THE BONEYARD

REVIEWS:  July 2017 to... 

 

THE RED SHOES at the Ahmanson

It might be a tad difficult to follow the storyline of Matthew Bourne’s newest dance extravaganza The Red Shoes, currently taking our collective breath away at the Ahmanson, unless one’s familiar with the 1948 classic film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger or, as it is with me, was raised in a Danish household proud of its ancestor Hans Christian Andersen and grew up regaled by his amazing collection of bizarrely twisted fairy tales.

Don’t worry if this is the case. It doesn’t matter very much at all once you get caught up in the incredible skills exhibited by this striking ensemble of New Adventures dancers, featuring production values that could rival any in the world and, above all, enjoying the magical, whimsical direction and choreography of the brilliant Sir Matthew.

Told as though being performed in an early silent Hollywood movie and featuring a dynamic score from that master film composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Psycho, The Day the Earth Stood Still, North by Northwest), sweepingly grand yet simple 1940s-influenced set and costume designs by Lez Brotherston, and uber-dramatic lighting by Paule Constable, Bourne’s always mindboggling vision would grab you even if the plot was an episode of something on the Food Network.

The omnipresent raison d'être for this production to have blossomed to fruition is the staging and choreography gifted us by its genius creator, a man who I swear must be part Michel Fokine, part Bob Fosse, a little Mandy Moore, and a lotta just plain Sir Matthew Bourne. No one before him has ever taken the perfection and rigidity of classic ballet and morphed it so successfully with a haunting art deco-angular sensibility and, above all, his signature sense of humor that infuses everything he touches. It’s as though sometime in another life, Bourne was movement coach for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy—that is when not coaching Vaslav Nijinsky himself.  

On opening night, the lead character of Victoria Price, a young dancer obsessed by a pair of red toe shoes, and her own personal Diaghilev, impresario Boris Lermontov, were gorgeously danced by Ashley Shaw and Sam Archer, while her romantic pas de deux with Dominic North proved show-stopping every time. Still, it was Liam Mower, who won the Olivier Award as the title character in the original production of Billy Elliott the Musical in London, who left the most indelible impression as the Ballet Lermontov’s leading dancer Ivan Boleslawsky.

I’m personally convinced Matthew Bourne is one of our most important figures today in the world of dance and, as such, the guy could choreograph a musical version of Baywatch and still make it mesmerizing.

And hey… there’s a thought, right? The challenge is on.

STUPID KID at Road Theatre Company 

Poor Chick Ford. The kid not only looks like he would hands-down be voted as the Person Least Likely to Succeed in any contest and against all odds imaginable, but after 14 years in prison for a murder he may or may not have committed, not only does he arrive home to his parents’ shabby clapboard shack on the eastern plains of Colorado to discover his room has been rented out and his mother threw out his Frankenstein statue and Iron Maiden figurines, he is not even physically recognizable to them after all those years.

Of course, GiGi and Eddie Ford (Taylor Gilbert and Joe Hart) haven’t seen their son (Ben Theobald) since, at age 14, he admitted in open court that he had killed his girlfriend and was sentenced to life in prison. DNA evidence, however, has recently surfaced that questions the verdict and so, playwright Sharr White’s Stupid Kid hoists his garbage bag full of chewing gum and a few pair of tightey-whiteys over his shoulder and nervously treks back to the only place he has even called home.

For his pain pill-addicted father, who carries his meds in the pocket of his filthy bathrobe and pops ‘em like Reece’s Pieces, Chickie may just be a stranger “tryin’ to get us to let our guard down so you can steal our stuff,” though considering the condition and resale value of their stuff this would be highly unlikely. Seeing his abrasive mother for the first time isn’t any better, her reaction, after asking how he got there, is to observe to her mate that’s what’s wrong with this country: “They let people like him ride buses.”

GiGi’s reaction comes from the fact that her son’s conviction has made them pariahs in their small rural community, to the point where she lost her job at the local “Bird ‘n Turd” fast food outlet and her husband screwed up his back lifting their Buick LeSabre off the railroad tracks in just the nick of time after discovering his despondent wife trying to end it all. Why, even their mentally-deficient neighbor Franny Hawker (Michelle Gillette) didn’t speak to them for years, the breakthrough in their relationship beginning when she started flipping them off between the slats of her front window blinds.

There to offer advice is GiGi’s brother Unclemike (Rob Nagle), the town’s blustery former sheriff who engineered his nephew’s original confession and is trying to cash in on the monetary compensation Chickie might be entitled to if they decide to sue the state for false imprisonment. Unclemike (not a typo; blame the playwright) rents a room in the Fords’ home as a place he can bring his little chickadees in an effort to forget his wife is undergoing a sex change and would rather be called George than Georgette. This time out, Unclemike announces he’s moving in his reluctant companion Hazel (Allison Blaize), whom he cheerfully treats as his personal sex slave after getting the court to award him custody when she’s convicted for a drug offense.

Unclemike is oozing with a false charm that barely conceals his ominous power-hungry Trumpian streak of sadism and, as much as GiGi and Eddie want the guy out of their house, they’re so impoverished they would have trouble surviving without his $300 monthly rent payment, not to mention the bags of chips and junk foods and diarrhea-inducing cuts of frozen meats he barks at Hazel to bring in from his car with Simon Legree-style glee. Without him life would be nearly impossible, as GiGi’s oven hasn’t worked in six years and she feeds Eddie mostly dry cereal with powdered milk she gets from the local church’s charity bank. “Eat up them lumps, Eddie,” she snaps at her mate. “All the nutrition’s in them lumps.”

Gilbert, co-artistic director of the Road, has contributed some remarkable performances over the years but her GiGi rises directly to the top of the list, alternately as loud and shrewish as any sandpapery Jerry Springer guest and then suddenly soft and heartbreakingly touching, a severely broken woman whose treatment of her own son is obviously and tragically conflicted. Hart is a wonderful foil to Gilbert as the father who has all but given up and Theobald, though occasionally coming off a tad more Appalachian than Coloradan, wins us over as the lost kid who only wants to put his sordid past behind him and regain his life and parents’ love.

Blaize contributes some quietly arresting moments as the zombie-like and horribly abused Hazel, while Gillette, sitting nearby the action on a folding lawn chair greedily chompin’ on her bag of Doritos and enjoying the family’s dysfunction as though she’s watching a reality show falling somewhere between Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, is pure comedy gold as the most annoying neighbor since Zac Efron moved in next to Seth Rogan.

As usual, Nagle is one of those actors it’s hard to take one’s eyes off of, if you’ll excuse the intentionally bad but emphatic grammar. He steals the show in his every scene, his monstrous, oily, physically imposing Unclemike so goddam creepy I asked the actor after the show if he was having any trouble sleeping while playing this role. The fact that he said no with a wide Unclemike grin, relating that he’s been sleeping like a baby these days, may make me a little more apprehensive when greeting the guy at any future point in time, even if he is madly in love with a beloved ancient pug named Roosevelt.

Sharr White is quickly becoming one of my personal favorite emerging playwrights, proving himself to be adept at creating outrageously inappropriate comedies that alternately make the audience roar with laughter and then, like the narrative rollercoaster ride they promise, send their cars careening off the side at a moment’s notice. His Annapurna, in its debut starring Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman at the Odyssey, was my TicketHolders Award Best Play of 2013 and The Other Place, also starring the amazing Gilbert at the Road, was one of my Top Ten Plays of 2015.

Now with Stupid Kid, White gets even more respect from me with this knockout world premiere which, under the masterful leadership of director Cameron Watson, is simply the best production so far opening in LA this season in a year overflowing with incredible new plays. There are a few holes in White’s script which could easily be filled with a little dab of theatrical Spackle, but quite simply, it could never soar to these heights without Watson and his amazing cast of six brilliant actors at the top of their game. 

KING CHARLES III at Pasadena Playhouse

Playwright Mike Bartlett has taken on a monster, not only speculating outrageously and with bold detail about the destiny of the British monarchy, but doing so in verse while obviously paying homage to the sweepingly huge plays of William Shakespeare himself. King Charles III begins at a time in the near future, with the British court mourning the recent death of Queen Elizabeth and the Royal family preparing for the coronation of Charles (Jim Abele), who will finally assume his long-awaited role as King of England.

Not only does Bartlett strive to show us the intensely private and highly protected world of the Windsors, he does so entirely in iambic pentameter, spoken in perfect present—and future—speak. Where the Bard wrote poetic passages about the delicacy of the rose and the formidably destructive character of a bare bodkin, Bartlett’s bedazzled and leather bomber-jacketed Royals speak of Doritos and Botox with equally lyrical splendor.

All is status quo for everything on the surface as this major transition of power in the world begins to unfold until, for the first time in his life, Charles suddenly realizes he is now in control and lets his opinion—and power—surface. Since he cannot persuade his Prime Minister (J. Paul Boehmer) to take a second look at a bill the new King finds unconscionable, restricting the press from freely printing news that does not paint the Crown in a positive light, he boldly dusts off and exercises the English King’s long-unused ability to dissolve Parliament entirely and start from scratch.

What results is total chaos, requiring tanks surrounding Buckingham Palace to protect the new monarch and creating a division in the family that could totally change the course of world history. Although there are some major flaws in Bartlett’s play, including his inability to offer most of these well-known real-life characters more than the one dimension we already know, this ultimately is also a fascinating, epic effort, one that could never be presented successfully without the signature visually stunning perspective of a director as innovative as Michael Michetti.

Utilizing his dynamic cast of 16, Michetti, along with an amazing design team dominated by the incredibly detailed 100-plus costumes crafted by Alex Jaeger, manages to create a whole empire before us, filling the cavernous Pasadena Playhouse stage with constant movement and brilliantly conjured tricks in staging that keep the implausibility of the storyline from getting in the way of the vision.

Abele does a masterful job of bringing his Charles to life despite not being a physical match, but the playwright lets him down a tad, never giving the actor a chance to really step out of his character’s infamous stuffiness and get swept into what we are asked to believe is Charles’ newly minted social conscience. If we were given a chance to explore the reasons why he and the other increasingly more greed-fueled Royals behave as they do, the play would ultimately be more exciting.

Still as is, Bartlett’s uncanny ability to write gloriously evocative—albeit often implausible—speeches and monologues, lifts his play to a level it may not actually deserve in hindsight, leaving us with more smoke and mirrors than substance. It’s never really made clear how Kate (Meghan Andrews) can deliver an impassioned plea for equality for women one minute and become a ruthless usurper of Trumpian proportions the next, while the potentially explosive ending never satisfactorily crescendos to balance the grandness and audacity that energizes the rest of the highly speculative tale.

It’s interesting, however, that nothing unfolding in King Charles III is as much of a surprise as it might have been a little over a year ago. As the world devolves into some horrifyingly bad reality show around us, I fear we are all collectively reaching that dreaded point where, as Tennessee Williams noted in Small Craft Warnings, we will never again be able with a sense of wonder to proclaim “Oh, God” instead of just “Oh, well,” as we are stripped daily of our capacity for being surprised by much of anything these sad days as our species marches dutifully forth to extinction.

ROSOLVING HEDDA at the Victory Theatre Center

It’s become a cottage industry for wily contemporary playwrights to invent sly and often outrageous adaptations of our major theatrical classics. From Aaron Posner’s amazing Stupid Fucking Bird to Tom Jacobson’s inventive The Orange Grove, which memorably transformed, respectively, The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard into brilliantly skewed modern retellings, groundbreaking but sometimes stuffy dramatists like Anton Chekhov must be doing a little spinning in their otherwise well-tended graves—unless, of course, they’re laughing their skeletal asses off right along with the rest of us.

Now noted playwright Jon Klein, first brought to the attention of west coast audiences with the presentation of his HBO Playwrights USA Award-winner T-Bone ‘N Weasel many years ago, championed by Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny at their long-prolific Victory Theatre Center, returns home to world premiere his latest comedy Resolving Hedda—which immediately joins the ranks of the brilliant wordsmiths before him determined to turn great literary works of dramatic art on their proverbial ear.

Klein begins by presenting us with that traditionally tragic heroine Hedda Gabler herself (Kimberly Alexander), who tries to directly convince those gathered that she deserves better than to once again be the victim of Henrik Ibsen, that damned Norwegian misogynistic “serial killer” of independent woman at the end of the 19th century. It seems she’s struggled on the sidelines as her story has been told and retold in “over 10,000 performances of this fucking play” since it debuted to shocked audiences way back in 1891.

So once again, Hedda’s story unfolds before us, but not without running commentary from Mrs. Tesman herself, who talks so much she’s getting dry-mouthed from the monologuing and borrows the program from someone in the front row to check out the bio of the actress playing her.

Like a scene from Bill Murray’s Groudhog Day, Hedda watches and then jumps into her own role as once again old Aunt Julia (Alyce Heath) arrives at the Tesmans’ home to welcome the couple back from their honeymoon, only to find the lady of the house has given the maid Berta a personal day since she’s not essential to the plot. “This is the 19th century,” she tells her shocked visitor, “and we can defrost our own dinners.” Besides, she is obliged to show her husband’s sweet little old aunt that she’s hard and wicked and perverse, at least according to Wikipedia. At the same time she tries to defend herself to us, saying maybe she’s not really a bad person but is just written that way.

You get the picture, right? On Evan Bartoletti’s elaborately-appointed set and graced with opulent costuming by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg—although one outfit is assigned to each character, explained specifically in Klein’s constantly tongue-in-cheek text by someone noting they’re all just too busy to change—Gobetti directs a stage full of Ibsen’s well-known supporting characters, from Marisa Van Den Borre as the blank-headed Thea, Chad Coe as a silent movie-starry eyebrow-twitchy Eilert, Ormeny as a wonderfully lecherous Judge Brock, and featuring a rich yet understated turn by Ben Atkinson as Mr. Milquetoast himself, Hedda’s mousey new terminally academic hubby George Tesman.

Then there’s one new character onstage, a hapless stage manager (Sean Spencer) who, by forgetting to put out punch and unable find an outlet when he delivers a paper-shredder to destroy Eilert’s infamous manuscript, is threatened by Hedda to get with it or she will either kill him or turn him in to Equity.

Alexander is a powerhouse as Hedda, although she appears to occasionally be having a hard time knowing how to differentiate her narrations to the audience with the times she’s a part of the action. In general, the supporting players also do seem to be struggling to find a uniform style to solidify their journey as they give Resolving Hedda a try, but all are exceptional players I suspect have since settled into their roles more confidently.

At one point Hedda does assure us that she’s trying to get Ibsen’s play down to two acts and indeed she does. Still, there’s a little more judicious snipping needed to perhaps trim Klein’s refreshing and often hilarious play into a more modern intermission-less single act and not feel obligated to touch on every clumsy plotpoint presented in the original. If someone took a little Cliff Note-ian pruning to Resolving Hedda and gave this splendid cast a wee bit more time to settle into an ensemble performance, a delightfully clever modern classic can surely emerge.

BRIGHT STAR at the Ahmanson Theatre

Either I’m mellowing with age or my ol’ pal Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s journey into the genre of musical theatre defies my personal aversion to sappy American musicals. Although I considered avoiding reviewing—or at least donning a necklace of garlic and borrowing a crucifix from one of the handful of Christians I still know—Bright Star proved me wrong, overcoming my elitist pretensions that usually make me run for the hills long before encountering any real good clambakes or corn as high as an elephant’s eye.

Let me start by saying Martin and Brickell’s plot is about as predictable as Dotard Donnie’s reaction to criticism (“Sad!”), but still their bluegrass-tinged music is gloriously infectious, while Walter Bobbie’s direction is extraordinarily fluid and the simple but effective design elements in the production could not be more impressive. Add to this a wonderful ensemble cast, particularly Carmen Cusack, A.J. Shively,  Jeff Blumenkrantz, and Stephen Lee Anderson all reprising their original Broadway performances, and a worldclass band led by musical director/keyboardist Anthony DeAngelis—showcasing the dynamic George Guthrie on banjo and Martha McDonnell on violin—and even the script’s most predictable and improbable themes can be forgiven. 

The potentially sad tale of Alice Murphy (Cusack) unfolds as it travels back and forth through time and in two locations, first presenting her as a spirited teenager in the 1920s growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and then again in 1945 in the “big city” of Ashville, NC, where Alice has become the crusty, humorless editor of a literary magazine called the Ashville Southern Journal.

It begins just after World War II when Billy Cane (Shively) returns home to find his mother has died, prompting a predictably-timed duet with his father (David Atkinson) called appropriately “She’s Gone,” which features a song lead-in almost as clumsy as when Alan Jones first serenaded Dolores Del Rio in Flying Down to Rio. Of course, Billy also finds his childhood chum and current town librarian Margo (Maddie Shea Baldwin) has blossomed into anything but the feisty tomboy he remembered, but of course it takes until near the end of the musical before he makes his long-overdue move.

Billy’s dream is to become a writer and so, after a turn saying so in the musical’s lovely title ballad, he travels to Ashville to peddle his wares to Murphy’s publication. He’s almost sent packin’ right off the bat by Daryl (Blumenkrantz), Miss Murphy’s delightfully acerbic assistant, but Billy persists until, for some unlikely serendipitous reason, he finds himself standing uncomfortably in front of the boss’ desk who notes, with a world-weary sigh, that it would be easier to blast the face of Abraham Lincoln off of Mt. Rushmore than to get “home” out of the heart of a Southern writer.

The twists and turns in the storyline are, frankly, preposterous and I would be surprised if anyone in attendance didn’t see the outcome looming in about the first 20 minutes of the first act. Still, as I say, the music will set yer toes a’tappin’ and the players, especially Cusack and Blumenkrantz, make you quickly not care much that the dialogue would make Granny Clampett appear to have a degree in English from Harvard.

As designer Eugene Lee’s sparse countrified set pieces travel seamlessly under Bobbie’s leadership, anchored by a moveable barn-like pavilion that houses DeAngelis and his orchestra, this Bright new Star will win you over, especially with songs such as Cusack’s star-making opening number “If You Knew My Story” and later, in my particular favorite tune, “Sun Is Gonna Shine,” in a knockout duet with the magnificently-voiced Alison Briner-Dardenne, sadly underused as her mother.

For me, I’d have to officially admit there’s an added wrinkle to me deciding to review Bright Star that, although hopefully not, might have tested my personal objectivity. See, way back some quickly-moving 47 years ago, I gave Steve Martin his first professional job during my era as Talent Coordinator of the infamous Troubadour folk-rock club here in WeHo and later the Boarding House in San Francisco. There are many things I’m proud to have accomplished in my years swimming through the shark-infested waters of the music industry in that golden age of music and entertainment, but helping to launch the amazingly prolific career of this remarkable, always humble, always grateful friend is right at the top of the list. 

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME at the Ahmanson

There’s nothing more challenging than trying to depict what lurks inside someone else’s head, especially if the head belongs to someone with issues most of us have been fortunate enough to not experience personally. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time examines, through incredibly imaginative visual devices, the inside of someone’s brain obviously living precariously with some unnamed condition falling within the crowded autism spectrum. I kept thinking of all those old movies that attempted to depict the use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs which, from my own spectacularly knowledgeable personal worldview, I always felt proved to be grossly inaccurate.

Adapted wondrously by Simon Stephens from the international best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, it’s not hard to understand why The Curious Incident… won seven Olivier Awards in the West End and five Tony Awards on Broadway, including in both contests Best Play, Best Director honors for Marianne Elliott, and Best Choreography for Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett.

On Broadway, Alex Sharp won the Best Actor Tony for his first professional production in the exhaustive tour de force role of that conflicted young man, the classically nerdy 15-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone, a character who never leaves the stage during the show’s breakneck two-and-a-half hour playing time. Christopher is now being played in the west coast debut at the Ahmanson by Adam Langdon, a classmate of Sharp’s at Juilliard who alternates at some performances with Benjamin Wheelwright, whom I understand is also amazing. It’s hard to imagine anyone could be better than Langdon—kudos he must share with the committed and fiercely talented members of Elliott’s precision ensemble cast.

Christopher is a quirky mathematical genius with an aversion to being touched and a puzzlement over all things related to the human condition, something exacerbated when late one night he enters his neighbor’s yard to say goodnight to her dog Wellington, a friend he can more easily understand than the people in his life. Poor Wellington, however, is lying dead on the lawn, a huge “yard fork” protruding from his side.

Although initially Christopher is blamed for the murder, his sweet and honest disposition soon makes the local authorities aware of his innocence. But this is not enough for the boy, who goes on a personal investigation to unearth the real culprit who so brutally ended the life of his canine companion—the tile of Haddon’s novel taken from a quote by that master sleuth Sherlock Holmes himself.

Christopher’s father (Gene Gillette) doesn’t want him to continue his quest for justice, continuously telling his son to keep his nose out of everyone else’s business and warning him to try to stay out of trouble, to which the boy earnestly replies, “But I didn’t know I was going to get into trouble.”

Christopher’s adventures are chronicled Jonathan Safron Foer-style from the boy’s unique viewpoint as he careens through a world that he not only doesn’t understand but continuously terrifies him around every turn. And here’s where the innovation of Elliott (previous Tony winner for directing the unforgettably theatrical and uber-magical War Horse) takes over, turning the massive Ahmanson stage, with the spectacular contribution of Finn Ross’ jaw-dropping projections, into a fascinating largescale Fantastic Voyage-esque E-ticket ride inside the mind of our complicated young hero.

Elliott’s visionary, highly ingenious direction is the true star of this show, something made more palpable by Graham and Hoggett’s spectacular choreography and the contribution of some of the theatre’s most sought-after designers. Recalling the tightly-crowded movements of the townspeople in the original production of Evita, Elliott, Graham, and Hoggett even manage to create an amazing illusion as Langdon is lifted over the heads of a clustered group of ensemble members, transported horizontally across the walls of the stage as though “walking” through the unknown and scary streets of London while searching for his missing mother, the street below his horizontal body moving before him.

There is nothing but praise to heap onto A Curious Incident…, from those indelible first moments entering the auditorium, where Wellington’s body lies sadly lifeless under a spotlight in the middle of the huge playing area—made slightly surreal as the Ahmanson’s usual well-heeled donors and opening night patrons, who typically stand in the front rows air-kissing one another and exchanging animated pleasantries, this time out do so seemingly oblivious to the highly realistic dead dog prop lying behind them with a pitchfork protruding from its side—to the incredibly inventive special treat which unfolds after the final curtaincall, literally stopping the audience in their tracks as they begin to file out the exits.

It always amazes me that I can be so notably inarticulate in person, especially after a performance, and yet, when I write, I create 200-word complex sentences that drive journalistic purists crazy. Leaving the theatre after Langdon’s remarkable post-curtain rant, confetti not yet even brushed off my shoulders, I turned to my friend Michael Michetti seated behind us and all that came out of my mouth was, “I just love art.”

“I just love art”?

What I meant to convey is how privileged I feel to be in a place where I can regularly appreciate the creation of art as innovative and important as what we’d just experienced, not to mention having the honor and responsibility of considering myself to be a dedicated creator of the best art I can conjure. I am often impressed with the ingenuity, imagination, and determination needed to bring a story like this to fruition as a performance piece, but A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time goes far beyond that. This is the stuff that keeps me waking up, switching on the coffee, and facing another day in a world rapidly going to shit around us.

HEAD OF PASSES at the Mark Taper Forum

The meteoric career of Tarell Alvin McCraney is ascending like a rocket. From his incredible “Brothers/Sisters” trilogy—The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water, and Marcus: or the Secret of the Sweet—to his Oscar for Adapted Screenplay for last year’s Best Picture Moonlight, based on his partially autobiographical play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, McCraney is spoken as his generation’s August Wilson even more often than Dotard Donnie says “very, very.”

His newest play, Head of Passes, is not as dynamic or as universally accessible as his previous works, but as presented at the Taper featuring the Lucille Lortel Award-winning performance of Phylicia Rashad as its pivotal character and reprising the exceptional direction of Tina Landau, it is elevated to classic status. Maybe not Wilson-style classic status, but classic status all the same.

Shelah (Rashad) is a dying, overly-pious Louisiana family matriarch who rules her house with one iron fist raised to Jesus and a bible clasped tightly in the other hand. She doesn’t approve of much naturally-flawed human behavior and talks to her god as though the guy were hovering right above the vast patio of her bayou home where the Mississippi meets the Gulf. Even the term “deviled” eggs is forbidden in her presence, making it difficult for her patient family to organize their outdoor family get-together in her honor—especially with this day made even more difficult by the approach of a major storm.

Shelah has raised three adult children, her two own boys Aubrey and Spencer (Francois Battiste and J. Bernard Calloway), and the troubled Cookie (in a phenomenal too-brief turn by Alana Arenas), the drug-addicted illegitimate daughter of her late husband. Shelah adores Cookie so fiercely that she doesn’t seem to see or is willing to admit what a total mess the girl is—that is, unless the horrific family secret she’s buried so deeply has simply clouded her judgment.

Rashad is certainly a force of nature, although the only even vaguely uncluttered place left for her to explore is littered with McCraney’s continuous clichés. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve purdy much had my fill of preachy religious-themed plays chockful of good god-fearin’ born-again Christians closing their eyes and lifting their palms to the heavens while constantly telling others how to live their lives. Landau, however, makes it all move gracefully, leading her startlingly gifted ensemble—some of whom, though, are often hard to understand, at least in the Taper’s dead spot—and the no-holds-barred performance of Rashad, who by the end has to carry the entire second act almost singlehandedly, is miraculous and, I’m sure, will prove hard to forget.

Along with one other star performance, that of G.W. Mercier’s unbelievably jaw-dropping Transformer of a set, Head of Passes brings something truly memorable to LA’s grateful audiences that overshadows its inherent limitations: the performance of a lifetime from one Miss Phylicia Rashad. As one legend of the golden age of television comedy falls from grace, his once less-touted costar lifts her already admirable stature to a level higher than ever before.

RUNAWAY HOME at the Fountain Theatre

At a critical time when massive storms have devastated Texas, Florida, and now Puerto Rico while that monstrous destroyer of the free world Dotard Donnie assures us his soulless administration’s efforts for recovery are going “really, really well,” the world premiere of Jeremy J. Kamps’ Runaway Home could not possibly be more urgently important.

If Houston, Key West or San Juan seem too far away to draw you in to the struggles of those caught directly in the middle of a major national emergency, Kemps puts an all-too human face on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what the flood waters left behind: people marginalized by their race whose lives will never be the same and who are, to this very day, still festering unhealed wounds inflicted by our government’s inefficiency and blatant apathy toward their plight.

The play unfolds through this gifted emerging writer’s individualized lens of his own personalized vision while working as a volunteer for the clean-up in New Orleans’ warzone-looking Ninth Ward—why, I might have even known him as we all anonymously donned our hazmat suits and pulled weeds with roots that smelled like human vomit from devastated properties before their displaced owners lost their land to the city for not keeping it neat and tidy. Kamps’ fascinatingly gritty and yet uplifting morality tale has here been raised to remarkable artistic heights by director Shirley Jo Finney, who takes Kamps’ insightful depiction of a young lost teenaged girl from the Lower Ninth and her downtrodden, beaten mother and brings their world into sharp and dynamic focus.

The play takes place three years after the wrath of Katrina hit the Crescent City and Maya Lynne Robinson plays Eunice, the mother who has returned to the shell of a modest shack in the Lower Ninth she, her aged mother, and young fatherless daughter shared before what locals there simply call The Storm turned their lives into a living nightmare. Robinson contributes a breathtaking tour de force performance as Eunice, who back in August of 2005 watched her frail mom die in her arms in a rescue boat, her body then pitched unceremoniously over the side into the murky waters of the Gulf to make room for others.

Despite the growing animosity fostered by the tragedy of their lives between she and her daughter Kali (Camille Spirlin), Eunice forges on, courageously trying to hold her head high despite the hopelessness she sees as the possible end to her situation. When her temper gets out of control and she slugs the disrespectful Kali, the girl runs away from home, leaving Eunice is in a state of torment—but without a thought about stopping trying to find a way to survive her situation and make a better life for herself and her ungrateful kid.

Spirlin is a whirlwind as the spirited Kali, who has learned to lie and steal and con everyone around her just to stay alive, although it would be a boon to her performance if she starts to feel confident and trust her own voice, which she seems to think needs to be projected to the back bleacher nosebleed seats of the Hollywood Bowl without amplification rather than adapting her vocal instrument to the intimate low-ceilinged Fountain space.

Featured players Leith Burke as Eunice’s returning dog of a former boyfriend who left the family alone as the flood waters rose, Karen Malina White as her steadfast but adversarial friend and neighbor, and Armando Rey as a small general store proprietor stuck in the middle of a bad situation, all provide exceptional support for Robinson and Spirlin.

Despite being written skirting every stereotype of a well-meaning white privileged youth butting into a crusade others think should stay their own, Brian Tichnell does his best as Lone Wolf, who has come to volunteer and stays to spout a little minor rehearsed anarchy into the already saturated air. Still, it is Jeris Poindexter as Mr. Dee, the eccentric geriatric neighbor who probably survived Katrina floating around on a living room couch humming Robert Johnson blues, who brings the true flavor of the denizens of disaster to indelible life.

Runaway Home is a tale that will make you angry and frustrated more than change your worldview. Kamps never really offers a glimmer of hope or a possible cure for what ails these people or our faltering country in its current fascist state, but he brings the desperate world of Eunice and Kali to life with rich depictions of the troubles and inequities faced by so many others in similar situations, be they environmental or societal. No climate change, you say, Dotard Donnie? Drop dead, will you, and take your uncaring zombie appointees with you. We want our country back.

WALKING TO BUCHENWALD at Atwater Village Theatre

Soon to be married same-sex couple Schiller and Arjay embark on a European vacation they’ve arranged for Schiller’s aging Oklahoman parents’ 50th anniversary in the newest ultra-personal theatrical exploration by LA wunderkind playwright Tom Jacobson. Now in its world premiere from Open Fist at the Atwater Village Theatre, what begins like a wry comedic travelogue for PBS by Hal and Halla Linker turns shockingly ominous in Walking to Buchenwald, brilliantly staged and performed under the capable leadership of director Roderick Menzies.

As in most of this writer’s work, the play is purposefully incumbered by an all-new and personalized narrative challenge, a conceit that weaves through this amazing man’s plays so consistently that one day, in a fair and just world, similarly bold artistic potential foot-shooting might be known as Jacobsonian. “Theatre is a mutable thing,” he explains with a nod to his definitive Charles Mee-esque aesthetic, “which is what makes it living and unique.”   

His prolific body of work includes Bunbury, where never-seen characters in classic plays band together to change any tragic ending in all dramatic literature; Oroboros, which tells its tale played in a series of scenes that one night is played forward and the next backward; The Orange Grove, an adaptation of The Cherry Orchard set in the author’s own financially-strapped church written in three columns so multiple characters continuously talk at once; and The Twentieth-Century Way, where two modern actors sitting in a waiting room for an audition magically transform into various characters from the play itself. Clearly, Jacobson insists on always covering ground no one with a mission to succeed solely for commercial recognition would dare to traverse, something I am convinced will one day lift him into a prominent position as one of America’s greatest contemporary playwrights.   

Here Jacobson has created the characters of Schiller and Arjay as fluid enough to be played by either two men or two women—something achieved under Menzies’ stewardship with fascinating results. At some performances, the couple in love is played by Mandy Schneider and Amielynn Abellera, while for others, the same roles are assayed by Christopher Cappiello and Justin Huen. Not one word of dialogue needs changing with the alternating casts, nor is the plight of these bravely new world-pioneering lovers in any way in need of alteration.

Again, as is so prevalent in Jacobson’s plays, the premise germinates from his own uniquely personal experiences, this time around based on the time when he and his longtime partner Ramone Munoz treated the writer’s own parents to the same journey. Like Schiller (Schneider in the performance we attended), Jacobson’s day job at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum makes the character based on him the time-conscious tour guide of the expedition determined to show his folks Europe for the first time, a trait that results in Schiller being referred to by the others as the Travel Nazi.

On Richard Hoover’s simple but versatile set, consisting mainly of large depictions of museum display cases, the quartet travel from Ireland to England to France to Germany, where Schiller’s father (Ben Martin) is hesitant to want to take in the horrors of Buchenwald. “Going to Germany and not visiting a concentration camp,” his offspring chirps cheerfully, “is like going to LA and not going to Disneyland.”

Still, this is Tom Jacobson, right? The early comic freshness of Walking to Buchenwald soon takes a darker curve on the desolate road to Ettersberg Hill, from his parents’ failing health to Schiller and Arjay bickering about the unbalanced nature of their relationship—Arjay feeling like a token buffer along only to step between the family’s differences and to provide support in the task of telling Mildred and Roger the younger couple is planning to get married.

Beyond that, however, there’s a still darker cloud hanging over the quartet’s fateful trip. Although Jacobson wrote the play long ago—he and Munoz are pioneers in so many ways, having themselves married against the odds way back in the less-tolerant 2003—he has taken his manuscript out of the desk drawer, dusted it off, and rewritten a major theme of the play to reflect our current national crisis.

It’s a pleasure to see actors of a “certain age” like Martin and Laura James given a chance to play older people without the usual stereotypically underwritten obstacles. Both veteran performers are absolutely splendid as characters who, though long-in-tooth, still have epiphanies that help them grow up a little as they travel to a faraway mysterious land where they oddly feel freer than they ever did in their own country. Abellera finds wonderful warmth, patience, and inner resilience as Arjay, but unfortunately Schneider simply works too hard, eventually making her one-dimensional Schiller more annoying than endearing.

Perfectly rounding out the cast is Will Bradley, dynamic in a continuing series of supporting characters. Starting outside the theatre before the show greeting guests, whether Bradley is playing a charming little leprechaun tourist guide, a naked statue in a museum who holds a conversation with Roger as fluently as that frog in the cartoons who only talks to one guy, or a disgusted and emotionally-charged Weimer bus driver spitting out the details of the play’s horrific conclusion in German, Bradley is a wonderfully committed storyteller.

Long ago when I was but a boy, the term Ugly American was coined to describe rude and entitled American tourists trampling the world in their Bermuda shorts with ankle socks, loud Hawaiian camp shirts, and ever-present fannypacks, leaving a cultureless footprint behind wherever they traveled. But today, the stakes are infinitely higher. Suddenly, Walking to Buchenwald has taken on a new dilemma: what it means to be an American in a time when, under the “leadership” of our vile, society-destroying anti-christ Dotard Donnie, we are no longer admired in the world but reviled—and sadly but appropriately feared.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE at the Odyssey

I’m sure it was long before 1941 when the term “madcap comedy” was coined, but perhaps at no time in 20th-century theatrical history was there a better choice for that tag then when it was attached to Joseph Kesselring’s enduring old warhorse Arsenic and Old Lace.

Based on the infamous real-life case of Connecticut landlady Amy Archer-Gilligan, who took elderly and chronically ill boarders into her home and poisoned them for their pensions, the delightfully dotty yet murderous Brewster sisters and their certifiable family members took New York by storm in those dark days when another atrociously evil fascist monster was busy screwing up the world and ran for a record 1,400-plus performances.

Despite many topical references that only old-timers like me might get—and even then only by reference, not from actually being there at the time, thank you—Arsenic and Old Lace simply never gets old. There may be lines about the sisters’ world being a little like Strindberg writing Hellzapoppin’ or their evil nephew telling his aunties to get out of their period mourning dresses because they look like Judith Anderson, but still younger audiences will be equally charmed and entertained by one of the silliest farces of all time.

As directed with a huge dose of suitably Marx Brothers-esque humor by Elina de Santos, the Odyssey has portioned out a healthy dose of Arsenic with consummate skill. On a jaw-droppingly detailed two-story set by Bruce Goodrich, complete with the perfect staircase for the sisters’ deluded nephew Teddy (in a wonderfully wacky turn by Alex Elliott-Funk) to scale as he repeatedly charges up San Juan Hill, this is perhaps the most engagingly reverent mounting of a true American classic to hit LA stages in quite some time.

The early black comedy at first gently introduces us to the endearing Brewster family, with ancestors descended from the Mayflower, as the sisters lovingly care for Teddy, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt during his years as President. 0n the side they advertise for lonely old men to come to them as potential lodgers then poison them with their homemade elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide.

Unlike the real Miss Archer-Gilligan, however, the sisters don’t off their “gentlemen” for their money; instead, they see it as a Christian act to end their pain that charitably  culminates in giving them a decent burial service in their basement in the graves Teddy digs believing them to be locks on the Panama Canal. See, Abby and Martha Brewster (LA newcomer Sheelagh Cullen and stalwart local theatrical mainstay Jacque Lynn Colton) are just your average American homicidal maniacs next door.

The hero of the story and the one seemingly sane family member is their nephew Mortimer (J.B. Waterman), who actually must be a little off too since he works as a drama critic for an unnamed New York newspaper despite hating the theatre and believing it can’t last much longer. “Don’t think bad things about Mortimer because he’s a dramatic critic,” Martha tells the father of their nephew’s fiancée. “Somebody’s has to do those things.”

Mortimer is all ready to marry Elaine before he finds the body of poor Mr. Hoskins in the living room window box and, after the sisters cheerfully confess to having a dozen others of their “gentlemen” interred in the cellar, in his frantic state to let everything sink in, he debates whether to go through with his promise to marry since everyone in his family is obviously destined to madness. This includes their third long-estranged evil brother Jonathan (Gera Hermann), who arrives unexpectedly with his sidekick Dr. Einstein (Ron Bottitta), a rather sketchy plastic surgeon based on real-life gangland surgeon Joseph Moran, who has just altered his boss’ face for the third time—albeit in a drunken state right after he saw the newest Boris Karloff movie.

Jonathan goes into a rage when people continuously tell him he resembles Karloff, originally a sly in-joke since the horror star himself made his stage debut in the role on Broadway. Jonathan and Einstein arrive with a “stiff” of their own, one Mr. Spinalzo, and when they try to dump the body in the window box, they find Mr. Hoskins is already in repose there and soon the Brewsters are involved in a debate as to who has the most kills under their knickers, Jonathan or his aunts.

Waterman is hilarious as Mortimer, although the worldclass deadpan performance of Cary Grant in the classic movie has always been a hard act to follow. When Grant in his confusion and shock answers the phone when the doorbell rings or states to his editor that he is “feeling a little Pirandello” (ask your elders, whippersnappers), nothing has ever been funnier, but Waterman works hard to come in a close second.

Liesel Kapp as his intended Elaine also does her best with a role that rollercoasters from ingenue to Martha Raye-like on a moment’s notice, culminating perfectly when she decides to dump Mortimer and exits with the personally home-hitting line, “You… you…critic!”  Hermann and Bottitta do wonders as Jonathan and Einstein, gratefully avoiding the trap of getting lost in Karloffville and Peter Lorreland.

Alan Abelew has a trio charming turns as Elaine’s father, the head of the nuthouse where the Brewsters may all end their days, and especially as one of their potential victims saved by Mortimer in the nick of time. As various cops who put up with the Brewsters’ eccentricities and hilariously miss every under-their-noses clue about their friends’ murderous exploits, Yusef Lambert, Darius De La Cruz, and Mat Hayes are perfectly cast, but it is Michael Antosy, the cop who stays the night to persuade the tied-up Mortimer to collaborate on his potential play script, who steals the latterday-Keystone men-in-blue sweepstakes.

And of course, that leaves Colton and Cullen as Martha and Abby to consider. One thing that, even as a kid, made me first fall totally in love with the film version of Kesselring’s madhouse masterpiece was the work of Jean Adair and Josephine Hull, who originated the roles of the Brewster sisters (Karloff, who had a financial stake in the New York production, turned down reprising his turn as Jonathan in the film version since he knew he was the biggest draw on Broadway). Adair and Hull had a chemistry as the sisters that translated beautifully to film and made them the highlight of the movie, even for me eclipsing the smoothly vaudevillian pratfalls of the otherwise suave Mr. Grant.

Colton and Cullen, miraculously, have found that sweetly goofy chemistry like gangbusters, their time whenever they are onstage sure to make anyone smile from ear to ear. Explaining to Mortimer their mission to help poor lonely old creatures find their peace is hysterically funny in its abject seriousness, like two aged homicidal Mother Theresas proudly proclaiming all the good they’ve done and all the lepers they’ve healed.

These two incredible veteran performers often seem to be moving or speaking as one, almost finishing each other’s sentences and nodding conspiratorially whenever the other makes a point. Colton and Cullen could honestly have been living together in the old Brewster homestead for years. Like Adair and Hull, their performances are the heart of this Arsenic and Old Lace and make it one of the premier theatrical events in a rather parched season.

BILLY BOY from Playwrights' Arena

As with so many of his previous plays, the world premiere of Nick Salamone’s Billy Boy, his newest quantum leap into another knockout bout of personal soul-searching, is arrestingly brave, unflinchingly honest, and unapologetically sentimental.

Michael (Salamone), clad only in his tighty-whiteys, at first appears to be a kind of ominous low-rent motel room, sharing his bed with his two deeply missed ex-lovers: first getting off with his high school sweetheart Emma (Rachel Sorsa) and then shagging his best friend David (Matt Pascua), the person who should have been his sweetheart high school—and later was.

In both scenes, Michael’s pair of steamy onetime romances are rekindled with highly-charged sexual reunions after which, post-coitus, each turns into a series of accusations and reminders of conduct which cannot be forgiven. Soon, however, it becomes clear these are not concrete encounters grounded in reality and, even though Michael might instead be lost in some sort of Super-8 purgatory, it’s hinted that the meetings might be a return to his childhood “night-mirrors.” See, it appears perhaps both Emma and David are actually dead—or at least that’s what Michael tells each about the fate of the other.

Any question about this is dispelled in the play’s third scene, when Michael’s late mother (Sorsa again) materializes to the child he once was (still Salamone) to coerce her traumatized son out of bed so they might attend the funeral of his developmentally-challenged cousin Billy Boy. Eventually all of Michael’s phantom scene partners, it’s explained to him, are “just three loves trapped in amber inside your soul.”

Salamone’s writing is, as ever, gorgeously poetic yet accessible in a kinda Tennessee Williams-y way and so deeply personal, dealing with the demons of the author’s own rigid Catholic upbringing and acceptance of his homosexuality that it is almost difficult to watch it unfold—especially with the guy himself in the leading role. Fortunately, Nick Salamone is a magnificent actor, able to shuck off the bounds of introversion and possible reluctance to put details of his life, though fictionalized, out there for the world to see. Not even his body is off-limits, which is where this particular actor-playwright-reviewer would personally have had to draw the line in fear of becoming a factor in the visual pollution of the environment.

Pascua is perfect, both as Michael’s adoring lover and later when David morphs into his most fierce Grand Inquisitor, but it is Sorsa who knocks her dual turns as Emma and Michael’s mother out of the proverbial ballpark. Although both women have a tendency to have shared the same dry Eve Arden-esque caustic sense of humor, it’s as his first love, who may or may not have become a psychiatrist after losing Michael following an early personal crisis, who is the most indelible of all four characters. “I’ve had a lot of therapy,” Michael admits to her when he finds out what her calling in life became. “I could tell,” she returns. “You’re so full of shit.”

Almost another character in Billy Boy is the remarkably inobtrusive but always present staging by longtime Salamone collaborator Jon Lawrence Rivera, who takes a very static, potentially very talky play and fuses it with a constant fluid sense of palpable tension, while the comfort in the close physical relationships between the haunted Michael and his randy but accusatory visitors are a testament to the confidence and assurance players receive only from inspired directorial leadership.

The intimacy between his performers is obviously intensely trusting and always amazingly realistic, as is the torment that permeates Michael’s life as a great playwright attempts once again to exorcise the shadows of his own demons—those lingering demons that, no matter how we try to lose them, never seem to totally go away.

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY UNIT AT MEMORIAL SLOAN KETTERING CANCER CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY at Geffen Playhouse

At the beginning of Halley Feiffer’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, now making its west coast debut at the Geffen Playhouse after an acclaimed off-Broadway run at Manhattan Theatre Club, Karla sits in attendance at the bedside of her cancer-stricken mother in a typically faux-cheerful but blindingly sterile hospital room.

As her mother (JoBeth Williams) sleeps, Karla (playwright Feiffer) tries out her newest routine in her attempt to build a career as a stand-up comic, aiming her best Silverman at the room’s adjoining curtained bed. Delivering lines such as “I’ve been single so long I’ve actually started having sex dreams about my vibrator,” she really doesn’t worry about her mother’s equally-stricken roommate (Eileen T’Kaye), since it seems the poor dying woman is in a vegetative state and can’t hear her enough to be offended.

But also paying his respects to his own mother behind that curtain on the other side of the room is Don (Jason Butler Harner), who has heard just about enough of her off-color oneliners and at first politely asks Karla to keep it down. This of course leads to a confrontation, the two children of the comatose sick women screaming at one another while their respective parents only stir slightly in their medicated fog.

Karla and Don eventually agree to a truce, of course, and although she says she has never understood her own “charming and dark” sense of humor, anyone who knows Feiffer’s pedigree should have no trouble figgurin’ it out at all. The daughter of the wonderfully twisted cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer (Little Murders, Feiffer’s People, and the screenplay for Carnal Knowledge), the delightfully askew familial view of the world is easy to spot.

Although the role was originally played at MMC by Beth Behrs, it would be quite difficult to imagine the author wrote the role for anyone to play but herself. Feiffer has a gentler but equally quirky Woody Allen-inspired delivery that only seems to weave through the dialogue of that one character, with the two remaining speaking actors (that’s another story I will not be getting into) not sharing the vocal rhythms of the woebegone Karla.

Recreating his original New York direction on Lauren Halpern’s almost too realistically generic and anticseptic hospital setting—making one feel as though instead of entering the Geffen you’re off to visit your great-aunt at Cedars—Trip Cullman does a fantastic job keeping the stark stillness and the physical limits of the playing space fluid. His cast is adept at mining the fun out of the play’s unfunny core situation, especially Williams, who barks out lines about her disappointment with her daughter, telling Don she’s always had a bleak worldview. “I’d say go to bed,” Marcie snaps in an attempt to explain the pair’s contentious relationship, “and she’d think I said, ‘Nobody loves you.’”

Marcie and her comatose roomie Geena hear a lot more than they let on, it seems, both waking up long enough to complain to one another about their kiddies’ conduct when Karla and Don bury the hachet enough to stumble off into their bathroom to find other things to bury bent over the porcelain sink. The moms share how appalled they are by this noisy impropriety before it triggers an all-new direction for the play, but Marcie makes a bigger stink to Don over her daughter’s behavior. “Now she’s really trying to cash in on cancer jokes.”

And there’s the rub. Some people will obviously be deeply offended by Feiffer’s twisted sense of inherited humor, but anyone who has ever faced a long hospital stay or dealt with catastrophic illness personally or caring for a loved one—or if you’ve worked in a hospital where gallows humor runs rampant to erase the tensions and potential heartache—will enjoy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit… with an appreciation and understanding others cannot. And as the civilized world crumples and burns around us, a little bit of Feiffer’s off-kilter and wacky yet sophisticated Duck Soupian humor could not be more welcome.

ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS

Trans Chorus of Los Angeles at the Renberg

It’s been almost 18 months since the amazing David Bowie left us and, as someone whose work I adored and friendship I cherished for a mere 45 years, I have to admit I signed on to see the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles in concert at the Renberg interpreting his The Rise and Fall of ZIggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars mainly out of curiosity. I left, however, deeply moved and bolstered by their courage and talent—especially on the very day when our sick racist Asswipe-In-Chief's need for power and attention led him to sign the backward-moving order to ban transgender Americans from the military.

It was 1972 when I first met David. I had brought Bette Midler to the west coast for her first west coast appearance and, one night while performing at the Boarding House in San Francisco, into our late show walked David clad in his complete Ziggy regalia—bright purple overall shorts, red-orange hair shocked into submission, high silver platform shoes that made him taller than me, face covered in pink glitter. He arrived unannounced directly after knocking out his own performance on his Ziggy world tour at Winterland and, well, sold out or not, who could turn him away?

It was Bette’s birthday and after the show, the two of us took David and his boytoy dancing until the wee hours of the morning. He and his friend argued in an amphetamine-fueled haze throughout the evening’s revelry until finally the guy stormed off into the night and left us with a sobbing and severely stoned superstar on our hands. By dawn’s early light, we pouring the totally wasted Bowie into a cab, clumsily carried him into his hotel, and literally tucked him into bed. He and I remained friends from that night on, connecting whenever we could and whenever he and Iman—whom he met through our mutual friend and haircutter, the also late-great Teddy Antolin who died only a few days after David, were in town.

So, this was my major connection going to see the Trans Chorus of LA perform Ziggy, although I will admit I had also heard they were something not only unique but spectacular. And I heard right. Under the precision musical direction of the troupe’s dedicated and obviously passionate artistic director Lindsey Deaton, the 30 or so members of TCLA began the performance all dressed in dull future drab for The Rise: “Five Years,” “Space Oddity,” “All the Young Dudes,” and “Star Man, among other classics. Bringing on Dali-esque props and performing choreography by Billy Rugh and Michelle Benton, the Chorus instantly won my heart, showing themselves to be far more than a novelty but serious performers whose vocal blend, interpreting the complex arrangements by Jerome Kurtenbach and Tim Sarsany, not only conquered the material but energized it anew.

For the second part, labeled The Fall, the chorusmembers stripped off their Tatooine-wear to reveal brightly glittery par-TAY finery below, knocking out Bowie’s best with gusto and gobs of talent: “Rebel Rebel,” “Star,” Life On Mars?,” the title song, of course, and finally the all-defining “Suffragette City.”

To say it was a magical experience is a major understatement. These are not only courageous, pioneering individuals willing to show us all how passionate they are to embrace life and become an equal part of our society, but these are folks with extraordinary individual talents, as well as wildly self-deprecating tongue-in-cheek senses of humor. With the support of the combo’s leader and keyboardist Joe Lawrence—and including an uber-sexy electric guitarist named Benjamin Fortin who is sure to make any beating heart flutter—this Ziggy would without the shadow of a beard… er, I mean doubt, make David proud if he were only around to see them breath wonderful new life into his musical genius.

Ending the evening with an encore sure to not leave a dry eye in the house, Trevor Project’s heartrending theme song “It Gets Better,” letting all disenfranchised or suicidal youth realize they have our support and are never ever alone in this fucked-up world of ours, made this crusty old critic cry and, unusual for this place in time when we wake up each day wondering what new horror our insane “leader” has forced upon our population and the world, personally giving me a boost of hope for the future that just came to me in the nick of time.

Check for future concerts and engagements at www.transchorusla.org—and please do consider making a donation to keep them opening minds and making our world better despite the Orange Hitler and his soulless minions at www.transchorusla.org/donate.

LEVI KREIS at the Renberg Theatre

It’s not usual for me to write about shows that have closed or, in this case, one-night events. Still, seeing Levi Kreis in concert at the Renberg has to be shouted to the rooftops, even if it won’t resurrect an evening of pure magic. And then, too, you can go out and buy his new CD, also titled Broadway at the Keys, something which I would wholeheartedly recommend.

Singer/songwriter Kreis was born in the backwater town of Oliver Springs, Tennessee, a place where his ultra-Christian family saw southern Baptists as liberals and, in a high school graduating class of five males, he was named perhaps the only class valedictorian in history who maintained a solid C average. Of course, despite his parents’ horror at his choice to pursue musical theatre as a career, he left for LA soon after, the Devil’s Playground if there ever was one, then went on to achieve Broadway legend status and a Tony Award for his astounding turn playing Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet.

Through the years, Kreis has continued to write and record his own dynamic music, gifting his adoring fans with five albums since 2005, many of which were shared in this too-brief local concert appearance. It wasn’t easy for a kid from such a restrictive family situation to succeed in such an unusual career choice, especially considering one of the themes in his own music is his homosexuality, something which led to a riff between him and his mother despite his growing fame—or perhaps because of it. Calling to tell her one of his first albums was trending third in the country, right behind Byonce and Mariah Carey, her steely response was, “Why must you air your dirty laundry in public?”

The love between his family members eventually prevailed, even progressing to the point where, during a visit home to introduce the love of his life to his parents, his father invited his partner to go hunting with him—a simple but monumental moment that did not go unappreciated by my own boyfriend, raised on a farm in Aztec, New Mexico, who instantly knew what a defining milestone that was.

As a songwriter, Kreis is arrestingly poetic, truly inspirational, and deeply, courageously personal—and yet, with his Yma Sumac vocal range, he is also a gloriously entertaining performer. This somehow leads one to wonder if indeed his whole familial story is fabricated and in truth he is the improbable secret lovechild of Peter Allen and Laura Nyro.

Whether he is singing his own heartfelt material or paying homage to the personal heroes who inspired his life and work, from Stephen Sondheim (“Nothing’s Going to Harm You” from Sweeney Todd, the first musical he ever saw) to Carole King, Ray Charles, and of course Jerry Lee Lewis, his performance is mesmerizing and, miraculously, somehow able to help erase all the other shit in the world that’s unfolding daily before us these days.

The evolution of his music, he tells us with his wide, warm grim that seems to be directed to each and every one of us looking back at him in the dark, clarified for the young Leviticus Kreis that being different, being unique, is not a liability but an honor, as it's artists such as he who help change the opinions and the perspectives of the naysayers who try so hard to tell the rest of us how we should act and who we should be.

GREY NOMAD from the Australian Theatre Company

Australian playwright Dan Lee has chronicled an unusual phenomenon for retirees who inhabit the world’s largest island in the world premiere of his Grey Nomad, a term used to describe his country’s many boomer couples who sell their homes and give up all their earthly possessions to circumvent the country in RVs searching for a bit of “adventure without dementia.”

Lee explains: “I first came into contact with the free-range baby boomers…a couple of years ago when I was living in Broome. Every year in the dry season, they would stream into town in their RVs and camp trailers [and] the town would go from 15,000 to 50,000 in a couple of weeks. They’re a very funny and interesting bunch,” he notes of the eclectic aging adventurers who choose to dedicate the rest of their lives to traveling in loops around the country.

Helen and Jim (Ros Gentle and David Ross Paterson) are just such a couple, deciding to sell their house before any more of their grown children try to move back in. They take to the open road but they’re not as blissfully happy as they expected to be, beginning to feel as though they’re constantly “trying to turn left when we’re actually parked.” Their oddly incongruent sense of motorhome-inspired claustrophobia is especially heightened as they attempt to dodge an extroverted, obnoxious nomadic couple who seem to be haunting them in their travels wherever they land.

As Helen stifles a recurring dream that she croaks while on the road and Jim just opens the passenger door and kicks her out onto the highway with all the other similarly deceased worn out wives and husbands, their stalkers, Val and Tim (Wendy Hammers and Paul Tassone) indeed do show up, stark naked and ready to par-TAY just as Jim is settling into his folding beach chair to watch the sun set over the ocean in long-earned peace and quiet.

It’s quickly clear Val and Tim are hiding their own boredom and exhaustion with putting up with one another in a confined space. No matter how Tim aims to show Helen and Jim how youthfully healthy and physically flexible he is in the most graphic way possible, downward dog included—thank Terpsichore staged facing upstage toward his costars—he and Val are harboring a dark secret they’re running from, along with their fleeting youth,

Under the surprisingly kinetic direction of Iain Sinclair on Se Oh’s sparsely empty set that serves as every beach or wet t-shirt competition party on the island, Lee’s script sings, albeit with a mighty old-fashioned song. It’s not entirely necessary for every play produced to have some deep premise to make it worthy of presentation, but here the pickins’, although fun, are also fairly slight. His storyline is akin to one of those classic sitcoms from the golden age of television, long before it was Shameless-ly Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a throwback to a simpler time when Marlo Thomas was still flying kites in Central Park and Lucy had some ‘splainin’ to do.

What especially makes Grey Nomad palpable, however, besides Lee’s sharply quirky dialogue and insight into the process of growing older despite ourselves, are these veteran performers able to make it all work. This is especially true of Gentle, with whom we fall in love in her turn as the curious, frustrated, ever-patient Helen in the first minutes. Every subtly pained expression, every moment of closing her fluttering eyelids to regain her composure, is golden, something that proves even more endearing when Val’s more outrageous free behavior begins to rub off on her infinitely more conservative protégée.

Hammer and Tassone are wonderful foils for their reticent targets, although I do wonder if manscaping is still to be discovered in Australia, something that would improve Tassone’s entrance considerably. After a rather annoyingly broad first act delivery—not to mention prompting non-Australians to long for supertitles to help us get all his dialogue—Paterson grows on you as the typical clueless husband endlessly cloned on film and in TV commercials all our lives.

No, Grey Nomad will not change the world, but it will give you a laugh from way deep down in that place when the world seemed easier to navigate than it does in 2017. And that’s saying something good.

HONKY TONK LAUNDRY at the Hudson

Producer-director-bookwriter Roger Bean has an amazing track record, with his breakthrough creation The Marvelous Wonderettes springing off from its LA debut into a well-received off-Broadway hit and spawning over a thousand hugely successful productions throughout the world performed in five languages, as well as birthing several cashcow Wonderette-inspired sequels. His second even more inventive musical compilation, Life Could Be a Dream, received LADCC, LA Weekly, and Garland Awards for Best Musical.

That said, maybe it’s me, because Bean’s newest effort, Honky Tonk Laundry, is something of a washout. Keeping in mind I love listening to Wonderette’s nostalgic 1950s pop tunes and Dream’s 1960s doo-wop score, I personally sorta run for the hills when it comes to country music, probably because the father I couldn’t stand listened to it nonstop whenever I was home on a break from my own career. Although I can listen to Willie Nelson or Patsy Cline all day long, most of the genre’s repetitive tunes about standing by one’s man, fallin’ ta pieces, and making your boots go a’walkin’ away from all them rednecks with all them cheatin’ hearts, make me non-Cline-like crazy.

Honky Tonk Laundry is surely an acquired taste. Both the music and the script, featuring two good ol’ big-haired country girls singing their backwoods lungs out while Lana Mae Hopkins (Bets Malone) and her dysfunctional employee Katie Lane Murphy (Misty Cotton) fold endless loads of clothes, slurp Big Gulps, and spout those eye-rolling Hee-Haw-esque pearls of country wisdom, gets really, really old in about the first 20 minutes.

Now, there’s no doubt that Malone and Cotton are two of the most impressive musical theatre veterans gracing us with their considerable gifts on the west coast and both knock the songs they’re given right out onto the street in front of Lana Mae’s Wishy Washy Washateria, but I for one could have used a little less twang and one less intermission (of one).

They say all art is imitation, but there’s not much new in Bean’s slim tale written simply to link together the song cycle of country standards. Lana Mae’s husband and Katie’s boyfriend are of course both doin’ the nasty with some cheap floozy, which somehow leads them to decide to produce a concert at the Wishy Washy—and thus justify the second act.

Even though they’re “cuter than two insects goin’ ta’ the June Bug Ball in July”—yes, you heard me right—even the infectious talents and incredibly powerful voices of Malone and Cotton can’t save this Laundry from puttin’ out the CLOSED sign. As wonderful as it always is to hear both of them sing, having only their two voices to listen to, hugely and inexplicably overamplified overpowering the tiny Hudson’s sound system, eventually makes the evening a two-Ibuprofen event.

Somewhere deep in Honky Tonk Laundry, Lana Mae tells Katie that everyone’s got a good story and “that’s why they invented country music.” Well, for some of us, that’s just not enough. So if you’re able to sit through the CMT Awards on TV or Miranda Lambert in concert, by all means head to the Hudson and stomp those feet of yours until they hurt. You probably haven’t had so much fun since the pigs et yer little sister.

EMILIE:  LA MARQUISE DU CHATELET DEFENDS

HER LIFE TONIGHT  at the Greenway Court

It is a given that physics also promotes circular behavior, the late controversial figure of the French Enlightenment era Émilie du Châtelet tells the audience as she gets used to being dead while jumping consciousnesses to relive her past exploits right before our very eyes. “And so, here I go again.”

Lauren Gunderson’s intellectually challenging new play Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight quickly shows itself to be a little Aaron Posner, a tad bit Charles Mee, and a lot Tom Stoppard; this could easily have been written by Stoppard somewhere smackdab between the creation of Hapgood and Arcadia.

Our title heroine flashes back and forth through her adult life trying to put together the pieces of her lusty and passionately inquisitive former days on terra firma trying to figure out how balance the quicksilver notions of love and science, both of which obsess her. “Damn the love!” she shouts, showing off her best Jeanne d’Arc on the battlefield at Orléans stance. “And long live the mind!”

In Coeurage Theatre Company’s typically arresting and gorgeously designed production energized by inspired and sweepingly fluid staging of director Julianne Donelle, Sammi Smith assays the demanding role of La Marquise with extraordinary skill, making the difficult journey for any audience member a lot more grounded by her warmth and robust sexuality. This is especially evident considering the uppercrusty manner-driven world of the real life pioneering physicist and mathematician who was, among other things, the married mistress of François-Marie Arouet, the great French poet and political sabre-rattler better known by his nom de plume Voltaire (here played by Marc Forget).

In 1733, to avoid arrest after publication of his anti-government Letters, Voltaire took refuge at La Marquise’s château at Cirey-sur-Blaise, where they cavorted shamelessly under the nose of Emilie’s husband, the Marquis du Châtelet (Nardeep Khurmi), who sometimes left their neglected three children home in Paris and stayed at the château with his wife and her lover.

The relationship between Emilie and her “V” didn’t just revolve around hot and sorted sex, although it seems, in Gunderson’s view, there was indeed plenty of that. But more than only linked in their carnality, the shameless lovers (“The minute I left Paris and go to the country,” Emilie tells us, “is when I go from being an eccentric to being a rebel”) collected over 21,000 books, an enormous number for the time. Together, they studied these books and performed experiments in the natural sciences, including collaborating on an attempt to determine the nature of fire.

Their relationship was fierce: unquenchably sensual and, at times, explosively volatile. “Don’t worry,” Emilie tells the audience, “we fight in English so you won’t miss a thing.” Their conclusions, as their research intensifies, are not a match by any means, especially with La Marquise fighting the perception that women at the time should not be going beyond learning to curtsy and properly unfurl their lace fans, while Voltaire’s stubbornness and high regard for himself intrudes continuously. His paramour scalds his massive ego by snapping at him that he’s like a poet dressed up as a scholar and stating that she’d never met a humble poet. Soon their relationship—but not their deep-rooted respect for one another—is being dashed on the rocks below their chateau.

The production is simply lovely. Donelle’s direction is precise and wonderfully imaginative and the designers weigh heavily in the success of the piece—particularly the incredible sound design by Joseph V. Calarco, which weaves period chamber music in with crescendoing electronic jolts as Emilie goes periodically from live to dead. The game supporting cast is splendidly in on the style, although Forget’s turn as Voltaire—resisting the urge here to make a pun about his surname—is basically competent but too casual and contemporary, too vocally flat, and above all, not remotely sexy. 

The masterpiece of this Emilie is this Emilie. Smith never once leaves the stage, but continuously compels her audience’s attention at every moment despite the actress’ subtle attempts to occasionally let her costars shine a bit and have their own moments. Simply put, Smith gives an indelible tour de force performance, at once magical, boldly sturdy, yet ever-accessible to seduce us to love her character despite La Marquise’s blatant flaws and selfish, self-destructive behavior.

Coeurage’s mounting of Gunderson’s Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight is not to be missed, for an introduction to an amazing new playwright, as a nod to this company’s commitment to create innovative and thought-provoking theatre at every turn, and for the unearthly and stalwart performance of Sammi Smith in the title role.

“Happiness may not be having all the answers,” Smith’s Emilie surmises. “It might be having the time and space… to wonder.” If I take no other lesson away from this sparkling production, it will be that and, I suspect, it will be something that stays with me for some time to come.

BLACKBIRD at the Grove Theatre Center Burbank

There are a handful of plays veteran theatre reviewers in our “Industry town” avoid like the plague. This is not because they aren’t great plays—otherwise they would not be mounted with such frequency—but in El Lay, with its endless supply of acting workshops and hopeful newbies arriving intent on self-producing to showcase their own talents, these are the most overexposed contemporary works of our time. For me, this list includes Closer, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Beirut, Proof, and several others probably best not named.

Quickly climbing to the ranks this season of the overproduced is David Harrower’s tense and gritty 2008 Olivier Best Play-winner Blackbird, which has just opened at GTC after a previous run only two months ago at the Los Angeles LBGT Center as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Next month, a third production of the play will open at the Met and you can bet this particular reviewer will not be in attendance a third time—a colostomy without anesthetic as a preferable alternative comes to mind. Can you say “vanity production”? Whomever holds the rights to Blackbird must be one greedy entity.

Were artists I admire profusely not involved in this current mounting of the play, I would certainly not have sat through it a second time. This is not in any way because it’s a bad play—to the contrary—but because it’s a difficult, slap-in-the-face kind of play and twice will prove enough for me for a few years, I suspect.

Una (here played by Candace Hammer) has arrived at the workplace of Peter (Eric Larson), whom she knows as Ray. She demands to see him and he quickly ushers her into the company’s claustrophobic mess of a breakroom, desperately trying to get her to leave or go outside to talk or just simply keep her voice down. Ray has a lot about which to keep quiet, as neither his coworkers nor his current girlfriend know anything about his former life, the life that ended with a prison term after his three-month affair with Una when she was 12 changed both of their lives forever.

Yup. Hard to watch this psychologically traumatizing journey unfold twice in two months but ironically, this second time out proved a fascinating and interesting homage to just how beautifully Harrower’s troubled characters are written. I want to do anything but compare the two productions or two casts but, suffice to say, if you’re a student of theatre, the comparison between the two Blackbird-s is almost instantly apparent.

Let me just say no one in these dueling productions is in any way the same. In the first, the character of Una held all the power over her milquetoast former assailant, while in this version, Ray clearly holds the reigns and Una is the fragile one. Even the direction shows two totally different approaches to the same subject. Where Anna Stromberg’s kinetic staging had her performers constantly circling each other ominously like caged animals, here Jeremy Adrianne Lelliott takes a far simpler, far more cerebral approach to the material, a choice which makes the ending even more devastating than the other. Both directions, amazingly, work beautifully.

So much for not comparing the two, eh?

Still, if you did not catch the first Blackbird, don’t miss this one—and if you did but never stop being knocked out by how many ways a well-written play can be interpreted, see this one anyway.

JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL

AND LIVING IN PARIS at the Odyssey

One of the most surefooted ways to grab an audience and hold it to your heart is to sing anything written by Jacques Brel, the Belgium-born and Paris-bred folk singer/poet and master of the modern chanson, whose brief but fiery non-conformistic life tragically ended in 1978 at the way too early age of 49.

Although Brel’s following was at first mostly French and European, as he recorded most of his songs in French and occasionally Dutch, he became a major influence on English-speaking songwriters and performers from David Bowie to Marc Almond to Rod McKuen, and English translations of his songs were recorded over the years by Ray Charles, Judy Collins, John Denver, Nina Simone, and Frank Sinatra, among many other devotees.

It was 1968, inspired by the worldwide success of Damita Jo's “If You Go Away,” translated from Brel’s gossamer ballad “Ne me quitte pas,” that the classic revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. With lyrics translated by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, the production conceived by Shuman and featuring a 25-song cycle of Brel’s songs performed by two men and two women, the incredibly successful revue ran there over four years and, simply, has since been remounted in virtually every major city in the world.

I have personally seen Jacques Brel Is… done about 20 times in my life, from large theatre complexes to intimate nightclub venues to converted ice skating rinks to once aboard a cruise ship headed to Mexico. The music is nothing short of amazing and Brel’s signature insight, political jabs, razor-sharp wit, and that thinly-veiled inherent optimism he tried so hard to disguise, makes it timeless despite a lack of the usual plotline afforded the standard book musical.

There’s a teflon quality to any production of Jacques Brel Is…, something exhibited by the current version just opening at the Odyssey Theatre directed by Dan Fishbach. In many ways, Fishbach’s starkly simple vision is impressively bare-boned, with the musicians playing live at the rear of the Vegas lounge-y set by Alex Kolmanovsky made up of large ascending gray platforms, and featuring piercing lighting by William Adashek and complimentarily monochromatic costuming by Denise Blasor to match.

The production serves as proof that the haunting lyricism of Brel’s music and the insightful nature of his poetry can make his classic revue survive just about anything--and even eventually inspire Fishbach’s obviously less accomplished, initially less magnetic cast to eventually soar to unexpected heights.

Marc Francoeur as Man 1, the brash and whimsical role Shuman created for himself, never quite seems comfortable with the exaggerated and in-your-face style of the piece, although vocally he gathers confidence as the evening progresses. Hopefully, as the run continues and grows into itself, so will his work.

On the other hand, Michael Yapujian has a better handle on the vocals but physically, though clearly confident, it’s hard to grasp what he’s doing besides performing in his own disconnected one-man show. There’s not much heroic about his usually heroic Man 2, clearly the show’s Brel substitute, as Yapujian appears more to be trying to go for Woody Allen playing Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors than honoring the more sophisticated Brel. 

The women fare far better. Although musical director Anthony Lucca should try to temper Miyuki Miyagi’s vocals in group numbers so it doesn’t blatantly overpower her costars, in her solo turns she has a beautiful and richly resonant voice. She is especially impressive as she sweetly interprets the triple-waltz-timed “Timid Frieda,” with castmate Susan Kohler pantomiming our anti-heroine as she arrives with her valises held so tightly in her hands. This is one of the most memorable songs to pay devotional homage to Brel’s evocative lyrics (“Will life seize her? / On the street where the new dreams gather / Like fearless robins, joined together / In high-flying bands”) and Miyagi knocks it right out onto Sepulveda Boulevard.

It is Kohler, however, a little bit Piaf, a little bit Judy Collins, a little bit Barbara Cook, and even a little bit Julie Harris, who is the quintessential interpreter of Brel’s songs here, someone with a uniquely expressive if not perfect voice who overcomes that assessment instantly with her unique ability to tell the master’s story with style and a phrasing that’s notably individual to her. Her gorgeously poignant “I Loved,” containing the one Brel lyric I find myself conjuring often over the course of my last four-and-a-half years (“You loved me like a poet loves / My nights were made of stars and fears”), is the highlight of the evening—at least the part of the evening we were allowed to experience.

About halfway through Act Two, in the middle of Kohler’s beautifully redolent French-sung “Marieke,” our blazing El Lay summer, such a testament to the ominous fact that global warming is real and our President is full of shit in this and so many other ways, hit the Odyssey bigtime, zapping off the power in the entire complex and leaving us—no, the entire neighborhood—lost in complete darkness.

As management entered the theatre to tell us all to hold tight, as they were gathering flashlights to escort us all from the place, the cast was bombarded with fervent pleas to continue. As they stood like sentries on the blackened stage, the lack of air-conditioning quickly becoming an issue, the committed quartet came together as an ensemble as they had yet to accomplish to that point. They clasped arms after helping one another down from Kolmanovsky’s challenging levels of steep platforming, joining together before us to continue the show in the glow of their grateful audience members’ flickering cellphone lights.

As they soldiered on valiantly in the dark, the house manager returned to say they had decided the show must not go on any farther, but still they did not stop. At a shouted request from a knowledgeable audience member to “At least sing ‘If We Only Have Love,’ the show’s knockout final number and Brel’s sweeping anthem to the redemptive glories of love, and with the complete agreement from musical director Lucca seated in the dark behind at his magical keyboard, Francoeur, Kohler, Miyagi, and Yapujian transformed into relaxed and committed superstars, offering the most beautiful and the most heartfelt rendition of the song I have ever heard

There in the darkness they stood before us, heads held high in the collective glow of all those wavering iPhones and sang:

If we only have love / Then tomorrow will dawn

And the days of our years / Will rise on that morn

If we only have love / To embrace without fears

We will kiss with our eyes / We will sleep without tears

If we only have love / With our arms open wide

Then the young and the old / Will stand at our side

If we only have love / Love that's falling like rain

Then the parched desert earth / Will grow green again

If we only have love / For the hymn that we shout

For the song that we sing / Then we'll have a way out

If we only have love / We can reach those in pain

We can heal all our wounds / We can use our own names

If we only have love / We can melt all the guns

And then give the new world / To our daughters and sons

If we only have love / Then Jerusalem stands

And then death has no shadow / There are no foreign lands

If we only have love / We will never bow down

We'll be tall as the pines / Neither heroes nor clowns

If we only have love / Then we'll only be men

And we'll drink from the Grail / To be born once again

Then with nothing at all / But the little we are

We'll have conquered all time / All space, the sun, and the stars.

“This is a performance I will never forget,” quipped Miyagi in the darkness and there, folks, is where this cast, still struggling to find their Brel-ian sea-legs before their minor crisis hit, miraculously came together and brought forth all the stuff they had to give all along, all the stuff that had yet to be mined as an ensemble before the lights went out. There they were, linked with all of us in that sweltering room—and with everyone grasping for understanding in this troubled world—discovering, as Brel told us we must 40 years ago, that the only way to face pain and uncertainty as everything we hold dear crashes around us is fearlessly and together.

Bet my bottom dollar the Odyssey’s remount of the timeless Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, after last Saturday’s unforgettable performance, is now just about perfect.

THE LOST CHILD from Skylight Theatre Company

An estranged couple find themselves each arriving unannounced at their long-abandoned and dilapidated vacation home, a place they haven’t visited in the seven years since they split—which was something triggered by the mysterious fate of their 11-year-old daughter, who disappeared into the cabin’s dense and ominous adjoining woods without a trace all those years ago.

The world premiere of Jennifer W. Rowland’s eerie but clearly unfinished The Lost Child joins Tom Jacobson’s also supernaturally-themed The Devil’s Wife in rep on the same stage, an ambitious project for the continuously courageous Skylight Theatre Company for sure—and also a risky one, debuting two promising new plays both needing more work to be successful.

What this one has going for it is the visually moody staging of director Denise Blasor and her crack design team, including evocative and often shadowy lighting by Jeff McLaughlin, Christopher Moscatiello’s echoing sound plot, and a cleverly versatile set by Stephanie Kerley-Schwartz which magically transforms from the mid-19th century ranchito of The Devil’s Wife with one sly hint of shared rococo design from its performance partner.

Still, the most memorable ingredient here is the enormously heartfelt performance of Addie Daddio, who is riveting as Ann, the distraught mother all but destroyed by her daughter’s disappearance, compounded by the widespread media-fueled public hatred and scrutiny from all those who suspected she had something to do with the crime. Daddio acts rings around the glaring holes in Rowland’s storyline, a circular journey that’s unfortunately less kind to her costars.

Peter James Smith as her ex-husband Daniel basically looks uniformly pained and miserable from lights up to curtain call, without a hint of character arc written into the storyline to help him out. The talented Marilyn Fitoria as the couple’s suddenly remerging daughter Angelica—now supposedly 18 but still looking and acting 11—has an even harder task trying to navigate the script’s minefield of blatant stereotypical behavior, relying on continuously rolling her eyes and squinching her face into Shirley Temple pouts to play a young adult lost in pre-pubescent behavior. If, like Daddio, both Smith and Fitoria relaxed a tad and tried working a little less feverishly, some of the problems here could be more stealthily avoided.

But it’s the play itself that makes this production most problematic. Plots and subplots are introduced willy-nilly, very few of them ever reaching resolution. After the Peter Pan-like return of Angelica, it takes a very short time for life, after the horror and hopelessness of the past seven years that even has made Ann have to live incognito, to suddenly go back to parenting Angelica and decide who gets to sleep where and cheerfully wondering if anyone wants pancakes for breakfast.

There’s a hint that Daniel wants to scream for closure, but that, too, gets buried in Unfinished Play Purgatory. Then there’s a pair of sexual encounters that seem more gratuitous than anything else, as Angelica lingers in her parents’ bed, only to discover internet porn on her mother’s computer and diddle herself under the covers, or when the difficult long-estranged relationship between Ann and Daniel suddenly erupts into a heated and totally unnecessary too-graphic partially-clothed screwing session on the living room couch. Before humping like jackrabbits, didn’t either of them want to brush off a little of the dust accumulated over the past seven years—not to mention taking time to more deeply investigate what the living fuck Angelica is doing there before getting so comfortable?

The true elephant in the room of puzzling and off-the-wall developments, however, is when Angelica admits she is something of a fairy person, living underground with her mystical supernatural guru, presumably under the trunk of the old tree which has crashed through the cabin’s window if I wasn’t too confused and uninterested by then to get it right.

There’s so much to still explore—and eliminate—in The Lost Child. The dialogue is beautifully written and the characters are potentially intriguing, but even considering all that and the knockout performance by Addie Daddio that will tear at your heart, little Angelica needs to have Ann sew her shadow back on, put her hands on her hips as she often does and sing a chorus or two of “I Won’t Grow Up,” then head back underground just a wee bit longer.

 

Fucking critics...