Monday, January 18, 2010

11, September by Paul Kampf

By Joe Straw

Chaos is a science that offers a way of seeing order and pattern where formerly only the random, the erratic, the unpredictable, in short the chaotic – had been observed. The San Francisco Chronicle.

Remembering the chaotic events of 9/11 is an emotional endeavor that takes you to places you may not want to go. You Tube can be a constant reminder of the events from that day if you are so inclined to view. For most of us, it remains clear, like it was yesterday. Those who don’t remember or have selective memories generally fall under the category of government officials as they pour out revisionist history like milk into a glass.

11, September written by Paul Kampf and produced by Breadline Productions is an exciting production with fantastic performances and is now playing at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles through February 7, 2010.

This is the story about a divorced mathematician, Martin Healy (Paul Kampf) an American who is in town (from London) to give lectures at New York University. He lectures on the mathematical probability of three towers falling from fires created by the jets that slammed into two of the buildings. There are truths he wants to disclose.

Only he has a problem, he’s done this so many times he’s hesitant about discussing the events of the day. There are personal distractions that weigh heavily on him during the course of his lecture. He stops, apologizes, and leaves the podium.

Later that day he meets Angela Madison (Liz Rebert) who invites him up to her one room flat for a round of chaos under the sheets (pun intended). Her swagger in her comfortable surroundings begs for an immediate response from her willing accomplice. She starts taking off her clothes in front of this stranger, steps behind a sheer screen, and slides into something alluring, soft on the hands, and cool to the touch.

Healy, the mathematician and chaos lecturer, is taken aback. This has only happened to him once before. He is a little uncomfortable by the speed of this event.

Angela’s phone starts to ring. She doesn’t answer it and it is this moment Healy starts asking the questions. The answers are not yet provided.

They make it.

And as Martin sleeps, Angela is in the bathroom reading to someone on the phone part of a Martin’s journal or diary.

Later in the morning, Angela, in a foul mood, lights a cigarette, waits for Martin to get up and then tells him to get out. There is something really not quite right with this woman.

Puzzled by the current circumstances, Martin does not take her rejection, and instead invites Angela to breakfast. The phone starts ringing. Angela tells Martin it’s her crazy boyfriend (one bit of truth out) and he will hurt both of them if he doesn’t leave. Martin won’t take no for an answer and takes her out. They leave and when they come back we find that he’s gotten punched in the eye and has a couple of busted ribs. But, he has won the fight.

Angela said it turned her on.

They make it, again.

There are a lot of ways this indecorous couple become attracted to each other. One is fate the other is a point of reference. They share a similar past that cannot be revealed. A future that cannot be shared. It takes them both to hell and forever changes their lives.

The acting is strong. Kampf as Healy is quite good. Kind of dorky at times (check out the dance moves), but a strong character actor. His moments at the lecturn were brilliant.

Rebert, as Angela, is a remarkable actress. Moving in and out of the shadows of her own self-consciousness. She is flaky one minute, loving the next, demanding, supportive, gracious and hateful. She lives for a moment of truth, a dramatic action that eventually destroys her life and the lives around her.

Kampf, the writer, takes us on a pretty good journey. Although, somewhere in the middle, (the scene with her in the rocker and him on the bed) gets a little convoluted and gets confusing. There are a number of chaotic truths that lead to the perfect final resolution: or does it?

Each one of them has a secret truth that is revealed during the course of the play. There are a number of truths in the play. The play plays out like many mini episodes that demand a commercial break. Find out a truth, cut to a commercial, get some more truth. Still, the play is pretty good.

The Breadline Group has moved recently from Chicago to Los Angeles. Welcome.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Last Straw Awards -2009

by Joe Straw

The Last Straw awards are given to those actors who gave outstanding performances for the year of 2009. This award goes to the outstanding actors that made theatre great in Los Angeles!

If its possible to picture a camel with sacks of straw on its back, straining, struggling and locking its knees, looking up to see someone holding one piece of straw and praying that piece does not reach the basket. That is the image of the award.

In any case, each of these actors made profound statements in their craft. Taking the weight on their shoulders, locking their knees and giving us everything in their performance. Fighting, scratching and kicking and making intentions clear is not easy and sometimes thankless task.

All of the actors below gave performances that made us laugh, were thought provoking, or sent us into a state of nervous exhaustion.

The reviews are still posted if you care to reference the actors with the show they were in (except those noted with asterisks). It's been a great year!

These are the actors who gave their best for the 2009 year.

Mina Olivera - LOL Latina On The Loose - Los Angeles Theatre Center *

Margaret Avery and Alex Morris - The River Niger - Los Angeles Theatre Center *

Howard Ferguson-Woitzman – Looking for Normal – Malibu Theatre

Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman – Oleanna - Mark Taper Forum

Drew Fitzsimmons – Drive – Westchester Playhouse

Gadi Erel and Jeremy Radin – A Hatful of Rain – Skylight Theatre

Alan Blumenfeld and Melora Marshall – The Miser – Theatricum Botanicum

Daniel Leslie – The Manor – Theatre 40

Stephan Wolfert – Carbon Black – Autrey Museum

Sal Lopez – Solitude - Los Angeles Center Theatre Group

Stogie Kenyatta – The World is My Home – The Story of Paul Robeson – Santa Monica Playhouse

Debra Ehrhardt – Jamaica Farewell – Santa Monica Playhouse

Ronald Hunter – Three Sisters – Odyssey Theatre

Silver Shreck – A Little Night Music – Westchester Playhouse

James Roday, Michael Weston, Amanda Detmer and Stefanie E. Frame – Extinction – The Elephant Space

Benjamin Burdick, Tim Banning and Peter James Smith – The Last Testament - The Open Fist Theatre

Friday, January 15, 2010

Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare

By Joe Straw

Warning: There is full frontal male nudity in this production with (unsurprisingly) gay themes. Those easily offended should stay home and watch Fox News.

Six Degrees of Separation written by John Guare is a remarkable and captivating play about connection. “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet,” says Ouisa Kittredge (Joanna Chrugin) in this play.

Of course it is necessary to find the right six people.

Six Degrees of Separation directed by Don Schlossman and produced by Meredith M. Sweeney and Jordan Bland is presented by the Kentwood Players and performed at the Westchester Playhouse from January 8 through February 13, 2010.

John Guare has written a beautiful play that requires that requires your complete attention. And, as Ouisa is a dada manifesto, the play appears to be a grand comedic dada farce with exaggerated dada emotions of the dada heart. (More on this later.)

After listening to the oral ramblings of someone, who was recently introduced to culture in a short period of time, makes one wonder if any of the characters are really listening at all or if they are preoccupied with other motives.

The play opens with a frightened couple shaking in their bath robes; Ouisa Kittredge (Ms. Chrugin) and Fran Kittredge (Ken MacFarlane) are high rolling art dealers that speak to the audience about an intruder they had to throw out of their home. Fran’s concerns are his objects (perhaps his two sided Kandinsky) while Ouisa is only concerned for her up-scale scared life. Alas, nothing is missing and all body parts are intact.

The robes come off as Fran and Ouisa take us back in time. They are preparing for a night out with their rich British South African millionaire friend Geoffrey (Mark Mayes), (who hasn’t got a dime on him), in the hopes of enlisting him as a partner to provide two million dollar for a Cezanne painting as an investment for a future sale. With two kids in Harvard and one at Gorton, they need this sale.

“Geoffrey, you have to move out of South Africa. You’ll be killed. Why do you stay in South Africa?” asks Fran, to which Geoffrey answers “One has to stay there to educate the black workers and we’ll know we’ve been successful when they kill us.” Obviously, Fran is concerned about his well being second and the two million dollars first.

A stranger Paul (Willie Mack Daniels) enters their home with the support of the doorman (Dylan H. Bailey). Paul says a mugger has stabbed him. He knows the Kittredges, knows their children, and even attends Harvard with them. So he came seeking their help.

Paul, grateful for being bathed, dressed, and bandaged lets everyone know that he is the son of Sidney Poitier who is coming into town (in the morning) to direct the film version of Cats. Paul, a master chef, dazzles the guest with his cooking prowl ness (not seen on stage) and, as a compliment to the evening, he spouts a Dadaist Manifesto that means absolutely nothing. This captures the imagination of the Fran, Ouisa and Geoffrey. It is a night they will always remember until they don’t. In any case, everyone is happy because the Cezanne is as good as sold.

Grateful, the Kittredges beg Paul to stay the night and Paul, in exchange, promises them background “people” roles in Cats (Is anybody listening?). But there’s a problem later that night when Ouisa finds Paul in bed with a nude hustler (Marco Garcia). Ouisa shouts to the completely naked man, “He has a knife. He has a gun.” (A pat down against his skin reveals nothing.) Both Paul and the hustler are thrown out.

Later, a couple, Larkin (Jack Coppock) and Kitty (Ginny Kunz) visit Fran and Ouisa to tell them about their adventures with Paul Poitier and a naked burglar. (It plays out like a competition.) After, they chitchat about their similar experiences they call in a skeptical detective (Drew Fitzsimmons) and when he concludes that there is no crime and can't help they try to find a connection.

But the detective turns them on to Dr. Fine (Michael-Anthony Nozzi) who also has a similar story. So they enlist there un-cooperative kids, Tess (Tara Jean O’Brien) Woody (Nick Alspaugh) Ben (Kevin T. King) Doug (Andy Grosso) to find out how they are connected to this con-artist. And they find the connection: Trent Conway (Lorenzo Bastien) tells them he’s educated Paul, had an affair, and hasn’t seen him since.

Paul, in the meantime, is fleecing another naive young couple from Utah, Elizabeth (Meredith M. Sweeney) and Rick (Ryan Knight). Daniels as Paul was captivating for the first five minutes but the role became very stilted and one-dimensional and his choices not imaginative. Articulate, and with a stage presence, but not convincing as the young son of Sidney Poitier. (Think Sidney in Lillies of the Field.) But his impression as an older Sidney Poitier hit the mark and was enjoyable!

Sweeney and Knight as the Utah couple were most enjoyable although Knight gave no indication (in his moment) that he was about to do the unthinkable.

Don Scholssman ably directed the play but questions remains if he understood it. His interpretation seem suspect and scenes seem to be missing from this production. A forceful hand would have guided this two-hour production into ninety minutes, as it should have been. Actors, in their element, are left stranded center stage with seemingly little or nothing to do. Actors presenting the objects on stage were not given the slightest direction and so far away from the action, there was no reaction.

There is another world of imagination, characterization, action and depth waiting to breath life into this production. Not impossible to change, a few notes here, a few staging changes, and wah la (viola)!

Light Design by Hilda Outwater had all the characters seated on either side of the stage extremely lit and took the focus away from the main action.

Guare, throughout this play, gives us clues as to the makeup of the character, that seemed to be ignored by the other characters on stage, intentional or not. After all, elephants are crumplets as a dish pan sabarnyous.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The World is My Home – The Life & Times of Paul Robeson – by Stogie Kenyatta

by Joe Straw

Imagine yourself in a box theatre. Imagine it is cold and wet, a terrible storm raging just hours before, streets flooded, traffic deserted in some places and bumper-to-bumper in others and yet you get there. Frazzled beyond comprehension you get your tickets and find yourself a nice dry place to sit.

Sit back and let the slow jazz, playing in the background, take you back to the music of the Harlem Renaissance (early 1900’s). Make note of the patrons as they gather their seats. Wait for the lights to dim. An eerie silence welcomes a tall dark figure on stage. Inhale this world as it comes into focus and absorb the infectious energy of this journey about to unfold.

The World is My Home – The Life and Times of Paul Robeson written by Stogie Kenyatta is a highly entertaining play that everyone will enjoy and although it was playing at the Santa Monica Playhouse (sponsored by the Jamaican Cultural Society) for one night, this show is traveling across the country including college campuses everywhere.

Stogie Kenyatta carries an incomprehensible energy in portraying Paul Robeson, an actor, singer, political progressive, and activist. Kenyatta is an exceptional actor who meticulously gives us the life-changing details of Robeson’s life in this magnificent one-man show. It is a touching portrayal of one of America’s finest entertainer and humanitarian that should not be missed.

Kenyatta, the writer, lets us in on Robeson private moments through the course of his career and his life. Through his trials and tribulations, good and bad faults, Kenyatta manages to squeeze this stoic African American’s life in an hour and a half. Not only does he play Robeson from the age of five but also plays a dozen other cast of characters.

The story begins with Robeson’s Dad, William Drew Robeson, a runaway slave who, at the age of fifteen, is hiding in the woods to avoid being captured. He speaks quietly to another runaway slave and tells him that he is looking for Harriet Tubman (the Underground Railway) to help guide him into Pennsylvania. This starts the journey to freedom.

Paul Robeson was the youngest of seven children, only five that survived infancy. And with hardly a care in the world, Robeson, at the age of five, walks into the kitchen while his mother (Louisa Bustill Robeson) bakes him a birthday cake. While waiting, his mother’s dress catches on fire burning over 80 percent of her body. Unable to help his mother put out the fire he agonizes over her lifeless body. She dies a few days later.

It was the strength of his father, the Reverend William Drew Robeson that carried him through his formative years with help from his brothers and sister.

Robeson was an athletic great in high school playing football, basketball, baseball and track and field. That along with his mental dexterity got him admitted to Rutgers University.

As a walk-on athlete on the Rutgers Football team, Robeson is humiliated when the team tries to force him off the roster. Robeson quits until he is forcefully persuaded by his brother Reeve to get his butt back in there. Robeson comes back to practice, plays defense, and lifts the quarterback over his head and keeps him there until the panic stricken coach quietly asks Robeson to put him down, but Robeson holds tight until the coach says he made the team. This is one of Kenyatta’s finest moments.

Robeson became an All American football player and was the valedictorian of his class at Rutgers. Robeson then went to Columbia Law School paying his way by playing professional football and basketball. There he me Eslanda (Essie) Cardozo Goode and after a brief courtship they were married. Robeson put up a good fight to say single but Essie was not having any of that.

After he received his JD, Robeson was an attorney but a non-practicing attorney. His white counterparts thought him unsuitable in front a jury. Relegated to reading briefs and filing papers a Jamaican maid let him know just what she was expecting from him. (A number of Jamaicans in the audience roared with laughter with Kenyatta’s spot on Jamaican accent.)

Robeson walks away from his life as an attorney. After hearing him read a poem, that wonderful deep rich speaking voice, Essie suggested that he become a performer.

Together they embraced the Harlem Renaissance, going to the clubs and meeting with its African American participants, the poets, the writers, the jazz musicians, and the cultural and intellectual elites.

And this was just the start of his entertaining career, which ultimately took him around the globe.

Kenyatta has written a very dramatic story of a man who was both admired and vilified and takes us on that journey with such ease that it’s almost impossible to let go.

Kenyatta, the actor, fills every role with dignity and charm. There are a lot of very fine moments on stage, too numerous to mention. He breathes life into the legend of Paul Robeson and never lets us forget that Robeson was a kind and gentle man with strong beliefs about equality here in the United States and the world.

With Kenyatta's million-dollar smile, Robeson says to the audience "You're some really smart colored folks." Smart to take the journey with him and smart not to miss this play.