Stage Struck Review

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Tag Archives: Los Angeles small stage theater

An Ode to Human Connection: “4,000 Miles” in Sierra Madre

Christian Prentice and Mimi Cozzens in "4,000 Miles," now at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

Christian Prentice and Mimi Cozzens in “4,000 Miles,” now at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

It is rare for a small, essentially community-based theater like Sierra Madre Playhouse to receive a chance for the Los Angeles premiere of a high profile play, but it has happened. Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer-nominated “4,000 Miles” has arrived at the small theater to much fanfare. The play, which looks at the interaction between an idealistic, somewhat immature young man who has bicycled across the country and the leftist grandmother he ends up staying with in New York City, offers a few statements on growth, on city vs small town activism, and on what the maturation process really means.

The tale starts with the arrival of Leo at the New York apartment in the middle of the night. Thrown by the rejection felt from the girlfriend he’d hoped to connect with (recently landed in NYC herself), he ends up staying with Vera, the wife of his late grandfather. As she teaches him focus and responsibility, he opens up about the horror of his cross-country bike journey, and gradually they both come to understand one another. It’s not that he will stay in the city, but perhaps now there is a link which will survive the distances.

Christian Prentice makes a great Leo – handsome if rough-hewn, overflowing with energy and opinion, slow to learn to listen. He makes a fine foil for Mimi Cozzens, as Vera, a woman used to being alone but gradually and increasingly glad of the comparatively non-standard company. Their best moment comes in a scene in which Leo introduces Vera to a bong, producing genuine laughter onstage and off.

Alexandra Wright makes fine work of Leo’s erstwhile girlfriend, displaying all the confident maturity and practicality he seems at first to be incapable of. In a brief, but very funny scene, Susane Lee has a great time with the Chinese-American girl Leo picks up one night, who cannot get over the fact Vera has “The Little Red Book of Chairman Mao” on display in her living room.

Director Christian Lebano has taken this rather talky play and given it as much legs as one can. John Vertrees’ beautiful set – complete with a background scene which got – and deserved – its own applause, makes a very realistic apartment for these folks to inhabit, though in some ways it becomes claustrophobic. But then, that may also be a point.

If there is any issue, it comes from Cozzens’ portrayal. Vera is to be occasionally forgetful, but Cozzens makes her, if anything, more so. Indeed, the hemming and hawing happens so often it begins to look less like the script and more like an actress struggling for lines. This is too bad, as the best moments are rich and filled with a special kind of wisdom and fatalism which comes with intelligent aging.

Still, “4,000 Miles” has a lot to say about adaptation, maturing, and the conflicting agendas of various generations. It’s worth a look as a picture of one corner of the American landscape. That is what made the Pulitzer folk take a close look. One note: the play is not recommended by the theater for children under 16, due to adult language and situations

What: “4,000 Miles” When: Through November 8, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87. W Sierra Madre Ave. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 youth (15-22) Not recommended for children under 16 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“6 Rms Riv Vu” in Sierra Madre: a classic comedy brings modern insights

Jeremy Guskin (l.) and Lena Bouton (r.) deal with Lynndi Scott as the lady across the hall in "6 Rms Riv Vu" in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Jeremy Guskin (l.) and Lena Bouton (r.) deal with Lynndi Scott as the lady across the hall in “6 Rms Riv Vu” in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

There comes a point, with older works of theater, when they stop being “dated” and start being a window on another time. When that happens, they can provide insightful views of the differences and most engagingly the similarities between the work’s era and our own. This is obvious with truly classic works – Shakespeare, Moliere, even Oscar Wilde. In our fast-changing world it also rings true for plays and musicals only a few decades old.

As example, the production of “6 Rms Riv Vu”, Bob Randall’s Tony-winning play from 1972. Now in a fine production at Sierra Madre Playhouse, it looks back at the people whose lives overlapped the societal mores of two distinct periods, who are thus forced to find balance in the midst of very mixed messages. As ethical values continue to shift today, it offers a chance to stop and think.

The play – most definitely a comedy – centers on two people, Anne Miller and Paul Friedman, who find themselves locked in a rent-controlled New York apartment they’ve both been sent by spouses to check out and possibly rent. As time passes, they begin to share vulnerabilities: their sense of incompleteness in their married lives, their sense of disquiet at their own lack of adventure, and fairly soon their mutual attraction.

What makes the play worth watching is what they do with the information they glean, as played out by a somewhat young, but interesting cast. Jeremy Guskin feels natural as Paul: a bit geeky, a bit henpecked, a bit startled by his own bravado. Lena Bouton brings to Anne that settled housewife aura, but with the undercurrent of resistance to patronization and frustration at her own “goodness” showing through.

Lynndi Scott all but steals the show as the obtuse lady across the hall. Bob Rodriguez gives the perfect “operating on autopilot” maintenance man – the instigator of the leads getting stuck in the first place. In cameo roles, Kristin Towers-Rowles vibrates with energy as Paul’s feminist wife, Craig EcEldowney hums with paternalistic attitude as Anne’s businessman husband, and Jull Maglione and Albert Garnica provide the play’s bookends as an expectant couple also checking out the apartment.

Director Sherri Lofton gives the play a relaxed, yet intense pacing and enough movement to keep an essentially two-person piece from devolving into a static debate. John Vertrees’ set design makes the small SMP stage look like a reasonably-sized apartment, which is quite a feat. The costuming by Naila Aladdin Sanders pretty much nails the polyester double-knit look of the era. The authenticity greatly enhances the experience.

As a result, “6 Rms Riv Vu” has much to recommend it: it’s funny, well acted, well produced, and has something quite specific to say, which is still worth listening to. It’s also funny in the way of the best comedies of that era: jokes at just the time when the tale would otherwise become painful, yet still making a “truth” available under the laughter.

This is the start of a new era for the Sierra Madre Playhouse, as they embrace a new board and a new artistic director. The focus is obviously quality, and the shaking off of the “community theater” label. So far, so good

What: “6 Rms Riv Vu” When: Through September 6, 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: (standard pricing) $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 children 12 and under (NOTE: general and senior tickets purchased in July for any performance between now and the end of the run will be on a special: $19.72 – the date of the play) Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Such Things As Dreams are Made Of: “Se Llama Cristina” at Boston Court:

The opening of "Se Llama Cristina" at Boston Court

The opening of “Se Llama Cristina” at Boston Court

It’s a dream. What first strikes the observer in “Se Llama Cristina,” the new play by Octavio Solis, is its dreamlike quality, paired with the sense of recognition: two rather desperate but well-intentioned people with grotesque backgrounds find themselves on the verge of parenthood. Their fear is the universal one, played out in a surreal environment – at once a history and a continuing anxiety dream.

Now at The Theatre at Boston Court as a part of a rolling world premiere, “Se Llama Christina” becomes a duet between a man (Justin Huen) and a woman (Paula Christensen). They run to each other and away from grim lives they are sure make them unsuitable as a couple, as parents, and sometimes as people. On this somewhat metaphysical journey they are pursued by Abel (Christian Rummel), the essence of male domination haunting the woman, and a girl (Amielynn Abellera) embodying the child this couple’s continued dysfunction might grow into.

Yet saying this tells little about the constant time-shifts, the empty, yet evocative space, or the surreal symbolism which make this much larger than simply story-telling. With direction bordering on choreography, a set composed almost entirely of a surprisingly mobile florescent rectangle, the audience’s imaginary forces become elemental to linking the visual snapshots and intertwining bits of reality and that otherworld in which the characters often float.

The performances hook all of this together. Huen and Christensen are onstage the entire length of this play, which is performed without intermission. Rummel proves suitably intimidating, radiating the machismo necessary to be a tangible threat. Abellera’s youthfully naieve character underscores the fear present whenever someone – particularly someone with a difficult background – looks toward raising a child who might end up the same way.

Robert Castro’s intellectual direction, which keeps this intentionally choppy piece intelligible, is the other great key to success. Street artist Gronk supplies the bare and stark setting, while Victoria Petrovich creates costumes both “ordinary” and defining.

“Se Llama Cristina” references the one character who, though the subject, is not on the stage: the baby they fear and anticipate. Performing this play in one piece, without a break, keeps the flow of the dream going. And it doesn’t stop when you leave. Like any fine work of art, it will keep on offering sudden realizations for weeks to come.

What: “Se Llama Cristina” When: Through February 23, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays with an added performance on Wednesday, Feb. 19 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with student, senior and group discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

Much Ado About Procreation: “Baby” surfaces at CCPA

At time – the 1980s – when musical theater in the U.S. was increasingly synonymous with spectacle, David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr’s little gem “Baby” was born. This musical gently examined the pressures, fascinations and choices surrounding the whole idea of having a child. Now finishing a run at Covina Center for the Performing Arts, its factual information may be dated, and some of its messages might play out differently today, but it still packs charm and an essential humanity which prove very attractive.

The story centers around three women, who meet in the show’s most joyous moment in an OB’s waiting room. There, their yearning to be the newly embraced super-Moms bursts forth in the ebullient “I Want it All” – the musical’s signature song. One is a college student determinedly unwed to her musician boyfriend. One is a college athletic coach anxious to complete her shift from tomboy to feminine but struggling to become a mother. One is an empty nester startled to find herself about to sit on the nest again. The show follows all of them through their diverse journeys.

Kristin Towers-Rowles gives the college girl all the idealism, enthusiasm and impracticality of a teenager, combine with a sort of innate energy which powers her character through the piece. As her boyfriend, Keith Barletta’s overwhelmed and well-meaning music student defies stereotype to become quite endearing. In playing the older woman who thought that she was done raising children, Gail Matthius performance gives a window on a sequence of internal struggles – moving even as it is gently underplayed. Phil Oakley’s well tamed but ever-present old school machismo vibrates against her performance to create depth in this couple’s dynamic.

Jessie Withers balances the stereotypical “lady jock” with an earnest womanliness, and David Laffey creates a remarkable foil for her: passionately loving, outwardly strong, inwardly infinitely fragile. Providing doctors, fellow parents, college students and other people to populate the background, Mark Gamez, Britney Voitel, Cody Michael Perry and Michelle Griepentrog sing beautifully and help this extremely episodic piece flow from moment to moment with grace.

Director Janet Miller has all but choreographed the show, from the movement of the spare set pieces to the intertwining of those coming and going from the stage, in a way which encourages this sense of continuity. Ironically the show’s only weak point arrives when she is actually called upon to choreograph a sequence where a group of men sing and dance to a song called “Fatherhood Blues.” The dancing is corny and interferes with the song by winding the singers. It just doesn’t work.

Still, “Baby” has much to recommend it. Granted, fertility efforts have made great strides since then, and men rarely get away with (as one in this pack seems to) a “master of the universe” tone, but the essential fact of dealing with the desire to have, the fear of having, and the life-changing reality of having a child can resonate with an audience to great effect.

Special kudos to Corey Hirsch, who not only acts as musical director, but plays the entire score on an on-stage piano. Indeed, this musical is that intimate, making it a perfect fit with CCPA’s comfy, equally intimate theater space. Come, listen, smile and – at least if you have been a parent – reminisce.

What: “Baby” When: Through July 1, 8 p.m Friday and Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $28 – $38 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

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