Monday, December 31, 2012

The Last Straw Awards 2012

By Joe Straw

At the 2012 Ovation Awards in Los Angeles I ran into Bruce French, an old friend and wonderful actor, and told him that I had seen close to 60 productions this year.  (Now over 60 productions.) He asked about the quality of the productions and I mentioned the work in Los Angeles is exceptional and getting better.

And it is.

The thoughts of remembering shows like “Our Town” at The Broad, “In the Heights” at Casa 0101, and “Faith” at the Latino Theatre Company still sends shudders of delight down my spine.

This year the work was astonishing and while this list may seem voluminous it is only a small percentage of the actors, directors, and writers’ work I have observed this year.  And of course it is a small percentage of the shows produced throughout the Los Angeles region. 

My objective of the blog is to grasp the craft, make notes about what works and what could have been improved.  Theatre is a process, a craft, and a way of finding ways to make the words work.  It is about character, creativity, and objectives realized. It is this process that really fascinates me. 

So, turn off your televisions and find a show to go to and know these shows are not interrupted every five minutes by commercials.  

It’s been a very good year.  This year there is a new award.  It is called the “Ortiz”.  This award represents a grand achievement for diversity in a theatrical production.  It is something I worked for as the SAG Hollywood President of the EEOC and continues today through this blog.

The actors, writers and directors, have sacrificed a lot, for the sake of a working in this industry.  There is no competition involved here. This is just a list of actors, writers, and directors that have excelled at their craft. They are listed below and deserve your attention.

Our Town By Thornton Wilder at The Broad Theatre
David Cromer - Director
Helen Hunt – Stage Manager

New Jerusalem by David Ives at The Pico Playhouse
Mark Bramhall - Abraham van Valkenburgh

The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh at The Ruskin Group Theatre Company
Mike Reilly – Director
Jason Paul Field - Coleman
Jonathon Bray - Valene
Conor Walshe – Father Welsh

American Night The Ballad of Juan Jose by Richard Montoya at The Kirk Douglas Theatre
Daisuke Tsuji – Various Roles

Orange Flower Water by Craig Wright at The Moth Theatre
John Markland - Director
Amanda Brooks - Cathy
Rochelle Greenwood - Cathy

California Dreamin’ by Jill Charlotte Thomas at The Met Theatre
Jill Charlotte Thomas – Writer  
Tyson Robert Turrou – Charles Manson
Rachel Kerbs – Petra
Ivy Kahn - Abigail Fodger

The Bewildered Herd by Cody Henderson at The Greenway Theatre
Cody Henderson – Writer
John Getz – Bingo
Lisa Richards - Helen

The Boomerang Effect by Matthew Leavitt at The Odyssey
Kat Bailess – Julie

The Closeness of the Horizon by Richard Martin at The Odyssey
David Starzyk – Stein

Ghosts by Herik Ibsen at The Edgemar Center of The Performing Arts
James Giordano – Jacob Engstrand
Paul Stroili – Pastor Manders

Bitchslap! by Darrin Hagen
C. Stephen Foster – Bette Davis
Michael Taylor Gray – Joan Crawford
Therese McLaughlin – Hedda Hopper

Re-Animator The Musical – Music & Lyrics by Mark Nutter book by Dennis Paoli, Stuart Gordon & William J. Norris at The Hayworth Theatre
Graham Skipper – Herbert West
Jessie Merlin – Dr. Hill
George Wendt – Dean Halsey

A Child Left Behind by Alan Aymie at The Beverly Hills Playhouse
Alan Aymie – Himself

Mutually Assured Destruction by Peter Lefcourt at The Odyssey Theatre
Michael Caldwell – Various Roles

Birds of A Feather by Christina Hart at The Complex Theatre
Robert Burgos - Director
Christina Hart – Writer
Eddie Kehler – Joey

Trio Los Machos by Josefina Lopez at Casa 0101
Rocio Mendoza – Aurelia

Café Vida by Lisa Loomer at The Latino Theatre Company
Lisa Loomer – Writer
Page Leong – Various Roles

Elmina’s Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah at The Lost Theatre
Gregg T. Daniel - Director
Kwame Kwei-Armah – Writer
Noel Arthur – Digger
Leon Morenzie - Bagee

The Circle by Somerset Maugham at Theatre 40
David Hunt Stafford - Lord Porteus
Rhonda Lord - Lady Kitty

Annie Junior – Book by Thomas Meehan, Music by Charles Strouse and Lyrics by Martin Charnin at The Grace Lutheran Church in Culver City
Grace Basom as Molly

Love Struck – by Odalys Nanin and co-written by Marie Barrientos
Odalys Nanin - Laura
Tricia Cruz - Rachel

The Paris Letter by Jon Robin Baitz at The Lonny Chapman Theatre
Alex Parker – Burt Sarris (Young)
Julia Silverman – Lillian Sonnenberg

Flipzoids by Ralph B. Peña at The Latino Theatre Company
Ralph B. Peña – Writer
Maxwel S. Corpuz - Redford
Beca Godinez - Aying

Vincent by Leonard Nimoy at The VS Theatre
John-Michel Richaud – Theo

The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris at The Blank Theatre
Michael Matthews - Director
Paolo Andino – Crumpet

Their Eyes Saw Rain by West Liang at The Company of Angels Theatre
Justin Huen - director
West Liang – Writer
West Liang – Terrance

Hamlet by William Shakespeare at The Broad Stage
Christopher Saul - Polonium
Dickson Tyrrell - Claudius

Empanada for a Dream by Juan Francisco Villa
Juan Francisco Villa - Himself

Cymbeline by William Shakespeare at The Broad Stage
Ben Steinfeld - Iachimo
Andy Grotelueschen – Cloten

In The Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda at Casa 0101 Theatre
Rigo Tejeda – Director
Michael Torrenueva - Usnavi
Vivian Lamolli - Daniela

Anna Lucasta by Philip Yordan - A Robey Theatre Company Production in association with The Latino Theatre Company
Ashlee Olivia – Anna Lucasta
Carl Crudup - Noah
Cydney Wayne Davis – Theresa Davis
Tanya Lane – Katie Lucasta


(small venue)

Americano by John Markland at The Moth Theatre
John Markland - Stephen
Amanda Brooks - Kate
Wendy Haines – Dr. Leif
Patrick Scott Lewis - Nate
Pamela Guest - Barrista

(Mid-size venue)

Faith by Evelina Fernandez at The Latino Theatre Company
José Luis Valenzuela – director
Evelina Fernández – Writer
Esperanza America– Faith
Alexis de la Rocha – Charity
Olivia Delgado – Elena and Young Esperanza
Evelina Fernández – Lupe
Sal Lopez – Silvestre
Xavi Moreno – Charlie
Matias Ponce – Freddie
Geoffrey Rivas – Ricardo Flores
Lucy Rodriguez – Esperanza

(Large Venue)

Our Town by Thornton Wilder directed by David Cromer at The Broad Stage

And last, but not least.

The Ortiz award goes to In The Heights – Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda – Book by Aulara Alegría Hudes and directed by Rigo Tejeda presented by Teatro Nuevos Horizontes at Casa 0101 Theatre.

Thank you!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Cymbeline by William Shakespeare

L - R Ben Steinfeld, Jessie Austrian

By Joe Straw

Why do women love men who are prone to emotional errors in judgment?  And, is forgiveness absolute?

Fiasco Theatre Company, from New York, started this play in the same fashion as a recent production of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.  The actors came on stage, got into character, and were inaudibly preparing.  But the comparison changed when the audience suddenly got very quiet and Jessie Austrian, an actress playing Imogen, turned around and said: (and I’m paraphrasing) “Oh, we’re not starting yet.  You can talk amongst yourselves.”  Well, that’s kind of interesting – breaking the fourth wall – and in the same breath, making us feel right at home, with this company, and with Shakespeare.

And then, if that weren’t enough, at intermission, audience members approached the actors on stage, and carried on conversations until the actors were ready to begin. Is this going too far? Are we getting a little too comfortable?

Funny, this Shakespeare is not the dry toast I had for breakfast, long ago.  – The Narrator

Fiasco Theater presents Cymbeline by William Shakespeare directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, at The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica through December 23, 2012.  It is a wonderful production; performed by extraordinary actors, giving it their all with music, song, and sound effects that completely fulfill our visual, auditory and emotional experience.  
The six actors, (playing fifteen roles, in a play that has approximately 40 roles), never leave the stage, rather they sit upstage in the semi-darkness, creating sound effects, playing musical instruments, and handle other props that are these actor’s armamentarium.   

Cymbeline (Andy Grotelueschen) was not dead, to begin with.  He is the powerful King of Britain, a country, at that time, that is making inroads towards world domination.  But, Cymbeline is bent with age, his decrepit body struggles with the use of a cane, and the coat he wears barely keeps the cold away from his fragile body.  Still, everyone, within his shouting distance knows: he rules Britain.

But, those besieging Cymbeline appreciates he will not live forever. Imogen (Jessie Austrian), by position of being first born, is next in line to the throne after her father passes.  With that in mind and simply put, the play is about the struggle for power.  

Cymbeline is married to Queen (Emily Young) who is the mother to an idiot son, Cloten (Andy Grotelueschen).  The Queen envisions Cloten as being one step away from the throne. But, Cloten is conflicted first, with a disease of self-infatuation, (a feverish love for himself) and secondly with Imogen, his beautiful stepsister.  

Our story starts off with a man in a predicament. Posthumus, a gentleman of questionable character traits, marries Imogen, daughter to Cymbeline by a former queen. But Imogen’s father has enough spirit in him to banish Posthumus from the kingdom, for reasons not entirely clear.  

Posthumus chooses to flee to Italy. But, before he sets off, Imogen gives him a ring.

“This diamond was my mother’s; take it, heart;
But keep it till you woo another wife,
When Imogen is dead.” – Imogene

Posthumus says he will never marry and he will keep the rings until his death. (Math formula: man + promises/Shakespeare’s play = promises a man will not keep)  But, in exchange, he gives her a bracelet to wear while they are apart.

In the waning moments of their time together Posthumus will not let go of Imogen. But the Queen, recognizing their love, hustles them along until it is too late.  King Cymbeline finds them together and swears he will kill Posthumus unless he leaves.

“The gods protect you!
And bless the good remainders of the court!
I am gone.” – Posthumus

(Interesting comment: “good remainders” meaning there are others who are not so good.)

Posthumus leaves without burning his bridges.  

Meanwhile Cloten, muses out loud to his servant, why Imogen would love Posthumus and not the gloriousness that is, him.

“Sir, as I told you always, her beauty and her brain go not together; she’s a good sign, but I have seen small reflection of her wit.” – Servant

(The servant is trying to win points.)

When Posthumus sails off to Italy, Imogen confides to Pisanio that she misses him already and would have wept uncontrollably had she seen his ship sail off.  She wonders out loud what she could have said at the last meeting between them.

“Or I could make him swear
The shes of Italy should not betray
Mine interest and his honour,” - Imogen

No, I think Posthumus is capable of getting himself into enough trouble all by himself, and he does.  

Posthumus meets Iachimo (Ben Steinfeld) a hustler in an Italian pool hall (sound effects included) and right away Iachimo takes a liking to Posthumus’ ring. And thus begins his quest to obtain it by any means necessary not excluding his wit.

“I praised her as I rated her; so do I my stone.” – Posthumus

“What do you esteem it at?” – Iachimo

“More than the world enjoys.” – Posthumus

“Either your unparagoned mistress is dead, or she’s outprized by a trifle.” – Iachimo

Well, those are fighting words, and Posthumus is always up for a challenge.

“I will lay you 10,000 ducats to your ring, that, commend me to the court where your lady is, with no more advantage than the opportunity of a second conference, and I will bring from thence that honour of hers which you imagine so reserved.” - Iachimo

Foolishly, Posthumus takes up the offer and Iachimo set sails to England.

Cornelius (Andy Grotelueschen), the doctor, provides a deadly potion to the Queen to use at her discretion. She says she will not use it on a human. (I wonder if she thinks the King, human?) In any case, and as an aside, Cornelius tells us he does not trust her and provides her with a potion that will only kill dogs or cats.

The Queen then gives it to Pisanio and tells him that it is a wonder drug and the drug has brought back the King five times from death.

Once in England Iachimo immediately meets with Imogen and gives her a letter from her husband, Posthumus, in Italy.  Iachimo is stunned by her beauty and immediately wants to, hold her. 

Iachimo sends tidings from Italy.   Posthumus is having a great time there, always laughing, robust, with many Italian women about.

“Is he disposed to mirth?  I hope he is.” – Imogen

“Exceedingly pleasant; non a stranger there
So merry and so gamesome; he is call’d
The Briton Reveller” – Iachimo  

Quickly Iachimo takes Imogen into his arms but his advances fails.  Imogen tells him to get out.  But, in order to save the wager, Iachimo reflects fast to say he was only kidding, that he was challenging her, and she passed the test.  He tells her that Posthumus “…sits ‘mongst men like a descended god.” He deeply apologizes for his deception and informs her that he is leaving soon, but asks a favor. He has a trunk with rare and expensive gifts that he is taking back to his emperor.

“To have them in safe stowage: may it please you
To take them in protection?” Iachimo

“…I will keep them in my bedchamber.” – Imogen

Iachimo breathes with incomparable delight.

L - R Ben Steinfeld, Jessie Austrian

And later that night, Iachimo silently crawls out of that same trunk, now placed under Imogen’s bed, as the sounds of crickets break the tranquility, and beauty lies fast asleep. He stands soundlessly, and observes her exquisiteness.  He watches her breathe, and gets a little carried away before he comes to his senses.

“But my design,
To note the chamber; I will write all down;
Such and such pictures; there the window; such
The adornment of her bed;” – Iachimo

But the figure of her sleeping lures Iachimo to her bedside and he struggles mightily to wrench the bracelet from her arm, lifts her nightgown, and shivers with pleasure at the sight of a mold on her left breast. With a slight displeasure of having to leave this sight, he crawls back into the trunk and then later back to Italy to win the wager.

Later Cloten approaches Imogen to swear his love for her.

“By the very truth of it, I care not for you,
And am so near the lack of charity” – Imogen

Well, this doesn’t go over too well with Cloten.  Suddenly, remembering her true love, Imogen discovers the bracelet is missing from her arm.  She sends Pisanio out to find it.  

Meanwhile, back in Italy, the not so honorable Iachimo, convinces the not so smart and easily manipulated Posthumus that he is very familiar with his wife, Imogen, by means of the bracelet and knowing about the mold on her left breast.  

Posthumus is distraught and sends a letter to Pisanio to take Imogen out into the woods and murder her. Pisanio is taken aback by the request in the letter, but he does so only to show Imogen the letter.  He gives her the poison (medicine) to help her ailments and Imogen crawls into a cave and later discovers a countrified Belaria (Emily Young) and her supposed sons Guiderius (Paul L. Coffey) and Arviragus (Ben Steinfeld).

The acting by the Fiasco Company was exceptional under the guidance of directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld. Given the economic realties of moving a company to Los Angeles one would have hope for two more actors to avoid a little confusion. Still, in this slightly truncated version of Cymbeline, the point of play was made and the audience sat in quiet rapture the whole night. Brody and Steinfeld give Cymbeline a unique take that is exquisite in design and purpose. All in all, this was a wonderful night of theatre. Brody and Steinfeld served as Fight Director and Music Director respectively.

Andy Grotelueschen was exceptional in the characters he portrayed.  His characters were all-different but at one point in the play the cast in unison asked: “Who are you?”  He put on his glasses and was immediately Cornelius, the doctor. Cloten, the step-brother is an interesting character and can go many ways, but if his objective is to secure Imogen to get closer to the throne, then making the choices to get her is in the best interest of the character’s future. Cloten was his nasty self throughout, not really a good way to get the girl.  And if you’re not going to wipe (audience members will get this) it cannot be a good way to woo the girl. Still Grotelueschen’s performance and his exuberance carries him a long way, his voice exceptional, his manner incomparable.

Jessie Austrian is stunning and did a marvelous job as Imogen. Her love and objective are quite clear.  Because of her beauty, she fights those that try to win her affections, but she has her sights on the man she married and no one else.  Next in line, she may be, but does she have the mental capacity to carry the crown? She is intelligent, but swayed by the men who offer her untruths, she runs into the forest misguided by a servant who may want to kill her, and she accepts all the Italian is willing to give her.  When will she learn? Austrian’s skills, her craft, her character are all, impeccable.  

Noah Brody played Posthumus and a Roman Captain. Brody has a nice presence on stage.  He did everything required for this role.  But, one couldn’t help but believe there are more choices to make in the role of Posthumus. Posthumus is not a perfect man, he makes a lot of mistakes, being banished was one of them, but he never internally questions, or externally questions the will of the king.  And then, when he says he’ll keep the ring until death, the first thing he does is make a wager against the ring, with little emotional inner conflict, or outer physical conflict. And then, he is so distraught when given the news; he wants to kill the woman he loves?  Something ain’t right upstairs with this character.  Brody could have stepped it up a notch; still I regard his performance as exceptional nevertheless.

Paul L. Coffey plays Pisanio, Philario, Caius Lucius, Guiderius all roles for which he has little political power.  But what these characters do is get the point across, of the little things that need fixing, for all the bad intentions of the other characters on stage. Coffey handles the roles with assurance, but seems to be beaten down, and there is a melancholy expression on his face throughout the night, where he takes on the weight of the world (not a lot of humor here). Also, I never got the impression that Pisanio would carry out his master’s request in the country at Milford-Haven or that he even considered it.  Still, there are a number of wonderful moments and Coffey does a fantastic job.  

Emily Young plays Queen, Frenchman (funny, I didn’t hear a French accent), and Belaria, a role generally played by a man, Bellarius, a banished Lord.  Funny about Belaria as the role reminded me of The Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyland.  She was carrying around a washboard, barefoot, and wearing a straw hat.  And her back was slightly bent (from carrying water to the cave?). One, two, three, and they break into song that was funny and totally unexpected, and back wood country. The Queen was an interesting and dangerous character, but on the outside didn’t seem threatening, she was more covert in her intentions than anything.  She spoke in measured tones when she wanted something, the poison, and the son to marry the stepdaughter, but didn’t push hard to reach her objective. She has a strong will, after all, she has married a king.  But did we see enough action (internally or externally) to know that she was going to reach her objective?  Despite my questions, Young is an exceptional actor, has a wonderful smile, and very capable on stage.

Ben Steinfeld has a unique presence on stage and is a marvelous actor. As the character Iachimo, he is sly and sinister and uses his wits to get by in life.  One would think gambling and deception are his only means of survival. Steinfeld made a choice of not taking pleasure of winning the wager.  One would have thought the opposite to be true.  Steinfeld also creates a grand physical life on stage and has the emotional carriage to guide him through the variety of predicaments.  It’s a wonderful role for this marvelous actor and a perfect fit for this delightful actor who knows the craft.

Whitney Locher as the Costume Designer and did a remarkable job.

Tim Cryan was the Lighting Designer.

Jacques Roy was the Trunk Designer that turned out to be a major part of this play.

And of course, it’s the other intangibles, the other work that also makes up all that encompasses a great production.

Caite Hevner:  Properties Designer
Christina Lowe:  Production Stage Manager
Cicely Berry:  Vocal and Text Consultant
Michael Perlman: Assistant Director  

The show has closed but do not miss the opportunity to see Fiasco Theater wherever they are playing.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

In The Heights - Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda - Book by Aulara Alegría Hudes

By Joe Straw

My father died December 3, 2012, found face down in the mansion of his living room floor, deep in the south.  He was alone, in his home. Five days later in Boyle Heights, I sat quietly waiting for a musical about home to begin. Words cannot express how much the home theme meant to me as I sat there, laughing, loving, crying, and missing home and realizing this night, this theatre, tonight, is the only home I have, and the only home I know.  – Narrator

Most of the shows keep me thinking about the performance weeks after I had seen them.  Funny, as I think back on them, I remember those memories as being black and white.  But, after I saw In The Heights, colors danced in my head, music filled my dreams, and remembrances of home kept me in a warm and lofty place.

Teatro Nuevos Horizontes presents In The Heights - Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda - Book by Qulara Alegría Hudes and directed by Rigo Tejeda is a marvelous production in the small Casa 0101 Theatre, full of life, hope, love, ambition and home.   

I knew In The Heights was coming but questioned the venue as being too small for this show.  And after I checked out the bios, I thought this was possibly an overambitious project for this company.  I was wrong.  It’s fits perfectly and moves with the Latin beat from one moment to the next!  Run!  Por favor! Run!

The play begins in the warm early morning hours of Washington Heights, the northern tip of Manhattan, New York City.  A hooded lone tagger, Graffiti Peter (Chris Marcos) indiscriminately sprays paints on a storefront.  The trouble is that it is Usnavi’s (Michael Torrenueva) storefront and Usnavi comes out swinging, protecting his property and chases him away. 

He lifts the graffiti security metal gate on his bodega, a Hispanic grocery store, and opens for the day.  He runs this bodega with his cousin, Sonny (Phillip Garcia), to an extremely diverse community.

‘I am Usnavi and you prob'ly never heard my name
Reports of my fame
Are greatly exaggerated
Exacerbated by the fact that my syntax
Is highly complicated cuz I emigrated from the single greatest little place in the Caribbean
I love it,…”

Usnavi introduces the community, in the song “In The Heights”.  Piragua Guy (Felix Sotelo), Abuela Claudia (Carole Salerno) and the Rosarios who own a cab company across the street.   

Kevin Rosario (Benjamin Perez) stops by every morning to put $20.00 on the lottery. Then he opens Rosario’s cab company that he runs with his wife Camila (Graciela Valderrama) and employee Benny (James Oronoz).  The Rosarios patiently wait the arrival of their daughter Nina (Parissa Koo) who is coming home from Stanford University in California.  Benny is infatuated with Nina.    

Daniela (Vivian Lamolli) and Carla (Chrissi Erickson) stroll in, spreading nasty gossip about their community, and having a great time in the process.  They work in the salon but need to move soon because the rent is going up.

Usnavi’s parents are dead and he is not entirely satisfied living in Washington Heights selling coffee, condoms, and fuzzy dice.  Usnavi dreams of going home to the Dominican Republic.  

The day starts off wrong when, right off the bat, Usnavi finds the refrigerator is not working and the milk is warm.  He implores a grumbling Sonny to fix it despite the fact that he is not trained, is just a kid, and doesn’t want to be electrocuted.  

Still, warm milk is not good for Usnavi who takes pride in his morning coffee.  Abuela Claudia, there to buy a lottery ticket, suggests using condensed milk.

Usnavi runs into Benny who says that he’s a climber, he’s “makin’ moves”, but chides Usnavi with “You still ain’t got no skills”.  More importantly, Benny wants to know if he’s made his move on Vanessa (Melissa Anjose), a gorgeous Latina, before she moves out of Washington Heights.  

The coffee for Vanessa is on the house but Usnavi can’t make himself to ask her out despite the egging’s on of Benny and Sonny.  And Vanessa has no clues as to why she is getting the coffee for free.

Later, a troubled Nina appears, warmly greeting people on the streets, knowing that she has important news to give to her mother and father.  At her parents’ cab company, Benny wants to show her what he has learned while she’s been gone.  Moments later, when her parents arrive, she tells her them she has dropped out of Stanford and has not been going to school for months.

Nina’s parents take it very hard and Kevin Rosario vows to help her because it is in his nature to fix things for Nina no matter what sacrifices the family must make.

"I'm proud to be your father
Cuz you worked so much harder
And you are so much smarter
Then I was at your age." – Kevin

L - R Melissa Anjose, Chrissi Erickson, Parissa Koo, Vivian Lamolli

Nina escapes to the salon to hear the latest gossip in the song “No Me Diga” with Vanessa, Carla, and Daniela. When she tells them that she dropped out of Stanford, they are all shocked.

Later Usnavi finds out that his bodega sold the winning lottery ticket of $96,000.00 and the whole community celebrates of what they would do if they won. It is a beautiful number. And Usnavi only dreams of the white sandy beaches in the Dominican Republic.

Abuela Claudia has the winning ticket and wonders what she will do with the money.  She sings Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith).  It is a lovely number about her life, growing up in Cuba, coming to America and working as a maid.  She asks for guidance with the winning lottery ticket.

I cannot adequately express my feelings of this rich diverse cast that threw their hearts and souls into this performance. It certainly was jaw dropping and eye opening.

Christopher Marcos as Graffiti Pete gives his all dancing all over the stage with his spray cans. It is an interesting role in that at night he is this graffiti freak and during the day “Clark Kent” with baggy pants.

Michael Torrenueva as Usnavi does an incredible job given all he has to do.  And while he has a very nice voice, needs to work on volume. Still Torrenueva is fantastic as Usnavi, funny, warm and has a very nice charm. Usnavi is a fabulist that relays stories of the neighborhood in his own syntax.   His charm is that he lacks a certain manly confidence to get the girl he wants. Holding him back are his dreams of the Dominican Republic, and the white sandy beaches, only to learn a very valuable lesson in the end. One can’t help but stand and cheer at the end of the closing number as he recognizes himself as the rich storyteller of the community. This is his life.  This is who he is.  His performance is remarkable.   

Felix Sotelo as the Piragua Guy has a very nice voice and was just wonderful. His character plays an important role in that he introduces the heat in this community, not only the weather, but the passion of the people that live there as well.  Sotelo sings and dances his way into your heart.

Carole Salerno played Abuela Claudia. While she may have been too young for this role, she did an outstanding job in this show. The character is alone and ailing.  Despite her health, she tries her best to help others because she remembers her own struggles to create a better life in New York.  Salerno’s work shows a passionate commitment to the craft.  She is very enjoyable in this role.  

Chrissi Erickson played Carla the ditsy hairdresser and did a very fine job. She is wonderful to watch but sometimes loses sight of the “thing” that makes her that character from the moment she steps on to the stage to the moment she leaves.  The character just doesn’t get it try as she might.  Still, Erickson was very funny.

Vivian Lamolli played Daniela and has a great stage presence.  As the character, she is sassy and saucy and willing to throw it all out there no matter what. She takes advantage of every moment on stage and all with a remarkable accent as well.  She is enjoyable to watch and it is difficult to take your eyes off of her.

Benjamin Perez plays Kevin, Nina’s father, and has a wonderful stage presence.  As the character, he is a man who only wants the best for his child and is willing to sacrifice anything to make her life better than his.  His song to his daughter is a billet-doux and his performance was truly marvelous.  

Garciela Valderrama plays Camila, Nina’s mother, she also wants what’s best for her daughter but she doesn’t want to follow her husband’s decisions blindly.  She objects to the selling of her business she has helped to build.  And she wants to be in on the business decisions that affect the entire family.   After all, this is a “family” business and she is a strong woman.   Valderrama was terrific.

Phillip Garcia plays Sonny.  He is quite funny with this tuff of hair sticking out of his hat.  Sonny has a dream. He knows where he is going.  But he is just a kid and he is still working out the kid thing.   The growth is visible on stage as he interacts with the community. The older he gets, he finds things starting to click in his life, he understands it, and grows as a human being.  Garcia does a very nice job and has a very interesting look for film and television.

James Oronoz plays Benny and does a very nice job.  Oronoz is very young, or appears young, and he handled this role like an old pro.  Oronoz has a nice voice and did some very remarkable work. As the character Benny wants the girl first, and the success second.  He is conflicted now that the success is not working out and, with his job gone, his girlfriend maybe going as well.  It’s a tough predicament but one that he eventually overcomes.

Melissa Anjose as Vanessa did some very nice work.  She has a very sexy dance number and has a respectable voice that needs a little strengthening so we can hear her.  As she parades around the heights, she knows eyes are following her.  But, she doesn’t want or doesn’t know, or doesn’t care that Usnavi wants her, or maybe Usnavi is not up to her tasks.  She wants to leave Washington Heights and move to a place where she will be better appreciated.  She is unaware she is home and loved.   This is an interesting character and a very interesting performance.

Parissa Koo as Nina has a very nice voice.  It is as pleasant as the name implies.  She is a little girl growing up in a difficult world and she just hasn’t found her place. Her conflict is her passion for school, her family and her boyfriend and being able to handle all three without throwing the world off its axis. Her performance was wonderful in many ways.

Rigo Tejeda did a fantastic job with the direction.  This is a complicated show and getting this all together was a remarkable achievement.  Still there’s more work to be done if there is a consideration to moving it to a bigger house.  The relationships need to be strengthened and moments clarified.  Abuela’s relationship with Usnavi and Sonny needs tightening. Other characters need stronger objectives and those objectives need to be clear the moment they enter. Also, we were missing the heat, or the idea of heat, which culminates when the power goes off and people just go nuts - heat mixed with passion. A little symbolism goes a long way here.  Still these are small quibbles for a tremendous job, well done.  There is a lot of diversity in the cast and it represents a reflection of a community we hardly see on television and feature films.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Music and Lyrics are wonderful and specific to the characters.  The older characters have more traditional songs while the younger ones have rap and upbeat tempos and all of the songs at one time or another blend into a carefully crafted mix of all Latino cultures.

The live In The Heights band include:
Conductor:  Brian Michael
Trumpet:  Serafin Aguilar
Bass: Bill Von Ravensberg
Drums/Percussions:  Michael Partlow
Keyboard:  Brian Michael 

Nicely produced by Olga Durazo and I'm not really sure how all of this was done.  All of this could not have been accomplished without an incredible crew and a wonderful ensemble. 

PUBLICISTS ARE Felipe Agredano and Conrado Terraza                                             
HOUSE MANAGED BY Roberto Castillo
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT by Miguel Angel Muñeton
ENSEMBLE- Andy Eubanks
ENSEMBLE- Brittany Freeth
ENSEMBLE- Shafik Wahhab
ENSEMBLE- Michael Gallardo
ENSEMBLE- Yvonne Senat
ENSEMBLE- Fernando Nunez
ENSEMBLE- Brenda Perez

Run and take a friend that likes fuzzy dice, beautiful women, and an incredible score!

Through December 22, 2012.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Anna Lucasta by Philip Yordan

L - R Ashlee Olivia, Carl Crudup, Kaylon Hunt, Nick Gillie

by Joe Straw

Love moves fast.  Sometimes too fast.  And sometimes goose bumps have got nothing to do with love; it’s just a little cold, that’s all.  - Narrator  

The Robey Theatre Company in association with The Latino Theater Company presents Anna Lucasta by Philip Yordan and magnificently directed by Ben Guillory. 

The first thing I noticed when entering the theatre is the resplendent multi-level Set & Lighting Design by Tom Meleck.  Forget subtle symbolism, the sets are real, stunning, and places where actors love to perform their magic, all in an intimate setting.

The play begins in the living room of the Lucasta family in 1941 Pennsylvania. (Oddly enough, I thought it was late 1940’s and after the war.) The Lucasta family is African American, and working class, struggling through the issues of day-to-day living.

Stella Lucasta (Alvina Carroll Saunders), with child, is silently reading a book when her brother, Stanley Lucasta (Kem Saunders), brings in letter with a southern return address.   Her husband Frank (Sammie Wayne IV), a postal employee, suddenly takes interest in the letter.  

As does Theresa Lucasta (Cydney Wayne Davis) who clutches the letter when she learns it’s from an old friend, someone who, in her younger years, she found very handsome, Otis Slocum (not seen).  Her face is flushed, and her feet move rapidly only for a moment.  Then she is brought back down with the harsh realities of her married life.  She is stuck with her husband, Joe Lucasta (Robert Clements), who has become an alcoholic in his later years and also has mental problems.

Joe takes possession of the letter, opens it, and either he can’t read because of his eyes, or he just can’t read.  His daughter-in-law, Katie Lucasta (Tanya Lane), reads the letter.

Otis, Joe’s best friend, writes that he is sending his son, Rudolf Slocum (Dwain A. Perry), a southern farmer and recent college graduate, up to Pennsylvania to find a wife. And he brings $800.00 in his pockets to boot.  

Everyone in the household is matrimonially taken, but their eyes light up when they think about the enormous sum coming their way.  They have some thinking to do, what with baby on the way, unemployment, and liquor habits.  

"Eight hundred bucks is a lot of money.  We need it bad." - Frank 

"What do you mean 'we need it'?  What's the money got to do with us?" - Joe 

A plan is devised to get Rudolf’s money.  Frank, the politician of the family, comes up with a proposal to have Rudolph marry someone in the family.  The only one available is Anna Lucasta (Ashelee Olivia) but they have to get her “off the streets” and back home again for any chance at the money.

“She don’t come back in this house!” – Joe

Joe wants no part of this plan and he is adamant that Anna will not be allowed back into his house.

"That old fox wants to handle Rudolf alone, so that he can grab the whole eight hundred." - Stanley

Theresa goes off into another room to soften Joe up to the idea, but that ends in disaster.

"Joe, I'm begging you an bended knees." - Theresa 

"No, no, no!  I won't do it, Theresa." - Joe 

This is not sitting too well with his son Stanley, and son-in-law, Frank.   Frank hustles Stanley out of the room saying that he wants a word with Joe, man-to-man, and emphasizes that his expertise in political persuasion will do the trick.  He wants to know why Anna is not allowed back into this house.

"What does she do to you? - Frank

"Nothin'!" - Joe 

"Nothin', yet the mere mention of her name turns you into a tremblin' old fool... scared!" - Frank 

But his verbal persuasion doesn’t work and Frank punches Joe in the stomach.  (Frank, in fact, is going postal.) Joe, doubling over, is now breathlessly convinced to go along with the plan.

Frank, bringing Stanley back into the room, says that Joe has had a change of heart and asks Stanley for his last $25.00 for bus fair. Katie (Tanya Lane), Stanley’s wife, has trepidations but hands the money over.

Frank throws on Joe’s coat, hat and umbrella and informs everyone that Joe is off to Brooklyn to find Anna.   

Meanwhile, at Noah’s bar in Brooklyn, Blanche (Jennifer Sammons) is taking a break from hustling out on the street.  She is cold and would like a nice drink to warm her on this cold night.  She begs Noah (Carl Crudup), owner of this nice establishment on the wharf, for a little credit.

But Noah is not a banker, and he is in a hurry to close up and get home when a young sumptuous, Anna Lucasta (Ashlee Olivia), walks in and pretties herself up for a night of fun.  And boy, is Anna Lucasta saucy in every way imaginable!  

L - R Ashlee Olivia, Talmadge Talib

There to exploit the young Anna is Eddie (Talmadge Talib), a local hustler, who says he can do a lot for Anna. Anna wants nothing to do with him and when things get a little out of hand Anna takes a cigarette to Eddie’s neck.

Eddie is hustled out of the door followed by Blanche and Noah locks the door.  

"Hey, Noah, is my memory playing me tricks, or is there a drink comin' to me?" - Blanche

"Your memory's playing you a dirty trick." - Noah 

Anna, alone in thought, comes to the conclusion that she has nowhere to go, and no place to spend the night.  And all Noah can do is offer her two sandwiches and the best in her nightly endeavors.     

Suddenly, two sailors, Danny (Nick Gillie) and his friend Lester (Kaylon Hunt), enter the bar.  Danny is very acquainted with Anna and is immediately all over her.  Danny presents her with presents only a sailor can appreciate, a cheap necklace, bracelet and a silly little sculpture steeped in a little Caribbean mysticism.  

After laying out all this cash for trinkets, Danny is broke.  So Danny brings along his friend, Lester to pay the tab.   

It doesn’t take long for Anna to realize her paycheck is with Lester who she suddenly takes a liking too.  This flirtatious behavior doesn’t sit too well with Danny. And as Lester is enjoying the badinage, Danny tries to pull Anna away.  

Danny tells Anna that he wants her to come to live with him. 

"Danny, are you asking me to marry you, Danny?" – Anna

No, he doesn’t, really.  Danny wants Anna, to come home to, to cook his meals, etc., but he doesn’t want to marry her, and his feelings are obvious.

Deeply hurt Anna saunters over to Lester to dance.  Lester can’t dance and Danny takes over.

That’s when Joe shows up and asks Anna to come back home with him.  At first, Anna resists but, knowing she has no place to go, she leaves with Joe.

Now back at home, Anna has put herself together and looks like a decent young lady.  The outward appearance has changed but she is still the person she was four days earlier, wild and cagey.

Everyone is happy that Anna is back home, Mom, Stanley, and newly employed Katie who blurts out that they only want Rudolph’s money. Nevertheless, Anna is up for this little game.

Moments later, Joe comes through the door without Rudolph and you just know that something is up. Naturally, everyone else is up in arms because the guy with the money is not there.

Joe takes to his hymnal and starts singing.

Rudolph arrives later and is fondled by Theresa Lucasta who says that he looks just like his father, Otis.  

Once introductions are made and the couple is left alone, Rudolph asks Anna to be his wife. And as they kiss, Theresa walks in on them, and Rudolph asks Anna to be his wife.  

The family’s happiness is suddenly interrupted when Joe comes in drunk.  He mistakes Rudolph for Otis and paws him like an old friend.   

The acting of the concatenated lives of the dysfunctional Lucasta family was superb in this production.

Robert Clements had an interesting characterization of Joe Lucasta.  He didn’t appear to be overly religious.  He sang from a hymnal at one point but did not sing with a religious and overly zealous conviction. They said he had some kind of emotional problem, but whether it was caused from alcohol or drugs or an emotional attachment to Anna was left ambiguous. I think the stronger choice would have been for Joe to show a deeper emotional (and even physical) attachment to Anna and this would have strengthened his objective. Still, Clements gave Joe a character with many levels and it was a magnificent job.

Cydney Wayne Davis as Theresa Lucasta gave it her all in this performance that was filled with humor and lots of love. She was at one time madly in love with another man, and that same man (in another form) is coming back to bring joy into her life all over again. And when she sees the young man she must have had second thoughts about her marriage of many years.  Theresa lets the other members of the family handle the important matters while she takes care of the day-to-day stuff.  Davis has a fine voice, and when she sings it’s like getting two shows in one.  Davis also has a commanding presence and it is just wonderful to watch her in action.

Ashlee Olivia as Anna Lucasta was absolutely fantastic.  Her moments are captivating, her expression superb.  As the character, she has to manipulate the men in her life to get what she wants.  Her character is catlike, head cocked to the side, and sizing her prey before she verbally strikes. She is caught in a whirlwind of sexual play unable to see the end results of her follies. But she lives for the moment and makes the best of her life altering decisions. She is willing to help out the family once she finds out the reasons for her coming home is not altogether altruistic. But she has a history that she can never let go and that history weighs on her heavily. As much as she wants to please everyone, she wants to please her father most of all.  For some reason, her life didn’t turn out the way she wanted it to.

Alvina Carroll Saunders plays Stella Lucasta Lynch, the pregnant wife.  There is a reason the character is pregnant.  And this means there are endless possibilities for the actor to go as far as she wants. The character is eating for two, is very hormonal, and they need that money desperately.  With this in mind this particular character can go in many directions, with a variety of choices, sympathy, pains, eating choices, demanding husband choices, the list goes on.  What I did see was good but could have gone a lot farther in bringing more life to a character that maybe hid behind her condition rather than accentuating her condition.  

Sammie Wayne IV plays Frank Lynch.  Frank is an interesting character in this play.  He is the spokesman for the entire family. He is the mover and shaker and resorts to violence when all else fails.  Wayne has interesting faltering voice where one is not sure if he is improvising the lines, remembering the lines, or giving an added dimension to the character. Still, I enjoyed the performance but wished there was a sense of urgency with the money.  

Carl Crudup played Noah the bartender. One need only look at the character to see a magnificent life lived.  His choices were specific and his characterization unique to his own special being. He is a master actor, outstanding on his stage. As the character, he has a fondness for Anna but it never goes beyond the barrier that is his bar.  Whether he sees her as daughter is unclear and he leaves that to our imagination.

Nick Gillie played the Danny, the sailor. Gillie sulked around the bar without going for what he was after.  All the physical elements were there but the emotional commitment was lacking. And what makes this man what he is?  There seems to be something inherently wrong with his character that was not evident on stage. He must know she wants the money so why does he buy all of these trinkets and leave himself without any money?  Why is he leaving the service considering it is 1941? Why would he be allowed to leave the military as he nears the end of his military service?  Why is there no talk of Europe on the verge of collapse and looming threat of war? There was also a slow gate to his walk in his characterization that is something one would see in today and not particular to the 1940’s. Still there was a lot of fine work here.

Kem Saunders plays Stanley Lucasta, the only son of the family.  Stanley is pampered, unemployed, and doesn’t want to do much around the house except sleep and eat.  He is happy to let his brother-in-law take over and well as anyone else who comes along. Stanley is like an old cat, sitting on his favorite chair in the sun only looking up when it suits his fancy. He doesn’t have kids. But he must want something, possibly to take control of the house once his parents die off.

Tanya Lane as Katie Lucasta plays an endearing character.  As the character, she is smart, resourceful, and loving and will not tolerate anyone taking advantage of anyone else.  Her conscience will not allow it.  She is stoic and wants to treat all with the special kind of dignity she believes they deserve.  Lane gives an incredible performance and it is always wonderful to see her in a Robey production.

Jennifer Sammons plays Blanche a woman looking for love in all the wrong places. She is beyond her prime (for this kind of trade) but holds on because that is the only thing she knows.  And also appears to be moving into a life of crime by stealing the binoculars.  She wears a blonde wig, because men prefer blondes? Her speech is slow drawl with a slight southern accent. Her objective was not clear.  Never really got the idea of what she wanted from her counterpart in Noah’s bar.  She needs Anna and she needs to feed that need.  Nevertheless, Sammons was fascinating to watch and did some very nice work.

L - R Dwain A. Perry, Ashlee Olivia 

Dwain A. Perry did a very nice job as Rudolf Slocum.  His character is a little more on the up and up.  He cares little for the money and he doesn’t mind having a woman with a little more experience, in fact Rudolf craves the witty repartee, the sarcastic remarks, and sees a woman with a lot of spunk. He madly falls in love with a misdirected woman and it pains him that he cannot have her.  Still that doesn’t stop him from trying with each breath he takes. Perry was excellent but I didn’t hear much of a deep southern accent.

Talmage Talib plays Eddie.  Eddie is a pimp, pure and simple.  He is his own recruiting tool for his own monetary endeavors.  Underneath the greasy undertones of his character is a lonely man who wants a woman he can never have. Tabib is admirable in the role.

Kaylon Hunt plays Lester a man who looks after himself but wants something more. He is sly, or maybe naïve, about his motives.  He has a career and is cautious about getting into trouble with his partner or the woman he has taken a liking to.  This character is very similar to the character in Camp Logan (see write-up).

Ben Guillory, the director, did a fantastic job showing us the humor in the play that could get downright melancholy.  It was very funny without going over the edge. Scenes flowed seamlessly from end to end. (Although I didn’t get the slow motion stuff in the bar. It was too much of a distraction.) Also, I found it interesting that it was set in 1941 but there was hardly a trace of the saber rattling, throughout the play. The play focused on family, the little things, and left off the distractions of the world-view at that time. Maybe that’s what the playwright, Philip Yordan, wanted: a play that was a distraction from what was going on when he wrote it in 1944.   These are simple people in extraordinary circumstances, a dysfunctional family, surviving the way people survive, by any means necessary.  Still, there are a lot of interesting relationship played out here with the father and daughter, mother and future son-in-law, husband and expecting wife, bartender and lonely young woman, pimp and pawn, and the family and religion and health.

There were times in this play the relationships could have been strengthened.  The siblings did not appear close. We could have had a deeper meaning to give us more of what we look for in strong relationships, and moments that sends us over the emotional edge.  But, for the time being, this played out just fine.    

Without giving the ending away, my ending would have not stopped at the door, she would have open the door, stopped in indecision and a hand would have reached in to pull her through the door.  That would have been my ending.  But’s that’s just me.

Members of the crew of this fantastic production are:

Ben Guillory – Producer – Impeccable and wonderful production values. Wonderful work.
Anthony Aguilar – Production Stage Manager
Shanae Sharon – Assistant Stage Manager
Tom Meleck – Set Designer & Lighting Design – Fantastic job!
Naila Aladdin Sander – Costume Designer – Wonderful job!  And really gave the actors the feel, the time, and place of where they were.  
Eric “Cayenne” Butler – Original Music & Sound Design – Nice job!
Alejandra Cisneros – Property Design
Kathie Foley-Meyer – Graphic Designer
Philip Sokoloff – Press Representative
John Freeland, Jr. – Production Consultant

I got in very late in this production.  This would have been a “Run!” but the show has closed.   It was a wonderful show and The Robey Theatre Company does tremendous work!