Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

“Her Portmanteau” at Boston Court: The Baggage of Being Foreign

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(L to R) Joyce Guy (Abasiama), Omozé Idehenre (Adiaha), Délé Ogundrian (Iniabasi) in “Her Portmanteau” at Boston Court Pasadena [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The topic of immigration is on everyone’s front burner these days, for often very sad reasons. For many, the interest, or the threat, of immigration comes from the effects any group of immigrants at any time have had on what one considers the dominant American culture. It has always been this way, sadly, whether it is disquiet over the Irish, the Chinese, the Eastern European Jews, the Italians or Polish, the Cubans, or the Vietnamese boat people, to name just a few.

Still, there is another aspect to being (as we are, whether we admit it or not) a nation of immigrants: the difference between those who have by practice or generation, regardless of how much they honor their original culture, become Americanized, and those who carry the original culture because it is still theirs. It is this which is explored in Mfoniso Udofia’s  “Her Portmanteau,” now receiving its west coast premiere at Boston Court Pasadena. Here three steps on that assimilation scale look at what is shared, and what separates a “foreigner” from a part of our American ethnocultural tossed salad.

Iniabasi Ekpeyong has just arrived from Nigeria. Though born in the US she has been raised by her late father back on the family compound. Now she is in New York to meet the mother and half sister she hasn’t laid eyes on since childhood. Her mother Abasiama Ufot, and her half-sister Adiaha Ufot are unfamiliar in more ways than one might expect, as language and culture and a disorienting distance between expectation and reality create barriers and end-run openings for the three women.

This work is part of Udofia’s 9-part cycle of plays documenting the Ufot family, but stands well on its own. In it, the entire idea of the US as a paradise is placed up against the friction between traditional family roles and hierarchies, traditional modes of hospitality, even traditional and adapted foods, and how such things can hamper even well-intentioned attempts at understanding. What one runs from and what one runs toward become the ways in which these people balance the bonds of blood and the differences of experience, like a portmanteau, an old fashioned style of suitcase built with two distinct sides one fills separately and then brings together to fasten. Only then do they touch.

Dele Ogundiran is Iniabasi, expecting reunion traditions unfamiliar here, and anxious in many directions at the end of an interminable flight. Watching her severity and fear gradually unbend gives weight and humanity to the awkwardness of difference where one expects to find sameness. Omoze Idehenre, as the American-raised daughter Adiaha, brings to the obligatory balance of inherited traditions and American-centered cultural frameworks a sense of exasperation and kindness which lay the groundwork the play develops. Joyce Guy gives the mother of the two other women, Abasiama, a palpable aura of apology, for distance and for difference, gradually laying out her own burdens, and gradually absorbing those her daughters face.

Director Gregg T. Daniel gives this word-rich play a sense of activity and interwoven characters which keeps it from devolving into a kind of panel discussion. This is particularly important as significant sections of the piece are at least partially in Ibibio, one of Nigeria’s traditional languages which is spoken here laced with occasional English words and phrases. That Iniabasi speaks it as first language, her mother Abasiama can return to it willingly, but – though she understands it well enough – Adiaha chooses to only use English is shorthand for the transitions which are at the core of the play. Daniel makes this work.

A note of praise also for Tesshi Nakagawa’s set design for the cramped Inwood apartment in NYC, for Jeff Gardner’s subtle but essential sound design, and for Erin Walley’s props, so evocative of the cultural interplay so necessary in telling this tale.

Yes, unless you speak Ibibio, you will not understand every word. That is, one assumes, a point – a rich conversation and interaction which is in itself isolating here, though communal somewhere else. Take that in, as part of “Her Portmanteau”: part of what these characters carry with them as they bump into being American.

What: “Her Portmanteau”  When: through June 30, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena  How Much: $20-$39  Info: (626) 683-6801 or www.BostonCourtPasadena.org
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“Soft Power”: Politics, Music, Comedy and Manipulation

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L-R: Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power” at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a moment in “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” which premiered this week at the Ahmanson, when the disquiet hits you. The  show has a lovely time acknowledging musical theater tropes, discussing the power of the musical to slowly convince people of an idea (this is what “soft power” is – gradual bending of minds), and expressing the outrage and increasing xenophobia which accompanied the 2016 election. However, it is also using that very soft power to behave like a propaganda machine. You become enthused, then disturbed by the fact you have been gently manipulated toward that very enthusiasm.

Which may be the point. David Henry Hwang, the remarkable Chinese-American playwright, and Jeanine Tesori, whose “Fun Home” was a highlight of the last Ahmanson season, have created a subtly complex theater piece in the guise of something far lighter.

As has been true in the past, Hwang makes himself a character in the piece – an American writer trying to work with Xue Xing, a television producer from The People’s Republic of China, without much success. The things which keep them at odds have a lot to do with differing views of family responsibility and love. In the midst of their attempted collaboration, Hwang, Xing’s American girlfriend Zoe, and Xing go to see “The King and I” and to a rally for Hillary Clinton. Only Xing, by line-jumping, actually gets to meet her, and even take a selfie.

Shortly after, a near catastrophe takes Hwang into a dream world. This dream is the musical, detailing how Xing would recount this episode of his life in later years, complete with a lot of spin. It is charming, tossing in all kinds of homages to the American musical form (including even the idea of using a dream sequence to advance the story).

In it, Xing and Hillary have a far less fleeting moment. She is seen as a commodity marketing herself in ways Miley Cyrus would approve of, and Xing’s condescending view of democracy seems underscored by the 2016 election outcome. Indeed, Hillary is herself romanced – at least for a while – by the description of order and intelligent leadership Xing presents as an alternative.

As Hwang awakes from this dream, he must wrestle with the images it carried. Though dealing with the rising xenophobia around him, he rises to a hopeful, emotionally satisfying musical conclusion. To an audience in California, where 2/3 of the voters picked Hillary and were as appalled as those onstage with the final results, this is an easy sell. Almost too easy. Songs bring people to their feet, exactly as they are expected to. Oh, how easily we are swayed.

Still, there is the fear, even in the show, that Xing’s version of events will win out, and as playwright Lillian Hellman pointed out in 1934, a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. It is this which one should actually be wrestling with here.

In the process, however, one finds a clever script filled with high humor and the occasional low comedy, and with music which resonates after the curtain falls. A highly versatile cast makes this extremely episodic and somewhat fractured story work.

Most particularly, Francis Jue gives Hwang the tone and aspect of the wry observer, who must in the end come to wrestle with both truth and hope. Conrad Ricamora gives Xing a vibrating confidence which makes his message all the more powerful and his humanity all the more charming. Alyse Alan Louis, as the progressive Zoe and the dream Hillary, finds a humanity in both even as her portrait of the former candidate must by the very nature of this piece be completely over the top.

A remarkable ensemble brings all the other characters to life, from stuffy old-boy senators, to Chinese media stars, American street hoods, and Hillary campaign supporters. Perhaps the most pointed standout is Kendyl Ito, whose portrait of Xing’s daughter provokes great laughter of recognition simply by body language. Still, there is no weak link in the entire cast.

Director Leigh Silverman has used David Zinn’s mobile set pieces to keep this rather various and deeply episodic piece flowing, funny, and consistently engaging. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton creates a sense of culture and space, while offering strong nods to the musicals this piece honors as much for their ability to sway as for their art. The costumes of Anita Yavich, with hair by Tom Watson, allow the quick shifts in ethnicity, age and status. Music supervision by Chris Fenwick continues the polish

Indeed, this is all done very, very well. Which is the most unnerving. From the start “Soft Power” is out to display the ability of song, which goes to the heart without necessarily passing the head, to instill belief systems, and create rallying cries. And it does.

What: ‘Soft Power”  When: through June 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 pm. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added 2 p.m. performance Thursday, June 7  Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles  How Much: $30 – $130  Info: (213) 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

“Red Speedo” at The Road: Ethics, Sports, and the Individual

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Coronado Romero, Adam Peltier and Jason E. Kelley star in Southern California Premiere production of “Red Speedo” at The Road Theatre on Magnolia [photos: Brian M. Cole]

 

Playwright Lucas Hnath has built some of his considerable reputation on positing ethical puzzles – tracing a single choice or event to the ramifications for others who must then also make choices, done while never signaling a single “rightness”. The play becomes all about the character of each person involved, rather than preachiness. One just has a chance to wander. sometimes with gentle humor as well as drama and pathos, where a single fundamental choice leads.

Which brings one to Hnath’s “Red Speedo,” now at The Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood. Ray is a swimmer on the verge of qualifying for the Olympics. If he does, his lawyer brother has brokered a sponsorship deal for him with Speedo. Now Ray’s coach – owner of the gym where he trains – has discovered a cooler full of performance-enhancing drugs in his own office refrigerator. He feels honor bound to report this, which would throw suspicion on his entire gym. Ray’s lawyer suggests flushing the drugs and moving on. Where does Ray stand in it all?

Adam Peltier, as Ray, manages to tread the fine line between a genuine if undereducated and somewhat dim athlete, and turning the character into the stereotypical dumb jock. Although the portrait has intentional comic elements, the audience’s gradual exposure to his underlying humanity gives a certain gravitas to the conundrums of the storyline. As Ray’s brother Peter, Coronado Romero gives the initial fast-talking dominance an increasing physical vocabulary of insecurity. In the end, their story becomes more about marketing than family, and finance over partnership, with all the ethical and emotional baggage that carries with it.

Jason E. Kelley’s coach has to handle the ambition which comes from having a winner in the stable, and then struggling with the official ethics of his sport. As played, this role establishes what is to be gained and lost in the play’s puzzle, and Kelley gives it just the right tone. As Ray’s former girlfriend, who may have been complicit in creating the problem which needs solving, Kimberly Alexander voices a rich combination of bitterness, righteousness and concern. Both characters underscore the question-marks of the piece.

Director Joe Banno keeps this very talky piece in motion, and the tensions building in ways which prove engrossing throughout. Kudos to set designer Stephen Gifford and sound designer Chris Moscatiello who create the atmosphere of a competition poolside area without having to build an entire pool on stage. The results are immersive. A nod also to fight director Bjorn Johnson, whose choreography makes the culminating scene in this increasingly intense play both convincing and cathartic.

“Red Speedo” is, in its essence, an examination of the modern drive to win, the baggage that any athlete looking to end up on the world stage must carry with him, and how easy it is for that athlete to end up being seen as a commodity. As such it offers an audience a chance to ponder the ethics of sport itself – a process which will last after the play is done.

What: “Red Speedo”  When: through July 1, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays  Where: The Road on Magnolia, 10747 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood. How Much: $34 general, $15 seniors/students  Info: (818) 761-8838 or http://www.roadtheatre.org

“Singin’ in the Rain” at Candlelight: Singing, Dancing, and All the Trimmings

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Wesley Alfvin in the classic moment from “Singin’ in the Rain” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater [Photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

Is there any more iconic movie musical than “Singin’ in the Rain”? The move to bring it to the stage has been, from the start, a risky one, simply because it must compete with something so familiar. When it works, though, it is a sheer delight of old-school musical fun: catchy songs, clever comic characterizations, and lots of tap dancing.
Now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, it is indeed done well, and the result is a rollicking delight, made only that much better by the Candlelight Pavilion’s traditionally tasty meal.
The tale is now part of the American canon: Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, silent screen heartthrobs, are caught in a conundrum when talkies suddenly arrive, thanks to Lina’s less than glamorous pipes. Enter Kathy Seldon, an aspiring actress Don is attracted to, who can sing up a storm. What will be her role? Will “Lockwood and Lamont” survive? And what will be the role of Don’s comedic best buddy Cosmo, in the new world of movie music?
Director/Choreographer DJ Gray has adapted the great dance numbers, many of them created by Gene Kelly, to the Candlelight stage – a brilliant move, creating the reminiscence which is part of the musical’s charm.  The performers, from chorus to stars, dance up a storm, and have the energetic verve which propels this kind of production.
Wesley Alfvin leads the cast as Lockwood, cutting a handsome figure, singing convincingly, and dancing well enough to make Kelly proud. Andrew J. Koslow, as Cosmo, handles the difficult comic “Make ‘Em Laugh” with aplomb, even if some of the pratfalls are made awkward by the sheer necessity of movable set pieces. As Kathy Seldon, Colette Peters keeps up with the two guys on the dancing front, and sings respectably, but Krista Curry all but steals the show as Lina, producing a voice which can only be compared to fingernails on a blackboard.
John Nisbet brings both kindness and fluster to the head of the studio, while Brandon Kallen flings about appropriately as the director also forced to change styles with the advent of sound. Still, in many moments the real stars are the members of the versatile ensemble, playing small parts, providing background or supporting song-and-dance folk, and generally setting the tone for the entire piece.
Kudos go to music director Douglas Austin for finding the sound of early talkies, and getting the most out of those classic tunes. A nod also to Mitch Gill, whose set proves agile enough to keep the story rolling, and yet incorporate all the many and varied settings (and demands of some of the signature production numbers). Yes, it actually rains, and yes, if you sit right by the stage you may get wet.
“Singin’ in the Rain” was never a wildly deep story, but rather a chance to celebrate some of the best of what classic movie musicals were about: songs, dancing, romance, and fun. If that calls to you, then go see this production. Candlelight Pavilion shows, at their best (and their recent shows have often been among their best ever) can be a welcome respite from the complexities and uncertainties of the workaday world. And you eat well.
What: “Singin’ in the Rain”  When: through June 2, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays  Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont  How Much: $63-$78 adults, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal-inclusive  Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or www.candlelightpavilion.com

“Noises Off” at A Noise Within: Carefree, Funny and Well Done

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The cast of “Noises Off” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Farces, as a general rule, are hard to kill. Some evoke chuckles, some evoke laughter, and a very few regularly  bring an audience into a state of howling laughter. Of this last category, one of the best is Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” a wild send-up of the theater itself. From start to finish it contains memorable characters, ridiculous situations, and furious timing, which work together to make one of the great, lighthearted comedies in the modern theater.
At A Noise Within some of the resident company’s best performers have gathered to give this silly, wonderful thing the finesse it deserves. The results are everything one could hope for: clever and beautifully timed, and solidly funny from start to end.
The play’s premise is very simple: a second-class provincial theatrical company, underrehearsed and full of interpersonal drama, is about to embark on a tour. We meet them during the final dress rehearsal, and that’s about as close to what the play should look like as one will get. From there we look at the show, literally from back to front, as the internal dramas and inadequacies begin to take over.
Geoff Elliott leads the cast, giving the fatalistic director of the play-within-this-play a real-ness which is absolutely necessary for the comedy to work. Indeed, that is what makes this comedy so funny – everyone onstage is playing it straight, even when their characters are ridiculous. Deborah Strang has a ball as the rather vacant, aging star, Kasey Mahaffy proves wonderfully fresh as the most inarticulate of the cast members, and Emily Kosloski does the classic airhead with remarkable focus.
But the good news doesn’t stop there. Jeremy Rabb makes his character’s fragility funny, Jill Hill gives the company’s gossip style and limited patience, and everyone works to keep Apollo Dukakis’ rather dim character off the sauce. Erica Soto plays the beleaguered stage manager, while Rafael Goldstein is the everything-else the company depends on, always on the verge of exhaustion. Everyone plays their parts to the hilt, but with the strong sense of ensemble absolutely necessary for this crazy piece’s elaborately intertwining gags to work.
Elliott, along with fellow artistic director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, has directed this whole piece with an obvious love for both the play and the participants. As a result, the thing is simply fun. Truly fun, from start to finish.
Kudos also to Fred Kinney for the ridiculously impossible set – full of doors which could not possibly be that close together – which looks good from back as well as front. Indeed, some of the show’s stars are the stage crew who shift the set from front to back to front with precision. Costumer Angela Balogh Calin has each performer looking just a tad overdone, as the play requires. It all works.
If you are looking for pure entertainment, you won’t find anything more satisfying than “Noises Off,” particularly when done as well as on stage at A Noise Within. Go take a look before they sell out.
What: “Noises Off”  When: Through May 26, 7:30 Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays  Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena. How Much: from $25, student rush with ID $20 before any performance  Info: (626) 356-3121 or www.anoisewithin.org

When is a Thriller Not a Thriller?: “Belleville” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Thomas Sadoski and Anna Camp in Belleville at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Philicia Endelman]

There is no doubt that Amy Herzog’s “Belleville”, now at the Pasadena Playhouse, has dramatic power, and some extraordinary characters which must be an actor’s dream to perform. In many ways, this is enough to recommend the show to the public. Herzog is a celebrated contemporary playwright and the realism with which she develops her characters is subtly revealing and disturbing by turns, and the play proves engrossing from first to last.

Still, the promotion of this play, new to Los Angeles but nominated for awards during its New York run, as a Hitchcockian thriller does it a disservice, as it sets one up for an atmosphere different from what one receives.

The tale concerns American ex-pats Zack and Abby, who have settled somewhat awkwardly in a marginal part of Paris. Abby comes home early from a job she is failing at to find Zack there as well, rather than at his job working for Doctors Without Borders. From that point on, both their stories begin a gradual unraveling, revealing underlying anger and deception which send both on a wrenching downward spiral. Caught up in this are the far more stable Afro-French couple who manage the building the two Americans are living in, emphasizing the difference between stability and partnership and what the main protagonists are going through.

As character studies, “Belleville” is fantastic. As a thriller, there are far too many “tells” for Hitchcockian surprise, though the play’s characters are so well written one is completely engrossed anyway.

And, as has been said, the performances are extremely good. Anna Camp gives Abby the right mix of ambition, suspicion and frustration as she gradually sheds the artifice which has kept her marriage afloat. Thomas Sadoski, as her husband Zack, walks the fine lines between convention, desperation and immaturity in ways which prove intriguing even as they quietly herald the upheavals to come. Moe Jeudy-Lamour, as the manager who befriends Zack but must now be authoritative handles the struggle of that dichotomy with subltety, while Sharon Pierre-Louis gives his wife a sense of authority and conviction which grounds that couple in ways Zack and Abby will never know.

Director Jenna Worsham gives the play a realism which provides the connective tissue between characters and audience, and a pacing which propels this story forward in ways you cannot look away from. David Meyer’s hyper-realistic set also creates that sense of connection, while Sara Ryung Clement’s costumes help to define the differences between perception and reality in interesting ways.

“Belleville” is wrenching stuff, but fascinating. On the other hand, it is not in the classic sense a thriller, but closer to an unfolding, classic tragedy. There is no sudden turn here, but rather the gradual revelation of the fatal flaws of the main characters. Don’t go expecting Hitchcock, but, if you go, go to see the actors’ art and a commentary on expectation and the nature of love.

What: “Belleville” When: through May 13, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: starting at $25 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Timely Reminder: “The Immigrant” in Sierra Madre

Stuart W. Howard (l.), and Adam Lebowitz-Lockard in “The Immigrant” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

In this time when, in a sadly recurring theme in our nation, immigrants are facing rejection and hatred, it is good to be reminded of a critical fact: everyone in the US except for First Nations People are, or are descended from, immigrants who came here either by force (slavery) or by choice. We all have immigrant stories inside us, whether we know them or not. In celebration and remembrance of this, Sierra Madre Playhouse is offering Mark Harelick’s fictionalized celebration of his grandfather, “The Immigrant.” Warm, timely, and given a polished production, it is a fine reminder of both the tenacity of those new arrivals and the ability of even the most stereotypically insular Americans to connect in a shared humanity.

Haskell Harelik arrived as a Jewish refugee from the Russian pogroms around the turn of the last century, ending up in the small town of Hamilton, Texas. How this young, devout man who only spoke Yiddish found his way into the protection and partnership of the town’s banker and his wife, and what he was able to do with that connection in his new surroundings, is a touching and extraordinary tale. How he and his wife were able to balance their own Eastern European Jewish heritage and customs with the demands of being the only ones with that heritage in a small, southern, American town is a tale of adaptation reflecting the many such which define the expansion of our country.

As directed by Simon Levy, the SMP production focuses on the humanity of all involved – their connections, their disconnects, and the ways in which contact can breed understanding. Adam Lebowitz-Lockard is Haskell, taking him with humor and understanding from his initial otherness to an integration which still maintains defined edges. It is a warm portrait, funny but human rather than stereotypical. As his slower-to-adapt wife, Leah, Sigi Gradwohl provides an initial foil to Haskell’s changes, as she edges from shy disapproval toward an Americanization on her own terms.

Stuart W. Howard and Kaye Kittrell, as Milton and Ima Perry, provide the other side of the equation, as the Texas couple who first take Haskell in, and later become business partners and friends. Again, the characters are not written and are not played as stereotypical rednecks. There are, and will continue to be, disconnects between the Harelik’s increasingly unOrthodox Judaism, Ima’s Evangelical Christianity, and Milton’s practical agnosticism, but as played there is an underscore of the bonds of business acumen, emotional support and sincere (if not completely unbreakable) friendship.

Worthy of considerable note is the startlingly effective use of projection-based sets, which allows a swift move from place to place and time to time. Although the photos of the Harelicks come with the script, the use of them, plus the expansive house-fronts, store rooms and roadways frame this story thanks to the artistry of Matthew G. Hill. Costumes by Shon LeBlanc give an accuracy of time and character, and original music by Peter Bayne sets the tone.

Also worthy of note are the consultants who contribute to the authenticity of the piece: Rabbi Daniel Bouskila for custom and practice, Rob Aldler Peckerar for Yiddish accuracy, and Deborah Ross Sullivan as a dialect coach for the show’s multiple accents. This is part of what sets this show apart: the striving to tell the story with accuracy as well as the warmth and pathos. As a result there is a “realness” here which plays well with anyone who has a sense of family heritage, no matter what kind.

Sierra Madre Playhouse’s productions have become more and more polished with the years, and “The Immigrant” is a fine step along that path. Touching and intimate, yet without ignoring the tensions of any such tale, it will make one step back and think about what being an immigrant, and particularly a refugee, really means, and why the US has been rightly seen as a place to begin again. We could all use that reminder these days.

There will be a number of special events surrounding the run of this show, including a discussion of immigration law with ACLU lawyers, Klezmer music, and a chance to attend a post-show talk with the playwright. Check the theater’s website for information.

What: “The Immigrant” When: through May 26, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 Sundays and Saturday May 26 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $40 general, $36 seniors 65 and older, $25 youth 22 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Quick Take: “Ameryka” at the Douglas’ Block Party

Valerie Spencer, Danielle K. Jones and Drew Stafford Harper in the original production of Critical Mass Performance Group’s “Ameryka,” part of Center Theatre Group’s second annual Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Note: The run of this play at the Douglas is very short. On the day of posting there are only two performances left.

One of the more fascinating events at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City is the annual Block Party – a series of productions bringing in the work of other Los Angeles theater companies to share the stage of this Center Theatre Group space. The current temporary occupant is Critical Mass Performance Group, and their splendidly challenging “Ameryka”, written and directed by Nancy Keystone in collaboration with her performers.

In the baldest terms, “Ameryka” is a composite look at the definitions of freedom and democracy as seen in the U.S. and the Poland of the freedom movement of the 1980s. The underlying structure looks at the weights upon those definitions which hold them, or have held them back from full realization of those lofty goals, and the societal and governmental ways that the terms have been twisted.

Is this serious stuff, yes. Will some of the issues put forth be controversial? Yes. Is it a fascinating piece of challenging theater? Also yes.

The structure of the piece intertwines time periods, national settings and cultural frameworks to weave a complex tapestry of images and juxtapositions which define the production’s main points. The members of the ensemble play many parts, large and small, though they are most identified by just a few. All deal in one form or another with the dichotomy between having great words and ideas, but sacrificing them to social or political pragmatism, versus living out an idealism which may prove sacrificially noble but difficult to maintain.

Central and recurring characters provide the touchstones for the larger landscape. Curt Bonnem’s Thomas Jefferson balances the words of his writings against his continued acceptance and utilization of slavery. Jeff Lorch balances this with the idealism of Polish hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who fought in the American Revolution and tried to bring its stated ideals (as opposed to actual results) back to his native land. Russell Edge’s CIA Director William Casey confidently maneuvers behind the scenes to aid Valerie Spencer’s Anna Walentynowicz, one of the driving forces of Solidarity, the union which triggered the gradual downfall of Poland’s Communist government.

Ray Ford’s African-American jazz musician, Gene Jefferson, encounters the lack of perceived racism as he visits Poland, putting him at odds with fellow African-American, government insider CIA Agent Curtis Brown, played by Lorne Green. Richard Gallegos’ Chief Little Turtle hovers over the supposed freedom of the U.S. as a reminder of a people sacrificed in the process, Liza Seneca’s Ewa becomes the voice of the Polish underground, while Nick Santoro supplies the questionable CIA Agent Weller.

Still, simply defining main characters misses the essential point of this piece. What it confronts is best expressed in the constant use of bricks – simple bricks – to represent the weight carried with them on their journeys. The baggage of expectation, failure, compromise, even hypocracy, “Ameryka” contends, defines how these diverse peoples define and experience, or don’t experience freedom.

The play is meticulously researched, and the setting by director Keystone provides the spare but important background for Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh’s integral projections. Adam J. Frank’s lighting becomes a character, defining space and difference quickly as one moves from scene to scene. The entire piece is as much choreographed as directed by Keystone, with results as powerful as they may be controversial.

“Ameryka” is only at the Douglas for a week or so, so catch it while you can. It is most certainly worth the time, but bring your thinking cap and be willing to ponder all the details for some days to come.

What: “Ameryka When: Through April 29, 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Dangerous Psychology: Balancing Science And “Threat”

Pagan Grace as Margaret and Mason Conrad as David in “Threat” at Whitefire Theatre [photo: Magdalena Calderon]

In the wake of mass shootings, one cannot help but wonder what particular disconnect made someone feel such an act was a good idea. Indeed, although the term “mental illness” is unfortunately waved about indiscriminately, there actually are some specific conditions which could be ripe under the right circumstances for such an act. So, what if you are a psychologist who specifically studied that kind of narcissism, and one of your patients’ behavior in your office begins to look that particular kind of threat?

This is the framework for Louis Felder’s “Threat,” currently at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks. There, a psychiatrist who has struggled with academic disappointments of her own finds one of her patients – a graduate student with delusions of grandeur – gradually unraveling in dangerous ways. How does she manage this? What can she, and what should she, do?

Director Asaad Kelada has gathered a small, startlingly good cast, and has them bring a compelling realism and immediacy which prove captivating and repellent all at once. Pagan Urich creates in Margaret, the doctor, a balance of professionalism and artificial calm masking searing emotions of her own. John Posey, as her mentor and nemesis, stands in for the academic norm both she and her patient are angered by, though in very different ways.

Still, it is Mason Conrad’s profound performance as the deeply troubled, illogically logical David which centers this production. His ability to create the quick shifts of mood and fantasy, and combine them with a gradual descent into true and fearsome dangerousness creates the same inability to look away as a horrifying accident does. By avoiding stereotype, his character’s very humanity is perhaps the most frightening. There are moments when one feels empathy, and wonders of Margaret, for all her calm, does too.

The staging makes terrific use of the Whitefire’s small stage, as Matthew Richter’s visual effects enhance Madylin Sweeten’s essential set. This is a familiar office, and that very familiarity – that ordinariness – underscores the tensions of the play’s conundrums.

“Threat” is not an easy play, and being done without intermission there is no respite from what the audience must confront. However, it contains remarkable performances and some lasting question marks in its uneasy ending. This is thinking-persons’ theater, and well worth taking the time to see and mull over, especially given the current societal debates.

What: “Threat” When: Through May 4, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays Where: Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd in Sherman Oaks How Much: $25 general, $15 students with ID Info: (805) 419-8327 or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3343157

“The Mousetrap” in NoHo – Classic Mystery, No Real Surprises

Michael Mullen as Paravicini, Nicholas Cleland (replaced later by AJ Abrams) as Major Metcalf, Tavis L. Baker as Detective Sergeant Trotter, Bobby Slaski as Giles Ralston, and Megan Cochran as Molly Ralston [photo: Promise Costello]

Agatha Christie’s play “The Mousetrap” has been on the stage, uninterrupted, in London’s West End since 1952, making it the longest-running play in the English language anywhere in the world. With that kind of longevity (66 years and counting), traditions and tales are inevitable. A favorite story, perhaps apocryphal, says that taxi drivers taking patrons to see “The Mousetrap” in London will reward stingy tippers by shouting out the murderer’s name as the playgoers exit the cab.

It is definitely true that Dame Agatha added a curtain speech at play’s end, requesting that the murderer in this mystery not be revealed to others by the audience when they leave. Thus, do not expect this critic, who has seen the London production more than once and sundry others closer to home, to defy tradition.

Now in an intimate production at Crown City Theatre in North Hollywood, “The Mousetrap” has survived so long because it has all the elements one expects from a classic British mystery of Christie’s period. In other words, there is more of puzzle than depth in the thing, but the puzzle provides satisfying twists and turns. There is a secluded mansion. There is a congregation of diverse elements of British society. There is weather-based upheaval which strands everyone there, at the same time that news on the radio speaks of the manhunt for a London murderer. And, as expected, the plot thickens.

At CCT, the best news is the performers, who range from good to excellent, put their hearts into making this whole thing convincing. Their British (or, in one case Italian) accents are passable, their admittedly stereotypical characters are played straight and with conviction, and the rising tensions prove appropriately palpable. Director Sonny Lara gets a bit carried away with background music, using it in place of whistling winds and such to help build suspense, but keeps the pacing tight and the atmosphere appropriately claustrophobic.

Megan Cochran and Bobby Slaski ground the piece as the young couple, the Ralstons, intent on turning an inherited country estate into a guest house: genuine and engaging. Among their guests, Hans Obma, as the socially awkward Chris Wren, struggles with a need to be somewhat unkempt which has him constantly smoothing his hair in a direction it definitely doesn’t want to take, creating a distraction which muddies focus at inappropriate moments. On the other hand, Mouchette van Helsdingen creates just the right amount of stuffy disproval in the snobbish Mrs. Boyle to create the obviously fractious mood needed to move the plot forward.

AJ Abrams provides the classic retired army officer as Major Metcalf, organized, logical and unflappable. As the “mannish” Miss Casewell, Annie Leiberman manages the unique character qualities without sacrificing a sense of genuine concern for the actions going on around her. Michael Mullen seems to have the most fun, playing the absurdly fake Italian, Mr. Paravicini to the hilt, from pancaked face to overly expressive gestures. Tavis L. Baker brings the expected sense of authority as Detective Sergeant Trotter, with growing nuance as the play rolls along.

The ensemble feel of this cast is strong, and somewhat belies the supposed predicability. The low budget set gets the job done, thanks in large part to the dressing given it by Joanne Lamb, while Mullen, aside from his onstage role, has given the characters costumes with an appropriate period feel, setting the play (listed initially as taking place in “the present”) in the time in which it was initially staged. However the impression is still stodgy, as director Sonny Lara’s overly calm pacing, and his weird addition of background music as if a play needs a constant sound track, lessen the tension and

Despite the twist ending, which was a true departure in its day, “The Mousetrap” is now seen as classic Christie. If you are looking for a satisfying, but not wildly taxing puzzle with the feel of an old friend, Crown City Theatre’s production is for you. It may not have the spit and polish of fancier stagings, but it is by and large well performed and a very pleasant way to spend an hour or two. And who doesn’t need a little unthreatening pleasantness these days?

What: “The Mousetrap” When: through April 29, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays Where: Crown City Theatre, 11031 Camarillo Street in North Hollywood How Much: $20 Info: (818) 065-5685 or http://www.crowncitytheatre.com

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