Sunday, September 18, 2016

Barbecue by Robert O’Hara


L - R Elyse Mirto, Frances Fisher, Dale Dickey and Travis Johns - Photos:  Jeff  Lorch Photography 

By Joe Straw

I came wanting to laugh hard on this night.  It’s not really hard for me to laugh; still I wanted it to be a hard laugh.  I did.  Mission accom… No, I don’t want to say that. – Narrator

The Geffen Playhouse presents the West Coast production of Barbecue written by Robert O’ Hara and directed by Colman Domingo in Westwood through October 16th, 2016. The Off Broadway play was presented at the Public Theater in 2015.

Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue is wondrously funny in ways you can or cannot imagine. Joyfully engaging and infinitely enlightening, this is a play that both dramatically reawakens the senses and delights in meaningful ways as it pokes fun at the trials and tribulations of a family in crisis.    

Barbecue also speaks an honest truth, exposing the lives of iniquitous characters while also splashing a sudsy dose of our own reality all over our face. It is a comedic two-sided vinyl record, one side is black, and the other side white, but still playing the same great music.

(Bare with me on the colloquialisms.)   

The dew had not yet dried off the foliage that morning when James T (Travis Johns), beer in hand, arrived a little early, well earlier than the rest, to grab the spot in the park, just in case someone else had their own plans.  One gets the feeling that his sisters, who are set to join him, are not even out of bed yet. When they finally get there, there’ll business to attend to.     

James T sets his backside to a wooden park bench claiming the space and other things in the park.  An ice chest warns that this spot is taken.  So he sits along the two park benches, which are nestled under a wooden awning.  The sturdy post, holdin’ up the awning, is a nice place to secure someone should it come to that.   

Near the awning is a happy metal sliding board with peelin’ yellow lead paint, something delicious for the kids to enjoy were they’re any, and shrubbery to protect against prying eyes.

(Sibyl Wickersheimer, Scenic Designer, crafted a wonderful space for the actors to create their magic.)

James T (his mother was probably a Star Trek fan.), with his man bun, looked around like he had everything under control and appearing confident as though he had a phaser strapped on his belt.   

All okay, but the phone wasn’t working to James T’s satisfaction, talkin’ to his sister Lillie Anne (Frances Fisher), like he’s talking to his mama and not sparing any of the profanity that goes along with it. G*d D*mn this and G*d D*mn that. 

James T tells Lillie Anne that he has faith that their sister, Barbara (Rebecca Wisocky), will show up.  He just doesn’t know if she’s gonna’ show up all liquored up, cracked up, or something else up, and he doesn’t know if she’s going to be violent.   

“We’re not a normal gatdamn family.” – James T.

Well that much is true and there’s a lot more “not normal” coming up.

“‘shorts make me look fat?”  Lillie Anne

Lillie Anne shows up with a few nasty lawn chairs and wantin’ to know why no one’s been decoratin’.  It’s it a party, for GD sake, and there’s got to be decorations at least to fool the one who needs to be fooled!  

But, there’s no decorative ribbon, and it looks like no one has the will to decorate or even try.  All this for their sister, Barbara, a.k.a. Zippity Boom, who has major problems, including alcohol, drugs, mental illness, and prostitution just to name a few.   And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, or ice chest.

Adlean (Lisa Rothschiller) and Marie (Elyse Mirto) show up, two more sisters to Barbara, James T, and Lillie Anne.  (Two of their other siblings are dead and won’t be attending this gathering.) Adlean leaves her kids out in the burning hot car because she knows there’s more to this barbecue and they don’t need kids underfoot.

There’s nothing like watching trailer park trash at a barbecue.

Overweening big sister Lillie Anne says there's going to be an intervention. And as soon as that’s said there is a black out, or black in, depending on your perspective.

Cherise Boothe, Yvette Cason, Omar J. Dorsey, Kimberely Hébert Gregory and Heather Alicia Simms.

All the characters are now black: Lillie Anne (Yvette Cason), James T. (Omar J. Dorsey), Adlean (Kimberly Hébert Gregory), Marie (Heather Alicia Simms) and they don’t miss a beat continuing the same story and exposing everyone’s problems.

“You probably don’t even remember waking up this morning with all them damn pills you poppin.” – Marie

“Heifa, you wait till you get you a disease in yo’ t*tty.” – Adlean

“I was the one who told you not to go eating no damn corn out no damn can.  It’ them damn canned goods that gave you that damn cancer.” – Marie

Suddenly quiet, everyone wonders if, during the intervention, Barbara (Cherise Boothe) is gonna get violent. They talk about Barbara as though she was a legend and legend has it that after Barbara lost all her teeth, she’s been known to carry around razors in her gums, and they are worried something like that might happen during the intervention.

They are all terrified at what she might do.

James T, sitting on the lawn furniture, says he has a Taser should things get a little out of hand.

The whole family has got problems and it’s a back and forth blame game as to how they all got into this situation.

Marie, pointing fingers, gulping down a Jack Daniels, looks in Adlean’s bag for all types of pills she’s got. Adlean, despite the cancer, is puffing a cigarette, and doesn’t want Marie looking in her stuff.

“There’s a lot of shit in my purse that ain’t mine.” – Marie

Somebody’s looking to get tased.


White in.

“We love you even though you’re a crackhead.” – Lillie Anne

Lillie Anne has got a plan and it’s a plan about getting Barbara into rehab.  She’s serious and she asks everyone if they have written their letters?  No, they haven’t since they’re not one for doing homework.  Lillie Anne is the smartest of the bunch going back to school to get her G.E.D.

Anyway, Lillie Anne has got Barbara a plane ticket to Alaska for this rehab center that does hypnosis, acupuncture, yoga, and horses. She shows them the fold out pamphlet. To the others, it sounds like a bad idea, and maybe they can ask Siri if there is a rehab center nearby.

A car horn beeps and they all start dancing.

“Get ready, when I do the fish tale dance…” -  Lillie Anne

Unexpectedly Barbara is upon them.

One can’t go farther than this without giving too much away.

The splash of reality hits when one cast is replaced with the other.  It was at this moment the audience gasped, a great magnificent audible breath, in delight, or horror, I can’t say, but it sure is great to be in the theatre when that happens. Also, for me it is at this time when momentary confusion sets in and there is suddenly a grand visceral, emotional and cerebral engagement, one that locks characters in the respective roles and slowly eases me into another perspective.

Colman Domingo, the director, has a splendid understanding of the material and slips us in and out without missing a beat. The second act moves into material that gives us a sincere truth about who these people actually are and why they behave the way they do. It takes us away from the legends and into a demonstrative reality. There is a deep emotional connect with the characters in the second act.  Even reality is never the complete truth. Overall, the execution is superior.

Travis Johns (James T) gives an interesting and credible performance. There’s more to be had with the opening telephone conversation and his relationship with the other person on the phone. Also, strengthening the relationships with his siblings would add to an already fine performance.

Frances Fisher is superior as Lillie Anne and also very funny. Fisher’s craft is excellent especially her relationship with all four of her siblings which is commanding in a traditional big-sister way. She is the organizer who sees value in saving a life worth saving if only she could get the others on board. And getting them all on board is what is amazing about Fisher’s performance.

Lisa Rothschiller does justice to Adlean, the one with cancer who has a ravenous appetite for canned corn, cigarettes, and popping pills. This is a role where Rothschiller has multiple opportunities to define the relationship with each sibling showing us the similarities and the differences.

Elyse Mirto also does well as Marie.  Marie has a mean streak in her and has to be controlled in one fashion or another. Marie is an alcoholic and in taking part of the intervention, she knows that she has some hard choices to make starting with the bottle she carries around with her, if only she would listen to her inner voice.

Rebecca Wisocky has a powerful presence on stage as Barbara aka Zippity Boom. Barbara seems to be the sanest one of the bunch.  Wisocky brings an authoritative history of the character on stage and one that suggests a woman who is very worldly, a woman who has overcome great adversity to get where she is today. It is, at this point in her life, when she knows who she is, who she was, and what she wants to become.  Her craft is subtle and commanding all in the same breath and a privilege to watch.  

Cherise Boothe was also Barbara on the night I was there. Without giving too much away, Boothe was solid in her craft switching from one character to another, with a variety of accents, style and grace.  She is very funny and holds her own on stage.  She is a solid performer.

Yvette Carson as Lillie Anne has a quiet presence during her first moments on stage sometimes giving away what little power she has over to her siblings.  But during the course of the play, she manages to secure herself as the head of the family especially during the intervention scene where she is reading of the letter. A lot of love, hard love went into that scene and was very enjoyable.

Omar J. Dorsey was also James T and was wearing a wig, a small fro. Dorsey’s James T was a little low keyed but managed to make his voice heard in the simplest of ways. This James T was methodical on the grill, low keyed, mellowed by the stuff he was smoking in his pipe. And what is it that makes a man want to join another man when he’s grilling?  

Kimberly Hébert Gregory also plays Adlean and aside from all the bickering back and forth between her siblings there seemed to be a deeper understanding of her character, a quiet simplicity that struck a tremendous chord, a display that showed a willingness to love and create the best for her sister despite all of her own problems. Gregory’s work was fantastic.

Heather Alicia Simms shows us a strong resolve as Marie, a woman who will not let go of her bottle of Jack Daniels but will point out the fault of others, namely the sister with cancer. The aftermath of the zapping was about the funniest things I have seen in a long time.  Well done!  

Dale Dickey (Adlean) and Maya Lynne Robinson (Barbara) did not perform on the night I was there.

Robert O’Hara’s play rings in a solid truth in theatre.  It is honest in the way it finds a certain kind of family expressing a familiarity and using that expression to get to the meat of the matter, pun intended for this barbecue.  No beating around the bush for this family, they say what’s on their mind and they don’t care who they hurt.  You’ve got to wonder, if the drugs lessens the pain as siblings speak the truth. I’m not sure if I got the three million dollars and the sinisterness of Barbara splitting one million.  

The Geffen is a special place in Westwood, a wonderful space with generous parking, and plenty of places to dine all around. The Geffen also offers a magnificent space for theatre professionals to continue to work in their craft. Those crew-members that contributed to the magic are as follows:

Randall Arney – Artistic Director
Gil Cates, Jr. – Executive Director
Kara Harmon – Costume Designer
Lap Chi Chu – Lighting Designer
Lindsay Jones – Composer & Sound Designer
Anne L. Hitt – Production Stage Manager
Cate Cundiff – Assistant Stage Manager
Phyllis Schuringa, CSA – Casting Director
Regina Miller – Chief Development Officer
Rhonda Kohn – Assistant Director
Dave Bova – Hair and Makeup Designer
Heather Roach – Associate Wig Designer
Yuri Okahana – Assistant Scenic Designer
Kaitlyn Aylward – Assistant Costume Designer
Rose Malone – Assistant Lighting Designer
Corinne Carillo – Associate Sound Designer
Jenny Foldenauer – Wardrobe Supervisor
Bryce Potter and Danielle Richter – Wig Supervisors
Alex Norkus – Stage Crew
Ashley Nichole Henley – Production Assistant
Hazel Kuang – Properties Assistant
Cami Viand – Properties Artisan
Philip Rossi – Lead Carpenter
Bryce Gill – Lead Carpenter
Lael Osness – Draper

Run! Run! Run! And take your relative from Georgia.  You’ll love the GD heck out of this one.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Two Kids That Blow Sh*t Up – by Carla Ching

Nelson Lee and Julia Cho

By Joe Straw

The details on how I got here, to this theatre, on this night are very sketchy.  Someone invited me.  Who?  I’m not sure.  I had to go back in time, look back at my notes. And on this night everything looked dark, as it usually does, at night. 

Alas, it was a twitter invitation, a bird, and a chirp from a little blue bird. I responded.  Violà!  - Narrator.

Artists at Play presents the world premiere of The Two Kids that Blow Sh*t Up by Carla Ching, directed by Jeremy Lelliott and is now playing at the Lounge Theatre through September 04, 2016 in Hollywood.

The play is a remarkable achievement and an ostentatious work of art by Ms. Ching. It is a grand paean, a work in subtlety and nuance, of taking a moment, a cause, and tracing the cause to its brilliant roots. And, to top that off, it is written in a remarkable voice, one that is unpredictable, dramatic, and funny.   It is a story, albeit a non-linear gaposis, of love and hate between two best friends at various stages in their lives. One doesn’t get many opportunities to see an original work of art where the relationships are pristine and the dialogue laudable.   

Luminously directed by Jeremy Lelliott who manages to capture a significant through line through a very troubling relationship. This production is thoroughly enjoyable from top to bottom. 

Dare I say that there was only one thing missing.  (More on that later.)

What are the things that hold these two characters together?  What are the bonding elements, and the mechanism that keeps this relationship strong?  And, why haven’t they spoken in four years?

Age 38

“Hey, it’s me…” – Diana calling from a cell phone.

Diana (Julia Cho), 38 years old, who doesn’t have to say her name, waits at a bar near the Brooklyn Bridge for Max (Nelson Lee), also 38 years old.  When they finally see each other, both are wearing black, he wears a hoodie, to hide himself, apropos for the time and moment when the darkness covers most of his faults.   

They have things to talks about. 

The problem is that no one is speaking to the other, and they have not spoken to each other for the last four years.  Perhaps they are all talked out.   

Stilted in the moment Max finds it hard to make eye contact, or even express a fugitive grin. Max would just rather flip coasters like a deck of cards not admitting anything while Diana looks on. 

Diana takes her coasters and builds a mansion, (well better than his) proving a point about their relationship.  

“Why are we here?” – Max

Yes, why are we here?  Well to understand the now we have to go back to the past.

Julia Cho and Nelson Lee

Age 9

Maybe they were nine year old when they first met. Snowfall in New York makes for a pristine play space outside an apartment building.  And because they are kids their job is to stay away from under the parents and make a snowman.  

Diana would much rather build a snowwoman, but Max, head jogging like a bobble toy, snarls like that’s the most ridiculous thing he has ever heard. Still, they build together.

“Your name is kinda messed up, Di.” – Max

This doesn’t sit too well with Diana.  She is headstrong and has a mouth on her like a drunken sailor as she curses her parent’s frugality. Image of a ruffled chicken come to mind.  Just 9 years old.

Max says he takes judo.  He’s a yellow belt.  Diana in a game of one up man ship says she’s a green belt.

So now would be a good time for Max to go inside and get some juice. And as he leaves Diana puts breasts on the snowwoman. Max acts like he doesn’t care, or makes out that he doesn’t care when he comes out.  And maybe that’s what brings them together at first.

Diana asks Max why he didn’t bring her juice. (The personalities have made their mark.)

“Have you blown up anything today?” – Diana

Max has already gained a reputation as something else explodes around the house.  And that’s just the start of things blowing up.   

Age 24

“I want Gina.” – Max

Max has fallen in love.  Her name is Gina (not seen).  She is the main clown in a circus show in Atlantic City. Diana takes in this information in stride; his love for her, but one still sees a little disappointment in her eyes.  

Max, as usual, doesn’t have any money, but wants to take Gina out. So, guided by inspiration, Diana takes what few dollars there is between them for gambling money and says they will be having steak by midnight.

Age 15

Fifteen years old and they have a better idea about communicating with each other.  Liking each other a little more, expressing their feeling how they feel about their parents, and about themselves.

“You are crazy.” – Diana

“Is that a bad thing?” – Max

Age 28

“ Number 256.” – Announcer

That’s the number they started on.  Prenuptials arranged, the couples are now called by a numbering system to get married. A cold and heartless announcer counts up as each couple step up to the marriage plate.  Max and Diana are dressed but Max is not getting married on this day.   

Diana nervously wonders if she has got everything.  Her epilepsy medicine, Max gives that a “check”.  Maybe Max doesn’t think marriage, for her, is a good idea, and asks Diana why she loves him. Her response is not definitive,  “that he makes her safe.”

Max sees something in that statement. He knows her far better than she thinks.

“Good guys are not what you choose.” – Max

And while he’s on the subject Max tells Diana that he owes the groom $800.00 and would he do a favor and ask him to forgive the debt.

Diana is really not happy about having to do this on her wedding day.

Age 17

Max has got this harebrained idea of becoming an actor and Diana has all the answers because she’s smarter than him.  No truer words were spoken. Well, at least, that’s what she always thought.

Carla Ching’s play is a work of art, luxuriously fascinating in the manner in which it is presented moving back and forth in time.   In each scene, the audience collects significant bits of information, and then puts the pieces together.  No pun intended but the audience are like members of a bomb squad piecing together fragments of a crime scene, while the characters are blowing things up, mostly their relationship.

For example, after going back and forth in age, we think we know the characters. And, out of the blue, we get a piece of information, at the age of 28, that Diana has epilepsy.  It is said in a casual way, an intimate acknowledgement the characters know about each, and, in another flashback, we find out more how that became intimate.   There are a lot of these moments in this play.

To say more about the play would just be giving the pieces away. At this point you have one day to catch this production, September 4th 2016 being the last day.

Nelson Lee and Julia Cho

Julia Cho (Diana) is excellent in her craft. Cho has a wonderful symmetry in her dramatic manner and style. Diana is a complicated character.  She is strong-willed, forceful, and very smart. Sometime her vocal predilection gets into the way of her intentions, what she really wants but is unable to articulate. She is in love with Max, but love always gets in the way in doing the right thing.  Cho is a marvelous actor with a unique and powerful presence.

Nelson Lee (Max) is solid in his craft. Max is a character who is not really reliable except where his friend is concerned but then again he only shows up when he wants something.  The kind of friend that most people keep at arms length. He does his best to cause havoc, whether it is subtle (the kiss) or instrumental (the theft).  Funny, but he never apologized or even admitted to his misdeeds. Lee has a strong and powerful manner on stage.

The moments in Jeremy Lelliott’s direction are very subtle but it is a solid outing.  One prefers a play with an emotional outpouring; a feeling that one will lose the other in what ever form that takes. It never goes that far, but it could.

The one missing thing on this night, especially after a very robust applause, was a second curtain call.  The work deserved it.  

I loved the Brooklyn Bridge painted on the upstage wall.  It was just the right touch provided by Se Oh, Scenic & Properties Design, to show that we were near Chinatown in New York.

Other members of this magnificent crew are as follows:

Emily Brown-Kucera & Rachel Stivers – Costume Design
Alexander Le Vaillant Freer – Lighting Design
Jesse Mandapat – Sound Design
Andrew Knight – Dramaturg
Donna Eshelman – Movement Specialist
Jonathan Castanien – Stage Manager

This show had a very short run and deserves a longer run.

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves the Brooklyn Bridge!

The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, California