Saturday, March 9, 2019

Born to Win by Matthew Wilkas and Mark Setlock

L - R Drew Droege, Matt Wilkas - Photos by Matthew Brian Denman

By Joe Straw

There is a striking resemblance between this play and Dixie’s Tupperware Party by Ken Anderson. – Narrator

Celebration Theatre presents Born to Win by Matthew Wilkas and Mark Setlock, directed by Michael Matthews, and produced by Rebecca Eisenberg, Nathan Frizzel, and Michael O’Hara at the Lex Theatre in Hollywood through March 31, 2019.

Well, let’s see.

Born to Win was previously titled Pageant Play when it premiered in July 2008 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.   On this particular night, it played to a sold-out house at The Lex Theatre. The audience was mostly men with, one supposes, an eccentric fascination for child beauty pageants, or for the people who participate in it.  Because, beauty pageants just ain’t about the glitz and glamour.

The theatrical setting is in Texas reminiscent of a weary storefront, basement, or storm shelter with wig mannequins sitting on shelves and layered against glittered walls, that are also layered with small frilly dresses.  Beyond the presentation stage, is seminar seating (us the audience) compliments the space. A clothesline stretches from one end of the space to the other and is used effectively and creatively throughout the night – compliments of Stephen Gifford, Scenic Designer.

In this space, our two main characters promote their business to potential clients who will pay big fees to take their classes and are hopefully guaranteed a winner.  And like racehorses, they have no use for place or show.   

Bobby (Drew Droege) and Bob (Matt Wilkas) run this operation.  Bobby is the voluble one of this enterprise, the one with the clear and concise message about your daughters not being that pretty, but pretty enough to win with their help.  Bob does the makeup, hair, and has the acumen for business and numbers, but for now is willing to give Bobby the run of the show.

Their five-letter acronym SHEIT are their tools for success – smile, hair, eyes, illusion, and tenacity.  One would suggest they aren’t terribly bright to let this acronym pass, or maybe they’re just Texans.

Marge (Daiva Deupree) is the new mom entering her daughter Puddles (represented by a blue green dress) in a pageant. Puddles manages to win with the help of only her mother! In pageant circles, that just ain’t right.

Dejected onlooker, Pinky (Julanne Chidi Hill), has other plans for Puddles. Pinky’s daughter, Chevolet (represented by a pink dress), has been consistently winning contests.  But now, because of Puddles, Chevolet finishes in second place. Pinky’s animus then kicks into second gear and that just ain’t right.  
No matter, Pinky wants to help Marge and Puddles so she sends them to Bobby and Bob. The cost to manage Puddles, including hair, makeup, choreography, etc., will be around $7,000.  Marge says she can’t afford it so Pinky, married to a rich local toothpick manufacturer, says she will foot the bill.

Reluctantly, Marge accepts Pinky’s help. Later they come to blows as termagant women.

Even in this theatre of the absurd, there are some very serious issues going on in the play.  Just the little things like kidnapping and domestic abuse, which are not really funny but work within the construct of Wilkas and Setlock’s play.   

Love and desperation are words that play well with each character but, in retrospect, the love is not deep enough, and the desperation seems to fall short of their objectives.    

That said, Bobby and Bob’s relationship doesn’t progress in a satisfying way.  It seems to happen only because the words move us in that direction.  

But there is one moment, when Bobby compliments Bob on his choreography, that the relationship takes a leap forward.  The revelation should be dramatic – a moment that patches the strained relationship. It should tell us where these two characters are headed as they move from business associates into something more.    

This leads us to desperation.  The chase scene in the end, although comical, would play better if those characters desperately want each other and want each other forever.

Michael Matthew, the director, gives the show a rousing interpretation filled with surprises including exceptional performances by all.  The chase scene has funny moments but goes on long beyond its purpose.

There is a lot to enjoy from Matthew Wilkas and Mark Setlock’s play. Some moments ring a sincere truth about the makeup of people but then there are other moments that take us into the absurd and out of reality. Can a production be both?  It there something we are to learn? Or maybe we go for the fun of it?

L - R Daiva Deupree, Julanne Chidi Hill

Daiva Deupree gives the character Marge a lot of backstory, always hiding from someone about something, a crime, and an abusive partner.  There is a tremendous amount to enjoy of her character work and the simple things that move the character throughout the story.  It was terrific work.

Drew Droege plays Bobby, a grown man who thinks he knows what is right for every little girl entering a beauty pageant.  He is the idea man who finds out later that maybe his ideas were a little off base. Looking for his partner near the end needs that desperation of a love lost never to be found.  Droege also plays the abusive husband, a completely different character and completely unrecognizable in a very nice turn.  One is not sure how he escaped and found the house in the last chase scene.

Julanne Chidi Hill has her moments as Pinky, someone who is loving and notorious all in the same breath. Stabbing the mannequin to cozen her opponent goes a little too far in her quest for what she wants.  The moment turns her into an antagonistic behemoth. It is not funny and one wonders if there are better choices for this character at that moment. We have to know that she is doing these things out of love for her daughter. Still, there is much to enjoy from Hill’s performance and overall she is excellent in her craft.

L - R Julanne Chidi Hill, Matt Wilkas

Matt Wilkas hits all the right notes as Bob the partner who is treated as an underling. Wilkas is funny as Bob who accepts a lot of information and acts accordingly.  And, what is Bob thinking? Is it the situation?  Or, is it his relationship?  Wilkas is also Gunnar, the toothpick manufacturer who doesn’t understand his wife. (Join the club.) He is a man so entrenched with his job that a cinnamon flavored toothpick sends him over the edge. It is another wonderful character for Wilkas.

The Lex Theatre is a wonderful place to view a show and the Celebration Theatre’s production crew and support staff are second to none!

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Tom DeTrinis – Assistant Director
Estey DeMerchant – Production Stage Manager
Trevor Lee – Assistant Stage Manager
Matthew Brian Denman – Lighting Designer
Allison Dillard – Costume Designer
Rebecca Kessin – Sound Designer
Michael O’Hara – Props Designer/Producer/Managing Director
Sondra Mayer – Fight Director
Tuffet Schmelzle – Dialect Coach
Janet Roston – Choreography Consultant
Michael C. Kricfalusi – Executive Director/Executive Producer
Michael A. Shepperd – Artistic Director/Executive Producer
Rebecca Eisenberg – Producer
Nathan Frizzell – Producer
Mark Giberson – Associate Producer
David Tran – Associate Producer
Jami Rudofsky – Casting Director
David Elzer/Demand PR – Marketing/PR/Publicity 

Run! Run! And take a former beauty pageant contestant.  You'll have the time of your life. 

Celebration Theatre
6760 Lexington Ave.
Los Angeles, CA, 90038

For tickets, please call (323) 957-1884 - or visit to purchase tickets online or to view a complete schedule!


Monday, February 11, 2019

The Last Straw Awards 2018

By Joe Straw


Art breaks your heart. – narrator


The Last Straw Awards 2018, for now, is a virtual award; there are no plaques, or statuettes that you can pawn off to pay for medical bills.  In short, it is an award based on merit and something you can carry with you forever without the clutter.    


First, the writers, for without them there would be no play.


Julio Vera – Alik
Quiara Alegría Hudes – The Happiest Song Plays Last
Bernardo Cubría – The Giant Void in My Soul
Christian Levatino – …meantime at HoJo’s
Luis Valdez – Valley of the Heart


Also, it is with great pleasure that I announce the actors who are recipients of this award.   Their performance stays with me long after I have left the theatre.  Making the most of a moment is what counts. And sometimes those moments can be profound or subtle. One loves a treacherously delivered line.  In most cases, it is the fruition of hard work, reflecting a supreme simplicity, and coming to a demonstrative peak on a given night.   


(I make it a point to cover actors and you can read about their performances in this blog.  Type the name of the production in the blog window top left to find.)  




Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl – at The Broad


Brenna Palughi – Alicia

Orville Mendoza – Teacher


A Soldier’s Fugue by Quiara Alegría Hudes – at Kirk Douglas


Rubén Garfias – Grandpop


Alik by Julio Vera – at AmVet Post 2 House


Lauren Fordinal – Marina

Justin Powell – Alik

Sam Flemming – Pavel

Monica Ross – Rimma

Colleen Greenhalgh – Larissa


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee –Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Conceived by Rachel Sheinkin, Additional Material by Jay Reiss at Culver City High School

Jaylen Rosado – Leaf Coneybear
Aidan Van den Broeck – Vice Principal Doug Panch
Kacey Oschack – Marcy Park
Joey O’Neal – William Barfée
Sophia Martin-Straw – Various Roles

Nice Fish by Mark Rylance & Louis Jenkins – at Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles

Tamika Simpkins – DNR Officer
Kristen Egermeier – Flo

The Happiest Song Plays Last by Quiara Alegría Hudes – at Latino Theatre Company  

Elisa Bocanegra – Yaz
Al Rodrigo – Agustín
John Seda-Pitre – Lefty
Kamal Marayati – Ali

Evangeline, The Queen of Make-Believe by Theresa Chavez and Rose Portillo, Story by Theresa Chavez, Louis Pérez and Rose Portillo – The Plaza de la Raza

Blanca Araceli – Alicia Ibarra

Mr. Pim Passes By by A. A Milne – at Theatre 40

John Wallace Combs – George Marden
Roslyn Cohn – Olivia Marden

The Giant Void in My Soul by Bernardo Cubría – Pico Playhouse

Karla Mosley – Fool 1
Kim Hamilton – Fool 2
Claudia Doumit – Various Roles
Liza Fernandez – Various roles

SOLO MUST DIE: A Musical Parody Book by Jordan and Ari Stidham Music and Lyrics by Hughie Stone Fish and Ari Stidham – at Hudson Backstage Theatre

Selorm Kploanyi – Galaxia
Michelle Wicklas – Various Roles

The Intimacy Effect by Jeff Tabnick – at the Lounge Theatre

Toni Christopher – Amy Appel
Jordana Oberman – Merrily Appel.

Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes – at The Mark Taper

Sean Carvajal – Elliot

Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang – at The Beverly Hills Playhouse

Jennifer Vo Le – Leah Anne Cho
Dennis Nollette – Various Roles
Jon Pendergast – NWOAOC (Name Withheld On Advice of Counsel)
Lisagaye Tomlinson – Various roles
…meantime at HoJo’s by Christian Levatino – at The Flight Theatre

Patrick Flanagan – Macho Barker
Leo Olivia – Rolando Martinez
Hector Hugo – Villo Gonzalez
LQ Victor – G. Gordon Liddy

Fairy Tale Theatre 18 & Over: The Musical by Michael J. Feldman Music by Jason Currie – at Pico Playhouse

Sheila Carrasco – Various roles

Valley of the Heart by Luis Valdez – at The Mark Taper

Rose Portillo – Paula Montaño
Scott Keiji Takeda – Calvin Sakamoto
Daniel Valdez – Cayetano Montaño

Bus Stop by William Inge – at Theatre 40

Kaitlin Huwe – Cherie
Mani Yarosh – Elma

These are the directors that made the list – because the work was remarkable - and all for different reasons.


Cassandra Ambe – Alik
Felix Solis – The Giant Void in My Soul
Robert Zimmerman – Yellow Face
Edward Torres – The Happiest Song Plays Last
Christian Levatino – …meantime at HoJo’s
Luis Valdez – Valley of the Heart

 The Ortiz Award 2018 is given to the play that showcases an outstanding presentation of diversity and art in a theatrical presentation.  This award is named in honor of Vilma Ortiz, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at UCLA and a champion of diversity in the arts and in her academic field of study. This year the recipient is:

Valley of the Heart – Written and directed by Luis Valdez


Saturday, February 2, 2019

It is Done by Alex Goldberg

By Joe Straw

You've painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair
Ruby are you contemplating going out somewhere
The shadow on the wall tells me the sun is going down
Oh Ruby,
Don't take your love to town – by Mel Tillis

God, whatever indiscretions I’ve done over the years, whoever I have wronged, whatever serious missteps I’ve made, however major or minor, when I die, please don’t send that woman to come get me.  – Narrator

It Is Done by Alex Goldberg is a marvelous play that escorts you from the cozy confines of your own home into an out-of-the-way bar, and, at the end, from a sombre perspective, has you seared to the floor in terror wishing you had never met these people.

Maybe this is being overdramatic, or maybe not. Naytheless, there is a dramatic intensity in this play and an exquisite cohesiveness among players that makes this a must-see!

Theatre Forty presents It is Done by Alex Goldberg, directed by Jeff G. Rack, and produced by David Hunt Stafford through February 19, 2019.  Check local listings as the show runs intermittently throughout the week.  

In a seedy little bar in the middle of rural Deadsville, USA, a phone rings.  There are two land line phones in this establishment, a pay phone on the wall and one on the bar, and it is an unexpected, but delightful, visual conflict.  

From the lurid darkness outside to the cozy confines inside, why isn’t anyone answering the phone?

Jonas (George Villas), a man in a suit and trench coat steps into a bar, hiding behind the beard and long black hair, frail and worn, he steps in from the cold and shakes the winds of his past off his being.  

Jonas yells out for anyone in the deserted bar; out from the back, steps Hank (Kurtis Bedford) who parades out with his pants down exposing his white briefs explaining that he was banging one out in the back before he was interrupted.  He is an ullage short of being a complete package.

This is too much for Jonas as he orders a Jack on the rocks.

The phone rings again.  This time, it is the bar phone. It is Hank’s wife, Patty. Earth knows no greater evil that an ex going after an early child support payment. (Patty is not seen, but definitely heard.) Her ingratiating voice, fast and loud, would drive a person to drink, and an early grave. Hank can’t get a word in edgewise.

As a reminder of Hank’s monetary obligation, Patty puts one of his four children on the phone.  Hank then tells Patty that he is with a customer and even gives the phone to Jonas to say “hello”.  Well that didn’t last too long. She gets backs on the line with Hank and eventually he hangs up on her, and that drives Hank to drink Jonas’ drink.

Jonas takes his drink and sits alone in the booth and tells Hank to go back to what he was doing. Hank takes out a girlie magazine and starts playing with himself.

Jonas objects and the phone rings again.

This time Hank rips the phone cord from the wall.

Death comes to the inanimate in creative and peculiar ways.

That’s when a lovely woman marches in in peach sweater, black chemise, black leather pants, and black boots that could crush any living thing.   Her name is Ruby (Kate Whitney) and her car has broken down.  She needs a mechanic to fix it. And she realizes that her iPhone is useless in this dead zone. She dumps the contents of her purse onto the bar for some change.  

Naturally, the men eye her like she is the last bit of food on a mission table. 

Ruby discovers the jukebox has Hank Williams tunes in the machine.

Hank hits on Ruby. It’s something she accustomed to and readily able to handle but she wants nothing to do with the “barkeep,” She has other pressing matters to take care of.

Ruby requires a mechanic to take care of her dead car. She uses the pay phone but cancels the call via the hook switch and then pretends to speak with someone on the other end. From this point, things start getting a little dicier.

Alex Goldberg’s play is pure entertainment.  It is a well-crafted character-driven play that unexpectedly moves in a number of directions up through the final moments of terrifying unpredictability.  In the Bible, the book of Jonah, or Jonas, is the story of repent and one can see a slight correlation in that character of a man who never repents and so must meet his fate. Hank is a coil, a knot, or a loop, a man who keeps Jonas there.  He is unpredictable and serves a purpose.  It is his bar. Hank Williams is his man.  The bar never closes.  Why isn’t it call “Hank’s Bar?”

Jeff G. Rack, the director, adds to the fine script. Rack is a master craftsman and everything on this night worked to perfection, except the telephone’s hook switch. Was that too obvious?  (She is after all the…sorry I can’t give too much away.)   

The occasion is rare when a group of actors work so efficiently, effectively, and all with a purpose. Everything worked down to the bitter end. Ahem, except the curtain call.  With performances such as these the curtain call needs a little more spice.

Kurtis Bedford does a fantastic job as Hank—a man so infatuated with himself that he has to prove it at every turn. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t know when to say no.  He just keeps coming, much to his detriment. Bedford has a very nice look and has a strong presence on stage.  His facial expressions are nuanced and his movements are fluid. It is wonderful work!   

George Villas as Jonas is driven by a dream, a reoccurring one at that, separating fact from fiction, he thinks the more he is alone his chances of survival are great. He is willing to let go of the dream, or make a deal to a complete stranger but is not willing to repent. Villas’ voice was raspy, or maybe overused on this night.  Which is not to say that it didn’t work, it worked in a very nice way.  It was a terrific performance by an equally terrific actor.

Kate Whitney was Ruby and looks nothing like her dark-haired photo in the program.  One reason is because of her blond tinted pageboy look (possibly a wig.) Whitney’s performance was remarkable.  One is not sure the telephone thing with the hook switch worked but everything else did. Whitney, and the character, commanded the stage and grew as the character grew, moment by moment, until the terrifying ending. And all she did was use her words, and a treacherously delivered finger, an unfathomable silence, and it was done.

Michéle Young was the Costume Designer and her work is perfection.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Don Solosan – Stage Manager
Judi Lewin – Hair/Wig/Makeup Design
Rebecca Driscoll – Assistant Director
Brandon Baruch – Lighting Designer
Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski – Sound Designer  

Run! Run! Run!  And take a hearty Christian from the south!

RESERVATIONS: (310) 364-0535.


Sunday, January 27, 2019

Brilliant Traces by Cindy Lou Johnson

Caitlin Carleton and Chris Cardano - Photos by John Dlugolecki

By Joe Straw

Happenstance – a chance happening or event –

Red Sage Productions presents Brilliant Traces by Cindy Lou Johnson, directed by Kiff Scholl at The Lounge Theater through February 10, 2019.

The Alaskan one-man radio station played on, a casual voice that had the listener in-and-out-of-dream sounds, accompanied by the wind blowing outside, some half heard noises about exits, front and back, silencing raucous phones, but beautiful, dreamingly soft, moving in and out of consciousness under a blanket, softly listening to the crepitating sounds of the cast iron fireplace, and rustling comfortably cozy on a nice long windy winter’s night. (Beautiful sounds by Sound Designer David Medina)

All was quiet in a lonely wood-frame home with a lonely pot on top of a dilapidated stove and a few dishes in the rack. (A beautiful cabin/home by Set Designer/Set Builder John Mahr.)

But, now, not all is quiet—there is a sudden loud knock. One hears it half asleep, something in this being twitches, stops a second, but now the knocking is real, up on feet, on top of the bed, as the disturbing sounds give way to an open door with cold quelling the heat.

Rosannah DeLuce (Caitlin Carleton) breaks into the room, a remarkable sight in off-white soiled wedding dress, like Dicken’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, worn and dirtied from traversing an hour in the snow to find this place of refuge.

The tall monstrous dark leviathan is now surprised, almost plastered to the cabin wall as the being covered in a blanket observes, standing on the bed and focused on the next move, maybe the last move, not knowing if the apparition is of good fortune or a desperate misfortune.

And Rosannah is a ball of ice, her hands coil from the cold, just useless nubs on the ends of her limbs, but just enough to grab a bottle, pours a drink, and intake the liquid refreshment to warm her inner soul, all the while explaining, through short gasps of air, why she is there.

Why is she there?

She inhales more air to warm her self, and takes another drink, the little things just to know that she exists, telling her story, until she can continue no further, and then she faints.

Dropping his blanket, Henry Harry (Chris Cardano) appears. Through all of this, he has not said a word.  He picks her up from the floor and places her on the bed.  He takes off her wedding dress, and then bathes her with warm water from the stove.  He covers her with a blanket, grabs her satin wedding shoes from the floor, and sits at his kitchen table with shoes in hand and weeps.  

 And then Rosannah sleeps for two days.

Why is she there in the middle of nowhere Alaska? Why are they both there?

Cindy Lou Johnson (play writer) answers those questions during the course of her 1989 play if either one of the characters would just come out and say it. But, past tragedies have the characters confused, about trust, and about painful memories.  Johnson provides enough outlandish dialogue that takes the characters on a circuitous route through confabulation to the truth.  Which, one believes, is the intention of the play because during the course of the play, those questions are realized.

In keeping with the idea of the play, Brilliant Traces is a compendium of a heightened reality realized, of events that trace the character to a moment in time. Each character, chained by their boundless melancholy, must recognize those moments, absorb it, grow, and move on to the next as they discover moments in their partner’s lives.    

Kiff Scholl directs a pleasant night of intimate theatre, one that is often times unexpected, beautiful, and filled with a deep love of caring for another human being.  Scholl has the characters separated most of the night, waiting for the right moments of discomforting intimacy to come closer to conjugal harmony. In terms of discovering the reasons why each character is there, there may have been moments that were not completely realized on this night. Also, the ending is an important resolution for both characters, which must project them back to the beginning to their collective moment now.  The ending on this night just seemed to end unexpectedly.

Caitlin Carleton and Chris Cardano

Caitlin Carleton, as Rosannah DeLuce, has a number of marvelous moments despite a few mishaps on this particular night – the door opening before all of the pounding was completed, and placing the cup on the cast iron heater to the sound of wood and destroying an illusion.  That aside, Carleton’s physical and emotional life as the character was very appealing and beautiful to watch.  Rosannah, seemed to be bi-polar, attention-deficit, and with other emotional ailments all in the same breath and that made for a well-rounded character, slightly wacky, and totally unpredictable.  Carleton manages to put all of those things into the makeup of her character which was a pretty amazing performance.

Chris Cardano, as Henry Harry, is garbed in 1980’s motif looking like Jack Torrance in The Shinning complete with eyebrows. But Henry is a sincere and lonely character who wants nothing to do with humans until this one enters his life. He works 400 miles from where he lives – works seven weeks of work, has two weeks off, which is why he never leaves his cabin during this stretch of his life. He also has some explaining to do as he negotiates this present relationship.  So one feels the bath scene, at present, is not yet connected to his earlier life, and should be.  Also, the shoes should send him back to that earlier tragic day.  That said, there is a lot to enjoy about Cardano’s performance who manages not to completely lose his cool with his abstruse partner.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Andrew Schmedake –Lighting Designer
Kathryn Juday – Costume Designer
Jen Albert – Fight Choreographer
Beth Goldberg – Casting Assistant
Courtney Rhodes – Stage Manager
Caiti Wiggins – Box Office Manager
Levi Burns – Carpenter
Phil Sokoloff – Publicity
Ty Donaldson – Graphic Design

Run! Run!  And take someone who loves the last frontier.

The Lounge Theater
6201 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90038

Free parking on Santa Monica Blvd after seven.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Desert Rats by Nate Rufus Edelman

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

By Joe Straw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Africa hot.” - Jesse

And there is no Jacuzzi or air conditioning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lila Gavares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wonderful Set Design by Cameron Mock & Emily MacDonald.

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

Other members of the crew are as follows:

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

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

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

Reservation: 866-811-4111

 Contact for more information.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Valley of the Heart by Luis Valdez

Melanie Arii Mah and Lakin Valdez

By Joe Straw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other members of the crew are as follows: 

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