Sunday, May 15, 2016

Blood From A Stone by Tommy Nohilly


L - R Frankie Ingrassia, Chad Brannon, Jossara Jinaro - Photos by Nora Graseck

By Joe Straw

Once they were a happy family.  The boys came first and then a little girl. And then things started falling apart in the family, I don’t know if it was the structure, the backbone, or individual family members, they just started in on each other, playing favorites, and what not.  They were a family.  They are a family.  Loving some, fighting lots, and hating more.  But loving, loving. – Narrator

LB Production presents the West Coast Premiere of Blood From a Stone written by Tommy Nohilly and directed by Thomas C. Dunn through May 22, 2016 at The Electric Lodge in Venice, California.  

In short, Blood From a Stone is a wonderful play by Tommy Nohilly about the stormy vicissitudes of a blue-color family struggling to make sense of their predicament.  The play is filled with pleasing surprises and exceptional moments. First performed by Ethan Hawke Off Broadway in 2011, this West Coast Premier version is the best new play I’ve seen in years. I am breathless, or out of breath, I don’t know which.

Director Thomas C. Dunn brilliantly executes all of this in an amazing night of theatre with a precision one rarely sees in this type of venue. He guides the stunning and creative cast with so much creative life that you will relive those moments the moment you leave the theatre!

One can only appreciate the antics of this family by just taking a deep breath, to not pass judgment in the characters, and then to let the visceral excitement of this comedy carry you away. 

Wait a minute. Was this a comedy, or a drama?

Travis (Chad Brannon) has got to leave. Home is not sitting right with him in New Britain, Connecticut, so it’s best for him to cut ties, as he leaves for the West Coast. But first it’s one long last goodbye.

Margaret (Joanne Baron), Travis’s mom, now folding laundry on the messy kitchen table, is happy to see him. She’s got lots to tell him before he leaves.  And as a kicker she wants to give him money, including whatever money she can scrape up out of the bottom of her purse.  She instructs Travis that he should also get gas money from his penny-pinching father, Bill (Gareth Williams), before he departs.

Travis reaches for prescription bottle on top of the dilapidated refrigerator, and twists off the top, for something to take the edge off, something he needs.

Margaret, living under this dripping roof, has got an edge in her voice about everything in her life.  She doesn’t particularly like her youngest son, Matt (Ryan Lahetta), who lies and steals, oh yes he does.

“What does your brother want?” – Margaret

This is something Travis cannot answer.  No matter, Margaret’s got something to say about everything including her husband Bill who indiscriminately replaced four tiles in the kitchen.  The white looking tiles, four of them, glow white in separate spots on the kitchen floor against the paler original grey looking ones.

And now the glow Margaret once had for her husband Bill is a flickering light, from a wick-less candle, on an old stick.

Suddenly it became clear that everything in the house, in this home, is in shambles, walls not finished, broken windows, false ceiling coming down, no kitchen cabinets, and a paint job that has been started everywhere but not finished anywhere.  This is a home neglected - inhabited by a neglecting family. (Set beautifully designed by Pete Hickok, Set Designer. )

Travis stares out the broken kitchen window and notices the beautiful house next door, the kids playing in the yard.

“Those kids should have been yours.” – Margaret

Margaret wants grand-kids.  Travis ignores her, staring out the window, coveting that married someone, that someone next door.

Margaret gives him something to do – take the buckets out because it’s going to rain.  Her hip is telling her.  Funny thing is that Travis, almost rote like, knows the exact spot to place the buckets. This has been an ongoing problem with no solution in sight. 

And as they work together we notice Margaret and Travis’ relationship is an oenomel, something that seems possible given what we learn about the family’s dynamics.

Meanwhile Margaret confides to Travis that if anything should happen to her, she’s got the Purple Heart and his Bronze Heart in a box. Travis doesn’t like her talking like that, the she’s going somewhere, if something should happen to her, etc.,

The phone rings – Jerry (not seen) is on the line.  It’s obvious that Margaret loves him.  The smile on her face lights up the room as they schedule a rendezvous.

Outside, a car passing the house has the loud Mexican, Latino, Hispanics, music blaring through its doors.

Bill, a man who toils wearily on other’s homes, but a cunctator on the upkeep of his own, arrives on the scene, angrily voices his opinions about those Mexicans, drug dealers, rapists, always stopping next door, making a pickup, and selling crack to his kids, noticing the buckets as if for the first time.

“What’s that?”  - Bill

“Buckets for rain.” – Travis

Bill says that he wants Travis to go out with him and Debra (not seen) for a foot long and a banana black cherry soda at that place on the Bronx, before he goes off on a rant about drug dealers.  Who, by the way, should all the taken to Baghdad, along with the terrorists, dragged naked through the streets before being nuked.

Bill has issues. 

Joanne Baron and Gareth Williams

Margaret, a nurse, and fed up with Bill for the time being, leaves for work.

Later that night, Travis finds comfort in the arms of Yvette (Jossara Jinaro), the Puerto Rican married woman living next door. Wearing only red bra and red panties, she joins him in domestic bliss, a tremulous glow, on the couch before real life creeps in. Further amatory speculations of this relationship suggests that it ends at arms length.

Yvette tells Travis that Matt has been hanging around with the West End Boys.  She just lets that slip, about Matt, before mentioning lunch on Tuesday at Chili’s.

Travis affected by her words turns on her in a manner befitting his father.

“You’re like your father.  You’re mean.” – Yvette

A tile from the drop ceiling falls exacerbating the heated discussion they are having. Travis doesn’t have good words for her drug-dealing husband, Hector.

“You know what Hector does.” – Travis
“I’m not happy.” – Yvette

Sarah, Travis’ sister, appears in the driveway and Travis does his best to hand Yvette her clothes and send her up the dilapidated stairs to temporarily disappear.  Sarah, in a nurse’s uniform, plots herself down on the couch and rubs her feet. Sarah has much to say and she is not leaving, much to Yvette’s dismay.

It doesn’t take Sarah long to notice that Travis has taken two pain pills.

“I can see you took two of them.” – Sarah

Sarah hands Travis an envelop of money for their brother Matt (Ryan Lahetta) before she discovers a smell on the blankets and knows that Yvette is in the house.

“Ho.” – Sarah

Sarah opens the backdoor for Yvette. And Yvette, without apology, ties her dress for all to see and admire before she struts herself out the door.   

Sarah’s has seen it all and she is not impressed.  But she’s got important news about their brother, her husband, her pregnancy, and other news.

What makes Thomas C. Dunn's theatrical presentation a work of art is the precision of the actors. Each actor takes the time to create and develop a moment.  And the actions on stage move so fluidly that one appreciates the dramatic interpretation, the delightful surprises, and the ineffable joy from the presentation.    

And whose idea was it to throw a garden gnome through the window?

I went to this show to get a better understanding of domestic violence.  Tommy Nohilly's language is sometime coarse; the violence tells us that violence begets violence, handed down from generation to generation. (This deplorably insane family will probably take me years to understand.  I may need additional therapy.)  But overall I came away thinking this was a very unusual comedy, and certainly the startled sold out audience loved the show as well.  The writing was superb! The play ultimately shows us the inherent exquisite nature of the good and bad in all human beings all dramatized by this one family. 

Joanne Baron is amazing as Margaret.  It is a wonderful tour de force. Hatred comes in many forms but love is constant and this is something that permeates Margaret’s character. Margaret loves her firstborn son. (One can only imagine if she sees the younger Bill in Travis.) She distrusts her youngest son, hates her husband with a passion, but manages to love them all during the course of the play. This is a testament to Baron’s creativity and her craft. This is a role, where her life begins in the middle, and as increments of information slip, we get the full scope of her character and her life.

Chad Brannon is also wonderful as Travis.  It’s funny how he is so much like his father.  This violent being thing does not fall far from the tree.  But this is not a life he wants, fighting with his father, not trusting his brother, not wanting to settle down.  He recognizes his life is in shambles and although he thinks he can control others around him, in reality, he cannot.

Loved Frankie Ingrassia’s performance as Sarah! Sarah has to impart a lot of information in this one scene she is in but does it magnificently.  Ingrassia’s style is grounded in a very solid caring character.  She is the one who seems the most normal. She wants to have a normal life, with a normal family, and a quiet religious exploration. And she is the central figure for all that is love in this family.  She is the one who takes care of all except the neighbor. Sarah is there for two reasons, to keep the peace and to keep her brother from moving away.  

Jossara Jinaro does yeoman (F) work as Yvette, a hot-blooded stubborn Latina that will not take no for an answer. She’s also not embarrassed to let everyone know that she is sleeping with the one she loves.  Not all Puerto Rican women throw things but this one does throw pillows and not her fist.  Glad to see that this time around she lets her words and her physical momentum do all the talking. And it is all great work.  

L - R - Ray Lahetta, Chad Brannon, Gareth Williams

Ryan Lahetta is Matt, the ne’r do well brother, a liar, thief, gambler, and oddly enough a nurse. Caught in his sublime puerilities, he is a character that will never grow up.  He is smart, but not smart enough to hang Christmas lights on a tree, or maybe he’s got other things on his mind.  And he is not smart enough to avoid being caught by his family, or to the thugs to which he owes money. He’s married, trying to get divorced, but already has a fiancée.  He wants to move back in with his parents, his life is in shambles, and his mother hates him.  Well, not really.  Not really.  What is really fascinating with Lahetta’s performance is in the way he convinces himself that he is telling the truth, but “liar” beams from his forehead like a Las Vegas neon light. And, not to let the cat out of the bag, this is a terrific performance.

Gareth Williams brings a remarkable likeness to the role despite all of the things that makes Bill so hateful.  Bill tries, not hard, but he tries.  He’s got emotional problems, hates a lot of people and things. But there are moments in Williams’s portrayal that speaks volumes of this man.  One was bringing in the shovel; the other was moving the cabinet into the kitchen, and still another buying a new phone. This is a man who despite everything, we know that he cares, even if he only shows it in small increments.  This was another wonderful performance.  

Terry Kovac plays Bill and Gabrielle Salinger plays Sarah/Yvette in understudy roles.  They did not perform the night I was there.

Rachquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners and Victoria Watson, Theatre Planners always work magic as Producer and Associate Producer respectively.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Donny Jackson – Lighting Designer
Aaron Lyons – Sound Designer
Mia Rabinowitz – Costume Designer
Mike Mahaffey – Fight Director
Jennifer Palumbo – Stage Manager

Run! Run! Run! And take your thievin’ connivin’ brother and make him pay while you’re at it.  

RESERVATIONS: (323) 960-7788.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Weapons by Chris Collins

L - R Paige Herschell, Matt Kirkwood, Madelynn Fattibene, and Katie May Porter

Guns kill over thirty thousand people a year. Shsss! Don’t tell anyone. - Narrator

In the play Weapons by Chris Collins, everyone had access to that firearm which, by happenstance, was casually left on the mantle above the fireplace. Before the night was through, the service revolver, a residual accouterment of a police force job, was first in the hands of former officer, Paul (Cris D’Annunzio), who almost kills his brother, Bill (Matt Kirkwood). Second, Sarah, a recalcitrant daughter (Paige Herschell), points it at her father.  Third, the youngest sister, Lara (Jodi Wofford), appears ready to participate in some kind of glorified shootout.

Fogbank Production presented the world premiere of Weapons written by Chris Collins, directed by Kiff Scholl, and produced by Racquel Lehrman at The Lounge Theatre which ended its run May 8, 2016.

Despite the constant display of the weapon, one gets the impression that this show wasn’t about a gun. A gun represents the end of all things and they are not quite there, yet. 

This is the story of a San Francisco working class family in refined grimness caught defining their existence through their rustic volubility.

What does this mean?

Well, one doesn’t need a gun to inflict pain, especially emotional pain. Words are a form of battery here, and generally, the damage is done before the final breathless word is uttered. These words are a knife that pierces deep into the demonstrative being, leaving an exposed festering gash that never heals.     

Human interaction – the sources for great love and pain. And this is where one finds a refulgent setting; who thought that theatre could be this interesting!

The San Francisco Bay is the source of the tugboat’s long horn.  The creeping searchlight, slow and measured at night, moves past the shaded window.  The night casts a long ghostly silhouette that sails across the walls of the home.  This is a home that has seen better days wonderfully created by Pete Hickok, Set Designer.      

And as that house, near the bay settles, a noise rattles the occupants.  Paul, in the darkness, takes out his gun.  It is an overly extreme measure to find the source, which could be an intruder, or an apparition from a not too distant past.  Or, he takes it out because ultimately he has nothing to lose.  May (Madelynn Fattiene), his girlfriend, steps out of the bedroom, wondering where he is but she hears a noise at the front door and retreats back into the bedroom.

The front door rattles at first, then a key, until the door opens. Bill quietly steps in, sits on the couch, and lays down to sleep.

Meanwhile Paul comes back into the room, sees the dark figure on the couch, and almost fires into his brother’s body.

“What the hell?” - Bill

Paul says he was expecting Bill earlier and he doesn’t have to sleep on the couch; he can sleep in Sarah’s room.

Sarah left unexpectedly, after her mother died, for unexplained reasons.    

Paul doesn’t seem too broken up over his wife’s death a year ago.  He confides to Bill that he has been seeing and hearing things. But now he is more concerned for his daughters, especially his youngest daughter, Lara, who has confidence issues following the loss of her mother.

Paul tells Bill that he is retired from the force and the bar he owns is doing okay. Bill is skeptical about things he’s hearing; after all there’s the bounced check Paul sent him.  Something is not right with his older brother Paul and it’s hard to believe anything he says nowadays.   

“Sarah blames me for something.” – Paul

This is possibly the reason Sarah left although the reason is only clear to her.

Paul says he went to confession for the first time in thirty years. (This is actually an important moment that gets little attention.) Why he went or, what he needed to confess at this time in his life, is only evident to him, the priest, and his creator, and he’s not telling Bill anything.

Paul says the confession reminded of the time in the eighth grade when he would get aroused at confession.  Then he would confess while staring at Patricia Faulker’s body (not seen), the girl who died.  They continue to reminisce.

Bill wakes in the early morning to the sound of May.  May gives him an awkward hug and exchanges pleasantries. Laura then sees her uncle, Bill; she shares that there is something wrong with her dad and she doesn’t know what it is. There is no money and he is broke and sadder.  

When Paul returns from his morning walk, Bill confesses that things aren’t going well in his life.  His world is on the rocks, he’s single, and even worse, he’s broke.  He is a TV actor who is not getting the roles he once got and the $30 residual check is just not cutting it anymore.

“Linda left me.” – Bill

And for that bit of confession, Paul pushes Bill down to the floor and Paul is rather surprised that Bill went down so fast.  (Another extremely important moment that should take us to another level in their relationship.) Bill says it’s his knee but, let’s face it, Paul is built like he goes to the gym at least three times a week.

(I’m not sure how a character that drinks that much, looks like that.)

In any case, Paul says he ran into Ellen Yang (Katie May Porter) at the bar and she will be joining them for dinners sometime later.  

Chris Collins’ play was interesting on many levels.  First and foremost were the characters, who were mostly confused about their place in life, and who probably didn’t have an idea of where they were going. One always waits for the  “Ah ha” moment in a play, the moment that gives a definitive stamp to the production, and that just never came.  Certainly in real life, those things ring true, but for the stage something has to happen, it has to be clear, and we need to get a better understanding of the why.  A number of moments worked in this production.  Still, character motivation is key here to put a definitive stamp on the through line.  

There is a lot to like about Cris D’Annunzio’s Paul. D’ Annunzio brings a historical richness to the character, a man one could believe, cares and loves his children, and wants the best for them.  But as the character, Paul is having multiple problems.  Simply put, Paul is going through hell.  He is hearing things at night.  He revels in the gun even though he’s not thinking clearly.  There’s too much on his mind, the bar is not doing well, the sexual harassment charges linger, and worse he has been fired from the force without his pension after 27 years.  There is a lot to think about, so what does he want?  What is that specific thing pulling him into depths of hades?  What crises is he trying to solve acting in a manner unbefitting his character?  Why does he do it? Also, this is a character that is hard to understand because he never tells the truth, and he never comes clean.  No, the sexual harassment was a misunderstanding. The bar is going well.  I don’t’ know why Sarah left.  At this point in his life, he is not a reliable reporter, and this all makes for a deeply fascinating character, but with issues that are never resolved.   

Madelynn Fattibene provides solid support for the character May.  May is the girlfriend who sees this relationship as her only hope of being a wife and a mother to Paul’s child.  Fattibene creates a carefully nuanced character, one that is aware of every minute detail of the things going on around her, with the exception of her boyfriend’s motivation. When she doesn’t get what she came for she decides, rather forcefully, to leave the relationship.  Wonderful work.

Paige Herschell plays Sarah who suffers from emotional issues and alcohol addiction.  This was the most confusing character of the lot.  She leaves home, comes home; she’s getting married, she’s not getting married; she tells her sister that she has been accepted to law school while taking hits from the Jack Daniels bottle in her pocket. And she does this all under the influence. Herschell does not provide enough life into a character that is going to law school, or that she is even capable of it. Why does she pull the gun on her father? What is her objective? It’s not enough to be unsatisfied with your life and wallow in your misery - that doesn’t take a character anywhere. Instead, creative choices serve a character when the objective is clear and when it is clear the actions ring true.   

Matt Kirkwood comes in and tries to save the day as Bill but ends up not getting the answers he’s came for. His brother is constantly giving him money, in check form, but those checks never clear the bank. Bill is curious about his brother’s condition but never really gets to the root of the problem.  If he is there to save him and the girls, he should do so in a timely manner.  He is not sufficiently curious as his brother does some outlandish things; passing those things off does not progress the scene or the play. Their relationship should come to a dramatic resolution. He possibly comes as the savior, but in reality, he is worse off than the people he has come to save. Kirkwood does some very fine character work here and more things are needed to pull this character off.

Katie May Porter does some outstanding work as Ellen.  Most interesting thing about her is she seems oblivious of the relationships around her; she is oblivious that Paul, who is hanging all over her, and who is currently living with May.  Ellen has been in and out of relationships, and although she has a heart of gold, ideally she wants May out of the way.  Ellen’s objective may be subtle, maybe too subtle, but she definitely wants more. Porter does some outstanding work.  

Jodi Wofford is Lara and can get away with playing a younger character because of her size. Wofford has a quirky blend of mannerisms that can easily switch from comedy to drama.  This plays well to her strengths on stage, of understanding her motives, and her physical self. It is a wonderful performance.

All right now this comes down to Kiff Scholl’s direction.  There were many nice moments in the play. But, there were also moments that were not clear.  Moments that had had the actors speaking across the stage from each, without action, or cause. The scene of the two brothers, on opposite sides of the stage, did not progress the scene, or the play.  Clearly something was happening, but it was hard to decipher what.  The subtle action during the dialogue was, at times, not specific and didn’t lead us anywhere. Some had to do with the writing, which needed conflict resolution, focus and editing. There were a couple of examples where Paul’s deceased wife (not seen) had a major role but it led nowhere.  Another example is when Paul comes home after he had cut his hand telling everyone, the police were coming, but not really saying why until far too much later in the play. Moments like this also happened throughout the play.  A clearer understanding of the characters motivation would shed light on what characters were hiding and why. 

The Lounge Theatre is the perfect setting for this type of play.  It is very intimate outing and the other crew members which were responsible in making this a successful night are as follows:

Victoria Watson, Theatre Planners – Associate Producer
Donny Jackson – Lighting Designer
David Harling – Sound Design – Loved the sound of the bay.  
Wendell C. Carmichael – Costume Designer
Donnie Bailey Reed – Props Designer
Jessica Aquila Cymerman – Stage Manager

This production has finished its run. If you have the opportunity run to see this production.  And take your adult daughter. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Story of Alice – Book & Lyrics by Michael Cormier, Music by Scott Hiltzik


By Joe Straw

“…when suddenly a white rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. “ – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland

First of all, right off the blinded bat, there is exceptional talent in The Story of Alice, Book & Lyrics by Michael Cormier, with the music by Scott Hiltzik, through May 29th, 2016 at The Matrix Theatre.

Emily King Brown, Nikki D’Amico, Nic Hodges, Emily Barnett, and Justin W. Yu are four of the reasons why you should run to see this production!

Not four you say! Five? Well in that case, if you must count, choose any one or all of the five to nourish your hearty theatrical flavorings.

Mylette Nora, Costume Designer, brought a marvelous life to this production, giving each character, beyond the rabbit hole, a very specific look. I have more to say on the look of Alice, later.  

Oh my! Caveat! Don’t read any further!  I must say some things. I know, sometimes one can be very naughty, the naughty things one says.  But things must be said, for the record, in judgment of said musical. Hold your boos, hiss, or applause until the very end. And, take a moment to unwrap your candies.

And while you are immersed in you’re reading, on whatever magical reading devices you may have, avoid stepping on the rolling hedgehogs. They make an awful racket!

Something was indeed missing in this version of The Story of Alice; perhaps it was the mise, mise, mise en scéne, and the peculiarity and slightly disturbing interactions among the highly identifiable characters from Lewis Carrolls’ Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, or Through the Looking Glass. 

But hold your reference to those two books! The Story of Alice, a musical with a book, or a book with music must stand on its tiny little feet. To understand completely, drink the correct potion and don’t shed a salty tear.

Still, something was missing, missing, missing - something one couldn’t quite place one’s finger on.  And perhaps I’m making too much of muchness.

So what in the blue blazes was wrong? Well, not wrong, wrong.  Slightly wrong. Minutely wrong. Okay, they were like slight disagreeable moments arranged on a salty platter that needed additional seasoning.    

From the beginning, that’s where we must start. The Cheshire Cat (Santino Tomasetti) pretended to play a lute and he didn’t have a really really, really big smile.  Charming one would say, smirking others would say, but definitely not a big smile. Could that have made a difference?

Maybe. The Cheshire Cat sets us off on a course, not strangely enough, but the book by Michael Cormier does not make it specifically mystical enough, nonsensical enough, doesn’t paint enough of a absurd picture, does not guide us to our next adventure which is of the two sisters. The light of his smile as he disappears does not create a mysterious relationship or set a mood. So, for the sake of clarity, place the said Cheshire Cat in the middle of the two girls as he mysteriously disappears into the said forest, or fog, or whatever as the sisters continue on with their lives.  

A stunning older sister Simone (Emily Barnett) smokes a vape pipe (the Blue Caterpillar).  She is older and wiser, and makes fun of her petulant sister, Alice (Jessamyn Arnstein).  No she won’t give her a drag on the pipe or hang out with her, just as all horrid big sisters won’t do, but she is curious about Alice’s mental state.  

Interesting now that Alice sings the song, If I Had Wings (The Caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly?), a song of wanting to be somewhere else in a happier place.  This song really needs to connect to the relationship with her sister before the White Rabbit (Justin W. Yu) enters the picture.

The dream takes her down the rabbit hole, the last bit of conscious reality before her sleeping mind takes her into a deep, deep, a very deep sleep.

So, so, what am I to make of this show?  For the most part, it is a very enjoyable night of entertainment, with wonderful costumes, a live four-piece orchestra.   Dwight Rivera: Keys 2, Sam Morgan:  Woodwinds/E-Wi, Dave Johnstone: Drums/Percussion highlight the beautiful voices on stage.

Well, let’s highlight.

Emily Barnett, as Simone, does triple duties playing a number of characters, each in their own way, very charming. Barnett is a gorgeous creature and has very appealing look on stage, giving each character their very own brand of uniqueness.  There is a lot to enjoy in this actor’s performance.

Brooke Brewer is fantastic as Weasel.  It is a perfect role for her athletic frame, very weasel like as she moves about the stage. Loved the nose and the costume.

Nikki D’Amico was enjoyable from start to finish.  The Dodo character was impeccable fluttering from here to there, with a wave and a wing under her arm.  She also has a very charming voice.  Tweedle Dum was also very funny. It was a joy watching her performance and one relishes her complete characterization of those roles, her remarkable skills, and her wonderful craft.   

Nic Hodges was smarmy as the King, deliciously detestable, and marvelously naughty.  He was also great as Tweedle Dee.  King is naughty, fooling around with the Duchess and cheating on the Queen. Hodges has an incredible voice and he gives it his all in some very funny moments on stage.

Emily King Brown was fantastic as the Queen with the hair that gave her the appearance that she was 14 feet tall!  Brown has an astonishing voice and great comic timing.  The looking glass moments worked perfectly.  Can’t say enough about this actress! She is very, very scrumptious.

Justin W. Yu was the White Rabbit.  The White Rabbit takes some time (pun intended) getting used to running around in circles, claiming he’s late, and avoiding the Queen at all costs for reasons that are not entirely clear.  (Could it be the Queen loves rabbit stew?) This character, although perfectly enjoyable, needs defining, specifically to smooth about the rough edges, about who he is, where he is going, and how all of it ties in to the progression of the play.   

Jolie Adamson is the Mock Turtle who really has to sell the heck out of turtle loving a knave and the reasons that may happen. She is a turtle in love and no one notices anything about or comments how unnatural that may be. Someone has to figure out how this is all going to work. Adamson also plays the Duchess holding the pig and asking for more pepper. (One would have liked to have seen this scene with no less than a thousands sneezes.)  Still, Adamson gave the Duchess a very clear character and some very nice touches.

Jessamyn Arnstein, who has a strong resemblance to Tina Fey, plays Alice.  Arnstein has a lovely voice but it is a character that is not completely developed.  “If I had Wings” is a song that takes her to another land in the way that “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” takes Dorothy to another place. But after the song, we don’t see how she is transported, only that she has.  And as Alice goes down the hole, first and foremost, she should be filled with extreme curiosity.  And that curiosity should play into her fear, gratefulness, and then stubbornness, until she finds the moment, that precise moment of wanting to get home.  The overall objective is to get back home but there is much for Alice to learn before she gets back. Also, while everyone was in a delightful costume, Alice looked like she stepped right off of Melrose. A better costume would give her more character and more time to prink as she defines whom and what she is was, and what she will be. It will also give her the appearance of a girl and someone we can have great sympathy for when she finds herself in a lot of trouble.  

Bradley Cashman plays the Knave and the Mad Hatter.  The Knave must have love oozing out of his ears and the Mad Hatter must be completely mad!  Still, Cashman has some very fine moments in this musical.  

Liam Roberts was fine as the Commander and has a large presence on stage.  One is not really sure how the other soldiers to his side works to create an effective character.   

Santino Tomasetti played the Cheshire Cat and needs more to give the cat clarification, who he is, why he is there, what does he want, and how this all fits into the musical. Mysterious should be the term that best identifies the character. That aside, Tomasetti has a wonderful look on stage.

Gary Lee Reed, the director, did a fine job.  The show needs a grandeur beginning in the way the book jolts the reader. The Cheshire Cat comes off as a common house cat.  The opening should be absurd, nonsensical, and filled with the as much complexity as a disappearing smiling Cheshire Cat brings.  Also, the show would do fine with the elimination of three songs in the first act. The second act ran a little smoother.  One doesn’t know why but I particularly liked the song “Bananas & Cabbage”.  The show really fits the bill for folks less than 15 years, and under it’s present condition, they should find middle schoolers to see the show.  Naytheless, the show has incredible potential but must be fine-tuned to fit both children as well as adults.  The Duchess’ death puts a damper on this show; we must find a way to make it work with the Mock Turtle on stage.   The improvisation beyond the fourth wall probably plays well to middle schoolers, and the improvisational reference to the Mary Tyler Moore Show doesn’t work at all, and doesn’t progress the play.  Little things will only add grand moments to the musical.

Michael Cormier, Book and Lyrics, has a very good feel.  The story lines that work the best are the Duchess and the King, the Queen’s desire to be the best at what she does, and strangely enough, the sisters Alice and Simone and their relationship with each other and their mother (not seen) and the mother’s boyfriends.

A lot of time and effort went into this production.   Other members of the delightful crew are as follows:

Nicholas Petrillo -  Music Director, Arranger
Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners – Producer
Victoria Watson, theatre Planners – Associate Producer
Marjo Majdi – Executive Producer
Cassie Crump – Choreographer who designed some very pleasant numbers for the show.  Those numbers will put a smile on your face.  
Matt Richter – Lighting Designer
Kiff Scholl, ARK Design – Graphic Designer
Katherine S. Hunt – Props Designer
Raul Clayton Staggs – Casting Director
Marissa Drammissi – Production Stage Manager

Run! Run!  And take someone who loves Alice. In fact, dress up and go!

A guest production at The Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA  90046

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The SuperHero and his Charming Wife by Aaron Hendry

Jones Welsh

By Joe Straw

“The play is a dream I once had.” – Aaron Hendry

That’s the problem with dreams. They usually start in the middle and end at the most inopportune time - breaking up before all questions are answered.      

This dream is one of beauty, darkness, frustration, befuddlement, and love from Aaron Hendry, an artist that remembers the details, the colors, and the sounds of his dreams and then decides to ride the wind of change and create performance art.  - Narrator

NMA Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble present The SuperHero and his Charming Wife written and directed by Aaron Hendry at The Highways Theatre through May 15, 2016.

Performance art has a dream like quality, you make of it what you will, gathering the impressions, and hope at the end of the night, a moment has made an aesthetically pleasing or significant changed in oneself.  

This dream has a lot of colors, superhero colors, except for that single white box. That white box is for those of you who have a dreadful curiosity.  Lifting the lid will answer all of your questions – and possibly be the answer to your dream.  But, opening the box will also have ramifications that may break your enigmatic tranquility if you thought about such things.

Dreams, and performance art, are always open to interpretation, so here goes.

There is blackness, a dark side, of someone (a villain) in need of the contents in a white box. Some will let it lie (SuperHero), and not break the lid.  Curiosity is not one of SuperHero’s super strengths.

The Demon (Paul Turbiak) tells us what’s in the white box and the answers may be combinations of things.  Peek into the inter contents of the white box for your own special nightmare, or bliss. 

How are you feeling right now? And how will you feel after you open the box?

The dancing begins, movement from one scene to the next.  (Cue action music.)  Pretty girls in dreams dancing, moving, bouncing, forcing an idea, beautifully choreographed by Michelle Broussard.  (In fact all of the dance numbers were wonderfully executed and gave lift to this flyless flummoxed SuperHero.) The dancers are humans living a cloistered existence in the city.  All are in the need of saving.  

SuperHero (Jones Welsh) runs outside in his pajama shorts, looking like an everyday man, except with muscles.  He also has the ability to catch a newspaper with one hand, eyes half closed, with little light, in the early morning.

But, now someone needs help in another apartment, a The Dirty Evil Witch (Jessica Carlsen) a woman screaming, sounding like someone is knocking her senseless and yet SuperHero is powerless to help her.  He does not have the ability to fly, his sense of super hearing is nil, and he doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand human emotions.  Scratch all of that super hero stuff.   

What planet is he from?

His wife Julie (Joanna Bateman) closes the door on him for which he does not have the capacity to break in. No laser vision, or even a pick to jimmy the lock.

Being a SuperHero and unable to open the door in any fashion would do a number on anyone’s masculinity.  When the Charming Wife (Joanna Bateman) (who is not so charming) lets him into the apartment, she is not too concern about the screaming from the apartment next door (wives!). 

Hero shuts the door in a state of befuddlement.  No, wait a minute, he is always in a constant state of befuddlement and things get worse when his wife leaves the room and comes back another person.  Not quite the same blue nightgown she was wearing but the same Julie (in name only) just a different looking Julie (Laura Covelli).

SuperHero, in his state, doesn’t recognize Julie, in her state. After sorting it out, or not sorting it out SuperHero goes out to save the world.  But, he has to take the subway because Julie needs the car.

Alina Bolshakova-Roldan and Jones Welsh

And now, leaping over rooftops, jumping over building The Master Criminal (Alina Bolshakova-Roldan) jumps on a subway and rides the rest of the way to her destination.  SuperHero takes his seat on the subway and doesn’t know that she’s a master criminal; he doesn’t have the slightest whiff.  He’s just really ashamed that, well, the only reason he’s there is that he doesn’t have the car today, to fight crime, and to buy groceries, etc.,

The Master Criminal has problems of her own.

“My wife took my car once…drove off a bridge….out onto a trash boat.  I love my car.” – The Master Criminal

Back at home The Dark Creeper (Anne-Marie Talmadge) breaks into SuperHero’s apartment and looks for the box.  They battle it out in the apartment SuperHero gets the best of The Dark Creeper (Another exceptional battle scene by Michelle Broussard!) and that’s when Julie comes home and sees The Dark Creeper hidden near the bed, and, thinking the worse, leaves in disgust.

Generally Santa Monica is cool at night.  The Highway Theatre has two fans, stage right.  If it is hot, sit low and stage right, because it is very hot in the theatre.

Jessica Carlsen and Courtney Munch

One doesn’t generally speak about he second act but the opening number is mind blowing.  It is the story of The Waitress (Sydney Mason) who takes out the trash behind the restaurant.  She spills a little bit on the side of her leg, wipes it off, throws the trash into the bin, and that is when the trash comes alive.  Wow! Well worth the price of admission.

Yes, it was a satisfying night of theatre, performance art, not really something you’d expect to have a beginning, middle and an end.  Aaron Hendry, the director, tries to make it a cohesive whole but when the real Julie (spoiler alert) comes out and says something to the contrary that leaves us in a state of abstruse speculations! 

And so we have it.

The writing, the book, may not be for everyone.  Smartly written by Hendry, but the SuperHero is a constant stage of befuddlement and never really comes out of it. If you like conflict resolutions, then you may not get a clear picture of that.  But, if you see this as performance art then you will get whatever you want, and that’s all right.

Paul Turbaik was The Demon and did very well in a monologue that could have been cut in half and gotten the same point across.

Jones Welsh was Hero who couldn’t fly, and didn’t have laser vision but managed to physically handle the villains around him.  But boy, was he in a constant state of confusion, never breaking out, until maybe the last moment.  This is a role where you really want to character to change, and have some sort of resolution. Nice fight scenes.

Joanna Bateman was Julie (well one of three).  Actually the only one who got credit for being Julie.

Laura Covelli played The Changed.

Alina Bolshakova-Roldan was The Master Criminal and had a very nice number before getting on the subway.

Anne-Marie Talmadge was the Dark Creeper.  I don't think I ever saw her face. But, there was an incredible fight sequence.  

Sydney Mason did a fine job as the Waitress – really not sure where that character was going.

Courtney Munch was The Hunted and has an extremely good look, slightly rough and rugged, but very photogenic. Her manner on stage was specific and her objective focused.

Jessica Carlsen and Jones Welch

Jessica Carlsen was the Evil Dirty Witch and one hasn't a clue as to what the character was all about - possibly the sound in a dream, that's loud, that you don't quite get. Still, there was a lot of emotional angst in her scenes.  

Nicely produced by Aaron Hendry, Jones Welsh, and Laura Covelli.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Ashton Williams – Stage Manager
Emily Zehr – Costume Design
Matt Mikulka – Lighting Design
Kyle Jackson – Sound Design/Composer
Hannah Beavers – Video Design
Josh Worth – Poster Art
Darren Carter – Technical Director
Susan Gordon – Publicist
Paige Elson – Production Intern
Christine Costanza – Graphic Design
Ashley Ekstrum, Caitlin McLaughlin, and Steven Schilling – Additional Art

Run!  And take someone that likes Spiderman, a super hero that has emotional problems.

Highways Performance Space
@18th Street Arts Center
1651 18th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90404
½ block north of Olympic Blvd.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti


By Joe Straw

“Oh! We’re doing that kind of acting!” – Nicholas Cage to John Travolta in rehearsals for the film Face/Off

The Junction Theatre presents The West Coast Premiere of Red Velvet written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Benjamin Pohlmeier through April 30, 2016 at the Atwater Playhouse. 

I enjoyed this remarkable show for the potential of the play, the writing, and some very interesting actors showcasing their talent. Certainly, if you wanted to know anything about the great Ira Aldridge, this is the show to see!

Love does strange things and it is no different when Polish newspaper journalist, Halina Wozniak (Kailena Mai), sneaks into an important artist’s dressing room with a newly acquainted friend, Casimir (Sean C Dwyer).

The time is in the summer of 1867.  The place is the dressing room in a fancy theatre in Lódź, Poland.

Halina really wants nothing to do with Casimir.  He is a rather clumsy young lad, not knowing the first thing about where to place his hands on a young lady.  And as an aside, he would like nothing better than to have his way with her in a dark corner.  But, she is a dedicated young journalist who, despite Casimir’s pawing, will stop at nothing to get her story.

Moment later, they are caught by Terence (Adam Chacon) who wants the girl out of his employers’ dressing room. Halina will not leave despite both men wanting to physically run her out of the room. 

Halina is determined.  

Suddenly Ira Aldridge (Paul Outlaw) steps into the room.  He is an aging, and very accomplished actor at this point in his career.  At sixty years old, he has little physical energy with which to throw the journalist out so through vocal prowess, he enlists his employees to remove her from the room, immediately. 
But Halina is not giving up so easily, and finally Aldridge relents and allows her to do her job.

(Wikipedia has Aldridge active years stopping at 1862, five years before this scene.)

Immediately, Aldridge sees that Halina is a rank amateur but continues with the interview as we travel back in time, the spring of 1833 to be precise.

Edmund Kean (not seen), a handsome and celebrated Shakespearean actor of his day, has died suddenly at the ripe old age of forty-five.  And now, the company has no one to play Othello.   

But lo, the company hovers around his son, Charles Kean (Ben Warner), age 22, expecting he will step into the role of Othello.  (In real life, he is a pugnacious wart of a man and really not suited for the role.) 

And in the company of his peers, his one good quality is being arrogant, other than that his disposition lacks refinement.  He assumes he will take over the role of Othello with no problems at all.  All the while, he grieves, oh, so, silently, and waits.  

But the producer, Pierre Laporte (Colin Campbell), lacks confidence in Charles’ ability to play the role of Othello.    

Laporte has another plan.  That is to have a newcomer, Aldridge, a black man to play Othello.  Surely that was unheard of in that day, in Anglo London England.  The one person happy about the developments is Connie (Dee Dee Stephens), a maid and a black woman.

The rest of the cast has different points of view about the matter.  Of course, Charles Kean, is against it, wanting the role of Othello for himself. Betty Lovell (Amanda Charney) seems ambivalent, as does Bernard Warde (Adam Chacon).  Henry Forrester (Sean C Dwyer) and Ellen Tree (Nicola Bertram) are excited about the idea, Forrester has seen Aldrich in a production, and Tree is progressively open-minded.

Nicola Bertram is impressive as Ellen Tree.  Her sultry demeanor lights up the stage with her presence and craft – making every moment count.  There is not one false note in her performance.  The interruption in the dressing room scene worked to perfection. It was delightful to witness the manner in which she manages one predicament to the next with so much life and a rich backstory.  This is a performance not to miss.  

Sean C Dwyer is exceptional as Henry Forrester.  Tall and handsome with a charming personality he also manages to convey a life lived in the theatre.  In addition to that role, he plays Casimir, a Polish stagehand.  

Lolita Chakrabarti’s play has some issues in the manner of progression.  While most of the work is exceptional, there are moments when the play becomes something else, partially because of the writing, and partially under Benjamin Pohlmeier’s direction.  

At times we move away from the Ira Aldridge story, that of a black actor overcoming obstacles to reach the pinnacle of his career, to a story that becomes, at times, trite.  For example, take the acting lesson scene leading up to the performance of Othello.  It is funny and an inside joke to actors but it takes away from Chakrabarti’s ambitious project.

And speaking of that scene in particular, and under Pohlmeier’s direction, there is not enough interplay between the actors center stage  (Aldrich and Tree) and the other actors watching the rehearsal. More needs to made of those moments. Aldrich’s greeting to Desdemona is stilted, forced, and not in the manner for which Aldrich would have approved, and this happens three or four times in this particular scene.

Aldrich has to establish himself as the ultimate thespian, a man first and foremost dedicated to the truth, and to show the others, he is capable of playing Othello, and playing it differently. The others in this scene must form camps, relationships, for and against.  The conflict in this scene must be greater than what was witnessed.

There must be more to the character of Ira Aldridge than what was given in the performance by Paul Outlaw. The intangibles must become tangible to create a character that commands the room, in his way about the stage, and in the strength of his voice.  Losing the middle age pouch would help. An actor must be masterful in his own dressing room. The first scene needs more work to give Aldridge, the actor, definition with his relationship to the others. (He must be God at this point in his career.) And the relationship between Terrance and Aldridge - to remove the newspaper reporter in the first scene - needs defining to bring out the humor of the scene.  

And while I’m speaking on the first scene Kailena Mai’s work as Halina Wozniak was excellent.  Mai is a stunning actor with a very nice Polish accent.  There’s something to be said of her strength in that scene and the way she manages to stay in the room.   All in all it was superior work for this Seattle native.

Also in the writing one would have never guessed that Ellen Tree would one day be married to Charles Kean or that she even cared for him.  Tree, at this point in her life, would be exploring her sexual options and the development of a relationship between Tree, Kean and Aldridge might help. One saw a great deal of this in Bertram’s performance but adding more in the writing would help considerably.  

Colin Campbell did well as Pierre Laporte on this night. Laporte has a lot on his plate, hiring Aldridge, serving as a producer, keeping the investors happy, and lastly having the actors jump on board.  It is not an easy life for Laporte. After the reviews come in Laporte has a lengthy discussion with Aldridge, and one that may not have progressed the play.  This is a bridging scene and one that sends the talent to the opposite side of the bridge never to return. It also answers the question of why Aldridge never went back to England. Rather than having an ending, here and now, the scene should play as a battle to stay together.

There’s not a lot for Amanda Charney to do as Betty Lovell.  One is not sure of her objective or where she was going. Certainly there’s more to create with the relationship on stage, how she felt about Aldridge, and who she could enlist to join her side (whatever that might be) to favor one actor over the other. There’s more to think about here.

Dee Dee Stephens had her moments as Connie, the black maid, to everyone else on stage.  There were some nice touches to the role, especially with the interactions of the actors, however brief, and then to Aldridge. Still there is some very nice work going on.  

Erin Elizabeth Reed has a commanding presence on stage.  She is lovely to watch, tall, and her craft is subtle and remarkable.  But, the one thing Margaret Aldridge, or any girlfriend should not do is to leave her future husband in a room alone with another actress.  That is just courting disaster!  Reed was fun to watch and the reason I go to theatre - to see the gems.

Adam Chacon does well as Terrence and Bernard Warde.  There is more work to be done, especially one that defines a physical relationship with a superior,  and also one that defines an objective that moves the play along.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Dee Dee Stephens – Associate Producer
Douglas Gabrielle – Lighting Designer
Kiley Hannon – Scenic Artist
James Ferrero – Sound Designer
Kristina A. Moore – Costume Designer – The costumes were excellent.
Kenny Zhou – Assistant Costume Designer
Christina Olson, David Iker Sanchez – Stitchers
Mel Raymundo – Graphic Designer
Jerry Blackburn – Production Stage Manager
Maya Martinez – Assistant Stage Manager
Steve Moyer Public Relations – Press Representative
Ed Krieger – Production Photographer
Erin Elizabeth Reed – Box Office Manager – And delightful actor

Run! Run!  And take someone who loves to step back in time.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m.,
March 26 – April 30, 2016


Brown Paper Tickets 24/7 at 1-800-838-3006, or online at