OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY 

Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Contemporary theatrical treasure Hershey Felder is a true triple-threat artist—and I don’t mean he has ever danced the Dream Ballet in Oklahoma! Not only does Felder write and produce his own material for his solo explorations of the lives of history’s greatest musical geniuses, he performs playing the figures he presents and, above all, he sits down at his Steinway and brilliantly plays their compositions. It’s like Anton Chekhov meets Christopher Plummer meets Van Cliburn—and we, his grateful devotees, are the eager recipients of his plethora of unstoppable gifts.

Felder has toured the world with his incredibly successful runs of George Gershwin Alone, Monsieur Chopin, Beethoven, Maestro (Leonard Bernstein), Franz Liszt in Musik, and he has even presented an evening with a decided non-composer in Lincoln: An American Story. Now Felder returns to LA, bringing his amazing Our Great Tchaikovsky to the Wallis. And unlike his previous efforts, this one has a political and social message that elevates it to an even higher status than all the others.

As fame and notoriety grew for Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky during the last half of the 19th century, so did his fearful trepidation that he would be exposed as a homosexual, particularly since his proclivities for his own sex seemed to lean toward comely adolescents. “Nature is not perfect,” Felder as Tchaikovsky prophetically drops, something that he also then illustrates bravely energized the great man’s rule-breaking compositions while haunting his troubled and unfulfilled personal life. It was a time in czarist Russia where a person could be sent to Siberia, if not face something worse as a punishment, if he batted his eyelids in the wrong direction, a fact that led the composer into a loveless marriage that eventually made him a victim of bribery and extortion.

Under the wise directorial hand of his frequent contributor Trevor Hay, Felder presents Tchaikovsky as a sweet but tortured man unable to live the life which was endemic to him and, with extremely evocative expertise, he clearly elucidates this malady with his onstage artistry, arrestingly playing some of the master’s most enduringly beautiful compositions with worldclass results. That underlying loneliness and despair echoed in the composer’s work, something that eventually led to the man’s reclusive lifestyle at his last home in Klin where he met his mysterious death at age 53, is heartbreaking to behold.

Although the official cause of death listed was cholera contracted by drinking tainted water, there was then and is still today much speculation that Tchaikovsky’s pain and suffering led to suicide or, even more ominously, that he was ordered killed by the Czar for the embarrassment news of his homosexuality would cause the motherland. The last of the sweepingly colorful projections designed by Christopher Ash dominating the stage just before the final blackout makes it obvious what Felder’s opinion is on all this. 

But that’s not the only opinion Felder offers here, comparing the narrowminded governmental mandates of the late 1800s with the current situation for homosexuals in Putin’s modernday Russia, where in 2013 Dummald J. Troutmouth’s best friend implemented unconscionably twisted anti-gay legislature, something which even led to a government sting operation which lured young men through social media to gather together to be beaten, jailed, publicly humiliated and ridiculed, even killed or driven to suicide.

The fact that Felder begins his current show stepping out of character reading his audience a letter from Moscow inviting him to come there to perform this piece is not lost to us. Even as the Russian officials strive to this day to debunk any question that their great national hero was a little light in the loafers, Felder bringing this show there—despite the perhaps cushioning fact that he is married to Kim Campbell, the former and first female Prime Minister of Canada—could personally still be a huge chance to take.

As Felder as Tchaikovsky laments from the stage, “Why is it artists are always looking for approval in those who will never give it to us and ignore those who do.” Yet here’s the thing: the true nature of a great artist is to take unearthly risks and mix things up, something that, in his time, his subject could never safely do. 

So, has Hershey Felder decided to accept Moscow’s invitation to perform Our Great Tchaikovsky in the capital city of Russia? You bet your ass he has, making the guy even more of a hero to the arts than ever before. Though still behind in so many things, at least in Siberia these days there is central heating.

THROUGH AUG. 13: Wallis Center, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. 310.746.400 or TheWallis.org

THE DEVIL'S WIFE 

Photo by Ed Krieger

 Skylight Theatre Company

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder 

If I am ever to be stranded on a remote tropical island with three contemporary playwrights, Tom Jacobson would be one of my choices. Stephen Karam, Sheila Callaghan, and Tom—and maybe Michael Michetti to direct us. Oh, and an unlimited supply of apricots.

This said, Jacobson’s newest play, The Devil’s Wife, would not be among my all-time favorites someone could airlift in wrapped in a big bundle with his many other great plays to keep us company, along with medical supplies and, of course, those mandatory apricots. Don’t get me wrong—this play is as bitingly funny and bordering on wickedly, slyly inappropriate as any of his plays that came before it, but although it’s monumentally charming and slickly produced by the committed folks at the Skylight Theatre Company, it doesn’t stay with you and force you think about what it all means over the next few weeks or years as so many of his other plays before it have.

What I’ve always marveled over in Jacobson’s body of work was the narrative challenges he’s always put before himself in his complicated other plays. The Devil’s Wife is a gothic-styled adult fairy tale appearing to be set in a mid-19th century undisclosed European location, something never made crystal clear, especially since Sarah Figoten Wilson’s incredibly detailed lacey period costuming and Stephanie Kerley-Schwartz’ richly-accented set recalling Don Diego’s ranch in an old Zorro remake, bump up against the far more contemporary feeling of Jacobson’s dialogue and the performers’ playing style.

This rococo plantation drawing room is where the three Ramirez sisters (Alana Dietze, Mariel Neto, and Caro Zeller) join after having just buried their once-wealthy landowner father, mourning both his death and the fact that the old man left them with nothing besides a barren waterless expanse of land with nothing to till besides dust and a history fraught with that apocalyptic foursome: “floods, droughts, locusts, and lawyers.” Their salvation comes from the unsolicited appearance of the dashing Nicolas Mastema (Everette Wallin), who offers a surprising solution. If one of the sisters will marry him, their estate will be saved and everything will turn out just hunky-dory. Right... where's the fun in that?

What follows is a fairly predictable morality tale, like Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm gone a little naughty, and as so, it works splendidly. The performances are all courageously over-the-top.as they earnest spout Jacobson’s typically rich dialogue full of sly sexual innuendo. Why, even in the pouring rain, as Sofia (Zeller) meets their handsome champion for the first time, when she looks deeply into his eyes and tells him she’s “wet,” there’s no doubt what the remark is supposed to conjure.

Director Eric Hoff does his best to conquer some of the play’s challenges, but the periodic change of setting from the Ramirez estate to Mastema’s mansion proves a difficult one to stage. Jacobson sends this up perfectly when Bonita (Neto) comes home and tells her siblings her new husband’s place is nice, then suddenly turns to look around and say with sudden incredulity, “It’s a lot like our own, in fact.” What’s most successful is Hoff’s decision to place a lot of the transitions right before us, as the sisters dress each other at the lip of the stage or Christopher Moscatiello’s lighting provides mysterious backlit ambience to increase the eeriness of the play’s mysterious developments.

There are some Jacobsonian referrals to the thorniest throughline in his work, the place of faith and religion in modern life, and a subtly introduced subplot hinting at the empowerment of women is clearly buried somewhere in all this, but in general, the point simply misses and the end does not provide the unexpected twists one might wait for from the playwright.

Wallin transforms rapidly throughout from the noble-if-ominous Mastema into his hunched-over servant Ratel, who resembles a villain on an episode of Shelley Duvall’s old Fairie Tale Theatre. Dietze is hilarious as Dulce, the sexually insatiable sister whose turn as Mrs. Mastema is a pleasure for her (literally), especially since she tells the others she has never before been so satisfied by anyone so physically “disproportionate.”

Still it is Zeller who gives the most indelible performance as Sofia, lying somewhere between Olivia deHaviland in The Heiress and the character of Fosca in Sondheim’s long-underappreciated Passion.

Kerley-Schwartz’ set is suitably evocative, making one wonder what will happen to it in a couple of week’s time when Jennifer W. Rowland’s The Lost Child begins to share the stage—and the designer—in rep. Wilson’s costuming is just plain jaw-dropping, not anything compromised by the barebones quality of most LA 99-seat theatre productions, especially these days thanks to a union once on our side but blatantly no more than a weight around all our necks.

For whatever might be lacking for me in The Devil’s Wife, the Skylight’s impressive production values and Tom Jacobson’s unique capacity to entertain are not among the considerations. It’s actually a kinda perfect choice for a mostly mindless night out of summer fun, something desperately needed as our beloved country spirals down into the crapper around us. If I wasn’t such an avid devotee of Jacobson’s work and had no previous reference to lead to a prevailing sense of disappointment since I probably was expecting too much, I’ll bet it would have provided a much better time for me.

So. About that tropical island: I’ll bring those apricots if someone will provide the parachute to fly in Tom Jacobson. I’m packed and ready anytime.

THROUGH AUG. 27: Skylight Theatre, 1816 ½ N. Vermont Av., LA. 213.761.7061 or skylighttheatrecompany.com

JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS 

Photo by Enci

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder 

One of the most surefooted ways to grab an audience and hold it to your heart is to sing anything written by Jacques Brel, the Belgium-born and Paris-bred folk singer/poet and master of the modern chanson, whose brief but fiery non-conformistic life tragically ended in 1978 at the way too early age of 49.

Although Brel’s following was at first mostly French and European, as he recorded most of his songs in French and occasionally Dutch, he became a major influence on English-speaking songwriters and performers from David Bowie to Marc Almond to Rod McKuen, and English translations of his songs were recorded over the years by Ray Charles, Judy Collins, John Denver, Nina Simone, and Frank Sinatra, among many other devotees.

It was 1968, inspired by the worldwide success of Damita Jo's “If You Go Away,” translated from Brel’s gossamer ballad “Ne me quitte pas,” that the classic revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. With lyrics translated by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, the production conceived by Shuman and featuring a 25-song cycle of Brel’s songs performed by two men and two women, the incredibly successful revue ran there over four years and, simply, has since been remounted in virtually every major city in the world.

I have personally seen Jacques Brel Is… done about 20 times in my life, from large theatre complexes to intimate nightclub venues to converted ice skating rinks to once aboard a cruise ship headed to Mexico. The music is nothing short of amazing and Brel’s signature insight, political jabs, razor-sharp wit, and that thinly-veiled inherent optimism he tried so hard to disguise, makes it timeless despite a lack of the usual plotline afforded the standard book musical.

There’s a teflon quality to any production of Jacques Brel Is…, something exhibited by the current version just opening at the Odyssey Theatre directed by Dan Fishbach. In many ways, Fishbach’s starkly simple vision is impressively bare-boned, with the musicians playing live at the rear of the Vegas lounge-y set by Alex Kolmanovsky made up of large ascending gray platforms, and featuring piercing lighting by William Adashek and complimentarily monochromatic costuming by Denise Blasor to match.

The production serves as proof that the haunting lyricism of Brel’s music and the insightful nature of his poetry can make his classic revue survive just about anything--and even eventually inspire Fishbach’s obviously less accomplished, initially less magnetic cast to eventually soar to unexpected heights.

Marc Francoeur as Man 1, the brash and whimsical role Shuman created for himself, never quite seems comfortable with the exaggerated and in-your-face style of the piece, although vocally he gathers confidence as the evening progresses. Hopefully, as the run continues and grows into itself, so will his work.

On the other hand, Michael Yapujian has a better handle on the vocals but physically, though clearly confident, it’s hard to grasp what he’s doing besides performing in his own disconnected one-man show. There’s not much heroic about his usually heroic Man 2, clearly the show’s Brel substitute, as Yapujian appears more to be trying to go for Woody Allen playing Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors than honoring the more sophisticated Brel. 

The women fare far better. Although musical director Anthony Lucca should try to temper Miyuki Miyagi’s vocals in group numbers so it doesn’t blatantly overpower her costars, in her solo turns she has a beautiful and richly resonant voice. She is especially impressive as she sweetly interprets the triple-waltz-timed “Timid Frieda,” with castmate Susan Kohler pantomiming our anti-heroine as she arrives with her valises held so tightly in her hands. This is one of the most memorable songs to pay devotional homage to Brel’s evocative lyrics (“Will life seize her? / On the street where the new dreams gather / Like fearless robins, joined together / In high-flying bands”) and Miyagi knocks it right out onto Sepulveda Boulevard.

It is Kohler, however, a little bit Piaf, a little bit Judy Collins, a little bit Barbara Cook, and even a little bit Julie Harris, who is the quintessential interpreter of Brel’s songs here, someone with a uniquely expressive if not perfect voice who overcomes that assessment instantly with her unique ability to tell the master’s story with style and a phrasing that’s notably individual to her. Her gorgeously poignant “I Loved,” containing the one Brel lyric I find myself conjuring often over the course of my last four-and-a-half years (“You loved me like a poet loves / My nights were made of stars and fears”), is the highlight of the evening—at least the part of the evening we were allowed to experience.

About halfway through Act Two, in the middle of Kohler’s beautifully redolent French-sung “Marieke,” our blazing El Lay summer, such a testament to the ominous fact that global warming is real and our President is full of shit in this and so many other ways, hit the Odyssey bigtime, zapping off the power in the entire complex and leaving us—no, the entire neighborhood—lost in complete darkness.

As management entered the theatre to tell us all to hold tight, as they were gathering flashlights to escort us all from the place, the cast was bombarded with fervent pleas to continue. As they stood like sentries on the blackened stage, the lack of air-conditioning quickly becoming an issue, the committed quartet came together as an ensemble as they had yet to accomplish to that point. They clasped arms after helping one another down from Kolmanovsky’s challenging levels of steep platforming, joining together before us to continue the show in the glow of their grateful audience members’ flickering cellphone lights.

As they soldiered on valiantly in the dark, the house manager returned to say they had decided the show must not go on any farther, but still they did not stop. At a shouted request from a knowledgeable audience member to “At least sing ‘If We Only Have Love,’ the show’s knockout final number and Brel’s sweeping anthem to the redemptive glories of love, and with the complete agreement from musical director Lucca seated in the dark behind at his magical keyboard, Francoeur, Kohler, Miyagi, and Yapujian transformed into relaxed and committed superstars, offering the most beautiful and the most heartfelt rendition of the song I have ever heard.

There in the darkness they stood before us, heads held high in the collective glow of all those wavering iPhones and sang:

If we only have love / Then tomorrow will dawn

And the days of our years / Will rise on that morn

If we only have love / To embrace without fears

We will kiss with our eyes / We will sleep without tears

If we only have love / With our arms open wide

Then the young and the old / Will stand at our side

If we only have love / Love that's falling like rain

Then the parched desert earth / Will grow green again

If we only have love / For the hymn that we shout

For the song that we sing / Then we'll have a way out

If we only have love / We can reach those in pain

We can heal all our wounds / We can use our own names

If we only have love / We can melt all the guns

And then give the new world / To our daughters and sons

If we only have love / Then Jerusalem stands

And then death has no shadow / There are no foreign lands

If we only have love / We will never bow down

We'll be tall as the pines / Neither heroes nor clowns

If we only have love / Then we'll only be men

And we'll drink from the Grail / To be born once again

Then with nothing at all / But the little we are

We'll have conquered all time / All space, the sun, and the stars.

“This is a performance I will never forget,” quipped Miyagi in the darkness and there, folks, is where this cast, still struggling to find their Brel-ian sea-legs before their minor crisis hit, miraculously came together and brought forth all the stuff they had to give all along, all the stuff that had yet to be mined as an ensemble before the lights went out. There they were, linked with all of us in that sweltering room—and with everyone grasping for understanding in this troubled world—discovering, as Brel told us we must 40 years ago, that the only way to face pain and uncertainty as everything we hold dear crashes around us is fearlessly and together.

Bet my bottom dollar the Odyssey’s remount of the timeless Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, after last Saturday’s unforgettable performance, is now just about perfect.

THROUGH Aug. 27: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Bl., West LA. 310.477.2055 or odysseytheatre.com

HEISENBERG 

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

For the recently widowed Georgie Burns, meeting Irish transplant Alex Priest in a London train station sparks an instant connection, at least on her part. For one thing, never before has she met a butcher able to refer to a conversation with her as something starting to get cyclical.

So is the beginning of the gloriously mismatched love affair that is central—no, everything—in Simon Stephens’ remarkable play Heisenberg, now making its left coast debut at the Taper starring its original and highly celebrated New York cast: Mary-Louise Parker as Georgie and 77-year-old Tony-nominated “newcomer” Denis Arndt as Alex.

The elephant in the room here is that Georgie is 42 and Alex is 33 years her senior. Yup, two years younger than Arndt himself, whose appearance in this play put him on the theatrical map after a 45-year career that definitely deserved this latter-day turn of events. The eccentric, motormouthed Georgie pursues the mild-mannered and highly suspicious Alex relentlessly, stalking him through London butcher shops before showing up at his, promising the unnerved guy that she intends to buy an “amazing amount of meat.”

The relationship, of course, eventually develops into a torrid love affair and, in the Taper’s special traverse (two-sided) staging adopted to mimic the New York production, one can watch the audience members on the opposite side squirm a tad when Parker and Arndt share their first steamy, passionate open-mouthed kiss.

Stephens has created a highly unique play from a rather predictable situation, delicately peeling away the layers of Georgie’s ditsy dysfunctionality and Alex’ intense emptiness and disappointment with life as their improbable relationship intensifies. As he relaxes his guard and begins to trust Georgie, he recognizes she’s a completely unexpected boon to his world, while for her, what may have been something she initially initiated at least partially for mercenary reasons, their bond eventually makes her mourn the fragility of our time hanging onto our rapidly-spinning planet with both fists. “It’s really brief, life,” she tells Alex, “and really quite unfair."

Arndt is arrestingly and confidently simple as the lonely butcher, his physicality subtly but perceptibly becoming less and less obstructed by both gravity and social placement as his love for Georgie grows. Even the first time Alex hops youthfully into bed next to her, suddenly resembling a college freshman getting lucky at a frat party, gets a well-deserved reaction from Heisenberg’s supportive audience. Arndt contributes a memorable performance without a second of contrivance in a role that could be a huge gaping trap for any actor.

Parker, however, gifted as she is, seems to fall headlong into Georgie’s mirror-image traps. That annoyingly overworked ditsy Goldie Hawn/Diane Keaton/Liza Minnelli/Amanda Plummer female character can get tiresome quickly these days, especially when it feels as though that’s the only way such a character—a woman presented as a sexual creature who goes after what she wants in an effort to seduce a member of the opposite sex—can be comfortably depicted. More colors, more heart, less standard mannered choices would make Parker’s performance many times more effective.

Still, a large part of this problem might be the venue itself. The sound at the 739-seat Taper is challenging enough, but when the space is opened to having even more audience on the opposite side while recreating director Mark Brokaw’s original staging from the far more intimate Manhattan Theatre Club, the result is problematic. From where we were seated, I thought at first Georgie was meant to be a hearing-impaired character.

It was almost impossible throughout the performance to understand most of Parker’s lines, something at first that I, with horror and trepidation attributed to my own 70-year-old ears, found scary until I realized that a.) I could hear every word uttered by Arndt’s soft-spoken, understated Alex and b.) others around me, not to mention friends seated far closer as part of the onstage seating, later confessed they were equally frustrated by how much of Parker’s dialogue they missed.

Regardless, this is an amazing achievement, one that led me to immediately go home and order my very own copy of the play from Amazon. Brokaw’s staging must have been dazzling in better physical conditions and what Stephens’ gives us could easily become a modern classic.

The title of the play itself is crafty and thought-provoking, insisting we work to unearth what it means at its core, especially since the name Werner Heisenberg never once comes up. Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” developed in the 1920s at Niels Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen, is foundational in the field of modern quantum physics. “One may say,” he theorized, “that in a state of science where fundamental concepts have to be changed, tradition is both the condition for progress and a hindrance. Hence, it usually takes a long time before the new concepts are generally accepted.”

The relationship between Georgie and Alex is splendidly untraditional and the fact that we, the audience, collectively become accepting and even root for the pair to succeed, is a testament to Stephens’ brilliance.

Interestingly, my friend Penny Stallings, a staunch lifelong feminist who joined me for opening night, thought it would be fascinating to see Heisenberg cast in an opposite configuration—that is, featuring an older woman and a male as Georgie. I, on the other hand, half of a surprisingly unexpected four-and-a-half-year relationship with a gorgeous guy 42 years my junior—who currently makes more money than I do, I must add—also wondered how it would play if Georgie was played by a male, especially if the reticent butcher had never before been part of a gay relationship.

What both these ideas say for Heisenberg and the writing of Simon Stephens is that his chameleon-strong grasp of human nature and the way our world turns these days, despite the unconscionable temporary troglodyte-populated setback of our American political system, elevates him as one of our most important contemporary wordsmiths. I have not yet seen his Tony-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time but I hope when it arrives here next month, it’s message is not swallowed up by the cavernous Ahmanson as clearly as the Taper has hampered Heisenberg. 

THROUGH AUG. 6: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

LES BLANCS 

Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Rogue Machine

 Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

The spectre of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who tragically died of pancreatic cancer in 1965 at age 34 before this play was finished, permeates this long, long overdue mounting of Les Blancs, the ultimate masterpiece capping her brief but brilliant career taking wing with the international success of her groundbreaking A Raisin in the Sun in 1959.

Completed after her death by her husband, publisher, songwriter and political activist Robert Nemiroff (upon whom the title character of her second produced play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, was based), Les Blancs debuted in New York five years later. Despite Hansberry’s many awards, honors, firsts—not to mention her growing legend made greater by Nemiroff’s adaptation of many of her writings into To Be Young, Gifted and Black, the longest-running off-Broadway production of the 1968–69 season—and starring James Earl Jones as the African son of a native chief returning from his home in London for his father’s funeral, the posthumous production was anything but a success.

It’s hard to imagine what silenced this incredibly vital work besides the attitude of the public at the time who would rather buy tickets for Norman, Is That You? and see James Stewart drawl through a stage revival of Harvey than to face the challenging and harsh then-and-still political and societal issues Hansberry addressed. And despite the fact that her cautionary tale of prejudice and inequality is set near the last gasps of Colonial-ruled Africa, it’s clear the themes transcend time. In her script, she even describes the setting as “Yesterday, today, and tomorrow—but not for long after that.” How I wish that prophecy had come true.

Tshembe Matoseh (here played in a towering, majestic tour de force performance by Desean Kevin Terry) has found peace and more respect for his race and his heritage in England, where he lives contentedly with his European wife and son, than he is given journeying back to his childhood home during Africa’s oppressive and bloody Colonial rule.

The shabby, struggling medical compound run by missionaries who originally came to convert and stayed to help, is being visited by American journalist Charlie Morris (Jason McBeth), who spends most of his time fighting the unspoken accusation that he has no idea what the people of this village are going through. He wants those gathered there to realize he’s “more than supermarkets and instant coffee,” but in the face of the daily horrors these tired and over-whiskeyed denizens of the African plains endure, it’s an uphill battle. He tries to win over Tshembe, who at first only wants to get out of there and go back to his wife and son as quickly as possible, but the son of the great pioneering chieftain’s bitterness and world-weary exterior are too thick to pierce. “I never knew you were there,” he admits to Tshembe from his heart. “Did you know I was?”

Anne Gee Byrd is quietly magnificent as the absent founder’s aged and blind Danish wife Madame Nielsen, a woman who has long ago left behind the thought that she will ever return to Europe, and Bill Brochtrup gives a chillingly understated performance as Major Rice, the Colonial leader who oozes racism and superiority in every snarl, a man quick to tell Morris the Africans “had the land for centuries and did nothing with it.”

Aric Floyd is a standout as Tshembe’s half-white half-brother, as is Matt Orduna as his older brother who has turned to Christianity as a way to deal with his pain. Shari Gardner is arresting as the tribal dancer who weaves through the action as Jelani Blunt accompanies the play on the drums and truly, every castmember is to be commended for creating the dank and sun-scorched and desperately downtrodden milieu of the setting and the period in time.

Special kudos must be given to director Gregg T. Daniel, who brilliantly orchestrates the enormous cast with utmost skill, aided by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’ rustic woodhewn set, Derrick McDaniel’s atmospheric lighting, and Wendell C. Carmichael’s incredibly evocative costuming. And although he tops himself with every production he designs, Jeff Gardner’s truly striking sound design, with seems to include those physically-rumbling under-seat woofers that Deaf West once used at their North Hollywood location, surfaces like a character itself, providing ominous sound effects that powerfully accent the action at every turn.

Les Blancs is long and gritty and epic, which is surely why it has been so long ignored despite its continuing importance, but Rogue Machine and Daniel have taken it on in its difficult uncut state and, adding a dynamic cast and brilliant production designs, have simply made it the highlight of the season for LA theatre.

And on a personal note—god, I love writing for my own website—I had the great honor to know and fall in love with Hansberry as part of the original production of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Although I was fired from the play before it opened—thanks to a majorly insecure non-actor stand-up comic lead performer who said I looked too young for my role yet Hansberry and our director told me was worried I would overshadow him—the chance to get to know this great woman and experience her strength and kindness firsthand was one of the highlights of my life.

Hansberry had long been an activist, fighting early on, championing equal rights for women and gays as well as for African-Americans and third-world sufferers everywhere, writing for the black newspaper Freedom, campaigning for the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate Henry Wallace, and even boasting the badge of leftwing honor by facing investigation by J. Edgar’s good ol’ boys in the black at the FBI.

Although it is especially true of Les Blancs and its eclectic cornucopia of richly fascinating characters, Hansberry gave every character she created in all of her brilliant plays, finished and not, a chance to speak their mind—and do so with an inherent poetic street lyricism that makes one mourn what this amazing woman might have accomplished if she had not left us long before her prolific pen was due to be set down and her cries for justice were woefully silenced so early in her life and career.

EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 31:  Rogue Machine at the Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., LA. 855.585.5185 or roguemachinetheatre.com

ADDENDUM: Wanna hear the sad end of my highly non-journalistic personal reference since so many people have seemed interested? The stand-up comic, who as an actor was a brilliant... stand-up comic, was also a neurotic mess and ended up leaving the show not long before the opening. The female lead, also an established star, panicked and left too soon after he did. The advance sales tumbled, the show was destroyed by disastrous reviews and closed after only a meager number of performances--on the day Lorraine died. It was heartbreaking because this play meant so much to her. But the good stuff? Alice Ghostley won a Tony as Sidney's sister-in-law and I got hired back when the play left New York on tour. Years later, with a once seemingly "unstoppable" career decidedly on the wane, I was all but begged to book said stand-up comic during my days as Talent Coordinator at the Troubadour. I was reluctant but relanted--and he was an even bigger pain in the ass than he had been in 1964.

 THE CAKE 

Photo by Darrett Sanders

Echo Theatre Company

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

The world premiere of Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake could not be more prophetic at this moment in time. As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to take on the case of Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple who believes that Jesus Christ himself would have rejected the commission too, Brunstetter introduces us to Della (Debra Jo Rupp), a sweetly dutiful and god-fearin’ North Carolina housewife who has found fulfilment with her own small storefront baking business in her hometown of Winston-Salem.

Della’s life is a blissful one, creating her culinary masterpieces and trying to preach to people to shun store-bought cake mixes from a box that remind her of scotch tape dipped in Splenda. She is content living with her hard-working husband Tim (Joe Hart), waiting patiently for the little bell on her shop’s front door tinkling to welcome her customers and offer them the orgasmic experience of her cooking.

Della’s revelry is accentuated when she is chosen to appear as a contestant on her favorite cooking competition reality program The Great American Baking Show—especially since TV cooking shows are as euphoria-inducing to her as her husband’s televised sports and have become part of her daily life culminating in a series of dreamlike fantasy timeouts, all of which are shared with those gathered to see The Cake go from scratch to... well... slightly undercooked.

Director Jennifer Chambers’ cast is uniformly golden and it’s especially glorious to see Rupp onstage, especially playing a darker, naked-er version of her beloved eight-season turn as ditsy suburban mom Kitty Forman in the hit series That 70s Show. Rupp begins by playing Della as the classic Kitty, her melodic squeal of a voice immediately reminiscent of those happier and more innocent days before our world began to fall apart as she lectures the audience about the singular spiritual wonders of sugar and the nightmare of gluten-free baked goods that taste like the back of her mouth after a good cry.

Della’s joy is compounded by a visit from Jenny, now Jen (Shannon Lucio), the daughter of her late best friend who has been like the second daughter she herself never had. When Jen tells her she is getting married and wants Della to make her wedding cake, Della is ecstatic—that is until she realizes Jen’s intended is the slightly militant African-American activist named Macy (Carolyn Ratteray) with whom she tangled verbally on every issue they discussed in her shop before Jen made her ill-timed entrance.

Unlike Megan Mullaley, who could successfully leave the equally squeaky-voiced Karen Walker behind when the reign of Will and Grace ended because she could return to using her own less-stereotyping dulcet tones, it wouldn’t be surprising if Rupp has had a harder time breaking free of her recognizable TV character since her extremely familiar nasal rollercoaster of a voice doesn’t seem to be a character choice. This play, however, gives the actor a perfect opportunity to show the depths of her craft, bringing a richly authentic spin on a woman whose conservative values, though agonizing to her as they’ve so negatively impacted her relationship with the young girl she adores, are something she cannot abandon no matter how much she begins to doubt their validity.

The Cake is hilariously biting and an extremely moving subject for Chambers and Echo’s world-class designers to explore, smartly presented and beautifully acted by this precision cast of exceptionally talented and fiercely committed players. However, it does still seem to be something of a work in progress, as though Brunstetter needs to go back to the drawing board to tie everything up with a bit more believability and not as quickly and easily as episodic television.

Della’s interspersed action-stopping fantasy interludes also need a bit more clarification as to what they represent, whether that be dreams, visions, or simply a theatrical device. As funny as the segments are, particularly when the voice of The Great American Cooking Show host George (Morrison Keddie) irreverently interviews the excited Della on-camera, it should be made more obvious what we’re looking at. Those recurrent visions, with their Twilight Zone-y light and sound changes indicating a periodic departure from reality, need a button put on them just as clearly as the major storyline resolves itself, rather than just stopping when Della ends her encounter with 15 minutes of TV fame.

Still, The Cake is refreshing, magical, and urgently insightful, heralding the advent of a gifted new playwrighting voice. All it needs is a little more resolution and a less convenient TV sitcom-inspired ending.

THROUGH AUG. 13:  Echo Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA. 310.307.3753 or www.echotheatrecompany.com

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.