Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Alan Blumenfeld

Terrific “Gin Game” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Delightful “Ah, Wilderness” Lights up A Noise Within

Deborah Strang and Nicholas Hormann lead the cast of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah Wilderness” at A Noise Within

When one thinks of Eugene O’Neill, one thinks of wrenchingly serious plays, but “Ah, Wilderness” gives him a chance to explore the comparative innocence of a life he wished he could have lived. In the new production at A Noise Within, the play becomes a charming celebration of the nature of adolescence with characters recognizable over time and ethical distance in a way which makes the entire play approachable and embraceable.

In this warmhearted view of a middle class, small town family’s 4th of July in 1906, we follow 17-year-old idealist Richard Miller as he butts heads with his practical father, college-boy elder brother, overly nourishing mother, and the rest of his extended family. He yearns for the daughter of an overly straight-laced man, reads the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, espouses socialism, and generally disrupts the calm of his family circle. In the ANW production, this comparatively lighthearted tale has been laced with popular music of the period – a move which instantly reinforces both the setting and the lighthearted nature of the thing.

Emily Goss and Matt Gall at a peaceful moment in ANW’s “Ah Wilderness”

Nicholas Hormann sets up the feel of the entire piece as Nat Miller, the easygoing patriarch of Richard’s family and publisher of the town newspaper. That very casual but upright “man of the world” quality sets the tone for the family and the entire play. Deborah Strang fusses and nurtures as Richard’s warm, worrying mother. Against these settled people’s maturity flails Matt Gall as the passionate Richard, whose journey into rebellion (and then back into the fold) becomes the focal point of the play. Gall gives Richard both the aura of conviction and the simplicity of lovesick youth in a combination which works well to tie all the pieces of this tale together.

Ian Littleworth, as Richard’s Yale-going elder brother, reflects the pompousness of the newly independent young man, while Katie Hume and Samuel Genghis Christian provide Richard’s younger siblings – the very observant, somewhat sardonic younger sister and the even younger littlest brother. Indeed, there is an aura of youth and innocence throughout this family circle, which balanced by the subtle struggles of the house’s other two occupants.

As Nat’s “old maid” sister, Lily, Kitty Swink finds a combination of determination and pathos, especially in Lily’s relationship with her former love interest, the flawed Sid, whose battle with addiction – though kept lighthearted in Alan Blumenfeld’s rendition – still provides a haunting connection to the darker side of small town life. Among a sizable cast, Emily Goss gives a youthful bravado to Richard’s clandestine love interest, while Emily Kosloski has a lovely time with the “fallen woman” Richard encounters while in defiant despair.

Director Steven Robman has given these folks a timbre and a pacing which keeps the story light on its feet. Scenic Designer Frederica Nascimento utilizes very mobile set pieces to create the swift changes needed to keep that pacing on target. Most of Garry D. Lennon’s costumes evoke era and class with an easy grace. It all works together to make a delightfully intelligent and largely uplifting whole.

“Ah, Wilderness” is not a rollicking comedy, but rather will evoke the laughter of recognition, and a chance to see a rare side of O’Neill: a balance to his more usual, far more grim works. For those who have never seen it, the ANW production will be a treat. For those who have, this production will confirm why it is worth seeing again. If only coming of age always involved this much charm. “Ah, Wilderness” plays in repertory with ANW productions of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and the soon-to-open musical “Man of La Mancha”.

What: “Ah, Wilderness” When: through May 20, 7 p.m. March 19, April 9, and May 14; 7:30 p.m. April 20; 8 p.m. April 15 and 21, May 19 and 20; 2 p.m. matinees March 19, April 9 and 15, May 14 and 20 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: starting at $25 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Old Farce, Delightfully New: “Figaro” at A Noise Within

 Jeremy Guskin (Figaro) and Angela Sauer (Suzanne). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


Jeremy Guskin (Figaro) and Angela Sauer (Suzanne). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Ever wondered where the expression “French Farce” got its start? Surely one would be the works of Beaumarchais, celebrating the fictional barber from Seville and French nobleman’s retainer, Figaro. Known to modern audience s more as the subject of comic operas by Mozart and by Rossini, the original plays were classic farce. Now, at A Noise Within, Charles Morey’s admittedly loose adaptation of Beaumarchais’ “Figaro” seems destined to be a solid hit. It’s just that funny.

The tale is familiar, but the rendition proves delightfully surprising anyway. Figaro, the valet to the Count, is about to marry Suzanne, the maid to the Countess and his true love. Suzanne clues him to the fact the Count’s gift of a bed and a room of their own, situated between that of the Count and the Countess, is a matter of convenience but not for Figaro and his bride. The Count is determined to have Figaro’s bride as well – and Figaro is furious.

Suzanne points out that the Countess is still in love, even if her husband is not, and a plot begins to form. Meanwhile the older housekeeper, Marceline, lusts after Figaro, family physician Dr. Bartholo loathes him, and gardener Antonio’s daughter, Fanchette, falls for the silly romantic boy Cherubin. If this sounds like a collection of circular stories, you’re right. But just wait.

In the hands of director Michael Michetti, the enterprise becomes a delightful romp. Though Jeanine A. Ringer’s multi-doored set has some functional issues, there is still the appropriately silly manner of comings and goings, hidden listeners and mistaken agendas. Switched identities lead to laughter, and the net result is suitable and usually happy endings. Still, it is the romp one remembers.

Much of the pacing and an equal percentage of the hilarity comes thanks to Jeremy Guskin’s Figaro. His arch approach to the character, his sly asides to the audience, and his sheer comedic physicality all work together to set the tone and the pace for the rest of the production. Indeed, this wry Figaro proves almost contemporary in his humor, perhaps because adaptor Morey readily admits “freely adapting” the older tale to meet tastes of a modern sensibility, and possibly because Guskin is just that funny.

Angela Sauer’s Suzanne provides a most suitable foil for this Figaro – strong, sardonic, and wise. Andrew Ross Wynn makes the Count a pompous grotesque, which aides the comedy, and Elyse Mirto’s sexually frustrated Countess makes a manipulatable foil for Suzanne. Jeanne Sakata vibrates with frustrated passion as Marceline, while Alan Blumenfeld makes a stuffy and distanced Dr. Bartholo. Will Bradley has a ball as the overly romantic Cherubin, while Natalie De Luna makes a seriously innocent Fanchette. Still, it seems the one performer having the most fun has to be Joshua Wolf Coleman, who becomes the simple Antonio, the pompous music master Bazile, and a toadying, speech-impaired judge, by turns.

The pacing, thanks to Michetti, stays lively, the jokes fresh, and the humor impressively current. Let’s face it – some things are just universally funny, and this production, given this sense of physical comedy combined with a classic, farcical set of situations, fits the bill to perfection. “Figaro” is only one of three shows which will play in repertory through this spring at ANW. It follows the spare “Threepenny Opera,” opened recently, and will be joined at the end of the month by a new version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Meaning this is the one to come and laugh at, and with. So do it. You’ll feel better by the end.

What: “Figaro” When: 8 p.m. March 14, April 4, 10, and May 1; 7:30 p.m. April 9 and 30; 7 p.m. April 19 and May 10; 2 p.m. March 14, April 4 and 19, and May 10; 4 p.m. April 5 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ext 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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