Saturday, January 24, 2015

Proof by David Auburn

L Chris Marquette - Amanda Brooks 

By Joe Straw

My recent circumstances have me in contact with a number of Ph.D. students who answer both “yes” and “no” in response to a question, all in the same sentence. The students are at times emotional and confused, but extremely bright.  All are in need of that one extra push by an equally bright professor to get them focused, over the hump, and on to their Ph.Ds. 

There are a lot of tissues expended in this process. – The Narrator.

The Moth Theatre Company presents Proof by David Auburn, directed by John Markland, and produced by John Markland and Brenda Davidson.  Proof is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, Drama Desk Award for Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play and will be playing through February 15, 2015.

Proof at the Moth is an outstanding play, featuring an equally exceptional cast, giving us moments of brilliance, all in the name of mathematics. But there are other themes in David Auburn’s carefully crafted play, such as caring for the infirmed, dealing with depression, a competing sibling rivalry, and gender bias, which are also addressed in grand fashion.   

Maneuvering a mathematical life in the sacred name of reckoning while trying to connect the arithmetical dots of life is a grand theme in this play.  (Puns intended) And proof is an unwritten test from which all lives must pass.  In this case, it is proving you are brilliant, and proving you aren’t insane.  In either case, this proves to be an extremely difficult and problematic obstacle for our main character to overcome.   

As our play begins on the back porch of a Chicago home, he just appears, from the middle of nothingness, as a bright glowing being with a purpose, watching his clement daughter, sitting in his chair, in a daze or in a dream, in the late hours of the evening thinking, always thinking, for a reason that will become clear, or not.

“Can’t sleep?” – Robert

“Jesus, you scared me.” – Catherine

And so we begin, near the end, almost near the end in this non-linear play, where Robert (John Cirigliano), a brilliant mathematician and former University of Chicago professor, interrupts his daughter, Catherine (Amanda Brooks), in the dead of night. 

Catherine’s despairing reflections embraces her like the comfortable family chair in which she sits this late evening as she waits outside on her porch for Hal (Christopher Marquette), a recent Ph.D. and now a professor, to finish his work and come downstairs.

But something’s a little different tonight.  Robert has got a little surprise for his daughter.

“Happy Birthday.” – Robert

“Dad.” – Catherine

“Do I ever forget?” - Robert

Robert presents Catherine with a champagne bottle and asks if he should pop the cork but given their present circumstances, Catherine takes matters under her control.  Robert mentions getting glasses but Catherine takes a swig from the bottle.  She offers Robert some bubbly.

“Do you” – Catherine

“No, go ahead.” – Robert

And there Catherine sits, disheveled, sitting like she hasn’t slept or bathed in quite a while, and there is not one single friend to comfort her on this night.  Robert has some lame idea about a inviting a friend over, someone who moved away a number of years ago.

“What about Claire?” – Robert

“She’s not my friend, she’s my sister.  And she’s in New York.   And I don’t like her.” - Catherine

Claire (Felicity Price) is scheduled to arrive the following day, coming to recombine with her sister in their time of need.    

Well, why this night? 

Robert says the best thing to do, when one is up late at night, is mathematics.  Catherine isn’t keen on the idea.  Suddenly Robert gets a little upset with her  - saying that she is throwing her life away.

But after a little coaxing, Robert gets Catherine to do a little math and we see she has a bright mathematical mind.  But, Catherine has a hard time believing in herself and at the age of 25, she believes she is beyond her prime (a positive integer that is not divisible without remainder by any integer except itself and 1, with 1 often excluded) while her father had already done his greatest work by the age of twenty-four.  It was about that age that Robert first showed signs of losing his mental faculties, something Catherine worries about now, speaking to her dead father.

“The simple fact that we can talk about this together is a good sign.” – Robert

“ A good sign?” – Catherine

“Yes!” – Robert

“How could it be a good sign?” – Catherine

Yes, it is a bad sign given Catherine’s present circumstances, and Catherine is wondering now if she losing herself or is deplorably insane.

Robert mysteriously leaves and Hal enters moments later saying he needs another week to go over Robert’s notebooks.  Of course, Catherine is exasperated but Hal says he’s got everything in order.  He tells her that Robert dated his notebooks, and he can take some home, read it, and bring it back if it’s okay with her.

Catherine is not having any part of it.  She says there’s nothing in all of the 103 notebooks.  She says her father was a graphomaniac, someone who has an impulse to write, and he wrote nothing but gibberish near the end of his time.  

Not to be undone Hal says he’s willing to go through all of the notebooks.

“I’m prepared to look at every page.  Are you?” – Hal

“No, I’m not crazy.” – Catherine

Hal, with amatory speculations, changes the subject and invites Catherine to hear his band of merry math geeks.  He plays the drums and promises he won’t sing.  Catherine is not interested since it’s late at night.  

Hal lets it slip that if he could produce one-tenth of what her dad produced, “I could write my own ticket.”

Catherine is suddenly suspicious, demands to see his backpack as proof that he is not stealing any of her father’s work.  Her search of his bag comes up empty.  But when Hal grabs his jacket one of her father’s notebook drops from his coat.

Catherine immediately runs to the phone and calls the police.  Hal tries to calm her down and gives her a reasonable explanation why he is doing what he is doing. She hangs up and, as Hal is leaving, a police siren is heard in the background.

Later, the following morning, Claire, Catherine’s sister, has arrived with her brazen sincerity in tow and is making breakfast, well – she bought stuff at the local market.  Claire, taking charge, has an agenda and is deliberate when pouring milk into Catherine’s coffee moments after Catherine said she wanted hers black.

“How are you feeling about everything?” – Claire

“About “everything”? – Catherine

“About Dad.” – Claire

Obviously Claire is overly concerned about Catherine’s well being, her mental status, her altercation with the police, and the strange unidentified being called “Harold Dobbs.”   She has already taken steps to sell the house and move her sister to New York where she will be in good hands.   

Catherine is not hipped to the idea and is slightly disturbed, slightly being an understatement.  

L - Amanda Brooks - Felicity Price 

John Markland, the director, is exceptional when dealing with the small intimate moments, the coming of two in the heat of passion.  It is during those moments that this production soars.  The opening moment is spectacular and this production is filled with those moments.  But there are slight problem with the first scene, the dead father and daughter scene that provides little mysticism and offers us little more than a typical father/daughter scene.  Strengthening the father/daughter relationship as well as the teacher/student relationship are in order. In a metaphorical manner of speaking, they need to find a way for the little daughter to crawl into her father’s mathematical lap. There are two scenes that speak loudly to me.  One is Catherine leaving for Northwestern without her father knowing about it, which presents the emotional moving on with life; and two is Catherine reading Robert’s theorem that is gibberish when Catherine realizes that her life, as she knows it, is over.

Amanda Brooks gives a wonderful performance as Catherine with a vocal texture that is alluring and exciting.  As the character, Catherine is weary having spent the last five years taking care of her father before his death. And as she speaks to him the night before his funeral, she casts internal doubt on her own sanity. Catherine is lost, not knowing which direction to turn. She knows she is brilliant, questions her sanity, and has to fight off her sister and friend to prove herself.  Elegantly dressed in a beautiful black dress, compliments to her sister for buying it, Catherine is now an alluring force to be reckoned with.  Brooks gives an outstanding performance.

Felicity Price does some amazing work as Claire. Claire is a currency analyst and believes in firmly controlling her life.  She offers herself as the sibling who is mentally stable and willing to take care of her indolent sister.  Claire wants her sister to move to New York City.  Her objective is to get her to New York first, get her an apartment, and have her looked at by some of the finest mental doctors in the land. Hard to do when the sister is an emotional roller coaster. But Claire keeps her composure through the chaos that is her life right now. Claire has a different look than what I imagined a currency analyst to look like (e.g. blouse, blazer, pearl necklace, skirt, and shoes with not-so-high heels).  Instead she wears a thin summer dress and stiletto heels from which she negotiates a back porch and a gravel walkway, with ease. Price, an Australian, has a spot on American accent and a natural rhythm to her movements on stage. Negotiating the trash on the back porch – I’m not sure what that was or how that moves the play – but it all seemed so natural.

Chris Marquette is exceptional as Hal. We first see him as a professor, and then as we go back in time as a doctoral student in which he excels.  Although a professor, he has a lot to learn about accepting truth and not being so clueless and biased toward women in mathematics. Marquette is wonderful in the world of small intimate moments and catching his truth in those moments is what every theatregoer hopes to see. His objective is strong and clear, and his inner conflict is his own worst enemy.

John Cirigliano plays Robert the brilliant mathematician and father. There are moments that ring true to his performance but there is more to add in character development and shoring up the relationship with his daughter.  A professor, and particularly one of this caliber, is the smartest person in the room.  In his lucid moments, his voice commands the space; his thoughts express a clear understanding of his expertise, and include an extreme desire to teach. The opening scene does not ring true to the relationship with his daughter and it slightly misses the humor of it all. Getting out of the chair several times is not specific to the action. The character needs to strengthen his objective.   His daughter leaving him is an emotionally charged scene that does not strike to the heart of the matter.  It is devastating for him and possibly sends him on a downward spiral.

Brenda Davidson does a fine job as the producer.

Justin Huen Scenic and Lighting Design work wonderfully in this space.  Upstage center is a lamp, which serves at the professor’s office, and reminds me of The Blue Room, also on this stage.  The best vantage point to see the production is near downstage far right where you are able to flow right into the home.

Daniel Coronel is the Stage Manager.  

Ken Werther Publicity is the Publicist.

Max Barsness is the Graphic Design.

The Moth Theatre is newly remodeled and looks wonderful.

Run!  Run! Run!  And take a professor with you.

Reservations:  323-609-3676

Moth Theatre
4359 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA  90029

(Entrance is behind the theatre on Heliotrope)   

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Last Straw Award 2014

By Joe Straw

Some of these productions were not supposed to be that good, the actors were unknown, the talent in the small houses are suspect, and the stages were small and run down.

And I keep hearing this time and time again.  “Hardly anyone goes to theatre these days.”

Well, you can believe that if you want, but for the most part the houses were full, the audiences receptive, and audiences come away from the production with a great sense of satisfaction.

You can believe anything anyone wants to tell you.  But, that is my not my impression of what's going on in theatre today.

This is what I experience when the lights go down. 

My interest lies in an emotion, an aesthetic impression from an actor that projects a life,  giving as much as a audacious gestures to an unfathomable silent glance.  It matters little as long as it is an emotional outpouring created from the bottom of the soul. Take me to the place that means so much, in little time, and lift me.  Send me out of the theatre soaring.   

These are my picks of outstanding performers, writers, and directors that I have seen this year. Congratulations!

Michael Dempsey – RX by Kate Fodor – at The Lost Studios

Darrett Sanders, Christian Levatino – Sunny Afternoon by Christian Levatino at Theatre Asylum

Ricco Ross, Shawn Savage – The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez at The Pico Playhouse

Robert Craighead – Inherit The Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee at The Grove Theatre Center

Ashlee Olivia – Knock Me A Kiss by Charles Smith at The Robey Theatre Company

Chris L. McKenna, Benjamin Brand – Taste by Benjamin Brand at The Sacred Fools Theater Company

Lucy Rodriguez – Premeditation by Evelina Fernández at The Los Angeles Theatre Center

Bill Charlton, Burl Moseley – The Memorandum by Václav Havel – Santa Monica Rep

Julio Hildago – Enrique VIII de William Shakespeare – The Broad Stage

Peter James Smith, Peter Larney, John Dennis Johnston, and Katherine Cortez – Land Line by Stephen Dierkes at The Ensemble Studio Theatre

JoDyRaY, KT Thangavelu, Amelia Yokel – Bliss Point by Shishir Kurup at The Odyssey Theatre

Jeremy Crutchley – Sacred Elephant by Heathcote Williams – The Odyssey Theatre

Ted Barton – Andronicus by William Shakespeare – Coeurage Theatre Company

Paul Witten, Ann Nobel – The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee at Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center

Rhonda Lord – Affluence by Steven Peterson at Theatre 40

Tanna Frederick, Mike Falkow, and Kelly DeSarla – Train to Zakopané a True Story of Hate and Love by Henry Jaglom

Ashlee Olivia, Dwain A. Perry, and Jason Mimms – The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel by Levy Lee Simon

And I almost forgot Sirena Irwin and Maile Flanagan - Bob's Holiday Christmas Party by Joe Keys and Rob Elk.  I never laughed so hard! 

The "Ortiz" award for outstanding theatrical achievement this year goes to "Premeditation” by Evelina Fernandez and directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela. 

This award represents a grand achievement for diversity in a theatrical production.  It is something I worked for as the SAG Hollywood President of the EEOC and continues today through this blog.

Evelina Fernández
Sal Lopez
Geoffrey Rivas
Lucy Rodriguez

Outstanding Achievement in Direction:

Howard Teichman – The Whipping Man
Christian Levatino – Sunny Afternoon
Stuart Gordon – Taste
Jen Bloom – The Memorandum
Jose Luis Valenzuela – Premeditation

Outstanding Achievement – Writing:

Christian Levatino – Sunny Afternoon
Evelina Fernandez – Premeditation
Henry Jaglom – Train to Zakopané
Levy Lee Simon – The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel

Thank you Los Angeles Theatre and congratulations to all of those who have received The Last Straw Award 2014.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Piñata Dreams by Josefina Lopez

By Joe Straw

Watching Piñata Dreams by Josefina Lopez is like revisiting movies.  There are similarities to The Wizard of Oz with the theme of getting back home, to Pinocchio where the piñata boy become real life boy, to slipping into Neverland in Alice in Wonderland, to a lesser degree with A Clockwork Orange, and to the non-scary parts of Nightmare on Elm Street.

All of this is good as Piñata Dreams is a play for children. Actually adults of all ages or anyone who enjoys a fantasy will delight in the undertaking of this production. But is this a fantasy or a dream?

Casa 0101 presents Piñata Dreams by Josefina Lopez directed by Corky Dominguez and produced by Sherrie Lofton and Anisa Hamdan through December 28, 2014.

Piñata Dreams is a very, very likable play that needs another 30 minutes to appropriate a full-length genre.  But for now, it is very pleasant fare.  Corky Dominguez, the director, does an impressive job creating the fantasy and the dream. It could benefit from a slight focus but I will get to that later.

J.J. (Noah Logan Martinez) has a problem and it’s mostly about school.  He has a touch of a learning disability and not being able to concentrate on his studies.  But he has a highly active imagination and more than anything else wants to make beautiful piñatas for his father’s piñata shop, which already has an impressive collection dangling from the ceiling.  Colorful piñatas, beautiful piñatas, and all are wonderfully priced to boot.

J.J.’s mother (Evy De La Cruz) has died for reasons not entirely clear.

Then a party supplies store moves in across the street and tries to steal the piñata business by having a two-for-one sale.  J.J’s father (David Guerra) finds this news distressing and hopes that will not ruin his business.

And while the little boy loves piñatas, J.J. is more enamored of the alebrije – sculptures that are compositions of two or more animals. And try as he might with his studies, J.J. works in the shop because he finds it more fascinating.

Don Chelo (Jose Garcia) saunters into the shop and throws more fuel into the fire by announcing that the new piñata shop has Iron Man and helicopters.  Don Chelo falls into that category: friends you don’t really need.

But J.J.’s father has other ideas for his only son while his kindhearted grandmother (Evy DeLa Cruz) watches.

“Do your homework!  Artists have a hard life.” – Father

“But you make people happy.” – J.J.
At night, working by candlelight in his father’s shop, J.J. falls asleep. When the candle spills, and a fire burns the shop to the ground.

What are the other theatrical expressions that used masks? 

The Japanese had a type of theater called Noh, which originated in 612 A.D.  It is a style of theatre that takes traditional tales in which supernatural creatures are transformed into human form.  Generally it is the main character that wears the mask while the supporting characters do not.

In Piñata Dreams is similar in that the main character wears a mask.  Different from Noh, the supporting players also wear masks.  The only time we see them is when they step back from their characters and narrate the story. 

So J.J. is all too real.

In Commedia dell’arte, literally meaning – comedy of craft, the actors are in exaggerated masks or heavy character makeup.  (The Actors Gang, in Culver City, teaches this method on their stage in Los Angeles and extends their reach to prisons throughout the state.) It is a form of theatre where professional actors perfect a specific role or mask.  They generally used props rather than extensive scenery.

J.J.’s prop is his magnificent piñata stick.

Josefina Lopez’s play is called Piñata Dreams but we never actually go into the dream in the way Alice does by falling asleep, or for that matter the way Dorothy does in The Wizard of Oz where the fantasy is created by a jar on her noggin.  Is it possible the entire play is a dream? And if so, why are we immersed in J.J.’s real life with supporting characters that wear masks?

This is something different.

Corkey Dominguez, the wonderful maker of the masks, and director, has provided us with his style, his own rhythm, encapsulating moments with an actor’s sharp turn to the fourth wall.  This style is very effective and adds to the dream. The expressions we don’t get from the mask are made up for with the characters’ creative use of hands, which define the space they occupy in the dream.

Dominguez presents the play in a way that the boy hears the blended noises of other characters as possibly one would hear and view them in a dream but doesn’t see the faces and can’t make them out.  It makes for fascinating work.

But here is where there is a slight problem.

In the opening and the ending of the play when one really needs a cold dose of reality, the characters, with the exception of J.J., are in masks.  The audience never gets the impression that this is a dream or where that dream begins. Real life, or what we perceive as reality, has faces, rather than masks, and we never get a taste of the real life from the other characters in the way we were introduced the characters in The Wizard of Oz.  Everything is a fantasy, a dream, an adventure and a conflict that J.J. – the only one without the mask – must overcome.   

J.J. is a real life boy, with real life problems, making real piñatas.  When we hear him say “But you make people happy” it is wonderful and heartbreaking and it would have been best to see the emotion on his father’s face, rather than the mask. But again, is it all a dream?

Josefina Lopez, the writer, does some marvelous work providing us with a rich assortment of Latino characters making their way through life.  It is a simple life but one which means so much to the characters and their community.  It is a story of caring, loving, and sharing. And it is also a story of unspeakable menaces that ride the back of a small helpless human being. But, the night I saw it, the execution was not that specific, the elements of the story lacked the physical progression to bring the boy to an emotional fever pitched homecoming. That aside, there’s something wonderful here.  I saw it on the second week; some problems may have been ironed out, but maybe not all.

Sherrie Lofton & Anisa Hamdam terrifically produced this play.

Noah Logan Martinez plays J.J. He is a cute young man and does well on stage with his brand of humor.  There is a lot more to learn about acting should he decide to pursue his craft.  

Isaiah Cazares plays a variety of characters the Party supply store promoter, Itzali, Firefighter, Young Great Grandfather, Scary cave alebrije #1, Huitzilipochli, Store Customer #3.  There is probably more to be had with the Young Great Grandfather part because it is in underworld (or a dream).  The relationship to his great grandson requires strengthening and his knowledge of the place requires awareness.

Evy De La Cruz plays Grandmother, Piñata #4, and Cave Child. She is a fine actress and does remarkably well with the Grandmother. And a little more mollycoddling with her grandson would add to a nice performance.

Jose A. Garcia plays Don Chelo, Piñata #1, Cave Child, Diablo #1, Big Diablo #2, and Monster at the window.  Garcia gives a terrific performance as Don Chelo complete with a slight speech impediment due to two terrific protruding front teeth on the mask.  But I’m wondering if there is more to had with this character that sets lives in motion simply by his annoying appearance.

Sophie Goldstein is the Daughter Customer, Piñata #2, Cassie, and Store Customer #1.

David Guerra is impressive as J.J.’s father; his hand movements and way about the stage are specific and true to life.  This was a job well done and effectively done.   Guerra also played the Grandfather and Great-Grandfather.

Suzanne Santos plays the Mother Customer, Piñata #3, Halipi, Scary cave alebrije #2, Man tied to tree, and Store Customer #2.

Other members of the production team are as follows:

Stage Manager:  Alyssa Champo
Set Designer:  Cesar Holguin
Costume Designer:  Dori Quan
Sound Designer:  Vincent A. Sanchez
Lighting Designer:  Sohail e. Najafi
Light Board Operator:  Jorge Villanueva
House Manager:  Suzanne Linares
Production Photographer:  Ed Krieger
Assistant Stage Manager:  Julius Bronola
Pinata Maker:  Andrew Cervantes
Asst. Set Builder:  Angel Perez
Graphic Design:  Josefina Lopez
Social Media:  Sylvia Cortes
Mask Makers:  Beth Peterson & Corky Dominguez
Webmaster:   Mark Kraus
Gallery Curator:  Margaret Garcia
Art Image:  Crystal De La Torre
Publicist:  Steve Moyer

Co-Producer:  Jennifer Madrid

This show has closed.   But please check with Casa 0101 for future show.  The theatre is a delightful venue for Boyle Height and you are always welcomed. 

Phone:  323-263-7684