Saturday, September 24, 2016


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.

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


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.     

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:
310 307 3753

Monday, September 12, 2016


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. 

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