Saturday, May 23, 2015

Hoyt Hilsman on the AEA Election

Hoyt Hilsman reports on Huffington Post.  His take on the recent election of officers and councilors for the Actors Equity Association make sense to me.  This is posted with his permission:

This week, the membership of Actors Equity, the union of American stage actors, voted to oust an incumbent president - virtually unprecedented in the history of the organization. The ouster was the result of an organized revolt by actors in Los Angeles, who have been fighting Equity's efforts to gut LA's vibrant intimate theater scene. While the election is the first step in a long battle, it may significantly impact the future of American theater.
Actors Equity has a long and proud history of championing the rights of actors, beginning in 1913 when it was founded by a courageous group of a few hundred actors. The union has been in the forefront of the struggle for civil rights and freedom of expression, notably during the McCarthy era when it refused to ban blacklisted performers. However, as the LA battle illustrates, Equity has at least temporarily lost its way.
As far back as the 1950's and '60's, when the burgeoning Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway movements were spawning a generation of playwrights, directors and actors who would dominate the next generation of American theater, as well as film and television, the seeds of the future have been planted in storefronts, basements and church halls where actors not only perform, but build sets, sew costumes and staff the box office. They devote their time - inevitably without pay - not only because they love the theater, but also because they want a chance to experiment, to test their creative wings and to dream beyond the boundaries of commercial theater.
While Equity has sometimes been resistant to these grassroots movements - as they were initially to Off and Off-Off-Broadway - it has also been instrumental in helping these movements to grow and blossom. In the case of New York, Equity came to recognize the importance of nurturing new theater companies and carved out a number of exceptions to its strict union rules to permit actors to work in non-commercial theater. This, in turn, led to a vital and prolific theater scene in New York that produced many of the most significant plays and theater companies of the twentieth century.
There is no doubt that Actors Equity has a vital role to play in American theater in the 21st century, much as it did throughout the 20th century. However, if it wants to preserve its vital role it must change its vision of the future, as well as the manner in which it pursues that vision. Its heavy-handed approach to the Los Angeles theater community reveals serious flaws both in Equity's vision of the future and its ability to implement any vision at all. From the beginning, Equity misread the sentiment of its LA membership - perhaps out of a myopic view of LA theater - or simply out of ignorance. To compound the problem, Equity ham-handled the rollout of their proposal, turning what may have been intended as an opening gambit for discussion into a dictat from an uncaring union.
Hopefully, the union leadership has learned its lesson after the open revolt of LA membership and the ouster of an incumbent president. Ironically, the bungled rollout of Equity's LA theater proposal may have strengthened the hand of other insurgent groups in New York, Chicago and other cities, who would like to see a more progressive approach to their small theater scene. New York's Showcase Code is in many respects more restrictive than LA's, and actors in Chicago small theaters are in an even worse situation. As actor Chris Agos wrote in his book about the Chicago acting scene "The overwhelming majority of live theater in Chicago is happening in storefront spaces and being done by actors who aren't affiliated with AEA. Audiences will see innovative, powerful performances in these theaters, but they simply can't afford to pay their actors a living wage."
Far from killing off LA's intimate theater scene, Equity may have spawned a national movement to follow LA's lead. As in any adventurous endeavor, the quality of Los Angeles theater varies wildly from the groundbreaking and inspiring to the narcissistic and pedestrian. However, the same can be said of the early days of Off and Off-Off-Broadway. This is the nature of the theater, of creativity and of change. Whatever one's view of the LA theater scene, it is indisputably one of the most vital theater communities in the country, if not the world, and could certainly serve as a model for the future. At this important turning point in its proud and storied history, Equity has the opportunity to provide leadership for the next century of American theater. Let us hope that it will step up and embrace that opportunity.

Friday, May 15, 2015

ACCOMPLICE at Theatre 40 pleases and then some

Better known for “Winnie the Pooh,” A.A. Milne is responsible for a little one act called THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT. One wonders if playwright, iconic musician Rupert Holmes, may have discovered Milne’s play as a high school drama student and worked the issue into his charming and twisty turny two act with some extra twists and turns.  Best known for “The Pina Colada Song” and scores of other tunes, Holmes is also known for the Broadway musical “Drood.”   ACCOMPLICE, will… as noted by LA Times’ critic Dan Sullivan reviewing the show at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1989, “run in the dinner theatre circuit forever.”  Indeed, though Theatre Forty is not a dinner theatre, there is slight air of that feeling as we find our way to the Box Office.  The well established company (celebrating fifty years of productions next year!) is located in the tiny space within the hallowed halls of Beverly Hills High School. 

Jeff G. Rack’s set is exquisite and just slightly like a stage set on a decent though limited budget.  In his curtain speech, producer, David Hunt Stafford, welcomes and informs the small audience that actor Michael Taylor Gray will be replaced by understudy Paul Delgado.  “Odd,” I remarked to my guest who had driven all the way from the Orange County to see this show.  “Opening night and this Gray fellow must have gotten a paying gig.”

(*A brief note.  In the old 99 Seat Plan for Equity Actors, every small theatre company would be sure that all parts were covered so that should a feature film or a TV role be offered to any of the actors that they would be released with impunity.  Professionals can handle any situation and everyone understands. )

ACT ONE.. At rise, we encounter veddy British and veddy broad Mr. Delgado trouncing in and calling to Janet (Alison Blanchard, quite quite) with trippy dialogue that all seems to be leading to a murder plot.   I was impressed with Delgado’s impressive impression of his character, never missing a beat.   Scene Two introduces Mr. Richard Horvitz as Derek who wrestles with his bumbershot and, at last,  trounces in and calls for HIS WIFE..  Janet!  Much of scene one repeats.  A drop of poison in his whiskey and away we go:  Off to the races! Tally Ho..  ho ho.. ho..

The beauty of this old chestnut is that even if you remember all of the plot twists and turns, enjoying the performances with the audience is literally a part of the game.   The introduction of Blonde Cutie, Alice Cutler, stirs the pot at the steamy conclusion of Act One, sending the audience off to the refreshment table with odd little grins, expecting more of the same in ACT TWO.  Dream on.

Long ago, while writing for Drama-Logue, I reviewed the premiere performance at The Playhouse that Dan Sullivan reviewed in 1989.  Spinal Tap pals, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer did the strutting and bellowing back then to a standing O. I was nuts about Pamela Brull (their Blonde Cutie) making the show even more fun. The production at Theatre Forty has all the nuance (well, schtick) and well acted characters that the Playhouse had, only up closer and maybe a bit broader.  I think that Holmes would approve of Martin Thompson’s expansive direction, aided and abetted by some groovy effects on Jeff G. Rack’s set. 

At this crucial time in the business of Intimate Theatre in Los Angeles, it’s important that audiences make a special effort to buy tickets and bring friends.  Free parking with lots of places to have a bite before or after the show are available in Beverly Hills!  What more could you ask for?  I recommend the deep dish pizza at BJ’s!  Just tune up your funnybone and bring a friend to see ACCOMPLICE during the run.  Hopefully, Mr. Gray will have returned to the cast, but topping Mr. Delgado’s performance will be a challenge for sure.   Fun stuff.  Highly recommended.

ACCOMPLICE by Rupert Holmes
Beverly Hills High School / Rueben Cordova Theatre
241 S. Moreno Drive
Beverly Hills, CA  9021something
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM
Sundays at 2PM
Through June 14, 2015
For tickets and information:
310 364 0535

Sunday, May 10, 2015


The Echo Theatre Company’s production of Adam Bock’s A Small Fire is mostly a hit as it examines what happens when everything doesn’t work out the way we had planned.  Emily (powerful Lily Knight) is a tough little cookie who runs a construction firm with an iron glove.  She banters with Billy, her foreman (Darrett Sanders who shines), laying down the law regarding getting the job they are working on done properly.

Understanding that this play concerns the issue of a strong woman with tough opinions and a firm personality is a good thing to know going in.  Initially, it seemed as though Ms Knight was having trouble with lines, when, in fact, she was playing the issues that were yet to come.  It’s a tour de force performance, to arc from the Alpha person on the job and even in her household to becoming almost totally dependent as her infirmity advances. Husband, John, well limned by Michael Mantell, rises to the occasion beautifully.

A highlight of the piece is a scene that has little to do and at once a lot to do directly with the plot. It reveals itself in analogy to virtually rescue John from his own issues and Emily’s.  Billy races homing pigeons.  In the scene where he and John are anxiously waiting on a rooftop for Mister Buddha (Billy’s prize racer) to come in from South Carolina, the story is elevated to an unexpected height. Billy’s revelations about his own life and losses parallel what we see in store for Emily and John.

Factor in Emily’s harsh criticism of her daughter, Jenny’s (nuanced Mackenzie Kyle) choice for a husband (he imports cheese!) and the inability of Jenny to cope with her mother’s infirmity, we have a peek into the angst that follows in the lives of people who love one another and may just lack the ability to cope with tragedy. 

Under Alana Dietze’s subtle direction Bock’s script is tight, but motivation for some issues still remain a mystery to me.

The Echo’s space at The Atwater is wide.  Amanda Knehans’ spare multipurpose set features appropriate lighting by Matt Richter that guides us seamlessly from one scene to the next. A fifth “character” that helps to move the plot along is Corrinne Carrillo’s well textured sound effects and music that punctuate throughout the piece literally buoying it up. I’m still mulling the climax of this play where Emily and John literally come to grips with dealing with the dilemma that her illness has thrust upon them. 

The character of Billy is double cast so a repeat viewing may be in order.  These are highly skilled actors totally engaged a very interesting story.  See this one.

By Adam Bock
The Echo Theatre
At The Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Alternating with Row After Row
Through May 31, 2015
With performances at 4PM and 7PM
Both plays may be seen as a double feature 
Tickets and information:
310 307 3753

Sunday, May 3, 2015


There is a pure joy that comes with busting one’s behind on a hard plastic chair in the depths of an industrial space to see the Independent Shakespeare Company’s work.  I always thought that “agitprop” meant that one took whatever was at hand and made art from it.  Well, I was wrong.  It has to do with the political aspect of art or theatre that artists make a statement with.  I was headed off into a land of review of the Independent Shakespeare Company’s wonderful production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre by Wm S with a boost from George Wilkins (1576 – 1518), not only did my misconception of “agitprop” get me off on the wrong foot, but I am not enough of a scholar to have ever heard of Mr. Wilkins!   His history is a mixed bag that includes his being a minor dramatist of the Times but also ran a brothel where Shakespeare would hang out. Thus, this play may be a collaboration.
André Martin as Pericles 
PHOTO CREDIT: Grettel Cortes

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a fantastical tale that may turn a bit on Homer’s epic tale of Ulysses.  The twists and turns are each and all presented beautifully by a tiny cast doubling and tripling to whirl poor Pericles from one situation to another with logic that certainly is clear to Wilkins and the Bard, but between adjusting to the actors’ dedication to the language (all trippingly tongued with imaginative action nicely directed by MELISSA CHALSMA), you really need a program to figure out who’s who.  This is not to criticize because the action moves a pace and the actors are so adept that even losing the thread now and then doesn’t much matter. 

The ISC is famous for their Shakespeare in the Park presentations.  However, tonight, we now file into the rehearsal space, scene shop, wardrobe department, and offices  and performance space for the Company.  Emphasis is on Company because unlike fancy schmancy programs at other theatres, ISC cranks out what could be mimeographed programs lovingly typed on a typewriter that simply list the facts.  To me, this is endearing because Budget is always an issue for these intimate theatre companies. Had this company been forced to pay minimum wage for this show with seven actors and an Equity stage manager, the approximate costs at the current AEA edict of $9.00 an hour would have been in excess of $7,000 not including taxes, P and H, etc. etc., just to get to opening night with an audience of about 35!  But I digress. This Company includes everyone and this diverse cast with creative costumes by Houri Mahserejian lists their names simply and directly with Director Melissa Chalsma listed last!

Andrè Martin as Pericles convinces us of his dedication not only as an actor to the role, but drags us kicking and screaming through the trials and tribulations of the young man off to find adventure.  Here’s the tricky part.  The protean cast is changing characters so quickly that it might be a good thing for them to have team numbers that would let the audience know who’s who as the Prince travels from his escape from Antioch to Tyre and on to Tarsus and then to SomethingOpolis and on and on, eventually back to Tyre. Kalean Ung is amazing as Marina, enchanting with her singing voice also acting as Chorus/Narrator opening the play and closing it beautifully.   The attempt to figure out the rest of the company and their roles got lost as I was drawn into the story.  Here they are.  All Company Members who, thanks to fine directing and their own excellent skills brought to life over twenty characters.  Director, also acting: Melissa Chalma, Christina Frias, Daniel Jimenez, Nikhil Pai, Evan Lewis Smith, Kalean Ung, and Andrè Martin.  It’s clear that these company members are dedicated to the work.  Do your own research about the story.  It’s a quest, a tragedy, a comedy and almost a history that may get lost from time to time in the details, but over all is a real treat.  Okay, Helicanus might step back from his old age a little, but he was old when Pericles took off from Tyre and left him in charge, I guess, but that’s just a gray note.  This is an excellent production that will charm the pants off an appreciative audience.  Read a synopsis and bring a pillow.

By William Shakespeare and George Wilkins
The Independent Shakespeare Company
3191 Casitas Avenue #168
Los Angeles, CA
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM (Note the curtain time!)
Sundays at 2PM
Through May 24, 2015
Tickets and Information:
818 710 6306