Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Mark Taper Forum

“Valley of the Heart” at the Taper: Solid Script (Mostly) But Uneven Performance

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The two families whose interdependence becomes essential in Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart,” now at the Mark Taper Forum

As someone who has taught history for a few decades, there is no doubt that the ugliness of the Japanese Internment is one of the several inexcusable black marks on our American story. At a time when the fate of immigrants and refugees has been put into question by some elements of government yet again, it is good to go back and look at the ugliness of the past, if only to warn and mobilize those in the present.

From a theatrical standpoint, what matters is how this is addressed. Should it be a history lesson, a polemic, or a smaller, human story which underscores the wrenching effects of a historic wrong? In Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart,” now at the Mark Taper Forum, this last proves far more powerful than some of the other recent attempts to refocus our collective memory on the concentration camps on US soil where people were held for the simple sin of being of Japanese descent.

The script is strong, most of the time – more consistently engaging and personal than many of Valdez’s works. The production is as well. A couple of performances, and an awkward tacked-on ending mar this piece, and they do so in ways which pull one out of the story and jeopardize the very empathy the play otherwise engenders.

The play is the story of Japanese farm family in what is now the Silicone Valley just as World War II begins, and the Mexican family living on their property, helping them work the land. Both fathers are immigrants, struggling to balance their old traditions with the changing world their children inhabit. They are proud, if reluctantly interdependent men fashioning an American life.

When Benjamin Montaño falls for Thelma Yamaguchi, it flies in the face of all those family expectations. Thelma is in line for an arranged marriage with her brother’s roommate at Cal, and between cultural disconnects and lack of independent income, Benjamin has little chance. Then Pearl Harbor changes everything.

With the Yamaguchi’s farm in jeopardy, and arrests and internments looming, the young couple elopes, but then must cope with Benjamin’s agreement to keep the farm going while his wife is shipped off with her family to a desolate area of Wyoming. How the two families experience war, changing status, and the sheer unreasonableness of their lives’ shifts makes history come alive.

As Benjamin, Lakin Valdez shows passion, character, and pain as he grows into responsibilities beyond what he expected. Melanie Arii Mah gives Thelma the awkward stance of someone rooted both in American culture and the traditions and rigid roles of her parents’ world.

Likewise, the two mothers – Joy Osmanski as Thelma’s, and Rose Portillo as Benjamin’s – have an authenticity in their portraits of women deeply concerned for their families and wrenched by the choices made. Also worthy of note are Justin Chen as the Yamaguchi’s college student son, Moises Castro as the teenaged younger son of the Montaños, and Scott Keiji Takeda as the privileged city boy arranged to marry Thelma.

Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between these other naturalistic and connected performances and that of Christy Sandoval, as Benjamin’s younger sister, and Randall Nakano as Thelma’s father. Both seem more rooted in the implied tradition of Kabuki, speaking their lines with an artificial, bombastic quality which simply doesn’t fit the rest of the production, at least until Nakano’s has a health issue which must be treated more naturally. Granted, there are other hints of Kabuki, including Mariela Arteaga and Michael Naydoe Pinedo’s work as Kurogo – the anonymous persons in black who handle prop and set changes and (at least in this case) provide the occasional necessary extra character in the story. Still, Sandoval and Nakano interrupt the rhythm and reality of the play.

One is surprised at this, given that the playwright is also the director. His long history with El Teatro Campesino (an associated producer of this piece) means he is no neophyte at directing, and this is his play to interpret and work into a cohesive whole. What works so well most of the time trips up on these two performances.

Still, there is much to recommend here. The use of shðji screens and projected environments by scenic designer John Iacovelli, especially when combined with the representational actions of the Kurogo, make for powerful visuals and set the tone for the struggles within. Lupe Valdez’s costumes set the period and economic structures with subtle ease.

And, of course, there is the terrifically important tale of two immigrant cultures in California, and their joint response to the terrible inequalities of their time. As such it proves particularly powerful, and rather hopeful.

What: “Valley of the Heart” When: through December 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 8 p.m. Monday, November 19 (and no performance on Thanksgiving). Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $99. Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org Read more of this post

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Powerful “Sweat” – Rust Belt Anguish on Tap

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Mary Mara and Portia are shop floor pals facing an uncertain future in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” at the Mark Taper Forum

The Pulitzer Prize for drama is given, when it is given, for a piece of theater which reflects something elemental to understanding an aspect of American culture. Rarely has that seemed a more apt designation than the 2017 prize handed to playwright Lynn Nottage for “Sweat.” A portrait of the disintegration of the traditional manufacturing towns of the midwest, it answers for the uninitiate multiple questions about the elements of malaise which have infected that part of the country, from amplified racism to opioid abuse. That it does so without preaching or reaching for easy answers, and with considerable humor, makes “Sweat” a gift to watch.

The play is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the struggles between union and management have led to at least one long-extended walkout, and – at another factory – tensions are simmering regarding the future of an industry which has generationally been a definition of life in the town. At the neighborhood bar, where both the longtime connections and current tensions are liberally amplified by alcohol, a picture of a town wrestling with coming to terms with crisis, looking for escape, and searching for someone to blame are narrowed down to a few shop-floor friends.

The powerfully ensemble cast ably peels gradual layers off their characters to illustrate the dissolving of veneer caused by the ripped expectations and sense of powerlessness the sea change in their community brings. Mary Mara, Portia, and Amy Pietz center the play as the three factory-floor friends whose unified sense of identity is tested and torn by issues of addiction, race, and ambition as the union-corporation conflict grows. As the sons inheriting the disaster, Grantham Coleman and Will Hochman create young men whose actions frame the storyline and thread the rest of the play together.

Michael O’Keefe, as the injured factory worker now tending bar, provides a link to the working man’s heritage. John Earl Jelks offers up the increasing degradation of a people too proud of that heritage to accept its lessening impact. Peter Mendoza creates the outsider character whose choices underscore what the others have lost, bringing out the casually ugly side of this insular community. Kevin T. Carroll, as a probation officer, becomes the occasional guide through the tragedies to come.

Director Lisa Peterson has created a pacing and a visual presence for the play which underscores the disconnect between the world of the characters and the world outside. Using Yee Eun Nam’s excellent projections and Paul James Prendergast’s evocative sound design and original music, drama happens on Christopher Barreca’s remarkably evocative set even when the characters aren’t onstage. The pacing is clean, seamless and keeps the tension building as it should, even as it makes room for the necessary and very human moments of humor which make these people real. Emilio Sosa’s costumes absolutely define character differences, sending messages in visual shorthand.

Still the best of this is that all the above operate in service of a truly important play. What one can hope is that many who see “Sweat” will finally have that “aha moment” when they begin to understand – not embrace necessarily, but understand – in a more visceral way the terrible boiling pot of racial tensions, abandonment sentiments, and destroyed expectations which have led to some of the ugliest current scenes in our country. There are no solutions offered up here, as that would be too easy, but the final scene does offer some hope if people can come back to their better selves. One can only hope that some do.

What: “Sweat”. When: through October 7, 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 1 p.m. performance Sept 30)  Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $99  Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Unpacking the Baggage: “Water by the Spoonful” at the Taper

L-R: Josh Braaten, Sean Carvajal, Keren Lugo and Luna Lauren Vélez in “Water by the Spoonful” at the Mark Taper Forum. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Water By The Spoonful,” just opened at the Mark Taper Forum, continues the legacy of her “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue”, now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Elliott, honorably discharged from the Marines after being wounded in Iraq, has lost the woman who raised him to cancer – the woman he considers his mother – works a minimum wage job, and is haunted by the image of an Iraqi man uttering a phrase in Arabic. This is where we begin.

Elliot’s search for family connection, those family members’ search for roots or redemption, and the wider circle of people who influence those yearnings provide the story of this play. Clues to these people’s vital, and sometimes vitriolic, interconnectedness build gradually, and often painfully, in ways defined as much by the performers as by the script itself. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has her focus on their elemental isolation, and the devastating effect of the lost or sacrificed links to humanness.

Sean Carvajal plays Elliot as far more of a street kid than his counterpart at the Douglas – reactionary and emotional, and more youthful (which is odd, as it takes place a few years after the previous play). Still, it works as a contrast to the cousin who is also his closest friend. Keren Lugo’s Yazmin – an adjunct professor desperate to keep family traditions and connections – uses a scholarly calm to balance Elliott’s passionate intensity in ways which obviously set her up as the new family core, now that her favorite aunt is gone.

Nick Massouh provides the definition for the terrors Elliott can’t move past, as both the ghost of his dreams and the professor who translates the Arabic phrase the ghost repeats throughout the play.

Running a concurrent, then intertwined narrative with Elliott’s, Luna Lauren Velez makes understated work of Odessa, another aunt of Yazmin’s, and the web mistress of a chat site for recovering meth addicts. It works in a low-key way which heightens the tremendous angst at the play’s close. As another recovering addict on the site, Orangutan, Sylvia Kwan’s immaturity and conflict balance well against Chutes&Ladders, played by Bernard K. Addison as the calming, if overly self-protective member of the group.

As Fountainhead, the overblown nom de plume for the newest list member – a man still in denial of his powerful need for crack – Josh Braaten is awkwardly pompous, a trick in part of the script but greatly a matter of manner. This makes him difficult for the onstage group and the audience to connect to, which is, of course, the point.

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has splayed these personalities across Adam Rigg’s broad and eclectic set. It works for the most part, until the last scenes, when the introduction of a bathtub seems disconnected from any of the spaces one has encountered, making it somewhat inexplicable.

Still, in the end, what one comes away with in this version of this production is almost a voyeuristic sense of watching train wrecks happen in slow motion. Secrets spew, fears capture, sorrows are huge, and disconnects are potent. That this is, indeed, a portrait of America (hence the Pulitzer Prize) says a great deal about the actual American experience. That this portrait is as recognizable as it is speaks to the undercurrent of our national identity in a way which is tragic, human and very real.

What: “Water by the Spoonful” When: through March 11, 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 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Rashad Shines in “Head of Passes” at the Taper

Phylicia Rashad in “Head of Passes” at the Mark Taper Forum

Every once in a while one comes across a performance which may outweigh the play it takes place in. In this case, a good play becomes greater because of one person who takes a playwright’s words and their own and their director’s understandings and makes of them something much more than the sum of those parts. This is Phylicia Rashad in “Head of Passes,” now open at the Mark Taper Forum.

In Tarell Alvin McCraney’s modern spin on trials worthy of Job, a woman’s plans for a quiet conversation with her children about her tenuous future implodes in ways she could never expect, testing her faith in ways that leave her arguing with God in a setting Noah might recognize. If all this sounds terribly religious, that’s not the only way to read the play. Still, the central character’s faith powers her responses, the affect she has had on those around her, and her eventual self-revelations in ways that would not be as palpable otherwise.

Rashad is Shelah, the matriarch of a family which has gathered at her house near the Head of Passes (where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico) to celebrate her birthday, whether she wants a celebration or not. There, on an island in the delta, and with a storm lashing at the house, she had hoped instead to quiety discuss her assets with her children before her obvious illness takes over. Those who populate her world – a neighbor, a doctor, a helper and his son, and her own children – gather, fight, fuss over the house’s increasingly decrepit condition, anything but have that discussion. As the storm worsens, so do the revelations. And that is just the start.

As Shelah, Rashad creates that recognizable form of devout woman, talking to, appealing to, and venting anger at the God she has trusted to uphold her over a long life. When, in the end, she must confront her own failings and what they have wrought, the play becomes both riveting and gut wrenching. It’s a truly tour-de-force performance.

In this she is aided by a solidly ensemble cast. Francois Battiste gives the successful son, Aubrey, the kind of confidence of carriage to match a character quick to judgement, whether it be about his mother’s future or his sister’s past. J. Bernard Calloway, by contrast, plays Spencer, the elder but less successful son as a man who, despite bluster, is used to falling short, despite his physical capabilities.

Jacqueline Williams gives Shelah’s contemporary and neighbor the observer’s voice, trying to assess Shelah’s house of cards even as it falls, while – in a brief but deeply important moment – Alana Arenas, as the daughter, delivers a portait of pain and a reality check on her mother’s dreams whichc fuels all that follows. John Earl Jelks makes Shelah’s helper a man of considerable wit but little tact, while Kyle Beltran offers up youthful anger and observation as his son. James Carpenter rounds out the cast as the doctor, whose casual moments of white privilege bring both laughter and sadness.

Director Tina Landau truly gets these characters, and makes the nearly poetic language of McCraney’s script, and the amazing special effects of G.W. Mercier’s remarkable set, seem like normal life and conversation. The tensions never let up, and the symbolism, including the symbolic physicality of it all, is its own work of art.

Still, in the end, what makes all of this something one simply must see is the performance of Rashad, whose final, extensive monologue will stick with you, regardless of what or if you believe in regards to a higher power. There is much to chew over, followed by a step back to look at all the richness of idea and symbol the play has surrounded that powerful moment with.

What: “Head of Passes” When: through October 22, 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 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“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

“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

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