TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Summer 2019 to... ? 

Painting of Hershey Felder as Claude Debussy by Travis Michael Holder 

A PARIS LOVE STORY at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

During my third bout with the Big C in the mid-1980s, when I ignored the direness of my doctors’ warnings for immediate action and said, “I can’t now... I’m about to open in a play,” I was asked in a newspaper interview about my performance—ironically it was as a dying cancer patient in The Shadow Box—and what my greatest impetus was for staying alive. I replied with a fair amount of seriousness, “Stephen King is publishing a new novel in January and I don’t want to miss it.”

Fast-forward 34 years and, surviving two more battles (and one recent false alarm) to not shuffle off my mortal coil just yet, I might say something of the same, only this time I would surely answer, “Hershey Felder is returning next year to debut his next ‘Composer Sonata’ playing Rachmaninov.”

Oh, but I surely am getting ahead of myself, as Los Angeles is currently able to enjoy the most recent of Felder’s remarkable solo creations as he instantly slips into the skin (and facial hair) of Claude Debussy before our very eyes as part of his ninth incarnation channeling some of the world’s greatest composers—and one President.

Felder, someone Time Magazine in 2014 called a “one-man cottage industry,” does far more than conjure the incredibly inventive French composer (1862-1918) in his A Paris Love Story, now stopped in our often culturally-depleted desert climes for far too brief a stay. In his most personal outing yet, he appears as Debussy relating the story of Felder’s own discovery at age 19 of the City of Lights, sweeping us all with him as he first walked in the massive shadow of his youthful musical inspiration.

It was 25 years ago when Felder took to the intimate stage of the still sorely-missed Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood to first bring his George Gershwin Alone to life, playing the great American composer as he told the story of his own life interspersed with details of how he created his ethereal music. Where the signature wonder came in then, and continues to come in to this day, is that Felder is not only a master storyteller and gifted actor but also a virtuoso pianist.

Since then, over the past quarter-century he has toured in eight subsequent solo creations, playing (and playing) Fryderyc Chopin, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Leonard Bernstein, Irving Berlin, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and even one surprising departure as Abraham Lincoln, in some 6,000 performances in more than a dozen countries.

Still, this latest outing as Dubussy might be my own favorite since falling in love bigtime with the man when he first sat at Gershwin’s own piano borrowed from the composer’s estate and not only channeled the man himself but delivered the most powerful rendition of his 1924 classic orchestral composition Rhapsody in Blue I have ever heard.

Of course, there would have been no Gershwin if it had not been for the impressionistic musical innovations pioneered by Debussy, whom Felder in his traditional post-show question and answer session on opening night identified as the father of jazz—something he then clarified by returning to his Steinway to play interludes that indeed recalled the later work of Gershwin, not to mention Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, and many others who owe the man an enormous debt of gratitude.

On the Wallis Center’s welcoming stage and orchestrated under the gossamer directorial hand of Trevor Hay, Paris comes to glorious life in Felder’s own design featuring a massive depiction of Le Pont des Arts Bridge split by a well-oiled grand piano and dwarfed by Christopher Ash’s haunting watercolor-y projections of the world’s most glorious city, a place where, Felder reminds us, “If one is to be lost, it’s best to be lost in Paree.”

Never before has this guy so completely drawn me into a story, which begins with Felder speaking to us as himself until he seats himself at his Steinway, takes out a hand mirror, and applies Debussy’s moustache and goatee. Suddenly morphing into the man and switching into a confident baritone while speaking broken English, Felder lets his idol tell his own personal tale as he gestures to the empty bench where Felder first sat taking in the city where the composer found the passion to create his “harmonic invention.”

Felder needn’t have journeyed from Montreal to bond with Debussy. Discovering his music, particularly Clair de Lune, which he first heard at a young age on one of his parents’ Readers Digest recordings of great music, made his head explode. “All I ever needed to travel,” he admits, “is sound.” Lucky for us, travel he does—performing, he tells us, about 320 days a year.

Felder recalls sharing his blossoming devotion for Debussy with his ailing mother, a bond that solidified a difficult relationship since she was to spend her years from when he was age 7 until she died when he was 13 basically in bed and usually in great pain. Still, their mutual love for Clair de Lune prompted her last words to him: “Remember the moonlight.”

What is the most eye-opening in Felder’s revelations about the composer was the man’s passion for the natural world around him despite the horrors of a world at war, so clearly influencing the genius of his art as he tirelessly attempted to conjure “musique that only engaged with nature,” creating notes that would evoke the sounds of water flowing, butterflies gracefully floating through the breeze, and the citizens of his beloved Paris walking through the streets of his city.

As his tale so magically unfolds—again, with the considerable aid of Ash’s incredible background art and bold monumental projected sketches of Paris, not to mention his dreamlike lighting plot—Felder returns again and again to his instrument to provocatively play Dubussy’s illusionary compositions, including his groundbreaking 1903 “symphonic sketches” known as Le mer and something that made my own head explode at about age 6, Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, composed in 1894 and subsequently the basis for the enduring ballet The Afternoon of the Faun, choreographed and originally performed by Vaslav Nijinsky in 1912.

Along the way he interweaves memories of his relationship with and early loss of his mother, one aspect of which, as I thanked him profusely for mentioning after his show, kindled in me an answer to a lingering doubt I've had for several years about my relationship with my own mother, who passed away 54 years ago when I was also still a teen.

As Shelley once noted, “Artists and poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.” Felder once said his obsession with quality in his work is paramount to his efforts to create, feeling he has a responsibility to his audience to do so. When art can put parts of a difficult and complicated puzzle back together again so suddenly, it thrills me to again realize how gently art is able to heal us so completely.

“Is it real or is it a dream?” Felder asks as he finishes bringing us to tears again and again while recreating the glorious music of yet another true genius, and once again I am reminded why I fight so hard to continue breathing and keep learning new lessons on a daily basis.

Art and music, Felder admits from the stage, are the only places where he feels “truly safe.” Whether this sentiment was meant as his own source of inspiration or as Claude Debussy’s—or both—I know not since the two begin to meld into one in his A Paris Love Story. I only know nothing could resonate as completely with me as that thought and I plan to stick around long enough to be moved and amazed by Hershey Felder’s commitment to his life’s work and the education of those of us willing to listen, just as long as he keeps creating his inimitable art so clearly meant to energize the lives of us all.

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DANA H. at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

On Andrew Boyce’s authentically dismal 70s-ish motel room set, actress Deirdre O’Connell enters the room from the blindingly white light of the outside world accompanied by a stage manager who hooks her up with earphones and a mic as she takes centerstage in a lone easy chair to greet the audience. From above, a supertitle tells us O’Connell will not be speaking throughout the one-person Dana H. but instead will be lipsyncing the entire performance concocted from taped interviews with playwright Lucas Hnath’s mother.

These spellbinding taped interviews, conducted at Hnath’s request by Steve Cosson, artistic director of The Civilians Theatre Company in New York City where Dana H. was originally commissioned and developed, tell the true story of Dana Higginbotham, a hospital chaplain in Orlando, Florida who was abducted and horribly abused by a psychotic prison inmate she had counseled after one of his many failed suicide attempts.

Hnath, one of the hottest of millennial playwrights just now (author of The Christians, Hilary and Clinton, Red Speedo, and a Best Play Tony nominee last year for A Doll’s House, Part Two), was a student at New York University in the late 90s when Higginbotham was being dragged around North Carolina and Florida as a bruised and battered prisoner of Jim, a proud member of the powerful prison gang the Aryan Brotherhood who at first ironically sought her advice about repenting and becoming a priest.

Released to a halfway house but first welcomed into Higginbotham’s home for the Christmas holidays, Jim sought out his mentor after trying to live on his own, breaking into her home and breaking her nose on their first meeting when she tried to get away from him.

Throughout her horrendous five-month ordeal, Higginbotham tried several times to escape and seek the intervention of the authorities to get out of the monstrous Jim’s predatory grasp, only to be met with shoulder shrugs and all the ridiculous reasons why she could not be helped—testament to how women at risk are treated in our fucked-up society and, especially, in the deplorably bigoted, misogynistic and, fueled by the immoral “leadership” of our Celebrity Appresident Traitor Tot, ever-increasingly more boldly corrupt American South.

Hnath transformed the tapes of his mother’s confessions to Cosson for the stage, editing them seamlessly into his riveting solo show, made even more riveting by the unbelievably committed appearance of O’Connell, who without much movement until near the end of the 70-minute performance smoothly portrays Higginbotham and matches her casually recorded words as the real victim’s voice jars the Douglas with her steady though wary delivery.

Under the surprisingly kinetic direction of Les Waters and with the help of Steve Cuiffo as her lipsyncing consultant, O’Connell is a marvel, bringing her subject to life and celebrating her strength and emotional rollercoaster ride with jaw-dropping results, including every embarrassed ironic giggle, every incomplete thought, every hesitant vocal catch without even a momentary slip.

Even the rustling of papers she carries to help her remember the timeline of her ordeal, the tinkling of her charm bracelet, or the fumbling with a stack of photographs and almost dropping one, all of which were caught on tape, are mimed expertly, creating an indelible portrait of Higginbotham, who herself was brought onstage by O’Connell opening night at curtaincall and honored with a prolonged and incredibly enthusiastic standing ovation.

Dana H. is a haunting tale of survival, told with unique and never-before attempted innovation of pure theatrical genius. As someone who since early childhood has literally spent all of my life surrounded by and devoted to the wonders of creating theatre—especially in the experimental creation of groundbreaking new forms—may I say without hesitation what Hnath has here wrought, energized and brought to glorious life by the unbelievably creative collaboration of Waters and O’Connell, has totally blown my mind.

Just when I thought I was too old to ever experience anything really new on a stage that wasn’t just another take on old rules and expectations, I am blown away by Lucas Hnath and hope beyond hope I stick around long enough to see what he achieves next.

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As part of my students’ final project at the end of a semester teaching 20th-century plays and playwrights, I always offer extra credit if they can write a mini-essay speculating why I chose the five plays we study in depth, beginning with Chekhov’s 1904 “comedy” The Cherry Orchard and finishing the semester examining Tracy Lett’s 2007 contemporary masterpiece August: Osage County.

If any of them realize my subtle point is that over the century between the time those two great literary masterpieces were first presented, nothing much has changed—and that our species is as messed up and incapable of learning lessons from our past as we were 100 years ago—their grades go up considerably.

The pre-curtain recorded greeting accompanying Tim Robbins and Adam Simon’s outrageous 1985 farce Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer, currently being revived at Robbins’ always groundbreaking Actors’ Gang, asks us to turn off our cellphones and locate the nearest exits in case of fire or the total collapse of the American democracy. Somehow, after the initial laughs subside, there’s a palpable air of dread that hangs over the audience all these years later when such an idea is not that unthinkable.

Even without a bizarre yellow cotton candy wig and tacky red tie hanging down to his teenytiny testies, it’s not hard to realize the clown-white-faced Maximilian Enormous, leading player in Robbins and Simon’s comedia dell’arte-inspired satire blasting militarism and media manipulation, immediately reminds us of our dear Celebrity Appresident Donald J. Douchebag, who back in the mid-80s when this production first debuted was probably busy losing his first billion and backrupting one of his early business enterprises.

Max (splendid Gang stalwart Will Thomas McFadden, who in his heavily-kohled white face resembles Dwight Frye as Renfield) earnestly insists he isn’t a monster simply because his ridiculously profitable conglomerate Maximillian Enterprises “put the ME in America” and he swears he doesn’t want to use his wealth and power to interfere with the laws of nature—as long as no one gets in the way of his obsession to live forever.

The irony of this character, who so bigly conjures our Traitor-Tot-in-Chief, is he was created 30-something years ago. Violence was first presented by the Gang way back then, originally directed by its co-author himself, their prolific founder and artistic director. Of course, political corruption, corporate greed, and the obscenity of celebrity is hardly a new theme in underground theatre; to the contrary, it’s the major part of what made the four-and-a-half century old comedia such a significant part of the history and development of dramatic literature as we know it.

Still, Robbins and Simon might have had a crystal ball when they sat down to noodle out Violence,  a nagging windmillian quest that made them feel obligated to warn us of what might come to be. Through the wackiness and absurdity of the situations and performances, so splendidly fleshed out in the direction of Bob Turton, there lurks an urgent three decade-old message beyond the humor. Sorry to say, no one back then seemed to listen.

Spike Spangle and his wife Flora (Tom Szymanski and Andrea Monte Warren) are simple farmers, struggling to stay afloat in a dying profession as they expect their first child. Turned down by a dastardly villainous banker (director Turton, another of the Gang’s resident geniuses) for a loan to help them get through their crisis, Spike at his lowest point is chosen randomly to join a collective of both real-life and fictional celebrities—including Superman, Sly Stallone as Rambo, Elmer Fudd, Anson Williams, and “little Mary Lou Retton”—to be sent off into the cosmos on Maximillian Enterprises’ Elon Musk/Jeff Bazos-esque Celebrity Space Shuttle (I told you Robbins and Simon had a crystal ball) to become the first farmer in space.

Accompanied by a shitload of money, this offer is the answer for which Spike has prayed, the proudest thing that has happened to him since 1973 when he had his picture taken during the International Year of the Farmer, although Flora is far more wary and suspicious of his potential ride off into the galaxy.

What is untold is that Max is conspiring in the mission with the greedily self-serving leaders of the U.S. military who plan to blow up the spacecraft as a convenient way to start a war in the Mideast, the personal sacrifice of these untrained celeb astronauts paving the way for the dastardly CEO and the boys of the Pentagon to unleash the most powerful superweapon in the history of our country—which, as Jimmy Carter noted recently, has been involved in one profitable war after another for all but 16 years of A'murka's 243-year history.

Of course, the drooling generals leering and sticking their tongues out from under Erhard Stiefel’s unsettling expressionless masks see their mission as honorable, made even more acceptable by asking their spiritual guide the Reverend (Jeremie Loncka) to say a prayer for the doomed otherworldly mission is perfectly chosen to reflect their own goals, ending in “…and keep them safe from Communism, even in space.”

David Robbins’ musical choices, from pop tunes to TV jingles from the era when Violence first debuted are golden, as is video editor Peter Lazarus’ running montage of bad space movies and popular commercials selling, selling, selling us lemmings anything we were dumb enough to buy.

The cast is, as always for the Gang, insanely committed and uniformly unstoppable in the range of their antics and movement, with McFadden particularly brilliant as Max and Stephanie Pinnock a standout as his over-the-top yet bloodless girlfriend welcoming the Spangles to the CEO’s quintessentially grand but vapidly soulless Hollywood party. Warren and Szymanski are excellent as the everyman famers, the only performers onstage without a mask or makeup—that is until Spike succumbs to the celebrity to which he is tantalized to join.

Turton’s staging is spot-on and uncannily true to the original material throughout, his directorial debut on the Gang’s mainstage beautifully augmented by his turn as a disheveled, incoherent, coke-addicted Superman furious that the current depiction of himself back then was only chosen because his last name was Reeve.

As Turton writes in his program notes, “Bringing [Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer] back to life represents not only an opportunity to pay homage to our roots as a company, but also to look back and realize that the conflicts, scandals, heroes, and villains of that time are the same threats to our culture, society, and entire civilization today. Hold onto your armrests as we accelerate this theatre to 88 miles per hour, engage the flux capacitor in the lighting booth, and unleash a 1.21 gigawatt torrent of 1985 Actors’ Gang Rocket Sauce!” I for one, could not be more grateful they did.

Now, grant me a well-meaning personal aside:

Although I miss getting paid, as I did for so many years for my reviews, the thing I love most about writing for my own website is I don’t have to adhere to any rules of journalism and AP Style that always hampered my work in print media. Except for my weekly column which ran for 21 years in Entertainment Today, where I could express myself however I wanted as long as my copy filled the empty space around the ads (prompting my friend John Wimbs to once dub me the Dorothy Parker of the West Coast), using “I” in a piece or relating my thoughts to my own personal experience was strictly verboten. When I was an editor myself, I didn’t change or deflate any of my writers’ opinions; I only corrected their punctuation, grammar, and misspelled words. This was not a luxury afforded me for a long time. Now I’m poorer but far more content.

Which is a lead-in to say something about Tim Robbins I never could have related in a more professional venue. This man, someone I’m proud to say has become a friend over the years mainly because of my devotion to the relentless social advocacy of his theatre company, is a hero to me. He has never been someone who shutthefuckup about his personal beliefs and opinions in order to please—or I should say not displease—the powers-that-be in our fickle and rule-demanding industry who can so easily make or break a career.

The Actors’ Gang, Tim’s 38-year-old personal passion project that has taken on the establishment and the dangers of conservatism since its inception in 1981, has proven that fact repeatedly, especially considering the many original scripts and like-minded productions, many of them touring literally all over the world, he has himself contributed to the cause without fear or regard for professional backlash.

Add in his company’s Prison Project, which brings art as a redemptive tool to incarcerated men, women, and children in 12 California prisons, and their Education Department, helping public school kids to discover a new confidence, creativity, and most of all respect for one another, and if I were religious I’d put his name in the hat for some kind of modernday artistic sainthood. The clear decency inherent in Tim Robbins’ activism in no way is linked to any kind of ulterior motive; it’s just who he is in a most elemental way.

Opening night of Violence, as we were entering the theatre, Tim was helping an elderly lady in a walker navigate the Gang’s steep stairs and get to her seat without mishap. My humor sometimes is too spontaneous and without filter and, as we greeted one another, in jest I said conspiratorially in his ear, “Thinking about your liability insurance, are you?”

Tim looked suddenly stricken. “No, no” he quickly answered, “I just want to be sure everyone is comfortable.” I felt kinda awful through the rest of the evening, but in retrospect, that’s just the kind of man this guy is—although for us mere mortals, his unswerving generosity of spirit and caring nature can sometimes make one feel a bit humbled in the presence of his goodness, not to mention his personal courage in his art to call a spade a spade.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but although most anyone interested enough to still be reading this and/or to be interesting in offering support to the humanitarianism and activism of Tim Robbins and his Actors’ Gang, I assume is also someone who constantly tries to be an honorable and productive member of our downward-spiraling and majorly fucked-up society, I think something deserves to be noted once again.

We are all of us done in by one major flaw in our genetic makeup, it seems to me. There’s a constant battle in our journey as human beings to think beyond ourselves and fight one huge flaw in our collective humanity: the need to feel superior to someone else. Even more importantly, we have to recognize and not blame others around us for where we now find ourselves in our species’ evolution.

“These are not actors,” we’re told in so many recent TV commercials. “They are real people.”

In Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer, those creatively unstoppable Actors’ Gang members sweating off their weirdly wonderful kabuki makeup and flicking their tongues out from under Stiefel’s hauntingly creepy masks are not just actors either. They are us. We are them. It’s a shame it’s always so hard to remember that, to recognize and live with that, even as we try our best at every opportunity to defy the shortcomings inherent in our own human nature.

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