Friday, November 30, 2012

The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris adapted by Joe Mantello

Paolo Andino - Photo by Evan Martin

By Joe Straw

My daughters love “funny”.  They love to laugh.  I saw The Santaland Diaries a couple of years ago and I thought:  Why not bring the girls?   It’s full of Christmas cheer and has an elf running around all over a department store with thousands of lunatic parents and their well-behaved kids.  What’s not funny about that?

Parking across the street underneath the Dolby Theater is a trip and coming up the escalator, one meets all kinds of people from all over the world.  My oldest daughter prohibits me from speaking to Japanese people because: “My accent is third grade”, she says.  

But, when walking out to Hollywood Boulevard, well this is just another level of excitement, and is quite another story altogether. The sidewalks are filled with all kinds of people, exotic entertainers, dancers, street vendors, and people banging on drums (in almost a circle) all in a little stretch of the boulevard before one even gets to Highland Avenue.  And by the time I’ve hustled my kids (one who continually walks off in the opposite direction as the rest of us), I’ve wished for the solace of a nice quiet theatre with one raging elf in a frantic department store. 

A gentleman opens the door as we enter The Stellar Adler Theatre.  We walk up a long quiet flight of stairs and enter a place of solemnity, because it is early and that is the best time to arrive to theatre while I Twitter, Facebook, and make a few notes about the show.

The Blank Theatre, Daniel Henning Founding Artistic Director and Noah Wyle Artistic Producer, presents The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, Adapted by Joe Mantello and directed by Michael Matthews starring Paolo Andino as Crumpet The Elf.

(All brought to you by Crispin Natural Hard Apple Cider, all gluten-free for the wheat-intolerant.) I must admit it was a refreshing drink before the start of the show and a prop that was used effectively throughout the night with toasts to our gracious sponsors who were in the audience this night.    

I guess we can safely assume, for the beginning of the play, that Paolo Andino is playing David Sedaris, a self-deprecating humorist.   After all, he is the one who wrote The Santaland Diaries.

As the play starts, David is off the boat (Penn Station) hoping to write for a soap opera.

Those dreams die quickly.

And things are getting a little tight on the cold streets of New York City when he runs across a want ad to be an elf at Macy’s.

It’s not a job he desires but the streets are frosty and food is getting scarce.

“I am a thirty-three-year-old man applying for a job as an elf.” – Crumpet

But applying for a job as an Elf doesn’t mean you’re automatically in.  There is an interviewing process, it is lengthy, and they have to separate the sociopaths from those truly wanting to be sane elves.

David makes the cut despite the stems and roaches in his urine.

“On a busy day twenty-two thousand people come to visit Santa, and I was told that it is an elf’s lot to remain merry in the face of torment and adversity.” – Crumpet

Crumpet has major reservations being a happy elf. The former elves, in teaching mode, makes him sick to his stomach.  First of all, there is elf school to learn to be an elf.   And you must have an emotional commitment to the role and the work. And don’t think because you’re an elf that’s the only role you have.  There’s not just one type of elf. 

“You can be an entrance elf, a water-cooler elf, a bridge elf, train elf, maze elf, island elf, Magic-window elf, usher elf, cash-register elf or exit elf.”

It doesn’t get any better than an elf trying to understand the working complexities of a cash register but this is what elves do despite their learning disabilities. Crumpet’s inability to learn his code has the other elves sneering at him.   His elf brain is being taxed beyond his human capacity.  

The outward elf costume becomes a matter of indifference to Crumpet (still not into his job). But once he dons the costume, the candy cane tights, the pants with the fluffy white thing around the calf, pointy shoes, red, yellow, and green jacket, and the hat with the fuzzy bell, well, it’s enough to make a grown man puke.  (Vamoose!)

But Crumpet slowly settles into his work.  Not all moments are fun and games at Macy’s.  There is a day that showcases the true meaning of Christmas, “Operation Special Children”, where a morning is set-aside for the terribly sick and deformed children.

“The next one is missing a nose or Crystal has third-degree burns covering (pause and looking back) 90 percent of her body.” - Crumpet

Also, Crumpet has to learn how to sign to those children who cannot hear.  (And for some reason both of my girls just lit up like a Christmas tree and it was obvious they were with Crumpet, all the way.)

Crumpet has a problem with being an elf, and learns a lot from the various types of Santas, but in the end he understands the true meaning of Christmas in a way that David Sedaris could only explain to you.   

Paolo Andino - Photo by Evan Martin

Paolo Andino, playing Crumpet, is an amazing actor and wonderful in this role.   He is very elf like and moves about with specific dexterity. Elves float, or so did this one.  Starting with his arms out stretched and his back bent to the floor, little glove-like wings, flapping up, up, and up to the sky did little Crumpet fly.  Not sure of the reason, just thought it was a good action.  Maybe Crumpet was taking a breath from the turmoil and not a bad action on stage. (But, let’s see the build, Crumpet!)  Crumpet is the center of his universe and fortunately very aware of everything outside his natural being. Andino is an actor with enormous talent and is willing to throw himself all over the stage to make us laugh. Crumpet is nice when he wants to be, and an insidious evil elf when the occasion arises, and it does. Andino is magnificent!

I saw this play two years ago and this version of Michael Matthews directed play is a lot funnier and works in remarkable ways.  I believe part of it is his growth.  Matthews works a lot.  Every time I turn around, he’s working on something else and the work keeps getting better and better. Matthews moved Crumpet to every part of that stage without a wasted movement and had us hollering with laughter throughout the night.

Joe Mantello does an excellent job adapting David Sedaris's autobiographical essay into the very funny play which was throughly enjoyed by the audience this night. 

I loved the Set Design by Sean Vasquez.  It was so warm, playful with a slightly cartoonish look, and a lot of fun.  Very Christmacy!

Also, I am thankful I got to share this with my girls. This is a night I will carry with me forever.

Other members of this delightful show are:

Daniel Henning, Matthew Graber, Noah Wyle – Producers
Monica Chereches, AJ Jones, Ashley Key, Evan Martin, Stephen Moffat, Jason Weiss – Associate Producers
Tim Swiss – Lighting Design
Warren Davis – Sound Design
Michael Mullen – Costume Design
Sarah A. Bauer – Stage Manager
Sean Lewellyn, Gabe Holguin – Carpentry
Scott David, Erica Silverman – Casting
Ken Werther Publicity – Public Relations.

Run!  And bring someone who likes to wear green pointy shoes with shiny bells on the tips.

Through December 16, 2012

Monday, November 26, 2012

Their Eyes Saw Rain by West Liang

L - R Oscar T. Basulto, Marc Pelina, West Liang, Pamela Guest, Kavin Panmeechao

By Joe Straw

I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing any productions at The Company of Angels. They’ve been around “forever” over on Hyperion and, six years ago, they moved to the haunted Alexandria Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Spring Street.

I arrived a little early and witnessed “different” kinds of people in front of the building.  Multiple tattoos, shaved heads and bodies parts pierced from artists seemed to be the norm at the Alexandria Hotel. 

But, from the outside, there was no trace of the theatre other than the huge Company of Angels flag flying outside of the hotel.

I make a quick trip through the lobby and notice old people sitting, who appeared to be sleeping or thinking and not bothering to look up as I passed.  Actually, this looked like the beginnings of a terrifying Kubrick film.

“The Company of Angels, third floor, that elevator over there.” said a man at the information desk, holding a phone on his ear, and interrupting his conversation like he’s probably done a thousand times before.  

Looking like a scene from an old Hitchcock film, the elevator rumbled to the third floor.  Step out, no signs, no people, only hotel doors. Now, I am totally freaked out. – The narrator.

The Company of Angels presents the World Premier of Their Eyes Saw Rain written by West Liang and directed by Justin Huen at the Alexandria Hotel on Spring Street in Los Angeles.

First, this is a shoddy title for a play.   I prefer “They Saw Rain”, or “He Saw Rain”.  But what do eyes do but see?  Isn’t “eyes saw” redundant?

Nevertheless, Their Eyes Saw Rain is a wonderful Twilight Zone science fiction thriller, with wonderful performances, by a very exciting cast.  The play is under the skillful direction of Justin Huen, who will have you squirming in your seats, and dripping with fear, as the show leads the audience into an unexpected nightmare of an ending.   

Once you leave the theatre, connecting the dots in this thriller is a wonderful exercise. One can’t help but sit down and decipher all that was witnessed. I love it when that happens. I believe this play has more meaning than the literal description in the press release.

The play starts with a man as he sits on his porch watching the rainfall.  The setting is sometime in the late forties in a small dying southern town known as Castle. Since an unexpected death 70 days ago, it has rained nonstop.  Or so, that’s what some people think.

Upstage center sits Terrance (West Liang), a lonely young Asian American man.  He watches as the rain falls off his porch and onto the ground listening as the thunder rolls in the background. Terrance lights himself a joint or a cigarette, takes a deep breath, and coughs violently. He stands, with his head extended away from his body near his chest, and he blinks forcefully, trying to wipe the floating images that continually linger in his eyes.  Something is wrong.  He is violent in manner, without verifiable reason.

“Billy!  Get your jacket on! Billy!” – Terrance

Joanus (Kavin Panmeechao), his other brother, comes into the room instead with some unexpected news that he is unwilling to divulge.  Instead he talks about a cookbook.  In fact, they talk about books all the time as though they were selling them.

“Listen.  We’ll be late.” – Terrance

“I’m ready.  Want me to fetch him?” – Joanus

But all Terrance can do is vigorously shine his shoes, and not very well at that.  Still he attempts an aggressive attack on the toes.  And he shines Billy’s shoes as well, toes only.  

Joanus hesitantly says that Billy needs some down time and that sends Terrance into a tither.  

Billy, hearing the angry noises, comes out.  But he is not ready.  Oddly enough Billy is wearing the same black coat, and tattered black pants, as the two brothers. But he is not wearing his black tie.  He is in his stocking feet and he doesn’t want to go.  

Terrance slaps Billy. It is a violent slap signifying something more sinister than that of an angry man.

“We stay together.” - Terrance

Joanus ties Billy’s tie and they leave for places unknown.

L - R Samantha Klein, James Thomas Gilbert 

Meanwhile, in another part of town, Peach (Samantha Klein) steps into her kitchen, wearing a stained slip, and reading or cutting coupons from the paper. From outward appearances, she is dirt poor, and does whatever she can to get by.  Stepping out from the bathroom, with no shirt and tightening a belt around his waist, Jake (James Thomas Gilbert) walks into the kitchen as though he is very familiar with the home and Peach.

Peach reads from the papers that the school is closing, which she takes as a sign that things are moving in the wrong direction. Jake thinks the school closing is just fine.  

Nevertheless, Jake wants more.  He wants to get married to Peach and to take care of her and her boy, Joseph. Only there is a slight problem.  Even though he’s the sheriff of this dead-end town, Peach does not love him.  She informs Jake that she has been seeing Joanus for some time.

That doesn’t sit too well with Jake as he slaps on his gun, throws on his sheriff’s shirt, and takes a swig of some nasty liquor.  

In another part of town, Rosetta (Pamela Guest) enters the room with cookies, offering the boys every bit of southern hospitality. 

Fable (Oscar T. Basulto), Rosetta’s husband, carries a stick.  He playfully wants to know if the boys have a book on sex. He takes a liking to this form of education much to the dismay of Rosetta.

Terrance starts to cough violently and runs out of the room. Billy and Joanus tell Rosetta that everything is fine and really   “…there is no fixing things in Castle”.

“Billy, its getting worse.” - Rosetta  

Rosetta likes Billy.  She sees a light from his eyes and takes the initiative to help Terrance with this disease that he appears to have caught from his father.

Fable has also seen that the disease is getting worse in Terrance.

“Nothing is getting any better, Terrance.” – Fable

Terrance assures Rosetta and Fable that they are making progress.

Later that night, Joanus is with Peach and it is clear that Peach is infatuated with him.  But Joanus tries to dissuade her by saying that Jake wants her.

“I don’t want him.” – Peach

Joanus says he’s got no money except what he carries around in a shell of a book that he turns over to her.  (She says she got a job but it’s not clear what she does as she seems to be in her slip all day long.)

Peach wants to change this boy who is barely a man.  Even Joanus admits he “ain’t strong like a man.”  But Peach brushes that aside.

“Change don’t come from wishing things.” – Peach

Meanwhile Jake stops by Terrance’s home.  He enters and lights a cigarette, which don’t sit too well with Terrance.  He tells Terrance that he wants to speak to Joanus because he has a bone to pick with him and things got to change, even in Castle.  

“I’ve been fine to you boys since your daddy died.” – Jake

Jake gives the impressions he wants the “boys” out of town and soon.  Terrance tells him Jake may be a bigger man now that he’s wearing his father’s sheriffs uniform but that Terrance and his brothers aren’t going anywhere.  Even Billy tells him to “git”.

“Someone will be leaving Castle, and it ain’t me. – Jake

To gather support, Jake starts a petition for community residents to sign asking for the “boys” to leave.   Rosetta and Fable refuse to sign.  Jake argues that he is protecting the people of the community. Jake may be doing this but for the wrong reasons.

In the beginning of the second act, Rosetta has a secret while the town meeting is taking place.  She passes out cookies to the audience of the town meeting (us). When Terrance starts to cough violently, Dr. Landy (Gregory Niebel) comes down to help.  That’s when we are privy to a remarkable truth that takes us to the shocking ending.

There are a number of fascinating aspects to this production although much of it is open to dramatic interpretation. But suffice it to say that this is a wonderful production by fantastic actors giving it their all.

Oscar T. Basulto as Fable did a fine job although I didn’t understand why he carries a stick around with him. The stick must have a purpose, and must be connected to the story, otherwise why have the stick?  And as much as I liked his performance, I would have liked to see a stronger choice, a clearer emotional life, and a stronger objective. Still, there was some very nice work done.

James Thomas Gilbert was incredible as Jake, the sheriff.  He is the small-town sheriff that doesn’t have enough sense to go after bigger fish. Actually, he’s unaware of the big fish. If he was aware, I think he go about the expulsion a different way. Interestingly enough (and probably by mistake), Jake has his pulse on what he must do around Castle. Try as he might, he will never get the girl. Gilbert does a remarkable job.

Pamela Guest plays Rosetta and is sympathetic. She has a soft spot for one of the boys. And she has long-standing relationships with them, although the nature of the relationship is unclear.  She humors her husband but pushes to get these boys professional help because of a need that she sees.  Guest is marvelous in this role searching for a dramatic truth.   She is physically and emotionally specific to the character in a job well done.

Samantha Klein as Peach is torn between two men. One she has given up on, still he is there, coming out of her backroom partially clothed, making him coffee, and emotionally supporting him.  There is a slightly sinister side to her behavior.  She is in love with another man and she makes no bones about wanting out of relationship with her “law friend”.  She uses him to get things fixed around the house: fixing the toilet and fixing the radio. Still she supplies him with liquor, so maybe she wants a little more.  Klein is very good in the role and presents a fertile emotional life.  But her intentions with each man is secretive and possibly not all that honorable. Klein’s working class portrayal is simply splendid.

West Liang does a marvelous job as Terrance.  His amygdaliform eyes straining, constantly blinking away the sight of seventy days of perpetual rain, knowing full well something is wrong.  Perhaps he has a bad case of ombrophobia. As the character, Terrance believes he needs to take care of his brothers at all cost. He is not willing to leave them but he also understands they need to make a living and does his best to keep them focused on making money so they can survive. Liang is magnificent in the role he wrote.  And he brings very specific physical actions to compliment a volatile inner life.

Kavin Panmeechao plays Joanus, the middle brother.   He seems conflicted in his relationship to Peach and with leaving his younger brother to the ruthless demands of his older brother. Panmeechao could show us more of his objective and the conflict that interferes with that objective.

Marc Pelina plays the younger brother, Billy.  Billy seems to be the smartest of the three brothers and he knows this life is going to get him into a lot of trouble.  Try as he might to get away from something contagious, he is bullied into remaining with his brothers. Pelina’s objective is not focused.  He needs to find someone—his brother or his neighbors—to help him with his predicament.  

Gregogy Niebel does some exciting work as Dr. Landy/Daddy. He is a caring community doctor who tries to help Terrance of this affliction.  He’s seen it before; he knows about it, he tries to administer some kind of help.  But in the end, he can’t help the patient if the patient is unwilling to help himself. Niebel has a commanding stage presence and has two very exciting parts and really shines in both.  

This can’t be a story about small town tribulations; we’ve already seen that.  There is something more to West Liang’s play.  The play has a deeper meaning pointing to something very sinister underneath.  The town people are slightly aware that something is creeping up on them but they seem helpless to stop or to get help.  No one takes corrective measures because they are not fully aware of the problem.  One can walk away seeing what they want to see in this production, a literal presentation, or a dramatic play that takes us deeper in our self conscious being.

There are simple things in the play that are missing in Justin Huen’s direction.  The brothers wipe the books they are selling in preparation of a sell but money is never exchanged.   Terrance articulates an idea of taking it over the empty school, yet he doesn’t have a plan and he doesn’t move in that direction.   There appears to be a concerted effort by his neighbors to get him to the school to get medical attention but that action is not visible on stage.   The other characters do not question Terrance’s motives or sanity.  They should know something is wrong when a man sees rain for seven months when it hasn’t been raining.  But they don’t know how to help him.  But aside from these small quibbles,  Mr. Huen has done a remarkable job and is worthy of your immediate attention. 

The fight scenes by Fight Director Edgar Landa were very real and very violent and I squirmed when bodies hit the floor.

Other members of this remarkable production are:

Produced by: Richard Azurdia
Stage Manager: Jennifer Perez
Assistant Stage Manager: Adam Gonzalez
Scenic Design: Gregory A. Crouch
Assistant Scenic Design: Luis Galindo
Lighting Design: Justin Huen
Costume Design: Jackie Gudgel
Sound Design: Howard Ho
Prop Master: Art McDermott
Fight Director: Edgar Landa
Graphic Design: Xavi Moreno

Run!  And take a friend with an open mind.

Through December 16th, 2012

Friday, November 23, 2012

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Michael Benz as Hamlet

By Joe Straw

Two women, wearing black, were having a great time at the theatre the night I went.  They were sitting in front of me and every time there was a recognizable quote from Hamlet they turned toward each other, smiled, and nodded affirmatively.  And then they directed their attention back toward the stage and continued their observation of the performance. -  The Narrator.

The Broad Stage is a very nice place to go.  There is always free parking without arriving too early.  The atmosphere is always friendly and everyone at the door greets you like a long lost friend.   

KCRW presents Hamlet by William Shakespeare and directed by Bill Buckhurst.  Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is back in town doing what they do best.  Tonight I was fortunate to be invited back to The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage to witness the performance.

Oddly enough, the set, Designed by Jonathan Fensom, was similar to The Comedy of Errors set, I had seen last year.  It was slightly different but the same shell of a space.  

Paul Russell, Lighting Designer, decided to keep the house lights up during the performance, for reasons unknown to me.  The actors, in this light, arrive on set in character, jovial, and in pursuit of a lighthearted objective.  They prepare themselves by adding wardrobe accouterments enhancing the finishing touches of their costumes also designed by Jonathan Fensom.  

When the last belt was tightened, and the last boot strapped, the actors grabbed an instrument and played away at a 17th Century English traditional song “A Begging I Will Go.” A diapason sound fit the occasion and certainly it is a song for pugnacious actors.  Notwithstanding “Begging” is a lighthearted number that introduces us to the play, Hamlet.  And it worked quite nicely, a very light touch of an introduction, for a play that we all know ends in a horrific bloodbath.  

The play starts with a whisper, an underscore of things that happen late in the night.  Two guards Marcellus (Peter Bray) and Bernardo (Matthew Romain) wait for the moments when an eidolon, the dead King Hamlet’s apparition, appears around the guarded walls of the castle at Elsinore.

Frightened, and chilled from the cold night air, the two are not willing to hold their tongue and so Marcellus and Bernardo tell Horatio (Tom Lawrence) of the sights they have repeatedly seen on a series of nights.  And just when they are telling the tale, the apparition appears stalking through the castle walls.  They cry out to the ghost but the ghost ignores them as he passes from room to room.  Horatio believes the ghost will only talk to Hamlet and runs to tell Hamlet the news.

Meanwhile, the iniquitous Claudius (Dickson Tyrrell) is now the new king.  He is espoused to Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Miranda Foster), in a hastily arranged marriage not two months after the sudden and unexpected demise of his brother, King Hamlet (Dickson Tyrrell).   

Hamlet (Michael Benz), the son, laments the passing of this father.  Claudius, happy to occupy the throne, wastes no time evaluating Hamlet’s imponderable mourning.    

“But you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, …

…but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ‘ tis unmanly grief;”  - King

With his manhood questioned Hamlet feels he must bide his time but he is not too happy about the outcome.  

“With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good;
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.” - Hamlet

Claudius must not feel he is king.  Certainly his ill-fitting wardrobe does not give him a regal appearance and he lacks the backbone and fortitude to stand up to his enemies, known or unknown.  He worries about the invasion of the Norwegian crown prince Fortinbras and hastily sends his ambassadors to stop the invasion.

Horatio anxiously tells Hamlet he has seen his father, has seen his face, knows it is he, and invites Hamlet up to the guard post at night to see the vision they have all experienced.   

Meanwhile Polonius (Christopher Saul), lord chamberlain, has a broken heart.  His children have grown, and with time running out, Polonius imparts his wisdom to his son Laertes (Matthew Romain) before Laertes leaves for France. And after this impassioned farewell Polonius turns his sight on Ophelia (Carlyss Peer) and warns his daughter Ophelia that she must be cautious with Hamlet.

“Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence;
Set your entreatments at a higher rate
Than a command to parley.” – Polonius

Hamlet’s hamartia is his youth as he rushes to the guard post to see his father. Hamlet, incurious, when he arrives, speaks with Horatio and Marcellus.  Suddenly the ghost appears and beckons Hamlet to follow him.  Horatio and Marcellus tremble at the repercussions and hold Hamlet until he breaks free.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” - Marcellus

The ghost leads him to another part of the castle with Hamlet pleading for him to speak only to find that it is not his father. (I am not your father.)

“I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,” – Ghost

(Okay, a technicality.)

The ghost tells Hamlet that he is doomed because of what he did in his life. (Just when you thought he was the good king!)  The ghost imparts his wisdom of the afterlife without going into specifics, which is all humorously articulated in the telling.  

And then the ghost tells Hamlet he was murdered by his brother Claudius and gives his the details of his murder.  He seeks his son to revenge his death.  

“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” – Ghost

Not wanting to leave Hamlet without fond remembrances the ghost embraces Hamlet with an unnatural love, and speaks.

“Adieu, adieu!  Hamlet, remember me.” - Ghost

This is the moment Hamlet makes up his mind about his uncle and his mother.

“O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!

…So, uncle, there you are.  Now to my word;
It is ‘Adieu, adieu!  Remember me.’
I have sworn’t “ - Hamlet

Hamlet makes a decision after he has secured the truth. Revenge is a seed planted in fertile ground.  And Hamlet has that seedling sprouting many evil machinations.  It will never end until the end is finished and done with ‘til the last line is spoken and the last breath is taken. There is no turning back once you have sworn to it.

“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,” – Hamlet

“He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.” – Hamlet

Hamlet asks his friends to swear they will never mention what they have seen this night.

“Never to speak of this that you have seen,
Swear by my sword.” – Hamlet

And repeatedly the ghost asks them to swear.

“Swear!” – Ghost


“Swear!” – Ghost

So aggravated by the ghost, Hamlet moves from place to place to avoid his constant verbal barrage until he has had enough.  

“Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!” – Hamlet 

Later Polonius wants Reynaldo to go to Paris, find out what Danes are there, and more or less to check up on his son, Laertes.  

Ophelia enters and tells Polonius that Hamlet is acting very peculiar and Polonius goes to the Queen to speak to her on Hamlet’s condition.

The whispers continue around the castle as the King and Queen have summoned Rosencrantz (Peter Bray) and Guildenstern (Matthew Romain), Hamlet friends, to enlist their help in discovering Hamlet’s ailment and strange behaviors.   

“… and now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of the defect,
For this effect defective come by cause:
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus,” – Polonius to Queen

A befuddled Polonius tells the King and Queen that he will speak to Hamlet.  Hamlet, at this point, seems off his rocker. Polonius thinks, “he is far gone, far gone”.

Moments later, and sane again, Hamlets happily greets his childhood friends but with reservations. He asks Rosencratz and Guildenstern what is their purpose at Elsinore.  The sycophants feign innocence but then tell Hamlet they were sent for.  So they are, in fact, spies and it doesn’t take Hamlet long to catch on despite what Rosencrantz tells him.

“My lord, there was not such stuff in my thoughts.” – Rosencrantz to Hamlet

Hamlet has started the execution of his play with the actors arriving.  A casting session begins with Hamlet praising the actors, wanting to hear their recent works. Polonius is there to assist in the casting and after the auditions are complete Hamlet sends him off with the rest of the actors.  But, in the meantime, Hamlet grabs the first player (Dickson Tyrrell) and secretly tells him that he will have more for him to act.

“could for a need, study speech of some dozen
or sixteen lines, which I would set down and
insert in’t, could you not?” – Hamlet to First Player

Hamlet dismisses his actors and laments about what he about to do in front of the King and Queen.

“O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” – Hamlet
…Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!
Why, what as ass am I?” – Hamlet

Hamlet performs the play to observe the looks of the King, to see if the play speaks hard to the truth.  The moment of truth sends a dagger swiftly into the conscious heart of a traitorous king.

There are a lot of marvelous moments in Bill Buckhurst’s version of Hamlet. Everyone has his or her own ideas of how this play should be played and I admired Buckhurst take.  It is fun and too marvelous for words.  The play within a play works to perfection and the discovery of the King and Queen’s expression after the revelation was brilliant.  

There are nearly thirty characters in this play but we get a scaled down version of eight playing a variety of roles and succeeding marvelously.

Michael Benz plays Hamlet.  Young and energetic Benz flies from place to place to capture the spirit of the role.  As the character this Hamlet was soft, not intellectual in the ways that maturity would make him.  And because of his youth, Hamlet seems to accept all information as truth, there was not a point where there was disbelief, wanting more information, and then deciding that his father was indeed waiting for him. He recklessly takes arms against of sea of trouble without thinking through the consequences.  And his actions are fraught with mistakes and without remorse, which leads him to his tragic fate. And, where is the quintessential moment that drives him over the edge in his pursuit?  Is it because the ghost tells him so?  Benz has an interesting characterization of the role.  As the prince the relationship between royalties and other member of his entourage was not distinct, not specific.  Hamlet’s relationship with his ghostly father – King v Prince, or father v son (slightly different).  He treats them without a royal regard, which I found interesting.  What does it mean when a mortal confronts ghost that is his father?  This can’t be an everyday occurrence even for the Prince Hamlet. Could it possibly be that he thinks he is the rightful heir to the throne?  He must think so.  He kills Polonius with little regard, (opps) and throws a curtain on him with very little affection.  This prince was ill suited for the throne, possibly something lacking in his character to wear the crown. And if his objective were to be the King, he would have been a bad one because he gets lost in the details of his revenge.

Christopher Saul was marvelous as Polonius. His art and craft was impeccable.  Not a wasted movement and specific in his objective.  It is so much fun to watch an actor with this kind of talent, watching each role filled with so much life. This is certainly an inspired performance and one not to miss. Saul also played Francisco, Player, First Gravedigger and the Priest and excelled at all.  

Dickson Tyrrell played Claudius, the King. As Claudius he seems ill suited to have the crown. Nothing fits. The clothes he wears, the decisions he makes.  His actions are precautionary rather than decisive and affirmative. And he sure is sneaky! Tyrrell is wonderfully offbeat in this characterization of Claudius. He also plays Ghost, First Player, and the Player King.

Carlyss Peer plays Ophelia.  There was something chilling about her, her relationship with her brother, and her deep admiration in a man who seemed devilish at times. Finding a way through that relationship, tugged on her mental and physical securities. She battles with her father and brother that tells her she is not good enough for Hamlet. (It’s no wonder this woman in love is mentally unstable.)  Ophelia’s appearance indicates that she was not internally affected by the events around her. And yet, she takes chances with her life, purposefully falling into the water and floats downstream in a simple act of suicide.  And as quiet as that event may have been, she waits for the inevitable events of gravity to drag her down to the murky bottom.  Peer also plays Voltemand. Wonderful job!

Miranda Foster plays Gertrude, the Queen. As the character she believes she has no choice but to let the men in her life change the course of her life.  But Gertrude has strength.  After all she was the Queen at one time.  Hard times have befallen her but she has the ability to rise to the occasions and not be so darn weak. Natheless, it was a very fine performance.

Tom Lawrence was quite marvelous as Horatio.  He is in touch with his instrument and was at ease on stage.  As Horatio he has a gentle smile and a way that would convince us that he is Hamlet’s trusted friend. He is there for the Hamlet’s bitter end and requested, by Hamlet, not to drink the poison but to tell the story.  Lawrence plays Reynaldo and Captain as well. And we are all better for it. Nice job!

Peter Bray plays Rosencrantz, Marcellus, Osric, and Prince Fortinbras all with impish dexterity, a slight smile, and a flit of the wrist.  Bray has a commanding presence and does a magnificent job.

Matthew Romain plays Laertes, Bernardo, Guildenstern, and Lucianus. Laertes is a strong character that did not learn from his father.  Actually, he has questionable characteristics.  At least his father believes so.  He flies off the handle without examining and blames Hamlet for the death of his father and his sister.  Romain played Laertes with honor, with a backbone, and with the belief that he must stand for the honor of his father and his sister. With his head held high he rolled with honor to defend the only life he has known.

Other members of this fine cast and crew are:

Dominic Dromgoole – artistic director, director
Tom Bird and Sacha Milroy – executive producers
Laura Forrest-Hay – original score
Bill Barclay – composer and arranger
Sian Williams – choreographer
Kevin McCurdy – fight director
Giles Block – Globe associate – text
Glynn MacDonald – globe associate – movement
Martin McKellan – voice and dialect
Alison Convey – assistant director
Chloe Stephens – assistant choreographer
Ng Choon Ping – assistant choreographer
Paul Russell and Dave McEvoy – production managers
Wills – technical manager
Marion Marrs – company manager
2Luck Concepts, Eleanor Oldham & John Luckacovic – USA general management
Claire Godden, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, UK general management

Support for Shakespeare at The Broad is generously provided by Linda and Michael Keston.

Through November 25, 2012

Run!  Take a friend named Yorick.  You will both laugh the night away.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Seed: A Weird Act of Faith by Sigrid Gilmer

by Joe Straw

Norman Ernest Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009) is credited with saving a billion lives across the world.  He received his Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942.  He also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contribution to the world food supply.  - Narrator

Pete Wilson was my band teacher at New Providence Jr. High School.   His groomed pencil thin mustache was as wide as the baton he angrily banged against a metal music stand saying:  “This band is only as good as your worst player”.  I disagree, I believe you are at your best, when working as part of a team, and you are inspired to rise to the level of your best player.  

Seed:  A Weird Act of Faith by Sigrid Gilmer and directed by Shishir Kurup is being presented by the Cornerstone Theater Company at the Chuco’s Justice Center, 1137 E. Redondo Blvd. Inglewood, CA  90302.

When one ventures to see the Cornerstone Theatre Company, one has to take into consideration that all the actors are not all professionals.  Some actors are hired from the community and those actors are intersperced among more experienced actors.  This is a very good way to introduce the world of acting to a diverse community.

So, someone venturing into this world of theatre must consider the range of experience when seeing a Cornerstone theatrical production. (Cafe Vida was exceptional!) Avid theatergoers may have trepidations, but those see value to helping themselves to a bit of social consciousness may appreciate all Cornerstone has to offer. Sometimes it works other times not so effective.  And I’ll get to that not so effective, later.

The play starts with the cock crowing, somewhere in South Los Angeles, the sun coming out and store owners, Mom (Maria Cano) and Pop (LA Hopi) opening up their store and getting ready for the day. Pop kisses Mom and leaves for places unknown and then re-appears at the end of the day.

There are video footages throughout this play starting when the “History of Agriculture” is projected on a screen and we learn about this history through the story of the hunters and the gatherers.  They are cute little people carrying spears and wearing animal loins.  When the hunters run out of food, the gatherers find something they all can eat. They call the food “whatever”. (Weird.) They also find the food grows again in the places where they have gone to the bathroom.  They gain knowledge of what is growing all around them.

Present day South Los Angeles is now a food desert and two “Gods” E. (Gilbert Molina) and Xochi (Thabisile Griggin) bet against one other that this land cannot be cultivated into food. Xochi will destroy the world on December 21, 2012 (rings a bell for Mayan calendar end-of-the-world enthusiasts) if this barren land cannot be converted. E. is a little more optimistic about the inhabitants of South Los Angeles.

Well, as faith would have it, various people come to work the land and make food and without knowing it, try to destroy the plans of the evil God, Xochi. Farmer (Lorinda Hawkins) lies in her soil after having a “Dear Jane” post-it note stuck to her large growing broccoli, Broc (Joel Jimenez).  A little more weirdness!

Meanwhile Xochi is busy helping herself to the “Spicy Bobs” (a spicy Cheetos like substance) and getting larger each time she reappears.

Keisha (Adanna Kenlow) and Desmond Styles (Flores) meet, under the moon, on virgin soil knowing their act will create good soil for their crops.  

Across the globe, somewhere in Iraq, an Iraqi man hiding is carrying seeds in his hands.   He tells the American soldier (Martin Lemus, Jr.) to keep the seeds.

Naturally, CEO (Marcenus “MC” Earl), head of Monsanto-like Dillagraf, is busy producing talking points on chemically biogenetic engineered foods. He speaks about industrial agriculture that won’t taste any better but will feed the hungry masses.  (Just what we need!)  

Keisha says she wants to grow her own and she wants it to be organic. She wants to feed great tasting food to those who need it.

Meanwhile the Gods reappear and want to keep an eye on these growers.  And they do this by posing as students filming a documentary.  

Lorinda Hawkins plays farmer. She is an extraordinary actress with a remarkable voice.  She can only wallow in her garden hoping she is doing the right thing. She is degraded and demoralized by finding the post-it note on her broccoli, still she knows what she is doing is for the greater good.

Joel Jimenez plays Broc.  And I know it’s tough establishing a relationship with anyone when you’re a plant growing in the field, but it is a job that must be realized. I enjoyed Jimenez’s performance and I always thought a broccoli character as being sarcastic in thought as was delightfully portrayed.  

Obi Ndefo was outstanding as Don Henry, a spiritual leader of the group.  He is one who sees the future but cannot articulate it.  His relationship with the Gods should have more depth, since he is the one with the vision.  He is the sententious puppet trying to find a way to make his mark in the group. His characters were all wonderfully thought out and a joy to watch.

Desmond Styles as Flores also did a very nice job and has a very good look for other forms of media as well.

Adanna Kenlow as Keisha was very funny and was someone who knows her craft.  

Marcenus “MC” Earl as the CEO also did a very nice job in his role in his honest portrayal of a man who works for a devious food corporation.   

Other members of the cast are Mario Cano, Jennifer Garcia, Thabisile Griffin, René Günter, LA Hopi, Martin Lemus Jr., Bianca Molina, Gilbert Molina, Dyane Pascall, Lupita Salazar, Neelam Sharma, and David Weinstein was an understudy.

Farms are like relationships; it takes a lot of work to keep them moving in the right direction.  And the craft of acting is the same, a lot of hard work, to keep the career moving in the right course. But actors work at their craft for satisfaction and the chance for paying jobs.  They should also have their photographs in the program (if economically feasible) and especially have their character’s name beside their name. The actors play for the opportunity to be seen and they should be afforded the recognition.

There are some really wonderful moments in Sigrid Gilmer’s play but overall the play seemed like a work-in-progress, an inchoate idea still in development.  Some characters are multi-dimensional, other not.  The lives of the characters did not connect, was not cohesive, and did not move the action to the denouement.   Their lives were separate entities, living an existence, within their inner circle, rarely having a change in relationships, and rarely bonding with others with the same goal in mind. Some are articulate with mics, others not so articulate even with the mics. The Farmer has little or no relationship with Broc even though he is the biggest weirdest singing thing in her garden. Seed is probably the best title of this play.  Take the “Weird” out of the title because even though it is odd, it’s best not to let the audience in on this little secret.  Let the message come out in the play, this is a show where things needs to be discovered.

Shirshir Kurup, the director, has a lot going on in this production and it is possibly too much to keep focus of the play.  There are obese puppets, video, singing broccoli, and dancing and nothing leads us to that moment that captures what this production is trying to say. There is a time element involved as well but we never see the characters fighting against the clock, or aware of the clock for that matter. We saw plenty of fake dirt, but hardly anything grows on stage.  There are rows and rows of food growing on a still photo, but they never get past the baby stage and we never get a sense that they grew any food at all. Also, there were a lot of risers on stage accomplishing little. Every scene change had little or no focus and we could have done without 90% of those risers.  Lots of artificial dirt on stage, smoke for no reason (odd but the smoke smelled like my cafe mocha in the morning). Most actors were wearing mics; instead the money could have been better spent giving voice lessons to those actors that needed it.  Also the mics were not seen in the videos and while it was an interesting idea, really didn’t work.
I'm not picking on Cornerstone here but a little symbolism goes a long way.  Get rid of the mics, the videos, the risers, and concentrate on the story and the acting.

The other member of the crew were:
Frederica Nascimento – Scenic Desing
Raquel M. Barrento - Costume Design
Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz – Lighting Design
Colbert Davis – Sound Design
Tom Ontiveros – Projection Design
Lynn Jeffries – Puppet Design (Nice work!)
Sean T. Cawelti – Props Design
Nikki Hyde – Stage Manager
Melody Kanschat – Executive Producer
Jon Neustadter, Margaret Leong Checca – Producers

Go.  Take someone who likes to plant food and watch things grow.