Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gallery Secrets by Various Writers

Katherine Sigismund and Joel J. Gelman 

By Joe Straw

The day was blistering and the night uncomfortable.   When she laid her head down she made a mental note that inside was better than out, slightly cooler, but she just couldn’t get herself to close her eyes as there were creatures staring at her, figures not fully lit with glass like eyes, creatively wondering, like herself, just how the heck they both got in there. Her eyes got heavy and sleep overcame her anxiety until she woke and was startled to see the creepy outline of an elephant. And now she had a decision to make: to go to the bathroom or hold it until morning. – Narrator 

My daughter recounted the sleepover with lots of Girl Scouts at the Natural History Museum. And I thought what a great way to get kids to the museum.  And it was great in three ways: 1) it was learning fun, 2) it introduced kids to The Natural History Museum, and 3) those kids will be future clients for many generations.   

I had not been to the Natural History Museum, but when I heard the Chalk Repertory Theatre would be performing four short original comedies and dramas, I jumped at the chance. How fun was this going to be?

And, like Columbus discovering…What exactly did he discover? And was Columbus his real name?... I was introduced to the museum for the first time in my life.

Chalk Repertory Theatre & The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County present: Gallery Secrets, 4 original plays by  Zakiyyah Alexander, Boni B. Alvarez, Tom Jacobson and Ruth McKee.

The Chalk Repertory Theatre is doing some amazing work and this presentation is no exception. The original works are presented and specifically written for the area in which the action is presented.  And in so doing making the plays become exceptionally alive.

The night was broken up into four sections.  My program was yellow so thirty of us, with yellow programs, went with that group. Of course, the light was so dim, a distinction could not be made between the yellows and the whites but no one seemed to mind. There were two other colors as well, blue programs, and one more color that escapes my memory of history.  

Skins and Bones by Ruth McKee

Sadie (Keiana Richard) was a clever guide that loved her job but saw and heard things.  Well, let’s put it bluntly: she was a very strange woman with an overly active imagination. For instance, she spoke in hushed tone about a woman running from room to room. Just when I stopped believing her, a woman in a lab coat, Hildy (Katherine Sigismund), cut across my path like a vision from a Stanley Kubrick film.  And she is calling for Henry (Joel J. Gelman).  Sadly, she is unable to find him.  

The year is 1929, in front of the African Mammal Hall, when people spoke in measured and polite tones, mind you.  Our journey with Hildy stops in front of the greater Kudu exhibit.

There, a simmering Henry waits.  He has been sitting for hours hoping she would find him. But knowing her – well she was an academic and so caught up in her work he thought there was little chance of that - until she finally arrives.  

Hildy is slightly peeved of having to run all over the museum looking for him, appears unaware of his feelings for her – an academic.

“I want to share my life with you.” – Henry

“No thanks.  I already have one.” – Hildy

Under the Glass by Zakiyyah Alexander

The setting is 1978 in the Gem and Mineral Hall:  Colonel (Tony Amendola) a punctilious gemologist loves his rocks, his stones, his mineral deposits. All with the idea that he will find that one great treasure, a rock that would make him famous.  He is so enamored of the room he helped create that he can’t leave, not for a minute, an hour, or a day.

“Today I am truly alive.” - Colonel

That doesn’t sit too well with his wife, Marie (Blaire Chandler), an entertainer of sorts who needs to get out once in a while and do her stuff. She is Virginia Wolf in a hematite shell (a blood ore mineral) and he is the blood that drains her creative spirit.

“I loathe a party with pigs in blankets.” – Marie

Still she gets dressed in her gold iridescent dress to entertain and raise money for the museum. As she puts on her lipstick, she believes her mendacious husband and true love is seeing another woman and that don’t sit too right with her.

But the person the Colonel is seeing is Doc (Brian Johnson) and the results of the tests aren’t what he expected.

Prom Season by Boni B. Alvarez

It is prom night in the present day and Melvin (Justin Huen) can’t keep his hand off Genesis (Marie Ponce) under the “brontosaurus”, in fact they are practically doing it under the dinosaur.

Genesis has lost her bracelet under something and she appears not to care that much for Melvin.  Moments later they are caught by a security guard, Fabiola (Angel Star Felix), who finds them where they are not supposed to be and chases them away.

During the commotion, Fabiola finds the bracelet and puts it in her pocket possibly for her kids at home when she is approached by Genesis who is looking for her bracelet.    

Amy Ellenberger and Rod Menzies 

A Vast Hoard by Tom Jacobson

Sarah (Melinda Bielfelt) led us into the 1913 Rotunda.  We had a ways to go but Sarah was in no hurry.  There was something oddly unfamiliar with her dress and manner of speaking.  Truth be told, she appeared to be not among the living, and slightly melancholy as she guided us into the rotunda.  But, there was something on her mind, something unresolved, that needed to be addressed this night.

Frank Daggett (Joseph Gilbert), the museum curator, has a meeting with a benefactor Harris Newmark (Rod Menzies). Newmark means to take back two paintings, a portrait of himself and his late wife (also first cousin).  

But, as much as he admires Newmark, Daggett does not want to let go of the paintings. It means so much for the museum to keep the pair together.

Newmark is convinced to leave the portrait of himself with the museum but insists on taking back the portrait of his late wife, to remind him of her in his later years.

But Daggett has a backup plan. He enlists a famous artist and bluestocking Julia Bracken Wendt (Amy Ellenberger) to convince Newman to leave both paintings at the museum. Unbeknownst to Daggett, Wendt has visions and channels his dead wife.  And Sarah is, oddly enough, somewhere in the room.

Newman is appalled and thinks this is some kind of joke.

There are many wonderful things happening at the Natural History Museum and Gallery Secrets is one of them.

Skins and Bones by Ruth McKee moves along quite nicely, a bit stodgy, but very true to the times.  Andrew Borba, the director, captured the essences of the play although it took a lot of concentration to hear the dialogue in this cavernous setting. The opening is a bit lost because the audience is following Hildy and not seeing and/or following Henry’s action.  

Katherine Sigismund as Hildy was delightful. As the character she is unaware of what is going on around her because she is so connected with her work she doesn’t see love staring her in the face.  Sigismund attaches significant emotional work in her being and this works well for the character. Her craft is excellent.

Joel J. Gelman does a nice job as Henry.  The character loses a love and gains a love all in the same afternoon.  But what is the price he must pay in order to have her?  He doesn’t seem too upset giving his life away. A little more conflict in his inner emotional life will only add to this loved starved character.

There is something about Under the Glass by Zakiyyah Alexander that I truly loved.  The writing was terrific down to the minor details.  I loved the song in the middle but missed the part about how this worked in the grand scheme of things. (To entertain and pass the collection plate?) The ending is sublime and extremely emotional.  And this is how I always want to leave the theatre with a grand emotional connection.  

Tony Amedola was fantastic as the Colonel. There is not a wasted moment as he commands the space he lives. His craft is remarkable and might have been even better if it wasn’t so dark in the mineral gallery.  Still, I loved every minute of his physical and emotional performance!

Blaire Chandler was equally remarkable as Marie and had a lovely number in a beautiful song. As the character, she was a naughty woman who has not lost one ounce of her appeal and she keeps reminding her partner of this truth every moment they are together. She will play the role as an academic’s wife but she will have fun in the process. The moment she is holding the bills brought back so much life that it is truly hard to find composure. 

(Gratefully the lights were very low in this room.)

Doc as played by Brian Johnson.  There was a line of dialogue saying he and his patient were about the same age, or had a very long relationship, did not ring true.  Nevertheless Johnson was quite convincing as Doc and I enjoyed his performance.

Wonderfully directed by Jeff Wienckowski who uses the entire Gem and Mineral Hall to grand effect.  And the audience walks through the entire maze of minerals following the actors wherever they go.

Prom Season by Boni B. Alvarez and directed by Jennifer Chang seemed small, dwarfed by the huge dinosaur in the room.  It had a good message but I felt this needed more work.  The moment about the bracelet was not connected. Something is there but that moment needed ironing out. The staging wasn’t exact, and the actors were all over the room and even move between two stories making them insignificant in this vast enclosure.  At one point, actors ran out of the room and one needed to be fast in order to follow the action or to see if they were coming back.

Jessica Hemingway was Yesseina and Morgan Pavey played Stacey.  The trick to small roles is to give an extreme life to the characters, find the dramatic conflict, and make the most of the role. Demand more, find the specific core of the character, and run with it.

Marie Ponce was Genesis, an interesting character name representing the beginning. She falls in lust with her date, this being prom night but comes across a character who previously made the wrong choice.  She may or may not have accepted the information and one gets the impression that little gets resolved this night.

Justin Huen plays Melvin a nasty character with nowhere to go.  We all know what he wants for this night only.  But Huen doesn’t give the character any redeeming social value. Nasty has to have a purpose, a core to his reality. A rebel without a cause is no rebel.  He has to find the reasons relating to two characters.  

Angel Star Felix plays Fabiola and while there is a simple truth to her reality, the character is a little more complicated than the shell of a security guard.  She has two kids at home, wonders how they are doing locked behind their apartment door. One of them is really going to like the bracelet. She needs a strong emotional commitment to the young girl. (I’ve found a young woman, slightly older than my girl, she needs my help, badly etc.  Okay, so maybe you get the picture.)  Work harder for a deeper emotional commitment in completing your objective. That said, there were moments of a heartfelt truth to her performance.

A Vast Hoard by Tom Jacobson and directed by Janet Hayatshahi is an interesting look at the Los Angeles Museum in 1913 when things were fresh and new and the museum was getting a toe hold on history and culture and making itself known. The cast of characters is based on mostly real life characters. The play is well written but offers us nothing new in style and substance.  But what we do get is a very interesting look at the way things work in that world. Little if anything is mentioned about the real life sculpture work “Three Muses” in the rotunda which one of the characters created.

Janet Hayatshahi’s directorial stakes could have been taken to another level but falls short along the line of the stodgy period.  There is a lot more that could have been explored given the real life characters and the place and their time and place.

Melinda Bielefelt was engaging as Sarah Newmark the deceased wife and first cousin of Harris Newmark.   She is an important part of this play but offers little in the way of a physical presence during the course of the story. Since she is related to Harris more needs to be shown.  If she is a channeled spirit then she needs to be in the thick of things rather than appearing here and there. A little more creative life would only add to an already fine performance.  

Joseph Gilbert plays Frank Daggett, the museum curator/administrator, and does a nice job. Possibly, too nice. He always kept his composure when things weren’t looking too good for his museum with the possible loss of the paintings.  His choices were fine, maybe a little low keyed. Still, a very nice job.

Rod Menzies played Harris Newmark, a true to life philanthropist, and was quite good. But, what is it about this man that wants to take the paintings back? His excuse is personal although not convincing—it is a desperate act when the museum is trying to establish itself as a major institution. His wife at this important time is deceased and there is another stunning creature before his eyes and yet nothing was made of this relationship.

Amy Ellenberger played Julia Bracken Wendt, the stunning creature. She was responsible for producing “Three Muses” which is used as a background to the play but is not used in the play. The channeling could have been used to greater effect and more dramatic.  Still Ellenberger did some very fine work in her performance.

Chalk Repertory Theatre is doing some remarkable work in Los Angeles.  The performances in the places serve a grand purpose. It opens the eyes of theatre-goers to places where one can be very creative and makes the most of those place.

Other members of the crew are as follows:
Production Stage Manager – Ryan Harris
Stage Managers – Liv Wafler & Nicholas Pilapil
Technical Director:  Jimmy Ng
Lighting Design:  Hilda Kane
Sound Design:  Colin Wambsgans
Press:  Shari Barrett

The costumes for the entire scenes were remarkable and the person responsible for the excellent look was Costume Designer Halei Parker.

Run!  Run!  And take someone who knows a lot about the Natural History Museum.  You’ll have double the fun.

September 21, 22, 27, 29
October 5, 6, 11 and 13
7-9 PM
At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County:  900 Exposition Blvd, Los Angeles, CA  90007

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