Monday, December 26, 2011

The Last Straw Awards 2011

By Joe Straw

This year has been a remarkable year for theatre in Los Angeles.  Scores of theatregoers are leaving their commercialized TV programs at home and rushing to see a living breathing body creating a moment, just a few feet away, right here, live in Los Angeles.

This year I’ve witnessed some amazing productions with wonderful actors filling the roles. And as the year progressed the productions just got better and better.  I’ve observed over 40 productions and have seen hundreds of actors and it is important to say their commitment to the craft alone has been remarkable.    

Also, new theater venues are opening all over town. The new A Noise Within Theatre in East Pasadena is absolutely magnificent.  And Casa 101’s new home is exquisite!  The Latino Theatre Company on Spring Street is playing to capacity crowds and it has become quite the place to see and be seen.  Also, The Blank Theatre and The Elephant Theatre are producing wonderful new plays along theatre row in Hollywood.   

This year the presentation for The Last Straw Awards 2011 will be given not only to actors, but to writers and directors as well.  This award puts out the energy or notice of those who have given 110 percent of themselves and their craft.  It is important to recognize the hard work that went into these productions and in doing so here they are.


Luca Ellis – Hoboken to Hollywood – The Edgemar Centers of The Arts

John Southwell – Breaker – Firehouse – The Whitefire Theatre
Kamar de los Reyes – Robert Miranda – Firehouse – The Whitefire Theatre

P.J. Ochlan – Angelo – The Comedy of Errors – A Noise Within Theatre
Michael Stone Forrest – Egeon - The Comedy of Errors – A Noise Within Theatre

Peggy Dunne – Margaret Hyman – Broken Glass – Pico Playhouse
Michael Bofshever – Phillip Gellburg _ Broken Blass – Pico Playhouse

Jack Laufer – Harry the druggist – The Cradle Will Rock – The Blank Theatre Company at the Stellar Adler Theatre.

Amad Jackson – Joseph Asagai – A Raisin In The Sun – Ebony Repertory Theatre – Nate Holden Performing Art Center.
Kenya Alexander - Beneatha – A Raisin In The Sun – Ebony Repertory Theatre – Nate Holden Performing Art Center.

Michelle Clunie – Abby – The Mercy Seat – Inside the Ford Theatre

Tanya Frederick – Sylvia – The Edgemar Center for The Arts
Tom Ayers – Tom and Phyllis – Sylvia – The Edgemar Center for The Arts

Stephanie Ann Saunders – Natasha Rambova – Lavender Love – Macha Theatre
Michelle Bernard – Evie Raven – Lavender Love – Macha Theatre

Dennis Christopher – Harry Hay – The Temperamentals – The Blank Theatre
John Tartaglia – Bob Hull – The Temperamentals – The Blank Theatre

F. Murray Abraham – Shylock – The Merchant of Venice – The Broad Stage
Melissa Miller – Jessica – The Merchant of Venice – The Broad Stage
Christopher Randolph – Prince of Arragon – The Merchant of Venice – The Broad Stage

Aaron Hendry – Tartuffe – Theatricum Botanicum
Ted Barton – Tartuffe – Theatricum Botanicum

Tara Karsian – Gertie - The Interlopers – Bootleg Theater
Darryl Stephens – Victoria – The Interlopers – Bootleg Theater

Andrew Friedman – Charlie – Stones in His Pockets – Zephyr Theatre
Jerry Richardson – Jake – Stones in His Pockets – Zephyr Theatre

Miriam Peniche – Estela – Real Women Have Curves – Casa 101

Thea Gill – Dusk Rings a Bell – The Blank Stage
Josh Randall – Dusk Rings a Bell – The Blank Stage

Peter Van Norden – Various Roles – The God of Isaac – Pico Playhouse
Corryn Cummins – Shelly – The God of Isaac - Pico Playhouse

Kenny Suarez – Chris – Love Sick – The Elephant Theatre Company
Salvator Xuereb – Jeff – Love Sick – The Elephant Theatre Company

Lina Hall – Greta Garbo – Garbo’s Cuban Lover – Macha Theatre
Lisa Merkin – Salka Viertel – Garbo’s Cuban Lover – Macha Theatre

Geoff Elliott – Malvolio – Twelfth Night – A Noise Within

Salome Jens – Henrietta Szold – Daughter of My People – The Met Theatre

Fergal McElherron – Dromio – The Comedy of Errors – The Broad Stage
Cornelius Booth – Egeon – The Comedy of Errors – The Broad Stage

Jon Jon Briones – The Romance of Magno Rubio – Inside The Ford
Elizabeth Rainey – Clarabelle – The Romance of Magno Rubio – Inside The Ford

Esperanza America Ibarra – Gina – Hope:  Part II of a Mexican Trilogy – Latino Theatre Company
Sam Gozari – Rudy – Hope:  Part II of a Mexican Trilogy – Latino Theatre Company
Dru Davis – Bobby – Hope:  Part II of a Mexican Trilogy – Latino Theatre Company

Carl Crudup – Ice – Short Eyes – Urban Theatre Movement – Latino Theatre Company
Donte Wince – El Raheem – Urban Theatre Movement – Latino Theatre Company


The Romance of Magno Rubio - Written by Lonnie Carter
Jon Jon Briones                      Eymard Cabling                      Giovanni Ortega
Muni Zano                              Ed Ramolete                            Erik Esteban
Elizabeth Rainey                     Vincent Reyes

Short Eyes – Written by Miguel Piñero
Miguel Amenyinu                   Carl Crudup                            Cris D’Annunzio
Darby Hinton                         Matthew Jaeger                      Jason Manuel Olazabal
Daryl Anthony Harper           Matias Ponce                          Mark Rolston
David Santana                         Donte Wince                           Alex Alfaro
Jon Lance Dura                       Daniel Zornes

Hope:  Part II of a Mexican Triolgy – by Evelina Fernandez
Geoffrey Rivas                       Dyana Ortelli                          Sal Lopez
Esperanza America Ibarra       Sam Golzari                            Dru Davis
Olivia Cristina Delgado           Keith McDonald                    


Pedro Antonio Garcia – Firehouse – Whitefire Theatre

Evelina Fernandez – Hope Part II of a Mexican Trilogy – The Latino Theatre Company

Lonnie Carter – The Romance of Mango Rubio – Inside The Ford

Donald Freed – Devil’s Advocate – The Latino Theatre Company

Neil Labute – The Mercy Seat – Inside The Ford

Stephen Belber – Dusk Rings A Bell – The Blank Theatre


Daniel Henning – Director – Dusk Rings a Bell – The Blank Theatre

Phylicia Rashad – Director – A Raisin In The Sun – Nate Holden Performing Arts Center

Bernardo Bernardo – Director – The Romance of Magno Rubio – Inside The Ford Theatre.

Julian Acosta – Director – Short Eyes – Urban Theatre Movement – Latino Theatre Company

Michael Michetti – Director – The Comedy of Errors – A Noise Within

Zeljko Djukic – Director – Stones In His Pockets -Zephyr Theatre

Jose Luis Valenzuela – Director – Hope:  Part II of a Mexican Trilogy - Latino Theatre Company 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Color of Rose by Kathrine Bates

By Joe Straw

Sometimes I wonder how all this came about.  Why I’m sitting here, in a lonely room, pecking away at the computer. Well, let’s see, the journey into theatre started in college, then to legitimate theatre with the Nederlander Organization, starring in plays, producing and directing plays, movies, television, back again into movies, then directing and producing independent theatrical features.  Piecing it all together would take time and energy and my imaginary staff of writers would go ape trying to make sense of it all.    

Theatre 40 presents the world premier of The Color of Rose written and directed by Kathrine Bates.  I saw this in a reading over a year ago and was pleasantly surprised by this full-scale production.

The Color of Rose is a fictionalized story of Rose Kennedy (Gloria Stroock) as she waits in a suite of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to give an interview with, one suspects, a noted writer.   

However there’s a problem.  The writer on the phone does not want to limit his questions. Rose politely tells the writer that questions of a personal nature are forbidden and suggests they do the interview another time.  The writer aquiest to her demands and Rose has won one more battle in a life filled with tumultuous campaigns.

But the phone call is disturbing.  It is yet another invasion into her private life of painful remembrances.  And at this point in her life, her memory is not what it used to be and the medication (she used in real life) to calm her nerves is not enough. She needs help.

Finding solace at the vanity table and looking into the mirror at her reflection, Rose contemplates her life, and reproduces herself as the younger Rose (Shelby Locee) who strolls into the room like an uninvited ghost.  Moments later, at the same mirror, a mature Rose  (Lia Sargent) walks into the suite of remembrances and together they fill in the missing pieces.

Upstage, on the back of the wall, is a huge vase filled with roses that spark twinkling memories in a life of long forgotten moments.  The various colored roses in the vase hit home a memory or an emotion of a forgotten noun.   A blue rose is “unattainable” and is represented by Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the white is Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the yellow rose represents friendship, in Victorian times meant jealousy, and the pink rose is purity. Each rose captures and/or represents a significant moment in Rose’s life.

The vase stands silently behind the photographs of Joe Kennedy, Jr., Jack, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Robert, Jean, and Edward.  Rose carries her photographs everywhere she travels to gaze at the moment when they looked their best and to speak fondly of those times.  

Not everyone has been keeping track of the Kennedys and their movements from the early 1900’s to present day but the Color of Rose by Katherine Bates will give you a linear narrative of what went on in her life during those years, complete with photographs projected against a nice screen.

Which presents a question:  Is this a play or a linear narrative? That may be something one has to decide when viewing this enjoyable production.  

And that is that!

Still, one can easily dismiss this production as a writer’s folly but upon closer inspection one realizes there is a lot here.  There is an overriding need to talk about this production. I want to make some production suggestions and bounce some ideas around, in keeping with a tradition of giving this holiday season and with the hope this show will be taken to other places and shown to a wider audience.

First, in the credits and in keeping with politically correct nomenclature, “Young Rose” is fine, “Middle Rose” should be Mature Rose, and “Older Rose” should be Senior Rose.  (Maybe it’s just me.)

The writer should be a stronger force, a strong name with a national publication behind him. Rose thinks of her conversation with the writer as a victory of sorts, but in reality the conflict is greater when she realizes she may have made a mistake.  This idea creates a greater conflict and moves the story along.  

So now Senior Rose, alone in her room at the Waldorf Astoria, goes to the mirror, sees herself as Young Rose and brings her into the room.  Why? Because she needs Young Rose to recreate her younger years and fill her in information she has forgotten.  (Could this be a character trait of losing her memory?) She is basically getting a refresher course of her life, which Senior Rose appreciates.  Also she needs Young Rose to convince her that giving the interview, with the gory details, will be all right.

But conflicted memories suggest Young Rose is not going to be enough, so she needs Mature Rose to fill in the details of her life in the middle. Mature Rose is somewhat bitter about the way Joseph Kennedy conducted himself.  She is a little savvier about life’s goings on.

Senior Rose needs to (for lack of another word) demand the memories.  While in character, she must receive the information, record it, and use it for the interview.

In the end Senior Rose must wait for the writer to come in for the interview, with the two younger Rose(s) behind her ready to back her up.  Symbolism goes a long way with this ending.

Beautiful photo by Ed Krieger

Gloria Stoock as “Older Rose” does a fine job. She has her moments but one can’t get over the fact that she has a purpose and that purpose is to prepare for the interview.  Those are the reasons she is in the room waiting for interview.  She needs to control the flow of information, physically and emotionally from the younger Roses and decide what information she is going press forward.   

Lia Sargent as “Middle Rose” is slightly frustrated by the events surrounding her.  One gets the sense she is a little worldlier and sees Young Rose as naive and “Older Rose” as slightly senile but still she is there to set the record straight. Her entrance, though the looking glass, should command more respect in the way she walks in and presents herself. Still, the conflict between yourself, young and old, can present unimaginable problems for the actor and one gets the sense this difficult problem has not been resolved.  Still Sargent is a fine actress and did an admirable job.

Shelby Kocee as “Young Rose” has all the enthusiasm of wild-eyed youth.  She also needs an entrance worthy of a young women woman in her position. She deeply regrets not going to Wellesley College. Instead she marries and has nine children.  Kocee has problems as she tries to negotiate the acting challenges in this play.  One problem is that the character can only take us up to a certain point but no further.   (It’s this strange theory of time travel floating around in my head.)  There is nothing wrong with the performance; in fact it is quite good.  But I believe there is something more to be had here.

Also, there is something wrong when a person from the past delights in the happenings of her own future.  For example Young Rose taking delight in her son becoming the President of the United States.  While rules in theatre were meant to be broken, this just seems an exercise in silliness. Perhaps there is a better way of capturing the spirit.

Transition is not a good word when dealing with a passage of time.  Still the characters need to move from Young Rose to Mature Rose seamlessly.  Young Rose should rely on the possibilities of future endeavors and once Young Rose is finished with her story, we should see a dramatic shift to Mature Rose. 

The Color of Rose presents some interesting ideas about conflict within oneself.  Kathrine Bates may have stumbled upon an idea of fighting an inner battle to reach a significant kind of truth. Maybe it’s not as stylized as it should be and maybe it needs to move in a direction that requires more focus and a stronger though line. Still it says a lot about the battles we have with our memories memories each and everyday.  

Bates as the writer and director wonderfully creates this extraordinary life. And yet this is a show that needs to think more outside the box. Take the acting to another level and style that delights and stuns at the same time. One cannot take a play like this and expect to run it like a normal play or treat it like a normal play.

And one couldn’t help thinking that adding a song or songs the characters sing would help as well.

Produced by David Hunt Stafford.  Set Design by Jeff G. Rach and Lighting Design by Ellen Monocroussos.  The Sound Design was by Bill Froggatt.

Through December 21, 2011

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Short Eyes by Miguel Piñero

By Joe Straw

I’ll be shot down by a police, who will say it’s a mistake, I accept it, as part of my destino… Sí, es mi destino morir en la calle como un perro… - Paco

During the course of the play, I heard some distracting noise at the end of my row, cup of water falling, something dripping or leaking, candy wrappers opening.  These were just annoying sounds one would hear in a prison detention center somewhere so I didn’t think much of it.  Leaving the theatre, I came to the seats at the end of my row to discover multiple Milky Way candy wrappers, plastics cups, and papers lying everywhere on the floor. (Wasn’t this where the producer, Paul Tully and director, Julian Acosta were sitting? One supposes nerves got the better of both of them on this opening night.)

Opening night played host to a very eclectic audience—I noted multiple body tattoos, even on women.  The playgoers were young, old, bald, thick, thin, tall, wide, short and slick, and there was an abundant amount of cleavage in lace.  Some patrons had lost teeth, others hair.  Some were wearing pristine graphic tees, ratty vintage shoes, and nice hats. This is the kind of audience you would expect to see at the play, Short Eyes by Miguel Piñero. 

Short Eyes, by Miguel Piñero and directed by Julian Acosta produced by the Urban Theatre Movement and the Latino Theater Company, is a play that never lets up.  From the very beginning, events tear the viewing soul into pieces. It is a play about criminals finding order in chaos. This is an inspired eclectic cast that moves past the mundane and creates a physical world beyond comprehension.  It is, in short, a wonderful production.  

Short Eyes is the story of thieves, adulterers, drug addicts, homosexuals, and lost men who can’t find ways of making things better – and those are the guards.  Lost further down and in the depths of hell are the criminals who are in detention (incarcerated), all with no idea as to the date of their release and with sharp divisions among their ranks.

As the play opens, there is a loud and disturbing gate buzz after the words “On the gate.” are spoken. It is a harsh buzz that grabs everyone within earshot and wakes him or her up into the harsh reality of life in jail.  The buzz is a primal jarring note that speaks to the perverted soul looking for order.  This buzz swathes us into the ambiance of absolute despair.  And in jail, despondency is the first order of being.

The play takes place in the day room of a nice enough floor of a county jail with a broken television set hanging above them.    Omar (Miguel Amenyinu), Longshoe (Mark Rolston), El Raheem (Donte Wince), Paco (Jason Manuel Olazabal), and Ice (Carl Crudup) watch Cupcakes (Matias Ponce) as he comes down the stairs with hoots and hollers much to the dismay of Juan (David Santana).

Cupcakes has a name.  It is Julio.  But the other men in the cell regard him as feminine and want a piece of him. (In the most appreciable jailhouse way.)  But Cupcakes tells them he is not “that way.” And yet, they stare hoping to have that special moment alone with him, especially Paco.

The men are divided into three groups sitting in three different tables.  The first group, starting from stage right through stage left, are the Puerto Ricans: Paco, Juan, and Cupcakes.  The second group is made up of one lone white man Longshoe, a tough drug addicted Irishman.   The third group is African American: El Raheem, Ice and Omar. There is a reason why they all have their separate but equal tables and that is explained in the play.

El Raheem, a Muslim, thinks this lone white man is the curse of what’s wrong with life in general.

“Yacoub…maker and creator of the devil…swine merchant. Your time is at hand… Soon all devils’ head will roll and now rivers shall flow through the city-created by the blood of Whitey…Devil…beast”. – El Raheem

Pretty heavy stuff and tensions run high, it’s easy to see why these inmates have frequent conflicts.  There are divisions by race, religion, and sexual desire. And these divisions are accentuated when one enters another’s domain.  

The inmates are watched over by Mr. Nett (Cris D’Annunzio) who is strong but supportive of their needs including attempting to get the broken television set fixed.

Omar asks Mr. Nett the reasons why he can get “on the help.”

“Is there something about me that you don’t like?” – Omar

“Why no.  I don’t have anything against you.  But since you ask me I’ll tell you.  One is that when you first came in here you had the clap.” – Mr. Nett   

Also, because he’s gotten into a lot of fights.  Ten fights as a matter of fact, but Mr. Nett tells Omar he will think it over.

Meanwhile Paco comes back from a meeting with his defense attorney who wants him to plead to a felony.  Paco says he can wait for a misdemeanor because he “ain’t got money for bail.”

Cupcakes wants Paco to play cards for pushups but Paco wants none of it. Paco wants to play for coochie coochie. A dance for lonely cell inmates. El Raheem accuses of Paco of thinking like the “white Devil”.

Something Longshoe takes offense to so much so that he and El Raheem get into bobbery.  Mr. Nett breaks them up and then organizes a legitimate jailhouse fight to which a muscular and cut El Raheem wins.

“Wake up black man, melt these walls?  You ask me, a tangible god, to do an intangible feat?... There is nothing mysterious about me.  Tangible gods to tangible deeds.” – El Raheem

Meanwhile, in keeping with character and in a prison toast, Cupcakes gets everyone to sing “Mambo tu le pop”.

And then Clark Davis (Matthew Jaeger) meekly slithers into the detention area.  Clark is Caucasian.

“First time in the joint.” – Clark Davis

Loneshoe takes him in as a brethren (another white guy), introduces himself, and tells him all about the floor.  It is Longshoe’s litany of who’s who, and where one should sit, etc.

Mr. Nett storms into the room, beats Clark senseless, and throws him to the floor. Nett accuses Clark of being a child molester and Paco gives him the name of “Short Eyes” (Child molester; according to prisoners, the lowest, most despicable kind of criminal.) Longshoe spits into Clark’s face.  Clark’s life goes into a downhill spiral.   

The production seemed to have been cast mostly against type but so much the better as the actors each had exceptional moments on stage.

Miguel Amenyinu as Omar is listed in the play as a boxer who has gotten into multiple fights.  This character background is not well represented.   He was fine, he filled the slots, but the character requires more definition and a reason for being.  In short, Amenyinu needs to justify the final assault.   

Carl Crudup as Ice was fantastic. Crudup succeeds marvelously in a role that appears made for him.  This was a performance that gave a complete truth.  It was filled with humor and sympathy. This was just a fantastic job and a performance not to miss.

Cris D’ Annunzio as Mr. Nett does a nice job as the detention center attendant. As the character he gets a little too close to the prisoners, organizing fights, and making sure things run smoothly on his floor. He lets his emotions get the better of him so much so he is on the verge of losing his job.  But without realizing he may have caused the death of an inmate.  He tries to blame others when, the fault lies mostly, within him.  This is a marvelous look at a type of character we love to hate simply because he is not honest and tries to protect his job at all costs.  Annunzio gives a grand performance.  

Darby Hinton as Captain Allard is a hard nose, stick to your guns, straight shooter.  While he wants to get to find the truth, in reality he knows he will get nowhere.  Still, he has a piece of evidence that will silence all if he chooses to use it.  In the end, he doesn’t.  He is not willing to listen to anyone panegyrize Clark except for Clark’s relatives to which he seems to be on the hook. And I’m not convinced he is conflicted about what he has just done. Still this was a wonderful performance.

Matthew Jaeger as Clark didn’t have a chance.  His character is the worst of the lot. He’s a cornered mouse, frightened of all inmates around him.  But when he says, “First time in the joint” one gets the feeling that it’s probably not. The character is a pedophile, probably insane, and can’t remember some of what he’s done. Jaeger is convincing as a man who’s gotten himself into trouble, and just keeps getting himself into more trouble.  This was a very nice performance.  

Jason Manuel Olazabal was very seductive as Paco, a man who is not gay but likes having sex with men.  (I believe this is in keeping with the Latino tradition.)  His character rides the horse of destiny of which he is not able to disembark to live a civilized life. That aside, there seems to be something missing in the role, his addiction to drugs, withdrawal, or his place in this world.  Sure, he wants out, on his own terms, but he wants others things or persons as well. When he doesn’t get what he wants (Cupcakes), he resorts to a kind of violence and involves the others. This is an excellent performance in need of a stronger and focused objective.   

Daryl Anthony Harper as Mr. Brown did his job effectively as the character, still nothing got under his collar.  Missing were character choices that solidly defines this role and they are choices that must be made to drive the character and give a concrete base to his objective. That being said, there were a lot of nice moments from this actor.

Matias Ponce gave a nice little touch to Cupcakes.  The role says he is slightly feminine but one does not really see this characterization.  He keeps telling us “he’s not that way” and yet he bounces around from table to table in his cutoff jeans.  Perhaps he is not in touch with his feminine side.   Still, his incarceration seems to be a slight error, he shouldn’t be there and yet he is caught up in a terrible nightmare that only gets worse as the play continues.  In the end, he is part of the group whether he likes it or not.  The question is: how does he respond to the fact that he is involved in another crime that will haunt him the rest of his life? When he is released on bail he is connected to the other criminals and will be looking over his shoulder for good.  (Note:  Got to do something about the hair in the eyes.  If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the hair eliminates a great deal of the performance.)

Mark Rolston as Longshoe has dipsomania. As the character, it is something he has not beat and it is probably part of his fighting Irish heritage.   His racist words against his fellow inmates are blades that cut viciously.  He is prone to defending his heritage and armed robbery, which is the reason he is in jail now.  He administers his own brand of justice as he takes the law into his own hands.  It is a disgusting display of justice administered in a chaotic situation.  Rolston lives in the moment and physically moves about the stage with ease giving orders and demanding respect while giving nothing in return.  This is a very nice performance by a very fine actor.

David Santana plays Juan the conscious of the inmates.  He is a standup man who wants to play by the rules.  The problem is, in jail, there are no rules. As the character, he is forceful, not taking anything from anyone and seems to stand for the weak and intimidated. His relationship presents problems and most of the problems stems with his relationship with Clark even at one point threating to kill him, which he does not.  It is a performance that is at times confusing, not specific, and without a clear objective.  For example, Clark must find protection while Santana, as Juan, cares more about cleaning up.  The relationship must be strengthened during the revelation scene to give both men a way out.   

Donte Wince as El Raheem was outstanding!  His moments on stage were captivating.  His objective was clear and his conflict crystal clear.   He is a self-declared “God” and this God, I suppose, is the vengeful God from the Old Testament.  In the moment when the blade is given to him, he still cannot come to grips.  His intellect gets in the way of “the white man is the devil”, no matter what crime the white man has committed.

Also support in this fine cast were Alex Alfaro as Gypsy, and Jon Lance Dura as Blanca playing two transsexuals giving a very brief show. Daniel Zornes played Sergeant Morrison.

Other members of the ensemble and understudies were J. Antonio Baguez, Sean Escalante, Adam Jaso, Christian Levatino, Jason Nieblas, Charles Sanchez, Paul Tully, and Yonathan Zeray.

Julian Acosta has done a fantastic job directing Short Eyes.  It is a wonderful production with a lot of terrific moments.  It’s very obvious he has a distinctive eye and a terrific handle on the craft of acting.  That being said the show plays as though it were over many days and not one day.  But this is very minor in a very strong play.

One can only hope for the success of The Urban Theatre Movement and more shows of this caliber at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Run to see this production through December 18, 2011.  Extended!  

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Twelfth Night, Or What You Will by William Shakespeare

By Joe Straw

A Noise Within moved recently from their Glendale home into this ostentatious space in East Pasadena. From the outside one could mistake it for a municipal building of sorts.   One step into A Noise Within Theatre and one realizes this is an incredible space that will continue the tradition of excellent theatre in Los Angeles, California. 

Taking a walk around the sparse lobby, I imagine unpacked boxes behind the walls waiting to be put away. The lobby is itself a work in progress. The men’s restroom fits more than two. (Anyone remembering the Glendale bathroom will get a laugh out of that.)

Stepping into the lobby, down the stairs, one is suddenly swept into the glamour that is the Noise Within space. And it is a grand space indeed! Breathtaking! The seats are comfortable for this 6 feet 6 inch frame and every seat in this theatre is a great seat.

A Noise Within presents Twelfth Night, Or What You Will by William Shakespeare directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and runs through December 16, 2011.

True to form, for A Noise Within, this production does not waste time sweeping us into the production that is Twelfth Night.  Set in a Caribbean island, probably Cuba, this rendition of Twelfth Night is a visual delight.  It has the feeling of a huge spectacle.  Dancers bang their machetes against each others causing sparks to fly all over the stage.  And in these fireworks, beautiful women move their hips to a Caribbean beat.  The opening number is, by all accounts, spectacular!

The play takes place in the lovely town of Illyria when the Duke Orsino (Robertson Dean) is wheeled out naked for his afternoon bath.  Humidity from the afternoon sun gets the better of him and he soaks in his sorrow listening to music and feeling love for Lady Olivia (Abby Craden).

If music be the food of love, play on; - Duke Orsino

But Orsino is getting nowhere with Olivia. And Valentine (Jill Hill), his assistant, makes things worse by declaring that Olivia is still in mourning after the death of her father, and later her brother, and wants nothing to do with anyone, especially him.  

Meanwhile Viola (Angela Culner) washes up on shore of Illyria. Captain (Mitchell Edmonds) informs her that her twin brother was last seen floating on the waves “for as long as I could see.”  Viola is convinced that her brother is dead.

After pausing momentarily in grief, an ambitious Viola devises a plan to work for the Duke Orsino.  She asks the Captain to introduce her as a eunuch so that she may work under his under his employment.   The Captain agrees.

Meanwhile in Olivia’s house, Sir Toby Belch (Apollo Dukakis) and Maria (Deborah Strang) are engaged in a naughty exercise awaiting the foolish antics of friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jeremy Rabb), a witty and irascible drinking partner.  

At another location, sitting in a barber’s chair, the Duke of Orsino speaks to Viola (dressed as a man Cesario) and asks him to woo Olivia on his behalf.  Viola hesitates because she has her eyes on the Duke, but agrees to woo on.

In another part of the city, Maria confronts Feste (Anthony Mark Barrow), Olivia’s clown. It seems Feste is running off because the household doesn’t think he is “funny” anymore. But Maria believes Olivia needs humor and enlists Feste to get her past the dark days of losing her brother.  

Later Viola (as Cesario) calls upon Olivia. She explains to her that “he” is there on behalf of her employer, Orsino.  

Viola: Most sweet lady, -

Olivia: A comfortable doctrine, and much may be said of it.  Where lies your text?

Viola: In Orsino’s bosom.

Olivia: In his bosom!  In what chapter of his bosom?

Viola:  To answer by his method, in the first of his heart.

Olivia: O, I have read it:  It is heresy.  Have you no more to say?

Olivia enlightens Viola that she does not love the Duke Orsino and sends “him” on his way.  But Olivia is fooled by the disguise and finds this “man” very attractive.  Olivia calls upon her steward, Malvolio (Geoff Elliott) to give Viola a ring and to have “him” come back tomorrow.

Meanwhile Sebastian (Max Rosenak), twin brother to Viola, is alive but in a dark place. He laments to his savior Antonio (Steve Weingartner), a sea captain (pirate) and friend, that his beautiful twin sister is dead.

Sebastian: …She is drowned already, with, with salt water, thought I seem to drown her remembrance again with more.”

Antonio: Pardon me, sir, your bad entertainment.

Meanwhile Malvolio, on his bike, chases down Viola and gives her the ring, Malvolio thinks Viola has left the ring with Olivia. But a moment later Viola surmises Olivia is in love with her as a man.  Viola, confused, hopes that time will sort all of this out.

Viola: “…Oh time! thou must untangle this, not I; It’s too hard a knot for me to untie!

Late that night Sir Tobey, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Feste and Maria are having a grand time partying late into the night.  But, a grumpy Malvolio in bedclothes interrupts the party.

“Sir Toby I must be round with you…. If you can separate yourself and your misdemeanors, you are welcome to the house, if not, an it would please you to take leave of her, she is very willing to bid you farewell.” - Malvolio

Our partygoers will have none of this.  Malvolio needs his comeuppance. So Maria and Sir Toby devise a plan to write a letter, in Olivia’s handwriting, proclaiming love for Malvolio.

Meanwhile the Duke is desperate and sends Viola (the man) back again to Olivia with a piece of jewelry to show how much he is in love with her.  But while that is happening the Duke is having some strange feelings for Viola (the man).

Malvolio stumbles upon the forged letter and believes the letter, professing love, is from Olivia.  There are two things Mavolio must do to insure love’s conquest, wear the yellow stockings and the cross-gartered that she loves, and smile, smile, smile. (Okay, three.)

“If thou entertainest my love, let it appear in thy smiling; thy smiles become thee well; there in my presence still smile, dear my sweet, I prithee.” – From the forged letter

Olivia sees Mavolio acting very strangely, and has him put away, in a nice quiet dark place, with a slit for light, caged like the sick animal he appears to be.

Later Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek do not like the relationship developing between Viola and Olivia. They devise a plan for Aguecheek and Viola to have a duel.  Of course neither Aguecheek nor Viola want to die and neither knows how to fight.  

Things start getting serious when Antonio, Sebastian friend, mistakenly thinks his friend is involved in a dual and decides to fight Aguecheek in Viola’s place.  The guards arrest Antonio as a prisoner of the Duke and send him away.

Later, Olivia finds Sebastian, mistakes him for Viola, and arranges a priest to marry them right away.

You might think these people were extremely nearsighted and or didn’t bother to wear glasses for all the mixing up of identities.  Still, this was a fun show and a joy to watch with delightful performances all around.  

Geoff Elliott as Malvolio gave an incredible performance. Looking like a character out of a Jean-Pierre Juenet movie.  Tall, thin, pasty white skin, skullcap with long stringy hair, bad teeth and arms hanging down below his kneecaps. He has a dour look for the first part of the performance and his voice rises and falls with each unwarranted action perpetrated against him.   It is the moment he breaks into a smile this audience will remember forever. This is a remarkable performance by a very gifted actor and one not to miss.

Robertson Dean as Orsino always gives a fine performance.  He can be subtle and extravagant with his physical actions on stage.  His objectives are clear and his nuance is readable.  He moves from one love to the next with only a slight hesitation that is marvelously projected to the audience.

Apollo Dukakis as Sir Toby Belch is always fun to watch.  He is physically gifted and very funny. He is the one to look out for when there is mischief at play.

Deborah Strang as Maria gets into as much trouble as the rest. She is always a joy to watch and a wonderful performer who takes risks and enjoys the consequences.  

Jeremy Rabb as Sir Andrew Aguecheek was just as funny as the rest.  The fight scene was just wonderful.  Still, I didn’t get the sense that he was really vying for the hand of Olivia.  He was Sir Toby Belch’s friend but didn’t get the sense that he wanted more, or wanted him to do more the move in the direction of marriage to Olivia.  Still, it was a marvelous performance.

Abby Craden as Olivia was a little worldlier than in The Comedy of Errors. I liked this performance - sort of a kindler gentler countess. Still, I believe, this is a role where appetence goes a long way.  Harsh, when she meets Viola (as a Man), she then warms to him (somewhere along the way) and decides to give him a ring. Subtle doesn’t work for this moment and imagination needs to be taken to an extreme. Extreme desire would be two good words. She desires Feste, the clown. She needs him to help her get past her grief of her brother’s death.  She needs Viola for a husband and she needs the priest to marry them immediately, before he gets away.  (She’s a very needy person.)

Angela Gulner as Viola did a very nice job. (This goes back to the many comments I make in this blog: Was Mary Martin convincing as Peter Pan? No.) Did Gulner convince me she was Cesario?  Not really.  But I believe this character must try to convince herself she is a man and make mistakes to show us she really is a woman. One doesn’t see the mistakes that are necessary for the role to take off. There’s a lot to be said about love and the trouble it gets one into with mistakes along the way.  We need a lot more love and a lot more mistakes.

Anthony Mark Barrow was quite charming as Feste but one did not get a clear picture of his objective.  It’s obvious he wanted something he wasn’t getting or why would he be leaving the house and trying to get away from Olivia? Why do they drag him back into the household?

Mitchell Edmonds has dual role of the Captain and the Priest. Edmonds is a fine actor with very good physical skills.

A man usually plays Valentine, Orsino gentleman; Jill Hill is used in this production. While there is no problem with her portrayal, she needs a stronger objective, a stronger point of view, and an idea of what the character wants to make this role her own.  Still, the role was nicely done.

Max Rosenak as Sebastian was fine in the role as Viola’s twin.  Like the wave that sweeps him away after their ship breaks apart, he is swept up in events happening on land.  He hasn’t got a chance but he needs to realize that he needs to fight the wave or be swept up and whatever comes his way is only gravy.

Steve Weingartner as Antonio did a very fine job. Still there’s more here than meets the eye. His love for Sebastian knows no bounds and he is willing to risk his life for him. It was a fine performance that needed more of the pirate.  Also he needs to find out the life he is rescuing is not his friend.

Other members in the cast were Alison Elliott as Curio, Max Lawrence as Fabian, Patrick Connolly, Alex Galicia, Diana Gonzales-Morett, Heather Roberts and Simmin Yu.   This was a very diverse cast and added an important background to the fine action going on around them.

Julia Rodriguez-Elliott the director did a very nice job. It’s a wonder she able to stand with the move, rehearsals, and everything that goes in in producing and directing this type of show. There are a lot of amazing things in this show!  Some moments need tweaking but that’s expected in any show.  This was a marvelous job. 

As always, Kurt Boetcher performs small miracles as the Scenic Designer.  The marvelous Costume Design was by Angela Balough Calin.  The Lighting Designer was by Ken Booth.  Very nice Fight Choreography by Ken Merckx.

On Holy Ground – by Stephanie Liss

By Vilma Ortiz, Ph.D. and Joe Straw

The world premier of On Holy Ground by Stephanie Liss and directed by L. Flint Esquerra, playing at the Met in Hollywood, presents two one-act plays. The first play is Daughter of My People and the second is Jihad.

Jihad tells two stories of two mothers—one Jewish, Shula, and the other Palestinian Reim, both living in Efrat. Both women have soon-to-be 16-year-old daughters.

One part of the play is about Shula and how she came to be in Israel and her life there. We learn that she was born in the United States and that she and her husband come to Israel to help settle this Promised Land. They have 5 children who grow up healthy, going to school, playing sports, and planning to visits the U.S. The family is full of hope in this land of opportunity. Every tidbit that Shula shares about her family is full of love and caring.

But like many Jewish mothers, Shula worries. She worries that the political violence will harm her children and she tries to protect them as much as possible. Still she relishes the promise of her daughter, Shoshanna’s, shift from adolescence to adulthood; although adulthood holds the scary thought of serving in the Israeli army.

By contrast we learn little about Reim. She mentions her husband only a couple of times and we do not know how they meet or if they love each other or whether their families approve of their marriage. What we do learn is that Reim, and her children in turn, are angry and bitter about the occupation. They move between checkpoints, have little opportunity, and are hopeless. In that context, and in that mind frame, Reim believes violence is a viable option. To her, strapping a bomb around one waist’s and blowing up a bus or restaurant seems reasonable. At least two of Reim’s children have become martyrs and her daughter, Wafa, will soon do the same.

On the surface, this appears to be an even-handed portrayal of two mothers, living near each other, in parallel lives, both fearing for their children’s present and future. But that is where the parallels end. Because we know so much about Shula and why she is there and what brought her to this point, and because she is so calm and reasonable, she is sympathetic. Whether it was the playwright or director’s intent, we are drawn to like Shula and to feel her pain.

But Reim is not sympathetically portrayed. She is angry, she does not smile, she appears delusional, and she repeats her rants. After all, mothers are not suppose to praise their children to having killed themselves and others or to desire that their surviving child do the same. How can we sympathize with such a mother—it is not possible.

So presenting two women, side-by-side, in such disparaging ways is unfair. It is unfair to be pulled toward compassion for one and shock for the other. No, that is not a fair comparison. A fair portrayal would have liking both or disliking both or maybe even hating both. That would be even-handed, that would be equal.

Stephanie Liss, the writer, is Jewish so it is easy to assume that was her intent. But in her bio in the programs states “she has gone underground with PLO and Hamas.” We suspect that she wanted to present both sides equally but it was not evident in the final production.

It would have been better to make this either a Jewish story or Palestinian story, rather than to interweave the two. As a Jewish story, we would have felt compassion for Shula but not at the expense of Reim. Shula’s story would not seemed so overly positive when not presented against Reim’s.

As a Palestinian story, we could have felt a connection to Reim’s anger and despair. This would have allowed us to learn more of Reim’s history. Was her family displaced from their home in the founding of Israel? Was her father or brothers killed? Did she witness these deaths? There is so much more we need to know about Reim. Not because we need to necessarily feel compassion but because we need to understand.

Lisa Richards was a very sympathetic Shula.  Her performance was exquisite and very specific in the fine details of her craft.  In the end, she goes after her answer only to discover a truth that shakes her to her core.  This was just a remarkable ending.

Abbe Rowlins as Reim was not the sympathetic character.  She lives a hopeless life and is unable to find help under any circumstance.  Her life is bleak, and she is weathered by the tragedies around her.  Still, she breathes life into a character—it is a very physical performance. Unfortunately we have yet come to understand her and we hope that one day all will be made clear.  

Jihad was presented with Daughter of My People. This is the story of Henrietta Szold, the daughter of a rabbi born in 1860 in the United States. She does not win her true love and instead travels to Palestine. She is so horrified by the conditions that Jews face there that she devotes her life to establishing social services to help Jews in Palestine.

There is no question that Henrietta Szold was amazing person in her lifetime. She is instrumental in establishing Hadassah, in saving many Jewish children to get out of Nazi Europe and to Palestine, and in laying the foundation of what would become the state of Israel. Yet she did not live to see Israel officially established since she passed away in 1945.

Szold could also be considered a feminist, even if she did not use that label for herself. Because she had not brothers, her father taught her much of what he would have taught a son. And she defended her right to carry on Jewish traditions that were usually done by men in order to maintain the family’s Jewish links across generations.

Salome Jens captured Henrietta Szold in amazing details.  Her voice, rapture, her eyes, expressive.  Jens is a remarkable actress who pays attention to the fine details of her craft.  We are caught in her extraordinary private moment, almost to private to reveal.  But reveal she must if we are to remember her lessons of the past.  As the character she hangs onto a pristine letter that is a significant turning point in her life.  It is in a book of memories pressed between the pages of a momentous life.  On this day she takes the envelope and laments over a lost love but in the end realizes it made all the difference.

L. Flint Esquerra did a very nice job directing in this small intimate setting but one might rehearse the curtain call, as there was some confusion, which left off Rowlins out of the final curtain call (of all things).

Presenting two compassionate stories about two different Jewish women further prejudices Reim’s story. Not only is Reim presented in a darker light than Shula, her Jewish contemporary, she certainly cannot compete with the historical stature of Szold. At some point, we want to hear Reim’s story in full, the happy and the angry, the past and the present, the desire and the despair. Maybe we will.