Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Guardsman Leaner and Funnier in NoHo

A New translation of Ferenc Molnar’s The Guardsman

Actors and others for farce take heed.  There’s a new trimmed down version of the classic play The Guardsman translated by H. Patrikas Zakshevskis in town. Director Lillian Groag, guides her actors with a steady hand and an appreciation for comedy too rarely seen on the stage.  The words all work, but it’s the Business that brings this show to the top of the heap.   The NoHo Arts Center is a jewel box, no question.  Every show I’ve seen there for the past many years has had a professional set and a professional attitude and if there was another use of the word ‘professional’ I could think of, I’d include it.  Yes, a professional approach to presentation of rollicking fine theatre.

Welcomed into the steeply raked house by two wonderful footmen (Josh Imlay and Chad Anthony Miller) we observe that they are literally cleaning the theatre from top to bottom.  They dust each seat and then inspect and spruce up one another.    Tidying up.  Dusting.  Rearranging and re-rearranging in simple little dance movements.  Super supernumeraries!  Really... Just super. 

Playwright Molnar was born in the nineteenth century and wrote plays and film scripts well into the twentieth. One of his most noteworthy, Lilliom, became the film and Broadway hit Carousel.  After seeing another version of this play at Pasadena’s A Noise Within that lumbered on for three acts, this version hits the stage a pace and never lets up, even with well choreographed scene changes attended to with precision by our dancing footmen.

Actors Max Schumann (protean Henry Olek) and his wife, Elena (glamorous Susan Priver) have been married for many years.  Elena has had affairs that are now just whispers of her past and except for Max’s doubts, they are more or less inconsequential.    As a ‘great actor’ Max plots to test Elena’s loyalty, all the while unintentionally capturing the heart of the adorable little maid, Berta (Kaitlin Huwe) who has been falling in love with “The Guardsman” (Max in disguise) while watching for him out the window. 

Dr. Heinrich Kraus , (suave David Fruechting), a theatre critic, is Max’s confidant and doubts very much that Max can fool his wife. To sweeten the deal, for weeks Max has been sending roses daily from “The Guardsman” to charm her.  

Joel Daavid’s fantastic set with gilt and flowing curtains sets the scene in fair Vienna where our story unfolds.  Shon LeBlanc’s costumes are exquisite, especially Elena’s flowing panne velvet gown to meet her admirer (The Guardsman) at the opera. It's a challenging and thoughtul farce that challenges the imagination and succeeds.   If Max fools his wife and woos her away from himself, he's a great actor.  If she sees through the disguise, he's not as great as he thought. But.. Elena is an actress!  Is she pretending to be wooed?  The eyes have it!

The Guardsman (Max in disguise) and his sword steal the show.  Physical comedy is always a challenge and Groag guides her cast with precision.  We rarely credit the director enough because mostly it’s only clunky direction that calls attention to itself.  Her scenes flow flawlessly. Michael Gend’s lights are fine, but some mysterious lighting changes seemed to be for no real reason in particular.   

This ninety minute show is, simply, a pleasure.  Having recently been dismissed from A Noise Within’s critic list (probably for being impatient with their inferior Macbeth this season), I must say that when a producer pays attention to the work and engages a professional director and actors, it pays off.  If any theatre that invites critics and reviewers to see their shows expects a puffy review when the show does not stand up, they should think twice about inviting critics who tell the truth as they see it.  A ‘soft’ notice cheats the readers who may decide to see a play based on a review that may not be totally honest.

The air conditioning bill at NoHo Arts must expensive.  Sitting with a chilly wind blowing on my neck is probably on me.  With no intermission, it was untimely to try to find a leeward seat to enjoy the show from.  Regardless, this production is a winner and missing it would be a crime.  Bring a sweater!

(world premiere of H. Patrikas Zakshevskis’ translation)
Directed by Lillian Groag
NoHo Arts Center 11136 Magnolia Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 p.m.
 Sundays @ 7 p.m. thru June 22, 2014
Tickets and information 323 960 4418

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Blood Relations at The Raven


Playwright Sharon Pollock’s clever take on ‘did she or didn’t she,’ the Lizzie Borden story, puts to rest the jump rope rhyme, “Lizzie Borden took an axe…“  The actual number of ‘whacks’ that were dealt was fewer that forty and forty-one and more likely whacked with a hatchet.  Of course, hatchet doesn’t rhyme with whacks, so there you are.

At rise, it is the 1920s, thirty years after the 1892 murders of Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abigail.  We first meet Lizzie Borden (dark and intense Carolyn Crotty) discussing the lines that Lizzie Borden, The Actress (very blonde Meg Wallace) speaks in what becomes evidently, a ‘theatrical.’ It’s a clever and somewhat disorienting trip.  The Actress is having difficulty with her speeches.  The discussion between the Lizzies sets the stage for reliving events that led up to the dramatic actions that became national headlines.

The play is somewhat of a rollercoaster with the interesting shift from the women discussing the dramatic events to seeing the events unfold. Eventually, The Actress: Blonde Lizzie plays out the tensions and frustrations of her story while Dark Lizzie morphs into the Irish Borden maid, Bridget Sullivan.  As Sullivan, Crotty affects an Irish accent and brings strong presence to each scene.  The evidence of the class system that cast the Irish as undesirable expands to a flirtation by Blonde Lizzie with a married Irish doctor (smarmy Jay Disney).  The social times and the high standing of Andrew Borden (true New Englander Hap Lawrence) and his family, including his second wife, Abigail (Deborah Cresswell), older daughter Emma (lovely Amy Moorman) have a difficult time with Blonde Lizzie’s obstinate rejection of her father Andrew’s insistence that she marry a local widower.  
L to R: Meg Wallace, Amy Moorman and Carolyn Crotty

Director Steve Jarrard  (who also appears briefly now and then to address the audience as the jury in the Borden trial as Lizzie’s defense attorney) has his hands full with the attitudes of the ‘real’ women, Dark Lizzie and The Actress who observe and then act in the theatrical of the events that lead to the murders.  The theatricality of the ‘play’ shifts slightly from the point of view of the two women as the story unfolds.  History reports that Andrew Borden was unpopular and a very rich businessman as well as being a tighwad. He was not particularly liked in Fall River, Massachusetts.  Exposition includes Harry Wingate (excellent Steve Peterson’s natural portrayal) conniving with Andrew to do an end run around Lizzie and Emma regarding a farm where the family enjoyed summers.

Not without some flaws, Blood Relations serves up food for thought about this factual urban legend.  The vast contrast between the ‘real’ Lizzie Borden (who really just wanted to be Elizabeth and live a comfortable life) and the Actress is one of method and presentation. Blonde Lizzie, Meg Wallace’s voice, even in this tiny space is sometimes difficult to understand.  The broad approach to the ‘theatrical’ verges on the melodramatic, which may have been Jarrad’s intention.  None the less the company of actors ‘playing’ their characters are mostly evenly broad.  Some physical bits need work.
Hap Lawrence, Carolyn Crotty and Meg Wallace

This is a play within a play that teases us with the notion that Lizzie Borden may or may not have taken a hatchet… but most likely was guilty of the gruesome deed.  She was acquitted probably because it was unthinkable in 1893 that a woman was capable of such a heinous act.

The authentic set by director Jarrard greets the audience and serves well the story.

The excellent period costumes are not credited.

The Raven Playhouse is a tiny 42 seat space next door to Vicious Hot Dogs in the burgeoning heart of NoHo.  The pleasant guy who gave the curtain speech admonished the audience to tell their friends if we liked the show and if we didn’t to tell our enemies!  This theatre deserves an audience as they do not solicit funds except from patrons who buy tickets to see their shows.

BLOOD RELATIONS by Sharon Pollock

The Raven Playhouse

5233 Lankershim Blvd.

North Hollywood, CA 91601

Runs May 16 through June 15, 2014

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 7:00pm    

Tickets are $20 with a $5 discount for seniors and full-time students.