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.