Thursday, March 21, 2013

OH LORD: Janis Rocks in Pasadena

ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS written and directed by Randy Johnson

Mary Briget Davies as Janis Joplin Photo by Jim Cox
In the little gallery just stage right of the plaza at the Pasadena Playhouse is a display of letters and memorabilia turning on the life of Janis Joplin.  In an early letter to her parents she writes about her desire to be a real blues singer, a recognized talent. She won’t settle for becoming a ‘poor man’s Cher.’  The last thing that Janis ever became was a poor man’s anyone.  Unique and driven, the young woman once voted the Ugliest Man on Campus at her Port Arthur high school, enjoyed and was consumed by her meteoric rise to stardom in the 1960s.  Mary Bridget Davies as Janis embodies her spirit and voice with enthusiasm and great joy.  Davies’ voice is similar, but as the show rocks on (quite something for the old Playhouse) she nails the uncompromising spirit of Joplin with Piece of My Heart.  Joplin’s raspy sound must be tough on the vocal chords.

As The Blues Singer, Sabrina Elayna Carten, channels performers of earlier days whom Janis admired and wore out 45s listening to in Texas.  Justin Townsend’s multidimensional set and psychedelic lighting become the Fillmore or the Avalon with a colossal cloud of white tulle loaded with lights blossoming over the proscenium. Upstage features a huge screen that becomes acid memories; an easel tablet for Janis’s early artwork and in the end old photos of the little girl and her Texas family. A nice touch downstage features numerous old table lamps from another era reflecting Joplin’s love of the women, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone who came before and inspired her.   

The sad parts of Janis's life and her eventual demise are thoughtfully abandoned in Randy Johnson’s well choreographed direction of his own show.  The decibel level for the theatre may have seismic repercussions at near by Cal Tech.  Many of the over fifty crowd in attendance hit the lobby at intermission where a thoughtful staff supplied ear plugs. The well worn seats of the Playhouse seldom stopped pulsating with the high octane retro band led by Ross Seligman including Stephen Flakus, Patrick Harry, Tyler Evans, Mitch Wilson, David Milne, Lee Thornburg and Pete DiSiena.  The audience was on its feet more than once, all rising for the finale which was then followed by a sing along with Janis on Mercedes Benz. Tricia Kelly, Shay Saint-Victor and Kimberly Yarbrough back up nicely as the Joplinaires. 

A packed house to the balcony on a Wednesday night is impressive.  Some folks in tie dye and feathers, clearly Boomers and fans from earlier days were there to rock out one more time.   I felt a little sad when our waitress at La Fiesta Grande, a lovely woman in her late twenties said that the name Janis Joplin was not familiar to her.  Man, I wanted to lay a copy of Cheap Thrills on her and point out the perfect R. Crumb images on the album cover and tell her that if you ever want to clean house in half the time, just put this on, turn up the volume and roll out the sweeper. Of course, finding a turn table these days might be problematic. Time marches on.

This is the sweeter side of Janis and her rock and roll.  Don’t miss this trip back in time.

One Night With Janis written and directed by Randy Johnson
The Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino
Pasadena, CA 91101
Runs through April 21, 2013
General Admission $64 - $94.00 (Premium seating available)
For Information call or log on
626- 356-7529

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mythology, Just Because: Eurydice at ANW

EURYDICE by Sarah Ruhl
Background L to R: Kelly Ehlert (Loud Stone), Abigail Marks (Big Stone) and Jessie Losch (Little Stone), Ryan Vincent Anderson (Lord of the Underworld), Geoff Elliott (Father) & Jules Willcox (Eurydice) Photo by Craig Schwarz

A Noise Within opens its second show of the current season with playwright Sarah Ruhl’s modern take on the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice.   Thanks to the company for a relatively simple and straightforward approach to the myth. Forgive me.. a myth is as good as a smile.  Lighthearted approach to the story of Eurydice’s (lithe Jules Wilcox's) enticement into the Underworld and Orpheus’s (Graham Sibley’s) heroic attempts to return her to the land of the living work out in creative ways. The traditional Greek Chorus become a Chorus of Stones: Little Stone (smallish Jessie Losch), Big Stone (biggish Abigail Marks) and LOUD STONE (VERY LOUD Kelly Ehlert) seated on a wall in Hell.  
(Click on photo for full image)

Thanks to The Golden Bough and wading through The Humanities, most of us are at least nodding acquaintances with Eurydice and Orpheus.  Tennessee Williams’ play, Orpheus Descending, touches on the same story.  A beautiful young maiden lost to the dark forces and the forces of Light heroically finding a way to rescue her. 

Ruhl’s examination of the myth via ANW director Geoff Elliott’s spare hand (he also plays Eurydice’s father, long since sent to the Underworld) graces the stage with a few too many black outs, but continuity manages to remain intact.  The Father misses his daughter so much that he finds a way to send her a message from Hell to the land of the living. 

Brilliant and funny, Ryan Vincent Anderson as A Nasty, Interesting Man, (returning later as Lord of the Underworld) coaxes Eurydice to join him down below by intercepting her father’s letter. (Why she doesn’t see it near a water pump where it’s fallen was a little odd).  But! Eurydice descends via a very clever elevator to the depths of Hell where a leaky roof and the Three Stone Chorus prevail.  Father creates a “room” in the Underworld (where no rooms are allowed) for love of his daughter. Clever staging aided by  Meghan Gray’s lights and Seth Walter’s projections bring the spare gray stage to life. Projection design by Brian Gale.

Orpheus is a musician, however, we never see him play. We do learn that he always has music on his mind, when not engaged with loving Eurydice.  Beautiful violin melodies permeate the space, thanks to Endre Balogh.  His original strains create a mood for and from the shadows.

In stark contrast to recent productions at A Noise Within, this one comes in at ninety minutes without an intermission.  There are strong performances throughout.  Questioning the reasoning of myth is a fool’s errand because rules for some things are just ‘because.’  One should enjoy this lively production… just because.

The lobby of the Pasadena theatre is currently hung with large artworks in oil by Michael Allyn Roy on the theme of Monsters and Maidens and When The Gods Were Young.  I applaud The Elliotts and staff for championing artwork that parallels the theme of this current production.  Bringing graphic arts into the theatre creates an atmosphere of engagement before the show.  Hopefully, the ANW lobby will entertain more local artists in the future.

EURYDICE  by Sarah Ruhl

A Noise Within
3352 East Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107
Three plays in repertory through May 26, 2013
Tickets and information
626 356 3100


On the Spectrum by Ken LaZebnik currently running though April 28th at The Fountain tells a story of deep love and big frustration.

The play's title refers to the spectrum of autism that we may all find ourselves on.  Asperger's Syndrome (a mild form of autism) is at one end and severe debilitating autism is at the other.  Mac (excellent Dan Shaked) is 23. For twenty years with his father out of the picture, his single mother, Elizabeth (Jeanie Hackett in a thoughtful turn), has kept him in therapy and mainstreamed him to be a productive guy.  Mac will always be an Asperger's victim, but has mastered the ability to focus, study and learn. A college graduate, he is applying to Law School.    At rise Mac is drawing on a tablet while listening to music, which he charts like an oscilloscope.  Elizabeth struggles as her job as a photographer/magazine editor begins to fade.  Their diminishing income may mean to make ends meet selling their NYC apartment where Mac has been safe and comfortable most of his life.  Shaked’s adaptation of working to keep from spinning out of control when upset is testament to a studied performance. He is at once funny and sad and making his character work.
Mac is a typical “Millennial” in many ways. He spends a lot of  time on line and listening to music as well as preparing for law school.  With the family financial crisis looming, he applies for a job on line to create computer graphics for Iris (Virginia Newcomb) who has created a web site. Newcomb is a willowy beauty in the Sissy Spacek realm. She is vulnerable and funny and tough. Her website, The Other World, is an online interactive fantasy page.  Iris is severely autistic but types like the wind and we hear and sometimes see her voice/words as she types.  The on line communication between Mac and Iris often appears on screens using John Iocovelli’s creatively functional set. Difficult to watch, Iris has many severe tics and quirks which may be very accurate for someone in her condition.  Perhaps this choice is to drive home the idea that though handicapped physically, this bright and attractive young woman aims to survive. 

Playwright Ken LaZebnik’s writing is natural and flows easily along the basic story line.  One issue that puzzled me was the long one act format.  The plot moves quickly once Mac and Iris make their strong connection but we see no insurmountable issues that might make us think that things were not going to work out.  Director Jacqueline Schultz’s input, to her credit, is mostly invisible. How Newcomb keeps up her extreme behavior for the length of the play must be a major challenge. It certainly is for the audience.

Kudos to both video designer Jeff Teeter and tech director Scott Tuomey for amazing projections that fill the stage with phantasmagorical images rivaling any tech in any theater, large or small.  Having seen other shows with marginal projections in the past few days, for the tiny Fountain to bring high end tech to their stage is commendable.

The Fountain celebrates more than twenty years of producing in this unique space on Fountain Avenue this year.  Daring and challenging work has been consistent. This show deserves an audience.

By Ken LaZebnik
The Fountain Theatre
5060 Fountain Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90029
Through April 28, 2013
Tickets and Information
323 663 1525


Thursday, March 14, 2013


Tribes by Nina Raine at The Mark Taper Forum

 (Click on Photo for full view)

The Mark Taper Forum is known for trying new things. That Los Angeles patrons support this gem in the middle of the Music Center is to everyone’s benefit.  Tribes is a cornucopia of contradictions.  The story turns on a totally dysfunctional British family, the Father Christopher (Jeff Still), the Mother Beth (Lee Roy Rogers), and three adult children (Will Brill as Daniel, Gayle Rankin as Ruth and Russell Harvard as Billy), each with his or her own issues.   The story is based on Billy, born deaf and raised in family confinement with nary a clue about sign language.  His dad thinks that catering to such nonsense will hinder the boy instead of helping him to keep up with the pack.

Scott Pask’s beautiful set is mostly centered in the cluttered family home.  The clatter of arguments, all shouting at once with no one really listening to anyone else continues through the play.  Billy sits at the family table, obviously excluded, even though if one asked either parent or his siblings if they loved him or deliberately excluded him they would proclaim deep love and deny ignoring his needs to be included.

Seque to a clever scene change where Billy meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), a local girl who is slowly going deaf.  She has educated herself not only in sign language, but has become adept at reading lips.  Billy’s world changes dramatically. At once in deep love and on the verge of being able to communicate with the outside world and others in the deaf community, this heaps criticism and angst on his family. Christopher, is in denial, refusing to learn to sign. Eventually, the saddest of the lot, brother Daniel, who has mental issues of his own comes around as the rest of the family contemplates their shame.

For reasons that remain a mystery, this play about the issues of being deaf in a hearing world, director David Cromer has his actors delivering their lines directly up stage fully half or more of the time.  Fortunately, from time to time, projected supers  quickly translate signed speeches into English.  Over all the British accents and extra decibel screeching dominate.  

For a production to feature a talented deaf actor like Harvard, whose slightly impaired speech, combined with British accents was often very difficult to understand. To not have a way for hearing impaired subscribers and patrons to fully ‘get’ the gist of things undermines the purpose of this show.  This is not theatre of alienation, though the cast to a person one way or another (perhaps with the exceptions of Harvard and Pourfar) in their self centered rants made mish mash of the story.  Certainly, the actors are professionals and the energy of the entire show never flags.  That leaves the question of why Cromer opted for such broad arguments and shouting upstage when, lip readers and others may have been able to better understand the play by actually being able to see the actors.
Pask’s  set expands the seating capacity of the house by about forty or fifty seats off Stage Left.  The stage is placed on an angle that serves the show well, with many surfaces for superimposed projections by Jeff Sugg.

Extremely strong language flies throughout, but we become inured, realizing that this is just the way this family communicates. What parents wouldn’t be ready to scream with three adult children still living at home? 

TRIBES by Nina Raine
Mark Taper Forum
Los Angeles Music Center
Continues through April 14, 2013
For tickets and information
213 628 2772

Bilitis Going Rogue

 Songs of Bilitis at the Bootleg

Songs of Bilitis based on the French erotic novel by Pierre Louys, circa late 1800s. Adapted for the stage by Katie Polebaum with Rogue Artists Ensemble.

The Rogue Artists Ensemble is an enthusiastic and enterprising young theatre company of actors, directors and designers who look to the past to define their future. In an ensemble, everyone does everything.  The current production of Songs of Bilitis (Bil EE tus) is taken from what has been announced as Louys true story.  In 1894 he published some very hot stuff: a fiction, about the escapades of the lesbian Greek poet, Bilitis.  Director Sean T. Cawelti has his hands full with a variety of talents, some of whom are more experienced than others.   The flow of the show using fantastically extreme scene changes, shadow puppets, simulated puffs of opium and low tech wishing it was high tech projections keeps a pace, but as enthusiastic as this company is, it comes off much like a masters thesis production instead of a cutting edge comment on sex and sin at the turn of the century

Aryiel Hartman as Bilitis is sensual and seductive.   Movement exercises are a big part of this ensemble’s group work. She shines while others fall somewhat behind.

Having just seen what a huge budget can do for a show at the current production of TRIBES at the Taper, unfortunately, low budget tech can only shine if the whole show transcends RM’s necessarily inexpensive budget.  Large puppets remind us of The Bread and Puppet Theatre of the seventies who used giant puppets to present their work.  It was agitprop, certainly, as is tech in this production of Bilitis, but it worked because all of the B and P Theatre company was on the same page. 

Seasoning and experience will always pay off.  Applause to the entire company for sticking their collective neck out to tackle strong subject matter.  Perhaps backing off from technical challenges and focusing on the crux of the material might help.  Projections and puppets were more a distraction than helpful to engender confidence in the story.   Support new theatre.  The effort may show, but the company has heart and it’s in the right place.

Contains nudity (brief) and adult themes (not so brief).

Correction:  We previously listed the Rogue Artists Ensemble as another theatre company. Apologies

Song of Bilitis
Rogue Artists Ensemble presents at
Bootleg Theatre
2220 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90057
Thru March 30, 2013 Thursday thru Saturday  @ 7:30PM (note early curtain time)
Tickets and information:
Bootleg Theater  213 596 9468 or

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Ladyhouse: Final Production for Andak?

Ladyhouse Blues

Parking is a slight challenge for the NewPlace Theater on Peach Grove in NoHo. The adventure is worth the effort.  One arrives and is greeted by a familiar looking gentleman, Dakin Matthews, late of the recent film, LINCOLN and hundreds of other roles on stage and screen over the past many years.   He is the producer of Ladyhouse Blues, the sound technician, the box officer/concessionaire and I imagine he was the guy who tended the unisex bathroom earlier in the day.  He serves small dishes of ‘goldfish.’  It’s just charming.

The tiny 35 seat theatre space is a jewel box. The audience enters to encounter John Iacovelli’s exquisitely executed early 20th century kitchen that will serve as the setting for the Madden sisters, the Madden Women, really, who all share the home.

Bud, son of Mother Liz’s (Excellent Kitty Swink) brood, is away serving in the Navy as WWI winds down. Eylie (bouncy Tro Shaw) unfettered and filled with ideas beyond her sixteen years flits about the kitchen as sister Helen (appropriately tired Liza de Weerd), ill with what may be TB, labors at peeling potatoes for the family dinner. Helen’s illness has driven her back home because there is fear of her young son being exposed to her illness. 

There is an immediate connection with the story and the characters that playwright Kevin O’Morrison created based on his early life in St. Louis. Written in the 1950s, we are transported back to 1919 Missouri in the days before everyone had electricity; when the times were slipping from the grasp of elders to the generation that would produce Flappers and bathtub gin.

We meet Dot (Annie Matthews), pregnant with a baby.  She met her upscale husband at the White House (she won a trip there for selling War Bonds) and as a New York model, her goal is to better herself with education and rise above her earthy Ozark roots. 

It’s the Ozarks that we hear Liz lapse into as she rails against the rise of modernity.  Firmly bound in her evangelical beliefs (and from sometimes a full bodice corset!), the Bible is quoted and her prejudice against them foreigners rears its head from time to time.  Family rebel and union organizer, Terry (Kaylee Bouwens, full of energy and hope) is a waitress and a member of what her mother calls a Bolshevik cause.  She and Eylie are the youngest of the brood and pay their own way.  This is a family of feminists in spite of Liz’s attempts to keep them out of harm’s way and in the tradition of the times which may be the equivalent of barefoot and pregnant.

Director Anne McNaughton’s hand is firm, giving each character time for revelation.  It’s a tight show and the talents of these strong actors shine.  There are moments of levity, but O’Morrison is showing us how strong women survive in a time when there were not many men to help with the families they had started.  It is gritty and rings true.  Resident Costume Designer Dean Cameron has found flour sacks and the equivalent for spot on shifts and accessories.  Tech shines.

For aficionados of fine theatre and for those who appreciate well-tuned acting, this is a show to be appreciated. Mr. Matthews has dedicated his energies to bringing quality to the stage and this project deserves an audience.  

Dakin Matthews has announced that LADYHOUSE BLUES may be the final production for the Andak Stage Company.   Though the curtain is only hovering at this point, if you have not seen a show at this venue, it will be worth the effort to head to the NewPlace to enjoy this production.

Opened February 16, 2013
Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
Saturday and Sunday afternoons  at  2pm through March 24, 2013.
NewPlace Studio Theatre
10950 Peach Grove St.
For reservations: Ovationtix (866) 811-4111 or
Tickets $25,
Discounted $20 tickets for industry professionals, seniors, and students. 
Group discounts (10 or more) available by calling  (818-506-8462).