Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Alik by Julio Vera

L to R Colleen Greenhalgh, Ryan Hughes, and Justin Powell

By Joe Straw

EXTENDED!!  Culver City Players at AmVet Post 2 House.

Saturday, April 21, at 8:00 pm
Sunday, April 22, at 7:00 pm
Saturday, April 28, at 8:00 pm
Sunday, April 29, at 7:00 pm

Elysium Conservatory Theatre in association with Wende Museum of the Cold War presents Alik by Julio Vera and directed by Cassandra Ambe is now playing through March 30, 2018 in Culver City.

Some things happen by happenstance, free parking at the Vets center to see a musical, turns into an unexpected turn, a discovery, and an unanticipated focus on the new Wende Museum of the Cold War. In that moment of curiosity there was a dogged determination to collect bits of information that caused me to look through the window. 

The museum appeared to be closed, but the doors were open, the staff provided a friendly greeting and asked if  “I was here to see the play”.  I wasn’t aware there was a play in this building where observable Stalin sculptures glowered and Russian paintings were absorbed in mental limitations. 

This is a place to study a particular time and place, a polemology of the Cold War. It is a natural venue for those who necessitate the gathering of information and disbursing it for consumptive purposes or otherwise.

And this is a perfect venue for this play.

Emerging from the darkness, a soft-spoken writer, Julio Vera introduced himself. He shares that the play, Alik, is a drama about Lee Harvey Oswald and his wife Marina living in an apartment in Minsk in 1961 and 1962.  Curiosity runs deep of that time and place where in hindsight governments had little to share.  

“This play is a work of fiction.  Names, people, places and incidents are the creation of the playwright and used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual events, locations or people (living or dead) is coincidental.” – a note in the program – Author Unknown

The actual playing space in the museum is probably the size of your living room. At first one wonders how they will manage to create an apartment in Minsk in 1961 with nothing visible.  The audience sits in two sections facing each other about fifteen feet apart.

One imagines the theatre patrons are the observers of that apartment in Minsk.  This darkened utopian socialist world is one where we are all gathering information. Intentional or not, we are the KGB, the CIA, and any other spy entity you care to mention -  eavesdropping by any conventional means or otherwise.  

Alik by Julio Vera is a wonderful play performed by a magnificent company, the Elysium Conservatory Theatre.

The equally magnificent Cassandra Ambe, the director, has a critical eye of character, moments, movement, and relationships that tie the entire night together.  She moves the actors through time and space without missing a beat and it is a wonderful journey of story and craft. 

The actors give depth and meaning to their performances. Only a few moments into the play, we observe that they have had extraordinary training.   

Suddenly, the minimal set pieces move in quietly, small walls interchange, and turn an empty space into a viable arena, Set Design and Construction by Julio Vera and Gerard Moore.  

Marina (Lauren Fordinal) walks into the apartment with a bright red summer dress and matching seductive lipstick.  In comparison to other apartments in the area, this apartment is a penthouse with a great view. She is excited to be there.

Justin Powell, Lauren Fordinal

Following Marina is Alik (Justin Powell) who has managed to bring her up to the room. Alik, 23, is infatuated with her, her red lipstick, and lets it be known that he would like to kiss her.

“I must touch your lips.” – Alik

But Marina is cautious. She doesn’t know this man, although she would like to, and there are many unanswered questions about his history and reasons he has the apartment.  

Alik, an American, with his southern accent, and Robert Mitchum eyes, is not exactly forthcoming.  He tells her that he is an orphan, he’s from New Orleans, he loves classical music, and he leaves out a lot of information before he gets to the part that his real name is Lee Harvey Oswald and that he is 21 not 23 years old.

Ryan Hughes, Colleen Greenhalgh

They know who he is.  Pavel (Ryan Hughes) is a “friend” who is happy to be with him as he negotiates his way around Minsk.  Pavel tells him to be careful about what he says in his new apartment, where to speak, because they are always watching. (Little does he know.)

Larissa (Colleen Greenhalgh) is Marina’s friend. She is there with Pavel and they are a couple of sorts. Marina lived with Larissa and Valentin (not seen) for a brief time.

Later, they celebrate Lee’s and Marina’s wedding but in the middle of a toast, Lee gets distracted grabs the wine glasses and takes them back into the kitchen, spilling the wine on the floor in the process. 

Beyond the circumferential wall of their apartment, Oswald’s head is filled with demons from his past.  The empty wall presents shadows of his past life and animates the room with traumatic moments that expose his psyche. We see his brother Robert (Ricardo Diaz), his therapist Evelyn (Mariah Kirstie), his former Soviet girlfriend Rimma (Tory Castillo), and most of all, his mother Marguerite (Michele Schultz) who chases him like a roach on a wall, banging incessantly with her shoe, until he either surrenders or is squashed.

Vera’s play is wonderful heightened reality, august in it’s flow, and breathes at times like Chekov. (Oh, the boundless melancholy of suffering Russians waiting in long lines for cutlets now missing as they finally reach the barren shelves.)  It is amazing in its simplicity and movement that explains two lives struggling in Minsk.  There is an extraordinary amount of work here, fine details about the participants’ lives, things we knew and things that ring a dramatic truth despite being a work of fiction. The references to Eartha Kitt and jazz plays beautifully with the struggles they all endure.   

Lauren Fordinal (Marina) is a stunning creature who is grounded in character and in place. Marina holds her own position to get what she wants from her husband, never letting go of her own dream. Her performance is wonderful and her craft is amazing.

Justin Powell is Alik, the title of the play.  He is actually Lee Harvey Oswald who has to overcome the demons brought on by his mother, brother, wife, and his former girlfriend. Powell’s actions are measured, letting little go until the right time. In his internal pain he is craving for help but little is given.   His performance is remarkable.

Ryan Hughes does good work as Pavel and friend and co-worker to Oswald. Hughes has a strong presence and in character is a man that you don’t want to mess with.

Colleen Greenhalgh is Larissa, Marina’s friend.  She is the open eye and an instigator of sorts, one minute saying Oswald is a good catch, the other minute saying Marina should leave him. Larissa never gets in the way of others but that doesn’t stop her from trying.  Greenhalgh is another remarkable actor that brings an incredible truth to the character.

Ricardo Diaz plays Robert, Oswald’s brother. There is much to his performance that rang a sincere truth, simplicity of desire, of want that needed something from his younger brother.  But what that was was so deep to be incomprehensible, or at least, ambiguous. In any case, fascinating to watch.  Re-thinking the costume for this character would be the only thing to change, as it looked too modern.  

Michele Schultz is Marguerite (Oswald’s mother) and comes on really strong in the beginning.  This is a character that grows on you during the course of the play.  The scene with the therapist perhaps lingers on and could use some work.  Marguerite is a woman who wants to become famous and in any way possible.

Mariah Kirstie as Evelyn, a therapist to a younger Oswald, who tries her best to save him but loses out to his mother.  Kirstie does an admirable job playing to a young Oswald and a younger mother.

Tory Castillo has some wonderful moments as Rimma, Oswald’s former “friend” and tour guide. Much is brought to the forefront about Oswald’s current past when he first entered Russia.  Castillo comes in late in the show but shows a remarkable relationship with all who are in her scene. 

This was a play with massive costume changes by Cassandra Ambe, also was responsible for the lighting design and the direction.  But, rather than stop the action, the fellow actors changed the costumes on stage with hardly a break in the action. In fact, everyone chipped in to keep the play moving marvelously.   Larissa is wearing a wedding ring in the opening moments of the play, and it is a nice one.  (One suspects that ring is not coming off for the purposes of the play.)

There is much more to write about this play.  I may come back to it.  (Check in from time to time.) The show is closing this weekend and something must be said before it does close.

Run! Run! Run!  And bring a mysterious comrade!

Wende Museum of the Cold War – 8:00pm in Culver City- 310-216-1600


I had the opportunity to see this remarkable production two weeks later at the AmVets Post 2 house just a door away from the Wende museum.  I wanted to see how the cast settled into the roles and also to witness three new cast members.    

The moments in this version were heightened and the relationships worked marvelously.

Sam Flemming played Pavel and was quite different from the earlier Pavel.  In this version, Pavel was much more imposing, the beard gave a great look to this Russian, and his relationship to his girlfriend added an extra flavor to the role.  Flemming moved seamlessly into his role and gave the character another essence and one more dimension.

Melissa Ortiz plays Evelyn with a stronger New York presence and a strong accent (Brooklyn?).  There was a quiet dignity in Ortiz’s performance as a character that wanted to get to the bottom of the child’s problem but she was conflicted by the law that ultimately ruins her work.

Monica Ross is outstanding as Rimma, a Russian woman, a Muscovite that has had a previous relationship with Oswald. This Rimma was flamboyant, vivacious, and a little coy in her brilliant scene near the end of the play. Ross used the space remarkably well as though Rimma had known Oswald’s apartment inside and out.  

Charlotte Spangler also plays Rimma but did not perform the night I was there.

There was so much more to get viewing Julio Vera’s play the second time around, subtle moments that are jarring.  Vera doesn’t come right out and say “this is what happened” rather, he explains events, not in one moment, but over the course of the play. 

Alik is a remarkable play, with an equally remarkable cast, and has an outstanding director, Cassandra Ambe making her directorial debut.  

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