Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Last Straw Awards 2015

By Joe Straw

I remember shows for years.  Not every infinitesimal detail but the general outline of the show, what worked, what didn’t, the moments that made the audience gasp in surprise, or in horror.  But mostly I remember the moments that propelled the actors onto the stage, and those moments when actors proudly came off stage – supremely satisfied by what they had done.

Meeting an actor after a successful performance is extremely fulfilling and I wish there were many more meet-and-greets after shows.  Because, that’s what this business is all about, being seen. 

In any case, these are the actors, writers, and directors whose work I considered exceptional.


Proof By David Auburn - Moth Theatre
Amanda Brooks - Catherine
Felicity Price – Claire

Hellman v. McCarthy by Brian Richard Mori – Theatre 40
Dick Cavett – himself

finding Nick by Nicholas Guest – Zephyr Theatre
Nicholas Guest – himself

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams – The Renegade Theatre
Wilson Better – Tom

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side by Derek Ahonen – The Matrix
Patrick Scott Lewis – Donovan

The Woodsman by Steven Fechter – The Coeurage Theatre Company
Tim Cummings – Walter
Cesar Ramos – Carlos
Joey Nicole Thomas – Nikki

Light Sensitive by Jim Geoghan – The Moth
Preston Acuff – Tom
Sasha Kapustina – Edna
Ned Liebl – Lou

Oh My God by Anat Gov
Mike Burstyn – God

André & Dorine by Jose Dault and Garbine Iñsausti – Los Angeles Theatre Center
Jose Dault
Garbiñe Insausti
Edu Carcamo

This is a Man’s World by Sal Lopez – Los Angeles Theatre Center
Sal Lopez

The Misanthrope by Moliere – adapted by Tony Tanner
Kathy Bell Denton – Arsinoe

Little Red – Book by Anthony Aguilar & Oscar T. Basulto – Music by Quetzal Flores – Lyrics by Anthony Aguilar & Quetzal Flores – Casa 0101
Xolo Maridueña – Corky
Ray Steward-De La Fuenta – Don Coyote

King Dick by Christian Levatino – Gangbusters Theatre Company
Christian Levatino – E
Corryn Cummins – Dottie Stevens 

Richard III by William Shakespeare – The Eclectic Company Theatre
Jesse Merlin – Buckingham
David Pinion – George Duke of Clarence

Orphans by Lyle Kessler – Theatre of NOTE
Darrett Sanders – Harold

The Great Divide by Lyle Kessler – The Lillian
Mark McClain Wilson – Noah

Mojada A Medea in Los Angeles – a new adaptation by Luis Alfaro – Boston Court at The Getty Villa
Marlene Forte – Armida
VIVIS – Tita

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams – The Lonny Chapman Theatre
Madeline Fair – Margaret
Daniel Kaemon – Brick
Kyra Schwartz – Mae

No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre – Oh My Ribs! Theatre
Carolyn Hennesy – Inez

Boyle Height by Josefina López – Casa 0101
Javier Ronceros – Ruben
Karina Bustillos – Rosana

Nat Turner:  Following Faith by Paula Neiman – Theatre/Theater
Sade Moore – Nancy
Phrederic Semaj – Hark

Garbo’s Cuban Lover by Odalys Nanin – Macha Theatre
Clementine Heath – Garbo

57 Chevy by Cris Franco – Los Angeles Theatre Center
Ric Salinas – Cris, Jr.

Pain by Paul Coates – Caminito Theatre
Fred Fate – Various roles
Paul Coates - actor
Lisa Beezley – Charlotte


Clean Start – writers Kathy Fischer & Josefina López
King Dick – writer Christian Levatino
In Love and Warcraft – writer Madhuri Shekar
Mojada A Medea in Los Angeles – writer Luis Alfaro
The Latina Christmas Special – writers by Maria Russell, Diana Yanez, and Sandra Valls
Pain – Writer Paul Coates


John Markland – Proof by David Auburn
Jeremy Lelliott – The Woodsman By Steven Fechter
John Markland – Light Sensitive by Jim Geoghan
Christian Levatino – King Dick by Christian Levatino
Jessica Kubzansky – Mojada A Medea in Los Angeles by Luis Alfaro
L Flint Esquerra – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
Edward Padilla – Boyle Heights by Josefina López

And the Ortiz Award 2015, representing diversity in a theatrical presentation goes to
Boyle Heights – Casa 0101

Thank you to the Los Angeles Theatre Community.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Pain by Paul Coates

Paul Coates & Delta Rae Giordano In PAIN City

By Joe Straw

My sister is dying, stage 4 cancer, it’s everywhere.

She is in good spirits and laughs all the time.   

I call her on my way home from work on most days, to see how she is doing.  Her phone doesn’t work.  Well, she can’t make calls; she can only receive them.  It’s one of those “pay as you go” phones and the paying part is just part of the problem.  

And at this point in her life it’s the little things, like getting a phone that works that become an insurmountable obstacle to her daily living.     

Also, I’ve been speaking to her about her end of life and what she should be doing. Well, she’s headstrong and hardly listens to anything I have to say. “Get a new phone. Sign your will.  Take care of the cremation stuff and, for the love of God, call the real estate lady.” 

She takes the notes; writes big, because she is blind in one eye and can hardly see from the other. Her thinking is not all that clear, after the stroke.

She is homebound, can’t drive, and relies on others for help. Little gets done.

I’ve arranged food to be delivered to her home, Meals on Wheels, for which I am thankful.  

But, I am numb with pain at this point.  I can only do what I can do from California. And I’ve come to the conclusion that dying is easy, it’s just that the living part is so exasperating and painful.  - Narrator

The Theatre Academy- Los Angeles City College presented Pain, a world premiere written and directed by Paul Coates on Saturday November 7th, 2015 in the Caminito Theatre.

Walking into the theatre taking my seats, I noticed five dissimilar chairs on stage.  Black music stands, remind of me of some incredibly happy times, and are carefully placed in front of the chairs.    

And, PAIN, drawn in what appeared to be a bright red lipstick, was projected on the upstage wall. 

Five chairs – not really what I expected – seeing other incarnations of this reading, photographs, on Facebook. I surmised this would be a scaled back version, an intimate night, with an intimate cast. 

When life moves, things change in a heartbeat. And as the lights go up, five chairs suddenly become more than twenty chairs.  And actors move fastidiously, sidestepping to not bump into the furniture and land on their place like blebs on a spider’s web. 

Elizabeth Reilly, David Youse, Bill Barker and the cast of PAIN City.

The show is to be presented in the style of “Reader’s Theatre” and the actors, most knowing their dialogue while some read, will present in a fashion that was comfortable to them.  They are made up of professors, professional actors, and students.

Pain by Paul Coates is a labyrinth, a web, a dollop of interconnecting nerve that is captured by the emotional core of the willing and unwilling. And Pain is also a deeply fascinating work of art in which the characters are finding ways to relieve the pain through human interaction.   Their interconnected physical lives are linked in various ways, and in life’s fashion, and their emotional connectivity lingers long after they have parted ways.  

At the core of Pain are the feelings one releases when caught up in the emotion of someone’s agony.  Some situations are easily identifiable when watching human interactions in the theatre.  It’s the thing that places you in their time and space, caught in the character’s expression. At times, Pain is funny, and other times you are invited to be riveted inside the life of the character.

The interesting part of it all is that Pain has no boundaries, and one anticipates the emotional solution from the interconnecting weave.  And that is what makes Pain so fascinating – it is filled with delightful surprises.   

People come and go with their pain.  

Pain begins with the loss of a child, Chloe (not seen).  She dies suddenly under the care of another, Becky (Persephone Laird). Everyone regarded Chloe a problem child and no one is sure how she died, just that it happened.  This doesn’t sit to well with the mother of the child, Linda (Rene Michelle).  She is grieving, in her way, and she lets it be known that she can never see that childcare woman again.

Linda confines to her best friend Mark (David Youse).

“Can you see a hole?” – Linda

“Yes, I do.” – Mark

In these trying times, only a friend would comfort her in the best way he knows how.

Moments later, a father, Frankie (Al Rossi) buries his son, Danny (Not seen) and deeply mourns him, carries his photo around while neglecting his other son, Seth (Bryson Jones Allman). Seth, in deep turmoil (he’s right there!), is at a loss as to why he doesn’t count in their relationship and appears to have emotional problems of his own.  

The nurse (Christelle Baguidy) tells Seth that his father is doing better.  She knows pain firsthand being brought in 17 years ago with 200 broken bones ultimately relieved by the morphine drip.  

But, Seth doesn’t feel anything.

“What do you want, Seth?” – young man

“I want to feel pain.” – Seth

And while Seth might not feel pain, his sister Chris (Jessica Atkinson) is as she is screaming in labor, too late for the epidural while the nurse is speaking suggestively about her husband.  

Angela 2 (Megan Gomez) plays basketball and is not sure about her emotional life and her physical needs, why she can’t communicate with others around her, the pain of being isolated, forgetting there is someone watching her.  And that someone is Miles (Michael Macrae) who playfully throws a paper airplane clear across infinity (the stage) directly into her hands, professes his love, but is completely misunderstood by the receiver. (Blame the young writer.)

“Miles is inside my heart… I hate him.  I love him.” – Angela 2

Corinne (Elizabeth Reilly) is not related to the bartender (Brendan Broms) but imparts the information that one does to a complete stranger serving drinks.  The bartender is a receptacle for information for barflies to belly up and unload a lot of pain.  The Oral Surgeon (Fred Fate) joins the party to relieve the nonsense he has to put up with.  A little mind numbing liquid refreshment would do his trick.

And then, coming out of the proverbial wings, is Phil (Paul Coates) playing Willie Lohman in Death of A Salesman. Phil is forgetting his lines and he doesn’t know if he is up to the task of playing the role after the recent passing of his wife Susan (not seen) but the director (Fred Fate) convinces him that now is the time to do this, that he has to work, he has the emotional requirement now to convey the pain in the role. The director implores Phil not to leave.

The first act draws to a close at this point and the particular scene is so wonderful that everyone in the audience takes a deep breath before leaving the theatre.   

Reader’s theatre is an acute instrument but ideally I would have wanted the actors up on their feet and interacting to get a feel of the relationships and a sense of place. Still, this night served a purpose – a benefit for the Los Angeles Community College – and a chance at least to hear the words of Paul Coates.

Fred Fate does some marvelous work here, not only in this scene but also as the wacked out oral surgeon, a dotard, and not working on all cylinders.  Fate is a master craftsman, a teacher of the craft, and outstanding on the stage. He puts it all out there that at times his face turns bright red, hair drenched, sweat pouring from his face, and one gets a little concerned for his safety at his emotional outpouring.  Fate is wonderful to watch.   

Paul Coates, the actor, also does some marvelous work on stage, pushing a lot of emotional buttons, and never letting go of the pain.  It’s the mark of a true craftsman when everyone is feeling what he is feeling inside.

Lisa Beezley plays Lisa and Charlotte, the agent. Juggling is what agents do.  Ten things on her mind while trying to make the deal, book the client, manage your life (what little there is), and make sure the employees do the right thing. Beezley is a remarkable actor that manages the agent’s life, the employee, and her mother all with an exquisite finesse.

Brendan Broms plays Steve, the bartender.  Broms has a nice presence on stage and plays host to other characters at the bar.  (If this hadn’t been Reader’s theatre, I would have included a bar center stage and had the other actors belly up to the bar.) Other than that, one wasn’t sure how this character fits in the overall scheme of the play.

David Youse & April Audia in PAIN City

“…he was a mean son of a bitch, but I loved him.  I’m 53, Marty.  I loved you but it’s time to cut you lose.” - Elaine

April Audia plays Elaine, one of Steve’s customers.   She imparts her pain, telling him, in a manner of speaking, that her husband committed suicide.  It’s not a particularly good time with their three kids in grade school.   Despite the passing of time, she doesn’t seem too broken up over it. It is something that happens, life. Audia’s performance was natural and nuanced, profound, and to the point.  It was simply, a marvelous job.

Christelle Baguidy played the Nurses, various nurses for various situations.  And in those roles she did really well. In a slight call out for more diversity, one would have like to have had Baguidy have a more substantial role. That aside, Baguidy is extremely appealing and natural on stage. She is also stunning.

Megan Gomez plays Angela 2, a basketball player who may or may not be in love.  A clearer objective would help understand the character. We know that she is in love.  But the reason for her conflict is puzzling and we need to understand her predicament. And, if she knew how to handle a basketball, convince us that she is a player that would also help with the character’s intention.

Michael Macrae plays Miles, the young man who is in love with the basketball player, but really doesn’t understand her final outcome.  The most he can do is tell his boss.  But if he is not feeling it then we are not feeling it as well.  Still, Macrae has a good look but more work needs to be done.

Persephone Laird plays Becky, the woman who was in charge of the child who died. There is something wrong with Becky and I’m not sure we got to the bottom of it during this reading. With the death of the child she loses everything, her business, her job, and even her own kids but feels little about what happened.  Or, so, that is the interpretation I got on this night. This performance did not work for me and I think it has something to do with apology and relationship to her counterpart.  

Al Rossi plays Frankie, the father who carries the picture of his dead son, neglecting his other children.  This is definitely one role that I would have liked the actors up on their feet on.  Pain is a private moment, but having it private in this instance, doesn’t work to its best advantage, especially when there are two other lives in play here, his children.   What good is pain if you cannot share it?

“Once upon a time there was a little girl Dina who had some issues…she looked like a princess but felt like a prince.” – Dean

Frank Salinas plays Dean.  Salinas has a good look and an interesting way about the stage.  But, the character Dean requires more definition, a nuanced personality, mistakes in mannerism, and a stronger core. The play is called Pain and we’ve really got to feel it from this character.

David Youse plays Mark as a character that you want to run to, if only to share your pain.  Youse is a very appealing actor and makes the most of Mark, a character which one is not totally convinced of his overall objective.

Bill Barker does yeoman’s work as Mr. Goldstein, the friendly, trusting patient to an out of control dentist.

Lisa Beezley, Michael MacRae, Ben Rovner and the cast of PAIN City

Christopher Callen as Angela has exceptional appeal on stage and was wonderful to watch. Delta Rae Giordano plays Vicky for whom the stage seemed comfortable to her. The painful presence of someone not forgotten.   Maria Rangel was very appealing as Isla. Elizabeth Reilly plays Corinne and Ben Rovner also has a nice turn as Coal.

An interesting thing about this type of theatre is understanding the relationships as the actors read or perform behind music stands.  Preferably one would like the actors on their feet throughout, attached by a string or lights to completely understand their relationship, positioned in a way to have them in and out of the scene, defined in such a way that we get the relationship e.g., father/son, father/daughter, employer/employee, etc.  We see, in traditional theatre, how relationships manifest themselves in place and in the passage of time. We get the actor/director relationship, the dentist/patient relationship because of their proximity of space. 

The other types of relationships we have to figure out, like Dean and Dina.  The program said, “Dina is friends with Dean”.  My impression was that Dina had become Dean. Also, Mark had an ex-lover Randall (we do not see) and Randall had two sisters Charlotte and Corinne.  But’s Mark’s relationship to Charlotte and Corinne was minimal and I don’t remember them being together in the same place.

That aside Paul Coate’s direction was marvelous, and his words always hit home, the natural chords of life. And the play manages to hit those chords. But one would ultimately like to have the final moment where the point of the play, the through line, hits solid. Still, I loved the work and felt the pain, deeply.

The production manager was Jenny Bacon.

Run! Run! Run!  See it in New York in the next incarnation.  

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Dickens You Say! A Christmas Carol – Conceived & Adapted by P.D. Soinski


P.D. Soinski - Photo by Chuck Everts

By Joe Straw

In these times of ours, no need to be precise, cira 2015, and particularly this holiday time of year, we casually, if not caustically, come upon the human stragglers created from the artistic mind of Charles Dickens.

Escape is fruitless on this early December morning.  Those trapped are the residues of ordinary lives and immediately are identified as human beings who have lived in monetary and emotional squalor.  They move from place to place trying to make the best of the day despite their poverty and persistent cough.

Oh, and let’s not forget that they live in various stages of want.
Still, they have duties to perform. And in doing so they wear the ragged clothes enmeshed in loam. Oftentimes these characters are the dregs of humanity, caught here today – some say - by the victim of their own circumstances.

Amongst those wretched human beings lives a man, Ebenezer Scrooge (P.D. Soinski).  He is impeccably dressed and moving fast to avoid the masses. An unmistakable scowl is plastered on his face.  Those lines permanently etched on his face are by the passing of foul time.  And also engraved, in his forehead, are the contours of his tragedies partially committed by his own making. Something he does not care to admit.  

Scrooge passes these people as if they don’t exist and is quick to avoid them for fear of something jumping from their bodies to his, be it animal or viral.

The Dickens You Say! – Narrator

The International Printing Museum present Dickens Day Celebration produced by Mark Barbour. The Dickens You Say! A Christmas Carol was conceived and adapted by P.D. Soinski.

I had heard there was a theatre at the International Printing Museum for quite some time but really didn’t give it much thought. 

The theatre is slightly off of theatre row, well, Torrance, California to be precise, and one doesn’t usually get out that way. But, I thought, what a great holiday outing for my girls. The Printing Museum is only 22 minutes out of Culver City, next to Alpine Village. It is a jaunt for our carriage, over the river and through the woods.   

It’s interesting to know Mark Barbour sees the validity of theatre to promote the Printing Museum.   After all, when one thinks about it, theatre is an important element and valid endeavor in any capital enterprise to promote a business, non-profit or otherwise.  Oh the entrepreneurial spirit of the man.

That aside, I’m thinking we’re going to have some fun and frivolity here this holiday season and this theatre is going to be an eye opening experience.

On a personal note: I haven’t had this much fun in a long time.

As soon as the doors opened everyone greeted us like we were long lost friends. Mr. Barbour decorated the Museum straight out of the Fessiwig scene in A Christmas Carol. The entire Museum was very festive, with all the clinquant finery, and the characters, showing off the printing machines, were dressed as characters right out of a Dicken’s novel, costumes exquisitely designed by Debbie Bush.  

George Bush (Father Time) and two young patrons of the museum.

Not only that, there were a number of patrons who came dressed in wonderful period costumes just to get into the spirit of the day.  Remarkable!

L - Ken Riedel (Fagin), Keefer Blakeslee (Artful Dodger)

Fagin (Ken Riedel) immediately introduced himself asking me if I wanted to make a purchase of some fine necklaces.  Neglecting to notice the rock from which he crawled out from, I politely informed him that I wasn’t in the market.  Also, Fagin was looking for the Artful Dodger (Keefer Blakeslee) who just happened to arrive on the scene. Mr. Dodger politely asked if he would take my picture, and he did, only to run away with my iphone.  He didn’t get far.

I made a discretionary inquiry to Miss Havisham (Trish Ryan), complete with soiled wedding dress, as to the whereabouts of her husband.  A mistake I regretted immediately. Her response was boisterously brash which cause my embarrassed daughters to ask me what I had done to that poor woman.  Miss Havisham’s consoling adopted daughter Estella (Yasmin Walker) was not far behind.  

Candace Blakeslee (Queen Victoria)

Finding a quite corner, while my daughters were involved in making letterpress printing, I found Queen Victoria (Candice Blakeslee).  She motioned for me to come forward to speak.  I found our discourse to be very uncomfortable (mostly me) but she managed to make me feel right at ease.

Other performers out in the museum were Wilkins Micawber (Peter Hay), Dr. Miles (Dr. Leland Whitson), Uriah Heep (Peter Small), Betsy Trotwood (Debbie Bush) and Father Christmas (George Bush) performing a variety of functions and staying in character all the while.  Captain Jack (Jack Conway) was also there explaining the 1895 Concert Roller Organ. James Steerforth (Mark Barbour), noted for his wit and romantic charm, managed in his best tradition.  

But the highlight of the show was Charles Dickens (P.D. Soinski) performing in the black box theatre in the center of the museum.  Three shows were scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.  Soinski’s wonderful performance touches all the right bases playing Charles Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge and the presentation becomes interactive at times as he enlists members of the audience to fill out the cast, including myself.  A Christmas Carol, in this one-hour version, highlights the significant moments in the book and it was a day that touched me emotionally as the character Scrooge does.  Also, the singing and playing games added to everything that makes Christmas joyful.

The acting, by professionals, was well above par as they stayed in character throughout their inactions with the museum patrons.  This made for a terrific day.

I haven’t had this much fun in a long time. That said, The International Printing Museum is a grand outing for young and old alike wanting to make this excursion an enlightening and educational experience.

The other upcoming events are as follows:
Franklin’s Electric Birthday Celebration – January 16th, 2016
Kids Krazy Krafts Day – Saturday March 19th, 2016
Independence Day Celebration – Saturday October 1, 2016
Dickens Holiday Celebration December 10th & 11th, 2016

For more information:

The International Printing Museum
315 Torrance Blvd.
Carson, CA  90745

Phone:  310-515-7166

Friday, December 25, 2015

Garbo’s Cuban Lover – by Odalys Nanin

 By Joe Straw

Mercedes De Acosta (Odalys Nanin) reclined on her luxurious couch, comforted by the warm soft spots that caressed her aging backside while trying to forget the pain from her recent surgery. A fresh bandage was wrapped around her head.  And no doubt, this was not a style she particularly liked.  Not only that, the throbbing was so great she had trouble concentrating on the things that made her happy.   

Yet, despite her pain, there was still life in De Acosta. She closed her eyes and embraced the darkness for relief but coruscations always triggered a deep yearning to open her eyes, and see beyond the shadows.     

Tonight her mind was playing tricks on her, possibly drug induced, but she saw the things that “were”, at first a silhouette, and then the lovely form of a female dancer.   Embracing the image, appreciating it more than some could imagine, De Acosta’s eyes formed the voluptuous figure of Isadora Duncan (Jacqueline Rae), once a friend, and a lover, but now, in benevolent ecstasy, her imaginary plaything.   

Lifted by the cold fog memories, Duncan’s physical presence fluttered in an enclosed case, until that paradigm could not contain her any longer. And in step with an imaginary initiative, Isadora Duncan danced her way to De Acosta and stripped off her bandages, the emblematic implements of her impairment, and also her outer layer of clothing, leaving her wearing nothing, but a brand new tuxedo.   

And, precipitously, De Acosta’s mind became clear, her body was able to move about, and she felt as limber as if she were a child.  And so they danced until the thoughts came back, and her mind was clear once again.  

In her condition De Acosta’s memories are spoken to the muse if only to tell her stories of a reality that exist in De Acosta’s mind, the truth, the whens, and wherefores.  

And certainly the ideas of De Acosta telling her memories would lift almost any lifeless soul to dance, to once again feel the touch of another woman, the hands, the cheeks, and the hips precipitating a night of nocturnal quivering.

Macha Theatre/Films presents the re-imagined version of Garbo’s Cuban Lover and original play by Odalys Nanin, produced, directed and written by Odalys Nanin and co-directed by Laura Butler. The show had 4 performances only December 12th, 13th, 18th , and 19th, 2015.

I saw this show in 2011 (Please see the earlier review on my blog.) and came back to see it again with a whole new set of actors with one exception of Odalys Nanin who wonderfully reprises her role as De Acosta.   

Garbo’s Cuban Lover was just as marvelous as the first time I saw it.  There were little differences in the staging if there was any at all. One would have to question why only four performances this holiday season when there are so many things to enjoy about the show.  

Be that as it may one would like to address the performances, by the individual actors, and the direction of the show by Odalys Nanin and Laura Butler.  

Odalys Nanin was charming as De Acosta.  Nanin is funny and brings the best elements to the character. There is always more to add, to strengthen the conflict, and to apply elements of want to the craft.  Simply put, to win Garbo, to keep Garbo, and to then fight off the others who want to come between them.

Clementine Heath is a stunning actor with an amazing craft.  Her Garbo is inspiring, a complex character, and she brings enough of the backstory to make Garbo an exciting three-dimension personality. There is certainly more to add, especially with the bad luck component to her character and to accentuate that element only to add to the comedy.  

Jacqueline Rae has some very funny moments as Isabela and was also Isadora Duncan.  She definitely needs more to do as Isadora besides dancing and being a muse earpiece. Conflict drives a relationship on stage and Rae needs to find that conflict most particularly her relationship with De Acosta.  At this point Duncan is dead, she is a ghost, a figment of an imagination.  This should not preclude conflict; the audience (me) needs to understand why she is back, how she feels about De Acosta, and what needs to be done.  Without a clear objective an actor will flounder with no place to go.  Not picking on Rae but definitive choices need to be made to give this dancer form and acuity.  
Lianne Schirmer is Salka Viertel and brings a sinister element to the role.  Viertel is someone who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Viertel is a player, someone deeply connected into the inner workings of Hollywood.  She is a meet and greet conniver to get what she wants. It is hard to see anything likeable about the character, but there are the grand moments of her relationship with Garbo, their history, their first film together, and those moments by Schirmer hit the mark and are superb.

Margo Alison plays Marlene Dietrich a woman who wants De Acosta if only to steal her away from Garbo.  I didn’t hear much of a German accent but she made up for it with a strong objective, getting what she came for without hesitation. And, oh yes, she got it.

Gary Gunter plays Thalberg.  It is an interesting role, fast, furious, and loud.  But Gunter does not bring the element that makes him tick, the motives for his rants, the sly undertones of a man who makes it his business to be on top of everything, his hands in every aspect of production.   Still, I enjoyed Gunter’s performance but wanted a little bit more, something that would give the character an edge, something that would ring true to his motives and objective. There is an interesting scene with Thalberg shouting from the rafters at De Acosta while she is in the throws of lovemaking.  What if he were in the room doing the same thing, not caring about what they were doing, only wanting the script, now? Gunter also had the roles of the editor and Mr. Van Stein.

Chala Savino does some very nice work as Poppy Kirk and has a marvelous dance number. Also, the fight scene was marvelous.

Members of the crew are as follows:

John Toom -  Set and Light Designer
Eric Bridges – Stage Manager, Tech Operator
Chris Hume – Video and Images
Monica Orozco – Dan Choreographer
Jane Owen – Publicist

The show only had four performances this time around.  Run! Run!  And bring a friend that likes the trappings of Hollywood.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

57 Chevy by Cris Franco

Ric Salinas

By Joe Straw

I almost didn’t come to this show.

The description of ’57 Chevy” sounded too similar to Sal Lopez’s one-man show “This is a Man’s World.” The two shows take place during similar time frames and the setting of Sal’s show is down the street from the setting of “57 Chevy”.

But the performer is Ric Salinas, of Culture Clash.  Yes! Ric – Culture Clash – Salinas, sans es Latino compadres.

So, we’re in the lobby at LATC a few weeks earlier, my partner said, “Why aren’t we seeing this?  You’ve got the tickets, right?”

At this point, I’m catching the serious stare.

“Well, no, not really, we saw Sal’s and…


“I’ll try for next weekend.” – Narrator

As the play starts, Cris Franco, Jr. (Ric Salinas) is in a Hollywood office.  The furniture is break room drab, and the view is less than inspiring surrounded by objects that arouse little creativity. (No one is credited for the Set Design in the program.)

And this could be the reason that Cris is having so many problems writing the simplest of sentences for his current project.  The wadded up papers, thrown in or around the trashcan, are signs of the vertiginous thoughts and of a highly inactive imagination. 

So he just sits, stares, twists in his chair, and waits for a spark to drive his conceptual engine.

The spark, maybe that’s it, maybe there’s a story here.  A story that, at first, seems benign but a story that could grow into something substantial.  Rolling around the office on his chair, trying to get a firm grasp of his cerebral wheel, taking a breath and looking back at the imaginary stars, he rolls back in time, slowly recreating that which has not been created.  


Cris back peddles his chair around the room, in an effort to jump-start his thinking.  Suddenly a door slams shut, a quiet sound envelops the cab until the key slips into the ignition, a heavy turn, the sound of a rumbling engine, and a modicum roar of contemplation as the fins and wings of open thoughts transport him into the distant past.

This is a story of an obsequious son, an observant author, now a man, who narrates the significant moments, dreams, and visions of his father.

The story begins with the purchase of a brand new 57 Chevy – and sitting, in the back seat of a car is a boy, wide-eyed, taking it all in trundling through memory highway.    

The Latino Theater Company presents 57 Chevy, written by Cris Franco and directed by Valerie Dunlap, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center through December 20, 2015.   

Cris Franco, Sr. was only four years old in Mexico when he got his first job, painting faces on plastic toy soldiers. This was part of the family lore, a story that never goes away when the topic of hard workingmen are spoken. Yes, lore is all in the telling.

And adding color commentary to his story is a very important woman, Didi Barnes, who, on this day, visits their home in South Central Los Angeles.

“La Didi, muy importante.” – Cris, Sr.

Ahh!  Didi’s grabs her Lucky Strikes, gathers the kids around the floor, and recounts in her broken Spanglish the story of being caught in the Mexico desert with a busted car, “el caro, no go oh”.  Stuck there with no one to help until “your Papa” drove by and offered assistance. Didi is so grateful she gave Cris, Sr. the name of someone in the USA who needed help repairing automobiles.

“I take my job very, very seriously.” – Cris, Sr.

And so Cris, Sr. found his way to El Norte, and worked at Felix Chevrolet at Figueroa & Jefferson in Los Angeles, California.

Back home in Mexico, his wife had another baby, Cris, Jr.   But Cris, Sr. couldn’t go back, needing to stay in the United States because of work.

And in the following year, Cris saved $1,802 for a beautiful new 57 Chevy, chrome and wings included.  The car was the one thing that represented the idea of being an American, a brand spanking new American car, for a big American family.

But, in order for Cris to realize his dream of an American family, he had to get them from Mexico. The long arduous journey requires meticulous planning and staying awake. So he concocts a formula for staying conscious on the long trip, the “magic no-sleep recipe” of drinking coffee and eating chilies.  

Bringing everyone back into the United States proved to be slightly problematic. Particularly when a border patrol agent didn’t believe they were entering through the Bracero Program.  But the guard admired his 57 Chevy, and with the admiration dripping, like water out of a tailpipe, the agent lets them proceed. 

And away they went to their home in the culturally diverse South Central Los Angeles where it was Dad’s dream for his son to become a doctor.  Unfortunately, things did not turn out as Dad had anticipated.  

And when Dad decided to move the family out of South Central to the San Fernando Valley, he loaded up the 57 Chevy, and made things a little more interesting for everyone.

One-man shows are difficult to perform successfully.  Ric Salinas inhabits a myriad of characters while playing one character, Cris Franco, Jr. There are no actors to play off of, and there is no one to relate to with the exception of the audience.

But, Salinas is a master chameleon and is able to give creative life to all of the very different characters – the father, Didi Barnes, the daughter, Father John O’ Sullivan, and the mother—Raquel. The sisters, Luisa, Marta, Maria and Raquel, are all there in various forms. At times, the roles come out in small vignettes, rather than a collection as a whole.  This is from the remembrances and imagination of the main character, the son, Cris, Jr. And for the most part, we see the characters through the eyes of the son. Salinas could go even farther explaining what happened, before his eyes, with each individual character.

Valerie Dunlap, the director, has Salinas moving the set pieces, not out of imagination and not through the eyes of the character, but through practicality.  The imagination and life of the character should be enough to move the set pieces.  And we have to find a way to see the events played out before Cris, Jr.’s eyes, that these events could be better defined in the way he deals with his father, the car, the Mother at the door on Halloween, and the “bumper stickie” event with the oldest daughter.    

Cris Franco, the writer, is a funny playwright.  He was present at the performance that I attended. And I immediately knew it was him because he ran from person to person, hugging and kissing everyone.  The real giveaway was the 57 Chevy model he was holding in his hands.

If I had a criticism of the play, it’s that we lose sight of the 57 Chevy from time to time.  The story is best suited when the life is about, or around the automobile, in every manner, and in every moment on stage.  (Is it possible to have a model car in the office?)  Also, if there is something that should be added, in feel and characterization, is the boy’s want of the car. Want helps the character with his objective and helps in creating a dramatic conflict in the play. (Also, somewhere in this play Cris Franco, Jr. should describe the car in loving detail giving color to his memory. This play needs the bright vibrant colors of Mexico.)  Yes, the father loves the car, takes great care of it, it is in pristine condition, and the son should have those same feelings, so that when the ends comes, we feel more for each character, the father, the son, the mother, and the sisters.

Lastly, one couldn’t ask for a better tribute than to have a play written honoring a man with a dream, a vision, and a strong work ethic.   This is the story of an American Dream seen through the eyes of an admiring son.  Certainly, and on this night in particular, one could not have asked for a better honor to Cris Franco, Sr., than having his entire family—wife, son, and daughters—on stage, and on this night paying homage to a man who lived the American dream.  

Run! Run! And take your father or a mentor.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Yee Eun Nam – Projection Design
Philip W. Powers – Lighting Design
Ivan Robles – Sound Design
Pablo Prietto – Additional Sound FX
Jonathan Castanien – Stage Manager  

Somewhere, and in a my imagination, there is a prodigious pristine chrome stature of a working Dad hunched over an automobile, a wrench in one hand, and a book of dreams in the other. 

Reservations:  866-811-4111

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Latina Christmas Special – Written & Performed by Maria Russell, Diana Yanez, and Sandra Valls

L to R - Diana Yanez, Maria Russell, Sandra Valls - Photo by: Xavi Moreno

By Joe Straw

The Latina Christmas Special, written and performed by Maria Russell, Diana Yanez, and Sandra Valls, is a wonderful way to start the Christmas holidays.  Created by Diana Yanez, directed by Geoffrey Rivas, and presented at the Latino Theater Center, this holiday special is a Latina take on celebrating the holiday season and I couldn’t be happier to have seen it.

For this production, the theatre chairs have been moved around to face eastwardly (toward the Star of Bethlehem); it makes the intimate stories all that more engaging in this black box venue.  

Sandra’s (Sandra Valls) couch sits in the middle of the living room and provides just enough for the other two guests who are invited to her home on this night. Her coffee table sits over a nice Persian rug that is stretched to protect the hardwood flooring.  And her beautiful Christmas tree adorns a corner of the room, while the bar, away from the sanctity of a Christmas symbol, the tree, graciously accommodates two guests for spirited drinking. And there will be Christmas cheer tonight.

Also, there is a Virgen de Guadalupe rotating lamp on the bar reminding guests to drink responsibly.

The set, nicely designed by Michael Navarro, gives the actors free reign in a night of reminiscences, of Christmas past, present, and a hint of Christmas futures.   

The night starts with the three amigas singing “Feliz Navidad” with Sandra on the piano, Maria (Maria Russell) on the maracas, and Diana (Diana Yanez) on the bongos.  The instruments give us a hint of their histories, the maracas give new meaning internal cogitative spirited memories.  

Squeals and laughter are heard as the three women exchange gifts; Maria gives a pink flamingo ornament to Sandra and then a R2D2 ornament to Diana.

Diana presents a disco ball ornament to Sandra and then a Silence of The Lamb ornament to Maria, which on second thought says interesting things about their relationships and what they know of each other. (Just a note: Silence of the Lambs, referenced in the play as a Christmas movie, was released February 13, 1991.)

Sandra gives a vintage Santa to Diana.  (If it was a reference to her age, one has to see that reaction.)  And she gives a nutcracker to Maria.  (Is the nutcracker an ornament or a tool? I’ve never had one that got past the first nut.)  Also, Maria’s reaction to receiving the nutcracker should lead us into her strong holiday memories.

And for these ladies, it is a night for remembrances, of showing photos, sharing how they’ve managed to find themselves here and on this night.  

How did they get here?  Well, it’s a questions better left for later.

In the meantime, they breakout the photos of their lives, the large ballerina, the photo of a unibrow-Frida Kahlo look, a nothing but braces photo, the drag queen dad, and the karate kid; all are on display from Yee Sun Nam’s video display and production design projected on the upstage screen.  

These photos give us a glimpse of the remembrances, the stories, of the three women and their lives up to this point.

Maria, half Lithuanian and half Mexican, was breastfed until the age of five, which is probably why she is so healthy.  And who could blame the mother, who is so close to her daughter that they slept in a family bed until they couldn’t fit everyone in bed anymore.  So the Lithuanian Daddy had to find other accommodations elsewhere in the house.

The closeness of mother to daughter is probably the reason mom can’t let go of her only daughter to that “pinche Crack”. Her Mexican mother claims that the fiance, “Crack”, well, his real name is “Craig”, is trying to steal her lovely daughter away from her.

“I would go back to my mom, but she’s dead!” – Maria’s mom

Guilt trip 101.

Diana’s family is Cuban.   Her mother was a 911 operator and not a life reaffirming one.

“Chu gonna die!” – Diana’s mom.

Just what you need to hear – when you’ve swallowed something you shouldn’t have – and are on the phone, in a dire emergency, with this 911 operator.  

Diana grew up in Florida thinking everyone was Cuban including Donny and Marie Osmond. Her story is not haunting, disturbing or traumatic, just Donny and Marie in their wonder winter land of ice and snow (the studio) making everyday look like Christmas.

But, Florida never looked like Christmas, what with the fake snow, chancletas, arroz con cerdo, yucca, tostadas, flan, and Santa’s sled pulled by dolphins.

And Diana is happy to introduce us to a word that describes everything, “coño”.  It’s a bad word, said out of anger, happiness, or fear, but can be used to describe something good.

“Christmas is going to be perfect, coño.” – Diana

Everyone in the family had a dramatic gene embedded in their makeup especially when it came time to rid the family of an uninvited guest.

And lastly, Sandra loved lights, the room, the tree, and especially loved the figures around the nativity manger. But growing up, and even after all these years, she was still puzzled by one figurine. Along side of Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus, and the three wise men, was the conspicuous of  figurine of a guy holding chickens.

Christmas was always a slight disappointment for Sandra.  She was the one who wanted trucks, and other toys that were generally for boys but was gracious when receiving the Farrah Fawcett makeup doll, only to push it to the side for her siblings to enjoy. The parents were insistent to move her in one direction while she wanted to swing another way.

The family is musical and Sandra shares their talent. She wanted a piano, and they gave her an inadequate substitute, an electric organ.  But, she made the best of it and with her 8-track tapes in hand; she learned to play music by ear.

L - R - Maria Russell, Sandra Valls - Photo:  Xavi Moreno

Sandra did not like going out, or menudo, but she did like dancing with girls and especially liked dancing the boy parts.

Not all of the memories are happy, there are tears of joy, pain and suffering, but it all makes for interesting Christmas memories shared and for all the right reasons.

One thing I look for in a play are the relationships, how they fit together, and where they lead.   As it is now, The Latina Christmas Special stories are separate and independent of each other without the one thing that ties it all together, their relationship.

For example, without reading the program (and I didn’t), I wouldn’t have known this was Sandra’s home.  An action, to strongly suggest this is Sandra’s space, is needed.   

Secondly, we really have to know the foundation of their relationships.  In real life, they are actors and comediennes, and in real life, they have come together to create the show.  But how does that translate on stage? And, why are they here on this night?

So, this needs to be evident in the first few minutes of Geoffrey Rivas’ direction, when the audience is working feverously to figure it out. Theatre is about the immediacy of the moment. Why did they come together on this night? Why are they telling each other their life stories?  How, does the conflict keep the show moving? And, what needs to be figured out on this very night? (Let’s throw in an objective and a stronger through line while we are at it.) One might not see this as a full fledge play but rather as three comediennes having the time of their life on stage. 

This is only a slight critique to a night that was well done, funny, and enlightening. Rivas has given the show a stronger through line and substance but more could be added to round out this wonderful show. For example: Are they here to create the show?  And could there be a built in conflict in that scenario?

The actors Maria Russell, Diana Yanez and Sandra Valls are all funny; each having their own brand of humor with marvelous facial expressions, and it was a joy to speak to them after the performance.  A meet and greet is the best way to go for this type of venue if only to say “the work was splendid”.

Reservations:  866-811-4111