Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Last Straw Awards 2013 – Part II - Writers, Directors, & Cast

By Joe Straw 

Sometimes you have to wonder how theatre gets done in this town – how everything comes together, the play, the venue, the actors, the scheduling, for the night when all the lights are lowered and that first entrance is made.

Theatre is done with creative beasts doing the heavy emotional lifting, toiling wearily, committed to the cause, and not stopping until the job is done.  And we sit and watch with malicious enjoyment as the indefinably audacious performers scuttle from one conflict to the next.

It is to these fine shows that I give the Last Straw Award 2013 to the Writers, Directors, and Cast for putting it all out there and giving their audience the emotional sustenance they need to continue on.

I witnessed a number of exceptional plays; impressive panoply of exceptional theatre in 2013, but the ones below left a mark on my creative being.   

The North Plan by Jason Wells
Director – David Fofi
Producer – Lindsay Allbaugh
Kerry Carney
Bernadette Speakes
Stan Roth
Chris Game
Salvator Xuereb
John Forest

Peter Pan the Boy Who Hated Mothers by Michael Lluberes
Director - Michael Matthews
Producers – Sarah A. Bauer, Matthew Graber, Daniel Henning, Stephen Moffatt and Noah Wyle
Liz Burns
Daniel Shawn Miller
Trisha LaFache
Benjamin Campbell
Jackson Evans
David Hemphill
Amy Lawhorn

Rodeo Town by Graham Bowlin
Director – Cameron Strittmatter
Producer – Bellwether Brothers Theatre Works
Harry Beer
Dustin Bayers
Eric Cire
Dustin Gooch

The End of It by Paul Coates
Director – Nick Degruccio
Producer – End LA & Scott Disharoon
Paul Coates
William Franklin Barker
Wendy Radford
Kelly Coffield Park
David Youse

the road weeps, the well runs dry by Marcus Gardley
Director:  Shirley Jo Finney
Produced by José Lus Valenzuela and General Manager Paul Stuart Graham
Darrell Dennis
Elizabeth Frances
Demetrius Grosse
Matthew Hancock
Brent Jennings
Monnac Michaell
Simone Missick
Darryl Alan Reed
Montae Russell
Nakia Secrest
Shaun Taylor Corbett

The "Ortiz" award for outstanding theatrical achievement this years goes to "the road weeps, the well runs dry" by Marcus Gardley. 

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.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Last Straw Awards - 2013 – Part I

By Joe Straw

Sometimes it is the actor’s countenance, their mien, their tenebrous selves that draws us into the conflicted souls of a character on stage.  All in one night where the work, the craft, the concentration seemed seamless, without words - dissimulating emotions that reach their objectives.

Art is not a contest – no need to be truculent with your thoughts of the best. These are just hard working actors who, on a particular given night, gave it their all, and I was there to witness the magic.

There are people watching, taking notes, and reporting back. 

To these actors: Thank you for a magnificent night of theatre.

The Rainmaker – The Rainbow Theater Company
Tana Frederick  

The Grapes of Wrath – A Noise Within
Deborah Strang  
Josh Clark

Voices - Griot Theatre of West Valley
Thomas Silcott

I’m Not Rappaport – West Coast Jewish Theatre
Jack Axelrod  
Carl Crudup

The Shawl – Rydemption Enterainment & Moth Theatre Company 
Ryan Surratt
Lili Bordan   

The North Plan – Elephant Theatre Company
Kerry Carney
Salvator Xuereb 

Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers – The Blank Theatre
Amy Lawhorn

Revelations – The Lillian Theatre
Lawrence Dillard  

Trouble in Chiozza – The City of West Hollywood Free Theater in the Park
Michael Matthys

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – The Golden Theatre
Kristine Nielsen 
Julie White  

Lady Windermere’s Fan – Chalk Repertory Theatre
Amin El Gamal
Teri Reeves  

The Diary of Anne Frank – Wasatch Theatrical Ventures
Susan Priver

Selling Out – The Whitefire Theatre
Brian Dykstra

The End of It – End of LA & Scott Disharoon – The Matrix
Paul Coates 
Kelly Coffield Park  

The Laramie Project 10 Years Later – The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center
Dylan Seaton
Paul Witten 

Love’s Labour’s Lost – The Courage Theatre Company
Jonas Barraca 
William Reinbold
Patrick Wenk-Wolff 

LGBTQ – Casa 0101
Andres Rey Solorzano

Under The Glass – Chalk Repertory Theatre
Tony Amendola
Blaire Chandler 

Light Up The Sky – Theatre 40
Arthur Hanket  

the road weeps, the well runs dry – Latino Theatre Company
Elizabeth Frances  

Tamales De Puerco (Pork Tamales) – Casa 0101
Miriam Peniche
Dickie Hearts

Opening Night – Theatre 40
Hoyt Miller

Hungry Women – Casa 0101
Ronni Valentine

Jinxed – The Elephant Theatre Company
Amy French
Darryl Armbruster 

The Lion King - The Pantages 
Brown Lindiwe Mkhize 

Part II coming – Writers, Directors, Cast.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Queen Family’s Very Special Holiday Special by Speedo Belini and Frankie King

L-R Will Thomas McFadden, Bob Turton, Adam Ferguson, Lee Margaret Hanson, Brian T. Finney, and Simon Hanna

by Joe Straw

Theater is a glimpse into the known and unknown.  The common known gives you a taste of your own ennui, and that is accompanied by a grimace that lies slightly beneath the surface of a snarl. The unknown sends one mind’s into a maelstrom of exceptional thought, and irregular patterns, making for mindful pleasantries long after you leave the theatre.  - Narrator

You can save a special place for The Actors’ Gang in your being.  And it takes so little to support this fine institution.  (Wow!  And The Actors Gang has now established itself as a fine institution!)  

The Actors’ Gang is what you will never see for the rest of your life if you don’t take the initiative.  There’s very little excuse, especially if you live in Culver City.  “Pay What You Can Thursdays” and free Shakespeare in the park offers a grand incentive to go. There’s always something that will strike your fancy.

On a personal note: A funny thing about The Actors’ Gang is that you never see any of these actors around this town.  At the Grand Casino, Starbucks, Lyfe Kitchen, Tender Greens, Pinches Taco, The Culver Hotel, Rush, or walking down the sidewalk, no where, no place, and at no time.  I rarely forget a face, and I walk there all the time, but I do not see them.  

But, when there’s a show the actors appear out of nowhere, through the vom, off the catwalk, a side door, a wing, a trap, the staircase, any entrance that makes a statement. Most are recognizable, and honestly they do, make a statement.  

And in this presentation, at the Ivy Substation, it’s all done right here, right now, live and in living color.  

The Queen Family’s Very Special Holiday Special by Speedo Belini and Frankie King, developed in workshop by The Actors’ Gang and directed by Will Thomas McFadden is playing through January 11, 2014 at the Ivy Substation in Culver City.

The “The Queen Family’s...” holiday extravaganza is based on The King Family, which had an hour-long program on ABC in 1965.  These were, in effect white singers, in white sweaters, on a white stage, performing in black and white, singing their edited g-rated version of top twenties hit of the day, and none of that radical Beatles stuff either, moving about the stage in ways that resembled dancing, gambolling, and looking a lot like The Lawrence Welk Show, without the bubbles.

In this version, “The Queen Family” in order to highlight the diversity, has adopted children from around the world to sing and dance for their television viewing audience in order to raise $100,000.00 for the telethon they are performing. 

After the introductions, and because of a phone mix up, they believe they have $60,035.00 pledged to them, which sends everyone into a tizzy.

When the family cut to a commercial break, the pandemonium between the cast of characters is far from cordial, husbands wives, lovers, and future lovers are either very curious or at each other’s throats, depending on the circumstances.  (It reminds me of the pandemonium at the Oscars during the commercial breaks.)      

Unfortunately, the head honcho, (Brian T. Finney), (Mr. Queen?) by no means an ostentatious man, wears an informal sports jacket, a worthless pair of slacks, a bad hairpiece, and other appurtenances to give the appearance of desperately needing money.

Lack of funds is an issue with him because of his gambling debts -  $100,000.00 owed to the mob. And he is not a man of noble mien, standing next to the backstage door, on the telephone, deflated and nervously trembling when he receives the unexpected demand for money.  The mob is out to get him and seriously, during the holidays, that can be a little upsetting.

But the show must go on. And it does go on despite the Queen family’s idiosyncrasies.

In between the family squabbles there are some pretty terrific acts, which I will get to later but, strangely enough, the phones didn’t ring, no money was raised, and we are still left with the $60,035.00. (Something needs to be made of those moments, perhaps a slight addition to the material.)

Here’s an idea.  For this kind of show allow phones.  Make it truly a participatory show; see an act you like, allow the audience the ability and time to use their phones, dial the number, and key in the pledge.   

There are a number of exceptional musical numbers in this show and the first one is Roll Call based on The King Family’s “All Together”, lyrics by Shadow King. In this musical number we get introduced to the characters but it all goes by so fast there’s hardly a chance to absorb the characters and who they really are. And also in this number, with so much singing and dancing, sweat was pouring profusely off of the actors bodies giving us the appearance that they were broiling in those red sweaters, or were working very hard.  I suspect the latter; either way handkerchiefs were in order.   

Possibly, because of monetary constraints, the program gives us the actors name but not their character nor a headshot, or the song in which they participated.  It’s always nice to include those things in the program when actor’s perspiration pours like a Christmas recipe.

There are a number of featured acts Taylor Krasne, gymnast, and Michael Rayner, comedian, juggler, and a man who had too many onion rings. Other performers are Monique Ziering, Daniel Fernandez, Scott Marshall, Scot Nery, Jaason Rodgers, Anne Walters, Whitney Kirk, Godfrey Daniels, Lauren Brown & Mecca Andrews, Eric Newton & Lexi Pearl, Mike Rayner, Tom Lennon, and Ben Garant. Not everyone performed on this night but will be performing during the run.

Member of the Queen Family include Pierre Adeli, Alayha Aquarian, Carlotta Elecktra Bosch, Adam Ferguson, Brian T. Finney, Aaron Guzzo, Ali Grusell, Zoë Hall, Simon Foaad Hanna, Lee Margaret Hanson, Adam J. Jefferis, Dora Kiss, Stephanie Lee, Will Thomas McFadden, Mary Eileen O’Donnell, Steven M. Porter, Monica Quinn, Robert C. Raicch, Heather M. Roberts, Pedro Shanahan, Bob Turton, Maria Voylokov, and Jillian Yim.

Olivia Courtin (alien) and Cihan Sahin (astronaut) as party of the Queen Family did a fantastic number as lonely astronaut finding love on another planet with a beautiful alien. And the rest of the cast pitched in - moving lights and displays of gravity - in what was a very exciting highlight of the show. This is part of the unknown I spoke about earlier and these images will remain with me forever. Wonderful!

L - R Adam Ferguson, Olivia Courtin, Heather M. Roberts, Will Thomas McFadden, and Zoë Hall

Also another great highlight of the show was the song Cups by AP Carter and Shadow King beautiful sung on this night an Amish family wanting to move on to better things. For those of you who like your Christmas simple, in the ways of the old traditional, this may be for you.  All of the actors had marvelous voices and gave great cup. 

L - R Adam Ferguson, Adam J. Jefferis, Bob Turton (kneeling) and Will Thomas McFadden 

Queen Boy Medley features a group of male dancers (g-rated); stocking suffers to be sure, singing a medley of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza songs.

And then there was this rather odd duo playing performers with French Canadians accents from the Cirque de Solei at the Bellagio in Las Vegas asking us to imagine what the set would look like if they were performing at the Bellagio, with the lights, colorful setting, the wind machine, and the water falling for 45 minutes.  Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant were extremely funny and the audience enjoyed every minute!  (I didn't see them during the curtain call.  Perhaps they hopped onto a plane and were on their way back to the Bellagio Hotel.) 

L - R Aaron Guzzo, Pedro Shanahan, and Pierre Adeli
And for the youngsters out there who like their Christmas - German Gothic and Hardcore - this may be for you. 

Will Thomas McFadden, the director, did a marvelous job putting all of this together and wrangling “thousands” of cast members.  In this show you will find the expected, for a holiday show, as well as the unexpected, which makes for an overall delightful evening.

Speedo Belini and Frankie King (I suspect pseudonyms), the writers, give us a taste of the familiar if you were around in the 1960’s, and there’s always something, a relationship, one can pick out, follow, and enjoy, but sometimes the focus is stronger than the goal and we get away from the objective of trying to raise $100,000.00 on this night.

Adam J. Jefferis, the Set Designer, did a marvelous job with the set.  It made you feel downright at home, albeit, a movie studio home.

Maria Voylokov, the Costume Coordinator, had the entire cast running around like mad with thousand of costume changes.

Lauren Wemischner, the Lighting Designer, worked wonders on this particular night.

Lindsay Kerr, the Choreographer, had our TV cast gambolling about nicely.

Aaron Guzzo worked wonders as the Musical Director. And he also did some very fine with sound effects. Pierre Adeli had some nice moments as an actor. 

The Stage Manager was Janette Jara.

Run! Run!  And take someone who hasn’t been to The Actors’ Gang.  This will be an eye opening experience.

WHEN: Opens Friday, December 6 at 8pm Show runs: Thursday, Friday 8pm and Saturday evenings at 8pm & 10pm

HOW: 310-838-GANG (310-838-4264) or www.theactorsgang.com

The Actors’ Gang (at the Ivy Substation)
9070 Venice Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232

(corner of Culver & Venice Blvds; two hours free parking available across the street in Ince Parking Lot, corner of Culver & Ince)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Bob’s Holiday Office Party by Joe Keyes and Rob Elk

L - R Rob Elk, Joe Keyes Photo:  Roger Nygard 

By Joe Straw

Bob (Rob Elk), owner of Bob Finhead’s E-Z Insurance Agency of Neuterburg, Iowa, invited me to his holiday party and I really had my heart set on going. His Christmas holiday wingding is the social event for this tiny town, population 376, or so, and he’s been doing this since 1996.   

One really couldn’t count on an abundance of food at his parties.  There was plenty of cheese and cheese whiz and some lugubrious drollery once the beer and scotch had taken its effect

I was offered a comfortable decorated red chair and was there to just look around and observe nature. And boy, did I see things, natural and unnatural, but I’ll get to that later.  

Bob’s Holiday Office Party written by Joe Keyes and Rob Elk, directed by Justin Tanner, and produced by Rob Elk, Joe Keyes, Julian McMahon and Charlie Loventhal is now playing at the Pico Playhouse through December 26, 2013. Bob’s Holiday Office Party is a wonderful gossipy type of play, which one goes to see “outrageous” in its finest form and then report back all the craziness you’ve seen.

The Christmas accouterments in Bob’s office made the place seem like home, like the set you’d see in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, garlands and fake hollow candy canes all over the place, an old fashion Christmas tree, with old fashion lights, and an old Mr. Magoo Santa hanging on the wall. Oh, what the halls, everything looked old! But it was clean, so clean you could eat off the floor, which I’ll be getting to later as well.

The phone always rings in an empty room and that’s how things get started this night.   Bob comes in, with a case of beer in his hands, and hastily picks up the archaic phone. This time, on this night, he answers the call of a woman who has suffered a personal injury.  The woman, on the other end, fell into a ditch, some thirty odd feet, and she needed to have her insurance payment back dated so she could collect a tidy sum.  A tub of apple butter jelly would serve as tender on this holy night. And she wouldn’t be coming to the party tonight because both her ankles hurt.

Okay, Mom. – Bob

Police Chief Joe Walker (Joe Keyes) is an officer who knows the pulse of his community of this one-van town.  He lacks a police uniform tonight – the victim of someone enjoying the festivities, too much, on this holiday puke fest.  Still he is there for a reason.  

“I come here to party with the Lord, which I do.” – Joe Walker

Strange thing about Joe, bringing up bad blood between Bob and him, knowing where the bones are buried, past relationships, and an affair that has everyone talking.  All this thinking out loud has created a disturbance in Joe’s bowels and he moves toward the bathroom, but the door is broken, no matter, he places the door to one side, drops his pants and carries on a very natural, yet straining, conversation. Taking the toilet paper tube, he wraps the paper around his other fingers, tears, and wipes, walks away from the toilet without looking for the handle to flush.

No matter, Bob, claps his hands twice, and the excrement finds it way to its final destination.   He’s invented the “Clapper Crapper” and that’s something Bob has been known for all his life, an inventor of sorts, albeit odd things – the things nobody thought of wanting - still if he had his druthers, he would invent fulltime and move to Des Moines.

Not much for decorating, Joe tires of placing silver icicles on the tree and starts throwing clumps on the branches and before he departs for a short while.  

Shortly thereafter, Roy Mincer (David Bauman), the mayor of the town enters in white hat, white scarf, white sweater, white pants, and white boots, not paying much attention to his Labor Day faux pas, and looking elegantly gay in the process.  Tonight, he is enjoying the company of his male houseguest.  And after a trip to the day spa he needs to get back and get ready for their vacation together, leaving his wife at home.  

A small time later, Elwin Beewee (Michael Halpin), a highly successful businessman, nattily dressed, with an impressive toupee, comes in to speak with Bob.  Beewee is well-spoken now, but the eerie shadow of a boyhood incident terrifies him.  The time when he was duct tape naked in the gym because of a bad stutter, something that he has not completely gotten over.  But now, his sagacious business eyes are set on the building Bob occupies knowing that he can convince this simpleton to sell his old and dilapidated property.   

Next in are the Johnson twins, La Voris (Linda Miller) and La Donna (Maile Flanagan), a pair of unlikely twins, fraternal, and are only alike in their political leanings.  At first glance, one would think that La Voris is the “luckier in love” one. La Voris is tall, and La Donna is small, each dressed in elf-like holiday costumes. They’ve been hearing rumors about Bob and Margie and they want to get to the bottom of it.  If they could stop making those annoying sounds for one minute. That aside, these girls are ready to party!

Margie Mincer (Andrea Hutchman), the mayor’s wife, and Bob’s current amour, arrives a short time later with her face colored the same shade as raspberry jam, a victim of an overextended stay in one of the town’s tanning salons. And while everyone knows what’s going on between the two – the accusatory looks and the behind the back snickers will not die down.

Well, every Christmas needs a Jesus, and Marty (Cody Chappel) fits the bill.  When he takes off the skullcap, he is downright the spittin’ image of the Lord’s son.  But there’s something wrong with this guy.  He talks and acts like a Californian and lives and drives around in his van that is covered in pie plates, that’s supposed to be receiving alien messages, and he keeps running that van into other people’s car.

Carol (Colleen Wainwright) is a woman that has escaped from a mental institution who joins them once the party gets started for a much needed musical interlude before the lyrics gets crazy and she flips out.   Brandy (Colleen Wainwright) arrives later and she is a woman who needs a man 24/7/365, and that’s when the party really starts to rock.

One can’t help but feel right at home serving as a witness and participant in this delightful comedy that is in its 18th season.  Certainly if you are seated in the audience you feel you are part of the party.

Comedy comes in threes and I couldn’t help but think that two more flushes at opportune times would have added to Justin Tanner’s directorial spectacle.  Still, Tanner’s direction is exciting and enormously enjoyable with characters that go to extreme to reach their objective.

Oh, objectives, that thing.  We know what Bob and Elwin Beewee want but not so sure about the other characters and what they want from Bob. The characters misoneism, in this small little town, is they want no change. We don’t see the accumulation of those moments that give us a satisfactory result. These characters don’t come just to get drunk and party, they have objectives, for the love of Santa.   My guess is to keep Bob from leaving, or demanding things stay the same, and that moment, or moments, must be recognized so the ending is crystal clear.

Still, while things on stage may not have completely gelled this night (because there are multiple casts and so few rehearsals) the actions on stage have the audience howling.  And that is more than half the game in this really delightful comedy.  

L - R Joe Keyes, Maile Flanagan, Linda Miller, Mark Fite - Photo:  Roger Nygard 

Rob Elk plays Bob Finhead and does some exciting work.  Elk gives us a man who is constantly being challenged by his friends, his sexuality, his affair, all are open to fair game.  And when he is caught he is taken aback for only a moment and then moves on.  But all of these things happen for a reason.  It probably weights on his decision to leave or stay.  Elk give us some wonderful moments in his performance and there are delightful things going on internally as well.  

Joe Keyes does a grand job as Joe Walker.  Walker leaves his police job at the door, never giving his job a second thought even though one character is parading around with a bag of marijuana.  Joe Walker wants something but it is difficult to determine.  A little more work on the relationships between a cop and the partygoers. Still some very fine work.

David Bauman does a nice job as Mayor Roy.  He seems rather conflicted about his sexuality, his wife, and his insurance agent.  He’s not on the road to a healthy relationship with his wife.  So why is he there?  Possibly to move on and give his blessing is my guess. There is a reason why Mayor Roy shows up near the end but not really sure how he got there and why he is dressed in that fashion.  Still it is hilarious and Bauman does a terrific job.

Michael Halpin is exceptional as Elwin Beewee.  Looking back on his performance one sees him as Satan coming back to strip Bob of his dignity, his business, his friends, and his white soul. One wonders why the duct tape scene didn’t quite gel.  Still, Halpin is specific in his choices and does a great job changing from a successful businessman to a blubbering, stuttering boy.

Linda Miller plays La Voris Johnson with aplomb.  La Voris is the taller of the two twins. Miller defines the character with a big smile and makes funny noises.  And is she a physical comedy diva. This is a very nice job.

Maile Flanagan is La Donna Johnson and she plays along with her taller sister.  She has a competition thing going on with her.  Who can drink the most? Who can make the funniest noise?  But misses out on grabbing a man and dancing with him, which sends her into a tizzy with extremely hilarious results before she collapses. Flanagan is amazing in her choices and kept the audience laughing all night long.

Andrea Hutchman is so plain as Margie Mincer, but plain in a terrific way.  Margie, no saint, has a husband turning the tide.  So to get back, or have a normal sexual relationship, she finds solace in the arms of another man, a real man. And to look best for her new man she overdoes it.  But really, this is nothing to her, like her beet red face doesn’t exist, like her husband doesn’t exist, or the front she puts up to let the other know her marriage is falling apart, nothing bothers her, these thing just do not exist in her eyes.   But one thing is missing.  She has to keep her amour from leaving and we really don’t see that or how she reacts when he has signed the papers.  Still, Hutchman is terrific in the role.

Cody Chappel plays Marty in a very good comedic turn but I’m not sure how he fits into this comedy, why he’s there, or what is his objective.  His character is silly.  Everyone seems to not mind he is there.  So why is he there?  Chappel performance was chipper, but in the grand scheme of things, where was he going? Where is he driving the van? All that aside Chappel has a good look and should do well in this industry.

Colleen Wainwright does a marvelous turn as Carol, a woman from an institution who happens to play guitar and sing.  But her vocal prowess doesn’t ring a cord with her compatriots.  She is covered with a powder on her head (lice?).  And I just wish someone would feed her something.  She is so thin.  And then there’s Brandy, Wainwright fills the role of an oversexed sexpot with an abundant amount sexual energy, it’s hard for anyone to leave the office with her around.  

Other members of this cast that will be performing during the run are Melissa Denton, Johanna McKay, Liz Davies, and Mark Fite.  Mark Fite also created the character of Marty in this production.

There’s a reason why Bob’s Holiday Office Party by Joe Keyes and Rob Elk has been playing for many years.  It’s because the writers have written an alternative to the other holiday shows that are available out there. The characters are extremely unique and slightly out of fashion. Not really people you would want to be around for any extended period of time.  Which makes this all so much fun.

The Original Set by Gary Guidinger looks pristine when you first enter, and with partygoers doing their thing, dancing, eating, drinking copious amount of alcoholic beverages, and writhing all over the floor.  By the end of this show the set looks like a war zone.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Set Contruction – Sets to Go
Lighting Design – Steve Pope
Production Stage Manager – Jennifer Bendik
Assistant Stage Manager – Kriss Meier
Publicity – Philip Sokoloff 
Assistant to the Producer and Hat Sewer – Kriss Meier
Graphics – Fred and David at Ultra Creative
Program Graphic Designer – Jeff Fontelera
Show and Pre-Show music courtesy of Eddie G.

Run!  Run!  Run! And take someone who has seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” too many times.

RESERVATIONS: (800) 838-3006.
ESTIMATED RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes, no intermission.
CONSUMER ADVISORY: Suggested for audiences 16 to adult.

Follow us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/BobsOfficeParty  

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Handball by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld

L - R Spencer Weitzel and Matias Ponce 

by Joe Straw

Gentrification: noun - the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper - or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses. – Dictionary.com

The inhabitants move into the park like a human being in a cubist painting, intertwined, appearing like passing imaginings of wasted time, and never really grasping the concept of carpe diem. - Narrator

Urban Theatre Movement presents the World Premier of Handball written by Setyh Zvi Rosenfeld and directed by Brenda Banda through December 15, 2013

All right, I have to get this out of the way.  I loved paying handball in college and I wanted to see handball being played in this play.  Do they really play handball in “Handball”? I asked the press representative. He muttered, “Um yeah, they play a little.” Okay, so now I’m going.

Truth be told, very little handball was played.  Only a feeble warm up, a ball batted against the wall twice. I was a little disappointed. Bottom line, I’d like a little more handball action.

But, I was not disappointed in the play.  Handball is a tremendous work of art that employs a vast array of unique characters living very divergent lives around a handball court in New York City.  From the opening moments to the closing scene, characters are, in their own way, fighting for a piece of this concrete jungle, trying to stay out of trouble, and searching for their own specific niche under their capricious sun.  Some succeed, and others, well they don’t.

As the play starts upstage from the handball court, Javier (Charles Sanchez) takes his training very seriously in the park.  His family has handed the sport down from one generation to another. The graffiti on the wall of the handball courts says, “Rest in Power” (RIP?). And while this young man, training bare-chested in the park prepares, he is disappointed that RA-RA (Carlton Byrd) hasn’t shown up yet.

But, RA-RA, former thief in action, doesn’t appear to be interested in handball but he is interested in Lil’ Lucy (Daniela de la Fe), a fifteen-year-old girl, who moves her hips in provocative ways when she dances in the confines of this beautiful park.   And that sends RA-RA over his hormonal edge, and to that end, thievery and handball take a backseat.  

Javier indicates that he will introduce her to him if he gets serious about practice.  But just then, someone comes by and throws what appears to be wet toilet paper at the guys and Javier and RA-RA exchange vociferous words, up to those invisible infiltrators, who turn up the boom box and stroll away.

And when that is settled,

“Lil Lucy!  Come here!” - Javier

And, of course, she doesn’t come right away.

Off to the side, Christopher (Spencer Weitzel) and Laurie (Isabel Davila) invade the park, similar to what Columbus did to the New World, and view it as their landscape to do what they wish, pending approval of a planning committee and the funding they need to get the project running.  Right now they view the park as an eyesore that needs to be fixed up because they’ve got big plans on the hotel across the street.  

Javier doesn’t like it at all, them or their plans, and removes their reconstruction sign from a tree and throws it on the ground in front of them.  

No matter, Christopher and Laurie, go about their business fixing up the place and wait for their friend Orlando, the man with the money, to talk about the deal and implement the plan. Later, Christopher goes as far as assuaging Orlando up with a bottle of wine.

Meanwhile, former drug runner, Barry (Paul Julianelli) and auto mechanic Gee (Luis Kelly-Duarte) come to the park and do their “interview in the park routine”.  One gets the feeling they have done this many times to fleece someone of something.  Laurie is their first victim but Gee can’t get money out of her.  She and her husband are broke, months behind in their rent, the victim of bad business deals, and so on.  

Barry and Gee go to their place in the park, get the dominos set up, and wait for their friend Panama (Jeff De Serrano) to show. Panama, unbuttons his guayara shirt, smokes his cigar, and in his jocose manner likes to think that he running the show at the park and running everyone’s lives as well. All the while Panama’s wife is at home dying of a cancer.

Finally Lil’ Lucy comes to the park and stares at Javier and RA-RA.  All three stand their ground.  Lil’ Lucy, sucking on a Tootsie Pop, says she’s on “punishment” and won’t give out her number to RA-RA.  Partially because it’s her grandmothers phone and the other part is the phone company has turned off the phone.  She also says she is seeing a married man.

Meanwhile Barry, sitting at the domino table, is in trouble, and he is going to jail.  He needs Panama’s help to get him out of his predicament but Panama is not really into giving this man – living with who knows how many cats – any help.  The only thing Barry’s got is his Keith Haring artwork and he is willing to trade it not to go to prison.

I’m not a big fan of gentrification simply because it pushes people out. But Handball gives us something, a peak into why this happens.  Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, the writer, provides authentic dialogue to voices with a gritty city rhythm, crying with emotional anxiety, raw and sometimes powerful. These are real people living predictable lives and we see this highlighted in their sometimes-mundane dialogue. Keeping something the same, when the world is trying to change, is like stepping in front the tank at Tianamen Square and waiting for the evitable.  But is it change for the good? Rosenfeld lets us know that action moves mountains, and that if you sit still you are likely to be run over by inaction and that is not a good thing. Still, I’m not sure I’m seeing a strong and comprehensive through line. There are no heroes in this play, but there are plenty of villains.  One can examine this play and see a writer’s point of view - that characters anointed by education are the ones chosen to move mountains.  The educated voice is always the voice of reason, which may not be true to the one holding the brick.  That tidbit aside the play was enjoyable from beginning to end.

Brenda Banda, the director, does a marvelous job with this piece.  The characters move about the stage very fluidly and we are guided from one conversation to another as we would in a park setting. Also, there is a lot of marvelous life coming from these characters with a lot of complexity thrown in to boot. Visually there is an extremely strong sense of craft here and the staging is remarkable in its execution. Also, there is a really interesting visual in the end, and not to give anything away, but, the new park, with its nice trees, appeared to be deserted. 

L - R Matias Ponce, Carlton Byrd, Daniela de la Fe

Carlton Byrd plays RA-RA with enough vitality and emotional appeal to be engaging. RA-RA is on the verge of a metal breakdown.  He is 17 years old and in love with a 15-year-old girl in a mystery relationship.  His non-believer stance on the Pentecostal religion got him thrown out of his foster home. He cares little for this park because he has other things on his mind. On top of that RA-RA is in a group home and is turning 18 in three weeks.  Things have to change, but in three weeks he pictures himself homeless, or in a homeless shelter. He has a dream and that is to turn his life around and stay out of jail. That dream is harder to come by as the days roll on. Byrd, the actor, has a time element with which to work.  Three weeks is no time in order to turn the character’s life around. Not to take away but to add to already exceptional work.

Isabel Davila is Laurie, Latina, and is a very interesting character.  She cannot keep silent because she has a need for information. Laurie is pregnant, has a husband with many financial difficulties and who is also sexuality ambivalent, or has been in the past. She works with her husband trying to turn the run down park into something that will be beautiful and beneficial to them but ignores her Latino brethren in the process. Laurie perceives to be interested in those using the park today, but in reality cares little for the Latino park patrons that she is about to displace.  It is a wonderful role for Davila and she is marvelous in the role.

Daniela de la Fe plays Lil’ Lucy and her performance is very nuanced with a street language that is spoken clearly or not depending on what she is trying to hide. She wants her boyfriend to be honest with her but she doesn’t want to reciprocate. De la Fe has an honest approach to her craft, a strong coruscation with each nuance, and that method is stimulating.

Jeff De Serrano plays Panama a ruthless man who will stop at nothing to get his way but he realizes that he is not the young man he once was and is tiring of doing things by his own natural force and complains “Hard to get out of bed these days.”  His wife is dying and has weeks to live and he spends his non-slacking moments taking care of her when he isn’t in the park, hanging. (Oddly, none of the other characters has sympathy for him.)  And the park is his territory. Nothing happens in this park without his say so, or so that is the impression he gives with the implication of brute force.  There is something off with Panama when he asks his friend to take off his shirt and then his pants.  De Serrano provides a lot of wonderful actions to bring this character to life.  But, could his fate be directly related to feeling he has for his wife?  

Paul Julianelli plays Barry.  Barry is a very odd character.  He lives with so many cats he doesn’t know the exact number. Thirteen at last count. He has a problem taking control of his life and people want to throw him in jail to get him out of his $400.00 apartment, which has turned condo. He also sells drugs. The Keith Haring artwork did not go anywhere and I’m wondering if something didn’t go right on this night. Still Julianelli is an exciting actor to watch.  He is specific in his approach in bringing a marvelous character to life.

Luis Kelly-Duarte plays an honorable auto mechanic, Gee.  When he is not working on cars he is hanging in the park trying to make a quick buck playing dominos or trying to swindle some loose change with his partner in some kind of interview ponzi scheme. His wife is very large. But there is something very righteous about this character convincing Panama that going with the 15-year-old girl is not the right thing to do. Kelly-Duarte also is a very fine actor and brings a wonderful characterization to this delightful character.

David Santana plays Orlando, a gay man whose father has a lot of money and lives in South America.  Orlando comes back to see his friend, a man he has had a relationship with and is totally in love him.  So much in love he’s called him over thirty times without getting a return phone call.  But while he was in South America staying with another man, the other man left him and now he comes to America to renew his relationship with his friend. Santana is strong and steadfast in character and doesn’t give an inch. There’s another level of an emotional commitment from this character. Still Santana did a fine job.

Spencer Weitzer as Christopher is a desperate man.  At one time, he came from money and due to a couple of bad transactions, the money disappeared.  Now he is months behind in rent, with a wife, and a child on the way.  Not to mention that now he needs help from his former male lover, a young man’s thing for which he not proud.  Now he needs help from everyone to make sure his business plan goes through. When it doesn’t look that it is going through Christopher becomes desperate. Weitzer does an excellent job with desperation, including sweating profusely on cue, and his objective is strong and steadfast.  

Charles Sanchez plays Javier and does a decent job. (I’m still not sure that he can play handball.)  Javier is the catalyst that gets things moving, boy meeting girl, trying to get on the committee, and saving his wall.  But there’s really something missing here.  Javier appears when he is filling in the blanks rather than having a deep committed objective that in the end makes him take the brick from his wall and do what he does.  We don’t see the steps that take us there. But Sanchez has a good look and provides us with a few laughs.

Other member of the cast that I did not see perform on this night were Matias Ponce (Javier), David V. Graulau (Orlando), Dyane Pascall (RA-RA), C.W. Smith (Gee), Johnny Young (Christopher).

Other members of this crew are as follows:

Amery Thao – Assistant Director
Angela Cruz – Stage Manager
Geronimo Guzman – Set Designer
Kimberly Gonzalez – Assistant Stage Manager
Oscar Rios Gomez – Lighting Designer
Keith Morgan II and Dyane Pascall – Sound Designer
Phil Sokoloff – Press Representative
Charlie Sanchez – Photos

Run!  Run!  And takes someone who loves diversity and fine acting in their theatre!


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