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!

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