Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Sweetheart Deal by Diane Rodriguez

L - R Peter Wylie, Linda Lopez, Ruth Livier, Valente Rodriguez - Photos by Grettel Cortes

By Joe Straw

"The land,
like the water
and the air,
should belong to the people"

"Better to die on your feet
than live on your knees..." – El Marcriado

We certainly got the flavor of El Teatro Campesino actos (skits) who got the capacity crowd waving UFW banners and shouting slogans.  There was no room for quiet meditation on this night, you were either with us or you moved down the dusty road with haste. – Narrator

Forgive this writer’s rambling mess, but I hope that something strikes an active cord to move – for humanity’s sake.  Narrator

The Latino Theater Company presents The Sweetheart Deal written and directed by Diane Rodriguez presented in Association with El Teatro Campesino and playing through June 4, 2017 at the Los Angeles Theater Center on Spring Street in Los Angeles.

Rodriguez’s work elevates the human spirit.  The characters costumed in masks and wigs visually jolt our slumberous moral reticence. And in this type of meretricious theatre, perhaps an offset of commedia dell’arte, we wonderfully absorb the meaning in unimaginable ways and in the manner of our own interpretation.  

Rodriguez implores us to recognize the struggle that continues in the workingman until the very last breath. And there is no room for being the passive observer because at the end of the day, and yes there will be one, regrets will fill the unnecessary void. For humanity’s sake, human injustice is the battle worth fighting even though the war is continuous and may last for many generations.

In any case, it makes for a great night of theatre.
That said, if there are hopes of moving the production to a larger venue, a slight alteration is needed to cover the seams.  More on those comments later.

When you see stories like The Sweetheart Deal, you know the lives of the characters are not going to be easy or, for that matter, end well.

The year is 1970. The place is Delano, California. We’re in the office of El Malcriado – The voice of the Farm Worker – underground newspaper.

This is the kind of place where you’d expect an underground newspaper to be, in a dark room, surrounded by majestic uniformed produce crates that serve all kinds of purposes, including privacy. But, most importantly Efren Delgadillo, Set Design, minimizes the size of the workers, small beings who are in a gargantuan struggle. 

Today Chon (Valente Rodriguez), a Cesar Chavez type leader, and Lettie (Linda Lopez), a muscular Dolores Huerta type, wait for the arrival of Mari (Ruth Livier) and Will (Geoffrey Rivas), a married couple, who are arriving to volunteer for the underground newspaper, El Malcriado. (Translation: ill bred or mischievous or children who speak back to their parents.)

Mari is not all that happy about volunteering but Will says they are going to be okay.  He previously worked for a neighborhood penny saver, a grand yellow rag in its own right. Will assures her that this will be perfect since they just trying it out for a year.  Mari scrunches at the thought of spending a year once again in the farming community of Delano, California.  In essence, they have come home, returned to the place of their youth, just as their son is starting his first year of college.   

Charlie (Peter Wylie), a progressive white man with bell-bottom jeans, agenda in hand, greets them. Charlie knows about Mari’s brother, Mac (David Desantos), and wonders if they can get Mac, a teamster, to join their side with the farmworkers.

Will says that he will ask and Mari will also do her part.  Mari hasn’t seen her brother in a while; their relationship is estranged because of what Mac did to their dad who died at 48 working the fields.   Although they are all in on the idea, they know convincing Mac will be an uphill struggle.

With the audience participation, this was an enjoyable night of theatre. But sometimes theatre needs structure and especially in this linear narrative.

Diane Rodriguez had a lot on her plate being both the writer and director. I won't fault her writing, it was beautiful.  But, as the director, I have a few notes for her. The introduction should keep the patrons involved as though they were the farm workers and never let that go.  Also, the reporters need to report the events of the day in the way they put the daily events on paper. We need to not lose sight of the reporters reporting and to see the paper produced.

Also, the group of actors representing the farm workers should be made clear.  The actors played as a commercial break rather than for a purpose.  We should know who they are.  We should also know why they are there.  And location is also key. Are we on the back of a pickup truck?  Are we on a dirt road?  What is the purpose for being there besides a backstage scene or costume change. A little more symbolism goes a long way in these moments.

L - R - Linda Lopez, David Desantos, Valente Rodriguez
David Desantos, as Mac has such a strong presence. But working as an actor in the El Teatro Campesino actos, takes away from the conflict of coming together.  If he is a Teamster, why are we seeing him performing skits? This Teamster wants nothing to do with the farm workers.  Also, he goes by the name of “Mac” and that should say something about the character hiding his roots. One really didn’t get the drunk scene, an excuse to confront his sister, and an excuse for him not to be on his hands and knees begging for forgiveness. Sober with a purpose is better. All that aside, Desantos has a remarkable presence on stage.

Ruth Livier, and Linda Lopez

Ruth Livier, as Mari, does some incredible work on the bench speaking to her husband.  This is what you come for in theatre, for that supreme and emotional connection to the character. This scene that brought me home to an emotional place so deep that my feelings were not kept in check on this night. 

Geoffrey Rivas, as Will, was also part of that scene. He has a strong craft and uses his hands to make a point. But his relationship with his brother-in-law was not a strong one, and it was almost too causal which makes the hurt scene not very believable. The relationship needs more work. Rivas has a quiet passion in his work and his craft.

Linda Lopez is enjoyable as Lettie. More needs to be added to this character to define her needs other than that of a supporting character.

The same holds true with Peter Wylie as Charlie who knows what he is after in the beginning but loses that momentum toward the end of the play.

Valente Rodriguez is a superior actor as Chon but this character needs to command the room in the way a leader does. Chon pushes the button and steps in only when everyone gets hot under the collar. Still, his work was fantastic, sometimes subtle, but very believable.

The costumes by Lupe Valdez, Costume Design are both colorful and wonderful.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Pablo Santiago – Lighting Design
Cricket S. Myers – Sound Design
Yee Eun Nam – Projection Design
Sage Lewis – Composer
Alex Meda – Associate Director
John Freeland, Jr. – Stage Manager
Antonieta Castillo – Properties
Natalie Morales – Assistant Set Designer
Emily Lehrer – Assistant Stage Manager
Gabe Figueroa – Production Manager
Dan Guerrero, Rosalinada Morales, Pauline O’Con, CSA – Casting
Lucy Pollack – Public Relations

Run! Run! And take a writer, someone who loves the truth and reports on it daily.   

514 S. Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA  90013

Tickets:  866-811-4111

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Foreigner by Larry Shue

L - R David Clayberg, Julianna Robinson, Tanya White, Mike Niedzwiecki - Photos by SM Rep

By Joe Straw

The Foreigner by Larry Shue, directed by Sarah Gurfield, and produced by Eric Bloom and Bart Petty is now playing at The Miles Memorial Playhouse through May 20, 2017.

The Foreigner is a delightful show, a comedy, with remarkable performances by a stellar cast. And really, being a southern boy from Georgia and Tennessee one can’t help but fall in love with this cast of characters.

It’s always raining in Tilghman County, Georgia, except when it’s not, and well it’s raining tonight when Froggy (Jon Sperry) hops into the door of a dilapidated log cabin turned into a kind of notel/motel.

This is the kind of night a frog would like.  

Staff Sergeant Froggy LeSueur removes his jacket – he is actually looking frog-ish, wearing military fatigues – as he welcomes Charlie (Mike Niedezwiecki) into the inn.  Charlie is dress differently – in a sports jacket – they both have English accents.  (Yeah, the kind they speak in England.) Froggy sounds a little cockney (like I know) and Charlie is a little more refined.

Froggy calls out for Betty (Tanya White) but there is no answer. So, that gives him a chance to pour drinks around the house and talk about their personal issues in frog like lily pad style.   

But, Charlie is mentally fatigued.  His wife, back home in England, is in the hospital dying.  She’s expected to live another six month and Charlie doesn’t know what he is doing in Georgia for three days while his wife is breathing her last breath.  

Froggy tells him to look on the bright side, that the doctors are sometimes wrong.  He says she might pull through.

But, Charlie filled with guilt confesses their relationship has been on a rocky road.  He blames himself. He says he’s boring – a proofreader for a science fiction magazine for 27 years – and he has found out that his wife has been cheating on him.

Froggy says cheating is okay – “One little mistake” - but Charlie says it has happened over twenty three times and even in front of him.

“She flaunted them at me.” – Charlie

Be that as it may Charlie doesn’t want to stay at the hotel. Froggy says he can’t take him on the base and he has to stay put in these fine accommodations in southern Georgia.

Stuck, pusillanimous Charlie says he doesn’t want to talk to people – “Even idle conversation – terrifies me.”   So Froggy cooks up a plan to tell everyone that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn’t speak English.

Coming around, Betty greets Froggy like a long lost friend, a hug and three jumps, in keeping with his name.   She accepts the gifts of spoons from around the world.  The spoon that makes a naked lady, she'll put in the drawer. 

Betty tells Froggy her woes. She says the cabin is run down – last winter got the best of the place – the foundation is plum rotten – or says Owen Musser (Troy Dunn), a two tattooed property inspector.

Betty just wishes that she had traveled more like Froggy, and had met more foreigners.

Froggy, off the cuff, tells Betty that she has got a foreigner right here in her cabin staying with her for the next three days.

“He ain’t – he ain’t a Communist, is he?” – Betty

“Wot, ‘im? Naaow. Naaow – ‘e’s got a stock of credit cards in ‘is wallet that thick.” – Froggy

Plan in place -  the one where Froggy drops off a complete stranger, a foreigner, who doesn’t speak a drop of English - is a good one.  Froggy says his goodbyes, hops out of the lodge, and bumps into Reverend David Lee (David Clayberg) a man with a sinister plan of taking over the lodge for nefarious purposes, from two sisters, his girlfriend - a recently pregnant Catherine (Julianna Robinson) and her not so smart sister Ella (Sara Mayer).

One was getting worried during the opening moments of Sarah Gurfield’s direction with the actors performing center stage and playing out to the fourth wall.  But things began to settle down and the show took off from there.  This is a wonderful show and the Santa Monica Repertory Theater Company triumphs once again.  

Julianna Robinson and Mike Niedzwiecki

Mike Niedzwiecki plays Charlie Baker, the foreigner, a character who doesn’t want to speak, can’t speak, terrified of speaking until he learns that he really doesn’t need to speak in order to communicate. Niedzwiecki is a terrific actor who often times performs miracles.   His craft is so meticulous, and his character’s wile so infectious that he makes his fellow actors look wonderful as well.

Jon Sperry is having a lot of fun as Froggy.  One doesn’t know if it was the camouflaged costume, his eyes, or his nose that personified a frog like character.  Whatever it was, it all worked.  Sperry was as funny as all get out.

One is really amazed by the work of Julianna Robinson as Catherine. Robinson gives this character a complete turn from someone who is confused and not likeable to someone who is smart and willing to open herself to see all around her.  It is a terrific performance and an equally terrific craft.  

Sara Mayer is Ella (changed from Ellard in the original play).  Ella is a simpleton, doesn’t think she knows much, but she is much more in tuned when given the chance.  The problem is that no one gives her the chance. Mayer is very amusing in the role and really has too much fun.  

Troy Dunn created a strong choice for the roll of Owen, a well-defined character with a lot of terrific mannerisms.  But, his character appeared to step off the Third Street Promenade – the kind of character shaking a cup for coins. How that fits as a pestiferous inspector living in Georgia is anyone's guess.  One is is not quite sure how anyone in Georgia would even give this character the job of inspector.  Still, there’s some quirky stuff coming from this actor that makes him enjoyable to watch.

Tanya White is terrific as Betty a naïve individual who has got a lot more on the ball than others give her credit for.  Betty is a very giving soul who takes her job and her customers at the lodge very seriously. White has got wonderful way on stage and a very beautiful craft.

Yes, I’ve seen this character before, the slimy but sincere pettifogging preacher from the south, preaching one thing and delivering another.  David Clayberg lives and breathes the character of Reverend David Marshall Lee, the strong jawed slicked back greasy haired guy, with a very sinister and ill flattering smile and with an interesting Georgia accent to boot.  He is the southern preacher that lived up the street, preaching one day, and gone the next. It is a wonderful performance, although he didn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to ditch Owen to be with his girlfriend who is lighting a candle, waiting for him.  

Sara Patterson was the female understudy but did not perform the night I was there.

Hazel Kuang, Scenic Design, gave us a very functional set, with a lot of nooks and crannies, and a virtual playground for the actors.

Other member of the crew are as follows:

James Ferrero – Sound Design
Adrienne Johnson-Lister – Stage Manager
Lauren Wemischner – Lighting Design
Maddie Keller – Costume Design
Princella Baker Jr. – Scenic, Props, and Costume Assistant
Eden Mullins – Assistant Stage Manager
Davidson & Choy Publicity – Public Relations

Run! Run! Run! And take a country boy with you, someone who appreciates the great outdoor, and is not too slimy.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire

L - R Jordana Oberman, Toni Christopher, Michael Yurchak - Photos by John Geronilla

By Joe Straw

Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize – This I had to see.  Had to. – Narrator

After working in legitimate theatre with the Netherlander Organization (The Pantages) I moved on to Equity Waiver Theater.  This was in 1980 and it was a painful downgrade. The Equity Waiver houses were very small, mostly rundown, the budgets were minuscule, but I worked where I could find work for little or no money.  I paid to be in one show, the outcome was not pretty especially to a nasty Drama Logue critic. But, mostly I went to theatre just to see what was going on out there.

Since that time there has been an enormous growth in intimate theatre spread all over the city from North Hollywood, to Glendale and Pasadena, to the theatres downtown, on to theatre row on Santa Monica Boulevard, each with their own flavor, adding their own spice to the theatrical life in Los Angeles.  

Equity waiver gave way to the AEA 99-seat theatre rule and with those accommodations, and over a period of time, the acting got significantly better. - Narrator

There are times I go to theatre to see a show that has someone I know or have seen from time to time. This show was different in that all of the actors were new to me, their work was unusual and their acting chops were significant.

The Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire directed by Eric Hunicutt and produced by JTK Productions is playing at The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood and has been extended through May 21, 2017.  

Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Eric Hunicutt is an amazing show that everyone should run to see!  It is brilliant in execution and flawless in hitting the moments that send a giant zing straight into the heart.

Hunicutt’s work was magic, out of the ordinary, and expressively exquisite. At some point during the course of the performance the lives of the characters enveloped this onlooker.  Such work of this magnitude is rarely seen in intimate theatres, with its rigorous simplicity, and in the way the characters gloriously blend in saudade making this a magnificent night.

Although Rabbit Hole is a comedy, it is a story of parental grief - the results of losing their small child in an automobile accident. And, it starts so unexpectedly.  One feels the family portrait, right there on the mantle, where there is none.  

Rabbit Hole is the story of smart ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances who are trapped - in a room of prodigious improbability - that maybe someone, someone at some time, will take a moment and share what’s in their heart. But when they do reveal secrets it is done in a most uncomfortable and unusual way. 

Izzy (Toni Christopher) can’t wait to tell her sister Becca (Jordana Oberman) the news about this obnoxious woman at the bar, someone who came up to her and started screaming.  The outcome was that Izzy hit her and knocked her to the floor.

Izzy blames it on coping with life and death.

“No, you’re not allowed to use him.” Becca

Danny’s death is the thing that no one can talk about; I mean, seriously talk about. (Although dead for eight months one did not see any kind of photograph of Danny anywhere.)

Also, things, important information doesn’t come out easily for Izzy who lacks the ability to be a reliable reporter. Who was the woman?  Why was she screaming?  What was she yelling about?

Meticulously Becca pries the information out of Izzy as though she were using the Jaws of Life.  

“People don’t scream in your face for no reason.” Becca

“Sure they do.  You should get out more.” – Izzy

“Were you sleeping with him?” – Becca

Leave it to the truth seeker, Becca. But, that’s not all, Izzy is also pregnant.

Later that night Howie (Michael Yurchak) and Becca get comfortable, talk about Becca’s pregnant sister, turn the lights down low, and turn up Al Green before things start falling apart.

“…For you to be roping me into sex when I don’t wanna have it? – Becca

“I wasn’t roping you into anything. Jesus.” – Howie

“No?  Al Green isn’t roping?” – Becca

Eight months after the accident Becca is not ready especially when she sees Danny all over the house, his toys, his fingerprints, and for all of that she wants to move, sell the house.   Howie can only consider it and when Becca walks upstairs, Howie turns on the VCR tape and watches his son on the television.

L - R Jordana Oberman, Toni Christopher, Darcy Shean

Just when you think things couldn’t get worse Nat (Darcy Shean), mother of the two sisters, celebrates Izzy’s birthday, by parlaying stories about the Kennedys and their tragedies, a circuitous route to make a point about death making sense.

Holding on to one last secret Becca enters Danny’s room and surreptitiously opens a letter from Jason (Rocky Collins).  It is a letter of apology.

Jordana Oberman brings a very nice simplicity to the character Becca.  She listens, and hears everything, asking questions when things don’t make sense.  And, with her family, a lot of things don’t make sense. Becca is living on the edge and she is about ready to explode only going so far to release some of that explosiveness. The clothes, the dog, the yelling lady only make sense when everyone gets the information. Oberman is quirky, slightly offbeat, and perfect for the role.  In short it is a wonderful performance that audiences should run to see.

Toni Christopher has this deep, kind of scratchy voice that is also powerful. Izzy is slightly offbeat and a matching pair with her sister.  Izzy at first glance doesn’t have clue, in her love life, her job life, and her family life. She’s made a lot of mistakes, a history of drinking, and getting into trouble the family constantly repeats. One would hope that Izzy would find a way to effectively communicate with her sister.  But the charm of it is that it is part of the makeup of that family, of not taking care of the metaphorical elephant in the room. Christopher’s objective is strong and her work is outstanding especially the small touches when she enters and leaves the room.

The women in his life over match Howie. They are a lot smarter when catching him at things he should not be doing. Michael Yurchak puts a lot of emotional life into the character, and as Howie he is probably the most emotional one of the bunch. No one really blames him for the accident but in the back of his mind he probably feels that pain everyday.  Yurchak brings it on this night, yes he does. And, it is an emotional tour de force.

Darcy Shean plays Nat, a mother who seems rich and slightly daft but is very lovable. Nat can’t get to the meat of the matter when discussing the emotional needs of her children. But she is more than willing to throw her money around when someone needs help. Except when it comes to the dog.  She must harbor some kind of resentment to buy the cheapest dog food on the shelf making the dog turn enormous during his brief stay.

Jordana Oberman, Rocky Collins

Rocky Collins plays the young man Jason who has, in effect, accidentally created this whole mess the family lives with. In his way he tries very hard to communicate with that family just to say he is sorry. He lives with the accident, everyday, and needs an outlet to express his apology. Collins has a very grand style rooted in simplicity, the uncomfortable feelings, taking his fists and rubbing his knuckles while expressing his thoughts, thinking onstage before moving on, trying his best to communicate his thoughts before his time ends with them. Collins has a wonderful and dramatic stage presence.  

Lily Bartenstein, Scenic and Light Design, creates a wonderful space for the actors.  The space is small for Larchmont, NY home but works well with the limited space.

Wonderfully produced by Kayla Cagan who is making her producing debut in a remarkable production.  

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Serena Duffin – Costume Design
Jason Whitton – Sound Design
Jeff Miller – Stage Manager
Mark Gokel – Stage Manager

Run! Run! Run! And take a friend who is confused by the complexities of life.
Information: (917) 407-3346.
ONLINE TICKETING: www.Plays411.com/rabbithole

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Awful Grace of God by Michael Harney

By Joe Straw

“Art, said Stephen, is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end.” – James Joyce from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I wondered why there were a lot of nuns in the audience.  It was probably to keep an eye on us heathens. Their quiet presence was in contrast to the godly winds on this night.  Winds that whipped metal shingles on the roof creating a terrible racket that produced both wonderful and strange metallic sounds. Beautiful sounds that made one terrific actor look up and absorb the noise that whipped back and forth.   

One suspects, through the awful grace of God, that these are compliments of misguided men who failed to hammer in that one extra nail.   – Narrator

Go The Distance Productions presents the world premiere of The Awful Grace of God, an evening of original one-act plays written by Michael Harney, Produced by Michael Harney, and directed by Mark Kemble at The Other Space @ The Actors Company in Hollywood through May 28th, 2017.

Off   (1972 – Flushing, Queens, New York)

Joe (Curtis Belz) cool wasn’t so cool sitting on the stoop of his Flushing Queens apartment. He had a beer at his side, well two actually, as he watched some kids play stickball.  They weren’t playing to his satisfaction and there was this smart aleck kid Jerry (R. J. Seikaly – not seen) who was always running his mouth.

Joe couldn’t do much about it, well not just yet. With his prosthetic leg, compliments of the draft, the US government, and Vietnam, getting up and down was harder and harder with each passing day. He must concentrate on the game and somehow avoid attention to his lifelong friend Stan (Bechir Sylvain).

Stan’s looking better theses day, not that Joe is actually noticing, but what’s up with the leather jacket, nice clothes, and extra money? Something going on and Joe wants to find out about it, eventually.  Yeah, what’s that deal? 

Stan says,  “Hey!” And Joe says nothing, sitting behind his shades, looking at nothing, until Stan moves closer, Joe takes a beer and flips the top inviting Stan to sit.

Joe, not satisfied with the game, starts yelling and the kids yell back. A lot of F.U.s are exchanged with Jerry until Joe pulls out a gun.  Stan has to jump in and control the situation.

Joe Jamieson (Michael Harney – not seen) tells Joe put his gun away.  Joe is someone in authority, possibly a cop, who is in everyone’s business and everyone in the apartment respects his views.

All around the acting is terrific.  The opening needs work to establish a credible relationship between the two men, one that intimates a bond from long ago.  With everyone trying to be cool, we lose a sense of what one wanted from the other and that needs to be defined.  Joe, I kind of got, but he needed to move in that direction long before Stan stepped on stage.

The Shaft song was terrific!   

Also Joe Jamieson, the godly voice, seems to be a policeman who lives upstairs and knows about these two men, what they are up to, and what they need to do to clean up their act. But, the vocal character is slightly confusing.  One would have liked to get a visual picture of the man.


The cold and snow in this New England cabin can play tricks on the senses if one is willing to surrender to the noise.  Dodge (Tim DeZarn) and Ellen (Janine Venable) come here each year for reasons that are made clear.

Ellen thinks seven years is enough time.  She wants to move on, to leave this place, leave them to her memories. She would love to go to other places, someplace warm for a change, like the Bahamas.  

But Dodge is fascinated by the rejuvenating sounds of the quiet, the noise from each passing movement, and the tracks that leave footprints to his doorsteps, a message to him perhaps if one is willing to take in all in.  

Dodge is out of coffee and when Ellen offers to go into the kitchen it gives him the opportunity to talk to his deceased son before time runs out. He searches for sounds first, and then shadows second, of who is out there, moving through the snow, breaking the brittle twigs in the crunching snow.   

“How are things? Making out okay?... Wonder how it is for you over there.” – Dodge

Dodge strains his eyes, searching for a sign, a shadow, hoping to see the image, the last time his son smiled, when he enveloped all the love and everything that moment offered.

(It is enough to openly weep! And I did.)

Ellen brings out the coffee – there’s too much milk in it – and starts labeling the fruit in Mason jars. She has a lot of convincing to do.

I loved this scene about two lovers who want different things but first have to surrender to each other, their emotions, and their dreams to recapture a moment. The quiet times are rejuvenating, when all things become clear, and this is how they go about finding closure.  

The opening, the first quiet moment, needs a purpose as the two characters are on opposites sides of the stage trying to find a way to connect, to be one with each other.

Willy and Rose

Okay, about the worst place you can be is in a fleabag motel room waiting for your boyfriend to show up, if he is ever going to show up.  The only thing she has to keep her company is a bottle of booze and a couple of glasses.  

Rose (Agatha Nowicki) waits, partially clothed, for her gruff boyfriend Willy (Johnny Whitworth) to show, if he’ll ever show up at all.

When Willy does show, he goes straight for the bottle, lays his gun down on the table and says he’s got a present for Rose, in a carrying case.

There’s money in there, and lots of it.  Rose first wants to leave and then she wants to know how Willy got it.  Willy, not entirely forthcoming, argues with Rose, which culminates with their lovemaking.

“You take away the dark, baby.” - Willy

Rose’s instincts, to leave before the lovemaking, would have been the better choice, but she stays. Willy’s explanation includes a justification for killing another man.

For the sake of making it look real, the fighting esthetics on stage can get a little worrisome and look a little out of control. Sometimes those actions work, other times they do not.  On this night, a glass broke as the actors fell onto the floor.  Fortunately no one was hurt.

The other character in the show was Infini (Joseph Bongiovanni) an assassin with a silencer. If what Willy says was true, then there is something very sinister about that support group. And, in saying so, the writing jumped three notches in my book.

The Long Walk Home

Joe (James Harvey Ward) comes home drunk. But before he makes it inside Joe greets his friend Charlie (Daniel Litz) and his partner Dee Dee (Rebecca Lidvan). Joe kisses Dee Dee on the lips and Charlie is not having any part of this.

Joe’s wife, Kate (Amelia Jackson Gray), a beautiful woman in a white and green Doris Day dress, hears the noise outside and Joe crawls though the door helped by Kate who has seen this too many times. Their two kids are in the back bedroom wanting a bedtime story. Joe keeps Kate from leaving instead he runs to the bedroom and hits the kids and then he comes back and hits Kate.

Joe awakens the next morning to find his mother, Ann (Janine Venable), with a cup of coffee for him.  She is disappointed and she wants Joe to get help.  But help does not come in the right package.  Joe’s dad John (Tim DeZarn) comes in the room in his wheelchair and tries to muscle Joe into doing what’s right.  

This 1950’s intervention of sorts ends without a significant resolution. The acting is terrific on all levels but there is a lot of information presented without explanation – a number of whys without completely understanding the relationships.  Why is John is in a wheelchair? Why does Joe come home drunk? And, why is the wife, Kate, so passive?  Also, why is John’s mother the first and only one to take care of John? What is special about their relationship?  Why is she holding the keys to his mental health?  (I know, I have a lot of questions on this one.)

Need (Shelter From the Storm)

Katherine (Marie Broderick), a therapist, is strictly professional.  The patient, Francis (Marshall McCabe), comes in tired.  Since the death of his parents he has been keeping himself busy with his new book. But he is finally happy, after extended sessions of therapy, grieving the loss of his parents, and the passing of time.  

But in the back of his mind, Francis is still despondent. Or, is there another reason he keeps coming back to see his therapist?

There is more on Francis’ mind. He is in love with his doctor and he lets it be known that she is the only thing that matters.

Again, in this scene, one person is pushing and shoving, not something one would see from two intellectuals. Despite that, there are two terrific actors in this scene who find a common core of truth, getting what they want, and also getting very emotional in the process. The actors are strong in their objectives.


Zip (Oscar Best), a black man, was strapped to a metal pole in a thunderstorm.  (Let me break some rules in giving you an idea of what I thought the scene was about.)

There is one hint given in the program, “Here – The Present”.

Zip didn’t know why he was there, strapped to a pole. He couldn’t recall, and really couldn’t speak.  He felt pained, like something injured him, perhaps a 2 x 4” board wacked against his skull that made him unable to speak, for reasons that were unexplained.  But now, here, he was trapped, chained against a metal pole, waiting for the inevitable. And it was coming, something he felt, inside. It was useless to try to escape, he lacked the strength necessary, and there was only one way now.   The end on this road was near.

He heard the voice, a woman, Presence (Janine Venable) to guide him to the next phase of life. And despite the pain, he listened for a sign of comfort, the one note, the last word to guide him, but she was saying things he couldn’t understand, poetic words, without purpose, or a purpose without meaning. 

Zip wondered how this was going to end, chained like a slave, and dying like the others before him. No need for him to look around for help, he was in an isolated area, in the woods, far away from any caring human being. And finally, this injustice act deserved a scream, a way of letting someone know that he mattered.

The Awful Grace of God by Michael Harney is a series of one-acts that must work in some kind of cohesive whole.  It is all under one title, under one label. As it is now, the acts do not seem connected.  But the acts work on an separate level and were fascinating with terrific actors playing the roles. Also, the time frame is scattered.  We go back and forth in periods, 1972, present day, to 1950, and then again back to present day. How the awful grace of God relates to any of the one-acts is up to anyone’s interpretation.  There are spiritual elements in each scene.

Mark Kemble, the director, guides the remarkable actors.  There is more to be had in establishing relationships, maintaining strong objectives, and giving each character a backstory to define the character’s motives. Still, this was a lovely night of theatre.  There must be a creative way to implement better scene changes. In fact that should be a specific job for someone.

Joel Daavid, Set Designer, always does terrific work and in this production gives us a layered background upstage, which accepts Fritz Davis marvelous projections. Wonderful work!

Ed Zajac, Sound Designer, adds an extra element of life, gunshots, passing cars, and crystal clear voice-overs by various members of the cast.  

So all I can think about is the first quote of the “esthetic end”.  What is our esthetic end?  If it is a showcase for actors, then it is a job well done. If all acts relate to the awful grace of God then we need that connective DNA to make it a cohesive whole.  

Other members of the production team are as follows:

Brian Foyster – Producer
Andrew Schmedake – Lighting Designer
Thomas Zoeschg – Stage Manager
Steve Moyer Public Relations – Show Publicist
Malyssa Lyles – Wardrobe Consultant
Jennifer Abel – Publicist for Michael Harney
Kaho Koinuma – Graphic Designer
Billy Pace – Music & Editing for Promotional Video
Bruce Nehlsen – House Manager
Ed Krieger – Production Photographer
Susan Rimel – Deck Crew
Emily Lewis - Deck Crew
Marien Walton – Charge Scenic Artist
Jody St. Michael – Scenic Painter

Run! Run!  And take someone who has overcome a great deal of adversity.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington by Clare Coss

Melanie Cruz and Ben Guillory - Photo Michael Blaze

By Joe Straw

The Robey Theatre Company, in association with the Los Angeles Theatre Company, presents the west coast premiere of Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington by Clare Coss and Directed by Ben Guillory.

Walking into the theatre, the first thing you notice is Thomas Meleck’s beautiful set design.  Golden lamp fixtures and art deco lights drip esthetically from the ceiling, the transom window, in the portal, pours lights onto the antique hardwood flooring, a silent gramophone sits high on a cabinet, wooden desks, a manual typewriter, pneumatic tubes that transmit capsules of exigent letters, and all of the other small touches that breathes life into this time and a place.  

The windows have wooden blinds; when opened, they look out into another downtown office building. This is fitting office for the The Crisis, N.A.A.C.P’s official magazine, located on the lower 5th Avenue in New York City.  

But, at first glance, there is something peculiar about this office space, one side being cramped and slightly disheveled, the other side spacious and immaculate.

The spectator seats have been arranged to minimize the acting space into a small focused and compact view - sharing two rooms - for which the audience and office space become intimately involved.

On this fine morning, Miss Ovington (Melanie Cruz) makes her way into the office, turns on the lights, pulls the sprightly shades to allow an opening for ideas, sorts’ mail, and begins to type letters to individuals that mostly antagonize her.  She types with a purpose, and quickly, the typewriters keys stick and ultimately she decides that she might not want to send the letter.  She crumples it and tosses it in the trash.

There is one thing Miss Ovington knows she must do on this quiet office day.  But for now she is slightly distracted by a news items and takes a red pin and places it on the map.  As she sticks it in, we notice the map is littered with red pins; what offensives of human nature these pins represent will be revealed later.

The moon pulls and the tides shift causing an emotional response, the reasons why Miss Ovington must be in the N.A.A.C.P office, on this day.

Ben Guillory

Dr. Du Bois (Ben Guillory) steps into the office proudly, wearing a white seersucker suit, red bow tie, grey vest with a pocket watch and a gold chain.  His floriferous attire is his vestment of success.  He comes in somber as he stares at Miss Ovington.

“Why are you here on Sunday?” – Dr. Du Bois

“To save the N.A.A.C. P.” – Miss Ovington

Interesting that Miss Ovington should say that when there is possibly more at stake here considering circumstances that they are both familiar with. 

Dr. Du Boise, in his willful renunciation, wants to resign and plans to revise his letter of resignation.  This would be his fourth attempt at resigning. Miss Ovington will have none of that talk; she expressively forbids it because she “values the word of every human being.” 

Spoken like a true Unitarian.

“The association can’t exist without you.” – Miss Ovington

The day is warm and Miss Ovington suggests Dr. Du Boise remove his jacket. He politely demurs holding on what makes him feel fine feathered and important.    The focus shifts to a protest in the street outside. Miss Ovington, in a show of solidarity, grabs the flag, and places it in the holder, while Dr. Du Boise steps behind her and holds her by the waist.

“A man was lynched yesterday.” – Miss Ovington

This reveals the reason for the red pins as they walk to the map and stare at hundreds of pins placed intermittently along a large swath of the United States.  They react internally and for a long moment.  

Dr. Du Boise moves into his cluttered office and leaves the door open for Miss Ovington.  She thinks about it for a moment and then clutches the ledge of the interior casing of the window.  She holds herself back for fear of someone’s righteous innuendo. 

Melanie Cruz

Her wait is a stunning picture.  She stands alone protected by the soft stratum of her neck covering, held tightly in the caring layer of her blue vested garment, and covering of a matching blue skirt that floats below her ankles.  Her hand suggests a proprietary event, and yet it is only a piece of jewelry on her middle finger. 

Still, Miss Ovington waits, hanging on his every word, hoping for something more, unwilling to give in to the thought of entering his room.

Du Boise starts his gramophone, listening to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, something to relax him, and possibly her.  

This is a play by Clare Coss where one wants to focus on the love first, and to then admire the words as an afterthought.  Watching you almost forget; the color barrier of the time, the wall of black and white separation, and let two human being live their life.  Still, there’s much to be done, issues to discuss, and lessons to be learned. One kept thinking that someone has to win with some kind of emotional catharsis that carries the play, but I didn’t see it and maybe it was not that type of play. Still, on the subject of love and objectives, someone has to win the game, the cat and mouse game, or perhaps a chess game, where a winner emerges.  

Ben Guillory is outstanding as Dr. Du Bois, his second outing as this character since Knock Me a Kiss by Charles Smith. This Du Bois was much richer, the voice smoother and closer to recordings I’ve heard of Dr. Du Bois. The character Du Bois has an unconquerable obstinacy and is adamant about what he wants.  And, he will not give an inch in an effort to pursue his position in the N.A.A.C.P. But despite his unpleasant reflection with his righteous counterparts of the organization, he manages to keep his cool with Miss Ovington, notwithstanding their disagreements. Movement needs to be made for the cause of love and work must be set aside for injustices that must be made right. Also, Guillory needs to figure out how to play spoons to make that scene work. (smile)  

Melanie Cruz is equally excellent as the ubiquitous Miss Ovington giving us a woman who is more than a match for any man, and on any playing field.  Waiting outside the office struck a solid core, a truth that lifts one right out of their seat.  Miss Ovington knows what she has to do to keep Dr. Du Bois from resigning and she must go after it because there is only so much time left in their encounter.

Ben Guillory’s staging is excellent. But it may be helpful to have an extra pair of eyes to see if the moments gel.  At times, both actors were briefly center stage caught up in the moment working out their relationship without moving emotionally or physically in one direction or another. Barbs were thrown in Miss Ovington’s direction with hardly an infraction being recognized.  When one is hurt as part of the love game, one must come back energized to fight one more round.  In the end, and after their stormy vicissitudes, we are concerned for the characters, and we wonder if their eventual solitary destinies were the right course of action.

The wonderful Costume Design by Naila A. Sanders highlights the rules of the game, one of a social order that limits expressions of love, simply by the confining nature of the clothing where the physical emotions are held in check.

Run! Run! And take a Unitarian Universalist with you.  I did and it made all the difference.

Other members of this wonderful crew are as follows:

JC Cadena – Associate Producer
Antonieta Castillo Carpio – Production Stage Manager
Michaél David Ricks – Lighting Design
Ivan Robles – Sound Design
Jasmine-Joy Singleton – Properties Designer
Jason Mimms – Graphic Design
Chris Carnell – Web Master
Justin Sloggatt – Film Design Supervisor
Art Chang – Film Design
Michael Blaze – Photographer
Philip Sokoloff – Publicist
Douglas Allen – Video Archives

The Robey Theatre Company
514 South Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA  90013

Tickets:  866-811-4111

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Lone Star by James McLure

L - R Christopher Parker, Brian Foyster, and Christopher Jordan - Photos by Elephant Stageworks

By Joe Straw

The Elephant Theatre Company presents Lone Star by James McClure and directed by David Fofi at the Zephyr on Melrose through May 7, 2017.

The first time I saw Lone Star was in Michael Shurtleff’s class back in the early ’80 with Judson Vaughn, Ray Powers, and someone else whose name escapes me.  Naturally, it was the actor who played Cletus. Can you fault me for that?

This was Shurtleff’s first class of the session, and the actors did the entire one act.  It was “as funny as all get out”, as my first wife use to say, and she knew funny.  She was a Lutheran from Cheyenne, Wyoming.

They have a saying up there – “Cheyenne, Wyoming, where men are men, and sheep are nervous”. - Narrator

But, here we are in Maynard, Texas, the year of, well the writer James S. McLure never said. (By the way, the Set Design by Elephant Stageworks is a work of art and is a magical space for actors to do their magic.)

Well, in this version by David Fofi, the director, it’s been a while since Roy (Christopher Jordan) has seen anything that resembles the military.  This particular Roy is a little older, more than a few years out of “Vit Nam”.  But take it to heart that he’s been there, Vietnam, and done that, his military duty. Drafted no doubt.  But now, it’s a Friday night and he always said that after he got out of “Vit Nam” he wanted to sit outside the bar, watch the traffic, eat, and drink beer, the only kind of beer that’s known to man and God, Lone Star Beer.

The trouble is that Roy has been doing that for years.

So, Roy sits outside the bar satisfied he has done all he needs to do, his duty, plops him self down on a busted up car seat on cinder blocks back behind the bar. His coolness has worn off with age, the pounds have accumulated on his gut, and the boots are dusty and dirty.  Still, there’s a touch of James Dean cool in him, and he still has that 1959 pink Thunderbird chick magnet, just enough to draw a smile from anyone of the female persuasion.

Roy plops the top off a beer bottle with the claw of a hammer he’s found out back and, should anyone come visit him back there, he is still sharing his war stories.  

Ray (Christopher Parker) is Roy’s younger brother.  He is a man who is not all there and proves it at every opportunity.  

“Did you take my wife home for me.” – Roy

“I did.” - Ray

(The key word here is wife.  And, it is not a question but a declarative statement.)

Ray’s come back after driving Roy’s wife home in Roy’s 1959 pink Thunderbird convertible and returned back to the bar to fetch Roy, leaving the keys on the bar inside. 

Ray enlists Roy to come back into the bar and talk to women.

“Look.  I’m a married man.” - Roy

One imagines this hits Ray like a ton of bricks - on his conscience - and he needs to tell Roy something about that but instead talks about his car.

Ray says there a few things wrong with Roy’s car, it’s running rough, needs points looked at, and plugs, and a new radiator cap, low tires, a new block, and a bunch of other stuff that needs repair.  In other words that chick magnet is a pile of pink masquerading as a car and has seen better days, which doesn’t sit too well with Roy.  

Tonight Ray has something to tell big brother Roy, something really important and Roy has something to tell Ray, something he’s on to him about.  

But before either one can say anything Cletus T. “Skeeter” Fullernoy (Brian Foyster), nervously walks back to talk to Ray, alone, and in private.  Roy is accommodating because he can’t stand Cletus who has been a thorn in his side since he don’t know when.

The best thing about this production is that David Fofi is back; doing what he loves doing best.

This is a production where I want to sit down with the creators and speak to what worked and what didn’t over a nice cold brew.  I think I caught this show early in the run so most of the things have probably been corrected by the time you see it.

For this production the comedy has to be played to extremes.  The actions on stage can be as broad in emotions and physical movements as can be to emphasize a point.  And, for the most part, this will this work if there are strong objectives. Strong character choices are required to carry out objectives.  Roy, Ray and Cletus are three very different people. 

Also, comedy works best when the hurts are accentuated. The performers in this play are members of The Actors Studio but the method of acting is not in full display here.  Maybe it was an off night for everyone. The lines didn’t come together easily, the relationships were not solid, and somewhere the broad comedy was lost.

This is not to say that all was lost.  There were funny moments, some poignant moment, but the actors lost their objectives, struggling on this night. And maybe it was just this night.

From the first moment when Ray enters the back of the bar, the audience needs to know they are brothers.  They need to witness the hierarchical relationship between the two men.  Aside from one being daft, there was hardly a difference. Ray has a reason for being there on this night and he is there to come clean. That should be something we feel the very first time Ray comes out the back door.

Roy thinks he is the smartest one, the master thinker, the one who thinks deep thoughts, and if he doesn’t believe it he is a lost soul. On top of his brains, is his brawn and amazing good looks.  When he wears his boots John Wayne has got nothing on him.

Ray’s got something going for him or else he wouldn’t have had the women he’s had, and for one woman in particular.  He’s got some brains too, just not his brother’s brains.  He looks to his brother, mightily.  But, he’s got something weighing on his conscience, something that he has to get out, and something he has to say to Roy to clear his name once and for all.  (I didn’t see any of that.)

L - R Christopher Parker, Christopher Jordan

The relationship between Ray and Roy did not gel the night I was there. They were across the stage from each other and this night looked like a normal night in their lives. But, this night is different. There were very little hints of one character wanting something from the other and that is something every actor must have, strong choices and a strong objective.

Also, Cletus has got to have an entrance, and a dramatic one at that considering what he has just gone through.  (Sorry, I can’t give this away.) That also should have been presented in deed and thought, perhaps a car part. And Cletus has to look up to Roy.  Roy should be a God to him.  He should, in a manner of speaking, lick his boots in praise of his idol to give us more of that relationship.

The night I saw Lone Star the actors appeared to have limited rehearsal time, more was needed for this production, and for the comedy.  The timing was off, and the relationships were tenuous at best.

Christopher Jordan

Christopher Jordan plays Jordan and on this night seemed to be grasping for lines, incorporating dramatic pauses where possibly none should be. Emotional intention is the key for this character. Most of the work is done if the intention, or objective, is clear.  Still there was a moment near the end that rang a solid truth and Jordan was terrific in that moment.

“How can you mistake an old woman from a bowling alley?” – Ray

“It was dark.” – Roy

“Oh.” - Ray

Christopher Parker is Ray, the younger brother. Ray should fear God and his older brother and maybe in that order.  Ray (I believe) has come to fess up.  That is his job. So when he first sees Roy he should make sure that his brother is alive, or cognizant to hear what he has to say. Ray has done a lot of things that he should not have been doing.  Parker did not establish a clear relationship with his brother or with God for that matter. He has done something that would have him in the clutches of the devil, paying an awful price, but we did not see that fear, or that comedy, and that is what we need to see.

“… I saw people without heads.” – Roy

“Were they dead?” – Ray

Brian Foyster did more things successfully as the character Cletus. But, the entrance needs work, and the relationship with Roy also needs a little work. Cletus needs a small injury on his entrance and he should come in with a dramatic purpose. The keys should be part of his arsenal coming out the back door.  

“He hit me in the head with a hoe.” – Ray

“He was probably trying to teach you something.  Probably had a moral to it.” - Roy

Lone Star is a play where one must define the moments in order for the comedy to work.

Pam Noles is the Stage Manager. 

Run! And take someone who has emotional issues.