"Critics watch a battle from a high place then come down to shoot the survivors."   ~ Ernest Hemingway   


The Bauhaus Project - Parts One and Two 

Photo by Francisco Hermosillo III

Open Fist at the Atwater Village Theatre

There’s nothing more courageous—or is it foolhardy?—than developing any epic-scale theatrical presentation, such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America or Robert Schenkken’s The Kentucky Cycle, both of which were so long and complex, as well as featuring so many characters and intertwined storylines, that they were divided into two parts performed on two separate nights. In Angels, there was even a dinner break suggested between the second the third of each night's four acts.

No playwright working today is a more capable of potentially creating such a grandly risky venture than LA’s own consummately gifted unofficial playwright laureate Tom Jacobson, so news of Open Fist mounting his Homeric two-part play cycle The Bauhaus Project filled our scrappy little theatre community with excitement. Unfortunately, it’s a major disappointment, a work that should more aptly be subtitled The Play About Endless and Not Very Craftily Concealed Exposition.

Jacobson’s works have always taken on enormous artistic challenges, both in scope and in his ability to present narrative obstacles that require the most experienced of veteran artists to untangle. Truly, the history at the heart of The Bauhaus Project could not be more fascinating—or epic, this time out meant in a political and moralistic Brechtian way, not only in physical scope.

Jacobson explores the rise of fascism and antisemitism in pre-WWII Germany and how it destroyed the groundbreaking avant-garde artists of the Bauhaus School, who in the early 20th century had brashly and brilliantly begun to reinvent the very nature of what it meant to be an artist.

The Bauhaus movement was committed to melding beauty with utility, a revolutionary concept the quickly-rising Nazi party was equally intent on destroying as it so clearly advocated personal dissent and free will.

The historical background Jacobson traverses is introduced as a group of five modernday students majoring in five different artistic disciplines are collectively assigned, in lieu of expulsion, to create a visual history of the movement and its subsequent downfall.

The play launches into a play-within-a-play—or should I say three different such plays. Part One tells the story of the original Weimer years of the Bauhaus School (1919 to 1925), while Part Two first covers the period when the once well-funded institution moved under pressure to re-set up operations in Dessau (1925 to 1932), and finally on to its desperate final days in a shabby Berlin warehouse (1932 to 1933).

Director Martha Demson does her best to reign in the components of the story but it may just be beyond the scope of any intimate theatre company, I fear, especially with five forgivably young but rather inexperienced actors trying to navigate playing many of the artists and their detractors who contributed to the rise and fall of the movement.

Featured are such historic figures as the school’s founder Walter Gropius; Swiss architect and designer Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe; abstract painter Paul Klee; Russian artist and author of The Spiritual in Art Walter Kadinsky; German textile designer Gunta Stolzl; Austrian photographer Herbert Bayer; painter/designer/sculptor/choreographer Oskar Schlemmer; Fritz Ertl, Bauhaus graduate and later Nazi party member who went on to design the buildings at Auschwitz; and even Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler’s widow and infamous early art “groupie” who may have just schtupped almost all of the others.

It’s nearly impossible in this two-part, five-hour-plus presentation to keep track of which actor is playing which of these roles, even with their diverse yet generally inexplicable accents and the rather pedestrian device of changing hats, donning sweaters, or adding a swastika armband or two utilized to differentiate between the characters they're delegated to play.

The problem is, these roles need extremely skilled performers and, although all of the actors cast here are obviously talented and ready to further hone their craft, most are not yet quite up to the weighty task at this point in their journey.

Jack Goldwait, as the architectural student on probation who’s cast as Gropius, and Chloe Madriaga as a young Jewish graphic artist who would rather be working on anything else but the group’s difficult assignment, are the standouts in this cast, but the other three struggle valiantly to keep up.

Granted, the members of this “class” are scripted to be quick to admit they are not actors, but more seasoned performers could play that conceit more successfully—the exception being Madriaga, who walks that fine line with surprising natural ease.

John C. Sweet needs more time to study his lines and pick up his cues, while Sang Kim will hopefully in the future realize all his speeches don’t need be delivered with the same downward scowl. Katarina Joy Lopez should have been led by Demson not to shriek and overemphasize almost every line, especially when delivering a Hitler imitation that could have been directly lifted from a Mel Brooks spoof.

Part One ends with no clear resolution to that section of the story, instead offering a projected title “To Be Continued” and no curtain call, forcing audience members to return even if at that point they might choose to call it a day. When Part Two begins, however, the actors deliver a capsulized version of that first part, leaving me with the awareness to offer a piece of advice: if you’re intrigued but don’t want to give up two evenings of your life, obtaining tickets only for Part Two could be far less of a commitment without losing much information not already available on Wikipedia.

There’s one other puzzling aspect about this production as patrons both nights are asked to vacate the theatre at intermission while the stage is “reconfigured.” Any time in my life when I have been asked to do this, when returning everything has changed, including sometimes even the placement of the audience. Here, the only thing different is the position of a few of set designer Richard Hoover’s pivotal rolling screens—the same ones we watched being moved around by the actors in full sight throughout the first act.

The history Jacobson scrutinizes in The Bauhaus Project is certainly fascinating, but hey—we live in an era where streaming a documentary on the History Channel delivers the same general information without sitting through two nights and five-plus hours reminiscent of a student presentation at a junior college you were obligated to attend to support the teenage son or daughter of some well-meaning family member.

Although after this review it might seem odd to say, I have been and remain a huge fan of the body of work given the world by Tom Jacobson. I look forward to the debut of another of his plays called Crevasse, starring the formidable talents of Anne Noble and Leo Marks and opening at the Victory Theatre Center next week.

THROUGH AUG. 25: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Av., LA. (323) 8826912 or www.openfist.org

Peter Pan 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Pantages Theatre

Oh, lordie, how desperately I needed a carefree and well-timed trip past that second star and straight on to morning, an evening populated by a charming troupe of precocious lost boys led by that ageless fellow who refuses to learn to be a parrot and recite a silly rule, culminating in the dropping of more glittery pixie dust over the Pantages Theatre audience than if Simon Cowell had hit his Golden Buzzer.

It’s a welcome return to Neverland, all right, and this current revival of the 1954 musical version of Peter Pan succeeds in fascinating all the wide-eyed yung‘ns in the audience while their adult companions are invited to stop worrying about the dastardly state of our world for a couple of welcoming hours.

The design elements of this bright and shiny revival, vigorously directed by Broadway triple-threat Lonny Price, could not be much more dazzling. The sets by Anna Louizos are perfectly complimented by Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting and especially David Bengali’s jaw-dropping video projections, while Sarafina Bush’s grunge-based costuming reflects the contemporary retelling of Sir J.M. Barrie’s enduring fantasy tale beloved for well over a century by children of all ages.

Surely the most groundbreaking aspect of this Peter Pan is the updated book by brilliant and rapidly emerging Native American playwright Larissa Fasthorse (The Thanksgiving Play), who craftily introduces all those issues that have made her work a tribute to the troubled history of our country’s Indigenous ancestors into this classic tale originally set in London at the turn of the 20th century.

From the opening scene, where Wendy Darling (the professional debut of the dynamic Hawa Kamara) is obsessed with one day becoming a doctor and her brother John (William Foon, alternating with Micah Turner Lee) is constructing a model of an early Native American village for a school project and lectures his family members about the disappearance of its displaced inhabitants, it’s not hard to glean that we’re not in Victorian England anymore.

Younger brother Michael (an adorable Reed Epley, alternating with Camden Kwok) talks about YouTube videos while his father (the initially still Hook-less Cody Garcia) whines about smudges on his computer screen and the family, played by a lovely and topical melding of Caucasian, East Indian, Asian, and African American performers, discusses the possibility of replacing their bopping headphone-wearing babysitter (Hannah Schmidt) with a more attentive and reliably trusty sheepdog.

Instead of the title character traditionally played by a woman, a heritage established by the Tony-winning turn of Mary Martin in the original production, Peter is played here by 17-year-old phenom Nolan Almeida, plucked for the role from his studies as a junior at Excelsior High School in Orange County. Almeida brings a wonderfully boyish and athletic energy to the role, as well as a voice that fills the Pantages with its youthful eagerness and richness.

Garcia is a more lovable Hook than usual, especially notable in his delightfully Abbott and Costello-y scenes with the hilarious Kurt Perry as Smee, while up-and-coming folk singer Raye Zaragoza is a standout as Tiger Lily, who in Fasthorse’s adaptation a more heroic character focused on leading her clan and keeping their Native American culture alive on their adopted island.

Dumped in the updating is the glaringly dated Act One finale “Ugg-a-Wugga,” featuring the problematic stereotypical depiction of Tiger Lily’s peacepipe-passing tribe deemed by today’s standards as offensive to Indigenous people. It’s now replaced by “Friends Forever,” a massive, infectious production number show-stoppingly choreographed by Lorin Latarro and featuring the entire remarkably diverse cast.

Although this revamping of Barrie’s story intentionally loses some of the melancholy and the deeper psychological implications lurking deep within the title character’s reclusive idiosyncrasies, his insistence on never growing up leaving us contemplating what personal challenges led up to his self-inflicted isolation, the production could not be much more enjoyable.

This is particularly true for all the clearly captivated and magically transported kids filling the Pantages, whose budding and malleable imaginations just might, with this enchanted retelling of Peter Pan, be sparked with a whole new appreciation for the art of live theatre. To me, nothing else in the world can stimulate the soul of a new generation of potential artists as effectively—and nothing else heals our mess of a world as effectively as art.

THROUGH JULY 28: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.982-2787 or broadwayinhollywood.com

Design for Living 

Photo by Cooper Bates

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Noel Coward’s once-shocking and convention-defying 1932 comedy Design for Living remains to this day the least frequently produced of his celebrated masterworks, yet the master himself always fondly declared it as his favorite.

The play was originally rejected for production by the stuffy English censors as too shocking for the West End, premiering instead on Broadway the following year featuring the actors for which the three romantically intertwined leading roles were originally written: legendary married couple Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, joined by the playwright himself.

The Lunts and Coward were longtime friends, having struggled together to stay afloat in their impoverished ramen years in New York a decade earlier, a time when Sir Noel prophetically promised to one day, when they were all tremendous successes, write a vehicle for them to take on as a team effort.

The three focal characters in Design for Living are involved in a far more than platonic relationship that today would mean referring to them as a throuple, with interior designer Gilda (here played by Brooke Bundy) hopping in and out of bed in various Paris, London, and New York flats over a period of several years with two “close” friends: rapidly emerging playwright Leo (Kyle T. Hester, the role originated by the rapidly emerging playwright Coward) and Otto (Garikayi Mutambirwa), an artist also beginning to gain notoriety.

From the beginning, there was much speculation that the characters were autobiographical, fueled by persistent rumors throughout their careers that Lunt was gay and Fontanne had dalliances of her own—and not always liaisons shared exclusively by members of the opposite sex.

For Coward, the carefully crafted flamboyance of his image was intentionally presented to the public as ambiguous—and if anyone actually questioned his sexual orientation, they must have been the same folks who two decades later wondered what "confirmed bachelor” Liberace was looking for in a wife or in the 70s if Barry Manilow had a thing going with Suzanne Somers.

Coward’s self-centered and over-dramatic characters charmed Broadway and although their brazenly amoral lifestyle was condemned then as it still is today in many circles, the play was a tremendous hit, enough so that it finally returned to debut in London, albeit six years later.

There was also a highly popular 1933 film version, directed by Ernest Lubitsch and starring Fredric March, Gary Cooper, and Miriam Hopkins, that had quickly latched onto the success of the Broadway production. Ben Hecht’s screenplay completely sanitized the risqué aspects of the pivotal triangular relationship, causing the playwright to quip that there were only three of his original lines Hollywood left intact, including “Pass the mustard.”

It’s always fascinating but not always fruitful when some old familiar warhorse such as Design for Living is revitalized and given a fresh new interpretation but unfortunately, Coward’s arch and drolly British jocularity doesn’t work unless played as it was originally written and intended to be delivered.

There’s no doubt director Bart DeLorenzo is one of our most gifted visionaries, brilliantly interpreting and often reinventing many of our most beloved classics over the years, but I’m not sure what he was thinking here—or why he didn’t make a drastic u-turn when he saw how this must have been progressing in rehearsal. To choose to deliver the arch and grandly theatrical dialogue of one of Coward’s intensely British drawing room comedies without adopting the accompanying intrinsic RP-style delivery written into the speech is a major conundrum; there’s a rhythm and musicality to the lines that simply cannot be conveyed by articulating them in an American accent.

Only Andrew Elvis Miller as the continuously flummoxed Edward Everett Horton-esque art dealer Ernest and Sheelagh Cullen as Leo’s suitably shocked Cockney housekeeper Miss Hodge understand and honor Coward’s intended artifice and signature overly-intonated waggishness, while the three leading actors appear unable to keep up with his intention to poke wicked fun at the stiff-backed manners of the era and glibly superficial people he satirizes.

This is especially true of Bundy, who instead of trusting the subtle perfection of the master storyteller’s classic throwaways, delivers every delicious Cowardian witticism directly out front, continuously rolling her eyes and batting her lashes while focusing somewhere above the tech booth where only lighting instruments clutter the landscape. I would love to know what she sees as her personal unseen but ever-present fourth wall besides the tops of the audience members’ heads.

Although there’s one excitingly daring intimate lovemaking dance between the two male members of the ménage that shows what DeLorenzo was going for—an updating with which the socially-stifled playwright would have been thrilled, I suspect, but still there is surprisingly little real chemistry between the three lovers. 

Mutambirwa is the most believable as the continuously delighted and infectiously carefree Otto, but Hester seems out of his comfort zone. He inexplicably plays his heterosexual romantic moments opposite Bundy like a TV sportscaster at a singles bar but his similar intimate repartee between his character and Otto suddenly lands somewhere between Billy Porter and Rip Taylor, even at one point making him comfortable enough to flirt with one of Ernest’s male houseguests.

“You’ve changed, Leo,” Gilda tells her former and future lover. “You used to be more subtle”—something I fear Hester has taken far too literally.

The design elements are all quite impressive, particularly on what must have been a limited budget, and the addition of a soundtrack featuring the clever songs by Coward utilized to introduce each scene is perfectly evocative. Still, nothing is enough to overcome the production’s trio of misinformed leading performances, which result in this highly anticipated but disappointing revival of Design for Living being defeated by a deadly pacing—something which would have instead implemented Sir Noel’s message if played in the tongue-in-cheek style it was originally intended to spoof.

THROUGH AUG. 25: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. 310.477.2055 or OdysseyTheatre.com

Unassisted Residency

El Portal Theatre

Longtime Los Angeles weatherman Fritz Coleman retired in 2020 after four decades delivering his signature uncannily cheery forecasts on a daily basis but at age 76, his new solo show Unassisted Residency, which plays once monthly at the El Portal’s intimate Monroe Forum, proves he’s still got the chops to deliver a jocular and lighthearted tsunami to his eager and most loyal fans.

Coleman began his career coming to LA to pursue his passion for standup comedy in the early 80s after first achieving success as a well-loved deejay radio personality in Buffalo, New York.

As the story goes, a producer at NBC caught his act one night at a local club and began to woo him to become a weatherman at KNBC-TV since our weather here was so consistent that he felt it needed a little on-air boost of humor to make it more interesting.

Delivering the daily forecast with a twinkle in his eye beginning in 1984 didn’t stop Coleman from continuing to chase his original dream by performing on local stages in several successful live shows, including his hilarious award-winning turn in The Reception: It’s Me, Dad! which played around town for several years to sold out houses.

Now, after leaving NBC four years ago, Coleman is back but the demographics have changed—or I might politely say… matured.

In my own case, as someone a year older than Coleman, his focus on finding the humor in aging is most welcome. In Unassisted Residency, the comedian talks about the challenges life has to offer in these, our so-called golden years, from physical deterioration to losing contemporaries on a regular basis to navigating the brave new world of technology and social media.

As his opening warmup act, the very funny and professionally self-deprecating Wendy Liebman notes, while looking out at the sea of gray hair and Hawaiian camp shirts in their audience, that Coleman chose to present his show as Sunday matinees so his target audience can shuffle our drooping derrières on home before dark.

Along the way, he also tackles subjects such as retirement communities, nonstop doctors’ appointments, incontinence, and Viagra, not to mention having grown up sucking in our parents’ omnipresent clouds of secondhand tobacco smoke and that generation’s lackadaisical attitude toward our safety and our health, all before moving on discuss to his all-new admiration for those heroic modern educators who during the pandemic had the patience to deal with zoom-teaching his grandkids.

The one thing he doesn’t talk much about is the weather—that is beyond mentioning how grateful he is that our current heat wave didn’t deter those gathered from venturing out of our caves and offering as a throwaway that one of the reasons he retired four years ago was climate change. Although he never says it, he doesn’t really have to; we get that even for someone as funny as Coleman, everyone has their limits when it comes to the potentially catastrophic future for our poor misused and abused planet.

Then when he launches into reminiscing about the amazingly incessant search for sexual gratification in our younger years (that time Stephen King once wrote when the males of the species all look at life through a spermy haze) and how that has changed since then. As a now single guy still looking for love—with some choice remarks about online dating sites—he tells a rather steamy tale about one date that proves it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, something of which I can definitely relate.

I first met Coleman in 1988 or 1989 when I did a feature interview with him as a cover story for The Tolucan (the more industry-oriented and less Evening Women’s Club-ish-pandering predecessor of the Tolucan Times).

He was gracious and charming and kept me laughing so hard back then that I couldn’t take notes fast enough, a knack he not only hasn’t lost but has sharpened considerably over the past 40 years. I couldn’t help wondering how many of the audience members at the Forum have been following him since then and for whom the topic of not-so gently aging hits home as dead-center as it did me.

This doesn’t mean you have to be 70-something to appreciate Fritz Coleman’s hilarious gift for creating homespun storytelling in his ever-extending monthly outing called Unassisted Residency.

Although my partner Hugh, who was quite literally at least three decades younger than anyone else in the audience last Sunday and is a mere 42 years my junior, laughed longer and louder than anyone else in the audience—perhaps a reaction to hearing me bitch continuously about getting old for the last 12 years?

EXTENDED TO AUG. 18, SEPT. 15, OCT. 20, NOV. 10: El Portal Monroe Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., NoHo. www.elportaltheatre.com/fritzcoleman.html

Reefer Madness 

Photo by Andrew Patino

The Reefer Den at the Whitley

"Creeping like a Communist! It’s knocking at our doors! / Turning all our children into hooligans and whores!"

It’s a dire warning received when entering the newly created Whitley Theatre, the imaginative new incarnation of the many-times reinvented old King King Nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard, when you arrive to hear a lecture about the evils of that new scourge threatening the children of America. You know, that demon weed called marijuana—which one of the participants in a conspiratorial and somewhat disgusted tone reminds us is a “Mexican” word.

As the lecturer (a stone-faced Bryan Daniel Porter) sermonizes about the new drug’s destructive and soul-crushing properties, his eager ensemble of equally concerned cohorts helps deliver his stern message of evil and avarice by recreating a recent incident of a real life ruination: the downfall of decent young suitably geewillikersy teenager Jimmy Harper (Anthony Norman) at the hands of a smarmy true monster named Jack (also played by Porter).

The time is 1937, folks, and the place is the Good Ol’ USA in this smashing revival of Reefer Madness: the Musical, produced by the 2005 film version’s stars Christian Campbell, Kristen Bell, and Alan Cummings, as well as the film’s original director Andy Fickmam, its bookwriter/composers Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, Campbell’s producing partner/wife America Olivo, and executive producer Wendy Parker.

It might seem like a major risk, presenting this elaborate recreation of a cult icon during our current crisis attempting to restore live theatre back from the depths of audience apathy after being crushed by the pandemic, especially when the spoils have to be shared by so many creators, but I doubt if financial gain was the main goal this dedicated group of artists thought about when they decided to bring it back. Still, considering how spectacularly and inventively Reefer Madness has returned to the town where it modestly began 25 years ago, in a fair world this production could play on to packed houses in the newly renamed Reefer Den for a long time to come.

That original production, which played right down the street at the tiny Hudson Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard, was also directed by Fickman and starred Campbell, launching their careers in the nicest way possible. It went on to snag seven LA Drama Critics Circle Awards for 1999, for Best Production, Direction, Score, Choreography (by a 28-year-old Michael Goorjian, no less), Musical Direction, Sound Design, and a well-deserved Leading Performance Award for Campbell, who was also honored as Best Actor in a Musical from my own annual TicketHolder Awards.

Of course, the source of the musical spoof was another cult classic, the outrageously bad 1936 dead-serious instructional film Tell Your Children!, a project financed by a church group intending it to be shown to god-fearing Christian parents as a tool to teach them about the dangers of cannabis use..

Soon after it was produced, however, and realizing quickly how unintentionally funny it was, it was purchased by producer Dwain Esper and re-cut to be distributed on the exploitation film circuit, its horrifically bad filmmaking and acting, as well as its inherent randiness and vulgarity, escaping censorship under the guise of offering valuable moral guidance.

It was rediscovered again in the late 60s and enjoyed a copious new resurrection from my generation, who had another reaction to its message—one I remember personally quite vividly as my partner Victor and I sat in the living room of Jim Morrison and Pamela Courson watching a screening of the film unfold through a thick smoky haze while tripping on two tabs of Clear Light.

What this all-new take brings to this rich history is everything that conspired to make it fresh again and to do so in the classiest way possible, especially by hiring the multi-award winning Spencer Liff, two-time Emmy nominee for TV’s So You Think You Can Dance?, to direct and choreograph. His vision, surely fostered by those original participants with such a fond past with the evolution of the musical, is the heart and soul of this production and his ensemble cast is uniformly onboard in the effort.

Both Norman and Porter (who also plays FDR and a Jesus even more irreverent and lots more colorful than on South Park) are exceptional, even when Jimmy’s horrific (comedic) decline into addiction and madness was hampered on opening night by a temperamental headworn microphone that became so problematic the performance had to take a brief little unexpected intermission.

Thomas Dekker is hilarious throughout as Ralph Wiley, the addicted fallen fratboy whose promise as a future nuclear scientist has dissolved into sentences that end with “whoops… it’s gone” and J. Elaine Marcos is comic perfection as the blowsy Sally DeBain, who quiets her ever-howling newborn infant by blowing marijuana smoke into its baby bottle.

Darcy Rose Byrnes is delightful as Jimmy’s love interest Mary Lane, who goes from a potential steady girlfriend in the Andy Hardy tradition to a scantily-clad vixen with a single toke on one of Jack’s funny cigarettes.

Still, of all the principals, Nicole Parker is a true standout as Jack’s once respectable moll Mae Coleman, whose former family home has become her dealer boyfriend’s “den” and center of his operations. Mae’s continuous wailing to reform and clean herself up is thwarted by even a look at one of Jack’s pre-rolls, making her ballad “The Stuff” one of the musical highlights of the show.

The ensemble of wonderfully game dancer/singers could not be better, performing Liff’s incredibly athletic moves throughout the production’s inventive environmental cabaret staging, where arms and legs often slice through the air so close to the heads of patrons seated at nearby tables that one can feel the wind they generate.

May I make a special shoutout to Patrick Ortiz, who stepped in at the performance we saw for dancer Alex Tho and, particularly since he’s not listed in the printed program as one of the swings, presumably learned Tho’s physically demanding track in record time and did an excellent job of making it his own.

The set and interior Reefer Den design by Mark A. Dahl and Peter Wafer is incredibly clever, enhanced by the lighting design by Matt Richter and what could easily become future award-winning costuming by drag clown Pinwheel Pinwheel.

As the action happens all around the patrons seated at those tables, the waitstaff delivering food and drink (including such treats as nachos piled on psychedelic-green tortilla chips and chicken skewers piercing the ceramic heads of Aphrodite and Michelangelo’s David) are forced to gingerly dodge performers rushing from one place to another. There’s continuous chaos happening everywhere one looks and it’s quite impressive that it all happens so seamlessly.

Above everything, however, the true star of the show is once again the infectious score and quick-witted tongue-in-cheek lyrics created by Murphy and Studney, an Emmy-winning feat that stands up in time splendidly and the exceptional contributions of sound designer Charles Glaudini and the venue’s live band led by musical director David Lamoureux enhance that goal immeasurably.

Truly, this return to the hysterical raucousness of Reefer Madness could not be more welcome as our country fights its conservative-led return to what Trump-era Republicants and other naysayers see as the demise of traditional “family values"—and the current over-the-top exaggerations and risqué nature of the musical’s original campiness make it better than ever before, especially since today you don’t have to hide in the corner of the parking lot to indulge illegally in any enhancers to appreciate its slickly produced silliness.

EXTENDED THROUGH AUG. 18: The Reefer Den at the Whitley, 6555 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. www.reefermadness.com  

Topsy Turvy 

Photo by Ashley Randall

Actors’ Gang Theatre

Founded by Oscar-winning film star Tim Robbins 42 years ago and still active under his continuing leadership, the Actors’ Gang has produced more than 150 plays in LA and has toured 40 states and five continents in its mission to honor the sacred heritage of live theatre by introducing unconventional new works and creating exciting reinterpretations of the ancient classics.

It’s been a little bit David Lynch, a little bit what the company calls “The Style,” and a whole lot of worshipful homage to the 15th-century traditions of Commedia dell’arte that conspire to energize the Gang and simply, nobody does it better.

Starting its journey in garages, art galleries, street corners, and late night takeovers of small venues, the company's unswerving search for theatrical windmills has never wavered—that is until the pandemic put a major obstacle in their path as they strive to create, educate, and inspire through their art.

Although the Gang members continued to try to adapt their workshops and educational outreach programs to online formats, Robbins could not shake the sense that something vital was missing. From that came Topsy Turvy (A Musical Greek Vaudeville), now world premiering at the Gang’s theatre for a limited run before heading off to the Sibiu International Theatre Festival in Romania, certainly with more international tour dates to follow.

Written and directed by Robbins—his 15th original play to debut at his theatre since 1982–the roots of Topsy Turvy sprout both from classic Greek theatre and the deliciously lowbrow tenets of burlesque.

As the unity of a 10-person modern Greek chorus is upended due to a widespread pandemic that keeps them from being able to meet in person, they turn to the gods—you know, the old ones with names like Dionysus and Aphrodite—to seek their wisdom and help mend the divisiveness in their ranks destroying their ability to harmonize.

Explains Robbins of his inspiration: “What was missing was what theatre reliably provides, a place of gathering and community. The Gang could not meet in its shared space… and for some, there was something tragic and wrong about their theatre being closed, something ominous and unsettling about gathering places all around the world being shuttered.”

The result is Topsy Turvy, limning that overwhelming sense of loss many of us are still experiencing four years later. It is one of the earliest theatrical responses to the experience that took such a huge chunk out of our lives and as so, presented in the usual-unusual modus operandi for which the Gang has become known, nothing and no one is left without a voice, from the unnerved members of the chorus to the gods themselves.

Robbins also strikingly directs his latest international-bound project, leading a wildly game cast of zanies who are, as always, fearless in their willingness to go beyond the bounds of any restraint in creating their characters, this fearlessness the outcome of working together in the Gang’s rule-challenging ongoing workshops.

The members of the chorus searching to “find the virtue in loneliness” are each distinctive, presumably developed from being given the freedom to bring their individual roles to life from the first gasp of artistic birth. And together, their musical moments are also quite impressive.

Although a musical director is not officially credited, I would suspect another Robbins, brother David Robbins, who has created, performed, arranged, and designed the sound for many of the troupe’s productions since 1985 (even contributing improvised musical accompaniment for the Gang’s workshops), should be acknowledged here for helping the chorus find their perfect harmonies.

The talent must run in the family as sister Adele Robbins, herself a 30-year member of the company, is an eager member of the chorus here and, aside from writing and directing Topsy Turvy, the overachieving Tim has also composed six exceptionally evocative songs and lyrics for his “musical vaudeville.”

As the summoned gods who interrupt the frustrated members of the chorus in danger of losing their moxie and no longer able to "find meaning in distraction,” Luis Quintana and Scott Harris are special standouts as the Vegas lounge-like comedy team of Cupid and Bacchus, the latter gleefully noting that since the lockdown began there’s never been a time when wine has been more appreciated.

Harris also proves his versatility doubling in the more serious role of the Biblical character Onan and as Dionysus, arriving to blast our species for the systematic destruction of our planet—and prompting a chorus member to point out that “all the gods seem so grouchy.”

Perhaps the most chilling indictments of human behavior which has directly caused the Topsy Turvy nature of our world we live in comes from Guebri Van Over as Aphrodite and a dynamic showstopping turn by Stephanie Galindo as Aztec goddess Coatlique, who accuses us all of our planet’s impending destruction and near distinction of our Native American ancestors.

Quintana, back as aptly named Barnum-esque master of ceremonies Distracto, leads a raucous troupe of street-style carnival magicians, hypnotists, and particularly Megan Stogner as a wonderfully entertaining monkey anxious to escape from her cage. All contribute to bring welcome comic relief to lighten up the proceedings between the sharply accusatory monologues by gods and others shaming our species for the rampant disregard of our planet and the responsibility of creating a “society in chaos, a society that has lost its sense of up and down.”

If there’s anything to criticize in this impressive and freshly innovative production, it might only be a sense that, between the circus-like comedic interludes, the harsh diatribes delivered to the audience by the gods begin to feel a bit like too much sermonizing. I believe this is only something noteworthy here in Topsy Turvy’s Los Angeles debut where, especially considering the general hipness of the Actors’ Gang devoted audiences, the issues raised seem to be preaching to the choir.

Robbins notes that the themes and warnings present in his latest opus are “intended as a catalyst for a conversation” and I kept thinking as it was unfolding how much its message will resonate, educate, and in a way apologize to the participants of the Romanian Sibiu Festival and to audiences anywhere it will subsequently travel.

“We are living in an aftermath of disorder and disarray,” Robbins explains of his quest for windmills. “Theatre is here precisely for these times. It has the potential to unite us. It can inspire laughter, bring us songs that touch our hearts, raise difficult questions and dichotomies, remind us of our shared humanity.”

In other words, art heals—and nothing could be more potentially healing than the fiercely creative magic generated by Tim Robbins and the invincible members of the Actors’ Gang.

RETURNING SEPT. 26: The Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Venice. 310.838.4264 or theactorsgang.com


See? I'm an angel.