TRAVIS' REVIEWS: Winter 2019 to Early 2020 

MATTHEW BOURNE'S SWAN LAKE at the Ahmanson Theatre

Maybe it’s the Dane in me growing up reading the fanciful otherworldly folk tales of Hans Christian Andersen—who my grandfather in a possible typical familial penchant for exaggeration always insisted was a distance relative of ours—that has always made me love Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's gossamer and dreamlike ballet.

Despite its initial failure when it debuted at the Bolshoi in 1877, Swan Lake  is still one of the most popular ballets of all time. Fashioned from ancient Russian and German fables, it tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse, and the stately prince who falls in love with her.

Marketing for the updated and much anticipated remounting of Sir Matthew Bourne’s trailblazing reinvention of the ballet just opening at the Ahmanson, where it made its American debut on this same stage in 1997 before going on to fame and adulation around the globe, states this is the return of a work that “changed the dance landscape forever.” It’s a bold claim indeed, granted, but in this rare case undeniably not a puffed-up exaggeration at all.

Featuring a monumentally unhappy and sexually repressed prince who heads to his kingdom’s lake to drown himself but instead falls in love with a comely male swan, Bourne’s now notorious version of Swan Lake  once again features an eye-popping corps de ballet  made up of male dancers who have traded the classic tutu for costumer Lez Brotherston’s finely-feathered jodhpurs.

Now subtitled The Legend Returns,  this first groundbreaking effort by Sir Matthew’s celebrated New Adventures Company is still as cutting-edge as it was 22 years ago when it initiated an enduring relationship that has now seen 11 of his phenomenal creations premiere for stateside audiences on this same stage.

Perhaps with marriage equality a reality, a male couple recently winning the Danish version of Dancing with the Stars,  and so much more acceptance of same sex relationships than when this masterpiece first debuted, it might seem as though Sir Matthew’s concept could have become a tad dated over the years.

It certainly does not. The concept is still quite innovative and the pas de deux  between the lovesick closeted prince and his fantasy hunk of a swan, especially as recreated by the scintillating Andrew Monaghan and Will Bozier, are as showstoppomg as they were originally, if not more so.

Monaghan couldn’t be better cast, not only because of his worldclass dance skills but his abilities as an actor; his lonely and conflicted Prince is beautifully realized, infused with a sadness and confusion that would possibly melt the most homophobic of hearts.

Bozier is an incredibly strong, incredibly masculine partner, possessed of a grand jeté  that could rival Nureyev or Baryishnikov. His performance is fiercely aggressive—a perfect attitude to emulate the usually less-than friendly real life male swan—and yet he is able to suddenly adopt a tenderness and sweetness, caressing the Prince’s cheek with a loving gentleness that makes his own journey accepting his feelings quite apparent.

Nicole Kabera as the cold and distant unmotherly Queen with a Catherine the Great-like sexual appetite for young men in uniform, is also an exceptional actress and a suitably majestic dancer, while Katrina Lyndon as the Prince’s dimwitted but socially ambitious stalker, whose behavior as a hopeful future Royal-in-law is far more Agnes Gooch than Meghan Markle, is a standout in the production’s most blatant and refreshingly comedic role.

Brotherston has consummately reenvisioned his original grandly oversized sets, again beautifully lit by Paule Constable with often purposely overexposed lighting effects when the Prince’s creamy, shadowy dreams are slapped back into the harshness and emptiness of his solitary daily routines and mandated royal duties.

Brotherston’s costumes are also an impressive echo of the original mounting of this now classic, not only those now familiar feathered leggings worn by the sea of shirtless swans but in the glittery ballgowns that make the entrance of the visiting princesses in the Royal Ballet scene land somewhere between the Ziegfeld Follies and Paris Fashion Week.

Of course, everything about this mesmerizing rethinking of Swan Lake  revolves around the genius of Sir Matthew Bourne, both as a jarringly innovative choreographer unafraid to throw convention to the wind but as a storyteller so fearless—and so mischievous—that he is the quintessential contemporary match for ol’ Hans Christian himself.

Subtle touches geared to make us chuckle abound, including the Queen’s animatronic pet corgi being walked across the stage by her devoted Private Secretary (Jack Jones) or the unveiling of her portrait that whimsically evokes one of Andy Warhol’s infamous four-paneled canvases—not to mention when the cellphone of the Prince’s ditzy potential “beard” chimes loudly during a performance at the Royal Opera House (and she takes the call) or when she drops her purse from the Queen’s opera box and waves to one of the dancers to retrieve it for her.

There’s nothing that’s not brilliant about this most welcome return of one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had sitting in a theatre. If marketing this production as The Legend Returns  might seem to be bordering on the presumptuous, let me assure you again it’s not.

I only wish I could still be alive and kicking in 2042 if indeed it’s resurrected again on the same schedule; now that’s something to make hanging around that long a worthwhile goal. In fact, I’m gonna price walkers on Amazon right this minute. I may even buy a big bag of feathers to apply to it.

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THIS SIDE OF CRAZY at the Zephyr Theatre

At lights up on Del Shores’ newest comedy This Side of Crazy, making its SoCal debut at the Zephyr, retired gospel composer and singing star Ditty Blaylock sits in the latenight blue glow of her television screen watching a VHS tape of her daughters performing her music as her youngest daughter Rachel enthusiastically humps the lifeless body of her husband Jude, who has been upstairs in a vegetative state for the past 25 years.

What else could you expect from the deliciously twisted mind of Our Mr. Shores, whose work always reminds me of something written by Beth Henley and then reinvented by John Waters. And hey—Divine actually would have made an excellent Ditty Blaylock.

That’s not saying Sharon Garrison, who assays the role here, isn’t marvelous as the outrageously outspoken and highly difficult Ditty who, as she absorbs the inspirational music coming from her TV whenever Rachel’s loud orgasmic screams don’t drown it out, periodically puts her revolver to the side of her head and pulls the trigger. For Ditty, praising Geebus and playing Russian Roulette don’t appear to be out of place with one another. Go figgur.

Del Shores, who also directs as he does many of his productions, is an old hand at writing about dysfunctional religiously-obsessed southerners with families whose members should all get a group discount on psychotropic medications. This is hardly a genre not excessively explored to the point of artistic redundancy, yet no one does it quite like he does.

See, Shores—creator of such notoriously scandalous countrified comedies as Sordid Lives, Daddy’s Dyin’ (Who’s Got the Will?), Southern Baptist Sissies, Daughters of the Lone Star State, and The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife—continuously draws on his own childhood raised in a pious Southern Baptist family in the bustling 2.9-square mile Texas town of Winters, a sprawling metropolis with a population of 2,562 in the last census.

In skewering the limitations, prejudices, and delusions of his own childhood memories, however, Shores does so lovingly and with an inherent sweetness not many other writers can access. When Ditty insists, “I’m not a racist! I’m from the South!” or matter of factly states Carrie Underwood’s rendition of one of her songs was edited out of American Idol  because “everyone knows how the Jews run Hollywood,” there’s something so blindly endearing about her that it makes one howl with laughter rather than want to throw tomatoes at the stage.

It doesn’t take long for anyone to see on which side of crazy the entire Blaylock clan falls on the spectrum between neurotic to bonkers. As Ditty tries to gather together her three estranged offspring, known professionally back in the day before all hell broke loose as The Blaylock Sisters, for a reunion performance on her upcoming Gospel Music Network special honoring her career, the scandalous details of their parting ways begins to unfold.

It seems Rachel (Bobbie Eakes) stole her soon-after comatose husband from her little sister Abigail (Dale Dickey), who then strangled poor Jude into his present condition, forcing Ditty to call in favors to get Abby committed to a nuthouse rather than stand trial for attempted murder. The third sister, Bethany (Rachel Sorsa), then fled from her family to become a stripper, a lesbian, and to add to her jesusfreak mother’s potentially suicidal horror, an atheist—which she felt was an easier choice than being mad at God all the time.

Shore’s direction is smooth and kinetic on Tom Buderwitz’ clever multilevel set on the tiny Zephyr stage and, simply, the Crazy cast he’s assembled is golden. Sousa is a standout as the sanest Blaylock, the resident stripperlesbianathiest who ironically carries most of the play’s straight man duties, something the actor does quite well throughout while swallowing Bethany’s frustration and remaining continuously on the verge of meltdown.

Eakes is perfectly cast as Rachel, the terminally angry daughter who stayed behind to care for their outrageously controlling mother who once cracked the whip to make the girls known far and wide as Superstars for Jesus. Rachel, Ditty admits, is the least of her three disappointments and Eakes works wonders keeping her character from loading her mother’s pistol while deadpanning Shore’s most wicked lines and offering a “little coma humor.”

Although I would love to know exactly what lives on Garrison’s fourth wall since she distractingly plays so many of her best lines out front directly above the audience’s heads, she is still a major delight as Ditty. In her brassy copper Raquel Welch wig and Shon LeBlanc’s bedazzled and quintessential matronly country star pantsuits, Garrison resembles Paula Deen starring in a biography of Debbie Reynolds as she spouts rapidfire questionable truths about Dr. Oz’ belief that stress is worse than fried foods or agrees with Rachel when confronted with evidence of her own forgetfulness (“Honey, I’m past 70... I’m sure I am”). Playing Ditty could only be accomplished by a truly gifted comedienne, something Garrison brings in spades to her LA stage debut. 

Still, never has any actor been able to naturally pull focus both onstage or onscreen more completely and effortlessly than the incredibly talented Dickey, who is once again hilariously off-center and yet totally heartbreaking as Abigail, the tortured Blaylock sister who can’t wait to just sit on the porch rocker and smoke her cigarettes after all those years locked away in the looney bin living with her regrets.

Still, as usual, the true star here is the worldclass comedic voice of Del Shores, who it seems has never met a situation he can’t brilliantly take to task. Although I did have some issues with how conveniently the play resolves, as Bethany forces Rachel and Abby to sit across from one another and explain the source of their bitterness and resentment toward one another—all things either restated or obvious from other points in the play—This Side of Crazy  is without hesitation this side of wonderful.

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REVENGE SONG at Geffen Playhouse

Yeah, I love daring, innovative, rule-breaking theatre, especially when it’s presented somewhere that can potentially shake the usual stuffy conservative firstnighters to the core, something New York's Vampire Cowboy Theatre Company definitely, appreciatively managed to accomplish opening night of Revenge Song,  which currently heralds their SoCal debut at the Geffen.

Still, although experimental theatre put off-Broadway on the map in the 1960s and 70s, as a 35-year resident of both Manhattan and LA and an avid theatre whore anyplace I light, to me today New York City-spawned counterculture fare seems a little… safe. Still offbeat, yes, I should say—but safely, predictably offbeat, if that makes any sense to anyone but me.

See, these days here in ol’ poor culturally maligned El Lay, despite the long-suffered distain from the theatre community on that other coast leveled on whatever we create here, our reclaimed desert climes has some amazingly brave resident theatre entities willing to continually challenge the norm, including Tim Robbins’ always boldly in-your-face Actors’ Gang, Circle X, Boston Court, Sacred Fools, Theatre of NOTE, Son of Semele, the Troubies, and the Bootleg, as well as its illustrious predecessor and now nomadic Evidence Room. 

I was especially excited to learn Qui Nguyen’s Obie-winning and notoriously off-center Vampire Cowboys would be coming west to present their newest piece, especially since Nguyen was the artist Matt Shakman chose to become the Geffen’s first commissioned playwright when he took over the reigns there as artistic director in 2017.

Since the beginning of his tenure, with only one early misstep (and who wouldn’t have green-lighted any new play by Jose Rivera?), Shakman has completely reenergized the Geffen and put it back on the map as one of LA’s most exciting and unerring theatre complexes. 

With major successes such as Mysterious Circumstances, Witch, Skintight, The Thanksgiving Play, Key Largo, Invisible Tango, and the most ingenious re-envisioning of A Christmas Carol  ever mounted, since Shakman took charge the Geffen has been on a roll, leading it to become my very first ever recipient of the 2019 TicketHolder Award for Best Season, not to mention winning four of my 10 TicketHolders for Best Play, one for Best Revival, both Best Costume and Best Sound design honors, Best Director for Shakman’s work on Mysterious Circumstances  and uniquely, it garnered ties for first place for two separate Geffen productions in both Best Ensemble and Best Set Design categories.

Keeping all that in mind, Revenge Song  could be 2020’s Nikki Corona.  For all the hype, including tagging it far and near as a “new LGBTQ play” and a “queer musical,” I unfortunately found it to be a major disappointment. There’s tremendous promise here on the Geffen mainstage and indeed it was fun to see the puzzlement on the faces of the typical westside botox-heavy opening night crowd as it unfolded, but in the end it’s just not yet ready for primetime.

Based on the story of real-life 17th-century Parisian lesbian swordswoman and opera singer Julie d’Aubigny, Nguyen has indeed found a fascinating character with an amazingly unexpected life to celebrate and explore. From dressing in male clothes at a young age and training with her father in the males-only disciplines of fencing and horsemanship, at age 14 she fled an abusive sexual relationship with her father’s nobleman employer to rescue a young girl with whom she was discovering first love from her exile to a nunnery for their transgressions. 

After the escape resulted in a parliamentary death sentence for d’Aubigny (Margaret Odette), things went further awry when her rescued lover (Beth Hawkes) decided a same-sex relationship was not what she ultimately wanted in her life, even if it was in what the play’s characters see from their perspective as the more “woke” era of 17th-century France. Why, electric chairs and legal injections had not even been invented yet.

Along the way, poor Julie fights numerous duels and shags at least one more willing member of her own sex, eventually achieving a new notoriety as... ready?... an opera singer known as La Maupin. Hers is certainly a story that needs to be told, but Nguyen’s well-meaning CliffsNotes version, with omissions and glossings-over which could have been forgiven if they had been presented with more inventive and raucous results, falls flat.

It’s not easy to explain what went wrong. There are wonderful moments, with a generally exceptional company of players rapping and rocking to Shane Rettig’s diverse and infectious musical score on the stage greatly enhanced by the Geffen’s usual fine production values but, despite sojourns into clever puppetry and Reanimator-style bloodletting and penis severing, the effort never really completely gels.

Most of the problem is the production, not the material—though both could use a little more time and tweaking to evolve successfully. Under the surprisingly slow and plodding direction of Vampire Cowboys’ cofounder Robert Ross Parker, the performances are highly uneven, Maggie McDonald’s fight scenes seem clumsy and under-rehearsed, and there are continuously awkward moments throughout as the players’ appear to wait motionlessly and without a hint of expression for Rettig’s song intros to end so they can start their vocals.

Hawkes, Noshir Dalal, and Tom Myers are all noteworthy in their multiple roles throughout, although the best performance comes from the balls-out Amy Kim Waschke as a sexy Mother Superior and as Madame de Senneterre, the director of the Paris Opera who also beds d’Aubigny and provides direct audience-challenging French dominatrix-style narrative from the lip of the stage.

Though obviously gifted, Eugene Young is less successful as the Comte d’Albert, who falls madly in love with d’Aubigny after she stabs him to avoid his advances and thereafter follows her around like a puppydog for the rest of her life. Young never really finds an interesting hook to play the character, settling for woebegone expressions and conveying news of Albert’s lovesick plight as though trying to limn the delivery of Bob Hope in some old Road to... movie.

Although also a promising talent, Odette is sadly mostly ineffective in such a pivotal role, making her swashbuckling heroine more Elle Woods than Diana Prince. She never effectively finds her blossoming sexual maturation and passion or ever lets d’Aubigny rise above mildly frustrated while contemplating her “future choices for a woman in 1685” when those particular stakes are still mighty high and worth examination in 2020. 

Two of the most memorable moments come from the production’s clever projection designs by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson. The first is at the very beginning when an onscreen murderous mime graphically threatens to slaughter anyone in the audience caught whispering, whipping out a cellphones, or crunching Doritos, while later images of the Opera’s main attraction, an Elvis-esque superstar (the hilarious Myers, clearly going for the latterday fat Elvis), appear behind him in selfies with the LAX sign, an In-N-Out Burger marquee, and Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland loomIng behind his beaming face.

I think the biggest mistake was bringing Revenge Song to the Geffen’s somewhat austere 500-seat Gil Cates Theater. If first presented in their smaller and more forgiving Audrey Skirball-Kenis space—or at an even more intimate LA stalwart such as Theatre of NOTE or on one of the Atwater Village Theatre’s reclaimed warehouse stages—its flaws might not be so glaringly apparent.

Still, this production is definitely worthy of a more polished and refined future and, although the LA debut of the Vampire Cowboys was a bit of a letdown, the company also deserves a pass this time. Seeing Revenge Song  at this stage in its evolution is something akin to hearing the future genius of Bernstein’s West Side Story  wafting out timidly from the strains of his score for the earlier On the Town, making me excited to see what Qui Nguyen and his auspiciously promising theatre company bring to us next time.

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NOWHERE ON THE BORDER at Road Theatre Ensemble

On the parched and merciless desert wasteland between Mexico and the U.S., a worried father searches for the daughter who disappeared trying to cross into our country to join the husband who left to try to earn some much-needed money three years earlier and never returned.

In Carlos Lacamara’s play Nowhere on the Border,  recently reworked since its original production which played here at the Hayworth in 2005, Roberto (Jonathan Nichols) is holding vigil while waiting for the Border Patrol to arrive, respectfully guarding the badly decomposing body of another young woman whose dangerous and arduous journey ended as tragically as so many do. After all, it could have been his own child.

Lacamara’s well-meaning play is a sobering reminder of the personal humanity that too often gets lost in the grander scheme of things as the issue of illegal immigration between our two countries invariably is examined as more political than altruistic.

Unfortunately, although the Road’s usual production values are exemplary as always and the play has its moments, Lacamara’s language often bordering on the beautifully poetic, Nowhere on the Border  indeed goes nowhere that isn’t achingly predictable.

Roberto’s pivotal encounter with Gary (Chet Grissom), a heavily geared-up, camo-wearing good ol’ boy volunteer from Pennsylvania who wants to keep all’a them criminal and rapist illegals from overtaking our cherished A’murka, provides the most memorable moments as the two grieving fathers begin to find an unexpected respect for one another as events over a rather tedious 90 minutes evolve. What a surprise, eh?

Granted, there are some admirable things this production has going for it, including a cleverly barren set designed by Paul Dufresne, appearing to have been constructed from industrial carpeting, complimented by the gorgeously painted sky of Derrick McDaniel’s lighting and Nick Santiago’s moody projections.

Although it would be nice if his inclusion was more integral to the play and not utilized simply as a scene change device, there's also lovely, euphonious guitar accompaniment provided throughout by Mackenzie Redvers Bryce, who sits on a rather uncomfortable looking faux-rock at the sidelines and makes us wish he had an opportunity to stretch his legs at least once.

There are two absolutely majestic performances here from Nichols, who is heartbreaking as the wise and weary Roberto, and Leandro Cano, who manges to find great nobility as Jesus, the sweetly protective stiff-limbed vaquero who in flashbacks is seen accompanying Roberto’s daughter Pilar (Natalie Llerena) on her tragic migration to what she hopes would be a better life.

Grissom, whose work I’ve seen and appreciated many times over the years, does his best with the role of Gary, but is so weighed down by stereotypical dialogue and behavior it’s amazing he comes out as unscathed as he does.

The performances are not uniformly as successful, unfortunately. What director Stewart J. Zully was thinking by not working more closely with Llerena, whose entire performance is dominated by one pained and suffering expression, or the dazzlingly less-than organic Diana DeLaCruz as Montoya, Pilar and Jesus’ almost mustache-twirling coyote guide, is a conundrum.

The brief single-scene role of Don Rey (played in the performance I attended by alternate castmember Juan Pope in for Thom Rivera) could be eliminated altogether or the scene could easily be assigned to the character of Montoya. The clear implication by showing the smoothly deceitful pitch of a slick solicitor working for the cartel arranging illegal passage as something akin to watching a TV lawyer hawking service for accident victims is a given, but the obvious point could easily be sacrificed rather than making the poor actor assigned to play him drive to the theatre every night for three minutes onstage.

Is all lost here? Hardly. Lacamara has a fine gift for writing melodious, gracefully evocative dialogue and certainly the tale told in Nowhere on the Border  desperately needs to be told—yet sometime soon it needs be told with less conspicuously foreseeable denouement. Another reworking and he might just have it. Third time’s a charm, it’s said.

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THE FATHER at Pasadena Playhouse

I have always avoided seeing movies set in prisons or on battlefields—often wondering if it’s some kind of past-life thing—and when it comes to plays about characters with dementia or Alzheimer’s, I tend to stay even further away, both as an actor or an audience member. Way too close to home, you see.

Still, who could resist checking out the west coast debut of Florian Zeller’s The Father  at Pasadena Playhouse, especially featuring a crisply intelligent translation from the original French by none other than Christopher Hampton, whose crafty wit winding through the play is instantly reminiscent of his much-awarded theatrical translations of Laclos’ 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses  and Yasmina Reza’s Art.

Add into the mix direction by the Boston Court’s artistic director Jessica Kubzansky, one of LA’s most revered talents, and then polish the diamond by casting the phenomenal Alfred Molina in the title role, and you’d have to be quarantined on a cruise ship in Japan to have a valid excuse for not seeing this magnificent production.

Hampton’s humor is definitely present here, although one must wonder which are his lines and which are Zeller’s since they all have a slight European style to the rhythms. And of course, Fred Molina is superb. Transcendent. Flawless. Hilarious. Poignant. Agonizing.

Winner of the Moliere Award when Le Pere  debuted in Paris in 2014, Kenneth Cranham went on to win an Olivier Award on the West End in 2016, followed by Frank Langella's Tony Award for his performance when the play opened on Broadway that same year.

As much as I would have loved to have seen either of those arrestingly talented actors play Andre, I will be forever grateful my introduction to this haunting play featured Fred Molina in the title role—especially with the collaboration of Kubzansky to shine such a rare jewel to perfection.

This is a hard play to review without revealing details sure to give away how the viewer is swept into the storyline. Beginning with many early laughs, puzzling and contradictory situations begin to emerge. Even when you think you have taken in all the richly appointed details of David Meyer’s exquisite set, for instance, soon it feels as though your eyes are playing tricks on you. And they are—as your own conscienceness is coerced into experiencing the descent into mental oblivion of Andre’s once-brilliant mind.

With the aid of continuous and intentionally distracting blackouts to show the quixotic nature of time, suddenly you wonder: wasn’t that painting in the dining room bigger? Weren’t there two doors in the back hallway? And five chairs around the table, not three?

The concept is ingeniously presented and delicately, patiently explored, especially with the unearthly once-in-lifetime performance of Molina at the center of everything, strong and omnipresent while gracefully leading us all on his character’s emotional Mr. Toad’s Ride in a jarringly authentic way.

Kubzansky’s direction is equally impressive, as is the entire supporting cast. Lisa Renee Pitts, Pia Shah, Robert Mammana, and Michael Manuel are excellent and accommodating, stealthily avoiding taking any focus from the central theme of the play—and boy, it’s hard not saying more! Sue Cremin as Andre’s daughter Anne is also well cast, although I wish there had been more of an arc to her character’s journey for her to play and more effectively engage the audience.

Meyer’s set is like a seventh key player, as are sound designer John Zalewski’s frequent musical interludes between scenes that become less soothing and more electronically discordant as the play—and Andre's illness—progress.

I have to admit it was personally torturous for me, so emotional I didn’t stay for the opening night festivities to share the traditional hug with Kubzansky and to grovel at Fred Molina’s feet. No one can fathom what it’s like to be caregiver for someone you’ve loved for many years as they tragically disappear right before you no matter how you try to stop the progression of this vile and heartrendingly abhorrent disease.

I know only too well how it hurts and hammers at you and sadly, so does Alfred Molina, which makes the incredibly brave and selfless choice for him to accept the challenge of Going There once again personally generous—and unintentionally makes the LA Times’  headline for their review of this production funny, in a medical gallow’s humor sorta way: “At Pasadena Playhouse, Dementia Hits Alfred Molina.”

I imagine the spirit of Fred's brilliant and lovely wife Jill Gascoine infusing and gently guiding every moment in the gossamer, heartbreakingly honest performance one of our era’s most gifted artists. I for one am eternally grateful to him for sharing himself with us so generously and completely.

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RED INK from Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre

After over 21 years as Theatre Editor for Entertainment Today, its demise—along with LA Reader, Beverly Hills Post, West Hollywood Weekly, LA Theatre, Salon City, Gorgeous, and Boulevard  magazines for which I also wrote through the years—was capped for me when I was told by my editor at BackStage that they were dumping all of us longtime theatre critics and stopping reviews of live theatre on both coasts. This from a New York City-based publication called BackStage, for Terpsichore’s sake.

The reason BackStage theatre coverage was scrapped? Well, of course, it was simply a corporate decision. Theatres didn’t “support the page,” we were told.  In other words, the fuckers didn’t advertise—as though small theatres have the budget to run ads, right?

There was a small community weekly in those days that openly told people they would review their productions, but only if the producers in turn bought an ad to run with it. The publication and its resident critic were widely criticized and ostracized for such a blatantly unethical demand yet, less than a decade later, even such venerable institutions such as Wall Street Journal  routinely charge for content.

In our current world overtaken by clickbait journalism, where most small privately-owned local publications around the country have been buried alive by cutthroat corporate takeovers, the only thing at issue is today how to promote ad revenue. Reporting the news be damned today and so nothing is the same for journalists, particularly those committed to promoting the arts. Like ET  and my other onetime outlets mentioned above, our town’s onetime king of the undergrounds, LA Weekly, met such a fate several years ago.

The choking out of theatre coverage in the Weekly  ended the longtime tenure there of Steven Leigh Morris, who as Theatre Editor had helped put LA theatre on the map. The guy lived through the vivisection of the popular print edition of the Weekly  when it was sold in a corporate merger and, unlike some of us, he even survived the disappearance of print journalism in our online world.

Entering the Atwater Village Theatre for the world premiere of Red Ink, Morris’ timely and sharply satirical new play mourning the death of print journalism, the playwright said he hoped I would enjoy his homage to “our once noble profession.”

Luckily, Morris’ insightful and imaginative ability to find the humor in our situation saves the day and keeps Red Ink from descending into a sense of hopelessness. Jerome, clearly his alter-ego in the piece, has not been as lucky as its creator. Where Morris has gone on to many other successful endeavors, including the well-received online Stage Raw covering LA’s too-often maligned but ever-scrappy theatrical community and a Distinguished Contribution Award from the LA Drama Critics Circle, poor Jerome has been committed to the nuthouse.

As part of his therapy, it seems, he is encouraged to reenact the details of his departure from the job he loved by utilizing his fellow inmates to take on the roles playing his suffering coworkers and soulless corporate archenemies. It’s akin to Front Page  morphed with Marat/Sade  in a script created by Woody Allen.

Morris’ crafty tale winds in and out of these two realities, giving director Nike Doukas and her gifted troupe of beloved LA actors a wonderful opportunity to pull out all the proverbial stops.

As Jerome, Leo Marks assays the very definition of a tour de force performance, never once having the luxury of leaving the stage as his character relives the journey and then alternately observes the dastardly details of his career’s downward spiral.

All other actors play multiple roles as the people haunting Jerome’s life, including Tracey A. Leigh as both a doomed coworker and his long-suffering wife; Steven Culp as one of the facility’s orderlies, a difficult news reporter about to get the ax, and an imaginary entrepreneur only Jerome can see; while recent Stella Adler Art of Acting Studio graduate Michelle Bonebright-Carter makes an impressive appearance in several roles, including Jerome’s concerned and loving daughter.

Jocelyn Towne winds through the action as a completely incongruous ballerina in moves nicely choreographed by Cate Caplin, also credited for creating a sensual tango performed by Towne and Marks as she periodically transforms into the dastardly new publisher’s ruthless henchman whose job title includes seducing Jerome to get him onboard with the company’s policies.

As Murray, that Harvey Weinstein-y bossman who could give a shit about the news as long as he has enough income to sit at the beach in Maui fanned by nubile young handmaidens and sipping pina coladas, Peter Van Norden’s performance is priceless, especially when he returns to being Murray, a Lennie Small-esque lumbering fellow inmate with a penchant for JuJuBes.

None of the pieces of this wildly absurdist puzzle could possibly fit together without the skill of Doukas, however, who brilliantly and innovatively stages the rapidfire action of Morris’ firecracker of a play on this tiny playing space with audience placed on three sides just to add to Jerome’s suitably claustrophobic situation.

Sad and frustrating as the subject may be, feeling even more disillusioned with humanity than ever before, especially for anyone who has personally crawled through the muck of it and has come out the other side, is the greatest danger here, but Steven Leigh Morris’ Red Ink  is beyond simply a biting, often hilarious, on-the-money treatise laying bare the immorality of corporate greed. It echoes everything wrong as our society and its “leaders” step over us all while cavalierly destroying everything we should be desperately holding dear.

We need such courageous and thought-provoking artistic expression more than ever if we are going to get through this discouraging period in our existence. James Baldwin said the precise role of an artist is to “illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

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THE LAST SHIP at the Ahmanson Theatre

Anyone who knows me probably knows I avoid writing reviews of most conventional musicals like the proverbial plague. The popular happy-sappy formula that puts butts in the seats drives me a wee bit nuts. This is the reason I loved The Last Ship  so much—and why many traditional musical theatre aficionados might not.

Granted, the original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, reworked by director Lorne Campbell after the production’s initial mounting faced less than glowing critical reaction, flirts with standard musical themes such as star-crossed lovers and one typically feisty disillusioned teenager who along the way has the usual proper epiphany.

Still the theme, set in 1986 as a Northern England village inhabited by a team of scruffy shipbuilders valiantly fight unemployment and obsolescence with the phasing out of industrialization at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, quickly transcends real good clambakes and the problem of Maria.

The book is slim for sure, but this production, something akin to Billy Elliot  meets Once, still manages to overcome its limitations. This is mostly thanks to the hauntingly evocative score composed by none other than rock legend Sting, complemented by a troupe of gloriously-voiced, passionately earnest performers and featuring exquisite design elements throughout. Bareboned theatre this ain't.

Sting is, of course, the reason for the season behind The Last Ship, which was inspired by his 1991 album The Soul Cages  and based on memories of his own childhood growing up in the Northeastern English shipbuilding seaport of Wallsend, where he witnessed the demise of the real life Swan Hunter shipyard. It features several songs from that album, including “Island of Souls” and “All This Time,” as well as “When We Danced” from his 1994 Fields of Gold  anthology collection.

May I admit I am a massive diehard fan of Sting and have been throughout his amazing career, so that’s where my objectivity could be at risk and my judgment a tad cloudy. Nonetheless his score for The Last Ship  completely swept me away and left my spirits soaring in a time when our entire nation’s spirits are at the lowest ebb in my lifetime.

Coupled with the moody steel-beamed set and incredibly provocative stormy seaside projections by 59 Productions, as well as Matt Daw’s dramatic lighting design and Molly Locascio’s suitably drab monochromatic costuming, and I was hooked, to the point where I could almost smell the crisp salt air.

Although The Last Ship’s  ill-fated debut on Broadway in 2014, directed by Joe Mantello and still featuring Logan and Yorkey’s original book, was roundly panned by critics and only played the Great White Way for slightly less than three months, it was nominated for well-deserved Tony Awards for both Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations.

As he did at the end of that brief and surely personally disappointing run, in an effort to boost its appeal and keep the faith, Sting has joined the cast of his daring windmill quest here at the Ahmanson during the musical’s national tour. With great humility he plays Jackie White, the supervisor of the doomed shipyard fighting desperately and heroically to keep the yard open despite the rapid onset of mesothelioma that will end his life if not addressed in judicious time.

At first Sting seems nervous and stiff, standing uncomfortably onstage with both hands tightly clinging for dear life to the lapels of his tweedy jacket. As the show unfolds, however, his performance settles in with quite impressive results and by the second act, his performance blossoms and becomes quite movingly realized.

Jackie Morrison as his long-suffering wife Peggy is surely part of what puts Sting at ease, as does the rest of this obviously committed ensemble, while Frances McNamee is a standout as local bar owner Meg Dawson, as is Sophie Reid as Ellen, the daughter Meg bore out of wedlock who has now grown into one of those familiar classic highly independent teens.

In a uniformly wonderful cast, Joseph Peacock has some lovely moments early on as the younger version of Gideon, the boy who never knew about Meg’s situation since he left the small town 17 years earlier for a more adventurous life at sea before knowing she was pregnant. All four of these actors are gifted with lovely solo numbers, particularly McNamee’s spirited “August Winds” and Morrison’s plaintive eleventh-hour ballad “Show Some Respect.”

Although Sting’s daring foray into musical theatre could easily be more playable by losing about 20 or 30 minutes of the show’s  overlong running time—some of which could be trimmed by completely eliminating the character of one annoying villager with a penchant for spouting literary quotations—all is not lost along with the demise of the sadly discarded once-majestic sailing vessel lamented in the musical’s very title.

There’s no doubt the book is rather clumsy and sometimes the setups in the tale were obviously created only to wrap around songs that were already created, but considering those dynamic and unique tunes were composed by one of our time’s most brilliant musical icons, any limitations can be easily forgiven.

Heck, The Last Ship  could be mounted simply in a concert version, devoid of most of the storyline and all of the impressive design elements, and I’d still be there—especially if performed by this spectacular group of actor/singers, all lovingly enhanced as sound designer Sebastian Frost and musical director Richard John impressively honor the unearthly talents of Sting and his music supervisor/orchestrator Rob Mathes.

And oh yeah: throw in an indelibly heartfelt and rare personal appearance in a pivotal role by the former Mr. Gordon Sumner of Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, and in a perfect world the experience should sail directly into the annals of theatre history. I know it will stay afloat in mine for a long time to come.

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FROZEN at the Pantages Theatre

Well, I may be one of six people on the planet who’s never seen the animated feature musical Frozen  and, considering my usual reflex action that keeps me clear of anything emerging from Disney’s cashcow Gooey Goodie Department, I left for the Pantages planning to hate the stage version of the popular movie no matter how spectacular the special effects were guaranteed to be.

Okay, so I loved it. Maybe I have a higher tolerance for Gooey Goodie this close to the holidays, but I found Frozen  more than visually dazzling—which indeed it is. It features a charming book by Jennifer Lee that compliments the disneyfication of the Pantages for the production and makes it far more palpable than Miss Poppins’ spoonful of sugar or that annoying genie singing that I ain’t never had a friend like him.

Yeah, and now the dazzling part. Good Goddess Terpsichore, is there anything the folks at Disney Theatrical Group can’t conjure live right before our eyes?

In 2005 when   opened at the MGM Grand in Vegas, the good people at Cirque du Soleil let me hang out backstage during the week of the show’s grand premiere and at one point, I interviewed costume designer Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt, who waxed nostalgic about the beginning of her career designing for a tiny but fierce underground storefront theatre company in Montreal.

She obviously missed those days but appreciated one similarity: the creative freedom she had back then working with that small avantgarde troupe and the carte blanche she also enjoyed designing for the Cirque. I asked her what the biggest difference was between the two experiences and her reply was immediate: “Budget.” Working on KÀ,  Marie-Chantale could do and spend whatever she wanted, no matter how outrageous her demands.

This theatrical adaptation of Disney’s megahit Frozen  went through two directors, two set designers, two actresses in the lead role of Elsa, and three choreographers before it had its first tryout in the summer of 2017 in Denver—at the cost of some $30 million.

And every penny shows. The most courageous decision might have been to eventually hire Red’s  brilliant Tony-winning director Michael Grandage to the helm the evolution of the production before it hit New York despite the fact it would be his first assignment directing a musical. The risk has paid off splendidly.

Christopher Oram’s enormous massive set pieces glide in and out like an attraction at Disney World, beautifully complimented by Natasha Katz’ lighting, Peter Hylenski’s sound, Finn Ross’ sparkling video design, insane special effects by Jeremy Chernick, and Oram’s colorful and goofy costuming. Oram must especially be credited for finding a clever and humorous way to present a chorusline of villagers emerging from an outdoor sauna in “Hygge,” with only bundles of synchronized birch whisks strategically placed to hide their decidedly non-Disney faux-nakedness.

The production is further glorified by Tony-winner Rob Ashford’s spirited choreography and incredibly inventive puppetry created by Michael Curry, designer of The Lion King  and another person with whom I had the privilege to hang as he put the final touches on the sea creatures in   that still astound patrons nightly 15 years later.

Frozen's  signature snowman, the collectible product-heavy Olaf, is brought to life as a three-quarter-lifesized marionette appearing, as did the meerkat Timon in Curry’s design for Lion King,  operated by the infectious F. Michael Haynie, who provides the character’s voice and movements as he stands behind the puppet in clear view of the audience. Still it’s the appearance of the movie’s resident reindeer Sven, trusted companion of ice harvester Kristoff, who surely was the most difficult to duplicate, so much so that at first Disney thought to cut the character altogether from the stage production.

Thanks to Curry’s intervention and a few unsuccessful attempts to create Sven using two actors housed within his frame to do the deed, the puppetmaster came up with a way for one agile actor to be pretzeled inside the 8-foot frame of the reindeer’s shaggy body. Played here by Collin Baja on opening night, who alternates in what must be a tough assignment with Evan Strand, Sven moves hyper-realistically, blinking his round Disney eyes while realistically moving, bobbing his head, even pawing the ground ala Warhorse.

The entire cast of this Frozen  is hot enough to melt ice. The ensemble players are filled with energy and excitement, Austin Colby is perfectly cast as the duplicitous Prince Hans, Mason Reeves makes a lovable Kristoff, and Michael Milkanin has a great time in his one scene as Oaken, the merchant gleefully making a fortune as the Kingdom of Arondelle goes into its deep freeze.

But of course it’s the actresses cast in the pivotal leading roles of the mysteriously separated princesses Elsa and Anna who must carry the show and that’s exactly what Caroline Bowman and Caroline Innerbichler skillfully accomplish.

Bowman is glorious as the magic-challenged Elsa, her grief and shame always believable and she is especially dynamic belting Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s Oscar-winning “Let It Go” at the conclusion of Act One, while Innerbichler proves to be a delightful comedienne, a little Carol Burnett, a little Billie Burke, and ultimately the most charismatic performer on the stage.

Concluding with dousing the wildly cheering audience with a rather thick snowfall that patrons carry with them out onto Hollywood Boulevard, there’s nothing about Frozen  that can’t warm the cold heart of anyone lucky enough to join in the fun and the wonder of it. It’s a super way to kick off the holiday season, especially if you have kiddies to cart along who would be sure to remember the magical experience for the rest of their lives.

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In an interview featured in the program accompanying the Fountain Theatre’s Los Angeles premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Between Riverside and Crazy,  the dramatist is asked to name a playwright who influenced him.

“Tennessee Williams is the man!!!” Guirgis answers, the three exclamation points part of his handwritten response.

The interesting thing is how much Guirgis and Williams have in common, both notable for one major similarity: the ability to take a socially marginalized bluecollar character and elevate him or her into a genuine heroic figure. Tenn had his Stanley and Leona and Chance Wayne, Guirgis has his Angel and Lucius in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,  Chickie and Shank in In Arabia We’d All Be Kings,  Jackie and Ralph D. in The Motherfucker with the Hat,  and all the dysfunctional denizens gathered at Ortiz’ Funeral Parlor in Our Lady of 121st Street.

Guirgis’ most saintly underdog of all might be Between Riverside and Crazy’s  Walter “Pops” Washington, an aging world-weary African-American former New York beat cop fighting for monetary compensation from the NYPD after being disabled from six bullets pumped into him—at closing time at a strip club considered off-limits to cops—by a rookie new to the force who may or may not have called Walter the “n-word” as he fired.

The makeshift family Walter (Montae Russell) has gathered around him in his incongruously oversized rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment, all “hoppin’ around here like it’s Section 8 housing,” include his recently paroled son Junior (the always-impressive Fountain regular Matthew Hancock) and his kid's possibly pregnant, possibly former “pro” girlfriend Lulu (Marisol Miranda), as well as providing a generous roof to huddle under for a shaky recovering junkie named Oswaldo (Victor Anthony), a guy who, Pops observes, “got emotionalisms.”

Ignoring his landlord’s eviction notices as his back rent mounts and commandeering his recently deceased wife’s wheelchair to wander around the house as he grieves for her, Walter stays stubbornly unwilling to do anything to benefit his recovery, including rejecting all efforts to get him to take care of himself and especially to eat better, instead demanding high-extra-strength-sodium Ritz Crackers over any healthier alternative.

Walter is something of a tragic modern-day Lear, surrounded by people who, no matter how much they insist they’re only there to help, might not have his back after all. These include his former partner and protégée Audrey (Lesley Fera), now promoted to detective, and her blustery fiancé Dave (Joshua Bitton), drooling for a promotion as he’s assigned by his precinct bosses to try to get Walter to sign a non-disclosure settlement agreement and end his outstanding dragged-out lawsuit against the department.

Even the uninvited visiting Santeria-obsessed lady from the local fundamentalist church (Liza Fernandez) trying to get him to take communion has a secret agenda and the continuously barking offstage “little bad intent motherfucker” dog his housemates brought home to keep him company, leave Walter even less anxious to rejoin the world outside his apartment—something in his case that quickly becomes understandable.

Director Guillermo Cienfuegos does a slick job of making the sometimes limiting Fountain stage approximate Walter’s sprawling classic upper-westside apartment (inspired by the playwright’s own similarly-sized Riverside Drive residence he moved into to care for his dad after his mother’s death), a space which designer David Mauer has created in compartmentalized sections to evoke different areas of Walter’s once-grand home now clearly transformed into a self-imposed prison.

Although challenging here, this does not mean the Fountain is the wrong destination for this long-awaited LA debut—in fact, it is the quintessential space for it. Any of those larger venues one might have expected this play to land in its first LA mounting would never afford such easy access to the intimacy of the storyline or let the actors play their roles so subtly yet right to the bone.

Cienfuegos hosts one of our city’s best ensemble casts in an outstanding season chockful of an abundance of talented ensemble casts invigorating our reclaimed desert climes, a factor that leaves the outcome of my annual TicketHolder Awards an impossible task for me to contemplate this year. Pass the eggnog.

Although it takes some time to “get” the mellow and at first seemingly dispassionate performance of Russell, the true dynamism of his work as he leads the charge for the other actors to bounce off of and spring from is something to behold. And by the time Walter proves to have more wisdom and tricks up his sleeve than anyone could ever expect, in a town where standing ovations are as common as rush hour traffic jams on the 405, this is one actor who really and sincerely deserves one.

Hancock is an excellent foil to Russell’s patriarch as the well-meaning but characteristically messed-up Junior and Anthony excels as Oswaldo who, despite his efforts to stay sober, eat healthy, and make things right with his own father, is a scary catalyst for what makes Walter’s world turn upside-down once again.

Miranda is a refreshing comedic treat as Lulu, who may not be the sharpest tool in the shed—Walter notes her lips even move when she’s reading the horoscope—but then she has an “understanding” with her higher power when it comes to things such as getting sober or dressing as though she’s still walking the streets. “I know how I look,” she tells Walter, who begs her to put on a robe over her fetching short-shorts and halter top when she comes down for breakfast, “but that don’t mean I am how I look.”

Fera is wonderful as Audrey, torn by love for her former partner and her fiancé’s questionable agenda, while Bitton delivers the Ken McMillan-esque roughhewn New York cop routine to near-perfection—albeit a bit predictably, which does tend to show his character’s hand when the final twist in the career cop’s true intentions should be more of a surprise.

As the pious church lady reminiscent of every uninvited Jehovah’s Witness who’s ever darkened your door, Fernandez makes her limited stage time one of the most impressive things about this production. While initially looking a little like Freda Khalo reincarnated as a demure and introverted scripture-spewing missionary, Fernandez successfully assays a character who, in true Guirgis-style, drops a jaw-dropping bombshell she plays with utmost authenticity.

Unlike his hero Tennessee Williams, Guirgis is a master at writing hilariously outrageous and delightfully off-kilter dialogue to lessen the pain of his characters’ challenging, life-crushing existence and here, he is at his best. Yes, there’s surely a lot of Williams-spawned inspiration in Between Riverside and Crazy, but there’s also a little O’Neill, a little Odets, a little McDonough, and even a dollop of early Mamet—you know, reminiscent of that time when he could still write a good play.

In Stephen Adly Guirgis, we have found one of the most important and most insightful, sharp-witted, and observant new voices to energize modern theatrical literature. The point of awarding the Pulitzer Prize for Drama is to recognize work that examines the nature of our existence, particularly our existence in our complex and badly wounded country. This time out, the Pulitzer committee could not have been more on the money in their choice of a play to honor and make part of our history.

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KEY LARGO at Geffen Playhouse

It takes a large pair of ‘em to decide to take an iconic vintage film noir  thriller, which onscreen featured a fullblown hurricane and climaxed on the high seas, and adapt it to the limitations of a stage—especially true when Richard Brooks and John Huston’s classic 1948 film was itself first lifted from what they considered a less successful play.

Developed and now facing its world premiere at the unstoppably hot Geffen Playhouse, let’s just say I hope costumer Linda Cho didn’t have to work around a “set” of epic proportions when designing for Andy Garcia as he prepared to co-write, co-produce, and star in this fresh new version of Maxwell Anderson’s all-but forgotten 1939 Broadway production of Key Largo.

Anderson’s original script was quite different from both Huston’s film and this new retelling adapted by Garcia and Jeffrey Hatcher, with the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie—itself perhaps most famous as the last smoldering screen pairing of Bogie and Bacall rather than for the plot—began as a morally and emotionally wounded deserter from the Spanish-American War played on Broadway by Paul Muni.

In Hatcher and Garcia’s Key Largo, Frank McCloud (played by Danny Pino) is now, as in Huston’s film, a recently discharged Army major returning from WWII. Still, as a character he continues to be tortured by his mysterious past while stationed overseas and is surely suffering from what would today be diagnosed as PTSD.

McCloud still arrives in the ramshackle hotel on the Straits of Florida run by the father and wife (Tony Plana and Rose McIver) of one of the men in his charge killed in action. It is his seventh and last such visit since returning to the States, a task he has taken upon himself with the hint that at the completion of his quest he might just decide to pull the plug on his own life.

He finds more than just the D’Alcalas alone in their secluded hotel shuttered for the season, quickly greeted the moment he steps into the lobby by a suspicious pair of rough gangster-type hoods (Stephen Borrello and Louis Mustillo) and a flirty, over-the-hill former nightclub singer (Joely Fisher) who’s laying into the scotch with a seemingly bottomless thirst.

Soon it’s apparent the group has not bought out the hotel for a fishing trip as they claim, instead revealing in their actions and reactions that they are all at the beck and call of an unseen and rather ominous guest, something made clear when a satin-robed dandy appears accompanied by a flash of lightning and loud clap of thunder on the landing of the hotel’s once grand staircase.

The obvious leader of the gang is Johnny Rocco (in a tour de force  turn by Garcia), a notorious hood deported by the government back to Italy after years of ruling over an uncontrollable murderous mob dealing in drugs and prostitution.

Rocco has returned to Key West by way of Cuba to take back his throne, beginning with a transaction scheduled that night on this usually quiet and all-but deserted island at this time of year. He waits for the arrival of his former lacky Ziggy (Bradley Snedeker), who has commandeered his territory in his absence and is ready to deliver a satchel full of cash in return for a briefcase filled with the finest heroin to ever travel across the ocean to our shores.

This is purdy standard stuff, to be sure, but beyond the slim storyline is the haunted disenfranchisement of McCloud and how the spark of romance with Nora, the widow of his former subordinate who died while Frank ran off the other direction, changes his course and restores his willingness to fight for life again. This offers him a chance for possible redemption if he can stand up to the vicious and merciless Rocco.

The production, under the leadership of Tony-winning director Doug Hughes, is simply smashing. It is continuously tense, relentlessly engaging, and theatrically dazzling throughout. John Lee Beatty’s majestic two-story set is incredibly detailed and especially amazing when it comes crashing down in that dreaded hurricane at the center of the movie, here recreated with astoundingly real special effects.

Peter Kaczorowski’s jarring lighting plot, full of moody shadows and sudden bursts of nature’s fury, is perfectly accentuated by Alex Hawthorn’s crashing sound design, together conspiring to collectively at times launch the entire audience right out of their comfortably padded seats as they gasp aloud in surprise.

Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson’s projections are equally able to induce a kind of visual claustrophobia as they suggest the fierceness of the storm raging outside the hotel’s shaking windows, while Cho’s elegant and detailed costuming adds a milieu evoking the late 1940s from Gay Dawn’s seamed nylons to Johnny Rocco’s white Cubano-style fedora.

There are a few sections in the script which could still use a little fleshing out, but in general Hatcher and Garcia deserve commendation for how they have smoothly and cleverly transferred the culminating action away from the storm-swept fishing boat, bringing it back into the hotel lobby without jeopardizing any of the thrills and chills.

It did bother me that, although the pistols brandished and sometimes shot by Rocco and others are impressive props, in the hands of these actors they never seem to carry the actual weight such weapons would have. I did also wonder how the crashing glass of the hotel’s omnipresent skylight at the jaw-dropping end of the first act appeared to have been magically restored into place by the opening of Act Two.

Still, what makes this production, with all its impressive visual bells and whistles, succeed so splendidly is the cast. Expertly anchoring the entire production, Garcia is riveting, wonderfully slimy in an endearing way, and ultimately scary as hell.

As his obnoxiously grandiose Rocco brags in one passage that if someone like him—ruthless, corrupt, uneducated, and vain—can grab and steal and kill his way to become so important and successful, maybe one day he can become President of the United States. The savvy 2019 audience’s boisterous and vocal reaction even seemed to surprise Garcia, unless he was sharing a couple of seconds out of character on purpose to appreciate the moment with the rest of us.

Pino brings a new humanity to McCloud without smothering in the shadow of Bogart, as does McIver as his love interest. And although she doesn’t have the unearthly beauty and uniquely sultry baritone of Lauren Bacall, nor is her role written as quite the focal point as it is in the film, her Nora possesses a spirit and feistiness that makes up for it tenfold.

Although he still plays D’Alcala as blind, Plana loses the wheelchair and doesn’t ever resort to the familiar gruff and blustery delivery of Lionel Barrymore, giving him more of an opportunity to imbue the guy with a strength and resilience that enriches the character.

Borrello, Mustillo, and Snedeker are also quite successful avoiding the traps inherent in the actions of the quintessential noir-bred mobsters and Richard Riehle also does an impressive job making the rather unbelievable compromises expected the area’s marginally committed sheriff something audiences are somehow willing to accept.

As Gaye Dawn, Rocco’s dissipated and drunken moll rescued before his deportation from a chorusline with the promise of making her a star, Fisher is simply mesmerizing, even surpassing Claire Trevor in the role which won her a Best Supporting Oscar.

Fisher paints a vivid and heartbreaking portrait of a tragic but somehow endearing loser drowning in lost dreams and destined for a life of hard knocks—and when she is forced by Rocco to sing for those gathered waiting out the storm in return for the desperately-needed drink she has been denied, the result is showstopping, especially considering what a worldclass songstress Fisher really is.

Yup. It was quite a risk for Garcia and his co-producer, legendary film producer and former Paramount CEO Frank Mancuso, to reinvent a property as recognizable as Key Largo  and even enlist renowned musical virtuoso Arturo Sandoval to compose a knockout original Afro-Cuban jazz score specifically for the production.

As exceptional and promising as this memorable theatrical reinvention is, it would surprise me if its evolution ended when it closes here Dec. 10. Credit for at least part of what this team has accomplished is that it was created under commission from the Geffen initiated by and with the blessing of Matt Shakman, who in his two-year reign as the complex’s artistic director has magically made the Geffen Playhouse a place to watch once again.

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JITNEY at Mark Taper Forum

August Wilson’s Jitney, the first of his epic 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” was written and first produced without much fanfare at that city’s Allegheny Repertory Theatre in 1982. Clearly, it was ahead of its time.

Now at the Taper in a spectacular revival stripped to the bone by director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the magnificent Jitney  finally gets the treatment it deserves.

I wonder if back when it debuted Wilson knew he would go on to create one of America’s proudest and most historic feats of theatrical magic, spending the rest of his too-brief lifetime celebrating the courage, resilience, and humor it took for African-Americans to endure the inequities of the 20th century growing up in socially and economically marginalized communities.

From this first pivotal play sprang Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, King Hedley II, Seven Guitars, The Piano Lesson, Radio Golf, Gem of the Ocean, Two Trains Running,  and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences,  each play focusing on a different decade of life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District over the bitterly conflicted 100 years of the last century.

Set in 1977, Jitney  introduces us to a stalwart troupe of gypsy cabdrivers who work out of a dreary yet somehow comfortable central taxi station about to be taken over and boarded up by the city in their ongoing effort to gentrify the Hill District area.

Although the impending eviction from the place is certainly an issue in Wilson’s tale, it is overshadowed by the individual problems and trials facing each of the nine characters who weave in and out of David Gallo’s spectacularly dilapidated set, complete with old street corner-rescued couches held together by duct tape, rusting ancient once-decorative ceiling trim, and even a real life stalled cab holding silent vigil outside the grimy industrial windows.

Youngblood (James A. Alfred, in at the performance we attended for Amari Cheatom) is an idealistic young kid of 24 trying desperately to make a good life for himself and his wife (Nija Okoro) despite rumors about his running around and schtuppin’ his Rena’s sister Peaches fueled by the station’s annoying resident naysayer and local gossip Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas).

As various colorful characters arrive to jaw and wait for the payphone on the wall to ring offering a fare, we meet Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), a sweet but continuously unsteady former tailor reduced to neighborhood drunk status; Philmore (Brian D. Coats), who is fighting his nature to party by diligently working a hotel job to please his missus; the station’s resident voice of reason Doub (Keith Randolph Smith); and a slick snappy-dressing bookmaker named Shealy (Harvy Blanks). 

Still, it is the misunderstood quest for dignity and a place in the sun being undertaken by Youngblood that takes centerstage in the play, as well as the fate of the station’s gruff aging owner Becker (Steven Anthony Jones) and his rocky relationship with his son Booster (Francois Battiste). With Booster recently released from 20 years in prison for murder, Becker believes it was the actions that initially put his boy on death row that killed his wife only 23 days after his sentencing.

Beginning with strident trumpet riffs from Bill Sims Jr’s evocative jazz score, Jitney  itself unfolds as if it were a musical composition. Wilson’s lyrical, singsong-y, grammar-deprived dialogue flows as if it could be music, and his characters are rich and oddly majestic through it all, each filled with a unique grasp on how to maneuver the battles and disappointments inherent in our existence on this often miserable planet—especially if you don’t have the privilege of Anglo-Saxon genes to help you get through the briars.

It's an amazing play only made more mesmerizing by Santiago-Hudson’s undeniable command of the material and respect for its author, as well as a cast that now could just about be guaranteed access to heaven, if I believed there was such a thing, simply for creating an indelible and insightful experience for anyone lucky enough to see this production.

The acting could not be better throughout, with special nods to Jones in a heartbreaking performance as Becker, Chisholm as the drunken lost soul Fielding, and Alfred, who lifts the scourge of the title understudy to new heights with his magnificent turn in such a pivotal role as Youngblood.

“The Pittsburgh Cycle” is often also referred to as the “Century Cycle,” and these 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the century anyone younger than 20 still standing has somehow miraculously managed to survive, have done more to chronicle a world few of us knew before sitting down in our cushiony theatre seats could fathom.

The stunning and stark urban poetry of August Wilson’s now-classic Jitney  offers a perspective easy for most anyone besides people of color to ignore or look past without giving much thought to the humanity of those caught smackdab for life in the middle of the struggle for equality for all.

Some time before his untimely death in 2005 at age 60, Wilson explained to Paris Review:  “I think my plays offer a different way to look at black Americans. For instance, in Fences they see a garbageman, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day.

”By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman's life is affected by the same things—love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”

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SEE YOU AT THE FUNERAL! at the Broadwater Mainstage

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a two-night special event featuring “queer interdisciplinary theatre artist” Tova Katz performing in the west coast premiere of her LaMaMa E.T.C.-spawned See You at the Funeral!,  the solo presentation complete with music which debuted there in 2016 written and composed all by her little self.

Although I was not familiar with her work, the concept was intriguing and, if the piece was not potentially a little bit of magic, Katz’ talent would never have attracted director Diana Wyenn or get Jer Adrianne Lelliott to lift her skirt above the murky theatrical floodmark of LA thatre and hop onboard as producer. 

So I was there with a house full of hardly grim-looking fellow mourners gathered at the Broadwater to attend Katz’ Funeral, but certainly, as it turned out, there was nothing to lament. I only wish the run of it had been many times longer than a mere two nights.

Katz, who appears to be the secret lovechild of Andrea Martin and Ani diFranco, is an arresting performer and an extremely inventive writer and lyricist. She hits the stage in a lace-collared western-cut cotton blouse and pink cowboy boots, chewing gum to complicate understanding her thick Texan drawl and sporting a hairdo that immediately, intentionally or not, pays homage to an early Loretta Lynn.

Strapping on an acoustic guitar almost bigger than she is, out comes a voice that fills the room, delivering some catchy honky-tonky songs that make us strain not to miss her quirky, creative lyrics. Katz is obviously thrilled to be in front of such an appreciative audience, leading her to feel increasingly more at ease and start to banter between songs about her life. Leaving her rural home wasn’t easy, we learn, especially considering that although her mother loved her, she was having great difficulty accepting her daughter’s independence—and sexuality.

“I miss you,” she tells her curious kid, “your sister misses you, and the lord misses you.” Sounds like the perfect reason to flee to LA, if you ask me. I know it worked for me.

As Katz becomes more comfortable, her elation wanes and a basic sorrow about her life gradually begins to surface. After relating one particularly thorny tale about life in her unforgiving hometown, she dissolves into tears, rushing offstage and off through the audience into the lobby.

An embarrassed stage manager soon descends from the lightbooth to nervously apologize and assure us that if we can hold on, she will try to persuade Katz back to finish her set. In her stead, however, a dramatic figure wrapped in rich red Norma Desmond finery glides grandly to the stage as a replacement for the distraught singer. 

Behind oversized sunglasses and with her head wrapped in a matching red scarf, we learn our new (yet more than vaguely familiar) host is that mythological gorgon Medusa, who tells us she desperately wants to be a dancer but keeps turning her cheering audiences into stone before she ever gets to the curtain call. She assures us she has conquered this disturbing problem and is ready to start being booked again, revealing that her head full of snakes is now dormant and she promises to not make eye contact by only staring at the area above our heads. 

After her Agnes deMille-inspired all-elbows dance number choreographed by director Wyenn ends, Medusa is so pleased by the audience’s reaction she indeed does look directly out at us—and Part Two of this Funeral  ends with our mass extinction. I knew I should have stayed home out of the rain.

When we are again greeted by the last of The Three Faces of Tova,  she reappears as a withered and frail Hungarian-accented soothsayer ready to guide us from our undead Broadwater Purgatory on to our final destination as See You at the Funeral!  concludes by letting us know we’re gathered for our own final rites. 

Katz delivers the same kind of bareboned yet uber-promising baptism of her talents that almost 50 years ago led me to introduce someone then only known as “Bathhouse Betty” to west coast audiences for the first time here at the Troubadour and at San Francisco's Boarding House after seeing her perform for a bunch of rather distracted guys in towels at Manhattan’s Continental Baths. Like the Divine Miss M, Katz is a facile comedienne, a writer to watch, and in a fair world, should one day be recognized as a worldclass singer-songwriter as well. 

I do think the first of her See You at the Funeral!  incarnations, her sweetly befuddled young country kid with obvious emotional issues to resolve, is her most successful. I would love to see a whole evening featuring just that single character, so able all by herself to both entertain and move us—especially if she can fool her future audiences as easily as she did me. Until she returned in the second part clad head-to-toe in her red divadom, I had no idea Katz was not in real life that displaced Texas kid with her terminally thick accent who chewed gum and sounded a lot like Gal Holiday.

Although this two-night sneak peek of See You at the Funeral  is now history, both the gifted Diana Wyenn and the unstoppable Jer Adrianne Lelliott assure me this is only the beginning for the project. I doubt very much that I’ve seen the last of Tova Katz.

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punkplay from Circle X at Atwater Village Theatre

As one walks into the playing space for Circle X’s SoCal debut of Gregory S. Moss’ punkplay,  assaulted by godawful 70s pop music and seeing the stage covered in huge squares of butcher block paper, it might immediately make you think you’d better put on your seatbelt. This probably sounds as though I mean that metaphorically speaking but in fact, believe it or not, I actually distractedly reached for one to click around me—and then looked to see if anyone noticed. See, I’ve been around the block with Circle X a few times before.

Either way, I was right to try. As the music abruptly stops, a white-overalled stagehand enters and inserts an ancient cassette into an ancient boombox. Holding the relic over his head ala John Cusack in Say Anything, a voice introduces what’s about to unfold:

“It’s morning in America and that means it’s the 1980s and hey… if you don’t know anything about the 80s, well, let me break it down for you. Imagine you are staring up close ‘n personal between the thighs of a large ‘n hairy man named History. See his asshole? That’s the 70s. See his scrotum? That’s the ‘90s. Ergo the 1980s are that bit of flesh that run between. You got it. Taint-time.

“So let’s say you’re walkin’ down the streets of the one-horse town you live in, a one-horse town in a one-horse state in a one horse-country on a one-horse planet in a one-horse universe. It’s 1985 and you’re a fucking kid among the decade’s debris.”

As he exits, the stagehand (Matthew Dunlop) tears away part of the butcher paper to reveal Mickey and Duck (Zackary Stone Gearing and Dempsey Bryk), two gawky, nondescript young ‘Murkin teenagers desperately trying to navigate their particularly thorny era in time without much societal assistance available to help guide a kid on his or her complicated journey to adulthood.

Since Duck’s father has kicked him out of the house for telling him to go fuck himself, Mickey agrees to let his friend stay with him and share his equally nondescript room in his family’s suburban home in that dreaded aforementioned one-horse town. They soon pledge to commit themselves to the still somewhat subversive punk rock rebellion, complete with a mohawk for Duck and fuchsia-dyed locks for Mickey, both suffering briefly to inflict matching cigarette burns on each other’s wrists to solidify their bond and show just how cool they are.

As the play progresses, the boys become increasingly more dedicated to the cause and simultaneously more disillusioned with the effort—and each other. As time passes, more and more butcher paper is torn down, revealing side stages on Sibyl Wickersheimer’s ever-evolving set that recall the walls of The Masque on Hollywood Boulevard at Cherokee, the small graffiti-covered basement club where punk was born and began to thrive in our much-maligned desert oasis.

Along with all the usual rule-defying and inventive creative genius that has defined Circle X over the past 23 years, co-directors Matt Bretz and Lisa Sanaye Dring do a masterful job interpreting Moss’ raucous yet insightful play, delivering a visually stunning production that meets and clobbers every inherent challenge of an extremely difficult script. Without the talents of some of LA’s best and most creative designers, including Wickersheimer’s unique and whimsical gifts, the harshly effective lighting plot by Heather Carson, Jeff Gardner's omnipresent sound, and outstanding period costumes and hair design by Ann Closs-Farley, punkplay  could easily have gone down in flames.

As Mickey and Duck, Gearing and Byck, although not quite able to get back to playing age 13, are both spectacular as two lost kids who are painfully innocent and annoyingly self-centered at the same time. As their insular world evolves and then devolves again, their performances are revelatory and heartbreaking as the guys work harder and harder to stay relevant even as they begin to see they aren’t quite the boldly unstoppable pioneers they had hoped they were becoming.

Not only do these two fine young actors provide indelible portraits of growing up in the 1980s, when each picks up the electric guitar or sits down at the drums as their characters try to make a name for themselves in the music industry as The Zoo Sluts—named for a porn video featuring a girl doing the deed with various animals that sends the boys to the bathroom with tissues and hand lotion—they could have fooled me. But then, so did Milli Vanilli.

These two promising actors manage to successfully conjure all the angst, all the cultural demands, all the political confusion that were part of growing up during the Reagan era a time long before they were born—and they perform the entire show on rollerskates.

As brief yet influential characters on the boys’ travels through dysfunctionality, Dunlop is an asset as a miserable French-Canadian street kid named Marcel and as Chris Sawtelle, the boys’ resident neighborhood bully and personal folk hero. Sadie Kuwano is also hilarious as Marcel’s vacant-headed traveling partner, as well as playing Sue Giki, the object of Mickey’s teenaged spermy haze he then catches going down on Duck, and as his own first sex partner: Ronald Reagan himself clad only in a skimpy stars-and-stripes-patterned bikini.

See, Neil Simon this ain’t.

As happens with so much art, the human tendency is to find our own connection with what is created. In that regard, this production was something of a personal challenge for me as my son David, who was a teenager during the 80s and was a purdy successful punk rocker himself, passed away of COPD only three weeks ago.

Moss’ story is all about David’s music and his era and, to make it even more jarring for me, Bryk as Duck very much resembles David during that time when he lived most of his life also shirtless—and on rollerskates. The biggest sucker punch for me was that David wasn’t one of the guys who ever found a way to move on from those years, so I’m sure punkplay  hit me harder right now than it might most people.

I remember one day after an appearance with his band, a similarly mohawked David showed me some of his favorite new additions to his wonderfully insane wardrobe, including a plethora of torn t-shirts emblazoned with screaming skulls and angry societal condemnations and a new leather bomber jacket with strings of chains on the shoulders and a huge studded peace sign on the back. At one point he stopped, noting the amusement on my face I thought I was doing a better job hiding.

“I know, I know,” he said. “All this stuff is just a newer version as what you wore in the 60s, right? Hair to your waist, beaded fringed jacket, a corncob embroidered on your jeans to show off your dick, and a flower you’d paint on your cheek before leaving the house, am I right?”

I remember an old cartoon in Playboy  when I was about 13 myself, showing a bearded and long-faced hippie in tinted granny glasses, long white robe, sandals, and an endless supply of beads and peace signs hanging around his neck. He was holding up a huge sign that read: “Protest the Rising Tide of Conformity!” Behind him stood another guy looking and dressed exactly like the first guy and, following behind him, was a long line of identically dressed hippies in a queue that reached on back to infinity.

This is the conundrum that Gregory S. Moss’ punkplay  so beautifully yet wistfully addresses: it appears that no matter how much we might want to shout out and change the world as we celebrate the discovery of our own individuality, eventually our species seems destined to repeat the same mistakes and face the same disappointments with life that all those equally defiant generations of young people have experienced before us

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WAITING FOR WAITING FOR GODOT at Sacred Fools Theater Company

In a suitably dismal and claustrophobic theatre dressing room, complete with racks of oddly eclectic costuming from past productions and a high wooden shelf holding ancient sound equipment squawking the dialogue from the performance going on upstairs, Aaron Francis’ set for Waiting for Waiting for Godot  could have been lifted directly from the actual dressing room at the Broadwater where the Sacred Fools Theater Company now holds court.

Veteran Fools Bruno Oliver and Joe Hernandez-Kolski play Ester and Val, two hapless and frustrated understudies hoping for sudden injury or illness so they finally can have a chance to go on as Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s game-changing 1953 classic.

As they wait not-so patiently for a nod to spring into action from a mysterious unseen director—so unknown to them they’re not even sure at this point if their mentor is male or female—the parallels between Dave Hanson’s shrewdly comic play and the original absurdist masterwork are clear.

Understudying is by nature a bizarre trial for any actor, sitting in a musty, cluttered little space constantly staring at yourself in the omnipresent harshly lit makeup mirrors and wondering if you still remember the lines and blocking if indeed you do have the opportunity to perform. This sad state is often accompanied by frequent grumbling to yourself about how much better you could be in the role than the person you’re covering and, ultimately, questioning what the living fuck you’re doing with your life.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Hanson gets it, his hilarious little gem of a play perfectly capturing any artist’s age-old dilemma—and so do director Jacob Sidney and his exemplary pair of veteran physical comedians who collectively breathe life into a piece that could easily be a total disaster in less talented hands.

In a play that could be deadly to some audiences as well, not only if they’re unfamiliar with the signature work of ol’ Sam (as my friend and quintessential Beckett scholar-performer Alan Mandell casually refers to him), but anyone who has never been part of any acting class or workshop, the best thing Sidney did was cast Oliver and Hernandez-Kolski, who instantly recall Stan and Ollie pushing that doomed piano up that infamous Silverlake outdoor staircase.

They say all art is imitation and, even though Oliver (Bruno not Hardy, now) could be playing Robert in David Mamet’s equally hysterical and insightful A Life in the Theatre—written back in 1977 when the guy could still write—his poor discouraged Ester could not be more on the money, especially as he tries to convince his costar to study his craft with him since, as he points out, the less experienced Val is not much of an actor.

He quotes his training from Juilliard, admitting that although he’s not a grad, he took a workshop there once, and then proceeds to give Val a lesson in the Miserly Technique, the pair standing staring at one another repeating the same sentence over and over again. When Val doubts the validity of the exercise, Ester explains, “I’m being miserly with my talent so you can be better with yours.” Poor Sandy must be spinning in his grave.

Hernandez-Kolski is Oliver’s perfect comedic foil, from simple yet painfully funny moments such as trying to open a difficult sugar packet to performing a wonderfully silly balls-out rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” And when he and Oliver periodically go into pretzel-like contortions fighting over the wearing of Ester's ubiquitous ill-fitting vest or come to blows over the nature of the art or acting—with kudos here to physical comedy consultant Stephen Simon and fight director Edgar Landa—us lucky folks in attendance could not be more delighted.

There’s also a too-brief turn from Julie Marchiano as the boys’ resident Mae Busch, here embodied as the troupe’s frustrated assistant stage manager continuously astounded by the understudies’ stupidity and arrogance. She is particularly watchable looking on in amazement as Ester and Val join together to demonstrate to her just how difficult it is to be an actor—something she sees, I'm afraid possibly with some accuracy, as a relatively easy job compared to her own.

Just below Hanson’s outrageously spot-on humor is his respectful homage to Beckett himself and the original oft-debated themes of Godot  which permeate everything he wrote:  the loneliness of our existence on this silly planet, our inborn yammy-yammies about whether anything we do in our lives is of value, the questions about why we’re here and what the heck we’re all waiting for as we barrel on toward obsolescence.

Soon Val also begins to wonder why he’s still hanging around practicing his monologue from Hamlet  to wow their director if he or she ever shows up—something he is pleased to point out to his know-it-all cohort is not from Shakespeare but he’s actually instead quoting from Great Classic Monologues for Actors.  And truly, it might be hard to disagree with him about what he’s doing with his life, for anyone compelled to create art at any level offered, regardless of the degree of their personal success, continually tries to determine their own understanding of their quixotequest and search for some recognition as an artist in a society that basically could care less.

In an end-of-the-year season absolutely bursting with exceptional productions in our often parched Los Angeles theatre season as the holidays approach, I hope this less dazzling and well-appointed but highly recommended little production doesn’t, like poor unappreciated Ester and Val, get lost in the shuffle—especially for anyone who has ever been dumb enough to decide to be an actor or has been around anyone who is.

Without throwing shade on any of those other highly worthwhile but obviously more high-profile and better funded productions currently gracing our local stages, Dave Hanson’s Waiting for Waiting for Godot  is a true diamond in the rough. Without a recognized star, crescendoing hurricane, or CTG-sized budget, it should be recognized as one of the best and most memorable things to play here in El Lay this year.

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EIGHT NIGHTS at Antaeus Theatre Company

In the world premiere of Jennifer Maisel’s shattering Eight Nights,  the same cramped but comfortable modest apartment on the lower eastside of Manhattan is home to several generations of one family and the people whose lives they affect and who in turn are affected by theirs.

With the first scene beginning on December 15, 1949 and the last concluding on December 31, 2016, the Eight Nights  explored here are set during eight separate Hanukkah gatherings as the family heroically fights to exorcise the demons of living their lives after the unthinkable horrors of the Holocaust.

The wonder of Maisel’s potential future multigenerational classic is that, although it begins with the family’s own history as father Erich (Arye Gross), his daughter Rebecca (played at age 19 by Zoe Yale), and the omnipresent spectre of Anna, their dead wife and mother (Tessa Auberjonois) lost at Auschwitz, Maisel does not dwell only on the painfully haunting memories and sleepless nights suffered by Rebecca over the years.

She adds in characters invited for one reason or another to join the family for their annual Hanukkah dinner, including an African-American couple trying to outlive racism and the dark cloud of their ancestral history, a young Japanese man with roots to a family interred in U.S. camps during World War II, a same-sex couple fearful of being misunderstood, and finally a displaced Muslim refugee waiting for his own family to join him. Each scene proves pivotal in the lives of each person who attends and honors the sacred family ceremony over the years.

This is a brilliant homage to the durability of the human spirit as told from the diverse multicultural perspectives of these socially marginalized people linked together not only by their own personal sense of displacement in an often hard and selfish world, but more importantly by their individual indomitable life force.

The play opens in 1949 as Rebecca, after almost a decade of separation, has just arrived in New York following years fighting, alongside her mother and sisters, to rejoin their previously-immigrated father as refugees fleeing the Nazis on the notorious MS St. Louis. Turned back everywhere in the world where the ship attempted to dock—including America—they were ultimately sent back to Europe where she was the only one of the family to survive the concentration camp.

At the opening of the first scene, Rebecca stands centerstage holding onto her small suitcase for dear life and refusing to take off her cloth overcoat, unable to speak as Erich tries valiantly to make her feel safe. A knock on the door from a young family friend named Aaron (Josh Zuckerman) sends her cowering in a corner in terror. “It’s all right,” her father tells her as he strokes her shoulder, “those things don’t happen here.”

Yeah. Right.

By the third scene, as Auberjonois assumes the role of Rebecca as a middleaged mother now married to the adoring and patient Aaron—to whom she uttered her first words in English all those years before—she assures the others gathering for the family’s Hanukkah dinner that the world is now moving in the right direction and that “We cannot ever go back.” Unfortunately, as citizens of 2019, we know how heartbreakingly ironic that sentiment has become.

It’s not difficult to speculate what inspired this award-winning and uber-talented playwright to write such a unique and remarkable play, which personally produced floods of tears for me during six of the eight holiday gatherings it depicted. Maisel admits she began Eight Nights  the day after the inauguration of our Celebrity Appresident in 2016 as her response to his ugly, hate-filled speeches about walls and borders and keeping Muslims out of America.

Erich, Rebecca, and their family are the antithesis of the attitudes of our current “leaders,” in one scene opening their home and sharing their yearly celebration with the African-American soldier (Christopher Watson) who rescued Rebecca from the camps and his wife (Karen Malina White) responsible for the reunion in an effort to help end his bouts of PTSD and continuous nightmares.

After an uncomfortable bout of hurt feelings between Rebecca and her father, the couple nearly leaves but, by staying, not only become lifelong friends of the family but successful business partners, while Arlene also becomes a sympathetic mentor to Rebecca and Aaron’s daughter Amy (played by Yale), frustrated by never having anything about her mother’s past explained to her.

Throughout the generations, Rebecca refuses to tell anybody the hideous treatment she endured at the hands of the Nazis—that is until Amy falls in love with a young Sansei (Devin Kawaoka) whose own story of his grandfather’s tragic end in a Japanese internment camp leads her to a harrowing session confessing her ordeal in a taped Shoah-style interview.

The cast is uniformly phenomenal, with special kudos to the extraordinary work of Auberjonois, who not only plays the ghost of Anna but ages as Rebecca from her late 30s into a feisty and sharp-tongued senior citizen who not only acknowledges her granddaughter's secret same-sex partnership (sweetly played by Yale and White) but eventually opens her home to another terrified refugee, Gross as a Muslim father waiting hopefully for his own family to be liberated and join him.

Of course, any character touched by Arye Gross is pure gold, but as both of the tortured fathers feeling equally helpless to save his family, he is at his very best and guaranteed to make you need one of those boxes of travel-sized tissues. Of the six good cries I had during Eight Nights,  Gross is personally responsible for three.

Director Emily Chase does a masterful job making this all work seamlessly, particularly conquering the many scene changes here carried out by members of the ensemble in character, with delicately choreographed movements between them featured downstage as one actor takes over the role of another.

Alex Jaeger’s evocative period costuming, Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting, and Jeff Gardner’s sound contribute considerable ambience to Edward E. Haynes Jr’s lovely set featuring delicate turn-of-the-century floral wallpaper obviously hand-painted on the silk see-through flats.

The fact that Eight Nights  plays in rep on this same stage with Stephanie Alison Walker’s also amazing The Abuelas  is another testament to the commitment to excellence demanded by the dedicated members of Antaeus, since Haynes’ Odets-like post-Depression apartment is set up and dressed before each performance in front of his contemporary Chicago highrise condo featured in the other production.

Luckily for them, three people are credited between the program and its inserts for prop design and management, so I’m not sure who to wag my finger at about the prop baby carried by the ghost of Anna, who sports a child’s foot dangling from swaddling wearing a period Mary Jane shoe that appears to have been constructed from black duct tape. Too close, the audience here, to get away with that.

And while I’m being persnickety, when so much effort was put into period details, couldn’t anyone find a classic box of Animal Crackers for one of the pregnant characters to be fed when there’s been so much media coverage lately about the brand new box the company has chosen to adopt that eliminates the cages in which the circus animal graphics were trapped for over a century?

As noted in dramaturg Ryan McRee’s informative essay in the program, an actual survivor of the St. Louis fiasco referenced the infamous trash-piled vessel that roamed the eastern seaboard in 1987 searching for a place to unload its unwanted cargo. “Remember the garbage barge?” Alice Olster asked. “We were the human garbage barge.” Sound familiar as today in our “Land of the Free” children are being kept in cages at our southern border, black men are executed in the streets by power-drunk monsters blatantly abusing their authority, and synagogues and mosques all over our nation are set afire?

As we desperately try to wake up from our own current greed and racially-fueled nightmare at the hands of another historically dangerous madman and the cronies who let him destroy everything for which we stand, listening to and taking heed in what such stories as Jennifer Maisel’s epic play have to share remind us that we can be equally as brave and strong and unstoppable as her richly evocative characters.

Barreling on to the year’s end and its inevitable universal holiday plea to be kind to one another and work together to find world peace on both the global and the most intimate of levels, Eight Nights should be a required event for every schoolkid and civic group in Los Angeles this “festive” season. It’ll destroy you, but it’s hugely thought-provoking and pure theatrical magic from start to finish—except those distracting Animal Crackers, of course.

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ELIJAH at Victory Theatre Center

In the backroom auxiliary dining area of a TGIFridays plopped somewhere in the middle of that well-documented nowhere called rural Texas, a group of terminally incompatible strangers huddle for safety waiting out the howling winds of a hurricane called Elijah.

These six people could not be more disparate in their views or their personalities, bringing the tension and, eventually, the humanity, to the stage in the west coast debut of Judith Leora’s Elijah at the Victory Theatre Center.

Considering the collaboration of the Victory’s cofounder and co-artistic director Maria Gobetti at the helm, as well as the company’s usual excellent design choices around once again to expertly establish the proper mood and ambience, and a perfectly cast ensemble of gifted actors, it’s no surprise this is a return engagement for Leora, whose memorable Showpony  was a huge hit on the same stage last season.

Leora has an uncanny ability to find wicked humor smackdab in the middle of highly dramatic situations and Elijah is no exception. As the winds whip ominously outside the restaurant, four customers and two overworked employees try to get along. This isn’t an easy task as two of those gathered are in town to passionately protest the execution of a notorious serial killer scheduled later that night at a nearby prison and, they soon discover, they are on either side of the controversial argument.

Born-again Patience (Elle Vernee) is a firm believer in the An Eye for an Eye school of justice and is present to support the monster's underage victims as she vehemently cheers his imminent dispatching, while Tim (Jesse Merrill), a gay New York lawyer who is equally as committed to the Thou Shalt Not Kill camp despite his own atheism, is ready for a fight—no, he’s anxious to a fight and on many levels, ranting incessantly about everything from the death penalty to gender discrimination to the godawful service at this embattled TGIF. 

Also present is a young couple (Molly Gray and Jordan Wall) mysteriously traveling in the opposite direction than planned on their equally puzzling vacation, this particular place even more stuck in the middle of Nowheresville as where they were already prepared to go. It was on Dawn’s whim they took this ill-fated side junket, much to the bewilderment and consternation of her boyfriend Greg—that is until it’s revealed she was secretly trying to get to the prison to see the soon-to-be executed man before they stick the needle in his arm.

As these four travelers try to navigate their time together in this claustrophobic situation, the restaurant’s manager Lori (Kathleen Bailey) and her obvious mess of a teenaged niece Ashley (Mackenzie Rickaby) do their best to keep their unexpected and unwanted customers happy as the main dining room is overcrowded with people trying to escape the hurricane while the only other employee, usually a dishwasher, tries to concoct a few items from the appetizer menu to keep the natives from getting restless.

As with Showpony,  Leora conjures a wonderfully eclectic though often annoying group of people stranded both in the storm and in their own individual lives. The effort is not as successful as her first effort at the Victory, but it’s still full of promise, especially if it has a chance to undergo some minor reworking before its next booking.

The timeline here is in need of further examination, especially when Dawn receives a Skype-d phone call from the prisoner with only minutes passing between hanging up and receiving word of his fate, the chronicling of what went down too lengthy and involved a scenario to have happened between the first phone conversation and the second.

Leora has a unique knack for creating dynamic two-people scenes although, as beautifully written as they are, she could consider giving her other characters less obvious reasons to leave the stage so they can unfold. And unlike Showpony,  I found no solid reason to care much about what happens to any of these people—particularly when most every scene involves various characters yelling and screaming at one another without much time between arguments to really get to know them—nor is there much staisfying conclusive resolution to their individual problems.

The most sympathetic characters to follow and cling onto are the troubled Ashley and her overworked and overwhelmed aunt, both roles richly fleshed out by Rickaby and Bailey. It’s a shame Bailey’s character isn’t given a better set of reasons to be a more integral participant in the angst and anger of the situations the others create for themselves but, under the expect directorial guidance of Gobetti, she still manages to create an indelible portrait of an unsung bluecollar hero working through a difficult situation.

This is not yet a perfect play, but once again it’s clear Leora is possessed of a very special voice and has a guaranteed future in her chosen field, one I am anxious to follow. I do wish, at least in both of her plays I’ve seen presented, her characters were not as top-heavy in the gender sweepstakes, with strong valorous women repeatedly overpowering their insensitive and stubbornly blockheaded male counterparts. Still, Elijah  is a lovely little piece presented here with passion and intelligence and as such, is definitely worth your time and attention.

Still, I wonder if it’s just me but I swear 98% of all plays and movies focusing on endless groups of highly dysfunctional characters and miserable familial relationships are inevitably set in Texas. What is it about Texas? Is it really filled with this many fucked-up and miserable people or is it just an easy target for storytellers? It sure worked for Sam Shepard, you’ve got to admit, so what do I know.

Aside from renewing my interest in following the promising career of a fascinating new playwright and completely relieving any anxiety I might have had for never experiencing a stop at a TGIFridays anywhere in rural Texas, one other thing Judith Leora’s Elijah  has done to touch me personally is to rekindle my gratitude for living in Los Angeles. I mean, everyone is so normal here, right?—at least in comparison to any play or movie ever set in that poor screwy Lonstar State.

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A CHRISTMAS CAROLE KING from the Troubadour Theater Company at the El Portal Theatre

For the final production of the year in its 25th silver anniversary season, the beloved commedia del arte-inspired Troubadour Theater Company has gone for the gold. Bringing back one of my favorite of their annual holiday musical extravaganzas, A Christmas Carole King, I knew would start the festive season just about right—so much so that we made our reservations to go out of town for the holiday the day after it opened.

Over the last 18 Decembers, Matt Walker’s Troubies have perfected his imaginative concept of converting beloved holiday tales into musicals, each one celebrating the times of one famous contemporary composer. Among their quickly sold-out seasonal productions have been such creative fare as Little Drummer Bowie, It’s a Stevie Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein-Doors, and The Year Without a Santana Claus,  all adapted and directed by the incredibly gifted Walker.

The interesting thing about A Christmas Carole King,  first mounted at the Falcon in 2002, is it isn’t anything as glitzy and sparkly and elaborately Pee-Wee’s Playhouse-y as the others, sticking closer to Dickens’ the original familiar story, albeit with typical Troubie irreverence for everything and everyone they skewer with a grin.

In this welcome update, Scrooge (Mike Sulprizio) insists he’s not a bad guy, you see; it’s just that he’s been misunderstood by the Democrats, while Cloie Wyatt Taylor’s Ghost of Christmas Present is, actually, a big ol’ wrapped Christmas present. You get the picture.

What makes up for the lack of the usual overabundance of lifesized dancing candy canes and gingerbread houses made of plywood and charm is the music. King’s soulful and endearing classics work perfectly in the story of Ebenezer, with Walker as Jacob Marley singing “Chains” (warning Ebbie that his own chain is longer than his but Rudy Giuliani is gaining on him), Taylor as his lost love Belle telling him “It’s Too Late, Baby,” and the massively talented Chelle Denton knocking every one of the great singer-songwriter’s most infectious ballads right out onto Lankershim Boulevard.

Perhaps it’s because the music is so much more the message here rather than the pratfalls and outrageously over-the-top antics that have made Walker’s willing troupe of zanies such a success or maybe it’s with a grateful nod to sound designer Daniel Tator, but even though all of these performers are veterans of past Troubie productions, I was more impressed by the strength of their singing than ever before.

As Beth Kennedy in her 15th appearance on stilts as the Winter Warlock tells the audience, this is one of about 10 versions of A Christmas Carol  playing in LA right now and, according to her, only two of them are worth seeing. “And this,” she admits, “isn’t one of them.” Au contraire.

It’s always fun to see how founding member Kennedy is written into each adaptation, here first appearing onstage sans-stilts as the narrator Scrooge doesn’t want upstaging him (“I’ll have you know I played Eliza Doolittle at the Chumash Casino”). She then doubles as the Ghost of Christmas Past and, since he/she/they (which for Walker becomes a running gag) is playing an actual character in the tale, he/she/they took some acting classes over the past year, complete with learning some classic vocal warm-ups and a self-psyching mantra he/she/they mumbles to get into character: “I have the tools, I have the tools, I have the tools...”

Surely one could say the Troubies are an acquired taste, although acquiring a taste for what they so brilliantly does take about six minutes flat. The well-entertained audience members shriek at things they know are recurring themes and shout out familiar names and phrases, causing Sulprizio’s Scrooge to at one point chastise, “This isn’t the Apollo!”

As Kennedy’s Winter Warlock quips as she glides on for her first wildly cheered entrance, “New people out there are wondering what giant in-joke they’ve walked into here.”

Yup. That’s exactly what A Christmas Carole King  is: a giant, well-rehearsed, balls-out holiday in-joke thrill ride like nothing else you could possibly imagine and, by the time Scrooge saves the day and denounces his Republican leanings to save Tiny Tim (the hilarious Walker again as a puppet stuffed into a shopping cart) and spread their signature joy to the world, I guarantee you’ll be a Troubie fan for life.

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

One-person shows in general have never been my favorite form of artistic statement, the bar being set impossible high for me when, as a 12-year-old, I sat awed by Charles Laughton as he toured in his Story-Teller. The guy was a hard act to follow, even six decades later.

That stance has softening somewhat over the last few years, as is true with so many things I contemplate as I… er… “mature.” This was influenced mainly by seeing Sir Ian McKellen in his Acting Shakespeare,  experiencing the wonder of Christopher Plummer’s A Word or Two,  and becoming an avid devotee of the work of Hershey Felder, whose “Composer Sonata” series, each focusing on a famous composer, returns to the Wallis next July in the eighth of his series, Anna & Sergei,  highlighting the life and music of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Also, two of the most indelible one-person turns for me have been watching Sir Patrick Stewart playing every role in his own adaptation of A Christmas Carol  many years ago, with the former starship commander acing all the voices and even including the resonant gonging of Big Ben, and last year’s glorious solo incarnation of the same dickens of a story last year at the Geffen, performed by the incredible Jefferson Mays—a production that went of to win TicketHolder Awards honors as Best Production of 2018, Best Solo Performance for Mays, Best Set Design, Best Lighting, and Best Sound.

See, like Charles Laughton’s Story-Teller,  Mays’ version of the beloved holiday classic is a tough act to follow, yet David Mynne has done just that. Journeying here from Britain for a very limited run at the Wallis and performing on a totally bare stage save three bentwood coat trees topped with flicking candles, the world’s most enduring holiday yarn—aside from that other silly fable about donkeys and mangers and virgin births—comes to life in yet another all-new interpretation.

Mynne is totally on his own except for a handful of simple lighting cues, creating every character just as Sir Patrick and Mr. Mays so brilliantly brought to life, but he does so without twinkling lights, encroaching fog effects, or even one lonely little garland of wilting evergreens. All available to him are a charming air of old-style overindulgence and a worldclass imagination, ultimately delivering a Carol  that is as much an example of fine performance art as it is a play, reinforcing once again the notion that great literature can be interpreted in so many new ways.

Mynne could have as easily been trained as a clown by Ringling Brothers or Cirque du Soleil as in classes at RADA, using Andrew McPherson’s quite accessible adaptation, with additional material scripted by Mynne and his director Simon Harvey, to breath a wonderful fresh life into the story of old Ebenezer and those three pesky spirits.

With most of the story delivered directly to his appreciative audience, complete with finger points of recognition and shared appreciation when some individual in attendance is particularly amused, Mynne brings it all to life both vocally and with a Chaplinesque physicality, from the echoes following every sentence uttered by the Ghost of Christmas Past to waves crashing on the rocks before a foggy lighthouse. Even Jacob Marley’s chains of contrition are there, although they move with an eerie clump rather than the usual clang that would be impossible to duplicate vocally even for an actor as limitless as this guy.

Along the way, the only props Mynne has at his disposal must be small enough to hang from one of the trio of coat trees, including the compulsory bowler hat, a silk lace handkerchief that he holds delicately before his face to become Ebenezer’s lost love Belle, and a woolen scarf that serves different needs throughout such as Mrs. Cratchit’s headwear, Marley’s chin strap, and even conjuring Tiny Tim himself with one hand manipulating it from inside as if it were a hand puppet.

Things become surprisingly real in Mynne’s capable hands as he opens Scrooge’s lonely can of cabbage soup or creates the face of his late partner as an apparition on his doorknocker. His acting style is big and grand and welcomingly old-fashioned as he instantaneously switches from one character to the next and, when he morphs his facile face into a mask of horror to play Marley, it could scare the begeezus out of someone—surely why the show is publicized as “for adults and really brave children over eight.”

And let me say the kids in the audience, of which there were many on opening night, found him mesmerizing. They giggled and called out as each character emerged and covered their eyes when Fezziwig elaborately smooched his missus. It was almost as much fun seeing and hearing their reactions as it was watching Mynne, especially when poor little Tiny Tim bites the dust and the scarf that represents him suddenly goes limp, eliciting delighted laughter from every child in the house.

This doesn’t mean adults won’t find Mynne equally engaging; he is a charismatic, courageously unfiltered performer with an obviously well-honed sense of whimsy—apparent in quick moments when Scrooge grumbles under his breath about the humbuggery of recycling or the dangers of adopting Obamacare when there are so many fine workhouses and prisons. Clearly, if Ebenezer Scrooge were alive today, Mynne’s performance proves he’d be a Republican—although at the ending, he probably would be just as heartless and odious as ever.

Okay, an admission here. Call me sappy, but there’s something magical to me about Charles Dickens’ inventive 1843 novel, from that one sad little lump of coal Bob Cratchit plops into Scrooge & Marley’s potbelly stove, to Old Ebenezer’s undigested piece of beef, to his sister Fan picking up his younger self at his deserted boarding school in a horse-driven carriage, to my personal soft spot for all things ghostly.

Each December I overdose on so many of the same versions I love on film (especially the 1951 British classic with Alastair Sim) that I could recite the scripts verbatim at this point as I go around singing “What Day Is It: Christmas” from my one sad attempt to turn the beloved novel into a musical. For a staunch non-believer in a world getting more unbelievable by the day, I have to admit I’ve always been a sucker for our collective societal attempts to conjure good cheer on Christmas and the warmly sentimental trappings of the season.

Beyond all the bright lights and music and heading over the river and through the woods, one of my favorite things each December has always been rediscovering A Christmas Carol  and the magic it evokes in both its usual traditional and often reinvented forms. This uncharacteristic gladdening in my long-atrophied heart is something left over from my childhood, I suspect; you know, from those optimistic and less confusing days long past when I still held out some hope our species might be worth saving from extinction.

I know, I know: Bah, humbug, right?

Well, welcome to a wonky new world and, if you want to soften the blow as we anticipate the slings and arrows as 2020 and the decade it introduces looms ominously before us, take a break from your crazy-stressful schedule and lose your cares for 75 minutes in the beguiling wonder of David Mynne and this lovely little return to simpler times which, if anyone is willing to listen, also still delivers a potent warning about what happens when greed overpowers basic goodness and morality.