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Funny, Deeply True “With Love and a Major Organ”: the necessary human touch

Daisuke Tsuji & Paige Lindsey White in “With Love and a Major Organ” at Boston Court [Photo: Jenny Graham]

Recently, as part of an assignment at a nearby public high school, students experimented at a local mall to see what people their age would do if a stranger (also their age) came up to try to engage them in conversation. Over and over, the subjects of their experiment would look down at their phones – use their electronic social network to avoid talking to a real person. Interestingly, that was the expected result, according to the teens.

In some ways, this same concept is reflected in “With Love and a Major Organ,” now at The Theatre at Boston Court. Isolation as safety, distance as lifestyle, and electronic communication as the only social contact are the norms as the play opens. Then a woman on a subway makes contact with a man safe in his isolation, and begins sending him long, poetic outpourings of enthusiastic interest, by way of acknowledgedly outmoded cassette tapes. The results are funny, insightful, and end up saying much more about the heart and human interaction than simply being a quirky, poetically symbolic love story.

Paige Lindsey White is the subway rider, giving her a physicality as effusive as her prose, and a depth of enthusiasm which one discovers has been contagious when it suddenly disappears. Daisuke Tsuji is George, the young man whose detached and regimented life White’s character is bent on reforming. Tsuji manages to make the young man distant and passive while still giving him a directness and sense of self. The two play off against each other in ways which make the central themes of the play come alive.

Still, some of the funniest moments come thanks to Bonita Friedericy, as George’s mother Mona. The character, having protected her son from heartbreak as he grew, finds herself reaching out without reaching out: using the computer as a distance-maker for everything from romance to psychology. As she and the other two characters perform an intricate dance of feeling and separation, empathy and distance, enthusiastic embracing of the world and deadened indifference to input, they illustrate – in fascinatingly, symbolically graphic ways the complexity of the human heart.

Director Jessica Kubzansky has a feel for such sweetly intricate plays, never letting the frothy surface obscure the important elements running just underneath. Her utilization of Francois-Pierre Couture’s scenic structure, simple in style, rich in animations underscoring the many moods of the piece, adds to the otherworldly ordinariness of the enterprise. In the process the humanity of it all takes center stage: the innate need for connection which is how we as a species become whole.

Playwright Julia Lederer’s play, which debuted in Canada in 2012, was prescient when it comes to some of the details of our modern social media-based existence. The stolid character’s mother, having protected her son from heartbreak as he grew, connects to a computerized psychologist through Google, and tries speed dating through fairly anonymous websites. Both are now actually possible in ways they were not when Lederer thought them up.

Plus, the need for connection and the ways technology has created the ability to avoid it are here as well. Those high school students confirmed it, at least for their own generation. What then could be more important than seeing a play like “With Love and a Major Organ,” with its insistence that one’s heart, in real time, is central to everything.

What: “With Love and a Major Organ” When: Through November 5, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (except October 15) and Saturday, October 14 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 Info: (626) 683-6801 or

“Pygmalion” at the Playhouse – A Master’s Masterpiece Shines

The impressive cast of the Pasadena Playhouse's "Pygmalion" [photo: Jim Cox]

The impressive cast of the Pasadena Playhouse’s “Pygmalion” [photo: Jim Cox]

It is fascinating how a play can become so familiar one can forget where it came from. Certainly, everyone knows that they know George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but mostly because most have seen “My Fair Lady,” the highly romanticized musical (later film) based on the play. Yet, the original play was not about romance, but about societal equality and intellectual independence. Now, at the Pasadena Playhouse, one can experience a profound and polished production of Shaw’s original play, as originally written. For those sure they are familiar with the piece, this can prove revelatory.

Of course the play – whose name comes from the Greek myth of a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation – has a general plot which needs little explanation. The obnoxiously spoiled, and rather childish linguistics expert Henry Higgins, aided by the somewhat fusty Col. Pickering, takes on the task of transforming one Eliza Doolittle, a cockney street vendor, into a young lady who can pass as a duchess at a society event. What he doesn’t count on is Eliza’s intellect and free will, and her determination not to be seen as an object. In the end, the play becomes a condemnation of the image of women in late Victorian society – one which resonates remarkably clearly into the 21st Century.

Director Jessica Kubzansky has chosen to go back to the original script, leaving off later additions of embassy balls and semi-romantic returns. This is, frankly, extremely satisfying, as I have personally rebelled against the ending given in “My Fair Lady” since I first saw it on stage as a pre-teen. Shaw’s best works are often intellectual discussions with a plot, and here the complex and immensely satisfying battle of wits between Eliza and Higgins gets to stand on its own, making the point Shaw was actually out to make. That makes the play important again.

Paige Lindsey White makes a convincing Eliza. Her body language changes subtly as she matures, and her beauty proves equally subtle: a sharpness softened by care and carriage. This makes the transformation particularly satisfying, and (despite an English professor long ago who claimed it impossible) quite convincing. Bruce Turk makes Higgins both articulately intellectual and ridiculously childish – more a brat than a hermit. It works wonderfully well, adding a layer of comedy a more grounded character could not. Stan Egi gives Col. Pickering a decidedly unaware feel, as if he exists mostly on manners rather than intellectual rigor. All three give a lovely balance to the entire production.

Also worthy of high praise are Ellen Crawford, far less shockable and far more fatalistically practical than usual as Higgins’ housekeeper. Time Winters makes Eliza’s father less goofy and far more disturbed by his change of fortunes, and it works. Most particularly, Mary Anne McGarry gives an aura of wisdom and worry – the articulate view of a woman with a deep understanding of the limitations of womanhood – as Higgins’ mother. Alex Knox and Carolyn Ratteray each have deeply comic moments as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and his sister Clara, while Lynn Milgrim, as their mother, becomes symbolic of the comparatively piteous condition of a poor and widowed society woman.

Still, the unifying force and the significant vision are Kubzansky’s. She takes characters which can easily become prosy, and meshes them into an interesting blend of attitudes and desires one can truly connect with. Pacing and understanding flow easily – and that’s saying something when one speaks of Shavian works.

Stephanie Kerley Schwartz has created an elemental set which moves swiftly from scene to scene, allowing the flow of what is essentially an episodic tale to become remarkably even. Leah Piehl’s costuming holds fairly true to the period, and provides subtle personality clues along the way.

In short, this “Pygmalion” gets it right, start to finish. This play rarely has a chance to stand on its own, and project the message Shaw was trying to get across. This time, it does, and that is pure delight for anyone who loves a good intellectual argument.

What: “Pygmalion” When: Through April 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $30 – $75, with premium seating at $125.00 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

Cutting out the Clutter: “R II” reimagines one of Shakespeare’s hidden treasures

The cast of "R II" at Boston Court

The cast of “R II” at Boston Court

This production has been extended through October 27, 2013

As I – and many others – so often say, one of the most fascinating things about seeing new productions of Shakespeare’s plays comes from the very familiarity of the works themselves. Directors do not feel, as a rather staid British friend once claimed, that all the Bard’s plays must be performed in doublet and hose. Far from it. Doing Shakespeare is a license to be extraordinarily creative. His works’ longevity, in truth, comes largely from three things which transcend time: complex characters, universally human themes, and rich, gorgeous, profoundly expressive language. These are elements one can gleefully, well, play with.

Which brings me to the much-honored Jessica Kubzansky, co-artistic director of The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena, and self-proclaimed Shakespeare freak. In love with the comparatively obscure history play, “Richard II” – a fount of rich, introspective poetry on the subject of increasing self-awareness – she decided to rework the thing. By losing the host of extraneous historical personages, she has honed the play down to the meat of the tale: a man left immature and selfish by his upbringing who is brought to full understanding of adulthood by the disaster his acts bring upon himself.

And thus, “R II”. Kubzansky has reedited the play into a series of flashbacks, as the doomed Richard ponders his fate and what brought him there. And she has honed the cast of 33 named persons and assorted underlings down to three individuals. One plays Richard. The other two play the 12 other people essential to the plot. Some necessary dialogue from others has been handed to the 12, some to Richard. Stripped of its finery and its crowds, this intimate piece becomes an extraordinary celebration of those very things mentioned above: character, humanity, and articulate speech.

Then she has set the thing in Kaitlyn Pietras’ minimalist, yet surprisingly evocative set, with projections of essential lines of dialogue occasionally pounding the back of the room as sound designer John Zalewski’s whispering crowds mutter in your ear. Jenny Foldenauer’s all-purpose black costumes, festooned now and again with just enough to create individual personages, allow for quick character shifts and – as does everything else – divorces the audience from the drapery and pomp of an ordinary production of one of the history plays. All attention is therefore on the essentials: the king.

John Sloan creates a Richard who shifts over the course of the production from callow youth to an achingly doomed wisdom, yet remains essentially ordinary – less than imposing even in an ornate crown. He is never really offstage during the entire two hours or so of the production, and his commanding use of Shakespearean dialogue in the process of Richard’s gradual metamorphosis keeps the show alive.

Two people, 12 characters

Two people, 12 characters

Paige Lindsey White, playing five parts but most particularly Richard’s nemesis Henry of Bolingbroke, and Richard’s Queen Isabel, commands varieties of body language and vocal tone to shift us from character to character with a conviction which carries the audience with her quite seamlessly. Beyond that, she manages to imbue these very differing people with their own rounded passions, drives and griefs. Fascinating to watch.

Likewise Jim Ortlieb is called upon to create a total of seven persons, all of whom are fairly elemental to the storyline. Ortlieb is at his best when operating outside Richard’s family circle, either as Thomas Mowbray startled at the king’s double-dealing, as the fascinatingly spun John Bushy whose portrayal colors the entire production, or the Bishop of Carlisle stuck between history and doctrine. On the other hand, perhaps the one weakness of this startlingly good production (and it is more an issue with the script than this performer) comes as Ortlieb is asked to keep various of Richard’s kin separate, all of whom come from the same rank, concern, and general attitude.

Still, that takes little away from “R II.” The poetry – some of Shakespeare’s best – is retained. I admit Richard’s speech in defeat, “let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings…” is one of my favorite, if one of the gentlest of the Bard’s poetic lines. Here it stands out more than usual because of the focus on Richard alone. If Shakespeare intrigues you, and particularly if you have never met “Richard II” onstage, this is one to see.

What: “R II” When: Through October 13, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, plus 8 p.m. Wednesday October 2 and 9 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, with senior and student discounts Info: (626) 683-6883 or

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