Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Shakespearean Side Story:”Everything That Never Happened” at Boston Court

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Leo Marks is Shylock and Erica Soto is Jessica in “Everything That Never Happened” at Boston Court Pasadena [photo: Jenny Graham]

Boston Court Pasadena’s Co-Artistic Director Jessica Kubzansky loves Shakespeare. That I know. She has directed insightful productions of the Bard’s work at several venues, and in her “RII” at BC she  pared one play down to great effect, allowing more focus on essential and timeless themes in a comparatively obscure history play.

Thus, it is not really a surprise that she would embrace directing the world premiere of Sarah B. Mantell’s “Everything That Never Happened.” A sideways look at “The Merchant of Venice” from the perspective of Shylock and Jessica, it becomes a discussion of culture, erasure, revenge, and the normalization of inequality which offers a countermeasure to the antisemitic overtones of the Bard’s original.

In “Everything…” Mantell has eschewed the Elizabethan language as she propels us into the world of Jessica, the Jewish daughter of moneylender Shylock, who is being wooed by the Christian Lorenzo. As their non-Jewish servant, Gobbo, looks on and occasionally collaborates, Jessica must figure out what matters to her most.

What she sees in Lorenzo is freedom, not only from the oppression of being a Jew in Venice, but from the rigid limitations her faith places on her behaviors. Shylock, on the other hand, finds his pride in his culture – a buffer against a larger community which puts his people in a ghetto and spits upon him even as they beg for the money he lends. What will remain, and what be washed away, as these strong personalities pull apart?

Leo Marks gives a gravitas to Shylock, quietly strong and innately sure of his direction – a stance which gives Jessica’s eventual betrayal the aspect of an inner earthquake: subtle and devastating. As Jessica, Erika Soto moves from romantic dreamer to shaken realist in incremental steps grounded in identity and a gradual realization of the cost of her dreams.

Paul Culos gives Lorenzo the casual command of a man unaware of the extent of his unearned privilege: romantic, somewhat devious, and sure he will get his way. Dylan Saunders’ Gobbo is a truly Shakespearean servant, observant and protective in practical ways uncluttered by the cultural frameworks he stands firmly between.

Kubzansky gets these people, and the literal undercurrent of the play, as rivers and canals flow by, an echo of the passage of time and of the things which can overwhelm us. Francois-Pierre Couture’s minimalist set creates a sense of space, storage for quickly shifting scenic elements, and even waterways where there are none. Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting delineates space and time, and John Nobori’s sound design, sometimes intentionally overwhelming, hints at great tides to come.

Still, it is the play itself, which manages to be linear and nonlinear all at once, that underscores the points Shakespeare didn’t bother to make: the locked gates of the ghettos, the dangers of revenge in a world suspicious of closed societies, the entire undercurrent of otherness which made Shylock at once an easy target and an unacknowledged tragedy.

“Everything…” happens fast. The play is only an hour and 25 minutes long. Still, within that time there are the seeds of awareness, and by the time the Kaddish is sung, what has been lost by the events of that other play happening in their background has a rich profundity.

What: “Everything That Never Happened” When: through November 4, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays  How Much: $20 – $39  Info: 626-683-6801 or http://www.BostonCourtPasadena.org

 

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“Dorian Gray” at A Noise Within: Recreating a Hit

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Frederick Stuart, Amin El Gamal (rear) and Colin Bates as Dorian in “A Picture of Dorian Gray” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Of all of Oscar Wilde’s creations, the overall theme of “A Picture of Dorian Gray” has most become a part of the English language. References to a portrait in a closet going to hell have appeared in any number of literary genres, and many who have never actually been exposed to Wilde’s story know in general what that reference means: someone who is dissolute in some way or another without it showing.

What may be less well known is the odd combination of license and Victorianism with which it is invested, or the more homoerotic tone of the original story Wilde himself had to tone down considerably when the work went from its magazine debut to the permanence of book form. Now Michael Michetti’s adaptation of “Dorian” has been revived and is once again directed by its adaptor at A Noise Within in Pasadena, 12 years after its wildly popular premiere at The Theatre at Boston Court (now Boston Court Pasadena), where Michetti is co-Artistic Director.

Although I often object strenuously to any sense of being wedded to the first presentation of a particular play, here there is a need to make some comparisons. Not only is the adaptation by the same person, but the director is the same. What have time and a difference of venue meant to this work?. In a play taken virtually word for word from Wilde, perhaps the most obvious, but in some ways the most unfair disadvantage of this production is its Dorian.

Wilde’s Dorian is a young man who radiates almost hypnotically attractive youth and innocence. He shines as a beacon of both to such an extent that the more jaundiced men with whom he comes into contact praise that beauty and youthfulness as both the greatest advantage he has, and the most fleeting. Thus begins the tale.

In Michetti’s first production, actor Steve Coombs’ Dorian was just that – a young man of Byronic beauty with a physique like Michelangelo’s David. At ANW, Colin Bates has an edgier, tougher, stringier aspect, making all the comments about his radiant innocence and Hellenic perfection ring somewhat hollow, not because he is not a fine actor (he definitely is) but because the tale centers so much on the dichotomy between Dorian’s riveting physical image and the increasingly twisted soul beneath.

On the other hand, the theme of a man who seems universally attractive while operating with a complete lack of conscience seems almost prescient, given the news cycle of the last couple of weeks. And so the play itself has more to offer now than perhaps it did before.

Standing out in a strong cast is Amin El Gamal, as the shyly adoring painter Basil. He manages the delicate balance of adoration, gentleness and pent-up emotion necessary to balance the wry, bitter quality of Frederick Stuart’s Lord Henry, the man most responsible for leading Dorian astray. Stuart’s delivery almost always offers hints of snide fatalism, and here that proves just the right irritant.

Beyond these three, Chelsea Kurtz makes fine work of the young actress Dorian’s adoration destroys, Jose Angel Donado exudes contained fury as her vengeful brother, and Daniel Lench sets a standard as Lord Henry’s uncle. Beyond these, a talented ensemble handles the many other characters who float in and out of Dorian’s world as his debauchery increases.

Michetti and James Maloof have designed a set which allows for quick scene changes and an interesting balance between reality and the weirdly dreamlike quality of Wilde’s storytelling. There is a strong sense of pacing and focus, and the choreography of John Pennington helps define the destruction of Dorian’s character with a fluidity which moves the story forward.

Yet, it is hard to buy into this Dorian, and thus into that aforementioned great dichotomy of Wilde’s story: the very Victorian concept of visible sin – of how an evil soul will wrench one’s physical self – and the portrait which twists so the man himself can remain unblemishedly beautiful.

Be aware that this adaptation borrows from both versions of Wilde’s original story, and thus emphasizes far more than the more easily acquired print edition the homoeroticism which underscored Wilde’s own life. There is also stylistically important full frontal male nudity. To paraphrase a favorite university theater director, if either of these will offend you, then you will be offended.

This play will be performed in repertory with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”.

What: “A Picture of Dorian Gray”  When: through November 16, 8 p.m. October 19, 20, November 2, 3, and 16; 7 p.m. October 28, November 11; 7:30 p.m. November 15; 2 p.m. October 20, 28, November 2, 3, and 11  Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena   How Much: from $25, student rush with ID an hour before performance $20  Info: 626-356-3121 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t: SCNG Gives Up Printing/Posting Reviews

Fate plays tricks on one, now and again. Change can arrive bidden or unbidden, and the consequences are not always predictable. Take this site, for instance. Originally my son arm-twisted me into creating it, concerned that the medium of print news was disappearing. Still, my theatrical critiques continued to appear in the Pasadena Star-News, the first daily I ever wrote for, as well as other related papers: a list which grew longer and longer as the parent company morphed into the Southern California News Group. The size of the once proud and independent Star-News shrank from a historic building bustling with reporters, editors, workers in the basement press room, and all the others who make a newspaper go, to three guys in the back of a modern building doing local reporting while everything else was handled by some editor or business exec at one of various other sites. Still, one of those editors (it changed over time) okay’d my assignments, and my critiques still showed up in print.

Now print news – at least major outlets’ version of it (NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) – is making a comeback in the era of “Oh my God! What kind of crazy is going on in Washington?”, but the damage has already been done to the smaller papers, who have been bought and consolidated, and then consolidated again, until what were once the voices of local information have been homogenized nearly to the point of pointlessness. Online sources (Pasadena NOW, for instance) have taken over some of that, though their journalistic skill can vary greatly.

And what of coverage of the arts? In the case of the SCNG, the Lifestyle pages, once the home of critiques of theater, dance, restaurants, film, etc., are now all apparently controlled from a single desk for all papers in the chain. Local is out. This is why all theater criticism disappeared from those pages in August. They were still available online, though you had to be a detective to find them (as I heard over and over again from those who couldn’t figure out to get there). Then it was determined that too few people were visiting those online pages (see above, though that wasn’t apparently part of the discussion), and it was concluded that nobody wanted to read theater criticism anymore. So… no more critiques will be offered in any SCNG papers.

Thus it turns out my son’s urging was a very good thing. My reviews will still appear here, and linked to my new Facebook page, called rather obviously “Reviews by Frances Baum Nicholson”. There will be a monthly preview column which will appear in only the San Gabriel Valley-area papers as well, but it will be mostly a preview of what’s coming up, rather than any evaluative tool.

There may be other connections. I’m still looking into other avenues for my work to get out there. What will come of that I do not know. In the meantime, here I am. Please go to the “Contact the Author” section of this website to see how to receive word of reviews, go “like” my FB page, or subscribe by email in order to see what I’ve posted, if you are interested.

Thank goodness for the Internet, I guess. It is seen as being the death of the daily paper, but it has to be acknowledged as where the majority of Americans find their information these days. Of course, you do need to be careful and find trustworthy sources in order to avoid being led by the nose. In that vein, and to be helpful, I offer the chart below. Critiques or no, being able to access accurate information has never been more critical, and I find this chart, created by a nonpartisan organization, is valuable to have on hand. Yes, this is me wearing my “other hat” as a teacher of US government, but there ya go. Sometimes the two parts of my life blend.

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“Bonnie and Clyde” at Candlelight Pavilion: Tuneful if Fanciful Fare

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Beau Brians and Callandra Olivia are “Bonnie and Clyde” at Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont

When one hears the names Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, one is inclined to think first of the groundbreaking 1960s film based on their exploits, or about the fact the two were briefly considered heroes in the financially downtrodden midwest of the Great Depression until those same exploits became too deadly. In 2009 the La Jolla Playhouse premiered a musical. which later traveled to Broadway, based on the legendary criminal couple, focused on their apparently quite real love story – the illicit nature of which was as tantalizing to the 1930s public as their bank robberies.

Now open at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, “Bonnie and Clyde” proves both captivating and intense, with an engaging pacing and energy. Featuring a fine cast, an score of eclectic styles, an on-stage band, and tight, knowledgeable direction, the show has a bit of something for almost anyone who is fascinated by the combination of brutality and passion these two and those closest to them represented.

The story borders on legend by now, and must of course be truncated some to fit into a couple hours on the stage. Clyde, a long-time petty crook from an impoverished family, falls for Bonnie, a struggling waitress separated from the husband she married at 16, and they fall in love. As Clyde’s ambitions and crimes increase he sucks in both Bonnie and his brother Buck to create a gang which gradually moves from petty thefts and store robberies to bank robberies and murder. Their story becomes fodder for tabloid newspapers, but they become increasingly hunted by law enforcement until their predictable, untimely end in an ambush.

Beau Brians gives the necessary edginess and sings with intensity as Clyde. Callandra Olivia creates in Bonnie a mixture of a young woman wrestling with the dichotomy of personal love and desire, and the dawning acknowledgement of the dangerous path her dreams have let her take. Nic Olsen, as Clyde’s brother and sometime partner in crime, is played for a kind of innocence which counterbalances Clyde’s amorality. Katie McGhie, gives Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche the kind of backbone missing from the film, and a moral core which pounds against the gang’s actions even as she is drawn into them. All of these performers sing extraordinarily well. Indeed, a duet between Olivia and McGhie, “You Love Who You Love,” is one of the high points of the entire production.

Other standouts among a large and versatile cast include Jennifer Lawson and Lisa Dyson as Bonnie and Clyde’s mothers, respectively, David Sasik as the young deputy in at the finish who had known Bonnie in her waitressing days, and Michael Lanning – a member of the original company – as an intense country preacher. Also worthy of particular note are Serena Thompson and Joey Caraway as the young Bonnie and Clyde, bringing gravitas to their youthful dreams.

Director Victor Hernandez was a member of this show’s Broadway cast, and the familiarity and love he has for this production shines through in every aspect. Chuck Ketter’s remarkable set makes terrific use of the Candlelight’s small stage, making scene changes virtually instantaneous and helping propel the intensity of the piece. Music director Ryan O’Connell leads the on-stage band and keeps the tone and pacing of the entire production – one almost entirely sung – on target.

As happens with most people who become legends, the history of this “Bonnie and Clyde” plays fast-and-loose on occasion with the documentable facts, but it does seem to instill what appears to have been the romantic aspect of their story with somewhat greater accuracy than some accounts. Certainly, it is worth taking a look, and at Candlelight Pavilion it comes with a good meal as well.

What: “Bonnie and Clyde”. When: through October 13, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. on Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays  How Much: $63 – $78 adults, $$30 – $35 children under 12, meal inclusive. Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or www.candlelightpavilion.com

 

“American Hero”: Corporations, Abandonment, and Life in Fast Food

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Anna LaMadrid, Laura Mann, and Graham Outerbridge in a rare celebratory moment from Bess Wohl’s American Hero [Photo: Dean Cechvala]

If one had to peg a single theme for the plays I have seen open in the past month, it would be two-fold: the heartlessness of corporate America combined with the innate sense of straight white privilege, and the plight of those the privileged see as underclasses, be they minority cultures, blue collar victims of the evisceration of union power, or simply those trying to get by in the morass of the service economy. The most recent contribution in this regard is IAMA Theatre Company’s production of Bess Wohl’s “American Hero,” now at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre, upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse.

In “American Hero,” a trio of employees are hired to help open a new franchise of a chain sandwich shop in a local mall. When these “sandwich artists” are left to their own devices, abandoned by their supposed owner, their levels of desperation and ingenuity both pour out, leading to a sense of cohesion based on mutual respect which becomes a strong contrast to the corporation which technically controls their futures. The play proves funny, sad, biting and human all at once.

Director James Eckhouse has assembled a strong cast, and a strong sense of cohesion which makes the play come alive. Graham Outerbridge, as Ted, a typical white guy struggling to find a place outside the corporate world he’s been booted from, balances the man’s mental cliches with an undercurrent of vulnerability in ways which make him surprisingly endearing in the long run. Anna Lamadrid gives great credence to Jamie, whose in-your-face sensuality covers up her desperation and family struggles.

Laura Mann’s Sheri radiates a kind of innate practicality which gradually morphs into real strength – all in body language from the person one initially deems the most unlikely to have that inner fire. Add to these Nick Bonanno, who it is difficult to believe is only the understudy for Bob the shop owner, and several other important invaders of the sandwich trio’s space, and you have the complete package of timing, character, intensity of action, and purpose. All on Justin Huen’s impressively realistic set.

Kudos also to Melissa Trn for a company uniform both bland and official-looking, another notch in defining these workers as mere cogs in a machine which has run out of gas. Michael O’Hara’s props become characters, and Edgar Landa’s choreographed violence proves startlingly believable.

Still, what matters most are the people in this tale. Their fears, frustrations and coping skills prove both funny and tragic, as they gradually reinvent both their store and themselves, and – oddly enough – a kind of hope which will power them forward. It is a play worth seeing, filled with images one really needs to put in the back of one’s mind for the next time one walks into a fast food establishment.

What: “American Hero”  When: through October 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays  Where: IAMA, a guest production at The Carrie Hamilton Theatre, upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: $30  Info: (323) 380-8843 or www.iamatheatre.com

Terrific “Gin Game” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

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The husband-and-wife team of Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld shine in “The Gin Game” at Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

When a play being produced locally has a long history of excellence, that can be both a blessing and a curse for a theater company, especially a comparatively small one. On the one hand, the name recognition connected to the play itself has the potential to bring in audience who might not otherwise have come through the doors. On the other hand, the expectation of that audience will be an excellence they remember or have heard of from previous productions (or even televised versions), which may be a tall order to produce.

When those expectations are realized in a positive way, however, it can be a particularly winning moment. Such a win is the production of D.L. Coburn’s 1970s classic, “The Gin Game” at Sierra Madre Playhouse. An articulate, well-known play is produced with great polish and passion. The visuals are evocative. The performers are impressive. The net result is well worth the price of admission.

The story is deceptively simple. Two comparatively active elderly people living in an “old folks home” meet and decide to play gin. The woman – Fonsia – though seemingly retiring, is a wizard at cards. The comparatively overt and opinionated man – Weller – is taken aback, as he considers himself to be excellent at cards as well and has increasing issues with being beaten. Still, they share a common bond of comparatively intact intellect and general dislike of the facility into which they have been relegated. Which will win out, the friction, or the bond?

At SMP the two are played by husband-and-wife team Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld. They have a strong handle on the characters’ foibles, and bring the audience along with both laughter and revelation as they gradually uncover the more lovable and more unlovable elements of each these people. Director Christian Lebano has utilized the SMP space about as well is possible, aided by Tesshi Nakagawa’s extraordinary set.

“The Gin Game” is not new. It was even filmed for television with its original cast, also a married couple, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Still, the performers here do not lean overmuch on previous portrayals, but rather on the words themselves, which become increasingly potent as our nation ages. The play is not, at its core, a comedy though the comedic elements are very funny indeed. It is, rather, a play of awareness. As such, though set quite determinedly in the 1970s (when it was originally produced), it has a wisdom which is totally contemporary.

What: “The Gin Game”  When: through October 6, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre. How Much: $40 general, $36 seniors, $25 youth 22 and younger  Info: (626) 355-4318 or www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“Native Gardens”: Do Great Performances Balance Uncomfortable Script?

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(L-R) Bruce Davison, Frances Fisher, Jessica Meraz and Christian Barillas in Native Gardens at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]

There is a fine line between humor which skewers privilege and prejudice by making its claims sound as ridiculous as they are, and writing which pronounces the same beliefs and then does a kind of wink to indicate that, really, it was said to be funny. One is reminiscent of, say, “All In The Family,” the other is not. That the latter appears as much as the former in Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse, make it slightly uncomfortable to call the play funny, even though humor is definitely one of its elements. Still, as has happened before, one wonders how many in the audience will find affirmation of their own beliefs rather than what is intended to be laughable.
This is not the fault of the actors, who play the thing to the hilt and thanks to solid direction offer up both timing and structure intended to give the piece its place as a comedy. Still, one is left ambivalent about whether laughing is buying into things one would rather not, or actually an honest response to a good joke.
Pablo and Tania, a young and successful Latinex couple (he’s a lawyer, she’s finishing up her PhD), have just bought a somewhat run-down house in an upper crust neighborhood outside of Washington, DC. Their neighbors, Frank and Virginia, a late-middle-aged white couple with a grown son, have been in their home for a long time, and are stalwart elements of the neighborhood. Frank is semi-retired and an avid gardener. Virginia is a prominent engineer.
As they meet, there seems hope of an easy and neighborly friendship. Then Pablo discovers that the fence all have agreed should be replaced between their two back yards is actually in the wrong place. Some of Frank and Virginia’s yard doesn’t belong to them.
Christian Barillas, as Pablo, embodies the intensity of the young legal mind and the fighting spirit of the up-and-coming immigrant with a genuine sense of impetuous thrill at what he are achieving. Jessica Meraz, as the American-born Tania, voices the claim to nationhood so often necessarily heard by those of Mexican descent whose upbringing has been rooted in the US, balanced against a body language evincing a genuine niceness which wants a peaceful coexistence with those around her, at least most of the time.
Bruce Davison, as the alternately obsessed and unfocused Frank, has terrific and subtle timing which creates great humor even as he utters things which sometimes make one feel guilty laughing. Frances Fisher gives Virginia the intensity of the self-made professional, used to a fight and unwilling to concede as a matter of principle – a woman confident in knowing the people who will help get things done.
Binding these together, in a stroke of genius by director Jason Alexander, is the trio of Julian Armaya, Richard Biglia and Bradley Roa II as gardeners who both move stage elements as the border fight wages on, and provide immensely entertaining announcements of change of date and time of day. These characters’ joie de vivre helps to keep the light touch necessary in a play which becomes increasingly about race, age, and identity in a time when these are such a hot-button issues.
Looked at intellectually, this is a huge metaphor for this nation, its walls, its increasing xenophobia, its war between entitlement and access, and the easy condemnation of one age group by another. As such, it is potent, though the tacked-on ending seems yet another underscoring apology for everything it has otherwise been. Still, it is – on occasion – quite funny, it is beautiful to look at thanks to David Meyer’s terrific garden set, and nobody can argue it isn’t superbly acted. Now if only one didn’t have to wonder if laughing was affirming something one would rather not affirm.
What: “Native Gardens”. When: through September 30, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with one 8 p.m. performance on Tuesday, September 25. Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: prices start at $29. Info: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Solid Staging Carries Whittier’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame”

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Anthony Michael Frias and Michelle Chaho are Quasimodo and Esmeralda in Whittier Community Theatre’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

It is quite remarkable how many times the Victor Hugo novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” has been dramatized, in film, on television, and on the stage. Originally written in part to encourage Parisians to appreciate the medieval architecture in their midst, the story has captured the imaginations of generations. This thanks to the drama of that architecture, the general fascination with the colorful life of gypsies, the equal fascination with obsessive and exclusionary religious fervor, and that very peculiar character whose gentle, innocent ugliness has become a metaphor all its own.

Finally, a Disney-produced theatrical has taken the songs and a few fantasy characters from the Disney film, and elements of both the novel and the most popular live action movies, and created a dark and relatively interesting hodgepodge of a musical. Now at the Whittier Community Theatre, it has some true star turns, some interesting quirks, and a couple of stumbles, but has moments worth celebrating.

Director Mark Torreso is also the set designer, and that integration works well, for the most part. Unable, due to the layout of the theater, to have a “pit chorus,” – that is, hidden singers who augment chorus numbers – he has created space for an onstage choir of monks, who look down on the dramatic proceedings when necessary and flesh out the richly dramatic, if startlingly unmemorable, music. This sets the tone for the rest of the work, as the cathedral is ever-present physically even when action takes place outside its doors.

In this atmosphere lives this version of the story, which focuses on the conflict between the self-righteously religious Claude Frollo, who has raised Quasimodo to follow him, and the gypsy Esmeralda, whom Frollo both detests for her beliefs and lusts after in spite of himself. Balanced against this is the returning soldier Phoebus de Martin, whose promotion to captain of the cathedral guards puts him squarely in the center of the conflict, along with Quasimodo, who so appreciates Esmeralda’s warmth toward him that her attraction to Phoebus is painful. And so it goes.

Best of this production is Anthony Michael Frias as Quasimodo. His onstage transformation proves impressive, and his ability to portray a disabled character without ever devolving into caricature makes the show possible. Michelle Chaho makes a charming and tuneful Esmeralda, and Jeff Campbell as Phoebus manages both the devil-may-care playboy and the underlying honorable man well. As the leader of the gypsies, Jason Miramontes exhibits a lightness and panache in what is one of his best performances at WCT.

The puppeteers, who speak and sing for Quasimodo’s friendly gargoyles – Scott Charles Felver, Vanessa Evans, Jasmine Vigil and Scott Silson – make those characters come humorously and connectedly alive. Only WCT veteran Richard De Vicariis seems to struggle with the villainous character of Frollo, particularly when called upon to sing. That, the small and distracting projections, and a way, way too amplified orchestra are really the only awkward elements of the piece.

Be aware that the tale of the “Hunchback” is a dark one. This is not a kiddie show, Disney’s involvement in its creation notwithstanding. There is lust and torment and death, and a rather ferocious condemnation of some religious elements, which, though adapted, are more from Hugo than the adapters. The music advances the storyline well, but you will not go away humming it. Come see what this tale can be like when adapted for stage, but do not expect to leave feeling all is right with the world.

What: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. When: through September 22, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 16. Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier  How Much: $25 general, $20 seniors, students and military with ID   Info: (562)696-0600 or www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Powerful “Sweat” – Rust Belt Anguish on Tap

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Mary Mara and Portia are shop floor pals facing an uncertain future in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” at the Mark Taper Forum

The Pulitzer Prize for drama is given, when it is given, for a piece of theater which reflects something elemental to understanding an aspect of American culture. Rarely has that seemed a more apt designation than the 2017 prize handed to playwright Lynn Nottage for “Sweat.” A portrait of the disintegration of the traditional manufacturing towns of the midwest, it answers for the uninitiate multiple questions about the elements of malaise which have infected that part of the country, from amplified racism to opioid abuse. That it does so without preaching or reaching for easy answers, and with considerable humor, makes “Sweat” a gift to watch.

The play is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the struggles between union and management have led to at least one long-extended walkout, and – at another factory – tensions are simmering regarding the future of an industry which has generationally been a definition of life in the town. At the neighborhood bar, where both the longtime connections and current tensions are liberally amplified by alcohol, a picture of a town wrestling with coming to terms with crisis, looking for escape, and searching for someone to blame are narrowed down to a few shop-floor friends.

The powerfully ensemble cast ably peels gradual layers off their characters to illustrate the dissolving of veneer caused by the ripped expectations and sense of powerlessness the sea change in their community brings. Mary Mara, Portia, and Amy Pietz center the play as the three factory-floor friends whose unified sense of identity is tested and torn by issues of addiction, race, and ambition as the union-corporation conflict grows. As the sons inheriting the disaster, Grantham Coleman and Will Hochman create young men whose actions frame the storyline and thread the rest of the play together.

Michael O’Keefe, as the injured factory worker now tending bar, provides a link to the working man’s heritage. John Earl Jelks offers up the increasing degradation of a people too proud of that heritage to accept its lessening impact. Peter Mendoza creates the outsider character whose choices underscore what the others have lost, bringing out the casually ugly side of this insular community. Kevin T. Carroll, as a probation officer, becomes the occasional guide through the tragedies to come.

Director Lisa Peterson has created a pacing and a visual presence for the play which underscores the disconnect between the world of the characters and the world outside. Using Yee Eun Nam’s excellent projections and Paul James Prendergast’s evocative sound design and original music, drama happens on Christopher Barreca’s remarkably evocative set even when the characters aren’t onstage. The pacing is clean, seamless and keeps the tension building as it should, even as it makes room for the necessary and very human moments of humor which make these people real. Emilio Sosa’s costumes absolutely define character differences, sending messages in visual shorthand.

Still the best of this is that all the above operate in service of a truly important play. What one can hope is that many who see “Sweat” will finally have that “aha moment” when they begin to understand – not embrace necessarily, but understand – in a more visceral way the terrible boiling pot of racial tensions, abandonment sentiments, and destroyed expectations which have led to some of the ugliest current scenes in our country. There are no solutions offered up here, as that would be too easy, but the final scene does offer some hope if people can come back to their better selves. One can only hope that some do.

What: “Sweat”. When: through October 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (no 1 p.m. performance Sept 30)  Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $99  Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“A Hole in the Sky”: Climate Change Drama Needs Focus

Hole in the Sky - 1

Lola Kelly and Joseph D. Valdez star in the world premiere production of “HOLE IN THE SKY” by Octavio Solis [photo: Jeff Galfer]

It’s an interesting concept: interview people from small towns in Siskiyou County who are in the middle of the climate change/water use battle, and form what is gleaned into a play about the passions and tensions this friction creates. That is what playwright Octavio Solis has done in “Hole in the Sky,” receiving its world premiere courtesy of the Circle X Theatre Company. Moreover, to give a feel of farm town life, the piece is being staged amid the dust and animal scent of a horse ranch just a hop up the I-210.

With all of that, one wants it to be good. Its material has impact and a genuine foundation. The passions carried by people weighing short term gain against long term preservation, arguing the debate over restrictions and who has rights to water or land, and wrestling with a deep resistance to the realities of climate change are elemental for us here in California. One trip up the I-5 will tell you that. So, what goes awry?

First, the choice of setting is picturesque, but has some basic issues. Most especially, in this open setting it is essential for the performers to wear mics in order to be heard, however because there is a building between the “booth” controlling the mics and some of the performers occasionally, it is difficult to set a levels for the mics (often far too hot) or even to have a consistent signal at all. This becomes a major distraction at often pivotal moments in the play.

Second, the play slips into repetitive patterns. Because it is taken from interviews – a static moment in people’s lives – there is not a whole lot of growth among the characters, and when it does come suddenly toward the end it seems tacked on. Still, there are important things for us city folk to hear about life in a rural valley imperiled by drought.

Connor has come home from San Francisco to the ranch where she grew up, after a nasty divorce and feeling a general sense of failure. She hopes everything will be the same as when she left, but fire and drought have underscored community tensions. The locals, from the state employee evaluating realities, to ranchers desperate to preserve their way of life, to Native Americans dependent on leaving scarce resources untouched, are ranged against each other. A cascade of events as the play ends test characters’ belief and – in Connor’s case, at least – sanity.

The cast proves talented, if some of the portraits remain two-dimensional. Lola Kelly is Connor, outwardly reasoned, but inwardly wrenched. Kelly gives her so much of that sense of reason it is difficult to square that with the haunted person the script seems to infer, making the latter moments of the play seem to come from nowhere. William Sayers, as her father, carries the confidence of a self-made man. Christine Avila, in one of the show’s best performances, gives the ranch’s manager both heart and practicality.

Also worthy of note is the spot-on portrait of an aging ranch hand given by Leon Russom. Nicole Erb’s depressed wife, Joseph D. Valdez’s government agent whose truth-telling angers the valley, Cliff Weissman’s bitter neighbor, and Michael G. Martinez voicing the anger of local Native Americans round out the cast. They handle their parts well and with passion. It is the play which doesn’t quite work. Arguments are circular. Realism suddenly morphs into spiritual haze. It’s almost as if nobody could figure out how to end the thing.

Director Kate Jopson, who grew up in the county where this takes place, has used her unique performance space with great creativity. She knows these people and the feel of the characters and their interactions flows as well as the script will allow. Of special note is the sound design by Cricket Myers, which becomes a character all its own: what the valley used to sound like, and what it sounds like in ultimate distress.

“Hole in the Sky” has the potential to have something important to say as to why there aren’t any easy answers when climate change threatens an entire way of life. The arguments of ranchers, officials and the native population, though repetitive, are all treated with a sense of truth. What is lacking, and what may be lacking in society as well, is any sense of what – other than erasure – can be done. This may be truth, but makes for a fuzzy dramatic arc.

What: “Hole in the Sky”. When: through September 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with added performances at 8 p.m. Monday, September 10 and 17, and Thursday September 20. Where: Courtship Ranch, 11270 Dominica Ave. in Lake View Terrace  How Much: $35 – $50 general, $10 students with ID. Info: http://circlextheatre.org

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