Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Love is a Dirty Word by Giovanni Adams


Giovanni Adams - Photos by Aaron Epstein

By Joe Straw

a poetic journey of life

love without the rhyme

making life moments when there were none, moments ago

love is love

in an unwavering heart

love is love - narrator

Tilted Field Productions, in associate with VS. Theatre, presents the World Premier of Love is a Dirty Word, written and performed by Giovanni Adams, and directed by Becca Wolff, through July 15, 2017.

How does a gay fatherless black young man growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, living in less than ideal conditions, end up going to Yale University?

The answer is not entirely forthcoming in Love is a Dirty Word performed by Giovanni Adams. Forthcoming in the way you want a performer to “use your words” to provide the details of the comings and goings in his memoir.

This play is performed in stylized words, measured lines in a kind of lyrical arranged meter. It is stunningly beautiful and solidly moving.  By the end, Adams has indescribably triumphed as an artist, a man, and a human being.

Arturo Lopez, Guitarist and Arranger, accompanies the music exquisitely sung by Adams, which is soft and lyrical. He is the shadow of the song, the one who keeps you company in song when you’re trying to figure things out.

The show plays well in the VS. Theatre, an intimate space with only 40 seats or so. It is a striking and welcoming theatre run by Johnny Clark, Artistic Director.

Rachel Myers, Set Design, places us in a southern home, which is remarkable in its simplicity and authenticity.  The set design takes us both inside modest warm home, and outside, in the rich red clay of the cotton fields in Jackson, Mississippi.

But how did he get to Yale? And what’s with the Italian name?

Giovanni Adams

Adams has a remarkable memory and an imperturbably gaze as he recounts the significant moments in his life.  The stark portraits of images with all of its details are etched in the awareness that he carries forth.  It is a poetic memory, one more notation to cement the final document of his journey.

Love is not a dirty word, but a word that turns the world.  Certainly, it is an action that actors use to create life on stage.  Love in this context means gay love. But love depends on the person doing the loving. Love eliminates labels, raises the roof on forgiveness, and gives respect.

Love is a pecan tree, with its warm buttery taste.  

And love is whatever moves the audience.

But, what about Yale?

The answers are in the words, the characters in his life, the father who went to prison, the stepfather who took his place, the mother, grandmother, and other relatives that gave him character and an understanding of life, both the joys and the pain. 

The answers, of how he went to Yale, are all there if you absorb the journey.  

Becca Wolff, the director, does an outstanding job of letting Adams be free, doing what he needs to do, but guiding him nevertheless in a show that is both simple and brilliant. There are a lot of similarities in style between this play and Dear Evan Hansen, and oddly enough with Hamilton, which makes this show a completely enjoyable evening.  

Run! Run! Run!  And take a coxswain, someone who will guide you to the theatre and bring you safetly back home.  

Other members of this delightful crew are as follows:

Niki Armato – Dound Design
Derrick McDaniel – Lighting Design
Melissa Trn – Costume Consultant
Lenny Wolff – Technical Director
Geri Wolff – Props Manager
Tommy Dunn – Ticketing/Front-of-House/ Social Media
Aaron Hauser – Stage Carpenter
Sean Mayturn – Scenic Painter
Matt Brunhofer – Lighting Technician
Ariel Vargez – Graphics
Lynn Tejada/Green Calatic – PR

VS. Theatre
5453 West Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90019

Reservations: 323-739-4411, or

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Nicky by Boni B. Alvarez – Inspired by Anton Chekhov’s Ivanoff

L - R Chris Aguila and Cyrus Wilcox

By Joe Straw

“I am a worthless, miserable, useless man.” – Ivanoff by Anton Tchekoff, Translated by Marian Fell

Coeurage Theatre Company presents Nicky by Boni B. Alvarez and directed by Beth Lopes at The Greenway Court Theatre located on the campus of Fairfax High School through July 1st, 2017.  Parking is free in the high school parking lot.

This is a wonderfully diverse cast and another impressive outing for the Coeurage Theatre Company.

Boni B. Alvarez has written an inspired adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Ivanoff that is impressive in scope as well as including all of the Chekhovian angst.

The intimate setting is a Russian enclave in present day Palm Springs, instead of the province of central Russia.  The home is a vacation time-share with a small pool, surrounded and complimented with a desert rock garden. (Wonderfully designed by Scenic Designer Benoit Guérin.)

Nicky (Cyrus Wilcox) rests by the pool in a silent meditation far away from the internal madness that plagues his everyday life.   Anna (Sandy Velasco), his wife of five years, wails away in song at the other end of the house. There is a slight mood of repugnance in Nicky’s demeanor at every cross note.   

Sandy Velasco and Ted Barton

Anna is from the Philippines, and sings with a heavy Tagalog accent.  Matthew (Ted Barton), the Count, listens politely as he plucks threads from the linen bed sheets.  Every sound she makes causes her husband, at the other end of the house, to wince in discomfort.  

She, one who is dying of cancer, softly pads the floor.

There is little that Nicky can do other than to stroke his heavy beard and remind himself that quicker is better. The marriage has not been fruitful, in more ways than one. She is a lofty distraction from what Nicky has on his mind—a failing computer business, too little money, and too much debt.

To top it off, pesky alcoholic Misha (Jeremy Lelliott), his business manager, is constantly asking for money from his already empty pockets. Misha is Nicky’s distant relative and he operates as though the money and drinks flows continuously like a running stream.  Such is not the case.  

Softly and on quiet toes, Dr. Lalwah (Nardeep Khurmi) is a nagging persistent sore on Nicky’s emotional backside, hanging around the house, and waiting for Anna’s test results, which they know will not be good.   Nicky probably sees the doctor as another expenditure, another hole in life’s trousers.   

Anna continues to sing, “You light Up My Life” as Nicky falls deeper into a depression as he sits by the pool.

Dr. Lalwah examines Anna, takes her temperature, and tells her that she must eat.  He recognizes Anna is not doing well and suggests to Nicky that she leaves the harshness that is Palm Springs.

“She has stage 4 cancer.” – Dr. Lalwali

Dr. Lalwali enters her bedroom with a cup of tea for Anna.  Anna, anticipating a party on this night, tries on dresses in front of her doctor who, with slight embarrassment, turns away.  She appears to have a wig to cover the ravages of chemotherapy.  She wants to go to the party but the doctor suggests she stay home; besides he tells her that her husband doesn’t care for her.

Anna confides to the doctor that she wants to go back to the Philippines to her mother and father.  Her emotions get the better of her and she opts out of the party.

“Bring me a cognac.” – Anna

Meanwhile, the birthday party is in full swing, sans Sasha (Chris Aguila), the birthday boy, who has just turned twenty-one. Sasha’s father Pavel (Daniel Kaemon) proudly tells the guests that he is waiting for his “gay son” to arrive.   

Pavel’s penny-pinching wife, Zina (Emily Swallow), is very concerned about the amount of food being served and the amount of liquor being consumed. Zina emphatically makes her point to the frustrated Latina maid, Gisela (Caro Zeller), about the amount of food and drink each person should get.  

Everyone is ready for Sasha, the birthday boy, to arrive.  Julian (Jaime Barcelon), Renee (Taylor Hawthorne), and Bryce (Mark Jacobson), friends of Sasha, are baking in the afternoon sun and waiting.  Martha (Alexis Genya) and Aurora (Julia Silverman), a retired matchmaker, take their place at the table until the show arrives.

If you are interested in seeing this wonderful production, don’t read any further. 

Beth Lopes, the director, employs some very interesting moments especially during the party scene where one could envision Stanislavsky himself directing.  But, as to the guests, one wonders how the characters will lead us to the dramatic conclusion. (In the Chekhov version, Ivanoff takes a gun to his head.) Every character must move Nicky toward a conclusion, whether they aware of it or not.  And, if they do, Nicky must be a party to all of those observations, even the ones not directly related to him. This includes the Count and his friend, the gay friends, Nicky’s own ambiguous leanings, the Asian friend who’s quite capable of to making money, the characters that drag him down with more money concerns, etc.,

Chris Aguila is Sasha, a very young gay man who comes on too strong to his amour.  In his initial meeting, he is inebriated and throws himself onto his love almost like a cat that needs undivided attention.  It is an affair in which the younger man appears older and wiser.  How does this work to get the characters to the end of the play? 

Jaime Barcelon presents an impressive figure as Julian, a man who adapts to the circumstances around him. Julian keeps his eyes and ears open for the next opportunity that will work to his benefit. Nicely done.

Ted Barton is the Count Matthew, complete with Russian accent. Barton is marvelous in the role as a man who has adapted to being alone but is always in the mix when others need his limited help and soft expertise. Barton is one of the finest actors working in Los Angeles these days.

Alexis Genya is Martha, a woman who wants love, in all the wrong places.  Martha is beyond her prime but is still hopeful, if she could get others to reconcile to her physical and emotional demands. Genya is outstanding on the stage.

Julia Silverman is Aurora, the retired matchmaker who is also beyond her prime and resides herself to playing solitaire.  She is made aware there are other pairs of customers (gay ones) who may need her professional services.  A spark has been ignited and a warm glow permeates her body.  It’s time to get to work. If this is the case, how do these actions contribute to the major through line of the play?  (Also, as an aside, one thinks this character should be dressed in colorful apparel to give her uniqueness and a bright spot in a room filled with characters raging in impotent despair.)

Taylor Hawthorne is Renee and has a very good look on stage.  Sadly she is just another character that contributes little to the end of the play. It is a role that needs more substance in the final direction.  Still, Hawthorne has a nice presence and that is half the battle.

Mark Jacobson is Bryce, a gay man, who is there for an unknown reason.  He is a friend.  But what does this friend do?   Where does it lead? Jacobson is an actor that I have seen over the years and his craft is getting stronger, his characters are more developed, and the mannerism specific. But, where is he going with this character?

Emily Swallow and Daniel Kaemon

Daniel Kaemon is Pavel, a loving father and a man with many secrets.  Kaemon does a tremendous job in the role, which is a very loving man to friend and family alike.  He is a man who will do anything for anyone in trouble.

Nardeep Khurmi is Doctor Lalwali.  To make this role truly work, Lalwali must present an overabundant love for the patient. It is his reason for being at the house, all the time.  The role needs more layers to give it definition. This doctor should not leave the room of the patient without having some kind of an emotional breakdown, simply out of love. Every moment should be cherished to show her husband what real love is all about.  I don’t think we got that.

Jeremy Lelliott is funny as Misha.  Misha drinks, a lot. Can anyone take him seriously when he speaks of taking money from someone and turning it into a lot of money?  He is literally the class money clown.  But, how does these actions contribute to the ending?  

Emily Swallow is Zina and possibly younger than what I imagined the character to be.  Nevertheless, she does an outstanding job in the way she demands money from Nicky not once but rather repeatedly.  This is the character who unwittingly and figuratively not only sticks the knife in but, whether she understands it or not, turns it slowly. There is something not right in her relationship with her son who seems only to be an odd accouterment to her life.

Sandy Velasco does some amazing work as Anna.   Her voice is clear and her craft displays unusual qualities that were riveting when she spoke of her family and her life.

Cyrus Wilcox is Nicky and has a very nice presence on stage. One would have like to have seen him without the beard to get the soul of the character and to see his face.  There is much to be said about the accumulation of events and how those events contribute to the ending. Each event is a weighty brick on his shoulders and we should see those bricks accumulate until the very end. There must be a better choice for the opening that introduces the man in action rather than lounging in a chair by the pool. Also, the first time he sees Sasha should be the first time Nicky sees him in that way.  This moment should play out better and we should get that connection.  The fact that Sasha is a man in this play should not make a big difference to someone who really falls in love. We get the impalpable grayness of his character but we really need to see a man trying to find his way out.

Caro Zeller is very feisty and funny as the Latina maid Gabriela. There is a connection between Gabriela and Nicky but I did not see it on this night.

Boni B. Alvarez has written a modern day prodigious adaptation of Chekov’s Ivanoff.  There is enough of the play still in this version so the play doesn’t stray too far from Chekov’s intention. In this version it appears that everyone is trying to help Nicky, but Nicky’s introspection leads him down a narrow hole, unable to crawl out, and the rain is starting to fall. And although the performances rang true, the dots, mostly character actions, were not connected with a strong through line to the finish. Those events leading to the ending is an accumulation of events that must be accentuated for the audience to get the full effect. 

The ending in this version is silent, unexpected, and Nicky is alone.  Chekov pronounces his ending with full dramatic effect as a counterweight to life’s mundane actions.   

There is a list of alternates that did not perform on the night I was there.  They are as follows:

Ron Bottitta – Matthew
Chelsea Boyd – Renee
Leona Britton – Martha/Aurora
Julia Fisher – Zina
Kevin Gottlieb – Pavel
Craig Jorczak – Bryce/Sasha
Shawn Kathryn Kane – Anna
Gio Munguia – Misha
Marta Portillo – Gisela
David Tran – Julian
Ryan Patrick Welsh – Nicky

Members of the crew are as follows:

Summer Grubaugh – Stage Manager
Melissa Pryor – Assistant Director
Benoît Guérin – Scenic Design
Azra King-Adbadi – Lighting Design
Michelle Stann – Sound Design
Karen Fix Curry – Costume Design
Sammi Smith – Prop Design
Caitlin Muelder – Dialect Coach
John Klopping – Production Photographer
Ken Werther Publicity – Press Representative

Run! Run! Run! And take someone who is off his or her depression medication and now needs a dose of Chekov.

 (323) 673-0544


Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Conduct of Life by María Irene Fornés

Adriana Sevahn Nichols and Nick Caballero - Photos by Brandon Le

By Joe Straw

One needs only to glance at the photographs of María Irene Fornés to know she is Cuban and an artist. In her photograph she steadies her upper torso against the wall looking straight ahead, abundant curly hair and glorious high cheekbones.  She has the stare of an artist of someone who sees more than what is in front of her and eyes that projects a backstory that is her life.  It’s all there and she is beautiful. – Narrator

Hero Theatre presents The Conduct of Life by María Irene Fornés and directed by José Luis Valenzuela through June 25th, 2017.

The show runs about an hour in length and it is filled with so much life.

This was my first time at the beautiful Rosenthal Theater at the Inner City Arts building in Los Angeles. Everyone was courteous and welcoming.  

I arrived early, too early, parking was plentiful along the street and I thought there would be plenty of spaces when I came back. So, I quickly drove away expecting to find the nearest Starbucks to drink coffee and hang out.  But, when I got back, the street was filled with cars.  A man saw my predicament and tried to wave me into a lot.  I demurred, but finding nothing now on the street I drove back to him. From there he ushered me into the lot where parking was free!

The Conduct of Life is a visual feast!  One can expect this from José Luis Valenzuela, perfectly sui generis in his craft, and in the way he adds a pourboire by filling our needs for a complete theatrical gratification.  One can take a pick from all that is included.  The first is the hypnotic Lighting Design by Johnny Garofalo, which takes the audience from a sterile home into the deep dark blue and red recesses of a torture chamber.  Or it might be John Zalewski’s Sound Design that manages to fill the humiliated silences and other sounds that heightens the pain of troubled souls in manipulations and torture.

This first disturbing image is one of shadows of a young woman, back lit by blue lights.

Nick Caballero and Antonia Cruz-Kent

Nena (Antonia Cruz) is tied up in the basement.  She is hanging from a suitcase belt that is tethered from the ceiling.  She waits blindfolded for whatever comes hoping the outcome is to her benefit. Snatched from sleeping in the streets, she is now a prisoner of a man with a troubled soul. Torture is not new to him.

His name is Orlando (Nick Caballero) exercising in his living room.  Having the blood run through his system so other things can work. He thinks out loud about his job, being a second lieutenant at the age of thirty-three and trying harder in his job of getting ahead in the military.

But in Orlando’s mind, they are on to him.  They know and they wait for his next mistake, a big one that will cause his downfall. He thinks about that all the time.

Alejo (Jonathan Medina) watches, not saying a word, his every movement, as though he were incapable of speaking.  Something is going on with his friend, or military associate, a man he has known for many years.

And Leticia (Adriana Sevahn Nichols) just listens to her husband Orlando carrying on the way he does, he is abusive to her and her nature, they once loved, but he despises her now for reasons that she doesn’t understand and won’t divulge with Alejo standing there watching the both of them.

“He doesn’t love me.” - Leticia   

Leticia says this to Alejo after being humiliated by her husband.  She has a hard outer surface and pretends not to be hurt.  Still, she asks Alejo to help her, with her political science studies.

Adriana Sevahn Nichols and Elisa Bocanegra
Despite the things going on in the house, Leticia is managing the household chores with Olimpia (Elisa Bocanegra) an obstructionist maid.  Preparing the day for meals is never a mundane act especially when Olimpia describes the correct way in which things should be done. Leticia can only stare in disbelief listening to the structured stuttering ramblings of a meticulous maid.

And then there’s that other stuff going on in the basement, the ignored screams emanating from the cellar, conflicted with the silence cries of loneliness, variegated with pain, and finding no solutions to make right the present or the future, all in this the conduct of life.

One can’t give too much of this away for the sake of spoiling your viewing pleasure.  The show is only 60 minutes long.

With José Luis Valenzuela, the director, it’s about finding the connective tissue, the core of the relationship that moves a character. Each character embodies their own specific conduct of life and we watch passing judgment on how things should or should not be, god-like to our collective core.  Sometimes it is beautiful to watch and sometimes we want to turn our heads.  But whatever we feel it all makes for beautiful theatre.

Elisa Bocanegra is a fascinating actor.  Her voice as the stuttering Olimpia is unique, rich, and something you will never hear again from any actor. Bocanegra also gives Olimpia an attitude, a silent strength, a woman of compassion and secrets.  This is a performance not to miss.

One can’t see a lot of redeeming qualities in the character Orlando, played by Nick Caballero. Certainly, when an actor approaches a role he wants to find the positive virtues in a character, one that gives a creative choice and strong objective.  This is a character that wants a higher rank in the military but gets confused by mental obstacles and physical conflicts. His actions are unbecoming of an officer, and he is no gentleman. His actions must weigh heavily on his being, but I saw none of that.  He must know that if he is caught there may be strong repercussions, but he continues as though little of that matters. Caballero presents a strong figure and is strong in his craft.  But, there is doubt about this character, the end result, and the thing we are supposed to feel at the end.

Antonia Cruz-Kent plays Nena, the victim who stands with the aid of a strap hanging from the ceiling.  She has been taken off the streets and now is a captive. She cowers in a corner, scared out of her wits, and wonders when this will all stop. Cruz-Kent does an admiral job playing the victim.  There is more needed from this character after she is released with her mental and physical state of mind. The relationship with her captor must present many more layers after she has been released and into a maid’s costume. Nevertheless, it is very brave work.

Jonathan Medina plays the military friend Alejo. He is a very quiet man, watching things that go on about this household without saying a word.  He mostly keeps to himself and observes the machinations around the house. Alejo recognizes the tensions but can't put his finger on the solution.  He knows what his friend is about, the torture, and he must remind his friend the true nature of his calling, before he acts.  There is more to add with his relationship with Leticia.  Medina approaches the role very methodically, his voice is strong, and he has a grand presence on stage.

Adriana Sevahn Nichols has some dramatic challenges with the role of Leticia.  Leticia is a woman, the head of the household with no control over her domain.  Her husband is in the basement, the maid runs all over her, she does not recognize the man who wants to get nearer to her, and she can’t get the simplest of questions answered. She curious but she is not curious enough to find solutions.  She has no children and her husband does not see her in the same way he once did. Still she manages to hold on to whatever life she once had. Nichols does some very dramatic work in The Conduct of Life.

Polly Humphreys is the Olimpia swing but did not perform the night I was there.

Carlos Brown, Costume Design, gives the impression that we are in 1950’s Cuba and the craft was scrupulous.

François-Pierre Couture was responsible for the Set Design, marvelously planned and very workable for the actors to perform their magic.

Other members of the delightful crew are as follows:

Van White – Fight Choreography
Veronica Vasquez – Stage Manager
Gabe Figueroa – Assistant Director
Gabe Figueroa, Terrence Leung – Associate Producers
Miles Bryant, Ashley Busenlener, Joseph M. Henderson, Julia Stier and Analia Tamariz – Producing Fellows & Interns

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves to outline the psyche of human actions. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Rules of Seconds by John Pollono

Jamie Harris and Amy Brenneman

By Joe Straw

I came out of the theatre after seeing The Cruise by Jonathan Ceniceroz at LATC and witnessed the crowd exiting another theatre for Rules of Seconds written by John Pollono. The expressions on the faces from those patrons were gloomy.

“That’s funny. I thought Rules of Seconds was a comedy. Why is everyone coming out as though they were coming out of a morgue?”

Little did I know.

After a viewing of Rules of Seconds - what starts out as a lighthearted comedy finishes with a Sam Peckinpah ending.  And Peckinpah is not a man noted for his warm comedies or for his lighthearted touch.  

In any case, at the end of the show, the blood of the nearly departed was everywhere.  The actors, picking themselves up from prone positions, hands clasped, cautiously stepped over the red rivulets for the dramatic curtain call.

Oh, and, not to beat a dead horse, did I mention that it was great fun! – Narrator

The Latino Theater Company presents Rules of Seconds written by John Pollono and directed by Jo Bonney closed April 15th, 2017 at LATC. It was presented in association with The Temblors and wonderfully produced by Diana Buckhantz.

Rules of Seconds is a beautifully written play that strikes a humanistic chord that is peppered with modern day gunshot dialogue. While watching, one comprehends the play is an amalgamation of succulent nuggets, a brilliant chiaroscuro thrown across a theatrical canvas.  

The Projection Design by Hana Kim beautifully elevates the dimensional locations, highlighting a marvelous canvas of creative shadows of men and might. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, Costume Design, brings the characters to life with wonderful extravagant costumes that splendidly fit the characters.

Rules of Second is not without fault. With the carnage aside, one also wants to find a message in this bottle or, is it that we were there just to have plain bloody fun?   

Dueling is certainly, a little more sophisticated than the Wild West where men, figuring they were in the right, were slinging it out in front of the townsfolk on dusty streets. 

But, dueling back east was consider a higher class art form, where weapons were kept in boxes and the killing was detached and away from the prying eyes of the populace. As it turns out there were a number of rules if one had the willingness to stare down another human being and shoot him like a dog.   

Naytheless, and most importantly, a duelist needs a second. That person serves as a representative or attendant to a duelist. And generally that individual is the most important person when a duelist is embroiled in a situation where one is not able to escape the challenge of potentially being gunned down.   

Ron Bottitta

In this story, the haunting Narrator (Ron Bottitta) is the sibylline specter of rules and order.  He is instrumental in explaining the rules of Code Duello if one is so enabled to absorb the message from his kind. But, hauntings aside, one must follow the code if one is to remain a gentleman in good standing.

The Narrator is also Mr. Leeds, a figment of an imagination, a theory of a man and his rules - now having passed on to greener pastures. Mr. Leeds is also a mythical figure transformed, and a character we really come to know in the second act thanks to the benefit of flashback.  (There was really more here of Mr. Leeds that was probably eliminated. He is the mystical beast of a Louis L’Amour moment and a man that takes you to another dimension beside that of real time and space.)

The setting is 1855 in Boston Massachusetts; a cold night to travel with two hirelings bundled in clothes to ward off the Atlantic Ocean breeze. One imagines the musty smell coming off the marsh is in line with the malodorous odors drifting from the two stablemen, a newly appointed coachman George Dyatt (Damu Malik) and Ron Bonnie (Joshua Britton) who recently have exchanged positions, Dyatt getting the better position now that Bonnie has been demoted to picking up horse droppings from around the stable.

It’s all so unfair according to Bonnie, draped in ragman’s gear from head to toe as he bends down to pick another load of horse manure. (One might mention, the droppings are so small, they are probably the plugs left over from a galloping stallion.)

But, back to the job, Bonnie now has to bend to a gracious black boss.  And this is still a few years before the end of slavery in America.  Bonnie’s stature, if he had any at all, is now regulated to being the lowest common denominator on man’s sliding scale. 

But, Bonnie doesn’t dwell too long on this matter hoping one day he will get back into the main boss’s good graces with the help of some kind of bootlicking plan, if he has the capacity to think one up.   

Hannah Leary (Jen Pollono), a housemaid to a sinister boss Walter Brown (Jamie Harris), hurries them along as there is worked to be done.

Meanwhile, back at the home of beautiful Martha Leeds (Amy Brenneman).  Martha sits at her vanity table being waited on her eldest son Nathaniel “Wings” Leeds (Matthew Elkins) as he decides which color bow his mother should wear in her hair for the meeting.  He takes exceptional pleasure helping her look fabulous.

The two of them devise a plan to sell their business to the ultra rich Walter Brown and for not a penny less than what they are asking for.  The Leeds have fallen on hard times after the untimely death of Mr. Leeds and money is not coming in, if it’s coming in at all.

And, the horse just ain’t what she use to be.

The pompous and somewhat bestial Walter Brown, with his incomparable loquacity, boots his way into Mrs. Leeds home, signs the contract, and demands closure to the deal with a hand shake from the “man of the house”.  It is a qualitative step, in his mind, to seal the agreement.

But, Nathaniel has a touching phobia and shies away from his outreached fingers. Brown insists and Nathaniel spills tea on Brown’s nice Italian boots.

Brown, now a victim of a ghastly display of manners and manhood, issues a challenge to a phobia riddled Nathaniel, lashing out with invidious remarks, before he storms off.  (The man doth protest too much, methinks.)  

Now the Leeds are in trouble.  Martha tells a melancholy Nathaniel that he will need a second. And against her better judgment she asks Nathaniel to find his estranged brother James Leeds (Josh Helman) to try to work things out.

Nathaniel has no trouble finding his brother James - nestled in the shadows of a local bar.  James is also embroiled in a duel of his own. His opponent is Albert Chang (Feodor Chin) a drunken doctor with little ingenuity, who feels he has been calumniated and requires the disagreement to be settled by a duel.  Despite the best efforts of everyone in the room Chang insists on saving face and going through with it.

Both men have their seconds and commence but James cleverly outwits Chang with a mug of beer in the first round and a knife in the second round against Chang’s guns.

Chang struggles out of the bar with one less digit as Nathaniel slides his way between the winner and loser and confronts his brother James to help him.  James comes home and reluctantly greets his mother, after being absent 7 years. (The reason why is revealed in the second act.) 

James, looking for a ride to Mr. Brown’s home, wants to know the whereabouts of the horse.  

No matter, James, now the official second, and Nathaniel walk to Walter Brown’s resident.  Hannah, the Irish maid, greets them at the door and punches James in the face and then she lets him in.

James, smarting a little, also gets nowhere with Mr. Brown, and his second, a Señor Carranza (Leandro Cano) an unpleasant and somber man of leather and silver buttons.  The duel is on.  

As a last resort Mrs. Leeds visits Mr. Brown to persuade him to change his mind.  Mr. Brown is happy that she has come.  He tells her a story about their first meeting, and then, she bites through his acrid remarks with an act of humiliation to save her humbled and frightened son.  

Mr. Brown, battle weary from life’s cicatrices, both emotional and physical, has a score to settle, and humiliates Mrs. Leeds in a most ungentlemanly sort of way.   

L - R Matthew Elkins, Joshua Britton, Damu Malik, Josh Hellman, Jen Pollono, Leandro Cano, Jamie Harris

Joshua Bitton makes the most of the characters Ron Bonnie and Hollander.  Each character is carefully crafted with different accents and strong objectives.  Bitton is exciting to watch and does the unusual in a way that makes him a very different type of actor utilizing very creative choices in all of his characters.  

Ron Bottitta also has some grand moments as Narrator, Mr. Leeds, and Dr. Wright.  Mr. Leeds and the Narrator are the same character in a way that is revealed in the second act. Dr. Wright may have broken the “three character rule” in a cast that is very small. More may be made from the Narrator/Mr. Leeds character in the way he appears and disappears and possibly in the way the other characters react to him. Still, it was very fine work, and a fine performance.  

Amy Brenneman played Martha Leeds who, at the end of the play, presents a very evil streak.  At the end of the first act her “I want you to kill him.” is a line that comes from her total humiliation or from a position of strength.  In any case it’s hard to tell. This is a line that didn’t ring true, that needed something else, just an added dimension to the character’s objective.  She sacrifices everything in that moment for her revenge? (Notes to the writer on that one.) This moment needed something additional to propel the character into the second act. Brenneman is charming on stage and despite my grumblings does some very fine work.

Leandro Cano is Señor Carranza a tall majestic, menacing, character wearing black, slightly sinister, from another country, and happens to live in Boston.  Cano does all the right things as an actor but something in the way of his objective was missing.  What does he want? Why is he there? Where does he fit in, in the grand scheme of things?

Feodor Chin brings comedy to this bloodbath as Albert Chang. Chin is very funny and very unusual in this role. There is more to add in this character’s backstory, his life, which has got him to this point.

Matthew Elkins conveys a very distinct character to the role of Nathaniel “Wings” Leeds.  (One is not sure what the “Wings” is all about.) Dressed in the way a man of past worth would dress, with his pants too tight and pulled up high on his abdomen, wearing a vest, slightly ill fitting, and boots that had seen a shine long ago. Comfortable with his mother but uncomfortable with strangers and the touching thing is slightly odd.  The gunfight near the end, where he suddenly finds his strength and manhood, was an outstanding moment and a work of art.  

Jamie Harris does some really find work as Walter Brown a man who is set on finding some kind of vengeance for something that happened to him years earlier. Pompous, arrogant, he is a man that is filled with many words and takes special pride in the fineries of life.  Despite his libidinous élan, he is without the love of a woman, and yet finds companionship with another man that lives in his home. Even when he gets the girl that he wants he refuses it.  Why? Harris has an amazing craft and keeps you guessing while you are at it.

Josh Helman is a very interesting actor as James Leeds.  Leeds is fascinating character because he doesn’t have all the answers, tries to find solutions, and is protective of his brother at all costs. The lighting on this night gave Helman the look of deep-set eyes (raccoon eyes on a film set) and was that way for the other characters as well.  This is a character in which we need to see that he thinks.  That aside, James Leeds is the hero in manner and deed, smart, but not too smart, trying to find his way as he goes.

Damu Malik does outstanding work as George Dyett and Stillman giving life to characters with little or no stature.  His voice is strong and with it brings a certain type of majesty to the characters.

Jen Pollono doesn’t give everything away in the first act as Hannah Leary which makes the second act that much more fun. Her voice is strong and her accent is spot on.

Leandro Cano and Jamie Harris

John Pollono, the writer, is a rules breaker in this non-linear story.  He weaves us in and out of the story breaking barriers of time.  He gives us time shadows, elements of story stretched transversely through juncture and space, leaving just enough to question the ambiguity, a cornerstone of this theatrical work of art.  Each character is uniquely different, has a fascinating story to tell, and a reason for being.  It’s all deliciously fun.  One prefers another title Mr. Leeds Rules of Seconds rather than Rules of Seconds because the title hands the rules the to the Leeds men all within the framework of Code Duella. That said, one wonders about the Walter Brown character.  Why is revenge his motivating factor? Why isn’t he married? What is his relationship to the sinister Señor Carranza? At the end of the day what does Walter Brown get out of his life? Also, what does Señor Carranza get from his relationship with Walter Brown? The ending of the play also presents challenges.  What pushes Mrs. Leeds over the edge?  Is it the injury to son number one, or son number two? There is quite a bit of ambiguity in this play where one wishes for a definitive answer.

Jo Bonney, the director, gives life to Pollono’s unusual diverse characters where one sits back and enjoys every minute of this play. Her work is stunning, aesthetically pleasing, and a carefully crafted visual feast.

This production had an amazing creative team.  They are as follows:

Richard Hoover – Scenic Design
Neil Peter Jampolis – Lighting Design
Cricket S. Myers – Sound Design
Ned Mochel – Violence Design (The ending was phenomenal!)
Ilana Molina – Properties Design
Paul Wagar – Dialect Coach
Daniel Ponickley – Choreographer
Sara Fenton – Assistant to the Director
Megan Berlow – Assistant Costume Design
John A. Garofalo – Associate Lighting Designer
Ginerva Lombardo – Assistant to the Lighting Designer
Lilly Deerwater – Production Stage Manager
Julianne Figueroa – Assistant Stage Manager
Nancy Fregoso – Wardrobe Assistant
Gabe Figueroa – Production Manager
Nate Edelman & T Tara Turk-Haynes – Associate Producers
Deborah Aquila, CSA & Lisa Zagoria – Casting

Run! Run! Run, if you ever have a chance to see this show!  And take someone who loves horses!