THE BONEYARD 

TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Pre-COVID 2020 to... ? 

 

NICHOLAS, ANNA & SERGEI from Hershey Felder Presents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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AN OCTOROON at the Fountain Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WAITING from Playwrights' Arena at Atwater Village Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TEVYE IN NEW YORK! at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

At the end of the classic 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof,  as Sholem Aleichem’s beloved milkman Tevye and his family pack up to leave their impoverished little Russian shtetl  under orders from the encroaching ugly specter of Russian Imperialism just after the turn into the 20th century, he is visited by his estranged daughter Chava to say goodbye. Although he refuses to speak to Chava, who has been ousted from the family for the supreme sin of falling in love outside of their faith, Tevye delivers a heartfelt secondhand message through his eldest daughter Tzeitl: “God be with you.”

As we are left with the indelible image of the villagers of Anatevka leaving their troubled but cherished home for the last time, the community’s resident fiddler following them offstage playing suitably melancholy strains of Jerry Bock’s memorable score, one can’t help but contemplate the fate of the world-weary milkman’s scruffy little family and wonder if their rather vindictive and not terribly helpful god has indeed stayed with them—although it doesn’t seem to me that the guy has done much for many of his other followers through the centuries.

In solo show-master Tom Dugan’s world premiere of Tevye in New York!,  now launching the Annenberg Center’s new outdoor patio space in a program they’re calling “Summer @ the Wallis,” it’s seven years since Tevye has brought his family to America to trade the oppression of his homeland for the promise of the American Dream. Still, as gleaned from past experience, he is resigned to the realization that if he “bought a cemetery, people would stop dying," as clearly not much in life has been on the sad little milkman’s side beyond his stubborn optimism.

Unfortunately, the streets of his adopted country were not paved in gold as promised to the immigrants of the day. Five years have passed since he stepped off a boat at Ellis Island and it seems Tevye is still a milkman on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, still struggling to juggle his fiercely strict religious beliefs with his disappointment in life and not dwell on all the hopes and dreams that have continuously passed him by. This appears to be no real deterent for this gruff Pollyanna of a guy, however. As he tells the crowd gathered before him, as long as a Jew “has a breath of life in him, he must go forward.”

It’s Independence Day of 1914, America’s 138th birthday, and Tevye is selling his modest wares from his wooden cart placed along the parade route at Delancey and Orchard. He energetically greets the crowds with as much chutzpah  as he can muster in hopes his daughter’s girlfriend will return from a trip to Ellis Island to welcome more family members with the key to unlock his supply of holiday ice cream. There he spills out the history of his family and their trials, as well as the joy for life which he steadfastly works to be sure never leaves him. He still grumbles, of course, but who would Tevye be without a little persistent grumbling? “If I were a rich man,” he starts to tell us, then he thinks better of it and says, “Oh, never mind.”

Dugan’s script carefully follows Fiddler  as well as its original source material, Aleichem’s well-loved turn-of-the-century stories written in Yiddish called Tevye and his Daughters.  In its inaugural incarnation, the playwright (author of Wiesentahl and Jackie Kennedy Unveiled,  both one-person plays which also played the Wallis) has fashioned an extremely clever and well-researched adaptation full of the same heart and spirit as its predecessors. We learn much about the fate of his ballbreaking but loving wife Golde and his daughters after leaving Russia.

The new material is as heartfelt as the original versions and Tevye, grandly brought to life by its author (who also co-directs with set and costume designer Michael Vale), is as lovable and frustratingly inflexible as ever. Some of the difficulties which continue to bombard him during this 90-minute solo presentation are a tad improbable to all be happening at once, but the play is far too charming and sweet to not ignore how many subplots Dugan has managed to squeeze in.

This amicable suspension of belief is forgivable as we enjoy Dugan’s heartrending performance, impressively kinetic in its staging even though occasionally Tevye seems to be climbing ladders and navigating platforms on Vale’s simple yet evocative barebones scaffolding set strictly for the purpose of utilizing them. The enjoyment of the experience is certainly magnified by the setting, seated comfortably and safely outside in the beautifully reconfigured patio in the shadow of the Wallis’ majestic and historic repurposed Beverly Hills Main Post Office—itself erected in 1933 on the site of the Pacific Electric Railway’s original BevHills station.

As the gentle breezes and cooling night envelope the space, so do the sirens and traffic noise associated with any outdoor space bordering any City Hall, something which seemed to frustrate Mr. Dugan, who would raise a finger and wait for silence with an annoyed glance at Little Santa Monica Boulevard. I instead thought it was a perfect accompaniment to what the city noise might have been on the Lower East Side on the Fourth of July, 1914, albeit without the sounds of modern-day car horns and helicopters. See, to me we’re already here in the middle of theatrical magic being conjured and asked to suspend belief, so I don’t think the natural sound effects from the quickly urbanizing Hills of Beverly do anything but enhance Cricket S. Myers’ redolent sound design.

One thing that kept running through my mind as I watched this inventive updating of the story of the Real Tevye the Dairyman might seem a bizarre reaction, but I kept thinking of the history of the double Tony-winning 2005 musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,  which had its humble beginnings as an improvisational play being performed in a tiny off-Broadway venue by a troupe called The Farm. Playwright Wendy Wasserman serrendipitously came to see her nanny appearing in the production, recommended to noted composer-lyricist William Finn that he should see the show, and the rest is theatrical history.

Sparked by that and considering our time’s rampant series culture in a market that has seen successful sequels of major musicals such as Falsettos, Love Never Dies, Frozen II, and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, I believe the inventive tale spun by Tom Dugan with his Tevye in New York!,  which imagines the fate of and pays homage to Fiddler on the Roof’s  most memorable and endearing characters, could be an inspired candidate for further examination of Sholem Aleichem’s relocated Anatevkaians if one of our many gifted 21st-century composers saw fit to add a musical score.

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BELOVED  as part of the Road Theatre Company's Summer Playwright's Festival 12

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

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

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

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

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Cirque du Soleil's VOLTA at Dodger Stadium

The Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil first came to LA in 1987 when their Cirque Reinvente  made all of our jaws drop to Right About There. Reinvent the traditional circus they did, bigtime. No sawdust, no animals, just worldclass acrobatics, thrilling aerial performances, incredibly grand visuals, and dazzlingly inventive costuming.

Gratefully, the Cirque has once again returned here to the first city they ever played in the US, opening VOLTA, their 15th big top show and 22nd production to hit our shores in the past 33 years since we first obviously made them feel right at home.

Every production created by the Cirque is unique in its own way but VOLTA  is quite a departure from the usual formula for their touring shows. Subtitled as “Find Your Free,” the theme is crystal clear, inspired by urban street sports and BMX stunts as a young man nicknamed Waz (sweetly played by Canadian ballet dancer Joey Arrigo) learns that being different in this judgmental ol’ world of ours is anything but a bad thing.

What is most glaringly different this time out, however, is the austerity of the performance. Although Zaldy Goco’s costumes are just as astounding and colorful (and sexy!) as ever, in general the production is nowhere near as technically dazzling as previous Cirque touring shows. The set is fairly simple, with only one double projection screen visible at the back of the three-sided thrust stage.

The hydraulics are at a minimum and gone are any pyrotechnics or fireworks or set pieces that look like the surface of an alien planet. Instead, the emphasis is on the performances and what these unearthly limber and courageously gravity-defying daredevils are able to accomplish without all the technical augmentation.

Although two people I talked to said they felt VOLTA  was a disappointment as it is too stripped down for a Cirque presentation, I disagree wholeheartedly. It was a treat to see the inhabitants of VOLTA  still create magic without the firepits and elaborate machinery.

Along his journey of self-discovery, Waz is greeted by performers who can accomplish wondrous things, all performed to the atmospheric musical landscape composed by Anthony Gonzalez. His shyness gradually disappears as he sees most of the show’s male performers boast the same wildly spiked blue hair that is the major source of his self-consciousness (although in LA it seems just about right to me).

There of course are favorites. From roller skaters to unicyclists to bungee dancers to rope skippers to people who defy gravity on a trampoline that propel them on and off the very top of an onstage wall, the more typical acts are performed with the usual incredible skill.

There are occasional breaks from Waz’ journey, including Russian clown Andrey Kislitsin dealing with broken washing machines and beach bullies, while Brazil’s Vanessa Ferreira Calado turns yoga into performance art while suspended high above the stage—from her hair.

I particularly loved the emphasis on dance in the performance, including “Arco Lamp,” where Polish aerialist Pawel Walczweski creates gracefully flowing moves hanging from a stained glass lampshade and near the end of the performance when Waz makes his final “Breakthrough,” expressing his new happiness and sense of self-worth in dance.

There are two spectacular acts featuring BMX trickery, the first early on with “Daydreaming,” a solo flatland biking performance from Japan’s Nao Yoshida, and later in VOLTA’s  grand finale, where an entire BMX park is assembled directly in front of the first rows of the audience as a spirited troupe of riders deliver a raucous nonstop display of acrobatics on wheels, crisscrossing one another and spinning their bikes in midair.

Still, for me perhaps the most memorable performance is less fast and furious, as Walczewski, well matched with American gymnast Darrin Trull, join in a graceful homoerotically charged pas de deux  while soaring high above our heads on aerial straps. Their performance, quite reminiscent of Patrick and Johann’s landlocked but equally provocative “Two Men” in the original Zumanity,  rises beyond the predictable as they perhaps evoke the moment when Waz comes of age and embraces his worth as though contemplating his own image in a mirror.

VOLTA  is not one of Cirque du Soleil’s permanent Vegas extravaganzas by any means, devoid of the grandness of the water-themed “O”  or the spectacular pyrotechnics of KA, but it is as fascinating as of any of their permanent productions as it celebrates the unstoppable nature of the human spirit and what our fragile species can accomplish whenever we realize how few limitations we have when we have faith in ourselves.

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AUDIO REVIEW: LATE LAST NIGHT

Daring Sparrow Entertainment

The Buddhists say the biggest changes in the universe occur between the hours of 2 and 4am and indeed, most of the births and deaths in the world happen between those hours. Singer/songwriter Melissa Sullivan admits inspiration indeed does happen for her in the dead of night and considering her debut album is titled Late Last Night, once again the universe seems to have prevailed.

A few centuries ago during the emergence of those ancient now-historic golden days of my generation's cutting-edge music, I was Talent Coordinator for the prolific and revolutionary Troubadour folk-rock nightclubs in LA and San Francisco. There I would regularly get about 90 or 100 submissions each week from unknown musical talent who, against all odds, were desperately seeking to play the Troub, one of the country’s most established venues for discovering and nurturing new talent.

I would hear some incredible tunes and precision musicianship, most of which I had to pass on simply because I could only book so many fledgling artists, who usually were chosen to open for more established stars. What struck me most and always made me stop and listen a second time was someone or some group who brought something new and innovative to the scene, artists who created music that was not only well played but showed me a direction I'd never heard before and was obviously something unique to them alone.

Despite the considerably welcome ducats my unexpected sidetrack of a career lavished upon my youthful desire for champagne wishes and caviar dreams, I ran screaming after 13 breakneck superstoned years in the music business, an entity so ruthless and fickle it even made the old hardhearted Hollywood system seem charitable in comparion. Still, many people who actually remember my early entrepreneurial success continue to come to me with their music to get an opinion.

I especially shudder at this notion when it’s a friend offering their heartfelt and hard come-by wares for me to evaluate but even then, although I discovered and helped some of the world’s greatest and most enduring musical artists achieve success a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I consider myself a more reliable and knowledgeable reviewer of theatre and actors than I am able to knowledgeably offer critiques of musical endeavors.

I knew my generous and extraordinarily talented friend Melissa Sullivan, a longtime colleague at New York Film Academy, was working on an album of her music, but I had never heard her sing despite several invitations over the years to hear her in performance whenever she appeared at various clubs around El Lay and it’s environs. I did know Melissa was the overachieving creator and musical director of NYFA’s uber-prolific extracurricular student-fueled Glee Club and also was aware she is as much of an obsessed Tennessee Williamophile as I am, both of us often tapping scenes from his plays as material assigned to students in our acting classes.

In 2019, however, I was fortunate enough to see Melissa’s work as an actress when she appeared as Stella opposite our mutual friend Susan Priver’s Blanche in Tenn’s classic A Streetcar Named Desire at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West Los Angeles. Was she good as Stella? No. She was outstanding—so good in fact that she became my honoree last year as my annual TicketHolder Awards' Best Supporting Actress of 2019, a choice I’m often reluctant to confer upon friends since my objectivity in awarding such a thing might be considered a tad suspicious. This time out, however, Melissa Sullivan was an easy choice.

Still it was with some trepidation that I privately reacted when she sent me a download of Late Last Night, her new jazzy, bluesy album due to be released next Friday, June 26, particularly since she politely asked if I might consider writing a review of it. See, even though I do have a background in the music business and I have been writing about theatre for nearly 33 years, as I told Melissa, writing about music is something I’ve not attempted before—and nothing is more uncomfortable than to discover all the personal deep-downs that must be revealed by a friend during the overwhelmingly difficult process of creating art can as a finished project often be... shall we say... slightly less than perfect?

Luckily for me—and for the rest of us beneficiaries of a remarkable effort—as it turns out Late Last Night  and the work of one Melissa Sullivan actually is  just about perfect. This debut album is simply a stunner, a very contemporary tribute to the best of those nostalgic bygone eras of innovative jazz and deeply mournful blues, those groundbreaking American artforms that completely changed and energized the course of music forever.

And while she’s at it, Late Last Night  takes a courageous detour onto a musical side street inhabited by Big Band-era swing, wading into the often murky waters of folk music, then even leaping headfirst into a catchy and welcome turn honoring the signature cadences of Latin rhythms. Recorded at Sir Tiger Studios in Culver City, here are 10 highly diverse tracks that quickly reveal the remarkable diversity of Sullivan’s unique gifts, including eight composed by her—well, seven, including a reprise of one tune that impressively ends the album—and two exceptionally jaunty covers of a pair of American standards, each from extremely different periods of musical composition.

As a composer and lyricist, her talents are truly a revelation, filled with palpable passion and a haunting sense of loss, loneliness, and the heartache of misplaced romance. Yet the first thing to knock one’s socks off here is Melissa Sullivan’s voice, capable of vocal calisthenics that could almost make David Byrne a tad boring in comparison. Her vocals mutate from track to track with uncanny multiplicity, from a foggy, breathless Anita O’Day-like quality to the soulful vulnerability of my late-great bestie Laura Nyro to the all-out ballsiness of Janis Joplin after finishing off at least half of her usual onstage bottle of 100-proof bourbon.

Her steamy, balmy torchsong-throwback “It’s a Love” perfectly kicks off the collection with its hot, sensual percussions as she mourns the kind of carnal thrill she says she’s never known but is confident lurks deep in the shadows where her “heart can’t be wrong.” As with many of the album’s tracks, its nomadic mood is clearly reinforced by the Mose Allison-esque piano styling of her coproducer, arranger, and writing partner Peter Adams.

Sylvain Carton’s plaintive sax solo does similar service to “He’s Bad,” with Sullivan’s almost whimsical performance reminiscent of one of those woeful ballads of past loves made popular by Billie Holiday, complete with a happy ending: “I told him I quit / I’m tired of your bullshit.” Luckily for pioneers of southern delta blues, the word “bad” rhymes with “glad.”

“Miles Away” is a redolently mournful plea for the return of a sorely missed lover who has chosen to move on while “trying to hide your past,” a beautifully poetic living eulogy to the kind of intelligent explorations of the human need for love that made Joni Mitchell one of our time’s most enduring musical icons.

There’s a contemporary musical theatre quality to “Borders,” which Sullivan composed in her head one morning in her car on her way to teaching a class at NYFA. It’s a piece that would not be out of place if included in one of the most recent Broadway hit shows such as Sarah Barrielles’ Waitress  or Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey‘s If/Then.  The wistful balled—another lamenting the pain of a mislaid love as others promise her it’s “just a phase,” finished the album perfectly, but earlier in the mix it is first introduced as a spirited bilingual duet with Mexican-born musician and actor Lito de la Isla of the group Los Rumberos. After seeing the singer/composer/actor in performance, Sullivan got the inspiration for this serendipitous Latin-infused collaboration, here redubbed “Borders/Fronteras.”

Sullivan segues with ease into the unexpectedly cheerful bossa nova beat of “Marcella,” an Antonio Carlos Jobim-inspired tale of an eager admirer excited for her return to that special person who, as Tennessee Williams once noted, resides just next of one’s heart, while "Sirens” is an almost bucolic, countrified number, recalling an unforgettable afternoon of quality schtupping at “river’s bend" and featuring a raspy, powerhouse of a stadium-sized vocal that might have killed off that other half of Joplin’s ever-present bottle of Southern Comfort.

And speaking of comfort first manufactured by southerners, my favorite of the original compositions introduced on Late Last Night  is another stirring love ballad called “Adrian,” which brilliantly incorporates layers of backup vocals also overdubbed Nyro-style by Sullivan as she rues the ephemeral nature of courtship when she was young and naive and kept her “heart on a shelf.” To make this song even more personally satisfying to me, it is set within the backdrop of my beloved home-away-from-home New Orleans’ disastrous Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as The Storm (as it’s called there) “keeps raging“ outside and this gossamer early love is found and then lost.

The album’s other two tracks are those aforementioned covers. Melissa sometimes sounds like a cross between Morgana King and Blossom Dearie in her whimsical interpretation of Percy Mayfield’s 1953 time-honored standard “Lost Mind,” crying that she’s “lost my mind in wild romance” over a “devil with the face of an angel” as “cruel and sweet as homemade sin.” Close your eyes listening to this track and you might just find yourself transported directly to one of those crowded, smoke-filled little hotspots along the French Quarter’s Frenchmen Street, especially as Adams’ notable piano solo gives a loving nod to Master Mose, the guy made this tune a classic in 1963.

Sullivan’s fortuitous cohort Peter Adams is also a revelation, his arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s vintage 1941 “Skylark,” along with his partner’s sweetly simple and gorgeous vocal phrasing, can also send you on a musical magic carpet spin back in time, for me to Chicago’s Rush Street in the 1960s where I first fell in love with lyrical jazz and the artists who so fervidly preserve it.

Just when you think you have an idea of what emotional triggers Late Last Night can spark in you, something all-new and totally unexpected will next toy with your sensibilities, a tease that I promise will be gratefully welcomed as we all try to survive our daily lives just now with its daily rollercoaster ride of assaults and disappointments on both a national and global scale.

I was trepidatious first listening to Late Last Night but let me tell you, my admiration for the unearthly gifts of Melissa Sullivan has grown exponentially, from cherishing a talented friend and colleague to settling somewhere awfully close to goddess status.

Melissa Sullivan’s Late Last Night  is available on Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Deezer, or at melissa-sullivan.com/music

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THE BOOK OF MORMON at the Ahmanson Theatre

When I first saw The Book of Mormon  in 2012, we sat behind an entire row of a dozen or so friends or family members, none of whom looked or acted as though they had ever attended a stage production before.

Although most members of this group were fairly young, sitting directly in front the person next to me was one cartoonishly straight-backed older woman who resembled Dana Carvey as the Church Lady.

And indeed she was. As the group jubilantly shot endless preshow selfies and group photos with set designer Scott Pask’s heavenly sky and massive encompassing Mormon Tabernacle-y proscenium in the background, their spirited conversation soon revealed what their attraction was to this highly controversial musical.

Whether their companionship was familial or congregational, it became clear the entire group was indeed Mormon and their mission was intense curiosity.

From the opening strains of “Hello!,” a canon perpetuus  (that’s “rounds” to those who already haven’t just checked Google) featuring a lineup of painfully smiling young men in obligatory white shirts, black pants and ties practicing knocking on doors to tell strangers about the Lord Jesus Christ, every person in the row in front of us looked as though they might crawl under their seats.

Soon, however, all of the younger members of the group began to succumb to Robert Lopez and South Park  creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s outrageously non-PC humor in a script guaranteed to offend all visiting Church Ladies, not to mention anyone else in earshot.

As the row of Mormon attendees began to loosen up, as though choreographed to do so, each would cautiously, surreptitiously pivot their head to see how their resident Enid Strict was taking the punches. She, in turn, sat totally motionless and, from my view of the left side of her face, she could have been posing for Mount Rushmore throughout the show.

I too began to check poor old Enid out as every visual and verbal blow took its toll, especially when the Ugandan villagers of Mafala Harimbi, where Elder Price and his companion Elder Cunningham (the excellent Liam Tobin and Jordan Matthew Brown) have been sent to Spread the Word, greet the eager missionaries with a huge production number called “Hasa Digga Eebowai,” translated as “Fuck You, God!” and ending with a chorusline of Ugandan natives in unison gleefully lifting their middle fingers to the heavens.

With a militant character named General Butt-Fucking Naked (Cory Jones, who also makes a wonderfully South Park-inspired Satan) always around attempting to kill the village men and kidnap the woman to circumcise them, and the belief by the natives that having sexual relations with infants can cure AIDS, frankly I was surprised to see the Mormon group return after intermission—especially old Enid, someone I was sure would at least sit out Act Two in the lobby before the bus returned to pick them up.

To my great surprise, stoic as she’d been throughout the play, when the cast hit the stage for their thunderous curtaincall, old Enid Strict was the first up on her feet wildly cheering like a Beyhive at a Beyoncé concert.

Yeah, The Book of Mormon  has that effect on people. Like South Park, somehow Stone and Parker (who also co-directs and shared one of the production’s nine Tony Awards with Casey Nicholaw for their effort) can get away with any offense, something that personally gives me hope for the future in a world rather devoid of a sense of humor these days.

It still must be a bit of shock for Mormons in attendance when they see Joseph Smith’s “third testament,” the holy text of the Latter-Day Saints, shoved up Elder Price’s fine round ass on an x-ray screen or some discomfort when jokes are made about the sacred ancient writings, engraved onto the Golden Plates discovered buried in prophet Moroni’s backyard in Manchester, New York circa 1827, tossed around the stage like frisbees.

Yet, Mormons aren’t alone here, as Parker and Stone have always proven themselves to be Equal Opportunity Offenders. There’s definitely a delayed laugh from an audience getting used to their signature humor when the young missionaries reluctantly accept their assignment to save souls deep in the pagan jungles of Uganda—Elder Price had prayed daily since childhood he would be sent to Orlando when it was time to begin proselytizing—but are somewhat less traumatized by the destination since the “Lord changed his mind about black people” in 1978.

Mafala Harimbi also has its obligatory resident comely daughter Nabulungi (here beautifully assayed by Aaliyah Chanelle Scott), someone who the smitten Elder Cunningham comments is a “hot shade of black, like a latte.” And there’s that showstopping 11th-hour dance number set in hell overseen by Jones’ huge dancing Satan and featuring the tapdancing skills of Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnny Cochran wearing O.J.’s ill-fitting black leather glove.

Nope. Nothing is safe from Stone and Parker’s outrageously delicious comedic impropriety, including HIV/AIDS, famine, female genital mutilation, latent homosexuality, backwards African culture, Christianity, and Judaism—although without a resident Cartman around to skewer Kyle Broflovski, I felt my own nomadic tribe was sadly a little underrepresented in the barb department.

Of course, the coveted roles of the Howdy Doody-straight Kevin Price and the annoyingly nebbishy Arnold Cunningham proved to be starmakers for Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, but Tobin and Brown are equally impressive in the roles, not at all diminished by life on the road on a lengthy national tour and worthy of all the honors available west of 49th Street at 8th.

Andy Huntington Jones is also a particular standout as Elder McKinley, the mission’s closeted district leader who practices and teaches thought suppression, including obviously burying his own unspoken desire for a little Mormon-condemned male companionship as he belts a rousing though occasionally limp-wristed “Turn It Off.”

Isaiah Tyrelle Boyd is hilariously deadpanned as the village doctor suffering from maggots in his scrotum, an ailment he has no idea how to cure—a recurring theme throughout in both book and song—and prolific Broadway male ingenue Ron Bohmer, with whom I worked while doing press for the national tour of Lord Andrew’s Aspects of Love  a mere three decades ago, makes an impressive transition to more long-in-tooth characters roles as Kevin’s dad and the ghost of Joseph Smith himself.

Aside from Best Musical and Parker and Nicholaw’s aforementioned Best Direction honors, Book of Mormon  also won Tonys for Pask’s whimsically South Park-ian sets, Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, Brian Ronan’s sound, Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus’ orchestrations, and Nikki M. James’ original performance as Nabulungi.

Still, perhaps the most deserved recognition went to the groundbreakingly off-centered book and infectious musical score by the show’s creators, whose infamous success on the small screen fueled their mission to leave no rock unturned in their mission to shock one and all, and their equally gifted collaborator Robert Lopez, the youngest and only double EGOT winner ever, co-creator of that other outrageous musical Avenue Q  and a double Oscar winner for Frozen’s  “Let It Go” and Coco’s  “Remember Me.” 

The Book of Mormon  has been called the Best Musical Ever and Best Musical of the Century, something with which I personally almost agree, but I could more enthusiastically get behind calling it the Best Musical Satire ever written. So far.

What makes this so special and encourages Church Ladies to stand and cheer when it offends just about everything in which they believe and hold sacred? It’s simply its heart and ability in the end to herald the redemptive power of love as it gently celebrates the sacrifices of people doing their best to help save our species from itself, no matter how that service is disparaged and vilified by others.

Geebus knows I’m the last person to want to find anyone at my door selling any organized religion offering fantasy answers to try to explain the overwhelming mysteries and inequities of life, but hey, you’ve gotta admire the spunk of those willing to take their lumps for what they believe and ironically, through its brazenly irreverent humor, The Book of Mormon  delivers that message—no Parker/Stone-inspired pun intended here—in spades.

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CAN'T PAY? DON'T PAY! at The Actors’ Gang

Most anyone who has ever been involved producing theatre knows what an Italianate or Italian Run rehearsal means:  the cast gets together before a show, especially right before opening or if there’s been a break in the performance schedule, to speed through the text aloud, avoiding acting and concentrating strictly on reciting the lines as quickly as possible.

This of course jumpstarts the text in anyone’s faltering memory and reminds the actors of their cues, but more importantly it also freshens the material and helps combat the play from dragging, something especially important in comedy.

The roots of the Italianate speed-through run deep, most scholars believing the technique can be traced back to the 16th-century advent of Commedia dell’arte, many believing it then was resurrected during the breakneck performance schedule practiced by the Italian Opera in the 19th century.

There’s a direct connection between Commedia dell’arte and the Actors’ Gang, which also has a history going back to the troupe’s own advent in 1981 and founder-artistic director Tim Robbins’ personal passion for Commedia. As stated in the unfiltered and often politically-motivated experimental company’s mission statement, their intention is to “create bold, original works for the stage and daring reinterpretations of the classics.”

There couldn’t be a more ideal match made in theatrical heaven than the link between the Gang and the works of equally Commedia-inspired—and equally politically radical—Italian playwright Dario Fo, something which began not long before the great dissenter’s death in 2016 when he and the Oscar-winning artistic director met during the company’s European tour of Robbins’ Harlequino: On to Freedom.

A few years ago during one of my uplifting traditional post-performance conversations with Tim that usually last through one (or two) of his ever-present Marlboros, he couldn’t stop waxing on about his meeting with Fo and as he spoke, I thought to myself the Gang should one day mount the controversial Nobel-laureate’s 1970 masterpiece of Commedia-triggered farce and boldly courageous political resistance, Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

Early last year, the company did just that, in one of the best productions of the celebrated troupe’s nearly four-decade history and featuring some of their most committed artists immersed in the broadly in-your-face playing style they were either born to play or learned expertly to assay in the Gang’s continuous workshops for members.

The production featured a knockout performance by 11-year company veteran Bob Turton, who for me always evokes a cross between Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura and Dwight Frye as Renfield, in Fo’s physically demanding leading role of the Maniac. Turton, who won my TicketHolder Award last year for his performance as Superman in the company’s Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Framer, which also marked his directorial debut, is consistently one of the best representatives of the Gang’s mission.

Once again, Turton has been tapped to guide their newest production, a never before presented translation by another Gang stalwart Cam Deaver from Fo’s internationally acclaimed 1974 political farce Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay? (Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga!).

Once again, this is a match made in heaven. As a performer, Turton has a distinctively exaggerated, rubber-boned persona and an over-the-top physicality that for less talented—or less confident—actors could prove disastrous. Yet here he has managed to encourage his cast to take the risks that make his own work so arresting and, although not everyone seems quite as comfortable as he does doing it, their obvious trust in his inimitable comedic skill pays off bigtime.

This is not to say the former Ivy Substation stage is filled with robotic mini-Turtons; to the contrary, although the ensemble’s intentionally overemphasized physicality and uniformly mercurial movements are reminiscent of the wildly unconstrained performance style of the guy, every actor holds his or her own while still eager to step into their director's shoes.

The politically subservient bluecollar workers stuck in Fo’s mishmash of anarchistic left-leaning sentiments peeking out from his raucously rapidfire humor have had enough. As a character observes, their oppressors “get rich by making you and me into morons,” raising retail prices to astronomical levels (including $5 loaves of bread, just like Gelson’s!) and evicting them from their apartment building so they can replace it with a 16-story condominium complex no one can afford.

Antonia (Kaili Hollister) joins in a revolt led by angry housewives at the local supermarket, stuffing her ecologically friendly linen bags with groceries and defiantly walking out of the store without paying.

Eliciting the complicity of her horrified neighbor Margherita (Lynde Houck), the pair embarks on a breakneck quest to hide the stolen groceries from her righteous and politically conservative husband Giovanni (Jeremie Loncka), resulting in a ridiculous comedic romp ultimately more Marx Brothers than Marx, complete with continuously slamming doors, disappearing pregnant bellies, hidden corpses, and one noncompliant rolling walker with a mind of its own.

Together Hollister and Houck are a quintessential left-wing version of Lucy and Ethel, proving themselves to be wonderful foils for one another, while Loncka and Thomas Roche as Margherita’s empty-headed husband Luigi are reminiscent of a far thinner Ralph Kramden duping his gullible sidekick Ed Norton into hilarious situations.

Danielle Powell does yeoman’s duty in a variety of roles, all less defined characters each time overshadowed as she appears as an accomplice in a quartet of insanely silly characters aced by the Gang’s 30-year "Vanguard" member and resident Benny Hill clone, the inimitable Steven M. Porter.

Even if there was no other reason to catch Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay!—and there are plenty—getting to watch Porter return to the stage as everything from a friendly freethinking cop who almost got his PhD in Modern Dance to a strictly methodized detective to a Shylockian undertaker is well worth the price of a ticket, especially when he breaks the fourth wall to observe that his character feels as though he’s “in one of those LA plays where they can’t pay enough actors to play all the parts.”

When Porter enters as Antonia’s dotty yet sprightly father, his mobility aided by the aforementioned walker and with Powell as the nurse trying to keep up with him as she desperately holds onto his intravenous drip, it’s a performance sure to leave you with tears running down your cheeks—especially when he gets so tangled in his walker that it’s impossible to focus on anything else happening on the stage at the time.

Turton’s multi-sided set perfectly complements his uniquely brisk and ever-dizzying staging, with benches and chairs placed onstage so his performers can be free to high-five and further engage audience members as they plead their thinly-veiled case for social revolt.

Still, there must be special praise for Deaver’s truly topical and cleverly contemporary translation, an exceptional and clearly reverential homage to Dario Fo who so perfectly, as did the original practitioners of Commedia dell’Arte, was able to sneak in a cautionary tale of society’s abuses through outrageous humor.

No one honors and understands that mission more completely than the loyal denizens of Actors' Gang, particularly Bob Turton and the cast of Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay!,  none of whom could be better playing this classic form of renegade comedy if they'd decided to wear the troupe's familiar Erhard Stiefel Commedia-style masks.

But then again, with Steven M. Porter in the cast, who needs funny masks when you’ve got an in-house Benny Hill all your very own?

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RORSCHACH FEST: GHOSTS from Open Fist at Atwater Village Theatre

In complete and suitably spooky darkness in one of the Atwater Village’s cavernous and naturally dank reclaimed warehouse spaces, scattered voices, sometimes bursting as primal screams, sometimes sounding off in harmony as a communal talking in tongues, call out from the grave in Open Fist’s revival of John O’Keefe’s 1981 award-winning one-act Ghosts.

Part of the company’s Rorschach Fest, featuring three programs of short experimental works performed in rep and honoring playwrights renowned for pushing the boundaries of theatrical invention, O’Keefe’s poetic conjuring of life in the afterlife proves the perfect entry to open the Fisters’ 30th anniversary season.

Evoking a feeling of Under Milk Wood  reinvented by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ghosts features a dynamic troupe of arrestingly lionhearted actors whose expressive faces emerge in the frequent blackouts to tell their tales of dealing with death, something that hangs over the heads of many of us in the...er... dusk of our existence in this particular out of control spin around the sun.

From the legendary counter-culture goddess Tina Preston entering the stage leaning back on a hand truck pushed by fellow castmember Brian Bertone to Jan Munroe succumbing to the perpetual motion of an omnipresent rocking chair, alternately laughing hysterically and then instantly transforming into someone clearly tortured and frightened by the approaching unknown of his death, each actor in turn grabs our attention and makes his or her monologue something uniquely personal.

Under the innovative direction of the celebrated playwright himself, this welcome reinvention of a groundbreaking classic of avant-garde theatre will instantly and effectively transport anyone of a certain age—ergo mine, see—back a few decades to the days of La Mama and the Open Theater in New York and the Magic in San Francisco, the place where Ghosts  debuted in 1981 before arriving in LA four years later to great acclaim.

The committed and conventionally-unbridled performances of Bertone, Cat Davis, Jeanine Venable, and the vocal calisthenics of Elif Savas periodically piercing the darkness, prove later generations have benefited greatly from the artistic freedom afforded by theatrical pioneers such as O’Keefe, yet this production fully belongs to its elders.

Preston culminates her years as an underground theatrical goddess in a touching portrait of someone lamenting a life lost before it was ready to be silenced and Munroe, particularly when clothed in a kid-style Halloween ghostly sheet with holes cut in for eyes, seems to defy age as he canonizes his early experiences in Parisian street performance art and training in the nearly lost techniques of mime with none other than Marcel Marceau.

Although it deals with the mystery and unknown fears of shuffling off our proverbial mortal coil, experiencing the resurrection of John O’Keefe’s Ghosts  is akin to instantly tumbling back to the early days of the artistically brave and unstoppable Bay Area during the innovational avent of the Beat Generation; it’s not hard to picture this all unfolding in the back of City Lights performed alongside poetry readings by Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Mr. Ferlinghetti himself.

Personally, Ghosts  made me want to go back to that time and relive all the promise and excitement such works generated as their intrepid creators opened the doors for a multitude of artists to arrive on scene after them.

Ironically, one thing the folks did not have back then was the occasional clickity-clack of the Amtrak trains that run directly behind this welcoming performance space, something that before this has never been an asset to anything presented at the complex. This time out, it adds to the eeriness, especially when Munroe’s abandoned rocker continued to rock in a lone spotlight just as a commuter train whooshed  past behind it—an unintentional reminder that life goes on even after we all fade away into oblivion.

Joining Ghosts, referred to in Open Fist’s Rorschach Fest  as “Inkblot A,” in their ambitious repertory event are Landscape  by Harold Pinter and Never Swim Alone  by Daniel MacIvor ("Inkblot C"), as well as This is a Chair  and Here We Go, both by Caryl Churchill (“Inkblot C”).

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FRANKENSTEIN at the Wallis Annenberg Center

Just as Victor Frankenstein stitched together body parts to create a monster, the ambitious and uber-creative Four Larks under the producing wing of the Wallis have stitched together a cluttered thrift shop collection of random found items, a jarringly discordant Phillip Glassian score by two of the show’s three creators, and then added in the members of their physically overachieving troupe of acrobatic performers to create a monster all their own: the world premiere of their equally ambitious adaptation of Mary Shelley’s disturbing classic 1818 novel.

Four Larks’ co-founders Mat Diafos Sweeney and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro have, just as the good doctor himself, created something of a monster. The visual innovations of their Frankenstein  are astounding, with those eclectic found items given a thrilling new life, including the stage’s omnipresent piano losing its lid to become Victor’s operating table eerily lit from within and a simple white cotton sheeting forming the backdrop of the frozen tundra where he travels to make sense of his disturbing transgressions.

Reminiscent of Sam Mendes’ imaginative 1998 revival of Cabaret, all the performers double as musicians, giving import and weight to Sweeney and lyricist Jesse Rasmussen’s remarkably impressive score, perhaps the most unifying aspect of this production.

The actors have all obviously been well schooled in the most athletic disciplines of physical theatre, particularly the boneless Max Baumgarten as the Creature, whose first moments trying to navigate pulling himself up into standing and walking positions are Cirque du Soleil worthy.

The musicianship delivered by the gamely willing ensemble could not be more impressive, while the vocal calisthenics of classically-trained singers Joanna Lynn-Jacobs as the Creature’s female counterpart and Lukas Papenfusscline as Captain Walton are clear standouts.

The bravely offbeat direction by Sweeney and Peters-Lazaro’s strikingly discordant choreography are at the heart of this visually stunning production, although their adaptation of Shelley’s 202-year-old literary monster still could use some major clarification, especially the inclusion of Claire Woolner as the voice of the author herself weaving through the action and often emulating the actions of her characters.

Peters-Lazaro’s cleverly malleable scenic and prop designs, Lena Sands’ revealing rock concert costuming, Alex Hawthorn’s crashing sound, and Brandon Baruch’s purposely harsh lighting add perfectly to the darkly ominous ambience.

All this fresh and extremely promising remodeling of Frankenstein  needs now is yet another doctor to be brought in to offer a second opinion—a script doctor, that is, if one could be found as wonderfully mad and willing throw convention to the winds as are the unstoppably creative denizens of Four Larks.

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HUMAN INTEREST STORY at the Fountain Theatre

Poor Andy Kramer. As so many journalists over the past decade, it isn’t easy being a righteous crusader in a world where honest reporting and the desire to tell the truth about our dangerously flawed system’s inequities has given way to selling advertising.

Of course, we can blame people getting their information fix from Facebook and The Daily Show  these days—not to mention Wendy Williams or worse, Fox and Friends—but still, the dumbing down of America is basically our own fault because we’ve put up with it and let it happen. Just read or watch news from other parts of the free world, which deal far more thoroughly and intelligently with the desperation of climate change and the horrendous problems of a civilization eating itself alive rather than concentrating on who’s fucking whom or even whether poor Harry and Meghan can still refer to themselves as “Royals.”

This societal downward spiral is the subject dissected in the world premiere of Stephen Sachs’ Human Interest Story, now world premiering as the first production of the venerable Fountain Theatre’s 30th anniversary season.

After a long career as a columnist for a newspaper in some undesignated urban American metropolis—although Matthew Hill’s smartly modern set and projection designs look a lot like a mix between LA and Manhattan—Andy (Rob Nagle) has been sacked along with 50% of the newsroom.

As Stephen Leigh Morris visited in his new play Red Ink, currently premiering from Playwrights’ Arena at the Atwater Village complex, Andy’s gritty little publication has been scooped up by one of those familiar soulless corporations after suffering debilitating multimillion dollar net losses.

For his final column, Andy, who has been devoting his space to the city’s massive homeless problem, impulsively decides to fabricate a letter from a woman he dubs Jane Doe, someone living on the mean streets who threatens to kill herself—but plans to wait until the upcoming Fourth of July as a statement reflecting on our country’s once-noble mission of providing a safe home for the tired, the poor, those proverbial huddled masses yearning to be free.

Andy’s final column goes viral and soon, as he sits shivah for the paper’s demise with his fired coworkers, notably including his on-again-off-again girlfriend Megan (Aleisha Force) at Casey’s Saloon, he finds himself summoned back to the office and offered his job back to further exploit the poor fictional Miss Doe and hopefully thrust the publication back into profitability.

A chance meeting in the park with a scruffy vagrant named Betty (Tanya Alexander), to whom he hands a pocketful of spare change in response to her cardboard sign reading: “I AM NOT INVISIBLE,” leads to an idea mostly conjured by her. After recognizing him from the photo accompanying his column, she insists she is indeed the real Jane Doe but, when in frustration with her aggressiveness he blurts out he made up the letter, she suggests they conspire to make Jane Doe real and that she play the role for all to behold with Andy pulling the strings in everything she has to say.

Of course, Jane Doe becomes a media darling, mobbed by paparazzi, sitting for national TV talkshow interviews, posing for magazine covers, and in no time spearheading a foundation geared to help homeless women. Dressed in tailored finery (Shon LeBlanc’s costumes for every character are spot-on) and living in a lavish hotel suite paid for by the slimy but powerful CEO of Andy’s newspaper chain (James Harper), Betty/Jane soon finds a voice of her own and it ain’t from some secondhand crusader “living in a white bubble.”

This is a slickly mounted, extremely polished production with a cast and design elements that conspire perfectly make it sing. Sachs’ striking direction is highly kinetic, his actors on the move between scenes like prowling captive animals trying to escape their cages. His dialogue is smart and insightful throughout but still, Sachs refers to Human Interest Story  both as a call for compassion and an exploration on how an individual is “forced to confront the truths about himself,” neither of which ever quite gels—perhaps because one theme sometimes seems to cancel out the other.

Part of this is probably due to the typical restructuring of a first production of such a heartfelt play, especially problematic at times when the author also directs and loses the perspective of bouncing ideas off another creative entity. Although it is often absorbing, in this first incarnation it is still too long, too repetitious, ultimately predictable and surprisingly anticlimactic. We just are never really offered something to latch onto about which to care, particularly evident in the shaky romance between Andy and Megan that seems to resolve far too conveniently.

The always brilliant Nagle is honest and touching as Andy but, if there’s a big catharsis in the confrontation of his character’s “truths,” it isn’t quite there yet—in the writing, that is, not in how thoroughly the actor has mined what he can with what the script offers him. Force is excellent in her LA stage debut, a welcome addition to our theatrical community but again, I was never sure if her needs were emotionally based or just the hankering of a boldly honest single woman looking for a willing fuckbuddy.

Alexander has a tough job here, as her miraculous transformation from a snarky streetwise former teacher trapped into homelessness into dignified spokeswoman for the women’s movement is too Eliza Doolittle-esque to be believable. Harper is outstanding as Harold Cain, the clearly Trump-like megalomaniacal CEO who’s “never met a boundary he couldn’t cross,” and Matt Kirkwood, Richard Azurdia, and Tarina Pouncy are all major assets as multiple supporting characters.

Despite its minor growing pains, however, Stephen Sach’s Human Interest Story has the makings of being an extremely important new work. It’s said that the third production of any new play is when it comes into its own but, with such a sincere and timely mission taken on by a playwright as gifted and committed to excellence as Sachs, I’d be surprised if the second time out for this one wouldn’t already be ready to more sonorously carry the torch of everything he is trying so earnestly to say.

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NOW YOU KNOW WHERE THE BODIES ARE BURIED

BODIES in Las Vegas, 2007  /  Photo by T.M. Holder