"Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors."   ~ Ernest Hemingway    


Highway 1, USA and The Dwarf 

Photos by Robert Millard 

LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Perhaps one of the most impressive things about the already impressive Los Angeles Opera is the company’s ambitious and groundbreaking Recovered Voices Initiative, which champions the seldom-acknowledged work of lesser-known composers whose achievements were suppressed over the years due to racial ideology or systematic oppression.

Such is the case with both of the fascinating one-act operas Highway 1, USA and The Dwarf, now being presented by LAO at the Chandler conducted by the brilliant James Conlon.

Created in 1941 from the original libretto by his future wife Verna Arvey, African-American composer William Grant Still’s continuously rejected Highway 1, USA, here in its LAO debut, was not presented anywhere until 1963, his unique voice silenced by the twisted ugliness of Jim Crow and racial segregation.

Depicting life in a rural New Mexico-like smalltown lived by a hard-working couple (Nicole Heaston and Norman Garrett) who run a small gas station and attempt to grab just a little corner of the American dream, Sills’ score is haunting, both lovely and lyrical and yet occasionally jarringly strident.

Beautifully staged by Kaneza Schaal on Christopher Myers’ impressionistic set representing the station’s neon arches on one side and a billboard featuring a man pointing defiantly at the sky above the dusty Highway 1 on the other, Still’s morality play offers a simple but potentially tragic tale of a changing time when the promise of success and independence for African-Americans was barely on the horizon.

Heaston’s clear soprano and Garrett’s rich baritone blend together perfectly as Mary and Bob, who fight hard for freedom and self-reliance but are thwarted by his determination to fulfill his mother’s dying wish for him to watch over and support his brother Nate (Chaz’men Williams-Ali), financing the ne'er-do-well's higher education despite the guy’s total disregard for their struggles—and his lecherous designs on his sister-in-law’s affections.

From the perspective of what has changed and mutated in our society over the last several decades, Highway 1, USA inadvertently signals the inequities that plagued the hopes and dreams of the American middle-class at the time it was written, especially for people of color.

Despite the drastic differences between the worlds these two operas depicts, Alexander Zemlinsky’s 1922 one-act opera The Dwarf (Der Zwerg), with a Mahler-esque score and sweepingly poetic libretto by Georg C. Klaren, is similar in how it deals with relationships and the struggles of life on our planet—and is also similar in how the work was originally suppressed, here due to the Third Reich and the limitations propounded by the Austrian composer’s Judaism.

Directed by the Tony-winning Darko Tresnjak with tenor Rodrick Dixon reprising the title role he first performed at LAO in 2008, Zemlinsky’s retelling of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 short story for children The Birthday of the Infanta is drastically different from its companion piece but equally fascinating in how it presents the inequities of the human condition.

Offered as an 18th birthday gift for a spoiled Spanish princess (Erica Petrocelli) sent by a sultan, a physically misshapen young singer from another empire, described as a “dark shadow in a colorful silken carpet,” is presented to the court and immediately falls in love with her beauty.

The dwarf has never seen his own image and has no idea how he looks, causing the servants and members of Donna Clara’s retinue to cover all the mirrors before his arrival. As the smitten entertainer sings his love for the princess and she cruelly toys with his affections, all those gathered cruelly laugh at his misunderstanding of the situation, something he sees as a happy reaction to his music.

“Only a fool would mistake sarcasm for love,” she says as an aside, leading to a tragic conclusion as, alone after her attendant (Emily Magee) brings him a looking glass to finally see his own image, he dies of a broken heart.

Dixon is magnificent in his signature role, especially moving as in his abject sorrow he “sings a song the sun would sing when dying in the sea.”

One unique benefit from sitting out the intermission between the two operas was watching the incredibly complex set change before The Dwarf unfolded, something I’ve never before seen achieved without a curtain to camouflage the effort.

As Myers’ rolling set pieces were rolled away and the cavernous Chandler stage was exposed and stripped literally down to the concrete back wall, the elaborate sections of Ralph Funicello’s massive royal court of the Spanish palace appear from the wings and, before my enchanted eyes, began to join together in an almost magical transformation. The experience is definitely worth skipping intermission sipping chardonnay in the Chandler lobby, I promise you.

The LA Opera is to be commended for so gloriously bringing both William Grant Still’s Highway 1, USA and Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf to our attention, two historic pieces crying out for the recognition they’ve been robbed from achieving and so richly deserve.

THROUGH MAR. 17: LA Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.972.8001 or [email protected]


Photo by Zev Rose Woolley 

Davidson/Valentini Theatre

As many times over the years the plays of Shakespeare have been relocated to places such as Matthew Bourne’s mental institution for troubled teens, smackdab in the turmoil of World War II, rip roarin’ through the old A’murkin west, or featuring juvenile delinquents with greased hair and tight pants dancing around New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in an effort to establish their turf, perhaps the classics of no other playwright in history have been adapted more often than the angst-ridden inhabitants of that great late-19th century Russian dramatist whose work inspired the term “Chekhovian.”

From theatrical transformations such as Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird and Life Sucks, Tennessee Williams’ The Notebook of Trigorin, Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor, and Halley Feiffer’s Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow to Christian Carmago’s 2013 film Days and Nights and Louis Malle’s 1994 Vanya on 42nd Street, reimagining the seven plays and many short stories from the creative mind of ol ’ Anton remain among the most often rewritten.

It must take a bit of an artistic deathwish and a rather enlarged set of cajones to attempt to once again reinvent Chekhov and find something fresh to focus upon, but this new version of The Three Sisters, created by one of LA’s most enduringly prolific actor-playwrights, manages to thrill us and give us something contemporary and uniquely cutting-edged to ponder.

Three, written by Nick Salamone and presented as a co-production between Playwrights’ Arena and the Los Angeles LGBT Center, overcomes far more than the overexposure of the original source material: it transcends the Center’s cramped Davidson/Valentini Theatre, one of LA’s most limited and unwieldy places to create art—especially anything as inherently epic as anything reconstructed from the crowded framework of a play by Anton Chekhov.

Don’t get me wrong. Many successful productions have graced this same space and, for something intimate and raw, it could not provide a more perfect wellspring for promoting theatrical innovation and creativity.

Thanks to Jon Lawrence Rivera, the unstoppable and ridiculously prolific founder and artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, who directs here and has assembled a dropdead aggregation of some of our town’s best performers and designers, Three surpasses all the odds stacked against it—and then some.

This isn’t the first time Salamone—with whom I’ve had the intense pleasure of sharing a stage playing two 1930s Chicago Fascistic mob bosses in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for Classical Theatre Lab and as Shelley Levene opposite his fiery Ricky Roma in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross—has taken on Chekhov.

His unforgettable Gulls, which he turned into a dynamic musical version of The Seagull with composer Maury McIntyre set in 1959 Greenwich Village and Hollywood, debuted at the Boston Court under the equally inspired direction of Jessica Kubzansky and became one of the most talked about artistic achievements of 2008.

As with that production, which brought all the passion and longing and unrequited dreams of the original story into the 20th century, Three becomes a “queer meditation” of the more recent but clearly similar soul-searching challenges we face today in the twisted times which all living creatures on our mess of a planet strive to navigate.

And if such daunting challenges aren’t enough, the dexterously masochistic Salamone has given himself one more by setting each of the four acts of his play in four distinct and groundbreaking eras over the last 78 years of life in our country while his characters themselves age no more than five years.

Beginning at the end of WWII in 1946, then moving to 1982 and the beginning of the AIDS crisis during the Reagan years, Three then finds the play’s four lost siblings dealing personally with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 before concluding in our present day post-pandemic and still shell-shocked America.

Salamone explains: “Firstly, I wanted the audience to see themselves in the characters in a direct way. I made an effort to adapt Chekhov’s characters with a concern for the diversity of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity that I hope will reflect our audience.

“Secondly, I wanted the adaptation to live in the world of the last century of American life in a meaningful and resonant way… I tried very hard to find analogs to the very intentions of Chekhov’s characters and the obstacles and conflicts that exist between and among them that would root my characters in these seminal American touchstones.”

Mission accomplished—bigtime. Salamone’s courageous quest finds its quintessential partner in his longtime collaborator Rivera, who has focused his whole career in championing diversity and equal rights and does so with a fierce commitment to bring the too-often overlooked art of outsiders to a more universal audience.

Here he not only furthers those efforts majestically, he has managed to also seamlessly choreograph the large cast of 10 to move around one another in an impossibly small and inhospitable playing space where even the audience members have to take their lives into their hands to settle into their seats.

Likewise, the show’s designers, especially Matt Richter’s lighting and Jesse Mandapat’s sound, work alongside Rivera devotedly and smoothly complement his clever staging.

None of this would have worked so well without this incredibly committed and trusting cast of noteworthy players however, each of whom manages to persuasively deliver their individual stories in a uniformly deferential classic playing style while still breathing real contemporary honesty into their individual characterizations.

As the sisters, Rachel Sorsa as Masha, Hayden Bishop as Irina, and Emily Kuroda as Olga are the heartbroken hearts of the production, as is James Liebman as their tortured brother and Alberto Isaac as their beloved pensive uncle who watches the drama unfold from an unsought-after ringside seat.

Rebecca Metz is, as always, a standout as the sisters’ nasty racist sister-in-law, as is Tracey A. Leigh as Masha’s torrid military love interest. Robert Almodovar, Eric B. Anthony, and Clay Storseth hold their own as the family’s various friends and lovers, helping to make this cast an early formidable candidate for Best Ensemble honors at the end of the year.

Still, nothing about Three could be this exemplary without the strikingly intelligent wordsmithery of Salamone, who doesn’t shy away from poking some sneaky fun at his own ambitious efforts along the way.

“This has been the longest night of my life,” Masha proclaims at one point as characters enter covered in dust and debris from helping out after the Oklahoma City disaster. “It’s like one of those 100-year-old Russian plays where so much goes on offstage in the third act you think it would be a fucking melodrama if anything actually happened.”

If at first the barebones elements of this production and the playing space it inhabits begin to overpower the tale, it doesn’t take long for the Homeric nature of Nick Salamone’s script and the brilliance of Jon Lawrence Rivera’s direction, exceptional ensemble cast, and design team make the Davidson/Valentini feel as though Three could be playing at the Ahmanson—which I hope someday it actually will.

THROUGH MAR. 18: Playwrights’ Arena at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, Davidson/Valenti Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. www.playwrightsarena.org or lalgbtcenter.org/events/


Photo by Zoe Tiller

Odyssey Theatre

It’s 1956 on the pre-upmarketed Lower East Side of Manhattan in a messy paint-splattered artist’s studio a couple of blocks from the flat where Trotsky once lived and where the one neighborhood art house is showing a movie from Japan. These are both random factoids that amaze a business-suited novice art patron (Malcolm Barrett) who has journeyed through the dangerous alleys and dank hallways to find a difficult budding expressionist painter and offer to become his patron.

In John Ross Bowie’s beguiling new comedy Brushstroke, however, now in its world premiere at the Odyssey, nothing is simple and nothing is as it seems. The eccentric artist (James Urbaniak) has his share of secrets and so does his guest, who admits he is the mouthpiece for the clandestine and possibly federally funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization possibly intent on throwing a metaphorical wrench into the blossoming liberal-by-nature New York art scene.

Bowie teases us by describing his inspiration as a story “so crazy it has to be a little bit true.” He admits there was actually such a shadowy and suspiciously funded organization but admits his labyrinthine tale of espionage meets abstract expressionism in the quirky age of Pollack and deKooning is a fictional telling of what might have been.

His ability to, through dense and often poetic dialogue spouted by his unexpectedly logical but ultra-quirky characters, weave the emerging American art scene of the time with the political paranoia of the Cold War era is quite captivating, smoothly able to invoke an era encompassing both the “country of John Wayne but also the country of Miles Davis.”

The production is impressively designed, from Keith Mitchell’s art-filled crowded set with a surprise of its own to Soran Schwartz and Hayden Kirschbaum's moody lighting, and featuring a jazz-themed sound design by Marc Antonio Pritchett highlighting some haunting and reminiscent period music that made me go home and ask my obedient friend Alexa to play 1950s jazz standards for several days to follow.

Unfortunately, for all the potential Bowie’s play has to offer and despite the production’s excellent design elements, the performance I attended was all but defeated by what seemed to be surprisingly ubiquitous staging from director Casey Stangl, who appears to have choreographed every movement of her cast so tightly there’s simply no room left for any kind of individual interpretation or spontaneity in their work.

The exception to this is Evangeline Edwards, who deftly manages to transcend this glaringly obvious heavy-handedness successfully and bring a believability to the role of the artist’s free-spirited sister that her three costars struggle to achieve.

That said, let me say the Sunday matinee I attended was in direct competition with some odd synergistic infatuation with something called the Super Bowl and it’s never easy to give one’s all and not push when there’s no one out there in the void except about a dozen mostly embalmed audience members. It’s hard not to go into remote control when there’s cavernous silence in response to energize your efforts.

This alone could definitely account for why everything that unfolded in John Ross Bowie’s otherwise extremely promising Brushstroke that afternoon seemed so inauthentic and by-the-numbers to me. Still, Bowie has given birth to a fascinating and fresh new play deserving both an audience and a definite future.

THROUGH MAR. 3: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. 310.477.2055 or OdysseyTheatre.com

Middle of the World 

Photo by Jeff Lorch

Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre

When a young Manhattan banking executive jumps into his Uber one fine Fall afternoon, the last thing he expects is that his driver was once—and not that long before—the President of Ecuador.

In the west coast premiere of Juan Jose Alfonso’s Middle of the World, transferring from Boise Contemporary Theatre where it was developed to the Matrix presented by Rogue Machine, Glenn (Christian Telesmar) is at first put off by the sharply opinionated Victoria (Cheryl Umana), who has a decidedly condescending attitude about what he does for a living.

“Did you have breakfast with Karl Marx?” he asks half-jokingly, also wondering if someone can actually give a driver a rating below a zero. Not long after, however, he finds himself intrigued by Victoria's direct and straightforward attitude, leading him to offer her a permanent job as his personal driver—all before he learns she was the leader of her country ousted in a huge political controversy.

He also realizes his interest in the woman, despite a rather significant age difference between them, isn’t completely professional (although I do think that could come across by trusting Umana’s formidable talent without over-spraying her hair with uneven globs of silver Streaks ‘N Tips).

As their personal relationship tentatively blossoms, it starts to mess with Glenn’s demanding work performance, while Victoria simultaneously tries desperately to be granted permission to return to her country and reunite with her estranged son.

Alfonso’s ambitious tale is part political drama, part less-than typical love story. The writer’s greatest gift is how he has breathed life into two conflicted and restless characters whose lives are not where either want them to be, something one would assume would be secondary to the headier themes of social injustice and political retribution.

What emerges strongest is the connection between these two characters and, especially interesting to me personally as the December in an 11-year relationship with an amazing May, how it defies the odds. Early on as things begin to develop, Victoria tries to fight off her feelings by gently lecturing Glenn that he is confusing his admiration for her with thinking he’s in love.

How well I understood that argument, which made it so gratifying that by the end of the play, it’s obvious how much Victoria’s tutelage has changed her younger lover’s life, how it is she by example who gave him the courage to pursue his own dreams and not settle for profitable but dubious success that has left him unfulfilled and feeling inauthentic.

What’s most remarkable about MOTW, aside from maybe attracting some visionary filmmakers who would definitely find a worthy project to turn into a screenplay, remains the hauntingly honest performances of Umana and Telesmar, whose work together is a testament to fine ensemble acting that probably matured and grew during the play’s tale of two cities. Never once do the bumps and potholes in their knotty relationship feel forced or in any way spurious; their ability to portray the challenges and rewards of falling in love is simple, sweet, and ultimately quite moving.

The play’s trio of supporting actors, Dan Lin as Glenn’s soon alienated childhood friend, Leandro Cano as a Victoria’s CIA operative-ish nemesis, and Jennifer Pollono as her frustrated and equally unrequited lawyer, are perfectly cast in their supporting roles—particularly Cano, who has the ability to twirl his metaphoric villainous mustache while oozing charm and phony trustworthiness.

The problem is these peripheral characters, although necessary to further the plot, are also severely underwritten and their presence is completely subservient to the starcrossed lovers. In the capable hands of director Guillermo Cienfuegos leading three veteran performers, finding ways to make their roles multi-dimensional is something to be admired.

Alfonso’s script must have been unwieldy to direct, as it’s composed of a series of short filmic scenes that would be more identifiable as that aforementioned screenplay than as something written for the stage. As hard as Cienfuegos works to camouflage the cinematic conscience of the piece, one almost suspects someone will yell “CUT!” between scenes.

His inspiration surely was to choreograph the scene changes to bring out the play’s theatricality and stifle the overpowering notion that Middle of the World was conceived first to be a film, but instead the constant rush of these five actors moving chairs and beds and tables in blue light as giant panels are rotated by hand to create new environments—something made far better by scenic artist Mark Mendelson’s striking impressionistic interpretations of New York City as the seasons change—unfortunately the well-meaning devise has the opposite effect, quickly becoming clunky and distracting.

Perhaps this staging is an echo of the original production in Boise last October, also directed by Cienfuegos and featuring four of these five actors, and the dimensions of the stage there necessitated decisions that stayed with the piece when it transferred here.

This misstep is particularly puzzling since the Matrix stage is unusually wide rather than deep, something that has proven difficult to work around in many other productions in this space over the years. Here, it could be perfectly utilized if the various set pieces needed for all those short scenes stayed stationary onstage throughout and the scenes could be isolated by lighting instead of making the audience endure endless dimly lit traffic jams that take the viewer right out of the action.

Still, a little judicious tweaking and Middle of the World could be something quite special. In the meantime, the promise of Juan Jose Alfonso’s writing and the dynamic performances of five actors at the top of their game are alone worthy of attention.

THROUGH MAR. 4: Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Av., LA. 855.585.5185 or roguemachinetheatre.net


See?  I'm an Angel.