Thursday, November 24, 2011

Twelfth Night, Or What You Will by William Shakespeare

By Joe Straw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viola: Most sweet lady, -

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

Viola: In Orsino’s bosom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antonio: Pardon me, sir, your bad entertainment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Holy Ground – by Stephanie Liss

By Vilma Ortiz, Ph.D. and Joe Straw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

By Joe Straw

I had been after these tickets for months and after each tremendous knock on the door there was no response.  Nothing.  

“Hello?  Joe Straw here.” 

I swear I could almost hear: “Shhh!  He’s out there.  Don’t answer that door!” 

And like Rodney Dangerfield, who gets (got) no respect, I passed the time, out in the cold Santa Monica air, in the rain, with holes in my shoes, waiting patiently for tickets.    

Conspiracies abound.  And waiting in the cold produces irreconcilable thoughts of whys and why not’s.  What was their reason?

The reason must have been the write up for The Merchant of Venice starring F. Murray Abraham.  Could that have been it? It wasn’t that bad (of a review). Was it that bad?  Maybe F. was mad. (Aren’t he and fellow Oscar recipient Dustin, friends?) That’s it.  Maybe the Broads are mad too. Why couldn’t I have said good things about Christen Simon Marabate as Nerissa?

In this town, bad thoughts are forgotten and ill thoughts; spoken to you, flow like water off a duck’s back.  That’s a good thing.  On the other hand, memories linger like a festering sore and some people never forget.   

And then, the call came.  Two tickets, but not together. 

“We’re trying to get you two together.”  (Vanessa and Nina are so wonderful.)

So, we wait.

“Come back at a quarter ‘till.”

We go into the lobby.  This being opening night, the lobby is filled with nicely dressed gentlemen and gentlewomen with big rocks on their fingers.

Then, back to the booth, and lo and behold two tickets together!

The seats are in the balcony, second row from the back.  Still, at The Broad Stage, every seat is a winner and I really can’t wait to see how the Brits do Shakespeare.  Really, after months of waiting, I honestly cannot wait.

Next, a fortunate turn of events. An usher asks if we would like to come down and sit in the second row of the orchestra section.  Quickly I grab my coat and run down the stairs, through nicely dressed ladies (with rocks on their fingers) and greeters in Elizabethan costumes, into the theatre, past another usher and down to the middle section of the second row. 

My date, not beside me now.  I look up and she’s still in the balcony, gathering things, but is on her way down.  

The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage, Dale Franzen—Director, Dustin Hoffman—Chair of the Artistic Advisory Board presents Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare through November 27, 2011 and wonderfully directed by Rebecca Gatward.

Shakespeare by the Brits, bliss.

Comedy of Errors preformed by the Globe Shakespeare Company is like watching a Warner Bros. cartoon performed by a madcap troupe of quick change artists playing multiple roles, who one minute, are one character, and the next second a completely different character.  The characters change from head to toe, except for the face part, which remains fairly constant.  By the end of the play, all of the characters are out of breath, sweat pouring off their bodies, and exhausted from the sheer force of comedy. 

Comedy is not for the weak or infirmed.

To open the show, the actors came though the lobby and down the aisle in costumes accompanied by their own musical instruments.  Multi-tasking. Oh, so this is how they do it in jolly ole England.   

You know The Comedy of Errors but in this write up I think I should talk about the actors and the craft of acting by the British actors. Why rehash a 400-year-old comedy?

Set in the country of Greece (where there’s a comedy of errors going on there, of sorts.) Thus starts the tale of Egeon (Cornelius Booth), a Syracusan who is forbidden in the village of Ephesus. The Duke of Ephesus (Duncan Wisbey) discovers him breaking the law and as such condemns him to die.  (On a personal note:  They’d kill you for anything back then usually in the name of religion, but commerce?)

Fighting for his life, Egeon has a sad story to tell about losing his wife and identical twins in a shipwreck, which now finds him in his current state of unpleasantness.  (There is not a dry eye in the house, except those who have dry eyes.)  The Duke, feeling sorry for Egeon, gives him a day, to raise a ransom, or face an unspeakable execution. Shackled, he goes off to raise the coinage.

Meanwhile Egeon’s sons have survived the shipwreck from long ago and are now in the city. Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse (Bill Buckhurst) and their respective slaves Dromio (Fergal McElherron) don’t know the others are in the town of Ephesus.   

Adriana (Laura Rodgers), wife to Antipholus of Ephesus, mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband.  She drags him off to dinner and asks Dromio to guard the door.  When Adriana’s husband comes home, he is refused entry in his own palace.

First there is a battle of words between Dromio and Antipholus of Ephesus at the revolving door. Then Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love with Luciana (Dana Gartland), Adriana’s sister. 

The revolving door scene is hilarious with actors flying all over the stage. It is one of the many highlights of an evening filled with highlights of mistaken identities, errors in judgments, and futile attempts to collect payment.   

Bill Buckhurst as Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus did an admiral job. Dress as a Greek tourist, kind of a geek as the Syracusan, and a man of the world as Antipholus of Ephesus.  His Syracusan seem befuddled while his Ephesus counterpart was angered by his unfortunate’s set of circumstances he finds himself in. Both seemed to suit the character well.  Indeed, the glasses seemed to separate the man from the beast. His performance is hilarious and well executed!

Fergal McElherron as Dromio(s) is a clown with extreme physical gifts.  The Dromio of Ephesus seemed more “rich and bitchy” living in a wealthy enclave and not taking anything from anyone despite the fact he’s a slave. One particularly likes the broken kneecap scene among many others. One also likes his interpretation of an ass, the likes of which I have not witness on this planet.

Cornelius Booth as Egeon was extremely engaging and as he is telling his story of woe one was not convinced this was a comedy in the making, because his interpretation was very dramatic.  Nevertheless, his performance was marvelous.  And as Dr. Pinch he was equally wonderful as a whirling dervish, trying to reach religious estacy, spinning around the room and nearly collapsing from dizziness, while, I suppose he was trying to cast out the devil in Antipholus of Ephesus.   

Cornelius Booth also played the saucy maid with bright red lipstick stirring batter in the kitchen.  But as she was stirring the batter, she was staring at me. (Or so it appeared.) I diverted my eyes, looked back, and she was still staring at me!  I looked away, and then back again, deep dark red puckering lips and eyes staring.  Uncomfortable now.  Sweating, profusely, still staring.  She (he) moved off the stage.  Thank you.

Sometimes comedy can be uncomfortable.

Duncan Wisbey did a nice job playing the Duke and Angelo. There is a moment on stage where he is caught being both characters. It was a delightful moment. It is amazing what the placement of a hat can accomplish when moving from one character to another. Also, there was a magnificent moment when Wisbey changed characters on stage into the Duke. This was a grand moment that worked to perfection.

Emma Pallant as Abbess/Courtesan has a very unique look, dark foreboding, very large eyes and a very nice comic timing. But she can be serious and commanding as the Abbess when the role requires her to be, or not to be. (Pun intended.)

Sophie Scott as Merchants/Soldier/jailer did a very nice job. She also played a very mean clarinet. (That means “good” in America.)

Laura Rodgers as Adriana is a joy to watch and pleasing to the eye.  Her demands are not so much she would be considered a demanding wife.  Nor is her jealousy so much to provoke her into crimes of passion against her sister (Only going as far as tearing a page out of a book.).  Still, giving that extra push into unchartered comedic territories would only add to an already fine performance.

Dana Garland as Luciana kind of fit into that geek mold.  One is not really sure her characterization as a bibliophage really worked in the complete erroneous scheme of things.  Nevertheless, she and Antipholus of Syracuse made a perfect match.  They were, by all accounts, made for each other but their relationship never took off either one way or another and playing a little too hard to get and letting her hair down in the end was a little too late.  Still, she did some marvelous work on stage.

Overall the acting was brilliant.  They all seemed to realize the errors of their ways, which make The Comedy of Errors so delightful, so engaging, and so mesmerizing.

Rebecca Gatward, the director, does a marvelous job in putting this all together and having the actors run at full speed during the course of the evening. There are a lot of marvelous actions on stage and off to keep the action going. When actors were far stage right or far stage left they had instruments to produce sound effects to the action on stage.  This is what I love about the craft of acting and the spirit of directing, all for one and all for the common good.

The Set Design by Liz Cooke reminded me of a beach cabana perched on a loading dock and gave Ephesus the feel of a tourist destination.  It also served as the home of Antipholus of Ephesus.  Ms. Cooke was also the Costume Designer.  These are two jobs marvelously done and something you don’t see much of here in Los Angeles.

Run to see this production.

Run fast.  Run long.  Run deep.  

1310 11th Street, Santa Monica, CA  90401

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Romance of Magno Rubio – by Lonnie Carter

By Joe Straw

He sat there. Quietly.  A small boy in the audience watching every motion, every song, not giving an inch to any distractions, glued to the performance on stage.  Tears poured onto his tiny cheeks and sobs were heard.  How could men treat other men this way? So small he held on to the back of a seat and cried and cried watching his father.  It was touching to see a small boy, with so much heart, loving his father doing what he does best.  * 

The Romance of Magno Rubio by Lonnie Carter and directed by Bernardo Bernardo at the Ford Theatre is absolutely wonderful!  In all my many years in theatre I have not seen anything like this.  It is a terrific show from the moment the actors appear on stage to the moment they leave.  This show is magnificent and inspiring!  It will also break your heart. Run to see this production!

Lonnie Carter’s Obie Award winning play comes to Los Angeles for a limited engagement through December 11th, 2011 and is performed in both English and Tagalog.  The show is presented by PAE Live! in association with Good Shepherd Ambulance Company. (What?  Good Shepherd Ambulance Company? This is a story in and of itself!)

The Romance of Mango Rubio is a romance that takes place in the heart of a “Filipino boy, Four foot six inches tall.  Dark as a coconut.  Head small on a body like a turtle’s.”

Mango Rubio (Jon Jon Briones), a small Filipino man, works harvesting crops in the 1930’s California.  He has come to America, like other Manongs, wanting to live the American dream only to discover life is not so easy here.  He was allowed to immigrate as a “national” since the United States colonized the Philippines.  Like Chinese and Japanese immigrants, he cannot own property or marry a Caucasian woman. 

Mango Rubio is a migrant worker, living under terrible conditions.  He is filthy from head to toe but lives an infectious life of optimism, curiosity, and love.  From a Lonely Hearts magazine, Mango Rubio falls hopelessly in love with Clarabelle (Elizabeth Rainey).  It is a love that knows no boundaries even though she is all the way in Arkansas.   

He enlists a friend, Claro (Erick Esteban), a 2nd grade graduate to write letters to his girlfriend but Claro want too much money. So Rubio asks his college-educated friend, Nick (Giovanni Ortega), to read and write letters to the love of his life, Clarabelle.

Nick does so but when they get the letters come back from Clarabelle, Nick thinks she is up to no good. 

“Western Union me. ASAP.” – Clarabelle

Clarabelle wants only his money.  But Mango Rubio is so hopelessly in love he works harder to support her ailing dad, sick brother, and anyone else dying in Clarabelle’s letters. Try as they might no one can convince Mango Rubio that all is not right with Clarabelle.

But Magno Rubio is blinded by love and the thought that, one day, this six foot two inch bundle of woman, Clarabelle, will join him in holy matrimony.  The men have a grand time telling him that Clarabelle will eat him alive.

Jon Jon Briones as Magno Rubio is one of the finest actors you will see bar none. His physicality and characterization is second to none.  He has an incredible voice and his movements on stage make you want to stand up and cheer. He takes great joy in going after and achieving his objective one hardly believes he is doing it all in rhyme.  This is one of the finest performances I’ve seen all year.

Eymard Cabling as Atoy had a very nice personality on stage and that personality becomes very infectious.  But we didn’t get a clear idea of his objective and seem to be one of the boys without a clear path.  Still, this was a very nice job.

Giovanni Ortega was engaging as Nick.  He is the collective conscious of the men. There was a reason this college-educated man decides to skip college and work with the migrant workers.  His thoughts are his own but that doesn’t exclude him from mentally recording the farm workers actions and deeds if for a purpose he doesn’t yet understand. Still, somebody has to tell their story and it might as well be him. This was a very fine performance by a very engaging actor.

Muni Zano as the Narrator was not as sharp as he could have been.  The words did not come easily this night and it was unfortunate to see this in a program that was incredible.  Perhaps it was an off night, or possibly he was thinking in Tagalog. Oo!

Ed Ramolete played Prudencio.  Antoine Reynaldo Diel usually plays this role, but for whatever reason, he was not available.  Ramolete had two days to fill the role.  This is almost an impossible task.  Ramolete had the lines in pots, in his hat, in boxes, on cards, anything that could help him remember the spoken words.  (Think Marlon Brando in the Godfather.) This was unfortunate for a play of this caliber.  Still, Ramolete had a good look for the role and the lines he did remember worked very effectively.

Erik Esteban as Claro was very ambitious in character and deeds.  He thought that he was better than the other guys because he got as far as the second grade.  His words, loved by the men, were his weapons against Rubio.  Still, he had a little bit of the devil in him in trying to steal from his friends before he ran away.

Elizabeth Rainey as Clarabelle was marvelous in the role.  There are many layers to her performance.  Her captivating physical life turns the small space she occupies into a dream.  A come hither dream at that. Her love only goes as far as the last dollar bill, or the last reception to a Western Union receipt.  This was a marvelous job and a wonderful performance.  

Vincent Reyes played wonderful guitar in the show and the rest of the music was just inspiring.

Bernardo Bernardo, the director, gave us a wonderful interpretation of the play.  It is the work of a true master of the craft of storytelling.  This was just a wonderful production and just what we need to liven the spirits this holiday season.

Lonnie Carter, the writer, did a marvelous job.  He uses clever word play and rhymes to move the story along.  One would think the actors were speaking dialogue.  The singing of Philippine love songs make you want to stand and cheer for all of the actors on stage.

Ed Ramolete did a wonderful job as the producer despite problems he had filling in for a missing actor.

Additional lyrics and text were by Ralph Pena and The World Premiere of a New Tagalog Translation Ang Romansa Ni Magno Rubio was done by Bernardo Bernardo.

Frederick A. Edwards plays Nick, Anthony “Gelo” Francisco plays Claro, and Jet Montelibano plays Atoy in the Tagalog versions, which will be performed on Saturdays.  Please check the listings.

The Set Design by Akeime Mitterlehner was very well done.  Felix Roiles as the Martial Arts Choreographer did an incredible job moving the actors in a wonderful fight scene.

Dori Quan as the Costume Designer did an incredible job.   The costumes transported you back to another time and place.  Just a wonderful job.  

Inside the Ford has plenty of free parking and is a great venue for theatre!

Run to see this production.

* The boy is the son of Jon Jon Briones who plays the lead role of Magno Rubio.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jerker – Written by Robert Chesley

By Joe Straw

The journey to theatre can take one into unchartered territories, real or imagined.  Either way it’s a journey worth taking.  

Space 916 is a theatre to which I have not had the pleasure.  Off-the-beaten path, it is in the middle of Hollywood but hidden south of Santa Monica Boulevard.  There is no sign from the street and the space is slightly tucked away off Formosa. 

It is dark. There is very little street lighting or it just seemed dark.  I wasn’t sure I was in the right place and there is this “thing” in the back of my mind saying: “Provocative theatre has this setting. Provocative theatre is like this. ”

The night was colder than usual after a day of rain.  

As I pull into the parking lot, there is a man with tattoos, outside, smoking a cigarette wearing unbuttoned cut off jeans, a jock strap underneath, and slightly exposing his backside as I drive by to park. It is cold, freezing cold! Fifty-five degrees Southern California cold!  And yet he’s out there, wearing no shirt, bouncing up and down and smoking a cigarette.

This must be the place.

I park on the other side of the building, still not sure if I’m in the right place.  A quick call to Jason, I am. And as I walk inside the theatre, there’s a delightful young Asian woman in a completely unexpected sterile box office setting. She is courteous but tells me that I am in the wrong theatre.  “Jerker is next door.”  She politely says with a smile.  

I walk next door.  The door is locked but opens slightly as someone slips around and tapes a sign on the door, which in bold letters says, “Jerker”. “We’ll be opening the doors in about 15 minutes.”  Slam! It’s cold.  Nowhere to go but next door to the other lobby and sit in the warmth.

Jason Moyer presents the 25th Anniversary Production of Jerker written by Robert Chesley, directed by Glenn Kessler, and produced by Jason Moyer at Space 916, through November 20th, at 916 Formosa Avenue in Hollywood.  

The first thing one notices, when entering the Space 916, are the underwear-clad men sitting on couches, reading.  Too dark to see what they are reading they look up, give you a blank stare, and turn back to their book. Can they actually read in this light?   

Space 916 is a nice space.  It is very spacious, plenty of seats and a very wide staging area. 

As far as the set is concerned there is no Set Designer listed in the credits.  A bed and some furniture are at far stage right and another apartment setup is at far stage left.  The apartments are great distances from each other.  (More on this later.)

Briefly, the story is about the lives of two men Bert (Gregory Allen) and JR (Glenn Kessler) who enjoy having phone sex in the beautiful setting of 1980’s San Francisco, California.    The title of the play is actually Jerker or the Helping Hand:  A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of them Dirty.  

JR (not his real name) has gotten Bert’s phone number.  It’s on a scratch sheet of paper, sitting on his bedside table, and it has been lying there for a while.  Fondling himself isn’t cutting it anymore and he is eager to call the number.  He knows what he likes in Bert. There was an attraction.  Why can’t he get himself to call?  Would Bert reciprocate in the games JR wants to play?

Still, there it lays, the number, the first jump into a fantasy that could go completely wrong. JR needs something.  It is a desire for human contact, sex, phone sex, and then to fall into a state of kef and slumber.  Excitedly, he punches the phone number.

JR calls Bert but there’s a slight problem, Bert doesn’t want to jump in and play.  In fact he is very matter of fact and very business like. Has JR done something wrong? No, Bert wants a little build up, which he eventually gets. JR gets what he needs, hangs up the phone, and goes to sleep.

The conversation continues on another day but this time Bert wants to play his own game which really turns JR on.  It is the big brother and little brother game, and this seems to be JR’s favorite.  In fact as the play continues he calls Bert, Big Brother as a term of affection.   

Through the various phone calls, they play out their fantasies which include the other members of the cast: Corey Adam, Gregory Barnett, Ben Cuevas, Parnell D. Marcano and Sammy Murriam playing various roles in various sexual situations.

There are a few things we learn through their conversations.  We learn JR is a veteran of some branch of the military and is now a historian.  Bert is a businessman, a three-piece suit type. After sex we get a glimpse of their lives and their relationship grows after numerous tête-à-têtes.

But why is their relationship just phone sex?  Why are they stuck in their rooms?

There is a problem.  Bert is very emotional at times and there is something wrong with his demeanor.  JR tries to find out but is rebuked.

The two men can never come together.  They cannot approach each other.  JR sees Bert on occasion but wants to keep this relationship anonymous. Besides at this point in Bert’s life, the phone sex seems to be enough for him.  And there is a reason that Bert does not pursue JR that remains a mystery until the final conclusion. 

The phone conversations continue until JR can no longer reach Bert.

Glenn Kessler as JR is not shy about anything. This is a demanding role and requires complete nudity and a lot of masturbation.  Still, as the character, there is a lot of work to be done.  For instance, there are crutches in the room.  He uses them once. One supposes it is a character trait and is a reason that keeps him anchored in his apartment.  One believes it is critical to see this the moment he steps onto the stage.  His first movement gives the audience a reason for him being there and not going out.  It affirms the character and makes the story come to life. Also, he tells Bert that he is a historian but aside from the typewriter, there is nothing in his character that suggests he is working in, on or around his profession.  Still, some good work, but Kessler needs a little more focus on his objective and character first and then worry about the erections later.

Gregory Allen as Bert did a fine job. Allen connected to his counterpart in a number of ways, through the phone, and (eh hem) other ways.  But, in order for him to help JR, and despite his illness, he needs to play the game, better, longer, faster, and with a fanatical fantasy desire.   Still, this was a very demanding role and a very nice job.

Corey Adam Affron and Sammy Murrian were two of the younger men in the ensemble.  They played out the fantasies of the older men who on the phone in conversation.

Gregory Barnett and Ben Cuevas played a brutal scene in the forest, a kind of master-slave-bondage fantasy. It was very brutal and hard to watch at times.

Parnell D. Marcano has a very nice singing voice and was very sympathetic as the friend dying of AIDS.  Marcano is no stranger to the stage and was very capable in a demanding role.

This play presents interesting acting challenges.  The concentration requires the actor to be “spot on” and in the moment.  He must be focused on the relationship.  And then (on top of all things) he is required to have an erection (simulated or not) and orgasm (simulated or not). And after each phone call the actor must move the relationship forward. 

The physical challenges, over an hour and a half, and twenty phone conversation requires youth and to a large degree, a stamina of sorts.

One would like to speak to the technical difficulties of the performance.  The phone conversations were sent through a speaker system and had a very nice effect.  But, upon closer inspection, the conversation did not match the movements on stage, facial and vocal.  Crying seems to be coming from the speakers when there was no crying on stage and visa versa. So there was pantomime going on.  And when the speakers were turned off there was some acting going on.  This was a little disconcerting but not too terribly bad.

I’m not convinced the director, Glenn Kessler, can also be in his own production. There is too much to do when focusing on a character.  Too much is at stake when a person is trying to do two jobs at once. Moments need to be carefully scrutinized and made precise. The characters have objectives that need to be played out.  We, as audience members need to see the relationship change during the course of the play.  Also, we need to feel that JR has lost a very important person in his life and this loss has a dramatic effect on him. 

Secondly, the actors were so far apart; it was like watching a Ping-Pong match. Back and forth most of the night long. My suggestion would be to move the beds right next to each other center stage, headboard to headboard, or side to side. This would focus the concentration center stage where the entire phone interaction would take place.  (And yes, there was a lot of action going on.)

Robert Chesley died from AIDS in 1990 at the young age of forty-seven.

There is a lot of nudity in this play, full frontal, full backtal, sidle, and dimensional.  If that is to your liking come.  And please bring someone you know that will enjoy theatre like you’ve never seen.