THE BONEYARD 

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

 

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.

 *  *  *

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.

 *  *  *

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?

 *  *  *

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”).

 *  *  *

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.

 *  *  *

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.

 *  *  *

NOW YOU KNOW WHERE THE BODIES ARE BURIED

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