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.

Breaking and Entering by Colin Mitchell

By Joe Straw

Recently, about a week before my mother died, I had tried to get a truth out of her and, sadly, it was not forthcoming. Maybe it was the distance, or the fact we were on the telephone speaking in hushed tones saying things about a subject matter so uncomfortable that she could not give me an answer. Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills is putting on a grand production of the world premiere play of Colin Mitchell’s Breaking and Entering directed by Mark L. Taylor. This is a story about truth, the extrication of the truth and the consequences as a result from learning the truth.

The story takes place in the home of a world-renowned novelist Wallace J. Trumbull (Steven Shaw) in upstate New York early November. Fifty years ago he had written a masterpiece that made him famous. And then he was done.

Wallace, in his office, is in a self-imposed seclusion. Typing on his Smith Corona typewriter he extracts another unsuccessful attempt at luminosity, crumples the page, and adds them to the other pages that litter his floor. But, his 50-year effort to write another brilliant novel tonight is conveniently interrupted by something more important, the World Series.

It is the night of the seventh game of the World Series between the marquee match up of Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees. In the booth are Jack (Christopher Gherman) and guest host Bob (Lary Ohlson) a huge fan of Trumbull when as bad luck would have it the power goes out.
As Wallace leaves the room to retrieve a light source an intruder breaks into his home. Her name is Milly (Meredith Bishop) and she is Wallace’s biggest fan. Also, she has written a 700-page masterpiece and wants Trumbull to read it. In fact she won’t leave until he has made assurances that it will be read. And she needs to ask him some questions that demand to be answered.

But, there is more to the story than that of the obsessed fan. It is a story of a lifetime obsession across many generations. It is a night of truths, lies, death and destruction. The night is an important one as intense as a 3-2 count with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded and the scored tied.

Shaw as Trumbull takes us on a methodical journey of fabrication and treachery. He is a fly caught in a web of deception waiting for the moment of truth. And when the truth comes he suddenly grows fangs. He is engaging and magnificent.

Bishop as Milly is as dangerous as she is delightful. She is coy, cunning and manipulative. Her safely hidden objective becomes apparent as she pounces on Trumbull’s deceitful answers. To give away that truth early in the first act would give away everything.

Ohlson and Gehrman as the sportscasters did a magnificent job but the baseball analogy eludes me. It confuses the action on stage, takes away from the moments, and I’m sure there’s more here than meets the eye.

Mark L. Taylor’s direction gives us a fascinating look at the quest for truth, which in turns asks the question “You may have sympathy for the devil, but can you identify the devil? ” Plainly his focus is on the intimate moments, the long pause, the silence that changes the direction of the characters lives and he does this beautifully.

Colin Mitchell writes a play that is almost impossible to believe. It is an extrication of the truth from generations of lies. It is a tale of a possible improbability. And yet, this is an extremely satisfying play. Colin crafts a richly textured play. It is humorous and frightening, delightful and stunning, as well as poignant and forgiving.

Wonderfully produced by David Hunt Stafford with a very nice set design by Jeff G. Rack.
Theatre 40 is a wonderful theatre that has been around for over 40 years. It has it home on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. The support group is fantastic and the parking is free.

Our Town by Thornton Wilder

By Joe Straw 

“Our Town” written by Thornton Wilder produced by The Actors Gang in Culver City is a stunning production!

Directed by Justin Zsebe, this rich and exciting production is imaginative, detailed and so meticulous in action that Zsebe leaves no stone unturned.

One need not look any further than Culver City, your backyard, to find one of the most professional productions of “Our Town” presented anywhere. If you have not seen this show, go! And if you have seen it you will be surprised by a new interpretation by this accomplished cast and crew.

The acting was superb! Vanessa Mizzone (Emily Webb) is wonderful and brings forth the emotional energy from that period. Chris Schultz (George Gibbs) take us on his journey that is hard to forget. Scott Harris is outstanding as Professor Willard and equally good in other supporting roles. Barry O' Neil brings everything to the table as another great supporting player. Just the little touches that bring a warmth and humor to the characters. Very imaginative.

Pierre Adeli as the milkman Howie Newsom appears to bring a horse on stage and has an interesting relationship with Mrs Gibbs (Annemette Andersen) than with her counterpart Mrs Webb (Lindsley Allen). All were fun to watch.
It's not hard to see the actors in this production putting in major effort and energy to make this a spectacular show. Hats off to Seth Compton (Wally Webb) April Fitzsimmons (Mrs Soames) Nathan Kornelis (Dr. Gibbs) and Andrew E. Wheeler (Mr. Webb) for bringing an undeniable truth to this production.

Katie Malia as Rebecca Gibbs does something I don't think I've ever seen in a production of "Our Town."

Brian Kimmet does a nice comedic turn as Simon Stimson, a man with a "problem". It is a pity no one takes the time to help him.

And Steven M. Porter as the Stage Manager was so at ease in this role one would think he was made to play this role. His colorful guidance led us from birth to love to death magnificently.

Meticulous in details and craft, The Actors Gang members were seen in the wings, giving support to members on stage with sound effects, milk bottle sounds, horse walks, baseball, and chickens sounds. All the more enjoyable.
This production is engaging from start to finish.

Life starts small and what better place to start than in Grover Corner New Hampshire the setting of our play. We arrive, we live, we die and those are without question the highlights of our lives. But there’s much more here than what meets the eye. Because even in our mundane moments we go about life missing the moments we should be celebrating… because life is a celebration.

Suzanne Scott did a remarkable job as costume designer. It is a traditional interpretation with costumes from the period.

The crew includes rigger Adam Jefferies who has done a astonishing job with the stunning eye opening third act. It is an achievement that is not to be missed. The Ivy Substation is a grand equity waiver theatre and has enough room to accomplish these feats.

Going back home to "Our Town" after being away has a rejuvenation effect. It restores, like a breath of fresh air, the senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. And although you want to absorb all that is around you, in the end you must move on. "Our Town" wants you to see the moments.

Performances: May 2 - June 6

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nights of Noir by Kasey Wilson

By Joe Straw

Psst. Come here. I got something to tell you. 

It all started when this dick woke up in his shabby office, hung over from something he drank but can't remember, and then some dame, with gorgeous gams, dances to his desk and into his life.  

She wasn't an ordinary dame. She's the kind of dame that would make the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention. If you get my allegory.

So this is the story is about this dick, and this dame, or this dame and a dick, and this other dame. well, you get the picture. 

Some of theses folks are decent, but others, well I wouldn’t let my flea-ridden cat sit in their lap, for the fear that my cat would catch something.  

Don’t stray too far ‘cause this one is a lulu.

You see, there’s this place, the Attic Theatre here in Culver City.  They are showing Nights of Noir! written and directed by this dame, Kasey Wilson. She goes by another name too, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Okay twist my arm, it’s Honey Ima Home. She is da host with da most.

“She was worth a stare. She was trouble.” – The Big Sleep.

Scott Gerard plays detective Bolt. And he is frisking the underbelly of civilized life here in Los Angeles. Or may be they are frisking him, much to his enjoyment.  Anyway, they come to him with all their mixed up problems. And they do this in two one act plays, Marked for Love and Of Dicks and Dames.

The first one, Marked for Love, is about finding some family jewels. It features a cast of characters that will either nauseate you or break you heart. And unsavory dames galore! 

“I know you like a book, ya little tramp. You’d sell your mother for a piece of fudge.” – The Killing.

Megan Evanich as Dottie/Tootie is the secretary. Her love for Bolt, her boss, knows no bounds. Elizabeth V. Newman, a rich classy dame with bucks, as Vivian starts the ball rolling with wanting to have Bolt find the jewels. Rachel Kanouse as Magritte, a bartender in love with Bolt is a remarkable actress who looks likes she stepped from this time period onto this set. Mike Park, as police officer Hank Sergeant is lost from beginning to end, or maybe it's his character. Drew Droege as the The Thin Guy, is so thin he disappears when turning sideways. He is always out of place. John Szura plays his boss.

If you are a fan of Noir, there's a lot of nice things here.

"What do you want, Joe, my life history. Here it is in four words: big ideas, small results." - Clash By Night

Of Dicks and Dames is the name of the second act. It features Scott Gerard as Bolt again in another hair raising episode. Jan Pessin as Viola Shylock gives an amazing performance. Eric Charles Jorgenson as Albee A. Monkeysuncle looks like Brad Pitt doing a Peter Lorre imitation. Amie Donegan as Ima Monkeysuncle. Megan Evanich is Tootie, Drew Droege as Bartholomew Slotz and Elizabeth V. Newman as Vivian. Mike Park is Hank Sergeant out of uniform and in a robe giving valuable information.

During the one acts is a burlesque show featuring a fan dance ala Sally Rand by the very talented Kasey Wilson who gives instruction on where to run should the police show up.

"Do you fall in love with all of your clients? Only the ones in skirts." - Lady in the Lake

The Attic Theatre and Film Center
5429 W. Washington Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90016

Moliere’s The Miser

Moliere’s The Miser
By Joe Straw
Love can go horribly wrong. Love, with its insatiable desires, is a pain in the gut. But no matter how young or old you are love always manages to find a soft resting place.
 The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum showcases this love in a wonderful production of Moliere’s The Miser directed by Ellen Geer.

Alas, love is not without its complications.

The plot of The Miser is simple enough. Harpagon (Alan Blumenfeld) is a penny-pinching father of two: a daughter Elise (Samara Frame) and a son Cleante (Mike Peebler). Both are of marrying age.

The children’s current love relationship is problematic because of their partner’s relationship with their father. Elise has secretly fallen in love with Valere (Chad Jason Scheppner) her father’s servant. Cleante has secretly fallen in love with Mariane (Willow Greer) his father’s fiancée.

But Harpagon will have none of it. He has (for materialistic considerations) provided suitable arranged marriages for Cleante to a window and Elise to Lord Anselme (Bill Durham) and, of course, no one wants to be a party to this plan.

And Harpagon not trusting anyone including La Fleche, Cleantes’ servant, (Mark Lewis) has decided to bury his strongbox in the garden.

Arranged marriage or not Harpagon has no money for their marriage, for their party, and for the food and wine for the guests. He won’t feed the horses to retrieve the guests and he won’t mend the servants’ clothes. He won’t lend anyone money. And he won’t feed the dog. And yet, he surrounds himself with intelligent companions who gamely struggle to relieve him of his wealth.

So, as love would have it, conspiratorial plans go into overdrive. Cleantes’ plan is to use his servant La Fleche to take Marianne away from his father.

Elise conspires with Frosine (Melora Marshall) a woman with womanly wiles to use every conceivable trick to get Harpagon to break up his engagement.

In the meantime the coachman/cook/judge Master Jacques (Ted Barton) manages to put everyone into a state of confusion will his illogical logic.

Blumenfeld as Harpagon takes command of the stage and never lets up. He listens carefully and is pragmatic in his choices. He is in the moment and takes delight with his objective of not letting a single coin drop through his slimy fingers.

Marshall as Frosine is brilliant. Sweat pours from her brow in her grueling battle to get a few dollars out of Harpagon. It is one of the highlights of the show.

Barton as Master Jacques is just delightful. Never letting up for a minute and very funny from one sarcastic moment to the next.

Frame as Elise is good and so is Peebler as Cleante, but his costume is slightly distracting. The overly extended blue protruding codpiece is visible to the elderly sitting in the balcony seats.

Scheppner as Valere was very charming but must watch the cane swinging antics of Harpagon.
Geer as Marianne was outstanding.

David Marmer played Maitre Simon. Don Pitts was The Magistrate and the clerk was played by Cameron Kalajian.

Ellen Geer does an outstanding job directing the fine actors on stage but runs into relationship problems Lewis as La Fleche. His commanding presence gave no indication that he was a servant of Cleante. And Durham as Don Anselme father figure was not fully fleshed out.

Also Geer composed original songs in this production with lyrics by Geer and Peter Alsop. The music was unexpected and delightful. The pianist was Lloyd Botway.

The servants in the cast did a fine job and could have used a spotlight during the singing numbers. They were Nina Kurtz, Paul Turbiak, Ricky Wagner, Leah Gutentag, and Jennifer Schoch.

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum is a delightful place to get away from it all. Brings a picnic basket. Stay a while before and after the performance. You’ll feel like you been away for a while.
The Miser was first preformed in 1668.

Reservations: 310-455-3723 or www.theatribum.com

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Attic Wrestles With One Act Festivals

The Attic Wrestles With One Act Festivals

By Joe Straw

The 18th Annual Denise Regan Wiesenmeyer One-Act Festivals features four one act plays from entries submitted from around the country. Three of the four chosen had some kind of religious theme and the other one was about going to Pluto (now considered a rock).

Cross Purposes by Frank Cossa and directed by the very talented Christine Stump is the best of the lot. The play is about an older man Tom (James Carey) who meets up with gorgeous chick Tiffany (Amber Flamminio) to talk about the fling they had the night before. Tom thinks there are a lot of reasons why their relationship is not going to work.

One is the age difference, two is he’s a professor, three is it’s a Christian college, and four he is a priest. None of that matters to Tiffany she wants him bad and creates a scene to which the waitress (Christine Stump) sympathizes with Tiffany and offers to string Tom up to the highest tree.

Cossa, Flamminio, and Stump are remarkable performers. There are quite a few twists and turns and Flamminio actually shows us there’s a lot going on underneath the California speak. Stump, the director, fills in for a missing cast member and was very convincing. Cossa had a nice ending and you get that he does not often bed alone.

Bethany/Bakol written by Wendy Graf and directed by Maria DuMont is a one-woman one-act show. Bethany/Bakol played by Ali Deyer is about a gothic overweight teenager who is sent to Israel by her adopted parents to get some structure to her life. Not entirely thrilled to go, she discovers that Israel is not such a bad place. She finds something there, structure, and decides to stay.

Deyer is very good in this and this play is wonderfully directed by Maria DuMont. This play is informative but no reasons are given as to why Deyer is telling us this story or to whom she is telling the story to.

Lessons & Carols by Demetra Kareman and directed by Craig Jessen is loaded with teenage humor and angst. Lila (Angela Ryskiewicz) is being held in detention by Sister Fleming (Terri Marsteiner) when Gloria (April Grace Lowe) interrupts to tell Sister Fleming the classroom has been infiltrated by lice.

Lila and Gloria, not the best of friends, go at each other like a pair of muskrats in heat. Lila says Gloria “is from Loserville, population you!” And Gloria is so peppy it makes your skin crawl. Lila confesses to Gloria that’s she been having sex and not only that she is pregnant. They both realize Lila cannot keep the baby to which Gloria suggest they go to Hollywood and sell the baby to the highest bidder. “They’ll be stars!” Then something happens to change all of their plans.

Ryskiewicz and Lowe have an enormous amount of fun on stage and Marsteiner as the gruff sister shows us her compassionate heart. Craig Jessen does a nice job directing this one act.

Mary and Jon Go to Pluto was written by Matthew Tucker and directed by Michelle Begley. This is a play about Commander Jon Barnes (Tom McCafferty) and 2nd Commander Mary Templeton (Marilyn Anne Michaels) flying their spacecraft to Pluto sometime in the future and their relationship aboard the ship.

The problem is they don’t have a relationship as near as I can make out. Templeton is out to become the first woman on Pluto. In order for her to do this she must use her womanly ways to convince McCafferty to give her the title of First Woman on Pluto. And Barnes must hold on to his dignity and not let this woman take everything he has worked for his entire life. This creates conflict and the drama would be much more enjoyable.

The direction by Begley doesn’t go far enough to that end and the landing seems to end in a thud rather than accomplished piece. If there is conflict in this piece it is very subtle or not noticeable at all. By all accounts the characters should be exhausted fighting for their objectives by the time they hit the rock.

McCafferty looks the role (a former West Point graduate) and Michaels is charming as the second commander and has some very nice moments. Harriette Coggs Stuckey (Voice of Houston) does yeoman work.

There’s something here for everyone. If you like one-acts this might be for you. The Attic is also having audience participation so you can vote for your favorite play, actor or director.

Helter Skelter and The New Testament by Neil LaBute

Helter Skelter and The New Testament by Neil LaBute

By Joe Straw

The end of Neil LaBute’s Helter Skelter is so shocking the entire audience either screamed or jumped out of their seats. Some did both. When the lights came up the audience members sat silently, composed themselves and left the theatre in a state of shock. More on this play later.

The Open Fist Theatre had the world premier of Neil LaBute's wonderful one act plays: The New Testament directed by Bjorn Johnson and Helter Skelter directed by Neil LaBute.

The New Testament is a comedy about the difficulty of producing theatre. On top of that the writer has discovered the wrong man has been cast as Jesus Christ.

The producer Jerry (Benjamin Burdick) and the writer Steve (Tim Banning) have come to fire an actor Lloyd (Peter James Smith) already under contract. The problem is that Lloyd is Chinese and the writer Steve would like to have just a touch of reality to this play and he doesn’t believe “Mr. Fuji Hama Kurosawa” with his “golden rickshaw” fits the bill.

The play is filled with racial slurs, derogatory comments and it is also very funny. In a politically correct world LaBute, a master craftsman, throws the words out of the characters mouth and has us squirming in our seats every moment of this play. It is an endless conflicting racial battle between the characters on stage as well as a conflicting delight with audience members.

The actors are brilliant in their performances. From the moment we see them to the moment they leave the stage.

Banning as the writer pushes every button imaginable to get Lloyd out of the play including offering him the role of Judas. When that doesn’t work he accuses him of being gay. (Whoever heard of a gay Chinese Jesus? I mean really.)

Smith holds his own as Lloyd. At one point Lloyd almost convinces me that he could play Jesus. But Smith has more under his conical straw hat than one would imagine, coming out on top in the end.

Burdick as Jerry (the producer) manages to side with whomever soot’s his fancy. He is a true producer who manages not to alienate anyone to benefit his future endeavors. And besides he wants to get the play produced.

Although, the performances were this side of perfection, more could have been made out of the relationship between the actor and the producer. It’s not enough for Jerry to promise Lloyd a role in his next production Flower Drum Song. (Well, then again, maybe it is.)

Helter Skelter, written and directed by Neil LaBute, is a story about a husband (Ron Eldard) and wife (Kate Beahan) who meet in a nice restaurant for coffee during a mad Christmas rush.

She is late in the third term of pregnancy and their marriage is moments from falling apart. That moment is highlighted by her husband’s refusal to let her use his phone. Moments later the man confesses to having an affair.

These two people are two bright middle-aged intelligent people whose marriage has probably run its course. They are incapable of speaking to each other and when they do they don’t have a clue what the other person is talking about.

The play fills you in on their intimate lives and gives you a false of security that in the end differences may be settled and may work out. But in that moment of security all hell breaks loose forever altering their relationship forever.

Eldard as the husband gives a very nice performance of a man who doesn’t have a clue. Beahan as the wife give a rich multi-layered performance.

Helter Skelter is mind blowing. It is subtle. It is a lovely dream that turns into a nightmare of epic proportions. LaBute's script makes you hunger for the next word and then he serves it to you on a bloody platter.

The set of a nice restaurant is minimal but satisfying. Like a nice restaurant that have small portions but the food is great.

The Open Fist Theatre Company is in the middle of an eight-week festival of plays and music.

Oleanna by David Mamet

By Joe Straw

David Mamet is sitting four rows down from me (slightly intimidating). His hair is short with a slight trace of grey stubble. His vision is beyond his nice yellow tortoise shell glasses. He is always in conversation. His hands are thick and touching as though he were holding a small globe. He leans right to discuss something before the lights dim. A row behind him is some of the most gorgeous women on the planet. And yet he seems focused on the production of Oleanna about ready to start at the Mark Taper Forum. And with this theatre going on in front of the stage there is that guiding principle that the show must go on despite the distractions in the theatre seats.
Oleanna is a superb play written by David Mamet. It is about distractions and misunderstandings between the sexes. Sharply directed by Doug Hughes who does not let up on the action from start to finish. From the opening moment to the bitter end it is a play about spoken thoughts, an unappreciated quip, a friendly physical gesture taken completely out of context.
And then there’s the phone - a constant distracting reminder of another demanding life on the other end.
The play is about John the professor (Bill Pullman) and the student Carol (Julia Stiles) and the battle they wage about what is right and conversely what is wrong with their relationship. This is a battle of words, of pen to paper, of documented life slanted to destroy a life.
John is nearing the pinnacle of his career. He is buying a new home for his wife and son and is close to having the Tenure Committee grant him tenure. And who wouldn’t want life tenure in these days of economic instability.
Freedom of expression is a myth. In academia freedom of expression is reserved for those with tenure. So it comes as no surprise that the person who espouses the virtues of freedom of expression is eventually enslaved by it.
There is not a trace of a sexual relationship in this play. All the actions on stage are motivated by an underlining fantasy of lust, greed, aggression and dominance of another human being. And it starts with the manipulation of an undergraduate student who in no short order becomes the one pulling the strings. This happens with Mamet’s carefully crafted dialogue. Words that will wait for the inevitable stroke of disaster.

While the two are brought together because of her bad grades no one is an unwilling participant. The professor loves to teach. The student wants to understand and get good grades to get into a graduate program. Whatever their motivations there is a primal sinister objective purpose to each of their characters possibly unrealized because of the distracting telephone calls.
The production of Oleanna is a battlefield of words. Its weapons are stinging blades of accusations and innuendo. Littered in the battlefield are the rotting corpses of the physical and the emotionally defeated.
Like a car wreck you heard but blinked before you saw it all, Mamets dialogue are there for you to play back in your mind over and over until you begin to understand the complexities.
Bill Pullman, as John the professor, creates a complexed character from beginning to end. His scattered life is such that he cannot complete one single item on his agenda. Because of distractions he is not focused to fruition and in the end he loses everything. His nuanced performance is exciting and should not be missed.
Julia Stiles, as Carol the student, has a quiet intensity that carries her throughout the production. Her thoughts kept close to her heart. There is this small town conservative ridged ness about her that guides her character to do what she needs to. She is a student who has worked hard to get into college and nothing is going to stand in her way of getting that education even if it means destroying a life in the process.
Written after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas debate this play begs you to take a side. Oddly enough, after seeing this production, I have moved to the other side.
Neil Patel’s set is beautifully functional. The university richly detailed behind the windows but hidden by mysterious electrical blinds that descends to give privacy to the actions on stage.
Oleanna refers to a song about utopia and perhaps Mamet has reached his utopia because he sits there during the performance motionless, focused, and unaware of the distractions around him.
Now playing at the Mark Taper Forum May 28 – July 12, 2009.

The Cherry Orchard By Anton Chekov

By Joe Straw

A cherry orchard has to be nurtured. Their branches longing for attention stretch up to the clear blue sky as though it were reaching for sustenance. No matter the course of human endeavor, each year the petals explode like linen strewn across an unmade bed opened and begging for bees to come inside and dance.

The soft white petals with their yellow tipped pistils implore us to observe the coming spring. A radiant brilliant white light of many soft suns that lightens the spirit and heightens our joys from fragrances and to let us know that change is imminent.

And so we have Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard playing at the beautiful Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon under the able direction of Ellen Geer. This production was freely adapted by Heidi Helen Davis and Ellen Geer and set on an old plantation in 1970 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Cherry Orchard is a timeless comedy that was just as amazing in 1904 as it is today and with another interpretation, the decision placing the action in 1970, of inviting another element invites the audience to discourse. And what better way to leave the theatre.

Like the many types of cherries there are in the world this cast is multi-racial and as ethnically diverse as any Cherry Orchard you will see. It is set in a turbulent time of American history where racial strife and assassinations were commonplace. Where being part of the problem meant you weren’t trying to find the solution.

And so, after running away for five years to avoid her problems, the owner of the unattended Cherry Orchard returns home to save her estate which is about to go on the auction block unless something is done to save it. And rather than parcel the land out they do nothing and subsequently the Cherry Orchard is destroyed.

Ellen Geer as Lillian Randolph Cunningham floats gracefully across the stage like a falling cherry petal seeking its final resting place. She is delightful as the owner of the estate. Willow Geer is stunning as Anna Cunningham. Emma Fassler as Dolores Hughes, the maid, gives an outstanding performance, as does William Dennis Hunt as Gates Randolph. Steve Matt as the maniacal Lawrence Poole shouts out “And now the Cherry Orchard is mine! Mine!” Marc Ewing as the doctoral student gives an understated performance so full of ideas and so lacking in love. Jerry Hoffman is the borrowing neighbor who in the end pays his debts. Matt Van Winkle is the French valet part of the entourage with no clear objective.

Tyler Rhoades is a bumbling accountant; as though he were a bee bouncing off the furniture around the room unable to find his way to the Cherry Orchard. Tippi Thomas is the adopted sister Velina Cunningham. J.R. Starr is funny as Fred Jasper an old tree but beautiful in spirit and Melora Marshall as the German governess Carlotta Schmidt does a nice turn in the second act.

The rest of the cast includes Carolyn Wright, Donna Johnson, Savannah Southern Smith and Kirsti Jacobson.

As much as the performers talk about the Cherry Orchard there is not one hint, one piece of imagery, or one white petal of the Cherry Orchard in sight. The destruction of something so beautiful that is non-existent in on or around the stage leaves the reviewers heart yearning for more.

How could anyone destroy something as lovely as a cherry tree? Soft white petals, filled with life, an unrepentant perfume, the leaf tip nectary glands tickling fingers as the succulent morsels of fruit are pulled and placed between the open spaces of the lips and think of younger days when things weren’t so complicated.
Live and love life around The Cherry Orchard.

Performances: June 27 through September 26. Please go to their website www.theatricum.com or call 310-455-3723 because show times varies.

The Need To Know By April Fitzsimmons

By Joe Straw

April Fitzsimmons’ The Need to Know directed by Steven Anderson is a delightful remarkable one-woman show at the Actors Gang theatre here in Culver City.

Fitzsimmons’ autobiographical show is a of a woman’s journey settling into the life of an everyday average American. Only there’s a problem here, she’s not settling and she’s not average. And she’s not going quietly into the night. She is a small woman with a big voice and she wants you to know what the hell is going on out there!

Or, does she really? By the way, do you have the need to know? If you don’t have the need to know, then you don’t need to know. And she isn’t going to tell you. It is the type of predicament that drives people mad.

Growing up in Butte, Montana, population approximately 30,000, April had already acquired the need to act and express herself. She is the oldest of 6 children to an Irish father and a Mexican mother.

April's life growing up is a compendium, gathering sources of information, and effectively using that information to keep her head above water. She reads a book that changes the course of her life, Endless Steppe by Ester Hautzig. (The story of a 10 year old girl and her Polish family arrested by the Soviets in 1941 and subsequently sent to forced labor camp in Siberia.) From this book her life is set in motion.

"And so my warrior was born. Fight or flight! Fight or flight! Prepare for battle. Make a list. I used to make lists for everything... and my list of things to pack in case of a Communist takeover. I knew at all costs I'd survive. I'd be packed, ready to run to the hills like they did in the Endless Steppe, or like the Von Trapp's in the Sound of Music."

So here we have this precocious imaginative little girl given this information and it sets in motion a structure for the rest of her life. The preparation and/or the defense of a communist takeover of Butte Montana.

April set these ideas aside for the time being in favor of boys. And as life happens, she works for the YMCA and meets a guy, newly engaged Garrison, gets drunk and goes to jail.

Her father, not particularly proud at that moment, tells her they have no money for college and asks her to join the Navy. And like an obedient girl of 17 she enlists in the Air Force, grabs her stuff, hops in newly un-engaged Garrison's '66VW bug, and lives a bohemian life with him in California until she reports to boot camp.

In boot camp Fitzsimmons is indoctrinated into the Air Force and within weeks she is using an M-16 rifle. After testing her, she was found to be quite smart, and got her security clearance to be an intelligence analyst. Within 6 months she was in Italy reporting to the NSA or "no such agency" and fighting two wars: the communists and the Italian men.

Meanwhile, her long distant relationship with Garrison, who's an officer in the military, has ended when she finds out about Regulation 30-1, forbidding sex with an officer.

Fitzsimmons plays a wide range of characters that are beautifully specific from all walks of life, her father, her mother, Garrison, Latrell, Sgt Eric Marshall, Franco Bruno and Debbie, her best friend living in Butte Montana. Debbie calls her "Ap" short for April. Is that a term of endearment?

Steven Anderson's direction is curious. The focal point is very abstract. The Need to Know is about whose need to know? The character April, or the audience? If it is April's need to know then significant change should move the character along. It can be subtle but significant. Starting with the moment she reads the book, being arrested for being drunk, finding out the family has no money for college, finding out she's brilliant, learning about regulation 30-1, finding out the enemy is breaking the IMF Treaty and then, after 9/11, taking part in the biggest production of her life, to use that voice of hers to speak out.To speak the truth and passionately right what is wrong.

One-woman shows are difficult and April manages to overcome the obstacles of a bare stage, tells her story with little props, and does this with a lot of humor and insight into the human condition.

Even though Fitzsimmons was an intelligent analyst she hardly lets us in on any military secrets in this play. Possibly, we did not have the need to know.

What she does give us are beautiful moments in the pages of her life on a book not yet closed.

Solitude By Evelina Fernandez

By Joe Straw

Solitude Lost Latin Lovers

“Man is the only being who knows he is alone, and the only one who seeks out another.” Octavio Paz.

The Latino Theatre Company presents Solitude at the magnificent refurbished Los Angeles Theatre Center in downtown Los Angeles.

From the opening moment of this play, Jose Luis Valenzuela explores the passionate lives of lost Latin lovers. Beautifully written by Evelina Fernandez based on the writings from Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude the 1990 Nobel Laureate in Literature.

The play opens as smoke lazily wafts from the fingers of a lonely dispassionate lover. Blackbird-like dancers moves across the stage in solitude, avoiding each other. Their eyes dart from the blur of one black figure to another never making eye contact. Minds filled with thoughts of another lost love as they move slowly toward a small box, on the floor, what is left, the remains of a forgotten life, someone’s mother.

“The blind cement contains nothing but shadows.”

They wait there, silently focused on the box. The limo driver stands priest-like scratching notes as though he was writing a sermon and then waits patiently for the right moment that never comes. A man collapses with mortal sobs, remembrances, and face down with the weight of the onlookers on his back until he is pulled away. This moment is a visual feast and this play has a number of them.

In short, Solitude is about a successful businessman Gabriel (Geoffrey Rivas) who has let his business interest take him away from his wife Sonia (Lucy Rodriguez) and his mother who he has not spoken to in 20 years. Her cremated remains are now in a small box on the floor. Gabriel is sobbing into the arms of anyone who would have him. “He cries like this all the time,” says childhood friend Johnny (Sal Lopez) who invites himself and the rest of the mourners to Gabriel’s mansion. Sonia is unprepared but aquiest and everyone hops into the limo for the trip to Gabriel’s place for the “last great fiesta”.

And death is the last great party in the celebration of a life. Where old wounds are explored and examined and truths come to life. This party is no exception. Everyone gets inebriated because the housemaid, beautiful lovely charming Juanita, (who is never seen) is on strike and refuses to serve food to the guests.

The limo driver, other wise known as "The Man" (Robert Beltran) invites his cousin Chelo (Semyon Kobialka) who provides beautiful cello music throughout the show befitting the situation. The Man is enamored with Octavio Paz. He loves to quote love and lives to love but is lost when it comes to making that final leap of consummation with Sonia. He stops at the moment he should embrace, hesitant about taking her lips into his.

Ramona (Evelina Fernandez) a former lover to Gabriel brings her son Angel (Fidel Gomez) a Stanford Graduate and son to an unsuspecting Gabriel. It is Ramona’s night to speak the words she has been holding onto for the last 25 years. She is tormented between truth and pride and she allows her pride to overpower her expression of the truth.

And Angel, looking all his life for his father, denies that Gabriel is his father.

This is an inspiring ensemble with Beltran as The Man, Fernandez as the mixed up mother, Gomez as the equally mixed up son, Lopez as Johnny who sings his heart out in a delightful number, Rivas as the powerful businessman, Kobialka as Chelo who plays with heartfelt strings on his cello and Rodriguez (a Culver City resident) who plays the long suffering wife in search of a new life.

Valenzuela’s direction is very stylized. Costumes and hairstyles vary indicating a variety of periods. This was Valenzuela’s choice. It is a version of the Latino confluences over the course of generations showing us the lost world of pre-Columbian and Spanish influences. Valenzuela shows us how characters can be so lonely in a world of fiesta. Lives interrupted, intertwined, together again but so culturally alone one cannot help feel compassion.

Evelina Fernandez’s play lifts Octavio Paz’s images off the page and gives them life with words that are inspiring and beautiful. The play succeeds on many levels but actors need to be clear on commitments and a single objective. Maybe the characters were lost but need to be clearer on why they are lost.

Francois-Pierre Couture, scenic and lighting designer, offers us a challenge the moment we walk into the theatre. His use of the askew picture frame as the proscenium immediately tells us that something is wrong and invites us to come into the home and set the picture right.

Urbanie Lucero’s choreography is quite nice, fits the message, and makes its point without being overpowering.

Solitude spans generations of pre-Columbian and Spanish people living lost in Los Angeles. They are a people of lost souls trying to make sense of the forces of oppression, self imposed or otherwise. Octavio Paz’s words are not the ramblings of a mad man but the quiet observation of familia and we have that in Solitude. Los Angeles Theatre Center – September 9th – October 4, 2009.