TRAVIS' REVIEWS: FALL 2023 to...?  


INHERIT THE WIND at Pasadena Playhouse

There’s no doubt that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s multiple Tony winner and Pulitzer finalist Inherit the Wind is in many ways glaringly dated and old fashioned, yet despite the fact that it's now been nearly 70 years since it first rocked the very foundations of theatrical history, it has in no way deterred Pasadena Playhouse's unstoppable artistic director Danny Feldman and the west coast’s most visionary director Michael Michetti from delivering it anew as one of the most impressive—and above all relevant—productions to grace a stage in our parched cultural climes this season.

Lawrence and Lee noted in 1986, “Every performance of this play should feel like an opening night, happening NOW on your stage for the first time, pertinent to this hour and this day.”

Mission accomplished, Mr. Michetti. Bigtime.

Although the classic is still set in 1925, everything about this production defies time and place, delivering it on a totally bare stage—quite a bold choice at the also nearly hundred-year-old Playhouse, which opened to the public that same year nearly a century ago.

As incredibly detailed, brilliantly multi-leveled, and period-perfect as was Peter Larkin’s Tony-winning 1955 Broadway set, Michetti and designer Brad Enlow have here stripped the austere Playhouse stage down to its original back wall, with ancient brick peeking through the crumbling plaster and a view of the towering riggings and pulleys stage right.

And on the other side of the massive space, bleachers have been placed to actualize the crafty decision to substitute audience members for ITW’s huge ensemble of AEA-draining townspeople and, as former castmember K Callan (who appeared in the first pre-Broadway production directed by Margot Jones in Dallas) called them opening night at the Playhouse, “spear-carriers” sporting signs declaring their fundamentalist religious zealousy.

Dominating center stage is the omnipresent banner that remains an integral part of the tale admonishing everyone onstage and in observance to “READ YOUR BIBLE.”

Sara Ryung Clement’s costuming is contemporary—well, shall I say rural contemporary—and even the jury box housing “twelve gentlemen” is placed downstage in front of the audience and is populated by patrons of both sexes.

Although the play’s every cultural and social reference remains steadfastly intact, the uniformly phenomenal cast is multiracial and even age-defiant, as Michetti’s brazen and rather courageous vision forces the audience to crank up their own imagination and call on their ability to suspend belief in an effort to focus on how thin the thread is between members of our mess of a species a hundred years apart.

Of course, Inherit the Wind was inspired by an actual event, the notorious 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial, where the State of Tennessee accused schoolteacher John T. Scopes of violating the state’s Butler Act, which had ruled that it was illegal for Darwin’s theory of human evolution be taught in any state-funded school.

The trial became a major cause celebre a century ago, resulting in reporters from all over the country descending on the tiny burg of Dayton, Tennessee to watch the clash of ideas and ideals between publicity-whore, former Secretary of State, and three-time presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan prosecuting the case and arguing against Clarence Darrow, leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union and outspoken advocate for Georgist economic reform.

The clash was clear: the war between the Modernist belief that the wonders of evolution could exist alongside the fictional but still worthy teachings of conservative Christianity, and those unmovable “clockstoppers,” as they are so appropriately called in ITW, who believed with every fiber of their being that their Bible was the literal word of their God and had to take precedence over the ever-developing facts of science and human knowledge.

At a time when our newly elected evangelical Speaker of the House, who when asked what his stance is on the critical issues of our time told reporters to pick up a Bible as “that’s my worldview,” could revisiting the Scopes trial as seen through the text of Inherit the Wind be more urgently important?

Michetti’s production is dazzling in a quiet, far more introspective way than the original production offered and in this regard, may I humbly say there is probably no one more able to speak of this theatrical divide than I am, possibly one of last remaining members of the original Broadway cast.

I joined the company in early 1956 at age 10 to take over the role of Howard Blair, the young kid from the class of defendant Bertram Cates (played here at the Playhouse in a strikingly heartfelt performance by Abubakr Ali) who takes the witness stand to tell the court how the teachings of Darwin have or have not warped his impressionable young mind.

I arrived just in time to briefly work opposite Paul Muni, one of the greatest American actors of all time who, although towards me he was rather gruff and exceedingly unfriendly, as the William Jennings Bryan-clone Matthew Harrison Brady delivered one of the most iconic performances of any actor on any stage in the last century.

One of my most indelible memories of playing Howard was that Mr. Muni scared the living crap out of me, surely the most perfect tool a yet untrained yung’un could tap into to help realistically create a character. There was not a performance whenever he grilled me on the witness stand before Melvyn Douglas assumed the role that tears did not flow for me—something the critics found impressive but I knew came from something far deeper than hereditary skill.

In the Playhouse’s new mounting of ITW, Brady is innovatively played by African-American master technician John Douglas Thompson, who brings a whole new and far less declaratory take on the classic role, which for the last 68 years has always seemed to me to be played by an actor imitating the bluster and grand style of Muni or later by equally amazing actors such as Frederic March in the 1960 film version and George C. Scott in the 1996 Broadway revival.

Thompson has a one-of-a-kind theatrical nourishment afforded him by having the coveted opportunity to play opposite the unearthly gifts of Alfred Molina in the Clarence Darrow role of Henry Drummond, and once again he unobtrusively dominates the stage with a brilliantly understated performance that turns Darrow’s usual string of bombastic one-liners into delightfully simple throwaways the audience must intently listen for to pick up on and appreciate.

Here again is where my unique position and history with this play can offer a perspective perhaps no one else can appreciate as completely. In the original production, the clashes, both in the courtroom and off, between Brady and Darrow (played by the lategreat but always bombastic Ed Begley Sr.) are the most representative of how actors were praised for delivering worldclass scenery chewing 70 years ago.

Here, the relationship between these two dynamic characters becomes a quintessential example of how the art of acting has itself evolved over the past seven decades. These two unearthly gifted performers deliver Lawrence and Lee’s thought-provoking text with a far more realistic, far more accessible delivery, ultimately making the work about the ideas introduced rather than about the demonstrative and declarative nature of two great actors’ celebrated performances.

This doesn’t in any way detract from the “old ways,” which were thrilling to watch and helped encourage the confidence and building blocks to create our now more introspective and even more thrilling universal performing technique, only that in the hands of Thompson and Molina led by Michetti, the insight offered is the payoff rather than stylistic hyperbole.

This oratorical playing style is still slyly echoed in the exceptional performance of David Aaron Baker delivering his punishing, wonderfully unconstrained, and surely exhausting sermon as the Reverend Jeremiah Brown, which highlights the polar opposite work of the two leading actors.

Michael Kostroff also has some charmingly over-the-top moments as the town’s milquetoast mayor and virtually every ensemble member flawlessly contributes their own rich individual interpretations of the town’s adamantly deluded and horrified residents, all particularly impressive managing to periodically move downstage believably to deliver fine renditions of “Give Me That Old-Time Religion” and other such homespun old hymnals.

As much as I just praised Thompson and Molina for their restrained and more temperate performances, Abbott Elementary’s Chris Perfetti brings a far more theatrical spin to cynical big-city editorial journalist E. K. Hornbeck, a role that jumpstarted the career of Tony Randall back when his work was still far more subdued than either misters Muni or Begley.

Perfetti drops the world-weary Hornbeck’s frequent anti-religious epistles of sarcasm with what appears to be a self-satisfied relish for each wisecrack, moving with a Fosse-esque physicality that is as baroque as Randall’s interpretation was uncharacteristically subdued—and when he literally offers the Reverend’s daughter Rachel (Rachel Hilson) a bite of his apple, it’s not hard to grock what Michetti had in mind.

I was slightly less taken with Bilson, who is obviously a talented actor but whose hesitant, occasionally terrified delivery makes it hard to imagine the decision the character makes at the end of the play. Rachel Brown has been raised within the constrictive confines of her father and the community’s skewed religious fanaticism but if earlier on she doesn’t show a hint of a backbone, the rest of her story seems highly unlikely.

For me, although I anticipated a wave of nostalgia and a reminder of the shockingly quick passage of time would overtake me, I didn’t realize the extent of how much I would be moved. As soon as the lights first came up on the delightfully endearing Matt Gomez Hidaka in the role in which I first stepped barefoot onto a Broadway stage some 67 years ago, sporting my homemade fishing pole and a tin can for bait retrieval, I felt an unexpected catch in my ability to breath normally.

As Hidaka held up Howard’s trophy, a big fat juicy earthworm to taunt his young admirer Melinda (here sweetly played by Gabriella Pizzigoni), I nearly delivered his line right along with this new stand o’ cotton: “What’re yuh skeered of? You was a worm once.” I’ve attended many other performances of plays in which I once appeared, but none has struck me quite as dramatically as this long, long ago moment in time as this one did.

In an era where we are all potentially drowning in a sea of backward thinking in our country and much of the world, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s dated but still insightful and groundbreaking masterwork is desperately ready to be revived once again on an even grander scale. In a perfect world, Michael Michetti’s gobsmack of a rethinking should travel on from Pasadena back to New York in its shatteringly germane present incarnation.

Inherit the Wind caused a heap of controversy and its share of shocked viewers way back in 1955 but we, as artists unafraid to tackle the inequities of twisted values and the absurdity of our society from Euripides to Moliere to Tennessee Williams, are the entity of change most overlooked in the history of our species’ existence. This production made me leave the Playhouse almost unable to speak simply because how much it renewed my faith in what so many of us stand for and champion at all costs in our sometimes questionably Quixote-like existence spinning out of control on the doomed surface of our troubled planet.

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EL ULTIMO SUENO DE FRIDA Y DIEGO from the Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

The world has long been fascinated by the bohemian and tumultuous relationship between legendary Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and her lifelong love and nemesis Diego Rivera. There have been numerous books and films detailing their fiery romance and unapologetically non-PC love affair that began with their first meeting in 1928 and ended with her death in 1954. Theirs was an explosive, tumultuous bond that survived many incarnations but remained intact though fraught with rampant much-publicized infidelities and continuous violent confrontations.

“I went to other bodies,” Kahlo explains in this current work to her often distant and notably womanizing husband, “to find you in other arms.” Still, their personal emotional fetters always emerged triumphant not only because of their wildly ardent feelings for each other but could certainly be attributed to their intense respect for one another’s art.

Instead of offering the usual biographical chronicling of the pair’s noisy quarter-century May-December love affair and fervently left-wing political sensibilities, however, Grammy-winning classical composer Gabriela Lena Frank and playwright Nilo Cruz (Pulitzer Prize-honored for Anna and the Tropics) have joined together in their gorgeous and bold equally counterculture opera El último sueño de Frida y Diego (The Last Dream of Frida and Diego) to deliver a passionate, magical, brilliantly colorful retelling of their story.

Initially unfolding during an all-too mortal but grandly depicted Dia de Los Muertos celebration that travels from a flower and skull strewn graveyard on to a folklore-inspired presentment of the Aztec conception of the underworld called Mictlan, their inspired vision is a kind of reverse Orpheus and Eurydice tale as the terminally ill Rivera (celebrated Mexican baritone Alfredo Daza) begs the skeletal La Catrina, Keeper of the Dead (Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez) to let his late wife return for one single night to help him inspire his blocked ability to create his art.

Frida (Argentinian mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack) has other ideas. It’s said the 47-year-old Kahlo’s real last thoughts written in her diary just before she died were that she “happily awaits the exit and hopes to never return again,” which has inspired Cruz to mirror those sentiments as the opera’s heroine insists she has no interest in returning to the trauma and disappointments of our physical plane. “How do I create my absence?” she plaintively asks Catrina. “How do I return and let my feet create the world?”

There is nothing about this brave and unexpectedly breakaway opera that doesn’t reflect the lives and rule-defying nature of the lives of its celebrated celebrants, from Frank’s astringent and continually thrilling score that evokes a little Bartok, a bit of Benjamin Britten, a hint of Miguel del Aguila, and perhaps even an occasional echo of Elmer Bernstein, to Cruz’s intensely poetic and gossamer libretto, and on to the artistry of the phenomenal design team energizing the production.

Jorge Balina’s many fanciful deep blue and brilliantly orange ever-changing sets burst with color and familiar Mexican folk-art images beautifully lit by Victor Zapatero, while costumer Eloise Kazan provides the production’s most excitingly imaginative and whimsical designs. In one unforgettably scene, several different living versions of Kahlo’s own well-known tortured self-portraits appear onstage in their own oversized frames underneath five brightly decorated hearts, complete with bloody arrows piercing the chest of one and another encased in twisting and confining vines. “Do they still call me the painter with the brush of agony?” Frida asks her husband at one point and this striking visual tableaux seems to serve as her wordless answer.

The visual splendor of is El último sueño undeniable, sweepingly accentuated by equally innovative director Lorena Maza’s fiercely kinetic staging of the ensemble populated by the dynamic 26-member La Opera Chorus under the direction of Jeremy Frank.

Lina Gonzalez-Granados conducts the LAO Orchestra with the same intense passion and reverence for the material, commanding the musicians and performers as though everyone involved in the production is under the otherworldly spell of two of the 21st century’s most important and controversial visual artists.

Mack, Daza, and Martinez couldn’t be more impressive as gifted worldclass opera singers and also for their deeply conjured performances as actors, as is the appearance of countertenor Key’mon W. Murrah who as a deceased crossdressing actor with a special worship for Greta Garbo, brings an extraordinary seven-octave vocal sorcery to the role that falls somewhere between Yma Sumac and Sylvester.

As a longtime aficionado of the incredible body of work gifted to our culturally deprived reclaimed desert climes by the Los Angeles Opera, I have to say El último sueño de Frida y Diego might be my favorite production I’ve ever seen presented by the prestigious and prolific company.

The intense lyricism blended with blatant stridency of the composition created by Gabriela Lena Frank immediately signals watching as her career soars to what I believe will be astronomical heights, combining sinuous solos and complicated orchestrations written for flutes, piccolos, and even the marimba. Still, although the multi-award-winning composer takes risks never before taken even in contemporary opera, it's Nino Cruz’s expressive and yet accessible libretto that ultimately might be the most fascinating thing of all here.

Without opera’s usual repetitive lyrics utilized to serve the music, Cruz manages to compliment the score while creating a thought-provoking treatise on the fragility of life as we know it, particularly as Kahlo and Rivera’s lives are juxtaposed with the ever-present oppressed townspeople and peasants played by the massive LAO chorus. “The poor are created by disdain,” Cruz notes. “They are invisible... like the dead.” Even beyond this unique accomplishment, the great modern dramatist movingly explores the ephemeral nature of art and how often our creative output is influenced and brought to life by our emotional state—especially by love and by the specter of loss.

You know, the human stuff artists throughout time have desperately attempted to share in an effort to make sense of it all.

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LIFE SUCKS.  from Interact Theatre Company at the Broadwater

Over the past couple of decades, Aaron Posner has been recipient of nearly every award a theatremaker could possibly receive except, oddly, those illusive New York honors. He first burst into the American regional theatre scene as a director but his true calling has proven to be his work as a dramatist—and in that role, he will one day soon be recognized as one of the greatest playwrights of our time.

From his notable adaptations of Chaim Potok’s novels The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev to his brilliant reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, retitled District Merchants: An Uneasy Comedy and set in Washington DC post-Civil War during the Reconstruction period, Posner is a master at finding the throughline between great period literature and our current mess of an era.

Nowhere has the quirky signature genius of Posner been more on display, however, then in his rethinking of the enduring work of that brooding late-19th century master Anton Chekhov, who chronicled the communal angst and often ridiculous introspections of fickle, somewhat aimless upperclass gentry desperately trying to navigate the “new order” then rapidly transforming post-Czarist Russia.

It is said when Chekhov’s first play The Seagull premiered at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1898, two years after the former short story writer renounced the theatre in general due to the critical reception he received when it debuted elsewhere, he stormed out of the theatre in disgust because he felt the audience and its director, Konstantin Stanislavsky himself, didn’t get his humor. By the time he wrote his last play, The Cherry Orchard, in 1903, he insisted adding A Comedy in Four Acts below the title.

Chekhov was disheartened when people saw his works as tragedies rather than finding the subtle but biting humor, whereas Posner’s reworkings of three of his four classic plays present just the opposite: audiences are charmed and laugh openly at the silly, deluded characters and their mostly self-inflicted contemporary weltschmerz. It’s only on the drive home where the author’s message detailing of the sadness of unrequited love, the avoidable calamity of self-hatred, and the universal despair we all feel in an impossibly dysfunctional time where societal redemption might at this point never come, hits you right upside the head.

This is especially true of his 2015 adaptation of Uncle Vanya, the appropriately titled Life Sucks., which won the Theatre Alliance Award for Best Play in 2020 and has finally reached our parched desert climes in a sparkling, worldclass production from Interact Theatre Company now playing at the Broadwater.

As with the playwright’s companion pair of equally cleverly evocative Chekhovian updates, 2013’s Stupid Fucking Bird (The Seagull) and 2017’s No Sisters (Three Sisters), his mini-epic Life Sucks. features a woebegone group of semi-related adults wandering aimlessly around a big old house (on Evan A. Bartoletti’s wonderfully evocative yet sufficiently breezy set) ruminating about “Life, life, life” and wondering what their place and purpose in it might be.

As director Barry Heins’ stellar troupe of veteran actors enter and stand in a line facing the audience in a traditionally Posner-esque direct address, the Professor (Steve Vinovich) lays it all out for us, explaining that the play “transpires in four distinct acts, just like Chekhov’s original far superior play.” After some pushback from the others about that distinction, his young trophy wife Ella (Erin Pineda), described as the world’s sexiest ocelot, adds, “Most of it is going to be about love and longing.”

His niece Sonia (Olivia Castanho) disagrees that’s all the play will have to say but her Uncle Vanya (John Ross Bowie) chimes in. “Pretty much,” he tells us, “so you can’t say you haven’t been warned.”

After some further bantering and disagreement, the Professor elaborates: “It’s also about the audacious, ludicrous, and protean nature of the obstreperous and always-feckless human heart.”

“Well,” family friend Dr. Aster (Marc Valera) sighs, “this is off to a lovely start.”

And so it goes in Posner’s delightfully skewed world, a place perhaps even scarily familiar to many of us as we still work diligently to try to crawl out unscathed from under our individual pandemic-flattened rocks where assimilating back into our fragile society and find a satisfying place to exist and prosper in it can still be a challenge.

The seven individuals stuck together in the grand old house passed down to Sonia by her mother and ex-wife of the Professor, ramble around and whine incessantly to each other and to us about their miserable lot in life, something in lesser hands than those of Posner (or ol’ Anton) could be stupefying or even numbing.

Thankfully, the writer’s quick wit and unique ability to offer continuous self-deprecating wise-assed jokes and to smoothly link the elements of Chekhov’s timeless themes and express them with nonstop contemporary references, has just the opposite effect: never once does the piece descend into the tedious. World-weariness here is immensely entertaining.

There are also a welcome pair of characters who, although facing their own trials and tribulations, provide some well-needed respite from the perpetual ennui pouring from the mouths of their five castmates.

Anne Gee Byrd provides a breather from the dark clouds of agony expressed by the others as Babs, a potter and former friend of Sonia’s late mother who, like so many Chekhovian characters, seems to have moved into the house lock, stock, and pottery wheel while Lily Rains as the also ever-present and uncharacteristically sunny family friend Pickles, who lives above the garage, proves that even her own passion for Ella, the object of most everyone else’s carnal desires, can somehow be refreshing in its hopelessness.

Quite simply, this dynamic cast joins the ranks of the many, many others who have so amazingly energized some of the demanding material delivered on stages across the Southland this year—particularly in the last few months—and they have easily jumped to the very top of my list of ongoing Best Ensemble candidates in my annual TicketHolder Awards at the end of the year.

Surely this is due to the incredible talent serendipitously assembled by Heins and the folks at the prolific 31-year-old Interact but, quite honestly, their success here must also be attributed to Posner’s consummate ability to create dialogue that would make any actor eager to just plain be there to say his words.

As a grateful member of the Ovation-honored ensemble cast of the LA debut of his Stupid Fucking Bird at the Boston Court in 2014, I must admit this arrestingly gifted wordsmith’s ability to create speeches that flow rhythmically, dispute their own natural halts and grabs at proper wordage, is a dream for anyone cast as one of his characters.

This is not said to diminish the cast of Life Sucks., by any means, just that Posner creates the perfect environment for performers to be brilliant, as they are here bigtime.

Early on, Pickles ruminates about the continuous jumble of issues stuffed into the first 20 minutes of the piece’s playtime. “You do know this play is called Life Sucks., right?” she reminds Sonia. “Do you think that’s right?”

“Oh, Pickles,” her hostess replies, “it’s not even the end of Act One.”

The play runs long, a usually ominous two-and-a-half hours, but I defy you to find anyone in the audience looking at their watch or caught having a little darkened theatre nod-out. Aaron Posner’s incredibly crafty deference to the original source material and his continuous rush of fascinating and often insightful conversations and periodic soliloquies delivered by virtually every character in Life Sucks., might ironically leave you wishing for another hour of Chekhovian-inspired self-inflicted pain and suffering.

Life, life, life, right?

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THE BARBER OF SEVILLE from the Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

I felt a little guilty—not to mention pedestrian—that the first image that popped into my mind when invited to the opening of LA Opera’s mounting of Gioachino Rossini’s enduring 207-year-old masterwork The Barber of Seville was that of Bugs Bunny shaving Elmer Fudd.

Imagine my relief opening the program to see conductor Louis Lohraseb’s production notes begin by mentioning just that, Warner Brothers’ famous 1950 Looney Tunes short Rabbit of Seville—as well as evoking the image of Robin Williams singing Figaro’s first aria “Largo al factotum” in Mrs. Doubtfire or opera great Robert Merrill pretending to be an ordinary barber on an old Candid Camera.

The point is, Rossini’s 1816 opera buffa remains one of the most well-known of any composition in his massive body of work, not only for its magnificent score but for being one of the funniest classic operas of all time.

Based on the 1775 French comedy Le Barbier de Seville by Pierre Beaumarchais, the opera’s original premiere at Teatro Argentina in Rome was a total fiasco. Fueled by an audience partially consisting of supporters of a rival of Rossini who believed the work was plagiarized from his own, the jeers and boos, compounded by a series of onstage accidents, made the opening a total disaster.

Like the initial reaction to Beaumarchais’ French play, however, Rossini’s version quickly turned the tide, soon becoming a huge success and through the years one of the most popular staples in the world’s most beloved operatic repertoire.

This current mounting of librettist Cesare Serbini’s delightfully comedic romantic romp, full of mistaken identities and inopportune entrances, has a pedigree fitting LA Opera, one of the nation’s largest and prestigious opera companies. Staged by Tony and Olivier-winner Ron Ashford (director of hits including Frozen, Evita, and many more Broadway hits) and conducted by Lohraseb, an exciting young talent whose energetic and spirited physicality is as much fun to watch as the goings-on onstage, the pedigree could not be more impressive here and the principal cast is uniformly golden.

Baritone Joshua Hopkins is a delight as Figaro, the wheeling-dealing barber in question who also doubles as a valet, a doctor, a matchmaker and, judging from his entourage of adoring young maidens of the court who follow him around, is obviously also a most successful cocksman himself.

Tenor Edgardo Rocha is impressive as Figaro’s dashing master, the noble Count Almaviva, a man who’s willing to do anything, including donning various disguises, to win the hand of the lovely Rosina, a role splendidly sung and acted by noted mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard.

Rosina is the charge of stuffy old Dr. Bartolo, who is keeping her all but prisoner in his villa until she comes of age and he can marry her himself. As played by international bass-baritone bel canto and opera buffo specialist Paolo Bordogna, the role proves the most hilarious contributor of all to this wonderful Barber. There’s a little Fellini clown and a lot of Commedia dell’arte master in the work of Bordogna, who brings down the house with his physical comedy and expert mustache-twirling villainy.

Soprano Kathleen O’Mara is a major standout as Berta, Dr. Bartolo’s maid who observes the household’s behavior with the eye of an amazed and slightly bemused observer, while bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni is hilarious as Rosina’s tutor Don Basilio, who I’d love to see cast as Ichabod in Robert Milne’s up-and-coming 2009 American opera reinvention of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Everything about this production is grandly mounted, from costumes by multiple Tony-winner Catherine Zuber and gorgeously atmospheric and eventually stormy lighting by Pablo Santiago based on Howard Harrison’s original design.

Still, for me personally, since I was still literally suffering from jet lag on opening night from my recent whirlwind teaching tour of Madrid and Barcelona, Scott Pask’s evocative set design was one of the most impressive highlights of the production, with towering Spanish arches and delicate wrought iron accents that immediately transported me directly back to my unforgettable time in Espana.

We Angelenos could not be more fortunate to have an entity as dynamic and dedicated to the arts as the LA Opera working and thriving in our culture-challenged former desert climes and this worldclass presentation of Rossini’s indelible The Barber of Seville, the current tenant of the majestic Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, could not be a more perfect example of their inestimable worth to us all.

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HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING from Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre

For the sake of my mental health and blood pressure, I have made a conscious effort to eliminate from my life those rabid rightwing conservatives in general and frighteningly clueless Trump supporters in particular, so the concept of sitting captive in a darkened theatre listening to such deluded folks rant and rave initially kept me from responding to cover the LA premiere of Heroes of the Fourth Turning at the Matrix.

The stunned positive reaction to the production, along with the fact that Will Arbery’s play was a Pulitzer finalist and that it’s being presented by the ever-courageous Rogue Machine directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos made me reconsider, albeit not without a heap of trepidation.

I’m too old, too damn tired, and constantly feeling defeated after a long life spent fiercely fighting for justice and equality, especially when the election of an IQ-challenged, ego-driven conman as the leader of the western world made me snap awake to how blind I’d been for years living in our insular left-coast bubble and not realizing how many Morlocks are still crawling out of the primordial ooze in the parts of A’murka I basically only fly over.

It’s a major understatement to say my disappointment with the current backsliding state of our species has made me more intolerant than I’m proud to admit, so putting myself through two intermissionless hours forced to listen to ultra-conservative blatter onstage wasn’t easy for me. Thankfully I did, however, as Arbery’s bold and unbending Heroes is one of the most important and intriguing productions to be mounted in LA this year, hopefully soaring to the top of every list when it comes to award consideration at the end of the year.

Featuring a knockout cast appearing as a group of longtime friends and graduates of a small conservative Catholic college in a town of 7,000 in western Wyoming who gather in a backyard to celebrate the inauguration of the mother of one of them as the school’s new president (played by the phenomenal Roxanne Hart), the play’s opening scene immediately warns its audience it might become even more difficult to sit through than already anticipated.

As Justin (the Marlboro Man-like Stephen Tyler Howell, who could follow Toby Keith as spokesperson for the Wounded Warrior Project) sits silently alone on the back porch of his rustic cabin, a rustling in the woods makes him stealthily grab his hunting rifle and fire on a huge buck, the subsequent scene proving to possibly be even more disturbing than the teenage girls’ emotionless dispatching of a feral cat in the Douglas’ current Our Dear Dead Drug Lord that made more than one patron admit to nearly bolting for the exit.

It’s as though Arbery is saying, “If you think this is hard to watch, just wait,” and honestly, when the lights come up on the second scene, it doesn’t take long to wonder who the real monster is in his tale of people whose deeply held beliefs are even more upsetting than something that could make any animal lover squirm.

The time is August, 2017, a week after the notorious Charlottesville riots that should have better alerted us what to expect some three years later when the same misled asswipes tarnished the image of democracy forever.

Teresa (Evangeline Edwards), the seemingly put-together alpha of the group, is elated and emboldened by believing her like-minded troglodytes are ready to take up arms for their cause, something suggested in William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 1997 book The Fourth Turning, which chronicles the authors’ belief that, over the past four centuries, we have gone through four definite cyclic generational transformations.

Strauss and Howe propounded the culminating fourth shift would happen from 2005 to 2020 and would send our country into a secular crisis that only “heroes” like Teresa—and her personal guru Steve Bannon, who championed the book—could make right again, even if it meant going to war to bring western civilization back to following the conservative Christian ideals they always mistakenly insist our country was founded upon.

“We’re in danger of being culturally lobotomized,” Teresa sermonizes early on in the proceedings, and she believes Donald Trump has “come to save us all,” a statement so full of triggers that, after several previous performances, Edwards and her costars have learned to pause and wait for the delayed reaction of their gobsmacked audience.

The skewed ideology of Arbery’s characters would be impossible to buy if delivered by five lesser actors. This striking ensemble, under Cienfuego’s sturdy and obviously uncompromising direction, rises above and deftly overcomes the script’s stereotypical behavior that could be deadly in less talented hands.

Teresa is the scariest of the five comrades, resembling an intelligent Lauren Boebert who‘s surprised that being called Machiavellian was “said like it’s a bad thing.” Edwards gives a creepily convincing performance that’s chilling to behold—chilling that she can smoothly make us accept someone so bright could actually buy into the twisted things she expounds.

The most memorable moments in Heroes come from the volatile clash between Edwards as Teresa and the remarkable Hart as Gina, the nurturing lifelong academic who, although a straight-on immobile conservative, slowly realizes how shocking and dangerous her former student’s views have become. She eventually loses her professional cool and shocks herself when she accuses Teresa of “whoring yourself to popular opinion.” Gina is written with a quickly evolving character shift that Hart delivers with dazzling expertise.

Emily James is heartbreaking as her bedridden daughter, whose frailty does not stop her from expressing her disapproval of Teresa’s nonstop vitriol, her arguments leading her uber-confident sparring partner to lament that “Nobody knows how to debate anymore”—that is to say if the other person isn’t listening to and agreeing with her.

Howell is so convincing, so quietly compelling as a stiff-backed countrified redneck that it’s hard to imagine what a gifted actor he must be to play such a standard manly good ol’ boy-in-training until Justin’s stoic exterior begins to unravel and it’s clear he has sincere doubts about what’s being sermonized to those gathered.

The most arresting performance comes from Samuel Garnett as the friends’ weakest link, the lost and troubled Kevin, someone Teresa continues to tease is “just a pale American soy boy.”

As a guy with loser written all over him who woefully observes, “Everything’s so nice it’s stressful!” and finds his own lack of personal commitment so grim he drinks himself into tossing his lunch into the campfire, Garnett is simply astounding. He delivers an incredibly brave, jaw-droppingly quirky and risky turn that heralds a truly original actor whose career it'll be interesting to watch emerge.

Still, with all this talent from a cast sure to win awards, led by a brilliant director and with the contribution of a crew of dynamic designers, it’s Will Arbery’s fascinating and alarming script that steals the show, delivering a treatise as only someone himself raised by conservative Catholic educators who taught in a similar school in Wyoming and held the same persuasive yet wretched viewpoint could. He’s had Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign jingle stuck in his head since childhood and felt the need to explore and sort out the “poetic, passionate, and nuanced” beliefs his family pounded into his head—and to do it with empathy.

“Isn’t the stage a platform for its characters, and isn’t a platform a tacit endorsement?” he asks, “or is my play somehow a condemnation? Where do I end and the characters begin? I can call this a fly-on-the-wall experience, or an exercise in patience, or a symposium. But to be honest, I think I’m after something a little more dangerous.”

Dangerous indeed is Heroes of the Fourth Turning—dangerous, disquieting, and incredibly thought-provoking. Like Trump, Bannon, Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and their zombie army, the coolly treacherous Teresa is the most frightening self-proclaimed hero of this particular fourth turning, someone so sure of her drastically backward convictions that the rest of us are all in continuous potential peril.

When Emily tells Teresa she’s sorry about her mother going off on her, she cheerfully answers, “Don’t be… that was fun.” It seems the true thinkers in our society are the people who sometimes reconsider and wonder if they should reexamine their opinions and beliefs. It’s the zealots who are convinced they are right and are without question the chosen people.

But be reassured: by the end of Will Arbery’s outstanding but unnerving Heroes of the Fourth Turning, each and every character—even Teresa—realizes he or she has no real emotional connection with any of the others.

That’s the consequences of hate, I guess.

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BISEXUAL SADNESS at the Road Theatre Company

The first production of the Road Theatre Company’s 33rd season is something special for a myriad of reasons, particularly since India Kotis’ Bisexual Sadness was developed over the last several years within the company’s ambitious playwright development program called Under Construction.

Kotis writes she “deeply believes in people’s ability to understand each other. I will die on that hill every time. Such understanding takes time, trust, effort, and imagination. It involves risk. It takes courage. Contexts of our material world are always a factor and sometimes stuff gets in the way.”

I’ve been reviewing theatre for 36 years and I could easily spend my time here criticizing a production that, despite its obvious most heartfelt and admirable intentions, is not quite ready for primetime. Kotis’ play, though potentially incredibly important, still has its rough edges yet also introduces an arresting new voice in today’s rather anemic and too often intensely preachy American theatre.

Kotis addresses something never before dealt with onstage as far as I know: the thorny issue of how someone who had been in a same-sex relationship deals with the world around them when suddenly finding love with someone of the opposite sex.

I know from personal experience how difficult such a development can be and how unforgiving friends and comrades in the queer community often become when faced with such a change in another person’s direction. It’s a kind of reverse prejudice that to me always seemed bizarre from people who have spent so many lifetimes suffering themselves under the thumb of discrimination and injustice.

In Bisexual Sadness, a young doctor named Faye (Liz Faning, alternating with Tiffany Wolff in this double-cast production) feels such discomfort, but much of it is self-inflicted, feeling as though she’s losing her identity and the acceptance she has cherished from the lesbian community. As she plans for her upcoming marriage to Alex, a great guy (Philip Smithey, alternating with Brian Graves) who as written is something of a milquetoast, she is torn between her love for him and the cultural electricity she enjoyed from her former relationship with another woman (Bex Taylor-Klaus / Alaska Jackson).

The trouble here is that Kotis’ story, although topical and intensely thought-provoking, doesn’t really go anywhere. Nothing is resolved, really, especially for the peripheral characters of Faye’s bigger-than-life neurotic sister (Amy Tolsky / Karrie King) and her angst-ridden teenage daughter (Naomi Rubin / Gloria Ines), someone facing a major identity crisis of her own. These characters could easily spawn a new play of their own that hopefully could unravel their own issues more satisfactorily.

And when it comes to the future of Faye’s relationship with Alex as the play wraps up far too neatly, after everything that has happened, I wanted to yell out to him from the darkened house, “RUN!”,  so I must have been at least somewhat engaged.

Now, despite these rather considerable druthers, Kotis is a master at writing fluid and believable dialogue, yet her ability to present more fully dimensional and less stereotypical characters, as well as create reasonable character arcs for them that the actors and director Carlyle King can sink their talents into, is still to come. I have no doubt, however, that this will happen; Kotis is a writer with a definite future as her work seasons and matures.

Beyond everything not living up to its potential here, the playwright’s message is still effective. My partner Hugh (who writes professionally as H.A. Eaglehart) works with children and teens in experiential education and is continuously faced with young people who, in our stepped-up and always evolving society, are dealing with discovering who they are and how to navigate the mess of a world in which we live.

Hugh was moved by Bisexual Sadness in a unique way that others may not have experienced:

“The true story here would be the Road having the courage to give the power of voice to this play,” he wrote. “Being heard changes everything because the power of validation is profound. Bisexual Sadness remains true to its name throughout the entire 80 minutes with no intermission. Kotis truly captures the chaos of modernity descending into the sadness of post-colonialism to the point you wonder if there's a reason behind everything on stage, including life. Focusing on the lines you can't keep from being touched hearing the youngest character in the play who has recently claimed ‘they/them’ as their pronouns. They share their realization with the audience about nobody on stage being truly happy. They wishes someone were to allow them an opportunity to aspire towards joy.

“I'm in a unique position where I get to work with hundreds of thousands of kids every year. Talk about keeping one’s culture alive through walking instead of talking. Traditional ancient Navajo men were considered fathers to all children not just their biological offspring. Maybe we would care a lot more about this planet if more people were like Navajo. One of the many unheard voices this play champions is the chaos of sexual complexity. There are parents across this country struggling with the chaos of modernity and this play attempts to tell a bit of their story as well. I will say as somewhat of a professional in early human development, unconditional love goes a long way in a complex world no longer held back by the toxic simplicities of religiously dominated societies.

“You realize after curtaincall this play wasn't written to please the sometimes pretentious nature of theatre. Kotis thanks the Road for giving her highly intelligent voice a platform to tell a story about a new height in human awareness. Navajo have accepted sexual complexity for hundreds of years, which is why it is important for our culture to remain alive. Ancient Navajo treated Two Spirit people with respect yet today it is beyond people’s ability to get pronouns correct let alone including respect when they are said. This lack of communal uniformity explains so many of the problems both on and off stage. Navajo have a lot to offer modernity's infancy, especially kids like the youngest character whose mother never can get their pronoun correct though not out of a lacking in parental love but simply as an exhausted mother reeling from divorce and a collapsing planet attempting to understand an aspect of ourselves not allowed to exist in North America since before European colonialism.

“Kotis clearly understands kids today because many lines in the play truly captured things I hear kids saying every day. The youthful despair in the unanimous sadness on stage is a story this world needs to see and reflect upon. All children deserve family. American family is quite literally being destroyed by our festering hate evaporating all love from our baking planet."

India Kotis writes in the program for the Road’s world premiere of her intriguing new play, “When push comes to shove, I believe that a huge part of the human project is to stand in the muck and struggle to see each other as we really are. That is the labor—maybe the labor of love.”

Here lies the true grit and wonder of Bisexual Sadness—not to mention the realization that we can all experience being present at the very beginning of what will surely be a most impressive career.

THROUGH NOV. 5:  Road Theatre Company, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., NoHo. 818.761.8838 or

[Oh, and speaking of impressive new writing careers, my partner Hugh's second book, Urban Native: The Musings of a Queer Navajo Cowboy in Hollywood, will be available from my own publisher,, in the next few weeks.]

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THE TRAVELERS from the Latino Theater Company at the LATC

Entering the Los Angeles Theatre Center for the LA premiere of Luis Alfaro’s The Travelers, Tanya Orellana’s starkly surreal set, featuring candlelit mounds of dirt, delicate twinkling chandeliers, as well as a rust-stained bathtub and matching toilet, all accompanied by Joan Osato’s arresting nature-oriented rear projections, immediately lets you know you’re in for a ride.

True to its title, The Travelers debuted last winter at San Francisco’s gloriously prolific Magic Theatre and, after a celebrated run there, has now been remounted at LATC under the auspices of the Latino Theatre Company featuring the original cast and creative team.

The first thing to know about any play by Alfaro, whose indissolubly Chicano-centric work falls somewhere between Beckett and Steinbeck with a little Bukowski thrown in, is that the guy doesn’t let you sit back and enjoy that aforementioned ride; you have to sit up, keep your hands at 10 and 2, and stay sharply focused.

Developed within the auspices of the Magic’s Campo Santo performance group and written with these particular actors in mind, The Travelers is a haunting, richly evocative journey of discovery about the inequities of religious devotion, about the complex vulnerabilities of our fragile species and, created by Alfaro during the height of the pandemic, about how isolation can permanently alter and even destroy the human spirit.

Predatory birds soar and giant coyotes prowl in the brush on Osato ‘s omnipresent projections as a nearly naked young man (Ogie Zulueta), who has been lying motionless behind the tub from the moment the audience is let into LATC’s cavernous, naturally musty, equally surreal Tom Bradley Theatre, is lowered into the bathtub and four shadowy figures move into place at the front of the stage.

As if in a ritualistic dance, under director Catherine Castellanos’ intensely collaborative stylistic staging, the players (Daniel Duque-Estrada, Guillermo Yiyo Orneles, Kinan Valdez, and Sean San Jose) strip off their street clothes and don tattered monastic robes, cinching them with rope belts, lifting their hoods over their heads to limn anonymity and, finally, fingering long wooden rosary beads in perfect unison.

Suddenly, the quiet and lyrical dreamscape accented by Grisel Torres’ chimerical lighting and Christopher Sauceda’s atmospheric sound plot is shattered by the offstage screams of a terrified intruder (Juan Manual Amador) who intrudes upon their meditative state bleeding profusely and in obvious pain.

The unexpected guest has been shot but never once does that interfere with the hospitality of Brother Santo (San Jose, who has also restaged the play for LA audiences), the leader of their mysterious band whose actions are guided by the convictions of his tiny 936-year-old Carthusian Order despite the fact that their Archdiocese has cut the monks off both financially and spiritually.

The other three Brothers are less willing to take the man in, especially when their own resources have been so drastically reduced in their dilapidated monastery in Grangeville, California on the Central Coast, a desolate place populated mostly by itinerant farm workers with a population in the 2020 census of 324—obviously not exactly a cornucopia of agricultural abundance. 

Juan quickly becomes Brother Juan and reluctantly joins their order, never quite content with his new lifestyle nor comfortable with having to take a shit on the onstage toilet with Brother Ogie looking on from his forever home in that excessively unappealing-looking bathtub.

Ogie, it seems, lives fulltime there since he has no use of his lower extremities and has been stuck there for his entire life, the origins of his sad existence unraveled as the story progresses. He blithely accepts his diminished capacities to the point where, when the poop-challenged Juan calls him disabled, he is puzzled because he’s never heard that word before.

This dedicated Bay Area team is almost completely uniformly astonishing, with the exception of one overly theatricalized and presentational performance that could be easily subdued with a little cautionary guidance from someone not distracted by his own performance, impressive as that itself might be.

Everyone involved is clearly willing to walk through hot coals and follow Alfaro wherever he chooses to lead them, with particular nods to Valdez as the fiery Brother Nacho and Zulueta as the highly breakable Ogie, a quietly indispensable character who is recognizably the spokesperson for delivering Alfaro’s most reassuring message.

These are heartbreakingly lonely, emotionally unavailable, confused individuals, men whose personal crises of both religious faith and ideological doubts about what this silly life means have overpowered their lives. Yet just when you think Alfaro has terminally erased any hope for the future of mankind, the naive and sheltered Ogie, lifelong resident of his filthy old clawfoot tub, delivers a brilliantly gossamer and lyrical monologue explaining from his perspective the nature of human emotion and the profundity of love.

Like Alfaro, at least one of his characters never quite gives up hope.

I do think this jarringly honest, otherwise nearly perfect production is hampered by staging Amador's uncomfortable attempt to sit on the toilet with his (onstage) audience of one looking on without dropping his pants or by costuming Zulueta in black swimtrunks rather than presenting the character as naked and bold as the play's themes and dialogue demand, both things that for me were glaring distractions that undermine the courage and raw artistry found everywhere else in the production.

The impressive and highly stylistic body of work created by the Pico-Union born and bred playwright, a true LA treasure whose plays such as the classically inspired Electricidad and Oedipus El Rey have been performed extensively here and all over the country, are intensely idiosyncratic and unapologetically theatrical, something in the hands of less gifted artists could be difficult for an audience to grasp. Alfaro's hands-on participation in the creative process from the first rehearsals at the Magic to this current incarnation at LATC looms over the play like a seventh character.

In fact, in Alfaro’s near-daily addictive online journals chronicling his daily life accessible to people such as Yours Truly who are proud to call him a friend, he mentioned the day of the play’s opening here in its second city that he was still doing a Tennessee Williams and rewriting the piece right up to curtain time.

“It’s been an amazing week,” he admitted. “Wrestling with ideas. Making changes. Shifting rhythms. New lines. New intentions. Pure transformation. Moving as an ensemble. Breathing together.”

How I wish Luis would add a wandering geriatric non-Spanish-speaking Danish Jew to his work sometime in the future before I croak, as I’d give my left you-know-what to be a fly on the wall and watch an amazing work of art such as The Travelers leap from the page to such glorious fruition on opening night.

Seeing it materialize and ripen into performance level must be the experience of a lifetime, which is why artists as brave and visionary as Castellanos, San Jose, and folks at the Magic and Latino Theater Company, as well as this dynamic cast whose characters are respectfully baptized with their own names, are drawn to the project with such obvious reverence and unswerving faith in its McArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship Award-honored creator.

In a fair world, Luis Alfaro, who has unswervingly shared with the world so much of his culture, his dreams, and his disappointments in his prolific career, will one day be recognized as the poetic protégé of Federico Garcia-Lorca and our current generation’s most August Wilson-like chronicler of the modernday Chicano experience in America.

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MEASURE STILL FOR MEASURE at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center

In my 36 years writing theatre criticism I’ve praised directors many, many times, but I don’t think I ever began a review with a testimonial to one.

It was 20 years ago when, as still a member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, we awarded Jessica Kubzansky with the Margaret Harford Lifetime Achievement Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatre. At the podium, Kubzansky was sufficiently humble accepting her honor, but also quipped that it was a little concerning to her that she should be recognized for lifetime achievement at such an early stage of what she hoped would be a long and healthy association with creating theatre.

Kubzansky is today renowned as one of the best American directors working in our theatrically-challenged times, as well as being a stalwart leader in keeping the faith as Artistic Director of the Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena—also for the past 20 years.

I have been fortunate enough to be cast at B/C several times over the years, including in Charles Mee’s gloriously audacious Summertime, which helped kick off their courageously adventurous debut season and establish that the place would be taking no prisoners.

Nowhere I’ve ever worked has been more supportive to actors and other collaborators than B/C, a gracious artistic home where Kubzansky and her original co-Artistic Director Michael Michetti made it clear from the very beginning that their Quixote-esque mission would be to herald daring new plays and playwrights and not pander to what would guarantee to sell tickets.

Full circle: As the grand finale of the Boston Court’s 20th season of taking no prisoners and presenting a staggering 38 world premieres, not only is Jessica Kubzansky the director of the outlandishly risky site-specific interactive Measure STILL for Measure, it also marks her auspicious debut as author of her first full-length play.

Based on Shakespeare’s… well, you know… Measure STILL for Measure is a unique and spectacularly innovative production, sweeping us all into the backstage drama of a cast in rehearsal for the original #METOO classic as the audience follows the actors into various areas of the wonderfully appointed B/C complex, from the lobby to the parking lot to the 80-seat rehearsal/black box/music space to the dressing and green rooms, finally leading us to the main stage to watch the company rehearse a day before their first designer run.

Kubzansky’s remarkable play craftily mirrors its original 420-year-old inspiration, a classic work which has always been categorized mainly as one of the Bard’s comedies typically rife with disguise and substitution as plot devices. Still, I’ve always felt there was a deeper and more important message foreshadowed in the play that was far more serious, something that MS4M’s “play-within-the-play” addresses without facing the ominous ever-present political and bureaucratic scrutiny Shakespeare had to stealthily avoid during his time.

Just as her counterpart Isabella, Bukola Ogunmola as Donna, the actor playing the role in an upcoming production of Measure for Measure, is faced with a moral and spiritual crisis, struggling to keep her honor intact while dealing with her brilliant but subtly opportunistic and sexually inappropriate director (Rob Beitzel).

Switching from playwright to director, Kubzansky does a phenomenal job moving her actors around the Boston Court complex as though they were pawns on a giant chessboard, a skill that could not require a more disciplined artistic vision. Having worked myself in such an environmental presentation, playing Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula: House of Besarab at the cavernous deco-gothic Hollywood American Legion Hall in Hollywood, the place where the similar interactive and groundbreaking Tamara held court for 11 years, I have an enormous respect for anyone who can manage to keep such a production gliding along without a hitch.

In this case, the audience is divided into the Blue Group and the Red Group who, after the initial scenes played all around them in the theatre’s lobby and parking lot, go their separate ways to hear different actors deliver their own version of what’s happening in the rehearsal process.

Certainly, Kubzansky is blessed with a precision veteran cast, each actor manifestly able to keep the timing and action of the piece flowing perfectly. On opening night, some of the performers were slightly more successful than others at visually “painting within the lines,” so to speak, as the company navigates the crowded lobby (without the best acoustics for such a task) to individually relate their portion of the tale with a natural ease and without pushing just a tad too far.

Leo Marks as Sam and Dinah Lenney as Mary, the actors rehearsing to play the dastardly Angelo and the noble Escalus, respectively, as well as Desiree Mee Jung as the production’s suitably hop-to-it stage manager, prove best at smoothly overcoming the space and dealing with the proximity of the audience members packed around them, never conveying the sense that they are performing but instead simply living their roles.

That’s not to say the others are not capable of settling into such a comfortable spot as easily as they do when the play transfers to the main stage, only that it might take a little longer to be totally comfortable in their characters’ skins as patrons sip their Aperol Spritzes and chomp down on their chocolate chip cookies only inches from their conversations.

There’s nothing more exciting than creating new theatre from scratch—especially a work as challenging and open for interpretation as MS4M—and there’s simply nothing better than being right smackdab in the middle of a highly electrified rehearsal process. Unless they’re paying me the big bucks and/or sending me off to incredible places to visit, I personally tend to find the biggest thrill is watching the elements of a great play magically come together. Theatre and film history have shown that audiences are always eager to experience for themselves the backstage drama and machinations of bringing a play or other work of art to glorious life, which alone makes this heartfelt and idiosyncratic production something not to be missed.

So, was the LADCC hasty in honoring Jessica Kubzansky with a lifetime achievement award 20 years ago? Looking back at her unstoppably passionate subsequent two decades creating brilliant and thought-provoking theatre, proving herself instrumental in leading the Boston Court into becoming one of the premier regional theatres in the country, and now adding in the world premiere of her mesmerizing Measure STILL for Measure, I believe the honor to have been more prophetic than premature.

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THE SOUND INSIDE at Pasadena Playhouse

The never quite healthy world of live theatre in Los Angeles and, indeed, the country, has been in a deeper crisis than ever before since our society pulled up the welcome mat and began to isolate in place three years ago—and it’s a cryin’ shame.

Our local stages are alive this season with an oversaturation of ambitious and thought-provoking theatre, more than I personally can cover, which sadly has forced me to miss some amazing productions helmed by people I admire and love.

I’m not sure what can be done to get people to feel safe and step out of their comfort zones once again but if anything should, it’s work as startlingly fresh and gorgeously mounted as the Tony-nominated and 2020 Outer Critics Circle-winning The Sound Inside at Pasadena Playhouse.

There’s a palpable dreamlike quality inherent in Adam Rapp’s intrinsically poetic, sweepingly elegiac treatise on loneliness, the need of all of us to connect with one another no matter how autonomous we believe ourselves to be and, singularly, how the intellectual appreciation of great literature can both energize and isolate.

Guided by the elegant yet often minimalist direction of Cameron Watson, a guy who always knows how to create a mood like no other, Amy Brenneman stars as Bella, a longtime Yale creative writing professor functioning on remote control as she tries to starve down her discouragement with life and her own unsuccessful career aspirations as a writer.

Brenneman enters from the darkness through set designer Tesshi Nakagawa’s evocative network of huge gossamer curtains resembling oversized pages of discarded books, stopping directly downstage center to immediately begin telling us why we’re all here. Bella narrates her own story and, from the moment she begins speaking, we are in it with her bigtime:

“A middle-aged professor of undergraduate creative writing at a prestigious Ivy League college stands before an audience of strangers,” she acknowledges. “She can’t quite see them but she knows they’re out there. She can feel them. They’re as certain as old trees, gently creaking in the heavy autumn air.”

Our fascination with Bella’s introduction is partially due to Brenneman’s confident but somehow mysterious stage presence, so full and rich it leaves us quickly wondering what is making this whip-smart woman appear so lost in the darkness which surrounds her. It’s almost as though, if she steps out of her isolated spotlight, Bella would vanish forever into the folds of those giant pages that have dominated her life.

Still, even with an actor as riveting as Brenneman, our instant engagement would not be accomplished here without the lyrical, arrestingly evocative wordsmithery of Mr. Rapp, who is truly a modern master of the spoken word. He questions the basics of our tenuous existence crashing through space spinning around on our troubled planet, a state that, even for someone as successful and outwardly put-together as Bella, is in the end as uncertain and ultimately frightening for her as it is for the rest of us.

In the midst of her lengthy monologue rife with clever exposition and hinting at a deeply tragic secret backstory, Bella simply walks through a shifting curtain to a small desk and begins practicing her daily professorial chores. Her solitude is jarringly interrupted by an arrogant but obviously promising young student named Christopher (Anders Keith), who shuns her protestations that he cannot crash her campus office without making an appointment online, telling her that using the internet gives him “digital chlamydia.”

The initially bristling relationship between the two turns to intrigue, a fragile mutual respect, and an unexpected physical chemistry that seems somehow alarming to them both. The newly bonded pair shares many things, especially a passion for great literature and soon they are sparring to see who has the most definitive knowledge of Dostoyevsky and their mutual favorite novel, Crime and Punishment.

Christopher begins to visit his professor on a daily basis—each time steadfastly refusing to make an appointment—but her fascination with his mind and, perhaps, her highly inappropriate attraction to his bold yet dangerous demeanor, keeps her from kicking him out. He begins each visit by telling her about a novel he is working on, something he insists is writing itself as he goes along. It’s a kind of psychological thriller about a student in a tony Ivy League college who meets a sketchy stranger and eventually bashes his head in with a Statue of Liberty paperweight—itself very Dostoyevsky, don’t you see.

For some reason, this doesn’t signal dread in Bella, who continues to grow closer to her student until an awkward physical touch between them sends him, someone who has described himself as about as sexually inclined as a parking meter (his relationship with his ex-girlfriend was all about playing chess and watching MST 3000), running for the hills.

Still, when Bella learns she has Stage 2 cancer and her oncologist gives her a generous 20-percent chance for survival, she seeks out Christopher in an all-new way that leads to the mutation of their bond into a far scarier direction.

Rapp’s script is fascinating but, like two other incredible productions of Pulitzer-nominated plays gracing LA stages right now, without the innovative yet clearly disciplined creativity of Watson at the helm and a pair of absolutely astounding performances, The Sound Inside could easily stay inside.

Watson’s consummate taste and style permeates his ability to connect with the playwright’s sometimes thickly grandiloquent and even occasionally pretentious prose, while both Brenneman and Keith are putty in his hands. Both worldclass actors deliver Rapp’s dialogue with easy accessibility and highly mesmerizing craftsmanship. Brenneman is radiant as the conflicted Bella while Keith, a local kid from South Pasadena making his LA professional stage debut, shows us he’s simply a major star at the beginning of what will be an intriguing career to follow.

They overcome one thing in the writing that, again, takes true artistry. Even in the work of my great idol Tennessee Williams, sometimes it bothers me when characters share the same signature rhythm and phasing as their creator, mimicking how the writer speaks rather than each one having their own individual way of talking.

Although this could appear to be overcome because of the talent interpreting the script here, Rapp also gets a pass if one considers that the physical presence of Christopher might be originating in the head of Bella as she relives her journey with us.

There’s much here to unpack and stay with you, lingering long after the final curtain like the shadowy otherworld of a not fully realized dream that refuses to leave even after a second mug of strong hot coffee.

This final unresolved denouement can particularly hit a nerve for an older cancerous professor who also once fell in love with one of his most brilliant students, but luckily not all of us having lived through such an experience have been forced to tumble so uncontrollably into the ominous and bewildering rabbit hole so arrestingly opened up in Adam Rapp’s exceptional future classic.

And unlike poor Bella and Christopher, actually, The Sound Inside can prove wonderfully reassuring since at least two once lost souls, some 11 years later, can still be there for one another, steadfastly keeping each other from falling headlong into the abyss. 

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LES MISERABLES at the Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Center for the Arts

The 9,486th return to the Southland of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil’s celebrated musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel Les Misérables might simply on reflex generate a few world-weary eye-rolls when so many other newer theatrical events are currently desperately struggling to find an audience.

The return of Les Miz, winner of eight Tony Awards and more international honors than could be listed without running out of space here, is still an event to equal no other mainly due to Schonberg’s indelible, sweeping score honoring one of the most iconic literary works of the 19th century.

The production first opened in 1980 in Paris before its English translation by producer Cameron Mackintosh, featuring lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and directed by Trevor Nunn, began its record breaking run in London in 1985–today recognized as the longest running production ever to play the West End.

It subsequently opened on Broadway two years later, playing 6,680 performances and, at the time of its final curtain in 2003, was recognized as the second longest running musical in the world after the original off-Broadway mounting of The Fantasticks. Soon after its opening in New York, Les Miz prompted three simultaneous national tours and has since been seen by a staggering 130 million theatregoers worldwide in 53 countries and in 22 languages.

Mackintosh created this newly staged and updated revival in 2009 directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell to celebrate the musical’s 25th anniversary. It has since played to sold-out houses throughout North America, Australia, Japan, Korea, France, and Spain, is back onstage in London, currently on tour in the Netherlands and Belgium, and there's a new tour of Japan scheduled for 2024.

Says Mackintosh: “The phenomenon of Les Misérables never fails to astound me. No show in history has been able to continually reinvent itself and remain a contemporary musical attracting new generations of brilliant new talent, many of whom go on to international stardom. No show in the world has ever demonstrated the survival of the human spirit better… and it's time to let the people sing again.”

When the current run at the Pantages was first announced, I wondered for a hot minute if I wanted to see Les Miz performed for perhaps the eighth or ninth time when so many new projects are being presented in LA but man, am I glad I did. This is more than the usual tired long-touring roadshow featuring somewhat stale or uninspired performances and set pieces that wobble and seem frayed at the edges. The production is absolutely magnificent.

Visually, perhaps the only previously unavailable aspect energizing—and streamlining—the 43-year-old theatrical warhorse today is the addition of arresting images created by set designer by Matt Kinley based on Victor Hugo’s own paintings. Brought to life by Finn Ross and Fifty-Nine Productions’ massive video projections, this contemporary theatrical device was of course not yet invented when the show first emerged and, although sometimes such innovations can be more distracting than advantageous, the projections here are dark and moody and incredibly evocative.

Mick Potter’s sound is also majorly impressive, especially as it so completely fills and electrifies the sometimes tricky Pantages auditorium not originally intended as a venue to present live entertainment. It glorifies Stephen Metcalf, Christopher Jahnke, and Stephen Booker’s new orchestrations and highlights what is perhaps the most impressive thing about this reinvented Les Miz under the baton of musical director Brian Eades: an ensemble chockfull of some of the most formidable vocal performances in the show’s illustrious history.

Nick Cartell proves himself to be the quintessential Jean Valjean, from the character’s first tortured “Soliloquy” to the classics “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home.” Haley Dortch as Fantine delivers an exceptional “I Dreamed a Dream,” Gregory Lee Rodriguez breaks hearts as Marius lamenting his lost comrades with “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and Preston Truman Boyd as Javert and Devon Archer as Enjolras both deliver standouts performances.

The diminutive Vivian Atencio (alternating with Cora Jane Messer) as Little Cosette offers a lovely “Castle on a Cloud” and 11-year-old phenom Henry Kirk (alternating with Milo Maharlika) is the tiniest, feistiest, most scene-stealing Gavroche since Nick Jonas first raised a defiant fist.

Addie Morales holds her own in the decidedly underwritten role of the resident ingenue Cosette but hey, she hits that famous C-above-high-C when needed so who’s complaining. I did find Matt Crowle and Christina Rose Hall a little disappointing compared to the other performances as the musical’s resident comic relief team the Thenardiers, perhaps victims of that dreaded roadshow-itis mentioned earlier more than it has infected their fellow castmembers.

Still, it is Christine Heesun Hwang as the lovelorn Eponine who gives the most memorable performance of all, bringing the house down with a show-stopping rendition of the musical’s best ballad, “On My Own.” 

Truly, the star of this welcome return of Les Misérables is the dynamic ensemble gathered for it, all blessed with a vocal dexterity that seems almost unheard of empowering one production. Anyone who might think they’ve seen Valjean and his cohorts suffer enough and Javert take his final leap one too many times should certainly reconsider.

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GETTING THERE! at the Hudson Guild Theatre

Rebecca O’Brien’s Getting There!  was named Best Solo Show out of 150 entries in its much talked-about debut at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, as well as being singled out as one of five nominees selected for Top of Fringe honors and as the recipient of both HFF’s first ever Platinum Award and their Producers Encore Award.

Why has it taken me all this time to see it, in this case Rebecca’s 11th encore performance at the Hudson? Well, besides the fact that by policy I don’t cover the Fringe because it’s basically just me here at THLA and, with so many friends and colleagues mounting a phenomenal barrage of over 300-plus shows each June playing from early afternoon to late at night, in the past I’ve had far too many people pissed at me for reviewing other performances and not theirs.

Still, to be painfully honest, that’s not the main reason it took me this long to attend Getting There!  I was unsure if I wanted to put myself through the trauma of Rebecca’s four-year struggle with the Big C. There are very few places I’m reluctant to revisit, but Cancerland is definitely not one of my favorite topics as it usually churns up all the fears and discomforts and memories I try to repress in my own history as a five-time survivor.

Getting There!  is literally about getting there, about a single person living alone having to navigate long periods of intense treatments without family and close friends around to accompany her frequent treks to the hospital for chemo and radiation and potassium drips. It didn’t take long for Rebecca to realize it was “going to be a long four years.”

There aren’t many people as strong or amazingly resilient as this incredibly talented comedienne, however, whose courageously unfiltered theatrical memoir chronicles the period between 2016 to 2019 when she hit the oncologist’s office almost on a daily basis—by public transportation.

Told by her “16-year-old junior in high school” doctor that she would need to start assembling her “team” to help her through her treatments, Rebecca realized that although she has a heap of loving friends, she was basically on her own except for the constant companionship of her beloved pup Stella, who traveled along to her appointments inside a duffel bag and here makes a joyous guest appearance at the conclusion of her show.

There are several things Rebecca is anxious to hit on as quickly as possible, including in an early promise to her audience that she wouldn’t be bringing up cancer quite as much from that point on—a promise that proves impossible to keep. She also slips quickly past discussing her rapidly dwindling family back home in Tennessee, which she likens to playing an “old sweet song that shouldn’t get much airplay on the Southern stations.”

There’s just her mother there these days and, even without her hearing problems that make phone calls difficult, after asking if her daughter is still battling cancer, she seems more than ready to hang up.

Although the majority of Getting There! is a loving and often puzzling remembrance of a continuous stream of eclectic strangers she encountered on the Metro and while waiting at the bus stop on her way to Cedars and back, Rebecca doesn’t miss the opportunity to poke self-deprecating fun at herself, from talking about the less-than soothing cream she was prescribed for her burning vagina that makes her walk sideways like a human-sized crab or noting that her left “girl” is still quite perky but its counterpart tends these days to flirt with people on her right.

The narrative is brutally honest and often sadly insightful, such as noting that in LA it’s worse to admit you’re broke than saying you have cancer, but what makes it work so spectacularly is Rebecca’s unearthly gift to wrap her audience in her warm and generous embrace.

Surely encouraged and with material mined from the depths of her experience by a godsend collaboration with LA director extraordinaire Cameron Watson, Getting There! is a quintessential evocation of how we as a species fight to ride out the herculean bad patches that we are forced to persevere through along the way—that is if one has a tenacious will to conquer adversity and the obvious zest for life of Rebecca O’Brien, a true warrior titan gratefully also possessed of a worldclass sense of humor.

And on a personal note if I may, I left the Hudson with a renewed appreciation for my own team captain, my miraculous life partner Hugh, who at the height of the pandemic squired me to my own oncologist daily for many months, someone without whose love and support I might not still be around to write this.