Sunday, September 14, 2014

Buried Child by Sam Shepard

Leon Russom as Dodge - Photos by: Nico Sabenorio

By Joe Straw

Some people can live with the tragedies of their own making and hide them until they die, others can’t. - Narrator

An ideal farmer’s day starts long before the sun rises.  Feeding the livestock is generally the first task.  And then the farmer moves on to manage the little things that are in disrepair. Tinkering until the dearly moments of the evening, the farmer sidles to bed, lying down his tired soul, saying a thankful prayer for all that he has been given, and then falls asleep.   

Working a successful farm is the American dream personified.  As the family grows, the work intensifies. 

Farm life is hard and rewarding work until something goes horribly wrong.  And something went wrong here.  A tragic event has forced the family to live a conscience nightmare, suffering infinitely. And these exhausted souls are now a confoundedly grotesque image of a farm family.  Each in his or her despairing reflections, recognizing the event that no one wants to talk about. 

The event in question becomes a memory, an object relegated to the darkest part of the home and the deepest part of the subconscious.   And the oldest, living with the dreadful curiosity, wonders each day how all this is going to end before eternal perdition.   

And you thought you were coming to see a comedy.

Whitefire Theatre presents A Scott Disharoon Production of the Pulitzer Prize Winning play Sam Shepard’s Buried Child directed by Bryan Rasmussen.

Dodge (Leon Russom), in his seventies, sleeps on a warn leather sofa, a blanket covering a chill so deep, and a hidden bottle of whiskey under the cushion.  The Folgers’s coffee can for cigarette butts, and the folded poke, becomes a surrounding staple, along with a trashcan, and the rejectamenta, the used tissues that never finds its rightful place but on the floor.

Dodge is stifled by both a nasty cough and “a pact” made years ago.  His mournful self sits, watching television, and hacking away.  Next to him are a number of prescription drugs to ease the cough.  He waits for the time, hoping the grim reaper will not get him before his work is finished.

Halie (Jacque Lynn Colton), Dodge’s slightly ditsy but hearty wife, is concerned with his coughing as she listens from another room but not so concerned as to come down and help him.  Her curiosity is satisfied with any reply or a grunt emanating from the soft spot of the sofa.   

“Every time you get like this, it’s the rain.  No sooner does rain start than you start.” – Halie

The rain has this family on the edge. 

Halie orders Dodge to take a pill.  Forget the love and healing old wounds.  Her commands are about the only cure Dodge is going to get now. Slightly lit, she applies makeup as she prepares herself for a date.  She’s got more living to do as she remembers herself as a giggling teenager.  

“I went once.  With a man.  On New Year’s.” – Halie

“Oh, a ‘man’.” – Dodge

Halie mentions that he was a breeder … of horses.  

“I bet he taught you a thing or two, huh?  Gave you a good turn around the old stable!” – Dodge

Halie says that if Dodge isn’t going out today, Tilden (David Fraioli), their simple-minded son, will be looking out for him. And Bradley (Cris D’Annunzio), the indolent younger son, will be coming over today to give Dodge a haircut. But one has to keep an eye on one-legged Bradley, a dangerous man with cutting instruments (see amputated leg). 

“I won’t be very late.  No later than four at the very latest.” – Halie

In the meantime, Dodge calls for Tilden but he is out in the rain and nowhere to be found. This sends Halie mysteriously into a tizzy.

Tilden, rain soaked, suddenly appears with an armload of corn, in the center of the living room, just, standing and looking around.   

“There hasn’t been corn out there since about nineteen thirty-five!  That’s the last time I planted corn out there!” – Dodge

“It’s out there now.” – Tilden

So now we are getting the idea that not much is right with this family. In fact things are starting to look a little creepy.  And there is an air about them, an appearance, of a hurt that involves a ghastly intimacy.   

It’s no wonder.  There’s a child buried, somewhere, out there, on the farm.

Dodge tells Tilden to go put the corn back.  And with a kind of animosity, Tilden pitches the corn onto Dodge’s lap. This doesn’t sit too well with Dodge and he figures Tilden is in trouble again.

“I know you had a little trouble back there in New Mexico.  That’s why you came out here.  Isn’t that the reason you came back?” – Dodge

“I never had any trouble.” – Tilden

The only thing left to do, Tilden starts shucking the corn, throwing the shucks onto the middle of the floor, and the silk less stalks of corn into a bucket.  

From upstairs, Halie wants to know if Tilden is down there. Dodge tells him not to say anything. And so Tilden shucks as Halie emasculates her sons in detail:  Tilden – handsome but a jailbird, Bradley – smart enough to cut off his leg with a chainsaw, and Ansel – who got himself killed on his wedding night, against her better wishes.  

“It’s not fitting for a man like that to die in a motel room.  A soldier.  He could’ve won a medal.” – Halie

Halie gossips about all the trouble Tilden has gotten himself into, finding himself in New Mexico, and getting thrown out of that state.  She walks downstairs her rambling continues past the picture frames of a forgotten past, she sees the cornhusks and accuses Tilden of stealing the corn.

“I didn’t steal it.  I don’t want to get kicked out of Illinois.  I was kicked out of New Mexico and I don’t want to get kicked out of Illinois.” –Tilden

Oh jeez.  All this fuss!  No matter, Halie’s got a luncheon date.  She reminds Dodge that Bradley’s going to give him a haircut. Dodge, clutching his hat on his head, says Bradley was born in the hog wallow.

“You sit here day and night, festering away!  Decomposing!  Smelling up the house with your putrid body…Thinking up mean, evil, stupid things to say about your own flesh and blood!” – Halie

“He’s not my flesh and blood!  My flesh and blood’s out there in the backyard!” – Dodge.


This hits Halie like a ton of bricks and is something no one in the family wants to talk about.  Still, Halie prepares to leave.  Says she going to a meeting with Father Dewis (Grant Smith) to get a statue of Ansel or at least plaque placed somewhere in town.

“Why’d you tell her it was your flesh and blood?” – Tilden

Letting some truth come out slowly.  

Dodge is a little confused about Tilden’s return home, says it’s unnatural, but is feeling like it’s the end of his life and doesn’t want Tilden to leave.  In fact, demands that he does not leave the room. But, as soon as Dodge falls asleep, Tilden takes the bottle of whiskey from under the cushion and leaves the house to find … something. 

And a short time later, the Scaramouch – Bradley – enters, negotiates his fake leg, pulls out his shears, and starts cutting on Dodge’s calvous cranium.

Later, Vince (Zachary Mooren), Tilden’s son, and his 19 year-old girlfriend, Shelly (Tonya Cornelisse), slip quietly into the house. To Shelly, the house is like a Norman Rockwell painting and she has uncontrollable giggles when Vince calls out “Grandma”. 

Shelly is expecting apple pie with a nice respectable family until she discovers the waxen and silent Dodge on the couch. She explains why they are there but Dodge says nothing.

“Vince, will you come down here please?!” – Shelly

When Vince gets there Dodge doesn’t appear to recognize him. In fact, no one recognizes Vince.

There is a child buried on the farm.

Christopher Tulysewski’s stunning set, as we walked to our seats, is a visual feast.  One can marvel at the use of space in this wonderful place that is the Whitefire Theatre. It is a multi-level patchwork of a run down farmhouse in the countryside. Up stage left is a curious object, a shovel.

Sam Shepard rewrote the 1977 play Buried Child in 2005 and that is the version being presented.  The written play is filled with an abundant symbolism, mixed up time frames, and people who do not exist. Vince’s mother is one example of someone completely missing from the written play.  And that gives us reason to believe that Vince is just a figment of everyone’s imagination, if only briefly.  

“All the boys were grown….Then Halie got pregnant.” – Dodge

That would make Tilden approximately 25 when he had sex with his mother.  This is probably why he hightailed it to New Mexico, spent time there before coming back although it’s not completely clear why he was there, what trouble he got into, and why he came back.

(There were some very nice moments in the earlier version of this play that I liked a lot. I will let that go for another time.)

Although this is a strong cast, there were a lot of opening night jitters, moments not jelling, overlapping and missed dialogue and other miscues, including one actor creating new dialogue.   One doesn’t like to see this on opening night but actors get in and out of trouble all the time, it happens.

Also, there is more creativity to be had here from all of the characters. Sam Shepard's play is wrought with so much symbolism, the task for the actor becomes slightly complicated, that is to convey a truth while completing a physical objective on stage. And I realize this is Sam Shepard but all actors must have strong objectives, even if misguided.  I want to see each actor taking the character to extremes, keeping what works and throwing out what doesn't.  Still, there is a lot to like about this production and by the time you read this, the actors will have settled into their roles and grown more confident with more production nights under their belt.

There are spoilers in here so don’t read any further if you want to see this play.

Front:  Leon Russom, David Fraioli, Cris D'Annunzio
Back:  Jacque Lynn Colton, Zachary Mooren, Tonya Cornelisse

Leon Russom was impressive as Dodge.  Although he is slowly dying, there’s not much life in this humorless character that has humor throughout. Also, Dodge has gone through a tremendous amount of pain and he has committed a terrible crime. If it’s the one last thing he does there must be an enormous emotional release when he confesses.  And no matter how close to death he is, the bigger the emotional release the better, whether big or small, externally or internally, something has to happen.  

Jacque Lynn Colton had her moments as Halie.  My preference is that she not be seen at all in the first act when she is up in her room. And what I really don’t want to see is her making up herself, her hair, and shuffling through papers (script notes?) ad nauseam on stage in the beginning of the first act. There’s not a lot of room to do things up there and a black curtain would highlight our imagination. Her actions don’t progress the scene.  Also Colton has a very lovely voice and that part of the performance rang true. The relationship with her sons needs work. Also, there is something mentally wrong with Halie.  She crossed a line most would consider taboo and we should see that in her character.

David Fraioli plays Tilden a man who is slightly touched.  It is probably the character with which Shepard had the most problems. A former athlete, an All American halfback, probably high school All American (there’s no mention of college for any of the boys).  He is now timid, passive, and back on the farm. Why?  Only Tilden knows. Crazy character traits are fine, but without an objective, the character goes nowhere and we lack compassion for his route on stage. By my accounts Tilden had sex with his mother at the age of 25, his mother got pregnant, farm life died and everything stopped. Tilden, left, got another woman pregnant (didn’t get married) had a son Vince, (who’s been living in New York for 6 years), got in trouble in New Mexico and came back a shattered man of his former self.   So why is he picking corn and carrots in the rain?  Because in the pliable rain soaked ground, he is looking for his baby.  (Seems simple to me). So the crazy stuff with the corn, the diving on it, throwing it on Dodge, must be in line with his objective and I didn’t see any of that. Also, Tilden’s relationship with his mother must be a relationship that is unworldly and I saw no relationship with her on stage at all. That’s not to discount all the work going on, on stage.  Fraioli has a good look and had his moments.

Cris D’Annunzio, as Bradley, has a very good look on stage and strangely enough he would be better suited to play Tilden.  Still he does a fine job.  A little more whimpering would be nice especially after his leg has been taken. He is now the baby in the family and must really play that role in order for the comedy to work.  

Tonya Cornelisse did a fine job as 19-year-old Shelly.  She is very thin with a strong sultry voice and the yoga scene in the third act was fantastic.   But, the second act, someone needs to teach Shelly how to peel carrots that looks something closer to reality.  Take the leaves off, peel the carrots on a newspaper (with a carrot peeler – every farm house has one), and work the carrots like you really mean it!  Shelly has no qualms taking command of the carrots, taking command of the space would also be a good thing.  Also, act two would be better played if the choices were one of curiosity rather than disgust.  Shelly is there to uncover a family secret, to bring it out, to gather the information, and to share it, no matter the cost.

Zachary Mooren plays Vince. The violence did not ring true.  Mooren’s objective is indefinable on stage and this creates problems with his actions.  The bottle-throwing scene serves no purpose.  The beating of his uncle takes him nowhere.  If his objective is to get the farm then he should go after it.

Grant Smith has his moments as Father Dewis.  He comes in as a savior, slightly lecherous, but by the time it’s all over, he is so far out of his element that one thinks he might question his faith in the end.  In the end, he is no savior but he must try mightily.  

Lukas Behnken plays Vince but did not perform the night I was there.  

Not a lot went wrong on this night under Bryan Rasmussen’s direction and a lot of things went right.  You can read Shepard’s play and find something new each time you read it.  But what I really wanted to see was a definitive stamp on this production, Rasmussen’s point of view. This is what makes theatre so exciting, seeing another director’s work.  Missing are the discomforting intimate moments from Tilden and his mother Halie, their backstory, and how they are able to be in the same room together. We never really get a sense for Dodge’s reason of being. And even though he did not get up from the couch or the floor, his intention is no less great, and he must really go for it.

Scott Disharoon did a fine job producing this show.

Carole Ursetti was the Production Stage Manager.

Ricki Maslar, CSA was the Casting Director.

The Publicist was Nora Feldman.

The Lighting Design was by Derrick McDaniel.

DJ Lesh provided the Sound Design. The thunder with each character’s entrance was overpowering, some rolling thunder in the distance would have been nice.

Laura Tiefer was the Costume Designer.

Great photos were taken by Nico Sabenorio. 

Run! Run!  And take a very old farmer with you.

Reservations:  818-990-2324

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Bird Lives! by Willard Manus

Montae Russell as Charlie "Bird" Parker  - Photo : James Esposito

By Joe Straw

There was this moment when I absorbed an array of colors, a blast of an all-encompassing saturation that provided, a momentary, almost imperceptible warmth. I can’t remember the exact time or the place. But that experience has stayed with me.  And, I wondered if I would ever see, feel, or have that experience again?  - Narrator

The Chromolume has newer red seats, and was very warm inside. Very. 

The heat concern was slight.  But it fit with the jazz theme – heat, jazz clubs, et al - bring in the smoke – stick colorful gels in the lights – show some sparkle, and make some noise.

You know, that deserves a, “Yeah”.

The patrons brought along their own body heat and smoke, and things got a little warmer on this full capacity night. Fanning with programs provided a welcome relief and some dry ice would have been downright “cool”.

Chromolume Theatre presents “Bird Lives!” written by Willard Manus and directed by Tommy Hicks through September 21, 2014. If you are so moved by the rashly scandalous life of the legendary Charlie “Bird” Parker and want to make this scene, please do. Oh yes, do.  

Scratching a few items down and before they opened the door, a jazzy gentleman, wearing a black beret, ambled over to a piano bench and started playing. He was exceptional, and got us into a colorful jazzy mood. And that noise within me said, “Oh, that must be the piano player from the show and he has come to warm the lobby audience.”

They called for press and I maneuver sideways between the open crack of the theatre door and into the theatre.  I spied a piano on stage - upstage right - means something - we might have some music tonight.

But, quickly I learned the person, playing the piano in the lobby, was a theatre patron. That warm jazzy bebop feeling quickly fluttered away as we filled our seats into the state of darkness.

Okay, but then, through those speakers, I heard the sounds of Broadway show tunes. (The King and I - What gives, Moe?) There is a reason for this but, clearly, the music does not feed into the theme of the show.

Peering on stage now, (and I don’t mind Daniel Ingram’s minuscule set dressing) far upstage center is a curtain that, behind it, I imagined would be the flock of white patrons in the audience who have come to see Bird.  But, no, it didn’t open. And upstage right is that large upright piano that never gets used at all, not even as a prop. 

Opening moments in plays are critical. And in those moments the actor did something - whether directed or not - in which a small part of the 50-seat audience let out an audible gasp.  This particular action stamped a brand of truth that had a profound effect in the beginning of the show.   And in those first inauthentic jiffies, well, the actor has to work that much harder to get the audience back into his corner. And he did. (More on this later.) 

Charlie Parker (Montae Russell) is unquestionably a great alto saxophone player.  In YouTube footage his sax glitters like starlight in an open sky.  And when he presses the keys, there’s hardly a sound.  His fingering is light, so sure, with not, one, wrong, note.  

Parker was a man who, by all outside appearances, led a charmed life, just him, his horn, and a very warm smile. But, the fa├žade, the shadowy vibration of pressing keys through the profound darkness on stage and making beautiful music, hid his unconquerable and obstinate addiction to heroin.  When you have that problem, other evils follow.

This is an obtuse question: Is jazz color?  I believe it is. And this production needs more color - visual, auditory, and emotional accouterments to give it spectacular colors like the painting on the program by the world-renowned artist Leonid Afremov.  Still, there are indeed lots to like about this one-man show that may have a home in venues all across the country.

“Bird Lives!” moving over from another venue across town, has the appearance of a work in progress and with that in mind, I will offer comments with the idea there is something here that just needs fine-tuning.

Tommy Hicks, the director, does a fine job. And like the mouthpiece in the sax, this production needed slight adjustments. Not sharp, not flat, but tuned to be the right note.

The opening when Charlie Parker is playing, it is obvious that he is not.  The music is coming from another directional source and so soft you would hear the keys rattling on the saxophone.  Hopefully this will have been corrected by the time you see this play. (Pad the keys, and stuff padding down the bell.  And, for the love of Charlie’s God, turn up the music.)

Also, this one-man show presents itself from 1934 to 1955 and we really never get or see how time marches on in this production.  Charlie’s character changes little from 1934 to 1955 and needs a dramatic physical change in appearance or manner.  Character development is critical here to get us to that end point. The end of his tortured life is projected here as subdued stoicism on stage, and the actions on stage belie a life that may have been one of excruciating dimensions.

Lighting Design by Samantha Marie would play an important part in this production but there is little variance other than lights up, lights down. (Theatrical candles could help with mood.) This show demands colorful lighting that puts pigment into Parker’s life, and dramatic hues during moments of supreme conflict.  The lighting for the Camarillo scene works effectively and we need more of this lighting.  

Also, the music, Sound Design by James Esposito, must play a critical role in this play. We must see how Parker shaped the music from the life he led, to conflicts he survived.  The music must bleed from his experiences into the physical life on stage.

I’m not familiar with Montae Russell’s work as a performer but there was a lot here to enjoy. There is that “Bird” laugh that made you forgive his faults, and underneath shows the character’s burdens, and that works effectively.  Russell gives us a life of Bird living, not about his dying, and that is a fair choice.  But one wonders if there is another avenue of creativity to boost the levels of conflicts and struggles onstage.  

The title of this play is “Bird Lives!”  Not to be a spoiler but, he dies. So, what lives? – his music and his legacy - So, the objective of the actor is to physically create the legacy - his music - through living his musical life to the fullest.  What is the conflict?  The most important is his heroine addiction and we never really see how that physically affects his life.  Drug addiction invites unwanted mannerism and must be present on stage, physically, emotionally, and sub textually defined. The addiction is the conflict and causes him problems with his wife, his daughter, his doctor, producer Norman Granz, and the police. And all of these minor obstructions contribute to the man and his music.  This is something we do not see.

Also, throughout the play, the music must be running through Charlie’s head, his fingertips moving, all as part of developing a character we can see on stage.  We need to see that life through his improvisational life. And it all must be in line, in tune, with the music.

There is a lot to enjoy from Willard Manus’s play.  It is Parker’s panoply of gifts to the known world. But it is also a collection of facts from his life, racial discrimination, addiction, home life, and playing the sax, rather than a complete story that drives home a point.  We learn about the Harlem Riots, the killing of his father, the shakedown from a police officer, but how does all of this make the character and move the life of the character?

Everything has to go right in order for a one-man show to be perfect.  We must believe the non-existent characters beyond the fourth wall, that they somehow hold the keys to Parker’s existence. And our solicitude must be genuine for the man and the colors he has created.

Thomas Bell plays Charlie Parker as well but did not perform on this night.

Amy Mazzaferro did a nice job with the Costume Design

Lauren J. Peters was the Stage Manager.

Mike Abramson was responsible for Marketing.

Ken Werther Publicity is the Press Representative.

Run!  And take someone who enjoys improvisation, in jazz and in life.

AUGUST 15 — SEPTEMBER 21, 2014