Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Canyon by Jonathan Caren

Adam Shapiro and Christine Woods Photos by Dean Cechvala

By Joe Straw

The deck was not large enough to see the canyon in its entirety. – Narrator

IAMA Theatre Company in association with The Latino Theater Company presents Canyon by Jonathan Caren, a world premier play directed by Whitney White and produced by Patti Anne Miller through March 24, 2019.

On this night, an eclectic crowd, young/old, rich/poor, black/white/brown, a.k.a. theatre patrons filled the seats surrounding three quarters of a thrush stage – the deck – an intimate night, dressed in black, and in a passionate setting.

Canyon by Jonathan Caren is an impressive work of art that highlights the lives of ordinary compassionate human beings caught in a nightmare of their own creation. How far will human beings go to protect their self-interests?

There was something about the two cans of diet root beer that Jake (Adam Shapiro) brought out and placed near the lounge chair on his deck, outside his house, and in his area that struck me as both odd and significant.

Notwithstanding the backstory, those two items, quick grabs at a local market, were now what he didn’t want.  And, what sane person drinks diet root beer?

But, fortunately, progressive as he was, he couldn’t just discard the diet drink. Instead, he offered it to someone less fortunate than he, like the Mexican contractor, just to make a sincere point.  

But Eduardo (Geoffrey Rivas) had an ice chest with drinks to suit his purpose and an apple to keep him both fed and hydrated. A diet root beer was not for him.

Luca Oriel and Geoffrey Rivas
Today Eduardo’s helper was off doing other things so Eduardo brought his son, Rodrigo (Luca Oriel), to assist.  Rodrigo, soon heading off to college, was not impressed by his father’s situation.  And he was rebellious and vocal about how his father was being treated, working for slave wages in order to satisfy the wants of a successful young rich white guy with a beautiful home off a canyon road in Los Angeles.

It was 2016 and we were all God’s beautiful creations back then.  

Still, Eduardo had the work and had to work to pay for Rodrigo’s college. But one extra job was convincing Jake to make up his mind about extending the deck while he hung around doing odds and ends waiting for the ultimate answer and the cold hard cash.  

Rodrigo couldn’t know all this, spirited as he was looking out for his father’s behalf.  Picking up an arrowhead, the father soothes the temporal beast within his son’s being by explaining that they have been here a lot longer.

 “Know what you are looking for.” – Eduardo

So, Eduardo hangs around Jake’s home in hopes that Jake can convince his wife, Beth (Christine Woods), a physician and breadwinner, that they need an extension on the deck.  Of course this is something Jake and Eduardo want to keep to themselves until the deal is done.

Meanwhile Beth, in scrubs, arrives home after a hard day.  A few months pregnant, she nurtures their home, loves relaxing at home with her husband, and spending time on their beautiful deck. 

Jake, taking the opportunity of massaging Beth’s feet, has scenic thoughts of expansion.

Stefanie Black and Brandon Scott

A short time later, Will (Brandon Scott), Jake’s college friend and now public defender and his wife Dahlia (Stefanie Black), arrives from back east. They are an interracial couple and are clearly having problems in their relationship.

In the meantime, Dahlia enjoys a brief respite from their two children and immediately sets herself relaxing on the deck with a few glasses of wine as Beth holds the bottle.   

Later, Will confides to Jake that he wants out of the marriage, that their son has autism, and the tension between them and their unpleasant reflections has them discussing matters with a marriage counselor.  But, he’s definite, he wants out.

Without getting into details, the secret confessions are released.  And those secrets, not whispered in the night, bounce off the canyon walls, and find their mark.

The next morning is filled with tension and survival is broken down to its rustic simplicity on the deck.  Never ending love suddenly becomes a battle of survival.

And then someone gets hurt; bodies are now thrown off the deck and lives roll metaphorically down the steep canyon walls.

Jonathan Caren has written an exquisite play.  His words are masterfully relevant at time before the world turned ugly. (2016) The play is a sincere look at polite and ostensibly progressive human beings who turn when dramatic tensions have them fighting for their own best interest and bitterness usurps the eloquence once prevalent.  When tragedy strikes, a torrent of race hating falls like rain. And to that end their unaccountable indifference finally becomes accountable causing unfathomable pain. The suffering is self-inflicted, humans being hypocritical, and the progressiveness seems to be a facade easily crumbled. And one character breaks most of the principles of being a Unitarian Universalists. It ends when forgiveness becomes the only viable option.

Whitney White, the director, moves the actors in a way that paying attention is critical. She gives you enough of the relationship to question its authenticity. And then questions your involvement when taking sides in the critical moments. The blame game becomes one of acute observations in this intimate space  – almost as if the director has pulled focus away from significant events on and off stage to take the audience for a mental ride. And for those reasons, it is a wonderful achievement and worth seeing again and again.

The acting is well above par and it moves along in a fast clip, sometimes too fast as the pain in moments have little time to make their mark.

Adam Shapiro is terrific as Jake, a man who is engulfed in his own self sacrifice, giving up his life to live off the sacrifices of others, his dad and his wife.  Listening to others and accepting the information is his downfall.  But, throughout it all, his action is the saving grace. Shapiro gives a fine performance, natural and nuanced.

Christine Woods is Beth, the breadwinner in the family.  She, on the outside, is willing to have a stay-at-home husband, but when push comes to shove, she blames her only love for making unwise decisions about their lives. Beth has other underlying issues, dabbing in anti-anxiety drugs while pregnant, discussed but not witnessed. One wished to scrutinize her actions with a little more intensity.  She is wearing scrubs but we find out later that she is a physician as if the writer wanted us slightly confused. Woods is very good under the lights.

Brandon Scott is Will, a man now in fantods, has succumbed to the pitfalls of married and family life and believes there are better ways.  But, the answers to his prayers come at the misfortunes of his friend and maybe that is his way out.  Will obviously has other dreams that may not be manifested in Scott’s objective.

Stefanie Black is Dahlia, a woman who professes to be progressive because she is in a dramatic interracial relationship.  She being the more dramatic of the two. Her life is staying at home and taking care of the two children who are getting older. She seems unaware of the pressures of a one-income family and is willing to let her husband carry the burden in his low-paying public defender job. Dahlia is the Pandora’s box letting out one misfortune after another.  Black’s work is excellent.

Geoffrey Rivas is terrific as Eduardo.  He obviously knows what he is doing as the contractor but his actions are slightly ambiguous in the ways he goes about to earn more money. We get bits of information on his life, his drinking problem, and his ways of manipulation. We never see what gets him into trouble or what he does to get his son into more trouble, so during the course of the night, one is suspicious.  

Luca Oriel is Rodrigo a young man determined to help his father through these tough times no matter what price he has to pay.  And maybe he does pay a price near the end as the police come rushing up to the canyon road. Oriel is young and still learning and there is more to add to the performance, still, he has a great look and is very agreeable in the role.

Other members of the remarkable crew are as follows:

Colleen Labella – Associate Director
Holiday Kinard – Associate Producer
Robert Mahaffie – Co-Stage Manager
Lucy Houlihan – Co-Stage Manager
R.S. Buck – Lighting Designer
Michael O’Hara – Props
Melissa Trn – Costume Designer
Jeff Gardner – Sound Designer
Daniel Soule – Scenic Designer
Ryan Wilbat – Asst Scenic Designer
Red Colgrove – Set Build
Kis Knekt – Scenic Charge
Lucy Pollak – Publicity

Also, the understudies who did not perform the night I attended are: Christine Woods, Aynsley Bubbico, J. Claude Deering, Chris Gardner, Ray Oriel, Alexandra Wright, and Matt Yepez.

Run! Run! Run! And take a Unitarian Universalist with you.  You’ll have some interesting things to discuss on your deck at home.   

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


Saturday, March 9, 2019

Born to Win by Matthew Wilkas and Mark Setlock

L - R Drew Droege, Matt Wilkas - Photos by Matthew Brian Denman

By Joe Straw

There is a striking resemblance between this play and Dixie’s Tupperware Party by Ken Anderson. – Narrator

Celebration Theatre presents Born to Win by Matthew Wilkas and Mark Setlock, directed by Michael Matthews, and produced by Rebecca Eisenberg, Nathan Frizzel, and Michael O’Hara at the Lex Theatre in Hollywood through March 31, 2019.

Well, let’s see.

Born to Win was previously titled Pageant Play when it premiered in July 2008 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.   On this particular night, it played to a sold-out house at The Lex Theatre. The audience was mostly men with, one supposes, an eccentric fascination for child beauty pageants, or for the people who participate in it.  Because, beauty pageants just ain’t about the glitz and glamour.

The theatrical setting is in Texas reminiscent of a weary storefront, basement, or storm shelter with wig mannequins sitting on shelves and layered against glittered walls, that are also layered with small frilly dresses.  Beyond the presentation stage, is seminar seating (us the audience) compliments the space. A clothesline stretches from one end of the space to the other and is used effectively and creatively throughout the night – compliments of Stephen Gifford, Scenic Designer.

In this space, our two main characters promote their business to potential clients who will pay big fees to take their classes and are hopefully guaranteed a winner.  And like racehorses, they have no use for place or show.   

Bobby (Drew Droege) and Bob (Matt Wilkas) run this operation.  Bobby is the voluble one of this enterprise, the one with the clear and concise message about your daughters not being that pretty, but pretty enough to win with their help.  Bob does the makeup, hair, and has the acumen for business and numbers, but for now is willing to give Bobby the run of the show.

Their five-letter acronym SHEIT are their tools for success – smile, hair, eyes, illusion, and tenacity.  One would suggest they aren’t terribly bright to let this acronym pass, or maybe they’re just Texans.

Marge (Daiva Deupree) is the new mom entering her daughter Puddles (represented by a blue green dress) in a pageant. Puddles manages to win with the help of only her mother! In pageant circles, that just ain’t right.

Dejected onlooker, Pinky (Julanne Chidi Hill), has other plans for Puddles. Pinky’s daughter, Chevolet (represented by a pink dress), has been consistently winning contests.  But now, because of Puddles, Chevolet finishes in second place. Pinky’s animus then kicks into second gear and that just ain’t right.  
No matter, Pinky wants to help Marge and Puddles so she sends them to Bobby and Bob. The cost to manage Puddles, including hair, makeup, choreography, etc., will be around $7,000.  Marge says she can’t afford it so Pinky, married to a rich local toothpick manufacturer, says she will foot the bill.

Reluctantly, Marge accepts Pinky’s help. Later they come to blows as termagant women.

Even in this theatre of the absurd, there are some very serious issues going on in the play.  Just the little things like kidnapping and domestic abuse, which are not really funny but work within the construct of Wilkas and Setlock’s play.   

Love and desperation are words that play well with each character but, in retrospect, the love is not deep enough, and the desperation seems to fall short of their objectives.    

That said, Bobby and Bob’s relationship doesn’t progress in a satisfying way.  It seems to happen only because the words move us in that direction.  

But there is one moment, when Bobby compliments Bob on his choreography, that the relationship takes a leap forward.  The revelation should be dramatic – a moment that patches the strained relationship. It should tell us where these two characters are headed as they move from business associates into something more.    

This leads us to desperation.  The chase scene in the end, although comical, would play better if those characters desperately want each other and want each other forever.

Michael Matthew, the director, gives the show a rousing interpretation filled with surprises including exceptional performances by all.  The chase scene has funny moments but goes on long beyond its purpose.

There is a lot to enjoy from Matthew Wilkas and Mark Setlock’s play. Some moments ring a sincere truth about the makeup of people but then there are other moments that take us into the absurd and out of reality. Can a production be both?  It there something we are to learn? Or maybe we go for the fun of it?

L - R Daiva Deupree, Julanne Chidi Hill

Daiva Deupree gives the character Marge a lot of backstory, always hiding from someone about something, a crime, and an abusive partner.  There is a tremendous amount to enjoy of her character work and the simple things that move the character throughout the story.  It was terrific work.

Drew Droege plays Bobby, a grown man who thinks he knows what is right for every little girl entering a beauty pageant.  He is the idea man who finds out later that maybe his ideas were a little off base. Looking for his partner near the end needs that desperation of a love lost never to be found.  Droege also plays the abusive husband, a completely different character and completely unrecognizable in a very nice turn.  One is not sure how he escaped and found the house in the last chase scene.

Julanne Chidi Hill has her moments as Pinky, someone who is loving and notorious all in the same breath. Stabbing the mannequin to cozen her opponent goes a little too far in her quest for what she wants.  The moment turns her into an antagonistic behemoth. It is not funny and one wonders if there are better choices for this character at that moment. We have to know that she is doing these things out of love for her daughter. Still, there is much to enjoy from Hill’s performance and overall she is excellent in her craft.

L - R Julanne Chidi Hill, Matt Wilkas

Matt Wilkas hits all the right notes as Bob the partner who is treated as an underling. Wilkas is funny as Bob who accepts a lot of information and acts accordingly.  And, what is Bob thinking? Is it the situation?  Or, is it his relationship?  Wilkas is also Gunnar, the toothpick manufacturer who doesn’t understand his wife. (Join the club.) He is a man so entrenched with his job that a cinnamon flavored toothpick sends him over the edge. It is another wonderful character for Wilkas.

The Lex Theatre is a wonderful place to view a show and the Celebration Theatre’s production crew and support staff are second to none!

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Tom DeTrinis – Assistant Director
Estey DeMerchant – Production Stage Manager
Trevor Lee – Assistant Stage Manager
Matthew Brian Denman – Lighting Designer
Allison Dillard – Costume Designer
Rebecca Kessin – Sound Designer
Michael O’Hara – Props Designer/Producer/Managing Director
Sondra Mayer – Fight Director
Tuffet Schmelzle – Dialect Coach
Janet Roston – Choreography Consultant
Michael C. Kricfalusi – Executive Director/Executive Producer
Michael A. Shepperd – Artistic Director/Executive Producer
Rebecca Eisenberg – Producer
Nathan Frizzell – Producer
Mark Giberson – Associate Producer
David Tran – Associate Producer
Jami Rudofsky – Casting Director
David Elzer/Demand PR – Marketing/PR/Publicity 

Run! Run! And take a former beauty pageant contestant.  You'll have the time of your life. 

Celebration Theatre
6760 Lexington Ave.
Los Angeles, CA, 90038

For tickets, please call (323) 957-1884 - or visit to purchase tickets online or to view a complete schedule!