Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.
There is a particular challenge to producing a classic comedy for a modern audience. By “classic” I do not mean vintage Neil Simon, but the comedies of Shakespeare, Sheridan, Moliere and others of considerable vintage. The first challenge is to acknowledge that they are, and can continue to be, funny. The second is to find a way to bring that humor to an audience using the play itself, rather than assuming the observers will not “get” or will be bored by the original script.
This is the challenge in A Noise Within’s production of Moliere’s spot-on send-up of fraudent piety, “Tartuffe.” A solid translation by Richard Wilbur supplies the base. For the most part, Julia Rodriguez-Eliott’s direction gives the respect, and a proficient company makes the antique language and situation glow with recognizable flair.
Almost. The production trips up at the very end, simply because the director either does not trust the intelligence of her audience, or believe in the subtle humor a modern company can create from a historic, tongue-in-cheek, obsequious speech. The shift is so sudden and so glaring it leaves one resentful, rather than glowing with the humor of what is otherwise a splendid production.
Central to the success of this show is Tartuffe himself. Freddy Douglass makes the flim-flam artist masquerading as an ascetic religious zealot so grating, with such an underscore of sly malace it is easy for the audience to join in the instant dislike most of the onstage characters feel. This balances will against Geoff Elliott’s blindly devoted Orgon. It’s standard Elliott, but here that works well (though one wonders why the not-so-subtle, anachronistic addition of bat-wing glasses is needed to indicate his blindness).
The rest of the cast proves equally strong. Among the standouts, Alison Elliott makes fine work of Orgon’s daughter, fighting for her own love life as her father angles her toward the religious con man. Rafael Goldstein makes her original intended just enough of a milquetoast to push the girl to fight her own battle, along with Mark Jacobson as her appalled and frustrated brother. Deborah Strang contributes yet another strong performance as the practical maid who sees the whole thing for the ridiculous situation that it is.
Indeed, it all rolls along with Moliere’s wry and somewhat dark humor at the fore, until we reach the end. Understanding that the play was banned twice, this version contains a flowing speech at the end praising the greatness of the King of France (Louis XV) – probably a necessity to finally get the thing on the stage. It’s reminiscent of a similar speech at the end of one Gilbert and Sullivan opera, to counter Queen Victoria’s lack of amusement at a previous satire.
Instead of letting the rather overblown (and thus satiric) statements roll as their own comedy, the whole thing suddenly becomes a burlesque skit – out of context and out of character. It’s jarring, and doesn’t let the silliness of the “deus ex machina” ending ride under its own power – a great disappointment.
Still, the majority of the production is splendid. Special nods ot Steven Barr of Trifecta Scenery and to Miriam Dafford and David King, scenic painters responsible – one assumes – for a most intimidating portrait of the title character which appears at a major moment. Angela Balogh Calin’s costume designs cement the sense of period (regardless of the nonsensical glasses).
Indeed, it all works, until it suddenly and spectacularly doesn’t.
“Tartuffe” has a lot to say about how people can – then and now – be bamboozled into a restrictive and destructive sense of religion. It always surprises me how current Moliere’s central statement is. Most of what you would see at A Noise Within would underscore this. All that needs to be added is for the director to trust the audience enough to understand they will “get” comedy without needing to be distracted from the words, or having them disguised.
What: “Tartuffe” When: In repertory through May 24, 8 p.m. March 8, April 13 and 14, May 2 and 24; 7 p.m. March 23, April 20, and May 18; 7:30 p.m. April 10; 2 p.m. March 2 and 23, May 18 and 24 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
Ah, “Noir”. The works of the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, with their cynical gumshoes and fatalistic romantic tone, stand apart even today as a special part of American culture. Of these, none is better known than “Laura,” which began life as a story, a novel and then a play, all by Vera Caspary, before becoming an Otto Preminger film.
Now “Laura” returns to the stage in Caspary and Geoge Sklar’s original version at the Whittier Community Theatre. It’s a solid performance – well cast and strongly directed – which shows the polish often-maligned community theater companies can achieve. And there’s that good old mystery to go along with it.
For anyone who doesn’t know somehow, “Laura” is the story of a murder investigation. The detective in charge, Mark McPherson, finds himself fascinated by the victim whose portrait hangs in her apartment. In a story filled with peculiar twists and turns, this detective’s determination to find out the truth both of the murder and of the obviously complex character of victim Laura herself, make for fascinating watching.
Director Suzanne Frederickson has the feel for this piece, and it shows all the way down to the costuming and furniture. She has amassed a cast which manages to fit the various stereotypes required of this kind of story, and with talent enough to make them all human.
As McPherson, Steven Sullivan is the picture of a solid Irish cop, from his sharp eye, a crisp loyalty, and a subtle tugging of the heart. As the man who feels he “created” Laura, Norman Dostal manages the somewhat soft and slimy panache required to make Waldo a disturbing character. Jay Miramontes gives Laura’s fiance an interesting balance of acquisitiveness and fondness, while Candy Beck fusses with great warmth as the loving maid Laura hired and befriended.
Also worthy of note, the mysterious “girl” gets rounded treatment by Amy Anderson, Kieran Flanagan makes nice work of the rebellious teen from down the hall, and Julie Breihan bristles with genuine indignation as his frustrated, heartsore mother. John Francis makes a short, entertaining, but somewhat less believable appearance as a beat cop.
Considering the generally somewhat “low rent” nature of community theaters, which survive on tiny budgets and volunteers both in front of and behind the scenes, this production proves quite delightful. The pacing is good, the tone is right, and the mystery appropriately mysterious. If you’ve never seen “Laura” nobody telegraphs the ending. If you have, it’s a lovely and inexpensive chance to spend time with an old friend.
Although this run is almost over, stay tuned for this company’s next offering: “Charley’s Aunt”, due at the end of May.
What: “Laura” When: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28 and Saturday, March 1 Where: The Center Theatre, 8730 Washington Ave., in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students, and military ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
Christopher Durang’s plays have always been remarkable for their unique combination of wry humor, human insight and respect for the craft of theater itself – the things you can do with a play you can’t as easily do in any other medium. He also makes fun of his own genre with as much artfulness as is possible to mount, which I first encountered in the 1981 one-act “An Actor’s Nightmare”, and now in his terrifically funny, Tony-winning send-up of Anton Chekhov, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
Now at the Mark Taper Forum, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” smashes together the most telling elements from any number of Chekhovian works, and transplants it to the modern U.S., where it all begins to appear fairly ridiculous. In the process, the play makes fun of the film industry, bad writing, Disney, and any number of other things, ending up so full of cultural references that they alone makes the show roaringly comical. For the Chekhov aficionado, and I admit to being one, the production actually is (and usually I hate using this term, as it is so often misapplied) absolutely hysterical at times.
Vanya, Sonia and Masha are the now-aging children of college professors who named them after Chekhovian characters. While Masha has been off becoming a famed film star, Vanya and Sonia have stayed behind in their Bucks County home. There they nursed their parents through their final years, but then ended up staying on unsure of how to proceed. Now, Sonia reflects on her empty life and her status as the adopted child, making an occupation out of negativism and despair. Vanya quietly longs for companionship, and mourns the treasures of youth.
Then Masha comes home for a rare visit, trailing a dim, physically gorgeous young aspiring actor names Spike in her wake. He, in turn, meets the girl visiting next door: Nina, the very young, would-be actress who idolizes Masha even as Masha sees her as a threat. All the while, the cleaning woman, Cassandra, offers up messages of foreboding, in a crazed mix of ancient Greek, voodoo, modern television references and observational wisdom.
And that doesn’t tell you the half of it. Mark Blum’s Vanya has the wistful yearnings of his namesake, a calm which ties the piece together some, and then utters a most delightfully out-of-control Russian-style harangue against modern society with a rich and memorable passion. One will never look at postage stamps, a repeated reference, quite the same way again. Kristine Nielsen proves absolutely brilliant as the morose Sonia, turning her melancholy on and off like a switch, and at one critical point offering up the best Maggie Smith imitation you can imagine – by itself fall-down funny.
Christine Ebersole gives Masha an interesting balance of self-absorbed emotional hyperbole and practical sense, in both verbal and physical presence. David Hull’s hunky young Spike, played as thoroughly for stereotype as possible, makes nice, upbeat, simple contrast to the angsty characters around him, as does Liesel Allen Yeager’s wide-eyed, innocent enthusiasm as Nina. Shalita Grant proves a true treasure as the sharply defined, practical and self-contained Cassandra.
Director David Hyde Pierce builds upon the original direction of Nicholas Martin with the expectedly sure sense of comic timing and contrast. The beautiful coordination of all these very recognizable characters into a single whole which neither neglects the subtle comic nudges nor overdoes a one of them is a wondrous thing in itself. David Korins’ set design creates a very real space for these characters to cling. Costume designer Gabriel Berry gets a special nod for creating exactly the right costume-party costumes at a pivotal moment in the storyline.
Indeed, what proves most lovely and relaxing about “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” has to be the sheer quality of every aspect of the thing. Acting, writing, directing, and every visual component work together to create a single moment of intelligent wit, filled with satisfying surprises and a few bits of ardent social commentary. In the midst of the upheavals of daily existence, I cannot think of a better way to spend a couple of hours.
What: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” When: Through March 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $90 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
The fact that playwright Bernard Weinraub spent most of his life working at prestigious newspapers obviously informs his work in the theater. Indeed, although nominated for awards in its off-Broadway run, his first play, “Accomplices,” met with mixed emotions among critics. Ostensibly detailing the U.S. government’s thwarting of attempts to rescue Jews from Europe as World War II began, it was hailed by some, but was labeled by other critics as more of a lecture or an expose´ than a play. Now his second work, “Above the Fold” hits closer to his personal and long-time professional home. Yet, there is the same sense of mixed emotions.
Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, “Above the Fold” examines the modern ethics of journalism in a time of shrinking print venues. It speaks to the value of a good story, over a right or balanced one. Such discussions have happened before, in books, in films as far back as the 50s (an example would be “Ace in the Hole”), and in examinations of modern media. The message of journalism and journalists as tools of the powerful is a recurring theme in modern times as well, as anyone knows who ever watched “The West Wing,” much less anyone paying attention to politics these days.
That which may be new in this play is more a matter of style and acting skill than some shocking revelation, or some great message of doom or hope we have not yet heard.
The story appears loosely based on the case of those Duke University LaCrosse players in 2006 wrongly accused of attacking a local African-American girl. It centers on Jane, a young New York Times writer sent to cover the story of three white fraternity brothers accused of raping the stripper engaged to perform at a frat party. Jane, anxious to get the more choice overseas assignments, plows into the middle of the tale when she arrives to cover the candidacy of a young southern district attorney. He hands her exclusive information about this potentially explosive rape story, and she is quick to run with it.
Jane ends up with a series of front page articles which feed the stereotype: rich white boys filled with entitlement, young and struggling African-American single mother abused by them, righteous district attorney determined to defend the local community against the university outsiders, etc. That she is African-American herself may make her even more ready to believe it all. Certainly, she gains a great deal from the notoriety of the story, as it grows. But the closer she looks at the situation, the more she begins to wonder about that story itself. Soon, she is faced with tough personal and professional choices.
The characters, except perhaps Jane herself, prove comparatively predictable. Still, they are played with fervor and care. Mark Hildreth’s earnest district attorney, soft-spoken, charming, and apparently without guile, gives plausibility to the reporter’s eagerness. Kristopher Higgins, Joe Massingill, and particularly Seamus Mulcahy make the three young men both suspicious frat boys and sympathetic human beings at turns. Kristy Johnson does what she can to develop the boys’ victim, with her erratic attention shifts and aura of addiction, beyond the elements of either two-dimensionality or stereotype. Arye Gross hits all the right notes as he plays the classic newspaper editor, nurturing to young talent while responsible to the publisher upstairs.
Still, what makes this play worth watching, predictability, and stereotypical situations and characters notwithstanding, is Taraji P. Henson as Jane. Her ethical wrestlings prove very real, as does her outrage as the story she is telling slips out of her grasp and becomes larger than she can possibly control. Watching the character’s move from what she at least sees as detached professionalism to passionate care, to angry disillusion keeps the audience’s focus and brings a certain gravitas to what might otherwise be a Movie of the Week.
“Above the Fold” may not be a great play, but it has performances worth watching. Director Steven Robman keeps the intensity at a heightened level, and – in concert with Jeffery P. Eisenmann’s fascinating set pieces – intensely immediate. Costumer Dana Rebecca Woods provides instant definition for each character. It’s all done in grand style. Just don’t go expecting to learn something you did not know, and you’re fine.
What: “Above the Fold” When: Through February 23, 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: $38 – $72 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
One of the terrific things about live theater is its combination of a potentially unchanging script and the amazingly different interpretations which can be brought to that script. So much depends on which performers are engaged with it, and what the director of a particular production envisions as the show’s purpose. Thus, in the case of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” one can end up with two very different aftertastes, depending on which version of the same script you have seen.
I will admit that, upon seeing the original Broadway cast reunite to do this piece at the Ahmanson in 2011, I was unimpressed. The vitriol was so vicious, the edge so grim that – though it may have accurately underscored the essentially animalian quality lying just beneath modern white middle class “civilized behavior” – it was not, as advertised, funny. On the other hand, in the new McCoy Rigby Entertainment production at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, it is very humorous indeed. It’s all in how it is played. So, now I get it.
The tale begins as a result of a confrontation in a local public park, where one little boy has attacked another. Now the parents of the boy who was the apparent attacker have come to the home of the parents of the other boy to discuss what to do from this point forward. What begins as an awkward but well-meaning discussion quickly devolves into the dysfunctionalities which power each couple’s lives. A send-up of successful middle class elitism and innate one-upsmanship, it ends with all parties looking ridiculous. This is as it should be. Getting there is occasionally startling, a bit gross, and painfully laugh-filled.
Hugo Armstrong creates in Michael, the man in whose living room the action takes place, a classic, old-fashioned “guy.” With a hardware business and a love of sports, he becomes the stereotypical sympathetic, meat-and-potatoes man trying to find his place in the forced pacifism and faux intellectualism of suburban society. As his wife, Maura Vincent gives Veronica a mild OCD to enhance her ostensible fascination with art and social issues. This is a woman who controls. The friction of contrasting energies hums mildly even as the play begins.
In Alan, the preoccupied and disinterested father of the aggressive boy, Jamison Jones drips with disdain for pacifism, even ethical responsibility, thwarting the civilized intents of everyone else in the room. With body language alone, he often rules this piece as either the active irritant or the overtly detached distraction. Amy Sloan handles the job of the businesslike Annette, mortified at her son’s behavior and her husband’s disengagement. In Sloan’s hands, she becomes the pot ready to boil over, and when she does – both literally and figuratively – it comes as much as a product of an internal wrestle as from external forces, making the results much more humorous.
Indeed, in the hands of director Michael Arabian, all is played with just enough underlying camp to keep the ugliness of their confrontations from simply being disquieting and grim. Likewise, his choreography keeps the players moving from corner to corner, engaging and disengaging as the conversation unravels.
One again, John Iacovelli has created a set which neatly places the characters in time and place. Christopher Hamilton’s splendid translation of Reza’s French script seats the piece elegantly in America – something which is a statement of universality in itself.
“God of Carnage” really is as much fun as it was originally painted. That it took a cast other than the one who had played it for a great length of time says much about interpretation and vision, and perhaps something about what happens when performers encounter a part anew – before it becomes old hat. In any case, it’s a lesson in what makes theater such a living, breathing animal.
What: “God of Carnage” When: Through February16, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $60 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com
It’s a dream. What first strikes the observer in “Se Llama Cristina,” the new play by Octavio Solis, is its dreamlike quality, paired with the sense of recognition: two rather desperate but well-intentioned people with grotesque backgrounds find themselves on the verge of parenthood. Their fear is the universal one, played out in a surreal environment – at once a history and a continuing anxiety dream.
Now at The Theatre at Boston Court as a part of a rolling world premiere, “Se Llama Christina” becomes a duet between a man (Justin Huen) and a woman (Paula Christensen). They run to each other and away from grim lives they are sure make them unsuitable as a couple, as parents, and sometimes as people. On this somewhat metaphysical journey they are pursued by Abel (Christian Rummel), the essence of male domination haunting the woman, and a girl (Amielynn Abellera) embodying the child this couple’s continued dysfunction might grow into.
Yet saying this tells little about the constant time-shifts, the empty, yet evocative space, or the surreal symbolism which make this much larger than simply story-telling. With direction bordering on choreography, a set composed almost entirely of a surprisingly mobile florescent rectangle, the audience’s imaginary forces become elemental to linking the visual snapshots and intertwining bits of reality and that otherworld in which the characters often float.
The performances hook all of this together. Huen and Christensen are onstage the entire length of this play, which is performed without intermission. Rummel proves suitably intimidating, radiating the machismo necessary to be a tangible threat. Abellera’s youthfully naieve character underscores the fear present whenever someone – particularly someone with a difficult background – looks toward raising a child who might end up the same way.
Robert Castro’s intellectual direction, which keeps this intentionally choppy piece intelligible, is the other great key to success. Street artist Gronk supplies the bare and stark setting, while Victoria Petrovich creates costumes both “ordinary” and defining.
“Se Llama Cristina” references the one character who, though the subject, is not on the stage: the baby they fear and anticipate. Performing this play in one piece, without a break, keeps the flow of the dream going. And it doesn’t stop when you leave. Like any fine work of art, it will keep on offering sudden realizations for weeks to come.
What: “Se Llama Cristina” When: Through February 23, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays with an added performance on Wednesday, Feb. 19 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with student, senior and group discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org
I love Shakespeare. His words are spoken music, and the music of words – be they poetry or well written prose – has been central to me for as long as I can remember. Christopher Plummer, who for my contemporaries is mostly remembered as the movies’ Captain Von Trapp, was my first “Hamlet.” I was 9. It hooked me.
So, you can imagine my anticipation at hearing of “A Word or Two,” Plummer’s one-man show, telling his own story in the words of great poets and prose writers, Shakespeare included. Now at the Ahmanson, “A Word or Two” lives up to the hype. Born years ago at the Stratford Festival, it has become a signature piece for Plummer, and with reason.
Here is one of North America’s greatest actors using some of the greatest words written in the English language (and a few other languages as well) to paint the stage with one bright image after another. Like a great concert, the emotional upwelling (and the occasional urge to mumble the words along with him) proves as satisfying as the construction and art of his performance on the stage.
A true reflection of his world, and a passionate plea for preserving the sophistication and beauty of language, the piece was written and arranged by Plummer himself. Directed by Des McAnuff with an eye to keeping the whole thing from becoming a static lecture, and performed on Robert Brill’s artfully simple set, “A Word or Two” becomes a sort of whole-body experience.
And the words are as diverse as they are addicting, including bits from from Shaw, Shakespeare and Coleridge and Marlowe to Milne, Rostand, Auden and Leacock, among others. These intertwine with Plummer’s own story, from his northern Canadian roots through a lifetime of performance in a culture of the poetic.
Plummer’s energy throughout proves impressive. One forgets, for the interim, his 84 years, as his eyes glow in the sheer enjoyment of language. His purpose for this show, from the start, has been to remind people about the language which seems to be disappearing from our artistic conversation. It’s a solid argument, making it doubtful that anyone comes away from this piece satisfied with the truncated communication common in our Twittering world.
What: “A Word or Two” When: Through February 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles at The Music Center How Much: $20 – $90 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Oscar Wilde is most widely remembered for his social commentary, particularly in the form of two satiric comedies, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and the somewhat less produced “An Ideal Husband.” Both poke fun at the pomposity and formality of the lives of the Victorian English elite, involve some form of silly situation based on that formality, and come to a conclusion which combines the logical with the remarkable.
Which makes it a great pleasure to see the latter, “An Ideal Husband,” has come to the Sierra Madre Playhouse. There, a fine cast – once they get going – create all the understated, mildly poignant, delightful commentary one expects from a Wilde play. More delightfully, its essential conundrum – the ridiculousness of expecting any human being to be perfect – is as true for our time as it was for Wilde’s, particularly given the play’s political setting.
The tale concerns Sir Robert Chiltern (Jonathon Lamer), a man whose life in politics has brought wealth, prominence, and a reputation for meticulous honesty. It has also brought a wife he loves dearly (Gaby Santinelli), whose love for him, though profound, is based heavily upon her understanding of him as the model man and ideal husband. Then the mysterious Mrs. Cheveley (Ann Noble) arrives from the Continent, bearing a secret of Chiltern’s past and an extortive proposition. Will Chiltern cave in to keep a political indiscretion silent, and preserve his wife’s love, or will he defeat Mrs. Cheveley at the cost of his reputation? The plot thickens.
Under the direction of Gigi Bermingham, the piece has the proper formal feel, and the proper human undertones. Though a wordy and somewhat static first act doesn’t quite overcome potential dullness of exposition, the second half soars – funny, recognizable, engaging and in the end charmingly silly. One wonders how much of that ponderous beginning came from opening night jitters, and how much from directorial lack of action to counteract the preponderance of words. In any case, the play proves delightful, if folks stick it out to the second act.
Certainly, the cast looks and feels appropriate for this Victorian puzzle. Lamer balances passion, position and puzzle well as the embattled Sir Robert. Santinelli makes a warm and motherly wife to him, and it is fun to watch her move past her edges toward a more natural affection. Noble’s icy charm brings a real edge to the villainous Mrs. Cheveley. Some of the best of the play comes from her interactions with Michael Matthys’ Lord Goring, Chiltern’s supposedly bon vivant buddy who proves his eventual rescuer.
Ata Farhadi and Albert Garnica make much of the wise servants of the two households involved. Lizzie Zerebko embodies the determined naiveté of the Victorian debutante, while John Combs and Alexandra Napier give humanity and class consciousness a spin as two of the Chiltern’s upper crust friends.
Kudos must go to Cesar Retana-Holguin for a period-appropriate and facile set. Naila Alladin Sanders has come up with evocatively period-based clothing. Indeed, the technical aspects show a polish which places the piece effortlessly in time.
“An Ideal Husband” has an ironic edge for the modern playgoer. This piece with its discussion of the importance or lack of importance of secrets, and its argument for truth even in the face of public shame, was a hit in London just as Wilde’s own life was unraveling. His own passions were about to land him in jail, as the secret of his homosexuality hit the courtroom. If only his own story could have had a charmingly concocted an ending.
What: “An Ideal Husband” When: Through February 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, as well as 7 p.m. Sunday, February 9, and 8 p.m. Thursdays February 13 and 20 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors and students, $15 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
It’s not the first place you think of to host the silly, but somewhat risque 1970s musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” but the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre in Claremont has made reputation recently for redefining the material such an institution will provide. Hot on the heels of “The Full Monty” and “Sweeney Todd,” their stage now hosts a ladies of a house of ill repute, a chorus of randy football players, and a live country band.
Actually, that batch of live musicians is the most innovative choice. With the exception of concert-like or tribute programs, Candlelight Pavilion usually uses the pre-recorded material now available for musicals on small stages. The in-house band, headed by musical director Douglas Austin, gives an immediacy to everything which proves surprisingly satisfying.
The production itself, directed and choreographed by John Vaughan, has style and pizzazz, and just enough titillation to bring that “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” factor one expects from a musical about such a topic. The performers are earnest to excellent. Still, one of the things which jumps out at the audience the most is how far we have come in our sensibilities since the 1970s. The thing isn’t played like a period piece, but it is one.
Lisa Layne does a solid job with the practical, but caring madam, Miss Mona. She has the voice for country music, and her performance does much to hold the show together. Steven Biggs’ friendly country sheriff makes a nice balance to Layne, offering tinges of middle-aged romance in the midst of the rest. Rashonda Johnson delivers another show-stopping performance as the house’s maid.
Indeed, all of the cast are enthusiastic and the energy is consistently strong. The singer/dancers who form the ensemble of “girls” and their paying customers dance well. The only slight disappointment comes from the comparatively quiet rendition of “The Aggie Song” – normally one of the most testosterone-laden shout-outs in modern musicals. Jeremy Magouirk makes fun work of the righteous investigator who threatens the house’s existence, and David Aldrete has fun with a stereotypical Texas politician or two.
Still, despite a script offers a view of women, and of prostitution, which is increasingly old fashioned. When the sheriff argues the economic plus to having this industry near town, it just isn’t as funny as it was when I first saw it in 1979, and not because it isn’t well presented.
So, the Candlelight Pavilion production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” is not for children. It’ just graphic enough – at least in implication – to leave younger kids with some awkward questions at the table. It is, however, quite well done, filled with entertaining dance numbers and considerable humor. Placed in its own time period, it becomes a humorous counter-argument to the women’s movement. Placed in our own, it jars a bit with how far many feel we’ve come in the past 35-40 years.
What: “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” When: Through February 2, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. on Sundays, and 11 a.m. for Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: meal inclusive, $53-$68 adults, $25 children under 12 Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com
In 1934, Lillian Hellman’s first play emphasized the concept – inspired by the rise of Nazism – that a lie repeated long enough, with enough conviction, can eventually be seen as true. Just like “The Children’s Hour” 80 years ago, Dawn King’s new venture “Foxfinder” looks at this elemental concept of indoctrination, propaganda and fear.
In a “rolling U.S. premiere” directed by former Furious Theatre Company artistic director Damaso Rodriguez, “Foxfinder” has landed at Furious, back at their home in the Carrie Hamilton Theater. Compelling and intense, it has much to recommend it to those caught up in popular ethos: insidious propaganda, a dystopian future, nature v mankind. Still, the overarching statement being made resonates back to Hellman’s warning: say something untrue long enough, and it becomes a people’s truth.
In “Foxfinder,” the concern is productive use of limited farmland, and a government strictly monitoring the efficiency with which each parcel is utilized. Any slacking off, even caused by weather, is liable to lead to an investigation by a “foxfinder,” raised up to look for evidence of the evil and subliminal control of foxes upon the society. With fox infiltration seen as the source of all inefficiency and rebellion, foxfinder investigations are feared, with reason.
Shawn Lee and Sara Hennessy are Samuel and Judith, a simple-living farm couple struggling with loss and bad weather, and the oppressive fact that a foxfinder has come. Joshua Weinstein creates the rigidly indoctrinated foxfinder William, struggling with his own humanity even as he carefully documents the human failings of his subjects. Amanda Soden, as their neighbor Sarah, supplies the reasoning and therefore rebellious counter argument, putting her family at risk by articulating the pointlessness of the foxfinder’s purpose.
Lee creates in Samuel a man desperate for something to give his life purpose, confused and self-isolated. Hennessy’s careful, protective Judith provides what balance there can be in a household of constant stress. Soden’s inquiringly dangerous Sarah, on stage in sudden spurts, speaks to the passions which inspire underground rebellions – sympathetic, hopeful, and human.
Yet, though the entire story proves compelling watching, Weinstein’s indoctrinated automaton discovering his humanity creates the greatest fascination. Initially a man of fascist passion, William’s fights to cling to his proud asceticism while overwhelmed with very human desires makes the entire piece work as a whole.
“Foxfinder” is not new news. Fascistic authoritarianism, though in this instance sparked apparently by climate change, has been worked and reworked over time, and perhaps better. The message at the core of the play, be it suspicion of blind belief, the unnatural condition of denying one’s essential nature, or the compelling power of a well and sincerely told lie, has also been seen before.
Still, what sets this production of this play apart is the quality of the performance, as the actors create characters of rounded familiarity. Add to this the taut direction by Rodriguez, which keeps one on the edge of one’s seat, and the artistry of those whose work literally sets the stage for what appears.
The minimalist but very effective set by Kristeen Willis Crosser allows effective changes of scene, aided by her facile lighting design. Doug Newell’s ominous original music, and general sound design help build the feeling of dread so necessary to the piece. Gregory Pulver’s contrasting clothing between peasant-like country folk and tightly formal official defines character before a word is spoken.
“Foxfinder” runs roughly 90 minutes without intermission which is a necessity. Frankly, breaking the sense of disquiet and rising emotion would dilute the most important elements. Furious Theater’s last two productions have removed the standard proscenium-based interior of the Carrie Hamilton, turning it into a modified “black box” with moveable seating. This too allows the action to be closer, and the feeling more intense.
What: “Foxfinder” When: Through February 2, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., in Pasadena How Much: $20 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.furioustheatre.org