Monday, October 31, 2011

Betrayed – Story: George Packer

By Joe Straw

I’m a little confused by this title and slightly betrayed.  (Only slightly.)  The press notes indicates it’s “written by George Packer” but the program says something slightly different, “Story:  George Packer”.

Whitmore Eclectic presents Betrayed – Story:  George Packer, directed by Andrew Verderame, at the Lyric Theatre in Hollywood through November 13, 2011 is a wonderful production with fantastic performances.   

It is about a subject matter that, to this day, I do not understand:  The invasion of Iraq, the loss of American and Iraqi lives, and the idea that the American taxpayers are and have been footing this bill.  (Let’s see if my political leanings can get me into trouble.)

This show is brutally honest with graphic videos and sound design, by Aliah Whitmore, and is not for the squeamish. As James Whitmore, Jr. introduces the show he says that if you’re offended, “Don’t look.” 

Self-censorship is protected under the First Amendment.

Adnan (Pasha Bocarie) is a man who doesn’t fit in. His day-to-day existence was selling cigarettes on Mutanabi Street in old Baghdad and it was a life he was reluctant to live.  With the overthrow of Saddam Hussein he has thoughts of redirecting the focus of his life without morbid thoughts of thanatopsis.

Adnan has a rendezvous with his friend Laith (Peter Sabri) in a hotel.  It has taken both of them days to get there.  

Sadly, Laith is living on the edge.  He has been getting threatening calls and wants to leave the country.  But an unsuccessful attempt to cross the border results in his fake passport being confiscated.  His objective is to reach Bill Prescott (Andrew Patton), a state Department official, and an old friend from their Green Zone days, and have him arrange his way out.   He can’t do this without the help from his friend, Adnan.

Thus begins a series of flashback where Adnan and Laith reminiscence about how they got to this point in their lives.  Starting with how they came to work for the State Department. 

With Laith it is interpreting for a soldier Jason (Robert Fabiani) and his unit.  But Adnan goes directly to the Green Zone to apply for a job.  As he is there he runs into Intisar (Aliah Whitmore) who is also applying for a position.

After Adnan is accepted, he is taken to a Regional Security Officer (Dustin Seavey) who interrogates him using the modern up-to-date, inadmissible-in-court, lie detector.

In the meantime Prescott accepts Intisar.  Adnan goes back to have lunch with Laith and tells him he has secured Laith an interview.

All three are issued yellow badges and are sworn in by the RSO who instructs them on the finer points of the Green Zone and the Red Zone.

“What is the Red Zone?” – Intisar

“The Red Zone…it’s what’s outside the Green Zone.” – RSO

“You mean – Iraq?” – Intisar

“Congratulations and welcome to the American mission in Baghdad.” – RSO

The three become working friends and discuss their dreams of the future in five years but things start going awry.  Intisar makes a big mistake by agreeing to appear on non-stop TV news feeds to Iraq and Washington.

The Iraqis are also becoming suspicious of this trio.  Our three heroes approach Prescott to get green badges because they feel their lives are in danger waiting in the streets to get into the compound.   The SRO denies their request for and when this happens Intisar is gun down in the streets of Baghdad.

Next time, Adnan and Laith go directly to the Ambassador (Craig Braun) to get green badges because they feel their lives are in danger. Again, the SRO denies their request.

Prescott is so fed up he asks Adnan and Laith to take him to a restaurant, somewhere in Baghdad.  They do so and while they are there he asks Laith to find an Iraqi leaders to open a dialogue. 

“What we hear is they refuse to talk to the occupiers.” – Prescott

“Some of them want to.  There are differences within them.  But they need a channel.” – Laith

“… O.K. Open up a back channel and we’ll see what happens.” – Prescott 

Laith does so and this mistake gets him into a lot of trouble.

This story highlights the differences between men and women, Americans and Iraqis, and finally Shia and Sunni with seemingly no resolution on the conflicts either now or in the near future. Setting all this aside this is a very fine cast and exceptional performances all around. 

Pasha Bocarie as Adnan is excellent. There is a very nice truth to his craft.  It is understated and not overly emotional as the character seeks a path that is different than his counterpart.  Adnan is a man who wants to continue to live in Iraq.  He has no thoughts of leaving, and he will do what is necessary to survive.  His performance was marvelous.

Peter Sabri as Laith was also excellent.  He is an actor who is always in the moment and feels his emotion moments to his core.    As Laith, he follows a path that leads him to make a lot of mistakes.  His overriding trust in his fellow human being, be they American or Iraqi, gets him into a lot of trouble.  Which is why he is fighting for his life.  Still, Sabri needs to recognize his mistakes and make more of the moments that give creation to his downward spiral.  This will only add to an already very terrific performance.

Andrew Patton as Prescott was marvelous.  Last seen in Moby Dick Rehearsed this role was a chameleon-like transformation in character.  And as the character, he is a man out of place, out of his time and element. Try as he might he cannot overcome that which is his inept government.  But, guilty by association, this must included his own ineptitude caused by his own actions of which he is unaware.  First, he throws Intisar in front of a camera feed that goes out to who knows where, publicly displaying her image.  Secondly, he sends Laith out to try to find the enemy unaware of havoc he is creating.   Although he is unmindful of all of the problems he has caused, in the end, he wants to make good and it is this force of rightness that sends him out frantically trying to save his friends.  This was a job well done. 

Aliah Whitmore as Intisar delivers an exceptional performance complete with Iraqi accent.  As the character she fights against the inequality of women in her country.  This gets her into a lot of trouble, which she is not able to overcome.  Still she fights for what is right even if it means paying the ultimate price. 

Dustin Seavey plays the Regional Security Officer who does his job efficiently, possibly a little too efficiently.   It’s a nice job for a humorless role.  This trick to the role (and yes, there are tricks) is to find the moment that is going to give the character the human touch rather than just seeing “the machine” that is his job.  Still, this was a very good performance.

Craig Braun as the Ambassador (October 13-14) was slightly nervous on this particular night.  It was a nice performance that needed the “thing” that makes him the Ambassador.  Tim Dezarn was not playing the Ambassador the night I was there.

Robert Fabiani as the Soldier Jason did a nice job as a person who is overwhelmed with his job.  His nerves are frayed the longer he stays in Iraq.  He has come to the point where he does not trust anyone, even friends.  And will just as soon rifle butt you in the head if you look at him the wrong way.  This is a solid performance by a wonderful actor.

Haaz Sleiman did an admirable job as the Dialect Coach and was the Dishdasha Man and Correspondent number one.

Max Siam was the Cursing Man and Eggplant Face (Abu Abbas).

Andrew Verderame, the director, has done a marvelous job with this show. His actors were exceptional and the direction was exceptional and overall very enjoyable. While most plays tell a story using a narrative and the narrative is a specific period of time, George Packard’s play/story focuses on the use of flashback.  Not my favorite way of telling a story in most mediums but not impossible to pull off if the life and death moments out of the hotel room pull us in to the dramatic moments into the hotel room.

Maybe it was opening weekend, or something else, but the action seemed to start and stop the moment we go back into the hotel.  Also, we as an audience need to consider what is behind the hotel room door and should not forget that at any single moment someone may come in and take the characters away, for good.  Focus on a time element with life or death as the dramatic conclusion.  We should never forget that someone is coming for them and it is only a question of when.

Just as an aside, the program to the play is an outstanding comic book like program.  No credit is given to the person, or persons responsible for this wonderful program.  It says a lot about the commitment Whitmore Eclectic pays to the actors, director and the rest of the staff. 

Go!  This is a very good show about a powerful subject matter.  And take a Marine with you, he or she may have something more to say.  

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dusk Rings A Bell by Stephen Belber

By Joe Straw

When chaotic events surround me in Los Angeles, I take a moment, close my eyes, and go to a place of my youth.  I concentrate on a distant memory, lying under a shady maple tree, listening to a mockingbird repeat my every whistle.  There is the silent sound of a nearby stream where small frogs “bleep” before jumping into tranquil waters.  I stare up at mellifluous white clouds floating by and listen as my cat, Mouse, paddles her way to me. I use this sense memory to relax, to let go, and hope that when I open my eyes, life around me will be less tumultuous.

Dusk Rings a Bell by Stephen Belber and directed by Daniel Henning playing at The Blank Theatre in Hollywood is brilliant!  Belber’s words are a song of past remembrances, of missed opportunities, and of one soft kiss.  This is the story of two souls who come together after twenty-five years apart.   

Never have I been so moved, so touched, by the lyrical beauty of Belber’s words.  This play is so simple, so beautiful, and so picturesque.  But, as simple as it appears, it is highly complex and filled with so many levels. One may look back on this play time and time again to absorb its full meaning.  

There has been only a few times where emotions have overcome me.  And on this particular night, I was not the only one.  In the intimate house of The Blank Theatre, uncontrollable sobs were heard throughout.   Gentlemen were wiping their eyes and women were sobbing.  And this was only after the first few moments of the play!

This play touches emotions deep within you and sweeps you away into the unchartered territories of your soul.

Molly (Thea Gill), age 39, is an executive at CNN.  She is bright and articulate, and is open to opportunities by legal means or otherwise.  Recently divorced, she embarks upon a journey to visit a place and find a letter she wrote to herself 25 years earlier. 

She speaks of herself as a stuttering child and has the fortitude to quit, cold turkey.  It is that moment of motivation that gives her the ability to succeed later in life.  She speaks reverentially of a time spent with her parents in a Delaware bungalow and of a special kiss long ago that has remained with her.  

Ray (Josh Randall) is a guy who does guy things.  He does not appear bright.  He likes the outdoors and is the caretaker of a cabin in Bethany Beach, Delaware. He describes a hawk devouring a rat in a tree and thought it was cool.  He speaks of kissing a particular girl and thinking what life had been like if he had gotten into her pants.  It’s the grand glorious musings of a not too bright testosterone filled gardener.  Still his words have a kindness about them.  

Molly parks her car, finds the place, and breaks into the bungalow.  She finds the letter folded in a neat triangle in the attic, exactly where she had placed it 25 years ago. Her thoughts overcome her as slowly opens the triangle, shivering as she reads the letter to her adult self.   

And at the end of the letter she asks herself the question: “Are you happy?” 

She turns the letter over and discovers that someone has written the word,  “No”. 

A short time later Ray discovers her in a bungalow.  The criminal elements of the scene are laid out. He traps her into confessing her crime.  He wants money for the broken window.

“I’ll pay for it.  How much is it?” - Molly

“Eighty dollars.” - Ray

“I only have sixty.” - Molly

“I’ll take it.” – Ray

After paying him, she tries to leave, but he stands too close to let her pass. He stands close enough to inhale her and does not move. She tells him that her friends are waiting for her near the car.  He’s not buying the story and after a few tense sexually charged moments let’s her pass.

And as Molly escapes, she asks his name. “Ray”, he tells.  Eyes wide open, the curiosity seeker believes he is the boy she had a relationship with 25 years earlier.  (The kiss.)

There is a “thing” Ray does with his eyes brows.  The deeper the references, the closer the eyebrows get. In a state of anoesis, try as he might he’s not remembering any of it, the kiss, the moment, the excitement of spending time together.  His vacuous stare is not giving anything away. Nothing rings a bell.

Or does it?  He is so engrossed in the possibility this might be the “one” he shuts down not wanting to give one single thing away. But then, he succumbs to her charms, her insistencies, and her desire to get to the truth only known to both of them.  

But their story has a tragic middle as Ray tells Molly that he has spent time in prison, ten years, for the death of a gay student.  He tells her that he didn’t kill him, he was just around, when his friend repeatedly hit him.  They were drunk and went off and had pizza afterwards (for twenty-five minutes!) before anyone notified the police.

Molly is mortified, angry, afraid and disgusted, and leaves immediately.  She comes back days or weeks later to get more of the details of the tragic night.   They spend time together talking about the night of the murder. She has a physical relationship with him and then… (I can’t give this away.)

Their differences are night and day, possibly the reason for the title, “Dusk Rings A Bell.”

The appeal of this play is an inherent desire to take sides once information is released.  Moving back and forth between each character is a wonderful game.  When one character shows their perspective you immediately have sympathy and empathy for that person. When they are in dialogue and reveal information you can decide whose side you are on, if there is a side you wish to choose.

Age plays a different game.  The games become more complicated and nuanced the older we become. Intentions and objectives become as intricate as a fully realized chess game, by masters.

Receiving and sharing information about life’s ups and downs has its consequences. In any case, one comes away from this sensory extravaganza a better person.  More informed by the complexities of life and discussions of what is real and what is held back.

Josh Randall as Ray does a remarkable job of giving this man so many layers.  There is this empty-headed stare, which is mostly of out self-preservation. He is in actuality an intelligent man who doesn’t want to reveal too much information because he knows that doing so could destroy a beautiful relationship. Still, he does.  Randall gives us every day of his life as he treads the lonely road of due diligence to make amends for the wrong he has committed. And he walks a foggy path hoping to get to a clearing.  This is a remarkable role for this actor who lives and breathes this one mistake.  The mistake is written on his sleeves, stamped on his forehead, inside his inner being and it is a job well done.

Thea Gill as Molly is remarkable as well.  She has a gift off telling a story and making us see the small particulars.  She explores a lifecycle that has come full circle and she comes back expecting something magical to happen.  Expecting her knight in shinning armor.  One believes she works for CNN and has the high profile job that demands the truth in whatever form she can get. So after she gets this information why does she come back?  It is the reason that makes this remarkable actress so intriguing, so watchable, and questioning her every move. This is just a wonderful performance.  

Daniel Henning does a brilliant job putting all of this together.  It is a wonderful achievement and his finest work.  It is terrific storytelling at its best and mesmerizing in its subtle details.  

Stephen Belber, the writer, has written a terrific play. It’s all about the words and the words lead you to remarkable places. Belber’s words are so depressingly beautiful – it’s enough to make you stop punching the keys on your computer, throw down your pen, and walk away.  Or, on the flip side, an inspiration to keep scratching the hard thoughts on stone tablets.

The producers of this show are Matthew Graber, Daniel Henning and Noah Wyle.

Kurt Boetcher, the Set Designer has done a fabulous job creating a beachfront with which our characters can do their magic. The set is a muted color cream color that works as the place and tells us that not all human emotions are black and white.

Costume Design by Michael Mullen worked effectively. Stephanette Smith was the Lighting Designer on this wonderful show. 

The Sound Design by Warren Davis really helps in giving the audience that extra sensory experience of sound heard by the characters and the audience. 

The Job of Casting by Scott David and Erica Silverman was tremendous and shows they know the craft intimately. 

Kristen Lee Kelley plays Molly and Jarret Wright plays Ray in understudy roles.

Run to see this production! Take a long lost lover, hold hands in the dark, sit back and enjoy.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The God of Isaac by James Sherman

By Joe Straw

Isaac rolled out the red carpet for his mother. It’s the second worst thing an actor can do.  At least give it a week into the run, or until things settle down.

The first worst thing is inviting your Jewish mother to opening night.  What could have gotten into this guy?  Is he a meshugginer?

Actors want opening night to be special but yet here she is (introduced by him by the way) and she’s kvetching right back at him about his life and his unwillingness to even be curious about their religion.  The actors are aware she is out there and try not to break character. Still, she is a nuisance.  

Later, the patrons have had enough.  They ask her to be quiet.  And the situation was getting a little out of hand.  (Upon entering the theatre I had noticed a defibulator on the wall and wondered if that was going to be needed on this particular night.  Someone was going to lose it, and it wasn’t going to be a pretty sight.)

And then the ushers marched in to quiet her with no luck.  This was followed by security wielding batons. Still, she’s not leaving. Saying something about “her only son and her constitutional rights.”

When they heard “constitutional rights,” everyone backed away, hands off, and walked quietly backwards toward the lobby, and the show continued.

The right to free speech is a beautiful thing.   

The Lying Narrator.

You can’t believe everything you read from The Lying Narrator, still there was some truth to what he is saying.  

The God of Isaac written by James Sherman and directed by Darin Anthony at the Pico Playhouse in West Los Angeles, California through November 27th, 2011, is a lot of fun and performed by a tremendous cast.

The play is about Isaac Adams (Adam Korson) who seems to be part of a theatre group in Los Angeles in the 1980’s as referenced by the ‘80s music before the performance.  He has invited his mother M (Karen Kalensky) to be a part of this Los Angeles premier. (I don’t think I’m giving too much away as the mother is in the first scene sitting in the audience.)

Going back in time we get a glimpse of his early life in the Midwest.

Isaac is a writer whose eyes are not opened to the simplest things surrounding him.  An awakening, of sorts, happen when Jewish men want to perform Tefillin approach him. It is a ceremony that, at first glance, doesn’t have much of an effect on him. But the idea of awakening to his religious heritage is like an alarm clock with a snooze button.  And he keeps pressing, “Snooze”. 

Working as a journalist in Chicago, he falls in love with two ladies, Chaya (Jennifer Flaks) and Shelly (Corryn Cummins).  Chaya is a nice Jewish girl that he has known since they were children.  Shelly is a shiskse and a hot fashion model whom he has known for a short period of time. She is great in bed and he marries her much to the dismay of his mother.

Isaac forges on with his daily life not giving much consideration to the big picture.   He plows along not thinking until the next big event. And then an event awakens his senses and opens up in his mind.

The mental time capsule here is the 1978 proposed march by the Nazis Socialist Party of America in a heavily Jewish population of Skokie, Illinois.  This march was planned after the organization was denied the right to march in Marquette Park in Chicago. Frank Collin headed this organization and astonishingly enough was later found to have Jewish roots.

Still, Adams is awakened by the thought, that through his writing, he will take a spiritual journey that will define his life.   

Judaism defines me.

Isaac and Shelly set up household.  Shelly, coming home, mentions that she bought them a bed and “Jewed the guy down 200 bucks.”  Of course this doesn’t sit well with Isaac.

Looking at the both of them and their discourse about Oscar Myer non kosher salami, white bread and mayonnaise one thinks: “This ain’t gonna last.”  He is never going to convince her that rye or pumpernickel, and mustard are the perfect compliments to kosher salami for a Jewish man.

Still, Isaac searches for a truth he cannot find but, by the end, he becomes a whole mensch who understands a little more of the world around him.

Adam Korson as Isaac Adams is very good in the role but as one tries to make sense of the character, or the core of the character, one finds this is your average everyday kind of guy. Do we really come to theatre to see everyday average?  Korson is a very good actor, very likeable, but not giving the character a unique perspective. Imagination and inspiration is found in the process of making mistakes and more mistakes need to be made.  

Karen Kalensky as Mom was quite terrific.  Finding a way to make her scene on stage work would only add to an already terrific per performance.  Kalensky has a very strong voice and is an accomplished actor.  She is delightful to watch even in her quiet moments, sitting in the audience, watching the show. 

Peter Van Norden in various roles is probably one of the finest actors working in Los Angeles today.  The roots of all of his characters are very deep.  With each role, there is a sense the character has traveled thousands of miles to get to this moment.  Nothing is wasted.  His voice is commanding, and his actions are very specific. His scene as the tailor reinforces my belief that his work is tremendous and he is inspiring to watch.

Jason Weiss in various roles has a number of good moments.  He has a nice look and is capable of doing a number of impressions. Terry Malloy (On The Waterfront)  “I couldn’t been a mensch!” Tom Joad (Grapes of Wrath),  Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn (I didn’t quite get this), and the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.

Jennifer Flaks as Chaya is very good and does a nice job as the Jewish girlfriend who tries to say in touch with Isaac.  When Isaac overlooks her as a suitable mate, she becomes the long-suffering girlfriend who decides to marry a nice Jewish man. She ends up divorced but still remains friends with Isaac. The long-suffering girlfriend, as part of the character, doesn’t work. Flaks needs to find ways to get Isaac to add elements to her character whether she gets him or not. Still, she needs to try.

Corryn Cummins as Shelly was fantastic. She has a number of things going for her most importantly her concentration. She understands being in the moment and can easily play with a character on stage as well as off stage.  Cummins has a very nice look and has an accomplished way of handling her self on stage. She succeeds with all characters that she portrays. She is wonderful to watch in every role she plays in this production.

Herb Isaacs, a very nice gentlemen whom I have had the pleasure of meeting, will be taking over Peter Van Norden roles from November 17-27.

James Sherman, the playwright, has written a fun play. There were some terrific moments, actually too many funny moments to count.   One realizes this play is about the spiritual awakening of a man who hasn’t come to grips with his Jewish heritage. 

One could argue the benefits of the movie references either adding to or taking away from the story. It works when it works but on this opening weekend it just didn’t jell. The references were a story off on itself and not relating to the rest of the play.  They were funny, but what did this all mean?

Darin Anthony did a fine job putting this all together. There were a lot of funny moments. Some things didn’t work but overall it was an enjoyable evening and I’m glad I went.  

Kurtis Bedord was the Set Designer that worked very well for the space. Sherry Linnell did a nice job as the Costume Designer.  Bill Froggatt was the Sound Designer and Raul Clayton Staggs, the Casting Director, did a remarkable job. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Silent Roar – Directed and Choreographed by Zina Bethune

By Joe Straw

In 1998, I had the good fortune of attending the Academy Awards.  It was Titanic's year.  But, the highlight of the evening was Stanley Donen accepting an Honorary Academy Award for his body of work. Charming and charismatic, I remember him saying, “You show up and stay the hell out of the way. But you gotta show up or else you can't take the credit and win one of these guys."

Showing up is winning half of the battle and on this particular night at the El Portal Theatre, somebody didn’t show up, and as theatre goes, anyone who is a part of the show is an important person in the show.

Well, this particular technician did not show up.  Something happened.  This was opening weekend and someone was going to have to call someone and get a crash course on how to use a technical gizmo thingy.

The show continued, late, but the show went on. What fortitude!   

The Annenberg Foundation & Theatre Bethune presents Silent Roar A Whale’s Journey directed and choreographed by Zina Bethune at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, California through October 16, 2011.

First of all, the El Portal is a beautiful theatre and perfect for this dance presentation. There’s plenty of street parking if you get there early and parking across the street for four dollars. 

It isn’t often one sees a dance presentation with the dancers representing whales and other sea creatures but Bethune has never been one to do the mundane.

Silent Roar is the sound no human hears. It must be a focused attention when looking out to sea. Listen carefully and the life that is under the sea will come to you.  

This is a story told in dance about grey whales and their migration south to the Sea of Cortez and back north to the coast to Alaska. 

This is a life captured, an escape into a wonderland that is the sea.  A life of unexpected treasures and tragic beginnings. Simply put, the whales mate in Alaska, have their babies in the Sea of Cortez, and then return to Alaska. But along the way, and at every step of the way, they encounter difficulties in unimaginable proportions.

Whale Hunters (Ryan Anderson, Korey Knecht, Aaron Misakian) kill the Dominate Male (Patrick Loyd).  The Female Grey Whale (Cindy Ricalde) and the Subordinate Grey Whale (Raydel Caceres) try to save him but cannot. They move on to the Sea of Cortez.

Along their perilous journey, they swim into Orca Whales (Vicky Lambert, Patrick Loyd, Jacob “Kujo” Lyons) and all sorts of sea creatures like Dolphin (Stephanie Kim), Manta Ray (Vicky Lambert), Sea Horses (Jacob “Kujo” Lyons, Sarah Moser), Sea Turtle (Stephanie Kim), a funny pair of Harlequin Shrimp (Jorge Arceo and Patrick Loyd), Garibaldi (Raydel Caceres), Seals (Abby Avery, Stephanie Kim, Julia Rodriquez-Olsen).

Also, they encounter Strip Miners (Ryan Anderson, Korey Knecht, and Aaron Misakian).  There are two types of strips miners in this presentation, those who don’t care what they kill in the process of blowing up things and those who have a soul. I prefer the later.

In the Sea of Cortez, Baby Whale (Paxton Brake) is born and he is immediately is threatened by a group of Hammerhead Sharks (Abby Avery, Albertossy Espinoza, Vicky Lambert, Patrick Loyd).

This is just pure fun for the whole family. The visuals are spectacular and the play among the sea kelp is stunning. 

Cindy Ricalde, Raydel Caceres, and Patrick Loyd were fantastic and very watchable. Jorge Arceo was equally amazing as the Teen Whale and the Harlequin Shrimp.

Vicky Lambert was amazing as the Manta Ray. 

Paxton Brake as the Baby Whale gave us a very nice interpretation.  He is dancing and acting well beyond his years. And it is always nice to see a dancer giving it his all even at the tender age of eight.  Jobe Belles as Differently Abled Boy on a crutch was equally fascinating to watch taking a scientific approach as opposed to an emotional one in saving the whale.

The baby dolphins (Gaby Aguilera, Lizzie Arlington, Carissa Edwards-Mendez, Gianna Gomez) gave a lot to this performance.  It is wonderful to see the young coming up and giving so much of themselves to this performance.

The otters were amazing and the highlight of the show as they danced among the sea kelp.  The aerialists were Teresa “Toogie” Barcelo, Rebecca Freund, and Sarah Sporich.

The other wonderful dance performers in the cast are Jacob “Kujo” Lyons, Sarah M. Moser, Albertossy Espinoza, Stephanie Kim, Abby Avery and Julia Olsen-Rodriguez. 

The actors including Whale Hunters and Watchers are Korey Knecht, Araron Misakian, Ryan Anderson, Rachael Bergen, Ayelet Firstenberg, and Justus Perry. Not much dialogue here as most of the action is in dance. Still, they filled in the gaps when filling in was needed.

Zeljko Marasovich was responsible for the Original Composition. Wyland gave us the beautiful Video and Mural Artwork. Tod Hillman was responsible for video design, although the videos were not as sharp as they could have been.  Ric Zimmerman was the Lighting Designer. David Goldstein was the Scenic Designer and Melanie Gomez did a wonderful job on the costumes for the dancer.

One has to applaud Zina Bethune, the Writer, Director and Choreographer for staging a marvelous piece of work.  It was a visual feast. And one must also applaud her for being color blind to this wonderfully racially diverse cast.    

Monday, October 10, 2011

Love Sick by Kristina Poe

By Joe Straw

This was the night the satellite was to come down on our planet.   NASA can never be precise about the exact location of its ultimate colliding place. “It is to crash somewhere in the United States.  Revision: not in the Northern Hemisphere. Third revision: in the Pacific Ocean. Fourth revision: off the coast of Oregon.  Fifth Revision:  Hollywood.”

Given my slightly offbeat imagination, I thought it might be the reason for the Hollywood Street closures.  No, wait a minute; they close Hollywood down all the time.

So, okay, back to reality, Hollywood Street closings can only mean one thing - a delay in show time, but no matter, it’s opening night and the alcohol is flowing.  And wouldn’t you know it there was champagne in plastic cups with little blueberries, copious amounts of beer, and wine.  But with the alcohol flowing and no intermission that can only mean one thing: During the show somebody’s going to get up to make water, a few somebodies.

All right, this is all slightly insane, getting the audience a little buzzed, is unusual but not out of the ordinary.  

Love Sick has a subtitle, Love’s a Bitch With a Gun.  Love Sick is a comedy that should have another name.  How about Deranged love.  Desperate Love. Misguided Love. Love on the Rocks. Mind Snap Love. Something’s Loose, Love.  Don’t Make it Hard Love. A Gun Makes me Strong, Love. Don’t Waste your Bullets on me Love. Wrap Your Legs around this Love.

Love Stinks written by Kristina Poe and Directed by David Fofi and presented by The Elephant Theatre Company through October 29, 2011 is having its world premier.  And like other plays seen there one has to carefully absorb the events of the play. One will love it, hate it, or think about it, forever.  Some may even try to wrap their mind around Fofi’s perspective or Poe’s presentation of this comic insanity.      

One of the fascinating things about “Love Sick” is this “puzzle” that wanders in the back of your mind after viewing this presentation. One could argue the merits of this finely acted production as being good or bad, comedy or drama, black or white but the one thing that stays constant is that Love’s a Bitch With A Gun.  But is she really?

The story starts out with a crime.  A disheveled woman, Emily (Alexandra Hoover) sits next to a stall in dingy public bathroom.  Her clothes are torn. The mascara is dripping down her face.  We immediately feel sorry for her.  Something tragic has happened.  She’s been violated.  She is alone in the bathroom trying to compose her self. She somehow manages to light a cigarette just as there is a knock at the door.  It is her friend Don (Michael Friedman).

The lights come up slightly for us to discover there is a man lying face down on the floor, not moving. He appears to be dead.  

When Don enters and sees this he wants no part of it and he takes his phone and tries to call for help.   Emily takes his cell phone throws it in a waste filled toilet, pulls a gun on him, and threatens to shoot him if she doesn’t do what he asks.  He withers like a tulip long past its prime.  She orders him to take off the deceased’s belt and to throw his wallet and the belt over to her.

And suddenly there is a remarkable transformation in her.  With the warm gun in hand she grows more confident, self assured, a clear thinker, and able to seize the moment and control the situation all with the careful placement of a gun barrel. 

When she has the evidence with his fingerprints in her purse.  She tells him to get rid of the body.

I’m having the best sex of my life. - Mom

Later Emily meets up with her mother in a bar, Mom (Melanie Jones), is excited about her new love, a man she has just met and is going off with him to some deserted island to have her coconuts (fill in the blank)

“I just killed a man.” – Emily

This gets no response from her mother, as she seems more concerned about getting laid.  And as Emily lights a cigarette her mother tells her not to smoke, it will only kill her.  But her mother recognizes that she is in some kind of trouble and gives her the name of a therapist that may help her. Then the mom happily dances off to her next romantic adventure. 

A man, The Man (Dominic Rains), has been standing at the bar, listening.  She threatens to kill him when he comes on to her.  But he relishes the prospects. In fact he takes her gun and points it to his heart and implores her to pull the trigger.

Emily doesn’t pull the trigger possibly because she senses no fear in him, and that doesn’t excite her in the way that would make her want to pull the trigger.  There is something strange about this man who doesn’t have a name and charms this woman into seeking help.

So now Emily is in a therapy group run by Jerry (Christopher Game).  Jerry is probably someone who does not have the credentials to perform this type of service but runs the group to satisfy his own sexual desires.

He forgot the sugar.  He borrowed mine. – Helen

In the group is Helen (Etienne Eckert), a woman looking for big love and little pies.

Chris (Kenny Suarez) needs support from all of these single women in the group because his wife has left him.  So broken up about it all he doesn’t see any of the single women in the room. And, for some reason, they don’t see a single man.  

Shelly (Laura Harman) can’t hold onto a man for more than one date. And Inez (Caryl West) has got a lousy card partner.

Emily is new to the group and is a little shy about spilling her life to these complete strangers.

Jerry overseas the group and takes the initiative to corral the emotions of all involved and lets each know their problem is heard and that they are important members in this game of life.

As a source of reaffirmation they all get up and sing a song.

First I was afraid
I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live
With out you by my side
But then I spent so many nights
Thinking how you did me wrong
I grew strong
I learned how to get along
And so you’re back…  - Gloria Gaynors’ I Will Survive

But there is a sinister plot underneath.  Jerry takes advantage of one of the younger ladies in the group.  Emily watches this enfold and in disgust does away with Jerry, but only in the nicest way imaginable (with a gun).

Later, Emily confronts her husband Jeff (Salvator Zuereb) who is now living with his girlfriend Lexi (Kate Huffman) a former nature tour guide.  Emily brings a gun to this meeting and a real truth is discovered.  

Despite all the shooting, this is a comedy performed by a fantastic cast.  Unfortunately one is not sure everything jelled this opening night.

Alexandra Hoover as Emily has some incredible moments in this play.  She is so caught up in the business of killing and for all the wrong reasons.  When she discovers what a gun can do how much power it gives her, she becomes a superwoman.  But she is a woman who’s got this love idea totally confused, and she is not living in reality on this planet until she confronts her husband.

Michael Friedman as Don has a strong New York accent.  So strong is the accent that it makes us believe the setting is in New York.  His relationship with Emily lacked a connection physically or emotionally and the opening needs work.  Also, his relationship with the dead body lacked a respect given to a deceased person, on the floor, in a bathroom, somewhere in the naked city.  Still Friedman had some very nice moments and there was some really nice work going on here.

Dominic Rains (The Man) was quite impressive as a mystery lover either real or imagined.  He has no name and yet he appears from obscurity to talk some sense into our tragic heroine’s head.  He is a lover, with movie star good looks.  He anticipates her thought processes and reads between the lines of our confused, psychotic, gun-toting heroine.

Melanie Jones as Mom was delightful in many ways.  She is in a hurry to see her beau and has little time to talk to her daughter but does give her a moment to give her some motherly advice.  Don’t smoke and get some help.

Christopher Game as Jerry Fortund is one very watchable actor.  He seizes the character with such finesse and makes most of the little moments he has on stage in a very creative way.  And his character has a problem in that he likes to take advantage of women who may be susceptible to his advances.  In the real world, one should not share a fetish in public.  Especially true in the presence of woman with a gun and an axe to grind.  

Laura Harman as Shelly plays an attractive woman that cannot keep a man longer than one date. She is very sympathetic but it is not clear why she cannot have a warm male body next to her.  Naive in a lot of respects and very much controlled by Jerry, there is never a clear indication in character of how things could have gone so wrong in her life.

Kenny Suarez as Chris was quite incredible, especially in-group, where he recounts the reasons for his marriage ending.  For those of us who have gone through this kind of thing, it really hits home.  Still, this is a comedy.  In group, on stage, the dialogue should lead us somewhere, have an effect on and with character, which includes connecting to various members of the group including Emily.  

Caryl West as Inez was charming who is without a partner, and a partner for cards, and now she has a terrible card partner.  It is a tragedy because in life she has not played her cards right.

Etienne Eckert as Helen was a lonely businesswoman who likes controlling the men in her life. The problem is she doesn’t have a man in her life, with the exception of one guy who comes over and makes tiny pies. And he doesn’t bring the sugar. How could he forget the sugar?

Salvator Xuereb as Jeff, Emily’s husband gives an outstanding performance.  He has two battles going on one with his current girlfriend and the other with his former wife.   He valiantly fights off the demands of the two competing women who vie for his affections.  And in the end a truth is revealed and beautifully done. This is a wonderful performance.  

Kate Huffman as Lexi was very strong in the role.  Very charming and believable especially with claws extended.  It was a very nice performance.

There is a second cast performing the roles Robert John Brewer as Chris, Don Cesario as Jeff, Charles Pacello as Jerry, and Nikki McCauley as Lexi.

Love Sick writer Kristina Poe has written a play that speaks to David Fofi the director and while I’ve seen wonderful plays at The Elephant Stages, Supernova, and Extinction, to name two that I have written up, I believe the work on this world premier play is not quite finished for both the writer and director.

Emily’s perspective is needed while she is on.  Emily gets lost with the focus of the other character rather than being affected by the events around her. This is especially true when she is downstage left in group therapy.  She should be upstage center with Jerry so there is a better understanding of her thought process and her interaction with them.  While this seems like a minor physical adjustment it puts Emily in the middle of all conflict, trying to find a resolution, and reaching her objective.

Secondly, we really need to know if Emily is insane, and if she is we need to see how this is affecting her character and how she relates to the other character and their problems.  She must be seeing things (the man) feeling things (the killings) not quite understanding things (the ending of her marriage). All of these things play into the power she gets from having a warm gun in her hand.

Also, there is no sense of place.  The program “Time:  the present.” Where? New York, Los Angeles? Set Design by Joel Daavid and Adam Haas Hunter gives us a set that can be manipulated but does not sell the locations.

Don has to knock on a public bathroom door?  Emily pulls a gun in a public bar? Bring in a few chairs, group.  Bring in a couch, an apartment. Don is carrying a body part in an unspecified section of town that goes nowhere. The set just confuses us into believing this a wharf somewhere and not where we are supposed to be. Unless she is insane and then, this entire thing works! Never mind.

Lindsay Allbaugh and Cherryl Huggins and Tara Norris produced this show.  

One needs to ask the question here: With an apparent rape or assault victim, in tears, on the floor and a lifeless body lying a few feet from her, how long does this imagery last before a comedy is a consideration?  Taking this from tragedy to comedy in a heartbeat is something that should be worked on until it is done right. (If you were an amateur, at home, you should not try this.  Let's leave it to these professionals to get it right.)
I’m going to introduce a new beginning.  Pitch black on stage.  A scream.  Three shots fired in the darkness.  The sound of a body falling. Cigarette lit; a confident Emily (with no tattered dress, no mascara running) calls Don (close by) to get there quickly.  He comes quickly.  Comedy begins.

Also, for those of us who don’t smoke, please find a stage cigarette substitute.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

­­­­­­Garbo’s Cuban Lover by Odalys Nanin

Elyse Mirto and Odalys Nanin
By Joe Straw

Early, in my acting career, an agent called me into her small office on Sunset Boulevard after witnessing “brilliance” (me in a showcase).  She thought I had “something”. 

She was an elderly chain-smoking woman with a big desk and a young Latino boyfriend, and or slash husband, who was coming in after a bike ride but not breaking a sweat.  They kissed after she expelled a lengthy plum of cigarette smoke. He hoisted the bike on his shoulders and walked upstairs.  He stuck his left thumb in the back-side of his biking shorts and started pulling them down before he got to the top of the stairs. (Multi-tasking I supposed.)   

That scene behind her and in between long puffs on her cigarette, she spoke to me with a gravelly voice. “I think I can do something for you, Joe.”  And when she said “Joe” it came out as an overly long and raspy “Jooooooooooe.”

Suddenly she pulled out a thick book of clippings of her days as a model slash actress.

“Joe, I was beautiful once.  Look at me, Joe.  Look at me!”  With cigarette in hand she pointed to her pictures and was dropping ashes on them.  Taking a deep breath she coughed or blew the ashes off first and then wiped the remaining bits of ash into the photographs.  It was a messy scene and one that had not escaped my perception for use in later endeavors.   

“Yes, these are beautiful pictures.” I said.  But in the back of my mind I thought, “I thought we were here to talk about my career?”

Not quite “old Hollywood stories” but just one that sticks in my memory about this movie-making town. 

The Macha Theatre in West Hollywood used to be The Globe Theatre.  On the outside little has changed.  But the interior is beautiful and inviting. The lounge and bar are delightful, the patrons come expecting to have a good time and they do.

Garbo’s Cuban Lover written by Odalys Nanin and directed by Laura Butler and Odalys Nanin at the Macha Theatre through October 30th, is a very charming show, wonderful in execution, and a delightful experience.

If one gets excited by the Hollywood of old, this production will definitely light the fire that will send you running out of the theatre in flames (in a manner of speaking) and telling everyone you know about this production.  Where else will you find Isadora Duncan (Erin Holt), Greta Garbo (Lina Hall), Irving Thalberg, (John Nagle), and Marlene Dietrich (Vera Petrecheuka) all in one fabulous show?

Briefly, as the play begins, Mercedes de Acosta (Odalys Nanin) lies on a bed in pain, her arm in a sling and her head bandaged. Beside her is a beautiful young, soft and nubile woman that dances around her as though she was remembering those glorious images of old Hollywood and the women who danced out of her life.   The Dancer dances with little on that provides pleasure to a highly active imagination (most of us).    

Mercedes de Acosta tells a story to a young Isadora Duncan. But there is something wrong because Isadora died in 1927. And there is something in her character makeup that makes one believe she is “not all there”.  And you can believe that the images she congers up is true, or not.   Still, Ms. de Acosta takes Isadora back in time to let her in on the secret of how she managed these affairs with the most beautiful women of her time.    

Salka Viertel (Lisa Merkin) has invited a number of friends for tea to her home in Santa Monica.  Ms. Mercedes de Acosta’s arrival has cause a bit of a stir.  It seems her reputation has preceded her as the guests (Ginger Pennington and Vera Petrechenka) speak in hushed and boisterous tones about her sexual proclivities.  Talk does not bother de Acosta as she welcomes the comments about herself and of her reputation.

It matters little because de Acosta wants to meet Greta Garbo and visa versa.  De Acosta enlists Viertel to make that happen.  Viertel, the writer of Queen Christina, tells de Acosta that she is very protective of her good friend, Greta. 

And as the moments unfold Greta Garbo (Lina Hall) makes a grand appearance and is simply uninspired by the people surrounding her including de Acosta.  She stands silently waiting for those who wish to make her acquaintance come to her and she also plays hard to get which doesn’t make it easy for the advances of de Acosta who wants to know all about her work.

No one making films can be happy. – Greta Garbo

Nevertheless, Greta invites de Acosta to her place to talk about the significant things in her life. 

This tree is my only joy in Hollywood. – Greta Garbo

So things are not going exactly as planned for de Acosta.  In fact Garbo tells her not to come into the house, and to sit silently outside, on a bench, and look at her tree.

De Acosta waits Garbo out and eventually they form a relationship and go on a vacation together. And as Greta is rowing the boat to a secluded island in a lake, she hears on owl and immediately turns the boat back to shore.

This is a bad omen. – Greta

“No, I think it’s an owl.” de Acosta says and implores her softly, with hands on her shoulders, to turn the boat around toward the island.  Garbo, acquiesce.

With the relationship established, de Acosta is called into the office of Irving Thalberg to write movies for Garbo.  But later things don’t go well for de Acosta when she writes Dorian Gray as a masculine material for an actress that is considered a feminine beauty and a bankable star.

Not only that but the papers have reported them walking hand in hand down Hollywood Streets and Thalberg doesn’t approve.  He lectures de Acosta as she is having sex with Garbo.  All the while de Acosta takes copious mental notes.

Later, there’s more trouble brewing.  Salka Viertel enlists Garbo to steal an important outline de Acosta is writing.  Viertel is holding a secret over Garbo and Garbo complies to keep the secret.

De Acosta finds out, Garbo walks out and the relationship is irrevocably destroyed.

I’m glad you’re feeling happy today. – Mercedes de Acosta

With Garbo out of the way Marlene Dietrich (Vera Petrechenka) comes by for a visit and they have a relationship.  Still, de Acosta’s heart is with Garbo.

This show is a lot of fun with some very fine performances by all involved.  Still there is one scene I would like to clean up and I’ll get to that later.

Each actor has a magnificent entrance as each star comes in wearing the perfect costume for the perfect occasion.  A great part of that has to do with the excellent Costume Designs by Shon LeBlanc whose costumes provide a stunning recreation of the period.  LeBlanc is an extraordinary craftsman.

Odalys Nanin as Mercedes de Acosta, is fresh and cagey, and she has an uncanny ability to woo these women like no other.  And the fact that she’s Cuban gives her emotion leverage on her European counterparts. Still she fights for what she wants and generally gets it. Even in the end, near her deathbed, she comes off a winner.

That’s what happens when you tease an old pro. – Mercedes de Acosta

Lina Hall as Greta Garbo made a stunning entrance.  Cloaked behind the large hat she wore she stood motionless waiting for the right moment to be approached.  Subtle in her approach to the role, eyes expressing much emotion but not giving an inch, she stood statuesque waiting for someone to adore her. This is a wonderful role and a wonderful performance.

Erin Holt as Isadora Duncan and Isabela makes another grand entrance in a dress that would be provocative in my Tennessee hometown.  Let’s face it; she could not even wear this on prime time television.  Still, she was wonderful in the role, funny and quirky in a very appreciative way.   For the most part as Isadora she dances her way across the stage and one time, unexpectedly danced right into a flat which put the audience in stitches.  She is absolutely an actress that will put a smile on your face.

Vera Petrechenka as Marlene Dietrich was equally stunning in her entrance. Her European/Moscow background added a secret elusive and important element to her portrayal.  After being introduced to de Acosta, she sat on the sofa, parading her legs and with each refined crossing she seeks an intimacy with de Acosta. Nicely done!  

Lisa Merkin as Salka Viertel is an actress that knows her craft.  With this role she pushes all the right buttons, has the right flavor to the character and in some ways fights to stay afloat in Hollywood by using a friend to steal.  Despicable in some arenas but in Hollywood, business as usual. Merkin was enchanting as Viertel.

John Nagle had all the male parts Irving Thalberg, Editor, and the Butler. He was a rather robust Thalberg who you could not characterized as being robust.  Thalberg had a number of medical problems and this could have been included in this portrayal.  That aside, Nagle did a fine job as the editor and the butler giving those two performances a kind of stepping out of the time capsule thing.

Ginger Pennington as Poppy did a fine job as de Acosta’s lover.  She fights to have Greta out of their lives and succeeds on many levels.  Ernesto Mijares as Father’s Voice talks some sense to de Acosta.

Elyse Mirto as Greta Garbo and Julia Kostenevish as Marlene Dietrich were not playing these roles on this particular night but will be seen on other nights.

Odalys Nanin as the writer delivers a play that works on many levels. It is charming, funny, hilarious and quirky at times.  While this is a very fine production, there are moments to be tweaked, battles to be won and lost and characterizations to be slightly elevated and refined. But these are only small quibbles to a wonderful show.  Also de Acosta has a wonderful backstory that could have included as part of the physical life of the character.

Laura Butler and Odalys Nanin as co-directors did a wonderful job.  The introduction of all of the characters was just delightful.  It’s hard to tell where Butler left off and Nanin took over. The relationships were excellent.  

I wanted to speak about the Garbo “leaving scene”.  While it is true de Acosta was heartbroken when Garbo left, de Acosta did not fight hard enough for Garbo.  This is a battle of epic proportions and needs both actors on stage fighting furiously.  

Also, a little more “cat and mouse” play would add to an already delightful evening, but still there’s so much fun to be had here!


(Editors note:  And for God’s sake, Skip E. Lowe, turn off your cell phone.)