A CHRISTMAS CAROL 

Photo by Chris Whitaker

Geffen Playhouse

For a staunch non-believer in a world getting more unbelievable by the day, I have to say I’ve always been a sucker for our collective societal attempts to conjure good cheer and the warmly sentimental trappings of the season.

Beyond the bright lights and festive music and dreams of heading over the river and through the woods, one of my favorite things each December has always been rediscovering A Christmas Carol and the magic it evokes in both its usual traditional and often reinvented forms. This uncharacteristic gladdening in my long-atrophied heart is something left over from my childhood, I suspect; you know, in those optimistic and less confusing days long past when I still held out some hope that our species might be worth saving from extinction.

I know, I know:  Bah, humbug, right? Welcome to 2019, bitches.

Call me sappy, but there’s something about Charles Dickens’ inventive and enduring tale for me, from that one sad little lump of coal Bob Cratchit plops into Scrooge & Marley’s potbelly stove, to Old Ebenezer’s undigested bit of beef, to his sister Fan arriving at his deserted classroom in a horse-driven carriage, to my lifelong personal soft spot for all things ghostly.

Each December I overdose on so many of the same versions I love on film (especially the 1951 British classic with Alastair Sim) that I could recite the scripts verbatim at this point as I go around singing “What Day Is It: Christmas” from my one sad attempt to turn the beloved novel into a musical. Up until now, one of my favorite and most memorable experiences with A Christmas Carol was seeing Sir Patrick Stewart perform it as a one-person show many years ago when the Ahmanson was holding court at the Doolittle, with the former starship commander acing all the voices and his imitation of the resonantly gonging Big Ben amazing to hear.

One-person shows, in general, have never been my favorite either, the bar set waaaay high when, as a 12-year-old, I sat mesmerized by Charles Laughton as he toured the world in his hypnotic Story-Teller. That proved to be a height subsequently reached only by Sir Ian McKellen performing every role from Lear to Lady Macbeth in his Acting Shakespeare, also at the Geffen when it was still the Westwood Playhouse, and most recently, Christopher Plummer in his A Word or Two at the Ahmanson.

Now I have a new favorite solo performance and, without a doubt, I have also seen the best production of anything presented on any Los Angeles stage this year. And guess what? It’s that familiar old warhorse A Christmas Carol in a jaw-dropping, fresh new world premiere production created specifically for the Geffen Playhouse and starring the otherworldly Jefferson Mays, who won a Drama Desk Award for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Theatre World awards for another brilliant solo turn in I Am My Own Wife.

Mays is, of course, a genius, so I expected a great night. What I got, however, was a night I’ll never forget. Created by Mays with his wife Susan Lyons and wunderkind director Michael Arden, he takes on nearly 50 different roles in this incredibly brilliant adaptation based on the edited version Dickens himself would use for public performances of his story.

Beginning on an empty stage occupied by a lace-draped black coffin peeking from the openings of an equally black curtain as the haunting music of Call Me by Your Name composer Sufjan Stevens lulls us into relaxation, things change abruptly as the already dim lighting explodes into blackness with one cacophonous sound affect that makes the entire audience jump in their comfy seats. The coffin disappears, to be eerily replaced by the Victorian-garbed Mays holding a single candle to illuminate his expressive, perfectly Dickensian face as he launches dramatically into a prologue that sounds as though lifted directly from the novel.

What flows from him as he lights one or two more candles in the ominous darkness of the Geffen stage is a richly lyrical narrative, with some well-known passages from the original, yet featuring others new to the ear of even the most fervent Carol-er. Marley’s face on Scrooge’s door knocker, he tells us, is “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar,” while little Ebbie’s bleakly Victorian boarding school is described as all “red brick and forgotten fortunes.” If these passages are indeed part of Dickens' original text, it took the storytelling expertise of Jefferson Mays to enhance their poetic beauty. 

Even without any adornment, Mays would be simply phenomenal. From the first exchange between the somber Ebenezer and his terminally cheerful nephew Fred, it doesn’t take long to see this is going to be a treat as the actor instantaneously switches from one character to the other—even interrupting one another—as each distinct personality is completely realized with unearthly and consummate skill. This is a virtuoso performance sure to become ingrained in your memory, as Mays solidifies hmself to be one of the most gifted actors of our time.

This is one of the most real and understandable Ebenezer Scrooges ever brought to life, not a caricature filled with the usual clichés but instead a touching portrait of a broken, disillusioned man on a true journey of discovery. Also of particular wonder are his depictions of Marley and the three spirits, all of whom are downright terrifying utilizing only Mays’ vocal calisthenics (with invaluable help from sound designer Joshua D. Reid) and a bizarre ability to make his entire body appear to be slightly undulating and floating just above the stage floor.

Still, there is the aforementioned adornment—masterful, worldclass adornment that makes one soon realize this is anything but a modest one-man effort. As Mays lights more candles and gaslights, areas of Dane Laffrey’s remarkably versatile set are revealed through atmospheric fog effects and Ben Stanton’s sometimes strident, sometimes spectral lighting.

Fully appointed and shimmering holiday tables appear sliding into view on cleverly hidden turntables, while Lucy Mackinnon’s projections reveal the joyous fun of Fezziwig’s ball and windows open to fill Scrooge’s bedroom with morning light. And beyond all other surprises, suddenly a complete massive curved staircase appears out of the darkness and, slowly moving as Scrooge climbs it, dominates the stage as completely as Carl Denham revealing his Kong chained to the back wall of a Manhattan theatre.

Ironically, the origins of this production are also extraordinary, developed after a chance meeting with the Geffen’s artistic director Matt Shakman on a day trip with his daughter at the La Brea Tarpits. With a history performing at the Geffen (Mays appeared in Yes, Prime Minister! and also brought I Am My Own Wife here), Shakman conversationally asked him if there was anything he might want to work on that could involve the Playhouse. Mays immediately blurted out, “A Christmas Carol!”

What Mays and Lyons have accomplished with the invaluable contribution of Arden, Tony-nominated director of Deaf West’s LA-to-Broadway’s Spring Awakening and Best Revival of a Musical-winner Once on This Island, is something uncanny. Although this looks at first glance as though it will be a simple retelling of a great classic, it is a both an artistic and technological masterpiece, surely employing more technicians behind the scenes than Cirque du Soleil’s "O"  has submerged frogmen.

Nothing of this would work without Jefferson Mays, the astronomical actor who has taken on A Christmas Carol and lifted it to new heights. There are no immediate plans, I’m told, for this production to go on beyond its first run here at the Geffen, but mark my word: by next year, I predict it will take New York by storm and go on to become a famous entry in the annals of theatrical history.

THROUGH DEC. 9: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood. 310.208.5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org.

...and in the Geffen lobby, an incredible

Victorian gingerbread village created for

opening night of A CHRISTMAS CAROL

by Cake Wars'  judge Richard Ruskell 

 

A BRONX TALE 

Photo by Joan Marcus

Pantages Theatre

The bigassed Broadway musical version of Chazz Palminteri’s once-humble 1989 one-man performance piece, co-directed by Robert DeNiro and Jerry Zaks and with an infectious Motown-meets-Jersey Boys score by legendary composer Alan Menken and lyrics by the equally legendary Glenn Slater, had its bareboned beginnings right here in good ol’ El Lay.

Based on Palminteri’s own boyhood memories growing up on Belmont Avenue in the mean streets of the Bronx in the 1960s, A Bronx Tale was germinated with the invaluable mentoring of director Mark W. Travis in his incisive solo storytelling workshop at Theatre West. Soon after Palminteri was fired as a doorman at an elite nightclub after refusing entry to Swifty Lazar, with surprising alacrity the typical starving actor wannabe went from broke to being offered $500,000 for the film rights during the project’s first humble incarnation at TW. Never one to avoid making daring decisions, however, he turned the offer down.

Palminteri and Travis took another risk, taking A Bronx Tale off-Broadway in 1989, where it enjoyed an easily sold-out run and garnered its creator a special award from the Outer Critics Circle. Serendipitously attending a performance when the play moved to a Broadway house, Robert DeNiro fell in love with the piece and offered to buy the film rights, something to which Palminteri would only agree on two conditions: that he write the screenplay and also appear onscreen in the pivotal role of Belmont Avenue’s resident wiseguy Sonny LoSpecchio.

The film version premiered in 1993, marking DeNiro’s directorial debut and assuring Palminteri would never be again work as a doorman. Whether the newly-minted star ever got to gloat about his success to Lazar is not public knowledge, but the notoriously ruthless superagent did Bite the Big One only a few weeks after the movie’s premiere. Just saying.

After a decade toiling over its next stage in development, A Bronx Tale was adapted into a stage musical featuring the aforementioned pedigreed participants creating under the leadership of DeNiro and Jerry Zaks as co-directors. It premiered at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse early in 2016 before transferring once again to the Great White Way later that year, where it held court at the Longacre until last August when the production packed up and hit the road as a touring production traveling the country.

Now returning to the original “scene of the crime” where it began, stopping at the Pantages for a spell only a few miles and across the Cahuenga Pass from Theatre West, the evolution of A Bronx Tale seems like quite a wonder to anyone who might have been witness to its development all those years ago.

Palminteri’s autobiographical tale begins when his nine-year-old alter-ego Calogero Anello (Frankie Leoni) witnesses neighborhood hood Sonny (Joe Barbara) whack a guy on the sidewalk who was clobbering one of his comrades with a baseball bat over a parking space. Calogero refuses to identify Sonny to the police, knowing as a good Catholic boy he will be able go to confession and be forgiven with a five Our Fathers and five Hail Mary’s. “For a murder rap!” he gloats gleefully, thus beginning the kid’s counterculture education on the mean streets of the Bronx.

This incident leads to the grateful minor organized crime boss fostering a father-like relationship with “C,” taking him under his well-armed wing and teaching him how to win and prosper in his world—and in turn reconsider the staunchly decent values his hardworking busdriver dad Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) is trying so hard to instill in his son.

Calogero grows into a tough guy way too early, able to earn more in a good crap game at the local bar than Lorenzo can earn in a year, something that becomes a bit of an issue between his dad and mother (Michelle Aravena), someone who sees the toughening of her son as possibly beneficial in their ‘hood—and his ill-gotten windfalls possibly a great way not to struggle with the family’s bills. Add in the tickle in his loins “C” experiences whenever he’s near a beautiful young African-American classmate named Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell) in an era and area where such a romance is forbidden in the extreme, and the crisis between his parents’ values and his mentor’s belief that such behavior makes a guy a “sucker” forms the basis for the boy’s coming-of-age journey.

A Bronx Tale could not be an odder play to be transformed into a musical, but thanks to the wonderful score by Menken instantly recalling the earlier do-wap-themed strains of his Little Shop of Horrors, and a knockout West Side Story-esque ensemble leaping to the heights of designer Beowulf Boritt’s towering tenement fire escapes as choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, the problems one would suspect could be insurmountable disappear with the dynamic first aptly-named production number “Belmont Avenue.”

As the teenaged “C,” Joey Barreiro narrates as Palminteri did originally and, under the directorial savvy of DeNiro and Zaks, the triumvirate of the show’s major male characters are played with spectacular success. Blake, who originated the role of Lorenzo on Broadway, is a particular standout, especially in his heartfelt ballad to his son “Look to Your Heart,” while Barbara, who also played Sonny in the New York cast, is a charmer as the goombah we love more than hate, most memorable as he advises his protégé to follow his heart with Jane and not miss “One of the Great Ones.”

As the nine-year-old Calogero, Leoni makes an impressive, confident impression in the role he also first assayed in the New York cast, bringing the house down with his wonderfully brassy turn in “I Like It” backed by the exceptional ensemble of characters straight out of Guys and Dolls. As his older counterpart, Barriero is also a rock throughout, but is especially touching whenever fighting off his vulnerability, contributing wonderful moments with Bell as they fall in love to Menken’s gorgeous ballad “Out of Your Head.”

There’s nothing earthshattering or new about the ultimately formulaic A Bronx Tale, but it is remarkable that such a charming, comfortable little tale could, under the watch of some considerably talented dramatists, morph from a simple one-man show to become a huge, incredibly glitzy and exciting major musical production without losing its heart—or the impact of Palminteri and Travis’ original concept.

THROUGH NOV. 25: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.982.2787 or www.HollywoodPantages.com

NOV. 27 -DEC. 23: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. 888.746.1799 or www.shnsf.com

VALLEY OF THE HEART 

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Mark Taper Forum

The melding of two disparate cultures collide early in the LA premiere of Luis Valdez’ Valley of the Heart at the Taper. From Mexican musicians playing Japanese instruments live outside the theatre winding into the lobby before the performance, the clash of these two historically abused peoples, particularly centering around the horrendous treatment Japanese-American citizens received during World War II, forms the nucleus for Valdez’ tale originally presented by his San Juan Bautista-based El Theatro Campesino Company at the San Jose Stage Company.

With the invaluable support of Cesar Chavez, ETC was founded by Valdez (of Zoot Suit and La Bamba fame) in 1965 as the cultural arm of the United Farm Workers. The original actors in the troupe were all Chicano farmworkers enacting events inspired by the lives of their audience and performed on flatbed trucks in the middle of the fields in Delano.

The 78-year-old Valdez and his entire family appear to still be heavily instrumental in the continuing quest of ETC, including the great man himself helming this production as both playwright and director, his son Kinan as associate director, his brother Daniel as music consultant and appearing as one of the primary castmembers, his wife Lupe as costumer designer, and their other son Lakin appearing in the play’s pivotal leading role.

Originally and most appropriately dubbed a “kabuki corrida,” Valdez’ sweepingly ambitious Valley of the Heart is fascinating, but it’s also something of a major conundrum. It is surely an epic—and a historical one at that. On John Iacovelli’s phenomenally inventive set, with a swipe of an oversized Japanese screen or two by traditional Japanese black-hooded “kurogos” and enhanced by David Murakami’s evocative projections featuring grainy black-and-white photos of haunted-eyed farmworkers of that era, the central action switches between a fictional working farm in Cupertino owned by Ichiro Yamaguchi (Randall Nakano) and one of our country's most notorious real-life Japanese-American “containment" camps at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

Able to own land yet denied American citizenship, Yamaguchi harvests his seasonal crops on a sharecropping arrangement with Mexican immigrant Cayetano Montano (Daniel Valdez), who in turn jokes to his cold and crowded brood that "no one has ever heard of a Mexican owning a rancho in California." The intertwined world of these two neighboring families is conjured on the wide Taper stage depicting the comfy and neatly-appointed farmhouse inhabited by the Yamaguchis on one side and the humble, roughhewn, badly-heated wood shack of the Montanos on the other.

Although both families seem rather uncomfortable trying to understand the cultural distinctions of the other, what binds them is the 20-year working relationship between the two strong-willed patriarchs and a deep respect for the loyalties within each family which they extend toward one another. Of course, it doesn’t take long to predict a problem in their idyllic relationship when the boss’ daughter Thelma (Melanie Arii Mah) starts wearing makeup and dressing up to go out into the harsh, hot fields to pick broccoli, something quickly observed by Montano’s eldest son Benjamin (Lakin Valdez), who fully appreciates those moments when Thelma bends over to tend the crops.

With Thelma stuck in an arranged engagement to the well-heeled American-born Calvin Sakamoto (Scott Keui Takeda, who delivers the play’s best and most memorable performance), sparks are bound to fly and, in true Romeo and Juliet/Tony and Maria fashion, fly they do—leaving the senior Yamaguchi fiercely determined to break off the young lovers’ frequent trysts behind the woodpile even as he appreciates the hardworking young man’s work ethic which results in him reluctantly promoting the kid to become his foreman.

This is where the story takes on something alien to its more infamous predecessors, when the bombing of Pearl Harbor sends the senior Yamaguchi off to Louisiana to be held for an agonizingly long period in FBI custody and his once-comfortable family to be evicted from their farm and transferred to the detention camp in Wyoming. When Thelma leaves for the camp, however, it is with a bun in the oven—and of course the kid ain’t Calvin’s.

Unfortunately, there’s another culture clash that hangs over Valley of the Heart and often leaves it feeling rudimentary and basically unfinished. Despite the exceptionally slick production values available to and implemented by the venerable Center Theatre Group, there’s a clash between those spectacular theatrical appointments added by Iacovelli’s sets, Murakami’s projections, Valdez’ costumes, Pablo Santiago’s lighting, and Phillip G. Allen’s sound design, and the simple folksy nature of the material itself.

Although the circumstances energizing Valdez’ script are uncomfortably close to the recent George Takei-led musical Allegiance—including a prologue mumbled by an ancient survivor of our country’s dastardly Japanese-American camps, a classic racially star-crossed love affair, a pair of wartime deaths predictable in about the first 10 minutes of the play, and even a character who defies the government and meets the same fate as Calvin Sakamoto does here—and considering the fact that the playwright’s staging is always inventive and celebratory, there’s also a feeling, especially considering the glaringly uneven performances delivered by the ensemble cast, that leaves the piece feeling as though it might still be more successful being performed in the back of one of those aforementioned flatbeds in the middle of a field in Delano.

Still, there much to offer from Valley of the Heart, including an urgently important lesson in the treatment of immigrants that should be watched by every member of the Orange Nightmare’s current ever-fluctuating cast of soulless minions. Each of them, including their ignorant and mentally-unstable leader, should be strapped into a seat in the front row of the Taper with their heads tightly secured in the early steampunkian apparatus used to hold that droogie Alex’ eyelids open as Dr. Brodsky attempted the Ludovico Technique.

Maybe then they’d have a change of heart… no wait, that’s a human trait, isn’t it?

THROUGH DEC. 9: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

COST OF LIVING 

Photos by Geoffrey Wade

Fountain Theatre

Although a four-part Angels in America-like epic could be written these days about the cost of living, Martyna Majok’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cost of Living, now in its west coast premiere at the Fountain, is about so much more.

The Pulitzer committee each year searches for works written by American playwrights that help define who we are and deal with some aspect of life in our country and in our time. One long neglected area of inclusion in the arts in general has always been people with disabilities, something that Majok has addressed head-on in her brilliant exploration into the parallel yet never intersecting lives of two people with disabilities—not “differently abled” people, a term one of the characters warns his potential caregiver not to evoke as being “fucking retarded.”

Recovering from a horrific car accident, Ani, played by Katy Sullivan, who originated the role at the Williamstown Festival before winning the Theatre League Award last year when the play transferred off-Broadway to Manhattan Theatre Club, is a double above-the-knee amputee. It’s a new and difficult challenge that has not tempered Ani’s salty, obscenity-laden speech nor made her happier to be stalked by her ex Eddie (Felix Solis), who insists his fervent desire to help her while she convalesces is based on his enduring love, not a sense of guilt or the fact that he is out of work.

In another part of the forest—no, actually New Jersey—a spoiled and well-heeled Princeton grad student with cerebral palsy named John, played by noted quadriplegic actor Tobias Forrest, so memorable in his LA stage debut in John Belluso’s Pyretown several years ago for Playwrights’ Arena, interviews Jess (Xochitl Romero) to work for him, never once asking for anything that even remotely hints of sympathy as he firmly lists her duties, which include bathing him and dealing with the most personal of his needs.

All four actors are supurb and Majok’s dialogue is equally as tough and hard and relentless as they are, yet her genius for bluecollar drama is continuously underscored by a lyricism and a poetic quality that makes her play, indelibly aided by the Fountain’s usual impressively loving and beautifully designed production values and director John Vreeke’s sturdy, literally in-your-face staging, an instant classic.

After an amazing opening monologue from Solis as Eddie sits in a Brooklyn bar unloading on an unseen stranger he keeps buying drinks to insure the guy will let him rattle on, the first full-stage visual in Cost of Living is the introduction of Ani. When Sullivan, herself a double-amputee, suddenly appears onstage in her motorized wheelchair with her missing legs and her pants ending at the knee, the sight is at first a little jarring—not that it should be, just that it’s so rare to see a disabled person cast in a play.

Still, never does Majok write Ani as a stereotype. Not for a minute is she to be looked upon as lesser than anyone else, something deeply ingrained in Sullivan’s arresting, no-holds-barred performance that deserves all the many honors the actress has received. Ani’s accident is only a subplot to the relationship the character shares with her ex, a union which was obviously troubled long before she was injured.

Forrest’s entrance is also something that initially feels almost uncomfortable to observe as John struggles with his often uncontrollable physicality while putting up a front to impress his possible new employee. As with Sullivan’s, it’s a first reaction his remarkably confident performance quickly puts at ease for the viewer—and a good thing, too, as soon Tom Buderwitz’ sparsely utilitarian but cleverly and unexpectedly versatile set morphs to unveil a tiled shower stall complete with running water. As we sit watching Romero strip, transfer, soap, and wash the naked and bravely selfless Forrest, it doesn’t take long to get the point: there is not much difference between any of us despite our perceived differences.

Ultimately, it becomes clear here these differences are all physical, as the true message of Cost of Living begins to emerge: that of the desperate need each of us share for human contact and how desperately we fight to avoid it as our pride and insecurities conspire to shoot each of us in the foot. It’s a message I myself have learned only too well the last six of my 72 years careening clumsily around this conflicted planet of ours and I hope Cost of Living helps others who deserve to not have to wait as long as I did to realize it.

As Jess tells Eddie when, near the end the play, Martyna Majok’s two separate storylines briefly intersect in a kind of cathartic epilogue, “It’s just a shame that some people have lived a lot of life before they meet some people.”

THROUGH DEC. 16: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or www.fountaintheatre.com

STEAMBATH 

Photo by Enci Box

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

A purgatory spent in a spa-like steam room being served ice cream sundaes and popcorn while watching a screen with the day’s stock market results—or checking out a young nubile honey showering in the buff nearby—isn’t exactly what the group of strangers inhabiting Bruce Jay Friedman’s notoriously controversial 1970 comedy Steambath expected of the death experience. Instead, what was anticipated was to be forced to spend every day in a Holiday Inn watching Lassie reruns on an endless loop.

Then again, who expected God to be a Puerto Rican bathhouse attendant named Morty (Paul Rodriguez) wet-mopping the tile floor as he tells his computerized assistant who to pull the plug on next in the most sadistic manner his Freddy Kreuger-esque imagination can conjure?

It’s all too much for the recently deceased Tandy (Jeff LeBeau), whose life was going so well after retiring from teaching Art Appreciation at the Police Academy. He’s just not ready to die right now when he’s finally on a roll, finishing his book about Charlemagne and busy volunteering to give aid and comfort to brain-damaged welders. Tandy demands to talk to someone about what’s happening to him, but he wants that somebody to be a Walter Pidgeon or an E.G. Marshall, not the streetwise and slang-popping homey like Morty.

Almost a half-century ago when Steambath first debuted off-Broadway at the late-lamented Truck and Warehouse, I remember thinking how brazenly provocative it was, Friedman gratefully not having to pay attention to the many people of various ethnicities and lifestyles—and those organizations determined to protect them at the cost of any semblance of a sense of humor—who could be offended in those blissfully non-PC earlier days. Today, if someone wrote lines about how no one sweats like the Polish or referred to the steam room’s two uber-swishy gay residents as “fags,” the picket signs would be clogging Sepulveda Boulevard before every show.

Of course, Steambath is now a classic, so the Odyssey’s current revival, directed by their venerable groundbreaking founder/artistic director Ron Sossi, automatically gets a pass for its inappropriate content. Still, that boost is also a double-edged sword since in 2018, beyond the aforementioned ethnic jabs, there’s not much controversial content left to find shocking; we’ve all heard worse on basic cable. Not only that, but unless you’re rather long-in-tooth, continuous references to things such as Morty threatening to use his powers to cancel Laugh-In or one of the older characters remembering drooling for a chance to see an eighth-inch of Ann Rutherford’s inner thigh or grumbling that Dennis Hopper is no substitute for Linda Darnell and George Brent, might simply go over your head.

When it was originally presented, Friedman’s brazenly sharp-edged and then considered obscene humor camouflaged his play’s rather slim premise—inspired by a food poisoning incident contracted at a Manhattan Chinese restaurant—that these typically dysfunctional humans continue to obsess about the same petty crap that they obsessed over before Biting the Big One. In this revival, the play’s shortcomings are glaringly revealed by the passage of time, since it was written before the slings and arrows of our own daily lives as our world spins off to oblivion became so insurrmountable, something accentuated further by the characters’ lack of community.

Although Hector Elizondo won both fame and an Obie for his performance, Rodriguez basically plays Rodriguez without much concern for giving a performance beyond delivering his usual solo stand-up schtick. Except for one feeble slightly-less dated crack about Monica Lewinsky as he wipes whipped cream from his upper lip (“That’s a joke from the future,” he adlibs, although Bill’s Oval Office dalliance is itself already 20-plus years old), there’s not much new here, so if you attend from now through Nov. 16 while Peter Pasco plays the role until Rodriguez returns from a hiatus entertaining our troops in Korea and Japan, I suspect you won’t really be missing much.

The supporting cast is slick and gamely supportive, all willing to lose their towels despite the ravages of time, but except for DJ Kemp and Devan Schoelen as the gay guys who fulfilled a suicide pact when they were both dumped by the same suitor, a swing dancer in the national tour of Gypsy, and the delightfully curmudgeonly Robert Lesser as Beiberman, who could out-finkel Fyvesh Finkel, most everyone else seems to be doing their own one-man show without much depth or urgency, especially considering the disturbing situation they are all stuck experiencing together.

Oddly enough, despite the lack of shock value which once energized Steambath and made it almost historic, in another way it is here surprisingly sanitized. When the original production was filmed for Hollywood Television Theatre in 1973, only 24 of PBS’ affiliates would agree to air it, mostly due to the one thing that made the presentation so infamous. It was in that broadcast that my dear friend of my cradle days Valerie Perrine, fresh off the success of her film debut as Montana in Slaughterhouse Five and her most memorable spread in Playboy, became the first actress in history to appear nude on American television. As Valerie once cheerfully bragged, she was gifted with the “most famous nipples of the 1970s.”

In recreating that moment in this revival, Shelby Lauren Barry as the bimbo-brained Meredith does indeed drop her robe to shower onstage, but the scene is obliterated with such a thick blast of smoke effects that the lady seated next to us fled the theatre through the fog never to return, coughing and sputtering and waving her hands frantically in front of her face as she exited directly in front of Barry cheerfully humming as she (presumably) rinsed off.

For Steambath to succeed in the era of Trump, #METOO, Samantha Bee, caravans from Guatemala, midterm elections, and imminent global devastation from climate change, it needs something new and fresh and inventive to make it work again. Sossi’s skillfully realized production, although certainly reverent to the original, is done in by the world in which we exist today.

THROUGH DEC. 16: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. 310.477.2055 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com

CLEO, THEO & WU 

Photo by Karianne Flaathen

Theatre of NOTE

In real life, Kirsten Vangsness, Criminal Mind’s resident computer geek Penelope Garcia, is almost as eccentric as the character she has made famous—and that’s lucky for us.

Last year, Vangsness brought her prodigiously personal solo piece Mess to Theatre of NOTE, the bravely off-the-wall Hollywood theatre company she refers to as “Mother NOTE” since she has been loyal to the company for years and admits it was within its tiny but sturdy black-painted brick walls where her talents grew and prospered. With that first memorably in-your-face assault to the senses, Vangsness exposed herself to be far more than one of the best and most fearless actors drudging away in our fair-weathery industry town; she proved she is also a truly unfiltered storyteller who forces her viewers to hold onto the handrails and be ready for quite a ride.

Mess was inspired by a TED Talk called “Making Sense of a Visible Quantum Object” by Aaron O’Connell, which questioned and challenged whether or not time is indeed a linear concept. As if waking from a particularly disturbing dream, Vangsness raced back and forth at time-warping speed through various periods in her own life past, present, and future—a concept she takes from solo performance piece into ensemble territory with her newest madhatter of a creation, Cleo, Theo & Wu.

Directed by the formidable Lisa Dring and again gracing the accepting Theatre of NOTE space in its world premiere, C,T&W also germinated from something the writer studied, a 12-hour lecture on ancient history in Audible.com’s Great Courses series. Vangsness became “struck by how unstuck” she was that the significant women of times past took a clear backseat to their male counterparts in the written evolution of our human condition. At first, she says, just the names “Cleo, Theo and Wu” clanged on endless repeat in her head, but it wasn’t long before her thoughts were whispering to her at night and forcing her to pull over her car or stop making dinner to scribble down what would soon turn into her newest play.

These scribblings grew into an entity with which to be reckoned, leading Vangsness to the logical place for her to make sense of them: Theatre of NOTE. Debuting before a live audience for the first time, the compulsive thoughts shooting from Vangsness’ fertile and often poetic brain were workshopped to be performed by a cast of 13, including Tamara Perry and Jennifer Flack as two oppositely-opinionated Cleopatras, Cat Chengery as Theodora, and Hiwa Chow Elms as China’s Tang and Zhou dynasty concubine-turned-sovereign Empress Wu Zetian.

Of course, this quest for righting some tilting ancient windmills once turned by remarkable female rulers could not possibly stop there in the many-cylindered chambers tucked into the deepest crevices of their mentor’s volcanic mind. As these important women Vangsness has conjured are joined by others from various times past to plead their case for how they really influenced our history and went far beyond being labelled as the extravagantly self-absorbed vixens who used their sexual treasures to obtain their power, the playwright appears as her dragged-about presentday alter-ego Lucy, who then is subsequently visited by an oft-confused space alien named Glock (the always droll Joel Scher, who could one day play every Clifton Webb role ever written) and his bizarre band of brothers who fall somewhere between android and robot.

For me, I have to say it was more impressive in Mess to see Vangsness out there all alone, playing every character and assaying every voice, whereas this time, the addition of other actors, albeit all completely committed actors without a hint of inhibition as they follow their leader’s vision—as well as obviously having a great fun time doing it—is less a complete success. Still, C,T&W is a colossal effort, sure to knock your socks off if you’ve never before been privy to the sheer voracity and unquenchable spirit of Vangsness’ gifts, not to mention her willingness to put everything exploding the synapses of her obviously overworked brain out there for all to contemplate.

As she did when she began her odyssey of discovery that first time out, Vangsness once again spills out this chapter of her evolving journey with manic energy, her fingers splayed out vertically before her like she’s nursing a drying manicure and her signature quirky body language resembling a kid in water wings floating for the very first time. If you’ve never seen her do all this in person before or if you’ve never heard the quirky wonder of her often profound, often hilarious continuing observations on life, Cleo, Theo & Wu is definitely worth your time.

Look up the term “force of nature” in the dictionary. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the entry includes a photograph of Kirsten Vangsness.

THROUGH DEC. 8: Theatre of NOTE, 1617 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. 323.856.8611 or www.theatreofnote.com

THE LITTLE FOXES 

Photo by Geoffrey Wade

Antaeus Theatre Company 

Timely, much?

In Antaeus Theatre’s gorgeously appointed revival of the too-long overlooked 1939 masterpiece The Little Foxes, one of the greatest works written by the also too-long overlooked Lillian Hellman, the great playwright’s observation, so much of it dredged up from her own personal experience, is even more of a warning than ever before in the world in which we live today.

As the Hubbard family’s long-suffering maid and former slave Addie (Judy Louise Johnson) observes watching the events of the period drama beyond her control unfold around her, “There are people who ate the earth… and there are people who sat around and watched them eat it.” Could this possibly be more of an urgent message than it is right now, some 80 years later, as boldly-hewn greed and a race for power “trump” any possible societal civility as our poor bruised country gears for the most important midterm election in our long and storied history?

Suggested by her friend Dorothy Parker, Hellman’s title was lifted from “The Song of Solomon” in the King James version of the Bible: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.” See, the Hubbards, simply put, are total shits—and there’s no way any little fox or any other living creature would not be in grave danger while trying to survive their sugar-coated Southern charms hiding their dastardly agenda lurching just under their fine ports and voluminous lace. These people, quickly soaring to elitist fatcat status at the expense of all others in the post-war reconstructionist era of the Deep South, eat their grapes by the fistful.

Set in a small town in Alabama at the turn of the 20th-century, it doesn’t take long to realize that, although it’s said blood is thicker than water, when it comes to money and social position, these people would cut one another’s throats in a heartbeat—and in the course of the play’s three quickly-moving acts, they practically do.

LA theatrical royalty Deborah Puette leads the Hubbard pack as Regina Hubbard Giddens, she possessed of the sharpest of knives. Regina remains one of the juiciest and most female coveted roles into which any eager actor would love to sink their canines. Originated on Broadway by Tallulah Bankhead and in William Wyler’s 1941 film version by Bette Davis, Puette brings something new and ominous to the task, a less concealed coldness and nastiness that makes the character even more frightening than ever.

As her equally ruthless brother Oscar, Rob Nagle, who is quickly becoming the go-to resident Simon Lagree for any play produced in LA over the last few years, is once again so delightfully creepy he could almost twirl a handlebar moustache and get away with it, while Mike McShane holds his own splendidly working against the formidable Puette and Nagle as the third Hubbard sibling Ben. As this horrific triumvirate, each of whom would bury anybody in their path while careening forward on their breakneck quest for wealth, these three powerful actors should win one special collective award for performance, bouncing off one another with a palpable electricity and a creative bravery seldom seen even when assaying the senior members of the Hubbard clan.

As with anything produced by Antaeus, this revival is stunningly appointed, with a gloriously evocative set by John Iocovelli and incredibly rich costuming designed by Terri A. Lewis, who singlehandedly built all of Puette’s gowns especially for this production. Of course, none of this could possibly work without the uncanny eye of director Cameron Watson, who leads a stellar supporting cast to conjure the Hubbards’ home and lifestyle—and perfumed evildoing—with consummate skill.

Not that anyone else in this cast is off somewhere hiding amongst the magnolia blossoms; this is truly a dream ensemble for any director to mold and polish. Calvin Picou is wonderfully unlikable as Oscar’s dimwitted disappointment of a son Leo, the only person here unable to hide his well-bred roguery, while both Johnson and William L. Warren are perfect as the family’s stomped-upon servants bullied into submission.

John DeMita and Kristin Couture are excellent as Regina’s badly manipulated husband and daughter, while Timothy Adam Venable takes the brief and rather unchallenging role of Chicago industrialist William Marshall and makes it his own. And last but hardly least, as Oscar’s timid and abused alcoholic wife Birdie, Jocelyn Towne gives a tour de force performance, particularly moving near the end when she confesses what a nightmare her life has been in a warning to her niece not to let the same fate befall her.

Beyond all the world-class Antaeusian accoutrement delivered in this smart and sumptuous production, what lingers the most after the final curtain descends is the classic script by Hellman, who so clearly understood the Southern mentality and, despite the political incorrectness of exposing it, more importantly saw the dangers of not calling it out. The playwright spent half her childhood at her two maiden aunts’ boarding house in New Orleans—in a room where I have myself have stayed during one excursion there where I hoped some of her genius would rub off on me—and the other half with her mother’s wealthy family in New York.

Hellman, once heralded as our greatest female playwright before ironically being blacklisted and basically buried by Joseph McCarthy and his savagely destructive committee, was determined in her career to chronicle her family’s whispered tales of the death of the Gilded Age and the advent of the Progressive Era, as well as the explosion of industrialization, urbanization, and freemarket capitalism. These issues were all too familiar to her, to the point where she approached her Aunt Florence at intermission when The Little Foxes first debuted on Broadway and asked, “Well, do you recognize your relatives?”

Still, just as Chekhov, Ibsen, and O’Neill before her tried so valiantly to depict how monumentally we as a species continuously mess things up for ourselves, nothing ever seems to result from their cautionary admonitions. At one point, Cal (Williams) talks to Oscar about his boss’ passion for hunting, commenting that he bet he shot enough bobcats and squirrels to give “every n****r in town a Jesus party.” Oscar, with a daggered look from Mr. Nagle that could wither a rose in bloom, immediately snaps back, “Cal, if I catch a n****r in this town goin’ shootin’, you know what’s gonna happen." Beyond the tender grapes they grumbled were spoiling the vines back then, strange fruit still swung from Southern trees on a regular basis in 1900.

In the same week The Little Foxes debuted at Antaeus, a beautiful friend and neighbor walking down the street here in Hollywood was twice called that same odious “n”-word in two separate random incidents—in Hollywood, folks, not Alabama, not Kentucky. In Hollywood, California.

We all know who has emboldened this kind of vile behavior in our country today and the actions and beliefs of this "leader" of the free world could make the horrible Hubbards look like members of the Von Trapp family. Hellman and her contemporaries warned us so long ago, but who would have ever thought such feelings would belch out into the open after the 2016 election.

See The Little Foxes and be amazed, be entertained, be forewarned, but above all, damn it, although I may be preaching to the choir here, let it inspire you to cast your vote for the return of decency and compassion on Nov. 6 or I’m afraid America will never, ever be the same. Listen to the words of the Hubbards’ wise servant Addie: Don’t sit around and helplessly watch the earth be eaten around us.

THROUGH DEC. 10: Antaeus Theatre Company, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale. 818.506.1983 or www.Antaeus.org

DEAR EVAN HANSEN 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Ahmanson Theatre / Segerstrom Center

I did know there had to have been a good reason why Dear Evan Hansen was nominated for nine Tony Awards in 2016 and won six, including Best Musical and Best Score. For some reason, it stayed off my radar despite my lingering curiosity, but I’ve gotta tell ya: when Peter Marks of the Washington Post referred to the production’s pre-Broadway run at D.C.’s Arena Stage as “one of the most remarkable shows in musical theater history,” he wasn’t just being grandiose.

With a wonderfully insightful and intelligent book by Steven Levenson and a breathtaking score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dogfight, A Christmas Story: the Musical, The Greatest Showman, and the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning composers of La La Land), to simply say experiencing Dear Evan Hansen provides an amazing journey of the heart and soul is a terrible understatement. I have been involved in musical theatre since I first got hooked singing about carrots and per’taters in a tour of Oklahoma! at age 6 and I can truly say without a puff on my omnipresent peacepipe that DEH, as its creators call it, immediately goes directly into my personal top ten list of my favorite musicals of all time.

Poor nerdy 17-year-old Evan (LA’s own Ben Levi Ross, the heart and soul of this production) is grappling with extreme and well-medicated anxiety issues as he struggles through high school, so painfully shy he often goes hungry rather than order dinner for himself at home—even online, as he’d have to deal with delivery people and the awkward silence that inevitably ensues while the driver counts out his change.

Evan’s mother Heidi (the also dynamic Jessica Phillips) is struggling as well, trying to raise a difficult kid on her own while holding down a grueling job at a hospital where layoffs are becoming all too frequent and also taking classes to better her situation as a single parent by becoming a paralegal. She agonizes that she has so little time with her son, overcompensating for her prolonged absences from their home by printing out scholarship writing contests that might enable Evan to go to college.

The lonely Evan’s therapist suggests he create letters addressed to himself between visits explaining his feelings, since the boy is a far better writer than a conversationalist. At school, where he exists in a perpetual state of staring at the pavement and hanging his head low so he won’t have to interact with anyone else, he prints out one of those letters in the computer lab. When his letter is commandeered by a miserable, perpetually angry goth student named Connor (Marrick Smith), creeped out because it mentions Evan’s massive crush on his sister Zoey (Maggie McKenna), Evan is mortified.

His mortification turns to horror when he several days later he is called into the principal’s office and is met by Connor’s parents (Aaron Lazar and Jekyll and Hyde’s memorable Christiane Noll) with his letter in hand and demanding an explanation. Beginning as instructed by his therapist with “Dear Evan Hansen,” the Murphys believe Connor actually was the one who wrote the letter to him and that their uncommunicative and troubled offspring actually had a secret friend about whom they knew nothing. This is important to them not only because Connor never seemed to have friends, but because the day before they discovered the letter in his jacket pocket, the kid had taken his own life.

With the help of his sarcastic “family friend” Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith), Evan creates a whole story behind the friendship that never was in a series of fake emails an effort to help the family heal—and get to know Zoey, the object of his teenaged worship, a little better. The lie compounds into other lies until soon, the Murphys start treating him as if he’s their son, Zoey puts out for her brother’s bestie, and Evan is forced to give a dreaded speech about his lost “friend” at a school memorial for Connor organized by his fellow outcast classmate Alana (Phoebe Koyabe).

His speech begins with Evan painfully stammering and stuttering as he fumbles through a jumble of 3 x 5 index cards held in front of his face, but then quickly goes viral on social media when he breaks down during the talk and ends up delivering an impassioned plea for acceptance that reaches all angst-ridden marginalized teenagers everywhere. Some $50,000 is subsequently raised to take an abandoned apple orchard he has fabricated into the place where he and Connor would meet, turning it into a community park called the Connor Murphy Memorial Gardens.

Of course, Evan’s elaborate fantasy has to unravel or there would be no story and so it does—bigtime. The results are emotionally catastrophic for both the kid and the Ahmanson’s by-now sobbing sea of audience members dreading the inevitable as they watch Evan’s new happy, finally fulfilled, xanax-free world crumble. Still, as Kleenex-inducing as all this is and as somber and serious are the themes of teenaged alienation and suicide may be, Levenson’s brilliant book is anything but a downer; it is somehow uplifting and, honestly, often hilariously funny in a skewed bedside humor kinda way.

And as perfect as director Michael Greif’s staging proves to be and as impressive as is the work of the production’s top-drawer design team, there’s no conceivable way Dear Evan Hansen could possibly succeed without two things: a knockout young actor as incredibly charismatic as Ross—who gives the musical theatre performance of the year in LA—and the indelible, sweeping, incredibly complex and evocative score by Pasek and Paul that is simply one for the ages.

Though Ross never leaves the stage for a moment (so exhausting it explains why Stephen Christopher Anthony plays the role four times a week), the supporting cast is uniformly magnificent, each possessed of a voice that could individually rock any concert stage in the world. Ross is especially exciting early on in the musical with his showstopping solo “For Forever,” which generated so much response from the audience the show had to halt for a spell while the clapping subsided, while Phillips’ heartbreaking eleventh-hour ballad “So Big/So Small” later challenged it on the applause meter. My personal favorite number, however, is “Just Us,” the gossamer, haunting duet expressing the blossoming romance between Evan and Zoey which just might become my favorite love song ever.

It was interesting to see how liberally the usual opening night Ahmanson audience was peppered with teenaged boys accompanying one parent or the other. After seeing it all unfold, I assume the reason for this influx of youthful testosterone was due to people familiar with the production’s history and acclaim who have read that, although dealing with serious issues so vitally important to young people as our country and world gets booted into the shitcan of history, they are handled not only with grace but with a joyful and positive this-too-shall-pass message.

Dear Evan Hansen offers the kind of message capable of changing a life if heard at a time such as this, a time when it’s so desperately needed to help encourage and empower the children of today and aid in the survival of this next generation sure to soon to be challenged in ways we cannot possibly imagine.

THROUGH NOV. 25: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

DEC. 5 - 30: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. 415.358.1220 or www.sfcurran.com

JAN. 1 - 16: Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org

JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN 

Photo by Ashley Randall

Actors Gang Theatre

In 1917, that historic yankee doodle dandy George M. Cohan wrote the patriotic song “Over There” in an effort to energize every young American “Son of Liberty” to enlist in the war effort and ship out to fight and possibly die in World War I.

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun...

In 1938, then unknown screenwriter Dalton Trumbo wrote a courageously anti-war novel riffing on that lyric and dealing with a young man who did just that, making his “Daddy glad to have had such a lad” by fighting for his country’s honor. But the story’s proud hero Joe returns stateside seriously disabled in a bomb attack: blind, deaf, without arms or legs, and even without a mouth and nose.

Take it on the run, on the run, on the run...

Trumbo’s risky book was Johnny Got His Gun and surprisingly, in the very midst of all the usual hysterically blatant mid-war propaganda, the author was suitably shocked to learn he had received the National Book Award for the Most Original Book of 1939.

Of course, Trumbo went on to be a successful screenwriter until 1947, when that vile pre-Trumpian witchhunter Senator Joseph McCarthy and his destructive House Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted him for life from working in the motion picture industry. As one of the infamous Hollywood Ten, Trumbo had refused to answer questions about the infiltration of communist sympathizers in the business and, as happened to so many of our most gifted filmmakers, actors, and screenwriters, his honorable dissidence cost him his career.

Trumbo was a fighter, however, and continued to work writing films under other writers’ names and pseudonyms. While in professional hiding, he managed to win two Academy Awards for the screenplays for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, neither of which he was free to accept. It wasn’t until 1960 when Trumbo was officially and openly credited for his award-winning scripts for both Exodus and Spartacus that his exile came to an end and, in 1971, he further pushed the boundaries by directing and adapting his novel Johnny Got His Gun into a very controversial—and very disturbing—feature film.

Send the word, send the word over there...

It was an intentionally difficult film to sit through, with Timothy Bottoms as Joe basically lying in a bed for the entire film except for flashbacks, statically shot from above his bed as he remained motionless covered in bandages. His omnipresent voiceover acknowledged the pain and horror he felt as he remained locked in the prison of his broken body, completely unable to move or communicate or inform his family and girl back home he was still alive.

Not even allowed to be wheeled outside into the warm sunlight because of “regulations”—in other words, to save the government from letting the world see one of their most glaringly horrific mistakes—Joe’s cautionary journey invigorated Trumbo’s claustrophobic masterpiece by providing a powerful message about the horrors and inhumanities of war.

Make you mother proud of you...

And the old red, white, and blue...

In the early 1980s, Bradley Rand Smith adapted Johnny again, this time as a solo piece for the stage, the off-Broadway premiere of which at Circle Rep won Jeff Daniels an Obie for his performance. Having seen this version performed once long ago, what I remember most is it seemed like a memorized recitation of the great novel; maybe with Daniels as Joe, I might have found the experience more inspiring.

Enter Tim Robbins stage-left (no pun intended), who luckily has a tendency to inspire like gangbusters (ditto). Robbins is a guy who doesn’t let his fame or his Oscar or his continuously busy Hollywood career stop him from tirelessly creating incredibly evocative theatrical magic at the Actors’ Gang Theatre in Venice, the prolific company he founded 37 years ago.

After scheduling what was sure to be a brilliant reinvention of Giraudoux’s classic The Madwoman of Chaillot as the Gang’s fall production with Tim at its helm as director, coming across the script for Smith’s stage adaptation of Trumbo’s disturbing but masterful screenplay caught his eye and stayed with him until the first choice was scrapped. The madwoman returned to Chaillot for awhile and Johnny is now her quintessential replacement.

Anyone with a history of appreciating past productions at the Gang will be able to see Robbins’ signature touch all over this production. His first spark of vision? Taking the character’s solo status away and adding a dynamic, tightly rehearsed ensemble of eight gifted veteran actors to join and continuously surround the one actor playing the “primary” Joe (a Herculean turn by the splendid Nathan Woodworth), movingly evoking his inner-voices, his alter-ego, his bittersweet memories of the cherished people in his life.

As with Robbins’ indelible workshop-spawned The New Colossus earlier this year, on the Gang’s starkly bare reclaimed municipal substation’s cavernous playing space, actors move as one collective interrelated entity, sprinting from one side of the stage to the other or running in tightly structured Evita-esque circles around Joe, haunting his dreams of those lost days when he himself could move and communicate with the world outside his nightmarish physical condition.

Hoist the flag and let her fly…

Yankee Doodle do or die...

Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit...

First considering Robbins’ well-known and most admirable predilection for candidly outspoken political activism, with our current greedy and abhorrently bloodthirsty regime hopefully about to get trounced in the mid-term elections, this mounting could not have more timely, even if most of the dedicated patrons who attend and savor productions at the Gang are surely part of that choir we all hear people are frustrated preaching to.

Since its ancient beginnings, theatre has always tested the established mandates trying to cattle-prod us all off into our individual stalls just before the final solution that will eventually makes us all obsolete but hopefully, as committed artists, our efforts to shout out our refusal to accept the inequities of the status quo during our fragile tenure on this planet will live after we’re all gone.

Here them calling you and me, every son of liberty...

That’s what creating art is truly all about, not fame or fortune or awards, living proof of which surely our Mr. Robbins is the ultimate posterchild. Theatrical expression was always a risky artform for anyone with an alternate point of view to attempt, once germinated in public squares and makeshift outdoor stages many centuries ago while warily looking out for the monarch’s soldiers poised to take them off to the stocks. That practice lives on at the Actors’ Gang with enormous respect and gratitude for the effort going to Tim Robbins.

See, not only is Johnny Got His Gun a plea to resist the long-protested immoral horrors of war, it also explores the indomitable spirit of our human species as Joe conjures new ways to keep himself from going mad, relying on everything from his happy memories to doing math problems in his head to keep sane.

It’s a lesson for us all as we wake each day unable to understand what is being allowed to happen around us. And most of us lucky ones, thank Terpsichore, still have our power to speak out—not to mention vote our displeasure for being railroaded by an abhorrent stable genius with a genetic instinct for science determined to destroy the beautiful world around us.

So prepare, say a prayer...

Send the word, send the word to beware...

THROUGH NOV. 14: Actors’ Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Venice. 310.838.4264 or theactorsgang.com

 SELL/BUY/DATE 

Photo by Chris Whitaker

Renberg Theatre, Los Angeles LGBT Center

After a highly acclaimed run earlier this year at the Geffen, Sarah Jones has transported her latest amazing solo piece Sell/Buy/Date to the Renberg at the Los Angeles LGBT Center—and it could not be more timely.

Presented under the sponsorship of the Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center, with opening night festivities hosted by Tomlin, Laverne Cox, and Rashida Jones, net proceeds from Sell/Buy/Date benefit the Center’s many admirable causes, including programs for homeless youth and seniors, the latter something my friend from our cradle days Lily admitted was particularly dear to her heart. As one of Jones’ less-PC characters conjured during the show gushes, “I totally believe in causes and all that stuff.”

The Tony-winning Jones’ work goes way beyond raising funds for the worthiest of causes and all that stuff, however. She instantly elevates the genre of one-person shows showcasing their creators’ talent to a heroic level, launching her unique performance art into George Carlin strata with a gentle jab of social protest peeking through her signature talent and humor.

Set in the future, Jones’ Sell/Buy/Date envisions a future that, among other dubiously intentioned innovations, is able to play “taped” interviews with people from the past—namely, 2019—with the advent of Bio Empathetic Resonance Technology (BERT).

Under the leadership of director Carolyn Cantor and a slickly professional crack design team, Jones begins her engaging 90-minute performance playing a British sociology professor conducting a seminar on how women waaay back when in the early decades of the 21st century were conditioned to think of themselves as sexual objects, something that tickles the more advanced citizen of the future considerably.

Utilizing the technology of BERT to enable the viewer not only to hear and see the person being grilled but to experience their thoughts and emotions, those being interviewed here are all sex workers and people affected by the sex industry from that “earlier” era, including a character fresh from her feminist pole dancing group to another who admits maybe she likes being a sexual object: “But, like, a powerful object.”

Jones’ script is a strong indictment of our patriarchal society but still, not without its barbs aimed at the other side. It’s not difficult to see where Jones stands, but she makes her points with such intelligence and deliciously biting humor that all attacks to my particular sex are accepted and embraced, all wounds quickly healed by her cleverly peddled insight.

Jones plays a wide range of multicultural types, instantly transforming from one distinctly-accented character to the next with jaw-dropping alacrity—and the results are simply dazzling. Jones is both a tremendously gifted actor and an equally worthy chronicler of the many injustices which dominate our time spinning around this ridiculously inequitable planet where most of our problems stem from those many greedy misogynistic male “leaders” like Dotard Donnie and his soulless zombie minions, the guys who are clearly responsible for all this division.

And just what were those entitled and self-important male shitbirds dominating the early part of the 21st century called anyway, one of the myriad of characters in Sell/Buy/Date asks? Easy answer: “Men.” Of course, receiving the brunt of Jones’ wrath once again makes me wish I personally didn’t fall under the category of mature white male but still, I could not possibly agree with her more about just where the blame should lie.

THROUGH NOV. 18: Renberg Theatre @ LA LGBT Center, 1125 N. McCadden Pl, Hollywood. 323.860.7300 or www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre

SHOWPONY 

Photo by Tim Sullins

Victory Theatre Center

Just when you think you’ve been sufficiently beaten to a pulp with the horrific eye-opening exposure of rampant sexism and inequality in our society just by being subjected to the appalling way women and minorities are being treated by our pig of a President and his soulless minions in the US Senate, Judith Leora’s scathing new comedy Showpony takes off its stiletto heels and tramples the subject of racism and misogyny so deep into the well-traveled boards of the Victory Theatre that there may be permanent potholes in the wood. And the amazing thing is, Leora does so with a refreshingly wise and welcome wit.

In the boardroom of a busy Manhattan ad agency, five women employees gather for a pitch meeting as they wait for their three male counterparts to arrive. As hard as the boss’ saccharine-sweet protégé Tara (Sionne Elise) tries to keep things together in an effort to show the men they can handle a huge corporate campaign on their own, the proceedings keep devolving into exactly what they’re trying to prove they can rise above: a cat fight.

Most of the contention comes from Sam (Lizzy Kimball), who is exactly what one might expect if Patti Smith decided to give up music for a career pitching designer shoes and handbags. Sam, who works only to keep access to her healthy trust fund, seems more interested in egging on her coworkers than developing sales strategies, something that is the most obvious cause of the contention between the ladies—that and the fact that the other three employees forming the sales “team” (Bianca Lemaire, Elle Vernee, and Krystal Roche) are all Africans-Americans recruited into the company when their own smaller firm was bought out by this one.

According to Sam, the new members of the team are only there because the agency wanted access to their clients and the three newbies will soon be sent packing despite the company’s promises to employ them permanently. As they impatiently wait for their boss Walker (Marshall McCabe) and their two delayed male teammates to join them, Sam scratches more open wounds than a kindergartener in a patch of poison ivy, from the racism and sexism inherent in the corporate world to the fact she is pissed that the team’s resident Barbie doll Tara is poised for promotion just because she’s boldly ambitious, wears short skirts, and obediently makes coffee for her mentor Walker—you know, just like a thoroughbred show pony.

As the coworkers destroy one another with a ruthlessness something akin to Glengarry Glen Ross meets The Women, the Victory’s tireless co-artistic director and founder Tom Ormeny directs the fine female ensemble with precise yet subtle comedic skill and a shrewd eye for accentuating dramatic tension utilizing the borderline broadness of the script. By first act curtain, as the sophistication and civility of the group has unraveled into a less than professional free-for-all, how anything could top what Leora has conjured is hard to imagine.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t—quite. Act Two, which takes place in Walker’s Miami hotel room during a conference, is still bitingly funny but never packs the punch or sense of engagement generated in the first half. The women are still feisty and combative enough to make Jeanne d’Arc put down her banner and listen to their voices instead of her own, but the tale becomes too predictable as protagonist duties switch to McCabe as the agency’s put-upon boss--and since he begins the act equally as frustrated and full of “Fucks!” as at the otherwise satisfying conclusion, never are we given reason to care much about what happens to him.

Whether it be the fault of the playwright or the actor, the role of poor, stereotypically insensitive, knuckle-dragging male Walker is not anywhere near as well-developed as Leora’s female counterparts and this lack of a satisfying character arc for him is something that makes us wish we were back in the boardroom watching the ladies shred one another with as much vicious professionalism as before.

Still, this is a wonderfully insightful play that helps balance the gender-lopsided scales of corporate America and makes us hope for a big blue boost in November toward fairness and equality in both the world of business and in our long-hidden racist and chauvinistic society.

Ormeny and the ever-prolific, bravely cutting-edge Victory prove once again to be the quintessential choice to slickly and lovingly present this urgently topical new work and introduce us all to the promise of Judith Leora, a new breed of writer with something important to say and possessed of a unique ability to say it without offending the many people out there who, like the women of Showpony, need to step up and start thinking for themselves. 

THROUGH DEC. 16: Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. 818.841.5421 or www.thevictorycenter.org

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 her—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 DEC. 14: 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.