Saturday, July 4, 2015

King Dick by Christian Levatino

By Joe Straw

“A while ago, on a sunny afternoon, in a restaurant next to Book Soup, I saw Prince strutting his way and obliquely prowling the magazine rack outside the store. 

Prince was traveling in incognito.  Well, sort of, he had on a bright orange suit and was traveling with his bodyguard who was approximately 10 times his girth.  

Well, you know, Prince is very angular and slight. 

Anyway, I wanted to shout out  “Hi Prince”, but my bad luck because that’s when he had changed his name to a symbol you couldn’t pronounce, so I didn’t say anything.

Side note: Does someone really go out in a bright orange suite if they don’t want to be noticed? – Narrator

I don’t get invited to the Hollywood Fringe Festival, except on Facebook and 2015 was no exception.  In any case, the Hollywood Fringe is just something you go and experience, because, metaphysically, it’s like an out-of-body experience.

There was one show I wanted to see.  And while trying to find a parking space, I noticed a man, who looked like Elvis, walking south on Lillian Way, engaged in an animated discussion with someone who must have been his bodyguard. 

“Dis must be de place!” This was exactly the show I wanted to see, “King Dick”.

At Theatre Asylum where it was playing, no one was around. “Where’s King Dick playing? Where is the ticket office?  Where do I go?”  No one had answers.  Finally I checked the log sheet outside the theatre.  It said: “King Dick – Lab”.

What does that mean?

Finally, I saw Elvis (Christian Levatino) strutting west on Santa Monica Boulevard.  He introduced himself and very graciously directed me to the right spot.

King Dick written by Christian Levatino, produced & directed by Leon Shanglebee, which I suspect is also a Levatino alias, had a wonderful run at the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2015.

The Gangbusters Theatre Company makes terrific use of the Lab Theatre, a small black-box venue.  The Lab is extremely suitable for both the imaginative spirit and the spirits of a drug-induced character working for the benefit of mankind.  

King Dick, a fully staged workshop production, is a marvelous play that is brilliant in imaginative ways. Levatino’s historical farce plays upon emotions that one yearns for in theatre where reality, character eccentricities, and absurdity are thrown together in a madcap soup of theatrical madness. And by way of the Elvis’s moral discontent, one is treated to a message with a strong social significance. This is a wonderful work of art by an artist who is finding his niche as a playwright and certainly one to seriously consider.   

I am a true fan of Elvis, and, have read about it, seen the pictures, and well, you really can’t make this stuff up.

Blame it on Mercury in retrograde, an excuse Elvis used as justifications for his insanity because he had a serious problems with drugs and guns.  How he got in to see Nixon in less than a day defies comprehension.

The play takes place sometime in December 1970, a year after the Tate–LaBianca murders. E (as he is known in the play) is horrified by the direction the country is taking due to drugs and drug murders.  He has a solution but it requires obtaining a badge from a Federal Drug Enforcement agent. The badges he proudly holds now are honoree badges and therefore useless. His vision is to get that badge from some legitimate law enforcement agency in Washington D.C., so that he can serve the greater good.

So E is off to Washington D.C. to take care of business, meet with whomever he needs to meet, and get the required badge.

E gets on the plane using an alias as Jon Burrows. The problem is the costume, the jewelry, the cane, the sideburns, the black hair, sunglasses, and the face immediately gives him away. Dottie Stevens (Corryn Cummings), the stewardess, is willing to keep a secret for the time being, but that secret lasts the length of Tootsie Pop between them.  

E sits next to Mancini Moore (Ian Verdun), a soldier who is coming back from Vietnam and who is visibly affected by the war. He looks up to see E and smiles.

“…plane ain’t going down with your ass on it.” – Moore  

E wants to know more about what went on.  Moore lets off a stream of consciousness sympathetic to the anti-war movement and E, by all appearances, does not comprehend the true meaning of his message.

Still, E wants to help Moore.  He runs to Schilling, demands the expense money Shilling is holding and then gives Moore some Christmas money.

That out of the way, E racks his brains in pursuit of the badge.

Next the stewardess introduces Senator George Murphy (Darrett Sanders) to the King and Murphy offers E his opinions about the direction of the country, about the war, and the badge.  

E does not get the war, but given his mission to get a badge, he takes Murphy’s advice to pen a letter to the President of The United States, Richard Milhouse Nixon (John Combs).

Dwight Chapin (Patrick Flanagan), a P.T. Barnum bi-curious government official, receives the letter E dropped off at the White House’s front gate and takes it to his supervisor, Bud “Egil” Krogh (Andy Hirsch), a play-by-the-book government official (later imprisoned in the Watergate scandal).  Krogh puts ethics aside to see if he can get E a badge.  

Meanwhile Sonny West (Andrew Dits) visits E’s hotel room and talks to Schilling about the unholy madness E is getting himself into. E, coming into the room dressed in a robe and bathing cap, is hurt to see that West is without his gift, the TCB necklace.

“You make me want to spontaneous combust.” - E

Later we learn that Nixon has gotten himself into a little trouble with Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers and a trickle of the downward spiral starts here. But, hoping to plug the drain, Nixon wants to meet with E.

“King Creole” was spectacular!” – Nixon

L - Christian Levatino and John Combs

This was a very exciting cast that brought a lot of backstory to the lives presented on stage.  Still, I have a few observations.

Matthew Hudacs filled the role of Jerry Schilling and did a fine job.  Hudacs has a good look and is natural on stage, but needs to make more of the relationship with E.  His backstory needs an added element as to adequately define the relationship. This is not to take away from anything on stage but to add.

Christian Levatino was fantastic as E, bringing with him a grand physical life of the character, karate moves and all, along with mental complexities of being a pharmaceutical poster boy for the drug industry.  And because of the drugs E is constantly asking for help from his friends, but when something goes wrong in the Oval Office, and he may lose his badge, he begs the President to help.

“Dick! Help me!  Dick!  Help!!!” - E

Corryn Cummins does a delightful turn as Dottie Stevens, the stewardess. Bright and cheery, Dottie gives E a run for his money right outside the lavatories, a discomforting intimate moment, on the plane, and confusing E with her brilliance, just a bit.  Amatory speculations abound in her effort to join the mile high club with a celebrity but E was on a mission. Cummins was remarkable in the role.

Ian Verdun does some really nice work as Mancini Moore. Verdun is natural on stage. But, he needs to be make more of the conflict with his counterpart, if only to say:  “I didn’t get the cushy job in Germany, I went to Vietnam where there was a lot of killing and dying going on.”  Moore should convince E to add his voice to the inequities going on in the nation and thus introduce more conflict into the scene.   

Darrett Sanders was impressive as Senator George Murphy, a down-to-earth guy who speaks the truth to anyone willing to listen. Sanders is a fantastic actor who makes it all look so easy.  His delivery is sharp and focused and his characterization is this side of brilliant. (In reality, George Murphy was a former song and dance man, and the president of the Screen Actors Guild, before his foray in Republican politics.)

Andy Hirsch plays Bud ‘Egil’ Krogh and the character was solid to the craziness around him.  He was outstanding in his office, bedrock in motive. Still there has to be more to this character. (In real life Krogh went to jail for the Watergate conspiracy and then later became a Senior Fellow on Ethics (Ethics?) and Leadership at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.)  On top of what Hirsch is already doing, he should incorporate something to give the character an added dimension, one of larceny, and possibly non-ethics.

Patrick Flanagan is delightful as Dwight Chapin, the slightly disheveled, bi-curious, do anything, speak your mind, kind of guy. (In real life Chapin, Special Assistant, was convicted of lying to a grand jury for perjury during the Watergate Scandal and served nine months at the Federal Correctional Institution, Lompoc) This is a performance not to miss and a marvelous one at that.

Andrew Dits plays Sonny West and had some nice things going on.  Dits is tall, muscular, and very angular (a model).  As the character, West speaks of E as out of control but does little to help him get on the right path. More is needed to help the character West dulcify his relationship to E.  Still, Dits has a very strong presence on stage.   

John Combs brings a lot of laughs into the Oval Office as Richard Nixon.  One has to wonder who was the crazier of the two.  Combs does a tremendous job of creating a character that is coming undone, of giving us a glimpse of Nixon’s ultimate downfall, of blaming others, and showing us the famous peace sign outside of Marine I. Combs is very funny and wonderful in the role.

Sean McSweeney is the still photos man Ollie Adkins.  McSweeney has little or no dialogue but is very clever on stage with a very nice stage charisma.

Levatino’s play is a lot of fun and works as a stand-alone project.  On a side note Levatino looks at honesty and politics and finds the bitterest of contradictions as part of the presentation as a whole.  He also incorporates absurdity into a real life situation, which makes this performance a very pleasant outing. 

Produced and Directed by Leon Shanglebee which one suspects is also a Levatino alias. This production has minimal props and set pieces and Shanglebee has the actors do most of the work.  The moments hit their mark and the precision with which this was done was exquisite.

Nicely produced by Mary Kelsey and LQ Victor.  Co-Produced by Daniel Coronel.  Associate Produced by Margo Rowder & Corryn Cuminns.  Sound Design by Mohane Sebastion.  The Elvis Costume was by Mimi Chong.   Wigs by Kim Ferry.  Stage Management by Deacon Waiver and the Social Media was covered by Corryn Cummins and Margo Rowder.

Kevin Spacey has a film in postproduction now with “Elvis and Nixon”, and another film  “Elvis Meets Nixon” with Rick Peter was released in 1997 so Elvis still holds a viable fascination with the public many years after his death.   

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