Thursday, November 24, 2016

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang

L - R Nate Golon, Christine Dunford, Brian Drillinger, Michelle Danner, Remy Nozik, Tamika Katon-Donegal - Photos by Teferi Seifu

By Joe Straw

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang was my first Broadway show.  I had orchestra seats and was three rows back from the stage (see review on this blog).  It was a wonderful New York scene, a wonderful evening, and a wonderful play.  Months later, another version played in downtown Los Angeles directed by David Hyde Pierce.  I did not see it, so when the chance came to see it at a smaller theatre, The Edgemar Center for the Arts, I jumped at the chance. - Narrator

I usually don’t speak of the second act but Michelle Danner’s performance (Sonia) was breathtaking, so much so that I will remember the moment, forever, with indifference to the passing of time.  She stood silently, listening, accepting what was to come, alone in a room, the phone moving from one position of her body to the next. She spoke, now quiet, heeding, and projected a moment in theatre that plays upon an emotion so deep that it hurt, and brought joy, and carried forth unimaginable happiness, all in one unforgettable warm memory.  It is that dramatic moment when one wants to rise, vigorously applause, and say, “That’s what I’m talking about!” But for now, it’s about an absorbed moment, and one that I will remember the rest of my life, for the rest of my life!

Edgemar Center for the Arts presents Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, The Tony Award winning play written by Christopher Durang, directed by Barbara Tarbuck, and produced by Alexandra Guarrnieri is playing through December 11, 2016. (but dark on Thanksgiving weekend)

The play opens on Edvard Grieg’s – Peer Gynt – Suite No.1, Op. 46.1, and music for the morning, in a sitting area of a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Vanya (Brian Drillinger), in his pajamas, finds his chair, sits gingerly with a perfect hot cup of coffee, and waits for the blue heron to come to the pond nearby.

Sonia (Michelle Danner) saunters from the kitchen with a coffee cup and a diet soda.

“I brought you coffee, dearest Vanya.” – Sonia

“I have some.” – Vanya

Sonia sees the cup in his hand, glares, and appears perturbed, which might be an understatement, given the proclivity of her mental state.

Vanya and Sonia have been living together for quite some time.  They are in their 50’s and are accustomed to each other’s wants and needs. Despite their somber and un-miraculous morning, trouble brews, slightly, beneath the surface of the steaming cup.

“Oh.  But I bring you coffee every morning.” – Sonia

“Well, yes, but you weren’t available.” – Vanya

Chekhovian is a term used for a Chekhov character in a mood of introspection and frustration and that is clearly evident here in this house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, especially in this household, and in particular where coffee is concerned.  There is a dramatic weight to their inner feelings, unconsciously, each knowing where the other might be heading.

Sonia insists that Vanya take the coffee she has made especially for him.  But, before things get out of control, the docile Vanya accepts the coffee and life continues. For the moment, there is tranquility.

“Has the blue heron been at the pond yet this morning?” – Sonia

It takes just one sip of the coffee for Vanya to realize the cup he gave up tasted better, which he voices.  Well, that should not have been said – it makes Sonia feel bad, useless, and slightly pathetic all in one Chekhovian fell swoop.  

“I mean I have two pleasant moments every day in my f**king life, and one of them is bringing you coffee.” – Sonia  

Sonia then takes the non-preferred cup of coffee and smashes it somewhere near the kitchen (on this night, it doesn’t break and Sonia gives it another go) smashing it into unseen tiny pieces; she returns moments later to share the reason for breaking the cup, is that she hates her life and she hates him.

For now, Sonia has nothing, no one, so, and as a last resort she directs her attention to Vanya. She pines for Vanya. No luck again as Vanya marches to a different drummer. Besides, Sonia is related. She is the adopted sister, and has been with the family since the age of eight.   

As the moments tick away, Vanya’s coffee becomes cold again.  Politely, Sonia offers to heat it in the microwave, and with a delicate passion, and nimble feet she takes it. 

Vanya waits for the curiously inevitable as Sonia smashes that cup against the floor.

Neither one will volunteer to clean it up. They leave it for the maid, Cassandra (Tamika Katon-Donegal), who will join them later, bringing with her visions of doom and broken coffee cups.

“Beware of Hootie Pie.” – Cassandra

Cassandra tells Vanya and Sonia that her psychic powers connect Hootie Pie to them!  They will lose the house, become homeless, and they will eventually walk themselves to the poor house.

“Surely someone will give us a ride.” – Sonia

“No, you will walk.” - Cassandra

Moments later. Sonia says that Masha is coming to visit and no sooner does she say it, than Masha (Christine Dunford) and her oversexed 27-year-old boyfriend, Spike (Nate Golon), aka Vlad, arrive for a visit.

“Sweetest Vanya, dearest Sonia.  How I’ve missed you.  You both look the same. Older. Sadder. But the same.  It’s wonderful to see you, Vanya. Oh, and you too, Sonia.” – Masha

Spike ingratiates himself to the family, smothers Masha with kisses, throws off his clothes, and runs to the pond for a swim. There, he meets Nina (Remy Nozik), a lovely would-be actress, whom he invites back to the house to meet a real-life movie star.  

Barabara Tarbuck, the director, has put together a pretty amazing cast.  Each actor has moments to shine, but really, shine is an understatement, as each actor contributes mightily to a terrific night of entertainment.  Lost Chekhovian characters in search an unattainable goal.

For the record though, the first few moments of the opening scene were off in the way that Sonia and Vanya connect and establish a relationship.  And it is a relationship that fits with being a Chekhovian family; Sonya is discontent, upset, and regretful while Vanya is resigned to his lonely way of life.  It is here, in these first few moments, that one needs to see the actors connect, the relationships established, and the fury in their offbeat sense of self-pity pay off dramatically.  There is no need to rush this scene, establishing a relationship will give us a deeper connection between the characters and a stronger sense of self and place.  

Also, Vanya needs to be in a nightshirt which projects femininity, or someone who spends his time in bed with little or nothing to do, whereas pajamas give a masculine impression or of someone who has been ill for quite some time.  (Also, Durang writes that Vanya should be in a nightshirt.)

Brian Drillinger is Vanya, and is very exited about the birth of his new play. In fact, that is the only thing that excites him, well almost.  But most of the time, Vanya is a desultory character, both wry in wit and confused in purpose.  He has not had the enthusiasm to get what he wants from life.  He is content with doing little or nothing and living with his sister as long as it doesn’t cost him anything. Seeing the blue heron is the highlight of his day.  Warding off his sister and her advances is either an annoyance to him or an assault charge in some states. But what does he want aside from living in his nightshirt? He is a budding playwright and maybe he wants his words to save the world, if he only knew how to get started. Drillinger has his moments but needs something extra to complete the character – an additional mannerism or another vocal inflection – all in keeping with his objective. The monologue at the end has a purpose, trying to get your message across, and connecting to make everyone’s life better. Drillinger has a lot of fun and is a pleasure to watch.

Michelle Danner is remarkable as Sonia, a character that stepped out of a Chekov play. Sonia’s backstory is clear – she has sacrificed her life to take care of her adoptive parents.  Now, she has nothing to show for it, not even the house.  She needs her one true love before all is said and done. Without realizing it, she moves in that direction. But she is saddled with the mental problems of being bi-polar and having a self-diagnosed incipient dementia. She spends her days making references to Chekov about there being no life.   Still, there is something very lovable about this woman whose father once called her his little artichoke.

Christine Dunford

Christine Dunford is brilliant as the aging movie star, Masha, who sends zingers to her siblings and anyone within earshot.  She is highly aware of her own self-importance despite the slasher movie roles that have now becoming infrequent.  Forced film retirement due to age, Masha dreams of turning her attention to performing on the stage.   Masha brings bad news of selling the house and throwing her siblings into the street.  She fails to think about her siblings and what their lives would be like without the home. Five marriages later, she is onto her boy toy and not really finding happiness.  Finding the one thing that makes her completely happy is the reason she makes the decision at the end.  Dunford is a brilliant actor who creates an astonishing physical and comedic life on stage.  

Nate Golon

Nate Golon is superior as Spike, a man in his physical prime, if not an emotional one.  He is happy to be the boy-toy not only with his girlfriend but also with anyone that may cross his physical unclothed path, which included everyone in or around this household, male or female, gay or straight, as long as they notice, him. Spike is an actor who has not gotten past the audition stage but hopes that one day, one day, he will reach his mercurial destiny. This is a wonderful role for Golon and he fills the bill marvelously.  

Remy Nozik has an incredible presence on stage as Nina. She glides effortlessly from one moment to the next and is extraordinary in the way she handles adult conflict in her character’s youthful inexperienced life. Nozik has a very enchanting look suitable for film.

Tamika Katon-Donegal is very pleasant as Cassandra, a woman who has voodoo at her fingertips and the ability to tell the future while missing only some of the details, if anyone would listen. But Cassandra has a pretty good batting average with her predictions. Katon-Donegal has a very nice look on stage and manages to strike into the heart of the character.  One believes Katon-Donegal can take Cassandra to another extreme in character and costume and still gets what she wants which I believe is her job.

Christopher Durang, the writer, hit all the marks here and brings forth all of his knowledge of actors, writers, stars, and Chekhov in a wonderful night of entertainment.  The Sonia monologue plays to perfection; while I have seen Vanya’s scene at the end, I have yet to figure out what it is about, or what it accomplishes.  Can a character go completely Chekhovian and get what he wants?

Alessandra Manias the Production Designer has created a wonderful set, a pre-revolutionary style home with semi-modern accouterments, for which the actors can create their magic.  There is a bench upstage center that is very peculiar and not used.  One supposes it is an outside courtyard.

Other members of the crew who contributed mightily are as follows:

Carly Llewelyn-Ryan – Production Stage Manager
Anna Zak – Directors Assistant
Gianluca Zago – Production Design Assistant
Larae Mychel – Costume Designer
Kyle McAnally – Lighting Designer
DJ Medina – Sound Designer
Rob Riley – Associate Producer and Graphic Designer
Josephine Hies – Associate Producer

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves Stanislavsky and his ideas that Chekhov wrote delightful comedies.



RESERVATIONS: 310-392-7327


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Mariela in the Desert by Karen Zacarias


By Joe Straw

Mariela in the Desert by Karen Zacarias is a beautifully written play that plays upon desperate emotions - giving life to art.  Reminding us of love, life, and death, the words are a reflection of life - like staring into a mirroring pool of faultless water and honestly seeing the words that best describe you.     

The written words of Zacarias paint both a comedic and melancholy portrait of a family living on a ranch in a Mexican desert. Their lives are similar in the way Anton Chekov’s characters in Three Sisters want to leave for Moscow.  Happily listening to the words, understanding the emotions, and feeling the want, Zacarias may be the Latina Chekov of our times.

One comes to realize after so many years that artists are not truthful.  The artist’s life is one that has to be an exaggerated actuality, moving the truth meter to the extreme, farther to the right or to the left, but never in the middle because that is left for the heart, the core of truth.

Casa 0101 and Angel City Theater Ensemble presents Mariela in the Desert, written by Karen Zacarias, directed by Robert Beltran, and produced by Emmanuel Deleage through December 11, 2016.

The year is 1951 in a rustic ranch in the Northern desert of Mexico.  There is little to show at this ranch, with no running water, and little in the way of electricity.  Art is scattered in the home in the way they move the heart, paintings on the walls, and a special easel on display.

A lone bed (stage right) melts into the rustic floor, with bed sheets that may have been white in a previous carnation but are now discolored brown.   Jose lies on that bed, drips of perspiration fall into the lines of his face as he waits for the dramatic and the inevitable.  It can’t come any sooner for him.  He is old with many ailments, and he suffers while waiting for his wife Mariela (Rachel Gonzalez) to return from her errand.  He waits for his glorious bath.  

Mariela returns and methodically takes the sponge, dips it into the cold water, and squeezes the excess water into the pan beside the bed.  She rubs the cold sponge against his aging callus desert skin.  

“Damn that’s cold.” – Jose

“The doctor said that cold water…” Mariela

“Damn the doctors.” – Jose

Mariela does well maintaining her composure as she continues to bath Jose, to take care of him, to nurture whatever life is left in him. In her small verbal mentions – she gives him life and then takes it away with another expression of doubt – but never really gives him the truth.  

Mariela tells Jose that she sent the telegram to their daughter.  Thinking – before it is too late.  She has been gone all day on ragged roads, trying to avoid the extreme heat, and making sense of it all before the expected grim reaper arrives with his scythe.  

But Jose now lives his life in a furious mode, furious that his younger wife has left him alone all day.  Who knows what she was up to.  Mariela tells him that his sister Olivia (Denise Blasor) was there to help.

“My sister doesn’t count.  You were gone so long the sun must be setting.  What color is the sky? – Jose

Impassively Mariela says, “A thin line of crimson—a smear of dirty rose.  A winter sky.”

That settles Jose’s mind as he reflects on the desert that he calls “God’s canvas.”  But Mariela has had it with the desert, the heat, the way of life, and the isolation she feels living so far away from humanity. In truth - she dreams of Mexico City.

The truth comes slowly to Jose maybe because Mariela is hesitant to tell him. Mariela says she went to town to send a wire to their daughter, Blanca (Vannessa Vasquez). The time for letting go of a small secret nears and gradually she shares.

“I told her you were dead.” – Mariela

“What?” – Jose

“I told Blanca you were dead.” – Mariela

“Mariela!” Jose

“Yes. Dead.” – Mariela

“A little premature, don’t you think?” – Jose

Jose has fun with his unpredictable wife, Mariela.  His pains are forgotten for a brief moment as he takes delight in her unpredictability.

And despite finding humor in everyday life, Mariela knows that Jose is going to die.  Things are starting to go south and the insulin she injects into his backside seem to be more of annoyance than preventative measure to keep him alive, especially when he eats what he should not be eating. She also knows that Blanca would not have come unless the word was bad, very bad.

That’s not a bad way to get Blanca home in a hurry.

Mariela and Jose had sent their daughter away after the death of their son, Carlos (Kenneth Lopez). Mariela fights with Jose about that; seemingly all of the time, but that is old news. Now they look forward to Blanca coming home and the family reuniting again if not physically, then spiritually. They wait.

“So how do I look?” – Jose

“Pale and flushed.” – Mariela

“That bad? – Jose

“There are thick grooves of gray in your cheeks.   And your eyes are so dark and bright.  To capture you on canvas right now…” – Mariela

Spoken like the true artist that she is, or was, or still wants to be, Mariela retreats to the bathroom to clean the latrine.

“I dreamt of my large house – of an elegant husband – of children of my own.  Now, I live in a dark dress at the edge of the world in a parched house that my brother owns. Forever unmarried. Forever childless.  My hands are empty.  May heart is idle. I have nothing of my own.” – Oliva

Oliva (Denise Blasor) is Jose’s sister.  She is spry but nearing the end of her life and moving slightly toward senility. Oliva has issues with her sister-in-law Mariela. It is not a close relationship. But Mariela has assured Olivia that after Jose dies she will still have a home.

They both know Jose is dying and they want to make him as comfortable as possible, even serving him a little sliver of flan, despite his diabetes.

Oliva brings up the subject of Carlos’s eighteenth birthday had he lived.  Oliva wants to celebrate but Mariela doesn’t want to upset Jose.  Oliva whispers to Mariela that the people in the town tell stories about the fire and they see a little boy running in the desert.

Mariela laments about her son Carlos. And then her mind races back to an earlier time, a time when Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Tina Modotti, and Rufino Tamao visited them in Mexico.  It is at this party Jose has thoughts of moving to the desert, building a commune, and inviting all of their artist friends to visit and work.   

“The desert is God’s Canvas,” – Jose

In the backdrop, Mariela hears her baby Carlos crying while Jose rants about ugly Diego, his ugly paintings, and the coarseness of his brush strokes. Jose fights with Mariela convincing her to pose nude for Diego Rivera.  But, Mariela has her own terms in order for that to become a reality and her terms are something that Jose does not approve.

Back to the present, Jose groans with displeasure as he accuses his sister and wife of conspiring to kill him with the flan. But Mariela says it was only a sliver as Jose moans.

“Was it good?” – Mariela

“It was sweet, Very sweet. Creamy.” – Jose

Jose goes to bed but not before stabbing his sister with a fork.  Not much of an injury but something and Mariela takes care of before sitting outside Jose’s room to wait for his death.

And as the night takes its toll the Blanca, from the painting, speaks of a horrible truth, about that night when she was sent away.  Tonight, she returns like the desert winds with her boyfriend Adam Lovitz (Randy Vasquez) as they both grieve for Blanca’s dead father.

Robert Beltran, the director, does a remarkable job with Mariela in the Desert.  There is a sense of reflective truth in the telling of a story based on lies - from the little white lies to the profound untruths.  Mariela wants to go back to Mexico City.  She lies to enlist her daughter to come home.  Whether she is telling the truth, or a case of senility, Oliva is convinced Carlos is haunting the ranch. She tells anyone who wants to listen. Prodded by her mother, Blanca lies and tells her father that she is married.  And Jose tells the most profound lie that hurts the true artist in the family.

A couple of notes. The space is huge for a play that plays for an extremely intimate gathering. The bed absorbs the room especially when it is not in use.  And, one is very grateful the scene changes were limited to a few changes on stage.

Rachel Gonzalez is wonderful as Mariela Salvatierra who employs a quiet intensity in her craft.  Her craft is simple; it is expressive, and wonderful to watch. But for one moment near the end, keep the intensity in the bottle, you hold, until it breaks.

Vance Valencia is Jose Salvatierra. There is a lot to like about his performance especially the moments when he forgets that he is too ill to express a curiosity about a given moment. This character holds onto something dreadful for a number of years and we really need to see that from him from the first moments in his bed. Valencia has a powerful voice, and moderation would be good for my ears when he bellows his hatred to those who have done him wrong. One can see his anger, and feel his fury, but in the end, how is his resolved?

Denise Blasor is Oliva Salvatierra (Jose’s sister).  There is more to this character than having her as a comic relief, which, by the way, she does well.  Oliva is also a character that falls into the nether land of truth and spiritual imagination to guide her to her destination.  Creating a stronger objective would validate her choices and that could make her soar. Also, in conflict with her present day life, Oliva worries about her welfare, doesn’t know what will happen to her, and needs to find friends real fast to straighten out that matter. Also, she realizes the desert is not her home and she must find a way out, if it’s telling lies about a boy walking in the desert, so be it.  

Vannessa Vasquez is Blanca Salvatierra. She does well as the daughter, her younger self and her present day self.  The character is lost; coming home to find out her father is dead, but not really. The relationship between her and her father requires a stronger bond. The same holds true with her mother and her aunt. Finding the “thing” the one truth that ties her to each individual would add to an already very nice performance.

Kenneth Lopez also does well as Carlos Salvatierra (the son).  Carlos presents as someone who is on the autism spectrum and Lopez does well with that character. Carlos walks around confused and doesn’t understand what is going on around him. Somehow his relationship to his aunt is non-existent especially in the after life (running in the desert).  There is a fascinating moment in the second act where Carlos discovers an extreme truth about the painting, The Blue Barn that was superb!  Lopez has a strong natural appeal on stage and finding a stronger creative objective would only add to a very pleasant performance.

Randy Vasquez as Adam Lovitz is very appealing on stage and has a remarkable presence. Lovitz, a professor, moves to calm a very artistic emotional family with a strong sensibility.  Vasquez performance rings true as a professor and he has a strong emotional commitment. And it doesn’t hurt that he has strong resemblance to Richard Gere. Whatever helps.

Casa 0101 gets better every time I go. Surprised by the talent the first time I went, the work keeps getting better and better despite my railings.  

Crewmembers – the creative team are as follows:

Deena Tover – Stage Manager
Marco De Leon – Scenic Design
Kevin Vasquez – Lighting Design
Vincent Sanchez – Sound Design
Yee Euh Nam – Projection Design
Able Alvarado – Costume Design
Jules Bronola – Costume Assistant
Alexander Cooper – Props Master
Steve Moyer – Publicist
Jorge Villaneuva – Light Board Operator
Drake Valencia – Asst. Stage Manager
Ed Krieger – Photographer
Edward Padilla – Casting Director
Soap Studio, Inc. – Key Art/Playbill Design

Run! Run! Run! And take someone who loves little white lies. 

Reservations:  323-263-7684

Email:  or buy online:

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Vonnegut USA by Kurt Vonnegut adapted by Scott Rognlien

L - R Paul Plunkett and Eric Normington

By Joe Straw

Sometimes I have a reason for going to theatre.  Maybe it’s the author, the actors, the convenient time and place, or possibly an overaggressive press rep.  Whatever the case, I go. And just know that I go, willingly, without bonds, shackles, or ropes to pull me. 

For this journey we go back to a simpler time and a narrower place, for a ride down a quiet northeastern country road.  – Narrator

As I entered the theatre there was a gentleman sitting in front of me with a box of huge white Life Savers on the seat next to him.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen Life Savers that big, that white in an open cup for someone’s enjoyment, and perhaps later a note for open discussion.

And, as I turned my attention to the projection on the upstage wall, I mentioned to my partner that the Vonnegut USA projection was “very white”, with white characters, for a whiter, simpler time. I questioned her if this was what one of the candidates was saying when he was referring to “Making American Great Again.”

The Life Saver guy cringed, every so slightly, still it was an observable cringe - like a turtle’s head going back into the shell.

Too late, the show was starting, but at intermission, the gentleman moved to another location.

The Next Arena presents the world premiere of Vonnegut USA based on five short stories by Kurt Vonnegut, produced, adapted, and directed by Scott Rognlien and produced by JR Reed, Maia Peters, and Scott Rognlien through November 20, 2016 at the Atwater Theater complex.

One is at a complete loss as to what to write about this production because there are too many wonderful moments to absorb.  The characters were engaging, the stories had a down home feel, and the writings of the short stories are the joyous bubbling and the jocular expressions of Kurt Vonnegut.    

You would do yourself a great service to run and see this new work of art. It is here for a limited time only so run, run, run! And, if you are a Vonnegut fan, run even faster.

Scott Rognlien, the director has put together five Kurt Vonnegut post war short stories and created a play that is this short of seamless, is very inventive, and wonderful in execution.  It is also very imaginative in ways that you wish all theatre could be. The remarkable cast goes beyond expectation in performance and the stories will give you an emotional lift one way or another.  

Rognlien adapts Poor Little Rich Town and Lover’s Anonymous (from Bagombo Snuff Box), Bomar and Hundred-Dollar Kisses (from While Mortals Sleep) and Shout About it From the Housetops (from Look at the Birdie) and in this productions it appears it all takes place in one small rural town, whether this is intentional or not in post war America.  

American Forge and Foundry rises from the ground of nothingness in Spruce Falls to become something a manufacturing conglomerate with hundreds of workers or so says Kennard Pelk (Eric Normington), the security guard, who gives us an overview of the characters including Newell Cady (Jason Frost) a man who knows how to save dollars by intuition or simply by common sense.

“Cady could stroll through a plant that had been losing money for a generation, glance at the books, yawn and tell the manager how he could save half a million a year in materials, reduce his staff by a third, triple his output, and sell the stuff he’d been throwing out as waste for more than the cost of installing air-conditioning and continuous music throughout the plant.” – Kennard Pelk

Just the man we need! 

Anyway,  Cady had his mitts on everything including the right way to sort mail with the rubbery thing that you stick on the thumb.  Holding back her temperament Mrs. Dickie (Carryl Lynn) scowls at anyone who thinks better than her.  

“I’d like to see anybody teach me anything about this business.  I been postmistress for twenty-five years now, ever since my husband passed on.” – Mrs. Dickie

The townsfolk do not appreciate Newell Cady’s frugalness and his way of not moving the town forward.  


“It had been made clear to both of them that they didn’t have the priceless stuff of which executives were made.”

L - R Rob Chester Smith, Carryl Lynn, and Matt Taylor

Such are the character description of Lou Sterling (Rob Chester Smith) and Bud Carmody (Matt Taylor). They are two blow hard cut ups that try to get a slightly ditzy Mrs. Dickie (Carryl Lynn) into a lot of trouble.  She has been an employee for 39 years.  But now she is newly working in the department of Stockholders Records. 

Sterling and Carmody are practical jokers that want nothing better to pry the dits out of Mrs. Dickie’s cheeky brain.  It is no surprise that Sterling and Carmody, for lack of mental capacity, have trouble tracking their tales about the fictitious Bomar Fassenden III (Robert Beddall).  But despite Mrs.Dickie’s awkward mental demeanor she is the smartest one of the three sharing the office, and she is on to them.

Poor Little Rich Town (cont’d)

There is a lot of trickery going on in this town, Spruce Falls.

Spruce Falls was known for its mineral baths.  Developers envisioned the area as a goldmine.  The well to do built lavish homes near there.  Visitors would use the falls until people suddenly came down with terrible rashes.  A Manhattan dermatologist, in his infinite wisdom, decided to call the rash Spruce Falls disease and subsequently the property values plummeted.  

This did not sit too well with the local town folks who watched banks foreclose on lavish homes.  So, the local political groups, eager to have people move into the area, were offering to waive a 3-year living requirement to join community organizations, and on this night it was the fire department.  This didn’t set too well with Harvard educated Upton Beaton (Paul Michael Nieman), who’s ornamental educated self lost a political advantage.

It wasn’t until later that Stanley Atkins (Darren Mangler), the Fire Chief, reviewing the rules, ruled that Newell Cady did not meet the qualifications. 

Hundred-Dollar Kisses

Henry George Lovell, Jr. (Paul Plunkett) has got himself into a mess of trouble by knocking Verne Petrie (Keith Blaney) out cold with the talking end part of the phone. And now he’s talking to Detective Kennard Pelk (Eric Normington).

The frowzy Verne Petrie is slightly misguided viewing his Male Valor girlie magazines in the office with naked centerfolds for all to see.  Bright red in the glow of his viewing, Petrie salivates slightly with each turn of the page.  He shows his workmates everything in the magazines, including his office companion Henry George Lovell, Jr.

“Verne would open the magazine to the picture of the girl, and he’d say, approximately, “Boy, I’d pay a hundred dollars to kiss a doll baby like that.  Wouldn’t you?”

Henry, the not-so-good Unitarian, walked in on Verne. Verne begged him to pick up line three and join in the fun. Others were in on it too, including the janitor, Harry Barker (Robert Beddall) who had an urgent physical need to speak with the pin-up doll Patty Lee Minot (Marjorie LeWitt), who at the time of the magazine shoot is wearing a cellophane bathrobe.  

Lovers Anonymous

“I offer another title for our organization, a title in all ways inferior to yours except that it’s about ten thousand times easier to say.  Gentlemen, friends, brothers, I propose we call ourselves “Lovers Anonymous.”

Everyone thinks of her, why she left, and why she came back married to that guy.

“Sheila Hinckley is now a spare whitewall tire on the Thunder-bird of my dreams.” – Will Battola

Yes, that’s what they thought of Sheila Hinckley.  Older now, this group of men, Lover Anonymous still have thoughts about her, despite the fact they are all married, as they occasionally lament in a local get together – the drugstore.  

One day a red book from the lending library peeked their curiosity.  

“Woman, the Wasted Sex, or, the Swindle of Housewifery.”

Dave Mansield (JR Reed), a storm window salesman, took notice of the book and Reva Deal (Carryl Lynn) wanted to know if she could help him. Mansield read the title and flipped it back on to her desk.

“You certainly can.  You can throw this piece of filth down the nearest sewer.” – Dave Mansfield

There is a lot more here than I can give justice but suffice to say that Vonnegut USA is wonderfully produced by JR Reed, Maia Peters, and Scott Rognlien down to the smallest detail, the books, the magazines, a working well on stage, and the films produced and projected on the backstage wall.  All of it is a wonderful delight.

Robert Beddall does incredible work as Harry Barker, the long lost husband and father.  Beddall’s work is restrained, and if the work has a truly strong objective, I didn’t clearly see it. Certainly adding a little more cause would add to an already very fine performance. Beddall is also fascinating as Lawrence Morgan, a husband trying to find his way through the mishmash of married life.

Keith Blaney

“It was my understanding that Herb’s moving into the ell was a great tragedy of recent times.” – Dave Mansfield

Keith Blaney shows us a hard side as Verne Petrie with his licentious doctrine and a softer side as Herb White living his hell in the ell. This is a great showcase for Blaney and a performance that deserves to be seen.

Jason Frost does well as Newell Cady, cool, calm, and on point.  He manages everything well but has little to show regarding his conflict, the one thing that keeps him from achieving his objective. There may be more to add in character in the way he demands compliance from everyone.  (Obey me!) Still Frost has a very good look and does well on stage.

Marjorie LeWitt

Marjorie LeWitt shines as Patty Lee Minot, a woman who has left her past behind for good. Other characters she plays is Mary Mansfield and Elsie Strang Morgan a woman who desperately want to save her marriage and will do anything to reach her goal. LeWitt presents a strong character, and she is statuesque and stunning.

The things I most appreciate about this production are the multiple roles actors play.  Just getting down to task and making great character choices.  One actor, Carryl Lynn, fills her roles with grand dedication as Miss Daily, Mrs. Dickie, and Maid, and Reval Deal.  

Darren Mangler is Stanley Atkins and has a great look, a look that would work well in television and films.  Accompanying that look is a solid craft. Mangler accomplishes a lot in the time he is on stage.

Paul Michael Nieman has a broad booming voice and is very articulate on stage as Upton Beaton.  The character Beaton wins and loses in Poor Little Rich Town and we need to see more from those choices. The voice is very accomplished as he narrates portions of the show.

Eric Normington plays the security guard Kennard Pelk and is very likeable. Pelk is the congenial rogue that roams the unfettered halls of a lonely nightshift, occasionally coming upon some lost soul that needs direction. A chore he happily obliges. Normington’s craft is excellent and his facial expressions are priceless.  

Mai Peter is Sheila Hinkley White married to a man that has just changed his disposition moving into the “ell”, an extension to the house. Sheila Hinkley was the reason the other men created Lovers Anonymous, but this beauty has to overcome a lonely existence and seek higher ground. Peter is wonderful in observation, subtle, and has a beautiful core that is also mysterious. It was very nice work.

“I knocked Verne Petrie colder than a mackerel, because it came to me all in a flash that Verne Petrie was what was wrong with the world.” – Henry George Lovell, Jr.

Paul Plunkett plays Henry George Lovell, Jr. and is grill by a detective about what actually happened. Lovell is an observer noticing the players, their faults, and the way they move about their lives.  The character he assaults needs a lesson and it must be ingrained in his head, if that’s the only way it happens.   Lovell has had enough. Plunkett recreate the scene but maybe there’s more to add in how he feels about the janitors story, the relationship between the two, the things that draws him in and that pushes him over the edge.  That aside, there is a lot to like about Plunkett’s very funny performance, very nerdish, and very Unitarian.

I see JR Reed’s face and the one thing I can think of is Monty Python.  Reed plays Dave Mansfield a storm window salesman, who by appearance sells from your local television set at all hours of the night, peeking through the windows only for the only purpose of selling you windows, or spying on you. Reed is wonderfully funny in this production.  

Rob Chester Smith has a remarkable presence on stage and does very well as Lu Sterling and Ed Newcomb.

“You give a woman a book like this and you’re gonna have a restless woman on your hands.” Al Tedler

Matt Taylor plays Bud Carmody and Al Tedler and has a grand time playing both. Taylor has a good look, brings and everyman look to this production, and is comfortable on stage.

Also, included in the live presentation, are the actors in the film cast that adds a tremendous amount to the production. They are as follows:

Blaire Chandler – Gloria Hilton
Lori Anne Edwards – Women’s College President
Jacques Freydont – FFF Chairman of the Board
James Mathis III – Know-How Voice Over
Mark McCracken – Gloria’s Husband, Vacuum Voice Over
Zoe, Beau and Tyo Normington – Gloria’s Children
Scott Rognlien – FFF Promo Voice Over

Cavaet, I’m putting on my SAG EEOC hat here, there is not a lot of diversity in the cast.  Even the maid is white.

Character study is highlighted in this production with most of the actors hitting the mark.  Still, there’s room to add to the presentation. Reading the short stories, one can imagine the conflict, internal or otherwise, but on the presentation one would like to see the conflict played out in all of it’s glory on stage; for example the moment when the town turns on Newell Cady, the exact instant when Henry George Lovell, Jr. decides to pick up the phone, and the internal reasons for Herb White moving into the ell.

This takes nothing away from Scott Rognlien’s remarkable adaptation.  It opens a world of theatrical opportunities including a musical.  Also, Rognlien’s direction is wonderful with hardly a wasted moment on stage.  The production is well thought out and the execution is near perfection.

This show is the reason I go to theatre. The 99 seat venue is a showcase for working talent who are perfecting their craft, and giving it their all.

And then there’s the other level of what makes the creative team run, the crew.  The people you don’t see on stage but have contributed mightily.  They are as follows:

Kate Leahy – Projection and Lighting Designer
Brittany Blouch – Set Designer
Kimberly Freed – Costume Designer
Becky Hefferman – Stage Manager
Justin Ryan Brown – Technical Director
Ben Durham, Brendan Haley, Kurtis Bedford – Set Builders
Scott Rognlien – Film Director
Darrett Sanders – Director of Photography
Sara Glaser, Lena Alkhatib, and Veronica Zebrocki – Film Audio
Craig Kuchne, Marjorie LeWitt, Scott Rognlien – Film Editors/Post Production
Nora Feldman – Publicist
Joe McCarthy, II, Owen Hammer, Dave Portal – Graphic Designers

Run! Run! Run! And take someone who loves Vonnegut, by gosh.  

Reservation:  323-805-9355

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe Revisited by Jan Wagner


Charlotte Gulezian - Photos by Ken Sawyer

By Joe Straw

I often wonder why we send probes to lifeless planets.  And, if there is life, why do we send slow moving rovers onto their deserts?  Why don’t we send a faster rover to the rural areas where there is life and flowers?

I haven’t given up finding meaning on what the universe has to offer.  This year has been very bizarre in that I’ve come across people that I have worked with over thirty years ago.  In this show it is Joe Hart.  I recognized his face right away, went to the bio and there it was The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas circa ‘79 at the Pantages with Alexis Smith, Jeff Calhoun Tommy Tune, et al.  

What does this all mean? Am I making my last rounds for that ubiquitous spaceship in the sky? – Narrator

A couple of observations stand out in the press release.  There were multiple characters (actors) riding on a spaceship to destinations unknown.  That’s odd.  Wasn’t this was a one-woman show?  And, wasn’t Lilly Tomlin the only person in the show? Who are all these other Revisited characters?

Los Angeles LGBT Center presents The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe Revisited written by Jane Wagner, Originally Performed by Lily Tomlin and Directed by Ken Sawyer and Produced by Jon Imparato/Los Angeles LGBT Center through November 20th, 2016 at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre.

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life In The Universe Revisited by Ms. Wagner is a theatrical event for your delectation, often brilliant, and hilariously offbeat. Ms. Wagner’s fictive picture and her literary acumen are awe-inspiring. Search is as unpredictable as theatre gets and inexplicably the reason for theatre on this night, just ask the aliens.   

Thinking back on the history of this show, only an extremely physically fit Lily Tomlin could have survived the machinations. One is not sure how she handled the rigors’ of the onerous dialogue, along with the mime, costume changes, and then work within the constraints of the sound cues.  

The show, delayed a week, has numerous sound cues with multiple actors executing those cues through mime. Actors, on this night, came off the stage dripping wet with perspiration. For this type of venue, having multiple actors perform in this show is a brilliant ideal.   

Search is a show set in the ‘80s and is an unexpected exploration of intelligent life here on planet earth. Who is searching for intelligent life? Do they find it?  Or, after observing the characters, do the aliens step on the gas and go home?

Trudy (Charlotte Gulezian) is downright batty but has the ability to tune in to other peoples lives.  If the aliens are relying on her to keep them informed about life on earth, then one can only think the aliens are looking for a different type of intelligence. Who can say? 

Trudy is likeable.  But, have the aliens made a big mistake, or the right choice by landing on top of an eclectic gathering of humanity?  No one believes the aliens will willfully go after the daft.  One might think, if they are looking for real intelligent life, they should have landed at Washington Square and walked over to NYU.

Fun aside.

Search is a character driven show and everyone has to be on top of his or her game to tie in every aspect of the show. Ken Sawyer, the director, has done a marvelous job and the actors are every bit incredible.  

The opening weekend shows the seams and there is theatrical stuff that needs a tuck here and a clip there.  My observations are my own but something wasn’t quite working, little things, one observes, and sometimes a few notes help. Relationships are the key, but they are only minor things that one will get to later. 

The play is about Trudy a homeless woman negotiating her way along the streets. (And for some reason the setting felt like San Francisco with all the psychedelic new age designs on the upstage wall. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, Scenic Design) But there is a joke that references Carnegie Hall so the mind set quickly switches to the city of New York.

“Am I crazy? Yes.” – Trudy

Trudy is part of our growing segment of the homeless population.  And things are not quite right in her head, not all, just some.  She is a former designer and creative consultant who has a large chemical imbalance in her brain that keeps her on the streets.   At present, her clothes are tattered, her socks don’t match, and the dirt appears to be a living organism on her being. She pushes her imaginary shopping cart, her reliquary, and waits for aliens to absorb her transmissions from her umbrella hat.  The aliens are there, you just don’t see them the way Trudy sees them.    

But in the meantime, the populace, connected to her, is under surveillance, Trudy watches and takes notes.  How she manages to pass the notes is anyone’s guess.  Invisible or real post it notes may just be a figment of her imagination.  (Nicely choreographed by Mo Gaffney, Mime Instructor.) 

Funny thing about those aliens, they don’t know the difference between “art and soup”.

Charlotte Gulezian plays Trudy and is the liaisons with the aliens and this is where the problems lie, because the audience has to understand the connection, which must be deeply felt.  At times Trudy goes off to another part of the set and observes life but doesn't appear to be in a trance, isn’t wearing the umbrella hat, and at times doesn’t connect to the other players on stage.  So, there are moments where she is left with little to do.  (In a one-woman show this would not be a concern.)  But, in this Revisited version, Trudy needs to work when she is upstage, taking notes, mental or otherwise, or we need to know that she is offstage observing when the other characters are onstage. That aside Gulezian presents an interest character, with a wonderful raspy voice, and one that could go off in many different directions.

Julia Aks does a fine job as Chrissy, a woman who is lost in her working life, so she takes aerobic classes, and looks for more answers in the locker room of her gym. She fears being out of work and has a constant fear of being fired. Aks has a marvelous look and a very strong voice.

“But I get these psychic flashes sometimes;”  - Paul

Jeremy Luke is outstanding as Paul the jaded lover ranked three on a scale of ten by his now ex-wife.  Alcohol and cocaine were his drugs of choice abuse but now he sees life in another fashion, slightly mixed up, but different. Luke does some very nice work on stage, and creates a character that is very unique in manner and deed and kind of quirky, which is what the aliens like.  

It’s one thing to tolerate a boring marriage, but a boring affair does not make sense.” – Kate

Ann Nobel

Ann Nobel is terrific as Kate, a woman who is rich and bored to death.  But, Nobel makes both attributes funny as she glides into the meaning of life, finding delight in the meaningless, and the twinkle in the trivial to share with her meaningless and frivolous friends. Nobel is so subtle in execution and so grand in delivery.  

…last night, my stepmom, she accuses me of leaving dirty fingerprints on the cheese.” – Angus Angst.

Sasha Pasternak gives an interesting performance and Agnus, a performance artist that lives with her Dad and Stepmom but is thrown out and has to take refuge with her grandmother and grandfather. Angus seeks help but will go about her performance artistry despite the conflict in her life. Agnus say she’s “DIF-FER-ENT”. Aliens like “DIF-FER-ENT” and this is possibly Agnus’ connection to Trudy for the aliens. There’s other avenues to be discover by Pasternak in this character something that pushes creative boundaries.

Janet used to beg me, she’d say “Mama, please join a consciousness-raising group.” I’d say, “Honey, what on earth would I do at a consciousness-raising group?” - Marie

Joe Hart and Kimberly Jürgen

Kimberly Jürgen is Marie Speck, a simple homebody but someone who has a little more on the ball and wants to improve herself, if she only knew what needed improvement. Jürgen has a very fine look and makes the character an inquisitive being.  She is a character that appears to be void of stress, or sometimes-just void, and one thinks the aliens are looking for that this year.  

“You’ve got a brain like a hummingbird.” – Lud

Well, probably not a good thing to say to your wife.  Joe Hart is Lud Speck and really has a problem connecting with his granddaughter and getting her on the right track.  About the only thing he can come up with to get her in a good mood is recreating chocolate mustaches he used to wear when she was little.  Any thing for a smile, but Lud hasn’t got a clue on how to manage her.  One is not clear on the relationship to Trudy other than keeping his granddaughter on the right artistic track because, in the end, aliens love the theatre.  

L - R Rachel Sorsa and Julanne Chidi Hill

“People don’t need sex so much as they need to be listened to.  People don’t realize that’s the secret of our business.” – Brandy

“Yeah, that’s the first thing you learn after fellatio is how to listen.” - Tina

Rachel Sorsa is brilliant as Brandi a prostitute that slips into a car with her partner to tell her life story to a john who only wants to tape record their lives. Sorsa reaches into the character and provides us with a very deep understanding of Brandi.  Sorsa is equally funny and nails this character to the core. In a word the work is, outstanding.  Julanne Chidi Hall is equally amazing as Tina the other prostitute that slips into the back seat. Hall’s level of concentration is mesmerizing and her manner of telling her story paints a beautiful picture.  Wonderful work.  Despite the characters current profession, they have dreams of moving their occupation into another hands off realm, telephone sex.

L - R Kristina Johnson, Anny Rosario, Bellina Logan

Kristina Johnson plays Lyn, a feminist, that explores, via her doctor and her diary, multiple sides of the humanistic equations, both sexes, and is connected to performance artists, Janet (not seen Agnus’ mom) that wants her to explore her non-linear side. It is a garage sale free ride of thoughts, less equations, perfectly suitable for aliens that want to acquire that information. At least, at the end of the day, that’s what I get. Johnson work is well done, but about halfway through, one thinks about her relationship to Trudy and how it all fits.

“I don’t care if I got the cheekbones of an isosceles triangle or the forehead of a Pithecanthropus. I look at myself and I don’t see any flaws; that’s what these consciousness-raising self-examination are all about.” – Edie 

Anny Rosario plays Edie.  And Edie is Lyn’s friend but she is partnered with Pam.  Paul has given her free sperm, in a turkey baster no less, which must have been fun, for someone.  Edie and baster had a son, a prodigy of the violin, who could create a sound that would give anyone goose bumps, especially for the aliens.    

Bellina Logan is Marge, another one of Lyn’s friends and also a feminist. Marge takes a fancy to bad men, the kind normal women are attracted to at a particular time of their emotional month. Logan is terrific.

Ken Sawyer, the Director and Sound Designer, manages a pack a wallop in this version of Search.  There are many marvelous things going on during the night. There is a line, about the theatre, near the end of the show that strikes a deep emotional cord within me.  And to me, represents the through line that ties in all of the characters, and the aliens.  But, the night I was there I was slightly bumfuzzled tying the relationships to each other and then to Trudy.  I see can see this as a one-woman show and how that one character can tie in to the rest of the characters.  But, with this many characters, it’s almost like a tag team match, for which you need to see the tag. And the trance, that is so clear in the play, but not so clear on stage. The umbrella hat may help Trudy when she goes into trance (and she must go into some kind of trance) and is able to see what goes on in the life of the others. She needs to do this to report back to the aliens.  Also, Lyn takes us farther down the road into the unknown until we are lost in a wilderness, not understanding how this all connects to Trudy and then to the aliens. Certainly, there is more to be had here especially with Edie and Marge. 

Why are the characters extreme in this play?  It is possibly because the aliens find them extremely interesting, funny, and wise.  

The Original Music in the play was created by Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey.

Other members of the creative team are as follows:

Paula Higgins – Costume Design
Matt Richter & Adam Earle – Lighting Design
Ken Sawyer – Sound Design
Eric Snodgrass – Additional Sound
Nicholas Santiago – Production Design
Yusuf Nasir – Chorography
Adam Earle – Assistant Director/Sound Operator
Rebecca Shoenberg – Production Stage Manager/Light and Video Operator
Matt Richter – Technical Director
Patricia Sutherland – Production Manager
Beth Ryne and Jami Rudofsky – Casting
Ken Werther Publicity – Press Representative
Brad Bentz – Master Carpenter
Rene Parras – Set Carpenter
Hillary Bauman – Scenic Artist
Maggie Marx – Assistant Stage Manager; Wardrobe, Drapery Assistant
Kathleen Jaffe, Maggie Marx, Edwin Peraza – Electrics
Eric Babb – Drapery Fabrication
Minta Manning – Draper
Ffaelan Condragh – Rigging and Ladder Construction
Kathleen Jaffee, Maggie Marx, Edwin Peraza – Set Crew

Run! Run! Run! And take an abductee, because there is so much more to understand.

Reservations:  323-860-7300

Davidson/Valentini Theatre
1125 N. McCadden Place
Hollywood, CA  90038