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Friday, April 20, 2018

NATIVE SON / ANTAEUS / GLENDALE

Noel Arthur and Jon Chaffin                                  
Photo Credit Geoffrey Wade Photography

 Richard Wright's pithy novel, "Native Son", adapted to the stage by Nambi E. Kelley and directed by Andi Chapman for Glendale's Antaeus Theatre Company examines the story of Bigger Thomas (Jon Chaffin) and the struggles of black folks in 1930's Chicago.  With slavery only a few generations in the past (Wright's grandparents had been slaves), African Americans have few choices for survival. For Antaeus to tackle this piece shows grit and courage as the United States, slogging past the last election with bigotry and half truths still dogging those caught in the uncomfortable bonds of prejudice continues to degrade and embarrass our country. 

What Ms Kelley, does by culling dialogue and difficult settings from Wright's classic novel challenges the audience to examine its own prejudgements and social priorities in the harsh mirror of the times both then and now.  No one escapes prejudice.  Kelley has transformed the novel to a level of introspection and interpretation that, had I not been slightly familiar with the book itself, I might have found her choices difficult to understand. In the novel, twenty year old Bigger Thomas, living in virtual squalor, is attacked by a 'black rat' that the playwright transforms into a reflection of Bigger as he struggles with himself in the mirror of his own mind to rise above the limitations imposed on him by society in 1939. The personification of The Black Rat (Noel Arthur) reflects Bigger becoming a dual force in the play. Bigger and The Black Rat act as a single unit, informing one another in an odd dance that director Chapman sometimes has a handle on and at others we are not so sure. In notes she states that the play 'takes off like a runaway train' which she presents literally.  

Heavy handed but appropriate effects by Adam Macias and Jeff Gardner greet the audience filing into Edward E. Haynes, Jr.'s charred bare bones set.  The Chicago El thunders through, literally shaking the entire theater, as we discover Bigger Thomas at the end of his story. Time and place waft in and out as in a dream with the scene that sets the story afire,  which occurs later in Wright's novel

Bigger has been hired to do handyman work and becomes the driver for the rich owner of the building where he and his family live.  The odd out of place sequence of his attempt to deliver Mary (Ellis Greer), the spoiled and rebellious daughter of the family, drunk from an evening of carousing to her bed, evolves from her drunken state  to seduction of the boy resulting in the murder that begins to crumble the foundation of the young man's efforts to make something of himself.

Perhaps it was opening night adrenaline or a strong director's hand that accelerated the actors to shouting and a break neck pace to tell the story. Special effects to accentuate some of the pantomimed physical business distracted me a bit. In order for a theatrical piece to work, there must be an opportunity to build, not only the plot, but the motivations and actions of the actors.  Costumes by Wendell C. Carmichael are perfect.

Outstanding as Bigger's put-upon mother, Hannah, Victoria Platt finds important moments.  Doubling as sister Bessie and Bigger's lover, Vera, Mildred Marie Langford nailed the two entirely different characters. Brandon Rachal plays brother Buddy.

The story of Bigger being more or less recruited to communist ideas by well meaning Matthew Grondin as Jan, the forbidden boyfriend of Mary puts our hero more in peril. Through Mary's blind mother, Mrs. Dalton (Gigi Bermingham), we hear the angry voice of Wright as she demeans and denigrates the boy, prejudice oozing smoothly from her essence. 

Many attendees to the theatre these days may embrace progressive ideas and ideals. "Native Son" creates an opportunity to examine our own basic instincts and limbic reactions encountering  what may be even surprising and unexpected deep emotions. 

The strong polemic draws upon the sad state of affairs that informed the United States as the Jim Crow era slowly began its march to freedom for African Americans. The lesson here is that we still have a considerable road ahead of us.  Criticisms notwithstanding, the story of "Native Son" is a story worth telling Antaeus has taken a bold step to bring it to the stage. 

NATIVE SON by Nambi E. Kelley 
Antaeus Theatre Company
Kiki & David Gindler
Performing Arts Center
110 E. Broadway
Glendale, CA 91205
Opened April 19, 2018
Continues through June 3, 2018
Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM
Sundays at 2PM
Mondays at 8PM
One additional performance 
Thursday, May 31, 2018
No performances
 Monday 4/23 or 5/28/2018
Tickets and Information
818.506.5436
info@antaeus.org

Sunday, March 25, 2018

ALL'S WELL AND THEN SOME AT ISC

 
April Fritz as Helena de Narbonne

Los Angeles's Independent Shakespeare Company  consistently mounts high quality theatre including their free  productions: Shakespeare in Griffith Park in the summertime.  ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL  inaugurates the opening of their brand new digs just down the hall from the tiny theatre in Atwater where they staged shows for years. 

What  director Melissa Chalsma (who also plays the Countess de Roussilon) co-founder of ISC has managed to do very well is to make this play come to life.  The new ISC space features comfortable chairs and a flexible arena with a functioning grid.  Bosco Flannagan's lighting design illuminates a simple chess board: basically an empty space that Ms Chalsma's stage pictures fill beautifully. 

Melissa Chalsma and Kalean Ung
PHOTO CREDIT: Grettel Cortes Photography

April Fritz as Helena, the love sick daughter of a recently deceased doctor appears, she bemoans the fact that though she is nuts about the countess's son, Bertram (Evan Lewis Smith), she will never be able to wed him because of the distance in their social situations.  Catalyst for much of the story is the excellent Daniel Jimenez as Parolles whose chops on his 12 string guitar expand the story in Act II. 

Clad in Rouxuan Li's funky more or less contemporary costumes and a casual approach that sometimes dissolves the fourth wall, Ms Chalsma's cast, doubling in some roles delivers the goods with perfection.

As LaVache, le Clown, Kalean Ung in Act I, is particularly adroit with eye rolls and timing that punctuates the narrative. In Act II, as the temptress, Diana, she becomes a beautiful courtesan who facilitates the demand by Bertram.. Oh wait.  We have to go to the Court of the King of France (Rene Thornton, Jr.), allow that Helena, having followed Bertram there has learned enough about medicine to cure the King of an ongoing ailment.  Cured and thankful, he then decrees that Helena may have her pick of any man in his kingdom!  THEN.. she chooses Bertram.  Bertram says he'll only confirm their marriage if she shows up with his ring on her finger and his child in her womb! Bertram heads to Italy to fight in a war!

THEN.. after some shenanaigans and schtick that involves finding out that Parolles will say and do anything to boost his own stock, we are treated to a wonderfully sensual scene often referred to as the "Bed Trick." At Helena's bidding, the lovely Diana lures Bertram into her boudoir and with the lights down low, Helena then exchanges places with Diana, lying with Bertram to fulfill the demands that he has made.  It's a little complicated. My suggestion is to head to the ISC and see it for yourself! 

All's well in the final scene as we gather in the court of the King of France and Helena presents her baby bump and Bertram's ring and as promised:  All's Well That Ends Well!

Excellent performances by Kendell Byrd and Ata Farhadi keep the play moving. The language is never an issue, with an occasional contemporary reference that draws the audience further in.  

I love the artwork representing the journal of Helena from the home of the countess to the King's court and then to Italy and back again. They are all beautifully presented in the lobby in a series of collages made by Helena (the artist is Janet LĂȘ) to document her travels and travails.  This one is highly recommended.  Familarize your self with the plot and it'll be even more fun. 

ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL  
by  William Shakespeare
Directed by Melissa Chalsma
Independent Shakespeare Company
3191 Casitas Avenue #130
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Through April 22, 2018
Tickets and Information:
818 710 6306 
www.iscla.org

Saturday, March 24, 2018

MEMORIES OF THE GOLDEN AGE




 
Max (Pat Towne), Val (Roland Rusinek), Milt (Ty Mayberry), Helen (Jessica Joy), Kenny (Cornelius Jones, Jr.), Lucas (Jason Grasl), Ira (Jeff Campanella), Carol (LaNisa Renee Frederick), and Brian (John Ross Bowie) in Laughter on the 23rd Floor at the Garry Marshall Theatre. Photo by Chelsea Sutton.
Attending opening night at The Garry Marshall, brings together two groups.  The subscribers who are familiar faces and the friends of the cast.  As the audience settled, the lovely companion of a guy I see at the openings regularly, stopped momentarily as they crossed to their seats third row center. "Once you hear 'Neil Simon' all the rest fades away," she said.  Having a working knowledge of the playwright, it's hard to not agree.  The beauty of Neil Simon's plays is that through the slick and easily approachable characters we expect to simply be entertained

For those old enough to remember Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" with Imogene Coca and the amazing Howard Morris, long before SNL, the simplicity of the sketches, from the urbane to the bizarre, were pure and simple comedy. 

Simon was about twenty-six years of age in 1953. The United States was slipping into the maniacal  rants of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the cold war was upon us and Your Show of Shows was ninety minutes of mayhem that had television audiences enthrall.  Laughter On The 23rd Floor, written forty years later is Simon's recollection of his early experience through his doppleganger,  Lucas Brickman played by Jason Grasl,  the new kid in the Writers' Room. The show flies out of the gate warm and silly.

To quote another member of the audience, "Faster, Louder, Funnier is not necessarily better." Director Michael Shepperd employs schtick (a go-to for most of Ceasar's sketches) with frantic delivery of lines and over the top performances.  In the Writers' Room we meet the crazies.  The real life writers were Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Selma Diamond and others whose work has stood the test of time. 

As Brickman, Grasl presents a handsome Native American kid whose squeaky clean presence is charming. In the interests of 'diversity' it may have been a casting choice that flies in the face of the recollection of the playwright. Zany Ty Mayberry plays Milt rolling in, complete with costume changes and site gags. Natty Kenny Franks, (Cornelius Jones, Jr.) is the business oriented and practical member of the team. Brian (John Ross Bowie) has Hollywood aspirations. Completely berserk, Ira (ranting Jeff Campanella) is always late to the Writers Room.  As the head writer, Val, Roland Rusinek slips in and out of his Russian accent that is vital to some of the gags.

Max Prince (bombasitc Pat Towne) offers a cross between Jackie Gleason and elements of Caesar, himself, neurotic and  discumbuberated. Of course, we don't expect to see impersonations of the original fifties writers, thus, this diversity casting should be able to take the dialogue and with skill just have the characters say the words.  Director Shepperd's hand is well on display and not always to the best result. Schtick. 

Show stopper, the delightful Jessica Joy as Helen, finds her own way as the ditzy blonde secretary.  With all the frantic goings on, Ms Joy provides a breath of fresh air (to coin a phrase..) that moves from her perfectly pitched introduction in the opening tableau to revealing humor that mitigates the pace of the show now and then before the boys, and the lone woman writer, Carol (Lanisa Renee Frederick) step on the gas again. 


Ideally, all the 'work' of an evening with Neil Simon is on the stage. The job of the audience is to sit back and allow the laughter to just roll along. With the Marshall Theatre policy of encouraging crunchy snacks to be brought into the theater, I wonder if the actors can see and hear the munching?  I could.

Theatre etiquette is changing. Evidently, to some, it's like going to the movies, loading up with a bag of popcorn and a Coke instead of coming to appreciate a live performance where the subtlety and nuance of the play requires respect not only for the actors, but fellow audience members, as well.  Though this show is not in the least bit subtle, abandoning disbelief is still the rule of the day and when respect for the performance is ignored, well.. it's just not nice.

LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR
by Neil Simon
The Garry Marshall Theatre
4252 W Riverside Dr.
Burbank, CA 91505
March 23 – April 22, 2018
Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm
Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
Added show Sunday April 8 at 7pm
No Show Sunday, April 1
Tickets and information:
818 955 8101 
https://www.garrymarshalltheatre.org


Friday, March 9, 2018

ANYONE FOR ELEPHANTS? A WORLD PREMIERE!

Unemployed Elephants by Wendy Graf 

This poster was irresistible! 


I cannot remember ever leaving the production of any play, in the literally hundreds of plays that I’ve reviewed, feeling angry.  Tonight is a night to remember and then forget.  The tiny Victory Theatre in Burbank has spared no expense to mount the World Premiere of Wendy Graf’s play, Unemployed Elephants. It’s a two hander that I’ll get to in a minute, but I must mention the pristine setting, a beauty of a set by Evan Bartoletti supplemented nicely by Carol Doehring’s lights and nice projections by Nick Santiago. 
However...

Perhaps the most vital thing when we attend the theatre is to abandon the reality outside and come to the reality of what’s on the stage.  As the house lights dimmed two old biddies and I use the term specifically because their behavior was not only extremely rude, but through out the entire presentation they schmoozed, chatted and compared notes, using the white pages from their press kits illuminated by the stage lighting to bone up on one bit of information or another.  I was told that the biddy with the dyed brown hair was a woman named Pat Taylor who writes for the local weekly, The Tolucan.  I did not find out the other biddy’s name, but as they whispered during the scene changes and sometimes in the middle of a scene, inches from Marshall McCabe (Alex) as he brought one speech down toward the edge of the stage, the biddy on the right had the gall to lean in with her program to check some obscure information that most experienced reviewers might have checked before hand.

The nerve of folks who pass themselves off as theatre critics to so blatantly disturb the play is inexcusable.  It’s rude. If I knew the name of the blonder big hair biddy, I’d publish her name, too.  A fellow critic whose writing I admire said that I should have just told these old biddies to shut up.  I considered it, but as they were literally three feet from the stage in this intimate little space, and I directly behind them, five feet away from the action,  I silently fumed and made rude comments in my notes. I hope that the collaboration that Ms Taylor and her pal come up with become an interesting take on Wendy Graf’s World Premiere. Ms Graf and her collaborators deserve more respect than these women gave them. 

In press notes and in the text of the play, the plight of the elephants of Myanmar is spelled out sadly with information that because of the depletion of lumber and other political issues in the country, the elephants are falling into despair for lack of work. They are intelligent and productive critters who thrive when kept busy.

Episodic and fruitful, Graf’s long one act provides fodder for a marginal love story that Jane (Brea Bee) declares more than one time is ‘not real.’  Clever dialogue and the inevitable connection between two attractive twenty somethings, Alex and Jane, both lying through their teeth may or may not fall in love.

The meeting of the lovebirds in a distant airport is rocky.  Conflict is the fruit of drama and though it’s mostly banter, McCabe, a ringer for Harry Anderson of Night Court, persists to win favor and companionship as the coincidence of their bumping into one another from one scene to another progresses. 

To this progress, I must protest.  The play is written in twelve disparate scenes that call for the actors to provide scene changes for themselves. This made me wish that director Maria Gobetti, might have employed at least one silent koken, whom the actors may or may not acknowledge, who would facilitate the mostly simple scene changes. This would allow the actors to stay in character shifting from one situation to the next. Students of Kabuki Theatre will recall Kuroko who appear ‘invisibly’ on stage to change scenery or even provide props for the actors.  The audience cooperates by dismissing these black clad stage hands as an "invisible" part of the presentation. I felt sorry for the actors as they diligently moved scenery and props, staying in character I suppose, but it’s hard to keep the illusion going with the donkey work of changing the scenery.  To me, a koken (or two?) in the guise of a servant who worked at the various locations, even subtly changing costumes from scene to scene might have kept the flow of the play moving more smoothly. 

Unemployed Elephants is very cinematic in nature and though settings are nicely portrayed by Santiago’s projections, seeing this story as a Movie of the Week with actual locations might be very interesting. 

Aside from being distracted by the old biddies, this show deserves an audience who might behave and enjoy the clever dialogue with laughter in all the right places.  It gets a little heavy toward the end with Alex disclosing secrets that were a bit difficult to follow.  Ms Brea’s voice was not easy to take from time to time, but I think that young women in their twenties may be falling in to some kind of vocal thing, infected by one another, like Valley Talk (but this is NOT Valley Talk) that makes some of her dialogue difficult to handle. Acting chops are solid and Ms Gobetti’s direction is letter perfect (except for my koken idea..).


 
Brea Bee and Marshall McCabe
Photo by Tim Sullens

UNEMPLOYED ELEPHANTS
A World Premiere
by Wendy Graf
Directed by Maria Gobetti
The Little Victory Theatre
3324 W Victory Blvd
Burbank, CA 91505
 March 9 – April 15
Fridays at 8 p.m.: March  9 (Opening Night), 16, 23, 30; April 6, 13
Saturdays at 8 p.m.: March 3 (preview), 10, 17, 24, 31; April 7, 14
Sundays at 4 p.m.: March 11, 18, 25; April 1, 8, 15 
Tickets and Information:
818-841-5422