By Joe Straw
There were moments in Lavender Love that were shocking and maybe they were un-intentional, nevertheless, those moments grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and slammed your face into an imaginary wall of a self awakening. Who knew theatre could do this? More on this moment later.
Meanwhile, while one is getting impatient for the start of the play, there was a gentleman sitting next to me and I asked him if he liked the idea of a play starting on time. He mentioned that we were probably the only two people in Los Angeles who preferred that scenario.
“At precisely 8:00 pm The King and I, starring Yul Brynner, began. Not one second before or one second after. And this happened every night, and for every performance.”
Somehow the discussion turned to theatre in New York and the late great director Sidney Lumet. “I’ve seen Serpico eight times.” One is not sure how we got off track. Maybe it was just one of those nights.
Finally, 25 minutes after eight, the play started.
There were actually some very shocking things in this production. There was a slight bit of nudity. This was not shocking. There was lesbian and gay love. This was not shocking. There were wonderful costumes by Costume Designer Christina Washington. This was also not shocking, but wonderful. The shocking moments come later.
Macha Theatre/Films and the producer of Garbos Cuban Lover present Lavender Love as part of the City of West Hollywood’s 25th Anniversary. Lavender Love, a new play by Odalys Nanin directed by Odalys Nanin and Ilmar Taska is pure camp. One might question if it is good camp, bad camp, or send your kids to camp, but we’ll leave that up to those who are eager to go and experience this theatrical camp.
Lavender love refers to a term use in the 1920’s for people in the movie business, notably actors, who needed to keep their reputations intact. Marriages were arranged to give the appearance that “those people” were just as normal as you, the general theatre going ticket buying public. (As if “you” are normal.)
In the 1920’s at the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset Boulevard stood the enormous Garden of Allah Hotel, home to Hollywood’s royalty and this is where our story takes place. But the story starts in present day West Hollywood and now on that corner is a dilapidated McDonalds, home to all kinds of miscreants looking for a cheap thrill or a cheap burger with tiny onions.
The play starts with a major crime being committed. Alas Nin (Lidia Ryan) steals a bag of chicken McNuggets. The theft of the four-piece chicken McNugget is so dastardly and so swift she is immediately wrestled to the ground by a security guard, Samuel Guardian (O’Neil Cespedes). He tells her that he’s called the cops and she’s going to jail when they get there.
She pleads for mercy. She doesn’t have any money and she’s waiting for a “residual check” (Aren’t we all?). And she has broken up with her girlfriend Evie Raven (Michelle Bernard) who’s Latina and “farts” all over her, all the time, in places where farts are totally unacceptable and inappropriate.
“She farted! A whole symphony of farts.” – Alas Nin
Sympathizing with her predicament, Samuel tells her to wait out the cops by hiding in the basement. He opens the door and convinces her to crawl into the basement with all the bugs and nasty vermin. When the cops leave she can come back out. In the meantime he confiscates the bag of McNuggets. (Just when you think the crime could not get any worse.)
Meanwhile cut to the 1920’s: Madame Alla Nazimova (Odalys Nanin) and her young lover “Natasha Rambova (Stephanie Ann Saunders) are fondling lesbians in the Garden of Allah and having a grand time entertaining their male counterparts Rudolph Valentino (Kristian Steel) and Paul Ivano (Drew Hinckley) who are also lovers in this dramatic camp.
They are playing some kind of fantasy. Ivano is in a black thong serving tea and Valentino is dressed like something from the Pan Mythology as he toots on a flute. Rambova is seducing Nazimova and they are all getting along famously. And while this is fascinating, it is still not shocking.
(Just a brief background, Nazimova was an incredible actress who studied with Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre, Rambova was a superior fashion designer, Ivano was an astonishing cinematographer, and Valentino is a ledgendary Hollywood icon. All of these people were well regarded in their craft and they also interacted extensively in their work.)
As Alas Nin feels her way around the nasty basement, something happens, she touches something, rings a bell, and upset the order of things by causing an earthquake. Somehow or another she travels back in time. (There was a nice video montage of her actions on stage that is thoroughly enjoyable and unpredictable.)
As Alas Nin comes up through the trap door she finds herself in the 1920’s in the company of Nazimova and Rambova. And for reasons not entirely clear they only hear her. In the meantime they manage to get her into the basement and throw the table on the trap door rush upstairs to get the séance stuff.
It’s all pure campy Houdini stuff as the four of them bring the intruder into a visible being. One supposes this is done through séance.
When Valentino and Ivano come down, they are dressed for dinner (tux and tails). They move the table and let Alas Nin back up into the hotel where they can see her! When the ladies come down they too finally see her.
Eventually, Alas Nin not only becomes part of the group she is a disrupting force to their entire happy family. Nazimova takes a liking to her and Rambova does not like any of this.
Odalys Nanin, as Madame Alla Nazimova, gives a very nice performance. She has a nice presence on stage and is comfortable in the roll. One wishes the tango to be hotter and one that leads her into a stronger conflict with the fellow actors on stage.
Lidia Ryan, as Alas Nin, has a “Lucy” quirk about her but without the depth. Her objective not clear leads her into dangerous territories on stage. One feels she has had little rehearsal and didn’t quite get the true picture on this particular night. The character desires stardom, but is not willing to work toward that objective.
Kristian Steel, as Rudoph Valentino, had some nice moments. Ultimately his performance was awkward possibly because of his age. (He is very young.) But the problem with his performance seems to be the interaction with the other actors on stage and the sense of self. One must say this is a man who is conflicted with his sexual identity. In this environment, he must behave differently when a total stranger enters his life. He must vie for the affections of all who come into contact with him. This is how he did it on screen; this is how he must do it in real life. When he says, “Valentino believes in many soul mates.” not only must he mean it but his actions on stage must convey that message. He must discard one soul mate for another, even in the blink of the eye.
Stephanie Ann Saunders as Natasha Rambova was absolutely ravishing! Caressing and absorbing her moments on stage was very delightful to observe. She is an amazing actress that knows her craft and the work is very visible on stage. Her hair, the makeup, etc. fit perfectly with the characterization. So absorbing in character one finds that a polite kiss on her hand would lead others into uncontrollable, unforgettable moments of pleasure. Her reactions to others physiognomies were enchanting. This was just a delightful performance.
Drew Hinckley as Paul Ivano had some nice moments but lost is the background of his character. Perhaps this is why his objective was not clear. Without a clear objective his moments on stage become lost in translation. Although he is proper in many ways the reality is he is a cinematographer, and must have a vision, must provide a life for things to look right and must find a way for the character to look, act, behave, despite the fact he is a naughty boy. He must have Valentino at all costs but must be conflicted with this Lavender marriage idea and possibly the thoughts of losing Valentino to Alas Nin.
Michelle Bernard, as Evie Raven, was wonderful in this performance. It is definitely a delightful character study of a strong poor Latina woman with one nice flimsy dress. To survive, it was not underneath her to cash her partner’s residual check. She definitely had the audience in stitches on this particular night.
O’Neil Cespedes, as Samuel Guardian, has a lot of potential. He has a nice stage presence but his words get lost at times. Maybe not having that much confidence in the words or whatever. Still, there has got to be more to this role than someone who moves the action along. He has a kind of verbal power, a command of his being, but needs to show the audience that power in action on stage. He is, metaphorically, a genie who puts someone else in the bottle while he lives life freely in disguise as a security guard. (One note: Smile at curtain call. It’s not all that bad.)
The alternates in the show are as follows: Ayin Aleph as Madame Alla Nazimova, Christoph Dostal as Rudolph Valentino, Nancy Dobbs as Natasha Rambova and Jill Evyn as Evie Raven.
Okay now the shocking part. Odalys Nanin has written a piece that includes video of the Great Japanese Tsunami of 2011. This is shocking in a couple of ways. Number one, this event just happened. The wounds of earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns are still felt and visible. Borrowing footage of scenes we’ve seen over and over again to represent footage and an oncoming tsunami in California is disheartening.
Number two, it takes away from “camp” for just a moment and spears us into a reality we have not gotten over. And it also says this is an afterthought to this play, which one believes is older than a couple of months. Let’s throw in a tsunami, earthquake and time travel to really throw a loop into this play. One is not sure this works. But to be fair maybe Nanin wants to give us a wakeup call. Stop worrying about the things we can’t control and love those we want to love and marry those we want to marry.
There did not seem to be a strong through line in this piece co-directed by Odalys Nanin and Ilmar Taska. The focus was not precise enough to give us a clear picture of the play’s meaning. Yes, it’s called Lavender Love but one is not getting the true picture of how Lavender Love affects the participants. What are the delights Nazimova gets from pulling the Lavender strings on the players. How does Lavender Love affect Alas Nin and her relationship with Nazimova? We never get a true picture of how Valentino is affected by marrying Rambova, or how Ivano feels about this betrayal from his friend Nazimova. There are a lot of ways to go here and also a long way to go to clean up these moments. It’s not an impossible task just a movement to clarity. Still, at the end of the day there were a lot of nice moments in this play.
John Toom did a great job with the Set and Light Design and created The Island of California. Also, Chris Hume job of Sound and Video was very surprising and excellent.
Lavender Love, the play, was one hour long on this particular night. Not sure how or why this happened. Possibly the budget could not demand a play 1 1/2 hour in length.