THE BONEYARD  

TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Summer to Fall 2019 

PARTY OF TWO at the Groundlings Theatre

As you might know—certainly all LA publicists do—I don’t usually write about anything already closed or about to close. Still, I’m going to make a special exception here because I truly believe Party of Two, the one-night cabaret event presented at the Groundlings Theatre and starring current Groundling Michael Churven and my dear friend and original Groundling George McGrath, needs to be rebooked for a long and surely successful run.

Doing a show such as this featuring, as the release promised, songs you’ve probably heard before and personal stories you definitely have not, has been a longtime wish for George (“WISH? Did somebody say WISH?” to quote an old friend of his) that finally came to glorious fruition last night.

To say Party of Two,  lovingly directed by Deanna Oliver, was a bit of theatrical enchantment would be a major understatement. Between Michael’s history in musical theatre and George’s Bernadette Peters CD collection, from the very start, their mutual love for the genre and desire to pay homage to it was clearly apparent.

Seldom has a millennial cabaret act featuring such an eclectic array of less-than mainstream material been part of most performers’ usual repertoire, revisiting songs here from Sunset Boulevard, Dear Evan Hansen, Jekyll and Hyde, Wicked,  and even Charles Busch’s quickly-failed Boy George musical Taboo, not to mention a dance number set to a forgotten old duet from Streisand and Donna Summer.

Between the musical interludes came those golden personal stories, from Michael and George both living with diabetes to stories of what it is to be a gay man in a world that sometimes spins faster than we are able to control. George, a Groundlings mentor to Michael for years, also suffered many age-related quips along the way, with Michael poking fun at George’s attainment of senior citizen status and having tales to tell he was quick to point out happened before he was born.

Consciously or not, the pair perfectly aced an updated Bud and Lou or George and Gracie routine throughout the evening, with each graciously taking turns being the ditzy one or the straight man—if you’ll excuse the expression. Of course, feigned-curmudgeon Mr. McGrath had far more stories to offer, from once being discovered naked in a bedroom closet by a young man’s screaming mother or pretending to be asleep while getting a blowjob from a potential employer when he first arrived penniless in LA, while the charming Australian-born Michael had more G-rated and far-less juicy tales to tell. Give him time, right?

Still, things balanced out nicely, as Michael is obviously the more seasoned singer and musical theatre performer, while George is a much-awarded comedy veteran with four Emmy nominations under his belt over the years, two prime time noms for writing and appearing on Tracey Takes All  and two daytime honors for writing Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

George also wrote the feature film Big Top Pee-Wee and provided the voices on the series for Globey, the Flowers, the Fish, Countess the Cow, as well as appearing as Zyzzybalubah, my favorite lonely space alien who abducted the Playhouse Gang to play with him on his planet. I must cop to a certain possible lack of objectivity for me here, since in the late 1980s Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was pure crack to me, as evidenced by the image of Paul dancing the Frug tattooed on my left ankle.

This doesn’t mean by bolstering George’s comedic career achievements he sucks as a vocalist in comparison to his Party of Two partner-in-crime, but he was less confident in his vocals to be sure, especially at the beginning as the pair opened with a duet of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard—with lyrics which begin “I don’t know why I’m frightened / I know my way around here.” Since Michael currently inhabits the backstage dressing table used by George at the theatre for nearly a decade, the song’s lyrics seem particularly incongruous.

Soon, however, George found his sea-legs quite effectively and repeatedly knocked his half of their heartfelt duets right out onto Melrose Avenue, particularly in Jonathan Larson’s evocative “I’ll Cover You” from Rent and in a wonderful match-up of Jekyll and Hyde’s “Someone Like You” coupled with Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory.”

Michael was definitely able to show off his impressive hoofer moves as well, joined onstage by a dynamic chorus of agile beauties to dance quite spectacularly through the old Streisand/Summers duet written by my late-great HAIR-mate Paul Jabara, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”, while George was relegated upstage during the number to, as he put it, sway to the music. Happens a lot with us old guys.

There also was an extra-special cameo appearance by Patrick Steward, coming onstage several times wheeling a medical cart to help the guys check their blood sugar levels. Patrick, one of George and my former New York Film Academy students who actually listened to what we had to offer, joined the guys for a brilliant trio of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company.  To say this kid should have a major musical theatre career in the near future is a given if all the stars are aligned to hear my plea.

With a songlist that also included Dear Evan Hansen’s  “Only Us” and ending the evening with the gorgeous “For Good” from Wicked—which had my boyfriend Hugh and I grasping hands and holding on to one another for dear life even more tightly than usual—the most nostalgic number of all for me was a mash-up of Tuptim’s “Lord and Master” and Lady Thiang’s haunting ballad “Something Wonderful” from The King and I, songs that brought back memories I haven’t conjured for years.

See, for all the jabs about George’s advanced age, for me and a few other Playhouse alum and NYFA colleagues who were gathered last night to support Party of Two, let’s just say some of us have socks older than he is. As Michael talked about playing Anna’s prepubescent son Louis on tour in Australia in The King and I  many years ago, my mind instantly went back to my own days playing the same role and whistling a happy tune for about 18 months in the first national tour of the musical way back in 1955 when the dinosaurs were still roaming the earth—which was, you see, actually the same year that fucker George McGrath was born.

After all the obvious work creating this, the saddest part of this magical experience was that the contemporary vaudeville duo Churven & McGrath were only scheduled to display their considerable wares for this one brilliant and indelibly memorable evening, something which truly needs to be rectified if Terpsichore is around to help make it happen.

In the near future, Party of Two should play indefinitely somewhere, if not at the Groundlings than at Catalina or the Gardenia or perhaps Rockwell Table and Stage or, well, somewhere, okay? Misters Michael Chuvren and George McGrath are just too damn good not to share their unique gifts and personal stories with more than just a privileged few, although all of us in attendance were most grateful to have been there to see it happen at least once.

***** UPDATE!!! *****

Gratefully, Party of Two  will return to the Groundlings Theatre in January, 2020, for a special encore performance to benefit the Trevor Project!

Ne'er fear! I'll keep you posted!

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FRANKENSTEIN at A Noise Within

Amazing to think it was 200 years ago last year when Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus was anonymously published, its authorship at first left a mystery as no one in that repressive era in Victorian England would have taken her first novel seriously if they had known it was written by a woman. It was a highly controversial gothic tale that took on the theme of scientific innovation versus established notions of mortality and morality and, as it did so, scared the pantaloons right off the eager-to-be shocked citizenry of the time.

Ironically, the work began as something of a whim, composed as the 19-year-old fledgling writer and her lover Percy Shelley spent a dreary, stormy summer cooped up inside while visiting his friend Lord Byron’s estate in Geneva where, it’s said, possibly the men spent more time “together” than with her.

To relieve the boredom, the group decided to compete in a ghost story writing contest. Mary had nothing for a time, until one night she had a fitful dream about an undead creature wandering the world seeking revenge from his creator. “I saw a pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had created,” she later explained. “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”

The result was Frankenstein.

From early in my life, Frankenstein was a big influence in awakening my own imagination, even becoming the subject of a high school term paper for me that had the effect of being passed around from teacher to teacher throughout the school district, many surmising that its young author might be a good candidate for some therapy.

There have been many retellings of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece over the years, including first and foremost the 1931 film classic starring Boris Karloff and its legion of sequels and bastardizations. In 2011, Nick Dear’s new stage adaptation opened at London’s Royal National Theatre with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating playing the creature and the doctor who created him.

Dear’s work has finally arrived on our coast and how could anything so imaginative be in better hands than those of Michael Michetti, whose incredibly evocative visionary spirit has made him one of the most exciting directors working on LA stages. His exquisitely appointed mounting of Dear’s adaptation, perfectly coupled with the world-class designers and well-appointed resources available to him at A Noise Within, makes this a Frankenstein  full of bold new life and visual splendor.

Although it is a bit of a CliffsNotes version of the original novel, this new version of the story is told from the Creature’s perspective as he jolts from his electrical awakening and tries to find his way in a world he does not know or remember. Although we never know which body part is which and whose grave provided it, it seems here Dr. F has given his Creature a good working brain, as it doesn’t take long for his creation to start wondering, along with the rest of us, what the hell we’re doing here in this complex and often disappointing world.

At the beginning of this new adaptation, a huge single gold gilded-glass box sits ominously on the otherwise bare ANW thrust stage looking like a prop from a faux-Chinese magician’s performance on the vaudeville circuit in the early part of the 20th-century. As Robert Oriol’s rich and wintery original score starts to fill the house and strobes from Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting flash, the sides of the box are rolled away by ensemble members to reveal Michael Manuel as the Creature, twitching and jerking to electrical stimulus in Victor Frankenstein’s infamous attempt to bring his patchwork corpse back to life.

Manuel is magnificent in this difficult and demanding role, only leaving the stage for brief periods of time in the play’s intermissionless two-hour running time. For the first 15 to 20 minutes or so, he remains alone before us, jarred to life and then slowly, painfully teaching himself how to move from an agonizing crawl to pulling himself up into a hulking, lumbering walk. Although the scene lingers a tad longer than it’s able to keep us intrigued, Manuel’s multilayered performance is, simply, a tour de force.

Even as anyone who encounters the Creature runs in abject terror, as the play progresses he manages to learn how to talk and read, rather quickly becoming literate with the help of an elderly peasant (Harrison White) whose blindness keeps him from being revolted by the appearance of the poor guy—and by the way, Angela Santori’s makeup design for the Creature is suitably scary, although I do think it could have been even more grisly.

From the Creature’s point of view, the initial simplistic wonder he experiences, hit with the world for the first time in adulthood without a discernible past from which to grow and learn, twists into wretchedness as he experiences our species' lack of compassion and natural proclivity to destroy anything we don’t understand.

The Creature’s exploration turns to anger and resentment, eventually finding him only wanting one thing: revenge against Victor Frankenstein, the man who brought him to life and then abandoned him in horror when he saw the crude, imperfect monster he had created.

As Victor’s woebegone fiancée Elizabeth, Erika Soto is quite an asset to this production, doubling in another surprise role that easily shows her versatility. Bjorn Johnson has all the right attitude as his troubled father, and Christian Ganiere, doubling with Van Brunelle in the role of his adolescent brother William, makes an auspicious ANW debut, especially in his 11th-hour return from the dead in what may or may not be a dream in Victor’s head.

The only unfortunate Achilles’ heel for this production is the overwrought and emotionally false performance of Kasey Mahaffy as the Creature’s nemesis, who as Victor doesn’t seem to have any of the other performers’ ability to adopt the gothic style of the material without resorting to the twirling a metaphorical mustache. I suspect an actor as gifted as Mahaffy, whose work I’ve always found impressive in the past, will get with the program quickly as he works with and finds comfort in the rhythms of his costars but, for right now, his tortured mad scientist comes off as more Dwight Frye than Colin Clive.

Still, the production itself is epic in both its spectacle and the simplicity that’s craftily utilized to evoke it. Francois-Pierre Couture’s minimalistic set design, dominated by massive railroad tie-esque lengths of wood scattered upstage and suspended from above, becomes like another character in the drama, richly accented by Sayeg’s evocative lighting and Oriol’s dirge-like score and shattering sound effects. Although I must say I preferred the visible blue-lit scene changes that seemed part of the general dreamlike ambiance rather than the complete blackouts which broke the fluidity of the magical storytelling, this is a gorgeous, memorable retelling of the enduring old morality tale.

Bottomline, Frankenstein is yet another pure and unadulterated product of Michettiland, a place where one man’s signature vision is realized by the willingness to trust in it from everyone else involved. Michael Michetti’s unique artistic expression is realized with a continuous assault of modernistic tableaux and features, as did his glorious production of Brecht’s Edward II for Circle X that marked the first time as an actor I became putty in his hands, including dramatic smoke effects and scenes lit from the edges of the stage by crouching ensemble members holding hand-held lights. Even one pivotal scene taking place near the North Pole is depicted by simply covering the stage floor with a huge swatch of white silken material.

Yet with all of its innovations, there’s also a palpable overlying sense of respect for Mary Shelley’s original novel in this reinvention of the Frankenstein story, subtly calling out, two centuries later, that by looking the other way as our society devolves into chaos and domination, thanks to our indifference and unwillingness to confront our differences, the result is a culture anesthetized to violence and directly headed toward a return to barbarism.

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THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE at Antaeus Theatre Company

I was 11 or 12 when I first saw Lotte Lenya perform in concert in a Chicago nightclub and heard her unique interpretations of her late husband Kurt Weill's musical genius. I was knocked out both by Lenya and the music Weill composed—but it was the lyrics of the songs written by Bertolt Brecht in collaboration with Weill that made my head explode.

That introduction to Brecht was the beginning of my journey discovering all the countercultural wonders the world that great art has to offer. His epic plays sent me soaring off to new heights soaking in the classic works of boldly unstoppable dissenters with names such as Kerouac, Genet, Ginsberg, Williams, Baldwin, and with some embarrassment Ayn Rand, all of whom, along with Brecht, inspired me to race from one literary gem to the next.

The body of work collectively created by these literary gods sent any notion of adhering to convention and proper protocol in my own personal quest for windmills out the proverbial window for me and changed my life forever, yet no writer had a bigger influence on me than Brecht.

In 1963, Lenya joined George Voskovec, Anne Jackson, Vivica Lindfors, and a few other theatrical greats to appear in Brecht on Brecht, which took sections of his plays and poetry and presented them concert-style interspersed with audio of Brecht’s actual testimony in the McCarthy hearings that soon after sent him once again into East German exile to escape prosecution in good ol' A'murka.

I didn’t get to see Brecht on Brecht  originally performed but eagerly wore out the spoken-word LP of the performance released later that year. Then, as a junior in high school, I directed a section of it for a school project and several years later, I was thrilled to be cast in a university mounting of it, especially when I learned I’d be working onstage with a prestigious guest artist: Lotte Lenya.

I’m purdy sure I wore out my welcome with Weill's talented widow, asking endless questions and coaxing stories and opinions out of the poor thing during our run, which in retrospect might be why, though initially full of praise for my performance, she clearly began politely to avoid me, something maybe explaining why I was the only castmember not brought along to the production’s next touring engagement.

Over the years, I have gotten to see all of Brecht’s plays performed and have personally appeared in several, including his adaptation of Marlowe’s Edward II  in Michael Michetti’s gloriously inventive 2001 homage to Brecht’s concept of “epic theatre” for Circle X at the Actors’ Gang and then, several years later, I had the privilege of playing Chicago mobster Givola in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui  in the Classical Theatre Lab's mounting at USVAA in Culver City.

Although I had read The Caucasian Chalk Circle many times and have through the years worked with eager students performing scenes from Brecht’s 1944 masterpiece in my classes, I've actually never seen a production of it attempted—until now.

Lucky for me and any rabid fan of Brecht, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is being presented right here and now in our vast desert cultural wasteland by Antaeus, our town’s most reliable classical theatre company, beautifully mounted and brilliantly directed by Stephanie Shroyer, who helmed Antaeus’ memorable site-specific version of the master’s Mother Courage and her Children in a North Hollywood warehouse space 14 years ago.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle marked a fascinating departure for Brecht, who had for years led a nomadic existence as he fled Nazi Germany to reside in Denmark, then Sweden and Finland before seeking asylum in the U.S. in 1941.

As the once-celebrated playwright sought work as a screenwriter, he would meet with Thomas Mann and a group of other displaced German intellectual expats each morning at the Snow White Coffeeshop on Hollywood Boulevard (next to the Stella Adler Academy now) to complain to one another about how much they hated it here, particularly when trying to do business with The Business.

In 1946, Brecht wrote: “I ran from the tigers, I ran from the fleas. What got me at last? Mediocrities.” Truly, his Hollywood years are a fascinating study for anyone interested in a different view of Los Angeles’ eclectic history than I'll bet you’ve ever encountered. Google it; that’s what it’s there for, right?

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht admitted, was written with a somewhat bastardized new direction in mind, with more emphasis toward a generic pacifism than as a treatise skewering class struggle and political oppression. He geared it instead more toward middle-class American sensibilities, something he felt lacked substance and import yet he felt incorporated, especially in our grandly constructed world of commercial musical theatre, “certain epic devices” that intrigued him.

And so this play didn't premiere until several years after its completion and then at a small college in Minnesota championed, translated from the German, and under the direction of Brecht’s friend and admirer Eric Bentley. It was not performed on Broadway where it was originally written to debut until 1966, a decade after its creator’s death. It is not often presented, surely because it's such an enormous undertaking, but no producing entity is more up to the task than Antaeus.

Shroyer’s vision begins in the theatre lobby where, as patrons wait for the doors to open, actors quietly infiltrate their ranks and suddenly begin a dialogue between two groups of rural citizens in the fictional country Grusinia (a name derived from the Russian exonym for Georgia), who heatedly debate whether land returned to them after a war should again be used to raise livestock or instead be turned over to a new breed of semi-industrialized farmer with more modern ideas of how the place could become an agricultural boomtown.

This leads us all into the theatre, where the arguing factions are joined by a troupe of musicians and together join to present an allegorical morality tale that will possibly help cool heads and lead to more productive discussion. Brecht based the play-within-a-play these humble peasants present on a German translation of an ancient classic Chinese zaju verse play, itself clearly derived from the fable “Judgment of Solomon”—or did those sneaky fabricators of the Hebrew Bible borrow it from the Chinese?

Either way, Caucasian Chalk Circle, on Frederica Nascimento’s sparse but versatile set with Antaeus’ theatre space opened to the walls for the first time on both sides of the wings, explodes with wonder as the 16 dazzlingly committed performers play all the roles, not to mention all the musical instruments. Alistair Beaton’s sharply contemporary adaptation is superbly staged—no, choreographed—by Stroyer as though we are watching a three-ring circus without elephants or aerialists.

All the kinetic though strikingly austere staging and 15 (of 16) balls-out performances from a uniquely dynamic troupe of actors who clearly understand the broadly brazen demands of the master’s “epic” style without overdoing it (the 16th), make this production quintessentially Brechtian. It is mesmerizing in its continuously in-your-face delivery, yet manages to mesmerize without either missing the subtly signature humor written into the piece or overemphasizing any of the morality lessons, cultural indictments, or political jabs lurking stealthily just below the visual spectacle.

Steve Hofvendahl is a real asset as the narrator of the piece, delivering poetic yet hilariously confused diatribes from the sides of ladders about the residents of the community and the human race in general throughout most of the first act. Then as the play progresses, he becomes Azdak, a local farmer who despite any experience or education is elevated to become the judge of the community. His judgments are severely questionable, usually demanding a “gratuity” to the court dropped into a jar he holds on his throne-like bench.

At least Azdak has a good heart, a townsman speculates, a determination the Judge himself disputes. “I don’t have a good heart!” he corrects with some disgust. “I’m an intellectual!”

Aside from exceptional performances that could define the term “ensemble cast”—something that obviously would not have been possible without a considerable amount of grueling rehearsals one might envision were led by the ghost of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket—there’s one aspect of this piece that needs special commendation.

Unlike the days when Brecht added songs to his plays with the invaluable contribution of Weill and other composers during the later period when he founded East Berlin’s historic Berliner Ensemble, by the time he was grousing every morning with Mann and the others at the Snow White, his plays from that period only offered poetic passages with the expectation they would be set to music by whomever was presenting the piece.

When I belted through Givola’s “Song of the Whitewash” in Arturo Ui, according to my old disintegrating script, the music for the songs in the show were composed for the original production there by Berliner Ensemble’s resident musical director Hans-Dieter Hosalla. Here, however, although not mentioned in the program, I’m informed by Antaeus’ resident publicist extraordinaire Lucy Pollak’s always informative press release that there’s no officially published score and all of the hearty, impressively Weimar-savvy music and songs were created by Shroyer and the acting ensemble. 

To say what they have created is a remarkable feat is a true understatement. The music, the delivery of the songs, and the intrumental accompaniment on accordions and fiddles, as well as the occasional triangle and cowbell, is impressive and absolute perfection. Ol’ Bertolt, as well as Mr. Weill, I suspect, would surely be impressed.

“You people want justice?” the Judge taunts his critics and naysayers among the populace with a sardonic laugh. “But… can you pay for it?” Considering the brazen and equally immoral era our country is struggling to survive right now at the hands of a troll who crawled out from under a rock and his soulless minions openly looking the other way, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a cleverly entertaining yet haunting reminder of what can happen when uncontrolled greed overpowers simple morality.

In 1953's Buchow Elegies, Bertolt Brecht wrote:

"I sit by the roadside watching the driver changing wheels.

I do not like the place I am coming from.

I do not like the place I am going to.

So, why do I watch the driver changing wheels

with such impatience?"

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TRUMP IN SPACE at Second City Hollywood

It isn’t easy to poke untapped fun at our disastrous Celebrity Appresident when every friggin’ day he continues to expose himself as the biggest joke of our time in history. The creative folks at Second City Hollywood somehow managed to make Dotard Donnie look almost as ridiculous as he does in real life with their musical Trump in Space, which initially won the Encore Award in its debut at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2017 and continued playing continuously with numerous extensions at their Hollywood Boulevard facility through the summer of 2019.

With original music composed by the show’s musical director Tony Gonzalez and Sam Johnides, Trump-ian bookwriters Gillian Bellinger and Landon Kirksey double onstage in roles they surely created for themselves. Bellinger appears as the stone-faced starship captain Natasha Trump, a reluctant descendent of our own current presidential Voldemort, while Kirksey makes a few judiciously planned cameos as The Executive, a faceless, gravel-voiced Darth Vader clone with a patch of blond hair sticking out of his hood and sporting a long red tie nearly reaching the knee area of his mysterious black robe.

Set in 2417, it’s rather scary to think our National Embarrassment might have survived the 400 years since all of us have shuffled off our mortal coils—maybe collectively if somebody doesn’t soon stop the out of control asshole—but it’s instantly crystal clear who The Executive is meant to represent, especially when he tells those gathered he’s the “most just leader in the history of the universe.”

There’s no rocket science employed her—if you’ll excuse the expression—but the hour-long romp through the cosmos is sure to please with constant in-jokes referencing Star Wars, Star Trek, and its most accessible and welcome target: that huuuuuge black hole known as the current administration as it tumbles headfirst into its own shocking and unbelievable trip into its own self-created script for Twilight Zone.

Capt. Trump and her crew (Jim Shipley, Rob Warner, and Joy Regullano) are on a mission traveling through space for the ruling United States of Commerce, fighting to reach a new star system called Polaris IV while hot on their heels are the rebels manning the Starship California (Nicole Pelligrino and Jessie Sherman, led by their commander Scott Palmason). Early in the proceedings, Trump’s followers capture their enemies and, spotting one another, she and Captain Barack “Barry” Sanders (Palmason) realize they are the lovers lost to one another years before, enabling them to break into song as smoothly as Nellie Forbush when she finds her Emile.

Under Frank Caeti’s whimsical direction, every castmember has his or her own golden moment to shine, both in song and in deed, with the bi-spectacled Regullano proving to be a special standout as the meek and frustratingly overlooked Lt. Joy while Warner, dressed in an homage to Sgt. Dangle on Reno 911!, is hilarious throughout the gayest starship crewmember since the coming out of Mr. Sulu.

Pellegrino creates her own moments, moments reminiscent of a severely stoned Sid Vicious in an old Sex Pistols concert, which the others watch with suitably patient wonder before blaming her overacting as the result of her character’s juice cleanse. There’s also an eleventh-hour surprise from Mary Jo, who suddenly appears out of nowhere as another of the Republicants most jaw-dropping posterchildren, singing her lungs out as a character who, one might assume, thinks she sees Russia from the window of the spacecraft’s galley.

No, there’s not much content here aimed to change the desperate nature of our current world situation, but hey—The Executive does get blown to smithereens at the end, so besides the nonstop laughs of Trump in Space, there is some satisfaction watching him finally leave the universe a better place.

After an unprecedented two-year run, Trump in Space  finally closed in Hollywood in August, 2019, moving on to me' own alma mater, the original Second City Theatre in Chicago. Like our own Teflon Traitor Tot, it seems to be hard to stop—although of the two entities, this is the one whose indestructibility is to be celebrated.

It’s namesake can drop dead anytime as far as I—and most of the civilized world—is concerned.

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DANIEL'S HUSBAND at the Fountain Theatre

After reviewing theatre in Los Angeles for the past 32 years, I have my share of memories of some difficult assignments I’ve stumbled through over that period of time. Usually, that difficulty involves having less-than glowing things to say about people I absolutely admire and love. After attending the opening night of the Fountain’s SoCal premiere of Michael McKeever’s off-Broadway hit Daniel’s Husband, however, this is only the second time in my reviewing history that I almost opted to not write about the production.

If it were not for my pal Maya Lynne Robinson, my gorgeous “date” for the evening, I might not be sitting here composing this. Maya told me I must write about it, if only for the cathartic aspect of doing the deed and, when it was done, she reasoned, I could decide whether to publish it or not. As I write this, that conclusion is still quite up in the air for me; you, the reader, now know better than I do what my final decision to share or not to share turned out to be.

If I had known where Daniel’s Husband  “goes,” I honestly probably would have opted not to attend. To say the storyline is agonizingly close to home for me would be a major, major understatement. Dealing with a longterm relationship between two guys completely and committedly in love who find life’s little emotional butcher knife thrusts between the ribs do not often escape their world is a scenario I know only too well.

In McKeever’s play, Daniel (Bill Brochtrup) longs to be married to Mitchell (Tim Cummings), his partner of seven years, something his mate is equally adamant to avoid. Having shared my life with my Victor for 50 years next November, the difference for us was that neither of us wanted to make our union official despite the acceptance and legalization of same-sex marriage, both feeling as Mitchell does that marriage is just a piece of paper that tells our greedy government and equally greedy vendors of goods who we are and gives them the freedom to know how to tax and to market to us.

McKeever, a Floridian who had to rewrite his play after marriage laws changed in his state, presents Mitchell’s argument clearly, that as a gay man he relishes being different and loves not being seen to the world as normal. I remember, at a very young age, my mother half-joking to me that she knew I would be a lifelong rebel because I was only attracted to black girls and white boys—and she was right. It wasn’t a matter of what was between someone’s legs for me, but instead was a matter of being electrified by doing anything and everything society and religious dogma told me was wrong.

For Daniel and Mitchell, the argument between them about the future of their relationship becomes quite a surprise about a third of the way through McKeever’s tale. Although his dialogue is quick and hilariously clever, his play at first appeared to me to be a modern amalgam of Neil Simon crossed with Mart Crowley—that is until things suddenly turned serious.

As someone who has never been much of a fan of gay humor, especially in a story depicting a perfect, successful same-sex couple hosting their friend and his newest squeeze in their perfect Tarak and Christina-inspired home and serving Daniel’s perfect crème brulee to their guests after his perfect dinner, I at first found the play extremely disappointing.

Despite a dynamic cast honed to razor-sharpness by director Simon Levy, jokes about Tallulah Bankhead and dating boys in junior high school whose worldview could only be based on watching The Real Housewives of Orange County, McKeever’s look into the lives of these modernday boys without a band started to get old for me purdydurn quick—that is until Mitchell starts expounding heatedly to his friend Barry’s (Ed F. Martin) cradle-robbed new love interest Trip (Jose Fernando) the reasons he does not believe in gay marriage. Although both his lover and the kid see it as a way to show the world you’re committed to one another, Mitchell sees it as a means to pacify “insipid queens’ desperate need to assimilate.”

If this sudden turn in the storyline were not jarring enough, especially after a weeklong visit from Daniel’s Auntie Mame-ish and glaringly self-centered nightmare of a mother Lydia (Jenny O’Hara), McKeever’s surprises are not over yet. It’s obvious and incredible sweet how much Daniel and Mitchell adore one another, but is it enough when they are thrust into a medical crisis that could potentially end their idyllic existence, especially when, if they had indeed been legally married, the trauma and heartache they are soon forced to try to overcome would not have been an issue?

Even though at first one might think Daniel’s Husband  is going to be all about crème brulee and the issue of multigenerational relationships, those topics soon fade into dust and the last third of the story is guaranteed to leave you moved and emotionally exhausted, albeit in a gorgeously lyrical way.

Brochtrup, O’Hara, and Levy’s knockout supporting players are uniformly exceptional and quite stunning throughout, turning on a dime from playing an updated version of Harold and Emory blowing out the birthday candles to ripping the heart out of anyone in attendance. O’Hara is a special standout as a character who so easily could slip into Cruella DeVille stereotypical behavior without her ability to make Lydia seem human, someone who, although mistakenly, genuinely believes she is not ultimately the villain of the story.

Yet it is Cummings who, under the extremely passionate leadership of Levy, delivers one of the most indelible performances of a man in pain that anyone could possibly imagine, culminating in a harrowing confrontational scene between he and O’Hara that is the stuff awards are made to honor. It is simply the performance of a lifetime from an actor who, despite my once bashing him quite ruthlessly in a review at this same theatre, has given us a plethora of brilliant performances over the ensuing years.

Levy’s direction is incredibly in tune to the rhythms of McKeever’s play, which in itself is surely destined to be a classic in the annals of contemporary gay drama. DeAnne Mallais’ impressively and elegantly appointed set is a welcome addition, as are the contributions of Levy’s crackerjack team of designers.

It’s always a tad earthshattering when a play seems to be written about things one personally has experienced and here, for me, is where I fell apart. Spoiler alert here, if you want the twists of Daniel’s Husband  to be stay surprise, stop reading now.

Here’s the deal: Although I’ve shared my life since 1969 in a fiercely committed bond guaranteed to last for whatever time Victor and I have left together, he and I shared a bedroom and an intimate relationship for only the first 12 years of our half-century living together. This always made the idea of us being married rather a moot point even if we were both philosophically opposed to the idea for many, many years—especially since I have been involved in my own whirlwind life-changing May-December love affair with someone 42 years my junior for as long as Daniel and Mitchell have been together.

When Victor was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s over a decade ago, the stakes changed drastically for me. For us. As I battled my own fifth bout with the dreaded Big C and one subsequent false alarm, I knew it was time. Despite my love for Hugh, who by the way helps me immensely in my daily quest to care for and keep Victor at home for as long as possible, I knew the idea of marriage was no longer governed by our political and religious rebellions but had to be about our commitment to one another. For me, it was about making decisions about his care and for him, it was essential to be sure he was covered if anything took me away from continuing to hang on for dear life as this risky planet revolves around the sun at breakneck speed.

Victor and I were married in Las Vegas in December, 2016 after nearly 48 years living together while the patient, understanding person who has revealed himself to be the true and undying love of my life stayed at home in LA to watch our dogs, his sainted acceptance of my situation a testament to our feelings for one another despite the oddities or  the odds.

A character in Daniel’s Husband  tells another whose well-meaning attempts to comfort eventually become an irritant that the person has no idea “how hard it is to keep up a good front these days,” particularly when waking each morning he quietly checks to see if the sleeping lump of a person with whom he has chosen to spend his life is still breathing. I know that routine only too well and, hearing it delivered in McKeever’s tender, thought-provoking masterpiece nearly did me in when hearing it.

I’m still not sure if my understanding of these characters was due to my own situation in life, but I suspect it’s more universal than that. Daniel’s Husband  is a tribute to committing oneself to love and life, written by a splendid wordsmith and assayed by a brilliant team of designers and players who tenderly makes a plea for us all to be kinder and more conscientious of who we are and what our place is in the world if we care enough to try to leave it a better place.

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THE PRODUCERS at Celebration Theatre

Eighteen years after premiering on Broadway in 2001, winning an unprecedented 12 Tony Awards and spawning a major film version in 2006, The Producers  is still billed in all its incarnations as “A New Mel Brooks Musical.” Surely, this is a contractual element demanded by Music Theatre International when securing the rights to present the musical but, in the case of the Celebration Theatre’s current revival, it couldn't be closer to the truth.

Under the guidance of director Michael Matthews, joined by repeat collaborators Janet Roston as choreographer and Anthony Zediker as musical director in the Celebration’s 49-seat Lex Theatre’s miniscule playing space, The Producers is indeed almost akin to viewing an all-new and freshly entertaining musical.

Working on this challenging stage, which is probably about the size of a trap door on the boards of New York’s austere 1,710-seat St. James Theatre where The Producers  debuted and ran for 2,500 performances, only worldclass talents such as Matthews, Roston, and Zeliker could possibly make it work. Instead of a massive line of synchronized tapdancing chorusgirls in the original production, for instance, at the Lex there are four—yet they dance with a spirit and energy that could conjure an army.

And where Robin Wagner’s versatile Tony-winning scenic design conspired in its grand playing space to create visual magic long before Broadway became dominated by projections and video grandeur, here Stephen Gifford’s set is obviously less able to morph from one wow-inducing scene change to the next.

This deficiency soon declares itself to be an asset to this innovative production, however, as the stage and proscenium crowded with teetering filing cabinets stays stationary throughout but tranforms with great whimsy into whatever Matthews and Gifford decide, with tongues firmly in cheek, to represent—including drawers that open from behind so arms can extend onstage to deliver props or single roses to the performers.

With a total of seven ensemble members cast to play all the various assorted supporting roles throughout the show, something that makes them often have to leave the stage from behind and race around the Lex to quickly reenter from the lobby in a completely new costume, what has been accomplished here is simply amazing.

Not much is lost or compromised. Insane stormtrooper helmet and lederhosen-clad Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (in a hilarious turn by John Colella, who nearly out-Mars Kenneth Mars) still keeps pigeons on his Manhattan rooftop, who roost upstage in their coop as hand puppets manipulated from behind able to dance along with Brooks’ catchy “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” and eventually reveal swastikas gracing their little birdy breasts.

And when all stops are not only pulled out but totally disintegrated in a sea of delightfully inappropriate imagery during the musical’s infamous production number “Springtime for Hitler”—the title of Liebkind’s script that producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom (Richardson Jones and Christopher Jewell Valentin) option for Broadway in the hope of mounting a guaranteed flop as a tax write-off—the result is one of the best versions of this extravaganza since the first sight of it shocked appreciative audiences in Brooks’ first non-musical classic film version in 1969.

All these years later, there’s still something to disgust everyone lacking a well-honed sense of humor in The Producers, from poking outrageous fun at Nazism to offending gay people with the depiction of the play-within-a-play’s drag-wearing director Roger De Bris and his light-in-the-stilettos Gloria Swanson-channeling assistant Carmen Ghia, here played to the hilt by the Celebration’s artistic director Michael A. Shepperd and Andrew Diego.

Why, there’s even something to shock Scandinavians as Bialystock and Bloom hire a buxom but talent-free amazonian secretary/assistant from Sweden named Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson (Mary Ann Welshans), who could singlehandedly send the #METOO movement back to the dark ages with her innocently lustful solo “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It.”

The ensemble, the quartet of chorines mentioned above and three guys willing to occasionally double as chorines, is gamely on-the-money throughout. They are especially memorable in a wonderful rendition of “Along Came Bialy,” in which a chorusline of horny little old ladies Max is schtupping on a regular basis, “keeping his backers on their backs” to finance his projects, sing and dance while providing precision percussive accompaniment with their canes.

Diego is hysterical as the constantly posing Carmen, particularly in one overdramatic exit which lasts forever and ends with only his arm and hand visible as he scratches his nails down the wall leading offstage. Welshans is a delight as Ulla, though hardly traditionally cast since the original, Tony winner Cady Huffman, was about six-foot with breasts the size of Stockholm. Still, Welshans manages to make her lack of stature work beautifully, as perfectly empty-headed and English-challenged as Ulla needs to be.

The towering Shepperd as Roger, from his first appearance in costumer-goddess E.B. Brooks’ dazzlingly glittery couture version of a gown that perfectly evokes the Chrysler Building, is truly the highlight of this cast. From his initial belting of Roger’s anthem “Keep It Gay,” delivered stone-faced below a shocking-white Peggy Lee wig, to his golden impression of Judy Garland making love to her microphone cord, and culminating in his incredible turn as what I suspect might be the only African-American ever cast as der Fuhrer delivering a spirited “Springtime for Hitler,” Shepperd is nothing short of showstopping.

The only real conspicuous downside of all this is the casting of the two terminally goyish leading performers. Granted, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick—or Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the original film—are all quintessentially hard acts to follow, but try as they will, no matter how much sweat they produce in their attempt to play the sheepish blankey-fettered Max and the bombastically obnoxious Leo, Valentin and Jones just don’t quite slice the pastrami.

This does not mean either of these performers is anything but a potentially dynamic musical theatre performer, only that both are badly miscast. Valentin is incredibly slick playing a nerd, his face possessed of all the endearingly silly mobility of Joe E. Brown as he defies his awkward physicality to impressively keep up as a dancer, but he is simply too young for the role and vocally not yet up for the task, although I suspect in about 15 years he could ace this role superbly.

Jones has impressive credits in musical theatre, just not the chops to find his way as the ridiculously over-the-top Max, something particularly apparent in “Betrayed,” the character’s 11th-hour musical soliloquy from his prison cell that singlehandedly netted Nathan Lane his second (of three) well-deserved Tony Awards. I would love to see Jones in a role better suited to his talents, but I say this with two caveats: next time, someone’s gotta tell him he doesn’t need to project to the second balcony of the Ahmanson when playing the teenytiny Lex, saving those gathered a nasty headache by final curtain, and secondly, if needed, the next presenters better hire a more demanding dialect coach.

Again, this doesn’t mean Valentin and Jones don’t have what it takes, just that both need a little more time to play these demanding and challenging roles intended for more seasoned and more mature actors.

Still, this revival of The Producers  is a must-see, once again a testament to the team that keeps turning out jaw-dropping, ingeniously scaled-down Lilliputian versions of huge productions no other intimate theatre company would ever attempt. I am firmly of the opinion that the gamely unflappable Celebration Theatre, especially with the inclusion of the visionary prestidigitation of director Michael Matthews, could take on War and Peace  and transform it with guaranteed success into a masterful production called Honey, I Shrunk the Napoleonic Wars.

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THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG at the Ahmanson Theatre

According to an illuminating open letter from the president of the Cornley University Drama Society printed in the Center Theatre Group’s program for The Play That Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson, this current engagement is itself a mistake.

Due to a clerical error, there was a terrible mix-up, we’re told, sending the troupe’s production of The Murder at Haversham Manor  to America instead of their mounting of Equus—which unfortunately is now instead being performed back in England in Cornley’s gymnasium. Show business can be such a challenge sometimes, can’t it?

On opening night of the transplanted British Mischief Theatre Company’s The Play That Ends Wrong, winner of the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy of 2015 when it debuted in the West End, everything that was supposed to go wrong went right—or should I say everything that should have gone right in The Murder at Haversham Manor went splendidly wrong?

Of course, this fictional booking faux pas is more than just a challenge to the members of CUDS since, as its president and Haversham Manor’s director (and star!) Chris Bean tells us in his nervous curtain speech, it’s the first play they’ve mounted with roles for all their members. All eight of them.

This is the reason past productions presented by the company have been forced by circumstance to be less ambitious, such as their dramatic presentation Two Sisters  and their reinvented musical Cat.  Why, even their children’s theatre tour of the Roald Dahl’s classic James and the Giant Peach had to first be retitled simply James and the Peach until further complications forced them to call it James, Where’s Your Peach?

In the real play here, director Matt DiCarlo, who stage managed the London and Broadway runs, recreates Mark Bell’s award-winning staging on Nigel Hook’s phenomenally versatile original set, something without which Wrong could really go wrong.

Hooks’ ingenious designs, with stately walls and accoutrements able to fall apart and even disintegrate at will, would seem to be incredibly hard to duplicate without a yearlong consultation with the Disney Imagineers to help turn it into reality from the demanding ideas germinated in the fertile brains of creators/performers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields.

The set is the heart and soul of this production, but not without a troupe of eight performers willing and physically able to make it work. One almost wonders if each right Wrong  player had to be a graduate of a physical workshop led by the late Marcel Marceau before studying agility with Cirque du Soleil and completing a season training with the U.S. Olympics gymnastic team.

The cast is pure gold, perfectly epitomizing the concept of ensemble playing not only as they bounce off one another’s energy but doing so as they duck falling coats of arms, crawl from smoke-filled malfunctioning elevators, or smash through the fireplace to replace the missing mantlepiece and not-so patiently hold essential props in place.

See, beyond the need for a uniformly keen ability to deliver the play’s delightfully dry British Monty Python or Mr. Bean-y humor, everyone cast must be able to perform pratfalls ala Buster Keaton from the second level of the crumbling manor house set or tumble backwards out of missing windows without a glitch. If anyone stands 18” to the wrong side, they risk being flattened by crashing chandeliers or other debris and, if someone sits in a chair placed an inch closer than where it should be, a guy could lose his precious cobblers  when a sword blade pierces the floor from below.

In Haversham Manor’s pivotal role of Police Inspector Carter, CUDS’ President Chris Bean—whom we’re informed in the playbill-within-the-playbill serves as the play’s director, set and costume designer, propmaster, box office manager, dramaturg, press and PR rep, vocal and dialect coach, fight choreographer, and also assumed the “rehearsal role of Mr. Fitzroy”—is perfectly assayed by Evan Alexander Smith, whose stuffy demeanor and lanky appearance adds to the fun when things go array and he turns from Basil Rathbone into early Buddy Epsen.

Ned Noyes is especially hilarious as “graceful” tennis-clad hero Max, who has a clear aversion for kissing his love interest Sandra (quintessential fainting heroine Jamie Ann Romero) and early on discovers that audience laughter is a palpable entity and subsequently plays each line with wonderfully exaggerated gestures and movements directly out front to please his fans.

Scott Cote is particularly endearing as resident manservant Dennis, continuously exasperated with himself for having trouble remembering his lines and mispronouncing the big words scribbled in the palm of his hand, while Peyton Crim makes the most of his rich musical theatre baritone as Sandra’s suspicious brother.

Yaegel T. Welch makes the most watchable corpse since Weekend at Bernie’s  and both Angela Grovey and Brandon J. Ellis as, respectively, the production’s nervous stage manager and drunken lighting technician, are a scream when each is forced to go on for Romero’s Sandra after she’s occasionally knocked unconscious by a pesky swinging door.

There is absolutely no message to glean from all this besides enjoying the company’s loving homage to the groundbreaking comedic antics of Keaton, Chaplin, the Keystone Cops, and good ol’ Stan and Ollie as you lose yourself in the loopy but precisionally performed ridiculousness of it all. It’s something very welcome as the horrors of real life are compromised daily by a dangerously out-of-control reality show host with an IQ of 61 who continues to dominate our daily lives.

A good friend commented after the show that this purposefully over-the-top inanity could do well in the future performed by community and dinner theatres. I was unsure if the comment was meant seriously or with a touch of subtle sarcasm but either way, I do agree such venues could definitely use a break from Lovers and Other Strangers and life in Neil Simonland.

The Play That Goes Wrong  could be a winner in such settings after singing “Happy Birthday” to Mabel at Table R7 and finishing your second helping of rubbery Chicken Cordon Bleu, but it would only be possible if the theatre’s resident staff tech director has been attending his AA meetings on a regular basis and all stagehands submit to a pee test each night before the theatrical rollercoaster reaches the tippytop of its first hilariously goofy lift hill.

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APPLE SEASON from Moving Arts at Atwater Village Theatre

One thing that has emerged clearly for me in my many moons circling around on this silly planet is the undeniable fact that all art is imitation.

Whether you’re in Plato’s camp, believing this to be a bad thing, or follow Aristotle in his belief that this is a force for appreciating the good in nature and chronicling the bad as a warning to us all, after seven decades as an avid theatre whore and spending the last 33 of those years writing about it, I have to admit not much new or innovative has captured my attention in a long time.

There is surely nothing new explored in the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of E. M. Lewis’ Apple Season, now debuting here presented by Moving Arts, as yet another wounded group of dysfunctional and severely damaged countryfolk living in A’murka’s vast heartland desperately tries to hide vile and deep-seated family secrets.

However, there is one major source of innovation in this brilliantly mounted little diamond-in-the-rough of a play and that's the lyrical, gossamer writing of Lewis, vividly bringing to life the claustrophobic lifestyle of these usually close-mouthed inhabitants of presentday rural Oregon, a place where, as she mentions in her script, time touches this part of the world gently.

Indeed, Apple Season appears to be a gentle play at first as Lissie Fogerty (Liza Fernandez) climbs a rickety old wooden ladder to harvest apples after her despised father’s death on the family farm she abandoned as a sufficiently fucked-up teen, creating a tableau that, as noted by her brother Roger’s childhood pal Billy Rizzell (Rob Nagle), seems to be unfolding as though the years between never happened.

There was a time, as Lissie tells Roger (Justin Huen) in one of the play’s magical flashbacks to the Fogerty kids’ teenaged years, when she doubted there was a universe beyond their property line, something the siblings found to be anything but the case after they ran off to navigate life beyond the family farm.

And just because Roger wants there to be somewhere besides this brutally unhappy little corner of the world that's the only place they’ve ever known, Lissie doesn’t believe his wish for a better life can “imagine us into another place." 

“Maybe I can,” Roger responds defensively. “I could build us a road out of here… and then I could build us a car to drive off in.”

In the play’s 70 intermissionless minutes, we become mesmerically swept into their journey as we slowly begin to learn the dastardly though certainly not uncommon secrets which have infected the Fogertys’ ability to live an untroubled life. This is first and foremost due to Lewis’ jarring ability to create dialogue about planting the west field or the fact that Billy still drives the same baby-blue pickup truck he did at 15, and turn it into lovely, haunting Tennessee Williams-style poetry honoring the fragile nature of human need.

Adding to the debut of this arresting new play is the production itself from Moving Arts, playing in Atwater Village Theatre complex’s tiniest and most severely limited 40-ish-seat black box space where designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz has done a phenomenal job conjuring the Fogerty farm, including a hint of the property’s roughhewn barn dominated by an orchard of maturely majestic apple trees full of ripe fruit (though on opening night, the crop could have been dulled and dirtied up a bit) just waiting to be picked and boxed, something which Lissie actually does as the play progresses.

Moving Arts’ artistic director Darin Anthony stages the action with a smooth and lovingly delicate hand, as well as an uncanny ability to make the story swing back and forth through time from presentday to that half-century earlier with immeasurable help from lighting designer Martha Carter and the evocative ambient sound plot by Warren Davis.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the participation of a trio of actors willing to wholeheartedly take the ride, with special praise for Fernandez, who a few times must segue instantaneously from those painful childhood dramas back into the hardened, mistrusting woman Lissie has become over the ensuing years.

As always—and I defy any Los Angeles reviewer ever start a critique of this particular actor without beginning the first sentence with “as always”—Rob Nagle is exceptional in what could be a completely servile role, infusing his sheepish nebbish in an omnipresent John Deere ballcap with more raw emotion between his lines than when Billy gracelessly blurts out his feelings and the conflicted memories he shares with Lissie.

As Roger, the transition from volatile kid desperately trying to figure out how to unburden his sister of her horrendous existence at the hands of their drunken father to become a lost, heavy-drinking drifter who rides the rails to blot out the aching pain of his life, Huen is also subtly captivating, especially in his occasional monologue as he tries to pick up the pieces of his life’s puzzle scattered in the dirt in front of him.

Anthony’s direction and the work of these three amazing actors create an palpable ambience that completely draws us into the narrow but horrific little world existing just below the trio's bucolic smalltalk about when different varieties of apples are most ready to harvest or why Billy is back home in his mid-30s living with his parents, ultimately making us wonder whether the demons that have come between he and Lissie can ever be overcome.

At one point in Lewis’ indelible Apple Season, Billy observes that Lissie talks as though she’s writing a book in her head about the early years of her life and wonders why she seems to be writing it from the brother’s perspective and not the sister’s. She explains that might be why she has chosen to spend her life teaching the fourth grade, a place where she doesn’t have to worry about literary criticism past figuring out who did what to whom.

And why the fourth grade specifically? “Everything is incredibly awkward and dramatic then,” she muses, “and once in awhile, it’s astoudingly sweet.” With that observation, E.M. Lewis has written the quintessential line to describe her own little gem of a play—especially the astoundingly sweet part.

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THE RUFFIAN ON THE STAIR at the Los Angeles LGBT Center

It was August of 1964 when BBC aired a remarkably shocking radio play written the previous year by a basically unknown new badboy upstart named Joe Orton.

So energized was Orton by the sale of his deliciously dark comedy The Ruffian on the Stair  that, by the time of its broadcast, he had already completed and successfully sold his first full-length play. The groundbreaking Entertaining Mr. Sloane  had opened several months before Ruffian  was aired, playing the modest New Arts Theatre before being transferred to Wyndham’s amid an equal plethora of praise and outrage.

In the next three years before the 34-year-old Orton was bludgeoned to death with a hammer by his lover Kenneth Halliwell, he became one of Britain’s most celebrated—and vilified—playwrights. Sloane  was followed by Loot  (currently being resurrected in a wonderful revival at the Odyssey in West LA until mid-August) and What the Butler Saw,  which sadly was to debut in a major production at the Queen’s Theatre, becoming his most successful play two years after his murder.

In his meteoric but tragically brief career that changed the course of comedy forever, among his accomplishments was reworking The Ruffian on the Stair  for the stage and coupling it with another radio play, The Erpingham Camp,  opening the two pieces together in 1966 under the title Crimes of Passion.

Originally based on a novel called The Boy Hairdresser  Orton wrote in collaboration with Halliwell, Ruffian is nothing as well-known as his three other infamous plays nor, in its 60-minute playing time, is it often presented.

I must admit I have been an Orton freak since my teen years, also having once had the great privilege of playing Halliwell in Lanie Robertson’s brilliant Nasty Little Secrets,  the role that garnered me a Best Actor nomination from LA Weekly  and for which I won my first cherished LA Drama Critics Circle Award in 2001.

Although I have had the fun of directing students working on scenes from it several times over the years, I have never seen Ruffian performed before now and I couldn't be more grateful Orton’s most obscure play has come to roost at the LA LGBT Center’s Davidson/Valenti Theatre for a post-Hollywood Fringe Festival extended run.

Luckily for anyone who mourns all the wonders that might have been unearthed if this guy’s career had not been limited to such a short yet prolific period of time, this overshadowed little theatrical gem is beautifully mounted here by director Mark Kemble and three actors who totally get Orton’s dryly farcical British humor and the signature rhythms written into his dialogue.

As Mike, the Irish working-class professional driver who shares his London bedsitter with the common-law wife he met under less-than perfect romantic circumstances, Brian Foyster is dead-on from his first appearance, sneering and preening into an invisible fourth-wall mirror as he readies for work, his mouth shaping itself around his character’s proletarian accent as former boxer Mike desperately tries to appear uppercrust.

Sile Bermingham is his perfect foil as Joyce, the former prostitute who is equally as determined to elevate her class, a major theme winding throughout all of Orton’s work. Her nervous, bird-like demeanor and quick ladylike steps bounce off Foyster’s misogynistic stiff-backed delivery like a British Burns and Allen.

Into the attempted normalcy of their lives comes Reed Michael Campbell as comely cockney youth Wilson, the brash unemployed “men’s hairdresser” who knocks on their door inquiring about a non-existent room for rent and stays on, of course, for a bit of Ortonesque shenanigans.

As in all of Orton’s plays, the cynicism that guided his Quixote-esque mission to skewer the hypocritical cultural and political mores of the time is distinctly present, as are a palpable sense of potential danger lurking just below his characters’ mannered demeanor and an abundance of sexual innuendo meant to be as relentless as the message or  the menace.

Kemble directs with an austere but crystal-clear ability to heighten the tension winding through Orton’s curiously off-kilter tale, but if anything is missing in this production, there's a rather surprising downplaying of the suggestive teasing inherent in the characters’ barely suppressed attraction for one another.

Still, having such an otherwise quintessential representation of the outrageous people and situations Joe Orton celebrated as he cleverly called out the societal and political corkscrewing we still endure a half-century later is indeed a treat, especially as The Ruffian on the Stair is brought to life by this trio of slickly harmonious actors, any of whom I suspect Joe Orton would have been thrilled to encounter by chance in the loo at Islington Station.

And I mean that in a good way. In an Orton-y good way, of course.

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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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MYSTERIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES at Geffen Playhouse

Fifteen years ago, shortly after the violent death of Sherlock Holmes-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle scholar Richard Lancelyn Green, Geffen Playhouse artistic director Matt Shakman came across an article in The New Yorker  titled “Mysterious Circumstances: The Strange Death of a Sherlock Holmes Fanatic,” written by David Grann and chronicling the mysterious circumstances surrounding the man’s curious demise.

Was it murder? Was it suicide? Found face-down on his bed surrounded by books and manuscripts from his $4 million collection of “Sherlockiana” in his upscale Kensington district home in London’s West End, the 51-year-old Lancelyn Green had been garroted with a shoelace tightened around his neck with a wooden kitchen spoon. Clearly, it was a most puzzling whodunit perhaps only that famous make-believe resident of 221B Baker Street a century earlier could possibly unravel—and indeed, the actual cause is still listed as unsolved.

Fast forward 15 years and, thanks to the adventurous artistic spirit of Shakman, the mysterious circumstances surrounding the poor Mr. Lancelyn Green’s untimely passing have become an amazing new play now world premiering at the Geffen called, appropriately, Mysterious Circumstances.

Back then in 2004, Shakman immediately thought the magazine article chronicling the scholar’s bizarre death would make an interesting subject of a film or TV show, but after mulling around the possibilities of such a thing for several years, he realized the perfect medium to tell the tale of Lancelyn Green’s death and “enter fully into the imaginary life of the central character,” as he explains it, would be in a theatrical setting.

After optioning the rights to Grann’s original article, Shakman approached playwright Michael Mitnick to adapt it for the stage under a commission from the Geffen. The result is the astounding debut of Mysterious Circumstances, truly a feather in the cap of the Geffen and honoring the entire oft-maligned creative innovation originating in the Los Angeles theatrical community.

Brilliantly directed by Shakman with invaluable help from set designer Brett J. Banakis and projection designers Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, Mitnick’s fanciful play, half-thriller, half-comedy, continuously jumps with lightning speed from 1894 to 110 years later, contrasting both Conan Doyle’s fight to kill off his famous detective and concentrate on more scholarly material, with Lancelyn Green’s obsessive fight to obtain a box of long-lost papers containing the author’s never published personal letters and a handwritten autobiography—a quest that may or may not have led to his baffling end.

The story is suitably fascinating and Mitnick’s adaptation is a gem, but it is the production itself that ultimately is the star of show. As the incredibly whimsical and sometimes towering sets evolve into a series of rapidly unfolding vignettes, seven gamely committed actors assay all the roles, led by the tour de force performance of Alan Tudyk as both Lancelyn Green and Sherlock Holmes himself, as the reality of the scholar’s life transforms smoothly into the fictional magic of the investigation of it by the most famous detective of all time.

Joining Ramiz Monsef as Dr. Watson, Austin Durant as Conan Doyle, and Helen Sadler as his dying wife and his fiercely protective elderly daughter Jean, three of LA’s finest theatrical native sons, Hugo Armstrong, Leo Marks, and John Bobek, play everyone from cockney cabbies and barhounds to stuffy book editors and the quirky members of the Sherlock Holmes Society, of which Lancelyn Green had been a past president.

This serendipitous collaboration of artists at the top of their game results in pure Potterian wizardry, made even more possible by the obvious finacial commitment from the Geffen and support from the Edgerton Foundation New Play Production Fund and the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust. Donors have never before been acknowledged in any of my reviews but simply, without the precision hydraulics and lavish production amenities afforded this production, including E.B. Brooks lavish costumes, Elizabeth Harper’s lighting, Jonathan Snipes’ sound and original music, and visual illusions conjured by Francis Menotti and David Kwong, such wonder could never have been so beautifully and impressively realized.

For this, let’s all celebrate the Geffen’s game-changing decision in 2017 to turn over the artistic reigns of the Playhouse to Matt Shakman. Last year, it was a chance meeting with that great chameleon Jefferson Mays on a day trip with his young daughter to the La Brea Tarpits that resulted in the production of the year in Los Angeles, the Geffen’s monstrously successful one-man adaptation of A Christmas Carol that received my TicketHolders Award for Best Play of 2018 among several other honors, including Best Solo Performance by May.

As that production, hinted to be on a journey off-Broadway later this year, managed to inaugurate, Mysterious Circumstances is both an artistic and technological masterpiece surely employing more dressers and technicians behind the scenes than Cirque du Soleil’s O  has submerged frogmen. It is a must-see for everyone, but especially for the worshipful devotees of Sherlock Holmes and the genre Conan Doyle helped energize over a century ago.

And without a doubt, the advent of Matt Shakman as artistic director was just what was needed to elevate the Geffen Playhouse from where it had descended, into a safety and conservatism that was slowly making it less dynamic than it had always been in the past. Under Shakman’s signature leadership, this is a spectacular redirection for the venerable complex and in helping to finally recognize Los Angeles for the daring and groundbreaking artistic innovation it continues to generate.

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ANNE, A NEW PLAY at the Museum of Tolerance

The U.S. premiere of Anne, a New Play at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance begins with a fantasy that, in a fair world, one could only wish were true, as a perfectly healthy Anne Frank sits in a quaint little Paris bistro after the end of World War II sipping wine and discussing the publication of her diaries with an eagerly interested book publisher.

Unfortunately, our world is anything but fair—something that’s even more clear than ever as this dramatic reminder of the inequities of our existence points out.

First performed in Amsterdam in 2014, Jessica Durlacher and Leon de Winter’s retelling of Frank’s familiar story was translated from Dutch into English by Susan Massotty, then adapted for American audiences by Nick Blaemire, who was hired not only to restore the lyricism and rhythms of the original but bring it in line with the current horrors of racism and anti-Semitism that have exploded with the reign of our own resident “presidential” dictator.

At the beginning, as Anne’s father Otto (Rob Brownstein) poses the question to those gathered why we should still be examining the Frank family’s tragic story, the fictitious publisher (Timothy P. Brown) answers from a seat in the audience: “Because they could be us.”

As the production celebrates what would have been Anne Frank’s 90th birthday last week, the message becomes severely more chilling as it coincides with our Traitor-Tot-in-Chief’s statement over the weekend that his supporters might “demand” he serve more than two terms in office while suggesting the issue might cause them to storm the Bastille, so to speak, if he’s forced to leave the White House.

With an appreciative nod to director Eve Brandstein’s bold and highly welcomed colorblind casting, UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television student Ava Lalezarzadeh makes a lovely LA stage debut in the title role, leading a highly committed and earnest supporting cast, with particular mention to the sweetly heartfelt performances of Kevin Matsumoto as her fellow captive Peter and Marnina Schon as her sister Margot.

Yet it is Brownstein as her gentle and long-suffering father, who in life would become the only Frank family survivor of the Holocaust, and Mary Gordon Murray in the dual roles of Mrs. Van Pels, another brutalized member of the “Secret Annex” painfully stripped of her lifestyle and her dignity, and as Miep Gies, the Dutch heroine who risked her own life to keep the group hidden from the Nazis, who elevate this presentation beyond its limitations.

Brandstein works diligently staging Anne on Desma Murphy's intentionally static set overpowered by Derek Christiansen's projections of the city and the war, yet it’s obvious that the play was meant to be a more immersive and audience-interactive piece than was Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s well-known 1955 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Diary of Anne Frank.

On the wide and shallow stage of museum’s austere 300-seat Peltz Theatre, however, the production is hampered by its rather austere environment surely designed for film showings, awards nights, and speech-giving. This was especially apparent on opening night when most of the audience was seated seven or eight rows from the front of the house. In a more intimate space, there is no doubt Anne would be infinitely more effective.

The message of Anne, a New Play  is still disquieting, made even more terrifying in our current political climate where all the deplorables in our country’s midsection have been encouraged to crawl out from under their rocks.

In their horrifyingly dismal attic prison before the Franks and their reluctant roommates are taken away to be tortured and killed, Peter says to Anne about all the good Christians who let this atrocity happen, “If they are the ‘chosen’ people, I wish for once they’d be chosen for something good.”

As Ayn Rand once said, “Faith and force are the destroyers of the modern world.” That may not be the conclusion the folks at the Museum of Tolerance might wish to be taken away from this, but it’s exactly what I was left pondering once again.

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LOOT at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Appearing in London in Hello, Dolly!  in the late 1960s, an era of typically complacent and commercially safe theatrical offerings that appealed to the rigid other-Pondly sensibilities of Brits some 50-plus years ago, we were characteristically welcomed with gracious open arms. Soon, however, the West End was abuzz with talk about a shocking newcomer transferred to the Criterion Theatre after playing and bombing bigtime in several continuously rewritten provincial productions.

The play was the second controversial “off-West End” mounting of an irreverent solidly black comedy by Joe Orton, the then-current upstart badboy of the quickly-evolving English stage. It was called Loot  and, like the best in the traditions of Moliere and Comedia dell’arte, it skewered the English establishment with sharply critical accuracy. I, of course, couldn’t wait to see it.

Now being presented as the kickoff production of “Circa ‘69!,” the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s 50th anniversary season offering an 18-month retrospective of plays that rocked the world of theatrical literature at the time of the company’s inception, Loot  has been lovingly revived under the leadership of director Bart DeLorenzo.

At the encouragement and mentorship of his lover Kenneth Halliwell, who had given his then-rough-around-the-edges workingclass RADA classmate his first typewriter in 1951 and encouraged him to put his outrageously crude sense of humor into essays and, eventually, playwrighting, Orton took on the conservatism of 1960s British society with a vengeance. Gratefully, none of the play’s original shock value has been compromised here—in fact, thanks to DeLorenzo, some of the elements have instead been significantly heightened and expanded upon. 

As one Mr. McLeavy (Nicholas Hormann) mourns the recent death of his wife, whose body lies in state in the living room of his London home, her nurse Fay (Elizabeth Arends) is right there with him—about four feet from Mrs. McLeavy’s open casket—whispering sweet little nothings in his ear about the future. “It’s been three days,” she reminds him. “Have you thought about a second marriage yet?”

Fay, of course, who is also schtupping the randy undertaker’s assistant Dennis (Alex James-Phelps), would be more than willing to fill the role as the next Mrs. McLeavy, especially since she has a long and sorted history of marrying well-off older gentlemen who somehow soon after seem to shuffle off their mortal coil at an alarming rate.

McLeavy seems oblivious to her machinations, only glad that his late wife dropped dead during the right season for some nice plump roses to festoon her funereal tributes and worrying that his son Hal (Robbie Jarvis), who is also schtupping Dennis, is getting off on the wrong track.

As Fay pleads her case for her companionship utilizing her obvious feminine wiles (“I am a woman—and only half the population can say that without contradiction”), Dennis and Hal are trying to decide where to hide the bundles of money they have acquired from robbing the bank located next to Dennis’ place of employment. Temporarily locked in a cupboard near poor Mrs. McLeavy’s remains, they hatch a brilliant plan: replacing her corpse with the piles of cash and burying it instead of her, while unceremoniously stuffing her body headfirst into the cupboard for a woodsy and less ceremonious burial later.

Along the way and weaving through Orton’s wickedly outrageous farce, which manages to lift the genre beyond mistaken identities and slamming doors, he brilliantly satirizes what he saw as the unspoken hypocrisies of stuffy British mores, conventional attitudes, and unending politeness, taking on not only governmental corruption but the saintly Catholic Church and the country’s double-standard in dealing with something close to his own heart: homosexuality.

Of course, it was his country’s unwillingness to recognize and accept his own “deviant” lifestyle, something his handlers worked diligently to suppress as his fame grew, that led to the untimely death of the playwright himself, who 17 months after Loot  debuted in London was bludgeoned to death with a hammer at age 34 by his own overlooked and severely depressed partner Kenneth Halliwell.

Beyond all the issues stuffed into Loot,  Orton also took on the ineptitude of English law enforcement, something he and Halliwell knew only too well after being dogged by the local Islington police relentlessly and having survived six months in prison in 1962 for theft and malicious damage after defacing library books with obscene mottos and images, including adding an enormous fully-erect phallus to a photo of literary icon Dame Agatha Christie—a crime Orton firmly believed was dealt with so harshly “because we’re queers.”

And so to the chaos of the mildly grief stricken McLeary household comes one of Orton’s most endearingly beloved characters, the blustery and bumbling Inspector Truscott “from the Yard” (Ron Bottitta). Patterned as an amalgam of an infamous real-life London Metropolitan Police sergeant named Harold Challenor and the homophobic detective who pursued he and Halliwell relentlessly—at one point, Truscott even says to Dennis and Hal, “You’re bloody well nicked, my little beauties,” the same thing the couples’ nemesis copper actually said when arresting them—Truscott is the comedic gem that, upon his entrance, suddenly elevates the play from funny to downright hilarious.

Although seeming to fumble a bit and get a little tongue-tied by Truscott’s laughingly officious and often impenetrable speeches, Bottitta is the quintessential Truscott, a character I often have speculated might have been the inspiration for Peter Seller’s iconic Inspector Clouseau. Bottitta expertly delivers his juiciest lines simultaneously from within the “three walls” of the McLeary living room, as a character notes of the place in a crafty Ortonian inside joke, and directly out to the audience with equal ease.

As refreshing as it is whenever Bottitta reenters and takes over the stage, the less-flashy performance of Hormann is the most impressive here. His oft-overlooked McLeavy is hugely saucy and deadly serious, while at the same time demonstrating the most perfect comic timing Orton could have ever desired to deliver his eventually doomed character’s scathingly witty and terminally British dialogue.

Among the production’s actual Brits, Arends as the deceitful Fay and Jarvis as the socially rebellious  Hal, clearly the embodiment of the playwright himself as he delights in his own degeneracy, are both great assets to the tight ensemble, while James-Phelps, so like a young English James Cagney that I half-expected him to launch into a chorus of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” at any moment, is well cast as the sexually-insatiable cockney lad everybody wants to fuck—although if he tempered his facial overreactions whenever other characters should be the focus, he’d be even better.

DeLorenzo’s kinetic staging pays respectful homage to the legacy of Orton and the history of this play, adding all the signature craftiness of which he is such a master. Making the late Mrs. McLeavy an actual actor (Selina Woolery Smith, who also doubles as Police Officer Meadows) rather than using the traditional dummy, is a stroke of genius, as is heightening the physical sexual tomfoolery between Dennis and Hal, who here can’t keep their hands off one another and even get to occasionally share a brazen kiss.

I must admit I did miss some of the raucous rat-a-tat-tat and stylistically broad delivery of the original production, where lines and physical outrageousness came so fast and at such a fevered pace that audience members almost didn’t have time to react for fear of missing out on the next ridiculously silly bon mot.

Whether the more to-the-bone and less over-the-top nature of this otherwise excellent revival was intentional, or if instead it simply shows that Loot has lost some of its shock value a half-century later, I know not. It is an inevitable question in our modern world where governmental corruption, the decidedly unsaintly history of organized religion, and fiercely divided attitudes toward same sex and gender issues are explored in literature, on stages, film, television, and on the evening news, are a given and no longer verboten to discuss.

“Wake up! Stop dreaming!” the ballbusting Fay yells to McLeavy at the opening of Loot  as he sits vigil at his wife’s coffin, her dainty yet dead little nose peeping out from the pillows. Perhaps this was Joe Orton’s most fervent warning to playgoers during his tragically short stay on our perilous and precarious planet not long before he left it with so much still to say. Would that people had been bright enough to listen when the laughter finally ended.

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NAKED CAME THE NEIGHBOR at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre

Poor Rasputin. The earthdaddy guru has lived happily in his humble Redondo Beach cottage tending his Zen-like garden in the proverbial buff for years—that is until faded rockstar Bianca Maxwell and her equally-faded Dodger player husband Mike Van Patten moved into the huge contemporary $2-million monstrosity of a mansion next door that throws shadows over the whole once-tranquil neighborhood.

Then everything changes.

In Michael Sargent’s latest counterculture mini-extravaganza Naked Came the Neighbor,  now world premiering in the eclectic NoHo’s art district enduring cult fave-rave Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, my generation’s sadly failed bid for an idyllic halcyon bohemian lifestyle meets our society’s current soulless Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins sensibilities bigtime.

To say this is barebones theatre would be a major understatement—in Joe’s tiny reclaimed storefront playing space, it’s more bleached bones than simply bare.

And speaking of bare, Brian P. Newkirk, who as Rasputin seems to be channeling Gypsy Boots or historic Hollywood icon Peter the Hermit (google it, kiddies, if you’re not as old as I am and didn’t have the distinct honor to know the guy a half-century ago when he was still walking around Hollywood Blvd. posing for pictures with tourists long before Spiderman and Jack Sparrow clones were conceived) is just that: bare. Entirely. Throughout.

Only at one point near the end of Neighbor  does Newkirk appear onstage clothed, joined periodically in their birthday suits by playwright-director Sargent as Mike and Jason Britt as Greg, the cop who goes to question Rasputin about his lack of proper horticultural attire—at the request of Bianca (Julie Summer), who’s offended by her neighbor’s gardening habits clearly revealed in the reflection of her towering home’s geodesic dome skylight—and is soon convinced to throw aside his “scratchy” polyester LAPD-issued uniform and let it all  hang out.

In the tightly tiny Zombie Joe’s space, being so close to the onstage nudity is frankly a bit of a challenge, making us patrons relegated to the front row wonder if we need to use our programs to dodge random unescorted public hairs and wishing for perhaps a little spritz of Febreze to be applied during the production’s many filmic blackouts since all actors tend to pump adrenaline and the unventilated Joe’s tends to get really, really stuffy.

Still, aside from that easily rectified olfactory assault, Neighbor is pure Sargent, whose well-earned distinction as LA’s own theatrical John Waters has been on my personal radar and celebrated in print for many years—even affording me the golden opportunity to appear as the resident redneck Sheriff Holder in his American Nympho at the Evidence Room (now the Bootleg), a third of the weekly serialized “living soap opera” The Strip, which ran as a soldout continuing latenight saga every Saturday for almost two years in the mid-2000s.

Even then and long before, actually, getting willingly eager actors out of their clothes was a particular gift perfected by Sargent, including writing in my pal (and now Grey’s Anatomy  star) Chris Carmack to not only to appear as my vacant-headed deputy in American Nympho but to even in one episode play a little game of strip poker in a jail cell with Liz Davies as the title character.

Sargent has always been a major local treasure in the arts scene, possessed of a razor-sharp, deliciously irreverent wit and the ability to present the most delightfully outrageous conduct on LA stages for the past 30-plus years—not to mention enticing his gamely committed performers to unabashedly join in the fun.

I can’t honestly say this particular piece will stay on my list of personal favorites among his prolific works, but hey—if you’ve never seen a Michael Sargent play mounted and been gloriously shocked by his unique ability to make us laugh out loud as we confront our society’s least publicly discussed hypocrisies, you are doing yourself a grave injustice not to check this out.

I’ll never be able to look at Redondo’s ever-increasing rise of unsightly mini-mansions again without thinking of the plight of poor Rasputin and, as a well-known friend who prefers in this case to remain anonymous quipped after opening night of Naked Came the Neighbor,  “it’s admirable to see mature men willing to bare their bodies and share their grooming habits with an audience.”

I did warn you that Zombie Joe’s is an extremely intimate space, now, didn’t I?

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INDECENT at the Ahmanson Theatre

In college at Cornell University, where youthfully gender-curious Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel would continue her teenaged obsession seeking out novels about lesbian life in the first half of the 20th century, a blessed professor suggested she search out Polish playwright Sholem Asch’s long out-of-print early Yiddish Theatre classic play God of Vengeance.

Simply, Vogel’s head exploded—especially when realizing the gorgeously lyrical and celebratory “rain scene,” in which two young women poetically declare their love for one another and finalize their vows with a lingering kiss, was the moment that made Asch’s work one of the most controversial plays of all time. Asch wrote Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance) in 1906, chronicling the Lear-esque life of a Jewish brothel owner who attempts to become respectable by commissioning a Torah scroll and marrying off his daughter to a yeshiva student.

Set in the family’s home above the brothel, aside from that shocking same-sex make-out scene, the play included Jewish prostitutes as supporting characters and culminated with the hurling of the commissioned Torah across the stage after the father discovers one of the participants in the rainy love tryst was his own daughter.

Warsaw stage icon I.L. Peretz agreed to a reading of the play, after which he famously said, "Burn it, Asch… burn it!" Instead, Asch brought it to German director Max Reinhardt and actor Rudolf Schildkraut, who produced it at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin in 1907, where it ran for six months and soon was translated and performed in a dozen European languages.

The first New York production, still performed in Yiddish, opened later that year and sparked a major press war between local Yiddish publications. While the notorious radical newspapers praised and honored God of Vengeance, their Orthodox counterparts called it “filthy,” “immoral,” and “indecent,” the latter of which would become the title of Vogel’s passionate 2015 award-winning play chronicling the rich and often disturbing history of the work.

In 1923, when God of Vengeance was translated into English and staged on Broadway at the Apollo Theatre with a cast including the acclaimed Jewish actor Rudolph Shildkraut. six weeks into the run the production was raided and shuttered, while the entire cast, producer, and one of the owners of the theatre were indicted and later convicted on charges of obscenity.

When director Rebecca Taichman independently became equally enthralled with the story of God of Vengeance and wrote her thesis as a directing major at Yale about its obscenity trial, a little more than serendipity intervened when Taichman and Vogel met and joined together, spending seven amazingly fruitful years creating their masterpiece Indecent, which debuted at Yale Rep in 2015, moving off-Broadway the next year and opening at the Cort on the Great White Way in the spring of 2017.

There it received the Drama Desk Award as Best Play and was nominated for three Tonys, losing top play honors to J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, while Taichman and Christopher Akerlind won that year for Best Director of a Play and Best Lighting Design, respectively.

For me, my choice if I were a Tony voter without a doubt would have gone to Indecent, which is at long last currently making its west coast premiere at the Ahmanson. It is a magical, mesmeric presentation, evoking a moment in time that all of us today should consider a gentle hint toward societal activism.

With starkly dramatic choreography by David Dorfman, liberally sprinkled with Klezmer music under the watchful eye of onstage music supervisor Lisa Gutkin, who along with cabaret and popular songs of the period has also composed incredible original music for the production with fellow Klezmatics musician Aaron Halva, it’s almost impossible to catagorize this haunting masterpiece as a play or a musical. Tossed as if caught in a storm at sea from Cabaret-like Weimer-styled musical numbers to deeply moving drama, the audience soon falls under Vogel and Taichman’s considerable spell, a trance I would love to repeat as many times as possible.

This is apparent from the very beginning, when the entire cast sits motionless as the audience shuffles in, then rises to form a line of immigrants waiting for entrance to our country at Ellis Island but only after revealing torrents of sand falling from the sleeves of their clothing, Indecent immediately as never before summons the spirit and soul of the Jewish people who have so grievously suffered throughout the history of humanity. It is an image repeated at the end of the play, but with the ensemble here standing in line with yellow Stars of David affixed to their coats as they wait for a far less hopeful conclusion.

The cast is sensational, particularly Richard Topol as Lemml, the meek tailor-turned-stage manager of the original production, who begins by asking permission from the audience to let him “tell a story about a play—a play that changed my life.” Lemml was at that first reading in Warsaw by accident, but became so moved and excited by Asch’s bravely innovative writing that he committed to being a part of its convoluted journey for life.

Most everyone else in the cast plays multiple characters and all are jaw-dropping in their ability to shed their chameleon skin and morph from one person to another, with special mention to Elizabeth A. Davis and Adina Verson, who play not only the lovers in the rain scene but the series of original actors who first assayed those roles.

Steven Rattazzi is also a standout in all his incarnations but still, it is LA theatrical treasure Harry Groener who is the most memorable here, playing Peretz, Shildkraut, and finally Asch as a broken old man facing disillusionment after the Holocaust and the dogging of the soulless Senator McCarthy and his band of early Trump-like minions.

Groener also transforms into a decadent Weimer-era nightclub performer and, lest we forget, his three Tony nominations were while singing and dancing in the musicals Crazy For You, Cats, and as Will Parker in Oklahoma!  Let me admit, as someone a mere five years his senior, the guy’s continued grace and agility makes me more than a tad envious.

Taichman’s smoothly kinetic direction is nothing short of inspired and miraculous, constantly evolving on Riccardo Hernandez’ dismally barren stage, bringing a true Brechtian flavor to the tale with the invaluable contribution of Akerlind’s drastically provocative lighting and Emily Rebholz’ drab but beautiful earth-toned costuming.

Everything and everyone must pay respectful homage to Paula Vogel, however, whose incredible script, as Asch originally intended so many, many years ago, speaks, as the stage manager tells us, of the necessity of Jews to honestly and unapologetically show ourselves to be as flawed and complex as anyone who throughout the centuries has hated us for who we are as we all collectively struggle for a foothold on this risky planet.

“All religions, even the Jewish,” a character realizes, “are willing to sell their god for a price.” To me, this is the true, deepest message of Paula Vogel’s great masterwork, one revelation that I can only hope beyond hope people will consider and heed long after the final curtaincall.

This urgent plea for acceptance and tolerance is also reflected in the characters of the two young women who fall in love and proclaim to the back rows of the Ahmanson’s last balcony that their love is just as real, just as sweetly righteous, and just as noble as any other.

As Pride Week was being loudly celebrated on the streets outside the LA Music Center and throughout our country and the world this weekend, experiencing the opening of Indecent was for me the perfect complement to energize us all to fight the current tyranny of hate and bigotry enveloping our world once again.

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HAPPY DAYS at the Mark Taper Forum

Although written and first performed nearly 60 years ago, it seems Samuel Beckett was something of a Nostradamus while churning out his hilariously bitter, deliciously off-centered allegories chronicling the hidden underbelly of life as he saw it.

With our planet today crashing toward destruction through climate change as we all helplessly endure the destructive reign of a “leader” more interested in his legacy than our planet, the absurdist playwright’s 1961 play Happy Days  eerily reinforces his chillingly prophetic, humorously bleak pronouncements of the gradual disintegration of all living creatures struggling for fresh air and daily sustenance on this unforgiving planet.

“Something of this is being heard,” Beckett’s leading lady Winnie (two-time Oscar/two-time Emmy-winner Dianne Wiest) cries out with trepidation at one point but, since not even the literary warnings from such dramatists as the Bard himself, the brave practitioners of commedia dell-arte, or Anton Chekhov made us think twice about our future, the fact that this classic work has basically also been all but ignored does not bode well for the future of our species.

British director Peter Hall once expressed that Beckett’s much-dissected work was “as much about mime and physical precision as about words.” It’s an observation expertly buttressed here at the Mark Taper by the suitably austere directorial vision of Yale School of Drama Dean James Bundy, who originally directed Wiest in the role there in 2017, a performance praised to the skies when it transferred off-Broadway later that year.

Guiding an actor as brilliant as Wiest, who has several times in interviews referred to the role as a “female Hamlet,” has inspired something truly remarkable as Happy Days  arrives on our left coast. With her body stuck in a massive mound of dirt from up to her waist throughout Act One, Wiest never moves, with only her arms, her incredibly mobile face, a voice that dips and soars as if performing an operatic aria—as well as a scattering of everyday items pulled from a large leather satchel and a few scattered groans and mumbles emanating from the mostly out of sight Michael Rudko as her husband Willie—available to help her keep her audience conscious and alert.

When lights come up for the play’s second half, Winnie is buried even deeper in the sandy soil and is now visible only from the neck up. Wiest still uncannily manages to hold the stage despite her character’s restricted physicality (“What a curse, mobility!” Winnie exclaims without much conviction), riveting our attention with her soulful eyes imparting an acute sense of the mournfully lonely and exaggeratedly barren spaces surrounding her steadily shrinking world as she desperately clings to what is clearly a frightfully horrific existence.

Even as the play begins with a loud, jarring bell signaling its daily message for her to wake up and open her eyes, as Winnie intones her daily mantra “Another heavenly day!” with more than a hint of uncertainness in her delivery, Wiest instantly employs the flash of a wide goofy smile followed quickly by the flickering of a quickly-extinguished dark cloud of fear while trying to convince us—and herself—just how happy her days really are.

The long-suffering Willie is there to help, but not able to do much himself. “You’re not the crawler you once were, dear,” Winnie notes when, quite late in the play, he finally pulls himself onstage and across the mound of dirt to unsuccessfully reach her—or perhaps reach the gun she has pulled out of her satchel in Act One but is now unavailable to her. Yet life without him is the scariest thing she might have to endure. “If you were to die or go away and leave me,” she realizes, “what would I do? What could I do all day long? Simply gaze before me with compressed lips?”

Between the ringing of that headache-inducing bell to guide her daily habits, the first shrill bleat to start each day and a last to demand her to sleep, Winnie exists without a clue why she and Willie are there. “But that is what I find so wonderful,” she tries to convince herself. “The way man adapts himself to changing conditions.” Winnie always looks to the bright side of her dilemma, chronicling the “great mercies” of her situation in a bizarrely poetic, bitingly funny, and incredibly pessimistic two-act monologue as Beckett’s infamous heroine continuously searches for things to reinforce how wonderful life is.

I have seen several amazing, worldclass actors ace this uber-challenging role, including the late-great Charlotte Rae on this same stage in 1990 and Brooke Adams at the Boston Court in 2014, but as memorable as both those performances were for me, Wiest’s Winnie brings something new: a fragility and vulnerability that makes her turn interpreting Beckett something truly unique. In her capable hands and in collaboration with Bundy, her Winnie is even more prone to mercurial moodswings, something seemingly effortless for Wiest considering the octave-defying musicality of her voice and her sweet face’s ability to darken or brighten at a moment’s notice.

Interpreted by lesser talents than this director and his muse, nothing can be harder to sit through than Happy Days—something that thrilled its author, who was famous for sitting near the rear exit of his plays in performance to gleefully thank the patrons who chose to leave early.

See, his work—especially this play and his classic Waiting for Godot—skewers the dryness and encroaching disintegration of daily life as we know it. Winnie tries her best to keep this negativity inside her, but despite her continuous little expressions of small gleeful discoveries, “sorrow keeps breaking in.” And personally, I have to admit that I grok what Beckett was saying far more at age 72 than I did when I was a yung’un—or even at 43 seeing my dear old friend Charlotte so splendidly personalize the role.

Despite his once-grateful personal thank-yous offered to disgusted or confused departing audience members rushing for the exit, Samuel Beckett did not with his Happy Days  let us leave the theatre feeling good about the world around us. “No better, no worse, no pain, no gain!” Winnie observes cheerfully and his mournful, often uproarious revelations do oddly celebrate the indomitable spirit of the human condition despite the massively insurmountable odds stacked against us.

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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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INVISIBLE TANGO at the Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed for TicketHoldersLA by H.A. EAGLEHART

Art is the secret of any great storyteller. Nobody could define the embodiment of great storytelling better than Frank Marshall, director of Invisible Tango, now playing at the Geffen Playhouse. When the producer of my favorite film franchises Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and the Bourne series decided to take on this theatrical project bringing the art of magic and storytelling together, my curiosity alone wouldn’t let me miss this 80-minute story told by Portuguese native card genius Helder Guimarães about his lifelong quest to understand the age-old creed of fate, “Everything happens for a reason.”

Guimarães humbly takes the stage, allowing us to see him exactly for who he is, a simple man holding a deck of cards, and his genuine courage naturally imbues the magician with the power to set any audience at ease. His simple use of theatricality brings the electrifying art of magic to life, swaying gradual control over everyone—myself included—no doubt manifesting Helder’s esteemed hero Max Malini, who performed his sleight of hand before royalty at Buckingham Palace in the first part of the 20th century.

All great storytellers strive to welcome us. Yet in Invisible Tango, Guimarães literally welcomes us into his home, recreated onstage in masterfully simplistic fashion by scenic designer François Pierre Couture (who knocked my socks off with his attention-to-every-detail set design for Jackie Unveiled at the Wallis Center last year), while original subtle jazz music by Moby played on an onstage turntable adds to the mystique. 

Witnessing a single card trick will be more than enough to make anyone slide to the edge of their seat realizing the courage of Guimarães is grounded in something far deeper than first appearances reveal. Deception is not an art, rather telling the truth is. For this reason, the brilliance of Helder comes from his natural ability to let people watch him prove the sincerity of his own truth. He brings the chaos we all share by living with an orange goon in the White House and, with the ease of his sleight of hand, shuffles all our cares and worries into his deck.

One of my greatest mentors in acting and purveyor of this very website always reminds me that art cannot be taught; it can only be nurtured. Invisible Tango is a breath of fresh air in America where the art of passing knowledge along to the future has all but erased stories like this, which Guimarães tells, in unison with performing card tricks, of an elderly clown who mentored him through secretly having an antique store owner slip him a journal with pages stained by rum and filled with many of the secrets to the card tricks now onstage at the Geffen.

The journal is devoid of the person’s name who poorly wrote down the tricks in it. Invisible Tango is Helder’s long quest searching for the mysterious author of the journal. His story and the magic become intertwined as we tango through the evening with Helder—and nobody can deny this master of cards successfully earns trust through proving in trick after trick that chaos can be wielded when grounded in truth.

Our fear of chaos comes from the human abhorrence to danger. Evolution reared us to avoid threatening situations. Experience in the stunt industry revealed to me the art in bringing danger to the stage. Greatly inspired by Malini, Guimarães eventually introduces us to the danger of chaos once certain he has won trust by proving capable of shuffling fate into submission before our very eyes.

The secret to the art of danger is suspense and Invisible Tango’s breakneck speed literally sends every last nerve in the audience over the edge when Helder takes a very real, very sharp dagger into his hand. Wielding the dagger as his magician’s wand, it’s during this most suspenseful sequence of the show that Guimarães’ hand slips and the dagger stabs the wrong card on a wooden tabletop, a mistake which Helder masterfully shrugs off by saying, “Hey, even I am human.” This amazing magician of illusion, even when caught for being human, still leaves the audience wondering if the mistake was simply an intentional/important/necessary part of imbuing us with his courage to believe in his magic.

Destiny takes a young Portuguese boy on a quest around the world, an Invisible Tango through the dark of evening by route of the story of an old mentoring clown in Buenos Aires and his journal of anonymously-written card tricks. We follow Helder Guimarães and his deck of cards from South America, to Scotland, and finally all the way to Los Angeles where learning the definition of “liability” in the fine print of his auto insurance policy has Helder questioning whether everything really does happen for a reason or not.

This delightful Geffen production left me in agreement with Helder’s philosophic summation on life, which is that destiny only requires us to find what makes each of us truly happy and then never letting go. Happiness may seem beyond reach with orange goons in office, but Helder’s courage quite literally proves to the audience with a simple deck of cards that anything is possible. All we must do is believe in a little magic.

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VIOLENCE: THE MISADVENTURES OF SPIKE SPANGLE, FARMER at the Actors’ Gang Theatre

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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A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at the Odyssey Theatre

Three years ago, after writing what I believed to be a thoughtful but not always complimentary review of a play produced and starring a close friend, someone who emphatically asked me to be give her my “honest count” about her work, the result was a long and difficult 90-minute phone conversation trying to comfort her tears and convince her my words should not signal her early retirement from acting and end her desire to present plays.

“I know I’m being too sensitive,” she said through her sobs, attempting to apologize for putting me in such an uncomfortable position. “It’s just so hard... there’s so much work and heart that goes into doing this.”

I vowed then and there to never again write a review of a close friend unless, of course, I knew them to be a person who would understand my criticism and hopefully benefit from it. Or ignore it… that would be okay, too, since mine is only one person’s opinion. There are those rare people who know how this works for me considering my own training from mentors who never minced words named Uta and Stella and Kenneth. There are even those who have called or text or wrote to thank me for my honesty and told me how what I wrote improved their production.

I had decided I would attend the current mounting of Tennessee Williams’ 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire  only as a TicketHolders Award voter and not to review, not only because it starred a close but not always confident friend, but because it would also be featuring two other pals in the play’s equally demanding other two leading roles.

This reluctance was exacerbated by my own passion for all things Williams. Aside from developing a serious case of hero-worship while working with Tennessee himself in 1960 at age 14 in the original pre-Broadway production of The Night of the Iguana, I have played many of his characters over the years since then, including Mitch in Streetcar. I have also for the last decade-plus taught BFA and MFA classes examining the work of the man and his life, as well as analyzing this particular play in depth in my Great 20th Century Playwrights class.

All critics strive for objectivity—and I hope I am not only speaking for myself when I say that it isn’t always easy. The light at the end of the tunnel for me with this beautifully-appointed revival of Streetcar  at the Odyssey, however, was the unique and inimitable talents of my friends involved and the fact that this time out, it would be presented under the guidance of Jack Heller, a gifted veteran director with whom I have worked personally and for whom I have extreme respect.

Although I told the publicist of this Streetcar  I would not be reviewing, here I am doing just that. I am not going to go into great depth this time out, mainly because I don’t want my druthers to be either misunderstood or become a cause celebre, but I do want to state that, as a Williamsophile, it would be a terrible loss to miss this fascinating return to New Orleans’ Elysian Fields at the end of WWII when all the troubles really began for lower-class Americans.

While most of my problems with this Streetcar  are in the direction, it would not be because Heller didn’t do a masterful job but instead because, as such an exacting student and lover of this particular play, I would have often personally gone in a different... well... direction to tell Tennessee’s most notorious tale. See, it’s that objectivity thing.

Still, on Joel Daavid’s incredibly evocative multi-leveled set, the Kowalskis and their troubled sister-in-law come to incredible life once again with an unearthly commitment to the material and a tremendous passion to tell the story.

I recently mentioned Dianne Wiest believes Winnie, the character she is assaying so splendidly right now in Beckett’s Happy Days  at the Taper, is the role she considers the female equivalent of Hamlet—meaning it takes some massive cojones to put yourself out there and attempt to play it.

I immediately thought Blanche DuBois would instead be my choice to earn that distinction. Since Williams wrote so many traps inherent in the role into which anyone brave enough to play her can easily fall—and often do—I wonder what it takes to decide to crash headfirst into such a major challenge.

Susan Priver does a yoeman’s job doing just that, bringing a courageously quirky and heartbreaking vulnerability to her terminally insecure and majorly fucked-up Blanche, exhibiting a fresh new approach to the fading southern belle’s familiar downward spiral. Max E. Williams takes on all the brutish behavior of Stanley and, like Priver, pulls out all the stops to create a vivid, highly individual take on the classic role.

As Stella, Melissa Sullivan provides the heart of this wonderfully idiosyncratic production, offering an indelible portrait of someone raised to be a victim, someone who learned to be quiet since her sister has kept her at her beck and call since childhood and never let her get a word past her continuous rants. Sullivan grounds this Streetcar,  providing the perfect buffer between the shrill insanity of Blanche and her limitless desire to please her husband whatever it takes.

I have seen more productions of this play than any other I can think of, as well as performing in it and directing scenes from it many times in my classes over the years. Although this incarnation of Williams’ best-known work may not be my quintessential choice to praise above any other, it still without a doubt offers an extremely worthwhile and fascinatingly evocative trip back into the wondrous world of Tennessee.

This Streetcar  once again conjures a magical, dreamlike place where, seven decades ago, the world reeled as the greatest playwright of the last century bestowed on us all his lyrical, poetic dialogue and an uncanny ability to honor and to elevate to heroic stature the lost and less desirable denizens of our mess of a society.

It was a groundbreaking moment in the history of theatre that changed the future of dramatic literature for all time to come and, for that reason if no other, this heartfelt presentation of A Streetcar Named Desire  deserves our appreciation and attention.

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