Thursday, January 10, 2019

Desert Rats by Nate Rufus Edelman

Derek Chariton and Walt Gray IV : Photos by Giovanni Solis of bracero

By Joe Straw

Set off a squalid alameda, the entryway to the motel room was a green and white door. It had been sanded and painted many times over the years, but was now left to deteriorate into disrepair by its owners.  

This was just a room that serves to collect money from anyone passing by – heading north to Las Vegas or south to Los Angeles. It is a perfect holiday gift for someone who couldn’t give two squeezes about the drab motif just to lower the eyelids for a brief respite.

This hotel sat beyond the salted palisades of the hills to the north. And probably what you would expect for the desert, in Barstow, and certainly not four stars.

The rest of the room wasn’t that much better, coming in through the door was a bed to the right with a blanket, used repeatedly over the years, no doubt, and one that didn’t cover the whole bed.  The bed frame sat over scraps of frayed carpeting, and in offsetting colors of red, spotted brown, and red again.

The lamps were in need of repair and offered little light to those who wanted to make logical sense. It was actually perfect lighting because the darkness will shed little light on a crime they are about to commit, a crime derived from depravity and, of course, diabolical in nature.   

The Latino Theater Company Presents Desert Rats, written by Nate Rufus Edelman and directed by Angie Scott through January 20th, 2019.

Frank (Walt Gray IV) stepped into the room with a sense of fondness having been there years before with his father and younger brother, Jesse (Derek Chariton).  They are orphans and have been so for quite some time.

The similarity they have to Frank and Jesse James are the first names only and a criminal mindset.

Frank is the wiser primogeniture, a little heavier than his unfed homunculus brother Jesse, a ruffled haired young man, slightly slow in thought and build, who now wants to chain smoke his way to death, and play solitaire while he waits for the nicotine to kick in and the cancer cells to replicate. (Please, theatrical cigarettes would be a pleasing gesture for those of us who inhaled second hand smoke of our now deceased loved ones.)

What does Jesse have to live for besides cigarettes, booze, and relentless desire to stifle any movement in a positive direction?

It doesn’t help that Frank calls him a retard, an unwelcome, unhelpful, and unkind act.

But Frank isn’t that dumb, in fact he is very curious about a lot of things, has questions that are not easily answered, and may, in fact, be smarter than his older brother, who in reality, forgets a lot.

But, they know what they are there for.  They are prepared for any outcome, and any unforeseen circumstances that may come their way.  The only problem is that neither is bright enough to see beyond the barren landscape, their thoughts beyond the dirty window, and the hot air that forces them inside on this hot dusty day to talk over plans.

“It’s Africa hot.” - Jesse

And there is no Jacuzzi or air conditioning.

The plan is set, Frank leaves Barstow to drive to the San Fernando Valley to kidnap cheerleader, Amber (Lila Gavares), a spunky girl with a rich father, bring her back in the trunk of the car in a few hours, pick up some Payday candy bars along the way, and return her back to the hotel before they call her father for the ransom.

But there is a kink in the plan; Frank does not arrive until well after his anointed time sending Jesse into the stratosphere with worry.

Options are the key to Nate Rufus Edelman’s dark comedy. There seems to be more in the play than what was presented visually. Desperation drives each of the character to their anointed end in this intimate play.   But does the play go far enough, or reach a  pinnacle?

Frank wants the money. Jesse wants to be loved.  Amber wants to escape the nightmare she is in.  It’s all pretty simple.  But, what happens? Frank doesn’t get the money.  Jesse ruins everything. And the girl seems to be better off in the end.

The plan was doomed from the start.  There were too many obstacles.  The characters need a moment to think when things go wrong.   Frank and Jesse didn’t give a second thought to what they were doing and how they were going to carry it off.  

While Angie Scott’s direction was fluid enough, the two actors lost sight of their objective from the moment they entered the room.  They weren’t relating (on this night) or moving toward their objectives. (Harold Clurman calls this the through-line.) Later, we get to know why they are there but, but by this time, some momentum was lost.  The relationship of the two brothers needs strengthening, (improvisation in rehearsals would help) and was not significant enough to ensure they would agree or disagree on the same plan.  And, the plan did not have a strong conflict, whether it was inner conflict or from some outside forces, and visually it doesn’t appear that the brothers have run out of options

This play bares a striking similarity to Orphans by Lyle Kessler about two orphans who kidnap a stranger that gets the better of the orphans.

Lila Gavares

There is a lot to enjoy from Lila Gavares’s (Amber) performance. Her delivery is sultry, nuanced, and her objective is clear. The moment she steps into the room there is an ambiguity coming through the pillowcase that is over her face. Is she laughing, or crying, or both?  Whatever she was doing, it was mesmerizing. Gavares is a rutilant being, focused on both her backstory and complete in the present.  The work was excellent.

Derek Chariton plays Jesse, a simpleton, who believes what his brother tells him about his intellect.  There is a deeper backstory to this character and a much richer defined character.  Staying incognito during the first part of the play would help his character who only smokes and plays solitaire, two passive choices that don’t take the character to another level.  Defining the relationship with his brother will only help the very satisfying ending.

Could that be that his brother wants him to be discovered?

Walt Gray IV is Frank, the older and smarter brother, or at least he thinks so. Frank needs a deeper backstory and subtext.  And stronger choices need to be made.  If he is indeed smarter, he must know his plan is never going to work. And, if that’s the case, what does he want from his brother? Frank tells his brother not to leave the cabin, or to get cigarettes. or a fan, yet he knows full well that he will do it. And why does he present his brother with horrific news upon coming back late at night?  Where does this take us, and how does this change their relationship? Why does he bring the girl back into their hotel room knowing his brother is going to mess things up? How does that change the story?

Desperation and manipulation are social construct keys for Frank. Let’s assume that he is not in this for the money, and that he is doing this to get rid of his brother who has been a ball and chain around his neck his whole life.  Over the course of the play, that version made a lot more sense to me. But that’s just me.

This show was moved from a smaller venue into one of the smaller venues at LATC.  But, that room was probably larger so the actors had to accommodate to the size of the room. At times Frank and Jesse were center stage and in the dark during crucial moments of the play.

That said, I did enjoy the show and I would like to see the players grow exponentially during the course of the run.

Wonderful Set Design by Cameron Mock & Emily MacDonald.

Libby Letlow was responsible for the Fight and Intimacy Choreographer.  The first kiss should be an eye opener for Jesse.  Take that moment.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Ivan Robles – Sound Design
Robert Anaya – Production Assistant
Jakelinne Gonzalez – Costume Design
Maricela Shagun – Production Stage Manager
Michelle Tapia – Assistant Director
Christopher Campbell-Orrock – Dramaturg

Run! Run! And take somebody thin, with a lot of tattoos!

The Los Angeles Theatre Center
Avalos Theatre
514 S. Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA  90013

Reservation: 866-811-4111

 Contact for more information.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Valley of the Heart by Luis Valdez

Melanie Arii Mah and Lakin Valdez

By Joe Straw

Valley of the Heart, written and directed by Luis Valdez, ended its run at the Mark Taper Forum on December 9, 2018.

Luis Valdez is a national treasure and Valley of the Heart may be the pinnacle of his theatrical life.  It is an expansive work of soul-searching art – a visual reflection of looking at the past to understand the present.

In hindsight, one sees the play as a reflecting pool, embedded in time, mirroring humanity, close enough one can see ripples of mass incarcerations, clustered heat of internment camps, and the effluvium or rising gasses chasing women and children away from our borders.

But simply, this is the story of the lives of two families within our borders, the Montaño and Yamaguchi families, through three generations, as they live, love, and approach dying.   

And, this story ironically is told from the perspective of an old sightless man, a man who remembers the past and finds difficulties visualizing the present.

To help him negotiate his age and visual impairment are two Ninja like warriors, the Kurogo. (In Kubuki theatre, they are the onstage assistants.) Mariela Arteaga and Michael Naydoe Pinedo effectively perform a myriad of duties throughout the course of the play.

Blindness makes an easy prey for the sightless Kurogo. They are the dark shadow helpers that accompany Benjamin Montaño (Lakin Valdez) onto a chair and then wheel Benjamin into the light - into the sun - to receive whatever light permeates these days.

In his thoughts, Benjamin travels back in time to the land he cultivated in the Santa Clara Valley and to the family that nurtured his being.    

Quietly mindful in his reflection, Benjamin is a man weathered by time and events but willing to tell a story to anyone within earshot, about a woman he loved and almost lost. And, for him, it is a story that must not be forgotten. The year of the telling is 2001, but he harks back a few days before December 7, 1941.

The words and events come easily as Benjamin defines the farm.  And despite working on the same farm, the Yamaguchi family is better off than the Montaño family.  The Yamaguchi’s home is made of brick and mortar, while the Montaño’s home is constructed of brown pine poverty slats.  John Iacovelli, Scenic Design, makes it clear in the way their houses are presented, of class distinction, one home more opulent than the other.  And each home slides effortlessly behind the sliding Japanese walls, - Shoji screens – which are compliment by David Murakami beautiful projections of Santa Clara Valley and later Wyoming.

The Yamaguchis have owned the land for several generations but let the Montaños live and work the land. 

Cayetano Montaño (Daniel Valdez) is weary of living in squalor and Paula Montaño (Rose Portillo), his wife, is equally tired. She has been busy raising three children who are now young adults, Benjamin Montaño (Lakin Valdez), Ernesto “Tito” Montaño (Moises Castro) and a very peculiar daughter Maruca Montaño (Christy Sandoval) 

In reality, the Montaño family is living on scraps and doesn’t have enough money to buy food for five adults.  Daniel wants a raise. He waits for the opportunity and approaches Ichiro Yamaguchi (Randal Nakano) for a meager increase and the modest title of foreman. They share a glass of sake, or two, and so little gets done. After consuming the sake, Daniel forgets what he was there for and struggles to find the front door.

But money is not the only thing on everyone’s minds.  Benjamin Montaño has his sights on Thelma Yamaguchi (Melanie Arii Mah) as they work together in the broccoli fields in a very nice bit of choreography harvesting the rows.

Alas, Thelma’s life has been arranged and she is promised to Calvin Sakamoto (Scott Keiji Takeda), an obnoxious young man, with money and a fast car, who Thelma is not in love with. Thelma wants to respect her family’s wishes and traditions and sends Benjamin mixed signals.  She is really not happy with Calvin but she doesn’t know if going against her father’s will makes anyone happy.


And then the bombing of Pear Harbor on December 7, 1941 happens and the Yamaguchi family is thrown in disarray.  The patriarch is arrested, and sent to a labor camp.  The rest of the Yamaguchi family will soon follow suit and be sent to an internment camp – the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming.

Overall, the cast was exceptional.  But, I have minor reflections on the craft.   

Moises Castro did fine as Ernesto “Tito” Montaño.  There is more to be had in the relationship between the two brothers. Valdez shares a quantifiable difference between the make-up of the two boys – one brother is a warrior, and the other is a lover.  Character actions guide an actor to that end, and Castro’s objective must move him in that direction.

The same holds true with Justin Chien as Joe “Yoshi” Yamaguchi who appears to be on the same path but from a different household.  This character must have a clearer objective.

Randall Nakano has a lot of funny moments as Ichiro Yamaguchi especially when witnessing his grandson for the first time. Ichiro presents strength and an unwillingness to bend, but one wonders if his choices help him navigate to the dramatic ending.

Joy Osmanski also had her moments as Hana Yamaguchi, the wife who obeys the wishes of her husband.  But, ignoring the times, there must be a reflective moment where she conquers as an individual and one that rules the house in an act of disobedience. Still, it was a fine performance.  

There is a moment when Rose Portillo as Paula Montaño finds out that one of her sons has just joined the military.  She pulls up her hand to slap him and then changes her mind to caress his face.  It is a beautiful moment that carries long after the theatrical night.  Portillo is wonderful in the role.

Christy Sandoval as Maruca Montaño seemed lost in this production.  This character needs more work.  There were many opportunities to add to the character, the hot tub scene and the fight scene, but these scenes did not give us an idea of who this person is what her focus in life is.  The physical actions of the character (extremely different from the rest of the cast) did not move the character toward the end when the audience discovers she is a lesbian.  How does the physical and emotional life move her in a way that moves her in that direction?

Scott Keiji Takeda plays Calvin Sakamoto, a Japanese American, who gets hauled off into the internment camp.  He is the love interest and not really dangerous although he carries an unloaded cap pistol with him.  Takeda has a strong voice and has a comic sensibility about him and just about everything he said provoked laughter from the audience. His work is superior.

Daniel Valdez plays the father, Cayetano Montaño, and provides a solid performance. Valdez brings a lot of life to the role of father, husband, and worker. Discovering the loss of his son is a terrific moment in the play. Valdez is an exceptional actor that creates light from the darkness.

Melanie Arii Mah is Thelma, the woman caught between two worlds.  She is slightly mixed up and really doesn’t know what she wants.  She doesn’t love the man chosen for her and she is also ambivalent to take the man she loves and thereby defying her father. (see Romeo and Juliet) She seems resigned to understand that any decision is a bad decision for someone she’s involved with so she plays it close to her being.  One interesting thought is that her actions are all actions remembered by her husband.  

Lakin Valdez plays Benjamin Montaño and there is more work to done with this character. Anger should be left to specific moments during the course of his life and should have been directed at circumstances rather than people. Instead where love is critical – the objective could have been stronger. Never give up should be his mantra, on his girlfriend, then his wife, and then his child.   Love rules this character until the end when he has it all, in memory, and knows that everyone is safe and sound. He is the storyteller and every moment is a visual historical moment that moves him to tell the story in the end.  Also, desperation is a key component that was missing between the love interests.

Cast member who did not perform the night I was there were Melodie Shih, Michael Uribes, Natalie Camunas, and Ricky Pak.

In the darkness, desperation plays a vital role in the through-line of becoming one family once again. The end is reflective of the beginning in Luis Valdez’s play.  The storyteller should not be lost during the course of the actions on stage. But, is there more of a dramatic ending to be had? Possibly, we should see those who made it and maybe those that didn’t. And we should see that in dramatic fashion.

Heart was presented by the Center Theatre Group – Michael Ritchie Artistic Director – Stephen D. Rountree Managing Director – Douglas C. Baker Producing Director – Gordon Davidson Founding Director in association with El Teatro Campesino. 

Other members of the crew are as follows: 

Kinan Valdez - Associate Director
Lupe Valdez - Costume Designer
Pablo Santiago - Lighting Designer
Philip G. Allen - Sound Designer
Edgar Land - Fight Director
Rosalinda Morales and Pauline O'Con - Casting 
PJ & Roy Hirabayashi - Original Compositions and Arrangements
Noé Yaocoatl Montoya - Additional Arragements
Phillip Esparza - Executive Producer
David S. Franklin - Production Stage Manager
Susie Walsh - Stage Manager

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Dixie’s Tupperware Party by Kris Andersson

Kris Andersson (Dixie Longate)

Why would anyone woman marry a man named Absorbine and then call their kid Absorbine, Jr., (Walmart $10.99)?  Well, Dixie Longate (Kris Andersson) did just that.

Down South LLC, in association with Louise Hall Beard and Joe Everett Michaels, presents Dixie Longate in Dixie’s Tupperware Party by Kris Andersson and directed by Patrick Richwood at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through December 30, 2018.

Absorbine is now dead along with her other two husbands, due to no fault of Dixie. (But, thinking about it, is she entirely faultless?)

As my Georgian grandpa use to say: “Well, sometimes people just ain’t no count.”

After the death of Absorbine, the husband, Dixie had to do something besides drinking, her one guilty pleasure in life, and it was something that was getting her nowhere, fast.  

She had three kids to raise (one with each husband). After attending her first Tupperware party, she was hooked. Not in the drugged or fishing kind of hooked, she just gravitated to a life that set a fire under her, that gave her some gumption within her loins.  

So Dixie, gussied up in a ‘50’s housewife motif, bouffant red hair, blue eye shadow, luscious red lips, and earrings down to her clavicles, she was ready to put on her very own Tupperware party in voluminous grandeur.  


Not to spread rumors because that’s not me, but, Dixie hasn’t entirely given up drinking. During this Tupperware party, she takes a sip here and there, one sip to take the edge off, and the next sip she was off sashaying into a dancing motif slapping her backside. After all, it ain't a party until Dixie's up on the table doing something.

She is especially driven to drink while watching a man, Orion (who appeared to have never set foot into a kitchen), open a can of soup. Though from a man’s perspective, I believe that Dixie’s directions were not that clear, possibly because of the drink, or the inability of a man ever understanding the sincere directions of a woman.

Oh, and let’s not forget about the lesbians.

Dixie’s Tupperware Party is too much fun! You live the experience if you are of the mindset that you are there to buy Tupperware and listen to the presentation (catalogue provided).  It just flows to incredible heights.

Not all of it is a wacky comedy; there are moments that ring a solid truth, truths about abuse and pain that shakes the house into a buying frenzy.  It is sincere but probably part of the plan.  

Dixie’s song is one of resilience, of a woman who has overcome many troubled periods to provide for her family and succeed at every level.  Still, she can’t shake the past and she brings that life with her to sell the heck out of those bowls, that are multicolored, last forever, and can be willed to many future generations

And it is probably why Dixie’s Tupperware Party has been running for eight or more years all across the country.

Kris Andersson (Dixie) is quick witted and the night is filled with glorious improvisational moments. So fast, one just lets things go because the next interesting thing quickly comes along. The jokes are a little blue and has this audience member saying, she said what?

Speaking of saying things, Christopher K. Bond’s Sound Design was a little off as the sound was not as clear as other productions witnessed at the Kirk Douglas.

Patrick Richwood, Director, leaves a lot of room for improvisation.  What is not clear is the progression of events, of Dixie getting more intoxicated as the night wears on, of a changing of character so profound that participants should be rushing the stage to buy the product. (Figuratively, of course.)

The night is filled with all sorts of goodies in a poke.  There is also a nice tribute to Brownie Wise the woman who started it all and who got women all across the country hosting, meeting, and getting to know their neighbors  

After the show, Kris Andersson marches into the lobby of the Kirk Douglas for a meet and greet, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact it has a lot of southern charm.

Other members of this delightful crew are as follows:

Richard Winkler – Lighting Design
MicheleHelbert – Tour Manager
K L Management – General Management
Patty Onagan Consulting – Marketing Director
Kristin Humphrey – Grass Roots & Promotions
Davidson & Choy Publicity – Publicity

Run! Run! And take your second cousin twice removed, the one who lives in a trailer park, not far from the creek.   You’ll both get a kick out of this.


Sunday, December 16, 2018

Tryst by Paul Coates

By Joe Straw

As a young boy
he noticed the changing of the light

as cumulus clouds moved
between him and the sun,

patterned billows diffused the light swiftly
from left to right

bringing light to darkness
darkness to light

and through the opaque window,
highlighting her hair,

her apron,
the sink,

the dark brown of the walls
turned a lighter shade,

and the inferior tiles in the kitchen
showed visible strains of children. 

Each light
another surprise and

a discovery
in the making - Narrator

Theatre is like this  - finding a moment in the light, discovering something new, an opening to a better understanding of the human condition.  – Narrator

The small stage at the Hudson’s Guild theatre was bare, except for four white chairs, and four black music stands on this Tuesday night December 11, 2018. 

One sign of humanity was a green backpack nestled against the wall, stage right. And, off to the side, a fancy white water bottle with a twist top that nourishes a human being.

Upstage against the wall hung an olive-green curtain that languished in the light – that held back darkness – and kept prying eyes from entering.

The particles of light emanate off the black box stage; walls and white chairs give the appearance of a purple fog and certainly a beginning to something new.  This would be a reading to “virgin ears.” This is where all theatre starts, from the very beginning.

Tryst: an appointment to meet at a certain time and place, especially one made somewhat secretly by lovers.

Tryst by Paul Coates, directed by Nick DeGruccio, was on stage this night. I really hadn’t come to write a review.  I thought I would just write notes and present them to anyone who would gratefully receive them. So, these are my observations.

About halfway through the second act, I looked at the audience, a sideway glance if you will, and noticed everyone in rapt attention, no moving, no phones, no drinking, or taking out candy. And although this was a reading, one could not have asked for a better performance.

Charlie (Paul Coates) and James (David Youst) are a couple who have been together for quite a while although they have never been married.

Charlie is in the television business, a producer/writer, who is trying to get a project with Mylie Cyrus off the ground. He does not want to leave his beautiful home on Mulholland to wrestle with traffic and fight with people at the studio.  

Charlie is on the phone negotiating deals and fighting with other people about who should be in his program.  He is an ex-patriot from England but has managed to keep his petulant English accent. (Think of his character as a cross between Elton John and Michael Shurtleff.)  Could his petulancy be the result that something is not quite right with his relationship at home?

James, his partner, seems to be the level headed one.  He is a corporate executive, a creative director of a department store who does not like the entertainment limelight and really wants to be as far away from that life as possible.

On the surface and together, they are open and share everything.

After finishing the pilot, they plan an extended three-month trip to Paris. They have been searching around for a dog sitter, when Devon (Alex Best) enters their life.

Devon is a good-looking 25 year-old man with a striking resemblance to Paul Rudd.  (That resemblance plays well into the play.)  He is a homeless actor, a fatherless young man, who has acted in a few things and is desperately looking for any kind of work.

Devon ingratiates himself to Charlie first.  In fact, Charlie, despite all the bad things in his life right now, will not leave for work until he gets to know the intimate details of Devon’s life.  

Meanwhile James is pushing Charlie out the door so that, one, Charlie makes his appointment and, two,  he can have Devon all to himself while he explains the job.

With Charlie gone, levelheaded James explains the rules of the house to Devon, gushing all the while, explaining his age and getting mixed messages that Devon may be coming on to him.

Devon lands the job and becomes a valuable assistant in the process. Both Charlie and James want more so they invite him to Paris.

But, Devon wants even more. Overhearing that “Shane” (not seen) is not working out with the new Mylie Cyrus project, “He just not funny enough,” Devon puts on a southern accent and takes a go at the script.

Charlie is blown away by the reading and invites Devon to read for the part and then fights for him to secure the role.

Soon thereafter, they invite Devon to move in and be part of their family

Without giving away too much, there is a lot to enjoy of Coates work. It gives light to the human condition and highlights not only the words but the pauses as well. It is Coates finest work to date, as an actor and as a writer, and one that ingratiates itself to intimate theatre, the closer, the better the experience. It is exceptionally beautiful and rings a solid truth.

The fascinating part of this experience is the characters never really reveal their intimacy, reflective of their own emotions; they drill in order tell the other what exactly is on their mind. It is remarkable in the way two men are able to communicate with each other on the surface, and move on about their lives, without saying what they mean or want, and each wanting the intimacy they cannot articulate.

It is difficult to determine if a threesome is sustainable, that level of maturity needs a tremendous amount of work.  Twosomes are difficult enough to maintain, but in this work of art the exploration of the relationships, given all of their problems, makes for fascinating theatre.

In my imagination, I saw the home as open, white and sterile, no matter where the characters were.  There are a number of creative choices the director Nick DeGruccio can take this marvelous play.

David Youst was tremendous in this reading.  Sympathetic, slightly aggressive, and hiding feelings the he would normally express.

Alex Best, not quite the spitting image of Paul Rudd, but had some remarkable moments as well. The Character Devon is not willing to give up his secrets so easily but once he is secure he shares those moments.

And in the end, still not able to articulate their feelings, the ending is pleasing and totally unexpected.  


Sunday, December 9, 2018

Bus Stop by William Inge

L - R Jack Sundmacher, Kaitlin Huwe, Gary Ballard, Niko Boles, Mani Yarosh

By Joe Straw

Bus Stop, by William Inge and directed by Ann Hearn Tobolowsky, is now playing through December 16, 2018 at Theatre 40 on the campus of Beverly Hills High School.  And as always, parking is free!

In this dingy dinner, the donuts are what you’d expect, hard, under glass, and a couple of days old.  Two for a nickel sounds right for a hard swallow and a nice cup of joe.

There are slightly stained swivel chairs, Formica countertops, and duct tape patches on the holes of the diminishing dining chairs. About the best thing you could say about this eating establishment is that it is clean. Which is remarkable because there’s a privy outside in the back, and everyone must scrape every scrap of mud off his or her shoes before coming in.

The dining establishment’s floor is so clean that you could almost eat off it.

It says a lot about Jeff G. Rack Set Design that although everything is somehow not quite right in this diner, things can surely get better.

For the time being, this one-horse town is a rest stop for weary bus travelers. It is a slight respite from the malignant odor of a much-travelled Topeka bus heading for destinations unforeseen and places forgone to the west.

Kansas never had it so good, or so bad for that matter. A little diner tucked away about thirty miles west of Kansas City, Missouri, or Kansas City, Kansas whichever you prefer.

The time is one A.M, sometime in the early ‘50’s, a blizzard has hit, snow has accumulated on the window seals, and the waitresses are preparing for a bus coming in because of a road closure west of the diner.

As Grace (Michele Schultz), the owner, and Elma (Mani Yarosh), high-school aged waitress, await the bus riders, they chat about all kinds of things, like Grace’s missing husband, Barton (not seen), her loneliness, and Elma’s good grades in school.

Sheriff Will Masters (Shawn Savage), mackinaw and all, without a gun, comes into the shop to tell them the bus is almost there and wondering if he could get a fresh cup of coffee.   

“It just went through, Will. Fresh as ya could want it.” – Grace

And just after the bus stops Cherie (Kaitlin Huwe), a nightclub singer with questionable abilities, runs in, suitcase in tow, asking to be hid. Will, always wanting to help anyone in trouble hears Cherie’s plea, “I need protection.”

“What from?” – Will

“There’s a cowboy after me.” -- Cherie

Will gets the story – about her abduction to Montana by a mean cowboy – and he says he will protect her.

And as Elma talks up Will’s ability to take on any man, a man comes into the diner.

Not the cowboy, it is Dr. Gerald Lyman (Jack Sundmacher), slightly inebriated.

“Ah! ‘This castle hath a pleasant seat.’” – Dr. Lyman – (Macbeth by William Shakespeare – Act I scene VI)

Dr. Lyman, somewhat ignorant about geography, seems slightly confused as to where he is at the moment. Carl (David Datz), the bus driver, explains exactly where he is. 

Undeterred, Dr. Lyman warms himself by the heater. Then he sees Elma and his eyes light up at this young high school student.

“’Nymph in thy orison, be all my sins remembered.’” – Dr. Lyman (Hamlet by William – Act 3 scene 1)

Elma is a little confused by Dr. Lyman’s rattling off Shakespeare at any given moment and doesn’t know how to respond.  The doctor orders a rye whiskey on the rocks.

That ain’t going to work in this diner that only serves sandwiches, soft drinks, bakeries, and coffee.

Will, takes a look around at the patrons and asks Carl if that’s it.  No, and Carl warns him about two cowboys sleeping in the back of the bus – Bo (Niko Boles), the young mean cowboy, and Virgil Blessing (Gary Ballard), his companion.

“I’d jest as soon they stayed where they’re at.  One of ‘em’s a real troublemaker.  You know the kind, first time off a ranch and wild as a bronco.  He’s been on the make fer this li’l blonde down here.” – Carl

L - R Niko Boles, Gary Ballard, Shawn Savage, Kaitlin Huwe

There are exceptional performances in this production of Bus Stop.  It is slow to start but manages to gather steam and then soars.  And, as the performance end, one is wrap up in the humanity of it all and sent out of the theatre bundled in the warmth of empathy.

Ann Hearn Tobolowsky, the director, defines the humanity of each character in ways that allow us to zero in on an expression and also a defining moment in the character’s arch.  Those moments ring beautifully, soulfully, and capture a feeling of not wanting this night to end.

Still, I have some observations to share. Take what you like, discard the rest.

Gary Ballard as Virgil Blessing.  The name Virgil implies a philosopher which he is as he tries to reason with Bo and teach him the ways with women.  The relationship between these two could have been stronger, almost a father and son but came off as sidekick, which he is not.  The ending between these two should have us all in tears but the relationship never got to that point.  Ballard’s guitar playing was magnificent and worked beautifully with the song All or Nothing at All (1939 Music by Arthur Altman, lyrics by Jack Lawrence). How can we have an effective ending for Virgil?

Niko Boles had his moment as Bo, a young man who is not really that mean.  He walks in with his legs spread like he’s been riding horses all day and takes a drink of a quarter of a gallon of milk in two gulps, dripping some down his chin as he finishes it. But during those moments he took his eyes of the prize, which he should never do.  Inquisitiveness was one thing lacking in the way he approaches his romantic interest when things aren’t going his way. One would like to see an emotional ending to his relationship to Virgil, torn between his girlfriend and the man that took care of him after his parents passed away.  Although the character of Bo could be a little more refined, still some very good work.

Michele Schultz, David Datz

David Datz also had his moments as Carl. Datz has a natural presence in a defined character.  Hit objective was clear in words but not necessarily in action. He takes his eyes off the prize during the quiet moments before leaving the diner to go for a supposedly long walk.  The imaginary rope must be tied to his love interest before he leaves.

Kaitlin Huwe presents a grand figure as Cherie.  The song, All or Nothing at All, was just superb.  It was interesting that they chose the song to be pitch perfect.  If she is that good, she should dump the guy and go straight to Hollywood.  And maybe it is one reason she goes to Montana, not entirely because of the charm of the cowboy.  That aside, Huwe does some amazing work as the night progresses and as she decides to stay with Bo.  Her entry on stage needs work, more to highlight of who she is and what she is.

Shawn Savage as Sheriff Will Master also does a terrific but is pretty much low key in his character. One wonder if there is any more to this character, the sheriff without a gun. Is there is more to the man than his fists?  The young waitress praises the sheriff on his strength and virility but that goes by like ships in the night. One wonders if there is a stronger choice for this character, his objective, and how that relates to his interactions with the other characters.

Michele Schultz gave just the right touch to Grace.  She was very funny and gave the character a lot of strength and resolve.  Was there a point where she invites the bus drive up to her place?  If there was, one didn’t see it.  And, is there more to the ending and the relationship with the other man before she closes the door on him?  The ending is very sad and leaves us with little to know that more is coming.

L - R Mani Yarosh, Jack Sundmacher, Gary Ballard

Jack Sundmacher plays Dr. Lyman.  The rumbled suits fits, the inebriated self gives him a façade, but the core of the character needs a little work. It needs definition to give him a stronger center. Once he sees the young waitress, nothing should stop him, except perhaps his inner demons. Professors are unique, each one, in their way of action and expressions.  Let’s find some ways to give this character life.  The relationship to the waitress should be stronger, almost to the point of being unhealthily close. The collapse is a moment that needs highlighting. It could be presented in many different ways, it could even be ambiguous, but it has to involve her, his life, and what he chooses to be at this point.    

Mani Yarosh does some fine work as Elma, squinting eyes and a broad smile plays into her naivety.  The scene where she finds out that someone loves her is as beautiful a moment as one could have on stage.   Some wonderful work.  

David Hunt Stafford wonderfully produced this production.

Don Solosan was the Stage Manager.

Michéle Young, Costume Designer, did a beautiful job with the costumes.

Brandon Barush was responsible for the Lighting Design.  

Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski was the Sound Designer and provided original music.

Richard Carner is the Assistant Stage Manager, and Susan Mermet is the Assistant Director.

Ed Kreiger as the photographer and Philip Sokoloff did the publicity.

Richard Hoyt Miller did the program design.   

Run! Run! And take a lascivious professor!

Reservations and information:  310-364-0535

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Fairy Tale Theatre 18 & Over: The Musical by Michael J.Feldman, Music by Jason Currie

L - R Sheila Carrasco, Greg Worswick, Michael J. Feldman, Burl Moseley, and Tina Huang - Photos by Jeff Lorch
By Joe Straw

When my girls were young, I recited a made-up bedtime story that started something like this.

Once upon a time, in a land, not very far from here, lived Tina, the tiny bunny.  And Tiny was a precocious bunny; she knew everything there was to know about anything, and what she didn’t know, she just hopped on her bunny pads to the computer and Googled the answer.

She spoke perfect English and only a few knew how she got like that.

Rapscallion and discerning she was and when things got under Tina’s fur, her ears started vibrating, her eyes turned green, her teeth began to rattle, and she would just cut loose.  

Billy Bear said she had a mouth like a sailor. This is why Billy is now outside her tree house looking in, just begging to come inside. – Narrator

Step inside of The Pico Playhouse to witness a few fairy tales.  They won't play long but they will stay with you forever.

Fairy Tale Theatre 18 & Over The Musical written by Michael J. Feldman and directed by Annie McVey with music by Jason Currie, and produced by Kim Hamilton and Bernardo Cubría is playing through October 7, 2018.    

Noriko Olling Wright, keyboardist, offstage right, waited patiently, slowly watching with her hands to her side.  Her right leg rested on something so that her right knee was curved slightly, as she patiently waited for the multitudes to enter the theatre. She blinked slowly, confident of the material in front of her, and paid scant attention to the few patrons that entered.  

With only moments before show time, one observed a smallish crowd in the intimate Pico Playhouse.  Not what I imagined given Ammunition Theatre last smash hit A Giant Void In My Soul by Bernardo Cubría. 

And then something quite nice happened; theatre patrons poured into the theatre.  All the seats were suddenly taken and more seats had to be brought in from the back, black folding chairs to be precise on this sold out night.

The onlookers waited patiently, some hugs were exchanged, and as the lights dimmed the narrator (Michael J. Feldman) walked through the red curtains, a mollycoddled man treated to a kingly chair right next to a chest of treasure.  He read from a fairy tale book before breaking into a song and dance about turning off your – ahem – “motherf**king phone”.

Yes, this is an adult fairy tale – polychromatic tales of barbarous amusement that is sure to delight.

One supposes that everyone got the point about the phone and noise, except the woman sitting next to me with a cup of wine and her audacious insistence of foraging through her raucous bag of chips.

Michael J. Feldman has written an anodyne musical, something that relieves the pain of our political undercurrent, while providing poignant life lessons in a number of comedic sketches.  Now in its simplest form it is an exordium of finer things to come. The sketches are topical that touch an emotional chord. So, if you are venturing out to see fairy tales, go for the tales and leave with the life lessons.

Gone are the Michael J. Feldman locks, (from previous photos), replaced with a short crop and three-day-old stubble. It is unclear how that works for this character and for the multitudes of characters he plays, except perhaps the dog and um maybe the gay cat, but the star? No way.     

Amusement aside, there is a tremendous amount here to enjoy – a big bang for the buck – music by Jason Currie, Musical Director, adds to the sketches with animals frolicking and dancing on the stage floor courtesy of Meghann Lucas choreography for wry actors who can move and nicely costumed by Stephen Rowan’s wonderful creations and prop designs.  

Annie McVey’s direction gives all of the actors the chance to shine.  The puppets were marvelous! But a little more character work would help this production

Some character choices need focus. For example, the penguin (Jason Rogel), although incapable of flying, should try to fly throughout the sketch. He just seems to stand there watching the other characters achieve their goals. By the way, penguins are Antarctica/Galápagos animals far away from the likes of Caribou (Matt Cook), Eskimo (Jess McKay), and the Snow Owl (Sheila Carrasco).

One is not sure how “the silent P” (Sheila Carrasco) works or how it is connected to the body of the work but it was funny.  These are minor quibbles for a show that will only grow after a few performances. Keep the good; throw out what doesn’t work and give Carrasco more to do as she lights up the stage. 

Writing about the sketches probably gives too much away but one that I found fascinating was the creation of the universe, with a man dressed up in the black hole costume (Jason Rogel) looking much like a North Korean dictator. So, there is an effective and wonderful topical connect.  The message was one of good versus evil.  What is good and what is evil? Or, is “it” just what it is? Despite the other silly characters with asteroids on their heads (the things that actors have to do), this particular sketch was profound in identifying good and evil and was completely satisfying.

And while some things need work (as all shows do), there is a sense of kindness that radiates in the work and one that presents a dramatic truth. The characters personified present a grand realization that touches the theatregoer to the core and sends us out smiling into the colorful night.

All of the actors, ten of them to be exact, had multiple roles.

Jess McKay,  Tina Huang

Jess McKay (Master Harold/Eskimo/Groundhog/Ensemble) is funny as the Eskimo wanting to become a podiatrist. McKay does well and has a nice look on stage.

Tina Huang (Mastress Denise/Glacier/Rabbitt/Daisy/Gov. Cluster) was a glacier that wants to be more than a stoic and solid piece of ice.  She has a nice baritone voice.

Matt Cook, Jason Rogel, Jess McKay, Tina Huang

Matt Cook (Master Peter/Penguin’s Friend/Caribou/Capt.), hiding behind the caribou puppet, is another appealing actor that slides into all roles effortlessly.

Jason Rogel (Asshole/Penguin/Black Hole) is the hapless – wanting to fly – penguin that has managed to get himself up into the artic and he has his moments in other roles.

 Sheila Carrasco, Greg Worswick, Burl Moseley, Cloie Wyatt Taylor, Jess McKay, Michael J Feldman

Sheila Carrasco (Snow Owl/Red Super Giant/Grandma Penguin) is effective in all roles and has a wonderful presence but one would like to give her more in do in the Service Dog scene.  

Greg Worswick (Unicorn/Francois/Moon) presents different characters in all of his roles, the unicorn, Francois, the service dog, and the moon.  In all cases, the work is taken to playful extremes and is exceptional.

Sheila Carrasco, Greg Worswick, Cloie Wyatt Taylor, and Burl Moseley

Burl Moseley (Fox/Straight Cat/Max Beefy Cluster) is terrific as the Straight Cat, a cat that manages to blur the line of his sexuality. Moseley is exceptionally comfortable in all of his roles.

Cloie Wyatt Taylor (Sparrow/Gale/Red Dwarf) has a terrific voice and maybe one that could be pushed to another vocal level. We only get a test of her terrific voice in this outing.

Jason Currie leaves his Musical Director job to perform as an opera singer and Cpt. Buttersworth.  He has a fine voice.

Kudos to Michael J. Feldman.  He put a lot of work went into this show, writing, singing, and acting are all a part of a very successful night of theatre.

Brit Manor, Emerson Collins, Chris Gardner, and Brandon Scott are understudies who did not perform the night I attended.

Dalmar Montgomery, Sound Design, came off without a hitch and worked effectively.

There a lot to enjoy from Andrew Schmedake, Lighting Designer and Helton Najera, Asst Lighting Designer work, especially the Universe Scene.

Spencer Saccoman was the Stage Manager and with all the costumes and props one would imagine a very busy person.

Judith Borne was responsible for the press.

Run! Run! And take an inquisitive new adult!

The Pico Playhouse
10508 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90064