Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Happiest Song Plays Last by Quiara Alegría Hudes


Elisa Bocanegra and Al Rodrigo - Photos by Gio Solis by

By Joe Straw

Theatre is remembering the moment. – Narrator

Haditha, Iraq is on fire. It rages out of control as explosions engulf fleeing innocent women and children. 

One more bomb explodes and lifts Shar (Vahen Assadourian) off the ground into an almost a backflip and onto the dry desert sand.

After the cut in action, Elliot (Peter Pasco) becomes aware that the Jordanian wind has caused the stunt to go awry.  He’s concerned that Shar flew exceedingly far and might be hurt. He runs to her and ask questions to check on her mental and physical acuity.   

“I’m Shar. I’m in Jordan filming a movie.”Shar

In the course of doing the physically demanding stunt, Shar has soiled her abaya (a long black long-sleeved robe worn by Muslim women) and needs another one. 

Ali (Kamal Maravati) hired as a local expert and doubling as an assistant costumer, says he will get her a change. But there’s the bad news—she fell the wrong way and Nigel, the director (not seen), wants to do it all over again.

L - R Kamal Marayati, Peter Pasco, and Vaneh Assadourian

Ali, more than generous, scurries off to get Shar a new abaya.  

This gives Elliot time to share the on-the-set gossip—the lead actor got fired on this docu-drama.  This is good news for Elliot. His agent has already negotiated for points on the film. And now, he is moving up in the world.

Elliot knows they have the next day off so he enlists Ali to drive them to Egypt.  Ali says it’s too dangerous because of the upheaval with Mubarak leaving office.

The Latino Theater Company presents The Happiest Song Plays Last written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and directed by Edward Torres and now playing downtown on 6th Street through March 17, 2018.  

Scene 2

Yaz (Elisa Bocanegra), doing the neighborly thing, has just gotten Agustín (Al Rodrigo) out of jail.  It is too early in the morning to be pleasant to one another and yet all Austín can think of is the food on the stove. (Well, that’s the second thing on his mind.) Yaz, still delirious from waking up during the graveyard shift, won’t let him have a bit of it.

“I hate jail.  Thirty people, one toilet, no food.”  - Agustín

“Then stop going there.” - Yaz

“If there was someone else I could have call, I would.” - Agustín

“You have a wife. Her name is Miriam.” - Yaz

“Best friends are less judgmental.”   - Agustín

Despite all the grief, they enjoy each other’s company, the stories, and everything Yaz does to liven this northern Philadelphia neighborhood.  Yaz pushes Austín in the direction of his wife, but he is not budging and that’s when Lefty (John Seda-Petre) looks through the window and then bangs at the door.

Even though Yaz has an unlocked door policy, Lefty needs Yaz to let him in. Lefty is homeless, bound in garb that keeps him warms on the streets of Philadelphia. Lefty calls Yaz “mom”, and immediately Yaz directs him to the pots, to get food for himself and for the assortment of other hungry homeless characters in the neighborhood.  

Agustín is interrupted in his quest for more than a moment of Yaz’s time as Lefty sits, eats his food, and eyes both of them.  

Stopped in the progression of his task, Agustín waits for Lefty to leave. Meanwhile we learn that Agustín is a musician and an educator—he was Yaz’s first music teacher in high school. Also he has sent many poor kids to college including Yaz who went to Yale and has become a professor of music.

Agustín wants only one thing before his time is up and that one thing will make all the difference in the world.

There is something enchanting about this play, directed by Edward Torres, that says a lot about life, and about bringing life into this world. And it is also about enriched cultures expressing a quiet rage, a particular point of view, where lives can change in a dramatic instant.

This production is pleasing to the soul.  It is remarkable in so many ways, it is visually stunning, and the acting is top notched. But there are a few observations that need to be addressed, which I will get to later.

One of the things I enjoyed in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s work is the simplicity of the dialogue, the timelessness of the issues, and the complexities of living in today’s world.  “Happiest” is about doing the thing you love to do best.  Hudes gives us delectable oblong morsels in her art, strong visuals of life, and words that play like music.

In addition to bringing happiness into the world, there is another side to Hudes’ work—about death and destruction and people starving in the streets. One catches glimpses of these backstories in this play but still we feel the immeasurable importance of the struggle of unfortunate human beings as they negotiate their way about the world.

What gives this story its dramatic glow is the unconquerable obstinacy of people trying to make right for things that are horribly wrong. And these individuals are doing their best, by offering the smallest part in saving the world.  It is touching in so many ways and stays with you long after you have left the theatre.  On top of all that, it is graphically poetic in ways that art enlightens the soul.

L - R Elisa Bocanegra, Vaneh Assadourian, Peter Pasco, and Kamal Marayati

Edward Torres, the director, has a fine time with this ensemble.  All of the actors grow in their moments on stage. And there is an extreme fascination in witnessing their hard work on stage. But some opportunities to reveal character traits are missing.  These are the physical traits that create and move a character toward their objective. With that said, there appears to be more going on than the spoken word.  Two characters in a room alone conflicted by what they want, because that conflict hinders those persons from their objective. The two are in a sparring match, moving beyond a moment only after embracing a resolution in conflict.  For example, there is a lot to be added to the relationship between teacher and student, among adulterous neighbors, among co-workers, and even among adversaries.

Also, the play begs to be performed in a much more intimate space. Se Hyun Oh, Scenic Design, gives a wonderful set for the actors to create, a modest home in Philadelphia, and a desert space in Jordan. But, the night begs to see actors, up close, highlighting their subtle moments, their conflicted eyes, and the slight touches of an awakening romance. Still, one can’t help but be amazed when walking into the theatre and seeing the beautiful set.  

Elisa Bocanegra (Yaz) brings a lot of humor to the role. She has a lovely voice in the opening number, which is a wonderful addition to the play. Yaz is a delightful character with a compassionate heart – one that wants to give to the entire Philadelphia neighborhood and possibly the world.

Al Rodrigo (Agustín) has a commanding presence and a wonderful way about the stage. His movements toward a physical relationship are possibly too subtle for this venue.  Rubbing someone’s callous feet doesn’t move far enough into establishing a significant romantic relationship. Still, overall his performance brings a heartwarming smile.

Peter Pasco takes time to grow as Elliot. But after a time, he settles into the role. There’s more to be had with his relationship with his yet to be girlfriend and in particular the opening number, which plays like co-worker interacting rather than potential lovers.  Also, there’s more to had with his relationship to his cousin, an intimate backstory that needs addressing.  The back and forth on the phone/computer worked if you listened to the voices and not looked at the out-of-sync video projected on the walls.

Vaneh Assadourian presents a strong female figure as Shar, a stuntwoman and a graduate of Julliard. There is never a hint to a physical intimacy between her and her soon-to-be husband during this performance.  The scene of committing to travel together, the eating scene, and the hotel scene all have opportunities to make that happen.  Still, Assadourian presents a pleasant figure on stage.  

Kamal Marayati plays Ali, a lovely soul, who is Iraqi hiding in Jordan and working on the film. Marayati gives a tremendous amount of backstory to the character and I will remember the moment about the passport forever.  This is a performance not to be missed.

John Seda-Pitre
John Seda-Pitre also gives a marvelous performance as Lefty, a homeless character and is incapacitated with a mental problem. Lefty is an interesting character with an ambiguous objective for Seda-Pitre to conger. Lefty and Yaz need each other but how that translates to the ending is anyone’s guess. 

This version of the play has been changed from the published version available on Kindle.  So, if you’ve read it, you’re going to be enchanted by something a little different.

The music was brilliant by Nelson Gonzáles (Special Guest Artist) and accommodated the action on stage.

Dianne K. Graebner’s work as Costume Design was superb.

Ivan Robles’ Sound Design fit nicely with the accentuated dramatic moments on stage.

Other members of the hard working crew are as follows:

John A.Garofalo – Lighting Design
Yee Eun Nam – Projection Design
Jess Wolinsky – Assistant Director
Cristina “Crispy” Carrillo-Dono – Assistant Stage Manager
Emily Lehrer – Production Stage Manager
Lucy Pollock – Publicity

Run! Run! Run! And take someone from Puerto Rico.  It will make all the difference in the world. 

One more note:  This was the best of the trilogy now playing in Los Angeles. 

Reservations: 866-811-4111

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Nice Fish by Mark Rylance & Louis Jenkins


By Joe Straw

I never thought fish were nice
Their incongruity mortared
on their oblique narrow being

They breathe through a superior operculum
And navigate the lake with a spiny dorsal
beyond the anal fin down to their overly proficient tail

But, sinisterly greedy they are
To take, or eat the bait
moments before hooked in perpetual agony

Caught, nice fish don’t
struggle, back and forth,
to get back to the water’s edge

But, do they deserve this murderous absurdity?
From one so obsequious

Off the hook and into
The bucket?
Or, back in the pond?

It must be said
I never thought fish were nice
But twice said neither am I. - Narrator

There is a lot to like about Nice Fish by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins and directed by Rob Brownstein and Anita Khanzadian, and presented by the interact theatre company, now playing at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles through March 25, 2018.

The crew was marvelously fantastic with all that was going on, on stage, here, there, everywhere, snow, wind, odd puppetry, making the most of the place, a frozen lake in Northern Minnesota, late winter, or early spring, on the last day of ice-fishing season.  

This production requires one to prepare for something a little different from other plays.  The words or dialogue, meaning the prose poems, are a little offsetting in the traditional ways that one views dramatic or comedic theatre of objectives, conflict, and character resolution.

This play is likely to find a different light and differ each night, depending on the moments and audience participation, no matter how the directors Brownstein and Khanzadian have structured it.

Time has little relevance on this lake, day can be night, night can be day, but time passes in what could be thought of anywhere from an extended weekend or even months.  In the flash of winter lighting, moments pass quickly and possibly weeks fly by. The time spent on the ice is a humanistic endeavor that outweighs the visual countenance of time.  

And yet, all of this is absorbed, and happening, dancing in your imagination.

Erik (Don Fischer) is an “ice-fishing enthusiast”. He’s married but doesn’t talk about his wife too much especially when he is fishing.  He brings his college friend, Ron (Barry Heins), who is single and knows fiddly-squat about fishing.

Ron is over bundled so as to not to get cold. He brings a hand-held ice auger but he has no luck getting through the ice. Erik, with his gas-powered ice auger, plows through the ice like it’s nothing, and smiles while he’s doing it.

Erik, then settles on a plastic bucket near the hole in the ice, plows through a lot of fish philosophy hoping Ron understands the complexities of fishing on ice.  Ron can only nod his head, drink his Bud, and sit in his cushy chair.

Fishing not only gives one time to contemplate, sharing ideas of the mundane, but it is also discovering the mysteries of the earth through the art of life.

I can’t give too much away, because that would be giving too much away.  This is a delightful production with a lot of unusual and madcap activities happening throughout the theatrical night and wonderfully directed by Brownstein and Khanzadian.  Even if you don’t get everything, the night of portentous prose poems produces visuals you only dream of in a good night’s sleep.  

Evan Bartoletti, Scenic Design, gives us a portion of a frozen lake somewhere in northern Minnesota, where brightly painted fishing huts dot the icy landscape, and bare trees line the lake bed. It is both beautiful and detailed magnificently.

The sound by Chip Botcik of cracking ice, wind, and monster trucks are very pleasurable, the sound of physics and humanity all rolled into one.

Don Fischer is pleasant as Erik.  There’s more to be had with this character as an enthusiastic fisherman.  We get that he is a serious fisherman, little tidbits of a non-querulous nature, but we never see the enjoyment of learning new things.  For example, when another fisherman says he needs to talk to the lure, stuff like that should drive him ecstatic  – learning new things.  There is a reason he brought his friend this day and maybe that reason is too internal but it is a secret that needs to be express sometime during the course of the play.

Barry Heins has a very good look as Ron and is perfectly suited for the role.  For some ungodly reason, I didn’t see either the phone or the shades fall into the ice hole; that needs work so to focus our attention in his direction.  More is needed to show that he really really enjoyed the sauna. Those are really small things for an overall delightful performance.

Tamika Simpkins is excellent as the man-hating, go by the rules DNR Officer.  One pictures her as having a bible in one hand and a rules book in the other. The last day of the season and she is all over the men who are perceived to be fishing. And she won’t let go until she gets her quota for the day and back home to her wife, “that’s right I said, wife.”

Kristen Egermeier plays Flo.  Flo is a character type that manages to show up in the most peculiar places dressed in atypical garb.  For example, she is a type of an unexpected guest showing up at a beach house, or Burning Man, or Joshua Tree trying to make friends.  Flo appears out of nowhere to express her atypical lifestyle. She holds a book “Moby Dick” navigating her way, making friends where there were no friends moments ago.  She seems to have made a love connection but, does it go far enough? The stunning actress is below holding onto the palm tree and her name is spelled Kristen despite what the photograph says.

Rick Friesen is Wayne, grandfather to Flo.  He carries the spear fishing implement, something he’s not suppose to have.  He also carries the spirit of the Ojibwa as a constant companion along with the chi of the fish. Wayne imparts his wisdom to those who have a receptive ear. His relationship to his granddaughter could be improved in a myriad of ways that progress with the through line. (Oh, a perceived through line.)

Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins, the playwrights, take us on a very interesting trip.  It’s hard to tell where one starts and the other begins but, either way, the descriptive visuals takes the viewer on a very pleasurable trip.

Keaton Shapiro does a very fine job as a producer.

Sam KS and Michael Skloff created the original music.

Carolyn Mazuca’s costume design was perfect for this show.

Cate Caplin was the choreographer.

Stevie Anne Nemazee was responsible for the puppet design and the puppets were magnificent and oddly beautiful and unique in their own special way.

Jonathan Martin Berry was responsible for the guitar.  Gina S. De Luca was the stage manager.  

The publicity was by Ken Werther Publicity.


Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
1238 W. 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA  90026 

Run! Run! And take an avid fisherman with you!