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Sunday, February 12, 2017

FOR PIANO AND HARPO by Dan Castelleneta // A World Premiere

The Falcon Theatre finds that interesting line between the happy crowd pleaser and the avant garde that makes Garry Marshall’s comfortable venue the ideal space for this Laugh Then Think World Premiere that shall be remembered. 
Dan Castellaneta, Gail Matthius, Phil Proctor, Jonathan Stark, JD McCollum and Deb Lacusta 


Photo by Sasha A. Venola

In his own play, Dan Castellaneta, well known for famous television characters who shall remain nameless, D’oh!, plays the ever troubled and troubling Oscar Levant: the frequent guest on the 1950’s The Tonight Show with Jack Parr, where we begin our journey. The play opens with the excellent Jonathan Stark as Parr. ‘On The Air’ signs flash to draw the audience into the show.  Applause!   Levant, well known for his outrageous insults and quick wit mashed up with his virtuosity as a concert pianist, didn’t have it easy.  As an addict and a neurotic with components of genius, Castelleneta’s survey of Levant’s life and friendship with fellow virtuoso, Harpo Marx, spills onto Stephen Gifford’s simple set with speed and skill thanks to the adept direction of Stefan Novinski.  We often forget that it’s the artist at the helm who brings the actors and the script and the music (musical director David O on the grand piano and harpist Jillian Risigarsi-Gai behind the upstage scrim) together.  The ensemble creates a myriad of characters with quick changes, often presenting as ghosts from Levant’s memories. It all blends well together.

In 1935, Oscar shows up at Harpo’s rented Beverly Hills mansion to crash a dinner party and stays for a year. As Harpo (also appropriately presented as Charlie, the mute, a patient at the Mount Sinai Psych Ward where Levant finds himself) JD Cullum, transitions without a hitch. From time to time Harpo and Oscar play harp and piano together, via mime with piano and harp live upstage. 

As Harpo’s Butler (and sundry others) Phil Proctor’s diversity brings his characters to life.  Traversing time and space easily, Proctor brings pathos through the psych patient, Sidney,  as well as with his brusque portrayal of Oscar’s difficult and demanding father.

Deb Lacusta limns both June Levant, Oscar’s put upon wife, as well as another psych patient, Barbara, who, interestingly, resembles June and adds to Oscar’s state of perpetual disruption in his life.

Protean Gail Matthius, stretches from Fanny Brice to the hot to trot psych ward patient, Shirley,
Shirley
and then as Oscar’s mother, whom we learn may be at the root of many of Oscar’s issues. 











Leaps of time and space sometimes work and sometimes don’t in theatre and in film.  The easy transitions from 1962 to 1956 to 1935 in and out worked for me with Castellaneta best as the robust and acerbic pal of Harpo in the early years.  With no self censor, Levant was acknowledged as an amazing concert pianist and somehow tolerated as a drugged out nutcase rambling to a somewhat early death at the age of sixty-five.

Partnered with Laugh Then Think, the tradition of Garry Marshall’s pet project, The Falcon Theatre, will not disappoint.  Highly recommended but only for those who are active in the Laughing and Thinking Departments.

FOR PIANO AND HARPO  A World Premiere
by Dan Castellaneta
THE FALCON THEATRE
4252 Riverside Drive
Burbank, California 91505
Through March 5, 2017
Tickets and Information
www  .  falcontheatre.com
818 955 8101

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

KOAN UNIT: BECKETT 5: YES

BECKETT 5

The Odyssey Theatre’s Koan Unit brings the existential angst of Samuel Beckett to life.  That’s it.  Life in the face of the inevitable that scholars and actors and others will debate for a long time.  The essence of Theatre of the Absurd is the process,  perhaps.. or maybe, like an abstract piece of art or a conceptual piece that fails to immediately announce itself as Comedy, Tragedy, Drama, Satire?  It leaves the audience to its own devices to figure it out, if, indeed, there is something to figure out. 

Having seen spectacular performances of Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s signature piece, along with a well done Happy Days and interesting takes on Endgame and Play, it’s a treat to be exposed to Koan Unit’s take on Beckett 5.  This is all prologue to warm myself up to comment. The essential comment is that as troublesome as Samuel Beckett may be with his making the audience do the work, this dedicated company of actors comes together as an ensemble to share his work with a passion. Ron Sossi's experienced hand brings it all together.

Alan Abelew and Beth Hogan
Photo by Ron Sossi
In Act Without Words II  two large white bags are discovered on the stage.  A little ding is heard as Koan’s Norbert Weisser, all in black with a long prod pokes the bag stage left.     Alan Abelew abruptly awakens!  The bag is tossed. He prays silently “Help Me!!”  and attacks his miserable day. His ‘work’ consists of laboring to move the other bag slightly across the stage.  Back in the bag, the goad awakens Beth Hogan who blossoms to her awakening.. loves every minute of life; dresses in the same suit, does the same ‘work’ as Alan has done. Retires.  Repeat.  Whatever Beckett is telling us, the focus is laser sharp.  Is life a drudgery of work or the joy of life?

In Come and Go,
Beth Hogan, Diana Cignoni and Sheelagh Cullen
Photo by Enci Box
we meet three pastel clad ladies, Diana Cignoni, Sheelagh Cullen and Beth Hogan all seated comfortably in their fashion on a park bench.  Again, the pace and focus are slow and exacting.  Each of these biddies has a secret to share with another.  They are old friends. Cordial. Gossips. Ron Sossi’s crystal clear direction in this and each of the pieces is what choreographs the precision of the movements and the secrets that they share…  or do they?  

Catastrophe features Hogan and Abelew again tending to a stationary statue, Weisser: a mannequin.
Alan Abelew and Norbert Weisser
Photo by Enci Box
Weisser, as with each member of the Koan Unit is appropriately focused, only allowing to be adjusted by the sycophant, Abelew, under the impatient thumb of Hogan whose demands include infinitesimal adjustments.  Hogan is a demanding director. She and her nervous assistant create Art. It is uncomfortable and may be familiar to folks who may have encountered the demands of an impatient perfectionist.

Footfalls is stark and melancholy.  
Diana Cignoni Photo by Enci Box
As May, the elegant and statuesque Diana Cignoni paces before an open door in dialogue with her dying mother (Sheelagh Cullen’s off stage voice). She paces precisely nine steps from right to left and left to right again and again. The floor boards creak with each step. It’s a death watch:  obscure and still completely absorbing as Ms Cignoni’s, dedication to the work repeats and repeats itself: light fading and fading from stanza to stanza. Understanding May’s transformations here is a challenge. We hear Mother, but is she real? Seeing this work cold will not deliver the same reaction as when one takes time to read up a bit.  Beckett’s stage directions are often precise to create the pace and atmosphere that he insists on. He often repeats lines and situations.  I found myself counting May’s steps again and again as she walked her pathway: nine steps right, nine steps left.   Interestingly, the tone and physical changes with the actress’s dedication kept the piece mysterious and absorbing.

Norbert Weisser Photo by Ron Sossi
Batting cleanup in Krapp’s Last Tape, we discover a cluttered desk with drawers that lock and boxes and books and the detritus of a life recorded on magnetic tape twenty nine years earlier by Krapp (Norbert Weisser). It’s a life examined.  On his birthday, Krapp is alone with bananas and his memories, played again and again rewinding.. listening, rewinding..  we hear him lament the loss of the desire of his youth that stoked the life he was living years ago.. introspection and examination all deftly presented by Weisser, give pause to everyone whose life may cry out for examination.  The actor’s physical exhaustion reaches into the audience as we hear that he now may be ready to just “be gone.” Is this current recording the Last Tape that Krapp recorded? Or was it the last one that he has listened to from Box 3 Spoooooooooooooooooooool 5? Krapp relishes the word: spool.  

A friend has called the Beckett Experience a ‘slog.’  Indeed, one must have patience and come prepared to do some work to begin to find the way. The playwright never makes it an easy road to travel down.  Sossi and the Koan Unit (an apt name) bring this important work to life.

BECKETT 5
By Samuel Beckett
Produced by the Koan Unit
Directed by Ron Sossi
The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
2055 South Sepulveda
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Through March 5, 2017
Tickets and Information: (310) 477 2055 Ex 2

Saturday, December 10, 2016

LITTLE DRUMMER BOWIE AT THE FALCON

 Katie Kitani, Rick Batalla, Lisa Valenzuela, Joseph Leo Bwarie,Niles Rivers, Katie DeShan, Cloie Wyatt Taylor
Photo by Sasha A. Venola




Where have I been all these peoples’  lives?  Really?  If Broadway ever came to Burbank, it’s been there for years and I’ve just blithely driven by not understanding that more fun was being had in ninety minutes on the Falcon stage with this bunch of actors, musicians and creators of some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen.  To rave about the Troubadour Company is almost silly.  Now and then we may read a ‘rave’ and know that it’s just an opinion of another writer trying to sound like he knows what he’s doing.. In fact that’s what I try to do with ever review I write. Most of the time it’s to be at least kind to whatever the production might have been that I’ve agreed to review.  Of course there are many well done shows going up every night here in L.A.  and some are worth a trip to the box office.  Many times they are more than worthy efforts, but… a rave?  A show that is so well done that it’s undeniable and one would pay to see it again?  That's a rave! Well.  Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre is pretty consistent with fine productions that I’ve reported  here.  But.. last night’s Opening Night of LITTLE DRUMMER BOWIE conceived and presented by The Troubador Theater Company, The Troubies, as they are known to their pals, is a hoot from the moment that the house lights dim and the live on stage band begins to play. We are greeted by Christopher Scott Murillo’s simple, functional set and the band conducted by Eric Heinly on drums with Kevin McCourt, B.J. Johnson, Mike Abraham, Kirsten Edkins and amazing Ashley Jarmack on sax and clarinet.  I mention the band because they are not just the vendors of the score, but share the energy of the production enjoying every moment as much as the hammified cast does. 

The exceptionally relaxed presentation turns on the mashup of NBC’s holiday treat, The Little Drummer Boy with a sincere tribute to the great David Bowie.  Essentially, this is the tale of the kid who could only give his talents to the Christ Child by playing his drum..  a rump pa pa pumm... turning on the story of  Ziggy (Joseph Leo Bwarie) who strays from his mom and pop (whose names will be listed elsewhere because I got so into the show that I neglected to note who was whom in the cast of nine players who all played many, many parts.  Each member of the cast reflects the talent of each of their company partners and they all stand out and are having as much of a good time as the audience.  We meet Ali, the kid who is the catalyst for much of the action, Beth Kennedy,  who is too cute for words.. (she’s a guy!).. and then Ziggy and the mix of Bowie tunes tempered to fit the story of a drum (a major Tom!) and incorporating Bowie tunes into the wonderful trip of how shy Ziggy is not so sure he wants to become a star and then, how stardom changes him and then changes him again. We roll through sight gags and puns and audience interaction.  Imagine a modern take on the arrival of the Three Kings!  Arrive late if you’d like to be part of the show!

Timing and restarts and silliness all become an evening that ends in a Standing O  leaving the audience, along with the cast, almost out of breath.  At the beginning of the show the characters ARE introduced .. in a way... and they include along with Bwarie and Kennedy, the following talented performers:  Riccardo Berdini, Lisa Valenzuela, Rick Batalla, Katie DeShan, Niles Rivers, Katie Kitani and Cloie Wayatt Taylor along with Matt Walker’s Voice from Above.  

One liners and puns and great production numbers rival anything you’ll see on Broadway and the tickets are not going for four figures.  The 130 seat house is perfect for full enjoyment of an evening that won’t soon be forgotten.  Co-directed by Matt Walker and Bwarie, it’s clear that everyone had some input. The respect and care that these Troubies have for one another creating  this tight production shines from each actor one to another...  and the band! 

This is a high rave. It's so much fun.. and we all know how important a little fun is right this minute! Really!  My directive? Get to the Falcon Theatre and experience this show!  It’s more than just good theatre. It’s an Experience that will mean even more to Bowie fans who miss our icon who left us way too soon. 

LITTLE DRUMMER BOWIE
Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside
Burbank, CA 91505
Through January 15, 2017
Tickets and Information:
818 955 8101
www.falcontheatre.com

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

24TH STREET THEATRE'S HANSEL AND GRETEL BLUEGRASS!

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HANSEL AND GRETEL BLUEGRASS
By Bryan Davidson

The creative team at the 24th Street Theatre near USC is an embedded member of their community.  Their community outreach may bring in ten thousand kids  in a year’s time to learn about what the magic of theatre can do for us.  This week, in light of the tragic events that may create frightening changes in our country, they have invited all audiences to attend the performances of Hansel and Gretel Blue Grass free of charge. 

The play, in development for three years, turns on the familiar Grimm’s fairy tale, but has been updated to the sad 1930s in Depression Era Kentucky.  We learn that Butcher’s Hollar is a small coal mining community where the mines have become “dead ground.”  Narrated in a clever video appearance, Bradley Whitford as radio personality The Duke brings the story to life as The Get Down Boys blue grass band underscores the story in music and projections.
Angela Giarratana and Caleb Foote
with Bradley Whitford on video
Photo by Cooper Bates

Whitford becomes the voice of the father of Hansel (excellent Caleb Foote) and Gretel (equally excellent Angela Girratana) who declares that all a man needs in this world is a “cord, a blade and an iron.”  Shades of Survivor, the kids are left alone in the woods to fend for themselves.  At first we think that their dad might return for them, but we know the story and right on cue the Mountain Woman (frightening Sarah Zinsser)
Angela Giarratana, Sarah Zinsser, Caleb Foote
Photo by Cooper Bates
hampered by poor eyesight and endowed with magical powers, gathers the children in and proceeds to fatten them up.

Mountain Woman exacts songs from Gretel and familiar tunes emerge: Amazing Grace, Will the Circle Be Unbroken and I’ll Fly Away, with occasional accompaniment by the Get Down Boys.   Keith Mitchell’s scenic design enhanced with video by Matthew G. Hill and Dan Weingarten’s lights become almost like an additional character in the production.

The three year development of this World Premiere production and how it came to the playwright, Bryan Davidson, and the producers emerged slowly. The sad business of children being sent away as in the fairy tale is happening even today as parents, unable to take care of their kids in countries south of our borders are putting them on trains unaccompanied with the hope they find help as they travel north.

Director Debbie Devine runs the actors through their paces: three excellent performances: in and out of the audience through drops depicting depleted coal mines that, with projections, become the forest and the enchanted home of Mountain Woman as well as a window into The Duke’s ten thousand watts of radio power narration.

24th Street has a long reputation for excellence and trying new things, especially to the benefit of the neighborhood and theatre aimed at children, but with an eye to have a story for adults at the same time.  This is a show for the entire family and deserves an audience. I am unsure how long free admission will be offered, but donations to the theatre are always welcome.

HANSEL AND GRETEL BLUEGRASS
The 24th Street Theatre
1117 W 24th St, Los Angeles, CA 90007
Tickets and Information:
 (213) 745-6516
www.24thstreet.org

Sunday, November 6, 2016

CYMBELINE









William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline opened on Friday to an enthusiastic audience and unfortunate sound issues.   This is one of The Bard's more complicated stories with plot points that play out just because the playwright says so. Maybe this was one of Marlowe's?    

A severely  whipped King Cymbeline (William Dennis Hunt), his contrary daughter, Imogen (Olivia Buntaine),
Olivia Buntaine and William Dennis Hunt
his second wife, a domineering
Queen (Christine Avila), the Queen's spoiled brat, Cloten (Jordan Klomp).. who enters at one point with a 'boule' that may have been a murder weapon? .. and poor low born Posthumous (Dane Oliver) who loves Princess Imogen and she loves him back, but he gets banished, and what's more is challenged by Daniel Ramirez as Iachamo in a macho bet that makes little sense...  and then there's the issue of the kids in Wales: rather interesting women (sons in the original): Michelle Wicklas as Arviraga and Celia Mandela as Guideria who capture their moments with considerable skill; kidnapped twenty years earlier by the banished and vengeful  Gerard Marzilli as Belarius and then, some business that leads to war because of Britain's refusal to pay tribute to the Romans and some mens' parts played by women and some distracting scene changes while another scene is going on and how the language must be spoken trippingly on the tongue but sometimes isn't and some broad strokes sword play in a small strokes playing area and, of course, after almost three hours of goings on with doubling and probably some tripling in costumes that represent "Then, and Now" we bid a fond adieu to the kind of theatre that really, really, really ought to inspire us ... in a storefront with forty or fifty vintage seats where magic may occur, but, sadly, did not this time.

I may be losing patience. These tiny companies who come together in search of craft and Art in remodeled little spaces must earn support.  Daniel Henning's 2nd Stage and the Independent Shakespeare Company's really dinky spaces are good examples of how it can work beautifully. With a grateful nod to William Dennis Hunt, founder of one of LA's premiere and most prestigious and ground breaking store front theatre companies in the United States, The Company Theatre, I must suggest that this show needs judicious cutting and some even more serious work on staging. Brand new director Frank Weidner's "first full production as a director" shows if nothing else, his enthusiasm. Hopefully, experience  may be a good teacher. 

Granted, this room is very 'live' and that may have something to do with having trouble with understanding the dialogue, but still, three hours is much too long a time to wade through a story that with imagination might be told in two or less with no ten minute intermission that turns into twenty. Could it  be told with flowing choreography and charm?  The Play's the Thing! 

Cymbeline by William Shakespeare

 The Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center
11006 W Magnolia Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601 
November 4-20, 2016
Fridays and Saturdays @ 8pm
Sunday Matinees @ 3pm  
Tickets: cymbalinela@brownpapertickets.com


CAST:

Christine Avila* as The Queen

Olivia Buntaine as Imogen

William Dennis Hunt* as Cymbeline

Jordan Klomp* as Cloten/Cornelius

Kathleen Leary as Lucia

Celia Mandela as Guideria

Victoria Martinez* as Pisania

Gerard Marzilli* as Belarius

Dane Oliver* as Posthumus

Daniel Ramirez as Iachamo

Michelle Wicklas as Arviraga 
*Indicates a member of Actors Equity Association, the actors union that has been working like anything to ruin this important type of theatre in Los Angeles.  

Full disclosure:  I was a member of The Company Theatre. That association has been wonderful influence in my life. My gratitude to Bill Hunt and his vision long ago is endless.