EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE 

CURRENT REVIEWS from

TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER 

 

  Beloved

Road Theatre Company

People who read my stuff might know I’ve been avoiding streaming events featuring people three-quarters-of-an-inch-big emoting at full throttle. I just can’t focus and stay attentive—and sadly for me that’s true of anything not being performed live my entire life, including film.

Still I watched this riveting staged reading of Arthur Holden’s Beloved reluctantly because I adore my dearie pals Taylor Gilbert, Sam Anderson, and Cameron Watson tremendously and Taylor told me she really thought this might be an exception for my boycott.

She was dead right. It was quite brilliant, shouting out from my tiny iPhone and almost immediately making me forget how I was forced by the fucking anti-vaxxers to be viewing it. Holden’s script is a masterpiece: poignant, bittersweet, sad, and ultimately a testament to the resiliency of the human condition. Taylor, Sam, and Cherish Monique Duke in multiple roles, as well as Cam’s quietly omnipresent directorial skill, are all testament to the art of creating great performance art despite ridiculously challenging odds.

In perfect conditions this would be an impossible piece to do without such skilled actors. Holden’s incredible sense of creating realistic dialogue, with halting speeches and interrupted thoughts, must be such a challenge. These guys aced it unconditionally.

I’m not bright enough to really understand streaming (hey... it’s generational, all right?) but I believe it can still be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/user/RoadTheatreCompany.

Do yourself a favor! Don’t be as pigheaded as me!

 

Waiting 

Photo by Kelly Stuart

Atwater Village Theatre

I am truly amazed by how our scrappy little theatrical community has defied the pandemic and has still managed to create art despite the odds—often even including our forced New Normal lifestyle right into the play or event itself.

I have to admit that I’m not much good at maintaining focus on streaming plays and readings without the specter of live performance, something that for the last seven decades has always had the capability to make my little dickie hard. I’m also not yet accepting invitations for indoor events after my winter of battling cancer that has left my immune system even more compromised than how the world situation has affected our tenuous existence on this scarily unpredictable planet.

Still, such restrictions have not stopped our fiercely prolific LA arts community from creating remarkable and most resilient art at its most unique. Such an effort is Playwrights’ Arena mounting of the world premiere of Daniel A, Olivas’ Waiting,  cleverly staged three-quarter-round by director Daphnie Sicre in the outdoor courtyard in front of the stalwart Atwater Village Theatre complex—which still looks lonely and abandoned as it looms above the much-welcomed return of live theatre to the spot.

Waiting,  a scaled-down pandemic friendly 70-minute version of Olivas’ as yet unproduced Waiting for Godinez, lifts the characters and situations afflicting Samuel Beckett’s poor Vladimir and Estragon from mid-20th century and dumps them directly into the suitable concrete-y Atwater Village courtyard as the summer sun sets on theatregoers and neighbors of the Casitas Avenue complex slowly and with great curiosity walk their dogs directly in front of the action—something not lost in a brilliant directorial touch when the frightened leading character on the run stops talking and watches in terrified fear whenever a (real-life) car drives by.

Here Mexican immigrants Jesus and Isabel wait not-so patiently for a bicycle shop owner named Godinez to arrive and lead them into some unknown direction frustratingly elusive to them, of course mirroring ol’ Sam’s mysterious offstage entity Godot as he (He?) tantalizes and frustrates poor Didi and Gogo. The bare tree is still the traditional center of their sentinel on designer Matt Richter’s appropriately non-set playing space as a ragged and dirty Jesus (Raul Vega Martinez) staggers into the courtyard past the still-chattering audience placed surrounding the action.

His companion Isabel (Valentina Guerra) watches Jesus collapse on the courtyard’s roughhewn wooden benches from behind the cars parked across Casitas Avenue, reluctant to approach him and once again hear about his nightly assault at the cruel hands of ICE officers who perpetually beat him before locking him up yet always leave the cell door “accidentally” open so he can make his escape yet again.

Olivas has ingeniously transferred the woes and vexations of Beckett’s characters to the US/Mexican border, a place not hard to picture as being surrounded by the crumpling unfinished wall, the perfect symbol of the twice-impeached ousted Orange Traitor Tot’s failed policies dealing with the continuing problems of illegal immigration.

They are joined by a loud and overly-dramatic bully named Piso (Amir Levi) and his much-maligned servant Afortunada (Shanelle Darlene) who, instead of Beckett’s poor unlucky Lucky chained to the deus ex machina of his tormenter-master Pozzo, is here relegated to pushing a reconstructed luggage trolly while suffering Piso's condescending demands because she's a poet trying to gain attention and he is her literary agent.

Godot’s  wandering Boy, here an apprentice at Godinez’ bicycle shop, is also included here (impressively played by young Carolina J. Flores) to bring Jesus and Isabel news of the continuing delay of his/her/they’s mysterious employer. Isabel actually asks the gender of the youthful messenger, but the Child is unsure, as is the twin who will return during the second part of the play.

The production is impressively staged, complete with face shields used by the cast and references to our game-changing pandemic written into the script at the suggestion of Playwrights’ Arena unstoppably creative artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera and literary managers Jaisey Bates and Zharia O’Neal—most changes occurring via Zoom to further examlify the production's timeliness.

Waiting  is about half as long as the full-length version, which surprisingly is the first attempt at playwrighting from the award-winning author and poet. Olivas has been smoothly successfully in his effort to alter his work while maintaining the spirit of the original and, I suspect, his play might actually have been enhanced by the inclusion of our collective humanity at the mercy of societal COVID-related challenges.

The ensemble is gloriously committed, every actor making a humungous effort to emote and be heard in the echoey outdoor setting through their clear spaceage-looking face coverings. The actors tend to begin the performance pushing too hard to reach their audience, but settle into a volume and delivery that works for everyone. The exception, of course, is Levi’s Piso, a grandly and beautifully overwritten character who comes off as a welcomingly outrageous comedic cross between Harvey Fierstein and Ethel Merman.

Guerra clearly delivers what a caring friend Isabel is to Jesus and yet how weary she is with the repetitious nature of his daily dilemmas, though I must say her keeping Piso’s mangos from her starving friend did not particularly feel in character unless it’s a reference to Godot  my ancient memorybanks have stored elsewhere. Martinez is extremely believable as the confused Jesus and Darlene has the play’s most lovable comic moments as the put-upon poet who thankfully has the last laugh on her obnoxious tormentor in the pair's second appearance.

Still it is the 13-year-old Flores who handily steals the show, giving an amazingly comfortable, completely focused, and impressively grounded performance as the young messenger who doesn’t quite know who he/she/they is or why the omnipresent tree needs to be stripped of the last of its sad little dead leaves, ultimately only feeling comfortable when accepting the juicy mangos surreptitiously passed by Isabel.

Still the main theme in Waiting  is clear: how right here and now human rights are being mercilessly trampled at the US/Mexico border and how shabbily treated immigrant families desperately seeking a better life have been treated even before—but certainly exacerbated by—the dysfunctional and virulently bigoted policies of the poisonous Trump administration.

Daniel A. Olivas has achieved this directive while paying fitting homage to Samuel Beckett’s genius by successfully echoing his exceptionally dark and absurd humor, something I believe would make the groundbreaking dramatist happy—although it is rather hard to picture the great midcentury wordsmith as ever being happy about much of anything.

THROUGH AUG. 15: Playwrights’ Arena at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Av., LA. 213.925.7631 or www.playwrightsarena.org

An Octoroon 

Photo by Jenny Graham

Fountain Theatre

The first production to be delivered live and in person since the world nearly ended since March of 2020 would of course have to come from the intrepid folks at the Fountain Theatre, one of the most inventive, prolific, brave, determined—and scrappy—small theatre entities in Los Angeles.

Complete with interruptions by circling helicopters, garbage-loading sanitation trucks, and those typically tiny-dickers’ incredibly loud mufflers as they cruise down Fountain Avenue looking for adventure, LA’s premier return to live theatre is presented by the Fountain in the complex’s impressive newly created outdoor space where their parking lot usually fills to capacity in less dramatic times past. The west coast premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ controversial and decidedly subversive Obie-winning Best New American Play An Octoroon  could not be a more perfect choice to prove our intrepid community is ready and able to rise like an urban phoenix from the ashes of that mindfucking Covid-19.

Based on Dionydius Lardner Boucicault’s mid-19th-century melodrama, itself based on Thomas Mayne Reid’s 1856 novel The Octoroon or, A Lover’s Adventure in Louisiana,  Jacob-Jenkins takes no prisoners in his highly contemporary—yet often eerily not—adaptation, peppered with characters in blackface and peppered with more use of the notorious "N-word" than a Richard Pryor set at the old Comedy Store.

Before his death in 1890, Boucicault wrote more than 150 plays, his body of work considered part of the “sensation drama” tradition, a popular derivative of Victorian melodramas using cutting-edge Victorian technology to create grand stage spectacles featuring gimmicks such as real waterfalls and burning ships. The Octoroon,  a quintessential example of a sensation drama, opened at the Winter Garden in New York City in 1859, premiered four days after the hanging of slave-rebellion leader John Brown in Harpers Ferry, a factor that proved to be a hot-button issue both onstage and off.

Despite its problematic timing, The Octoroon  played to sold-out houses in Union territory and parts of Great Britain with Boucicault himself playing the character of Wahnotee. It was even scheduled for a twelve-performance run at Washington D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre and would have opened immediately following Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, something that understandably never was to happen.

According to Boucicault’s biographer Richard Fawkes, The Octoroon  uniquely “touched a nerve” with the citizenry of both our young country's North and South. Some hailed the play as a call to action for its vile depiction of slavery, while others saw the production as sympathetic to the Southern way of life. Chicago theatrical legend Joseph Jefferson, a member of the original 1859 cast, wrote, “[The Octoroon]  was produced at a dangerous time...a drama told so well had a great effect on the audience, for there was at this time a divided feeling in New York with regards to the coming struggle... Then there were various opinions as to which way the play leaned...the truth of the matter is, it was non-committal.”

So here we are smackdab in the middle of another of A'murka’s most dangerous times when topic of racial injustice and bigotry have accelerated to the point of madness, thanks to the skewed sense of ugly entitlement fueled by our destructive former Celebrity Appresident as his Troglodyte followers spent four-plus years crawling out from under their proverbial rocks. And of course, in our exaggerated and out-of-control era of “cancel culture,” the Fountain has taken an enormous risk presenting such volatile and possibly easily misunderstood material.

Set in antebellum New Orleans, An Octoroon  tells the story of a plantation owner named George (Matthew Hancock) as he falls in love with Zoe (Mara Klein), a comely servant who despite her returned feelings knows romance between them can never be since she is an eighth African-American. Unlike most of the people of the times, however, George refuses to let this stop his intentions to marry her—that is until villainous overseer M’Closky (also played by Hancock), who has deviously wangled himself into ownership of half the estate, forges paperwork to show Zoe’s freedom papers are not valid and in the downsizing of the financially-troubled plantation plans to sell the girl with the rest of their “property.”

Hancock also begins the play entering the bare stage in his underwear and addresses the audience as a character called BJJ, a struggling African-American playwright who can’t seem to unravel how to present his adaptation of an obscure 1859 play he feels needs resurrection since all his troupe’s Caucasian actors refuse to appear in blackface. This makes BJJ (initials looking familiar yet?) decide to play the leading role of George himself, sitting down at a makeup table to smear white makeup on his own face as his plans unfold.

As he speaks, another of the company’s other playwrights (Rob Nagle, presumably echoing the spirit of Boucicault) watches from the wings, grumbling about what he is seeing and hearing as he consistently pulls from a near-empty liquor bottle. Soon he and his assistant (Hazel Lozano) are themselves seated at the now abandoned makeup table, he to cover his face in red greasepaint in anticipation of playing the role of Wahnotee, a stereotypical firewater-guzzling “Injun,” while she applies blackface to take on the role of an ancient “house” slave called Old Pete.

These three performers are the backbone of An Octoroon,  their committed versatility standing out among some glaring inconsistencies in the production’s playing styles. Hancock is always a noteworthy addition to any production, but here as brilliant as he is as BJJ, he later struggles a bit finding just the proper amount of grandness and overplaying while trying to pay deference to the true message the real-life BJJ is trying to convey. One physically exhausting eleventh-hour scene, however, where he battles himself as George and M’Closky duke it out, shows just where he—and this entire production, presumably—will go when it settles into its long run.

LA’s stalwart theatrical hero Nagle is as usual hilarious throughout as Wahtonee and later, when the exaggerated humor gradually transforms into something meant to be far less humorous, he’s downright scary playing the slave merchant LaFouche. Still, Lozano gives the breakout performance of the evening, her humble and consistently “yaas, ma’am”-ing Old Pete emerging as the most endearing slave yet, coming off as a highly non-PC cross between Stepin Fetchit and Ben Vereen as Chicken George. 

Vanessa Claire Stewart is a comedic delight as Dora, the parasol-twirling, overly-petticoated Southern belle with an accent that could melt butta  who is spurned by George no matter how hard she tries to show him what a delicate flower she is—something that rarely ever works for most Southern belles. Kacie Rogers and Leea Ayers, who also seamlessly doubles as a mysterious Br’er Rabbit, that infamous trickster hero of early African-American folktales, are both enormous assets here as two of the plantation’s most outspoken slaves, yet it is the deadpanning Pamela Trotter as their cohort Minnie who gets most of the laughs despite a few uncomfortable line flubs on press night. 

This was a huge and daring venture for the Fountain to choose as their inaugural return to producing, something that I know worried its creators as possibly too objectionable in our industry’s current overly-regulated #MeToo cultural witch hunt and even leading the Fountain’s Producing Director Simon Levy to seek out my Native-American partner Hugh after the performance to see how Nagle’s drunken Wahtonee antics might have sat with him.

In general, An Octoroon  is a wildly successful effort, perfectly kicking off the complex’s ingenious outdoor barebones stage as it surely defines how future productions could be mounted in this same converted playing space, something the theatre is already planning to make an annual summer thing. And although Frederica Nascimento’s set design is a bit puzzling and unwieldy while Nicholas Santiago’s unnerving video designs deserve a better pulpit, Naila Aladdin-Sanders’ rich period costuming and Derrick McDaniel’s evocative lighting plot—that is after sunset which, due to the production’s neighborhood-pleasing 7pm start time, occurs in Act Two—are both tremendous assets to the proceedings.

The biggest problem here is Judith Moreland’s surprisingly clunky—or at least unfinished—direction, which feels as though the company could have used a few more rehearsals before facing its public. Right now it all seems stuck in the midst of finding a uniform playing style where, as envisioned by its playwright, its unique tone and rhythms desperately need to consistently fall somewhere between Brecht at its biggest and the signature work of Matt Walker’s genre-busting Troubadour Theatre Company. Still, I have complete confidence that as the production shakes off the yammy-yammies of press night and opening a difficult show in a brand new environment surely with many challenges along the way during its creation, the missing idiosyncrasies written into updating an old now unfashionable warhouse of a play will bubble to the surface with fine results.  

Still, Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ radical and subversive riff on Dion Boucicault’s once popular but long forgotten mustache-twirling satire provides a clear and urgently indispensable juxtaposition of the inequities of antebellum South with our dastardly current cultural politics since a monster named Donald Trump attempted to destroy everything we hold dear. Despite some completely understandable growing pains as presented in this new untried venue, the Fountain’s courageous and no-holds-barred mission to create a gasp-inducing satirical mounting of An Octoroon  proves to be a tale told through outrageous humor without ever losing sight of the important and timely social commentary Jacob-Jenkins so craftily espouses.

 THROUGH SEPT. 19:  Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or fountaintheatre.com

Hershey Felder:  Nicholas, Anna & Sergei 

I have respectfully declined reviewing all the heartfelt online streaming presentations offered us these past difficult months by theatre companies trying to remain active and relevant through the pandemic. It’s not the work, promise—it’s me.

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this in print but personally, I have an always been challenged when it comes to the art of film. Ask anyone who has ever been to a play with me and I'll bet they'll confirm that never once have I ever fallen asleep in a theatre, but stick me in front of a movie screen and I'm usually out like a light in about 25 minutes. This is not something of which I'm proud, but it is the truth. See, I think having been obsessed with and intent on creating (and supporting) theatre since the age of three when I was coaxed onstage in a summer run of Oklahoma!  to belt out lyrics about “carrots and pertaters,” my priorities began to germinate early on. That’s 71 years, if anyone who knows me is busy doing the math.

I have always had difficulty concentrating on film, finding it hard to care or relate to something stored in a can, the performances languishing there etched in cement and never allowed the spontaneity of live performance that makes my heart sing. This is surely the major reason why, despite coming to Hollywood a few hundred years ago under contract to a major film studio, I stupidly chose to fuckitup bigtime and instead focus on a stage career in a town that basically couldn’t care less about theatre.

So, despite eliciting the disappointment of many of my colleagues creating incredible online art over the past year, I have eschewed reviewing online performances even more wholeheartedly than I have over the years during which I have declined numerous offers to become a film reviewer, something I’m sure would have provided me a far more profitable career if I wasn’t such a stubborn fellow. I like to think of myself as passionate about art, but sadly my passions have limitations guaranteed to be surprising to most people.

That said, the remarkable and prolific Mr. Hershey Felder, one of my all-time favorite theatre artists, has chosen over the past 14-plus months to not quietly sit at home in Florence, Italy, staring at his historic villa’s sweeping views and to continue to create art as no one else on the planet could make happen. This began with a live streamed performance of his amazing George Gershwin Alone, his first of 11 such events offered online since we all went into our collective lockdown. I first saw Hershey’s magical solo turn playing the great man and accompanying himself on the piano over 20 years ago, debuting here in LA at the long-gone Tiffany Theatre and proving to be a career-making moment that subsequently made the guy famous.

Hershey’s return as Gershwin, shot live at his Florence home in the dead of night so it could debut live here at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon, was pure electricity. This was followed by recreating several other of his mesmerizing performances in his globally acclaimed “Composer Sonata” series, including turns as Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Debussy, and his indelibly memorable performance as Irving Berlin broadcast from a gloriously grand old Florence theatre complete with a oddly charming 400-year-old creaking wooden stage floor.

Since filming his previous successful touring solo performances live from Italy, Hershey has courageously begun to experiment with more self-produced filmic presentations never before seen on the world stage. These included brand new turns as Puccini, featuring a troupe of opera stars appearing opposite him that energized the new direction of his unique musical creations as never before, followed by Before Fiddler, chronicling the life and origins of the work of Shalom Aleichem—and including sweetly charming versions of the writer’s early folk tales.

The main thing to be impressed with here has been the exquisite and painstakingly constructed production values energizing these new filmed creations, including richly evocative montages of lush European imagery as the show's multitalented creator simultaneously gifts his grateful audiences with his worldclass skills as a concert pianist.

Hershey’s latest creation debuted online recently (and as with all his previous streaming efforts partially benefitting the many mid-sized theatres here in the states that have been his artistic homes over the years) and it emerged as one of the most impressive contributions to the filmed “Composer Sonata” offerings yet. Based on the script he was perfecting to begin touring last summer before the pandemic stopped it cold, Nicholas, Anna & Sergei, documenting the life and musical genius of Sergei Rachmaninoff, is even more beautifully produced and filmed than its predecessors.

Although it’s ever-brave and always-inventive creator originally conceived Nicholas, Anna & Sergei as a solo show with him ambitiously appearing as all the characters, the film version instead features Hershey as the title character opposite J. Anthony Crane as the ghost of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Helen Farrell as Anna Anderson, the real-life mystery woman who professed to be the lone survivor of the Romanov dynasty, the Tsar’s daughter Anastasia, as well as Ekaterina Siurina as Rachmaninoff’s wife Natalia and Igor Polesitsky as the doctor who treats the composer as he lies dying at his final home in Beverly Hills.

Co-directed by Hershey and Italian cinematographer Stefano DeCarli, their highly personalized production is majestically, lavishly presented, giving us a fascinating insight into the tumultuous world of the Russian-born composer who spent his life mourning his furtive flight from his homeland. His dreams are haunted by the ghost of the dispatched Tsar as Sergei laments his life choices, admitting that his work had suffered for it. “Melody,” we’re told in Hershey’s tale, “abandoned him when he left Russia for the USA.” There is a hint of redemption when he meets and financially champions Anderson until he more and more begins to question the validity of her story, all of which is admitted to the phantom Nicholas as the composer lies dying at 610 N. Elm Drive, the home Rachmaninoff prophetically said would be the place where he would die the minute he saw it.

Hershey’s gossamer, lyrical, painstakingly researched script is most arresting part of Nicholas, Anna & Sergei, especially when he then turns to the piano and in detail identifies familiar moments in the great man’s work that inspired the dulcet, hypnotic compositions that will remain timeless contributions to the history of music.

There are definite pros and cons to experiencing Hershey’s musical artistry online, although I don’t recommend trying to watch it (with streaming issues no less) on a cellphone as I did the first time—and I have to thank one Mr. Felder himself for asking me to watch it again on a bigger screen utilizing a better link he sent me. This was great advice, particularly when considering the teeny-weeny iPhone-sized subtitles flashed onscreen during the film’s scenes spoken in Russian.

The pros obviously include the sweeping cinemagraphic images, the detailed costuming, and the employment of some dynamic actors and an amazing full symphony-sized uniformly masked orchestra. Still, the best thing to me was being able to see Hershey’s hands in closeup as he masterfully interpreted the music of Rachmaninoff—although I have to admit I did miss hearing the compositions ring out live in a darkened auditorium fitted for excellent sound rather than through my computer’s tinny speakers.

The bold new direction of Hershey Felder’s brilliance soars to new heights with Nicholas, Anna & Sergei and, since he has recently teased that an announcement of an entire new season of more such courageous artistic experimentation is in the works for next year, if you haven’t returned to civilization quite yet, I suggest you take the time to explore the wonders of this unstoppable artist’s unique online performances of the last year, available for viewing with Video on Demand at www.hersheyfelder.net.

 

See? I’m an angel!