Friday, September 19, 2014

Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS at The Boston Court

The Boston Court’s elegant little space just up the street from the Ice House in Pasadena takes chances. My first encounter was a while back with an experimental piece turning on the Russia / Ukraine issues.  There’s lots of parking and friendly / accommodating staff.  It’s a professional venue from the moment you step into the lobby.  I mention all of this because it sets the mood for the current production of Samuel Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS featuring Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub.  Both are busy actors whose performances we have enjoyed for years. Dedicating themselves to this strenuous play speaks to what most theatre people already know.  They enjoy giving a terrific performance.

This production is a total tour de force for Ms Adams as Winnie who appears smiling as the lights come up on Takeshi Kata’s rocky hunk of desolation. There’s a simple blue sky with occasional clouds, it’s surreal.

Winnie is buried up to her armpits and ample breasts in dirt. The mountain could be full scale and Winnie, a giantess who commands the peak.  Or life sized.  It really doesn’t matter because her ensuing rambling monologue ... all those words, words, words.. Flow like honey. Nuanced honey.  “Great Mercies…”  To memorize this play must have taken a wealth of love for Beckett.  Winnie calls over her shoulder to her husband, Willie (Brooke’s husband, Tony Shalhoub), who lives in a cave just on the back side of the mountain.  She has her bag.  It is black. It sits there.  She examines the contents.  She withdraws a chrome plated six gun;  kisses it and returns it to the bag. The black bag. 

There is optimism underscored by fate and futility in Beckett’s play.  He may want us to see the pointlessness of life and also still have Hope.  To endure. Adams’ nuanced approach and patience with her failing, flailing husband, even in the nodding off parts (for Beckett can do that to us)… Great Mercies keep her and the audience engaged. 

Adams is a beauty.  She impressed me as a Marilyn Monroe at first.  Blonde and buxom.  Frilly white dress.  All she has to work with are the words and her arms. Her facial expressions, especially in Act Two are priceless.  The black bag and her concern for Willie engage.  In Act One all we really see of Willie is the back of his balding head and stringy hair, as he attempts to relieve the heat of the day and protect himself from the sun.  Shalhoub’s elegant gestures: spare and complete, allow us to understand that great acting can still be accomplished silently by an actor who ‘gets it!’  A broken straw boater is carefully placed and then given a rakish tilt.  It defines unfortunate Willie.

A terrible bell keeps the couple on schedule.  The Waking Bell and the Sleeping Bell.  Where are we?  In some of Beckett’s work we may already be in Hell or Limbo.  In HAPPY DAYS, we are simply where Winnie and Willie are.  In Act II, things get more difficult for Winnie, now buried up to her neck. No arms. No tits.  She longs to see Willie.  Her revolver rests just out of reach.  At last Willie appears in full evening dress.  He is  formal from his battered top hat right down to his dilapidated spats.  Winnie can see him and knows that he’s coming.  The effort that Shalhoub exerts for the brief time he struggles and attempts to reach his bride is exhausting.  At once comic and tragic, his top hat battered, his attire in shambles, he tries and tries and tries and tries to reach sweet Winnie. 

Beckett examines the futility of life in many of his plays.  HAPPY DAYS confronts us and embraces us and, if nothing else, shows us how managing day by day may bring ‘great mercies.’  Melanie Watnik’s costumes are elegant in their shabbiness. Director Andrei Belgrader guides the show flawlessly. 

Highly recommended for an audience ready to be embraced by existential ideas and ready to see a perfect production of a difficult play. 

HAPPY DAYS by Samuel Beckett
Opened September  13, 2014 
Thursdays  through  Saturdays  at  8  p.m.  
Sundays  at  2  p.m.  through  October  12, 2014  
One added  performance  on  Wednesday,  October 8, 2014
70 N. Mentor Ave, Pasadena, CA 91106

Monday, September 15, 2014

Western Unscripted! Yahoo!!

Having had a close acquaintance with improvisation, I have to admit that heading to Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theater in Toluca Lake for an evening of “give me an object/ give me an event/ give me an activity” … all essentials for any story, of course, made me skeptical.  Once you’ve encountered Paul Sill’s Story Theatre and have absorbed and digested all of his mom’s book, Improvisation for the Theatre (Viola Spolin is the grande dame of improv and her book is essentially the Bible of Theatre Games), one might wonder how that could be improved upon.  Fact is that the Impro Theatre’s The Western Unscripted delivers the goods and then some.   Directors Dan O’Connor and Stephen Kearin bring a mature cast to the stage. The authentic western set by Sandra Burns, who also did the authentic costume design puts us smack dab in the middle of a 1950’s "Oater!"
Kari Coleman and Michael Manuel in Impro Theatre’s The Western UnScripted at the Falcon Theatre.
Photo by Rebecca Asher

Cowgal Lisa Fredrickson solicits (well.. asks nicely) only two suggestions from the audience as the rest of the ensemble congregates on stage.  An earthquake and a music box with a ballerina are all they have to go on.  And, the play begins.  Lighting by Michael Becker and sound effects by Alex Caan become additional players as the story commences.

It’s tough to tell the characters without a program.  Of course, in a traditional show, the program lets us in on who’s who.  Not so for Impro.  I was having such a good time I neglected to note the characters’ names to later line up with the bios in the program.  The best part is that this company of players has rehearsed the genre of the Classic Western and their costumes define whom they eventually become as the show evolves.   Classic improv as we have been taught by Sills and locally by The Groundlings, sticks to a basic formula.  Accept the premise.  Establish a character and stick to it (unless you are doubling as a couple of the actors in Friday’s show did) and listen! while advancing the story line. 

Impro’s approach to immersing itself in the Classic Western genre succeeds.  The company is made up of well seasoned professionals who know one another and are respectful of the project.  It simply works!  It’s totally unscripted. Each player is respectful and attentive to the evolving story line.  There’s been an earthquake!  This evolves into an arc that involves an explosion at the Comstock Gold Mine,  an unscrupulous mine owner, gold, greed and chicanery. Working in the music box was a little 'iffy' but no one really cared because the audience was fully immersed and the players were having a great time.

Sadly, I didn’t make note of the actors and the characters whom they remind us of at the beginning of the second act.  All of the expected characters are there: The unscrupulous and greedy mine owner and one of his lackies, a crazy psychic lady, the tough saloon owner, a pair of ranchers who have been cheated out of their land, long lost siblings.  I’m sure I’ve missed someone, but this show is not to be missed if you enjoy on the spot creativity by professional actors who are having a wonderful time as their full length story unfolds.  The ability of the tech crew to anticipate sound and lighting cues is amazing, especially gun shots and appropriate music to fill the mood of each scene. Specific area lighting and a beauty of a blue sky backdrop fill in the gaps.

It’s fast paced entertainment with spontaneous laughter and spirited horseplay. 

The players:
Ted Cannon
Lisa Fredrickson
Brian Lohmann
Dan O’Connor
Edi Patterson
Paul Rogan
Michele Spears
Floyd Van Buskirk

For a totally entertaining evening, this is a must see. The company is made up of several other actors: guest performers as well as established members.  Every show is within the Classic Western genre, but the participants and the story lines are always changing. The audience was challenged to come back to see how talented these guys are.   Highly recommended. 

Improvised on the stage by Impro Theatre Company
The Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside Drive
Toluca Lake, CA 91505
Wednesdays through Sundays
Closes October 5, 2014
Tickets and information:
818 955 8501 /

Friday, September 12, 2014

Magic! The Tempest at SCR

The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (yes, that Teller)

It’s difficult to articulate with complete success the wonderful casting, staging and over all effect of this production. South Coast Repertory has brought drop dead professional theatre to Southern California for years and this is no exception.  Superior to every single venue that I’ve been fortunate to see theatre in, this jewel of a complex tucked away in Costa Mesa sparkles with the anticipation of the wonderfulness yet to come.  The money is on the stage!   

In the sixties when artistic directors Martin Benson and David Emmes rounded up some pals to do new theatre, South Coast Rep was a seat-of-the-pants operation.  Like all new theatre companies, store front venues and creative ideas were all they had to work with.  With the enthusiastic energies of dedicated company members Orange County beckoned Benson and Emmes.  Now, fifty years later, the success of SCR’s ability to read their audience, produce quality and exciting theatre virtually bursts at the seams.

As the audience filters in from the glittering foyer, Ariel (superior Nate Dendy), Prospero’s (Tom Nelis)  often invisible sprite, quietly builds a house of cards. Sleight of hand builds anticipation. The  magic yet to come is palpable. 

Aaron Posner and Teller’s slightly skewed retelling of the story of banished Prospero  and his lovely daughter, Miranda (lithe Charlotte Graham) evolves smoothly and creatively.   

In program notes, Teller mentions that he’s read The Tempest several times. He awakened one morning as a kid having dreamed that he was Prospero. The magician famous for his silence now ‘speaks’ in volumes  bringing The Tempest to life.

Prospero has been cheated out of his Dukedom by evil brother, Antonio (Luis Butelli).  After twelve long years stranded on an enchanted island, Prospero now seeks revenge.  The Tempest rocks the stage as Prospero and Ariel conjure the storm with a paper boat and a bowl of water.  The ship is… apparently … lost! The sailors and all survive:  dry and safe at different locations on the island: all manipulated by Prospero’s magic. 

The lovers, Miranda  and Ferdinand (goofy Joby Earle) fall immediately into passion.  Of course, Miranda, who arrived with her father on the island at the age of three has never seen another man.. unless you count Caliban and that would be a mistake.
Tom Nelis and Charlotte Graham in The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Photo: Debora Robinson/SCR

Without retelling the entire plot, a special nod must go to the choices for the role of Caliban (Zachery Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee).  Having seen two of the best Caliban’s in Los Angeles theatre history, John Ritter at the Globe way back in the seventies and the three limbed Caliban in the 1979 Anthony Hopkins production at the Taper, Eisenstat and Minniefee’s performance must be seen to be believed.  Sycorax must still be really smarting from giving birth.

The arrival by the musicians, Trinculo (Jonathan M. Kim) and Stephano (Eric Hissom) into the presence of Caliban brings the show literally into the audience with pleasure.  Shakespeare’s clowns, when fully embraced as these are, add the exact amount of seasoning. 

Daniel Conway’s multipurpose set features Rough Magic on the upper level (A "spirit band," including a couple of chantoosies, featuring Miche Braden, Joel David, Liz Filios and Matt Spencer).
Liz Filios, Joel Davel, Matt Spencer and Miche Braden in The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Photo: Debora Robinson/SCR.
The percussionist is amazing!.  Paloma Young’s hodge podge definitive costume choices are perfect. 

The music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan lift the production to set sail on the seas of a tour that started in Boston and have landed beautifully here at SCR.  It’s a must see and a tribute to the genius of William Shakespeare.

by William Shakespeare / adapted by Aaron Posner and Teller
South Coast Repertory Theatre
655 Town Center Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Evenings and matinees through September 28, 2014
Ticket Services/Box Office: (714) 708-5555
Check website
or call the Box Office for specific
performance dates.