EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE 

CURRENT THEATRE REVIEWS by Travis Michael Holder 

CTG’s BLOCK PARTY 2019 

Kirk Douglas Theatre 

Theatre of NOTE's For The Love Of (or, the roller derby play) 

Skylight Theatre Company's Rotterdam 

Antaeus Theatre Company's Native Son 

Photos courtesy of Center Theatre Group

FOR THE LOVE OF (or, the roller derby play)

Center Theatre Group started something cool in 2017, each spring transferring a trio of some of the year’s best LA intimate theatre offerings to the Kirk Douglas Theatre for their aptly-named Block Party: Celebrating Los Angeles Theatre.

In the last two seasons, three stunning productions each were lovingly remounted each year at the Douglas, featuring knockout work originally presented by Coeurage Theatre, the Fountain, Echo Theatre Company, Playwrights Arena, Critical Mass Performance Group, and the Celebration.

This year, CTG’s Block Party returns to their Culver City jewelbox for a third time, again paying homage to some more of our town’s best and bravest intimate theatre companies with another well-deserved look at Theatre of NOTE’s west coast premiere of Gina Femia’s For The Love Of (or, the roller derby play), the Skylight Theatre Company’s LADDC-winning Rotterdam by Jon Brittain, and Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son from Antaeus.

Inaugurating the fest this time out with For The Love Of proved to be a perfect choice, as the celebratory and raucous nature of the piece, brilliantly staged and choreographed by Rhonda Kohl, had CTG’s opening night audience shouting and cheering wildly before granting the hard-working cast with a highly deserved final standing O.

Femia’s in-your-face For The Love Of chronicles the story of longtime lovers Joy and Michelle (Briana Price and Elinor Gunn), whose once-passionate relationship has become safe and complacent over the years rather than exciting as they struggle to pay the rent, look for better jobs, and have detailed conversations about which of them forgot to buy a bag of frozen peas.

Then Joy becomes Joy Ride, venturing from the couple’s modest life in the suburbs of New Jersey to join an all-girl roller derby team called the Brooklyn Scallywags. Not only does she find a passion for the dangerous and demanding sport, she becomes intrigued by her derby crush Lizzie Lightning (Tania Verafield), a tough and streetwise survivor with the vocabulary of a longshoreman.

The lovers’ relationship begins to unravel as Joy’s feelings for Lizzie become more conflicted, a tale told along with chronicling the daily lives not only of our heroine but of her fellow teammates in Femia’s promising but sometimes rambling script—something saved by the sheer imagination of director Kohl and her crackerjack design team.

The play’s short filmic scenes switch from one location to another in rapid succession, a hurdle the production not only handles with aplomb but accentuates as the castmembers roll around Eli Smith’s cleverly minimal set pieces under the starkly evocative lighting by Rose Malone, creating Evita-like tableaux evoking signature roller derby game and practice moves performed in tightly rehearsed circles.

I am not sure whether this concept is part of the playwright’s vision or was conjured by Kohl to help make it move, but the result is quite dramatic and exciting, thanks to an amazing ensemble of actors sure to end up with just as many bruises by Mar. 17 as the characters they play might experience all in a day’s work.

Possibly Femia has taken on a bit too much as she gives each of the Scallywag teammates a moment to show their own story, but the device sure does give a dynamic group of actors a moment in the sun. Liesel Hanson is a standout as the once meek and mild Squeaky Mouse, as are the play’s two “more mature” veterans: Yolanda Snowball as Anna-Stecia and Lynn Odell as Hot Flash, the first shown in her day job as a nurse caring for an elderly patient and the other as a wife and mom picking up after her family.

NOTE stalwart Alina Phelan is a major standout as the team’s manager Andrea the Vagiant, whose abrasive demands for perfection from her charges hides a vulnerability that ultimately makes her endearing—especially in a sweet, uncharacteristically quiet little eleventh-hour scene with Price that becomes one of the most indelible.

The many inventive aspects of Theatre of NOTE’s production lift it to its current status—and makes one wonder how all this was originally accomplished on NOTE’s tiny stage in their longtime home at Cahuenga and Sunset. Actually, I could not help but wonder if the play worked even better there, without the size and acoustics of the Douglas swallowing it up and reducing Smith’s modular set pieces to dollhouse-size.

Also easily lost would be the decision to spend time before the start of each act to read “shout-out” notes scribbled to castmembers and to one another written on cards in the lobby before the show. Perhaps the list of people to acknowledge and thank profusely will lessen after opening night with the playwright, director, producers, and benefactors in attendance but, for me, adding an extra half-hour onto the piece as said “shout-outs” are screamed into a headache-producing hand-held microphone tuned way too high, was more than I could handle—especially while hoping to hit El Coyote before they stopped serving at 11pm.

For The Love Of is still impressive, incredibly inventive theatre and I am pleased to have caught it in its current incarnation, a production by my own former beloved theatre company which, for some reason, I missed when it premiered last April at NOTE’s Hollywood location within walking distance to my home.

Fortunately, although I will be in New Orleans for the opening of an exhibit of my Tennessee Williams portraits and French Quarter paintings at Off the Beaten Way Gallery in conjunction with the 33rd annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival when Rotterdam takes the Kirk Douglas stage Mar. 28 to Apr. 7, I did review the outstanding production during its initial run at the Skylight, recognizing it as one of the Top Ten plays of 2017 in my 26th TicketHolder Awards.

I will definitely be home from the wars and at the Douglas with bells on to cheer on the final presentation of CTG’s Block Party 2019, Antaeus’ much heralded adaptation of Native Son, playing Apr. 18 to 28. Hey—I might even get to retell one of my favorite Hollywood stories in the process, about late friend David Dukes trying to peddle the film rights of the classic groundbreaking novel around town many years ago. It’s a doozy.

Congratulations to all the wonderfully committed El Lay theatre companies honored so far with exceptionally reverent remountings at the Douglas. Obviously, despite Actors' Equity Association’s ugly self-inflicted assault last year on 99-seat theatre on the west coast, our phenomenally creative and prolific intimate theatre scene is still alive and well in our City of Angels. Suck on that, AEA!

CENTER THEATRE GROUP’S BLOCK PARTY 2019:

Theatre of NOTE’s FOR THE LOVE OF (OR, THE ROLLER DERBY PLAY):  NOW THROUGH MAR. 17

Skylight Theatre Company’s ROTTERDAM:  MAR. 28 to APR. 7

Antaeus Theratre Company’s NATIVE SON:  APR. 18 to 28

Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

THE OLD MAN AND THE OLD MOON 

Photo by Kevin Perry

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

In a world on the brink of disaster in so many arenas, there’s a reassuring if fleeting bit of respite from global warming and the antics of Traitor Tot currently available to ease the pain at the Wallis: the LA debut of the nomadic PigPen Theatre Company and their magical one-of-a-kind creation The Old Man and the Old Moon.

Featuring an incredibly infectious Pogues-like musical score created by the members of the company themselves performing on Lydia Fine’s sweeping yet roughhewn multilevel playing space, the seven members of PigPen take on multiple characters with an impressively fierce commitment, bringing their delightfully old-fashioned original folk fable to glorious life.

With the aid of flashlights, whimsical backlit shadow puppetry, and clever props made from standard household items—my favorites being a dog puppet fashioned from what looks like old shag carpeting with a water bottle for a snout and fish being pulled from the sea represented by shoe stretchers—The Old Man and the Old Moon is a truly worthy hybrid of the late-great Paul Sills' Story Theatre at its most innovative.

The Old Man (Ryan Melia, who seems to be channeling Dick Van Dyke in his early years) has a vitally important job to do, climbing a ladder to the skies each night to fill the moon with light. When his wife (Alex Falberg) heads out in a small boat to find the origins of a song melody she cannot place, the Old Man follows her literally all around the world, leading him to encounter a myriad of adventures and adventurers along the way while not immediately realizing the repercussions of leaving the moon to go dark and to eventually disappear over the earth.

Under the leadership of Stuart Carden, credited for directing the production along with the members of the company themselves,  the energy and excitement of the tale could not be more electric to observe. In the pivotal and never-offstage title role, Melia has an energy to make anyone watching him exhausted, as do all of his cohorts—particularly Dan Weschler, who seems to be the leader of the musical interludes, and Ben Ferguson, whose understated delivery reveals a perfect sense of comic timing.

Aside from all the other wonders conjured in The Old Man and the Old Moon, the indelible indie-folk musical score composed by the collected members of the obviously multitalented PigPen Theatre Co. (those previously mentioned along with the equally talented Curtis Gillen,  Arya Shahi, and narrator Matt Nuernberger) is alone enough to head to the Wallis for an experience sure to lift the lowest of spirits. I have always wondered how two people can compose music together, but seven? O, to be a fly on the wall during one of their creative sessions.

In the late 60s and early 70s, as Talent Coordinator of the legendary Troubadour folk-rock nightclubs both here and in San Francisco, I would regularly receive about 100 tapes a week (remember tapes?) from some amazingly talented musicians and singer-songwriters who would sell their grandmother for an opportunity to play the club.

What I looked for in those tapes, beyond undeniable musicianship, was something fresh and new and startlingly original that other artists did not communicate in their music. From that resource, as well as our Monday open-mike Hootenannies and traveling about to scout early appearances at McCabe’s, the Lighthouse, and other venues, I helped begin the careers of many, many now world-famous musical superstars.

If the members of the PigPen Theatre had been around way back then, I would have opened the doors for them in any way possible. Now, nearly a half-century later, when all those record company executives I used to alert about some incredible act playing the Troub are either retired or dead, all I can do is tell you to brave the storms and head to the Wallis for The Old Man and the Old Moon; it will be an evening out I promise you will never regret—or forget.

THROUGH MAR. 17:  Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Bl., Beverly Hills. 310.746.4000 or thewallis.org

HYPE MAN 

Photo by Ed Krieger

Fountain Theatre

Things are heating up for a young white rapper calling himself Pinnacle who, along with his trusty backup hype man Verb, have been booked to perform on a major national latenight talk show. It’s a major milestone in the lives of the longtime friends who have been making music together since they were kids struggling to survive their rough urban environment.

Still, every play needs a crisis and for Pinnacle and Verb it comes early on in Idris Goodwin’s third “break beat” play Hype Man, now in its west coast premiere at the Fountain.

News of yet another unnecessary police execution of an unarmed black teenager takes over the thoughts of Verb (Matthew Hancock), who makes an emotional plea to address the issue directly as the pair and their trusty beatmaker Peep One (Clarissa Thibeaux) prepare for their upcoming potential star-making appearance on The Tonight Show.

Pinnacle (Chad Addison) understands his black friend’s outrage, but doesn’t want to fuck with the rapidly-rising trajectory of their blossoming career at such an important yet fragile juncture in time. The mixed-race Peep is caught in the middle as the old pals fight to passionately express their differing points of view.

And fight they do, right out of the gate in the opening moments of Goodwin’s interesting but predictable exploration into racial identity, social injustice, misplaced ambition, and the loyalties of friendship. There’s not much new offered here, even though Goodwin offers it with such a promising ability to create characters who can make highly evocative arguments.

The heated confrontations and nonstop yelling starts early on and never lets up until the play’s final equally predictable scene, making it hard to care much what happens to Pinnacle and Verb. And although Peep is right there to react for us as her collaborators literally get in one another’s faces over and again, she’s never given the tools to step out from behind her equipment—or go beyond Cliff Notes status to make an effective case for the inclusion of female talent in the hip-hop industry. 

Under director Deena Selenow’s leadership and highly kinetic staging, however, perfectly tapping into the Fountain’s usual excellent production values, the LA debut of Hype Man luckily overshadows the play’s inherent limitations. Hancock brings Verb to life with his usual ability to tap into the depths of the character and then add so much of his own humor and personality, while Thibeaux does wonders in her severely underwritten role.

Addison has great instincts and exudes a palpable confidence as Pinnacle, especially in the production’s dynamic knockout musical interludes that, with the help of real-life beatmaker Romero Mosley and sound designer Malik Allen, bring the evening’s most exciting and memorable moments. Still, the actor never seems completely comfortable with the close proximity of the audience in the Fountain’s intimate space and his swaggering, stiff-armed stance and exaggerated chicken-necking ice-ice-baby-ish body language get old fast. 

There’s a hint of intriguing future promise in the work of Idris Goodwin, but unfortunately his Hype Man is only skipping stones over the surface of important issues needing more in-depth and less cookie-cutter scrutiny.

THROUGH APR. 14:  Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or www.fountaintheatre.com

CATS 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Pantages Theatre / Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Now returned to LA and the Pantages in yet another national tour, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s groundbreaking musical CATS has been around longer than any of its resident felines’ nine lives.

Opening in London in 1981 and New York the following year, CATS has earned over $350 million in the ensuing years and, before finally shuttering on Broadway in 2000 after nearly 7,500 performances, it reigned as the longest running musical in the history of the Great White Way before another of Lord Andrew’s borrowed literary classics beat it out in 2006 with its own infamous music of the night.

Based on Nobel Prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot’s 1939 Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the composer’s childhood affection for the book led to one of his greatest successes in his long and storied career that, when I was doing press for Toronto’s LiveEnt and his Really Useful Group in 1993, was then reportedly netting him a mere $1.25 million—a week. Of course, that staggering figure has only increased over the past 27 years and I doubt if its recipient, with a reported net worth of $1.04 billion in 2018, is having any trouble paying his bills.

Translated in over 20 languages and playing all over the world in the past four decades, there have been many changes to CATS along the way, including the reinvention and subsequent reinstatement of the character Rum Tum Tugger (notably assayed in the current tour by the dynamic McGee Maddox) from rockstar heartthrob to mild-mannered kitten and back again to stud status, and newly reworked choreography by Hamilton’s three-time Tony recipient Andy Blankenbuehler.

In been lotsa years since I revisited the musical myself and, if I wasn’t sharing my theatrical history with someone who wasn’t even born until 8 years after the show first debuted, I might have passed on it once again. I couldn’t be more pleased I didn’t, as this latest incarnation of this charming old warhorse brings back an energy and excitement that clearly helped the original succeed.

So many similar musicals dragged out on tour only to make a quick buck once again appear tired and tattered and are often performed on visual shorthand, but the ensemble here could not be more committed, particularly in the crispness and precision quality of the show’s pivotal dancing. I suspect the inclusion of Blankenbuehler’s massive talent is the key to this, offering something modern and fresh while paying obvious homage to CATS’ brilliant original choreographer Dame Gillian Lynne, who passed away last year at age 92.

In an era when most grandly-aspected Broadway musicals have been aided immeasurably by the advent of wildly inventive video projections—especially handy when a show hits the road—John Napier’s scenic designs have survived intact, as well as his fanciful and now familiar makeup and costume designs. And without a doubt, Trevor Nunn’s original direction is also honored here, as well as his contributions to the text, including the lyrics to the show’s signature and most enduring song “Memory,” which he based on Eliot’s poem Rhapsody on a Windy Night, the only number in the musical not directly taken from the poet’s original verse.

From the truly exceptional ensemble, Dan Hoy sets the mood perfectly as the Jellicle tribe’s charming alpha male Munkustrap, while Caitlin Bond, so limber she could move from this tour directly into a production by Cirque du Soleil, is a standout from the start as Victoria, the balletic white cat.

In the role made memorable by Sir John Mills in Lord Andrew’s 1998 film version, Timothy Gulan is sweetly endearing as that old yarn-spinner Gus the Theatre Cat as he tells the story of playing the poor doomed plank-walking pirate Growltiger, and Tion Gaston brings the house down in “Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” a number today augmented, albeit unnecessarily, by the inclusion of LED technology.

As Grizabella, the ancient former “glamour cat” whose mortal coil-shuffling ascension up to the Heaviside Layer provides the show’s most poignant moments, Kerr Rene Fuller, as anyone cast in role, has a tough act to follow living in the Gentleman Caller-sized shadow of Elaine Page in the original West End cast and the aforementioned film version and, of course, the legendary Betty Buckley, whose career will always be identified with her indelible Tony-winning starmaking turn on Broadway.

Fuller certainly has the golden pipes anyone needs to deliver the tearjerking “Memory,” but it seems no one will ever surpass Buckley, a one-of-a-kind artist whose incredible acting chops rose above even that goosebump-inducing D-flat major climax—and if you doubt me, simply Google her performance of it on the 1983 Tony telecast. Sorry, Miss Fuller, it’s not you, but as the specter of Buckley lingers on at the Pantages after her recent triumph there in the sparkling national tour of Hello, Dolly!, the comparison is inevitable.

At 72, I rather imagine the current revival of Lord Andrew’s pop phenomenon might prove to be my last time seeing it presented but, if our poor planet manages to survive the attack of the Traitor Tot and his scary band of Republican shapeshifters currently making a stinking mess of our national litterbox (me-ow), I suspect I won’t be the only old duffer in history anxious to introduce the enduring magic of CATS to yet another generation or two. Or nine.

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

APR. 9 THROUGH APR. 14:  Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org

THE JUDAS KISS 

Photo by Jenny Graham

Boston Court Performing Arts Center

Late in 1897, only months following his release from prison after two years spent at hard labor serving out his conviction for gross indecency, the great Irish poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde shared a dilapidated, rat-infested villa in Naples with Lord Alfred Douglas, the socially-privileged lover who got him into trouble in the first place.

As the second act of Sir David Hare’s overlooked masterpiece The Judas Kiss begins, Oscar (Rob Nagle) is seated in a padded wing-backed chair sipping brandy on the patio of the villa, a place from which he hasn’t moved in the span of one full day. “As you know,” he later tells his concerned old friend and visiting former lover Robbie Ross (Darius De La Cruz), “I’ve always distained unnecessary motion.”

As David Hernandez’ evocative and potentially award-winning lighting reveals more of Se Hyundai Oh’s starkly embellished set on the chameleon-like stage of the Boston Court, we see Lord Alfred (Colin Bates) naked on a Victorian chaise lounge cuddling the equally naked body of a young Italian fisherboy (Kurt Kanazawa) ironically named Galileo—a crafty theatrical device that allows Sir David to be able to give the sharp-witted Oscar plenty of double entendres about Bosie seeing stars to add to the festivities.

Although Wilde isn’t adverse to appreciating Galileo’s beauty, something that the disgraced literary giant says has made his ordeal bearable and his life less troublesome, it’s not hard to see how hurt and abandoned he feels underneath as he watches his lover spooning with someone else right next to him—especially when Galileo asks him in Italian if he would leave them alone so he could bugger his boyfriend one more time.

When The Judas Kiss transferred from London’s West End to The Great White Way in 1998, it took a beating from critics who couldn’t get past how physically miscast Liam Neeson and Tom Hollander were as Oscar and Bosie. Personally, I was in the minority there; Neeson and Hollander knocked me out. I immediately fell in love with the play and, once again, the wise yet gorgeously lyrical wordsmithery of Sir David Hare.

Still, the first thing I remember about that original Broadway production at the austere 1,150-seat Broadhurst Theatre was Bob Crowley’s magnificently massive set, including an expansive, glittering ocean view in the aforementioned second act and a two-story tufted red velvet headboard framed by lush crimson drapery at the play’s opening, the bed occupied at lights-up by a naked, gleamingly white-skinned young hotel valet named Arthur as he goes down on an ecstatic chambermaid standing spread-eagled against the headboard.

The long overdue LA debut of The Judas Kiss is in the best of hands under the inventive leadership of our town’s wunderkind director and the Boston Court’s co-artistic director Michael Michetti, who keeps things far simpler than the original with a backdrop of basic black curtains, properly ornate furnishings scattered about the otherwise bare playing space, and exposed metal poles holding theatrical lighting fixtures unapologetically visible on either side of the stage.

This leaves room for Sir David’s remarkable script to take over instead of letting the original grandness of the design overshadow the production, a flaw I clearly remember from my view seated in the Broadhurst’s nosebleed seats where the actors resembled tiny figures moving around Colleen Moore’s dollhouse at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry—something which also made the voyeuristic side benefit of appreciating some exotic naked beauty a daunting task.

The Judas Kiss works far better in this powerfully simple and more intimate setting, where even the rising sun over the Gulf of Naples featuring prominently in Oscar’s dialogue in the second act is startlingly evoked with minimal lighting effects projected on a huge and completely blank rear panel.

The incredible Nagle is at his best as Wilde, a role written chockfull of traps to easily plunge into headfirst. As the crushed man desperately tries to appear brave and dispassionate, the actor playing him must still successfully land a continuous barrage of thrown-away Wildian bon mots, which Nagle utters with a dry comic timing so perfect it would amaze Chaplin himself.

And a sad clown he is, this Oscar Wilde. The character pontificates throughout the play about life, love, honor, courage, trust—and the courage to trust—with the entire audience privy to the tragic facts about his impending doom. Only an actor as smooth and honest as Nagle could possibly pull this off; in lesser hands, the entire production would fall flat.

Michetti certainly knows this and, in the signature style of his visionary gifts, stages the action around Nagle as the frightened, failing Oscar. All other actors at one time or another converse with the character keeping their backs directly to the audience, carefully and stealthily blocked to stand near the theatre’s aisles to not obstruct anyone’s view of Nagle’s uncanny ability to assay both stoicism and despair at the same time.

One thing I missed was a hint of dissipation and fragility when Oscar appears post-incarceration at the beginning of Act Two, returning a broken man both physically and emotionally after two years in a dank cell suffering the censure of the entire world. Even losing stylist Shannon Hutchins’ beautifully styled wig from the first act, which takes place two years before on the eve of Wilde’s arrest, would help, as the writer’s well-known locks were sheared off during his time in Reading Gaol and, at this point, had not yet grown back.

Bates offers fine support as the self-serving, cold-hearted Bosie, who exhibits not a moment of decency as he throws his lover to the lions mainly in an effort to hurt his father, the Marquess of Queensberry, and later to save his own damaged reputation.

His best work comes at the end, however, as Bosie awards his lover the title kiss before leaving him despondent and alone. In contrast, Bates’ first scenes are played too frantic, when keeping his uppercrust British composure would let Hare’s dialogue stand on its own to expose Lord Alfred’s selfishness and insidiously evil nature without the actor having to work so hard to convey it.

De La Cruz is touching as Robbie, the man’s lingering love for and devotion to his ex heartrending to observe, although in his final scene, I missed what I believe to be a necessary approaching sense of giving up on Wilde as his friend stubbornly continues to sabotage himself.

Matthew Campbell Dowling as Arthur, the randy Cadogan Hotel valet who doesn’t seem to discriminate by gender, and Will Dixon as Mr. Moffitt, his superior who has a very special activity in mind to punish the lad for his dalliance with the compromised chambermaid, are both perfectly cast, able to maintain their professionalism as servants while never losing their humanity and genuinely caring for their celebrated, demanding charge.

Mara Klein is a scene-stealer as the cockney maid Phoebe, unsure whether Arthur and Moffitt’s generosity in refusing Wilde’s excessive tip is a stance she wishes to share and, as Galileo, Kanazawa is nice to look at without him feeling the need to scratch and pose and make puzzled faces to tempt anyone to look his way when turning his back to the audience is more than enough to pull focus.

Let me point out, as was true with the original production, the extensive nudity and graphic sexual imagery are not just gratuitous here. Hare’s point is that, while members of the lower classes back then were shagging each other with great abandon on a regular basis regardless of gender, and while Sir Alfred’s behavior was protected by his family’s nobility, the prominent Irish intellectual and social butterfly Oscar Wilde was systematically raked through the proverbial coals strictly because of his celebrity and bold denial of popular hypocritical Christian-based morality.

You know... like today.

This is the quintessential mounting of a magnificent, long-buried potential future classic which heralds one of our time’s greatest playwrights, whose ability to evoke Oscar Wilde’s genius with words seems as though he is channeling the man himself. The production is both lavish and austere, the simplicity of it exquisite as it allows a world-class ensemble and director to shine through at every moment, something accentuated by Diane Graebner’s lavish, lovely period costuming.

So, here’s the thing. Not only do Oscar Wilde and I share the same birthday 100 years apart, I have played the great dramatist several times over the years and have won some major honors doing so, most notably in a 75-minute monologue as the dying Wilde in the premiere of the lategreat Leon Katz’ incredible Beds in 2000 and soon after in the debut of C. Robert Holloway’s Oscar & Speranza in Washington, DC.

In 2001, after seeing Liam Neeson and Tom Hollander reprise their London performances on Broadway in 1998, then playing the role myself in a workshop production opposite Christian Martin as Bosie at the Egyptian Arena, Jer Adrianne Lelliott and I tried to get the rights to bring Sir David’s masterwork to El Lay for the first time. We were turned down then because they were holding out to see it produced at a larger house like the Taper or South Coast Rep, which for some reason never happened.

Aside from the fact that Jer is no longer the same gender, Wilde died at age 46 and I am now 72. How agonizing is it to realize one is too old to play a role that means so much to him? Not easy—that is unless the role is being assayed by an actor as gifted, as magical, as absolutely perfect and heartbreaking as LA treasure Rob Nagle.

If someone else had been cast who was not as breathtakingly brilliant as he, I would have been grinding my teeth and ready to scream out in my seat. As it is, instead I was transported. I was more than content; I was mesmerized by his golden, gossamer portrayal of poor Oscar.

In all honesty, as I age into acting obscurity, here’s something I’ve never said before: I was actually glad it was Rob Nagle up there moving us all to tears and not me. His is a performance I will never forget.

THROUGH MAR. 24:  Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 Mentor Av., Pasadena. 626.683.6883 or bostoncourt@com

BORN TO WIN 

Photo by Matthew Brian Denman

Celebration Theatre

It’s a fight to the finish for four-year-old beauty pageant contestants Chevrolet Corningfield and Puddles Jackson, the perfectly lovely little angels whose mothers Pinky and Marge believe with all their hearts are both Born to Win.

And as the girls push on from one regional contest after another on the way to the cherished Supreme Queen competition, the initially friendly and supportive relationship between the mothers begins to get dangerous—particularly since Chevy has never in all her four years lost a pageant title before and that friggin’ Puddles keeps taking home the gold show after show.

In the LA premiere of Matthew Wilkas and Mark Setlock’s outrageously zany adventure, everything conspires for a great evening out of deliciously decadent diversion. As most of everything mounted at the pint-sized but defiantly scrappy Celebration Theatre, the production values, from Michael Matthews’ clever and visually fearless direction to Stephen Gifford’s minimal yet strikingly whimsical set design and Allison Dillard’s colorful Pee-Wee's Playhouse costuming choices, are top drawer.

As Pinky and Marge, Julianne Chidi Hill and Daiva Deupree, respectively, are perfectly cast as the sparing pageant moms, with Deupree also doing yeoman’s work appearing in flashback as Pinky’s equally driven Norma Desmond of a stage mother—turban and all.

Still, it's that unstoppable uber-campy cult favorite Drew Droege (who played the title character in the Celebration's Die Mommie Die!) and cowriter Wilkas (so memorable last season in The Pride at the Wallis) who steal the show as flaming Texas pageant specialists Bobby and Bob, the gung-ho coaching team ready to transform poor overworked little Puddles into a star with the help of diet pills, glittering sequined gowns, a spray tan potent enough to make her smell like a coconut for a week, and choreography so cutesy (with a nod to Janet Roston) it could make Richard Simmons look like Arthur Murray.

“It’s tough love,” the boys tell the skeptical Marge with their patented sweet smile. “Puddles’ll be better for it.”

With the proprietors of Touch the Sky Finesse Coaching also doing double duty as the ladies’ less-than desirable “better” halves—Droege as Marge’s Buddy, a Duck Dynasty-esque good ol’ boy incarcerated for beating the crap out of her, and Wilkas as Pinky’s adoring wealthy cowboy husband Gunnar, who made his fortune manufacturing toothpicks—the farcical nature of the action, complete with two convenient doors at the rear ready for slamming at a moment’s notice and a multitude of wigs and hats for the performers to switch into between characters, is often pure Marx Brothers.

Still, as promising as all this is, after the first half-hour of thinly-veiled double entendres, breakneck comedic performances, and truly promising situations to explore, the humor gets a little thin. This is perhaps a case of opening night-itis here, especially since the Celebration audiences are a discerning lot and often not an easy bunch to keep entertained.

The spirited laughs and quick-witted one-liners quickly begin to flatten out and, as Born to Win starts to lose a tad of its early mojo, the performers naturally feel the need to compensate for the suddenly less raucous response, working harder than they should have to considering everything Wilkas and Setlock’s smartly dexterous comedy and Matthews’ tongue-in-cheek staging have given them.

Sometimes the cleverness simply stops being clever, such as the delightfully goofy premise that the tiny beauty queens Puddles and Chevrolet are played by childfree pageant gowns directly off the rack that are tossed through doors and around the stage or hugged to their mothers’ bosoms without real live child actors overemoting inside them. Again, it is a great idea and an early treat, especially considering Dillard’s brightly over-the-top child pageantwear one never gets tired of appreciating, but it does get old fast.

One can only throw a dress offstage so many times, even with a line such as, “Chevrolet, go get your American Girl doll—we’re going home,” or squeeze the chiffon tooling tight while earnestly observing that one’s daughter keeps so quiet sometimes it’s like she isn’t even there.  This by no means suggests Born to Win doesn’t have a potentially knockout future ahead; a little more tweaking and it could be the next Ruthless. As for now, however, a rewrite—or at least some judicious pruning—is essential to lift it to the next level.

One idea might be to replace the lifeless clothing and cast willing, dead serious gender-insignificant adults as poor Pud and Chevy, complete with adult-sized versions of the same dresses. And why is it my mind instantly goes to Jacqueline Wright or Jessica Pennington Quinn as Puddles and the Celebration’s own Michael A. Shepperd as Chevrolet? The playwrights wouldn’t even have to write in any lines for the new costars; their presence would surely be enough to hold our attention. Now there’s a twist that I suspect would never get old.

THROUGH MAR. 31:  Celebration Theatre, 6760 Lexington Av., Hollywood. 323.957.1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com

  HIR

Photo by Enci Box

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble 

It’s a tough slog for Isaac Connor, a young Marine coming home from the Sand Box, dishonorably discharged after being caught snorting coke up his butthole through a tube. His life is hard enough to maneuver as it is, but in Taylor Mac’s outrageously dark-to-pitchblack comedy Hir, making its LA debut as the first production of the prolific Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s 50th season, what he finds when he arrives back at his parents’ doublewide in California’s Central Valley is nothing but pure chaos. 

Isaac (Zack Gearing) expected to be greeted with a banner upon his return from three years in a warzone—a banner and cookies, too, maybe—but what he finds instead is that his mother (Cynthia Kania) has given up any conventional attempt at daily life, saying her existence is “all about the metaphor now,” as his sister Maxine has transformed into his brother Max (Puppett), and both of them forgot to tell him his father (Ron Bottitta) had a debilitating stroke the year before that has left him blubbering gibberish and drooling incessantly while plopped in the corner wearing only a woman’s nightgown and make-up that could have been designed for Divine if she’d lived to play the title character in It.  

Mac’s downward spiral of a story not only chronicles a horrifyingly difficult journey for Isaac, but offers a bit of a cultural lesson for all of us as his mother explains, with the welcome visual aid of a homemade chart scribbled on cardboard, all the various gender classifications there are these days beyond simple LGBTQ-ology, which is why Max wants to be referred to as ze rather than he or she and hir instead of him or her.

It’s not easy his mother to explain, especially for someone still so desperately seeking approval for her own transition from dutiful homemaker to rule-defying rebel refusing to eat normal meals, defiantly unwilling to lose the Christmas lights snaking over her kitchen cabinets, or pick up the clothes and debris piled high all over the house looking like a scene from Hoarders most dysfunctional episode. “Max!” she finally yells to the bedroom in frustration. “Get out here and explain your ambiguities to your brother!”  

Poor Isaac is still sufficiently perplexed by it all, seeming to be so distraught he pukes in the kitchen sink every time his mother starts the blender to make his father’s estrogen-laced daily Shaky-Shake—that is until he explains that everyone who worked with him in the Mortuary Affairs division cleaning up body parts vomits a lot. “It’s kinda what we get instead of medals,” he tells his mom with a complacent shrug.  

Isaac tries his best to return the family’s environment back to the home he knew, especially when he realizes his mother is treating his dad like shit intentionally and trying to emasculate him every chance she gets (he sleeps in a cardboard box on the floor) in revenge for what a chauvinistic monster he has been toward her all their lives. That, as well as working overtime trying to accept his new brother, leaves Isaac on the verge of doing something rash.  

Mac’s constant jam of nonstop one-liners are suitably outrageous and hilariously on-track in their assault on the hypocrisy surrounding our treatment of the current administration’s “base” as they shuffle dutifully along in place, as well as the typically ravaged condition of those old-too-young brainwashed drones returning from war, but although his dialogue is richly thought-provoking and often poetic, it must be very difficult to work to make flow.  

Under Bart DeLorenzo’s always delightfully skewed direction, Gearing is wonderfully affective and touching as Isaac, leaping over those verbal traps in Mac’s dialogue that tend to occasionally trip up Kania and Puppett, both of whom on opening night appear to not yet be completely comfortable with the play’s gothic playing style. The scene-stealing Bottitta has an easier time with only grunts and groans and an occasional expletive to spout, allowing him to concentrate at masturbating under his Baby Huey diapers and lurk around in corners seeming to be quite content with his wife’s cruelty and need to humiliate him at any opportunity. 

Still, through the humor and shock value that blasts through Hir at full gallop, what energizes Taylor Mac’s signature vision more than anything else is its blistering indictment of the ways our society has marginalized the folks struggling to navigate and understand our existence in these troubling time, an era when many of us are edging closer and closer to the kitchen sink to cough up all the bile Tweeted by our inglorious “leader” on a daily basis as those around him ignore all the Isaacs trying their damnedest to come home. 

THROUGH MAR. 17Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. 310.477.2055 orwww.OdysseyTheatre.com   

TRUMP IN SPACE 

Photo by Joe Funk

Second City Hollywood

It isn’t easy to poke untapped fun at our disastrous Celebrity Appresident when every friggin’ day he continues to expose himself as the biggest joke of our time in history. The creative folks at Second City Hollywood, however, have somehow managed to make Dotard Donnie look almost as ridiculous as he does in real life with their oft-extended new musical Trump in Space, winner of last summer’s Encore Award after its debut at the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2017.

With original music composed by the show’s musical director Tony Gonzalez and Sam Johnides, Trump-ian bookwriters Gillian Bellinger and Landon Kirksey double onstage in roles they surely created for themselves. Bellinger appears as the stone-faced starship captain Natasha Trump, a reluctant descendent of our own current presidential Voldemort, while Kirksey makes a few judiciously planned cameos as The Executive, a faceless, gravel-voiced Darth Vader clone with a patch of blond hair sticking out of his hood and sporting a long red tie nearly reaching the knee area of his mysterious black robe.

Set in 2417, it’s rather scary to think our National Embarrassment might have survived the 400 years since all of us have shuffled off our mortal coils—maybe collectively if somebody doesn’t soon stop the out of control asshole—but it’s instantly crystal clear who The Executive is meant to represent, especially when he tells those gathered he’s the “most just leader in the history of the universe.”

There’s no rocket science employed here—if you’ll excuse the expression—but the hour-long romp through the cosmos is sure to please with constant in-jokes referencing Star Wars, Star Trek, and its most accessible and welcome target: that huuuuuge black hole known as the current administration as it tumbles headfirst through its own shocking and unbelievable trip into its own self-created script for Twilight Zone.

Capt. Trump and her crew (Jim Shipley, Rob Warner, and Joy Regullano) are on a mission traveling through space for the ruling United States of Commerce, fighting to reach a new star system called Polaris IV while hot on their heels are the rebels manning the Starship California (Nicole Pelligrino and Jessie Sherman, led by their commander Scott Palmason). Early in the proceedings, Trump’s followers capture their enemies and, spotting one another, she and Captain Barack “Barry” Sanders (Palmason) realize they are the lovers lost to one another years before, enabling them to break into song as smoothly as Nellie Forbush when she finds her Emile. 

Under Frank Caeti’s whimsical direction, every castmember has his or her own golden moment to shine, both in song and in deed, with the bi-spectacled Regullano proving to be a special standout as the meek and frustratingly overlooked Lt. Joy while Warner, dressed in an homage to Sgt. Dangle on Reno 911!, is hilarious throughout the gayest starship crewmember since the coming out of Mr. Sulu.

Pellegrino creates her own moments, moments reminiscent of a severely stoned Sid Vicious in an old Sex Pistols concert, which the others watch with suitably patient wonder before blaming her overacting as the result of her character’s juice cleanse. There’s also an eleventh-hour surprise from Mary Jo, who suddenly appears out of nowhere as another of the Republicants most jaw-dropping posterchildren, singing her lungs out as a character who, one might assume, thinks she sees Russia from the window of the spacecraft’s galley.

No, there’s not much content here aimed to change the desperate nature of our current world situation, but hey—The Executive does get blown to smithereens at the end, so besides the nonstop laughs of Trump in Space, there is some satisfaction watching him finally leave the universe a better place.

FRIDAYS THROUGH APR. 26:  Second City Hollywood Studio Theatre, 6560 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. www.secondcity.com/shows/hollywood/trump-in-space or 323.464.8542

 

  See?  I'm an angel.