Friday, August 18, 2017

Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez

Demain Bichir as El Pachuco

I met a young actor, a person that I had seen in a number of plays, working on a small stage on Western Avenue. I was expecting to see him in the show on that night but he allowed his understudy go on. 

This next thing usually doesn’t happen but, afterwards I met up with that actor and said that his deed was unselfish and admirable but if he wasn’t in the show, I couldn’t write about him.

His eyes got wide, like a deer in the headlights, and I’m not sure he got my intention; he just nodded his head, august in manner, and moved on into the cold night.  

Never give up an opportunity to be seen. You just never know.   – Narrator

Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez was playing at the Mark Taper Forum and I wanted to throw out some observations, something that stuck with this viewer to give you a flavor, a surrounding sense of enlightenment. 

I’ll try to make this illuminating.

The patrons

Most supporters dressed in ritual as though they were out for music and dancing.  Latina patrons were rich with color in tight dresses that expanded upward the visible skin - nicely projecting a type of attitude.  Men sauntered in western boots, thick black belts, and wide dark sombreros. Some came in zoot suits. They all came with physically rich unannounced backstories and then poured through the doors as though they were coming to see family.  

One needn’t say it but Los Angeles has a vibrant Latino theatre going community; as witnessed time and time again with patrons coming in droves to frequent the Latino Theatre Company, Casa 0101, and the Hero Theatre.

The theatre

The Mark Taper does a lot of things right welcoming patrons into their beautiful theatre. 

Putting that aside for a moment the theatre seating is a little precarious; I sat about four rows back from the stage and squeezed my 6”6” frame into one of their tiny seats. My legs widened in an uncomfortable “V” formation, into that perilous position also known as the deadly man spread.

A lot of people, judging from this crowd, saw Zoot Suit back in 1978 when it played at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood.  Remembered trailers on TV highlighted Edward James Olmos as El Pachucco when he was a man and not a myth.  Today Olmos is just a myth.

El espectáculo

There were a couple of things that caught my attention.  The first was El Pachucco (Demiam Bichir), after cutting a hole in the newspaper scrim, paraded out, zoot suit and all, and with an attitude, called out to a woman in the audience.  She was in a red dress with thick eyelashes that I could see from where I sat.  El Pachuco, threw out his arm, pointed his finger in her direction.  Her face was illuminated by phone and covered in guilt when he asked her to put away her cell phone, all without missing his rhythmic cadence.

“The Pachuco was existential
for he was an Actor in the streets
both profane and reverential.
It was the secret fantasy of every bato
In or out of the Chicanada
To put on a Zoot suit and play the Myth
Más Chucote que la chingada.
¡Pos órale! – Pachuco

A few moments into the show, in the first scene, Enrique Reyna (Daniel Valdez) got a huge applause on his entrance and was quite good in those moments, playing the patriarch of the Reyna family. (Taking a glance at the program I noticed a younger Daniel Valdez in the very first production as well, hence, the applause.)

And, suddenly there was a delightfulness about that scene, a sincere simplicity, of a protective father and mother, brothers and sister, and a grand knowledge of the material in the manner with which the actors related on stage. 

Who directed this? None other than Luis Valdez!

Matias Ponce and Demian Birchir

One more thing that struck a chord with me and the night was Ann Closs—Farley's Costume Design which was rich and spectacular, colorful and enticing! It was a solid blend of time and place.

Center stage Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce) looked very familiar.  Yes, I have seen him in other productions. Ponce is tall, statuesque, and has a striking resemblance to the giggling Jimmy Fallon.  

Later in the play, the sassy El Pachuco was stripped of his zoot suit and went marching up the steps in a Tarzan like loincloth.  In the talk back after the show, the speakers asked the audience how they liked the scene.  “Oh, we thought that was good.” was the response. 

But, removed of this clothing, how did that progress the play? Was he less of a man or stronger because of it? On appearance alone, without cloth, he seemed weaker. Is the suit the only measure of this man, if so how can the man be the myth?  

Moving up the stairs in loincloth El Pachuco, defaced by the raging white populace, was leaving forever, following the bright light, for reasons unknown, but later, when all things seemed lost, he comes back better than ever, industrial strength, El super mythical Pachuco, Zoot suit and all! And yes we like a strong El Pachuco!

“I ask you to find these zoot-suited gangsters guilty of murder to put them in the gas chamber where they belong.” – Press (Tom G. McMahon)

“Cabrón!” – An audience member.

George (Brian Abraham), the defense attorney took center stage after “cabrón” was said and the audience just laughed at the man who at this time disappeared among the many faces in the audience.  We were all seething, thinking similar thoughts.    

George waited a moment, nodded his head, and then said, “That’s right.  You’re right.”  More laughter. I looked up and saw Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce) squeezing his smile with his fingers and he was looking at Tommy Roberts (Caleb Foote) who was also trying to maintain a serious composure during this very tense moment.

“The defendants will rise. Henry Reyna, José Castro, Thomas Roberts, Ismael Torres, and so forth. You have been tried by a jury of your peers and found guilty of murder in the first and second degrees.” – Judge (Richard Steinmetz)

Peers? Right! A travesty of justice!

The Letter scene in prison did not work effectively.  Something was missing in execution.  Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont) was composing the letters, and then handing them off to the prisoners Ismael ‘Smiley’ Torres (Raul Cardona) – and this is just an aside – I don’t remember ‘Smiley’ smiling that much but had a very strong technique and was impressive – Tommy Roberts, Joey Castro (Oscar Camacho was very appealing and wonderful in his craft.) and Henry.  

Alice is now in the thick of things, but not really in prison, and the prisoners have to relate to her letters, to her, and exude their art with magnification and imagination. The scene requires an effective working of all the elements of stagecraft, lighting, sound, and placement. This is a scene where relationships must gel, everything must come together, Alice is not really there, imaginations are not fully realized, want not completely executed, and overall the scene did not succeed effectively.

That said Luis Valdez’s play is a masterpiece.  There’s not much of a stretch saying his written word is a compendium of a life lived in theatre, of the people and for the people. Yes, it’s all there.

A fascinating thing about the play, Valdez doesn’t sugarcoat the life of Henry Reyna; he projects the man and his faults.  And Henry has got a lot of faults.

El Pachuco was a man, now a myth, and a seraphim for which all men want and can’t have.  He is full of life, vigor, and mostly style. Henry is the only one that can materialize this image and listen to his advice, but he has a hard time listening and being gentle when actions are ignited within him. Valdez’s play is a very nice read. But when all is said and done things, over the course of time, have not changed all that much. In fact, they have gotten worse.

Mariela Arteaga (La Pachuca Hoba), Holly Hyman (La Pachuca Lil Blue), and Fiona Cheung (La Pachuca Manchuka) were very fine in those roles. Yes they were. The kept El Pachuco on task.

“Ese. !surote! How about a dance for old time’s sake? No te hagas gacho.” - Bertha

Melinna Bobadilla is Bertha Villareal a woman who wants her man back at any cost.

Stephani Candelaria (Lupe Reyna) gave us more than we could handle and decidedly has a strong physical craft that play well into the upper deck of the Taper.

Kimberlee Kidd was the dance captain.  

Rocío López was Della Barrios a woman of unquestionable faith and loyalty. Still, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to stay with Henry, but she saw something everyone else overlooked. Mason did well but needed to find a deeper connection.

Andres Ortiz played Rudy Reyna a character that got everyone into a lot of trouble.

Other members of the cast are as follows:

Michael Naydoe Pinedo – Ragman/Cub Reporter/Sailor
Gilbert Saldivar – Rafas/Marine
Richard Steinmetz – Lieutenant Edwards/Judge F.W. Charles/Prison Guard
Evan Strand – Swabbie
Brandford Tatum – Sergeant Smith/Bosun’s Mate/Bailiff
Raphael Thomas – Dance Captain
Maria Torres – Choreography

The crew includes:

Kinan Valdez – Associate Director
Lala Guerrero – Music
Christopher Acebo – Scenic Design
Ann Closs—Farley – Costume Design
Pablo Santiago – Lighting Design
Philip G. Allen – Sound Design
David Murakami – Projection Design
Jessica Mills –Wigs
Steve Rankin – Fight Director
Rosalinda Morales, Pauline O’Con, and Candido Cornejo, Jr. – Casting
Phillip Esparza – Executive Producer
David S. Franklin – Production Stage Manager
Michelle Blair – Stage Manager
Susie Walsh – Stage Manager
Michael Ritchie –Artistic Director

Just some thoughts.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Ball Yards by Chuck Faerber


Joe Straw

UCLA football season is almost upon us and everyone on the Westside is wondering if the boisterous and ESPN favorite Josh Rosen is going to live up to the hype. Two frustrating years has led to, well to be perfectly frank, not even a mention of Rosen and Heisman in the same sentence.

But honestly, how can Rosen be solely to blame?  He has had the fastest receivers in the west – all running the 40 like Jamaican track stars – who, unfortunately, appear to have applied a generous dose of slip and slide to their fingers, having dropped more passes than they caught.  In the gridiron of justice, all are guilty as charged.

(Please get someone slower, with iron claws, which can hunt down a football being thrown over a span of 1 to 37 yards.)

It’s unfortunate because Rosen’s YouTube highlight reel is a 15 second reel over a two-year span of the passes that UCLA receivers caught.  

The passes that slipped between the receivers’ fingers last year alone is a two-hour lowlight nightmare reel.

When you think about the passes missed, Rosen’s numbers would have been close to the best in the nation.  This is unfortunate. – Narrator

Ball Yards by Chuck Faerber and directed by Richard Kuhlman at the Zephyr Theatre is a very satisfying night of theatre. This production runs through Sunday August 27, 2017.

Ball Yards is a wonderfully written play that supports a stellar cast of unusual miscreant characters. It is about sports and the people behind the scenes supporting the games. But there is something different about this play, about the people and the backstory to their lives.

Ball Yards plays out in a number of vignettes with a truthful but satirical look at the games of sports.  

The play starts at Augusta with Grand Kleagle (John Marzilli), a member of the Klu Klux Klan.  It is Augusta’s program that is outreaching to angry white men.  It’s working for this Klansman as he gets to hit some balls on the early morning driving range. Golf Pro (Mike Ross) is there to teach him how to play.  Unfortunately, there are objects stifling his game, like the rope, the long knife and the gun stuffed in his pants.  The hood is also getting in the way and that’s when we discover Grand Kleagle has no teeth.

NPR has done a surprising thing by hiring Poet Laureate (Matt Shea), a product of Flatbush neighbor in Brooklyn, to give his perspective on the game. Another one of NPR’s winning ideas in the name of sports is to introduce Mayan Athlete (Christopher T. Wood) and his connection to Chico Rodriguez (also Christopher T. Wood). Sadly, this scene didn’t work; it did not connect well to the rest of the play.

Formally Ginny and now Jimmy Cummings (Scott Keiji Takeda) is having a hard problem during his transition period.  He identifies as male now but he is still wearing a support bra, albeit an athletic supporting bra if that makes a difference.  Jimmy is a radio sportscaster now and is doing well despite getting hysterical when talking about the game.  This is possibly an emotional trait he has to work on when transitioning.

Art Phlegm (Byron Hays) and Irv Coolridge (Mike Ross) are football announcers on one of the biggest games of the year, USC and Notre Dame.  They have an announcing battle, that they plan to fight to the death. The goal is to see who can be the most colorful commentator using the most current colorful catch phrases of the day.

Television loves to give the backstory of an athlete, providing something the audience can identify with, like a death in the family, the heroic deeds by a family member. TV Producer (John Marzilli) intensely questions captain of the field hockey team, Jan Berman (Marissa Drammissi) to find her heroic background. Sadly she has no heroes in her family except for the who doesn’t have those family members as a backstory to her journey.  The only thing she has is a Nazi neighbor who has had a sorted past.

Irv Coolridge finds Art Phelgm sleeping at Dodger Stadium and it is Irv’s job to get Art back on his feet again.

Jimmy Cummings, now in reporter mode, has an interview with Chico Rodriguez, a future #1 NFL draft pick out of Notre Dame. Chico confides to Jimmy that he wants to leave the game of football, but during the course of their conversation Jimmy gets offended by an offhanded remark about “showering with a black man”.

Ball Yards has outstanding group actors who really put out a grand effort to make this world premier work and it works on a number of levels. Richard Kuhlman, the director, keeps this fast pace comedy working to maximum fun. The Poet Laureate scene needs work.  One is not sure where it is going, or how it fits over the course of the play.

Marissa Drammissi does extraordinary work especially as Jan Berman who has left her athletic career behind her to go into law. Drammissi displays a lot of physicality throughout; the cheerleader classes came in handy for this production.

Byron Hays has a terrific voice and a very nice way about the stage. There is not a lot of differences in the characters of Art Phlegm and the football coach which made things slightly confusing. But Hays brings a lot to the table in voice and movement on a relatively bare stage.

John Marzilli is a physical specimen as the TV Producer.  The Producer is a man who will stop at nothing to get his way.  Marzilli also has strong voice, moves fluidly, and has a terrific way about the stage. He appears to have done a lot of yoga in settling in on a very physical scene.  

Mike Ross does a grand job creating two specific characters.  Ross, the out-of-luck Golf Pro, added many layers to make this character multi-dimensional.  Irv Coolridge was another character in which Ross created an unusual backstory.  The work was terrific.  

Matt Shea does some good work as Poet Laureate but there is little dramatic change in character as Jack Durkee who measures the stool of famous athletes.  The beard and long hair are a major part of his look and these are too distinctive to allow for a significant character change. But Shea’s work is solid.  Still we really need to find a way to make that second character work.

Scott Teiji Takeda is impressive as Jimmy.  Ginny may be another story.  This is a tricky role that Takeda handles with a certain type of finesse of someone who is transitioning.  Finding ways to bring Ginny out would add to the role and it needs to be more than the dialogue. Ginny needs to be brought out with more physical attributes.   

Christopher T. Wood works some of his magic in a number of roles, Chico Rodriguez, and Condoleezza Rice.  Wood is tall and statuesque; he is the spittin’ image of Condoleezza! His craft is excellent and his Dominican accent is impeccable.

Racquel Lehman, Theatre Planners has a wonderful knack of finding new and exciting material.

Gary Lee Reed, Scenic Designer, does a lot with the little bits of set pieces on stage. The movable walls were superior.  

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Wendell C. Carmichael – Costume Designer
Donny Jackson – Lighting Designer
David S. Marling – Sound Designer
Bonnie Bailey-Reed – Property Mistress
Kiff Scholl/AFK Design – Graphic Designer
Misha Riley, Theatre Planners – Assistant Producer
Philip Sokoloff – Publicist
Danny Crisp – Stage Manager

Run! Run! And take a former amateur athlete with you, someone who can hang on to the ball and understands the meaning of team play.

RESERVATIONS:  (323) 960-7738.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sequence by Arun Lakra


By Joe Straw

A former relative, I’ll leave it at that, was helping others to welcome Pope John Paul II to Los Angeles on his 1987 visit. 

He was preparing bibles, written in different languages, along a row of tables when something happened on the table, possibly a light switched off, and that required him to go under that table to fix the problem.

As he was fiddling around down there, the Secret Service came into the room and swiftly hustled everyone out.

And, as quickly as that happened, they hustled Pope John Paul II into what they thought was an empty room and left him there.

My former relative popped out from under the table, a Lutheran, by way of religious trade, to have his own private meeting with the Pope. And so he showed the Pope all of the bibles.  Pope John Paul II looked at the English bible closed it quickly and said, “Ack, English!”

My relative said that happens to him a lot, but what are the odds of that happening to anyone else?  Just two people – in a chance meeting – in a small room.  - Narrator

Sequence by Canadian eye surgeon and master playwright Arun Lakra is now playing at Theatre 40 on the campus of Beverly Hills High school.  Directed by Bruce Gray, and marvelously produced by David Hunt Stafford.  The show will run through August 20, 2017. Parking is free and these days that is a very small luxury but one that is cherished.  

Lakra, the writer, gives the characters so many layers and…no, wait a moment. 

Sequence is a fascinating play that will keep you on the precipice, not so much because of probability, time and space continuum, but because it showcases how a private meeting manifest itself from two opposing characters, two biopolymer strands, trying to seek answers to their lives in extraordinary ways.   

One reads that we are all connected in some form or fashion. (All the USA Presidents are related to a King John of England with the exception of Martin Van Buren.) But, what is the connection of a pair of characters who search for a commonality and get stuck in a barren room with no exit?  The answers are there.

For the purpose of the play, they are not in the same room. The settings are in two different places. Two characters are off stage near an auditorium; the other two are in a genetics classroom science setting, one with beakers, chemicals, lighters, and a jar full of pennies. The audience only knows this from the dialogue rather than Jeff G. Rack’s set Design, which gives us an exquisite laboratory classroom setting but not so much the auditorium, unless one assumes the lecturer has been hustled off into this room for the time being.

(With the exceptions of the ladder, I did not see anything resembling the structure of the DNA in the beginning of the play or at the end with which the writer calls for and if it was there it wasn’t clear.)    

That aside, the paired characters are unaware of the others predicament but they stop and stare as though they were omnipotent observers, neglecting for the time being the malleable time and place continuum.

“As, I say in the book, luck is like your penis.  You can always use a little more.” – Theo

Theo (Gary Rubenstein), a libidinous man in his sleazy fifties considers himself the “luckiest guy in the world”. Theo, at this point in his life, is on a winning streak, a double or nothing streak that has been going on for years.  He has yet to collect on his winnings, which on this night is $800 million dollars.  It is on this night that he will get a phone call and place a bet, double or nothing, on the flip of a coin for the Super bowl. 

Theo has gained a certain amount of notoriety from his book Change you Luck mostly due to his winning streak.  If truth be told, he is a shyster.  The book is a masquerading narrative about being lucky, when it is only a false narrative with some common sense tools.  The only thing lucky about the book is that it has sold has sold two million copies. 

Tonight Theo is on the lecture circuit promoting his book when he prowls Cynthia (Kacie Rogers) an attractive young women wearing a very tight dress, sitting in the front row, and now she has been fortunate enough to go backstage for a signed copy of his book.

But, Cynthia, has a head on her shoulders and if Theo will impart the details of his winning streak that is all she will need on this night.   She doesn’t believe in luck and is very dissatisfied with his speech he just gave.  She wants to get to the bottom of his unexpected luck. On top of that she has her own theory.  

Sharing the space is Dr. Guzman (Maria Spassoff), a crass and smart aleck genetic scientist, also in her fifties who believes in science, pure, simple and provable. She also has no room for God.

On the other end of the coin Dr. Guzman gets an unexpected visitor Mr. Adamson (Crash Buist) in her classroom late at night.  Dr. Guzman is skeptical of this visitor this late at night.  She is precautious to a fault, mainly due to her poor eyesight, which is at 8% visibility. Dr. Guzman asks for the visitor to place his student ID on her clipboard she slips under the door. When that is presented, she opens the door and Mr. Adamson wheels himself in, a paralyzed victim of an automobile accident, still Dr. Guzman frisks every inch of him, and thoroughly.  She also takes away his briefcase and asks for the combination.  Mr. Adamson is not forthcoming with the numbers.

“Hear the latest?  Some undergrad student sneaks into a genetics laboratory at Princeton and burns the whole thing down.  Shoots the Ph.D., who just happened to be a stem-cell researcher.  We seem to be a dying breed.” – Dr. Guzman   

Dr. Guzman has some business with Mr. Adamson about the Introductory Genetic final exam he took.  It seems he cheated.

Sequence, by Arun Lakra is a grand play that exposes a valid truth but a truth that must be hunted, discovered, and then thrashed with the simplest of finesse. The characters are all diametrically opposed, but attached in some way by a strand of thought, a curiosity that has them moving in circles, all to ensnare or bond through completion of the task.  

The opening, directed by Bruce Gray, seemed absurd, with umbrellas opening indoors, walking under ladders, and breaking mirrors.  It was a dance of sorts, a fashionable soiree, between unlike minded individuals seeking a moment of circular enlightenment in concatenation.   It moves in and out of the absurd, the wide-eyed look of want, and the tools to get what they want through what they perceive as altruistic impulses, or not.  But, when the absurdity leaves us we have a taut, adult drama that leaves the viewer wanting more of this theatrical ecstasy.

Maria Spassoff is terrific as Dr. Guzman.  She is reviewed here on this blog in a number of other productions.  This is an interesting portrayal of a character that only has 8% of her vision. Her vision handicap comes and goes during the performance but really a characteristic that requires more attention.  (The flipping of the coin on this night landed neither heads nor tails but rolled straight into the audience. The audience member flipped it back onto the stage. Only at the intimate Theatre 40!)  Dr. Guzman’s objective is to find out how his student cheated on the test and that should be evident the moment he enters the room.  Also, Dr. Guzman trying to get into the briefcase requires a sincere approach to get in, to find out what was in it, and to find out what the heavy thing was that was moving back and forth.  That aside, Spassoff’s  performance was sharp, her wit was acerbic, and her manner onstage graced us with her conscious majesty.

Gary Rubenstein plays Theo and he also graced us with his evangelical style of the character. There was something provocative about his prowling manner, a do or die approach to the character, a man in his personal life that has lost everything. He is a man that refuses to cash in on his winnings for unexplained reasons. He is also lucky in money and unlucky in love, but which does not preclude his ability to go for it at every opportunity. It is not this night that Theo has been found out; the secret to his winning streak has been discovered.  But, Theo is not giving an inch.  Rubenstein creates a believable character with a lot of charm and vérité.

“Maybe it was God’s will.” – Mr. Adamson

“God?”  My unannounced late-night caller is a religious nut?  This gets better and better.” – Dr. Guzman
Crash Buist seems to do all the right stuff as Mr. Adamson. Confined to a wheelchair he is the unluckiest man on the face of the earth.  Having cerebral palsy at an early age he was told he would remain in a wheelchair for the rest of his life but he managed to walk again only to run over by a car. God makes all of his decisions these days with the help of a bone from his vertebrae, which he rolls on the pages of his trusty bible.  But, that’s not really all that reliable given that he used it on a test for which he got a zero on 150 questions. He is here on a mission. Buist, is probably the healthiest paraplegic I’ve witness on stage.  He is strong, tall, and robust but requires more attention to the mannerism of someone who is wheelchair bound and that needs to be more specific. The movement in the wheelchair is not geared to the main objective the moment he comes through the door, and the moment he makes the decision.  Still, it is fine performance and one that he can add to.

Kacie Rogers is fabulous as Cynthia, a smart woman who is in a lot to trouble and needs someone to help her out.  There is so much on her plate, and in her mind, that she has to find her reason for being.  She’s got most of the equation figured out she just needs the final input to prove her theory and that is why she is here. Rogers has got a lot going for her.  She is a very workable actor and is a tremendous asset to this production.

Other members of this fabulous crew are as follows:

Michéle Young – Costume Designer
J. Kent Inasy – Lighting Designer
Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski – Sound Designer
Patrick McGowan – Videographer
Richard Carner – Assistant Stage Manager
Jean Sportelli – Assistant Director

Run! Run! Run! And take someone you have bonded with but every so often tilt your head in complete befuddlement at their antics.

RESERVATIONS: (310) 364-0535.
In the Reuben Cordova Theatre