THE BONEYARD  

TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Winter-Summer 2022

 

THE BRIGHTNESS OF LIGHT from the Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

I do not usually write about events that have passed or are faced with limited runs, but I must make an exception to talk about the LA Opera’s phenomenal two-night concert presentation and the west coast premiere of Kevin Puts’ The Brightness of Light, featuring the inimitable Renee Fleming and her former Streetcar Named Desire costar and stalwart LA Opera regular Rod Gilfry playing Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz.

Maybe, if you’ll excuse the expression, I sing the praises of this remarkable evening, the Opera will bring the presentation back for a longer run; two nights here filling their resident home at the Dorothy Chandler was simply not enough.

Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Puts was commissioned in 2015 by his alma-mater, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, to create a new work to be performed at Lincoln Center composed by an alumni and featuring another celebrated former student. The student was Fleming and a prophetic collaboration was initiated, the pair deciding to concentrate on an iconic American woman.

Puts happened on a quote from the glorious O’Keeffe: “My first memory is of the brightness of light, light all around.” And so a masterful new work of art was soon to be born.

Puts’ research led to the fact that the great painter had written thousands of letters in her lifetime, many to the love of her life, her husband and famous photographic pioneer Alfred Stieglitz. The correspondence began as a respectful two-person mutual admiration society in 1915 and slowly developed into love letters.

“You yearn for someone to understand every heartbeat of yours,” Stieglitz wrote. “The yearn goes out—whether you wish it or not. I can never see enough into the human spirit... How I understand every pulse beat of yours. The story of those drawings—your children—I their guardian. A Woman’s Soul laid bare in all its beauty, crying out into the starlight night.”

And from O’Keeffe:

“I’ve been lying here

listening for you in the dark—

aching for you

way to my fingers’ ends…

The hot setting sun so brilliant—

shining white I could

hardly walk toward it—

wanting you

with such an all over ache—

loving—feeling—all the parts

of my body touched and kissed.”

The passion of their feelings for one another grew into an unquenchable desire for a more than friendly bond and, in 1924, Stieglitz left his wife of 23 years to marry O’Keeffe. Their relationship, which meant Georgia relocated to his beloved Manhattan, was idyllic and beautiful but troubled, leading her finally to run off to rural New Mexico, exhausted by his infidelities. There she stayed for the rest of her life but her love for Stieglitz never ended, nor did their correspondence, which continued until his death in 1946.

Puts’ incredible one-act opera, which he has referred to as an “orchestral song-cycle,” follows those letters through the years and the juxtaposition between the lovers’ passionate and gorgeously evocative descriptions of their love and their art. To experience this magically transformed into a uniquely strident and ethereal musical score is nothing short of breathtaking.

As the opera unfolds with Fleming and Gilfry standing at music stands in front of the incredible LA Opera Orchestra, Wendell K. Harrington’s striking rear projections featuring images of O’Keffee’s most famous paintings, some complete, some in rich detail, are blended with Stieglitz’ groundbreaking photography, including many portraits of his wife reflecting the amazing love these two brilliant but scrappy artists shared in symbiotic splendor.

Conducted by Gemma New, principal conductor for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra who leads the musicians with a mesmerizing full-body graceful dance of her own, The Brightness of Light is a major achievement in the evolution of contemporary classical music, particularly as performed by two of the opera world’s most honored performers.

After intermission, with LA Opera’s resident conductor Grant Gershon taking over the baton with no rehearsal whatsoever for an “indisposed” Miss New, Fleming and Gilfry changed course to deliver a medley of classic showtunes composed by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Meredith Wilson, Frank Lorsser, and Kander and Ebb, including “Almost Like Being in Love” and “Til Their Was You,” among other well-traveled songs, as well as a hilarious show-stopping solo by Fleming called “The Diva,” written for her by Andrew Lippa.

Although I doubt if I am the only person so moved, my personal experience with The Brightness of Light was greatly enhanced when Harrington’s projection of the artist’s monumental “Sky Above Clouds IV” appeared above the stage. This is the canvas that, as a young impressionable kid, I credit for germinating my lifelong hero worship of O’Keeffe, someone who greatly influenced my own eagerness to create art.

It was my first encounter seeing her work in person when, as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, I stepped into a staircase at the museum and was suddenly slapped in the sensibilities by the massive 8' x 24' canvas installed in a landing between floors. Dizzy, I sat down on the stairs and immediately burst into tears, a memory that signaled me turning from frivolous player into dedicated artist.

As I mentioned at the beginning, one can only hope. Fleming is the LA Opera’s Advisor for Special Projects and Gilfry has appeared in 32 roles for the company since his modest debut as the Herald in Othello in 1986, so I can only think the lengthy and enthusiastic curtain call for The Brightness of Light (leading to a delightful encore of the pair clearly goofing as only old friends could through “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” from Annie Get Your Gun), might lead to a longer engagement of the event in the future.

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UNCLE VANYA at Pasadena Playhouse

Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhovsky’s stellar adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s thorny 1899 classic Uncle Vanya, directed at the historic Pasadena Playhouse by one of contemporary theatre’s most visionary directors Michael Michetti and featuring the inimitable Hugo Armstrong in the title role, is simply and unequivocally a masterpiece.

As the shaky world of theatre desperately tries to regain its foothold after our trying times, no production I’ve seen since the doors started to cautiously reopen has been more breathtaking and indicative of what could be the future of the performing arts in this precarious era. We are infinitely fortunate to have the Playhouse, the State Theatre of California, right here in our community—not to mention Mr. Michetti.

Fully expecting the 5pm opening performance of the four-act epic to take us into the midnight hour, Nelson, Pevear, and Volokhonsky’s arrestingly accessible adaptation pares the play down into a tidy two acts, eliminating some unnecessary minor characters and immediately getting right to the heart of what Volokhovsky refers to as Chekhov’s “most religious, if not most spiritual play.”

First and foremost, the sense of Vanya being timeless is palpable, especially when self-proclaimed “misfit” doctor Astrov (Brandon Mendez Homer), a visitor to the provincial Russian estate of ailing Professor Serebryakov (Brian George), starts to bemoan the rampant deforestation of their lush landscape “groaning under the axe,” thus proclaiming what I believe may be the very first theatrical plea for the preservation of the natural world. Not until 1960 when the good Reverend Shannon whines to Hannah Jelkes about the destruction of our environment by our careless species in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana was there such an impassioned scripted appeal for caution long before climate change.

Although the setting and time of Vanya has not been updated, the language here has a definite ring to how we talk today and it takes a minute to realize the subtle modernization of the familiar tale. Gone are some of the more conventional trappings of period Russian society as the specter of revolution begins to seep into the characters’ conversations. The sense of the endless amaranthine circling of time is apparent throughout and the constant hint of such a message is never lost for a moment.

The production, from Tesshi Nakagawa’s grand yet cavernous setting where almost everything takes place far in front of three massive arches and a rear stone wall, gorgeously lit by Jaymi Lee Smith’s shafts of moody kaleidoscopic skies, pays remarkably clear attention to the ambiance and intention of Chekhov. Michetti and his uber-talented team honors the original debut of his work directed by Stanislavsky at the austere Moscow Art Theatre at the turn of the 20th century but brings the enduring universal agelessness of the human condition directly into the world of today.

Michetti’s cast is nothing less than world-class, with some of LA’s finest theatre artists paying respectful deference to the unearthly talents of Armstrong as the long-suffering and overlooked country estate manager upon whom the play revolves. All of the quirkiness and signature wonder of an actor our town’s passionate audiences have learned to admire over the past 15 years or so come to perfect fruition in the role of one of Chekhov’s richest male characters without ever resorting to the usual traps inherent in his journey.

It is often forgotten that most of the great master’s plays, including this one, were subtitled as “A Comedy in Four Acts” and it was insufferable to the playwright when audiences—and directors—didn’t get that he meant much of it to be farcical. It is even said when The Cherry Orchard premiered at Moscow Art Theatre in 1904, its author walked out in a huff.

Russian humor is indeed dry and there’s a crafty subtlety in how Chekhov used his platform to take jabs at the country’s class system and the bored yet restless wealthy citizenry who ruled the country. Teaching in an overwhelmingly international school, even in my own Great Playwrights classes when each semester we worked through The Sea Gull, it always tickled me on first readthrough how the only students who laughed at the material were from Russia. No one finds this humor more successfully than Armstrong, especially under the incredibly brilliant and inspirational leadership of Michetti.

Still, everyone in Chekhov’s work suffers from the dark melancholy soul of the people of his country and none unravels as spectacularly—and as heartbreakingly—as Vanya, who sees everything in the world as "nothing but mirages." Armstrong delivers an indelible tour de force performance of a world-weary child-man who today might have been diagnosed as autistic, making one wonder how the actor could possibly endure taking his emotions and body through such unbearable pain for eight shows a week.

His supporting castmates, many of them friends who at the opening night reception graciously turned every personal compliment they received into praise for Armstrong, deliver what will surely at the end of the year be a cinch for receiving every Best Ensemble Award offered in Los Angeles theatre.

Sabina Zuniga Varela is the most fully realized Sonya I have yet to see, reminiscent to me of the poor misunderstood and lovestruck Fosca in Sondheim’s Passion, while special commendation must go to Chelsea Yakura-Kurtz, who stepped into the delicate but demanding role of Serebryakov’s unrequited young wife Elena with very short notice. And it would be a major understatement to say Southland veteran theatrical superstars George as the patriarch professor, Anne Gee Byrd as Vanya’s ancient mother Sonya, and Jayne Taini as the family’s faithful servant Marina, could not be better.

There is nothing that hasn’t conspired to make this one of the most astounding productions of this year so far, at least one “homegrown,” if you’ll excuse the expression. As fine as every contributing detail is here, however, it’s all about Michetti and his ability to create something magical at every turn.

Having been directed by him myself four times—some of the most memorable moments as a collaborative artist in my life—his imagination and perception is boundless, not to mention he arrives at every first rehearsal with an already tattered notebook of personal research so stuffed full of material it could be a handwritten bible. And kinda is.

I mentioned one teensy-weensy ADHD-fueled comment to Michetti after opening night that it bothered me to see Astrov wearing a wristwatch in 1899 when they didn’t come into fashion for men until World War I where they were first utilized to coordinate attacks and troop movements. I should have known this guy would never let such a thing go unnoticed without a purpose.

“It was a conscious decision to embrace the anachronism.” he wrote me in a text. Although still set in its original time, he went on, he wanted the play to still feel relevant and relatable, to “remove things that might make modern audiences feel distanced from it and to help them feel like they’re seeing themselves reflected.” This also explains why Wendell C. Carmichael’s strikingly simple costuming suggests the period yet all pieces were literally bought from Ross Dress for Less and Old Navy.

See, this is the remarkable thinking of such a gifted interpreter as Michael Michetti, who to me is unparalleled in his powers to invent some of the most unforgettable stage productions of our tenuous times where commercialism too often takes precedent over art.

Astrov wonders aloud to Elena about “those who will live 100 or 200 years after us,” hoping that “maybe they will be happy.” From our perspective 123 years later, good luck with that, right?

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BELOVED at the Road Theatre Company

The third and final offering in the Road Theatre’s 30th anniversary repertory season is the riveting world premiere of Canadian playwright Arthur Holden’s drama Beloved, which perfectly caps the company’s headfirst dive back into the post-apocalyptic return into the overcrowded LA theatre scene.

People who read my stuff might know I avoided reviewing streaming events online during our two-year-plus lockdown, all well-meaning projects but frustratingly featuring people a quarter of an inch big acting at full throttle. After a long lifetime born and bred in theatre, I have to confess I have never been able to focus and stay attentive to anything not unfolding live before me—and sadly for me, that includes most films.

Still, I reluctantly watched the Road’s staged reading of Beloved last year during the pandemic because it starred my goombahs Taylor Gilbert and Sam Anderson, co-artistic directors of the company, and was directed by another longtime friend, Cameron Watson—in fact, I met both Taylor and Cam over 30 years ago when they played opposite each other in a play at the old Burbage Theatre directed by another pal, Francine Markow.  

Knowing my deficiencies, Taylor told me she really thought Beloved might be an exception to my boycott and she was dead right. It was quite captivating, shouting out from the claustrophobia-producing tiny screen of my iPhone and almost immediately making me forget how I was being forced by the fucking anti-vaxxers to be viewing it online rather than in person.

I soon was totally caught up in the lives of Dorothy and Stephen, troubled long-married proprietors of a failing Montreal realty company who are called to their teenage son David’s tony private school to learn he has been using the school’s computers to download images of adult males having sex with underage boys.

The play unfolds in three successive waiting rooms where the couple is not only forced to confront David’s issues but their responsibilities in how this came to be. These include spending more time trying to salvage their business than attending to their kid, as well as Stephen’s tendency to strike out explosively in most scenarios and occasionally even clobber his son when his frustrations reached the boiling point.

Holden’s script proved a diamond in the rough: bittersweet and sometimes painfully sad, yet ultimately a confirmation of the resiliency of the human condition. However, I remember thinking when I watched the streamed reading how difficult it would be to transfer the rather static work to the stage after viewing it online as three talking heads emoting into the camera from their adjacent little at-home boxes.

The answer is it simply couldn’t work without the talents of veteran actors such as Gilbert and Anderson, as well as Cherish Duke in multiple roles, under the leadership of Watson’s nurturing yet omnipresent directorial skills. The result here is a testament to the art of creating extraordinary theatre despite ridiculously demanding odds.

Holden has an early-Mametesque sense of creating dialogue with realistic halting speeches and interrupted thoughts that must be a real challenge to master, but from the streamed version to the play’s opening night, these same four folks have aced it completely.

Beloved would be an impossible play to mount without their commitment and natural gifts, especially on designer Brian Graves’ imaginative but barely movable set where all three scenes unfold with only Nicholas Santiago’s rear projections to differentiate between them and the same configuration of white plastic chairs arranged in a group therapy-style circle.

Surely part of this accomplishment is due to the sturdy personal relationship between Gilbert and Anderson, who not only have manned the operations of the Road together for many years but have appeared opposite one another on the company’s stage many times. There’s a palpable trust and comfort between them and, in these multifaceted and volatile roles, they are both nothing short of bewitching.

Anderson manages to make his cornered, short-tempered failure of a husband, businessman, and father poignant and even sympathetic to us while still being frustratingly unlikable, while Gilbert turns in the performance of her celebrated career when the fragility of the feisty Dorothy slowly surfaces as her marriage and son’s wellbeing begin to erode.

As the school’s guidance counselor, a court prosecutor, and a psychiatrist who enter each scene with more and more devastating news, Duke is also exceptional, delivering quite contrasting characters despite Holden’s failure to write them as more well-conceived individuals—one of the only small druthers I had about his work. Now that his play is on its feet I’m sure he could correct this rather glaring fault easily, especially after seeing Duke in this premiere.

And yes, I did mention earlier that the two leading actors and the director are friends but I assure you that over the years I have reviewed people I love brutally and have said glowing things about others I tend to avoid like the plague. I have lost friendships because of this, not to mention a few roles myself in work being presented by people I’ve bashed, but I strive always to be truthful regardless.

I believe true artists take criticism as it is intended and instead of holding a grudge, consider my hardly earth-shattering opinions and hopefully find some of my thoughts useful because they germinate from a desire to better the artform that has contributed significantly to keeping me alive and relatively sane.

I praise the Road’s introduction of Arthur Holden to our city because it is certainly praiseworthy. The play’s opening suffered an unfortunate late start, so the run is quite limited; don’t miss the chance to see textbook acting and directing at its finest. If I were teaching this semester, I’d make seeing Beloved at the Road a mandatory assignment.

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KING JAMES at the Mark Taper Forum

My knowledge of basketball is embarrassingly limited. I know that very tall men in shiny little shorts run from one side of a court to another, that the players tend to do a lot of TV commercials, and many of them get arrested for domestic violence more often than "family value" Republican congressmen get caught in motel rooms with their pants down.

Keeping this in mind, I attended the opening of Rajiv Joseph’s King James at the Taper with some trepidation. What if someone slapped me on the back and bellowed, “What about them Lakers?” or everyone in the audience except me was wearing one of those two-color jerseys bought at The Game that cost more than my car payment?

The saving grace here is this world premiere is being presented in collaboration with Chicago’s prolific Steppenwolf Theatre and was written by Joseph, 2010 Pulitzer Prize nominee for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which also had its debut with Center Theatre Group before Broadway.

My evening was saved. Although the play centers around two rabid Cleveland Cavaliers fans (a term, one of them points out, derived from the word “fanatic”) and considering that King James is played out in four scenes reflecting the quarters of a basketball game, it’s more about loneliness, human need, and the value of friendship to help cultivate one’s growth as a person.

The first section takes place at a chapel-turned-Starbucks-turned-perpetually empty wine bar in Rajiv’s hometown in 2004 just as another local kid, basketball superstar LeBron James, plays his first year with the Cavs at age 19. La Cave du Vin’s miserably frustrated bartender Matt (Chris Perfetti, breakout star of the new series Abbott Elementary) is in a financial hole and forced to sell his ailing father’s treasured annual season tickets to the Cavalier’s games, a torturous decision for him since he grew up watching his favorite team at his otherwise emotionally absent dad’s side.

He is joined by Shawn (Glenn Davis, an artistic director at Steppenwolf), who arrives to hopefully purchase the season package, something he has never been able to afford before in his struggle of a life. The two have a rather thorny start in their relationship since what Matt is asking to pass on the coveted seats is many times more than his customer was prepared to pay.

Over the course of the transaction, however, overshadowed by disagreeing about whether or not the young rookie LeBron will prove a even better player than Michael Jordan (“It’s.. implicational,” Matt argues), the guys begin to find a skewed respect for one another and realize they have more in common than their current roles as amateur negotiators. By the end of the scene, it’s hinted as the bar goes to blackout that maybe Matt will be Shawn’s plus-one for the season.

The second scene takes place in 2010 where it quickly becomes obvious the pair has become fast friends, still sharing those coveted season tickets as well as the usual life experiences yet still finding themselves disagreeing about LeBron as he abandons Cleveland to play with another team in Miami.

Still, they share a knowledge of each other’s dating woes and career disappointments that eclipses their opinions about basketball. Shawn has become close with Matt’s mother as she struggles to keep the family’s upholstery business open while her husband fades away in hospice care, a situation with which Matt is not entirely comfortable before his best and only friend tells him he’s planning to relocate to New York for graduate school in hopes of a future as a writer.

As in the beginning of the play and during one elaborate Act Two scene change, delightfully energized deejay Khloe Janel is set up at the side of the stage during intermission making the generally stuffy opening night crowd bop in their seats like a room full of urban teenagers. This is a welcome diversion before we’re transported to 2014 and to Armand’s, that storefront family business where Shawn is now employed, as Todd Rosenthal's set magically revolves to become what could prove to be the stage design of 2022.

New York appears to have been a bust for Shawn, but he’s encouraged by a proposed trip to Hollywood for some “generals,” a term he has trouble explaining to Matt—while of course the savvy LA firstnighters get it immediately. It’s a new world for Matt too, as he prepares to open his second boutique bar and success has made him able to finance Shawn’s trip west—that is until they again start arguing about LeBron and his return to the Cavs that season. When Matt slips that he thinks the star should have “known his place,” it strikes a sour note with his best friend, who believes his pal’s underlying racism has finally surfaced.

Yes, King James is far more than a play about sports, something only used as a device to explore in-depth the relationship between two lonely and disappointed friends (“See? That’s what’s wrong with America” is Matt’s frequent 12-year mantra). Although Joseph’s celebrated award-winning earlier plays are all about young men at war thrust into political and social conflict, they are actually about the difficulties and triumphs of human interaction and male bonding in historical settings. This brilliant new work is no exception.

Under the leadership of esteemed Tony-winning director Kenny Leon, this is a knockout production sure to be, like Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, destined for a New York run and a myriad of deserved honors. Hopefully, this will happen without the typical commercial-fueled decision to replace Davis and Perfetti with guaranteed starpower. Although a potential theatrical classic, King James must be driven by two spectacular actors to succeed; in lesser hands than these gifted and generous costars, it could be disastrous.

Davis finds surprisingly sweet and heartbreakingly real moments for Shawn to break out of his insecurities and get past the emotional scars of his character’s difficult life, while Perfetti subtly but uncannily transforms as the gawky young introvert matures into more grounded and world-weary adulthood.

“You’re not the only motherfucker around here with dreams,” Shawn blurts out to Matt at one point—or is it the other way around? See, together these actors are two parts of one fascinating and perfectly crafted whole, their intricately interwoven performances soaring as the fellowship between Joseph’s pair of nondescript underdogs bolsters them both to go off into the world with more confidence and the strength to follow their dreams. More than that, they do so with a fine sense of the playwright’s rhythmic signature comedic timing that also delivers many well-deserved laughs to an audience appreciative for the break.

On his deathbed, Matt’s father waxed nostalgically to Shawn the story about building a time machine in the family’s backyard with his son, something the child insisted needed to only travel into the future. When you’re young, the guys surmise, you’re only interested in the dreams of what’s to come while, as time goes by, a person’s thoughts turn instead to the comfort of the past. “That’s the difference being old,” Shawn realizes, and as the friends find their futures possibly not what they hoped, they discover the value of friendship, something that transcends the pipedreams and the guaranteed disappointments of life.

Although Rajiv Joseph’s King James might on first glance appear to be about a pair of diehard basketball buddies and the simultaneous history of one of the game’s most talked about players, it may be unsportsmanlike but to me, it’s far more than that: it’s an inspirational kind of alternative love story, pure and simple—the kind of dream realized that’ too dang easy to take for granted.

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METAMORPHOSES at A Noise Within

After one incredibly disappointing reinvention of a classic last weekend, I was extremely nervous the following day to attend A Noise Within’s revival of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, which takes ancient Grecian myths and delivers an imaginative contemporary spin on them performed in and around a giant onstage swimming pool.

Granted, I had seen the original production of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant’s brilliant multiple award-winning production, which was originally conceived at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre in 1998, transferred here to the Taper in 2000, then finally debuted in New York two years later. Zimmerman’s enchanted retelling of Ovid’s mythological narrative poems made an enormous splash there with all the dramatic power of a storm at sea, winning its creator the Tony Award for Direction, as well as Drama Desk, Drama League, and Lucille Lortel honors as the Best Play of 2002.

I should have trusted that anything produced by ANW, with direction by the company’s co-artistic director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and designed by Francois-Pierre Couture, would be spectacular. Within minutes of watching the castmembers reciting their well-known folk tales while bathing, playfully dangling their feet in the water, making slippery and sensual love, or soaking Gary Lennon’s shimmering gowns and revealing togas in the onstage pool under Ken Booth’s mysterious lighting, and my soul was happy cleansed of the horrific memory of the night before.

Featuring a cast of nine gifted and fiercely committed ANW resident artists taking on some 85 roles in the classic myths, Metamorphoses delivers mesmerizing new versions of the stories of Midas, Orpheus, and Aphrodite, among others, and does so with humor and breathtaking visuals as the cohesive team conspires to create a glorious celebration of the joys and heartbreaks of the human condition—something that hasn’t changed much over the last 2,000 years.

Adapted from David R. Slavitt’s free-verse translation of “The Metamorphoses of Ovid,” the play’s locations, like the actors, are also constantly evolving and transforming from one watery location to another, including the vast once-uncharted oceans of our planet, the River Styx, a quiet place where simple peasant women wash their clothes, and the depiction of a whimsical poolside therapy session played with the patient leisurely floating on an inflatable chaise lounge.

There are gods and mortals alike depicted, all with one unifying trait: the universal quest for love, the challenges of loss, and the transformations that unify us all. “It’s been said a myth is just a public dream,” a character tells us prophetically, “and our dreams are private myths.”

The original staging by Zimmerman was haunting and incredibly innovative as her graceful and athletic cast immersed themselves in the dreamlike water, the concept appearing to some critics at the time to be gimmicky but surely commercially foolproof. Having seen the play performed totally devoid of its lyricism and featuring performers unable to embrace the poetic dialogue, however, I can tell you it’s not.

Rodriguez-Elliott totally gets it and, on ANW’s often challenging thrust stage, she becomes more conjurer than director. Every design aspect is pure magic, from Couture’s simple but evocative set to Lennon’s Cirque du Soleil-like quick-drying costumes to Booth’s shimmering lighting which crawls up the walls on either side of the audience, as well as Robert Oriol’s enchanting original music and eerie sound design knitting it all together.

Just as in the original production, Rodriguez-Elliott’s ensemble is simply flawless, particularly Kasey Mahaffy in all his roles as he humorously distracts the audience from the play’s heavier themes, especially when portraying that nonchalant victim of modern psychotherapy bobbling away as he spills the family secrets.

ANW’s co-artistic director Geoff Elliott is also a standout as Midas, Poseidon, and even the sun, although he initially scared me making his first entrance talking on a cellphone, an echo of the dastardly presentation we sat through the night before and something definitely becoming a way too-frequent device when adapting classics into contemporary settings. Thankfully, Elliott won me over quickly as his Midas exhibited his distracted OCD conversation juggling business deals with his familial obligations—and we all know how that turns out.

There’s no doubt the most exotic feature here is Metamorphoses’ omnipresent water feature, which is somehow alluring in a totally elemental way. Just as drifting off to contented sleep with Alexa playing the sound of ocean waves on a continuous loop, the effect of the show’s onstage pool is something that calms as it appeals to our primordial senses, I suspect.

About a decade ago, an ambitious young LA theatre company made a bold choice by renting the Road Theatre Company’s former stage to present the first 99-seat theatre production of Zimmerman’s epic. The naïve best-laid plans quickly sunk into the lowest depths of circumstance when, as the renters loaded in, the Road’s Taylor Gilbert realized for the first time the producers planned on adding three tons of liquid to the set, something which surely wouldn’t… well, hold water… especially on the second floor of the aging Lankershim Arts Center.

Already geared for opening night, the show went on regardless, with the otherwise impressive multi-leveled structure still featuring desolately unused underwater lighting fixtures, filters and cables yet remaining dry-docked; any interaction with that missing life-giving element keeping us all alive was awkwardly pantomimed by the game cast.

It was as though there was a 10th character missing: that essential element guaranteed to pull the riddles of time and theatrical novelties together into a cohesive whole. As valiantly as the actors and members of the creative team toiled to make their beached efforts stay afloat, without its H2O, Zimmerman’s concept unfortunately didn’t make much of a ripple.

Mary Zimmerman’s captivating theatrical masterwork gently explains that we wander in the dark until we hopefully find true love. Wherever that love may go, there we find our soul—and if we’re lucky and let ourselves be blind and stop always craving more, our lives will be fulfilled. If I walked away from ANW’s unforgettable production of Metamorphoses with nothing more than that revelation stuck in the complex confusion of a life well spent rattling around continuously in my addled brain, I for one will be the richer for it.

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KING LEAR at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

I actually googled the myriad of famous quotes from the works of William Shakespeare to see if there was something clever that would translate into “bloody awful.”

Modernizing and reinventing the famous works by the Bard once in awhile can prove thrilling but, in the hands of director John Gould Rubin, known for his “radical reconstructions” of the great classics, the current production of King Lear at the Wallis makes a charade of such an otherwise occasionally noble practice.

Some of Rubin’s inventiveness works but in general, the result is an overripe mess, pretentious and precious and downright silly. This is exacerbated by some almost unwatchable performances by some extremely talented artists. The director’s skewed vision totally overshadows the acting, not to mention the text, unfolding as though the ensemble had no directorial leadership whatsoever.

From the earliest moments, with Edmund (Rafael Jordan) delivering his opening soliloquy into his cell phone, his face projected as the ultimate selfie on two large panels on either side of the stage, portends what’s to come. The opening banquet scene unfolds more like a frat party with everyone emoting at such a loud fever pitch that it seems the actors think they’re projecting to the very back gallery seats at the Globe Theatre itself.

The play is billed nearly everywhere with “Joe Morton as King Lear,” something that is not a selling point. Morton is the biggest conundrum of all, making his poor mentally deteriorating monarch, dressed as if playing Nathan Detroit in a bus-and-truck tour of Guys and Dolls, so nuts from the very start he has absolutely nowhere to go before the final curtain—long time coming though it is.

Actors as admirable as Mark Harelik as Glouester and Emily Swallow as Goneril certainly deserve better, while Brie Eley as Regan, dressed in supertight skin-colored “pleather” pants, seems to be doing a streetwise Tiffany Hadish imitation, holding her cell phone as if she might break a freshly manicured nail.

The supremely interesting River Gallo plays both Cordelia and the Fool without one iota of differentiation between the characters, not even slipping out of the shunned daughter’s odd flowing white outfit that looks as though it should be worn by Amiee Semple McPherson and accompanied by a pair of white tigers.

Rubin’s much-anticipated King Lear is a sadly overwrought and insufferable fiasco, a live soap opera version of one of the world’s most enduring theatrical classics obviously meant to be performed for the hearing impaired. It gives a whole new meaning to the term Shakespearean tragedy.

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WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at the Geffen Playhouse

As someone who’s been obsessed with both creating and appreciating theatre for well over seven decades, as well as reviewing plays for the past 35 years, there are many worthy classics that are still “work” for me to sit through yet again. Still, there are about four or five enduring masterworks I could watch repeatedly over and over, including Equus, The House of Blue Leaves, The Shadow Box, the musicals Hair and Chicago, and of course anything and everything written by Tennessee Williams.

At the top of the list would also surely be the groundbreaking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which to me is a close second to A Streetcar Named Desire as the best play of the 20th Century. Now in a slickly produced and lovingly mounted revival at the Geffen Playhouse, I am still as raptured by Edward Albee’s poetic theatrical evisceration of the American Dream as completely as I was back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and I learned to sidestep them gingerly.

See, I was maybe 15 or 16 when I saw my heroine and mentor Uta Hagen originate Martha in Virginia Woolf? on Broadway in the early 60s and, without a doubt, it was one of the most pivotal experiences of my life as a young actor. After a childhood spent thinking being cute and loud for a living in musical theatre and crying daily on an early “Golden Age” TV soap opera was what life was all about, that one evening in a darkened historic Broadway house made that click happen—you know, that click that makes one realize what an honor it is to be an artist.

Over the past years I have seen many notable people play Martha’s initially passive-aggressive punching bag of a husband, including my favorite George, Bill Irwin, as well as Arthur Hill in the original, John Lithgow, Sheppard Strudwick, and Jonathan Pryce opposite Hagen at age 80 as she reprised her iconic role at a benefit reading at the Ahmanson nearly 40 years after the first spoke Martha’s infamous opening line, “What a dump."

When I myself played Nick opposite a charitably unnamed famous but dissipated star who should have been prosecuted for her destruction of an almost indestructible role—including opening night in front of a sold out audience entering the stage and, after a long sustained applause, looking around the stage and loudly but oddly still in character braying, “LINE!”—I wanted badly to one day play George, an opportunity that sadly has at age 384 now long passed me by.

I am comforted by this missed opportunity by seeing the absolutely most impressive George I have ever had the privilege to observe. Without a doubt, the singular most memorable thing about the Geffen’s impressively reverent and brilliantly designed revival of a Virginia Woolf? is the jaw-dropping performance of Zachary Quinto, who immediately proves Dr. Spock has some world-class chops guaranteed in the future to make his career live well and prosper.

Martha might in Albee’s once-shocking tale traditionally overpower her world-weary and continuously abused husband of 23 years but not in this mounting by any means. Without fading into the woodwork and dusty bookcases on Wilson Chin’s detailed two-story set, Quinto simply commands the stage at every turn without really trying. He surely could have overshadowed many of the celebrated previous post-Uta Marthas I’ve seen, including Glenda Jackson, Ruth Warrick, Kathleen Turner, Rita Gam, and especially the remarkable Bette Ford at Seattle Rep in the early 1970s.

Quinto is mesmerizing despite being far too young at age 44 to play George, especially working opposite an actress the right age who seems to be desperately trying to play younger rather than really connect with the actor. Late in Act Three when George shouts, “No! No! I’m running the show now!”, Quinto didn’t need to convince me.

Whether it be the actor’s choice or the visionary inspiration of director Gordon Greenberg (or hopefully a collaboration of both), I saw something in Quinto’s performance I’ve never seen before, something incredibly unique: there’s an inner longing and occasionally a little suspicious though delightful campiness in his poor George, as though the guy might have spent some brief happier times sneaking a few of his more hunky ambitious male students into the local Motel 6 for a little bartered upgrading of their final grade, partially just to spite Martha and her demonic father who has also contributed to George’s lifelong humiliation. It gives a whole new meaning to his “I have no sense of humor—I have a heightened sense of the ridiculous.”

And when Quinto’s George offhandedly admires Nick’s physique, there’s something a lot more loaded in the relationship of the play’s quartet of sparing partners, particularly evident when he occasionally tries to place a hand on his good looking young rival’s shoulder or back, something that obviously makes Graham Phillips’ Nick recoil in disgust—a clue that the director was in on or even generated this new interpretation.

Phillips is the perfect Nick, so Ivy League that he could have worn a football jersey and laurel leaves in his hair. He handles the play’s least flashy role beautifully, though I did miss a bit of the turmoil Nick suffers in his descent from stud to houseboy. When Martha screams repeatedly for him to “Answer the door, houseboy!” after his disappointing performance humping the hostess on the kitchen floor, the torturous dilemma Nick faces as he decides to swallow his pride and reluctantly start taking orders could be communicated with a clearer sense of sickening defeat.

As his mouse of a wifey, Aimee Carrero is this revival’s other great revelation. The “slim-hipped,” label-peeling Honey is a flashy and incredibly quirky role, one coveted by any young actress wanting to stretch herself to the limits and almost be guaranteed to garner a nomination somewhere for her performance. Unlike the wonderful Sandy Dennis in her Oscar-winning film performance, however, Carrero’s Honey is fascinatingly underplayed, making her occasional burst of inappropriate one-liners often so quiet and introspective you have to work hard to hear what she said—something I didn’t mind doing for a second. There’s a palpable power in her understatement, one many theatre actors will understand without further explanation.

Now, before I say too much about Calista Flockhart as Martha, the female actor’s equivalent to having the cajones to tackle playing Hamlet, let me say I’ve seen her onstage on three occasions in her pre-Ally McBeal days and she was spectacular. As Albee’s most complex anti-heroine, she is either grossly miscast or unwilling to go where Martha needs to go. If her character choices are Greenberg’s, I would be most surprised, since it instead feels more as though this is yet again an aging celebrity trying to hold onto the glamour that once was and possibly fighting her director to maintain it at every step along the way.

If her wig possibly worn by Doris Day in Midnight Lace and exaggerated Cagney-like “little person” body language was indeed part of Greenberg’s vision, he made a terrible mistake; with her bouncy, never getting disheveled hair and costuming that makes her seem as though she’s prepping for a revival of The Donna Reed Show, Flockhart is doing a perky, way too sunny one-man show here, never truly connecting with any of her three costars—a glaring flaw that Quinto works through smoothly. Then again, George does say that in his mind, his shrew of a wife is buried in cement up to her neck, so maybe this fine internal actor is inventive enough to use that.

Flockhart could be given the benefit of the doubt this was all a character choice until the top of the shattering anti-utopian Act Three, when the abandon-ed Martha’s heartwrenching, rambling monologue, meant to be shared with no one beyond her living room, is played directly out to the audience as if Flockhart is appearing in a one-night benefit reading of Love Letters. If I had any thought her performance as Martha in any way germinated from an intentional choice, the third act killed it. There’s obviously nothing beyond the fourth wall of George and Martha’s home except us.

Albee’s lyrical but measured dialogue is as brilliant as ever but it’s also full of terrible traps, as often his characters all sport the same hesitations, repetitions, even humor. It takes truly gifted actors to make it work but here, the last moving exchange between Flockhart and Quinto is painfully clumsy since she doesn’t appear to understand the rhythms or timing of the couple’s melancholy, distracted “Yes” and “No” exchange.

This is still a definitive Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? despite any such druthers, offering one rich, completely dynamic performance I’m thrilled to have seen before I croak. I never got to see Laurette Taylor’s Amanda Wingfield or Lee J. Cobb’s Willie Loman, but hey: I got to see Zachary Quinto’s star turn as George and, as badly cast (or directed) as his costar in this production might have been, without intentionally doing so, he “better, best, bested” her effortlessly.

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THE PLAY YOU WANT at the Road Theatre Company

My partner has an ear-piercing belly laugh that, when his funniest bone is really tickled, can induce migraines. If it is ever commandeered by the government, it could be used to warn the population of incoming missiles.

It’s been well over two years since I’ve heard Hugh release the kraken, but the Road’s welcoming debut of The Play You Want, the first piece developed in the lionhearted company’s year-long Under Construction program, did the trick. I probably should have brought along a bottle of Ibuprofen to pass out through the audience at curtain call if I’d known how hilarious—and brave, in our current pervasive era of cancel culture—the Road and playwright Bernardo Cubria's sparking new world premiere would prove to be.

Many celebrities are sent up in The Play You Want, most more mercilessly than Jeff Ross at one of those celebrity roasts, but none is poked as sharply as the playwright himself. Cubria’s leading character is a struggling New York playwright with enormous promise but unreasonable artistic desires if he wants to become marketable—named Bernardo Cubria.

All Bernardo (Peter Pasco) wants is to be recognized for his unstructured absurdist plays about clowns and one day become the “Mexican Samuel Beckett." Yet unless the income-challenged new father can write an in-fashion play about ethnic concerns and injustices in our underserved society to assure him a BIPOC production that white theatre patrons can patiently sit through to relieve their collective guilt and show how concerned they are with such things, his agent Chloe (Natalie Llerena) is gonna dump his ass. “Play the theatre game!” she rails. “Write one goddam Latinx issue play and I won’t drop you!”

Forced to leave his ideals behind, the threats of single parenthood from Bernardo’s whiny wife Vera (Chelsea Gonzalez) brings him to his knees and soon his first dreaded non-clown-themed issue play gets a reading at the Public—Cubria early on perhaps unintentionally reminding us that young artists already used to a diet of Top Ramen should avoid marriage as long as humanly possible, especially to a woman.

An instant success, Bernardo’s play is mounted off-off-off-off-off-off-off-off-Broadway (perhaps Cubria means LA?) starring Alfred Molina (Jonathan Nichols) and directed by Chay Yew (Christopher Larkin). As it begins to get press, he's asked to take a meeting with Scott Rudin himself (Stewart J. Zully), the megaproducer first depicted in silhouette in his swivel chair with shadows of octopus tentacles throwing ominous images across the stage floor. Rudin will produce his play on Broadway but only if he changes the title and rewrites it to add a new highly salable subplot. When Bernardo objects, Rudin tells him to get out of his office and “die in the Equity office with the rest of them!”

After many requests for chit-chats about activism in SoHo coffeeshops, soon The Play He Hates is in rehearsal with Sam Gold (again Larkin) replacing Yew as director since Broadway “needs someone with experience” and after all, Rudin has “great taste in white theatre,” something guaranteed to bring in the tourists from Iowa.

The name of the rewritten play? The Baby in the Cage Play.

At the beginning of the fastpaced 80-minute one-act, a spotlit monologue from a folksy shawl-draped abuela (Presciliana Esparolini) waxing nostalgic about her own grandmother's recipe for tamales leads into Bernardo in a visit to Chloe’s office where she tells him how much she loves it, to which he responds, “I wrote it as a joke while I was taking a shit!”

As The Play You Want unfolded I began to worry a bit, thinking it felt as though the actors were trying to project to the back bleachers at Theatricum Botanicum rather than the Road’s far more intimate space. It was surprising to see a play directed by Cornerstone Theatre’s amazing artistic director Michael John Garces, who more than proved his chops staging farce with the Geffen’s sensational The Thanksgiving Play sometime prior to our collective escape behind doors, performed so over-the-top.

Silly me. As soon at the play’s commedia style started to become apparent, my concern morphed into complete harmony with this exceptional troupe of actors telling the story, particularly Pasco, who not only had to find and personally honor the voice of the playwright but is also onstage literally throughout the play.

Everyone in the ensemble is brilliantly on the same page, with special moments coming when they make guest appearances from JaLo, Oskar Eustis, and Gloria Estafan as The Baby in the Cage Play grows into a commercial monster. Nichols is quite wonderful as Alfred (‘Call me Fred”) Molina, who defends his perpetual casting in Mexican roles besides being Italian and Spanish and raised in Paddington, England. The real Fred has yet to see the production, I’m told, but I’ll bet no one would find Nichols’ send up of him more hilarious than he would.

The final actor in this unique ensemble of fearless performers is Roland Ruiz, who basically steals every scene in which he’s included. Despite glorious drop-dead imitations of both Lin-Manuel Miranda and John Leguizamo, Ruiz also manipulates and voices Bernardo’s two-year-old son Pablo—who is depicted as a sweet-faced four-foot marionette created by Lynn Jeffries and controlled from behind like a Balinese stick puppet.

Derrick McDaniel’s intricate lighting plot perfectly compliments Brian Graves’ huge abstract revolving set pieces, something of which any Mexican Beckett would surely be proud. Moved throughout by the actors, something that recently bothered me in another otherwise well-mounted play I think because it was such a kitchen sink piece rather than one evoking “magical realism,” obviously a term the playwright has heard more than once in his life since it weaves throughout the play.

Not only was it good to hear Hugh once again discharge his best from-the-gut bullhorn of a laugh, but I can’t say how much I also adored this courageous and outrageously funny adventure that also slyly confronts the institutional racism pervasive in our American theatre without shaking a finger in our faces.

Bernardo Cubria and the unstoppable Road deserve heartfelt kudos for having the balls to mount this edgy and easily misunderstood play in our current culture where longtime and highly respected artistic directors of arts complexes are resigning in droves because, as a character in his biting satire observes, “Theatres across the country are scared shitless right now.”

Hopefully, things will even out and all artists can once again freely say outrageous things again without being scrutinized and in grave danger of disappearing from the landscape for not addressing every issue of the day in 80 minutes. As the timely The Play You Want reminded me, I miss the days before “theatres care a lot more about ideas than execution.” It’s a treat, post-pandemic, to still find an emerging playwright capable of entertaining while cleverly delivering an important but less accusatory message.

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BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY at the Mark Taper Forum

Pioneering African-American playwright, novelist, activist, and scholar Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play Blues for an Alabama Sky made the rounds of regional theatre for years before finally landing off-Broadway in 2020. First presented here in 1998 at LATC as a vehicle for the inimitable Loretta Devine and currently being performed in a major revival at the Taper directed by Phylicia Rashad, I had hoped my reaction this time around might be upgraded by the play’s new pedigree.

Unfortunately, there’s a reason why Blues took a quarter of a century to reach New York. Although the theme, dealing with the struggles of a group of artists and others living in Harlem at the beginning of the Great Depression, could be totally relevant to our pandemic-fueled scraping to collectively get back on our feet, the play itself is an achingly old-fashioned and unsurprising look into those hard times all those years ago, featuring a first act glaringly crowded out by a plethora of undisguised exposition. As conscientiously as Rashad and her excellent team of LA’s best designers try to pull it from its predictability, it is a Sisyphean battle that Cleage’s script keeps them from winning.

Rashad’s direction is certainly laudable, leading a terrific ensemble of actors who all deserve better; the depth of performance she achieves is uniformly exemplary, especially as it makes some of the play’s dialogue and situations as fresh as humanly possible. Early in Act Two, when a character checks the gun hidden in his waistband while casually noting that one can be too careful in Harlem “these days,” it’s quite a feat to attempt delivering it nonchalantly enough not to let everyone in the audience instantly know someone is gonna be off-ed by the final curtain.

Under Rashad’s care, Nija Okoro, in the coveted role of Angel, a crusty recently fired Cotton Club singer and dumped gangster’s sidepiece, does a yeomen’s job bringing her brassy, conflicted character to life despite its inherent cartoonishness, while Greg Alverez Reid as her roommate and longtime friend Guy overcomes all the cliches of a gay black man living above 125th Street in 1930—not a time nor a location in any way supportive of his sexuality.

The entire cast is to be commended for rising above the material as the tightknit group of society’s leftovers and their admirers living in a downtrodden tenament building appear to also oddly be on the outskirts of Harlem’s rich history. They seem to know every African-American icon of the era in New York, including Langston Hughes, Margaret Sanger, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., not to mention Guy’s devoted relationship with expat Josephine Baker, already the toast of Paris and here represented by a huge portrait of the singer onstage adorned as an alter to a cultural deity.

As always, the massive and detailed set by brilliant LA treasure John Iacovelli is visually stunning, although it’s also a liability to the flow of the play, making Rashad’s investment in her actors’ development far more successful than her staging. It soon becomes frustrating that a majority of the action is played so far upstage within the set's two adjacent apartment spaces it becomes akin to watching Dune on an iPhone.

The apartments are also separated by a long hall and anyone who makes an entrance or exit—all of which are obviously timed to assure the play’s rather clunky development—must begin upstage on either side of the set and walk all the way around to downstage center before walking back upstage along the hallway to knock on one door or the other. This leaves the feeling that Cleage’s characters are stuck moving around a giant 1950s board game, albeit without passing Go or collecting that illusive $200.

Despite many moments of well-earned humor, it is here the Taper’s Blues becomes unintentionally silly, especially as most of the characters saunter in and out at such a leisurely pace around the edges of the set that it’s difficult not to wonder why the director and designer didn't give the two apartments doors on the outside of the walls where the walk would be far less Beckettian.

Still, despite its flaws as a piece of theatrical literature, Blues for an Alabama Sky also chronicles an important time in our country’s difficult and checkered history, making this well-meaning revival admirable as it tries to overcome its massive failings created by a prolific writer whose other works are far less full of stereotypical pitfalls.

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DETAINED at the Fountain Theatre

We have come to know over the years that no theatre complex in LA has been as staunchly dedicated to social relevance and fighting for equality and justice than the Fountain. It is the quintessential place to champion the world premiere of France-Luce Benson’s Detained, a work commissioned by ACLU immigration attorney Judy Rabinovitz and created from interviews with real undocumented residents being held in U.S. detention facilities facing possible deportation.

On Sarah Krainin’s starkly minimalist and industrial-looking set, eight incredible committed actors sweep us up into the lives of these traumatized people and their equally traumatized families, transporting us into the bowels of these deplorable centers. We hear personal stories of the many mistreated individuals whose lives have been uprooted by a system made more heartless and deaf to human need than ever before in our already embarrassing history during the administration of Donald Trump, a time that made immigration reform in our country more impossible than it already was.

Speaking directly to the audience, we meet decent, hard-working people from Haiti, Guatemala, Eritrea, Colombia, and Guinea, one a feisty 30-year resident of New York City (Liana Arauz) who has raised her family by working as a roofer, another a U.S. veteran (Will Dixon) held in detention over three years who tells us we would never believe how many fellow vets he met while incarcerated at the center.

The ensemble, which also features Camila Ascencio, Jan Munroe, Theodore Perkins, Marlo Su and Michael Uribes, are all perfectly cast and equally remarkable in their ability to work together as a cohesive whole, anchored by Christine Avila as an underpaid immigration attorney, surely based on Rabinovitz, fighting desperately to help free these shockingly ignored and voiceless people whose stories we would otherwise never hear.

The glue that binds this all together is the exceptional staging by director Mark Valdez, whose ability to keep these eight actors moving with purpose and fluidity in such a restrictive space is quite extraordinary.

In a week where the rapidly changing dynamics of social media has exposed and bombarded us with real-time images of horrific abuse of power never seen before in our modern history, perhaps Detained audiences could be a tad desensitized to the plight of these individuals at this moment in time, having recently been smacked in the face with so much pain and suffering from across the globe.

It would still be nearly impossible to remain unmoved by Benson and Rabinovitz’s absorbing living docudrama, but for future incarnations of this highly worthy and moving play, perhaps it would be better to simply tell the dehumanizing tales so urgently needing be shared without the audience made to feel as though we are among those individuals who don’t care.

It’s that preaching to the choir thing: If we brave the outside world and show up at the Fountain to take in the message clearly detailed from the name of the play alone, not to mention any public elucidation of the storyline, we obviously already care. Detained, for me, worked best when I didn’t feel under indictment for indifference by eight pairs of accusing eyes standing a few feet from where I sat, no matter how eloquent their plea might be.

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ANNA IN THE TROPICS at A Noise Within

Cuban-born playwright Nilo Cruz’ 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winner Anna in the Tropics is a lovely, lyrical, almost Chekhovian neoclassic play set in a struggling barebones Tampa, Florida cigar factory in 1929.

Filled with colorful, hotblooded, potentially combustible characters, unless they are portrayed by a truly skilled band of actors, Anna can be deadly. Luckily, this is A Noise Within and this troupe of some of LA’s most gifted performers has been made available to director Jonathan Munoz-Proulx to help him tell this seemingly languid but actually quite complex tale as it was originally meant to be played.

Beneath the simmering passions of the factory’s workers and the family of Santiago who runs it (Leandro Cano), there’s a lot more going on besides wiping sweat from the workers' necks as they sit at a long table hand-rolling tobacco leaves into cigars. In keeping with the old traditions back home in Havana, a lector (Jason Manuel Olazabel) arrives by steamship to begin reading to the workers as they perform their repetitive duties—not a welcome presence to Santiago’s half-brother Cheche (Gabriel Bonilla), still mourning his wife who took off with the factory’s last lector.

There is officially no character named Anna in these tropics, but one circles around their heads like cigar smoke as the new lector chooses Tolstoy's self-dubbed "first true novel" as his book to share. As he reads Anna Karenina to the workers, it becomes clear many of the classic novel’s themes are mirrored in this clearly antiquated family-owned dinosaur of a business.

All the problems Tolstoy’s people endure are here in Tampa: the doubts about faith, the demands of familial and societal obligations, the desire to leave this monotonous life for a more exciting one, and of course, that ol’ desire under the elms—or in this case, desire consummated directly on top of the tobacco leaves piled on top of the rolling table.

First among the similarities is the adulterous romance between Tolstoy’s Anna and the dashing count Aronsky, paralelled by the physical heat that overtakes Santiago’s unhappily married older daughter Conchita (Tania Verafield) and the lector himself, the equally dashing Juan Julian. And when Conchita and Juan Julian displace those tobacco leaves by their rather graphically-depicted lovemaking at the end of the first act (with an impressed nod to Intimacy Director Carly D. Weckstein), let me tellya, this ain’t children’s theatre.

Despite some unevenness in acting styles Munoz-Proulx should have been able to address, the ensemble is worldclass, particular Cano as the cigar-chompin’, swaggering family patriarch with a heart of gold hidden beneath his Big Daddy white linen suit and Katie Rodriguez as his awkward and wide-eyed younger daughter. The sheltered Marela, initially so excited to see the lector arrive that she wets her petticoats, is energized and fortified as time goes on by Tolstoy’s heroine, developing a schoolgirl crush on Juan Julian as he fills her head with the world’s first epic romance novel.

Groundbreaking Latino theatre pioneer Rose Portillo, the original Della in Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, presents a scrappy prizefighter in satin and lace as Santiago’s wife Ofelia, a woman who, despite her well-practiced motherly exterior can turn into a snapping pitbull at the first sign of threat to her family or their livelihood.

Matias Ponce is quite believable in the tough role of Conchita’s also-erring husband Palomo, a proud man who fights his cultural instincts as he watches—literally—his wife coupling on the tobacco leaves. Bonilla is well cast as Cheche, although he does miss giving a better glimpse into his character’s slowly smoldering frustration and volatility so the final repercussions from his emotional unraveling don’t seem as unlikely, not to mention provide a convenient device for the playwright to wrap up more things than cigars.

The best scenes are between Cano’s Santiago and the people he loves: his loyal but controlling wife and the two daughters he struggles to understand—again it’s that dinosaur thing. The only elefante en el cuarto is the rather conspicuous age difference between Portillo and Cano I don’t believe Cruz intended, making Ofelia come off a little like a cougar. Both veteran actors, however, overcome the situation as best they can, although a little graying of his hair or darkening of hers could make the odd match less distracting to the storyline.

The drastically rectangular thrust stage at ANW, with the audience right on top of the actors, is often an asset for their productions, but the difficulty staging other more intimate plays on the inherently non-atmospheric playing space occasionally hampers telling the tale. Despite the Herculean efforts of the director and some of our town’s best designers—including Tom Ontiveros’ dramatically creamy lighting and E.B. Brooks’ incredible costuming, drab when necessary, brilliantly celebratory at others—this Anna suffers from the limitations of the venue itself. It is especially frustrating when those quiet, intimate scenes between Santiago and his family members are staged with them seated on the staircase behind that omnipresent stationary work table.

Usually when I have such a critique, I try to offer a solution how it could possibly be corrected, but here I can easily forgive these dynamic artists at the top of their craft because I do not have a clue how it could be overcome. Don’t let my theatrical OCD stop you from catching this otherwise quintessential mounting of Anna and the Tropics, a great American play that poetically delivers a fascinating look into a simpler world we will never see again.

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ANN at Pasadena Playhouse

The late Texas Governor Ann Richards was a pistol: down-home, sharp-tongued, and a staunch women’s rights activist to the roots of what she referred to as her Republican hair. It’s rather remarkable, in a state now hijacked by its current resident of the Texas State House Greg Abbott, a man so conservative he wouldn’t even be left alone in a room with Mike Pence’s wife.

How Gov. Richards morphed from hard-drinking Lone Star housewife to making a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1988 that instantly made her a household name and two years later led to her election to Texas’ highest office, is a story too few of our country’s whippersnapper yung’uns probably know.

Ironically, this is especially the case in her own state now returned to the 19th century where the achievements of Richards are the least of many historic truths Abbott's administration works to downplay. Their self-induced horror in her case, of course, is generated by the fact that a liberal-leaning, consistently straight-talkin’ feminist could have ever held that office.

“I was a woman, divorced, a recovering alcoholic, and  a Democrat, no less,” the character of Gov. Richards quips in Holland Taylor’s amazing one-person stage conjuring of the late Governor.

The Emmy and Tony-winning Taylor met Richards once but was a longtime admirer and, when the Governor passed of cancer in 2006, the actor had the idea for Ann, now finally playing at Pasadena Playhouse after being pulled just before its west coast debut in March, 2020 when we all snatched the welcome mat from the porch and started spending the next two years peeking through the blinds.

Taylor was “compelled to write this play,” she writes in the program. “The notion to do it all and the idea of how to write it—the shape and style—came all in a rush, leaving me wide-eyed with surprise.”

It is surely no surprise to Taylor’s welcoming audience as the actor, still fiercely in the game at 79, has proven herself a theatrical force of nature. Her transformation as Ann, complete with that signature Other Party helmet hairdo and dressed in one of Richards’ typical matching white suits that her rectangle of a body made her look as though she was wearing a folded sheet (“I once went to a costume party dressed as a tampon... you can kinda see it, can’tcha?”), is nothing short of theatrical magic.

Taylor has obviously done meticulous research into Richards, talking extensively with members of her family and many of her adoring friends and associates, and as a result a great portion of the dialogue she’s chronicled in her solo show comes directly from the Governor's own words and anecdotes.

Beginning during a Will Rogers-esque commencement address at a Texas college, Taylor’s clever narrative takes us from Richards' early years "back in the Bronze Age" to her marriage at 19 and from her rural country upbringing to a major political career she never anticipated in her wildest dreams.

Politics was always present in her married years (“We were slapping campaign posters on lampposts on our honeymoon”), but her involvement eventually became only as a busy mother of four taking care of the household in the shadow of her ambitious husband. Her restlessness led to a well-documented drinking problem that, although she saw herself as a “fun” drunk, caused her family to stage a well-timed intervention.

On Michael Fagin’s set and in front of Zachary Borovay’s projections, the story Richards tells transforms visually behind her from that commencement speech auditorium through various locations passing by in her life to finally opening into the Governor’s austere and grandly-neoclassical private office. Here Taylor’s reincarnation of the hard-nosed, never-stopping powerhouse, whose motto was “If we rest, we rust,” holds court by shouting at her off-stage assistant (patiently voiced by Julie White) and handling her million-lined telephone system with choreographic precision.

Under the watchful eye of director Benjamin Endsley Klein, Taylor is magnificent, nailing both the vocal raspinerss of her subject and falling perfectly into her offhandedly sarcastic sense of humor. She easily and skillfully brings both the toughness of a savvy political survivor fighting her way through a good-ol’-boy culture and the sweet motherly kindness of her subject, slipping between screaming at her underlings on the intercom to letting the syrup drip when speaking to one of her children or her good friend Bill, a.k.a. President William Jefferson Clinton—with whom she likes to share one of her many off-color jokes, the best of which involves a Great Dane and it’s mistress bending over after coming out of the shower wrapped in a towel.

Taylor developed Ann here at the NoHo Arts Center before garnering a Tony nomination in 2013 in its New York debut, as well as receiving celebrated runs at the Kennedy Center, in Chicago, and in various venues throughout Richards’ home state of Texas. Now gratefully she has brought her creation back to where it began in our reclaimed desert climes and, in the process, she has insisted this run at the Playhouse will be the show's final incarnation.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the unearthly talented human dynamo known as Holland Taylor could stay idle long enough to rust. As that human fireball Ann Richards she has so lovingly honored in her unforgettable Ann, I do suspect it’s just not in her DNA.

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TOOTSIE at the Dolby Theatre and Segerstrom Center

The 1982 film Tootsie is certainly an enduring comedy classic, perhaps explaining why, in this era of cashcow theatrical musical adaptations of any successful property, it took 40 years to come to fruition. I’m sure it was not an easy transition considering our current #METOO-ed sensibilities that has sunk so many similar projects—not to mention clobbered the career of the original Dorothy Michaels himself, Dustin Hoffman.

I’m not sure which came first: the chicken or the egg or, in this case, the concept of handing over the duties of the adapting Tootsie to playwright/screenwriter Robert Horn and David Yazbek, composer of The Band’s Visit, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and The Full Monty. Whomever might be credited with the original inspiration for this quintessential collaboration should get a special Tony to accompany the one Horn picked up in 2019 for Best Book of a Musical—as well as receiving the Drama Desk and the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Awards. Tootsie was in total nominated for 10 awards that year, including Yazbek’s sprightly score and the direction and choreography of Scott Ellis and Denis Jones, respectively.

The national tour started out in 2020 and, of course, was soon abandoned as the world suddenly closed its doors and pulled up the welcome mat. It’s now on a whirlwind tour of the country and currently playing here for a short but welcomed run at the Dolby before heading off to play stopovers in Sacramento and Vegas before returning to the Southland and Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center in early June.

Truly, Horn’s book is the star of the show. The fact that the musical has cleverly altered the film’s soap opera studio setting to the world of the Broadway stage is a stroke of theatrical genius. The evening is filled with a delicious and continuous rapid rat-a-tat humor that keeps the audience howling throughout—or more accurately, through Act One before the obligatory conflicts in the second half overshadow the silliness. Akin to the Industry-skewering humor that ran through the film La La Land and gave anyone who’s been around the Biz for a few centuries an edge other folks in Omaha or Peoria would surely miss, there are continuous in-jokes here about auditioning, jokes about zip-zap-zop-type physical and vocal warmups, jokes about having to stand by at rehearsals while one self-indulgent actor commandeers the moment to indulge in discussing the motivation of his or her character at the expense of everyone else.

You know. There's always that one.

Such is the case at the beginning of Tootsie when struggling actor Michael Dorsey (Drew Becker) gets fired from rehearsals for a new show after arguing with the stereotypical eccentric director (Adam du Plessis) about why his character is reacting as he is—a character known in the script as “Guy who walks by.” Dorsey is 40 and working in a diner, having a hard time with his sputtering career not because of his lack of talent but because of how difficult he is to work with. His parents still reluctantly refer to him as an actor “but only in air quotes,” his girlfriend Sandy (Payton Reilly) is desperately codependent, and his unknown playwright roommate Jeff (Jared David Michael Grant) is around just because he lives there.

Although the wincingly untalented Sandy asks for help when she lands an opportunity to read for the Nurse in a modern Broadway-bound adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, Michael purdy much knows it’s hopeless. In frustration after giving her a line-reading for the audition and knowing he nailed it rather than her, he dresses up as a woman and goes in himself—winning the role.

Now, still in hiding as the new “Talk of New York” Dorothy Michaels, he’s no less impossible for a director to wrangle—and predicably it’s the same overdramatic director who fired him and now can’t quite remember why his new star is so familiar to him. Because of his adopted gender and the support of the show’s crusty producer Rita Marshall (Kathy Halenda), Michael/Michaels again stops rehearsals to offer suggestions. This time, however, everyone but the director stops to listen until the play is eventually retitled Juliet’s Nurse, a major reason why Tootsie is such a perfect property to update in these tense cancel-culture days.

The production is fast and energetic and Yazbek’s score is a delight throughout, particularly when Reilly launches in on “What’s Gonna Happen,” a showstopping solo sung with Gilbert and Sullivan rapidity not unlike a spirited hoochie-coochie-beat homage to Sondheim’s “Getting Married Today.”  Grant also makes a splash with “Jeff Sums It Up,” where Yazbek's lyrics prove how many things can rhyme with the F-word. Every big production number, with Jones’ original tongue-in-cheek choreography recreated by a wonderfully facile ensemble, is great fun to watch while the serious ballad “Who Are You?” is beautifully rendered by Ashley Alexander as Michael/Michaels’ costar and love interest Julie Nichols. 

Still, it’s hard to keep the energy fresh on a long road tour and sometimes, Becker seems ready for a vacation. He’s far more watchable when playing Dorothy than his less convincing Michael. The show belongs to Reilly and Grant, both exceptional as Sandy and Jeff, as are Halenda’s world-weary, whiskey-voiced Rita and Lukas James Miller as Max, the oft-shirtless intelligence-challenged fledgling actor (playing Romeo’s brother Craig) and former Race to Bachelor Island reality star who delivers his line as “A plaque on both your houses.” Like Becker, Du Plessis’ annoying over-the-top Nathan Lane imitation is a distraction; perhaps he and Becker could go off for that rest break together.

Speaking of distracting, one of the surprisingly unattended issues with this Tootsie is the condition of William Ivey Long’s once sensational original costuming. I’ll bet if Long popped in on a current performance at the Dolby, he’d have to be watched so he doesn’t jump off the Hollywood Sign. Although I am the very last person on the planet to criticize actors for how they look, the rigors of the road can be daunting—especially when all there often is to do during the day is catch up on sleep and, for nourishment, consume massive quantities of rich hotel food. From the look of this cast in photos taken when the tour started out, I’ll bet Long’s costuming then fit some of the actors far better than now.

This is not saying anyone should look differently from how they look, nor do I think how they look would in any way change the message here. To the contrary; none of the characters need to conform to standard body image casting. Still, there is a costume coordinator listed as traveling with this tour and it seems like past time to do some judicious rebuilding. Again, this has nothing to do with the actors, the characters they play, or the performance; it’s just that the costumes need a bit of attention before Tootsie arrives back in Costa Mesa and June will really be busting out all over.

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ON THE OTHER HAND, WE'RE HAPPY from Rogue Machine at the Matrix

In a troubled and conflicted world, one must pick battles judiciously. It takes a special kind of person to decide to adopt a child from a less-than perfect situation, especially when that person considering such a major lifelong obligation is a guy contemplating the responsibilities of being a single parent.

In the U.S. premiere of Welsh playwright Daf James’ On the Other Hand, We’re Happy, brought here to the Matrix by their new permanent tenant Rogue Machine, Josh (Christian Telesmar) finds himself in just such a situation. After the sudden death of his wife Abbie (Rori Flynn), with whom he reluctantly began the adoption procedure, Josh isn’t sure he has what it takes not to abandon the notion of raising a kid with issues all by himself.

Luckily, he isn’t totally alone in his deliberations, since he has us, his audience. In a transformed Matrix space, the seating has been reconfigured to two sides facing one another in a visionary move insisted upon by director Cameron Watson and set designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, giving Josh the opportunity to ask us directly what we would do if we were in his shoes.

Telesmar makes a highly relatable Josh, the rollercoaster nature of his character’s situation surely not an easy ride for any actor, especially with surprisingly little help from the promising but still not fully formed playwright. Flynn is impressive in the play’s early scenes as the loving and animated Abbie initially talks him into parenthood before leaving him behind to put on his big boy pants all by himself, then also as she transforms into the social worker facilitating the adoption as it goes forward.

Still, it is Alexandra Hellquist who delivers the most moving and memorable performance, first playing Tyler, the shy four-year-old neglected child who is paired with Josh, then again as the same person surprisingly grown into a well-adjusted young adult, all before taking on the play’s most affecting character: Tyler’s physically and emotionally battered drug and alcohol addicted birth mother.

Judging from the enthusiastic opening night chatter, I was not as universally taken with James’ well-received play as others appear to have been, finding the script itself rather predictable and Days of Our Lives-ish, nor did I ever quite grasp the point of it all, at least beyond once again celebrating the resilience of the human spirit and the nature of how doing the right thing can reap some monumental rewards. You know... that. 

I never quite identified with the characters or their situations as much as I would have liked, nor did the occasional asides and questions directed to the audience draw me in—quite the opposite, actually, the theatrical gimmickry of it pushed me away from getting caught up in the storyline.

Fortunately, the expert slickness and quick pacing of Watson’s staging, as well as this dynamic trio of excellent, fully committed actors and featuring Rogue Machine’s usual high-powered team of veteran designers, lifts On the Other Hand, We’re Happy well beyond the inherent predictability of its material.

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SNATCHED FROM THE EDGE  /  STAR DUST at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

I usually don’t write about limited runs when the show will be gone before the review appears, but I’m hoping by offering a multitude of praise to the now closed three-night engagement of Complexions Contemporary Ballet at the Wallis, maybe the New York-based company will return a little sooner.

Heralding the company’s debut at the Wallis and the west coast debut of their breathtaking new Snatched Back from the Edges, choreographed by CCB’s co-founding artistic director Dwight Rhoden, I could only wish the 14-member troupe had stayed around for a far longer engagement.

Presented as Act One, Snatched features a Balanchine-meets-Nijinsky-esque celebration of the indomitability of the human spirit set to an eclectic blend of startlingly rich contemporary music. The company members are fiercely committed and all talented beyond measure, surely inspired by Rhoden’s jarringly athletic and angular choreography.

From the ranks, it would be an oversight not to single out unearthly talented Amazonian Jillian Davis, who is nothing but mesmerizing in her strength and reach and grace. Among 14 sensational dancers, it’s still hard to take one’s eyes away from Davis whenever she enters the stage.

After intermission, the company brings their 2016 rocking ballet Star Dust, a spectacular tribute to the music of the lategreat David Bowie, once again delivered by the same company of obviously indefatigable artists. Featuring Bowie classics such as “Changes,” “Life on Mars,” “Space Oddity,” and Young Americans,” it is the hope of Rhoden and the company’s co-founding artistic director Desmond Richardson to make this the first installment of a full-length evening of Bowie’s creations to create an entire rock opera in his honor.

Nothing could be more deserved. Just listening to the familiar tunes interpreted as a ballet was enough to make me think, as I sat raptured back to my old friend’s most prolific era, that the guy should definitely be remembered as one of my generation’s most brilliant modern Mozart or Beethoven.

I might say I enjoyed Star Dust best when individual company members did not come downstage to lipsync to Sir David’s vocals rather than simply letting us concentrate on the dancers behind the soloist instead of being distracted by someone making unnecessarily exaggerated “rocker” faces.

As an ironic side note, I smiled beneficently when the audience of gray-haired Wallis westsider patrons began bopping to “Rock and Roll Suicide” and all but danced in the aisles during the enthusiastic extended final standing ovation. I smugly found this unusual geriatric behavior sweetly quaint and quite amusing—until it suddenly dawned on me the sea of aging diehard Bowie freaks with their white hair waving as it glistened in the glow of the stage lights were all people about my own age. I almost skipped the stairs and took the elevator up to the lobby as I started googling retirement homes on my iPhone. 

The worldwide success of Rhoden and Richardson’s Complexions Contemporary Ballet is testament to their origins as, respectively, celebrated principal dancers with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the American Ballet Theatre. The realization of their dream first sparked to life some 28 years ago has without a doubt grown into one of the most groundbreaking and dynamic modern dance troupes I’ve seen in a long time. Offer a plea to dear Terpsichore they come back to our reclaimed desert community as soon as possible.

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APARTMENT LIVING - A collaboration between Playwrights' Arena and the Skylight Theatre

When lockdown began to rear its ugly head for us all two years ago, one of the first things I began to envision was how many plays would be written about our collective ordeal, not to mention books, movies, documentaries, even recipes. It’s quite ironic that two years later to the very day we began our personal isolation, we were back in a theatre watching the first of one such project unfold: the world premiere Apartment Living by Boni B. Alvarez, a play about a group of diverse individuals residing in one apartment building and how the lockdown affects their lives.

True to real life for these six sequestered LA neighbors living in one apartment building and holing up inside their individual cubicles, along the way the time in isolation destroys a couple of relationships but also brings former strangers together.

Of course, it would be Playwrights’ Arena artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera to champion the first production dealing with the aftermath (hopefully, the aftermath) of COVID-19 and all its variations, the second production in their season presented in collaboration with the equally courageous champion of new works Gary Grossman and his Skylight Theatre Company.

Under the direction of Rivera, his gifted and ethnically kaleidoscopic cast is skilled and incredibly committed to their characters’ journey. While the relationship between Cassandra (Charrell Mack) and her live-in fiancé Alex (Gabriel Leyva) begins to unravel as they face bumping into each other in their cramped one-bedroom and her friend Mayisha (Geri-Nikole Love) does her best to stay out of the line of fire, behind other walls of the building Dixon (Andrew Russel) suffers from the heavy-handed warnings of doom and smothering demands of his helicopter mother Easter (Gigette Reyes).

Throwing a surprise twist into the fray, after meeting Alex as he dry-humps his intended and Dixon trying to avoid his mother’s omnipresence, lights come up on the front seat of a car with Alex going down on Dixon on his break from stocking shelves at the local market.

Late in the quickly moving intermissionless play, we are introduced to a character only known as The White Lady (Rachel Sorsa), another neighbor who confronts Cassandra in the market and, from a rough start saying all the wrong things and acting like a latterday Stepford Wife, she slowly drops the cheery and awkward pretense as she spies the misery of Cassandra’s lockdown troubles and gently draws her into spilling the beans to her, a total stranger. It is the play’s most poignant and indelible scene and Sorsa, without doubt, does an impressive job rising above her rather stereotypical character’s two-dimensionality.

The gifted Alvarez’s Apartment Living is a promising play but still seems to need a little time to grow. Although his dialogue is sharp, quick, and often very funny, his characters could be far richer if we would be given a chance to know them a tad better. Sometimes it feels these days still-evolving young playwrights are thinking of a future for their work in film and television, conspicuously writing only quick four or five-minute scenes that are the lifeblood of those other mediums and thereby robbing theatre audiences of having time to fall in love or at least care more about their characters’ plight.

The crafty and uber-creative Rivera does a yoeman’s job here trying to make these short filmic scenes work with the help of set designer Alex Calle as the walls of the apartment building continuously revolve to create the different areas of the building, as well as the market and Alex’s car. Here lies the underlying problems of doing intimate theatre on a decided budget; although the design is truly dynamic, the need to use the actors to move it into place between each scene rather than having the funds to utilize unaffordable hydraulics becomes tremendously distracting—particularly when one blue-lit move or two finds the “movable” wall to be less then cooperative.

Still, I’m sure each of us knows at least one couple whose relationship went south during the pandemic while stuck together without much contact with the outside world, as well as others, thankfully like my own, that grew and deepened more than ever. Alvarez’ clever play surely has a future as an insightful chronicle of what we have all endured over the past 24 months.

One of the advantages for world premieres created with the playwright nearby is how easily things can continue to evolve. The last scene of Apartment Living, for instance, was reworked literally minutes before the opening night curtain. I hope these characters will still have a chance to develop and flourish as these highly capable actors and their indomitable director continue to breathe life into them.

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POWER OF SAIL at Geffen Playhouse

Surely it’s true Bryan Cranston could read a medical textbook and I would still find it worth my time but Angelenos are lucky right now to get a chance to watch him live in action tackling Paul Grellong’s densely tangled and thought-provoking play Power of Sail, now in its west coast debut at the Geffen.

Similar to chronicling the downfall of a brilliant man felled by his own weaknesses that made his work so compelling in Breaking Bad or as the respected judge confronting his convictions in last year’s Your Honor on Showtime, Cranston once again delivers a compelling portrait of self-inflicted dissolution as a noted history scholar and university professor is irrevocably caught in a web of his own spinning. Charles Nichols’ career is in decline, it seems, his latest lengthy and hopelessly dry publication not received well—certainly not anything as eagerly embraced as the newest book published by his former student Baxter Forrest (Brandon Scott), whose success in the area of African-American studies is both a testament to his mentor and a thorn in the narcissistic professor’s side.

Although Power of Sail cleverly slips back and forth in time to tell its story, it begins as Nichols’ office is being picketed by angry students protesting his decision to bring an ultra-rightwing white supremacist Holocaust denier to speak at a university-sanctioned symposium. Nichols hopes the event will only further reveal the kid as the Trumpian extremist he is and that the other panelists will quickly shred his ugly and hate-filled platform, yet his motives have become greatly misunderstood. His longtime friend and superior Dean Amy Katz (Amy Brenneman) begs him to disinvite the controversial muckraker, reminding him that his decision to include him has made so many waves that an op-ed in the local daily newspaper referred to him as a “neo-Nazi apologist.”

Nichols, however, is a stubborn old bird and, despite his dean’s continued disapproval and pleas from his two most promising students Maggie Rosen and Lucas Poole (Tedra Millan and Seth Numrich) to cancel the guy’s appearance, he sees this as a way to expose the ridiculous arguments that have been shared publicly far too often and without any intelligent rebuttal. “The only answer to hate speech,” he tells Dean Katz, “is more speech.”

Still, there seems to be something more sinister—or at least more unacceptable—lurking just below the surface of the professor’s adamant stance, something revealed Peter Shaffer-style in drips and drabs as Grellong explores the issue of first Amendment rights and if there's a debate to be considered for restrictions or if free speech at all costs is the only way to proceed.

Nichols is a complicated man, bright and determined in his beliefs but the question remains whether or not there are any limits to accomplishing his mission or if anything goes in the effort to make his viewpoint heard. Beyond that, just how altruistic his plan is comes into question, especially considering the obvious desperation the man feels as his academic star is beginning to flicker and fall somewhere below the horizon.

Without the performance of Cranston, the character could easily slip into stereotype and come off only as an egotistical, self-righteous blowhard. It’s interesting that the Tony, Olivier, SAG, Golden Globe, and Emmy-winning actor and Oscar nominee has chosen to accept this role, particularly since Nichols’ character arc is so similar to the classically Cranston roles mentioned above. All three men face the same dilemma, that of an educated man of goodwill who gets lost in his own disastrous decisions and caught in a downward spiral of his own invention. Still, no one can accomplish this better than Cranston and the opportunity to see him do it in person is a great privilege.

Brenneman does an admirable job undertaking a less fleshed-out character, although a late flashback scene in her home as Rosen questions the dean’s identity as a fellow Jew, is quite worth the effort. Although Scott is rather wasted as Nichols’ dubious protegee, Millan is wonderful in her otherwise highly predictable young activist role, as is Donna Simone Johnson as a shrewd FBI agent who does an admirable job coaxing out information that would otherwise go unheeded. Hugo Armstrong as a clueless bartender ever-ready to share a terrible joke with his patrons provides a lovely bit of comic relief near the end when the tensions are at fever pitch but still it's Numrich who emerges as the most memorable supporting player as Lucas proves to be anything but who he initially presents himself to be.

Director Weyni Mengesha’s staging is fluid and suitably claustrophobic on Rachel Myers’ jaw-droppingly impressive set, complete with such detail that when it suddenly and repeatedly revolves to reveal one elaborately detailed setting after another, the only witnesses left unphased by the effort are the actors who move around it seamlessly as it transforms. Although the nature of the revolve limits the playing space for the performers, to me it was the perfect accompaniment as the world of Professor Charles Nichols closes in and gets infinitely more restrictive around him.

Still, the point Grellong conjures in his complex and often surprisingly funny new play goes beyond the leading character’s willful descent and the responsibility to look beyond one’s own needs if we are truly interested in making a difference in our messed-up society. Nichols’ gently-introduced obsession with sailing, exemplified by the huge and elaborate model of a ship he built which dominates his office, leads him to explain to Forrest a standard maritime law that says a ship “under the power of motor” must give right of way to another “under the power of sail.” This metaphorically sparks Power of Sail's introduction to issues of race, the lust for power at all costs, and often how easy it is to turn the other cheek to the inequities of the world if it interferes with our own blind greed and need for acceptance. 

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THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at the Ahmanson Theatre

Can you say “epic”? The west coast premiere of Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy, in its English adaptation by Ben Power, could not be called anything but that. Translated into 24 languages and mounted all over the globe in the last few years—with a break for COVID-19 and its likeminded friends, of course—one has to wonder how the rest of the world sees America and its messy history of selfishness and obsessive gluttony in a frantic race to drop dead with the most toys. Unfortunately, whatever they may conclude, they’d probably be right.

In three acts with two intermissions and running approximately three-and-a-half hours (judiciously cut down from its five-hour original which debuted in Saint-Etienne, France in 2015), this instant award-winning classic documents the 164-year tenure of the Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., the infamous investment banking firm whose shocking collapse and Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2008 precipitated the worldwide financial crisis.

Beginning in 1844 as the 23-year-old wide-eyed Jewish immigrant Herman “Heyum” Lehman from Rimpar, Bavaria gets off the boat at Ellis Island, The Lehman Trilogy continues to present several generations of the illustrious family, culminating with the disastrous demise of the firm he founded which would in the 20th century become the fourth largest investment firm in the United States.

As the actors begin speaking to us to introduce their characters in the third person, the magnificent Simon Russell Beale tells us Herman “stepped into that magical music box called America.” Son of a hardworking cattle merchant in the old country, the newly reinvented Herman started his new life austerely, opening a small dry goods store in Montgomery, Alabama. Over the next few years, he was joined in business by his brothers Emanuel and Mayer (Howard W. Overshown and Adam Godley) and from these humble roots, especially after relocating to Wall Street (“A place where every day men walk on air”), one of the most infamous American fatcat too-big-to-fail business enterprises was born.

These three phenomenal actors play every character in the tale, including potential wives future, present, and ex, as well as the brothers’ later business successors. These include Emanual’s teenage prodigy son Phillip (also Beale) and later Phillip’s dilettante son Bobbie (Godley again, playing the man from age four to 77), the last Lehman who would go from not wanting to have anything to do with banking—obsessing instead on horse racing and international art collecting before selling his soul to his ancestors and leading the firm to weather the Great Depression of 1929.

There is no way to praise the acting here enough; these fellows must sleep about 20 hours each day with the blackout curtains drawn in their hotel rooms to get though the dang thing for eight performances a week. Beale and Godley have been with the production from its English language inception, produced by the National Theatre in London in 2018, as well as in its runs both off-Broadway and, after a break for our long pandemic “vacation” from live theatre, on Broadway last September.

If they awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for Acting, Beale and Godley should share it. Overshown, who joined the production as an understudy during its New York run, is also quite impressive, although he might be hampered somewhat by his late participation in the project and jumping in to play against his two veteran costars, not to mention the fact that the Emanuel Lehman track is not quite as dynamic—or occasionally audience-pleasing fun—as the others.

Truly, however, the star of this production is the elegantly facile and astoundingly innovative direction of Sam Mendes, whose trio of worldclass performers appear to be a cast of 20 as Es Devlin’s equally innovative glass and steel box of a set revolves with each time change and the appearance of a new stand of Lehman descendants. Add in the omnipresent award-winning video projection design by Luke Halls, which is sometimes jaw-dropping in its artistry as it depicts everything along the way over the Lehman’s nearly 170-year journey from the Statue of Liberty looming over a foggy Ellis Island to a huge disastrous fire in the Alabama cotton fields to the ever-changing Manhattan landscape, eventually culminating as a huge wall of computerized numbers rushes by in a dizzying display of our modern times where technology overshadows human development.

Yes, “epic” is the only way to describe this production. Ironically, the story itself, with its side trips to chronicle various marriages, attempts to theatricalize family arguments, and revealing the daring changes in the firm’s objectives, in lesser hands could easily be one of those documentaries on the History Channel exploring the growth and rivalry between auto makers or how people who developed breakfast cereals turned their businesses into international conglomerates.

What makes The Lehman Trilogy so much more than that, aside from the design, Mendes’ visionary staging, and the performances of these three brilliant performers, is Powers’ poetic translation, which succinctly tells its fascinating story while cleverly trimming away 90 minutes from Massini’s original script.

Ultimately, however, what really lifts this from a staged version of a cable channel account of the rise and fall of a distinguished American family is the specter of Robert Johnson’s Dockery Plantation crossroads lurking just below the surface. The Lehman Trilogy presents a not-so camouflaged indictment of the intoxicating allure of wealth and power in our society, an intrinsic temptation for us all that appears to be inherent in any capitalist system.

In the third act, when the adult Phillip (again Beale) is asked what he would consider his company’s biggest commodity, whether it be the original creation of a market for raw cotton, or later for coffee, or even later Bobbie’s enthusiastic infatuation with branching into film and television, it takes no time at all for the second-to-last Lehman family member to answer.

“Money,” Phillip Lehman coos with unmistakable reverence for his life’s passion. It is a chilling moment in time, the moment when the audience is made to realize how easily the American Dream can become a nightmare when morality twists and morphs into greed and a scary infatuation with power.

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TRAYF at the Geffen Playhouse

Although a member of the tribe, ironically I have never personally in my long life known anyone who was a practicing Hasidic Jew. Even if I hadn’t been raised without allegiance to any religion, I have always been surrounded by Jewish culture; heck, with my blond hair and Danish nose, I think I was the only member of my crew who didn’t get a nosejob as a high school graduation present.

Lindsay Joelle’s exceptional new play Trayf explores the insular world and devoted relationship between two best friends careening out of their teens who have been born and raised in the heavily Hasidic Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in the late ‘90s. Frankly, although I’ve always considered myself to be a curious person, I learned more about how Orthodox families raise there young than ever before seeing this play, maybe because part of the culture is to not socialize and to keep a polite distance from others not part of their sect.

I was aware of many of the more obvious restrictions associated with Hasidism, but never realized, for instance, that kids are raised forbidden to listen to any secular music whatsoever or to wear blue jeans, nor did I realize that in our modern age marriages are still arranged by the families—or at least they were in 1991 when the play is set.

At age 18, Zalmy and Shmuel (Ilan Eskenazi and Ben Hirschhorn) have been inseparable since age 8, part of their relationship solidified by their mutual devotion to their incredibly conservative religion. Now, as they graduate from high school, they decide to take to the road to herald their beliefs and connect with fallen Jews who have disassociated themselves with their faith, traveling the neighborhood of Lower Manhattan in an old truck they call their “Mitzvah Van.”

As with all close relationships, opposites attract and, as juvenile friendships suffer even more from the changes each person goes through in the race to mature into adults, the bond between Zalmy and Shmuel is fraying a bit at the edges. Shmuel is determined to be the best Jew he can be, perhaps one day becoming a rabbi, but it doesn’t take long to deduce that Zalmy is a lot more curious about the wild and wooly outside world.

When Zalmy talks about the evils of secular music, Shmuel all but checks the heavens for lightning bolts to descend on them and when Zalmy mentions while he was away for a family event, he was excited to by chance see Elton John in person someplace where he traveled. Shmuel, however, has no idea who Elton even is. When told about the international pop superstar, Shmuel blurts, “When you hear music, the soul of another person is in the room and I don’t want some goyish songwriter entering my soul and trayfing it up!”

The translation of the word trayf, although it usually relates to food, means something “not satisfying the requirements of Jewish law,” which of course offers a quick hint about the play’s mysterious title to the savvy viewer with some knowledge of Yiddish.

By chance on their mission to rescue wayward Jews, they approach a young music store clerk named Jonathan (Garrett Young), whose lack of a way to answer their queries about his faith stems from discovering that, although raised in Catholicism, his recently deceased father had hidden the fact that before he escaped to America, he was a practicing Jew and even more troubling, a Holocaust survivor.

As the friends begin to try helping Jonathan find his roots, Shmuel is a bit apprehensive but Zalmy is dazzled by their worldly new friend. He asks privately about the music Jonathan sells and questions him about his live-in relationship with his girlfriend Leah (Louisa Jacobson, breakthrough star of Julian Fellowes’ HBO series The Gilded Age) and about sex in the city—not the series since the boys aren’t allowed to watch television. When Jonathan offhandedly mentions Leah’s skills at giving head, he quickly realizes how naive Zalmy is since the kid has no idea what he’s is taking about.

As the bond between Zalmy and his new graven idol Jonathan deepens, Shmuel becomes extremely jealous, hurt to the point of looking like a pouting child and nearly reduced to tears when his lifelong companion proclaims that Jonathan is his best friend.

The sweetness and sincerity of the bond between Zalmy and Shmuel is at the heart of Joelle’s lovely little drama and, under the insightful guidance of director Maggie Burrows, the work of Eskenazi and Hirschhorn in their demanding roles, especially in creating the intensity of the boys’ friendship, is just about perfect. Young is also memorable as the tortured, misunderstanding Jonathan, a role that must be the most difficult to assay as we watch his influence on Zalmy become increasingly more of a life-changing influence.

Yet in one scene late in rapidly-moving 80-minute Trayf, an emotional interruption from Jonathan’s now-dumped girlfriend Leah, herself a descendant of Holocaust survivors but not a compliant Jew, Joelle exemplifies the play’s major issue: the search for a Jewish identity when the stubborn lack of compassion that exists between the Orthodox and the Reformed communities reveals the larger nagging problem throughout history that members of our species suffer as we lose our desperately vital connection with one another while insisting our way is the only way.

Jacobson is riveting and sufficiently heartbreaking in her single brief scene as Leah and together, this exemplary quartet of gifted actors at the blossoming of their careers, arriving with impressive professional and educational pedigrees (and Jacobson being the youngest daughter of actor named... Mary? Mabel?... or is it Meryl?), assure the future of the performing arts left in their talented hands. This is, as least so far, the ensemble cast of the year in Los Angeles.

Then there’s Lindsay Joelle’s play. It’s also the best work being presented on LA stages right now as the world finally opens up around us. It’s not often Jewish culture is explored without being wincingly predictable and stuck on creating melodramatic stereotypes.

It’s great to see these charmingly deserving characters presented with such simple humanity and Trayf, thanks to the brilliance of Joelle, Burrows, and set designer Tim Mackabee, has a surprisingly positive ending guaranteed to fill you with hope, as fanciful as hope for the future of mankind may be.

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it's alive... IT'S ALIVE! at the Odyssey Theatre  

After two years spent basically at home watching HGTV robbed of the lifelong habit of worshipping live performance from both sides of the footlights, it still seems rather strange and vaguely claustrophobic to find myself stuffed like a sardine in a darkened theatre trying to breathe as normally as possible behind my triple-filtered mask.  

As much as I herald the return to normal—if being obsessed with all things theatrical could ever be normal—most all of the anticipated comfort that descends upon me these days in this not-so brave new world when lights dim and the show begins was seriously challenged seeing the always demonically-driven mother of all speedfreaks, my friend John Fleck, hobbling unsteadily onto the Odyssey stage leaning on a wooden crutch. 

The legendary Fleck is revered as one of the NEA Four, a courageous quartet of outrageously non-pc counterculture performance artists who in 1990 took the federal National Endowment of the Arts all the way to the Supreme Court when their grants were canceled on the grounds of obscenity. Best of all, they won.  

Over the years before and after that notoriety, aside from many film roles, as well as frequent stage appearances (including our award-winning production of Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings at the Evidence Room that pitted me against him for an LA Weekly Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2003), Fleck has created a steady stream of delightfully bizarre one-person shows that have toured nationally and internationally, most directed over a 35-year-plus period by another counterculture legend, director David Schweitzer. Now, again under the watchful eye of Schweitzer, Fleck returns to the Odyssey where his highly successful Blacktop Highway world premiered in 2018, another solo effort where he created a gothic horror screenplay and played every character.  

His newest effort, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!, has been germinating through the entire pandemic lockdown period and, as all of Fleck’s creations, it could not possibly more topical or, to quote a character in one of his previous performance pieces, “It’s nuttier than a porta-potty at a peanut butter festival.”

Knowing this guy’s quirky and inimitable talents, I should have known the omnipresent crutch and his exaggeratedly diminished physicality was part of the show, included to invoke the aftermath of two years spent in forced lockdown and working on it from his “zoomrage”—that’s Zoom meetings held in his garage for anyone not inside the head of John Fleck.

Originally planned for the summer of 2020 to be performed in the Odyssey’s parking lot to show just how resilient our indomitable and deluded El Lay theatrical community can be, it was sadly a plan that the city could not see happening. Instead, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE! continued to evolve and develop over our time in isolation suffering from “social agoraphobia” to become an even more outrageous entertainment, complete with music and dancers and moments including Fleck himself singing “It’s Only Just Begun” in a breathy and tortured falsetto, his continuously constipated-looking rubbery (stage) face protruding from a plastic bubble covered in glittery plush roses meant to transform him into a talking COVID cell.  

On the Odyssey’s nearly bare stage (“So yeah, it’s not the Center Theatre Group, okay?”) and accompanied by Scott Roberts on keyboards and musical director John Snow on upright base, the manic Mr. F turns our current dystopian daily lives into a hilariously skewed cabaret event as he tries desperately to find the fun in our fears for the future—of course compounded this past weekend by the latest horrors on the other side of the world perpetrated by a true madman.

“Rather than letting whatever variant is rampaging at the moment get the better of us," David Schweitzer explains, "we hope audiences will want to join us in making relentless fun of it no matter what new contagious aspects emerge or new terrors await.”  Luckily for us, he and Fleck are relentless in their signature efforts to unearth the lighter side of our current barrage of global horrors, here wildly aided by singer-dancers Tomoko Karina and Kyle G. Fuller who, along with Roberts and Snow, do their best to keep up without seeming totally unsure moment to moment what exactly is going on in Fleckland.  

The 55-minute assault to our sense could not be more welcome at this point in time. From all-singing, all-dancing COVID cells to Fleck’s occasional turn as a Brunhilde-helmeted Trumpian-spouting version of the infamous Q-Anon Shaman (“My God! I’m channeling my sister in Cleveland!”), as usual nothing is off the table.

This includes John Fleck ending it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE! by delivering a dead-serious rendition of the Disney classic, "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes," giving new meaning to the lyrics: “No matter how you’re grieving / If you keep on believing / The dream that you wish will come true.”  Still, leaving the Odyssey complex as the laughter died down and instantly faced with the real world again, I could only hope beyond much hope that such a wish might indeed come true.

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Bach's ST. MATTHEW PASSION from LA Opera and the Hamburg Ballet  at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

It was in the mid-1960s when, as a soloist for the Stuttgart Ballet, John Neumeier first heard Johann Sebastian Bach’s epic 1727 opera St. Matthew Passion, considered by many scholars to be the single greatest masterpiece of Western sacred music. First performed in 1727 and performed in church during Holy Week before Easter, the Passion was ambitious in its scope, originally requiring two adult choruses plus a third children’s choir, two chamber orchestras with, ideally, two organs and six vocal soloists.

Neumeier had an equally epic idea, something that rattled around in his brain for many years, including when his career took its most dramatic turn in 1973 and he was appointed as artistic director and chief choreographer for the prestigious Hamburg Ballet, a position he still holds today. In 1981, Neumeier threw caution to the wind and furthered the ambitious conception by Bach, adding his own particular genius to the enduring opera and debuting his own spin on Passion as a ballet to accompany the music. Featuring a troupe of 42 of the ballet’s most gifted artists, the innovative and highly provocative production has been performed internationally ever since to universal acclaim.

Now Neumeier brings his Passion (pun intended) to Los Angeles, presented for the first time here by the LA Opera, with James Conlon conducting the LA Opera Orchestra, Grant Gershon conducting the LA Opera Chorus and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, and featuring a sextet of some of the opera world’s most celebrated soloists.

Obviously taken from the Gospel of Matthew, which for Christians chronicles the last few days in the life of Jesus Christ, the chief storyteller here is called the Evangelist, the perfect role for high tenor Joshua Bliss, as baritone Michael Samuel sings the words of Jesus. The other incredible worldclass vocal soloists, Tamara Wilson, Ben Bliss, Kristinn Sigmundsson, and highly celebrated mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, are heard in moving arias expressing the emotional reactions to the events of the story.

Neumeier, who also directed the production as well as designing the set and costuming, is the overwhelmingly clear inspiration and driving force behind the enduring success of this production and his ability to move 40-plus dancers around the massive Dorothy Chandler stage in harmony with the austere score is something of a miracle. With clusters of performers often moving together in tight synchronized groups, his work is reminiscent of Larry Fuller’s rule-defying Drama Desk-awarded choreography for the original production of Evita, if you can imagine such a thing crossed with the groundbreaking signature stylized early 20th-century choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky himself.

With a four-hour run time and only one intermission, one would think this Passion would be difficult to sit through, but not a chance. The production is gloriously inspirational and totally mesmerizing, even for those of us who are of the opinion that the story itself is as much a fantasy as seeing Orpheus and Eurydice or even Hansel and Gretel turned into opera and/or ballet.

The time goes by remarkably fast, again thanks to the imagination and bold choices made by its creator and a company of uniformly spectacular dancers. Even Neumeier’s simple white cotton-y peasant costuming is perfection, with the male performers’ loose drawstring pants tending to get tight in back just where it’s the most appreciated and the women’s flowing skirts, especially when three dancers or more move together, sweeping and fluttering in perfrect unison.

In a timely addition that begins the evening, Gershon leads the 80-member LA Opera Chorus in a glorious rendition of the Ukranian National Anthem, something that brings the Chandler’s nearly 3,200 patrons instantly to their feet—a precursor to the final curtain for St. Matthew Passion that, even after four hours, caused the exhausted but emotionally-uplifted audience to rise once again on opening night for a grateful and well-deserved full five-minute standing ovation.

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ASSASSINS at East West Players

East West Players was just hours away from welcoming their newest epic musical reinvention two years ago when You-Know-What stopped it cold—and on opening night. Unlike so many other productions back then that simply disappeared, however, 23 months later EWP's mounting of Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 seldom-produced Assassins, inventively directed by artistic director Snehal Desai, has risen from the “interruption” with splendid and most welcomed results.

Every time over the years I’ve seen Sondheim’s controversial and rather shocking semi-revue presented, featuring in song the personal stories of nine historically deluded individuals who—successfully or not—attempted to assassinate an American President, each incarnation previously debuted in the wake of some senseless real-life killing spree that rocked the world. Today, sadly such violence has become such a regular event leading off the Nightly News that we are all rather desensitized to such horrific violence in our gun-totin’, wildly dysfunctional country.

Still, even for those unsuspecting patrons hoping for a little evening of musical diversion, if the name hasn’t already given things away for them, an unmistakable chill runs through the audience as the players stand in a line at the downstage lip of the stage with guns held over their heads to passionately deliver the musical’s most memorable number, “Everyone’s Got the Right [to Their Dreams].” See, the characters in Sondheim and bookwriter John Weidman’s tale are scarier than any fictional villain, presenting their case for dubious fame and glory in song.

The exceptional Trance Thompson begins as John Wilkes Booth, shocked as he reads reporters are questioning his sanity when to him, his elimination of Lincoln was an act of heroism and national pride—you know, like those folks who followed a disastrously insane and ego-driven monster to the steps of the U.S. Capital building in January of 2021. As Booth tries desperately to compose his manifesto in that burning tobacco barn in Virginia where he was soon to die himself, he tosses his diary to Adam Kaokept as the omnipresent Balladeer, who concludes in “The Ballad of Booth” that the guy was no hero but instead a twisted madman whose actions inspired the play’s other characters to help destroy the goals and honor of a country under siege by the troglodytes to this day.

From there, bolstered by Booth’s legacy, Leon Czolgosz (George Xavier) creepily professes his love to Emma Goldman (Kym Miller) after one of her lectures before gunning down William McKinley at the Pan-American Expo of 1901 as he shakes hands in a reception line, while Samuel Byck (the gravel-voiced Christopher Chen) sits in a toilet stall and tapes conversations for his pretend friend Leonard Bernstein as he plans crashing a plane into Nixon’s White House. Then there’s Giuseppe Zangara (the splendidly-voiced Aric Martin), the guy who aimed for FDR and instead killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who sings from the electric chair of his refusal to be afraid as long as he eliminated someone in power who controlled the wealth.

Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau (Gedde Watanabe in the production’s most infectious performance) arrives at the gallows singing and cake-walking to the minstrel-tinged “I’m Going to the Lordie/The Ballad of Guiteau,” based on the actual poem the man wrote that morning on his way to his execution. Arvin Lee as John Hinckley, Jr. swears he will win Jodie Foster’s love, beautifully accompanying himself on the guitar in “Unworthy of Your Love” while Astoncia Bhagat Lyman as unsuccessful Gerald Ford killer Squeaky Fromme joins in professing her own feelings for her idol Charlie Manson. Lyman and Joan Almedilla as fellow failed Ford assassin Sara Jane Moore also provide welcome comic relief as they bumble and misfire their guns as though performing an Abbott & Costello routine.

This is all held together by Max Torrez as a fictional character called the Proprietor, who seems right there to provide the participants’ firearms regardless of the generation he’s empowering, while Kaokept’s folksy flannel-clad Balladeer suddenly morphs into a quietly troubled Lee Harvey Oswald. Suddenly the ghostly figures of Booth and the other assassins return to taunt Oswald about his useless life and nobody-ness, eventually talking him into killing JFK as they deliver the chilling “November 22, 1963.” This is followed by the quartet of non-murderous ensemble members (Miller, Michael Cavinder, Andrea Somera, and Jalen Lum) who with the obvious help of musical director Marc Macalintal knock the show-stopping “Something Just Broke” right out onto Judge John Aiso Street and possibly all the way over to Japanese Village Plaza.

There’s no question this is traditionally challenging material and to add to the level of difficulty inherent in the material itself, EWP’s eager cast of 14 fervently driven actors often have trouble moving fluidly on Anna Robinson’s two-story set featuring many doors and entrances to open and try to keep shut again. There is an occasional stalling in the action between scenes, something that would be less mood-breaking if those transitions overlapped and melded into one another a tad quicker, something that surely could fall into place as the run settles in. Still, this is a minor quibble considering the ardent contribution of everyone involved in Assassins’ veteran creative team, including Wesley Charles Siu Muen Chew’s lighting, Cricket Myers’ sound, Stephanie Nguyen’s costuming, and David Murakami’s impressive projection design.

As I watched this sparkling, clever, welcoming revival unfold, I wondered if during the time it takes to write my review some new horrendous assault on our society will be perpetrated to make the relevancy of the lategreat Stephen Sondheim’s ambitiously off-center Assassins even more apparent. “Move your little finger,” the twisted killers proudly surmise in he and Weidman’s bizarrely ever-topical musical, “and you can change the world.”

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SLAVE PLAY at the Mark Taper Forum

With the Taper’s much-anticipated return to live performance for the first time in two years, Center Theatre Group refuses to play it safe presenting the west coast premiere of Jeremy O. Harris’ controversial Slave Play in its first mounting outside of New York. Assembling the show’s original creative team and most of its performers, CTG couldn’t have made a clearer statement about where the American theatre is headed as it rapidly evolves away from vapid seat-fillers and corn as high as an elephant’s eye into talking about the inequities and injustices that so many people will no longer overlook without speaking out.

There’s no doubt why Harris’ first play, originally presented at a small performance space at Yale when he was a student there, began winning him awards for its first production at New York Theatre Workshop even before he graduated. His searing and often wincingly raw satire, which transferred to the Golden on Broadway in 2019 and knocked New York on its ear, received the Rosa Parks Playwriting Award, the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, the Lotos Foundation Prize, the Paula Vogel Award, and was nominated for the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Playwrighting Award and the Lucille Lortel Award—all before garnering a record-breaking 12 Tony Award nominations, the most for any play in Broadway history.

On the Taper’s thrust stage dominated by huge mirrors that reflect back the potentially uncomfortable faces of the audience, set designer Clint Ramos has created a minimalist space that still quickly seems to indicate that Slave Play takes place in one of those old pre-Civil War Southern plantations where so many people once faced horrific abuse from their “owners.” It begins as a young black participant (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) sweeps the grounds of the main house to the rhythms of Rihanna, the music eventually accelerating her newly awakened passions into twerks. Her provocative abandon proves to be of much interest to her eavesdropping whip-snapping overseer (Paul Alexander Nolan), leading them into a shockingly graphic session of cruel domination and unwelcomed sexual brutality.

But just how unwelcomed is it?

As the pair writhes in the throes of their brutal ecstasy, which plays out a few feet from the Taper’s uncomfortable first row patrons, mind you, another couple emerges from behind the mirrors (literally) as a horny plantation wife (Elizabeth Stahlmann) forces herself on her cultured mixed-race valet (Jonathan Higginbotham), demanding sex with a twist—the twist being a rather giant dildo that she at least generously lubricates before shoving it up his surprisingly eager derriere. This is followed by the appearance of a trusted field slave and the white indentured servant he's assigned to boss (Jakeem Dante Powell and Devin Kawaoka) who also are soon engaging in a flammable sexual pas de deux where a well-licked black leather boot substitutes for the worship of the slave’s manhood.

Just when the audience is beginning to wonder if they wandered into the Voyeur Room at the old Plato’s Retreat by mistake, the scene changes as same-sex couple and quasi-therapists Tea and Patricia (Chalia Le Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio) enter the space to start setting up a row of 12-step program-like folding chairs for what is revealed to be the true setting for the play’s action: the Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy Center where mixed-race couples who have lost attraction for one another can come to live out their deepest fantasies and hopefully save their relationships. The terminally cheerful pair of facilitators, spouting more acceptably woke catchphrases than Drew Barrymore interviewing Marie Osmond, work to keep the couples from exhibiting possible volatile reactions as they try to unravel how their slave-master improvs evolved and what that evolution revealed about their troubled relationships.

For anyone who champions the plethora of far more brazen non-pc original intimate theatre productions debuting in Los Angeles, the nudity and explicit sexual imagery portrayed on the Taper stage by director Robert O’Hara (presumably with the expert guidance of Intimacy and Fight Director Teniece Divya Johnson) might be less shocking for us than for the venue’s usual patrons. Far more disquieting should be the barrage of ideas about race and power and the uncomfortable questions those ideas conjure that we are left to ponder. No matter how we may think we have grown as a society and as a species, our interactions with one another—particularly of the carnal variety, Harris shouts from just behind his savage humor—are still haunted by the ghosts of how our ancestors treated one another, something that can never totally be overlooked or forgotten.

I guess I’m too jaded to completely understand the massive response this much-heralded play had in New York, which makes me wonder if indeed Los Angeles has evolved into the more courageous and rule-defying creator of risky material in our now overly cautious era of cancel culture. Still, Harris’ groundbreaking effort and brave new voice makes this a fascinatingly honest and thought-provoking work that is sure to have a pivotal place in theatrical history.

Part of this is due to the sharply-tuned direction and the truly brilliant performers reassembled here almost totally from the original Broadway cast. Each and every actor, clearly confident to pull out every stop under Robert O’Hara’s guidance, creates an extremely multifaceted person who, despite their characters’ possible kinks, is highly relatable to us all—you know, flawed creatures desperately trying to hold on to our beliefs despite the reality with which we are confronted on a daily basis. Even more than that, Jeremy O. Harris' career-making Slave Play makes us fight harder than ever to forgive ourselves for the transgressions we might wish to bury.

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WEST SIDE STORY: THE MOVIE at the El Capitan

I do not usually review movies. For that matter, I don’t usually go to movies. The thing is, films are stored in a can on a metal shelf in some temperature-controlled cabinet; if a story is not being presented live, I have a tendency to lose interest in about 15 minutes. And yes, Virginia, I do mean all movies. My loss, I know.

The perfect exception to that rule is Steven Spielberg’s massive remake of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical West Side Story, which debuted on Broadway a mere 64 years ago and was first made into an exceptionally reverent feature film in 1961, winner of 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. My personal history also includes a summer stock turn in West Side at age 17 playing Riff opposite the late-great Dorothy Dandridge as our Anita—that is, sadly, when she was sober enough to go on.

The new West Side quickly overcame my unusual disinterest in film, however, especially with a brand new screenplay by Tony Kushner and featuring LA Phil’s Gustavo Dudamel conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, with arrangements by David Newman and vocal coaching from Jeanine Tesori.

I mean... really.

Spielberg’s reworking of the classic, filmed by our time’s most dazzlingly gifted director of photography Janusz Kaminski, might just become known as the best motion picture version of a Broadway musical since the dawn of the millennium, just as Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ original film was the best film musical of the first century of filmmaking.

Add to that the film is not scheduled to go into worldwide release for another 7 days, yet it’s opening for us lucky Angelenos on December 10 for a limited run through January 2 at that historic 1926 moviehouse the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, complete with the leading actors’ original “Dance at the Gym” costuming on display in the lobby and a Broadway showtune concert presented before the movie begins played by Rob Richards as the venue’s famous Mighty Wurlitzer appears from below the stage. It’s an experience that could not be a better way to celebrate the holidays in our cautiously reopening country.

The film must be seen on a big screen and with the kind of state-of-the-art El Capitan sound system where the Jets’ whistles that begin Bernstein’s “Prologue” in the darkened theatre originate from different corners of the house, a phenomenon that also includes dogs barking from behind as Tony climbs the clanking fire escape to Maria’s “balcony.”

Kaminski’s cinematography is staggeringly brilliant when viewed on this level, sometimes bright and colorful, sometimes gritty and dark and dusty when his camera sweeps past a crumbling piece of concrete rubble as the characters’ doomed upper-west side San Juan Hill ‘hood is being demolished to build Lincoln Center.

As is often in the case in any Spielberg project, all of the Jets and Sharks and most of the other castmembers are unknown, all but a few complete newcomers to the world of film. The startlingly talented 20-year-old Rachel Zegler is a true find as Maria, one of 30,000 candidates from around the world submitted on video after the director put out a worldwide call for undiscovered talent and viewed her performance on tape singing in a high school production of Shrek the Musical.

David Alvarez, who left the business for the Army after being one of the three teenagers to share a Tony for the title role in Billy Elliott, had to be found to audition and is also exceptional as Maria’s brother Bernardo, while Mike Faist from the original cast of Newsies and a Tony nominee for Dear Evan Hansen is the quintessential Riff. As a former Riff myself I may have been less than objective here as I mouthed all of his lyrics behind my ever-present mask, but to me Faist’s performance stood out far more than the early reviews seem to be acknowledging.

Ariana DeBose, discovered on Broadway in Hamilton and who appeared in a leading role in filmed version of The Prom on Netflix, is sure to be featured soon for award consideration as Anita, the role which won Rita Moreno an Oscar in 1961. And of course, Moreno herself could be her competitor when this year’s nominations are announced, appearing in the remake at age 89 as Valentina, the local merchant who in past versions is a kindly old Jewish storeowner named Doc.

Valentina has been reinvented here as Doc's widow, a world-weary survivor of an early mixed marriage who has seen it all and understands predudice firsthand only too well. Kushner's screenplay delivers an especially poignant moment as Valentina sits at her modest kitchen table and sings a delicate a capella version of “Somewhere,” West Side's loveliest and most haunting ballad. 

At one point, the camera scans the room and briefly lands on an old photo of a smiling young Valentina and her Doc, the photoshopped image showimg Moreno during her fiery Anita days and possibly Ned Glass, the original Doc, with his arm protectively around her shoulder. It’s not hard to envision how challenging life must have been for the immigrant Jew and his Puerto Rican bride.

Moreno's perceived transformation from the strong and independent Anita to the fragile elder Valentina is not lost here, elevating Spielberg’s film to astronomical heights—and wouldn’t it be historic if one actor won two Academy Awards for each filmed version of the same play 60 years apart?

Veteran film actor Ansel Elgort of the Divergent films who came to prominence playing in the title role in Baby Driver is the lovestruck Tony and, although his vocals are not as dynamic as his costars, I for one do not understand why so many critics have felt his performance is the film’s weakest link. His Tony is heartbreakingly real to me, a lovely, lyrical turn that I found to be one of the major highlights of the remake. And if Elgort isn’t a world-class singer, that too seems sweetly appropriate to the nature of the character.

Justin Peck, who often performed Robbins’ original West Side choreography as a member of the New York City Ballet during the era when Jerry (who I had the honor to know when he directed me over a half-century ago in Oh Dad, Poor Dad…) served as NYCB’s ballet master, clearly pays homage to the original moves yet also makes them his own.

Perhaps one of my only minor disappointments with the film was how Kasminski too often captured the dance numbers from overhead and afar which, though filmic, made me miss seeing the dancers’ moves in tighter detail. In Wise and Robbins’ film, we got to know each of the gang members and their girlfriends. Here they’re kinda-sorta just a crowd.

Although the soundtrack and Newman’s arrangement stay true to Bernstein’s intent, I also thought somehow, even with Dudamel and the NY Phil performing the familiar score, it seemed to be surprisingly unexciting and even at times disjointed from the film, sounding a little like a locally hired pit band in a small theatre dutifully following the sheet music rather than offering much passion. I’d like to think the problem rests on the shoulders of the film’s sound mixing department, not Mr. Dudamel or his musicians.

Paul Tazwell’s costuming also obviously honors Irene Sharaff's iconic 1961 Oscar-winning designs, but I did miss the Jet and Sharks’ supertight jeans that, even if a tad theatrical, nicely showed off the dancers’ prominent derrieres, something that always deserves appreciative scrutiny.

Steven Spielberg’s epic film will be around a long time—that is if there is a long time for our species the way things are currently evolving. It’s rather disheartening that the musical’s still urgently important message as heralded in Arthur Laurents’ original book has basically gone unheeded for over six decades. Our current set of world powers should all be strapped in a droogie chair Clockwork Orange-style and be forced to contemplate the kind of transforming Ebenezer Scrooge-y moment West Side Story has to offer.

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DANTE AND BEATRICE IN FLORENCE:  A NEW MUSICAL FILM

My prolific friend and extraordinarily multi-disciplined theatrical genius Hershey Felder has been desperately missed on the stages of North America where his one-man celebrations of ther lives and music of famous composers throughout history have become legendary over the last 30 years.

Thankfully, however, Hershey is not the kind of artist who sits around waiting for our challenged world to return to pre-pandemic productivity, having last year initiated his own collection of original self-created theatrically-oriented films shot in and all around his majestic and mysterious adopted city of Florence, Italy.

Beginning with filmed versions of his beloved stage performances playing Gershwin, Puccini, Debussy, Tchiakovsky, Berlin and Beethoven among others, late in the season Hershey started playing around with formats, offering the story of Sholem Aleichem juxtaposed with versions of the writer's enduring folk tales.

Now in his second season, his signature vision has expanded even further with the recently released Dante and Beatrice in Florence: A New Musical Film, featuring Hershey as 13th-century poet, writer, and philosopher Dante Alighieri while also directing his own script—as well as composing and playing the film's richly evocative original score from the city where the piano was invented.

Since I am not bright enough to figgur out how to watch these wonderful films on television (it’s generational), I sat up deep into the night in my office watching the link to this newest entry on my computer. May I say Dante and Beatrice enters another phase of filmmaking entirely as it quite spectacularly, quite gloriously honors one of Hersh's adopted city’s most honored residents.

The cinematography is lush and breathtaking, making me long more than ever to visit this incredible place where art is foremost and civilization has yet to turn the place into quite the chaotic, broken, commercially greedy country into which my own has devolved. The richness of the images, as Hershey and Hila Plitmann not only play Dante and Beatrice but also appear as two modern lovers taking in the same wonders of this ghost-ridden city 700 years later, are quite special.

Still for all the wonder of this, the true stars of Dante and Beatrice in Florence are Hershey's imaginative (and historically fascinating) script and especially, the sweepingly glorious score composed and played by a worldclass musician and one of the greatest creative artists of our time. If you need a lift for your holiday season or any season, check out all of Hershey Felder’s amazing films born and bred in lockdown at www.hersheyfelderpresents.net

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TICK, TICK... BOOM! the Movie

As many of my handful of trusty readers know, I’m not much of a “film guy.” My loss, I know, but I’ve spent my entire life breathing in the musty air of old theatres and without a live component added to my storytelling, I tend to lose interest rather fast.

So maybe it’s this long period without much live theatre in our lives or maybe I’m just adjusting to what could become the rest of my life, but I have been won over by some amazing filmmaking in the last month. I mean, really: Don’t Look Up, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story, and I could almost even add Being the Ricardos if only Aaron Sorkin hadn’t cast a frozen soulless zombie with a vaguely human face (who granted knows how to find her light) in the leading female role.

But! I loved Tick, Tick... Boom!  when I originally saw it onstage many years ago and now, transferred so brilliantly (and theatrically) to film by Lin-Manuel Miranda, this movie version is revelatory. It made my heart sing, it brought me to tears considering everything Jonathan Larson’s early death stole from us, it renewed my faith in choosing to be an artist despite the ruthlessly soul-crushing odds.

Miranda’s imaginative reinvention is of course infinitely made even better by his staggeringly serendipitous casting. The rich and heartfelt Chaplin-meets-Cummings performance of Andrew Garfield as Larson was wonderfully unexpected for me, especially as supported so splendidly by Bradley Whitford as Stephen Sondheim and surprise cameos from a staggering array of theatrical royalty including Bernadette Peters, Joel Grey, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Benanti, Bebe Neuwirth, Roger Bart, Jason Robert Brown, Adam Pascal, Stephen Schwartz, Andre DeShields, Quiara Algeria Hudes, Jeanine Tesori, Marc Shaiman, Phylicia Rashad, Phillipa Soo, even my beloved friend and that legendary Queen of Broadway Chita Rivera.

Again, I mean, really. I’ve never been able to relate to or understood when people say they could watch a movie over and over, although that’s something I can easily do when a performance is unfolding spontaneously in front of me on a stage and is not served from a can with only one “choice” etched in stone forever.

But...  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sparkling, touching, brilliantly innovative adaptation of Larson’s sadly autobiographical Tick, Tick… BOOM!  is an immediate and indelible exception. May it live forever in the future of film history—providing, of course, there is a future to live forever into, if you'll excuse the dramatically dangling preposition.