Monday, December 28, 2009

Palestine, NM by Richard Montoya for Culture Clash

by Joe Straw

“God touched this dirt.” – a line from Palestine, NM

The sun sets easier on a peaceful nation. Colors from the sunset dance upon the mesa with a splendor you experience but cannot describe. It is a beauty so immense you yearn to spiritually corral the feelings around you and quietly share the optimism about the future with someone you love. After all, it was here, on the sixth day, where God laid down his shovel.

Sadly we are not a peaceful nation and in the new play, Palestine, NM, worlds collide giving us a collection of diverse cultures, unique perspectives, and unreliable answers about our existence. This is an exciting world premiere play written by Richard Montoya for Culture Clash and directed by Lisa Peterson at the Mark Taper Forum.

One can only marvel at Rachel Hauck’s set design when entering the theatre. It is a mesa of red cascading rocks stretched across the stage and resembling an image from a Willa Cather novel. It is immense and overpowering at the same time.

Captain Catherine Siler (Kirsten Potter) presents a small figure below the mesa. Warming by the fire she tries to stay focused on her mission. Arriving from Afghanistan, her assignment is to find Chief Birdsong (Russell Means) and personally deliver a letter she pulled from the pocket of his dying son, Ray Birdsong. And she needs to find Suarez (Justin Rain), the name of a soldier mentioned from the lips of the deceased who has gone AWOL.

She has traveled far, is dehydrated, and has stumbled upon an area in an Indian Reservation in the hopes that she will be found.

But, Siler has a problem. She is addicted to prescription drugs as a result of having posttraumatic stress. The night is playing tricks on her psyche. Illusions of tracers light up the night sky and fly by with an imagined ferocity. It is a night filled with hallucinations and conversations with a walking dead soldier.

A mosque, projected above the mesa, is ingrained in her mind as part of her natural order of business, the war she cannot leave behind. And there are unresolved issues pulling on her boots.

And as the morning gathers steam, she is found. And though this seems like an image from an Alice in Wonderland dream it is too real to be imagined. On top of the mesa, pointing their rifles are Mountain (Brandon Oakes), Broke Arrow (Robert Owens-Greygrass), Star Man, (Kalani Queypo), Suarez (Justin Rain) and Bronson (Ric Salinas).

Bronson (Ric Salenas) comes in like his namesake Charles Bronson – all guts and glory. Although he is a chief wannabe, he does not have the authority to control the slightest unforeseeable incidents on the mesa. Unable to kill Siler he decides to help her instead and calls her an ambulance.

Farmer (Herbert Siguenza) and Maria 15 (Geraldine Keams) ride in on a golf cart/ambulance complete with flashing lights and siren. But, the best they can do is rub mud on her face and give her sanitary napkins because, from the men’s perspective, it seems like a plausible explanation as to why a pale woman, Siler, is on the mesa.

Riding in from the west Top Hat (Richard Montoya) arrives on his bike (a substitute for a horse these days on the mesa). He claims to be a Rhodes scholar from East L.A. College - a 1/100th of a card carrying Native American. Showing signs of the solitary life on the mesa and wanting news from the outside world Top Hat asks Siler, “Has something happened to Tiger Woods?”

Montoya, the writer, is either a genius or a fool, or a genius with foolish tendencies. Either way, this is the makeup of a great artist and part of a great institution, Culture Clash.

Culture Clash is inventive and imaginative. Focused and relevant they seem to provide the necessary elements to move the play along. The VFW bit is just hilarious. It’s a serious moment paying tribute on the mesa to the death of a soldier when an outlet for an amplifier is found.

But not all things work, the friction between Bronson and Top Hat is not fully realized. They insult each other as to who is more of an Indian. Certainly a part of the character makeup, but does it takes us anywhere? Also, the supporting characters are not fully developed. Determined to stay in the background and lost in their objectives. The reasons why the characters are called Mountain, Broke Arrow, and Star Man are not yet entirely realized. Other members in the cast were LaVonne Rae Andrews (Sally 30/30) and Michelle Diaz (La Megadeath).

Potter, in a demanding role, has a challenging three-fold mission. As an actor she must find the chief, find Suarez, and unravel Birdsong’s mysterious death. It is cumbersome and inefficient. But Potter’s strength and tenaciousness manages us to keep her in our thoughts for some time.

Means is an iconic and majestic Native American on the path of historical significance. There will be a moment when all will come to him in this role.

We do not completely understand why Jones as Dacotah is there. Separated by half a stage during her scene with Siler does not do her justice.

Keams is amusing and sympathetic as Maria 15. One has to wonder: where are the other Marias? (1 – 14).

Lisa Peterson, the director, has taken Montoya’s script and turned it into a visual feast. The blend of set (Rachel Hauck), costumes (Christopher Acebo), vehicles, lighting (Nichols), makes for a captivating night of comedy and awe despite the few problems.

Applause must be given Peterson, Culture Clash, and Erika Sellin, the casting director, for the diverse makeup of the cast: Native Americans, Chicanos, Mexicans, etc., are a large portion of our culture in Los Angeles but represent little in terms of feature films and television representation.

Alexander V. Nichols lighting and projection design was nicely done. Tracers, mosques, moon, and sunset blue filled the night sky. A special appearance by Speedy Gonzales was projected on the rocks as part of the peyote sequence among others images.

Mark Taper Forum

December 3, 2009 – January 24, 2010

Student performances January 12-15

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

La Posada Magica by Octavio Solis

by Joe Straw

From the moment the musicians, Marcos Loya and Lorenzo Martinez, step onto the stage there is a quiet calmness; a notion to keep your emotional distressed life outside on Sepulveda in the cold and bitter air. This is a time for celebration: for those warm and fuzzy feelings to creep back into your essence. As Loya softly tickles the strings on his acoustical guitar, Martinez holds his guitarron gently like an old friend and plucks the base instrument defiantly, soothingly, and with a purpose.

The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, through December 24, 2009, presents a heart rendering La Posada Magica written by Octavio Solis and directed by Diane Rodriguez.

The feelings from Christmas past are the mind’s willingness to let go of heartbreaking memories. And Gracie’s (Gloria Garayus) soul is troubled. She fights the memories of losing her baby brother: an episode in her life that weighs heavily on her this Christmas season. Her parents Papi (Richard Soto) and Mom (Crissy Guerrero) sorrowfully have decided to move on with their lives. They leave Gracie this night to sort out her problems but ask her for a favor: to donate a sack of clothes to the members of La Posada.

In her bedroom contemplating the emptiness she feels without her brother she answers the door.

It is the La Posada holding lit candles. They sing with jubilation begging Gracie to join them in mirth. Gracie is not amused and asks them to leave.

Horacio (Benito Martinez) is the leader of this group and he is not content of having any sadness on this joyous walk. Eli the co-coordinator (Richard Azurdia) corrals the remaining walkers into a cohesive group with Consuelo (Denise Blasor), Rufugio (Sol Castillo), and Caridad (Carla Jimenez) in tow.

The symbolism of Mary and Joseph, a pregnant Mariluz (Crissy Guerrero) and her husband Jose Cruz (Richard Soto), is not lost here.

Mariluz suddenly feels faint and Gracie instinctively pulls a baby blanket from her bag. Gracie is heartbroken by this moment. She takes away the blanket, holds it next to her cheek, breaths it, and gently puts it back in the bag.

Not deterred, by the sudden change in mood, the group manages to have Gracie joins them in their quest to find Mary and Joseph a place to stay.

But something happens along the way and they are separated by the night. Gracie is confronted with images that haunt her whether it is a vision or real life remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it is a bad element of La Posada, ghosts whose sacks are filled with bad thoughts. Flashes of death and destruction are a part of their being. They are technically the ghosts of Christmas past and they present Gracie the grave of her baby brother. She decides to leave her baby brother in peace spoiling their purpose.

Something magical happens to Gracie. She grows wings like an angel and has the ability to give light to those in need.

This particular stage show has been playing at the South Coast Repertory since 1994 and has since moved to the Odyssey Theatre here in Los Angeles.

The play is a feel good show that lets everyone, young and old, feel the Christmas spirit. You are encouraged to sing “Vamos” and “Este Canto Mio” and dance if your feet so desire.

Diane Rodriguez has directed this version of La Posada Magica. Not to be Ebenezer Scrooge here, but critical moments pass without reason and the audience is left wondering what actually transpired. And while the actions on stage may not always work, the music is great, the voices are fantastic, and there is love everywhere you look. This is a fine tradition and one that tears on your heart.

Octavio Solis, an accomplished Hispanic writer, has given Southern California a look at a Spanish tradition, with inspiring Hispanic actors, and wonderful Hispanic musicians in a nice venue. For the artists, it is a celebration of the richness of our diversity.

The ritual of La Posada started in Spain as a nine-day celebration beginning December 16 and ending December 24. It is a tradition for Mexican families, which symbolize the journey Mary and Joseph took before resting in a manger. This is a spiritual journey that takes the art of rejection and turns it into a journey with a profound purpose. Through the years this journey has become a community festival where friends, neighbors and family members dress as pilgrims, go from house to house carrying lighted candles and singing songs.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Wizard of Oz By Frank Baum

By Joe Straw

Somewhere there is a place, a tiny speck in every being that yearns to see The Wizard of Oz at least one more time. The Kentwood Players and the Kentwood Kids Production presents a surprising production of The Wizard of Oz adapted by Frank Gabrielson and directed by Meredith M. Sweeney at the Westchester Playhouse.

This particular production is the Municipal Opera of St. Louis (MUNY) version. It is a combination of the MGM film, the book, and Frank Gabrielson’s imagination. It is delightful in its own right and played with delight by the seemingly cast of 1000 kids scurrying about on stage hitting their marks and running off stage for rapid costume changes.

The production crew and Meredith M. Sweeney have to be congratulated for the tremendous amount of kid wrangling needed for this successful production.

The show started late, 10 minutes, perhaps the dust from the Kansas landscape blowing unusually hard that morning as menacing clouds gather along the horizon. Aunt Em (Hayley Novack), a farmhand (Amanda Araque), and Uncle Henry (Kobe Kubes) survey the darkness creeping up on them as the other farmhands (Emma Erenmark and Francesca Farina) watch with trepidation.

Dorothy (Camilla Vietina), with her dog Toto (Karine Trapenard), is one step in front of the pending storm. And as a gentle breeze follows them Dorothy belts out “Over the Rainbow”. It is an anticipated moment the audience yearns for and Vietina delivers successfully.

But Dorothy, slightly unaware of the tornado coming, is caught in her home as the nightmarish storm lifts her house and moves it from one side of the stage to another. Sound Designer by Susan Stangl does this almost in complete darkness but with some very nice sound effects. With the stage barely lit, the effects of a tornado moving the house back and forth is nicely done!

And, then, the house lands killing the wicked witch of the east - ruby slippers and all - taking us to a place we know exits. The Munchkin Farmer (a very funny Ezekiel Frederick) and Munchkin Mayor (Trinity King) surveys the damage and with the help of Munchkin Coroner (a very expressive Rachel Evans), The Lullaby League (Samantha Cruz, Rocia Vietina and Elizabeth Cruz) and Lollipop Guild (Josiah Taylor, Logan Hanning and Steven Lerner), determine that the Wicked Witch of The East is undeniably, dead!

The Sorceress of the North (Monica Allan) has a wonderfully strong voice that carries the Munchkins and helps them guide Dorothy to the Emerald City.

Ah, but who could forget the companions on our lovely trip. The Scarecrow (Amanda Araque), the Tinman (Emma Erenmark) and the Cowardly Lion (Francesca Farina) look for a brain, and heart and the nerve! Each of Dorothy’s companions was exceptional in getting her back to that patch of dirt she calls Kansas.

Who would put a damper on this lovely party? None other than the Wicked Witch of The West, wart nose and all (Madison Dewberry). She is quite good and quite menacing having the Munchkins running around in fear.

Those rascally Munchkins were Madison Browning, Makenzie Browning, Ella Cunningham, Valentina Povolo, Martina Povolo and Alan Trapernard. The Jitterbugs/Ghost were Madison Browning and Makenzie Browning.

Alan Trapenard was fine as Lord Growlie and The Wizard of Oz.

Chris Farina did a remarkable job with the singers. Their voices were strong and clear!

Meredith M. Sweeney directs a very charming and heartwarming production. She also made the wonderful costumes. The Wizard of Oz is surprising in its execution. Everyone should be proud to be a part of this production.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Noises Off by Michael Frayn

by Joe Straw

Noises Off is a rip roaring, lip smacking, trouser dropping, bra watching, door slamming, window breaking good time. The audience on this day was doubling over with laughter. Playing at A Noise Within (I know, it’s confusing.) in Glendale through December 20. Co-directed by Geoff Elliot and Julia Rodriguez-Elliot this remarkable play shows all that is quirky about theatre and the actors who populate the space.

In any case Noises Off is a play about a play, Nothing On, where women run around with little or nothing on and men equally seem to lose articles of clothing while no one seems to notice the smell of sardines in the air. And there are sardines everywhere. And around them there is some kind of a plot on stage.

From the people on stage to those in the theatre seats you get a reaction about art from everyone. The gentleman seating next to me after the first act asked if I was reviewing the show. I said it was more like an observation.

“Then I’ll withhold my comments.”

No go ahead, you have something you’d like to share, what did you think?

“Did you see me laughing?”


“I wasn’t.”

Dress Rehearsals for Nothing On.

Dotty Otley as Mrs. Clackett (Deborah Strang) brings in a plate or sardines as she’s about ready to watch a show about “The Royals”. The phone rings and she tells the caller the owners are in Spain. She leaves but forgets the sardines.

Gary Lejeune as Roger (Mikael Salazar) a sleazy real estate agent with naughty on his mind enters with his girlfriend Brooke Ashton as Vicky (Emily Kosloski) and sees the sardines. Lloyd Dallas (Geoff Elliott), the director, tries to fix the action on stage but Dotty is a bumbling forgetful head that can’t remember one moment from the next. And Gary is no help comparing his past wonderfully gifted directors to Dallas.

Enter Frederick Fellows as Phillip Brent (Stephen Rockwell) and his stage wife Belinda Blair as Flavia Brent (Jill Hill) secretly back from Spain to avoid paying taxes.

As they move about, the non actions on stage suggest that a person is missing. Selsdon Mowbray as the burglar (Apollo Dukakis) is nowhere to be found. All imagine him lying in the gutter, drunk as the proverbial skunk. He’s not. This time he’s just very slow and doesn’t make his entrance on time.

Opening night of Nothing On (backstage) technically, Noises Off.

Act two is very interesting in that they flip the stage around and now we are backstage looking at the actors preparing to go onstage opening night. The actors are tense and are nearing the breaking point. But they are all troupers as they let the action play on stage while quietly trying to kill each other backstage, hence the name Noises Off.

Lejeune is mad at everyone. Fellows tries to sooth jealousies without spilling too much of his own blood. Someone grabs an axe and bodies are flying about the stage for protection. Ashton looses her contacts and then walks out in the middle of the show when she finds out the director has been two timing her with Poppy (Lenne Klingaman). And all of the actors in one way or another are trying to hide the liquor bottle from Mowbray. And plates of sardines are flying everywhere!

This act is hilarious! Silently choreographed in meticulous detail, which has the audience wetting themselves.

“Well, that hit the mark,” said my seating partner.

Act three (the stage is flipped again) is some time later in the run with everything going wrong. There is not one single thing that is precise and the actors try to make the best of the catastrophes on stage. They play ends with all actors, in some kind of theatrical cohesions, holding plates of sardines up in the air. It is a testament to each of them to make sense of the play on this particular night. And it it so funny you will laugh the night away!

Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott co-direct this monstrosity of a play. It is a superb production with wonderful performances all around.

Adam Lilibridge was the set Set Designer with Soojin Lee was the Costume Designer.

A Noise Within is a wonderful theatre in Glendale, with wonderful actors, and a supporting staff that is second to none in Los Angeles. (Please check show times as this play is running in repertory.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Extinction by Gabe McKinley

by Joe Straw

Relationships can change in a fraction of a moment. The wrong word said at the precise time can put an ugly edge on a beautiful friendship or annihilate it.

Extinction written by Gabe McKinley and directed by Wayne Kasserman is a very polished and exciting production. The play is produced by Red Dog Squadron and is now playing at The Elephant Space in Hollywood in a very limited run through December 13, 2009.

There is something very interesting about this play that makes audience members want to take a step back, rewind, and hear the words again. Words, like a compliment that require to be heard again. Only these words, spoken here, have the opposite effect as they slowly drip from subconscious into the conscious.

Finn (James Roday) and Max (Michael Weston) are the best of friends. Or are they? They have what amounts to a standing date every year. This year it's in an Atlantic City hotel where they take pleasure in the excessive; to rediscover the debaucheries of drug, alcohol, and the finer points of professional members of the opposite sex.

Max, from San Diego, represents the pharmaceutical industry (the second oldest profession). He is single, well off, and excessively enjoys his own prohibited pharmaceuticals. Tonight does not seem any different as he waits for Finn to show up to get the party started, but there is a difference. Secrets ingrained in him so deep and dark they require copious amount of drink and drugs.

When Finn does show up he is hesitant about doing drugs and women and not letting us in on his reasons for his abstinence.

Max is the complete opposite and is ready to do some heavy partying for reasons that soon become apparent. Max tells Finn that his mother has died, just recently, “one week ago”. “Cancer”, Max saw it coming. “She was gone in six weeks.” Max seems non-pulsed about his mothers death, tells him not to sweat it.

Finn, standing silently, says he’s sorry but is hesitant about physically reaching out to him.
Rewind. Finn did not know anything about this? His best friend? What kind of a relationship is this?
Finn, from New York, doesn’t travel far to get to Atlantic City, New Jersey, but he is broke and tells Max he can’t afford such extravagances and he needs money to finish his doctorate. Max agrees to give Finn ten thousand dollars without blinking an eye, but with one exception, they party the weekend away.

Finn agrees to stay. Big mistake. The ten thousand dollars hangs over his head like a dark cloud and plays a significant role in their relationship throughout the night.

Finn parties, but for the moment, on his terms. He has reasons for not going all out. He tells Max he has a child coming and he is married. Also, Finn tells his best friend he recently married Susan who they both know.

Rewind. Best friend left out of the wedding ceremony? Max knew nothing about it? Had another best man? What kind of a friendship is this?

Tensions brew like a bad pot of coffee. The “revenge” file in Max and Finn’s arsenal of bad behavior is pulled to the desktop waiting for the right moment to click, or not.

Max grabs Finn’s cell phone, calls Susan and carries on a conversation about what the both of them are going to do this weekend. The call is a fake. Max forces Finn to party; Max takes his phone and walks down to the casino downstairs where he makes his ten thousand dollars and then decides to call Susan.
Some time later Max comes back up to the room with Missy (Amanda Detmer) and Victoria (Stefanie E. Frame). The partygoers have another type of relationship, somewhat professional. They hardly know each other and trust and protection is secondary to the money they will make. Victoria, nervous, tragically gets more out of this than she bargained for.

Max and Finn’s relationship reaches a breaking point and all hell breaks loose.

Weston and Roday are just fantastic! Weston is manipulative, as Roday is secretive. Their contemptuous moments sting like hot arrows. They are dramatic and entertaining, albeit sometimes uncomfortable to watch.

Detmer and Frame take these roles and breaths new life into characters that could be called cliché. Detmer is wonderfully funny and Frame is caring and sympathetic.

Gabe McKinley writes a dramatic play that takes relationships by the throat and squeezes the life out of it. Moments come crashing down like lighting bolts changing their relationship into a fragile quivering whimpering mass of human flesh.

Wonderfully produced by Breanne Mowdy with Scenic Design by Kurt Boetcher that shows us two rooms in an Atlantic City hotel. (Rooms that make you want to get out and gamble.)
Kasserman, the director, does a nice job as he sends this relationship into the depths of despair going so far as to have us wondering if they will ever get out of this hell.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Carbon Black by Terry Gomez (Comanche)

by Joe Straw

Someone stands yelling on the corner shouting words that make no sense. Passing by, you think about him for a moment and then move on not completely understanding why this planet is made up of crazy people. But, they are on the streets, in our schools, and in our homes. Sometimes standing right next to you feeling your thoughts and mentally addressing your needs.

Carbon Black written by Terry Gomez and directed by Randy Reinholz is an experience that you will remember for a long time and cherish the performances for the rest of your days. It is part of the 10th Anniversary Season of Native Voices playing at the Autry Theatre.

Carbon “Inky” Black (Michael Drummond) is a very curious 13-year-old boy (a little off centered) living with his mother Sylvie (Sheila Tousey) outside of Albuquque, New Mexico. They live by the barest of means in an upper level apartment of a low rent-housing unit. Squatting among the thousands of scraps of paper that litter the floor, the room has a thickness of being lived in for an extended period of time. Hunger greets their every move.

They sit; like couch potatoes and watch the news about disaster, grief, and destruction. Someone out on the streets is abducting small children and causing great harm and it’s no place for them to be.

Carbon has been absent from school for eight days. Sleeping on his balcony, he has been a witness to the murder of a little girl and feels somewhat responsible for not helping her. But, that is the second thing on his agenda. The first is taking care of his mother the best way he knows how by scrounging the neighborhood in search of food which drives Sylvie into a panic so profound you must wonder: is she one of “those people?”

There is a knock at the door. It is the vice-principal, Bodell Tucker (Stephan Wolfert), a cold calculating man. A person with a handicap and so rankled by the handicap he is evil in spirit and mean to those around him. His left arm permanently clutched to his chest and his left leg almost a useless appendage.

Tucker is a taskmaster at getting the job done – only his way. He wants that boy back in school or there will be a price to pay. He slips the note under the door and demands the boy be returned to school.

Sylvie says, “Don’t open that letter. It’s got anthrax!” So emotional she buries her head into the bookcase waiting for the pending disaster.

Carbon, with great care, breaks from the house and returns to school where he is treated like a common criminal by Tucker and sent to the see Lisa Yellowtree (Tonantzin Carmelo) the guidance counselor. She has a hard time getting through to him but eventually warms up to his makeup and discovers his character.

Yellowtree’s life is not what is appears to be. Through this seemingly normal exterior beats a life that is tortured beyond comprehension, a single mother with a severely handicapped child and a demanding job that crushes the life out of her. Her saving grace is that she really cares for the poor misfortunate students.

Later in the play Carbon Black disappears and those around him desperately tried to find him and also to find answers to their wretched miserable lives.

Tousey is engaging as Sylvie. It is hard to warm up to someone who you honestly think needs help but in the end you understand and you’re with her all the way. Love carries her out the door and it is amazing to see.

Drummond is a very peculiar actor, very engaging, and unique in his way.

Carmelo gives us a life searching for a better answer. She is an answer to those who don’t yet have the questions.

Wolfert as Bodell Tucker gives a great performance. One would have expected him to be a “little” handicapped, but no that was just his performance. He did something near the end of the performance that was the “Oh” moment.

Terry Gomez, a Native American, writes a compelling play that gives purpose to the lives of the less fortunate. Whatever makes these people what they are, they do have one thing in common, they care.

Randy Reinholz (Choctaw), the director and Artistic Director, has done an admirable job. When you leave the theatre you have an “Oh” moment. “Oh, that’s why they did that.” And if you’re thinking about the play days and weeks later, then he’s done his job.

November 7-22, 2009

Native Voice at the Autry
4700 Western Heritage WayLos Angeles, CA 90027-1462

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Evil Legacy The Story of Lucrezia Borgia by Kathrine Bates

by Joe Straw

Political ambition leaves a sour taste in the mouths of the populace. And perception of a malevolent family implicates all members of that family, justly or not. Evil Legacy is a one-woman play about Lucrezia Borgia written and performed by Kathrine Bates and directed by Ted Lange in a limited run at the beautiful Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, California.

This is a tale about Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) set in the Machiavellian times of the Renaissance period. Born in 1480 until her death in 1519, Lucrezia explains her relationship with her family but she wants us to know that she is by no means guilty by association. Is she the guilty victim of association or just plain evil?

Lucrezia describes her life and loves arranged by Pope Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia. Her father and brother made most of these arrangements in their ultimate quest for political power, monetary wealth, and reputation. They were a family of immense authority and struggled to hold on to their power for as long as they could.

Bates simplifies the characters by relating them to chess pieces and explaining the men in her life, the political maneuverings, and their quest for power.

Lucrezia lived an insalubrious life. But, as she tells it, she was essentially a pawn in her family’s high stakes moves to align themselves with France, Naples, or any other country that added power to their personal base. The movements around her forced her to reposition her thoughts and justifications on love and life.

Lucrezia was the illegitimate daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Later Pope Alexander VI) and Vanozza Cattanei. Her siblings, also illegitimate, were Cesare Borgia, (appointed a Cardinal at the age of 18 and a dangerous man with the Pope’s ear) Juan Borgia, and Joffre Borjia.

In this play Bates moves us from one significant point in Lucrezia’s life to another. She speaks of the arrangement of her first marriage to husband Giovanni Sforza, Duke of Pesaro in 1493, forming a powerful alliance with the Milanese family.

Giovanni later fell out of political favor and was forced to flee for his life.

Understanding the ambition of Lucrezia’s family, Giovanni was forced to sign a statement claiming the marriage was not consummated. But, there was a problem. In order for Lucrezia to be promised to the Duke of Bisceglie, she had to prove she was “intact”, but at this time she was, essentially, pregnant. This problem was kept quiet by having Lucrezia sent silently off to a convent.

Lucrezia, ready to come back to Rome, was thrusted back into society to continue with the arranged marriage to Alfonso of Aragon, the Duke of Bisceglie. Alfonso was the love of her life and in time Cesare was jealous of their relationship.

Cesare sent a group of men to kill Alfonso in the courtyard as Lucrezia looked from her balcony. Alfonso survived the attack and was brought up to Lucrezia’s bedroom to recover. During his recovery Cesare sent some men into the room to strangle Alfonso to death as Lucrezia and her chambermaid were helpless to prevent it.

Whatever her motives were when the love of her life was being strangled in her bedroom, outside perception could imagine Lucrezia having a cup of wine rather than seeking help thus sealing her image.

Ted Lange (of Love Boat fame) originally directed this play. Always the trick in a one-person show is breaking the fourth wall. Exactly whom is the character talking to? In this case, Lucrezia is speaking to Pantasilea, her trusted chambermaid, or as the case may be, us, the audience as Patasilea moves about beyond the fourth wall.

Bates as the writer did a magnificent job and as a performer she was just wonderful, but (and it’s a very small but) there is the grand potential for more layers.

What a wonderful show! It is a fascinating look at a disturbing time where greed and the lust for power knew no boundries.

There is a mystery in this production of Evil Legacy to give it away would be tantamount to… well… turn to page four in this blog to find the answer. The mystery revealed will give you the answers to this story and maybe to life.

A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim

by Joe Straw

Ok, so you’re not able to make it to Broadway this year because of the economy. But there is this little theatre in Westchester, The Kentwood Players are performing A Little Night Music, music and lyrics by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim, suggested from a film by Ingmar Bergman and originally produced and directed on Broadway by the equaling amazing Harold Prince. Sheridan Cole Crawford directs this particular production.

Simply put, A Little Night Music is a musical about a family belonging and finding the right partner in relationship to the rest of the near world. As Madame Armfeldt (Silver Shreck) explains it to Frederika (Hannah Provisor) the summer night smiles three times: first on the young, second on fools, and third on the old. Frederika vows to find the smiles as they occur.

Fredrik, the father, (Kevin Michaels) married Anne Egerman (Kristin Towers-Rowles) eleven months ago. To date their marriage has not been consummated. Anne is smitten with Fredrik’s son Henrik (Jeremy Speed Schwartz) who is a seminary student but mildly interested.

The songs are indicative of the characters wants, Fredrik wants it “Now”, Henrik, the seminary student, wants it “Later” and Anne the wife wants it “Soon”. To whom she wants it soon from remains a matter of her personal tastes.

Fredrik takes Anne to the theatre and discovers Desiree (Susie McCarthy) his lover from an earlier liaison. Anne in her theatre box is disgusted by Desiree advances to Fredrik and leaves in a huff.

Later Fredrik sneaks back to meet secretly with Desiree. In the middle of the moment they are interrupted by Carl-Mangus (Jeremy Fillinger) who ultimately wants to kill Fredrik even though he is married to the lovely Countess Charlotte (Lynn Reed).

Madame Armfeldt invites everyone to the country to have a liaison. Through song and dance the characters eventually find the right partners and everyone lives, well you know the rest.

There are a number or remarkable performances in this production. Shreck as Armfeldt brings a delightfulness I have not seen in some time. McCarthy as Desiree is a wonderful actress and her rendition of “Send in The Clowns” rang true to form. Michaels as Fredrik has a likeable comic timing and Fillinger as Carl-Magnum presents us with the beast in everyman two solid feet on the ground and ready for the inevitable. Towers-Rowles as Anne also had a lot of very nice moments.

Others rounding out the cast were Jerry Cordova, Jacqueline Crist-Franzen, Harold Dershimer, Adam Dunberger, Shirley Hatton, Sarah Maher, Roby Rothstein and Karintha Touton.

Directed by Sheridan Cole Crawford and Produced by Jordan Bland. This production had a nice little four-piece band. Billy Wolfe was on Piano. Lacy Rostyak played violin. Greg Lee, who seemed to be enjoying the heck out of the show, was on the harp while Benson Preciado played the cello.

Opening night, sold out, standing room only, these are the words you like to hear on Broadway but it is equally impressive at the Westchester Playhouse. All this entertainment without the Broadway price tag and at a very low cost is yours just for the asking.

Reservations: 310-645-5156

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Manor by Kathrine Bates

by Joe Straw

The Manor, now in it’s 8th year, is a remarkable achievement! An experience you cannot imagine and captivating from one moment to the next. Written by Kathrine Bates and directed by Beverly Olevin. This Theatre 40 production, in association with The City of Beverly Hills Recreation and Parks Department, wants you to experience the lives of the rich and famous. Follow them throughout the mansion as corruption and greed devours their livelihood and their lives come crumpling down upon them.

The set is the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills (now a park) positioned high up in the hills overlooking the City of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles, California. Not too far from anywhere in the city and the parking is free.

Walking down the opulent steps, waters streams down rock-strewn falls into a beautiful koi pond where turtles bask in the afternoon sun. This beautiful walkway takes you to the backside of Greystone Mansion and immediately, gazing upon the mansion, you feel that something inside has gone horribly wrong.

The ghosts still walk the grounds pleading for you to come inside and pay witness to the tragedy. And then, slowly the characters appear, illuminating shadows from the 1920’s that brings to life that which has long since past.

The Valet, Richard Large, introduces us to the tragedy about to unfold and unfold it does. Each character is strikingly different and special in their desires.

Oil baron, Charles MacAlister (Darby Hinton) and his wife Marion MacAlister (Kathrine Bates) are hosting a wedding reception for their son Sean MacAlister (Michael Piscitelli) and his new wife Abby MacAlister (Nicole McCloud). Abby’s father and MacAlister’s lawyer, Frank Parsons, Esq. (Michael Bonnabel) is there enjoying the moment. Also there is Senator Alfred Winston (Daniel Leslie) and his charming wife Cora Winston (Melanie MacQueen).

Charles announces to the wedding guests that he is giving the 46,000 square foot mansion to his son and his new bride and wants them to immediately fill the home with children.

Senator Winston, sensing a weak moment, pulls Charles MacAlister into the next room to discuss money matters.

Abby, happily married, is suddenly startled by the appearance of her handyman, Gregory Pugh (Jeremiah Dupre). She introduces this mysterious man to her husband, Sean. Secretly, Abby has more than a passing interest in Gregory unbeknownst to Sean who also takes an immediate liking to Greg. Greg introduces his rambunctious new wife Henrietta Havesham (Amy Tolsky) to both of them.

Behind closed doors, Senator Winston speaks to MacAlister about a $100,000 loan he needs in exchange for very lucrative mining rights and the rights to build Naval Bases on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. MacAlister, hesitant at first, is corrupted by untold riches and the power this could bring the family.

Marion, in front of Abby, pulls Sean out of their honeymoon bedroom to join the guests in the next room where Sean is instructed by his father to leave his bride that night, deliver the $100,000 to Senator Winston in Washington D.C., and take Gregory along for protection.

This sets the stage for the unspeakable catastrophe about to unfurl. It is an uncompromising experience of lust, greed, and murder played out behind closed doors of The Manor.

This is a remarkable cast. Professional in every sense of the word and dedicated in craft. Some roles have multiple cast members but judging from the superior quality you will have a very good time no matter what day you attend.

Each cast member provides a special quality to this production: Bates as Marion is the powerful matriarch, Hinton as Charles MacAlister gives us strength, Bonnabel as Parson, Esq., stability, Piscitelli as Sean young idealism, McCloud as Abby life’s temptation, Dupre as Gregory dangerous encounters, Leslie as Senator Winston ideal imperialism and greed, and MacQueen as Cora, loyalty.

Tolsky was delightful as Henrietta Havensham, providing fun to everyones dreary lives almost to excess.

The servants did a good job in directing us from one room to the next while still staying in character and giving us updates on behind the scenes matters. They were Ursula, the housekeeper (Nina Borisoff), Ellie, the maid (Esther Levy Richman) and Large as James, the valet.

The indefatigable Bates has written a very good play, episodic in tone, and delightful in structure. Wonderfully directed by Beverly Olevin as she moves the characters through this stately mansion to their demise.

Loosely based on the life of Edward L. Doheny, the Greystone Mansion was built for his son, Ned Doheny, whose death along with his secretary by gunshot has remained a mystery for many years.

(2009) November: 7, 8, 14, 15, and 21

(2010) Jan. 9, 10, 16, 17 • Feb. 13, 14, 27, 28 • Mar 27, 28

For information and reservations call (310) 694-6118

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

All Cake, No File by Donna Jo Thorndale

by Joe Straw

Growing up in Tennessee we usually sat around and listened to Bob Burke’s record player playing mostly Rock and Roll. Bob, all elbows and a wicked sense of humor liked Mick Jagger; my tastes included Elvis and The Beatles. Bob put on a country and western record, Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”. We got a kick out of that song and listened to it for what seem like hours. For me it wasn’t so much the way Cash sung it, it was the reaction of the prisoners and the kick they got out of it.

So we come full circle with All Cake, No File A Johnny Cash prison tribute cooking show/concert from Actors’ Gang member Donna Jo Thorndale as Jewell Rae Jeffers a celebrity chef, home economist and the host of “Tastes Like Home” a live cooking show. It’s all fun, for a good cause, and part of the WTF? Festival.

Thorndale is a delightful actress and there is possibly something here for everyone including the pieces of the coconut cake she prepares on stage.

Jewell Rae Jeffers was raised in Kentucky, (Or is it reared? I forget?) No matter its Kentucky. She grew up in the sticks, right near, well across from the coalmines. Anyway, as we used to say, it’s just that side of Bum Screw, Egypt.

She has an accent and you can hardly understand her. Not so much what she says, it’s the way she says it. And she enjoys a man with a problem, “Don’t tell me. I will fall in love with you!” The bigger the problem the luckier you get!

So she comes out here to California to start her own show, “Tastes Like Home” only she really doesn’t have an audience. So she finds some. A captive audience so a speak. It’s prisons, where they keep the mean people and wouldn’t they like some down home white trash cookin’ with enough sugar to keep them bugged-eyed for a year.

And she only starts with the best of ingredients, Duncan Heinz cake mix, Pam, and Cool Whip. To which she says, “We don’t endorse any products on this show.” (All brands appear to be blacked out with black masking tape.)

She tells us a member of one of her audiences gets out of prison and later marries her. He’s got drug and alcohol problems (her kind of man). And he must love her judging from the looks of the sizable rock on her left ring finger. (Stolen, no doubt.)

Liberal in her views (A Unitarian, also, no doubt). Free health care, no wars, and not a supporter of anything having to do with the Republican Party is something watchable without equivocation.

This show has a lot of potential and judging from the improvisation on stage you may get something entirely different on other nights.

But, and it's a small but, the audience requires to be defined by Thornsdale. Is it a prison audience? Or is it a prison performer performing in front of a non-prison audience?

In any case, Thorndale’s expressions were priceless!

The Broken Numbers Band provided music and a Johnny Cash tribute band With A Bible And A Gun also performed a few numbers.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Jamaica, Farewell by Debra Ehrhardt

Call. Make your reservation. Get to the Santa Monica Playhouse and see the enchanting one woman show “Jamaica Farewell” written by and starring Debra Ehrhardt.

There is no set, just a black box, a podium and two apple boxes warmed up by the Jamaican music softly playing in rhythm like shallow waves on white sandy beaches and rustling petals on beautiful flowers. It sounds like something you want to get to but in this production the heroine has other plans.

And so it goes that Ehrhardt enters slowly treating us to life on Jamaica. Painting a picture so unique she takes on color and slowly surrounds the stage with the vibrant Jamaican characters of her youth.

Debra’s only dream was to go to American and as dreams often do it becomes an overriding force in her life. Never losing sight of the ultimate goal, America, a land where there are "Baby Ruth’s as far as the eye can see". And "café mocha's with everything on it" are on every corner.

But life has a way of laying extreme obstacles in the most expected places. I mean, it’s Jamaica man.
First as young girl in a private school, her dreams suddenly come crashing down when her alcoholic gambling father loses their home and their furniture. This action sends Debra and her religious mother into a life of poverty. Her mother, clinging to religious convictions, becomes the cornerstone of Debra’s life.

In a never ending quest to leave the island, Debra tries to depart to study nursing abroad only to have her dream unrealized when they reject her for being too poor. So she sort of takes a vow of poverty, dresses in nuns garb (sewn by her mother) and tries to flee only to be rejected again.

The play takes a 360 degree turn dealing with the description of political unrest on the island. With assasinations here and there Debra manages to stay alive during the fracas until she finds an American with which to pursue her dream only to find he's CIA. No matter, she's young, attractive, and an opportunist to boot.

With eyes and ears wide open Debra manages to listen in on her bosses conversation about "getting a million dollars out of the country" and with the CIA agent as her friend she convinces her boss that if he can "get her a visa" she might be able to pull this one off.

A dream can sometimes hit a roadblock with so much complexity and unendurable conflict as to stop the strong of heart dead in their tracks and so it happens with Debra. Will she live her dream or spend 20 years in prison?

The director, Francis Megahy, manages to take us on a roller coaster ride until we are engulfed in the story and brought to a point that we let out a collective cheer when Debra achieves the dream of her life.

Hollywood is made up of the dreamers and the visualists reaching, struggling, and pursuing that which may be unreachable. When "it" happens it's a beautiful thing. The sold out house got "it" this night. They stood, they clapped and they jumped up and down for an exciting exhilarating ride, and a breathtaking view of the Island of Jamaica.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Crime & Punishment

By Joe Straw 

How is it that you can turn 500-page novel into an abbreviated 90-minute play with no intermission? Crime and Punishment by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Colombus wishes you to brood darkly over that question. And they want an answer!

The play, based of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s towering masterpiece of the same name, is presented by A Noise Within in Glendale, California and directed by Craig Belknap.

Crime and Punishment, the play, can best be described as journey into the world of interrogation.
The play is set in St. Petersburg, Russia, circa 1866, in the multi-level apartment building of an intelligent and very hungry student, Raskolnikov (Michael A. Newcomer). He is under investigation for murdering an unprincipled pawnbroker and her unwitting sister (both played by Holly Hawkins).
Porfiry (Robertson Dean), the examining magistrate, is leading the investigation.

This play is about Porfiry’s mastery of the art of interrogation and this investigation has many layers. Porfiry is communicating with a purpose, understanding the underbelly of the crime, the motives behind it, and in the process getting the slip of the tongue. We are here to see the art of interrogation and subsequently the arrest of the guilty.

Porfiry interrogates Raskolnikov because of his close proximity to the murder victims, his published essay on Crime, and besides Porfiry has eliminated all the other suspects. Raskolnikov thinks he can outwit Porfiry because of his superior intellect. It is the talk of a madman and Porfiry is having none of it.

Porfiry takes the moral high ground the moment he walks into the room, note pad opened (odd that there appeared to be no notes taken) in a non-aggressive style remarked by Raskolnikov as a “usual ploy”.

Murder has an effect on the most callous of minds and Raskolnikov is no exception, contrary to his belief. Watching the unforgettable last breath of someone dying haunts his pictorial mind and is played repeatedly. An image, conjured up in anxiety filled moments of frenzy, ravages his physical life and slowly madness creeps into the psyche of his sleep and in the waking moments of his life.

This play has three actors and filling out the roles of Sonia, a prostitute, Alyona, a pawnbroker, and Raskolnikov’s mother is Holly Hawkins. A subtle change in costumes indicating a change in roles was unsatisfying.

The three actors were magnificent but on this particular day the cat and mouse play had the opposite effect. No points were scored and the players were left exhausted trying to connect with themselves and the audience. This was a battle that seemed to have no winners or losers, a struggle for events and life altering momentum played out on a grand scale with minimum effect.

All is not lost here. Notes, a slight change, and a little humor from Newcomer will add to their journey.
The dialogue from Campbell and Colombus seemed to be lifted directly off the pages of the book. It is sharp and witty but but missing are the daggers that strikes into the heart of the recipient that are not supplied by the actors but should be noted by the director, Belknap.

Noise Within is located near the mall in Glendale. This is a wonderful Equity space for its yearlong repertory company. The theatre stretches four stories into the Glendale sky imploring patrons to come inside and marvel for a couple of hours. A Noise Within is schedule to break new ground in a $15 million dollar facility to be built next year.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky knew something about crime and punishment having been arrested, interrogate and almost shot by a firing squad before his release.

Runs Through December 17th 2009
A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd. Glendale, CA 91204
Reservations: 818-240-0910 x1

Monday, October 12, 2009

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

Three Sisters Don’t Get to Moscow

The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Circus Theatricals present Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters directed by Jack Stehlin. The producers, Ron Sossi and Jeannine W. Stehlin, have given Los Angeles a wonderful production of Three Sisters with Zale Morris creative costumes, hair and makeup, and nicely set for the period. There are moments of theatrical brilliance (more on that later) but those moments are few and far between as these three sisters don’t get to Moscow, nor do they even try.

Which is not to say that all is lost because it isn’t. Hope springs eternal. Stanislavski was known to rehearse a Chekhov production for a year before he presented it to an audience. Sadly, the Odyssey and Circus Theatrical cannot afford that luxury.

The play opens with with our three sisters: Olga (Vanessa Waters), Irina (Murielle Zucker) and Masha (Susan Ziegler) one year after the death of their father. Olga tells us they left Moscow eleven years ago “and I wanted so much to go back home.” And so starts our journey of getting back to Moscow, the overriding focus of our play and the reason for our being.

The three sisters are a dispirited bunch that believes the answers to their problems lies in Moscow, where the flowers are brighter, the skies clearer and the people vibrant and sophisticated, where an intelligent woman can mingle in anonimity or can pursue their fantasy of marrying a young vibrant Moscovite

Masha, constantly dressed in black, is the only one of the three sister married. It is a loveless marriage to Kulygin (Alexander Wells) who walks around most of the day wondering the whereabouts of his free spirited wife. Olga is the 28-year-old spinster who one day hopes to marry anyone who would ask her. Irina is their lovely little sister who wants to meet a man in Moscow and marry him and ignores the suitors visiting on a daily basis.

The play begins with the celebration of Irina’s name day by inviting the local military officers: Baron Tuzenback (Jonah Bay), Solyony (Garrett McKechnie), Colonel Vershinin (Tom Groenwald), Fedotik (Alan Wells), Rode (Jace McLean), along with renter and family friend Doctor Chebutykin (Thomas Kopache).

Also invited to the party is Natasha (Cameron Meyer) a commoner and fiancée to Andrey Prozorov, the intellectual gambling brother to the three sisters. Andrey invites Natasha to become his wife at the end of act one. In act two Natasha tries to take over the household and has also has an affair with Andreys’ boss. Natasha seems angry in all her endeavors and does not take delight in her marriage, her child, or her affair but she does supply this production with a much needed boost.

Andrey (Sheldon), the gambling brother, shows us no sign of his addiction on stage. Solyony (McKechnie) gives us no hint that he wants to kill Tuzenback (Bay) for taking Irina away from him. Vershinin cares little or nothing about his family and cares nothing about Masha. His job as a soldier is about conquest and he will leave without question or thought to anyone.

As in all militaries around the world there is a hierarchy but this particular production has the Colonel, Captain, and Lieutenant as equals and their relationship doesn't suggest a difference in rank. There is also something to be said about an officer wearing a uniform on stage, boots should be polished, shoulders up, chest out, and the man should fill out the uniform with pride.

Theatre can be a grand mixture of realism and fantasy. Jack Stehlin, the director, provides us with two moments of inexplicable joy. Those are when Fedotik takes the picture at the dinner table and later in the fourth act when the cast introduces us to fall and the outdoor setting. This is an extremely hard working cast in need a few additional elements.

There were two exceptional actors on stage, Ronald Hunter, the janitor Ferapont, and Shannon Welles, the Prozorovs’ eighty-year-old nurse, Anfisa. Their execution is flawless and stunning to watch. Well worth the price of admission.

Also, major pieces of the play are missing that would explain the ending and give the audience a stronger emotional commitment. This play requires an emotional commitment from each actor as well as a strong physical life. The actors seemed so far away from each other there was no emotional or physical relationship. And there was no weight given to changes in their relationships. Moments passed like soldiers in opposing trenches.

Through November 8, 2009

Reservations: 310-477-2055

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Looking for Normal by Jane Anderson

There comes a time in all families where an event shakes a family to its core. An event that is so painful everyone in that family goes into survival mode. This is a drama about the heart of ordinary people tested to do extra-ordinary things in order to survive first as individuals then as a family. “Looking For Normal” written by Jane Anderson, directed by Diane Carroll and produced by the Malibu Stage Company is that kind of play.

In a chapel, somewhere in Ohio, composed of everyday folks that live and work in a John Deere factory town, Irma (Nancy Little) drags her husband Roy (Will Carney) to see the Reverend Muncie (Jimmy Hall) to talk about the problems they are having in their 25-year marriage.

Roy, very uncomfortable, has his wife leave the room and tells the Reverend that he is a woman in a man’s body. His desire is to become a woman to relieve his emotional and physical agony. It is a very uncomfortable moment that requires the Reverend to desperately search for the perfect scriptures. When that is not successful they bring in Irma and drop the bombshell.

From this moment on the strains of their relationship are visible, the non-eye contact, the proverbial iceberg between them and self-loathing. Irma doesn’t want Roy to touch him. She tells him to sleep on the couch and later to get out of the house. Add to this Irma is menopausal and their daughter Patty Ann (Hailey Hoffman) is reaching puberty and with all that going on you’ve got a heck of a time in this family.
Roy’s dilemma is to break the news to each member of the family including his son Wayne (J. Walter Holland), his mother Em (Margott Rifenbark) and his father Roy Senior (Howard Ferguson-Woitzman). He does this by writing letters rather than a face-to-face meeting.

Roy’s motives are clear for his happiness but he also wants life to return to normal. He doesn’t want to leave his wife and kids. He doesn’t want to leave his job and he knows this is a cross that others will bear as well. But he has crossed a threshold from which things can never be normal.

In the blink of an eye, and at the moment of Roy’s executed thought of expression, his relationships are forever altered. Irma is no longer a traditional wife. The daughter gains a new girlfriend. The son loses his drinking companion and Roy’s father loses him mind.

There is an interesting element about this play. The play sidesteps into various informative monologues about the female body and male body using graphs, charts, a plastic model and a banana with two tangerines (you get the picture). It is a note about shared physical tangibles we all have. If we are looking for normal there is where we will find it. Beyond that nothing is normal.

I can’t say enough about the actors in this production. This ensemble was terrific. Special kudos goes to Howard Ferguson-Woitzman as Roy Senior who gave an amazing awe-inspiring performance.

Brian Pietro was exceptional as Frank, Roy’s lonely boss. And now that Roy has gone transgender Frank tries to muscle in on Irma but hasn’t got the gravitas or chemistry to make that happen.

Also, Roy’s grandmother Ruth wonderfully played by Nathalie Blossom dressed in male garb comes back to tell us why she was the way she was and why she did what she did giving the audience an idea of her responsibility for all of this mess.

The uneasiness felt throughout the play was the result of Diane Carroll’s grasp of the complexities of this event, complexities in the relationships, and structuring it to its final conclusion.
There were a few opening night jitters but overall the play was successful on many fronts.