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The Immigrant Experience Lives in Boston Court’s “The Golden Dragon”

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Central to the intricately layered storyline of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s “The Golden Dragon”, is the Aesop’s fable of the ant and a cricket. This is not surprising when the observer begins to realize that this entire play is in many ways the story of a human ant hill: a single building of several stories, anchored by the eponymous, miscellaneously Asian restaurant at its base. It is the story of busy workers, the fragility born of immigrant status, and the particular privilege those who do not spend their days looking over their shoulders bring with them into this almost closed society.

Still, in the production now at The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena, the first thing one becomes fascinated by amid the complexity of intertwining tales is the show’s staging. Five actors of disparate ages, genders and ethnicities play all the many people who populate the play, often doing so completely against type and sliding in and out of story and personhood with the efficiency and élan of a beautiful machine. The production proves remarkable to watch from that aspect alone, though director Michael Michetti has utilized this talented group to create one engrossing individual after another.

The most obviously interesting of the many, many portraits take the actors beyond gender. Justin H. Min creates the fragile “cricket” – a young woman held captive by a manipulative old man played by Ann Colby Stocking. Joseph Kamal and Theo Perkins are female flight attendants whose dinner at the restaurant comes up short when one of them makes an odd find in her soup. Susana Batras creates an immigrant Chinese kitchen boy whose rotting tooth becomes a problem for the entire kitchen staff of The Golden Dragon to deal with. In each case, and more, their portraits are intricately convincing – truly an homage to the power of live theater’s ability to let the imagination work.

The individual tales, of the cricket, the lascivious drunken shopkeeper, the adoring couple torn apart by an unexpected pregnancy, the old man dreaming of things he cannot have, the flight attendants’ meaningless relationships, and always that kitchen staff trying to figure out what to do with the howling young man, slide in and out of focus, shifting in waves back and forth. It is as if a classic play like “La Ronde,” in which individual characters link one separate scene to the next until there is a circle, had been set on its ear, with all the scenes sliding together and playing almost at once.

And again, what makes this work is the quality and timing of the cast and the impressive rhythm of Michetti’s direction. As the play, which is performed without intermission, flows over the audience more is absorbed than can be processed right away. That is also a tradition of Boston Court: plays which must be pondered afterward.

Also worth a nod is the Brechtian, non-representational set, made almost entirely of painter’s scaffolding, by Sara Ryung Clement. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s simple costuming lets actors shift from character to character with ease. Annie Yee’s choreography, particularly when coupled with the nearly choreographic synchrony of more base movements, enhances the storytelling, while John Nobori’s sound design gives an important cultural texture to the piece.

Go and see “The Golden Dragon”. There are levels of empathy which will stay with you long after you leave, though some of it proves disturbing the more one thinks about it. And there is an amazingly smooth, well articulated piece of performance to revel in. All this courtesy of the particular theatrical magic only live theater can make you believe.

What: “The Golden Dragon” When: Through June 5, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with understudy performances 8 p.m. May 16 and 18, and $5 night 8 p.m. June 1 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. (at Boston Court) in Pasadena How Much: $35 general, $30 senior, $20 student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com

“Seven Spots on the Sun”: Ethics and Mysticism Fascinate at Boston Court

Ethical struggles, such as whether to help wounded combatants others want to watch die, mark

Ethical struggles, such as whether to help wounded combatants others want to watch die, mark “Seven Spots on the Sun” at The Theatre at Boston Court.

In the traditions of much of the developing world, the mystical and the actual live in a particular balance with each other as the authors of truth. With this concept as backing, Martin Zimmerman’s play “Seven Spots on the Sun” examines how a people copes with the particular atrocities of modern civil war, balancing harsh reality and that underlying, deepening spiritual element.

Now at The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena, “Seven Spots” proves riveting and wrenching as it explores the motives and consequences of the terrifying conflicts, which have afflicted, in this case, an unnamed Latin American country. Here, as in the real El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru or Colombia, villages change hands multiple times, with each side punishing those who aided the other one, and brutal tests of fear which harm mostly those whose compassion drives them.

The play begins on the day the post-war government declares an amnesty for all those who committed atrocities during the war, and how a small village – especially its healer and its priest – react. This plays against the flashback story of the young miner from a nearby town who, wanting the best for the wife he loves deeply, leaves the mine to enter the army just before the civil war begins. Gradually we become aware of how this young soldier’s life is twisted, and how that twist connects to the emotional upheaval in a village where amnesty means no satisfaction for great loss.

As the determined healer, Jonathan Nichols offers up a man with little time for mystery as he maintains what sanity of life he can in a village often overrun. When it a miracle does descend upon him, its connection to great pain is evident in every move. As his wife and co-worker, Murielle Zuker offers up a confident idealist unready to be dashed on the rocks of brutality. Angelo McCabe completes the trio as the local priest whose fear finally gets the better of him, proving him only a man.

Christopher Rivas radiates a kind of organic manliness as the miner turned soldier, and the decay in that confident joyfulness says much about the nature of war and the meaning of the play. As his happy, then concerned, then frightened wife, Natalie Camunas offers up the terror and frustration of a woman caught in the middle – needing something from those who were victimized by the good man she married who has devolved into a terrorizer.

Director Michael John Garces keeps the story moving, and works the mystical and symbolic elements of this tale into the otherwise straightforward story with such precision that even the most outrageous elements of magic feel logical in the moment. The terror is realized in such a way as to create gut-level reactions from the audience while still leaving much to an imagination already seeded with awful possibilities.

“Seven Spots on the Sun,” a reference to that cosmic condition which disrupts radio waves the way the war disrupts and blurs human lives, is performed without an intermission. It’s easy to understand why, as the intensity created in the first few minutes must continue to build to make the show’s overarching points about humanity and the limits to both forgiveness and empathy. Come ready to read between the lines and follow the symbols, and enjoy an intellectual feast even as you will squirm in your chair at how recognizable it all is.

What: “Seven Spots on the Sun” When: Through November 1, 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, with senior, student and group discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

Ode to Fandom: “Always, Patsy Cline” in Sierra Madre

Cori Cable Kidder as Patsy Cline and Nikki D'Amico as Louise Seger in

Cori Cable Kidder as Patsy Cline and Nikki D’Amico as Louise Seger in “Always, Patsy Cline” [photo: Gina Long]

This show has been extended through September 13.

Revision: This show has now been extended through September 27.

Another Revision: This show, which is apparently completely unstoppable, is now extended through October 30.

In the world of local theater, there are two different kinds of musical productions commonly available. One is what is thought of as the “standard American musical,” with a story line enhanced with songs and dances – usually ones which advance the storyline and may be integral to the plot. The other is the “tribute concert,” a chance to recreate a musical group, performer or even revisit a particular performer’s music in such a way that folks can come to the theater to hear either a reenactment of a period concert performance (see “Beatlemania” as foundational in that genre), or come to a celebration of a performer’s music by obviously more contemporary performers, such as when a group of tuxedoed gentlemen take turns singing songs connected to, say, Frank Sinatra .

However, there is a third category I tend to refer to as the bio-tribute: it ostensibly tells some tale related to a famed musician, but is actually mostly a chance to hear lots of that performer’s songs. Among these, the most amorphous is “Always, Patsy Cline,” a show based on a true story, written by Ted Swindley. Now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, it offers two performers a chance to play both sides of the tribute coin: one, who narrates, offers up an entertaining portrait of one die-hard fan’s encounter with her idol. The other plays the songstress herself, and sings the songs Cline was famed for, both in recreated concert settings, and as Cline’s side of conversations with the fan who idolized her.

The best news in the SMP production has to be the performers themselves. Nikki D’Amico proves a hoot as Louise, the wildly enthusiastic, uninhibited Texan whose wholehearted enthusiasm leads an exhausted Cline to come home with her after a concert gig, igniting a friendship which lasted until Cline’s untimely death in early 1963. Cori Cable Kidder has Cline’s particular vocal styling down fairly well, and thanks to Krys Fehervari’s impressively accurate wigs, looks the part. It’s a carefully underplayed portrait but it works after a fashion, though sometimes it seems that this Patsy Cline is being overwhelmed by Louise’s sheer energy.

Director Robert Marra has given the potentially static piece as much action as he can, in large part by giving D’Amico’s Louise a brash physicality – even during many of Cline’s songs – which keeps the visual energy strong. Musical director Sean Paxton has assembled a live band to back up Kidder’s vocals, and with the possible exception of the opening night fiddler, their polish helps create the essential “country” sounds of the various stages of Cline’s career.

Also worthy of note is John Vertrees’ impressively expansive-looking country barn, plus separate late-50s kitchen, set on SMP’s tiny stage. A. Jeffery Schoenberg does right by Cline’s wardrobe too – a woman making waves in country music who, early on, eschewed the usual gingham and fringe for sheath dresses and gold lame pants.

As a script, “Always, Patsy Cline” seems neither fish nor fowl, but that’s not this production’s fault. For those who just want to sit back and listen to Cline sing her songs, the enthusiastic Louise seems a distraction. For those who want to know more about this particular, factually based relationship between Cline and her most ardent fan, the comparative lack of spoken lines by the legendary singer (who was reportedly quite a lively friend) leaves the tale significantly one-sided. Still, the end result becomes a walk down memory lane for some, and an amusing snapshot of an era and a charmingly pushy fan for others. And, of course, there are those songs, and, truth be told, even this child of the rock era can listen to “I Fall to Pieces” or “Crazy” or “Walkin’ After Midnight” any old time.

What: “Always, Patsy Cline” When: Through September 12, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. all Sundays and Saturday, September 12. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $34.50 general, $32 seniors, $25 youth to age 21 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

A Fine Frolic: “The Wedding Singer” in Covina

Kyle Caldwell (center) is The Wedding Singer at Covina CPA, backed with style by Ricky Wagner and Ryan Jones

Kyle Caldwell (center) is The Wedding Singer at Covina CPA, backed with style by Ricky Wagner and Ryan Jones

If one is going to see one of those rather cliche, tap-dancing musicals from the 30s, one does not expect depth. The reason to go is the dancing, the music, the comedy and the romance. So, that being true, why not consider embracing a musical from the late 1990s based on a film celebrating the eccentricities of the early 1980s in the same vein? If this appeals to you, then head on over to the Covina Center for the Performing Arts and their cheerful, lighthearted, often silly rendition of Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy’s “The Wedding Singer.”

The production, under the direction of Wendy Friedman, proves just as well crafted as the show itself proves silly. The story pays homage to the 1998 movie: Robbie is the lead singer/performer in a band which has become known throughout New Jersey for a great wedding song, and thus a favorite at receptions. That’s great until his fiancé leaves him and his bitterness begins to infect his work. At the same time, Julia, who waits on people at a reception hall, becomes engaged to a boyfriend focused on finance who considers his new fiancé more as a trophy than a love interest. Can Robbie and Julia save each other?

Kyle Caldwell makes a highly entertaining Robbie – just over-the-top enough to make his struggles comic and his joys delightfully silly. He sings well, and can play the guitar enough to be convincing as a locally popular musician. Ryan Jones, as the band’s stereotypically randy bassist, and particularly Ricky Wagner as a veritable Boy George look-alike make entertaining counterpoint to Robbie’s angst, and prove equally musical.

It's all about the romance for Robbie (Kyle Caldwell) and Julia (Susanna Vaughan)

It’s all about the romance for Robbie (Kyle Caldwell) and Julia (Susanna Vaughan)

Susanna Vaughan makes an appealingly mainstream sweet young thing, as Julia. Jackie Bianchi has an absolute blast as her dissolute cousin, and Jabriel Shelton gives Julia’s fiancé all the intensity and hubris one expects from a Wall Street up-and-comer. Also worthy of note are Susan E. Silver as various moms, and Christina Marie Harrell as Robbie’s dedicatedly romantic grandmother. In two brief, but memorable appearances, Taj Johnson rocks the house as Robbie’s self-focused ex-girl.

Still, this is a very silly show. Along with fine individual performances, what makes it all work is a solid ensemble of dancer/actors who create incidental character after character, and dance up a storm. Lindsay Martin’s lively and evocative choreography really comes alive in the hands of these performers, and music director Richard Seymour manages to balance the vocal talents of the entire company with the recorded soundtrack in such a way that one soon forgets one is listening to pre-fab music.

Despite one moment where the thing should look a bit more Vegas-like, Dillon Nelson’s facile set proves terrific at keeping the pacing flowing – a necessity in such an episodic tale. Costumer Mark Gamez has the era down, right to the period wedding veils. The look helps make the show a true success.

In short, don’t go for depth, but for the same kind of sheer fun one might find at a production of “42nd Street” go see “The Wedding Singer.” One note: there is the occasional scatological reference, so be cautious about young children. Other than that, it will prove a great way to have a good time in the theater without carrying any particular baggage away.

What: “The Wedding Singer” When: Through May 3, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $20-$30 Info: (626) 331-8133, ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

The Craft of Negotiation: “A Walk in the Woods” in Sierra Madre

Nancy Youngblut and John Prosky work to understand each other in "A Walk in the Woods" in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Nancy Youngblut and John Prosky work to understand each other in “A Walk in the Woods” in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

It is one of the oddities of the arts. On the same weekend that Robert Redford returns to the screen in a film called “A Walk in the Woods” at the Sundance Festival, a play also called “A Walk in the Woods” – but a completely different walk in completely different woods – opens at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. While the first is a comic look at a hike along the Appalachian Trail, the show at Sierra Madre has a far more powerful and, though there are amusing moments, more serious statement to make.

The good news is that though Lee Blessing’s play was written in 1988 it still proves disquietingly powerful, at least in the solid production at SMP. This despite the fact its setting might read as passé.

Two diplomats meet a number of times in the woods outside Geneva. One, Andrei Botvinnik, is a long-time nuclear negotiator for the Soviet Union. The other, Joan Honeyman (the part was originally John, but Blessing has approved of shifting the character to be female) is a newly minted senior negotiator from the United States. The first is a practical man, the second a fiery and determined newbie on the international stage. As their encounters gradually shift from perceived antagonism toward a rather fatalistic friendship, they make statements about essential humanity and about the nature of high-powered international relations that are, at once, heart-warming and deeply disturbing.

John Prosky makes Andrei a gentleman and a gentle man. His aura of worldly sadness makes the character’s concentration on little joys that much more compelling. Nancy Youngblut gives Joan a bristly tension and a wariness at the start. Watching that stiffness gradually melt, and the obvious increased understanding as it radiates through her character, becomes one of the production’s joys. And watching how well the part of Joan balances that of Andrei, which one remembers that it was written for a man and has not been adjusted for the gender change, says much about how little gender need matter in discussions of this depth.

Director Geoffrey Wade has taken a script which could easily become physically static – a costumed debate – into a living thing. This is essential to the production’s success. Rei Yamamoto’s recreation of a clearing in the woods provides a fine combination of the representational and the implicit, expanding the sense of space on SMP’s tiny stage. This becomes particularly significant in a tale where the woods stand for the natural, for an innate if momentary freedom, and where two people who sit on opposite sides of a solid table can sit next to each other on a bench.

Although “A Walk in the Woods” centers itself around treaty negotiations regarding Cold War arms control, what it has to say about diplomacy and negotiation as an art form, and the nature of such things when world powers are the ones arm-wrestling, applies just as powerfully today as it did when the play was new. It may no longer be USA vs USSR, but power, potential frying of the world, and the entire concept of image having more importance than progress resonates disturbingly strongly. And that, as well as the strong performances, the humor and the humanity of the characters, is why a trip to Sierra Madre Playhouse would be a good idea.

What: “A Walk in the Woods” When: Through February 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 students 13-21, $12 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318

Beckett’s Woman: “Happy Days” at The Theatre @ Boston Court

This play has been extended through October 19. Marc Cardiff will step in for Tony Shalhoub during the extension.

Happy Days 1

When students study Samuel Beckett, it is almost always by reading or seeing “Waiting for Godot,” undoubtedly the playwright’s definitive masterpiece. As such, people go into a production of “Godot” with a certain knowing – a certain expectation of what may be found there. In other words, when it comes to Beckett, the potential for real surprise – something he was initially known for – comes from his less-produced, or at least less well known work.

At The Theatre at Boston Court, the playwright’s “Happy Days” offers just such satisfying newness. Of course, it isn’t new, and yet though it was first produced in 1961, yes it is. Inspired by Cyril Cusack’s wife, Maureen, who suggested after “Krapp’s Last Tape” that Beckett “write a happy play,” it approaches much which still applies in the disaster which seems to be our modern society.

The play which rises from that request by Maureen Cusack bases itself in utter despair, which the playwright felt only a woman would be able to face with dauntless cheerfulness. Whether or not this is a good thing, or any definition of happy, is open to interpretation.

From the start, we meet Winnie – a woman already sunk to past the waist in the earth of a desolate place. Her husband Willie is in a cave somewhere behind her. He speaks little and usually somewhat unintelligibly. Still, knowing he is there gives this rather overbearing woman the strength to talk herself into buoyance, even as her situation becomes more and more starkly bleak.

Of course, that’s only the superficial view. The toughness and indefatigable coping skills of a woman in the face of apocalypse, the constant stream of repetitive babble even when sleeplessness and hopelessness have given it all a grim undertone, say many complex things. There is much about social standards, marriage, and the elemental nature of womanhood, all to be gleaned as the evening matures.

Winnie is often considered one of the great woman’s roles of the modern theater, and at the Boston Court, Brooke Adams is very much up to the task. In what is essentially a two-act monologue, done while unable to move anything but one’s arms and face, Adams takes us from cheery optimism, determinedly gauging each day as a “very happy day” to all that comes after: the gradual loss of faith and of actual, as opposed to imagined, hope as she sinks further and further into an overwhelming reality. Happy Days 2

Willie, an often thankless part made comical and quizzical by Tony Shalhoub (Adams’ husband), makes an important counterpoint to Winnie. In his grunts and monosyllabic commentary, Willie refuses to live up to expectations, or to answer when spoken to, even appears at times to have disappeared or died. Though the part proves minimal in scripted utterings, it is Willie who creates the question with which the play ends – a question even Beckett determinedly claimed he did not know the answer to.

Director Andrei Belgrader balances the grim, unforgiving quality of set and situation with just enough humor to keep the darkness from descending too soon. He also establishes a pace which makes room for the performers’ art and interpretation without stretching the necessarily repetitive script to a point where the audience disengages. This is a major element in this production’s success.

Takeshi Kata’s diorama-like set falls well into Beckett’s vision for the scene at hand. Melanie Watnick’s costumes evoke the barren, the bleached, the dirty and the worn. The thing looks right, which becomes particularly important in a play where setting is almost a character.

In short, this play – like many others, new and old, produced at Boston Court – asks an audience to absorb, discuss and ponder. “Happy Days” may be listed as a classic, but not one commonly done. It proves most certainly to be a tour de force for Adams, and worth watching if only for that. For all these reasons, go see this “Happy Days”. Then feel free to ask yourself and everyone around you what the answer is to that ending question. You may learn much in the process.

What: “Happy Days” When: Through October 12, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with student and senior discounts Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

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