"Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors."   ~ Ernest Hemingway   


The Travelers 

Photo by Jay Yamada

Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center

Entering the Los Angeles Theatre Center for the LA premiere of Luis Alfaro’s The Travelers, Tanya Orellana’s starkly surreal set, featuring candlelit mounds of dirt, delicate twinkling chandeliers, as well as a rust-stained bathtub and matching toilet, all accompanied by Joan Osato’s arresting nature-oriented rear projections, immediately lets you know you’re in for a ride.

True to its title, The Travelers debuted last winter at San Francisco’s gloriously prolific Magic Theatre and, after a celebrated run there, has now been remounted at LATC under the auspices of the Latino Theatre Company featuring the original cast and creative team.

The first thing to know about any play by Alfaro, whose indissolubly Chicano-centric work falls somewhere between Beckett and Steinbeck with a little Bukowski thrown in, is that the guy doesn’t let you sit back and enjoy that aforementioned ride; you have to sit up, keep your hands at 10 and 2, and stay sharply focused.

Developed within the auspices of the Magic’s Campo Santo performance group and written with these particular actors in mind, The Travelers is a haunting, richly evocative journey of discovery about the inequities of religious devotion, about the complex vulnerabilities of our fragile species and, created by Alfaro during the height of the pandemic, about how isolation can permanently alter and even destroy the human spirit.

Predatory birds soar and giant coyotes prowl in the brush on Osato ‘s omnipresent projections as a nearly naked young man (Ogie Zulueta), who has been lying motionless behind the tub from the moment the audience is let into LATC’s cavernous, naturally musty, equally surreal Tom Bradley Theatre, is lowered into the bathtub and four shadowy figures move into place at the front of the stage.

As if in a ritualistic dance, under director Catherine Castellanos’ intensely collaborative stylistic staging, the players (Daniel Duque-Estrada, Guillermo Yiyo Orneles, Kinan Valdez, and Sean San Jose) strip off their street clothes and don tattered monastic robes, cinching them with rope belts, lifting their hoods over their heads to limn anonymity and, finally, fingering long wooden rosary beads in perfect unison.

Suddenly, the quiet and lyrical dreamscape accented by Grisel Torres’ chimerical lighting and Christopher Sauceda’s atmospheric sound plot is shattered by the offstage screams of a terrified intruder (Juan Manual Amador) who intrudes upon their meditative state bleeding profusely and in obvious pain.

The unexpected guest has been shot but never once does that interfere with the hospitality of Brother Santo (San Jose, who has also restaged the play for LA audiences), the leader of their mysterious band whose actions are guided by the convictions of his tiny 936-year-old Carthusian Order despite the fact that their Archdiocese has cut the monks off both financially and spiritually.

The other three Brothers are less willing to take the man in, especially when their own resources have been so drastically reduced in their dilapidated monastery in Grangeville, California on the Central Coast, a desolate place populated mostly by itinerant farm workers with a population in the 2020 census of 324—obviously not exactly a cornucopia of agricultural abundance. 

Juan quickly becomes Brother Juan and reluctantly joins their order, never quite content with his new lifestyle nor comfortable with having to take a shit on the onstage toilet with Brother Ogie looking on from his forever home in that excessively unappealing-looking bathtub.

Ogie, it seems, lives fulltime there since he has no use of his lower extremities and has been stuck there for his entire life, the origins of his sad existence unraveled as the story progresses. He blithely accepts his diminished capacities to the point where, when the poop-challenged Juan calls him disabled, he is puzzled because he’s never heard that word before.

This dedicated Bay Area team is almost completely uniformly astonishing, with the exception of one overly theatricalized and presentational performance that could be easily subdued with a little cautionary guidance from someone not distracted by his own performance, impressive as that itself might be.

Everyone involved is clearly willing to walk through hot coals and follow Alfaro wherever he chooses to lead them, with particular nods to Valdez as the fiery Brother Nacho and Zulueta as the highly breakable Ogie, a quietly indispensable character who is recognizably the spokesperson for delivering Alfaro’s most reassuring message.

These are heartbreakingly lonely, emotionally unavailable, confused individuals, men whose personal crises of both religious faith and ideological doubts about what this silly life means have overpowered their lives. Yet just when you think Alfaro has terminally erased any hope for the future of mankind, the naive and sheltered Ogie, lifelong resident of his filthy old clawfoot tub, delivers a brilliantly gossamer and lyrical monologue explaining from his perspective the nature of human emotion and the profundity of love.

Like Alfaro, at least one of his characters never quite gives up hope.

I do think this jarringly honest, otherwise nearly perfect production is hampered by staging Amador's uncomfortable attempt to sit on the toilet with his (onstage) audience of one looking on without dropping his pants or by costuming Zulueta in black swimtrunks rather than presenting the character as naked and bold as the play's themes and dialogue demand, both things that for me were glaring distractions that undermine the courage and raw artistry found everywhere else in the production.

The impressive and highly stylistic body of work created by the Pico-Union born and bred playwright, a true LA treasure whose plays such as the classically inspired Electricidad and Oedipus El Rey have been performed extensively here and all over the country, are intensely idiosyncratic and unapologetically theatrical, something in the hands of less gifted artists could be difficult for an audience to grasp. Alfaro's hands-on participation in the creative process from the first rehearsals at the Magic to this current incarnation at LATC looms over the play like a seventh character.

In fact, in Alfaro’s near-daily addictive online journals chronicling his daily life accessible to people such as Yours Truly who are proud to call him a friend, he mentioned the day of the play’s opening here in its second city that he was still doing a Tennessee Williams and rewriting the piece right up to curtain time.

“It’s been an amazing week,” he admitted. “Wrestling with ideas. Making changes. Shifting rhythms. New lines. New intentions. Pure transformation. Moving as an ensemble. Breathing together.”

How I wish Luis would add a wandering geriatric non-Spanish-speaking Danish Jew to his work sometime in the future before I croak, as I’d give my left you-know-what to be a fly on the wall and watch an amazing work of art such as The Travelers leap from the page to such glorious fruition on opening night.

Seeing it materialize and ripen into performance level must be the experience of a lifetime, which is why artists as brave and visionary as Castellanos, San Jose, and folks at the Magic and Latino Theater Company, as well as this dynamic cast whose characters are respectfully baptized with their own names, are drawn to the project with such obvious reverence and unswerving faith in its McArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship Award-honored creator.

In a fair world, Luis Alfaro, who has unswervingly shared with the world so much of his culture, his dreams, and his disappointments in his prolific career, will one day be recognized as the poetic protégé of Federico Garcia-Lorca and our current generation’s most August Wilson-like chronicler of the modernday Chicano experience in America.

THROUGH OCT. 15: Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., LA. 213.489.0994 or www.latinotheaterco.org

Measure STILL for Measure  

Photo by Brian Hashimoto 

Boston Court Performing Arts Center

In my 36 years writing theatre criticism I’ve praised directors many, many times, but I don’t think I ever began a review with a testimonial to one.

It was 20 years ago when, as still a member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, we awarded Jessica Kubzansky with the Margaret Harford Lifetime Achievement Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatre. At the podium, Kubzansky was sufficiently humble accepting her honor, but also quipped that it was a little concerning to her that she should be recognized for lifetime achievement at such an early stage of what she hoped would be a long and healthy association with creating theatre.

Kubzansky is today renowned as one of the best American directors working in our theatrically-challenged times, as well as being a stalwart leader in keeping the faith as Artistic Director of the Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena—also for the past 20 years.

I have been fortunate enough to be cast at B/C several times over the years, including in Charles Mee’s gloriously audacious Summertime, which helped kick off their courageously adventurous debut season and establish that the place would be taking no prisoners.

Nowhere I’ve ever worked has been more supportive to actors and other collaborators than B/C, a gracious artistic home where Kubzansky and her original co-Artistic Director Michael Michetti made it clear from the very beginning that their Quixote-esque mission would be to herald daring new plays and playwrights and not pander to what would guarantee to sell tickets.

Full circle: As the grand finale of the Boston Court’s 20th season of taking no prisoners and presenting a staggering 38 world premieres, not only is Jessica Kubzansky the director of the outlandishly risky site-specific interactive Measure STILL for Measure, it also marks her auspicious debut as author of her first full-length play.

Based on Shakespeare’s… well, you know… Measure STILL for Measure is a unique and spectacularly innovative production, sweeping us all into the backstage drama of a cast in rehearsal for the original #METOO classic as the audience follows the actors into various areas of the wonderfully appointed B/C complex, from the lobby to the parking lot to the 80-seat rehearsal/black box/music space to the dressing and green rooms, finally leading us to the main stage to watch the company rehearse a day before their first designer run.

Kubzansky’s remarkable play craftily mirrors its original 420-year-old inspiration, a classic work which has always been categorized mainly as one of the Bard’s comedies typically rife with disguise and substitution as plot devices. Still, I’ve always felt there was a deeper and more important message foreshadowed in the play that was far more serious, something that MS4M’s “play-within-the-play” addresses without facing the ominous ever-present political and bureaucratic scrutiny Shakespeare had to stealthily avoid during his time.

Just as her counterpart Isabella, Bukola Ogunmola as Donna, the actor playing the role in an upcoming production of Measure for Measure, is faced with a moral and spiritual crisis, struggling to keep her honor intact while dealing with her brilliant but subtly opportunistic and sexually inappropriate director (Rob Beitzel).

Switching from playwright to director, Kubzansky does a phenomenal job moving her actors around the Boston Court complex as though they were pawns on a giant chessboard, a skill that could not require a more disciplined artistic vision. Having worked myself in such an environmental presentation, playing Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula: House of Besarab at the cavernous deco-gothic Hollywood American Legion Hall in Hollywood, the place where the similar interactive and groundbreaking Tamara held court for 11 years, I have an enormous respect for anyone who can manage to keep such a production gliding along without a hitch.

In this case, the audience is divided into the Blue Group and the Red Group who, after the initial scenes played all around them in the theatre’s lobby and parking lot, go their separate ways to hear different actors deliver their own version of what’s happening in the rehearsal process.

Certainly, Kubzansky is blessed with a precision veteran cast, each actor manifestly able to keep the timing and action of the piece flowing perfectly. On opening night, some of the performers were slightly more successful than others at visually “painting within the lines,” so to speak, as the company navigates the crowded lobby (without the best acoustics for such a task) to individually relate their portion of the tale with a natural ease and without pushing just a tad too far.

Leo Marks as Sam and Dinah Lenney as Mary, the actors rehearsing to play the dastardly Angelo and the noble Escalus, respectively, as well as Desiree Mee Jung as the production’s suitably hop-to-it stage manager, prove best at smoothly overcoming the space and dealing with the proximity of the audience members packed around them, never conveying the sense that they are performing but instead simply living their roles.

That’s not to say the others are not capable of settling into such a comfortable spot as easily as they do when the play transfers to the main stage, only that it might take a little longer to be totally comfortable in their characters’ skins as patrons sip their Aperol Spritzes and chomp down on their chocolate chip cookies only inches from their conversations.

There’s nothing more exciting than creating new theatre from scratch—especially a work as challenging and open for interpretation as MS4M—and there’s simply nothing better than being right smackdab in the middle of a highly electrified rehearsal process. Unless they’re paying me the big bucks and/or sending me off to incredible places to visit, I personally tend to find the biggest thrill is watching the elements of a great play magically come together. Theatre and film history haveshown that audiences are always eager to experience for themselves the backstage drama and machinations of bringing a play or other work of art to glorious life, which alone makes this heartfelt and idiosyncratic production something not to be missed.

So, was the LADCC hasty in honoring Jessica Kubzansky with a lifetime achievement award 20 years ago? Looking back at her unstoppably passionate subsequent two decades creating brilliant and thought-provoking theatre, proving herself instrumental in leading the Boston Court into becoming one of the premier regional theatres in the country, and now adding in the world premiere of her mesmerizing Measure STILL for Measure, I believe the honor to have been more prophetic than premature.

THROUGH OCT. 15: Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 Mentor Av., Pasadena. 626.683.6801 or BostonCourtPasadena.org

The Sound Inside  

Photo by Mike Palma 

Pasadena Playhouse

The never quite healthy world of live theatre in Los Angeles and, indeed, the country, has been in a deeper crisis than ever before since our society pulled up the welcome mat and began to isolate in place three years ago—and it’s a cryin’ shame.

Our local stages are alive this season with an oversaturation of ambitious and thought-provoking theatre, more than I personally can cover, which sadly has forced me to miss some amazing productions helmed by people I admire and love.

I’m not sure what can be done to get people to feel safe and step out of their comfort zones once again but if anything should, it’s work as startlingly fresh and gorgeously mounted as the Tony-nominated and 2020 Outer Critics Circle-winning The Sound Inside at Pasadena Playhouse.

There’s a palpable dreamlike quality inherent in Adam Rapp’s intrinsically poetic, sweepingly elegiac treatise on loneliness, the need of all of us to connect with one another no matter how autonomous we believe ourselves to be and, singularly, how the intellectual appreciation of great literature can both energize and isolate.

Guided by the elegant yet often minimalist direction of Cameron Watson, a guy who always knows how to create a mood like no other, Amy Brenneman stars as Bella, a longtime Yale creative writing professor functioning on remote control as she tries to starve down her discouragement with life and her own unsuccessful career aspirations as a writer.

Brenneman enters from the darkness through set designer Tesshi Nakagawa’s evocative network of huge gossamer curtains resembling oversized pages of discarded books, stopping directly downstage center to immediately begin telling us why we’re all here. Bella narrates her own story and, from the moment she begins speaking, we are in it with her bigtime:

“A middle-aged professor of undergraduate creative writing at a prestigious Ivy League college stands before an audience of strangers,” she acknowledges. “She can’t quite see them but she knows they’re out there. She can feel them. They’re as certain as old trees, gently creaking in the heavy autumn air.”

Our fascination with Bella’s introduction is partially due to Brenneman’s confident but somehow mysterious stage presence, so full and rich it leaves us quickly wondering what is making this whip-smart woman appear so lost in the darkness which surrounds her. It’s almost as though, if she steps out of her isolated spotlight, Bella would vanish forever into the folds of those giant pages that have dominated her life.

Still, even with an actor as riveting as Brenneman, our instant engagement would not be accomplished here without the lyrical, arrestingly evocative wordsmithery of Mr. Rapp, who is truly a modern master of the spoken word. He questions the basics of our tenuous existence crashing through space spinning around on our troubled planet, a state that, even for someone as successful and outwardly put-together as Bella, is in the end as uncertain and ultimately frightening for her as it is for the rest of us.

In the midst of her lengthy monologue rife with clever exposition and hinting at a deeply tragic secret backstory, Bella simply walks through a shifting curtain to a small desk and begins practicing her daily professorial chores. Her solitude is jarringly interrupted by an arrogant but obviously promising young student named Christopher (Anders Keith), who shuns her protestations that he cannot crash her campus office without making an appointment online, telling her that using the internet gives him “digital chlamydia.”

The initially bristling relationship between the two turns to intrigue, a fragile mutual respect, and an unexpected physical chemistry that seems somehow alarming to them both. The newly bonded pair shares many things, especially a passion for great literature and soon they are sparring to see who has the most definitive knowledge of Dostoyevsky and their mutual favorite novel, Crime and Punishment.

Christopher begins to visit his professor on a daily basis—each time steadfastly refusing to make an appointment—but her fascination with his mind and, perhaps, her highly inappropriate attraction to his bold yet dangerous demeanor, keeps her from kicking him out. He begins each visit by telling her about a novel he is working on, something he insists is writing itself as he goes along. It’s a kind of psychological thriller about a student in a tony Ivy League college who meets a sketchy stranger and eventually bashes his head in with a Statue of Liberty paperweight—itself very Dostoyevsky, don’t you see.

For some reason, this doesn’t signal dread in Bella, who continues to grow closer to her student until an awkward physical touch between them sends him, someone who has described himself as about as sexually inclined as a parking meter (his relationship with his ex-girlfriend was all about playing chess and watching MST 3000), running for the hills.

Still, when Bella learns she has Stage 2 cancer and her oncologist gives her a generous 20-percent chance for survival, she seeks out Christopher in an all-new way that leads to the mutation of their bond into a far scarier direction.

Rapp’s script is fascinating but, like two other incredible productions of Pulitzer-nominated plays gracing LA stages right now, without the innovative yet clearly disciplined creativity of Watson at the helm and a pair of absolutely astounding performances, The Sound Inside could easily stay inside.

Watson’s consummate taste and style permeates his ability to connect with the playwright’s sometimes thickly grandiloquent and even occasionally pretentious prose, while both Brenneman and Keith are putty in his hands. Both worldclass actors deliver Rapp’s dialogue with easy accessibility and highly mesmerizing craftsmanship. Brenneman is radiant as the conflicted Bella while Keith, a local kid from South Pasadena making his LA professional stage debut, shows us he’s simply a major star at the beginning of what will be an intriguing career to follow.

They overcome one thing in the writing that, again, takes true artistry. Even in the work of my great idol Tennessee Williams, sometimes it bothers me when characters share the same signature rhythm and phasing as their creator, mimicking how the writer speaks rather than each one having their own individual way of talking.

Although this could appear to be overcome because of the talent interpreting the script here, Rapp also gets a pass if one considers that the physical presence of Christopher might be originating in the head of Bella as she relives her journey with us.

There’s much here to unpack and stay with you, lingering long after the final curtain like the shadowy otherworld of a not fully realized dream that refuses to leave even after a second mug of strong hot coffee.

This final unresolved denouement can particularly hit a nerve for an older cancerous professor who also once fell in love with one of his most brilliant students, but luckily not all of us having lived through such an experience have been forced to tumble so uncontrollably into the ominous and bewildering rabbit hole so arrestingly opened up in Adam Rapp’s exceptional future classic.

And unlike poor Bella and Christopher, actually, The Sound Inside can prove wonderfully reassuring since at least two once lost souls, some 11 years later, can still be there for one another, steadfastly keeping each other from falling headlong into the abyss. 

THROUGH OCT. 1: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Av., Pasadena. 626.356.PLAY or pasadenaplayhouse.org

Heroes of the Fourth Turning 

Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre

For the sake of my mental health and blood pressure, I have made a conscious effort to eliminate from my life those rabid rightwing conservatives in general and frighteningly clueless Trump supporters in particular, so the concept of sitting captive in a darkened theatre listening to such deluded folks rant and rave initially kept me from responding to cover the LA premiere of Heroes of the Fourth Turning at the Matrix.

The stunned positive reaction to the production, along with the fact that Will Arbery’s play was a Pulitzer finalist and that it’s being presented by the ever-courageous Rogue Machine directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos made me reconsider, albeit not without a heap of trepidation.

I’m too old, too damn tired, and constantly feeling defeated after a long life spent fiercely fighting for justice and equality, especially when the election of an IQ-challenged, ego-driven conman as the leader of the western world made me snap awake to how blind I’d been for years living in our insular left-coast bubble and not realizing how many Morlocks are still crawling out of the primordial ooze in the parts of A’murka I basically only fly over.

It’s a major understatement to say my disappointment with the current backsliding state of our species has made me more intolerant than I’m proud to admit, so putting myself through two intermissionless hours forced to listen to ultra-conservative blatter onstage wasn’t easy for me. Thankfully I did, however, as Arbery’s bold and unbending Heroes is one of the most important and intriguing productions to be mounted in LA this year, hopefully soaring to the top of every list when it comes to award consideration at the end of the year.

Featuring a knockout cast appearing as a group of longtime friends and graduates of a small conservative Catholic college in a town of 7,000 in western Wyoming who gather in a backyard to celebrate the inauguration of the mother of one of them as the school’s new president (played by the phenomenal Roxanne Hart), the play’s opening scene immediately warns its audience it might become even more difficult to sit through than already anticipated.

As Justin (the Marlboro Man-like Stephen Tyler Howell, who could follow Toby Keith as spokesperson for the Wounded Warrior Project) sits silently alone on the back porch of his rustic cabin, a rustling in the woods makes him stealthily grab his hunting rifle and fire on a huge buck, the subsequent scene proving to possibly be even more disturbing than the teenage girls’ emotionless dispatching of a feral cat in the Douglas’ current Our Dear Dead Drug Lord that made more than one patron admit to nearly bolting for the exit.

It’s as though Arbery is saying, “If you think this is hard to watch, just wait,” and honestly, when the lights come up on the second scene, it doesn’t take long to wonder who the real monster is in his tale of people whose deeply held beliefs are even more upsetting than something that could make any animal lover squirm.

The time is August, 2017, a week after the notorious Charlottesville riots that should have better alerted us what to expect some three years later when the same misled asswipes tarnished the image of democracy forever.

Teresa (Evangeline Edwards), the seemingly put-together alpha of the group, is elated and emboldened by believing her like-minded troglodytes are ready to take up arms for their cause, something suggested in William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 1997 book The Fourth Turning, which chronicles the authors’ belief that, over the past four centuries, we have gone through four definite cyclic generational transformations.

Strauss and Howe propounded the culminating fourth shift would happen from 2005 to 2020 and would send our country into a secular crisis that only “heroes” like Teresa—and her personal guru Steve Bannon, who championed the book—could make right again, even if it meant going to war to bring western civilization back to following the conservative Christian ideals they always mistakenly insist our country was founded upon.

“We’re in danger of being culturally lobotomized,” Teresa sermonizes early on in the proceedings, and she believes Donald Trump has “come to save us all,” a statement so full of triggers that, after several previous performances, Edwards and her costars have learned to pause and wait for the delayed reaction of their gobsmacked audience.

The skewed ideology of Arbery’s characters would be impossible to buy if delivered by five lesser actors. This striking ensemble, under Cienfuego’s sturdy and obviously uncompromising direction, rises above and deftly overcomes the script’s stereotypical behavior that could be deadly in less talented hands.

Teresa is the scariest of the five comrades, resembling an intelligent Lauren Boebert who‘s surprised that being called Machiavellian was “said like it’s a bad thing.” Edwards gives a creepily convincing performance that’s chilling to behold—chilling that she can smoothly make us accept someone so bright could actually buy into the twisted things she expounds.

The most memorable moments in Heroes come from the volatile clash between Edwards as Teresa and the remarkable Hart as Gina, the nurturing lifelong academic who, although a straight-on immobile conservative, slowly realizes how shocking and dangerous her former student’s views have become. She eventually loses her professional cool and shocks herself when she accuses Teresa of “whoring yourself to popular opinion.” Gina is written with a quickly evolving character shift that Hart delivers with dazzling expertise.

Emily James is heartbreaking as her bedridden daughter, whose frailty does not stop her from expressing her disapproval of Teresa’s nonstop vitriol, her arguments leading her uber-confident sparring partner to lament that “Nobody knows how to debate anymore”—that is to say if the other person isn’t listening to and agreeing with her.

Howell is so convincing, so quietly compelling as a stiff-backed countrified redneck that it’s hard to imagine what a gifted actor he must be to play such a standard manly good ol’ boy-in-training until Justin’s stoic exterior begins to unravel and it’s clear he has sincere doubts about what’s being sermonized to those gathered.

The most arresting performance comes from Samuel Garnett as the friends’ weakest link, the lost and troubled Kevin, someone Teresa continues to tease is “just a pale American soy boy.”

As a guy with loser written all over him who woefully observes, “Everything’s so nice it’s stressful!” and finds his own lack of personal commitment so grim he drinks himself into tossing his lunch into the campfire, Garnett is simply astounding. He delivers an incredibly brave, jaw-droppingly quirky and risky turn that heralds a truly original actor whose career it'll be interesting to watch emerge.

Still, with all this talent from a cast sure to win awards, led by a brilliant director and with the contribution of a crew of dynamic designers, it’s Will Arbery’s fascinating and alarming script that steals the show, delivering a treatise as only someone himself raised by conservative Catholic educators who taught in a similar school in Wyoming and held the same persuasive yet wretched viewpoint could. He’s had Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign jingle stuck in his head since childhood and felt the need to explore and sort out the “poetic, passionate, and nuanced” beliefs his family pounded into his head—and to do it with empathy.

“Isn’t the stage a platform for its characters, and isn’t a platform a tacit endorsement?” he asks, “or is my play somehow a condemnation? Where do I end and the characters begin? I can call this a fly-on-the-wall experience, or an exercise in patience, or a symposium. But to be honest, I think I’m after something a little more dangerous.”

Dangerous indeed is Heroes of the Fourth Turning—dangerous, disquieting, and incredibly thought-provoking. Like Trump, Bannon, Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and their zombie army, the coolly treacherous Teresa is the most frightening self-proclaimed hero of this particular fourth turning, someone so sure of her drastically backward convictions that the rest of us are all in continuous potential peril.

When Emily tells Teresa she’s sorry about her mother going off on her, she cheerfully answers, “Don’t be… that was fun.” It seems the true thinkers in our society are the people who sometimes reconsider and wonder if they should reexamine their opinions and beliefs. It’s the zealots who are convinced they are right and are without question the chosen people.

But be reassured: by the end of Will Arbery’s outstanding but unnerving Heroes of the Fourth Turning, each and every character—even Teresa—realizes he or she has no real emotional connection with any of the others.

That’s the consequences of hate, I guess.

THROUGH OCT. 16: Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Av., LA. 855.585.5185 or roguemachinetheatre.net

Ms. Tucker Will See You Now  

Photo by Craig Allyn Cochrane 

Gardenia Supper Club

I don’t usually cover events without a scheduled closing date but Laural Meade’s solo turn celebrating the life and career of the great Sophie Tucker proved an exception even before Ms. Tucker Will See You Now  was announced to return for several monthly encores at the Gardenia, the oldest supper club in America—an event that possibly will become a regular returnee at the 43-year-old Los Angeles institution.

Meade asks early on how many people in her audience are familiar with the work of Tucker, bringing a rather spotty response from those gathered. The number of people obviously interested in cabaret and nightclub performance unaware of the controversial life and career of the once-infamous chanteuse, an artist the lategreat Tony Bennett called the most underappreciated jazz singer of the last century, was a bit disheartening.

Tucker, known internationally as the “Last of the Red-Hot Mamas,” was one of the most popular entertainers during the first half of the 20th century who enjoyed a career spanning over six decades, beginning by wowing crowds at a vaudeville amateur night in 1907 that led to her starring in one of the earliest versions of the Ziegfeld Follies—and ended with one of many appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show a year before her death and an engagement at the Latin Quarter in 1966 a few weeks before she made her final bow at age 80.

With the invaluable assistance of brilliant LA-based composer-accompanist Gregory Nabours on piano, the surprising shortcoming of patrons familiar with Tucker was soon rectified as Meade launched into a long overdue glorification of her legend and her music, performing some of the diva’s most famous songs peppered with stories about her life and even passages from her 1945 biography Some of These Days, named after one of Tucker’s most well-known standards.

Of course, the Ukrainian born Sofiya Kalish, whose Jewish family immigrated to Boston in 1887 when she was only a year old, was as much recognized and is still remembered for her bawdy, off-color material and banter as she is her music, developing a raunchy and self-effacing delivery that must have curled the toes of the easily shocked audiences of her time who proved to be equally traumatized and titillated.

It was that aspect of Tucker’s act that first intrigued and inspired Bette Midler, whose character Soph, spouting rampant sexual jabs aimed at her fictional boyfriend Ernie, was an early highlight of her own meteoric career. In Ms. Tucker, Meade not only pays homage to the original Red-Hot Mama but to Midler, Belle Barth, Joan Rivers, and Phyllis Diller, among others, even sharing ferociously risqué jokes from each of the crowd-pleasing entertainers, all of whom acknowledged a debt to Tucker for their own success.

Meade does not spare herself from inclusion in the self-deprecating humor of the incredibly groundbreaking performer, delivering knockout interpretations of such Tucker classics as “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl” and “I Don’t Want to Get Thin,” as well as delivering some of her many laments kvetching about her lifelong unsuccessful quest for finding true love—without paying for it.

The set list for Ms. Tucker also doesn’t defer from detailing the star’s own history for wild sexual abandon even before the era of free love enjoyed by folks of my own generation, including “My Husband’s in the City” and a raucous medley of numbers about cheating lovers, most featuring innuendos about what fun it can be to give a wandering mate a lustful taste of their own medicine.

Beginning with the 1930 hit “No One But the Right Man (Can Do Me Wrong),” with lyrics credited to the star herself by some music historians, to subsequent renditions of her signature “Some of These Days” delivered as it was first recorded in 1911 and later the more brassy and notorious 1930s version, Meade aces the material without resorting to the familiar Midler-popularized Mae West-y pastiche of Tucker.

Between songs, we learn about a solitary life in the shadow of great celebrity, as well as learning an awful lot about Meade’s personal story, also filled with the challenges and self-induced resurrections that Tucker endured—especially understandable from a former good little born-again-bred Christian lass from Glendale who obviously still has to take a momentary swallow before uttering the “C” word.

Meade handles all of this with charming self-deprecation and an uncanny, blisteringly honest ability to poke fun at herself, a trait which the before-her-time Tucker surely would have appreciated wholeheartedly.

To end a perfect evening and abruptly halt the shared laughter and our willingness to go along with the jokes no matter how shockingly ribald or even occasionally cruel they may be, Meade delivers an arrestingly poignant and indelibly memorable version of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” that alone could make the professional cabaret rise of a brave and intensely gifted late-blooming college professor something as worth appreciating as the career of Ms. Tucker herself.

Still, I was thinking over my second Aperol Spritz at the Gardenia that, with the 9,745th touring company of Les Miserables opening the same week at the Pantages as the night I attended Laural Meade’s Ms. Tucker Will See You Now, wouldn’t it be a great in-joke to change the title to simply... Les Miz Tucker?

Get it? LES Miz Tucker?

I thought you would.

RETURNING NEXT:  OCT. 13, NOV. 18, and DEC. 8 at the Gardenia Supper Club, 7066 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.  323.467.7444 or www.gardeniasupperclub.com

Getting There! 

Photo by Cameron Watson

 Hudson Guild Theatre

Rebecca O’Brien’s Getting There!  was named Best Solo Show this summer out of 150 entries in its much talked-about debut at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, as well as being singled out as one of five nominees selected for Top of Fringe honors and as the recipient of both HFF’s first ever Platinum Award and their Producers Encore Award.

Why has it taken me all this time to see it, in this case Rebecca’s 11th encore performance at the Hudson? Well, besides the fact that by policy I don’t cover the Fringe because it’s basically just me here at THLA and, with so many friends and colleagues mounting a phenomenal barrage of over 300-plus shows each June playing from early afternoon to late at night, in the past I’ve had far too many people pissed at me for reviewing other performances and not theirs.

Still, to be painfully honest, that’s not the main reason it took me this long to attend Getting There!  I was unsure if I wanted to put myself through the trauma of Rebecca’s four-year struggle with the Big C. There are very few places I’m reluctant to revisit, but Cancerland is definitely not one of my favorite topics as it usually churns up all the fears and discomforts and memories I try to repress in my own history as a five-time survivor.

Getting There!  is literally about getting there, about a single person living alone having to navigate long periods of intense treatments without family and close friends around to accompany her frequent treks to the hospital for chemo and radiation and potassium drips. It didn’t take long for Rebecca to realize it was “going to be a long four years.”

There aren’t many people as strong or amazingly resilient as this incredibly talented comedienne, however, whose courageously unfiltered theatrical memoir chronicles the period between 2016 to 2019 when she hit the oncologist’s office almost on a daily basis—by public transportation.

Told by her “16-year-old junior in high school” doctor that she would need to start assembling her “team” to help her through her treatments, Rebecca realized that although she has a heap of loving friends, she was basically on her own except for the constant companionship of her beloved pup Stella, who traveled along to her appointments inside a duffel bag and here makes a joyous guest appearance at the conclusion of her show.

There are several things Rebecca is anxious to hit on as quickly as possible, including in an early promise to her audience that she wouldn’t be bringing up cancer quite as much from that point on—a promise that proves impossible to keep. She also slips quickly past discussing her rapidly dwindling family back home in Tennessee, which she likens to playing an “old sweet song that shouldn’t get much airplay on the Southern stations.”

There’s just her mother there these days and, even without her hearing problems that make phone calls difficult, after asking if her daughter is still battling cancer, she seems more than ready to hang up.

Although the majority of Getting There! is a loving and often puzzling remembrance of a continuous stream of eclectic strangers she encountered on the Metro and while waiting at the bus stop on her way to Cedars and back, Rebecca doesn’t miss the opportunity to poke self-deprecating fun at herself, from talking about the less-than soothing cream she was prescribed for her burning vagina that makes her walk sideways like a human-sized crab or noting that her left “girl” is still quite perky but its counterpart tends these days to flirt with people on her right.

The narrative is brutally honest and often sadly insightful, such as noting that in LA it’s worse to admit you’re broke than saying you have cancer, but what makes it work so spectacularly is Rebecca’s unearthly gift to wrap her audience in her warm and generous embrace.

Surely encouraged and with material mined from the depths of her experience by a godsend collaboration with LA director extraordinaire Cameron Watson, Getting There! is a quintessential evocation of how we as a species fight to ride out the herculean bad patches that we are forced to persevere through along the way—that is if one has a tenacious will to conquer adversity and the obvious zest for life of Rebecca O’Brien, a true warrior titan gratefully also possessed of a worldclass sense of humor.

And on a personal note if I may, I left the Hudson with a renewed appreciation for my own team captain, my miraculous life partner Hugh, who at the height of the pandemic squired me to my own oncologist daily for many months, someone without whose love and support I might not still be around to write this.

RETURNING NEXT OCT. 23: Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Bl., Hollywood as part of the Hollywood Independant Theatre Festival. www.hitfest.stagey.net

Les Misérables  

Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman  

Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Center for the Arts

The 9,486th return to the Southland of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil’s celebrated musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel Les Misérables might simply on reflex generate a few world-weary eye-rolls when so many other newer theatrical events are currently desperately struggling to find an audience.

The return of Les Miz, winner of eight Tony Awards and more international honors than could be listed without running out of space here, is still an event to equal no other mainly due to Schonberg’s indelible, sweeping score honoring one of the most iconic literary works of the 19th century.

The production first opened in 1980 in Paris before its English translation by producer Cameron Mackintosh, featuring lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and directed by Trevor Nunn, began its record breaking run in London in 1985–today recognized as the longest running production ever to play the West End.

It subsequently opened on Broadway two years later, playing 6,680 performances and, at the time of its final curtain in 2003, was recognized as the second longest running musical in the world after the original off-Broadway mounting of The Fantasticks. Soon after its opening in New York, Les Miz prompted three simultaneous national tours and has since been seen by a staggering 130 million theatregoers worldwide in 53 countries and in 22 languages.

Mackintosh created this newly staged and updated revival in 2009 directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell to celebrate the musical’s 25th anniversary. It has since played to sold-out houses throughout North America, Australia, Japan, Korea, France, and Spain, is back onstage in London, currently on tour in the Netherlands and Belgium, and there's a new tour of Japan scheduled for 2024.

Says Mackintosh: “The phenomenon of Les Misérables never fails to astound me. No show in history has been able to continually reinvent itself and remain a contemporary musical attracting new generations of brilliant new talent, many of whom go on to international stardom. No show in the world has ever demonstrated the survival of the human spirit better… and it's time to let the people sing again.”

When the current run at the Pantages was first announced, I wondered for a hot minute if I wanted to see Les Miz performed for perhaps the eighth or ninth time when so many new projects are being presented in LA but man, am I glad I did. This is more than the usual tired long-touring roadshow featuring somewhat stale or uninspired performances and set pieces that wobble and seem frayed at the edges. The production is absolutely magnificent.

Visually, perhaps the only previously unavailable aspect energizing—and streamlining—the 43-year-old theatrical warhorse today is the addition of arresting images created by set designer by Matt Kinley based on Victor Hugo’s own paintings. Brought to life by Finn Ross and Fifty-Nine Productions’ massive video projections, this contemporary theatrical device was of course not yet invented when the show first emerged and, although sometimes such innovations can be more distracting than advantageous, the projections here are dark and moody and incredibly evocative.

Mick Potter’s sound is also majorly impressive, especially as it so completely fills and electrifies the sometimes tricky Pantages auditorium not originally intended as a venue to present live entertainment. It glorifies Stephen Metcalf, Christopher Jahnke, and Stephen Booker’s new orchestrations and highlights what is perhaps the most impressive thing about this reinvented Les Miz under the baton of musical director Brian Eades: an ensemble chockfull of some of the most formidable vocal performances in the show’s illustrious history.

Nick Cartell proves himself to be the quintessential Jean Valjean, from the character’s first tortured “Soliloquy” to the classics “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home.” Haley Dortch as Fantine delivers an exceptional “I Dreamed a Dream,” Gregory Lee Rodriguez breaks hearts as Marius lamenting his lost comrades with “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and Preston Truman Boyd as Javert and Devon Archer as Enjolras both deliver standouts performances.

The diminutive Vivian Atencio (alternating with Cora Jane Messer) as Little Cosette offers a lovely “Castle on a Cloud” and 11-year-old phenom Henry Kirk (alternating with Milo Maharlika) is the tiniest, feistiest, most scene-stealing Gavroche since Nick Jonas first raised a defiant fist.

Addie Morales holds her own in the decidedly underwritten role of the resident ingenue Cosette but hey, she hits that famous C-above-high-C when needed so who’s complaining. I did find Matt Crowle and Christina Rose Hall a little disappointing compared to the other performances as the musical’s resident comic relief team the Thenardiers, perhaps victims of that dreaded roadshow-itis mentioned earlier more than it has infected their fellow castmembers.

Still, it is Christine Heesun Hwang as the lovelorn Eponine who gives the most memorable performance of all, bringing the house down with a show-stopping rendition of the musical’s best ballad, “On My Own.” 

Truly, the star of this welcome return of Les Misérables is the dynamic ensemble gathered for it, all blessed with a vocal dexterity that seems almost unheard of empowering one production. Anyone who might think they’ve seen Valjean and his cohorts suffer enough and Javert take his final leap one too many times should certainly reconsider.

NOW CLOSED: Pantages Theatre

THROUGH OCT. 1: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org


See?  I'm an Angel!