Monday, April 18, 2011

Devil’s Advocate by Donald Freed

By Joe Straw

He, who knows all, knows best.  – Joe Straw

These days, they just come for you, they don’t ask permission.  Why should they?  To them it seems you’ve crossed the line. Even though they’ve supported you in the past. It’s over. Their weapons are state of the art, paid for by borrowed money, and legislated by foolish men. You’re a devil, a demon, and it’s time for your 1:00 a.m. Exorcism.

I will never betray your asylum.” – The Archbishop

The General (Robert Beltran) is in fact, Manuel Noriega.  His savior, The Archbishop, Jose Sebastian Laboa Gallego (Tom Fitzpatrick) is also his partner in crime in the intriguing Devil’s Advocate written by Donald Freed, directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela, and presented by the Latino Theatre Company and the California International Theatre Festival on Spring Street in Los Angeles.

In the play the head of Jesus, in a forgiving red light, looks down on a simple man.  The Archbishop kneels before Jesus, prays silently, pleading for the knowledge and the strength because the general will come this way on this particular night.  He has to come.  He’s got nowhere to go.

And so he kneels, underneath the crucifixion, the Archbishop says a prayer, in Latin, in his street clothes while listening to the helicopters flying overhead, blaring slogans, while others shoot civilians throughout the Panamanian city.  

“Noriega is worst than Hitler and Stalin.” – A pre-recorded speech blaring from a loud speaker from a US helicopter

(Also, if it’s gunfire outside your sanctuary, it must be the US government.) 

Lurking beyond the window is a lone figure with what appears to be a weapon.  It is the general and he has a machinegun in hand. Avoiding the helicopters and military, he comes to the Archbishop for protection and sanctuary.  But, he doesn’t come in as a general; he sneaks inside the Archbishop’s room in civilian clothing. 

Is it a slight knock or a scratch at the door?

Noriega’s clothes are wet, either from the tropical rain or drenched with sweat, running for his life. In any case, The Archbishop waves him in, offers him a meager dinner, and one stinking beer. 

The General is in no mood to give himself freely to the Americans and will fight to his death to keep the country he has come to enjoy, love and dictate.  But if he’s going down, he’s taking that Basque "patriot" with him.  Although it is unclear what information Noriega has on The Archbishop.

“We are going to die, you and me.” – The General

Noriega excuses himself to use the Archbishop’s bathroom. The Archbishop puts on his robe while The General removes his clothes and puts on a bathrobe. (All nice and cozy and equals of sorts.)

Later, after another trip to the bathroom, Noreiga satisfies his thirst with his own bodily fluids.  (And if that isn’t bad enough, he drinks it from a dirty glass!) 

As the Archbishop raises his lantern and signals someone on the outside, it is a fact that Noriega’s capture has already been planned as one will see during the course of the play. The Archbishop’s objective is to have the General surrender peacefully but first (backed by an unknown force) he must convince Noriega to give up serenely.  (So much for “ I will never betray your asylum.”) 

So just who is the Devil in The Devil’s Advocate?  Is it the Archbishop, The General, or the United States?

“They bombed the barrio, 10,000 homes are destroyed.” – Noriega

Simply put, the play is about a man trying to hold on to power.  Frighten by the thoughts of losing everything he seeks sanctuary to find a solution.  So he finds a quiet place, the only place he has left to think while he negotiates his way out of the inevitable incarceration. 

There is not a defining moment in this play where the Archbishop convinces Noriega to give up “his throne” and surrender to the Americans, or a defining moment when Noriega decides to surrender. One looks for the defining moment when the relationship significantly changes.  It is a moment that makes a lasting impression.  If there is a moment, it is subtle, possibly too subtle.

Beltran, as Noriega does an outstanding job.  He is a consummate professional and able to climb into many roles easily as witnessed in various productions at Latino Theatre Company.  Beltran is possibly too good looking to play the pock marked Noriega.  But as a general, missing was the way a general carries himself even when burdened by huge obstacles.  His march and his command of the space even when he has lost that space might be a consideration as an element to an already fine performance.  Also, did Beltran fight hard for his release?  Were his choices imaginative and precise?  Maybe yes, and maybe no.

Fitzpatrick, The Archbishop, was equally good especially with only 10 days of rehearsals.  One might say it was a fantastic job.  But missing was the depth of the character, the moments that make the whole performance, the victories and defeats.  Registration.  Moments that change the relationship.    If his objective is to have Noriega surrender, the conflict should include danger, surprise, and loss.  One never got the feeling The Archbishop lost any ground.  And there should be ground lost if the conflict in his life is elevated and seemingly insurmountable.

Jose Luis Valenzuela does a remarkable job keeping the action going.  There are obstacles with having 10 days with the actor, but Valenzuela pulls it all together to give us a very intriguing view of a very interesting situation.  Possibly more rehearsal time would give more details about the goods Noriega has about his “Basque” friend and the information which will be used in a manner to discredit him. 

Donald Freed’s play was enjoyable from start to finish.  His dialogue into Noriega’s personal hygiene and proclivities must have a basis in truth.  How he got access to those files will probably remain a best-kept secret. There is so much truth on stage one feel uncomfortable as to who may be watching you watching this play.   But, as for the play, what are we to make of this?  Freed’s play tells us our government is nefarious.  Nothing-new here.  We’ve read all this in the paper and in various reports. We know Noriega worked for the CIA.  We also know whatever truth there may be is in a file marked “classified” not to be released or examined until all that should be held accountable are dead.  So what is its purpose?  That no one is totally innocent or totally guilty?  Stop supporting dictators with our tax dollars? Do well and be rewarded ten fold?  One is not really sure. 

Francois-Pierre Couture did a marvelous job as the Scenic Designer.  The set was absolutely fantastic! Tesshi Nakagawa did a wonderful job with costume and props.   

It’s too easy to look at this significant piece of work and laugh at what our government is up to.   How we give “just names” to what amounts to sending in troops and taking over a country.  Look at President George H.W. Bush speech on Operation Just Cause on YouTube and judge for yourself. According to President George H.W. Bush, Noriega is out of control and therefore Bush proclaims December 20, 1989 as “Operation Just Cause”.  (That’s the way you do it! If you’re going to invade a country, give it a short and worthy name, not “Operation Get that Pock Marked Latin Bastard Out of Panama Cause.”)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Raisin In The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

By Joe Straw

Knowing divorce on a first name basis I often wonder:  Given all the emotional difficulties of marriage, what is the strength that holds a family together?

Recently, on a visit, I asked my 11-year-old daughter: “Why do you think they called it A Raisin In The Sun”?

“Because if you put a grape in the sun it turns into a raisin.  If you put a raisin in the sun it doesn’t do anything.”


Ebony Repertory Theatre presents A Raisin In the Sun, a timeless classic by Lorraine Hansberry and directed by Phylicia Rashad at the beautiful Nate Holden Performing Art Center through April 17, 2011.

A Raisin in The Sun is a beautiful production with a wonderful cast in an amaranthine setting.  Wonderfully directed by Phylicia Rashad who incidentally is making her Los Angeles directorial debut.  Rashad has done a masterful job of putting all of this together. 

The play is about the Younger family, surviving in a crowded tenement building.  A family that is on the edge of collapse but tries to overcome mountainous obstacles in order to remain intact. 

The action of the play is set in Chicago’s Southside sometime in the late 1950’s. Ruth Younger (Deidre Henry) goes about waking the family and getting them started for the day. She wakes her husband, a chauffer, Walter Lee Younger (Kevin Carroll) and her young son, Travis (Brandon David Brown) who sleeps in the living room on the couch.  Ruth hustles them into the bathroom they share with the neighbors.

Although they are desperately poor, they are very proud, loving family, and family full of ideas.  Each one in their way has inspirational dreams of getting ahead. (They should all be actors!)  But, in the back of everyone’s thoughts is a $10,000 check that is coming in the mail on Saturday.   An insurance check is the source of newfound hope caused from the passing of the patriarch, dying a few months prior.

Walter is eager to get his hands on the money, for the family.  He dreams of the day when owning a business will help him provide for his family.  If there were not these obstacles in his own home.    

Man says to his woman:  I got me a dream.  His woman say:  Eat your eggs.  Man say:  I got to take hold of this here world, baby! And a woman will say:  Eat your eggs and go to work.  - Walter

Walter enlists Ruth to take his side and to have her talk to his mother.  But if one dream is created, the other must be slightly delayed or even destroyed, and Walter goes about delaying his sister, Beneatha’s (Kenya Alexander) dream of becoming a doctor.

If you so crazy ‘bout messing ‘round with sick people – then go be a nurse like other women – or just get married and be quiet… - Walter

Beneatha wants suitors but not at the risk of spoiling her dreams of becoming a physician.  Her two suitors are George Murchison (Jason Dirden) and Joseph Asagai (Amad Jackson).  George is rich but Beneatha regards him as being “shallow” and wants little to do with him.  On the other end of her romantic endeavors, she is infatuated with Joseph and his African culture.  But, she's conflicted about his African ideas of a woman’s role in life and in the home.  

Meanwhile Ruth suddenly finds herself two months pregnant and she has made a down payment to have that pregnancy eliminated.  Nobody believes she would do that, not Walter, not Mama, and probably not herself.

Later, and after the check has arrived, Mama, can't bear to look at it but has Travis read her the numbers.  The pain being so great she asks Ruth to put it away.  Something happens in the home which makes Mama sneak off and purchase a house in the Clybourne Park neighborhood.

Ruth:  Clybourne Park?  Mama, there ain’t no colored people living in Clybourne Park.

Mama:  Well, I guess there’s going to be some now.

Having destroyed Walter’s dream of owning a business, Mama reconsiders and gives Walter the money left over from the down payment of the house, sixty-five hundred dollars.  Walter is instructed to put three thousand dollars into a savings account for Beneatha’s education fund.  And the rest, $3,500, into a checking accounting with his name on it to do whatever he wants. 

Mama has made a big mistake.

And not to add to their troubles, they have an ominous visitor in Mr. Lindner (Scott Mosenson) from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association.  Mr. Lindner's job is to keep the neighborhood white. 

It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.   - Lindner

Henry as Ruth Younger has a very nice appealConflicted about bringing another child into the world, her best intention is to hold on to her love from prior days, But moving is just the hope she needs.  Having a home where her kids can play in the yard is just the inspiration she needs to lift herself from the depression she is in.   It is a wonderful moment in the play.

Brown as Travis Younger was cute as the 11-year-old son making his professional stage debut.  He fills the role rather nicely as he begrudgingly walks into the other room to get his whuppin’.

Carroll as Walter Younger had his moments. Certainly it’s not easy to fill the role that Sidney Poitier created on Broadway but, still gave his own unique spin to the character and certainly gave it his all.  One is not entirely sure standing on the table (where his loving son eats) helps his character but Sidney did it so why not he?  To be fair he had a lot of wonderful moments and the emotional horror of losing all of the money was magnificent.    

Alexander as Beneatha was very charming as the doctor in training. The “mutilated” hair gives way to the African Afro later that simplifies her emerging into her unique self.  It is a very nice touch. The dance in the African dress was also very nice.  With all the talk about becoming a doctor, not one step was made in that direction.  (One finds this odd. Was it the writing or the direction?)  Be that as it may, Alexander has a high level of concentration.  Her eyes are very expressive and her thoughts are felt throughout.  She moves about the stage in a manner of a true professional.

There is always something left to love.  And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. - Mama

Caldwell, as Lena Younger held her own on stage.  There is a quiet intensity in her character as the matriarch.  She keeps the family together always coming back to love and to devotion for the family.  Her force is the water of life, giving moisture to those who will gratefully or ungratefully receive it.  This was an amazing performance and one not to be missed. 

Jackson as Joseph Asagai the African suitor was very motivating and inspirational.   His character shed light on the troubles of the family and put them in a true perspective.  This was a marvelous performance.  So inspirational was Jackson as he left the stage it was if the audience members would walk right out with him.

Let’s face it, baby, your heritage is nothing but a bunch of raggedy-assed spirituals and some grass huts! – George

Dirden as George Murchison has really got one thing on his mind, and it’s sex. (No surprise here.) He doesn’t have Beneatha’s best interest at heart.  And he has no intention of helping her family out, financially or otherwise.  But he also wants a woman who’s smart and not very ambitious.  One suspects, a couple of times to the movies and this relationship is over.  But, if he really wants this relationship to work, he needs to try a lot harder not only as the character but also as the actor. 

Mosenson as Mr. Lindner was ominous as the man who tries to convince the family not to move to Clybourne Park. Tall and imposing and was a physical force that wouldn’t take no for an answer no matter the cost.  Certainly not the nebbish character you’ve come to know but a marvelous characterization nevertheless.

Ellis Williams as Bobo was nice as the business partner who lost all of his life savings as well.  It’s too bad he had to be the messenger to this disastrous news.

Quincy O’Neal, and Bechir Sylvain were the moving men so you’ll know that this story has a happy ending.

Phylicia Rashad directs a marvelous cast in a wonderful production.   Not everything went according to plan on this night but that’s the joy of live theatre.  Missing were the extreme emotional bites that briefly destroys our faith in a character. One example the scene where Walter falls to the floor in emotion anguish needed that extra push from Mama to give that moment the absolute depth of despair.  It is this moment when Mama thinks she has figured out her son but still tests her son to do the right thing in the following scene. Nevertheless, Rashad gives the play her unique touch to this wonderful family drama that is full of life, hope and cherished moments.

There is this underlying force in Hansberry’s play.  Wanting a better life is something most people want, better schools, better jobs, a nice home. The through line of this carefully crafted play propels all of the characters to achieve their own dream. Rashad takes this force and gently guides them on their journey. This force that tears this family apart, equally binds them in the end. Seeing this production, one want to embrace this energy and hold it next to ones heart.

The marvelous Set Design by Michael Ganio shows a tenement building in the Southside of Chicago.  It is bleak and represents people living on top of each other. The wonderful costumes were by Ruth E. Carter.

The 8:00 pm curtain time on opening night became an 8:30 pm curtain. And who could blame them?  The night was like the Academy Awards out there with celebrities meeting and greeting.  Photographer were catching bright smiles and glistening eyes.   What a schmooze fest!  Intermission was the same with no one wanting to sit down until finally an actor came on stage and starting doing her thing, house lights came down and folks started falling into the their seats.

What a happening!  One hopes, when the common folks arrive to see this wonderful production, things have settled down a bit and curtain time starts promptly. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Mercy Seat by Neil Labute.

by Joe Straw

Ben (Johnny Clark) just sat there.  Stunned by the events of 9/11, he sat not listening to his phone, which was ringing continuously.  The blood in his face was bright red as though he had just escaped the towers moments before the first tower disintegrated.  And now he sits and thinks about his next move.  

In the background, near the kitchen, a small television replays the events from the prior day, but goes unnoticed.

And Ben just sits and listens to his cell phone, takes it out, recognizes the callers, and with little emotional stake he moves on.

A small trip to the grocery store and “his partner” Abby (Michelle Clunie) enters.  

This cannot be the beginning of the play. One must have arrived in the middle. 

Take back.

Take two. One walks in and observes a man sitting on a couch, playing with his phone not answering it.  It rings, quite a bit, to the point of annoyance.  He gathers the information on the screen and slips it back into his pocket.  In the background is a television set playing what are the events of 9/11. And then a lovely woman enters.  She’s a little disturbed, troubled, pissed, and/or agitated, for reasons not entirely clear.

One can only guess why Ben sits on a specific part of the sofa and begs for forgiveness without coming right out and saying it.  He is planning a deed for which there is no forgiveness, no forgiveness from his wife, his kids, his mistress and/or anyone else that is part of his tragic life.  Is this the mercy seat? 

The Mercy Seat written by Neil Labute and directed by Ron Klier playing at the beautiful Ford Theatre in Hollywood and presented by the VS. Theatre Company is wonderful theatre that will have you speaking to each other about love, hate and character motivations for months to come. (Providing you see it.)

Audience members immediately came out after the performance and were at an emotional loss but started a discussion in earnest. “Oh, he’s such a despicable character”.  But is he really?  Well, Cinderella he’s not but put yourself in his ill-fitting shoes.  What makes him so despicable? What is his motivation? Could we understand his perspective? Could there be a rationalization?

What can be the justification for someone to plan to commit a crime and then bring everyone down with him?   Is he so angry from current events of the world that he would commit an act so heinous as to destroy himself and those around him?  He seems like nice guy; after all he’s wearing a tie.

But, one compares him to a man who throws himself off a cliff and then screams for someone to save him.  Gratefully taking each saving hand on his way up and then purposefully pulling his savior over the cliff.   And that’s what she is, his savior.  For without her, he has nothing.

So he sits there hardly moving a muscle, in his middle class motif.

Abby enters and is visibly upset.  She brings in the groceries and violently fixes her a plate of cracker and cheese.  Slicing the cheese with such aggravation one would think she had a personal vendetta against Gruyere.  Or maybe it was the fact that it’s early morning and she’s running out to get him cheese.

“You make me feel small.” - Ben

But why is she angry?  She’s got a wonderful apartment, beautiful art on the walls, nice furnishings, a stainless steel kitchen, bay windows and a real Persian rug.  It’s her partner that she’s mad at.  And why not?  There are thousands of heroes out there helping and he just sits there as though nothing has happened.

Audie Murphy he is not.

“He (Audie) was a hero!  You don’t even recognize the word.” – Abby

How could anyone be angry?

“Duly noted.” - Abby

“Don’t”  - Ben

But, with Abby it cuts her to her core.  Still there’s a back-story we are not privy to until those moments accumulate on stage. And as this information is released the thoughts become clearer, the reason are magnified, and the despicable acts become one of a gross motivation without a clear explanation for a reason.

One is being very vague here as to not give too much away but still,

We find out:
He’s not a hero. 
He’s married.
He’s was not where he was supposed to be the morning of 9/11.
He’s untrustworthy.
His love only scratches her surface. 
He is vengeful.

There is his plan.  We’ve all got to have a plan.

(“You come in here.  You got no plan!”  -  Sylvia - Dog Day Afternoon)

“You’re the f**king guy in this relationship.” – Ben

And their relationship takes priority to the things that are happening in the city on September 12, 2001. It’s almost as though the events are a secondary thought.  Death and destruction all around them and all they can think about is the problems in their relationship?

“In your infinite wisdom, you failed to promote Me.” - Ben

Clunie as Abby gives a remarkable performance.  She was stunning and purposeful in her objective.  She wants one thing but she has a difficult time convincing him to do it.  With every sharp thought process on stage one can believe she is as expert at maneuvering her way up the corporate ladder. As bad as things got she holds the card that wins her the day.  Just an amazing performance!

Clark as Ben has a hard task in front of him.  He is the quintessential anti-hero.  It is extremely difficult to find a modicum of likeability.  Is it possible to be extremely bad or really nice with a bad objective?  Either way, his moments were often subtle and at times spectacular.  Could it be that he is testing her love to the extreme? The shovel that digs deeper is the one that makes little noise. And still the mercy seat keeps him in that pit until he can step on her back and climb out.  

The two characters in The Mercy Seat are like the wind and the bamboo struggling for superiority pushing, rolling, and bending while making violent sounds from their interaction.  And yet at the end of the storm, without a clear resolve, the wind moves on and the bamboo slowly recovers.  

Neil Labute has written a play, The Mercy Seat, which doesn't have a beginning.  It has a middle and an end and he wants you to figure out the beginning through choice pieces of information presented in the form of dialogue.  Put the puzzle together and see how everything fits. Sometimes the fit brings one to unpleasant revelations.   And if it’s a nauseating fit so be it, it makes for great theatre. 

Ron Klier, the director, has done a remarkable job of putting the pieces together.  The loving combatants on stage throw weapons that sting, and it is a never-ending battle with glorious victories on each side.   The play has a remarkable finish and one you will appreciate for years to come.  At the end of the day, it’s all about love. 

Danny Cistone, the Set Designer, created a spectacular set of an upscale loft in lower Manhattan and Mercedes Manning, the Art Director, provided the beautiful art along the walls of the upscale loft.

Andrew Carlberg, Johnny Clark, and Kimberly-Rose Wolter wonderfully produced this production.

Run to see this production!

Through April 24, 2011