Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee –Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Conceived by Rachel Sheinkin, Additional Material by Jay Reiss

By Joe Straw

Culver City High School & The Academy of Visual Performing Arts present a Blurred Vision Theatre Company Production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Conceived by Rachel Sheinkin, directed by Kristen Opstad; it finished its four-performance run on March 17, 2016 at the Vets Center in Culver City.

I was fortunate to see this production three times and, with each opportunity, I found the performances got perceptively better; that is exactly what should happen with a high school troupe learning their craft.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is about a group of contestants trying to win their local spelling bee contest. 

What makes this musical enticing is that no one comes alone. They all bring their fraught family relationships and emotional baggage as they negotiate their way to victory.  

Rona Lisa Peretti (Sequoya Henry) enters the spelling bee hall with all the poise and confidence of a previous winner from day’s gone bye.  She was the winner of the 3rd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Peretti is followed by last year’s previous winner Chip Tolentino (Dillon Zehnder). Chip is wearing his Boy Scout uniform.  This year though his road has taken a nasty turn - onto puberty highway - which makes his life in this bee, precarious

Not far behind him is Logainne SchwartzandGrubeniere (Ryanne Biernat), a very young physical specimen looking for a fight and an easy victory.

Leaf Coneybear (Jaylen Rosado) is the oddest-looking contestant, wearing a cape and homemade clothing.  A telephone with a cord that lead to nowhere is an accouterment on his being. (later missing in a later version of the show) He has a mysterious way of spelling as he falls into a green trance.  

William Barfée (Joey O’Neal), appears to be dancing on stage, lissome, in a Fred Astaire way. He spells using his foot as he lifts his arms high into the air.  He is allergic to peanuts and can only breath through one nostril.

Marcy Park (Kacey Oschack) has stepped out of a fancy private school athletic, “Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrow”, athletic, and a girl who had it all except that one thing.

Olive Ostrovsky (Maya Derbise) came on the bus without the $25.00 entrance fee.  She is doe-eyed, completely lost, a smile that shows only her upper teeth, and looking for another friend on this day.

Vice Principal Doug Panch (Aidan Van den Broeck) is the announcer. He announces the spelling words, provides definitions, and uses the words in sentences.  Nothing bothers this man with exception of certain indigestible foods.  He can be volatile at times.

Mitch Mahoney (Dylan Staal) has just stepped out of the confines of a local jail and is now doing community service for the spelling bee and trying to be altruistic in his way.  

And what would a spelling bee be without Jesus (Annie Melnick), a woman bringing the good word to the bee.

Carl Dad (Oliver Marcus) and Dan Dad (Yogi Sylvain) are there to support their daughter Logaine SchwartzandGrubeniere and make it so she wins – even if they have to cheat on her behalf.

There was also a terrific sporting cast of dancers and singers including Sophia Martin-Straw (Brook Coneybear), Sophia Posner (Pinecone Coneybear), Avery Bielski (Raisin Coneybear), Charlotte Feit-Leichman (Landscape Coneybear), Sophia Price (Paula Coneybear), Izzy Layne (Karen Coneybear), and Sophia Lafaurie Munoz (Rascal Coneybear).

Kirsten Opstad, director, showcases refulgent talent in this portentous, imaginary, whimsical, and delightful musical. Although this is a slightly truncated version of the original Broadway show – they bring it down from a “PG” to a “G” rating (High School!) – it still packs a punch.  

(The show generally features adults playing kids, somewhat looking back on their experiences. And although it is a comedy, the show, in its long form, tackles serious issues like depression, anxiety, and abandonment, which makes it a wonderful night of theatre.  Still, in any form it is a delight.)

Sequoya Henry, in her tremulous glow, showcased her powerful voice. Kacey Oschack nailed I Speak Six Languages. And when Maya Derbise sang The I Love You Song, it just brought down the house.  

Jaylen Rosado wins over audience with his version of “I’m Not That Smart.” Joey O’Neal wows them with “Magic Foot.”  Ryanne Biernat was very physical in her character portrayal bringing a lot of laughs to this musical.   

The Blurred Vision Theatre Company was backed by a delightful orchestra lead by Tony Spano, Music Director.  Thomas Gaff was the Accompanist, Celine Cuadra on flute, Baxter Hamilton and James Kocher on clarinet, Xaul Starr on soprano sax, Matthew Kojima and Riley McCrary on alto sax, and the percussion section was Wesley Page, Mikael Nida, Mario Bechtloff Weising, and Angel Sanchez Perez.

Choreography by Carol was enchanting.

Other members of the fabulous crew are as follows:

Celine Cuadra & Shavit Melamed – Set Design
Alekos Tetradis – Props Design
Emily Wulf – Lighting Design
Anneliese du Boulay – Lighting Mentor
Erin Hamill – Sound Design
Will Schuessler – Sound Engineering
Zoe Alamillo & Malaika Stamble – Costume Design
Kelly Carson – Stage Manager
Thistle Boosinger – Artwork  

A lot of work went into this show and I’m glad I went!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Happiest Song Plays Last by Quiara Alegría Hudes


Elisa Bocanegra and Al Rodrigo - Photos by Gio Solis by

By Joe Straw

Theatre is remembering the moment. – Narrator

Haditha, Iraq is on fire. It rages out of control as explosions engulf fleeing innocent women and children. 

One more bomb explodes and lifts Shar (Vahen Assadourian) off the ground into an almost a backflip and onto the dry desert sand.

After the cut in action, Elliot (Peter Pasco) becomes aware that the Jordanian wind has caused the stunt to go awry.  He’s concerned that Shar flew exceedingly far and might be hurt. He runs to her and ask questions to check on her mental and physical acuity.   

“I’m Shar. I’m in Jordan filming a movie.”Shar

In the course of doing the physically demanding stunt, Shar has soiled her abaya (a long black long-sleeved robe worn by Muslim women) and needs another one. 

Ali (Kamal Maravati) hired as a local expert and doubling as an assistant costumer, says he will get her a change. But there’s the bad news—she fell the wrong way and Nigel, the director (not seen), wants to do it all over again.

L - R Kamal Marayati, Peter Pasco, and Vaneh Assadourian

Ali, more than generous, scurries off to get Shar a new abaya.  

This gives Elliot time to share the on-the-set gossip—the lead actor got fired on this docu-drama.  This is good news for Elliot. His agent has already negotiated for points on the film. And now, he is moving up in the world.

Elliot knows they have the next day off so he enlists Ali to drive them to Egypt.  Ali says it’s too dangerous because of the upheaval with Mubarak leaving office.

The Latino Theater Company presents The Happiest Song Plays Last written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and directed by Edward Torres and now playing downtown on 6th Street through March 17, 2018.  

Scene 2

Yaz (Elisa Bocanegra), doing the neighborly thing, has just gotten Agustín (Al Rodrigo) out of jail.  It is too early in the morning to be pleasant to one another and yet all Austín can think of is the food on the stove. (Well, that’s the second thing on his mind.) Yaz, still delirious from waking up during the graveyard shift, won’t let him have a bit of it.

“I hate jail.  Thirty people, one toilet, no food.”  - Agustín

“Then stop going there.” - Yaz

“If there was someone else I could have call, I would.” - Agustín

“You have a wife. Her name is Miriam.” - Yaz

“Best friends are less judgmental.”   - Agustín

Despite all the grief, they enjoy each other’s company, the stories, and everything Yaz does to liven this northern Philadelphia neighborhood.  Yaz pushes Austín in the direction of his wife, but he is not budging and that’s when Lefty (John Seda-Petre) looks through the window and then bangs at the door.

Even though Yaz has an unlocked door policy, Lefty needs Yaz to let him in. Lefty is homeless, bound in garb that keeps him warms on the streets of Philadelphia. Lefty calls Yaz “mom”, and immediately Yaz directs him to the pots, to get food for himself and for the assortment of other hungry homeless characters in the neighborhood.  

Agustín is interrupted in his quest for more than a moment of Yaz’s time as Lefty sits, eats his food, and eyes both of them.  

Stopped in the progression of his task, Agustín waits for Lefty to leave. Meanwhile we learn that Agustín is a musician and an educator—he was Yaz’s first music teacher in high school. Also he has sent many poor kids to college including Yaz who went to Yale and has become a professor of music.

Agustín wants only one thing before his time is up and that one thing will make all the difference in the world.

There is something enchanting about this play, directed by Edward Torres, that says a lot about life, and about bringing life into this world. And it is also about enriched cultures expressing a quiet rage, a particular point of view, where lives can change in a dramatic instant.

This production is pleasing to the soul.  It is remarkable in so many ways, it is visually stunning, and the acting is top notched. But there are a few observations that need to be addressed, which I will get to later.

One of the things I enjoyed in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s work is the simplicity of the dialogue, the timelessness of the issues, and the complexities of living in today’s world.  “Happiest” is about doing the thing you love to do best.  Hudes gives us delectable oblong morsels in her art, strong visuals of life, and words that play like music.

In addition to bringing happiness into the world, there is another side to Hudes’ work—about death and destruction and people starving in the streets. One catches glimpses of these backstories in this play but still we feel the immeasurable importance of the struggle of unfortunate human beings as they negotiate their way about the world.

What gives this story its dramatic glow is the unconquerable obstinacy of people trying to make right for things that are horribly wrong. And these individuals are doing their best, by offering the smallest part in saving the world.  It is touching in so many ways and stays with you long after you have left the theatre.  On top of all that, it is graphically poetic in ways that art enlightens the soul.

L - R Elisa Bocanegra, Vaneh Assadourian, Peter Pasco, and Kamal Marayati

Edward Torres, the director, has a fine time with this ensemble.  All of the actors grow in their moments on stage. And there is an extreme fascination in witnessing their hard work on stage. But some opportunities to reveal character traits are missing.  These are the physical traits that create and move a character toward their objective. With that said, there appears to be more going on than the spoken word.  Two characters in a room alone conflicted by what they want, because that conflict hinders those persons from their objective. The two are in a sparring match, moving beyond a moment only after embracing a resolution in conflict.  For example, there is a lot to be added to the relationship between teacher and student, among adulterous neighbors, among co-workers, and even among adversaries.

Also, the play begs to be performed in a much more intimate space. Se Hyun Oh, Scenic Design, gives a wonderful set for the actors to create, a modest home in Philadelphia, and a desert space in Jordan. But, the night begs to see actors, up close, highlighting their subtle moments, their conflicted eyes, and the slight touches of an awakening romance. Still, one can’t help but be amazed when walking into the theatre and seeing the beautiful set.  

Elisa Bocanegra (Yaz) brings a lot of humor to the role. She has a lovely voice in the opening number, which is a wonderful addition to the play. Yaz is a delightful character with a compassionate heart – one that wants to give to the entire Philadelphia neighborhood and possibly the world.

Al Rodrigo (Agustín) has a commanding presence and a wonderful way about the stage. His movements toward a physical relationship are possibly too subtle for this venue.  Rubbing someone’s callous feet doesn’t move far enough into establishing a significant romantic relationship. Still, overall his performance brings a heartwarming smile.

Peter Pasco takes time to grow as Elliot. But after a time, he settles into the role. There’s more to be had with his relationship with his yet to be girlfriend and in particular the opening number, which plays like co-worker interacting rather than potential lovers.  Also, there’s more to had with his relationship to his cousin, an intimate backstory that needs addressing.  The back and forth on the phone/computer worked if you listened to the voices and not looked at the out-of-sync video projected on the walls.

Vaneh Assadourian presents a strong female figure as Shar, a stuntwoman and a graduate of Julliard. There is never a hint to a physical intimacy between her and her soon-to-be husband during this performance.  The scene of committing to travel together, the eating scene, and the hotel scene all have opportunities to make that happen.  Still, Assadourian presents a pleasant figure on stage.  

Kamal Marayati plays Ali, a lovely soul, who is Iraqi hiding in Jordan and working on the film. Marayati gives a tremendous amount of backstory to the character and I will remember the moment about the passport forever.  This is a performance not to be missed.

John Seda-Pitre
John Seda-Pitre also gives a marvelous performance as Lefty, a homeless character and is incapacitated with a mental problem. Lefty is an interesting character with an ambiguous objective for Seda-Pitre to conger. Lefty and Yaz need each other but how that translates to the ending is anyone’s guess. 

This version of the play has been changed from the published version available on Kindle.  So, if you’ve read it, you’re going to be enchanted by something a little different.

The music was brilliant by Nelson Gonzáles (Special Guest Artist) and accommodated the action on stage.

Dianne K. Graebner’s work as Costume Design was superb.

Ivan Robles’ Sound Design fit nicely with the accentuated dramatic moments on stage.

Other members of the hard working crew are as follows:

John A.Garofalo – Lighting Design
Yee Eun Nam – Projection Design
Jess Wolinsky – Assistant Director
Cristina “Crispy” Carrillo-Dono – Assistant Stage Manager
Emily Lehrer – Production Stage Manager
Lucy Pollock – Publicity

Run! Run! Run! And take someone from Puerto Rico.  It will make all the difference in the world. 

One more note:  This was the best of the trilogy now playing in Los Angeles. 

Reservations: 866-811-4111

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Nice Fish by Mark Rylance & Louis Jenkins


By Joe Straw

I never thought fish were nice
Their incongruity mortared
on their oblique narrow being

They breathe through a superior operculum
And navigate the lake with a spiny dorsal
beyond the anal fin down to their overly proficient tail

But, sinisterly greedy they are
To take, or eat the bait
moments before hooked in perpetual agony

Caught, nice fish don’t
struggle, back and forth,
to get back to the water’s edge

But, do they deserve this murderous absurdity?
From one so obsequious

Off the hook and into
The bucket?
Or, back in the pond?

It must be said
I never thought fish were nice
But twice said neither am I. - Narrator

There is a lot to like about Nice Fish by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins and directed by Rob Brownstein and Anita Khanzadian, and presented by the interact theatre company, now playing at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles through March 25, 2018.

The crew was marvelously fantastic with all that was going on, on stage, here, there, everywhere, snow, wind, odd puppetry, making the most of the place, a frozen lake in Northern Minnesota, late winter, or early spring, on the last day of ice-fishing season.  

This production requires one to prepare for something a little different from other plays.  The words or dialogue, meaning the prose poems, are a little offsetting in the traditional ways that one views dramatic or comedic theatre of objectives, conflict, and character resolution.

This play is likely to find a different light and differ each night, depending on the moments and audience participation, no matter how the directors Brownstein and Khanzadian have structured it.

Time has little relevance on this lake, day can be night, night can be day, but time passes in what could be thought of anywhere from an extended weekend or even months.  In the flash of winter lighting, moments pass quickly and possibly weeks fly by. The time spent on the ice is a humanistic endeavor that outweighs the visual countenance of time.  

And yet, all of this is absorbed, and happening, dancing in your imagination.

Erik (Don Fischer) is an “ice-fishing enthusiast”. He’s married but doesn’t talk about his wife too much especially when he is fishing.  He brings his college friend, Ron (Barry Heins), who is single and knows fiddly-squat about fishing.

Ron is over bundled so as to not to get cold. He brings a hand-held ice auger but he has no luck getting through the ice. Erik, with his gas-powered ice auger, plows through the ice like it’s nothing, and smiles while he’s doing it.

Erik, then settles on a plastic bucket near the hole in the ice, plows through a lot of fish philosophy hoping Ron understands the complexities of fishing on ice.  Ron can only nod his head, drink his Bud, and sit in his cushy chair.

Fishing not only gives one time to contemplate, sharing ideas of the mundane, but it is also discovering the mysteries of the earth through the art of life.

I can’t give too much away, because that would be giving too much away.  This is a delightful production with a lot of unusual and madcap activities happening throughout the theatrical night and wonderfully directed by Brownstein and Khanzadian.  Even if you don’t get everything, the night of portentous prose poems produces visuals you only dream of in a good night’s sleep.  

Evan Bartoletti, Scenic Design, gives us a portion of a frozen lake somewhere in northern Minnesota, where brightly painted fishing huts dot the icy landscape, and bare trees line the lake bed. It is both beautiful and detailed magnificently.

The sound by Chip Botcik of cracking ice, wind, and monster trucks are very pleasurable, the sound of physics and humanity all rolled into one.

Don Fischer is pleasant as Erik.  There’s more to be had with this character as an enthusiastic fisherman.  We get that he is a serious fisherman, little tidbits of a non-querulous nature, but we never see the enjoyment of learning new things.  For example, when another fisherman says he needs to talk to the lure, stuff like that should drive him ecstatic  – learning new things.  There is a reason he brought his friend this day and maybe that reason is too internal but it is a secret that needs to be express sometime during the course of the play.

Barry Heins has a very good look as Ron and is perfectly suited for the role.  For some ungodly reason, I didn’t see either the phone or the shades fall into the ice hole; that needs work so to focus our attention in his direction.  More is needed to show that he really really enjoyed the sauna. Those are really small things for an overall delightful performance.

Tamika Simpkins is excellent as the man-hating, go by the rules DNR Officer.  One pictures her as having a bible in one hand and a rules book in the other. The last day of the season and she is all over the men who are perceived to be fishing. And she won’t let go until she gets her quota for the day and back home to her wife, “that’s right I said, wife.”

Kristen Egermeier plays Flo.  Flo is a character type that manages to show up in the most peculiar places dressed in atypical garb.  For example, she is a type of an unexpected guest showing up at a beach house, or Burning Man, or Joshua Tree trying to make friends.  Flo appears out of nowhere to express her atypical lifestyle. She holds a book “Moby Dick” navigating her way, making friends where there were no friends moments ago.  She seems to have made a love connection but, does it go far enough? The stunning actress is below holding onto the palm tree and her name is spelled Kristen despite what the photograph says.

Rick Friesen is Wayne, grandfather to Flo.  He carries the spear fishing implement, something he’s not suppose to have.  He also carries the spirit of the Ojibwa as a constant companion along with the chi of the fish. Wayne imparts his wisdom to those who have a receptive ear. His relationship to his granddaughter could be improved in a myriad of ways that progress with the through line. (Oh, a perceived through line.)

Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins, the playwrights, take us on a very interesting trip.  It’s hard to tell where one starts and the other begins but, either way, the descriptive visuals takes the viewer on a very pleasurable trip.

Keaton Shapiro does a very fine job as a producer.

Sam KS and Michael Skloff created the original music.

Carolyn Mazuca’s costume design was perfect for this show.

Cate Caplin was the choreographer.

Stevie Anne Nemazee was responsible for the puppet design and the puppets were magnificent and oddly beautiful and unique in their own special way.

Jonathan Martin Berry was responsible for the guitar.  Gina S. De Luca was the stage manager.  

The publicity was by Ken Werther Publicity.


Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
1238 W. 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA  90026 

Run! Run! And take an avid fisherman with you!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue by Quiara Alegría Hudes

By Joe Straw

Fugue: a polyphonic composition based upon one, two, or more themes, which are enunciated by several voices or parts in turn, subjected to contrapuntal treatment, and gradually built up into a complex form having somewhat distinct divisions or stages of development and a marked climax at the end. –

Prelude: musical composition, usually brief, that is generally played as an introduction to another, larger musical piece. The term is applied generically to any piece preceding a religious or secular ceremony, including in some instances an operatic performance.

One has to come prepared to see this production as a verbal fugue, and be in that mindset.  The actors speak to the fourth wall for the most part, harmonies are not present, and there is no discernable music.  After the first fugue, the play is separated by four preludes, another fugue, three preludes, one more fugue, another three preludes, and then onto the final fugue.

And, with the exception of one remarkable performance, try as I might, I did not hear the music in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue by Quiara Alegría Hudes directed by Shishir Kurup at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

The play, on paper, starts with a soldier’s fugue, but the dramatic theme is understated in this version of the play, and there is little interplay between characters.  The relationships are born, created by enervated discourse, but is it there, on the stage? 

One desperately tries to find a theme, which does not materialize as in a Bach fugue, in variations, and/or verbal competition throughout this seventy-three minute drama?

The play starts with a peculiarity.  At first it appeared to be a stagehand moving props and potted plants around on a bare stage. But that stagehand was an actor, Ginny (Caro Zeller) moving on stage, repotting the plants, and describing the moments of Marine life, the thirty-six springs of a marine bunk. 

This is an opening that lacks clarity and even creativity to start off the opening dramatic fugue. 

Speaking to the fourth wall, as most of the characters do in this play, the relationships between characters require another level of intimacy from the actors, one that creatively defines the relationships, and in the way one sees characters on stage and know immediately they are related – mom, dad, son and grandfather.  And, one wants to see what makes the relationships unique or special.  

Pop (Jason Manuel Olazábal) Ginny’s husband describes making a bed “Tight, like an envelope.”  Grandpop (Rubén Garfias), Pop’s father, concurs “No wrinkles or bumps allowed.”

They describe Elliot (Peter Mendoza) in minute detail, watching, appreciating those details as they prepare him to war, constantly moving as he heads on board a ship heading for Iraq. The song of war is felt and lived by all as Elliot goes to war, but the fugue, in execution, is not totally realized.

And the characters all have lived it and express their song for those interested in listening.  But, what song are they singing?  It seems to be the song of a soldier’s life, of staying alive, and of most importantly coming home.

“I don’t want to hear about no “leave the past in the past.” You gonna tell me your stories.”Elliot

The polyphonic voices speak but not about the talk that is about the future, or the past, it is an introduction of how each made it through, in their time, in war, if only the youngest one would listen.

But, where is the intensity of the fugue? The dramatic voices that contribute to the piece and the quiet voices that fill the complexities of letting go.

“When your son goes to war, you plant every goddamn seed you can find.” -  Ginny

One thinks the play is all about getting home, similar to the thought of going home in “In The Heights” which Hudes also wrote. So why isn’t the director obvious in moving in that direction?

“In my dreams, he said.
Everything is in green.
Green from the night-vision goggles.
Green Iraq.
Verdant Falluja.
Emerald Tikrit.” Ginny

Hard to see Falluja or Tikrit as anything but sandy desert. So, one has to have a perspective to give meaning to these lines.  If it is a song of coming home then one must have a perception to add to the collective fugue.  

It is in Chapter 6 – a fugue - that layers are built and Grandpop, Pop, and Elliot each have their first kill and witness the last lines of breath from that kill, but little is built into that as a collective whole.

“The snap of a branch.”Grandpop


“Footsteps in the mud.”Grandpop

“You hear something?” -  Pop

“Three drops of water. A little splash.”Grandpop

And then Grandpop explains it all.

Of everything Bach wrote, it is the fugues.  The fugue is like an argument.  It starts in one voice. The voice is the melody the single solitary melodic line. The statement.  Another voice creeps up on the first one.  Voice two responds to voice one.  They tangle together. They argue, they become messy. They create dissonance.  Grandpop

And then in chapter 10 – another fugue – that just fell apart. Elliott was not symbolically wrapped in barbed wire but wrapped in what appeared to be a green gauze, and later it looked liked he had died. No one was moving him in the direction of home, visualizing it, or struggling to find the words to bring Elliot home. Everyone chimes in as to what Elliot is supposed to do, it is a chorus of words, of protectionism, and of holding on to life in circumstances that suddenly become out of control.

But with that in mind the execution of the fugue has to be flawless to give us the flavor the author intended.  

Rubén Garfias’ performance as Grandpop is brilliant especially in his monologue in which he describes Bach. His performance is rich in detail and in manner.  His character goes back in time to the Korean War, to the Vietnam War, and by the time the first Gulf War comes around he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Garfias is a very giving actor and is well suited for this role. It is a performance not to miss.   

Peter Mendoza plays Elliot and starts off with a bang.  But, as the fugue continues Mendoza seems lost in the character and conflict.  We never get a sense of his objective or the conflict that gets in his way to reach that objective.  The music of the fugue never gels and his finished is not realized.  This is the character we must feel the most from because it is his song, his life. The relationships must be rock-solid. The barbed wire scene did not work.

Jason Manuel Olazábal does a fine job playing Pop.  The character is serving in the Vietnam War on May 24th, 1966. This throws the whole the ages of the characters off; Grandpop doesn’t seem sufficiently older the Pop, and Pop seems to much older than his son Elliot, since Elliot would have been born in the early 1980s. Pop really doesn’t have a relationship with his son and has very little to do with his wife, and father.  More has to be made of those relationships.

Caro Zeller as Ginny is introduced as we entered the theatre, almost as a stagehand, without rhyme or purpose.  It has nothing to do with the first scene and finding a purpose would be a good objective.   As the play continues we lose sight of her relationship with her father in law, her husband, and her son, which are not solid.  The frumpy costume of age did not work, she is a professional, and an officer and one would have liked to see more of that as she ages.

Generally, I’ve enjoyed Shishir Kurup’s work.  His direction is surprising in other things but I didn’t get a sense of this play being a fugue.  The relationships are not cohesive, the character’s objectives are misguided, and the things that are most important in resolving the play is non-existent.  More work is needed to establish intimate relationships between the characters. The stage is too expansive when an intimate stage would be better suited for this production.  The ending doesn’t work.  The less than soundproof auditorium accommodates the local firehouse and the sirens as they passed by.

One hopes the other two productions in this trilogy at LATC and The Mark Taper Forum are better executed.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Sapo by Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza) adapted from the play Frogs by Aristophanes.

Richard Montoya and Maryjane Santamaria - Photos by Craig Schwartz Photography

By Joe Straw

He sat there with the green and brown excrescences protruding from his body, camouflaged, eyes wide open, and his tympanic membranes listening for the germinal. 

Quietly on pads, nostrils open, smelling the green liquid mucus scum that slightly covered his hind legs. The smell was less malodorous than he, and, judging from his simile,  that is exactly how he liked it.

Waiting, his watchful body projects a lifeless calm in the unexpected and breathless night air.

He croaks by happenstance an Otis Redding tune figuring singing was something he wasn’t equipped for but he felt fine just the same.

Tonight, he was the guardian of the gate, a ritual that comes with age and strength ––only his harsh groans opens the doors as one, a conduit to heaven by way of the stars, or two, a burgeoning pathway to hell. 

But tonight it was going to be the netherworld because that gateway was open; the path for which he was the guide. Heaven could wait another night. And it is in that sound, the croak of this being, the right note, and the right tune that transports anyone with a purpose into the iniquitous show of the underworld.

For on this night, the pond frog was the star, the path, and the guiding light into the known.  - Narrator

…Aristophanes, is quintessentially zany, fantastic, scurrilous, and larger than life. It’s treatment of both character and action shows slight concern for consistency, plausibility, or coherence.  And it tends to rely on a mentality which is physically reductive and crudely cynical.” – Stephen Halliwell – Aristophanes, Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria, and Frogs.

The Getty Villa is a wonderful place to see theatre.  Having forged my way out of the hospital the prior weekend, I thought it would be too chilly for this venue but then I discovered the show would take place indoors at the wonderful Villa Theatre, an inauguration for the theatre and a perfect setting for this show, I was happy.  The quiet walk from the parking lot has a very calming affect for those recently infirmed.  

There are some similarities between Sapo, a musical theatrical presentation now playing at The Villa Theatre, and The Frogs by Aristophanes (405B.C.). The noticeable similarities are taken almost verbatim from the original play.  The major differences are the addition of two characters, the father and daughter.

A question remains, how much material is needed from the original source before it becomes an adaptation?  Is it a percentage? Or is it that the objective of the main character is fully realized?

Josefina Lopez’s An Enemy of the Pueblo, at Casa 0101, takes Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People, adds a feminist slant to the play, and follows the basic outline of the play. And it is an adaptation that works in grand fashion.  

But what is it about the “slight concern for consistency, plausibility, or coherence” that necessitates the dramatic push of an Aristophanes’ play that moves away from its original intention? 

Culture Clash (Montoya, Salinas, and Siguenza) starts in a modern day setting with Dad (Richard Montoya) and his ten-year-old daughter Dreamer Dionysus (Maryjane Santamaria). No mention is made of the mother of the little girl.  These characters were not part of the original production. 

Papi is an artist and a dreamer.  But in the small course of this night, he is watching his dreams for him and his daughter slip away.  The words, he writes in a large book, are no longer coming, and he feels the weight of living outside, and off the beaten path.

Let’s not mince words, they are homeless, with just the basic necessities, and this home is only a tent under the guideless stars.

Papi feels the weight on his shoulders; he longs to place his head, successfully, and securely.  Now, home  is only a dream that Papi is not able to realize, at least not this night, as he tries to create his way out of poverty.

But Dreamer, not understanding her predicament, implores her Dad to tell a story, the madeleine that sends her up into the stars and back in time to her dreamscape of the life of Dionysus.

There is an emotional connection here not fully realized between the dream of a small girl and the man, Dionysus (John Fleck), as he travels to Hades with his slave, Xavier (Ric Salinas), to get Euripides and to save the known world, Athens.

L - R Ric Salinas, John Fleck and Seth Millwood

And Dionysus, a Greek God employs his brother, Hercules (Seth Millwood), to give him directions to get to Hades, in ways that are not fortuitous. 

This version of Sapo becomes a night of Prairie Home Companion with Buyepongo providing the musical accompaniment and the sound effects, while other characters on their journey step up to the mic to provide a respite for travelers that endeavor to take their purpose down the road.

The intention of Frogs is evident in this adaptation of Sapo by Culture Clash. The one exception is the ending which moves in another direction altogether.  The comedic writing titillates and moves so fast that one is clubbed quickly with references to current events in our current fragile democracy.

The night opens the mind to breathing colors of art that mixes the sophistication of art with the vulgarity of the current political climate by means of screen projections.  One visual of the sea of sh*t are the blazing rivers of Nazi tiki torches that flow from protest in college campuses into an already wasteful tributary. It is a message that is broadcasted clearly.  

But, in this version of the play, the route of Culture Clash’s Sapo is circuitous.  It doesn’t move forward in the direction of saving a city, finding the man, and having a contest to see who is escorted back to save the world.  

Vaneza Mari Calderón strolling on stage with her guitarrón provides wonderful music for the night as well as Andrea Sweeney who sings a couple of numbers as Adele, and as Selana all in grand fashion and Sweeney also speaks a flawless Spanish. Sweeney is a gifted actress but her role leaves one confused as to how this meets the end of the play.

John Fleck gives a backbone to the story as Dionysus, providing marvelous moments as the opprobrious and not so intelligent Greek God. There is more to add to the master and slave relationship insomuch as to show who is really in control in their relationship.

Seth Millwood as Lefty and Hercules has so much presence on stage and is impossible to miss with his size and voice.

Ric Salinas is Xavier and Aristophanes (in a mask).  Xavier is the witted slave, a slave with profound energy and a will for surviving comfortably. He is dressed as a cholo and moves in manner that I’ve seen in various productions from this actor. But there was something about Aristophanes that caught my attention, his manner of execution, behind the mask that was thoroughly enjoyable.

Maryjane Santamaria played Dreamer Dionysus and had a very lovely and strong voice. Elise Rodriguez also plays Dreamer Dionysus but did not perform the night I attended.

Richard Montoya plays both Papi and Ceasar.  One has to be a genius to keep up with his take on the antics of humanity in Sapo. The barbs fly so fast and furiously that one occasionally has to take a breath to take it all in. At times it feels improvisational that one wants to grab the brass ring of structure to move the play out of the hands of the audience laughter and focused on building the play’s structure that will stand the test of time. Still, it is a very enjoyable night of theatre.

Sean San José, the director, keeps the pace moving remarkably well, the performances are exceptional, and the night move along quickly. One has a hard time figuring out why this production is call Sapo, when frogs have so little to do with the title and the conclusion of the play. How does this connection work?   Also, how does the band work in getting the characters to their final destination?  One can only use this ambiguity to tie the pieces to the collective whole only through our imaginative choices.

Angel Hernandez, Jorge Vallego, Edgar Modesto, and Vaneza Mari Calderon

The music by Buyepongo was superb.  Edgar Modesto was Sapo but one wished they were all given the appearance of being frogs as an extra added touch. The rest of the band members are Randy Modesto, Jorge Vallego, Angel Hernandez, and Eduardo Valencia.

Other members of this delightful show are as follows:

Michael Roth - Music Director
Richard Montoya - Lighting Design
Tanya Orellana - Scenic Design
Culture Clash - Sound Design
Benita Elliott - Costume Design
Zoa Lopez - Costume Supervisor
Yee Eun Nam - Projection Design
Giselle Vega - Stage Manager

Run! Run!  And take a childhood friend.  One that liked to hang out at the pond and watch the bullfrogs jump into the water.

Through Saturday February 17, 2018.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Last Straw Awards 2017

By Joe Straw

I saw some incredible plays last year with equally incredible performances.  Just when you thought you couldn’t see any better, along comes another one.

And maybe a sad note, this may be it for the Last Straw Awards.  But, time will tell.

Art should never be a competition and it’s not here.  So, I’d like to recognize the writers, directors, and actor who put their best foot forward on the night I attended. It’s all about the craft, baby.

All right that said, I’d still like to give the credos where the credos are due. It doesn't matter if you are a lead or supporting player, if I though the work was excellent, then a mention was due.

First, the writers for without them there would be no play.

Stephen Adly Guirgis -  The Motherf**ker with the Hat
Steven G. Simon & Howard Teichman - Fugu
Jordan Tannahill - Late Company
Ray Richmnod - Transition
Jonathan Ceniceroz – The Cruise
David Lindsay-Abaire – Rabbit Hole
Clare Coss – Dr. Dubois and Miss Ovington
Giovanni Adams –Love is a Dirty Word
John Pollono – Rules of Seconds
María Irene Fornés – The Conduct of Life
Lin-Manuel Miranda – Hamilton
Josefina Lopez - Enemy of the Pueblo


The Motherfu*cker with the Hat By Stephen Adly Guirgis -  Lyric Hyperion Theatre– Directed by Tony Gatto
Jorge-Luis Pallo
Fayna Sanchez
Nelson Delrosario
Libby Ewing
Eddie Martinez

Aladdin – Book by Jim Luigs, José Cruz Gonzáles, Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice
Omar Mata

Fugu by Steven G. Simon & Howard Teichman – Pico Playhouse – Directed by Howard Teichman
Scott Keiji Takeda

Late Company by Jordan Tannahill – Theatre 40 – Directed by Bruce Gray
Ann Hearn

The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer – The Chromolume Theatre – Directed by Marilyn McIntyre
Carole Weyer

Transition by Ray Richmond - Lounge Theatre- directed by Lee Costello
Harry S. Murphy
Joshua Wolf Coleman

The Cruise by Jonathan Ceniceroz – Latino Theatre Company – directed by Health Cullens
Rick Salinas
Kenneth Lopez

Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington by Clare Coss – Robey Theatre Company – Directed by Ben Guillory
Ben Guillory
Melanie Cruz

The Awful Grace of God by Michael Harney – The Other Space – Directed by Mark Kemble
Tim DeZarn – Surrender
Janine Venable – Surrender

Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire – The Lounge Theatre – Directed by Eric Hunnicutt
Jordana Oberman
Toni Christopher
Michael Yurchak
Darcy Shean
Rocky Collins

The Foreigner by Larry Shue – Miles Memorial Playhouse – Directed by Sarah Gurfield
Julianna Robinson
Mike Niedzwiechi

The Sweetheart Deal by Diane Rodriguez – Latino Theatre Company – Directed by Diane Rodriguez
Ruth Livier

Separate Tables by Terrance Rattigan – Theatre 40 – Directed byJules Aaron
Susan Priver
Michele Schultz

The Conduct of Life by María Irene Fornés – Hero Theatre – Directed by José Luis Valenzuela
Elisa Bocanegra

Nicky by Boni B. Alvarez – Coeurage Theatre Company – Directed by Beth Lopes
Ted Barton

Love is A Dirty Word by Giovanni Adams Vs. Theatre – Directed by Becca Wolff
Giovanni Adams 

Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez – Mark Taper Forum – Directed by LuisValdez
Brain Abraham
Matias Ponce
Demian Bircher
Daniel Valdez
Stephanie Candelaria

Emilie:  La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson – Greenway Court – directed by Julianne Donelle
Kiri Lee Cartwright
Kim Reed

Blackbird by David Harrower – Met Theatre –Directed by Don Bloomfield
Michael Conners
Cali Fleming

Frida Stroke of Passion Odalys Nanin – Macha Theatre – Directed by Odalys Nanin and Co-Director Nancy De Los Santos-Reza
David Lavid
Ebony Perry
Marilyn Sanabria

Exit Strategy by Ike Holter – The Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural ArtsCenter –Directed by Deena Selenow
Adam Silver
Darrett Sanders
R. Remy Ortiz

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow by John Patrick Shanley – Directed by Mark Blanchard
Sal Landi
Scott Thompson

The Daughters of the Kush by George Corbin – Stellar Adler Theatre – Directed by Veronica Thompson
Allisa Murray
Mack Miles

En Enemy of the Pueblo by Josefina López – Casa 0101 – Directed by Corky Dominguez
Zilah Mendoza

Sherlock Homes and the Case of the Jersey Lily by Katie Forgette – Theatre 40 – Directed by Jules Aaron
Melissa Collins

Rules of Seconds by John Pollono – Latino Theatre Company – Directed by Jo Bonney
Joshua Bitton
Ron Bottitta
Amy Brenneman
Leandro Cano
Fedor Chin
Matthew Elkins
Jamie Harris
Josh Helman
Damu Malik
Jen Pollono

Beauty and the Beast – Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Aahman and Tim Rice – Casa 0101 – Directed by Rigo Tejeda
Jeremy Saje
Caleb Green
Allison Flanagan
Rosa Navarrete

Hamilton – Book, Music, and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda – Inspired by the book Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Mathenee Treco
Rubén J. Carbajal
Amber Iman
Rory O’Malley
Ryan Vasquez
Jordan Donica
Isaiah Johnson

The Little Mermaid – Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, Book by Dough Wright - Directed by Dolores Aguanno
Sophia Martin-Straw as Ursula

Tony Gatto - The Motherfu*cker with the Hat
Howard Teichman – Fugu
Eric Hunnicutt – The Cruise
José Luis Valenzuela – The Conduct of Life
Jo Bonney – Rules of Seconds
Becca Wolff – Lover is a Dirty Word
Luis Valdez – Zoot Suit
Thomas Kail – Hamilton

The Ortiz Award 2017 is given to the play that showcases an outstanding presentation of diversity and art in a theatrical presentation.  This award is named in honor of Vilma Ortiz, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at UCLA and a champion of diversity in the arts and in her academic field of study. This year there are three recipients.

Hamilton – The Pantages
Zoot Suit – The Mark Taper Forum
Enemy of the Pueblo – Casa 0101