Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Heal by Aaron Posner

Kacie Rogers and Eric Hissom

By Joe Straw

The Getty Villa, and in particular the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, is a remarkable venue to see Greek plays and the re-working or adaptations of them.    

From the parking lot, the walk to the Greek open-air style theatre is a pleasant one.  With each step, Los Angeles falls by the wayside, the trees explode into mushroom like clouds, and the greenery fills one with enough oxygen to relax and take it all in. And because this is Malibu, a breeze starts blowing in, cooling the amphitheater to bearable temperatures against the insufferable heat of the day.     

But, seeing a play on opening night concerns me.  There is never enough money for the arts, and therefore never enough rehearsal time. Naytheless, the Round House Theatre group, from Bethesda Maryland, is a professional company, and opening night should not have been a problem.

Well, there were problems, a few, mostly about character, conflict, and script. Now that I think about it, that’s almost everything.      

The Heal written and directed by Aaron Posner is a re-imagining of Philoctetes by Sophocles and it is a comedy playing through September 28, 2019 at The Getty Villa.

Heal: to bring to an end or conclusion, as conflicts between people or groups, usually with the strong implication of restoring for amity, settle; reconcile.

Truth: honesty; integrity

Philoctetes (Eric Hissom) was left alone on the island of Lemnos. Not by choice, of course. On his way to fight the Trojan War, he was a victim of snakebite, a faithful revenge from the Gods for stepping on the sacred ground on Chryse.

For Philoctetes, the pain was unbearable and the smell remarkably putrid. This did not sit well with his comrades, the other soldiers, and they could not bear to be with him, all that whining and such, so they left him on the island, with only the bow bequeathed to him by Heracles (not seen), to fend for himself or die.

Ten years have gone by without a victory at Troy. With Achilles dead, Odysseus (Lester Purry) has his mind set on winning the war.  He has captured Helenus, the Troy prophet, and Helenus confessed the only way to win the war at Troy is with Heracles’ bow.

Sounds fair enough but this adds another component, a set of improbable logistics in order to take Troy.     

So Odysseus, and his minions, returns to the island of Lemnos possibly hoping that Philoctetes (the holder of the bow) was dead. 

But, when the ship arrived on the island, Odysseus, seeing signs that Philoctetes is among the living, and needing the bow to win the war, tries to convince Achilles’ daughter Niaptoloma (Kacie Rogers) to lie and by deception take the bow from Philoctetes by any lying means necessary.

Philoctetes will never give up the bow, unless it’s from his “cold dead hands” (my quotes).  

But, Niaptoloma, in reality, and of strong character, has a hard problem with lying. She is the proud daughter of Achilles and has a reputation to uphold.  Therein lies the conflict.  

To explain the backstory and all of the essentials in remarkable detail is a Greek chorus/dancers (Eunice Bae, the spectacular Emma Lou Hébert, and Jaquit Ta’le) who were the highlight of the show and kept the show very lively compliments of a very talented Erika Chong Shuch, Choreographer.  

And while that worked, one did not get folk-blues guitarist (Cliff Eberhardt) at all or why he was there. One loved the songs, the singing, but, where was this all going? And, how did it fit into the play? Perhaps, if he had been been the character Heracles certain things could have materialized.

Philoctetes finally shows up limping around like a three-legged frog, bow in tow, using it mostly as a cane, and very cautious, of what a woman, this woman, wants on his island.   He has trouble communicating, partially because of the pain, and partially being on the island for so long. Cognitive thinking and time away from other humans have a way of causing self-invalidation.  He, at least, recognizes the idea of being rescued.

There are a lot of good things in Aaron Posner’s play.  The main ideas were one of “truth” and of course “healing”.  The truth takes precedent over all of it and healing is a secondary event in the play and therefore the confusion of the play.  The play requires a stronger through line, and for the director a viable stamp critical for us to understand his intention or objective rather than a prévenance for the playgoers. In the end “truth” sums it all up, which is almost impossible to believe.  (Sophocles version is a little more believable, if one takes stock in Greek Gods and what they are spiritually capable of doing.)

While truth is the overriding issue of the two main characters, the truth has little to do with the characters.  Odysseus flat out lies and does not give a second thought about doing so. There is very little joy in his actions, and almost no conflict in the way he tries to convince Achilles’ daughter, Niaptoloma.  And she is not weigh down by the inner conflict she must overcome and regards the truth as an annoyance rather than any kind of overriding inner conflict.

Not much was made of the place, the island, where this all takes place in Posner’s direction but it did play an important part in the play as a whole.  The symbolic setting at the bottom of the amphitheater could have been anywhere also compliments of Thom Weaver’s scenic and lighting design.

The actors were superb.  But, there is more to add to the characters and the creative choices they made. This is not to take anything away but to add to the characters. 

Eric Hissom (Philoctetes) developed a strong character with interesting choices but without a definitive objective. If the truth is the through line, he should have been searching for it in a much more creative way.  If it is healing, he does little during the course of the evening to move in that direction. Philoctetes has also been on the island for ten years alone, Hissom should find ways to communicate that to his counterpart(s). The bow is sacred.  It was Heracles bow, (mortal turned God) and the actor did not treat it with much respect during the course of the night, or use it creatively, it seemed more like a crutch than an instrument of respect. In the end one wonders if the pain was in his head, or was used as an instrument to get what he wants.

Lester Purry (Odysseus) has a strong presence, a terrific voice, and a strong manner on stage.  Odysseus must be the wisest of the wise, the strongest of the strong, and every action the root of his intention. He comes to the island to get the bow, but he doesn’t want to do it himself.  Why?  If he is there to see if Niaptoloma can do it, why doesn’t he witness the interplay, or, get satisfaction from it? One guesses that he gets great satisfaction to see others carry out the impossible. But, he is not even around to witness the interplay between characters.  

Kacie Rogers (Niaptoloma) has a very good look, and a strong voice. Rogers creates a character from a person that never existed, Achilles, a Greek Warrior, and a hero of the Trojan War. Originally written as the character Neoptolemus, who is Achilles’s young son. So Rogers is doing creating a character from the ground up. There are more levels to add to this character, one of them being of a definitive strength, both in mind and body.  Also, for Niaptoloma, telling the story seemed to be a conflict of getting the story out, rather than the conflict within herself of telling the truth. 

Run! Run! And take a beast, someone who loves mythology.

Getty Villa
Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater
17985 Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Palisades

Info: (310) 440-7300   


Friday, September 13, 2019

To Dad with Love A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen by Kiki Ebsen and Dustin Ebsen

Kiki Ebsen (on screen L - R Buddy Ebsen, Judy Garland, and Ray Bolger

By Joe Straw

I have pictures of my daughters all over my study. The snapshots are of times remembered and hopes for the future.  After my divorce, I see less of my girls but think about them all the time. I hope it is mutual. Family – Narrator

The last time I saw Buddy Ebsen was back in the 1980’s, after a performance of Talley’s Folly by Lanford Wilson starring Ebsen’s daughter Bonnie Ebsen. (The Pilot Theatre in Hollywood?) I had known Bonnie for some time as we happily studied with the same acting teacher.

Deep in thought about the performance, hands in my pockets, head down, I found myself behind Buddy and his date as we moved east on Theatre Row until a photographer stopped him to take pictures. I stepped behind the cameraman, watched him take a few shots and then moved on into the night.  

Sometime later, I was invited to a dinner party in San Marino with Bonnie as one of the guests.

The conversation at the dining table was polite, mostly about the work, but rarely about family. I don’t remember Bonnie ever mentioning her father Buddy, her sister Kiki, or her brother Dustin. While the evening was lovely, sadly it was a lost opportunity to talk about family, everyone’s family.  

The last time I saw Bonnie was in West Hollywood. We exchanged pleasantries and spoke for a few minutes until she casually mentioned that she just given birth a few weeks earlier.  She was looking fit, and hadn’t lost a step. And, to this day, I still wondered why having the baby was not the first thing she shared in our conversation. Family – Narrator.

To Dad with Love A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen written by Kiki and Dustin Ebsen, starring Kiki Ebsen, and produced by Kiki Ebsen and Steve Wallace for StKi, LLC, through September 22, 2019 is now playing at Theatre West in Los Angeles.

Sometimes, one wants to go to theatre to enjoy the night, the performance, and to accept the performance in whatever shape or form the players have to offer.

To Dad with Love A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen is a wonderful tribute to the man.  But in hindsight, it is much more. Exceptionally directed by S.E. Feinberg, this tribute is an emotional experience and an extraordinary night of theatre.

Kiki Ebsen’s lovely vocals and piano playing are backed by Jeff Colella (piano), Kendall Kay (drums), Kim Richmond (woodwinds) and Granville “Danny” Young (bass). All are incomparable and play into Kiki’s beautiful, sultry, jazzy voice, blending song and story in one glorious night.  Most of the songs she sang are on the CD, The Scarecrow Sessions, and all are beautifully sung.

(Samplings of her songs can be heard here - )

This is, without a doubt, a show you should not miss.  Go for the music, go for the history, or go for the tap dancing.  Take your pick because it is all a powerful night of theatre.  

Steve Wallace’s set design resembles someone’s ranch style home from the saddle far stage right to the piano layered with books, a chest languishes center stage, and stage left offers small sculptured horses on a side table.  

Here are a couple of thoughts for S.E. Feinberg, the director.  First, he is someone I have known as a writer and director since the late seventies, more specifically in 1980, and his creative spirit is alive and well in this production.  

Kiki enters the stage quite unexpectedly and moves toward the chest. Inside are the events of Buddy’s life, photos, scripts, wardrobe, and other accouterments that make up an entertainer’s life, the life’s important moments – of surrender and achievements – that concedes you to the past of her august impressions.

But, the opening, while adequate, could be strengthened. To move center stage and to open the chest necessitates another level of creative spirit – the reason to open the chest – and the need to speak to the audience.

Also, time and place are critical in the opening moments.  Is this the first discovery of the chest after her mother’s death? Is the chest now at the ranch or in Kiki’s current home? 

Whatever happens in the opening moments must be clear to give us a definitive idea of the why this is happening on this night.

Kiki Ebsen and Gregory Gast

The tap dance sequence with Gregory Gast (cast member, choreographer) was both exceptional and emotional.  The moment – the touching of the fingers – brings the father and daughter full circle.  It is in this moment where heart and memories merge, where shadows come to life and end in song.  And it is in the dance where two longing beings connect just, one, more, time.

Kiki, at times, extemporaneously moves away from the book and expresses sincere thoughts, which was wonderfully appealing as was the entire night. We get to know a little more about Buddy, and his relationship with Shirley Temple and Ronald Reagan, his conservative leanings, and the long horse ride back home.

Behind the set are screens used for projecting photos and videos.  Dustin Ebsen wonderfully created the multi-media and special effects for the night.

The Sound Design was by Steve Wallace and was pitch perfect.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Ernest McDaniel – Lighting Design/Stage Manager
Steve Moyer PR – Publicity
Dawn Lee Wakefield/TCV Media – Social Media

All in all, it is rare that one gets to see this much talent in this type of venue and every single bit of it worked.  

Run! Run! Run!  And take your daughter for a lovely night of bonding.

Theatre West
3333 Cahuenga Boulevard West
Los Angeles, CA  90068
Theatre West Box Office at 323-851-7977