Sunday, January 27, 2019

Brilliant Traces by Cindy Lou Johnson

Caitlin Carleton and Chris Cardano - Photos by John Dlugolecki

By Joe Straw

Happenstance – a chance happening or event –

Red Sage Productions presents Brilliant Traces by Cindy Lou Johnson, directed by Kiff Scholl at The Lounge Theater through February 10, 2019.

The Alaskan one-man radio station played on, a casual voice that had the listener in-and-out-of-dream sounds, accompanied by the wind blowing outside, some half heard noises about exits, front and back, silencing raucous phones, but beautiful, dreamingly soft, moving in and out of consciousness under a blanket, softly listening to the crepitating sounds of the cast iron fireplace, and rustling comfortably cozy on a nice long windy winter’s night. (Beautiful sounds by Sound Designer David Medina)

All was quiet in a lonely wood-frame home with a lonely pot on top of a dilapidated stove and a few dishes in the rack. (A beautiful cabin/home by Set Designer/Set Builder John Mahr.)

But, now, not all is quiet—there is a sudden loud knock. One hears it half asleep, something in this being twitches, stops a second, but now the knocking is real, up on feet, on top of the bed, as the disturbing sounds give way to an open door with cold quelling the heat.

Rosannah DeLuce (Caitlin Carleton) breaks into the room, a remarkable sight in off-white soiled wedding dress, like Dicken’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, worn and dirtied from traversing an hour in the snow to find this place of refuge.

The tall monstrous dark leviathan is now surprised, almost plastered to the cabin wall as the being covered in a blanket observes, standing on the bed and focused on the next move, maybe the last move, not knowing if the apparition is of good fortune or a desperate misfortune.

And Rosannah is a ball of ice, her hands coil from the cold, just useless nubs on the ends of her limbs, but just enough to grab a bottle, pours a drink, and intake the liquid refreshment to warm her inner soul, all the while explaining, through short gasps of air, why she is there.

Why is she there?

She inhales more air to warm her self, and takes another drink, the little things just to know that she exists, telling her story, until she can continue no further, and then she faints.

Dropping his blanket, Henry Harry (Chris Cardano) appears. Through all of this, he has not said a word.  He picks her up from the floor and places her on the bed.  He takes off her wedding dress, and then bathes her with warm water from the stove.  He covers her with a blanket, grabs her satin wedding shoes from the floor, and sits at his kitchen table with shoes in hand and weeps.  

 And then Rosannah sleeps for two days.

Why is she there in the middle of nowhere Alaska? Why are they both there?

Cindy Lou Johnson (play writer) answers those questions during the course of her 1989 play if either one of the characters would just come out and say it. But, past tragedies have the characters confused, about trust, and about painful memories.  Johnson provides enough outlandish dialogue that takes the characters on a circuitous route through confabulation to the truth.  Which, one believes, is the intention of the play because during the course of the play, those questions are realized.

In keeping with the idea of the play, Brilliant Traces is a compendium of a heightened reality realized, of events that trace the character to a moment in time. Each character, chained by their boundless melancholy, must recognize those moments, absorb it, grow, and move on to the next as they discover moments in their partner’s lives.    

Kiff Scholl directs a pleasant night of intimate theatre, one that is often times unexpected, beautiful, and filled with a deep love of caring for another human being.  Scholl has the characters separated most of the night, waiting for the right moments of discomforting intimacy to come closer to conjugal harmony. In terms of discovering the reasons why each character is there, there may have been moments that were not completely realized on this night. Also, the ending is an important resolution for both characters, which must project them back to the beginning to their collective moment now.  The ending on this night just seemed to end unexpectedly.

Caitlin Carleton and Chris Cardano

Caitlin Carleton, as Rosannah DeLuce, has a number of marvelous moments despite a few mishaps on this particular night – the door opening before all of the pounding was completed, and placing the cup on the cast iron heater to the sound of wood and destroying an illusion.  That aside, Carleton’s physical and emotional life as the character was very appealing and beautiful to watch.  Rosannah, seemed to be bi-polar, attention-deficit, and with other emotional ailments all in the same breath and that made for a well-rounded character, slightly wacky, and totally unpredictable.  Carleton manages to put all of those things into the makeup of her character which was a pretty amazing performance.

Chris Cardano, as Henry Harry, is garbed in 1980’s motif looking like Jack Torrance in The Shinning complete with eyebrows. But Henry is a sincere and lonely character who wants nothing to do with humans until this one enters his life. He works 400 miles from where he lives – works seven weeks of work, has two weeks off, which is why he never leaves his cabin during this stretch of his life. He also has some explaining to do as he negotiates this present relationship.  So one feels the bath scene, at present, is not yet connected to his earlier life, and should be.  Also, the shoes should send him back to that earlier tragic day.  That said, there is a lot to enjoy about Cardano’s performance who manages not to completely lose his cool with his abstruse partner.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Andrew Schmedake –Lighting Designer
Kathryn Juday – Costume Designer
Jen Albert – Fight Choreographer
Beth Goldberg – Casting Assistant
Courtney Rhodes – Stage Manager
Caiti Wiggins – Box Office Manager
Levi Burns – Carpenter
Phil Sokoloff – Publicity
Ty Donaldson – Graphic Design

Run! Run!  And take someone who loves the last frontier.

The Lounge Theater
6201 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90038

Free parking on Santa Monica Blvd after seven.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Desert Rats by Nate Rufus Edelman

Derek Chariton and Walt Gray IV : Photos by Giovanni Solis of bracero

By Joe Straw

Set off a squalid alameda, the entryway to the motel room was a green and white door. It had been sanded and painted many times over the years, but was now left to deteriorate into disrepair by its owners.  

This was just a room that serves to collect money from anyone passing by – heading north to Las Vegas or south to Los Angeles. It is a perfect holiday gift for someone who couldn’t give two squeezes about the drab motif just to lower the eyelids for a brief respite.

This hotel sat beyond the salted palisades of the hills to the north. And probably what you would expect for the desert, in Barstow, and certainly not four stars.

The rest of the room wasn’t that much better, coming in through the door was a bed to the right with a blanket, used repeatedly over the years, no doubt, and one that didn’t cover the whole bed.  The bed frame sat over scraps of frayed carpeting, and in offsetting colors of red, spotted brown, and red again.

The lamps were in need of repair and offered little light to those who wanted to make logical sense. It was actually perfect lighting because the darkness will shed little light on a crime they are about to commit, a crime derived from depravity and, of course, diabolical in nature.   

The Latino Theater Company Presents Desert Rats, written by Nate Rufus Edelman and directed by Angie Scott through January 20th, 2019.

Frank (Walt Gray IV) stepped into the room with a sense of fondness having been there years before with his father and younger brother, Jesse (Derek Chariton).  They are orphans and have been so for quite some time.

The similarity they have to Frank and Jesse James are the first names only and a criminal mindset.

Frank is the wiser primogeniture, a little heavier than his unfed homunculus brother Jesse, a ruffled haired young man, slightly slow in thought and build, who now wants to chain smoke his way to death, and play solitaire while he waits for the nicotine to kick in and the cancer cells to replicate. (Please, theatrical cigarettes would be a pleasing gesture for those of us who inhaled second hand smoke of our now deceased loved ones.)

What does Jesse have to live for besides cigarettes, booze, and relentless desire to stifle any movement in a positive direction?

It doesn’t help that Frank calls him a retard, an unwelcome, unhelpful, and unkind act.

But Frank isn’t that dumb, in fact he is very curious about a lot of things, has questions that are not easily answered, and may, in fact, be smarter than his older brother, who in reality, forgets a lot.

But, they know what they are there for.  They are prepared for any outcome, and any unforeseen circumstances that may come their way.  The only problem is that neither is bright enough to see beyond the barren landscape, their thoughts beyond the dirty window, and the hot air that forces them inside on this hot dusty day to talk over plans.

“It’s Africa hot.” - Jesse

And there is no Jacuzzi or air conditioning.

The plan is set, Frank leaves Barstow to drive to the San Fernando Valley to kidnap cheerleader, Amber (Lila Gavares), a spunky girl with a rich father, bring her back in the trunk of the car in a few hours, pick up some Payday candy bars along the way, and return her back to the hotel before they call her father for the ransom.

But there is a kink in the plan; Frank does not arrive until well after his anointed time sending Jesse into the stratosphere with worry.

Options are the key to Nate Rufus Edelman’s dark comedy. There seems to be more in the play than what was presented visually. Desperation drives each of the character to their anointed end in this intimate play.   But does the play go far enough, or reach a  pinnacle?

Frank wants the money. Jesse wants to be loved.  Amber wants to escape the nightmare she is in.  It’s all pretty simple.  But, what happens? Frank doesn’t get the money.  Jesse ruins everything. And the girl seems to be better off in the end.

The plan was doomed from the start.  There were too many obstacles.  The characters need a moment to think when things go wrong.   Frank and Jesse didn’t give a second thought to what they were doing and how they were going to carry it off.  

While Angie Scott’s direction was fluid enough, the two actors lost sight of their objective from the moment they entered the room.  They weren’t relating (on this night) or moving toward their objectives. (Harold Clurman calls this the through-line.) Later, we get to know why they are there but, but by this time, some momentum was lost.  The relationship of the two brothers needs strengthening, (improvisation in rehearsals would help) and was not significant enough to ensure they would agree or disagree on the same plan.  And, the plan did not have a strong conflict, whether it was inner conflict or from some outside forces, and visually it doesn’t appear that the brothers have run out of options

This play bares a striking similarity to Orphans by Lyle Kessler about two orphans who kidnap a stranger that gets the better of the orphans.

Lila Gavares

There is a lot to enjoy from Lila Gavares’s (Amber) performance. Her delivery is sultry, nuanced, and her objective is clear. The moment she steps into the room there is an ambiguity coming through the pillowcase that is over her face. Is she laughing, or crying, or both?  Whatever she was doing, it was mesmerizing. Gavares is a rutilant being, focused on both her backstory and complete in the present.  The work was excellent.

Derek Chariton plays Jesse, a simpleton, who believes what his brother tells him about his intellect.  There is a deeper backstory to this character and a much richer defined character.  Staying incognito during the first part of the play would help his character who only smokes and plays solitaire, two passive choices that don’t take the character to another level.  Defining the relationship with his brother will only help the very satisfying ending.

Could that be that his brother wants him to be discovered?

Walt Gray IV is Frank, the older and smarter brother, or at least he thinks so. Frank needs a deeper backstory and subtext.  And stronger choices need to be made.  If he is indeed smarter, he must know his plan is never going to work. And, if that’s the case, what does he want from his brother? Frank tells his brother not to leave the cabin, or to get cigarettes. or a fan, yet he knows full well that he will do it. And why does he present his brother with horrific news upon coming back late at night?  Where does this take us, and how does this change their relationship? Why does he bring the girl back into their hotel room knowing his brother is going to mess things up? How does that change the story?

Desperation and manipulation are social construct keys for Frank. Let’s assume that he is not in this for the money, and that he is doing this to get rid of his brother who has been a ball and chain around his neck his whole life.  Over the course of the play, that version made a lot more sense to me. But that’s just me.

This show was moved from a smaller venue into one of the smaller venues at LATC.  But, that room was probably larger so the actors had to accommodate to the size of the room. At times Frank and Jesse were center stage and in the dark during crucial moments of the play.

That said, I did enjoy the show and I would like to see the players grow exponentially during the course of the run.

Wonderful Set Design by Cameron Mock & Emily MacDonald.

Libby Letlow was responsible for the Fight and Intimacy Choreographer.  The first kiss should be an eye opener for Jesse.  Take that moment.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Ivan Robles – Sound Design
Robert Anaya – Production Assistant
Jakelinne Gonzalez – Costume Design
Maricela Shagun – Production Stage Manager
Michelle Tapia – Assistant Director
Christopher Campbell-Orrock – Dramaturg

Run! Run! And take somebody thin, with a lot of tattoos!

The Los Angeles Theatre Center
Avalos Theatre
514 S. Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA  90013

Reservation: 866-811-4111

 Contact for more information.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Valley of the Heart by Luis Valdez

Melanie Arii Mah and Lakin Valdez

By Joe Straw

Valley of the Heart, written and directed by Luis Valdez, ended its run at the Mark Taper Forum on December 9, 2018.

Luis Valdez is a national treasure and Valley of the Heart may be the pinnacle of his theatrical life.  It is an expansive work of soul-searching art – a visual reflection of looking at the past to understand the present.

In hindsight, one sees the play as a reflecting pool, embedded in time, mirroring humanity, close enough one can see ripples of mass incarcerations, clustered heat of internment camps, and the effluvium or rising gasses chasing women and children away from our borders.

But simply, this is the story of the lives of two families within our borders, the Montaño and Yamaguchi families, through three generations, as they live, love, and approach dying.   

And, this story ironically is told from the perspective of an old sightless man, a man who remembers the past and finds difficulties visualizing the present.

To help him negotiate his age and visual impairment are two Ninja like warriors, the Kurogo. (In Kubuki theatre, they are the onstage assistants.) Mariela Arteaga and Michael Naydoe Pinedo effectively perform a myriad of duties throughout the course of the play.

Blindness makes an easy prey for the sightless Kurogo. They are the dark shadow helpers that accompany Benjamin Montaño (Lakin Valdez) onto a chair and then wheel Benjamin into the light - into the sun - to receive whatever light permeates these days.

In his thoughts, Benjamin travels back in time to the land he cultivated in the Santa Clara Valley and to the family that nurtured his being.    

Quietly mindful in his reflection, Benjamin is a man weathered by time and events but willing to tell a story to anyone within earshot, about a woman he loved and almost lost. And, for him, it is a story that must not be forgotten. The year of the telling is 2001, but he harks back a few days before December 7, 1941.

The words and events come easily as Benjamin defines the farm.  And despite working on the same farm, the Yamaguchi family is better off than the Montaño family.  The Yamaguchi’s home is made of brick and mortar, while the Montaño’s home is constructed of brown pine poverty slats.  John Iacovelli, Scenic Design, makes it clear in the way their houses are presented, of class distinction, one home more opulent than the other.  And each home slides effortlessly behind the sliding Japanese walls, - Shoji screens – which are compliment by David Murakami beautiful projections of Santa Clara Valley and later Wyoming.

The Yamaguchis have owned the land for several generations but let the Montaños live and work the land. 

Cayetano Montaño (Daniel Valdez) is weary of living in squalor and Paula Montaño (Rose Portillo), his wife, is equally tired. She has been busy raising three children who are now young adults, Benjamin Montaño (Lakin Valdez), Ernesto “Tito” Montaño (Moises Castro) and a very peculiar daughter Maruca Montaño (Christy Sandoval) 

In reality, the Montaño family is living on scraps and doesn’t have enough money to buy food for five adults.  Daniel wants a raise. He waits for the opportunity and approaches Ichiro Yamaguchi (Randal Nakano) for a meager increase and the modest title of foreman. They share a glass of sake, or two, and so little gets done. After consuming the sake, Daniel forgets what he was there for and struggles to find the front door.

But money is not the only thing on everyone’s minds.  Benjamin Montaño has his sights on Thelma Yamaguchi (Melanie Arii Mah) as they work together in the broccoli fields in a very nice bit of choreography harvesting the rows.

Alas, Thelma’s life has been arranged and she is promised to Calvin Sakamoto (Scott Keiji Takeda), an obnoxious young man, with money and a fast car, who Thelma is not in love with. Thelma wants to respect her family’s wishes and traditions and sends Benjamin mixed signals.  She is really not happy with Calvin but she doesn’t know if going against her father’s will makes anyone happy.


And then the bombing of Pear Harbor on December 7, 1941 happens and the Yamaguchi family is thrown in disarray.  The patriarch is arrested, and sent to a labor camp.  The rest of the Yamaguchi family will soon follow suit and be sent to an internment camp – the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming.

Overall, the cast was exceptional.  But, I have minor reflections on the craft.   

Moises Castro did fine as Ernesto “Tito” Montaño.  There is more to be had in the relationship between the two brothers. Valdez shares a quantifiable difference between the make-up of the two boys – one brother is a warrior, and the other is a lover.  Character actions guide an actor to that end, and Castro’s objective must move him in that direction.

The same holds true with Justin Chien as Joe “Yoshi” Yamaguchi who appears to be on the same path but from a different household.  This character must have a clearer objective.

Randall Nakano has a lot of funny moments as Ichiro Yamaguchi especially when witnessing his grandson for the first time. Ichiro presents strength and an unwillingness to bend, but one wonders if his choices help him navigate to the dramatic ending.

Joy Osmanski also had her moments as Hana Yamaguchi, the wife who obeys the wishes of her husband.  But, ignoring the times, there must be a reflective moment where she conquers as an individual and one that rules the house in an act of disobedience. Still, it was a fine performance.  

There is a moment when Rose Portillo as Paula Montaño finds out that one of her sons has just joined the military.  She pulls up her hand to slap him and then changes her mind to caress his face.  It is a beautiful moment that carries long after the theatrical night.  Portillo is wonderful in the role.

Christy Sandoval as Maruca Montaño seemed lost in this production.  This character needs more work.  There were many opportunities to add to the character, the hot tub scene and the fight scene, but these scenes did not give us an idea of who this person is what her focus in life is.  The physical actions of the character (extremely different from the rest of the cast) did not move the character toward the end when the audience discovers she is a lesbian.  How does the physical and emotional life move her in a way that moves her in that direction?

Scott Keiji Takeda plays Calvin Sakamoto, a Japanese American, who gets hauled off into the internment camp.  He is the love interest and not really dangerous although he carries an unloaded cap pistol with him.  Takeda has a strong voice and has a comic sensibility about him and just about everything he said provoked laughter from the audience. His work is superior.

Daniel Valdez plays the father, Cayetano Montaño, and provides a solid performance. Valdez brings a lot of life to the role of father, husband, and worker. Discovering the loss of his son is a terrific moment in the play. Valdez is an exceptional actor that creates light from the darkness.

Melanie Arii Mah is Thelma, the woman caught between two worlds.  She is slightly mixed up and really doesn’t know what she wants.  She doesn’t love the man chosen for her and she is also ambivalent to take the man she loves and thereby defying her father. (see Romeo and Juliet) She seems resigned to understand that any decision is a bad decision for someone she’s involved with so she plays it close to her being.  One interesting thought is that her actions are all actions remembered by her husband.  

Lakin Valdez plays Benjamin Montaño and there is more work to done with this character. Anger should be left to specific moments during the course of his life and should have been directed at circumstances rather than people. Instead where love is critical – the objective could have been stronger. Never give up should be his mantra, on his girlfriend, then his wife, and then his child.   Love rules this character until the end when he has it all, in memory, and knows that everyone is safe and sound. He is the storyteller and every moment is a visual historical moment that moves him to tell the story in the end.  Also, desperation is a key component that was missing between the love interests.

Cast member who did not perform the night I was there were Melodie Shih, Michael Uribes, Natalie Camunas, and Ricky Pak.

In the darkness, desperation plays a vital role in the through-line of becoming one family once again. The end is reflective of the beginning in Luis Valdez’s play.  The storyteller should not be lost during the course of the actions on stage. But, is there more of a dramatic ending to be had? Possibly, we should see those who made it and maybe those that didn’t. And we should see that in dramatic fashion.

Heart was presented by the Center Theatre Group – Michael Ritchie Artistic Director – Stephen D. Rountree Managing Director – Douglas C. Baker Producing Director – Gordon Davidson Founding Director in association with El Teatro Campesino. 

Other members of the crew are as follows: 

Kinan Valdez - Associate Director
Lupe Valdez - Costume Designer
Pablo Santiago - Lighting Designer
Philip G. Allen - Sound Designer
Edgar Land - Fight Director
Rosalinda Morales and Pauline O'Con - Casting 
PJ & Roy Hirabayashi - Original Compositions and Arrangements
Noé Yaocoatl Montoya - Additional Arragements
Phillip Esparza - Executive Producer
David S. Franklin - Production Stage Manager
Susie Walsh - Stage Manager