Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Pasadena Playhouse

“American Hero”: Corporations, Abandonment, and Life in Fast Food

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Anna LaMadrid, Laura Mann, and Graham Outerbridge in a rare celebratory moment from Bess Wohl’s American Hero [Photo: Dean Cechvala]

If one had to peg a single theme for the plays I have seen open in the past month, it would be two-fold: the heartlessness of corporate America combined with the innate sense of straight white privilege, and the plight of those the privileged see as underclasses, be they minority cultures, blue collar victims of the evisceration of union power, or simply those trying to get by in the morass of the service economy. The most recent contribution in this regard is IAMA Theatre Company’s production of Bess Wohl’s “American Hero,” now at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre, upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse.

In “American Hero,” a trio of employees are hired to help open a new franchise of a chain sandwich shop in a local mall. When these “sandwich artists” are left to their own devices, abandoned by their supposed owner, their levels of desperation and ingenuity both pour out, leading to a sense of cohesion based on mutual respect which becomes a strong contrast to the corporation which technically controls their futures. The play proves funny, sad, biting and human all at once.

Director James Eckhouse has assembled a strong cast, and a strong sense of cohesion which makes the play come alive. Graham Outerbridge, as Ted, a typical white guy struggling to find a place outside the corporate world he’s been booted from, balances the man’s mental cliches with an undercurrent of vulnerability in ways which make him surprisingly endearing in the long run. Anna Lamadrid gives great credence to Jamie, whose in-your-face sensuality covers up her desperation and family struggles.

Laura Mann’s Sheri radiates a kind of innate practicality which gradually morphs into real strength – all in body language from the person one initially deems the most unlikely to have that inner fire. Add to these Nick Bonanno, who it is difficult to believe is only the understudy for Bob the shop owner, and several other important invaders of the sandwich trio’s space, and you have the complete package of timing, character, intensity of action, and purpose. All on Justin Huen’s impressively realistic set.

Kudos also to Melissa Trn for a company uniform both bland and official-looking, another notch in defining these workers as mere cogs in a machine which has run out of gas. Michael O’Hara’s props become characters, and Edgar Landa’s choreographed violence proves startlingly believable.

Still, what matters most are the people in this tale. Their fears, frustrations and coping skills prove both funny and tragic, as they gradually reinvent both their store and themselves, and – oddly enough – a kind of hope which will power them forward. It is a play worth seeing, filled with images one really needs to put in the back of one’s mind for the next time one walks into a fast food establishment.

What: “American Hero”  When: through October 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays  Where: IAMA, a guest production at The Carrie Hamilton Theatre, upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: $30  Info: (323) 380-8843 or www.iamatheatre.com

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“Native Gardens”: Do Great Performances Balance Uncomfortable Script?

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(L-R) Bruce Davison, Frances Fisher, Jessica Meraz and Christian Barillas in Native Gardens at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]

There is a fine line between humor which skewers privilege and prejudice by making its claims sound as ridiculous as they are, and writing which pronounces the same beliefs and then does a kind of wink to indicate that, really, it was said to be funny. One is reminiscent of, say, “All In The Family,” the other is not. That the latter appears as much as the former in Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse, make it slightly uncomfortable to call the play funny, even though humor is definitely one of its elements. Still, as has happened before, one wonders how many in the audience will find affirmation of their own beliefs rather than what is intended to be laughable.
This is not the fault of the actors, who play the thing to the hilt and thanks to solid direction offer up both timing and structure intended to give the piece its place as a comedy. Still, one is left ambivalent about whether laughing is buying into things one would rather not, or actually an honest response to a good joke.
Pablo and Tania, a young and successful Latinex couple (he’s a lawyer, she’s finishing up her PhD), have just bought a somewhat run-down house in an upper crust neighborhood outside of Washington, DC. Their neighbors, Frank and Virginia, a late-middle-aged white couple with a grown son, have been in their home for a long time, and are stalwart elements of the neighborhood. Frank is semi-retired and an avid gardener. Virginia is a prominent engineer.
As they meet, there seems hope of an easy and neighborly friendship. Then Pablo discovers that the fence all have agreed should be replaced between their two back yards is actually in the wrong place. Some of Frank and Virginia’s yard doesn’t belong to them.
Christian Barillas, as Pablo, embodies the intensity of the young legal mind and the fighting spirit of the up-and-coming immigrant with a genuine sense of impetuous thrill at what he are achieving. Jessica Meraz, as the American-born Tania, voices the claim to nationhood so often necessarily heard by those of Mexican descent whose upbringing has been rooted in the US, balanced against a body language evincing a genuine niceness which wants a peaceful coexistence with those around her, at least most of the time.
Bruce Davison, as the alternately obsessed and unfocused Frank, has terrific and subtle timing which creates great humor even as he utters things which sometimes make one feel guilty laughing. Frances Fisher gives Virginia the intensity of the self-made professional, used to a fight and unwilling to concede as a matter of principle – a woman confident in knowing the people who will help get things done.
Binding these together, in a stroke of genius by director Jason Alexander, is the trio of Julian Armaya, Richard Biglia and Bradley Roa II as gardeners who both move stage elements as the border fight wages on, and provide immensely entertaining announcements of change of date and time of day. These characters’ joie de vivre helps to keep the light touch necessary in a play which becomes increasingly about race, age, and identity in a time when these are such a hot-button issues.
Looked at intellectually, this is a huge metaphor for this nation, its walls, its increasing xenophobia, its war between entitlement and access, and the easy condemnation of one age group by another. As such, it is potent, though the tacked-on ending seems yet another underscoring apology for everything it has otherwise been. Still, it is – on occasion – quite funny, it is beautiful to look at thanks to David Meyer’s terrific garden set, and nobody can argue it isn’t superbly acted. Now if only one didn’t have to wonder if laughing was affirming something one would rather not affirm.
What: “Native Gardens”. When: through September 30, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with one 8 p.m. performance on Tuesday, September 25. Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: prices start at $29. Info: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

When is a Thriller Not a Thriller?: “Belleville” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Thomas Sadoski and Anna Camp in Belleville at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Philicia Endelman]

There is no doubt that Amy Herzog’s “Belleville”, now at the Pasadena Playhouse, has dramatic power, and some extraordinary characters which must be an actor’s dream to perform. In many ways, this is enough to recommend the show to the public. Herzog is a celebrated contemporary playwright and the realism with which she develops her characters is subtly revealing and disturbing by turns, and the play proves engrossing from first to last.

Still, the promotion of this play, new to Los Angeles but nominated for awards during its New York run, as a Hitchcockian thriller does it a disservice, as it sets one up for an atmosphere different from what one receives.

The tale concerns American ex-pats Zack and Abby, who have settled somewhat awkwardly in a marginal part of Paris. Abby comes home early from a job she is failing at to find Zack there as well, rather than at his job working for Doctors Without Borders. From that point on, both their stories begin a gradual unraveling, revealing underlying anger and deception which send both on a wrenching downward spiral. Caught up in this are the far more stable Afro-French couple who manage the building the two Americans are living in, emphasizing the difference between stability and partnership and what the main protagonists are going through.

As character studies, “Belleville” is fantastic. As a thriller, there are far too many “tells” for Hitchcockian surprise, though the play’s characters are so well written one is completely engrossed anyway.

And, as has been said, the performances are extremely good. Anna Camp gives Abby the right mix of ambition, suspicion and frustration as she gradually sheds the artifice which has kept her marriage afloat. Thomas Sadoski, as her husband Zack, walks the fine lines between convention, desperation and immaturity in ways which prove intriguing even as they quietly herald the upheavals to come. Moe Jeudy-Lamour, as the manager who befriends Zack but must now be authoritative handles the struggle of that dichotomy with subltety, while Sharon Pierre-Louis gives his wife a sense of authority and conviction which grounds that couple in ways Zack and Abby will never know.

Director Jenna Worsham gives the play a realism which provides the connective tissue between characters and audience, and a pacing which propels this story forward in ways you cannot look away from. David Meyer’s hyper-realistic set also creates that sense of connection, while Sara Ryung Clement’s costumes help to define the differences between perception and reality in interesting ways.

“Belleville” is wrenching stuff, but fascinating. On the other hand, it is not in the classic sense a thriller, but closer to an unfolding, classic tragedy. There is no sudden turn here, but rather the gradual revelation of the fatal flaws of the main characters. Don’t go expecting Hitchcock, but, if you go, go to see the actors’ art and a commentary on expectation and the nature of love.

What: “Belleville” When: through May 13, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: starting at $25 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

“Pirates” at the Playhouse: Reimagined with Humor and Mayhem

Doug Pawlik as Freddy in Pirates of Penzance at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]

For just over 100 years, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in London produced the comic operas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan just as they had when the company hosted their premieres. But times changed, and they did not. By continuing to do these classic, silly operettas just as they had been produced originally, right down to costume designs and sets, they may have operated as a time capsule, but the world around them gradually passed them by. This is sad, because – as has been amply illustrated at the Pasadena Playhouse – by being innovative, something like “The Pirates of Penzance” can appeal to a new audience.

There, The Hypocrites, an innovative company based in Chicago, has arrived with their version of this charmingly ridiculous show. It is anything but static, either in time or for the audience itself, who not only becomes participant, but must occasionally get up and move out of the way as the small, multi-talented company dances about. To be honest, Gilbert and particularly Sullivan suffer a bit in the process, but the end result is fun, funny, and connected to the contemporary audience this company is trying to reach.

For starters, you won’t recognize the Playhouse itself. Its interior has been transformed into a tropical wharf-like space with bleachers and picnic tables, kiddie pools, a tiki bar, and a pier all of which are occupied by both the audience and the cast who wades through them. The music, originally written for a standard stage orchestra is performed by ten singer-instrumentalists, many of whom play multiple parts and all of whom play one or more of the kind of instruments you can carry around with you, including the accordion, because they are all constantly on the go.

The tale itself is silly but fairly straightforward. Freddy, as he is called here, was apprenticed by accident to pirates at a young age and has now reached his maturity. As such he informs the Pirate King that he wishes to leave and will, sadly, being now loyal to his nation, soon be hunting his former shipmates down as criminals. He is urged to take along with him Ruth, the maid who brought him to the pirates, and who has been the only woman he has ever seen, but Freddy rightfully feels he ought to see what other women look like before agreeing to settle down with Ruth. Then the pirate crew spy the lovely daughters of a local Major General, Freddy falls for Mabel, one of the daughters, and much singing, tension and general fun ensues.

At the Playhouse this is all set as if one was at a beach party on the lake. The audience interacts constantly with the performers, some of whom play several parts (pirates double as the army called in to subdue them, etc.), and the entire proceeding is rather spectacularly fluid.

Standouts in this production include Doug Pawlik as a skinny, earnest Freddy, Dana Omar in the dual role of Ruth (with her gray hair in rollers) and Mabel, and Shawn Pfatsch as the Pirate King. Still, as is always true in this silly thing, the standout is Matt Kahler as the vapid and completely unqualified Major General, in part because he does a superb job with Gilbert and Sullivan’s most ridiculous and ridiculously difficult patter song.

If there is a down side in all of this it comes in two aspects. First, the style of the thing is frenetic, bounding from spot to spot in the performance area and making it sometimes difficult for the uninitiate to tell where to focus next. Second, staging the entire thing basically in the audience space is not necessarily the most advantageous to the sound system. Gilbert’s lyrics and lines are funny and the acoustics muddy the diction, sometimes significantly.

Still, it was fun to watch small children engaging with the performers in the midst of the storyline, and to get a feel for the free-wheeling “get up if you need to, the bar is open, this is a party” spin on the thing. Director Sean Graney and his merry band are most certainly having fun, and that fun is infectious. Nods also to Katie Spelman for the seemingly impromptu choreography. In the end, those who are Gilbert and Sullivan purists must turn back to Queen Victoria’s own response to this when new: “This time… We are amused.”

What: “The Pirates of Penzance” When: through February 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 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: starting at $25 Info: (626) 356-PLAY or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

“King Charles III” – Tradition vs Conscience

Jim Abele as Charles in KING CHARLES III at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]


In order to fully understand the tensions of the play now open at the Pasadena Playhouse, it would be helpful have some background in the last century of the British monarchy. By this I do not mean necessarily that fascination with the soap opera played out in public by the royal family in the last few decades, but the ways in which the monarchy has defined its role – and had that role defined for it – in what is otherwise a strongly democratic parliamentary system. What does it mean that the monarch “reigns but does not rule”?

This proves central to “Charles III”, Mike Bartlett’s examination of the constitutional and emotional conundrum facing the current Prince Charles almost as soon as he takes the throne. He, like all monarchs, must sign every bill passed by the parliament before it becomes law, but this is mostly a ceremonial formality. When one crosses his desk he feels is detrimental to his country’s freedom, what can he do? What should he do? What could any action mean to the delicate balance that is the British system?

What makes all of this particularly delicious is Bartlett’s conscious choice to tell the tale in Shakespearean format. There is a ghost speaking cryptic predictions. There is iambic pentameter. There is a moral dilemma played out in the rich format of formal dialogue. Though, by modern standards, this may make the play seem talky, at the same time it relishes in the echoes of Hamlet and Macbeth – the awesome and terrible load on those who wear the crown.

Jim Abele is Charles, a man who has waited a literal lifetime to attain the only job he has ever been trained for. As such Abele finds the balance of the formality of the job and the character’s deep passion for justice in ways which show both his warmth and his sense of command. Adam Haas Hunter, as William, suddenly a crown prince, emphasizes the stoicism and the festering frustrations of destiny, while Meghan Andrews creates in his wife a sense of command which portends a wrangle over definitions of power. Dylan Saunders’ Harry underscores the frustrating uselessness which is the fate of royal younger sons. Sarah Hollis stands out as the girl who introduces Harry to a reality outside the palace, providing a rounded sense of the real life Harry yearns for.

On the other side of the argument, both powerful and adversarial, is J. Paul Boehmer as the prime minister who finds himself in a tense standoff with a king with his own understanding of his role, the parameters of Britain’s (unwritten) constitution, and the needs of a people he may or may not understand. The resulting questions power the play. Is what the people want always the right thing to do? Is there a safety valve available through the monarchy for unwise governmental action? Are the royal family puppets of political forces who, in truth, find them superfluous?

Director Michael Michetti takes what could be a static and talky script and gives it fascinating legs, in part by bringing it out into the Playhouse audience space. Parliament is on the floor with the patrons, and the almost forbidding palatial spaces of David Meyer’s remarkable set provide the instant formality and distance which define the main conundrums of the piece. This, even by itself, helps move one past the details of British constitutional practice into the humanity of the characters and the fearsome angst of the choices being made.

“King Charles III” is, of course, a fiction. Still, by tying its format and emotional core to Shakespeare’s insightful portraits of former kings both real and imaginary, there is a larger concept at play than just wondering what Charles will be like when and if he ascends the throne. Rather, there is a real, active focus on the monarch’s role to “advise and warn”, and how that works in a world awash in sensational media and quick answers to complex questions. As such, it is a treat for the mind as well as the artistic sense.

What: “King Charles III” When: through December 3, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 8 p.m. Tuesday, November 28, and no performance on Thanksgiving, or at 7 p.m. Sunday, November 26 Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $96 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Make “Our Town” New Again

Deric Augustine and Sandra Mae Frank in Our Town at Pasadena Playhouse.[Photo: Jenny Graham]


When Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” first appeared in 1938, its production was a radical departure from what theater had been up until that time. This intimate portrait of small town New Hampshire at the start of the 20th Century would prove to modern audiences what theater could do that film (and later television) could not: allow the audience to fill in details of setting, props and other physical elements on their own, without elaborate stage trappings. It would celebrate what Shakespeare knew, that the audience was ready to lean upon their own imaginations.

The Pasadena Playhouse has produced this Pulitzer Prize-winning play twice before in its 100 year history. Now, in association with Deaf West Theatre, it has opened again, and – thanks to this collaboration – their new production underscores the essential tenets of stagecraft which made the original such a satisfying departure. Hearing and hearing-impaired performers speak two languages at once (English and ASL), and their individual characters and performance styles meld into a whole Wilder himself would approve of. Good thing, too, for “Our Town” is completely performance-dependent. There is nothing gaudy or distracting to take attention off the actors themselves.

The story covers a few central characters over the course of life in a small town, focused most strongly on George Gibbs and the girl next door, Emily Webb. We watch them and their families as George and Emily grow from childhood friends, to a couple about to marry, and then to the moment Emily’s death closes the circle. We watch them as the “stage manager” (in this case one hearing person and three deaf persons, essentially intertwined) narrates, explains, draws verbal pictures of the larger goings on, and rounds out the town’s sense of community. All of this on a bare stage with a few ropes, a couple of ladders and a host of chairs. It has always been rather revelatory to watch.

Standouts include Jane Kaczmarek, as the stage manager, joined in some cases by Russell Harvard when he’s not playing Emily’s father, sometimes by Alexandria Wailes, when she is not playing George’s mother, and at other times by Troy Kotsur, when he’s not playing the town’s church organist and resident alcoholic. The virtual dance they do in shifting in and out of Kaczmarek’s sphere proves both humorous and fascinating. Kaczmarek herself provides the calm and patient embodiment of the town as a whole, and stands as interpreter of a script she shepherds along. The success of this combination of forces comes to define what works in this production.

Sandra Mae Frank makes a charmingly innocent Emily, aided by the voice of Sharon Pierre-Louis in a way which meshes the physicalized and vocalized lines into a very effective whole. Deric Augustine gives George the gee-whiz attitude of a small-town baseball player shy with girls and earnest in looking forward. Annika Marks makes Emily’s mother practical and loving. Jud Williford makes George’s father humorous and practical.

A remarkable ensemble of Marie-France Arcilla, Harold Foxx, David Gautreaux, Marco Gutierrez, Leonard Kelly-Young, Dot-Marie Jones, Amanda McDonough, Natasha Ofili, Sharon Pierre-Louis, and On Shiu provide the rest of the town, voices for those characters who only sign, and flesh out even the set on occasion. Of these, the true standouts are Foxx, as a milkman with a very opinionated horse, and Jones as a woman from a troubled marriage who still thrills at going to weddings.

Everyone signs. This is important, though (as has been stated elsewhere) a few hearing cast members are brand new to ASL and it sometimes shows in their slowness of speech. On the other hand, the use of sign is a theatrical virtue in itself, as it provides emphasis, enthusiasm, even a sense of prayer or dance to moments which would otherwise just be words. “Our Town” is of necessity talky, and making the talk visual breathes a newness into it all.

Director Sheryl Kaller has experience with this kind of melding, and has taken the universality she sees in this script a step further, including (obviously) those who are hearing and those who are not, but also amassing a cast rich in ethnic and cultural diversity. Choreographer David Dorfman has facilitated the sense of dance that is sign taken as music, as well as moments of movement necessary to the storyline or to this duality of voice.

In the end, what Wilder had to say with this play comes out just as strongly, if not more so, as it did in the original: things change, but not those things that define us. That, joined with a desire to treasure every moment which will not come again, meshed with the impossibility of that very desire as our day-to-day flows by far too quickly. There is a peace and perspective and timelessness to “Our Town” which is important in this fractious and divisive time. Adding together two important but often separate cultures of America – that of the hearing and the deaf – makes a statement as well about what this town, this stage, this nation really has to offer.

“Our Town” is a love song to that which is best in American culture, which we rarely take time to notice. Go. Stop for a while. Notice what’s up on stage, and celebrate what is so important in the unimportant details of life.

What: “Our Town” When: through October 22, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $92 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

“Shout, Sister, Shout”: Awkward, Though Heartfelt Tribute in Pasadena

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Yvette Cason (Mahalia Jackson) and Tracy Nicole Chapman (Sister Rosetta Tharpe) in Shout Sister Shout! at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

If you love classic rock and roll, and have never heard of Sister Rosetta Sharpe, shame on you. Raised in gospel, this woman was a superstar in the 30s and 40s, playing the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall, and inventing a stage presence and guitar style which inspired the likes of Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Elvis. She wrote a lot of her own songs, mixing gospel with a beat considered the precursor of rock.

“Shout, Sister, Shout,” which has just ended its premiere run at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, is supposed to tell her story. It does so by the creaky device of having Sister Rosetta stopped at the pearly gates, told to go save a sad-faced white boy from himself before she can go into Heaven. So, she goes down and recounts snippets of her story to him, sings a lot, and challenges the young man to reach into his own music. What the show really is is a collection of her best numbers, many of them her own, and occasional performances by those she encountered along the way, from church groups to Mahalia Jackson. The snips of life story are then thrown in for effect.

Sadly, the script is stodgy, and so episodic one rarely gets a chance to connect either with Sharpe or with those who interacted with her on the way – many of whom are given one or maybe two lines to indicate they ever existed. The wan young man is more a distraction than anything else, and his sudden heart-wrenching solo at the end, penned for this show by Melissa Manchester, does nothing to enhance Sharpe’s actual story, which should be the focus of the piece.

Tracy Nicole Chapman does bring spunk and zing to Sharpe herself, but she is called upon to play a series of guitars almost all the time, and – if the rather overblown (as in so loud you can’t hear the lyrics) amplification is telling the truth, she rarely actually plays them. This is a problem when one is representing a person especially known for her guitar stylings. If she does, it is simple strumming, rather than the blues guitar Sharpe was known for.

On the other hand, there are moments of great light from Yvette Cason, who manages to play Sharpe’s evangelist mother with a powerful voice and personality, then switch to the stylings of Mahalia Jackson without skipping a beat. Thomas Hobson, Boise Holmes and Armando Yearwood, Jr. form a powerful church-rocking trio, while Michael A. Shepperd (most memorable as the preacher briefly Sharpe’s first husband), and Angela Teek Hitchman (as the partner Sharpe toured with in her happiest period) round out the ensemble. Young Logan Charles, as the lost kid Sharpe is supposed to save, does a reasonable job, though his part is more spur to the next story than anything particularly rounded.

Still, they cannot overcome Cheryl L. West’s hopelessly episodic book, which jumps from image to image with just enough information to spur the next song. The music is good and the stage band makes it better, except that the amps are turned up so high much of the song lyrics – which, in several cases, are expected to move the story along – are completely unintelligible: okay if you already know them, but death to anyone who has come to the show to be introduced to Sharpe for the first time.

There is so much promise of what “Shout, Sister, Shout” could have been that the results proved deeply disappointing. Even the most solid performances seemed to be sitting on a very, very fragile framework. No argument that Sister Rosetta Sharpe was a powerful and fascinating element in the development of American music. One just wishes this show did her justice.

The Originalist: A Spin on Scalia at the Pasadena Playhouse

Note: Though this review appeared online and in print for newspapers of the Southern California News Group, it was not posted here – for various reasons (but mostly the day job getting in the way) – until the day it closed. So, here it is, just as informational writing.

In the opening moments of John Strand’s “The Originalist,” the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is addressing a large group at The Federalist Society. For those who care to look, this is an elegant shorthand about his background. (If you need to know more, check out Jeffrey Toobin’s article in the April 17 copy of The New Yorker, which discusses that organization’s agenda, and its foundational drive to train and raise up originalist conservative judges.) It is also an immediate line in the sand: this man is incredibly secure in his view of the role of the judiciary, and will not be swayed.

Now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse, “The Originalist” offers up a potentially interesting discussion. Scalia has hired a liberal law school graduate to be one of his clerks. Though dismissed by some as a token – liberal, female, and Black – there is some indication that he wants her there so he can hone his own opinion by bouncing it off of the opposition. The playwright assures us that it “is a play about hope.” What the play wants to argue for is the idea of returning to a sense of the middle ground, of compromise. Indeed, by the end of the play, Scalia has actually taken one piece of this intern’s advice on wording. Still, that is not what most of the audience will come away with, for two reasons.

First, the Justice Scalia in the play comes off as a confident, extremely well-versed constitutional scholar willing to use shock language to make his point as he writes dissenting opinions on court rulings with which he fundamentally disagrees. He is quick to skewer those whose opinions don’t match his, in part with intellect, but in great part with a snide quality he takes great relish in. For those within hearing who agree with Scalia’s conservative views, this play thus becomes confirmation of their own views, especially on issues of individual rights. For many who are opposed to his opinions this play may seem an advertisement for a path they see as destructive to progress. Few will actually spend time absorbing the one brief moment of compromise as having much impact.

Second, there is an attempt to humanize Justice Scalia which also seems to jar with the persona one faces through most of the play. His moments of kindness seem pasted on, rather than allowed to become integral to the point at hand – that of being able to hear views not his own without belittling them. Of course, there is some reason for this. This is the man whose tone has been critiqued over time by scholars – not his originalism or his jurisprudence necessarily, but his tone. In the play he acknowledges this, and refers to himself as a monster, satirically but even so there is meat there.

However, though one can argue with the play itself, one cannot argue with the performances. Edward Gero makes such a good Scalia it’s almost spooky. He radiates confidence and that satiric absolutism without ever turning into a cartoon. Jade Wheeler gives the clerk, Cat, all the warmth and complexity that the script’s Scalia lacks, as she reasons her way through a difficult job while also dealing with difficult side issues. Brett Mack makes the insufferable young Federalist Society member and SCOTUS clerk wannabe, Brad, as annoying, and clueless about American social issues, as that sounds. Brad is, perhaps, the play’s only truly two-dimensional character, but Mack gives it what character one can.

Director Molly Smith has given this extremely talky, episodic tale a sense of movement and life which flows seemingly effortlessly from start to finish. Misha Kachman’s minimalist scenic design allows for the quick shifts needed to accomplish Smith’s goals. Indeed, there is craft throughout this piece, which is performed without intermission.

Still, one must look at the takeaway. Antonin Scalia was a complicated man who ended up on the wrong side of many SCOTUS decisions which advanced rights and governmental power in ways he felt were unConstitutional, because he was an originalist. This play does not really explore that complexity, but neither does it achieve its agenda of pushing the viewer toward the view Cat seems to be leaning into: that compromise is possible and all sides should be respected and heard. Certainly, the audience reactions I heard came, rather, from internal confirmation bias in one direction or the other, which is the exact opposite of the play’s intent.

What: “The Originalist” When: This show has closed Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena Info for future shows at the Playhouse: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Madwoman…” Embraces the Midlife Crisis

Caroline Aaron, Sandra Tsing Loh and Shannon Holt in Madwoman In The Volvo at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Caroline Aaron, Sandra Tsing Loh and Shannon Holt in Madwoman In The Volvo at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Author Sandra Tsing Loh has made her name speaking to things many women wrestle with as they grow up and grow older, often with a wry humor which takes the edge off her topics’ occasional edginess. Best known to most Los Angelinos for her quick “The Loh Life” spots on KPCC, Loh has a a larger radio presence nationally, and has published popular books, including the celebrated memoir “The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones.”

Now she has turned that book into a play, just opened at the Pasadena Playhouse. From a trip to the desert and Burning Man, through marital upheavals and the re-sorting of her entire life, the play – a combination of narration and caricature – walks us through the hot flashes, sudden passion shifts and travails of Loh’s entrance into menopause. Often funny, the show also cuts close to the bone, detailing her mother’s retreat into depression, and her own struggles with the emotional wrenches hormonal changes and life changes can bring with them.

The results are mixed. The editing necessary to turn a full-blown memoir into a 90 minute play with no intermission means the tone shifts, particularly at the end, can be jarring. Not the storyline itself, though it is frantically episodic, but the actual tone of the narration – that moment when wry wit won’t do, and yet shift to seriousness meets with resistance. In the end, one can celebrate the performances, which are intense and compelling, but still wish for a bit more work on the script itself.

Joining Loh, who shifts constantly from narrator to participant in her own tale, are Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt, who play absolutely everyone else important to the story line, from gal pals on an adventure, to boyfriends, therapists, and all the other personalities which give this construction its most compelling moments. The sheer versatility of the two, who create individual character after individual character, becomes the focal joy of this production.

Director Lisa Peterson keeps the tale moving, and pacing is key in anything this episodic. Rachel Hauck’s geometric, open set design allows the “setting” to become anything needed, from a coffee house to an RV, simply by dint of audience imagination – another great aid to the pacing and flow of the piece. Indeed all the pieces are there, production-wise.

Yet, that ending still needs work. Yes, the arch tone of the beginning morphs into the seriousness of depression, and there are some issues with that shift, but perhaps most jarring is the almost tacked on upbeat close. Genuine though all its parts are, the final polish still isn’t quite complete. Still, there is much to recommend “The Madwoman in the Volvo” (the term comes from the moment she pulls off the freeway to have a meltdown), and much is very recognizable. And there are Loh’s familiar humorous descriptions, which can make even a session with a couple’s therapist funny in the extreme. It can only get better.

What: “The Madwoman in the Volvo” When: through June 26, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $77, premium seating $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

“Casa Valentina” at the Pasadena Playhouse: Educating an audience in fascinating style

(L-R): Lawrence Pressman, Raymond McAnally, Mark Jude Sullivan, Christian Clemenson (standing), John Vickery and Robert Mammana (standing) in “Casa Valentina” at The Pasadena Playhouse [Photo: Jim Cox]

(L-R): Lawrence Pressman, Raymond McAnally, Mark Jude Sullivan, Christian Clemenson (standing), John Vickery and Robert Mammana (standing) in “Casa Valentina” at The Pasadena Playhouse [Photo: Jim Cox]

The story behind the birth of Harvey Fierstein’s fascinating, historical play “Casa Valentina” makes a good tale all by itself. A collector discovered a box of old photos at a flea market, which initially looked like a group of dressed up women lounging at an upstate New York resort called “Casa Susanna.” Only they weren’t women, but men. When Fierstein was approached to consider making a play from this evidence of a clandestine cross-dressing community, his research increased his fascination, and led to this play.

Set in the earliest 1960s, “Casa Valentina” explores the specific and at the time secret world of cross-dressing men – that is, men who feel attracted to and comfortable in women’s clothing, make-up, etc. These are often men who are happily married, have kids, and are otherwise completely connected to mainstream culture, but still have a need to take on this separate persona on occasion. Misunderstandings and gray areas were and are a part of the mix, however. In a time period when not only homosexuality (though by and large cross-dressers have not identified as gay) but even dressing inappropriately for one’s gender were illegal in many states, such issues were also dangerous.

Now receiving its west coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, and gifted with an extraordinarily versatile cast, “Casa Valentina” explores much of this as we visit a fictitious 1962 Catskills retreat run by George (also known as Valentina) and his wife Rita. Along with their usual “sisterhood” of clientele, a nationally important leader of a rights movement has come to recruit an east coast chapter of her/his new nonprofit organization. This brings some unexpected baggage, heightens tensions among the group, and creates much of the drama of the piece.

There are two elements which most directly make this play work well. First and foremost is Fierstein’s ability to create rich, humorous, rounded characters who can open worlds to his audience. His is a gift not unlike Neil Simon’s: the ability to say something serious, yet inject humor at just the right moments to keep that serious focus from becoming maudlin. Second has to be the seamless ensemble of an adventurous cast. Each of the men make remarkable work of their transitions, not just in dress but in carriage and style.

Robert Mammana proves pivotal as George, whom we watch move in and out of his alter-ego, all the while carrying a nervous energy founded on George’s legal and economic problems. As the wise-cracking Albert/Bessie, Raymond McAnally radiates the joy of a man totally comfortable with embracing his female side in an atmosphere of acceptance. Mark Jude Sullivan vibrates with practicality as George/Valentina’s friend Michael/Gloria. Lawrence Pressman offers the long view as the older, specifically genteel and gently open-minded Theodore/Terry. John Vickery’s commanding judge, and wary Amy, each underscore many of the themes of the piece.

Robert Mammana and Valerie Mahaffey as the complex couple running the resort

Robert Mammana and Valerie Mahaffey as the complex couple running the resort

Still, perhaps the most fascinating characters have to include James Snyder’s careful neophyte, as his character Jonathan takes on the persona of Miranda for the first time. As activist, even zealot Charlotte/Isadore, Christian Clemenson makes an extremely convincing middle-aged woman – a point of which her character is very proud. As the center of the self-created storm which powers the piece, this is essential. Also fascinating, and poignant, is George’s wife Rita, played with a wry wistfulness by Valerie Mahaffey. Indeed, it is her dilemma at play’s end which brings the struggles of all involved into particular focus.

Director David Lee truly “gets” all these characters and their sense of need, emphasizing a sense of normality and humanness throughout. This in turn allows the themes of the play to air without the potential tensions which could be associated with any less genuine approach. Tom Buderwitz has outdone himself with the show’s set, which rotates from outside to porch to inside, and displays upstairs and down, as men transform and socialize, get silly and get drunk, and enjoy being themselves. Kate Bergh has created costumes which enhance the characters of individuals and emphasize the time period with seeming effortlessness.

What proves most engrossing, by the end, is this entire hidden society of straight men whose unique predilection left them as much in the closet as any other living outside what society thought of as a norm. Within all of this the concept of intolerance, and the forms it can take even within a culture hiding from the world, leaves one absolutely fascinated. For this we have Harvey Fierstein, a long-since disappeared Camp Susanna, and a box of old photos to thank.

What: Casa Valentina When: Through April 10, 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: $25 – $77, plus premium seating at $125 Info: http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org or (626) 356-7529

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