Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Frybread Queen by Carolyn Dunn

By Joe Straw

There are some wonderful moments in The Frybread Queen written by Carolyn Dunn, directed by Robert Caisely, and presented by Native Voices at the Autry.   Those moments occur when each actress comes before the audience (in character) and speaks about making frybread in their own fashion using their own recipe. More on that later.

The play is about a Native American family, two sisters (in-laws) from Los Angeles Carlisle Emmanuel Burns (Shyla Marlin) and Annalee Walker Hayne (Kimberly Norris Guerrero) who come to the Navajo reservation near the Arizona/Utah border to bring back Annalee’s seventeen year old daughter Lily Savannah Santiago Burns (Elizabeth Frances) to live with them.   One might characterized this play as an “Indian angst”.  

The in-laws want to take Lily back to Los Angeles so that her mother, Annalee (who is dying of cancer),  can spend her remaining days with her daughter.  They are also both there to attend a funeral.

Presently, Lily is living with her grandmother Jesse Burns (Jane Lind).  Days prior to the in-laws arriving, Lily’s dad committed suicide.  Jesse wants Lily to stay with her. 

But there’s a problem and that happens when the dearly departed comes back and makes life a living hell for those relatives remaining on earth.  It’s actually a small part of the story that strains credulity.

Lind was very agreeable as Jessie.  Her description of making frybread, the old traditional way, was a very nice moment of historical perspective and she uses this method as a way she goes about her life.

Marlin did a nice job as Carlisle.  She made frybread the faster and quicker way.  No freaking’ muss or fuss and it was good too.   She’s got all the awards to prove it.  The way she made frybread was against tradition.  Bring in the new and throw out the old and slow.  Fast rising is better than no rising at all.

Frances as Lily was in a character mode that was so extreme it sometimes worked or didn’t work.  The heavy gothic makeup, smoking and the youth attitude of “my life is a living hell and it’s all because of you!” wore a little thin. And she didn’t seem emotional wrought from her father dying days prior. But when she described her version of making frybread, she suddenly came alive, and was a multi-dimensional character.   It made a lot of sense and was poignant.

Guerrero as Annalee was sympathic because of her illness.  Her use of the oxygen mask is a testament to her struggles.  She was amusing as she told the stories of making frybread, so specific, technical, and surrounded by the people who would make a difference in her life.  She’s throws the “sickness” part of her character away when describing the story and it was just wonderful.  The moment she went back to the other character was less than inspirational.  Still there were some wonderful moments.  

Carolyn Dunn, the playwright, wrote some wonderful things about the characters making frybread and their ways they went about it.   The problem of this production was the believe ability factor. To have the ghost of Paul come back and inhabit the bodies of both women he slept with stretches the story to the extreme and the truth meter goes way down on this one.  Stick to the truth of making frybread and real life associated with it.  Let the audience feel the life inside those moments when frybread is being made and let us explore the conflict during those moments.   Also, if a character makes frybread a certain way then her objective should create actions on stage the way she makes frybread. This will bring about touching moments that will be specific to each character. The conflict will rise like the dough in the bread.

Frybread should have been more central to the story the focal point where all things happen, where all is discussed, where all the characters make the frybread and the where conflict comes to them. 

Robert Caisley, the director, had problems from the opening moment.   And looking back on this in hindsight they were big problems.   One problem was the gun.   Jessie finds the gun under the sink.  The response to finding the gun is to move it to another location, the freezer.  Seemingly without rhyme or reason.  And then Carlisle enters, as pretty as you please, without giving us any indication that someone has committed suicide on the living room floor just days before with that very same gun.  Also, actors were left floundering, center stage without an action to get them through the scene.   For instance the mother describing taking the gun and… (One is giving too much away.)  One really didn’t get the directors focus on this production. There are wonderful things in this play, which has strong possibilities but this version lacks the convincing through line this production needs.

There were some nice special effects on stage but those effects did not set any kind of mood for the action that follows.

Dawn Stern and Erika Stone were understudies for Annalee/Jessie and Carlisle/Lily respectively.

Native Voices at The Autry is a beautiful theatre.  Headed by Randy Reinholtz, the founder and Producing Artistic Director and is doing a beautiful thing in representing Native works.   

Monday, March 21, 2011

Broken Glass by Arthur Miller

By Joe Straw 

Glass is not, by any stretch of the imagination, strong material.  It comes in all shapes and sizes.  It can be translucent or gives one the protection to observe freely and in a safe environment from a safe distance.  When glass breaks it becomes this event, so unexpected, one is astounded by the cracking and even shattering experience. 

Broken Glass by Arthur Miller is playing at the Pico Playhouse, presented by The West Coast Jewish Theatre, and directed by Elina de Santos.  This is a fascinating play about characters and their motives: but does it provide the audience a shattering experience?

Set in November 1938, as the play goes, Phillip Gellburg (Michael Bofshever) is sitting in his doctor’s office and speaking to the nurse Margaret Hyman (Peggy Dunne) about a problem he is having.  Gellburg, claiming to be Finnish (discounting his Jewish heritage), is as curt as any man can be but he says that it’s his wife who is having the problem. 

Gellburg: She can’t walk.

It seems that for the past nine days, she has lost the feelings in her legs. It’s not polio just a problem for which Gellburg needs reassurance from the doctor that everything will be okay.  It is for this reason he has decided to stop in.  He believes he is a man who leaves no stone unturned.

There must be a reason that Dr. Harry Hyman (Stephen Burleigh) enters his office wearing his horse riding breeches.  One thinks right off the bat that this is highly unprofessional and not suitable attire for having serious discussion with a patient’s husband.

Gellburg, impatiently, asks for a diagnosis. Dr. Hyman asks Gellburg to wait until he reviews the file. Both Dr. Hyman and Gellburg are opinionated and very disagreeable men.  Gellburg is open to the ways that Dr. Hyman may have in treating her but doesn’t see beyond the glass of Hyman’s insincerity. 

Gellburg is a nasty man possibly because he hasn’t had “relations” with his wife in a very long time and he may have a problem performing at all.  He wears his lack of sex on his sleeves.  He is truly in love with his wife but cannot get beyond the person behind the tinted glass that is his wife.  His character is also dishonest and a most disagreeable person as one could imagine. 

Hyman, on the other hand, is a slightly offbeat character.  He even compares his wife to Gellburg’s wife.

Hyman: … Your wife has a lot of courage; I admire that kind of woman.  My wife is similar.  I like that type. 

Gellburg:  What type to you mean? 

Hyman:  You know – vigorous.

Dr. Hyman has had a relationship with Sylvia’s father so he’s a family acquaintance and clearly has his eyes set on another female conquest, in the name of science, of course. Hymn inquires about their sexual relationship and seems to be titillated so much so that when he leaves and his wife walks in…

Hyman:  Should I tell you what I’d like to do with you?

Margaret:  Tell me, yes, tell me.  And make it wonderful.

Hyman:  We find an island and we strip and go riding on this white horse…

Margaret:  Together.

Hyman:  You in front. 

Margaret:  Naturally.

Hyman:  And then we go swimming…

Margaret:  Harry, that’s lovely.

Hyman:  And I hire this shark to swim very close and we just manage to get out of the water, and we’re so grateful to be alive we fall down on the beach together and…

Margaret:  Sometimes you’re so good.

Meanwhile Sylvia Gellburg (Susan Angelo) and her sister Harriet (Renae Geerlings) are having a discussion about her “paralyzed” legs, her son who is an artillery captain in the army, and Kristallnach (also known as the Night of Broken Glass November 9 – 10th 1938) which she has been reading about in the newspapers.  All these pieces of information are the broken shards of glass in her life and are weighing heavily on her legs.  And whether the problem is physical or mental are questions yet to be explored.

On top of everything else Phillip Gellburg is having problems at work and he’s not doing due diligence on a building that his boss Stanton Case (Lindsey Ginter) wants to pursue.   The trouble gets him into deeper waters and in a position for which he may not recover.

Margaret: - What is it – just new ass all the time?

Hyman:  There’s been nobody for at least ten or twelve years… more!

Margaret Hyman, the doctor’s wife is, for the most part a pleasant person and tries to spread good cheer, but underneath her exterior she is mistrustful of her husband’s pandering and philandering ways.     There are cracks in their relationship. And why shouldn’t she be erring on the side of caution?

Dr. Harry Hyman is as sinister as they come or normal depending on ones perspective.   His fantasy of riding in on a white horse and saving people from their sexual predicaments as if he were a psychiatrist is disingenuous.  But, it’s something he’s willing to give a try.  Although he is not as sinister on the surface, he is on the edge of taking advantage of all he meets under the guise of his scientific work.  Maybe it’s his sexual appetite.  One is not entirely certain but suspects the latter.

“He (Hyman) sits on the bed and draws the cover off her legs, then raises her nightgown.  She (Sylvia) inhales with certain anticipation as he does so.   He feels her toes.”

Hyman:  And look what beautiful legs you have, Sylvia…  Sylvia, you have a strong beautiful body…

Hyman:  Sylvia, listen to me… I haven’t been this moved by a woman in a very long time.

Gellburg: … if Sylvia was a man she could have run the Federal Reserve.

Angelo as Sylvia did not have a clear objective.  The dialogue indicates that she is a very smart woman, but seeing only the performance with mannerisms in the extreme, one only sees the wheels of her wheelchair turning.  She is clearly in love with Dr. Harry Hyman.  She wants him as a doctor and for “other things” but she has this impotent husband (that she clearly does not love) in the way.  The ending gives her a choice that needs to be clearer, otherwise there’s no play and the audience is left feeling very unsatisfied. 

Bofshever as Gellburg was excellent in the role but playing a defensive posture throughout leaves him room for little else including taking responsibility for his assault against his wife. Also, if he needs help, he really needs to find it no matter the cost.  Not to take away from his marvelous performance but to add another dimension.

Dunne, was spectacular as Margaret Hyman.  One was impressed by her ability to look through the thin sheet of glass that is her husband and keep him on the right path.  Tall and dazzling she moved gracefully from scene to scene.

Burleigh, as Dr. Harry Hyman, was comfortable in the role.  What was Dr. Harry Hyman’s objective?  Did he want to cure Sylvia, or sleep with her?  There is another level and something was missed on this particular night.  After all, if you are doing something against character, one must be aware “this is unethical and therefore conflicted that this bridge must not be crossed”.  One really needed to see this in the performance.

Geerlings as Harriet (the spy) did a nice job.  She also has an objective that was not imaginative and needs to be clearer in order for her to succeed in the role.

Ginter as Stanton Case was outstanding.  He was effective in his quiet moments of strength.  He was also someone you didn’t want to cross or call him to task on his unconscious racial bias.

Elina de Santo’s direction is confusing.  It is probably not Arthur Miller’s best work but it is fine nevertheless.  Miller gives a lot of clues as to the characters motives, intentional or subconscious. One always hope the actors are multi-dimensional, but believes there's more to be had in the ways of the characters and their actions.   Focus should be placed on the characters objectives and the directors through line.

Kristallnach seems to be a backdrop to Broken Glass.  It is not necessarily the main focus of the play but something that propels the events in this play to make it historically significant.  This is a very nice idea indeed. 

For reservations:

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

By Joe Straw

Variety is a sweet source of inspiration.

I was backstage at the opening night of Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller at the Pantages in 1979. The show featured a wonderful fan dancing routine that highlighted the dance life of Sally Rand who incidentally started her career in the 1920’s.

Sally was there that night and, wanting to be the center of attention, she motioned for someone to get her something near the wings. Suddenly she flipped off her loosely fitting gown. Underneath, she had on a pair of see-through white tights and nothing else.

Handed two large fans, she extended her arms—one far to her extreme right and the other far to her extreme left, covering, nothing.

The press gathered around to take pictures. But the gravitational pull on the upper part of her body was not kind to her aging body. One might say gravity was winning the war so much that the newspaper photographers, suggesting that their readers were of the "family" variety, asked her to place the fans in front of her.

She scoffed indignantly but whipped the fans in place with an elegance known only to her. And then she rolled those fans perfectly in front of her nude body.

Since then, I have had a fondness for fan dancers.

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare at A Noise Within and directed by Michael Michetti starts with a spotlight on the fan dancers who introduce the characters in a fashion of frivolity and amusement.

Wow! What an opening! Set in the roaring twenties, the show plays as a vaudevillian act, which was quite amusing! The purpose was to enlighten and inform so there’s not a lot of guesswork concerning the characters. And it also creates Shakespeare in a form the audience can understand, so simple, so touchable, and so within our grasp.

This production of Comedy of Errors is a fascinating, on the edge-of-your-seat, wild ride. It is a cohesive and tremendous ensemble of wonderful actors in a marvelous character driven show.

The opening is very imaginative, with a film reel to boot by Ali Murtaza, describing an unfortunate accident many years ago on the separation of twins. It was so cleverly done one can hardly keep to one’s seat.

Briefly, Egeon wonderfully played by Michael Stone Forrest is sentenced to die because he is in Ephesus and Syaracucians merchants are not allowed to be there. He will die unless he can come up with a thousands marks. He recounts his sad tale of his predicament about two sets of twins lost in a storm to Duke Solinus (William Dennis Hunt) who takes pity but gives him a time frame with which to secure the funds for his release. Shackled, he is led away. (In this condition, how in the world is he to secure the funds?)

Okay, so, we have two sets of twins, Antiphelus of Syracuse and Ephesus, played by Bruce Turk, and Dromio of Syracuse and Ephesus, played by Jerry Kernion. Of course they are separated and come back as different twins in a comedy of errors. Simple enough.

There is a slight caveat in the focus of Michael Michetti’s direction. Comedy of Errors is a play and not a vaudevillian production, but that aside, in order for this production to completely work the relationship between Dromio and Antiphelus requires the relationship to be spot on. Forget the pratfalls, the straw-hat business, and other things that don’t move the story along, rather focus on the relationship of master/slave so the story falls into place. It is critical for the comedy of errors to work and once the audience completely buys the relationship and their predicament the rest of the ride is downhill from there. But this is one minor objection in this wonderful production.

Bruce Turk, as Antipholus of Syracuse/Ephesus was charming throughout. A master when he wants to be and an exasperated being at other times make his performance all the more enjoyable. An objective that is slightly more focused would only add to his marvelous performance.

Jerry Kernion, as Dromio, came out at curtain call with an expression on his face suggesting not everything worked this opening night. But one guesses the audience will tell him what works and what doesn’t and he will fill the role gracefully as the production continues. Not to discard his performance as there were a lot of funny moments in this role. Keep the baby but throw out the bathwater.

Abby Craden, as Adriana, fills the role rather nicely. But one couldn’t help think there is more to this role in a vaudevillian setting than what was witnessed. She obviously wants her man, on her terms. But, are there more inspired ways to go about getting it?

Annie Abrams as Luciana is very charming and delightful in many ways. Certainly there are more ways to sooth the angry cat, Adriana.

Michael Stone Forrest is a standout as Egeo. Ready to truckle to the blade of the gentlemen’s gallows but delays his fate with a nice life saving protracted story of his life. Nicely done.

Gibby Brand as Nell/Abbess is charming in this gender bending turn. He is amusing and as lustful as one can be in the character’s pursuit for a substitute for marital happiness. Nicely done and a wonderful performance.

William Dennis Hunt as Duke Salinus always delights and is unfaltering in his commitment to lay down the law of the land. He pays wonderful attention to details and commands his minions to perfection.

Paul D. Masterson as Balthasar with a less than spectacular posture moved about the stage as though he were missing a number of discs in his spinal column. Not able to get the girl he fights for his money.

P.J. Ochlan as Angelo was absolutely incredible. A multi faux linguistic proprietor of words and dressed as an Italian sailor with eyes as slits and brows that drooped to his knees. This was a funny and inspired performance.

Rene Ruiz as the 1st Merchant with his dummy was quite charming. One especially likes the dummy calling for “line”.

Andrew Dits does a nice turn as an officer of the court. A circus strongman with the ability, at a moment’s notice, to cut off the head that doesn’t feed him.

Lauren Robyn as the Courtesan was charming in the roll. She has a very strong voice, a compelling commitment to character, and a doer of good deeds. One cannot help but to enjoy the performance of the lead fan dancer.

Also filling out the roles were Andy Stokan, Christine Breihan, Douglas Rory Milliron, Gwenmarie White and Sarah-lucy Hill. These players were completely in tune with this production and each gave more than 100 percent in this successful production.

Film Director Ali Murtaza does a remarkable job in giving us a back-story. Scenic Design by Kurt Boetcher also remarkable in his ability to capture the look of vaudeville. David Bickford as the Pianist/Composer/Sound Designer also did a wonderful job in this production. One particularly likes the noise for “da chain”.

One can go to A Noise Within and be captivated by the attention to details on all of their productions. The work is remarkable and the theatre is good for the community and great for all of those who want to be enlightened.

Run to see this performance!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Cradle will Rock - Book, Music & Lyrics by Marc Blitzstein

by Joe Straw

There is a voice.  It will come from the east.  It will bring harmony and strength to the middle class, lifting them from the bottomless pit that is unemployment, foreclosure, and bankruptcy. This voice will give rise to the spirits of the downtrodden, to have them look at themselves once again with pride, and it will give them the dream to continue.

Wait, and listen for the footsteps, the rattle of the keys, and hear the march to the podium as the voice makes its way to the microphone.  Make no mistake and listen, the voice will come.

The voice will come.

The Cradle Will Rock, book, music, and lyrics by Marc Blizstein presented by the Blank Theatre Company and directed by Daniel Henning is playing at the beautiful Stellar Adler Theatre in Hollywood just east of Hollywood and Highland.

Daniel Henning, the director, is a master storyteller, a modern day PT Barnum, a joker and jester, giving the audience magnificent physical life to his characters in music and story. This is a very imaginative musical, full of life and it’s misgivings.  This is also a marvelous production but one that is not without its imperfections.  

In this musical, there is another voice the characters long to hear and that is the voice of righteousness and fair play.  But sometimes, from this book by Marc Blizstein, it is hard to get to that point, via the through line, but it is there, somewhere.

The musical opens up with Moll (Tiffany C. Adams) a woman who has hit a low point in her life and is out in the street hustling when she comes upon a Gent (Matt Wolpe) who requests her services but for only for the paltry sum of 30 cents (Still, a ridiculously low price for 1937.).  An argument ensues and the police, Dick (Mikey Hawley) arrests her for prostitution and escorts (no pun intended) her to night court.   Her job, on this night in night court, is to observe that she is not the only “prostitute” in the house.

Later another cop (Will Barker) brings in The Liberty Committee.  The cause: (an 808) disturbing the peace at the union rally. He has arrested Dr. Specialist (Rob Roy Cesar), Reverend Salvation (Christopher Carroll), Editor Daily (David Trice), Yasha  (Jim Holdridge), Dauber (Roland Rusinek), and President Prexy (Matthew Patrick Davis).

The Liberty Committee is a misnomer since they have little liberty or independence.  They are a group financed by Mr. Mister (Peter Van Norden) to destroy unionism, communism, socialism, radicalism, and any other “ism” that isn’t to his liking. It is a fact, these people have been bought and they are in court and, maybe this is not by chance.

Mr. Mister, owner of a steel mill, uses his money, power, and influence over others while he observes the dirty wheels turning from his lofty towers.  And he wonders why, at the end of the day, he doesn’t feel good.

But it is the voice of Larry Foreman (Rex Smith) that needs to be silenced.  He is the man coming from the east and he can’t be bought.   He is the man that brings reason for having a union in order to make life livable for those who want to work hard and provide for their families.     

The idea of the musical explains the reasons for the how and why intelligent beings manipulate their lives to look down to the less fortunate from their comfortable perch all for the sake of the almighty dollar.   It also believes that, in the end, Mr. Mister, will come crashing down after the cradle have fallen.   

The musical takes us back into time to show the events leading to this movement. 

But first, all must bow to the King and Queen, Mr. and Mrs. Mister, their money, and their nasty little kids, Jr. Mister (Adam Wylie) and Sister Mister (Meagan Smith) who seem to like to one up each other.

The Editor Daily, wonderfully played by David Trice has a nice little number with Mr. Mister, Freedom of the Press, and is forced to bow down to Mr. Mister and get the goods on Larry Forman. Later he is forced to send Jr. Mister off to Honolulu Hawaii. However Daily seems ambivalent and never really (physically) sends the boy off to Hawaii.  One might recognize there was still a trace of job dignity in his being. 

Jr. Mister seems to be stuck in perpetual adolescence.  Old enough to go to Hawaii to write a column but not old enough to pull the toy out of the Cracker Jack box?  While the intention is to show the audience how the children of the affluent are spoiled and haven’t a care in the world it had the opposite effect of being just plain silly.  This portion of the show did not work on this night. 

And for the artists, Dauber, a painter (Roland Rusinek) and the musician, Yasha (Jim  Holdridge) both of whom vie for Mrs. Mister’s money.  (Eating is high priority on their list.) But they vie for her affection in ways that are not supported by their character. They have wonderful voices and nice costumes (loved the beret and the green cape with the pink lining) but still something was missing on this night.

Jack Laufer is simply wonderful as Harry the druggist.  His coat lining is frayed and spills from the sleeve of his jacket.  He is a man who is beaten by the death of his son, Stevie (Mike Hawley) and as of this point not finding much hope and unable to recover. 

Matt Wolpe and Penelope Yates are equally amazing as Gus and Sadie Polock wanting to have a child unaware of the power and the corruptible and silencing voice of Mr. Mister. The Gus & Sadie Love Long was a wonderful moment in this production.  It was simple and elegant, heartwarming, and touching. 

Behind every bad man there is an equally bad woman and Gigi Bermingham fills the bill as Mrs. Mister a woman who ignores her children and tries to squeeze the unpleasant professional juices of every human being within her grasp.  A nice role and wonderfully played by Bermingham.  Her entrance was remarkable as she blew past them and then held her gloved hands out to be kissed.  (Usually that is done with someone of the same stature, nevertheless…)

Davis as President Prexy was charming, tall, and looked like Jim Carrey in many ways and yes he was funny.  

Carroll as Rev Salvation was paid to preach a sermon to his congregation as part of the agenda of furthering the cause of war. It’s hard to believe a man of the cloth would stoop to despicable means.  With a twinkle in his eye and some bills in his pocket he is able to overcome that “God guilt thing” in his arsenal.   A saintly performance.

Cesar as Dr. Specialist showed he had a heart.  He probably didn’t like what he was doing to Ella Hammer (Lowe Taylor) but it was not his concern because she didn’t have any money.  There was an honor in his performance.  Nicely done.  

Barker (Professor Trixie) did a nice turn as a marine like professor complete with six-pack.

But Rex Smith as Larry Forman was the voice everyone was waiting to hear, full of inspiration and things that make people do the right thing.  His entrance, nicely done, brought forth a well dress man (not necessarily the cloth for a union spokesman).  The inspirational words need to find the mark and after this is done one will get the reason for his being.

David O, Musical Director, does yeoman’s work playing the piano and being the court clerk.  It was wonderful music and a wonderful job. 

One can see the parallels in today’s society.  It’s easy to find.  One need only look at Countrywide, Enron, Blackwater, Halliburton, AIG, and BP.  Will this madness never end?

The Cradle will Rock was first produced by Orson Wells and John Houseman as part of the WPA Federal Theatre Project in 1937 under very trying circumstances.  It was believed to be too leftist and shut down by the government.  It’s nice when you can be funded first and then shut down by your own government second. 

For tickets and reservations:
Go see this show.