Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Hold Onto Your Funny Bone: “Something Rotten!” Roasts Both Shakespeare and Musicals

The cast of “Something Rotten!” at the Ahmanson Theatre through December 31, 2017. [Photo: Jeremy Daniel]

There are many different slants on what makes a Broadway musical worth seeing. In some cases, the focus is on message or depth of story line. In others it may be the music itself, or the choreography, or the star performing in it. In rare cases there is a moment of particular spectacle which cannot be duplicated in any other art form, and which proves so completely theatrical the entire production is put on pause until the roar of applause subsides.

Which is why, if you love musicals, you will do yourself a treat to take in Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick’s “Something Rotten,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Wry, silly and satirical, it includes one of the most complete show-stoppers in recent memory: “A Musical” is almost indescribably silly, paying homage to virtually every possible style, form, or substance of Broadway musical from the past 70 years or more, all in six minutes. It is not to be missed.

Not only this, but the show starts with another number nearly as clever, and adds a third rollicking one toward its close.

A send-up of musicals, Shakespeare, vapid writing, and ever so many other things, “Something Rotten” welcomes you to the Renaissance England. There The Bard is literally a rock star, and Nick Bottom is trying to find a niche for himself and his brother Nigel as a duo of playwright and director before their patron pulls his financial backing.

Desperate, he goes to a rather scattered sooth sayer to find out what Shakespeare’s next great hit will be, so he can steal it. Armed with an imperfect answer, Nick embarks on “Omelet the Musical”. The results prove just as bad as that sounds, while Shakespeare sneaks in to steal the best lines for himself. But the story isn’t the point, which is good because it gets rather uneven by the end. Rather, the constant use of Shakespearean dialogue in non sequitur ways, the many references to the Broadway musicals (some of them delightfully subtle) and the constantly raging subtexts are the real focus.

Among a list of characters almost entirely sharing names with the rough peasants in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” or the protagonists of “The Merchant of Venice,” Rob Mcclure is the brashly ambitious Nick, played to the hilt as a man of rather hopeless ambition. Josh Grisetti gives the meek, poetic brother Nigel an innocent charm which plays well against the brash Nick.

As his love interest Portia, the rebellious daughter of a Puritan, Autumn Hurlbert matches Nigel’s earnest love of words and general niceness in ways which balance the crazy silliness of brother Nick’s storyline. As Nick’s practical wife Bea, Maggie Lakis delights, spending much of her time being a woman who dons men’s clothing (a regular Shakespearean trope) to work at jobs which support her husband’s dreams, later doing so again to save him in more direct ways. Nick Rashad Burroughs gives the occasional narrator, a minstrel, a compelling presence from the first curtain-rise.

Still, it is beyond these central characters that the true charm of this show appears. Blake Hammond proves a hoot as the somewhat iffy prognosticator, Nostradamus. Scott Cote, as Portia’s Puritan preacher father, makes subtle (and not so subtle) statements about the hypocrisy of many a religious fanatic, all with body language. Yet all these pale next to Adam Pascal’s Shakespeare, in leather jacket and bling, providing the slippery, stagey Elvis-like icon cashing in on presence.

Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw is the reason all this works so well. So much of the comedy is physical, and so much of the pacing is critical, that his direction is key to the success of the entire venture. In this he is aided by Gregg Barnes costumes, which emphasize the more unique aspects of Elizabethan era clothing, and Scott Pask’s layered quick-changing set.

Truth be told, “Something Rotten” is not a perfect musical, but it is often very entertaining, ranging from snicker-amusing to full-guffaw funny. And those ridiculously delicious spectacular numbers are worth it all. We could all use a laugh in these tough times. Anyone who loves the Broadway musical art form will find a lot to laugh at. Go see.

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Polished “A Christmas Story” Charms in Sierra Madre

Since 1983 the film “A Christmas Story” has been a part of many a family’s holiday traditions. Based on the writings of Jean Shepherd it offered nostalgia for a simpler time in small-town America. There, a boy in the midst of the usual drama of growing up, focuses on convincing either Santa or his parents to bring him the one thing he wants most for Christmas: a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time”.

More recently the tale has become a play, based not just on the film but on other nostalgic Shepherd’s writings. Done right, it can have the same charm as the film in a more immediate format.

Now at Sierra Madre Playhouse comes a chance to see it done right. From gifted child performers to solid and artful direction, through a remarkable-for-SMP set (considering the size of their stage) and a unified sense of ensemble, there is much to enjoy in what even the theater’s artistic director pegs as “one of the most ambitious plays” they have ever mounted.

The children in the production, and there are seven strong character parts for young people in the play, are double-cast. In the version I attended Ralphie was played by Julian Moser, whose earnestness and subtlety of character carried the production in impressive fashion. Myles Hutchinson and Jude Gomez were equally convincing as Ralphie’s two pals,

Daisy Kopolowsky, as the class brain, and particularly Xochitl Gomez-Deines, as the girl with eyes for Ralphie, provided that intriguing underlay of pending adolescence. Gideon Cooney Lebano, required mostly to be menacing, proved imposing as the school bully. Marshall Gluck makes nice work of Ralphie’s somewhat odd little brother.

But to lay the success of this production entirely at the feet of its talented youth would be to miss several other performances of note. As Ralphie’s imposing, world-weary teacher, and as the store employee serving as Santa’s definitely disenchanted elf, Danon Dastugue finds the neat balance between humor and bitterness which makes both characters highly entertaining.

Richard Van Slyke makes Ralphie’s father’s obsessions and character quirks as naturally warm as the tale permits, while Andrea Stradling proves the epitome of the midwestern, midcentury mom. Jackson Kendall gives the adult Ralph looking back on this storyline a lot more character than that of simple narrator, providing the glue which holds the piece together.

All these fine folks operate in this episodic tale on Charles Erven’s remarkable, and impressively flexible set, which lighting designer Derek Jones transforms, along with portions of SMP’s audience space, into something bigger than one thought could fit into this size of theater. The costumes courtesy of Shon LeBlanc, long known for his sense of period, round out the visuals in important ways. Still, the ensemble, the flow and movement of the piece, and the unified spark which push this show to its potential land solidly at the feet of director Christian Lebano. His affection for this show and his understanding of the need to pacing tight make the whole enterprise work.

So, if you are looking for something to watch to get you into the holiday mood, but have had enough of A Christmas Carol to last you awhile, why not try this show. It’s a change of pace, it’s very well done, and it will leave you thinking warm thoughts about the spirit, and the silliness, of this time of year. Children are more than welcome, though very young ones may find its humor goes over their heads.

What: “A Christmas Story” When: through December 31, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with added performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday, December 19, Wednesday, December 20, and Thursday December 14 and 21 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $36 general, $33 seniors (65+), $21 youth to age 21 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“King Charles III” – Tradition vs Conscience

Jim Abele as Charles in KING CHARLES III at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]


In order to fully understand the tensions of the play now open at the Pasadena Playhouse, it would be helpful have some background in the last century of the British monarchy. By this I do not mean necessarily that fascination with the soap opera played out in public by the royal family in the last few decades, but the ways in which the monarchy has defined its role – and had that role defined for it – in what is otherwise a strongly democratic parliamentary system. What does it mean that the monarch “reigns but does not rule”?

This proves central to “Charles III”, Mike Bartlett’s examination of the constitutional and emotional conundrum facing the current Prince Charles almost as soon as he takes the throne. He, like all monarchs, must sign every bill passed by the parliament before it becomes law, but this is mostly a ceremonial formality. When one crosses his desk he feels is detrimental to his country’s freedom, what can he do? What should he do? What could any action mean to the delicate balance that is the British system?

What makes all of this particularly delicious is Bartlett’s conscious choice to tell the tale in Shakespearean format. There is a ghost speaking cryptic predictions. There is iambic pentameter. There is a moral dilemma played out in the rich format of formal dialogue. Though, by modern standards, this may make the play seem talky, at the same time it relishes in the echoes of Hamlet and Macbeth – the awesome and terrible load on those who wear the crown.

Jim Abele is Charles, a man who has waited a literal lifetime to attain the only job he has ever been trained for. As such Abele finds the balance of the formality of the job and the character’s deep passion for justice in ways which show both his warmth and his sense of command. Adam Haas Hunter, as William, suddenly a crown prince, emphasizes the stoicism and the festering frustrations of destiny, while Meghan Andrews creates in his wife a sense of command which portends a wrangle over definitions of power. Dylan Saunders’ Harry underscores the frustrating uselessness which is the fate of royal younger sons. Sarah Hollis stands out as the girl who introduces Harry to a reality outside the palace, providing a rounded sense of the real life Harry yearns for.

On the other side of the argument, both powerful and adversarial, is J. Paul Boehmer as the prime minister who finds himself in a tense standoff with a king with his own understanding of his role, the parameters of Britain’s (unwritten) constitution, and the needs of a people he may or may not understand. The resulting questions power the play. Is what the people want always the right thing to do? Is there a safety valve available through the monarchy for unwise governmental action? Are the royal family puppets of political forces who, in truth, find them superfluous?

Director Michael Michetti takes what could be a static and talky script and gives it fascinating legs, in part by bringing it out into the Playhouse audience space. Parliament is on the floor with the patrons, and the almost forbidding palatial spaces of David Meyer’s remarkable set provide the instant formality and distance which define the main conundrums of the piece. This, even by itself, helps move one past the details of British constitutional practice into the humanity of the characters and the fearsome angst of the choices being made.

“King Charles III” is, of course, a fiction. Still, by tying its format and emotional core to Shakespeare’s insightful portraits of former kings both real and imaginary, there is a larger concept at play than just wondering what Charles will be like when and if he ascends the throne. Rather, there is a real, active focus on the monarch’s role to “advise and warn”, and how that works in a world awash in sensational media and quick answers to complex questions. As such, it is a treat for the mind as well as the artistic sense.

What: “King Charles III” When: through December 3, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 8 p.m. Tuesday, November 28, and no performance on Thanksgiving, or at 7 p.m. Sunday, November 26 Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $96 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

“Yohen” at East West Players: Casting Spoils the Art

June Angela and Danny Glover in “Yohen” at East West Players

Eighteen years ago, Danny Glover and the late Nobu McCarthy shared the stage of East West Players in Philip Kan Gotanda’s “Yohen,” about the struggles of an couple coming to terms with the husband’s retirement after 37 years in the military. At that time Glover was 53, and the idea of him as a GI who married a girl he met while stationed in Japan a decade or so after World War II ended, when he was still seen there – as the character’s wife explains – as part of the conquering army, made sense.

Now “Yohen” is on stage at East West Players again, in a joint production with The Robey Theatre Company. The play’s title references the Japanese term for an accident during the firing of a ceramic, where ash scars and unintended cracks appear on the piece making it either more interesting or destined for the trash. Here it serves as a metaphor for a long and complex intercultural marriage the play examines.

For reasons one cannot quite figure, Glover is again playing James, the husband in this two-person performance. Now he is in his 70s, and looks it. He struggles with lines and with the physicality of the character, who is rediscovering himself by boxing with potential Golden Gloves contenders at a local gym. The idea that this man only recently stepped away from a career in the military, at the pay grade that he claims to represent, is nonsensical. And that is really too bad, as the play deserves better.

So does June Angela, who plays Sumi, James’ Japanese wife. She should be balancing the bombast and physicality with a cultural reticence which should be allowed to begin to show cracks and ash, just as the pots the character creates do. Sometimes she even gets to do that, and show a genuine craft open to appreciation. Unfortunately, much of the time she is left to try to figure out when to interject into Glover’s repetitive, sometimes gasping lines of dialogue, giving the sense that the lines she would normally respond to aren’t always there.

Director Ben Guillory has done what he can to make this very talky, and rather episodic tale hang together. Naila Aladdin Sanders has provided a fascinating set, which when combined with Michael Ricks’ lighting, sets tonal changes and provides fascinating interludes between scenes. Still, polished as this production is, it can’t compensate for Glover’s performance.

Playwright Gotanda is one of the strongest voices in the Asian-American play-writing community, and this particular play’s examination of the struggles of an interracial and intercultural couple, on and off of military bases, who came together in the very early 60s, has a lot to say about marriage, about identity and self-worth, the lies we tell ourselves to keep moving forward. The question mark of its ending should leave one touched and pondering.

So, again, the biggest question in all of this is “Why?”. Why have a person who does not fit the character play one character in a two-person play? Perhaps having a major star in the piece will be a draw, and help pay the bills. Perhaps. But it doesn’t do Angela, Gotanda or even Glover service to have done so.

What: “Yohen” When: Through November 19, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday Where: East West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso St. in Los Angeles How Much: $40 – $60 Info: (213) 625-7000 or http://www.eastwestplayers.org

The Curious Savage in Whittier: Unique Individuals, Gentle Humor

l. to r.: Richard de Vicariis, Candy Beck and Elizabeth M. Desloge in The Curious Savage at Whittier Community Theatre

For the second play of their 96th season, the Whittier Community Theatre has chosen the gently comic “The Curious Savage” by John Patrick. In a time when the battle between decency and avarice is played out in the news and on all forms of media on a regular basis, the play itself seems particularly apt. The quietly wry wit of Patrick’s play, and its message to humanity, have kept in relevant even as a few other aspects seem somewhat dated.

The setting is 1950, and an institution called The Cloisters – a home for persons who are wrestling with the balance between their hopes and fears and what the world deems as real. Into this calming but unique community arrives Mrs. Ethel Savage, the widow of a wealthy man. She has been placed in The Cloisters by her three step-children, determined to stop her from frittering away the millions they expect to inherit.

Mrs. Savage, having doted upon her husband from an early age, is now determined not only to act out the silly wishes she kept dormant, but to form a fund to let others do the same: an appallingly crazy concept to the determined trio who have committed her.
In The Cloisters, she encounters five damaged but sincere individuals to whom she listens and with whom she develops a unique rapport. As it becomes increasingly obvious that the step-children do not have her best interests at heart, it is these “inmates”, and the doctor and assistant who attend them, who may be able to rise to the occasion and prove her right to her own desires.

Though the WCT production starts a bit slow, it builds into a very likable piece. As the step-children, Gary Page’s pompous US Senator proves sharp and commanding, Frank McCay’s childish judge has just the right whine, and Elizabeth M. Desloge (despite a somewhat unfortunate wig) makes a most focused money-grubber. Richard De Vicariis, as the presiding doctor, manages one of his best, gently underplayed performances. LIkewise, Amy Miramontes proves warmly humane as the attendant nurturing the institution’s inhabitants.

As for the inhabitants, Janet Arnold-Clark makes sweet work of the woman whose fantasy keeps her dead little boy alive, and Jeffrey Buckner-Rodas, as a man convinced he can play the violin, proves both earnest and charmingly suggestible. Carlos David Lopez unwinds gradually as a man so stricken with survivor’s guilt he carries it into self-image, while Cindy Cisneros gives the young girl desperate to deserve love and attention a quirky gusto. Best of the lot is Julie Breihan’s truly funny Mrs. Paddy, who hates everything with a spectacular sulky look and delivery.

Mrs. Savage herself must, rightly, be filled with an energy which powers her ability to connect with her fellow inhabitants, and defines the drive to circumvent her wastrel stepchildren in order to achieve her dreams. Cindy Beck, a WCT regular in a number of capacities, warms to this gradually, so that her best version of Ethel arrives after the intermission. From then on, she commands the proceedings, creating an atmosphere of warmth, and underscoring the play’s central points.

Mark Frederickson’s set makes good use of Whittier Community Center’s long, slender stage, giving a realism to the piece. Karen Jacobsen’s costumes generally, if not precisely, reflect the period. The ending piece – a picture of what the inmates see when they look in the mirror – proves particularly striking, when it arrives.

Director Lenore Stjerne has a feel for the point and the humor of this play. Indeed, the playwright’s abjuration that the “inmates of The Cloisters be treated with warmth and dignity” is obviously focal to her pacing and structuring of the performances. As a result, what one finds is a contrast between dreamers and takers, between human kindness and self-focus. In the end, this may be the most important thing about going to see “The Curious Savage.” Who actually is a savage provides a pointed finger at what so many have or yearn to become.

As part of their annual Thanksgiving drive, bring a non-perishable food item to the box office and receive a free goodie (they have brownies!) at intermission. All contributions will be donated to the local food bank.

What: “The Curious Savage” When: through November 18, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 12 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 adults; $12 seniors (62 and over), juniors (18 and under), students, and military with ID Info: (565) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

“9 to 5” Hustles into Candlelight Pavilion

Krista Curry as Doralee and Ernie Marchain as the predatory boss in Candlelight Pavilion’s “9 to 5”

The stage musical version of “9 to 5,” the iconic feminist movie from 1980, had its birth at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, then a Broadway run in 2008. With music by Dolly Parton, who had originally written the title song for the film, it brought back the feisty trio of Violet, Judy and Doralee, whose kidnapping of their vindictive, sexist boss and subsequent running of the office in his name not only turns their company’s productivity around but empowers each of the women in ways they need most.

Now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, the show stands up well for the most part. There is, of course, Parton’s songs – many of them significantly memorable – to provide the most important underpinning to the enterprise. The cast proves energetic and consistently engaged, and by and large the end result proves satisfying. The only challenge, really, in this as in any production is finding the edgy vitality so necessary to the three central women who power the piece.

Most certainly, the trappings are there and work very well. Director John Vaughn’s pacing and choreography let an able ensemble set a vibrant tone for the increasingly happy workplace. Chuck Ketter’s set design allows the admittedly episodic tale to flow easily from one scene to the next. The supporting players, especially Orlando Montes’ touching portrayal of Violet’s potential love interest, and Rachel McLaughlan, as Roz, the secretary comically obsessed with the boss the others abhor, round out the storyline and the feel of the piece in important ways. Ernie Marchain manages to make Mr. Hart – the boss – just as slimy and condescending as one would hope, another necessity.

As the three who provide the show’s focus, Juliet Schulein makes a terrific Violet – commanding and fragile by turns, with an innate toughness that underscores everything in the show. Colette Peters gives the timid Judy a sort of wide-eyed openness which makes her character work. As Doralee, the country-bred secretary victimized by the boss’ false rumors, Krista Curry manages the accent and style well, though her singing edges on the shrill side enough to keep the character from seeming as in control as she needs to be.

Even when it premiered, “9 to 5” was a somewhat antiquated style of musical. Still, it’s fun and lighthearted, with a sense of moral victory which seems particularly apt at a time when so many bosses are being appropriately thrown under the bus for slimy behavior. Once again, and to their own surprise, Candlelight Pavilion has a show speaking to modern sensibilities in a far more timely way than they anticipated when creating their season.

So go take a look. As always at Candlelight, the show comes with a lovely meal, and an ambiance which can prove an antidote to the many tensions of our current state of affairs.

What: “9 to 5” When: through November 25, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, and one Thursday performance November 16; 5 p.m. on Sundays; and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $61 – $76 adults, $30 – $35 children 12 and under, meal included Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Shaw, Shame and Changing Mores: “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” at ANW

ANW Resident Artist Erika Soto as Vivie Warren, Adam Faison as Frank Gardner in A Noise Within’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


It would be tough, in the English-speaking theatrical canon, to find any playwright more unromantic than George Bernard Shaw. His view of the social arrangements of adult life in late Victorian and early 20th century Britain were quite clear in the arguments his plays made (and continue to make) about the entire subject. For him, the middle class of his era, marriage was a financial arrangement, not a romantic endeavor. For lower classes, there was simply no time for romance in the dual pushes to eke out a living and, if possible, rise out of dangerous and debilitating poverty.

This view shows up particularly in Shaw’s women. From Eliza Doolittle’s determination to achieve a safer self-sufficiency, to – in one of his most “shocking” plays at the time – Kitty Warren, who funds (albeit from a distance) the raising of her very much middle class, educated daughter by successfully operating a string of houses of prostitution on the continent, they show a specific focus on breaking social barriers and avoiding the seemingly inevitable fates of women in their time.

Indeed, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” now in repertory at A Noise Within in Pasadena, balances the “modern” middle class working woman, Vivie Warren, with her lower class, but very, if scandalously successful mother Kitty in ways which pinpoint the plight of both. For Vivie, her focus is becoming a professional. Her alternative is marriage, where she is seen as a prize mostly for the inheritance she will bring with her. For Kitty, the choice was “decent” jobs which were either at poverty wages or involved potentially deadly labor, or deciding to treat sex as the business transaction Shaw was always certain it was.

Can these two women come to an understanding which surmounts the conventional reactions of their day? In this case, being Shavian, the characters’ disconnects may not be the predictable. On the other hand, the men who are sure they know what will, or should happen, pretty much are.

Director Michael Michetti has put a liveliness of spirit into what is admittedly a particularly talky Shaw play by centering it all on character. Still, when it becomes important that you hear the points being made, one cannot help acknowledge Shaw’s tendency toward (as a friend passionate about Shaw once said) beautifully costumed panel discussions. By then, thanks to Michetti, you care enough about the people having the discussions to stop, sit and listen, as well as to absorb a few vital non-verbal moments Michetti uses to bring the play’s major point home.

This is all achievable thanks to a diverse and skilled ensemble cast. Erika Soto makes Vivie convincingly earnest in her desire to be productive in the world, with a specific sense of internal morality which makes her resolute rather than stiff, especially in relation to Kitty. Judith Scott, as Kitty, radiates the inequivocal confidence in her own decisions which underscores the entire character: a lack of apology for succeeding outside the very middle class mores she wishes upon her daughter.

As the young gentleman whose pursuit of Vivie eventually carries more the scent of the mercenary than the romantic, Adam Faison radiates a boyish charm with just the right edge of selfishness. As the profoundly ineffective rector – the young man’s father – whose concern for image diminishes him, Martin Kildare huffs about with appropriate superficiality.

Yet the greatest contrast comes from Jeremy Rabb’s Sir George, Kitty’s business partner, whose values lie solely in a pragmatic capitalism, seeing even the people with which he surrounds himself primarily with an eye to profit. This in balance to Peter James Smith’s Mr. Praed, Kitty’s earnest friend, given a gentle warmth which emphasizes the genuine feeling and concern which balances well against the self-interest of the other men of the piece.

All work in a seamless flow on Sara Ryung Clement’s elemental set, which allows quick movement of setting when needed, and emphasizes the people and the words in important ways.

Shaw is never as easy as one would think. Though “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” caused demonstrations and legal actions upon its premieres, both in Britain and the the US, when one sits and listens to what is actually being spoken – particularly in the final scenes – what the play has to say about class, culture, women’s roles and parental ambition proves as powerful today as it was a century ago: less shocking on a superficial level, but still disturbing in a more elemental way.

For this reason, not to mention the sheer understanding that a Shaw play is a treat for the intellect, ANW’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is worth a look. Go to listen. Go to ponder. This show plays in repertory with “A Tale of Two Cities” and “The Madwoman of Chaillot”.

What: “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” When: Through November 18: 7:00 p.m. October 22 and November 12, 7:30 p.m. November 2, 8 p.m. October 28 and November 3, 17 and 18, with matinees at 2 p.m. October 22 and 28 and November 12 and 18 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Funny, Deeply True “With Love and a Major Organ”: the necessary human touch

Daisuke Tsuji & Paige Lindsey White in “With Love and a Major Organ” at Boston Court [Photo: Jenny Graham]


Recently, as part of an assignment at a nearby public high school, students experimented at a local mall to see what people their age would do if a stranger (also their age) came up to try to engage them in conversation. Over and over, the subjects of their experiment would look down at their phones – use their electronic social network to avoid talking to a real person. Interestingly, that was the expected result, according to the teens.

In some ways, this same concept is reflected in “With Love and a Major Organ,” now at The Theatre at Boston Court. Isolation as safety, distance as lifestyle, and electronic communication as the only social contact are the norms as the play opens. Then a woman on a subway makes contact with a man safe in his isolation, and begins sending him long, poetic outpourings of enthusiastic interest, by way of acknowledgedly outmoded cassette tapes. The results are funny, insightful, and end up saying much more about the heart and human interaction than simply being a quirky, poetically symbolic love story.

Paige Lindsey White is the subway rider, giving her a physicality as effusive as her prose, and a depth of enthusiasm which one discovers has been contagious when it suddenly disappears. Daisuke Tsuji is George, the young man whose detached and regimented life White’s character is bent on reforming. Tsuji manages to make the young man distant and passive while still giving him a directness and sense of self. The two play off against each other in ways which make the central themes of the play come alive.

Still, some of the funniest moments come thanks to Bonita Friedericy, as George’s mother Mona. The character, having protected her son from heartbreak as he grew, finds herself reaching out without reaching out: using the computer as a distance-maker for everything from romance to psychology. As she and the other two characters perform an intricate dance of feeling and separation, empathy and distance, enthusiastic embracing of the world and deadened indifference to input, they illustrate – in fascinatingly, symbolically graphic ways the complexity of the human heart.

Director Jessica Kubzansky has a feel for such sweetly intricate plays, never letting the frothy surface obscure the important elements running just underneath. Her utilization of Francois-Pierre Couture’s scenic structure, simple in style, rich in animations underscoring the many moods of the piece, adds to the otherworldly ordinariness of the enterprise. In the process the humanity of it all takes center stage: the innate need for connection which is how we as a species become whole.

Playwright Julia Lederer’s play, which debuted in Canada in 2012, was prescient when it comes to some of the details of our modern social media-based existence. The stolid character’s mother, having protected her son from heartbreak as he grew, connects to a computerized psychologist through Google, and tries speed dating through fairly anonymous websites. Both are now actually possible in ways they were not when Lederer thought them up.

Plus, the need for connection and the ways technology has created the ability to avoid it are here as well. Those high school students confirmed it, at least for their own generation. What then could be more important than seeing a play like “With Love and a Major Organ,” with its insistence that one’s heart, in real time, is central to everything.

What: “With Love and a Major Organ” When: Through November 5, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (except October 15) and Saturday, October 14 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 Info: (626) 683-6801 or http://www.BostonCourt.com

Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Make “Our Town” New Again

Deric Augustine and Sandra Mae Frank in Our Town at Pasadena Playhouse.[Photo: Jenny Graham]


When Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” first appeared in 1938, its production was a radical departure from what theater had been up until that time. This intimate portrait of small town New Hampshire at the start of the 20th Century would prove to modern audiences what theater could do that film (and later television) could not: allow the audience to fill in details of setting, props and other physical elements on their own, without elaborate stage trappings. It would celebrate what Shakespeare knew, that the audience was ready to lean upon their own imaginations.

The Pasadena Playhouse has produced this Pulitzer Prize-winning play twice before in its 100 year history. Now, in association with Deaf West Theatre, it has opened again, and – thanks to this collaboration – their new production underscores the essential tenets of stagecraft which made the original such a satisfying departure. Hearing and hearing-impaired performers speak two languages at once (English and ASL), and their individual characters and performance styles meld into a whole Wilder himself would approve of. Good thing, too, for “Our Town” is completely performance-dependent. There is nothing gaudy or distracting to take attention off the actors themselves.

The story covers a few central characters over the course of life in a small town, focused most strongly on George Gibbs and the girl next door, Emily Webb. We watch them and their families as George and Emily grow from childhood friends, to a couple about to marry, and then to the moment Emily’s death closes the circle. We watch them as the “stage manager” (in this case one hearing person and three deaf persons, essentially intertwined) narrates, explains, draws verbal pictures of the larger goings on, and rounds out the town’s sense of community. All of this on a bare stage with a few ropes, a couple of ladders and a host of chairs. It has always been rather revelatory to watch.

Standouts include Jane Kaczmarek, as the stage manager, joined in some cases by Russell Harvard when he’s not playing Emily’s father, sometimes by Alexandria Wailes, when she is not playing George’s mother, and at other times by Troy Kotsur, when he’s not playing the town’s church organist and resident alcoholic. The virtual dance they do in shifting in and out of Kaczmarek’s sphere proves both humorous and fascinating. Kaczmarek herself provides the calm and patient embodiment of the town as a whole, and stands as interpreter of a script she shepherds along. The success of this combination of forces comes to define what works in this production.

Sandra Mae Frank makes a charmingly innocent Emily, aided by the voice of Sharon Pierre-Louis in a way which meshes the physicalized and vocalized lines into a very effective whole. Deric Augustine gives George the gee-whiz attitude of a small-town baseball player shy with girls and earnest in looking forward. Annika Marks makes Emily’s mother practical and loving. Jud Williford makes George’s father humorous and practical.

A remarkable ensemble of Marie-France Arcilla, Harold Foxx, David Gautreaux, Marco Gutierrez, Leonard Kelly-Young, Dot-Marie Jones, Amanda McDonough, Natasha Ofili, Sharon Pierre-Louis, and On Shiu provide the rest of the town, voices for those characters who only sign, and flesh out even the set on occasion. Of these, the true standouts are Foxx, as a milkman with a very opinionated horse, and Jones as a woman from a troubled marriage who still thrills at going to weddings.

Everyone signs. This is important, though (as has been stated elsewhere) a few hearing cast members are brand new to ASL and it sometimes shows in their slowness of speech. On the other hand, the use of sign is a theatrical virtue in itself, as it provides emphasis, enthusiasm, even a sense of prayer or dance to moments which would otherwise just be words. “Our Town” is of necessity talky, and making the talk visual breathes a newness into it all.

Director Sheryl Kaller has experience with this kind of melding, and has taken the universality she sees in this script a step further, including (obviously) those who are hearing and those who are not, but also amassing a cast rich in ethnic and cultural diversity. Choreographer David Dorfman has facilitated the sense of dance that is sign taken as music, as well as moments of movement necessary to the storyline or to this duality of voice.

In the end, what Wilder had to say with this play comes out just as strongly, if not more so, as it did in the original: things change, but not those things that define us. That, joined with a desire to treasure every moment which will not come again, meshed with the impossibility of that very desire as our day-to-day flows by far too quickly. There is a peace and perspective and timelessness to “Our Town” which is important in this fractious and divisive time. Adding together two important but often separate cultures of America – that of the hearing and the deaf – makes a statement as well about what this town, this stage, this nation really has to offer.

“Our Town” is a love song to that which is best in American culture, which we rarely take time to notice. Go. Stop for a while. Notice what’s up on stage, and celebrate what is so important in the unimportant details of life.

What: “Our Town” When: through October 22, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $92 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Rashad Shines in “Head of Passes” at the Taper

Phylicia Rashad in “Head of Passes” at the Mark Taper Forum

Every once in a while one comes across a performance which may outweigh the play it takes place in. In this case, a good play becomes greater because of one person who takes a playwright’s words and their own and their director’s understandings and makes of them something much more than the sum of those parts. This is Phylicia Rashad in “Head of Passes,” now open at the Mark Taper Forum.

In Tarell Alvin McCraney’s modern spin on trials worthy of Job, a woman’s plans for a quiet conversation with her children about her tenuous future implodes in ways she could never expect, testing her faith in ways that leave her arguing with God in a setting Noah might recognize. If all this sounds terribly religious, that’s not the only way to read the play. Still, the central character’s faith powers her responses, the affect she has had on those around her, and her eventual self-revelations in ways that would not be as palpable otherwise.

Rashad is Shelah, the matriarch of a family which has gathered at her house near the Head of Passes (where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico) to celebrate her birthday, whether she wants a celebration or not. There, on an island in the delta, and with a storm lashing at the house, she had hoped instead to quiety discuss her assets with her children before her obvious illness takes over. Those who populate her world – a neighbor, a doctor, a helper and his son, and her own children – gather, fight, fuss over the house’s increasingly decrepit condition, anything but have that discussion. As the storm worsens, so do the revelations. And that is just the start.

As Shelah, Rashad creates that recognizable form of devout woman, talking to, appealing to, and venting anger at the God she has trusted to uphold her over a long life. When, in the end, she must confront her own failings and what they have wrought, the play becomes both riveting and gut wrenching. It’s a truly tour-de-force performance.

In this she is aided by a solidly ensemble cast. Francois Battiste gives the successful son, Aubrey, the kind of confidence of carriage to match a character quick to judgement, whether it be about his mother’s future or his sister’s past. J. Bernard Calloway, by contrast, plays Spencer, the elder but less successful son as a man who, despite bluster, is used to falling short, despite his physical capabilities.

Jacqueline Williams gives Shelah’s contemporary and neighbor the observer’s voice, trying to assess Shelah’s house of cards even as it falls, while – in a brief but deeply important moment – Alana Arenas, as the daughter, delivers a portait of pain and a reality check on her mother’s dreams whichc fuels all that follows. John Earl Jelks makes Shelah’s helper a man of considerable wit but little tact, while Kyle Beltran offers up youthful anger and observation as his son. James Carpenter rounds out the cast as the doctor, whose casual moments of white privilege bring both laughter and sadness.

Director Tina Landau truly gets these characters, and makes the nearly poetic language of McCraney’s script, and the amazing special effects of G.W. Mercier’s remarkable set, seem like normal life and conversation. The tensions never let up, and the symbolism, including the symbolic physicality of it all, is its own work of art.

Still, in the end, what makes all of this something one simply must see is the performance of Rashad, whose final, extensive monologue will stick with you, regardless of what or if you believe in regards to a higher power. There is much to chew over, followed by a step back to look at all the richness of idea and symbol the play has surrounded that powerful moment with.

What: “Head of Passes” When: through October 22, 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: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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