Monday, May 31, 2010

Supernova by Timothy McNeil

By Joe Straw 

Something catastrophic happens in which a split second of observation is needed to take note of the moment.   Oftentimes, that is not possible in chaotic conditions.  Struck by the violent shock wave of an opposing force the options are to either succumb or judiciously leave the area.

Supernova by Timothy McNeil and directed by Lindsay Allbaugh is a peculiar and fascinating play.  It is either a metaphor of contemptible cataclysmic events or a simple family drama – you decide.  This world premiere play produced by David Fofi and presented by the Elephant Theatre Company in Hollywood, California cast a pernicious light of the living, a snapshot of the collective consciousness. 

But what does this all mean? 

By definition a supernova is an extremely luminous stellar explosion.  It expels the stars material with a velocity and sends shock waves into the interstellar medium. 

In this play, Supernova is a watch for sale out of a Soldier of Fortune magazine.  And fascinatingly enough the watch manages to change the lives of all the characters.  

But, can the audience expect a literal translation when so many things appear to be a complex metaphor of light transmissions?  

Wonderful Set Design and Lighting Design by Joel Daavid indicate something is not quite right.  Stage right is the family’s home: a working class montage of family living.  Stage left is a times seller’s office.  (Someone who sell watches.)  But there is something wrong with the home set, the doorframe is visibly skewed, the shelves are misaligned as well. There is a door that is seared into the floor as well as a surrealistic window downstage left with a slight view of the darkness below.  Stars and galaxies are mysteriously projected into the night sky. But let’s leave those images for the moment.

From a casual perspective the story plays out simply enough.

Mabel Davies (Bonnie McNeil) and her husband John Davies (Tony Gatto) will soon have a dramatic downturn in their relationship. Mabel wants to get her son, Kip Davies (Edward Tournier), a watch for his eighteenth birthday party.  Mabel has found a Soldier of Fortune magazine with a page turned down on a specific watch called the Supernova. Her belief is that it is her son’s magazine and he wants a watch for a graduation gift.

The watch costs $299 and John thinks Mabel’s ideal gift is insane.  As John is putting on his nice watch, he tells Mabel no watch for his unemployed, drug addict, and loser son.  (Well, not those words exactly, but you get the idea.)

Fran (Gina Garrison) a curvaceous divorced neighbor, and visiting, has her sights on Kip. She tells Fran Kip has a blond girlfriend.  But, Kip denies this as he only has eyes for women who are at arms length, namely Fran.  Even as Mabel is off in dreamland, they are having exaggerated seconds of sex in the kitchen.

At the watch company Ethan (Micah Cohen this night, James Pippi in alternating nights) has just hired Joe Strong (Timothy McNeil) to work the graveyard shift.  He is instructed to take the calls and sell watches.  Ethan is a devilish boss who demands immediate obedience. (Just the kind of boss everyone likes.)

Later Mabel calls the watch company and strikes up a relationship with Joe. It is a playful relationship that requires many phone calls before the watch is actually sold. 

In the meantime, home life is becoming monotonous and unbearable.  John is a working stiff who’s angry that his life is about paying everyone’s bills including his father who is in a wheelchair and in a nursing home.  John is continuously working to support the household and while he is away, the others play.

And play they do. In the morning hours Kip and Fran are having sex when Kip tells her that there are more pressing problems in the world than having sex with her. Kip tells her  “We have to fight to keep our rights as Christians!”  (It’s no wonder that Mabel knows enough about Kip to believe the Soldier of Fortune magazine is his.)

“You like simple women Jim Joe? – What are your goals Joe?” - Mabel

Bonnie McNeil as Mabel is a fascinating character. Dour from conflicts at home she seems to do what she wants only giving minimal second thoughts as to how it might affect the others. It is difficult to determine the specific moment, which changes the course of her life. 

Gatto as John is sympathetic and pathetic at the same time. How could a man love his son so much to throw food in his face?  And on a moments notice, could he toss his wife to the collective of deserted wives in Iowa?  Still a carefully crafted performance and one not to miss. 

Timothy McNeil as Strong can cower with the best of them.  Fighting to find that one woman in his life while maintaining his menial job is his primary objective but what stops him from setting down the phone and running to Mabel?  What keeps him in the office? 

Garrison as Fran as the sexy neighbor is a charming temptress.  She is an intriguing receptor to a physical relationship with both father and son while neglecting Mabel’s needs.  It is a physically demanding role and one that has her fighting her own emotional and physical battles.  A tremendous job.

Tournier as Kip has a wonderful stage presence. His voice is not mellifluous but measured and angry.  He is a man whose sexual needs come first followed by saving the Christian world second. He is strong in his naive convictions.  One could question such a worldly perspective from someone turning eighteen years old. Metaphorically, he is the supernova that sends his mental projectiles where the other characters are forced to fight or flee.  

Cohen as Ethan is equally remarkable.  He is a demanding boss that takes pleasure in controlling the lives of his employees.  He is the kind of boss that will write up an employee and get a signature on the write up without having second thoughts.

Tricia (Kelly Elizabeth) also does a fine job in a supporting role indicating it’s the worst birthday party she ever been to. And Moe (Joe Wiebe) as Kips weed smoking friend is equally fine but needs to find the reasons for wanting to hang out with the both of them.  

Timothy McNeil writes a play that allows us photo images or snapshots of the destruction of a family in America’s heartland.  The characters are no saints in this production, only human, but they all seem to be floundering trying to find their way in life. Waiting for the metaphoric explosion so they can determine what action to take. Still, it’s hard to tell what each of these characters wanted. No one admits to owing or reading Soldier of Fortune or marking the page for the Supernova watch which is mysterious in and of itself and it is not something that is explored or even thought about in this play. 

Allbaugh, the director, does a fine job finding the moments that are quite astonishing.  Some moments are in need of defining. A lot more mystery and myth would add to this production.   Still, she is a remarkable director working with a remarkable cast doing a very exceptional job. 

Through June 27th, 2010
Elephant Theatre Company
6322 Santa Monica Blvd.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest – by Oscar Wilde

by Joe Straw

Something remarkable happened in the second act of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (more on this later). Directed by Drew Fitzsimmons and presented by the Kentwood Players at the Westchester Playhouse, this wonderful production will be playing through June 12, 2010. 

Drew Fitzsimmons, making his directorial debut, showed signs of understanding the craft and keeping the show visually exciting and moving at a steady pace.  The characters were a bit more complex than recent productions and moments were extremely funny and exciting to watch. 

The cause may be the director himself, Mr. Fitzsimmons.  The Kentwood Players have taken steps to ensure an ongoing continuity of successful community theatre this season.  In the sincerest way, it is a move in the right direction.

That being said not everything works.  It would be absurd to say so. But what does?  And who was that funny man?

Westchester Playhouse is the only theatre where all the patrons run out after the first act onto the sidewalk in search of a cigarette.  And looking at all these people clamoring for their fix, one notices that no one carries a cigarette case anymore, especially with an inscription in it, which is what our story is about. Pulling out a case today, people would think you were (eh hem) “different”.

As the play begins, Lane (Will Meister), the butler, and Algernon Moncrieff (Lorenzo Bastien) are having a discussion about the inferior quality of the wine in married households when a Mr. Ernest Worthing (Joshua Nelson) arrives. Worthing and Moncrieff are friends, and up to the present time confirmed bachelors. Ernest is slightly older but Algernon is smarter than his counterpart simply because of his upbringing: better educated, bon vivant, and muffin lover. 

Worthing’s visit into town has but one objective.

“I am in love with Gwendolen.  I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.” - Jack

But Algernon will not give his consent to marriage to his first cousin until a little mystery is unraveled.  He has discovered a cigarette case belonging to “Jack” which is the property of his dear friend, Ernest.  In it, the inscription:  “From little Cecily with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack”. Clearly, this intimate friendship needs a little explanation. Algernon discovers his friend Ernest is none other than Jack and this only after a number of absurd denials.

“Now, go on.  Why are you Ernest in town and Jack in the country? - Algernon

Ernest explains it’s a matter of reputation of being more carefree (wicked) in the city and holding a higher moral tone when he is in the country with his ward. Algernon says he has something similar in “Bunbury”, a fictitious invalid he uses as an excuse to get out of all sorts of things. Algernon call himself a Bunburyist.

Expectantly, Lane introduces Lady Bracknell (Carmen Lynne) and her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax (Marcy Agreen) and in due course finds out that Ernest wants to propose to Gwendolen.  And Gwendolen likes the idea because he has the name Ernest that is her overriding factor in her conquest for true love.

But Lady Bracknell, after an interrogation of Ernest, finds out about his past and does not find him suitable for her darling Gwendolen. Ernest is perplexed by this unexpected animadversion.  

“I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.” – Lady Bracknell

Undaunted, and understanding that true love has no obstacles, Ernest invites Miss Fairfax to his country home unbeknownst that Algernon is taking down the information.

In the country Jack’s ward Cecily Cardew (Jessica Hayes) is being schooled by her governess Miss Prism (Judy Ewing) when Merriman (also Will Meister) presents Mr. Ernest Worthing (really Algernon) and declares he is there for a visit. 

Algernon immediately falls in love with Cecily.  He also finds out that Cecily is in love with the name Ernest, his wicked ways, and will have no other. Algernon says he is not wicked. 

I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time.  That would be hypocrisy. - Cecily

Not to be undone Miss Prism has a slight infatuation with Rev. Canon Chasuble, D.D. (Ron Edwards) and they walk into the garden.  Love is all around.  But Algernon hunts for Dr. Chasuble to christen him Ernest.

Meanwhile Gwendolen arrives unexpectedly and has a chat with Cecily when they discover Ernest has proposed to both of them.

I shall not go on any further. It would be absurd to do so. 

Fitzsimmons has put together an exciting cast. 

Bastien as Algernon just got better as the night wore on, and was fantastic in the second act. Nelson as Worthing was equally appealing managing his double life to ridiculous extremes.  Although they were the best of friends (brothers you might say) the give and take demanded a little more from those moments in the first act. 

Lynne as Lady Bracknell was engaging but could have hit her emotional marks with the bulleyes needed in this play.  But she was delightful nevertheless.

Agreen as Gwendolen has a charm about her but the slightly distracting asides were overbearing. Relationships are much more dramatic without turning to look at the fourth wall and expressing one’s dogmatic views.  It’s absurd to think otherwise.

Ewing was appealing as Miss Prism and has a marvelous exit the audience found quite charming.

Hayes as Cecily Cardew was a surprising twist to casting but nevertheless she was marvelous and quite remarkable in her craft.  She is a simple but complex joy.

Mayes as Gribsby as a solicitor in this alternate version of “Earnest” was quite good but his performance as Moulton was hilarious!  His teacher, Nina Foch, would have been proud.  Mayes was that funny man!

There is oddness about Edwards as Dr. Chasuble that is appealing and engaging. 

Meister as Lane and Merriman was as droll as a butler can be and while there were funny bits more could be discovered from this character.  But nevertheless very enjoyable.

Fitzsimmons has done a fine job! The remarkable thing about The Importance of Being Earnest was that in the second act it all came together.  A pleasing way to end the week and there’s nothing absurd about that. 

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Dementia – A Play by Evelina Fernandez

By Joe Straw

My wife, lying in a bed at County USC Medical Center and dying of cancer, was taken to the room. We knew what the room meant. And in spite the few short months of prayers and tears, they were taking us there.    

A decision had to be made.  Coming in the next morning to tell her, she interrupted me and said they were looking in on her.  The tile in the ceiling had been moved she said, there was a hole “there this morning and they looked down at her.  She said they spoke Spanish. 

“Well, leave it to you to have angels that don’t speak your language.” I quipped. We both had a nice laugh.

“Why don’t we (and there was a long pause here) celebrate Christmas and New Years at home?”  She shook her head, yes.

Dementia by Evelina Fernandez and directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela is another celebration and a remarkable achievement! Produced by the Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and playing through May 30, 2010.

The Scenic Design by Christopher Ash majestically lifts one from the bed and up three levels into the heavens. He bathes us in these magnificent blue nude bodies stretching high above the stage with pictures frames highlighting various parts of the human anatomy.  One can only imagine if our main character decorated his home this way or if the dementia had already set in in his being.

Moe (Sal Lopez) is a man, a gay Chicano man, and a director/writer who wants to live and die in his paradise that is EAST L.A., because as his life would have it, the good life is cruising in a convertible along Whittier Boulevard.

Unfortunately, he is dying of AIDS and the act of death is his emotional countdown to his own sublime observations.   Not completely bedridden he leaves his bed when enthusiastically inspired but not so far away as to terminally distance himself from his oxygen tank. 

His chola pregnant niece Tamara (Esperanza America Ibarra), an angel in her own right, helps him through the disease.  Humiliated, after being wiped, and wearing adult diapers Moe wants to go out in his silk boxers. 

“The end has to be brilliant!” - Moe

Moe lives a life where simple language is inadequate. It has to be expressive, layered with so many levels of truth and only the kind of truth that batters the human condition that strikes a nerve so deep the characters explode with happiness, shame or any other end effect as long as it is dramatic. 

So what better way to witness human frailties and absorb the last ounce of human emotion than with a party of friends?  Not only that, a Going Away for Good Party. After all, death is your last great party, and you might as well be alive to take pleasure in it.  Adjust the lights, turn up the music, grab the Demerol patches and let the visions come as the last night was meant to be. 

Moe’s visions come rather quickly in the way of alter ego Lupe (Ralph Cole, Jr.) a glamorous, magnanimous, fabulous drag queen, and a sparkling guide to the netherworld.  The drag queen entices with lights, fingers, and song to pull Moe into the light with a rendition of “My Life”.  

Only, there’s a problem.   Lupe wants Moe to come with him now, wants to take him to (pick your belief) but the party has just started and Moe is not prepared.

Martin (Danny De La Paz), his best friend since childhood, has left East L.A.  in favor of the west side of town to be a hair stylist to the stars (namely, everyone living on the west side).  He has an important job to do and has promised to pull the plug when the time comes, but only then.  The pressure of not one second before or one second after drives him absolutely mad.

Eddie (Geoffrey Rivas), a former writing partner to Moe, and his wife Alice (Lucy Rodriguez) are having marital problems.  Their lives are in turmoil as Alice has divulged an affair with a younger man 25 years old. They agree to go to the party with reservations on settling their problems at another time.

And of course Moe wants to see all of this and more.  With the help of his friends he slips into his boxers, a stunning evening dress, wig and makeup, and dances until he can dance no more and then disaster strikes when his former wife Raquel (Evelina Fernandez) calls and wants to see him.

The coming of Moe’s death is a great equalizer to those who want to be heard and haven’t found their voice. The smallest of whispers become something of great importance from someone who is dying.  And why would you not want to be a part of this event?

Lopez, as Moe is outstanding by and large getting what he wants and pushing all of the buttons to get there. Outstanding as the performance may be, his reactions to the events unfolding around him seem not have an effect on his leaving.

Rivas as Eddie, also outstanding, is his tormented writer partner coming to the end to get a truth lacking in his recent material sans Moe.  As he is witnessing the death of his friend, he is taking mental notes for new material.

Rodriguez as Alice is having a hard time understanding why her husband wants to see a dying man when there are more pressing problems in their relationship.  A touching portrait of a character that is devastated by a truth that leaves her numb.

Ibarra as Tamara is “plan B” in case Martin doesn’t work out. Compassionate and loving until the end. She gives a charming and witty performance.

La Paz as Martin is the picture of health against the backdrop of Moe. The reasons of “Why him? And not me?” on his mind as he watches his friend slip into unconsciousness.  La Paz is funny and emotional.

Cole, Jr. as Lupe was equally delightful. He has a number of costume changes throughout the night and a number of songs as well.  One of those songs Que Sera Sera is a haunting number from an Alfred Hitchcock’s film the Man Who Knew Too Much plays well into Moe’s dying heart.  One has to question the reasons for the songs and how each song gradually entices Moe to come with him. (That may be my own fault for not understanding the songs in Spanish.)

Beautiful costumes by Nikki Delhomme and wonderful choreography by Urbanie Lucero which works well with Karl Carrasco’s musical direction.

Evelina Fernandez has written an outstanding play that is a simple understanding of death, as one would have it. A simple truth met to enlighten. As the character Raquel she stands and waits for a visual truth to come to her.  So powerful is her stare, moments taking it all in, waiting without the words to say,  “I forgive you.”

Certainly all of the characters go through a catharsis and self-realization brought about by Moe’s imminent demise but here it is displayed as Latina truth.  Inspiring!

Jose Luis stands outside, smoking a cigarette, waiting for tidbits of audience reaction as they leave.  He graciously thanks each and everyone for coming to the performance gathering bits of reactional information from this play that is a celebration of life.  The genius that is Jose Luis is his constant exploration of the human condition: life filled with exaggeration and meaning. 

Valenzuela’s direction leaves no marker untouched.  He explores the physical life of death to great dimensions.  Life, death and afterlife, is either real or imagined.   The first act ended in a song and dance number, which was quite remarkable, but leads us into the second act that seemed to lose a little focus.  It seemed to be more about the other player’s problems and left Moe to stare mostly upstairs where the action was taking place. 

Bring the conflict into the living room/bedroom where it belongs and take it to its flat line conclusion. 

Los Angeles Theatre Center through May 30th, 2010.