Friday, February 24, 2012

New Jerusalem – The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 by David Ives

By Joe Straw

“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of human beings.”Albert Einstein

What is it that attracts me to theatre? What attracted me to this production? The press release pointed to a subject matter that caught my attention.  Also mentioned were actors that I have seen in the last year or two and whose work I admire. Wonderful actors, ergo wonderful show. Sometimes it doesn’t always work out, but this time…

New Jerusalem, by David Ives and directed by Elina de Santos at the Pico Playhouse, is a magnificent show overflowing with love, betrayal, hatred, and devotion to the spiritual self. It is riveting from the moment actors step on the stage to the moment of its very tragic ending.  

Presented by the West Coast Jewish Theatre and produced by Howard Teichman at the Pico Playhouse.  It’s not that far fetched to believe this remarkable production will have some questioning their beliefs in the higher order of things. 

Natheless, the play is David Ives’s fictionalized account of one historical fact: Baruch de Spinoza was summoned to Talmud Torah on Tuesday, July 27, 1656, at the age of 23.  And there is no record of what transpired that day in the meetinghouse in Amsterdam’s Portuguese Nation.  Though we do know the result.

“Baruch de Spinoza was raised in the Dutch-Jewish community of Amsterdam in the mid-17th century.  He came from a family of Sephardic Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity during the Inquisition, only to return to Judaism shortly before Baruch’s birth.” – Stephen Fife, WCJT Board

Our play begins behind close door where Abraham van Valkenburgh (Mark Bramhall) is speaking to Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera (Richard Fancy), an honorable chachamin, (one well versed in Jewish law) and Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Shelly Kurtz), a “parnas” of the temple congregation and merchant. They discuss the rabble-rouser, Baruch de Spinoza (Marco Naggar).  Abraham believes Baruch’s expressions and ideas are blasphemous and dangerous to the people of Amsterdam. He implores Rabbi Mortera to summon Baruch so that he can make inquiries.

The Rabbi and Gaspar say that Baruch’s credentials are impeccable.  They say he is extremely intelligent and can recite endless scripture. He is not a menace to society and is as harmless as anyone can be.  The Rabbi agrees to listen before passing judgment.

“He is a threat to the piety and morals of this entire city, and he and his ideas must be stopped. The city’s regents send you this message: Abide by our laws, adhere to the regulations governing your community or face the consequences.” - Abraham

Abraham, adamantine in manner, has some information that places seeds of doubt in their minds.  Baruch has not been coming to the synagogue, is giving little money to the congregation, and is romantically linked to a Christian. Also, he has been seen wearing buckles on his shoes. The buckles alone would have considered him to be a heretic.

But most importantly, Abraham tells Saul and Gaspar that it is strictly forbidden by the laws of Amsterdam to practice a religion against the Dutch people.  He wants to bring Baruch in for questioning and he believes that a cherem, a form of excommunication, is warranted.  The Rabbi agrees to write “Bento” the letter and Baruch will come but he will not participate in the questioning.

Later, Baruch and his friend and roommate Simon de Vries (Todd Cattell) enter a field to take note of the colors of the horizon, the shading, and the light, unaware of what is unfolding around him.

Baruch is the art student and Simon is the teacher.  Simon steps closely behind him and instructs him on the finer points of holding a brush.  And as they watch the horizon, they have a discussion of life and mathematics, the subject of which Simon does not understand. And slowly Baruch becomes the teacher.

“A man tried to stab me.” – Baruch

There is a slash in his jacket and we have learned that a Dutch cell may have been responsible. This is foreshadowing of events that will come. 

Moments later Clara van den Enden (Kate Huffman) enters his periphery.  She is the daughter of his landlord and by first glance she is clearly infatuated with him. With love on her mind first, she delivers the letter second. Although very much in love, she wants more from the relationship than Baruch can accommodate.

I’m not perfect.  I’m not good.  You’re in love with the idea of me.” – Baruch

He tells her he loves her as another person can love someone but beneath the veneer this relationship will not go beyond the point.

There are a number of individuals working behind the scenes to make sure the Dutch will not have their religion defamed, destroyed or misappropriated.  In this land, “A Jew is a resident alien.” and Jews are not allowed to defame the Dutch religion.

Baruch attends the meeting with his friend Simon.  Gaspar is there as well.  Abraham can scarcely believe his eyes the moment he meets Baruch. This is the young man that is the cause of the loud noise within the country is laughable until Baruch explains his position and then all hell breaks loose.

Mark Bramhall as Abraham van Valkenburgh gives a marvelous performance.  As the character, he is unwavering in his determination.  He does this with humor, anger, and strong conviction. We are made aware of the populace behind him urging him to stop the young man causing all the problems. Bramhall brings the historical context as a weight on his soul.   This is an exceptional performance and one not to miss.

Marco Naggar as Baruch de Spinoza is wonderful in this production. As the character, he carefully weighs his options as he listens to the members of another type of inquisition.  He listens, speaks clearly, and thinks off the cuff—always imagining the possibilities and striving toward a new way of thinking.  His downfall is in trying to explain, in three minutes no less, what has taken him years to understand.  His “Clarafication” does nothing to convince the others that there may be a truth to what he believes.

Richard Fancy is fantastic as Saul Levi Mortera.  It isn’t difficult to see that he truly loves his student so much that he believes cherem is the last resort. But after a lifetime of study, he is unable to understand the principals of Spinoza’s philosophy and instead only sees that which has been ingrained into his being.  Still, he has the weight on the country down upon him and he must take care of the small problem to help the larger populace as a whole.

Shelly Kurtz plays a marvelous character as Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel.  He too is skeptical of cherem. He knows this man, Spinoza, and he knows, lives, and breaths the Torah.  He also knows that he would never turn on a friend, colleague, and one of his congregational members.

Todd Cattell as Simon de Vries plays the incorruptible compassionate friend that turns on Spinoza. As the spying roommate, he copies Spinoza’s journal word for word and then implicates him by turning over the documents to his uncle Abraham. So sure is he in his Christian beliefs that Spinoza cannot be right and therefore is dangerous to the community.  Cattell is wonderful and sinister in one fell swoop.

Kate Huffman was very delicate as Clara van den Enden.  As the character, she cannot convince Spinoza that he is the right man for her.  While she doesn’t wish this nightmare on anyone, she doesn’t help his case at all by letting the truth out. She tells Abraham that they weren’t speaking of philosophy but rather religion. And she believes in her religion—the religion of goodness, and forthrightness will win them both the day.  Well, it just didn’t work out that way but Huffman was marvelous nevertheless.

Brenda Davidson as Rebekah de Spinoza plays the half sister.  As the character, she too implicates her brother as not being a good Jew but then says he should not be excommunicated. She has a very strong voice as she sat across the aisle from me and we all participate as part of the congregation.

Elina de Santos does a marvelous job as the director. She paints bold strokes of Baruch’s life in living color for one to witness. The participants may be friends or enemies, they may love or hate him all in the same breath, but in the end Baruch found what he was searching for.

David Ives as the writer has written a marvelous play that takes one back in time to witness the young life of Baruch de Spinoza. He takes us into the tormented lives of the characters and lets us experience the pain.  We feel what they have felt, the pain and suffering of the cherem.  So much love turned into destructive forces that we must accept the end result as the best result.

All of this would not been possible with the due diligence of the production staff. Diane Alayne Baker is the Associate Producer.  Tara Windley is the Assistant Director.   Priscilla Miranda is the Stage Manager.  Stephanie Kerley Schwartz was the Set Designer and the Costume Designer.  Leigh Allen is the Lighting Designer and Bill Froggatt provided the Sound Design. Kurtis Bedford was the Set Builder.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Cost of The Erection by Jon Marans

By Joe Straw

My imagination runs amok with this title.  The conjured possibilities are infinite.  The play is about architects.  Knowing a lot of architects - not that enticing.  Erections - enticing.  But, wait a minute; maybe the title denotes a sexual innuendo of sorts.  The architects are men, they are sexual beings, and perhaps there will be an element of uplifting surprises.   

Everyone knows the cost of erections. They are very costly in personal relationships. Cities are built and lives are destroyed all in one enigmatic fell swoop.  

While people forge relationships and erect thoughts, ideas, and buildings, human beings try not to repeat a disgraceful episode.  For those who replay those memories there is the lingering space in the brain that says, this is what happened and I will not let that happen again. In the end nobody wants to build edifices or relationships they will come to regret later.

The Blank Theatre presents the premiere of The Cost of The Erection written by Jon Marans and directed by Daniel Henning.  Overall this is a superb show with very quirky characters and there are a lot of nice things in this comedy drama showcase.

The Blank Theatre is one of my favorite theaters in town.  I get the concept.  A black box with less than fifty seats and a very intimate setting.  Very little in the way of set, walls, a table brought in now and then and plenty of curtains in this production. It’s all up to the actors to do their “stuff”.

Susu (Robin Riker) is a rich socialite and press agent who represent architects, with one exception, her husband Mark (Michael Knight).  Today, they are celebrating the procurement of an apartment in New York City, which overlooks the Statue of Liberty. It is a beautiful empty space that needs a bathroom, decorating, and design.  (Why we need architects to design and decorate is open for discussion.)

They are celebrating their new acquisition and they’ve invited another couple to join them in their celebration.  Susu vilipends Mark and asks him not to speak at first.  She wants to control the conversation. It is a foretaste of something inherently wrong in their relationship and a brief glimpse into her controlling nature.  

She’s even got him to sign a prenuptial. True love? Ouch.

Rod (James Louis Wagner), another architect, and his wife, Brenda (Kal Bennett), join the casual party. Rod is younger, virile, and a tempting target.  He is wearing jazzy graphic tennis shoes with a brown suit.

From first introductions, one gets the feeling that Brenda and Susu don’t know each other.  This is far from the truth.  They were close friends once but have not seen each other in four years because of problems from their past relationship.   

Brenda and Rod expect to go out to dinner but wanting no distractions Susu has ordered in. Susu has set her sights on representing Rod.  After a few moments of small talk, Susu takes Rod to one side of the apartment while Mark and Brenda move to the other side. 

When the conversation turns from architects a more personal matter Rod says something inappropriate and is immediately scolded by Susu. This takes place while Susu and Rod are downstage left.

Meanwhile Brenda and Michael are upstage right, carrying on a conversation. Suddenly there is a problem and Brenda is overcome with emotion. She starts to cry.

At first, we do not know what has happened.  But as things would have it, the positions of the characters get reversed, we go back in time, and we get to see the conversation we’ve missed.

Mark takes Brenda to a secluded part of the apartment and tells her that he can flirt with her but she cannot flirt back.  His rule, not hers.  But the conversation takes a dramatic turn when he speaks about his life with Susu, their pregnancy, and the loss of their son Ian who died two weeks after his birth.

Brenda is overcome with grief and later we learn she is not able to have a child with Rod.

Susu is furious that Mark is letting out the intimate details of their lives.  But, Mark wants to try again to make a baby, something Susu does not want.  It is too painful. Try as he might, condoms or not, Susu does not want to have sex with him no matter how he begs and pleads. There are some very funny moments of Mark trying everything in the book to get some with little results.  

Later, Susu, not wanting Rod to get away, devises a plan to have him compete with Mark for the opportunity to design and decorate the apartment. As confident as she is with her husband’s ability, she feels he has lost his drive and she wants him to work harder, be clever, and excel in getting the right feel to the place.

Later, when Rod is presenting his designs of an open shower to the world to Susu, she finds the doctors report of his low sperm count.  This is a slight distraction that Rod did not anticipate.

While Rod and Mark are working hard to win this contest, Brenda becomes infatuated with Mark and starts a relationship with him that doesn’t turn out according to her plan.

There are a lot of good things to be said about this production.

Robin Riker as Susu has a lot of very nice moments.  Her slightly offbeat gold high heels with one stocking mid-calf are something I have not seen before and I found it alluring.  Her wit is charming and turns on a moment’s notice. As the character she uses her wealth as a crutch of sorts but does not let the small things get to her. She plays each architect against one another, knowing full well which one she will choose.  To her, life is a manipulative plot to get the person to work that much harder.  Her execution is marvelous.

Michael E. Knight as Mark brings a lot of humor into the show.  Knight is very likeable and offbeat.  He is the normal everyman who pleads for sex just like the rest of us. His character has moments of brilliance but there are self doubts that he is, in some respects, inadequate. He can’t have things his way.  Other people will not respond to his choosing’s. What he wants is not always what he will get but in the end he has a triumph of sorts.

James Louis Wagner as Rod has a very distinctive personality.  As the character he is strong and egotistical, and no match for the woman with all of the money. He makes up for his low sperm count with exuberance for his job.  But he seems to have doubts on his ability to create another human being and certainly more layers could have been added to this character.  As the actor his objective is not strong enough to get him what he wants.  For example, if he wants to become famous, his objective should be leading him in that direction and he should kiss whatever needs kissing in order to get it.  

Kal Bennett as Brenda has a mysterious charm about her.  Her character has an ulterior motive and it is one of sabotage simply because of her relationship with Susu. She is slightly sinister in that she wants to get back at Susu for creating havoc in her life, in the past and now in the present.   Having a clearer idea of what she wants will add to an already fine performance.

Kristin Carey plays Susu, Stephanie Czajkowski plays Brenda, Steve Green plays Mark and David Tom play Rod all in understudy roles and did not perform this night.

Daniel Henning as the director does some very fine work in this production. His artful production is clever and has a few twists.  There is a moment when we see the two men living in the space, and trying to create the idoneous grand design that will make or break their careers or, their marriage. This is a job well done by one of the finest directors working in Hollywood today.

Jon Marans the writer gives us a lot of insight into human nature, what they will do to earn the respect and admiration of those who control the purse strings.  But missing are the fine detail of the characters lives, especially the lives of the architect.  We only get a small glimpse of that life.  Also, the relationships are problematic.  While it is okay to point to an offstage life, there is a character (Brenda’s first husband) with a major role in this play and he has long since left the scene.  It is slightly confusing.  If the relationships were about the four of them, if Susu and Rod had had relationship years earlier, the conflict would have been that much greater. It also sets in motion Brenda’s objective to control that, which is uncontrollable. This gives us a meaner Brenda, a not-so-sympathetic Brenda, but a Brenda that is much more exciting to watch as the four of them play against each other.  

There is a shower scene on stage with at least one actor wearing some kind of nude underwear.  It is slightly visible due to the lighting and layers of curtains. Personally when I’m in the shower with someone, I don’t wear anything.  Call me funny.  I think modesty should be left at the stage door.

The fine producers are Matthew Graber, Daniel Henning and Noah Wyle.  The Associate Producers are Terena Cardwell, Nathan Frizzell, Rachel Landis and Stephen Moffatt.

The Set/Lighting Design is by Cameron Zetty.  The Costume Design is by Rachel Engstrom.  Ken Werther did the Publicity.  The Sound Design is by Warren Davis and the casting was by Scott David, Erica Silverman and Bob Lambert.


Friday, February 17, 2012

The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh

By Joe Straw

The Ruskin Group Theatre Company has always been on my periphery.  I have seen their flyers and ads all over town.  It is a wonderful space, crammed with professional memorabilia with some of the finest actors working today.  The classes are of the Ruskin School taught by John Ruskin – the Sanford Meisner technique – with acting teachers like Anthony Hopkins, Ed Asner, Benda Vaccarro, and Bruce Davison, all top notch professionals giving back to the craft.

So after thirty years in town, why have I not been to this theatre?  One, I don’t know. Two, this didn’t strike me as a theatre where I would enjoy watching a performance. I supposed there would be a lot of airport noise during the performance.  It’s right off the runway and why would I want my theatre to be interrupted by John Travolta’s noisy jet flying over. Thankfully, I heard none of that.

But, all those little things are pushed aside when one enters the theatre.  It is a glorious space and a place to do some serious work.  It has that “theatre vibe”.  The thing that makes one shiver when entering the space.  

By all accounts, it is a very nice theatre in a truss structure that one would find near an airport. Looking up above the hanging lights, I noticed yellow paint peeling from the ceiling.  Lead based or not, one doesn’t know.

The Ruskin Group Theatre presents Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West directed by Mike Reilly. It is a magnificent show, with marvelous actors, in a showcase that cries out to the theatre going public: COME! GO! COME AND THEN GO! GO and then LEAVE!

There is something for everyone in this show.  You want your comedy? Done.   You want your drama? Done.  You want a sexy girl running around in a schoolgirl’s uniform? Done. And you want to see Irish brothers knocking the “feck” out of each other? Also done.

The play begins in the bucolic farming community of Leenane, Connemara, County Galway, in the mid-western part of Ireland. 

Coleman Conner (Jason Paul Field) trudges into his home. He is in his funeral attire. The backside of his pants looks to be recently dog bitten and is torn below his “arse,” exposing a four inch section of pocket and leg. Coleman climbs on a chair and reaches for a “bottle”. He has just laid the bullet-riddled body of his father to rest.    

His home, wonderfully designed by Cliff Wagner, isn’t much to look at.  In fact, it is very modest. Call it, rustic poverty. The walls have the appearance of being painted long ago with a dash of food and drink sloshed on to give it that extra lived in look. The dining room has a banged up table downstage right.  Adorned on the table is a worn and tattered lace tablecloth covering another shredded brown tablecloth.

Upstage center is a bedroom door with a large “V” scrawled in the middle. There are two unmatching chairs facing one another, a chest of drawers up stage center that has religious plastic figurines equally spaced.  The letter “V” emblazoned somewhere on them with a black marker.  And the figurines are evenly lined on a homemade shelf and on mantle piece.

Above the mantle piece hangs a large Crucifix and below the crucifix is a doubled—barreled shotgun.  The shotgun is, in fact, the shotgun Coleman used to kill his father.  One finger across two triggers was all it took.  

It was an accident, of course.  

Following Coleman is his priest, Father Welsh (Conor Walshe), who leaves the door open for Valene Conner (Tom O’Leary), Coleman’s brother.  

“You’ll have a drink with me you will?” – Coleman

“I will, Coleman, so.” – Welsh

And as they start to drink, we find out a couple of things about the Father Welsh and Coleman. 

First of all, Coleman is a disagreeable sot.  He doesn’t want to share his liquor with anyone. And to top things off it’s not even his liquor, it belongs to Valene.  He tells Father Welsh if anyone asks; tell him you asked for the drink. 

Secondly, Father Welsh is a bit of an alcoholic himself. The simple act of pouring makes his lips wet. He enjoys the sinful taste of liquor and he blames the village for his seedy acts of corruption. He’s also got a lot of problems with his faith. It seems that he is not a good religious fit with the village and each day that he’s there is a day closer to purgatory.

And like a bug that rears his ugly head out of a hole, Coleman looks for fight.  He prefers to fight his brother, Valene, because at this point that’s all the family he’s got.

They are two ornery men in their thirties with no women and no prospects, now and forever.

“He did come in pegging orders for a drink, now.  What was I supposed to say to him, him just sticking Dad in the ground for us?” - Coleman

“Your own you could’ve given him so.” – Valene

“And wasn’t I about to ‘til I up and discovered me cupboard was bare.” – Coleman

It is here that we learn Valene is holding on to the purse strings.  Their father left what little money and belongings he had to Valene and to top that off, there is insurance check on the way with Valene’s name on it.  

Trying to keep these two boys in line is troublesome but Father Welsh is also having some problems with his community. There is a lot of murdering going on in Father Welsh’s parish.  He is dispirited and has cause for his spiritual concerns. And it pains him when the members of his parish use him as a whipping boy.

“A great parish it is you run, one of them murdered his misses, an axe through her head, the other her mammy, a poker took her brains out…” – Valene

Father Welsh recognizes that he is a “terrible priest” and runs a terrible Parrish where everyone confesses to drink and betting on the horses but no one confesses to murder. And to top that off, he coaches a girls’ football team, which is world renown for being despicable and notorious.  Ten red cards in one game, I mean, come on!

Girleen (Rachel Noll) joins the party.  She is seventeen years old and pulls out two bottles of poteen, an Irish moonshine, for Valene. Valene tries to stiff her without success. She is there to deliver a letter that a lurid postman gave her to put into Valene’s greedy hands.  

Wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform showing a bare midriff, she bends over the counter and in front of Father Welsh…

“That postman fancies me, d’you know?  I think he’d like to be getting into me knickers, in fact I’m sure of it.”  - Girleeen

Valene then opens the letter and waives the check in front of Coleman, which starts a huge fight. Father Welsh, in drunken desperation, leaves and Girleen follows him out the door as the two brothers continue to roll on the floor.  And while they are locked in brotherly love, we get a piece of information that is shocking to us but not shocking to the boys.  

Later, Valene buys a stove with the insurance money.  There’s only one problem, he doesn’t cook, doesn’t want to cook, can’t even boil water, besides there is no food in the house. And he won’t let Coleman touch his stove.

This is a wonderful show with an amazing cast.  The actors all have strong characters and they are all committed with strong objectives. This style of acting is exciting and wonderful to watch.

Jason Paul Field as Coleman gives a grand performance. As the character, his hair flies on end in different directions and is the main reason that his father is lying dead. With only drink and Tayto’s to live on, he lives the life of extreme poverty.  (In the dictionary under poverty, you might see his picture.)  He drinks and he is hungry. He has no visible means of support other than the meager scraps he steals from his brother.  He lives his life to extreme in the hopes that something will come from it. What? He is not so sure.

Jonathon Bray as Valene did some amazing work on stage as well. His character has lived a life well past his prime. He wears a suit much too short and tight. Something he bought long ago but supposes that it is still a natural fit.  He plows along giving little regard to the little things like, food. He is a little “touched” in that he thinks buying religious figurines will get him that much closer to God.  But like his brother, he enjoys a good emotional and physical fight.  He has to be careful that these fights don’t get completely out of hand or he may find himself mistakenly on the bad end of an Irish wake.  

Conor Walshe was outstanding as Father Welsh.  He is prudish by appearance and there’s not a hair out of place.  But Father Welsh has some deep demons.  He loves to drink.  He is also torn by the amount of murders in his parish, family killing family, casting doubts on his effectiveness as a Catholic Priest. His eyes give away too much.  His doubts send him deeper and deeper into despair. It seems he had a dream to save the world one day, but the church has forsaken him and sent him off into a journey that he didn’t want to take.  When he finds the truth, he takes it to heart and becomes a broken man. Not wanting to give anything away, he sends Girleen with a letter to the boys to straighten up and fly right. The letter makes no difference.  This is a wonderful role and a remarkable performance.

Rachel Noll was the perfect fit for Girleen. She plays with the boys but she knows what she wants and knows how to get it.  But strangely enough, she doesn’t get Father Welsh; she doesn’t see the pain he is going through.  He is the only good thing in her life. In this town, eager to fight, she is not one to sit back and let things happen to her.  She will fight for what she believes is right even if the right thing is Father Welsh. 

Mike Reilly does a fantastic job directing.  It is exciting with never a dull moment. His direction gives us a magnificent and meticulous display of the physical life of the characters. The characters kiss and make up one minute and are eager to tear the head off each other the next. Either way, the stage life is grand and very physical.  All of the characters are thoroughly developed with meticulous detail to character all of which have a rich emotional life. Everything thing works.  The play works. We as an audience get it.  

Martin McDonagh’s writing is exceptional in every regard.  He tells us the characters are evil and angels all in one single entity.  There is no good or bad, there is only the perception of good and bad.  The writing is fluid.  It has a course. There is no mother or the mention of their mother.  Maybe she fled long ago.  It makes perfect sense by the way they treat each other. Or maybe that’s just an “Irish” thing.

Tom O’Leary also plays Valene but was not there this night. 

Eva Bloomfield plays Girleen and Jonathon Blandino plays Father Welsh in understudy roles.  They did not perform this night.

This show was wonderfully produced by Kenneth Lombino and Maurice Lamarche who are listed as the Executive Producers.  Mikey Myers and Conor Walshe also have a “Produced by” credit and again the work was exceptional. The Assistant Director is Nicole Millar. The Set Painter CJ Strawn.  The Master Builder is Paul Denk.  Judith Borne did the publicity. And Dan Speaker & Jan Byrant did the Fight Choregraphy.

The play could not have been performed with a grand supporting crew to clean up the huge mess the characters leave after every scene change. They did an exceptional job. 

Tayto’s were flying everywhere.  Some audience members were seen eating the remains of the flying chips from their laps.

Go!  Run! 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sidetracked by Sharon Michaels

By Joe Straw 

Sidetracked, written and produced by Sharon Michaels, directed by Ray A. Rochelle, is playing at the Macha Theatre in West Hollywood. 

Detective Richard Doyle (James Gleason) has a sleazy office, on the tail end of the boulevard, somewhere in tinsel town, Hollywood, Sunset, or Yucca Boulevard, you decide. He is working late one night when a dame with gorgeous “pins” steps into his office.

Dawn Lovett (don’t you love it) (Jamison Lingle) is an actress.  Aren’t they all?  She’s made enough bucks, moola, and clams to slip some business to this deceptively bright, down on his luck, scotch drinking detective. 

Miss Lovett’s legs are not the only things that unravel in this late night meeting as she meticulously turns the verbal pages of her life.   She wants Detective Doyle to find Joseph Feinstein, the father she has never known.  He is a millionaire who made his fortune with the wonder cream, “Ageless”.

At first Doyle doesn’t believe her. But Lovett whips out love letters that are like a cold hard slap to the face.  It is proof that Feinstein and her mother were lovers before they conceived those grand gams that are now laced in front of his gawking eyes.   

Doyle’s insatiable appetite is now, wet.  And Lovett slips him a hundred bucks to follow his predilection.  The click, click, click of Miss Lovett’s high heels sends an elevating message to Doyle as she saunters out of the room, into the night, and out of his life for the time being.

Later, in a cocktail lounge at Union Station, Julio Jorge Juarez (Carlos Ciurlizza), whose sexual orientation is dubious at best, is dancing to the beat of Latin music when Wanda Berlinger (Michele Bernath) and her husband Henry Berlinger (Bix Barnaba) come in for a mélange on the way to San Francisco for a science convention. They hope to confront the thieving Joseph Feinstein at that convention.

Julio lets them in on a little secret.  He whispers that his brother Juan works on the train and Feinstein is on that train. 

After a few drinks, Henry claims he is the inventor of the “Ageless” formula and he is ready to provoke Feinstein with some disturbing news.   The drug has terrible side effects, like loss of hair and bleeding from various orifices of a body that can, in fact, make a grown man cry.  

Moments later, Brett Hart (David P. Johnson) and his manager Veronica Lacey (Sondra Currie) enter the lounge.  The others recognize Hart as the “Ageless” spokesman and swarm over him.  But Miss Lacey wants everyone to know that Hart is hers and that she is heavily invested in Hart as well as Feinstein.

There is a slight problem.  Hart has not told Lacey that his contract is kaputsville and to make matters worse his hair is starting to come out in large chunks. It is an unfair situation, someone has to pay, but the slightly air headed Hart doesn't know who to blame.   He is an actor, after all, and that means something in this town, hair or no hair, brain or no brain. 

Veronica Lacey is heavily invested with Feinstein and stands to lose a lot of money when she finds out the “Ageless Cream” is a modern day snake oil with terrible side effects. And she will lose more money when she finds out that Feinstein has cancelled Hart’s contract.

Dawn Lovett suddenly appears into the lounge doing some investigating of her own.  She wants to find her father and make amends.

And then “it” happens.  A train has sidetracked and everyone is stuck in the cocktail lounge until the train gets back on track.

The very nature of a whodunit is that everyone leaves the room at one time or another and this play is no exception. And at the end of this, the bartender Julio comes back to say that Joseph Feinstein is dead.

But what good is a whodunit without a scream from a lovely young woman with “pins”? 

James Gleason as Detective Doyle was quite engaging as the sleuth seeking, womanizing, and easy going detective complete with trench coat, a notepad, and a number 2 pencil. He has a perspicacious mind and was quite amusing in his fashion.  This was a very fine job but he should make some serious threats about putting everyone away.  There should be more at stake.

Jamison Lingle as Dawn Lovett was very statuesque with some very nice “pins”.  She is a lovely actress that needs a little more to do in this role. Her flirtatious behavior was minimal at best.  She is, in fact, a successful actress but none of the other characters recognize her. And what good is a whodunit without a scream especially when she finds out that Feinstein, her father, is dead.

Carlos Ciurlizza as Julio Jorge Juarez had some nice moments but why does Julio act effeminate when it doesn’t take him anywhere?  The bartender should be more than just someone listening to other people’s problems.  Julio must be a suspect and must show that he could do the deed.  Otherwise, what’s the point?

Michele Bernath as Wanda Berlinger has some nice moments but the glove scene doesn’t go anywhere.  She needs to step out of the role and become something she is not.  She too had an affair with Feinstein but hearing about his murder means little to her.  

Bix Barnaba as Henry Berlinger is a nice enough man with a typical male sleazy background but we must see that he has the ability and willingness to kill Feinstein. Barnaba’s ending was terrific.

Sondra Currie as Veronica Lacey stood around and looked pretty.  We need a lot more than this to get the job done. She is a manager and a most controlling one at that.  She wants her man and she wants what is coming to her.  This should be expressed in her character so that we can see that she might be the killer.

David P. Johnson as Brett Hart did some nice work as the pompous but friendly actor/spokesman.  But it’s too easy to just let the career go.  He must fight for his egotistical place in the world. If that means killing Feinstein in the process, so be it. Without this, he has no objective.

A lot of work went into Sharon Michaels play and it is too easy to dismiss it and move on. But to excogitate the whodunit genre, one would need to look at the characters objectives.  And once they find it they must take action to extremes.  These characters require a definitive course and their actions on that course require exaggeration.  We must see that each character is a unique living breathing murdering suspect. By the end of the play, the characters should be tearing each other’s hair out to keep from going to the gas chamber. As it stands now, none of the characters are fighting for their lives, they don’t protect their self interests and they don’t seem to care if they are going to the prison or not.  The characters should blame one another.  They should accuse the guilty and the not guilty.  It should be physical romp, with secrets pasted on all their faces.

Ray A. Rochelle does some nice things as the director.  There is an accusatory look from all of the participants when the music blares which happens on a few occasions.  It’s funny but doesn’t take us to the next moment.  Also when Detective Doyle goes over the list of suspects, the actors should not be scattered all over the stage.  We, as audience members, lose a lot when this happens.  It would be best to have the actors downstage center so that we can see the accusations fly.

The Set Design by Ray A. Rochelle was nicely done. Rikki Lugo job as the Costume Designer was marvelous.

Theater enlightens. It provides a message for those who seek that, but also provides an avenue for those who want to sit back and be entertained. Sidetracked will keep you entertained, so sit back.  

Go see it.  And take a friend who likes the whodunit genre! 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Expecting To Fly by Michael Hyman

Casey Kringlen (L) & Justin Mortelliti (R) photo by Mark Barnes
By Joe Straw

Theatre Planners presents Expecting to Fly, a world premiere play, by Michael Hyman and directed by Kiff School at The Elephant Theatre in Hollywood.

The time is the present.  The place, by Set Designer Keith Mitchell, is an apartment in New York City.  Not just an apartment but a two level dirty dingy space, with a couch to sleep on center stage, torn paintings upstage right, alcohol bottles and pills scattered throughout. A dancing pole is upstage left, and a chin-up bar upstage left center.

Sean (Casey Kringlen) appears in a flash.  The next flash reveals Jared (Justin Mortelliti) in leather attire.  Each, in flash, holds their right side as though they are protecting something.  The action and what it represents is unclear.

Jared comes back to his apartment, after a night of decadence, completely wasted.  His partner, Sean, is somewhere in the apartment, unseen at first, but later appearing.

“Sean! Are you here?” – Jared

There is no response.

A ripped Jared disrobes to his underwear and falls onto the couch to slumber. And in his brief moment of sleep, Sean climbs the couch and whispers something into his ear waking him up.

Jared asks him why he is there.

“I lost my place.” - Sean

Sean is Jared’s capricious friend. And Sean is not going to let Jared sleep a wink.  Not on his life.  Sean is there to torment his promiscuous friend.

But there’s something odd here.  Sean knows everyone he has been sleeping with and that they all look at lot like him. Sean seems to like this behavior. And he curiously wants to know why Jared is sleeping with men that look like him:  Is it that Jared still loves him or the image that was him?

Was him?

Sean and Jared don’t really connect because Sean is, in fact, dead.  (It is apparent in the opening moments so I don’t believe I’m giving anything away.)

Why? Following a severe depression, Jared tells Sean their marriage is “done”.  And he does this on the roof of a twelve-story building.  This, under normal circumstances, is not really a good idea.

But is Sean really haunting Jared?  Or is this just a hallucination from binge drinking and excessive pill taking? Or a combination of both?

It can’t be the pills and the drugs because they eventually wear off and Sean is still there telling stories and reliving their past life.

But why is Sean there?  Why doesn’t he leave?

Does Sean need to find out if Jared truly loves him before he goes?  Does he need to feel the happiness of the one perfect kiss, the kiss that lasted “228 seconds”, or was it “229 seconds”?  Why they counted doesn’t matter.  They just can’t agree on anything, including the length of the kiss.

Sean is afraid of leaving because he doesn’t know where he will go after he leaves and he is anxious of the alternative bad ending.

“Am I going up or down?” - Sean

One thing is very clear in Michael Hyman’s play—Sean comes back to get something from Jared that he did not get during his lifetime.  To get him to make the ultimate commitment and clean up his act would be one objective. And all of Sean’s actions should take us to that objective. 

Kiff Scholl, the director, gives us a rather odd interpretation to Michael Hyman’s play. Or maybe one does not get his perspective.  In this ninety-minute one act play, the actors seem to fly about the stage without purpose or meaning.  The actions on stage do not compliment the meaning of the play.

Why are the actors climbing on bookcases, sliding down poles, doing chin-ups for what purpose? How does it strengthen or destroy the relationship?  How does this clarify the objective? Why isn’t there a reaction when Sean teeters on the edge of a window seal without any reaction from Jared?   Why doesn’t Sean hide the pills? Why doesn’t he get rid of the liquor?  If he is able to move jackets and articles of clothing, why not that?

Also, I’m not sure what that globe was outside the apartment.  Is it the moon? And why does it keep going moving in and out of focus?

Casey Kringlen as Sean has a good look and has some very nice moments. There is something he wants and it is not until the end of the play that he finds restitution, his sole purpose of being, or not being. There are many more levels to explore in this character. Ultimately Sean wants Jared to stop his ways, open his eyes, and start living right.

“Call Jeff again.” - Sean

Justin Mortelliti as Jared also has some very fine moments. There are many more levels to this character.   His objective is not clear.  We never get a sense of what he wants from Sean.  One believes that he wants Sean to go away but he is emotionally stuck.  He is unable to come to grips that he has yet to utter the words “I love you.” to anyone, much less Sean.   Also, he has a life as a painter but we see very little of  that backstory.  

(Okay, so what would I want if someone were haunting every waking moment of my apartment life?  I would want that person to go away so that I could go on with my life.)

But Jared never wants this.  He is at his happiest when being haunted and being told silly stories until the cows come home.  He doesn’t explore the possibilities of finding out what exactly Sean wants, or how to get him out of his life.  So there must be some kind of action to help in this regard. To push him into the heights of heaven or the burning flames of hell would be my guess.  

Andrew Crabtree plays Jared and Mason McCulley play Sean as understudies when needed. 

Michael Hyman’s play has a lot to say about the human condition.  He has an intuitive approach to love, which in reality could be applied to men or woman, gay or straight.  There is a very interesting moment when Sean appears ready to leave but changes his mind when it is uncertain which path is predetermined for him.  He doesn’t know if he’s going up or down.  The sound effects on stage reflects an ending worse than death and I’m not sure if that is intentional in the writing or the direction.

Opening week presents all sorts of problems.  It’s very peculiar situation.  When things don’t necessarily go well, the audience lets you know.  Fortunately, the problems presented are fixable.  Get rid of the stuff that doesn’t work and add to what does.

Nicely produced by Racquel Lehrman.  The Lighting Designer is Matt Richter.  The Costume Designer is Shannon Kennedy.  Casting was by Michael Donovan.  The Portrait Painter was nicely done by Dan Mailley.