Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Stephen Gifford

Enough Yucks for the Buck?: “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” at the Falcon

In one of the shows high points, the cast of “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” celebrates commedia dell’arte

The comic playwriting team of Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor has created several funny send-ups of classics, known as the “Complete (abridged)” plays. The best known is the wildly funny “Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged)” which even had them falling out of their chairs in London. Thus, a chance to see their more recent concoction, “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” here in the Los Angeles area seemed a no-brainer. Now at the Falcon Theatre, it has another hallmark, being the last show of the last season orchestrated by Falcon founder, the late Garry Marshall, himself no slouch in the comedy department.

Sadly, though there are a number of funny moments, this “Complete History…” does not quite hold up. Well performed by a trio of very talented, high-energy and versatile actors, it still suffers from two essential flaws: a convoluted and unfunny construct which becomes the show’s driving force and supposed aim, and too little material which is funny enough (or not too dated) to power a full two acts of performance.

First, the construct: supposedly a famous Chinese manuscript written by the brother of “The Art of War” writer Sun Tsu, called “The Art of Comedy” (by Ah Tsu… get it?) has been uncovered in a trunk, though it is missing its final chapter. The discovery was made thanks to guidance from a mysterious man in a bowler hat and clown nose. Presenting this fictitious book, and trying to figure out its final chapter, becomes the focus of the show, leading to the uncovering of the identity of the bowler hatted mystery force which brought the book to light.

The best of what follows is a true homage to the history of comedy: the introduction (to many) of the characters in commedia dell’arte, including use of an actual slap-stick, definitions of various “takes”, burlesque silliness, visual comedy of various kinds, and the recurring gag of potential attack with cream pies. There are also slide shows illustrating what is, and what isn’t funny. For the most part, these work too, though some seem a bit forced. There are send-ups of medieval Catholicism, modern politics, and even an homage to Chekhov, whose wry comic takes on the self-absorption of the Russian aristocracy were produced as if they were tragedies.

But there is a lot of dated material. For example, a big musical number about the Supreme Court makes fun of a very alive Antonin Scalia, though he has been dead for over a year. There are other references to personalities only the older members of the audience will remember with that detail, particularly Joseph McCarthy (or Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, for that matter) and Richard Nixon. Indeed, between this and the need to resolve the “who is the man in the bowler hat” scenario, the second act begins to drag and a lot of it simply becomes unfunny.

One cannot fault the performers, however. Zehra Fazal, Marc Ginsburg, and Mark Jacobson prove quick-change artists and creative cross-dressers, interact with the audience and each other, handle physical comedy with great polish, and get just as much as can be gotten out of the material they are handed. Director Jerry Kernion keeps the timing as good as it can be, making the sometimes positively frenetic pace of the thing seem natural. One wonders whether he was allowed – by the playwrights’ people – to insert more updates than a few slides of current political figures into the mix, because given the general artistry of his and his performers, one would think he would have done more to make the thing current if he could have.

Stephen Gifford’s set is just about perfect, setting a specific tone from the very start and facilitating all those costume changes. Those costumes, by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, and Warren Casey’s many and varied comic props, do as much as absolutely possible to make this show as funny as it is. This is a grand effort by a lot of people. It’s just that, by the second half, much of it is simply not funny.

So, sadly, although “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” has some admittedly very laugh-out-loud moments, the lack of consistency and the oddly unsatisfying premise mean that this show does not live up to its potential. Is it terrible? No. Is it poorly done? Also no. It’s just not anywhere near as good as it should have been, but that’s as much the fault of its authors as anything else.

What: “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” When: through April 23, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays Where: The Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside, in Burbank How Much: $30 – $45 Info: (818) 955-8101 or falcontheatre.com

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“A Little House Christmas”: A Less Standard Christmas Offering in Sierra Madre

Sofia Naccarato, Rachel MacLaughlan, Rich Cassone, and Katie-Grace Hansen are Laura, Ma, Pa and Mary Ingalls in "A Little House Christmas" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [Photo: Gina Long]

Sofia Naccarato, Rachel MacLaughlan, Rich Cassone, and Katie-Grace Hansen are Laura, Ma, Pa and Mary Ingalls in “A Little House Christmas” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [Photo: Gina Long]


With the advent of the holiday season, the demand for something appropriate rises, and theaters – particularly small theaters – begin to struggle with what to provide for their patrons. There is always “A Christmas Carol,” and a wide variety of versions of it, and of plays about people performing it, exist. Still, that has been done so much that a theater out to make its own mark may turn to something else.

Sierra Madre Playhouse has pushed aside Dickens for Laura Ingalls Wilder, and brought back “A Little House Christmas” first produced there two years ago. Then it was all rather precious and stagey. This year’s production is thus a revelation. With a new, strong and naturalistic cast, a director who understands how to make the piece flow, and a feel of continuity – even with the injected period songs which once stood out like interruptions to the tale – this year’s “Little House” proves charming and sweet, but organically so.

The story is derived from one in Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie”. Christmas approaches, the Wilders invite those who aided them as they built their barn to come out to the country for a celebration. Unfortunately, a gully-washing rainstorm begins, the creek starts to rise, the guests must leave quickly, and it soon becomes possible that even Santa may not be able to get to the Wilder home in time for the 25th. What will the Wilders do?

Director Alison Eliel Kalmus not only has a feel for the pacing and tone of this work, she also operates the AKT children’s theater company at SMP, from which were supplied most of the talented children who take significant parts (many of which are double-cast) in the play. The quality of the child actors proves particularly important in a story told from a little girl’s perspective, but the adults are not slouches either.

Among the adults, Rachel McLaughlan’s Ma radiates practical hopefulness, even as she seems weighted by the worries prairie women faced, and sings beautifully when called upon. Rich Cassone gives Pa the open-hearted life force one expects, balanced realistically with the limitations of time and place.

Thomas Colby humanizes the lonely bachelor Mr. Edwards with a genuine heartiness and warmth far from the potentially saccharine rendition one almost expects. Barry Schwam makes family’s uncle – a man unglued by his Civil War experiences – a touching piece to this puzzle, while Valerie Gould’s extremely human Mrs. Oleson charms far more than the expected stereotype.

The children who performed on opening night were likewise un-stagey, and brought a humanizing force to the proceedings. Most especially, Sofia Naccarato’s innocently charming Laura and Katie-Grace Hansen’s Mary showed character, timing, total engagement with story and character, and – especially in Hansen’s case – strong and secure singing voices without that harsh Andrea McArdle overtone so common in youthful stage performers.

Adam Simon Krist and especially Patrick Geringer made the visiting young cousins likable and familiarly boyish. Samantha Salamoff, called upon mostly to be disgusted and moderately disengaged, did this well as the snobbish Nellie Oleson.

One of the real stars of this production has to be Stephen Gifford’s set, which takes all these remarkably realistic people and places them in time and space. Tanya Apuya’s costumes are likewise accurate and character-appropriate. There are little glitches now and then: people who are supposed to be soaking wet aren’t, and little girls sit around in their nightdresses on a winter evening when there is no dry wood for the fire without even wearing shawls, but somehow these seem minor when compared with the general genuineness of feeling this production has to offer.

In brief, this rendition of “A Little House Christmas” proves itself to be far less cloying, far better paced, and far more cohesive than SMP’s previous rendition. As a result, it makes for a fine, and comparatively unique, holiday treat for young and old. Certainly, it makes a break from the predictable Christmas fare.

What: “A Little House Christmas” When: through December 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with extra performances at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, December 10 and 17, and 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, December 20-22 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $34.50 general, $32 seniors, $25 children and youth Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Curiouser and Curiouser – Lewis Carroll examined in world premiere at Boston Court

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In recent years a certain amount of suspicion has attended the stories of those repressed Victorian gentlemen who became friends with, and told stories to, young children. J.M. Barrie’s potential over-attachment to the young boys of a widow sits right next to the century-old delight of his “Peter Pan.” And then there is the mystery of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, and the three days excised from his diaries. During those days something changed in his relationship with the three girls of the Liddell family, especially the middle daughter, Alice. Before, the two had been fast friends, forming the foundation for “Alice’s Adventures Underground” or “Alice in Wonderland”. Afterward, the friendship vanished, and association with the Liddells all but vanished. Speculation about those three days has been pondered ever since.

Which leads to Lily Blau’s “The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll,” developed in collaboration with Sydney Gallas at The Theatre at Boston Court, in Pasadena. Now receiving its world premiere, the play examines the larger storyline behind Dodgson’s connection to the Liddells, at least as it might have been. In the process it covers Dodson’s professional relationship with their father, to the brilliance of Dodgson’s mathematical mind as a lecturer at Christ Church College in Oxford, to his passions for photography and nonsensical writing, for which he is best remembered.

Also on hand are his foibles – his stammer, which made him socially awkward with adults, and his enforced repression as an ordained deacon, which may have contributed to concerns about his fascination with the family of pre-pubescent girls. The play leaves the relationship as somewhat of an open question, allowing for Dodgson’s fantasies, yet leaving the audience to decide whether or not he recollects his time with the Liddells as it actually happened.
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Leo Marks appears the essence of vulnerability as Dodgson, from his speech troubles to his jittery sense of excitement. Jeff Marlow becomes his alter ego as the White Rabbit, pushing him to remember that time yet always with an edge: did he or did he not live out his fantasies as time passed.

Corryn Cummins creates the rebellious, somewhat rough-and-tumble Alice whose unique curiosity fueled Dodgson/Carroll’s storytelling, all the while managing to capture the trusting innocence of a protected child. Erin Barnes gives her older sister Ina the edge of logic and practicality Alice lacks, while Ashley Ruth Jones gives the younger, sicklier Edith an impatience and even occasional detachment as her illness progresses. All three girls, though young in the storyline are played by adults, which works in part because the entire tale is in Dodgson’s mind – age is relatively less important than image – and partly because it removes any extra disquiet from the underlying implications of the plot.

Erica Hanrahan-Ball gives real spine to the protective and disapproving Mrs. Liddell, while Time Winters makes her husband a man of balanced forces and kindly tone. Indeed, it is perhaps Winters and Hanrahan-Ball and their read on their characters, which frame the questions posed by the White Rabbit and the storyline itself.

Director Abigail Deser, who has worked with the playwright for several years to hone and polish this piece, creates a state of underlying tension amid an atmosphere radiant of the time and place the story occupies. Stephen Gifford creates a fascinatingly modular set, opening up or closing off Dodgson’s world with the flick of a piece of panel or the slide of a drape. Likewise, Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting takes one from literal to fantastic in subtle ways. Costumer Garry Lennon gets a lot of it right, though someone needs to do some serious doctoring to Dodgson’s tie.

Nonetheless, the careful crafting of this piece is obvious everywhere, and the playwright’s fascinating juxtaposition of the internal fantasies of a man whose social life was thwarted in numerous ways and the overt world in which he walked day by day keeps one interested from start to finish. “The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll” is performed without an intermission, and one can see why as the tensions and angst grows slowly over the course of the piece.

In the end, one is left to answer one’s own questions. Nobody knows what really happened in that three day gap, and this script allows one to be more or less generous to Dodgson and to Carroll, depending on how one reads the performances and the performers. It makes for an interesting evening, and significant discussion post-performance. But then, most of what the Boston Court does is worthy of discussion, though since this play has more its feet on the ground than some, this conversation may be a bit more about the real. Check with the theater, as the Boston Court is known for after-play discussions of historical and literary aspects of the time period and the play, and several are offered this time.

What: “The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll” When: Through March 1, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 with senior, student and group discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

“Good People” in La Mirada – 21st Century Class Consciousness

Katie MacNichol, Sophina Brown and Martin Kildare in "Good People" in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Katie MacNichol, Sophina Brown and Martin Kildare in “Good People” in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Long ago, my sociology professor made much of the fact that there were not specific social classes in the United States: that, like the Horatio Alger model, everyone had the ability to rise. This has become more and more debatable in the last half-century, as social forces clamp some into specific spaces in our national culture , not all of which are related to race.

In illustration, find the McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of “Good People,” David Lindsay-Abaire’s examination of class and culture in Boston, now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Lindsay-Abaire, whose powerful examination of the nature and collateral damage of grief, “Rabbit Hole,” was a signature piece of last year’s MRE season, looks at the issue through the lens of a “Southie” – someone from traditionally blue collar, Irish, South Boston.

Margaret is a middle aged Southie at the end of her rope. Having just lost her most recent job, in part due to her struggles to care for her disabled adult daughter, she’s desperate for work. Her lifelong friend bumps into an old classmate, briefly Margaret’s love interest, who escaped the life of South Boston for a career as a doctor. Margaret decides to push him to lift her up, at least as far as giving her a job.

Has he become a “lace curtain Southie,” thinking he’s better than everyone else? Is her anger toward him justified? Is the lifestyle he now lives the dream Margaret thinks it is, or does class create struggle even there? What, in the end, are these characters’ actual truths, as the two possible endings for a Southie kid come face to face.

Margaret with her own: MacNichol with Anne Gee Byrd (l.) and Gigi Bermingham (r.) [Photo: Michael Lamont]

Margaret with her own: MacNichol with Anne Gee Byrd (l.) and Gigi Bermingham (r.) [Photo: Michael Lamont]

Katie MacNichol creates a distinctly edgy, biting quality to the desperate Margaret: quick to assume, aggressively judgemental and painfully honest, yet gifted by a sense of community on her home turf. As her buddy Jean, Gigi Bermingham offers up the same cynically humorous view of their individual desperations, while Anne Gee Byrd makes Margaret’s upstairs landlady obstinately practical, but caring in her own distant way.

As Mike, the doctor, Martin Kildare gives subtlety to the divide of sensitivities inside a successful man with Southie roots. Sophina Brown, as his wife, offers the third element: a woman raised with greater sophistication, whose struggles to connect her husband’s present image with his past may loom as large as Margaret’s.

Though not touted as a comedy, “Good People” has many laughs in the midst of these tensions. The title of this play comes from the phrase, “He (or she) is good people” – an important valuation in South Boston.The rest of the play is, in the end, an examination of what it means to be, or not be, good people – a goodness which resides in there somewhere, apparently particularly among people in extremity.

Though not as compelling as “Rabbit Hole,” as a play, the performances make the thing worth watching, as does director Jeff Maynard’s handling of this episodic tale. He smooths the transitions from place to place, and makes great use of Stephen Gifford’s representational set pieces. Adriana Lambarri’s costumes create instant class separations, and underscore the central themes of the piece.

For us west-coasters, who may have only heard of Southies in relation to the more local arrest of Whitey Bulger, it’s a look at a part of the country where the turf wars are more distinct, and more ingrained in social history. It’s also a good examination of why, at least in certain parts of the country, my sociology professor was probably wrong.

What: “Good People” When: Through October 12, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

Personal and Powerful: “Rabbit Hole” finishes a run at La Mirada Theatre

Loss hits each person differently, yet there are similarities which bind all of humanity together at such times. Even those who consider themselves straightforward, logical people can be so thrown by tragedy that the universe must shatter – at least for a while – and then rearrange itself into a new pattern of living. To bring this onto a public stage without turning it into a cliche or a Lifetime movie proves the greatest challenge, but one playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has overcome.

Which is why “Rabbit Hole”, now finishing a run as part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada Theatre, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize: it approaches the universal qualities of personal grief in an understated, and thus far more realistic way than most dramas, and also offers a keen portrait of a couple whose individual heartaches are balanced by an underlying, tenacious, mutual bond.

Becca and Howie, a fairly typical middle-class couple, wrestle daily with the aftermath of the accidental death of their 4-year-old son, who chased his dog into the path of an oncoming car. Their normalcy has edges, into which bump Becca’s flighty, irresponsible, and now pregnant younger sister, and her wry, quirky but observant mother. The strains between all of these people are evident, as they bounce off each other and wrestle with the process of moving forward. Yet, the connections seem to hold.

Deborah Puette is Becca, maintaining a stiff, almost obsessive normalcy amidst an increasing internal isolation. Michael Polak’s Howie moves between supportiveness and anger – some of it misplaced, but all of it sincere. Kristina Johnson gives Becca’s sister the oblivious and self-absorbed qualities which make her both an active irritant and a casual observer.

Lori Larsen’s entertainingly straightforward turn as Becca’s mother adds a certain kind of wisdom and patience into the entire environment. In a short, but important turn, Seamus Mulcahy creates a disarmingly innocent immaturity as the sincere teen who was driving on that fateful day.

All of this has been pulled into a natural, flowing cohesion by director Michael Matthews, who takes what is essentially a very episodic tale, and aided by Stephen Gifford’s modular, open set, turns it into a single story. And believe it or not, that story ends up not in grim detachment but in what actually happens, usually, in cases like this: the eventual movement back into life – peace, if not yet joy.

“Rabbit Hole” is funny, wrenching, sad and hopeful by turns. It holds a mirror up to relationship under stress, and a particularly intense aspect of the human condition in a way which is human, warm, and filled with connection. It is most certainly worth taking the time to take in.

What: “Rabbit Hole” When: Through November 17, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and 2 p.m. Sunday Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (526) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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