Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
I have been physically out of the Los Angeles theater world for about a year and a half now, but my heart still lives there. As such, I have followed with interest the implosion of the L.A. Stage Alliance, after a last-straw debacle of an awards show at the end of last month caused many of its major members to pull out and the organization to finally fold on Monday, April 6.
For those who may not be aware, this organization has operated the Ovations Awards – sort of the Tonys for Los Angeles theatrical companies of various sizes. This year the necessarily online version of the awards turned into a farce in one telling moment. Jully Lee, a voting member of the organization, watched a photo of a different actress be displayed on the screen as her nomination was announced, and then heard her name mispronounced as well.
Another long-problematic issue also came to a head at the same time, as the nomination also followed the Alliance’s questionable but longer-standing policy of choosing only one of the theaters of any co-production to list along with the performance. The show Lee had been a part of was co-produced by two companies. The one she belonged to, the East-West Players, was not mentioned. The other company, The Fountain Theatre, was.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. East-West Players was founded in 1965 by 9 prominent Asian actors to offer mainstream theatrical opportunities, rather than the usual stereotypical ones, to Asian and Pacific Islander actors, directors and producers. With the current wave of Anti-Asian speech and violence, the lack of company mention, the “all Asian women look alike” implication of the photo, and the tone deaf mispronunciation of the name of an Asian performer was too much. The East-West Players withdrew from the organization, and quite quickly 46 others (a third of its membership, including the multiple-Tony-winning Center Theatre Group) did as well.
Interestingly, Deaf West Theater, the nation’s premiere company for deaf performers, pointed out as it withdrew membership that they had tried unsuccessfully to get the online awards to use ASL interpreters so their own members could fully participate. Apparently being insensitive toward minorities was not unique to the Alliance’s dealing with the AAPI community.
Still, it must be said that this whole embarrassing fracas was just the final nail in a coffin which had been under construction for some time.
I first came to know of the L.A. Stage Alliance when it was known as the Theater League Alliance. The executive director of the Pasadena Playhouse at the time, the late Lars Hansen, left his post at the Playhouse in 1999 to become the Alliance’s president. At the time I was interested in the varying reactions to his move. I received notes from some who were breathing a sigh of relief that his influence would no longer be felt at the Playhouse. Still, I also remember Lars’ excitement about what his new responsibilities could do to expand the presence of theater in the L.A. area.
Indeed, Hansen introduced ideas to the theaters involved, large and small, which have paid dividends, including online same-day half priced ticketing, and the advent of LA Stage Magazine. Still, his tenure was short and in the intervening years – as articles in the Los Angeles and New York Times have both pointed out – the L.A. Stage Alliance’s policies had put them on rather shaky ground even before the pandemic caused major upheaval in all live performance industries.
In some ways, this collapse is symbolic of a failure increasingly being acknowledged throughout the entertainment business, where the old hierarchies have been predominantly white and predominantly male: Without an increasing sensitivity regarding race, nationality, gender and identity, both audiences and participants may cease to be involved with the art form. The organizations representing these industries, and the industries themselves will either need to change, or will die.
Take, as example, the increasingly pointed work of an organization called Maestra in New York City, which is making the case for women as composers, orchestral musicians, musical directors, etc., in productions on and off Broadway. Or, of course, think about the years-long campaigns of Oscars So White which has caused huge changes in the eligible voting group, and greater diversity in the organization’s leadership. In the years leading up to the L.A. Stage’s Ovation Awards ceremony on March 30, that same kind of dialogue should have been central in that organization, but apparently it wasn’t.
Also, the Alliance was a financial burden for many of its members. It is not unusual for such organizations to support themselves with membership fees, but this one also expected theaters to pay a fee in order for a production to be considered for an Ovation Award: a pay to play deal. For big companies this was not necessarily a huge problem, though theater is rarely a major profit-making enterprise. For smaller companies – especially after the new Equity rules of the last few years stretched their limited funds more widely – it could be onerous.
As a lack of diversity and a lack of transparency, plus the financial issues, were refining members’ grievances, the pandemic hit. By June executive director Marco Gomez had furloughed the Alliance staff – hence the volunteers apparently left to run the awards ceremony. We all know how wise that decision was. It was Gomez who announced the cessation of the Alliance as an organization on Monday. Apparently the group’s press representative, Ken Werther, a good guy I’ve known for years, has now been left to answer questions Gomez should be dealing with. That alone says a lot.
Apparently smaller theaters had already begun to gather in an alternate organization to support each other through these tough times. And it is highly likely that some awards organization, whether using the Ovation name or not, will reappear. There is a strong and lively theatrical community in Los Angeles which will not disintegrate over all this. In the meantime, at least the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, of which I was a member until I left the L.A. area, is still an awards-giving entity. Out of the ashes of the L.A. Stage Alliance will come something which will be less tone-deaf, more inclusive, and hopefully able to fully celebrate the remarkable treasure that theater in the greater Los Angeles area has become.
NOTE: This piece was begun in April, 2020, and recently rediscovered by me (which tells you a lot about my mental state mid-pandemic). A lot has happened between then and now obviously, but I figured I should end this three-part commentary as originally planned. I promise, more timely commentary soon.
I love the origin story of Singing in the Rain, which AFI and others have dubbed the greatest movie musical. According to the introduction to the published script (found in an obscure corner of my university library when I was an undergrad) the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and their respective spouses, were renting a house in the Hollywood Hills which had once belonged to a silent screen star whose career had tanked. MGM producer Arthur Freed called them into his office. He handed them a great wad of songs he had written in the earliest days of the talkies, and told them to go away and write a movie script which would use them. As they struggled to come up with something, they realized that they were literally living in their inspiration: the house, whose original owner’s career came to an abrupt end in 1929, when films suddenly had sound.
Of course, that is the story of a musical created for motion pictures. However, Comden and Green were specifically brought to Hollywood by Freed to adapt their highly successful Broadway musical, “On the Town” for the movies. Much, much later they would work in New York to adapt the film of Singing in the Rain for the stage, too. The connection between stage and film, particularly when it comes to the American musical, has seen some wild cross-over successes, and some stunning flops. Once again, a lot depends on understanding the difference between what can be done cinematically that won’t work in a live performance, and vice-versa. Beyond that, some issues arise from an understanding, or lack thereof, of the actual construction dissimilarities between a show with an intermission in the middle and the continuous flow of a movie. (Note: a few classics, like Man of La Mancha, and a number of more recent stage musicals are designed without an intermission. Obviously, the issue above doesn’t apply in those cases.)
I first became aware of this as a teenager reading the notes on the back of the record album (you know, an LP) of the filmed West Side Story. (I was a student involved with a high school stage production at the time.). Along with discussing how the piece was set and cast, it talked about what was needed to create a movie rather than what had been so successful on the stage. It was quite simple, really. A standard musical has two acts, and there must therefore be two arcs to the story: one to bring the audience to an admittedly anticipatory stopping place for intermission, and one which ramps things up again in the second act to lead one to the denouement. In a film, even if an “intermission” is injected in early big-theater showings, it won’t appear after the initial run of the film, so the storyline is to remain linear – one curve ramping up and then down for the end of the piece. This demands some rewrites of the stage script, or at least some repositioning of songs to keep the arc more constant.
There are also physical practicalities. I remember a discussion I had with award-winning choreographer Rikki Lugo as she was prepping a stage production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The one thing that the film was known for was its lengthy, macho dance sequence wherein the brothers show off, pick brides they want, and then run off with them. Rikki pointed out that the sequence was possible on film because there were so many cuts: no dancer had to do that entire thing without stopping. On stage replicating that sequence exactly was essentially impossible. It couldn’t be that energetic for as long as that sequence lasts without putting dancers at risk through sheer exhaustion, so her task was to make it look just as macho with more breaks for breathing.
I have already touched on the essential difference between a production of any kind put on stage, where an audience has no trouble “seeing” settings which are not there, and the more literal landscape of film. The cinematic version of Man of La Mancha, whose Broadway staging was so engrossing, was done in (and it truly was awful), by realism as much as anything else. I devoutly believe that nobody will ever produce the brilliant Come From Away for film in any other way than filming the stage production, as was done for Our Town in the early days of television. It has virtually no set at all, a small cast creating dozens of characters, and an onstage band which is also part of the action. Moving that to film in a realistic way would lose the charm and energy which has made the show a stunning, universal hit.
Even Hamilton succeeded on Disney+ because it was a film of the stage production. This was heartening, actually, as so many of my friends who had been unable to see it live, and many who had, were both satisfied, even thrilled, with what they saw. Still, one of my favorite tributes to that show came from my daughter with the B.A. in technical theatre, who upon seeing it during its first run in Los Angeles kept texting me during intermission about how awesome the set was – something not fully appreciated in a camera shot.
There is an important point to make at the end of this 3-part commentary: It is, and always will be, important to see live theatrical productions and cinematic ones as two separate entities. If one is moving from film to stage, or from stage to film, keeping in mind what is possible, what made it effective in its own genre, and what made the original something worth repeating are essential. Attempts to film musicals in television studios, harking back to the early days of TV as much as to their stage beginnings, has had rather uneven results for a number of reasons, including casting, but also because they sometimes end up being neither fish nor fowl.
When it is possible to get back to live performance on stage in front of a physically present audience, and when it is easier to film a work than it currently appears to be (remember Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson fighting COVID-19 during filming in Australia), this will matter. Both will struggle to return to the place they once held in American culture, and each must remember how to rest on what they do best. Here’s hoping that happens soon.
As I continued to think about my theme: things which make films different from theatrical productions, I realized I had left out what I personally consider the most egregious “did you not understand the point of a single set?” moment I have run into in film. I have added it as an addendum to Part 1, so feel free to wander back and check it out.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about stage productions is their ability to convince audiences they are seeing things which aren’t there. This is not new. Shakespeare had to deal with it all the time, as the concept of a set as we now know it was unavailable to him. When people in the modern era cut the Bard’s plays it is often to get rid of what my mother (who taught and wrote about theater), often referred to as the “here we are in the forest of Arden” speeches, because in his day you had to explain the setting, as it wasn’t really there. (One of the most famous begins Henry V, wherein the chorus enjoins the audience to, among other things, “think, when we speak of horses, that you see them…”)
In time, sets became the norm, and in the 18th Century theater stages became elaborate pieces of machinery so that gods could descend from the heavens and things could rise from the depths. Literal was in, image-wise, to the point where, in the early 1910s, my grandmother saw a stage production of Ben Hur which actually had horses running on treadmills for the chariot race.
The shift back came when theater, for the first time, had to compete with film. In the same way that photography allowed the rise of the impressionist and then expressionist, etc., art world (you didn’t need to paint a tree that looked like a tree anymore, you could take a picture of it instead), the rise of film and television, once seen as a death knell of theater, forced it in many cases to return to what it had been in the beginning. It became, by the mid-20th Century, the last great bastion of suspension of disbelief. Today, theater is in many cases the imagination’s great collective gift.
The following is not even vaguely a retrospective of innovative productions, but snapshots on a few which captured my attention simply because the lack of set, or the development of a set-within-a-set, and an audience’s willingness to go along with and “see” what wasn’t there proved essential in the play’s success.
Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 play Our Town is an especially good illustration of this. In the innovative period of New Deal idealism, this encapsulated portrait of a small New England town was most notable for its study of human nature, and for its staging. The narrator or chorus was the stage manager of the theater, and the “fourth wall” separating the action onstage from the audience was nonexistent – a style Wilder embraced. The set, such as it was, consisted of a few chairs, a couple of tables, and two ladders. Leaning at the top of the ladders, teenaged love interests Emily and George talked out the bedroom windows of their neighboring houses. A couple of chairs created a front porch to sit on and snap beans together. Formal rows of chairs held the occupants of the graveyard.
None of those places existed except in the narrator’s explanation and the minds of the audience, but that audience saw them nonetheless. Through all the revivals on and off Broadway, even college productions, minimalism and that removal of the 4th wall has remained elemental. This stark format made it ripe for radio broadcasts, and there were several in the days before television took off. A television version of the play aired live in 1955, with major Hollywood stars, but kept to the simplicity of the original staging, as had the only theatrical film in 1940 (though it changed the ending at the studio’s insistence). Indeed, the one time I saw the play with actual sets, the power diminished almost exponentially.
Wilder did not invent the modern version of this concept, of course, nor was he the only innovator of his time. Indeed, Bertolt Brecht among others was doing similar things in Germany between the wars, and with the escape from Nazism many European avant garde artistic and theatrical innovations cross-pollinated with their American counterparts.
Fast-forward to the 1960s. As live theater worked to reclaim its space in American culture from television, sets, in general, tended to become less literal. Of course, one possible reason might be that having no set was cheaper. The ultimate example of this would be the 1960 debut, way, way off Broadway, of the musical The Fantasticks. In its tiny space it also made use of a ladder or two, and a mime who made and removed an invisible wall in the middle of the action. The musical, with its simple comparison of romanticized vs trouble-filled life was infectious, and still holds the record for consecutive performances in the US, at 17,162. This without really having a set at all. (And yes, I saw a production which included an elaborate set and an expanded score from the two-piano original. It fell flat as a pancake.)
On the big Broadway stage, however, it was and is not the cost of a set, but the ability to move quickly from concept to concept, place to place, or even in and out of an author’s head, without having to move much of anything. A stellar moment in this concept has to be the musical “Man of La Mancha,” which though following some rules of a standard American musical, broke its own ground.
When it came to setting, the story-within-a-story played out not with the shifting sets of Brigadoon or the elaborately intertwined noir vs modern Hollywood set pieces of the later City of Angels, but on a single stage. The shift was in the audience’s mind, for the entire play was set in a prison filled with people awaiting trial by the Spanish Inquisition. Yet, though that gave the tone its immediacy, it was the story spun by prisoner Miguel de Cervantes which took over the space. Within that one set, using bits of dark wood and a few costumes and props, the tale of Don Quixote de La Mancha came to life. As if to point out what was happening, every once in a while the workings of the prison come back to break up the fantasy, but it proved easy to pull everyone, including the audience, back into the fantasy world.
Recently, three differing productions have stood out to me, as they pointed to the use of this hugely simplistic style of set (although that is really usually the result of very not-so-simple, subtle design). Berkeley Rep’s pared down “Into the Woods”, placed all the performers, many of whom doubled as musicians, in chairs lined the edges of the stage, coming into the piece as required. There have been enough concert versions of Sondheim musicals, so this is not surprising, but it differs greatly from the elaborate costuming and visuals of the original, and it was – if anything – more powerful as a result.
Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” fresh from Broadway, lined up its cast under a screen where projections in Yiddish and English (Brecht would be proud) helped one through the true story of a famed Yiddish playwright whose one popular work, which had made him famous in Europe, was destroyed by the hesitant culture of New York theater in the 30s. With virtually no set, the lights and the actors created theater stages, intimate homes, and rich communal spaces, and once again the audience went right along. The projections even allowed the performers to quote the play in the original Yiddish, by creating supertitles evocative of many modern opera productions, and – again – the audience just moved right along with it all.
Finally, the continuing (once the COVID-19 virus has run its course) tour of the brilliant “Come From Away” uses one simple set, chairs and tables to create everything from a plane to a bus to a school hallway to… anywhere else needed, while the small acting company, simply by donning a hat or a jacket, became the many, many people who lived in or arrived in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11. It lost out in the Tony Awards to the fine, but highly set-and-projection-driven Dear Evan Hanson. Still, it is by far the show most likely to stand the test of time, in part because it is powered by the sparking of audience imagination.
And that is what the theater can do: plug the audience’s imagination into the workings onstage, creating something larger than any bit of wood and canvas could possibly achieve. “We are such things as dreams are made of” says one of Shakespeare’s characters, speaking not only to the play it is from but to the whole idea of theatrical performance.
Of course, as with my concerns from the first part of this musing, when you take something from the stage and, rather than filming a stage performance, turn it into the usually more literal format of classic movie-making, adjustments must be made. Doing it right can create a classic. Doing it wrong, or doing it with the wrong stage piece – one so dependent on the audience’s imagination that trying to fill in those blanks weakens the whole – can ruin the thing, even perhaps to the point of making folks not want to see the original stage version anymore.
However, that is for the next segment of this. Stay tuned for Part 3.
UPDATE: ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY – See at the bottom of this post
Note: Having come through a move across country, holidays, and the replacement of my right knee, I was just getting ready to reach out to local theater, and local press in my new town about coverage, etc., when the coronavirus became a concern for us all. So, instead of writing about current productions, I thought I’d offer up some musing on what we can use to entertain us.
Many theater lovers across the nation are settling in for a significant withdrawal period, as COVID-19 makes crowding into plush or not-so-plush seats to experience live events idiotically dangerous. Some are discussing watching time-honored plays and musicals in the versions created for Hollywood over the years. In some cases this may prove the perfect antidote, but the relationship between stage and screen has often been fraught, for a number of reasons.
To start with, of course, there were the olden days of the Hays Office, which developed rules of “decency” for the film industry. Though now chuckled over (remember all those early television shows like “I Love Lucy” where married couples slept in twin beds), those rules sometimes hamstrung an attempt to get a powerful stage production accurately on the screen.
Take, for example, the first film of Lilian Hellman’s breakthrough play, “The Chidren’s Hour.” The centerpiece of her theme – that a lie spoken often enough becomes the truth (a commentary on what was happening in Hitler’s Germany) – was a reference to possible lesbianism in a time when that was not considered “decent.” That first film of the play, in 1936, could not mention lesbianism, so had to change the supposedly shocking transgression between the two women, and even though Hellman worked on the screenplay herself, the impact was significantly reduced. Only the remake, in 1961 is true to the original thematic content and thus power of the original.
On the other hand, and perhaps because of the control exerted by Katharine Hepburn, the 1940 film of “The Philadelphia Story”, for example, is in large part simply a gentle expansion of the Philip Barry play which, with Hepburn in the leading roll, had literally saved New York’s Theater Guild, and with it her own reputation. (She had come back to New York after being labeled “box office poison” as a result of a series of flops following her 1934 Best Actress Oscar for “Morning Glory.”)
Always savvy in business, Hepburn had purchased the film rights to the play herself, with the help of Howard Hughes. This let her negotiate with MGM to produce the film. She was able to shepherd the adaptation for screen, and get the director she felt would be best for both her and the content. As a result the play becomes even better as it is able to physically wander farther than the few rooms in which the stage play was set, and even gently maneuver around the Hays restrictions regarding discussions of marital relationships.
The central point to Hepburn’s story is that she had enough control to keep the feel of the play, as well as the content, true. This, in part, because of her ownership, and because the director, George Cukor, was someone she knew well enough to know he would respect what had made the play work. Sometimes, the same director who directed the play directed the movie, and if the director understood both genres well, that could also work, even while wrestling with Hays.
Understanding Why The Play Was Set As It Was
Take as prime example, Elia Kazan, who was Tennessee Williams’ favorite director, for both stage and film versions of his work. (We will put aside here, Kazan’s testimony in front of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, naming names and making himself somewhat of a pariah in chunks of the theatrical and film industry.) Kazan understood Williams’ vision, as can be readily seen in “A Streetcar Named Desire” both on stage and in the 1951 film version with Vivian Leigh and (reprising his stage role) Marlon Brando. Again, with the decency rules in effect there were certain things which could only be hinted at, but the atmosphere kept to the essence of the play: that the characters lived in very close contact, in a heated, claustrophobic atmosphere, a breeding ground for extremes of passion, particularly the baser ones.
Sadly, though this film version worked, the later 1984 made-for-television one, directed by John Erman didn’t. The reason was that he did not clue to that very claustrophobia. When Blanche Dubois is trapped not only in her own imagination and memory, but in this closed, hot, teeming apartment complex, everything bleeds out. It is the nature of confinement. When Blanche wanders all over New Orleans voicing her fantasies about the genteel nature of her life to this point, in the open air, by the sea, under the sun, surrounded by a beautiful city, it didn’t work, despite Ann-Margaret’s very solid performance. If Blanche isn’t literally and figuratively backed against a wall, the rising tension has time to dissipate. She has to be stuck for it all to work.
Although it was handled better, shifting in the movie from a single-set beauty parlor to more of the small town it exists in, in “Steel Magnolias” was also in danger of losing the punch of the play. This, because women knew (and in some places still know) that the one place men will not ever come – and thus a true sanctuary – was that beauty parlor. That was, to be frank, the point of the play: that sense of gender-specific community.
Which is enough for today. I do have more, though. Part 2 will focus on those things done on stage which simply cannot translate to film with the same effectiveness because they depend upon the audience’s suspension of disbelief, a thing which does not appear in the same way in a movie theater. I mean you may be able to believe, as long as the film lasts, that Luke Skywalker grew up on a planet with two suns, or even in The Force, but not in many of the kinds of things stage directors use to charge the imagination. But that’s for next time.
UPDATE: A day after writing and posting this, it hit me that I hadn’t mentioned the film adaptation from a single-set play which frustrated me the most, perhaps because I fell in love with the play and the adaptation hurt the film so much that nobody, seeing it first, would ever think of seeing it in any form again. That was Romantic Comedy, based on Bernard Slade’s 1979 Broadway play.
The play, as with Slade’s best work, is episodic in nature, and deals with the emotional connections between two people who are not, in the classic sense, a couple. In this case, an older and fading male playwright takes a young female writer under his wing. Their first collaboration turns out to be a terrific hit, and they became a writing team. On the stage, the play takes place virtually entirely in the room in which they write. The older playwright’s wife comes in and out on occasion, as does the younger woman’s male love interest. Their theatrical agent hovers sometimes like a mother hen. Still, this is their room and what they do there defines more than anything else who they really are, in a relationship which is characterized as being far more intense than a marriage.
When this was adapted for film in 1983, and directed by Arthur Hiller, all of that was lost. I won’t get into the casting of Dudley Moore as the lead, which was also a detriment, but when you take intensely important, intimate speeches, and literally chop them up so that a few lines are in the room, a few are in front of Lincoln Center, and a few are in the house of a theater during rehearsals, you remove that intense intimacy, and you end up doing a travelogue of theatrical New York which is a total distraction from not only the speech itself, but the sense of sanctuary for two intense and intelligent writers which is the core of the play.
As a result, it was plodding, over-long, and unfocused. Its ratings were poor and it has all but disappeared. When a film becomes such box office poison, the play its based on is tarred with the same brush, which is hopelessly unfair in this case. If you get a chance to see it done onstage, go. Sometimes Hollywood digs its own hole, and this was one of those times.
I was reading a review by theatrical critic Laura Pels in the New York Times, and was struck by my immediate resonance with her lead paragraph: “When classics get adapted or updated, I often find myself asking: What’s the added value? What do you get from Shakespeare with penguins that you don’t get better from Shakespeare straight up?”
I suppose this is because, to some extent, I’m trying not to see my life as “Shakespeare with penguins”, for I have left my well defined, life-long comfort zone of Los Angeles County for another land: Louisville, Kentucky. It is much smaller (I’m trading a county of over 10 million for a county of just over 700,000), but still an artistic hub, and it is where my wife grew up and many members of her large extended family still live. And I am retired from the day job, so it is right to be in a state of reinvention. I just don’t want it to be too random, or worse, get in the way of who I am or what I want to achieve.
On the other hand, this resonated with me because Pels’ questions are ones I have often had to ask as a critic as well. Looking, as she was, at Shakespeare… or Moliere, or even Ibsen, Williams or Miller, I am well acquainted with the fine line between innovation which makes the story relevant to a new audience, and the kind of “messing with the original” which becomes a distraction. (You’ll notice nobody seems to do this with Shaw, and I’m sure it is because any decently superstitious director/adaptor knows that Bernard Shaw will rise from the dead to slap you silly if you mess with his work. He was a remarkably adamant man.)
When I think of this, two instances come to mind. In the first, one director I used to review frequently was obviously so sure that nobody would get Shakespeare’s jokes that she had fairies do gymnastics as they talked, or “rustics” (peasants) engaging in constant slapstick. Not only was this exhausting for the performers, it meant you really couldn’t hear the lines to see if they were funny or not.
Granted, there is a long, supposedly clever speech toward the end of As You Like It which every director would like to cut, but can’t because of a costume change. It may have been funny in Elizabethan times, but its entire context is lost on a modern audience… and there you could have the character stand on his head or juggle and it would make the scene a whole lot better. On the other hand, the rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the watchmen in Much Ado About Nothing, if performed by people who know how to speak Elizabethan English naturally, can be very funny indeed, because the lines actually are.
The second involves a production group which fell into the habit of putting in costume non-sequiturs where they made no artistic sense: bowler hats or batwing glasses in what are otherwise naturalistic, clearly 18th Century settings of definitely and comfortably period plays. Like… is this supposed to tell us it’s a comedy? Certainly, playing with time period and construction, especially when it comes to costuming, is a thing, but there should be a reason for it, not just a pair of out-of-place glasses that add absolutely nothing to either the character or the play.
This does not mean I am opposed to taking, say, Shakespeare out of its time period. I have a friend in Britain who apologized for taking me to the RSC theater in Stratford, because it wasn’t going to be “real Shakespeare” because it wasn’t being done in doublet and hose. (It was a terrific production of As You Like It that even the 16-year-old me knew was extraordinary.) Adaptations of time period that work can create a freshness which brings a great work to a new generation. Orson Welles’ 1930s production of a “Voodoo Macbeth,” or his Julius Caesar set in Mussolini’s Rome, or a great and far more recent Julius Caesar at the Mark Taper Forum set in the time of Kennedy, were historically powerful. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s addition to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, a production of Much Ado… reset in in the glamour of the Restoration period, was magical. More recently, Ian McKellen’s Hitlerian Richard III was stunning onstage (though deadly on film, but that’s another discussion).
Which brings me back to my own situation. I have made a big life shift, and I’m not done thinking it through. I don’t want to paste things on which will turn out to be superfluous. I am – for the first time in 15 years – a home owner. That’s not superfluous. I have references from theatrical friends and my editor to reconnect with theater here, from a local dinner theater to Actors Theatre of Louisville, a highly respected regional company. How I reconnect with that side of my life, now that I’m settled in, will either result in penguins or profundity. Still evaluating the approach. And, of course, it being Kentucky, there is politics. Living in a blue city in a red state has its own drama. Is that a penguin for my life, or a chance to make change?
Today it is exactly three months since I first set foot in my new home. Still, I still find my L.A. roots are a part of me. In any case, I’m not in Los Angeles anymore, though I still receive emails from press representatives for shows I would love to see… Ah well. A shout out to my friends and colleagues in the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. A shout out to my friends and colleagues at Pasadena’s Blair High School, which once again avoided budget-related shuttering. That life goes on without me. Now it’s my job to figure out what this new life is really going to be all about. I’ll let you know. Hopefully, it will not include penguins.
There are terms I learned a long time ago not to put in a review, because they are overused to the point of meaning nothing. At least normally. This time, though, there are few words more apt than “hysterical” or “laugh riot” or even “side-splitting” for the deliciously insane “The Play That Goes Wrong” just opened at the Ahmanson. Seriously, this is one of the funniest things I’ve seen anywhere, ever.
Pretend that an extremely amateur, pompously overconfident, poorly cast company of players decides to stage a mystery best described as low-rent Agatha Christie. And then pretend that this is done with all the extremes of artifice, technical ineptitude, and sheer bumbling possible. Then you have some sense of what this show contains, but not really.
Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields’ play isn’t echoing Monty Python. It isn’t a Sherlock Holmes spoof. Rather, it’s a terrific send-up of amateur theatricals: occasionally cartoonish, tremendously physical, and impressively silly.
As with anything this physical, the old adage applies: it can take greater expertise to do something wrong on purpose than to do something right. The cast of this show lives up to this, handling the necessarily precise direction designed by Mark Bell, and carried out on tour by Matt DiCarlo, while making everything still seem spontaneous. This precision not only keeps the humor rich, but keep the actors safe as the physical comedy reaches heights even such spoofs as “Noises Off” dare not attempt. The thing must work like clockwork, and it does.
The members of the “Cornley University Drama Society” include Evan Alexander Smith, exuding righteously British pomposity as the group’s first-time director who has cast himself as the wise detective. Peyton Crim, whose sonorous voice is a delight, plays the stereotypical British aristocrat, shooting jacket and all, as the brother of the murdered man’s fiancé. Ned Noyes goes jaw-droopingly over the top on all occasions as the brother of the murdered man, unconvincingly romantically intwined with said fiancé.
Scott Cote’s stereotypical butler proves one of the greater comedic assets as the play implodes. Jamie Ann Romero turns the internal play’s only female into a delightful comedy turn, and a remarkably physical one – she faints with impressive skill. Still, perhaps the funniest aspects of this production are the two “techies” who disrupt or cope with this deeply flawed troupe’s foibles.
Brandon J. Ellis gives the overly casual lights and sound guy so much presence he, in his offstage cubicle, is sometimes all you can watch. Angela Grovey’s practical, then panicked stage manager turned sudden understudy becomes probably the most howlingly funny performer in the piece.
Someone should give set designer Nigel Hook a medal for creating a set which can seem so classically formulaic and can destroy itself to such remarkable comedic effect, without killing the actors. Andrew Johnson’s sound design becomes its own comic character. This truly is as ensemble a production as can be imagined.
So, drop everything and go see “The Play That Goes Wrong.” The times are stressful, and the world is a bit dark. We all need a vacation, and a chance to laugh, and laugh you will, almost constantly. My companion admitted afterward that she “laughed so hard no sound was coming out.” What a great way to spend a summer afternoon or evening.
What: “The Play That Goes Wrong” When: Through August 11, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with a 2 p.m. performance Thursday, August 8 Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $30 – $135 Info: http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or 213-972-4400
There is an elemental silliness to the movie musicals of the 1930s, but that was intentional. The films offered an inexpensive escape from the strain of the Great Depression, and quite intentionally featured lavish costumes, elaborate settings, and the kinds of visual splendor only the Busby Berkeleys of this world can provide.
In 1968, George Maimsohn, Robin Miller and Jim Wise decided to create that silly, upbeat world in small, opening “Dames at Sea” in an off-off Broadway cafe. Though it has roamed far and wide in the meantime, “Dames at Sea” has returned to its tiny-stage roots at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. There, once again, a six-person cast must create all the splendor and schlock of the “go out a chorus girl but come off a star” tap-dancing magic that so enthralled our forebears.
Reducing the show once again to its minimalist beginnings works well at SMP. Director Joshua Finkel understands that the only way to play this gentle satire for laughs is to play it straight, and that’s what his cast does. Aided by Jeffrey Scott Parsons’ classic 30s choreography, heavy as always on the tap dancing, and Sean Paxton’s musical direction, they manage to make this small, silly show lighthearted fun.
Katie Franqueira leads the cast as the idealistic Ruby, arriving in NYC with nothing but tap shoes, hoping to star on Broadway. Franqueira’s Ruby has an interesting combination of earnestness and nervousness which makes some of her tap numbers a bit intense, but particularly in a delightfully Busby Berkeley-worthy version of “Raining in my Heart,” she sings with an innocence and charm which prove quite engaging.
As her love interest Dick, the sailor dreaming of songwriting, Aaron Shaw has a loose-limbed charm and the kind of wide-eyed presence which balances Franqueira’s Ruby nicely. Marissa Mayer shows the right brassy style as Ruby’s new friend in the chorus, while Ruben Bravo nearly steals several scenes as Dick’s somewhat goofy Navy buddy.
Chuck McLane, in the dual role of the theatrical producer fallen on hard times, and Dick’s commanding officer talked into allowing a Broadway show to be staged on board, has a lovely time with each, managing to carve them into individuals with their own silly moments. Jennifer Knox flounces with all the necessary ego as that show’s officious and controlling star.
Shon LeBlanc – a wizard with period costumes for small venues – has given the show the right feel. Jeff G. Rack has provided all the right set pieces, including the deck of a battleship, at a size which will somehow fit on the tiny SMP stage. In short, all the pieces are there.
In short, “Dames at Sea” is silly, tuneful, and – for some – nostalgic. It makes gentle fun of an entire film genre, but not in a mean way. Rather, that almost ferocious innocence proves an antidote to the tensions of our current world, just as was true back then. And in that, even it its occasional awkward moments, this production has something in common with what it celebrates.
Also check out the theater’s movie series, which celebrates the movies “Dames” was based on. It continues with “Footlight Parade” on July 10.
What: “Dames at Sea” When: through August 3, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with an extra 2:30 p.m. matinee on Saturday, August 3 Where: The Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre. How Much: $45 general, $40 seniors, $25 youth up to age 21. Info: 626-355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
In the past week I have seen two theatrical endeavors – both nearing the ends of their runs – which tackle current social issues by looking at the past. In one case, the history is given theatrical flourish, but is fascinating in its poignant accuracy. In the other, an acknowledged incomplete understanding of history gives a playwright license to turn an antique moment in time into something it never was in order to make a point. Both work as pieces of theater, which fascinates me as a long-time teacher of history and a historian, as well as a theatrical critic.
Why use history to make a modern point? When is it essential that the history be true, and when doesn’t it matter that much? It appears it depends on the purpose history is given in the work itself.
The first show up for discussion, closing this Sunday, is “Ladies,” in its premiere run at Boston Court Pasadena. Playwright Kit Steinkellner uses the inspiration of four historical 18th Century intellectual women who formed The Blue Stocking Society, or (as the playwright says) were feminists before that term was invented, to explore the role of women as writers, artists, sexual independents and free spirits. In this case, the rather uninformed assumptions admitted by the play itself make for fuzzy history, but important social commentary.
The second show is the national tour production of Paula Vogel’s Tony-winning Broadway play-with-music, “Indecent.” At the Ahmanson only through July 7, the show essentially chronicles the life of a controversial 1907 play. Developed in the rich artistic world of eastern Europe’s Yiddish theater, where it was acclaimed, the piece ran into a firestorm when it opened much later, in English and heavily adapted, on Broadway. Why the difference, and what happened to those involved becomes a cautionary tale on the American Dream and the rise of authoritarianism.
Whether using historical figures as the poet does (i.e.: with less interest in accuracy than in spirit) to make a contemporary point, or telling a documentable story of increasing intolerance as a cautionary tale about echoes to be found in our society, the use of history is elemental to each production’s impact. That the role of history in one is pretty much the opposite of its role in the other is fascinating, in that they both succeed in placing a current issue in the longer story of human art and intellect.
In “Ladies,” director Jessica Kubzansky has the four Blue Stocking members emerge from a modern base, and revert to the modern narrative simply by putting on glasses. Thus the back-and-forth between a conceived repressive past and a questioning present become seamless and fascinating. The historical figures are real, and did exist. They include a novelist, a painter, a poet, and the woman who has brought these others together to, in this play anyway, advocate for women’s place in the arts.
How much of what results is an accurate look at the women’s lives, and how much is a modern lens clumping together more and less repressive time periods is immaterial to the point of the play. Rather, this is a playwright’s own wrestle with a past once inconceivable: that women rejected docility in favor of artistic expression before the concept of women’s rights was articulated in English culture. It is the wrestling which matters, not the really rather inaccurate sense of the society which created and either supported or rejected the Blue Stockings (a term which eventually morphed into a catch-all designation for academic-minded women in Britain).
Meghan Andrews, Carie Kawa, Jully Lee, and Tracey A. Leigh create the four women plus servants, husbands, and other occupants of their world, then shift to offer commentary not only on those women’s stories, but the playwright’s internal monologue concerning them. Costumes by Ann Closs-Farley allow quick character shifts, and even occasionally become characters all their own. The focus on women as physical beings, and on desires they may have had along the way is universal, and in the end history (such as it is here) becomes a mere tool for a very modern philosophical musing.
On the other hand, “Indecent” is the true story of Sholem Asch’s play “God of Vengeance,” written in Yiddish in 1907, about an oppressive father whose fortune comes from running the brothel downstairs, and his young, innocent daughter who finds true love – to that father’s horror – with one of the prostitutes below. After a long and successful run in Jewish theaters around Europe, with its leads becoming stars of note throughout that world, it heads to America, is a hit in Yiddish circles there, and then – in a bowdlerized version – becomes a scandal on Broadway, with its cast convicted of indecency.
The story is real, and in this case the history is told with considerable accuracy, yet the story itself is not entirely the point. Once again the tale of artistic freedom, embraced in one part of society and yet increasingly rejected by the more powerful as violating societal norms, and the echoes of that increasingly powerful provincialism and intolerance in our modern world, especially toward recent immigrants, give a gravitas beyond what is simply historical. Indeed, there are elements which speak to Carlos Santayana’s famous phrase that “those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.”
Steeped in the traditions of Jewish Europe, with much of the dialogue in Yiddish (in print and in translation to English on the wall above) there is a strong cultural center to the piece. Yet, at the same time, the openness of an artistic Europe is placed against the rigid rules of decency which infected even the segment of the Jewish population of the US anxious to achieve assimilation: where Yiddish culture is rejected for a shot at the American mainstream. Indeed, much has been written about the freedom of the culturally rich Yiddish art scene in New York in the early 20th century, and how it vanished. This in part because of fears of deportation as exclusionary immigration laws stifled attempts to use the US as escape from the rising terror – the “return to morality” via fascism – overseas.
The intolerance here is both internal and external, with those who cannot abide the loss of freedom returning to a Europe where soon more than freedom will be lost. Still, the moral authority which deems a famous play indecent, the sense of fear surrounding immigration policies, the perceived need to meld into the mainstream to avoid hatred, not to mention the intolerance toward a positive view of lesbian love, sounds a lot like the more judgmental elements of modern America.
Under the guiding hand of Tony-winning director Rebecca Taichman a remarkably versatile cast – Richard Topol, Elizabeth A. Davis, Joby Earle, Harry Groener, Mimi Lieber, Steven Rattazzi, and Adina Version, with musicians (who also are active characters) Matt Darriali, Patrick Farrell and Lisa Gutkin – sing, play, and dance as an elemental expression of culture. They create a myriad of parts to flesh out the story of the play, and its author who wrote only stories and novels, leaving his own play in a dust his actors could not, and the performers whose lives were forever changed by the parts they played. It is a powerful picture of disconnects, fears, and foundational beliefs.
In the end, it is striking to what extent each play’s historical context proves essential to the playwright’s point. Whether that arc of history is deeply, affectingly accurate as in “Indecent,” or almost an artifice, as in “Ladies,” giving a sense of the long arc of history provides a needed underpinning to talking about the world in which we currently live. And that, to some extent, is why history remains important: we are still human beings capable of making the same mistakes those before us did, or learning how not to, by looking back to look forward.
What: “Ladies” When: this production’s last two performances, Saturday June 29 and Sunday, June 30, are both sold out Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena
What: “Indecent” When: through August 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $155. Info: 213-972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
I know, it certainly seems like that. I was here, and then suddenly I wasn’t. It wasn’t intentional, but rather a result of being completely overwhelmed by the (to me, anyway) monumental shifts in life which seemed to all hit at once.
I owe a huge apology to Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont for not ever writing the review I intended to write about their fine production of Steve Martin’s “Bright Star,” a Eudora Welty-ish tale of class, hate and redemption in the South. I hope some of you went. It was disturbing in places, but strong, well directed, and filled with the bluegrass-tinged music that always reminds me of the musical based on Welty’s “The Robber Bridegroom” which I adored in my 20s.
I also owe an apology to the Ahmanson, for seeing and then never writing about the touring production of “Falsettos” which landed there. It was, to be frank, a bit disappointing to see how dated this had become. What were once triumphant, charming, and sad facts about life in gay America in the early 80s had become dry and thus somewhat slow, stating so many things now painfully obvious. Still, the performers were good and deserved to be celebrated.
So… what was I doing instead? Well, I was becoming a retired person. Not, at least not immediately, from theatrical criticism, but from the day job. After a total of 40 or so years as an educator, the last 35 of which have been spent at Blair High School in Pasadena (a treasure of a public school which never gets the credit it deserves), on May 31 I literally left the building.
Prepping for this is when I discovered my classroom (including the boxes full of stuff which had been schlepped from place to place as we moved out of our main building so it could be refurbished and remodeled) was essentially my attic.
Thus I have been sorting through nearly 40 years of educational stuff I had saved, some so old they were printed in purple ditto ink, and tossing away outdated paperwork, sample history textbooks, academic competition format materials, pirated VHS recordings, worksheets, workbooks, and an awful lot of “why the hell did I save that?” bits and pieces. The things which still had value were handed off to those who will be teaching what I have been teaching. It was weird to be divesting myself of so much, but it was time to go. I still love teaching, and care deeply about my students, but it is hard on the body to stand on linoleum over concrete day in and day out, and my oomph was not optimum.
Anyway, on top of this I had promised my wife that when I retired we could move closer to her family. Once she knew retirement was near, her family chimed in with “when you move to Louisville…” advise and comments even before we had decided to return to what was her home town. So, we’re returning to her home town (where I also went to grad school, so it is not entirely foreign territory). That meant that what of the last month and a half or so has not been involved with the details of retirement, and passing various educational batons, has been dedicated to house-hunting. This has meant flying back and forth, lots of document-gathering, etc. Found a nice place too, at a ridiculous price for anyone used to housing costs in SoCal.
Now I have been coming to grips with leaving my own home town. Let’s face it, I love California. I love Los Angeles County. I love the theater culture here, and the extraordinary diversity of people, cultures, arts organizations, languages… all of it. I have roots here dating back to the 20s. To walk away from this is a huge shift in some elemental personal paradigms. Still, it is time for a new, and frankly affordable adventure.
So, what happens to me, the drama critic? Well, I’m not gone yet and there are still some things to see. Still, my son is already talking about a redesign of this blog space to reflect a theater writer talking about Louisville (Actors Theatre especially) and the comparatively nearby regional theater world of Cincinnati. We’ll see. I may end up writing more philosophically about theater, its role in culture, and the need for its preservation. Nothing is yet completely decided, and – of course – the artistic world I move into will have to decide I’m worth listening to. This is never a one-way street.
So, that’s where I’ve been. That’s where I’m going. I am getting over the overwhelming redefinition of my day to day, predicated by walking away from one profession I have practiced for nearly 2/3 of my life, and am beginning to look at what awaits on the horizon. I’ll let you know what I find along the way. You may end up as surprised as I probably will be at the results.
In the meantime, expect a few more reviews from the L.A. area before I leave town. Expect some from some part of the country even after that, if I can manage it. I am preparing to move, not die, and I’ve been writing about theater at least as long as I have been teaching – perhaps even a bit longer. This labor of love, which has survived the curtailing of newspaper publication and the shifts in Equity rules, is not ready for a final curtain.
As for the school I’m leaving behind? I am most proud to have helped found the Gay Straight Alliance there in 2005, and worked hard to create the school’s currently touted “open and accepting” atmosphere, where being a nonconformist in any one of a number of ways is welcomed and appreciated. I am also proud of my work with their strong and creative student government (the ASB). I am told the administration intends to name the ASB room after me, which is touching and humbling. Still, this is a public school district, where bureaucracy can sometimes thwart intent. We’ll see.