Wednesday, March 31, 2010

No-No Boy by Ken Narasaki

By Joe Straw

Wow!  No-No Boy is a wonderful new play by Ken Narasaki and directed by Alberto Isaac! Poetic and thought provoking this world premiere play is adapted from the novel by John Okada. Now playing March 26 – April 18, 2010 at the beautiful Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica, California.

No-No Boy is a title given to Japanese Americans when they answered “no” to the following two questions:

“Are you willing to serve in the armed forces for the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?”

“Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization.”

These questions, part of the 1943 Leave Clearance Applications Form, administered to interned Japanese Americans, were confusing.  The first one suggested the prisoner was volunteering for the draft.   The second implied the American citizen had already sworn allegiance to the Japanese emperor.

A no answer got the Japanese American out of the internment camp and into federal prison.

This is a play about the re-integration of the former prisoner Ichiro (Robert Wu) who has returned home in 1946 to resume a normal family life.  

But the road back home has changed starting with Eto (Chris Tashima) who discovers Ichiro is a no-no boy and welcomes him back into society by spitting on him. 

Ichiro walks into the back of the grocery store where he is warmly met by his Pa (Sab Shimono). Later, his Ma (Sharon Omi) greets him in true Japanese form. His brother Taro (Jared Asato), there also, is resentful of his brother and believes him to be a coward.  

The home picture has gotten a little bleak when Ichiro discovers his Ma is delusional; believing the Japanese have won the war and a ship will come for them any moment to take them away.  

Realizing reintroduction will not be an easy task, Ichiro finds a like-minded friend Freddie (John Miyasaki, March 26, April 12th and Mike Hagiwara, April 16 – 18) who has also answered in the negative.  Freddie has found refuge with a woman in 2A (Emily Kuroda) who takes this man, as is, with no prejudices or discrimination for answering no. 

Ichiro and Freddie go to a bar where they meet Kenji (Greg Watanabe). The wounds from the war eat at Kenji and thoughts of tearing Ichiro head off for being a no-no boy still gnaws in the pit of his stomach. But Kenji, remembering the war, has the capacity of forgive.  And setting all differences aside, Kenji takes him to his former lover, Emi (Keiko Agena).   They spend the night and Ichiro, who reminds Emi of her husband, sleeps with Emi.

There are moments in this play that defy gravity.  Those moments feel like the play will soar and take you on one very exciting ride.   And yet the momentum stops suddenly and you are left standing like a prisoner behind the wire.

For example, Ichiro’s return home does not seem like a grand homecoming, internally or externally. Certainly, he must find some joy in coming home after being away for two years.  Also, Ichiro’s demeanor lacked an inner conflict that would have helped his physical life. That conflict being, “Did I make the wrong choice in saying no”.  He must always question until he is satisfied that he finds the answer.  

Secondly, Emi’s introduction to Ichiro, feels very flat.  Emi doesn’t react to Ichiro’s likeness to her husband and when they finally get to bed there is no excitement as though they have done this for years. Minor adjustments in the action will only strengthen the play.

After all, what are the characters searching for?  What do they want?  Significant simple answers to complex conflicting problems will guide them toward the truth.  Imaginative choices will propel the action.

Overall, this is a fantastic cast with some very nice performances despite a few problems. 

Sab Shimono as Pa was just excellent.  It was wonderful to see him telling stories with Japanese art projected on the wall.

Greg Watanabe was the heart of the show.  He seemed to have an inner truth that guided his performance. Flawless execution. Nicely done! 

Keiko Agena gave the show tenderness, as did Emily Kuroda warmth.  Ken Narasaki, in a small role and with the best Japanese accent, was wonderful.

Robert Wu, a fine performer, is not as focused as he should be starting with his 70’s style haircut.  There are many levels still yet to conquer not an impossible task given his range.

Sharon Omi as Ma started out fine. She takes pride that she is Japanese and that pride takes her to a tragic place from which she does not recover.  For example, she waits breathlessly, looking over the horizon for the Japanese ship to take her back to Japan.  She must be terribly heartbroken when they tell her the ship will never come.   

Ken Narasaki, the writer, has taken the novel and made it into a very pleasurable play. While there is no Japanese spoken here there is a sense of ingrained culture embedded in this play.  This makes the play all the more enjoyable.

Aaron Pagel choreographed the fight scenes, nicely done.

Alberto Isaac, the director, did a fine job.  The death scenes were poetic.  The opening is quite fantastic!  Go see this play!  If not for the historical significance to ask yourself the question, “What could the American Government have been thinking to put our citizens in internment camps?”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

By Joe Straw

The rain was pouring like proverbial cats and dogs. Visibility down to zero and traffic moving along like an old cat on his last journey. And yet, the journey had its remarkable end, A Noise Within Theatre (ANW) in Glendale, California to see Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare.

Outside, in the cold wet air, darkness prevailed. There appeared to be no one at ANW and upon further inspection, coming closer, only two drench souls were visible.

Were we there on the wrong night? No. The box office lights were on. And shortly thereafter a ticket being entered the room.

When entering ANW a calm prevails, the feeling is a welcoming warmth that permeates your entire soul. The warmth ness lifts you up the long flight of stairs. (And stairs never seemed so easy.) There you discover a packed house of eager theatergoers. Surely, by the look of things, this must be one of the most remarkable theatre companies in Los Angeles.

Much Ado About Nothing directed by Michael W. Murray is a grand production. Set in the town of Messina, circa 1890’s this production is a costumed spectacle, with intelligent women and bewildered young men. Where the gorgeous dancers in beautiful masks scoff at harmony. And the shadows play on puzzled hearts as the night serves as a cloak for confused lovers. And in this darkness there is mischief, mirth, conniving peculiarities, and love. And oh, this is so much fun!

Beatrice (Torri Higginson) and Benedick (JD Cullum) are not in love, or so they say, in a way (to each other).

Hero (Lindsay Gould) and Claudio (Brandon Hearnsberger) are madly in love with each other but young love questions the other’s true feelings. Or so they say. (In a way.)

Leonato (Apollo Dukakis) has invited the Prince, Don Pedro (Patrick O’Connell) along with his consorts Benedick, Claudio, Don John (Stephen Rockwell), Borachio (Steve Weingartner) and Conrade (Shaun Anthony) for a stay at his villa.

They frolic in the company of each other while enjoying the word play of man versus woman. They also try to find love.

But there’s always a catch in love. Don Pedro’s brother, Don John, not satisfied with his role in life, wants to create mischief and will stop at nothing to make the lovers life miserable. His games are serious, a yearning to destroy young love for reasons that are not entirely clear. Jealously may be his motive but revenge is certainly his drug of choice. And to top that off he’s pure evil.

And when things start to get really serious in the second act, friends are pitted against each other and lovers are destroyed. But fear not, this is a comedy and things must work out in the end. (Or so they say.)

Prose aside, the makeup of the audience, has this blogger perplexed. It’s not like any other audience you see in town. One can only imagine that students of the craft flock to see how imaginative things can be on stage. To study and learn the art of the craft and be entertained, all at the same time is a wonderful thing.

Cullum is an amazing actor. As Benedict he commands the stage. Coy when he wants to be, hilarious at times, and dramatic when the action calls for it.

Higginson’s Beatrice is just as commanding. Lovely when she wants to be, funny when appropriate, and oh so serious at times.

O’Connell’s Don Pedro gave a masterful performance. He grew in stature as the night wore on. Just an amazing performance!

Mark Bramhall as Dogberry gave a performance of a lifetime. He is an actor in the moment and hilarious. Certainly a performance to watch, study and steal from. His imaginative choices kept all eyes on him and his next move.

This was a wonderfully cast also featuring Peter Larney as Balthasar, Mitchell Edmonds as Verges, Alicia Bruckman, Maxwell Schneller and Peter Larney as Members of the Watch, Abigail Caro as Margaret, Heather Grace as Sarah, Jonathon Lamer as Father Francis, and Hugh Mason as Antonio.

Michael W. Murray, as the director, does a magnificent job. He is very creative, and imaginative as he moves the actors delicately across the stage and even sometimes have them groveling on the floor. This is a very funny production and easy to understand.

Soojin Lee as the costume designer does a marvelous job. Check out her amazing work on

Julia Rodriguez-Elliott choreographs a couple of dance numbers, which were just incredible and thought provoking. Well worth the price of admission.

Not sure how ANW (Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott) does it, but do it, they do. One hit show after the next! And the craft is nothing short of excellent! Los Angeles deserves A Noise Within. Run to see this production and support this excellent theatre.

ANW is breaking ground on a new facility in Pasadena. Please go to their website at and support the theatre and it’s move.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Li’l Abner – Based on characters created by Al Capp

Book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank

Lyrics by Johnny Mercer

Music by Gen de Paul

By Joe Straw

Li’l Abner, the musical, based on the characters created by Al Capp is presented by the Kentwood Players at the Westchester Playhouse through April 17, 2010. It is directed by Victoria Miller and produced by Susan Goldman Weisbarth.

Li’l Abner has something for everyone. Playing to sold out houses allows the Kentwood Players at the Westchester Playhouse to bring forth one production after another.

This 1956 Broadway musical is satire as was Andy Capp’s cartoon strip. And some of the ideas presented on stage make one quiver when one thinks of what the government was up to in those days. (For one: all the of the above air nuclear detonations in Nevada sending radioactive fallout all across the United States.)

That hilarity aside, this is a funny romp through countrified Dogpatch USA which has been declared “the most unnecessary town in the USA” by Senator Jack S. Phogbound (Ira Gewant) and because of that it is set to be nuked to the cheers of the town folk.

In the meantime, Mammy Yokum (Margie Bates) has been giving Li’l Abner (Derek Rubiano) Yokumberry Tonic. She has been feeding him his entire life. This makes him strong and handsome. (Couldn’t have it any other way, strong and ugly doesn’t work.) The tonic’s side effect makes Li’l Abner uninterested in sex. (Think Viagra in reverse and without the sinus headache.)

But, Daisy Mae (Meredith Sweeny) wants Li’l Abner and aims to claim him on Sadie Hawkins day. Appassionata von Climax (Minerva Schott) has other ideas and also wants Li’l Abner but for nefarious monetary and political reasons.

Daisy brings Stupefyin’ Jones (Janice Garcia) to help her nab Li’l Abner while von Climax hires Evil Eye Fleagle (Drew Fitzsimmons) to distract the men.

The men in town take part in the Yokumberry Tonic experiment to make them strong and good-looking. But after taking part in the experiment they wish for the day when they could once again be ugly and virile.

With all the men folk gone except Pappy Yokum (Jeff Asch), the women folk, lead by Daisy Mae make plans to get their men from the experiment laboratory, but there’s a catch, Daisy Mae needs muscle. She tells Earthquake McGoon (Marco Antonio Garcia) she needs him and if he helps her she will marry him.

Kentwood Players has managed to get some very fine performers for this production most notably Jeff Asch (Pappy), Leigh Golden (Moonbeam McSwine), Bruce Schroffel (General Bullmoose) Ira Gewant (Senator Jack S. Phogbound) Janice Garcia (Stupefyin’ Jones), and Meredith M. Sweeney (Daisy Mae).

This is a huge cast featuring Greg Abbott (Marryin’ Sam), Marcy Agreen (Wife), Nick Alspaugh (Government Man), Dylan Bailey (Government Man), Margie Bates (Mammy), Jordan Bland (Available Jones), Crystal Boyer (Ensemble), Kaitlan Brasuell (Wife), Sheldon Cohen (Clem Scragg), Diane Dooley (Esemble), Ron “Adam” Dunberger (Dr. Rasmussen), Dave Fulton (Alf Scragg), Marco Antonio Garcia (Earthquake McGoon), Slater Ross Garcia (Secretary), Greg Hardash (Secretary), Emma Hatton (Scarlet), Heidi Johnson (Wife), Mike La Stelley (Romeo Scraggs), Franesca Palermo (Wife), Dash Porter (Hairless Joe), Derek Rubiano (Abner), Robyn Rothstein (Ensemble) Valerie Ruel (Ensemble) Minerva Schott (Appassionata Von Climax), and Max Heldring Stormes (Mayor Dan’l Dawgmeat).

Victoria Miller, director and choreographer, has taken a cast the size of Laurence of Arabia, and has molded into a very workable production.

Dave Boyer, Musical Director, does a great job with his eight piece orchestra: Greg Lee on trombone, Anibal Seminario, sax and clarinet, Mark Shapiro, lead bass, Steve Fry, acoustic bass, Paul Alford, electric bass, Arthur Garrison, percussion, and Perry Shields also on percussion.

Hats off to the hardest working community theatre in the nation!

Westchester Playhouse

310-645-5156 for resvervations

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tales of An Urban Indian by Darrell Dennis

By Joe Straw

Tales of an Urban Indian written and performed by Darrell Dennis and directed by Herbie Barnes at the beautiful Autry Museum is a fascinating story of an adolescent boy growing up Native and trying to find his place in the world.

Darrell Dennis as Simon Douglas is from British Columbia, Canada and manages to paint a pretty picture of a not so pretty story. Dennis is engaging, funny, and filled with an indescribable life force. It is a fascinating play, with engaging sympathetic characters.

But, the focus of this play seems to be on the makeup of the characters and not the journey. And this particular journey is moderately convoluted and not focused on a specific objective. If there is an overall objective, it is subtle.

It’s not enough to get in a car; the traveler needs to know where they are going and then, the traveler needs to let go of the wheel and let imaginations soar. (Figuratively speaking, of course)

The images of these people conjured by Dennis reflects his take on family and friends: all impersonations with Barnes stamp of approval. They are unique, in their own right, but strangely (and I’ve been thinking about this for some time) very similar to any impoverished community.

Maybe this is what Barnes, the director, had in mind. There are the boys; pulling leaches off their bodies, looking to get laid, questioning their sexuality, and looking to get drunk, crashing their cars, and finally looking to get high.

If a character in any play needs to be shown the way, that character is Douglas. He needs a mentor; if you will, to give focus to his life, but he doesn’t have it in him, the ability to accept help nor is he willing to accept all that is offered him. He doesn’t learn from the tragedies around him but forges ahead on a path to near death and destruction.

They are all specific characterization, very inventive and sympathetic. When each one dies, a stone is placed in memory of the fallen. (Note: The stones were placed on stage that was not visible to a lot of the audience.)

It’s hard to have sympathy for a character that continuously gets himself into so much trouble and mostly of his own doing. He digs a hole so deep it’s hard to see the opening and almost impossible for him to climb out. Still, if that’s your thing, seeing someone fall so low that you feel on top of a mountain, then this play is for you!

Dennis has created characters from his life that are specific, inventive and sympathetic. And when they leave this earth a stone is placed in memory. It is a powerful testament to memory and the characters that make up his life.

Listen to the remarkable Sound Design by Matthew Hubbs. Go to the Autry. See another perspective of life. Bring someone you care about and talk about the play. Enjoy and count your blessings.

Brandon Oakes is the understudy. Recently seen in Palestine, NM. (The blog is below.)

As always, Randy Reinholz and Jean Bruce Scott, have done a remarkable job as executive producers in their 10th season of bringing Native Voices at the Autry.

The parking is FREE and there is a Native American basket display in the museum part of the complex.

And everyone is friendly! Go!

March 13 – 28th.

The Autry

4700 Western Heritage Way

Los Angeles, CA 90027-1462

Friday, March 19, 2010

"I Didn't Get It"

by Joe Straw

I recently had a press person tell me about one of my reviews that, “I didn’t get it.” She also said that a lot of other audience members “didn’t get it either”. I’m delighted I was not the only one, but when a lot of people don’t get it then maybe it wasn’t there to be got.

I’m just a lone voice in a crowd of benevolent theatergoers. My question is: How many people have to tell you “it’s not working” before you believe a change needs to be made. I suggest that if it’s more than half then serious work still needs to be done.

I think it’s important to give you a perspective about my background so that when I see a show and review it you might think that I may have the experience to back up my thoughts.

I’ve studied acting over thirty years and in particular the works of Stanislavski, Strasberg, Hagen, Adler, and Clurman. Also, I have studied with some very fine acting teachers in Hollywood and have worked with world-renowned actors. I am a member of the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA.

I’ve produced, directed and have acted in a number of equity waiver productions. I’ve worked in television and have worked on over a hundred films in various capacities. I’ve also directed and produced two independent feature films and produced and directed a number of short films.

And I have to be honest with you; it’s a pet peeve of mine to arrive to a show on time only to have the curtain delayed twenty minutes. This shows very little respect to the audience who has paid to see the performance. I try not to let those emotions interfere with the work going on stage. But, in the back of my mind, it does.

When I see a show that doesn’t work I try to figure out why it didn’t work. I read the play (if available) as many as 12 times to figure out why a successful play is not as successful at a particular venue. (And more often than not, I usually get it.) While I may not agree with the directors choices, a strong choice is better than choices with no imagination.

Anyone whose has ever taken a scene study class knows a good performance from a bad one and although the opinions vary they usually let you know that it didn’t work, but when it does work generally there is nothing but praise.

Praise is rewarded to those who take pride in their work. It is tangible. It is visible. And it is gratifying.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Fiction by J. Weller

By Joe Straw

Fiction is a story about a man whose life is ruined by the utterance of a simple word: “No.” This is a roller coaster night of an evening, a mind bending, and twisted tale of morality. The story of a life force that is savagely squeezed like an orange until the remains are like the drained pulp left in the empty orange hull. Run to catch this production, hold your breath, and tell yourself, screaming silently (if you must): “It’s fiction! It’s fiction! It’s fiction!”

Fiction is new world premier play written by J. Weller and directed by Michael Galloway and is playing at the beautiful Conquistador Playhouse in Hollywood.

Fiction starts innocently enough. Flame Ohn (Michael Staraton) is a 31-year-old highly successful profession basketball player. Flame is the quintessential boy next door by way of Myanmar and the son of a career military officer and a Burmese father. A man of unquestionable ability, he is a superstar in the sport. Flame also has a ten million dollar smile, and an eighty million dollar contract with endorsements galore. He is also fluent in seven languages.

Flame waits in his luxury hotel room for the next game voraciously squeezing the last drop out of an orange when he receives a call from a business associate, Radical Dave (Frederick Ongonyon).

“We’re probably not going to make your payroll this quarter and may not make it completely in the years to come.”

Getting to the point Radical Dave suggests Flame’s agent renegotiate his contract until the company gets back on its feet. But, “I need your help.”

“Why am I talking to you? My agent negotiates on my behalf. Tell me who asked you to call me."

“I can’t.”

“You can!”

“Take the deal. Times are tough. When we weather this storm we’ll all come out looking better. Do it for me, our friendship, please.”


Flame gets back on the phone but is interrupted by a knock at the door. It is two ravishing buxom beauties Jennifer Righteous (Wanda McGreevy) and her friend Heather Simpleton (Mary Slate). Looking at his phone he finds himself in a dilemma: business or pleasure? He chooses the later and they waste no time taking off his clothes and hustling him off to bed.

The phone rings. It is is wife Eve (Michelle Fontura) who is sitting in the audience watching the action as she is carrying on the conversation. Flame is as non-chalant as anyone could be in this situation, taking the phone call while there is mayhem going on all around him. (This is so funny the audience died.) Eve leaves the theater as she is carrying on the conversation.

The phone beeps and “I’ve got to take this call. I’ll call you back.” Flame gets out of bed leaving the women to their own devices. Simpleton pulls out her video camera from her bag and starts production of the two of them in bed.

Flame in the meantime, talking to his agent Guy (Ernie Camaraderie), is seen in the video holding his privates walking back and forth shouting expletives. (Certainly not the picture of the boy next door.) Guy tells him it’s all a misunderstanding and he will set the course on the right track.

Finished, Flame throws the phone into bed and shouts his trademark “Flame on”.

A cat and mouse game ensues. As Flame is occupied with Righteous, Simpleton takes her camera and puts it into her bag. Righteous keeps one eye on Simpleton and one on Flame. When Simpleton goes to the bathroom Righteous takes the camera out of her bag and places it into hers. (Why does this always happen to celebrities!?)

Righteous then goes into the bathroom. Simpleton coming out asks Flame for a few dollars for carfare.


Simpleton, slightly hurt, tells Righteous she’ll meet her down in the lobby.

Righteous walks over to Flame and apologizes for not finishing what she started. She says she’s getting married. “This is probably the last time you see me. Take care. I will always love you.”

Flame thows the empty orange half at her backside.

On his way to the game Flame chats on camera with sportswriter Carson Fearsom (Andrew Nurotie) about Andre “The Great ” (a European All Star Power Forward) Fearsome says, “Andre wants to put the Flame out tonight. And to show no hard feelings Andre has invited Flame to join him for chicken wings at his favorite restaurant, KFC.” Magnanimously Flame states Andre has used an unfortunate choice of words and that he will take the high road on this one, besides no one puts out “The Flame – Flame on, baby!”

In the meantime Radical Dave and Stuart Nengale (Arthur Sandbar) are having a conversation in a room very similar to Flames. Nengale tells Radical Dave that negotiations have stalled, lawyers are threatening to sue, fights for years to come. And it is here we find that Radical Dave has taken over “You’re First” a multibillion-dollar insurance company.

Radical Dave hands Nengale a packet of information and tells him to distribute the information to his sources. Nengale says the press will be notified; the sources are confirmed and the recipients are salivating.

Radical Dave laughs at the fact they will get Flame at bargain basement price. “If we decide we want him at all. It’s a short matter of time before the public is outraged and “ moral” clause will be invoked. “He’s had his piece of the pie. It’s time for somebody else to eat.”

Nengale walks out of the hotel room as Guy walks in, all smiles. Radical Dave passes an envelope to Guy. Guy smiles and leaves when Simpleton and Righteous arrive. Simpleton is carrying a baseball bat.

While talking to the girls, Radical puts a move on the girls and then pulls out a couple of more envelopes and hands it to the women. Righteous, counting it, tells Radical that he has shortchanged her. Simpleton throws the money back into his face and holds the bat on her shoulders.

Radical Dave takes the money and gives it back saying they are both in this already. “Short change? – Rough economy!” Besides Righteous will need it when she finds out her bi-sexual fiancĂ© is cheating on her.

Simpleton swings her bat into the lampshade. Simpleton tells him that maybe he doesn’t want the “pudding proof” we have.

Righteous suggests Radical Dave he can have the video rights for twenty grand.

Simpleton informs Righteous to mind her own business and they subsequently fight over the camera in her purse. And as they are doing so Radical Dave shouts $5,000, $7,000, $9,000 etc., and as they are fighting Righteous falls over the bed and Simpleton takes her bag and start beating it with a bat.

Righteous composes herself and tells Simpleton, “It’s the wrong bag.” She hands Radical Dave the camera. Righteous takes the envelope splits the money in half.

Meanwhile, Flame is holding a bucket of KFC wings inside the bus. 6’ 11” Andre “The Great” (Darin Bell) walks in, looks at him, laughs, and takes a wing. Flame says “I know you don’t like it hot. Here’s a wet napkin. I got you 40 wings one for each point I scored on you tonight.” They sit and have a couple of wings discussing fame and fortune as they come to know it when Carson Fearsom interrupts Flame to tell him there’s a story out on him on the AP newswire.

Flame pulls out his iphone and finds the story as Carson is repeatedly asking questions: Is it true?

“It’s Fiction.” Flame says.

Flame takes his iphone and starts texting everyone he knows including his press people. The messages appear on the wall as he texts and sends. He runs to his hotel room to see Simpleton and Righteous coming out. He pushes them into the room, claiming “It’s Fiction! It’s Fiction!” and as he does this he looks at the big screen to see his body beaming out to the world as he is shouting obscenities! It’s Fiction!

This is an amazing cast. Flawless in execution and motion. They are always keeping you on your toes as to what they will do next. Morals are thrown out the window and objectives keep you guessing until the final twisting conclusion.

J. Weller has written a play that explains a core of the human condition. Explorations of a life maybe ripped off of the headlines of today. If fact chose your professional sport, those people are not hard to find or suspend when life choices take them in a direction they may not want to explore.

Galloway’s direction of this cast is pretty amazing. It’s not often you see this kinds of cast with raw sexual emotions displayed in full glory.

No one under 18 will be admitted (expect to be carded) and no one over 18 with strong moral convictions will be admitted as well. (Not sure how they are going to enforce this.)

It’s Fiction! Fiction.

Copyright 2010.