Monday, June 30, 2014

A Prayer for the Infidel by Kimba Henderson

Jantonio Bague

By Joe Straw

I didn’t look closely at the one-page program. The theatre was dark.  I threw it into my notepad and neglected it while I worked on other reviews.  I peeked at it a few times wondering what madness would come from this end (pointing to my head).

Later, I noticed something peculiar.  One of the actors had their picture glued on.  It wasn’t just the face but the name as well.  A cut and paste job, if you will.  I even tried to scrape the top photograph off but that presented other challenges.  Without giving it a deeper meaning, I succumbed to my imagination and immediately thought the worst for the actor underneath.

But life happens to actors all the time – a birth, a death, eviction, car problems, creative differences, memory issues, laryngitis, a broken leg, poverty, a job, etc., an actor just moves on to the next role. – Narrator

The story is set in San Francisco. Lazaro (Jantonio Bague), a Cuban writing about revolutionary causes, finds himself in the politically active Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco in the later half of the 1960’s. 

Suddenly, hot and disoriented, Lazaro encounters an odd duck, Galahad (Raphael Corkhill), who imparts a potpourri of local causes that one could grasp if Galahad would just slow down. Galahad, an astute man, sees that Lazaro is searching for something or someone and he just hasn’t hit on the cause yet.  

But Lazaro, sweating in coat and tie, is suspicious of Galahad’s hippie ways, and his causes du jour, until he finds just the thing that satisfies his wants.  And that is the Manteca Café where he unexpectedly runs into a childhood friend Clio (Bernadette Speakes).

Clio is happy to see Lazaro.  Her father played in a band with Lazaro’s uncle in Cuba back in the day.   

Avoiding the subject, Lazaro tells Clio that he is there to interview Huey P. Newton for his book and needs a source to get to him.  Lazaro has come to the right place, as the Manteca Café is a house for political causes, food, and jazz. 

Derrex Brady

While there, another friend, Zeke (Derrex Brady) recognizes and embraces Lazaro and speaks of old times playing music in Cuba.  Today Zeke is a member of the Black Panther Party who is later joined by Clarence (Christopher Allen), a musician and Julliard-dropout. 

Zeke, in his brazen sincerity, emphatically pronounces the “3 Main Rules of Discipline” for Clarence, a new recruit.

            Obey orders in all your action.
         Do not take a single needle or piece of thread from the poor and oppressed masses.
         Turn in everything captured from the attacking enemy.

Lazaro now finds the key to opening Huey Newton’s cell.  He asks Zeke if he will arrange an interview with him. Zeke doesn’t appear happy about making that happen but he agrees to try.

In the meantime, Lazaro asks Clio if he can stay there for the time being. She agrees to the arrangement for an old “friend”. Clio makes a cup of coffee for Lazaro and asks him about “Papa Ruben”.  Lazaro, now in an invidious position, hesitantly says he has died. She says she’s sorry but asks him why he hasn’t kept in touch.

“We had a revolution, you had a movement.” – Lazaro

Elizer Ortiz

Lost in the backdrop of his thoughts, Lazaro is now with Fidel Castro (Eliezer Ortiz) in Cuba ten years earlier as he is writing a book “A Prayer for the Infidel”.  Castro tells Lazaro to “Tell the truth, my son.” But his austere reply lacks warmth for the new leader of Cuba.

“Don’t call me that.” – Lazaro  

But back to present day, the revolution in Cuba has lost its appeal for Lazaro.   He left that fight.  Now he is searching for stories of humanitarian passions of the enraged masses all fighting for a fair piece of the pie.  Clio had a freedom school in Alabama but Alabama wasn’t ready for that so now, both of them, with prior battles behind them and somewhat demoralized, are now in San Francisco fighting a new fight.

“You Americans have more issues than most.” – Lazaro

“I missed you, I didn’t realize how much until now.” – Clio

Galahad interrupts the lovely proceedings with a plea for Lazaro to help him build Batá drums like the ones Lazaro made for Papa Ruben (Eliezer Ortiz) in Cuba. Lazaro is ambivalent and to discourage Galahad asks for the skin of a virgin goat, the reasons for which become apparent later in the play.

“That will be a beautiful drum.”

The Fringe Festival 2014 is a potpourri of different acts where one is given a space and the actors fill the space with a few props and set pieces. Not a bad idea, in fact a great idea if you want to get your play seen.

The one thing you can say about Kimba Henderson’s play is that it is infinitely enlightening; the writing is taut, and there is a vertiginous manner to all of the characters.  Each obstreperous personality is eagerly trying to clutch onto any tangible opportunity for a better life, not only for themselves for the people they represent. And those are good things.

But, on this night, actions could have been smoother, objectives clearer, and through line sharper. Sometimes, I really have to be hit in the head, with a blunt object, to understand what I have just witnessed.  (Manteca means oil or lard and there is a meaning here that I just can’t articulate or didn’t get.)

Kimba Henderson, the director, does a very fine job in guiding a group of seasoned actors.  Still the focus strayed from time to time and the relationships needed strengthening and the ending needed a stronger intimacy, with soap, water, and tears.   I will speak to this in the actions of the actors.  

Jantonio Bague as Lazaro has a very good look and does an impressive job on stage. But the Batá drums play a significant role and must always be a substantial part of his character’s motives from the moment he steps on stage. The Batá drums are the force that leads this character all the way from Cuba to San Francisco.  But in this performance and on this night, Bague does not give us the emotional roller coaster we need to really feel for this character, with a pain so deep it explains his reason for being.  Perhaps Bague should internally listen to the Batá drum as he lives the life of the character.  Also, his exigency for the interview is almost non-existent after the first few scenes. Still, there were a lot of good things coming from this actor and Bague has more than enough to complete this complex character.   

Raphael Corkhill 

Raphael Corkhill has a couple of roles.  The first was Galahad as a guy trying, maybe too hard, to save humanity and at times seemed like the comic foil.  He is a man into a lot of strange and wonderful things and one of them is the Batá drums with all the implication tied to this kind of drum, Santeria, et al.  He is a man willing to live life to the fullest grabbing every inch, understanding it all, and helping everyone in the process. That said, the character needs more of a multi-dimensional life, a plan to get to the end point.  We seem to lose him late in the play without a clear resolution. Corkhill does a lot of good work in this play and has a very nice presence. His other role is a State Trooper.

Bernadette Speakes does a nice job as Clio.  Clio needs a stronger objective.  Right now, she runs the restaurant and is a friend.  There’s not much creativity with those choices on stage.  This character needs to demand more from the other characters on stage.  We never get a sense that she is in love with her counterpart, or that she has any feelings for him at all.  There is a virtuous complacency in her portrayal and she does not even go as far as to play one male against the other.   She is there for a reason, but the reason needs purpose, a way of getting to her end point.  It’s mostly there in the writing, but the focus, the through line, needs a creative bite for a successful journey.

Derrex Brady plays Zeke.  Brady does a nice job with this character and has a very good look on stage. But why was he there? Why did he keep coming back?  Was it a safe house or a staging place for Black Panther meetings?  He knew the proprietor from Cuba but he didn’t have a strong relationship with her. Why keep coming back over and over again?  It was never really explained.  Also Brady needs the character to take joy in his job of being a black militant so that it makes sense when his words cause his underling to go through a great pain.  Also, no one is born into the Black Panther Party and to that end a history of his backstory needs depth and a reason for doing what he is doing now.

Eliezer Ortiz plays Papa Ruben and Fidel Castro and excels at both.  Ortiz has a method that is simple and to the point when playing each character and brings his own brand of humor to each role.  Ortiz is tremendous in the roles.

Christopher Allen does a fine job as Clarence.  Clarence, a once promising musician, leaves Julliard to come to San Francisco to be a part of the Black Panther Party.  Aside from that information, we don’t see the backstory of his performance, a reason for his leaving Julliard, and his cause to fight for justice.  Something has to be a little off for this character to do this or he needs a strong reason why he is there.  Neither was to be found on this night.  That said, Allen has a very good look and should do well in this industry.

Nicely produced by Kimba Henderson and Bernadette Speakes. The show ran on various nights and days during the Holly Fringe 2014 at The Elephant Space.  

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Assistant Director – Devonnie Black
Lighting Design/StageManager – Laure Jamme
Prop Mistress – Stayce Smith
Wall Painting Artist – Nika Mencarini

Run!  The next time it is around take someone who still has the revolutionary spirit ingrained into his or her being.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Land Line by Stephen Dierkes

L - R Peter Larney, Peter James Smith - photo: Kevin Riggin

By Joe Straw

Theatre is like this: 

I didn’t think I would have children but there she was, my sweet little one-year-old girl, living supremely in the living room while watching Bear In the Big Blue House. Instinctively she came, without me calling. She crawled on top of the chair, sat in my lap, and quickly fell asleep. The memory, of that loving moment, plays upon an emotion so deep that it will stay with me forever.   - Narrator

Thinking in the abstract, Land Line can best be described as falling in love again.  The wonderfully written play by Stephen Dierkes will bring a smile to your face and a tearful yearning for the one you let go, quietly, into the night. An exceptional cast brings inspiration to his words and William Charlton, the director, entreats us, with a wonderful sincerity that strikes at the heart and accentuates the comparisons of those who are witnesses, and those who carry on.    

Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles presents the world premiere of Land Line by Stephen Dierkes, directed by William Charlton and produced by Mina Sharpe now playing at the Speakeasy at Atwater Village Theatre through July 21, 2014. The Artistic Directors are Gates McFadden and Tracey A. Leigh.

The most miserable indignity for this vibrant male was moving back in with his parents; back to a place he thought he had long forgotten.  Moving from lovely California to Grand Rapids, Michigan, the home of his mother and (evil) stepfather.  And sleeping down in the basement no less, where God only knows the existential critters that are scurrying about. 

And this is all topped with an exquisitely absurd land line as his telephone of fiscal practicability.

As the play begins, almost if capturing the sights and sounds of Brazil, we get a glimmer, a notion from António Carlos Jobim’s Agua de Beber, patiently waiting, san sol, for Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema).

But, not tonight, there are more important issues at stake.

And there lays Terry (Peter James Smith), sitting up, with the telephone in his lap.  It is his only contact to the outside world.  Not that his disagreeable self wants to speak to anyone beyond his best friend in California, John (Peter Larney).

John, arriving from an enervated job, has a package from Terry.  And no sooner has John walked into his apartment when he gets a phone call from Terry who is excited and waiting in anticipation for the opening; a book Touch Me:  Poems by Suzanne Sommers.  Only these two wordsmiths can get the irony of this book and that is why they enjoy being in each other’s company.

“She is a smart, witty person.” – John

As John begins to disrobe, he tells Terry to wait while he connects his wireless to his ear.

“I never thought I would be here with cancer.” – Terry

But Terry’s not sure what is going to kill him first, the brain tumor, or his mother’s burnt raw frozen hamburger.

“What are you doing?” – Terry

“Ironing.” – John

L - R John Dennis Johnston, Katherine Cortez  Photo : Kevin Riggin

Meanwhile, upstairs in Terry’s parents home, Tammy (Katherine Cortez) and Amos (John Dennis Johnston) are going at it.  There is some kind of confusion about a TV program not being on when it’s supposed to be on.

“Up Your Ante isn’t on channel 2 at 2:30.” – Tammy

“Get the TV Guide.” – Amos

“Terry needs it.  He has a brain tumor!” – Tammy

Tammy really doesn’t want to disturb Terry despite the seriousness of his situation.  (One gets the impression she’s afraid of going downstairs and finding the worse.) On top of the cancer, Terry has broken his kneecap and is now bedridden.

But, despite Terry’s condition, the worse part of his existence is the pile of medical homework he has to do in order to survive his current situation and all of that is in a huge box at the foot of his bed.

“I have more homework than in college.” – Terry

Terry, reading get-well cards, says he’s doing a lot of visualizations.  He’s visualizing his golden Brazilian boyfriend, as they speak, but he wants to know about John’s boyfriend as well.

Not interested anymore.” – John

This is a subject Terry wants to know more about but Tammy enters with a plate of piping hot mac and cheese with sliced franks.    Oh, the delighted look in Terry’s eyes!  Terry says he’ll call tomorrow.

And Terry calls the following day.  But, John is hesitant to pick up the phone for unexplained reasons, but finally does.  John’s not truthful, saying he just got back from the store.  But one gets the feeling that Terry is not buying it. The conversation turns to “last words” and Terry lets John in on some juicy gossip saying that George Gershwin’s last words were “Fred Astaire”.

Suddenly, someone starts punching numbers on the phone, Tammy’s on the line, wants to know if he’s talking to someone, hangs up and then brings the vacuum cleaner downstairs, along with Amos, and starts to work.

“I’m doing my best not to die, but you two are killing me!” – Terry

Terry doesn’t want them cleaning up and especially doesn’t want Amos to move his box because he’ll never find anything.  Amos takes the position that he’ll do whatever he wants because he’s paying the bills.  Terry manages to get rid of both of them and continues his conversation with John.

Moments later he has a seizure, an augury, and as John realizes what has happened, he yells at Terry to hang up the phone.

This is some of the finest acting you will see in Los Angeles.  Each actor is in tune with the other as the characters manage their lives on stage. The actors execute simply and those moments collectively are heartbreaking as they are worked to perfection.

L - R Peter Larney, Peter James Smith, Katherine Cortez - Photo: Kevin Riggin

Peter James Smith does a grand job as Terry, a man who is living with cancer, and giving every ounce of his being of staying in the game.  He is not one for impotent despair. Unfortunately, things start crumbling around him.  The one thing that keeps him going is his desire to get to Brazil, but conflict gets in his way. First his parents, mother and stepfather, and most importantly his best friend who is simply not giving him the truth, and he is implacable when he seeks the truth.  Smith gives a grand physical life to the incapacitated Terry, especially after he has had a stroke, when he takes on the manner of a stroke victim.  Just fantastic, realistic, and a performance not to miss!

Peter Larney presents John with a very quiet intensity to the character. The acting is very straightforward and sincere.  But John has one problem.  He is hiding a secret from his best friend and he doesn’t know how to go about telling him, or when to tell him.  He can be pathetically mendacious when there is no eye contact on the phone. So he travels to Michigan to meet his parents and to see him for the final time.  (Best friends do that.)  It is now with certitude his friend is going to die and his conflict is finding the words, giving him the truth, because that is what they do for each other. That is how their relationship worked. Larney has a strong voice and has a marvelous presence on sage.

Katherine Cortez is Tammy and does an excellent job in her characterization. Cortez is caught speaking upstage at times (shades of Stanislavsky’s The Seagull) but manages to project so all is heard. Everything Cortez does is fine but one thinks she might treat her son as though he were going do die the next minute to give the performance an added punch to the characterization, when she brings him food, when she lovingly vacuums his room, when she visits him in the hospital.  There might be an emotional moment that is not quite there yet. Still it’s a small thing to add to a very fine performance.

John Dennis Johnston is remarkable as Amos. Possibly contemplating the end of his life, his dying stepson moves in and creates conflict, something he’s not will to tolerate. But they’ve been together since he was seven and it’s extremely evident this man has strong feelings for his stepson despite their differences. And those feelings are physically evident in the second act. Johnston gives a strong and very moving performance.

Stephen Dierkes has written a remarkable play.  It is a story of two gay men who are not lovers but love the interaction of their verbal play.  They are characters that are honest to a fault with each other and possibly the reason for their grand connection.  But then someone gets very sick and the honesty doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, which creates a very unusual and dramatic conflict on stage. This is a play about letting go, and thankfully Dierkes alleviates us the pain of the tempestuous dawn.

William Charlton also does some solid work as the director. The work on stage is downright tremendous and the actors move flawlessly from one moment to the next. There is room for slight improvements.  Funny, but I don’t recall a physical relationship between John and Terry, a hug, handshake, nothing. Still, this is a wonderful new work of art and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Other members of the production team are as follows:

Sound Design/Original Music – Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski
Costume Design – Catherine Baumgardner
Stage Manager – Marissa Drammissi
Set Designer/Lighting Designer – William Sammons
Graphic Design – Mina Sharpe
Props/Intern – Joe Faragher
Press Representative – Ken Werther Publicity

Run!  Run!  Run!  And take someone you don’t want to let go.

or by calling (323) 644-1929.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bliss Point by Shishir Kurup

L - R Alberto Virgen, Jared Ross, Talmage A. Tidwell, Amelia Yokel

By Joe Straw


bliss [blis] noun

1. supreme happiness; utter joy or contentment: wedded bliss.

2. Theology. the joy of heaven.

3. heaven; paradise: the road to eternal bliss.

4. Archaic. a cause of great joy or happiness.

So bliss point must be the point at which one achieves bliss.  And, how does one recognize when that happens?  Recognizing bliss is no small feat, because bliss is a culmination of events played out in motion to form that moment.  Sometimes that recognition comes long after the moment has passed.

Cornerstone Theater Company presents Bliss Point, a guest production at The Odyssey Theatre, written by Shishir Kurup, and directed by Juliette Carrillo.  The Executive Producers are Margaret Leong Checca, Jon Neustadter, Jennifer & Matthew Rowland through June 22, 2014.

Bliss Point is Cornerstone’s fifth play in the Hunger Cycle and a collaboration with the addiction and recovery communities in Los Angeles. Community Partners for Bliss Point include:  Beit T’Shuvah, The Hills Treatment Center, and the United States Veteran’s Artists Alliance.

Things are bouncing at the Odyssey Theatre.  Every time I go these days the lobby is crowded with avid theatregoers waiting to get into one of its three theatres.  The Odyssey is much more of an intimate space for Cornerstone whose works I have seen at larger venues such as LATC, the Los Angeles Mission (downtown off San Pedro), and the Chuco’s Justice Center. This production has been pared down with a sharper focus on the story and the acting.  

As always with Cornerstone, the cast is a creative blend of people and richly diverse.  Collectively, this exciting cast represents a swath of Americana, of its people of of its traditions.   

As the show started, a man with a tattoo entered the upstage left door and collapsed on the floor. An audience member said, “Look, that poor man just fell down.”  (Acting!)  The tenebrous dark shadowy figure stayed on the floor, not moving one muscle, a lone figure on top of the deplorably filthy green and yellow tiles in his vary sparse apartment.  Above him the walls were highlighted by an almost translucent whirling and coiling wallpaper representing a somnolent, battered Van Gogh-esque vision of a man in trouble. (Incredible work by Scenic Designer Nephelie Andonyadis)

And yes, the man on the floor was in trouble.  But, he is only one of many.  Men and women now appearing out of nowhere are wrapped in blankets sitting on the floor as they survive one more night of addiction.  

But to get to the now, we have to go back to the past.  And we do this with Seamus (pronounced shame us) (Talmage A. Tidwell) who is on the floor, an entangled mass of humanity, impotent from drugs, and senseless from being struck in the head one too many times.

His friend Billy (Jared Ross), an artist wearing and 80’s style mohawk, and loaded with various piercings on his being, enters his non-palatial abode.  And in his benign vigilance, Billy sees him and examines the bruises and cuts around his eyes. His affection for this man appears to be far more than for his well being, but, as forethought, he mentions Lara (Amelia Yokel) a friend who has her eyes on him with more than a casual passing fancy.

“She loves you.” – Billy

Meanwhile, in another place, Jay (Sunkrish Bala) is writing on his Mac when his mother Aya (KT Thangavelu) moves nearer to him with her large bag of prescription drugs and with a purpose in mind.  She takes three Tylenol with codeine and God knows what else to get her to a comfortable place.    

To break the ice, Aya wants to know what her son is writing, and whether he is getting paid for this job.  Jay assures her that it is a paying job writing about drug addiction for a national magazine.

A physically troubled Aya is seeing the end of her life and wants to make sure that Jay is emotionally taken care of, and is financially stable when she moves on.  All this because she has an implacable desire to have her ashes dumped in a river in India.  But Jay can’t even get the name of the river right calling it the Ganges instead of the Hindi name Ganga.  Aya is not totally comfortable leaving her ashes in the hands of her incompetent son.  

Naytheless what Aya really wants is for Jay, while he is in India to disperse her ashes, to call his father.

“They have phones in India.”- Aya

Jay doesn’t like that idea.

Finished with his mother, Jay picks up the phone and calls Adelina (Page Leong) for directions to a lockup where he will conduct interviews for his drug addiction article.  But when he gets there, the three hardened criminals are three young women, Celina (Michelle Farivar), Alicia (Tricia Nykin), and Summer (Melissa Ann Kestin).  They are barely beyond their teens and hardly hardened criminals.  This story is not looking all that great.

The interview doesn’t go so well and Jay really wants to speak to Adelina’s husband about overcoming addiction.  Her husband is busy doing other things, but she will try to arrange a meeting.

David Bard

Meanwhile in another location, Earl (David Bard), inadvertent in his ways, sits at home watching TV with a bottle of vodka and some pills and is about to do himself in when he hears a Godlike voice from the TV telling him what he is doing is wrong.  

Oh, the snarling irony of it all!

Back in Seamus’ apartment, there’s a frantic knocking at the door.  It’s the neighbor Wiley (K. J. Rasheed) wanting to find a place to stash some recently stolen stereo equipment.  Wiley is not going to take no for an answer even if it means pulling out his gun in a friendly gesture.

Later, Jay is now interviewing Arif (JoDyRaY) about his addiction problems and how that all came to be.  Arif takes him through his sexual exploitations at the tender age of six or seven years. And after his mom died, he started using drugs to combat his depression. Now he questions his gender and sexual identity, which at the present time are ambiguous.

Seamus is sorting out the details of the stereo when he hears a knock at the door. It is Lara and Rey (Alberto Virgen) who’ve come to party after scoring some coke for their pleasure.  And with Billy all four of them have formed a close-knit bond.  Their relationship, an entangled mass, has gotten too close when later we discover a truth of their journey.   

Notwithstanding, Jay is trying to take care of his mother, which includes getting a prescription for medical marijuana. Aya wants to go to Peru, to try a certain drug, and to see Krishna.

But now in another location, Officer Friendly (Stuart O’Donnell), enters Seamus apartment and arrests Seamus for the brawl he participated in.

Cornerstone brings a lot of diversity to the cast.  Some actors have a lot of experience and others have hardly any experience at all.  But Juliette Carrillo, the director, manages to get the best from all of them. The looks are perfect for the characters chosen for these roles.

And yet, Carrillo’s through line is slightly out of focus.  The characters are not moving seamlessly to get to the bliss point, which must be the whole point of the story. We get to the end but the emotional catharsis is uninvolving when some really great and emotionally engaging events are taking place. More can be made of that moment.

Shishir Kurup, the writer, gives us an unusual look of humans trying to survive.  Each distinct in their own way, trying to find their own bliss point.  Maybe it’s that simple.  These are very different people in very engaging situations. Some scenes need restructuring.  The scene introducing the girls lacked conflict and an objective.  Also, it is unclear why Arif is in Peru with Jay and his mother, Aya.

Sunkrish Bala plays Jay a very likeable guy who has problems with his mother and her health.  Bala, the actor, doesn’t allow himself to step beyond of what he truly wants.  One could argue that Jay wants what all writers want, a Pulitzer or great recognition for a body of work that lives on long after he is gone.   But, what get’s in his way?  Well first his mother, then the people he has to interview and who are not co-operative, and the one person he cannot get in to see. (I believe this to be the most important.) And Jay would do well to recognize and overcome these conflicts.

David Bard has some fine moments as Earl, a man of the bottle, who discovers God speaking to him through his TV.

Sheela Bhongir plays Krishna and appears in the second act much to the delight of the one needing her.

Michelle Farvar plays Celina, a young woman incarcerated for her involvement in drugs and having a story to tell to the writer.  But what is her story?  Having a stronger objective will help with her conflict, whether it is internal or external, and give us a clearer picture of the makeup of this person.

L - R Sunkrish Bala, JoDyRaY

JoDyRaY walks in with a thin frame and raspy voice and never lets up with his creativity on stage as the character Arif. Dressed up in an aging rock star with sexually ambivalent garb, one could either be excited or confused by his appearance. Arif appears to know who he is, excepting his sexuality, and is willing to share his history with anyone who wants to listen to the sorted details of his current predicament.  But it is not without danger as Arif has a need to carry a gun in order to fulfill sexual desire or warn off an unwanted predator.  

Melissa Ann Kestin plays Sumer one of the incarcerated girls and, without saying a word, gives us a breathless moment of a truth buried deep within her. She is a very fine actor with expressive eyes.

Page Leong is Adelina, the counselor to the girls.  Leong is one of the finest actors working in Los Angeles today.  She makes use of her being with the minimalist of props and always manages to create the place in her space on stage.  But, what does Adelina want? What gets in her way?  And how is she able to resolve the conflicts?  More is needed to give life to this three dimensional character.

Tricia Nykin plays Alicia, one of the girls that are incarcerated.

Stuart O’Donnell plays Friendly (probably a misnomer), an Irish cop that likes to take things into his own hand by being friendly at first and then finding a way ruthlessly arrest his criminal.

K. J. Rasheed plays Wiley the unscrupulous next-door neighbor who needs a place to hide stolen goods.  Rasheed does a fine job with characterization.

Probably the best thing not to put in your bio is that you’re a “semi-experienced” actor as Jared Ross put in his bio.  Ross has got a few things going for him; one of them is a nice presence on stage, intelligence, and the ability to stay connected.  One thing missing is his relationship with his friend, Seamus, which need defining and direction. On stage, a character is not there to “hang”; he must have a purpose and an objective to being there.  Also, there must be a conflict that prevents him from getting what he wants and that conflict needs to be discovered.   

KT Thangavelu

KT Thangavelu is fantastic as Aya, the mother to Jay. From the moment she appears to the moment she leaves, she has a character that is richly defined, funny, and sardonic all in one breath. Aya has a path that is splendidly filled during the course of her journey with bumps along the way that Thangavelu captures in a wonderful performance.  

Talmage A. Tidwell plays Seamus and has a very powerful voice.  Seamus gets himself into a lot of trouble with his fists as well as getting into trouble with drugs.  He is a lost soul trying to find his way.  Tidwell’s voice is his asset and finding a way to use the voice in accomplishing his objective would be a good thing. Seamus is trying to find his way but Tidwell doesn’t question the things that are going on around him until it is too late. He doesn’t absorb the information, things just happen. The actions on stage put him in a deeper hole without that hole being acknowledged.

Alberto Virgen plays Rey and has a very good look and does a very fine job in his presentation.

Amelia Yokel is Lara, lover to Seamus, addict, and a rich socialite who has ventured into this gothic world and doesn’t know how to get out. When the money runs out, she has no place to turn. Yokel is stunning, intelligent, has an incredible presence, and brings a very nice sincerity to this role.

Raquel M. Marreto did a fine job with the Costume Design.  Andrew D. Smith was the Lighting Designer.  The sound Designer is Veronika Vorel.  Ash Nichols was responsible for the Production Stage Management.

Nicely produced by Executive Producers Margaret Leong Checca, Jon Neustadter, Jennifer & Matthew Rowland.

Other members of the production team are as follows:

Production Manager – Lester P. Grant
Technical Directors – Alec Cyganowski, Jeff Williams
Production Coordinator – Doug Rosenberg
Assistant Stage manager – Julia Colbert
Production Assistant – Lizzie Cantey
Props Artisan – Zachary March
Master Electrician – Philip Powers
Light Board Operator – Ronnie Dunmore
Sound Board Operator – Gloria Gonzalez
Assistant Costume Designer/Wardrobe Supervisor – Rachel Clinkscales
Wardrobe Assistant – Nijel Martinez
Fight Choreographer – Edgar Landa
Scholar in Residence – Michelle Farivar
Dramaturge – Tom Jacobson
Community Audience Liason – Nikki Hyde
Public Relations Assistant – Jacqueline Rosas

Run!  Run!  And take someone who loves taking small steps.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Educating Rita by Willy Russell

By Joe Straw

A snippet from As Good as It Gets – by Mark Andrus, James L. Brooks

“The compliment to you is:  The next morning, I started taking the pills.”- Melvin Udall

“ I don’t quite get how that’s a compliment for me.”  -  Carol Connelly

“You make we want to be a better man.” – Melvin

One thing you don’t want to hear or feel, as an actor in class when you are taking a curtain call, is a “smattering of applause”.  Those are the times when you want to curl up into a tight ball, sit with your legs crossed and arm wrapped around your head with only your right eye open looking out, hoping for a glimmer of “nice” constructive criticism that follows.

On this night most of the audience were made up of people who have seen a lot of theatre, been in theatre, or have worked in movies and theatre.  They know, they’ve seen it, what works, and what doesn’t.

Theatre Forty presents The 6th Production of the 2013-2014 Season, Educating Rita by Willy Russell, directed by Robert Mackenzie, and marvelously produced by David Hunt Stafford.  

There’s no question, Educating Rita, A Romantic Comedy by Willy Russell, is a marvelously written romantic comedy but after watching this production, I ask myself:  “What am I to make of this production, the characters, and the acting on this opening weekend?”  I’ll have more on this later.

There are two version of this play, one first performed in 1980 and another version written circa 2003 that brings events up to date.   Set in a professor’s office, the two acts are broken up into 7 short scenes in each act.

My take on the play is simple.  It is a story of an aging crapulous alcoholic English professor who cannot utter three simple words “I love you” to anyone. And of a student who needs the guidance to help her expand her vocabulary and her personal amorous horizons.  Obviously, it’s not part of the written dialogue but could easily be part of subtext, the inner dialogue, the noise within, and this happens when his vocabulary is sparged to the winds in hope of two lovers getting an education and coming together. Sounds simple.

The first thing Frank (Adrian Neil) can think of is his drink.  If he could only remember where he’s placed the darn bottle.  But before he can get to the drink he’s interrupted by a phone call from his girlfriend Julia.  They, don’t, really, get, along (based on the dialogue) and Frank says that he is going to the pub after his meeting.

And while Frank is on the phone, Rita (Murielle Zuker) interrupts by trying to get through the door.  Carrying the conversation on the phone, Frank yells at the door.

“Come in!  COME IN!” – Frank

“I am comin’ in, aren’t I?  It’s that stupid bleedin’ handle on the door.  Y’ wanna get it fixed!” – Rita

Rita’s first point on conversation is the nude painting on the wall only because the tutor is avoiding her. And the only way she can drag him into the conversation is pointing out the eroticism displayed of the forgotten painting on the wall.

Rita takes off her coat and displays a dress that appears to be painted on – it is so tight – with orange, green, and white horizontal stripes.  

“D’ y’ get a lot like me?” – Rita

“I beg your pardon?” – Frank

“Do you get a lot of students like me?” – Rita

“Not exactly, no.” – Frank

Rita offers Frank cigarettes but Frank declines and offers her a glass of scotch.  He finds another bottle behind a stack of E.M. Forster’s books and lays the books on the table next to Rita.  When he comes back to the table with the drinks, the curious professor peers at the title of one of the books.

“Howard Ends?” – Frank

“Yeh.  Sounds filthy, doesn’t it?  E.M. Foster.” – Rita

“Forster!” – Frank

“Forced her to do what?” – Rita

This is too much work for Frank.  He doesn’t stand a chance to capturing the ravishing Rita.  His life would be better off in a pub drinking and thinking of things that could have been.

In any case, Frank says he doesn’t know anything anyway and she would be better off getting another tutor, someone who could help her.  Rita’s a little peeved, grabs her stuff and runs out of the office.

Immediately Rita chooses to come back.  But the door jams and Frank is not letting her in.

Frank yells through the door telling her to go away, but Rita doesn’t give up so easily and manages to burst through.

“I’ve told you, I don’t want to teach you.  Why come to me?” – Frank

“Because you’re a crazy mad piss artist who wants to throw his students through the window.  An’ I like you. – Rita

In a nutshell that is the first scene and enough to give one an idea of where this is all going.  The acting is marvelous, with just little tidbits missing.  One can attribute this to opening weekend and once the actors settle, well, it will be a very fine production.

But, I would like to talk about a few things.

A very peculiar action of walking to the phone in the first scene, Andrian Neil playing Frank, throws me for a moment. The stride to the phone doesn’t ring true, that funny gate. Frank doesn’t want to be there, period.  He doesn’t want to teach. The fastest thing he wants to do is to get to the pub. (That walk still has me in a quandary.) Neil answers the rotary phone immediately knowing who’s on the other line. While all this is going on the pounding on the door is a slight distraction rather than a significant action to keep that person out. This opening needs work and that will come with more performances under his belt. Also, there’s more to be said about defining the character’s specific traits to give the actor a creative edge in presenting a professor on stage.  The line “You make me want to be a better man.” from As Good As It Gets is an illustration of Frank’s character in laying off of the bottle during the better part of the play while he is trying to woe her, and I didn’t see that action on stage.  All right, let’s not throw out everything; only add to an already nice performance that had a number of marvelous moments throughout, remembering, all the while, this is a romantic comedy.  

Murielle Zuker is marvelous as Rita.  She is a stunning actor who manages to get most from her performance. The pencil-sharpening bit defines her character as someone who will stop at nothing to get it her way. The 14 costume changes are a testament to her dedication and determination on stage. But, what gets in Rita’s way?  Clearly she is not obsequious chattel to his teachings demands.  But when it comes to his amorous musings toward her being, she playfully tells him to “sod off” more than once.   Maybe it’s the age thing, and it’s something she must think about in order to make this romantic comedy pay off.

Robert Mackenzie does a fine job directing this romantic comedy, a term which has many meanings. For me, it’s two people falling in love with a happy ending however that happens.  Willy Russell, the writer, seems to have written it that way.  In this version there was never a moment when Rita contemplated, or even questioned her relationship with him; and where is the romantic comedy in that?  We see that Rita is emotionally connected but we don’t see the action that brings these two together. What we have is a student/teacher relationship and that border is not crossed.  (In real life that is not considered appropriate.  Still, it happens.  But on stage, it’s a different matter and anything creative is fair game.) Also, the ending is written in such a way that she wants to take 10 years off his life.  What in the world could she have been thinking throughout the play if she is not thinking about their relationship and if there’s ever a possibility that it will ever work?  Also, there are a number of moments when the actors need to take a moment and respond.  Two come to mind. One, when the professor makes inappropriate comments to the student. 

“Ah, but Rita, if I was yours would I even consider stopping out for days?” - Frank

And two when the professor kisses the student on the cheek. Both passed with little fanfare and also did not significantly change the relationship.

Also,  there is a fantastic moment when Rita discovers the theatre.  It is a moment where you want to stand and cheer and well worth the price of admission! 

Willy Russell, the writer, has written a marvelous play.  There is a tremendous amount of information gained by watching the play, about books, theatre, and education.

Michéle Young, Costume Designer, plays a major role in having Rita dress to perfection.

Jeff G. Rack does a marvelous job as the Set Designer for a set that is altered for another show running in repertory.

Other members of this delightful crew are as follows:

Stage Manager – Tony Carnaghi
Lighting Designer – Ric Zimmerman
Sound Designer – Bill Froggatt
Stage Hand – Richard Carner
Stage Hand – Abbie Siegel

Run!  Run!  And take a professor you’ve had your eyes on for a very long time.

in the Reuben Cordova Theatre

Parking is always free!