor and an excellent array of emotional adjustments in response to the occasional changes in Mastrosimone’s plot structure.
   Cathy, Victor’s underling, played by Ivy Beech, is perhaps the most challenging role in the show. She serves as support to her captain’s plans while being torn between her allegiance and the discovered realities of the situation in which she plays a part. Beech does a fine job in her role by never overshadowing the circumstances. She too, however, suffers from some rather abrupt and difficult character changes that flow from Mastrosimone’s pen.

Where this piece gives way to what might have been is when Vito Viscuso takes the stage in the role of EPA bureaucrat David Darling. Having been held for an indeterminate, but clearly lengthy, period, Darling exudes the expected effects of his unwilling incarceration. Viscuso’s performance is gripping at every turn. Fearful of speaking unless given permission, apologetic for any perceived overstepping of bounds, placating his captors, Viscuso epitomizes his character’s terror of the unknown. Even when he’s cowering in silence, it’s almost impossible to take one’s eyes off of him.
   David Pott’s basement scenic design works seamlessly in this venue, offering director Rothman an excellent surface on which to maneuver his players. One can almost smell the must and chemical odors of the various bomb-making components on display, meticulously accoutered with Lori Berg’s properties and dressing. Adam Macias provides an array of sound effects that enhance the sub-surfaced locale. And although James Moody’s lighting is quite effective throughout the show, some of the actors were left standing in strangely darkened portions of the stage during the production’s curtain call.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
April 4, 2017
Lounge Theatre

On Nov. 10, 2016, President Barack Obama and President-Elect Donald Trump met for nearly 90 minutes at the White House. To borrow from a previous administration, this much is known known.
   What’s not known, and won’t be known until the lure of a tell-all book is too much for one of them to resist, is what they revealed to each other as they interacted there, just the two of them, in the presumably wiretap-free Oval Office.
   Right now, though, we have this Ray Richmond world premiere comedy, in which Richmond imagines what was said at that historic meeting, and his version is probably as close to the real-life goings-on as we’ll get in the near future.
   Sure, the piece feels like a long comedy sketch. But that sketch is well-rendered by all involved.

Under Lee Costello’s direction, the comedy stays out of the danger zone of ludicrousness, even when the situation doesn’t.
   Harry S. Murphy plays Donald Trump, yes under a wig of thick, golden, carefully tended hair. His facial features may more resemble those of George W. Bush. But Murphy has captured the breathing patterns, facial expressions and hand gestures of Trump.
   Joshua Wolf Coleman portrays Obama, perfectly matching our former president’s vocal quality, speech cadences and physical tics.   But these performances are not just Vegas impressions. They get to the crux of these men, particularly Coleman, as Obama finds his world and ours turned on end.
   Trevor Alkazian portrays a presidential aide. Though onstage infrequently, he displays crisp comedic timing and a few looks that could kill—but don’t, because no one involved is suborning a homicide. Really.

But Richmond is in the leadership position here, and he gives us something we might not expect. He starts with audios of Obama calling Trump “unfit” and Trump calling Obama “a disaster.” And then we see the two as they’re now obligated to graciously come face to face in the Oval Office—starting with Trump’s oft-mocked handshake.
   They discuss pretty much everything we’d imagine: gun control, health care, tweeting, fast food inside the White House, real estate and Elizabeth Warren. Sometimes the conversation seems completely, chillingly, real; sometimes it’s hilariously unreal.
   Pete Hickok’s set includes Obama’s rug into which was woven Martin Luther King’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Trump wants a sign on his Oval Office desk that reads, “The buck starts here.” That’s how the balance between these two starts out. It doesn’t shift much when Trump demands, “Apologize!” and, after the slightest pause, Obama comes up with, “I’m really sorry you feel that way.”

But late in the conversation, the elegant, intellectual, poised, measured Obama loses his stuff. Trump couldn’t care; he’s in the catbird seat. Or perhaps he just doesn’t know what a “malignant narcissist” is. Either way, Trump has gotten under Obama’s skin, and the balance of power has shifted. And when the two don’t speak, sound designer David B. Marling’s ticking clock disquiets us even more.
   After seeing this show, you might secretly hope Richmond next turns his attention to Michelle, Melania and the meme-worthy blue gift box.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 27, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

At Home At the Zoo
Lovelace Studio Theater at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 16, 2017
Good Grief
Kirk Douglas Theatre

Our pasts cannot be changed. We can try to relive them, but in reality all we store in our memories is our reactions to them. These ideas thread through this psychological, mythological, archetypal, and still utterly affectionate and charming work, by Ngozi Anyanwu, in its world premiere.
   Set in a Pennsylvanian suburb, the play centers on Nkechi, a young first-generation Nigerian-American. Though primed to live her immigrant parents’ idea of the American dream, she has dropped out of medical school. She says it didn’t suit her, but in reality she is grieving—for the love of her life killed in a car crash, and for her lost youth and happy moments that are now mere memories.
   The playwright plays Nkechi. Instead of venting too-personal traumas, however, the writer-actor gives us a thoroughly universal picture of growing pains and a wonderfully specific picture of an exceedingly bright, perceptive, funny girl who thinks no one understands her. The enchanting Nkechi is surrounded by totally relatable characters, played by a flawless casts. On opening night, they won giggles, groans, cheers and sighs as the various characters wafted through Nkechi’s recalled life.

First in importance to Nkechi are the boys she liked. Her dream boy is Jimmy Deering (Mark Jude Sullivan), for whom she spent her adolescence pining. But her best friend, possible romantic interest and likely soon-to-be lover is Matthew (Wade Allain-Marcus). He, to his endearing credit, has loved Nkechi since the moment he met her, in their grade-school homeroom. Gods and godlike archetypes watch over and help recount her story. Nkechi’s mother (Omozé Idehenre) is the intellect, a psychiatric-nursing student with clipboard in hand, objectively observing how Nkechi processes grief.
   Meanwhile, other mothers (Carla Renata) overreact in exaggerated emotions, including a World Wrestling Entertainment–style bout in Ahmed Best’s fight choreography. Nkechi’s brother (Marcus Henderson) is the jester, likewise trying to usher the grieving process along. Hilariously, his coping mechanisms are marijuana, booze and 1990s rap. Papa (Dayo Ade) is the pragmatist, sternly but lovingly urging Nkechi to just move on.

This is a memory play, not a straightforward chronology. Its fragments of recollections, or perhaps dreams, are carefully sorted out by director Patricia McGregor. She also adds much humor, none of it mean, most of it universal. The 1990s references pile up as Nkechi recalls her youth.
   Sound designer Adam Phalen ensures that the soundtrack of Nkechi’s life seems to come from the tiny radios onstage, though audiences unfamiliar with the songs might have trouble hearing the lyrics. But the fact that gossip and reputations fill our minds, sometimes barring us from getting to know the person, is unfortunately timeless.

The scenes take place in and around Matthew’s bedroom and Nkechi’s. They’re designed, by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, with white LED lights that outline the homes as if a child drew them, constructed on moving platforms so that the scenery swiftly swings into place. The area between the houses becomes a wrestling ring, a road on which Papa urges his shell-shocked daughter to learn to drive, and the living room where Papa shouts at the Eagles from his armchair.
   Nkechi dropped out of her Philadelphia med school. Perhaps her imagination was too vivid to allow her to focus on such objective studies. Or, perhaps all of us seek solace in imagination and memory when our souls are taxed by death and disappointments. Whatever the case, Nkechi would make a great medical doctor, the type who takes the whole person into consideration in her diagnoses and who clearly explains causes and effects to the patient.
   On the other hand, that also describes a great playwright.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
March 7, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
Die, Mommie, Die!
Celebration Theatre at the Lex Theatre

Just when the world seems to be going completely nuts, the victimless madness of Charles Busch could not be more welcome. Die, Mommie, Die!, his outrageous parody of those silly old film noir monster-diva movies, debuted in LA at the Coast Playhouse in 1999 with its creator appearing in high drag as dastardly Angela Arden, a well-married Hollywood has-been in the late ‘60s who rules her tony Beverly Hills mansion with an iron mascara brush. The production went on to a lengthy New York run and became a feature film in 2003, both also starring Busch as his murderous heroine.
   Celebration Theatre’s lovingly remounted revival begins with the Bacall-tinged voice of its own celebrated Angela, Drew Droege, thanking us all for braving our horrible LA winter to attend the show. After threatening bodily harm if audience members don’t follow the rules of theater etiquette—much to the trepidation of the wary five patrons chosen to sit onstage on two ornate period couches flanking either side of the stage—Busch’s signature send-up of latter-day campy Bette Davis slasher melodramas takes no prisoners. Not even the overly made-up droopy-faced Angela survives, staring into her ornate but smoky mirror, as she prepares to attend the Beverly Hills Psoriasis Ball, to see nothing looking back besides “just hair and makeup and some very important jewelry.”
   With the obvious blessings of Ryan Bergmann’s unstoppably convention-free direction, this seriously over-the-top ensemble of shameless players takes the story one step further than ever before. These folks would drop their pants for a laugh if they could—no, wait, they actually do—most notably Pat Towne as Angela’s wealthy film producer husband Sol Sussman, who takes his drawer-drop one step further by letting Droege as his grimacing wife shove an enormously oversized suppository into his nether regions live onstage. One can only be grateful not to have been picked to sit in those onstage seats.

Where Busch’s deadpan Eve Arden–style performances have always been acerbic and dry as the Mojave, exhibiting his unearthly ability to circumvent the comedic pratfalls he wrote into his roles, Droege’s Angela could not be more blatantly campy, like a Zolpidem-sedated Ruby Keeler in her geriatric years playing Baby Jane Hudson wearing Joan Crawford’s real-life wardrobe. Before we are ever even introduced to the bigger-than-life mistress of the castle, however, we hear from her neglected daughter Edith (Julanne Chidi Hill) that her once-illustrious songstress mother now has a “vibrato as wide as Mr. Ed’s asshole” as we’re brought up-to-date watching a newsreel-style video showcasing Angela’s downward-spiraling career, culminating in a poster hawking her appearance playing the title role in Peter Pan at the Wichita County Fair.
   Entering from the estate’s garden, apologizing to the family and all in attendance for being “up to my elbows in manure” as Angela models her best gardening finery, Droege immediately takes Busch’s classic role and makes it his own. From sipping bottomless martinis to plotting Sol’s early demise utilizing an arsenic-dipped suppository to camouflage the treachery to spouting an endless barrage of low-registered bon mots, mispronouncing words Angela believes sound classier with a little French affectation added, Droege is a treat to behold, out-Garlanding the revered Dame Judy at every opportunity.
   Andrew Carter as resident gigolo Tony is a quintessential foil for Angela’s horny scramblings as she towers over her pocket-sized lover, a former TV series star waiting for a new pilot with the range and class of his Squad Car 13, who now supports himself by giving tennis lessons—that is when not utilizing his massive member (kudos to Allison Dillard for designing costuming that makes it possible to keep his kielbasa-sized tool erect for more than two hours) to keep wealthy matrons happy. Towne overcomes the obnoxious Hollywood executive stereotype and Jewy-slang dialogue written into the role of Angela’s oy-veying husband and is a hoot as the slimy Sol, whose life’s work has been “made a mockery of by pretentious fag and bulldyke film critics.”
   Hill has her best moments spouting off about her hated mother or pawing Sol in the most delightfully inappropriate father-daughter relationship since the invention of 24-karat friendship rings. The impossibly wide-eyed Gina Torrecilla as Bootsie, the family’s longtime maid who is hot for Sol, although her main purpose in life is saying her prayers to help send Dick Nixon to the White House in ’68, is a tremendous asset to this slickly entertaining production. And as the Sussmans’ emotionally fragile shrink-managed son, Lance, home from college after blowing his school’s entire math department in the faculty lounge, it’s hard to imagine anyone funnier or more uninhibited than the wonderfully wacky understudy Nathan Mohebbi (in for Tom DeTrinis).

“This family, frankly, exhausts me,” Angela—or is it her twin sister, Barbara?—admits, leading one to stop and wonder how this superlative cast, led by someone with razor-sharp timing and the ability to bring down the house with a flash of an errant eyelash, can get through a string of performances of Die, Mommie, Die! without sleeping 20-hour stretches between shows. Having such a clearly infectious good time together, and sharing that gift with their grateful audience onstage and off, must keep the adrenaline pumping at warp speed.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
March 6, 2017
Fun Home
Ahmanson Theatre

Saturated with multiple awards and honors, including the Tony for Best Musical and finalist status for the Pulitzer Prize, Fun Home is without a doubt one of the most important and groundbreaking musicals of all time. Without a single real good clambake or surrey with fringe on top in sight, the arrestingly personal story of real-life cartoonist Alison Bechdel ellipses the problem of Maria many times over without offering even one spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.
   Bookwriter Lisa Kron has lovingly adapted Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, her graphic memoir detailing her clumsy coming out as a lesbian in college and her close but puzzling relationship with her funeral director–English teacher father (Robert Petkoff), who killed himself by stepping in front of a bus while she was away at school discovering her identity. As the fortysomething Alison (Kate Shindle) wonders where her life is going and if her unresolved issues with her father and the lingering fear that her startling lifestyle revelation were the cause of his suicide, her younger selves share the stage with her as she narrates, portrayed at age 10 (by a delightfully precocious Alessandra Baldacchino) and during her breakout college years (by Abby Corrigan).
   Stumbling upon a tattered old box of family mementos, Alison reminisces about her staid and unwelcoming Victorian family domicile that her dad has painstakingly restored and the funeral (“fun,” get it?) home he owns where she and her brothers (Pierson Saldavor and Lennon Nate Hammond) frolic and play in and out of the caskets in the display room. Her father morphs with instantaneous incomprehension from doting, supportive parent into a volatile Daddy Dearest clone, one minute praising his daughter’s artistry and the next calling her names and telling her that her drawings suck.

When Alison writes home, admitting she has entered into an affair with the patient and nurturing Joan (Karen Eilbacher), the answer is basically silence beyond dear old Pop noting she’s off on a new adventure and telling her not to fall for labels until she decides who she really is. Frustrated with her parents’ unwillingness to really discuss her sexuality, she brings Joan home for a visit, where her long-suffering mother (beautifully and understatedly assayed by Susan Moniz) pours out a startling confession along with a tongue-loosening glass of vino in the early afternoon—something with which she appears to be familiar.
   Alison’s father, she’s told, has been having affairs with guys since even before the marriage started, resulting in many problems for the couple in their nosy small town—especially for anyone as closeted and self-hating as dear old dad. When he breaks the wall between himself and the narrator-observer Alison and invites her on a drive, she excitedly notes all the similarities between the two of them, but he is unable to respond, cutting the ride short and leaving her stunned by his inability to share and communicate. Soon after, that public convenience forever ends the possibility of any interaction between them, and she wonders, as she sketches her poignant images, if chaos never happens if it’s never seen. “I can draw a circle,” Alison mourns aloud, thinking of her sadly tortured father. “His whole life fits inside.”
   Nope, this is not musical comedy by any means—although the early “Come to the Fun Home,” as the three youthful siblings create an imaginary TV commercial for their dad’s business while popping in and out of a display casket, will surely make you laugh out loud. As a significant and welcome entry in the evolution of musical comedy transforming into musical theater, however, this is the best of the genre since 2009’s Next to Normal, until now the most arrestingly notable new musical in many, many years. The cast is one of the best touring ensembles in a long time under the tutelage of director Sam Gold, who does a yeoman’s job melding the characters and situations between the story’s three periods of time and manages to adapt the once-intimate theater piece into something that impressively fills the cavernous Ahmanson stage.

Petkoff does a phenomenal job as Alison’s tormented dad, a role that must require about 20 hours of sleep daily and maybe a generous prescription for Zanex to make it through a lengthy national tour without eyeing a bus or two on one’s own. Moniz, as the mother patiently staying in the shadows as she deals with the heartbreak of her life as she tries to shield her kids from the reality of the situation, breaks out gloriously in the haunting 11th-hour ballad “Days and Days.” Corrigan also brings down the house with the delightful “Changing My Major”—in this case from Art to Joan—creating the evening’s most affecting performance that elicited two separate ovations on opening night after scenes with nary a song to put a button on ’em.
   Above everything and ascending to the top of the wonders here is the musical genius of Jeanine Tesori, who with lyrics by Kron has brought to the world the most innovative and ambitious score since the discovery of Stephen Sondheim, almost qualifying the musical as an operetta more than something that will comfortably stand in time alongside works by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Meredith Willson. There’s even a hint of homage to Sweeney Todd or Pacific Overtures or A Little Night Music in the mix, especially when Alison sings as she draws a “dark shaded stripe/bum bum bum.”
   There are not enough adjectives to adequately describe Fun Home. But, when an artistically well-pampered and sophisticated opening night audience winds its way out of the Ahmanson in silence and tears and the inability to make conversation beyond tight hugs with friends and familiar fellow first-nighters, you can bet you’re experiencing something uniquely special, something historic, something unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 24, 2017
Finding Neverland
Pantages Theatre

It’s back, just past the second star to the right and straight on til morning, yet another telling of the Peter Pan story. Even for those among us who run from sappy musical theater offerings, right now, as the world crumbles and burns around us, Finding Neverland could not be more gratefully welcome. Based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan and the 2004 film version, this grand-scale Broadway musical adaptation follows the relationship between playwright J. M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) and the fatherless London family that became his inspiration for Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, which debuted on the London stage nearly 100 years before Johnny Depp ever donned a nicely pressed ascot.
   Just at the point where Barrie’s successful playwriting career was stymied in a massive writer’s block and his stressed-out producer Charles Frohman (Tom Hewitt, who doubles as a delightfully ominous Captain Hook) was thinking of checking out another, fresher protégé, in a classic bit of serendipity Barrie met lovely young widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) and her obviously pre-Ritalin litter of energetic sons (including the infectiously talented Jordan Cole, Finn Faulconer, and Mitchell Wray at the performance reviewed) in a local park.
   Sensing the reclusive, solitary detachment of the brood’s eldest brother Peter (the sweet and angel-voiced Ben Krieger), it doesn’t take long for Barrie to take the kid and his siblings under his wing, something that shocked the tight-corseted denizens of proper conservative London society. The bond between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family may or may not have sped up the demise of the his already floundering marriage; but, in the process, it also brought the world one of the most-familiar and beloved children’s stories of all time.

This musical version couldn’t be much better. After a New York run starring Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer, it has taken to the road without losing any of its high-tech visual marvels. The incredibly kinetic staging by director Diane Paulus and the spirited, charmingly cheery choreography by Mia Michaels are perfectly accentuated by an eager ensemble and a world-class production team on every level. Yet, even the veteran expertise of set designer Scott Pask, lighting magician Kenneth Posner, and costumer Suttirat Anne Larlarb take a back seat to Jon Driscoll’s amazingly fluid and ever-moving visual imagery that, on the massive and towering Pantages stage, steals the show.
   In an era when traditional movable and fly-able set pieces are often replaced using striking visual projections—a special boon for touring productions—Posner’s towering and moody views of stormy London skies, with dramatic clouds and graceful soaring birds crashing across a romantic moon, are brought to dreamlike life. Although sometimes creating such modern industrial-strength illusions can prove an easy way out, here it works as magically as, well, a healthy sprinkle of pixie dust itself.

Aside from everything this charming adaptation has going for it, however, there’s the hauntingly lovely score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. From Dwyer’s solo turns with the lyrical ballads “All That Matters” and “Sylvia’s Lullaby” to the show-stopping production number “We’re All Made of Stars,” which features Krieger, Faulconer, Wray, and Cole in the most smile-inducing specimen of bonded sibling behavior since Seven Brides for Seven Bothers, we might not be prepared to hum a few bars of “Circus of Your Mind” as we leave the theater, but it may just motivate immediately going out and purchasing the CD.
   Everything about Finding Neverland runs like a well-oiled machine, but without losing any of the momentary enchantment that can take us all, regardless of our age, back to the time when we first saw Peter Pan take flight and longed to help him get that shadow of his sewn back on and journey through the night skies with him to join the Lost Boys. Never growing up to face a world gone totally mad is a consummation devoutly to be wished there days, and it’s a lovely treat when any fantasy can transport us away from the daily barrage of evening news insanity.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 22, 2017
Liana and Ben
Circle X at Atwater Village Theatre

The pedigree that came along with the announcement of this world premiere was instantly thrilling. Circle X, one of LA’s best, bravest, and most inexhaustible theater companies, was about to take on a new work by one of our town’s most breathtaking wordsmiths, Susan Rubin. And along for the rollercoaster ride of what surely would be an unregimented effort to bring Rubin’s Faustian-inspired epic to fruition was one of our most innovative directors, Mark Bringelsen, leading a world-class cast of heavyweight LA theatrical talent.
   Whatever went wrong, whatever might be learned from this effort, can hopefully benefit future productions of Rubin’s Liana and Ben, a play more than worthy of further exploration. Still, this production is an astonishingly unexpected disappointment. Perhaps a big part of this outcome is the staging, with audience placed on either side of a long, slender playing space dominated by two huge seesaws. It’s not difficult to see what an inventive idea this was on the drawing board, but to say it doesn’t work in actuality is a major understatement. Even while an audience might appreciate the ingenuity that went into creating the apparatus, it limits the actors’ playing space and is also a rickety distraction, particularly when on the move into another position.

As we stare ahead directly into the equally confused faces of patrons on the other side of the action—not to mention, on opening night, two brightly lit older gentlemen desperately struggling to stay awake in the front row—the gifted and quite courageously game quartet of players is surely directed to use the space. The result, however, is that the boldly gorgeous visual designs by Jason H. Thompson are lost as projected onto the floor and the walls on opposite ends of the playing area, while conversations between characters often are staged so far apart that one begins to feel like a ping-pong ball trying to take in both actors at once.
   Bringelsen further accentuates this divide by directing his performers to continuously make slow, motivation-free moves from one place to another, especially in the case of Kimberly Alexander as Liana, who repeatedly does so with sensually charged balletic movements.
   If there is a reference to Alexander’s time-traveling character having a history in dance during her 250-year lifespan, a result of a pact negotiated with Ben (Jonathan Medina), a guy who, it doesn’t take long to realize, is the busy boss-man of that infamously fiery mythological world down below, it’s not clear. As sweepingly poetic and jarringly insightful as Rubin’s script proves to be, the meat of the story—the quest for Liana to save her soul by proving to her nemesis that our world is worth saving—is obscured far too long and not really apparent until Act 2, when our heroine travels to Hades in an effort to sort things out.

There is no doubt the acting is committed and admirably risky; but again, the directorial eye to keep everyone and their individual styles on the same track is surprisingly absent. Alexander has the biggest challenge as she spouts Rubin’s classically tinged poetic observations on life, but it seems she is often reciting her dialogue without connecting with it or making any discoveries as Liana zips through her emotional life lessons.
   Perhaps the other even more omnipresent problem about mounting this play, with its rather foreseeable theme of good always being able to conquer evil peeping through its beautifully lyrical passages, is doing so at this point in our country and our world’s self-destructive race to trigger our own oblivion. “The truth lies in stories,” a character in Liana and Ben reminds us—or is it preaches? But sadly, where once was hope and faith in the future of our species, something inspirational when comfortably reflected in our art, there’s a lingering unshakable malaise that now overshadows so many scared and depressed people with a soupçon of intelligence.
   It’s painfully difficult in these precarious days to not to let those incredibly unwelcome feelings drown us in cynicism and disenfranchisement about how art and artists, as we’ve always been led to believe, can change the world. Art heals, yes, but sometimes the drip-drip-drip of water torture as it happens with such agonizing sluggishness is too much to bear.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 20, 2017
Theatre of NOTE

Well, here’s another nice mess Kirsten Vangsness has gotten us into. See, in the eccentricity department, Criminal Minds’s eccentric computer geek Penelope Garcia has nothing on her creator, who now takes to the stage of her beloved Theatre of NOTE to present the latest incarnation of her prodigiously personal solo piece Mess, in which the fearlessly unfiltered storyteller confesses that the title of her show couldn’t be more appropriate—even if she has become skilled in covering her mess with stuff she gets from Sephora.
   Our perception of life and our challenging of whether time is indeed even a linear concept are examined through Vangsness’s outrageously in-your-face humor, based on a Ted Talk called “Making Sense of a Visible Quantum Object” by Aaron O’Connell. As she zips back and forth at time-warping speed through various periods in her life past, present, and future, she morphs with jaw-dropping alacrity to ages 4, 7, 14, 44, and 54. As her breakneck performance tumbles forward, the phenomenally talented Vangsness champions every one of her life’s pivotal passages.

There is the 4-year-old Kirsten, surprised to find, as her mother “closes her eyes” on the kitchen linoleum, that she has inadvertently created her first chaotic mess in her room. This proves something her mom, complete with the geometric pattern of the floor still pressed into her cheek, warns her is why the rain forests are disappearing and the tigers are dying at an alarming rate.
   By age 7, she has realized that growing up in the sheltering arms of her family would never afford her an ideal Beaver Cleaver-esque nurturing experience, especially when confronted by a scary father she calls her “not kitten, not Fred Rogers dad.” Instead, her exploding young mind turns to visits from possible space aliens willing to offer her better advice, beginning with the one mini-monster she discovers waving at her from the depths of the crawlspace under the stairs of their new home.
   When her teen years appear to be even more angst-ridden than they are for most, she succumbs to peer pressure and takes a summer break with a friend at a church-run summer camp. There she realizes that a fellow camper has lovely little nipples resembling small cupcakes, that the priests are lots hotter and sexier than she expected, and that the kids finger-banging one another under a bridge in the adjoining woods, when joined in the chapel to praise Jesus, sound a lot like Liv Tyler in Lord of the Rings when they talk in tongues.

Vangsness spills out her story with manic energy, her fingers splayed out vertically before her like she’s nursing a drying manicure and her signature quirky body language resembling a kid in water wings floating for the very first time. As she navigates the admittedly self-induced Mess of her life, she shares with us the realization that, no matter how high the piles of junk grow around you, no matter how many kitten-hating fathers or linoleum-patterned mothers or hypocritical Jesus-freak teenyboppers named Tiffany or imaginary monsters intrude on your life’s personal journey, there’s also a multitude of paths to take and a butt-load of channels to click onto. When you’re as strong and as incredibly gifted as Vangsness, our messy conquering hero reminds us that we get to choose the channel, and it’s up to us just how much we want to let it take us wherever we want to go.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 20, 2017
Circus 1903: The Golden Age
of Circus

Pantages Theatre

It must be hard for circus-themed touring productions to exist in the massive and glitzy shadow of Cirque du Soleil. There have been many animal-free Cirque clones popping up over the last years—and most of them hang for dear life onto the coattails of the Montreal conglomerate with varying degrees of success. None, however, has been as imaginative or downright captivating as Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus, now loaded into the Pantages for a too-short stay.
   Beginning with the premise that this usual troupe of death-defying aerialists, acrobats, jugglers, and tightrope artists are setting up their wares alongside a railroad depot in a small town at the turn of the last century, Circus 1903 is different from its competitors. Not only were the producers smart to hire notable magician David Williamson to play their wisecracking, slightly world-weary ringmaster Willy Whipsnide, they also brought on board costumer Angela Aaron to re-create the players’ painstakingly accurate period wardrobe, as well as scenic wizard Todd Edward Ivins and lighting designer Paul Smith to add to the illusion of the members of the ensemble joining to raise their tents and festooning them with strings of lights and colorful banners.
   By the second act, their smoky, atmospheric preparations give way to a full-blown performance, and the result may be slightly minimal but still, most charmingly magical.

And speaking of magic, the other distinctive thing this traveling entertainment has going for it is the participation of Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller of Significant Object, who bring to life the show’s resident star attractions: the enormous, incredibly graceful “Queenie” and her adorably goofy and energetic baby “Peanut.” Millar and Waller’s pair of life-size elephant puppets are manipulated by several retro-costumed puppeteers walking next to and visibly moving inside the beautifully rendered creatures, instantly reminiscent of the enchanted animals dominating the National Theatre’s adaptation of War Horse—of which Millar was part of the creative team. Bringing these glorious beasts to life proves a feat of extraordinary artistic alchemy, only making their delighted audiences wish for more. A few future lions and tigers and bears, maybe? Oh, my. We can only hope.
   Surely Circus 1903 doesn’t have the limitless resources available to the world-full of nonstop wonder fashioned for one of Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix’s empire of enchanted dreamscapes, but what Circus 1903 does with what it has got is, simply, magical on its own.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 17, 2017
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips
Wallis Center for the Performing Arts

Like a cat that doesn’t want to be caught, theater that satisfies adults and children can be elusive. But Britain’s Kneehigh theater company caught an adorable cat firmly by the scruff with this production.
   And what a gorgeous, joyous, meaningful piece of theater Kneehigh has devised, using creative storytelling, lively song and dance, and thoroughly endearing puppetry. In this adaptation by Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) and Emma Rice from Morpurgo’s novel, the stage at the Wallis has become a seaside town (Lez Brotherston’s set and costumes), where a second-story band shell houses musicians, many of whom are also actors in the show, as talents abound here.

At the home of Grandma and Grandpa, a kindhearted geeky-grungy grandson (Adam Sopp) visits. Grandpa (Chris Jared) passes on, tenderly staged as he rises youthfully and without handicap from his wheelchair and ascends a ladder to the bandstand. Granny (Mike Shepherd) ignores her disapproving children and bolts out of the funeral on her motorcycle, but not before she hands her grandson her diary from her youth.
   As he begins to read it, we’re transported to 1940s Devon, England. Living on a struggling farm are preteen Lily (Katy Owen), her overworked mother (Kyla Goodey), and Lily’s grumpy grandfather (Shepherd). The town’s schoolteacher, Madame Bounine (Emma Darlow) has her hands full with Lily and the other undisciplined students, but like everyone in town, nevertheless she persists.
   Refugees, including a charming young geek named Barry (Sopp), come from London and aren’t particularly welcome. Lily lashes out and is surprisingly bratty, both for a wartime Brit and for a story’s heroine. But when it’s needed, Lily’s golden heart takes over.
   And then, American soldiers take over the area, requiring displacement of the residents. Yes, this happened, for real, in the Devon town of Slapton Sands. There, as history now tells us, soldiers disastrously rehearsed the D-Day invasion. The 946 in the play’s title commemorates the number of American lives lost.

The show also commemorates American gum-chewing. Alas, this seems to be how so much of Europe remembers our soldiers. Here, the GIs include the African-American Adolphus T. Madison (Ncuti Gatwa) and his faithful friend Harry (Nandi Bhebhe).   Grandpa can’t understand why the “ruddy Yanks” need to disrupt his life. Then Barry, unwanted elsewhere, moves in with the family. This city boy is a dab hand at repairing the broken farm machinery and an enthusiast for the farming way of life. Attitude is contagious.
   Still, Lily is slower to appreciate Barry. She’d rather spend time with Tips, her cat. Tips is playful, affectionate, smart, and portrayed by a puppet wielded by the actors, primarily Bhebhe. Tips apparently refuses to evacuate and is lost to Lily. The can-do Adolphus and the quiet but observant Harry promise Lily they’ll search for her, and they do. But, being a cat, she’s independent.
   Dramaturgically, her independence allows people of various ages, nationalities and races to get to know one another. Not surprisingly for those days, the countryside Brits hadn’t come in contact with many blacks. And, as Harry later admits, he had never met whites who took him to their hearts like these folks do.
   Remarkable about Owen’s performance as a child just turning 12 years old is Owen’s willingness to launch, skid, and plunge over and off the stage, with no fear of a broken hip. Remarkable about the performances of all the actors are the commitment, freshness, and auxiliary skills they ply, including playing instruments under Pat Moran’s music direction and eccentric dancing incorporating period fads, choreographed by Rice and Etta Murfitt.

You know by the show’s title that adventures abound. So does destruction, sacrifice, death. So does rich theatermaking, from obvious drag through references to Brecht. And so does joy, in little plot twists that reveal the power of love to heal and unite, the remarkable resilience in each of us if we free it.
   Now, curiosity kills cats. But why doesn’t the audience see the cat’s adventures here? And what is soldier Madison’s middle name?

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 13, 2017

Republished courtesy Daily Breeze

Future Sex, Inc.
Lounge Theatre

When a malevolent Trump-like conglomerate called Monocorp falsely alarms the public that sexual activity must be stopped due to an impending epidemic, the prospect of future sex for our species is jeopardized. The only solution is strapping on—the wrist…what were you thinking?—a little apparatus Monocorp manufactures called the Love Light, which, when activated, stimulates an orgasm of epic proportions. In offering this product for worldwide utilization, Monocorp can soon, of course, control the planet.
   With an infectious score that, as a character tells us with tongue firmly in cheek, runs the spectrum all the way from hip-hop to rap, this outrageously X-rated pop musical melds Arthur C. Clarke, Lady Gaga, and a North Beach-y peep show vibe with surprising success. The weakest part is writer-composer John Papageorge’s predictable and rather silly script, which has the feeling of being created on the spot as the play progresses and oddly makes one wish, if he wanted to go for adult humor and off-color double-entendres, he’d gone a little further.
   Still, the music is worth suffering through the dialogue and situations, which also boasts exceptional performances, surprisingly fluid staging by director Kiff Scholl on the Lounge Theatre’s extremely limited playing area, steamy choreography by April Thomas, and comically sexy strip-clubby costuming by local glitter-god Michael Mullen that makes one immediately wonder just where this guy shops.

Ally Dixon and the Pee-wee Herman–suited Kevin McDonald have a splendidly good time as the corporation’s evil henchwoman Vivian and her nerdy suitor George O. Thornhill, while Tanya Alexander and Michael Uribes scenery chew with hilarious results as Monocorp’s devious CEO and a sketchily talented magician whose allegiances waver from bad to good. Jolie Adamson steals every one of her scenes as Cherry, a Valley Girl-accented robot with moves like C-3PO and outfits inherited from Britney Spears. Maya Lynne Robinson, as a fallen pop star who tries out a Love Light, vibrates and twitches and rolls her eyes back in the lengthiest and most memorable onstage “happy ending” in the history of the American theater.
   Alex Vergel as the wisecracking deejay-MC; Sean Leon as Alexander’s hunky “enforcer”; and Erica Ibsen, Natalie Polisson, Briana Price, and Elise Zell as the gamely raunchy dancing ensemble fill out the ensemble with spunk, much to the delight of one single older man in a wrinkled overcoat seated directly in the front row who looked so much like a drooling, knee-slapping denizen of a real-life gentlemen’s club that he almost seemed like a plant. Yup, Future Sex, Inc. is, as Papageorge’s dialogue tells us, a “one of a kind—like a snowflake or a cum stain.”

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 9, 2017
Laguna Playhouse

Christian O’Reilly’s delightful Irish play about two lonely souls of a certain age is both witty and poignant. From the first moments when bachelor Dan (Mark Bramhall) speaks to the audience as storyteller, we are engaged in a tale that is deceptively simple yet thoroughly affecting.
   Dan is lonely after his many-decades lover has died. Dan fills his time with visits to the vet with his small dog, Chapatti. When the vet suggests that he is coming too often with a dog that has no health issues, Dan determines that he has nothing to live for, but what will he do with Chapatti?
   As luck will have it, he bumps into an elderly neighbor, Betty (Annabella Price), a personable soul who cares for 19 cats. She is just as outgoing as Dan is withdrawn. With a history of an unhappy relationship, she sees Dan as her last hope for love.

Price and Bramhall have an easy chemistry and elevate what could be predictable into a warm and uplifting story full of heart and a few surprises along the way. O’Reilly artfully balances comic moments with an exploration of human needs as the characterizations unfold. While both characters have had disappointments in life, the play is never maudlin nor contrived.
   Marty Burnett’s set design effectively creates Dan’s and Betty’s houses and an outdoor space. Elisa Benzoni’s costumes are notable, especially in a scene where Betty and Dan are tentatively exploring romance. Lighting by Matthew Novotny and sound by Melanie Chen successfully round out the production. Dialect coach Jan Gist needs a mention, as Bramhall and Price make believable their Irish characterizations. Director David Ellenstein’s adaptation of Judith Ivey’s original direction has just the right touch for the story.

In this time of in-your-face drama and overtly preachy storylines, O’Reilly’s gentle and very human narrative is a welcome addition to Laguna’s theatrical season.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
January 27, 2017
Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

If you insist on a little sense in dramatic literature, you might note that Nunsense has not a lot. Character development goes nowhere. Identity, devotion, sisterhood, a calling? These get mentioned here but get no payoff. And yet this musical was the second-longest-running show in Off-Broadway history, lasting more than 10 years there.
   But if you want to be cheered up, perhaps tell a joke to the crowd, and play a quick but hilarious round of bingo, this show will serve you well. In large part that’s thanks to its five heaven-sent musical-comedy performances.
   With book and music by Dan Goggin, based on his line of greeting cards, Nunsenseis pretty much an excuse for more than a few songs and more than a few gags. It also calls upon its cast to showcase multiple talents, from expected song-and-dance skills to unexpected skills.
   As the backstory goes, the convent’s chef accidentally introduced botulism into her vichyssoise, killing 52 sisters. The survivors had money to bury only 48 of them; four are in the freezer, awaiting interment (cue joke about blue nuns). And so this fundraiser. That’s how hard Goggin worked to set up this revue by the Little Sisters of Hoboken.

The sisters warmly welcome the audience (be prepared to answer or perhaps tell a nun-related joke). Then Reverend Mother (Dawn Stahlak) arrives. She’s witty and savvy, though she becomes inebriated sniffing a bottle of rush. And of course at one point in her youth she wanted to go into showbiz.
   Joining her “onstage” is young novice Sister Mary Leo (Noelle Marion), who can dance, as she shows us in her red satin pointe shoes. Fortunately, Marion can dance too, in her ballet solo “Benedicite” and in the group’s tap number, “Tackle That Temptation With a Time Step.”
   Beyond her skill in hot-wiring cars, Sister Robert Anne (Rebecca Lumiansi) likewise had aspirations to perform, and a bit of talent, which she proudly displays in “Playing Second Fiddle,” about being an understudy onstage and in life.
   The charmingly wacky Sister Mary Amnesia (Silvie Zamora) lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head. Zamora sings in a light soprano as the sister’s tremulous self. But when she brings out a puppet as part of the “act” (how they got that puppet to look just like Mary Amnesia is a modern miracle), Zamora turns her puppet into Ethel Merman.
   And, given the 11 o’clock number (unless you attend the Saturday or Sunday matinees offered at the Norris, in which case it’s technically a 4 o’clock number) is Sister Mary Hubert. She’s played by the stellar Jennifer Leigh Warren, who belts the gospel “Holier Than Thou” to shake the heavens—or at least the audience seated in the balcony.

The show is directed with heart and wit by Ken Parks and choreographed with wisdom and simplicity by KC Gussler. Bless Palos Verdes Performing Arts for including a live orchestra, which sounds great, under conductor–music director Jake Anthony, from the playful musical-theater tunes through the classical-music themes wafting through Goggin’s score.
   No one from the audience is asked to tithe—mainly because a source of funds is revealed at the show’s end, but also because Nunsense is ultimately a very gentle show, despite the presence of a 12-inch ruler at one point. These nuns do not berate, they do not punish, they even welcome Protestants among the audience.
   And despite the incontrovertible truth that this show consists of singing, dancing, acrobatic nuns, there’s a joy in watching characters who have fanciful dreams yet love their day job—and a joy in watching the actors who revel in playing those characters. The bingo is a blast, too.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 23, 2017
Republished courtesy Daily Breeze
Winter Solstice Pagan Holiday Show
The Actors’ Gang

With all the brouhaha over the return of the words “Merry Christmas” to the casually tossed-off things we say to one another at year’s end, this latest show at The Actors’ Gang comes at a splendid time. Its title says it all, welcoming pagans of all faiths and none. It provides athletic entertainment, visual spectacle, giggles and a bit of information about where modern-day American year-end celebrations originated. Which of its elements are best here? The more thoughtful and hopeful ones.
   Dionysus and Aphrodite, portrayed by the shows directors Adam J. Jefferis and Lee Margaret Hanson host the evening. Dionysus brings his patronage of theater and the boozing; Aphrodite brings the love. He’s a stinky-drunken mess; she’s a gyrating wannabe-siren. They’re earthy enough to populate their show with what mortals call entertainment, however. The Gang’s ensemble (credited with creating the acts, though writing credit goes to Jeffers, Hanson and Rynn Vogel) appears in movement-based pieces, and guest stars offer happily ages-old variety acts.
   Those acts (on the night reviewed) consisted of Chris Ruggiero’s juggling and card manipulations; Whitney Kirk’s aerial tissu artistry; and Donna Jo Thorndale’s embodying of Delois Delaney the O.G. Crafter, plying mostly comedy because, as she says, “The only guns we need in America are glue guns: They create.”
   The inebriated portion of the audience clearly had the grandest time. Many in the seats were willing to participate when called down to the stage, for picking cards, making a Christmas ornament (yes, the show includes a few recognitions of that holiday), and slow-dancing at the Winter Pagan Holiday Dance, supplied with a partner if needed.

But the pieces that created a lasting impression of universality and beauty are the interludes of movement the ensemble performs. “Creation” leads off, a story of the distant past told in every faith, beginning and apparently ending in water. Cihan Sahin’s projection designs and Bosco Flanagan’s lighting combine to enhance these dances that evoke no particular style but clearly depict their themes.
   “Light” begins in the future or perhaps the present as the ensemble remains welded to cellphones to tell of joining isolated lives, the upside of technology. Humor enters the stage with “Modelism,” in which looking fabulous is everything, as deities such as Loofah, goddess of rejuvenation, parade in a ministry of silly walks.
   But “Forgiveness” is the most beautiful, coming near the show’s end and reflecting the contagious healing power of that quality, a burden lifted from each of us as we feel it.
   Unfortunately the show decided to end in a different mood. Giving the finale to Poinsettia, daughter of Aphrodite and Dionysus, puts triviality in the place of honor, as the Christmas-addicted Poinsettia badly (deliberately comedic, in the hands of Lynde Houck) sings “Sleigh Ride.”
   Still, as the year ends, it’s nice to know theater hasn’t yet been completely forced to shut down and there’s still a refuge for pagans.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies December 10, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
Resolving Hedda
Victory Theatre Center

Individual stage performances are but momentary glimpses, jointly experienced for one fleeting moment by their creators and those who witness the proceedings. So, what would occur if, in stepping through the proverbial looking glass, it was revealed that the characters not only exist in perpetuity but are completely aware of every actor who has embodied them since those characters were committed to parchment by the play’s author?
   This is the stepping-off point of playwright Jon Klein’s mind-bending world premiere comedy based on Henrik Ibsen’s century-old classic Hedda Gabler, given first-rate direction here by Maria Gobetti.
   Kicking off this often hilarious straddling of the fourth wall is Kimberly Alexander, whose tour-de-force performance in the title role demands she walk a constant tightrope between the theatrical reality of Ibsen’s tale and Klein’s wickedly funny asides and plotline machinations.
   Alexander’s delivery of Klein’s expository opening monologue brings the audience up to speed with both Ibsen’s original tale and Hedda’s obsessive desire to, for the first time ever, survive this story’s denouement.
   And with such lovely production values–Evan Bartoletti’s beautifully appointed drawing room set and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s fetching costuming–one steps back in time with ease.

Dramaturgically, Klein mirrors Ibsen’s original by setting up his quartet of scenes with the standard plot points, paying scrupulous attention to the details of the original play. George and Hedda Tesman have returned from a nearly half-year honeymoon during which he performed research and she was bored to distraction. George’s hopes for a professorial post become entangled with a former rival while Hedda manipulates George’s spinster aunt, a flighty childhood acquaintance, and a local court justice.
   But within this saga lurk twists from the very start. Klein’s Hedda has totally dispensed with the household maid, Berta, so as to maintain a sense of control as she activates her scheme. Replacing Berta is a silent stagehand, portrayed by Sean Spencer, who appears throughout with modern-day items.
   Hedda excepted, none of the characters realizes what is happening, but each struggles valiantly to incorporate heretofore unseen props into their world of 1891. Meanwhile, tossed-off references to the Internet, specific television shows, politics, even modern-day medical conditions take wing, thanks to Alexander’s sardonically dry delivery.

The supporting cast expertly handles the challenge of embodying Ibsen’s original characters not as actors but real-life people who must deal with all of Hedda’s intentional curveballs. Alyce Heath gives Aunt Julia a pleasantly optimistic, occasionally clueless, tone that works well when she is faced with anachronistic developments. Ben Atkinson’s George, is more bumbling than browbeaten as he struggles to keep up with the strange behavior demonstrated by the Hedda he thinks he knows.
   As Hedda’s put-upon schoolmate, Thea Elvsted, Marisa Van Den Borre exudes a sympathetic air despite her character’s whininess. Meanwhile, Tom Ormeny is at the top of his game in the role of the slimy Judge Brack, whose apparent concern masks his palpably creepy sexual obsession with Hedda.
   Perhaps the closest to the mindset of Alexander’s Hedda is her husband’s chief competitor, Eilert Lovborg, a formerly disgraced academician who has managed to revive his career. In the hands of Chad Coe, this Lovborg seems to sense what Hedda is hoping to pull off.
   And yet, the stone rolling down the hill cannot be dissuaded from its appointed path. Hedda exits with the pistol, one of a pair belonging to her father, a renowned military general. We hear a shot. Ibsen’s enigmatic final line is delivered by Judge Brack. Is all as it seems? One must witness this enjoyable production to fully experience Klein’s masterful homage.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
October 5, 2017

Arsenic and Old Lace
Odyssey Theatres

Joseph Kesselring’s black comedy about the Brewster sisters murdering old men with elderberry wine as a charitable act has been a staple of American theater since the 1940s when it played on Broadway for a total of 1,444 performances. Murder for fun seems to delight audiences, and this Odyssey revival, played broadly for laughs with farcical overtones, is pure escapist entertainment.
   Elderly Abby Brewster (Sheelagh Cullen) and sister Martha (Jacque Lynn Colton), Mayflower descendants, live in the family home and are beloved in the neighborhood for their good works. As the play opens, two police officers (Mat Hayes, Darius De La Cruz) have just arrived to pick up a box that the sisters have gathered for a local charity. The policemen are frequent visitors, as the sisters’ brother, Teddy (Alex Elliot-Funk), believing himself to be Theodore Roosevelt, plays his bugle and annoys the neighbors. The sisters are entertaining their next-door neighbor, Reverend Dr. Harper (Alan Abelew), whose daughter, Elaine (Liesel Kopp), is in love with their nephew, Mortimer (JB Waterman).
   Idyllic normalcy soon turns to macabre humor when drama critic Mortimer arrives to discover a dead body in the window seat. Believing Teddy to be the murderer, he tells the sisters that Teddy must be committed to Happydale Sanitarium. They are indignant, claiming the body to be their work and nothing to do with Teddy. They further assert that there are nearly a dozen other victims in the cellar that they have assisted out of their misery. They have convinced Teddy that the men are victims of yellow fever that was prevalent during Roosevelt’s term during the building of the Panama Canal, so he happily buries them below stairs.
   While this might be enough to sustain the comic trajectory of the play, for good measure Kesselring introduces maniacal brother Jonathan (Gera Herman), who has returned after a 20-year absence to dispose of a body, Mr. Spinalzo, whom he has murdered. He is accompanied by alcoholic plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Ron Bottitta), whose recent transformation of Jonathan’s face so that he won’t be recognized is a facsimile of the horror film star Boris Karloff.
   At this point in the story, events spiral out of control, and the farce becomes convoluted mayhem. Mortimer’s attempts to shield his aunts, deal with his twisted brother, fend off his fiancée’s questions, and come to grips with the realization that he himself might be genetically predisposed to lunacy drive the narrative.

Director Elina de Santos goes for over-the-top action from the beginning. Cullen and Colton steal the show as the pixilated sisters whose sense of ethics won’t allow Mr. Spinalzo to join the good Christian men in the cellar. Waterman is suitably distraught as he tries to cope, and Kopp makes a nice foil for his machinations. Elliot-Funk is enthusiastically hearty as Teddy, carrying out his charge up the stairs to San Juan Hill at every opportunity.
   Hermann tries, not always completely successfully, to provide the sinister element of the murderous brother with a Karloff running gag that doesn’t play quite as well in 2017. Bottitta’s German accent sometimes impedes his dialogue, but he makes the most of his fear of Jonathan. The other supporting characters play it broadly and relish the comic details. Michael Antosy adds suspense as a wannabe playwright cop, and Yusef Lambert arrives in the nick of time to cart Jonathan away.
   Scenic designer Bruce Goodrich’s Brewster home makes a wonderful backdrop for the funny business taking place as bodies appear and disappear amid sinister maneuverings. Leigh Allen’s lighting design is also effective. Amanda Martin’s costumes for the Brewster sisters and Elaine are particularly charming.
   In these days of graphic storytelling, Arsenic and Old Lace is a welcome foray into a gentler time. Kesselring’s happy ending with a twist comes as a neat conclusion to a production that has an enthusiastic ensemble enjoying themselves with a willing audience along for the ride.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
August 29, 2017
Welcome to the White Room
Theatre of NOTE

With a doff of the cap to both Rod Serling and Jean-Paul Sartre, playwright Trish Harnetiaux’s West Coast premiere makes for an engaging, thoughtful, even surprising tale. Three seemingly scientific types find themselves confined within the title location. Never ones to panic, this trio of brainiacs approaches the predicament from a viewpoint of experimental fact-finding and solution. The three’s methodical interest in each subsequent clue, dispensed through a sliding panel in the locale’s only visible doorway, provides Harnetiaux’s audience with the opportunity to “play along,” as it were.
   The venue’s eye-catching set, courtesy of scenic designer Amanda Knehans, is most ingenious—not so much in that there are hidden secrets but rather for its multidimensional appearance despite what would seem a rather bland choice of palettes with which Knehans had to work. Likewise, Rebecca Raines’s lighting, along with perfectly cued sound effects courtesy of Dean Harada, and various projected graphics provided by Kjai Block, transform what at first glance is merely a three-sided box into an unusually pliable playing space.

Director Megan A. McGuane and her charges wring just about every conceivable action from this setting and Harnetiaux’s script. Intentionally clipped dialogue, particularly at the onset, is delivered with a practically perfect staccato further augmenting these characters and the puzzle-like quandary they face. McGuane keeps this extended one-act moving at a pace that neither dulls the senses nor hurtles past her audience’s ability to keep up.
   Carrying the weight of this intriguing premise are Chris Gardner, Sierra Marcks, and Sarah Lilly as Mr. Payne, Ms. White, and Jennings. Initially, the characters present to the others an invention, each more bizarre than the one before. It’s the excellent manner in which Harnetiaux introduces these personages without relying on unnecessarily lengthy back stories. No matter that none of these contraptions has any sort of practical application. They just add to the humorously bizarre nature of the plot.
   Gardner’s lankiness and obvious deftness with physical comedy is on full display throughout the production. Marcks does an equally excellent job capturing the intellectual sensuality so apparent to the viewer but to which her character is oblivious. And Lilly is spot-on perfect as Jennings, their maturely defined, British-accented colleague who would perfectly usurp the old boys’ club as the first female version of James Bond’s gadget procuring “Q.”

Throughout the piece, all sorts of oddities make their way into the proceedings. Some are immediately apparent, others only make sense upon witnessing Harnetiaux’s surrealistic conclusion. Most notable are what the characters do with what is supposedly the world’s last deck of playing cards (kudos to prop designer Andrea Ruth) and Gardner’s and Marcks’s expertly executed tango, choreography credited to Nancy Dobbs Owen and Ana Cardenas, which Lilly narrates with escalating passion.
   Without divulging the denouement, this company’s first-rate production values and all around onstage artistry make it a lot of fun trying to wrap your brain around this mind-bender of a tale.

Reviewed by Dink O'Neal
August 22, 2017

3–D Theatricals at Redondon Beach Performing Arts Center

King Arthur was said to have defended Britain against foreign invasions in the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD. He also said he promptly revived the economy and swiftly fixed health care. Only he didn’t have a Twitter account, so we can’t be sure.
   But now we have an account of him through the musical Spamalot, told in historically dubious but musically delectable fashion, with book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by John Du Prez and Idle, “lovingly ripped off” from the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail (by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin).
  Spamalot is mildly offensive. Mostly to the British. However, sensitive persons with no sense of humor should probably head off for a different show. Maybe a production of Camelot. Which this is not. Just to be clear.

It’s also not a successor to Sondheim. It doesn’t pretend to be. Instead, it borrows wittily from megahit musicals, starting with The Phantom of the Opera, mocked by King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake as they sing “The Song That Goes Like This” under a chandelier. Later, Sir Robin-the-Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot gets a muscular bottle dance from Fiddler on the Roof, here balancing a chalice on his hat. Later yet, a number looks suspiciously like a discard from The Boy From Oz.
   The French get mocked sans merci, from accents to culture to personality. Meantime, those of Jewish descent get mocked for having supported so much of theater, and those repressing homosexuality get mocked for doing so. As mocking goes, it’s relatively harmless, mostly because stupidity bears the brunt of the pointed humor here. Bits from Monty Python skits and movies show up, getting loud recognition from the troupe’s fans in the audience. But enough other material keeps the show afloat.

So do the efforts of all involved here, making sure the audience is constantly interested and getting a good laugh. 3–D Theatricals must have mortgaged the shop to bring in the Broadway version’s sets and costumes, designed by Tim Hatley, lit here by local legend Jean-Yves Tessier. The visuals are dazzling. Among the performers, Jeff Skowron hides his deep intelligence behind the thickest characters, including Robin and an inept Guard. Marc Ginsburg goes above and beyond in energy and wit to create his characters, including Lancelot, The French Taunter, and Tim the Enchanter (cue exploding broom). Martin Kildare makes a pompous yet sincere King Arthur, plying his velvety singing voice opposite the powerhouse Chelle Denton, funny and a skilled songstress as The Lady of the Lake.
   Nick Tubbs is Sir Dennis Galahad the Pure (and noticeably handsome). Erik Scott Romney is Arthur’s faithful but unappreciated servant Patsy, who provides the sounds of hoofbeats for Arthur’s nonexistent horse. Daniel Dawson starts the show off as the Historian, then morphs almost unrecognizably into Not Dead Fred and then becomes Prince Herbert, noticeably gay to everyone except his father (Tubbs). Tyler Stouffer is Sir Bedevere and, in Pythonesque falsetto, Dennis’ mother.

Together, they make a seemingly inept bunch. Yet, paraphrasing an even bigger hit up the road, this ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower manages to defeat enemies and helps put Britain on the path to becoming a superpower. Maybe this underdog story explains why this show has a deep underlying appeal. Or, we just like the jokes.
   Carol Bentley directs and choreographs the production based on the Broadway original choreographed by Casey Nicholaw and directed by Mike Nichols. The tap-dance numbers are for real, not a bunch of faked scratchings. The Lady of the Lake’s Laker Girls punch every vigorous move of their mimicking halftime routine. Under David Lamoureux’s Broadway-caliber music direction, the orchestra sounds lush and the singers remarkably “ensemble.”
   In short, there’s simply not a more hilarious spot for happily-ever-laughtering than here in Spamalot.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
August 7, 2017
Republished courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News
Trouble in Mind
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind, originally produced Off-Broadway in 1955, centers on an integrated theater troupe in rehearsal for an anti-lynching drama. The play-within-a-play, titled Chaos in Belleville, however, is written by, directed and produced by white men. Al Manners (Mark Lewis) now gets his first opportunity to direct on Broadway. Chaos also provides black veteran actor Wiletta Mayer (Earnestine Phillips) her first opportunity to play a leading lady on Broadway. The stakes are high. The other actors in Chaos have an emotional stake in the show’s success, too. But everyone here carries a past, including fears and resentments, needs and racial history.
   And yet, Childress provides humor in Trouble in Mind. In this production, director Ellen Geer finds just the right tone—respecting the script and the storytelling, skewering backstage behaviors and adding undercurrents of racial tension that emerge in body language. Geer has cast perfectly, and her superb actors flawlessly bring to life Childress’s characters: the “real” actors and characters they play.

It’s the first day of rehearsals for Chaos, as the actors playing the black sharecroppers and the white landowners gather on the stage. Lifelong doorman Henry (Rodrick Jean-Charles) is tidying up when Wiletta arrives. Childress introduces her as a veteran of the stage who has long hidden her light and her thoughts under a bushel or two. Soon, serious young John (Max Lawrence) arrives. He’s nervous, he’s deferential, and he might be willing to take advice from Wiletta if she’d only give him time to think about it. As it turns out, he’s also a highly skilled actor. The playful Millie (Constance Jewell Lopez) is of a younger generation than Wiletta, and she’s financially comfortable. Still, she feels destined to always play characters named for flowers, here Petunia, just as Wiletta plays characters named for jewels, here Ruby. It bothers Millie, but it’s also so much fun to be on Broadway.
   Sheldon (Gerald C. Rivers), who plays the father in Chaos, has been around long enough to want to avoid attention in rehearsals. If the script says his character whittles while the son is taken by a lynch mob, dad will whittle, as Sheldon mimes with his fingers. Bill (Christopher W. Jones) is white, playing the landowner. He’d go to lunch with the rest of the cast, but he can’t tolerate the looks he gets from the other diners as he eats at an integrated table. Judy (Judy Durkin) is white, the youngest cast member, the most naive and probably the most financially secure, inviting her fellow actors to a party in her parents’ Connecticut home.
   Into every actor’s life must come a director. Here, unfortunately, it’s Al Manners. His behavior ranges from inappropriate to brutal. Give him this: He’s an equal-opportunity abuser. He’s out-and-out rude and condescending to his white assistant director, Eddie (Frank Weidner). To the black actors, Al’s cruelty is more subtle. Audience members may find themselves wondering how to step in and stop the bullying, until we remind ourselves it’s just a play.

Costume design by Robert Merkel evokes the period, as well as the characters’ stages of life and financial states. Henry’s shoes look to be a size too big; he’s probably not their first owner. Of course, Jean-Charles gives Henry that pained gait. We’d love to know Henry’s history, too. One might even wish he had the last word, perhaps a powerful piece of advice, at the play’s end.
   Instead, Childress has Wiletta preparing for a showdown with Manners, offering up a psalmic plea to live in unity. Reportedly, Broadway producers wanted Trouble in Mind for The Main Stem, but Childress refused to rewrite the script to provide a neat and upbeat ending for them. She leaves it up to her audiences to think, feel, decide how the characters might have ended up.
   Trouble in Mind stays in the mind, as do other productions in Theatricum’s strong repertory season this year.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 31, 2017

Reprinted courtesy of Daily Breeze
Pacific Resident Theatre

How can people be rhinoceroses? Ask that in the literal and figurative senses, and you have Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 landmark play Rhinoceros. The Romanian-French playwright wrote it in response to politics in his native Romania, where he watched Fascism and Nazism lure friends and neighbors into despicable thoughts at best, sickeningly inhuman behavior at worst.
   The play has lost none of its meaning and potency. Witness its run at Pacific Resident Theatre, in a translation by Derek Prouse. Here we watch and think of those who voted in any way differently from us because a political party told them to, based on slogans and to be in line with the herd they follow.
   Director Guillermo Cienfuegos (a nom de guerre for one of the actors here) renders a representational, rather than abstract, version of the play. He keeps it in its original setting of a mid-century French town, depicted in costuming (from provincial to Parisian, by Christine Cover Ferro) and scenic design (David Mauer’s charming set unfolds side-to-side, top-to-bottom, like a massive piece of origami).
   With designs so specific, the play might not have felt universal. But the opening-night audience audibly showed that this script still gores us.

How easily the townsfolk turn to denial, then make excuses for a trend, then ignore righteousness and capitulate in favor of following the herd. Their excuse is likely the economy. The grocers (Robert Lesser, Sarah Zinsser) have probably seen profits dwindle. The café proprietor (Brad Greenquist) probably thinks he can’t get good workers anymore. His waitress (Kendrah McKay) probably hates working for an abusive boss and unappreciative customers.
   In their midst is our unlikely protagonist, Bérenger (Keith Stevenson). He’s ordinary, liking his drink and not particularly concerned with his appearance. His friend Jean (Alex Fernandez) obsesses over appearance and punctuality. Bérenger worships the pristine Daisy (Carole Weyers) from afar. His colleague Dudard (Jeff Lorch) seems so clear-thinking. One by one, they are swept up in a tide of transformation.

Rhinoceros is about race and origins. The townsfolk’s lives are about to be destroyed, and yet they argue over whether the rhinos have one horn or two, are Asian or African. The play is also about language. People carelessly utter trite phrases in place of thinking, as they make excuses and hide behind slogans.
   To our modern theatergoing ears, the play is long and gets repetitive. Had it been written today, it might consist of just one of the three acts. But we stay with the characters, wonder if we’ll ever see a rhinoceros, and deeply empathize with Bérenger as he stands firm against the swelling ranks of friends and neighbors turning to a movement they don’t understand but don’t particularly want to.
   Among the bits of visual humor, reminding us that cliché is a French word, the town boasts an accordionist mime (Melinda West). Even here, we seek laughter because the truths Ionesco shows and the truths we’re living are so wrenchingly painful.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 17, 2017
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

Mark Taper Forum

Playwright Simon Stephens puts two characters onstage, captures them in conversation, and leaves us knowing no more about themselves our ourselves than we knew at the start of this 80-minute work.
   In its run at Mark Taper Forum, it stars Denis Arndt as septuagenarian recluse Alex, and Mary-Louise Parker as eccentric middle-ager Georgie.
   It starts after Georgie has kissed Alex’s neck, unbidden, in a train station. She next appears in his butcher shop, claiming she isn’t stalking him but not there to buy meat.
   She’s unfiltered, which makes her interesting. She also seems to be a pathological liar, which makes her an unreliable recounter of any facts the audience may be trying to glean.
   He’s a long-shuttered man living an orderly life. Her presence in his life shakes him. Or is he dreaming all of this?
   He’s Irish, she’s (probably) American, the play takes place mostly in London. Dropping names of London locales sounds incongruous in their accents. How much is this meant to shake the audience?

This production played Broadway, earning Arndt a Tony nomination. Arndt is wonderful here. His characterization is realistic and clear, and he doesn’t dare push for laughs.
   But director Mark Brokaw, who did such good work on Cinderella, has let Parker wander into distracting character choices. First and most problematic among these is her voice. It’s flat here, and she seems to have chosen a speech impediment that drops consonants.
   Brokaw, having set the action in the round, even in the vast Taper, then lets her shout her lines. That doesn’t help her audibility.
   Then, she has turned her body into the letter S, as she slouches, chest caved and pelvis pushed forward, like a cranky child. Yes, the character refers to herself as unappealing, but the distraction of her physicality makes Parker’s acting unappealing.
   Designer Mark Wendland would undoubtedly say that a black stage with two black chairs and two tables indeed constitutes scenic design, but even with those four pieces of furniture, we wonder how many of them are necessary.

If you’re so inclined, feel free to try to place the work in the context of Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, loosely describable as the difficulty of “knowing” and “observing.” That’s one way of describing the frustration of piecing together Stephens’s work.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
July 10, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
The Pride
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Whether or not you’re struggling with the current political configuration, one thing is clear: Most homosexuals are more widely accepted today than in the 1950s. The secrecy and repression of previous centuries, the unhappy marriages for “show,” the lives lived less than truthfully are no longer a universal way of life—at least for now.
   Alexi Kaye Campbell makes this point beautifully in The Pride, his 2008 play currently at the Wallis in Beverly Hills. He’s aided here by the remarkably subtle, refined, and emotionally astute direction of Michael Arden and a flawless cast.
   Campbell unfolds two tales: one set in 1958 and the other in 2008, both in London. In 1958, married couple Philip (Neal Bledsoe) and Sylvia (Jessica Collins) have invited Oliver (Augustus Prew) to their home. Oliver is authoring the book Sylvia is illustrating. Philip and Oliver connect in a way Philip cannot tolerate in himself. Sylvia may or may not be attuned to what’s about to happen.
   Thanks to Arden’s scenic design of clear plastic furniture in timeless styles, as well as quick-change costuming by Danae Iris McQueen that separates and yet blends both periods, the scene morphs to 2008 and the home of a different Oliver (still Prew). Having recently been devastated by the departure of his boyfriend, a different Philip (Bledsoe), Oliver brings in a rent boy (Matthew Wilkas).

The play returns to Sylvia and Philip’s prim marriage, then to the wilder times of the new millennium. In his detailed though somewhat repetitive and padded script, Campbell lays bare the hearts of his characters. True love knows no gender, no sexuality, and all the aversion therapy in the world won’t change that, he reminds us. And though these days may be rough, they’re not as rough as they were in earlier times.
   Speaking of laying bare, the work includes a very graphic rape. With the audience seated in the round in the Wallis’s black-box space, there’s nowhere for the actors to hide, and nowhere for the audience’s eyes to escape to. Bravery abounds.
   The characterizations are clear, the characters’ intentions are clear. The play is staged intriguingly but naturally.
   Accents, some assumed and some native, are superb. Collins goes from Received Pronunciation to an Essex accent. Wilkas goes all over the map, and were the play not so serious and heartbreaking, he’d be the comedic highlight.
   But the way the actors have layered feelings onto the bones of their characters is staggering. Feet away from us, they’re real people with real struggles. Even Oliver’s ability to “hear” voices, from an oracle or from the ether, strikes us as the character’s skill and not symbolic.

“I want an easier life,” says 1950s Philip as he visits a starchy doctor (Wilkas). It’s what so many parents wish for their gay children. It’s what most people wish for themselves and the world. We’ll see if that happens in our lifetime.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
June 19, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

Tirade for Three and Girl on a Bed
Open Fist Theatre Company

The Gary Plays, an ambitious project by Padua Hills Playwrights Festival Founder Murray Mednick, is a six-play cycle about an unemployed actor who has lost his son in a park shooting in Los Angeles. Varied stylistically, the plays recount his life’s failures and the tangential interactions of several other characters whose stories overlap the central core.
   Open Fist Theater Company presents the plays independently over several evenings or as a complete cycle on a single day.?Part I, as reviewed here, consists of two acts: “Tirade for Three” and “Girl on a Bed.” In “Tirade for Three,” Gary (Jeff LeBeau) and a chorus of two (Derek Manson and Amanda Weier) begin to unfold the tale of Gary’s loss, with the chorus expressing his inner voices and Gary articulating his attempts at trying to make sense of his circumstances.
   “Girl on a Bed” introduces his son, Danny (Josh Trant); Laura (Laura Liguori), a victim of drug addiction; her parents, Charles (Carl J. Johnson) and Monica (Barbara Schofield); Rondell (Phillip C. Curry), a dealer and user; gangster-type Antonio (Peggy Ann Blow, who also plays a schoolteacher); Gary’s ex- wife, Gloria (Laura Richardson); his current wife, Marcia (Amanda Weier); Laura’s friend, Rena (Sandra Kate Burck); and Laura’s shrink, Dr. Jones (Derek Manson).
   “Tirade for Three” is less audience friendly, with the chorus and Gary delivering staccato lines choreographed as a tableau. “Girl on a Bed” is more realistic in style, with characters interacting as their personalities unfold in story form. Even so, it never lets you forget it is a play, designed by author Mednick and director Guy Zimmerman.
   Jeff G. Rack’s scenic and Hana S. Kim’s projection designs add context to the story with large panels at the rear of the stage that have abstract art or city scenes as dictated by the story’s events. John Zalewski’s sound design also provides an often unsettling mood for the unfolding drama.

Mednick’s characters are a sorry lot, mostly victims of their own shortcomings. Largely unappealing, they are casualties of a storyline that puts protagonist Gary Bean at the center of the tale and then relegates him to second fiddle as Laura’s story becomes more compelling than his ineffectual attempts at managing his life and dealing with his son’s death.
   Zimmerman manages his ensemble well, and the actors are well cast for their parts. Blow and Curry deliver dark characterizations effectively. Johnson makes believable Laura’s ineffectual father, and Schofield makes a nasty piece of work of her mother, even though Mednick makes both characters entirely too stereotypical. LeBeau and Liguori also make the most of their characterizations.
   This is theater for those who like to see experimentation. It is both abstract and conventional, and it challenges the audience to make meaning of the events surrounding Gary’s journey. It is often crude and angry, in this case painting a portrait of a society that produces glaring failures. It is at times one-dimensional, which diminishes the emotional impact of the narrative. Overall, it provokes reflection.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
June 4, 2017
Lucky Stiff
Actors Co-op David Schall Theatre

It’s a head scratcher as to why this little gem of a show isn’t produced more often. Lynn Ahrens’s script and libretto supported by Stephen Flaherty’s jazzy compositions seem made-to-order for smaller theaters. Toss in a goofy murder mystery, a bevy of mistaken identities and a charming boy-meets-girl subplot, and it’s off to the races for director Stephen Van Dorn and his tremendously talented, not to mention athletic, troupe of ten.
   A milquetoast shoe salesman from somewhere in London learns that a heretofore unbeknownst uncle with Atlantic City casino connections has named him heir to a $6 million fortune. That is, as long as he follows a ridiculously intricate series of demands involving transporting said dead relation through a weeklong vacation on the French Riviera. Fail to carry out even one of the minutest of specificities, and the money reverts to a canine rescue center in the exotic locale of Brooklyn.
   With more than a few gags reminiscent of Weekend at Bernie’s, this delightfully engaging piece, based on Michael Butterworth’s 1983 tome The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo is a nearly nonstop race full of hilarious characters and slapstick humor. As the story’s everyman Harry Witherspoon, Brandon Parrish is downright loveable. Demonstrating a lovely tenor voice and razor sharp comic timing, Parrish has us firmly on his side as he encounters obstacles galore in carrying out his mission.
   Serving as a temporary source of his frustration is one Annabel Glick, played with equal parts charm and nuttiness by Claire Adams. A representative of said home for unloved dogs, Glick must follow Harry in the hopes of witnessing a slip-up on his part in carrying out Uncle Anthony’s wishes. Along the way, Adams’s rendition of the first-act ballad “Times Like This” and her duet with Parrish titled “Nice” are beautifully lyrical interludes among Flaherty’s often chaotically funny full-cast numbers.

And what a wild and wacky ensemble Van Dorn has amassed to round out this zaniness. Offering more characters than can be individually credited in the program are José Villarreal, Alastair James Murden, Gina D’Acciaro, and Selah Victor. Villarreal is a master of the deadpan expression, while Murden assays the more over-the-top roles. D’Acciaro is a riot whether as a dead-drunk hotel maid, Harry’s Cockney landlady, or a French babbling spokeswoman welcoming visitors to the Monte Carlo train station. Victor’s pièce de résistance has to be a gold-digging cabaret singer who bears a well-crafted resemblance to Charo.
   Equally outrageous are Brian Habicht and Rory Patterson as brother and sister, Vincent DiRuzzio and Rita LaPorta. Habicht portrays a neurotic optometrist, while Patterson plays the widow of the intercontinental traveling corpse as this pair also pursues her dead husband’s assets. That Rita is legally blind and refuses to wear her glasses affords Patterson some of the production’s funniest moments. And, in one particular musical instance, these two, under Taylor Stephenson’s expert musical direction, join Parrish, Adams, et al., for perhaps the show’s most amazingly complicated number, “Him, Them, It, Her.”
   David Atkinson moves in and out of this collection of whirling dervishes as Luigi Gaudi, who appears to be a jack-of-all-trades Italian playboy. His contribution is a curiously revelatory dichotomy to the rest of the show’s parade of personages. But without a doubt, the award for dedication to one’s craft clearly goes to Vito Viscuso, who spends the entire evening in various states of rigor mortis as Harry’s uncle Anthony. What director Van Dorn and choreographer Julie Hall do to and with Viscuso and his electric wheelchair is nothing short of astonishing.

So, too, is Lex Gernon’s ingeniously crafted scenic design that contains just as many surprises as the plotline. Brought to life by Lisa D. Katz’s lighting, Vicki Conrad’s costuming and Nicholas Acciani’s properties contribute to the show’s first-rate production values as well as the countless twists and turns leading to the denouement that caps off this evening of lighthearted fun.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
May 30, 2017
The Sweetheart Deal
Latino Theater Company, in association with El Teatro Campesino, at Los Angeles Theatre Center

In 1970, when Americans had causes to fight for, we literally took a stand, physically joining forces, moving into action for what we believed in. We didn’t merely tweet.
   Even the popular music that year was the soundtrack for social activism, including the evocative rhythms and potent lyrics of “Ball of Confusion,” “Ohio,” and “War.”
   Music of that era forms the soundtrack for the story of Mari and Will, the couple at the heart of writer-director Diane Rodriguez’s play The Sweetheart Deal , in a world premiere production by Latino Theater Company, in association with El Teatro Campesino.

Mari (Ruth Livier) and Will (Geoffrey Rivas) return to their hometown of the grape-growing Delano, Calif., to volunteer at a newspaper. This one is not just your average small-town pamphlet, though. It’s the real-life El Malcriado, the farmworkers’ underground newspaper founded by labor leaders and civil-rights activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
   Here, El Malcriado (translatable as “the mischievous child”) is run by editor Chon (Valente Rodriguez) and campesina and union organizer Lettie (Linda Lopez). At the office, Mari and Will also meet Charlie (Peter Wylie), an organizer from Chicago. At his prompting, the couple tries to get close to and convert Mari’s brother, Mac (David DeSantos), to the workers’ position. He, however remains a proud Teamster.
   The play’s title has a double meaning. It represents the relationship between Mari and Will and their agreement to pledge a year to volunteerism. It also describes the relationship between the landowner-growers and the Teamsters to keep the field workers from unionizing.

The visuals are the strongest theatrical elements here. Efren Delgadillo creates the play’s stupendous set from empty crates, constructing floor-to-ceiling walls that appear to house boxes of newspapers. Crates become Mac’s truck and then the interior of a cathedral, where Pablo Santiago’s gorgeous lighting turns the patterns on the crates into a line of crosses.
   In the play’s more-traditional scenes, the writing and acting are too often on the nose—though, to be fair, Livier and Rivas stepped into their roles a few days before opening night.
   Working far better are Rodriguez’s “Actos.” Historically, these were short agitprop sketches in commedia style, originally created in the 1960s by Luis Valdez (considered the father of Chicano theater) and El Teatro Campesino (the theater arm of the United Farm Workers). Actos were used to educate the farm workers on the issues of the strike. Here they’re used to educate the audience, and they get their points across sharply.
   Rodriguez’s versions of Actos are El Malcriado’s cartoons that come to life. The man labeled “Boss” wears a pig mask. His sweetheart is a trampy woman labeled “Teamster.” Mutual seductions keep the struggling workers down in Acto after Acto.

But this is Mari’s story. She passively arrives in Delano, expecting to find a profitable news business that tends to the comforts of its own workers. Citified, she wears a dainty pale yellow 1960s dress. As the play progresses, her outfits grow more casual, more freeing, and finally bolder as she drapes herself in a poncho of the UFW flag’s symbol and colors, thanks to costume designer Lupe Valdez’s subtle but period-correct work.
   Mari’s hands that at first clutch her designer purse are soon used to sculpt newspaper content into shape and tally circulation figures. As time passes, they’re used in gesture to stir crowds. A stronger story arc might show her growing from timid to a powerful speaker.
   And, should Rodriquez consider edits and rewrites on this piece, the audience participation prompted at the top of the show could be better woven into the rest of it, as it stirs the audience into action and lets us feel even a touch of what 1970s crowds might have felt, speaking up—with voices rather than with tweeting thumbs.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 22, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

We see the kiss twice: once at the play’s beginning and once at its end. Her hands express her uncertainty. They don’t push him away, but they don’t embrace him. Her left hand hovers near his shoulder, a question mark over the moment and certainly over the play.
   In between, Anna Ziegler’s Actually pulls back most of the curtain to show what happens before and after that kiss.
   The two-hander play, in its world premiere at Geffen Playhouse, is not heavy on blame and judgment. It’s not a polemic against anyone or anything. It leaves the audience exhilarated by the intellectual stimulation, the visceral wrenching, and, more objectively speaking, the burning intelligence of the theatermakers, from writer through designers to two gifted actors.

First, let’s be clear. Rape is a malignancy, and it doesn’t appear to be diminishing, particularly on college campuses. But here, as Ziegler has crafted it, the consent is unfortunately murky, compounded by way too much alcohol and way too much desperation in the two characters to prove something to themselves and others.
   A few days later in the lives of these two Princeton University freshmen, he’s undergoing an investigation pursuant to federal civil rights laws after her best friend insisted she report his actions as rape. Well, what she had said to her friend was, “Thomas Anthony practically raped me." Insensitive bragging, or a painful plea for help?
   Under Tyne Rafaeli’s direction, the script is delivered as mostly direct address to the audience, with bits of dialogue in which the characters interact.
   Every fragment of the characters’ confessions reveals the complexities of language and of sex. But their “sides” of the story are being told to a panel of academics and administrators. In that culture, it seems expected that words will speak louder than actions.
   “Actually...” Amber had started to say that fateful night. Did Tom not let her finish her sentence? Should he have taken a step back, just hearing her speak?
   They seem to agree that they had intercourse. Though, as soon as we hear he started the evening with three Jägermeisters and “a coupla Sam Adams” before he even met up with her for drinks, we have doubts about how the evening progressed.

The acting is smart, simple and deep. Samantha Ressler plays the naïve but not inexperienced Jewish student Amber. Jerry MacKinnon plays cocky but self-aware African-American student Tom.
   Are their ethnicities a red herring, or do they add an almost subconscious layer to our expectations for their behaviors? Both characters have previously been involved in what seems like reluctantly consensual situations, both are educated and sensitive, and both should have been wary this night.
   Ziegler makes her audience wonder about letting responsibility for our actions be given over to others, letting our reactions to our actions be labeled by others.
   No matter the investigating panel’s ruling, we wonder what will happen to these two afterwards. This part of their lives will follow them, perhaps forever, tagging them or lurking in the backs of their minds.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 15, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze


The Last Five Years
Torrance Theatre Company

Catherine the actor and Jamie the writer find a bit of success during their marriage and start to see the other as unavailable at best, heartless at worst. Or were they always a mismatch? And so goes The Last Five Years, in which they reveal this in a series of songs about their courtship, marriage, and divorce.
   Jamie sings his version of their story in chronological order, starting with the type of woman he was looking for. Catherine sings her version of their story in reverse chronological order, starting with the pain of their divorce.
   In “Still Hurting,” Catherine supposes Jamie is surviving the breakup better than she is. In “Shiksa Goddess,” the Jewish Jamie looks to date any girl, as long as she’s not Jewish. By “A Summer in Ohio,” Catherine is working in small-town theater, leaving Jamie on his own at home. Meanwhile, Jamie has stepped away from the marriage, in “Nobody Needs to Know.”

Jason Robert Brown composed this 90-minute work—here, Torrance Theatre Company adds an intermission—based on his failed marriage, but a few well-placed comedic songs keep bleakness away from the show.
   Torrance double-cast the show, offering a chance for theatergoers to choose between styles—or see both casts and develop a deeper understanding of and appreciation for direction and performing.
   Jim Hormel directs both casts. Jade Taylor as Cathy and Zachary Smart as Jamie deliver power vocals. They don’t forget emotional subtlety but nor do they emphasize it in their belted lyrics. Abby Carlson and Dorian Keyes take a more actorly approach, putting the relationship’s joys and woes firmly into their vocal performances.
   Taylor and Smart “start” noticeably hopeful and young-at-heart. As each sings a goodbye at the musical’s end, hers is delivered with the feeling of “see you tomorrow,” while his seems to say, “I’ll never let myself feel hurt again.”
   Carlson and Keyes age less physically than emotionally, turning what could sound like a litany into swift thoughts and deep wounds.
   Brown’s story is relatively abstract. Hormel provides structure and visual interest. He sets it somewhere unfinished, perhaps an empty theater or a garage, giving it a fresh but somewhat on-edge feel.
   During the show, Brown’s music seems unprepossessing. Then, hours or even days later, bits of melody come back to mind to haunt the listener.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 15, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
Dinner With Friends
Little Fish Theatre

Karen and Gabe are hosting their longtime friend Beth for dinner. She sits silently, seeming to listen but physically uncomfortable, shifting in her chair.
   Karen and Gabe chat over each other and finish each other’s sentences. The milestones in their marriage seem to be meals, which they recall in zealous detail.
   Yet, as we observe in Dinner With Friends—Donald Margulies’ 2000 Pulitzer-winning play, in production at Little Fish Theater—Karen and Gabe’s marriage seems as solid as they come. Beth, however, unexpectedly announces her split from her husband, Tom. As she tells it, Tom has left her for another woman. Beth’s hosts are stunned.
   Later that night, Tom shows up at Karen and Gabe’s, insisting on telling his version of the marriage and breakup. Karen, shaken, wants none of his excuses. Gabe, as deeply shaken, gives Tom somewhat of a chance to explain.
   Tom’s excuses, delivered in desperation, elicit a few snorts of derision from the audience. Later in the script, months later in the story’s chronology, during a man-to-man with Gabe, Tom mentions a better, solid reason for leaving the marriage.

Margulies paints in subtleties. Every moment in his script is realistic and not “theatrical.” Director Mark Piatelli and his actors have delved into the characters, so we see real people onstage. Particularly good are Christina Morrell as Karen and Patrick Vest as Gabe, as they go through the couple’s daily tasks and then, at play’s end, appreciate the bedrock of their marriage.
   Opposite them, Renee O’Connor plays Beth and Doug Mattingly plays Tom. O’Connor’s task may be the toughest, as Beth proves to be the least likeable character. Mattingly may be miscast, although his first, thug-like appearance may be intended to lure the audience into seeing him as the villain.
   Piatelli uses a bit of interesting blocking in the first scene: Beth gets up to leave, is persuaded to stay, and sits in a different chair so the audience looks at her from a different angle. This attention to movement seems to wane in the second act when, repeatedly, two characters sit at a table and don’t budge for the entirety of their scene. That may be how we behave in life, but it makes the characters’ conversations sound the same, and they’re not.
   Also problematically, although the play’s chronology is not straightforward, and although the dialogue indicates Beth and Karen have lunch outside and Tom and Gabe have drinks at a bar, here they seem to be seated in Gabe and Karen’s present-day kitchen.
   These physical indications of time and place should not have been left solely to costumer Diana Mann, who takes her cue from Margulies’ subtlety and attires the actors in outfits that gently hint at their eras and locales.
   Among the actors, Mattingly is best at being younger and happier in those early days. He smiles more, sometimes happily, sometimes flirtatiously, before Tom’s unhappiness took over.

Should some couples never have married? Can everyone cope with marriage if we only realize change is inevitable and adaptation is our greatest resource? Margulies shows us one thing for certain: Getting “back to where we were” isn’t the key to a happy marriage.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 15, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

Mark Taper Forum

Rajiv Joseph’s world premiere play Archduke, as its title evidences, centers on the assassination history tells us led to World War I. It also examines our innate need to live a meaningful life.
   Three Balkan boys in their late teens are adrift. It’s 1914, and not much is available to them, including longevity. More troublingly, each seems alone, uneducated, unloved.
   One of them, Gavrilo (Stephen Stocking), has at long last sought medical attention from kindly physician Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks), who offers free examinations to the town. Leko diagnoses Gavrilo with tuberculosis. Gavrilo is of course Gavrilo Princip, the real-life assassin of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Duchess Sophie.
   These young men are undernourished—lacking food, emotional support and intellectual stimulation. They have never seen curtains; sandwiches are the treat of a lifetime.
   Leko wants to soothe and heal such boys. He is a flawed yet angelic man. But at his door appears Dragutin Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page), who is the devil incarnate, inexcusably abusive, savagely murderous. Dragutin wants to use such boys to perpetrate political violence. “I’m a man of the people,” he proclaims. He extolls his own patriotism. He’s adeptly manipulative, recruiting one lad with the promise of a job, another with the promise of a purposeful existence.
   Dragutin demands that Leko “send” sick boys to him. Leko refuses. So Dragutin sends in young Trifko (Ramiz Monsef), who pulls a knife on Leko. The doctor quickly calculates how to save more lives: Should he do wrong now and stay alive, or should he protect these lads. He chooses to stay alive.
   So Gavrilo, Trifko, and the third boy, Nedeljko (Josiah Bania), are welcomed into Dragutin’s satanic embrace. At Dragutin’s dining-room table, they’re fed and flattered. You know the rest of the story. Like many boys today, they find their missing pieces through evil men who bring the cool, becoming so-called martyrs for a cause of someone else’s making.

With this fascinating true-life metaphor, Joseph encapsulates this syndrome. The script is not yet flawless: It’s still a little long and a little repetitive. Bits of both acts could be cut, and so could the intermission. Yes, we feel horror as we watch these three ebulliently enjoy their train trip as they make small talk while hurtling into destiny, but somehow their conversation seems padded.
   But Joseph includes another important layer: the treatment of and status of women. It’s an integral part of the psychology of these characters. They either overly idolize women or demonize them. Dragutin is the worst offender, sexualizing women he perceives as outranking him.
   His servant Sladjana (Joanne McGee), however, merely ignores him. She’s too wise, too experienced, to heed him. And despite her second-class status, if even that, she’s the person giving Gavrilo the means for survival and better health.

Giovanna Sardelli directs her outstanding cast with subtlety but much physical humor ranging from commedia to a Trumpian handshake. The humor keeps the play bubbling along. But meantime, it increases our shame because we laugh, even though we know the outcome here and we know the outcome of acts by our century’s boys seduced into terrorism.
   The scenic design, by Tim Mackabee, takes the characters’ environments from stark impenetrability to deluxe mobility.
   Thanks to Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design, we’re looking at the world through early color films of the 1900s, peering through a pallid night and then luxuriating in the newfangled electrical lamps of the train car. Daniel Kluger’s lavish sound design and intriguing music enhance the theatrical experience.
   And this is how the three boys were lured into extremism to achieve the immortality they dreamed of. How the intelligent, educated Dimitrijevic developed into a monster would make another fascinating play.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
May 8, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

The Legend of Georgia McBride
Gil Cates Theater at Geffen Playhouse

In The Legend of Georgia McBride, women’s clothes certainly turn a childlike lad into a maturing gentleman. Still, Matthew Lopez’s play, enjoying its West Coast premiere, reminds us that our true selves are who we are at heart, having nothing to do with our outer adornments.
   Casey (Andrew Burnap) is a young man trying to make a living as an Elvis impersonator at a Florida Panhandle bar. He’s spending more on gasoline than he takes in at his shows. His wife, Jo (Nija Okoro), the sensible half of this couple, is at wits end and prods him into facing reality. He’s so good-natured, though, that he’s not even sure they’re having a fight.
   Like a fairy godmother, the deliciously haughty drag queen Miss Tracy Mills (Matt McGrath) suddenly materializes at the bar, where Eddie the owner (Nick Searcy) gives her Casey’s stage time. Casey, all agree, can stay on as a bartender.
   But when Miss Tracy’s sidekick, Miss Anorexia Nervosa (Larry Powell, doubling as Casey’s landlord, though we need the program to prove it), overindulges on vodka, Casey steps into her shoes—and corset, padded bra, wig and little black dress. And we witness the birth of the legend of Georgia McBride.
   Clothes may make the man, but costume designer E.B. Brooks made the clothes, and they’re fantastic. They turn male bodies into female shapes, while adding whimsy. They’re aided, though, by envy-inducing cellulite-free legs, as well as by the artistry with which the legs are wielded.

The tale is predictable, but comfortingly so. Of course everyone slots neatly into his or her role. Of course forgiveness prevails and love triumphs.
   Directed by Mike Donahue, choreographed by Paul McGill, every moment is a smooth, sweet look at these warm, accepting characters. And just when we begin to think the tale is getting too frivolous, Miss Tracy finally appears as the man who creates her, wigless and unadorned, and gives Casey the straight scoop on being a responsible adult.
   But first, our protagonist tells a lie and makes things worse by not coming clean. It’s the storytelling cliché that ruins any chance of a unique tale here. Further, Casey is so sweetly naive, it seems unlikely he’d be able to lie to Jo for just one night, let alone the months this has been going on.
   Another possibly unlikely element: Could Panama City Beach gather so many appreciative, let alone accepting, audiences, enabling Casey to come home every night loaded down with dollar bills?

Donyale Werle’s set packs living room, dressing room, bar, and Miss Tracy’s front lawn onto the Geffen stage, while Josh Epstein’s lighting differentiates among the settings. The music is uplifting, the pop references span Edith Piaf to Beyoncé (how’s that for range?), but mostly the characters are ultimately kind to one another. If our hearts are pure and good, they’re what make us—man, woman or, these days, acceptably in between.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
April 17, 2017

Republished courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News
Into the Woods
Ahmanson Theatre

One of the theater’s most enduring modern classics began in the Southland in 1986 at San Diego’s Old Globe, and there’s no doubt Stephen Sondheim’s indelible Tony-winning score for Into the Woods is one of the most impressive efforts ever to transform the genre musical comedy into the complexities of musical theater. Colorful denizens of some of the world’s most famous fairy tales—Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and poor Jack of beanstalk-climbing fame—collide onstage in a joint quest to rid their beloved woods of one nasty giant.
   It’s understood that Into the Woods has hardly been ignored in the years since it premiered in New York in 1987, with many touring companies tromping all around the globe throughout the ensuing years, including a 1988 US national tour, a 1990 West End production, a 10th-anniversary concert version in 1997, a return to Broadway in 2002, a 2010 London revival, another in 2012 as part of New York’s outdoor Shakespeare in the Park series, and then there’s the star-studded film version directed by Rob Marshall in 2014 that garnered Meryl Streep as the Witch something like her 4,987th Oscar nomination.
   It is difficult to imagine something fresh and different could possibly be done while attempting to reinvent this show, when Sondheim’s haunting music and director James Lapine’s incredibly clever and irreverent book—based on The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim which, when published in 1976, analyzed popular fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis—were so groundbreaking and inventive in the first place. This production, however, which Fiasco Theatre Company debuted Off-Broadway at the 410-seat Laura Pels Theatre in 2015 to great acclaim, manages to do just that.

Under the truly visionary direction of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, this reinvigorated journey through the bewitched underbrush is meant to be extremely barebones, with 10 incredibly energetic and charismatic actors play all the characters, switching between them with lightning-fast alacrity. Featuring Derek McLane’s simple floor-to–light grid jumble of theatrical rigging to indicate the ominous forest of trees, an industrial-sized ladder to evoke Rapunzel’s tower, and a small-statured actor illuminated like a shadow puppet to gargantuan proportions on the back wall to make that notorious lady giant come alive—and subsequently die a most dramatic death—no special effects or wildly intricate projections are utilized to tell this cautionary tale of once-upon-a-times that don’t always portend happy endings.
   What’s best about this production is how the simplicity of it accentuates the music, fiercely and grandly played onstage on an extremely movable piano by musical director and sometimes performer Evan Rees. The voices of the ensemble could not be better, perfectly delivering Sondheim’s intricate and most difficult score when they’re not donning bonnets and grabbing wooden hobbyhorses to morph from one character to another.
   What’s somewhat lost in the shuffle of imagination over substance, however, is the message lurking below the surface of Bettelheim’s original concept, which presented the case that fairy tales help children solve certain existential problems such as separation anxiety, oedipal conflicts, and sibling rivalries. The extreme violence and ugly emotions of many fairy tales serve, he believed, to deflect what may well be going on in a kid’s head anyway, even if he or she is reluctant to reveal those puzzling thoughts. Although Sondheim’s lyrics often delve into the Caligari’s cabinet nature of the original production, this remounting is considerably less dark and more appropriate for children—if they can stay awake for the show’s three-hour duration.

There’s also a kind of preciousness that overshadows this journey, making one think it must have been a lot more charming to see unfolding for the first time at the 410-seat Laura Pels rather than the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre. Even the cast members’ first stroll onto the massive stage to wave to audience members and sit casually on the lip of the stage to greet and kibitz with the folks in the first row seems a long way off from the 16th row, let alone how that must feel up in the second balcony. It’s as though we’re supposed to enter another fantasy: that the cost of mounting this production at the Ahmanson was still an austere effort when the expense of bringing it here and converting it for this space must have been considerable. The evolution here, though incredibly sincere, is not completely…well…believable, if you’ll excuse the expression.
   Still, no narrative tool is more contagious than belief—just ask audiences who for years shouted their belief in fairies to help that boy who wouldn’t grow up resurrect his faithful Tinkerbell. In that regard, Brody and Steinfeld’s fanciful direction and the heartfelt performances by this troupe of supremely gifted performers, who all sing like birds and conjure a tornado of personality, still gamely create the essential necessary magic once again.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 8, 2017
The Siegel
South Coast Repertory

Fresh from the 2016 award winning Cloud 9 at Antaeus Theatre Company, savvy director Casey Stangl takes on a world premiere comedy by Michael Mitnick, designed to examine love and its complications. It has plenty of humor and a bit of food for thought along the way.
   At play’s opening, Ethan (Ben Feldman) has just arrived, flowers in hand, to propose to Alice (Mamie Gummer). She’s not there, so he chats with her parents, Deborah (Amy Aquino) and Ron (Matthew Arkin). The hitch is that Ethan and Alice broke up two years previously, and they haven’t seen each other since. When reminded of this fact, Ethan declaims it doesn’t matter, because they are destined to be together. Absurd? Absolutely, but the chase is always the most highly interesting aspect of any love relationship.
   With a nod to Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and its convoluted romantic relationships, Mitnick takes on Ethan and Alice, her parents, and Alice and her new boyfriend, Nelson (Dominique Worsley). When Alice is flummoxed by Ethan’s declarations and offers him the standard end-of-romance-line, “You’ll find someone special,” he retorts, “I don’t want someone special. I want you.”

Aquino and Arkin are delightful as the wry intellectuals, a doctor and a lawyer, respectively, who have had twists along their own romantic path. Arkin, in particular, has very solid moments.
   Gummer is a perfectly assured millennial who rejects the goofy Ethan initially, but as they interact, it is the audience who must decide if this coupling will work out or if it is doomed to certain failure. Worsley, too, provides genuine laughs as the urbane suitor who begins with confidence and devolves into angst as Alice and Ethan spend more time together. Feldman delivers his offbeat protestations of love and zany logic charmingly enough to act as theatrical catalyst for the subsequent interplay among the actors. Devon Sorvari has a nice cameo in the production.
   Mitnick has a knack for comic lines, and there are plenty. Stangl handles them with a light touch and great comic timing. Michael B. Raiford’s stylish revolving set keeps the action moving, and Elizabeth Harper’s lighting design allows for effective scene changes.
   In a clever twist at the end of the play, Mitnick allows himself a little editorial commentary on love’s uncertainties that elevates the message. It is in these moments that the production finds its heart.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
April 4, 2017
Pie in the Sky
Victory Theatre Center

The world premiere of Lawrence Thelen’s lovely little two-hander Pie in the Sky has a unique hook: As the play’s rural mother and daughter banter about their lives and loves and lifelong differences in the middle of the night in an Abilene, Texas, trailer park, they peel apples, measure out brown sugar, manipulate “store bought” crust into submission, and bake a pie. Actually bake a pie. Live. Onstage.
   Not only is the Little Victory filled with warmth and sweetness from the quietly heartfelt performances of K Callan and Laurie O’Brien, but by the time the oven’s timer dings, the intoxicating and comforting smell of homemade apple pie permeates the entire playing space—and those in attendance, suffering the Pavlov’s dog effect from the aroma, are treated post-performance to a bite of the ladies’ culinary creation.
   Thelen’s story is simple, and the familial revelations Mama (Callan) divulges to her lonely widowed daughter Dory (O’Brien) as they shuffle about the trailer’s kitchen at 4am are surely shocking to her, yet for the audience, most everything that’s revealed is rather predictable, especially the ending. Anyone who does not guess ahead of time what’s about to happen when that fateful final timer buzzes has to be thinking more about the smell of pie baking than the characters in the drama and the constant hints they’re dropping.

Despite moments when it appears the chopping and coring and measuring and mixing of some of the dessert’s ingredients, not to mention Dory’s constant eye-rolling over her mother’s demands and inappropriate comments, are robbing viewers of our precious and fleeting time on the planet, what makes it all work are the sincerity and downhome spirit of these two veteran actors and the insightful leadership of their director, Maria Gobetti.
   Life is full of little secrets, as Dory’s feisty octogenarian mother proclaims, and just when we think we’re starting to figure it all out, it starts to fall apart. “Peel, slice, stir, repeat” is Mama’s mantra, the repetition of which would be the downfall of Thelen’s Pie in the Sky if it were not for the serendipitous inclusion of this production’s triumvirate of world-class talents, three strong and incredibly gifted artists named Gobetti, Callan, and O’Brien.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
April 2, 2017
The Snow Geese
Independent Shakespeare at Atwater Crossing Arts + Innovation Complex

At times reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’s penchant for multigenerational conflicts, denial of obvious truth, and family dysfunction, this West Coast premiere of playwright Sharr White’s engaging work soars on the back of precise direction and an impressive ensemble.
   Director David Melville has crafted, in this remarkably intimate venue, a production that never lags, even during White’s rare tangential sidetracks. Likewise, Melville’s sound design, punctuated throughout with period-perfect musical selections, fills the space more than adequately. Adding gild to the lily are Bosco Flannagan’s lighting and Ruoxuan Li’s costumes that, spanning the Edwardian and World War I periods, are noteworthy aspects of the show’s overall first-rate production values.
   We are “welcomed” into the lodge-like abode of the Gaesling family on Nov. 1, 1917. The matriarch, Elizabeth, a widow of only eight weeks, struggles to maintain a grip on her psyche and on the relational issues posed by her two sons as well as an older sister and brother-in-law. Along the way, secrets are revealed, denials scuttled, and realities forced into acceptance, all of which threaten to permanently destroy this tenuously fragile ecosystem.

Melville’s strong suit is in his casting of this piece. Melissa Chalsma is equal parts rock and tissue paper as she brings Elizabeth to life. Her beautifully wrought performance, complex beyond words, anchors White’s character-driven narrative, which quite often turns on a dime given its emotional upheavals.
   Eldest son Duncan, played by Evan Lewis Smith, is clearly the favored progeny. Having been raised for greatness including a stint at Princeton, he is home from boot camp for an overnight visit before heading off to Europe where America has finally been forced to join the horrors of WWI. Meanwhile, the role of younger brother Arnold, portrayed by Nikhil Pai, is that of the forgotten one. Always given the back seat, the crumbs, and the proverbial pat on the head, he is left to struggle for acceptance and respect.
   Smith and Pai are tremendous in fulfilling of their assignments. Melville’s nontraditional casting in compiling a family of obviously different racial make-ups is quickly and easily forgotten as these two actors create a relationship that is believable in its rivalry and its love. Smith exudes a rakish confidence that belies his character’s eventually exposed fears and insecurities. Pai’s depiction of Arnold’s pent-up frustrations floods the stage with a near-childish tantrum that is understandably justified. In the hands of these two actors, we witness the characters mature.
   Walking a tightrope of emotions and position within this tribe are Bernadette Sullivan and Bruce Katzman as Elizabeth’s sister, Clarissa, and brother-in-law, Max Hohmann. The sisters’ exchanges are more often than not quite prickly as Clarissa has chosen to shroud herself in an outspoken devotion to Methodist spirituality. Still, Sullivan brings such a quality of well-timed empathy to this role that one is thankful for her character’s straightforwardness and common sense.
   Katzman too, rises to the challenge of playing a secondary character whose backstory is equal to those of the leads. Max, a decades-long resident of the USA, is a physician whose patients have abandoned him in the face of America’s growing anti-Germanic sentiment. Katzman does yeoman’s job personifying the patience and, at times, the male leadership this unit grapples for in the face of their patriarch’s recent passing.
   Rounding out the troupe is Faqir Hassan, in a well-played cameo as the now dead Theodore Gaesling, and Kalean Ung as the household’s last remaining servant. Hassan’s single scene brings into perspective Elizabeth’s mental issues and provides White’s strongest method for fleshing out why the members of this family have assumed their varied and dubious roles. Ung is a stellar example of subtlety and restraint in her role as Viktorya, a formerly wealthy Ukrainian ingénue now forced into the menial duties of cook and maid. Her delivery of Viktorya’s advice and wisdom, well-timed and pithy throughout, leads the family to view her as an extension of them.

Returning to the comparison with Williams, the welcomed difference between his work and White’s saga comes in the form of a begrudgingly won optimism here. It’s welcome, leaving one with hope for the future of this tale.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
March 24, 2017
Ah, Wilderness!
A Noise Within

In his nearly 30 years of playwriting, Eugene O’Neill experimented with myriad stage conventions, winning Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Though most of his dramas were melancholy or tragic, in 1932 he penned a comedy that portrays the Miller family of Connecticut on the Fourth of July, 1906. Its protagonist is almost-17-year-old Richard (Matt Gall), certainly O’Neill’s alter ego, who is flush with first love and bursting with ideas culled from classic literature his mother finds improper for a boy his age.
   The family also consists of younger brother Tommy (Samuel Genghis Christian); younger sister Mildred (Katie Hume); elder brother Arthur (Ian Littleworth); father Nat (Nicholas Hormann); mother Essie (Deborah Strang); Nat’s sister, Lily (Kitty Swink); and Essie’s brother, Sid (Alan Blumenfeld). The conflict for Richard is that his love, Muriel (Emily Goss), has written Richard a note ending their relationship as commanded by her father (Marcelo Tubert), who has found love letters quoting poetry from said books that he finds scandalous. In his despair, Richard goes on a double date with Arthur’s friend, Wint Selby (a breezy Conor Sheehan), who takes him to a bar where he meets a prostitute, Belle (Emily Kosloski), and gets drunk. Returning home, he faces his parents, who discuss what punishment he should receive.
   As simple as the story is, under the skilled direction of Steven Robman and with a superb cast, the story unfolds with many opportunities to examine a family dynamic, love in its many forms, and ideas and ideals nostalgically depicted.

Strang and Hormann are pluperfect as Richard’s parents, penned by O’Neill with just the right amount of loving and wise concern. Swink and Blumenfeld are also excellent as characters who can’t consummate their relationship, as Lily can’t overcome her aversion to his drinking, and he seemingly is too weak to make a success of his life. All four bring depth to their characterizations.
   Gall’s characterization of Richard is multifaceted and touching as he navigates the waters of adulthood. When he discovers that Muriel is still in love with him, his naivete and youthful exuberance make for tender and delightful moments. Goss is charming as Richard’s sweetheart.
   Littleworth, Hume, and Christian make for wonderful, period-perfect siblings, enhanced by Garry D. Lennon’s excellent costume design and just the right touch of ’30s sensibilities. Tubert ably portrays a stuffy prude as Muriel’s father, and Kosloski is also fine as the slightly racy working girl. Kelsey Carthew makes the most of Norah, the stereotypical family serving girl, and Matthew Henerson is a hearty salesman who helps Richard home from the bar.

Director Robman has interjected musical numbers performed by the actors into the story from the time period that serve as atmosphere and enhance the scene changes and passages of time. They are a diverting addition to the production, music-directed by Jonathan Tessero. Frederica Nascimento’s simple scenic design and Tom Ontiveros’s lighting design also enhance the play.
   This is a glimpse into a less complicated period, often attributed to O’Neill’s desire for the life he didn’t have growing up but wished for. It is a staple of American theater, and A Noise Within presents a polished and enjoyable production.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
March 22, 2017
For Piano and Harpo
Falcon Theatre

Noted musician, composer, and author Oscar Levant was one of those larger-than-life figures prominent from the 1930s until his death in 1972. In his New York days, he was a member of the Algonquin Round Table along with Dorothy Parker, Alexander Wollcott, and Robert Benchley. He was a a sought-after concert pianist. He was a regular panelist on the radio show Information Please, providing mordant wit, which led to his later career in Hollywood, notably in films The Barkleys of Broadway and An American in Paris, playing an eccentric version of himself.
   Playwright Dan Castellaneta, himself an eclectic actor, comedian, and voiceover artist (The Simpsons, Darkwing Duck, Rugrats, The Tracey Ullman Show) has taken on the task of exploring a dark period in Levant’s life when he was frequently committed to mental institutions.
   Part vaudeville, comedy sketch, and melodrama, Castellaneta’s fluid foray into Levant’s life attempts to portray the figures who influenced Levant and the inner workings of his genius. From an autocratic father who certainly contributed to his neuroses to longtime friend George Gershwin, he traversed a life of celebrity and addiction. Sometimes confusing as the play morphs from past to present, it nevertheless presents an affecting picture of a man whose talents were frequently overshadowed by his psychological angst.

As Levant, Castellaneta is suitably funny and tragic. In Act 1, the story is theatrical as well as expository with a fine cast of characters—JD Cullum, Deb Lacusta, Gail Matthius, Phil Proctor, and Jonathan Stark—playing multiple roles as Gershwin, Levant’s wife, Harpo Marx, Levant’s parents, Jack Paar, and others. Because the piece is structurally complicated, it is tough going at times for the characters to make seamless switches from person to person, so sometimes there’s a glitch or two. Act 2 is more measured, and during this interpretation of Levant’s life the emotional heft of the story is most affecting.
   Cullum is particularly notable as Charlie, a mute patient Oscar meets as he spends time in the hospital. Many of the best moments of the story are played out in their exchanges. He also adds considerable humor as Harpo. Lacusta is affecting as his wife, and Matthius has funny moments as Fanny Brice and a fellow mental patient. Proctor is a reliable character actor who does yeoman work as Levant’s father, Harpo’s butler, and others. As Paar, on whose show Levant was a frequent guest, Stark is noteworthy. He also fills in as doctor and Gershwin.
   Music supervisor–pianist David O provides Levant’s musicianship only partially concealed behind the scenes, and harpist Jillian Risigari-Gai delivers Harpo’s music as the two characters mime the music in the foreground. It is a significant addition to the play’s overall mood. Also striking is Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting design, transforming the nearly bare stage into multiple settings like Harpo’s home where Levant spent much time, the hospital with its struggles, and his home with his wife.

Director Stefan Novinski balances the comedy with adversity nicely as he maneuvers his cast through the many overlapping scenes. As Levant was noted for his one-liners, including “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin,” Novinski makes their many inclusions in the script seem believable as dialogue.
   Though the play challenges the audience to keep the time periods and events sorted out, it works best as a theatrical endeavor when it focuses on the human aspects of the story rather than the biographical. The ensemble’s considerable talent makes for a worthwhile exploration of this complex and intriguing man.
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
February 14, 2017
Zoot Suit
Mark Taper Forum

The history of Los Angeles is a fascinating and often sordid tale. This is particularly true of the bigotry and racial profiling which has befallen, and continues to befall, our pivotal Chicano population over the years. It makes the Taper’s sparkling revival of Luis Valdez’s groundbreaking musical Zoot Suit, which premiered at the same theater way back in 1978 when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth and the mastodons had not yet gotten hung up in the tar pits, more timely than ever—before our current administration brings back tar and dumps us all in it for a swim.
   As the news continues to be chockful of reports of Trump-inspired ICE raids and deportation roundups that have rocked Los Angeles and the country this weekend, recent National Medal of Arts recipient Valdez, who once again directs his own masterpiece with the participation of his son and longtime collaborator Kinan as his associate director, takes us back to 1942. While World War II raged across our globe, the LA pachuco society was the relentless target of brutality and the stomping on of human rights by the police and the military.
   Valdez returns to his story of the infamous Sleepy Hollow murder trial and the resultant Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, aided by a passionate cast and designers who have obviously worked tirelessly to do their homework. Designer Christopher Acebo’s soaring metal industrial structures, looming in front of a mysterious night-lit backdrop of the East LA barrio smoldering below a rendition of City Hall, is a perfect tool for Valdez’s stark staging and the hot-blooded dance numbers choreographed by Maria Torres to the infectiously cheery original score by the legendary late “father of Chicano music” Lalo Guerrero.

Speaking of research, costumer Ann Closs-Farley’s amazing period costuming defines her as a vital member of the exceptional team that has brought this production back to life, whether it be finely tailored Joan Crawford-esque suits for reporter Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont) or the spectacularly colorful dancewear moving seductively with every jerk and stretch of the energetic and rubber-limbed ensemble. . Her work is accentuated by the gorgeously detailed “drapes” that adorn the ghostly El Pachuco (Demián Bichir) and members of the local gang who became victims of the American court system. Once referred to by a young Malcolm X as a “killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell,” Closs-Farley’s brilliantly day-glo-ing zoot suits, complete with their signature watch chains dangling from the belt to below the knee, could make a comeback due solely to the success of this revival.
   Bichir is a dynamic presence as he bravely attempts to fill the well-worn pointed-toed shoes that became the springboard to fame for his predecessor in the role, Edward James Olmos. Bichir is wonderfully sparse in his choices as he prances and poses as the continuously dominant spirit figure gliding through the action as the conscience of the falsely accused Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce), although his gravelly, raspy delivery of some of his key lines does tend to get lost in their own gargle. Ponce also seems to keep his delivery more to the bone than do many of his castmembers, as does Jeanine Mason as his spunky love interest Della. A special treat is the casting of Daniel Valdez (who also doubles as musical director) and Rose Portillo as Henry’s longsuffering, endearingly simple immigrant parents, since they are the actors who, four decades ago, played the roles of Henry and Della in the original cast.

Of course the saddest thing about seeing Zoot Suit so painstakingly returned to its original venue is to realize how little has changed since the Sleepy Lagoon murders and the subsequent Zoot Suit Riots, which shook Los Angeles to its core and subsequently spread around the country 75 years ago. Like studying the arc between Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in 1905 and Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County 100 years later, the endurance of great art unmistakably exposes how our conflicted species refuses to modify our behavior and learn from our mistakes, how little we really, truly try to honor and to practice the humanity we profess to hold so dear.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
February 13, 2017
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Geffen Playhouse

“I was so healthy before Edmund was born,” says matriarch Mary Tyrone in playwright Eugene O’Neill’s epic Long Day’s Journey Into Night, considered a masterpiece of American theater of any era. Set in 1912, written in the 1940s, but at O’Neill’s request unpublished during his lifetime, the play remains timeless. So do the alternative facts wielded by the Tyrone family.
   It’s probably not the first time Mary has heaped this blame and guilt on her son, who did nothing to deserve it. But whereas the sticky web of delusion they live in is of their own making, the various addictions each suffers are genetic. And in those days, professional help wasn’t readily and affordably available.
   This semi-autobiographical play explores a day in the life of James and Mary Tyrone, in their Connecticut seaside home, with their two adult sons. Jamie is the elder child, trying a career as an actor primarily because his father had been one. Edmund is the younger, who caught tuberculosis as a merchant sailor.

If it’s not immediately apparent, the audience learns each character has an addiction. For James, it’s bourbon. For Mary, it’s morphine. For James, it’s prostitutes. For Edmund, it seems to be returning home and trying to help.
  They talk. On this day they talk morning, noon, evening and midnight, through four acts and three and a half hours of theatergoing time. O’Neill gives the audience everything, no more and no less, needed to understand and feel for these characters.

So, in its current production at Geffen Playhouse, what imprint would its director, Jeanie Hackett, lay on it? The humor is in the lines; Hackett neither imposes nor allows clowning to encourage the laughs. The tragedy is in the characters; Hackett brooks no bodice-ripping. Instead, she kneads the painful relationships, revealing them through byplay and undercurrents, as alliances form and break, egos flare and fade. There’s love within and for this family, but it can’t rise above the neediness.
   Among Hackett’s directorial choices, the less-successful are the scene-break divertissements, in which O’Neill’s recorded voice plays over projections of photographs and a wash of purple-and-turquoise fogs. Some of us would rather stay in the Tyrone house, quietly assessing our thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, those tired of watching actors move furniture and props during plays have something to distract them.
   The most-successful choice might be the casting of Colin Woodell as Edmund, the stand-in for the playwright. (To be clear, the “Eugene” mentioned in the play is the deceased son born before Edmund.) Woodell plays the consumptive, soulful Edmund with layers of colors, yet the portrayal looks luminous and simple—and includes a realistic consumptive cough.
   Stephen Louis Grush plays the underachieving Jamie, a disappointment to his father and likely to himself, seeming to fade into the already worn background, at least until his night of carousing gives him courage, which he uses to lash out.
   Alfred Molina plays patriarch James, regretful over his misguided acting career, in love with Mary but completely lacking the tools to help her. Molina’s moments of James’ theatricality entertainingly liven the dark conversations.
   Jane Kaczmarek plays Mary, very much a product of her time but very much suffering in contemporary ways. This Mary is strong but shackled, so she escapes through painkillers. Kaczmarek turns into a joyful girl when Mary recounts meeting James for the first time.
   Angela Goethals plays housemaid Cathleen, weighted by her own need for alcohol but blessed with a sense of humor.

Tom Buderwitz designed the windswept, sun-bleached, spectral house, perfect for setting the mood, as well as for peeking into various rooms and up the staircase that plays a role, lit by lighting designer Elizabeth Harper’s subtle artistry. Other directorial choices include framing devices. Just before the action begins, Eugene wanders up and gazes at the house, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, setting this up as a memory play. At the play’s end, lights shine into the audience, as if to say, “Et tu?”

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
February 13, 2017
Republished courtesy Daily Breeze

Lyrics From Lockdown
The Actors’ Gang at Ivy Substation

In a political climate where disagreements are labeled as “unconstitutional,” “destructive,” even “treasonous” or “evil,” refreshing is the message that’s both timely in its relevance and balanced in its presentation. In this case, the message, that of a justice system that, at times, is most certainly unfair to its participants based on no more than a series of immutable factors such as race, ethnicity, or the supposedly guaranteed “freedom of association.”
   In this moving, often comical, power-punch of a solo performance, author Bryonn Bain details his amazingly overflowing cup of life. Having broken with the tradition of his Brooklyn upbringing to serve as the four-time president of his class at Columbia University and eventually graduate from Harvard Law School, Bain seemed on track for what by all standards would be success at every turn. And yet, the path his life was to take proved to be the positive outcome of a blindside.
   Racially profiled and wrongfully incarcerated by the New York City Police, Bain has produced a stunning array of work and social activism, which even included serving as the topic for a segment of CBS’s Sixty Minutes in which he was interviewed by the venerable Mike Wallace. In this theatrical production, he parallels his autobiography with that of Nanon Williams, sent to Texas’s Death Row at age 17 (a sentence converted in 2005 to life imprisonment), both of whom have spun gold from dross through their unveiling of the ills found within our nation’s incarceration industry.

Bain’s ability to offer his thoughts and feelings without drubbing his audience over the head is perhaps the most admirable quality of his work. Instead, he introduces us to his family: a father known for his love of Calypso music, a Bible-thumping mother, and two brothers, one of whom walked the tightrope between lawfulness and the gangsta lifestyle. In doing so, Bain humanizes himself, and his message is thereby saved from being overshadowed by the unforgiving militancy so often found in those who espouse a “cause.” It’s one of many wise choices that he and director Gina Belafonte have made in crafting this fast-paced one-act.
   So too are the incorporations of musical stylings, credited to the playwright’s father, B. Rolly Bain, which transform this poetry into gripping lyrics backed by an onstage three-piece ensemble. John B. Williams on the double bass and Isaiah Gage on the cello, along with the remarkable talent of an artist identified as “Click the Supa Latin” serving as a human beatbox, make amazing use of what are normally considered traditionally staid instruments. Although untitled, Bain’s compositions run the gamut from blues to calypso and classical to hip-hop. In particular, he riffs on subjects which for the purposes of this review shall be referred to as “Growing Up on Marcus Garvey Boulevard,” “Things Are Not Always What They Seem,” “On My Way,” and “Scribble On.”

Equally valuable is a trio, artistes in their own right, inhabiting the theater’s tech booth. Billed as the designer and video DJ for the production is Omolara Abode. In addition to a pair of traditional suspended screens marking the set’s upstage area, Abode’s almost ceaseless array of video and still projections fill the side walls of the Ivy Substation’s decades-old, brick-walled interior. Meanwhile, Pierre Adeli’s sound cues, including live vocal interjections from the booth, flawlessly augment and accentuate Bain’s 75-minute monologue. Seamless lighting transitions, under the guidance of technical director Jason Ryan Lovett, are provided throughout the show by Cihan Sahin.
   Concluding his performance with “So Many People in Need,” perhaps the most poignant of all his sung works, Bain and director Belafonte send their audience out onto the street moved and perhaps encouraged to action rather than merely ruminating over what has just been experienced.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
February 12, 2017
Beckett 5
Odyssey Theatres

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.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 25, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze

The Lion
Geffen Playhouse

It’s a given that most self-created solo shows dig deep into the past and the personal demons haunting their authors. Benjamin Scheuer takes it one step further with The Lion, adding one component fairly unique to that genre: unflinchingly recounting the bittersweet memories of his life and individual trials and using gloriously evocative music.
   Scheuer offers a bravely unembellished look at growing up in a difficult situation, letting his story unfold through powerful and hauntingly poetic ballads, his sandpapery vocal dexterity, and some truly ferocious skills as a guitarist. Yet austerity is the key here, Scheuer moving from stool to stool, picking up a half-dozen guitars showcasing his versatility, on the Geffen’s intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis stage. His only co-conspirators in showcasing his massive talent are the unobtrusive but effective direction by Sean Daniels, complemented by Neil Patel’s ever-changing sound studio design, lit simply but chameleon-like by Ben Staton.

Scheuer tells of his uncomfortable relationship with a demanding father whose expectations do not mesh with his son’s free spirit, ending in a bitter argument never resolved before his dad, whom he obviously adored, suddenly died of a brain aneurism. A gifted hobbyist musician, Scheuer’s father was a notable mathematician.
   Although he shared his musical passion with his son—even building him a homemade banjo in the basement—his frustration that his offspring didn’t inherit his analytical skills or wasn’t interested in academic success destroyed their time together.
   Scheuer’s story trudges on through a love affair, catastrophic illness, and numerous attempts to find himself in some way that does not involve his passion for music, told by these gifted hands in this quiet and unvarnished production.
   Scheuer is the quintessential product of singer-songwriters from a groundbreaking generation past, a Leonard Cohen or Cat Stevens or James Taylor for the millennium, only taken a step further with a personal tale he shares without filter or embellishment—and we, his sufficiently mesmerized and emotionally transported followers, are his grateful beneficiaries.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
January 16, 2017
Pick of the Vine 15
Little Fish Theatre

Nine short plays by nine playwrights fit together snugly to make a brisk evening of theater in Little Fish Theatre’s 15th annual Pick of the Vine play festival.
   Subjects and themes this year include birth and death, truth and lies, sexuality and gender, parenting, revenge, and, topically, politics. And even if none of the plays hits home in every viewer, the collection offers the opportunity to sample these playwrights while watching uniformly superb acting by the evening’s eight performers.
   First up is “I Don’t Know,” by James McLindon, directed by Madeleine Drake. Soldiers march to their sergeant’s cadences, but the sentiments expressed don’t fall in line with the sexual politics of a younger and more liberal generation. The drill sergeant (Rodney Rincon) gets an ear-opening lesson from his soldiers, also in rhyming cadences.

For a couple’s 30-year-old, live-at-home son (Brendan Gill), it’s time to grow up and hear the truth, in “Santa Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” by Patrick Gabridge, directed by Gigi Fusco Meese. However, maturity doesn’t mean we can’t keep the magic of Christmas alive, as his parents (Geraldine Fuentes, Rincon) eventually agree.
   In the sensual and disquieting “Wheelchair,” by Scott Mullen, directed by Richard Perloff, two strangers (Olivia Schlueter-Corey, Bill Wolski) meet on a park bench, where a seemingly random wager ends in revenge.
   In “The Holy Grill,” by Gary Shaffer, directed by Drake, a young couple (Jessica Winward, Wolski) face their premarital interview at their local church. But the priest is supposedly not available, so two detectives step in (Rincon, Don Schlossman), leaving the couple to try to lie to law enforcement of the earthly kind.

“A Womb With a View,” by Rich Orloff, directed by Perloff, whimsically imagines what goes on behind the scenes in getting a baby (Holly Baker-Kreiswirth) ready for birth.
   “Screaming,” by Stephen Peirick, directed by Perloff, looks at parents (Jessica Winward, Wolski) with a 3-month-old child. Of the nine plays, this one seems the toughest to bring to life: It’s less play than serious conversation between one character who’s not listening and one who’s not forthcoming. Unlike Perloff’s other two, more-successful, pieces, here he aims for the straightforward, leaving the audience to decide how to react.
   “Thick Gnat Hands,” by Erin Mallon, directed by Elissa Anne Polansky, is a lovely study of the wisdom we can glean from illness. Polansky’s actors (Schlossman, Wolski) are far upstage, distanced from the audience, but the actors lure us toward them as the story reminds us to forgive ourselves and live each day with a conscious joy.

Equally tender is “The Way It Really Truly Almost Was,” by Brendan Healy, directed by Polansky. A husband (Schlossman) sits at the bedside of his comatose wife (Baker-Kreiswirth), attempting a revisionist look back at his marriage. His wife sets him straight.
   The comedic highlight is “A Very Short Play About the Very Short Presidency of William Henry Harrison,” by Jonathan Yukich, directed by Meese. The story of the ailing brand-new president (Rincon) who won’t take the advice of his wiser aide (Schlossman) bursts with witty, pointed, political commentary, plus a bit of toilet humor.

Throughout the nine plays, a piece of the set becomes refrigerator, dialysis machine, park bench, deathbed, birth canal, and more. That’s all the audience needs. But the upstage structure, in a mud-brown pattern against painted brown wood, distracts, as we expect it to be turned around into something, anything, for a finale.
   We expect this because Little Fish usually offers well-designed and well-constructed sets. This one remains static and unappealing. Better to have kept the background plain, leaving the audience, well-stimulated by the writing and acting, to imagine the settings.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies
January 16, 2017

Republished courtesy Daily Breeze
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