Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Heritage, Comedy, Connection: “King of the Yees” at the Douglas

Stephenie Soohyun Park and Francis Jue in the world premiere production of “King of the Yees.” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


There is a moment toward the end of a favorite documentary where people who grew up in the then-segregated African-American neighborhood around Central and Slauson in L.A. talked about the loss of that neighborhood with regret. Entrance into the mainstream was great, they say, but they lost those close knit community ties. I could not help but think of this while watching Lauren Yee’s funny, insightful “King of the Yees” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Only this time, the community beginning to fray was, and is, San Francisco’s Chinatown, with its antique buildings and firmly held traditions.

Indeed, focal to the entire piece is the impressive, beautifully carved, red door of the Yee Family Association, of which Lauren’s father in the play is the president. That door, situated center stage, represents the Chinatown which the onstage Lauren sees as archaic and dissolving. Or does she.

In this world premiere, what begins as a standard “let me tell you about my father and my heritage” play soon takes a far more engrossing, positively Thornton Wilder-like turn. Hovered over by this very traditional, and apparently powerful door, one ends up touching on several elements of the modern Chinese-American (and larger Asian-American) experience with wit, a certain mysticism, and an underscore of hope.

Central to the piece are the performances of Stephanie Soohyun Park as Lauren and Francis Jue as her father Larry. The other cast members, Rammel Chan, Angela Lin and Daniel Smith provide a wide range of other characters, from actors to mystical persons, which pepper this engrossing journey.

Jue brings to Larry a balance of confidence and apparent innocence, tonally idealistic yet rooted in the practicalities of his supposedly insular world. This provides the perfect foil to Park’s crispness as her character’s assimilated Americanism bounces against the traditions of her childhood. The chemistry between the two creates a specific energy which powers the rest of the piece.

And that “rest” also proves engrossing, from discussions of the stereotypes demanded of Asian actors, through an examination of ritual and connection, to a brief, humorous window on the secret world beneath the touristy elements Chinatown presents to the world. The play proves, all at the same time, goofy, tender, pointed, illuminating and tremendously fun to watch.

Director Joshua Kahan Brody keeps the production’s pacing necessarily crisp, creating the quick transitions between thoughts and characters so needed in a play this potentially convoluted, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. Another star has to be Mike Tutaj, whose projections (along with set designer William Boles’ big red door) stir the mysticism, and (along with Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design) add to the comedy.

Still, all of these arrive in service of a fine play. Yee has the ability to make pointed, apparently autobiographical commentary in a way which enriches, entertains, and affirms. This play never talks down to those for whom the conceptual details are new, and manages – at least in this production – to find a common ground in the ongoing American discussion of the balance between keeping one’s own cultural heritage and becoming, if not part of a “melting pot,” at least one flavor in the tossed salad that is this country at its best.

What: “King of the Yees” When: Through August 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

When An Intriguing Concept Falls Flat: “The Marriage Zone” in NoHo

Perhaps the two greatest dangers in producing an original work of theater is either directing your own performance or directing your own play. In either case, the absolutely necessary second opinion – the critique where needed to make sure the thing is the best it can be – is lacking. Without it, many a good idea has gone down in flames simply because there was nobody in the creative process able to say “no.”

As case in point take “The Marriage Zone,” written and directed by Jeff Gould, and now receiving its premiere run at The Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood. The concept of the piece is actually quite intriguing, but with the necessary filter missing the result is impressively sub-par. The playwright’s choice to direct – in other words, to have to listen only to his own views on the script, stage movement, pacing, etc. – means that there was nobody left to push the play to its potential.

“The Marriage Zone” is, as one might guess, a potentially comic derivative of “The Twilight Zone”. Here a middle-aged couple with a 15-year-old son put their house up for sale, even though this is one more tension in their increasingly tense marriage. When a young, newly engaged couple show up to see the house, followed closely by a significantly older couple viewing the house out of nostalgia, it rapidly becomes clear the couple are looking at their own history. The potentially intriguing question in all of this is, is their story set in stone, or can it be changed from the current path?

Pursuing that question would have been fascinating, but it never really is. Indeed, the play is framed as a comedy, and a male-centric comedy at that. As a result, the more sophisticated issues breeze by unexplored. Instead, one deals with the superficial: does the Internet of the future let you see porn in your head? Is sex as fun later in a marriage? Are annoying habits of one’s partner going to be impossible to deal with over time? And then there is the constantly repeated emphasis on the importance of blow jobs.

What about the importance of honesty in marriage, and of communication? What about the balance of nurture and push in parenting? What about parenting at all – is it worth it to have done it if the results come out less than one hoped? All of these are sped through in favor of another sex joke. It is sad, because the result means there is little “there” there.

Which is not to say that the play is poorly acted. Anne Leighton and Jeff Pride, as the home owners, make the kinds of connection that a married couple who are willing but not particularly able would. Megan Barker and Ryan Cargill radiate youth and enthusiasm, and a certain implied shallowness, as the newly engaged. In the production’s best performances, Jacee Jule and especially Alex Hyde-White give an interesting edge and paternalism to the older couple.

Still, they all suffer from Gould’s direction. Jule and Hyde-White spend almost the entire play sitting in chairs, one way to the side, making comments. The only props on stage – cups of lemonade – are left sitting on the coffee table, to no purpose. The whole thing is remarkably static for such a potentially emotionally charged situation. The characters simply don’t have enough to do. It is not surprising that Ciaran Brown, as the couple’s son, also does little other than sit.

If “The Marriage Zone” was fall-down funny, one could forgive the lack of depth. If its dialogue was engrossing on the subject of time-bending revelation, it might excuse the fact people spend so very much of the play sitting in chairs talking. But since, in its best moments, this play falls with rather a thud somewhere in between these goals, it leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, a good workshop of this thing, with input and polish applied after significant feedback, could turn it into something one would truly wish to see.

What: “The Marriage Zone” When: through August 27, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays Where: The Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood How Much: $40 Info: (323) 960-7784 or http://www.Plays411.com/marriagezone

“Heisenberg” at the Taper: A Stirring Subtlety

Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker in “Heisenberg.” [Photo Craig Schwartz]

The uncertainty principle of German scientist Werner Heisenberg states that the position and velocity of any object cannot both be measured exactly at the same time. In Simon Stephens’ much-celebrated play, “Heisenberg,” that theory is applied to people – two impressively dissimilar adults who meet awkwardly in a London train station and then begin a process of individual change – a change filled with immeasurables.

Now at the Mark Taper Forum, fresh from a much-celebrated Broadway run, the play proves very funny, intellectually engaging, and as rich in humanity as all of that implies.

Alex Priest, a stolid, elderly Irish butcher who lives alone in London, meets the significantly younger Georgie Burns when she impulsively kisses him on the back of the neck. Did she think he was someone else? We may never know, but her virtual stalking of him from that point forward, and her almost nonstop monologue on life, gradually shift Alex from his highly patterned, insulated isolation into a new view of the world around him.

The question, of course, is why she does this. What, in her constant speech, is the truth and what is fantasy? Is she a con artist, or genuinely fragile, or (as the British would put it) a bit mental? Does it matter, really, in Alex’s world?

This production has arrived in Los Angeles with the same two people who made it a sensation in New York. The chemistry between Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker allows for the questions to fill the room, and yet not get in the way of watching two fascinating characters intertwine. Arndt’s Alex is delightfully underplayed, with small changes balancing well against the verbal and emotional abandon of Parker’s insecure Georgie.

The director, Mark Brokaw, who also created the New York original, has let these two extraordinary performances stand on their own. The performance is uniquely centered by set designer Mark Wendland in the Taper’s performance space, with only two easily-moved tables and two chairs to provide any necessary physical needs. Thus, the performances are literally everything, a piece brilliant stagecraft, as this is – indeed – all one needs.

Stephens’ script is delightful and wistful by turns, but never sentimental. There are moments of startling, delicious humor, and others of ponderable introspection. But most of all, in the hands of these two extraordinarily skilled actors, there is a particular kind of aching humanity – that delicate need for human connection that a modern social system makes easy to overlook.

“Heisenberg” is a fascinating exercise for many reasons. For someone who appreciates the things theater can do that no other medium does, the sheer sense of place and time expressed on a black block of a stage with minimal furniture is a treasure in itself. More than this, there is an elemental humanity at work in that space, not to mention two impressive examples of the actors’ art to savor. For all these reasons and more, catch this one with these actors, in this setting, while you can.

What: “Heisenberg” When: Through August 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Musings: Theater and the Observant Outsider: the importance of feedback in the production process

One of the more memorable moments from my college years has to be the day I happened upon Mel Brooks in the lobby of the then-brand new Hyatt Regency in San Francisco’s Embarcadero District, filming a sequence from “High Anxiety.” He was starring in it, of course, as he often was in his movie-making days, but after each shot he would dash over to a video screen to watch what had just gone on.

Had he done what he wanted to do? Was everyone in the right place? Was it as funny as he had hoped? Nope. Discussion with the actors. Discussion with the cameraman (the video camera shadowing what the film camera was doing). Back for another take of the same scene, with a few adjustments both to himself and the others involved, to make it better.

On and on it went, until finally he called it a wrap and they began packing up to move to a new location.

This is the elemental advantage of film, for a man like Brooks. He can be in his creation and direct his creation and have eyes in both places, as the camera becomes his surrogate. Behind the scenes, he will take the rushes from his filming and fiddle with them, pass them by producers and editors who will offer advice and expertise, and the end result will be something that is very much his, but also well vetted.

The same is not possible on the stage, really. The very immediacy which makes stage performance so emotionally satisfying means that a director cannot be in two places at the same time. If you are on stage performing with others, you cannot watch yourself in the moment. If you are off stage, in director mode, you are not allowing those you perform with to do what they need to do in relation to your character.

This is, if anything, more intense when one is performing solo, as the entire piece is just the performer, obviously unable to stand out front or in the wings to watch him or herself. Even the great solo performances – Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, or Robert Morse as Truman Capote, for example – most definitely had someone else direct. Having more eyes involved with the creation of the final product allows the actor to practice his or her craft with that vital second opinion – a different eye – to avoid the traps of ego or of simply being too close to the material.

Interestingly the same can often be said of the relationship between writing and directing. Particularly in smaller theaters, it is not uncommon to see a director who is working with his or her own material. In theory this can be a good thing, but the concept often has fatal flaws.

(I cannot help but remember the professor in a class on readers theater who made us all buy his poetry chapbook “because when you read those poems I can tell you exactly what the author meant”. This created issues because many of those poems became subjects of ridicule among us, meaning we simply wouldn’t want to read them aloud – as we actually understood them – to the man who was giving us a grade. We were not allowed to edit, and trust me, they needed work even this college junior could see.)

So let’s face it: in reality (and I do not discount this in myself) any author has a strong tendency to fall in love with the work he or she has written to the point where it is tough to see the flies in the ointment. Editing is tough without feedback. Feedback rarely comes most efficiently from oneself, particularly in the admittedly ego-driven world of performance. The American greats from Arthur Miller on down did not direct their own iconic dramas. Neither did the likes of Neil Simon, whose comedic view of the mid-20th century is startlingly timeless.

Sometimes this is an obvious choice, as many writers are more cerebral than physical in their view of what their play is trying to say. In other words, a person proficient with words isn’t necessarily proficient with the physical interplay of bodies in a stage space. The added plus of an outside director, beyond a more visual artistic understanding, can be the work of an editor. What looks good on paper doesn’t always translate to what captures an audience from the stage, and the director is there to illuminate that.

For over 50 years there was a small amateur theater company in Altadena, California which devoted itself to producing untried plays. Theatre Americana would advertise in college newspapers and literary journals, and would sort through the hundreds of scripts they received annually to find four plays which would each be “put on its feet” every year. Their structure underscored this need for a writer to be open to outside input.

Their contract with the authors insisted they be allowed to edit the work, and they often did. Those who would not agree were told that TA was not interested in their work. Even with edits it was often obvious that playwrights tend to write more than the stage can stand. (As my mother would have said, perhaps George Bernard Shaw could get away with plays which were really more “costumed panel discussions” but nobody else can.) But then that was what TA’s mission was all about. They always invited the authors to come and take a look at the results, and thus to take away some sense of where the play needed to be worked on next.

Sadly, in these days when getting people into a theater is tougher than ever, and getting them into a community theater is even harder, the last members of Theatre Americana found it difficult to pass their legacy on to a new generation. Just as this was dawning on them, the County saw fit to remove them from the building they had, in the first part of the 20th century, been instrumental in getting built in a local county park. Finally, the enterprise shut down, though still stating a wan hope of revival. I admit I miss their energy. It was an education to see their productions, not only for the playwrights, but for this then-much-younger theatrical critic.

All of which to say that I have seen several productions over the past year where the critical objective eye was missing in some way. The person who wrote was directing and pretty much running the show. The person directing was also the star. In each case, the loss of an independent critical eye meant that some amount of potential went unrealized. I cannot claim this is always, universally true. Still, that desire to save money or make something totally one’s personal vision, or whatever causes such foreshortening of the elemental staffing of a theatrical production should be approached with deep caution. In the theater, perhaps more than most other art forms, independent observation is key.

Wiz of Oz at Candlelight: gentle but pleasing

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion’s “The Wizard of Oz” head off to see the wizard


You’d have to come from another planet, or be under the age of 5, to not know anything about “The Wizard of Oz.” For those of us who were not born in the earliest parts of the last century, it is the film we think of. In the pre-Internet age, the film’s annual appearance on television was a major family moment. At the dawn of the digitizing age, the film was even used to ridicule colorization (“If they had their way, they’d colorize the first ten minutes of ‘The Wizard of Oz'”). In my personal sphere, a dear friend’s mother is one of the last surviving cast members of the film, having played a munchkin as a child.

Few really stop to remember that “The Wizard of Oz” was originally a book – the first in a long series by L. Frank Baum (and, eventually, others). In its third life, the story has become a stage musical, using the material from the film, including a song left out of the original and the very 30s introductions once added to others. This musical has arrived at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont as a chance for kids on vacation, and their families, to beat the heat, eat a lovely meal, and be transported over the rainbow.

And, for the most part, that’s what they will get. The production, though there are a few creaky bits, makes the most of the small Candlelight stage, thanks in part to Chuck Ketter’s many, many backdrops and set pieces, and to the expansive performances – especially one – under the direction of John LaLonde.

The trick with any stage production of a musical film is to not try to compete with the movie. Here that’s hard, as so many have the thing virtually memorized. Still, Jaidyn Young, who shares the part with Sydney Dawn, makes an earnest and innocent Dorothy, singing the signature “Over the Rainbow” and holding her own as a dancer. Jesse Ashton Rhodus gives Scarecrow an appropriately loose-limbed quality, and a quietly positive air. Andrew Lopez, though handed the most unfortunate costume, becomes a very earnest and heartfelt Tin Man. Still, the best of this group is Austin Rea’s take on the Cowardly Lion, which eschews Burt Lahr’s Borscht Belt humor and Brooklyn accent for a deeply earnest innocence which plays beautifully and more originally with the rest of the group.

Also worthy of note are Jim Skousen’s apologetic wizard, Candace Elder’s concerned Aunt Em, and Michael J.Isennock in the dual roles of the Mayor of Munchkin City and Nikko, the captain of the flying monkeys. Sami Nye’s cheerful Glinda balances Courtney Bruce as the Wicked Witch of the West. As the show’s villain, Bruce has a great time, and handles the quick comings and goings with comparative ease, but sometimes gets so wound up by her own villainy she becomes difficult to understand.

There are a few technical issues as well, most particularly in the generally charming approach of Glinda’s bubble (oil that contraption – it shouldn’t squeak), and the decision to use blinking lights in the essential witch-with-a-firey-broom sequence (which don’t turn off when needed). Also, one wonders if it might be possible for the twister to be less static, though the way of presenting those things caught in it is clever.

Still, the choreography by Kim Eberhardt makes even the restored, if somewhat odd, “The Jitterbug” interesting. The magic of the Wizard and the disappearance of the Witch both prove quite effective, and the consistent use of a very competent children’s ensemble along with the usual chorus gives the thing a vitality and charm which proves the most important thing in the piece.

In the end, this “Wizard of Oz” has many more pluses than flaws. And, although you may find yourself repeating an awful lot of the words along with the actors – at least in your head – take the time to look around at the children in the audience. They are having as good a time as the kid in the balcony who waved at Glinda’s bubble every time it went by, on opening night. Note that there is a specific children’s menu for this show, complete with theme-based drinks.

What: “The Wizard of Oz” When: through July 29, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, at 5 p.m. Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunch Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61-$76 adults, $30-$35 children, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

So… Where Have I Been?

It’s the start of June. It’s the start of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. It’s… well, there’s a lot of theater going on out there. So, why is nobody hearing from me? Because I’m not in Los Angeles at the moment.

As anyone who has read the “About Me” part of this blog-thing knows, I teach high school. Last week was finals week. Then Friday morning way, way, way too early, I got on a plane to Salt Lake City, Utah… not because I wanted to see the sites (though there are sites to see) but because I was meeting with over 700 other teachers and professors of US Government to score the nation’s Advance Placement American Government and Politics exams. This year there are 320,000 to be read.

I do this for a lot of reasons. First, I teach the course and the best way to know how to prepare my students is to see how students respond to the questions, how those essays are being evaluated (i.e.: what the rubric looks like), and what nuances are implied in the process of scoring which will let me read between the lines of what the people who write this stuff are really emphasizing.

I also came this year because the curriculum is changing, as is the test, in a year or so and I want to know lots of details about that.

And, of course, they are paying me. Not the only reason to come, but it helps.

I do not get to choose when this happens, and it just so happens that this time it completely coincides with the start of the great wave of show openings which become the Fringe every year. And the opening weekend of Whittier Community Theatre’s last show of the season. And a lot of other fascinating things.

So, I’m sorry to have been silent. Look for me again closer to the end of June, when I will be back in action. And in the meantime, go look at the Hollywood Fringe website, find something which looks interesting, and go. You can tell me all about it.

“The House in Scarsdale” at Boston Court: Evaluating the Search


There are two ways to approach Dan O’Brien’s “The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage”. One can look at it as just that – a memoir created by gradually collecting as many as possible of the secrets a family never told. In this view, the show becomes an elaborate puzzle made up of the various reticent members of a deeply dysfunctional family which gradually come together to underscore the demons inhabiting the playwright himself. That works, after a fashion.

The other view, however, which can be far more intriguing, is to look at the entire play as the story of a quest: the kind of quest where the searching is everything. It allows for conjecture and obsession and self-affirmation, but is also a thing in itself which becomes integral in the quester’s view of the world. Now receiving its premiere at The Theatre at Boston Court, the play is far more interesting in the latter view.

Here it takes its place alongside other questing folk of story and legend who defined themselves by the search, not the finding. Like the unsuccessful search for the Holy Grail (sorry, Indiana Jones fans), the journey was the story all along. Finding the thing being searched for would (and is) almost pointless. The questing, and the questions, make the story.

O’Brien, according to this work, is the youngest of six children, none of whom (as the play begins) he has contact with. He has been cut off by his parents as well, and his aunts have been told not to speak with him. How a family could reach this state is one question, but as he pursues the whys and reexamines his own memories, it is the search as much as the purpose of it which is most interesting to follow. Is he looking for a verification of his own sanity in a family short on just that? Is he looking for a reason why his marriage is in trouble? Is he trying to reconstruct a sense of family?

Or, is he in love with the search itself as a symbol of his own identity as a seeker? This last begins to seem more and more clearly the answer as the tale unfolds.

All of this is presented on a nearly empty stage by two men. One, the Dan played by Brian Henderson, becomes the protagonist on the quest, narrating his own story as he calls, writes, visits and pieces together with private detectives and psychics the story of himself. The other, the Dan played by Tim Cummings, is sometimes the argument inside the protagonist’s head, as well as becoming all the people on the other end of the quest’s questions and investigations, at least as Dan remembers them. For both men this is a tour-de-force, performed without intermission in an inexorable forward motion rife with adventure, anger, frustration, and a certain joy of the chase.

Director Michael Michetti wisely allows this tale to play out with a minimum of distraction and a maximum of the actors’ art. The set by Sara Ryung Clement is two chairs and two screens upon which are projected a few photos – some out of focus, which makes its own point – as well as innumerable drawings which illustrate the remembrances and mental architecture that the protagonist constructs. Indeed, these projections, designed by Tom Ontiveros, become, themselves, a character in the piece. What is real? What is dim recollection? What is conjecture? What is pure fantasy?

There is no doubt that the production is splendid, or that the script is articulate, complex and compelling. Henderson and most particularly Cummings create scene after scene out of words and the air. Yet the argument still lies in the question: to what purpose? Audience members will have differing answers depending on which spin they take from the start. My contention, obviously, is that this is a quest story. Indeed, the singular note of regret in this work comes as the answers appear to be found. To say more is to lessen the moment’s impact, but the overall feel is “Now what?”

“The House in Scarsdale” was workshopped at several prestigious institutions, including the Center Theatre Group, while in the process of completion. The results are fascinating watching, even if the ending is, at best, a hanging one.

What: The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage” When: through June 4, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with added $5 performance May 22 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 general, $34 seniors, $20 students Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com

“Archduke” at the Taper: Pseudo History, but Solid Social Commentary

L-R: Stephen Stocking, Patrick Page, Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “Archduke.”
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

To begin with, I must issue a disclaimer. I teach history, so a play which is ostensibly about historical people engaged in historically documented events pushes me to look at the thing first as a historian and then as a theatrical critic.

Thus, there are two ways to approach Rajiv Joseph’s new play at the Mark Taper Forum. “Archduke” is ostensibly a historical play, in that its characters were elemental in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which opened the door to the devastation of World War I. However, taken as such, it must be pointed out that the facts have been treated with a considerable amount of creativity.

Therefore, “Archduke,” as a history-based document, would be highly problematic. Rather, one must look at the underlying messages of the play, as it examines the nature of obsession, and the gullibility of the disenfranchised young. As such it touches more on what would inspire the young to politically desperate action in any age. Given this understanding, it proves both very funny and touchingly powerful.

The story must, of course, center on Gavrilo Princep, the bright and highly nationalistic 19-year-old revolutionary and assassin. Only in this version he’s none of these. Rather, this Gavrilo is a dim peasant whose surprise tuberculosis diagnosis starts him on a journey to find some reason for having lived. Taken in by a Serbian colonel obsessed with freeing his people from Austro-Hungarian domination, Gavrilo and his two compatriots are more swept up by the colonel’s hospitality and elegant lifestyle than by politics.

Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that the center of this piece is Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the historic founder of The Black Hand, the group responsible for the assassination. Here, “Apis,” as he is called, appears as a madman with ferocious powers of persuasion. Can he take three “lungers” – that is, young men with a TB death sentence – and turn them into a revolutionary movement? Through bombast, coercion and a taste of the good life, it appears possible.

Stephen Stocking looks remarkably like the photos of the historic Gavrilo, and his ability to balance the character’s unschooled childlike qualities and fatalistic objectivity in the face of so much emotion makes the play work. As Dimitrijevic, Patrick Page provides the perfect counter to the underplayed future assassin, making the colonel pound and rage and pronounce with an intensity which perfectly overwhelms the innocence of his “converts.”

Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania give Gavrilo’s two fellow tubercular innocents a truly charming combination of simplicity and live-for-the-moment happiness, making it completely understandable that they would debate which was more important: assassination or a sandwich.

Todd Weeks provides the sanity in all the madness as the doctor left unable to assist the young men in their illness, while Joanne McGee, as the colonel’s cantankerous servant, balances sarcasm and pathos in keeping the proceedings from becoming too cartoonish.

Director Giovanna Sardelli truly understands the interplay of the underlying messages here, and balances the humor (which is genuinely funny throughout) and the darker elements in creating a true ensemble. In this she is aided by Tim Mackabee’s remarkable set: at many points comparatively stark, but lush at just the right moment. Denitsa Bliznakova has an eye for using costuming for both character development and historical context. In combination, the results are powerful and deeply engaging.

If anything, “Archduke” is about the ease with which the intelligent, passionate, but obsessed can convince those with little to lose to do things which may seem incomprehensible to the observer. Move this forward and it can be applied to all forms of outrageous and deadly acts, from a white supremacist in a church basement to an ISIS convert putting on a suicide vest. And that is the serious core of the play, all the delightful humor notwithstanding. In the end this matters far more than the play’s many liberties with history.

What: “Archduke” When: through June 4, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213)62802772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

The Originalist: A Spin on Scalia at the Pasadena Playhouse

Note: Though this review appeared online and in print for newspapers of the Southern California News Group, it was not posted here – for various reasons (but mostly the day job getting in the way) – until the day it closed. So, here it is, just as informational writing.

In the opening moments of John Strand’s “The Originalist,” the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is addressing a large group at The Federalist Society. For those who care to look, this is an elegant shorthand about his background. (If you need to know more, check out Jeffrey Toobin’s article in the April 17 copy of The New Yorker, which discusses that organization’s agenda, and its foundational drive to train and raise up originalist conservative judges.) It is also an immediate line in the sand: this man is incredibly secure in his view of the role of the judiciary, and will not be swayed.

Now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse, “The Originalist” offers up a potentially interesting discussion. Scalia has hired a liberal law school graduate to be one of his clerks. Though dismissed by some as a token – liberal, female, and Black – there is some indication that he wants her there so he can hone his own opinion by bouncing it off of the opposition. The playwright assures us that it “is a play about hope.” What the play wants to argue for is the idea of returning to a sense of the middle ground, of compromise. Indeed, by the end of the play, Scalia has actually taken one piece of this intern’s advice on wording. Still, that is not what most of the audience will come away with, for two reasons.

First, the Justice Scalia in the play comes off as a confident, extremely well-versed constitutional scholar willing to use shock language to make his point as he writes dissenting opinions on court rulings with which he fundamentally disagrees. He is quick to skewer those whose opinions don’t match his, in part with intellect, but in great part with a snide quality he takes great relish in. For those within hearing who agree with Scalia’s conservative views, this play thus becomes confirmation of their own views, especially on issues of individual rights. For many who are opposed to his opinions this play may seem an advertisement for a path they see as destructive to progress. Few will actually spend time absorbing the one brief moment of compromise as having much impact.

Second, there is an attempt to humanize Justice Scalia which also seems to jar with the persona one faces through most of the play. His moments of kindness seem pasted on, rather than allowed to become integral to the point at hand – that of being able to hear views not his own without belittling them. Of course, there is some reason for this. This is the man whose tone has been critiqued over time by scholars – not his originalism or his jurisprudence necessarily, but his tone. In the play he acknowledges this, and refers to himself as a monster, satirically but even so there is meat there.

However, though one can argue with the play itself, one cannot argue with the performances. Edward Gero makes such a good Scalia it’s almost spooky. He radiates confidence and that satiric absolutism without ever turning into a cartoon. Jade Wheeler gives the clerk, Cat, all the warmth and complexity that the script’s Scalia lacks, as she reasons her way through a difficult job while also dealing with difficult side issues. Brett Mack makes the insufferable young Federalist Society member and SCOTUS clerk wannabe, Brad, as annoying, and clueless about American social issues, as that sounds. Brad is, perhaps, the play’s only truly two-dimensional character, but Mack gives it what character one can.

Director Molly Smith has given this extremely talky, episodic tale a sense of movement and life which flows seemingly effortlessly from start to finish. Misha Kachman’s minimalist scenic design allows for the quick shifts needed to accomplish Smith’s goals. Indeed, there is craft throughout this piece, which is performed without intermission.

Still, one must look at the takeaway. Antonin Scalia was a complicated man who ended up on the wrong side of many SCOTUS decisions which advanced rights and governmental power in ways he felt were unConstitutional, because he was an originalist. This play does not really explore that complexity, but neither does it achieve its agenda of pushing the viewer toward the view Cat seems to be leaning into: that compromise is possible and all sides should be respected and heard. Certainly, the audience reactions I heard came, rather, from internal confirmation bias in one direction or the other, which is the exact opposite of the play’s intent.

What: “The Originalist” When: This show has closed Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena Info for future shows at the Playhouse: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

“Jesus Christ Superstar”: Candlelight Pavilion hosts classic rock opera

Richard Bermudez as Judas and Kyle Short as Jesus in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” [photo: James Suter]


The first major splash made by the songwriting team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber was a 1971 concept rock opera album titled “Jesus Christ Superstar.” For many of my generation, that was how we first encountered this work, allowing our imaginations to fill in what the characters looked like and the setting they would wander through. As it moved quickly to stage, and then to film, it developed a new, wider audience, and the show has rarely been off the boards since.

Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, “Jesus Christ Superstar” – for those who don’t already know – gives a comparatively modern spin to the tale of the last few weeks of Jesus’ life. Though ostensibly “humanizing” the story (i.e.: making it more about the man than a deity), it stays fairly faithful to the commonly held storyline, while embracing what is always a dramatist’s challenge: finding a motivation for Judas’ betrayal. And the music is literally classic Lloyd Webber: lush in spots, stridently rock-and-roll in others, somewhat thematically repetitive, with that unforgettable quality which has kept him a success for decades.

At Candlelight, co-directors Chuck Ketter and John LaLonde have assembled a fine cast. They look right, sing with skill and intention, and create the atmosphere necessary for the show to be a success. Also necessary for success are a few key players. Heading the list, Kyle Short makes an effective Jesus, balancing his dynamism against his exhaustion and fear. Emily Chelsea gives Mary Magdalene’s songs a slight country lilt, but it works.

Stanton Kane Morales as Pontius Pilate, develops a rather wistful tone, which works well. Camilo Castro, a true bass, gives Caiaphas the aura of villainy necessary for this show’s spin on events. A remarkable ensemble, including Orlando Montes as Peter, sings well, dances with enthusiasm and skill, and creates the atmospheres necessary – whether of fawning, devotion, delight, demand, or panic – to make the piece work.

A true standout in all of this is Richard Bermudez as the angsty Judas, angry and horrified, and in the end sure he’s been duped into his actions. Bermudez has the combination of vocal strength and articulation necessary for what becomes the binding storyline behind the obvious. One just wishes that the shadow of his final demise looked a bit more like a person, but that is nitpicking.

Pacing is everything in this show, and band director Alan Waddington never lets the thing slow down or pause. Putting a band on the small Candlelight stage means the large ensemble must be maneuvered with skill in front of and even above the musicians at times, which works remarkable well except when someone in a long robe has to climb a ladder in a hurry – a bit nerve wracking to watch. Still, the two directors have a gift for the visual, and some moments prove especially impressive, including the very last sequence, as Jesus is executed. Indeed, the final tableau as the lights go out is particularly powerful.

Kudos also to choreographer Dustin Ceithamer for creating dance and movement which look spontaneous even as they are not, and to costume coordinator Merrill Grady for giving the sense of that Renaissance view of the Middle East which so characterizes one’s mind’s-eye view of the time period.

In short, it is good to see “Jesus Christ Superstar” again, in part because – above and beyond the religious significance – the subject matter of political manipulation and the dangers of flying off the handle seems very current, and in part because it is good to revisit a work from the start of two songwriting careers which, both together and independently have helped define the stage and screen as it is known today. And, of course, at Candlelight Pavilion one also gets a tasty meal.

What: “Jesus Christ Superstar” When: through April 29, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for lunch matinees Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $61 – $76 adults, $30 -$35 children, meals inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ex.100, or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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