Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Category Archives: Review

Dangerous Psychology: Balancing Science And “Threat”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Annie Get Your Gun” at Candlelight – A Mixed Experience

Buffalo Bill introduces the players in “Annie Get Your Gun” at Candlelight Pavilion


Note: This production has already closed, but somehow the review was never posted here. Thus, I post it now for the record.

If you are acquainted with Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” it is likely either through the 1950 film version with Betty Hutton (after Judy Garland was fired from the project) or various clips of songs from the show sung by their originator, Ethel Merman. If this is what you are looking for at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, it will take readjustment. Their production uses the script rewrites created for the Tony-winning revival in 1999. To some extent this is good news. To some extent, at least as presented, the jury is still out.

The revision restages “Annie…” as if it was in itself a show presented by Buffalo Bill, which is innovative, although it threatens to disrupt the flow of the tale itself. The ending has also been rewritten – a necessity for a modern audience, and some objectionable material ridiculing Native Americans has been removed. The costuming ignores most of the conventions of Annie Oakley’s actual period, but that becomes a part of the “it’s just a show” framework, and allows for a lot of lively dancing. The leads are solid (though one was obviously under the weather on opening weekend), and some of the supporting players are particularly fine. In all, it makes for a night of light entertainment, which may be a useful thing in a time like this.

The story grows from the tale of actual people. Famed sure-shot Annie Oakley was a star in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, among others. Sitting Bull, the famed Sioux chief, was also a part of the show for some of that time. She was originally discovered by another sure-shot, Frank Butler, whom she married. Although the Irving Berlin musical twists all these facts around to create a battle of the sexes, it sits on this foundation. In the Berlin version, Butler and Oakley become competitors, with Frank’s ego so bruised he leaves at one point for a rival show, and Annie struggling between proving her prowess and winning Frank’s love.

In the Candlelight production, Brent Schindele (who will be replaced by Johnny Fletcher as of March 23) plays Frank as the standard egotistical pretty boy unwilling to be show up by a girl. He sings with authority, but there is a certain lack of chemistry between him and Jamie Mills’ Annie. Mills gives a Annie an innate confidence and aura of backwoods practicality which works well. Her singing voice was gentled by illness opening weekend, but her understanding of how the songs need to affect the course of the storyline was on target.

Still, at least when shown for review, the best of the production were those backing up these leads. Randy Hilton makes his Buffalo Bill just bombastic enough, while Michael Lopez gives Sitting Bull a certain gravitas which keeps him from being awkwardly stereotypical. As the somewhat star-crossed lovers, Jacob Nancy also manages this balance as the half-Native young knife thrower whose love for his white assistant, played by Kylie Molnar, comes under scrutiny. These latter two have a great time as the exhuberant ingenues of the piece.

Another star is the choreography of Janet Renslow, who has reworked material by Graciela Daniele and Jeff Calhoun to fit the specifics of the Candlelight stage. Mitch Gill and Chuck Ketter have worked up a convertible set which allows for the many, many quick changes of scene, necessary for the direction of James W. Gruessing, Jr., who must deal with side bars usually staged in front of a scrim on a stage which really doesn’t have one.

In short, “Annie Get Your Gun” is a classic, reworked with intention and care. Its increasingly episodic nature – as characters slip in and out of storytelling to become the staff of the show telling the story – may sometimes interrupt the story’s flow or the humor of the piece. Still, there is charm there, and when all are healthy there are also those wonderfully belt-able songs which still ring in the ear: “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” or “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)”. The change to the ending (the original of which even perplexed me as a child), and the respect for what Canadians accurately call First Nations People means adopting this reworking was a wise idea.

What: “Annie Get Your Gun” When: [see note at top of review] through April 14, doors open for the dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $63-$78 general, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal-inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Intimate, Engaging “A Raisin in the Sun” at A Noise Within

Saundra McClain as Lena Younger [Photo:Craig Schwartz]

By any measure, Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” is an essential part of the canon of American plays, but its messages prove especially needed in our current climate. In 1959, it became the first straight play by an African-American to appear on Broadway. It chronicles a decisive period in the life of the Younger family in post-World War II Chicago, and the dreams which grew out of or were squelched by that time, that place and that family.

Now a new and sparkling production at A Noise Within contains a specific intimacy which allows the many messages of the play to rise in rich moments of character and place. A strong piece with a strong and talented cast, it carries inside it the innate nobility of people who have risen up from darkness and can see – can just see – the light up ahead.

Saundra McClain leads the cast as Lena, the Younger matriarch. There is a passionate decisiveness in McClain’s Lena which gathers her clan – even those feeling caged by it – into a close-knit unit for which she is the foundation. Ben Cain makes the impulsive, ambitious and sometimes foolish Walter Lee an interesting balance of hope and anger, and shows in subtle carriage shifts the moments when a more cohesive manhood becomes a part of him.

Toya Turner makes Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth, move with that particular kind of tired which comes from swimming up stream all the time, as she wrestles between despair and the potential for promise. Perhaps most entertaining to watch is the energy of Sarah Hollis, whose Beneatha – the younger sibling working toward becoming a doctor – becomes a symbol of the coming generation, with its desire to reconnect with cultural roots and its push against the very things which have both sustained those working to rise and possibly kept them from rising.

As one of the two men Beneatha dates, Keith Walker radiates the privilege which creates class differences even among those fighting for recognition from the larger community. Amir Abdullah, by sheer carriage, exhibits in the African student the command of a person unburdened by the legacy of American slavery. Bert Emmett makes the white man with awkward news more of a product of his time than a villain, and as the youngest Younger, Sam Christian exhibits a genuine innocence which becomes the reason for so many others’ strivings.

Director Gregg T. Daniel has choreographed this production as much as directed it, creating intertwining patterns of love and frustration, of hopeful striding and heart-wrenched staggers, all in service of a genuineness which radiates a special kind of truth. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set uses the the thrust A Noise Within stage to make the small apartment both restrictive and connected to the audience in important ways.

In short, the production at ANW is not to be missed. If you have seen this play many times you will not be disappointed in this version. If you have never seen it, take the chance to introduce yourself. It is, indeed, part of the canon and particularly apt in this fraught period in our history.

“A Raisin in the Sun” plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Henry V”.

What: “A Raisin in the Sun” When: through April 8, 2 p.m. March 11, 17, 25, 31, April 7 and 8; 7 p.m. March 11, 25 and April 8; 7:30 p.m. March 17, 15 and 29; 8 p.m. March 16, 17, 30, and April 7 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, student rush $20, “pay what you can” March 14, 7:30 performance Info: (626) 356-3121 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Allegiance: Important Statement, Mediocre Musical

George Takei, as the aged Sammy in the original Broadway production of “Allegiance” [photo: Matthew Murphy]

There are two ways to look at the East West Players/Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC)’s new production of the musical “Allegiance,” just opened at the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo. Both have a validity, which must be acknowledged, but the results of those two ways of examination may prove very different.

The first is the affirmation it gives to people of Japanese descent, as it tells the tale of that black mark on 20th century American history, the Japanese Internment. The story is an important one, and – as the program states – those Issei and Nissei who lived it are disappearing with time. Having a way to keep their story alive, and to let those culturally linked to it see themselves on stage, is important indeed. To some extent, “Allegiance” does that.

The other way to look at “Allegiance” is simply as a work of theater, evaluating it on the more universal aspects one normally ascribes to a Broadway musical. There the results are far more mixed. With all its good intentions, passion and relevence, “Allegiance” proves somewhat antiquated in style, formulaic in construction, and lacking the depth one would hope to find in a piece about something so profound.

The story follows a single family through the devastating changes to Japanese American life caused by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Executive Order 9066, forcing all Japanese on the US mainland out of coastal areas, with the loss of homes and businesses, and into prison camps. In the process, it works to present the rifts within and around that Japanese community as they cope with the overt racism of this event: of generation, of political thought, and of action.

This is a tall order for any musical. The essential book, by Mark Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, although choppy at times, manages to cover this episodic story with breadth if not depth. However, Kuo’s musical numbers keep the pacing of the piece from working properly. Every single song is formulated the same way: start small and introspective, then build and build to a highly dramatic and affirmative ending, even if it really isn’t appropriate to end that way.

With the exception of the opening number – which promises all the elements which should be there throughout – the songs, which multiply during sequences in the camp, disrupt any attempt to build tension and dramatic structure. Instead, you have dialogue, dramatic musical affirmation, then a bit more dialogue, then another dramatic musical affirmation, pretty much in the same tone throughout. It makes what should be a consistently heartrending story become formulaic, and doesn’t really allow for enough development of characters we should want to care about.

Still, the ensemble works hard to make things flow, and to create characters which resonate with the audience. Ethan Le Phong and Elena Wang have the most fully rounded portraits to deal with, as the young adult brother and sister – Sammy and Kei Kimura – whose tale is central to the piece. Le Phong makes Sammy vibrate with an energy half anger and half determination to live into his identity as an American. Wang, as a woman trying to preserve the bond between generations, speaks to a growing self-identity forged through difficult times.

Scott Watanabe gives their determinedly Japanese father, legitimately angry at the loss of the fruits of a lifetime of labor, a stalwart, noble quality which underscores the reasonableness of the anger. George Takai makes the elderly grandfather the antithesis of this – a man who has long learned to adapt to whatever comes, finding a way to create his own happiness in the midst of disarray and discrimination.

Also worthy of note are Natalie Holt MacDonald as the white American army nurse assigned to the camp, whose heart goes out to the people she can only partially help and to Sammy in particular, and Greg Watanabe, as the recognized advocate for Japanese in America whose approach to government has been blamed by some as acquiescence.

Director Snehal Desai has worked to take this choppy thing and make it into a cohesive whole. At times this works brilliantly, as it does in the scene surrounding the family’s arrival at the Heart Mountain camp in northwest Wyoming. In others, even the constant use of Se Hyun Ho and Adam Flemming’s projection-rich sets cannot keep this show on emotional target.

In sum, the Japanese Internment was a blight on American democracy, and putting it on stage for all to see is important. As a contemporary anthropologist said at the time, the fact that these same internees returned to their homes and worked to become part of the American mainstream is remarkable, given their treatment. To celebrate their story and struggle in music and on stage, and to let Japanese Americans experience their own heritage is enriching within that community as well. “Allegiance” does all that. One just wishes it was as good as its intentions.

What: “Allegiance” When: through April 1, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Where: JACCC’s Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo How Much: $25 – $130 Info: (213) 680-3700 or http://www.AllegianceMusical.com

Boston Court’s “Streetcar”: Diversity Meets a Classic

Jaimi Paige as Blanche and Desean Kevin Terry as Stanley in Boston Court’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” [photo: Jeff Lorch]

When I was in high school and college, casting of the shows produced there was founded primarily in giving the best performers a chance at the best roles. This often meant that traditionally white characters were played by persons of color (though, it should be noted, rarely the other way around for understandable sensitivity reasons – even then we were way, way, way beyond black face). As I moved out into dealing with productions in the larger world, this was no longer the case, as the rising voices of actors of color has pointed out. Indeed, that very thing is one which made the casting of “Hamilton” so rich: the wide variety of ethnicities playing this country’s not-nearly-that-diverse Framers.

So then, in this new openness, it should not be surprising when the often experimental The Theatre at Boston Court decides to diversify their production of Tennessee Williams’ classic “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Indeed, it provides another layer of symbolism in this tale rich in class intolerance, brutal reality, and the deep fantasy of the traditional South.

It is, of course, the tale of Blanche DuBois, a middle-aged single white woman from Mississippi who has lost the family home but still lives with the airs of a Southern belle. With nothing left, she travels from her small town to her married sister Stella’s home in the French Quarter of New Orleans. There she moves in with the sister and her rough-hewn brother-in-law, condemning both the marriage and their small apartment for not living up to the upbringing and status she finds worthy. As the play unfolds, the true story of Blanche’s own downfall, and her mental fragility, play out against the heightened dynamic of her sister’s marriage and her own wan hopes for a more gentle future.

At Boston Court, director Michael Michetti has placed the piece in a multicultural New Orleans, with the landlords upstairs as Latinos and both Stella and her husband Stanley as African American. With Blanche left as white, the underscore of social difference is illustrated far beyond the lines of the play (which are not changed to accommodate the ethnic shift – Stanley is still Polish, etc.). That it works as well as it does comes from the straightforward commitment of the actors themselves and the power of Williams’ characterizations. As a result, the story and the people in it simply expand beyond the visually obvious.

The one hitch in this “keep the script the same, but make the rest different” concept is the melding of the contemporary with a play first produced in 1947, not from an ethno-cultural standpoint, but in the small details. For example, Blanche speaks of telegrams, and talking to the telephone operator. Stella and Stanley carry cell phones. One can, and perhaps should, treat these oddities as yet another layer of her fantasy life, but it sometimes takes one out of the play to concentrate on rationalization. On the other hand, the music manipulated by sound designer and DJ Sam Sewell moves it into the contemporary. It is a conundrum.

Still, the performers keep the production compelling, regardless of the details of setting. Jaimi Paige gives Blanche the right combination of snooty airs and inner terror in ways which emphasize both her deeply annoying condescension and the terrible underpinnings her desperate keeping up of appearances conceals. Maya Lynne Robinson gives Stella a significant sense of command. Indeed the marriage of Stella and Stanley, even with its defined edges, has an unusually strong atmosphere of equality about it largely due to the way Robinson defines her role. Desean Kevin Terry walks that fine line with Stanley between the traditionally defined sense of maleness and a need to push against a belittling in his own home which seems to echo messages from outside it as well.

Luis Kelly-Duarte creates in Mitch, Blanche’s brief love interest, the kind of sensitivity which puts him squarely between the standards of Stanley and the needs of Blanche. Mariana Marroquin makes very interesting work of Eunice, the practical upstairs neighbor, while Joma Saenz makes her husband Steve just needy enough to create yet another layer of masculinity in the piece. In a small but standout role, Chris Ramirez turns the young bill collector at the door into a rich picture of innocence – the antithesis to the agendas of everyone else in the play.

Director Michetti creates an architecture of characters within a set which is itself an impressive piece of architecture. Efren Delgadillo, Jr. has designed the framework of the apartment in such a way that the audience – seated not only in front but along the sides – is allowed to look inside the lives of everyone in the building with a particular intimacy. Indeed, that is a hallmark of this production: its sense of intimacy, which makes all the human tragedies so much more engrossing.

In total, one can best say that this is “not your father’s/mother’s ‘Streetcar'” but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Go for the artistry. Put on your ability to suspend the literal, and look for the depth the Boston Court production has to give. It will be worth your time.

What: “A Streetcar Named Desire” When: through March 25, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 general, $34 senior, $20 student Info: (626) 683-6801 or http://www.bostoncourt.com

Moliere’s “Too Learned Ladies”: Modern Adaptation at Parson’s Nose

l.to r.: Hannah Mae Sturges, John Rafter Lee, Jill Rogosheske and Dorothy Brooks go cultish in Parson’s Nose’s adaptation of Moliere, “Too Learned Ladies”

Parson’s Nose Theater is a unique enterprise which, after existing for a number of years in other people’s houses, has finally found a home of its own in Old Town Pasadena. The group has as its mission “introducing classic theater to audiences of all ages”. In other words, they take classics of the canon and rewrite them in shorter form, utilizing less ardently poetic and/or antiquated speech, and thus make them approachable for those who find sitting through Shakespeare, Moliere, and the like to be both arduous and somewhat perplexing. Indeed, the point may be to have people fall in love with the ideas before they must wrestle with the greater complexities.

Whether one approves of this approach to great works or not, the company does have a purpose, put on display in their version of Moliere’s “Too Learned Ladies” (originally a 5-act play called “The Learned Ladies”) now running in their new and permanent space. A very late and rarely done Moliere piece, it ridicules both educational charlatans and women who embraced a faux intellectualism to rise in the social pecking order of the time. As such, it rings amusingly true to a modern audience, especially as done by Parson’s Nose, in modern dress using modern language in what can best be described as the Reader’s Digest version of the play.

In the household of Chrysale, there is significant upheaval. His wife, Philaminte has come under the spell of a charlatan named Trissotin, who spouts awful poetry, claims to understand the cosmos, and broaches no argument with his supposed genius. Having sucked in both her spinster sister-in-law, Belise, and her daughter Armande, Philaminte uses her supposedly superior knowledge as a weapon to control Chrysale, and rid the house of faithful servants who see through Trissotin’s con-artist ways.

Now her other daughter, Henriette, wishes to marry young Clitandre. Although Chrysale is happy to say yes, his role as henpecked spouse means he must get Philaminte’s approval as well. While his brother-in-law, Ariste, pushes him to stand up for himself and his daughter, Belise develops a theory that Clitandre is really in love with her, and Philaminte forges plans for a different fate for Henriette. How will it all end, and what can be done to shake the household free from the firm, cultish hold Trissotin has on so many?

Lance Davis, who co-wrote this adaptation of the original and also directs, plays Chrysale with a sheepishness which allows the rest of the play to make sense. Jill Rogosheske makes a powerful and pompous Philaminte, and John Rafter Lee has a ball spouting the ridiculous theories and horrible poetry of Trissotin. Dorothy Brooks has considerable comic effect as the foolish Belise, and Hannah Mae Sturges displays all the intense conviction of the recent convert as Armande.

Frasier Perez-Yadon gives the earnest suitor, Clitandre, the combination of sense and ardor which makes him a suitable foil for all the foolishness in his intended’s household. In this he is aided by Paul Perri’s solidly sensible Ariste. Kyla Schoer gives the hapless Henriette a genuine quality which makes her a standout. James Calvert, playing three distinct and essential roles, appears to be having the most fun, as a maid, a rather unfortunate “beat” styled poet, and the sensible notary called upon to sort out the disparate opinions of Henriette’s parents about her future.

Davis and Gary Lamb have given this silly story a modern framework of language which makes it very approachable, and lets the humor shine through. It is a most entertaining, if quite short, evening of theater. Jen Orsini’s simple set, and mostly modern-dress costuming, lets the whole thing move swiftly from scene to scene, and the pacing of the thing keeps the comedy of the play itself in focus.

Understand that there are, perhaps, things lost in the Parson’s Nose approach. Most translations/adaptations of Moliere try to preserve the concept that the originals were written in verse, and that is gone here. Yet, so are the cultural references which translate poorly to a modern audience, and the jokes about the court of Louis XIV which no longer resonate. Still, it is a great starting place for those who would love to know more about classic theater, but need to be convinced it can be approachable. If that is what you are after, this production of “Too Learned Ladies” will prove entertaining, non-threatening, and charmingly polished.

What: “Too Learned Ladies” When: through March 4, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays Where: Parson’s Nose Theater, 95 N. Marengo Ave. Suite 110 (entrance on Holly St.), in Pasadena How Much: $30 adults, $20 seniors, $15 students Info: (626) 403-7667 or http://www.ParsonsNose.com

A Noise Within’s “Henry V” – Powerful Portrait, Well Played, But…

Rafael Goldstein (center) is Henry V, mounting the set at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Of all the history plays of Shakespeare, the one which has always fascinated me most is “Henry V”. From its prologue, which defines the very essence of live theater and the suspension of disbelief, through the humanity of its central figure wrestling with the understood demands of the crown and the lasting echoes of a misspent youth, it has an articulation of language and emotion which have always caught my imagination.

Now a new, pared down version of this great play is opening the spring repertory season at A Noise Within in Pasadena. Gifted with strong and versatile actors and a direction which keeps the play from becoming too static, it seethes with the balance of forces which can make a rational man move into war, and a different, more immature one look upon it as a playful adventure. The great speeches are there, and the essential elements, but the particular editing of the script (though some version is almost always necessary for modern playgoers) leaves a question mark or two.

In this production, and with a couple of exceptions, everyone in the comparatively small company plays at least two and sometimes three parts. Everyone joins in to give parts of the various speeches assigned to Chorus, rather than have someone assigned that part. This proves an interesting effect, although cutting up the speech into chunks may dilute the power of what is said. Even so, that it all works as smoothly as it does is a testament to the versatility of the company, and the singular vision of the directors.

The story is essentially that of Henry’s determination to defeat the army of France and retake lands there which had traditionally belonged to the English crown. It is a tale which, for two reasons, would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. First because Henry was seen and celebrated as a great warrior king. Second because this play followed upon two others about Henry’s youth, and his escapades with some rather questionable cronies, including the wildly popular Sir John Falstaff (Henry IV, parts 1 and 2) and an extra play just about Falstaff (The Merry Wives of Windsor),

Indeed, that character’s popularity had obviously begun to weigh upon the playwright, or the actor playing Falstaff, to the point where this play is used to kill him off.

Which is where the production at ANW becomes interesting. In the editing of the play done, one assumes, by directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, the comic characters who had surrounded Falstaff are given fairly short shrift. They show up briefly and some of their more comic moments are cut.

This is perhaps because the focus of this spring repertory is on courage, and too much emphasis on the bawdy or self-serving nature of these comedians would detract from that larger theme. Olivier did much the same – needing to concentrate on Henry the hero – when filming the play during World War II. It works. Still, leaving in an execution scene involving these folk, when you have not explained why that execution would be hard for Henry, makes him seem less conflicted about his role in the life and death decisions his position makes him take. That is unfortunate.

Yet, despite this, the play is very well performed. Rafael Goldstein is Henry, making him intense and direct, but as human as Shakespeare intended – able to rouse men to action and to loyalty while still wrestling with the depth of responsibility which comes with what he is doing, Goldstein excels at this kind of balance, and his work centers the play. As his most obvious foil, Kasey Mahaffy is at his best as the petulant Dauphin, while Erika Soto makes lovely work of the French princess, Katherine, who will be one of Henry’s prizes if he wins. All of this is surrounded by a solidly ensemble cast involving many of the best of the ANW company.

Still, there are a few question marks which must be addressed. The set, by Frederica Nascimento is imposing, but cumbersome. It is often positioned in a way which appears somewhat illogical, and gets in the way of some of the battle scenes. Costumer Angela Balogh Calin has created amorphous-period clothing which suits the militarism of the piece, and allows for the carrying about of broadswords, but why has the fight choreographer, Kenneth R. Merckx, Jr., only given shields to the French? It makes for much noise, but a seemingly unequal fight.

Most uncomfortably, the choice to keep a line without its reason. A sequence has been cut in which the French circumvent Henry’s lines, burn his army’s tents and massacre all the young squires waiting behind the battle. That is fine, as it neatens the whole battle concept, but then why leave in Henry’s statement, written specifically to address hearing of the massacre of these boys, as a closing line to that battle sequence? Without context it becomes wryly comic, and seems out of tune with the character or what is going on.

Which is all to say that the performers are very good, and the production proves powerful and interesting. Its visual feel, except when the set gets in the way, has an authority which ties the piece together well. Using a cast of 16 to play 30+ people resonates with what Shakespeare himself was confronted with. And the play works. One could wish some edits were designed differently, and that a Chorus was there as a single voice to call all to use their imaginations, but Henry survives all of this, and does so with style.

Go see “Henry V”. It is not often done, and this one captures the central points of Shakespeare’s concept: that a man once profligate has molded himself into an inspiring leader, but at a cost. That this king knows war is hell, but counts on God and the loyalty of his diverse army to push through against remarkably uneven odds to the attainment of what he truly believes to be the right. And all this with some of the Bard’s most inspired language.

“Henry V” will soon play in repertory with “A Raisin in the Sun” and, later, the comic “Noises Off”.

What: “Henry V” When: 2 p.m. February 17 and 18, March 10, 18 and 24 and April 1; 7 p.m. March 18 and April 7; 7:30 p.m. April 5; 8 p.m. March 9, 10, 23 and 24, and April 6 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, group and rush tickets available Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Unpacking the Baggage: “Water by the Spoonful” at the Taper

L-R: Josh Braaten, Sean Carvajal, Keren Lugo and Luna Lauren Vélez in “Water by the Spoonful” at the Mark Taper Forum. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Water By The Spoonful,” just opened at the Mark Taper Forum, continues the legacy of her “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue”, now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Elliott, honorably discharged from the Marines after being wounded in Iraq, has lost the woman who raised him to cancer – the woman he considers his mother – works a minimum wage job, and is haunted by the image of an Iraqi man uttering a phrase in Arabic. This is where we begin.

Elliot’s search for family connection, those family members’ search for roots or redemption, and the wider circle of people who influence those yearnings provide the story of this play. Clues to these people’s vital, and sometimes vitriolic, interconnectedness build gradually, and often painfully, in ways defined as much by the performers as by the script itself. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has her focus on their elemental isolation, and the devastating effect of the lost or sacrificed links to humanness.

Sean Carvajal plays Elliot as far more of a street kid than his counterpart at the Douglas – reactionary and emotional, and more youthful (which is odd, as it takes place a few years after the previous play). Still, it works as a contrast to the cousin who is also his closest friend. Keren Lugo’s Yazmin – an adjunct professor desperate to keep family traditions and connections – uses a scholarly calm to balance Elliott’s passionate intensity in ways which obviously set her up as the new family core, now that her favorite aunt is gone.

Nick Massouh provides the definition for the terrors Elliott can’t move past, as both the ghost of his dreams and the professor who translates the Arabic phrase the ghost repeats throughout the play.

Running a concurrent, then intertwined narrative with Elliott’s, Luna Lauren Velez makes understated work of Odessa, another aunt of Yazmin’s, and the web mistress of a chat site for recovering meth addicts. It works in a low-key way which heightens the tremendous angst at the play’s close. As another recovering addict on the site, Orangutan, Sylvia Kwan’s immaturity and conflict balance well against Chutes&Ladders, played by Bernard K. Addison as the calming, if overly self-protective member of the group.

As Fountainhead, the overblown nom de plume for the newest list member – a man still in denial of his powerful need for crack – Josh Braaten is awkwardly pompous, a trick in part of the script but greatly a matter of manner. This makes him difficult for the onstage group and the audience to connect to, which is, of course, the point.

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has splayed these personalities across Adam Rigg’s broad and eclectic set. It works for the most part, until the last scenes, when the introduction of a bathtub seems disconnected from any of the spaces one has encountered, making it somewhat inexplicable.

Still, in the end, what one comes away with in this version of this production is almost a voyeuristic sense of watching train wrecks happen in slow motion. Secrets spew, fears capture, sorrows are huge, and disconnects are potent. That this is, indeed, a portrait of America (hence the Pulitzer Prize) says a great deal about the actual American experience. That this portrait is as recognizable as it is speaks to the undercurrent of our national identity in a way which is tragic, human and very real.

What: “Water by the Spoonful” When: through March 11, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue: A Trilogy Starts at the Douglas

L-R: Rubén Garfias, Peter Mendoza and Jason Manuel Olazábal in “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


What happens when a young man joins the service as his father and grandfather before him did? Over the course of our national narrative, particularly over the last century, this has been a recognized, even celebrated legacy. Bring it up to modern times, however, and modern sensibilities, and what is this legacy actually doing? How does the enormous irregularity of Vietnam play into that framework?

“Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue,” the first in a trilogy by Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, examines this and more as it balances three generations of a Puerto Rican family’s struggle with just that legacy. Now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, the play examines what these men carry with them, what they cannot tell, how they coped, what that cost, then balances that against their innate love of the natural beauty found in an island which remains a nation within the larger nation they fight for.

Elliot is young Marine back from the invasion of Iraq to recover from wounds suffered there. He enlisted without telling his family, but proud of the fact his father and grandfather had also served. His father, Pop, never talks about Vietnam, though he met Elliot’s mother – a nurse in an evac hospital – during his own recovery from wounds. His grandfather suffered through the winters in Korea, keeping his fellow combatants’ spirits up by playing Bach on his flute. We watch an interplay – a fugue – of all four people’s experiences, both in combat and in coping with the after-effects of what they cannot fully explain.

In this mix, what will Elliot do, as he struggles to define the older men’s understanding, and prepare himself for a return to the front?

Peter Mendoza fills Elliot with the optimism of youth, and a quiet version of curiosity about how his own understandings stack up against those of the older men who will not share experiences with him. Jason Manuel Olazabal moves like a man with something twisting inside as he relives the nameless threats which balance against and overwhelm humane moments of soldiering, the scarring effects of Vietnam. Ruben Garfias handles the switches from aged grandfather declining into dementia to young soldier struggling to play a flute with frostbit fingers – the inner memories which may not surface.

All turn wistful when thinking of the lush greenery of Puerto Rico, and their sense of community there even when returning after long absence. In this they echo Caro Zeller’s former nurse, pulled into a sense of life by tending a random, junglesque garden in the midst of New York. That constant juxtaposition of verdant life with the consistent experience of death and horror which constitutes military action forms another fugue within the play.

Director Shishir Kurup has used Sibyl Wickersheimer’s seemingly simple photo panel set to create a sense of generational link and disconnect as one floats from the present to the past to the present again while the stories intertwine. The focus on the fragility of each of these characters, even as each of them pull themselves up to move forward, underscores the needed message this play has for the world. Depending on who one empathizes with, this can be read – as most fugues can – more than one way.

“Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue” is the first in Hudes’ “Elliot Trilogy,” which are all being performed in Los Angeles in overlapping productions – the first time any city has hosted all three at once. Next on the list is “Water By the Spoonful” at the Mark Taper Forum.

What: “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue” When: Through February 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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