Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Late Company by Jordan Tannahill


By Joe Straw

Maybe, I just didn’t catch it. Then again, maybe I did.  - Narrator

“Oh, shit!” - Debora

For lack of a better word. Debora Shaun-Hasting (Ann Hearn) hurries into her dining room and hammers her feelings home.  Her husband, Michael Shaun-Hastings (Grinnell Morris), follows like a wayward dog on an unwarranted mission. Their relationship is just a floating fragment of what it once was - much like the bickering going on between them now, even fighting about the choice of music.

Debora, dressing like a willful child of the sixties, scoops the ice with her fingers and releases the ice into the water glasses, on the nicely made table, slamming them, not gently, into the glass. Probably the most important day in Debora’s life and the company is late. Yes, no, they don’t get the ice tongs, just her unwashed fingers manipulating the ice, and throwing them right into the glass of water, serves them right.

Something is not right, feelings between man and wife, a sadness that tears deep into her soul?  Do you get that?  Debora’s face is weathered, masked by the element of time and tragedy. And Michael wants to put on his protective mask, not to be seen, hiding behind the circumstances of things that were and not yet to be.  

“Is she fat?” – Michael

Michael shouldn’t talk, with his perfect hair, his perfect teeth, down to the perfect way he trims his beard, slacks, shinning shoes, sweater, shirt, belt, can anything be more perfect?  Him with his loose-fitting urbanity, the fake political smile, the power of noblesse oblige of someone who calls the night, just who is he trying to unimpress?

So, it all comes down to this, her physical description, a put down, these are the guests for God’s sake.   There’s only so much one can do, set the table, once, twice, three times, check themselves in the mirror that bears down on them from the wall, complain about the lateness, and suddenly there is a knock at the door.

Is it possible to be over prepared?

And, of course it’s them, forty minutes late.  Doesn’t anyone use GPS these days, Google maps for the love of what is just plain right. 

Immediately having their coats taken, their shoes come right off so now they are in stocking feet.  (I know, that’s what they do in Canada. But, is it right?)

Tamara Dermot (Jennifer Lynn Davis) just makes herself too much at home, says she doesn’t want wine but Debora thinks, in keeping with the occasion, that she should have lots of it.  Tamara demurs once, but not twice, and then her glass is filled. Could this be a sign of an alcoholic?

Bill Dermot (Todd Johnson) wears a nasty looking sweater, something you might bring out from the back of the closet but certainly not appropriate for this night. And, not watching his weight, he’s the first one to go for the hors d’oeuvre.  Wait!!! There’s shrimp in the cocktail dip, one bite and their son, Curtis (Baker Chase Powell) well, one bite, and it’s fatal.

Eyes around the room – one can’t believe that Debora and Michael would deliberately do this? Not even Debora or Michael.  Does anyone check ahead of time? No, it turns out, they had no idea.

As long as Curtis doesn’t eat it, his father Bill is not concerned, not that he was really concerned anyway.   More for him as he drops three or four into his mouth, one hitting the floor.  No worries let someone else clean it up.

And Curtis ignores the food, the home, and the almost near-death experience because he is so inside his phone that he can’t take a moment to figure out the “why” of the why he is there. Not a young man you would suspect as having a ferocious conscience. It seems. Couldn’t he have gotten a decent haircut? They haven’t seen hair this long since the wayward sixties.  Must I repeat myself again that this is an important night.

There’s work to be done tonight, this is what they agreed to, and with all the chitchat not one thing is going to be accomplished, of any significance, not now, and maybe not ever.  But oh, you could cut the silent tension with knife and not make headway.

From the beginning, there are differences. The Shaun-Hastings, well, the last names for one should tell you those two are important enough for one not losing one or the other’s last name.  They are better educated, more accomplished. Michael is a politician (he had to move in order to win the position) and Debora is an artist.  She didn’t “steal” the sculptures sitting on her mantel, she works in steel.

The little things that throw a conversation off – steal versus steel – that makes the moments uncomfortable, as if they don’t have one more obstacle to overcome. They have little in common.  Would they finish the night in a manner befitting grown adults?

Not with Debora setting an extra place for someone who won’t be there. The pain from that action is enough to make to guests run out of the room.

I have to pause.  Bullying, in the written form, can be so tiring.

Theatre 40 of Beverly Hills presents the American premiere of Late Company by Jordan Tannahill, directed by Bruce Gray through February 19th, 2017, and produced by David Hunt Stafford.  

Late Company by Jordan Tannahill is a wonderful and important play about the subject of bullying, grief and forgiveness.  Its rich dialogue digs deep into the psyche of two families that are deep in turmoil.  They are in an emotional crevasse so profound they cannot see the opening.  So they battle, their warrior like conflict directed between themselves, the offending family, and their own internal struggle.   These two families, so far apart in purpose, agree to this night to find conclusion and to ease their infinite suffering. But their meeting to cure turns into an insalubrious miasma and you sometimes wonder, who exactly is the bully?

Bruce Gray, the director, wastes no time in getting into the meat of the matter.  His direction is exquisitely and brilliantly executed. This is the finest play I’ve seen this year.  Each moment is infinitively enlightening and carefully crafted, bounded together by a meticulous subtext that drives each and every character.  It doesn’t hurt that he has a solid cast of characters that defined the ordinary in extraordinary circumstances.

One thing that I had a thought about was the initial meeting, when the Dermots come through the door.  The entrance calls for a bold clarification that establishes the relationships. The one that truly counts is the relationship between Debora and Curtis.  That meeting must be bold, and it must be one that leaves a lasting impression even after you leave the theatre.

Ann Hearn as Debora Shaun-Hastings is a character that grows during the course of the night. Debora can be a cordial host, but really she is really interested in finding answers where there may be none.  Time will cure her emotional outpouring, but tonight she needs conclusion.  She refuses to use her art as a release for therapy.   Maybe one year is too early to have this confrontation, now she remains mad at everyone, trying desperately to find answers. It is a biting night for Debora in the way the outdoor Canadian weather bites the soul. Hearn is terrific as she fights her way - in the only way she knows how.   

Grinnell Morris is Michael Shaun-Hastings.  He is disappointed about what happened but what’s done is done.  He has misgivings about the unfortunate event but he was busy with his political career to put enough effort in his family life. Something had to give. In hindsight, he is lost, and trying to find his way.  How did he come this far only to be lost in his family life? Morris plays all sides in this character as all politicians might and in the end Michael wins the day. It is a small victory but one that Morris executes with passion.   

Jennifer Lynn Davis gives a wonderful performance as Tamara Dermot.  Tamara, a mother herself, is very sympathetic, but not so much that she would let another woman torment her son.  Through thick or thin, Tamara will live through the unexpectedness of this night, take what is coming, but not have her son dragged through the mud.

Todd Johnson is Bill Dermot, an educated man, but something has gone wrong with his life.  Maybe it’s the little things, the not taking care of the small details. He seconds guesses this whole night.  “Not sure if it will work.”  He does not want to take any of the blame, instead places on the other family. Dermot appears to not learn anything from this confrontation. Dermot is a needle in a sofa cushion causing pain when you least expect it. For Johnson, it is an unsympathetic role, but one that he absolutely nails.

Baker Chase Powell does a lot of remarkable things as Curtis Dermot.  It not easy being the purported heavy on this night, on his phone, melancholy, and waiting for the hammer to drop. He’s written the letter, and in this room full of adults, wondering if it is good enough to win the night and ease the pain.   This is a terrific performance with a terrific ending.

David Hunt Stafford, the producer, manages another triumph at Theatre 40 showcasing theatre in the finest details.

Jeff G. Rack, Set Designer, places the dinning table upstage center right, slightly cold and impersonal, a very uncomfortable space for characters in an uncomfortable situation.  And this allows the actors to work their magic in the space.

Other members of this terrific crew are as follows:

Michéle Young – Costume Designer
Ric Zimmerman – Lighting Designer
Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski – Sound Designer
Amanda Sauter – Stage Manager
Brian Barraza – Assistant Lighting Designer
Michele Bernath – Assistant Director

Run! Run! Run! And take someone you have not completely forgiven.

Reservations:  310-364-0535

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Fugu by Steven G. Simon & Howard Teichman


L - R Marcel Licera, Scott Keiji Takeda, Ryan Moriarty, David Preston

By Joe Straw

Note: Fugu is a blowfish that the Japanese consider a delicacy.  Chefs train for years to master its preparations and must be licensed because of the fish’s toxicity.  The poison when ingested kills and there is no known antidote.

To plan and prepare Fugu is the way of Fugu.

Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobi komu
Mizu no oto – Matsuo Basho

An old silent pond
Frog jumps into the water
Splash the water’s sound – narrator’s translation

I did not plan to learn Japanese this late in life; it became a necessity when my daughter enrolled in a Japanese language immersion program in grade school.    

Learning it I found that Japanese requires a different approach, of viewing and absorbing symbols that adhere to a different part of the brain – it’s almost like flipping on a light switch. Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji are elements of the language that I have not yet mastered, but hope to some day.  – Narrator

Looking back and remembering the haiku in the performance here is my link to what I imagined. (Your interpretation may vary.)

Serene moonlight glosses the surface of a pond.  A pond fairy (Kaz Matamura), dances on shallow, like a water spider, and blesses the blended noises of nature’s tranquility, north, south, east and west, unruffled and placid.  And, in the bitterest of contradictions, out jumps a frog (Matt Gottlieb), a noisy webbed disturbance that plays upon managed ringlets, creating clatter, without direction, a place to be, in and out, pushing water with webbed soaked feet, until finally there is a quiet unity.     

The West Coast Jewish Theatre presents a World Premiere production of Fugu by Steven G. Simon & Howard Teichman and directed by Howard Teichman at the Pico Playhouse in West Los Angeles through March 19, 2017.

Fugu by Steven G. Simon and Howard Teichman is a masterful, timely work of art, blending life, love, and conflict in a compelling narrative highlighting Jews in 1941 Kobe, Japan.  Teichman’s directing is superb as he captures very intimate details of life, love, and happiness.  The play, wonderfully written in Japanese, German, Yiddish, and English is unforgettable in the way that it both highlights a time and captures the small but significant moments in the lives of human beings.  

Scott Keiji Takeda and Rosie Moss

Simply put, Fugu is a love story, a not so tangled web of refugees trying to connect in life, place and political circumstances, defying tradition in the simple act of love, and managing under the harshest of circumstances.

As the play begins, Colonel Nohiro Yasue (Ryan Moriarty), Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, is in preparations for a Shabbat dinner. He enlists his top aide Setsuzo Kotsuji (Scott Keiji Takeda) to help in the arrangements. Both are considered experts in the tradition having spent time in Palestine. Kotsuji quips the guests are coming only to complain. But Yasue will gladly accept their guests all in preparation to implement a plan.

True to form when he arrives, Dr. Avram Kaufman (Warren Davis), leader of the Jewish refugee community, complains about the sirens on Friday Nights and the Rabbi Shlomo Shapira (Peter Altschuler) says it interferers with their prayers. Complaints aside, the Rabbi is concerned about the upcoming meal being kosher.  Kotsuji assures them that all the preparations are adequate for the meal.

When they leave, we learn there is more to the meal than was divulged.  Captain Yosuke Matsuoka (Marcel Licera) speaks to the Colonel about his “Fugu” plan.  The Colonel, hoping to avoid bloodshed to the people of Japan sees the Fugu plan as his only hope to save the Japanese people. But the Captain sees the plan as ridiculous and a waste of time.

Resistance to the plan takes many forms, not just from fellow countrymen and the Jewish refugees, but also from German Colonel Josef Meisinger (David Preston), a Nazi who wants to rid Japan of the Jews residing there. He is a shadow bringing darkness to an area that desperately needs light.

Also, to add diversion to the plan is an unexpected love story between aide Setsuzo Kotsuji and the very lovely daughter of Dr. Avran Kaufman, Sarah Kaufman (Rosie Moss).

At the heart of Steven G. Simon and Howard Teichman play is a love story – one that rings true to the core.  But the other side of the coin is “Fugu,” a way out that has to be meticulously planned and then implemented.   But the plan, presented on stage, is comical, and one that most of the characters believe is downright absurd; no one believes it will work, not even the audience that is gathered for a town meeting. The plan might be better left off stage, leaving us with only the end results rather than the details; this will trim the play, and the ending will be both ambiguous and mysterious. In Japanese culture, beauty lies in the things that are left unsaid and I believe that holds true for the plan.  That aside, there are a wonderful thing going on, in particular the moments when the languages shift, from German to English, from Japanese to English, etc., similar in the way Stanley Kramer does it in the film Judgment at Nuremberg. This makes for a very fine theatrical outing.

Teichman, the director, provides us with brilliant flashes of humanity that defines characters in their predicament. It is Teichman’s work of art both as a writer and a director that brings forth a play that everyone should see just to place it in its historical context and then to compare that to our present day life and watching history repeating itself.     That said, not everything works to perfection, moments and relationships need tweaking and definition.  The relationship of the Colonel and the Captain misses, lacks conviction, and fails to bring forth an intimacy of their historical past.  And it is a past when the roles, or rank, were reversed.  This gives the Captain a greater choice, a window of opportunity in achieving his objective, and creating a grander physical life on stage.

Kaz Matamura and Matt Gottlieb

Kaz Matamura gives a much-needed authenticity to the play, the language, the Japanese dance and the setting for Shabbat. Her Japanese is wonderful.

Matt Gottlieb gives a grand performance as Max Kaminsky, someone who doubts first and then speaks the truth.  He is a man that gets to the point quickly because he understands their time in Japan hangs in the balance. There is an extreme reality in Gottlieb’s performance, in his manner, and in the power of his voice. His craft is exceptional.

Ryan Moriarty plays Colonel Nohiro Yasue, the catalyst that sets the plan in motion.  But, where are the orders coming from? And, what pushes the Colonel to push this preposterous plan onto his Jewish counterparts? Yasue would work better with a tempered manner, not one that flies off the handle especially with his guests.  Insulting your guests for the sake of expediency is not the Japanese way.  Anger should not guide the character, proficiency in thought and deed should.  If time is an issue, he is fighting against the clock. If outside forces are an issue, we should see that in his manner. This character has a rich history that was not brought to the table on this night; more of that life could be added. Moriarty seems a little uneasy with the languages; his vocal requirements need conviction that would force the others to follow.  That said, Moriarty has a terrific presence on stage and is certain to get better with a few more performances under his belt.

Scott Keiji Takeda is excellent as Setsuzo Kotsuji, an emissary of sorts that helps in the preparation of the Shabbat.  Kotsuji says he speaks five languages—in addition to Japanese, he speaks German, English, and Yiddish. The manner in which Takeda speaks, speaks volumes of this craft and of the character. Rarely do you see an actor take command of the stage but Takeda is strong in his ability to create a time and a place, and he does this so exquisitely.  His work was terrific the last time I saw him but now his growth is exponential.

Warren Davis as Dr. Avram Kaufman had some very grand moments. Scared out of his wits of receiving the plan from his Japanese friends, trying to keep his daughter in line, and then revealing the plans to the his community is more than he can handle. Kaufman is caught in a trap, from which he is unable to get out. If protecting his people is his ultimate objective, then he must be stronger in the way he deals with the other conflicts that plagues his life. He must be wise, forceful, and crafty and move in the direction of his own choosing.  A stronger objective will only help his character.     

Peter Altschuler has some very funny moments as Rabbi Shlomo Shapira, a wise and noble man who seems to be the voice of reason.

Marcel Licera is Captain Yosuke Matsuoka is a Japanese soldier who has very little in common with his colonel. This role is tricky in that his objective is not very clear and needs definition. Matsuoka appears to be a soldier who has lost favor (certainly, it’s true with the colonel) but his attempts to regain a foothold to the power he once had is limited and weak. The successful path to this character is one who brings the weight and the power of the military into the room with him.  One needs to see who is pushing his buttons, the details of his own plan, and highlighted by a stronger objective.  We see Matsuoka’s faults and that is good work, but the manner in which Licera plays a Japanese soldier requires a stronger conviction.   

David Preston is very convincing as Colonel Josef Meisinger, a Nazi who comes to Kobe, Japan to spread the word of the Third Reich.  Well, there is more to it than that. He will do anything to convince the Japan military leaders to give up those that are hiding from him. Meisinger is hiding himself for crimes against humanity.  Preston’s work is exceptional and he brings a dark presence to the man who has been called in real life “The Butcher of Warsaw”.  Preston presents a powerful image on stage.

L - R Rosie Moss and Bryna Weiss

Rosie Moss is wonderful as Sarah Kaufman, a young lady that loves her father, but needs to find other interests before her time runs out. Moss plays daughter, friend, and lover with equal simplicity.  Her facial expressions light the stage and her craft is remarkable.

Bryna Weiss is Mrs. Dovitch who doesn’t appear until the second act.  Sometimes one catches exceptional work and this is true with her performance, which does not ring a false note. Weiss brings a lot of character work to Mrs. Dovitch; the manner in which she both gives and receives is funny, poignant, and caring.

Set Designer, Kurtis Bedford has created a very functional set of movable walls that reveal and hide the plan.  The set is similar to what one will find in a Japanese home, and a temple.   

Shon Le Blanc, Costume Designer, highlights the players in time and place with costumes that set a dramatic tone. It would be interesting to know, if a lesson taught came with the costume, because an actor has to fill the costume rather than just wear it.

The understudy for Kiori is Akiko Katagiri, for Setsuzo Kotsuji is Mark Labella, and for Mrs. Dovitch is Caroline Westheimer.  They did not perform the night I was there.

Other crewmembers that planned in the creation of a night of theatre are as follow:

Pricilla Miranda – Stage Manager
Ellen Monocroussos – Lighting Designer
Bill Froggatt – Sound & Presentation Designer
Hai Cohen – Choreographer (Chasidic)
Kaz Matamura – Choreographer (Japanese)
Jessica Bennett – Fight Choreographer
Phil Sokoloff – Publicity
Raul Clayton Staggs – Casting Director
Michael Lamont - Photographer

Run! Run! And take someone who is on top of current events.  You’ll have much to talk about on your way home about the similarities of the play and our current political dilemma.  
RESERVATIONS: 323-821-2449.
ONLINE TICKETING: www.wcjt.org