Saturday, December 20, 2014

Bob’s Holiday Christmas Party

L - R Rob Elk and Pat O'Brien - Photo Ed Krieger

By Joe Straw

I’ve got a list of things to do or see for the holidays.  Let’s see It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol (Alastair Sims), The Homecoming, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the new one on the list is Bob’s Holiday Christmas Party.

Boy howdy is this fun!   

L.A.’s smashed hit is back!  Bob’s Holiday Office Party written by Joe Keyes & Rob Elk and directed by Craig Anton is playing at the Pico Playhouse Theater in Los Angeles and is now in it 19th season in a very short run through December 21, 2014.

I love it when a packed house laughs in unison.  And there is so much laughter, it’s no wonder this holiday show is in its nineteenth season!  I saw it last year and I think it’s funnier this year under the magnificent direction of Craig Anton.

And like It’s a Wonderful Life I can hear the sound of prayers: “Somebody please help Bob Finhead (Rob Elk).  He can’t make up his mind.”

Bob must have left the decorations in his office up all year because nothing has changed.  The small still life town of Neuterberg lies peacefully now, with soft snowflakes on the windows. The big bulbed lights warms the pine tree needles causing the dripping of small disgusting bits of sap onto the old record player.  And, inanimately, the record player begs for someone to make up their mind and drop the needle on some Christmas music from a scratching, popping, vinyl 45 or a 78 rpm. Yes, nothing has changed in Neuterberg.

Bob Elk is outstanding in his insurance office but one look and we know that he wants out. He has bigger dreams.  He wants out so badly he can taste it, smell it, drink it, and deep-fry it. Time in his life for becoming an inventor, going to college, and saving mankind is running out.  He’s wasted nineteen years, playing it safe selling insurance, and all he’s got to show for it is this darn Christmas party.   

Oh, but what a Christmas party.

Sheriff Joe (Joe Keyes) is the first to join the festivities.  He’s out of uniform, because of an unexpected expulsion incident, which cause him to change into what looks like a car mechanic’s outfit.  But, other than that, and because of the snow, it’s a slow day for law enforcement.

“One of these days, I will make money on one of my inventions.” – Bob

If Bob could only fix the door to the bathroom life would be a lot easier. Joe has to move the door and sit on the pot, full view, and not a pretty sight. Not even bothering to find the handle, Joe walks away from the excessively filled toilet and over to tub of ice to wash his hands.

Bob tells Joe that he might be going to inventing college.  He claps his hands, flushing the toilet, which is another invention, the crapper clapper, for which he proudly beams.

“Change is not good.” – Joe

Joe says he’s been hearing voices lately about Margie (Andrea Hutchman) meeting Bob in the backroom of the store, unbeknownst to her gay husband Roy Mincer (David Bauman). Another slight dig before Joe leaves to have a drink before the party.

Speaking of the devil Roy, wearing white and looking a lot like Roy Rogers, drops by with a small token, flitters about and says he must attend to his male house guest but will be back later.

Wearing on Bob is the idea that he is still in the insurance business, that his life will not get any better, and that his dream of being an inventor is slowly dying.  Suddenly, a stranger, perhaps a savior, enters his door.  It is Elwin Bewee (Nelson Ascencio) a successful businessman, television actor, and former humiliated stuttering classmate arrives in town to buy the insurance company. Bob is chomping at the bit.

The arrival of the Johnson twins in elf like costumes makes the party official.   LaDonna (Maile Flanagan), and LaVoris (Johanna McKay), two George W. Bush lovers,  take parting shots at Obama and call him a “Muslimnist”. The two express their dying devotion to Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz and blame Obama for “taking away our freedoms”. But the thing they take keen interest in is Bob’s relationship.

“How’s Margie? How’s her husband, Roy? Huh? Huh? Huh?” – LaDonna/LaVoris  

It seems that everyone knows Bob and Margie’s not so well kept secret.

Margie joins them a short time later, face red as a beet, and looking like she’s been an observer on a nuclear test range.  

Trouble comes through the door as wacked out, drugged out, beer-ed out Marty (Mark Fite) has just had another automobile accident in his van.  This makes the 16th time, more than half were not his fault, including the one time he was asleep at the wheel.

Carol (Sirena Irwin) joins the party fresh from a mental institution with lyrics that cause the party to halt immediately.  She doesn’t know where she is and her tight lips “pop” continuously before she is relieved of her partying duties.

Brandy (Sirena Irwin), a sex-crazed woman joins them late much to the enjoyment of Sheriff Joe.

I liked last year’s party but I liked this year’s party even more.  From a practical standpoint Craig Anton’s direction flowed and made a lot more sense. Everything worked and I had a great time.

Nelson Ascencio as Elwin Bewee does a nice turn. His character was specific and his objective perfectly clear. Bewee has left the town and become rich.  But, the town has not left him.

David Bauman is Roy Mincer and is marvelous in his process.

Rob Elk as Bob Finhead does another fine job. Finhead is a progressive clear thinker who takes everything in stride. And it would be safe to say that everything in the party office is fair game. Elk is also the co-author of this wonderful play that has changed from last year’s version and I would suppose the play changes every year.  I mean who heard of Barak Obama in 1995?

Mark Fite is Marty.  I didn’t see him last year but I think his version of the character makes a lot more sense, is a lot funnier, and in the context of the play serves a greater purpose.  It is a great performance.

Maile Flanagan is LaDonna and is a wonderful performer.  Do not miss this performance!

Andrea Hutchman is Margie and does a marvelous job. Hutchman is an actress that could fit many roles.  Margie is a social climber and stops at nothing to get what she wants, when she wants it, including sex. (Except with her husband.)

Sirena Irwin is Carol and Brandy and is marvelous in each role.  Irwin is a physical actress that is extremely funny and this is also another performance not to miss.

Joe Keyes is the other Co-author and Sheriff Joe. Keyes is terrific as Sheriff Joe and does some wonderfully amazing physical actions on stage. Keyes is wonderful in the role.

Other members of the cast are Dawn Brodey (Margie), Cody Chappel (Marty), Pat O Brien (Elwin Bewee), Ann Randolph (Carol/Brandy), and Pat Towne (Roy Mincer) who did not perform the night I was there.

Amanda Knehans did a very nice job as the Set Designer.  Paige Stanley was the Lighting Designer.  And Marissa Drammissi was the Production Stage Manager.

Other member of the production staff are as follows:

Kriss Meier – Assistant Stage Manager
Plays411 - Publicity
Fred and David at Ultra Creative – Graphics
Sam McCay – Web Design
Jeff Fontelera – Program Graphic Design
Eddie G. – Show and Pre-Show Music 
Rob Elk – Santa’s Breaking In
Rudy Casoni – S’no Balls

Run!  Run! Run!   And take someone who can get you tickets!

Reservations:  1-800-838-3006

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel by Levy Lee Simon

L - R - Kem Saunders, Dwain A. Perry, Jah Shams - Photos Tomoko Matsushita

By Joe Straw

Still, the Dunbar Hotel stands, the white stone fenestration around the windows and entryways are welcoming, while the red brick and masonry blazes majestically at 4225 S. Central Avenue in Los Angeles.  

On the first floor, the lanterns are perched like hungry birds staring through the arch windows.  And the “Hotel Dunbar” sign, perched a rusty red brown, is still visible on the northeast corner between the melancholy third and the jazzy diabolical fourth floors.

Magnificently built by skilled African Americans tradesmen in the year 1928 and financed by the black community leaders – John and Vada Somerville, this was a hotel where “Negros” could stay in segregated Los Angeles.

Today the wayward branches of a ficus tree limit the view of the inhabitants peering down on South Central Avenue. The branches propagate gloriously where once the rich and famous came to see and be seen.  Nowadays the sightseeing is all but a silent idea from bygone days and only ghostly images from the past haunt the stairwells.  You can see them if you were born with a veil over your face.   

At one time, the hotel had 115 rooms, now there are 72 apartments for senior citizens. The inhabitants keep the rooms quiet, a suspenseful silence, waiting for the inevitable that comes to all things and places. The current events matter little nowadays.  What matters is how this was done, how they got here, and where it will all end. And to that end, the story continues.  

The Robey Theatre Company in association with The Los Angeles Theatre Center presents The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel written by Levy Lee Simon and directed by Ben Guillory now extended through December 28, 2014.

The play, The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel, is a wonderful historical time capsule, opened in a theatrical setting, giving startling revelations of stories and events of famous people in fleeting moments of time.  There is a magnificent history here and where the Dunbar will end no one really knows. By all means – and in this standing room only performance – this was an exceptional night of theatre.  The play was filled with music, conflict and comedy and I couldn’t help but think: Is there is a bigger show here, a film, possibly a musical?

They stand together, Minnie Lomax (Tiffany Coty) and Lucius Lomax (Dwain A. Perry), embracing in barely breathable space.  She is in her bright red dress, pearl necklace, and white shoes and he elegantly dapper in a tailor made suit. 

Lomax hardly comprehends their recent purchase of The Summerville Hotel. But in that space, there is conflict as to the name of the hotel.  “The Summerville Hotel” is done.  Minnie wants the name to be “The Dunbar Hotel” in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar, an American Poet.

Minnie takes a moment to read Dunbar’s poetry and seduces the name into Lucius’s collective consciousness until the words congers up the spirit of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Julio Hanson) who decides that inhabiting the hotel for the eternal time being might not be such a bad idea.    

The year is 1931, in the not so early morning hours of the day, when Leonard Lennox Jones (Melvin Ishmael Johnson), the assistant manager of the Dunbar Hotel, is wondering why the new girl, Gloria Ann Pedigrew (Ashlee Olivia), is always late. And when she finally arrives, he lets her have it.  Not to be outdone, Pedigrew gives it right back.

“Old crow!” – Gloria Ann Pedigrew

“Old crow?  You can’t call me an old crow.” – Leonard Lennox Jones

Jones threatens her with a dismissal and then looks for the boss.

Meanwhile, in the diner, Paul Robeson (Jah Shams), in fine attire, flirts with Vera Cunningham (Vanja Renee), the waitress.  Or is it the other way around? Vera unbuttons the top button of her waitress uniform, making sure there’s enough to entice this famous entertainer should things swing her way.   She asks if he would like his eggs “hard”.

Robeson opens the paper and is immediately troubled by an article. He sneers at the contents and sets the paper aside when Lomax sits with him at the table. They discuss the article, written by Charlotta Bass (Cydney Wayne Davis), about the KKK in California.  Lomax says he carries a weapon to even things out around the hotel should the need arise.  

Lennox Jones interrupts Lomax and says that Pedigrew is always late and that she called him an old crow to boot. Lomax responds that Pedigrew must need a raise and Jones should bring her to his office. Jones grumbles his way up the stairs to get her.

Meanwhile Maybell Smith (Rhonda Stubbins White), a longtime hotel housekeeper, tells Pedigrew that she has got a very nice job, with a nice employer who pays on time.  But, suddenly Jones interrupts them.  Jones tells Ms. Pedigrew that Lomax wants to see her immediately.  

Maybell sees where all this is going and she threatens Jones.  

Pedigrew walks into Lomax office expecting the worse and Lomax asks her about her outside relationship.   She says she’s in love and wants to marry Pee Wee (Kyle Connor McDuffie) who is now in Louisiana. 

“You think you need more money?” – Lucius Lomax

“Yes sir, I sure do!” – Ms. Pedigrew

Lomax says that if she can get to work on time he will more than double her salary. Pedigrew hugs him happily and runs back up stairs.

Jack Johnson (Kem Saunders), boxing heavyweight champion, arrives with cigar in hand and declares that he will open a nightclub in the hotel. He also takes a fancy to Vera.

“Vera’s enough to come back to black.” – Jack Johnson

Later, upstairs, a smooth talking man, John Kinloch (Jason Mimms), Charlotta Bass’ nephew, tries to seduce Ms. Pedigrew and this is not the first time.  Ms. Pedigrew says that Pee Wee is coming and she wants to break it off, but oh so delicately as she waffles into his arms. Maybell catches them purring about and John Kinlock leaves the room.  

“That boy likes anything.  Is he the reason you can’t get to work on time?” – Maybelle

Vera, making her move, gets Paul Robeson to sing for her and the others sing as well but that doesn’t sit too well with Dr. Vada Somerville (Elizabeth June) and her husband Dr. John Somerville (Doug Jewell). They think turning the Dunbar Hotel into a nightclub is a grave sin.

John and Veda will start a protest against the hotel to stop all devious thoughts and transgressions that come with music and especially jazz, insinuating the hotel will become a brothel, like the one that Lucius Lomax’s sister is running in San Francisco.

“Negros, I swear.” – Lucius Lomax  

W.E.B. DuBois (Tommy Hicks), sitting quietly at a table, stands and addresses the confused in the lobby.

“What would the Negro be without music?  As long as the Negro has music, the Negro has hope.” – W.E.B DuBois.

And with that statement, a blessing has been given to the Dunbar Hotel.

Levy Lee Simon has written a marvelous play that everyone should go out and see. Simon writes about the creation, the selling of the Dunbar to white investors, and then the making of the historical monument that is the hotel today.  But the play ends on a sad note, the downbeat, rather than the lively, jazzy, smoking’ hot remembrances that is recalled.  Take the last scene, move it to the first scene, add a little bit of theatrical magic, and keep it smoking’ from there on out. Have your highs and lows but always leave them happy and wanting more.

Ben Guillory, the director, has done an equally amazing job with the actors and the words.  This was a glorious night of theatre! The Dunbar is more than a hotel; it is a place that has been created by the thoughts and deeds of the characters as though they have built the hotel one brick at a time. And moving in that direction with that idea in mind I think would elevate the play.

This is an amazing cast for which I have a few thoughts relating to the “one brick at a time” idea.  

Jovan Adepo is Reverend Donovan Clayton Russell, an articulate gay man who loves to diffuse conflict. Russell is an interesting character in that he has two things working against him, his color and being gay.  But this bothers him little.  Adepo gives Russell a lot of bravado but missing a strong conflict that keeps him from his objective. What stops Russell from getting what he wants?  And, how does his way of life fit with what is the Dunbar today?

L - R Elizabeth June and Tiffany Coty 

Tiffany Coty does a superb job as Minnie Lomax and Lena Horne.  Coty gives Horne a lot of grit and power as though she owned the hotel. Horne stands tall and proud.  Coty has a marvelous voice, performs the songs superbly, and does a grand impersonation of Ms. Horne.    

Cydney Wayne Davis plays Charlotta Bass and Ivie Anderson and I could watch her all night long.  She has a very lovely voice to top everything else off and a lot of life on stage.  (But you all knew that.)

Eddie Goines does some fantastic work as Duke Ellington, Joe Louis, and Officer Tom Bradley.  One especially liked the voice of Duke Ellington, funny and odd all in the same moment.  There is something missing in his objective and how that all fits in the end.  For example, here is a man that made the Dunbar, made it his home and, in the end, he is the first to leave without the appearance of giving it much thought. More should be given to that moment.   

Julio Hanson plays Paul Laurence Dunbar, the ghost who only appears to one person.  Hanson does a fine job, but having the poetry relate to what is going on, on stage, has its own peculiarities.  Hanson would do better to find a way to make the poetry work as it relates to the overall piece of the play. And how does the poetry build the Dunbar and move the play along?

Tommy Hicks give a marvelous performance as W.E.B. Dubois.  The characterization is subtle and true.  And Hicks movements on stage portray not one false note.  And to top that off his voice is inspiring.  It is through his words, his personal poetry, that the bricks remain strong today.

Doug Jewell plays Dr. John Somerville, complete with a Jamaican accent and a fantastic bowler.

Melvin Ishmael Johnson is Leonard Lennox Jones and was by far the audience’s favorite and the work on stage was very fine indeed.

Elizabeth June plays Dr. Vada Somerville, and has a great time as Ethel Waters, saucy, sassy, and not giving one inch of her vocal prowess to her counterpart.  Waters gave the hotel a structural legacy.  June also plays Jan Perry.

Kyle Connor McDuffie comes in as Pee Wee and as certainly not a peewee because he is in fact against type, a tall statuesque actor. Pee Wee enters as a country bumpkin and in the end has grown in manner and style.  McDuffie has a strong voice and a strong presence. There must be more to this character and his relationship to the Dunbar that I’m not quite getting.

Jason Mimms plays John Kinloch with a commanding dignity and a very strong voice.  There is a lot of larceny in his character and it is visible with some very nice character traits in his performance.  

Ashlee Olivia plays Gloria Ann Pedigrew.  Olivia is a fantastic actor that shows us her subtle thoughts one minute and glorious physical actions the next. She is a complete actress that I could watch her every moment that she is on stage. It is another performance not to miss.

Dwain A Perry gives a very strong performance as Lucius Lomax a man that appears to have complete control over his domain.  This is a grand role for Perry as it shows his strengths in voice, movement and character. That said, there might be room for doubt in the mind of the character, doubt about the music, the people that frequent his establishment, and doubt about losing ownership.  Something happens to the character with which we are not privy to, how he lost the hotel, why he lost it and what he does to get it back.

Vanja Renee plays Vera Cunningham and is an incredible actor who provides us with wonderful lovely moments onstage. Renee has a wonderful way about her on the stage and the hotel needs her beauty and humor.  

Kem Saunders as Jack Johnson has a very strong charisma on stage.  More could be made with his desire and ability to get the music up and running at the hotel. After all, it is his strength and power that puts the music in the hotel.

Jah Shams has an eerie resemblance to Paul Robeson and does a nice job with the character.  Robeson’s voice was very powerful and Shams should try to match that power.  He also plays a police officer.

Petal d’Avril Walker plays Almena Davis Lomax with grace.  

Sammie Wayne, IV has a great opening moment in Chester Himes, a writer.  It is a very somber but menacing look of one who is about to strike with any remark that could be considered rank.  Himes is at the Dunbar, but Wayne doesn’t give us the reason why he is there. The why needs to be incorporated into the character and that will help us to discover why he is one of the bricks of the Dunbar.  Wayne appears, at times, to be searching for the words, which could be a natural affectation or a character choice.  If it is an affectation, Wayne should find a way to make it part of this character.  Naytheless Wayne is very interesting and growing as an actor – always a good thing.

Rhonda Stubbins White is very fine as Maybelle Smith.  It’s the little things she does that make her shine.  She is the rock that keeps them all together.  It is a very fine performance.

Vanoy Burnough plays Minnie Lomax and Lena Horne but did not perform the night I was there.

Other members of the production team are as follows:

Assistant Director – Robert Clements
Production Stage Manager – B’ANCA
Set Design – Michael D. Ricks
Lighting Design – Michael D. Ricks
Costume Design – Naila Aladdin Sanders
Music Composer – Michael McTaggart
Sound Design – Kimberly M. Wilson
Graphics Design – Jason Mimms
Multimedia Design – Harold Sylvester
Production Photographer – Tomoko Matsushita
Prop Master – Robert Clements
Publicist – Phillip Sokoloff
Marketing/PR Director – Camille Wyatt
Development Director – Judith Bowman
Youth Outreach Coordinator – Noreen McClendon
Youth Outreach Coordinator – Millena Gay
Youth Outreach Coordinator – Sheila Dorn
Vocal Coach – Cydney Wayne Davis (oh yes!)
Choreographer – Kellie Dantzler
Archival Photographer – Michael Blaze

Video Technicians

Luis Quintero – Director of Photography, A-Camera Operator, Editor
Ronald Ateman – B-Camera Operator
Harold Sylvester III – Best Boy, Camera Assistant
Nicole Honore – Continuity, Montage Manager
Kenneth Brown – Lighting Vendor

Run!  Run!  Run!  And take a friend who loves the rich history of Los Angeles.

RESERVATIONS: (866) 811-4111.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Solitaire by Joshua Crone

L - R - Richie Stephens, Julianne Kusmierczyk, Gabriel Miller Schwalenstocker, Varda Appleton, Joshua Crone,  Tim Bowman

By Joe Straw

“The healthy man does not torture others – generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers” – Carl Jung

I arrived at the Underground Theatre a little early anxious to see Joshua Crone’s Solitaire a play about a Marine in solitary confinement for the torture and death of a suspected terrorist.  (Street parking for this venue was a breeze.)

Well, I arrived too early, in fact no one was there, the door was locked, and not a light on anywhere, no posters, balloons, and little to indicate anything was happening on this night.

If I was alone I might have gone to that place that no one wants to go to.  You know, the anxious, dark box that surrounds one from time to time.  Did I arrive on the right date?  Time?  Place?  Imaginative sweat started to pour off my brow and thinking, “I’ve made a mistake”. But after a quick check, and soothing words from a trusting companion – everything was confirmed. 

With time to kill, we take a stroll and check out the nice neighborhood. We walked a couple of blocks south on Wilton Place, nothing to see or do, turned around and headed back to the theatre. Again I pulled on the door a couple of times, still locked, so we hiked north toward Sunset Boulevard and then back to the Underground Theatre, pulled on the door again, and still locked.

The time was now 7:46 pm and there was no sign of life, anywhere, not even on the sidewalk.  I was about to call it a night.  

But suddenly I heard “something” – an unlocking sound - and the door opened. We were greeted by a Marine, well a man in Marine garb, a corporal who seemed to be running the whole shooting match, running around, up into the light booth, and hitting the play button on “Halls of Montezuma.”

“Are you Joshua Crone?” – Me

“Yes.” – Joshua Crone

Solitaire written and directed by Joshua Crone at Underground Theatre is now playing through December 21, 2014 in Hollywood.  

Many of you know by now, well those who’ve been reading the blog that I’m from a military family.  I grew up outside of Ft. Campbell Kentucky, in a suburb on the Clarksville, Tennessee side. And indubitably Joshua Crone’s dialogue is truthful to the corps (pun intended), the manner in which he conducts himself, and the way he moves from one point to the next, is genuinely that of a military man. And I suddenly felt at home.   

Crone’s very simple truth is displayed in all of its glory in his new play Solitaire.  It is at times riveting, thought provoking, and humorous for a play that deals with the abhorrent nature of the torture of men.  

Private Jeremy Stills (Andrew Devitre) is in solitary confinement.  He lies silently on the floor in his cell wearing an orange prison uniform.  He appears to be alone. Projected on his cell window is an imagined Arab, Al Hassan (Andrew Devitre) playing solitaire, flipping cards one after the other, without rhyme, reason, or rules.

Stills has the appearance of a man who has been in solitary confinement far too long and that time alone has affected his mental judgment. He tells the Arab (long since dead) that he is playing the game all wrong.

“Does the prisoner have any requests?” - Guard

“Yes, the prisoner wants to see a chaplain.” – Private Jeremy Stills

This line speaks volumes. Stills is a man trying to reach out to someone who will get him grounded from all of the chaos that surrounds him.  Plunged alone in profound darkness he is awakened by the chaos that unexpectedly treads through his cell door at any given moment.  

The reality is that Stills has been convicted of a crime, of killing the prisoner, Al Hassan, with his bare hands. And so he sits in his cell, alone, waiting, thinking, and halfway understanding what fate awaits him and that his appeal may or may not happen.

Creeping thoughts bring his girlfriend, Veronica Blonski (Julianne Kusmierczyk), into his memory and imaginatively into his cell as he thinks of his past and glorious living, especially the time, after graduation, away from boot camp, that time on the beach with his one and only special girl.   

Corporal Buck Armond (Joshua Crone) interrupts his state of mind wanting to know why Stills hasn’t made his rack (bed).  Stills explains there’s no bed, no mattress, and no sheets. That doesn’t matter, that rack has got to be made.  (Marines)

L - R  Varda Appleton, Gabriel Miller Schwalenstocker

Commander Lana Burke (Varda Appleton) attorney for Stills unexpectedly interrupts saying they got some “good news” and some “bad news”.  The bad news is the media from his case is “not leaving town.” The good news is “the book deal” is gaining some traction and she’s got the contracts in her case.

“…push the appeal through before the book gets published.”Commander Lana Burke

(You are fighting for your life, and your attorney is pushing a book deal. Jeez!)

Stills, fantasizing, would like to see Commander Lana swimming in the bay and asks her to do it for him.

But Stills has a “not thinking clearly” problem.  He doesn’t want any part of the book deal, instead he asks for a picture of Commander Lana.  She obliges with a wallet size photo in a bathing suit.

“Promise you won’t get caught with it.” – Commander Lana Burke

This is a promise that is not kept as Stills uses that picture for his own sexual gratification until he is confronted once again by the guards.

Daniel Frank did an amazing job on the cell that housed the character Stills. It is absolutely mesmerizing. The clear glass served as a device that captured the images projected onto the glass, a ghostly apparition, or a memory, take your pick. And for a moment, the glass appears completely translucent as though it were not there; until a little rubber ball was throw against it. You could see in and I believe the actors could see little of the audience from reflection of the mirror. It is a set piece that can be moved at any given moment.

Joshua Crone is an intelligent writer and director, to that there is no question. But what I find perplexing about the play is that it lacks a definitive strong point of view, a perspective, a through line that gives his meaning, what he wants to tell us, from his assessment alone. What is the one grand thing Crone wants us to know about solitary confinement, or solitary for that matter? It’s not clear. Also, making use of the space, the cell to indicate what is real or imaginative would work better if defined.  In reality, move the cell upstage, and play the reality downstage, especially the wrestling scene.  Also, the work needs a time element, an exigent state that moves the process of his incarceration along to its final conclusion.  Crone is an excellent writer and manages to capture the essence of a working Marine. But in the context of this play we really need to know the objective of the character, how he gets it, and the conflict that stops him from getting it.

Gabriel Miller Schwalenstocker

Gabriel Miller Schwalenstocker plays Private Jeremy Stills a character locked up in solitary confinement that is in that deep dark place. Stills is in a confoundedly brooding motionless mental state, throughout the play.  The problem is Schwalenstocker plays Stills as though he had mental problems throughout, before the military, after boot camp, though his service, and into prison. We see this character as deplorably insane throughout the play.  Stills character has nowhere to go, no objective, and we experience no catharsis for the character.  For example, Stills asks for the Chaplain three times and, when the Chaplain arrives, he treats him with a curious air of detachment and distain rather than a savior who has come to help. Stills should treat the Chaplain as though God walked into his cell, be as sane as he can be, and then let the events decide where it will take him.  There is a lot more to be had with this character and Schwalenstocker has room to grow. That aside Schwalenstocker has a very good look and a nice presence on stage.

Andre Devitre plays Al Hassan, the prisoner killed by Stills.  We see little of Hassan – mostly unrecognizable video images projected on a dark glass and in a dark video.

Richie Stephens does yeomans work as Corporal Bowden and Lance Corporal Tidwell and has a very interesting military look.  

Tim Bowman is Sergeant Slattery and Private First Class Land and can slip into any military role Hollywood is willing to offer.  That said, there is more to be had with this character, in manner and deed.  

L - R Gabriel Miller Schwalenstocker, Julianne Kusmierczyk

Julianne Kusmierczyk plays Private First Class Summer Burgess and Veronica Blonski and I enjoyed her work tremendously.  Blonski goes off to college while her man is in boot camp and doesn’t hesitate to see someone else while he is away.  Kusmierczyk is excellent in her craft both in video and on stage.  

Joshua Crone plays Corporal Buck Armond, a man who gives his prisoner a living hell.  Forgetting that a little while ago this military man walked with him step for step. (In a manner of speaking.)  Crone’s characterization of Lieutenant Robert Reinhardt, a Chaplain, remains true to the priestly character. Crone could take the Armond character farther especially the voice.

Varda Appleton is very appealing as Commander Lana Burke and gives an especially likeable performance as the military mom, Tally Stills.  Appleton has no problems orchestrating her relationships with the other characters on stage and excels at giving the extra layers she needs. Splendid work!

Mark Craig also does an excellent job as Leonard Stills and we see in the video why his son turn out the way he did. Craig defines his character in moments on video and that is an excellent thing.

Other crew members are as follows:

Natalia Brozynska – Animation
Nicolas Baerenreuther – Flier
Jonathan Crone – Music
Gabriel Miller Schwalenstocker – Production Support

Run!  And take a Marine, or another a military veteran, and talk about it on the long way home. 

Reservation:  323-283-7316

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Train to Zakopané A True Story of Hate and Love by Henry Jaglom

Tanna Frederick and Mike Falkow - Photo:  Ron Vignone


By Joe Straw

They said where they were traveling to – destinations unknown to me.  Oh, they may have said where, but travel on a train is of a personal nature and when one hears it, it rolls in one ear and out the other.  – The Narrator

Semyon Sapir (Mike Falkow), a dapper young man with deep-set eyes, steps forward into the light to tell a story. This is his story, from his past, of traveling across Poland in the late 1920s on a train, which right now is faded in the background, like a memory, dimly painted on his mental canvas, and one that rolls into focus as the story is told.

In short, it is Semyon’s story of hate and love and the bitterest contradictions of emotions.

The Rainbow Theater Company & Edgemar Center for the Arts present A New Play by Henry Jaglom – Train to Zakopané – directed by Gary Imhoff and produced by Alexandra Guarnieri through March 29th, 2015.

Train to Zakopané by Henry Jaglom is a delicately brilliant and captivating play and one of Jaglom’s finest work of art.  Zakopané is pabulum for theatregoers who crave the written word, of characters finding answers through intercourse, of providing perspectives without the violence associated with differencing perspectives. The cast members are all superb and one is easily enraptured by the conflict and the story of these sorted lives.  

Coming back from a Seder at his brother’s home, Semyon steps backward, slowly onto the train, tramping back into the mix of humanity. He is exhausted as he noticed the less fortunate weary peasants standing on the train, half asleep, or sitting in the aisles.  They were the habitual customers all impatiently waiting to reach their destination.  What did he care about them?  Perhaps little, as this capitalist silently wondered why these people can’t make their own way through life’s miserable indignities.

Semyon’s problem was that he was one of them, compliments of his inadequate secretary who waited too long and could not arrange for a private compartment on this sold-out Easter weekend. He was stuck in the same predicament as those lowly peasants.   

But in a series of fortunate events – perhaps due to the exquisite manner of his dress – Father Alexandrov (Stephen Howard) and Mme. Nadia Selmeczy (Cathy Arden) gestured to Semyon that he should join them and take the open space in their cabin.  

And, happy to separate himself from the dregs of humanity and being an opportunist, Semyon approached them for what he hoped would be polite dialogue with an attentive audience in a friendly and warm train compartment.

Katia Wampusyk (Tanna Frederick) sat passively, embroidering some such nonsense, when Semyon entered their cabin noticing, only a little, the handsome eligible bachelor who enters with, one hopes, not too much baggage.

This was the perfect place for Semyon Sapir and just enough room in the luggage rack for his bag and coat without the need to make room – almost as though it were planned.

So introductions are made, polite kisses to the back of each lady’s hand, much to their delight, and a warming period of light exchange.  

Katia Wampusky occupies herself with needle and thread, embroidering perhaps a gift for someone less fortunate.  She is steadfast, strong, and opinionated. Her parents are now dead – her father under tragic circumstances. She has been working since the age of twelve, first as a nurse’s assistant and then going to school and continuing to work her way into a prominent position at the Grand Sanitarium.  She travels to a newer job and will report to the Polish army the following week. 

Father Alexandrov sees little in his traveling companion, Katia, if only just to share a bottle now and again, the little drips and drabs from his flask.  Not really caring, having little preference for either sex of his entourage, but just welcoming the art of intercourse. Being one of three Poles, he gets a little upset at “Gdansk” being called “Danzig”. And in his impotent despair, he views the current unrest in Germany as troubling for the Poles.

Nadia Petronko is a former actress – her one time exquisite brilliant life cut short by the war 10 years earlier. Now she is traveling to visit her daughter who has gotten herself pregnant and involved with the wrong type of man. Her life is complicated and she remains silent through the ramblings of her anti-Semitic fellow traveler, not a move, a motion, or any disagreeable debate until the time is right.

“I can smell a Jew a kilometer away.” - Katia

Semyon Sapir throughout wears his card-carrying face, showing little emotion to his traveling companions. But it is there, his expression, a disquieting peculiarity when each anti-Semitic opinion is uttered in conversation.  The priest, and the actress, takes Katia’s anti-Semitic remakes in stride for reasons we find out later.  But for Semyon, the pain runs deep and trying to get her to see another light will be a challenge. He accepts the challenge, for in his steadfastness, he is willing to be agreeable to a certain point.

“Everyone lies to get what they want.” – Semyon Sapir

Later that night, Katia is awake and lying in bed when an exasperated Semyon strikes up a conversation and invites her outside into the cold night air.  His intentions are ambiguous, his gold cigarette case remains in his coat pocket. They exchange pleasantries, he wants answers to life’s unimaginable perplexities but after a small kiss, Semyon invites her to get off the train with him at Zakopané and the now-infatuated Katia agrees.

Gary Imhoff, the director, does an impressive job with the actors, guiding them with a precision one rarely sees in a 99-seat venue.  Certainly, the characters, all of them, have their good sides as well as their bad. Defining the line so the characters do not come off as insidious is a trick well played.  But, is there more to be had with the sinister underlying intentions that have yet to be spell out?  The scene between Dr. Gruenbaum and Semyon Sapir needs a stronger conflict to move the play. Also needed is a way to use the gold cigarette case in the second act.   One believes there is more room to shore up the play and that the actors will warm into the roles with a little more nuance as the run continues.

Tanna Frederick is impressive as Katia Wampusyk providing warmth and humor to the role. Katia doesn’t respond to her love interest until later in the play, possibly because of the alcohol and really is unaware that her anti-Semitic remarks have any kind of effect.  She appears not to take notice while the others are obviously affected. Also, she gets off the train with a complete stranger when the matters of love may not be fully complete.  Can love be that blind? A stronger definition of the relationship, the need and the want to get off the train, even though she is infatuated and blinded by love, would only add to this terrific performance.  Frederick is a superb actor who gets a lot of mileage out of every single moment.

Mike Falkow, as Semyon Sapir, has a tremendous presence on stage.  Semyon appears to have a motive “to get even” which makes him sinister if that is indeed the case. Still, even though this appears to be a weekend fling, he must find ways to be infatuated with her and maybe even love her. Why does he seduce her off the train if getting even was his main motivation? Also, as a source of amusement, Sapir must be master of buying dresses for women – off the rack – and a perfect fit!  The gold cigarette holder plays an important part but hardly used after one mention. Falkow is impressive on stage, slightly understated in manner, and brings the rich dramatic history of his prison time and the communist part of the character to life.

Stephen Howard is impressive as Father Alexandrov, a Catholic priest who is not bemused by the passenger’s aggressiveness against one another’s faith. He takes everything in stride, letting every shade play out, with only a snarl – perhaps due to the alcohol.  Alexandrov seems shocked by Nadia Selmeczy’s revelation, but one thinks it’s a better choice if the character (given his life’s experience) knows everyone’s religious affiliation from the beginning of their meeting.  And, to use a boxing analogy, this character would be thrilled to have ringside seats to a boxing match he could truly enjoy.  

Cathy Arden movingly plays MME. Nadia Selmeczy, an actress. But aside from the glitzy costume and her manner of presentation and despite the fact that she has been out of the business for some time, there is more to this character.  Once a star, always a star, and findings ways to make that impression on the train in front of a captive audience would only help an already delightful performance.

Kelly DeSarla is exquisite as Marousia Petronko, a friend to Katia Wampusyk. Petronko is attractive, worldly, and able to size up a rashly scandalous relationship in a scrupulous heartbeat. DeSarla gives the character a fantastic and humorous life while bringing in the rich history of the character. It is a fantastic performance and one not to miss.  

Jeff Elam plays Dr. Nahum Gruenbaum, a doctor who has been hiding as a gentile in order to move up the social and economical ladder. He gives advice and explains his reasons for hiding. Elam is impressive in this performance but there is a question regarding the conflict of his scene with his counterpart and newly made friend. Does it go far enough and is it specific enough?

Henry Jaglom has written a fantastic play that one needs to see more than once to get all there is to enjoy.  Overall, this is an engaging night of theatre and a theatrical event one should not miss.

Chris Stone is the Set Designer and the art deco train was impressive but looking similar to the American high speed Milwaukee Road Class A – 1935 nevertheless I enjoyed the train immensely, the various compartments, and including the sleeping compartments.  The second act, the town of Zakopané, was extremely expansive taking the entire stage when a more intimate setting seemed appropriate.

Alexandra Guarnieri served as the Producer of the show and has done another incredible job!

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Teferi Seifu – Stage Manager
Yusuke Matsuda – Asst. Stage Manager
Roxanne Lecrivain – Property Master
Philip Sokoloff – Publicist
Juliette Klancher – Lighting designer
Shayna Frederick – Costume Designer
Maryne Daavid – Scenic Artist
Daniel Robertson – Front of House
Pete Hickok – Master Carpenter
Kitty Reddy – Assistant Wardrobe

Run!  Run!  Run!  And take a traveler with you who loves intrigue.

Reservations:  310-392-7327