Saturday, October 26, 2019

2044? The Actors' Gang / Tim Robbins

Bob Turton, Tim Robbins, Will Thomas McFadden a…shley Randall

A world in constant conflict? 


Dystopian:  adj: "relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice."
n. "a person who imagines or foresees a state or society where there is great suffering or injustice."
Google it! It's just a click away. Or, are we living in Dystopia today? Certainly, George Orwell.. at least in his writing of 1984 was a 'dystopian.'

In 1949, Orwell,  at the age of 46, foresaw twenty-five years into the future.   Rejected for military service in WWII. He was a middle aged Brit who feared for his country and for the world.   In 1945 he published "Animal Farm", a biting satire imagining a society where some animals were more equal than others. What a concept!

The foreshadowing that Orwell brings in Michael Gene Sullivan's excellent adaptation for the stage in no small portion echoes our world in 2019. 
Of course, we all recall: Big Brother!   
The torture of Winston Smith.  
A revolution resisting and under attack as an entire society falls under 24/7 surveillance.  
"Reason" to one person is not Reason to another. 
Old friends at each others' throats for core beliefs that have been somehow skewed.  
"How many fingers am I holding up?" asks O'Brian to Smith.
The relentless barrage of propaganda in this Actors' Gang presentation, directed by Tim Robbins includes beautifully produced Breaking News Reports that boost the society of Big Brother. Hard to resist propaganda when backed by the Stars and Stripes, the proof that the story is real.

This Actors' Gang presentation is more than simply a play.  It's an immersive experience that involves the audience subjectively as well as objectively. It reflects a somewhat uncomfortable world from which we have just arrived right outside the theatre. The chilly parallel may be just a bit too real.

Two huge video screens at either end of the empty space present an ever changing 'eye' that watches us.  Four smaller 'telescreens' come to life as the voice of the mysterious O'Brian  booms.  Four Party Members (Tom Szymanski, Ethan Corn, Guebri VonOver and Bob Turton)  carry copies of Smith's dossier, his self damning diary. In time each PM will portray many different characters from Smith's confiscated diary.

Cihan Sahin's professionally produced telescreen commercials and news reports overwhelm us. The converted party members stand erect:  transfixed as the voice of O'Brian, booms or coddles from above.

To wax poetic seems at counter point to the dread predictions from seventy years gone by. Orwell,  a brilliant satirist, saw something in his crystal ball that the world is seeing now come to fruition. And, we're not done yet.  In 2019, thirty-five years post 1984, facial recognition has pegged me without my permission on Facebook. TSA "Security" at the airport becomes a nightmare if you dare to question authority.  Who are the Fascists?  

It might be like that old Pogo comic strip, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

What Robbins and his Actors' Gang do with this version of Orwell's 1984 (they have done this show many times in the past) employs new technology with old school Nuts and Bolts acting and directing.  As Winston Smith, Will Thomas McFadden, is discovered writhing in pain lying center stage;  the audience, inches from the action.  Party Members One, Two, Three and Four interrogate Smith in the Ministry of Love. Dressed in identical trim dark suits, no ties, these actors bring to life Smith's tormentors and morph to play a dozen others as the story progresses. 

Dedicated actors, the influence of style that smarts of Grotowski and Chaikin, quantum leap from Steven Kent and The Company Theatre allow deep character and text exploration at once bringing a chilling reality to life: allowing technique to shine without shame. 

This is not a fun show. The world around us today is literally on fire; questionable leadership in the USA finds us on a slippery slope, possibly circling the drain as a nation, though we are not completely the nation of Oceana ... yet.. The reminder that corrupt forces are not the stuff of fiction is what Robbins and The Actors' Gang bring to life and for those who care to see raw theatre done with perfection, supporting this prescient work should be a high priority. 

At the snack bar, the expensive treats are insulting. Chips at fifty bucks a pound!  
But, it goes to support the theatre. As it should. 

Adapted from George Orwell's novel by
Michael Gene Sullivan
Directed by Tim Robbins
The Actors' Gang
9070 Venice Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232


Monday, October 21, 2019

The Fountain Between Riverside and Crazy at Normandie!

Pulitzer Prize winning "Between Riverside and Crazy"is neither fish nor fowl. Set in a formerly posh apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City with a view of the Hudson, the play opens with a bang that reminds us of a trying too hard sitcom.  Oswaldo (Victor Anthony) is a live-in druggie who touts Ring Ding and baloney sandwiches while rattling off at hyper speed the reason why they make a meal.   He sits with Walter (Pops) Washington (Montae Russell), a retired cop who has been holding out for a big bucks settlement from the NYPD after being shot six times by a white cop but living to tell the tale.

Archie Bunker and Fred Sanford have nothing on Walter, who is now a widower but takes care of his son Junior (Matthew Hancock) and Junior's hot to trot girlfriend, Lulu (Marisol Miranda) .. all of whom live in Walter's rent controlled digs that has seen better days. 
Marisol Miranda and Montae Russell
Photo by Jenny Graham

Director Guillermo Cienfuegos, seems to have set fire to his cast as the old addage "Bigger, Faster, Louder, Funnier (or more Dramatic)"  calls the tune for the show. 

Sit-com dialogue interspersed with shouting matches involving almost every member of the cast  tries our patience.  Why BFLF comes strongly into play may be opening night adrenaline .. or just very enthusiastic acting. 

We meet NYPD Detective Audrey O'Connor  (Lesley Fera) and her fiance, Lt. Dave Caro (Joshua Bitton) who stop by for a social visit that turns ugly as Caro attempts to secure Walter's  signature to end the eight year battle for a settlement.  Audrey was Walter's rookie charge when he was a training officer and they happily recall their time working together. The thirty thousand dollar engagement ring that Caro has presented to Audrey factors in later.

We learn that being shot six times can mess you up in many ways. Walter explains that for the past eight years while waiting for the big settlement that should keep him and his little family comfortable for a long time to come, his ability to become aroused to satisfy his wife, Dolores, has vanished with his injuries.

This information factors in with moments that actually have some build and charm. The unexpectedly sexy Church Lady (Liza Fernandez), a Brazilian with exotic healing powers, stops by for a visit.  The Church Lady's arousing remedy is way too much for Walter and has it's "impossible" benefit even as he falls to the floor with a heart attack, declaring, "This is the greatest moment of my life!"

The writing waffles from comedic moments to serious drama with an ending leaving us with unanswered questions.

David Mauer's multi-purpose set and Matt Richter's lights are excellent.
Between Riverside and Crazy
by Stephen Adly Guirgis 
The Fountain Theatre
5060 Fountain Ave.
Los Angeles CA 90029
Plays through Dec. 15, 2019
Fridays @ 8 p.m.
 Saturdays @ 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. 
 Sundays @ 2 p.m.
Mondays @ 8 p.m  
Tickets and information:
(323) 663-1525 

Monday, October 14, 2019

WORLD PREMIERE! Neil Simon's Fools The Musical Open Fist

Leon Steponovich Tolchinsky (Demitris Hartman, a ringer for Val Kilmer), is a bright young Russian school teacher. Setting out for adventure, he arrives by virtual ejection from his train, landing the dumbest village in Ukraine: The Town of Kulyenchicov! Kulyenchicov suffers from a curse by the evil Gregor (Jason Paige), turning on some problem two hundred years prior to our story. The townsfolk call bouquets of flowers by fish names and the over all silliness of Neil Simon giving in to puns and such prevails. Mr. Simon may be on a cloud somewhere, just giggling that such a bit of pure silliness would bring guffaws. It's funny.

And enthusiastic cast, accompanied by a truly delightful live orchestra (well.. four pieces) that Klezmers like anything to accompany strong singing and Luisa Kendrick Burton's really clever choreography.  As we might expect from Neil Simon, it's a love story. Poor Tolchinsky stumbles into a morass of really stupid jokes and a pantomimed door slam that got me every time.  

  Yes! The Open Fist has waded into a musical.     On Jan Munroe's brightly colored Ukranian Egg inspired  set we are treated to overly broad performances, great singing and strong dance moves. Not all of the lyrics are immediately clear, but the enthusiastic cast barrels through with an outstanding performance by the gorgeous
Sophia (operatic soprano, Clare Snodgrass) who is as dumb as a box or rocks.. or fine jewelry, as we are led to believe the local vendor, (Cat Davis) who foists rocks off as gifts.  

 The village   has been blessed with a curse that has rendered the inhabitants simply simple.  They function, somehow and are excited to have a new teacher to replace the myriad of former teachers who have come and gone over the years.  Sophia's parents, Dr. and Mrs. Zubritsky (Bruce Green and Robyn Roth) make George Burns and Gracie Allen look like Rhodes Scholars. 
Photo by Darrett Sanders
  The show comes in at well over two hours with a fifteen minute intermission that seemed more like half an hour.  Meta references to the audience are silly with the story taking some double twists and turns after we are conned into "liking" Paige's evil Count Gregor and even goaded to applaud his reversal of fortune only to have the plot cheat its way to a very happy ending..and then.. more of an ending than necessary..and then we got to go home. 

This review, in the spirit of Neil Simon, means to say that the laughs are cheap and well worth the time investment.  The huge cast and wonderful orchestra make the evening memorable though long. To benefit the company, Jan Munroe's artwork will be for sale after the show closes.  I support Open Fist and their dedication to new works and pushing the theatrical envelope, thus.. this pitch.

Applause for all of the Fools on the stage and those of us cavorting in the audience.

by Neil Simon
Book and lyrics by Neil Simon 
Music and lyrics by Phil Swann and Ron West
Directed by Ron West
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Through November 17, 2019
Tickets and Information:
(323) 882-6912 

Sunday, October 13, 2019


Argentina is one of those South American countries that have always made me think of the pampas and cowboys in flared gaucho pants wearing little black hats... slinging bolos that are used to capture critters to subdue them.  Looking at a map of South America, well below Brazil,  Argentina slightly resembles a caricature of Richard Nixon. Or a sea horse.   Stephanie Alison Walker's  "The Abuelas" presents the story of political upheaval in that country and the search for disappeared children.  

It's a frigid day in Chicago. On Edward E. Haynes, Jr.'s beautiful set, we feel and experience the raging "ocean" of Lake Michigan with Gabriela (Luisina Quarleri) in silhouette, dancing madly while playing her cello. 
Luisina Quarleri
Photo by Jenny Graham
The crashing of the winter waves and her mad attack of the instrument foreshadow a story that evolves from a warm light comedy to the angst and rancor of secrets kept: secrets revealed and the consequences of how the past, when given the opportunity, informs the present and then, the future.  

Initially, Walker's powerful polemic reveals the love story of Gabriela and Marty (Seamus Deaver) who are living what appears to be a full and  artistic life. They care for their new son with the help an abuela (grandmother), Denise Blasor as Soledad. Soledad is  Gabriela's Argentine madre who came for a short visit and stayed as a caretaker.  Gabriela is the first woman to chair cello for the Chicago Symphony and Marty is an up and coming architect prepared to break the rules for art in commercial architectural design. 

We bounce along with exposition that reveals a bit of Argentina, Soledad behaving like a typical mother-in-law as the family prepares to celebrate her birthday.  Ever the drama queen,  Blasor brings the caricature to life with good humor. 

The tenor of the story begins to change as César (David DeSantos), an Argentinian who has befriended Gabriela, shows up with an unexpected guest, Carolina (Irene De Bari). Carolina emotionally gushes over the beautiful Gabriela. Why DeSantos has opted for volume blaring past ten when the rest of the cast is so much more subdued is a mystery. His shouted lines set the audience back in our seats as he careened through a  mixed bag of revelations that set the story on an awkward journey. 

The details of "The Disappeared" in Argentina as the "dirty war" comes into play are revealed as the final polemic, enhanced by Gabriela's nightmare memories are played out by Carolina Montenegro as Belén, writhing in pain,  reflecting the ravages of the dirty war.   
Adam R. Macias's perfect projections enhance and strong performances by the cast, reveal a story that sends Gabriela's life in an unexpected direction. It mostly plays well.  DeSanto's bombastic volume and over the top performance seems either totally out of place or the rest of the cast was reluctant to broadcast what seems to show in the script as more subtle exposition is on director Andi Chapman.  How she allowed this actor to overwhelm the scenes that he is prominent in might be a call for some attention.  An audience stays 'in' a performance when the players are all in the same play at the same time. This actor may have imagined himself at the Pantages where one projects to an audience of three thousand? 

The Abuelas 
by Stephanie Alison Walker
Antaeus Theatre Company
Kiki & David Gindler 
Performing Arts Center
110 East Broadway
Glendale, CA 91205

Friday Oct. 11 (opening), Oct. 18, Oct. 25, Nov.15 (dark Nov. 1, Nov. 8, Nov. 22)
Saturdays at 8 p.m.: Oct. 5 (preview), Oct. 12, Oct. 19, Oct. 26, Nov.16 (dark Nov. 2, Nov. 9, Nov. 23)
Sundays at 2 p.m.: Oct. 6 (preview), Oct. 13, Oct. 20, Oct. 27, Nov. 10, Nov. 24 (dark Nov. 3, Nov. 17)
Mondays at 8 p.m.: Oct. 21, Oct. 28, Nov, 4, Nov. 11, Nov. 25 (dark Oct. 14, Nov. 4, Nov.18)
Tickets and Information: 
(818) 506-1983


Sunday, October 6, 2019


Rider Strong's fictional approach to factual events becomes his world premiere play, Never Ever Land.  It discusses the issues of one of the most famous pop stars of the 20th Century and the stories we have all heard whispered in private or shouted in the press.  Strong, a child star with the television show Boy Meets World in the 1990s now arrives with a chilling story of celebrity and where it may take unsuspecting folks who are drawn into the magic circle. 

It's not entirely clear where 'myth and substance' may meld, but the goal, according to the author is to commingle them in such a way as to send a message to us all that when it comes to fame and greed and the seduction that they may bring, it's a red flag that must be heeded.  It's about seduction and Michael Jackson: The White Whale in tabloid parlance.

Though The White Whale is never mentioned by name, it's clear that the accusations by some families regarding time that their young boys spent with MJ at Neverland or elsewhere were never confirmed in court. Did Jacob Gable lie and  did his family come into millions for silence? 

To be literally vibrated into submission by Michael Teoli's incessant throbbing bass, heard and literally felt through the walls of the theatre on Western, was the first indication that this was not going to be easy.  How the cast will ever recover their hearing from the blasting music may become an issue later in life.. The play, of course, starts the minute one walks in off the street.   We are in audience mode and the audience for last night's performance seemed to bear up bravely.  Nicholas Acciani's Greek revival set transforms with the entire cast serving as stagehands, during punishing sound that accompanies harsh informational videos projected on the upstage wall.  Two young boys Tim and Jacob Gable (Marcello Silva and Orlando Christian)  are pressed into service as well.   

I have a bit of trouble with children on stage.  There is, to a person, a certain tone of inexperience that makes a kid difficult to believe.  It may be as simple as just major 'indicating' (and that should be fixed by the director, but Michael A. Sheppherd either encouraged it or the kids just went for it on their own).  Perhaps it seemed necessary to have the kids played by actual children, but in a recent production at The Rogue Machine Theatre, children were played by adult actors and it worked just fine.  Again, casting is on the director and the goal must have been to slap us silly back and forth in time when the kids were kids and then meeting them as adults. 

The adults playing Tim and Jacob Gable (Andrew Brian Carter and Wade E. Wilson) were under the influence, perhaps, of the demanding original music, that rocked the theatre when we were transported from 2012 to 1993 and other times back and forth, slip sliding in time as adult Tim weasels his way into an echo of  a sleazy TMZ gossip type show with Leif Vantvoort  as bombastic Vincent Hack.. the "Lawyer" who thrives on the slimy crap that ruins lives and makes him lots of money.   

The White Whale died June 25, 2009.  His legacy of transcendent music and unique style influenced a generation.  His interest in childhood and children as friends is speculated upon by Strong... as Jackson's loss of his actual childhood as the driving force in the Jackson Five may have been motive for him to regain some of his youth as an adult, as if we could ever call him an adult?   What ever actually  happened remains speculation and innuendo.  The millions paid in hush money come into play in this production with Jacob being urged, twenty years later, to "tell the truth," which may boost his half brother, Tim, into the limelight and make him rich. 

Plots and subplots being whipped back and forth in time from the 1990s to the 2012s or so, annotated by blaring music and over amped video projections is not all that difficult to follow, but the direction of BIGGER, FASTER, LOUDER, ANGRIER.. is not necessarily "Better." In fact, these poor actors, pressed to the limit, make their acting technique overly obvious to the determent of their characters.  

An odd subplot involving Jacob's fascination with the 18th Century poet/plagerist Thomas Chatterton brings the brothers to an understanding, at long last. 

A World Premiere is exciting. This one, perhaps with a respect for the hearing health of the cast and the audience with maybe a more realistic presentation of the material, as salacious as it might be, could be an idea for a slightly more subtle approach to an extremely rough subject. 
One fact check:  The Balloon Boy Hoax was not in Texas. It happened in Colorado. 

by Rider Strong
Theatre Unleashed
520 N. Western
Los Angeles, CA 90004
Sept. 28-Oct. 27
Thursdays – 8 p.m.
Fridays – 8 p.m.
Saturdays – 8 p.m.
Sundays – 7 p.m.