Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart by John Morogiello

By Joe Straw

Despite all conflicts, films manage to get made – providing the principals want it made – but the making of each film, a collaborative endeavor, is usually a life and death struggle with death being the operative word. – Narrator

John Morogiello has written a wonderful play that explores a myriad of social, political, and economical issues and does so in dramatic style. His dialogue is taut, specific, and leading in a way in which a play must progress.   Without giving anything away of this 90-minute drama, a character caves into the demands of an economic and political nature, and then takes it one horrifying step further.

Theatre 40 of Beverly Hills presents the West Coast Premiere of The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart by John Morogiello and directed by Jules Aaron is brilliantly executed, and elegantly produced by David Hunt Stafford and unfortunately it has closed.

As a theatregoer, one can see the similarities between the characters in this play and the political theatre presently being enacted in Washington DC.  

In short, the play explores the realities of allowing politics to censor a work of art, and in this case, allowing a Nazi to goosestep his way into a 1939 United Artist lot.    

In real life, Georg Gyssling (Shawn Savage) was a former athlete (member of the bobsledding team in the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics), a member of the Nazi party and part of Hitler’s Hollywood consul, and a man who persuaded Hollywood not to make pictures that criticized Hitler and Nazi Germany. Whether he had any influence is questionable (probably not as much as the Motion Picture Production Code) but on this day and in this play, he was tenacious in his objective.

The color brown prevails in the set (Jeff G. Rack, Set Designer) and the costumes (Michéle Young, Costume Designer) are a gloomy reminder of the Brown Shirts that played a role in Hitler’s rise to power. Whether this was intentional or not remains to be seen.

The Consul, The Tramp and American’s Sweetheart is told from the perspective of an older woman, a personal secretary who, tragically, who looks back on her adventure with fondness. And yet it is Miss Hollombe’s (Laura Lee Walsh) story from which this story emanates.  Hollombe paints the picture in the fashion she desires.

Today Gyssling, in a nice brown suite, is a nuisance.  He is an Anglo European, a German behemoth with slicked back hair who has the appearance of an athlete out of a Leni Riefenstahl film, Olympia to be precise. Currently in Miss Hollombe’s office, he is a sty in the eye of the personal secretary, with his intrinsically cruel German accent, in a  provocative manner of asking questions without any sense of delicacy.    

Gyssling insists on seeing Mary Pickford (Melanie Chartoff) and he will not leave until Pickford leaves her office.  

“I’m not letting you in.” – Hollombe

“So I understand. Are you letting her out?” – Gyssling

Gyssling, breathing down Hollombe’s neck, has a slight change of tactic. He asks her the origin of her name, whether she is Christian, is a question that inflames his party’s rhetoric – a line of religious hatred. The act is both disruptive and unsettling.  Hollombe moves to complete her office duty tasks without answering the question.

But, all in all, Miss Hollombe is not having any luck getting rid of Gyssling, if that is her objective.   In fact, he is making her nervous as she tries to type and, at the rate she is going, her words per minute is a minus one.  (How did she get this job?)

Frustrated beyond comprehension, Hollombe dials Pickford who, up until this time, has not moved a muscle, quiet as a mouse, as she listened through the walls.  Pickford picks up the phone and says she is busy.

“Do your job.  He can’t stay here forever.  Even Nazis get hungry sometime.” – Pickford

“He’s daring me to call security.” – Hollombe

“Be right out.” – Pickford

Pickford, peeks out of her office door, and wastes little time in trying to dismiss Gyssling by saying that it’s Friday before Labor Day weekend. But, Gyssling stops her with a threat.

“You realize this decision could affect the distribution of all films produced by United Artists in Europe’s second largest market for American cinema.” - Gyssling

Pickford acquiesces.  Still, her altruistic impulses kick into high gear as she invites Gyssling into her office.  She tells Hollombe to interrupt her as much as possible as she slips the door closed.  

Gyssling is effusive, telling Pickford that he has admired her films but Pickford is a businesswoman and wants him to get right to the point.

“You’re threatening to withhold my studio’s films from the German market unless I do what you want. – Pickford

“Not a threat, dear me, no.  You shouldn’t feel threatened.  I merely ask that Americans be aware of what the German people find acceptable and unacceptable in a motion picture.” – Gyssling

Pickford knows that Gyssling is up to something, and has something on the studio.  And she is right, as Gyssling wants to know more about the next Charlie Chaplin (Brian Stanton) movie. Gyssling says Chaplin is doing a film about Hitler.  It’s in the trades.  Alarmed Pickford asks Miss Hollenby to ask Chaplin to come to her office.

Gyssling leaves and Chaplin charms everyone by just stepping into the room. Pickford works her magic to get the answers from Chaplin and his answer are not entirely forthcoming.

But, once Pickford finds out about Chaplin’s next film (The Great Dictator), she must make a decision about whether to green light the movie. She does so by calling D.W. Griffin (He says, “No.”) and then calling Douglas Fairbanks the other owners of the studio.  She also says she has a fiduciary duty to the shareholders.

Jules Aaron, the director, does a fantastic job with this play including throwing Keystone antics of Chaplin as part of the makeup of the play when Gyssling and Chaplin fight. It is brilliantly staged and wonderfully unexpected.  That also holds true for the quiet moments caught on stage that was also exceptional.  The action, moving in and out of Miss Hollenbe speaking to the fourth wall with the lighting and the characters freezing, worked brilliantly (Lighting Design by Ric Zimmerman.) Without getting into details “the decision” worked less effectively.  Chaplin has worked years in pre-production to have this decision come down on him and the audience must really see the emotions coming from him. The same holds true for Hollombe who has worked her entire young life to get to this position. Also, Chaplin and Pickford have owned the studio for 20 years leading up to this moment.  What must this say about someone’s true colors once the decision has been made? And, how does this change their relationship forever?

Melanie Chartoff is superb as Mary Pickford, Canadian born and America’s Sweetheart.   Chartoff brings the right amount humor to the character, which longs to be in front of the camera again, but is resigned to running a studio. Chartoff brings enough of the backstory to be totally immersed in the daily life of a movie mogul.  Chartoff is smooth and unpredictable down to the last capricious moment.

Shawn Savage is also outstanding as George Gyssling, a man of unyielding rigidity with the weight of a political power behind him.  A man who believes he can come in and proscribe a dictum - that will have a movie studio bow to his political demands. Savage, complete with German accent, is excellent in the role and the fight scene was excellent.

Charlie Chaplin, wonderfully played by Brian Stanton, is at the top of his game and Stanton plays him as such.  Stanton brings an excellent physical life to the character that practically dances on and off the stage.  The scene with the globe worked to perfection on this night and Stanton shows us a life of a man who must have been a complete physical specimen.  Chaplin is the one character of this show that stands by his values no matter the cost going so far as to not answer the question of his religious makeup. Still, at times Stanton requires a deeper emotional life in Chaplin, one that will show us his humble beginnings when things get really tough in the trenches.  

The one character I found problematic was that of Hollombe, a character resembling Mary Wickes, with a loud, lanky, and wisecracking persona. This is Hollombe’s story, however articulate she wants to make it.  Hollombe is on her second day at the office with no visible reason for being there.  She doesn’t know how to type.  She’s hired by the most successful woman ever to run a studio, and can’t find anything to do, except to eat popcorn and listen to the conversation through the office walls. To round out the character, the relationship to Pickford must be unusual, pragmatic, and unique. This character should have more on the ball, should be extremely intelligent, and should be able to multitask any time at any given moment and in any given circumstance. Hollombe’s focus is disoriented with problems involving her boyfriend who has found a job in New York. Laura Lee Walsh’s unconquerable obstinate choices require strength and, at times, she must lift her way from the wallflower status while the other three are on stage. Being young and inexperienced should not hinder this character.  Hollombe had neither the beauty nor the talent to justify the position and the relationship with her employer necessitates further exploration by the actor.  That said Walsh did some very nice things but needs to add to her performance.

Other members of the remarkable crew are as follows:

Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski – Sound Designer
Judi Lewin – Makeup/Hair/Wig Design
Don Solosan – Stage Manager
Michele Bernath – Choreographer/Asst. Director
Richard Carner – Assistant Stage Manager 
Phillip Sokoloff - Publicity

If you have a chance to see this play in another carnation, Run! Run! Run! And take someone who has a gritty side to their political leanings.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Christmas Carol in Prose Being A Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens

By Joe Straw

L - R Troy Dunn, Arlo Petty, and Julianna Robinson
A homeless black woman with untethered eyes occasionally walks down the center of my street, carrying her life in a backpack, treading carefully, one small struggling step at a time moving toward an unknown physical destination.

But on this evening, with the weight of the day on me, moments beyond sunset, I looked up at the moon, and, then glanced down the street; there, I noticed a shadow sitting on the sidewalk, a dark disconsolate asomatous figure that appeared to levitate above the cold and insincere concrete. 

This sexless figure was blackened, backlit by the streetlight, motionless in the middle of the sidewalk, legs crossed, yoga style, an indistinguishable faceless shadow, hardly moving, and as I think about the play, I attribute the image to an “undigested bit of beef” or an “underdone potato”.

Curiosity got the better of me, though, but not so much that I called out or investigated, having come across ghostly figures in the past.  Try as hard as I might, I could not tell if the silhouette was a man or the homeless woman. 

I moved to the comfort of my home steps and when I opened the front door, inquisitiveness beckoned. I turned to look again and the shadow was gone. – Narrator

The way Eric Bloom announced the title made sense; it just rolled off the tip of his tongue but it confused me – A Christmas Carol in Prose Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. This is a slightly elongated title of “A Christmas Carol”.  One might suggest the play (in prose form) is actually an adaptation of the book.

Santa Monica Repertory Theater presents A Christmas Carol in Prose Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens directed by Jen Bloom through December 18, 2016.

Miles Memorial Playhouse is an excellent venue for holding the mansuetude of A Christmas Carol, a book that caresses and warms even the harshest of souls.

In reviewing, I told myself that I would not be harsh, that I would wrap myself with my woolen scarf, place it over my mouth if need be, and not utter grumblings of a disagreeable nature.  Grumpy was not on my list of adjectives this night.

And, there are times when it is better to footle, if only to let my imagination run spiritedly!  And with that,  I will give you what I heard and what I imagined I saw.  

“There is no doubt that Marley was dead.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” – Dickens

Poor Ebenezer Scrooge (Troy Dunn) – a fragmented man who has lost touch with all of humanity, on this Christmas Eve.  Not lost in one fell swoop, mind you, but lost over the course of time, the elements, and the circumstances of his life, lonely as it were.

Scrooge sits at his desk counting money and adding figures for his firm – Scrooge and Marley – Marley being the absentee owner – having died seven years ago - Christmas Eve - on this very night.

Scrooge, concerned with every coin, pays scant attention to his nephew, Fred (Eric Bloom), who interrupts Scrooge in his cold and unpleasant office.  Fred, in great spirits, implores his Uncle Scrooge to attend his Christmas party and meet the woman he is madly in love with, his wife Belle (Yael Berkovich), but Scrooge will have none of it.

“…keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” – Scrooge

“Keep it! But you don’t keep it.” - Fred

“Let me leave it alone, then.” – Scrooge

Scrooge dismisses Fred with hardly a second thought to return to his solitude.

Moments later, two attractive women enter to solicit funds for the desperately poor and the overtly soiled.  One (Tanya White) is experienced while the other (Julianna Robinson) has very little training and is pushed into much-needed practice of asking for “slight provision for the poor and destitute”. .  

“Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses?  Are they still in operation?” – Scrooge

Not in the position to argue, the ladies make a hasty retreat.  Prison and workhouses rings a bell to delicate ears and those words will haunt Scrooge in the coming night.   

Watching and working at the warmth of the photocopying machine stands Bob Cratchit (Mike Nedzwecki) who moves himself to gather a modicum of warmth and to garner enough courage to ask Scrooge for Christmas day off.  Something he’s repeated for oh-so-many years! All because Cratchit wants to be with Mrs. Cratchit (Julianna Robinson), Tiny Tim (Arlo Petty), and all the assorted Cratchits – if it’s convenient.

“A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December! But I suppose you must have the whole day.  Be here all the earlier next morning.” - Scrooge

In a facetious mood, Scrooge leaves the office but suddenly feels the weight of time and loneliness, his shoulder are hunched, and he walks a stiffened gait through the piercing cold and deserted impious English streets. He is alone, and no one comes near just to greet him.  It’s as if he had the plague.

Arriving home and turning the key, Scrooge perceives Jacob Marley (Bart Petty), a disfigured face shadow, as the knocker in the door. Scrooge thinks nothing of the image - this once being home to Marley – but now it is his refuge – a miserable hovel – a place with little fixtures, a table which doubles as a bed, a chair, dirty bed curtains – sparse furnishing for a man who has everything, and nothing.

Certainly, seeing Marley was something to think about after seven years. One imagines the hairs on the back of his neck standing straight up and chills running egregiously down his trembling spine.

Rather than having unexpected guests, (better to be safe than sorry) Scrooge locks the doors not once, not twice, but three times.  Still, Scrooge thought of Marley, shivering as the night got colder.  The gruel he made from his minimal fire, got thick and cold. Indeed, there was more to come and everyone understood it, including Scrooge.

The darkness from the marginal candles was a cheaper alternative to light, and in that darkness, Scrooge waits for the light of disturbing images that must come. And given the nocturnal quivering on this night this might just be the time to shiver under the comfort of his stale bed coverings.   

Jen Bloom, the director, employs a variety of prodigious theatricals illusions including shadow theatre to make a point of this production and manages to throw all sorts of theatrical devices to keep the play moving at a 90-minute clip. Fezziwig’s party worked to great satisfaction.  But the production needed a stronger core with stronger relationships to tie the characters together. (There I go again.)

The shadows show us things, as they were, part of the idea of the past, a hand gesture, a sword, a finger pointing, numbers, and a lonely candle. But making it all work is something else that I will speak to later.

Thinking outside the box, one might want to come inside the box, out of the cold, and cozy up next to the fire of space and relationships. One idea, with the sword shadows, a young Ebenezer Scrooge reads a book of Ali Baba.  Separated by space, the shadows should dance from young Charles Dicken’s head, and having him near the shadows would presume the images are dancing thoughts.  

I can’t do this, a critique; it is not in my nature to deride A Christmas Carol based on the choices.

There are wonderful performances.  All of the actors have moments that shine in one character or another.  An interesting device employed in this production is the use of various characters acting as the narrator usually reserved for Charles Dickens (Ewan Chung), instead handed off to members of the ensemble. This may have worked better with additional lighting, giving the speakers a light, and the actors in a performing spotlight – e.g., a spotlight highlighting the action.

I can neither praise nor critique the tremulous light vibration that is the frangible workings of Ebenezer Scrooge (Troy Dunn), complete with his human miseries. But, then again, I can’t help myself.   

Troy Dunn employs a powerful voice as well as powerful muttonchops making his character something out of the 1830’s, while almost everyone inhabited the images of various time periods including Tiny Tim (Arlo Petty) who had a backpack with a breathing instrument protruding from it.  Gone was the lame Tiny Tim that I so enjoy.  

Also, Dunn wasn’t connecting to the other actors (on this night), which means there is a lot to overcome. (The show seemed to be moving at breakneck speed, without some actors, finding the moment to relate and establish a strong relationship). Gone were Scrooge’s monetary wicked doctrine, his behavior from being isolated, and his moral nihilism. He didn’t change much and that’s not what we want from our Scrooge. (I can’t believe I did it again!) 

The ghosts did not provide the ghastly intimacy moving Ebenezer in the right direction.   Jacob Marley’s grim exultation did not send Ebenezer fearing the next three days. There is a reason Jacob Marley’s head is wrapped. Because the kerchief is holding his jaw in place, and without it Marley’s jaw would fall to his breast and all of his teeth would fall out. The ghosts did not haunt effectively nor did they convince Ebenezer to change his ways. And you can’t have A Christmas Carol with the catharsis.

Also, the narrator’s perspective was in a constant state of flux and that was thoroughly enjoyable if not entirely effective.  

Still there are choice words for the things that did go right.  And those choice words belong to the actors.

Yael Berkovich is Belle and other ensemble characters.  She is a wonderful actor and brings much to the overall feel of the show.

Eric Bloom is Fred and is very natural on stage.  One would have preferred a Fred who was a little more cheerful trying to convince his uncle to visit him and to never give up on that objective.

Ewan Chung plays Charles Dickens and Master Peter Cratchit and was also in a fine period piece costume.

One also enjoys the play-making of Sara Mayer as Fan.  She has a grand presence on stage and is extremely enjoyable in the quiet moments on stage.

Mike Nedzwecki plays Bob Cratchit, and he is an actor who gets it, plays the moment, and is true to his objective.  He is especially true to the task when he says “Christmas Day” with the assorted Cratchits all around him. Nedzwecki, waits for that moment, and wow, this is a solid moment in this play.  Nedzwecki is a wonderful actor.

Arlo Petty does a nice turn as Tiny Tim and a member of the ensemble.

Bart Petty is also a member of the ensemble and Marley, the first ghost, who needs to scare the wits out of Scrooge.  This is a role in which an actor can find innumerable choices and there is more to add with this performance.

Juliana Robinson has a lot going on as Mrs. Cratchit and the other various roles in the ensemble.  Each role is different and Robinson adds a slight quirkiness to each character. Robinson is wonderful to watch on stage.

L - R Tanya White, Barbara Urich and Julianna Robinson

Barbara Urich is the Ghost of Christmas Present and does a fine job.  Her eyes, that radiance, projects well beyond the seats, and her quiet moments are particularly enjoyable.  Notwithstanding, a wonderful job. 

Tanya White was particularly enjoyable as the Ghost of Christmas Past.  Pleasant is a word for this ghost until she drives the point home. White has a wonderful smile and has a very natural presence on stage.

Ben Landmesser and Sara Patterson are understudies and did not appear the night I was there.

Run! Run!  And take a Tiny Tim fan! You’ll have much to talk about on your way home.

Other members of this delight crew are as follows:

Ben Landmesser – Assistant Director
Adrienne Johnson-Lister – Production Stage Manager
Leslie K. Gray – Scenic and Shadows Design
Brandon Baruch – Lighting Design
Maddie Keller – Costume Design
David McKeever – Sound Design
John Mulhern – Associate Producer/Technical Director
David & Choy Publicity, Niki Blumberg – Publicity
Damla Coskun – Assistant Stage Manager
Eric Bloom, Bart Petty, Adrienne Johnson-Lister, Sarah Gurfield, - Co Producers
Sean Kohnen – Production Photos
Yael Berkovich – Program Layout Design
Linda Larson – House Manager

Contact Information
ticket or show information: boxoffice@santamonicarep.org
general inquiries: info@santamonicarep.org

To purchase tickets by phone: (844) Hum-Bugg (486-2844)