Monday, June 30, 2014


 RIBBON OF LIFE by Steve Julian

The final staged reading of Steve Julian’s RIBBON OF LIFE at Acting Artists Theatre for the Hollywood Fringe Festival exposes secular and religious ideologies; bigotry and prejudice; beginning and ending of life issues; the plight and the joy of being transgendered and tattoos .    

Twenty five year old Savannah (Abigail Marks) lives at home with her parents Maggie (Elizabeth Dennehy, a ringer for Glenn Close)  and her husband, Savannah’s father Simon (Christopher Murray).  Maggie, at the age of 55 is experiencing subtle and not so subtle memory loss.  Simon, now a businessman, after serving as a Catholic priest for ten years; brings his religion directly into his now secular life.  Toss into the mix a very hip and happening Grannie: Maggie’s mother, Jenny (lovely Gwen Van Dam), who lives with the family.  Sharp as a tack, Jenny sees the end of life as an opportunity and has a strong desire to commit suicide on her 80th birthday.   

Julian’s clever dialogue and strong characters bring up issues that most of us must face sooner or later, with the exception of the prospect of having your daughter announce that not only is she moving out of the house, but is in love with Esmae (excellent Premstar Santana) formerly known as Preston.

The excellent cast transcends the issue of carrying books in hand to create genuine passion on several fronts.  All packed into a single two act play, we encounter not only the issues of the family in question, but these very issues in our own lives.   Simon reveals  the reason that he left the priesthood and started his family. Savannah and Esmae shock both parents with the announcement that they are a couple, but Simon’s reaction becomes an extraordinary rejection of Esmae because of his own frightened bigotry regarding Esmae’s being a transgender woman.  Figuring out who does what and to whom is important to Simon. His prejudice explodes after he researches the issues of transgender on the internet. With limited exposure and deep rooted issues founded in his Catholic faith along with a knee jerk reaction to how any daughter of his could be in love with another ‘woman?’ the shit hits the fan.  However, we are certainly convinced that Esmae really IS a woman in almost every way.
Premstar Santana as Esmae  Photo by Rich Clark

Meanwhile, Maggie is beset with concern regarding her own issues that include pregnancy at the age of 55 and a very well thought out dialogue by Julian regarding whether or not she will terminate her pregnancy. It seems to be a miracle in that Simon has been ‘fixed!’ and she is just beginning her bout with menopause.

Not fully developed is Jenny’s very forthright declaration that she fully intends to end her life for many sound reasons.  Should Ribbon of Life find a venue and mount a full production, it seems that working on the grandmother’s character would be a good idea. Her arc really should be expanded.  Jenny is wise and tolerant, qualities that seem to escape the parents, at least for a while. Time heals. 

The Hollywood Fringe Festival is an opportunity for the Los Angeles theatre community to come together and try things.  Julian’s play is a grand effort that works, even with scripts in hand. These are well developed and dedicated performances.  The polemic takes a scattergun approach to tough issues that are rising to the surface daily in American society.  Things are no longer black and white with family decisions and gender issues as they were fifty years ago.  This weekend marked the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City. Though the love affair between Savannah and Esmae straddles a gray area that may or may not have much to do with a Gay Life Style, certainly, it should be considered.   The fact is that 21st century people, “Millennials” if you will, are making decisions and choosing life styles that older generations may have a difficult time accepting, let alone even finding acceptable definitions for.  These two young women are smart, educated, tattooed and dedicated to the ‘person’ that each finds in the other.  

We learn new words in the context of the play and some surgical procedures that may make some folks squirm a bit.  However, drop dead gorgeous Santana’s portrayal of Esmae transcends stereotypical depictions of male to female transgenders.  Instead of being portrayed as defensive or apologetic for her condition, Julian presents her as strong, intelligent and fully aware.   We are led to stop worrying about genitals and get a lesson in humanity that makes sense… eventually, even to Simon.

I encourage playwright Julian to shop this project to local theatre companies where it may be fully realized.  It’s all exposition, so finding some physical business to bolster the story might be interesting.  Director Alexis Jacknow has taken difficult material and with well cast actors has created, even with books in hand, a story worth further exploration.  Julian has done his homework and this ensemble piece hits the bulls eye in showcasing his writing and the excellent talent of his cast.

RIBBON OF LIFE by Steve Julian
Hollywood Fringe Festival
Closed June 29, 2014

Sunday, June 22, 2014

TAKE IT OFF! (Well most of it!) OFF! BURLEYCUE at the Fringe

Doc and Stumpy! Not Ren and Stimpy!  

However the zany stuff in the big burlesque show featuring Andy Davis and David Springhorn with percussions by Tuba Heatherton and three, count 'em, three naked women (Miss Angie Cakes, Dee Dee Perks and April Showers) with well worn sketches is worth a trip to the Hollywood Fringe Festival. 

If you’ve seen THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S, you have a bit of an idea of what wonderful old timey burlesque is all about: Baggy pants comedians with old jokes that at once make the audience groan and applaud.  Quick patter leading to up close and personal encounters with the likes of raven haired April Showers (a ringer for Bettie Page), Miss Angie Cakes (who also doubles in the sketches) and Dee Dee Perks with her hula hoops and misbehaving bra. (A strip tease is supposed to be gradual. Dee Dee’s bra had other ideas and in a brisk moment of frustration she tossed it to the wind and let it all hang out, valentine pasties all a quiver!)

 It’s all in good fun and for the run of the Fringe Festival, you can’t beat the price. Step into the Way Back Machine to enjoy a simpler time when raunchy jokes and a trio of ecdysiasts  who shake it like their sister Kate but don't break it,  garner well earned whoops and hollers from an appreciative audience.

“Saucy comedy, and sultry dancers presented by LA's premier baggy pants comedy duo - Doc & Stumpy. 10 dates in June, different show each night. Come for the tassels. Stay for the laughs.”

Doc and Stumpy’s Instant Burlesque
Adult Entertainment!  
Schkapf Theatre
6567 Santa Monica Boulevard
Hollywood, CA 90038
Runs Through the Fringe Festival

Andrew "Doc" Davis
David Springhorn as J. Stumpington Putz
Michael "Tuba" Heatherton
Phil Dye as Wolfgang Wolfwhistle
Miss Angie Cakes as the Talking Woman in the Donations Sketch
April Showers
and Birthday Girl Dee Dee Perks and her spinning hoops

Caitlin "Miss Cake" Gateaux House Manger and Box Office
Bjorn Reddington on sound and lights

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Durang Deranged in the Fringe


Christopher Durang writes plays:  some very funny stuff over the years including one acts like Actor’s Nightmare and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.  Gnarly word play and silly satire extend to his ‘DENTITY CRISIS, under the brilliant direction of Alexa Sascha-Lewin as part of the current Hollywood Fringe Festival.  Only three performances left, but for half an hour of high energy silliness and a nice slice of banana bread, it’s a ‘don’t miss it’ situation. 

Just to the west of Theatre Row on Santa Monica are some neat little performance spaces.  The 56 seat venue, Theatre Asylum, is a seat of the pants space ideal for the Fringe Festival.  One show comes in and plays as another sits on deck. As we enter the theater we are greeted by Edith Fromage (Sela Victor); fresh banana bread (actually her own invention… or so she says) and a smile.  A little guitar music lulls us into a false sense of the demurity.  And, then, the fun begins.

Durang shocks us time and again with Robert (seventeen year old dynamo Nicholas Podany) whom we think for a moment is Jane’s (Haley McFarland) brother and Mme Fromage’s son.  Proteus has nothing on this kid as he morphs madly from one character to another: the son, the father/husband, granddad and a dandy suitor who also woos his mom.  It really doesn’t matter who’s on first. Poor Jane, sitting quietly, is the eye of the whirlwind that continues to swirl about her as her mother insists that she play the piano, though she has never had a lesson and never really plays.  Enter Mr. Summers (more transformational Townsend Coleman) who gets to the essence of the issues that have Jane previously attempting suicide before ending the session abruptly.  It seems that as a child, Jane has been traumatized by a frightening production of Peter Pan where, after Tinkerbell drinks the poison to save Peter, the audience doesn’t respond loudly enough with applause and Tink dies.  Was it a dream?  Do you believe in fairies?

Off the wall hijinks ensue.  Deborah Marlowe appears announcing that SHE is Mr. Summers who has had a sex change operation!  Imagine Coleman then reappearing. There are fish net stockings involved.

It’s a pure romp. The tickets are ten bucks and there are only three more performances.  It’s worth finding parking off Santa Monica and enjoying a well written, well directed and nicely acted one act. 

by Christopher Durang
Theatre Asylum
6320 Santa Monica
Wednesday, June 18th at 10PM
Saturday, June 28th @ 6:30PM
Sunday, June 29th @ 4PM
Tickets and Information @

Monday, June 9, 2014

FRENCH STEWART / STONEFACE at The Pasadena Playhouse

STONEFACE by Vanessa Claire Stewart

After an incredibly successful run of Stoneface at the 99 seat Sacred Fools Theatre in Hollywood, the Pasadena Playhouse kicks it up a notch with expensive production values that the play itself is running to catch up with.    Joel Daavid’s elaborate and functional set fills the stage with a feeling of the stages and locations where Buster Keaton early on worked his cinematic genius.  Preshow clips of Keaton’s films lead into an introduction of the characters.  Meeting the principals utilizes the clever transference of actors on the stage to vintage style movies and back again.  Timing is everything and at the outset the timing works beautifully.

(L-R) French Stewart, Rena Strober, Jake Broder and Tegan Ashton Cohan. Photo by Jim Cox

 The story of French Stewart’s (Keaton) interest in Buster Keaton has a long history.  Luck would have it that he’d meet and marry actress/playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart, whose other work has been produced locally and with whom Stoneface would be created.  Not having seen the previous production, I can only imagine that limited tech in the smaller space put much of the responsibility of the piece on the shoulders of the actors.  Expensively produced on the full stage of the Playhouse may have given the piece too much to deal with.

Director Jaime Robledo’s staging is rich in its presentation while the reproduction of some of Keaton’s long familiar gags lumber along at a fraction of the pace they are remembered.   Additionally, we leap forward and backward in time with only projected title cards to keep us on track.  

As Keaton, Stewart’s look and voice are spot on.  However, the physical creations that Keaton was so well known for come off with some effort.  It’s one thing to see Keaton in his heyday doing pratfalls and stunts in slightly cranked grainy and flickering projections, while quite another to see the work attempted in real time on stage.  Something gets lost in translation.   Keaton complains to his pal Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (Scott Leggett) while attempting his transition to “Talkies,” that he can no longer hear the film running through the camera.  His comedic timing was inspired by taking his cues from the clicks of the film as the camera rattled away. This allowed him to time his gags methodically.    

Some moments of interaction between the Old Keaton and Young Keaton (Joe Fria, a ringer for Stewart) are inspired.  I heard someone ask, “What do you do when you become a caricature of yourself?” Young Keaton appears throughout in an attempt to bring Old Keaton back on track, mostly unsuccessfully.  Keaton’s marriage to Natalie Talmadge (Norma’s sister) failed because of Keaton’s drinking and irresponsibility to his family.  Eventually, she took their two sons, gave them the Talmadge name and kept Buster from seeing them. A moment of real emotion emerges at the end of the play where Fria returns as James, Buster’s eighteen year old son.  “You look just like me.”  “I know.”

Ryan Johnson’s lively piano accompaniment is reminiscent of the days of silent cinema where musical improvisations helped create the mood of the movies.  

STONEFACE by Vanessa Claire Stewart
Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino
Pasadena, CA 91101
Through June 29, 2014
Tickets and information
626 356 7529

Monday, June 2, 2014

BACKYARD at The Echo Theatre Company


The Echo Theatre Company takes chances.  That is to their credit. With the World Premiere of Mickey Birnbaum’s new play, it almost pays off.  Emphasis here must be on the challenges of developing new theatre.  Larry Biederman’s direction is interesting in that all of the actors are doing yeoman’s work.  The dialogue is funny and the action, though sticky in some places certainly works. 

It is 2007. We open in the backyard of a kid named Chuck (Ian Bamberg) who  has caught the wrestling bug.  As The Destroyer, he comes up with fantastic scenarios with the goal of putting on wrestling shows in the deep south of California.  His buddy, Ray (Adan Rocha) plays The King of Tears (as in when one cries) and is, by his nature and appointment by Chuck, the head writer, the underdog.  Physical movements show tight rehearsal and convincing action.  At one point with Ray really down for the count. Chuck revives him with a kick. 

BACKYARD is over written. The pace quickens and slows apparently at the actors’ discretion. The story evolves surrealistically and absurdly with nods to Pirandello and Ionesco.  Tiny Jacqueline Wright plays Carrie, Chuck’s mom, who has raised her son on her own.  She’s got a mouth on her like a sailor and inserts herself into the kids’ wrestling games.  With the introduction of Ted (Hugo Armstrong), the swaggering interloper who claims to be Chuck’s dad and a sort of wild card, Lilith (Esmer Kazvinova) each of whom have a social and physical need to participate, it’s a free for all.  

The rekindling of the relationship between Ted and Carrie gets carried away and very physical with gratuitous sex and rough housing, leaving everyone pretty much exhausted. 

A secondary story features Ray and his Mexican father, Raymundo Sr. (Richard Azurdia).  They meet at the US/Mexico fence (depicted beautifully as a mural across the entire stage by Stephan Gifford) that separates the United States from Mexico.  Raymundo Sr. has been a Lucha libre wrestler, now aged well out of his tights and masks. He attempts to promote the romance of the ring to his son, Ray. 

All together, the work is presented with complete commitment by the cast. The physicality of the on stage workouts is tough and gritty.  The lines are funny.  With judicious editing this show would work well as a long one act.  Long pauses may work for the actors but not so much for an audience. 

The Echo Company deserves a responsive audience.  Coming in at a little over two and a half hours with an intermission is a bit of a trial of endurance.   The genuine humor made the evening worthwhile.

By Mickey Birnbaum
Echo Theatre Company
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Atwater Village, CA 90039
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays
May 31 through July 13, 2014
Tickets and Information 323 307 3753