DINOSAURS GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN! 

REVIEWS:  JANUARY to JUNE 2017 

MATTHEW BOURNE'S EARLY ADVENTURES at the Wallis

There’s not much more entertaining than any ballet created by the legendary and multi-award-winning Sir Matthew Bourne, widely celebrated as Britain’s most important contemporary choreographer/director. From his notorious all-male version of Swan Lake to Car Man, an inventive retelling of the opera Carmen set in an automotive garage and featuring pirouetting car mechanics, no one has ever so successfully reinvented a classic artform with imagination and humor as this man.

Now Bourne returns to LA with a most welcome look back into his pre-icon promise, Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures, now playing here at the Wallis for a far, far too-short run. Featuring three ballets which first made dance aficionados sit up and take notice, this delightful evening out forgetting the problems facing the rest of the world is a major treat of the season.

“Watch with Mother: Seen but Not Heard?” has not been mounted in a quarter century and features Percy Grainger’s original piano compositions and arrangements of classic Bach and Faure. Based on the late-great Joyce Grenfell’s famous nursery school sketches (“George… Don’t Do That”), the incredibly whimsical ballet delves into the goofily spirited yet sometimes cruelly competitive world of children’s games.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about this resurrection is the introduction to American audiences of the knockout 21-year-old Paris Fitzpatrick, a finalist in BBC’s Young Dancer Ballet Category in 2015 who has the charisma of a youthful Baryshnikov and the mistakenly clumsy charm of Charlie Chaplin. Fitzpatrick assays the woes of the one left-out kid desperately trying to join in the fun with arresting sweetness and clarity, almost disguising the fact that he is an amazing dancer until the viewer begins to catch on.

“Town and Country” is also from 1991 and is remembered as the piece that most crystallized Bourne’s uniquely signature and unapologetic talent, not to mention garnering him his first nomination for an Olivier Award—something he has subsequently won seven times. As it chronicles notions of the English national character from both the bucolic and the urban in two very stylistically different pieces separated by an intermission, it honors music composed by Edward Elgar, Noel Coward, Eric Coates, and Percy Grainger, not to mention featuring a three-minute section from the 1945 film Brief Encounter.

From an apache routine camouflaged as a clog dance to a frenetic wild ride on kids’ scooters to a lustful encounter between two repressed English gents to a ballet burlesque of two Victorian types flashing their exceptionally buffed body parts as their servants administer to them in their baths to a version of the British National Anthem performed on ukuleles, this is truly epic Bourne at its most jaw-dropping. Even present is a trio of woodland creature puppets along to enjoy the ride—although the tragic demise of one cute cuddly fellow sends the audience into a collective “aaaaaww” interspersed with a gaggle of guilty giggles.

The final offering is the choreographer’s 1989 irreverent tribute to France called “The Infernal Galop,” a raucous satire of all things Gay Paree and satirizing the Brits perception of their neighbors across the Channel. Featuring the music of Charles Trenet (Including his classic "Le Mer"), Tito Rossi, Mistinguett, and the incomparable Edith Piaf, Bourne’s incredibly game troupe translates everything from cabaret routines to tongue-firmly-in-cheek explorations of that infamous la grande amour to a sensuous merman serenaded by trio of French sailors to a seedy all-male encounter at a public pissoir, culminating in what must be the most arrestingly unique version of Offenbach’s can-can from Orpheus in the Underworld ever presented.

The nine dancers traveling here are uniformly splendid, all infused with their leader’s well-established sense of humor and unmistakable homoerotic bent while able to contort and soar into the air with obvious athletic prowess. All are brilliant artists, although that aforementioned whippersnapper Paris Fitzpatrick, with the face of a 1960s French starlet and the lanky physicality of Buddy Epsen, who at 15 looked like a gawky kid but danced like Nijinsky, is clearly the breakout star here.

Everything about a work by Matthew Bourne is pure magic; his work is almost tribal in its individuality, heralding a new rule-breaking form of artistic communication almost primitive in nature. And this look into his Early Adventures is like watching those indigenous ethnic tribes, long hidden in the planet’s last bastions of remaining wilderness, performing their own self-evolved consanguineous rain dances passed down for generations. It’s just what the world needs: a really good shake up to appreciate who we are and stop taking ourselves so seriously.

THE DEVIL'S WIFE at the Skylight

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.

OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY at the Wallis Annenberg Center

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.

HEISENBERG at the Mark Taper Forum

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. 

THE CAKE from Echo Theatre Company

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.

LES BLANCS from Rogue Machine

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.

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 PRIDE at Wallis Annenberg Center

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.

BLACKBIRD at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre

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?

NICKY from Coeurage Theatre Company

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.

THE HOUSE IN SCARSDALE at the Boston Court

One of the earliest things I was told about writing was that journalizing about things we know personally and sharing life lessons we have experienced usually conjure up the most effective storytelling. Nothing could serve as a better example of this than Dan O’Brien’s The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage, now in its west coast debut at the Boston Court.

Under super-director Michael Michetti’s guaranteed inspirational guidance, O’Brien courageously pours out the greatest and most debilitating mysteries that haunt his own life: the alienation and shadowed secrets protected within the tightfisted grasp of his incredibly closemouthed and majorly dysfunctional family. Considering his parents and five siblings would have no communication with him, O’Brien was in emotional agony to find out why, something that was affecting his life, his art, his marriage. 

Embarking on a convoluted one-man odyssey to break through those walls, O’Brien sets out across country to interview his family members despite their reluctance and, in doing so, bares himself even further, bringing himself to the stage as his arrestingly mesmerizing play’s pivotal character.

This affords an incredibly creative avenue for creative partners such as Michetti and his two lone performers, Brian Henderson and Tim Cummings, to bring the playwright and all of those he interviews to glorious life on a basically bare stage, consisting of designer Sara Ryung Clement’s starkly evocative, creatively minimalist and heavily raked playing space dwarfed by Tom Ontivero’s amazingly fluid rear projections, mostly sketches of walls and windows which evolve before us as though they were being created in a giant vertical sketchbook as we watch them unfold.

As Henderson plays only the author, Cummings instantaneously switches from one character in Dan’s youth to another, from his mentally-challenged schizophrenic brother, to a flamboyant psychic he contacts whom he describes as Liberace meets Deliverance, to his blustering stepbrother, to his rigid aunt seemingly stuck in the upperclass social strata she no longer inhabits in her latter-year isolation, to his most important reunion with the long-lost Easy Rider-esque uncle he believes might hold the most urgently sought-after familial shocker of all.

Both actors are simply spectacular, smothering us with an enveloping sense of reality despite the play’s surreal machinations to get there and offering a textbook example of artistic commitment. This result was surely accomplished by selfishly giving themselves up to Michetti’s signature vision and austere but imaginative direction, forcing the viewer to sit up straighter and work even harder than usual when a character offers a drink or passes a document or drives a car without a single prop or the pantomiming of the action; the denizens of Actors Studio training might even be forced to reconsider their priorities here.

In his brilliant, incredibly brave The House in Scarsdale, O’Brien eventually leaves us hanging—just as life often does to us all as we are pulled and jabbed and spun uncontrollably by the fickle finger of fate around this puzzling planet of ours. Still, in the process of trying to unravel his eccentric family’s most hidden secret and failing, he also passes on a piece of wisdom that will stay with this aging correspondent for as long a time as he has left paying deference to that often agonizing, sometimes rewarding need to create art and change the world in teeny-tiny increments: “Playwrighting is like social working,” Dan the character expounds, “only you don’t help others—you only help yourself.”

What Dan O’Brien thinks he needs to know about life and the invisible brick walls that seem to hamper him in the creation of his art and in his daily life don’t resolve with much concrete satisfaction, but in the process, he learns a more important lesson: to accept what you’re handed out and do the best to turn what you’re given into something positive you can share with others. They don’t call us “tortured artists” for nothing.

ARCHDUKE at the Mark Taper Forum

Remember that classic Jack Benny comedy To Be Or Not To Be from 1942 where, just after Germany invaded Poland, a poor dumb “ham” actor and his troupe are coerced to impersonate Nazi officers and leaders—including ol’ Adolf himself—in an effort to aid the resistance? A broad comedic farce satirizing the horrors of World War II wasn’t exactly successful at the time; it’s said even Benny’s own father walked out of the theatre after seeing his son onscreen wearing a Nazi uniform.

I couldn’t help thinking about that movie as Rajiv Joseph’s Archduke world premiered at the Taper. Like To Be Or Not To Be, this play takes historical facts and massages them into such outrageous comic situations that anyone without a permanent stick up the ass will appreciate this amazing new(ish) playwright’s delightfully skewed sense of humor. Author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which began right here at the Douglas and the Taper before moving to Broadway in 2009, and the Obie-winning Guards at the Taj, which played the Geffen in 2015, Joseph has again created a brilliant and incredibly innovative new work sure to take its place besides the others.

Commissioned by the CTG, the play centers on a real event, the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, an event which was often said to be the “bullet the began World War I.” Little is known about the assassins except they were uneducated young men in their late teens who had been recruited by members of the Serbian Military Intelligence Operation known as The Back Hand and basically knew very little about the causes that turned them into killers.

At the beginning of Joseph’s Archduke, one of those compromised young men, Gavrilo Princip (Stephen Stocking), is finishing up an examination in the office of Belgrade physician Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks). He is avoiding hearing the difficult diagnosis being handed him as he worries about the widowed doctor, the condition of the lace kerchief belonging to the guy’s late wife into which he has coughed a considerable amount of blood, and the origins of the specimen skeleton which adorns the examining room. As the scene progresses, poor dumb Gavrilo is more concerned that their silent companion consists of “lady bones” than he is in hearing that the tuberculosis in his lungs could kill him anytime from a month to a year.

Gavrilo becomes one of three consumptive young patients the good doctor hands over to a menacing military officer named Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page), who threatens Leko with a knife to the throat unless he cooperates. From there, Gravilo and his equally wide-eyed cohorts Nedeljko and Trifko (Josiah Bania and Ramiz Monsef) are brought to Apis’ home for a feast, catered by the man’s abused and grumbling servant Sladjana (Joanne McGee), where they are convinced that lack of caring by the government is the reason they are all in the throes of a terminal disease. Who could be better chosen to become martyred participants in the off-ing of a ruler and his wife than young men with nothing to lose?

Director Giovanna Sardelli craftily weaves the action around Tim Mackabee’s wonderfully malleable set, culminating in an opulent and well-tended railroad traincar which provides more luxury than the guys have ever before experienced in their lives. So much like the uneducated countryfolk who voted for our own current monster and his soulless regime mainly because they weren’t smart or savvy enough to know any better, Gavrilo and the others bumble and pratfall into the history books as seen by Joseph, quickly showing himself to be a modern master craftsman of the humorously absurd.

Stocking gives a highly winning puppydog-centric performance as Gavrilo and all three of the young actors playing the assassins are refreshing and individually splendid, working together with precision comedic skill. McGee is hilarious as the gravity-challenged servant with a mother complex emerging from her delightfully exaggerated grumpy demeanor and Page is best in the play’s later less grandstanding moments, in those rare sections when he listens to and plays off his costars rather than just concentrating on the richness of his magnificently resonant voice. He obviously has the chops, but seems to be suffering from an advanced case of Richard Burton-itis, that rare affliction where an actor becomes so stuck on the sound of his own melodious voice that he stops listening to anyone else and forgets to give his character time to evolve.

The underlying historical content of Archduke hopefully might make patrons head directly to Google to find out more about WWI and how it relates to the impending world situation exacerbated by the braincell-depleted and dangerously arrogant reign of our Celebrity Appresident Dummold J. Troutmouth, but it also will make anyone appreciate the welcome relief afforded us by our ability to laugh at the too-often dysfunctional decision-making abilities of our own species. If Jack Benny just happened to still be with us, he would be a hilarious Dimitrijevic—if only Hollywood could also resurrect Marjorie Main to play Sladjana and cast the Three Stooges as Joseph’s trio of bumbling assassins.

HARLEQUINO: ON TO FREEDOM at Actors' Gang 

The history of Commedia dell’Arte goes back to 16th-century Italy, where the “Comedy of Craft” was rather crudely executed by masked performers originally improvising storylines in the streets based on sketches and convoluted scenarios centering on love and trumpeting about the political incorrectness of the times. Presenting bumbling upper-class social types, blustering military officials and politicians who didn’t have any more clue thown brainless super-clown of a so-called leader Donald J. Trump, and the comeuppance they all received at the hands of their far smarter and deceitfully scheming servants, the popularity of the artform flourished as it also quickly began to madden members of the ruling class.

The hypocrisy of our conflicted species was soon regularly being satirized right out in the open in town squares all over Europe by roaming nomadic performers, their boldly inflammatory though whimsical political rants challenging the social strata of the times as they spewed out loud insults and bawdy sexual humor—all behind the protective shield of the goofy, cartoonlike masks that successfully hid their real identities. Still, masks can be removed, spies can be crafty, and the freedom we all hold so dear was always at risk for the courageous participants—just the fate some of us are beginning to worry about in the present climate of the dogmatic atrocities hurled at us and our risky planet on a daily basis.

Actors’ Gang founder and Artistic Director Tim Robbins has long been fascinated by Commedia and here has created a knockout contemporary epic with his musical Harlequino: On to Freedom, which he wrote, directed, and took on tour to Europe and China—where it was censored by government officials—before bringing it back to El Lay and his company’s longtime home in Culver City as part of the Gang’s current “Season of Justice.” Considering Robbins’ well-known and most admirable predilection for candid outspoken political activism and resistance, the artform germinated in public squares and makeshift outdoor stages over 500 years ago proves itself to be for him, simply, a match made in Terpsichorean heaven.

In this modern adaptation paying crafty deference to the Commedia’s outrageous humor, the standard Harlequino character (outstandingly played by Joshua Lamont, fresh from that European tour) is a rebel slave fighting the authoritarian regime to become a free man. With a catchy, surprisingly clever musical score also composed and lyricized by Robbins, one might think this could come off like a one-man show. Luckily for him and his obviously ferociously championed sense of theatrical collaboration, he has the partnership of some exquisite and equally fearless actors and designers devoted to help tell this story—and the result could not be either more unique or more worthwhile.

Although there’s plenty of raucous sexual insinuation and the tale has its share of B-plotted star-crossed lovers, what Robbins goes for under the deliciously over-the-top stylistic foolishness, lurking just below the comedic surface is the suggestion that there was a link between the emergence of Commedia and the growing slave trade in Europe during that era. Harlequino: On to Freedom presents a clear heralding call for equality just as today we’re being so sickeningly challenged in our divided nation and throughout the world.

Just to broaden the significance of this incredible production to every student of theatre and the history of the world, Robbins goes that much further as the delightfully silly and puffed-up Dr. Phineus Preamble and Dr. Ignatius Afterword (Will McFadden and Bob Turton) continuously interrupt the action to lecture the audience on the history of Commedia dell’Arte and whine about how this particular production goes totally awry of the traditions it established.

With committed standout performances all around—particularly Turton again as Puncinella, as well as an Inquisitor who feels lifted directly from Orwell’s 1984, and Pierre Adeli as a riotously inappropriate Pantalone—the ensemble grabs Harlequino: On to Freedom by its larger-than-life leotard-stretched balls, paying wonderful homage to Robbins’ amazing script, as well as his gloriously slick staging and precision choreography. And along the way, his warning about the precarious state of our own cherished freedom, right at this very moment, is an urgent cry for us all to get off our complacent asses and join to stop the madness being foisted on the planet all around us.

                                           Photo by T.M. Holder

ABSINTHE at L.A. Live

There’s not much doubt that Absinthe, which has been playing to packed houses in Las Vegas since 2011, is a blatant rip-off of a certain mega-successful French-Canadian circus conglomerate. That said, there’s also no contest that if Zumanity, that company’s sexually-charged permanent attraction at New York-New York Hotel and Casino can be billed as “The Other Side of Cirque du Soleil,” in turn Absinthe could be dubbed “The Farthest Nether-regions of Zumanity.” And I shudder to think just what double entendres the creators of this show, with their 600-seat “Spiegeltent” now plopped down for an indefinite run here at L.A. Live, could do with the term “nether-regions.”

This production could make Zumanity look like Mary Poppins if raunchiness is the judging point. It goes far beyond anything ever envisioned by those innovative imagineers from Montreal, from exposed skin to incredibly inappropriate comments shouted over the loudspeakers by emcee The Gazillionaire, supposedly the show’s owner, and his uber-horny assistant Daisy Dibbles (whether these people are for real or actors is something of a secret, it seems). The bossman uses the F-word more frequently than Lenny Bruce ever could imagine.

Between his constantly XXX-rated commentary and continuous attempts to offend anyone in the first two rows—the embarrassed victims dubbed with labels such as the Black Guy, the White Hippie Dude, the row of Gays, the Chinese Chick, and the Orange County Republican, he tells jokes like, “What do you get when you cross a German and a Mexican?” [Answer: Beanerschnitzel.]

Penny talks a lot about her varying degree of vaginal wetness, introducing acts such as the hunky Mexico City-based Los Dos Tacos with a salty running dialogue about the acrobats smelling like penis and Ax Body Spray and proclaiming them so hot that Tom Cruise would love to…um… pleasure himself while watching them.

Through the over-the-top adult humor, heartfelt vocals by the wonderfully Joplin-esque Green Fairy, and a turn from a lovely tassel-turning stripper named Misty West 88th Street, Absinthe’s typical gravity-evading circus performers from around the globe do their thing. Among others, there’s an incredibly dangerous roller-skating act called The Twizzlers, who work so close to the Spiegeltent’s audience seated in the round that they’re warned not to move or worse yet, stand up; the seemingly boneless Silicon Valley Girls trio, who bend in places no human should be able to; the graceful and gorgeous Girl in the Bubble, who accomplishes an unearthly rubbery dance writhing around a gigantic clear plastic globe; and the chiseled Matt Matterhorn, who uses poles to exhibit his amazing gymnastic prowess. Oh, and we’re told by Penny that the Bubble Girl and Mr. Matterhorn are dating so we should all just close our eyes and fantasize about the positions they can get into together.

The Gazillionaire’s introduction for the knockout antics of the balancing quartet The Lost Boys refers to them as four meatheads “from Belarus or Russia or the Ukraine” who resemble 1,000 pounds of beef stroganoff, speak no English whatsoever and, between vodka shots, use their athletic prowess to try to fly out through the roof of the tent since they have never been able to lose the urge to defect.

The most beautiful and jaw-dropping performance of all is assayed by the balletic, garden fairy-like Flying Farquhars, a shaggy blond pixie and his twin sister (we’re told) from Armenia who perform a gossamer, incredibly sensual aerial pas-de-deux far above our heads, restrained only by what unambiguously resembles bondage straps. If that horny Penny wasn’t wet after their act, she must be acting after all.

Absolute Vodka and other heady potions are hawked endlessly from the moment one enters the tent and continue to flow even during the performance, servers passing drinks down through the aisles like the donation box at a Jerry Falwell revival meeting. Oddly, however, no libations are necessary to get high watching Absinthe—the show itself will make you reel.

KISS at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

The producers have asked reviewers not to give away any of the rapid torrents of twists and turns careening thorough highly acclaimed and controversial Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon’s Kiss, now in its west coast debut at the Odyssey directed by Bart DeLorenzo. This makes the task of writing about Calderon’s insane little masterpiece nearly insurmountable, but let’s just say it starts like a quirky little contemporary dramedy that might have been written by Theresa Rebeck but ends up feeling like an undiscovered play by Sarah Kane.

The projection on designer Nina Caussa’s Arabic art-inspired back wall tells us it’s “Damascus, 2014” as a group of devoted young Syrian fans gather to watch their favorite Musalsalaat, the country’s popular version of the classic American soap opera. For someone who grew up during the so-called Golden Age of TV as the resident weeping kid on a popular soap, the set’s crudely whitewashed rolling doorframe and window, freestanding against a black wall and complete with plywood braces in back held upright by sandbags, was instantly familiar. It also seemed an odd choice for a production at the Odyssey Theatre some 60 years since my time dissolving into tears daily on national television, as the Odyssey is a place where sets are usually elaborately detailed and far more creative. Yet nothing, however, in Calderon’s searing new play is anything as it seems. Not even the title.

What is fair game here is what’s already been widely reported in print about Kiss, including the fact that the play’s foursome of romantically entangled lovers (Natali Anna, Kristin Couture, Max Lloyd-Jones, and Kevin Matthew Reyes), whose encounter is almost Shakespearean in both dilemma and delivery, are soon revealed to be a group of gung-ho young American actors who have found this obscure Musalsalaat script online written by a young Syrian asylum seeker and decided to produce it. But as they link on Skype to speak about the play with a heavily-camouflaged woman and her interpreter (Cynthia Yelle and Nagham Wehbe) in exile in an underground Lebanese refugee camp, everything changes, leaving the shocked quartet staring at the screen of a communal laptop with that patented dumb ‘Murkin expression on their faces in the computer’s glow while their correspondent and her friend watch the door behind them ominously.

Nothing about the play-within-the-play is about what the Americans thought it was; in fact, nothing about the person they’re interviewing is either. And what begins as their well-meaning interpretation of a frothy, goofy comedy that could have possibly been adapted from script originally pitched for the Ricardos and the Mertzes, takes on a life of its own—and slaps the viewer directly in the face as it does so. Every artist struggles to create art that can be understood, but these particular artists must totally rethink everything they believed to be real and, in the process, discover how that process can change a person forever. Although, under DeLorenzo’s sharply multilayered direction, the performance starts as the fodder for quick escapist relief from the problems of our fucked-up world, the experience ends with a well-deserved kick in our complacent collective behinds.

DeLorenzo’s staging is subtly jaw-dropping and the performances of his players, particularly Lloyd-Jones and Reyes as the clueless best friends being pulled by their nose-rings as they angst over their intertwined love lives, are golden. Yelle is a standout as she emotes only on-camera from some backstage corner of the cavernous Odyssey complex wearing huge dark glasses and a ridiculously oversized blonde wig, yet still able to convey the waves of fear and pain and anxiety dominating her character’s plight.

 

This is electrifying theatre, perhaps the best new play exhibited on any Los Angeles stage this year. I laughed out loud, I dissolved in tears and, above all, I left the theatre with a profound new appreciation for what life must be like in one of the most troubled and misunderstood spots on this beleaguered planet crashing toward self-destruction. Calderon’s incredible script reveals the chaos and unspeakable violence Middle Eastern people must endure on a daily basis—as well as showing us what a soapy, negligent people we are in this country. This is a place where we ignore the trials and the horrors being committed in a part of the world about which we can blithely adopt indifference since it’s so removed from our lives here, a place where we are currently letting a virulent monster destroy everything we hold dear as we pack the kids off for soccer practice and decide where we want to eat dinner.

And a side rant:  Aside from all the other reasons to see this remarkable interpretation of an amazing and unsettling new masterpiece, Kiss also provides a subtly monumental contribution emphasizing the absolute urgency of artists and art lovers supporting the survival of intimate theatre in Los Angeles and the thought-provoking, daringly rule-breaking product it generates here in our vast reclaimed desert wasteland.

Calderon’s play marks the beginning of an all-new and courageous era of theatrical expression in our town. After fiercely fighting the ridiculous demands Actors’ Equity Association has insisted from our innovative and unstoppable 99-seat theatre community, this is the first production in an established theatre complex cast with non-Equity talent instead of buckling to AEA’s newly-implemented fascist rules. It’s also first non-union production ever directed by one of our most exciting directors and the first non-Equity production I have ever covered in my 30 years reviewing LA theatre on a regular basis.

Led by the venerated Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s bold switch to cast its shows in the future without AEA talent and the announcement this week of the development of Intimate Theatre Los Angeles, an uber-talented collective of well-known, long-prolific theatre companies absurdly denied recognition as companies by the union—clearly mostly people or producing entities who have been outspoken and even legal litigants against AEA—things are rapidly a’changin’ ‘round these here parts.

As the Odyssey, DeLorenzo, and this dynamic ensemble of non-Equity players inaugurates this refreshingly free new world for our community; as I personally dump my Equity status after 63 years as an actor; as ITLA and those who have banded together individually and collectively keep creating and making art despite the soulless demands of Equity; once again there’s proof true artists are survivors despite the bureaucracy of greed in our society forever working in their tiny little office cubicles to keep us in our place. Obviously, once again, we will not be bowed.

With smartly executed non-union productions of new works as brilliant as Guillermo Calderon’s Kiss potentially being mounted in LA, it’s purdy much a given that Actors’ Equity Association will soon be ancient history in this town. Nobody is going to control how the passionate artists who inhabit Los Angeles choose to express themselves and create art with the potential to change the world. Nobody. 

BUILDING THE WALL at the Fountain Theatre

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.

NEXT TO NORMAL at East West Players

At the close of the last decade, composer Tom Kitt and lyricist/bookwriter Brian Yorkey accomplished the impossible: they created a major musical that caught on without conjuring any real-good clambakes or featuring sugar-coated little ditties piled with corn as high as an elephant's eye simply to attract enormous well-heeled audiences begging for fantasy and romance over substance.

The immediately controversial Next to Normal instead featured a loud and stridently in-your-face multiple F-bombing rock score as it bravely took on the difficult and unflinchingly tragic story of a psychotropically-challenged suburban mom dealing with mental illness, a topic that trumps the problem of poor sappy Maria by leaps and bounds. Granted, the Baroness von Trapp faced the universally vilified Nazis, but whether she in real life suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, delusional episodes, or cut her arms with a razor, was something ol' Dickie and Oscar would never thought of including.

Starting small, presented and nurtured in intimate workshops before opening off-Broadway in 2008, the less-than PC musical soon won Kitt and Yorkey the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Score and, transferring to a Broadway venue the following year, it was nominated for a staggering 11 Tonys, winning three: Best Score, Best Orchestration, and garnering a decidedly deserved Best Actress in a Musical Award for my brilliant friend Alice Ripley as Diana, the tortured housewife living a life of sheer horror just under the surface of trying to face the world as the perfect wife and mother.

Beyond all these other surprisingly unconventional honors, Next to Normal then received the ultimate recognition, in 2010 becoming only the eighth musical in history to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. After playing to packed houses in a long Broadway run, it went on to enjoy a sold-out national tour and has since been presented in legions of productions both grand and intimate all over the world.

East West Players has long been known for interspersing the tried and true and guaranteed safe with daring adult fare which pushes the boundaries. This dynamic remounting of a truly arresting modern classic, under the direction of the venerated Nancy Keystone, presents the company at the very top of its game.

Justin W. Yu and Scott Keiji Takeda are wonderful as, respectively, Diana’s hallucinated vision of her long dead son and her neglected daughter Natalie’s adorning, gawky stoner boyfriend, while Randy Guiaya as her shrink is understated and clear—that is until his patient starts to have onstage flashes of him as a raucous rock star, something the actor assays with consummate skill.

As Natalie, Isa Briones, a graduate this March of the LA County High School of the Arts, exhibits a maturity and assurance that seems way ahead of her years. Her performance as the troubled, confused kid who lives in the shadow of her dead brother and her mother’s illness is simply heartrending and, when she breaks into song, the stage lights up. Cliffton Hall is sufficiently affecting as Diana’s patient, long-suffering husband, although there’s something of a divide between his dialogue scenes and his songs, when his rich John Raitt baritone forces his delivery to suddenly become more performed than acted.

Above all, however, the night belongs to Deedee Magno Hall, whose knockout performance as Diana, a character who “knows what it’s like to die alive,” is one of the most memorable highlights of the season in our barren reclaimed desert climes. Never once does Hall miss a beat, segueing from scene work and monologues into the musical numbers without taking a breath or stopping to fill her lungs before instantly interpreting Kitt and Yorkey’s incredible rock ballads like Joplin on amphetamines. As the world-weary mother who’s “been there for the show / every high, every low,” Hall is more than convincing; she is revelatory.

Keystone guides her actors beautifully on Hana Sooyeon Kim’s somewhat challenging two-story set, with a back staircase separating the two that seems to occasionally upstage the performers as they race from one level to the other with no time to kill.

As we were entering the theatre, a very well-dressed Asian businessman-type stepped up to the box office with a sheepish wife and older teenaged daughter dutifully trailing a few steps behind him like a sultan’s brides. “Is this another of your R-rated plays?” he asked loudly for all to hear and was gently told that Next to Normal indeed featured extremely strong language, drug use, and adult situations, exploring the themes of mental illness, suicide, and self-destructive behavior. He huffed and puffed and expressed his outrage at what East West had descended into before turning around and herding his disappointed womenfolk back down the patio steps, thereby missing a unique opportunity to open his mind and step for a couple of hours into the lives of people less content with life than he might be—or professes to be. Shame. So much to learn, so sad to miss the opportunity of having such a brilliantly conjured outlet to learn it.

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at Antaeus Theatre 

What could be a better choice to inaugurate Antaeus Theatre’s sparkling new two-theater complex than Tennessee Williams’ masterwork Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, especially when directed by Cameron Watson, whose vision for the production took into account the introduction of patrons to the company’s just-completed starkly barebones black box mainstage. Paying homage to Jo Mielziner’s abstract original Tony awarded 1955 set design, which innovatively featured a series of giant Southern-style white window shutters jutting high on the Morosco’s otherwise unlit stage, here designer Steven C. Kemp, at Watson’s suggestion, has created three massive windows placed at angles to a sloped wooden platform surrounded by wood chips and the dark mystery of the wings.

This proves a perfect setting to explore the notoriously messed-up marriage of Brick and Maggie the Cat (Ross Phillips and Rebecca Mozzo, alternating in Anteaus’ traditional “partner casting” fashion with Linda Park and Daniel Bess in the roles) without the need to bring in more regal accoutrements to evoke the Pollitt clan’s 28,000-acre palatial plantation on the Mississippi Delta. By offering this unembellished alternative to the usual depiction of Brick and Maggie’s grandly opulent bedroom—which, as each of the three acts opens, has begun to tilt and revolve and slide symbolically off the wooden platform to land ominously askew in the wood chips—Watson and his incredibly talented team can concentrate almost solely on telling the story of this troubled and twisted family done in by greed, sexual repression, and the societal mores of the day.

And what an amazing retelling of Tennessee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama this is. Phillips is incredibly simple and gloriously understated as the alcoholic Brick, giving one of the most arresting and real depictions of this difficult character since the emergence of Paul Newman so many year before. Mozo is great at crawling under the nervous and sexually repressed skin of Maggie, a difficult task considering an actress must be shrill and annoying yet, at the same time, endearing enough for audiences to care about what happens to her. Mozo does, however, get lost in Maggie’s lilting Delta drawl, occasionally to the point of her lines not being understandable, something that should be easy to correct and may settle in during the run of the play.

Unlike most performers assigned to play Brick’s insufferable sister-in-law Mae, Jocelyn Towne (alternating with Tamara Krinsky in the role) stealthily manages to avoid the ghost of Madelyn Sherwood, who made a memorable career of playing women one might like to smash in the face with any nearby grapefruit. As her equally unlikable husband Gooper, Patrick Wenk-Wolff (alternating with Michael Kirby) adroitly manages to gradually morph from cartoon good ol’ boy to avaricious, seething villain with glorious ease.

The supporting cast is excellent in the play’s rather gratuitous minor characters—particularly Mitchell Edmonds as Reverend Tooker and Tim Halligan as Dr. Baugh (alternating with John DeMita and Robert Pine, respectively). Mae and Gooper’s obnoxiously spoiled gaggle of Ritalin-deprived “no neck monsters” are wonderfully played by Vivienne Belle Shrivers and Helen Rose Warhofsky, as well I’m suspect, by Henry Greenspan and Eliza LeMoine, who surely are resting up for when they get their turn to scream and claw and run rings around the other actors. 

Still, if there is any reason not to miss this exceptional revival of the great classic Cat, it is the indelibly memorable work of Harry Groener and Dawn Didawick as dying Pollitt patriarch Big Daddy and his long-suffering spouse Big Mama that is the heart of this production. As wonderful as alternates Mike McShane and Julia Fletcher might be in the roles, this real-life man-and-wife team could become recognized as the millennium’s west coast Lunt and Fontaine or Cronyn and Tandy from their turns in these difficult roles. Big Mama has never been as sweet and adorable as in the hands of Didawick, who dominates all her scenes—especially in her final moments when her stalwart loving wife is told the truth about her husband’s illness and her older son starts to demand she look over papers that would legally put him in control of the Pollitt’s massive estate, when the enormous well of strength lurking below the Southern genteel surface emerges.

And nowhere in Williams’ prolific stable of screwed-up characters, from Blanche and Stanley and Miss Alma to Maggie the Cat herself, is there a character with such insurmountable acting traps written into it as Big Daddy. Based on Tenn’s own monstrous father he grew up terrified to encounter, anyone playing this role seems to fall headfirst into the rhythms and natural bigness of Burl Ives, the former folk singer who created the role, winning both a Tony and an Oscar for his effort, who undoubtedly will be forevermore identified with the character.

Still, instead of shouting gruffly and chomping on a huge cigar, the not-so-big Groener as Big Daddy starts so gently and unobtrusively that when his anger and rage as his talk with his drunken unresponsive son emerges and soon after when learning his diagnosis hits, his performance is revelatory. It’s a brave move to play such a familiar character so differently than expected and hats off to a brilliant actor and his equally brilliant director for reinventing Big Daddy Pollitt anew. Groener’s turn in Cat is alone worth the price of admission and it’s a humbling honor to see such fine work unfold live right before one’s eyes.

INTO THE WOODS at the Ahmanson Theatre

One of the theater’s most enduring modern classics began in the Southland in 1986 at San Diego’s Old Globe and there’s no doubt Stephen Sondheim’s indelible Tony-winning score for Into the Woods is one of the most impressive efforts ever to facilitate the transformation the genre of musical comedy into the complexities of musical theater. With characters based on the colorful denizens of some of the world’s most timeless and enduring fairy tales created by the Brothers Grimm—who make a case that there must have been some killer drugs around in early 19th-century Germany—Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and, of course, poor Jack of beanstalk-climbing fame, collide onstage in a joint quest to rid their beloved woods of one nasty giant.

It’s understood that Woods has hardly been ignored in the years since it premiered in New York in 1987, with many touring companies tromping all around the globe throughout the ensuing years, including a 1988 US national tour, a 1990 West End production, a 10th-anniversary concert version in 1997, a return to Broadway in 2002, a 2010 London revival, another in 2012 as part of New York’s outdoor Shakespeare in the Park series, and then there’s the star-studded film version directed by Rob Marshall in 2014 that garnered Meryl Streep as the Witch something like her 4,987th Oscar nomination.

It is difficult to imagine something fresh and different could possibly be done while attempting to reinvent this show, when Sondheim’s haunting music and director James Lapine’s incredibly clever and irreverent book—based on The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim which, when published in 1976, analyzed popular fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis—were so groundbreaking and inventive in the first place. This production, however, which the Fiasco Theatre Company debuted off-Broadway at the Laura Pels Theatre in 2015 to great acclaim, manages to do just that.

Under the truly visionary direction of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, this reinvigorated journey through the bewitched underbrush is meant to be extremely barebones, with 10 incredibly energetic and charismatic actors play all the characters, switching between them with lightning fast alacrity. Derek McLane’s simple floor-to-light-grid jumble of theatrical rigging is meant to indicate the ominous forest of trees, while an industrial-sized ladder evokes Rapunzel’s tower and a small-statured actress is illuminated like a shadow puppet to gargantuan proportions on the back wall to make that notorious lady giant come alive—and subsequently die a most dramatic death. No special effects or wildly intricate projections are utilized to tell this cautionary tale of once-upon-a-times that don’t always portend happy endings.

What’s best about this production is how the simplicity of it accentuates the music, fiercely and grandly played directly onstage on an extremely movable piano by musical director and sometimes performer Evan Rees. The voices of the ensemble could not be better, perfectly delivering Sondheim’s intricate and most difficult score when they’re not donning bonnets and grabbing wooden hobbyhorses to morph from one character to another.

What’s somewhat lost in the shuffle of imagination over substance, however, is the message lurking below the surface of Bettelheim’s original concept, which presented the case that fairy tales help children solve certain existential problems such as separation anxiety, oedipal conflicts, and sibling rivalries. The extreme violence and ugly emotions of many fairy tales serve, he believed, to deflect what may well be going on in a kid’s head anyway, even if he or she is reluctant to reveal those puzzling thoughts. Although Sondheim’s lyrics often delve into the Caligari’s cabinet nature of the original production, this remounting is considerably less dark and more appropriate for children—if they can stay awake for the show’s 3-hour run.

There’s also a kind of preciousness that overshadows this journey Into the Woods, making one think it must have been a lot more charming to see unfolding for the first time at the 410-seat Laura Pels rather than the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre, where even the cast members’ first stroll onto the massive stage to wave to audience members and sit casually on the lip of the stage to greet and kibitz with the folks in the first row, seem a long way off from the 16th row, let alone how that must feel up in the second balcony nosebleed seats. It’s as though we’re supposed to enter another fantasy: that the cost of mounting this production at the Ahmanson was still an austere effort when the expense of bringing it here and converting it for this space must have been considerable. The evolution here, though incredibly sincere, is not completely… well… believable, if you’ll excuse the expression.

Still, no narrative tool is more contagious than belief—just ask audiences who for years have shouted their belief in fairies to help that boy who wouldn’t grow up resurrect his faithful Tinkerbell. In that regard, Brody and Steinfeld’s fanciful direction and the heartfelt performances by this troupe of supremely gifted performers, who all sing like birds and conjure a tornado of personality, still gamely create the essential necessary magic once again.

THE ORIGINALIST at Pasadena Playhouse

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was a real asshole: an excessively aggressive, continually combative law-and-order ultra-conservative ideologue who saw it as his personal mission to rigidly interpret the constitution of the United States to the letter, exactly as it was originally written back in the times when dinosaurs still roamed the earth and Native Americans lived a free and stress-free existence. “Law is carved in stone,” Scalia believed. “Emotion is what you had for breakfast.”

In John Strand’s The Originalist, the boulder is rolled away from the entrance to the tomb and Scalia returns to blustery life as if he’d never left. Set during the 2012-2013 term of the Supreme Court, Edward Gero breathes life back in the old boy as though he were channeling the late jurist directly from his perch in purgatory. Gero, the sixteen-time nominated and four-time Helen Hayes Award-winning mainstay of Washington, D.C. theatre, delivers a miraculous and uncannily dead-on performance as Scalia, complete with all the bluster and misplaced confidence in himself that made the man so infuriating.

Scalia is also resurrected with a definite leaning toward the cuddly, like a gruff old teddy bear hiding a wry sense of humor and an obvious heart of gold peeking out from below the curmudgeonly surface—and here’s where I have a problem with Strand’s play. In life, Scalia truly was a monster, pure and simple, without a single iota of Lionel Barrymoriness lurking anywhere beneath the surface. He was a tirelessly vocal opponent of affirmative action, marriage equality, immigration and abortion rights, a stridently and unmovable religious zealot who believed in everything our constitution stood for except the division between church and state. A devout Roman Catholic, he spewed out his narrowminded venom from the bench of our country’s highest court like Linda Blair taking aim at Father Karras.

In The Originalist, Scalia is approached by a recent Harvard Law grad who has been recommended to him as a possible law clerk. Cat (Jade Wheeler) is the exact opposite of her potential boss, a, African-American lesbian whose super-liberal views spark a rather orbid interest in the jurist, who admits to her that he occasionally likes having liberals around because it reinforces—in his mind—how right he is. Right is the optimum word here.

Although Strand includes one more minor character (Brett Mack in a thanklessly stereotypical role), a kiss-ass former Harvard rival of Cat’s who comes to work with their team who’s as conservative as the boss but possessed of even less heart or tolerance, the play revolves around the dueling personalities and beliefs of Scalia and Cat, examining their major differences and their gradually-surfacing similarities. Under the direction of Molly Smith, the pair spars verbally throughout the play’s intermissionless 90-minute running time, she continuously presenting boldly stated dissenting opinions to everything Scalia held dear.

There’s something missing here, however. Perhaps it’s in Strand’s script, which professes to present an apolitical view of many of the controversial opinions the Justice presented on the floor of his court (the middle, Scalia said, is for the testicular-challenged) but, whether intentional or subconscious, The Originalist simply does not accurately ride the fencepost. Perhaps instead the problem is Smith’s direction, which offers a relationship between Scalia and his clerk that never reaches the passion or furor that could make it dramatically viable. Right from the start, Gero is too easily subdued while Wheeler never reaches a point where it seems Cat’s mission is anything as urgent or important as it needs to be. This leads to fireworks that never ignite and, at the end when we should see a hint of Scalia’s humanity when dealing with his clerk’s difficult family crisis, his reaction is not in any way the surprise it should be and the ending of the play falls dismally flat.

This reaction, it must be admitted, however, is formed within the politically-discouraged mind and Trump-poisoned pen of one of those lifelong bleeding-heart liberals, all right? What do I know. As objective as any critic tries desperately to be we, like Scalia, Smith, and Strand, we are only human. My personal opinion of Antonin Scalia is decidedly unforgiving. To paraphrase Bette Davis on the death of Joan Crawford, we’re told we shouldn’t say anything bad about the dead, only good. Antonin Scalia is dead. Good.

Although Gero’s performance is a knockout and Strand’s counterpoint arguments and political rants are certainly thought-provoking, The Originalist is akin to seeing one of those finely detailed and brightly colored propaganda posters featuring a dashingly handsome and youthful Chairman Mao, flanked by vast amounts of red flags waving off into the horizon as he raises one arm triumphantly in the air in front of a sea of euphoric, adorning people. This production is sharply designed and intelligently written but ultimately, it’s too manipulative to find much praise from me. Antonin Scalia was a virulent and dangerous rightwing Frankenstein who wrecked havoc on our country, undeserving of such an obvious whitewashing no matter how well-meaning it may be.

LONE STAR at the Zephyr Theatre

Having been a theatre critic in LA for over 30 years I can guarantee, here in the land of the dreaded vanity production, there are about a dozen horrifically overdone plays—not to mention almost every black box velcro and tinfoil-costumed attempt to interpret Shakespeare anew—that I avoid like the bubonic plague. These otherwise lovely plays, too-often mounted by eager beginners and germinated in some scene study class, include Prelude to a Kiss, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Beirut, Closer, Proof and, at the top of the list, James McLure’s brilliant but usually butchered 1979 good ol’ boy-shredding comedy Lone Star. 

There are two reasons that led me to take my crusty guard down and decide to see this new mounting of Lone Star at the Zephyr: the return to LA of director Dave Fofi, who two years ago ran screaming from our reclaimed desert metropolis after many years of trying to keep his beloved Elephant Theatre Company afloat, and the fact that my ranch-bred domesticated cowboy boyfriend and steadfast theatre date H.A. Eaglehart had played Roy in college in New Mexico.

So glad I relented. This Lone Star returns to its guileless and straightforward roots without the participants bastardizing it into an overlong sketch from the stage of the Ozark Opry or a long-lost episode of Hee Haw. As displaced Vietnam vet Roy and his possibly brain-damaged brother Ray (Christopher Jordan and Christopher Parker) languish in a pile of rubble and an impressively well-appreciated collection of beer bottles behind Angel’s Bar in Maynard, Texas, the uselessness of their lives is simply presented, without comment or displaced “artistic” judgment.

Roy is still trying to find his way in this confusing civilian world as seen through weary eyes now jaundiced by war. It’s a place where he’s scolded he “can’t do nothing forever” and his love for his wife, his country, and his car just don’t seem to be enough anymore—except when viewed through the hazy fog of the continuous bottles of Lone Star he repeatedly pops open with the claw end of a hammer. “Are you drunk?” Ray asks as he finds his brother draped over the rickety back of the old battered car seat that adorns the garbage-filled alley. “It’s Friday night, isn’t it?” his brother snaps back. “Then I’m drunk.”

Under Fofi’s sharply focused and surprisingly kinetic direction, Jordan is wonderfully understated but brilliantly on-target as the drunken Roy, who stares out into the prairie longing for the calls of the coyotes they’ve wiped out from the landscape just as they did the “injuns” before them, wondering how he can get back to a life not made bloodthirsty by war, something he acknowledges is what it’s supposed to do. As his gaze wanders longingly out front at the lonely nightscape stretched before him, we too see it in his eyes, testament to an actor arrestingly comfortable in his own skin.

Parker is the perfect complement to Jordan, the confusion of his lifelong hero Roy’s withdrawal from the world around him clearly troubling as he questions the truth of his damaged brain diagnosis and suspects the only person who could have understood his heart is Hank Williams. There’s a tendency for actors to play Ray as a slightly less challenged version of Lennie Small begging George to let him tend the rabbits, a trap Parker stealthily eshews.

And as Cletis, the neighborhood geek who also worships Roy despite the fact that the guy tells him he wouldn’t “piss down his throat if his guts were on fire,” Brian Foyster, in his one brief appearance, creates an indelible character in a role that is also usually played only as an exaggerated Pa Kettle-like rube. Foyster’s Cletis—or Skeeter, as Roy insists on calling him—is instead a charmingly clumsy nerd, easily evoking a guy who had trouble making love to his bride because before his marriage he’d only seen a drawing of a vagina from the side—and then, only represented by a squiggly line—and saw Hud six times hoping to garner tips on how to make girls like him.

Of course, the pachyderm in the playhouse here is the fact that these three guys are all rather long-in-tooth to play McLure’s characters, since the bombs and machinegun fire of the jungles of Nam should still be freshly ringing in Roy’s ears, not to mention that Ray and Skeeter’s naivety with the fairer sex should be more believable. Somehow, however, Fofi and this exceptional triumvirate of veteran Actors Studio-trained actors make it work splendidly, even crafting it so it somehow adds to the desolate, empty lifestyles haunting these go-nowhere characters.

These are all too real long-ignored good ol’ boys raised to do nothing with their lives besides working their bodies until they disintegrate as they struggle to find people to whom they can feel superior. These are guys who would vote for an obvious overly-coiffed conman nutcase with the brains of Ray just on the deluded off-chance that someone somewhere in power might understand their existence and strive to improve it—rather, of course, than find the initiative to fix it for themselves.

LORD OF THE UNDERWORLD'S HOME FOR UNWED MOTHERS at the Skylight Theatre

Attending the opening night performance of newcomer David Mamet’s American Buffalo on Broadway some 40 years ago made me think I was in on the dawning of an amazing new voice for the American theatre. I thought the same thing just two years ago when Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet debuted here at the Blank, the first of his two plays—the other being last year’s highly acclaimed The Humans—to become finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

Experiencing the debut of Louisa Hill with the world premiere of her Lord of the Underworld’s Home for Unwed Mothers at the Skylight, where it was developed as part of their resident playwright program, that rare yet familiar surge of artistic promise returned to me again. Hill’s dialogue is a little Mamet, a little Karam, and a lotta Tennessee Williams in its harsh and profane poetry.

Dee (Corryn Cummins) is a sweet and sheltered suburban teenager in the mid-1960s who abandons her adorning and safe admirer since early childhood for the town’s resident bad-boy (both played by Adrian Gonzalez). When she soon becomes pregnant, her properly Catholic parents (Gonzalez again and Amy Harmon) are as ashamed as folks were back then about such things, more because of what the community will think of them then caring about their daughter’s feelings or emotional state. Dee is spirited off to a dismal place teeming with dour looking nuns and healthcare workers (again all played by Harmon) who won’t even consider for a moment the girl’s wish to not give the baby up for adoption.

Act Two takes place in 1991 and introduces us to Dee’s daughter Corie (Michaela Slezak), who unfortunately has grown up into a foulmouthed, exceedingly mixed-up young adult after being shuffled off between an endless string of foster homes and institutions all her life. When Corie comes of age and is given a file identifying her mother, she would normally be reluctant to reach out to her through her dense cloud of hatred and pain over being abandoned by Dee—were not for the fact that she herself is pregnant and in the same situation her mother endured a generation earlier.

Cummins is heart-wrenching in both eras, delivering a wallop of a performance throughout, but particularly when the frightened and emotional teenage Dee must hand off her newborn into the arms of authority she doesn’t accept. Slezak is a perfect foil for her, as raucous and in-your-face as Cummins is sweet and (almost) endlessly cheerful, making the face-to-face meetings between the two the most riveting part of the play.

As all the other characters who wander through the story, Gonzalez is exceptional is his lightning-speed transformations, especially hilarious in his final turn as Corie’s babydaddy, a dreadlocked heavy metal rocker with a clear nod to early Keanu Reeves. Harmon has more difficulty separating the personas of her characters, who all seem to have the same rhythms and eye-rolling exasperation of her original appearance as Dee’s That ‘70s Show-like mother, but it’s easy to see that delineation could easy fall more into place as the run of the play continues.

Hill’s dialogue is gritty and often incredibly raw, especially when spouted by the world-weary Corie, yet her subject matter this time out does have the dreaded ring of soapy chick-flick-ery about it that is thankfully skillfully overcome by the production. In the hands of wunderkind director Tony Abatemarco, who stages his players on Cindy Lin’s wildly abstract set to wander seamlessly—and sometimes whimsically—from time zone to time zone over the play’s 27-year span as the onstage Marylin Winkle provides lyrical accompaniment on the cello, Hill’s script blossoms like a spring flower. Thanks to this slickly mounted and performed introduction to the work of an obviously gifted new playwright, we can all expect a great future for Louisa Hill. 

PIE IN THE SKY at Victory Theatre Center

The world premiere of Lawrence Thelen’s lovely little two-hander Pie in the Sky has a unique hook: as the play’s rural mother and daughter banter about their lives and loves and lifelong differences in a middle of the night in an Abilene, Texas trailer park, they peel Mackintosh apples, measure out brown sugar, manipulate “store-bought” crust into submission, and bake a pie. Actually bake a pie. Live. Onstage.

Not only is the Little Victory filled with warmth and sweetness from the quietly heartfelt performances of K Callan and Laurie O’Brien, by the time the oven’s timer dings, the entire playing space is permeated with the intoxicating and comforting smell of homemade apple pie—and those in attendance, suffering the Pavlov’s dog affect from the aroma, are treated post-performance to a bite of the ladies’ culinary creation.

Thelen’s story is simple and the familial revelations Mama (Callan) divulges to her lonely widowed daughter Dory (O’Brien) as they shuffle about the trailer’s kitchen at four in the morning are surely shocking to her, yet for the audience, most everything that’s revealed is rather predictable, especially the ending. Anyone who does not guess ahead of time what’s about to happen when that fateful final timer buzzes has to be thinking more about the smell of pie baking than the characters in the drama and the constant hints they’re dropping.

There are moments when it seems the chopping and coring and measuring and mixing of some of the dessert’s ingredients, not to mention Dory’s constant eyerolling over her mother’s demands and inappropriate comments, are robbing viewers of our precious and fleeting time on the planet. What makes it all work, however, is the sincerity and downhome spirit of these two veteran actors and the insightful leadership of their director, Maria Gobetti, who just last month was honored with the prestigious Milton Katselas Career Achievement Award from the LA Drama Critics Circle.

Life is full of little secrets, as Dory’s feisty octogenarian mother proclaims, and just when we think we’re starting to figure it all out, it starts to fall apart. “Peel, slice, stir, repeat” is Mama’s mantra, the repetition of which would be the downfall of Thelen’s Pie in the Sky if it were not for the serendipitous inclusion of this production’s triumvirate of world-class talents, three strong and incredibly gifted artists named Gobetti, Callan, and O’Brien.

GOONIE at Atwater Village Theatre

The world premiere of Terry Maratos’ manic autobiographic solo play Goonie at Atwater Village Theatre is something akin to watching someone run the marathon in 110-degree weather. Possessed of a feverish energy that would make Bobcat Golthwait seem stress free and a propensity to generate more perspiration than Chris Christie in a sauna, one must resist the temptation to rush the stage with a cooling damp towel and a bottle of water as Maratos instantaneously morphs from one intensely fucked-up member of his uber-needy family to another. 

Raised in his ancestral home in Greece just like every young boy with a pet donkey and who fishes for octopus with a grandfather everyone calls the Screamer, it’s as though Maratos is doing lifelong penance for some past-life evildoing, suffering the proximity of the craziest, most soul-sucking relatives since Amanda Wingfield first started telling Tom to rise and shine. 

Except for periods recalling the twisted frustrations of his childhood, including seeing his beloved goat Napoleon suddenly strung up and roasting on a spit, Maratos’ story is without a doubt a bit of a horror, leading him to the conclusion that the best thing he could do for his 6-year-old daughter Goonie is to pack up and disappear—right after her birthday party, that is, which he has lovingly organized to take place in a local park complete with skydivers, face-painting, piñatas, and pizza delivery for all. He has concocted the event without informing his nightmarish parents which, judging from even the first moments of Goonie, it’s not hard to realize would elicit a major familial party crash.

His mother arrives at his home in an Uber, spiriting Goonie off to the party with him, but not without making her late by stopping off at Ross to return a microwave. And by the time Maratos arrives at the park, his father has sent his helper home, eliminated the piñatas, and replaced the expensive pizza-providing concept with his own concoction: homemade jarred lentils and rice that will eventually make partygoers puke up a storm.

Under the kinetic and imaginative leadership of director Jim Anzide, whose own sense of humor is a palpable presence throughout, Maratos is amazing as he transforms from his mother to father to two impossibly unwanted cousins—one schizophrenic and the other a bipolar agoraphobic—to his patient girlfriend and his innocent young daughter herself, who seems on the precipice of one day joining the family in a desperate need for therapy. His performance as the people in his life who make him alternately snap at his kid and apologize to her profusely is boldly over-the-top, something few performers could get away with as effectively as he does.

Yet, even as smartly presented as this is on Amanda Knehans’ gloriously eclectic toy and memory-filled set, the one thing left puzzling about this performance, though athletic and impressively frenzied from the first moment to the last, is what the point might be. If this is Maratos’ thinly-veiled plea for someone to get him some help before the prominent veins on his neck pop and a series of strokes stops his life before it’s time to shuffle off his tortured mortal coil, it succeeds splendidly.

What it did for me personally, ironically, was to reinforce my major life decision that, as soon as I was of age, to run from my own rigidly RepubliCANT narrowminded midwestern family as fast as my little feeties would carry me. If this poor schlep’s daily trauma-filled existence is the reward for staying around and caring about the people in his life Tracy Letts once wrote were merely linked by a “random selection of cells,” I have a lot for which to thank Terry Maratos.

AT HOME AT THE ZOO at the Wallis Annenberg Center

Edward Albee received his first recognition when his ground-breaking one-act The Zoo Story, written in 1958, first grabbed New York by its theatrical short hairs in 1960 after debuting in Berlin the year before. It has remained one of his most celebrated works, the first signal to the world of the prolific genius which was to follow before his death at age 88 last September.

In 2007, the equally prolific and artistically unstoppable Deaf West Theatre mounted their extraordinary version of The Zoo Story starring two of heir finest company stalwarts, Troy Kotsur and Tyrone Giordano, who signed the play's rushing explosion of ideas while speaking actors stood nearby, watching the story unfold as they delivered Albee's torrential dialogue. It was the culmination of a longtime respect and love affair between the playwright and Deaf West, which began several years earlier when the company contemplated mounting the author's notorious Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf starring Phyllis Frelich.

That production never came to be, but the relationship it fostered remained. In 2004, working under a commission from Hartford Stage Company, Albee created a prequel to The Zoo Story called Homelife, exploring the moments before Peter heads to what he hopes will be a quiet corner of Central Park where he can read a book and smoke his pipe in peace. Instead he meets a troubled stranger named Jerry, who insists Peter stick around so he can tell him what just happened to him during his visit to Central Park Zoo.

Now called At Home at the Zoo, Deaf West was a logical company to be awarded permission for the LA debut of the expanded work--not only with the blessings of the author, who insisted on personal approval in granting rights for all his works, but even with Albee himself talking about being in attendance. Unfortunately, the tenuous financial times postponed those plans and now that the production has finally come to fruition in collaboration with the Wallis, Deaf West and director Coy Middlebrook have had to make magic happen without its creator nearby.

Albee would have been mighty proud. What Homelife brings to the story is a clear reason why Peter (Kotsur, who reprises his arresting 2007 turn in the role) becomes so intent on defending his masculinity as he and Jerry (the phenomenal Russell Harvard, who rocks the role until March 16 when Giordano takes over) devolve from respectful pleasantries into a violent confrontation as each defends possession of the public bench they each consider their own personal property.

Kotsur (voiced by Jake Eberl) is brilliantly subtle in what at first seems to be the less complex role, as Peter tries diligently to communicate in the first act with his loving but sexually frustrated wife Ann (Amber Zion, voiced by Paige Lindsey White), who is desperate to find some new excitement in their predictably complacent relationship. Ann loves her reserved book editor husband, their daughters, parakeets, cats, and the life they've established together in their comfortable upper-middleclass eastside Manhattan apartment.

Of course, only Albee could take their conversation where it goes, from a 10-minute discussion about circumcision to Peter's eventual confession chronicling the bloody details of a suppressed brutal sexual encounter during a drunken college frat party. By the time designer Karyl Newman's slickly 1970s New York flat revolves into massive backlit triangles of fall-like Central Park views, what makes Peter stick around and listen to the increasingly more delusional Jerry (mesmerically voiced as in 2007 by Jeff Alan-Lee) is explained for the first time as his tormentor delivers his infamous lengthy rant about his encounter with his drunken landlady's dog.

Middlebrook does an exceptional job staging what could be a painfully static two hours of Albee's familiarly complex dialogue and the performances are like something never seen before. Deaf West chooses its projects based on how successfully a play can be translated into ASL (American Sign Language) and At Home at the Zoo is a perfect match. There's a kind of expressive style, a remarkably innocent freedom and grace that identifies the performances of most hearing-impaired actors which beautifully accents and pays homage to the signature gifts of one of the last century's bravest and most thought-provoking wordsmiths.  

SHADES OF DISCLOSURE at the Skylight Theatre

In the nearly four decades since HIV/AIDS, once referred to simply as the “gay disease,” brought worldwide scorn and judgment to those living an alternate lifestyle, close to 40 million people have died and today, 37.6 million people are living with the skcourge of it. Aside from the great sorrow AIDS has brought to our world, the dreaded disease has also become a major source of discrimination against the gay community—mainly by all those self-aggrandizing conservative religious bigots who pretend to live under their savior’s pleas to practice charity and nonjudgment are full of crap.

“I’ve felt indelibly stained,” one participant in QueerWise’s unforgettable new performance piece Shades of Disclosure admits, “by the sickness I’ve brought on myself.” As one of the 17 participants in this eye-opening testimonial experience courageously telling the stories of how HIV/AIDS has affected their lives, such honesty is the norm, not the exception. Under the masterful direction of Michael Kearns, the tireless LA-based writer-actor-AIDS activist who originated the concept for the evening 31 years ago when AIDS/US first debuted on this same stage, Shades could not be more timely in this frightening era when our freedom suddenly feels desperately precarious and our monstrous, mentally-ill leader and his minions are daily dragging our country’s long battle for equality and civil rights back to the Dark Ages.

The participants, who collectively wage war on our society’s damaging and demeaning labels—all but two of whom play themselves and read the stories they themselves crafted based on their own personal experiences—relate their tale to 16-year-old Sophie Kim, a LGBTQ activist at Harvard-Westlake High School who found a home in QueerWise after coming out to her parents at 14. As she videos their comments, one by one the members of the diverse and eclectic ensemble relate who they are and how they—and we all—are connected despite our differences.

The members of QueerWise are not all actors but also writers, spoken word artists, social workers, and educators who commit their efforts to create and perform events such as this. Noted actors such as Darrell Larson, who bravely explains how his diagnosis led to admitting his lifestyle to his wife and daughter and signaled the end of his marriage, is joined by transgendered psychotherapist—and knockout guitarist—Jessie Jacobson, who shakily faces her patients while trying to grapple with her own identity; floundering young nomad Mason Mahoney, wondering if there will be a place for a biracial gay man in the current climate of America; Guatemalan immigrant Roland Palencia, who fears for his own future in his adopted country gone mad; and Kim’s teacher from Harvard-Westlake, who wonders if her youthful student will grow up to love and fight for the rights we, her elders, fought so hard to protect.

These stories and others are gently related to Kim as the members of QueerWise offer their “truths now with swift purpose and quiet grace.” Although Shades of Disclosure works best when its storytellers lift their eyes from the scripts they carry, the honest telling of each of these people’s personal tales provides a jarringly evocative evening reminding us that our war against bigotry, racism, gender equality, and a disease that has decimated millions, is not only not over yet, but is a fight that right now at this scary and insecure moment in time must be renewed with vigor and relentless determination.

FUTURE SEX, INC. at the Lounge Theatre

It’s a world where a malevolent Trump-like conglomerate called Monocorp has falsely alarmed the public that sexual activity must be stopped due to an impending epidemic, sending the prospect of Future Sex for our species into jeopardy. The only solution is strapping on (the wrist…what were you thinking?) a little apparatus they themselves manufacture called the Love Light which, when activated, stimulates an orgasm of epic proportions. In offering this product for worldwide utilization, Monocorp can soon, of course, control the planet.

With an infectious score that, as a character tells us with tongue firmly in cheek, runs the spectrum all the way from hip-hop to rap, this outrageously X-rated pop musical melds Arthur C. Clarke, Lady Gaga, and a North Beach-y peep show vibe with surprising success. The weakest part is writer-composer John Papageorge’s predictable and rather silly script, which has the feeling of being created on the spot as the play progresses and oddly makes one wish, if he wanted to go for adult humor and off-color double-entendres, he’d gone a little further.

Still, the music is worth suffering through the dialogue and situations, which also boasts exceptional performances, surprisingly fluid staging by director Kiff Scholl on the Lounge Theatre’s extremely limited playing area, steamy choreography by April Thomas, and comically sexy strip-clubby costuming by local glitter-god Michael Mullen that makes one immediately wonder just where this guy shops.

Ally Dixon and the Pee-Wee Herman-suited Kevin McDonald have a splendidly good time as the corporation’s evil henchwoman Vivian and her nerdy suitor George O. Thornhill, while Tanya Alexander and Michael Uribes scenery-chew with hilarious results as Monocorp’s devious CEO and a sketchily talented magician whose allegiances waver from bad to good. Jolie Adamson steals every one of her scenes as Cherry, a Valley Girl-spouting robot who moves like 3-CPO in outfits that appear to be inherited from Brittany Spears, and Maya Lynne Robinson, as a fallen pop star who tries out a Love Light, vibrates and twitches and rolls her eyes back in the lengthiest and most memorable onstage “happy ending” in the history of the American theatre.

Alex Vergel as the wisecracking deejay-MC, Sean Leon as Alexander’s hunky “enforcer,” and Erica Ibsen, Natalie Polisson, Briana Price, and Elise Zell as the gamely raunchy dancing ensemble, fill out the ensemble with spunk and spirit, much to the delight of one single older man in a wrinkled overcoat seated directly in the front row who looked so much like a drooling, knee-slapping denizen of a real life gentlemen’s club that he almost seemed like a plant. Yup, Future Sex, Inc. is, as Papageorge’s dialogue tells us, a “one of a kind—like a snowflake or a cum stain.”

FINDING NEVERLAND at the Pantages Theatre

It’s back, just past the second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning: yet another telling of the Peter Pan story. Even for those among us who run from sappy musical theater offerings, right now, as the world crumbles and burns around us, Finding Neverland could not be more gratefully welcome.

Based on the and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan and the 2004 Oscar-winning film version, this grand-scale Broadway musical adaptation follows the relationship between playwright J. M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) and the fatherless London family that became his inspiration for Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, which debuted on the London stage a mere 100 years before Johnny Depp ever donned a nicely-pressed ascot.

Just at the point where Barrie’s successful playwriting career was stymied in a massive writers’ block and his stressed out producer Charles Frohman (Tom Hewitt, who doubles as a delightfully ominous Captain Hook) was thinking of checking out another fresher protégé, in a classic bit of serendipity Barrie met a lovely young widow named Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) and her obviously pre-Ritalin litter of three energetic sons (the infectiously talented Finn Faulconer, Mitchell Wray, and Jordan Cole) in a local park.

Sensing the reclusive, solitary detachment of the brood’s fourth and oldest brother Peter (the sweet and angel-voiced Ben Krieger), it doesn’t take long for Barrie to take the kid and his siblings under his wing, something that shocked the tight-corseted denizens of proper conservative London society. The bond between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family may or may not have sped up the demise of the his already floundering marriage, but in the process, it also brought the world one of the most familiar and beloved children’s stories of all time.

This musical version couldn’t be much better. After a New York run starring Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer, it has taken to the road without losing any of its high-tech visual marvels. The incredibly kinetic staging by director Diane Paulus and the spirited, charmingly cheery choreography by Mia Michaels are perfectly accentuated by an eager ensemble and a world-class production team on every level. Yet, even the veteran expertise of set designer Scott Pask, lighting magician Kenneth Posner, and costumer Suttirat Anne Larlarb take a backseat to Jon Driscoll’s amazingly fluid and ever-moving visual imagery that, on the massive and towering Pantages stage, steals the show.

In an era when traditional movable and fly-able set pieces are often replaced using striking visual projections—a special boon for touring productions—Posner’s towering and moody views of stormy London skies, with dramatic clouds and graceful soaring birds crashing across a romantic moon, are brought to dreamlike life. Although sometimes creating such modern industrial-strength illusions can prove an easy way out, here it works as magically as, well, a healthy sprinkle of pixie dust itself.

Aside from everything this charming adaptation has going for it, however, there’s the hauntingly lovely score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. From Dwyer’s solo turns with the lyrical ballads “All That Matters” and “Sylvia’s Lullaby” to the show-stopping production number “We’re All Made of Stars,” which features Krieger, Faulconer, Wray, and Cole in the most smile-inducing specimen of bonded sibling behavior since Seven Brides for Seven Bothers, we might not be prepared to hum a few bars of “Circus of Your Mind” as we leave the theater, but it may just motivate immediately going out and purchasing the CD.

Everything about Finding Neverland runs like a well-oiled machine, but without losing any of the momentary enchantment that can take us all, regardless of our age, back to the time when we first saw Peter Pan take flight and longed to help him get that shadow of his sewn back on and journey through the night skies with him to join the Lost Boys. Never growing up to face a world gone totally mad is a consummation devoutly to be wished there days and it’s a lovely treat when any fantasy can transport us away from the daily barrage of evening news insanity—second only, perhaps, to watching Dorothy Gale’s Kansas farmhouse spin out of control and land directly on the dastardly Wicked Witch of the Orange. Now that’s a fantasy that could warm the cockles of anyone with courage, brains, and a beating heart.

LIANA AND BEN at the Atwater Village Theatre

The pedigree that came along with the announcement of this world premiere was instantly thrilling. Circle X, one of LA’s best, bravest, and most inexhaustible theater companies, was about to take on a new work by one of our town’s most breathtaking wordsmiths, Susan Rubin. And along for the rollercoaster ride of what surely would be an unregimented effort to bring Rubin’s Faustian-inspired epic to fruition, was one of our most innovative directors, Mark Bringelsen, leading a world-class cast of heavyweight LA theatrical talent.

Whatever went wrong, whatever might be learned from this effort, can hopefully benefit future productions of Rubin’s Liana and Ben, a play more than worthy of further exploration. Still, this production is an astonishingly unexpected disappointment. Perhaps a big part of this outcome is the staging, with audience placed on either side of a long, slender playing space dominated by two huge seesaws. It’s not difficult to see what an inventive idea this was on the drawing board, but to say it doesn’t work in actuality is a major understatement. Even while appreciating the ingenuity that went into creating the apparatus, it limits the actors’ playing space and is also a rickety distraction, particularly when on the move into another position.

As we stare ahead directly into the equally confused faces of patrons on the other side of the action—not to mention, on opening night, two brightly-lit older gentlemen desperately struggling to stay awake in the front row—the gifted and quite courageously game quartet of players are surely directed to use the space. The result, however, is the boldly gorgeous visual designs by Jason H. Thompson are lost as projected onto the floor and the walls on opposite ends of the playing area, while conversations between characters are often staged so far apart that one begins to feel like a ping-pong ball trying to take in both actors at once. Bringelsen further accentuates this divide by directing his performers to continuously make slow, motivation-free moves from one place to another, especially in the case of Kimberly Alexander as Liana, who repeatedly does so with sensually-charged balletic movements.

If there is a reference to Alexander’s time-traveling character having a history in dance during her 250-year lifespan, a result of a pact negotiated with Ben (Jonathan Medina), a guy who, it doesn’t take long to realize, is the busy boss-man of that infamously fiery mythological world down below, I’m afraid I missed it. As sweepingly poetic and jarringly insightful as Rubin’s script proves to be, the meat of the story, the quest for Liana to save her soul by proving to her nemesis that our world is worth saving, is obscured far too long and not really apparent until Act Two, when our heroine travels to Hades in an effort to sort things out.

There is no doubt the acting is committed and admirably risky but again, there’s a directorial eye surprisingly absent to keep everyone and their individual styles on the same track. Alexander has the biggest challenge as she spouts Rubin’s classically-tinged poetic observations on life, but it seems as though she is often simply reciting her dialogue without ever connecting with it or making any real new discoveries as Liana zips through her emotional life lessons.

Perhaps the other even more omnipresent problem about mounting this play, with its rather foreseeable theme of good always being able to conquer evil peeping through its beautifully lyrical passages, is doing so at this point in our country and our world’s self-destructive race to trigger our own oblivion. “The truth lies in stories,” a character in Liana and Ben reminds—or is it preaches?—to us, but sadly, where once was hope and faith in the future of our species, something inspirational when comfortably reflected in our art, there’s a lingering unshakable malaise which now overshadows so many scared and depressed people with a soupcon of intelligence.

As a critic for over three decades, I have never before even considered that my objectivity could be compromised by my own increasing horror regarding our nation’s political nightmare, but this era is unearthing all new emotions in me. I'm becoming aware that it's painfully difficult for me in these precarious days to not to let those incredibly unwelcome feelings drown me in cynicism and disenfranchisement about how art and artists, as I've always been led to believe, can change the world. Art heals, yes, but sometimes the drip-drip-drip of Chinese water torture as it happens with such agonizing sluggishness is too much to bear.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS at the Pantages Theatre

Considering I taught all day yesterday from 9:15am to 7pm and taking into account my well-known curmudgeonly bias toward sappy American musicals, I totally expected to hate An American in Paris. Au contraire. There's no bright golden haze on the meadow anywhere here. It's an amazing achievement and the Pantages, that over-the-top palace of Art Deco splendor, is the perfect place to see it.

Aside from the joy of once again hearing the timeless Gershwin songbook, brilliantly orchestrated here by Christopher Austin and Bill Elliott, the adaptation of the classic 1951 film by the inimitable Craig Lucas is a major improvement to the original and Christopher Wheeldon's angular, Nijinsky-inspired choreography is an absolutely stunning homage to the composer while still being bravely all-ballet-all-the-time.

There's not enough to say about Bob Crowley's primary color-saturated sets and costumes, which perfectly frame massive and totally jaw-dropping Parisian street scene projections by 59 Productions which evoke everyone from Picasso to Dali to Busby Berkeley. Lordie, has the sophistication of projections reinvented modern musical theatre or what--especially on tour. And the cast? Where did they find so many knockout artists of all sizes and ages who can act and sing up a storm and then break into ballet moves seamlessly.

There's simply not enough to praise about this refreshing and perfectly entertaining adaptation of a classic film no one thought could ever be successfully converted to the stage. We were mesmerized and, better yet, we totally forgot the rest of the fucked-up, Trumped-up world around us--although for a far too brief period of time.

MESS at Theatre of NOTE

Well, here’s another nice mess Kristen Vangsness has gotten us into. See, in the eccentricity department, Criminal Mind’s eccentric computer geek Penelope Garcia has nothing on her creator, who now takes to the stage of her beloved Theatre of NOTE to present the latest incarnation of her prodigiously personal solo piece Mess, in which the fearlessly unfiltered storyteller confesses that the title of her show couldn’t be more appropriate—even if she has become skilled in covering her mess with stuff she gets from Sephora.

Based on a TED Talk called “Making Sense of a Visible Quantum Object” by Aaron O’Connell, our perception of life and challenging if time is indeed even a linear concept is examined through Vangsness’ outrageously in-your-face humor. As she zips back and forth at time-warping speed through various periods in her own life past, present, and future, she morphs with jaw-dropping alacrity to age 4, then 7, then 14, 44, and 54—and thanks to Google, we can all know which is which. As her breakneck performance tumbles forward, the phenomenally talented Vangsness champions every one of her life’s pivotal passages.

There is the 4-year-old Kirsten, surprised to find, as her mother “closes her eyes” on the kitchen linoleum, that she has inadvertently created her first chaotic mess in her room. This proves something her mom, complete with the geometric pattern of the floor still pressed into her cheek, warns her is why the rain forests are disappearing and the tigers are dying at an alarming rate. By age 7, she has come to the realization that growing up in the sheltering arms of her family would never afford her an ideal Beaver Cleaver-esque nurturing experience, especially when confronted by a scary father she calls her “not kitten-not Fred Rogers dad.” Instead, her exploding young mind turns to visits from possible space aliens willing to offer her better advice, beginning with the one mini-monster she discovers waving at her from the depths of the crawlspace under the stairs of their new home.

When her typically angst-ridden teen years appear to be even more angst-ridden than they are for most, she succumbs to peer pressure and takes a summer break with a friend at a church-run summer camp. There she realizes that a fellow camper has lovely little nipples resembling small cupcakes, that the priests are lots hotter and sexier than she expected, and that the kids finger-banging one another under a bridge in the adjoining woods, when joined in the chapel to praise Jesus, sound a lot like Liv Tyler in Lord of the Rings when they talk in tongues.

Vangsness spills out her story with manic energy, her fingers splayed out vertically before her like she’s nursing a drying manicure and her signature quirky body language resembling a kid in water wings floating for the very first time. As she navigates through the admittedly self-induced Mess of her life, she shares with us the realization that, no matter how high the piles of junk grow around you, no matter how many kitten-hating fathers or linoleum-patterned mothers or hypocritical Jesus-freak teenyboppers named Tiffany or imaginary monsters intrude on your life’s personal journey, there’s also a multitude of paths to take and a buttload of channels to click onto. When you’re as strong and as incredibly gifted as Kirsten Vangsness—or even if you’re not, I suspect—our messy conquering hero reminds us that we get to choose the channel and it’s up to us just how much we want to let it take us wherever we want to go.

FUN HOME  at the Ahmanson Theatre

Saturated with multiple awards and honors, including the Tony for Best Musical and finalist status for the Pulitzer Prize, Fun Home is without a doubt one of the most important and groundbreaking musicals of all time. Without a single real good clambake or surrey with fringe on top in sight, the arrestingly personal story of real life cartoonist Alison Bechdel ellipses the problem of Maria many times over without offering even one spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

Bookwriter Lisa Kron has lovingly adapted Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, her graphic memoir detailing her clumsy coming out as a lesbian in college and her close but puzzling relationship with her funeral director-English teacher father (Robert Petkoff), who killed himself by stepping in front of a bus while she was away at school discovering her identity. As the fortysomething Alison (Kate Shindle) wonders where her life is going and if her unresolved issues with her father and the lingering fear that her startling lifestyle revelation was the cause of his suicide, her younger selves share the stage with her as she narrates, portrayed at age 10 (by a delightfully precocious Alessandra Baldacchino) and during her breakout college years (by Abby Corrigan).

Stumbling upon a tattered old box of family mementos, Alison’s thoughts return to her staid and unwelcoming Victorian family domicile that her dad has painstakingly restored and the funeral (“fun,” get it?) home he owns where she and her brothers (Pierson Saldavor and Lennon Nate Hammond) frolic and play in and out of the caskets in the display room. Her father morphs with instantaneous incomprehension from doting, supportive parent into a volatile Daddy Dearest clone, one minute praising his daughter’s artistry and the next calling her names and telling her that her drawings suck.

When Alison writes home, admitting she has entered into an affair with the patient and nurturing Joan (Karen Eilbacher), the answer is basically silence beyond dear old Pop noting she’s off on a new adventure and telling her not to fall for labels until she decides who she really is. Frustrated with her parents’ unwillingness to really discuss her sexuality, she brings Joan home for a visit, where her long-suffering mother (beautifully and understatedly assayed by Susan Moniz) pours out a startling confession along with a tongue-loosening glass of vino in the early afternoon—something of which she appears to be familiar.

Alison’s father, she’s told, has been having affairs with guys since even before the marriage started, resulting in many problems for the couple in their nosy small town—especially for anyone as closeted and self-hating as dear old dad. When he breaks the wall between the narrator-observer Alison and invites her on a drive, she excitedly notes all the similarities between the two of them but he is unable to respond, cutting the ride short and leaving her stunned by his inability to share and communicate. Soon after, that convenient public convenience ends the possibility for any interaction between them forever and she wonders as she sketches her poignant images if chaos never happens if it’s never seen. “I draw a circle,” Alison mourns aloud thinking of her sadly tortured father, “and his whole life fits inside.”

Nope, this is not musical comedy by any means—although the early “Come to the Fun Home,” as the three youthful siblings create an imaginary TV commercial for their dad’s business while popping in and out of a display casket, will surely make you laugh out loud. As a significant and welcome entry in the evolution of musical comedy transforming into musical theater, however, this is the best of the genre since 2009’s Next to Normal, until now the most ambitiously notable new musical in many, many years. The cast is one of the best touring ensembles in a long time under the tutelage of director Sam Gold, who does a yeoman’s job melding the characters and situations between the story’s three periods of time and manages to adapt the once-intimate theater piece into something that impressively fills the cavernous Ahmanson stage.

Petkoff does a phenomenal job as Alison’s tormented dad, a role that must require about 20 hours of sleep daily and maybe a generous prescription for Zanex to make it through a lengthy national tour without eyeing a bus or two on one’s own. Moniz, as the mother patiently staying in the shadows as she deals with the heartbreak of her life as she tries to shield her kids from the reality of the situation, breaks out gloriously in the haunting 11th-hour ballad “Days and Days.” Corrigan also brings down the house with the delightful “Changing My Major”—in this case from Art to Joan—creating the evening’s most affecting performance which elicited two separate ovations on opening night after scenes with nary a song to put a button on ‘em.

Above everything and ascending to the top of the wonders here is the musical genius of the Tony-winning Jeanine Tesori, who with lyrics by Kron has brought to the world the most innovative and risky score since the discovery of Stephen Sondheim, almost qualifying the musical as an operetta more than something that will comfortably stand in time alongside works by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Meredith Willson. There’s even a hint of homage to Sweeney Todd or Pacific Overtures or A Little Night Music in the mix, especially when Alison sings as she draws a “dark-shaded stripe/bum-bum-bum.”

There are simply not enough adjectives to adequately describe Fun Home but, when an artistically well-pampered and sophisticated opening night audience collectively winds their way out of the Ahmanson in silence with tears in their eyes and unable to make conversation beyond tight hugs with their friends and familiar fellow first-nighters, you can bet you’re experiencing something uniquely special, something historic, something unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before.

DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! at the Celebration Theatre

Just at a time when the world seems to be going completely nuts, the victimless madness of Charles Busch could not be more welcome. Die, Mommie, Die!, his outrageous parody of those silly old film noir monster-diva movies, debuted here in LA at the Coast Playhouse in 1999 with its creator appearing in high drag as dastardly Angela Arden, a well-married Hollywood has-been in the late ‘60s who rules her tony Beverly Hills mansion with an iron mascara brush. The production went on to a lengthy New York run and became a feature film in 2003, both also starring Busch as his murderous heroine Angela Arden.

This lovingly remounted revival begins with the Bacall-tinged voice of its own celebrated Angela, Drew Droege, thanking us all for braving our horrible LA winter to attend the show. After threatening bodily harm if audience members don’t follow the rules of theater etiquette—much to the trepidation of the wary five patrons chosen to sit onstage on two ornate period couches flanking either side of the stage—Busch’s signature send-up of latter-day campy Bette Davis slasher melodramas takes no prisoners. Not even the overly made-up droopy-faced Angela herself survives, staring into her ornate but smoky mirror, as she prepares to attend the Beverly Hills Psoriasis Ball, to see nothing looking back “besides hair and makeup and some very important jewelry.”

With the obvious blessings of Ryan Bergmann’s unstoppably convention-free direction, this seriously over-the-top ensemble of shameless players takes the story one step farther than ever before. These folks would drop their pants for a laugh if they could—no, wait, they actually do—most notably Pat Towne as Angela’s wealthy film producer husband Sol Sussman, who takes his drawer-drop one step further by letting Droege as his grimacing wife shove an enormously oversized suppository into his nether regions live onstage. One can only be grateful not to have been picked to sit in those onstage seats.

Where Busch’s deadpan Eve Arden-style performances have always been acerbic and dry as the Mojave, exhibiting his unearthly ability to somehow circumvent the comedic pratfalls which he himself wrote into his own roles, Droege’s Angela could not be more blatantly campy, like a Zolpidem-sedated Ruby Keeler in her geriatric years playing Baby Jane Hudson wearing Joan Crawford’s real-life wardrobe. Before we are ever even introduced to the bigger-than-life mistress of the castle, however, we hear from her neglected daughter Edith (Julianne Chidi Hill) that her once illustrious songstress mother now has a “vibrato as wide as Mr. Ed’s asshole” as we’re brought up to date watching a newsreel-style video showcasing Angela’s downward-spiraling career, culminating in a poster hawking her appearance playing the title role in Peter Pan at the Wichita County Fair.

Entering from the estate’s garden apologizing to her family and all in attendance for being “up to my elbows in manure” as she models her best gardening finery, Droege immediately takes Busch’s classic role and makes it his own. From sipping constant bottomless martinis to plotting her husband’s early demise utilizing an arsenic-dipped suppository to camouflage her treachery to spouting an endless barrage of low-registered bon mots, mispronouncing words she believes sound classier with a little French affectation added, Droege is a treat to behold, out-Garlanding the revered Dame Judy at every opportunity.

Andrew Carter as resident gigolo Tony is a quintessential foil for Angela’s horny scramblings as she towers over her pocket-sized lover, a former TV series star waiting for a new pilot with the range and class of his Squad Car 13, who now supports himself by giving tennis lessons—that is when not utilizing his massive member (kudos to Allison Dillard for designing costuming which makes it possible to keep his kielbasa-sized tool erect for over two hours) to keep wealthy matrons happy. Towne overcomes the obnoxious Hollywood executive stereotype and Jewy-slang dialogue written into the role of Angela’s oy-veying husband, but he’s still a hoot as the slimy Sol, whose life’s work has been “made a mockery by pretentious fags and bulldyke film critics.”

Hill has her best moments spouting her hated mother or pawing Sol in the most delightfully inappropriate father-daughter relationship since the invention of 24-karat friendship rings. The impossibly wide-eyed Gina Torrecilla as Bootsie, the family’s longtime maid who is hot for Sol, although her main purpose in life is saying her prayers to help send Dick Nixon to the White House in ’68, is a tremendous asset to this slickly entertaining production. And as the Sussmans’ emotionally-fragile shrink-managed son Lance, home from college after blowing his school’s entire math department in the faculty longue, it’s hard to imagine anyone funnier or more uninhibited than the wonderfully wacky understudy Nathan Mohebbi (in for Tom DeTrinis).

“This family, frankly, exhausts me,” Angela—or is it her twin sister Barbara?—admits, leading one to stop and wonder how this superlative cast, led by someone with razor-sharp timing and the ability to bring down the house with a flash of an errant eyelash, can get through a string of performances of Die, Mommie, Die! without sleeping 20-hour stretches between shows. Having such a clearly infectious good time together and sharing that gift with their grateful audience onstage and off, must keep the adrenaline pumping at warp speed.

CIRCUS 1903 at the Pantages Theatre

It must be hard for circus-themed touring productions to exist in the massive and glitzy shadow of Cirque du Soleil. There have been many animal-free Cirque clones popping up over the last years—and most of them hang for dear life onto the coattails of the Montreal conglomerate with varying degrees of success. None, however, has been as imaginative or downright captivating as Circus: 1903: the Golden Age of Circus, now loaded into the Pantages for a too-short stay.

Beginning with the premise that this usual troupe of death-defying aerialists, acrobats, jugglers, and tightrope artists are setting up their wares alongside a railroad depot in a small town at the turn of the last century, Circus 1903 is uniquely different from its competitors. Not only were the producers smart to hire notable magician David Williamson to play their wisecracking, slightly world-weary ringmaster Willy Whipsnide, they also brought onboard costumer Angela Aaron to recreate the players’ painstakingly accurate period wardrobe, as well as scenic wizard Todd Edward Ivins and lighting designer Paul Smith to add to the illusion of the members of the ensemble joining to raise their tents and festooning them with strings of lights and colorful banners. By the second act, their smoky, atmospheric preparations give way to a full-blown performance and the result may be slightly minimal but still, most charmingly magical.

And speaking of magic, the other distinctive thing this traveling entertainment has going for it is the participation of Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller of Significant Object, who bring to life the show’s resident star attractions: the enormous, incredibly graceful Queenie and her adorably goofy and energetic baby Peanut. Millar and Waller’s pair of life-size elephant “puppets” are manipulated by several retro-costumed puppeteers walking next to and visibly moving inside the beautifully rendered creatures, instantly reminiscent of the enchanted animals which dominated the National Theatre’s adaptation of War Horse—of which Millar was part of the creative team. Bringing these glorious beasts to life proves a feat of extraordinary artistic alchemy, only making their delighted audiences wish for more. Maybe a few future lions and tigers and bears? Oh, my. We can only hope.

In 2005, when I was brought to Las Vegas to spend a week backstage to cover the opening of Cirque du Soleil’s for a magazine, at one point through a French interpreter I interviewed the show’s costumer Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt, who told me about her beginnings designing bizarre counterculture creations for a small underground theater troupe in Montreal. I asked her what the major difference was working for a tiny but artistically boundless alternative theater company and then finding herself designing for a Cirque spectacular. Her answer was quick in any language: “Budget.” Surely Circus 1903 doesn’t have the limitless resources available to the world-full of nonstop wonder fashioned for one of Guy Laliberte and Gilles Ste-Croix’s empire of enchanted dreamscapes, but what they do with what they’ve got is, simply, magical on its own.

ZOOT SUIT at the Mark Taper Forum

The history of Los Angeles is a fascinating and often sorted tale. This is particularly true of the bigotry and racial profiling which has befallen—and continues to befall—our pivotal Chicano population over the years, making the Taper’s sparkling revival of Luis Valdez’ groundbreaking musical Zoot Suit, which premiered at the same theater way back in 1978 when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth and the mastodons had not yet gotten on hung up in the tar pits, more timely than ever before considering our current administration’s aim to bring back tar and dump us all in it for a swim.

As the evening news continues to be chockful of reports of Trump-inspired ICE raids and deportation roundups that have rocked Los Angeles and across the country this weekend, recent National Medal of Arts recipient Valdez, who once again directs his own masterpiece with the participation of his son and longtime collaborator Kinan as his associate director, takes us back to 1942 as a world war raged across our globe—and the local LA pachuco society was the relentless target brutality and the nonstop stomping on human rights by both the of police and the military.

Valdez returns with a vengeance to his story of the infamous Sleepy Hollow murder trial and the resultant Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, aided by a passionate cast and designers who have obviously worked tirelessly to do their homework. Designer Christopher Acebo’s soaring metal industrial structures, loaming in front of a mysterious night-lit backdrop of the East LA barrio smoldering below a soaring rendition of City Hall, is a perfect tool for Valdez’ stark staging and the hot-blooded dance numbers choreographed by Maria Torres to the infectiously cheery original score by the legendary late “Father of Chicano Music” Lalo Guerrero.

Speaking of research, costumer Ann Closs-Farley’s amazing period costuming becomes a vital member of the exceptional team that has brought this production back to life, whether finely tailored Joan Crawford-esque suits for reporter Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont) or the spectacularly colorful dancewear moving seductively with every jerk and stretch of the energetic and rubber-limbed ensemble. Her work is accentuated by the gorgeously detailed “drapes” themselves that adorn the ghostly El Pachuco (Demian Bichir) and members of the local gang who became victims of the American court system. Once referred to by a young Malcolm X as a “killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell,” Closs-Farley’s brilliantly day-glo-ing zoot suits, complete with their signature watch chains dangling from the belt to below the knee, could make a comeback due solely to the success of this revival.

Bichir is a dynamic presence as he bravely attempts to fill the well-worn pointed-toed shoes that became the springboard to fame for his predecessor Edward James Olmos. He is wonderfully sparse in his choices as he prances and poses as the continuously dominant spirit figure gliding through the action as the unseen conscience of the falsely accused Henry Rayna (Matius Ponce), although his gravelly, raspy delivery of some of his key lines does tend to get lost in their own gargle. Ponce also seems to keep his delivery more to the bone than many of his castmembers, as does Jeanine Mason as his spunky love interest Della. A special treat is the casting of Daniel Valdez (who also doubles a musical director) and Rose Portillo as Henry’s longsuffering, endearingly simple immigrant parents, since they are the actors who, four decades ago, played the roles of Henry and Della in the original cast.

Of course the saddest thing about seeing Zoot Suit so painstakingly return to its original venue is to realize how little has changed since the notorious events which occurred during the aftermath of the Sleepy Lagoon murders and the subsequent Zoot Suit Riots, which shook Los Angeles to its core and subsequently spread around the country 75 years ago. Like studying the arc between Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in 1905 and Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County 100 years later, the endurance of great art unmistakably exposes how our conflicted species refuses to modify our behavior and to learn from our mistakes, how little we really, truly try to honor and to practice the humanity we profess to hold so dear.

THE LION at Geffen Playhouse

It's a given that most self-created solo shows dig deep into the past and particular personal demons haunting their author, but Benjamin Scheuer takes it one step farther with his Drama Desk and Off-West End Award winning The Lion, adding one component fairly unique to that genre: unflinchingly recounting the bittersweet memories of his life and individual trials with gloriously evocative music.

Scheuer offers a bravely unadorned look at growing up in a difficult situation, but he does so by letting his story unfold through powerful and hauntingly poetic ballads, his sandpapery vocal dexterity, and some truly ferocious skills as a guitarist. Yet austerity is the key here, Scheuer moving from stool to stool, picking up a half-dozen guitars showcasing his versatility on the Geffen’s intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis stage. His only co-conspirators showcasing his massive talent are the unobtrusive but effective direction by Sean Daniels, complimented by Neil Patel’s ever-changing sound studio design lit with chameleon-like simplicity by Ben Staton.

Scheuer tells of his uncomfortable relationship with a demanding father whose expectations do not mesh with his son’s free spirit, ending in a bitter argument never resolved when his dad, whom he obviously adored, suddenly died of a brain aneurism. A gifted hobbyist musician, Scheuer’s father was a notable mathematician and, although he shared his musical passion with his son—even building him a homemade ukulele in the basement—his frustration that his offspring didn’t inherit his analytical skills or was interested in focus on academic success, destroyed their time together.

Guilty about how their relationship ended, Scheuer’s story trudges on through a love affair, catastrophic illness, and numerous attempts to find himself in some way that does not involve his passion for music. In less gifted hands, such a quiet and unvarnished production would never have won the awards The Lion has garnered across the country and around the globe. Scheuer is the quintessential product of singer-songwriters from a groundbreaking generation past, a Leonard Cohen or Cat Stevens or James Taylor for the millennium, only taken a step further with a personal tale he shares without filter or embellishment—and we, his sufficiently mesmerized and emotionally transported followers, are his grateful beneficiaries.

 

NOW YOU KNOW WHERE THE BODIES ARE BURIED

BODIES at the Tropicana, Las Vegas, 2007  /  Photo by T.M. Holder