Sunday, September 18, 2016

Barbecue by Robert O’Hara


L - R Elyse Mirto, Frances Fisher, Dale Dickey and Travis Johns - Photos:  Jeff  Lorch Photography 

By Joe Straw

I came wanting to laugh hard on this night.  It’s not really hard for me to laugh; still I wanted it to be a hard laugh.  I did.  Mission accom… No, I don’t want to say that. – Narrator

The Geffen Playhouse presents the West Coast production of Barbecue written by Robert O’ Hara and directed by Colman Domingo in Westwood through October 16th, 2016. The Off Broadway play was presented at the Public Theater in 2015.

Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue is wondrously funny in ways you can or cannot imagine. Joyfully engaging and infinitely enlightening, this is a play that both dramatically reawakens the senses and delights in meaningful ways as it pokes fun at the trials and tribulations of a family in crisis.    

Barbecue also speaks an honest truth, exposing the lives of iniquitous characters while also splashing a sudsy dose of our own reality all over our face. It is a comedic two-sided vinyl record, one side is black, and the other side white, but still playing the same great music.

(Bare with me on the colloquialisms.)   

The dew had not yet dried off the foliage that morning when James T (Travis Johns), beer in hand, arrived a little early, well earlier than the rest, to grab the spot in the park, just in case someone else had their own plans.  One gets the feeling that his sisters, who are set to join him, are not even out of bed yet. When they finally get there, there’ll business to attend to.     

James T sets his backside to a wooden park bench claiming the space and other things in the park.  An ice chest warns that this spot is taken.  So he sits along the two park benches, which are nestled under a wooden awning.  The sturdy post, holdin’ up the awning, is a nice place to secure someone should it come to that.   

Near the awning is a happy metal sliding board with peelin’ yellow lead paint, something delicious for the kids to enjoy were they’re any, and shrubbery to protect against prying eyes.

(Sibyl Wickersheimer, Scenic Designer, crafted a wonderful space for the actors to create their magic.)

James T (his mother was probably a Star Trek fan.), with his man bun, looked around like he had everything under control and appearing confident as though he had a phaser strapped on his belt.   

All okay, but the phone wasn’t working to James T’s satisfaction, talkin’ to his sister Lillie Anne (Frances Fisher), like he’s talking to his mama and not sparing any of the profanity that goes along with it. G*d D*mn this and G*d D*mn that. 

James T tells Lillie Anne that he has faith that their sister, Barbara (Rebecca Wisocky), will show up.  He just doesn’t know if she’s gonna’ show up all liquored up, cracked up, or something else up, and he doesn’t know if she’s going to be violent.   

“We’re not a normal gatdamn family.” – James T.

Well that much is true and there’s a lot more “not normal” coming up.

“‘shorts make me look fat?”  Lillie Anne

Lillie Anne shows up with a few nasty lawn chairs and wantin’ to know why no one’s been decoratin’.  It’s it a party, for GD sake, and there’s got to be decorations at least to fool the one who needs to be fooled!  

But, there’s no decorative ribbon, and it looks like no one has the will to decorate or even try.  All this for their sister, Barbara, a.k.a. Zippity Boom, who has major problems, including alcohol, drugs, mental illness, and prostitution just to name a few.   And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, or ice chest.

Adlean (Lisa Rothschiller) and Marie (Elyse Mirto) show up, two more sisters to Barbara, James T, and Lillie Anne.  (Two of their other siblings are dead and won’t be attending this gathering.) Adlean leaves her kids out in the burning hot car because she knows there’s more to this barbecue and they don’t need kids underfoot.

There’s nothing like watching trailer park trash at a barbecue.

Overweening big sister Lillie Anne says there's going to be an intervention. And as soon as that’s said there is a black out, or black in, depending on your perspective.

Cherise Boothe, Yvette Cason, Omar J. Dorsey, Kimberely Hébert Gregory and Heather Alicia Simms.

All the characters are now black: Lillie Anne (Yvette Cason), James T. (Omar J. Dorsey), Adlean (Kimberly Hébert Gregory), Marie (Heather Alicia Simms) and they don’t miss a beat continuing the same story and exposing everyone’s problems.

“You probably don’t even remember waking up this morning with all them damn pills you poppin.” – Marie

“Heifa, you wait till you get you a disease in yo’ t*tty.” – Adlean

“I was the one who told you not to go eating no damn corn out no damn can.  It’ them damn canned goods that gave you that damn cancer.” – Marie

Suddenly quiet, everyone wonders if, during the intervention, Barbara (Cherise Boothe) is gonna get violent. They talk about Barbara as though she was a legend and legend has it that after Barbara lost all her teeth, she’s been known to carry around razors in her gums, and they are worried something like that might happen during the intervention.

They are all terrified at what she might do.

James T, sitting on the lawn furniture, says he has a Taser should things get a little out of hand.

The whole family has got problems and it’s a back and forth blame game as to how they all got into this situation.

Marie, pointing fingers, gulping down a Jack Daniels, looks in Adlean’s bag for all types of pills she’s got. Adlean, despite the cancer, is puffing a cigarette, and doesn’t want Marie looking in her stuff.

“There’s a lot of shit in my purse that ain’t mine.” – Marie

Somebody’s looking to get tased.


White in.

“We love you even though you’re a crackhead.” – Lillie Anne

Lillie Anne has got a plan and it’s a plan about getting Barbara into rehab.  She’s serious and she asks everyone if they have written their letters?  No, they haven’t since they’re not one for doing homework.  Lillie Anne is the smartest of the bunch going back to school to get her G.E.D.

Anyway, Lillie Anne has got Barbara a plane ticket to Alaska for this rehab center that does hypnosis, acupuncture, yoga, and horses. She shows them the fold out pamphlet. To the others, it sounds like a bad idea, and maybe they can ask Siri if there is a rehab center nearby.

A car horn beeps and they all start dancing.

“Get ready, when I do the fish tale dance…” -  Lillie Anne

Unexpectedly Barbara is upon them.

One can’t go farther than this without giving too much away.

The splash of reality hits when one cast is replaced with the other.  It was at this moment the audience gasped, a great magnificent audible breath, in delight, or horror, I can’t say, but it sure is great to be in the theatre when that happens. Also, for me it is at this time when momentary confusion sets in and there is suddenly a grand visceral, emotional and cerebral engagement, one that locks characters in the respective roles and slowly eases me into another perspective.

Colman Domingo, the director, has a splendid understanding of the material and slips us in and out without missing a beat. The second act moves into material that gives us a sincere truth about who these people actually are and why they behave the way they do. It takes us away from the legends and into a demonstrative reality. There is a deep emotional connect with the characters in the second act.  Even reality is never the complete truth. Overall, the execution is superior.

Travis Johns (James T) gives an interesting and credible performance. There’s more to be had with the opening telephone conversation and his relationship with the other person on the phone. Also, strengthening the relationships with his siblings would add to an already fine performance.

Frances Fisher is superior as Lillie Anne and also very funny. Fisher’s craft is excellent especially her relationship with all four of her siblings which is commanding in a traditional big-sister way. She is the organizer who sees value in saving a life worth saving if only she could get the others on board. And getting them all on board is what is amazing about Fisher’s performance.

Lisa Rothschiller does justice to Adlean, the one with cancer who has a ravenous appetite for canned corn, cigarettes, and popping pills. This is a role where Rothschiller has multiple opportunities to define the relationship with each sibling showing us the similarities and the differences.

Elyse Mirto also does well as Marie.  Marie has a mean streak in her and has to be controlled in one fashion or another. Marie is an alcoholic and in taking part of the intervention, she knows that she has some hard choices to make starting with the bottle she carries around with her, if only she would listen to her inner voice.

Rebecca Wisocky has a powerful presence on stage as Barbara aka Zippity Boom. Barbara seems to be the sanest one of the bunch.  Wisocky brings an authoritative history of the character on stage and one that suggests a woman who is very worldly, a woman who has overcome great adversity to get where she is today. It is, at this point in her life, when she knows who she is, who she was, and what she wants to become.  Her craft is subtle and commanding all in the same breath and a privilege to watch.  

Cherise Boothe was also Barbara on the night I was there. Without giving too much away, Boothe was solid in her craft switching from one character to another, with a variety of accents, style and grace.  She is very funny and holds her own on stage.  She is a solid performer.

Yvette Carson as Lillie Anne has a quiet presence during her first moments on stage sometimes giving away what little power she has over to her siblings.  But during the course of the play, she manages to secure herself as the head of the family especially during the intervention scene where she is reading of the letter. A lot of love, hard love went into that scene and was very enjoyable.

Omar J. Dorsey was also James T and was wearing a wig, a small fro. Dorsey’s James T was a little low keyed but managed to make his voice heard in the simplest of ways. This James T was methodical on the grill, low keyed, mellowed by the stuff he was smoking in his pipe. And what is it that makes a man want to join another man when he’s grilling?  

Kimberly Hébert Gregory also plays Adlean and aside from all the bickering back and forth between her siblings there seemed to be a deeper understanding of her character, a quiet simplicity that struck a tremendous chord, a display that showed a willingness to love and create the best for her sister despite all of her own problems. Gregory’s work was fantastic.

Heather Alicia Simms shows us a strong resolve as Marie, a woman who will not let go of her bottle of Jack Daniels but will point out the fault of others, namely the sister with cancer. The aftermath of the zapping was about the funniest things I have seen in a long time.  Well done!  

Dale Dickey (Adlean) and Maya Lynne Robinson (Barbara) did not perform on the night I was there.

Robert O’Hara’s play rings in a solid truth in theatre.  It is honest in the way it finds a certain kind of family expressing a familiarity and using that expression to get to the meat of the matter, pun intended for this barbecue.  No beating around the bush for this family, they say what’s on their mind and they don’t care who they hurt.  You’ve got to wonder, if the drugs lessens the pain as siblings speak the truth. I’m not sure if I got the three million dollars and the sinisterness of Barbara splitting one million.  

The Geffen is a special place in Westwood, a wonderful space with generous parking, and plenty of places to dine all around. The Geffen also offers a magnificent space for theatre professionals to continue to work in their craft. Those crew-members that contributed to the magic are as follows:

Randall Arney – Artistic Director
Gil Cates, Jr. – Executive Director
Kara Harmon – Costume Designer
Lap Chi Chu – Lighting Designer
Lindsay Jones – Composer & Sound Designer
Anne L. Hitt – Production Stage Manager
Cate Cundiff – Assistant Stage Manager
Phyllis Schuringa, CSA – Casting Director
Regina Miller – Chief Development Officer
Rhonda Kohn – Assistant Director
Dave Bova – Hair and Makeup Designer
Heather Roach – Associate Wig Designer
Yuri Okahana – Assistant Scenic Designer
Kaitlyn Aylward – Assistant Costume Designer
Rose Malone – Assistant Lighting Designer
Corinne Carillo – Associate Sound Designer
Jenny Foldenauer – Wardrobe Supervisor
Bryce Potter and Danielle Richter – Wig Supervisors
Alex Norkus – Stage Crew
Ashley Nichole Henley – Production Assistant
Hazel Kuang – Properties Assistant
Cami Viand – Properties Artisan
Philip Rossi – Lead Carpenter
Bryce Gill – Lead Carpenter
Lael Osness – Draper

Run! Run! Run! And take your relative from Georgia.  You’ll love the GD heck out of this one.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Two Kids That Blow Sh*t Up – by Carla Ching

Nelson Lee and Julia Cho

By Joe Straw

The details on how I got here, to this theatre, on this night are very sketchy.  Someone invited me.  Who?  I’m not sure.  I had to go back in time, look back at my notes. And on this night everything looked dark, as it usually does, at night. 

Alas, it was a twitter invitation, a bird, and a chirp from a little blue bird. I responded.  Violà!  - Narrator.

Artists at Play presents the world premiere of The Two Kids that Blow Sh*t Up by Carla Ching, directed by Jeremy Lelliott and is now playing at the Lounge Theatre through September 04, 2016 in Hollywood.

The play is a remarkable achievement and an ostentatious work of art by Ms. Ching. It is a grand paean, a work in subtlety and nuance, of taking a moment, a cause, and tracing the cause to its brilliant roots. And, to top that off, it is written in a remarkable voice, one that is unpredictable, dramatic, and funny.   It is a story, albeit a non-linear gaposis, of love and hate between two best friends at various stages in their lives. One doesn’t get many opportunities to see an original work of art where the relationships are pristine and the dialogue laudable.   

Luminously directed by Jeremy Lelliott who manages to capture a significant through line through a very troubling relationship. This production is thoroughly enjoyable from top to bottom. 

Dare I say that there was only one thing missing.  (More on that later.)

What are the things that hold these two characters together?  What are the bonding elements, and the mechanism that keeps this relationship strong?  And, why haven’t they spoken in four years?

Age 38

“Hey, it’s me…” – Diana calling from a cell phone.

Diana (Julia Cho), 38 years old, who doesn’t have to say her name, waits at a bar near the Brooklyn Bridge for Max (Nelson Lee), also 38 years old.  When they finally see each other, both are wearing black, he wears a hoodie, to hide himself, apropos for the time and moment when the darkness covers most of his faults.   

They have things to talks about. 

The problem is that no one is speaking to the other, and they have not spoken to each other for the last four years.  Perhaps they are all talked out.   

Stilted in the moment Max finds it hard to make eye contact, or even express a fugitive grin. Max would just rather flip coasters like a deck of cards not admitting anything while Diana looks on. 

Diana takes her coasters and builds a mansion, (well better than his) proving a point about their relationship.  

“Why are we here?” – Max

Yes, why are we here?  Well to understand the now we have to go back to the past.

Julia Cho and Nelson Lee

Age 9

Maybe they were nine year old when they first met. Snowfall in New York makes for a pristine play space outside an apartment building.  And because they are kids their job is to stay away from under the parents and make a snowman.  

Diana would much rather build a snowwoman, but Max, head jogging like a bobble toy, snarls like that’s the most ridiculous thing he has ever heard. Still, they build together.

“Your name is kinda messed up, Di.” – Max

This doesn’t sit too well with Diana.  She is headstrong and has a mouth on her like a drunken sailor as she curses her parent’s frugality. Image of a ruffled chicken come to mind.  Just 9 years old.

Max says he takes judo.  He’s a yellow belt.  Diana in a game of one up man ship says she’s a green belt.

So now would be a good time for Max to go inside and get some juice. And as he leaves Diana puts breasts on the snowwoman. Max acts like he doesn’t care, or makes out that he doesn’t care when he comes out.  And maybe that’s what brings them together at first.

Diana asks Max why he didn’t bring her juice. (The personalities have made their mark.)

“Have you blown up anything today?” – Diana

Max has already gained a reputation as something else explodes around the house.  And that’s just the start of things blowing up.   

Age 24

“I want Gina.” – Max

Max has fallen in love.  Her name is Gina (not seen).  She is the main clown in a circus show in Atlantic City. Diana takes in this information in stride; his love for her, but one still sees a little disappointment in her eyes.  

Max, as usual, doesn’t have any money, but wants to take Gina out. So, guided by inspiration, Diana takes what few dollars there is between them for gambling money and says they will be having steak by midnight.

Age 15

Fifteen years old and they have a better idea about communicating with each other.  Liking each other a little more, expressing their feeling how they feel about their parents, and about themselves.

“You are crazy.” – Diana

“Is that a bad thing?” – Max

Age 28

“ Number 256.” – Announcer

That’s the number they started on.  Prenuptials arranged, the couples are now called by a numbering system to get married. A cold and heartless announcer counts up as each couple step up to the marriage plate.  Max and Diana are dressed but Max is not getting married on this day.   

Diana nervously wonders if she has got everything.  Her epilepsy medicine, Max gives that a “check”.  Maybe Max doesn’t think marriage, for her, is a good idea, and asks Diana why she loves him. Her response is not definitive,  “that he makes her safe.”

Max sees something in that statement. He knows her far better than she thinks.

“Good guys are not what you choose.” – Max

And while he’s on the subject Max tells Diana that he owes the groom $800.00 and would he do a favor and ask him to forgive the debt.

Diana is really not happy about having to do this on her wedding day.

Age 17

Max has got this harebrained idea of becoming an actor and Diana has all the answers because she’s smarter than him.  No truer words were spoken. Well, at least, that’s what she always thought.

Carla Ching’s play is a work of art, luxuriously fascinating in the manner in which it is presented moving back and forth in time.   In each scene, the audience collects significant bits of information, and then puts the pieces together.  No pun intended but the audience are like members of a bomb squad piecing together fragments of a crime scene, while the characters are blowing things up, mostly their relationship.

For example, after going back and forth in age, we think we know the characters. And, out of the blue, we get a piece of information, at the age of 28, that Diana has epilepsy.  It is said in a casual way, an intimate acknowledgement the characters know about each, and, in another flashback, we find out more how that became intimate.   There are a lot of these moments in this play.

To say more about the play would just be giving the pieces away. At this point you have one day to catch this production, September 4th 2016 being the last day.

Nelson Lee and Julia Cho

Julia Cho (Diana) is excellent in her craft. Cho has a wonderful symmetry in her dramatic manner and style. Diana is a complicated character.  She is strong-willed, forceful, and very smart. Sometime her vocal predilection gets into the way of her intentions, what she really wants but is unable to articulate. She is in love with Max, but love always gets in the way in doing the right thing.  Cho is a marvelous actor with a unique and powerful presence.

Nelson Lee (Max) is solid in his craft. Max is a character who is not really reliable except where his friend is concerned but then again he only shows up when he wants something.  The kind of friend that most people keep at arms length. He does his best to cause havoc, whether it is subtle (the kiss) or instrumental (the theft).  Funny, but he never apologized or even admitted to his misdeeds. Lee has a strong and powerful manner on stage.

The moments in Jeremy Lelliott’s direction are very subtle but it is a solid outing.  One prefers a play with an emotional outpouring; a feeling that one will lose the other in what ever form that takes. It never goes that far, but it could.

The one missing thing on this night, especially after a very robust applause, was a second curtain call.  The work deserved it.  

I loved the Brooklyn Bridge painted on the upstage wall.  It was just the right touch provided by Se Oh, Scenic & Properties Design, to show that we were near Chinatown in New York.

Other members of this magnificent crew are as follows:

Emily Brown-Kucera & Rachel Stivers – Costume Design
Alexander Le Vaillant Freer – Lighting Design
Jesse Mandapat – Sound Design
Andrew Knight – Dramaturg
Donna Eshelman – Movement Specialist
Jonathan Castanien – Stage Manager

This show had a very short run and deserves a longer run.

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves the Brooklyn Bridge!

The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, California

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Next to Normal – Music by Tom Kitt, Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey

Nick Sarando and Isa Briones - Photos by John Dlugolecki

By Joe Straw

Next to Normal music by Tom Kitt and Books & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey was the winner of 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. On Broadway, Next to Normal was awarded the 2009 Tony Award for Best Original Score.  With these remarkable credentials one could not stay away.

But, in the Pico Playhouse, one wonders about the complexities of staging a full blown musical here, on this tiny stage.   A Broadway show, a rock musical at that, presented in a 99-seat venue in one of the most intimate houses on the Westside.  Three actors is a perfect fit, but with five actors things gets a little crowded.  This show has a cast of six and a five-piece orchestra. How?

Triage Productions presents in Association with Standing Room Only Productions The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award Winning Musical Next To Normal An Original Musical, Music by Tom Kitt, Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, directed by Thomas James O’Leary, and Produced by Zachary Lutsky, Rory Patterson and Selah Victor through September 25, 2016.  EXTENDED THROUGH 10/08/16!!

Next to Normal is anything but normal. The musical highlights human complexities and lays a character’s misery right at your mental being.  It draws you into the fallen and pulls you into a deep emotional crevasse.  Trying to understand the bitterest contradictions and complexities of a family on the verge of a complete metal breakdown are better left to the professionals. Still, this was one heck of a ride.

And all of this unfolds as the characters are mentally trapped in the cloistered existence of their own home.    

Just an initial observation: If you are the one next to normal, are you the normal one? Or, worst yet, are you the one who is next to normal?  

The Pico Playhouse is very easy to get to on the Westside.  Parking near the theatre, along Pico Boulevard, is free if one gets there early enough.  The staff is incredibly friendly and the theatre is mind-numbingly cool, so bring a layer. Seats are reserved and numbered.

When entering the theatre one suddenly notices how deep the stage has become, upstage appears to go on ad infinitum and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this stage that cavernous. 


And the stage is multi-layered.  On the lower level, center stage, sits a lone table with three chairs surrounding the table. Three.  And stage left there is a singular green chair  - one lone chair, highlighted.  

This is obviously someone’s home.  One can see it in the outline – a wooden façade – a chimney – home.

Upstairs, prominently displayed, is a mirror, a medicine cabinet, outlined by a bathroom light, that puts an unflattering canvas on the present. Light permeates the set, the stairs, hanging lights, and there are luminescent diaphanous cabinets for storage spaces.  Light emanates from every conceivable space, bringing to light mindful ideas, illuminating a connection, and projecting a sane stream of consciousness. All wonderfully created and functional by Jeff Cason, Scenic Design, and Matt Richter, Adam Earle & Andrew Schmedake are all responsible for the Lighting Design.

But with all this light, the set is surprisingly dark, like the feeling one gets in a deep dark state of depression, no matter the time of day, rain or shine, am or pm, brooding and motionless. It is those dark moments in time that accentuates this human misery and highlights the usually mundane day-to-day into a series of alarming choices.

Harrison Meloeny and Michelle Lane

And alone is where Diana (Michelle Lane) is now sitting on the singular chair near the kitchen reading a book waiting for her son Gabe (Harrison Meloeny) to come back from his all-nighter.  She scolds him as he playfully takes it all in stride. But he’s going to do what he wants.  

Dad (Nick Sarando) comes into the living room looking for his morning passion, just missing his son who has moved off into another room.   Diana says, “yes” to his request then scoffs to herself about the discomforting intimacy of the “ten minutes” he’s good for.

In the meantime Natalie (Isa Briones), their daughter, steps into the kitchen and right away worries about being perfect in school.  For her perfection is the key to making sure her day will go right.

Diana makes everyone sandwiches before they leave.  They sing “Just Another Day” as though everything is normal but Diana (Mom) fixes their lunch by sticking a piece of wrapping paper in a paper bag, handing it to them, and then shooing them off to their work. 

But, suddenly, Diana starts playing with the bread like a deck of cards, and throwing the pieces on the table.  Mustard, on the bread, like it or not, and then throwing more pieces of bread on the floor, one by one, a sign of a growing augury of future events.

Dad and Natalie look on incredulously as Dad tells Natalie to go off to school, that what she is seeing is only a blip in her life.

Some blip.

Later, Natalie is in a school band room, practicing her piano, getting lost in her music. Henry (Blaine Miller), a lovable student, interrupts her. He is more interested in her than her music, imparting his wisdom that jazz is less structured, more improvisational, and much more wonderful. 

What this teenager really needs is more structure, but she listens to him anyway.

Meanwhile Diana is visiting Doctor Fine (Randal Miles), oh yes Diana believes he is fine, a rock star as a matter of fact, someone who can send her into the land of benevolent ecstasy, an ineffable seduction with the proper amount of medication, until she feels, completely cured.  

But, now, after all the medication Diana feels nothing and the doctor appears to be a mountebank prescribing the pharmaceutical drugs like rock candy while speaking into his recorder about the progress she is not making.  

Diana observes that Natalie and Henry are falling in love, she see’s their first kiss, and wishes she could feel, something.  So with the help of her son, Diana flushes her medication wanting to be normal, or at least be next to normal.

Glowing from the candles - Diana brings out the birthday cake - for her son - Gabe, whom we now learn died in infancy.  This sends everyone into chaos, turning back the clock, and moving into the life of unforgiving shadows.

I was slightly surprised the singers were mic’d in this intimate space but everyone is doing it these days for various reasons. So. I’ve grown to accept it.  There were minimal problems with the sound, some singers sounding a little tinny, but over all the music was wonderful, the acting superb, and the musicians incredible.

I think “A Rock Musical” is a misnomer although I couldn’t begin to type this musical.  I only know that this was very satisfying and extremely unusual night of theatre. It is a night that stays with you.

Next to Normal is exquisitely brilliant.  The score by Tom Kitt is a mesmerism, songs of metal illness, and one that touches and embraces an emotional chord in your very being.  

Brian Yorkey’s lyrics transports you into the character’s state of mental anguish and for those reason this musical, and this version of the musical is wonderful. You would have to see it to appreciate it, absorb it, and let it live with you.  

Nick Sarando, Isa Briones, Randal Miles, Michelle Lane, Blaine Miller, and Harrison Meloeny

Michelle Lane is funny as Diana.  Well, funny in the way that you can laugh about your bi-polar illness. Lane touches all the right buttons, funny, sad, lonely and loving.  Great work and one that will have you leave the theatre with differing opinions as to why she is the way she is.  

Nick Sarando plays Dan. Dan is an extremely interesting character, somewhat superficial, caring but not caring enough to throw his whole life at his wife’s illness.  He’s got other things to do.  But, I think that deep down, he cannot go on with this relationship, that he has to move on but doesn’t know how to do it, because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone.  Plus, he has never felt right about being helpless while his son dies in his arms. Possibly he feels to blame. Nice work.

Harrison Meloeny plays the dead son Gabe and it’s a role that has a bit of a predicament. Gabe’s adulthood lives in the imagination of his mother’s mental illness, what she believes he would look like. This presents challenges in the way the physical life to his mother is represented.  I believe the relationship with his mother must be stronger, a stronger mother/son relationship, a togetherness, a willingness, until the son, thanks to his mother, starts to turn a conniving corner. At a certain point, Gabe is pure evil. Maybe it’s her medication. Nevertheless, this is great work.

Randal Miles does excellent work as Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine.  I loved the glasses.  Miles vocals were strong and the acting, as clear as a bell. Tremendous work.

Blaine Miller as Henry, the boyfriend, has an excellent look, and as the character fits right into the time and place. His acting skills are top notched, his comedic timing impeccable, and his voice lovely.

There is something very charming about Isa Briones as Natalie as she negotiates her way through teenage angsts. Briones is always in the moment and brings forth a character with a tremendous amount of backstory and rich history. The photograph scene touched a marvelous chord with me - where she decides that showing the pictures is best for her mother’s mental health.   

Other actors who are part of the show but did not perform the night I was there are Andrew Arrow (Dan U/S), Megan Fleming (Natalie U/S), Nick McKenna (U/S Gabe), Danny Potter (U/S Henry), and Selah Victor (U/S Diana). The understudy cast performs Saturday Matinees at 2pm on September 10, 17, and the 24th.

This is a very strong showing for Thomas James O’Leary, the director, and Taylor Stephenson, Musical Direction.  The book is ambiguous enough to allow the imaginative spirit to decide for oneself why Diana goes off the deep end.  It is also a show that tells us that every precious family moment is one that should be treasured despite the heart wrenching moments.    

A lot of hard work went into this production; the producers are to be commended for this outstanding production.  They are Zachary Lutsky, Rory Patterson and Selah Victor.

Other members of this delightful crew are as follows:

Vicki Conrad – Costume Design
Fritz Davis – Sound Design
Shawna Voragen – Stage Manager
Lori Berg – Property Design
Josie Austin – Asst. Stage Manager

This musical is mostly music with very little book and the musicians were incredible. The musicians were not seen but they deservedly should take a bow at curtain call as well.  They are as follows:

Taylor Stephenson – Conductor
Jorge Zuniga – Drums and Percussion
Lois Good – Violin
Nic Gonzales – Bass
Dominic White – Guitar

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who has just seen “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Saturday, August 20, 2016

As Straw Before the Wind by Felix Racelis


By Joe Straw

My daughter named her teddy bear “Purple-Bear” because she was purple.  It was a bold inspirational choice for a two year old to make. 

Purple-Bear went everywhere she went, never left behind for too long, never forgotten on sleepovers and always on her bed when she visited dreamland.

And, at her side, Purple Bear was there through the raging fevers and a myriad of troubled dreams. She had a tender smile, a calming disposition, for those troubling times. But most of all she was there for all the quiet moments.  

And she was never forgotten, because we made special trips to go back and get her.

My daughter’s aunt, a costumer, dressed Purple Bear in the fanciest of clothes on the planet not wanting to see her so unkempt. But, that was long ago.  

Now Purple Bear is a shadow of her former self, her clothes are worn and tattered, her head slightly crooked and not sitting straight on her neck. 

That aside Purple Bear still holds a loving place on my daughter’s bed and a devoted place in all of our hearts. - Narrator

As Straw Before The Wind by Felix Racelis and Directed by Lesley Asistio is playing through September 4, 2016 at the Ruby Theatre, in The Complex, on theatre row in Hollywood.  

This is a play of a Filipina mother, Nene Santos (Tita Pambid) and her daughter, Pilita Santos (Sarnica Lim) who run a small convalescent home out of their home in the San Gabriel Valley. Right now there are only two patients living with them, an older man, Poncing Enrile, Ino (Muni Zano) and an older woman, Mildred Novak (Anita Borcia) in an assisted living situation.

When the play opens Nene is playing gin with the residents but is interrupted momentarily by a phone call from a potential customer.  She is not completely honest to the customer saying that she has plenty of room.  

Nene, a nurse, envisions the opportunities that awaits their business and wants to expand her home to care for more patients - providing the bank will give her a loan.

Unbeknownst to Nene, Pilita’s dreams of getting married are becoming a reality.  But, Pilita has problems getting through to her mother to tell her the simplest of wants, and her reason for being, like getting married.  Nene dismisses her daughter with the wave of her own self-importance.  

In another vein Nene has problems with the way her patients are behaving.  It seems that Poncing won’t keep his hands to himself and Mildred, who is slightly senile, is addicted to cigarettes and wants to smoke them in and around the house. 

There is something really wrong with Nene in the way she treats her clients.  It is sometimes cruel and heartless for psychological reasons which are later revealed in the play. The method she uses to restrain her clients causes her to flashback to the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.

As Straw Before the Wind is a world premier and really needs some constructive criticism to get it over the hump.  There’s no question that there is something here but moments and ideas need reorganization to move it into a position of a moving play that has more heart and staying power. So, with the idea that Felix Racelis’s play is all there, I will direct my comments mostly to the direction and the acting.

First of all, I’m not a fan of flashbacks in theatre – e.g. Bambi’s mom gets killed in the first few minutes and from then on we know all we need to know why Bambi does what he does – the same holds true for that Shirley Temple’s mom as she gets killed or has died in most of her films – run over by a car, falling out of a plane, you name it but we sympathize with that motherless orphan. – Let’s get the tragic stuff done in the beginning and everything will fall into place including the flashback feelings with the current day character, the banker, etc. 

Well then, do we have a play? 

Yes, and the doll must have a significant role. And the doll must be displayed throughout.

(Spoiler alert – I have to do this to get my point across.)

Desperation comes in many forms and Nene is on the verge of losing everything, her livelihood, and, most importantly, her daughter. She is haunted by the past, the trauma of losing her parents, and the one thing that connects her to them is the doll. The doll stays with her through the traumatic parts of her life.  She has it when the Japanese abuses her.  She brings it with her to the United States.  She still has it many years later.  (I might add, in mint condition.) She should run to that doll in the end, and embrace it from the smoldering ruins

The relationship between the mother and the daughter require strengthening. Each must be in a tug of war fighting for position.

A couple of things about the performance set in 1993, the mother is reaching retirement age and the daughter appears to be in her thirties. Having them closer in age could make them sisters and that might make for a better ending, given the circumstances of the ending.  The finale would be much more dramatic.  Actually, I would prefer the relationship to be one of sisters, until the ending. It makes dramatic sense and one that begs for an explosive ending.

In this kind of space Lesley Asistio, the director, should recognize the space for what it is, a black box.  So, symbolism goes a long way here.  The multiple scene changes to place the audience in a myriad of places works against the audience. So, here are a few suggestions.  One, leave the bed on stage the entire time as a symbolic reference to work, home, the bank, etc. Move the bed around the stage or move the actors around the bed.  Loan Officers often visits work places.  Patients play cards in their rooms and they smoke in their rooms as well. The bed is symbolic for all the play needs including the jungle scenes.

Secondly, the doll should play a major roll. It gives the audience a better understanding of what Nene is all about. (More on this later.)

And lastly, Asistio has the Loan Officer (Doan Nguyen) speaking upstage with his back to most of the audience.  When I see this happening on stage, my thoughts go into ideas that are better left unsaid.  

I got the impression watching Felix Racelis, the writer’s face, when leaving the theatre that things did not go well this night.  But, naytheless, this is a fascinating body of work that needs only a slight reworking of the play - to enhance the moments - to define the moments so they are met with a dramatic tone – and to clarify the structure of the play.  

“The healthy man does not torture others – generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers” – Carl Jung

There is something morally wrong with Nene’s character.  You can see it, at first in small increments, and later it is slightly defined.

If it is necessary to do flashbacks, those moments are to be accentuated, symbolically with lighting, movement, and a creative finished.  The hand gripped tightly in the air, and the arms held back in prone position. However this is painted, the message should be ingrained into our collective consciousness, so that when it happens later we will get a better understanding of Nene’s character. And, do we really need to go back in time to understand this?

Tita Pambid is a fine actress.  Her Nene character is believable.  With minor changes this character could soar. Her objective to create a greater business for her and her daughter is fraught with many conflicts, the daughter, the banker, the patients, and most importantly her memories.  All these things must be negotiated so that, even in the end,  there’s hope. Also, the doll should be with Nene, if not physically, it should be with her mentally. My preference, at least in rehearsal is to have the doll with her physically, so that she knows what drives her objective. Also, she should run to the doll in the smoldering ruins, this is the one thing that connects her to her past.

Muni Zano does a fine job as Poncing Enrile, Ino. He is a man struggling for the finer things in life, like a good pinch. That aside, there is some really good work going on here.

Looking back at Sarnica Lim, I think the role would work better if she were the sister, Pilita Santos, rather than the daughter.  Pilita is rather weak, not forceful enough to get what she needs.  She whimpers to her mother rather than questioning her motives.  She cowers under the weight of a mother daughter relationship and you really can’t have that when you know, in your heart of hearts, that what your mother is doing is morally wrong.  One more thing, Pilita should give the patient a lip lock that immediately sends him into convulsions, without that, the guilty stuff does not work at all.

Rochelle Lozano does a fine job as the daughter, Maria Enrile. Maria is forceful in her ways but seems to be confused about the way her father is treated, practically bound and gagged, but has very little to say about it. There is possibly more layers to this character. Why hasn’t she call the authorities? Why doesn’t she pull her father out of that convalescent home? Why does she takes the information they give her and think it’s alright?  There is something more in her character that will not take action.  What could that be? Maybe she doesn’t have the money to move her father out.   

Anita Borcia does fine work as Mildred Novak, a senile octogenarian with a passion for nicotine.

Doan Nguyen plays the Loan Officer and other characters in the play.  One is not sure why, as the Loan Officer, he was speaking upstage. There is more work needs to be done on the Japanese language which was mostly unrecognizable for his role as the Second Japanese Soldier.  

The same holds true for Gabriel Garcia’s Japanese.  Still, and that aside, Garcia has a strong presence on stage, and his voice is commanding as the Fireman, the Doctor, and Charlie. This actor has strong possibilities.

I wouldn't give up on this production, but there is more to be had in the writing and direction should anyone care to move forward.

I wouldn't give up.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Ajax in Iraq – by Ellen McLaughlin


Aaron Hendry - Photo Credits:  Sean Deckert
By Joe Straw

I lived in Clarksville, Tennessee back in the 1960s. My neighborhood friends and I were the diminutive sons of the 101st Airborne Division.

Summarily at various times, orders would thrust our fathers onto the Vietnam stage. And, at the time, it was better not to think about the “what if”.

Living in Clarksville, just across the border from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the seeds of a military vigor were ingrained in our very being.  When our fathers shipped out, we waited for a time, and then we moved on, left to our own devices.

We conducted ourselves as military.  We had rank, the oldest at 11 held the highest rank while the youngest served as buck privates.

I was the general. 

Protection of our home base was the order of the day. And my words were marked that “no one was taking our fort”.

And, moving through the creeks, the fields, and the woods, our scouts took notice of everything, of every opposing fort, of every opportunity to destroy. When we found a fort, we planned and then moved in because destroying their fort was our reason for being.

And in our subdivision that was our way of thinking.    

Born and bred, we were little warriors. – Narrator.

Greenway Court Theatre presents a revival of Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble’s Ajax in Iraq written by Ellen McLaughlin and directed by John Farmaesh-Bocca through August 14, 2016 and nicely produced by Jason Bruffy, Laura Covelli, and Aaron Hendry.

McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq is a visceral experience, brutal at times, and quietly dramatic.  McLaughlin is forceful in her unyielding message to project culpability, and to recognize the ultimate failings of an unscrupulous political groundswell working hand in hand with their corporate cronies that in fact destroyed a social political order.   

And, trickling down, in the obnoxious swell are the boots on the ground, soldiers that are not immune to violence which projects the worst traits of humanity when one occupies another nation.  McLaughlin’s message fills the soul with a blood boiling rage, one that wants to join in the fury, and the other that wants to recognize the truth for what it is.  

I was suspicious that dramatic theatre could do this.  

For the sake of combining a figure in Greek Mythology and characters in the play, I present you with this backstory:

Ajax (Aaron Hendry) was a powerful dark killing machine, a man with muscular thighs, as wide as his torso, and thick powerful arms, which could swing a blade and cut a man in half before he could think.  His eyes painted black projected a warrior’s rage and at times presented a vacuous stare.  The ineloquent manner of speaking, his warrior grunts, were not enough to win him the armor of the now deceased Achilles.

Never injured in battle, Ajax killed every living foe. Mythology says he killed twenty-eight men in all, all in the taking of Troy.

But his battle was not just on opposing forces; Ajax oppressed women with an obscure ferocity behind the folding of his tent. A man with this much ferocity was not to be disturbed despite the screams heard from the encampment on the other side.  

Ajax was a warrior who operated in the darkness of bad thoughts, using his blade to end the light emanating from opposing beings, stopping briefly to witness the elegiac gurgling of his victims. Any opposing forces, anything that breath, or pumped blood, were fair game.

Inarticulate, his screams represented his intentions and the blade projected the means by which he carried out his objectives.  So powerful were his profound thrusts in battle that the wretchedness of that region lingers and the cradle of civilization carries on as though little has changed.

Little has changed in Iraq, swayed by the leaders of today, the troops amassed, looked for the weapons of mass destruction, found none, and now the battle is amongst us, within us, and beyond us with no end in sight.  

John Farmanesh-Bocca, the director and choreographer, provides us with a sweeping look of Iraq through the ages, tying the mythological figures to the real life soldiers of the day, while giving us a history lesson as well. How the choreography works to tie the present day phalanx of soldiers to the past works to a lesser degree, push ups, rolling around on the floor, chest slapping, one is not completely sure. Fun to watch, and all part of the Not Man Apart Physical Theatre’s physicality, but how does that connect to the through line of the play?

Aaron Hendry projects Ajax as a warrior, through and through, mindless with the exceptions of his attention only to the destruction of things in his path.  A marvelous choice for Hendry that Ajax becomes disjointed and alive with warm blood on his being. How his fist managed to survive the ordeal of slamming against the hard stage is beyond my comprehension. Still Hendry does a wonderful job.  He is an amazing actor.

Courtney Munch portrays a woman with many layers and much strength as A.J.  Unfortunately A.J. is an abused soldier who is not able to find a solution to the abuse, and who also knows that approaching someone to help will jeopardize her career. It is a no win situation for this character and Munch does a fantastic job in this very dramatic turn.

Joanna Rose Bateman

Joanna Rose Bateman gives us a different flavor of Athena, goddess of wisdom, courage, and inspiration, in that she gives us a goddess as someone who is wry, sardonic and intelligent slightly mocking the misgivings of her human underlings.  It is a role Bateman really latches onto as she utilizes very strategic choices.  Her voice is flawless, her moments powerful, and her singing voice is formidable.  She is captivating.

Alina Bolshakova is Tecmessa, wife of Ajax, mother of Eurysaces. Knowing this provides a better understanding of the relationships than was performed this night. First a slave, later a wife, she is someone who tries desperately to save her husband. In the overall scheme of things, one wonders how this character fits in both Tecmessa’s time and present day.   

Laura Covelli gives us a better understanding of the region as Gertrude Bell, an English woman who helped shape British imperial policy in Iraq and the Middle East. Covelli’s manner is precise in her ability to convey the British policy and the idea of the play.  Bell shows us in a roundabout way that the educated and the mapmakers are the ones who control the world. Covelli gives a marvelous performance.  

Sydney A. Mason as Mangus does well.  She has a very nice natural presence, one suitable for not only theatre but for film as well and has a lovely voice.  

James Bane gives a very credible performance as Sergeant, possibly because of his military experience, and he also has a very believable presence on stage. This particular role has parallels to the character Ajax and Bane should provide a resemblance to that character in manner and deed so that the characters are tied together, repeating history.

Jason Barlaan also does some good work as Teucer.  Barlaan is a former marine and fits well with his role on stage.

Ronin Lee is exceptional as Captain, a man who has come to grips with his war effort, becoming much wiser only after losing his arm in the war. Lee’s voice is strong and his manner is incomparable.

Zach Davidson as Pisoni has a very good look on stage.  It was a very subtle performance but one that really rings true and manages to hit home.

Overall, the acting was superb, and the rest of the supporting cast played major roles.  Their voices were strong and they presented an incredible backstory. It is evident that a lot of work went into making this production.  Also this production was very successful, representing the diverse makeup of our military force.  The remaining supporting casts are Jessica Carlsen as Sickles, Kendall Johnson as Therapist, Jolene Kim as Abrams, Frederick Ramsel Jr. as Charles, and Olivia Trevino as Rebo.

Jones Welsh is the understudy for Ajax but did not perform on this night. Welsh is also the Co-Artistic Director of Not Man Apart and also one of the Producers.    

Other members of this wonderful crew are as follows:

Stage Manager – Niki Armato
Costume Design – Stephanie Dunbar
Stylist – Catherine Baumbardner
Map Design – Courtney Jordan Bindel
Graphic Design – Joel Piazza
Lighting Design – Joey Guthman
Sound Design – John Farmanesh-Bocca w/Adam Phalen

The show closes on the night I am posting.  If you get a chance to see it, in another carnation, run, run, run, and take a vet.