EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE 

CURRENT THEATRE REVIEWS by TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER 

KEY LARGO 

Photo by Jeff Lorch

Geffen Playhouse

It takes a large pair of ‘em to decide to take an iconic vintage film noir  thriller, which onscreen featured a fullblown hurricane and climaxed on the high seas, and adapt it to the limitations of a stage—especially true when Richard Brooks and John Huston’s classic 1948 film was itself first lifted from what they considered a less successful play.

Developed and now facing its world premiere at the unstoppably hot Geffen Playhouse, let’s just say I hope costumer Linda Cho didn’t have to work around a “set” of epic proportions when designing for Andy Garcia as he prepared to co-write, co-produce, and star in this fresh new version of Maxwell Anderson’s all-but forgotten 1939 Broadway production of Key Largo.

Anderson’s original script was quite different from both Huston’s film and this new retelling adapted by Garcia and Jeffrey Hatcher, with the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie—itself perhaps most famous as the last smoldering screen pairing of Bogie and Bacall rather than for the plot—began as a morally and emotionally wounded deserter from the Spanish-American War played on Broadway by Paul Muni.

In Hatcher and Garcia’s Key Largo, Frank McCloud (played by Danny Pino) is now, as in Huston’s film, a recently discharged Army major returning from WWII. Still, as a character he continues to be tortured by his mysterious past while stationed overseas and is surely suffering from what would today be diagnosed as PTSD.

McCloud still arrives in the ramshackle hotel on the Straits of Florida run by the father and wife (Tony Plana and Rose McIver) of one of the men in his charge killed in action. It is his seventh and last such visit since returning to the States, a task he has taken upon himself with the hint that at the completion of his quest he might just decide to pull the plug on his own life.

He finds more than just the D’Alcalas alone in their secluded hotel shuttered for the season, quickly greeted the moment he steps into the lobby by a suspicious pair of rough gangster-type hoods (Stephen Borrello and Louis Mustillo) and a flirty, over-the-hill former nightclub singer (Joely Fisher) who’s laying into the scotch with a seemingly bottomless thirst.

Soon it’s apparent the group has not bought out the hotel for a fishing trip as they claim, instead revealing in their actions and reactions that they are all at the beck and call of an unseen and rather ominous guest, something made clear when a satin-robed dandy appears accompanied by a flash of lightning and loud clap of thunder on the landing of the hotel’s once grand staircase.

The obvious leader of the gang is Johnny Rocco (in a tour de force  turn by Garcia), a notorious hood deported by the government back to Italy after years of ruling over an uncontrollable murderous mob dealing in drugs and prostitution.

Rocco has returned to Key West by way of Cuba to take back his throne, beginning with a transaction scheduled that night on this usually quiet and all-but deserted island at this time of year. He waits for the arrival of his former lacky Ziggy (Bradley Snedeker), who has commandeered his territory in his absence and is ready to deliver a satchel full of cash in return for a briefcase filled with the finest heroin to ever travel across the ocean to our shores.

This is purdy standard stuff, to be sure, but beyond the slim storyline is the haunted disenfranchisement of McCloud and how the spark of romance with Nora, the widow of his former subordinate who died while Frank ran off the other direction, changes his course and restores his willingness to fight for life again. This offers him a chance for possible redemption if he can stand up to the vicious and merciless Rocco.

The production, under the leadership of Tony-winning director Doug Hughes, is simply smashing. It is continuously tense, relentlessly engaging, and theatrically dazzling throughout. John Lee Beatty’s majestic two-story set is incredibly detailed and especially amazing when it comes crashing down in that dreaded hurricane at the center of the movie, here recreated with astoundingly real special effects.

Peter Kaczorowski’s jarring lighting plot, full of moody shadows and sudden bursts of nature’s fury, is perfectly accentuated by Alex Hawthorn’s crashing sound design, together conspiring to collectively at times launch the entire audience right out of their comfortably padded seats as they gasp aloud in surprise.

Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson’s projections are equally able to induce a kind of visual claustrophobia as they suggest the fierceness of the storm raging outside the hotel’s shaking windows, while Cho’s elegant and detailed costuming adds a milieu evoking the late 1940s from Gay Dawn’s seamed nylons to Johnny Rocco’s white Cubano-style fedora.

There are a few sections in the script which could still use a little fleshing out, but in general Hatcher and Garcia deserve commendation for how they have smoothly and cleverly transferred the culminating action away from the storm-swept fishing boat, bringing it back into the hotel lobby without jeopardizing any of the thrills and chills.

It did bother me that, although the pistols brandished and sometimes shot by Rocco and others are impressive props, in the hands of these actors they never seem to carry the actual weight such weapons would have. I did also wonder how the crashing glass of the hotel’s omnipresent skylight at the jaw-dropping end of the first act appeared to have been magically restored into place by the opening of Act Two.

Still, what makes this production, with all its impressive visual bells and whistles, succeed so splendidly is the cast. Expertly anchoring the entire production, Garcia is riveting, wonderfully slimy in an endearing way, and ultimately scary as hell.

As his obnoxiously grandiose Rocco brags in one passage that if someone like him—ruthless, corrupt, uneducated, and vain—can grab and steal and kill his way to become so important and successful, maybe one day he can become President of the United States. The savvy 2019 audience’s boisterous and vocal reaction even seemed to surprise Garcia, unless he was sharing a couple of seconds out of character on purpose to appreciate the moment with the rest of us.

Pino brings a new humanity to McCloud without smothering in the shadow of Bogart, as does McIver as his love interest. And although she doesn’t have the unearthly beauty and uniquely sultry baritone of Lauren Bacall, nor is her role written as quite the focal point as it is in the film, her Nora possesses a spirit and feistiness that makes up for it tenfold.

Although he still plays D’Alcala as blind, Plana loses the wheelchair and doesn’t ever resort to the familiar gruff and blustery delivery of Lionel Barrymore, giving him more of an opportunity to imbue the guy with a strength and resilience that enriches the character.

Borrello, Mustillo, and Snedeker are also quite successful avoiding the traps inherent in the actions of the quintessential noir-bred mobsters and Richard Riehle also does an impressive job making the rather unbelievable compromises expected the area’s marginally committed sheriff something audiences are somehow willing to accept.

As Gaye Dawn, Rocco’s dissipated and drunken moll rescued before his deportation from a chorusline with the promise of making her a star, Fisher is simply mesmerizing, even surpassing Claire Trevor in the role which won her a Best Supporting Oscar.

Fisher paints a vivid and heartbreaking portrait of a tragic but somehow endearing loser drowning in lost dreams and destined for a life of hard knocks—and when she is forced by Rocco to sing for those gathered waiting out the storm in return for the desperately-needed drink she has been denied, the result is showstopping, especially considering what a worldclass songstress Fisher really is.

Yup. It was quite a risk for Garcia and his co-producer, legendary film producer and former Paramount CEO Frank Mancuso, to reinvent a property as recognizable as Key Largo  and even enlist renowned musical virtuoso Arturo Sandoval to compose a knockout original Afro-Cuban jazz score specifically for the production.

As exceptional and promising as this memorable theatrical reinvention is, it would surprise me if its evolution ended when it closes here Dec. 10. Credit for at least part of what this team has accomplished is that it was created under commission from the Geffen initiated by and with the blessing of Matt Shakman, who in his two-year reign as the complex’s artistic director has magically made the Geffen Playhouse a place to watch once again.

THROUGH DEC. 10: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood. 310.208.5454 or geffenplayhouse.org 

THE THANKSGIVING PLAY 

Photo by Jeff Lorch

Geffen Playhouse

In the Geffen’s second space, a suburban middle school classroom is turned into a rehearsal space for the drama department “anywhere but in the Los Angeles area” as a terminally overdramatic earthmother tries to produce relevant outspoken social commentary to be performed by her teenaged charges. In other words, good luck with that.

In fact, her recent mounting of  O'Neill's gritty The Iceman Cometh  at her last school, featuring a cast of 15-year-olds, resulted in her termination after 327 horrified parents signed a petition demanding that she go poof.  Now Logan (Samantha Sloyan) has been given a second chance, hired by another local school to create an all-new holiday-themed presentation to be called The Thanksgiving Play.

Germinating from the seriously wicked mind of award-winning playwright Larissa Fasthorse, another socially-conscious but far more successful theatre artist in the real world—you know, the one outside Los Angeles—the resulting play of the same name just opening at the Geffen should seriously become an annual holiday classic.

Just think twice if production stage manager Samantha Cotton decides not to come back next time. Without an industrial-strength clean-up crew to help her restore civility after every performance, this is one of those rare Equity jobs that deserves combat pay.

As important as it is for our melodramatic heroine to redeem her reputation and succeed this time out, admitting she has in her self-immolating life repeatedly been the product of her own decisions, she believes she must also remain faithful to her quest to save not only the planet but the 45 million turkeys who end up cooked to a crisp on a platter every fourth Thursday in November. “I do my best,” she insists with characteristic flourish, “and I hope the Buddha and my karma make up for it.”

Logan does have help, both from her equally overdramatic secret boyfriend Jaxton (Noah Bean), who bristles when reminded he's a street performer dependent on a tin can to provide his income (“I am a local celebrity!” he corrects), and Caden (Jeff Markow), an eager administrator assigned by the school district, they say, to provide research on the history of the holiday but surely also to keep an eye on their hardly predictable newest employee.

Still, Logan has something considerable on her side this time, having been awarded a grant providing funds to hire a real life professional actor, a term which Jaxton finds a bit dismissive of his own... er... career. She manages to unruffle his feathers (no seasonal pun intended) by assuring him she appreciates the body of his “work” but that she’s required by terms of the grant to hire a Native American to play a leading role. Besides, the guest artist about to arrive for their first rehearsal is a professional actress... from Los Angeles.

She reminds her offended partner that if anyone in their community is an expert on what it is to be an actor in LA it’s her, uniquely possessed of a firsthand understanding regarding the difficulties, disappointments, and calloused ins-and-outs of such a condition only too well having experienced it personally. Logan, it seems, once faced the daunting struggles and blistering inequities of living here in our reclaimed desert climes herself—for an entire six weeks.

This exciting casting choice is Logan’s guaranteed ace in the hole, but when the vapid and empty-headed Alicia (Alexandra Henrikson) shows up late and complaining about the bus service from her Motel 6, it doesn’t take long to realize the creation of The Thanksgiving Play  might be more difficult than the original task the pilgrims had planning the very first feast, making sure both they and their guests all had seats at the table and that their weapons were kept hidden behind the trees.

First of all, the project is to be created from scratch with the participation of this quartet of wonderfully silly misfits and Alicia, although she wants to stick around long enough to be sure her role will be substantial, doesn’t Do improv, a discipline Logan tells her she considers a “world of yes.”

Alicia instead announces she’ll take off for now and they can call her back when they have a script, but to the rescue comes the ecstatic supernerd Caden, who turns out to be a fervent amateur dramatist and has arrived with a completed epic-length manuscript which begins a few centuries before what is acknowledged as the first documented Thanksgiving celebration.

“I’ve written 62 plays,” he bursts out excitedly, “and this is the first one I’ve ever heard read by people over nine!”

Although Logan has problems with Caden’s script, she is happy to have been gifted with a dramaturg, a position she considers the holy grail of American theatre. “What’s a dramaturg?” professional theatre actor Alicia asks with a signature bat of her eyelashes. “No one knows,” Logan admits dourly.

Yet the embattled director knows her obstacles are still considerable and, despite the flirting that permeates the air between Alicia and Jaxton, she must keep her pouty guest performer happy to keep her grant, something that soon gets severely tomahawked when her star tells her she's not a descendant of our indigenous ancestors at all but that Logan merely hired her from her Native American headshot. It’s the necklace in the photo that does the trick every time, Alicia believes, earnestly reminding the others that Native Americans “invented turquoise.”

Fasthorse is a master at jabbing us in our social consciousness with outrageous humor, creating exaggerated gothic characters and situations that address a heap of cultural inequities as our majorly fucked-up country prepares to collectively give thanks while we blithely ignore the marginalization of a large portion of our own citizenry.

She refers to her outrageously skewed play as a “comedy within a satire, as it is a satire but the comedic bits are the sugar that helps the medicine go down.” With the invaluable aid of director Michael John Garces and his brilliantly fearless and delightfully over-the-top performers, she pulls that trick off splendidly.

Even Sara Ryung Clements’ drab classroom set, slyly accentuated with such prefect detail as a bobblehead of William Shakespeare watching over the ensuing storm of insanity from atop a filing cabinet and theatrical posters of past productions adorning the walls. Besides featuring middle school standards such as Grease and Our Town, if you look closely you'll notice they also include questionable former mountings of American Buffalo, Extremities, 4.48 Psychosis, and offering a hint of what’s to come from the Bard’s bloodiest tragedy Titus Andronicus—all productions I personally would love to have seen.

The Thanksgiving Play  is the Slings and Arrows  of live theatre, with much of it aimed at people who have been there to be able to understand the humor.  Judging from the reaction of many of the opening nighters in the audience, most of Fasthorse’s “in” jokes went directly over their heads, something that alienated them further when papier-mache heads of our dispatched Native American forebearers began to get tossed and kicked around the stage as though balls in a rugby match and a Texas Chainsaw-sized load of gore ultimately covered both the walls and the actors with a few pricey gallons of stage blood.

Still, this is LA and surely there are enough of us here to appreciate this production and keep it returning each November as a yearly Thanksgiving companion to our beloved and equally brazen homegrown Christmas classic Bob’s Holiday Office Party, which has been making a monumental mess nightly each December as a sold-out Lost Angeles tradition since 1995.

One thing brought to mind by The Thanksgiving Play,  as Alicia is questioned by Jaxton about the acting technique she utilizes to practice her craft and bring her characters to life. “Oh, I just pretend I’m them,” she chirps brightly.

While helping to build a set for a show at a local 99-seat theatre a couple of years ago, my boyfriend talked to a fellow volunteer who told him her day job was as a telemarketer for a theatrical ticketing service, a position she said she loved because she could spend all day talking to people who loved theatre—meaning obviously she'd been working there for less than two weeks, I suspect.

Still, she told him she also teaches acting, so if he “really wanted to become an actor,” he should take classes from her. Aside from the fact that Hugh is a brilliant actor, as well as a published author, poet, and playwright with a partner who makes much of his living, besides reviewing plays such as this one, teaching acting and coaching spoiled superstars, he has two college degrees, the second of which is in Acting for Film from the New York Film Academy.

Still, as a humble guy raised on a New Mexican Navajo reservation always brought up to be respectful, he kept his resume to himself and asked his proposed professora  what technique she taught.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “I mean," he explained, "do you teach Stanislavsky or Meisner or Strasburg or Uta Hagan or Stella Adler or what?”

“No, no, I don’t teach any of that,”  she answered. “I just teach people how to act.”

Please help me campaign to see that The Thanksgiving Play  returns to the Geffen next November, won't you? Lord knows us jaded Angelenos need the laughs and I'm afraid by next year at this time we may need 'em more than ever.

THROUGH DEC. 6: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood. 310.208.5454 or geffenplayhouse.org

EIGHT NIGHTS 

Photo by Jenny Graham

Antaeus Theatre Company

In the world premiere of Jennifer Maisel’s shattering Eight Nights,  the same cramped but comfortable modest apartment on the lower eastside of Manhattan is home to several generations of one family and the people whose lives they affect and who in turn are affected by theirs.

With the first scene beginning on December 15, 1949 and the last concluding on December 31, 2016, the Eight Nights  explored here are set during eight separate Hanukkah gatherings as the family heroically fights to exorcise the demons of living their lives after the unthinkable horrors of the Holocaust.

The wonder of Maisel’s potential future multigenerational classic is that, although it begins with the family’s own history as father Erich (Arye Gross), his daughter Rebecca (played at age 19 by Zoe Yale), and the omnipresent spectre of Anna, their dead wife and mother (Tessa Auberjonois) lost at Auschwitz, Maisel does not dwell only on the painfully haunting memories and sleepless nights suffered by Rebecca over the years.

She adds in characters invited for one reason or another to join the family for their annual Hanukkah dinner, including an African-American couple trying to outlive racism and the dark cloud of their ancestral history, a young Japanese man with roots to a family interred in U.S. camps during World War II, a same-sex couple fearful of being misunderstood, and finally a displaced Muslim refugee waiting for his own family to join him. Each scene proves pivotal in the lives of each person who attends and honors the sacred family ceremony over the years.

This is a brilliant homage to the durability of the human spirit as told from the diverse multicultural perspectives of these socially marginalized people linked together not only by their own personal sense of displacement in an often hard and selfish world, but more importantly by their individual indomitable life force.

The play opens in 1949 as Rebecca, after almost a decade of separation, has just arrived in New York following years fighting, alongside her mother and sisters, to rejoin their previously-immigrated father as refugees fleeing the Nazis on the notorious MS St. Louis. Turned back everywhere in the world where the ship attempted to dock—including America—they were ultimately sent back to Europe where she was the only one of the family to survive the concentration camp.

At the opening of the first scene, Rebecca stands centerstage holding onto her small suitcase for dear life and refusing to take off her cloth overcoat, unable to speak as Erich tries valiantly to make her feel safe. A knock on the door from a young family friend named Aaron (Josh Zuckerman) sends her cowering in a corner in terror. “It’s all right,” her father tells her as he strokes her shoulder, “those things don’t happen here.”

Yeah. Right.

By the third scene, as Auberjonois assumes the role of Rebecca as a middleaged mother now married to the adoring and patient Aaron—to whom she uttered her first words in English all those years before—she assures the others gathering for the family’s Hanukkah dinner that the world is now moving in the right direction and that “We cannot ever go back.” Unfortunately, as citizens of 2019, we know how heartbreakingly ironic that sentiment has become.

It’s not difficult to speculate what inspired this award-winning and uber-talented playwright to write such a unique and remarkable play, which personally produced floods of tears for me during six of the eight holiday gatherings it depicted. Maisel admits she began Eight Nights  the day after the inauguration of our Celebrity Appresident in 2016 as her response to his ugly, hate-filled speeches about walls and borders and keeping Muslims out of America.

Erich, Rebecca, and their family are the antithesis of the attitudes of our current “leaders,” in one scene opening their home and sharing their yearly celebration with the African-American soldier (Christopher Watson) who rescued Rebecca from the camps and his wife (Karen Malina White) responsible for the reunion in an effort to help end his bouts of PTSD and continuous nightmares.

After an uncomfortable bout of hurt feelings between Rebecca and her father, the couple nearly leaves but, by staying, not only become lifelong friends of the family but successful business partners, while Arlene also becomes a sympathetic mentor to Rebecca and Aaron’s daughter Amy (played by Yale), frustrated by never having anything about her mother’s past explained to her.

Throughout the generations, Rebecca refuses to tell anybody the hideous treatment she endured at the hands of the Nazis—that is until Amy falls in love with a young Sansei (Devin Kawaoka) whose own story of his grandfather’s tragic end in a Japanese internment camp leads her to a harrowing session confessing her ordeal in a taped Shoah-style interview.

The cast is uniformly phenomenal, with special kudos to the extraordinary work of Auberjonois, who not only plays the ghost of Anna but ages as Rebecca from her late 30s into a feisty and sharp-tongued senior citizen who not only acknowledges her granddaughter's secret same-sex partnership (sweetly played by Yale and White) but eventually opens her home to another terrified refugee, Gross as a Muslim father waiting hopefully for his own family to be liberated and join him.

Of course, any character touched by Arye Gross is pure gold, but as both of the tortured fathers feeling equally helpless to save his family, he is at his very best and guaranteed to make you need one of those boxes of travel-sized tissues. Of the six good cries I had during Eight Nights,  Gross is personally responsible for three.

Director Emily Chase does a masterful job making this all work seamlessly, particularly conquering the many scene changes here carried out by members of the ensemble in character, with delicately choreographed movements between them featured downstage as one actor takes over the role of another.

Alex Jaeger’s evocative period costuming, Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting, and Jeff Gardner’s sound contribute considerable ambience to Edward E. Haynes Jr’s lovely set featuring delicate turn-of-the-century floral wallpaper obviously hand-painted on the silk see-through flats.

The fact that Eight Nights  plays in rep on this same stage with Stephanie Alison Walker’s also amazing The Abuelas  is another testament to the commitment to excellence demanded by the dedicated members of Antaeus, since Haynes’ Odets-like post-Depression apartment is set up and dressed before each performance in front of his contemporary Chicago highrise condo featured in the other production.

Luckily for them, three people are credited between the program and its inserts for prop design and management, so I’m not sure who to wag my finger at about the prop baby carried by the ghost of Anna, who sports a child’s foot dangling from swaddling wearing a period Mary Jane shoe that appears to have been constructed from black duct tape. Too close, the audience here, to get away with that.

And while I’m being persnickety, when so much effort was put into period details, couldn’t anyone find a classic box of Animal Crackers for one of the pregnant characters to be fed when there’s been so much media coverage lately about the brand new box the company has chosen to adopt that eliminates the cages in which the circus animal graphics were trapped for over a century?

As noted in dramaturg Ryan McRee’s informative essay in the program, an actual survivor of the St. Louis fiasco referenced the infamous trash-piled vessel that roamed the eastern seaboard in 1987 searching for a place to unload its unwanted cargo. “Remember the garbage barge?” Alice Olster asked. “We were the human garbage barge.” Sound familiar as today in our “Land of the Free” children are being kept in cages at our southern border, black men are executed in the streets by power-drunk monsters blatantly abusing their authority, and synagogues and mosques all over our nation are set afire?

As we desperately try to wake up from our own current greed and racially-fueled nightmare at the hands of another historically dangerous madman and the cronies who let him destroy everything for which we stand, listening to and taking heed in what such stories as Jennifer Maisel’s epic play have to share remind us that we can be equally as brave and strong and unstoppable as her richly evocative characters.

Barreling on to the year’s end and its inevitable universal holiday plea to be kind to one another and work together to find world peace on both the global and the most intimate of levels, Eight Nights should be a required event for every schoolkid and civic group in Los Angeles this “festive” season. It’ll destroy you, but it’s hugely thought-provoking and pure theatrical magic from start to finish—except those distracting Animal Crackers, of course.

THROUGH DEC. 16: Antaeus Theatre Company, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale. 818.506.1983 or Antaeus.org

SUMMER 

Photo by Matthew Murphy / MurphyMade

Pantages Theatre

Under Howell Brinkley’s evocative concert-style lighting on the Pantages’ well-traveled stage, here resembling a major music venue, Dan’yelle Williamson breaks through the line of glittering disco-clad chorus members to march directly downstage center and declare “The Queen in Back!”

So begins Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,  in which the life of the Queen of Disco is portrayed not only by the dynamic Williamson as the older and more seasoned Diva Donna, but by two other knockout performers: Alex Hairston as the young unknown Summer blossoming into a newly-minted superstar and Olivia Elease Hardy making an auspicious debut as the former Boston-born LaDonna Adrian Gaines from ages 11 to 16.

Conceived and directed by the legendary Des McAnuff and originating as so many of his hits have over the years at his former home La Jolla Playhouse, Summer  is blindingly appointed and brightly realized from the first celebratory moments to its grand finale an intermissionless 100 minutes later, seamlessly unfolding as it barrels through the life and career of one of the most memorable talents to emerge from the unapologetically money-spinning music scene in the late 1970s.

Grand-scale Broadway productions celebrating the careers of famous musical icons are legion these days, including honoring the lives of everyone from Cher to Gloria Estefan to The Temptations to Carole King. All of these productions by nature offer quickly glossed over CliffNotes versions of their subjects’ lives and considerable careers and Summer  is hardly an exception—in fact, it might be the most blatantly banal and mawkish of the lot.

Yet this is a dazzling entertainment despite perhaps the worst—or at least more blatantly commercially-driven—book in the history of musical theatre. McAnuff, also credited for writing the script with Coleman Domingo and Robert Cary, redeems himself with his magical staging, which zips at lightning speed from scene to scene without even trying to hide the fact that they are just treading water between the crowd-pleasing musical numbers.

And here is the wonder of Summer  (maybe if someone creates a musical about Stevie Wonder in the future and opens it in June or July, I can turn around that phrase and write about the “summer of Wonder”).  The huge production numbers featuring the diva’s greatest hits have their eager audience literally dancing in their seats, especially, I might add, those in attendance of a particular age—like mine.

Which brings me to the very best part of Summer, undeniably the incredible troupe of dancers totally acing the jubilant, often extremely complicated choreography by Sergio Trujillo, last year’s well-deserved Tony winner for Ain’t Too Proud  (speaking of biographical musicals).

Trujillo’s work knocks me out every friggin’ time I see it, not only because it is consistently infectious and powerful but because it is always different. Although not meant as a slight, it’s not hard to pick out the signature moves of greats, such as the innovative angularity of Agnes deMille, the grand athleticism of Jerry Robbins, or the jazz hands of Bob Fosse, yet the choreography of Trujillo is new and fresh every time I see his work, consistently paying quintessential homage to whatever genre he tackles.

As someone who usually spent four or five nights a week out dancing the night away with my professional hoofer partner in them good ol’ days fueled by an endless supply of reds and clear light, let me say disco was never my personal favorite, something I would like to think ended my club years rather than considering that milestone might have actually been caused by that dastardly encroachment of middle age.

The book made me cranky as it zipped past and whitewashed the difficult parts of Summers’ life, including her sexual abuse at the hands of her pastor (of course), her violent relationships, her drug addiction, her unhappiness at never shedding her music exec-generated Disco Queen image, and her death at age 63 from lung cancer, the contracting of which she always blamed as a result of inhaling toxic fumes during the 9/11 attack in New York City.

Aside from unnecessarily demonizing Summers’ mentor and my old friend, the lategreat musical Svengali Neil Bogart, as a slimy moustache-twirling villain and depicting his brilliant and influential wife Joyce as a somewhat vapid stoned-out groupie, the most disturbing bastardization of the truth here is the quick sugar-coated rendering of the greatest controversy of the singer’s career, something which was in great part instrumental in the disintegration of her popularity among the members of the same group who originally generated it.

In the mid-1980s, Summer “allegedly” made hyper-religious anti-gay remarks about a relatively new disease called AIDS, which of course back then mainly affected the very people responsible for the hugeness of her success. Although she publicly denied making such comments, repeatedly calling it a terrible misunderstanding, her shouting out to raucous members of her audience from the stage during a concert that "God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve" was the faux pas  that never went away.

It's a shame McAnuff didn’t employ his former collaborators Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, whose brilliant book for the director’s The Jersey Boys  lifted the stakes for musical biographies tenfold. Although musically still honoring the careers of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the production also intelligently and without filter delved into the darker parts of their lives, surely contributing greatly to the show’s continued success.

Still, as happened with that spectacular production, it’s no doubt Summer  could finish its national tour and head straight to the Vegas Strip and dig in there for an extended run in the same city where The Jersey Boys  played for a phenomenal eight years at the Venetian and then Paris to an estimated 33,000 patrons, culminating in being touted as the longest-running musical in Las Vegas history.

Despite what does and doesn’t work for Des McAnuff and his team this time out, however, ultimately Summer  helped me forget about the show’s sloppy oversentimentality and glaring factual omissions and had me undulating to the contagious beat of the former Miss Gaines’ groundbreaking music along with the rest of the Pantages’ opening night crowd.

I don’t think there was a single person, from pintsized kids to us geriatrically-challenged former partypeople in the house, who did not eventually succumb to the need to stand up and rock out by the time the 11th-hour recreation of Summers’ megahit “Hot Stuff” filled the stately Pantages with its joyous spirit guaranteed to make anyone still breathing forget their troubles and come on an’ get happy.

THROUGH NOV. 24: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.840.9227 or pantagestheatre.box-officetickets.com

ELIJAH 

Photo by Tim Sullins

Victory Theatre Center

In the backroom auxiliary dining area of a TGIFridays plopped somewhere in the middle of that well-documented nowhere called rural Texas, a group of terminally incompatible strangers huddle for safety waiting out the howling winds of a hurricane called Elijah.

These six people could not be more disparate in their views or their personalities, bringing the tension and, eventually, the humanity, to the stage in the west coast debut of Judith Leora’s Elijah at the Victory Theatre Center.

Considering the collaboration of the Victory’s cofounder and co-artistic director Maria Gobetti at the helm, as well as the company’s usual excellent design choices around once again to expertly establish the proper mood and ambience, and a perfectly cast ensemble of gifted actors, it’s no surprise this is a return engagement for Leora, whose memorable Showpony  was a huge hit on the same stage last season.

Leora has an uncanny ability to find wicked humor smackdab in the middle of highly dramatic situations and Elijah is no exception. As the winds whip ominously outside the restaurant, four customers and two overworked employees try to get along. This isn’t an easy task as two of those gathered are in town to passionately protest the execution of a notorious serial killer scheduled later that night at a nearby prison and, they soon discover, they are on either side of the controversial argument.

Born-again Patience (Elle Vernee) is a firm believer in the An Eye for an Eye school of justice and is present to support the monster's underage victims as she vehemently cheers his imminent dispatching, while Tim (Jesse Merrill), a gay New York lawyer who is equally as committed to the Thou Shalt Not Kill camp despite his own atheism, is ready for a fight—no, he’s anxious to a fight and on many levels, ranting incessantly about everything from the death penalty to gender discrimination to the godawful service at this embattled TGIF. 

Also present is a young couple (Molly Gray and Jordan Wall) mysteriously traveling in the opposite direction than planned on their equally puzzling vacation, this particular place even more stuck in the middle of Nowheresville as where they were already prepared to go. It was on Dawn’s whim they took this ill-fated side junket, much to the bewilderment and consternation of her boyfriend Greg—that is until it’s revealed she was secretly trying to get to the prison to see the soon-to-be executed man before they stick the needle in his arm.

As these four travelers try to navigate their time together in this claustrophobic situation, the restaurant’s manager Lori (Kathleen Bailey) and her obvious mess of a teenaged niece Ashley (Mackenzie Rickaby) do their best to keep their unexpected and unwanted customers happy as the main dining room is overcrowded with people trying to escape the hurricane while the only other employee, usually a dishwasher, tries to concoct a few items from the appetizer menu to keep the natives from getting restless.

As with Showpony,  Leora conjures a wonderfully eclectic though often annoying group of people stranded both in the storm and in their own individual lives. The effort is not as successful as her first effort at the Victory, but it’s still full of promise, especially if it has a chance to undergo some minor reworking before its next booking.

The timeline here is in need of further examination, especially when Dawn receives a Skype-d phone call from the prisoner with only minutes passing between hanging up and receiving word of his fate, the chronicling of what went down too lengthy and involved a scenario to have happened between the first phone conversation and the second.

Leora has a unique knack for creating dynamic two-people scenes although, as beautifully written as they are, she could consider giving her other characters less obvious reasons to leave the stage so they can unfold. And unlike Showpony,  I found no solid reason to care much about what happens to any of these people—particularly when most every scene involves various characters yelling and screaming at one another without much time between arguments to really get to know them—nor is there much staisfying conclusive resolution to their individual problems.

The most sympathetic characters to follow and cling onto are the troubled Ashley and her overworked and overwhelmed aunt, both roles richly fleshed out by Rickaby and Bailey. It’s a shame Bailey’s character isn’t given a better set of reasons to be a more integral participant in the angst and anger of the situations the others create for themselves but, under the expect directorial guidance of Gobetti, she still manages to create an indelible portrait of an unsung bluecollar hero working through a difficult situation.

This is not yet a perfect play, but once again it’s clear Leora is possessed of a very special voice and has a guaranteed future in her chosen field, one I am anxious to follow. I do wish, at least in both of her plays I’ve seen presented, her characters were not as top-heavy in the gender sweepstakes, with strong valorous women repeatedly overpowering their insensitive and stubbornly blockheaded male counterparts. Still, Elijah  is a lovely little piece presented here with passion and intelligence and as such, is definitely worth your time and attention.

Still, I wonder if it’s just me but I swear 98% of all plays and movies focusing on endless groups of highly dysfunctional characters and miserable familial relationships are inevitably set in Texas. What is it about Texas? Is it really filled with this many fucked-up and miserable people or is it just an easy target for storytellers? It sure worked for Sam Shepard, you’ve got to admit, so what do I know.

Aside from renewing my interest in following the promising career of a fascinating new playwright and completely relieving any anxiety I might have had for never experiencing a stop at a TGIFridays anywhere in rural Texas, one other thing Judith Leora’s Elijah  has done to touch me personally is to rekindle my gratitude for living in Los Angeles. I mean, everyone is so normal here, right?—at least in comparison to any play or movie ever set in that poor screwy Lonstar State.

THROUGH DEC. 15: Victory Theatre Center, 3324 W. Victory Blvd, Burbank. 818.841.5421 or thevictorytheatrecenter.org

 THE NEW ONE 

Photo by Joan Marcus

Ahmanson Theatre

There’s been a lot of commentary lately about the choices made by the venerable Center Theatre Group and its programming, with particular emphasis focusing on two recent productions—one just ended and one just opening—booked into the austere and physically massive 2,000-seat Ahmanson Theatre.

While multi-cast, more elaborately mounted shows were part of the season selected to play CTG’s 739-seat Mark Taper Forum and their 317-seat westside Kirk Douglas Theatre, John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons  and Mike Birbiglia’ s The New One, both featuring solo performances and basically devoid of set or major design requirements needing time be accommodated, were chosen to play the Ahmanson.

Surely this choice was a marketing determination, with the CTG decision-makers considering how likely each show would be to sell seats. In Leguizamo’s case, especially considering both his professional notoriety and the abundance of culturally often overlooked Latino residents of LA and Southern California, the chance of a sellout was less of a crapshoot, but the booking of Birbiglia is another matter.

Opening nights are a bad forecaster to determine how the run of a show will do financially, especially at CTG’s venues or the Pantages or other large venues determined to fill all the seats the first night with donors, diehard supporters, and us dastardly critics scheduled to be in attendance. And although I have heard no data about final tallies garnered from Leguizamo’s brilliant performance over the remainder of his run after his reviews cooed and cheered, his fame surely boosting sales, I wonder if similar notices will put the butts in the seats for The New One.

Granted Birbiglia, who earlier this year was honored with the prestigious Kurt Vonnegut Humor Award, has a large New York following, has written books and directed his own films, and has toured 101 cities in a year in his two previous solo shows (both also eventually filmed for Netflix) everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House to, as he tells us, towns so small they’re nothing but Applebee’s with a dream. Still, despite all that as well as television appearances as an actor and radio exposure as a contributor to public radio’s popular This American Life, let’s just say this guy is hardly a household name guaranteed to fill 2,000 seats a night for a five-week run.

That said, dwarfed as The New One  may be in its present venue, Birbiglia, like Leguizamo, fills the cavernous Ahmanson stage quite nicely, thank you. Under the direction of Seth Barrish and with the minimal but effective contribution of some of Broadway’s most celebrated designers, not only is Birbiglia a wonderfully eccentric newly-harvested voice in the self-deprecating traditions of Dave Barry and David Sedaris, he has a lovably nondescript physicality and classic nebbishness that quickly puts all 2,000 people on his side as they listen in on in his casual and obviously personally therapeutic rant about the continuously overwhelming woes and seemingly infrequent joys of his life.

Birbiglia is a one-of-a-kind comedian, evoking for me the image of an early Wally Cox crossed with the relentlessly manic persona of Robin Williams, albeit without the voices of multiple personalities. He leads us directly into his simple but relatable story, which this time out involves his journey from young single urban male in love with the reassuring arms of his comfortable and comforting living room couch, then onto his later days as a married man under the proverbial yoke and eventually, to his current tenure as a reluctant father.

Even his married brother and weary father of two agrees that kids are worse than a disease, although, as such, they’re a disease that he wants his sibling to contract in a classic misery-loves-company kinda way. Regardless of his brother’s insistence that being a dad is a particular joy he’ll never know or understand until he has children of his own, Birbiglia’s very delivery of that message, hilariously recreated evoking a guy in midlife crisis who has undergone too much Botox, is enough to make any hetrosexual male who has not had a vasectomy run for the nearest urologist’s office.

Booking Birbiglia into the Ahmanson may indeed be a gamble for the CTG, but then, isn’t creating and championing all art a gamble?

Indeed The New One, which begins with Birbiglia delivering a Woody Allen-style monologue wondering about what makes this particular night qualify as an ”opening night” performance (“I’ll do my best,” he tells us, “but I’ll bet it’ll be a whole lot like any other night”), is somewhat akin to seeing hopeful stand-up comedians take the mike at the world’s largest comedy club. And let’s face it, his choice of subject matter is hardly something one would imagine to be interesting to anyone except young married couples considering or dealing with becoming new parents.

Still, Mike Birbiglia’s brazenly yet endearingly off-color comedy is all his own and as such, The New One  is highly unique and refreshingly entertaining, making us feel a tad embarrassed to be laughing at his poor-me modernday Little Tramp persona—that is until one considers there’s a strong possibility we might just be watching the beginning stages of a sizable career in the fickle world of comedy that could a perfect fit for CTG-sized ambitions.

THROUGH NOV. 24: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

1984 

Photo by Ashley Randall

The Actors’ Gang

Reviewed for TicketHoldersLA by H.A. EAGLEHART

The Actors’ Gang is home to some of the best productions I’ve seen presented in my nearly seven years attending LA theatre on a regular basis.

Their workshop-developed Harlequino: On to Freedom is one of my favorite plays in which Will Thomas McFadden has performed, but after seeing him in the leading role of Winston Smith in the premiere of 1984,  no doubt I will need to reconsider. McFadden brings the familiar character to life through his true insight into Michael Gene Sullivan's brilliant stage adaptation of the classic 1949 novel.

Four corners of a bleak room appear on a stage inventively surrounded on all four sides by audience members witnessing the story unfold, painfully at times, mere feet from their eyes. Actors’ Gang founder and artistic director Tim Robbins masterfully directs this reawakening of George Orwell’s 1984  into a journey attempting to recant the truth. From the safety of the bleachers I was able to reflect on the dismal state of a world turned asunder when freedom becomes a criminal crusade.

The litepanel monitors overhead hauntingly echo the voice of the company's founder and resident Academy Award-winner voicing the relentless questioning of Orwell’s infamous antagonist O’Brien, truthfully embodying Big Brother’s power over Winston, the message achieved without Robbins even needing to be physically present onstage.

However, this production features yet one more exciting surprise as, in the production’s 11th hour, the towering Robbins suddenly walks into the light and offers us the rare opportunity to see one of our greatest film actors performing live and in the flesh in the theatre he tirelessly worked to create.

Stellar ensemble support is truly the wings giving flight to this production and special props must be given to Gang favorite Bob Turton, who has gripped the helm or supported many of my favorite plays done at the troupe’s former Ivy Substation space.

From earlier this year playing the real-life Superman and making his directorial debut in Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer  to appearing as The Maniac in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Turton has proven there is no character his talents cannot embody—and 1984  is definitely no exception.

Here he plays three characters throughout the course of his two-hour plus performance, changing from a Party Member interrogator holding Winston accountable while facing the constantly-changing litepanel monitor flashing O’Brien’s voice, then morphing into Mr. Charrington, and finally becoming Parsons, a poor dimwitted fellow whose endearingly steadfast sweetness towards reality, even as Big Brother is finally marching him away for execution, wins our hearts in a manner Winston describes by noting, “He actually looks excited.”

Lee Margaret Hanson also steps up to the task of playing three ensemble characters and breathes life into the most important factor of rebellion in Orwell’s tale: love. Hanson embodies Winston’s lover Julia with the perfect flavor capable of driving Winston into a state of primal emotion, while also disgusting the three Party Members in the interrogation room.

At one point during one of Winston’s recanting monologues of his sexual affair with Julia, Turton's Party Member No. 3 goes into a rage set to kill Winston for fear the whole situation is actually Big Brother testing their loyalty. Hanson not only makes the state’s Party Members squeamish but also stirs the audience members sitting onstage who are made uncomfortable yet empathetic towards this horrific story of two people being destroyed for their love.

Tom Szymanski, who played the title character in Misadventure of Spike Spangle, Farmer, has a great knack for embracing vulnerable roles, never falling for the traps in acting. Here he is featured as two characters in this exceptional ensemble, becoming a focal catalyst in charging the play forward at full throttle. His inner monologue compels everyone to listen as he plays Party Member No. 1 literally standing on a soap box enforcing O’Brien’s every word.

The telling of this amazing story requires insurmountable stakes and Szymanski manifests the necessary larger-than-life presence of Big Brother, something which Robbins then masterfully fills further upon entering near the end of Act Two. Both of Szymanski’s brilliantly performed characters set the stage for Robbins’ paramount entrance, manifesting Orwell’s cautionary fable into the stake driven straight into the heart of rebellion.

Robbins both directs and acts in this version of 1984  with a fresh perspective that my virgin seven-year immersion into great LA theatre truly appreciates. He directs Sullivan’s adaptation with a fresh take on the Gang’s original 2006 production, which he also directed. I am willing to argue there is important relevance in Robbins’ 2019 reawakening of the play and my proof is the emotional impact his amazing ensemble had on the faces of my fellow young theatregoers seated across from us almost directly onstage.

Robbins is a daring, brave, powerful dynamo. Since 2006, his Actors’ Gang has taken 1984  all over the world and, in one of his program notes, it fascinates me that while performing the play to audiences in Spain and Argentina, audience members came up afterwards and talked to cast members about relatives of theirs who had been executed for committing the same “thought crimes” of which Winston is accused.

Robbins’ innate ability to tell timely stories in a relevant and truthful manner through his scholarly understanding of humanity can only be upstaged by his own startling performance as O’Brien. I was left amazed at his ability to take over an entire scene through his unparalleled talent as a storyteller.  

The times ahead in 2019 are as equally bleak as Orwell predicted for Winston’s fictional then-futuristic society. My day job has me working outdoors with thousands of children every year and the question kids ask me the most about current SoCal weather is, “Is this climate change?”

We are living Orwell’s bleak prediction and somehow Tim Robbins infuses the message with hope: hope in the power of our own humanity. He tirelessly leads as an actor, director, and activist, contributing so much back to his community. This personal commitment to the work is currently shining brightly at the Actors’ Gang, so please come see this revival of 1984 before it no doubt revitalizes the world once again by reminding us to fight back with commitment... and with love.

THROUGH DEC. 7: The Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Venice. 310.838.4264 or theactorsgang.com

Hugh (H.A. Eaglehart) and his frequent companion Trevor Mitchell Folger (in-joke) with the dastardly Mr. O'Brien 

BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY 

Photo by Jenny Graham

Fountain Theatre

In an interview featured in the program accompanying the Fountain Theatre’s Los Angeles premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Between Riverside and Crazy,  the dramatist is asked to name a playwright who influenced him.

“Tennessee Williams is the man!!!” Guirgis answers, the three exclamation points part of his handwritten response.

The interesting thing is how much Guirgis and Williams have in common, both notable for one major similarity: the ability to take a socially marginalized bluecollar character and elevate him or her into a genuine heroic figure. Tenn had his Stanley and Leona and Chance Wayne, Guirgis has his Angel and Lucius in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,  Chickie and Shank in In Arabia We’d All Be Kings,  Jackie and Ralph D. in The Motherfucker with the Hat,  and all the dysfunctional denizens gathered at Ortiz’ Funeral Parlor in Our Lady of 121st Street.

Guirgis’ most saintly underdog of all might be Between Riverside and Crazy’s  Walter “Pops” Washington, an aging world-weary African-American former New York beat cop fighting for monetary compensation from the NYPD after being disabled from six bullets pumped into him—at closing time at a strip club considered off-limits to cops—by a rookie new to the force who may or may not have called Walter the “n-word” as he fired.

The makeshift family Walter (Montae Russell) has gathered around him in his incongruously oversized rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment, all “hoppin’ around here like it’s Section 8 housing,” include his recently paroled son Junior (the always-impressive Fountain regular Matthew Hancock) and his kid's possibly pregnant, possibly former “pro” girlfriend Lulu (Marisol Miranda), as well as providing a generous roof to huddle under for a shaky recovering junkie named Oswaldo (Victor Anthony), a guy who, Pops observes, “got emotionalisms.”

Ignoring his landlord’s eviction notices as his back rent mounts and commandeering his recently deceased wife’s wheelchair to wander around the house as he grieves for her, Walter stays stubbornly unwilling to do anything to benefit his recovery, including rejecting all efforts to get him to take care of himself and especially to eat better, instead demanding high-extra-strength-sodium Ritz Crackers over any healthier alternative.

Walter is something of a tragic modern-day Lear, surrounded by people who, no matter how much they insist they’re only there to help, might not have his back after all. These include his former partner and protégée Audrey (Lesley Fera), now promoted to detective, and her blustery fiancé Dave (Joshua Bitton), drooling for a promotion as he’s assigned by his precinct bosses to try to get Walter to sign a non-disclosure settlement agreement and end his outstanding dragged-out lawsuit against the department.

Even the uninvited visiting Santeria-obsessed lady from the local fundamentalist church (Liza Fernandez) trying to get him to take communion has a secret agenda and the continuously barking offstage “little bad intent motherfucker” dog his housemates brought home to keep him company, leave Walter even less anxious to rejoin the world outside his apartment—something in his case that quickly becomes understandable.

Director Guillermo Cienfuegos does a slick job of making the sometimes limiting Fountain stage approximate Walter’s sprawling classic upper-westside apartment (inspired by the playwright’s own similarly-sized Riverside Drive residence he moved into to care for his dad after his mother’s death), a space which designer David Mauer has created in compartmentalized sections to evoke different areas of Walter’s once-grand home now clearly transformed into a self-imposed prison.

Although challenging here, this does not mean the Fountain is the wrong destination for this long-awaited LA debut—in fact, it is the quintessential space for it. Any of those larger venues one might have expected this play to land in its first LA mounting would never afford such easy access to the intimacy of the storyline or let the actors play their roles so subtly yet right to the bone.

Cienfuegos hosts one of our city’s best ensemble casts in an outstanding season chockful of an abundance of talented ensemble casts invigorating our reclaimed desert climes, a factor that leaves the outcome of my annual TicketHolder Awards an impossible task for me to contemplate this year. Pass the eggnog.

Although it takes some time to “get” the mellow and at first seemingly dispassionate performance of Russell, the true dynamism of his work as he leads the charge for the other actors to bounce off of and spring from is something to behold. And by the time Walter proves to have more wisdom and tricks up his sleeve than anyone could ever expect, in a town where standing ovations are as common as rush hour traffic jams on the 405, this is one actor who really and sincerely deserves one.

Hancock is an excellent foil to Russell’s patriarch as the well-meaning but characteristically messed-up Junior and Anthony excels as Oswaldo who, despite his efforts to stay sober, eat healthy, and make things right with his own father, is a scary catalyst for what makes Walter’s world turn upside-down once again.

Miranda is a refreshing comedic treat as Lulu, who may not be the sharpest tool in the shed—Walter notes her lips even move when she’s reading the horoscope—but then she has an “understanding” with her higher power when it comes to things such as getting sober or dressing as though she’s still walking the streets. “I know how I look,” she tells Walter, who begs her to put on a robe over her fetching short-shorts and halter top when she comes down for breakfast, “but that don’t mean I am how I look.”

Fera is wonderful as Audrey, torn by love for her former partner and her fiancé’s questionable agenda, while Bitton delivers the Ken McMillan-esque roughhewn New York cop routine to near-perfection—albeit a bit predictably, which does tend to show his character’s hand when the final twist in the career cop’s true intentions should be more of a surprise.

As the pious church lady reminiscent of every uninvited Jehovah’s Witness who’s ever darkened your door, Fernandez makes her limited stage time one of the most impressive things about this production. While initially looking a little like Freda Khalo reincarnated as a demure and introverted scripture-spewing missionary, Fernandez successfully assays a character who, in true Guirgis-style, drops a jaw-dropping bombshell she plays with utmost authenticity.

Unlike his hero Tennessee Williams, Guirgis is a master at writing hilariously outrageous and delightfully off-kilter dialogue to lessen the pain of his characters’ challenging, life-crushing existence and here, he is at his best. Yes, there’s surely a lot of Williams-spawned inspiration in Between Riverside and Crazy, but there’s also a little O’Neill, a little Odets, a little McDonough, and even a dollop of early Mamet—you know, reminiscent of that time when he could still write a good play.

In Stephen Adly Guirgis, we have found one of the most important and most insightful, sharp-witted, and observant new voices to energize modern theatrical literature. The point of awarding the Pulitzer Prize for Drama is to recognize work that examines the nature of our existence, particularly our existence in our complex and badly wounded country. This time out, the Pulitzer committee could not have been more on the money in their choice of a play to honor and make part of our history.

THROUGH JAN. 26:  Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or fountaintheatre.com

THE ABUELAS 

Photo by Jenny Graham

Antaeus Theatre Company

In 1976 when General Jorge Rafael Videla seized the weakened government of Argentina from Isabel Peron under the premise that leftists were threatening their capitalist and, of course, Christian way of life, they called it a war. As Ryan McRee, dramatist for the west coast premiere of Stephanie Alison Walker’s The Abuelas  at Antaeus, mentions in the program: “Historians today refer to it by its proper name: genocide.”

This is without a shadow of a doubt an urgently important message to our country right now as our own virulent administration led by a crass and vulgar monster as potentially dangerous and evil as Videla locks children in cages and attempts to strip us all of the human rights we’ve fought so hard to establish—of course, their causes also thrust upon us in the name of fighting the left and saving Christianity, factors that have been at the center of preserving “righteousness” for the last 2000 years as they destroy our freedoms and our humanity.

Walker’s intriguing The Abuelas  tells the fictional tale of one of the many descendants of the 30,000 Argentinians who were murdered in the coup, including as many as 500 pregnant young women who were forced to undergo Caesarian sections after being given meds to accelerate birth while being secretly detained at ESMA (Escuela Mecanica de la Armada), the horrific prison often referred to as the Argentine Auschwitz.

These young mothers were blindfolded and tied to the bed as they delivered, after which their babies were immediately taken away and given to “politically acceptable” parents with ties to the Videla regime. The mothers were then killed to guarantee the severing of all biological ties in an effort to insure all future generations would be marching in step behind the “new” Argentina.

Those children were called “los desaparecido con vida”—the living disappeared—and here professional cellist Gabriela (Luisina Quarleri), living a comfortable though less-than perfect life in Chicago with her once-philandering husband Marty (Seamus Dever), finds her existence rocked further when she is told by a volunteer from The Abuelas, a group founded in Buenos Aries in the late 1970s by a band of courageous grandmothers seeking to learn the fate of their missing daughters and abducted grandchildren, that she is indeed one of “the disappeared.“

Gabriela was raised in affluence by the overpoweringly demanding Soledad (Denise Blasor), who is visiting the couple to help care for their infant child. Soon Soledad’s birthday celebration is blindsided by her own invited guest Cesar (David DeSantos), an acquaintance also visiting from Argentina, who brings along another surprise guest, a mysterious older woman named Carolina (Irene De Bari).

Walker’s script is an absorbing, beautifully constructed piece of work, with special notice going to her unique ability to get extraneous characters on and offstage to leave room for a series of dynamic two-character scenes, something extremely difficult to accomplish without obviousness. The story is sure to produce a few tears, even for hardhearted and crusty old theatre critics, although there could still be some work done to more adequately explain at least one prominent plotline involving tensions in the marriage of Gabriela and Marty and also to provide satisfying resolution to the fate of Soledad as most everything falls into place for the couple and Gaby’s initially challenging relationship with Carolina.

Andi Chapman directs with an even hand on Edward E. Haynes, Jr’s well-appointed urban highrise set, suitably overshadowed by remarkable video projections by Adam R. Macias that made me homesick for my hometown, featuring the Chicago skyline and Lakeshore Drive as they alter dramatically in the city’s ever-changing severe winter weather conditions.

Jeff Gardner’s sound design is also a surprising standout, subtly energizing the story as the weather crescendos and the wind whistles. By any chance, did the good folks at Antaeus take along the vibrating underseat woofers when they moved to Glendale from Deaf West Theatre space last year?

One glaring problem with the staging and set, however, is the several oddly-shaped steps that lift the upstage kitchen area above the living space but are so fake plywood-noisy when walked upon and hard to maneuver around that too often The Arbuelas  could be retitled The Play About the Stairs—or then again, perhaps even The Play About the Stairs and Refilling Wine Glasses  might also be apropos.

Still this complex and riveting play is an exciting introduction to a vital new playwriting voice and the performances here are all golden.

Whether it be in the writing or the direction, sometimes it does seem as though Quarleri’s Gabriela remains too uniformly tortured and depressed from the very first scene to just before the ending, leaving the actor nowhere to go as the character’s emotions accelerate, while David DeSantos as Cesar, the intruding volunteer from The Abuelas who brings the shocking news of Gaby’s past, is a wonderfully affecting actor but Chapman or someone needs to tell the guy he doesn’t need to project his voice to the rear balcony of the Ahmanson in Antaeus’ intimate 80-seat Kiki and David Gindler Theatre.

Blasor, Dever, and De Bari all offer exceptionally evocative performances that will haunt you in their ability to make us get caught up in and relate to their individual personal situations. Though we soon after the first scene may want Blasor’s richly authentic Soledad to go home to Argentina and stop trying to control her daughter’s life, as her command of the situation disintegrates and the character begins to beg for the future of her tightly-wound relationship with her daughter, her performance is exceptionally heartrending and brilliantly facile.

The simple, poignant performance of De Bari as the long-grieving Carolina as she possibly confronts the granddaughter for whom she’s searched for over three decades is also a heartbreaker, while Dever, in a role that could easily be overlooked as the major dilemmas in the storyline leave Marty somewhat on the periphery, is remarkable here. In less skilled hands, the role of Marty could definitely be an afterthought, but Dever contributes an amazingly complex performance, especially when so many of his character’s problems are left unanswered and his reactions left to the actor's ability to flesh them out in Walker’s otherwise accommodating script.

“This party is always in danger of being upset,” a character notes along the way and boy, that is the definition of life on this risky planet, isn’t it? What Walker has done is to celebrate the resilience of the human spirit in an existence which, no matter how idyllic, might one day be subject to drastic and unexpected adjustments. What The Abuelas—and the organization that inspired it—makes us realize is that, as a species, we can survive just about anything with which we’re faced, especially with the love and understanding of those around us since we are all in this mess together.

THROUGH NOV. 25: Antaeus Theatre Company, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale. 818.506.1983 or Antaeus.org

 

See? I'm an angel.