Monday, March 27, 2017

An Evening of Scenes by various writers and directed by Sal Landi

By Joe Straw

He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment he would be transfigured.  Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment. – James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

On this evening, the audience coming to see the scenes was an eclectic bunch, off centered, old and young, tat’s and lace, venturing to see actors preforming.  There is an excitement in the air and you just never know who is going to show up.

Sal Landi, who directed the scenes, appeared to take the job of directing a little more seriously. On this night the direction had a strong through line, a well-defined theme, of strong women overcoming obstacles in various situations, and always having or getting the upper hand.  The performances on this night were totally engaging and it was a complete success.

The Pan Andreas Theatre is a wonderful theatre and just the kind of venue to showcase actors in their environment.  There was not much in the way of sets and props. The night was for the actors to create. The actors were outstanding on the stage, their environment, and their time.  Although the scenes were short (around 7 minutes), the actors provided a glimpse of defined and strong characters.  And seeing that makes one want to go to theatre again and again.

Cellini – John Patrick Shanley

She was beautiful but troubled. Life model, Caterina (Angelique Pretorius), was wearing an outfit that resembled playful bedroom attire.  She was a model posing for Cellini (Francisco Ovalle), an artist with a questionable reputation. 

Caterina was beautiful in a way models are not supposed to be, voluptuous and hungry, with a desire to get what she came for.  She wanted more money.

Cellini—poor and bare-footed—wanted to create art.  But without money, little was going to get done.  “Whore”, he called her, taking her head and moving it against her will. 

Touching was not part of the bargain, not now and, in Caterina’s mind, not ever.  Her strength was to find a way to live, feed herself, and enjoy life.  

Angelique Pretorius spoke her first few lines.  There was a trace of an accent from this South African native.  It was subtle at first, quiet, softly spoken, but then she moved on from there and created a startling life, a few feet in front of me, and it was there that I discovered a surprising range, of one who is sure in her moves, and capable of giving in extraordinary circumstances.  Pretorius is a marvelous actor.

There was a lot to enjoy in Francisco Ovalle’s performance. He also had an accent, Spanish, which suited the character, Benvenuto Cellini, an Italian artist known for his relationships with his models, female and male. Cellini enjoyed the chase with a touch of conflict and sometime treated his subjects unfairly and with distain.   Ovalle commanded strength in the manner he held the art stick and the way he sought to control his subject. It was beautiful work.

Before It Hit Home by Cheryl L. West

Wendal (Jahking Guillory) is lying under the blanket on his mother’s floor. He has lived his life precariously, on the edge, playing jazz in seedy dives, and mixing with the wrong kind of people.  He awakens this night sweating and takes some pills, when his mother Reba (Veronica L. Ocasio) walks out into the living room.  

Reba stares at her son in a purple housecoat and defined pink slippers giving color to her flat which is not much to look at on this given night, still it is her home.  

There is an edge to her relationship with Wendall but this moment in time reveals little. But why is Wendal there?  And why this night?

Wendal is unable to rid himself of the smell of nightly sweats. He comes home for a human anodyne and needs the comforting arms of his mother. If only he could get the words out.   

There is some good work going on here but there are things about character that could have been brought to the forefront. Taken from the 1989 play by Ms. West, Wendal is a saxophone player who comes home to tell his family that he has AIDS, despite the stigma associated with it, and the negative reaction he’ll encounter. Revealing that life, and that relationship, is what is needed in this scene.  

Dinner With Friends by Donald Marguilies

Don’t remember much about this scene with Beth (Elena Ghenoiu) and Tom (Jay Duncan) maybe it was a mental block of having gone through a similar situation.  

Tom is almost on the way out with Beth.  Beth is not forthcoming and Tom knows she is not forthcoming based on how she avoids even the simplest of questions. And the questions get harder as they get closer to their kids.

It hard to figure out who is running this show, Beth or Tom.  In the end, Beth gets her way.  I think.

This scene requires dramatic intimacy to get at the truth. It needs two actors standing toe to toe, starting in rehearsals and, once that connection is made, on to a blocked scene to keeps the connection. Ghenoiu and Duncan are fine in the roles but this should be a comedy of intimacy, of subtle discoveries, and of a hurt that tears the lining of an already broken fabric, their marriage.  

Four Dogs and A Bone by John Patrick Shanley

Shaking off the movie-making blues of the day, Colette (Sara Drust) and Brenda (Autumn Rusch) meet somewhere in the night, a trailer perhaps, a dressing room, each coming in with killer instincts, one to do the other one in in whatever form that takes.  The words sting when two of their kind come together for treacherous reasons.

But in this particular scene, there are no props, little in the way of costume and wig, just two actors going toe to toe. I found it stimulating that they were hitting their marks, making the point, and moving from one moment to the next. But for this scene, a little bit of symbolism would go a long way in terms of who they are, where they are, and how they reach their objectives.

Still, this was very fine work by actors, knowing their strengths, and completing their objectives.

Boys Next Door by Tom Griffin

Norman Bulansky (John Reno) invites Sheila (Kelley S. Park) into his home.  Norman is mentally challenged, as is Sheila.  Besides working in a donut shop, the special thing about Norman is that he is in the procession of a set of keys that he wants to give to Sheila for reasons known only to him.

Sheila is a little concerned about what might happen there.  She says she has to leave soon to catch a bus. That means Norman has to work fast to get what he wants and, if that includes flowers and chocolates donuts, so be it.  

Reno displays enormous work in character, voice, and mannerism as he parades around his home in padding that makes him look obese, the side effect of a character working in a donut shop. This gives Reno the appearance of a 3-D bop bag which works wonders when he falls to the floor and rolls in pain. Reno provides a dramatic truth in Norman Bulansky – one that rings a sympathetic chord in this observer - right down to the last kiss.

Park also provides comic timing with a neck brace and a pair of small binoculars.  (I’ve seen this woman ushering at the Pantages in the late 1970s!). Park gives a very honest portrayal of someone trying to find her way in life.

Venus in Fur by David Ives

Thomas (Yoshi Barrigas) has had it up to here trying to find someone to cast in his new production, a period piece. He needs someone with an accent and is sick of what everyone has to offer.

Lucky, or unlucky for him, Vanda (Ashley Liai Coffee) shows up. By all accounts, Vanda is the wrong woman.  Wrong in shape, wrong in size, and wrong in beauty and skin color.  Besides she is so ditsy that she doesn’t have her act together; she is frazzled, costumes in one bag, lipstick in another.

Thomas tells her to leave but Vanda will not take no for an answer.  He decides to let her read and gets a very pleasant surprise and one that may not be so pleasant at the end.

One is fascinated with Barrigas’ work, the manner in which he executes, and the voice that carries throughout the theatre.  The work is simple, concise, and shows an exciting dramatic range.

Coffee is excellent as well moving from one extreme to another and giving life to another being other than her original character. Coffee provides depth in character and a rich history to go along with that.

Four Dogs and A Bone by John Patrick Shanley

A production of a movie is extremely stressful when actors are vying for more screen time, better lines, and a longer career.  After a long day, Victor (Bryan Zampella) and Collette (Jovita Trujillo) retreat to a bar. Victor is looking for Brenda (not seen).

Collette, the actress, is certainly a mad dog looking for the bone which essentially has no meat on it.  Victor, the writer, knows it, and tries to make the best of a bad situation. He’s not in a great mood especially since his mother recently died.

“I love your script. It’s so chunky.” –Collette

Victor is not taking the bait and tries to leave, but stays just long enough to find out what Collette is up to and it ain’t pretty.  

Zampella and Trujillo work well together in this scene, their voices are fine, and the words of the play are well executed and funny.  Still there is more work to be done with character and backstory that will add nicely to what they have already done.

The Old Rugged Cross – author unknown

Sweltering Ophelia (Koda Corvette) sweeps a country porch. She is bare footed and wears a dress that outlines the shape of her young body. Ophelia sweeps the crumbs from the sugar butter biscuits, along with the dog hair, cat mess, and other stuff than manages its way onto a country porch. All is swept away into the garden except her daydreams.   

Billy (Jadon Fitzpatrick), probably a neighbor from up the street, appears while no one is home and intends to do her no good. He gets to know her, cajoles her, and wants her to go with him.

But Ophelia, says she can’t go out with him, talks a lot about her Christian values without making a negative mark on his masculinity. And then something hits home with him and he leaves her alone.

Fitzpatrick, slight and muscular, wearing no shirt and a leather jacket, is excellent as Billy, a man up to no good.  The manner in which he approaches her and attempts to convince her to go with him was really fine work.  But what are the exact words, or the emotional connection that make him leave her alone? Something had an effect but what was it?

Corvette is sultry on the porch, not paying attention, singing a song, and totally unaware of strangers approaching.  She sees him, is enticed by his good looks, projects a tremulous glow, and wants to make a connection of some kind.  There are the two sides of her passion, one that wants, and the other that doesn’t. Corvette’s acting is subtle and very effective.

Fresh Horses by Larry Ketron

Larkin (Nick Machado) has gotten himself into a lot of trouble by hooking up with a high school dropout, Jewel (Chloe Wu), a young woman who is not quite all there.

Larken has plans of being something other than a factory worker like his dad.  Jewel is so out of it, she doesn’t know if she is coming or going. Larken truly doesn’t believe the relationship is going to work.

Jewel has taken his car and doesn’t know what happened to it, or doesn’t let on that she knows. Her manner is to speak volubly without saying anything or without giving away information critical to where she was the previous night. 

There is a lot going on in this scene with Machado and Wu, possibly there’s too much information in this short scene.  We never really get into the meat of the story but are left floundering around for answers that may or may not come.  Still, I enjoyed the work and the scene.

This type of venue is a meet and greet venue.  The key things here is to have your work seen.  Secondly, it’s best to have time to meet at the end of the performance and to have a resume available just in case job opportunities comes a knocking.

Sal Landi has created a venue for an audience to see the work and what happens after that is anyone’s guess.  Hopefully, the work will lead to paying jobs and a fulfilling career. This definitely was a night for being seen.  

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Love Allways by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna

L - R Danny Siegel, Lucy Walsh, Chad Doreck, Abigail Kochunas - Photos by Mathew Caine @ Studio Digitrope

By Joe Straw

After watching the performance, I wondered; is the material by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna from practical experience or is this just hearsay? If it is from experience, they have had a wonderful life.  If it is hearsay, they must have had some really intimate and talkative friends. – Narrator

There’s no question, no question that I had a wonderful time at the party, the Love Allways party.  I don’t know where to begin, only that I have to begin, somewhere near the beginning. And saying too much would give so much away. You’ll just have to show up and laugh.

Jamaica Moon Prods. And the GGC Players present the Los Angeles Premiere of Love Allways by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna directed by Gloria Gifford at the Gray Theatre in North Hollywood through April 23, 2017.

The play is a lot of lovely nuance, cleverly disguised in vignettes, about the truth in relationships. The material by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna rings a comedic and sincere genuineness about life and love in intimate settings. There is a lot to enjoy from this outing.

My gosh, it seemed like there were ten thousand actors in this show! Actually, it’s 51 actors. There is a challenge of watching so many actors on a given night.  Multiple night viewings would suit the purpose of taking it all in.  One will give it my best, but no guarantees.  

The characters came down from the door, into the room, and nestled in the comfort of someone’s home. (We’ll have to talk about that opening later.) They were characters all dolled up, the men with shirts opened down to the navel and everyone, I mean everyone, was on the prowl, with hardly a decent refined character in the bunch. That uncomfortable feeling of being single is personified at the party.

So, where do we find ourselves? This is the nightly soiree we have come to know as Eleanor’s Magical Moment.

Eleanor’s Magical Moment

The pushing and moving of singles bodies is the sole objective to attract mates.  In this gathering, the pickings appear to be slim, slightly unnerving if one is looking for a sole mate.  Watching young married beings on the prowl for single encounters is always appealing because mistakes will be made.  

But the thought of hooking up with a single man or woman at this party seems as unappetizing as crackers in bed.   That’s where Eleanor (Tejaja Signori) and Herb (Danny Siegel) come in.  They are married, but not to each other, and Herb can’t get Eleanor out of his mind. He’s thinking of having that one magical moment with Eleanor, of finding the time, and then consummating the relationship.

So when their marriage partners, Betty (Cynthia San Luis) and Larry (Jeff Hamansaki Brown), suddenly leave the room, Herb makes his move.

Love of Susan’s Life

Stud-ly Nick (Nevada Schaefer) has got everything going for him except his girlfriend Susan (Raven Bowens).

“You’re not the girl for me.  It’s all over.” – Nick

To say this hits Susan the wrong way is a bit of an understatement.  And so she pleads for their relationship to continue. And in almost chameleon-like fashion, she changes herself into what he wants her to be.

Groveling is not an attractive vocation.  

Tony & Madelaine

Hollywood is a lush life lived lasciviously.  Oh but it can be so cruel, so cruel when, off the cuff remarks are made, lives are hurt, and relationships are scarred, left to fester, until they are miraculously unscarred again. 


Tony (Chad Doreck) and Madelaine (Jade Warner) are actors.  They are the finest of the fine, the cream of the crop, but now they are down on their movie luck – think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton after Cleopatra.  Sullied words about bad acting are thrown about. But, as long as they are praised by their entourage (Joshua Farmer, Jose Fillippone, Kelly Musslewhite, and Deidra Shanell), they are like luscious crops, but instantaneously wither when criticism punctures their ballooned ego.

Naytheless, they are actors, and they can give just as they receive!

Maureen’s Gift

Two young people can have as much fun on a couch as humanly possible except when there’s some sort of conflict.  Two lovers in love, Maureen (Justine Estrada) and Eddie (Marlin Chan), have been dying to make it, to consummate their love, but something always gets in the way. Maybe they were not made for each other.

Michael Barker, Samiyah Swann

Benny and The Woman

Woman (Samiyah Swann) sits quietly on a bench when Benny (Michael Barker) approaches.  The two may have much in common, or out of common, depending on your perspective. They connect on a visceral level, neither really communicating with the other, both slightly mentally incapacitated, but willing to accept each other as they are until they don’t.

“It’s hurts to be alone. Goodbye.” Woman

Is this relationship the beginning or the end?

Biff, Dickie, Carmel & Roberta

For the last five years, these happy vacationers have been going on trips.  Biff (Danny Seigel) and Dickie (Jeff Hamasaki Brown) have been having the most fun on their vacation but their wives are getting a little tired of their antics. On the face of it, you would think the only happy couple in this resort town were the two inseparable men.  Their wives, Carmel (Lucy Walsh) and Roberta (Lauren Plaxco) are tired of not spending enough time with their respective spouses.   

The “snorting” thing is possibly one reason Biff would run into the arms of another man.
Act II plays out in a bedroom in a bungalow of a Club Med resort.  Director Gloria Gifford should find a creative way to move the actors in and out without having to make the bed each time, which becomes repetitive and unnecessary.

Bungalow 1

Steven (Haile D’Alan) and Loretta (Keturah Hamilton) are married but when Steven comes in, someone other than his wife (Tracey Nelson) is lying on their bed. (Not sure how this scene works in a bungalow but it feels like someone’s home.)

Loretta walks in with a number of bags of items she has bought. They proceed to discuss their relationship and why she is buying all those things, really a lot of things considering her source of income.

Steven then begins to lay out the rules of a successful relationship and I don’t think Loretta is getting anything of his instructions.  

L - R Irini Gerakas, Jeff Hamasaki Brown, Joe Filippone 

Bungalow 2

Possibly a reality show is being filmed in Bungalow 2 with us as a live studio audience – You Waste Your Life hosted by Eddie (Joe Filippone) featuring an unlikely couple in a role playing situation, Bill Froth (Jeff Hamansaki Brown) and his wife Mary Froth (Irini Gerakas).

I’m a little lost on why this is filmed in a bungalow and why there is a studio audience. That said there were some very nice things going on in this scene.

Bungalow 3

Mario (Nadeem Deeb) is going to get to the meat of the matter and Yvetter (Kasia Pilewicz) has other ideas.

“I’m no good.” – Mario

“I love you.” – Yvette

A man and a woman lost in a relationship, of not knowing who the other is – a “lost cause in Czechoslovakia.”

Bungalow 4

Jimmy (Sam Mansour) and Evelyn (Hayley Ambriz) are caught in bungalow 4 testing their love.  They want to know about each other’s past sexual experiences.  Jimmy, from another country, is old school and Evelyn is not a saint.

Mansour, Syrian, has an unusual and likeable face.  He reminds me a lot of Danny Thomas.  This plays well in the scene as an overbearing man trying to take control of something he really has no control over, a woman with a, slightly kinky, sexual past.  

Antonio Roccucci and Kelly Musslewhite

Bungalow 5

There is something wrong with Marilyn (Kelly Musslewhite).  She is either confused, bi-polar, or thinks this marriage is the worst mistake of her life.   The one thing this newlywed is certain is that she is not certain about anything.   Her husband, David (Antonio Roccucci), can only listen to her rants, gnaws on Twinkies and relieves her fears.

Although, mostly silent on stage, Roccucci has a very commanding presence which is half of the battle. The other half is; how can you argue with a gorgeous woman in a negligee on your honeymoon when there are other pressing matters at hand.  C’est impossible!

Bungalow 6

He (George Benedict) and She (Nancy Vivar).  What am I to make of a scene with the characters named “He” and “She”? He was attractive.  She was as well.  They were in bed having a conversation, wanting something from each other.

Bungalow 7

Intimacy is something learned over the course of a relationship between two people but there’s four people in this bed Herb (Danny Siegel), Stuart (Chad Doreck), Erica (Lucy Walsh) and Joanne (Abigail Kochunas) and Joanne is the only one who has not reached orgasm.

Joanne has got to make her feelings known, first to her husband Stuart, and then to the other married couple in bed.  

The performance featured a diverse group of actors putting it all out there, laying it on the line, and giving it their best, in tight fitting, cleavage revealing garments, in all shapes and sizes, and for all occasions.  This was truly a night for laughs.

The performances and the direction by Gloria Gifford indicate that there’s more work to be done. It would help to take some of the moments to extremes and making the endings ambiguous so the audience can think what they want to think about the way the relationship ends so we see hope for the next encounter. For example, I am not sure Eleanor in Eleanor’s Magical Moment had that moment.  If she did, I missed it.

Also, in Benny and The Woman, the scene ends without a resolution, ambiguous or not.

The “snorting” in Biff, Dickie, Carmel & Roberta scene doesn’t move the characters to react, doesn’t progress the scene, and has no resolution.

This is a play where the actors can create multi-level characters which are bold. It’s really not enough to resemble the character. The characters must be defined in the way they love always, a major through line of the vignettes.  Bring the love and give us something different, very different.

And, we really have to work on the opening to set the stage of what we are about to receive. Lights out, have the actors take a position, accentuate the character and Love Always

The actors in this production are ripe for television. Danny Siegel fits in brilliantly in his scenes and favors Joe Bologna. Others whose work was exceptional were Chad Doreck, Jade Warner, Sam Mansour, Lucy Walsh, Kelly Musslewhite, Antonio Roccucci, Michael Barker, Samiyah Swann, Tracey Nelson and Jeff Hamasaki Brown.

Also, I don’t get Jeff Brown’s middle name “Hamasaki”.  Is that a reference to a sandwich and rice wine?  Hama mean beach in Japanese.  So, is it Saki on the beach, perhaps? (Also, Jeff, new headshots are in order.  The one in the program does not look like you.  Was this a misprint?)

Other actors who were in the production but may not have been mentioned are Alyssa Brown, Billy Budinich, Aaron Burriss, Leana Chavez, Heather Compton, Yvette De Vito, Sonia Diaz, Lindy Fujimoto, Dylan George, Genevieve Joy, McKenzie Druse, Chirstian Maltez, Maya Moore, Nakta Pahlevan Benito Paje, Gershon Roebuck, Justin Truesdale, Keith Walker, Teagan Wilson and Diva Yazdian. This is certainly a diverse group of actors.

The crew are as follows:
Gloria Gifford and Lucy Walsh – Set Design
Chris Rivera – Lighting
Philip Sokoloff – Publicist
Kasia Pilewicz and Gloria Gifford – Costumes
Kasia Pilewicz – Hair/Makeup
Tracey Nelson and Samiyah Swann – House Manager
Keith Walker & Justin Truesdale – Stage Management
Tahlia McCollum – Box Office

And just a note about the outside crew.  They were marvelous in the way they were welcoming to the Gray Theatre

Run! Run!  And take someone who likes a little conflict under the sheets!

RESERVATIONS: (310) 366-5505.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Transition by Ray Richmond


By Joe Straw

The Lounge Theatre is probably one of my favorite theatres in town. There are plenty of parking spots on Santa Monica Boulevard if you get there after 7:00 pm.

Racquel Lehrman Theatre Planner, Producer, has a knack for finding the small gems.

Transition by Ray Richmond and directed by Lee Costello is now playing at The Lounge Theatre in Hollywood through April 16th, 2017.

Transition by Ray Richmond is a small gem and a delightful night of theatre. It’s not sketch comedy, pointed satire, or a caricature of famous people; rather it is a well-crafted 80-minute topical play about President Obama’s meeting with President-elect Trump to discuss the transition process. Overall, Transition is ingenious and as close to perfection, especially for a new work of art, as one can get.

That said, Ray Richmond’s play has the capacity to expand and certainly there’s plenty to add from the events becoming public on a daily basis.  We’ll never really know what the two talked about, but for this particular play, there is room for the Russian connections, double agent Mike Flynn’s payment from Turkey, Manafort’s million dollars deal from the Ukraine, and Trump’s reaction from all of those events.  But right now. the events play as a comedy, a very good comedy, and probably should remain so.

That said, Transition is at times uncomfortable, no matter what side of the fence you sit on. For me, there was the internal struggle to maintain composure. And boy howdy, wouldn’t I have loved to have been a “microwave” in the real meeting.

Pete Hickok, Set Designer, has created the Oval Office and paid careful attention to details in giving us the oval space inside the Lounge Theatre, down to the lettering on the floor, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. What a very nice touch.  

The play opens with Randall, an aide (Trevor Alkazian), showing President-elect Donald J. Trump (Harry S. Murphy) into the Oval Office for a transition meeting with President Barack H. Obama (Joshua Wolf Coleman).

Trump seeks the whereabouts of President Obama.

“What’s he doing?  Talking to ISIS?” – Trump

Trump then threatens to deport the aide, which causes concern to the young aide whose skin is not exactly white.    

Obama arrives and Trump immediately says he’s hungry and wants some KFC. Obama sets the rules straight to him, says they have world-class chefs at the White House, but they can’t do the KFC thing.

So they settle down with Cuban cigars and bottle water for which Trump says it should have his brand on it.  

Obama says the can’t do that “Self enrichment is not good.” To which Trump says the rule don’t apply to him.

Harry S. Murphy applies his own special vanity to the likeness of Donald J. Trump, always primping, thinking, and talking to himself. This Trump understands little, is profoundly disturbed by his lack on knowledge on any given subject with the exception of pop culture, and really has no aptitude for the presidency.   Also, this Trump is also slightly nasty, a button pusher, and willing to concede his own failings all in the privacy of the Oval Office. Murphy provides enough of the character, an imitation of sorts, and an indolent personality of the three dimensional character.  Murphy also shows an incredible range in his craft and portrays a different side to the character we know as Trump.  And he even makes him likeable, go figure.

Joshua Wolf Coleman does a remarkable job as President Barack Obama and even sounds like him during the course of the night. The voice is almost spot on.  But what make’s Coleman performance different from sketch comedy is the way he thinks and approaches the difficulties set before him.  Only once does he lose his cool.  That doesn’t pay off except to the appreciative audience. We see little or nothing about the Russian connection of which President Obama was certainly aware, or that he knew anything about it.  It might be something to add to his character whether it is in the dialogue or not.  

Trevor Alkazian is very appealing as the aide and manages to accept our sympathies given the circumstances he finds himself in.

There is something quite extraordinary in Lee Costello’s direction.  She allows the actors to think, to take the moment, to recover and then attack when need be. This happens throughout the play and for all the characters.  On the face of things, it looks simple, the approach she uses to move the characters along to their final destination, but those moments are dramatically appealing and the outcome is superb.

After the performance Hip Hop Artist Dylan came out to perform.  The performance was pleasant but one was not sure how it fit with the play.

Kate Bergh, Costume Designer, creates a wonderful look to the show.

Other members of the crew that gave a great look to this production are as follows:

Donny Jackson – Lighting Designer
David B. Marling – Sound Designer
Shelia Dorn – Makeup and Wig
Kiff Scholl/AFK Design – Graphic Designer
Fritz Davis – Video Editor
Misha Riley – Assistant Producer
Amber Bruegel – Alternate State Manager

Run! Run!  And take a conservative political wonk with you; you’ll have much to talk about on your way home.  

RESERVATIONS: (323) 960-4418.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer

L-R Parker Mills and Peter Schiavelli

By Joe Straw

Global situation and trends: Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 35 million people have died of HIV. Globally, 36.7 million [34.0–39.8 million] people were living with HIV at the end of 2015. An estimated 0.8% [0.7-0.9%] of adults aged 15–49 years worldwide are living with HIV, although the burden of the epidemic continues to vary considerably between countries and regions. Sub-Saharan Africa remains most severely affected, with nearly 1 in every 25 adults (4.4%) living with HIV and accounting for nearly 70% of the people living with HIV worldwide. – World Health Organization

I saw The Normal Heart at the Las Palmas Theatre in 1985 with Richard Dreyfuss as Ned Weeks and Kathy Bates as Dr. Emma Brookner, although, sad to say, I remember very little of her in that performance. But I do remember, at the end of the first half, the audience let out a huge audible gasp when we discovered something about a character, the way it was presented, and the way the audience accepted that information.  - Narrator

Every living breathing human being has a heart and that heart beats from 60 to 100 beats per minute. That is considered normal.  There is a lot of variation in heartbeats – from 60 to 100 beats – and, as in all lives, extenuating circumstances can affect that normal.

Our reactionary government abandoned the populace when AIDS emerged and, for an unconscionable period of time, ignored the “gay plague”.

Reading about it in the early eighties, it didn’t take a genius (me) to understand that if it could be transmitted from gay contact it could also be transmitted through human sexual contact. It was a very costly mistake that eventually required boots on the ground – a grassroots organization to get the word out and to have the government take action. This essentially is what The Normal Heart is about.

The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer and directed by Marilyn McIntyre is now playing at The Chromolume Theatre February 24 through March 19, 2017. Produced by Sarah Burhardt and Parker Mils.

Larry’s Kramer’s The Normal Heart is a terrific show with exceptional performance by a superb cast in the tiny black box theatre of The Chromolume.  The acting is well above par in this intimate setting and overall an enjoyable night of theatre.  I do have some thoughts that I will share later.

Kramer, in his play, sets a tone for political activism, which must be unapologetic and loud to make a difference. There was a sense of urgency back in the 1980’s of finding the answers and then finding a cure.  This required a lot of help from politicians and from grass roots organizations to make it work. To date there is not cure and the disease is manageable if you can afford the drugs.

On this particular night, the partial walls on rollers lifted almost to the ceiling, hiding the unseen, the black walls darkened the proscenium.  And on the facade, were the headlines of the day.  July 1981 is the month and the year in which we are placed.   

The stagnant dividers opened to reveal a doctor’s waiting room, normal patients anticipating the worse, Craig (Cameron Cowperthwaite) explains what he is feeling, his ragged body tells the story, the heavy heart weigh down by swollen glands already discovered.   

“I’m tired all the time.  I wake up in swimming pools of sweat.” – Craig  

Craig wails for his companion, Bruce Niles (Alan Lennick), a former Green Beret, who did not accompany him to this doctor’s appointment. He is waiting for Dr. Emma Brookner (Carole Weyers), who is examining patients in the next room.  

(Brookner is based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein an early HIV/AIDS researcher. She, along with Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien, published the first article linking AIDS with Kaposi’s sarcoma.)

That patient, now leaving Dr. Brookner’s office has purple lesions covering his face. David (Eric Bunton) walks over to retrieve his jacket and silently stares at the three men waiting to go in.  He notices that they are staring at his lesions.  

Craig hugs Mickey Marcus (Ray Barnhart), silently ignores the manifestation in front of him, and hesitantly walks away and to the examining room.

“They keep getting bigger and bigger and they don’t go away. (Changing the subject and directing his focus to Ned) I sold you a ceramic pig once at Maison France on Bleecker Street.  My name is David.” - David

I don’t remember them shaking hands, or that an attempt was even made.

Nebbish Ned Weeks (Parker Mills) who was melting inconspicuously into the furniture is suddenly called out, pulled out from the chair, from oblivion to prominence, filled with questions without answers about the 28 gay men infected, 16 who have already died.  

And as quietly as he arrived, David leaves with little fanfare.

“Mickey, what the f*uck is going on?” – Ned

“I don’t know. Are you here to write about this?” - Mickey

Two writers in the room without focus, Ned who is a successful writer of sorts and Mickey who writes a health column for the health department, each desultory, no one making the first move. Mickey says the city doesn’t have an interest in stories about gay health.

Craig comes out of the Dr. Emma Brookner’s office and says he going to die.  

Ned, with a slight call to act, rushes into the doctor’s office to ask questions.  He takes little notice that Dr. Brookner is confined to a wheelchair. She immediately tells him to take off his clothes.

“You’re gay, aren’t you? Take your clothes off.” – Dr. Brookner


Parker Mills and Carole Weyers

Through the examination Brookner has an idea she wants to share with Ned.  Brookner needs a mouthpiece, someone who will spread the word, and she understands that Ned has a big mouth, is a writer, and will somehow get the word out. She explores the possibility of asking Ned to tell men that they should stop having sex, not only the men in New York City but also all across the country.  

This call to duty is an insurmountable task for Ned Weeks, and he is not really sure that he is up for the challenge.  He approaches a writer at the Times, handsome Felix Turner (Peter Schiavelli).  Ned also tries to get his brother Ben Weeks (Dan Via), a lawyer to donate money and to sit on the board. Ben is not up for the idea, and says he will take it to his committee.

L - R Alan Lennick, Cameron Cowperthwaite (gurney), Ray Barnhart, Carole Weyers, Parker Mills

Marilyn McIntyre, the director, does a terrific job with this very small-scale production. Actors, also scene changers, were flying in and out during the sixteen scene changes, trying not to bump into each other to lay out set and prop pieces.  I’m wondering if there is an economical and efficient way of handling those duties, a way of moving actors in character so that it moves with the progression of the play.  The walls must also be moved with characters in mind; even the tables can be placed with characters in various stages of the illness.

The opening, on this night, requires attention with Ned finally speaking when he is addressed about the pigs. (About a page and a half in.) Ned needs a better introduction and how that manifests itself is the job for the director.  Ned is a frightened person, assaulted with realities, and trying to find a way to help.  It is here, in the opening moments, when he steps from the shadows and into the limelight.  One thinks of the play as a political drama, a reactionary intrusion into a life bombarded by the unthinkable, so many people dying in a short time span, and a government unwilling to take action.  This is where Ned comes in, he sees the light of humanity darkened. (Some stage lighting helping out on the dying would help.  A little symbolism goes a long way here.) From first hand account Ned takes aggressive action.  Maybe he doesn’t think it’s much but he really must be gung-ho to get this going, not stopping, even through his survival depends on the help from politicians and his friends, both who get in his way.  

Also, time is an element that must be accentuated for full dramatic play.

One other thing, this is a play where even the smallest of relationships must work to get the full effect having to do with the advancement of the events, David saying that he is dying, Craig running from the doctor’s office, Felix ignoring Ned, and Ben unwilling to help until someone reaches their eternal perdition.  

On this night, I detected a slow start, characters not really connecting, but once the butterflies went away, the production soars, taking us to unconquerable heights.  The acting is top notched, a testament to Howard Fine Acting Studio and the number of actors in this production who have gone there.

But again, I have some thoughts.

Parker Mills does fine work as Ned Weeks.  Weeks need a better introduction, stepping out of the shadows into the limelight. The conflict is that he never gets the publicity for reasons that are out of his control.  He is relegated to being a co-worker of an organization he co-founds when another is chosen to be president.  His life as a writer, and its inexhaustible privations, moves him in a way to help humanity. But, Weeks is seen as brash and opinionated and, in his indecorous ferocity, he is a man of action that very few people like.  He must overcome those obstacles to get what he wants. Mills does a fine job of giving the character many levels, acting with a sense of urgency because other characters are dying. Mills is impeccable in his craft; his movements are specific, and his objective strong.  There is more to add in the way he sees the overall picture, reacts, and then takes action.  

Dan Via is Ben Weeks and really does a fantastic job.  Weeks is a powerful lawyer that wants nothing to do with his brother’s organization and will not even accept that his brother is gay. Organized, a planner, and one who will not step into a situation that would jeopardize his career.  Via excels in this role, his manner is competent, his motives are entirely complete, and he knows his way around the stage.

Alan Lennick, as Bruce Niles, can add more to the Green Beret character that he plays.  Once a military man, especially one that carries Special Forces Tab, well, that never leaves you.  And how that manifests itself on stage is something that should be brought forward. Still it is a terrific performance, his voice is strong, articulate, the broad shoulders, and the height that carries the day. He regards himself as a leader but will not step out of the shadows to out himself, and that is an interesting conflict for someone who wants to represent a gay organization. Niles relationship to Weeks could be strengthened in the way he rebuffs him and then tries to take over the organization.

Peter Schiavelli is very angular as Felix Turner, in the way that Dudley Do-Right was drawn angular. Schiavelli has a very strong handsome presence on stage and manages to make the most of the character. What is interesting about this character is that he is hiding something from his partner until the end of the first half.  It is so subtle on stage as to not be noticeable and maybe should be a part of the character’s internal conflict about becoming involved.

Carole Weyer is Dr. Emma Brookner and played this character with an accent, sounding German at times.  One is not sure what that was about as the character is based on someone born and went to school in the United States. It was a choice that was not entirely successful.  That said, her craft, and her work presented outstanding choices, the manner in the wheelchair and the way she conducted her examination of the patients were outstanding.

Jeffrey Masters plays Tommy Boatwright, a southern belle, as it were.  The southern accent does not take him to unimaginable heights and needs work.  That said, he has a very likeable personality and does well for his limited time on stage.  But, more specifically, he needs to identify the conflict, and work for a stronger objective.

Ray Barnhart is Mickey Marcus, a man who will help but will not go beyond his limited means.  He doesn’t want to be president of the group and is satisfied with stuffing envelopes.  He works for the Health Department but is not about to risk his job writing about the gay plague.  Barnhart requires a stronger choice for his objective and the conflict that keeps him from reaching his objective. Still, there is something very likeable about this character and this actor.

Eric Bunton plays three different roles, David, Hiram, and the doctor.  Bunton has a strong voice and does something very interesting with David, the man with the lesions, he quietly enters from the doctors and quietly exits as a man who presents the disease and then quietly exits the world, as he knows it.

Cameron Cowperthwaite (that’s a name) does well as the sick friend in the first scene, who is a hypochondriac, but turns out that his fears are not mental.  One would love to see his face as he is writhing on the gurney. It sets the mood and the action that needs to be taken. 

Nicely produced by Sarah Burkhardt and Parker Mills. 

Run! Run! And take an activist.  There is more to learn and much more for which to take action.

Members of the crew who contributed mightily to the production are as follows:

David Mauer – Set Design
Brandon Baruch – Lighting Design
Chris Moscatiello – Sound Design
Liz Schroeder – Costume Design
Michael Skolnick – Props
Brandon Hearnsberger – Video Editing
Jake Moses – Original Music
Edward Vyeda – Original Artwork
Scott Marshall – Lighting Assistant
Amy Koch – Stage Manager
Ken Werther Publicity – Press Representative
Sarah Burkhardt – Associate Director

Telephone: 800-838-3006

The Chromolume Theatre at The Attic
5429 W. Washington Boulevard
(Between the 10 Freeway and Hauser Blvd.)
Los Angeles, CA  90016