THE PRIDE 

Photo by Kevin Parry

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Perfoming Arts

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Teaching a class that concentrates on 20th century playwrights and their most celebrated definitive works, I am always gratified when my students grasp my own possibly not-so sly personal subplot. Although the focus of my course is how plays are adapted into film, beginning with Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and finishing the semester with Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County, what I hope my charges will notice over the ensuing four months is how little has changed in how we live and how we react to life’s many challenges over the course of 100 years between the two classic stories. We silly and conflicted human beings simply never seem to get it right, never seem to learn from our many, many mistakes.

Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Olivier Award-winning The Pride, making its west coast debut at the Wallis Annenberg Center under the direction of the Wallis’ Artist-in-Residence Michael Arden, brings that sensibility to light in one near-epic effort, the action weaving back and forth through time from 1958 to 2008 as a group of urban Londoners deal with the subject of homosexuality.

In 1958, the participants are shrouded in shame and denial, having to resort to clandestine sex in public parks to skirt the restrictive mores of the time, while 50 years later, although the freedom to be whomever we please without concern for labels is far more acceptable, that new freedom is not always appreciated. If society does not keep its citizenry under its control, Campbell seems to be stating, we still do a mighty good job of screwing it up anyway all by ourselves.

The three pivotal characters, who appear in both timeframes, all have the same names, quickly making it clear that these aren’t doppelgangers or descendants; they are the same people living their lives as they would be unfolding in two different periods of time.

In 2008, the stiffly proper couple Phillip and Sylvia (Neil Bledsoe and Jessica Collins) have evolved into two very different people with extremely different personas—he going from a tortured, desperately bored and unhappy husband repressing his sexuality at all costs into a fairly secure gay man who knows what he wants, as she morphs from suspicious but dutiful little wifey into a confident free spirit embracing her life.

Their friend and Phillip’s on-again-off-again lover Oliver (Augustus Prew) is just about equally doomed by his fucked-up life in both time periods. His behavior, which is seen as “mannered” in 1958, translates into a debilitating addiction to anonymous sexual dalliances in 2008. In both time periods and with or without a cultural pass for his sexual preferences, Oliver always end up the same way: alone and struggling with his life choices.

Under Arden’s strikingly kinetic and aesthetically elegant four-sided staging, his performers—joined by Matthew Wilkas as a series of supporting characters ranging from a rentboy roleplaying as a Nazi commander to a some-of-my-best-friends-are-y breeder hiring Oliver to write a politically-correct article about being gay for a trendy London magazine—are all, to sound a little too self-consciously British, splendid. Campbell’s dialogue is surprisingly fluid and accessibly poetic spoken in both eras, although some of his characters’ expository passages, in an effort to fill us in quickly and get on with things, seem rushed and often more than a little clunky.

All four actors swing from one era and one character to another with lightning speed, moving an austere collection of clear acrylic furniture around the playing space, also designed by the multi-talented Arden, as if performing a most graceful and sharply choreographed ballet. Utilizing Joshua D. Reid’s exceptionally eclectic soundtrack of mostly pop music from both periods of time, Danae Iris McQueen’s perfect costumes are shed and replaced, often before us, accentuated by the moody, often unrealistic lighting designed by Travis Hagenbuch—which includes a series of geometric neon tubes placed under the stage’s see-through lucite floor.

Though seemingly simple, under the surface The Pride is a stinging indictment that we, as a species, should live the lives we feel is right for us, without care of what anyone else thinks about our choices. Both in 1958 and 2008, Oliver’s world, which should be rewarding him for his essential gentleness and obvious talents, has turned on him, mainly due to what he has been told all his life was right and what was wrong, leading him into sad, ugly, risky behavior. If we choose to live truthfully, with genuine regard for one another and with our heads held high, nobody can tell us who we should be or what bastardized and antiquated religious-based edicts we must follow.

THROUGH JULY 9:  Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Bl., Beverly Hills. 310.746.4000

BLACKBIRD 

Photo by Matt Richter

Davidson/Valentini Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

There’s one thing that really, really good Hollywood Fringe Festival entries have in common: their run is traditionally too short, too randomly scheduled, and ultimately too often shortchanged, buried in the festival’s incredibly prolific collection of month-long theatrical offerings. So it is with this exceptionally moving and thought-provoking rendition of David Harrower’s gritty two-character 2007 Olivier Award Best Play Blackbird, an effort which deserves so much more than eight performances.

From the moment Charlotte Gulezian and Bradley Fisher hit the small litter-strewn stage until the play’s jaw-dropping climax, these two brilliant performers, continuously circling one another like hungry caged tigers under director Anna Stromberg’s remarkably riveting and unrelentingly ominous staging, never stop moving, creating a palpable, almost sickening tension that makes their audience collectively move to the edges of their seats and stay there for the next 70 minutes.

Una (Gulezian) has arrived at the workplace of Peter (Fisher), whom she knows as Ray. She demands to see him and he quickly ushers her into the company’s claustrophobic concrete breakroom, desperately trying to get her to leave or go outside to talk or just simply keep her voice down. Ray has a lot about which to keep quiet, as neither his coworkers nor his current girlfriend know anything about his former life, the life that ended with a prison term after his three-month affair with Una when she was 13 years old changed both of their lives forever.

Una wants him to pay for what he has done to her once again since, although he is no longer incarcerated and apparently leads a normal—or should I say more societally acceptable—life, her own has been spiraling downward since their passion for one another took over their sensibilities 15 years earlier.

Stromberg’s direction is never static, boldly accentuated by unrealistic and quirky light shifts which provide a theatricalized touch that continuously makes inquiring minds want to know if they are part of Harrower’s vision and included in his script or if the unique device was imagined and developed by the director and her team.

Fisher is an impressive and truly wonderful actor, although here he is a tad miscast, his lack of corporeal presence rather distracting when, if Ray is played by a more physically substantial performer (Jeff Daniels played the role on Broadway twice, in 2007 opposite Alison Pill and last season in the acclaimed revival opposite Michelle Williams), Una’s obsession with him—not to mention her obvious ability to huff and puff and blow him across the room along with the aforementioned mounds of onstage trash—would make more sense.

As it is, Gulezian’s Una overpowers her tormenter easily for two reasons. Firstly, she stands straight and proud and shows off her muscles in costumer Wendy Barillas’ Goth-inspired clubwear, while Fisher delivers most of his lines bent substantially forward from the waist, visually giving up any power he might hold or once held over someone he dominated all those years ago—something he still should be able to conjure if the play’s ending is to make sense.

The other problem is that, although Fisher plays beautifully off his sparring partner despite this distraction, he is partnered with Gulezian, who is an actor so formidable, so compelling, so able to emanate waves of mysteriously personal internal conflicts, that playing off of her must be somewhat akin to that old adage from W.C. Fields about kids and animals. Her take on Una is mesmerizing, bubbling up menacingly from someplace so deep within her that one wonders how she can go there without ending up like Ronald Coleman in A Double Life.

Una’s palpable desire—a desire to understand Ray, a desire to hurt him as deeply as he hurt her, and eventually the most primal desire, to be loved with a passion that, although clearly dangerous, she seems to never have found again—electrifies her performance and reaches so deep inside that her traumatized yet still intrigued character appears to leap and transform and instantly transcend those troubled 15 years that have passed between she and Peter seamlessly.

Oddly enough, to the credit of Stromberg and her exceptional performers, what this courageously brazen playwright, unfettered by societal mores that might make him a target for our current conservative “leadership,” eventually manages to accomplish is to make us feel a tremendous well of sympathy for both Una and Peter despite the nature of a crime that, in our culture, is considered abhorrent in every regard.

What Blackbird leaves us wondering, if we’re really willing to listen, is how much human behavior, all those things that should be allowed to be decided on a private and individual basis, turns twisted because we are told it is twisted. Do such things destroy lives because they’re inherently evil—or is it because our accepted and religiously-spawned heritage demands it must be?

THROUGH JULY 2:  Davidson/Valentini Theatre, LA LGBT Center, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., LA. lalgbtcenter.org/theatre or 323.860.7300

NICKY 

Photo by John Klopping

Coeurage Theatre Company at the Greenway Court Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov is hardly the most revered of the tragically--no pun intended—few plays written before the great wordsmith’s untimely early death. Historically, it’s best known for being the short story writer’s very first tentative sojourn as a playwright at the ripe old age of 27, written under commission from Fiodor Korsh to be performed at his theatre in Moscow in 1887.

As with Chekhov’s more successful later works for the theatre, Ivanov was intended to be a comedy, something that made its creator despondent when it was first performed because he felt, just as he did when he walked out on the first performance of his acclaimed final play The Cherry Orchard, directed by Stanislavski himself for the Moscow Art Theatre in its groundbreaking debut 17 years later. He swore both times never to write another play because directors and performers just didn’t seem to understand his humor.

Depression, avoidance, unrequited love, debt beyond redemption, terminal illness, and culminating suicide hardly seemed appropriate subjects, even at the conflicted turn of the 20th century, to be heralded as plots for I Love Lucy or some money-making Jim Carrey film vehicle. All those themes run through the four-act Ivanov and most times it is performed, it can be deadly to observe except as the great classic work of dramatic literature it is. 

Many, many playwrights, from those illustrious Davids, Mamet and Hare, to Tennessee Williams and Brian Friel, have tried throughout the last century and into our current one to adapt Chekhov’s work to reflect our more modern times, but most have failed dismally before Aaron Posner arrived on the scene and turned the equally melancholy The Seagull into the raucous and incredibly imaginative Stupid Fucking Bird.

Now award-winning LA playwright Boni B. Alvarez has done a masterful job adapting Ivanov to reflect our own equally fucked-up times, inventively turning the severely depressed government employee Nikolai Ivanov into Nicky, our brooding anti-hero (Cyrus Wilcox) whose days as a successful internet entrepreneur have dried up as he sits in morose silence baking in the hot desert sun at his slickly contemporary Palm Springs condo. Like ol’ Anton’s Nikolai, Nicky feels fat and used up while his cancer-riddled wife Anna (Sandy Velasco) sings popular songs into her karaoke machine in her bedroom and wonders what happened to their once gloriously loving relationship.

While Anna slowly dies—in the original, ironically, from tuberculosis, the same disease which ended Chekhov’s own life at age 44—the usual band of characters from his endless supply of quirky peripheral characters show up at the birthday party of Sasha (Chris Aguila), the offspring of Nicky’s best friend Pavel and his wealthy ducat-counting wife Zina (Daniel Kaemon and Emily Swallow).

Alvarez’ Nicky brilliantly turns the play’s original characters into people highly familiar to us in 2017 as the world just keeps spinning on toward its inevitable destruction at the hands of a species that can’t ever seem to get it right. Anna, who in the original has renounced her Jewish heritage, alienating her family by turning Russian Orthodox to marry her man, is here Filipino, offering a different but surprisingly similar challenge to the character, And, even more indicative of our own lives and times, Sasha is a young gay 21-year-old who is attracted to “daddies,” giving a whole new relevance to his situation as the attraction that has developed between the boy and Nicky is explored.

Under Beth Lopes' smartly fluid direction on Benoit Guerin’s remarkably effective set, which features an onstage swimming pool that’s instantly ominous to any student of Chekhov, Nicky’s world closes in around him just as tightly as ever, proving the 130 years that have passed since Ivanov debuted once again prove that human beings just don’t have the tools to survive in any period of their troubled history.

As slyly clever as Nicky is, however, it would seem to be quite a puzzle for anyone not already familiar with late 19th-century Russian drama to recognize the innovative direction Alvarez took to update the material. And frankly, as wonderfully talented as are most of Coeurage Theatre’s splendidly committed players here (particularly Kaemon, Swallow, Ted Barton as Nicky’s morose but loving uncle, and Caro Zeller as Zina’s eye-rolling servant Gisela), many of the other supporting characters, originally added to give roles to all those subsidized Russian theatre company members sitting around with nothing to do, could easily be eliminated and still tell the story well. No, better. Unlike the title role and a few other pivotal characters necessary to drive the story on, just as in the Chekhovian original, all the other subplots end up with nowhere to go, offering the game actors playing them no hint of any discernable character arc available to them to make their inclusion worthwhile. 

Still, Nicky is a monumental effort and the production values here, as usual for the unstoppably courageous Coeurage, simply could not be better.

THROUGH JULY 1: Coeurage Theatre at the Greenway Court, 544 N. Fairfax Av., LA. 323.673.0544

BUILDING THE WALL 

Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Although Pablo Picasso was speaking of painting when he said art was not meant simply to decorate the walls of an apartment, his message is still critical and far more universal. Instead, he believed, the greater function of art should be as an "offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy."

With the communicative arts, the more topical the message, the better. Only two months since the beginning of the Donald J. Trump's brazen assault on everything anyone with a conscience holds dear, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan brings us Building the Wall, a riveting cautionary tale he wrote in a single week speculating about what might just happen to our country if the current administration isn't stopped in its fascistic tracks.

It's 2019 and the good news is our embarrassing and soulless 45th President has indeed been impeached, but not before irreparable damage has been done. As the Prince of Petulance sits in exile in his golden palace in Palm Springs nursing his wounds--and probably tweeting his displeasure still on a daily basis--one of his sycophants languishes in a prison cell awaiting sentencing while his immediate superior has escaped trial by committing suicide.

Rick (Bo Foxworth) is a private prison official who began supporting Trump when he heard the first presidential debate on TV while drowning his sorrows in a bar. Although lightning didn't strike, Rick found Trump's "performance" entertaining. It was like doing The Wave at a pro-wrestling event, he recalls, something he can only explain by admitting Trump's non-pc boldness immediately elevated him beyond his lifelong outsider status and, for once, made him not feel ashamed of himself anymore. 

Under Michael Michetti's tensely claustrophobic direction, Foxworth stealthily avoids making his character either a troglodyte or a monster, delivering a quietly compelling performance as the fiercely conflicted scapegoat paying for the crimes the misguided former leader of the free world, whose stance on immigration has in this future abyss dissolved into a horrific repeat of the Holocaust.

Although Rick objected to the orders passed down from on high, where detainees were taken in busses the guards called "taco trucks" to meet a fate far worse than deportation, his interviewer Gloria (the solid Judith Moreland) believes his crime was letting it happen without offering any resistance--something as a black woman living in America during this period in time she knows only too well.

Schenkkan's script is sometimes predictable and the premise, as Gloria questions and Rick answers questions about his beaten-down life which so obviously formed his skewed belief system, often feels awkward and too convenient. Still, the combined artistry of Schenkkan and Michetti guiding these two immensely talented performers helps make Building the Wall an urgently important call to arms. It is a disturbing warning about things that easily could happen if we, as Americans, do not stand up to the insanity and tyranny unfolding daily before our eyes and somehow right the terrible mistake foisted upon our nation and the world.

 THROUGH AUGUST 27: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525

 

  See?  I'm an angel.