Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Karen Zacarias

“Native Gardens”: Do Great Performances Balance Uncomfortable Script?

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(L-R) Bruce Davison, Frances Fisher, Jessica Meraz and Christian Barillas in Native Gardens at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]

There is a fine line between humor which skewers privilege and prejudice by making its claims sound as ridiculous as they are, and writing which pronounces the same beliefs and then does a kind of wink to indicate that, really, it was said to be funny. One is reminiscent of, say, “All In The Family,” the other is not. That the latter appears as much as the former in Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse, make it slightly uncomfortable to call the play funny, even though humor is definitely one of its elements. Still, as has happened before, one wonders how many in the audience will find affirmation of their own beliefs rather than what is intended to be laughable.
This is not the fault of the actors, who play the thing to the hilt and thanks to solid direction offer up both timing and structure intended to give the piece its place as a comedy. Still, one is left ambivalent about whether laughing is buying into things one would rather not, or actually an honest response to a good joke.
Pablo and Tania, a young and successful Latinex couple (he’s a lawyer, she’s finishing up her PhD), have just bought a somewhat run-down house in an upper crust neighborhood outside of Washington, DC. Their neighbors, Frank and Virginia, a late-middle-aged white couple with a grown son, have been in their home for a long time, and are stalwart elements of the neighborhood. Frank is semi-retired and an avid gardener. Virginia is a prominent engineer.
As they meet, there seems hope of an easy and neighborly friendship. Then Pablo discovers that the fence all have agreed should be replaced between their two back yards is actually in the wrong place. Some of Frank and Virginia’s yard doesn’t belong to them.
Christian Barillas, as Pablo, embodies the intensity of the young legal mind and the fighting spirit of the up-and-coming immigrant with a genuine sense of impetuous thrill at what he are achieving. Jessica Meraz, as the American-born Tania, voices the claim to nationhood so often necessarily heard by those of Mexican descent whose upbringing has been rooted in the US, balanced against a body language evincing a genuine niceness which wants a peaceful coexistence with those around her, at least most of the time.
Bruce Davison, as the alternately obsessed and unfocused Frank, has terrific and subtle timing which creates great humor even as he utters things which sometimes make one feel guilty laughing. Frances Fisher gives Virginia the intensity of the self-made professional, used to a fight and unwilling to concede as a matter of principle – a woman confident in knowing the people who will help get things done.
Binding these together, in a stroke of genius by director Jason Alexander, is the trio of Julian Armaya, Richard Biglia and Bradley Roa II as gardeners who both move stage elements as the border fight wages on, and provide immensely entertaining announcements of change of date and time of day. These characters’ joie de vivre helps to keep the light touch necessary in a play which becomes increasingly about race, age, and identity in a time when these are such a hot-button issues.
Looked at intellectually, this is a huge metaphor for this nation, its walls, its increasing xenophobia, its war between entitlement and access, and the easy condemnation of one age group by another. As such, it is potent, though the tacked-on ending seems yet another underscoring apology for everything it has otherwise been. Still, it is – on occasion – quite funny, it is beautiful to look at thanks to David Meyer’s terrific garden set, and nobody can argue it isn’t superbly acted. Now if only one didn’t have to wonder if laughing was affirming something one would rather not affirm.
What: “Native Gardens”. When: through September 30, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with one 8 p.m. performance on Tuesday, September 25. Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: prices start at $29. Info: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
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Science Made Silly: “Einstein for Dummies” sings for kids

Katie Hotchkiss as Elsa, Jonathan Brett as Albert [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

Katie Hotchkiss as Elsa, Jonathan Brett as Albert [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

Last year Sierra Madre Playhouse embarked on a new endeavor: creating theatrical material suitable for school children’s weekday matinees. Last year it was “Battledrum,” an original work tackling the Civil War through the eyes of a pre-teen drummer. This year they have opted for a comparatively tried-and-true production, with the same object. For this they have chosen Karen Zacarias and Deborah Wicks La Puma’s “Einstein is a Dummy,” which tries in a fictional way to make the young and odd Alfred Einstein (and his underlying genius) approachable.

In another break from SMP tradition, this show will play in a sort of repertory: Battledrum for matinees, even on weekends, and “Putting It Together,” a salute to Sondheim opening this coming weekend, for evenings. It’s a solid choice, as “Einstein” is definitely for the pre-pubescent set.

The tale involves the young Albert – a violinist at this point – and Elsa, his friend and fellow odd person out. They are joined by Constantin, the bully of the piece, whose cello seems to represent his ego. For Einstein the world is fascinating – so fascinating it is simple to forget to practice, to bring dressier clothes for a recital, or even to listen the music teacher whose ridiculous last name is intended to elicit children’s giggles. Yet, as he ponders his world, a cat only he can see (Shrodinger’s?) encourages his wonder and his constant urge to find descriptors for the unseen.

Zacarias and Wicks La Puma are central figures in TYA, or Theater for Young Audiences, and several of their musicals are part of the children’s theatre canon, “Einstein…” especially. At SMP their work is presented by two separate casts, since many of the performances are on weekdays, intended for bus-loads of elementary school kids, and thus conflicting with many actors’ day jobs.

On opening night, The Proton Cast, as opposed to The Electron Cast, showed off the show’s best attributes, aided by Sean T. Cawelti’s elaborate video displays on Sarah Krainin’s deceptively simple set. Jonathan Brett created an Einstein both earnest and obliviously optimistic. His eyes are to the universe and snippy humans are mere distractions most of the time. Katie Hotchkiss gives Ella the warm understanding which makes for lasting friendship with a social odd-ball. Indeed, she embraces his views of the universe with a complimentary intelligence in a script determined to state that girls also like science.

Thomas Anawalt tackles the comparatively two-dimensional bully Constantin with a flare which makes him weirdly lovable, while Conor Lane makes absolutist music teacher Herr Scholoppnoppdinkerdonn a figure of comic rigidity. As the cat who spurs Einstein to think outside the box, and to stick to his theories, Molly Gilman has a ball. Freed from any possible social conventions, she can give attitude, have intellectually stimulating conversations, or just be a cat. It all seems meant.

Of course, any show about Einstein is going to have to embrace his classic equation. Here it is celebrated, but not really explained all that much. Perhaps one of the goals of the piece, other than showing that elementary school oddities who don’t fit well into society may become great thinkers, is to introduce E=MC2 to an audience who, when they meet it again in high school physics will already know without knowing that E is energy, M is mass, and C is the speed of light. A cute song emphasizes this, even if the larger implications are left for an older teacher to explain.

Director Derek Manson has kept the show light and airy, and rather silly, which is important when trying to reach a young audience. The musical director is the composer, which gives a strong emphasis to the songs which, if not memorable in the long run, make the production fun in the short term.

The show is short, lasting little over an hour. That’s just the right length for a class on a field trip. It’s also a good Sunday afternoon adventure, for people who know of kids who would enjoy a spate of children’s theater. Take advantage, as this is one of the musicals for kids people genuinely celebrate.

What: “Einstein is a Dummy” When: Through April 12, weekdays for scheduled school groups, 2:30 p.m. Sundays for the general public Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 Seniors, $15 Youth 13-21, $12 Children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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