Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Circle of Will by Bill Cakmis and Jack Grapes

By Joe Straw

They laughed about Shakespeare in Tennessee because no one knew what the characters were saying.  And what was this weird foreign language?  For most, having to read Shakespeare in front of the high school class was an exercise in futility. The teacher called on me to read it. I did. Then she asked me to explain it. I did and as I did her eyes got wide and started to moisten around the edges.  And then she got this belligerent look on her face and asked: Where did you get all this?

“It’s in English and it’s on the page.”

Circle of Will written by Bill Cakmis and Jack Grapes, directed by Brian Herskowitz and produced by Tom Brocato is presented by Butterfield Road Productions at the Macha Theatre in West Hollywood.

Circle of Will is described as a comedy in one act (true), two episodes (maybe), three scenes (well…), four flashbacks (I only counted two.), five soliloquies (there seemed - many) six speeches (see soliloquies), seven clever ripostes (it’s French, look it up) eight quotable quotes (One “…so heavy he couldn’t get it up”), nine worthy pantomimes (false), ten constant routines (three) and a partridge in a pear tree (no bird and no fruits to be found.)

This was to be a play about the lost years of William Shakespeare (Jack Grapes), circa 1610 and his leading celebrated actor Richard Burbage (Joe Briggs) complete with Elizabethan theatrical garb. By first glance, one would figure this would be something one could sink his Elizabethan false teeth into, but alas poor Yorick this was not what was expected.

And speaking of Yorick, the play starts with Shakespeare pulling a recently deceased female cadaver behind the curtain waiting every few seconds before getting some kind of sign from Burbage to proceed.

Burbage seems nonplussed about the dead body left to rot behind the drapes.  After all, there is a life, here, now, in front of the curtain, downstage, and it is he!

Burbage wants Shakespeare to write a decent play for him and not “Gonzago and The King” the drivel he is writing these day.  Burbage wants to play the hero, a man and not a woman this time.  No more female parts for him.  (This was odd as Burbage in real life had the title roles in Hamlet, Richard III, Othello, and King Lear.)  What is this thing about playing a woman? 

No matter, but this particular Burbage was relatively young. Not four years younger than Shakespeare in real life. Again, no matter.  Nevertheless, take an imaginative moment, squint, and he could play a woman, the right lighting, and a dash of makeup. But, again no matter!

No matter how much Shakespeare tries to convince Burbage to stay, Burbage is having none of it.  He would rather head off with the boys to play Commedia dell’arte in Italy.  And as he is walking out the door…


There is a sudden transformation in Burbage, now a majestic, handsome, stoic, and kind to small bunnies man. 

But all is not right in our tights with our tight little Elizabethan world.  The set is not right.  The clothes not right. The knives, fake. The poison, all too real and the antidote completely drained.  So what to do?

Circle of Will written by Bill Cakmis and Jack Grapes is not something remotely connected to the past.  The writing is not in iambic pentameter and the characters dialogue seems modern day. At first listen it is an existential play but not connected to any kind of reality.

So why don’t we lay down our critical pencils and just go with it? Yes? No.

The writers use of breaking the forth wall pulls the audience into an extremely uncomfortable situation and structure becomes improvisational like Robin Williams in a Mork and Mindy episode with half the wit. 

But, this long heartache is overcome by a grand moment on stage that lifts us right out of our seats!  How foolish of us not to open our minds and believe.

Nevertheless, getting there was a struggle of starts and stops of breaking character and long waits that seemed like an eternity.

Grapes as Shakespeare was good.  Certainly not the picture of Shakespeare one would have imagined on a calendar. It’s certainly open to discussion, but character development should be a premium here and Shakespeare should remain Shakespeare until he breaks the fourth wall and then return to being Shakespeare when returning. 

Sweating profusely as he was giving 150%, a young statuesque Briggs as Richard “Dirk” Burbage was emoting with unabashed parallelism. He is a remarkable actor with remarkable moments on stage playing what appears to be a number of characters on stage.  A little more diversity in his character portrayals would only add to his performance.

John Brocato and Josh Grapes give their best as the First and Second Eunuch respectively.  There was a trace of sadness in their characters.  For eunuchs this was not without reason.

There are others in the cast and they delight in their ghostly appearances. But Gina Hecht was just incredible.  Wow!  Possibly one of the best performances I’ve seen this year. 

Brian Herskowitz directs this unusually funny cast. The play is very improvisational when at times it needs more structure.  And because of this some of the actors lose focus on their objectives.  It is critical that a play of this kind have strong structural beginning so that breaking the fourth wall will have more meaning. It’s a small quibble.  Still there are a lot of really funny moments in this show.

Also, the relationship needs work to solidify all that is going on, on stage.  Playwright – actor, director - actor, master – slave, lovers – haters, the improvisational lists are infinite.

Functional set design by Martin C. Vallejo. Nice costumes by Anasuya Engel with nice sound and lighting design by Carey Dunn.

Go see it.  It’s in English and it’s on the page.

Through August 15, 2010

Reservations:  323-960-7822

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Thurgood by George Stevens, Jr.

By Joe Straw

It was not until the fifth grade at Byrns L. Darden Elementary School in Clarksville, Tennessee that we had our first African American student.  Her name was Patranella Chambers and she was a sight to behold.  This event took place ten years after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education. Like the Red and Cumberland Rivers that run through Clarksville, things moved slowly in the south.

“Sometimes I get a little weary trying to save the white mans world.”  - Thurgood

Thurgood written by George Stevens, Jr. and directed by Leonard Foglia starring Laurence Fishburne is playing at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through August 8th, 2010.

Laurence Fishburne has had a reputation of playing majestic larger than life heroes in the simplest of characters in film. He has a powerful and commanding presence and a truth that is so undeniable and unshakeable. His reputation fills theatre seats with audience members who are young, through those who are young at heart.  (An SRO this night is a testament to that fact.)

Fishburne has found the secret unknown to ten of thousands of actors struggling on the street today. (Or maybe he just learns his lines and shows up.) And yet time and time again he comes back to the stage to connect and to carry home the passion that burns in every actor’s heart.

Today he stands at the Geffen, alone in front of the hungry masses that yearn to see the life of Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court Justice. 

Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice, broke racial barriers using the law as his weapon of choice.  This life was given to him from the men who were instrumental in his life most notably his father, William Marshall.

It’s not a mistake the American flag on the wall is white at the Geffen.  The Scenic Design by Allen Moyer was simple in its purpose. The white flag serves two purposes. Number one, it’s a symbolic image which highlights Supreme Court’s ruling Plessy v. Ferguson - separate but equal - and the “Whites only” mentality that accompanied that ruling.  And the other (a more practical one) was to project images to tell the story of how things were before Thurgood was finished. 

Downstage is a long sturdy conference table one would find in a law office or when one is speaking before a judge.  This table represents the strength of the law, the solid foundation of our constitutional creationism. 

In the opening of the play Thurgood is an elderly man speaking to the students at Howard University but as the play progresses he gets younger as he speaks the narrative and then gradually grows older as the play ends.

Born July 2nd 1908 in Baltimore Maryland the year Jack Johnson was the undisputed heavy weight champion of the world.  Something Thurgood, a fighter, could admire about his birth year.  It was also the year in which there were 89 lynchings in the United States.

Lynching is defined as an extrajudicial punishment carried out by a mob, usually by hanging in order to intimidate, control or manipulate a population of people.

The theatrical experience that is Thurgood is in and of itself unique.  Stevens, Jr. has written a narrative and it is up the audience member to decide if it is a complete theatrical experience.  With the outcome of Brown v. Board of Education not in questions it’s a matter of discussion as to what we are actually witnessing: A historical narrative, or a play?  There are moments that could have taken us to that special place such as the death of Thurgood’s first wife “Buster” and later the birth of his son.  But these moments slip away without too much grief or fanfare and probably on purpose because Marshall himself had these priorities with the law first and everything else second. 

Leonard Foglia, the director, moves the action on stage smoothly enough and the characters of LBJ, and General Douglas MacArthur portrayed by Fishburne seem to elevate the production. But there is one story about Thurgood’s travel in Tennessee that could have changed the direction of this country with unforeseeable results.  It is a wonderful moment and wonderful story.  

Fishburne’s strength lies in his ability to connect to his audience.  This will be different every night depending on the make up of the audience. He finds those physical moments that highlights the lives of Lyndon Baines Johnson and General Douglas MacArthur. 

What was interesting about Fishburne’s performance was that he was listening.  Listening as Thurgood to the faint sounds of the law and fighting to bring those voices to the forefront to be heard.  In that regard, it is a performance not to be missed.

One notices a southern accent from Fishburne when Thurgood speaks. Slight oddity since Thurgood grew up in Maryland. A YouTube video has him speaking with a northern inflection. Fishburne was born in Augusta, Georgia and moved to New York after his parents divorced.  Osmosis may have been the root but one wonders if it was an actor’s choice or a director’s choice.

“I have a lifetime appointment and I intend to serve it.  I expect to die at 110, shot by a jealous husband.”  - Thurgood 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Just 45 Minutes From Broadway by Henry Jaglom

By Joe Straw

“You don’t understand! I coulda had class.  I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum.  Which is what I am. Let’s face it.”Terry Malloy - On The Waterfront 

A very recognizable Henry Jaglom came in prior to curtain, incognito, nicely dressed with bucket hat pulled down upon his head.  He sprang cat like up the risers and gave a friendly patron a Cheshire like smile and took his seat in the back row.  At intermission he sprang from his seat into the lobby and disappeared only to repeat the same process again for the second act.  Why? Superstition?  Too darn shy to meet with the common folk?  Answers to questions we may never learn because, after all, he is an actor.  And honestly, you just can’t figure those people out. 

Just 45 Minutes From Broadway by Henry Jaglom and directed by Gary Imhoff is playing at the Edgemar Center For The Arts in Santa Monica through September 19th and is presented by The Rainbow Theatre Company.

This version, which has been running for 7 months, is a reopening with the one of a kind Karen Black in a co-starring role.

Just 45 Minutes From Broadway takes place in upstate New York.  In that place is a home filled with actors trying their best in that continual search for the next job. And, at this point in their lives, none are having much success.

There are no rules on stage for the actor.  As it so often applies, in this trade, rules stifles creativity.  Forget about being judgmental and let the emotions take you where they will.  

But, separating stage and life can be a tricky situation especially for this family of actors. After all, the dreams are just 45 minutes away and life is life, it happens because it can, and does.

Pandora (Tanna Frederick) is the beautifully slim emotionally charged red headed daughter looking for, what else, a man.  This tragedy of not having found him at this point in her life haunts her.

The play starts with Pandora up in the attic, pretending, (possibly that she’s been married and looking back on her life) she opens up a Pandora’s box and stumbles across a carefully packaged stack of letters. Opening one of the letters she discovers a disturbing secret about infidelities in her family.

How can you live with people you’ve known your whole life and know very little of their lives?  Finding an answer to that truth is what she carries throughout the play.  

Pandora is staying with her mother Vivien Cooper (Karen Black) and her father George Isaacs (Jack Heller). 

Staying with them is Larry Cooper (David Proval) whose acting career has been downgraded to doing Guys and Dolls at dinner theatre. He is Vivien’s brother and a very likeable long-term houseguest.

Also living with them is a mysterious friend with a southern accent Sally Brooks (Harriet Schock).   Why the southern accent?  Well, it’s anybody’s guess.  (Although, it’s probably her natural accent.)

It is, in the nicest sense of the word, an emotionally charged household without the gratifying release especially in the night when everyone is up worrying about things that they have no control over. 

As disheveled, as he can be, George is upset about getting his next four hours of sleep and blaming Pandora for eating his sleeping cookies.  Oddly enough she seems to take the blame in stride as one of his things but never denies taking the cookies.

Last, but not least, everyone is strung out over the arrival of Betsy (Julie Davis), their daughter and her fiancé Jimmy Halkin (David Garver) whom they have not met.

Pandora, with a raging case of jealously, cries at the slightest mention of the word, “husband”.

It appears that over the long haul George has had more acting success than the rest of them.  He has an interview on Skype later that afternoon and he gripes that he’s got to get some sleep! And he needs his cookies!

Later Betsy and her fiancĂ© Jimmy are in the house (no big arrival scene) and Pandora is nowhere to be found.  This couple has something up their sleeves but it is only reveal it later in the play.

Jimmy takes a liking to everyone in the house but takes a special interest in Pandora and follows her up into the attic, and everywhere else for that matter.  It is a matter that doesn’t bother Betsy in the slightest. She seems to be willing to sacrifice for the good cause.

Everyone seems to have a secret they want to get off their chest.  Those moments eventually come but it comes out with very little heartache.

Frederick as Pandora has an inescapable charm, witty, touchable, and someone you would want to be around only to listen to her stories of unconquered males in her life and of blue bull frogs.  What she whispers to her sister, well, we just don’t know.  There is a very interesting effect from that conversation but there is no payoff.

Black as Vivien has this aura about her and creates this feeling of a desire to be closer to her to listen to her soft whispers of her life.

Heller as George disheveled in the first scene and later in the same day a different person, almost unrecognizable, was fascinating, filled with life and outer conflict. A very nice performance.

Proval was quite marvelous in this production.  He was a very likeable houseguest.  It appeared he came in inebriated after a Guys and Dolls performance was canceled for reasons not entirely clear. Ultimately he gets what he wants, but does he actually force the journey or does it fall in his lap?

Garver as Jimmy seems not to care about repercussions from his soon to be ex girlfriend. That conflict was either non-existent or so subtle that it was missed. And Davis as Betsy didn’t seem to mind it either. 

Henry Jaglom has written a play that speaks to a certain core of people, the actor.  There are a lot of marvelous things in this production that slightly focus on the dream: “I coulda been somebody.”

Jaglom writes about Stanislavski but there is much more conflict here than meets the eye. The writing is subtle but undeniably strong.  The characters are mythical and strangely dynamic. It is a ride on Pegasus, which takes us to our lowest depths and elevates us to our highest highs.  It is lost and then gleefully found.

But in this particular production, directed by Gary Imhoff, those moments were not accentuated. Conflict drives the action whether it is internal or external conflict.  It’s very challenging to determine what these people wanted. Stanislavski calls it their objective. In the director’s mind it must be clear and simple.  Ultimately you can figure out what the actors want if  the choice is simple.

But, look, there’s nothing in this production that can’t be fixed. Tighten the moments that change the relationships forever and whatever you do make most of those moments.

Joel Daavid has provided this production with a grand set.  A three level house in upstate New York. Carefully crafted.  Wonderful in spirit!  It fits nicely in the Edgemar Center.  But is it really falling apart as Betsy suggests, or is it just Betsy imagination?

Reservations: 310-392-7327

Monday, July 5, 2010

In The Heights – Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegria Hudes

By Joe Straw

I left my job at the Pantages about thirty years ago. Rex Harrison, performing in My Fair Lady, stopped by for a brief chat to say wish me well.   I said my goodbyes, locked up, and walked out of the stage door up the long ramp and into the cold unpredictable Hollywood night. Change was coming, I felt it, and it was worrisome. Days later, on the east coast, John Lennon was gunned down entering his home in New York City. 

Coming back to the Pantages on Wednesday night was a homecoming of sorts. The Pantages greets like an old friend, reliable and always alluring on opening night, filled with celebrities, and not having lost its luster for one second. Strolling along the red carpet in the lobby makes one feel majestic and still, it feels like home.

One of the most magical things about Pantages Theatre is the rising of the curtain.  There is this curiosity factor of the enchantment behind the scarlet drape when, in a moment, all things become apparent.  In The Heights did not have that moment, as the entire set was visible when we entered the theatre. 

Nevertheless, the musical, In The Heights – Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegria Hudes is a magnificent, colorful, Latino extravaganza set in Washington Heights.

Anna Louizos, Set Designer, has crafted a grand three-story set, which stretches from one end of the stage to the next. The see through walls catch a glimpse of daily life of the residents in their arduous surroundings. And in the background, looking west looms the George Washington Bridge.

The early morning calm in Washington Heights is interrupted by Graffiti Pete (Jose-Luis Lopez), dancing in the darkness with paint cans in hand.  It is an inchoate crime and a dance structured by an endless flow of paint sprayed about this living canvas. 

But, Graffiti Pete’s art is interrupted by Usnavi (Lin-Manuel Miranda) welding (with what appears to be) a swinging boleadoras.  He chases Graffiti Pete away from his bodega and into the sunrise. It is curious that in the night Graffiti Pete is treated with suspicion, in the day he is treated like family.

Usnavi is a man goaded into spontaneous action not only to protect the bodega but the people around him. Wanting in song to have men “pull up their pants”. One can see that he has a slightly conservative approach to life.

But the mournful eyed Usnavi is hesitant or maybe mixed about his approach to love.  In song, his heart is poured out to the masses, never giving the slightest hesitation about how he feels. Spoken in hip-hop rap his love of life wears down the lonely heart. It is heartbreaking, it is exciting, and it is unlike any musical you have ever seen.

Working in the bodega with Usnavi is his cousin Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) in a learning-a-vocation-as-you-go employee and hoping not to get electrocuted fixing the store’s refrigeration. 

Piragua Guy (David Baida) sings us into the morning with a melodious wakeup call that would humiliate the morning songbirds. And this is how life awakens in Washington Heights.  Little by little (like immigrants) they come to live and work and to be as happy as they can be.

But immediately there is a sense that something is wrong.  Although they are brought together by economic necessities and the closeness of being with like-minded people, there is something that holds each character back from fulfilling their ultimate dream. Challenged and/or imprisoned by their thoughts and surroundings most of these hard working immigrants will never make it out of Washington Heights.

Home to these people is the Dominican Republic.  But in their way, they all want something better in life here, home, families, and good schools for their children. And it is here in Washington Heights, a place they call home, that they will find the most heartache.

Everyone, it seems, starts his or her day off at the bodega.

Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora) has her ritual every morning, to buy a lottery ticket and this plays a significant role in the book of the musical.  She is respected and loved as a grandmother in the neighborhood.

Carla (Genny Lis Padilla), Daniela (Isabel Santiago), and Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan), all beauticians stop at the bodega on their way the beauty parlor.   It is only Vanessa that gets a free cup of coffee unaware of Usnavi’s attention, devotion and wistful dreams. Vanessa is preoccupied with moving to another neighborhood and she also has problems with her mother who has an addiction to drugs. 

Across the street Kevin (Danny Bolero) and Camila (Natalie Toro) own Rosario’s Car and Limousine service.  Nina (Arielle Jacobs) is their only daughter and through the collaborative effort of all they have sent Nina to Stanford University in California. She is the pride of her parents and of Washington Heights.

Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.) who works for the limo service is an up and coming businessman who would like to own his own limo business when a slightly unpredictable thing happens, he falls in love with Nina.

Nina’s father does not hold Benny, an African American, in high regard.  He is told many times that he is not suitable for his daughter. 

It is here that Nina tells her parents that she dropped out of school months ago because of her grades and for financial reasons and the ground beneath them has fallen, their dreams have been shattered.

There are a number of songs that are just magnificent; Jacob’s Breathe was (forgive the pun) breathtaking.  Douglas, Jr. had a number of songs that were marvelous.  It is here that I remember the powerful voices that have filled the Pantages and Jacob and Douglas, Jr. count as two of the best. 

Santoro as Abuela has a wonderful number Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith) playing a lot older than she actually is but nevertheless an exciting performer with a wonderful range.

“No Me Diga” (Don’t tell me.) is a nice gossipy song sung by the lovely over accessorized beauticians Padilla, Santiago, and Sloan with Jacobs in the hot seat.  To say they were fantastic would be to trivialize their performance.  Each performance was remarkable.

Bolero and Toro, as the Mom and Dad respectively, had a lot of very nice moments, wonderful voices and engaging from beginning to end. Bolero had a lot of anger and not so much heartache when he finds his daughter is taking a permanent leave of absence. It’s a small quibble. 

Directed by Thomas Kail and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler these two worked hand in hand to give us an inspiring show of life, love and home.  What an amazing job!

So powerful and inspiring is Miranda’s work it certainly will lead others to follow.  There is more here for the ever increasing Latino market to grasp and run with.  Ultimately, In The Heights is a welcomed change to the Hollywood fabric.  But, it’s only here for four weeks.

Run while you can to the Pantages.

Through July 25th, 2010

Tuesday - Friday at 8:00pm
Saturday at 2pm & 8pm
Sunday at 1pm & 6:30pm