EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE 

CURRENT THEATRE REVIEWS by TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER 

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

ANASTASIA 

Photo by Evan Zimmerman

Pantages Theatre

Even aside from a score by Broadway legends Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the new musical version of the classic tale of Anastasia, now filling the Pantages with visual splendor, has an amazing pedigree all around.

Reunited with Terrence McNally, one of our greatest playwrights and with whom they shared well-deserved Tony Award honors for Ragtime,  Ahrens and Flaherty's creative partners for Anastasia also included director Darko Tresnjak, Tony winner for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,  as well as his award-winning team for that production: choreographer Peggy Hickey, set designer Alexander Dodge, video and projection designer Aaron Rhyne, and Tony winner for costuming Linda Cho.

Add in two-time Tony winner and 13-time nominated lighting designer Donald Holder and sound designer Peter Hylenski, both of whom also collaborated with Ahrens and Flaherty on their other Tony winner Once On This Island,  and how could Anastasia  possibly miss?

The production is spectacular in almost every regard. Tresnjak’s staging of this incredibly large and ambitious show is remarkably fluid, Cho’s period costuming is breathtakingly glittery and sumptuous, and Rhyne’s picture-perfect projections evoking a snowy Leningrad in 1906 and the shimmering sunlit Seine in the Paris of the 1920s conjure images of enormous animated postcards.

So, with such a dynamic team of established and honored Broadway thoroughbred talent and all its incredible visual razzle-dazzle, why is Anastasia  a huge disappointment?  A majority of the problem is simply this traditional formulaic musical is such a throwback to the days when escapist fare featuring production numbers about the rain in Spain and real good clambakes ruled the world of musical theatre—something which is especially problematic in today’s instantaneous information media-fueled world currently being dismantled yet again by another soulless band of power-hungry madmen intent on destroying our planet.

Reminiscent of Jerry Herman’s horrendously ill-advised 1979 flop The Grand Tour,  where a chorusline of all-singing, all-dancing Nazis chases a Jewish refugee across Europe as he hides by being shot out of a cannon in a traveling circus, parts of Anastasia  nearly rival The Producers’  “Springtime for Hitler.”

Early on in Anastasia,  the charmed life of the young Grand Duchess (in a lovely turn by Delilah Rose Pellow) enjoying an idyllic childhood enveloped in the elegant beauty of Tsar Nicholas’ winter retreat is suddenly transformed into a scene of the mass extinction of her entire family, the towering white walls of the palace turning into two-story flames and the beauty of old St. Petersburg morphing into the bleak darkness of post-Revolutionary Leningrad.

The accompanying production number, “The Last Dance of the Romanovs,” is downright creepy as Anya’s entire family is “tastefully” dispatched—albeit offstage—especially when followed by the starving peasants of the city then joining in song to wail about their miserable existence in the “new” Russia. Never fear, however; in true musical theatre fashion, her large extended family soon returns to happily sing and dance around her bed like a post-Bolshevik troupe of Casper the Friendly Ghosts.

Now, here’s something that may be a first for me, considering how many times I’ve praised the Herculean efforts of musical ensemble casts rising above what they’ve been handed. Here, although the score is lovely (if not memorable) and the staging and design are richly opulent, the players seem to have given up on it.

Everyone in this ensemble is possessed of appropriately splendid voices, but there’s generally about as much passion in the performances as in the umpteenth show of the day for Mickey and the Magical Map  at Disneyland. I’d have to chalk this malady off to roadshow-itis, that inevitable fatigue and burnout that afflicts a cast embarking on the second year on the grueling national tour circuit.

What this makes it appear is that Tresnjak and his cohorts have basically moved on from the piece or someone would be around to give a goose the serviceable but terminally melancholy performances of Lila Coogan in the title role, Jake Levy as her predictable love interest, and Joy Franz in the potentially juicy role of her heartbroken grandmother. 

I’m not sure any amount of rehearsal could improve the cartoon-Javert woodenness of Jason Michael Evans as Anya’s torn KGB-y pursuer Gleb or temper the unwatchable Marx Brothers-esque antics of the horribly miscast Edward Staudenmayer as “lovable” former Count-turned-conman Vlad, but I sure wish someone would try.

Again, both of these actors contribute impressive vocal power to the production, but more than that skill is needed to tell the story without the distraction of under or  overacting in these two pivotal roles. At least someone might have wanted to alter Vlad’s lyric about how fat and complacent he’s gotten when the far-too young Staudenmayer instead has the lanky body to play the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.

Aside from the generally somnambulant performances, however, the most glaring problem with this big “new” musical is the source material. In an era of thematic and less-than cheery musicals such as Falsettos, Next to Normal, Fun Home,  and Indecent,  modern audiences have welcomed in the genre of musical theatre rather than still hanging onto a fiercely unmovable passion for enjoying only old-style sappy musical comedies. 

Although the once-groundbreaking classic warhorses created by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Jerry Herman still work as nostalgia, today we need more than a steady stream of escapist fare. Even if amphetamines were pumped into the ventilation system of the Pantages’ basement dressing rooms before each show to give the cast a much-needed boost of energy, no matter how beautifully mounted and produced Anastasia  may be, it’s still a tad stodgy and ultimately a letdown.

THROUGH OCT. 27: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.840.9227 or pantagestheatre.box-officetickets.com

NOV. 5 THROUGH 17: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org

DEADLY 

Photo by Jessica Sherman

Sacred Fools Theater Company

According to award-winning Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara  playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart, six years ago she was gobsmacked by a History Channel documentary about H.H. Holmes, the infamous late-19th-century serial killer often referred to as the American Jack the Ripper who in 1896 was executed for the death of his accomplice Benjamin Pitezel and, while awaiting the noose, confessed to the murder of 27 additional victims.

There are a plethora of urban myths surrounding Holmes, who holds the dubious distinction of often being referred to as our country’s very first serial killer, including suspicion that he was responsible for dispatching up to 200 more people before being caught—many of them murdered as part of intricate insurance fraud schemes he would concoct. 

Yet the major infamy that has survived over 100 years concerning Holmes deals with his personal mission to lure and sleep with a long list of beautiful women he would then systematically do away with in the most grisly fashion he could conjure, an accomplishment he proudly considered his “art.”

As the character of the good doctor states in Stewart’s bravely off-centered new musical Deadly,  now world premiering in partnership with her longtime collaborators at Sacred Fools Theater, his skill at making people disappear in imaginative ways that could rival Dr. Phibes himself, was for him a “thing that no one can ever appreciate.”

Unlike latter-day monsters Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, Holmes’ twisted abilites were not self-taught. Ironically, his “art” was perfected during his education to become a licensed medical doctor with an emphasis on studying human anatomy, skills then presumably honed during his time apprenticing under a noted specialist in human dissection.

What struck Stewart most about everything she read about the notorious Dr. Holmes was how little was known about his victims besides their names. With Deadly,  her hope was to rectify that, to give eight of his most well-known actual victims a voice to explain who they were and why they deserve to be remembered.

Under the slick direction of Jamie Robledo, who also helmed Stewart’s multi-award-winning  megahit Stoneface: The Rise and Fall of Buster Keaton  starring her husband French Stewart at Sacred Fools several years ago, Deadly  is an impressive new effort which also reunited the duo with composer-musical director Ryan Thomas Johnson.

As Stephen Gifford’s metal structure set and Corwin Evans’ projections suggest areas in Holmes’ tricked-out Chicago hotel, often referred to as the “Murder Castle,” each of his comely victims arrive there to see or to find work related to the nearby World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 honoring the 400th anniversary of ol’ Chris’ now questionable landing in the New World.

Robledo’s cast is golden, filling the Fools’ often-unwieldy mainstage space with uniformly laudable vocal skills, particularly considering the pitfalls inherent in Johnson’s lyrical but difficult Sondheim-inspired score.

Keith Allen, even out of his distinctive zombie-defying blue Z Nation makeup, is both powerful and completely creepy in his depiction of Holmes, especially when near the end he suddenly breaks out in a Fosse-esque finale complete with an off-kilter bowler hat and a rather unexpected knack for jazz hands.

From the talented chorus of Holmes’ doomed female victims (reappearing postmortem in whimsically distressed Victorian grave-worn finery designed by costumer Linda Muggeridge), all of whom link together in death to try to stop their dark angel from ending the lives of his newest targets, Brittney S. Wheeler is a standout as Lizzie Sommers, one of the first spirits to appear to guide the others who stays disheartened that no one ever cared enough to come around asking about her whereabouts.

Erica Hanrahan-Ball is also impressive as Julia Connor, whose love for Holmes turns to thinly-disguised horror as she attempts to try to praise his cellar adorned with decaying body parts in an effort to stay alive, and understudy Shaina Hammer is also noteworthy as her sweet preteen daughter Pearl. 

Eric Curtis Johnson is an asset as the Cook County homicide detective whose revulsion for Holmes and confusion over the voices of the dead who continuously sing their plea for justice in his ear provide the musical’s most grounded moments, while David LM McIntyre (alternating in the role with French Stewart) is endearing as poor dumb emotionally-damaged schlep Ben Pitezel who reluctantly goes along with his boss’ dastardly bidding despite being increasingly more apprehensive about his role in the crimes.

This is an auspicious beginning for a delightfully dark new musical, a genre which I love but usually does sport a few more warped efforts to lift the darkness of the mood. Even Les Miz  has the Thenardiers around to rock “Master of the House” and Mrs. Lovett has her moment singing about cooking priests into meatpies, but while Johnson’s score is gorgeous, it’s also severely ballad-heavy and provides Stewart very little help in lightening the load.

Still, I truly believe Deadly  will join Vanessa Claire Stewart’s collection of eclectic historical figures she has chosen as the subject of her surprisingly compelling musical adaptations, but this one could use a little more reworking before it rivals her previous efforts.

With H.H. Holmes’ series of incredibly multifarious murders weaving throughout Deadly,  although Stewart’s personal odyssey to put an emphasis on the identities of his mostly forgotten female victims is a worthy cause to champion, if things were ocassionally brightened up a tad and the script was interspersed with a few more humorously over-the-top and graphically choreographed murderous deeds—and maybe featured a few cases of stage blood to make the stage management crew groan in anticipation—this potentially extraordinary new musical could easily become the Sweeney Todd of the 2020s.

THROUGH NOV. 2: Sacred Fools, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood. sacredfools.org

ON BECKETT 

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Kirk Douglas Theatre

Just before curtain opening night of Bill Irwin’s solo show On Beckett  at the Douglas, my friend Charles Degelman turned to me from his seat directly in front of me and told me how he first met his friend Mr. Irwin many years ago when they worked together in Larry Pisoni’s legendary Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco in that lamentably long gone golden era I knew so well.

When Irwin first arrived on that scene, Charlie recalled, he thought, “I give this guy about three months before he leaves to start selling insurance.”

As Irwin stands on the Douglas stage, dwarfed by the space, speaking in a halting monotone about his lifelong passion for all things Samuel Beckett and sheepishly offering “some amount of reassurance” that his performance would be over another 88 or 89 minutes, indeed he does conjure the air of an insurance salesman awkwardly and uncomfortably addressing a crowd gathered at a convention he never expected to be so large.

But then, after explaining how from the very beginning when discovering the great Nobel Prize-winning dramatist, his writing drilled a hole in his head that refuses to mend, he dons a signature and compulsory Beckett bowler hat and suddenly morphs before our very eyes into the great rubber-faced and limbless world-class physical comedian he is.

Irwin, veteran of many Beckett performances, his own inventive solo shows, and celebrated straight theatre pieces including his Tony-winning turn as George in the Kathleen Turner revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,  found whatever he did and however his career was splintering away from his early days with the aforementioned Pickle Family Circus and as a member of Herbert Blau’s Kraken Theatre Company, the dense yet jarringly poetic work of the mid-century master stayed hammering away at his consciousness somewhere in his crowded cerebellum.

“I found I had this repository of Beckett stuff in my head,” he admits. “It was important to me. It wouldn’t go away and I was looking for a way to share the place that this language has had in my noggin and my life.” He hoped this unique performance he has created as a coping mechanism for this constant inner voice might be something healing that would also be a “celebration and an investigation of his language.”

On Beckett  transforms repeatedly from Irwin’s own fiercely intellectual but humanly vulnerable observations about the writings to diving headfirst into passages from the work. He begins the journey with a bravely over-pronounced interpretive reading from Beckett’s 1950 Texts for Nothing #1, questioning whether the writer was exploring the confusion and fragility inherent in the human condition or was instead simply chronicling the many voices and the conflicted thoughts that pour out of the mysterious chambers of our busy brains on a continuous basis.

From there, Irwin’s magical performance becomes more and more physical and decidedly clown-like, donning a succession of slightly different bowlers and utilizing a variety of props to create new and increasingly more broadly vaudevillian characters. From behind a simple podium which provides a safe haven for his actions, he produces a series of canes, microphones that refuse to stay erect, coats that won’t be donned without a struggle, and those obligatory baggy pants that turn him immediately into a modernday Charlie Chaplin.

Irwin spends those aforementioned 88 or 89 minutes talking about the meaning of Beckett’s plays and offering passages from his essays and plays from the obscure to the familiar. These include The Unnamable, Watt, and two other Texts for Nothing.  Although it’s listed in the program’s running order, he avoids delving into Endgame, explaining to us he has decided to no longer attempt to “tackle that Goliath.”

His amazing transformations from character to character conclude, with help from a gifted pintsized collaborator named Benjamin Taylor in his promising stage debut (alternating in performances at the Douglas with Carl Barber), presenting scenes from Waiting for Godot, a play Irwin knows well having appeared opposite artists from Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and F. Murray Abraham in his 2009 Drama Desk Award-nominated performance as Lucky to later playing Vladimir opposite Nathan Lane at Studio 54.

Along the way, Irwin continuously admits the many puzzles Beckett has left us are far above his own poor powers to add and detract, continuing to stay beyond his ability to make sense of all things. Yet if anyone—besides, of course, our own cherished local Beckett scholar and cohort Alan Mandell—can help us decipher these writings, it’s Irwin.

“Habit,” he quotes Beckett as observing, “is a great deadener,” a condition it’s clear will never take down this unique and incredible performer who obviously hopes to explain to us and to himself why the equally unique voice of the master, complete with its “slippery pronouns,” stays so relevant in its efforts to decipher and honor the intricacies of human intelligence and its fight to understand our existence.

“This guy’s voice, this writer’s voice,” Irwin insists, “is one that’s going to last way into the future. People are going to be reading Beckett’s stuff and performing Beckett’s stuff the way they have Shakespeare.” 

With the inimitable contribution of the comedic and the scholarly genius of great artists such as misters Mandell and Irwin to help that effort along with their courageous Quixote-esque personal missions to help Samuel Beckett’s work arrive at the “center of the culture,” there’s a comforting guarantee that such a thing will indeed come to fruition.

THROUGH OCT. 27: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

IN CIRCLES 

Photos by Enci Box

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

“First in a circle.

Papa dozes mamma blows her noses.

We cannot say this the other way.

Exactly.

Passably.”

Anyone willing to try to adapt the highly experimental and dizzyingly repetitious poetry of Gertrude Stein into a stage musical has to be a bit off. So it was with Al Carmines, the associate pastor at Greenwich Village’s infamous Judson Memorial Church who, starting in the early 1950s, led a “radical arts” ministry that offered space to visual and performance artists where they could do their thing within the sanctuary of religious protections and devoid of rules or censorship.

A decade later, Carmines began to try his hand at writing his own musicals and “oratorios” that featured volunteer choruses. In Circles, his second of six operas fulfilling his lifelong obsession with Stein and based on her trailblazing writings, debuted at Judson Memorial in the fall of 1967. It proved so successful it transferred to the Cherry Lane the following spring, eventually winning the Obie for Best Musical of 1968 and a Drama Desk Award for Carmines’ jaunty and wildly creative score.

Los Angeles theatrical hero Jacque Lynn Colton was part of that original cast and remembers the experience fondly. “The original was a unique collaboration between Al [who also appeared onstage], director Lawrence Kornfeld, and the cast,” she recalls. With every line in the musical culled directly from Stein’s 1920 work A Circular Play, the ensemble of brave underground players and La Mama veterans such as Colton gathered in Carmine’s living room pouring over the 12 pages of Stein’s highly idiosyncratic piece, which begins with the passage at the top of this article.

“We were encouraged to develop our own characters and to take any line we wanted,” according to Colton. “If another castmember felt attached to that line, they could repeat it.” And so In Circles  was born and began its journey to weave itself into the very fabric of theatre history in the 20th century.

Luckily for us, In Circles  was also chosen as part of Circa ’69,  the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s current 50th anniversary season dedicated to reviving significant and adventurous plays which debuted at relatively the same time the company was formed back in 1969.

Colton, who helped us win many awards and honors when she directed me in my last performance (of 13) as Lennie in Of Mice and Men  in 1997, has been a fiercely loyal part of the Odyssey’s troupe of players for many years, appearing in such memorable productions there as The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage and Her Children, Rhinoceros, Kvetch, and most recently Arsenic and Old Lace last season.

As she told me between vegetarian sausages at the opening night reception for In Circles, when she first heard that the Odyssey was reviving Carmines’ masterwork, her heart skipped a couple of beats—especially learning it would be mounted under the leadership of legendary director David Schweizer, who directed her before at the equally legendary Public Theatre in New York in the 1980s and in Marlene Meyer’s outrageous Kingfish at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1988.

Since she knew she was now too long-in-tooth to play any of the characters, least of all Mildred, the role she originated in 1967, Colton thought she would be relegated to rising to give a little wave of recognition to those gathered as part of the opening night audience—but this is a David Schweizer production, after all. She should have known better.

Instead of feeling nostalgic watching it unfold from the front row, Colton was instead onstage as the patrons filed into the theatre, sitting quietly dead-center on Mark Guirguis’ bare yet shockingly all-red stage in a red rolling desk chair reading a copy of A Circular Play. As part of Schweizer’s always innovative vision, Colton was added to the production to play Gertrude Stein herself, appearing as an observer-guide-critic as the youthful ensemble of gifted players sing and dance around her.

This revival would have made Carmines float back from the spirit world if the stuff he conveyed as a pastor was not a comforting but improbable fantasy, for his beloved In Circles  has been brilliantly reinvented by Schweizer to become one of the most delightful and most refreshing musical treats to hit LA stages this year. Stein’s highly playful rhythmical essays were created to evoke the “excitedness of pure being,” paying homage to her own lifelong obsession with art and artists, particularly focusing on cubism, plasticity, and the endless possibilities of collage.

The cast is all for this, obviously, surely spurned on by and having complete faith in the transformational genius of their director and the inspired inclusion of choreographer Kate Coleman and of musical director Kenneth J. Grimes, who doubles onstage as Dole, the show’s onstage pianist.

P.T. Mahoney, who has the voice of an angel and towers physically above the other players, makes an auspicious LA musical debut as Cousin, his performance instantly reminding me in so many ways of a young beginning singer-dancer with whom I appeared in shows at Melody Top Theatres in Chicago and Milwaukee when I was a teenager. I was mesmerized by the guy who, despite his 6’6” gawkiness and a body so thin he looked anorexic, moved with inspired grace and filled the theatre with his personality. His name was Tommy Tune.

Henry Arber is also a standout and all three additional female castmembers have knockout voices, especially in a section where each actor sings the same passage but each goes an octave higher, ending with notes from Ashlee Dutson that would have potentially won her a sing-off with Yma Sumac.

Still, the evening is ultimately all about Jacque Lynn Colton, whose expressive face can alter from stern admonishment to sweet Abby Brewster-esque kindness at a moment’s notice as she shepherds and leads her costars in how to interpret what she and her director perceive might have been Stein’s original intention.

Simply having the privilege of watching Colton play Stein as a newly added and uber-presence, especially in a work she as an actor was instrumental in creating over a half-century ago, is an honor we all need to embrace. As she sits back in her chair centerstage at the show’s end and her fellow devoted castmembers fill the space around her with flowers in silent tribute to Stein is one moment I bet will never be erased from my admittedly fading memorybanks.

As an inveterate theatre nerd who grew up singing about carrots ‘n potatoes and whistling a happy tune nightly for far, far too long, I personally break for most traditional American musicals these days. This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them and their worthy place in our history, only that in most cases I have no need to see them presented again—unless they are groundbreaking dark musicals with titles such as Sweeney Todd, Urinetown, Next to Normal, or Fun Home, if you get my drift.

But… hey. Revive Brel or Kurt Weill and I’m there. Revive In Circles  and I’m ready to go back a few times before the production closes to help wipe away the troubles of our world and dull the grease and grime of how our country is currently being led.

In a fair world, Al Carmines, who also in 1974 wrote the score for another amazing musical adaptation of Stein’s 1908 manuscript The Making of Americans  with the also lategreat and my sorely missed friend Leon Katz, should be recognized with equal reverence as fellows named Rodgers, Hammerstein, Bernstein, and Sondheim. Without him around to make artistic waves during the emergence of the original off-Broadway movement, we might still only be singing about real good clambakes.

THROUGH NOV. 10: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. 310.477.2055 or OdysseyTheatre.com

HANDJOB 

Photo by Darrett Sanders

Echo Theater Company at the Atwater Village Theatre

I have been around the block so many times in my life that I’ve made grooves in the pavement.

I was butt-naked and promoting “Suck-Ins for Jesus” in Hair  for an extended period of time in the late 60s, the very first time full-frontal nudity was attempted on a stage anywhere—which usually meant vice cops were around to line the back of the theatre wherever we opened waiting for a signal to take us all away.

In 2000-2001, I was nude again onstage, this time in my early fifties and covered in Joe Orton’s blood each night playing Kenneth Halliwell in Lanie Robertson’s Nasty Little Secrets. It proved to be a performance which won me a shelf-ful of impressive awards, but I’ve always suspected that was because I was brave enough to expose my massive girth in my sunset-ing years for all to see more than it was meant to honor my performance.

Then there was that less-than mainstream movie my then-partner Victor that I made for our friend Nicholas Grippo in 1971 or so. It was called Cheaters  and, if anyone has or ever finds a copy of it, please share it with me because gawd knows we ain’t’a gonna ever look like that  again.

The point here is, I purdy much consider myself artistically shockproof. Yet, about halfway through Echo’s world premiere of Erik Patterson’s Handjob, just as everyone else in the Atwater Village Theatre audience, my jaw must have fallen to just about there.

At that point in the play, the title proves playable in a most boldly graphic way but what could be seen in most other situations as gratuitous, here it is absolutely the opposite. Shocking the heck outta us is exactly what the outrageous Mr. Patterson wants to accomplish. As the playwright’s onstage counterpart Keith (Steven Culp) admits soon after that little transaction goes south and the characters discuss its impact, “I need to make people uncomfortable. People need to leave this theatre and have this very conversation.”

Mission accomplished.

In the first scene of Handjob, Keith has hired a strapping young housecleaner named Eddie (Michael Rishawn in an auspicious LA debut) to make his apartment spic and span. Oddly enough, however, although Keith apologizes profusely for being such a dysfunctional mess, on Amanda Knehans’ brick-walled Manhattan apartment set there are some books stacked around on the floor and a few random newspapers out of place, but there’s not much cleaning to be done, which forces Eddie (or any actor playing him) to busy himself moving things around from place to place and dusting in front of the framed RENT  and Legally Blonde  playbills on the bookcase instead of getting down and dirty (no pun intended).

Whether this is an intentional device because Keith has ulterior motives to get his money’s worth or if it’s an annoying oversight director Chris Fields has ignored is unclear, but Eddie’s lack of things to do appears to be more of a distraction for someone as anal retentive as I am than it is a theatrical choice. And if anyone cleaning my apartment ever cavalierly decided to throw away saved newspapers and stacks of envelopes without asking if they needed to be saved, he’d be out the door with or without his shirt.

See, the reason Keith hired this guy to clean is because he advertised as someone who cleans in the buff. I would guess this is the case since that is what’s usually offered in such cases, although in this production Rishawn never strips off anything except his shirt—which again feels like a bit of a copout, especially considering the handy-dandy climactic (no pun intended again) sex act that becomes the pivotal moment in the play.

There are a few missteps such as this in this world premiere that really, really need tweaking next time it’s mounted (pun intended this time), but my druthers are minor because its assault to our complacent senses is absolutely brilliant, opening up a discourse about why any artist needs to shy away from controversy as it continuously barrages those gathered with uproariously funny dialogue and awkward situations. Handjob is, perhaps, my favorite of Patterson’s many works I have repeatedly praised throughout the years.

Patterson’s plays are traditionally full of unexpected turns and this one is a prime example of that. Soon after Keith makes the mistake of ignoring the straight Eddie’s rule that he can look all he wants but not touch, Kevin misinterprets a sideway smile as a signal and grabs his junk as he bends over the sink. Before the first scene goes to blackout after Eddie has gone all #metoo on his host, the second scene opens with two other actors in the same apartment saying and doing almost exactly the same things as the first two did before them.

The only difference is that this time Bradley (Ryan Nealy) is more than willing to put out for an extra $40, stripping down to a ridiculously overstuffed jockstrap as he tells his host Kevin (Stephen Guarino) he’s only been good at two things in his life: cleaning and fucking.

This leads to the aforementioned action suggested in the provocative title and, beyond that moment in the storyline, I would be doing this fascinatingly twisted play a disservice by revealing (another pun?) anything more at this point. Let me just let Patterson’s alter-ego Keith speak for me as he defends the pivotal act: “If you put it onstage, if you light it, then that’s not violating anyone.” Again, whether or not there’s truth in that statement is up to what you decide after the show over drinks at Momed or on your drive home from Atwater Village.

Aside from the lack of authentic activities for the two housecleaners to perform before each gets to put his own tool to use, Fields’ production is quite impressive and his game ensemble is gratefully willing to go wherever Patterson’s insightful situations and delightfully sick mind takes them. This includes castmembers Tamarra Graham and Gloria Ines, whose characters' identities and the reason they suddenly show up onstage offer another mystery I’ll leave at that.

I might suggest that perhaps a smaller prosthetic prop and more fiddling around before said prop “appears” might make the critical scene between Guarino and Nealy more believable, but both handle it (oh, the puns) smoothly and Guarino’s dryly hilarious take on his complacent predator who “felt safe enough to explore the moment” is a standout.

In his LA stage debut, Rishawn is especially charismatic yet incredibly comfortable donning the conflicted skin of Eddie, whose presence opens a whole other can of worms as he accuses Keith of purposefully casting a character based on him in a play as caucasian, suspecting he didn’t want the “blackness of me to overpower the gayness of you.” If ol’ Terpsichore is in the house, Rishawn’s performance here could mark the beginning of an impressive and well-deserved career in our hardhearted Industry town.

Now, a final thought: I think next time someone shows an interest in producing Handjob, the ever-tendentious Erik Patterson might consider renaming his newest play Blowjob  and take the stakes one step higher. This would be something I think could make it even more controversial, which is an admirable goal, if you ask me—and besides, I think it would be a far more realistic goal for Keith in his duplicitous quest to get his already clean apartment cleaned.

I mean, once his hired help rearranges a few books and throws away those newspapers without asking if they’re being saved for a reason, I think the guy needs to have something  to do, don’t you?

THROUGH Oct. 28: Echo Theater Company, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Av., LA. 310.307.3753 or EchoTheaterCompany.com

LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Ahmanson Theatre

When his son Lucas was in middle school, John Leguizamo began to feel like a failure as a parent, something that led to what he refers to as Latent Ghetto Rage in his latest Tony Award-nominated one-man show Latin History for Morons,  now beginning its national tour at the Ahmanson.

Confronting the father of one of Lucas’ classmates to tell him that the other man’s son was bullying his kid at school, calling him a “spic greaseball heebie kike" loser like his “celebri-tard” dad, the guy offers a halfhearted apology before giving the stick up his ass a little twirl of reassurance and going off about his privileged family’s history from the landing of the goddam Mayflower and on to today.

This didn’t unfold at the inner-city public school Leguizamo had endured with “55 feral latchkey kids per class,” but at a tony private school where one would think something like this wouldn’t happen. “I’ve worked hard to be respectable,” he tells his audience, adding a cautionary “Fuck you” just in case anyone is having a problem with that statement. I mean, after all, he has studied “icelandic  pentameter” and everything.

When his son is assigned a huge research project examining each student’s own personal hero, something that could help turn around a slip in his grades, Leguizamo also saw it as a possible channel to help him turn around his own feelings of inadequacy as a parent. He realizes most of Lucas’ knowledge about his roots came from watching Apocalypto, meaning he was learning his own history from Mel Gibson, so if he could incite him to write about a Latino hero, maybe in the process he’ll learn to stand up for himself at school.

In Latin History,  Leguizamo chronicles his real-life efforts to help find a suitable hero for his kid to select as his subject, going back all the way to the Mayans in 1000BC and on to perform a dead-on impersonation of Pitbull. Along the way he makes a legion of discoveries of his own, leaving many golden opportunities to get a laugh from his personal realization that “ColumbASS” was the Donald Trump of the New World and that the randy disease-carrying Conquistadors spread deadly viruses to our vulnerable continent faster than MBA players at a Kardashian pool party.

Still, beyond discovering things that would eventually gift him with his fifth amazingly successful solo show since 1991—the others being Mambo Mouth, Spic-o-Rama, Freak, Sexaholix… A Love Story, and Ghetto Klown—Leguizamo also came face-to-face with horrifying statistics about how Latinos have been treated throughout history.

It’s made perfectly clear that us comfy entitled ‘Merkins, those of us who in our ranks don’t realize or choose not to confront how we collectively obliterated the peaceful indigenous “pagans” from our adopted land, are the morons of the title. Leguizamo cites the 130 million of 145 million original inhabitants of the Americas we systematically exterminated the minute we got here, going on to chronicle Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears and the decimation of the entire Taino people in the Caribbean Holocaust among the many atrocities throughout hisory.

“How is there a god who is so merciful he lets people do this to each other?” Leguizamo stops to sincerely ask, a question that has haunted me my entire life.

All of the shocking statistics about Latino genocide are scrawled on a giant blackboard as Latin History alternatingly makes us laugh and shudder for an intermissionless two hours that might be almost as exhausting for us as it is for Leguizamo­­—an accomplishment which led to his Special Tony Award last year honoring his many achievements over the last 30 years that craftily go way beyond entertaining us.

It takes a special talent to make this work without losing offended audience members, but no one is more up to the task than this unique storyteller. He unswervingly hammers lectures at us that should make us all ashamed of our societal complacency and in two hours educates us better than a whole semester at many schools, particularly since this part of our history is usually so quickly glossed over.

Whenever the finger-waving gets a little thick, however, this worldclass physical comedian immediately lightens it up by donning silly hats, collapsing in a frustrated heap, dancing every Latin dance known to man, and performing masterful impressions of everyone from Sigmund Freud to his time-conscious personal therapist who sounds exactly like Tim Gunn.

Before curtain I was wondering why a one-person show would be booked into a theatre the massive size of the Ahmanson when CTG also has the far more intimate Mark Taper and Kirk Douglas theatres to choose for such a run. Under the guidance of Tony Taccone, however, one of our time’s most gifted and prolific directors, Leguizamo completely fills and dominates the austere and cavernous Ahmanson stage for two friggin’ break-less hours with a minimum of props and visual tools besides that aforementioned blackboard and some mighty smudgy chalk that ends up in the strangest places.

How does one say tour de force in Spanish?

After anyone who has attended Latin History for Morons eventually stops reliving the barrage of ingenious comic moments, what should linger in a fair world is an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy as a human being—something akin to what John Leguizamo felt he was missing as a father. Still one inappropriate but ultimately wise and useful nugget of parental counseling he offered Lucas will stay with me as well. “Life is gonna fuck you, honey,” he tells his young son. “You just gotta change positions until it feels good.” Sounds like a perfect bit of parental advice if you ask me.

THROUGH OCT. 20: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

See? I'm an angel.