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Sunday, March 27, 2016

A SINGULAR THEY / Blank Theatre



Playwright Aliza Goldstein’sA Singular They” currently at The Blank Theatre / Second Stage, bumps the discussion of gender issues to another level.  The play presents a growing spectrum of people who simply don’t fit neatly into society’s simple constructs of which bathroom to use, whom to love and be loved by and how to address and deal with the changing climate of gender.

 
 Lily Nicksay (L) and Hannah Prichard    Photo Credit Anne E. McGrath
The Second Stage sits on Theatre Row on Santa Monica Boulevard at Wilcox in Hollywood.  It’s a funky little storefront with a cramped “lobby” and six or eight cardiac steps up to the space itself.  It’s seat of the pants, jury rigged and charming.  Aaron Lyons’ multi purpose two level set works well as we meet Deidre (Hannah Prichard) and Burbank aka Cristine (Lily Nicksay), two seventeen year olds who are anything but typical teens.  “Deids” is knocked up and marveling at the whole business of growing a whole person inside her body.  She grouses about the Yuppiesque Johnsons whom her mother has recruited to adopt the child whom she will soon deliver.  Her pal, Burbank, shows up with a new Justin Bieber hairdo and presents at once as an attractive teen girl as well as a cute and somewhat androgynous  boy.  They serve time in Mr. Mazar’s (Nick Ballard) detention hall where they make up assignments missed in their regular classes.  Mazar is 26 and handsome.  It’s a situation that young teachers may face often: dealing with a teen crush, especially when the teacher’s own sexual identity may be ambiguous and in question.  The moral issue of an ‘adult’ and a ‘child’ getting together blossoms as Mazar attempts to counsel Burbank.

As Burbank attempts to puzzle out their personal identity (note the gender neutral pronoun) and how to deal with a double or triple dose of Teen Angst, we ride shotgun down their winding road to life.   From time to time Burbank addresses the audience to report on the issue that plagues them.  One web search announces, Between 0.1% and 0.2% of live births are ambiguous enough to become the subject of specialist medical attention, including surgery to assign them to a given sex category (i.e., male or female).”  At one point Burbank compares it to winning a "pretty shitty lottery." 

In a world where a person may be forced to choose to identify as one sex or another:  male or female, Burbank just wants to be their own person: someone who is accepted and loved for whom they are instead of undergoing sex assignment surgery, not ‘’RE” assignment…  for them to fit into the only option that our narrow social construct may accept. A noble goal.

Director, Christopher J. Raymond, guides Deidre and Burbank well, as Mazar is somewhat slow to catch up.  A subtly different acting style doesn’t spoil the story, but may call attention to itself.  It’s a gray note.  A nightmare for Burbank is somewhat difficult to parse out, but over all the question of how to deal with folks who may have won a very difficult lottery to help them become happy and well-adjusted individuals who are successful in their own stories is a topic worth exploring.   A thoughtful and well constructed piece.  Highly recommended.

A SINGULAR THEY
by Aliza Goldstein
The Blank’s 2nd Stage Theatre
6500 Santa Monica Boulevard
(on Theatre Row at Wilcox)
Hollywood, CA 90038
Friday and Saturday at 8pm
Sunday at 2pm
Through May 1, 2016
Tickets are $30
Tickets and information:
(323) 661-9827

Monday, March 21, 2016

CASA VALENTINA BY HARVEY FIERSTEIN


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(L-R): Lawrence Pressman, Raymond McAnally, Mark Jude Sullivan, Christian Clemenson (standing), John Vickery and Robert Mammana (standing) in “Casa Valentina” at The Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by: Jim Cox Photography
Click on photo for full effect.

The Pasadena Playhouse ventures into the land of Broadway to a standing ovation.  The time: 1962. The Catskill Mountains, New York.  George (Robert Mammana) and his lovely wife, Rita (Valerie Mahaffey), have run this small resort for years, entertaining all sorts of folks who want to escape the City.  The twist is that George is a transvestite: a heterosexual male who enjoys life from time to time being a woman.  The foundation of this piece is a strong polemic and part drama as Valentina (George’s alter ego) hosts a group of fellow cross dressers.. well, sisters, as it were, for a weekend ‘en femme’ to relax and enjoy each others' company.  Harvey Fierstein’s voice is unmistakable throughout as the jokes roll comfortably from rotund Bessie (Raymond McAnally) who loves to quote Oscar Wilde and whose flamboyant approach to expressing “her” feminine side floats the scene beautifully in Act One.    

It’s an interesting approach for an out and expressive gay playwright to tackle the secret lives of men who are not gay but are condemned for their secret love of expressing their feminine side.  It’s the early sixties, seven years before the 1969 Stonewall Riots and homosexuals are still mostly in the closet. 

Enter Jonathan (James Snyder), a newcomer to the group.  He has discovered this safe haven for men in dresses and comes prepared to share the company of others.  He had felt that he was the ‘only one’ to enjoy being a girl and now he’s in the thick of all things feminine.  His first effort appearing as Miranda is rather embarrassing, but the ‘girls’ come to the rescue with the cry, “MAKEOVER!” With a tule underskirt, some makeup and hair adjustments Miranda is applauded as one of the group. 

Charlotte/Isadore (excellent Christian Clemenson) has just arrived from California and is a well known advocate for the rights of crossdressers.  She intends to recruit this group to be the first East Coast Chapter of her non-profit sorority. The fly in the ointment is that real names and addresses are required to take this monumental step.  Charlotte  declares that the non-profit will legitimize their ‘harmless hobby.’ With legitimization, this activity will then be embraced by the world. Yeh... right.

However, not everyone in this ‘sorority’ feels comfortable with the idea.  Charlotte, fashioned on Dr. Virginia Prince, a leading advocate for crossdressers for almost fifty years, is a zealot. Members of this casual gathering are not so sure they want to risk their reputations by ‘coming out.’  It is also very important to Charlotte that members sign a document that declares that they are strictly heterosexual!   The most senior attendee, Terry/Theodore (Laurence Pressman) reminds that men of their persuasion have always been welcomed at gay bars and various drag balls and other events.  Why, then, wouldn’t that be reason to at least embrace them as in return? 

In Act II alcohol is flowing and a cute pantomime number is performed by Valentina, Gloria (sassy Mark Jude Sullivan) and Bessie.  Charlotte’s efforts to encourage Valentina to bring the girls on board for the East Coast Chapter of the sorority turn dark and what has seemed to be a strong political effort to defuse the limbic reaction to men in dresses deteriorates quickly.  John Vickery (The Judge) brings a new element into the play which turns it on its ear.

A fine turn in a major plot twist by Nike Doukas as Eleanor mirrors ignorant fears and obliterates much of the basic good will established throughout the play.  

David Lee’s direction on an truly gorgeous 1960s era turntable set by Tom Buderwitz is smooth and steady.  Each character emerges as a human being in an individual way.  Someone points out that there are shades of gray to every issue and with this issue, each character is involved with his/her character’s activity in a very unique way.  This is no lampoon or fraternity skit. The sincerity of each of these men and his approach to becoming a woman if only temporarily is undeniable.  Charlotte in her denegration of the gay lifestyle asks if the others don’t find it disgusting and repulsive. Doth the lady protest too much?  Gloria, probably the person most in the middle gray area, refuses to exclude anyone because of sexual orientation. 
 
(L-R): Robert Mammana and Valerie Mahaffey  in “Casa Valentina” at The Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by: Jim Cox Photography
Click on photo for full effect.

It must be noted that the lovely Valerie Mahaffey as Valentina’s wife, Rita, delivers a very natural and heart rending performance as the sole (and soulful) woman in the midst of this collection of ‘girls.’  Her examination of who her husband, George, really is and where she stands with him and how she is related to his alter ego, Valentina, renders more questions than are answered in the play. 

Though not expressed specifically, the difference between these crossdressers and others in the slippery slope of transgender, transsexual, bisexual and other sub categories of gender exploration, it sounds as though the heterosexual male aspect of the activity is vital to those who practice it.  The plot ventures down a dark path which allows for a strong rebuttal to the fun the audience has had by the appearance of Nike Doukas whose contrary feelings to the whole scene are unflinching.

As with Fierstein’s successful outing with Torch Song Trilogy: three related one acts, one would hope that a further examination of this issue might be fodder for more exploration.  Rita, the understanding wife, is challenged as most folks would be as to how to relate to someone  (George/Valentina) who insists that they are totally sane and at the same time two very different people.  Bessie (Albert) declares that his feminine counterpart is the ideal wife.  “She” accepts all of Albert’s attention and gifts and care. He loves to be generous and attentive to her.

With the rise of LGBT awareness, even today with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti establishing a Transgender Advisory Council for the City of Los Angeles, and as mentioned in my previous review of CLOUD NINE with gender switching as a major part of the plot, RuPaul’s One Hundredth Drag Race show and other gender issues crowding the front page, this activity which has been going on for a long, long time, being brought to light by a story over fifty years old must be at least worthy of understanding.    


CASA VALENTINA by Harvey Fierstein
The Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101
Through April 10, 2016
Tickets and Information:
626 356 7529  
pasadenaplayhouse.org 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL by Saul Levitt

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Lon S. Lewi, Jack Kennedy, Robie Winston, Joe Colligan, Ian Patrick Williams (seated), Mark Belnick, Greg Allan Martin, Gary Clemmer, Jan-David Soutar, and Edmond Wyson
 (Click on photo for full view)
The tiny Grove Theatre venue in Burbank Park may be a diamond in the rough.  It’s a simple proscenium house.

Fourteen thousand Union prisoners of war died at Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia under the command of Confederate Captain Wirz, now on trial for conspiracy to commit murder.  The horrors of this travesty are discussed in legal and then in moral terms in Levitt’s play, The Andersonville Trial.

It’s difficult to discuss the success of a production when the production is not firing on all cylinders.  Director Gary Lee Reed’s simple 1860s courtroom set is tended by Court Clerk Lon S. Lewi as the audience enters.  The thankless job of this character who tidies up the courtroom is one to be applauded. Lewi is always present and listening.  We meet the principals and the trial begins.  Subtle differences and some not so subtle bring the text to life but nod off at frequent intervals.   The essence of the trial is whether or not  Captain Wirz (Ian Patrick Williams) Commandant of Andersonville, is guilty of conspiracy to commit murder while overseeing the notorious Confederate prison. The Fourteen thousand  Union prisoners died basically from extreme neglect.  Wirz, a naturalized Swiss-American, in the final scene insists to testify on his own behalf. The question comes down to the moral law of humanity versus military law and the responsibility of military command.

Levitt’s excellent exploration of this issue is delivered on a variety of different emotional and physical levels by the ten members of the cast. Least effective of the lot is the pivotal character, Judge Advocate Colonel Chipman, played with difficulty by Mark Belnick.   Vocal issues and his leaden physical interpretation of his character made his advocacy for the prosecution difficult to believe.

The up side of this production is the dedication of the rest of the cast to the importance of the issue of exposing this chapter in American History where the inhumanity of human beings under the color of authority is brought to light.

The opportunity for a truly powerful statement must fall to director Gary Lee Reed whose task at hand is to elevate the entire cast to the level of Mr. Lewi who sets the tone for the entire proceeding. 

The Andersonville Trial by Saul Levitt
Grove Theatre Center
1111-B West Olive Avenue
Burbank, CA 91506
Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM
Sundays at 3PM
Through April 10, 2016
Tickets and Information:
Reservations: (323) 960-7738



Sunday, March 13, 2016

ON CLOUD NINE / ANTAEUS


Lilly Wachowski announces her new gender following in the footsteps of her sister, Lana. Casa Valentina arrives in Pasadena. Becoming “one’s self” bubbles into our consciousness now daily.  RuPaul’s Drag Race reaches its One Hundredth Episode and he/she is more vocal than ever about expressing yourself.  That line from HAIR about the male’s emergence out of his drab camouflage into the birthright of his sex is not exactly spot on, but in Caryl Churchill’s  1979 gender switcheroo CLOUD NINE, director Casey Stangl has brought this confusing issue to light and it parades on the Antaeus stage beautifully to comment artistically on gender roles and sex. 
JD Cullum as Betty and
Laura Wernette as Ellen
Photo by Karianne Flaathen
It’s Africa.  The British Empire. 1879.  Roles for men and women are clearly defined as they properly should be as we meet Clive (Adam J. Smith) who has married his docile helpmate Betty (J.D. Cullum) who knows her place.  The black family retainer Joshua (the very white actor Chad Borden) declares that the native Africans are not ‘his people.’   Gender roles and sexual orientation ebb and flow as the story of infidelity and who’s doing what with whom and how unfolds.

One gorgeous performance is the double duty done in the first act by Laura Wernette as the nanny Ellen, who really doesn’t like children but does very much like Betty.  She also comes and goes as the sensuous and saucy Mrs. Saunders, deftly switching back and forth so fluidly, you’d swear there were two different actors playing the roles.  A. Jeffery Schoenberg’s costumes are authentic and how Wernette manages the changes off stage must be a show in itself. 

For a play written in 1979, the discussion of gender roles these thirty-seven years later ring true, especially in the Second Act where all bets are off and the cast of the 1879 first act return as different versions of the First Act cast of characters who have aged only 25 years.  (It all makes sense if you go with the idea.)

Who’s hot for whom and how the children have matured is a cauldron of mixed tastes.  Adam J. Smith (Clive in Act I) magically transforms into the rhyme reciting ten year old, Cathy, the daughter of Lin, the very butch lesbian (Wernette from Act I), who is hot for Victoria (Joanna Strapp), who, in Act One was played by a doll!

Suffice it to say that the comings and goings of this gender mishmash works. Even though the lessons of making it through life are a bit confusing, Stangl has her actors working well together with not one moment of  hesitation.  

In Act Two we meet Borden as Gerry, the predatory homosexual hustler who completely disrespects his submissive lover, Edward, Cullum,  as the now middle aged man who truly wants to be a woman. Cullum’s subtle approach to this role is charming. 

Cathy (Smith) stirs up the stew as the now familiar  cast from Act One and in London, 1979, the dance escalates.

In Act One as the young Edward, Gigi Bermingham, struggled with ‘his’ sexuality.  In Act Two, Bermingham becomes  Betty, the sophisticated and beautiful mum.  David DeSantos as the explorer, Harry, in Act One, whom we learn has an eye for little Edward, has become Martin, the husband of Victoria. He is an unabashed rouĂ©. Divorcing from Victoria, Martin is free to wander as she wanders into the arms of Lin.  It’s really not all THAT complicated, but like a familiar  melody with catchy lyrics that may be nonsense but still appealing, we wind our way to some interesting conclusions.

This cast, The Hotheads, alternates with The Blighters... I look forward to seeing the other cast! A worthwhile challenge!  Excellent work.

CLOUD NINE
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Casey Stangl
Antaeus Theatre
5112 Lankershim Boulevard
North Hollywood, CA 91601

Performances continue through April 24:
Thursdays & Fridays @ 8 p,m., 
Saturdays @ 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., 
and Sundays @ 2 p.m.


Click on "Buy Tickets" to view cast schedule.










Sunday, March 6, 2016

OPALINE by Fengar Gael : Garage Theatre Long Beach

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 THE WORLD PREMIERE 
  OPALINE
(a Delirium for a Parched Planet)
Written by Fengar Gael
Directed by Caprice Spencer Rothe

The Garage Theatre in Long Beach has been at it for fifteen years.  In the true spirit of “seat-of-the-pants”, experiment and cry havoc, this world premiere of Fengar Gael’s loopy take on Greek myth and Victorian Oddities has some problems that lapsed over into the street on opening night.  The tiny space near downtown Long Beach is parking challenged and has for a lobby, well… Seventh Street.   Opening night audience was eclectic and artsy.  The tiny storefront is emblazoned with quality advertising for Opaline as well as for upcoming shows that comprise their 2016 season.  A theme of tarot cards to announce the upcoming plays is displayed in one window.

According to Homer, Odysseus set out aboard The Argos to fight in the Trojan Wars.  On his return he is lured into magical waters by Circe, the enchantress, who turns his men into pigs!   Greek myth is loaded with analogies and how Gael stirs the Victorian feeling of Oscar Wilde’s unique world, “original” art by Gaston Verdante (Adam Brooks)  and the subsequent employ of three ‘Circes’ (Gregory Cesena, Erin Grissom and Jeffrey Kieviet) who actively become artwork, stage hands and employers of magic is, in itself a mystery.   
(top to bottom) Erin Grissom, Josephine Black, Gregory Cessena

 

As absinthe factors heavily into the plot, this quote by Wilde may help to light the way: 

 “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”


Having first met Ms Gael when she was a finalist in the National Repertory Theatre Foundation Playwriting Competition with her beautiful play, DRINK ME, featuring three Alices, I have been a fan.  The challenge of her work falls to the skills of the actors, director and crew to realize them.  Opaline (Josephine Block) is the ancient French retainer for the artiste Gaston Verdante (Brooks) presenting as a smarmy Victorian in a time projected a hop and skip and a jump into the Future.  Verdante’s ability to “channel” or actually become Monet or Van Gogh factors into the plot.  Anthropologist Dr. Hargraves Moss (Allen Sewell) arrives to investigate the discovery of the corpse of an ancient woman who has, apparently self immolated with some sort of alcohol!  She bears an uncanny likeness to Opaline and off we go.
(left to right) Jeffrey Kievet, Allen Sewell, Varda Appleton, Erin Grissom 

The three Circes, adorned in ‘marble’ from head to toe become somewhat suis gender as they flirt and pose providing fluid changes to the set as well as ‘becoming’ artwork by posing in the hanging frames that surround all 27 seats in the tiny Garage space.

Director Caprice Spencer Rothe has been an effective traffic cop with the actors, however acting styles and presentation are a bit uneven with laser focused work by Varda Appleton (Dr. Celestia Jane Olive) and spritely interpretation of the singular muse/artist Beatrice (Bibi) Corbeau (cute and spritely Cassandra Bell).  Mlle Corbeau was the color I had to look up (blackish green), as every character in Opaline is verdantly coordinated, along with bottle after bottle of absinthe.  

World Premier’s are exciting.  Opaline may find its pace and settle into a very interesting production. All photo credit: Freshframe.com.

 OPALINE by Fengar Gael
The Garage Theatre
251 E. 7th Street
Long Beach, CA 90813
Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays.
Friday, March 2nd- Saturday, March 26th
Curtain: 8pm

Tickets: may be purchased online at
www.thegaragetheatre.org or at the box office 30 minutes prior to each night’s performance, or by calling 866.811.4111
General $20. 
Students/Seniors/Teachers/Military. $15. 
Opening and Closing Night $25.
Twofer Sutherland Thursdays: 2 for 1.
(General ticket price only, use promo code TWOFER)