Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Mark Taper Forum

“Heisenberg” at the Taper: A Stirring Subtlety

Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker in “Heisenberg.” [Photo Craig Schwartz]

The uncertainty principle of German scientist Werner Heisenberg states that the position and velocity of any object cannot both be measured exactly at the same time. In Simon Stephens’ much-celebrated play, “Heisenberg,” that theory is applied to people – two impressively dissimilar adults who meet awkwardly in a London train station and then begin a process of individual change – a change filled with immeasurables.

Now at the Mark Taper Forum, fresh from a much-celebrated Broadway run, the play proves very funny, intellectually engaging, and as rich in humanity as all of that implies.

Alex Priest, a stolid, elderly Irish butcher who lives alone in London, meets the significantly younger Georgie Burns when she impulsively kisses him on the back of the neck. Did she think he was someone else? We may never know, but her virtual stalking of him from that point forward, and her almost nonstop monologue on life, gradually shift Alex from his highly patterned, insulated isolation into a new view of the world around him.

The question, of course, is why she does this. What, in her constant speech, is the truth and what is fantasy? Is she a con artist, or genuinely fragile, or (as the British would put it) a bit mental? Does it matter, really, in Alex’s world?

This production has arrived in Los Angeles with the same two people who made it a sensation in New York. The chemistry between Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker allows for the questions to fill the room, and yet not get in the way of watching two fascinating characters intertwine. Arndt’s Alex is delightfully underplayed, with small changes balancing well against the verbal and emotional abandon of Parker’s insecure Georgie.

The director, Mark Brokaw, who also created the New York original, has let these two extraordinary performances stand on their own. The performance is uniquely centered by set designer Mark Wendland in the Taper’s performance space, with only two easily-moved tables and two chairs to provide any necessary physical needs. Thus, the performances are literally everything, a piece brilliant stagecraft, as this is – indeed – all one needs.

Stephens’ script is delightful and wistful by turns, but never sentimental. There are moments of startling, delicious humor, and others of ponderable introspection. But most of all, in the hands of these two extraordinarily skilled actors, there is a particular kind of aching humanity – that delicate need for human connection that a modern social system makes easy to overlook.

“Heisenberg” is a fascinating exercise for many reasons. For someone who appreciates the things theater can do that no other medium does, the sheer sense of place and time expressed on a black block of a stage with minimal furniture is a treasure in itself. More than this, there is an elemental humanity at work in that space, not to mention two impressive examples of the actors’ art to savor. For all these reasons and more, catch this one with these actors, in this setting, while you can.

What: “Heisenberg” When: Through August 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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“Archduke” at the Taper: Pseudo History, but Solid Social Commentary

L-R: Stephen Stocking, Patrick Page, Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “Archduke.”
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

To begin with, I must issue a disclaimer. I teach history, so a play which is ostensibly about historical people engaged in historically documented events pushes me to look at the thing first as a historian and then as a theatrical critic.

Thus, there are two ways to approach Rajiv Joseph’s new play at the Mark Taper Forum. “Archduke” is ostensibly a historical play, in that its characters were elemental in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which opened the door to the devastation of World War I. However, taken as such, it must be pointed out that the facts have been treated with a considerable amount of creativity.

Therefore, “Archduke,” as a history-based document, would be highly problematic. Rather, one must look at the underlying messages of the play, as it examines the nature of obsession, and the gullibility of the disenfranchised young. As such it touches more on what would inspire the young to politically desperate action in any age. Given this understanding, it proves both very funny and touchingly powerful.

The story must, of course, center on Gavrilo Princep, the bright and highly nationalistic 19-year-old revolutionary and assassin. Only in this version he’s none of these. Rather, this Gavrilo is a dim peasant whose surprise tuberculosis diagnosis starts him on a journey to find some reason for having lived. Taken in by a Serbian colonel obsessed with freeing his people from Austro-Hungarian domination, Gavrilo and his two compatriots are more swept up by the colonel’s hospitality and elegant lifestyle than by politics.

Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that the center of this piece is Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the historic founder of The Black Hand, the group responsible for the assassination. Here, “Apis,” as he is called, appears as a madman with ferocious powers of persuasion. Can he take three “lungers” – that is, young men with a TB death sentence – and turn them into a revolutionary movement? Through bombast, coercion and a taste of the good life, it appears possible.

Stephen Stocking looks remarkably like the photos of the historic Gavrilo, and his ability to balance the character’s unschooled childlike qualities and fatalistic objectivity in the face of so much emotion makes the play work. As Dimitrijevic, Patrick Page provides the perfect counter to the underplayed future assassin, making the colonel pound and rage and pronounce with an intensity which perfectly overwhelms the innocence of his “converts.”

Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania give Gavrilo’s two fellow tubercular innocents a truly charming combination of simplicity and live-for-the-moment happiness, making it completely understandable that they would debate which was more important: assassination or a sandwich.

Todd Weeks provides the sanity in all the madness as the doctor left unable to assist the young men in their illness, while Joanne McGee, as the colonel’s cantankerous servant, balances sarcasm and pathos in keeping the proceedings from becoming too cartoonish.

Director Giovanna Sardelli truly understands the interplay of the underlying messages here, and balances the humor (which is genuinely funny throughout) and the darker elements in creating a true ensemble. In this she is aided by Tim Mackabee’s remarkable set: at many points comparatively stark, but lush at just the right moment. Denitsa Bliznakova has an eye for using costuming for both character development and historical context. In combination, the results are powerful and deeply engaging.

If anything, “Archduke” is about the ease with which the intelligent, passionate, but obsessed can convince those with little to lose to do things which may seem incomprehensible to the observer. Move this forward and it can be applied to all forms of outrageous and deadly acts, from a white supremacist in a church basement to an ISIS convert putting on a suicide vest. And that is the serious core of the play, all the delightful humor notwithstanding. In the end this matters far more than the play’s many liberties with history.

What: “Archduke” When: through June 4, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213)62802772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Zoot Suit” is Back: a window on a forgotten past returns to the Taper

The famed opening moment of "Zoot Suit" - the first professionally produced Chicano play - in its revival at the Mark Taper Forum

The famed opening moment of “Zoot Suit” – the first professionally produced Chicano play – in its revival at the Mark Taper Forum

“Zoot Suit” is now extended until March 2, when it absolutely must close.

The return of Luis Valdez’s groundbreaking musical “Zoot Suit” to the Mark Taper Forum is less of a theatrical milestone than it is a major cultural event. Centered on the actual events revolving around the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and the Zoot Suit Riots – both “forgotten” parts of Los Angeles’ World War II history until this show opened in 1978 – the tale celebrates the culture of Mexican-American Los Angeles during that repressive time with a gravelly pride.

Still, one must stand back from the importance of the vehicle to also examine the production itself. Directed as before by its creator, Luis Valdez has worked to keep it true to the original in many strategic ways, from the carved newspaper opening to the iconic pose of El Pachuco – the symbol of Chicano masculinity which has remained central in Los Angeles’ Latino consciousness.

The blend of culture and language is also still central. Interestingly, this has always included a mixture of languages: Spanish, local slang, and English. For those who are familiar with all of these, and many Angelinos are, there is an immediate connection. For those who are less familiar, there may be a certain disconnect but also a chance to bump up against a vibrant part of the L.A. community in a most enthusiastic way. When the show was first produced, the program included a glossary of terms for the uninitiate. That is missing this time, but most of the audience may not need it.

Told through a combination of fact, fantasy and music, the story is elemental Los Angeles. During the period of World War II, a series of events led to the arrest of over 100 Mexican-American young men for the death of a single man near a reservoir euphemistically called Sleepy Lagoon. Their trial was less about a single murder and more about a condemnation of an entire people and an entire lifestyle, and is now well documented as a gross miscarriage of justice. The fight to defend the young men, and then to overturn their convictions, provides a backdrop for a love letter to a way of being and an innate toughness which carried a people through this very difficult time.

The cast divides into those playing the historical figures of the story, and those representing an elemental force which stood up against the inequities of the time period. Matias Ponce is Henry Reyna, the leader of a “boy gang” whose entire crew ends up arrested for something they didn’t do. As such, Ponce underscores Henry’s resolute sense of self, his sense of family, and his ability to keep himself together in the midst of a nearly hopeless situation. Standouts among Henry’s fellow zoot suiters include Raul Cardona exuding a particular maturity as the married father “Smiley,” Oscar Camacho as the impulsive Joey, and Caleb Foote as Tommy, the non-Hispanic member of the gang.

Melinna Bobadilla radiates with an innate innocence as Henry’s girlfriend, while Stephani Candelaria and Andres Ortiz make Henry’s siblings a study in contrasts. Brian Abraham gives a gravitas to the lawyer whose ardent defense of his young and mistreated clients seems as potent today as it does in its historical context. Tiffany Dupont, as the woman who coordinates communications between the legal team, walks that fine line for any woman of the period between femininity and official status.

But surrounding all of this, and more, are the more symbolic figures, and their presence ends up defining much of the action. Fiona Cheung, Holly Hyman and Mariela Arteaga form the singing Pachuca Trio, a multi-ethnic representation of L.A. itself. And, of course, there is Demian Bichir as El Pachuco, that central narrator and representation of the larger theme of the piece. Bichir has the moves and style down pat, though the directorial choice to have him speak in a gravelly voice (except when imitating others) has the side effect of making him often very difficult to understand. This is a pity as he is the glue holding the show and this production together.

The music, an eclectic mix of big band hits of the era with original songs and instrumentals by Lalo Guerrero and Daniel Valdez, and the upbeat swing choreography of Maria Torres add to the sometimes frenetic tone of the show, which proves energetic from start to finish. One should not really call this a musical, in the classic sense, in that there are no soulful songster moments but rather an undercurrent which creates the atmosphere of time and place.

All of which is not news to those who remember “Zoot Suit” from its first incarnation 39 years ago. For a new generation, reviving this story – which is simplified history, to some extent, but important nonetheless – puts modern struggles of identity and inclusion into context more startlingly than one would wish. However, despite a stated sense that this piece of theater is intended to speak to the larger issue of the Hispanic/Latino story in the US, it remains ultimately a story of Los Angeles and the particular consciousness of a large portion of our community. There it is received as golden, but one wonders how well that translates to the larger sphere.

What: “Zoot Suit” When: now extended through March 28, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 S. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $109 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Funny, Bitter, Powerful, Unforgettable: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” at the Taper

Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen in the Druid production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" by Martin McDonagh, directed by Garry Hynes. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Aisling O’Sullivan and Marie Mullen in the Druid production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” by Martin McDonagh, directed by Garry Hynes. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


There seems to be a pattern in modern Irish drama – one both constructed (in part) by and reflected in the work of playwright Martin McDonagh – of developing characters of great richness and charm, in situations which can appear darkly humorous until these same characters prove invested with fantastically fatal flaws. Such a work is “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” just opened at the Mark Taper Forum.

This production by the Druid theater company of Galway, features essential elements of their premiere of the work in the 1990s: from director, and Druid Artistic Director, Garry Hynes (the first woman to win a Tony for directing, for the New York production of this piece), to award-winning actress Marie Mullen, who created one role in the original production and returns to play another. Add to this strong new performances by from Druid regulars, and you have a work steeped in modern Irish thought and culture, filled with unforgettable characters recognizable as funny, infuriating, and, on occasion, grippingly awful.

Maureen Folan, in her 40s, is the sole caregiver to her somewhat hypochondriacal and seriously manipulative mother, Mag. At a celebration nearby, she reconnects with the elder of two brothers from a neighboring farm, Ray, and begins to dream about a life outside of the drudgery of her current situation. Mag’s interference brings up implications both imaginary and real, as Ray’s immature younger brother Pato is called upon to act as go-between when Ray returns to work in England. Each of these connections, fraught with friction, may lead to either happiness or terror.

Central to the piece is Aisling O’Sullivan’s Maureen, edgy and consistently, sharply, seething with resentments. Balancing this sharpness is the wry charm, and devious maneuvering of Mullen’s Mag, the sort of full-body performance (oh, those facial expressions) one can easily recognize as remarkable. Indeed, she manages to make the audience like Mag and despise her all at once.

Aaron Monaghan creates, in Ray, an open, decent man whose straightforward nature provides a profound contrast to the roiling complexities of the Folan household. As the character often central to the comic relief, Marty Rea’s Pato radiates a constant restless energy and an obtuse, silly and selfish view of things which balances out the tensions and deviousness of the rest of the play.

Hynes knows these characters from long acquaintance, bringing an organic feel to the play as if it rises out of its very setting, Francis O’Connor’s decayingly gray country cottage. The aura of looming darkness and the moments of lighthearted humor seem likewise to have a sense of natural flow, and her respect for the language itself and the rich roundness of the characters brings with it a deep humanity which connects across all barriers of culture and framework.

Like other great works examining the affect of fatal flaws on humankind, from Chekhov to Miller, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” reflects a potential truth far beyond its context, yet in this case uses the specifics of Irish life, accent and cultural framework to create something at once pointed in its beauty and disturbing in its implications. This is, in short, a true work of art, both as written and as performed.

This is the first stop on Druid’s U.S. tour of this production.

What: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” When: through December 18, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. No performance on Thanksgiving Where: The Mark Taper Forum, at the Music Center 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

The Baggage of Oppression: “Father Comes Home…” at the Taper

L-R: Michael McKean, Sterling K. Brown and Josh Wingate in “Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)”  [Photo: Craig Schwartz].

L-R: Michael McKean, Sterling K. Brown and Josh Wingate in “Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)”
[Photo: Craig Schwartz].

A hallmark of fine modern playwrighting is the ability of a play to be enjoyed at more than one depth. Story and character can take an audience to one level, and a solid one at that. For those willing and/or able to look deeper, there exists another layer – symbolic, mythical, implied or even ancestral – which can make statements far larger than the comparatively surface scenario which appears most obvious. Such writing is elemental in the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, and one reason her works are held in such high esteem.

As case in point, take “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3” currently at the Mark Taper Forum, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this past year (Parks won a Pulitzer for “Top Dog/Underdog” in 2002, becoming the first African American woman to do so). The play can be taken pretty much as chronicle, or it can become a fascinatingly layered look at the legacy of slavery’s innate messages to the African-American experience, and why dignity and selfhood were and are an uphill battle, defining and redefining loyalty, respect and self-image.

The play follows Hero, a slave on a small plantation in Texas who ends up assisting his master as he rides off to be a Colonel in the Confederate Army. Hero first must struggle with whether to resist going to support a conflict which keeps him in bondage, then with what it means to be in the middle of that carnage working for that master, and then with the changed world of the plantation – and the changes in himself – when the he returns long before the war is over. Yet, this is only the baseline for what an audience encounters in the play.

Director Jo Bonney gives hints of the greater universality of the piece from the start, as unnamed family slaves are costumed by ESosa not just the garb of the era, but with hints of the future (one wears a Washington Grays baseball jersey, for example). This kind of subtle nudge at the play’s more universal underpinnings continues throughout, in all aspects of the play and the production.

Sterling K. Brown proves powerful even as his character wrestles with himself, as he leads the cast as Hero: a man struggling with the nature of loyalty and his right to own himself. Whose promises are real? What makes him have value? Balanced against Hero are three central characters whose own understandings bounce off of his in often emotionally intense, even violent ways.

Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Larry Powell wait for Hero's return [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Larry Powell wait for Hero’s return
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]


Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris makes Hero’s “wife”, Penny, ferociously real. Distressed he chooses to leave her and follow their owner, she waits with a loving anticipation even as she must live a life without news and find comfort where she can. Larry Powell, as the longtime friend whose escape Hero foiled (and whose punishment Hero was forced by the master to carry out) plays counterpoint to Hero’s acquiescence to his position in the world. Homer wants more, even while hobbled, and is willing to risk to get it.

Also a powerful counterpoint to Hero’s view of life is, obviously, his master. Michael McKean makes the Colonel absolutely settled in his understanding of his superiority – a superiority which entitles him to a particular, often subtle sadism to which Hero has learned to acquiesce. When this man shouts to the skies how grateful he is to be white, because no matter what happens he will never be as low as Hero is, the message is potent and one Hero unconsciously absorbs.

Patrena Murray and Sterling K. Brown as Odyssey Dog and Hero/Ulysses [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Patrena Murray and Sterling K. Brown as Odyssey Dog and Hero/Ulysses
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]


In the end, though, the voice of this tale and the icing on this fascinating piece is Patrena Murray’s portrayal of Hero’s dog, Odyssey. Accompanying his return, and speaking to all of the truths brought home with him, this character becomes the sage tying together loose ends, all the while defining the unwavering loyalty of a dog balanced against the loyalty Hero gave the Colonel and seems unable to give anyone else. Also integral to the production are Russell G. Jones, Julian Rozzell, Jr., Tonye Patano, Roger Robinson and Josh Wingate, all offering alternate voices to the one in Hero’s head.

Add to all of this the remarkable talents of Steven Borgonetti, who, accompanying himself on guitar, creates a musical landscape which sets the tone for some of the play’s most important moments.

“Father Comes Home…” is long, but so engrossing you really don’t notice. There is so much to absorb, and so many different subtle things being said about the long-term messages aimed at Black America and the coping mechanisms – some of which prove emasculating – that a people in and out of bondage have used to deal with those messages. And this production shines as brightly as the play, as Neil Patel’s simple, easily adjusted set design and Dan Moses Schreier’s evocative sound design inevitably prove.

Go see this. Expect to have to work, as there is much to discover, absorb and analyze. Still, that can be a major joy of watching a fine play: it leaves you with a lot to work over long after the show itself is done. This is one of the reasons for the art form.

What: “Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3” When: Through May 15, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 S. Grand Ave.at The Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Celebrating Characters and Their Issues: “The Mystery of Love and Sex” at the Taper

L-R: Sharon Lawrence, York Walker, Mae Whitman and David Pittu in “The Mystery of Love and Sex  [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

L-R: Sharon Lawrence, York Walker, Mae Whitman and David Pittu in “The Mystery of Love and Sex [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

If you’re going to write an “issue play,” it simply doesn’t work unless the characters are recognizable. If you’re going to write a truly funny, if also grounded, issue play your characters, rounded and filled with rough edges though they may be, need to also be likable. And that’s what makes “The Mystery of Love and Sex” work: you both recognize and, at least essentially like even the most screwed up of the four characters you meet.

Bathsheba Doran’s play, receiving its west coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, examines all the little (and big) prejudices evident even in the most liberal people, yet does so in such a way that is both funny – often very, very funny – and in a subtle way, loving. She likes these flawed people as much as the audience comes to, allowing them to listen to the lessons attached at an almost subliminal level.

Charlotte and Jonny, friends since they were 9, invite Charlotte’s parents to dinner in their college dorm. Parents Lucinda and Howard speculate on whether Charlotte and Jonny are an item, and yet as the evening progresses (and the question is answered for the audience) they also push all kinds of buttons for each of the younger people in turn.

This is just the beginning of the saga. Charlotte’s father is Jewish and from New York. Her mother is from the South and was disowned when she converted and married a Jew. Jonny is Black and was raised by a single mom. Their communal story flows from this initial dinner over a five-year span of deep friendship, love, deep hurt, discovery, and truth.

Mae Whitman centers the piece as Charlotte: impulsive, insecure, and cerebral, she is still figuring out who she is when the play opens. York Walker makes Jonny a quiet, thinking young man also finding his own way: the antithesis of stereotype and yet centered in a space of awareness about privilege even as he sinks into the long-standing, comparatively undemanding friendship he and Charlotte share.

David Pittu makes Howard likable in spite of himself. A successful if somewhat formulaic mystery writer, he doesn’t hear the prejudices he speaks and writes, and assumes commonalities which don’t always exist. Yet, he cares deeply for his sometimes troubled daughter, her life, and her friend. Sharon Lawrence, gives the agitated, sometimes snarky Lucinda a humanity behind the barbs which unfolds as the play progresses in rich and revealing ways.

One must also nod to Robert Towers, whose extremely brief walk-on as Howard’s father becomes one of the funniest moments in the show.

Director Robert Egan has a feel for these people, and their struggles and intimacies flow from very natural space as a result. Gifted with Takeshi Kata’s seemly plain but truly fluid and versatile set, the scenes move easily into each other, keeping the emotional continuity going. As a result, the thing is a joy to watch.

One caution for the fainter of heart: there are two totally appropriate instances of full nudity in the piece. And yes, this family has some impressive dysfunctions, yet even then the piece (and the characters) prove equally impressively un-grim: dysfunction does not equal dystopia. Thus we can recognize, perhaps even like what we see. Most certainly we can laugh heartily at what we recognize, even as – somewhere in the back of mind – we hear “oh, wait…”.

What: “The Mystery of Love and Sex: When: Through March 20, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“The Christians” at the Taper: Much to Ponder

Andrew Garman in “The Christians" at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Andrew Garman in “The Christians” at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a time-worn adage which says one should never discuss politics or religion. Particularly these days, as fractures within the largest faith in the US – Christianity – have divided people into liberal and conservative camps, mainstream denominations and evangelical start-ups, small worship environments and mega-churches, the danger of debate is evident everywhere from social media to political campaigns. Many works of theater have attempted to address the swirling issues involved: faith, money, salvation, adaptability (or lack of it) and practical business which define modern religion in the US. Few have jumped into the central argument with both feet as thoroughly as Lucas Hnath’s award-winning “The Christians,” now arrived at the Mark Taper Forum.

The plot proves deceptively simple. You are invited into the service of a massive mega-church to hear a sermon by Paul, it’s founder. In that sermon, he admits to having had to confront an essential tenet of the faith he has professed, and announces a change in belief, and thus direction, which he feels will be a more faithful interpretation of God’s word. And this is where the fracturing begins. As playwright Hnath states in an introduction to the piece, “putting… beliefs into words will always result in a misinterpretation of said beliefs.” And as his associate pastors, his parishioners, even his wife struggle with change, rift, and for some a sense of betrayal, the entire underlay of belief shows its raw, unfinished edges.

Andrew Garman makes Paul a man of deep sincerity whose sense of assuredness – of being able to take his followers with him on what they will see as a radical journey – shows you how the character gathered such a flock, at the same time it also makes him unable to see how fragile his hold really is. These same people may easily fall away from changes in something they consider their rock. As the antithesis to Paul’s belief, Larry Powell gives great heart to associate pastor – a man whose faith was formed at Paul’s feet, and whose more narrow passion for the mission of the church leaves him with no room for the sudden shifts in his personal foundations.

Exemplifying the terrible cost of change upon parishioners of any church which offers absolute answers to the questions of its followers is Emily Donahoe as a single mother torn between supporting her long-time pastor and a desperate need for a community she now sees moving away from him. Philip Kerr, as a church trustee, brings in the financial realities – what happens when the monetary base for a hugely complex ministry is shaken by dissent and rifts. And in a last, but particularly powerful set of scenes, Linda Powell brings the struggle of the supportive wife whose beliefs no longer sync with her husband’s. What are her choices in this situation?

Staged as a riff off of a classic mega-church Sunday service, thanks to Dane Laffrey’s evocatively stark set, the production balances the rather cerebral and pointed conversations with the uplifting music of a gospel choir led with style by Scott Anthony. Director Les Waters has a feel for this juxtaposing of the public and private, and the piece moves with the constancy of a well-oiled religious experience, even as it questions much of what that experience means. The play is performed without an intermission, letting the tension rise as expectations would have in a service. The very beauty of this show’s “construction” makes it particularly engaging.

Of course, even that pales next to the potential inner struggles one can hear within the audience itself, as some look in from the outside, some find themselves siding with one element or another of this potent and unfinishable argument. Most certainly it will offend some, satisfy others and leave many with a lot to talk about after the play is over. I strongly suggest (and I never do this) that one read the introduction by the playwright in the program itself, as it lays groundwork for openness and gives one more access to the play’s essential points just by setting a mindset ahead of time.

“The Christians” is powerful, in its intertwining of intellect and passion. As such, it does what theater does so well – make people think, ponder their own understandings, share with others and, regardless of viewpoint, become emotionally engaged in either the concept or the characters, or both. Don’t go to see an easy play, but go to see one which will stick with you.

What: “The Christians” When: Through January 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

History, Gut-Wrenching Power Highlight “Bent” at the Taper

Charlie Hofheimer and Patrick Heusinger in Martin Sherman’s "“Bent" [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Charlie Hofheimer and Patrick Heusinger in Martin Sherman’s ““Bent” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Every once in a while there is an opportunity to see a great play which has become more historically important than “just” a play. Thus, if done well, the experience not only offers the power and wonder of something well written and well performed, but a kind of awe for all it has taught and has still to teach about humanity, history, and the nature of the human heart.

The production of Martin Sherman’s “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum is one such opportunity. I first read about “Bent” and it’s New York run in Time Magazine, when the play was new, and have always hoped to see a fully realized professional production. In the meantime, its impact could be seen everywhere. The examination of the Nazi treatment of homosexuals was revelatory, even to many activists, when it first appeared in the late 1970s.

The story centered on the idea that SS had a separate designation – a pink triangle – for the gays in their vicious concentration camps, and that gay men were the only ones to be treated worse than the Jews. Thus, the play led to the use of the pink triangle as a defiant symbol of pride from the early 80s on. Interestingly, it was only after “Bent” became a sensation that books about this period in LGBT history were able to find publishers. Now we take this knowledge for granted.

Which, in its own way, frees the audience currently at the Taper to focus on the play itself. As important as its historical revelations included are the implications of its characters as individuals, and the examination of both the nature of love and the fearsome will to survive. Combine this with the particular horrors of Nazism and the particular restrictions of homosexuality in a totalitarian state, and this play holds a power far beyond an essential history lesson.

The focus is on Max, a gay, hedonistic opportunist in Weimar Berlin, always on the cusp of the next deal. As the Nazis rise, he and his lover, Rudy, are arrested and sent to Dachau. There Max works to figure the angles, and begins a friendship of sorts with the “pink triangle” named Horst. Through the horrors of his arrest and transition, he still tries to work survival deals, all the while coming closer and closer to facing the very nature of love itself, as revealed in extremity.

Patrick Heusinger embodies Max’s dualities – the ferocious need to control and to win with the softness he cannot recognize – in ways which prove at first funny, then desperate, and then riveting. There is an inner wildness in his portrayal which seems held down with effort to try to manage the world. Andy Mientus makes the fragile Rudy radiate with an inner sweetness one knows will be gobbled up by everything the society around him is becoming.

Charlie Hofheimer’s Horst makes no attempts to hide who he is, from the pink triangle on his chest, to his stance – the ultimate challenge to Max’s willingness to compromise himself. Indeed, this underscores the essentials of the story: it is with Horst that Max must face his own demons, one by one, from his need for nurture to the challenge of acknowledging his true identity, even to himself.

Director Moises Kaufman has concentrated on the conflicted humanness of it all, giving the entire play an intimacy even in the comparative openness of Beowulf Boritt’s elemental, implied sets (his “electrified fence” proves particularly effective). Sound designer Cricket S. Myers deserves special kudos for the subtextual hummings which flavor important moments of the text, as do Justin Townsend’s increasingly harsh lighting motifs.

In sum, this play is powerful, in part because it does not shirk either the brutality or sexuality of its basic themes. The scene where Max and Horst, two Dachau prisoners not even allowed to look at each other, manage to make love with words alone is perhaps the most striking and the most famous. The descriptions of Nazi mind games and tortures, especially the casual nature of them, is both graphic and impossible to forget. This is harsh stuff, from any angle, and yet it is absolutely engrossing – not in the prurient sense, but in the context of relation to the very human characters one connects to so vividly.

There are no known statistics on the number of homosexuals who died in Nazi concentration camps, nor of the many more who were castrated to keep their “disease” from spreading. That they were designated, along with the Roma (gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Emigrants, Criminals, Communists and of course Jews as deserving of their own uniform color code says there were enough to matter. Indeed, considering the behavior toward gays in modern Russia, or worse in the 10 countries in Africa and Asia where gay people face the death penalty for being themselves in 2015, it is important to remember that this is not just old news.

And the fact nobody knew much about the Nazi condemnations until nearly 40 years later is reason enough to celebrate a new production of “Bent.” All the more exciting to be able to say this production will prove gut-wrenchingly powerful, yet theatrically satisfying in its own right, quite aside from the impact it once had on our sense of history.

What: “Bent” When: Through August 23, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Funny, Issue-Filled “Immediate Family” at the Taper

The entire  "Immediate Family" gathers for a heated game of cards [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The entire “Immediate Family” gathers for a heated game of cards
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

It has long been a rule of the theater that social change or tension is best examined in intimate situations. That, for all its prodigious humor, is the aim of Paul Oakley Stovall’s new play “Immediate Family,” now at the Mark Taper Forum. The play offers up an awkward reunion in a family full of secrets and unspoken tensions as a way to look at how the restructuring of the very concept of family creates its own issues in modern America.

The play covers so many issues at the same time that may be its only major flaw: one shuffles from tension to tension, meaning that some get shorter shrift than perhaps they should. Indeed, the playwright’s intent appears to be the conversations one will have afterward with others in attendance. Still, busy though it may be in content, the production itself proves so well conceived the audience leaves satisfied, as the characters prove likable, the comedy is genuine and the message surprisingly heartwarming.

The story takes place in the Hyde Park home in Chicago which Evy Bryant Jerome has inherited from her parents, a powerful African-American preacher father, Jessie, and his always-supportive wife. Indeed, their portrait hangs in the living room, surveying their progeny’s actions with implied expectation and judgement. Now Evy’s brother Tony is getting married, and the widely dispersed clan is gathering: half-sister Ronnie from her home in Europe, and Evy’s favorite brother Jesse, Jr. from New York. For Evy, this is her entire immediate family, but for Jessie, Jr. family extends beyond blood to the silly-tough neighbor girl he grew up with, Nina, and Jesse’s same-sex partner Kristian – whose arrival brings much to the surface.

The conversations this gathering inspires create the play, ranging from issues of orientation, race, class, to what makes a family a family. Evy’s determinedly cultured and almost desperately even approach plays against Nina’s brashness and unabashedly trashy humor. Kristian being a white Swede brings its own disquiets. Even the circumstances of Ronnie’s family connection create issues relating to the noble father’s potential feet of clay. The result is fast-paced, often very funny, sometimes equally wrenching, and a bit like encountering a rubber ball in a small box – bouncing around from surface to surface without ever landing anywhere for long.

The virtual choreography which keeps this from becoming a series of static conversations is beautifully designed by director Phylicia Rashad. Her sense of place and people connects these diverse characters and, with the aid of John Iacovelli’s evocative set, allows them large and small conversations and the intimacies of life in separate but unified spaces. And the performances are uniformly individual and strong.

Shanesia Davis’ upright Evy vibrates with the rigid strength of her upbringing – a sort of seething righteousness – even as it isolates her from the rest of the characters’ innate informality. Kamal Angelo Bolden’s casually happy Tony makes great counterpoint to Davis’ character, and that balance becomes essential. Bryan Terrell Clark gives Jesse a solidly non-stereotypical carriage and a certain playfulness which offsets the serious divisions this character sparks. Cynda Williams provides an egalitarian sense of civilization as Ronnie, the outsider-insider.

The two actual outsiders (at least from a certain perspective) are also the most unlike. Yet, both are catalysts for the necessary explosions which redefine the Bryants themselves. As Nina, the earthy lesbian from next door, J. Nicole Brooks gives a physicality to underlying sexual tensions with a gleeful abandon – an in-your-face counterpoint to the general gentility of the Bryant family. As Kristian, Jesse’s Swedish boyfriend, Mark Jude Sullivan starts out with an almost comical accent, but soon settles into a gentle but confident person determined to not be overlooked.

“Immediate Family” has a charming intimacy, even as it seems to cover a lot of ground rather quickly: religion, mendacity, acceptance, the importance of race, the shadow of a patriarch, all appear in sometimes rapid succession. And yet there are also moments of gentle depth, as the Bryants come gradually to terms with who they are, and how they relate to one-another. And there is laughter – almost constant, healthy laughter over people’s behaviors we cannot help but recognize.

In short, the play is very human. Performed without an intermission it will leave you wanting, truly wishing for, more. Still, what it has to say is apt, and with laughter it manages to get many points
across which might otherwise sink in more slowly. It is certainly worth a look.

What: “Immediate Family” When: through June 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Satudays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25-$85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

The Taper’s “The Price”: The play may have issues, but the acting’s a treat

John Bedford Lloyd and Sam Robards square off in Arthur Miller's The Price at the Taper [photo: Craig Schwartz]

John Bedford Lloyd and Sam Robards square off in Arthur Miller’s The Price at the Taper [photo: Craig Schwartz]


It depends on what matters to you in a theatrical production as to whether Arthur Miller’s “The Price” at the Mark Taper Forum will meet or disappoint your expectations. If you enjoy watching peak-quality actors create and run around in characters created by one of the rarest talents of the 20th century, you’re in for a treat. If you’re looking for greatness in the script itself, well, there is a reason “The Price” isn’t the play which trips off the tongue at mention of Miller’s name.

The tale has two vastly differing segments, divided by an intermission. Both take place in the apartment of a once-influential, rich man who lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Now, in the mid-sixties, he has died, his whole apartment building is due to be razed, and his sons – one the disappointed career cop who helped to support him, the other a successful surgeon who left him behind – must either take or sell what remains of his household goods.

Alan Mandell provides the comedy in The Price [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Alan Mandell provides the comedy in The Price [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The first segment is high on a kind of practical comedy, as Walter, the cop, must joust both with is frustrated wife and with the clever, if ancient Gregory Solomon – the furniture appraiser he has called to bid on the apartment’s contents. The second opens raw wounds, as the surgeon, Victor, appears radiating a sense of command and of the rightness of his more youthful actions. Through it all, Walter’s wife underscores the importance of money in all of this, and in her evaluation of them both.

The true star of the Taper production is Alan Mandell, whose Solomon radiates with the practical combination of earnest wisdom and manipulative coercion which makes for a good salesman. He makes the comedy this character represents organic to the play, a seamlessness far harder than it looks.

Kate Burton is the long-suffering wife [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Kate Burton is the long-suffering wife [photo: Craig Schwartz]

John Bedford Lloyd gives Walter the earnest solidity one expects from a lifelong cop and the seething resentment of a man who feels forced to abandon his own dreams by those who would not abandon theirs. Sam Robards’ Victor embodies the confidence of a man broken by his own success, yet still radiating with an inner focus which makes him appear unbending even as he reaches out. Kate Burton, as the disappointed Esther, makes her a dreamer with practical roots, trying hard to find meaning in a life she did not choose.

Matt Saunders’ surreal yet fascinating set design allows the stage area to shrink into a tiny space where all the characters collide not only with themselves but with the dead father whose innate presence and actions are the elephant in the room. Director Garry Hynes acts as choreographer, moving characters in and out of center focus with the precision of a gavotte, and keeping the whole thing both earnest and to some extent underplayed – a great way to feel the tensions rise.

Still, “The Price” as a play has its flaws, seeming almost two one-acts kind of sewn together. Even so, the performances are so strong they become worth the adventure all by themselves. In particular, a chance to catch Mandell is particularly worth the trip. Last seen at the Taper in “Waiting for Godot,” in a part he originated for Samuel Beckett, he is a remarkable talent proven over an 80-year acting career.

What: “The Price” When: Through March 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave in downtown Los Angeles How Much $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

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