Monday, September 18, 2017

Blackbird by David Harrower




By Joe Straw

Blackbird by David Harrower and directed by Don Bloomfield now playing at The MET Theatre starts with a severe sense of dread and never lets up.  Blackbird is a taut and horrifying experience that will have the theatregoer’s mind racing with visions and thought provoking questions days after viewing.

In short, Blackbird is a wonderful theatrical experience with performances that will leave you breathless.  This is a show not to miss.  Again, do not miss this show! There are brilliant performances all around. Don Bloomfield’s direction is superb, engagingly gratifying, and filled with so much emotional backstory that it is hard not to turn away for one, lasting, second.

The theatrical night begins with the entrance into the MET Theater. Audience members walk through the set of discarded trash and littered paper wrappings to get to the seats.  Turning around, after being seated, one notices an office lunchroom. My first thought, because of the mess, was that is was the back room of an auto supply store. Later, we learn it is a company that manufactures dental and pharmaceutical products. 

Notwithstanding, the room is unkempt; a plastic bottle is plunged in a Cup of Noodles, and an empty salad container sits on a table center stage.  Two plastic chairs, perhaps found in an alleyway of discarded items, conflict with a lunch table that has room for one, uncomfortably.

A larger table stretches upstage below two frosted windows, where visible ghost like shadows pass back and forth in anxious shades.   Cheezy crackers adorn that table along with an assortment of plastic bottles, boxes and cans. A lunchroom clock above the door is permanently stopped at 12:00 noon.  

Used lockers are stage left against the wall and next to that are nine white storage boxes of materials, one imagines, of files ready to be audited or subpoenaed.  

Against the wall, stage right, are two curious instructive notes “Trash Here Peter”, and “Let’s be Green! Recycle in Green Bins Peter”, above the trash bins. (Peter is still mindfully distracted.) Along side of the bins are a working sink, a microwave, a plastic drip water bottle and cheese puffs on the top shelf. (Beautifully set with no credit for Set Designer.)

The dirty lunchroom reeks with employee complacency and of lives not bothered with peripheral cleanliness or tidiness. It is a wonderful image of the cluttered lives we are about to encounter.  It conveys the metaphorical images David Harrower had in mind when he wrote this play.  

Blackbird does not have an intermission. The only way out is the office door on the set, so we are all captured, for the time being, a fly on the fourth wall to intrude into these desperate lives until a final truth is divulged, and it is a ghastly one.  

Ray (Michael Connors) escorts, actually hides, Una (Cali Fleming) from his co-workers directly into the lunchroom.  The emotional shock is quickly highlighted.  Ray’s face has drained of color while Una just stares at this man.  A translucent wall elevates, and one so thick, no one knows what to say. They are quiet pillars, beings of unintelligent thoughts, hoping to gather their wits about them in confrontation.

This meeting is disturbing, filled with raw tension, emotional hurt. And when they communicate what comes out are short speaks, implications, from the past, to the immediate, and into the future. 

Ray, knowing who she it, is momentarily unwilling to come to terms with the reality.

Ray, in his mid fifties, salt and pepper hair, and hiding behind spectacles and a goatee says he’s got a lot of work to do.  But Una, 27, in a pretty red summer dress, is not going anywhere.  She has driven seven hours to see him – last seeing him fifteen years ago when she was twelve. She asks him if the other employees will all go home so that they can talk. But talk about what?  Settle what?

“How many other twelve-year-olds have you had sex with?” – Una

“None.” – Ray

Una’s plan to catch him unaware works.  She finds out that he doesn’t go by the name of Ray anymore. Now Ray has little chance to make things up and as the night wears on Ray finds himself in more trouble than he bargained for.  



Michael Connors is superb as Ray. Connors gives us a three-dimensional character with an incredible backstory as he manipulates the life that was once called Ray.  Ray is not altogether truthful mostly because of what he doesn’t say. And yet, Ray is fighting for his life, his job, and his family in his version of the truth that lacks credulity.   These actions are clearly visible in Connors’ exceptional performance.  Whatever you believe about the character, his sincerity, his truths, Connors gives Ray a tremendous truth and this is a performance not to be missed.

Cali Fleming has a sultry indigenous look that plays well with the character, Una.  Underneath, one cannot tell what she is thinking, what she wants, and how she manages to go about getting it. But her presence is one that is terrifying because her history is ineradicable, and her route of justice is circuitous. Underneath she is simmering in a quiet rage, about the misdeeds done to her long ago that destroyed herself and her family. There is something mysterious about her track of execution, what she knows in her heart of hearts, that she seeks and finds out.  Fleming’s performance, backstory and all, is marvelous.   Her actions highlight a strong mental connection and her craft is impressively solid.  

Don Bloomfield, the director, sets the bar high with this type of acting. It is a monster of a show that manages to deliver an emotional punch and a defined backstory.  This method of work suggests a rigorous dose of improvisation and one that forms a strong connection between the lives of the characters on stage.  

Bloomfield direction suggests we choose sides quickly in the initial meeting. Una comes in with the moral authority on her side and we learn that Ray has paid the price for his crime.  But there is something deeper and darker here – the reason this meeting is taking place – and the reasons why Peter is mindfully distracted. Bloomfield doesn’t let it all go, not right away, or maybe not ever.  He leaves a healthy dose of ambiguity in this production so the theatergoer can run with this and tell their friends.

If there is one quibble, one quibbles this: Una gives an emotional speech with the lights completely dimmed on everything but her.  It is a very visual description that requires, or almost begs a necessary response or action from Ray.  One wonders how dimming the lights progresses the relationship and moves that relationship to its final conclusion.

David Harrower, the playwright, is from Edinburgh Scotland.  His bio was inadvertently left out of the program. Blackbird was produced by the Rogue Machine in Los Angeles in 2011 and won a LA Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Writing. In style, Blackbird is poetic, an exceptional work of art, and the reasons we need intimate theatre.  

Victoria Watson wonderfully produced the show.

Other members of this remarkable crew are as follows:

Donny Jackson - Lighting Designer
Hunter Reese Peña – Social Video Contributor and Program Designer
Johnnie Gordon - Sound Designer.
Brad Bentz – Technical Director
Sandra Kuker PR – Publicist
Gema Trujillo – Stage Manager

Run! Run! Run!  And take an actor, someone who enjoys the execution of great theatre. You’ll have much to talk about on the way home.   

Blackbird is a production of A DBA Studio at The Met Theatre and runs through October 22, 2017.

MET Theatre – The Great Scott (downstairs)
1089 N. Oxford Ave.
Los Angeles, CA. 90029

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Disney Aladdin Dual Language Edition –Book by Jim Luigs and Jose Cruz Gonzalez, Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice

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By Joe Straw

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy.
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. – Iago – Shakespeare’s Othello

This is possibly a perfect fit for this venue (Casa 0101) but moving it to a larger house will require additional work, especially where the actors are concerned. – Narrator on Aladdin January 22, 2017

Walking to the stages of the Los Angeles Theatre Center is always a treat. It’s a pleasure to see actors, chat with them, and find out how their careers are going – not to mention catching a glimpse of what is going on in the other theatres.  LATC, home of the Latino Theatre Company, is a thriving and bustling place.

One ventured out on this night to LATC to see what changes had been made to Aladdin, specifically the production seen at Casa 0101 back in January (see write up on Aladdin on this blog) and how this show had made the transition from a 99-seat theatre to a theatre that seats approximately three hundred patrons.  

I noticed the “kids” got tap shoes and that made a wonderful difference. Also, the crowd scene in the marketplace was remarkably better in their social interactions.

One expects that moving up in increments of three, there would be that same increments in actors, sets, and the costumes.  But, with a few exceptions, the costumes and set appeared similar in the original production.  They got rid of the puppet bird, and now Iago (Luis Fernandez-Gil) had his face painted in character, bird like fashion, and on rolling shoes. (More on this later.)   

This is a show for kids, not really for adults, so load them up in vans and bring them on down.  They will have a wonderful time.

Let’s talk about what works well and give credit where credit is due.  Councilmember Gil Cedillo and TNH Productions along with El Centro Del Pueblo and CASA 0101 Theater gives Latino actors the opportunity to work at their craft, creating characters, and filling roles.  This is a consortium of like-minded individuals providing opportunity where little existed before.  Acting classes aside, one doesn’t learn the craft without experience in front of a live audience. All of that is good for growth and should be praised.

An examination of Aladdin by Jim Luigs and Jose Cruz Gonzales, one finds the book is clearly told from the perspective of Jafar (Omar Mata) whether it is intended or not.  This dual language show could easily be called Jafar. 

Jafar is the character that sets the rules and pulls the strings for which the other characters must work around in order to get what they want. For example, the Princess has to overcome Jafar’s language barrier to get the love of her life, Aladdin. The same holds true for Aladdin.  The Sultán (Henry Madrid) cowers under Jafar’s rules and everyone must work around Jafar’s lifestyle.

As the story goes, Jafar and Iago, his pesky bird, had previously found the lamp, made one wish, and that wish was to have the royals speak another language so that they could not communicate to the peasantries, keep the peasants uneducated and hungry. 

Then, somehow, Jafar loses the lamp.

In the meantime, the Sultán wants to marry off his petulant daughter, Jazmin (Valeria Maldonado) to a host of princes, all wonderfully played by Andrew Cano, Jesse Maldonado, and Alejandro Lechuga.  Lechuga is actually dressed like the artist known as Prince, complete with a Purple Rain jacket.     

But Jafar has other ideas about the princess, the lamp, the kingdom, and the world!     

Don’t read any further if you want to go because I’m going to speak about the craft. I write with no animosity. Theatre is a craft, a connection between audience and thespian.  And ideally, when the craft is working, both benefit from that connection.

Rigo Tejeda, director, might focus more on story, more on the dreams of the characters, and providing meaningful direction as to the plight of Aladdin.  Aladdin appears to be a secondary character in a show that has his name as the title. More needs to be made of Aladdin’s poverty and his ingenuity.

The cave scene didn’t work in the previous production and doesn’t work now.  The situation is not dangerous enough for all of the characters and requires a major reworking leading to the escape with Abu’s help.  

Iago is a major antagonist but flutters about the stage in an unfocused manner, without an objective, and without specific character traits to guide him.

Also, Tejeda must find a way to make the relationship between Jazmin and Aladdin work. The stakes now are too low and the bar is set even lower. Jazmin must fall deeply in love, must be deeply miserable at losing him, and then must be terrifically excited at finding him again.

The Sultán and Jafar’s relationship must work as well. Jafar works for the Sultán and must appear as an underling while scheming to get what he wants.

Also, there must be more to the relationship between Jazmin and the Sultán, as father and daughter, and a relationship that moves the story along.   

In a show, such as this, each main character needs a grand introduction and Tejeda must be the eyes for those characters to make that happen. As one example, the Magic Carpet (Danielle Espinoza) suddenly appears out of nowhere to play a significant part of the story but really has no purpose in this telling.  

The beautiful Royal Translators, Blanca Espinoza, Beatriz Tasha Magaña, and Shanara Sanders must work in another way.  For example, they must work in a way that gathers the information as a service, one supposes from the king, and then translates the messages to the peasantry (us).  They must be unique in their own right and convincingly convey the message in their own unique manner.  



The dance number that highlights the travel, first class by the way, out of the cave is wonderfully Choreographed by Tania Possick but mysteriously discards the Genie, Aladdin, Abu, and Magic Carpet as their guests traveling out of the cave.

The sound by Vincent A. Sanchez is spotty at best. Each person is miked up to be heard over the music. Iago, with Gilbert Gottfried like voice, was screeching and overpowering. Iago works best with a strong character and a clear objective. (All future actors should drop the Gottfried voice.)  Jazmin’s mic was coming in and out all night. Jafar, who has the best voice, was so low at times that it did not highlight his magnificent voice. Levels on the lead singers blended into the ensemble and for about half of the show one couldn’t understand the words of the musical lyrics.

If this is a show that only wants to work for kids, that’s fine.  But, if it is a show that wants to work for everyone, then it would also work for the kids as well.

Daniel Sugimoto has beautiful clarity in his speaking voice and his singing voice and is fine as Aladdin.  But, this Aladdin doesn’t act upon the conflict presented in this show; also he does not have a clear objective, which is to win the girl at all costs.  Aladdin is not too smart, lives on the street, is the luckiest man on the planet, and we must see all of that and more.    

Valeria Maldonado plays Jazmin.  She is judiciously aware and has her moments. These moments worked well at Casa 0101 but they do not translate well to the bigger venue.  That aside, she has some terrific moments when she is alongside Aladdin.

Finley Polynice did well as the Genie when he was heard over the ensemble. Genie’s overall objective is to rid himself of the lamp forever and he must be working with that thought in mind the moment he comes out of the lamp or the actions on stage are trite.  

Omar Mata is amazing as Jafar but really needs to work with the bird to get the relationship just right for this production and venue.  Mata needs to recognize the conflict surrounding Jafar, find the answers to overcome the conflict, and act on the solution. Mata’s voice should be used as a voice for evil.  His melodic tones are a knife that twists with his pleasure.  He uses the singsong voice in dialogue but doesn’t go far enough to make it a point.  The long note works well when it has an evil purpose.  (He has this note almost offstage left and that accomplishes little.)

Sebastian Gonzales requires the right characterization as Abu, the monkey who always comes to the rescue. The voice, and in particular the “screech” works terrifically. Abu is the sidekick who figures out things that Aladdin cannot. And, Abu is smarter than Aladdin.

Luis Fernandez-Gil has a wonderful smile and a great presence on stage, but he requires an objective to smooth out the actions of his performance. He is all over the stage without being specific to his character and his place in the performance. It is unfortunate the sound was not working in his favor on this night.  Iago is the whisperer of bad thoughts; he should be perched all over Jafar, his arms, his shoulder, and his head to convey his message, celebrate when he wins, and throw fits when he loses.  Think of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello.

Henry Madrid as the Sultán needs a moment in the beginning where we understand his power, his commanding presence as a ruler, and his command over Jafar.  And then we need to see that he has no control over his subjects, who speak another language, and is desponded and confused by his inability to rule effectively.

Other members of the cast who were not mentioned or did not perform the night I was there are as follows:

Monica Beld – Ensemble
Evan Garcia – Razú
Sarah Kennedy – Jazmin
Luis Marquez – Jafar
Bryant Melton – Ensemble
Rosa Navarrete – Rajah
Lewis Powell III – Genie
Jocelyn Sanchez – Ensemble
Abigail “Abey” Somera – Ensemble
Andrea Somera – Ensemble

Members of the crew are as follows:

Music Adapted, Arranged and Orchestrated by Bryan Louiselle
Musically Directed by Caroline Benzon
Costumes by Abel Alvarado
Sets by Marco De Leon
Lights by Sohail J. Najafi
Projections by Yee Eun Nam
Production Stage Managed by Jerry Blackburn
Produced by Felipe Agredano
Artistic Direction by Abel Alvarado
Steve Moyer Public Relations

Run!  And take a vanload of young kids. You’ll have a great time watching them smile. 
Tickets On Sale Now
Sept 8 to Sept 17

Los Angeles Theater Center
514 S. Spring St.
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Thursdays & Fridays
11am & 8pm

Saturdays at 8pm

Sundays at 5pm

$39-$79
FOR GROUP SALES
$25 each for groups of 10 or more and for matinees only $20 each for groups of 10 or more:
Conrado Terrazas
213-200-6161

conradoterrazas@gmail.com






Sunday, September 3, 2017

Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson

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Marc Forget, Sammi Smith - Photos by John Klopping



Emilie does defend her life.  But is it really her life?  Yes, it is, but in this version of the play, it is possibly another time, another place, and in another dimension.

Coeurage theatre company (the pay what you want theatre company) presents Emilie:  La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Julianne Donelle is now playing at the Greenway Court Theatre in Los Angeles through September 17, 2017.

Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life is simultaneously exasperating and exhilarating in the way one character manages to prove her life, in her own truth, and in a story with many sides. Overall, the play is about Émilie du Châtelet, a French natural philosopher and mathematician; it is a fascinating journey about a brilliant woman caught up juggling many thing in her life, like her studies, her husband, her children, and then her lovers. 

An observation – the setting of this play requires that one be transported to the time of pre-Revolutionary-War France or a facsimile apropos.   The characters of this play, solidly wealthy, should represent that particular style, if not completely then symbolically.

Tania Mustafa’s costumes, beautiful in their own right, do not transport the audience into that time period in a realistic manner, and the costumes are not realistically symbolic.  Not a big problem, just on observation.

Tim Paul Vordtriede’s expansive and exquisite set design places us in the Chateau de Chirey.   His set enables the light, enhances the comedy, and draws out the drama in a thought-provoking way.

So, we are in the place, accompanied by the soft winds of a changing season, but not the exact time.

“Body.
Again.
Space.
And time.
Again?
Life again?
But I’m dead.  I’m here.” – Emilie

This may be the reason that director Julianne Donelle used to place the play and the actors in another time and another costume period. It seems curiously possible.

Kim Reed, Sammi Smith

Yes, Emilie is dead.  Sad but true for the purposes set forth in Lauren Gunderson’s brilliant and unusual play. It is Emilie’s story, her versions of events as she calls out the title of the scenes to the fourth wall.  But then something unusual happens; the other characters call out the scenes as well. Ambiguous moments that are not clearly defined in the structure or the staging.

Something goes a little awry when Emilie (Sammi Smith) touches her emotional want. The electricity goes out, accompanied by a blast of noise familiar to a transformer blowing (wonderful Sound Design by Joseph V. Calarco), followed by the sound of a rewind, the players take their position again, and the moment begins anew.

(There is no chaste indecency as far as Emilie, the mother of three, is concerned.  She is so French and when the time is right, she chooses not to limit herself to just one man, rather she pursues her desires with a fervor of someone who has a voracious sexual appetite. Still, it is a momentary physical want, the grasp to the knee, that briefly interferes with her studies; and her reasons for F=mv². Tonight she defends her brief life. )

Satisfied, for the interrupted moment, Emilie moves on to the task at hand.  There is an openness in her being, a benign vigilance in the way she discards men for the requisition of truth, so she plays the scene over only to have the lights interrupt once again. Now in certitude, she employs a second version of herself, Soubrette (Kari Lee Cartwright), to take her stead.

Emilie can do this.  She is dead and this where she separates reality from want, to prove the formula, because, as she tells us, this is her story and her truth.    

Here is a short snippet of a scene, which I particularly liked, the scene at the opera filled with game playing and double entrendres; sadly this was one that managed to miss the intended mark on the attended night.  

“How was your éclair?” – Voltaire

“Much like you I’m afraid: too sweet, not quite filling. How was your tarte?” – Emilie

“Couldn’t stop myself.  Speaking of which, you’re not bored by my growing infatuation with you?” – Voltaire

If this isn’t suggestive, one is not sure what is.  The scene, as presented, had some interesting challenges. Emilie, married, ignored his words, his advances, and appeared not to be affected them at all, not blushed by the remarks, not eyeing him in a curious fashion, and so on.   And yet, this is the scene that establishes their relationship throughout, the keen fascination of words, a game that is played back and forth, two brilliant people each engaged in one-upmanship to achieve the advantage.

“Most of your operas by heart.  Though I thought the last one was a bit wordy.” – Emilie

“Now you tease.” – Voltaire

“If honesty is game-play.” – Emilie

“Everything’s a move, my dear.” – Voltaire

“A dear perhaps, but not yours yet.” – Emilie

“I heard a “yet”. – Voltaire

“And missed the “not”. – Emilie

Brilliant, but missed slightly in execution on this night that a few more performances should remedy.

In the end, Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight is a battle resolving love’s inconsistencies.  Following the lives of real historical figures though their unhallowed choices are a grand journey.  Love, treachery, and forgiveness are related in the way they move to grasp a truth. To observe the cicatrices of wounded lovers in this play is a great reason for embracing the theatre and this show.    

There is enough here to admire from Julianne Donnelle’s direction: the way the actors move flawlessly with props and the set pieces that move scenes naturally from one to another.  And then there are other times when one screams “conflict” for even the simplest of moments. And actors, who move from one side of the stage to another, need to find purpose. Small moments, one grants you, but moments that need resolution.

Sammi Smith hardly leaves the stage as Emilie.  Smith is charming and always has a radiant smile. She can add to her performance in terms of character, choices, and nuance. How does one play brilliant and voracious all in the same line?  Not an easy feat, but one that Smith can strive to add. Emilie’s ebullition to the poet is an excellent reason for not missing this theatrical event, as it is charming beyond belief. And although Smith is a brilliant actor, finding the emotional core to this character may require a few more performances.   

Marc Forget plays Voltaire and has some very amusing moments on stage. The long flowing hair of Voltaire is gone, and the poet characteristics do not quite manifest themselves in his character.  There are many things going on when he hastily leaves for the chateau of Cirey because death awaits him at every turn. We don’t see that side of Voltaire. That aside. Forget has some marvelous moments.

Kari Lee Cartwright plays Soubrette and other characters. She moves effortlessly across the stage and is surprising in character. She also does well as the neglected daughter, Gabrielle.

There is something tantalizing about the actor Kim Reed as Madam and other characters.  She is a chameleon of sorts, one who has a disquieting peculiarity that enhanced her ability to change into a variety of characters, effortlessly. Her craft is visibly noticeable and her skills are impeccable.

Nardeep Khurmi and Kari Lee Cartwright

Nardeep Khurmi is excellent as Gentlemen, the poet, when he tries to woe his female suitor. His need is great and his charm is powerful.  But as the General husband, he is stoic and lacks the specific character trait that turns that man into a general.  The scene with him speaking to his wife must have a stronger inner life.  He is a man, after all, who is giving his wife, the mother of his children, to another lover. We should see that inner conflict tearing him apart. Generals are not void of emotions.

There is an alternate cast of Kristyn Chalker, Bobby Coyne, Alejandro Bravo, Sarah Lyddan and Teri Gamble who did not perform the night I was there.  Please check the theatre listings for their performance.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Brit Veltkamp – Stage Manager and Prop Design
Azra King-Abadi – Lighting Design
Carly Wielstein – Choreographer
John Klopping – Production Photographer
Ken Werther Publicity – Press Representative

Run! Run! And take someone who has a quest for learning to love.


FOR TICKETS:
 www.greenwaycourttheatre.org/emilie
 (323) 944-2165


GREENWAY COURT THEATRE
544 N. FAIRFAX AVENUE
LOS ANGELES 90036