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.)