Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Zehra Fazal

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

Music as Brotherhood: “Bars and Measures” at Boston Court

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There are several layers to Idris Goodwin’s play “Bars and Measures”, just opened at The Theatre at Boston Court as part of a “rolling premiere.” Several themes relating to identity, race, faith and cultural attributes float together in a kind of orchestrated wrangle between brothers over what truth is, what art is, what justice is, and what limits family loyalty might have. The play proves intense, and leaves one with a lot to chew over, but its spare direction by Weyni Mengesha lets all these topics shine with a specific clarity.

The tale centers on two brothers. One, a respected jazz artist and convert to Islam currently in jail awaiting trial, and the other a Juilliard graduate more comfortable with classical music, trying to learn his brother’s music both as a form of family bonding, and as a way to support what he believes to be his brother’s innocence.

One is learning the struggles, indignities, and hardenings of incarceration. One is stretching out of a comfort zone and internalized prejudices to attempt understanding the world through his brother’s lens. Both, being African-American, face internal debates about where and with whom they fit.

Matt Orduna gives Bilal, the brother in prison, a kind of elemental dignity which carries him through the torments and prejudices of imprisonment and gives gravitas to the character’s composing life. Donathan Walters finds an interestingly middle stance in Eric, as a conventional guy trying to balance a satisfyingly conventional life with the edginess of both his brother and the jazz music he is learning to both appreciate and perform.

As both the FBI agent who set Bilal up, and a series of correctional officers, Brian Abraham vibrates with a strength and confidence which make him dominatingly convincing. Zehra Fazal creates, in the opera singer Eric shares his musical world with, yet another balance – this time of honoring cultural traditions yet embracing the wider modern world.

Still, the focus is on the two brothers and the gut-level expression of the jazz which both works to unite them, and to explain their elemental differences. In this – the scatting which becomes its own communication – Orduna and Walters excel. It becomes one of the elements which deepens the storyline far beyond the actual plot. Indeed, the play’s layered nature, and what it has to say about manipulation, prejudice and trust must be unpacked over time.

But then that is what one expects of plays at Boston Court: works which take thought even after the show is over.

What: “Bars and Measures” When: through October 23, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Satudays, 2 p.m. Sundays, plus 8 p.m. Wednesday performance on October 19, and two understudy performances 8 p.m. October 3 and 5 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave (at the intersection with Boston Ct) in Pasadena How Much: $30 general, $25 senior, $20 student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com ;

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