Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Jessica Kubzansky

Funny, Deeply True “With Love and a Major Organ”: the necessary human touch

Daisuke Tsuji & Paige Lindsey White in “With Love and a Major Organ” at Boston Court [Photo: Jenny Graham]


Recently, as part of an assignment at a nearby public high school, students experimented at a local mall to see what people their age would do if a stranger (also their age) came up to try to engage them in conversation. Over and over, the subjects of their experiment would look down at their phones – use their electronic social network to avoid talking to a real person. Interestingly, that was the expected result, according to the teens.

In some ways, this same concept is reflected in “With Love and a Major Organ,” now at The Theatre at Boston Court. Isolation as safety, distance as lifestyle, and electronic communication as the only social contact are the norms as the play opens. Then a woman on a subway makes contact with a man safe in his isolation, and begins sending him long, poetic outpourings of enthusiastic interest, by way of acknowledgedly outmoded cassette tapes. The results are funny, insightful, and end up saying much more about the heart and human interaction than simply being a quirky, poetically symbolic love story.

Paige Lindsey White is the subway rider, giving her a physicality as effusive as her prose, and a depth of enthusiasm which one discovers has been contagious when it suddenly disappears. Daisuke Tsuji is George, the young man whose detached and regimented life White’s character is bent on reforming. Tsuji manages to make the young man distant and passive while still giving him a directness and sense of self. The two play off against each other in ways which make the central themes of the play come alive.

Still, some of the funniest moments come thanks to Bonita Friedericy, as George’s mother Mona. The character, having protected her son from heartbreak as he grew, finds herself reaching out without reaching out: using the computer as a distance-maker for everything from romance to psychology. As she and the other two characters perform an intricate dance of feeling and separation, empathy and distance, enthusiastic embracing of the world and deadened indifference to input, they illustrate – in fascinatingly, symbolically graphic ways the complexity of the human heart.

Director Jessica Kubzansky has a feel for such sweetly intricate plays, never letting the frothy surface obscure the important elements running just underneath. Her utilization of Francois-Pierre Couture’s scenic structure, simple in style, rich in animations underscoring the many moods of the piece, adds to the otherworldly ordinariness of the enterprise. In the process the humanity of it all takes center stage: the innate need for connection which is how we as a species become whole.

Playwright Julia Lederer’s play, which debuted in Canada in 2012, was prescient when it comes to some of the details of our modern social media-based existence. The stolid character’s mother, having protected her son from heartbreak as he grew, connects to a computerized psychologist through Google, and tries speed dating through fairly anonymous websites. Both are now actually possible in ways they were not when Lederer thought them up.

Plus, the need for connection and the ways technology has created the ability to avoid it are here as well. Those high school students confirmed it, at least for their own generation. What then could be more important than seeing a play like “With Love and a Major Organ,” with its insistence that one’s heart, in real time, is central to everything.

What: “With Love and a Major Organ” When: Through November 5, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (except October 15) and Saturday, October 14 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 Info: (626) 683-6801 or http://www.BostonCourt.com

Advertisements

Loss, Resilience and Disaster: “Colony Collapse” Engrosses at Boston Court

Chris Connor and Riley Neldam as the distanced father and son in "Colony Collapse" at The Theatre at Boston Court [photos: Ed Krieger]

Chris Connor and Riley Neldam as the distanced father and son in “Colony Collapse” at The Theatre at Boston Court [photos: Ed Krieger]

For many who have been paying attention, the concept of “colony collapse” is a part of the larger concerns over a poisoned environment and the threat to humanity this involves. The term is the common name for the disappearance of honey bees, particularly in North America. Originally thought to be a disease, now seen as a consequence of certain pesticides, the condition causes bees to venture from the hive only to become disoriented and fail to return. As the hive shrinks, it gradually reaches an unsustainable level: too few bees in too bad a shape to sustain the queen or her larvae. The hive dies out.

Take this as metaphor in the aptly named “Colony Collapse” by Stefanie Zadravec, now in a world premiere production at The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena. The play examines manifestations of tragedy and loss, and the human resilience which often kicks in, at least eventually, unless the people it happens to are too weakened for that to occur. Beautifully constructed to juxtapose several stories of parents whose children have disappeared against the tale of a teen whose parents are unable to parent him, it proves intense and absorbing from start to finish.

Director Jessica Kubzansky knows how to use the Boston Court performance space particularly well, dressing her stage with the characters in ways which fill the space, and using sound as irritant and underscore to the desperate power of the play itself.

Initially one meets the parents of the disappeared: Jully Lee as a mother who let go of her young son’s hand just a moment only to find him gone, Adrian Gonzalez as the young father who gave in and let his son walk home from school only to have him never arrive. Julie Cardia is the frustrated mom who tossed her rebellious teenaged daughter from home only to have her vanish, with Tracey A. Leigh and Leandro Cano as loving parents of an autistic boy who disappeared out an open door when his mom fell asleep on the couch. Each creates a carefully crafted portrait, as each character makes an individual passionate plea for understanding, wrestles with horrific guilt, and slowly, specifically, finds a way to carry the burden of loss.

Balanced against these, the play concentrates on the family of Jason, whose divorced, meth-addicted mother, Nicky, finds him useful only as a crutch, and whose father, Mark, recently released from a prison sentence associated with Jason’s actions and, along with his second wife Julia, finally clean and sober, wants nothing to do with him at all. Tired of trying to keep his mother from starving or selling herself, Jason pushes his way into his father’s world. This includes a large orchard Mark has taken on but knows nothing about sustaining, try though he might.

Emily James' ghost Girl ties the play's themes together.

Emily James’ ghost Girl ties the play’s themes together.

Floating through these scenarios is the ghost of a girl who disappeared, who becomes the play’s narrator and occasional philosophical touchpoint. Through her we examine the insignificance if individual lives, even as we watch the affect each individual in the play has on their own immediate worlds.

Emily James proves fascinating as The Girl, the ghost stringing elements of the play together from a wide variety of physical vantage points. Paula Christensen offers up a not-quite-stereotypical tweaker as Jason’s mother, edgy and strung out, ready to pontificate on motherhood even while totally incapable of living that role. Sally Hughes creates the fragile Julia, for whom addiction was a matter of escape from a life she can see beginning to fray. Chris Conner’s balance of detachment and sentiment in Mark creates a very slippery support for either Julia or Jason to hang on to.

Yet what truly captures the attention above all else has to be Riley Neldam’s Jason. Strong but hurting, lost but searching for definition, he manages to create in the character a sense of adulthood that the supposed adults cannot reach, while still carrying the vulnerability of a teenaged boy. Still, what is to become of someone so connected to adults incapable of connection?

Engrossing though it is, “Colony Collapse” is not easy watching on any level. The sense of loss which permeates the play is quite palpable, and very intense. Yet, though it concentrates on a family which cannot help but destruct, the periphery balances this with a strong sense of, if not redemption, at least the possibility of moving forward. In a world where these kinds of intimate losses happen virtually every day, perhaps that is what one must cling to, if only to avoid the collapse of one’s own colony.

What: “Colony Collapse” When: Through March 20, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance Wednesday, March 16 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $35 general, $30 senior (62+), $20 student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

“Pygmalion” at the Playhouse – A Master’s Masterpiece Shines

The impressive cast of the Pasadena Playhouse's "Pygmalion" [photo: Jim Cox]

The impressive cast of the Pasadena Playhouse’s “Pygmalion” [photo: Jim Cox]


It is fascinating how a play can become so familiar one can forget where it came from. Certainly, everyone knows that they know George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but mostly because most have seen “My Fair Lady,” the highly romanticized musical (later film) based on the play. Yet, the original play was not about romance, but about societal equality and intellectual independence. Now, at the Pasadena Playhouse, one can experience a profound and polished production of Shaw’s original play, as originally written. For those sure they are familiar with the piece, this can prove revelatory.

Of course the play – whose name comes from the Greek myth of a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation – has a general plot which needs little explanation. The obnoxiously spoiled, and rather childish linguistics expert Henry Higgins, aided by the somewhat fusty Col. Pickering, takes on the task of transforming one Eliza Doolittle, a cockney street vendor, into a young lady who can pass as a duchess at a society event. What he doesn’t count on is Eliza’s intellect and free will, and her determination not to be seen as an object. In the end, the play becomes a condemnation of the image of women in late Victorian society – one which resonates remarkably clearly into the 21st Century.

Director Jessica Kubzansky has chosen to go back to the original script, leaving off later additions of embassy balls and semi-romantic returns. This is, frankly, extremely satisfying, as I have personally rebelled against the ending given in “My Fair Lady” since I first saw it on stage as a pre-teen. Shaw’s best works are often intellectual discussions with a plot, and here the complex and immensely satisfying battle of wits between Eliza and Higgins gets to stand on its own, making the point Shaw was actually out to make. That makes the play important again.

Paige Lindsey White makes a convincing Eliza. Her body language changes subtly as she matures, and her beauty proves equally subtle: a sharpness softened by care and carriage. This makes the transformation particularly satisfying, and (despite an English professor long ago who claimed it impossible) quite convincing. Bruce Turk makes Higgins both articulately intellectual and ridiculously childish – more a brat than a hermit. It works wonderfully well, adding a layer of comedy a more grounded character could not. Stan Egi gives Col. Pickering a decidedly unaware feel, as if he exists mostly on manners rather than intellectual rigor. All three give a lovely balance to the entire production.

Also worthy of high praise are Ellen Crawford, far less shockable and far more fatalistically practical than usual as Higgins’ housekeeper. Time Winters makes Eliza’s father less goofy and far more disturbed by his change of fortunes, and it works. Most particularly, Mary Anne McGarry gives an aura of wisdom and worry – the articulate view of a woman with a deep understanding of the limitations of womanhood – as Higgins’ mother. Alex Knox and Carolyn Ratteray each have deeply comic moments as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and his sister Clara, while Lynn Milgrim, as their mother, becomes symbolic of the comparatively piteous condition of a poor and widowed society woman.

Still, the unifying force and the significant vision are Kubzansky’s. She takes characters which can easily become prosy, and meshes them into an interesting blend of attitudes and desires one can truly connect with. Pacing and understanding flow easily – and that’s saying something when one speaks of Shavian works.

Stephanie Kerley Schwartz has created an elemental set which moves swiftly from scene to scene, allowing the flow of what is essentially an episodic tale to become remarkably even. Leah Piehl’s costuming holds fairly true to the period, and provides subtle personality clues along the way.

In short, this “Pygmalion” gets it right, start to finish. This play rarely has a chance to stand on its own, and project the message Shaw was trying to get across. This time, it does, and that is pure delight for anyone who loves a good intellectual argument.

What: “Pygmalion” When: Through April 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $30 – $75, with premium seating at $125.00 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Fashion is Life: “Everything You Touch” at The Theatre@Boston Court

Tyler Pierce and Esme Pierce evoke the world of high fashion in "Everything You Touch" at Boston Court

Tyler Pierce and Esme Maher evoke the world of high fashion in “Everything You Touch” at Boston Court

Some of the best things I’ve seen at the Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena have been subtle psychological introspections – puzzles only solved as you delve into the storyteller’s world. This is often greatly enhanced by the daring with which Boston Court’s directors and designers approach the telling of the tale: the understated symbolism, and little hints of the power behind what the words are saying, etc.

Case in point would be “Everything You Touch” by Sheila Callaghan, a coproduction with the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater which was nurtured into being by the Boston Court, and is receiving its world premiere run there. And who better to direct something steeped in the above-mentioned subtleties than co-Artistic Director Jessica Kubzansky. The results have proved so fascinating the run of the play has been extended until at least May 18.

“Everything You Touch” is grounded in the world of fashion. It centers on parallel plots. One is set in the 70s, following a self absorbed fashion designer’s gradual shift from outlandish and groundbreaking to popular and trendy – and the women who inspired the two versions of himself. The other, seated in the now, seems a polar opposite: a dumpy and disheveled young computer whiz whose wrestles with the demons of her own self-loathing escalate as she must travel from New York to Little Rock and her dying, judgmental mother.

Arthur Keng and Kirsten Vangsness as counterpoint to the fashionable world in "Everything You Touch"

Arthur Keng and Kirsten Vangsness as counterpoint to the fashionable world in “Everything You Touch”

At least, that’s where it all begins. From there the two stories weave in and around each other, creating some questions, answering others, blurring lines in time and space.

To add to the surreal, the set dressing and props consist rather heavily of live fashion models. They stride in, angle themselves, and become computer screens, telephones, gum dispensers, and all matter of props. What isn’t made of humans – a chair is the most startling example – is made of mannequin parts. In short, fashion consumes the set just as it powers the plot.

If this sounds convoluted, it’s not. Both Kubzansky’s direction and a spirited, richly expressive cast easily pull the audience into the puzzle.

Tyler Pierce is Victor, a womanizing fashion designer with a struggling boutique and a reputation for both callousness and an edgy, out-there creativity. Kate Maher gives her own sharpness to the former model who has become Victor’s artistic muse and occasional sexual partner. Amy French is the comparatively cornfed prize winner whose visit and discourse on comfiness strikes a surprising bell with Victor, initiating a sea change in all his relationships.

Kirsten Vangsness is Jess, the frumpy computer geek used to one-night stands and a life behind a computer screen. Her somewhat sarcastic sense of self leads her to meaningless relationships, all the while ignoring her work partner, Lewis (Arthur Keng), whose devotion she cannot see. Now she hears her mother is dying, and scoops up a guy – essentially an elongated pick-up – to go with her on the journey. Or does she?

The achingly white set by Francois-Pierre Couture, ingeniously crafted to allow for quick changes and a focus on the colorful clothing, Jenny Foldenauer’s startling, varied and very telling costumes, Adam Flemming’s evocative projections, John Zalewski’s original music, and those weird and wonderful props by John Burton all combine to guide the audience through the characters’ interior monologues and human conflicts. In the end, what appears just to be a conversation on self-image has much more to say about the human spirit and the nature of both success and art.

“Everything You Touch” delivers that remarkable combination of satisfaction and conversation starter that makes for one kind of excellent theater. And since shows that make you think are The Theatre at Boston Court’s bread and butter, it is no surprise that the show is being held over. The special efforts it took to make this world premiere happen certainly prove to be worth it.

What: “Everything You Touch” When: Through May 18, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $29 senior/student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com

Cutting out the Clutter: “R II” reimagines one of Shakespeare’s hidden treasures

The cast of "R II" at Boston Court

The cast of “R II” at Boston Court

This production has been extended through October 27, 2013

As I – and many others – so often say, one of the most fascinating things about seeing new productions of Shakespeare’s plays comes from the very familiarity of the works themselves. Directors do not feel, as a rather staid British friend once claimed, that all the Bard’s plays must be performed in doublet and hose. Far from it. Doing Shakespeare is a license to be extraordinarily creative. His works’ longevity, in truth, comes largely from three things which transcend time: complex characters, universally human themes, and rich, gorgeous, profoundly expressive language. These are elements one can gleefully, well, play with.

Which brings me to the much-honored Jessica Kubzansky, co-artistic director of The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena, and self-proclaimed Shakespeare freak. In love with the comparatively obscure history play, “Richard II” – a fount of rich, introspective poetry on the subject of increasing self-awareness – she decided to rework the thing. By losing the host of extraneous historical personages, she has honed the play down to the meat of the tale: a man left immature and selfish by his upbringing who is brought to full understanding of adulthood by the disaster his acts bring upon himself.

And thus, “R II”. Kubzansky has reedited the play into a series of flashbacks, as the doomed Richard ponders his fate and what brought him there. And she has honed the cast of 33 named persons and assorted underlings down to three individuals. One plays Richard. The other two play the 12 other people essential to the plot. Some necessary dialogue from others has been handed to the 12, some to Richard. Stripped of its finery and its crowds, this intimate piece becomes an extraordinary celebration of those very things mentioned above: character, humanity, and articulate speech.

Then she has set the thing in Kaitlyn Pietras’ minimalist, yet surprisingly evocative set, with projections of essential lines of dialogue occasionally pounding the back of the room as sound designer John Zalewski’s whispering crowds mutter in your ear. Jenny Foldenauer’s all-purpose black costumes, festooned now and again with just enough to create individual personages, allow for quick character shifts and – as does everything else – divorces the audience from the drapery and pomp of an ordinary production of one of the history plays. All attention is therefore on the essentials: the king.

John Sloan creates a Richard who shifts over the course of the production from callow youth to an achingly doomed wisdom, yet remains essentially ordinary – less than imposing even in an ornate crown. He is never really offstage during the entire two hours or so of the production, and his commanding use of Shakespearean dialogue in the process of Richard’s gradual metamorphosis keeps the show alive.

Two people, 12 characters

Two people, 12 characters

Paige Lindsey White, playing five parts but most particularly Richard’s nemesis Henry of Bolingbroke, and Richard’s Queen Isabel, commands varieties of body language and vocal tone to shift us from character to character with a conviction which carries the audience with her quite seamlessly. Beyond that, she manages to imbue these very differing people with their own rounded passions, drives and griefs. Fascinating to watch.

Likewise Jim Ortlieb is called upon to create a total of seven persons, all of whom are fairly elemental to the storyline. Ortlieb is at his best when operating outside Richard’s family circle, either as Thomas Mowbray startled at the king’s double-dealing, as the fascinatingly spun John Bushy whose portrayal colors the entire production, or the Bishop of Carlisle stuck between history and doctrine. On the other hand, perhaps the one weakness of this startlingly good production (and it is more an issue with the script than this performer) comes as Ortlieb is asked to keep various of Richard’s kin separate, all of whom come from the same rank, concern, and general attitude.

Still, that takes little away from “R II.” The poetry – some of Shakespeare’s best – is retained. I admit Richard’s speech in defeat, “let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings…” is one of my favorite, if one of the gentlest of the Bard’s poetic lines. Here it stands out more than usual because of the focus on Richard alone. If Shakespeare intrigues you, and particularly if you have never met “Richard II” onstage, this is one to see.

What: “R II” When: Through October 13, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, plus 8 p.m. Wednesday October 2 and 9 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, with senior and student discounts Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

The Mystery of “The Children” – classical puzzle at The Theatre @ Boston Court

This show has been extended through June 17

I love a good puzzle. I love a play which begins with what we know overtly and then turns that reality upon its head. It can make for edge-of-the-seat watching, if handled right. If not, it can become an exhausting exercise.

At The Theatre at Boston Court, the puzzle is a pleasure. There, Michael Elyanow’s world premiere play “The Children” takes a spin on classical theatrical literature and warps it into a modern setting with surprising, fascinating and deeply satisfying results. Perhaps this comes from the organic nature of the puzzle itself, told by creating characters the audience connects with and an emotional palate which resonates regardless of antiquity, the anomalies which make the puzzle work, or even the fact that two of the protagonists are puppets interacting easily with the humans around them.

The initial premise is a fun anchor. What if, in the ancient Greek story of “Medea,” a handmaid equipped with some of Medea’s magic managed to swoop the children who would otherwise have been murdered into a different time: say a fishing lodge in 21st century Maine? What if, along with those three, Medea’s very faithful slave – the children’s nurse – also was swept accidentally into the present with the intent of returning the children to their fate? What would happen if they were then faced with explaining themselves to the conscientious sheriff intent on moving them to safety as a huge storm approaches?

And this is just for starters.

Sonny Valicenti and Paige Lindsey White handle the brother and sister puppets, allowing them an intricate interaction with their human costars that becomes so effortless one forgets every once in a while that they are not real. Indeed, the two puppeteers turn out to be far more personally engaging, and far more connected to their animated selves, but that is another part of the puzzle.

Adriana Sevahn Nichols, as the more benign rescuer, finds her own balance of practicality, incongruity and nurture as her character stumbles over the time change and the incongruities which develop. As the far more passionate, and intractable nursemaid, Jacqueline Wright vibrates with an underlying ferocity required of a character at once loyal and edgy. Daniel Blinkoff’s philosophical and somewhat ineffective sheriff spreads a kind of calm over even the more desperate moments of the story. Together they are absolutely riveting.

This comes courtesy of the tight and insightful direction of Jessica Kubzansky, who knows just how much to play with the audience and when to make the whole piece feel very straightforward. Add to this Francois-Pierre Couture’s layered set, which he and Kubzansky have filled with subtle clues, and with the layered but heartening script itself, and youhave quite an evening.

This kind of twisting, visual storytelling is the very stuff of theater. Puppets are real. Medea’s children can land in Maine – or do they? In the end, it’s a puzzle you must solve for yourself, and it is genuinely worth the effort.

What: “The Children” When: Through June 10, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays with an added performance 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 6 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with senior and student discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

%d bloggers like this: