THE BONEYARD 

TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Pre-COVID 2020 through 2021

 

A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Ahmanson Theatre

Los Angeles made a huge move forward to recovery on December 1, 2021, when all resilient and passionate theatrefolks were invited back to the Ahmanson for the first time since the Music Center went dark 628 days before.

It was an honor to be part of the first audience in 20 months to celebrate the return of live theatre in LA in the best way possible. To add to the wonder of it all, the Old Vic’s groundbreaking five-time Tony winning reinvention of A Christmas Carol instantly for me became one of the most magical nights of live theatre I’ve yet to experience in my life—and I’ve been around “experiencing” for a long, long time.

Beginning at the Old Vic in London during the holiday season in 2017 starring Rhys Ifans as Scrooge, Jack Thorne’s ingenious adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novella, directed by the venerable theatre company’s artistic director Matthew Warchus, played two more seasons there before the icy hand of COVID-19 froze any plans for live performance in 2020. Still, it was filmed in the empty Old Vic and streamed via Zoom diring the holiday season last year, proving that nothing could stop this miraculously inventive rethinking of the story of old Ebenezer and his quartet of late-night visiting ghosties from becoming a modern classic itself.

Along the way, the production was also mounted at the Gate Theatre in Dublin and on Broadway in 2019 starring Campbell Scott, going on to win a Drama Desk Award for Thorne and five Tony Awards, including a well-deserved honor for Christopher Nightingale’s lovely musical score.

Aside from Nightingale’s hauntingly lyrical original music, the production also features a dozen traditional Christmas carols, including “O Holy Night,” “Joy to the World,” and “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” all performed here by the current Ahmanson cast, featuring an exceptional ensemble of some of the musical theatre’s best performers of today.

Here the demanding leading role is played by Bradley Whitford, who brings a sweetly charming take on the traditional humbuggy Scrooge, expertly sideswiping the usual traps associated with the role. This Scrooge is sadder than he is mean, sometimes seeming to almost embarrass himself as he hears himself pontificating about workhouses and prisons and people who should die to reduce the surplus population.

There’s a humorous, self-deprecating side to Whitford’s reinvention of the infamously cranky old miser, his asides to himself (and us) making him lovable and endearing even before the character sees the light and is overcome with the Christmas spirit. And when that inevitable transformation does happen, the actor is even better, dancing around the stage like a drunken leprechaun overcome by sudden bursts of awkward excitement that evoke the youthfully quirky body language of Mickey Rooney’s Puck.

Although the cast features lovely turns by Brandon Gill as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, as well as Kate Burton, Glory Yepassis-Zembrou, and belter supreme Alex Newell as the notorious trio of visiting spirits, the most noteworthy supporting performances come from Dashiell Eaves as Bob Crachit, Sarah Hunt as Ebbie’s lost love Belle, and especially Chris Hoch as both his abusive drunken father and as a surprisingly fine-voiced Jacob Marley—something Whitford’s Scrooge, scripted or not, notes with astonishment when his late partner break into song. Each character is given a lovely moment to shine, surely a tribute to Thorne’s mastery at recreating contemporary yet clearly old-fashioned Dickens-esque dialogue.

Of course, no character in A Christmas Carol can evoke more “awwws” from an audience than Tiny Tim and 10-year-old newcomer Cade Robinson, making his professional stage debut (alternating in the role with Sebastian Ortiz), could not possibly be more “awwww”-worthy—and casting a young man with a real disability is not only a stroke of genius, it’s definitely in keeping with our long overdue blossoming era of inclusion and diversity I could not applaud more.

Still, there’s a lot to say about the craftiness of Thorne’s lovingly Dickens-respectful book and the production’s innovative design values that could not be more exciting to experience. Even in a space as cavernous and occasionally overpowering as the nearly 2,100-seat Ahmanson, under Warchus’ leadership (his direction recreated here by Thomas Caruso), this presentation somehow seems quite intimate. Simon Baker’s echoing sound design, Hugh Vanstone’s powerfully dramatic lighting, and Rob Howell’s brocade-rich period costuming are suitably worldclass, all augmenting Howell’s arrestingly minimalistic award-winning set.

Suspended above a nearly blank stage, a starry sky illuminated by a few hundred twinkling hanging lanterns sweep from the proscenium all the way out into the auditorium to the balconies, while four appropriately claustrophobic door frames rise from the floor at centerstage to evoke the walls of Scrooge’s office and bedroom. Obviously, the story is meant to be the star here and everyone involved in this production pays homage to that with great respect and extraordinary imagination.

This is a production sure to put anyone in the holiday spirit despite whatever fresh new variant is currently hovering over our revelries, something that extended opening night beyond the rousing standing ovation at curtaincall to a heartfelt post-curtain performance of “Silent Night,” wordlessly played on bells and a couple of violins assayed by this passionate cast as a tribute to our time’s recently passed grandmaster of musical theatre Stephen Sondheim. Not many dry eyes, I suspect.

I have to say aside from a rather challenging ride home to Hollywood from downtown LA, there was one more delight to culminate the reopening of the Ahmanson and the debut of the Old Vic’s spectacular A Christmas Carol. People leaving the theatre to par-taaay on the Music Center Plaza were greeted with a snowstorm—yes, you read that right. And since all of LA was already being blanketed by a rare and bizarrely thick fog that rivaled anything created by John Carpenter, naturally augmented by nonexistent visibility and a blast of real-life cold air, we thought for a half-minute it was real snow. It was really eerie, really surreal, and like the production, is now an indelible memory of LA’s joyous return to live performance on the grandest of grand scales.

SAD UPDATE: Due to the onset of the Omicron variant, the Ahmanson's brilliant A Christmas Carol first cancelled four performances in mid-December but alas never returned. On December 21, it was announced the rest of the run would be scrapped. BAH HUMBUG, FUCKING OMICRON!

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL at A Noise Within

I know, this is the second time in a week I’m writing a review of yet another holiday stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ beloved Victorian holiday classic A Christmas Carol. Who knows? Maybe I’m softening in my golden years. Ho-Ho-Holder and all that. Then again, maybe it’s important at this time of year to remind oneself of the true meaning of Christmas, that time of year when dead people apparate to terrorize rich people in the middle of the night until they agree to pay their employees better.

Naw, not even I am that cynical—and that’s saying something as I look at the world from the perspective of an oldtimer activist crashing headfirst into my disappointed golden years. A Christmas Carol is about forgiveness and redemption and reminding each of us we can change our apathetic ways despite life working so hard to make us folks near the age of Ebenezer Scrooge turn a tad curmudgeonly and basically give up on our society.

I always say I am not a fan of sappy musicals and plays with syrupy Hallmark Channel storylines, yet I brake for A Christmas Carol every time. I even praised that other LA production at the Ahmanson although most critics tore ol’ Ebbie a new one. All critics try desperately to stay objective but truly, when it comes to Mr. Dickens and his quartet of uninvited spirits, I have to admit I lose my objectivity—at least until January.

That said, it would be difficult for anyone to not find something to like about Geoff Elliott’s respectful stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol, particularly this year when A Noise Within’s longstanding annual mounting of this production returns after a year off in COVIDland to add a beautiful new musical score by Robert Oriel. With several beautifully rich and infectious holiday songs sung by this lovely and talented cast, it was difficult to decide whether to put this show in the running for Play or Musical consideration for my TicketHolder Awards, especially when the Ahmanson’s version has plenty more music and yet refers to itself as a play.

It has been years since I first saw this production mounted in 2000 during ANW’s long tenancy in Glendale and I have to say that adding Oriel’s music is definitely not the only change. I remember Elliott’s script as much darker and with what seemed to be more emphasis on the spookier aspects of the tale than I’d ever seen done before, something that thrilled me greatly since the original novella is quite scary and often far less cheerful.

I realized, however, that it isn’t this production, perennially under the imaginative direction of Elliott and his co-artistic director and spouse Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, that’s changed over the years—it’s that more adaptations of the tale onstage and in film have often since proved to be even darker, making Elliott’s vision way ahead of its time.

Every other design aspect of this Carol has become richer and more elaborate, the current Pasadena space for this prolific company providing a perfect blank canvas for Jeanine A. Ringer’s scenic ingenuity on ANW’s tall and adaptable thrust stage. Ken Booth’s lighting is alternately brightly festive and moodily ominous when appropriate; Oriel’s sound fills what must be a challenging space, especially eerie when the four ghosties speak; and Angela Balogh Calin’s sometimes elegant, sometimes suitably ragged period costuming is nothing short of sensational. If indeed it is she who created the dazzling fruit-covered robes and built the inner-structure of the delightful Alan Blumenfeld’s blustery Ghost of Christmas Present attire to make him tower above the action, she deserves even heartier applause for her efforts. 

In an exceptionally cheery and committed ensemble, Blumenfeld is a major asset to this production, as is perennial ANW superstar Deborah Strang as a wedding cake-attired Ghost of Christmas Past, Kasey Mahaffy as a Dagwood of a Bob Crachit, and featuring the ANW debuts of two dear little cherubs: Freddy Duffy as a golden-voiced Youngest Scrooge and the teeny-tiny Aarush Mehta, who won my heart a few months ago as the Changling Boy in Theatricum Botanicum’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the godblessiest of all blessed Tiny Tims.

Perhaps the biggest change for me made me the happiest, as when I originally saw this production 21 years ago, I was not exactly taken with Elliott as Ebenezer. As with his turn as Don Quixote in his company’s mounting of Man of La Mancha, also many years ago now, I found his performance back then far too overwrought and over-projected, something that kept me away from his company since he often plays the leads until I saw him several years ago as Reverend Shannon in The Night of the Iguana—a play I know well as part of the original pre-Broadway production in Chicago as a teenager. As a lifelong Williamsophile and dedicated fan of Iguana, I was sure I was not going to like Elliott in the role and instead, he was a most magnificent Shannon.

And now again, his Scrooge has over the years aged like a fine wine and he is the quintessential Ebenezer, having learned over time to stealthily avoid all the stereotypical traps inherent in the role which can lead nowhere except to an imitation of the ever-snarling Reginald Owen. Elliott brings a lovely hidden intelligence and humor to the role, as well as a poignant sadness that makes us root for him instead of wishing he’d get himself locked up in one of those union workhouses his notorious character praises. And when Scrooge transitions from raging asshole into Grandpa Walton, it’s not as hard as usual to imagine the change.

Above it all, boy, is this a story for our times. Dickens wrote his novella in 1843 after a visit to London’s Field Lane Ragged School, one of several neglected orphanages where the city’s many street urchins were dumped and treated miserably. As someone who lives in the heart of Hollywood with the nearby Selma Avenue turned into a massive homeless encampment, after several years now having to pass into the street to avoid the tents and trash and conked-out humans, not to mention having to walk our dog carrying pepper spray or listening to people outside the bedroom window screaming “Fuck you!” into the night air at 4am, it’s easy to get a little humbuggy about the state of things. 

Perfect for any holiday season, A Christmas Carol can jolt anyone to take a second look and reconsider how to see those less fortunate around them and be more sympathetic toward their plight. After coming home from ANW’s glowing and lush production of the classic, you should see the pile of blankets and clothing I’m accumulating to pass out to those stranded along Selma as soon as it becomes almost too heavy to carry. 

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THIS WONDERFUL LIFE from Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre

There’s little doubt the Charles Dickens-inspired film classic It’s a Wonderful Life has become a beloved holiday tradition, which is probably why I haven’t seen it in about 65 years. Still, one would have to be brain dead not to know most of the story points, from wondering why Donna Reed would say yes to Jimmy Stewart’s proposal after he violently shakes the hell out of her to the final scene with that annoying little girl with the odd name whining about bells ringing meaning angels get their wings.

Luckily I still remembered enough references to totally enjoy the remarkable Leo Marks playing every character in old Bedford Falls, from George Bailey to that mean assholey Republican Mr. Potter to the slatternly Violet Bick (a character I’d totally forgotten, being too young on my first viewing, I guess, to know what a slattern was) in Steve Murray’s clever one-person adaptation of Frank Capra’s now celebrated initial 1946 flop which sent Liberty Films into bankruptcy before It’s a Wonderful Life was resurrected in annual TV viewings in the 1970s.

From Stewart to Lionel Barrymore to Thomas Mitchell, Marks aces each actor’s voice and mannerisms completely as he instantly transforms from one familiar character to another with lightning speed and a manic energy, usually within one conversation. Under the demanding physical staging and direction of War Horse’s Drew Barr, the story unfolds far faster than in the original version—something I now know personally since Rogue Machine’s tongue-in-cheek and charming contemporary interpretation at their new home the Matrix sparked us to watch the (sadly colorized) film the following night.

I have to say Barr’s 90-ish minute version, made even more unique by Rick Martin’s cleverly minimalistic set and smartly evocative projections featuring images from the (black and white) film, proved far more successful at keeping my interest and attention.

There’s no doubt This Wonderful Life wouldn't be anything as wonderful without the infectious talent of Marks, who must be totally exhausted after each performance. Rogue Machine’s contribution to spreading a bit of well-needed holiday cheer to us weary Angelenos is greatly appreciated, especially since it features only one performer who could test positive and send us all home before curtain. I highly recommend taking the chance.

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SEVEN GUITARS at A Noise Within

What a thrill not only to return to the world of live theatre after all this time in isolation from the artform so key to keeping me breathing than to experience an important work of classic theatrical art unfold with such reverence and attention to detail as A Noise Within’s revival of August Wilson’s New York Drama Critics’ Circle’s 1996 Best Play honoree Seven Guitars.

Wilson’s landmark play is the 1940s entry from his monumental ten-play Century Cycle, each chronicling another decade of 20th-century African-American life in the city’s long-segregated Hill District. As a body of work, this achievement is perhaps the most ambitious and significant interconnected contribution to theatrical literature from any playwright of the last century—and certainly indelibly important to Black history in America and this very real urban Pittsburgh neighborhood’s cultural connection going back to colonial days.

Set in 1948, Seven Guitars focuses on seven Hill District denizens as they return from the funeral of one of the main characters, the opening scene melding directly into flashbacks leading up to death. Just released from a Cook County jail where he was bogusly convicted of vagrancy completely due to the color of his skin, Delta Blues singer Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (a masterful and mesmeric performance by Desean K. Terry) returns to find a letter from back in Chicago offering him a record deal since the song he recorded there before his incarceration has become an unexpected hit in his absence.

After a woefully difficult year, including losing his love Vera (Cherish Monique Duke) after he took off for the Windy City with another woman, Floyd desperately wants a chance for a better life, including returning to Chicago if he can persuade her to join him—and pull together enough funds to get his trusty electric guitar out of the local pawn shop. "See?" he tells Vera, quoting his cherished letter, "you get a hit record and the white folks call you 'Mister!'" He’s newly committed to an honorable future and ready to change his ways, his days languishing in a cell giving him time to contemplate what’s important in life. Whether he can walk the talk is at the heart of the play.

ANW’s return to the Hill District proves equally committed, offering the quintessential interpretation of one of Wilson’s best plays that proves to be the best production to open in LA since we all started to tentatively tiptoe our way back into theatres. Each and every one of the actors is magnificent, the design work is impeccably realized and, above it all, director Gregg T. Daniel’s contribution to the process is worldclass, gently cradling the stage almost as though an eighth character, a ghostly presence from another plane.

Scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz (also responsible for one of the best sets upon which I ever performed, namely Stupid Fucking Bird at the Boston Court in 2014) expertly and with extreme minimalistic artistry evokes the claustrophobic and isolated life of the basically hopeless residents of the Hill District 60-something years ago. Her imaginative two-sory set is beautifully complimented by Derrick McDaniel’s evocative and gossamer lighting, the atmospheric Blues-tinged accompaniment from Jeff Gardner’s echoing sound design (including original musical compositions by Maritri Garrett), and the detailed period costuming by Mylette Nora that could rival the most lavish production of The Color Purple.

Still, what will linger in memory is the remarkably rich, hauntingly effecting Terry as Floyd, so tragic and so real as the character fights for his dignity and manhood in the face of his inequitable and ill-balanced existence which he knows he must try to claw his way out of at any cost. His performance is perfectly matched by Kevin Jackson as the squirrely “King” Hedley, particularly dynamic in his shockingly raw Act One final monologue as he rips the throat out of their neighbor’s noisy rooster, a recurring symbol of the stomped-upon masculinity and virility of the Black male during that time period and, sadly, beyond.

The supporting cast is uniformly exceptional, particularly Duke as the lovesick but steadfast Vera and the unstoppable Veralyn Jones as Louise, the neighbor who epitomizes so many of the strong and eye-rolling world-weary pre-Civil Rights Act women of the era I am just old enough to remember firsthand. Sydney A. Mason is properly broken as the 'hood's new arrival, Louise's pregnant neice Ruby, while DeJuan Christopher is perfectly cast as Canewell, as is Amir Abdullah as Red Carter, two of Floyd’s bandmembers seemingly resigned to being beaten up both emotionally and physically on a regular basis in a world where their feet seem to be stuck in cement.

August Wilson would revisit the lives of some of these characters and their descendants in King Hedley II, his 2001 ninth contribution to the Century Cycle set in the 1980s. I wish ANW would consider taking a couple of seasons to do them all, in sequence, something that has been done infrequently—and not very well—over the years since the playwright’s untimely and tragic death in 2005 at the age of 60. If this magical production of Seven Guitars is any indication, I doubt any theatre company in America could do it better.

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HEAD OVER HEELS at Pasadena Playhouse

We were lucky enough to catch the much-anticipated pre-Broadway premiere of the musical Head Over Heels in the spring of 2018 at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco just before its Broadway debut—which sadly was anything but acclaimed and closed after only 32 performances, never once turning as profit.

Personally, however, I instantly fell in love with original bookwriter Jeff Whitty’s unique but risky concept, which was then re-envisioned by James Magruder and featured a score cleverly appropriating the classic punk-pop standards of the legendary 80s all-female rock band The Go-Go’s. Now, as then, my lips aren’t sealed from talking about my reaction to the production as it hits LA for the first time at the completely re-engineered Pasadena Playhouse conceived and directed by the serendipitously ingenious Jenny Koons and Sam Pinkleton.

Considering my own well-known predilection to brake for anything emanating from the traditionally sugar-soaked American songbook weighed down by corn as high as an elephant’s eye and real good clambakes, in my twilight years it seems I am only able to stomach musicals focusing on mothers addicted to psychotropics, grinding people into meat pies, celebrating sweet transvestites, or dealing with an entire town’s citizenry not being allowed to pee.

Keeping this in mind, I faced Head Over Heels in San Francisco three years ago with more than a little trepidation. Lord Terpsichore, was I pleasantly surprised. Those magical folks, particularly under the leadership of director Michael Mayer, Tony winner for the revival of Spring Awakening, and blessed with a spirited ensemble choreographed by Spencer Liff, certainly had the friggin' beat.

In its newest environmental incarnation, the austere nearly 100-year-old State Theatre of California has been turned topsy-turvy by David Meyer’s massive nightclub design. The only seating areas loom high above the action in the mezzanine section and on bleachers placed where the stage would be, all surrounding a huge dance floor covering the venue’s permanent orchestra seats. This leaves the major portion of audience relegated to standing (and dancing) room only around one raised platform and rock concert-style scaffolding that rings the auditorium.

It was quite a shock entering through a shimmering curtain of golden mylar to find my alma mater (from a few hundred years ago when the Playhouse was a college of the theatre arts) so completely and jaw-droppingly transformed. The original two-act musical has also been trimmed to a Vegas-worthy intermissionless 90 minutes so those staying upright won’t by curtaincall end up leaning too often on the set pieces.

Except for the fact that Whitty and Magruder’s script doesn’t make nearly as much sense as it did in the original production which debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, the concept is still a perfect choice to honor the infectious “jukebox” music of those groundbreaking punk-rock icons Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, and Jane Wiedlin. Nobody gathered seemed to care much about the already convoluted plot even back then, the major thing obscured in all this is the original source material: Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century work of prose The Arcadia, which through the centuries has been rewritten and reinterpreted several times before now.

In the original tale Basilius, the Duke of a fictional Grecian kingdom called Arcadia, journeys to see Pythio, the Oracle at Delphos, and receives the bleak prediction that his daughters will be stolen by undesirable suitors, that he will be cuckolded by his wife, and that his throne will be usurped by a foreign state. Hoping to preempt this fate, Basilius entrusts the Arcadian government to his second in command and retires to a pastoral lodge with his wife Gynecia, their daughters Pamela and Philoclea, his servant Dametas, and the latter’s wife and daughter Miso and Mopsa.

Along the way there’s a plethora of mistaken identity and those typical mournful wails issuing from three sets of unrequited Shakespearean-like lovers all told in verse and iambic pentameter, something which, in less talented hands, could have resulted in a confused mash-up of Pippin and Twelfth Night. It’s always puzzling in such tales how few people are able to recognize their potential or even current beloveds when all the person does is don clothes of the opposite sex, but that seems to just be part of the genre—or maybe it was harder to test for 20/20 vision until after the Renaissance. Either way, we are asked to suspend all belief in such epics if we want to hear the story told.

Now Head Over Heels has been turned into a quintessentially contemporary and long overdue celebration of the abandonment of gender and body image as our society leaves the narrowminded dinosaurs behind with the tar lapping at their feet. If audiences find Sir Philip’s timeline impossible to follow, the love the that emerges and the acceptance of the characters’ blossoming sexuality—cleverly utilizing the infectious music of The Go-Go’s as a tool to start folks moving physically while cultivating a more congenial acceptance of others—is well worth the loss.

Instead of going into hiding, King Basilius (a hilarious cigar-chompin’ Lea DeLaria, SAG winner as Big Boo in Orange is the New Black) takes the citizens of his community on the road with him after Pythio (Freddie) tells him if he loses his throne, his subjects will also lose their… guess what? Yup. That. And after the immersive opening number featuring The Go-Go’s most popular hit tune, seeing these gifted Arcadians unable to access their beloved beat would be tragic for everyone on both sides of the footlights.

This clever and flashy parade of this production’s trimmed-down eight-person cast moving through the crowded audience offers a perfect opportunity to introduce the borrowed plot as Magruder’s dialogue makes tongue-in-cheek fun of the limitations inherent in its own reliance on verse. Although wearily searching throughout for her prince charming, Basilus’ eldest daughter Princess Pamela (Tiffany Mann) composes a poem detailing her quest for perfection, puzzling over trying to conjure words to rhyme with “wit,” “China,” and “runt,” if you receive my meaning.

This committed, exceptionally gifted cast is worthy of the task, especially Mann as the plus-size Pamela, a character who in her solo rendition of “Beautiful” seems to have conked her head on an exercise machine ala Amy Schumer to find a pleasing image smiling back at her in her looking glass, while the knockout Emily Skeggs as Mopsa may or may not be intentionally channeling the singing voice of Belinda Carlisle herself.

Ru Paul’s Drag Race All Stars winner Alaska 5000 is a total treat as the deadpanning Eve Arden-esque fashionista Queen Gynecia, who unlike so many drag performers has no need to lipsync her vocals, given a golden opportunity beyond her well-tuned comedic chops to offer some impressive rockin’ out of her own before the final curtain. Shanice Williams steps out from Philoclea’s quiet shadow in the more obscure Go-Go’s ballad “Here You Are” and, as her love interest Musidorus, George Salazar, possessed of a Woody Allen-like comic timing and the voice of a true Broadway belter, handily steals the show when his lowly mooning shepherd boy dons Wonder Women gear to disguise himself as a warrior amazon to be close to his beloved. 

In the original production Peppermint, a well-known contestant in the 9th-season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, made Broadway history as the first transgendered woman cast in a leading role on the Great White Way and here the fascinatingly amorphous Freddie, despite the minimalizing of their character and the loss of outrageous flashiness, also makes an auspicious theatrical debut and proves themselves to be a vocalist to watch closely. A quirky but just right plot twist now allows Pythio to step out of Oracle status to also fall in love with the rubber-limbed Yurel Echezarreta as a new character called The Player, who basically singlehandedly replaces the rest of the musical’s singing and dancing ensemble.

As much as there is to mention about the boldly ambitious new concept, including Hahnji Jang’s Closs-Farley-like costuming shimmering under Stacey Derosier’s gorgeous lighting, Dany Erdberg and Ursula Kwong Brown’s surely challenging sound design impressively filling the cavernous Playhouse, and a knockout all-female band led by Laura Hall with musical direction by Kris Kukul, the true wonder of Head Over Heels is still in its message sandwiched between its wink-wink-nudge-nudge Midsummer Night’s Dream-y slapstick humor. Despite our differences, clearly we’re reminded here that we're all in this together, a particular resonant message as we all tentatively venture out into a brave new world after our long ordeal in communal lockdown.

Whomever thought of melding The Arcadia and its Elizabethan setting with the still joyous and highly infectious 80s music of The Go-Go’s should get special commendation, especially in this unstoppably in-your-face remounting. Still, I did keep contemplating, having attended Head Over Heels after the Playhouse’s usual opening performance, how the traditionally overdressed stiff and sour-faced Pasadena firstnighters took to the venue’s exciting new direction.

Even looking around at the audience in the performance we saw, I kept thinking about my friend who would journey to Vegas four days a week with her band to play 80s dance music in a lounge at the Mirage. They kept their band name to themselves for the gig but my friend told me privately they referred to themselves while working there as “The Drunk White People Dancing Band.”

Man, I gotta tellya, even without liquid encouragement, white people basically do not have the beat. And since the Playhouse’s next presentation opening in February is the west coast premiere of Teenage Dick, Mike Lew’s surely controversial reworking of Shakespeare’s Richard III, I can’t help but wonder how many of their longtime patrons will be seeking a refund of their season tickets. It’s that tar-licking thing, you see.

But! May I venture to say that in a perfect world, Pasadena Playhouse’s magical rethinking of a musical that deserved better than it got in New York won’t end here just before Christmas on El Molino Avenue. I could surely see Head Over Heels in its already 90-minute restructuring as a dazzler of a show taking the Vegas Strip by storm and playing a lengthy permanent tenancy there at the Venetian or Planet Hollywood. 

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A HIT DOG WILL HOLLER at Skylight Theatre

For the inaugural presentation from the newly formed partnership between the Skylight Theatre Ensemble and Playwrights’ Arena, joined together to launch four world premieres during this 2021/2022 season, Inda Craig-Galvan’s A Hit Dog Will Holler immediately informs what the focus of their collaboration will be: diversity.

Anyone even vaguely familiar with the mission and steadfast dedication of both Skylight’s artistic director Gary Grossman and Playwrights’ fearless leader Jon Lawrence Rivera over many years to produce socially relevant drama in Los Angeles will probably not be surprised by this combined direction. Bringing them together is a match made in theatrical heaven. 

This first offering was slated for production directed by Rivera in March, 2020, yet another beautiful thing felled by none other than a slight case of pandemic. This is quite ironic since the play deals with someone isolated in her own home afraid to go out into the sick and dangerous streets of our fucked-up country. With a decidedly surreal bent, Craig-Galvan’s explores the only slightly invisible waves of hatred all African Americans deal with daily in our less than equitable world but, even more spot-on, the trauma and disdain faced by Black women, especially strong and independent women who refuse to back down from addressing the challenges.

Gina (Cheri VandenHeuvel) is a successful social media influencer who has become a highly vocal leader in the movement to call out injustice and bring about change in how our society marginalizes and mistreats people—again focusing on women—of color. For all her online bravado, however, she is severely agoraphobic, never venturing outside her suitably claustrophobic apartment in Chicago’s Hyde Park, something brilliantly accentuated by gossamer but restrictive curtains camouflaging Jan Munroe’s detailed set until Gina reluctantly pulls them aside to give us a better look.

A chance one-time switch in the food delivery person familiar with Gina’s desire for no personal contact leads her into a most complex relationship with Dru (Donna Simone Johnson), also well-known as an activist but whose platform is in the streets, not on the ‘net. Dru, who has become known as the “Banksy of the Black Lives Movement,” has remained in the shadows to avoid prosecution for her crimes of dissidence that might not have pleased authorities.

Delivering food since street justice doesn’t pay as well as Gina’s potential book deal, Dru is at first amused to realize her client’s loud and defiant protests are only on a keyboard and that she is indeed horrified by the door to her apartment opening to let in what she hears as a palpable cacophony of ugly sounds and racial hatred delivered directly at her. From her initial reaction, however, Dru begins to find Gina’s fears are contagious—and not just figuratively.

Guided by Rivera’s signature vision willing to delve into the abstract rather than relying on kitchen-sink drama, aside from the enveloping curtain, demonic noises and a blinding green light emanate from outside whenever the door is opened and projected headlines screech across the back wall between scenes proclaiming the real-time deaths of Breonna Taylor and Arnaud Aubry among far too many others. If the point of A Hit Dog doesn’t hit you like a ton of bricks, you’re incapable of human emotions.

VandenHeuvel skillfully builds her character’s affable and caring spirit despite her circumstances, creating a heartbreakingly broken but still boldly defiant survivor, yet although the emotions she endures are clearly conveyed, her slow and comfortable body language somehow misses the tension and discomfort overpowering Gina’s life.

The quirky Johnson, who appears always ready to spring like a caged animal at the slightest suggestion of danger, still uniquely shows us the long-suffered flashes of pain and hurt lurking just below Dru’s hardened exterior. This is especially noteworthy since the actor, who alternates in the role with Kacie Rogers, was delivering her first performance on the night we attended.

It's been 18 months since the LA theatre community shut down along with most everything else on our planet and it’s interesting to note A Hit Dog was written and in development before we all started peeking out from our own curtains. Craig-Galvan rewrote her searing play to take place during the lockdown and to me it must have enrichened the promising playwright’s message even more pointedly than before.

Dealing with my own sexual misfit-ery at an early age and always there to hear antisemitic remarks and jokes, my Danish pug nose and blond locks disguising my tribe affiliations, I’ve never been one to keep my mouth shut about the inequities clouding the good things in our society. Couple that with being raised among openminded artists and I’m gratefully purdy good to go.

Still, it’s glaringly obvious that Inda Craig-Galvan’s play will have a far more personal and profound impact on African American audiences, as the kind of terror and malaise felt by any person of color or of marginalized sexual identity is something I will never completely know. It will, however, spark my own efforts to make a difference, particularly when so many more of those projected headlines of innocent lives lost because of the color of one's skin or footage of crocodile tears absent from the dry eyes of a murderous teenaged racist on the witness stand must do more than simply make us sick to our stomachs.

A Hit Dog Will Holler is yet another desperately urgent call to action.

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POOR CLARE from Echo Theater Company

As the ridiculously wealthy neophyte socialite Clare sits gossiping with her two attendants braiding her hair, the three giggle and dish as though they were a trio of Beverly Hills High School students getting ready to go hang out at the mall—after all, Clare (Jordan Hall) does have insider status at Sephora.

In Echo’s world premiere of the once Covid-halted Poor Clare, playwright Chiara Atik pokes infectious fun at the thorny issues of entitlement and the overpowering specter of class and social position as her wincingly vapid and shallow characters drop names and whine about such modern institutions as Chipotle, Amazon, and Uber.

The clever twist in Atik’s crafty new play is that despite calling one another “guys” and spouting their share of “not even”-s, these seemingly 21st-century ladies actually live in Italy in the year 1211 and our heroine is in fact Saint Clare of Assisi. Born Chiara Offreduccio in the year 1194, Clare was one of the first followers of St. Francis, the founder of the religious Order of Poor Ladies, and author of The Rule of Life, the first known set of monastic Franciscan guidelines for women.

Under the sharply-tuned direction of Alana Dietze and featuring an excellent and committed ensemble cast, the debut of Atik’s fresh and uncharted take on the classic story shines with the sparkle of a newly polished diamond, leaving behind the usual esoteric and well-trodden bookish histories of these ancient events and delivers them directly into our own media-savvy times.

Atijk’s Clare, who prefers to be thought of as comfortable rather than rich, could easily be a Kardashian or a Hilton or one of the Housewives of Assisi, the difference being it’s doubtful any of today’s current crop of reality show-spawned darlings would ever have been remotely capable of experiencing the spiritual transformation that changed the life of one noblewoman eight centuries ago.

My partner works in the outdoor leadership field hosting many young wealthy LA kids and after the performance of Poor Clare, Hugh recalled something he overheard on an overnight camping trip a couple of years ago. Two kids around 12 or 13, one from Beverly Hills and one from Malibu, were discussing which community was the better place to live. The Beverly Hills kid was, despite the lack of one’s own private ocean, defending his community as a great place to live. Still, after a moment’s thought he innocently and quite earnestly added, “Unless you’re poor, of course.”

It’s not often someone raised with great privilege can recognize and be able to communicate what it must be like to live in poverty. The fact that this playwright is not only capable of making that leap real and understandable for her characters while employing an extraordinary sense of contemporary humor makes this play an instant classic.

Dietze and company prove to be the perfect team to deliver Atik’s message with skill and an equal grasp of what Atik is trying to communicate, that the injustices and inequalities in our world have not yet been conquered by any means all these centuries later—and that we as a species must stop looking away and living our comfortable lives while so many of our brethren continue to do without. As St. Francis tells the suddenly questioning Clare, “If you’re rich, you’re tacitly okay with poverty... there’s no middle ground.”

Hull is remarkable conveying Clare’s metamorphosis from vapid teenager to radical social activist within the limitations of the play’s two-hour runtime, culminating in a stunning Jeanne d’Arc monologue disavowing every comfort her world had to offer to become a lifelong penitent who fought tirelessly to rescue the poor and convince others to join her in her mission.

Ann Noble and Donna Zadeh are the perfect foils for Hull as Clare’s well-meaning but socially unconscious mother and daughter, neither of whom ever present themselves as evil or uncaring but simply clueless, while Kari Lee Cartwright and Martica De Cardenas as their preening and genuflecting maids could easily be servants of today. Although De Cardenas appeared to have a little stumble with lines in the first pivotal scene, hopefully during the run that clumsiness can be chalked up to opening weekend insecurity.

As St. Francis, Michael Sturgis is a major asset to this production, breathing a quirky but all-too human self-deprecation and physical clumsiness into a historic character usually thought of only as a heroic figure. Although Francis prays four hours each night (“That’s always been my body clock,” he explains apologetically), he is quick to defend his mission as a noble one, including the idea that new cushioned pews in the dilapidated San Damiano church he is rebuilding singlehandedly might attract some followers to his cause. And although he worries his new sackcloth tunic has no matching pants, he is relieved it could go with any color.

Sturgis’ Francis is still able to pull himself out of his insecurities at the hint of being misunderstood, bristling at the thought that his mission is a product of his eccentricities rather than be seen as a movement. As he begins to change Clare’s “very limited worldview,” he remains unsure he’s quite ready for disciples. All he really wants is for people to accept him and his beliefs and to ask him “what my deal is.”

There’s still another character however, a homeless beggar who periodically shows up huddled in corners ready to scare the begeezus out of Clare until she begins to realize how much alike they really are despite their disparate circumstances. Although Tony DeCarlo’s performance is full of quiet dignity and a palpable resignation, the role—and the entire debut of this auspicious new play—lives in the overpowering shadow of Robert “Buddy” Stoccardo, the actor originally cast in the role before the pandemic caused the production’s cancellation just before opening night.

Buddy, who left the planet last May after a lingering illness and a difficult isolation chronicled painfully on social media, was something of a legend in our LA theatre community. He was an unpredictable character with a multitude of ever-present personal problems forged by his own unfortunate life experiences, which sadly included spending time living on the streets himself. No one was more fervent about this production and having the privilege of sharing the play’s message than he was.

It’s surely not lost to anyone who knew Buddy Stoccardo why this production has been dedicated to his memory or why his presence seems to hover all around it, demanding us to be moved not only by Chiara Atik’s artistry and Alana Dietze’s ability to so impressively interpret it, but by the powerfully passionate convictions of Poor Clare that never quite changed the world despite everything she sacrificed to make it happen.

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PARADISE BLUE at Geffen Playhouse

Well, gee. I had been procrastinating and agonizing for several days about how much I hated writing a review of Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue. First of all, up until now I thought of Morisseau as an important emerging voice and secondly, I was pleased to return to the Geffen for their first production to open on the theatre complex’ mainstage after our two barren years in lockdown.

Sadly, I was more disappointed with this play than I can say and, when Morisseau pulled the plug and insisted the production close down after only five performances, I didn’t have to sit down and write a negative review after all. I hate writing crappy reviews, especially of a play written by someone challenging the status quo and bringing new blood into the American theatre.

Still, my review would have been a doozy. If I hadn’t been there to cover it, we would have beaten a hasty exit at intermission—and anyone who knows me knows I never ever do that. Now, this doesn’t mean Paradise Blue won’t figure prominently in my TicketHolder Awards for 2021, which were already updated before the surprising cancelation was announced. The design elements were more than spectacular and the acting was bordering on flawless, especially the magnetic, gossamer performance of Shayna Small as the optimistic but victimized Pumpkin. Still, the play itself and the direction of it didn’t make the cut by any means and, as I said, I have loved and been excited by Morisseau’s work in the past. This one was slow and terribly plodding, wincingly predictable, filled with stereotypical characters making contrived entrances and exits, and was overall cursed by extremely clumsy direction.

After receiving the dramatist’s rambling though oddly vague and certainly inflamatory public letter trying to explain why she stopped the show, at first I thought the problems she addressed might have been the cause of my discontent—that is until I learned more about the reality of the situation and realized what she had to say in her pouty and self-indulgent letter was filled with dangerous misinformation. I now realize most of the blame here is that Morisseau's glaringly August Wilson Lite clone of a play is desperately in need of some judicious reworking.

Whoops. Looks like I kinda wrote a review after all.

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at Theatricum Botanicum

There is nothing that serves as a more inspirational example of artistic resiliency in the history of Los Angeles theatre than Theatricum Botanicum’s annual presentation of Shakespeare’s most charming and well-loved fantasy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It was 1973 when Will Geer and his wife Herta Ware decided to open their bucolic secluded Topanga Canyon estate to the public and offer the Bard’s most enduring classic to inaugurate their open-air performance space carved into the side of a wooded canyon ravine under a canopy of majestic and perfectly placed oak trees. Is there a quote in the vast Shakespearean lexicon having something to say about things that are meant to be?

Nestled in the richly verdant natural setting where Geer and many of his Hollywood colleagues fled in 1953 to escape the destructive aftermath of Joe McCarthy’s blacklisting witchhunt, Theatricum Botanicum was an ambitious attempt to create a repertory company focused on presenting the great classics of theatrical literature in such a remote and special setting—and their quintessential mounting of Midsummer  has been the cornerstone of the ensemble’s much-anticipated summer season for the past 48 years.

Although I have not seen Midsummer  presented here for well over a decade, I remembered fondly that my favorite time to schedule a trip up the canyon was to attend one of the early evening shows, where the magic of the familiar tale begins to unfold while the sun slowly sets and the enveloping woods surrounding the stage come alive with shadows of curious bats and the songs of frogs and crickets, as well as Zachary Moore’s dreamlike lighting as Queen Titania (played by the show’s perennial director Melora Marshall) and her otherworldly band of tittering extraterrestrials descend from the hilltop high above in costumer Beth Eslick’s glittering, gossamer fairy-wear.

Under the leadership of Marshall, Ware’s daughter who grew up performing on this very stage while living here in her family’s idyllic Topanga enclave, there is a broadly kinetic, palpably tongue-in-cheek appreciation for and homage to ol’ Will’s most delightful and entertaining classic which permeates this welcoming return to Midsummer,  something obviously elaborated upon and polished by the director over the years to a sparkling sheen.

The smoothly quirky physical comedy—presumably some “bits” perfected while continuously reviving Theatricum’s signature event every 12 months for nearly a half-century, some surely added by the eager castmembers of this current incarnation—is the key to unlocking the wonders of this production and providing an overlying refreshing sense of absolution that easily transcends any roughness and unevenness in the playing style and general professionalism of the cast.

Theatricum employs a handful of AEA contracts each season, several of the Equity performers part of the hardworking Geer clan while other roles are usually fulfilled by longtime ensemble members who have returned each season for as long as two decades. Still, it is the inclusion of other notable LA performers who appear here almost as unspoken “guest artists” that so uniquely energizes these productions.

Other roles are assayed by less seasoned actors, some cast from the local community and many others artists being groomed from the ranks of Theatricum’s many workshops and classes for both children and young adults. The result can occasionally be rocky but ironically for even the most demanding of theatrical purists, it matters not a whit—all is forgiven while enfolded in the enchanted spirit of Will and Herta’s passionate dream so fiercely maintained by their talented and prolific descendants.

The most exciting thing about this year’s return to Midsummer’s  convoluted romp through the haunted woods of Athens is the casting of world-renowned Shakespearean master Lisa Wolpe, founder of the LA Women’s Shakespeare Company and a guest artist-lecturer who has literally toured the globe playing the Bard’s most powerful male characters. Wolpe is simply magnificent as Oberon, legendary Renaissance-era King of the Fairies, giving the role a depth and import that completely commands and energizes the stage with her every appearance. Hers is the definition of quintessential Shakespeare, a performance that rivals the work of my favorite Oberon of all time, Sir Ian McKellan.

Longtime Theatricum mainstays Earnestine Phillips and Thad Geer are well-seasoned assets as the play’s resident buffoons Quince and Bottom, impressively leading their hilarious band of “rude mechanicals” ready to perform Midsummer’s  infamously clunky play-within-a-play with a great sense of comedic abandon, while the most impressive turn in the promising youthful performer-on-the-rise sweepstakes comes from Sara Mountjoy-Pepka, who dazzlingly assays the role of the gangly, lovelorn Helena with a little bit Lucille Ball, a little bit Meryl Streep, and a whole lotta Sutton Foster.

From the ranks of the huge and deliciously eclectic cast, Terrence Wayne Jr. brings a fascinating new contemporary spin to that mischievous forest sprite Puck, even breaking into a bit of hip-hop which works surprisingly well with iambic pentameter, and in an impressively sweet and achingly charming stage debut, the teeny-tiny puppydog-ish Aarush Mehta as the Changeling Boy is surely the cutest and most endearing woodland creature since Bambi.

I could not be more pleased to return to Theatricum Botanicum twice this summer, a place everyone needs to visit whenever they need a little dose of theatrical sorcery and give themselves a respite from the daily horrors of the evening news and revel once again in the resiliency of art and artists, clearly the last people on our troubled planet not ready to totally give up on the future.

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ASCENSION from Echo Theater Company

It’s not always easy to be a reviewer to do what he must to remain credible, especially when one has supreme respect and admiration for the theatre troupe and the impressive group of artists mounting and performing in a show. Such is the case with the world premiere of the D.G. Watson’s futuristic play-ish Ascension which, to make my task even more thorny, was commissioned by the prolific and fiercely talented folks at the Echo Theater Company and now opening at the Atwater Village Theatre.

Among many other diverse accomplishments, Watson arrives with an august track record as a playwright and obviously has an intense interest in the genre of science fiction and personal knowledge of all things cyber. His play—let’s compromise and call it a performance piece—proves itself to be extremely convoluted and mazelike, the scope of which is something quite commendable in itself. Still, Ascension is far more Azimov than Vonnegut and, although I admire both groundbreaking writers, there is no doubt I’d pick up Slaughterhouse Five before Understanding Phsyics.

The point here is that it may be me. Although I could watch the same Twilight Zone marathon every holiday until eternity, I can’t say I’ve ever gotten through 2001: A Space Odyssey once without nodding out here and there. Critiquing is one person’s opinion at all times and in all cases and, when it comes to grokking sci-fi this heavily entrenched in scientific theories and concepts, I confess it may be over my continuously stoned-out and geriatrically-challenged head.

Watson’s tale of a time-traveling scientist (Karen Sours Albisua) and the transparently Big Brother-y invention she develops—which interests a greedy mustache-twirling multimillionaire entrepreneur (Steve Hofvendahl) and catches its creator in its virtual-assistant-from-hellish web—covers about as much new literary ground as watching the evening news from last January 6th on a continuous loop.

It did not take long to get lost in the characters’ jargon and become disinterested in their trials, especially as directed by Ahmed Best with pauses so pregnant if they were a human child they’d pop out already teething. Now, this is the most difficult part, because Best is also a proven talent and the interactive aspects he and Watson have developed together to energize this otherwise flat production are clever and quite unique—including requesting audience members to talk back to the actors and offering some knockout cagey tricks that, without giving anything away, involve things such as asking us to only silence our phones before the show instead of delivering the traditional turn-off speech.

The visuals, including wild geometric projections created by reality designer Jesse Gilbert and a suitably spooky electronic soundscape by Black Music The Avatar, are quite provocative, while the high professionality of the ensemble, all of whom try desperately to make sense out of Watson’s often impenetrable dialogue, helps things out. A tad.

Our poor heroine Dr. Monica Traver, head of AI and Suspended Animation Research at Enventure, Inc., is written as perpetually one-note, continuously troubled and possibly even bordering on menopausal, yet Albisua does a yeoman’s job trying to keep us engaged in her character’s predictable plight. Leandro Cano is solid and increasingly more menacing as the lab’s mysterious caretaker and Gloria Ines as Dr. Traver’s terminally ill daughter could easily have evoked a few audience tears in one poignant recorded monologue if the lag in the program opening night hadn’t lessened the impact of Watson’s best and most engagingly human speech. 

Charrell Mack doesn’t as smoothly survive the limitations of her confused and frightened captive character, but it is clear she has the talent to do more in the future—no pun intended. Still, it is Hofvendahl who generates the evening’s most interesting and multifaceted performance as the initially kindly and gently supportive boss whose charm soon gives way to dastardly villianry.

Three or four times in D.G. Watson’s Ascension, a character looks directly at the audience, those of us gathered who it’s said in the script may or may not be real, and asks us, “Are you still here?” This is a dangerous choice that may along the way bring unintentional giggles or possibly elicit an unwelcome response from someone who’s been encouraged to talk back to the actors. Believe me, if I could have somewhere along the way astral-projected myself directly next door to Momed for a stiff drink, I would have gone *poof* right before their eyes. 

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THE ENIGMATIST at Geffen Playhouse

Man, there’s no theatrical performance piece harder to “review” than a solo show created and helmed by a magician. To make it even more daunting, David Kwong is not just a guy who practices sleight-of-hand—although he is no slouch at making audience-signed dollar bills disappear and then reappear inside a juicy uncut kiwi—he’s a puzzlemaster extraordinaire whose day job is creating those thorny and infamously difficult crosswords in the New York Times I pass over as quickly as humanly possible before they make me feel I must have an IQ of Trumptian minimalism.

The previously announced New York hit The Enigmatist, now finally arriving at the Geffen after being stalled for a rather infuriating period of time by that little inconvenience we call Covid-19, is not really theatre as we know it, but it’s also not a simple magic show. As its charismatic creator repeatedly assures us what a nerd he’s always been, he instead comes off like a brainy Cary Grant, someone we wish would come over for dinner to share a few of his tricks—no pun intended, honest.

Kwong’s Enigmatist  is ominously interactive for someone such as me who appears to have been left brain-challenged since birth, beginning with tickertholders asked to show up early to solve four wall-sized visual puzzles displayed in the Geffen’s courtyard and lobby, the solving of which before the show becoming an important part of the evening’s plethora of onstage brain-twisting enigmas.

Even if the puzzles had been easier—each is displayed with two hidden hints, one small, one large—this night out was our first excursion venturing into the world to experience live theatre not presented in the open air. Perhaps this might seem an excuse, but I’d like to think it was the Evita-esque clustered jumble of herded patrons crowded too close to one another around the displays that left me with one unsolved as the lobby lights started blinking to get us inside and be seated.

Once past the daunting demands of the lobby's posted conundrums, the Geffen’s more intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre has been turned into a kind of huge professor-y study dominated by bookcases filled with scholarly tomes and eclectic tchotchkes. The atmospheric and reassuring space is surrounded on three sides by nightclub chairs and tables replacing most of the seats to help bring Kwong’s audience into the action, not to mention giving those attending a comforting bit of separation. Although the communal respect from the Geffen’s accordant audience members to keep masks placed above our noses did make me feel a tad safer in my current immune-compromised condition, frankly it was just a tad. I sure will be pleased when all the Troglodytes disappear so the rest of us can go back to living freely again.

Kwong’s show astounds from the first traditional illusion and a few card tricks to tell the story of an eccentric midwestern millionaire at the end of the 19th-century named George Fabyen, who was obsessed with deciphering the mysterious legendary code that many thought was secretly placed in the texts of William Shakespeare's plays by Sir Francis Bacon so one day it could be revealed that he was the true author of the Bard’s body of work.

As he tells the tale of “Colonel” Fabyen and the pair of cryptographers who subsequently fell in love after he enticed them both to Riverbank, his massive estate and the private research laboratory he founded in Lake Geneva, Illinois, to break the code. It was a task they  accomplished so well they debunked the theory concerning Bacon's mischief, something which both infuriated their host and subsequently led him to steal credit for their published results. Kwong is a consummate storyteller, easily engaging the audience in what I suspect is a yarn based on fact.

Along the way, Kwong offers visual puzzles and projected quizzes for the audience to unravel, asking those able to do so to stand up and give their conclusions along with their names, places of birth, and an answer a seemingly casual query about some favorite animal or fantasized vacation destination. These responses are, of course, anything but random, leading to the 90-minute presentation’s jaw-dropping conclusion that is one part Kwong but also at least two parts Criss Angel and about a hundred parts David Copperfield.

Judging from those gathered the night we attended, it’s no wonder this show has already been extended through November 14, as it appears there are a heap of veteran puzzle aficionados residing in our reclaimed desert climes, as some of the answers to Kwong’s suitably enigmatic mystifications were shockingly rapid while the rest of us sat in bewildered silence.

Near the eleventh hour, Kwong pulls down an oversized blank crossword grid and before our blinking eyes proceeds to create an entire Times-worthy puzzle. As he shouts out clues to the words he is implementing, people shout out answers so fast I wondered if I should give up considering reading Einstein and make a geriatric return to Dr. Suess or Winnie-the-Pooh. Still none of my personal inadequacies should be a deterrent to catching The Enigmatist—to the contrary, the engaging uber-nerd David Kwong provides a memorably enlightening and challenging evening that also proves itself to be a uniquely satisfying entertainment.   

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THE LAST, BEST SMALL TOWN at Theatricum Botanicum

There is no place anywhere in SoCal as enchanted as Theatricum Botanicum, the boundlessly prolific seasonal open-air theatre company established nearly a half-century ago on the grounds of Will Geer’s Topanga Canyon mountain retreat, the place where the actor had to move in the 1950s when his blacklisting by that Trump-prequel destroyer Joseph McCarthy shredded his career in film.

There, along with many other friends facing the same fate—including Woody Guthrie, who lived out his life there in the small mud hut he built himself which still stands to greet visitors near the entrance to the canyon’s natural wooded amphitheater as a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit—the Geer family established a ragtag artists’ colony where the members, made up of once highly respected and established Hollywood artists, collectively survived their life-altering ordeal by selling homegrown produce on the highway.

Through the years and thanks to the unstoppable dedication to the performing arts by Will’s former late wife Herta Ware and under the scrappy artistic direction of his daughter Ellen, Theatricum has become established as one of the most unique performance arts venues anywhere in the country. Each summer, the complex presents several classic plays performed in repertory with an emphasis on the Shakespearean classics Ware and Geer championed fiercely.

Usually however, the season includes one contemporary piece—customarily a world premiere—and this season is no exception. Los Angeles-based Latinx playwright John Guerra’s The Last, Best Small Town  is a clever updating of Thornton Wilder’s enduring 1938 classic drama Our Town,  spanning the years between 2005 and 2009 all wound up in the intertwined lives of a pair of ethnically-disparate neighboring families occupying adjacent homes in the nearby Ventura County town of Fillmore.

The stuff of their lives through the years, with an emphsis on the culturally-diverse problems facing the two families, are overseen from the future perspective of the character of the playwright himself, the traditional Grover’s Corners stage manager role here gratefully assigned to and in the always-capable hands of Leonardo Cano, another true LA theatrical treasure.

As the early years of the new century unfold, the storyline Cano recounts directly to the audience centers around the blossoming love between young Maya Miller and her neighbor Elliot Gonzalez (Jordan Tyler Kessler and Kelvin Morales) as they grow from bratty childhood into their coming of age teen years as they attempt to quell their teenage angst and raging hormones in a world that in the early days of our fucked-up 21st century can no longer offer them the Golden Ticket to our country’s long-lost and sorrowfully lamented American Dream.

There is often at Theatricum Botanicum an oddly overlooked unevenness in the performing styles of the actors, something that can not only usually be forgiven but even embraced if it’s in a production of one of Shakespeare’s or Oscar Wilde’s often operetic classics where overemoting and the exaggerated projecting of voices in an effort to reach the back bleachers high up in the hillside is indeed part of the charm. In more contemporary faire, this theatrical conceit instead tends to hinder the performance. Under Ellen Geer’s direction, so well established on this stage over the years, the individual work is unfortunately glaringly spotty.

The pearl-clutching melancholy and wistful expressions, delivered directly above the high canyon-y place where the audience is sure to see the emotional trauma of the members of the two otherwise highly endearing families, is overshadowed by the intensely realistic and more naturalistic work of other castmembers—particularly the amazingly simple and highly grounded performance of Cano which provides the theatrical glue holding everything together despite any inherent internal flaws in Guerra's script.

This welcoming simplicity is also true of the three actors cast as the male members of the Gonzalez family: the proud and hard-working patriarch played lovingly by Richard Azurdia, Morales as the conflicted son bursting with a need to find a new way to live without his parents’ sacrificing everything to make it so, and especially a highly memorable turn by Miguel Perez as the clan’s ne’er-do-well and often drunken grandfather—someone who through his troubles still appears to have more sense than any other character in the piece besides his grandson.

As with most first productions of a worthy play, The Last, Best Small Town,  although fascinating in its look into the cultural inequities of contemporary life, is also in need of further finetuning. Guerra, of both Boyle Heights Mexican and midwestern Caucasian ancestry, surely has the beginnings of a wonderful new contemporary American classic, especially noteworthy for his crisp and often exceedingly clever tongue-in-cheek dialogue, as well as his insight into both cultures here clashing over the families’ backyard fences.

There is also a rather blatant predictability in the situations unfolding in his heartfelt play and I would imagine there are very few audience members who, by the end of Act One, have not already anticipated what the surprise twist finishing the act is going to be. This is also true of the play’s climatic scene, which is not only predictable but underwritten, leaving us both unsurprised by events unfolding between the young lovers and disappointed the ending is not more uniquely satisfying.

Some of this could be forgiven if indeed Guerra takes a little time and delves more deeply into the unfortunate inequitable issues fostered by the two families’ societal differences instead of just hinting at them throughout the piece—and me'thinks this particular highly promising new playwright is the perfect guy to take them on headfirst.

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TENDERLY: THE ROSEMARY CLOONEY MUSICAL at Ensemble Theatre Company

If you live in Los Angeles, heading to Santa Barbara to see a production mounted by the venerable Ensemble Theatre Company at the New Vic is usually well worth the trip—and then of course, it’s also a swell excuse for planning an overnight or weekend mini-vaca to one of our state’s most beautiful and historic regions.

The first production in ECT’s valiant (and exceptionally safe) attempt to return to normalcy, the company reopens with the SoCal premiere of the regionally well-traveled musical Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical, which unfortunately sports a flawed and glaringly chopped-up book by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman yet also features one noteworthy reason for a trip up our coast: a spectacular tour de force turn by Linda Purl in the title role. 

Although I will do my best, perhaps I am not the best guy to be completely objective in covering this show since Rosie was one of my dearest friends and early mentors when as a young pup I first arrived in Lost Angeles and later became my frequent "plus-one" when I began reviewing theatre in the late 80s. In turn, I was her “date” for many of the social events and benefits she attended when I was editor of the Beverly Hills Post before she found and connected with her lost love Dante DiPaolo in the mid-90s.

I was also given an earlier version of this script when it was first being passed around more than a decade ago to see if my personal insight could help it grow. I’m not sure what the authors thought of my input but, judging from where Tenderly has gone since then, not much, it seems.

Although setting the musical in the mental hospital where Rosie was admitted after her notorious breakdown in 1968 while performing onstage in Reno is a clever hook, it also tends to make Tenderly more about Rosie’s woes and many trials in her journey than it celebrates her infectious humor and joy for life that I was lucky enough to be privy to until her passing from lung cancer in 2002.

What’s missing here is Rosie’s incredibly quick and world-class wit, something that easily helped her hold her own against some of her many celebrated comedian friends. The absence of this integral part of one of the most spirited and resilient people I have even known makes it hard for me to see her portrayed as troubled 90% of the time in this predictable “And-then-she-wrote” musical chronicling of her life.

Despite this, Purl is magnificent in the challenging role, astoundingly able to create, under the guidance of one of LA’s best directors Jenny Sullivan (something to which I can personally attest having the supreme privilege of being directed by her myself several times), an indelible and multifaceted characterization despite the script’s lack of depth in the portrayal of the larger-than-life musical icon. Beyond the limitations given them by the playwrights, however, there's definitely a complete person created here and may I also say how uncannily Miss Purl has managed to duplicate Rosie’s vocal stylings and phrasing, as well as the uniqueness of her voice, complete with those eerie lower ranges that always made her sound as though was singing through a bad cold.

Although when I was given one of the first versions of Tenderly to peruse and comment upon, unless my quickly disappearing memory does not serve me, it featured several actors and, although most of them played various people weaving in and out of Rosie’s life, here David Engel has the exhausting task of playing everyone in the story, sometimes in ridiculously quick turnarounds. This includes the psychiatrist who helped Rosie through her breakdown, as well as her ex-husband Jose Ferrer, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dante, even her mother and sister Betty, someone Engel impressively assays in a musical duet of “Sisters” from White Christmas brightly choreographed by Jean Michelle Sayeg.

The majorly talented LA musical theatre veteran Engel, who understandably is most comfortable in Tenderly’s musical interludes, faces a near-impossible task of making all this work and generally it does, although after awhile one might hope we could be trusted to recognize these characters without him having to grab Betty’s scarf, der Bingle’s ever-present pipe, or Sinatra’s cocked fedora with jacket swung over one shoulder each time he saunters on. We get it without the need for such visual overkill, honest. 

The onstage trio featuring musical director George Friedenthal on keyboards, David Hunt on drums, and Rob Moreno on bass, contribute quintessential accompaniment to Purl’s memorable recreations of Rosie’s most famous hits—particularly the title song and “Hey There”—and the design elements are impressive throughout, notably Francois-Pierre Couture’s creamily rich and evocative lighting. Again, what doesn’t live up to everything else about this production is the book, which seems to have been written by two rabid fans intent on namedropping every famous person who ever came into Rosemary’s life, from Bing to Frank to Bobby Kennedy to even a completely unnecessary mention of her sharing a bowl of chili at Chasen’s with Gregory Peck.  

No designer contributes more to any production than costumer extraordinaire Alex Jaeger, but here he is hampered by the title character spending the entire production dressed in a dowdy blue hospital gown, only to blossom way too late in the second act into one of Rosie’s glamorous and gorgeous shimmering stage gowns—something she had rows and rows of glistening behind hermetically-sealed glass doors in the remodeled room adjacent to the ever-cluttered and chaotic upstairs bedroom suite in her now sadly demolished Beverly Hills house on Roxbury Drive (the former home of George Gershwin, in front of which young Miguel and Rafi Ferrer sold lemonade to passing tourists).

In a fine example of the lategreat star’s warpspeed self-deprecating humor so glaringly absent here, I was instantly reminded, seeing Miss Purl enter for the last scene decked out in Jaeger's perfect recreation of one of Rosie’s many lavishly sequined plus-sized camouflaging jackets, that she had dubbed them with an especially endearing tag. I heard it for the first time one day as she prepared to leave town on tour when she asked me if I wanted to go with her to her dressmaker’s where she was getting fitted for her “new tents.” 

See, this is the Rosemary Clooney still lost in Tenderly. A friend commented after the show, “My god, I never knew what an awful life she led!” No, actually she didn’t—but only because she innately knew, despite those infamously public lapses, how to rise above the trials and tribulations of her life, a gift which has been a huge inspiration in how I’ve lived my own life. Now, that’s the part of the story I hope will still one day be told.

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MY FAIR LADY at the Dolby Theatre

Under the precision and loving directorial eye of theatrical magician Bartlett Sher, the majestic 2018 Broadway revival of the usually too-often revived musical My Fair Lady, now playing at the equally majestic Dolby Theatre, pays a palpable and most respectful homage to the original production, successfully conjuring the overwhelming sense of having stepped back in time to 1956 when this enduring classic first debuted.

The musical itself, of course, pays such homage to G.B. Shaw’s original 1913 theatrical masterpiece Pygmalion, so much so in fact that personally I’ve always believed the credits, instead of listing Alan Jay Lerner for book and lyrics, should read “Book by George Bernard Shaw with lyrics added by Alan Jay Lerner.” Simply saying “Adapted from…” is not enough since almost all non-musical scenes are lifted directly from the play word-for-word—one reason Lady runs almost three hours, the extra time piled on by Frederick Loewe’s score, beautiful and welcome though it is.

In general, the ensemble is exceptional, particularly notable for powerful vocals and well-drilled choreography from Christopher Gattelli. Dressed to the nines in Catherine Zuber’s Tony Award-winning period costumes and dodging Michael Yeargan’s massively creative but ever on-the-move sets, this touring cast is both talented and, with a tip of the hat to our otherwise current restrictive times for the arts, in this case pleasingly diverse.

Shereen Ahmed makes a memorable Eliza Doolittle, smoothly navigating her character’s traditionally difficult transformation from “gutter snipe” (ol’ G.B.’s description here, not mine) to elegant and fashionable London lady at the turn of the 20th century with surprising believability. She has strong support from a wonderfully unstuffy Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins, Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering, Gayton Scott as Mrs. Pearce, and Sam Simahk as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a character I played so many times as a yung’un I almost began singing along through my mask right from Row J about the pavement always staying beneath my feet before.

Still, it is Adam Grupper’s Alfred P. Doolittle who steals the show, especially in the production’s best and most enjoyable musical number, “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Grupper also offers the production’s most authentic Cockney accent, a fact that had me scrambling through the program to see if the cast has a dialect coach traveling on the road with them. Surprisingly, they have.

Unfortunately, Laird Mackintosh is a lot too young and lots more too bland as Henry Higgins, a role that takes the charm of a Rex Harrison to make the woman-hating confirmed bachelor linguistics professor still somehow remain endearing and lovable despite wanting to tell him off a few times during his grumpy and decidedly 19th-century diatribes about class and gender.

Add in that Mackintosh seemed to always be a tad ahead of John Bell’s orchestra and that, again in our current “woke” era, the character’s misogyny comes off more thorny than ever… well, let me just say I’d love to see this actor play the role in another decade. In the meantime, someone please cast him as Albert in Bye Bye Birdie.

Maybe the most apparent new spin on this old familiar tale is also in the modern updating of the second act that brings My Fair Lady into 2021 with a significant snap: not only does Eliza become a poised lady able to turn every head at the Embassy Ball, she also grows a spine and a couple of cajones under her glittering Tony-winning gowns.

Whereas in the original, the play happy-ends with a romantic embrace despite Higgins barking (affectionately?) at Eliza, “Fetch me my slippers, girl!,” in Bart Sher’s crafty rethinking of Shaw’s century-old sensibility, without changing a word of dialogue our heroine here pulls the perfect Nora, raising her head high and stately sauntering right the heck out of the doll’s house.  

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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.

[INTERMISSION]  

 

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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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