Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.

A Noise Within’s “The Tempest” – When a formula fits the product

Deborah Strang is Shakespeare's magical Prospero [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Deborah Strang is Shakespeare’s magical Prospero [photo: Craig Schwartz]

If you have encountered the works of Shakespeare enough times at A Noise Within, you begin to see certain patterns emerge. Any of them which have ANW artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliot as co-directors of the production will have reoccurring central elements from show to show, as well as certain guaranteed casting choices which you can almost bet on.

These elemental moves include concepts borrowed from Asian and Classical Greek theater traditions, and there will also usually be an odd whimsy, often involving the injection of a carnival-like moment, at some point in the show. Sometimes this all feels like a non sequitur to the plot, but in their new production of “The Tempest” their signature moves gel, and help sell the play itself.

From the very start, the hovering “ensemble,” anonymous in Greek-like masks and acting similarly to the pseudo-invisible stage hands of Chinese opera, makes a huge impact. As the magical Ariel (Kimberleigh Aarn) tosses a ship about, the fabric sea is made menacing by this chorus. Indeed, the very magical nature of the tale of Prospero, an overthrown noble with magical powers who wreaks his revenge through the use of spells and spirits, benefits from the eerie otherworldly quality of this production.

In a bit of a twist, though not a precedent-setting one, ANW stalwart Deborah Strang is Prospero. It’s an interesting choice, in that it redefines the parent-child relationship Prospero has with Miranda, the innocent daughter who will become the love interest of a young man tossed by Prospero’s magic onto the island’s shores. Still, though solid, it is not Strang’s finest performance, mostly because one expects more from someone that strong. The dependence upon magic and the gradual rejection of it, not to mention the internal war between revenge and forgiveness, would seem to give her a greater palate to work with than that which is is used.

Eliza Kiss (who also sings the best of the original music), Kimberleigh Aarn and Dekyi Ronge as Ariel and her ensemble spirits [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Eliza Kiss (who also sings the best of the original music), Kimberleigh Aarn and Dekyi Ronge as Ariel and her ensemble spirits [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Aarn’s enslaved spirit, on the other hand, seethes with that odd combination of duty and desire for freedom. She enjoys her magic, yet chafes at the control over her life. The Elliots have chosen to have Geoff Elliot play the monster Calaban more as a grotesque human than as a truly monster-ish monster. It certainly makes his situation more pitiful, and the comedy which surrounds him more approachable. Alison Elliot’s Miranda proves as sweet and openly joy-filled as one could want, while Paul David Story’s earnest Fernando has the right kind of boyish charm to make the romance between them a sweet balance to the oddity of their environment.

Indeed, the rest of the company shipwrecked upon this strange place also offer up fine performances, especially William Dennis Hunt’s touchingly antique Gonzalo. One sometimes wishes they had more to do, as they spout long explanatory passages about the strangeness of their environment. Still, the silliness of Kasey Mahaffy’s Trinculo and Jeremy Rabb’s Stephano, as they get Calaban drunk, makes up for much of the rest.

Kudos to Peter Bayne for the fascinating original music – some of which sets Shakespeare’s lyrics – and the general sound design. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes set this fantasy piece solidly in the “English gentleman” period of the late 1800s. The whole thing has an air of calypso about it, but a subtle one which suits the vagueness of Shakespeare’s location just fine.

In short, though I cannot say this is the finest rendition of “The Tempest” I have ever seen, I appreciate the way it establishes a sense of mystery, and the way in which things which have become Elliot signatures continue that “presence” as the ancient tale unfolds. And then, of course, I always like a chance to root for Ariel, waiting for her freedom as these silly mortals sort out their dramas.

What: “The Tempest” When: Through November 22 as part of their repertory season, 8 p.m. Oct 3, Nov. 1 and 22, 7 p.m. Oct. 26 and Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6 and 20, and 2 p.m. Oct. 4 and 26, and Nov. 16 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: Single tickets from $40, $20 for student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

The Pajama Game in Whittier – Kinder/Gentler Management vs Union

cast picture

The musicals of the post-WWII years can be a fascinating window on American society at the time. Suspiciously anti-social rock stars were followed by swooning teens and made household words by Ed Sullivan. Corporations were endemic, and the fodder for satire. Unions were virtuous, not to mention victorious when fighting unreasonable management.

That last, of course, was best exemplified in the charmingly silly musical “The Pajama Game,” now enjoying a brief but spirited revival at the Whittier Community Theatre. I have a personal fondness for the show, though I know it is now seen as somewhat obscure. Still, even if it isn’t familiar to you, the score probably is, featuring hits like “Hey There,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” and “Steam Heat.”

The story is simple enough: Sid, a young and handsome factory supervisor who’s new in town, falls for Babe, the head of the union’s grievance committee. As a strike nears, their romance runs into conflict with the management-union struggles of the pajama factory where they both work. Other office workers dabble in romance, rage with jealousy, or just look on with wry amusement.

Amy and Jason Miramontes (who are married) play lovers Babe and Sid

Amy and Jason Miramontes (who are married) play lovers Babe and Sid

At Whittier, this “Pajama Game” has much to recommend it, even if there are a few weak spots. Amy Miramontes is charming as Babe, with an aura of worldly-wise sophistication and a charming voice. As Sid, Jason Miramontes (Amy’s husband) proves handsome and energetic, creating a charming version of this often rather wooden character, though he needs to work just a bit on pitch when he sings. Beyond the leads, the standout, if brief, performance has to be Eric Nelson as Babe’s tolerant,. charmingly uncomplicated Pop.

Other performers worthy of particular note are Tina Quick-Snedaker as Sid’s wise and motherly secretary, Justin Patrick Murphy as the lascivious union Prez, Greg Stokes as the wildly emotional time-study man Heinzie, and Jeri Harms as the intense, sensual corporate secretary Gladys – over whom Heinzie hovers. Isabella Ramirez, Becca Schroeder and Jennifer Bales do a reasonably Bob Fosse-style “Steam Heat” – the particular triumph of Schroeder’s choreography.

Indeed, the entire cast proves likable, even if there are moments of varying skill.

Director Roxie Lee has taken this episodic tale and kept the pacing moving, thanks in part to her self-designed, minimalist set. She keeps the characters earnest and well connected to each other, which adds to the flow. Musical director Brian Murphy succeeds in celebrating the sheer tunefulness of this show, including putting together a solid orchestra. Karen Jacobson gets a major nod for managing convincingly period costuming on a community theatre budget.

In short, “The Pajama Game” is a window on another time and another ethos. It is tuneful and endearing, and lets a younger generation know that those old folks weren’t quite as pure as it may seem. And it’s fun. You will easily find yourself humming the tunes as you leave, and wondering what happened to the whole universe in which this little tale takes place.

What: “The Pajama Game” When: Through September 20, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors/students/military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

“6 Rms Riv Vu” in Sierra Madre: a classic comedy brings modern insights

Jeremy Guskin (l.) and Lena Bouton (r.) deal with Lynndi Scott as the lady across the hall in "6 Rms Riv Vu" in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Jeremy Guskin (l.) and Lena Bouton (r.) deal with Lynndi Scott as the lady across the hall in “6 Rms Riv Vu” in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

There comes a point, with older works of theater, when they stop being “dated” and start being a window on another time. When that happens, they can provide insightful views of the differences and most engagingly the similarities between the work’s era and our own. This is obvious with truly classic works – Shakespeare, Moliere, even Oscar Wilde. In our fast-changing world it also rings true for plays and musicals only a few decades old.

As example, the production of “6 Rms Riv Vu”, Bob Randall’s Tony-winning play from 1972. Now in a fine production at Sierra Madre Playhouse, it looks back at the people whose lives overlapped the societal mores of two distinct periods, who are thus forced to find balance in the midst of very mixed messages. As ethical values continue to shift today, it offers a chance to stop and think.

The play – most definitely a comedy – centers on two people, Anne Miller and Paul Friedman, who find themselves locked in a rent-controlled New York apartment they’ve both been sent by spouses to check out and possibly rent. As time passes, they begin to share vulnerabilities: their sense of incompleteness in their married lives, their sense of disquiet at their own lack of adventure, and fairly soon their mutual attraction.

What makes the play worth watching is what they do with the information they glean, as played out by a somewhat young, but interesting cast. Jeremy Guskin feels natural as Paul: a bit geeky, a bit henpecked, a bit startled by his own bravado. Lena Bouton brings to Anne that settled housewife aura, but with the undercurrent of resistance to patronization and frustration at her own “goodness” showing through.

Lynndi Scott all but steals the show as the obtuse lady across the hall. Bob Rodriguez gives the perfect “operating on autopilot” maintenance man – the instigator of the leads getting stuck in the first place. In cameo roles, Kristin Towers-Rowles vibrates with energy as Paul’s feminist wife, Craig EcEldowney hums with paternalistic attitude as Anne’s businessman husband, and Jull Maglione and Albert Garnica provide the play’s bookends as an expectant couple also checking out the apartment.

Director Sherri Lofton gives the play a relaxed, yet intense pacing and enough movement to keep an essentially two-person piece from devolving into a static debate. John Vertrees’ set design makes the small SMP stage look like a reasonably-sized apartment, which is quite a feat. The costuming by Naila Aladdin Sanders pretty much nails the polyester double-knit look of the era. The authenticity greatly enhances the experience.

As a result, “6 Rms Riv Vu” has much to recommend it: it’s funny, well acted, well produced, and has something quite specific to say, which is still worth listening to. It’s also funny in the way of the best comedies of that era: jokes at just the time when the tale would otherwise become painful, yet still making a “truth” available under the laughter.

This is the start of a new era for the Sierra Madre Playhouse, as they embrace a new board and a new artistic director. The focus is obviously quality, and the shaking off of the “community theater” label. So far, so good

What: “6 Rms Riv Vu” When: Through September 6, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: (standard pricing) $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 children 12 and under (NOTE: general and senior tickets purchased in July for any performance between now and the end of the run will be on a special: $19.72 – the date of the play) Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

What I Did This Summer

You know how it is. School starts and everyone is to report the amazing and fun things they did this summer. I’m no exception, I guess. After seeing two shows now playing at the downtown Music Center, and participating in a fascinating panel discussion, hosted by L.A. Bitter Lemons as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, I stopped to focus on perhaps the most important “production” of this summer: my daughter’s wedding.

My daughter, Mary and her new husband Sgt. John White, laughing as they leave their wedding. Lovely day!

My daughter, Mary and her new husband Sgt. John White, laughing as they leave their wedding. Lovely day!

I must admit that, since it was kind of a “destination” thing – as in, far from the homes of many of the participants (and me) – it ended up reminding me a great deal of my time working in the production part of theater: a matter of amassing space, props, the cast of characters, the orchestra (or, in this case the rock band, fronted by a family member), costumes… to which one adds the feeding and housing of the cast. I spent a good deal of time looking at my watch, checking with hotel personnel, florists, hair-dressers, bakers, and all sorts of other folk involved in providing what was needed.

There always has to be a picture of the cake, right?

There always has to be a picture of the cake, right?

I owe a lot to other members of the family, of course, who provided goods, talents and support. There were even stage hands, of a sort, as the employees of the venue went about rearranging tables, etc., at our behest.

It came off very well, as productions go, and a good time was had by all. It was also a useful reminder of all the work which goes on behind the scenes of any grand production. My son and his fiancé will be going through something similar, though closer to home, next month. (That will be the most important production of the early fall!)

So, this is my “era of weddings”. I drop a few pictures of my daughter’s here, mostly because I’m proud of the result. I do so also because I’m a mom that can’t help but brag, as my daughter and her husband are good for each other, and very happy.

So… this is what I’ve been doing rather than writing. That will start again after this coming weekend, as I get back into the swing of local theater.

I’m also going to do something entertaining. I’ve been requested to be one of the judges for an event at the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont, titled “Candlelight’s Got Talent.” The finals, in about a week and a half, will be a show, with desserts and drinks available. Check it out at their website: http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Go See This!: “Buyer and Cellar” offers belly laughs and fantasy

Michael Urie as the storyteller in Jonathan Tolins' monologue about a struggling actor's fantasy job for Barbra Streisand [photo: Joan Marcus]

Michael Urie as the storyteller in Jonathan Tolins’ monologue about a struggling actor’s odd employment by Barbra Streisand
[photo: Joan Marcus]

Nothing is trickier than telling a compelling story about a famous living, or recently alive, person and intending it as a fiction. Even beyond the potential for litigation, one will run up against those who know the person in question and have their own opinions (witness Alan Alda playing Richard Feynman for a host of CalTech grads, poor man). And if the person in question is an iconic figure for a particular societal group, it just gets stickier.

None of which deterred playwright Jonathan Tolins from creating one of the funniest things on stage this summer: “Buyer and Cellar,” now at the Mark Taper Forum fresh from a riotously successful New York run. Essentially a long, uninterrupted monologue by the articulate physical comedian Michael Urie, “Buyer and Cellar” uses as its spin-off a very real book published by the very real Barbra Streisand. The book, titled “My Passion for Design” details all the many elements of her Malibu retreat, including the collection of mock 19th century stores developed along a “street” in her basement to house her various collections. What, Tolins wondered, would happen if someone was hired to be the storekeeper down there?

And so, in the character of that employee, one Alex More – an out-of-work gay actor getting a chance at a weird connection with a stereotypical goddess of the gay community – we hear the completely fictional story of why a person would take such a gig, and what bizarre, wonderful, and wrenching things that decision brings into his life.

The comedy is wry, but often fall-out-of-your chair funny. The insights into the isolation of fame, and into a once-poor young woman’s obsession with amassing goods, are sharp and interesting. The awkward balance of confidante, servant, and compatriot required of Alex’s job, and the toll they take on his outer life, keep it grounded. But mostly what you remember is complete delight.

Tolins’ script has that fast-paced “let me tell you a story in one breath” intensity which keeps you on the edge of your seat. Urie’s equally breakneck delivery, and the sheer visibility of the two other characters he “creates” to interact with Alex (Streisand, and Alex’s equally Brooklyn-born boyfriend) prove compelling watching. Indeed, one is startled when the roughly 100 minutes are up.

Director Stephen Brackett brings a wonderful physical dimension to a piece which needs that vitality to bolster the volume of words. Some of the visual moments are among the funniest. Andrew Boyce’s simple set lets the story tell itself, while Jessica Pabst’s costuming – most particularly a rather voluminous cardigan – help enhance Urie’s changes of character.

Yet, in the end it is all Urie and Tolins: the first with his talent, his ability to pretzel himself into different body shapes, and his overarching charm which win the day, the other with a near-perfect script for Urie to work with.

It is interesting that, at the show’s start, great pains are taken to make sure everyone knows that the story and characterizations are pure fiction, even if Streisand’s book is not. Perhaps that was litigation rearing its ugly head. Even so, it doesn’t need to be real to be a treat. As a matter of fact, it takes the pressure off to know it’s all made up, even if one couldn’t help but wish at some points that is was something that really happened.

“Buyer and Cellar” is performed without an intermission.

What: “Buyer and Cellar” When: Through August 17, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or
http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“We Will Rock You”… Not: Queen musical at the Ahmanson an epic fail

Ruby Lewis and Brian Justin Crum lead the cast of "We Will Rock You," the Queen musical at the Ahmanson [photo: Paul Kolnik]

Ruby Lewis and Brian Justin Crum lead the cast of “We Will Rock You,” the Queen musical at the Ahmanson [photo: Paul Kolnik]

First, let me say that I love the music of Queen. It was the soundtrack of my college years. I have been a Freddie Mercury fan a long time, and mourned his passing. I even made sure my children, as they hit teen status, knew and respected the band’s work. I do not hate loud music, gratingly amazing guitar riffs, or rock concert lighting effects. I need to say this lest anyone feel that my take on “We Will Rock You,” the musical with story and script by Ben Elton using music by Queen, has anything to do with being a fuddy duddy and just not liking the atmosphere or the music.

I say this so you will believe me when I tell you “We Will Rock You,” just opened at the Ahmanson, takes band-tribute musicals to a new low. It’s worse than boring: it’s stupid. The jokes sound like they were written by a junior high class clown just discovering sex. The dialogue was purloined from a bad Disney Channel sitcom. The script is riddled with cliches, and steals (rather badly) from a dozen film and television plots. All of this is gussied up with elaborate effects and fantastical costumes and wigs, but it doesn’t matter. It still has no soul, and – worse when discussing this sophisticated band’s work – no intellect.

The story, which must be explained in super-titles before the curtain rises, is that we are visiting a post-apocalyptic earth run by a thinly disguised Microsoft (Globalsoft, in the script), which has banned all instruments, and anything but computer-generated pop music as well as having created a world where people’s relationships are entirely online. This world’s rebels (bohemians, of course) try to escape torture and reeducation by the rather Tron-like enforcers led by Khashoggi, a man who looks like Max Headroom with feet, working for Globalsoft’s narcissistic leader, even as they search for genuine life through something they’ve heard of called rock music.

Our hero, who has given himself the name Galileo Figaro (get it?), hears the lyrics of every possible kind of rock song in his head, and spews them forth in notebooks. He escapes his society along with a female loner he dubs Scaramouche, and they run to Las Vegas and the crumbling Hard Rock Cafe (only one of several product placements in this thing) to find a bohemian group who have named themselves after stars of our era – including a dumb, muscly man known as Brit (for Britney Spears, because that’s funny) and his ditsy female sidekick Oz (for Ozzy Osborne, cue more laughs). They and their friends, especially the deep voiced Buddy (yes, Holly and the Crickets), gather rock-and-roll memorabilia they proudly mispronounce and wait for “the one” who will help them find the last remaining instrument on earth.

The cast of this thing approaches it earnestly enough, though the dialogue doesn’t give them much to work with. Brian Justin Crum, as Galileo, does sing just close enough to Mercury’s stylings to make the songs he sings work. He gives his character an earnest energy, as if by sheer dint of belief he could turn this show into something worth all that effort. Ruby Lewis, as Scaramouche, has little genuine chemistry with Crum, but that may be in part because there is not much in the script to help. She sings with great power, though a few of the great lines get swallowed.

In a particularly odd moment, protagonists ride a motorcycle toward the audience, while the road moves swiftly the opposite direction, behind them.

In a particularly odd moment, protagonists ride a motorcycle toward the audience, while the road moves swiftly the opposite direction, behind them.


The chorus, which has a phenomenal number of costume changes, sings and dances with abandon, even as – on occasion – their costumes break. Jared Zirilli does what he can to make Brit a dopey kind of funny. Ryan Knowles has the best timing of anyone as Buddy, and a kind of wired gleefulness which makes him engaging even as what he’s saying isn’t. Jacqueline B. Arnold proves imposing as the “Killer Queen,” leader of the bad guys, but has issues singing the low parts of some songs. Everyone is trying here, including the designers of the elaborate video backdrops and the over-the-top costumes. It just isn’t worth the effort, at least in-between musical moments.

Thankfully, there are those great songs, at least most of the time. In the early scenes Elton has seen fit to rewrite the timeless lyrics to fit into his lame storyline – an unfortunate choice. Still, the band, led by conductor Nate Patten, is very good indeed, and some of the famed solo riffs live up to one’s anticipation.

Of course, the best and most famous of Queen’s work is saved for last. Unable to fit “Bohemian Rhapsody” into the weird storyline, they actually use supertitles to convince the audience to stay for an encore, because it will be that – the one song everyone has waited all night to hear. And this becomes the revelation: when all they have to do is render a song, this cast is actually very good. Why in heaven didn’t they do that all night long, rather than dampening everyone’s spirits with such a lame plot and script?

How this musical won an Olivier is beyond me. Makes me a little nervous about what is being considered quality in London these days, if it was for anything other than a technical element.

What: “We Will Rock You” When: Through August 24, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $120 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Passion is Still Stupid: In “Stupid Fucking Bird” Chekhov’s “The Seagull” speaks to a new age

The cast confronts the audience

The cast confronts the audience

This show has now been extended through August 10

Playing with classics has become part of the theatrical landscape. One can either go for staging, say, Shakespeare or Moliere or Sophocles in an alternate time period or social reference, or one can take the conceptual theme of the original, and the main characters, and turn the play on its ear. For example, several years ago The Theatre at Boston Court produced Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” reset (with distinct cultural adaptation) in a China on the verge of revolution – a shift which worked startlingly well.

Now, once again at The Theatre at Boston Court, this time in concert with Circle X Theatre Company, one finds a revision of another Chekhov classic, “The Seagull.” “Sort of adapted” by Aaron Posner, the play “Stupid Fucking Bird” highlight’s Chekhov’s essential ethos – the idea that people who become so wrapped up in themselves create their own tragedies – and places it in a modern framework. It works, absolutely, and for several reasons: Chekhov’s theme was an essential human one which transcends time, the adaptation is clever, concise and passionate, and the direction and performance are done with complete conviction and absolute craft.

The script trims down and adapts the character list, but the story is still the traditional angsty knot. Conrad, the bitter son of actress Emma Arkadina, is a creator of dubious performance art his family belittles. He lives on his mother’s estate, working with and worshiping a young actress named Nina, who does not return his affections, while the woman who runs the house, Mash, holds her grand passion for Conrad close to her despairing heart. Dev, the slightly dim, good-hearted friend of Conrad’s, adores Mash but knows he has little chance there. Emma fears encroaching age, and fights it off by keeping famed author Doyle Trigorin on a short leash, at least until he notices Nina. All the while, aging uncle Dr. Sorn, watches with a combination of kindness and frustration. And so it begins.

If all of this sounds like a soap opera, you are correct, except for the essential Chekhovian concept that all of this internal wrangling, despair and high feeling is elementally ridiculous – a product of each of the characters’ emotional myopia. In the hands of director Michael Michetti, that rings through all the drama, as it plays out in a tight production with a strong and engaging cast. Add to this the extra thrill of Posner’s Thornton Wilder-style dissolving of the fourth wall, including actors stepping into and out of character, and you’re looking at something compelling and genuinely fun.SFB_lead

Will Bradley leads the cast in every way as Conrad, vibrating with intensity and a kind of emotional impotence. In both energy and engagingly dark approach he is matched by Charlotte Gulezian’s habitually depressed Mash. Adam Silver creates Mash’s and Conrad’s ultimate foil in the easy-going, upbeat, pleasantly dim Dev. Amy Pietz gives Emma a gentle undercurrent of desperation, and a grasping need which proves visceral.

Matthew Floyd Miller’s calm, detached, even opportunistic Doyle becomes physically and emotionally above all the petty commitments at his feet, while Zarah Mahler’s aura of fragility places Nina distinctly in both Doyle’s and Conrad’s crosshairs. Arye Gross gives the good doctor the air of a man weighed down by his own desire to be empathetic to these folk, like a huge, human sigh.

Under Michetti, this all moves quite rapidly, allowing no time for the dismalness to settle, and shifting in and out of the play’s supposed setting with the efficiency of a light switch. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s modular set pieces prove both realistic and representational, allowing for quick shifts in scene and mood. Sean Cawelti’s projections often provide that mood, and flesh out settings artfully.

In short, “Stupid Fucking Bird” brings the essential Chekhovian message to a new era, a new language, and a new immediacy without losing those elements which give it something to say about the human condition: finely tuned characters wrestling with stunted emotions doing melodramatic things which get them nowhere, held up to a mirror that makes them look somewhat silly. Thus it proves both wrenching and humorous, visceral and cerebral. If you love to watch people play with classic themes, you’ll find this one engrossing.

One word of warning: as the name may suggest, this show is not for children, deserving at least an “R” rating on the standard scale for both language and nudity. Still, for most adults, i.e.: those willing to take that as integral to context, it is most certainly a show to see.

What: “Stupid Fucking Bird” When: Through July 27, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with added performances 8 p.m. Wednesday July 16 and 23 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with senior and group discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

The Vatican as Political Hotbed: “The Last Confession” offers Papal mystery

David Suchet as a Vatican political manipulator in "The Last Confession" at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

David Suchet as a Vatican political manipulator in “The Last Confession” at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Okay, I’ll confess. I’m hooked on mysteries: novels, BBC series, unrealistic forensic-based television icons (albeit in small doses), reality shows, you name it. The best are those fraught with intrigue and political wrangling. Add a touch of an unknown society, or of religious dogma, and it just gets better. So, you can imagine my excitement at seeing David Suchet (yes, “Poirot” to most American viewers) in Roger Crane’s “The Last Confession.”

Now at the Ahmanson Theatre in its one US stop before heading to Australia, “The Last Confession” is perhaps best categorized as a psychological thriller. A high ranked cardinal in the Catholic political sphere looks back at the events surrounding the short tenure of Pope John Paul I, whose 33-day reign in 1978 has been the source of philosophical statement, myth and conspiracy theory ever since. Cardinal Benelli (Suchet) is dying, and in his confession he examines his responsibility and influence in, first, the election and then the death of this brief pontiff.

There are two possible pitfalls in all of this. First, one must avoid turning this into a philosophical panel discussion. Second, one must avoid turning the whole thing into a collection of ridiculous conspiracy theories worthy of Dan Brown.

Certainly, the energized direction of Jonathan Church and the fascinating modular set of William Dudley keep the first from happening. And by and large, one avoids the second through two separate actions, from both the director and the script itself: concentrating on character as much or more then on the mystery, and developing an underlying philosophical conversation on the priorities of any man leading the Vatican.

Suchet creates an interestingly intersected man. As power broker, Benelli fights his own ambitions by promoting someone deemed pure and innocent of the Vatican intrigues, while his struggles with faith and a fear of the status quo lead him to abandon the pope he created to his fate. Philip Craig gives Benelli’s confessor a hardness which makes the questions asked and answered particularly sharp, and offers a few surprises of his own.

As the simple cardinal made Pope, Richard O’Callaghan provides an antithesis to the general tension, carrying with him an inner calm that can be humorous and remains unflappable. It makes for delicious contrast with the general aggressiveness of those in the Curia. Likewise, as the assistants he brings with him into the Vatican, Sam Parks and Sheila Ferris contribute to the humor and humanity of this man quickly become the outsider in an insider’s game.

Indeed, when it comes to performance, the ensemble is universally strong. Worthy of special note are Donald Douglas, as the amiable Pope Paul VI, balancing opposing forces with diplomacy, Stuart Milligan as the bishop whose charge of the Vatican Bank comes with mafia connections, and Nigel Bennett as the ferocious defender of the norm whose powerful push to thwart the new pope proves overwhelming.

In the midst of this sort-of whodunit, filled as it is (whether truthfully or not) with all the politics and power struggles of a great political mystery, a subtextual, and textual wrestle with faith has its moments. Sadly, it all builds toward a potentially intense conclusion that simply doesn’t happen. All the sizzle drains out in a last-minute twist which proves unpredictable, not in a particularly satisfactory way. Instead of leaving the play with satisfyingly complicated scenario to chew over, one leaves scratching one’s head.

That the Vatican is full of intrigue is not news. One only has to follow either the upper reaches of the church in its the reaction to priestly misconduct or the prosecutions of high ranking Vatican personnel to know that. And the new Pope Francis, in his recent announcement of the excommunication of all mafia members makes some of the drama within this play almost pale by comparison. Still, it is fun to speculate on the inner workings of such an insular place, and what that can do to essentially good people. If only, in the end, there was a more satisfying “there” there.

What: “The Last Confession” When: Through July 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $105 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Silly, Lighthearted Nostalgia: “Bye Bye Birdie” in Claremont

Maggie Anderson's Kim waits for a kiss from Kevin McDonald as singer Conrad Birdie in "Bye Bye Birdie" [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

Maggie Anderson’s Kim waits for a kiss from Kevin McDonald as singer Conrad Birdie in “Bye Bye Birdie” [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

For those of us who grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there are certain cultural earmarks. We all remember Ed Sullivan and the fact that every set we knew was tuned to him on Sunday nights. We all remember (whether or not we were devoted fans) Elvis, back when he was cool and comparatively un-spangle-y. And we remember when a black-and-white Dick Van Dyke was tripping over an ottoman every week.

Out of that time, and in that time, came the Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” for which Van Dyke won the Tony which propelled him onto television. Vaguely based on the hysteria caused when Elvis was drafted, it managed to make fun of its own time in a lighthearted and tuneful way which has now turned it into a cute and lighthearted period piece. Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, its view of working women may remind one more of “Mad Men” than anything relatable today, but that is offset by the general cheer and silliness.

Kim McAfee is the 15-year-old, midwestern small-town fan whose name is chosen for a spectacular event: Conrad Birdie, the heartthrob rocker, will sing to her on The Ed Sullivan Show and then give her his last kiss before reporting to the army. All of this is the machination of Birdie’s manager, Albert Peterson, who has written the song and is trying to make enough money to marry his longtime assistant. The assistant, Rosie Alvarez, is in a duel for Albert’s attentions with his domineering and comically manipulative mother and business partner, Mae. And, of course, neither Kim’s newly acquired boyfriend Hugo, nor her father, are particularly happy to see her kissing a sex symbol on television.

Maggie Anderson sings and dances well, and gives a genuine quality to Kim, which makes a nice antidote to the far-too-old Ann Margaret of the film version. David Aldrete stomps and pouts as the stereotypical father, and has a great moment in the show’s two best songs: Hymn for a Sunday Evening (which apparently embarrassed Ed Sullivan no end), and the oft-repeated “Kids”. Candace Elder oozes understanding as Kim’s mother.

Beth Mendoza has a terrific time as the overblown Mae, right down to the Brooklyn accent. Kevin McDonald really looks the part of the young Elvis-style crooner, black leather jacket and all, as Birdie. Yet, perhaps the most central figures to making the whole show work are Allen Everman’s earnest and intense Albert, and Amber-Sky Skipps’ Rosie. Backed by a strong dancing ensemble, given great numbers to perform by choreographer Hector Guerrero and tight, interesting characterization by director John LaLonde, these two power the storyline.

Skipps has, perhaps, the roughest time, simply because her character was created for one of the greatest dancers ever on Broadway, Chita Rivera. The great dance sequence with a band of shriners is rough, and sometimes lacks the crispness of the other numbers, but her characterization is strong and wins out in the end.

In truth, “Bye Bye Birdie” is fun, but mostly lightweight nostalgia. Its cheerful lyrics, like the charmingly ironic “How Lovely to be a Woman” sung by a teenager, or the show’s most famous number, “Put On a Happy Face,” will leave one bright and bubbly. The show is good for kids, as the most “immoral” moment is Birdie’s hip-swivels, an homage to the part of Elvis that Sullivan wouldn’t show on television. And the food is good – particularly so, this time. So, go take a look. It’s a nice, simple way to celebrate the advent of summer.

What: “Bye Bye Birdie” When: Through July 13, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: meal inclusive, $53-$68 adults, $25 children Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Hollywood Drama/Human Face: “Stoneface” reintroduces Buster Keaton

French Stewart as Buster Keaton waiting for the house to fall in "Stoneface" [photo: Jim Cox]

French Stewart as Buster Keaton waiting for the house to fall in “Stoneface” [photo: Jim Cox]

The story of early Hollywood offers a host of human dramas. The switch from silent to sound, the development of the monolithic studio system, the pressures on actors and others to live up to their publicity – all of this can be grist for the novelist or playwright’s mill. The trick is to avoid melodrama – to stay real to the people behind the celluloid. When that happens, the window on this fascinating, artistic and insular world can be a revelation.

Take as a uniquely framed, fascinating example “Stoneface,” Vanessa Claire Stewart’s tale of silent star Buster Keaton, which has just expanded from the Sacred Fools Theater Company to the Pasadena Playhouse. The play was written for, and stars, the playwright’s husband French Stewart, who has long been an aficionado of Keaton and his work. As such, his moves echo the man on the screen. It adds to the sense of convoluted but engrossing authenticity which makes the play work.

Keaton, for the uninitiated, was a comic genius of the silent screen comparable to (though vastly different from) Charlie Chaplin. His stunt work was amazing, although it led to the breaking of virtually every bone in his body at one time or another. His ability to weather – on screen – all sorts of physical disaster without changing expression became his hallmark – hence the nickname Stoneface.

Off screen, of course, everything was more complex. Fame swept him away, as did a glamorous but not necessarily heart-based marriage. Keaton’s deep friendship with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle contributed not only to his alcoholism but, as the power of the big studios grew and sound appeared, his disaffection with Hollywood itself. That he would resurrect himself before the end is both surprising and sincerely satisfying.

Stewart is impressive, but this is not a one-man show by any means. Some of his best work plays off of others, especially Joe Fria as Keaton’s younger self, with whom the older man has significant arguments. Scott Leggett gives a touchingly real portrait of Keaton’s close friend Arbuckle, seen mostly in that period after false accusations ruined his career. And this is only the start, as a well-defined ensemble cast creates Keaton’s world.

Worthy of note are Jake Broder as his agent-manager, Tegan Ashton Cohan as his first wife, and Rena Strober in the dual role of Norma Talmadge – that wife’s sister, and as Eleanor, Keaton’s last, more enduring spouse. Pat Towne makes an appropriately bombastic Louis B. Mayer, Conor Duffy and Daisy Eagan fill in the story, and Guy Picot delivers a brief but brilliant turn as Charlie Chaplin. A special nod goes to Ryan Johnson, who accompanies the play live, just as one would watch (or film) a silent movie.

Still, this cast and this script become the magic that is “Stoneface” thanks to director Jaime Robledo’s vision, which seamlessly moves from film to live action to film, taking a story told in vignettes and giving it a sense of wholeness, and occasionally of magic. Joel Daavid’s angular and facile set, with its built-in moments of Keaton sight gags, and Ben Rock and Anthony Backman’s excellent projection design give the story both teeth and the underlying, innate fascination.

According to “Stoneface” (and other reading seems to back this up), Keaton was a whipcrack smart, inventive artist whose vision was obscured by changing times, personal dramas, and power struggles he was ill-equipped to fight. Yet, in the end of the play what one remembers is the underlying rumble of resilience which, if Stewart is to be believed, gave him an ability to bounce back few could equal.

Word of advice: go early, and go in to sit in the theater. You’ll see much, if not all, of one of Keaton’s comic films – a film referenced throughout the play. Also, just for fun, go find a copy of “The General,” the comparatively subtle piece once reviled and now considered his greatest work. In the process, marvel at what he does with his body, all the while keeping that signature stone face.

What: “Stoneface” When: Through June 29, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 – $74 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

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