Monday, June 20, 2011

Tartuffe (or The Hypocrite) by Jean-Baptiste Moliere, adapted by Ellen Geer

By Joe Straw

Driving up Topanga Canyon Road at a leisurely pace and with fourteen cars behind me I  wonder if I should step on the gas so that actors can get to where they need to be on time.  And then there are these other thoughts:  What if I increased my speed and that caused me to slam the car into the rails and over the cliff.   What is the weight of the car?  Going x amount per hours?  How would the rails hold?  Or would they?  What is the speed in which the car jumps the rail and down the embankment producing a fiery ball of human flesh?

But then I remember, this is Topanga Canyon and it’s okay to drive leisurely here (for me).  Let the other people (actors) worry about their time management. Just relax and take the curbs like a man who’s not in a hurry. 

Then, the city starts falling away from the subconscious thoughts along with the worries.  Moments later come the good thoughts, along with the clean air, and the fourteen cars turn into two. I feel warm. 

Tartuffe by Jean-Basptiste Moliere and adapted by Ellen Geer is a wonderful production now playing in repertory at Theatrical Botanicum.   This particular production includes 10 original songs written by Ellen Geer.  Take a bottle of your refreshing beverage of choice, bring something warm to wear, something to sit on, and marvel at this troupe of accomplished actors in this wonderful setting.

Theatricum Botanicum is one of my favorite theatres in town.  It is a small trip away from the madness that is Los Angeles but well worth it and one is sure the blood pressure drops 10 to 20 points.

Tartuffe is slightly altered as the Cleante (Alan Blumenfeld) introduces the King (one of the audience members) and thanks him for allowing the play to continue in spite of an outcry from the Catholic Church, particularly the Arch Bishop of Paris.

In this version, and in Morning Prayer, Tartuffe (Aaron Hendry) as the priest is introduced laying his hands on his flock of sheep (parishioners) and driving out the demons.  It is a remarkable moment that gives us an understanding of the character that is Tartuffe, a man so in touch with the heavenly spirit that no man can compare with his teachings.  He walks, hand in hand, with God bowing his head in humble servitude.  (Or is that just the way he walks?) 

Madame Pernelle (Katherine Griffith), the matriarch, is angry with her family.  She is a firm believer in Tartuffe.  She is old and one might suspect she is “nearer to God than thee” and she accepts the manifestation and teachings that is Tartuffe.

Unfortunately, no one in the room agrees with her.  Elmire (Misha Bouvion) her daughter in law, Damis (Daniel Billet) her grandson, Marianne (Joanna Bateman) her granddaughter all think he is an imposter. 

Your Monsieur Tartuffe is a blessed soul, no doubt – Damis 

He is a good man, and should be listened to; I can’t bear, with patience to hear him cavilled at by such a fool as you – Mme Pernelle

Even the maid Dorine (Willow Geer) has some choice words about Tartuffe.

He passes for a saint in your imagination; but believe me, all he does is nothing but hypocrisy. – Dorine

Can a man love another man the way Orgon (Ted Barton) loves Tartuffe? Cleante thinks it is unnatural and he is his brother-in-law and the intelligent voice of reason in this play.   He tries to talk some sense into this little silly man.  But, then he discovers that Orgon wants Tartuffe into the family and wants Tartuffe to marry his daughter Mariane.  Cleante says that she has been promised to another.

Mariane has her sights on Valere (Jackson McCord Thompson) if they could just get along for more than two seconds.  But, together in the room, they test their love for each other in devilish ways. (Their conflict from young love is a joy to watch.)

Tartuffe will accept Orgon’s daughter for his wife but he has his eye on another, Elmire, Orgon’s wife. (Isn’t this all so French!) And while Tartuffe is playing around with another man’s wife, Orgon’s son Damis finds him out!

Damis informs Orgon of Tartuffe’s hypocrisy and Orgon summarily throws him out of the house.

Get you out of my house this minute, and never dare to set foot into it again. – Orgon

Yes, I shall go, but- Damis

Quickly, then leave the place; sirrah, I disinherit thee, and give thee my curse besides. To offend a holy person in such a manner!  - Orgon

Ted Barton as Orgon does an amazing job. He is so aroused by conflict that his face turns bright red, almost like a radish.  He is so caught up in the man that is Tartuffe no one can talk sense into him. It is a very fine performance and a wonderful job and funny as funny can be.

Aaron Hendry as Tartuffe likewise gives an astonishing performance. From the moment he steps onto the stage to the moment he leaves. It is a performance filled with hypocrisy, seen or not seen by the other characters.  Crying one moment and laughing the next rolling around on the floor, begging for forgiveness, saving people all in the span of a few moments.  He is woeful, lecherous, forgiving, monstrous and self-righteous.  It is a performance to absorb and certainly not one to miss this season. 

Joanna Bateman as Marianne is a gifted actress.  Wonderful to observe and takes each moment in stride.  Her father, and her fiancĂ© pull Marianne, the character, in many directions, and with help from others she manages to overcome the many obstacles facing her.  Bateman has many incredible moments where one just falls for her predicament. It is a wonderful performance and a perfect fit for her.

Misha Bouvion as Elmire is very funny fighting off Tartuffe not once but many times. Her moments with Tartuffe on stage are captivating particularly with her husband, Orgon on stage, under the table.  Fighting a fever has no comparisons as fighting off a man with a mission.  Bouvion’s performance was delightful. 

Alan Blumenfeld as Cleante seems to be the voice of logic in this play.  He takes his turn meeting with all of the participants for wise counsel but as wise as his advice is they seem to ignore him with the flip of a handkerchief.  One is not sure how this affected Cleante as the actor who seemed to be so mild mannered and take things in stride in comparison to the hot heads that surround him. One is not exactly sure if his objective was achieved.  Still, it is a very nice performance by a wonderful actor.

Willow Geer as Dorine is a very physical actress.  A true professional that hits her marks and makes waste of the nonsense around her.  Her character, the maid, is the voice of reason and all seem to take her advice, but Tartuffe is in the way and he is an obstacle she must overcome to make sure things happen her way.  She gave a very nice performance.

Katherine Griffith as Madame Pernelle was very funny.  One suspects that her allegiance to Tartuffe is because she is nearing the end of her life and who better to be in support of than the person she perceives will open the doors to the pearly gates.  Nicely done!

Jackson McCord Thompson as Valere was fantastic.  The role is a very nice character study.  All this posturing reminded one of an ostrich with his head out of the sand and not knowing where to turn to next.  He takes his love seriously and he will have this woman. This is an outstanding performance with an actor that knows his craft.

Daniel Billet as Damis was practically the spitting image of his father Orgon.  He was a little bit more of a hot head than his father and willing to verbally lash out at Tartuffe. 

Also included were a very effective supporting cast.  The servants with the nice voices were:  Kelly Derouin, Leah Gutentag and Sydney Blair.

Bill Durham nicely played M. Loyal.  Liz Eldrige as Flipote was quite good and William Reinbold played the police officer that was instrumental in bringing Tartuffe to his knees. 

Cody T. Gillette played Laurent not particularly well but did a very good job as the Music Arranger and Keyboardist.

Ellen Geer does a remarkable job directing this work.  Her actors all hit the right moments and the play moves along at a very nice pace.  Also, the show is a very physical presentation and effectively unique.  The 10 songs are melodious but slightly less effective in moving the play along.  But, it is all nicely done. A great show and in repertory all summer long. (Note to Ellen:  It's a wonderful show!  You did a great job!) 

Run to see this production and take your priest or minister!  The both of you will laugh the night away.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to the Forum – Book by Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart – Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

By Joe Straw

"I met a charming man at Theatre Palisades.  Plagued by a multitude of problems and in a raspy voice he said he would be 108 years old in three days, two hours, and forty-seven minutes. Although failing in health he was as sharp as a tack.  He said he hadn't smiled in twenty years and was looking for something in this musical he had lost long ago. (Women of Rome breathlessly moving around in togas, perhaps.)

One cannot imagine not smiling for 20 years. And one could not help but feel sympathetic to this poor arthritic gentleman, pushed in a wheelchair by his Filipino nurse, dragging along an oxygen tank connected to tubes that were inserted into his nostrils.  Still, the best one could do was to wish him a pleasant time with his viewing experience in the hopes that maybe he would find something in this musical that would make him smile"

 - The Lying Narrator. 

I’ve driven by Theatre Palisades on Temescal Canyon Road a number of times and never knew it was there.  There’s plenty of parking and it’s a very nice space for a community theatre.

Playing now at Theatre Palisades is A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, book by Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, June 3 – July 10, 2011, directed by Scott Martin, and produced by Shirley Churgin & Andrew Frew.

There is a lot to smile about in this version of Forum but there are some things that get a polite hmmm.   The acting is above par, as are the costumes.  The courtesans are way above par, but the men’s lust slightly below par. It is an interesting mixture of lost expectations, elation, deflation, contagion, and exasperations.  But, most importantly, it was a lot of fun. 

The play starts with the germ of an idea: a slave wants to get his freedom.  But it is also the crux of this musical. To achieve freedom, freedom from slavery, freedom from parents, freedom from spouses, etc., a simple and effective through line.   

Pseudolus (Travis Dixon) is a slave to Hero (Zach Kaufer) who is the son to Senex (Bradley Kesden) and his wife Domina  (Gail Writh).

Hysterium (Frank Weidner) is slave to Senex and Domina.  Hysterium grovels at the skirt of Domina. And Domina acts as though he doesn’t exist.  Outward appearances may accept that but deep down inside and behind closed doors she is full of lust to those who kiss her robe and he is a cater-cousin to her physical desires.  

And in this degrading section of Rome, lust, poverty and wretchedness appear on every doorstep.  Sad but true. 

Next door sits the house of Marcus Lycus (Nathaniel Mathis) a hip swinging buyer and seller of courtesans.  He offers a brief respite to those who are unhappy with their current sexual state of affairs. 

But wait, what is that young virginal creature that longingly gazes out the window, combs her hair, and drops the remains of her golden locks (once caught in the teeth of her brush) to the ground? It is none other than Philia (Kristin Towers-Rowles) a (eh hem) virgin.

It is a love that is caught in one compassionate moment.  Hero must have this lovely creature, to hold, caress, and other things.  But, the only way he can get her is to get into the House of Lycus and negotiate.  He is too young, so he must ask Pseudolus, his slave, to get her with his money. But here lies the conflict because Pseudolus wants his freedom and Hero is a little hesitant about granting those wishes.   Hero relents.  

Meanwhile Hero’s parents journey to visit relatives or rekindle the relationship and they order Hysteria to look after their son, Hero.

While the parents are away Pseudolus, acting like a free man, negotiates with Lycus for the virgin.  Lycus parades the courtesans outside his den on inequity, Tintinabula (Melanie Ball), Panacea (Nicole Thordsen), Vibrata (Brittany Hooper) The Geminae (Robin Jones and Becky Jones) and the eye-catching, complete with high heels and legs up to … (slow down) Gymnasia (Erin Beck).  And wouldn’t you know it, the one woman not available is the virgin who has been promised to Captain Miles Gloriousus (Luis Ordaz).

Sensing his freedom is a lost cause; Pseudolus devises a plan to lure Philia away from the house of Lycus and into the arms of Hero.  To do this he tells Lycus that Philia has contracted the plague from Crete and is now showing the first signs of the unspeakable contagion, which is a smile. 

Lycus, sensing a Roman tradegy of terrifying proportions, has Pseudolus take guardianship of Philia and places her into Hero’s house where they fall in love.  But the confused virgin bound by the rule of virgin law must stick to her word.  She tells Hero that she is promised to the Captain. 

Oh boy.  (Leave it to a virgin!)

Undeterred they tell her to stay in Senex house until she hears “three knocks” on the door.  Having a difficult time counting that high, she agrees.

Meanwhile Senex comes back home to find Philia in his house.  Philia, in true virgin fashion, mistakes him for the captain and offers herself to him. (Spoken like a “needy” virgin.)  Hysteria comes upon them and tells Senex she’s the new maid!

“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”

Later Miles Glorious enters looking for his new virgin bride and that is when the fun starts.

There’s a lot to say of this production, mostly good, some not so good.  All of the voices were nice, a couple of notches above community theatre and there’s a lot of nice energy in the room.

Travis Dixon as Pseudolus was engaging.  Lost during the mayhem on stage was his objective, which was his freedom.  And one is not sure if the objective was achieved in the end. Dixon was physically clever, a great storyteller, and practically gets what he wants.  Missing were the moments where he doesn’t seem to get what he wants, is defeated, and must redeem himself to get back into the good graces to those who would help him reach his objective.

Zach Kaufer as Hero was a little more virginal than the virgin herself.  Wide-eyed and a slightly confused character, Kaufer seemed to hit all the right notes. Still, he is the master.  And young or not he should control Pseudolus.  He should try a little harder to get what he wants.  And he should develop a stronger relationship with his mother, father, and slave. 

Bradely Kesden as Senex has a very nice look about him.  He was relaxed and comfortable on stage, perhaps too comfortable. Missed cues forced him to come out of character a couple of times and interact with the audience.   Although it seems he was covering a mistake, possibly a better idea would be to take that moment to strengthen the relationship between himself and his son. After all, the relationships works better if there is a stronger competition for the hand of Philia.

Kristin Towers-Rowles as Philia, the virgin courtesan who has trouble counting to three, has a unique persona and an extraordinary ability to milk every moment on stage.  Her comic timing was spot on and sincere. But can the character be so dumb (for lack of a better word) that she doesn’t know which man she wants to spend the rest of her life with? Certainly Philia must size up each man, take him for what he is worth, and then make the decision (which must be a strenuous task given the character’s mental faculties).  A very nice performance and a very nice voice.

Frank Weidner as Hysterium was in a state of panic the whole night and one is not sure of his objective.  There was no place to go with this hysteria.  His choices need to be clear and simple, but imaginative as well.  Yes, he was funny.  But in the long run, funny doesn’t get him what he wants.   Having a clear objective, moving with that truth in mind, will only translate into funny. 

Gail Wirth as Domina was quite capable but not really sure what she wanted.  Certainly she is a little frustrated with her husband, which translates into a snear that was hard to forget and doesn’t take her anywhere.  Her relationship with her son was absent.  Her relationship with her new daughter-to-be not tangible.  Certainly she has to compete with the younger nubile toga wearing Roman ladies on stage and she can’t do this with a fake nose to beautify herself when no one recognizes this strange thing on her proboscis.  But in the end was she successful?  Well, in the end, she got her man which one believes is what she wanted.

Luis Ordaz as Miles Gloriosus had a lot going for him.  Towering above the rest of the cast one could imagine him as being a ferocious fighter for the Roman army. He has a very interesting look as though he stepped out of an Italian Hercules film of the sixties.  He also had a very nice comic timing and was delightful to watch.  His bio was left blank in the program and his photo looked like it was taken from the DMV.  That aside, he was wonderful in the role.

Jim Witoszynski as the Protean was quite clever and had a different look in each of the character he portrayed. Nicely done.  Also Jose Acain as another Protean was effective in the role and did some very nice things.

Richard Little as Erronius runs around the Seven Hills of Rome and has his children stolen when they were infants.  He plays a significant role in the successful conclusion of the musical.  As the character he must not lose sight of stopping the search for his children.

Nathaniel Mathis as Marcus Lycus had an interesting characterization. Not sure if it worked or not. One thinks in order for the role to work he needs to take extreme pride in his product and this will ensure that the other things will fall into place.

And the products of Marcus Lycus were Melanie Ball as Tintinabula, Becky Jones and Robin Jones as Geminae, Nicole Thordsen as Panacea and Brittany Hopper as Vibrata all were delightful and gave the audience the flavor of nasty Roman decadence. Also Erin Beck as Gymnasia was masterful in her portrayal.  She has a very nice look and her objective was clear.  Nice job. 

Scott Martin, the director, did a nice job of putting all this together. The musical will only get better when things start settling down and the relationships develop into something that is more cohesive.   Still, there were some fantastic numbers: Comedy Tonight, Everybody Ought To Have a Maid, Bring Me My Bride were very successful and Pretty Little Picture less so.    

The music directed by Brian Murphy was enjoyable from start to finish.  Brian Murphy, the conductor, and on piano, Phil Moore on reeds, and John Harvey on drums only prove you don’t need a twelve piece orchestra to be successful. 

“I looked over to the old man during the Gymnasia and Pseudolus scene, he broke a faint smiled and I knew he found what he was searching for. “

- The Lying Narrator

Pierson Playhouse
Pacific Palisades, California