A STRANGE LOOP at the Ahmanson Theatre

It’s interesting that the Pulitzer Prize for Drama is awarded to a “distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life” and two recent Pulitzer winners, James Ijames’ Fat Ham (2022) and Michael R. Jackson’s musical A Strange Loop (2020) both deal with a similar issue: coming of age navigating the hardhearted hardships of contemporary life in our appearance-obsessed society as a young, overweight, self-loathing African-American gay man.

Also interestingly, both plays came to Los Angeles this year—Fat Ham to the Geffen in April and A Strange Loop opening at the Ahmanson last Friday—and they are two of the three best and most important productions to hit our reclaimed desert climes’ stages in a long time.

According to Jackson, his title came from a quote by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, who coined the term to help explain his hypothesis that the “self” is merely a collection of “meaningless symbols mirroring back on their own essences in repetition until death” strikes us all.

A human being, Hofstadter theorized, is the “organism with the greatest capacity to perceive itself perceiving itself perceiving itself ad infinitum.”

Jackson’s mostly autobiographical protagonist in A Strange Loop, a character named Usher who actually works as an usher for the Broadway run of The Lion King as his survival job, is a lonely, “functionally miserable, relentlessly self-critical” overweight gay Black man in his mid-20s writing a musical about a lonely, functionally miserable, relentlessly self-critical overweight gay Black man his mid-20s.

It’s like a literary version of a lithograph by M.C. Escher come to life, complete with hauntingly evocative tunes and incredibly sly lyrics that unconditionally deserved being honored with a Tony nomination and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Score—winning Tonys, by the way, as Best Musical and Best Book.

As Usher, the 20-something Jackson describes as a “mass of undesirable, unlovable, unemployable, unacceptably fat Black homosexual molecules floating through space without purpose or meaning,” newcomer Malachi McCaskill, before being cast in this tour a junior musical theatre major at the University of North Carolina, makes an auspicious debut in a role anyone would make a trip to Robert Johnson’s Dockery plantation crossroads to play.

The other six knockout actors—Jordan Barbour, J. Cameron Barnett, Carlis Shane Clark, Avionce Hoyle, Tarra Conner Jones, and John-Andrew Morrison—play Usher’s ever-circling, unstoppably opinionated inner Thoughts and, in something akin to limning a live musical version of Pixar’s animated Inside/Out, each has his or her own function, including one who supports him lavishly with sugary encouragement and compliments while another reminds him at every turn what a loser he is.

Along the way, as throughout the show Usher is writing the latest draft of his self-referential unfinished musical which is titled—you got it—A Strange Loop, the others double as various and occasionally crossdressing managers and hookups and members of his puzzled, unaccepting family, including a staggeringly heartrending turn by Morrison as Usher's ultra-religious mother, a role for which he rightly received a Tony nomination, as well as Lucille Lortel and OBIE Awards for Featured Performance.

Director Stephen Brackett’s staging and Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography are both remarkably kinetic achievements, navigating Arnulfo Maldonado’s snappy neon-infused set and Jen Schriever’s dazzling lighting, although the most glaring Achilles’ heel of this production is Drew Levy’s murky, often indecipherable sound that buries too much of the dialogue and music in the echoey and sometimes challengingly cavernous Ahmanson.

Jackson’s music is suitably hummable but it’s his book and lyrics that are truly stunning—even provocative since you’d never hear Eliza Doolittle or Emile LeBecque or even that randy lass Ado Annie singing about felching or dingleberries of sucking cock, not to mention McCaskill’s self-destructive character bottoming in a scene simulating receiving the ol’ hairy root from hunky gym-bunny Barbour (appearing as a hunky gym-bunny white man).

For the first 45 minutes or so, there were continuous shocked gasps from the usual rather stuffy opening night patrons seated around me while the woman next to me whispered “Oh, my god” on a continuous loop.

But just as we did when our original cast of well-paid musical flower children first stepped out nekkid on the stage in Hair a mere 56 years ago, the barrage of generally offensive language and visual sexual tableaux assaulting the sufficiently shocked audience here desensitizes them to eventually sit back and listen to what Jackson’s alter ego Usher has to say—especially in McCaskill’s amazing eleventh-hour tortured monologue that’s surely the stuff for which awards are handed out.

“Fuckability is still the lifeblood of the theatre, darling,” Usher is reminded as he discusses his slow and ponderous progress on his script with his literary agent, who instead wants him to accept a pandering “corporate niggatry” position working for Tyler Perry creating a gospel musical to “ride the chitlin circuit,” something which his Perry-loving mother would feel is quite literally devoutly to be wished.

Usher’s response in song is:

“The crap he puts onstage, film, and TV / Makes my bile want to rise!

And if I try to match his coonery / He’d see through my disguise.”

Instead, he states his mission is to create “undercover art” and figure out how to work it and eventually “change the scene for the better.”

May I say, Mr. Jackson, mission unexpectedly and miraculously accomplished despite the insurmountable battle of breaking into the world of corporate theatre.

To me, Michael R. Jackson could be what might have hypothetically happened if Langston Hughes and James Baldwin had a secret lovechild who became a poet—and could also write some dynamite music.

Simply put, A Strange Loop marks the advent of a brilliant and important new talent, something solidified by Jackson as the recipient of a Pulitzer for his bravely raw, brutally honest autobiographical theatrical masterpiece. If he ever decides to write a musical about a dysfunctional, relentlessly self-critical, overweight, gay, blindingly caucasian Danish Jew in his late-70s, he should be sure to look me up.

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PSYCHO BEACH PARTY from the HorseChart Theatre Company at the Matrix Theatre

It’s always something of a roll of the dice whether a parody of any particular once trendy but long-lost splashy brand from the past will itself hold up in time.

When I appeared in my first revival of Hair in the mid-1980s, our earlier glory seemed dated and simply didn’t hold up, but when the groundbreaking musical was reverently brought back to life again some 15 years later, the return was highly successful even though the message we tried so hard to deliver in 1968 had then morphed into a kind of nostalgia.

A clear exception to the risk of material descending into oblivion with the fleeting and ever-blowing winds of cultural fashion is just about anything created by that outrageously prolific counterculture icon Charles Busch, someone who could out-john-waters John Waters himself long before Divine munched down on his first poodle turd.

Although some younger audience members might need to go home and google Chubby Checker, Jane Russell, or the Bossa Nova—not to mention possibly Kierkegaard and the meaning of “Sartrean existence””—Busch’s classic sendups of the ridiculousness of such things as British cozy-style murder mysteries, 50s B-horror/slasher films starring out-of-work former superstar divas, or sappy old movie musicals, are still all as priceless today as the first time they hit cult status years ago.

Surely the most vulnerable to poke fun at of any old generational warhorse genre is the beach blanket bingo-y movies starring Fabian or Annette and Frankie (google them too, whippersnappers) featuring dialogue such as “Chase, did you hear? Waimea's up! You don't have to jump!" *

Cowabunga, my humor-starved overheated moondoggies, understand this one fact of nature: no one spoofs those ridiculously cheesy early-60s surfer flicks quite as perfectly as Busch—and this smart and colorful remounting of his 1987 off-Broadway gem Psycho Beach Party could not possibly be more swellsville, as one of his characters might interject.

Set in the bitchin’ and most excellent world of Malibu Beach in the summer of 1962, Tom DeTrinis and Ryan Bergmann’s spirited and delightfully tongue-in-cheek direction proves these guys totally get and embrace Busch’s flamboyantly daring original concept at its flashiest.

It’s something echoed in the work of set designers Yuri Okahana-Benson and Nicole Bernardini and the entire creative team—and it begins the moment one enters the Matrix. Beachy props and inflatable pool toys are scattered everywhere one looks as you enter the Kiki Tiki Lounge, the space usually known as the Matrix Theatre lobby, which is open an hour before the show serving all sorts of libations adorned by those tiny little paper umbrellas I didn’t know they still made.

By all means, at least expect a really good complimentary lay… I mean lei.

 Originally titled Gidget Goes Psychotic and changed to avoid any copyright issues, Busch starred in that first production 37 years ago, a huge hit that ran for nearly a year to sold-out houses off-Broadway at the Players Theatre before transferring to Broadway and eventually being turned into a feature film in 2000.

The playwright, author of such heavyweight dramatic fare as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and his Gassner Award-winning The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, became an instantaneous theatrical legend with Psycho Beach Party, playing a staunchly virginal 16-year-old tomboy named Chicklet Forrest, a precocious valleygirl who more than anything in her overdramatic life wants to learn how to surf the big waves.

After much begging and a few sexual innuendos that go directly over her head, Chicklet (played by the incomparable Drew Droege, veteran of two other LA mountings of Busch classics Die, Mommie, Die! and Red Scare on Sunset) is eventually accepted into a tribe of gnarly young surfers, including the world famous king of the waves Kanaka (a hilariously pseudo-butch Karen Maruyama) and a lovable Bill and Ted-esque pair of best bros named Provoloney and YoYo (Daniel Montgomery and Adrian Gonzalez), who begin to realize during the course of the play that their feelings for one another might go beyond the plutonic and into the touchy-feely realm of the homoerotic.

The only problem is, unbeknownst to all concerned including Chicklet, our naive heroine suffers from a psychotic condition triggered by a word or an image that makes her slip into multiple personalities. These include a trailer park-like checkout girl from the Deep South, an elderly talkshow host, a self-absorbed male model, and the entire accounting firm of Edelman and Edelman.

Still, the most dangerous persona taking charge of Chicket’s body and mind is the sexually voracious Ann Bowman, a dominatrix-like character plotting to take over the world, first conquering Malibu and on to Sacramento, then determined to create concentration camps for her enemies (very prophetic of our current threat of a Trumpian future) and finally realizing her dream to star in her own variety show on NBC.

As did his playwright predecessor, the manic Droege, somehow bizarrely evoking an image of Lucille Ball on steroids, works so hard jumping from character to character that I got exhausted just watching.  

He is deliciously complimented by Sam Pancake as Chicklet’s monstrously restrictive no-wire-hangers mother (with an impressively oversized rack and dark secret or two of her own) and a wonderfully balls-out supporting cast all more than willing to take the rabbithole journey into Buschdom at the risk of their own individual senses of self-respect—but then, who needs to worry about that time-wasting shit anyway, right? This is art, people. Art.

It’s also a bright and sassy revival of one of Charles Busch’s most endearing works I couldn’t recommend more highly. As Chicklet’s alter-ego dimwitted checkout girl might have described the experience, “I ain’t had so much fun since the pigs ate my little sister.”

(  * Barbara Eden to Peter Brown in Ride the Wild Surf, 1964 )

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UNBROKEN BLOSSOMS at East West Players

The premise of Philip W. Chung’s new play Unbroken Blossoms is compelling and genuinely eye-opening, exposing the racial inequities in the early days of film and exploring the collateral damage to which it gave rise that affected more than just our town’s most omnipresent cottage industry.

Stung by the worldwide criticism of the not-so subtle racism and bigotry which overpowered the artistic merits of D.W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 silent opus The Birth of a Nation, the great filmmaker (played here by incomparable LA theatrical treasure Arye Gross) struggled to recover from the broadsiding he received from his most famous achievement’s aggressively anti-Black sentiments and the glorification of the Klu Klux Klan.

The Klan, which even then was considered one of our country’s most virulent hate groups—at least before the current hijacked Republican Party and the Trumps and Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world reared their ugly heads—was depicted in The Birth of a Nation as “America’s saviors." Subsequently, the film's notoriety has been credited as a major impetus for the resurrection of the KKK, a great misfortune that has obviously had repercussions to this day.

The potentially healing project was Griffith’s 1919 boundary-shattering classic Broken Blossoms, which dared to present the screen’s first interracial romance between a young Caucasian girl and her Chinese suitor (played by Alexandra Hellquist and Conlan Ledwith as the film’s stars Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess).

Chung’s fictionalized version of the troubled creation of Broken Blossoms is seen through the eyes of two Chinese-American men hired as consultants, real-life motion picture pioneers James B. Leong and Moon Kwan (Gavin Kawin Lee and Ron Song), who are utilized more by Griffith as errand boys and are expected to nod and bow and fetch props rather than to actually offer insight.

The trailblazing filmmaker's misogyny and ego-driven decision making are revealed bigtime, especially his clearly flawed defensiveness at the hiring of Barthelmess to play Gish’s lover in “yellowface” and his vehement insistence to not allow his actors’ lips to ever make contact onscreen.

There’s so much to be fascinated (and incensed) by in Chung’s tale; I only wish it could have been told much better. His script is uninspired and achingly predictable, his richly conflicted historic figures written as one-dimensional cardboard characters somewhat reminiscent of one of those documentary films where live actors play Benjamin Franklin or C. W. Post or whomever and are used more to augment the voiceover than to give performances.

When actors as gifted as Gross, Hellquist, and Lee come off as heavy-handed and unimpressive as they do here, something is terribly wrong. All three deserve better, as does director Jeff Liu, who is drastically hampered by the material with which he is expected to make magic happen and further thwarted by Mina Kinukawa’s unwieldy, unfinished-looking set that is as puzzling as the venerable East West Players’ choice to present this severely flawed play in the first place.

Song might have been more successful as Moon Kwan if anyone told him to try to project past the first few rows of EWP's former church playing space, while Ledwith delivers an unwatchably foppish and over-the-top performance that makes it seem as though he’s acting in another play altogether. Even his costars appear to look at him with a faint bit of incredulity, as though they’re not sure what he’s trying to achieve any more than I was.

It’s been a long time since I’ve left such a promising and eagerly anticipated production as disappointed as I was exiting EWP’s prestigious David Henry Hwang Theatre, a place where true theatrical sorcery has been created again and again for almost 30 years—and before that in the company's original more intimate space since 1965.

Truly, I do hope someone one day soon will take all the research and the revelations offered in Unbroken Blossoms and better tell the story so desperately in need of being told, so clear in its message to shine a blinding light directly at the film industry’s ugliest history, to show how far as artists we’ve come and what we still urgently need to achieve as trustees of the potentially pulverizing power that great art wields.

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MRS. DOUBTFIRE at the Pantages Theatre

You couldn’t find a more formulaic, by-the-number modern specimen of a vintage musical comedy than Karey Fitzpatrick and John O’Farrell’s adaptation of the 1993 film classic Mrs. Doubtfire.

If you love that kind of romantic, basically issue free and old-fashioned Rodgers and Hammerstein-style diversionary entertainment, you’re in luck.

On the other hand, if you’re a fan of more cerebral examples of how the genre of musical comedy evolved into musical theatre, such as Next to Normal, Fun Home, or A Strange Loop, the brilliant Pulitzer-winning current tenant at the Ahmanson, you won’t find it here.

What you will find now stopping off at the Pantages is a pure classic musical comedy produced and presented at its most dazzling and consummately seamless.

With direction by the legendary four-time Tony-winning Theater Hall of Fame-honored veteran Jerry Zaks—who just helmed his 26th Broadway show—and design elements slickly created by Hamilton set designer David Korins, six-time Tony-winning costumer Catherine Zuber, lighting by Philip Rosenberg, and sound by Brian Ronan and Craig Cassidy, how could Mrs. Doubtfire be anything but top drawer.

The score by Wayne and Karey Fitzpatrick, Tony nominees for Something Rotten!, is filled with spirited and infectious tunes peppered with a barrage of topical lyrics that provide a foolproof blank canvas for Zaks and choreographer Lorin Latarro to lead an impressive assemblage of some of Broadway’s best triple-threat performers. The dancing ensemble is particularly noteworthy when, linked arm-in-arm as a chorusline of Mrs. Doubtfire clones, they break into a precision send-up of River Dance.

For me personally, however, all this sincere and professional effort would simply get filed deep within my memory banks as yet another commercially-minded theatrical equivalent of Chinese food—you know, an hour later you’re hungry again. Still, as much as I found most of Mrs. Doubtfire nicely done but instantly forgettable, there is one major thing that makes me recommend it with the greatest enthusiasm: the exceptional tour-de-force performance of the Tony-nominated master farceur Rob McClure in the title role.

There aren’t many actors brave enough to follow in the oversized footsteps of someone as iconic as the lategreat comic genius Robin Williams in one of his most familiar and celebrated roles, but McClure does just that. And quite honestly, except for lovingly playing homage to his predecessor’s silly Scottish brogue, the guy somehow manages to totally reinvent the role and clearly make it his own.

McClure’s unique ability to slip from slapstick to sincere emotionality in an instant makes him the quintessential choice to play such an outrageous character—and speaking of instant changes, his expected farcical rapidfire transformations from Danny Gillard to Euphegenia Doubtfire, especially in the notorious restaurant scene where the actor must go almost instantly back and forth between two tables playing both characters, is almost David Copperfield-like in its execution.

Possessed of perfect musical theatre vocal chops, a loose-limbed Ray Bolger physicality, and the ability to charm an audience and win over anyone—except, of course, his onstage ex-wife played by his real-life wife Maggie Lakis—McClure is the best of the best of current musical theatre leading men. Missing seeing his staggeringly perfect performance as Mrs. Doubtfire would be almost criminal, I tellya. Don’t do it. I’m issuing citations.

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THE HOPE THEORY at Geffen Playhouse

Helder Guimarães is a phenomenal magician, all right. When it was first announced he would be returning to the Geffen with an all-new show called The Hope Theory, I went back into my files to check out what I had written about his last appearance there in his spectacular and many-times extended Invisible Tango.

I looked back to my 2023 file. Nope. Farther back. 2022? Uh-uh. I keep accessing my files of older and older reviews and finally found my piece on Invisible Tango—written in 2019. So, it’s obvious everything surrounding this guy is magical, since his last memorable appearance at the Geffen was five friggin’ years ago and is still indelibly stuck in my mind as one of the most unique and jaw-dropping performances I’ve ever experienced.

As with that first time out, The Hope Theory is again directed by Guimarães’ longtime mentor, admirer, and collaborator Frank Marshall, himself a lifelong amateur magician and EGOT-winning producer of such notable film franchises as Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, and the Jason Bourne sagas.

As Guimarães quietly takes the stage entering through the audience, he immediately allows us to see him for exactly who he is: a rather nondescript guy with an easily identifiable Portuguese accent holding a deck of cards—and his genuine non-theatrical humility naturally imbues him with the power to set his audience at ease. 

His welcoming simplicity helps bring his electrifying magic to life when subtly introduced into the story he shares about his immigration to the States. As it unfolds, Guimarães gradually begins to win over our trust as he welcomes us into his first cramped Los Angeles apartment, recreated onstage in masterfully simplistic fashion by that always impressive LA wunderkind designer François-Pierre Couture. 

Throughout the performance, he takes piles of wooden storage boxes and scattered pieces of memorabilia from his life and organizes them into a bookcase display in an attempt to transform his dismal apartment into a home, all the while reminiscing about the struggles of being an invisible twenty-something from another country trying to navigate the cultural inequities of the American experience.

As he attempts to tackle the usual difficulties of establishing a professional showbiz career, for him compounded by his broken English and lack of networking opportunities, he is also quick to admit his uphill battle and sad lessons learned about trust in others were still better than living through the political oppression his family faced while he was growing up in Portugal in the 1980s.

The Hope Theory is all about survival and the necessity of maintaining some kind of hope in a basically uncaring society, although for anyone less scrappy and committed to success as Guimarães, the experience could have easily broken him.

His long journey to American citizenship and the creation of his own personal space is of course peppered with his mind-boggling magic, something reviewers have been asked by Guimarães and Marshall to “refrain from including major plot and illusion spoilers,” but let me say no one in the audience is exempt from possibly being called upon to help prove his abilities are real and completely inexplicable—and opening night that included three of us pressfolk, one of whom nearly crawled under his chair in an effort not to be included.

Witnessing a single card trick from Helder Guimarães alone is enough to make anyone slide to the edge of their seat realizing his unearthly gifts are grounded in something far deeper than first appearances reveal. The underlying message of The Hope Theory comes through this worldclass conjuror and raconteur’s skills and, for a brief time, he makes the chaos we all share these days disappear with the ease of his sleight of hand, shuffling our communal cares and worries back into the deck. 

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GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at the Pantages Theatre

People are either going to passionately love this one or absolutely hate it. For me, Girl from the North Country is the best new American musical in years—or should I say best new musical about America in years.

I guess it’s no secret for anyone who knows my theatrical likes and dislikes that most musical comedy falls into the latter category in my world. I’ll take stories about barbers slitting throats, housewives descending into bipolar disorder, lesbian cartoonists dealing with their father's suicides, or people paying to pee any day over corn as high as an elephant’s eye or someone growing accustomed to her face. Musical theatre as the antithesis of classic musical comedy is where I get a little giddy.

That said, Conor McPherson’s morality play with music, utilizing the classic songs of Bob Dylan to tell the story of a ragtag group of miserable middle-American people doomed by the Great Depression, should have won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an honor given to a distinguished new play by an American playwright, preferably original in its source and dealing with some aspect of American life. If McPherson wasn’t born and raised in Dublin, this would have—or at least should have been—a shoe-in.

Simply, Girl from the North Country is a stunning achievement. The Olivier-winning and five-time Tony nominee playwright (The Weir, Shining City, The Seafarer) has created a dizzying number of characters, all presented as residents of a ramshackle and soon-to-be foreclosed upon boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934 swept away in the aftermath of the Depression, each one of them vivid and desperate people grabbing to regain hold of their shattered lives.

Nope, not the Von Trapps by any means.

McPherson directs his own masterwork, fortuitously delivering an evocatively gossamer, almost Carson McCullers-esque quality to the musical that somehow also manages to be extraordinarily theatrical. With 22 sensationally passionate musical theatre performers crowding onto the Pantages’ stage, under less skilled leadership from anyone but the playwright himself, identities could indeed become confusing. Instead, each actor has been gifted with a remarkably clear throughline that makes shaping their simple yet complex characters comprehensible.

Many actors are given their own showcased solo number, unostentatious Dylan ballads brilliantly transformed into anthems for broken people to earnestly tell their stories, most sung centerstage behind an old 30s radio show standup microphone—yet no character is deemed too important to not move set pieces or play onstage instruments accompanying their fellow players’ psalms of hope and redemption.

Somehow, we learn to care about each and every one of these desperate stand-in everymen for those countless forgotten people stuck in dustbowls and breadlines during one of our country’s most challenging periods of time, appearing here as though living embodiments of a Dorothea Lange photograph.

This evocation of the lost souls of America in the wake of the Depression is made real by the contributions of an amazing, truly world-class ensemble of performers, all obviously intensely committed to their characters and the rich source material.

Jennifer Blood, as the mentally lost wife of the boardinghouse’s owner Nick Laine (John Sciappa), is the heart of the production, offering a performance reminiscent of a young Amanda Plummer crossed with the down-home rustic scrappiness of Frances McDormand. And when she ends Act One with a showstopping rendition of Dylan’s 1965 classic “Like a Rolling Stone,” the idea of how to dropkick a finale before intermission reaches a whole new level.

Everyone in the cast is a knockout, palpable in their sincerity and gifted with vocal chops that could guarantee each of them a career well beyond the limitations of musical theatre.

Ben Biggers and Sharae Moultrie are notable as the Laines’ shiftless alcoholic son and quasi-adopted daughter, both of whom have memorable duets with their respective loves, Biggers sharing a haunting “I Want You” with his departing former girlfriend played by Chiara Trentalange and Moultrie in an inventive melody of “Hurricane,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Idiot Wind” with her nomadic ex-prizefighter beau played by the extraordinary Matt Manuel.

David Benoit, Jill Van Velzer, and Aiden Wharton are standouts as the once-successful Burke family and their mentally challenged son Elias. Van Velzer, who also doubles quite impressively on the drums, takes over the stage every time she steps up to sing and Wharton knocks it out onto Hollywood Boulevard in a postmortem eleventh-hour gospel-inspired production number version of “Duquesne Whistle” that brings the house down.

Although North Country could easily hold up as a play, the incorporation of Dylan’s songbook is a stroke of genius, his unconventional stylings grounding the piece in a kind of hypnotic pragmatism rather than how other famous songwriters’ music has been employed over the past few years in the conventional jukebox musical genre, adding glitz to sell the show rather than any substance to the story.

That said, perhaps the greatest contribution here aside from the unearthly gifts of Conor McPherson is the cutting-edge sagacity of arranger Simon Hale, whose uncanny and innovative interpretations of Dylan’s tunes—some familiar, some obscure—won him a well-deserved Tony Award for Best Orchestrations.

There is indeed a grimness in the reality presented here, but McPherson also delivers a haunting exploration into the depth of despair into which the human psyche can be thrust and how much that experience can fuck with our species’ ability to choose right over wrong.

Through the bleakness and hardship, there’s an omnipresent glimmer of hope that threads throughout Girl from North Country as this stepped-upon group of tyrannized survivors fight to discover what it is they want in their lives and how they can pull themselves up to make it happen in a heartless world that no longer seems to have a place for them.

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DURAN DURANTONY & CLEOPATRA from the Troubadour Theater Company at the Colony Theatre

Let’s face it: the holidays aren’t the holidays without the Troubies. The beloved Troubadour Theater Company, which for the past two decades has kicked off the season in Los Angeles like a far less annoying Mariah Carey, celebrated their 29th anniversary last December by presenting A White (Album) Christmas, yet another original sidesplitting and decidedly off-centered spoof of a traditional Crissmiss tale set to the music of a popular contemporary composer.

Since its inception in 1995, the Troubie’s “ringmaster” Matt Walker has adapted and directed over 40 such productions, one more delightfully ridiculous than the next. Past productions have included It’s a Stevie Wonderful Life, Little Drummer Bowie, A Christmas Carole King, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein-Doors, and Frosty the Snow-Manilow, so the titles alone should give you a clue if you’re not already a confirmed fan of their particular form of entertainment. I don’t think a year has gone by when I was here in LA that whatever these guys did that year was not a part of my festivities.

Walker and his disciples knock their performances into the stratosphere year after year, selling out every show they conjure. Still, the initial success of the troupe came from their non-holiday musical matchups based on classic plays, including Twelfth Dog Night, A Midsummer Night’s Fever Dream, Romeo Hall & Juliet Oates, As U2 Like It, Julius Wheezer, and most recently at the Getty Villa, Lizastrata.

Although free of fake snow and cardboard gingerbread accoutrements, these outings from Walker & Company are even more inventive, a tradition that rises to a whole new level with the Troubie’s current outing now playing at the Colony, Duran DurAntony & Cleopatra.

More than ever, Walker has here chosen to stick to more of the Bard’s original dialogue, which makes their improvised and faux-improvised asides even funnier and there’s something about the cheery music of Duran Duran that makes it more hilarious—especially accented by the punctiliously rehearsed and highly energetic choreography by Walker, John Paul Batista, and Suzanne Jolie Narbonne.

Walker as Mark Antony and his longtime co-conspirator Rick Batalla as Caesar could not be better choices to meld Shakespeare with Marx Brothers-inspired slapstick, something ol’ Will’s comedies strived for quite shamelessly on occasion. This homage works like gangbusters with one of his most well-known tragedies originally presented in 1607, as ancient Egypt and Rome are reset somewhere closer to home and we’re told that notorious pirate of the Mediterranean Pompey has claimed territory as his own from Upland to Diamond Bar (his ship is named “Pompey Sea / Pompey Doo”).

The big-voiced Cloie Wyatt Taylor, most recently seen as Lizastrata herself, is wonderful as that other feminist heroine Cleopatra, Queen of Covina and West Covina (Batalla’s Caesar is Emperor of Echo Park), and when she gets a little overly dramatic draped across her fainting couch, Walker is quick to remind her this is Shakespeare, not Tennessee Williams.

The ensemble is uniformly in proper Troubie mode, with two standout performances from newcomer Matt McCracken as a Lurch-like Soothsayer with some serious rocker chops and Philip McNiven as both the Friar Tuckian Lepidus and as Caesar’s tit-tassel-twirling wife Octavia (a regular shopper at the Colony’s adjacent Burlington Coat Factory).

As usual, a deadpanning Beth Kennedy is hysterical as a resurfacing gap-toothed messenger “more abused than a PortaPotty at Coachella” since she keeps getting run through by spears, and both Narbonne and Katie Kitani are swell as Cleo’s devoted attendants.

Mike Sulprizio’s well-padded Pompey, clearly inspired by Brando’s Godfather, and LA theatrical stalwart Rob Nagle as Enobarbus and that scurvy pirate Menus are also standouts, especially when Nagle delivers his croaky but spirited production number “Girls on Sand.”

Musical director/keyboardist Ryan Whyman leads the excellent Troubadorchestra (Whyman, Kevin Stevens, Carlos Rivera, and Mike Abraham) and Narbonne’s costuming, culled from the original designs of Sharon McGunigle, is masterfully inventive and wonderfully wacky.

Worldclass clown Matt Walker’s Duran DurAntony & Cleopatra is a particular pleasure and a perfect distraction from the rest of the world right now. Of course, there’s really nothing not to love about anything presented by this filter-free band of zanies (unless it’s the ever-present arctic blast emanating from the Colony’s overachieving air conditioning system) but for any ardent camp follower of the Troubies, there is one obvious thing missing this time out.

I mean, I know it’s not the holiday season but… couldn’t there maybe also be a Summer Warlock?

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Science, we’re told by a character in the Road’s world premiere of SINGULARITIES or the Computers of Venus, is a series of contradictions working together to make truth.

Three female astronomers from different periods in time work toward the same goals in the world premiere of Laura Stribling’s arresting new play, each contributing important discoveries about the mysteries of the universe, and each functioning under the thumb of their male counterparts who take credit for their explorations.

For anyone naïve to the perceived notion that women are not given their due as equals in the scientific community—let alone the world—will be challenged by Stribling’s poetic yet to-the-bone text, which includes a trio of real-life historical figures, women toiling in 1789 to the post-Civil War era to modern times.

Stribling employs a fascinating device, seamlessly and innovatively melding history and fiction, with groundbreaking astronomers Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) and Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), as well as author/poet/abolitionist/suffragette Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) as major protagonists, each presented interacting with some equally interesting fictional characters beaten down by the inequities of being a member of what was long dismissively referred to as the “fairer sex.”

All three sections take place in the same observatory at different periods in time, the first storyline featuring Herschel (Avery Clyde) confronted by a young admirer named Elizabeth Leland (Noelle Mercer) who longs to have a career as rewarding as what she envisions her mentor’s must be, but instead she is consumed by the demands of the late 1800s expectations of the role to which a woman must conform.

A century later, as Mitchell (Susan Diol) is visited by her friend Howe (Blaire Chandler), the temptations of breaking the bonds of society’s demands as their relationship turns to love overwhelms the great scientist, while in the play’s last coupling, the yearnings are reversed.

Set in the present time, Sophia (Krishna Smitha), the assistant of the former boss of astronomer Lena (Lizzy Kimball) is sent to spy on her research by her main competitor, but along the way she enters into totally new territory for her when she instead falls in love.

In the first act of SINGULARITIES, the three storylines unfold consecutively, while in the second part, they begin to defy the restrictions of time and scenes between the time zones are cleverly woven together. This is accentuated as the older characters stand watching as the others, despite the loosening of acceptable norms, still must deal with the same issues that originally kept them from achieving their objectives, receiving the recognition they deserve, and living their lives without judgement both personally and professionally.

The production, playing in repertory with Peter Ritt’s sadly far less successful High Maintenance, is elegantly austere, neatly sharing Brian Graves’ appropriately simple set that augments the serenely psychedelic projections by Ben Rock. Beginning with an extended 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque light show highlighted by Derrick McDaniel’s lighting and David B. Marling’s sound, the feeling is rather like a live imageless tribute to Koyaanisquatsi, the 1982 documentary favorite of all us inveterate stoners everywhere.

Directing one’s own play is often a huge mistake, but Stribling’s imaginative and often-choreographic staging of her SINGULARITIES is as mesmerizing as her intelligent and often quite strikingly lyrical text.

Her cast is quite superb, uniformly believable in their committed and heartfelt effort to create characters striving to uncover the mysteries of the solar system as they fight the need to find love that reaches beyond what the societies of their various timeframes find appropriate.

Kimball and Smitha are especially touching in their starcrossed emotional journey, while Chandler brings a delightful spirit to the already spirited Howe, who in real life worked magic to change the injustices and male-dominated partisanship of the America she so passionately advocated.

The always sturdy Clyde is quite compelling to watch as Herschel, the discoverer of several comets including one named after her, even though the character’s achievements and career never quite crawled out from the shadow of her more famous brother William. Unfortunately, Clyde’s performance is somewhat hampered by a rather indecipherable German accent further frustrating due to her low volume, at least for the ancient ears of this particular 938-year-old observer.

Beyond everything, SINGULARITIES or the Computers of Venus, developed from scratch in the Road’s fourth prolific Under Construction workshop, is a remarkable effort, although promising new playwrighting voice Laura Stribling could still judiciously trim the more repetitious exposition and eliminate the need to include some clever but unnecessary historical elements, no matter how artfully they have been woven into her script; a 90-minute runtime without intermission would be more than enough to tell her exciting and timely tale.

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FATHERLAND at the Fountain Theatre

According to Merriam-Webster, the second definition of the term "swan song” is:  “A farewell appearance or final act or pronouncement.”

Last month, just as his new play Fatherland was set to world premiere at the Fountain Theatre, the continuously groundbreaking facility’s artistic director Stephen Sachs announced his retirement from the pioneering 78-seat non-profit space he founded in 1990.

I proudly consider myself part of the Fountain family, having appeared there as the Witch of Capri in Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore directed by the Fountain's producing director Simon levy, with Karen Kondazian and yours truly traveling on to play our roles at the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans, and in a special encore presentation of the award-winning Hollywood Fringe Festival hit The Katrina Comedy Fest by NOLA playwright Rob Florence.

Over the past 33 years, the Fountain has produced 36 world premieres and 54 U.S., west coast, or L.A. debuts, each chosen to reflect a unique cultural voice with a fierce determination to make waves and to serve our town’s incredibly diverse ethnic communities.

During that time, Sachs has directed dozens of award-winning productions at the Fountain and across the country, authored 18 of his own plays, including the comedy-drama Bakersfield Mist that has toured extensively and was presented in London’s West End, and among numerous other achievements gave a welcoming theatrical home to Athol Fugard where several of his newest plays were introduced to the world.

And so, Fatherland might indeed be Sachs’ crowning achievement while helming the Fountain and nothing could be more celebratory. Created as a “verbatim play,” meaning every word spoken and all situations presented in the script come from actual court transcripts and testimony, interviews with the real people involved, and public statements, it provides a riveting, unsettling experience that will hopefully (intentionally) haunt us all as we watch the current unconscionable election season unfold in our poor befouled country besieged from within.

Although the two leading pivotal characters are only listed as “Father” and “Son,” Sachs’ play is indeed written about Guy Reffitt of Wylie, Texas (where else?), the first defendant convicted and jailed for his involvement in the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, and his son Jackson, who made the incredibly brave and heart-wrenching decision to turn his father in to the F.B.I.

As the blusterous deluded father in Sachs’ scarily cautionary tale, one of our community’s scrappiest and most prolific theatrical treasures, Ron Bottitta, is nothing short of magnificent in the incredibly demanding role.

From loving dad slinging burgers in the backyard to rabid conspiracy theorist ready to overthrow the government in a brief 80-minute ride, Bottitta brings an uncanny believability to the challenge, making his character alternately both pitiable and absolutely terrifying. It is a tour de force performance that, if I were currently back teaching the craft on a daily basis, I’d insist each and every one of my acting students attend to see a true master craftsman at work.

As his 19-year-old son, the trajectory of the Carbondale, Colorado native and LA newcomer Patrick Keleher’s journey from backpacking around 11 African counties, Asia, and Australia to his current incarnation being cast in Fatherland is the stuff of which, in a fair world, future legends could possibly begin.

Back in his hometown after reading about the Fountain’s search to cast his character, on a whim and with a lot of chutzpah Keleher flew to LA, auditioned for Sachs, and the next day while debarking back home from his brief trip, received a text that he’d been cast.

His performance is a gripping, amazingly multi-layered thing of wonder, quite unexpected from someone who hasn’t been around this nasty ol’ business long enough to have become disillusioned or have had time to doubt himself in any way. Resembling a kinda corn-fed, farm-grown version of a modernday James Dean, Keleher is the heart of this production as a sensitive kid torn between his love for his father and his family and what he knows is a twisted assault on the very fabric of democracy.

Guy Reffitt began his career as an oil worker and eventual rig manager before the 2016 collapse of the price of oil. Losing his $200,000-a-year position as an international oil industry consultant, he moved his family back to Texas and, as his savings began to dissipate, his interest in politics concurrently began to move dangerously right as he sucked in Trump’s laughably masturbatory The Art of the Deal.

To the horror of his son, he linked and quickly fell under the twisted spell of a virulently ultra-conservative Texas militia group called the Three Percenters—naming themselves that because they believed only three percent of A’murkins had the cajónes to stand up against what they saw as a police state.

“When tyranny becomes law,” Bottitta’s father bellows to his horrified son, himself turning in the other direction after the murder of George Floyd, “revolution becomes duty.”

This of course leads to him becoming instrumental in calling for 10 million equally deluded souls to join him and his ragtag tribe of racist fake Christians for the infamous storming of the Capitol under the spell of that orange-hued monstrous antihero unable to believe he lost an election and enjoy a brief almost orgasmic high that made him finally “feel like a fucking American.” Eventually, of course, his euphoria led to Reffitt’s sentence of 87 months in federal prison.

What Fatherland perhaps inadvertently exposes is what causes such a person to become radicalized. It’s not necessarily a "patriotic" rational calling for justice and change as it is a desperate need to be a part of something, to be right about something, to be better than others in a world that has continually left such people behind and their voice unheard. It’s what my partner and I refer to as Little Pee-Pee Syndrome, a far more dangerous version of souping up one’s car with oversized wheels and a sound system able to blast all those people who ignore you on that arduous and treacherous road we call life.

Under Sachs’ passionate leadership and sharply fluid direction on a nearly bare stage framed by Joel Daavid’s exquisitely simple set and Alison Brummer’s jarringly effective lighting plot, Bottitta and Keleher are mesmerizing as their characters’ relationship tragically devolves and their lives are forever changed by the boy’s commitment to help spare our democracy from his father and his twisted band of treasonous cohorts.

As the defense and prosecuting attorneys grilling the son in court, characters here utilized as conduits to present the material—again completely gleaned from actual testimony and other statements craftily manipulated by Sachs to become a play—Anna Khaja and Larry Poindexter are sufficiently serviceable in roles which by their very nature are rather thankless.

Kudos are especially in order for Khaja, who must introduce each of the play’s new thought by the questions her U.S. Attorney asks the boy. As I try to impart to every actor I coach, dialogue is best memorized by learning lines thought-by-thought but, as with the psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart in Peter Shaffer’s classic play Equus, Khaja must have had to learn her lines in some kind of sequence without the benefit of prompts from the lines themselves; one random question asked out of the proper scripted order and she could singlehandedly wipe out pages of dialogue.

To say that Fatherland is arresting and highly polished playmaking is a given but still, as brilliant and perfectly seamless as this production and its performances may be, it is by nature not something that can simply be referred to as an entertainment. It is incredibly disturbing and, as any such project sadly preaching basically to a likeminded choir, I wish there was a way it could be presented to a far wider audience. It might even change the minds of people we as left-coast liberals only began to realize existed and were about to crawl out from below their Morlockian rocks with the rise of that malevolent antichrist Donald J. Trump.

So, I mentioned Merriam-Webster’s second definition of the term “swan song” at the beginning. Actually, the first is:  “A song of great sweetness sung by a dying swan.” This in no way reflects the retirement of Stephen Sachs from the incredible theatrical space that has benefited immeasurably from the many projects he has championed into existence despite what must have been some thorny challenges and ups and downs over the past three decades.

One can only hope that, although Sachs has quite literally left the building, his new life will lead him to develop many, many more amazing artistic statements such as the world premiere of his remarkable Fatherland. This “swan song” isn’t sung by a swan on his way off to Valhalla by any means; it signals the flight of a great and unstoppably majestic creature with an enormous wingspan ready to travel off into new directions that will surely prove the betterment of everyone and everything in his path.

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BODIES in Las Vegas, 2007  /  Photo by T.M. Holder