Sunday, August 29, 2010

Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks

By Joe Straw 

Riding on a bus in the late seventies going west on Hollywood Boulevard I came upon a group of African Americans in the back throwing cards.   The man throwing wore a bandana around his head.  He was a smooth talker with a rough exterior.  His multiple skin pustules were something not to notice as all eyes were inexplicitly forced to focus on the throwing of the cards.    

He was throwing the cards like there was no tomorrow and making me dizzy, but oddly enough he kept losing.  He pulled out a wad of money, paid out, and told the winning guy with the gold tooth to leave.  It was very fast pace, dangerous, funny, and mesmerizing.

Topdog/Underdog written by Suzan-Lori Parks winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama is an extremely fascinating play.  This journey will take you to the mountaintop and then unsuspectingly throw you off the overhang without hesitation against the jagged rocks below. Topdog/Underdog is riveting play from the opening moment to the end. 

Which is not to say this production, directed by James Reynolds and produced by Lissa Reynolds is riveting, it isn’t just yet.   By all accounts the bugs are still being worked out.  But this production at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena has some wonderful moments nevertheless. 

The play opens in a seedy furnished rooming house room as Booth (Stephen Rider) throws the cards.  He is clumsy in his attempts to perfect his technique but he continues to practice.

“Watch me close watch me close now: who-see-thuh-red-card-who-see-thuh-red card?”  -Booth

As Booth practices, Lincoln (Jed Reynolds) his brother enters after a long day of work in his Abraham Lincoln costume: complete with stovetop hat, white face and jacket. Booth pulls his gun and…


Take a moment to realize this is the most important moment of the play and if this doesn’t work there is an incredible amount of catch up work to be done. This is the moment that captures the essence of the play.  It establishes who is topdog and who is underdog.   It tells us which brother is in control and which brother has to take control and by what means each is willing to go.

So this moment did not quite work and now there’s some catching up to do.

Booth tells Lincoln to take off the costume, white face and stove top hat because he’s in love with Grace and…

“She sees you in that getup its gonna reflect bad on me.” - Booth  

And with these two, it’s always a power struggle.  They even battle to who’s going to walk to the other end of the room and bring the food to the table.

Lincoln thinks he’s got a respectable job playing Abraham Lincoln.  His job has him sitting in a chair while tourists shoot him.  (Can anybody think of a better job?)

Dressing up like some crackerass white man, some dead president and letting people shoot at you sounds like a hustle to me.  - Booth

But when Friday rolls around Lincoln brings home “the bacon”. 

“Oh Lordamighty Ima faint, Pa!  Get me muh med-sin!”Booth


Lincoln and Booth play this game about the money.  It is an African American stereotypical dialogue you might hear in Blazing Saddles or a minstrel show and it does a couple of things, it strengthens their relationship and it is a reason why both of them can cohabitate in the dingy run down flat. Like it or not they need each other because they are all they got.

Sadly, this is not what we got.  (More catch up.)

In his quest to get Lincoln throwing the cards again, Booth steals a complete wardrobe for Lincoln: expensive suite, shoes, shirt and tie to make him look good.  And although Lincoln is grateful he wants the other tie Booth is wearing and gets it.  

But Booth, in order to become topdog, is constantly throwing his weight around when they are together and he emphasizes that it’s his gun, his apartment, and his girlfriend when it comes to hanging out in his apartment. 

And then tragedy befalls them when Lincoln looses his job.  This forces Lincoln to start throwing the cards again. But there is a problem here Lincoln believes someone will die when he starts throwing the cards and the guilt of getting someone killed plays on his emotions.

With nothing to lose, against his better judgment, Lincoln decides to start throwing the cards again. And with that idea starts to teach Booth the tricks of the trade. 

“You see what Im doing? Don’t look at my hands, man, look at my eyes.  Know what is and know what aint.”Lincoln 

Still, this is a quest for coming out on top.  Who is the topdog?  And who is the underdog?  Both brothers battle it out in a never-ending quest for supremacy until the tragic end.   The elements in this play are there, the moments are not. In this performance the actors got lost and backtracked.  Something actors try not to do when there are paying customers.  The point is to relax, concentrate and stay in the moment.

Rider as Booth is compelling. This is a demanding role that requires a few more levels to the emotional and physical commitment to the character. Silently and sub textually his character is pushed beyond limits.  It is a cancerous growth that culminates in a tragic release.  We as audience members know what he wants what we are not able to see is the conflict in his character that drives his being.  We need to be able to see the insurmountable loses that drives him to do what he ends up doing.

Reynolds as Lincoln presents a very morose picture. Although he has lost everything in his life, his objective seems out of place and confusing. If his objective was to stay at the flat and get drunk, he achieved that objective. But what purpose does that serve? What if his objective was to fleece his brother out of his $500.00 inheritance?  Would that paint a different picture? It seems to fit an underlying truth as money coming to Lincoln is spent at the local bar without Booth, or even his last week’s paycheck, which seems to have disappeared without Booth receiving any benefits.

A fascinating moment happened at the curtain call.  Both actors rose from the floor Reynolds held Rider in his arms, as Reynolds was deeply concerned at Rider’s emotional state of being.  The moment was poignant and endearing but both actors need to find those moments on stage during the performance if this dream is to be fully realized. 

James Reynolds, the director, does a fascinating job in bringing out the finesse of the card game.   It is exciting to watch and glorious in execution.  His needs are in the stronger execution of the pauses, suggested in the play, which are not realized here.  The pauses have a great sub textual meaning, and they need emphasis in order to advance the action. Also, things seemed to be half heartedly done.  The screen in the middle of the apartment did not appear to separate the brothers.  If you’re going to have it there, use it to its full advantage.

Through September 18, 2010

Monday, August 23, 2010

Carry It On! By Ellen Geer

By Joe Straw

Theatricum Botanicum is a very relaxing place to see theatre.  The people are friendly and one has the feeling of being one with nature.  It is so peaceful one takes the time to notice a loved one, the sparkle in her eyes, and the way an afternoon sea breeze gently brushes the hair from her face.  It’s a place where one can take a breath and absorb.

The performance of Carry It On! caught everyone in this audience by surprise.  Not sure what happened but somewhere near the beginning deep rooted feelings overcomes the audience and they openly weep at the vision on stage. Tissues come out and sobs are heard all around.  Because it is a daylight performance, one cannot be hidden by the darkness, and the audience is a mess. But nevertheless, one can truly relax and absorb the love and just let the emotions go in this lovely amphitheatre. 

Carry It On! is a delightful history lesson written and directed by the incomparable Ellen Geer.   One that will make you laugh and cry and one that encourages the audience to sing to their hearts content.  (Those that can belt out a good number are encouraged to attend.)

But what is it about this performance that touches so many heartstrings?  If you care about humanity, the people who made history, and the against all odds strength inside of them, then you will love this show!

Geer presents a picture that is almost all-inclusive. Presented here are humans, black and white, red and brown, the famous and the infamous, rich and the poor, the sympathetic and the unsympathetic, the dastardly and the compassionate.

But what does the indefatigable Geer do that makes us want to come back for more?  How does she do it?  And when does she find the time to do it.  It’s all about the love of her craft.

The play starts with the shameful episode of slavery in American history and takes us to the present day.

There is something about immigrants coming on ship to America that absolutely tugs on the heartstrings. Ellen Geer stages this beautifully. She is a master craftsman (person/woman) and a consummate professional, writing songs, playing a few instruments and taking on a few rolls as well, Mother Jones and Eleanor Roosevelt.  Is there anything she cannot do?  

Ellen’s staging has a purpose and manages to push the audience buttons in the process.  What is remarkable is the craft of acting.  Although budget constraints leave the actors (for the most part) in modern day dress, they are able to overcome their appearance through the art of the craft.  A show this vast does not have the luxury of dressing Civil War soldiers, suffrage women’s movement, and Nazi Germany all in the span of two hours.

While the history lesson is huge in scope ending to the present day there are some very fine performances in this hard working cast.

A Native American (Michael Keith Allen) sits gently above us all and tells us how it is with nature. 

Rachel Applebaum as Mary Todd Lincoln has a voice against slavery.  

Daniel Chacon does a nice turn as Caesar Chavez as well as Reies Lopez Tijerina. 

A doleful-eyed Mollyann Davis has a very nice moment as Anne Frank.

Lucero Garcia gives us a nice little turn as Martha Graham. (Yes, this is a pun.)

Willow Geer was fantastic as Emily Dickinson. It’s the little character traits that make her performance wonderful to watch.

William Dennis Hunt is always fantastic, here playing Walt Whitman.  Hunt is a working actor that manages to find roles all over town. There is such sincerity and joy watching him in his craft, as he seems to narrate throughout this entire production.

Mark Lewis does a fine job as Robert Frost.

Melora Marshall does not disappoint as Elizabeth Stanton.  She is a very fine actress.

Earnestine Phillips has a number of roles, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks.  She is quite incredible and a joy to watch.

Gerald C. Rivers does a mind-blowing impersonation of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Paul Turbiak was a sinister Henry Ford, a Snidely Whiplash of his day. 

Others in the cast were Jane Bacon, Melissa Camilo, Leah Gutentag, Rowena Johnson, Dave Mack, David Mamor, Andrew Ravani, Alice Sherman, Jackson Thompson, and Matt Van Winkle.  And not to make light of these performers they were wonderful and hard working and make up the whole of this wonderful production.

There are some caveats.  Native Americans were not very well represented here.  Also, the programs and literature suggest the play deals with Hispanics and for the most part the play is about Mexican Americans.

Also because there are so many characters the introductions to the audience gets to be laborious.  Some need no introductions, the words will tell you who they are, others need major introductions. Sometimes this show is a bit too wordy, and can use some judicious editing.

Still, Carry It On! is a wonderful history lesson and something for the whole family. One can sit back, pick or choose the lesson they like, and later study those individuals who made history on the web. 

August 7 through September 18, 2010
Saturdays at 4 pm:  August 7, 14th, 21st, 28th, September 11, 18
Sundays at 3:30 pm: September 5th, 26th

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Becoming Norman by Norman P. Dixon

By Joe Straw

Norman P. Dixon has to be the luckiest man alive and he may not even know it.

Norman grew up Mormon in Utah, blessed with a singing voice and the ability to read and write music. He is loved by everyone, his parents, his siblings, and is surrounded by friends who would do anything for him.

But, growing up, there was this gnawing internal fear that everything was not quite conventional with the way he felt and the way he thought he should behave.  Norman P. Dixon was trying to become normal.

Well, that didn’t happen and it ain’t gonna happen.

C. Raul Espinoza, It’s In The Cards & The Noho Arts Center Ensemble presents Becoming Norman written by Norman P. Dixon, directed by Debra De Liso, and playing through September 12, 2010.

Was Norman really trying to become normal?  And what is normal, these days? Rest assured Norman is about as normal as a person could get.  Not that far from Mainstreet, USA, albeit the left side of the street, but is that such a bad thing?  

Trying to define normal would send the heartiest of individuals absolutely mad. 

One need only to look at the photograph on the cover of the program to get an idea of what this one man musical, play, is all about.  The photo is of a time gone by, of a memory, and a picture that captures a lasting moment in the life of Norman P. Dixon.

In the photograph is a grand frosted Christmas tree. In front of the tree is a brand new tricycle with a wagon attachment, and emblazoned on the side of the wagon are the words “Fire Chief”.   There are two dogs; one stuffed, the other a plastic Snoopy, and a racing set. And in the middle of the plenteous Christmas treasures sits Norman, smiling and clutching a doll.  (Whether it was given to him or is his sisters is not entirely clear.)

Norman lived a normal life.  Slight oddity that he wore his mother’s dresses put on her high heels and played Barbies until he dropped.  Everything seemed normal until he got to an age where he was cognizant and continuously reminded that he probably should not be doing these things, first from his brother, then his parents, and then his friends.  And as he grew, and in school, those negatives were reinforced with a vengeance from his classmates.

Later getting involved with theatrics and getting a little more comfortable with the people surrounding him before going on to BYU and then a two year mission near Quebec for the Mormon Church.  It is pretty normal stuff.

So, where does his deep fear Norman talks about come from?  This is the part of the show that is not really explored.  Is it possible that it could have been his church?  Was this his trial burden? And was being gay something that he had to overcome to be solid with the church and God?  Surely, if Norman is falling, this could be the reason for all this fear.

For Norman music seems to be the cicatrix for all the harm done to him in his earlier life and unabashedly he goes for it. The music and lyrics by Norman P. Dixon are nicely done and one may not remember the tunes or the words but praises Dixon for going all out to get his message out.

Trying to get a hold of an idea and a through line in this play and run with it is a very tricky thing in this one-man theatrical memoir.  The director, Debra De Liso, should do away with this line, throw it in the trash, and present this as a unique theatrical event. There is enough here to make Becoming Norman unique. Secondly, if fear is the overriding conflict, explore the fear. Get to the root of fear that is holding Norman back, explore it, taste it, feel it, and roll around in it until it is found.

Norman’s life was pasted on the walls for all to see.  I couldn’t help but notice the audience made a mad dash to see the photographs as well as the writings on the wall.  But interestingly enough, not really used during the presentation and maybe something that should be explored. 

One cannot help but like Becoming Norman but does it make great theatre? One would need to see it, to explore the life, and then make a decision.

NoHo Arts Center
11136 Magnolia Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA  91601

The NoHo Arts Center is a beautiful theatre complex and there’s plenty of free parking.

Monday, August 2, 2010

As You Like It by William Shakespeare

By Joe Straw

In my younger days growing up in the south and on our black and white television I saw a special presentation on CBS of Peter Pan with Mary Martin.  “Why was that woman playing Peter Pan?”  I asked. It was a confusing situation I was not able to grasp and a complete distraction to the rest of the program. 

Has there ever been a performance where an actor has pulled a gender switch so convincingly in film or theatre?  (Anyone voting for Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie needs his or her eye prescription changed.)

As You Like it by William Shakespeare is being presented by the Kentwood Players and is directed by Karintha Touton at the Westchester Playhouse through August 14, 2010.

One has hope for the Kentwood Players sometimes taking two steps forward and one step back.  This time they’ve taken two steps back in this confusing version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Much of the problem falls in the lap of the director, Karintha Touton, who made a strong choice in her direction but ultimately one could question if the choice made sense.  This slightly abbreviated production is a Shakespearian goulash of style and of costumes from modern day dress to Elizabethan costumes in the forest of Arden. 

And this particular production is asking the audience to stretch our imaginations beyond credulity. One would also have to ask how do the television monitors relate to the natives of the forest?  How does this all tie together?

To be fair there were fascinating aspect to this show.  Does it work as a cohesive venture?  Probably not, but ultimately one would need to see it to accept or deny its premise.

A successful production must have a core or through line to carry the directors message.  But most of these actors were not able to grasp the director’s choice and were left stranded with bewildered objectives.

Well, what is the problem?  As You Like It, As You Like It, As You Like It.  As a character in this play one should keep repeating this phrase to oneself until one gets the meaning of this play. 

Objectives are carried by the title, As You Like It.  If the objectives are not clear then it is clearly only a pastoral comedy. 

Think of the conflict imagined by saying the title, As You Like It. 

Can art be as simple as that? 

So why aren’t we seeing, being and feeling this comedy, As You Like It?

As You Like It speaks about alternatives.  Generally a character gives the options of what he would like the other character to do and then it is the decision of the other character to accept it or discard it.  This is a play on words, of give and take, of back and forth, action and reaction.  It is really that simple.

Simply put, Orlando (Lorenzo Bastien) has been kept hidden from his evil weak brother Oliver (Mark  Mayes). 

My father charged you in his will to give me a good education:  you have trained me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentlemen-like qualities – Orlando

Orlando tears the fabric of life from that which is the makeup of Oliver.

Not completely undone Oliver conspires with Charles (Marco Antonio Garcia) to fight Orlando and to seriously harm him.

Rosalind (Meredith M. Sweeney) and Celia (Alison Stebbins) enter with Nordstrom shopping bags and speak of Celia’s inheritance from her father, Duke Frederick (Rick Gates).

Touchstone, the fool, (Drew Fitzsimmons) is a messenger of sorts and informs the ladies of a wrestling match.  The ladies appear and Rosalind falls in love with Orlando.  Orlando wins the match and the heart of Rosalind.  (By the way this is a very nice fight scene, think gritty Flight Club scenario, choreographed by Drew Fitzsimmons.)

But tragedy strikes Rosalind when the Duke Frederick banishes her from the castle.

Within these ten day if that thou be’st found so near our public court as twenty miles, thou diest for it. – Duke Frederick

And so into the forest of Arden they go.  Rosalind fears for her life and disguises herself as a man to avoid injury, and Celia a true companion, along with Touchstone, goes with her.

Orlando, fearing for his life, flees into the forest of Arden with his companion Adam (Scot Renfro). Later after their journey into the darkness of the Arden forest, Adam begs Orlando for food or he will die.

For my sake be comfortable; hold death awhile at the arm’s end:  I will here be with thee presently; and if I bring thee not something to eat, I will give thee leave to die: - Orlando

Orlando searches for food, finds it, but tries to take it by force.

Your gentleness shall force more than your force move us to gentleness. – Duke

Renfro as Adam was very surprising with nice characterization. Stebbins as Celia was wonderful in this production (aside from the Nordstrom bags).  Susie McCarthy plays Jaques as a woman, nevertheless a very nice performance and always wonderful to see her at the Westchester Playhouse.

Rick Gates as Duke Senior was much more successful than his portrayal as Duke Frederick which was boisterous, and demanding and really not sure where those choices were taking him.

Fitzsimmons as Touchstone was funny at times but not really sure where he was going with this character.  Fight scenes choreographed by Fitzsimmons were magnificent.

Mark Mayes was much more successful as Martext, a character he can sink his teeth into rather than Oliver.

Melodie S. Rivers was fantastic as Hesperia and Lauren Bilingsley was much too pretty to be Audrey but very successful nevertheless. 

Garcia as Charles needs work on his voice and to develop a better sense of his objectives.

Catherine Rahm (Corin) was good on the guitar.  Jordan Bland was quite good as Hymen and David Neiman as Silvius rounds out the cast.

Sweeney was not convincing as Rosalind the man (but that’s just me), but very charming as Rosalind the woman.  It’s always nice to see her at the Westchester Playhouse.  

Bastien has been better in other productions at the Kentwood Playhouse.  There is much more to the character of Orlando than was presented.  Bastien is very young and pleasing to the eyes and one hopes vocal strength along with maturity will help his career in the future.   

Martin Feldman has a very nice voice as Amiens in the forest of Arden. Not sure what the focus of his anger was about when Jaques gave him other lyrics to the song he was singing.  Maybe he wanted to sing the song As He Liked It. 

There is what seems to be like hundreds of people working on the production at the Westchester Playhouse.  And I’m sure working very hard but maybe needing a little more focus to pull off something like this.