Monday, January 30, 2012

No Good Deed by Matt Pelfrey

By Joe Straw

Furious Theatre Company presents No Good Deed by Matt Pelfrey and directed by Damaso Rodriguez, is having its world premiere at Inside the Ford in Hollywood through February 4th, 2012.

The press release suggests that this gritty play is “part theater and part graphic novel”.  I thought this was a fantastic idea. A smaller, west-coast version of Spiderman with graphics and battles of good against evil seemed promising.  On paper, this looks great, in reality; I’ll let theatergoers decide for themselves.

The Furious Theatre Company has issued a #1 Hellbound Heroes comic by Matt Pelfrey and Ben Matsuya that is graphically just fantastic.

And in this medium, one can turn a dead person into a superhero if they fit these criteria.

First, an ordinary person dramatically saves a life.  Second, he gets notoriety. Third he dies a horrible death.  These are the prerequisites for becoming a Hellbound Hero.   Mysteriously, they are brought back to life by an evil figure who breathes super-hero life into them.

The play opens with a conglomerate of media personnel reporting on the death of Josh Jaxon (Nick Cernoch) who earlier had bravely saved a girl from certain death by a vagrant (Dana Kelly, Jr.). We travel back in time to find out the backstory.

Josh Jaxon (Nick Cernoch) is a very creative graphic artist who is harangued by his friend Bandon (Danny Lacy) into drawing bigger boobs on the women of the artwork for his pure bedroom enjoyment.  Brandon is paying good money to have the boobs just right. There are some creative differences but Josh complies. 

Both are infatuated with Danielle (Katie Marie Davies), a pretty schoolmate.  She discards Brandon and takes a liking to Josh. 

And just as Josh thinks love and happiness are around the corner, he is accosted by two football players Drew (David C. Hernandez) and Kyle (Adam Critchlow) and beaten senseless.   They push his face into the toilet.  

But coming to his rescue is Hellbound Hero (Robert Pescovits) who takes on the football players, ripping the heart out of Guy and frying Drew’s eyeballs out of his sockets. Behind the players are graphic representations of the action being performed on stage. It is fun.

Josh’s situation at home is much dire.  His poverty stricken stepfather, Ron (Robert Percovitz), sits on the couch all day long with a bad back while his mother, Linda (Johanna McKay), is the breadwinner of the family.  Ron accuses Josh of stealing his pain medication, which Josh denies.  Linda loves her son but wants them all to get along.

Josh gets out of the house to be with Brandon to partake in a little decadence, Brandon choose a cheap wine as his drug of choice but Josh inhales a dangerous aerosol.  In the distance, Josh hears a cry for help and runs to find Danielle threatened by a vagrant with a knife.  When Josh orders him to back off, the knife-wielding assailant comes after him.  After a fight, Josh bashes the vagrant’s skull in until he is just a stain in the alleyway.

When the Media Vultures find out about his heroic deed, Josh is invited onto every talk show in town. One of those shows is the Poppy Show (Johanna McKay).  She introduces three guests.  A fireman (Shawn Lee) who is responsible for pulling a baby out of a well.  A security guard (Troy Metcalf) who is the man responsible for saving a lot of people by discovering an explosive device in a theme park. And Josh who has saved the young girl’s life.

“If it wasn’t for you, that girl would have been dead or much, much, worse.” – Talk Show Host  

With all the money he makes appearing on Letterman (Robert Pescovitz) and Leno (Brian Danner), Josh buys his mother a car.  It is something his stepfather doesn’t like and they get into a tussle. Josh leaves the house and tries to stay with his friend.  But Brandon lives in a nice home with two loving parents and he doesn’t want to get involved.

That’s when the roof starts caving in on our heroes.  The media attention is overwhelming, the press discredits them, and people start questioning their motives. The Security Guard commits suicide.

There are a lot of good things to be said about Damaso Rodriguez’s direction and Matt Pelfrey’s play.  There is a sincere message about how the media builds and worships heroes and then tears them down. 

Judicious editing would make the play more focused. The director might concentrate into turning his ideas into something more concrete. For instance, Hellbound Hero mysteriously appears and disappears without giving the audience a clue as to his actions and his reason for being.  

Drop the second news-reporting segment.  We’ve seen it once and we don’t need to see it again. Also, make the first one graphically intriguing and understandable.  To have them speaking all at the same time is confusing for the audience.

The graphic illustrations by Ben Matsuya are incredible.  

Nick Cernoch as Josh Jaxon does some nice things.  This is a physically demanding role in which Cernoch get beaten up quite a bit.  It’s not clear if the super hero stuff worked since I don’t know what his super power was all about.

Shawn Lee as the Fireman also had some nice things.  I like the idea that his axe was his instrument of his superpower.  Thor has a hammer, Lee’s got an axe.  Okay, I’ll buy that.

Troy Metcalf as Danny Diamond and Security Guard did a nice job. Again I’m not sure what his super power was about.

Katie Marie Davies as Danielle was effective.  It’s unclear what she was doing out late at night, in an alleyway, on a bed, under the knife of a vagrant.

Robert Perscovitz had a variety of rolls. One of them was Letterman which was nice but went on too long.  He played Ron, Josh’s stepfather and was pretty sinister in a comic book way.

Johanna McKay has a strong voice and was pleasing as both Linda, Josh’s mom, and the talk show host.  She was delightful in both roles.

Dana Kelly, Jr. has a very nice voice and played a number of characters, Media Vulture 2, Pruitt, Lawyer, Vagrant and Senator. He had a lot of costume changes and he is in all sense of the word a trouper.

Danny Lacy as Brandon has a good look about him.  He was very effective as Josh’s friend.  His emotional commitment and his backstory were very effective.

Stefanie Demetriades as Media Vulture 1 was a typical broadcaster.  They are the reasons I don’t watch television anymore.   Still, she did a fine job.

Adam Critchlow plays Kyle and has a nice fight scene with Josh.

David C. Hernandez plays Drew and was also involved in the fight.

Brian Danner played the Media Vulture 3, Leno, Krank, Paul, Guy, and was the Fight Choreography.  The fight scenes were very well done.

All Thursday performances are Pay-What-You-Can and at those prices I suggest you run down and get your tickets. And bring a adult friend who loves comic books!

Parking is free!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Our Town by Thornton Wilder

By Joe Straw

Walking into The Broad Theatre, one notices all the seats are gone.  Scenic Designer Stephen Dobay has placed them underneath a huge thrust stage.

At first glance, the setting looks like a gymnasium, a small basketball court of a small town and what a perfect way to showcase this production in a venue that is almost familiar to everyone.  This setting exemplifies the place of our first recital; our first basketball game, the sock hop, our Christmas pageant, and the place our parents got teary eyed watching us perform. And, for some odd reason, I felt right at home.  And then…

 “The name of the town is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire-just across the Massachusetts line:  latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes…The day is May 7, 1901.  This time is just before dawn. The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mount’in. The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, - doesn’t it?” – Thornton Wilder

Helen Hunt takes the stage with extraordinary confidence one cannot imagine.  Her words as the Stage Manager leave you breathless, the imagery is specific, and her movements are concise without a misstep.  She takes little time in taking us back to images of a long forgotten past.  

And those images are a bleb that encapsulates a small part of the world we know as Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire.

One feels a sense of pride watching this play, and with my head held erect, my chin lowered, my eyes looking forward, I take a deep breath, and I absorb all that this play is willing to give. It is a magnificent play where one yearns for the words. And slowly the words of that forgotten place become blurred images that become crystal clear as the play progresses.  

Our Town, a play by Thornton Wilder, starring Helen Hunt and directed by David Cromer at The Broad Stage, is a miraculous achievement.  So much so that it is, literally, difficult to leave.  You sit after taking in every moment, and at the end of it wondering if it possible to leave this warm place for the cool chill of the Santa Monica air.

Cromer, the director, hits all the right notes, taking the precise path, never wasting a minute of our time, and keeping a tight focus on what needs to be said.  The ending is quite marvelous and the olfactory stimulations send you home in a state of enlightenment and with a light heart. This production is beautiful beyond comprehension.

As the morning begins, Mrs. Gibbs (Lori Myers) and Mrs. Webb (Kati Brazda) work to keep their households running.  Never in competition, they work their families with the approach of a loud monarchy.

A tired Doc Gibbs (Jeff Still) comes home after working through the wee small hours in “Polish Town,” delivering a set of twins. But he is never too busy to speak with the paperboy, Joe Crowell Jr. (Coby Getzug), and the milkman, Howie Newsome (Maximilian Asinski). 

“I do wish I could get you to go away someplace and take a rest. I think it would do you good.” – Mrs. Gibbs

Not satisfied with her present situation, Mrs. Gibbs wants her life to be better but most of all she wants those darn kids, George Gibbs (James McMenamin) and Rebecca Gibbs (Ronete Levenson), to get up and eat the breakfast that she has lovingly prepared!  

But fifteen-year-old George Gibbs has got only one thing on his mind, baseball. Okay, so, maybe two things.

Mrs. Webb has similar struggles with her children, Emily Webb (Jennifer Grace) and Wally Webb (Daniel David Stewart). She scolds Wally because he’s reading a book at the breakfast table.

“You know the rule’s well as I do – no books at table.  As for me, I’d rather have my children healthy than bright.” – Mrs. Webb.

After sending the kids off to school, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibb get together to prepare string beans for the winter and discuss how they can make their lives better. There is a trick to string beans of that era.  You break off one end and pull the string down.  Then you break the other end and pull the string down the other side.  Throwing the ends for use in compost.

“Y’know, Myrtle, it’s been the dream of my life to see Paris, France.” – Mrs. Gibbs  

But Doc Gibbs doesn’t want to go traipsing off to France.  He is right at home in Gettysburg.  He is, in fact, a dissatisfied doctor who is also a living, breathing, historian of the Civil War. He takes a two-week trip each year to visit the battlefields but Mrs. Gibbs doesn’t think this is much of a vacation.

And just as we are to get into the most intimate details of their worried lives, the Stage Manager interrupts to introduce Professor Willard (David LM McIntyre) to provide a history lesson about Grover’s Corners. In fact, it’s too much information.  But he’s more than happy to impart his knowledge and not stop talking until the Stage Manager introduces Mr. Webb, the editor, who is stuck back stage for a moment that seems to last forever.

“All males vote at the age of twenty-one.  Women vote indirect.” - Mr. Webb

If those words don’t knock you back to 1901, nothing will. Just one more layer to set you smack dab in the middle of Grover’s Corner.

“My, isn’t the moonlight terrible?” - Emily

And, as life continues, George and Emily find they have something in common and their relationship continues to grow.

“This is the way we were:  in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.” – The Stage Manager

Later Simon Stimson (Jonathan Mastro), the inebriated disgruntled choir director, directs the overly loud choir as George and Emily find a way to get closer through the window of their second story homes.

Love finds a way.  It always does.   

And as Mrs. Soames (Donna Jay Fulks) and Mrs. Gibbs gossip about Simon Stimson, their husbands are pacing the floors at home wondering what they are up to.

“You think we’d been to a dance the way the menfolk carry on.” – Mrs. Soames

Neither likes the idea of their wives doing God-knows-what on a night like this.

And as the day comes to a close, Mr. Webb, closing shop, runs into Constable Warren, and tries to pry information, more grist for the mill, his newspaper.  He is very curious and also wants to know if his son Wally is smoking cigarettes. 

And when Mr. Webb gets home…

“Why aren’t you in bed?” – Mr. Webb

“I don’t know.  I just can sleep yet, Papa.  The moonlight’s so won-derful. – Emily

Makes you wonder if she talking about the moon or George.

I haven’t stop thinking about this production.  It is marvelous in so many ways.

Helen Hunt is a true professional of stage and screen.  As the Stage Manager, she is marvelous to watch and her technique is flawless.  Her concentration is spot on and her commitment to the truth is evident. She captures each moment with an emotional dedication that has her running from one end of the stage to the other. This is a magnificent performance that should not be missed.  

Lori Myers as Mrs. Gibbs is marvelous in that she wants more from her marital relationship. She is a very strong woman who wants the best for her family but in the end, her desires are not met even though she certainly tries.

Kati Brazda as Mrs. Webb does her best to keep the kids on the right path.  The ending is just marvelous, as she, performing in shadow, loves her children in the best way she knows how. She does not emotionally indulge her kids and it is a marvelous characterization.

Jeff Still as Doc Gibbs is a very soothing character.  He is stern when he wants to be but is an ideal nurturing father one could only want.  He scolds George one moment and gives him a raise all in the same breath. This is a marvelous performance.

James McMenamin as George Gibbs has many nice moments.  One is at the breakfast table when his father is giving him a strong lecture about chopping wood.  The other is having his sister sit on his lap and not knowing where to put his hands.

Jennifer Grace as Emily Webb also has remarkable moments.  She allows George to carry her books and, as her ponytail bobs back and forth, she stops to tell him how “stuck up” he is.  She is slightly confused about love and forthright in her approach to such matters. Her characterizations are delightful.   

Daniel David Stewart as Wally Webb has quite a presence.  His entrance in the last act is shocking because it is unexpected.  And as he sits silently, stoic in manner, in his Boy Scout uniform, he seems proud that this is the last image you will see.  This was a marvelous performance.

David LM McIntyre as the befuddled Professor Willard had an interesting characterization.  He was pleasant but his voice was not booming as college professors are supposed to be.  Maybe it was just the sound problem this particular night.

Tim Curtis as Editor Webb had some marvelous moments especially at the breakfast table giving George advice on the morning of George’s wedding to his daughter. Just that long lasting moment before he speaks to George is worth the price of admission.

Ronete Levenson as Rebecca Gibbs was quite delightful.  Her character is never at a loss for words and very imaginative.  She is the rumble in the room, the constant noise, which feeds in intensity as she goes off to school.  She is the quiet you hear when she leaves the room and she is the smile on one’s face moments after that has happened.  

Jonathan Mastro as Simon Stimson—the choir director is marvelous.  He is focused and makes his point. There is a moment where he stands not saying a word waiting for someone to take care of him.  It is a marvelous moment.  Also, he does a fine job as the musical director of this production and does some really fine work with the choir.

Donna Jay Fulks as Mrs. Soames is very funny as the gossipy neighbor and equally funny in the marriage scene.

Maximillian Osinski as Howie Newsome does a fine job as the milkman though there seems to be something missing from his character since his wife doesn’t want to be seen with him. Also, it seems his relationship with his customers Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs could have added an additional element.  Still his work was fine.

Coby Cetzug as Joe Crowell, Jr. and Nicholas R. Grava as Si Crowell are the paperboy who are always happy to give anyone information they desire.  They are watched over as the village of Grover’s Corner watches over their children.

Matthew Kimbrough as Constable Warren seems to fit the profile of a modern day constable. It was a nice performance in need of another characterization to fill out the role.

Jeffrey Hutchinson as Joe Stoddard the undertaker and Nathan Dame as Sam Craig fill in some of the small details in the graveyard scene in Act Three.  In it, the living talk about the dying as though it would never happen to them. 

Dana Jacks, Elizabeth Audley, Lesley Fera, and Lisa Goodman are part of the choir that sings beautifully. 

Jonathan Edwards plays Mr. Carter and Gordon Wells plays Farmer McCarty.

And the other cast members who fill in as citizens in this wonderful cast are: Dan Alemshah, Wayne Baldwin, Timothy Howard Davis, George Ketsios, Jonathan Palmer, Vincent Selhorst-Jones, Kathy Forsman, Vallean Mann, Margaret Miller, Pamela Munro, Sheila Raznick and Audrey Wishnick.  In a grand moment, the dead citizens bring their chairs and sit on stage and among us.  Some of the dead we recognize and it shocks us to see that they’ve passed. They are part of us, stationery, and want us to remember them. They are you and I, we. It is grand to see these actors supporting this production.   

David Cromer does a brilliant job of putting this all together.  He does this by making us wait for the moments and providing them with a full head of steam. It is profound work, moving and gripping in its finest of details. Children enter and exit with so much noise that we appreciate the quiet. (Anyone with kids will understand the preciousness of quiet time.)  Cromer lets moments come to you before he moves on—some of these stunning moments are the introduction of Editor Webb, the conversation with Simon Stimson, and the Webbs having breakfast the morning of the wedding. 

Cromer hits all the right notes in Thornton Wilder’s play as Emily observes in the last scene that it is time to re-reassess life.  Take a moment to examine the small things because in the end these are the things that matter most.

Run to see this production and take a friend who loves going home for the holidays.

Through Feb 13, 2012

Sunday, January 22, 2012

God’s Ear by Jenny Schwartz

By Joe Straw

My first wife died 17 years ago this month.  At that time, my life became a series of emotional ups and downs, mostly downs.  Grieving alone was necessary but I also needed help. It was too much for me to handle.  The Wellness Foundation in Santa Monica recommended a grieving group and it was from this group that I recovered enough to move on.
The Echo Theater Company presents God’s Ear written by Jenny Schwartz.  It is directed by Rory Kozoll and is playing through February 19, 2012 at the Zephyr Theatre.

Schwartz’s work is a wonderful word fest.  The main character speaks a subconscious stream of thought in the process of getting over her grief.  And although grieving differs for everyone, the words in this play examine the subconscious complexities of grieving.  

I’m not sure who coined the phrase “From your lips to God’s ear”.  But I suspect the title has something to do with that phrase. Jenny Schwartz’s play is remarkable in that the grieving takes over the lives of the tormented characters.  They speak without communicating; their words are a call to action not given.  Each character is looking for a way to get out of the emotional mess they are in, but they don’t know how or who to ask for help.   

In the opening of the play, Mel (Amanda Saunders) has the phone to her ear.  She is in a hospital room and behind her is the curtain to her sons’ room.   Her husband is on the other end of the line and he is traveling somewhere in America. Mel tells him that their young son got pulled under the water while swimming in the ocean and now he is behind the curtain hooked up to life support systems and not expected to survive.  The “nice doctors” have already suggested the removal of his organs.

Ted (Paul Caramagno) listens, casually, with little emotion or feeling.  The small phone is nestled against his ear, but oddly enough he is not reaching for information.  He takes what Mel offers in the way of doctor speak expressed in short staccato sounds bites, burst of information that would normally send anyone into a panic.  Still, Ted listens.  He shouts at her on one occasion.  The shout seems non-specific.  Their son’s situation is hopeless.

It is their time, their moment, to start the emotional nightmare of grieving. It will be a journey that will test the limits of their marriage.    

In a nice bit of action, Mel pulls the hospital room curtain and we are suddenly transformed to their bedroom at home.  The bed occupies the middle of the stage and as Mel slips into her bedroom attire, her lonely process of grieving begins.

Grieving is difficult and unique for each individual so it is not unusual to see these two struggle as they pursue their different paths of grief.  But their lives are now in chaotic mode. And Mel speaks to Ted in a strange cliché ridden assault of excessive verbiage that probably was cute when they first met.  But after their son’s death, this seems like an exercise in triteness.  Still, Ted plays along.  

But, all Ted can do to comfort her is offer her a pair of pink fuzzy bedroom slippers from one of his trips.  

And to make matters worse they have another child. Lainie, (Alana Dietze).  She is small child and repeatedly asks kid questions like “Why? Why? Why?”  Lainie does not understand the death of her brother or what her parents are going through.

It is difficult to see Rory Kozoll’s (the director) through line, point of view, or perspective. Characters appear without purpose or meaning.  The first scene propels the actors into the rest of the play.  Instead, the opening has two characters having a “casual conversation” when in fact it is a very traumatic situation.  This scene establishes a strong relationship and creates a conflict that remains with the character through the conclusion. If the opening isn’t spot on, the play has a hard time working.  

The staging is awkward at times and the relationships are not justified. For example Mel buries the toy soldiers in the back yard because they are a reminder.  So when G.I. Joe (Jeremy Shranko) unburies himself and appears as human flesh, Mel has little or no reaction. More should have been made of this scene and the relationships.  

There are a lot of unanswered questions in this play.  While there is a resolution to the grieving, the problem is in the getting to the resolution and in a manner that speaks the truth about grieving. All actions on stage must lead to this point.

I speak of moments as if they are obscure intangible things but they are events that, when worked to perfection, can be a beautiful thing.

Also, the relationship the parents have with their son must be visible and concrete. Even though he does not appear in the play he must always be in their thoughts.  This gives the characters a richer physical life if only one can imagine carrying a son who who has passed.
Maybe this was opening night jitters and moments didn’t quite carry us the way it should have.  And possibly these moments have been fixed.  If so, go out and have a good time.

Amanda Saunders give a poignant performance.  She is very stoic, strong, but has been left stranded, grieving, without seeking help.  She is hurting and hateful, her jagged words on the phone sting like serrated knives that are buried deep into the intended victim.  And her husband is the recipient of those thrusts.  Is she looking for help? Or is it her thoughts that carry her away on a journey she takes willingly without seeking the help she needs?

Paul Caramango as Ted has a slow start but manages to grow on you.  He wanders through airports and his life is stunned by the events of the death of his only son. He communicates with his wife mostly by phone. He also meets with people who are both real and imagined.  He interacts with these people only to take his mind off of his son and his grieving wife. His relationship with his daughter needs strengthening.

Tara Karsian, as the tooth fairy, is so subdued and as skeptical as a tooth fairy can be.  She even goes so far as to take out her tweezers and examine the tooth under a lupe to make sure it is authentic. She is left without a clear objective and a reason for being in this play. Still, with little wings, her appearance is delightful.

Alano Dietze as Lainie is cute.  One did not get a hint of an objective and did not understand what this character wanted.  She should, in effect, be some kind of catalyst to help her parents overcome this hardship by loving, supporting, and just being a kid who makes this family whole.  

Jeremy Shranko as a skirt wearing flight attendant appears out of nowhere brandishing a gun and ordering Ted to do things.  He is obviously a figment of Ted’s imagination but it’s unclear as to what he actually wanted or what Ted wanted from him.  And as G.I. Joe he also seems lost in his relationship with Mel and Lainie but seemed to have a stronger relationship with the tooth fairy. Go figure.

Andrea Grano, as Lenora, was very good as someone who gives Mel a little tender loving care albeit under the influence.  Natheless, she sees Ted as a man who needs help and she’s going to give it to him despite the fact he’s married, grieving, and stalking a guy wandering the airport.

Troy Blendell as Guy gives comic relief to this very somber play.  When the two meet in a bar he understands Ted may be having emotional problems and he wants to help the only way he knows how: “wife swapping” is his answer.  But that’s just the beer talking.  Or is it?   Blendell’s wonderful performance seems to say that he got it, he understands the character, and was perfect for the role.  

Jarrett Worley is the understudy for the flight attendant.

Nicely produced by Lauren Bass & Chris Fields.  The set design was by Melissa Ficociello.  The Costume Design by Jordan Bass and the Lighting Design was by Kristie Roldan.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bananas! A Day In The Life of Josephine Baker – written and performed by Sloan Robinson

By Joe Straw

There is a lot to be said about Josephine Baker, her life, her style, her lovers, but sadly there is only a limited amount of information one can give in a show that is under two hours long.  But Sloan Robinson, in her marvelous sequin gowns, takes a stab at celebrating her life, singing wonderful songs, giving us the pertinent information, and letting us sally forth to learn more about this fabulous star.

I'll say it just this once, this is a wonderful performance by Sloan Robinson, a wonderful tribute, and has moments that will tug on your “tomatoes”. (See the show for this reference.)  

J.E.T. Productions West in association with Do It Yourself Productions presents, Bananas! A Day in the Life of Josephine Baker written by Sloan Robinson and directed by Joyce Maddox through February 26, 2012 in North Hollywood.

Maybe because this was opening night but somehow the start of the show didn’t seem quite right.  The flow, the connection, the disconnect, got me a little worried.  This is an award winning show that has been playing for years. I just didn’t get it.

But then something wonderful happens during the course of the performance and the show soared into the stratosphere and worked beautifully!  Wherever I go from here, I'll always carry this show with me. 

So what happened in the beginning?

The joy of theatre is finding the truth, the connection.  These are the moments that strike a cord that puts us into the lap of the character.  And this is especially true in a one-person show. I am not familiar with Sloan Robinson’s work as well as a lot of actors I see in small theatre.  That’s fine.  But the truth in the opening must be captured the moment an actor walks on stage. Opening with a song and retiring to her hotel suite may have cured that problem.

So what happened in the beginning?

The play opens in a hotel suite in Paris, France. Josephine is 55 years old and reminiscing about days gone by as she speaks to a photograph of her deceased mother.  And even though Josephine Baker is 55, she lets you know that she has much more to accomplish.  

And in those few moments we learn a lot about her life, the highlights, her husbands, her adopted children (12 of them), and her mother.

We also learn that she is having financial troubles and she needs to work because her family is depending on her. And so she tells us about the latter part of her life from the hotel suite in Paris, The Strand in New York City, and Casablanca in Morocco.

But what about the beginning?    

I could hear it in the audience, the waiting for the connect, the nasty unwrapping of a candy mint.  The first song was not quite right for this audience.  

It was under the spotlight down stage left behind the microphone where Josephine playfully demanded the audience to participate.  It was a moment that figuratively got us out of our seat and into the lap of Josephine Baker.  And from then on, it was smooth sailing.

Sloan Robinson captures the essence of Josephine Baker, from the bottom of her feet to the feathers on her head. She is physically gifted and emotionally connected to the woman known as Josephine Baker. Also, she is as funny as any comedian could be.  The second act depicts Josephine's early years and Robinson is wonderful imitating Bessie Smith and other characters. 

One can’t help but get emotional about a song Josephine sang about her children.  It was a beautiful and a loving tribute to her “rainbow tribe”.  This alone is worth the price of admission. 

Judith E. was the Executive Producer and also did a marvelous job.

Joyce Maddox, the Director, had Josephine performing some marvelous moments on stage particularly the letter that was never sent. There was also a splendid film sequence that highlights the life of Joseph Baker moments before Josephine comes out to do the last number.

Aeros Pierce was the Music Director, so very unobtrusive, and yet so very important to this show.

It’s not hard to see from the YouTube clips that Josephine Baker was instrumental in leading the way for a lot of performers.

One hopes that you will take the time to see Sloan Robinson at J.E.T. Theatre in this marvelous show.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Americano by John Markland

By Joe Straw

I’ve always been fascinated - walking into a theatre - the entrance.  It’s the whole experience – the unexpected sensory sensation – the suspense.   My first movie – Deutschland – 1960.  My first chair – red.  Walking to the seat was almost like walking into a pew - a religious experience. 

Movie theatres had red curtains back then.  The curtains were closed when the trailer started – when opened the image became clear - closed again – vaporous draperies. But when the curtains finally opened to reveal the movie on this afternoon they opened to a terrifying black and white clarity of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Everyone remembers the moment – in the bathroom.  For me it was the shadowy figure standing – indefinitely - beside the open door. That caliginous figure seemed suspended in a deferred moment of indecision.  It was a moment that terrified this 5 year-old.*

In Americano John Markland has created a frightening coffee shop monster.  He is a beastly character that seductively preys on the mentally frail and subjects them to the most horrific scenes imaginable. Only when they are at their weakest moment.

And we, as audience members and coffee shop patrons, are left as godlike uninvolved omnipotent observers who stand by helplessly while this is going on, plugged into our iPod nanos, having our cup of non-decaf soy mocha cappuccino extra whip unaware of the beastly things going on in the bathroom.  

But then again, he thinks he’s a saint. 

Americano by John Markland at The Moth Theatre literally grabs you by the throat and squeezes the reality back into your being.  This play has you on the edge of your seats, wincing in fear and caring about the characters.  It sets fire to emotions so deep one is exhilarated by the seduction, terrified by the suspense, and horrified by the action.   

The characters in Americano fall together like a freak coffee shop accident. One cannot help but to examine the circumstances of the accident and explore the outcome.  

But, when the events in the bathroom run out of control there is no time to re-act, cringing was the first order of business, hands in front of my neck and covering my mouth.  The restricted images behind the partial wall on stage are so brutal and so vicious one forgets this is a play. 

Americano is set in a coffee shop in Los Angeles. Kate (Amanda Brooks) is a bonny transplant from England.  She is an unemployed graphic artist and is not having a good day.  Tuned in with earphones and thinking about her recent past she sits alone waiting to end a five-year relationship.  

Nate (Patrick Scott Lewis) enters, hair disheveled, pink shirt, black tie, carrying a bag, and kisses her as though nothing is wrong but their lips never quite seem to connect. He is unaware this is the end of a rocky road.  His physical aggressive over-the-top pawing gives new meaning to the term “white on rice”.  Be that as it may, their relationship is strangling Kate and she needs to discover a way out.

But this can’t be, Nate has done much to make the relationship work.  His carefree days are over now and he has done the manly thing and gotten a job.  He is driven to support both of them and wants Kate to marry him. By first glance he is the better half of this couple.  He is the one who commands respect and admiration.

But there’s something wrong.  Kate says he’s lost his focus.  He is not the carefree thinker Kate once knew. 

Nate has worked two months to buy her a ring and she, in turn, threw it off the pier and into the ocean.  

Has she gone mad?

“What’s wrong?” – Nate
“I am and so are you!” – Kate

Nate believes they can work it out through their therapist but Kate is not having any of this.

“I need you!” – Nate
“I need me!” – Kate

Kate tells Nate that he is moving in a good direction for him but not for her.  She wants to end it here, and now, in the coffee shop, in front of her maker, and anyone else within earshot. And of course she gets her wish when Nate leaves and the poet/strangler Stephen (John Markland) steps into her realm. 

Stephen, with a northeastern accent, is an indefinable character hidden behind a thick beard. He has a strong back and massages his thick fingers continuously. His unisexual licentiousness makes no distinction between man and woman when it comes to finding a prey and getting the job done.      

It is in his softness that Kate succumbs to Stephen’s charm and, like it or not, Stephen is not leaving her table.

“I’m a poet strangler.”Stephen

It is in the details that Stephen slowly seduces her, tells her all about the strangling, how it will happen, and asks her to follow him into the bathroom. 

He waits in the bathroom, stretching his fingers, using them to comb back the thick hair on his head.  He waits and plans for the exact moment when she walks through the door.  

Most women would have run from the coffee shop. Instead, after hesitating, Kate knocks.  She enters and gingerly steps into the bathroom.

Without emotion Stephen lifts his cold hands, places them softly around her neck, and squeezes the life from her body.  A fight ensues but she is no match and with a mighty struggle for life, her life force is retired, and she is left for dead, on the floor, in a dirty, dingy, bathroom.

(Okay, do not read on if this has, in any way, peaked your interest and you must grab a ticket or two.)

Moments later she coughs air into her oxygen deprived body.  Stephen is gone, and she walks out of the bathroom and into the streets leaving her bag in Americano.

Okay, so, Stephen doesn’t kill his victims.  He strangles them to near death. Still, the deed was vicious and brutal.

The following morning Kate comes back for her bag and sits down to have a cup of tea.  She is completely changed in manner and radiant.  She is slightly caught off guard when her therapist, Dr. Leif (Wendy Haines), comes in to speak with her about her “life” and breakup with Nate.

But Dr. Leif has noticed a dramatic difference in Kate’s demeanor. She has changed for the better and wonders if she’s missing out on something.  Her life is monotonous, so much so that she flips the small paper tag at the end of a teabag string over and over again, for fun. 

“Life is mostly predictable until, it’s not.” – Dr. Leif  

Kate tells her of a new friend who is a masseur, of sorts, and right away Dr. Leif wants his card. 

Dr. Leif, with the nice jangly purse and latest gadgets, has everything a mundane life could ask for but also has dreams of putting some unpredictability back into her life.  It is a dangerous game she pursues when she meets up with Stephen.

Americano is something very different and worth every minute of your time. This is just a fantastic cast who will go to extremes to play the right moment. Despite the terrifying parts, there are extremely funny moments as well.

John Markland as Stephen (the strangler) broods with the best of them.  As the character he finds his prey, calms them, and takes them where they might not want to go.  In his own minds he thinks he’s doing the victims a service.  There is a fee involved yet he never takes the money.  He tows the line between saint and sinner without believing there is a distinction.  In the bathroom, his manic eyes convey exhilaration so intense that one can only imagine what is going on.  This was a brutally fine performance.

Amanda Brooks as Kate is as charming as a lover could be.  She gently throws Nate out of her life because she knows this kind of man, too well.  She lives a life of unique experiences, the grander the better before she moves on to other dangerous grounds.  She loves and lives the moment and is ready to accept anything or anyone that comes her way.  This is a terrific performance by a wonderful actor.

Wendy Haines as Dr. Lief is a remarkable actress.  It just the perfect little things she does that makes her life on stage so genuine, so alive. Although she is only one character, she has many roles, doctor, friend, and needy victim.  She is willing to go beyond her extreme fear to experience - putting her neck into the hands of someone who can end her life, role.  She is extremely funny and incredibly talented.

Patrick Scott Lewis as Nate gives us a lot of information about his character only in bit and pieces until he is ready to explode. It is a character study of someone who at first glance is a decent human being but at second glance a character you would not want to be in the same room. It is an extremely nuanced and troubling performance of an individual who is still trying to figure what he is all about.  In the end the fear takes control and he gets in way over his head.  Lewis is terrific in this role. 

Americano does have a barista working behind the counter.   This night, it was Pamela Guest and she was a delightful observer of the things going around her in her coffee shop and at times feels obligated to jump into the fray.

John Markland, the writer, has cleverly written a play that throws together all the elements of what fantastic theatre should be. He is an important playwright that encourages the audience to be emotionally involved.  This is a solid piece of work by an amazing cast that demands to be seen.  Markland gives us just one more reason to go down, grab a cup, and interact.

I’ve always been fascinated by acting by the Moth Theatre company.  It is genuine and organic and it says a lot about the director, John Markland, who guides the actors in remarkable moments that flow and crest.  Markland takes us on a journey through some really uncomfortable moments and squeezes the life force back into your being.  The ending is very ambiguous and could be spruced up to give us a definitive resolution but you leave believing what you want to believe and move on.

Justin Huen did an incredible job on the set.

An interesting little tidbit about Americano by John Markland at the quaint 21-seat Moth Theatre is that audience members can sit in the working coffee shop along side the actors and view the performance.  My partner and I thought the first row worked well enough for us so we did not partake in this Tamara like experience.

Run to see this production, take a deep breath, hold on, and feel the excitement.  

And take someone who is lonely and doesn't get out much. 

*(Yes, my mother took me to see Psycho when I was 5 years old!)