Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Web by Michael John Garces

By Joe Straw

Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term “MacGuffin”.  It is a plot device, which catches the audience attention and drives the story.   No matter how you spell it, a MacGuffin can mean everything or nothing at all. 

“It is an apparatus for capturing lions in the Scottish Highlands.”  - Alfred Hitchcock.

“It is a milking apparatus for the Mongolian ferret.” *

“It is a rope tied around the neck of a territorial hippo bull which is used to calm him. (But, this only works in Nebraska.)” *

An example of a MacGuffin would be the mysterious blue bag that drives the story in The Web written by Michael John Garces and directed by Alyson Roux at the Art/Works Theatre in Hollywood and thoughtfully presented by the needtheatre through October 17, 2010.

The Web is an absorbing narrative of intrigue where one needs to pay special attention to follow the story or expire in a maze of exponential thought. 

Think of The Matrix without the special effects.  Guns, kidnappings, thugs, long trench coats, curvaceous legs in high heels, blood, fistfights, shootings, killings, and guerilla minds games throughout this play.  And this, over a period of times and locations.  (Who would have thought one would be transported to Paraguay on this night.)

Ultimately, this story works better if one immerses oneself into the main character. 

As the play starts Chris (Ian Forester) is spending a late night alone at his computer when something mysterious happens on his computer screen.   By mistake he has come across information from another person (Chris #2) who has the same name, same birth date (different times), and a mother and father with the same name. The coincidences are not to be imagined.

He tells his friend David (Tony Sancho) about the unusual similaries when a blue bag (the MacGuffin) appears at the foot of his chair and he accosted by two unfriendly government officials, Kepesh (Edgar Landa) and Warner (Justin Huen).

(Unlike Hitchcock the main character in this story does not appear to be completely innocent of misdeeds and therefore we don’t completely have an emotional stake in his character and his well-being.)

Kepesh and Warner seem to be made up names on the spur of the moment. They seem harmless at first but become very ruthless when they find out Chris has, through confrontation, inexplicitly claimed ownership of the blue bag. (Why he does this, one is not sure.)  David, his friend, is instructed to get lost. 

Later that night Arrowsmith (Stan Kelly), another official of some sort, breaks into Chris’s apartment beats him up and tells him that he’s on his side.  It is a relationship based on an emotional mind game so you’re not really sure if Arrowsmith is real.  Certainly, the fist to the groin is real enough, therefore he must be real. 

Arrowsmith tells him Kepesh and Warner are not who they make themselves out to be. He instructs Chris to view their storefront to prove their agency doesn’t exist.

Later, Chris meets with his girlfriend Stephanie (Betsy Reisz) when Kepesh and Warner accost them once again.

All of this has got Chris in an emotional state of confusion.  When he returns home he is immediately put into another state of mystification when he finds Arrowsmith and a stunning accomplice Lina (Amanda Zarr) in his apartment doctoring their wounds. 

Arrowsmith leaves Lina in the apartment and when his girlfriend, Stephanie comes into the apartment she find the two of them in a slightly compromising position.

David and Stephanie decide they want no part of Chris’s shenanigans.  His life has become too complicated and he’s in too much trouble and they are deserting him.

And then the fun begins.

Forester as Chris is whipped from the opening moment.  His character has nowhere to go. His objective is not totally clear and he is basically at the whims of those who create the action around him. As stubborn as he is, he never once contemplates moving over to the other side. 

Sancho, as David, is stuck in the same predicated.  Not able to help his friend or himself for that matter. It is curious that his objective of non-involvement gets him into a serious predicament and ultimately he loses control. His moments are not clear particularly when the final bell has rung.

Landa as Kepesh is a very interesting character.  Mild in manner and scope he pushes the button with mostly his wit and his words.  This is a very fine performance.  A slightly enhanced character trait would only add to his performance. 

Huen as Warner is brutal.  Not willing to give an inch in his viciousness to control all around him.  A henchman, but he is without a character that controls the action on his own terms.  This would be something he needs to looks into but nevertheless a fine performance.  And his Spanish was impeccable.

Kelly as Arrowsmith is an interesting character.  Oddly enough there was a point in which one thinks he’s a figment of one’s imagination.  Certainly this needs to be cleared up in order not to confuse the audience. 

Reisz as Stephanie accommodates nicely, but certainly, there’s got to be more in her character.  She is either an accomplice or she is a conduit to the action on stage.  Still, a fine performance.

Zarr (Lina) was fascinating. An actress you cannot take your eyes off of and she has the look of a James Bond girl.  Certainly, as physical as the role was, one would think she stepped off the Bond truck.  She has a very nice transformation into other characters as well.

All of these actors have worked remarkable hard to clear sets, create new sets, and move walls up and down stage in complete character.

Michael John Garces has written a play that is fascinating but ultimately is too encompassing in scope to be grasped. There is too much information and not enough is made of the moments to clear up the action on stage.  People are shot and killed throughout this show and they magically come back to life without the slightest explanation or thought.  So when the final person is killed, we don’t believe it. Also, Chris #2, seems to be in Paraguay in a hospital bed, face destroyed and paralyzed from the neck down, or is this Chris #1? One is not really sure.

Alyson Roux, the director, keeps the play moving expeditious enough but doesn’t completely take the time to explain what is going on on stage.  Maybe it is clear to the cast and crew but not with the audience. For example, all of the action is done for one purpose and one purpose alone and when that is accomplished, we as the audience, don’t get the objective has been accomplished. These moments cry out for an accumulated effect if it is to reach the final conclusion. In a game of winners and losers we only have losers at the end.

Is this play an indictment on our current state of affairs with renditions every three minutes?  Or is it a play that highlights the ability of our spy agencies to confuse a nation into believing something they may or may not have seen. One can either be paranoid, like the main character, or start demanding answers to those we elect.

  • Joe Straw
Art Works Theatre
6569 Santa Monica Blvd. 
Los Angeles, CA  90038


Friday, September 17, 2010

Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets

By Joe Straw

 “I was astonished by its naiveté and its power…”*

“After a year of unemployment and long after the credit cards had been cancelled.  I found a job. I had been saved.  I cried so hard, I couldn’t stop.

“But, I was three months behind in rent and hungry, very hungry. A hunger so deep and desperate it made concentrating extremely hard.   And all I could think about was holding onto the job. 

“At lunch, in the snack bar, three dollars for a cup of soup and I’m looking at two dollars and thirty cents in change in my hand that was, hypothetically, to last until my first paycheck.  I was so lightheaded my employer took my behavior as incompetence and I was fired before the week was up. 

“My wife cried so hard I thought she was never going to stop.” 

In the play, Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets, the fog/cigar smoke/car exhaust drifted in from the ceiling and surrounded the characters milling about, waiting patiently. 

Covered in a light smoke, one notices the fear in the eyes of the disillusioned.  They don’t seem so weary, or hungry, but they are.  And because of the smoke you don’t see the holes in their shoes, the patches on their tattered clothes, or the dirt on their bodies, but they are aware, and they know you know.  

And they wait; the smoldering sweating masses are left to absorb the aggressive work related rants from all around them until they are unable to take more of it. And finally they must speak.

“Getting it off your chest” is the first act of recovery.  The second is raising your fist in solidarity with those who stand beside you in a quest for a better life.  

Waiting for Lefty is an inspiring play and just the thing to see this Labor Day month through October 10, 2010.   Produced and directed by Charlie Mount at Theatre West.

There are various versions of this play floating around.  Samuel French has the edited version.  (They took all the communist references out and never bothered to put them back in.)

Nevertheless, this is a poignant play that could use moments to update it to today’s themes, which are not that far from yesterday’s problems.  It’s funny how, even today with one out of seven Americans living in poverty, change labels you red, or a communist, or a movement is referenced as a call to socialism.

This version of the 1935 play may have been edited.  There were moments missing, moments that didn’t quite work, like Jell-O you put in the refrigerator at night only to find the green liquidly stuff in the morning. Why does this happen?

One might say it was early in the production and the production didn’t quite gel.  Fair enough.

Others might say it was the director’s choices that didn’t quite work. Elements to mold this play into one seamless endeavor seems to be missing, but finding a way to make it all make sense is the job of the director.

For example, there was a lot of smoke in the halls but no one was smoking nor was there taxicabs heard in the background as a cause, fixable mistakes and possibly overlooked.  (In the written version, Fatt is smoking a cigar but not in this play.)

Also no one was waiting for Lefty.  No one anticipated Lefty walking through the door.  We knew they were waiting, simply by the dialogue, but there was no action to indicate otherwise.

Secondly, no one looked like a cab driver.   They seemed to be dressed for the period, their clothes tattered, their shoes worn, their bodies hungry, their souls empty, but not one sign of a cab or anything to do with a cab anywhere.  A little bit of symbolism goes a long way in a production such as this.

And that’s why I’m against the strike because we gotta stand behind the man who’s standing’ behind us! - Fatt

Harry Fatt (Anthony Gruppuso) is a speaker who lives life in the excessive, a big guy, who doesn’t miss too many meals. Although a member of the union, he is definitely against the strike and possible in cahoots with management.  Someone you’d root against and Gruppuso does a grand job.

Stand up like men and fight for the crying kids and wives. Goddamnit!  I’m tired of slavery and sleepless night. – Edna 

There are breakaway scenes that explore life away from the union hall and the first story is Joe (Paul Gunning) and Edna (Kristin Wiegand). Joe is beaten, and comes home to find his furniture has been repossessed and this is the story he must relate to the guys at the union house.

But, when Joe returns home to find strength from his wife, she is on the verge of ending their relationship. His family life is nearing an end and he desperately fights to keep all of it.  Gunning and Weigand are fine actors. Gunning, angst ridden, and maybe a little too beaten down but successful in his struggle to hold on to his marriage.  And while Weigand is a superior actress, her objective was not decisive enough to get Joe to do what needs to be done.

Joe:  Where are you going?

Edna:  Don’t you remember my old boy friend?

Joe:  Who?

Edna:  Bud Haas.  He still has my picture in his watch.  He earns a living.


The second episode is about Miller (Donald Moore) a lab assistant and Fayette (Roger Cruz) an industrialist.  Fayette wants Miller to spy on a doctor who works for him and Miller, conflicted by the kind of money he will make, tries to find a way out of this predicament.  The fact he is telling this to his union will tell you how this all turned out. Moore and Cruz are fine in this episode, but the written moments are sharper, the conflict deeper, and the battle for supremacy is even greater.

The third episode is about Sid (Adam Conger) and his girl Florrie (Heather Alyse Becker).  The beginning slightly abbreviates the back-story of getting involved with a young hack (taxi driver) so it starts in the middle and never gets on track.  They’ve been engaged for three years and Sid wants to put a stop to it.  But there is something missing in this story. The conflict not great, the turning point in their lives not deep enough. No doubt Conger feels something with grand emotional outpouring on stage but the physical life with Alyse not dramatic enough to be engaging.

Another episode takes us into a producer’s office where a young actor is trying hard to become the next, well maybe just a working actor. Philips (Jason Galloway) walks in the producer’s office, Grady (Alan Schack) and speaks to the secretary (Sandra Tucker) about getting a job from Grady. While Philips is hungry for a job he can’t get passed the pesky secretary.  Grady comes out, dominates, and manipulates the struggling actor. The only mishap is that there is no visible change in Philips character when he greets the producer.

“One dollar buys ten loaves of bread, mister. Or one dollar buys nine loaves of bread and one copy of The Communist Manifesto!  Learn while you eat.” – the Secretary

The irony was, this was one of the best scenes in the show, and it didn’t completely work.  It may work one day. Schack is a fantastic actor, wonderful style, and wonderful in execution.  Galloway is remarkable in his own right, choices not always right on, but sensitive and dramatic. Tucker was just wonderful. The performance worked! (This scene is not in the Samuel French edition.)

“But Fatt’s right. Our officers is right.  The time ain’t ripe.  Like a fruit don’t fall off the tree until it’s ripe.” – Clayton

Clayton (Alan Freeman) is a big time labor spy trying to convince the union member to side with management.  His brother (Charles Baird) is there to stop him. There were wonderful moments from Freeman and Baird.  When they come together are they going to hug or kill each other? One is not quite sure. 

One other thing in this production, it doesn’t make sense if the Gunman (David Baer) is not carrying a secret with him throughout the play. Although he is menacing, that can’t be the only level in his character.

Rounding out another scene in the cast were Dr. Barnes (Walter Beery) and Dr. Benjamin (Elizabeth Bradshaw) that really didn’t work on a various levels. Dr. Benjamin being Jewish and moments that were to tell us about religious discrimination but ultimately failed to do so.

Also, one can only marvel at the performance of Daniel Keough playing Agate Keller. He was in the background for most of the performance but never lost sight of his objective.  Keller is a wonderful character actor and a strong silent type waiting for his moment in the union hall to send all on the incredible journey of solidarity.

“And when we die they’ll know what we did to make a new world! Christ, cut us up to little pieces.  We’ll die for what is right! Put fruit trees where our ashes are! Well, what’s the answer? Strike!  Louder! STRIKE!”   - Agate

Director and producer Charlie Mount needs more time to put the pieces together.  It is a monumental task to serve as director and producer.  But, in all honesty, this is a fine production, the crowd scenes, are enough to raise the hackles on the back of your neck.

Anybody who’s been to a SAG meeting knows how passionate these meetings can be.  Waiting for Lefty needs more passion so that we can all stand together, lock arms, and be proud that we were once part of that moment.

* Elia Kazan A Life 1988

Sept 3 thru October 10, 2010

Monday, September 6, 2010

Neighbors by Branden Jacobs – Jenkins

By Joe Straw 

She said it was provocative. “People just got up and left, scurrying for the exits and one person, not being able to hold her dinner, was seen vomiting in the aisles before making it to the outside lavatory.” * 

Some screamed at the appearance of naked actors on the stage. It was degrading, demoralizing, and raucous art. There was a penis boldly extending where no penis should go. And, he did what with the end of his trumpet?  And she put out the fire with what part of her anatomy?  How could they go this far?  Where is the humanity in all of this?

No one said art had to be pretty.

Then again, some laughed, albeit a somewhat uncomfortable, stifled laugh.

Still, others roared.

Neighbors, written by Branden Jacobs – Jenkins, at the Matrix Theatre Company, directed by Nataki Garrett, and produced by Joe Stern, presents a peculiar and fascinating piece of theatre about neighbors.

How can two families, neighbors, be so far apart in their approach to life and yet be so similar in wanting to have a joyous experience while they are here?

As the play goes, the Pattersons are a middle class inter-racial family. There’s Richard (Derek Webster) an African American professor searching for tenure, Jean (Julia Campbell) a poet, but now a lost stay at home mom, and their teenaged daughter, Melody (Rachael Thomas).  They live a middle class suburban lifestyle, with middleclass problems, and dealing with an adventuresome almost out of control teenager.  Nothing serious for a fifteen year old, just smoking, drinking, skipping school, and staying out till all hours of the night.

But things are about to change in their lives when a group of minstrel performers move in next door.

And so they come in the middle of the night: Mammy (Baadja-Lyne), Zip (Leith Burke), Sambo (Keith Arthur Bolden), Topsy (Daniele Watts) and Jim (James Edward Shippy).  (Historically these names were created by white minstrel performers, given to their characters, and portrayed these characters as lazy, ignorant, loud and musical.)

This particular family does not lose sight of the stereotypical beings they portray; in fact they accentuate the characters and stay in character throughout the show.

But the difference is the Crows are African American, and their maniere d’entree into the neighborhood are a source of speculation for Richard Patterson who seethes at the thought of clowns moving in next door. His wife Jean does not understand his behavior and this eventually creates a conflict too deep to repair.

The Crows are the family of the recently deceased Jim Crow. (A historical name referring to the “whites only” Jim Crow laws.)  In fact it was his death and the insurance money that got them the down payment on the house.

Although they are neighbors they find themselves in similar situations, their lives will become interwoven and eventually familial conflict will destroy the fabric of their once thought of perfect lives. 

Melody finds the young Jim Crow adorable and likewise Jim Crow finds Melody a sight to behold.  

Zip finds Jean adorable but Jean is confused by the makeup of his character and the makeup on his face. It’s not enough Jean is repelled by Zip in his conquest of neighborly love, but in her playfulness Jean sticks Zip with another label, gay.  Zip is absolutely crushed.

And no one finds Richard adorable, including his own family.

Meanwhile the Crows have found a theatre in town to showcase their talents.  They practice and throughout the play they perform their act in parts.  It is these acts that are so disturbing.  Whether it is done to enlighten the public is not entirely clear.

The Crows take their performances very seriously.  Sambo believes he can step into the shoes of his father, Jim, knowing the show inside and out.  But, Mammy doesn’t think he’s got the chops to fill his Daddy’s shoes.  That belongs to his namesake, Jim Crow, Jr. 

But Jim, Jr., doesn’t want any part of the show. He thinks the time for minstrel shows has passed and this racial stereotypical performance is nonsense. But, Mammy insists they were made to do this and slaps some heavy sense into  Jr., beating him senseless.

And then something wonderful and supernatural happens and the family becomes this cohesive unit.  It is mythical, spiritual, and gives the family the raison d’etre.  

As cohesive as they may be Topsy seems to be an independent member of the family and eventually wants to strike out with a new version of the minstrel show that doesn’t really work.   It is a misdirected turn into this type of performance if what they do is to educate.

This is a fantastic cast.  Burke as Zip is incredible and gives a heartfelt performance.  He is a consummate entertainer that breaks at the word of one more label. This is a moment to remember.

Shippy as Jim creates a character that is so white bread you forget he’s African American until the moment he steps into Jim Crow’s shoes.  This is an outstanding moment and one not to forget.

Thomas as Melody was very exquisite, worldly, and childlike all rolled up into one adorable bundle. This is a fascinating portrayal of a bewildered young woman trying to find her way.

Watts as Topsy is very engaging character study.  The physical makeup of her character is part of her wonderful execution of dancing and singing.   Taking the role seriously she invites change to the families way of doing things but perhaps losing sight of their real purpose. 

Baadja-Lyne as Mammy is a loving mother and extreme taskmaster. Her job, to keep her family together through trying times, is exciting and dramatic.  She is wonderfully funny and a gift.

Bolden as Sambo is an interesting character study.  He is a man that is stuck in the middle position, between a rock and a hard place.  Try as he might he doesn’t have the chops but that doesn’t stop him from trying to fill his Daddy’s shoes. 

Campbell as Jean has lost her way and can’t find the path into the clearing.  She is confused as to why she fell in love with a man she despises.  Filled with a right-eyed twitching anxiety, she tries to find a way out.  She is a woman confused to the point to exasperation. This is a very nice performance.

Webster as Richard is a dying man, struggling to revive his morbid bound career, and family, but in this life his career comes first destroying his life in the process.  He is a train ready to jump the tracks.  His objective is not entirely clear but gives a nice performance nevertheless.

Brandon  Jacobs - Jenkins has written a play that will have you thinking for months or years.  It is devilishly dramatic, filled with comedy and angst.  Slapstick aside it has some very important moments that are riveting and heartfelt.  Forget the makeup, see beyond the mask, and let humans be themselves.  Take your preconceived perceptions and throw them out along with your prejudices of humankind.  

Also, Jacobs – Jenkins has written an ending that is quite remarkable and stunning in it’s purpose. Look into their eyes, take a good look, and explore what you’ve been missing. This is well worth the price of admission.

Nataki Garrett, the director, is a master at what she does.  She has presented us with beautiful moments in a remarkable play.  These are the moments to remember and to cherish.  It is a peculiar type of theatrical art that is fantastic and richly engrossing and one that you will remember.  

Like the picket fence separating the neighbors, we are a country struggling with the divisions from those insist on a “whites only” America.  Let’s open the gates and move forward, full steam ahead. 

* - possibly an overactive imagination or a myth.

Performances: August 28 - October 24
Thursdays at 7:30 pm: Aug. 19, 26 (previews); Sept. 2, 9, 16, 23, 30; Oct. 7, 14, 21
Frdays at 7:30 pm: Aug. 20, 27 (previews); Sept. 3, 10, 17, 24; Oct. 1, 8, 15, 22
Saturdays at 7:30 pm: Aug. 21 (preview), 28 (Opening); Sept. 4, 11, 18, 25; Oct. 2, 9, 16, 23
Sundays at 2:30 pm: Aug. 22 (preview), 29; Sept. 5, 12, 19, 26; Oct. 3, 10, 17, 24

The Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046

323-960-7774 or