Saturday, March 31, 2012

American Night The Ballad of Juan Jose by Richard Montoya

American Night The Ballad of Juan Jose at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City

By Joe Straw

Kirk Douglas Theater, Friday evening during closing weekend, is jumping. Salsa music is pulsating through the lobby. The audience is more diverse than usual with many Latinos including a crowd of young college students. It’s lively and fun. This is what theater in Los Angeles should look, sound, and feel like!

Standing in the lobby of the Kirk Douglas Theatre, I was approached by an attractive white attendant who wanted me to take a citizenship test. I’m a “little dark” and I supposed I could look like an undocumented person. She explained the test.  Nodding my head I said “No comprendo.  ¿Habla espaƱol?” And she replied “No, sorry I don’t do that.”  I told her I was kidding.  

Tests have always given me the willies but I chose the hard citizenship test, after all I believe that, in my heart, after all these years, I’m a little wiser.  And being born in another country, there are times when people treat me as an undocumented person. So this test was a challenge of sorts.  And I chose the hard one, given on a iPad no less. The grade was somewhat vague. I got 100% and a raffle ticket.

The Center Theatre Group and La Jolla Playhouse present American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose by Richard Montoya and directed by Jo Bonney. This is a wonderful production, with wonderful performances by a wonderful cast.  It is a mad cap, zany, stooge-like historical lesson that at times hits home to those dark places that yearns to break free.

Briefly, the story is about Juan Jose (Rene Millan) who sings his way to El Norte (the north). His wife, Lydia (Stephanie Beatriz), is pregnant and he is away earning money to send back home and eventually have her join him.  

He studies to become an American Citizen and is helped by two Mormons (David Kelly and Daisuke Tsuji) to follow that dream.  But realizing the dream seems to be an impossible task.  He has only flash cards to study and he has this mental block on the United States three branches of government. And not knowing that always hurts.

Studying hard, he falls asleep and travels back in time to relive significant, irreverent, madcap and sometimes-distorted moments of history. After all it is a dream.

I cannot give justice to narrating the story in this play.  All I can say is that it is a visual feast and it is ending soon.  So grab a seat while there’s time and witness the creativity that is Richard Montoya.

I also would like to talk about the acting in this production because it is very creative and although there are only nine people listed in the cast, it seems like there are thirty.  Costume changing must be fast and furious backstage.

Rene Millan as Juan Jose is terrific actor who is on stage most of the night and he never lets up.  His character is a constant force striving for freedom, justice and citizenship. His attack of the bunny is hilarious. His dreams are the dreams of man that only wants one thing, but all these other silly things keep intruding on his vision. This is a wonderful performance by an astonishing focused actor.

Stephanie Beatriz as Lydia is a wonderful performer with a distinctive singing voice.  Her style is subtle and poignant.  Her 15 year-old Sacagawowwow, with braces, adds another dimension to this famous legend. Her Lydia is a woman of truth and compassion.  This is a terrific performance one wants to embrace. 

Rodney Gardiner as Ben Pettus and as Jackie Robinson was extremely funny and created brilliant relationships with all of his counterparts on stage.  He was hilarious as a Chinese black man.  In fact all of his character were simply marvelous in this production.

David Kelly plays Harry Bridges and was excellent.  He plays a number of other roles—one being the Judge who is also a member of the Klu Klux Klan that takes his deathly ill baby to a loving African American woman to be saved.   He was delightful in a number of ways and a trouper.  

Terri McMahon was enchanting as Mrs. Finney and in other roles.  She is very sympathetic character who tries not to be characterized as a minority hating white person.

Kimberly Scott as Viola Pettus was charming.  She has the kind of presence one would love to have on set. She is very comfortable on stage and a joy to watch.

Daisuke Tsuji was fabulous as Johnny and other characters.  Each character was magnificently created and suited for each moment.  They were so different and so delightful.  From the Mormon with an odd sense of humor, to the IT guy, to Johnny and the game show host that there is a sense of grandness to his style of creation and I hope to see more of his work in the future.  

Herbert Siguenza is always delightful to see from a Native American woman pushing an electric mower, to the sumo wrestler, to Teddy Roosevelt, to ach, there’s too many to name.  He is always outstanding and a very committed actor to his craft.

Richard Montoya as Juan Jose from the past wears a Jaxon Deadman top hat similar to the costume he wore in Palestine, NM (see review here).  It is a very interesting look and one that stands out no matter where he is on stage.  His performance as Bob Dylan is delightful as well as the many characters he plays. As the writer, well I’m not sure what goes on up there, but his work is surprisingly amusing and will catch you completely off guard if you’re not paying special attention.  One needs to be caught up on current events to get the jokes at times but that is not hard given what being spouted from news outlets today. And if you swing to the left, so much the better.

Jo Bonney, the director, does an amazing job of keeping the action going.  The Kirk Douglas Theatre is the perfect venue for this type of production and she keeps the engagements going with a grand sense of style and panache.  Her characters move in and out behind flats that startle and surprise.  And images roll on corrugated screens that take us like trains to El Norte.   All of the characters have a grand sense of complexity and humor and each takes a turn at being heroes in their own right.  Bonney takes this marvelous group of actors and gives each of them poignant moments that are both indescribable and heartbreaking.  

Run before time runs out.  Run to see this production.

I have not been to the Kirk Douglas Theatre since Come Back Little Sheba.  It seems different and much improved with a wonderful supporting staff.  I will be coming back. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Antony And Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

By Joe Straw

Wanting too much is always the curse of political couples that seize the processions of the ninety-nine per centers.  Things have changed little since 30 B.C. when Antony and Cleopatra’s lives played out like bad chess moves.  Those moves that eventually bungled their opportunities for world conquest.   

Having read Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra: A Life” recently, this was a grand opportunity to see Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra at A Noise Within, one of the most elegant and respected theatres in Los Angeles.  If you have not been to this theatre, go.  And while you are at it, make your reservations, take along a number of friends, ride the rails, and see this dramatic interpretation.  Dress up in Egyptian or Roman garb and make a day of it.

Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott co-direct Anthony and Cleopatra at A Noise Within Theatre and this show is a spectacle as promised. Of course, as a method of observation and trying to understanding the craft, I provide notes one can use or discard at one’s discretion.

One can’t help but breath deeply when entering the theatre and taking a look around at Tom Buderwitz’s marvelous Scenic Design. There are ropes dangling from the rigging, from center stage to the four corners.  On the stage are broken columns or partial columns, depending on your perspective. Everything is slightly off, not quite right. (Kind of like the streets in Los Angeles.)  There are two or three levels on stage and those stages are all are put to good use during the production.  

“This is going to be interesting!” I said to myself.  And as I said this, an attendant approaches and cautions audience members that actors will be flying in from all directions, be prepared.

Fair warning.  House rules.  Be prepared.

Let’s take a moment and jump right in.

“Take a good note, and you shall see in him
The triple pillar of the world transform’d
Into a strumpet’s fool;” – Philo (Nathan Turner) 

Things don’t look good for our star-crossed lovers circa 35 B.C. who are the pre-supposed rulers of the known world.  Mark Antony (Geoff Elliott) and Cleopatra (Susan Angelo) are together surfeited in Egypt.  They live together as though married when in fact Antony is married to Fulvia who lives in Rome.

Cleopatra is sure she knows what she wants but has to consult her soothsayer for confirmation.

“You shall be more beloving than beloved.

You shall outlive the lady who you serve.

You have seen and proved a fairer former fortune.
Than that which is to approach.”  - Soothsayer

The Soothsayer (Nick Crandall) foreshadows things to come. But in the frivolity of the times, Cleopatra does not take heed of these warning.  (Why is it no one but the audience listens to the Soothsayer?)  Antony and Cleopatra continue to make merriment, not understanding the tragedy that awaits them while they party.  

The second messenger arrives from Rome being extremely patient to get his message out to Antony who is verbally jousting with Cleopatra.

“Fulvia thy wife is dead.” Second Messenger

Mark Antony only laughs at his fortunate turn of events and tries to break the news to Cleopatra.  But Cleopatra is busy scheming to keep Antony with her. And try as he might Antony has a hard time telling his love that Fulvia, his wife, is dead.  (To interrupt your love in dialogue is a grand miscalculation.)  So by the time he gets it out, Antony must leave for Rome.  

But death in the family is not all that awaits Antony in Rome. Caesar has his sights on taking complete control of Antony and his country.  

“This is the news:  he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he;” - Caesar

Ouch and not kind. But Caesar is not prone to sit back and let the world spin by itself. He is finding ways to rule and also wants more power at his fingertips.  He understands he does not rule the seas and he would like an allegiance with Pompey (Christian Rummel) and he can only do this with Antony’s help.  

Back in Egypt Cleopatra luxated wants Antony to return as quickly as possible.

And while all this fussing is going on, Pompey, Menecrates, and Menas are finding ways to soften up Antony and Caesar so they can command a bigger portion of the world pie. (These characters are slightly different than A Noise Within’s version of Antony and Cleopatra.)

Later, in the House of Lepidus (William Dennis Hunt), as Caesar and Antony have words about the state of Rome, Agrippa (Gregory North) suggests that Antony marry Octavia, Caesars’ sister.

“To hold you in perpetual amity,
To make you brothers, and to knit your hearts” – Agrippa

Antony thinks this is a good idea as a means to secure his power.  He marries Octavia (Angela Gulner) and, in the dead of night, asks the Soothayer if it was a good idea.

“Say to me,
Whose fortunes shall rise higher, Caesar’s or mine?” – Antony

“Caesar’s” – Soothsayer. 

Not a good sign.

Meanwhile back in Egypt, a messenger has brought news to Cleopatra that Antony has married Octavia.  Cleopatra nearly kills the messenger.

Near Misenum, Caesar uses Antony to negotiate with Pompey and his men to form another alliance.

But back at the Castle, in Egypt, Cleopatra asks about the fairness of Octavia.  To which the messager replies, and I paraphrase, she is not that good looking.

“She creeps:
Her motion and her station are as one;
She shows a body rather than a life,
A statue than a breather.” - Messenger

Caesar, not satisfied with his limited power, has Pompey murdered and then goes after Antony.  Octavia asks Caesar to pardon Antony but Caesar will not hear of it.  He tells her that her husband, Antony, is in the arms of Cleopatra.

“No, my most wronged sister; Cleopatra
Hath nodded him to her.  He hath given his empire
Up to a whore;” - Caesar

The rest is Shakespeare’s version of history.

Geoff Elliott as Mark Antony does a fine job as the misguided warrior. A man who would rather have it all rather than all of some. He wants to control Egypt as well as Rome but does not take the steps to necessitate that action. He is a misguided “party animal” who does not take care of business first and then make love to Cleopatra second. Elliott is fantastic in the role but one would have liked to see him break boundaries at the flip of a switch.  I know why but I want to see the why.  Also, having secured Octavia as his wife, one would have imagined a more powerful Antony; instead we see a beaten man as he approaches the Soothsayer.  It’s a moment one would have liked to seen both ways, to choose the better moment.

Susan Angelo as Cleopatra plays her as “one whacky chick” in this Shakespeare’s version. Gone are the strong queen-like character traits, the treachery inherent in her living breathing sole, and villainy associated with her character that made her famous around the known world.  Angelo’s portrayal seemed like a petulant housewife that always wants her way but doesn’t get it.  Still, Angelo made a strong choice, and one cannot fault an actor for making a strong choice. In the end, and in hindsight, her portrayal made a lot of sense, and her vision grew as the night went on.  Still, one can’t help but want to see this role in the magnificent glory it was thought to be, or not to be.

Max Rosenak as Octavius Caesar had some nice moments on stage, but one would like to see this character more developed. As history has it, he was a puny man, kind of sickly, and worried about a lot of things. But he must have been an educated man, listened to the right people, and negotiated his way around the Republic to create the Roman Empire.  There are more levels to this character and one believes Rosenak will find them as the show progresses in its run.

William Dennis Hunt as Lepidus and Rustic provides a fantastic look as both these two characters.  As Lepidus, he is wise and thoughtful and as Rustic, in what appeared to be green face, he provides the means to an end for our heroine in a most glorious way. Hunt is an actor who gives his all.

Christian Rummel does a fine job as Pompey, master of the seas. He too must weigh his options in whether it is best to make allegiance with Octavius or Antony. Pompey stands on his ship weighing those options in clothing that looks “early pirate”. Nevertheless, this was a very fine performance for this role and Scarus as well.

Ken Merckx plays Demetrius and Dercetus, friends and wise counsel to Antony.

Gregory North plays Agrippa, who has high hopes for Antony and his relationship to Caesar.  His allegiance is to Caesar and ultimately to destroy Antony.  There are more ways to shows this and something can be added to the character.

Robertson Dean plays a devious Enobarbus who knows well enough to stand on the winning side, or to jump ship when Antony’s ships are stalled dead in the sea. Although outspoken, he is clever enough to see the finality of Mark Antony and guilty enough to know in his heart that he has betrayed a good friend.  Dean was marvelous!

Raphael Goldstein played Eros and Nathan Turner portrays Philo and Schoolmaster.

Nick Crandall was mesmerizing as the Soothsayer.  And as all soothsayers do, he masks the truth to our heroes or maybe they just don’t hear him correctly, or maybe he is just too vague for them to understand that he is giving away the end of the story.  The audience members are witness to the outcome of his verbal visions and see the truth in his wisdom. Why do the characters wave him off?  Have they accepted their fate? He also played Thidius.

Angela Gulner was fine as Octavia but needs much more to plead for the life of her husband, Antony.  Was it a marriage of convenience or was it love?  As I artist, I would always chose love.

Philip Rodriguez plays Taurus/Varrius and Steve Weingartner always does a nice job at ANW playing both Menas and Dolabella.

The supporting cast were made up of Thaddeus Shafer as Proculeius, Jill Hill as Charmian, Diana Gonzeales-Morett as Iras, Christopher Karbo as Diomedes, Dane Biren as Abused Mess and Seleucus, Kristina Teves as one Attendant and Sara Cebellos as another Attendant.

Amin El Gamal as Mardian, the eunuch, has a wonderful off color semi-flat, semi-sharp tone to his singing voice. And as eunuchs are prone to pratfalls, he should be careful of the draperies on the floor. Gamal was wonderful as Mardian.

Nick Broderick and Kabin Thomas were the Roman Messengers and both did outstanding jobs on this particular night.  These were wonderful performances.

Geoff Elliott and Julia Elliott-Rodriguez did a marvelous job directing.  There are enough visual images to delight one for some time. The hoisting of Antony onto Cleopatra’s balcony is marvelous.  The battle scenes were masterfully done. 

Still, one would like to get a better sense of the place as the characters move in and out of Octavius’ home, Cleopatra’s’ castle, Pompeys’ house, etc., out to sea, on the plains, it seemed a bit confusing at times. Some characters need more structure and depth with a solid objective to get them from one place to the next.    The armies need to march in a way that would frighten the hardiest of onlookers.  These are small things but one believes important things.

The production staff gets a round of applause as well. The Costume Design is by Angela Balogh Calin.  The Lighting Desing by Ken Booth.  The Composer is Laura Karpman.  The Prop Master is Renee Thompson Cash.  The wonderful Fight Choreography is by Ken Merckx.  The Wig, Hair and Makeup Design is by Monica Lisa Sabedra and lended itself to a wonderful authenticity in its simplicity.

Stunning photography by Craig Schwartz! 

All in all Antony and Cleopatra is a marvelous show.  Wow! Run!

Take a friend with the last name of Martin and show them how badly misbehaved the Romans conducted themselves at that time.

This show runs in repertory through May 13, 2012.  Please check the link below for showtimes. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cobb by Lee Blessing

L - R Kent Butler, Daniel Sykes, Bert Emmett - Photo Credit Sherry Netherland

By Joe Straw

You know, that first moment when an actor steps on the stage, you know.  You know, when the actor speaks his first line, you know.  You know, when he takes his first step, you just know you can relax and let the actors do their stuff, let it happen, and hope in the end it feels right. Cobb was that kind of play.  

The Group Rep presents Cobb by Lee Blessing and directed by Gregg T. Daniel at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood. This is a delightful play that will cause you think about time, space, and baseball.  And although there are only two characters in this play, there are several names mentioned to read up on, Ty Cobb, Oscar Charleston, Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson, and Jack Chesbro (the only pitcher to win 41 games in a MLB season) to name a few. 

The Lonny Chapman Theatre is an appealing theatre and the parking is free if you get there early.  Everyone is affable and considerate. I had the pleasure of speaking with 87-years-young Elliot Goldwag, an actor, and Larry Eisenberg, the co-artistic director.  Long story short, The Lonny Chapman Theatre is a beautiful space with comfortable seats and a wonderful venue for this type of production.  

One interesting thing about going to theatre is that no two people will ever agree on the meaning of the play. It’s all this self-interpretation that keeps the mind working to its effective peak. One may agree or disagree with the actors’ and directors’ choices and get into a lively discussion later.  I know I do.  In the end, it’s all about getting a handle on the craft.

The acting in Cobb is marvelous with only minor notes about accents and a few other things—but more on this later. This play is something that is not completely baseball but rather deals with the depth of human emotions, with baseball as its smothering atmosphere. 

There is a deeper meaning to Cobb because of one little note in the program,  “Time 1886 – 1961 and later”.  Later? Cobb died in 1961.  Oh? So we’ve got that kind of play, a Rod Serling, Field of Dreams type of play. Something to take the mind to another dimension of sight and sound, “Whose boundaries are that of imagination.”

Nevertheless, Lee Blessing's Cobb is a thought-provoking play that can be taken literally or seen through the eyes of a character’s afterlife, or through someone whose mind is slightly off kilter. One believes that Gregg T. Daniel, the director, took this show a little more literally. More on this later.

But one prefers the afterlife scenario. A walk down the historical perspective past life seems the logical choice when interacting with other Cobb personifications on stage.  

That aside, and while all of this is going on, we are being treated to the play about the life of the iniquitous Ty Cobb and his life in and out of baseball and good old-fashioned baseball stuff.

When the play starts, and from the vomitory, the older Cobb, Mr. Cobb (Kent Butler) marches down the stadium steps and gives us a little history of his life and of his game. Cobb still has the bitter edge that made him one the meanest players in the game but wants his past recriminations forgotten because his objective is to build a bridge for a grand legacy for himself.   His mind not as sharp as his younger days and he has a different view of the past whether it is a forgotten past or self-inflicted forgetfulness remains to be seen. 

The younger Cobb, The Peach (Daniel Sykes) is an angry young man.  He is angry that his father told him not to come back a failure.  And he is angry that his mother took both barrels of the shotgun to kill the man he called, Dad.   Cobb was 18 when this happened and, while his mother was fighting the charge of murder, he took a no-look-back approach to his life and the game of baseball.  

There is also another side to this Georgia Peach, he is a racist and will not play with men of color, meaning “Negros”.   

So what have we got here, rounding the bases, is another element thrown in to round out the nasty going-ons of Cobbs' life, Oscar Charleston (Jason Delane).  Charleston is a mysterious player who keeps appearing throughout the play taking a mental bat and hammering all three Cobbs about their unwillingness to play with black people.  In Charleston’s mind, Cobb cannot have that legacy until he recognizes Charleston’s name and accomplishments. Still the ghost of Charleston is just one more nasty overachieving athlete who wants recognition.  There is a reason he was called the black Cobb because he was, one, as mean as Cobb and, two, his lifetime batting average was similar to Cobb’s.  

Cobb’s life was a “Goddamn Greek Tragedy”.  Well, maybe so, and maybe not.

But the middle aged Cobb, Ty (Bert Emmett), is a man who enjoys the fruits of his labor and his wise investments.  He takes the approach of not apologizing for doing what he needed to do to get ahead for himself and his kids. His investment in Coca Cola and GM proved to be a bountiful harvest.  He is not quite sure that he needs a legacy at the moment but in the back of his mind, maybe he does.  

None of the Cobbs have lost their sense of grand designment and their historical importance to the game of baseball.  Still in this play, they all want something they feel they don’t have.  And that is a legacy.

There were three actors playing Cobb at various stages in his life.  The three were on stage together, mentally battling it out, and at one point threatening to shoot each other.   

Kent Butler as Mr. Cobb was more moderate in the later stage of life, willing to forgive and forget and sees life the way he thought it was supposed to be, baseball and all. The player is still in him, the awards, and the glory.  But he wants a legacy.  He wants to be remembered.  What stands in his way are the players from the Negro leagues who he would not play against.  Butler is marvelous as he opens the show, stepping down the tiered aisle as though it were a stadium and telling us about his glorified life.  This is a wonderful performance by a splendid actor.

Daniel Sykes as the Peach is the young upstart from Georgia.  He enters the big leagues tarnished by the baggage his parents gave him.  Involuntary manslaughter. It is a cross he carries throughout his career and he can never be famous with this dark cloud hovering overhead.  So to make up for it, he plays to please his murdered father. Sykes has a very good look and plays the character with a purpose, being the best he can be.  Still, he needs to find the edge, the character trait that will put him over the top.  I expect he will get better with each performance providing he stays healthy from all of his physical activity on stage.

Bert Emmett plays Ty, a spry middle-aged man in his post baseball career.  He is a man whose head is held high after an extremely successful baseball career.  He is still fighting for his legacy and through the pain of having one parent killing another. But he has his eyes wide open, always looking for the next opening in his life, shooting the gap, and sliding home, sharpened cleats in all.

L - R Kent Butler, Jason Delane, Photo:  Sherry Netherland

Jason Delane played Oscar Charleston, The Black Cobb, an infamous player from the Negro Leagues.  As the character Charleston, he wants more than anything to be known.  He is a dream in the unnatural world of death, a reminder to Cobb that he is not the only one left with a legacy. He wants justice and recognition from the one man who can give him legitimacy and he’s not going away until he gets it. This was a marvelous performance by an actor with a clear and strong voice.

Gregg T. Daniel’s direction was marvelous in many ways.  Certainly his focus is strong and he guides the actors in marvelous detail. There are strong elements to Cobb being a racist and those moments are solid and hit home.  Daniel doesn’t let us forget that there were two Americas back then, one for whites and one for coloreds. It is a point that needs to be made and he does so extremely well.  

But I think this play needs one more level and that is the supernatural level. It can be a small and effective change should the director choose to include it.  Also, I’m not sure the gun scene worked effectively to a truth that propels the story.   

At the talk back after the show, it was suggested the Georgian accents were different for various reasons.   I have many relatives in Georgia and I get a kick out of listening to them speak. My question is:  Why would one want to remove a marvelous character trait like dialect and make it less?  But these are only small quibbles.  This is a marvelous show and if you love baseball, you should go.

Chris Winfield was wonderful as Set Designer and the Lighting Design was done by Sabrina Beattie. Liz Nankin did a wonderful job as the Costume Designer.  Sound Design was by Steve Shaw.  Fight Choreographer was by Edgar Landa although I don’t remember too much fighting going on. The Baseball Coach was Greg Johnson.  The Assistant Director was Colette Rosario and the Public Relations job was by Nora Feldman. 

Richard Alan Woody is the Producer for the Group Rep, Donna Michel was the Stage Manager.  Christian Ackerman did a very fine job as the Cobb Videographer.  Sherry Netherland provided the actors stills.  

In fact, run!

This show runs in repertory with If We Are Women by Joanna McClelland Glass through April 21st 2012.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Ghostlands of an Urban NDN by Robert Owens-Greygrass

By Joe Straw

Ghostlands of an Urban NDN (slang for Indian) written and performed by Robert Owens-Greygrass is an interesting mix of philosophies and musings of an urban mixed-raced American Indian. It is directed by Kevin Sifuentes and is playing in repertory with Walking on Turtle Island at the Autry in Griffith Park.

One-person shows are generally a collection that highlights the person’s walk through the journey of life. My personal preference is to see actors relate to other actors rather than one actor playing a multitude of characters in various incarnations and venues.

Still one-person shows can work. Whoopie Goldberg and Lili Tomlin have done one-person shows very successfully. On a lesser scale, Mina Olivera in “LOL Latina on the Loose” and Debra Ehrhardt in “Jamaica Farwell” have presented some amazing work.

Robert Owens-Greygrass does his own brand of storytelling and is very successful in his own right. He is a wonderful raconteur, a man on an intelligent progressive mission, and a man who wants to open your eyes to what is going on around you.  He does this on a number of levels and is very successful in many ways.  But are the thoughts of this man relevant to the destruction of Native Americans as a people?

“Listen to your dreams, they pass through the old days, these days and the days yet to come.”  Written on the walls of the set. 

“I am from a choice to live in happiness.  I am from earth living season to season. I am from a beauty way of living.”  Also, written by the wall of the set. 

Presumably these are the word of Greygrass and they are wonderful words to live by and we should see him strive to do so.  But there is a reason that he does not live by the words that he writes.

“Nephew, what caused this ghostlands? Drugs? Vietnam?”  - The Vietnam Vet. 

Missing is the through line that ties Ghostland together. The reasons why this person walks the ghostlands of today and how, in the end he has overcome the adversity.

Still, there are charming moments.  In the multi-ethnic Greygrass, the white part wants to take care of the NDN and visa versa. Everyone needs help to get by and Greygrass' inner ethnic dual personality makes no exception.

There are times when Greygrass has had problems staying clean and sober so he meets with his counselor Ernest to get help. Ernest is a marvelous character.

But other moments seem to be interrupted by improvisational thoughts that lead us on an unknown paths.   Some characters, like Angel, a teenage Puerto Rican girl who provides his first sexual encounter, do not move the story along and does not fit with the narrative.  The story must have a conflict and the conflict must be resolved.  It makes for a better relationship and helps us understand where this 15 year-old character is going.  

Another is a Vietnam vet who is not the main character of Owens-Greygrass nor is he, the nephew. Yet both of these characters play an important part in this play.  The conflict is minimal and the objective is lost without it.

There are a number of interesting characters in this play but under Kevin Sifuentes’ direction, we are not really sure which way we are going, how these characters move the play along, and even the relevance to the characters to the piece as a whole.  These are minor quibbles and can be resolved with some minor additions and a sharper focus.

And you never know about these things.  Maybe it was just an off night.  You can see some of Greygrass’ work on YouTube.  He is funny, charming, and a delightful performer in many ways.

The executive producers were Randy Reinholtz and Jean Bruce Scott.

March 1-18, 2012 at the Autry in Griffith Park

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Orange Flower Water by Craig Wright

By Joe Straw

“My dreams come to me in vivid colors, sounds, and impossible situations. They are sometimes gentle and at times emotional. I dream about disasters two weeks before the disasters come to pass. In the dreams or flashes, I hear people screaming, running, and large bodies of water moving rapidly over land.

“A woman calls me a “disaster dreamer” and some one else tells me I’m part of some kind of collective unconsciousness?  What does that mean?  

“Some dreams I remember for twenty or thirty years. Those dreams are a bleb encapsulated in a moment that, in the future, becomes a reality.  I saw it in a dream, it came to pass, and I lived it, that moment. Holding a small child’s hand. I must be where I’m supposed to be, time to move on, to keep going. The strange thing is I don’t believe I’m making it happen, it just happens.  

“I thought everyone had these dreams.” – a man in therapy

Rydemption Entertainment & Moth Theatre presents Orange Flower Water, written by Craig Wright and directed by John Markland, at the Moth Theatre on Melrose in Los Angeles.  It is a remarkable presentation of adult fare with marvelous actors. This is just one more noteworthy step in the many that make up the goings-on at The Moth Theatre.

There is nothing as lonely as one person in a bedroom.  And that is where Cathy (Rochelle Greenwood) stands, alone.  She speaks a letter to her husband, the missing person among the ruffled sheets of an unmade bed. In the letter, she provides instructions on what do with the kids while she is away on a trip. But she is aware that something is wrong with their relationship.  As she finishes getting dressed, she tells him:  “presume that I love you.”

Meanwhile her husband David (Jonathan Tucker), a pharmacist and father to their three children, is about to commit to an affair with Beth (Amanda Brooks).   They have known each other for three years.  Despite this, they know very little of each other's intimate thoughts even though they’ve been conversing for years. Beth believes in God and David is a lapsed Christian.

“It’s not your job to save me from Hell!” - David   

But Beth believes being a Christian is important.  She also believes these Christian values are responsible for her dreams.  She feels it.  Sees it.  Smells it. It is orange flower water spilled by a child in the back seat of a car.  So strong is the dream that it takes over her life.  It is something she needs.  She has to have it.  And so she goes after it with little regard to her husband, her children, and her home.

David can’t believe what he is hearing and believes her thoughts are “one step short of The Shinning.”

Later, on the soccer field, David who is encouraging his children, is approached by Brad (Ryan Surratt), Beth’s husband. At first, Brad seems interested in the game but when he sees his prey, the man who may be sleeping with his wife, he has an ulterior motive.   

Brad says foolish things.  It’s part of his character and it’s the only way he knows how to get what he wants. Seeing the end of his marriage in sight, Brad is angry in his approach to life, his video store, and the way he treats others.  He taunts David.  It is a verbal onslaught of emotions and digs, jagged verbal swordplay that cuts the surface of a man already bleeding with emotional wounds.

But Brad cannot be sure that David is sleeping with his wife.  He is not smart enough or subtle in the ways he finds answers.  His approach is to give David a choice of two women and ask, which one?  And he sure as hell would like to know which woman David would like to sleep with, given a preference.  Because ultimately, he believes David is sleeping with his wife.

And on another day, a pleasant sunny barbeque kind of day, Brad finds his wife, Beth, packing her belongings in a suitcase and preparing to move out of the house.  This is the scene that cuts the deepest, in the middle of a party, with friends and family nearby. This is the burn that never goes away, and it happens with the two on the bed, unable to come to grips with their quandary. They are antipodes trying to find a solution to their unsuccessful relationship. 

“I’m the queen of romantic mistakes.  Do you really want to have this conversation?” – Beth

As much as Brad tries to stop her, Beth is walking out the door.  He tries to dissuade her by saying that David is not going to leave his kids. But no amount of pleading, begging, or violence will stop this woman or any woman from making a change she is determined to make. 

And so Brad is alone speaking his letter, that he will change, that he’s not perfect, and that he wants her to come back. It is a little, and too late.

And when it’s time for the other half to break up, Cathy wants David in the most imaginable way, so much so that he will never leave her. But while they are engaged in the throes of ecstasy, she wants to know “What’s it like with Beth?”  There passion becomes a series of accusations and sexual appeasements. When it’s over and they are face to face…

“I’ll tell the kids in the morning.” - David

The actors in this production are experienced and know the craft. It is a tremendous body of work from four fine professionals and a pleasure to witness.

Amamda Brooks as Beth impresses me with each performance.  She has the dream of orange, flower and water and she pursues the passion of her dream. Her conflict is the lives she is destroying for the sake of having the family she wants. She trusts in the higher source to get her to that dream that is eventually fulfilled.  Brooks’ work is wonderful; she has an astonishing commitment to the role and pursues her objective magnificently.

Jonathan Tucker as David is about as human as they come. As the character, he is so filled with anxiety it is almost impossible for him to stand. Every thought is a process of leaving his wife, his kids, and he is not really sure if he wants to go with another woman, buy another house, live another life. The questions keep coming but the answers are not so easy.  Tucker gives a deep emotional commitment to the role. His eyes convey a lot that he is not willing to verbally express. The ending, with his back to the audience, is incredible. Stanislavski would have been proud.

Ryan Surratt as Brad is the owner of a video store, yet it is possible that this store might not last as long as his marriage. There is an edge to this character, a seemingly non-violent one that could easily turn violent. He is an angry man with just cause to say nasty things because he cannot control his verbal expulsions. His mouth is open like a male cat catching a strong whiff of a sexual scent.  He stalks his prey to try to find answers. It’s the only way he knows how.  But beneath the nasty veneer lays a man who tries hard to provide for his family and tries to keep his family together.  Surratt’s performance is absolutely terrific.

Rochelle Greenwood as Cathy plays a choir director and her performance is brilliant! Her eyes convey a deep sympathetic charm and her physical life is commanding.  This is an actress that is not afraid to go all out when the role demands it.  Yet she is also very self-contained.  She could be tearing the hair out of the head of the other woman but she stands quietly in the rain offering her some Skittles.  And as the rain breaks across the edge of the umbrella so does the heart of this character.  Greenwood was just charming and outstanding in this marvelous performance.

Craig Wright, the writer, really does a nice job with this one-act play.  Anyone who has gone through a divorce has experienced the realities presented in this play.  The hurt is continuous and the pain is great.  The tragedy of telling your kids is better left off stage although the pain on stage is surely felt by the character.  Wright does an excellent job capturing the pain.  His writing is real, heartfelt and to the point and this is a play you will remember for some time to come.

John Markland does an amazing job as the director. There is so much going on with the characters that it is difficult to appreciate it fully in one viewing.  The movements are specific and the lives are genuine. It’s just one more visual feast from a director that gets the most from his actors and gets better with each production.  This is an outstanding job.

Ryan Surratt and Amanda Brooks are the marvelous producers on this production. 

Justin Huen does a fantastic job as Scene Designer and Lighting Designer.

The Moth is a theatre that one should be obligated to see to get a sense of style and the depth of the emotions.  It is a very interesting group of patrons that hang onto every word, every emotions, and they are flocking in droves to witness this.

Run, and take a friend whose life has been de-spoused. Through March 17, 2012

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

California Dreamin’ by Jill Charlotte Thomas

By Joe Straw

“This play, California Dreamin’, is a work of fiction.  Although it is inspired by real people and actual events, it is not, and is not intended to be, an accurate portrayal of real people, real incidents or historical events as they actually occurred” – A flyer in the program – author unknown

Growing up in the south, I was part of an international marching band.  Robert Morris, our band instructor, had a peculiar liking to “California Dreamin”.  To this day, I still think of it as a haunting melody—not really a song to lift the spirits.  It was more of a dirge for the opposing team – leave the stadium, you’re whipped – go home. 

Still it was haunting in a way that made one want to leave Tennessee and experience California.  Today, after a long and sometimes painful journey, I exist here.  

“California dreamin’ on such a winters day…”

One might, or might not believe, the actual events presented in this play but the end result remains the same.  Suspend all that you know about the Tate/La Bianca murders in 1969, free your mind, and let the fictional account of this play lead you to the events of this tragic night.  But, that is entirely up to you.   

The Met Theatre presents the world premiere of California Dreamin,’ by Jill Charlotte Thomas, directed by L. Flint Esquerra, and magnificently produced by Paul Koslo and Gabrieal Griego.  This is a monster of a show.  Skillfully written by Thomas and wonderfully directed by Esquerra, this show ends with the hair standing on the back of your neck.  

The play has a rough start but then begins to move along.  Slowly the pieces of the puzzle fit, and as the events start to unfold, the play soars magnificently. It’s been a while since I’ve been this excited about an original piece of work by a playwright who deserves recognition. This is, without a doubt, a terrifying play with tremendous potential.   

Peter Folger (John F. Goff) opens the play with a eulogy to his daughter, Abigail Folger (Ivy Kahn).  He is heartbroken. But burying his daughter does not mean this is the end.  Not wanting his daughter hauled through the mud, he enlists a private detective, Investigator MacDonald (Philip Sokoloff), to cover up any connection between Abigail, the drugs, and the murderer. MacDonald knows Abigail Folger had drugs in her system but he will do his best to keep her name out of the headlines.

It worked because the murders, to this day, are called the Tate/La Bianca murders.

“All the leaves are brown…”

A flashback to an earlier time takes us to the Haight Ashbury clinic in San Francisco where Ines Folger (Kathleen Coyne) is volunteering in a methadone clinic.  Ines meets Sunshine (Samantha Posey) and speaks to her about her drug problem.  She then hands Sunshine an invitation to a cocktail party at her home a days later.  This seems very odd, inviting drug addicts to your home and serving them alcohol, another drug. No good can come from this action.

Sunshine asks if she can bring her “friends”.

“And the sky is grey…”

Later, Ines and Peter, long divorced, wait for the guests and for Abigail (Ivy Khan) to arrive.   Peter believes inviting the Haight Ashbury drug hippies is a bad idea and wants these people to leave. Not wanting any more from these roustabouts, Peter walks away from the cocktail party.  Sunshine and her “friends” step up to the bar and get wasted.

Abigail is a no show.

“I’ve been for a walk on a winters day…”

Distraught by the sudden change of events, Ines holds her head, feels a migraine coming on, and staggers to the garden.  But, in the distance, she sees a shadowy figure, alone in the corner.  The figure prostrate on the ground is Charles Manson.  Charles uses his friendly demeanor to get acquainted. He asks for her hand and pinches a spot to relieve the headache pain.  

“The kids, they listen to me.” – Charles Manson

“I’d be safe and warm, if I was in LA…”

Comforted now, Ines suggests to her new friend, Charles, that he go to Los Angeles and speak to her daughter, Abigail. And it’s not too long before Charles finds Abigail as she and Petra (Rachel Kerbs) are trying to get a cat out of a tree. Petra insults Charles in various ways but Abigail sees a redeeming quality in this man.

“California Dreamin’ on such a winter’s day…”

Later, at the California Club in Los Angeles, Ines and Peter meet with Abigail and Petra for lunch.  Abigail is on various drugs and can hardly keep her head up. Peter scolds his daughter and suggests she cleans up her act.  Petra is embarrassed and takes Abigail away.

Manson, holding a guitar, meets Abigail at a party in a home on Waverly Drive (La Bianca’s house).   Abigail’s boyfriend, Wojciech Frykowski (Mark Deliman), is in the bathroom getting drugged out of his mind.  With Frykowski out of the way Manson moves on to Abigail.  They go through a little role-play and when Manson asks her name, she tells him her name is “McGoo.”

“You’re a pretty little smart ass.” – Manson

Not entirely comfortable, Abigail waits for Frykowski to come out of the bathroom.  Manson lets on that he knows her true identity.

“Your people sell coffee.” – Manson

Later, Dr. Flicker (Philip Sokoloff) meets with Abigail to help her through her journey of life. She has questions about her relationship with her parents, drugs, and her boyfriend.

When she gets home, Frykowski is having a pool party with bikini clad young ladies Abigail doesn’t know.  She controls her anger and runs away right into the arms of another man.  And, as bad luck would have it that space is occupied by Manson. He is playing a guitar and singing about a woman, Gibby McGoo. (Gibby is a nickname used by Abigail’s friends.)

Abigail establishes a relationship with Manson and the two of them get high together.  

Later Manson at Spahn ranch and with bible in hand, speaks to his followers about killing people saying that it’s okay since “the soul can’t be destroyed”.  When Tex Watson (Sean Andrews) questions his logic, Manson strangles him to near death.

The acting in this production is superb and sublime. The leads are engrossing and the supporting cast helps this play move along exquisitely.

Tyson Robert Turrou is fantastic as Charles Manson.  His mesmerizing portrayal of a man on the edge, complete with dark secrets, and motives only known to him. It is, in fact, an incredible performance, with many layers, taking us down the many dark secluded alleyways of his mind.  Even when he is shackled, he is terrifying.  And complete in character Turrou tops it off with a fine singing voice. Remarkable.   

Ivy Khan as Abigail Folger does some wonderful work.  She portrays a woman with money who, because of her addiction, is at the bottom rung of her social ladder.  Inebriated, or high, she doesn’t see life around her and when she finally comes down she is able to glimpse the reality around her. Try as she might, she is surrounded by people who can help her if only she would ask. But by the time she makes a decision to turn her life around, she takes the wrong hand and it is too late. Khan’s work is astonishing because she reveals the range and the capability of this woman’s life.

John F. Goff as Mr. Folger had some nice moments.  Opening night presented some problems but he eventually found his way. There is more to this role than chastising his daughter.  If his objective is to protect her daughter at all cost, he should find a way to reach that objective in ways that are more imaginative and clearer.  Still, not bad.

Kathleen Coyne as Mrs. Folger started slowly but eventually caught on.  As the character, she is clueless as to the harm she brought upon herself and her family. If her objective is to help her daughter at all cost, she should find the way in the ways the character knows how.  

Mark Deliman is delightful as Wojciech Frykowski.  As the character, he is a bugger of a man complete with Polish accent. As the character, Frykowski has dreams of becoming a famous writer but the Hollywood life keeps getting in the way. He loves Abigail and he wants to be with her but, because English is his third language, he cannot express his true love.   His idioms confuses himself, which is a wonderful characterization during the course of the play and provides us with some very witty dialogue.

Rachel Kerbs as Petra is stunning. She has a deep emotional commitment to her character and her moments on stage are charming and devilish. Her relationships to the multitude of characters are extremely solid. Her eyes give away much of her objective.  She makes the most of her time on stage. This is a fine work of art.

Philip Sokoloff has a number of roles in this production.  While Investigator MacDonald didn’t do much investigating, the conflict sets the tone for the entire production.  He was exceptional as the Guru at the Esalen Institute and as the butler who lets us know that we, as citizens, should really do more that ask into the night “Is anyone theyrrreeeeeee?” especially when there are sound of chaos around us.

Sean Andrews plays Tex Watson and Philip and does some nice work. But there is a reason why Tex is called “Tex” and his Texas drawl needs some serious work.

Rachel Longoria plays Candy and Danielle Motley plays Gypsy who are a small part of the Manson followers along with Samantha Posey as Sunshine who brings them all together.

L. Flint Esquerra does a fantastic job directing this play.  While the opening moments need work, the end will have you shaking in your boots. It is a fantastic job by a director who can add one more great body of work to his successful resume.  While not all of the objectives are solid by the time things settle down, this is one hell of a show.

Jill Charlotte Thomas has written a play that is stunning. Even the smallest life moments are wonderfully capture with witty dialogue. There are defining moments so enlightening, we become anxious to move on to the next. We know the history, seen the film, read the book but to put this out as a work of fiction is pure imagination at its finest. The scintillating characters are both well defined and confused as they move through life.

The Sound Design/Score was provided by Joseph ‘Sloe’ Slawinski.  Set and Lighting Design by Thomas Meleck was fantastic.  Costume Design by Rhona Meyers.  The Stage Manager was Laura Forst.  The Sound Operator was Joe Montiel, The Set Builder was Patricio Amores. The Technical Director was Jason Henderson and the Photography was provided by Irene Hovey.

The lyrics of “Gibby McGoo” was written by Thomas and the delightful music was written by Gabrieal Griego

Go and while you're at it take a misguided friend.