Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Sean T. Cawelti

Science Made Silly: “Einstein for Dummies” sings for kids

Katie Hotchkiss as Elsa, Jonathan Brett as Albert [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

Katie Hotchkiss as Elsa, Jonathan Brett as Albert [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

Last year Sierra Madre Playhouse embarked on a new endeavor: creating theatrical material suitable for school children’s weekday matinees. Last year it was “Battledrum,” an original work tackling the Civil War through the eyes of a pre-teen drummer. This year they have opted for a comparatively tried-and-true production, with the same object. For this they have chosen Karen Zacarias and Deborah Wicks La Puma’s “Einstein is a Dummy,” which tries in a fictional way to make the young and odd Alfred Einstein (and his underlying genius) approachable.

In another break from SMP tradition, this show will play in a sort of repertory: Battledrum for matinees, even on weekends, and “Putting It Together,” a salute to Sondheim opening this coming weekend, for evenings. It’s a solid choice, as “Einstein” is definitely for the pre-pubescent set.

The tale involves the young Albert – a violinist at this point – and Elsa, his friend and fellow odd person out. They are joined by Constantin, the bully of the piece, whose cello seems to represent his ego. For Einstein the world is fascinating – so fascinating it is simple to forget to practice, to bring dressier clothes for a recital, or even to listen the music teacher whose ridiculous last name is intended to elicit children’s giggles. Yet, as he ponders his world, a cat only he can see (Shrodinger’s?) encourages his wonder and his constant urge to find descriptors for the unseen.

Zacarias and Wicks La Puma are central figures in TYA, or Theater for Young Audiences, and several of their musicals are part of the children’s theatre canon, “Einstein…” especially. At SMP their work is presented by two separate casts, since many of the performances are on weekdays, intended for bus-loads of elementary school kids, and thus conflicting with many actors’ day jobs.

On opening night, The Proton Cast, as opposed to The Electron Cast, showed off the show’s best attributes, aided by Sean T. Cawelti’s elaborate video displays on Sarah Krainin’s deceptively simple set. Jonathan Brett created an Einstein both earnest and obliviously optimistic. His eyes are to the universe and snippy humans are mere distractions most of the time. Katie Hotchkiss gives Ella the warm understanding which makes for lasting friendship with a social odd-ball. Indeed, she embraces his views of the universe with a complimentary intelligence in a script determined to state that girls also like science.

Thomas Anawalt tackles the comparatively two-dimensional bully Constantin with a flare which makes him weirdly lovable, while Conor Lane makes absolutist music teacher Herr Scholoppnoppdinkerdonn a figure of comic rigidity. As the cat who spurs Einstein to think outside the box, and to stick to his theories, Molly Gilman has a ball. Freed from any possible social conventions, she can give attitude, have intellectually stimulating conversations, or just be a cat. It all seems meant.

Of course, any show about Einstein is going to have to embrace his classic equation. Here it is celebrated, but not really explained all that much. Perhaps one of the goals of the piece, other than showing that elementary school oddities who don’t fit well into society may become great thinkers, is to introduce E=MC2 to an audience who, when they meet it again in high school physics will already know without knowing that E is energy, M is mass, and C is the speed of light. A cute song emphasizes this, even if the larger implications are left for an older teacher to explain.

Director Derek Manson has kept the show light and airy, and rather silly, which is important when trying to reach a young audience. The musical director is the composer, which gives a strong emphasis to the songs which, if not memorable in the long run, make the production fun in the short term.

The show is short, lasting little over an hour. That’s just the right length for a class on a field trip. It’s also a good Sunday afternoon adventure, for people who know of kids who would enjoy a spate of children’s theater. Take advantage, as this is one of the musicals for kids people genuinely celebrate.

What: “Einstein is a Dummy” When: Through April 12, weekdays for scheduled school groups, 2:30 p.m. Sundays for the general public Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 Seniors, $15 Youth 13-21, $12 Children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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Witches Rule the Dark in A Noise Within’s “MacBeth”

Elijah Alexander is the ill-fated "MacBeth" at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Elijah Alexander is the ill-fated “MacBeth” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Like any big Shakespeare fan, I collect productions of “MacBeth.” This dark and cynical tale contains some of the Bard’s finest language, and its focus on the rapidity with which ambition can overtake ethics certainly resonates in our modern world. Besides, its mystical aspects provide a rich canvas for a good director. What form shall the witches take? How shall the superstitions inherent in the piece be incorporated into the larger play?

Now, at A Noise Within in Pasadena, director Larry Carpenter has set his play in no time and every time, where swords occasionally compete with pistols and modern military garb blends with 15th century armor. In the midst of it all, three amorphous characters take on most of the “minor” roles – servants, doctors, murderers – when not embodying the witches who spark the madness. It’s great entertainment, with its aura of doom and its constant physical engagement with the audience. Even some of those scenes which often become awkward have a consistency of vision which pull them into the spookiness of the whole.

Elijah Alexander is MacBeth, making him a likable man, but a man of physicality – easily manipulated by desires, whether for his honor, his wife, or power – not a man to ruminate on consequences before it is too late. Jules Willcox steams as his lady, radiating a passion which moves MacBeth to murder, yet is not going to be able to control the resulting whirlwind which puts him largely beyond her reach. As these two collide with and repel each other, the rest of a strong cast rounds out the story of their whirlwind.

Matt Orduna’s solidly noble Duncan plays well against MacBeth’s lighter-weight sensibility. Leith Burke’s Banquo becomes the image of the stalwart, if admittedly somewhat ambitious friend, until he is undone. David DeSantos’s resolute, wise MacDuff, gradually working to right the ship of Scotland, echoes Duncan’s nobility and intelligence. Feodor Chin, as that odd combination of wisdom and changeable nature, Duncan’s son Malcolm, makes his vagaries almost make sense. Katie Pelensky and Theo Taplitz, as MacDuff’s doomed wife and son, create a moment of light and home in the midst of the terror.

Amin El Gamal is a witch and a very creepy servant in A Noise Within's "MacBeth" [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Amin El Gamal is a witch and a very creepy servant in A Noise Within’s “MacBeth” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Still, it is the witches who give the play its focus and fascination. Amin El Gamal, Thom Rivera and Jeremy Rabb create the rich foreboding and mystery which elevates this production, not only in their initial roles but as many other smaller elements – a necessity when spreading 28 major and minor characters among a cast of 17. They also effectively underscore how central the idea of the evil is to everything in MacBeth’s life, as, for example, they enhance the often badly handled “dagger I see before me” speech in a way both literal and spooky. Standout in all of this is El Gamal’s truly creepy androgynous servant, who can make one’s skin crawl as a complicit voice of doom.

Carpenter’s use of ghosts – not just that of Banquo, but the gradually swelling host of MacBeth’s silent, observing victims – emphasizes the sense of doom, and underscores the madness of the storyline. It’s a great concept.

The witches, with puppet enhancements [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The witches, with puppet enhancements [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Their otherworldliness as witches is aided by Sean T Cawelti’s fascinatingly simple, yet creepy bits of puppetry. Susan Gratch’s facile platform of a set and evocative lighting set the tone of dark portents. Jenny Foldenouer’s fanciful costuming allows both the swift-change aspects of the witch characters and the quick definition of everyone else.

In short, from the consistency of tone to the layered portraits to the clever and facile use of witches, this “MacBeth” is a treat. By paring down the often overwhelming volume of persons onstage, the central characters stand out more brightly, and the point is more effectively made. In short, it’s a finely crafted production worthy of sold-out audiences, and a true pleasure for a longtime Shakespeare aficionado such as myself.

What: “MacBeth” When: in repertory, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. March 22, 8 p.m. April 22, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 12, 7:30 p.m. April 24, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. April 27, 2 p.m and 8 p.m. May 3, 7:30 p.m. May 8, 8 p.m. May 9, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 11 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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