EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE 

CURRENT REVIEWS from

TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER 

 

Everybody 

Photos by Jenny Graham

Antaeus Theatre Company

After seeing Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ wildly inventive and refreshingly entertaining morality tale The Octoroon debut at the Fountain last season, the announcement that the prolific Antaeus Theatre Company would be presenting the LA premiere of the playwright’s 2018 Pulitzer finalist Everybody gave me yet another reason to not so patiently await Fall.

There’s now no doubt whatsoever in my mind that Jacobs-Jenkins is a major artist to watch, someone who, as the New York Times referred to him, has become “one of our country’s most original and illuminating writers.”

Based on the classic medieval morality play Everyman, this is an imaginative new take on the famous allegorical quest as a simple man searches for the explanation of life and its transience, or the “Buddhist-ness at the heart of the story.”

Everybody lobbies for a willing companion to join him on his journey to meet his demise at the wave of a riding crop from Death (played by formidable LA theatrical icon Anne Gee Byrd), something that could not be more timely for me personally at the moment. It’s an unsettling reminder of how precious life is and how urgently important it is to appreciate every moment of it, but it’s also so chockfull of clever absurdities and quirky inventiveness that it can also be bearable—if one hasn’t lost a sense of humor about the subject by age (almost) 76.

Antaeus is known for presenting more traditional classics, but in the hands of this exceptional veteran ensemble cast under the leadership of director Jennifer Chang, Jacob-Jenkins’ fascinating but challenging Everybody could not possibly be a tighter fit.

“Is this real or is this a dream?” a character asks, to which Death responds with an understood duh: “No, it’s theatre.”

As things slowly, painfully return to normal for stage companies everywhere after our globally debilitating pandemic, this has been the Year of the Ensemble Cast in LA. I have been juggling so many choices for that honor as my annual TicketHolder Awards build to conclusion for 2022, but that Antaeus and their production of Everybody has instantly made my decision for me—bar any eleventh-hour upsets—is purdy much a given.

Along with the actor cast as Death (the role now being played by the equally formidable Tony Amendolia with Byrd off to Toronto cast as Bob Odenkirk’s mother in a new TV series), three others appear in traditional assigned roles, if you can call characters named Time, Understanding, and Love traditional. In those roles, Dawn Didiwick, Cherish Monique Duke, and Alberto Isaac, respectively, are all perfect.

Duke also has the responsibility of showing the audience to their seats as they enter, then gives a curtain speech that goes way beyond a reminder to turn off cellphones and pointing out exits, morphing directly into the play itself as our friendly usher does double duty as a decidedly ultra-cool Moms Mably-like God.

Then again, is this really God? Is God even real? “Doesn’t that depend on your definition of real?” Jacob-Jenkins asks.

The five remaining actors, Lisa Sanaye Dring, Nicole Erb, Harry Groener, Antonio Jaramillo, and Gerald Joseph, are listed in the program only as playing “Somebody.” That’s because until each performance begins, the actors have no idea who they are playing. Beginning scattered surreptitiously among the unsuspecting audience, they are picked out and called onstage, the contrivance being they have been chosen at random as though they are attending a David Copperfield performance in Vegas.

Isaac as Love also at first appears to be a real audience member trying stealthily to walk out of play who when stopped begrudgingly admits he “usually enjoys everything they do here.”

The other steadfast five are each given a colored ball which, when placed in a lottery spinner, determines which character is theirs for that particular performance. That means this quartet of certifiably masochistic thespians must memorize and know the blocking for every character in the script besides those mentioned above and must be prepared to play any of those roles at any performance, resulting in 120 possible combinations.

With names such as Strength, Beauty, Senses, and Mind, these are the traveling companions of Everybody (the fifth actor) who pleads with them to join him or her on the road to that inevitable appointment with Death.

Of course, as willing to help as each trusty friend initially professes to be, eventually when they learn what the outcome will be, Strength runs out, Beauty fades, Senses get lost, and the Mind goes. You know, like life.

Even though two or three texts from my friend Dawn before I attended stated how terrified her husband Harry was (I call the team of Didiwick and Groener the contemporary Lunt and Fontanne of Los Angeles) before every performance about what part he’d be required to play, I honestly thought she was putting me on and keeping with the artifice of the lottery to see who plays what.

Au contraire. When the ball came up for Harry to play Everybody, just the quick wide-eyed look on his face as he caught his wife’s eye in the audience (before her charming turn as a giggly little girl thrilled to be asked to participate), I instantly knew this was no scripted gimmick.

And lucky for us all seeing this particular performance, I am thrilled I was able to see Mr. Harry Groener in the demanding leading role. His was a tour-de-force performance in an incredibly demanding role and I am all the better for experiencing his take on… well… on me. On you. On Everybody.

Still with the amazing talent both onstage and as part of the Antaeus team of worldclass designers and theatremakers, the above-title wonder here is the skill and talent of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who proves to be a genius at taking on an archaic 15-century morality play and making it blossom into totally watchable, highly enjoyable and relevant theatre for the 21st Century.

I kept thinking of the first time I saw a work by Charles Mee performed, how my head exploded at his welcome irreverence and how I couldn’t wait to see more. I also kept conjuring the image of a playgoer in 1944 walking into the Playhouse Theatre in New York to see opening night of a new work called The Glass Menagerie, then scrambling through the playbill in the dark thinking, “Geebus, who the living heck wrote this?”

THROUGH OCT. 17: Antaeus Theatre Company, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale. 818.506.1983 or Antaeus.org

Lucia di Lammermoor 

Photo by Cory Weaver

Los Angeles Opera

Although such things don’t always work, I am usually anxious to see modern reinventions of classic theatre. After attending the opening of Oklahoma! destructed to become NO-klahoma! right across the Music Center Plaza only two nights earlier, I was still a little apprehensive attending the ultra-gala opening night of Simon Stone’s reconstructed Lucia di Lammermoor, the first presentation of the LA Opera’s 2022-2023 season.

A coproduction with the Metropolitan Opera, Stone has reset Donizetti’s Italian dramma tragico from Lammermuir Hills in 17th-century Scotland to a derelict urban American neighborhood in the present day which may possibly be Detroit, with the uniform worn by poor doomed auto mechanic Edgardo (LA Opera favorite Arturo Chacon-Cruz) the only clue of the tale’s exact new location.

It’s a world filled with a real pickup truck and several battered junker cars, flashing neon signs, cluttered convenience stores, glowing ATMs, even a massive drive-in movie screen featuring flashes of Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour goofing through the 1947 comedy My Favorite Brunette.

All these signposts of contemporary life crowd Lizzie Clachan’s jaw-dropping scenic design, with buildings and houses and the wall of some kind of rusty desalination plant on the banks of what is maybe is the Detroit River all made to revolve continuously on the imposing Dorothy Chandler stage as the action evolves.

And while the screen above the stage still flashes the Opera’s traditional English supertitles, it also ingeniously follows our rapidly unraveling heroine shot live by a handheld camcorder, also revealing Lucia’s journey in giant blowups of her Facebook texts to the absent Edgardo, and juxtaposing her innermost delusional visions in moody noir-like black-and-white with the far less cheery reality unfolding live just below.

The result is pure magic. Clachan’s artistry is the stuff awards are made for and how Stone skillfully maneuvers his performers—including 50-plus members of the LA Opera Chorus winding through the action as local workers and formally-clad wedding party guests whipping out their iPhones to capture the violence when a brawl breaks out at the celebration—is nothing short of genius.

So perfect for today, even this 198-year-old adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor begins with a street mugging, as Lucia (the return to LAO where her career began of Met star Amanda Woodbury) is jumped from behind near her brother’s dilapidated auto body shop.

When Lucia first premiered in 1835 at the Teatro di San Carlos in Naples, it was at the height of a widespread fascination in Europe for the history and culture of Scotland. The perceived romance and intrigue within its violent wars and familial feuds, as well as the country’s mythologies and folklore, was something akin to our society's obsession with survivors and celebrity housewives..

You know: a mirror image of our lives two centuries later, once again confirming that we as a species have no ability to learn lessons from past atrocities.

This mounting of Lucia is simply magnificent, made even more perfect by its worldclass cast and the auspicious debut of LA Opera’s new Resident Conductor Lina Gonzalez-Granados, warmly welcomed by the organization’s devoted firstnighters both during wildly enthusiastic curtaincalls and afterward at the glittering annual LA Opera Ball on the gorgeously transformed Plaza saluting the venerated organization’s 36th season.

Woodbury and Chacon-Cruz give breathtaking performances as the story’s Romeo and Juliet-like starcrossed lovers destroyed by their warring families, acing Donizetti’s astonishing and difficult arias, beautifully supported by Alexander Birch Elliott as Lucia’s meddlesome brother Enrico and Eric Owens as the kindly family clergyman Raimondo.

It’s quite a feat for Stone and his associates to so brilliantly chronicle the mental decline of their poor bedeviled title character, made even more impressive by the inclusion of the omnipresent ghost of a young girl stabbed to death at the banks of the river who periodically returns embodied by dancer Jessica Gadzinski (alternating with Shauna Davis) performing the angular Nijinsky-esque choreography of my ubertalented friend Kitty McNamee, former artistic director of LA’s groundbreaking Hysterica Dance Company.

Everything about this reawakened Lucia di Lammermoor is impressive, from its soaring performances, Clachan’s glorious set, James Francome’s versatile lighting, Blanca Anon’s whimsical costuming and, especially, the exceptional projections designed by Luke Hall.

There are also more than a few laughs along the bloodsoaked road to operatic misadventure and misfortune, one particular supertitle provoking more than a scattered guffaw from the savvy opening night audience as the pious Raimondo does his best to raise spirits by telling the cursed and bloodied survivors of the ill-fated love story that “God condemns violence.”

I wonder if, way back in 1835, people were gullible enough to find comfort in that.

THROUGH OCT. 9: Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.972.8001 or [email protected]

Oklahoma! 

Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Ahmanson Theatre

Anyone familiar with my reviews probably knows two things: I dearly love cleverly twisted and dark interpretations of classics if the newly devised transformation is done well—and secondly, I run in the other direction from schmaltzy and maudlin musical theatre.

I was more than excited to finally see Daniel Fish’s reinvention of Rodger and Hammerstein’s venerable 1943 musical Oklahoma!, especially since it was my own first experience as an actor at an age so young it was amazing I wasn’t wheeled onstage in my stroller and my binky taken out of my mouth so I could belt my shrieking cameo solo about carrots and pertaters.

Of course, Oklahoma! was a cultural and critical phenomenon for many reasons, including heralding the beginning of one of the most successful collaborations in musical theatre history and, even more importantly, for the introduction of melding song and dance into a storyline with serious dramatic goals.

It’s true that over the years Oklahoma! has devolved to almost always being presented as a gooey romance focusing mainly on the courtship of Curly and Laurey (here Sean Grandillo and Sasha Hutchings) and the comedic side story of that silly Will Parker perusing the perpetually hot-to-trot Ado Annie (Hennessy Winkler and transgender activist Sis). Over the last nearly eight decades, any nuance of social and political indictment was buried under frilly crinolines and bowlegged cowboys highstepping in tight-fitting jeans.

The kicker intended to seep through Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs was the dangerous Hatfield vs. McCoy competitive rot and distrust of “them other folks” in the Indian Territories in 1906, helping to create an ol’ west portending the unraveling of that fallacy known as the American Dream.

Fish’s intentions are surely admirable, particularly without changing more than a few words in Oscar Hammerstein’s book, but I understand in New York this boldly off-kilter take on the classic, slimmed down for 10 actors and one dancer rather than a cast of 25, was staged in an intimate space with audience on three sides of the action featuring many interactive moments, something obviously lost when the national tour took flight.

Actors in the first act actually cooked onstage as the tale unfolded and at intermission, homemade cornbread and frontier-style chili was shared with audience members sitting at wooden tables adjoining the stage. Gimmicky but tasty.

Whatever innovations that worked well then have been abandoned in the austere 2,000-seat Ahmanson. As imaginative and guileful as Fish’s vision may have been pre-pandemic, he should have been around to somehow rethink his vision for a huge proscenium stage before taking the proverbial show on the road.

For instance, our heroes’ two close encounters with that ominous Jud Fry (played in a fascinating new slacker-boy interpretation by Christopher Bannow) are performed in total blackout with the voices echoing in the darkened auditorium. On a smaller stage with the audience seated closely all around them, I bet it was a chilling effect. At the Ahmanson, I kept waiting for an announcement from the booth to pierce the dialogue telling us they were pausing the show to work out some unwelcome technical difficulties.

Laura Jellinek’s set allows the cast and the (exceptional) band to be placed around the stage sitting at bleached wood chairs and picnic tables, evoking a community center or borrowed high school gym in some rural community. This one is decorated with mounted gun racks and is suitably festooned with brightly glittering mylar banners all ready for the homecoming dance next Friday, right after the hayride.

Unfortunately, this choice on tour plopped down on a more traditional stage helps foster the feeling that this rendition of Oklahoma! is a clunky and unstructured first readthrough of the newest amateur night being presented by the local Claremore Oklahoma Community Players.

Fish’s staging reminded me of our first on-your-feet rehearsal for Hair where we were given the freedom to move wherever we wanted or, if not in a scene, to stay around watching the other actors do the same. Tom O’Horgan’s only direction was, “Find your comfortable spot but don’t bump onto one another.” Again, I bet at Circle in the Square, this approach was exhilarating; here it’s a huge mistake.

This is not to say the cast—and the knockout band mentioned earlier—are not the most professional anyone could find. Bannow is a clear standout, taking the menace out of Jud and replacing it with someone just too creepy to want around. Hutchings is possessed of a voice that instantly lifts the rather dull and drawn out proceedings to a whole new level but aside from her this production was not cast, intentionally I suspect, with an emphasis to find performers with impressive vocal skills.

The hiring of Sis is inspired casting, her big-boned, big-voiced, larger-and-life streetwise delivery as she seductively towers over her prey proves to be hilarious at every turn. Broadway veteran Barbara Walsh is also an asset to the tour, although try as she might to make it work, she still seems more embarrassed to be a part of it all than Barbara Stanwyck playing a lesbian madam in A Walk on the Wild Side.

Credit is given in the program to Agnes deMille’s original rule-breaking 1943 “Dream Ballet” choreography, which literally changed the course of musical theatre history. Presented here with an electric guitar accompaniment I loved,  one game dancer wearing a “DREAM BABY DREAM” t-shirt is forced to follow seemingly unstructured steps created for a beginning dance class. Sad to say John Heginbotham’s homage to the original choreography could get poor Jordan Wynn tossed off So You Think You Can Dance after the first audition and send poor Miss deMille spinning in her grave, albeit gracefully.

I already hear those with an opposite opinion about this Oklahoma! angrily saying those of us who basically hated it are old curmudgeon traditionists who aren’t willing to change their ways and open up to something new. Au contraire, my friends; in my case, I am totally up for drastically clever interpretations of things that need to be seen with a bold look that upends the status quo.

Oh, I so wanted to love this new take on a tired old musical warhorse but simply, I did not. For me, this glaringly pretentious and self-satisfied Oklahoma! was definitely not OK.

THROUGH OCT. 16: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

Jagged Little Pill 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Pantages Theatre

So. Next to Normal meets Rent with a score by Alanis Morissette and a book by Diablo Cody. What could be the downside?

Answer: Absolutely nothing.

The opening night of Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill at the Pantages is certainly a fortuitous event for Los Angeles audiences, not only because of her incredible score (created with Glen Ballard with additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth), but because it has no corn as high as an elephant’s eye, rain in Spain, problems with Maria, or real good clambakes. It is raucous, loud, bursting with energy, and still has something important to say.

Considering the Pulitzer Prize for Drama is awarded each year to a work by an American playwright that deals with life in our fuckedup country, it’s surprising Cody’s book, although it did win the Tony for Best Book of a Musical, didn’t at least receive a nod from the committee.

Perhaps due to my own early career spent appearing and touring in sappy and terminally romantic American musicals, give me Fun Home or Caroline or Change or Urinetown or Passion or Company or the aforementioned Next to Normal (which did win the Pulitzer), and I am a happy guy.

Not that there’s anything wrong with classic musical theatre, mind you, which I can still appreciate, but the jolt of seeing contemporary musical theatre generated with some potent societal issue as its focal point and with a point beyond the boy getting the girl by final curtain, makes me stand and cheer—which I did for the west coast debut of Jagged Little Pill. Twice.

Add in incredibly kinetic and wildly inventive direction and choreography by, respectively, Diane Paulis and Sibi Larbi Cherkaoui, augmented by musical director Matt Doebler and his precision and suitably deafening band rocking out on tunes from Morissette’s double-diamond, five-time Grammy-winning 1995 studio album, and nope: no downside whatsoever.

Perhaps it’s because the long awaited Covid-postponed national tour has just kicked off here in LA, but this uniformly dynamic cast is chockfull of energy and excitement, not the often soggy and road-weary troupe that sometimes bogs down long-touring productions.

The ensemble is incredibly joyous and committed to Cody’s clever and topical script focusing on the picture perfect suburban mother raising her perfect children within her perfect nuclear family unit where her paleo breakfast pancakes are served with agave syrup and her annual Christmas letter portrays a life somewhere between Leave It to Beaver and Andy Hardy as captured by Currier and Ives.

The otherwise often deplorable Ayn Rand once said that most people in our society live as “second-handers,” caring only about how they are perceived by others rather than caring about who they really are, something that, as Rand said, “supersedes truth, facts, reason, and logic.”

Such is the downward-spiraling life of Mary Jane Healy (the unearthly talented Heidi Blickenstaff), who below the finely polished Norman Rockwell image seethes as someone desperately trying to keep it all together despite a loveless marriage, a posterchild son with a dastardly secret, an adopted African-American daughter who hates her and wonders if she was only chosen to join the family to show the world just how “woke” they are, and—oh yeah, that: a major addition to oxycontin and fentanyl.

“We all get it,” MJ’s frustrating husband Steve (Chris Hoch) snaps at her after having his fill of her need to be seen as a latterday maternal Mother Teresa, “you’re winning at Candyland.”

Oscar-winning screenwriter Cody has conjured complex characters who must be a joy to portray, especially when the actors get to break into Joplin-perfect song with insightful lyrics by a poet of Morissette's status. Hoch, Lauren Chanel as her angry and confused daughter Frankie, and Dillon Klena as her not-so perfect Harvard-bound son Nick are all exceptional in their roles, as is Allison Sheppard as the kids’ classmate Bella, who becomes dispondent after being raped while unconscious at a class party, and Rishi Golani as Phoenix, the new kid in town whose relationship with Frankie moves a bit too fast than is comfortable for him.

Still, it is Blickenstaff who is the anchor of this jagged Pill, delivering a tour de force performance that could not possibly be more relatable to many people—nor more devastatingly  moving. From the early cheery persona MJ offers for public inspection to her final opiate-fueled onstage overdose, jarringly depicted while wailing Morissette’s Grammy-winning “Uninvited” as she writhes in pain on her living room couch, her agony shadowed by an identically dressed doppelgänger of herself mirroring her every movement, Blickenstaff is transcendent.

Then there is the showstopping performance of Jade McLeod as Jo, Frankie’s adoring girlfriend whose love is tossed to the wayside when her young lover meets Phoenix. Remember I mentioned that this opening night performance triggered two standing ovations? The first is in the middle of Act Two when the heartbroken McLeod powerfully delivers “You Oughta Know,” perhaps the most cogent and compelling moment of the evening.

Truly, though, the entire cast is worthy of accolades. As Alanis Morissette remarked during the opening night curtaincall, when she took to the stage herself along with Cody and Ballard, when Jagged Little Pill opened in New York before being felled—more than once, both before and after—by the pandemic, every production creates its own kind of personality and direction. As good as the Broadway version was purported to be, it would be impossible to imagine a cast as gifted and ferociously committed to the material as this one. If they ended with a impromptu interpretation of “Happy Birthday,” I’ll bet they’d still receive a rapturous standing ovation.

The secondary storyline of Bella’s shame and the unsympathetic community of typically dispassionate suburban high schoolers who eventually rally around her as Frankie gives her all to promote activism and offer diehard support for crucial causes, also begets a message that should be shared with teenagers everywhere.

Among the many protest signs held up by members of the ensemble as they march for justice and equality, one struck me to the bone: "IT TOOK ME 10 YEARS TO STOP BLAMING MYSELF."

Personally, for me such a realization took more than 50 years to sink in. Maybe as a young person jumping into the world without a net, if I’d had Alanis Morissette, Diablo Cody, and the artistic team behind Jagged Little Pill to help me navigate the adult world around me, life might have been infinitely less challenging to maneuver.

THROUGH OCT. 2: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.840.9227 or broadwayinhollywood.com

  Ghosts

Photo by Cooper Bates

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Henrik Ibsen desperately disliked the English translation Ghosts as the title of what is perhaps his most controversial play. For him it was a misrepresentation of its original Norwegian title Gengangere, translated as The Revenants, which more literally means “The Ones Who Return.”

After being reviled in his native Norway and throughout Scandinavia, his scathing treatise on 19th-century morality was ironically first presented by an amateur Danish touring company at Chicago’s Vorwaerts Turner Hall, a neighborhood athletic club for Scandinavian immigrants.

Ibsen’s contemporaries in Europe found the play shocking and indecent, an attack on religion and the morals of the time. Venereal disease, incest, illegitimacy, free love, and assisted suicide were hardly topics discussed in polite society in those days, let alone publicly onstage.

By the turn of the century, the almost universally banned Ghosts slowly began to be accepted as the groundbreaking classic it is, tentatively mounted in highly criticized presentations in Sweden and Berlin, then in London as a single unlicensed performance for a small subscription audience where it elicited such negative reactions in the press as “wretched, deplorable, a loathsome history,” “revolting, suggestive, and blasphemous,” and a “dirty deed done in public.”

Ghosts came to New York as an invitation-only 1899 production starring Mary Shaw as Mrs. Alving and was subsequently presented in a small room in New York’s Lower East Side featuring recent Russian immigrant Ally Nazimova as its tortured leading lady, but the play still remained the subject of much public controversy wherever it landed.

Said British director and Ibsen aficionado Richard Eyre about the world’s original reaction to Ghosts, “In case we bask in the glow of progress and the delight of feeling ourselves superior to our predecessors, it’s worth remembering that the response to Edward Bond’s Saved in 1965 and Sarah Kane’s Blasted 30 years later was remarkably similar.”

Today we have become desensitized by the equally dark and scandalous subjects explored by Tennessee Williams and more recently writers such as Jeremy O. Harris, so for modern audiences, the play seems infinitely less unworthy of public viewing.

It was 2013 when Eyre debuted his own far more accessible contemporary adaptation of the play in London, winning Olivier Awards for Best Revival of a Play, Best Director for Eyre, and top acting honors for Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden as Ibsen’s eternally doomed mother and son.

Director Bart DeLorenzo is the perfect partner to bring Eyre’s searing downsized one-act take on Ibsen’s play to the Odyssey in a reverently sparse but effective mounting true to the award-winning 2013 British incarnation.

Oddly, all of the play’s original twists and turns and revelations and tragedies are included, yet somehow Eyre’s intermissionless Cliff Notes version of the three-act drama retains its power, even though we are asked to suspend belief that everything is happening at warp-speed. Why it works is because it’s done so well.

On Frederica Nascimento’s equally austere set, the rooms of Helene Elving’s sprawling home are without walls, defined only by familiar white rehearsal tape used to define the spaces. Here the movement of the characters not in the action is clearly viewed so every member of Ibsen’s intertwined storyline stays devoid of any privacy.

Above and behind the action, a wooden dollhouse-esque structure depicting of Mrs. Alving charity orphanage hangs suspended above the stage, appropriately upsidedown, as though it contains an enveloping shroud of secrets and regrets.

DeLorenzo’s cast is onboard in the attempt to keep things palpably tense, moving rapidly from thinly disguised exposition to talk of future plans to the sudden destruction of those plans to the unraveling of the last of the Elving family’s fragile honor—all in 90 minutes.

Although the pivotal opening scene between Mrs. Alving’s ambitious, flirtatious maid Regina and her sauced pig of a father Jacob (Viva Hassis Gentes and J.Stephen Brantley) suggested possibly a rocky road ahead, the entrance of Pamela J. Gray as Mrs. Alving and Barry Del Sherman as the tightassed local clergyman and our heroine’s former lover Reverand Manders immediately raises the stakes. Thankfully the other actors, perhaps at first thrown off by the yammy-yammies of opening night, quickly caught up to their costars.

Recent CalArts graduate Alex Barlas makes an auspicious debut at poor doomed Oswald, the son Mrs. Alving sent away to study in a more urban environment at a young age who has now returned a troubled adult with one of those hacking persistent coughs so familiar in turn-of-the-20th-century dramatic literature.

Still it is the towering, magnificently multifaceted performance of Gray as the proud widow fiercely working to hide the depth of her drunken and brutish late husband’s depravity that lifts Eyre’s all-new take on Ghosts into the theatrical stratosphere.

Her subtle and delicately nuanced work tops itself by the end of the play, as Mrs. Alving’s newfound intention to live out the rest of her life free of restrictive rules and commandments of society and religion turns sour—and she realizes there is a hell after all, not some fantasy afterlife but right here on terra firma.

Henrik Ibsen had a great knack for juggling his era’s hypocrisies in the name of decency and devotion to some vengeful god with what he describes as “dead morals, dead habits, dead values,” and he was also a master at getting some sly jabs in about the nature of greed and the push for political power.

In the gifted hands of Bart DeLorenzo and his band of equally talented droogies, the great master’s Ghosts comes around to haunt us again, leaving the audience spent and Gray, his leading lady, obviously ready to take a long nap.

THROUGH OCT. 23: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. 310.477.2055 or OdysseyTheatre.com

  The Secret World of Archy & Mehitabel 

Photo by Bill Dow

Whitefire Theatre

After being repeatedly conked over the head by Orwell and Ibsen in the last few days—albeit brilliantly—it was a refreshing twist on classic morality tales to just enjoy a fun evening out where neither totalitarianism nor syphilis was the subject of the cautionary message.

That doesn’t say there aren’t social issues addressed in The Secret World of Archy & Mehitabel, now world premiering at the Whitefire, only that it doesn’t make one leave the theatre wondering if our species has managed to totally destroy the planet earth with little hope for survival.

Newspaper columnist Don Marquis crafted a far gentler devise to make his readers think about the future in the early 20th century, speaking his mind about the human condition through stories supposedly conceived by Archy, a failed poet now reincarnated as a cockroach, who at Marquis' desk in the dead of night types his thoughts about the world from his unique view from the “Underside."

Although at first a naturally adversarial relationship, Archy befriends Mehitabel, a sweetly randy former society cat down on her luck, now reduced to check out the tasty garbage can smorgasbord in the alleys of New York with as much dignity as she can muster.

Actor/writer Dan Gilvezan (who also appears onstage as Archy) has done us all a service by introducing folks of several different generations to Marquis’ once highly popular fantasy offspring by adapting some of his most charmingly inventive and surprising topical 100-plus-year-old yarns for the stage, choosing an eclectic collection of Marquis’ most enchanted denizens of the Underside to depict and, in collaboration with director Moosie Drier, inventing clever ways for uninhibited two-legged creatures to turn them into characters that would be a joy for any actor to tackle.

On a nearly bare stage—occupied by The Boss’ desk (a character representing Marquis himself played by the rubber-faced Bill Chott), several wooden black cubes reminiscent of every acting workshop from the beginning of time, and Nick Foran’s colorful rear productions depicting the Manhattan skyline—a totally game and unselfconscious cast makes the Whitefire light up with childlike wonder.

Although the acting styles could be a tad more consistent, every one of the ensemble members is a standout in some way, especially Kelly Stables and Richard Horovitz playing a multitude of lower-species creatures from may flies and bull frogs to moths and spiders. Their balls-out comedic skills reminded me of watching the resident clowns who with great abandon brought the old Pee-Wee’s Playhouse to such gloriously entertaining life.

Still, the true heart of this production is the hilarious. indelibly imaginative turn by Carolyn Hennesy as Mehitabel, whose first long-awaited spotlighted star entrance, accompanied by thunderous applause (the flashing sign tells us to), could rival anything once assayed by Loretta Young. Henessey is both outrageously funny and heartbreakingly poignant as the pampered and perpetually horny feline abandoned to the streets after attacking her family’s new dog. It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to see Hennesy return to her theatrical roots on the LA stage after making the schedule-sucking transition to beloved Daytime Emmy-nominated TV star.

Even as someone raised in the 1950s, Marquis’ characters and the days of their lives are new to me. I vaguely remember Archy, Mehitabel, and their Underside friends from my childhood, but only as cartoon drawings, possibly from one of the many books in my mother’s collection. As I watched it all unfold, I couldn’t help but envision how these fanciful stories must have been received by 1920-ish audiences, many of whom considered Marquis a second Mark Twain and the era’s preeminent humorist.

Gilvezan and his collaborators have something here. The Secret World of Archy & Mehitabel deserves a not-so secret future that includes access for kids of all ages. If some of the material seems a bit too adult for young audiences, never fear. Just as the aforementioned Pee-Wee’s Playhouse did for Saturday morning television viewers in the early 80s, the suggestive stuff will go directly over the kiddies’ heads while their parents can sit there and enjoy the in-jokes in delighted silence.

I already stop to greet and initiate conversation with every cat and dog I encounter but now, thanks to Archy & Mehitabel, I might just give a nod and wish the next cockroach I encounter a nice day.

THROUGH OCT. 15: Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. 818.687.8559 or whitefiretheatre.org

Animal Farm  

Photo by Craig Schwartz

A Noise Within

Although George Orwell had been a successful British author for many years, it still took him a spell to find anyone willing to publish his 1945 novella Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. There was a fear of offending or even jeopardizing the delicate wartime alliance between Britain and the Soviets. Orwell was a democratic socialist and it didn’t take much to realize the satire reflected the events that led from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the advent of the Soviet Union and the brutal regime of Joseph Stalin.

Britain was tolerant of Stalinism, something that drove Orwell crazy. The result was Animal Farm, a thinly veiled satirical allegory that mirrors the rise of one of history’s most monstrous dictators through the device of a similar revolt initiated by the badly treated animals on the rural Manor Farm against their oppressive owner.

Orwell wrote in a 1946 essay titled Why I Write, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism. Animal Farm was the first book on which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”

His powerful cautionary tale became one of the most successful of the writer’s many books, honored by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most important English-language novels written between 1923 and 2005 and its creator was chosen in 2008 by the New York Times as one of the 50 greatest British authors since 1945.

From this work and, among others, his famous dystopian 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, our popular culture has added such well-known neologisms as “Big Brother,” “thought police,” “memory hole,” “newspeak,” and “double-speak,” and of course any social practice deemed authoritarian is often referred to as “Orwellian.”

It was in 1984 (prophetically) that Sir Peter Hall adapted the classic novel for the stage as a surprising and insanely successful musical, with equally biting Brechtian songs composed by Richard Peaslee with lyrics by Adrian Mitchell.

The production, which initially played all three venues at the British National Theatre, is a brilliantly imaginative piece, very avant-garde in its day and seldom mounted since. Leave it to that wildly innovative visionary director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and her cohorts at A Noise Within to tackle Sir Peter’s epic—and only a few months after presenting Mary Zimmerman’s equally challenging Metamorphoses.

Rodriguez-Elliott and her well cared-for 31-year-old baby ANW prove to be the perfect partners to interpret Sir Peter’s ostentatious and brazenly daring interpretation of an important piece of theatrical literature, succeeding splendidly in delivering yet another highly imaginative and cleverly designed production.

Angela Balogh Calin’s simple yet effective two-story barnyard set and her outrageously grandiose costuming, complimented by Tony Values’ whimsical wigs and makeup and Dillon Nelson’s masks, add perfectly to the wonder, as does Ken Booth’s often eerie lighting and Kate Wecker’s sound design.

The ensemble is first-rate and intensely committed to the material, which turns on a dime from whimsy and childlike humor to become a dark morality tale mirroring the insidious plague of tyranny in a most horrifying way. Their stylized assimilations of the movements and vocalizations of our four-legged brethren are quite impressive and endlessly entertaining.

From the talented ranks, Stanley Andrew Jackson is especially noteworthy as that idealistic young pig Snowball, an early leader of the animals who above anything else wants to transform the farm into a better place where all are equal and willing to work together to make change happen.

Rafael Goldstein and Trisha Miller are both chilling as fellow pigs Napoleon and Squealer, the diabolical architects of the greed-fueled corruption that twists the simple philosophies of the revolutionaries’ Animalism to take total control of the farm and again transform the once oppressed animals back into overworked and underfed workerbees.

Nicole Javier has a delightful turn as the vain valleygirl horse Mollie, a giggly Paris Hiltony filly focused more on the number of colorful ribbons added to her lovely mane than caring about standing up for her rights and the rights of the others—you know, like too many people we all know as we drown in our own current global dilemmas.

Rodriguez-Elliott’s stalwart husband and co-producing director Geoff Elliott, always a considerable presence onstage at ANW, plays the farm’s two kindhearted but doomed inhabitants Old Major, who introduces and inspires the notion that the animals should be free from their human oppressors, and Boxer, an old workhorse (literally) who does his best to contribute to the struggle even though he can’t decide what to believe.

“I always find myself agreeing with the last one who spoke,” Boxer admits, which sadly becomes the Achilles’ heel that eventually sends him off to the glue factory.

Still, as brilliant as Elliott is in so many roles he’s taken on over the years, especially as Scrooge in ANW’s annual mounting of A Christmas Carol and as a memorable Shannon in The Night of the Iguana (which I should know as a member of the original Chicago pre-Broadway cast a few thousand years ago), he can also occasionally go too far.

Part of this is due to his booming bass-baritone voice, an impressive tool for some roles but overworked in others. Here, as Boxer, Elliott becomes a major distraction as he continuously paws the ground while issuing a low vibrating noise that defies explanation.

Since my interaction with horses has been extremely limited in my urban lifetime, I deferred to my partner Hugh, raised on a farm on a New Mexican Navajo reservation. Was it a whinny, I asked? A bray? A neigh? “None of the above,” he answered. “That’s what made it so annoying,” likening the sound constantly emanating over ANW’s state-of-the-art sound system to be more like the moans of a dying pig.

Aside from that one interference, there's little that isn’t quite sensational about this production—and that actually includes Elliott’s rich vocalizations in Peaslee’s quirky Kurt Weill-esque score. I would someday love to see Elliott take on a role in Happy End or The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Animal Farm was an urgently important topical indictment of our species’ continuous inability (unwillingness?) to recognize the machinations of evil and stop our power-hungry megalomaniacs—you know, those folks like the real-life “practical pig, a pig of few words” who with his own band of deluded squealers almost destroyed our democracy in recent years and is still wallowing around in his expensive pigsty trying to fuck things up even more than he did before.

“We’ve just discovered documents that have only recently been found” that could change the course of the animals’ mission to create an equitable society, a character tells us, something that, considering the recent headlines, elicited an almost uncomfortable chuckle throughout the audience.

As though Orwell wrote Animal Farm today rather than three-quarters of a century ago, the barnyard collective’s original motto, “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL,” is soon perverted to become the power-mad Napoleon’s own ominous mantra: “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.”

Anybody listening out there?

THROUGH OCT. 2: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. 626.356.3100 or anoisewithin.org

If I Forget 

Fountain Theatre

The lategreat Doris Roberts once told me she thought the rudest thing a friend can do is come see you in a play and then not stay after to say hello—not to gush, necessarily, or say something insincere if you hated it, but just to give a hug. My personal default in such situations has always been, “My lord, what a lot of work you guys have put into this!”

Despite having several people I adore involved in the Los Angeles premiere of Steven Levenson’s If I Forget, I left the Fountain Theatre after the performance and, after blubbering something indecipherable to the Fountain’s Producing Director Simon Levy about having no words and asking him to explain my emotional exit to those friends and colleagues I wasn’t staying around to give that hug, we made a beeline for our car before the tears really started to flow. After a seven-decade passion for live theatre and reviewing plays on a regular basis since 1987, leaving the theatre that verklempt was a first for me. I was simply too moved to talk.

Before I write anything else, I can say without a shadow of a doubt this indelible, magnificently staged and expertly performed LA debut of If I Forgot is the best mounting of a new American play I’ve seen done in 14 years, way back when August: Osage County’s Barbara first started insisting her mother eat her fish.

Just as Florida’s notorious hanging chads put yet another halfwit candidate in the White House and not long before the World Trade Center disaster made its move to help reduce the American Dream to rubble, liberal Washington, DC Jewish Studies professor Michael Fischer (Leo Marks) is on the brink of a major life change. On one hand, his mentally fragile daughter Abby is on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the height of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict trying to find herself by searching for the roots her vehemently non-religious father never taught her to seek, while closer to home, after the recent death of the family matriarch, his father (Matt Gottlieb) is clearly no longer able to live alone, an issue Michael and his two fiercely opinionated and more than occasionally nightmarish sisters are now forced to address.

At the same time, his university has recommended him for tenure just as his new book is about to be published. His manuscript at the center of the play’s conflict is a highly personal and purposely outspoken treatise about what it means to be a Jew in America a half-century after the Holocaust that Michael hopes, though drastically controversial, will lift his reputation as an author from stodgy and unappreciated academia to more universally celebrated heights.

The large and generally fucked-up Fischer clan is the epitome of so many typical modern upper-middleclass Jewish families I personally know so well: well-spoken, quick-witted, and seemingly functional on the surface but below the bravado and public persona they strive desperately to maintain for the outside world to see, they are filled with communal self-hatred and a basically inexplicable sense of near-primordial guilt. This is part of what Michael’s book will address—the publication of which has already sparked a petition to repress it.

Michael is the only member of the family who is not a fervent supporter of Israel and its aggression against the Palestinian state, nor is he onboard with how our government responds to the issue. In his book, he pleads that people must “forget” rather than wallow in the memory of the Holocaust and move on or, for American Jews, “this will be our last chapter.”

He believes we as a people have ironically missed the lesson that nationalism only breeds disaster and that the horrific Death of the Six Million has become the center of Judaism in America, surpassing all the important and selflessly passionate work that has been done by our community to promote and embrace human and civil rights. As Jews since the Holocaust have focused on assimilating into the mainstream of society despite the reality that we are still hated by more people than accepted, we have lost the innate ability to be obstinate, to be warriors, to fight for what’s right no matter the odds, something which with we have been gifted and have embraced throughout history. “We’re white people now,” Michael insists. “We’re respectable.”

Levenson, who won the Tony for his book for Dear Evan Hansen and wrote the screenplays for Tick… Tick… Boom! and Fosse/Verdon, creates dialogue that quickly becomes a rapid-fire assault on the senses, with voices rising and tempers flaring and characters continuously interrupting one another. Yet through all the noise and the shocking revelations unearthed along the way, there is a remarkable humor—truly, in Levenson’s hardly Neil Simon-like storyline, I can guarantee the laughs are as strong and frequent as anything in The Sunshine Boys or Laughter on the 23rd Floor. In less talented directorial hands than Seinfeld alum Jason Alexander and without this exceptional ensemble of actors, I do fear, however, that If I Forget could surely be forgotten.

Marks does yeomen duty as Michael, staying at the center of the tale throughout without much of a break to take a breath. The character could easily become unlikable, especially in a theatre predominantly full of American Jews (hey, it’s live theatre, okay?), many of whom during the performance we attended gasped audibly at the radical beliefs his character pontificates upon along the way. Only an actor as sincere as this man could win them over, which he does completely, even if they do not buy his ideology.

Marks spews out Michael’s frustrations and laments how no one is willing to hear what he has to say to the point that his brow looks permanently furrowed and his voice is in danger of becoming so raspy he could dub Danny DeVito. As I mentioned to him the day after the performance, he must leave the theatre exhausted and sleep until noon the next day, as an actor as brilliant as Marks could not possibly play this role without it taking its toll on him physically; Michael could not be an easy guy to live with for a long run—which I suspect this will be.

The entire cast is splendid, especially in how smoothly they bounce off one another. As Michael’s obnoxious, ball-breaking, self-centered yet still deeply loving pair of ever-circling banshee sisters Holly and Sharon, Valerie Perri and Samantha Klein are blood pressure-rising perfection as people I personally knew all too well, so convincing I nearly broke out in hives thinking of my own growing years. Gratefully, spending a couple of hours in their presence took away a lot of lingerring guilt I’ve felt by not going back to Chicago for my aunt’s funeral several years ago. It’s that hives thing, you see.

Gottleib is both majestic and heartbreaking as the siblings’ proud, stubborn, clearly ailing father, particularly moving as he describes in a lengthy monologue what unspeakable horrors the soldiers encountered when they liberated Dachau, while Jacob Zelonky is a true find as his schleppy grandson Joey, who works hard to understand what’s going on in his fueding and troubled family despite how obviously his mother and aunt insist on keeping him out of the loop.

As the two characters who stumbled unwittingly into this mess, Sile Berminham as Michael’s Swedish shiksa wife and Jerry Weil as Holly’s nebbishy husband hold their own quite nicely despite being cast in the play’s least flashy roles. Both give performances that again could be lost in the shuffle, yet Bermingham and Weil remain infinitely watchable, providing work that made me check in on them and their reactions even when they had little to do besides cringe at the antics of a family which today they might have second thoughts about marrying into.

Beyond it all, may it be said that the creative genius of Alexander is apparent at every sharp turn. His staging is offbeat, dangerously stylized, and fascinatingly kinetic. I wondered if the directorial choices were his own or written into Levenson’s script, but was assured the unique visual choices and fluidity of this mounting were entirely his idea. It is a monumental accomplishment and surprisingly, the intimate, somewhat bareboned yet always versatile Fountain stage is the quintessential venue to present If I Forget. In a space the size of the Taper or the Wallis or Geffen’s mainstages, I believe our (literally) in-your-face closeness to the Fischer clan could easily be compromised.

This is mirrored in every design element, from Donny Jackson’s lighting cornering the action as it unfolds on Sarah Krainin’s cramped American Buffalo-like set, indicating the family’s treasured but brutally downtrodden shop crammed with memorabilia and metal shelfing that is miraculously able to transform from one location to another with the actors seated in the corners throughout the action equally ready to change the setting as they are to enter into a scene.

This is accomplished with surprising gracefulness, augmented by a gossamer recurrent image of Michael’s troubled daughter Abby played by Caribay Franke, who enters between each scene to silently express her woes by dancing Allison Bibicoff’s angular and jarringly expressive choreography, leaping onto and over furniture and appearing in silhouette behind a glass door lit from behind.

If I Forget was first presented at the Roundabout in New York in 2017.  Earlier I compared my reaction to Steven Levenson’s masterpiece with my first look at Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County in 2008. To qualify for Pulitzer consideration, a play must be written by an American playwright, preferably original in its source, and above all “dealing with American life.”

How the Pulitzer committee missed at least nominating this amazing new classic of theatrical literature five years ago when it debuted is anybody’s guess. I believe no work in recent history does a better job of chronicling what it’s like to be a Jew in America at the end of the 20th Century, a condition that two decades later is even more difficult to navigate. Although we have all been forced to learn how to deal with our drastically different political opinions as citizens of our crumbling country on so many levels besides our age-old cultural divides, it has not happened without great pain. If I Forget opens all the wounds, but in an urgently important, brilliantly lyrical, breathtakingly theatrical way.

RETURNING OCT. 28 THROUGH NOV. 18: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or fountaintheatre.com

Moulin Rouge! The Musical

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Pantages Theatre / Segerstrom Center for the Arts

It’s not hard to see why Moulin Rouge! The Musical was awarded 10 Tony Awards in 2021. Well, at least nine of them.

Now making its LA debut at the Pantages, the absolutely quintessential venue in SoCal for such a glittery, grand, joyous musical confection, Moulin Rouge!  is indeed a production we all need right now: loud, gloriously flashy, blindingly colorful, and able to divert anyone with a brain wondering what in the living fuck is happening in the world right now.

Based on Baz Luhrmann’s charming and inventive 2001 motion picture, the stage adaptation of Moulin Rouge! could easily have only been developed as a project solely intended to make the producers a potful of money, especially with its Cliff Notes book by John Logan that could have been written with one hand while he was doing his taxes with the other.

But it’s not. It is instead an in-your-face musical extravaganza that instantly recalls a glitzy and visually stunning Cirque du Soleil Vegas Strip spectacle, albeit without the acrobatics and giant inflatable tie-dyed garden creatures.

Luhrmann and the creators of the original film made history by lifting music swiped from many sources rather than rely on one composer and one untried score to either win or lose its appeal. It boldly featured over 160 years worth of familiar music from a myriad of diverse genres, including everything from Offenbach’s “Can-Can” and Georges Van Parys’ “Complainte de la Butte” to the more contemporary “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” “Roxanne,” “Like a Virgin,” “Diamond Dogs,” “Your Song,” and the theme from “The Sound of Music,” all topped by the show’s signature number, Labelle’s 1974 megahit “Lady Marmalade.”

The Broadway adaptation updated that soundtrack further with a handful of recent hit tunes released since the movie premiered 21 years ago, including a show-stopping Act Two opener called “Backstage Romance” featuring a six-minute medley of popular songs from Lady Gaga, Soft Cell, Britney Spears, the White Stripes, and Eurythmics.

I found myself during the action thinking how bravely the producers gambled on this already enormously expensive undertaking without even imagining the cost of the show’s nightly royalties for all these songs, not to mention song references as the actors continuously spout an easily identifiable string of well-trod lyrics as part of their dialogue—something I imagine has proven a successful risk since the audience hoots and applauds at almost every reference.

What the musical version lacks in substance is made up for many times over by Alex Timbers brilliantly dazzling staging, Catherine Zuber’s outstandingly whimsical costuming, Justin Townsend’s startlingly versatile lighting, and Derek McLane’s massive jaw-dropping sets which spill out into the already permanently “decorated” Pantages. Special kudos must be noted for Peter Hylenski’s perfectly clamorous sound design, which had people almost dancing in the aisles as though they were attending a Pointer Sisters concert in the late 1970s. All of these great theatre artists and designers should win honors for their knockout work—oh wait, they already were since each and every one of them won Tonys for this production.

There is no doubt the sharply precision and high energy ensemble dancing up a storm (and occasionally shooting a little glitter and confetti out into the audience) performing the also Tony-honored choreography of Sonya Tayeh, is uniformly astounding and totally infectious in their raucous and sexy delivery.

Still, the principal cast populating this national tour is in general rather disappointing, all fine-voiced and earnest but clearly working by-the-book and not anything as dynamic as their original Broadway counterparts. I was especially surprised by the performance of Conor Reed as Christian, the role that won Aaron Tveit a Tony—although with the slim pickins’ offered in New York that pandemic-ravaged season, he was indeed the only nominee. Let’s just say that as an actor, Reed is a phenomenal singer.

Still. Moulin Rouge!  is a fantastical, gloriously and richly mounted production worth seeing as long as you’re ingesting your gummies and expecting Ovo, not Next to Normal. See, no matter how spectacular and razzle-dazzling as Moulin Rouge! The Musical might be to entertain and distract on a hot summer night… winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical? Thanks, Covid, for making 2021 a mighty meager year in the history of all things theatrical.

NOW CLOSED: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 800.840.9227 or pantagestheatre.box-officetickets.com

NOV. 9 THROUGH 27: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org

 

See? I’m an angel!