Friday, December 31, 2010

The Last Straw Awards

By Joe Straw

By my count I saw over 40 theatrical productions last year and soon it will  be time to present  "The Last Straw Awards" part Deux (2nd Annual) given  to actors for outstanding achievement in theatrical productions in Los Angeles for the year ending December 31, 2010.

This list does not limit itself to leads so if you were a supporting player in a production, please check back in January 2011.

Also, if you were part of an ensemble, you may be eligible.

Thank you for a wonderful year!

I'll see you 2011.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


By Joe Straw

One has to be impressed by walking into Our Lady of Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles. The Cathedral seems to embrace all who seek spiritual enlightenment. It is beautiful and layered with majestically stoned panels rising to the ceiling.

I gathered there to view the spectacle LA VIRGEN DE GUADALUPE, DIOS INANTZIN with four thousand of my other friends. And it is a spectacular play! Put on by the Latino Theatre Group in Spanish with English subtitles, directed by Jose Louis Valenzuela and written by Evelina Fernandez.

This manifestation has a cast of 150 dancers, singers and musicians in glorious feathered costumes of the Aztec Indians and tilmas of those who were converted and colonialized.

Slowly, the audience marches quietly into the Cathedral, men women and children waiting for the moment that takes them away from the distractions of life and places them into the center of the event. They then rejoice in song, Buenos Dias Paloma Blanca, to re-live the moment of December 9th, 1531 on a hill at Tepeyac, near Mexico City, when the peasant Indian Juan Diego sees the vision of The Virgin Mary.

Miracles come in all sizes. The visions that came upon Juan Diego may have been a moment imperceptible to others, but with eyes wide open he is receptive to the vision of a celestial being. And this being the Virgin Mary one knows there is work to be done, a message to be delivered and Juan Diego was instructed to physically carry out that mission. It was a vision to include all into Christianity, whites as well as Indians, Spaniards as well as Aztecs, rich and poor.

I go to see the genius that is Jose Luis Valenzuela and Evelina Fernandez and to watch these two take a production, that is virtually impossible to stage, and against all odds, perform a minor miracle every year.

Also it is a chance to view the remarkable talents of Sal Lopez and a wonderful Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman.

First one has to be supremely inspired by the voice of Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman. It is here in the cathedral that her voice is smooth, melodious, and fills every inch of listening space. The walls cry from the sound taking it and giving it back to the listener. So remarkable the sound one would think it was not live, but a recording, and yet this beautiful voice fills the chambers and one can only think the voice was heavenly inspired.

Sal Lopez does a fantastic job as Juan Diego. He is funny, charming, and serious when the need arises. A regular with the Latino Theatre Group his strength lies in his tenacity.

Also amusing is Fraile Jose, Luis Lopez Aldana, a wonderful friar who happens to get himself into a lot of trouble but manages to find his way out.

The wonderful hardworking cast also includes the characters Juan Bernardino, (Miguel Najera), Arzobispo, (Castulo Guerra), Fraile Martin, (Geoffrey Rivas), Fraile Joaquin (Gabriel Gonzalez), La Criada, (Esperanza Ibarra), Citlali (Lucy Rodriguez), Danza del Aguila Blanca, (Lazaro Arvizu & Jesus Espiricueta), and La Muerte, (Urbanie Lucero).

The fine musicians were Los Hermanos Herrera, Martin Espino, and Christopher Garcia all under the direction of Alfredo Lopez Mondragon.

The angels giving us light, life, and hope were Andrea Zuniga, Olivia Delgado, and Alegria Garcia.

Holding on to their culture were The Aztecs who were Marcus Castain, Carlos Leon, Carlos Barajas and Ray Porras.

Don Garza and Oliver Rayon played the Spaniards.

There were a number of people necessary to create this production, hundreds, and it all seemed to come together on this very successful night.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Blue Room By David Hare

By Joe Straw

The play “Der Reigen” from which David Hare adapted into The Blue Room was so provocative it could not be performed on any stage for many years.  It was done in living rooms, away from the prying eyes of the general theatre going public and the police.  Nevertheless, as progressive as some cities may have been, arrests were made.  People were sent to jail.  Adolph Hitler called it “Jewish filth”.

The play was written in the name of science.  Well, sort of.  Written by Dr. Arthur Schnitzler as an exploration of the profligate sex lives of the Austrian society of that time.  He also wrote this for his own voyeuristic amusement.

Roger Vadim eventually made the play into a film, La Ronde.

And now it is here at the Moth Theatre in Los Angeles directed by John Markland, and Produced by Efrain Schunior, in an intimate space, off an alleyway, away from prying eyes of the police, and in the progressive bohemian section of town. (To date, no arrests have been made.)

It is not so much, the nudity, but the message this play conveys.  It’s not so much the roundness of nude female form, or the flaccid male body parts, but the message it communicates, subtly, and without fault.

The Blue Room pays attention to the connectivity of sexual beings from ordinary people to the aristocrats.  The players communicate in a fashion ultimately to reach a goal.  Their engaging intercourse is wonderfully played out as the audience watches them plow ahead into the unforgiving vortex of infection. 

An earlier time would have suggested syphilis today it is H.I.V.

Breathless is the word to describe that moment when all things change between two sexual beings. The dramatic affect on one’s spirit, that instant connection that draws two people together. And through rough mature dialogue they communicate their instinctual animalistic proclivities. Although each case is different, one finds a similarity in all scenes. It’s as though a moth were being drawn into the flame.    

And like the moth that flutters around a light in all alleyways, two people meet each other in the night: The Cab Driver, Patrick Scott Lewis, and The Girl, Addison Timlin. In this meeting there is an attraction and revulsion all in the same moment and in a heated back and forth they make it in the passageway.  And the outcome is a demand for money.

“Next time, get the money first.” – The Cab Driver.

Unbeknownst to both parties, The Girl gives The Cab Driver a little “special” gift to take with him and he takes that gift to his next encounter with The Au Pair, Lili Bordan.  She is invited to come to his office after being seen dancing in a nightclub.  She is a stunning French woman trying to find a suitable partner but as her luck would have it this night she ends up with The Cab Driver.  She desires a meaningful relationship. His curiosity with her is limited to sex and it takes him only a few moments to slide the dress from her shoulders and move her to the floor.  Still she has hesitations.

Because of the risk.  That’s why.  Why should I risk?  That’s the reason.  It’s not safe nowadays.  I’ll only risk if… - The Au Pair

Later, The Au Pair, at the home where she is employed, has a chance encounter with The Student, Scott Dunn, whom she lives with.  The Student has a lot more than books on his mind when he entices her to come sit next to him on the bed.  The Au Pair is complicit in their relationship.  And with his parents away in the country, it doesn’t take long before these two are having an unmeaningful relationship on the table.

The experienced Student now looks for other conquests and he finds one minutes later in The Married Woman, Pamela Guest.  She, reluctant at first, cannot turn down the opportunity of a young man.  And he, filled with brandy, is experiencing a slight case of erectile dysfunction, which is quickly resolved when The Married Woman takes matters into her own hand.

I didn’t think it happened with young men, that’s all.  I thought it happened with clapped-out older men. – The Married Woman

Later, The satisfied Married Woman, enjoying a moment of contemplation, and reading a good book in bed waits for her husband The Politician, James Mendoza, to come to her.  He speaks of hygiene one moment and in the next moment he is in a hotel lying in wait for The Model, Katharine Towne. 

You taste of pudding. - The Politician

I just have sweet lips. – The Model

Really?  Have men told you that before? – The Politician

The Model, living a life of drug addiction, hands The Politician two pills as a philter for the night, but doesn’t expect to be engulfed by his uncontrollable desires.  He, in turn, rapes her, and picks at her body like a crow plucks at an appealing bag of food.  It is an exceptionally dramatic scene caught by the use of light flashes giving us a glimpse of a life destroyed.

Later, The Model meets up with a self absorbed exuberant The Playwright, Justin Huen. She is entranced by his words and his intelligence even though she doesn’t understand a thing he says and wants something that all models want.  (Note on what models want:  To date no one on the planet has figured that out.) The Playwright wants a subject for future material but most of all he wants her to have an adventure with her. 

But, The Playwright, wanting bigger prey, moves on to The Actress, Alice Fulks, a petulant prima donna, who is a giver and a taker.  She is a woman who can build a man up and then send him crashing to the mat.  She is an enticer, a deceiver, a player and a raconteur and later she uses these devices on The Aristocrat, Jan Milewicz, a man experienced with the finer things in life without having a relationship with a world renown actress.

Whatever the case may be The Aristocrat ends up in bed with The Girl completing the full circle of decadence.

The Moth Theatre has the knack of bringing a lot of very fine talent to their stage.  The actors were fantastic (some more suitable to film than the stage).  At times the dialogue is so quiet one has to strain at times to hear the discourse.

Fulks as The Actress was quite astonishing in this role, so many layers, and very physical in this demanding role.  She has the voice, trained, clear, and able to hit the mark, making her moments both precious and pernicious.

Bordan as The au Pair had a quiet intensity and put up quite a struggle in her quest to enrich her life.  She has an underlying strength in her objective. 

Timlin as The Girl was last seen in The Quarry.  She has a rough exterior but is capable of showing us her heart.

Guest, The Married Woman, was delightful, courageous, funny, ambitious, secretive and selective.  Hers was a enjoyable and courageous performance.

Towne as The Model was perplexing.  It was a role that was characterized by a woman who had a serious drug problem and is possibly raped.  One was not sure why she wanted to be with the politician or why the drug use was crucial to her objective. Whatever the case may be she continues on with life not seriously concerned with what went on in the prior scene.   Aside from that this was a very physical and demanding role.

Lewis, as The Cab Driver, was kind of creepy in a cab driver sort of way but one finds him quite engaging and a wonderful actor.  He is in the moment when he toys with the infection of his desires. A man in his prime and beautiful women to satisfy his sexual tastes.  His enthusiasm at the curtain call was contagious.

Huen, as The Playwright, while engaging needs a stronger and imaginative objective.  Not always clear and precise as this role was meant to be. The reasons why The Model and he are together are not made entirely clear.  The choice of being inebriated leads him nowhere when there are a number of better choices available. Secondly, his forced laughter must have an underlying truth associated with this action, and his objective otherwise it’s just pure folly.  Also, not being clear on his objective had caused this actor to lean into a candle he has just lit, unaware that his shirt could burn in the process. One notices the flame, his shirt, and wishes for his safety, but by that time the dialogue was lost.

Mendoza, as The Politician, created a character that was morose.  Away from the spotlight, maybe this is how politician are, but on stage, probably not a good choice.  He was idealistic with his wife, but not cautious with The Model. (Even Kennedy knew to turn away from the flashing camera when he was spotted with Marilyn Monroe.)

Dunn as The Student tries a little too hard to be controlling.  The moments don’t work perfectly, the conflict not specific, and the objective not clear.  Lost is the idea that he is expecting a lover but has another in his room, now. But he is young and will grow out of this, still there was some very nice work going on.

Milewicz, as The Aristocrat, had a very interesting perspective to his character, worldly and so profoundly intimidated by an actress who is madly in love with him and despises him all in the same breath. His performance rang true but needed more to hold his own. Nevertheless, his was a very good performance.

John Markland, the director of The Blue Room, gambles with the play using video inserts that play on the closed Venetian blinds in the background while the two onstage are having sex. The problem with the video is two fold, it repeats what we in fact have just seen: the maneuvering steps to copulation, and two, all the lights go out and one can barely see what happening on stage or how much time has elapse.  First and foremost the social intercourse was much more engaging, but the gamble of using video was a choice, one may recognize as good or bad, and the director has that right.

Also, there seems to be revisions in the play that affect the relationships on stage, particularly the one between The Student and The Au Pair.  The scene in this version of the play is violent and says nothing about the class distinction, that between master and servant, which would greatly improve the scene.

David Hare has written a wonderful script.  It is exceptional and astonishing.  The dialogue is taut, explicit, and heightens the adult sense of pleasure.  It is every fantasy one could hope to imagine or to play out.  One can gasp at unexpected dialogue or the events unfolding on stage.

Jenna Pletcher, the lighting designer, lights the show, but not being very clever with this limited budget. Both shows seen at the Moth Theatre were very dark. One really needs to see the actors’ faces through adroit lighting. Also, relationships change after sex and the fact the audience can only view glimpses of the act (via a little light) hurts the connection the audience has with the actors.

The Scenic Designer, Benoit Guerin, seems to have had a limited budget needed to build the set he wanted.  Probably a lot of money went in to produce the videos presented on stage.

In any case The Blue Room at the Moth Theatre is a production you should run to see.  Sadly only 12 performances through December 19, 2010.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris

By Joe Straw

Nicholas Brendon has a face you know.   It’s easy to compare him to… nope, not going to do that.  And forget that I’ve seen him in Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them by Christopher Durang this goes back farther than that.  It's a face with which one can relate. It is easy for him to communicate without dialogue. Just sit back and watch, he'll do the work. (And he does.)  

And it is this face that takes us through the imprisoned thoughts of a writer, doing time at Macy’s, in the cold dead winter of New York City. 

The Blank Theatre Company, Daniel Henning, Founding Artistic Director and Noah Wyle Artistic Producer presents Nicholas Brendon in The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, adapted by Joe Mantello, and directed by Michael Matthews at the Stella Adler Theatre, “darling.”

Just in time, when we just couldn’t get enough of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and tofurkey.  If one is having a bout of depression this holiday season this might be the trick to pump oneself up for the coming holiday festivities!  And one can’t think of a better thing to do than to see Nicholas Brendon running around all night long in an elf costume:  complete with curled toed shoes in Satanland, opps, Santaland through December 19, 2010.

First of all one has to get this out of the way, Brendon is a tall man, about 6 feet, in his stocking feet.  David Sedaris is 5 feet two inches, with lifts.  (Okay, so maybe it’s a slight exaggeration.) One could look at Sedaris and think “elf”.  One looks at Brendon and the thought process might be as follows:   “against type, non elf like beard growth, it could work, a little bigger Crumpet than expected, I have no problem with this. Let’s run with this!  Let's get on this sleigh, look funny, and enjoy the ride.”

This a story about a writer, Sedaris, fresh off the boat, in New York City trying to write for the soap opera One Life to The Guiding Light in A General Hospital as The World vomits,  (No comments, please.) when he comes across an ad for a job as an elf in Macy’s at Herald Square.

“Would you be interested in full-time elf or evening and weekend elf?”

Not to be cut off with a polite “thank you”, Sedaris opts for the full-time elf and is spirited away to lollygag with the Macy’s family of Santas and elves.  He adopts the name Crumpet.

But there a problem, Sedaris has a hard time getting himself into a happy elf mode (as well as his costume). In any case, it’s a great opportunity to put those misunderstandings in a diary from pen to paper.  After all, one doesn’t get a job like this and not pay attention to the finer details of one’s co-workers characterizations. Sedaris takes a look at the specifics of human frailties and faults and maximizes them on paper to the “nth” degree. 

“You poor, pathetic son of a bitch. I don’t know what you have but I hope I never catch it.”
The story goes something like this.  Man is hungry eating soup in a restaurant and looking for work in the want ads.  Man finds job as elf.  Elf, not good at math and finding the work overwhelming, tries to ease into the job.  Elf finds out his co-workers of Santas and elves are the emotional have-nots in society. Elf falls in love with another elf, Snowball, only to have his heart broken.

“Snowball just leads elves on, elves and Santas. He is playing a dangerous game." 

And then Crumpet has to deal with the “evil customers”. It is amazing what parent will say to an Elf to make their child behave, Crumpet gladly obliges. Being pushed by customers can lead an elf to a life of crime.  And, in hindsight, it’s amazing how the wrong things said to a child can ruin their life forever. 

Brendon is really working the room as Sedaris and for the most part has everyone in stitches. He has the ability to change into multiple personalities, from a master sergeant veteran elf leading in a moral boosting chant, to a costumer with a gravely voice that smokes from a hole in her throat, to the various Santas, and the various elves.  There is an extreme focus in Brendon’s work, a concentration so intimate and so playful the audience breathes with him.  The sweat pours off him as the result of the thick polyester itchy and scratchy elf costume, the tights, and the curled uncomfortable shoes all making this a heated spectacle to behold.

“Crystal has third-degree burns covering… 90% of her body.”

Michael Matthews, the director, is very imaginative and there are a lot of clever things in this production. But there are a few minor problems that need solving. There is a point where Sedaris is sad but this sadness does not take us anywhere.  Sadness is a breathless exhaustive state of being without an action to guide the character to another point in the story.   And in particular when one is on stage, alone, being sad, well, it doesn’t work. Still they’re a lot of good things to be said of Mr. Matthews’s direction. 

Missing was the innocuous music that plays in all department stores. 

Nevertheless, there were some very nice moments under the red light that gives the audience a time frame of the coming disaster, Christmas. But, look, its called The Santaland Diaries and without this idea of diary running through the show, this becomes a show of visual vignettes rather than the idea of listening to the morbid thoughts of a man during his most ridiculous self.

A note in Wikipedia suggests this is downtown standup and not a play.  Maybe so.  The adaptation by Joe Mantello has a hard time working as a play but works in vignettes and for that reason all may enjoy the ride.  

But, look, if the adaptation means turning this into a play, why not go all the way with this?  You’ve got the nice set by Kurt Boetcher, nice costume design by Michael Mullen.  It’s a play!  A play!

"My co-workers are caught in the same predicament as me.  Some are actually quite bright including the Santa's."

With all the biting and clawing and maneuvering for position in these vignettes there is a sincerity here that I've been missing (for a few holiday seasons) that touches the heart and that’s what I like to see in a Christmas story.   It’s an incomprehensible loving truth.  It is welcomed. And it is heartfelt. 

The Blank Theatre Company is a tremendous organization, a wonderful space, and opening itself to become a regional theatre.  There’s two dollar parking.  Go have yourself a great time at The Santaland Diaries in Hollywood.