Friday, March 29, 2013

Melancholia by The Latino Theater Lab

L - R Fidel Gomez, Ramiro Segovia

By Joe Straw

In the early morning hours of 9/11, my mother, extremely pale and imperceptibly trembling, was having a heart attack.  An ambulance rushed her to the local hospital. 

The doctors evaluated her condition and inserted a needle into a vein in her leg.  The needle was attached to a tube and that was attached to a pump that kept her blood moving.  She was then rushed into a waiting ambulance that sped off to a Chattanooga hospital that specialized in open-heart surgery.

Her chances of survival, on this day, were faint.

But she survived 9/11 and told me, from her bed, about dark shadows slipping in and out of the room - the day before and during the event.  She said they were around her, observing, coming in and out beneath door frames and baseboards of the room, sometimes staying a little longer, an ominous and frightening dark energy.   

There were a lot of long, dark, shadows cast on the morning of September 11, 2001, enough to put a nation into a state of melancholia from which we have yet recovered or have even seen a faint glimmer of light.

The Latino Theater Company presents Melancholia by The Latino Theater Lab and wonderfully directed by José Luis Valenzuela.  Melancholia is a pictorial delight, a night of non-stop images in motion, color, light, and shadow, pasted and received into our emotional conscious being, a masterful job of imagery on stage.    

Exposed by the exquisite brilliance of an incandescent bulb, Tar (Fidel Gomez) and Skittles (Alexis de la Rocha) sit on a table, brooding, motionless.  Dressed for a night in the theatre, he in pale complexion, and staring placidly at the mundane.  Skittles takes delight in a piece of popcorn and tries to goad him into a fantasy she is playing.  Tar is not biting which results in a lurid glare, and then back again, faced down on her elbows.

But, both were nauseated by the mundane and needed to have a game, a twist, and a way of dealing with a certain reality.  Shakespeare was a way, but they couldn’t decide if it was Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet.  He Hamlet – She Juliet.  And Lord knows, she just can’t identify her Shakespeare’s quotes - even the easy ones.  

“You’re never going to get your Shakespeare straight!” - Tar

They wailed about their differences – “We said theatrical and non-linear!” - while waiting for what they knew would be coming.

And come they did in inexorable serried ranks of camouflaged and battered boots.  

Soldiers KIA ponderously marched into their sepulcher, their bodies of soundless life piled onto a table one by one in an entangled mass of flesh and bones, quietly heaped in a mournful stillness, but piled with a respectful admiration.  In total, including this day, the number exceeds four thousand.

Ramiro Segovia

Their physical treatment was respectful, but their names, when brought back to life, were shouted like paper thrown out to us, in a vacuum, too fast to catch, littering - like the fragments of information mistakenly eyed from a single column of our local paper with Latino names of Hernandez, Martinez, Ortiz, and Gonzales - all dead, and all under the age of thirty.

"That's what war does to the poor.  Accept it!" 

Tar and Skittles salvaged the night until the time came to excavate and push the frightened rudimentary souls into the light.   

But there is always a problem here, there, everywhere they are.  And every day has its exception: Mario Cruz Gonzales age 20. A live figurine, in military garb, painted or photographed in three emotional and physical states (Sam Golzari, Xavi Moreno and Ramiro Segovia), not knowing whom they are or where they are going.  But one thing is certain: this is not their destination. Religious rubrics do not allow this.  

Tar and Skittle notice, together as one, he is not right.  There is something in his eyes; something disturbing that causes them extreme consternation.  This shouldn’t be.  Something’s is wrong and pushing him into the light would undermine their job they take very seriously.  

“To f**k or not to f**k, that is the question.” – Tar

So, Skittle and Tar take him back in time to understand his history.  Investigating his life, maybe an inscrutable intention, but still they try. 

Right now the dark human shadows, coming into focus, convert to abiding memories, without fault, like stop motion photography, so still the image recalled of a time gone by, as though we were watching the Latino version of  “Our Town” with the characters living in East L.A.

And so they journey back to East L.A. to find out what happened.  The pestiferous absurdity of reliving a life already lived to find the answer without knowing the questions, to find a truth, a match with the time, space and image, with which the characters are unwilling to face.

And this religious family unable, well, daven was out of the question, the long lingering war place them too far for that, so they meticulously laid plates on the table, brought out some beers, and invited a few friends.  Mario was coming home. 

Frank (Geoff Rivas) and Lydia (Lucy Rodriguez) Mario’s father and mother spoke in quiet tones while they set the table.  Christine (Iliana Carter-Ramirez) Mario’s younger sister and Alexis (Esperanza America) Mario’s girlfriend with two cousins Auggie (Brenda Banda) and Ted Lange are there to welcome the hero home.

And he does come home to careful embraces, missing someone, something, a quick look around the room, too many people to notice, but there was one, person, missing. 

 But no one was mentioning…

“Where’s Ruben?” – Mario


“You’ve got your whole life.  What are you going to do?” – Father

On the table, in plain sight, women in tight camouflaged dresses, asking our boys to come on in and have an exciting career in the military. And they fall for it, all the time, everyday.

And all for one big lie.

Fidel Gomez plays Tar in a very physically demanding role.  His body sweats profusely lifting and hoisting bodies for the sole purpose of sorting the bodies and sending them to their prescribed destination.  His tenebrous image though is enough to send the seeker back to the other place. Gomez is passionate in his intention and uses his hands, voice, and body with extravagant reverence.   

Alexis de la Rocha plays Skittles. She is definitely someone you would want to meet at the end of your rainbow of life.  As the character, she is a gorgeous apparition of a shadowy energy taking care of business on the other side.  But she was somewhat unsure of her objective and how she differed from her counterpart in reaching her objective.

Sam Golzari, Xavi Moreno and Ramiro Segovia play one of the three Marios on stage. They all did exceptional jobs representing one character and there were a lot of similarities in their character. But displaying the differences would have helped the story along.  Why are they different?  And what in their part of the story line makes them different?  What information do we get from their differences as well as their similarities?

Geoff Rivas is also exceptional as the Father and as a homeless man, a former vet who can’t sleep and defines the permanent nature that is melancholia.

Lucy Rodriguez as the Mother provides a steady hand at LATC and does a fine job.

L - R Esperanza America, Ramiro Segovia 

Esperanza America plays Alexis, Mario’s girlfriend.  Try as she might, she is not able to understand the mental anguish her boyfriend is going through, but it doesn’t stop her from trying.  America does an exceptional job with the little things that make a difference.

Brenda Banda plays Auggie, the “tsking” Chola Babe and does an outstanding job.  Vicki Syal also is very capable as Veronica.

Iliana Carter-Ramirez as Christine, Mario’s sister, was in a hurry to grow up and going about it all-wrong. A very nice performance.

Luis Aldana plays Ruben, Mario’s best friend. It is an interesting characterization.  He is supposed to be Mario’s best friend but we really never see the tight connection.  Or maybe this friendship is leading us in a direction that doesn’t really pan out.  He is a Marine and is killed in Iraq but he may not be the reason for his friend’s ultimate demise.  Not really sure how this all worked out in the lab.

“Your clichés are beginning to wear thin.” – Mario

Jasmine Orpilla played Death, dress in black and waiting for the inevitable, beating a drum that we all march to.  She waited patiently for the newly deceased to come to her.

Also rounding out this very fine cast were Aaron Garcia (Rudy), and Ted Lange (Doctor/Cousin). 

The writing tells us that the word for Mario’s disorder is Battle Fatigue, Shelled Shocked, and in another time PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Same disorder – better name. And so we are taken to another possible alternative ending which has little to do with Ruben’s death, or maybe that’s how it played out this particular night. But why does Mario appear with the rest of the soldiers?  Why is he there?  Do we ever really find out? The evanescent ending, streaks by without a clear understanding of the why. 

José Luis Valenzuela does an exceptional job putting the pieces together with incredible visuals.  It is a night filled with humor, dance, and unexpected moments for a production that is filled with so much anguish and melancholia.  The small space is perfect for this production.  Very European – Very avant-garde.

Other members of the fantastic crew are:

Cameron Mock – Scenic & Lighting Design
John Zalewski – Original Sound Design
Edwin Peraza – Sound Design
Hilary Parkin – Costume Design
Randé Dorn – Choreographer
Sam Golzari – Additional Music
Aaron Garcia & Carolina Ortiz – Assistant Directors
Julian Fernandez – Stage Manager

Melancholia is a journey into the darkness, finding answers, with a few questions left unresolved.

Run and take someone who has served our nation with dignity.

Reservation:  866-811-4111 - EXTENDED!  Through April 14th, 2013

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Trouble With Words - A Song Cycle by Gregory Nabours

L - R Ryan Wagner, Jamie Mills, Julianne Donelle, Christopher Roque, Aimee Karlin, Robert Wallace

By Joe Straw

“I don’t understand. There are just as many notes, Majesty, as I require, neither more or less.” – Mozart in Amadeus

The Trouble With Words – A Song Cycle by Gregory Nabours now playing at the Lost Studio – is a very appealing idea.  (When you read the first sentence is it doesn’t sound right.) Words to convey an idea in song and dance are always part of the musical theatrical experience. Words and dance – dances and word – but this particular experience is about words and their effect mostly for the benefit of... What are the words I’m trying to get, the theatre audience – words and music – music and words with a lot of nice dancing and backed nicely by a six-piece band?

The trouble with “The Trouble With Words” is the words.  You can call this a Song Cycle, if that is your choice, but isn’t this really a themed musical revue?

It’s not really a musical; in the traditional sense of the word, but then again musical theatre have no boundaries?  Or do they? Do we really want a musical about words and the devilish ways they are used to make our life miserable, miserably devilish, or devily miserablelish?

And getting to the end could have had a stronger focus.  Oh, I wish I hadn’t said that.

But a musical with a strong focus or a book to help things along always helps us remember the words and we sing the tunes on our way out, spreading the word, via word of mouth, ala social media and other ways.  

In this musical there are too many words.  No, there are just a many words as required, neither more or less.  

Some of these words, I say are in jest, others are spoken very seriously.  Get what you get and move on. Ouch!  Another thing that didn’t come out right.  

The Coeurage Theatre Company presents The Trouble With Words – A Song Cycle by Gregory Nabours, directed by Patrick Pearson and Choreography by Janet Roston at The Lost Theatre on La Brea is geared to audiences in their twenties to thirties (to wet their…appetite) but I believe everyone will enjoy it especially those who enjoy communicating, verbally.

The Trouble With Words (TTWW) is a show I would see off, off, Broadway and like it very much.  (Like you’ve been to off, off, Broadway.)

And so TTWW is a show that I enjoyed from start to finish.  The problem is that it doesn’t have a start or a finish. There is no natural progression, a beginning, middle, or an end.  It just has a terrific middle.

The cast has marvelous voices.  I wasn’t a big fan of the opening number (TTWW), too much was going on and wasn’t specific as to where the show was going. Or maybe it was. But then, as the show progressed, I had a great time getting the idea of this as a venue, or skits, a showcase about words in our daily life.  

And on a serious note: There is this weird thing going in very small theatrical venue these days.  Not only here, on this night, but in other venues.  The singers five to ten feet away from you are being mic’ed.  (Is that the correct word?)

In the first solo number, “Listen” is wonderfully sung by Christopher Roque, playing a guitar – he is not more than fifteen feet away, stage left, and the sound is coming from a speaker far stage right. I can’t actually hear the singer singing.  But I do hear his voice coming from the speaker. (But, once you get beyond that you can readily enjoy the show.)  

There are a number of songs that I thoroughly enjoyed “Listen” sung by Christopher Roque, and “The Haircut” with a very cute Julianne Donelle and Robert Wallace

L - R Christopher Roque, Jamie Mills, Robert Wallace, Julianne Donelle

“Pick up Lines” was hilarious with Christopher Roque playing a Justin Timberlake character and Ryan Wagner playing a Justin Beiber character fighting for a woman with a challenge of one great pickup line after another.  Also the quest of their desires is Julianne Donelle who is delightful being pulled in opposite directions until she discovers a truth about the two lads.   

Jamie Mills sang “Here We Go Again”, another one of my favorites that seems to capture an inner truth of how everyone feels from time to time. In this Mills shows us a wider range with a rich dramatic flair to go along with the song.

Aimee Karlin

“Complimentary Brunch” is a song about a pair of couples – Aimee Karlin, Robert Wallace, Jamie Mills and Christopher Roque – who meet for lunch.  The women hate each other but their husbands want to spend quality time together and all for a little wager. There is some nice acting going on here as well with exuberant chest bumping males and self controlled women who physically want to snatch each other baldheaded.

Robert Wallace has a very nice voice and sings “Kid With A Heart On” (think what you want about the word’s title.)  Wallace sings it with a microphone, which is odd considering he is mic’ed. Nevertheless it was a very funny song.

The musicians have a number of options in this show.  They could have worn black or had a more active part of the show.  And I think Gregory Nabour, the Musical Director and pianist, needs one more number to put all this together and send us off into the night singing that tune that ties this musical together.  

Other members of this fine band are Brian Morales, Orchestrator/Reeds, Brian Cannady, Drums/Percussion/Mallets, David Lee, Guitars/Banjo, Taylor Harb, Cello/Bass and Darryl Black, Violins.

Patrick Pearson does a fine job directing.  The night sails by very quickly.  My only suggestion for a very successful night is to tie the scenes together with a word and some kind of action, a passing of the torch, for what amounts to a transition of sorts between songs, all in keeping with the theme, the trouble with words.

The Choreography by Janet Roston was superior and a lot of fun.

The Producer of this fine production is Jeremy Lelliott. A lot of time, money, effort went into the production of this show and it’s all up there on stage. Lelliott does a fantastic job and Coeurage Theatre Company has found themselves a wonderful home. 

The understudies or alternates are Eric Michael Parker, Jesse Einstein, Ben Burch, Jessica Apperson, Sammi Smith and Rebecca Mason-Wygal. They did not perform on this night.

The hard work that went into this production shows and the crewmembers that made it possible are as follows:

Abe Luke Rodriguez – Stage Manager
Susan Hallman – Lighting Design
Joeseph V. Calarco – Sound Design
Abe parker – Sound Mixer
JR Bruce – Scenic Design
Bradley Lock – Costume Design
Christopher Roque – Properties
Zack Guilder – Technical Director
Kurt Quinn – Lead Carpenter
Ryan Wagner – Graphic Design
Erica Lyn Peña – Assistant Choreographer
Ken Werther – Publicist

Run, run run! And take someone, someone who likes to play words, with friends.

Extended through April 12, 2012.

Reservations: 323-944-2165


Friday, March 15, 2013

The Bird House by Diane Glancy

Randy Reinholz as Reverend Hawk

By Joe Straw

“Now faith is the substance of thing hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  - Hebrews – 11.1 King James Bible

They’ve got this fracking thing down to a science.  It’s an interesting way of getting gas out of the earth.  And if the Chinese want the patented technology you know it must be worth something.

But there’s this thing about fracking.  It poisons well water, and does a number of other unmentionable things, like earthquakes.  And by the time they’ve extracted the gas, oil, etc. they’ve moved on to another place to extract, disturbing another set of unsuspecting people, polluting, and destroying other communities.

“No it doesn’t.” – Oil companies.

“Yes it does.” – Environmentalists.

The Bird House takes place in Ropesville, Texas and if you go to the Google map of Ropesville, TX, population 434, you’ll see a town that looks like something from Peter Bagdonivich’s “The Last Picture Show” where there is nothing but vast stretches of dirt, sand, and sage covering the few asphalt roads along with two churches and a Nazarene Parsonage. If you place yourself, in the sandy road, and look out into the horizon, you can believe that life has many choices.  

Native Voices at The Autry, America’s Leading Native American Theatre Company presents the World Premiere of The Bird House by Diane Glancy and directed by Robert Caisley.  It is a enjoyable perspective of a people living a simple life with things changing too fast all around them.

Jonathan Logan or Reverend Hawk (Randy Reinholz) is an evangelical preacher who has got the callin’ but the callin’ just ain’t got him. 

The parishioners have left in droves, mostly moving to places where there are jobs. Now sitting in the pews are his half sister, Majel (Carla-Rae) his full sister Clovis (Ellen Dostal) and one other craggily parishioner Rope/RoyTrabing (Robert Owens-Greygrass). Not much to collect from the collection plate - if one was even passed around.  

And as the Reverend Hawk walks in his church he notices a man sitting in his pew.  Looking vaguely familiar, and just like his father.   Justin Lawrence (Tyler Cook) is there, head down, paying a little more than a social call. 

Lawrence, tall and imposing, doesn’t like the way things are going on in this church.  The board has sent him down to access the church’s current situation. (Code for we are going to figure out what you’re doing wrong and make it right and if it’s you that needs righting, then so be it.)

Reverend Hawk says life has been a little bleak since his wife died. The economy is destroying the community and Majel has decided to stay on and help around the church.  

Lawrence has sympathies for the death of Reverend Hawk’s wife but suggests cutting anywhere he can cut, including letting his sister go, but Hawk says she’s not that expensive and she’s doing all the things his wife use to do.  Lawrence tells him they are thinking of selling the parsonage.

Hawk, keeping the faith, knows that things will turn around soon enough and he implores Lawrence to look at it from his perspective. Lawrence, trying to find a way, says he’ll be back with some answers to the church’s problems.  

One more problem to add to Hawk’s difficulties is that Clovis has been thrown out of her daughter’s house and Clovis decides to move into the church because she has nowhere else to go.  This is one more expense the church doesn’t need but they take her in, or she forces her way in.  With church folk, it is hard to determine.

“My daughter won’t talk to me.  I can’t go back.” – Clovis

They make her a place in the corner somewhere in the church but she has got major health issues.

Rope/Roy Trabing (Robert Owens-Greygrass) and Majel along with Clovis sit out in lawn chairs at night watching the kids camping out in tents. Majel speaks quietly about her first marriage and her one-day honeymoon before her newlywed husband disappears and was possibly eaten by a bear. Rope follows Majel around as though a rope tied him to her. He wants her but she is still disillusion by her first marriage.

Their discourse is interrupted by the sounds of oil tankers going by which they decide they are going to protest at a meeting and they enlist Hawk to join the protest.

“Don’t frack with Texas.” – reads one sign.

But Hawk wants nothing to do with the protest.

Later Clovis has a stroke and loses the ability of speech. And although no one understands her she is able to communicate clearly in her own mind.

Randy Reinholz as Jonathan Logan or Reverend Hawk has a strong voice and he is able to use it to emphasize The Book of Job.  (An interesting note: Job is described as being shallow and foolish, and a man grateful on a superficial level, creating an opening for trouble to enter his life.) Why would a character trying to save his church invoke the name of Job?  The action of Hawk doesn’t do anything to save the church.  If fact, he is a man torn with frustration not knowing what he needs to do. He kneels in the balcony and prays but won’t lift a finger to demonstrate against the oil companies who are fracking his town into ruin.  The weight of his sermons carries little convictions and do not stir the emotions of his congregation or himself.  He has the opportunity to go out into the community but he has lost the faith to carry on. (As an aside Reinholz has an action on stage involving a pillow that cause an audience member to gasp, loudly. And I’ll have to admit I felt the same thing, for the same reason, without the gasp.)

Tyler Cook plays Justin Lawrence.  He is tall and majestic with a slight air of arrogance.  He knows he’s there to shut the place down so why beat around the bush.  Shut it down for the love of God and while you are at it take copious notes. (Physical and mental.) There is nothing more sinister than a Texan taking more land away from a Native American for the sake of big oil.  Nevertheless, it was a job well done.

L - R Carla-Rae (Majel) and Ellen Dostal (Clovis) 

Carla-Rae plays Majel and has a very interesting look.  Although it’s not really clear what she wanted.  A home perhaps or to take care of her siblings.  She isn’t interested in the man courting her; maybe she believes that it will lead to a relationship that has no future. She loses a lot to get what she wants, the problem is:  we are not really sure what she wants.  She complains about being a half-sister, but isn’t bothered to change things.  Nevertheless, she handles herself well and does some very nice things on stage.

Ellen Dostal plays Clovis a relative that has nowhere else to go. So, she invades the house with the hopes that one of her siblings will take care of her and her health issues. There is simply nowhere else to rest her weary soul but in this fine church. But, in this town, she can cross the street and she’s in her daughter’s home. Dostal does a lot of very lovely things on stage and it’s very hard not to be sympathetic to her plight.

Robert Owens-Greygrass does well playing Rope/Roy Trabing a cowboy who is in love with one of the sisters.  He doesn’t have a future and he knows it.  He gets along the best way he knows how, stealing and other things, but what he does have is a lot of heart. And he goes after the love of his life with all of his might despite his many faults. Owens-Greygrass gives us the pictures we so desperately need when watching characters from this small town trying to survive the best way they know how.  

Jennifer Bobiwash is an understudy for Mavis and Clovis but did not perform the night I was there.

Darrell Dennis is an understudy for Jonathan Logan, Justin Lawrence, and Rope.  He opened the show with an introduction and a prayer and did quite well. But, he did not perform this night.

Robert Caisley, the director, had enough presence of mind to have an actor hold a pillow in such a way as to having some member of the audience gasp out loud. And this is an interesting challenge to connect this action with faith, which I believe is the core or through line of the play. Simply put, every actor on stage has an objective, intention, or whatever you want to call a strong motivational force to move the play along. Faith plays into the core.  Also, Caisley needs to find a way to make the play move seamlessly, finding a way to keep a continuous flow between scene changes.

Diane Glancy, the writer, has written a very stimulating play.  It’s always fun to come to a World Premier.  Glancy writes a story of people living a simple life and gazing at the stars on lawn chairs watching the kids camping out in tents. All are taking a moment to observe the simple complexities of life and trying so hard to find the meaning of it all.  The characters are well defined, the relationships work, and we can all clasp onto a truth here and there.  Protecting the environment is one thing I can latch onto but the core of the play needs tweaking.  Something is missing. The book of Hebrews deals with faith and faith is a good choice that leads characters into a mess of trouble, but faith without strong action is of little use to anyone.  The characters want to help Clovis after her stroke; they give her a tiny spoon of applesauce.  But are they weak in character to want more for Clovis? Do they have faith that they can make Clovis better? Or no faith at all? Also, why help the sick, if you’re not going to pray for the sick.  Praying is an action to make Clovis better. And she does, but only in her mind, which I find very fascinating.  

“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having see them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” – Hebrews 11.13

Maybe they saw their dreams beyond the horizon.

Nicely produced by Randy Reinholz. 

Other members of the crew are.

Susan Baker Scharpf, Scenic Design
R. Craig Wolf, Lighting Design
E. B. Brooks, Costume Design
Sean Kozma, Sound Design
Shannon Dedman, Prop Design
Tim Davis, Stage Manager
Watson Bradshaw, Technical Director
Jean Bruce Scott, Dramaturg


This is a limited engagement running through Sunday March 17, 2:00pm.

Run and take someone who likes the very simple things in life.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck adapted by Frank Galati

Foreground (L-R) Deborah Strang (Ma Joad), Nicholas Neve (Winfield Joad), Andrew Hellenthal (Al Joad). Background (L-R) Mark Jacobson (Noah Joad), Lindsey Ginter (Pa Joad), Steve Coombs (Tom Joad).

By Joe Straw

“I’ll be ever’where-wherever you look.  Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Wherever they’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there.  If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready.  An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in houses they build-why I’ll be there.” – Tom Joad

I think I said, “How’s the 405 this afternoon?”

“I haven’t heard anything.” – was the response.

So we started our noble journey on Saturday from West LA, two hours early with plenty of time to get to East Pasadena and more than enough time to see The Grapes of Wrath at A Noise Within Theatre. But before we’re on the freeway at Venice and Sepulveda, I noticed heavy traffic on the freeway overpass.

“Maybe the 405 is not a good idea.”  I said from that noise within.  Or maybe I said it out loud. 

Nevertheless we get on the 405 Freeway and, forty-five minutes later, we’ve made it to Olympic, less than a mile away. 

So we make a quick decision to abandon the 405 and get on the Santa Monica Freeway. That freeway was better but not great, downtown was worse, and the 5 North was just plain - nasty.  One hour and thirty minutes later and the traffic on the 5 Freeway is at a complete standstill. 

I texted Laura Stegman, press representative, asking if ANW performance starts promptly at 2:00 p.m., and she replied “2:01 p.m.”

Now the sweat is pouring down my back, my legs are becoming numb, and my hair is frizzing and standing up.  That noise within kept telling me that we were not going to make it, to turn the car around and head back home. 

But, suddenly there is an opening, and flying east, with 10 minutes to spare, we make it.  

So glad we did make it! The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, adapted by Frank Galati, and directed by Michael Michetti at A Noise Within Theatre, is a magnificent achievement and a moving tribute to the words of John Steinbeck.  This is an exceptional production.  Frank Galati’s three-hour masterpiece, under Michetti’s direction moves along as swiftly and with as much force as the Colorado River.  Do not miss this production!

Upon entering the theatre, it doesn’t take long to imagine the dust bowl atmosphere, and Garry Lennon’s remarkable costumes takes us to that moment in time.

Oklahomans are optimists and they make the best of it with a free concert for dust bowl refugees.  A “Hobo’s Lullaby” and other songs get us into the spirit of the times.

And, in a quiet moment after the band has left, Casy (Matt Gottlieb) in bare feet sits down and, on the harmonica, starts a mournful rendition of “Yes Sir, That’s my Baby” when he is approached by Tom Joad (Steve Coombs).  

Tom recognizes Casy as the preacher and, as a way of getting reacquainted; Tom offers him a swig on his factory liquor. Casy then confesses the sins that he has committed with female parishioners and that he is no longer a preacher.  

And while there’s confessing going on Tom unloads his misdemeanors.

“Didn’t you hear about me?  I was in the papers.” – Tom

“No-I never.  What?” – Casy

“I been in McAlester them four years.” – Tom

Tom tells Casy about his time in prison for killing a man after the man put a knife in him. Tom doesn’t say where the knife was stuck in him he just “Knocked his head plumb to squash.” Nevertheless, Tom is on his way to see his folks and Casy asks if he can come along.

But when they get there, the imaginary fence is unlatched, the weathered farmhouse is deserted, and the grey slats that once held together a home are loose, broken off, and not fit to keep the dust out.

“They’re gone – or Ma’s dead.  If Ma was anywhere about, that gate’d be shut an’ hooked.  That’s the one thing she always done – seen that gate was shut...” – Tom

“If I was still a preacher I’d say the arm of the Lord has struck.  But now I don’t know what happened.” – Casy

The moonlight peering in the infrequent slanting beams allow Tom to light a candle. Muley, a neighbor walking around in a daze, says Tom’s family are at Uncle Johns and are ready to shove out west, that the bank put a bull dozer to ol’ Tom’s house, and force them all out.

“Why they kickin’ folks off the lan’?” – Casy

“Bank can’t afford to keep no tenants.  Them sons-a bitches.  Them dirty sons-a-bitches.  I tell ya, men, I’m stayin’. They ain’t getting’ rid a me. – Muley

Somebody approaches and the three of them hide. Pride and anger get the better of Tom as he rises in his own home and watches the men leave.

“I never thought I’d be hidin’ out on my old man’s place.” – Tom  

Later, Tom shows up unexpectedly and first meets up with his Pa (Lindsey Ginter) who’s fixing up the truck to make it ready for the drive out west. Pa wants to know if he busted out.  Tom says he’s been paroled. There is quietness about Pa’s greeting, not really receiving Tom as a family member who has been away, but rather a family member convicted of murder.  

“You remember the preacher, Pa. He come along with me.” – Tom

“He been in prison too?” – Pa

“No, I met him on the road.  He’s been away.” – Tom

“Glad to be here.  It’s a thing to see when a boy comes home.  It’s a thing to see.” – Casy

“Home.” – Pa

(There is a silent brood after the word “home” is spoken. The irony of calling something home is now a chattel, a chattel that an authoritative banking official deemed necessary to bulldoze.) 

Pa welcomes Casy and calls Ma (Deborah Strang) to meet a couple of fellas who are looking for a bite to eat. Ma Joad, never turning away a hungry human being, yells out for them to wash up when she finally sees her boy, Tommy.  And as excited as she is, she takes a slight breath only to ask if he’s busted out.  

Grandpa (Gary Ballard) and Grandma (Jill Hill) join the mix welcoming Tom back home.

“I always said Tom would come bustin’ out a that jail like a bull through a corral fence.  An’ you done it!” – Grandpa

“I didn’t bust out.  They Lemme out.” – Tom

“Get out of my way.  I’m hungry.” – Tom

While Tom has been away, his sister Rose of Sharon (Lili Fuller) has married Connie (Jesse Peri) and they are expecting a baby. Al (Andrew Hellenthal), Tom’s younger brother, is now driving the truck and will be driving them to California. Noah (Mark Jacobsen), Tom’s slightly touched brother, greets him as though he had not been gone four years. Eye twitching, tobacco jawin’ Uncle John greets him with a profound respect. Grandma asks the ex-preacher Casy to give thanks for the meal. And Casy lets it be known that he would like to go out west with them.

“Kin we feed a extra mouth?  Kin we Ma?” – Pa

“It ain’t kin we!  It’s will we?... I never heared tell of no Joads or no Hazletts, neither, ever refusin’ food an’ shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that asked.” – Ma

Ma grabs her bibelot, a music box; with the two things she must take on her journey, earrings wrapped in lace, symbolic of better times.

And with the dust choking their inner being, and the dawn closing in behind them, thirteen souls cram into their god-forsaken truck and start their journey to California. The automobile becomes the linchpin that holds this family together.   

And in the dark, optimism stares back at them from the west, calling them into the darkness and into the silence and nothingness.  Staring out into the blackness, Granpa says he “ain’t a goin’” but with the help of demulcent syrup they manage to hustle him into the back of the truck and off they go.  

Lessons are learned on this journey and not everyone makes it, some die, some just plain leave, but they all start the journey with high hopes that all will be good when they reach the rich and green valleys of California.

The journey to A Noise Within was well worth the trip.  The work is terrific and the craft by the performers sublime.  It is a pleasure watching all actors pitching in and doing what needs to be done on stage. And this is what makes theatre so great and life so wonderful, witnessing performances that take you away.

(L to R) Andrew Hellenthal (Al Joad), Lindsey Ginter (Pa Joad), Nicholas Neve (Winfield Joad), Deborah Strang (Ma Joad), Ranya Jaber (Ruthie Joad), Matt Gottlieb (Jim Casy), Josh Clark (Uncle John Joad), Mark Jacobson (Noah Joad), Steve Coombs (Tom Joad), Jesse Peri (Connie Rivers), and Lili Fuller (Rose of Sharon)

Matt Gottlieb as Jim Casy is terrific.  Life has created doubts in his sinful being but he still believes he has a purpose and he searches for that purpose. And even though he has lost the “callin’” he has to make up for being lost in the wilderness and guides a path for his fellow human beings.  This is marvelous work by Matt Gottlieb.

Steve Coombs is excellent as Tom Joad.  He has a very nice look and a rougher exterior for Tom than one would imagine.  Joad must tow the fine line of a parolee. But he believes he must rise to the injustices he sees around him everyday. And each injustice is a brick on life’s scaffolding until the scaffolding bends and the weight on Tom’s shoulders inches him closer to taking justice. Coombs does a remarkable job and one would like him move one more level to add to a very nice performance.

 Lindsey Ginter as Pa Joad has a quiet dignity.  He is slow and methodical in his approach to life always giving over the decision making to his wife.  He loves his son but is suddenly shocked to see him on the day they leave for California recognizing a dangerous element to their journey.

Deborah Strang plays Ma Joad and she is absolutely wonderful. Ma Joad wants to keep her family together in hopes of a better life. Although she’s made to decision to leave Tom, she is conflicted about doing so. She hopes he will follow—she wants to hold the family together because she knows there is strength in numbers. Strang does tremendous work.  Her choices are specific, and her character has many layers.  There is a moment when she gives away the thing that she prizes most in her life, her earrings, to her daughter.  You can absolutely feel that moment breaking her heart. Strang’s Ma Joad is intelligent and filled with optimism and compassions and this is a woman who will stop at nothing to see that her family has a better life. Her performance is a work of art.

(L-R) Josh Clark (Uncle John Joad) & Matt Gottlieb (Jim Casy)

Josh Clark gives a remarkable performance as Uncle John Joad.  He is a brooding and a quiet self-contemplating man.  He never gives up his past living with a self-inflicting pain that follows him like a bad shadow. Clark creates a wonderful reality to this character and it’s hard to take your eyes off the character and the truth of his craft.  

Lili Fuller is captivating as Rose of Sharon. This is a character that looks toward the future without fulfilling the necessities of the present and it gets her into a lot of trouble.

Jesse Peri plays Connie Rivers, Rose of Sharon’s husband.  Connie is not much of a husband.  He speaks about learning a trade but never moves in that direction.  He has dreams but decides going back home working on tractors is probably best for him and so he deserts his pregnant wife.

Andrew Hellenthal does a nice job as Al Joad a younger version of his older brother only with a little less fight in him and a lot more loving. The character has a lot of enthusiasm that comes with age.  He wants to leave and see the exciting things that are ahead of him.

Mark Jacobson plays Noah a character that is slightly “touched”.  Although he is none too bright he is aware of his station in life. He is unaware that his brother has been in prison for years, he treats him as though he never left. Despite his mental failings, he is aware that his Ma and Pa don’t really care for him and, as he scans the horizon, he sees the Colorado River is the right place for him. Nice work!

Gary Ballard is delightful as Grampa and a number of other roles.  A slight problem is that Ballard has such a distinctive look that after Grampa dies; he comes back very recognizable in the other roles. Still, Ballard’s work is remarkable.

Jill Hill does some amazing work as Granma and Elizabeth Sandry.  As Granma, she holds her hands up praising “Gawd” and not letting the preacher get away without saying grace and putting in a word about going to California. And as Elizabeth Sandry, a Christian, who cast serious judgment against those whose Christian beliefs are not her own. And Hill does it with so much conviction.  It is wonderful work and simply a marvelous craft.  

Matt Foyer does a very nice job with the Man Going Back role. He is a starving broken man that tries to talk sense to those heading west. His right hand balled in an arthritic fist as he speaks of his children dying from starvation.  “Them children died of heart failure.” He tries hard to make his point desperately trying to convince folks, moving out west, to stop and go back.  But he just can’t convince them.  And so, he walks alone into the night.

Ranya Jaber and Nicholas Neve play Ruthie Joad and Winfield Joad respectively and they do a fine job supporting the cast. Fionn James as Boy In The Barn does a nice job as well.

Support members of the ensemble were also responsible for the seamless work on stage and each in their own right have very distinctive looks.  They are Dorrie Braun, Douglas Rory Milliron, James Ferrero, Kristina Teves, Caleb Austin, Henry Funk, Cristina Gerla and Jennifer Losi.

Other members of the ensemble and musicians were Guerin Barry, Matt Foyer, Robert Oriol, Stephen Rockwell and Korey Simeone who kept us in that dramatic time period.

Michael Michetti, the director, takes us on a thrilling ride, on a Hudson Super-Six, and it is a terrific journey.  There is a wonderful truth in Michetti’s direction, so deep in style, purpose, and it touches the very heart of one’s being. So many of the small details are played to perfection. All of it hits home.

I loved Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  The remarkable characters are brought to a life in this truly magnificent play. There is so much authentic life it is hard to leave the theatre. (Soak it all in and go home a better person.)

Wonderfully produced by A Noise Within Producing Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. 

Robert Oriol, the Sound Designer, does remarkable work in creating the atmosphere of the place.  One that really touched home was the clock sound in the deserted home.  A clock is the only sound you hear when there’s no one left in the house.

And the wonderful photos were taken by Craig Schwartz. 

Other members of this remarkable crew are as follows:

Lana Marks (Stage Manager)
Melissa Ficociello (Scenic Designer)
Garry Lennon (Costume Designer)
Monica Lisa Sabedra (Wig/Make-Up Designer)
Elizabeth Harper (Lighting Designer)
Melissa Ficociello (Prop Designer)
Amy Hughson (Assistant Props Master)
Meghan Gray (Production Manager)
Seth Walter (Technical Director)
Maria Uribe (Lead Seamstress)
Alfonso Ramirez (Assistant Director Intern)
Ken Merckx (Fight Choreographer)
Nike Doukas (Dialect Coach)
Justin Eick (Movement Choreographer)

Sunday, Feb 24, at 2pm
Saturday, Mar 3, at 2pm
Saturday, Mar 3, at 8pm
Sunday, Mar 4, at 2pm
Sunday, Mar 24, at 2pm
Sunday, Mar 24, at 7pm
Thursday, Apr 11, at 8pm
Friday, Apr 12, at 8pm
Saturday, Apr 20, at 8pm
Sunday, Apr 21, at 2pm
Friday, May 3, at 8pm
Saturday, May 11, at 2pm
Saturday, May 11, at 8pm

Run!  And take a friend who likes to journey into the unknown.