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Saturday, September 24, 2016

PUNCH AND JUDY : LOTS OF PUNCH!

Judy: Sondra Mayer   Punch: Jimmy Slonina
School of Night is a local theatre company that wowed the community in the Hollywood Fringe Fest and after popular acclaim they're back at The Ruby in The Complex in Theatre Row.  There's no pretense about what's going to happen for about an hour. Forewarned that this show isn't for children of any age, Punch starts whacking verbally even as the curtain speech with some interesting back story is going on.  Then, as my old wrestling coach used to say, "It's Katie Bar the Door!"

Adapted and directed by Christopher Johnson the tight ensemble lead by Jimmy Slonina as Punch and briefly, Sondra Mayer as Judy launch into the down and dirty .. really dirty business of mayhem.  It's commedia and then some as Punch deliberately and methodically literally destroys first his baby (after a run in with his dog), Judy, and then the rest of the cast. Scatalogical craziness, murder by bat, axe, firearms and a chain saw fill the bill with non-stop action carefully timed and executed. The cast's adherence to a strict comedic style shows that this ensemble cares about the unit and the unit is tight and funny.  With the exception of Slonina, everyone doubles or triples at break neck speed, except when they stand stock still. They are Kjai Block, Tiffany Cole, Synden Healy, and Eric Rollins.  

Johnson's extremely stylized direction is made whole by the incredible foley talents of Ryan Beveridge.  Surrounded by a dozen instruments, Beveridge brings the entire romp to life with drum rolls, violin and sundry other sound makers that underscore the wild action.

The play is less than an hour in length and once rolling only 'takes a break' for emphasis that literally has the audience on the edge of their seats.   As individuals every cast member keeps to the chore.  Crisp and full of energy, they clash, bash, often doubling as koken who, bring props and facilitate the impossible.  Stage combat by Jen Albert is flawless.

This is a down and dirty romp.  Only back for a limited run, this one is for adult fun and it's no wonder the raves from the Fringe were over the top.

PUNCH AND JUDY
Adapted and Directed by Christopher Johnson
Ruby Theater
6476 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Through October 2, 2016
Tickets and Information
 

 

Monday, September 19, 2016

SUPERLATIVES! BLUEBERRY TOAST / MARY LAWS' WORLD PREMIERE

Alexandra Freeman, Jacqueline Wright,
Albert Dayan and Michael Sturgis
Photo by Darrett Sanders 
 (Click photo for full view)

Producer Chris Fields has been in LA for about twenty five years.  His Echo Theater Company takes chances and should be making headlines with the work that's being turned out in the multifaceted 99 seat venue in the Atwater Village Theater complex.  "Blueberry Toast" by Mary Laws has all the stuff of Beckett or dear Edward Albee or Arthur Kopit or Luigi Pirandello on acid.   To see four actors on a hot Sunday afternoon knock themselves out... literally.. to present Laws' World Premiere play was a revelation.  It is the revelation of the essence of communication and non-communication in a full length one act. It cuts to the quick with dark comedy and brutality that foments in the depths of all but the most saintly of us. It is an act of art.  

Laws in her interview discussing this play talks about how wrong 'season subscriptions' are.  She is an advocate for challenging the audience to confront the new stuff, the unfamiliar, the deep feelings that only rarely will a couple of hours on stage in a darkened space with living actors reveal.  The wonderfulness of our old friend, The Fantasticks, that I reviewed last week, of course, has a place.  Biff Rose (an old folkie whom I admire) has said, "Man does not live by bread alone.  You've gotta have a little toast!"

Toast!  The issue is communication and toast.  Pre show music over Amanda Knehans' cheery suburban kitchen set with requisite checker board floor, has no stove. It does have a green upright piano and a stack of games we might see an average family sit around the kitchen table to play.  The music is bright and shiny.  Bright lights..  we might be in the circus.  Director Dustin Wills is not messing around.  The action starts with over the top acting on acting that rocks the stage.  Walt (excellent Albert Dayan) sits at the kitchen table working on something to do with poetry.  Perkier than perky, Barb (amazing Jacqueline Wright) launches herself on stage to greet the new day and her husband with the offer to make him a breakfast of anything he'd like.  Anything at all.  Just name it.. Anything.   Walt and Barb banter back and forth. He announces that he'd like Blueberry Toast! Herein lies the rub:  the crux of many issues with those of us who want to please, who want harmony and, alas.. the barriers begin to rise.  
As the Blueberry Toast issue begins to bubble, we meet Jack: airborn,  musical and perplexed as he is the second best child, (Michael Sturgis) and his equally bouncy-suck-up-to-daddy sister Jill (Alexandra Freeman) who (they are adults playing children) roar in at inappropriate moments to announce that they are writing a play!  They scamper like eight year olds, invading the increasing tension in the kitchen.  

As the missed understanding about Blueberry Toast escalates, the children return after the presentation of their first act:  "The Dark and Humble Choice of Mankind" to periodically present Act II: "One Day I'll Die and No One will Cry," Act III: "Et Tu Brute" and the final act: "Soliloquy."

Laws' brilliant script is a tour de force for four actors with stamina and focus seldom seen.  How misunderstanding escalates to grand guignol  reminds of the late Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in spades.  The dedication of the actors to director Dustin Wills' excellent choices is alarming.   This is serious theatre that challenges the audience to examine the many faces of communication.   Ms Laws' potent play   deserves to be seen by the theatre community first and then, introduced to those who love important theatre. This is work that combines the words and the intensity of ensemble work that actors and directors can only wish for.   Frightening and prophetic, I cannot recommend this production highly enough.  
Blueberry Toast is a MUST SEE!... especially for true students of Theatre.     

BLUEBERRY TOAST  
by Mary Laws
Echo Theater Company
The Atwater Village Theater
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Thursdays through Mondays 
through October 24, 2016 
(Check schedule for omitted dates)
Tickets and Information:
www.Echotheatercompany.com
310 307 3753

Monday, September 12, 2016

FANTASTIC FANTASTICKS AT THE PLAYHOUSE

Full Cast and Company of The Fantasticks at The Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by: Jim Cox Photography

In 1960 Tom Jones (Book and Lyrics) (not Tom, the singer: "It’s not Unusual" Tom) and Harvey Schmidt (Musical Score) were coaxed from obscurity to refine a one act musical they had worked on as college students to present Off Broadway: a romance in two acts.  For over fifty years and 3,000 productions in almost every country in the world, The Fantasticks has brought to life the scheming of parents to bring their children together by just saying, “No!”   Before the Pasadena Playhouse was shuttered from 1969 to 1985, a student production of the play was presented in the annex that now houses a restaurant that is part of the Playhouse complex.  These many years later, director Seema Seuko, has resurrected the show by deliberately changing up the casting to include representatives of many diverse ethnicities pointing up that it’s the heart of the material performed by a heart felt cast with simple piano on stage accompaniment by music arranger / pianist David O and occasional harp interludes by Liesl Erman that bring the show to life.  Conversely, The Fantasticks continues its run Off Broadway East (NYC!) with a more traditional cast including Madison Parks as Luisa, the daughter of my friend, Garrett Parks.  I mention this for a reason that will become clear in a moment.

David F. Weiner’s elaborate yet dilapidated set breaks tradition by not exhibiting a large flying drop featuring “The Fantasticks” painted upon it.  This is substituted by what looks to be the remains of a circus tent.  The up stage wall opens to the blue sky as our cast of characters are brought in stealthily by The Mute (lithe Alyse Rockett). All the choreography is finely tuned by Kitty McNamee.   To do this show in the rustic remains of an old playhouse reminds us of the last time The Fantasticks was presented here so many years ago.  As El Gallo (elegant and slightly restrained Philip Anthony Rodriguez) addresses the audience with the first and possibly the most memorable tune of the show, “Try to Remember.. “ As he sings, we are gently lulled into the story of first love, young love, heart ache and heart break that has kept this exquisite play alive for all these years.  Having actually paid to see an abysmal production of the show a few months ago, having the Playhouse bring it to life properly is pure enjoyment.  This creative approach with the ethnic mix of a Eurasian Luisa (Ashly Park in slightly forced operatic tones), homegrown white boy, Matt (Conor Guzman, with a slightly more relaxed approach), his Japanese dad Hucklebee (Gedde Watanbe) and Luisa’s father Bellomy (African American Regi Davis), we immediately accept that it’s the story not the ethnicities of the actors that will bring the play to life.  Director Sueko, points up in her program notes that in our current age of domestic strife and wars around the world, this story of conflict is a tempest in a teapot that mirrors, if only slightly how, if we make an effort, differences can be over come and peace may guide the planet (to coin a phrase…) “and love may steer the stars.”

For those who are not familiar with the story, suffice it to say that every plot must have some twists.  Ours is twisted by the tail to the great joy of the audience as El Gallo hires Henry Albertson (Wonderful.. Hal Linden), an actor of Some Repute with his protégé and side kick, Mortimer (Amir Tala, who momentarily steals the show)  whose specialty is ‘dying!’  At Henry’s command to show his stuff, Tala, mimes an entire scene of preparing a poison potion, getting the glasses mixed up and..  voila.. ker plunk!  Applause.

A few opening night hesitations were not conspicuous and the flow of the two acts that brings the audience to its feet makes this a favorite that is not to be missed. Subtle changes to the play with Tom Jones and The Rape Song were acceptable.  Additional insights and moments to remember are installed in the small gallery just off the courtyard where props and costumes are ready for silly selfies and the history of the show from its early beginnings are all on display.   

Try to remember the last time you sat in the theatre for two hours and left feeling that the time had flown by and not yet deep in December the art and craft of Theatre with a capital “T” had left something warm and honest in your heart.  It’s all about the heart.  Jones and Schmidt bring that heart to life..  

 I mentioned Maddie Parks earlier. She is the living heir to her family tradition,  now playing Luisa nightly in New York, as her grandmother did theatre there so long ago.  I wanted to make a note of her name because you will hear it more often and with great praise as time goes on. 

Do not miss this production.  It’s absolutely a tribute to the tradition of The Fantasticks many times over. 

THE FANTASTICKS 
by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt
The Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino
Pasadena, CA 91101
Through October 2, 2016
For tickets and information:
626 356 7529
www.pasadenaplayhouse.org



Monday, August 29, 2016

MO AND KATHY THIRTY YEARS LATER! PARALLEL LIVES

 Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy are two creative talents who have worked as actors and writers for over thirty years.  Parallel Lives, currently at The Falcon in Burbank has been around the world and back again with a non-apologetic feminist approach to comedy. Trefoni Michael Rizzi's simple set allows for the easy trading places of imagined characters created smoothly by Crista Flanagan and Alice Hunter as "Crista" and "Alice" bouncing (sometimes literally) through their paces in what is, essentially an evening of sketch comedy with the women creating a myriad of different characters, all with a comedic turn.
Christa Flanagan and Alice Hunter / Photo by Sasha Venola

Kathy and Mo's clever writing and nice direction by Jenny Sullivan move us through two acts of disparate subjects from the beginning of the world, over seen by two fluttering angels as well as, my favorite, a Disney Mothers of Princesses and others whose mothers have died!  Ariel's mom, Ethel Mermaid and Cinder Ella's mother, Barbara Ella, along with Bambi and Dumbo's moms carry on about their long lost children.  

Bible references bounce in and out "It's in the Bible!"  And,  with Flanagan and Hunter never missing a beat the show marches steadily along.  

Parallel Lives (the reference is obscure to me?) is light and easy fare for those who are ready to sit back and let the actors do all the work.  Some laughs are bigger than others, but it's just for fun. 

PARALLEL LIVES
by Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy

The Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside Drive
Burbank, CA 
Through September 18, 2016
Wed/Thu: $37.00 - $40.00
Fri/Sat/Sun: $42.00 - $45.00
Opening Night: $55.00 - $60.00
Students (minors or with valid student ID): $30.00
  
For tickets and additional information:
Please call the Box Office: 818 955 8101 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

DRAMA QUEENS FROM HELL

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DRAMA QUEENS FROM HELL
By Peter Lefcourt

Andrew Diego, Paul Galliano, Chad Borden, Christopher Callan, Dee Freeman Photo by Ed Krieger

The appeal of Drama Queens from Hell will come from more rehearsal and finding a way to tighten, tighten, tighten the show up.  Get a bustier and cinch that sucker to the max:  one act that speeds through the night like a drag race on Mulholland Drive.  Playwright Peter Lefcourt, in the critic’s notes, says that he’s influenced by Christopher Durang, among others and some of that bite rings true in this inside joke that turns on the idea that some young punk director has fallen into the rights to do a remake of Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD.  At rise we meet Paul Galliano as Gerard Manville, said director, wrapped in his burial shroud/toga who announces his own death not unlike William Holden’s voice over as the writer, Joe Gillis, who is found floating in Norma Desmond’s tepid pool in the opening scene of Wilder’s movie. 

One thing that Billy Wilder knew all about, along with the writing, that made his films like Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment and, of course, Some Like It Hot so special is timing and pace.  It’s a given in any dramatic piece that things move along. What director Terri Hanauer has failed to do with this interpretation of Drama Queens From Hell has been to remember to keep it moving.   This is not  a terrible script and certainly the three Queens (Christopher Callen as Maxine Zabar, Dee Freeman as Felicia Brown and center stage waving the LBGTQ banner, Chad Borden as TG Brianne McCauley) are handsomely strutting their stuff as they plot to wangle their way into the audition to snag the part that Gloria Swanson created as Norma Desmond in this re-up of the Billy Wilder Classic. 

Borden, last seen in a wonderful protean turn in Cloud Nine, at Antaeus, is neither fish nor fowl representing the Transgender contingency to win the part of Norma.  The dichotomy of shaving “her” under arms while a healthy patch of chest hair peeks through a plunging neckline is problematic. Camp is the order of the day with  Christopher Callen as Maxine representing the geriatric community pestering her agent,   Artie Paramecium (riding the porcelain throne, Rich Podell) who also represents the other two actresses. Finally, no matter that Norma Desmond was a famous Caucasian silent movie star, Ms Freeman rocks in the first audition reading OFF BOOK to an actual scene from the Wilder film! 

The show becomes more stereotypically Camp and spiced way up when the young director hires his tres gay assistant, Raphael (Andrew Diego), over the top as he should be. Diego brings the energy of the play up to where it should have been all along.  The whole idea of three disparate actresses vying for a part that only Meryl Streep could bring authenticity to is silly.  The play is silly. References to inside show business trivia and the current plague on Los Angeles’s 99 Seat theatre situation will only be understood by a few. Diego doubling in drag as the German vintage dress salesgirl bubbles everything up again.  Had Ms Hanauer decided to make it a play with quick changes and even more doubling while keeping it to one act, the whole thing might have been a champagne cocktail!  Light and refreshing!

Playwright Lefcourt’s idea of a good time is lurking somewhere in this production. It’s all in there, screaming to get out!  In these days of gender awareness, age discrimination and boosting the African American more into the spotlight, imagining how Billy Wilder might have better informed the piece cries for the obvious: Timing! Pace! Fun!!. Kudos to tech staff especially for the audition scenes where each actress dubs the lines that Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond made famous.  There is a very funny play in here. Keep it moving. Keep digging. It’s in here somewhere.

DRAMA QUEENS FROM HELL
By Peter Lefcourt
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
2055 S. Sepulveda
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Through September 25, 2016
Tickets and Information:
323 960 7787
www.plays411.com/dramaqueens

Friday, July 29, 2016

STEAMY SUMMER STUFF AT THE FOUNTAIN




Lindsay LaVanchy
Photo by Ed Krieger
Even in the relative cool of the funky little Fountain Theatre, the heat from four actors, each in his/her own little zone of Tennessee Williams, is palpable.  Opening night for the stage version of 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Williams' expanded one act adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann from Williams' screenplay, Baby Doll, under the steady hand of Simon Levy doles out expected passion on Jeffrey MacLaughlin's Mississippi Delta set. A familiar iron crib holds woman child, Baby Doll (Lindsay LaVanchy) as she strikes the familiar Carroll Baker pose made famous in Elia Kazan's movie of the same name.  It's the eve of Baby Doll's twentieth birthday and she has somehow gotten married to the older and tougher Archie Lee (John Prosky) who at rise is sawing a peep hole through the wall of the dilapidated old manse where they are sinking into financial ruin. 
The thing about being steeped in Tennessee Williams right now is that the power and dilapidation of his scenarios and his characters: tough and vulnerable; strong and sexy; troubled and aggressive as well as morally questionable, like characters from Commedia, we recognize Blanche and Stanley, Big Daddy and Brick, Maggie the Cat.. and then enjoy how the story evolves with thick southern accents and broad strokes.  There's nothing subtle about this one.  Karen Kondazian as Aunt Rose Comfort is seasoning for the gumbo.  Pixilated and homeless, her efforts to stay on board with Archie and Baby Doll are endearing.  The main course for all the heat is, of course, the arrival, with riding crop in hand, of Daniel Bess as Silva Vacarro. Vacarro's cotton gin is the unfortunate victim of an arson fire, the source of which we all know. The dance of seduction between Silva and Baby Doll is obvious and inevitable. 
The romance of Williams' words in and of themselves is seductive. When Baby Doll invites Silva to take a nap, apologizing for the size of her iron crib, he smiles and  says, "Any flat surface is suitable for slumber."  And,  the predictability of the plot moves quickly and assuredly thanks to Levy's decisive hand.  Bombast and seduction, a theme for Williams from time to time. That's what  this one is all about.  It's a must see for those who love the heat. 

BABY DOLL 
By Tennessee Williams
Adapted for the stage from his screenplay by
Pierre Laville and Emily Mann

The Fountain Theatre
5060 Fountain Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90029
Through September 25, 2016
Tickets and Information
323 663 1525
 www.fountaintheatre.com
 

Monday, July 18, 2016

ONE OF THE NICE ONES.. one of the nice ones @ THE ECHO

 
Graham Hamilton and Rebecca Gray
Photo by Darrett Sanders


If ever there was a cloning that seemed unlikely, imagine Henry Miller meeting Neil Simon.  Erik Patterson's  hilarious and profane comedy currently at the Atwater Village Theater occupied by the adventurous Echo Theatre Company is down and dirty, sexy, fast paced and even comes quickly.  Literally.  

Rebecca Gray as Tracy delivers a tour de force performance  as the wheel chair bound phone sales rep whose job it is to rope in potential customers.    Amanda Knehans' bizarre set serves with quick changes. But adds a touch of improv to the play.   Director Chris Fields whips his actors into a frenzy as the unexpected keeps everyone racing, literally, to keep the pace.  Graham Hamilton as Roger plays the tenured supervisor.  With phone rep Neal (Rodney To, whose facial contrivances are worth the price of admission alone), Roger's scene with him at the urinals in the men's room is  over the top.   

Unflinchingly profane, Patterson has brought the language that we all may use from time to time bubbling to excess with twists and turns that keep us guessing and gasping. Kudos to The Echo for being brave enough to produce this extraordinarily smutty comedy.  The play is 'smutty' in the very best sense of the word as the climax to the first scene will virtually knock your socks off.  


The argument of the piece teaches us new definitions of bizarre behavior and Fields'  excellent cast turns in an amazing performance.   Highly recommended for those with a skewed sense of humor and a high threshold for the language of Henry Miller or maybe Christopher Durang on acid.   It's a shocking and a totally unexpected rush.  

ONE OF THE NICE ONES
by Erik Patterson
Echo Theatre Company
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Through August 21, 2016
Tickets and information:
310 307 3753 
www.echotheatercompany.com