Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow by John Patrick Shanley

Scottie Thompson and Sal Landi

By Joe Straw

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow by John Patrick Shanley, directed and produced by Mark Blanchard, is now playing at the beautiful Hudson MainStage Theatre in Hollywood through October 29th, 2017.

Tommy (Ade M’Cormack) is a bit off. So off he doesn’t know if he is coming or going.  One thinks that he is mostly going. He is a juvenile in a man’s body, unwilling to make the heartiest of decisions about life.  What do you expect from an artist? Or, a wannabe artist who paints like a three-old with distorted figures and eyes that don’t quite match. Is it cubism? If so, he is a Picas, without the so.  And now he is down to his bare minimum, a work of art drawn in crayon, and that is something only an inebriated artist would truly enjoy.    

Funny thing, there’s no paint anywhere, or a brush for that matter.  His clothes spotted with holes do not have an ounce of paint on them. Maybe it’s poverty that prevents him from having art supplies, what with the rent being $1,200.00 a month and no visible means of support, except the money he steals from his mother.

But what he has got is his beer, lots of beer, in a small squared refrigeration unit. He thinks out loud now, holds his beer, and crushes the can before the contents are drained.  And, at the end of the drink, the can looks like a silly fragment, the afterlife of a hearty container that has succumbed to the deranged antics of an artist, the antichrist of beer etiquette.    

Donna (Scottie Thompson) bangs on the door, wants to be let in, and has some serious issues to discuss with him, most particularly she wants to know if he has been banging her sister, Mona (not seen).

He has, but it’s not really his fault, it’s the voices, the devil in him that is driving his mechanism to do things unjustly, and it’s really not his fault that Donna’s sister is sixteen years old, either.

Donna wants Tommy to promise that he won’t do it again.

“No.” - Tommy

Tommy is a certified winner (dripping sarcasm here), a keeper, and in a world with all kinds of mysterious diseases, this guy has the plague and should be avoided at all cost.

The problem is that Donna loves him (for those of you who have unwed daughters, roll eyes here), or maybe she doesn’t love him.  In any case, she is sitting on the fence and really needs to consult her estranged father (Sal Landi), another artist who has given up the brushes.

For some strange reason, and in her own way, Donna suddenly regards her Dad as a sage, a wise man in the face of all this disturbing news that she must face.  She tells Tommy that her dad will come back and beat him up as she walks out.  

But, Dad wants nothing to do with his daughter’s predicament.  He wishes her to figure it out. Don’t ask him any questions and he’ll tell you no lies.

John Patrick Shanley writes sentences that are as poetic as you can get.  It’s in all of his writing, in this outstanding comedy, and a slight divergence of the apache dance of Danny and The Deep Blue Sea.  And it is his words, lots and lots of words, that keep the characters moving in a meaningful direction and finally to the endpoint.

Scottie Thompson and Abe M'Cormack

Ade M’Cormack is outstanding as Tommy.  He is quantifiably in the moment, in the relationship, and very protective of his own worth.  The hand gestures pushing, pulling, and protecting his body is extremely effective. A beer in one hand trying to drown out the conscience noises that plague him, and the other hand covering his groin to keep them intact from his threating girlfriend and her father’s rage. He is a character, with his English accent that excels in the deceitful act of pettifogging. As an actor, M’Cormack is always watching, observing, and reacting to the conflict before him, finding out if what he is saying rings true to his immediate companion.  There is a lot here in his craft and it is outstanding.

Scottie Thompson

Scottie Thompson is a very angular actor as Donna, in the way that Tallulah Bankhead was angular.  Thompson has a very enticing look to go along with a very viable craft.  Donna is a character who has been done wrong, by her boyfriend who cheats on her and her father who is not really a father figure. Still, she needs her father’s help to get out of this predicament.  They don’t agree on much but she demands that her father take out this hoodlum, her boyfriend. One thinks there should be more of a backstory to this character, her job, her means of support, and the necessity of the argument that propels her in a direction that is in her heart.  Love is a good start and there must be more of that. And, does her costume (circa 1985) reflex the type of person she is?

Sal Landi is very funny as Dad. Landi brings a rich history to the role, and the backstory that is required in a Shanley role. His physical motions on stage are outstanding.  He is charming, witty, and manages to secure favor with everyone.  I’m not sure about his opening, passed out on the floor, and I think that could be improved. It shows us who he might be but does nothing to progress the scene.

Mark Blanchard directs and does reasonably well in some areas, and excellent in others.  The relationships are pleasing. We get boyfriend and disgruntled girlfriend, daughter and a disgruntled father, and father and disgruntled boyfriend.  Pleasing father with pugnacious instincts and daughter’s boyfriend aiming to wrap the whole thing up. Those relationships worked great and could not have been any better.

And then there is the action on stage, which amounted to getting a can of beer from the refrigerator and physically messing around on a deserted stage. (Limited set design by Aaron Lyons)   There is not much to work with.  Tommy throws his clothes on the couch and doesn’t bother to fold them. Donna calls the apartment “a sh*t hole” but does little to make it pleasing to her tastes.  Donna moves from one side of the stage to the other, at times without purpose.  One needs to move for a creative purpose. These are the moments when creativity kicks into high gear and movement on stage has a meaning that fits with the dialogue.  And, these moments need adjusting.

This production is an actor’s showcase and, as a showcase, it is superior in highlighting the work of the actors and director. With a few exceptions, I loved every moment of it.

One moment for a conscience stream of inner dialogue about Donna’s costume and other things. We’ve almost got the period, 1985, but what does the leather (or vinyl) top represents along with the modern heeled boots, the black belt, short jeans, and ripped leggings? She is not living in the streets. Does she wear that costume to entice her boyfriend?  Does it have any effect on him? (Didn’t see any of that on stage.)

She wants this man.  She has to figure out what the costume does for her, her character, and her relationship to the man she wants. An actor should try on multiple costumes to fill a creative need. With this artistic, creative, and intelligent character the sky is the limit. 

Also, she is a woman who appreciates and knows art, part of the art culture of New York.  How does her appreciation work in securing the man? Does he get it?  Does she see that he is getting it?

Michelle G. Stratton is an understudies Donna but did not perform the night I was there.

I loved the exuberance of the curtain call. Keep it.

Run! Run! Run!  And take an actor.  You’ll take so much more with you when the night ends.

Donny Jackson – Lighting Designer
Nick Machado – Sound Designer
Sandra Kuker PR – Publicist
Andrew Flores – Lighting and Sound Board Operator
Chika Nashiki – Production Stage Manager

The Hudson MainStage Theatre
6539 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90038

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Exit Strategy by Ike Holter

L - R Remy Ortiz and Adam Silver - Photos by Se Hyun Oh

By Joe Straw

“Races which are petrified in dogma or demoralized by lucre are unfit to guide civilization.” – Jean Valjean – Les Miserables – Victor Hugo 

Sometime ago in my past, near the start of Mrs. Darden’s second grade class, a group of prospective assistant teachers formed a line. And having taught us a tad about democracy, the students were asked to pick the one we wanted as an assistant.

They all said a little something about their work and then walked outside while we voted.  Everyone chose the pretty one with the pretty dress (2nd graders), because the others were, in our mind, a little less attractive.

So they came back in.  The pretty one immediately took herself out of the running and said that she was already assigned across the hall, and left, abruptly. 

We were devastated.

Still, we voted again and this time chose the least attractive one. It’s funny but in her time with us, she became beautiful, funny, and warm in the manner for which she cared for us and responded when we needed her help. 

And when she said goodbye at the end of her term, everyone took a deep breath and there was a shared sigh. 

She walked to the door, stopped and looked at us one last time. And we started to cry, collectively. – Narrator

School’s out

…School's out for summer
School's out forever
School's been blown to pieces – Alice Cooper

Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center and Sixth Avenue proudly presents the West Coast Premiere of Exit Strategy written by Ike Holter and directed by Deena Selenow in the Davidson/Valentini Theatre through November 5th, 2017.

Jon Imparato with the Los Angeles LGBT Center and Adam Silver with Sixth Avenue magnificently produced the show.

Exit Strategy is presented in the square; the audience is seated on all four sides of the playing area, the actors are a nose away from the audience, and this is a perfect venue for this play.  The place is a teacher’s lounge for the most part, the set is about as minimal as you can get but, the show is not about the place, it is about the people, the teacher, administrator, and the student, most fighting for a cause, and one who is not.

There’s always somebody higher up that makes the decisions, in collogue to rid the city of a nuisance. They are always looking at the big picture, the test scores, and crimes in the area.  In this case, it is Chicago where there’s more than one death by gunshot every day, 700 in 2016. They are infused with the troublous times where two human beings die each day from gunshot wounds in Chicago, near the campus, or the surrounding neighborhood.     

Best solution?  Tear down that low achieving, rat infested, racially mixed school and save the money to hire a Spago chef for the high-achieving white school.  

But let’s look deeper, educators are working there, some are almost at the end of their career, others are not near retirement age and need to look elsewhere – a new community, a new location.

So, what’s that solution? Fight for the school until you’ve changed minds and the school remains.  But there’s a huge problem – they don’t get along, not even on their best days. Forget about working on the same page, there’s no paper, including toilet paper.  It’s enough to make everyone irritable.

June Macfie and Adam Silver

Ricky (Adam Silver) has broken the news to everyone except Pam (Jane Macfie). Ricky is polite about it all, dress conservatively, tie and all.  He is soft spoken and has the political wherewithal to release the news in his own time.

Pam is having none of it. She stalks him in a gruff and bearlike manner.   She wants him to get right to the point.  She has an unconquerable obstinacy, has seen too many years, has run into too many of his kind, and demands that Ricky get right to the point.

Pam pulls out a box of Marlboro and dares Ricky to stop her from lighting.

“A lady doesn’t light her own cigarette.” – Ricky

Nice one.

It doesn’t take much to know that Ricky is a player and smart too as Pam appreciates his gesture.  And then she opens his Starbucks cup and drops a few ashes into his drink, just as a matter of unholy politeness.  

Things go downhill from there but they come to an understanding, sort of. Ricky wants to know if she’ll be all right. He asks her to knock on the wall to let him know that she’s all right.  Pam says she will.  She does, and then she shoots herself, dead.

Arnold (Darrett Sanders) is always the first to arrive at school, has been for many years. Luce (Remy Ortiz) thought he would be the first but no such luck. Luce, with undemonstrative pity, appears to be sensitive to the pain Arnold must be feeling, with the death of Pam, and he shows it.

Sadie (LaNisa Renee Frederick) saunters into the lunchroom, unctuous pose and all, with a few shopping bags of food and rat poison with the idea that one thing needs to be taken care of at that school. What that could be, remains to be seen.  Just Luce’s luck, that in one of those bags is a juice box for his supreme enjoyment.

“How was your summer?”- Sadie

Luce jumps around happy that someone has asked him about his summer when Jania (Maria Romero) comes in and brings the whole room down with her negativity, on crime, thugs, and bullet holes in car bumpers. 

Arnold, presenting a tragic figure, walks into the room.  He has an agenda about memorializing Pam. All in the room are sympathetic to his plight but none have a way to comfort him.  

Can’t say too much about the play that would be giving it all away. It is done without an intermission and it moves along quickly with witty repartee.

Exit Strategy by Ike Holter has an exceptional cast, each providing a special brand of character, an ethic mix of educators with an altruistic sense of self and propriety. Deena Selenow wonderfully directs it in an amusing likeness of real and not-so-real school antics. There is so much detail in Selenow’s direction; it is the little things that put this production way over the top in form and execution. Every moment is a joy to watch and the acting is astonishing.

Jane Macfie plays a mean Pam.  Well, she’s not so mean under that rough exterior.  She has been in the system so long that she demands undemonstrative respect. Sadly her tenure as a schoolteacher is just about over and she has nothing to show for it. She succumbs to the advice of a man who was in diapers when she started. She sees this, doesn’t like it, and moves on.  Macfie is terrific in the role. This is one actor that I would have like to have seen from all four perspectives.

Adam Silver does a wonderful job as Ricky, a nebbish, slightly nerdy, sagacious man whose job is to fire teachers, give them a pamphlet, and send them on their merry way. Ricky gives them the school year to get their act together without actually booting them out into the streets.  But then, he has a change of heart, a way that he can work things out, save the school, and come out ahead. He is also a brainiac who has a vision and acts on unutterable impulses when the time is right.  Silver gives a brilliant performance and is an actor that is completely comfortable in this role.  And it is in the little moments that he truly shines.

L - R Adam Silver and Darrett Sanders

Darrett Sanders is Arnold, a man who has seen it, done it, read it, heard it, and smelled it all before. He’s not too keen about jumping ship to join the others plan that he thinks is a useless endeavor.  He sees their proposal as a pie in the sky, the vitreous glitter on a worthless piece of chocolate, chocolate cake, and not worth a dime of his time. Sanders is slow and methodical in his choices. The hand gestures are sublime, ambling a western motif, and a Ben Johnson style of acting. This character though needs a little refinement, something the represents the good of old, the wisdom of age, an unreadable stare that speaks volumes, and then climbing out of a ubiquitous fog to make his mark.  There is more to the sunglass and chair scene in which he must make his mark. And, that is only to add to an already remarkable performance.

There’s a lot going on with Maria Romero as Jania. There is certainly more going on underneath than we are privy to.  Romero is a stunning actor filling those moments. But, some of her dialogue is lost to the other three walls and those are moments that we need to hear clearly.  There is more to the character, her youth as a teacher is a plus and probably can get a job somewhere else.  But there must be a driving conflict in character that keeps her in this game that one doesn’t really see.

LaNisa Renee Frederick is Sadie, a giving teacher, who also understands the necessity of discipline. She plays by the rules and maybe they are her own rules but what the heck, somebody’s got to make the rules to make this school work.  Unfortunately, her help is not working, compromising productive growth, and Sadie needs to figure out why. Frederick does a lot of wonderful work in this production.  She is as natural as one can be but what is the conflict that drives this character?

L - R June Macfie, Luke Teennie, Maria Romero, Adam Silver, Darrett Sanders (seated), Remy Ortiz and LaNisa Renee Frederick

Luke Tennie presents a very tall and opposing figure as Donnie.  Tennie is very impressive in this role.  He is smart, articulate, and has an extremely viable craft.  Donnie get himself into a lot of trouble, the good kind of trouble, and in his own vainglorious mode is able to talk his way out of it.  But as powerful as he is in the first scene, he seems to lose that power being an underling in the later scenes.  Donnie becomes less powerful but must not lose the reason he is there. There must be a better balance to complete a change in character.

Deena Selenow, the director, starts the show off with a bang, two being appearing out of nowhere, engaged in verbal conflict and she never lets up on the action, which includes fascinating bodywork on the scene changes. At one time characters are stretched against the wall in an effort to hide, or as a way to present the significant moment of a character. Is this a moment that shows unity?  One is not sure. The character Pam joins the audience and we really have to see her in character throughout those moments. (Macfie seemed to be enjoying the show as much as we were.)  

Selenow’s work is combined with the brilliant Sound Design by Jesse Mandapat that keeps you there in the moment, during the scene changes.  And then there’s the blaring roar of heavy machinery that grinds the audience into a state of shock.  (The sirens in the background never stopped and I found that slightly disconcerting.)  

Ike Holter’s work is brilliant. As the writer, he manages to capture the flavor of each character and their reason for being. The fascinating thing about the characters is they are metaphorically all out of focus.  It’s like looking into a camera lens and seeing blurry figures. When things got tough those figures lacked the focus to turn things around. They’ve all been living their lives without a unified direction except Arnold who knows what he doesn’t want, but doesn’t know how to save the school. The ending lacks the emotional catharsis, the human element of longing that we must get from at least one of the characters.

All right, but here’s the thing – my one negative note, the overlapping dialogue makes it hard to hear everything, and the sound of voices, only feet away, bounce off the bare walls and at time that dialogue is lost.

The minimal but very effective Scenic Design was created by Se Hyun Oh.

Lena Sands’ Costume Design placed the actors in Chicago.

Matt Richter’s Lighting Design moved the play along in time and space and was extremely enjoyable.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Maggie Marx – Production Stage Manager
Adam Earle – Assistant Director
Ken Werther Publicity - Press Representative
Edwin Peraza - Master Electrician
Red Colegrove - Master Carpenter
Eric Babb - Prop Master/Assistant Manager
Veronica Mullins - Sound Assistant
Tor Brown, Maggie Marx, Edwin Peraza - Scenic House Crew

Run! Run! Run! And take an educator.  They will love it as much as me. Or, is it "I"?

Tickets: (323) 860-7300

The Los Angeles LGBT Center’s
Davidson/Valentini Theatre
1125 N. McCadden Place
Hollywood, CA  90038

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Frida Stroke of Passion by Odalys Nanin


By Joe Straw

Pedro Linares Lopez was an artisan and a skilled maker of cartonería, or papier-mâché sculptures.

At the age of thirty, in bed and deathly ill, Linares fevered a vision, and in that vision he saw vibrant mutated animals shouting the words “Alebrijes! Alebrijes! Alebrijes!”  

And in the manner of dreams, the sounds from those animals became horrifying causing Linares to run before the screams pulled him asunder.  He ran down a narrow stone passageway to find a way out and as he looked back, he saw traces of paste and papier-mâché trailing him before he found an escape through a narrow window.

The fever broke.

Linares recovered from his illness and subsequently started creating sculptured animals from his dreams. He created figurines for Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera. And one can surmise that Linares created a Judas figure for Kahlo at one time or another.

And now, as Frida lays ill, it is Judas in this play, a live figurine, that plays an important part, to let her know, there is a way out.  - Narrator

Macha Theatre/Films presents Frida Stoke of Passion, written, directed and produced by Odalys Nanin, at the Macha Theatre in West Hollywood and has been extended through October 21, 2017.

Frida Stroke of Passion is a delightful night of theatre, color, tempestuous music, and flamboyant characters; some of these are real and some imagined in the mind of a woman seeking justice for her life.

The incomparable Odalys Nanin brings a different kind of natural spirit to the Los Angeles theatre scene, and writes about famous libidinous characters that held more than just hands. This is a play of natural spirits that embrace life without bordered walls all reaching for unquestionable destinations. Nanin brings that spirit to this play.  She is a grand fixture and an amazing Los Angeles playwright.

The play takes place on July 7th 1954, a day after Frida Kahlo’s 47th birthday. Sickened and in bed, she hears voices sing Las Mañanitas. One is not completely sure whether it is real or imagined but the songbirds are friends and lovers from a meaningful part of her life. 

In Frida’s life, friends come and go, through the imaginary revolving door just inside her bedroom.  And whether it was just a vision, these friends suddenly fade into the background, one wisp away into nothingness, and without closure or an insincere farewell. 

Frida prepares as though she knows her death is just days away. She sits, like a still painting, on her bed, holding a diary.  The smallest movement gives her excruciating pain.  Still, the pain is not so insurmountable that she cannot reach for her lipstick and apply a beautification, a generous dose of bright red paint to coat her pale-dry lips.  These small painful movements remind her of her day-to-day physical travails.  She laments losing her right leg below the knee to gangrene, while she lights a medicinal cigarette to sooth the pain, and awaits the shot from her nurse, Judith (Tricia Cruz).

Nurse Judith finally shuffles in with her basket, giving Frida the shot. This sends Judas (Daniel Lavid) up from a trap door and into her bedroom. Judas is the explanation, the creature that allows all that come after to be a part of the here and now. And so they come, one last time, some with answers, others to play.

Frida Stroke of Passion is another fine work written by Odalys Nanin, which goes down smooth, but possibly not as smooth as the liquor in Frida’s bottle.  The play is different than other plays she has written.  And, while there are bumps in the road, Frida is an exceptional play that gives flavor to a host of fascinating characters in this theatrical bibliography.

The one sheet on the play says: “The story that peels away the secret cover up and reveals what or who killed Frida Kahlo.”  It’s not really a mystery or a cover up. But one really sees the play as a character living life and giving life to the fullest while revealing the incremental steps that leads to her death.

While the director Odalys Nanin and Co-Director Nancy De Los Santos-Reza may not have used this as their viable through line, it is worth the suggestion.  More could be made of the Judas character that seems to quickly come and go without making his mark; he is the bridge between life and death, the here and nether, and the alpha and omega.   

Here are a few thoughts about the exceptional actors.

Ebony Perry and Odalys Nanin

Odalys Nanin has a very powerful presence as Frida Kahlo.  She is fluid and unafraid of the movements of this three dimensional character, throwing her hands up into the air, grabbing a brush, and embracing her friends all for the sake of her art.  But the movements on stage must be incremental and leading us in the direction of her final end.  And it is the manipulation of the characters running into her bedroom that emotionally moves her in that direction.  Frida’s life absorbs the lives of all that touch her and has meaning that reaches for the end in her last few hours. At the end, Nanin’s performance leaves us warm and wanting more.

Campbell De Silva does not resemble Diego Rivera or bring Diego’s fiery political character to the table, but he does present a refined persona with his own interesting history. Throw out the differences, add the similarities, and watch how natural he is on stage.  With that said, the character Diego needs a metaphorical pallet, to be entranced by the paint, and while searching for refinements in all things he deals with his wife’s predicament. De Silva’s vocal patterns are precise, unwavering and manages to get what he wants. Still, De Silva can add and not take anything away from his marvelous performance.  De Silva also serves as the Associate Producer.

Paul Cascante is Leon Trotsky.  Trotsky has been dead for many years and yet appears as a vision, or a ghost.  Trostsky has a purpose but it is not clear what effects this has on Kahlo and how that moves Kahlo along to her final destination.  Cascante is amusing in the role.  One wishes to see how this character moves Frida to her final destination.

Campbell De Silva and Tricia Cruz

Tricia Cruz is Nurse Judith, a woman who takes her job very seriously.  Her job is to administer Frida’s pain medications, which means that she constantly battles Frida about who is in control.  We lose sight of Cruz and her facial expressions under the wide rimmed glasses but she manages to present a very nice character on stage that gets her into a lot of trouble.  And yet, Judith’s relationship to Diego should be more refined given Diego’s proclivities so that when the end is near, the end of their relationship is more painful.  

Daniel Lavid is impressive as Judas, a figurine (alebrijes) possibly made by Pedro Linares Lopez for Frida. Judas reminds Frida of her pain, her body parts, and the strains of living everyday life.   Lavid presents a very physical character on stage and is very articulate in speech and manner.  It is rare when you see an actor present the complete package on stage but Lavid is successful on all fronts.

Marisa Lopez, Odalys Nanin and Francisco Medina

Marisa Lopez plays Chavela Vargas a singer who enchants Frida. Lopez has a wonderful and feisty voice.  And in character, she manages to sooth Frida, to love her, and as suddenly as she is there, she is gone. (In real life, Vargas had major drug problem of her own but we see little of that in this characterization.) Lopez does all the right things but there must be a way to strengthen the character that moves Frida at specific points in her journey. Lopez also plays Maria Felix, an angular actress and singer; we see little difference in those characters in what they need, want, and behave.  It is said that Felix fell madly in love with Frida but Lopez could add more. 

Francisco Medina brings in the instrumentation, a guitar, to fill the stage with song.  Those songs are wonderfully performed.  Medina also brings an extra something to Manalo, Frida’s mentally incapacitated farm-worker that hits all the right notes (no pun intended). Medina is a wonderful actor and musician.

Ebony Perry is successful as Josephine Baker.  Actually, you can’t go wrong, coming on stage dressed in bananas. There is a lot of humor in her limited time on stage but the interesting part of her performance is that she brings the time and place with her as she maneuvers on stage.  It is a delightful performance.

Marilyn Sanabria comes in like gangbusters as Tina Modotti, an Italian revolutionary political activist and artist. Sanabria brings a grand physical life as Modotti and fills the stage with her levity and brings a special nuance to the role.  A grander Italian accent would be nice. Modotti died in 1942 and may have been a remembrance. Also, Sanabria plays Teresa Proenza, a Cuban Revolutionary and spy for Fidel Castro. Although Proenza was a low-keyed version of Modotti, the two characters became a little mixed in their execution on stage.

Joseph Bixler is a cute Little Diego and does extremely well in the role.

There is an alternate cast who did not perform the night I was there.  They are as follows: Christie Black as Josephine Baker, Kesia Elwin as Judas, Diana Lado as Tina Modotti/Teresa Proenza, Lupita Ortis as Chavela Vargas, and Jesus “Chuy” Perez as Manalo/Musician.

Marco de Leon the Scenic Designer has created an unusual set of columns that are broken and patched together, see through walls of string and canvas, and windows that allow those who want to come in, in.

Carey Dunn was the Lighting Designer of this delightful production.

Campbell de Silva is the Associate Producer.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Adrian Tafoya – Production Assistant
Anielka Gallo – Graphic Designer
Antje Dohrn – Photographer
Monica Orozco – Tango Choreographer (Did I mention the lively dancing?)
Chris Hume – Editor & Web Design

Run! Run! Run! And take someone who loves a historical work of art and color, lots and lots of color.

Macha Theatre/Films
1107 N. Kings Road
West Hollywood, CA  90069

Monday, September 18, 2017

Blackbird by David Harrower

By Joe Straw

Blackbird by David Harrower and directed by Don Bloomfield now playing at The MET Theatre starts with a severe sense of dread and never lets up.  Blackbird is a taut and horrifying experience that will have the theatregoer’s mind racing with visions and thought provoking questions days after viewing.

In short, Blackbird is a wonderful theatrical experience with performances that will leave you breathless.  This is a show not to miss.  Again, do not miss this show! There are brilliant performances all around. Don Bloomfield’s direction is superb, engagingly gratifying, and filled with so much emotional backstory that it is hard not to turn away for one, lasting, second.

The theatrical night begins with the entrance into the MET Theater. Audience members walk through the set of discarded trash and littered paper wrappings to get to the seats.  Turning around, after being seated, one notices an office lunchroom. My first thought, because of the mess, was that is was the back room of an auto supply store. Later, we learn it is a company that manufactures dental and pharmaceutical products. 

Notwithstanding, the room is unkempt; a plastic bottle is plunged in a Cup of Noodles, and an empty salad container sits on a table center stage.  Two plastic chairs, perhaps found in an alleyway of discarded items, conflict with a lunch table that has room for one, uncomfortably.

A larger table stretches upstage below two frosted windows, where visible ghost like shadows pass back and forth in anxious shades.   Cheezy crackers adorn that table along with an assortment of plastic bottles, boxes and cans. A lunchroom clock above the door is permanently stopped at 12:00 noon.  

Used lockers are stage left against the wall and next to that are nine white storage boxes of materials, one imagines, of files ready to be audited or subpoenaed.  

Against the wall, stage right, are two curious instructive notes “Trash Here Peter”, and “Let’s be Green! Recycle in Green Bins Peter”, above the trash bins. (Peter is still mindfully distracted.) Along side of the bins are a working sink, a microwave, a plastic drip water bottle and cheese puffs on the top shelf. (Beautifully set with no credit for Set Designer.)

The dirty lunchroom reeks with employee complacency and of lives not bothered with peripheral cleanliness or tidiness. It is a wonderful image of the cluttered lives we are about to encounter.  It conveys the metaphorical images David Harrower had in mind when he wrote this play.  

Blackbird does not have an intermission. The only way out is the office door on the set, so we are all captured, for the time being, a fly on the fourth wall to intrude into these desperate lives until a final truth is divulged, and it is a ghastly one.  

Ray (Michael Connors) escorts, actually hides, Una (Cali Fleming) from his co-workers directly into the lunchroom.  The emotional shock is quickly highlighted.  Ray’s face has drained of color while Una just stares at this man.  A translucent wall elevates, and one so thick, no one knows what to say. They are quiet pillars, beings of unintelligent thoughts, hoping to gather their wits about them in confrontation.

This meeting is disturbing, filled with raw tension, emotional hurt. And when they communicate what comes out are short speaks, implications, from the past, to the immediate, and into the future. 

Ray, knowing who she it, is momentarily unwilling to come to terms with the reality.

Ray, in his mid fifties, salt and pepper hair, and hiding behind spectacles and a goatee says he’s got a lot of work to do.  But Una, 27, in a pretty red summer dress, is not going anywhere.  She has driven seven hours to see him – last seeing him fifteen years ago when she was twelve. She asks him if the other employees will all go home so that they can talk. But talk about what?  Settle what?

“How many other twelve-year-olds have you had sex with?” – Una

“None.” – Ray

Una’s plan to catch him unaware works.  She finds out that he doesn’t go by the name of Ray anymore. Now Ray has little chance to make things up and as the night wears on Ray finds himself in more trouble than he bargained for.  

Michael Connors is superb as Ray. Connors gives us a three-dimensional character with an incredible backstory as he manipulates the life that was once called Ray.  Ray is not altogether truthful mostly because of what he doesn’t say. And yet, Ray is fighting for his life, his job, and his family in his version of the truth that lacks credulity.   These actions are clearly visible in Connors’ exceptional performance.  Whatever you believe about the character, his sincerity, his truths, Connors gives Ray a tremendous truth and this is a performance not to be missed.

Cali Fleming has a sultry indigenous look that plays well with the character, Una.  Underneath, one cannot tell what she is thinking, what she wants, and how she manages to go about getting it. But her presence is one that is terrifying because her history is ineradicable, and her route of justice is circuitous. Underneath she is simmering in a quiet rage, about the misdeeds done to her long ago that destroyed herself and her family. There is something mysterious about her track of execution, what she knows in her heart of hearts, that she seeks and finds out.  Fleming’s performance, backstory and all, is marvelous.   Her actions highlight a strong mental connection and her craft is impressively solid.  

Don Bloomfield, the director, sets the bar high with this type of acting. It is a monster of a show that manages to deliver an emotional punch and a defined backstory.  This method of work suggests a rigorous dose of improvisation and one that forms a strong connection between the lives of the characters on stage.  

Bloomfield direction suggests we choose sides quickly in the initial meeting. Una comes in with the moral authority on her side and we learn that Ray has paid the price for his crime.  But there is something deeper and darker here – the reason this meeting is taking place – and the reasons why Peter is mindfully distracted. Bloomfield doesn’t let it all go, not right away, or maybe not ever.  He leaves a healthy dose of ambiguity in this production so the theatergoer can run with this and tell their friends.

If there is one quibble, one quibbles this: Una gives an emotional speech with the lights completely dimmed on everything but her.  It is a very visual description that requires, or almost begs a necessary response or action from Ray.  One wonders how dimming the lights progresses the relationship and moves that relationship to its final conclusion.

David Harrower, the playwright, is from Edinburgh Scotland.  His bio was inadvertently left out of the program. Blackbird was produced by the Rogue Machine in Los Angeles in 2011 and won a LA Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Writing. In style, Blackbird is poetic, an exceptional work of art, and the reasons we need intimate theatre.  

Victoria Watson wonderfully produced the show.

Other members of this remarkable crew are as follows:

Donny Jackson - Lighting Designer
Hunter Reese Peña – Social Video Contributor and Program Designer
Johnnie Gordon - Sound Designer.
Brad Bentz – Technical Director
Sandra Kuker PR – Publicist
Gema Trujillo – Stage Manager

Run! Run! Run!  And take an actor, someone who enjoys the execution of great theatre. You’ll have much to talk about on the way home.   

Blackbird is a production of A DBA Studio at The Met Theatre and runs through October 22, 2017.

MET Theatre – The Great Scott (downstairs)
1089 N. Oxford Ave.
Los Angeles, CA. 90029

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Disney Aladdin Dual Language Edition –Book by Jim Luigs and Jose Cruz Gonzalez, Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice


By Joe Straw

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy.
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. – Iago – Shakespeare’s Othello

This is possibly a perfect fit for this venue (Casa 0101) but moving it to a larger house will require additional work, especially where the actors are concerned. – Narrator on Aladdin January 22, 2017

Walking to the stages of the Los Angeles Theatre Center is always a treat. It’s a pleasure to see actors, chat with them, and find out how their careers are going – not to mention catching a glimpse of what is going on in the other theatres.  LATC, home of the Latino Theatre Company, is a thriving and bustling place.

One ventured out on this night to LATC to see what changes had been made to Aladdin, specifically the production seen at Casa 0101 back in January (see write up on Aladdin on this blog) and how this show had made the transition from a 99-seat theatre to a theatre that seats approximately three hundred patrons.  

I noticed the “kids” got tap shoes and that made a wonderful difference. Also, the crowd scene in the marketplace was remarkably better in their social interactions.

One expects that moving up in increments of three, there would be that same increments in actors, sets, and the costumes.  But, with a few exceptions, the costumes and set appeared similar in the original production.  They got rid of the puppet bird, and now Iago (Luis Fernandez-Gil) had his face painted in character, bird like fashion, and on rolling shoes. (More on this later.)   

This is a show for kids, not really for adults, so load them up in vans and bring them on down.  They will have a wonderful time.

Let’s talk about what works well and give credit where credit is due.  Councilmember Gil Cedillo and TNH Productions along with El Centro Del Pueblo and CASA 0101 Theater gives Latino actors the opportunity to work at their craft, creating characters, and filling roles.  This is a consortium of like-minded individuals providing opportunity where little existed before.  Acting classes aside, one doesn’t learn the craft without experience in front of a live audience. All of that is good for growth and should be praised.

An examination of Aladdin by Jim Luigs and Jose Cruz Gonzales, one finds the book is clearly told from the perspective of Jafar (Omar Mata) whether it is intended or not.  This dual language show could easily be called Jafar. 

Jafar is the character that sets the rules and pulls the strings for which the other characters must work around in order to get what they want. For example, the Princess has to overcome Jafar’s language barrier to get the love of her life, Aladdin. The same holds true for Aladdin.  The Sultán (Henry Madrid) cowers under Jafar’s rules and everyone must work around Jafar’s lifestyle.

As the story goes, Jafar and Iago, his pesky bird, had previously found the lamp, made one wish, and that wish was to have the royals speak another language so that they could not communicate to the peasantries, keep the peasants uneducated and hungry. 

Then, somehow, Jafar loses the lamp.

In the meantime, the Sultán wants to marry off his petulant daughter, Jazmin (Valeria Maldonado) to a host of princes, all wonderfully played by Andrew Cano, Jesse Maldonado, and Alejandro Lechuga.  Lechuga is actually dressed like the artist known as Prince, complete with a Purple Rain jacket.     

But Jafar has other ideas about the princess, the lamp, the kingdom, and the world!     

Don’t read any further if you want to go because I’m going to speak about the craft. I write with no animosity. Theatre is a craft, a connection between audience and thespian.  And ideally, when the craft is working, both benefit from that connection.

Rigo Tejeda, director, might focus more on story, more on the dreams of the characters, and providing meaningful direction as to the plight of Aladdin.  Aladdin appears to be a secondary character in a show that has his name as the title. More needs to be made of Aladdin’s poverty and his ingenuity.

The cave scene didn’t work in the previous production and doesn’t work now.  The situation is not dangerous enough for all of the characters and requires a major reworking leading to the escape with Abu’s help.  

Iago is a major antagonist but flutters about the stage in an unfocused manner, without an objective, and without specific character traits to guide him.

Also, Tejeda must find a way to make the relationship between Jazmin and Aladdin work. The stakes now are too low and the bar is set even lower. Jazmin must fall deeply in love, must be deeply miserable at losing him, and then must be terrifically excited at finding him again.

The Sultán and Jafar’s relationship must work as well. Jafar works for the Sultán and must appear as an underling while scheming to get what he wants.

Also, there must be more to the relationship between Jazmin and the Sultán, as father and daughter, and a relationship that moves the story along.   

In a show, such as this, each main character needs a grand introduction and Tejeda must be the eyes for those characters to make that happen. As one example, the Magic Carpet (Danielle Espinoza) suddenly appears out of nowhere to play a significant part of the story but really has no purpose in this telling.  

The beautiful Royal Translators, Blanca Espinoza, Beatriz Tasha Magaña, and Shanara Sanders must work in another way.  For example, they must work in a way that gathers the information as a service, one supposes from the king, and then translates the messages to the peasantry (us).  They must be unique in their own right and convincingly convey the message in their own unique manner.  

The dance number that highlights the travel, first class by the way, out of the cave is wonderfully Choreographed by Tania Possick but mysteriously discards the Genie, Aladdin, Abu, and Magic Carpet as their guests traveling out of the cave.

The sound by Vincent A. Sanchez is spotty at best. Each person is miked up to be heard over the music. Iago, with Gilbert Gottfried like voice, was screeching and overpowering. Iago works best with a strong character and a clear objective. (All future actors should drop the Gottfried voice.)  Jazmin’s mic was coming in and out all night. Jafar, who has the best voice, was so low at times that it did not highlight his magnificent voice. Levels on the lead singers blended into the ensemble and for about half of the show one couldn’t understand the words of the musical lyrics.

If this is a show that only wants to work for kids, that’s fine.  But, if it is a show that wants to work for everyone, then it would also work for the kids as well.

Daniel Sugimoto has beautiful clarity in his speaking voice and his singing voice and is fine as Aladdin.  But, this Aladdin doesn’t act upon the conflict presented in this show; also he does not have a clear objective, which is to win the girl at all costs.  Aladdin is not too smart, lives on the street, is the luckiest man on the planet, and we must see all of that and more.    

Valeria Maldonado plays Jazmin.  She is judiciously aware and has her moments. These moments worked well at Casa 0101 but they do not translate well to the bigger venue.  That aside, she has some terrific moments when she is alongside Aladdin.

Finley Polynice did well as the Genie when he was heard over the ensemble. Genie’s overall objective is to rid himself of the lamp forever and he must be working with that thought in mind the moment he comes out of the lamp or the actions on stage are trite.  

Omar Mata is amazing as Jafar but really needs to work with the bird to get the relationship just right for this production and venue.  Mata needs to recognize the conflict surrounding Jafar, find the answers to overcome the conflict, and act on the solution. Mata’s voice should be used as a voice for evil.  His melodic tones are a knife that twists with his pleasure.  He uses the singsong voice in dialogue but doesn’t go far enough to make it a point.  The long note works well when it has an evil purpose.  (He has this note almost offstage left and that accomplishes little.)

Sebastian Gonzales requires the right characterization as Abu, the monkey who always comes to the rescue. The voice, and in particular the “screech” works terrifically. Abu is the sidekick who figures out things that Aladdin cannot. And, Abu is smarter than Aladdin.

Luis Fernandez-Gil has a wonderful smile and a great presence on stage, but he requires an objective to smooth out the actions of his performance. He is all over the stage without being specific to his character and his place in the performance. It is unfortunate the sound was not working in his favor on this night.  Iago is the whisperer of bad thoughts; he should be perched all over Jafar, his arms, his shoulder, and his head to convey his message, celebrate when he wins, and throw fits when he loses.  Think of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello.

Henry Madrid as the Sultán needs a moment in the beginning where we understand his power, his commanding presence as a ruler, and his command over Jafar.  And then we need to see that he has no control over his subjects, who speak another language, and is desponded and confused by his inability to rule effectively.

Other members of the cast who were not mentioned or did not perform the night I was there are as follows:

Monica Beld – Ensemble
Evan Garcia – Razú
Sarah Kennedy – Jazmin
Luis Marquez – Jafar
Bryant Melton – Ensemble
Rosa Navarrete – Rajah
Lewis Powell III – Genie
Jocelyn Sanchez – Ensemble
Abigail “Abey” Somera – Ensemble
Andrea Somera – Ensemble

Members of the crew are as follows:

Music Adapted, Arranged and Orchestrated by Bryan Louiselle
Musically Directed by Caroline Benzon
Costumes by Abel Alvarado
Sets by Marco De Leon
Lights by Sohail J. Najafi
Projections by Yee Eun Nam
Production Stage Managed by Jerry Blackburn
Produced by Felipe Agredano
Artistic Direction by Abel Alvarado
Steve Moyer Public Relations

Run!  And take a vanload of young kids. You’ll have a great time watching them smile. 
Tickets On Sale Now
Sept 8 to Sept 17

Los Angeles Theater Center
514 S. Spring St.
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Thursdays & Fridays
11am & 8pm

Saturdays at 8pm

Sundays at 5pm

$25 each for groups of 10 or more and for matinees only $20 each for groups of 10 or more:
Conrado Terrazas